The names have been changed to protect the innocent
You meet a lot of interesting people when you’ve been living overseas for as long as I have, which if you count this month is now 20 years and five months, not counting the two years I was stationed in Panama and subtracting the two months I was back in the States in 2006.
You meet people from all walks of life, some with colorful personalities others with a checkered past hoping to escape whatever ghosts or neuroses are after them. By and large though, most the people I have met, worked with, partied with and traveled with have been some genuine folks that I was glad to make their acquaintance.
Without question, many of the people we meet when we are living and working in another country oftentimes define who we are; other times these individuals make up the rich tapestry of this shared experience.
I first met Mike M. not long after I had arrived in Korea to teach English at what was then, back in 1990, one of the three top English language institutes in Seoul. I had been in country since early December and Mike arrived shortly thereafter. The school had four-week terms so there was always someone rotating in and rotating out. There were peak periods in winter and summer when university students were on vacation and had nothing better to do than spend those vacation days studying English. The rest of the year was relatively quiet, enrollment-wise and that’s when Mike arrived.
There were two teacher’s offices on the second floor and Mike ended up in the office I shared with around 15 other teachers. It was a bit cramped, especially before morning and evening conversation classes with everyone hustling to get lesson plans done and copies made before those classes started and all the more hectic during the last week of the term.
That’s when I met Mike, during the last hectic week of the term while I was getting ready to go to class. All new teachers had a week of orientation before they started teaching and Mike was waiting for a teacher to observe that teacher’s class.
We didn’t have much time to talk then, but when we had the chance later, I found out he was an Asian old hat courtesy of Uncle Sam and the draft that sent him to Vietnam in the late 60s. After his tour of duty in Nam, he bounced around Asia for awhile, went back to the States got a college degree and bounced right back to Asia teaching English in Taiwan, Thailand, and eventually Korea.
He was a quiet man. Never said much at school and about the only time we really had a lengthy conversation was when we talked about living in Seoul one day and other time when he asked to borrow my Traveling Wilburys’ cassette tape. There was a song he wanted to use in one of his classes. I don’t think too many people knew he had been in Nam and I felt that he wanted to keep it that way.
We were supposed to have our photos taken when we arrived at this language institute and every teacher would have a framed 8×10 photo of them in the stairwell for all the students to see. Mike, who was already in his late forties wasn’t too keen on this idea and stuck a photo of some Russian pianist he had ripped out of a photo magazine in the frame instead. It was a glossy photo and none of the students were the wiser; indeed, they asked the information desk in the lobby who that teacher was in the photo.
Mike was also a bit of loner and did not hang out with the other teachers too much. There were some teachers who were quite vocal and outgoing and I could tell, by the way he rolled his eyes when one of these teachers started talking about what he or she had done the previous weekend, how much he sort of resented that kind of bravado.
He just liked to keep to himself. One time, when we combined our classes during The Great Korean Pumpkin Carve-off Contest, the staff wanted to take a picture of the pumpkin the students had carved as well as the students and Mike and I. When it came time to take the photo, Mike held the pumpkin up over his face so no one would recognize him.
He must have felt pretty bummed though the day the new schedule came out and his name wasn’t on the schedule.
“Did I get fired or something?” he asked the scheduling coordinator.
Mike was so quiet that some people didn’t even know who he was until someone told them that he was a teacher.
That scheduling gaffe was the first of a series of events that pushed Mike over the edge.
The second was the rats.
Most of the staff was housed in old, but rather spacious apartments in a housing complex one subway stop down from the Olympic sports complex. Two teachers shared a furnished five room apartment that was near the Han River and about a ten-minute walk to Lotte World, this sprawling entertainment and shopping complex in southern Seoul.
When I moved into mine in December of 1990, they were already more than five years old and showing the worst of wear and tear; not rundown, but just looking a bit old and drab. And there was also a bit of a rodent problem. At night, you could hear these rodents (hopefully they were just large mice) scurrying back and forth in a crawl space between floors.
I never saw a live one in my apartment, but outside, I passed just as many squished dead rats on the road as I did vomit landmines (in Korea it is quite common for people, who have consumed more than a lions share worth of beer and soju, Korean rice wine, to throw up anywhere they want when coming home from the bars and clubs). Better to be a dead rat on the street than a live one at home.
I bet if I asked Mike what he’d prefer, it would have also been a dead rat on the street.
One morning, Mike came in the staff room pretty shaken up about something. He seemed a bit flustered as well as agitated. He started to prepare for his class, but everyone could tell that something was really bothering him.
“What’s the matter Mike?” a teacher asked.
Mike didn’t say anything at first as though he hadn’t been listening, but then looked up from his desk.
“There was a rat in my apartment last night,” Mike said slowly.
“Damn, did you kill it?” I asked.
Mike shook his head. “No, I didn’t.”
“Where was it?” another teacher asked.
Mike turned around in his chair to face a handful of teachers who had gathered to hear about his rat problem. “I went to bed early last night, but sometime in the middle of the night, I heard this sound, a scratching sound and then I felt something on my chest. I opened my eyes and in the light from the streetlight outside my room, shining in through the window, I saw this rat sitting on my chest looking at me.”
“Damn Mike, that’s terrible. I would have freaked,” the first teacher said. “What did you do?”
“The rat wouldn’t move. It just kept on sitting there staring at me,” Mike continued. “I thought for sure as soon as I moved it would move. It was like it was hypnotized or something. Finally I grabbed a book near my bed, swatted it and it ran away.”
“Are you okay Mike?” I asked.
Mike nodded and went to class.
By the end of the day, everyone in the institute was talking about the Mike’s rat and how freaked they would have been had it happened to them. His apartment mate, Alex confirmed the story and added one more crucial detail: how he and Mike had spent the rest of the night turning the apartment upside down trying to find that rat.
“Finally, we gave up, but we did locate where it had gotten into the apartment,” Alex said.
“Where was that,” I asked.
“In the kitchen, inside one of the cupboards,” Alex explained. “Our rat or the former rat had gnawed a hole in one corner of the cupboard and that is where we suspected it came in. We plugged up that hole good. If the rat did get in through that hole, it’s not going to get back in again.”
The next day, when Mike came into the staff room, he was just as visibly shaken as he had been the day before.
“Well, did your plug job do the trick?” a teacher asked.
Mike shook his head. “The rat pushed the plug out. He was in my room when I went home last night. Alex and I chased him around the apartment for an hour but he escaped again.”
Mike grabbed his class folder and muttered something about how he wished he had a baseball bat to smash the rat’s head in the next time he came back as he walked out of the staff room.
He was never the same after that rat incident. He had a hard time sleeping at night because he was worried the rat would come back. Many mornings, when he shuffled into the staff room after another sleepless night, wouldn’t say much to anyone other than a few grunts when someone asked him how he was that morning.
After two more terms, Mike had had enough of Korea and left. No one ever heard from him again.