Book extract: Karin Cronje’s ‘There Goes English Teacher’
Reflections on the nature of identity and the loss of it, sexuality, belief, ageing, displacement and nationhood
Karin Cronje’s There Goes English Teacher (Modjaji Books, R280) is searingly honest, heart-achingly funny, deeply sad, raw and personal. Cronje writes about her three years of adventures and misadventures as an English teacher in a small Korean village and later at a university. There are strong reflective passages on the nature of identity and the loss of it, sexuality, belief, ageing, displacement and nationhood. In this extract she talks about her decision to either stay in Korea and build a pension or go home to SA, the place she knows and longs for.
It’s impossible to suppress the big one any longer: go home, or stay? It’s dawned on me that I won’t be able to rot away in Korea with its bows, silence and secrecy until I’ve built a pension, which clearly will take forever. But on the other hand, back to South Africa with its race consciousness, where you live in fight or flight? And according to the UN’s Human Development Report, which ranks countries by the desirability of life there, South Africa is 121 out of 177. Korea, no matter how strange the ways here, functions smoothly and offers its citizens a better quality of life in terms of health, education, security and so on. But. Home.
That’s where my heart is and that’s where emotion is not hidden behind politeness. I suspect the misery is not because I’m in Korea, it’s simply because I’m not home. This place is not what formed my DNA. It is foreign, foreign. Here I’m in either one of two conditions: my heart is breaking, or my heart is dead. Yes, home it must be. But God help me, how will I earn? I must be deranged to even consider going back. My heart may be home, but I don’t have enough courage to face the uncertainty and lack of opportunity.
I can only go back when I have that courage. In my decrepitude. Yes, stay. Besides, think of the positives. It's true, life is more complicated here, but much more interesting. I’d been ordering lunch from that lovely woman who teaches me to read. And then suddenly lunch was not delivered anymore. I phoned again and said the few sentences I’d been taught. The woman said some stuff, which I wrote down. I showed it to Hye-mi. She got the slightest of smiles. Me: Anyong haseyo. Daehakyo. O beak ship o. Hana bibimbab. Woman: Anieyo. Me: Gamsamnida. Anyonghi kyeseyo. This is what went down: Hello. University. Room 515. One bibimbab. No. Thank you. Goodbye. Hye-mi phoned.
They couldn’t deliver one dish only as they used to. I had to order something with it. Okay, this took some doing, but then again, how easy it is to get that lunch delivered. You go through the ‘conversation’. Only one word needs to change: bibimbab, boribab or sundubu, my other favourite dish of tofu and a floating egg in chilli soup and three clams, and rice.
You walk down the miles of stairs, open the front door of the dorm and put a brick in front to keep it open. Back up those stairs. Wait ten minutes. Up comes the scooter on the hill and parks next to the opening in the wall. The deliveryman knocks on your door, you open, smile, bow, he comes in and puts a container down on the floor. You give him the money (little, it’s cheap), bow again and turn around, switch on the TV and feel comforted by BBC’s jingle.
You unpack the container onto the ball and claw coffee table and sink down on the floor, still in comforting BBC, which announces the news. The world opens and you are not in a foreign country on a distant continent. Next you marvel at the cleverness of the dented and battered food container. It is a closed rectangular tin contraption, about knee high and the width of a big round plate. On top is a handle for easy carrying. And easy it has to be, because the deliveryman does many of these deliveries within ten minutes of ordering. The container is a perfect hot oven. It is opened in front by pulling the front panel up and out. It has two tin shelves, making three levels.
On the top shelf are obligatory kimchi and radish pickles and unidentifiable pickles on a long plastic plate covered with cling-wrap. Also stainless steel chopsticks and a spoon with a long handle for soup. The soup of various weeds is on this shelf too, also covered with cling-wrap. It is delicious.
