Friday, April 23, 2010

I Think of Esteban

I prefer to stay out of fights that aren't mine. It's one reason I didn't join the armed forces. Dad did. He was a fighter, and I think it's safe to say that he still is, despite the fact that he looks more like a gruff Burl Ives now than he did when he joined the U.S. Navy. I'm hazy on the details, but I'm willing to bet that was in the mid-60's. He told me he got out before Tet in '69, before the shit really hit the fan. So when there was talk of reinstating the draft back when the Iraq War started, Dad told me he didn't want me in the fight. Though it might have been his way of calling me an indoor kid, I really think he mellowed out since having four kids and wasn't really into war after Vietnam and I doubt many vets were into Vietnam after Vietnam.

He and mom came to visit in February this year, a week before my birthday. It was nice of them to do it, and I think they had a great time, though I'm sure they were pretty damn happy to be back on American soil where food made more sense to them. They were good sports about the whole experience, though, and found a new Asian food that they could lust after: mandu. Mandu was Dad's safety food when he didn't know what to order. I had to get a couple extra bags of the frozen kind as a precaution. Mom was a bit more adventurous, ordering everything from bibimbap to dan-hobak juk. I'm just proud of them for not making us eat at Outback Steakhouse, though Dad had mentioned it a couple times.

My parents are, for the most part, pretty conservative. It's how they were raised, and the values they learned from their parents came down to us as we were growing up. My brother and two sisters are pretty conservative. I swing a little more left, mostly to keep things interesting. Mom's mellowing out a little bit, too, politically. This past election marks the first time they didn't vote for the same candidate. While waiting to exchange some money at the bank we had a decent talk about health care. Mom's a nurse, so I felt her opinions were a little more informed than my own.

Inevitably, the issue of immigration came up. My own opinions on this have changed slightly since moving to Korea in 2008. I haven't been here that long, but I get a little edgy when I hear people refer to a foreigner collective as "they" or "them." It's a bad habit that a lot of people, not just Americans, have. My parents were referring to Mexicans, and though I don't think they really have any problem with Mexican people in general, it was easier to parrot the rhetoric that they've listened to for so many years. I told them about Esteban.

Just yesterday, I was browsing through various K-Bloggers' posts, I came to this one by Mr. Wonderful. Being the curious sort, I checked out the links and read pretty much what I expected to find: the collective broken records of foreign ESL bloggers and netizens and their followers having a bitch-fest about who the biggest e-dickheads on the e-peninsula are. Alright, ladies and gents, we'll call it a draw.

I was pretty disgusted by both teams. I got introspective. When I get introspective, sometimes, just sometimes, I think of Esteban.

I was born and partly raised in the Midwest, but spent most of my life in the South. Both regions are generally pretty rural, but only the South has the pockets of Mexican immigrants to employ for its numerous low-wage agrarian or food-service jobs. Consequently, the ubiquitous Americanized Mexican restaurant can be found in most mid-size cities. The dishes in these establishments range from bland to palatable to "fresh-looking," and are reasonably priced, but are essentially Tex-Mex. The truer Mexican restaurants where I come from are found across the tracks in lower income neighborhoods. They are usually close to Mexican run convenience stores or places that sell car accessories and will blow your mind if you're not careful. Order a Mexican Coke or a glass of horchata and dig into a plate of carnitas (slow-cooked pulled pork) or chorizo tacos (ground sausage on corn tortillas with sprigs of cilantro, chopped red onion, Mexican farmer's cheese, and sliced avocado). Splash those bastards with a complimentary lime wedge and you've got yourself a mean damn meal. Sadly, a good portion of Americans will not venture into these places for fear of food poisoning or accidentally becoming tolerant of other cultures. I argue that you can get get food poisoning more easily from a Red Lobster or Macaroni Grill (I've worked in both and have seen awful, awful things) than you can from a mom and pop Mexican restaurant (you will probably also die sooner).

