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The Murder of the Bees (2009 Essay Contest)
The Murder of the Bees (2009 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-11-24 01:27     View: 575  

 

The Murder of the Bees


Brian O'Connor

 Seonju High School(Kyeongbuk)



Mr. Shin had stopped talking.

This was problematic for two reasons. For one, we were almost 30 minutes away from Gumi. The dull roar of the highway traffic beat against my ears. As an American driving Korean Route 1 for the first time, I didn't know which exit to take, or what I would do after that. If Mr. Shin didn't start talking again and soon, we could very well hit Busan by accident. The possibility of seeing the ocean appealed to me, though not at that particular moment. I had never driven in a foreign country before, or read the speed of a car off of a dial with only kilometers on it. I had only the dimmest notion of Korean geography. I knew it involved mountains, and an ocean. Mr. Shin was my only hope of making it back to Gumi, and he had stopped talking.

The second reason Mr. Shin's silence was problematic was because he wasn't in very good shape at that moment. He was reclined in the passenger seat of the minivanand his head was tilted to one side. His feet were resting on the dashboard. He'd taken his shoes off. His face looked puffy and red. Every few minutes, he would shift in his seat and try to scratch himself everywhere at once. It wasn't casual scratching, either. It seemed as though he were tearing at his flesh. When he started to snore, I glanced over from the road and said:

"Are you doing alright?"

"Yes, okay-okay," Mr. Shin said. "My physical condition is worse and worse."

He shifted in his seat and started to breathe deeply. The breathing seemed labored and rattling. My panicked brain mistook this sound for wheezing.

'My God,' I thought. 'Mr. Shin is going to die.'


***


I have a group of foreign friends I see infrequently around Gumi, where I teach high school English. We occasionally sit around at the local western-style bar discussing things we have done or seen since we came to Korea. Whenever a new waegook teacher (we've adopted the polite Korean word for foreigner as a way of easily and collectively referring to ourselves …we're from South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, America, Britain, Ireland) joins us, I try to tell the same story about the highway, whenMr. Shin's imagined wheezing started to make me think he was going to die for a moment. It's easy to tell if the new waegook teacher is with EPIK ? the nationally-run program for native English teachers in Korea -- or a hogwan ? private tutoring schools that specialize in after-school education ? because at that part of the story, if they're EPIK, they shiver just a little.

Mr. Shin ? Shin Kyung Chul Sunsangnim, properly ? is my administrative co-teacher. Officially, he's the head of the English departmentat Seonju High School, where I teach. His is the unglamorous task of fielding my myriad questions and helping me to adjust to life outside the United States. When I am ill, he is the one who shows up to take me to the doctor. He's the one that calls the landlord when my Internet stops working. He's the one who shepherds me around Gumi, makes sure I show up for appointments on time, takes me to the hospital to have my required HIV blood work done. All of these things fall under the loose category of what you might call his job description. They're also tasks of quotidian importance wildly unrelated to the years he spent training to teach English.

More than that, he's the closest thing I have to family in Korea. On the first day I arrived in Gumi, he and his wife spent the better part of the afternoon and evening showing me around to various apartments. When I liked an apartment just outside the price range EPIK provides, he and his wife spent about two hours talking the rental agent down to a price that wouldfit into the parameters, even though I told him several times I would take another, less expensive apartment. The next day, after I had spent the night sleeping on the floor of my new apartment, Shin Kyung Chul and his wife showed up with a truck full of furniture, including a mattress, a desk, a kitchen table and chairs.

The single greatest relationship that defines your Korean teaching experience is between you and your co-teacher, or co-teachers. If your students are unruly, if the water doesn't agree with you and you can't eat Korean food, if your city has nothing to do on the weekends and your apartment is too small, a good relationship with your co-teacher will help you survive. He or she is the single greatest determining factor as to whether you will seek to renew your contract, and whether you will look back on your time in Korea favorably.