The middle shelf has the main dish in a cast-iron bowl on a cast-iron saucer thing. It is very hot. The raw egg on top of the boribab or the floating egg in the sundubu cooks away. Next to this is a portion of rice in a stainless steel bowl, the same size and shape as in all the restaurants. The floor shelf has a big plate with mostly red chilli paste and something mixed in. Also cling-wrapped.
You sit there and eat in the comfort of BBC, but it doesn’t work. That most pressing question won’t stay away. How can you give all this up? You think of the safety, the affordability, the light energy that carries unpredictability and chance. You get sucked into the best of this place and you see how you go down the hill to the main road where the buses come promptly every five minutes.
The road is the liveliest place. The shops are open all hours and students mill around. They are soft-spoken, they don’t hang onto each other and they are neatly dressed in their frills and stuff. It’s an ordered, silent chaos. The main road also has a post office, the bus depot, pavement shops selling all kinds of food, makeshift shops of tarpaulin, and restaurants by the dozen. I often come to a sun-filled one, Woori Mandoo, to eat one of my three dishes. Here the ajumma makes me feel welcome.
These middle-aged women seem to be the only people free of constraint. They have earned the right, after many years of conforming to what femininity here should be, to be exactly as they wish. They’re strong and outspoken, they have nothing of that girlishness. I love this woman. We have a beautiful bond formed by not more than two words. She’s been teaching me to read by spelling out words from the menu, after which it’s my turn.
Just left from Woori is a tarpaulin effort which sells those lovely fishes made in a jaffle iron with sweet bean curd inside. Then there’s the Sand and Food shop. Sand is for sandwich, though there are no sandwiches, but they sell the best coffee. Here an ice-cream poster reads: ‘Refreshing dessert candidates’. Frank Sinatra sings happily away. After Woori I hop onto the bus to go and see Dae-ho for one of his strange massages, acupuncture or whatever treatment he dreams up for the day.
I sit in front, always, ready for the get-out. And down to shinae. There was no town planning. It developed organically and is the expression of everyone’s involvement, not only architects and town planners. I’ve come to love every square metre. I get off where the bus can’t go any further, where the bustling little streets start. They are so narrow that cars can hardly pass. There’s lots of colourful writing in Hangul which seems to the illiterate like an extended abstract painting.
Next to a more fancy-looking shop is a place that fixes scooters on the pavement. Opposite is a clump of trees that escaped the clearing of the forest and next to that a meat market with lots of flies in the entrance. It’s set deep into a dark building. I have no intention of finding out what goes on inside. Into this mix are traditional houses with their hip-and-gable roofs, which are patched with corrugated-iron, held down by stones and pipes and broken pieces of tiles. Dotted all over are brick chimneys with four little arches at the top.
Here and there, elevated to roof level, are small pavilions with the same elaborate roof structure as the houses, but covered with thick bamboo. This is where they socialise. Among all of this are satellite TV dishes, attached to any upright thing. Along the length of the pavements traders have their wares – colourful fruit and veg and grains – spread out on the ground on tarpaulins of different colours.
The fish shop, which mainly happens on the pavement, competes for space. Plastic buckets are filled with strange moving eel-like and crawling things. Fresh water is somehow pumped into containers higher than the buckets. Pieces of hosepipe then carry the water down into the buckets which are filled to overflowing. This goes on the whole day so that the pavement around is a bit of a dam. Next to this, also in buckets, are the biggest orange/brown mushrooms I’ve ever seen. A single one won’t fit in a hand.
Where the pavements disappear altogether is the tiniest fabric shop, almost in the road. The owner has her afternoon nap on her mat between folded pieces of fabric, her head resting on her outstretched arm. Further on there are no streets, just paved walkways with shops.
At lunchtime trolleys stacked with food for delivery are pushed up and down. Each order is neatly wrapped in colourful cloth and tied into a knot at the top. And it is here, at the fourth walkway, that I turn left and I’m at Dae-ho’s studio. So how can I leave all this? But God help me! I want my people and the veld and the light and our high heaven. To go or to stay? For this there is no answer.