Shortly after college, I got a job at the city country club, working the snack bar for the pool, doing the short-order cook bit. Working with the main kitchen staff and servers was fun, but the customers, their children especially, grew more tedious as the temperature rose. I was glad when summer was over and the pool closed down. I was out of a job, sure, but being a cook has its advantages over being, say, a typewriter repairman. Everybody's gotta eat at some point.

I got a job at a small-scale tapas restaurant downtown, this time as a server. I figured it'd be good to try my hand at getting tips. I did a decent job and pulled in a good chunk of money, but the front-of-house is so much of a gamble that I had to take a later barbacking job to make ends meet. Eventually, I got tired of the front of house and literally jumped when I was offered a chance to be on saute in the kitchen. This is when and where I met Esteban.

Actually, that's not true. I had known Esteban as the fry/pantry cook when I was serving, but working with him in the kitchen gave me a completely different perspective. Esteban was a 50-something-year old Mexican from a town I've never heard of. Though nobody aside from the owner/executive-chef was required to wear a chef's coat, we all did, though Esteban usually supplemented his with track pants and a backwards orange University of Texas baseball cap. Esteban ran circles around everybody in the kitchen, a feat made more impressive when you realize he averaged about 5 hours of sleep every night and his primary job was as the daytime kitchen manager of one of the larger hotels in the city. Every paycheck, he sent money to his wife and younger children still living in Mexico and his plan was to eventually move back to Mexico and retire on this money.

Though he was far from a saint, Esteban worked his ass off and never complained. His station was consistently the cleanest and easiest to navigate, and aside from the days he was still drunk from the night before, he was generally faster and more efficient than the rest of us. Whenever we got really busy, or he had made a mistake, he released a laugh I can only describe as three short bursts of Goofy in a Mariachi band, and every time Esteban let out this sound, I smiled and reminded myself to laugh at the bullshit. His English wasn't great, but it was good enough to catch the jokes we made about customers or the wait staff. He was always jovial and never moody or self-pitying, even if he wasn't in on a joke. He always came to employee get-togethers, got hammered and had a good time doing it. Only once did I see him get visibly upset, when a lower-level stoner kitchen bitch started complaining about Esteban leaving right at 10:30 when the whole kitchen was still a mess after a particularly busy night.

I could say a lot more about Esteban and perhaps I will in subsequent posts, but the reason I think about him more than any other employee from that restaurant is because I am essentially doing in Korea what he did in the States. I am a migrant worker. If you're an ESL teacher in Korea, you probably are, too.

There is a difference, though. Most migrant workers in America do jobs (harvesting produce, working construction, or cooking) that, despite their low level of respect and income, have a more immediate effect. Do you think neurosurgeons picked those organic apples you bought at Whole Foods? And yet, immigrant day-laborers are so close to the bottom rung of American society that many people assume they got into the country illegally. Employers often take advantage of some workers' low level of English to make a buck or supposed legal status to keep them in line. Do those workers that entered legally have a right to complain? Absolutely. ESL teaching is more abstract, yet we get paid higher wages, we buy into the pension and get our money back, we are provided housing, are given a cushy job that takes very little physical effort, have access to the internet, and running water. If we are slighted, do we have a right to complain? Absolutely.

My mom used to tell me about the squeaky wheel and how it gets the oil. Complaining is how we get what we want, and I'd like to imagine that somehow a lot of K-Bloggers or netizens are getting satisfaction in complaining about Korea or elsewhere, as the case may be. If they are, wonderful. If not, then I suspect if the squeaky wheel, after receiving the oil, continues to squeak, it'll just get replaced and none will be the wiser.

I still prefer to think about Esteban's laugh.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Kougars Approach with Caution...