Mr. Shin was (and remains), to me, the single most fascinating and endearing character I have met since I came to Korea. Whether he's showing me letters that hisson (now in the required military service) sends home, dancing like a crazy man at teacher social gatherings, traveling with me to Busan or Daegu, or dragging me up the side of a mountain ("We must take care of ourselves in all things!" he is fond of saying …an affectionate verbal poke at my considerable paunch), he is trying with a personal commitment unrivaled in any previous professional relationship to make me a member of the teaching staff. Mr. Shin and all of my co-teachers not only make me feel comfortable in my new surroundings, they make me feel as if I belong. This is no small task in a country where a quick glance around a crowded street corner makes it immediately apparent that I don't.


***

 

The weekend in April, on the highway, approaching Daegu, started like any of the other field trips arranged by Mr. Shin. He was meeting with a group of high school friends in Chungdo, about an hour away by car. They have the same gathering at a different place every year. Mr. Shin is the only teacher. He attended a technical high school and tested from a technical education track into an academic university, based on nothing but his own dogged self-reliance, intelligence and persistence. Most of his high school friends stayed on the technical education track, and they work now as engineers and other similar professions. He asked me if I wanted to go.

"We will visit Chungdo and eat delicious goat meat," he said. "You will look at the beautiful scenery."

I had never eaten goat before. I said yes.

We left on Saturday morning and drove for about an hour, up winding mountain roads and through tiny Korean villages. We finally stopped at his friend's family's mushroom farm. We ate kimchi, and rice, and soup, and snacked on the steamed internal organs of the goat. I ate goat liver, goat intestine, goat stomach and goat tongue. They were delicious. Later that night, we gathered in a vacant mushroom tent and ate the rest of the goat with vegetables and gravy, and barbecued eels. I ate less than I wanted to, because I had a minor stomach illness. Finally, overcome by soju and travel, I retreated to the farm's guest cabin and collapsed on a pile of blankets.

The next morning, one of Mr. Shin's friends offered me honeybee acupuncture to help with my stomach ailment. I politely declined. I have had an irrational fear of bee stings since my younger brother unwittingly drank out of a soda can with a honey bee in it, and got stung on the inside of his mouth when he was just four years old. I wasn't sure what honeybee acupuncture was, but I'm not a big fan of anything involving bees, except Honey Nut Cheerios.

However, Mr. Shin has suffered from chronic arthritis in his right shoulder. He, along with a few other friends, agreed to undergo honeybee acupuncture to help with some ailments.

In the afternoon, after we had trekked up the side of mountains looking for herbs, and then had pepper soup and rice for lunch, we filed into a small wood-lined office. An ink picture of the Buddha sat in one corner surrounded by incense. In anothercorner, a diagram listed Chi points on various parts of the body. Mr. Shin's friend removed three honeybees from a plastic box using tweezers, and held them against Mr. Shin's shoulder until they stung him. One of the bees wriggled free of the tweezers and flew around. It buzzed my head, then rose to a small, round glass window near the eaves of the building. It battered itself against the window again and again with a very quiet thumping noise. The bees in the transparent plastic box buzzed. The office was warm. We all began to feel drowsy.

When the treatment was finished, Mr. Shin stood and swung his shoulder around in a circle a few times. He said he felt better, and showed me the welts on his back where his skin had swelled up around the bee stings. He seemed like he was doing much better. I momentarily considered setting aside my fear of bees and allowing my stomach to be stung. It seemed like it was working well. I set aside my skepticism about honeybee acupuncture.

Then Mr. Shin's shoulder started to swell. The swelling spread to his back, to his neck, and finally to his legs. He began to scratch a patch of skin right under the right side of his jaw, then his arms and his stomach. The sting marks began to stick out like small white hills on his angry, dark red shoulder. The drowsiness persisted, so I went back to the farm's sleeping cabin for a brief nap. When I woke up, the swelling had spread to Mr. Shin's feet.

He couldn't fit them into his shoes.


***


Instructors told us again and again during orientation that our co-teachers were the people who would be most put out by our presence. Co-teachers, we were told, would give up weekends and holidays to help us get accustomed to Korea. Our principals may not interact with us directly, but our co-teachers were our lifeline in a very literal sense. Not many Korean teachers speak English, so the ones who taught English would have to do almost everything for us until we learned to fend for ourselves. We were told to abuse that relationship at our own peril.

