March 2018 Fiction Feature: Ali Saleh
by Ali Saleh
Sam looks up at me and starts laughing.
“Donghae teacher,” he says.
One of the Korean teachers told me it meant wandering dog, but some other guy I met at a music festival said it meant dog shit. I don't really know what it means but the kid says it to me just about every day.
I've been working at this private academy for about two months now. It's a small, two-story building on the edge of the city I live in. We're surrounded by mountains and small farms; windy roads and village-like alleys; old homes behind elaborate, traditional doors; small pitches for soccer and jokgu; and dogs tied to cages that bark at me on my way to work, that I never see being fed or even acknowledged.
How I got into this situation still baffles me.
I was to take Sam to the roof and help him find a workbook in the storage room—more of a shed really. I had him stand by the door and told him not to close the door. Not even two steps in and I started seeing my shadow recede followed by a loud thump. I turned the handle but it didn't budge, and now the kid is twirling in the center of the room.
“Sam. Why did you close the door?”
“Donghae teacher say 'close door, close door.'”
“What? I said, 'do not close the door.'”
“An-ee-o. Say, 'close, close.'”
I start to say something but realize this process isn't going to get us anywhere.
Locks in Korea aren't the most technical things to work. It usually involves pressing a small, circular button and waiting for the beep that indicates the door has been unlocked. But this one, for whatever reason, has four different buttons and a touch pad that requires some code I don't know, all of which happen to be on the inside of the door.
Ten minutes pass and my shirt is already drenched. Sam doesn't look too comfortable either, but watching a foreigner struggle to open something as simple as a door is probably enough to keep him occupied.
“Donghae teacher. Mollayo?”
“Nae Mollayo.” Yes, I don't know.
He laughs again. I start pounding on the door, calling out the other teachers' names with nothing in return but silence. I grab a bucket and sit down for a minute. Sam starts throwing books around.
He throws a book at me.
“Sam, I said stop!”
He starts shouting at me in Korean and points at the door. The small bangs hanging just above his eye-lids are wet, sticking to his forehead. He lifts up his shorts that reveal his skinny, pale knees. A fly buzzes around his neck, he ignores it.
“Move,” he says.
For a seven-year-old his English isn't bad. In fact, he's probably one of the top students in his class. But the little shit has absolutely no respect for me. This is a common issue with foreigners here. With the Korean teachers, it's all bows and honorific phrases. But with the foreign teachers, it's play time. They know they can get away with it because it's part of my job to make sure they have as much fun as possible, which also means it's part of my job to go easy on them. It's not to say they don't learn anything or that I'm simply an entertainer, but at the end of the day it's about business. If the kids are happy then so are the parents. And if the parents are happy, at least from the boss's eyes, you've done your job.
It's almost as if the paradigm of respect becomes eliminated with the sense of personhood. I'm a foreigner first and a person second, and the kids understand that. But speak a bit of Korean, and their eyes pop out. “Teacher, you know Hanguk-mal?” Suddenly you're more than just the weird looking guy they have to deal with for an hour every day. The worst part is it actually feels good seeing their response, as if conforming to the culture is a prerequisite to feeling like a real person in this country; perhaps in any country.
Sam sits down after a few minutes of playing with the lock. Dust begins to settle, revealing itself through the streams of light that seep through the cracks on the door. I pat down my pockets, looking for my phone, feeling nothing but a key and a pack of gum. I take two pieces out, put one in my mouth, and reach the other out to Sam.
“No, donghae teacher. I want food, not gum.”
Lunch is starting soon and I'm pretty hungry as well. I put the piece of gum in my mouth and throw the wrapper on the ground. After banging on the door a few more times I sit down, put my back against the wall, and close my eyes.
I doze off for what I think is a few minutes but am not sure how much time has passed. I can't imagine it being that long. Sunlight is still streaming through the crack in the door and it's still just as quiet outside as it was before. I wipe my eyes, stand up, and start messing with the lock again. I try some number combinations that are surprisingly popular in Korea: 9999, 1234, 4321, 0000. Theft, and crime in general, is fairly uncommon here. My first week in the country my boss led us to the wrong car at the bus station and only realized it was the wrong car when his key didn't fit into the ignition. It is nice leaving my bag out in places that would, back home, be snatched in minutes if not seconds.
I bang on the door a few more times, shout out some names, and very ambitiously turn the handle. It's quiet when I stop. Then it hits me, Where's Sam?
“Sam,” I call out. I can't see very far out into the shed, just hints of color in between a mass of darkness that goes back about ten feet. Stepping over the books that Sam threw around earlier, I start looking for him. Spider webs hang off my arms and shoulders as I slide through a maze of old boxes and tables.
“Sam!” I yell again.
It's hotter and denser the deeper I go in. I can't help but cough. I'm so far in, surrounded by so much stuff, that I can no longer see the light from the door behind me. I can hardly see my own hands. I turn one corner and bump into something, something that doesn't feel as lifeless as worn out box edges. Then I hear him—sobbing between deep breaths.
“Sam,” I whisper. “Hey buddy, why are you crying? It's okay, we'll be out of here in no time.”
Although I couldn't see him, I felt his eyes on me.
“Scared? Don't be scared, I'm right here.”
“I think donghae teacher die.”
“Die?” I laugh. “I didn't die, just sleeping.”
“Scared, donghae teacher. Scared.”
I bend down and reach out to him, my fingertips hit the top of his head. He jumps up and wraps both his arms around my neck. Tears seep through my shirt, they're warm on my shoulder. His heart pounds onto my chest and his legs shake around my waste. I rub his back, trying to calm him down, but can't manage to say anything. A couple of minutes pass and he slides off.
“I'm sorry, donghae teacher.”
He grabs my hand and leads me to the door. Suddenly the heat and the thick air and the uneasiness of being locked inside the shed isn't all that bad. Suddenly I don't feel like I'm so far away from home, or even close to home, but rather that I've somehow found a quiet place in between. As if the binaries of home and travel have been eliminated. As if the wonders of a new place, the culture, and smells, the food, the inability to order directly on my own, and all of its excitement, meet halfway with everything I came with from back home, with all the fickle expectations and presumptions about the world. As if this kid in this shed, with his stupid tantrums and heart wrenching tears, broke the bounds of cultural delusion and brought me to his level, to a simply human level.
“Thank you teacher,” Sam says. His brown eyes are bright and glossy and for the first time I feel I've actually taught him something. He's about to say something when the lock beeps and the door opens.
A head pops in through the doorway, it's the receptionist. Sam looks at the receptionist and then back at me. For just a moment he holds the pensive look in his face before grinning the grin I know means trouble. He runs out the door and starts shouting at the receptionist, jumping up and down. All I can hear is “donghae teacher” in between rushed Korean phrases.
“Neh,” I say. “Sam closed the door behind us, I tried unlocking it but I think it has a code.”
“Ahhh,” she says, as if I had uttered something brilliant. “Yogi.” She puts in the code: #1234#. I give her a nod, I was close enough.
Sam and I follow her to the staircase. As we reach the entrance he turns around, sticks his tongue out at me, and shuts the door, leaving me on the roof. I hear him laugh on his way down. This is when the agitation would normally start to kick in, but it doesn't bother me so much this time. I wait a moment and take a quick glance around me. All the rooftops and wires and clouds in the sky that look like they could fall at any moment. I hear Sam's step rushing back up the stairs. “Smart kid,” I think, and walk down.