A handful of months ago, I was riding the bus to work with a belly full of coffee and very little else, listening to music just to take it to the next level. I was lucky enough to snatch a seat when I boarded, so passengers at subsequent stops found themselves standing. I didn't feel so bad, since most of them got off the bus after two or three stops. About 5 minutes from school, a lady that got on the bus with me at my own stop approached me. When I say approached I don't mean it in the conventional sense, as in: They approached the Kodiak bear cubs with tranquilizer darts and party hats. I mean approached in the Korean sense of the word. Whether on Geoje or in the city, whenever a Korean has gotten the courage to talk to me on public transport, they've always stood in my comfort zone, nearly brushing my clothes and taking quick glances, sidelong or face-forward. I still haven't gotten used to it.

As I said, this lady approached me and stood next to me as the bus lurched and chugged its way through light traffic. Not being completely oblivious, I noticed and made eye contact. She took this as her opportunity to speak. The conversation went something like this:

Woman: Where are you from.
J-Mao: Mi-guk.*

* For those of you who don't know, Mi-guk (pronounced: mee-gook) is the Korean word for the U.S.A. I usually give this answer for two reasons: 1) so I can practice the little Korean that I know and, 2) so the Koreans asking me don't feel entirely anxious and stupid for trying to engage in conversation with a foreigner. It usually ends up making me feel more awkward in the long run.

Woman: Oh, you speak Korean?
J-Mao: A little.
Woman: (speaking Korean far above the level of which I'm comfortable)
J-Mao: Um...uh...hrm...
Woman: It's okay, I can speak a little English.
J-Mao: Good.
Woman: Are you a teacher?
J-Mao: Yes. Are you?
Woman: Yes. A little.
J-Mao: What?
Woman: A school calls me for teaching. I teach for...small time.
J-Mao: You are a contract teacher?
Woman: Yes.

At this point the woman was getting excited.

Woman: I see you at the bus stop every morning.
J-Mao: (starting to be slightly concerned for my well-being) Do you?
Woman: Yes. What time do you finish school?
J-Mao: The normal time. 5:00. (This is a lie. I get off twenty minutes earlier.)
Woman: Then this Thursday, I would like to eat dinner with you at 5:30.
J-Mao: Okay.**
Woman: Oh! I am going to miss my bus stop. Okay, meet me at this - here at 5:30. Good-bye.
J-Mao: Wait!

** Most Koreans, even those that have lived in English-speaking countries for a couple years, have not picked up on the many contextual meanings of the word okay. I said, "Okay," as an assessment of her invitation. It took me by surprise and I was still trying to get my head around it. She took it as an "Okay! Sure! Let's have dinner together!"

I asked my teachers at work about it later. They were all in agreement that this was indeed a strange thing and I should probably proceed with caution. Wednesday, on the way back home, she was on the bus again. This time, I approached her and asked her why she wanted to go to dinner. She replied, "Because I see you on the bus many times. I do not know you. I also want to practice in English-speaking." Very well. I changed the time and place to one that would work better for me.

The next day was Thursday. All day, I had been worrying and anticipating what this woman's true intentions might be. I created several possible conversation topics that might come up during dinner: "How's your steak - oh, God, my husband's here...", "I've just slipped a powerful sedative into your drink. Tomorrow, you will wake up and play the most dangerous game," "I am your real mother," "I am your real father," "I need you to give me a baby." I never came up with any suitable responses. Work was over and when I got off the bus, I went the back way to my apartment. One can never be too safe, after all, because this world is often sad, and bad things happen when you're not careful. I went upstairs and changed into something more casual and later, met her at my bus stop.

Dinner was Korean/Italian food and not altogether too appetizing, but it was free, so I wasn't complaining. The conversation was slightly drab and I kept hoping or fearing that she would bring up a conversation topic I had anticipated earlier in the day, but it mostly revolved around her life in England, her daughter, opera, music, movies, English language and my level of Korean. Thankfully, none of my fears had been realized, though she often skirted answers to questions about her husband. She paid the bill and we left.

The walk back was saddening. She admitted that she was divorced (which again, raised my suspicions as to her true intentions for the evening), and that her husband had been a drunk. There was some mention of abuse and her daughter. She didn't want to talk about it anymore after that. We made our way through the drizzling rain and awkward chit-chat to her subway stop. She said good-bye and thank you and took the escalator to wherever home was.

