I had a soft spot for my supposed replacement, Jo, ever since I heard of her. Not only did she have the same name as one of my sisters, but she was the same age too and just out of college. And a vegetarian.
A part of me wanted to hate her, because she was going to take over my kindergarten kids. But as I began writing to her, telling her how much money she would need, what toiletries she wouldn’t have to worry about, the best coffee shops and cute little boutiques, I embraced her like a mother hen. I always enjoy showing the newbies around, buying them dinners, teaching them easy little phrases and escorting them to touristy spots.
Then she dropped out, dashing my dreams of a sunny, bikini-clad bliss in Thailand.
But, oddly enough, I never felt anger towards her. I was disappointed, and I was exhausted, and I was filled with so much longing for warmer pastures, but I couldn’t blame her. The job is demanding. I’ve had breakdowns. And I couldn’t imagine someone my sister’s age with this role, thrust into a country in which she doesn’t know the language and is expected to work ten to thirteen hours a day.
Unfortunately for Jo, the drama didn’t just end when she failed to show up to work eleven days ago. Our director had her passport.
Understandably, Jo emailed me several times about this. I told her to come here and pick it up, or at least send a friend over if she was too embarrassed. It wasn’t like my boss was going to hold her down and force her to work at Wonderland.
Nobody was going to insult her (to her face) or even question her motives. True, everyone was a tad bit resentful, because the school’s winter program had to be canceled. But I think we all understood why she left, and as a whole we’d decided she wasn’t strong enough for the job anyway.
Last Friday she arrived with her agency’s representative, thirty minutes after telling me of her arrival via email. (As you could imagine, my supervisor and director were a bit snippy about this last-minute house call.) During my lunch break I went down to see her, while her rep was speaking to the director. I could see she’d been crying.
“I’m sorry,” she kept saying.
“Relax,” I told her, rubbing her shoulder. “Nobody can keep your passport, and the director isn’t like that, anyway. Can I get you some coffee?”
“No, that’s okay. I’m sorry.”
“Did you find a job?”
“No. I’m going to go home soon.” From the look on her face, I could tell that she hadn’t had the most pleasant time in Korea.
“Can I take you out for dinner? I get off at seven-thirty–”
“No, I’m going home soon.”
She looked so young and traumatized. I just wanted to hug her, but with the director in the next room I knew it would be inappropriate.
After lunch I met with my supervisor, C, to discuss her meeting with Jo.
“She just kept saying ‘I’m sorry,'” C sighed with a little laugh. “‘I’m sorry, I want my passport.’ But is she really sorry? She doesn’t know how she changed our school. Because of her, we had to cancel our new winter classes, and you’re leaving early.”
“Well, she’s only 23 and fresh out of college. I’m sure she wasn’t expecting all these responsibilities.”
“Yes, she’s 23 but she’s an adult too. And she has to have some responsibility.”
“Did she get her passport back?” I asked.
“She’ll get it back. But she needs to pay us for part of your plane ticket to Thailand.”
My airfare (including a flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai) was about 650,000 won. “And how much does she have to pay?” I asked warily.
“Two hundred thousand won. She has it easy, but she kept asking if she could get a discount, because she worked here for three days.”
“What?” Shelly exclaimed. “It was her orientation. She was only observing us. She never taught a class!”
“I know. So we said no, she has to pay all of it. And she kept saying that she has no money. So I don’t know about her passport.” She gave an exhausted sigh. “What to do.”
“Two hundred dollars,” I mused after C left. “That isn’t too much. I thought she would have to pay for all of my airfare to Thailand, and the recruiter’s fee that the director paid Jo’s agency.”
“She’s a lucky girl,” Shelly said. “I don’t see why you feel bad for her. She didn’t even give the job a try.”
“Well, Wonderland’s hard. I quit once, remember? I mean, I finished my contract, but only because I felt loyal to C and our co-teachers. And by then I was so invested in Taekwondo, and had friends and liked living here. Jo doesn’t have all of that.”
“You’re a saint. If I was in your position I’d hate her. You keep saying she’s just a kid, but you aren’t much older. You really aren’t mad at her? Even just a little?”
To be honest, I’m more grateful than anything. As much as I wanted to help C and my school, I knew that it was my time to go. Something was holding me back, and the hesitation is still there. But I’m thankful that Jo ditched, forced me to work through December, and made me realize how tired I am, how much I miss my family. And how much I really need to be in California right now.
This job isn’t for everybody. You’ve got to have a steely resolve, something to save up for (or pay off) and a whole lot of support in and out of this country. You have to have the ability to zone everything out when places get too crowded, chill when you can’t read the menu and smile when locals laugh at your attempts with the language. You might not fit in the clothes, you might not like the food, and you’ll probably hate getting bumped and pushed on the sidewalk. You might realize that you aren’t good with kids.
You have to know that, ninety percent of the time, you’re going to be alone. And you must embrace that naked vulnerability with all you’ve got, or you’re going to feel like you have nothing.
I saw a lot of myself in Jo that day. That deer-in-the-headlights stare, the anxiety, the confusion and fear. She was disappointed in herself. It was heartbreaking.
You come here with a mad desire to conquer the entire peninsula, only to have all those romantic expectations topple on your pretty little head. Reality sets in, and you begin to doubt whether or not you can really live here. You begin to doubt if you’ve got the stomach for it all. I’ve been here for a year, and I don’t know how I did it. There were adventures I’ll always remember, people I’ll forever hold in my heart, and strength I didn’t know I had. But I don’t know how I did it. I don’t think I’ll ever know how I held it all together.
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