Teachers who come from the United States in particular are accustomed to a degree of independence. Adjusting to a co-teacher as a paternal figure can be challenging at times. The co-teacher relationship provides not only an invaluable tool to adapting to aradically different culture, language, and (in some cases) career, but it also imposes a structure to a new native English teacher's life that wasn't there before. Sometimes this structure stretches outside the bounds of working hours. Personal response to that structure varies from person to person.

In the months between orientation and the wave of panic and fear that struck me on the highway, I discovered many unexpected challenges in Korea. A sometimes-insurmountable language barrier can make it difficult to perform even simple tasks. Cultural differences sometimes mean you insult people accidentally (though I have discovered most Koreans are willing to grant more than a little leeway to waegooks 80 percent of the time). Teaching as a profession sometimes represents an almost 180-degree break with past work experiences, especially in my case.

Thus, from the first day I arrived in Korea to the moment I am writing this essay, I have learned that the teaching game isn't always about adjusting your expectations or preconceptions, so much as it is about ripping up your expectations altogether and learning to become an open and accepting person about almost every facet of your life. To borrow a metaphor from golf, teaching in Korea during the first year is less about performing well in the PGA and more about becoming accustomed to being the amateur in a Pro-Am match-up. For some people, this is a perfectly acceptable, comfortable, even necessary arrangement. Others bristle at the thought of something resembling new surrogate parents.

Personally, because of a little work on my part and a lot of work on the part of my co-teachers, this arrangement fit like a glove. There have been occasional hang-ups. Shin Kyung Chul is disappointed by my general apathy for exercise and occasionally frustrated when I take a sick day ("I haven't taken a sick day in twenty years as teacher!"he likes to tell me). I have been frustrated by my inability to explain things properly, as well as my co-teacher's occasional inability to understand what I am saying.

The biggest single argument came about as a result of my decision, about three months after arriving, to begin smoking again. Ever since then, every sniffle or slight cough or intestinal spasm has become an opportunity to chastise that decision. The single greatest reason why this argument has persisted is because Mr. Shinis right and I am wrong. I should quit smoking, and I know it. This is also the single greatest example of the perils and triumphs of the co-teacher relationship. Co-workers in the United States didn't rebuke my smoking with such intensity. I know it is rooted in Mr. Shin's concern for my well-being, fed by his personal success at quitting smoking many years ago. Still, at the point I was driving Mr. Shin to the hospital from Chungdo, I had not yet started smoking again.

By the way: Six months into my first year, I would say we've scored about par on our first nine holes, if not a little below.


***


In those days, I still spoke way too quickly for many Koreans to understand what I was saying.

When the car swerved over the center line because he was scratching, I repeated for the fourth time my offer to drive.

"If it's an emergency, I could drive," I said.

He didn't respond the first four times. Finally, I paused carefully between each word, pronouncing it as if it were it's own separate sentence.

"If. It's. An. Emergency. I. Could. Drive," I said.

"You can drive?" he said.

"Yes," I said. "I had my license back in the United States. I owned a car."

"Okay, maybe you should drive," he said.

"Very good," I said.

We pulled over to the side of the road and switched spots.

It was our longest exchange until about ten minutes away from Gumi. Mr. Shin was going to need a doctor, at least, possibly a priest. My anxiety was building. By four months in, I could recognize Gumi from the road, and I knew we were growing closer. I wasn't sure where or how to exit the highway. I wasn't sure who to call if Mr. Shin's breathing got worse. I knew 119 was the emergency number. I hoped to the Holy Whoever they spoke English.

Mr. Shin stirred and looked out the window.

"Next exit," he said.

I turned the car off the exit, snaked around in a gentle curve through the exit ramp, paid the toll and got onto the streets of Gumi. My adrenaline surged. If the bee venom wasn't going to kill us, then certainly my driving might. At that point, I had obtained a pedestrian's-eye view of Korean driving, and it wasn't a flattering perspective. I hadn't spent serious time behind the wheel of a car since I was in a minor car accident during a blizzard in Wisconsin in the middle of the night. Worst of all, I'm a Wisconsin driver (the only state where a driver happening on a red light on a deserted stretch of road in the middle of nowhere will still stop). My hands gripped the wheel so tight that the blood began to drain out of my knuckles. Mr. Shin seemed unfazed.

