The kid comes at lunchtime. He’s slender, wears a long coat with cargo pockets over his grey school uniform, and large square-framed glasses on his round face. Same thing each day: he walks up behind me wordlessly, then reaches over my shoulder for the mouse. He mutters in Korean as he clicks, and, once I move aside, types on the keyboard. Yesterday he tried to show me a video of a hamster in a blender. I only know this because he kept laughing and saying the words hamster and blender. The video wouldn’t play, but he kept laughing and repeating the words, standing close enough to me that his jacket rubbed against my shoulder and I could smell his teenage boy smell, which made me think of sweaty skin behind knees. Today he found a music video, some goofy dude playing pranks on unsuspecting people to the tune of a recent pop song. The kid started singing the Korean lyrics quietly, moving around behind me, dancing in place.
I learned from one of the Korean teachers that the kid is lonely, but the way she put it was that he’s angry because he thought he’d have more friends at this school. I’ve seen him through my window during PE class. There’s an invisible bubble around him as he scuffs his feet in the dirt and looks at rooftops and sky. He makes no efforts and no one approaches.
A couple of other kids have ventured into my room at lunchtime, shy at first, then curious, like visitors to a supposedly tame rhinoceros. I don’t know if they’re hiding from someone who’s tormenting them in the hallways, or sincerely interested in meeting me, probably the first American they’ve seen up close. Maybe they’re surprised to find me in my classroom at lunchtime, and not in the teachers’ cafeteria with the others. They speak very little English, and are surprised when I don’t understand their Korean. The brave ones snoop openly around my desk, picking things up and putting them down. Several of them have opened my water bottle and sniffed the contents.
When I first arrived, I ate in the teachers’ cafeteria. I skipped the meat, scooping extra rice and vegetables onto my tray. They gestured, exclaimed, and were dismayed. My vegetarianism seemed a cultural affront. Each day it became a little bit less of an issue, though they continued to glance at my tray and talk among themselves as if I were toting a small monkey on a leash around the school with me. When the grace period ended and I had to decide whether to pay for the cafeteria lunches or bring my own, I opted out. I woke at 6am the first day and sautéed away. I figured I’d just take my plastic container of stir-fry to the cafeteria and eat with everyone else, but at the last minute I hesitated. What if they thought my meal was weird? What if eating out of a plastic container was considered rude? So much, since I’d arrived, had been confusing on one level or another, to me about the Koreans and to the Koreans about me. Beyond the major social catastrophe of my vegetarianism, I’d committed other, less intentional gaffes. Once I poured myself a glass of water from a carafe instead of waiting for someone to pour for me, and another time I didn’t hold my hands correctly when the nerve-wrackingly handsome PE teacher poured me a drink. At one meal I was encouraged to start eating first but received strange looks when I dug in; at another meal I waited for others to start and they seemed exasperated. I stood in my classroom and looked at my little container of stir-fry, sat at my desk and ate alone. Nothing changes now but the ingredients.
I have no interaction with the teachers and administrators at my school. I am flattered that they trust me to do what I will, but am a little surprised that days go by when I see no adults at all; no one checks up, no one checks in. I sit in my office classroom, teach my classes, eat my lunch, and go home. I’m an outcast, but I don’t share enough common language with the people here to discern whether they put me out or I left on my own accord.
When the kid comes in, I put my lunch aside, knowing he’ll only hang out and be his weird self for a few minutes. He generally glances at what I’m eating, but doesn’t seem as occupied with my diet as the rest of the folks around here. He doesn’t make me feel like I’m toting around a monkey, anyway. Maybe that’s the reward I get for not tossing him out for trying to show me a hamster in a blender. I wonder if he knows outside of language, diet, and entertainment preferences, we actually have some significant things in common.
Shane E. Bondi is a recent graduate from Colorado State University’s Creative Writing Graduate Program. Her work has been published in High Country News and others. She currently teaches English in South Korea.