I've come to understand that some people are just lonely to want to talk to a complete stranger, a feeling I've never really experienced firsthand. The woman probably chose me because being a single woman with a child in a country that professes the strengths of its married couples is a stigma that not many ladies feel comfortable with, especially when married couples and single Korean men marginalize them.

This first instance was singular, unique, but I've since had run-ins with the Korean cougar (or Kougar) that don't end so melodramatically.

In Korea, there are ubiquitous little neighborhood grocery stores where one can stop and buy everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to tupperware to jarred tea and jams to candy and snacks. They have soap and toilet paper and laundry detergent, beer and bread, fresh tofu, canned tuna, mackerel, noodles and various Korean sauces.. These stores have varied, simple names, but finish with the words super (pronounced: shyu-puh) or mart (pronounced: ma-tuh). In no way are they even close to being what Americans call the "supermarket," but they are handy to have around.

Mostly women operate the various sections of the mart. They are not generally drop-dead gorgeous, but it's obvious that they take care of themselves and often wear heavy makeup and enough hairspray to keep a dead elephant erect for a day's work. They pull in long hours and probably don't get much in the way of awkward English conversation, despite the fact that there is a plethora of native speakers in my building. I make a couple trips a week to the one close by whenever I'm out of ramen, mandu, or whenever I want to cook breakfast for my girlfriend.

One night, while looking through the various greens, I heard a woman's voice. I ignored it, thinking it wasn't directed my way. How could it be? It wasn't even in English. I continued to peruse until I heard her voice again, this time louder and more focused. I looked up and realized it wasn't a shopper, but a smiling female employee of the mart. She was in the vegetable station, labeling mushrooms and bunching perilla leaves (sometimes called sesame leaves) together with pink twist-ties. She looked at me again and asked me something in Korean. Maybe? It was hard to tell: "Sam-ship-ee-eh-yo? Sam-ship-ee-yeh-yo?" I recognized that she was using numbers and then I was really confused until she pointed at me.

Vegetable Kougar: Ee-ship-oh-yeh-yo?
J-Mao: Ee-ship-oh... Oh! A-nee-oh!***

***The woman wanted to know my age. They use Chinese numbers with a Korean pronunciation and her first question was if I was 30 or 32. She aimed lower and asked if I was 25. I told her, "No, I am 28." However, the word 십팔 ("18", pronounced ship-pal) sounds similar enough to 시팔 ("Fuck you", pronounced shi-pal) that I had to be extra careful when telling her that I was 28.

She asked if I was married. At this point, enough people have asked me if I'm married that it's stopped phasing me, except when kids do it, especially when kids do it and chide me for not having gotten married already. I responded that no, I was not married. She then formed this really strange, knowing smile that gave me a slight chill. In addition to asking me where I was from and the usual line of questioning, she told me I was very handsome. I expected her to tell me about her daughter, but no dice. I left the mart that night and have since seen her, but nothing was as strange as that one evening.

I should go ahead and point out that her questions or comments did not bother me. I've heard the "married question" before, and lots of kids, girls and boys, have told me I'm handsome. It was the sense of immediacy and desperation for responses that unnerved me. I didn't know why she was asking. I never know why they ask. They just do. Dirty older women.

My third run-in with a Kougar happened outside of my girlfriend's building, when I was taking Rocket (the dog) out for her afternoon constitutional. The questioning was the usual fare: "Where are you from?" "Oh, you speak Korean." "You speak very well!" "Do you have Korean friend?" "Do you have Korean girlfriend?"

It's this question that got my defenses up, because I knew that I didn't know where this line could go. She then asked me where I lived. I responded. She looked confused and asked me what I was doing in that particular neighborhood.

J-Mao: I'm visiting my girlfriend and walking our dog.
Mountain Kougar: Oh, okay, then! Nice to meet you! Bye!

Dirty older women.