"Okay, left," he said.

"Here?"

"No, next," he said. "At the light."

"Got it," I said.

Three turns later, we were at the hospital. I cut off a delivery bike in my haste to get out from behind the wheel of the car. Of all of the aspects of my driving on the trip, I am least proud of my parking job. We hung out past the curb about a quarter car-length into the driveway of a gas station next to the hospital. It was the kind of parking job you'd only see a Wisconsin driver make in the event of extreme emergency.

Mr. Shin was admitted to the emergency room, and treated for a severe allergic reaction to bee venom. The doctors gave him pills and an injection, and he lay down to rest on a hospital bed. He seemed very tired and frail. Mr. Shin is normally a supernova of energy and enthusiasm. When he laid on the hospital bed, he suddenly looked old enough to be my grandfather. I was worried about him, but at this point, there was nothing I could do.

I sat down in the hospital's wheel chair and took a few spins around the hallway while he slept. When I was sure he wouldn't notice my absence, I rose out of the wheel chair and went out of the hospital and went to a nearby mart. I bought my first pack of cigarettes in 100 days. I smoked one outside the entrance to the hospital. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do. My hands were still shaking. I was exhausted and worried. I needed something ? anything ?familiar to calm my nerves.

A doctor came outside of the hospital doors, I thought to yell at me. He stared at me for a moment, then pulled his own cigarettes out of his hospital scrubs and lit up.

Sometimes, life seems too short, you know?


***


I have seen many astonishing things since I came to Korea. I've eaten new foods, climbed mountains, tried to learn anew language with an entirely different alphabet, and ? with varying degrees of success ?negotiated the perils of Korean culture. I have tried, failed, and tried again. Among the many new truths I have encountered, one stands out in sharp contrast to everything else. Living in Korea will change your life. It will change your life in big ways, and in small ways. It will change your life in good ways, and maybe, if you're not careful, in bad ways. The most deceptive thing about this statement is its simplicity. It is easy to talk about changing one's life in the abstract. It's hard to live that change, harder still to admit when that change has been good, and hardest of all to admit you've missed an opportunity for good change because of your own obstinance.

The greatest challenges I've faced in adapting have been the unexpected twists and turns. The day on the highway from Chungdo to Gumi, a relationship was turned on its head. This theme recurs from the day you get off the plane, whether there is a welcoming party waiting for you or you come alone, whether you have traveled a lot or a little. Cab drivers become students or ? more often ?teachers. Bar tenders become friends or antagonists. Students become teachers. Strange apartments become homes. Co-workersbecome families. Stories of life-threatening daring-do become fond anecdotes, and building blocks for relationships. Alienating customs become familiar greetings. Every time one of these little things happens, we are re-defined as people. We become a little less like a motley assortment of foreigners, and a little more like residents in a global community.

As more time passes, we will become more than just residents of this community. We will become full-fledged citizens.


***


There isn't much left to say about the Chungdo trip.

Mr. Shin got up out of his hospital bed and drove me to my apartment. I asked him again and again whether he would prefer that I drive, and he insisted he was okay. When we got back to my apartment, I pulled my luggage out of the back seat. Right as I was heading away, he rolled down the window and called my name.

"Brian!" he said.

"Yes?"

"I am safe because of your excellent and careful driving," he said. "Thank you."

I went up to my apartment, showered, smoked and prepared to go out for dinner with some fellow foreign teachers.

Mr. Shin turned up on that Monday, looking rested and much healthier. That would have been the last time anyone said anything about the trip, until Mr. Shin peeked over my shoulder while I was writing this essay.

"What are you writing?" he said.

"I'm writing about the trip to Chungdo," I said. "About the time with the bees."

Mr. Shin grimaced.

"What's wrong?" I said.

"Nothing," he said. "I'm a little embarrassed, I think. Okay. You must tell them about your heavy smoking, too."

"Fair enough," I said.



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