Jeju Island, South Korea
Palm trees line the streets of Old Jeju City, swaying in the cold Pacific wind. Many years ago, the government transplanted them from their natural habitat so that this mild-weathered island would look tropical in brochures. They were supposed to give the place an identity and, hopefully, tourist dollars. During the summer, the trees do look impressive against the backdrop of Mt. Halla and the blue waters. On December nights like this one, they creak and dance. When it snows, they droop. They never fall. They never bear fruit.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Sean.
“Yes, please,” said Cass.
She reached for her purse and coat as Sean stuffed his computer into his bookbag. In the kitchen they passed his host mother, who glanced again and again at Cass’s low neckline and smudged makeup. They didn’t look at each other as they headed out the door.
It was all too much to handle before coffee.
Sean’s host family owned the nine-story building on which their lavish two-floor penthouse sat. The other floors contained four tutoring centers, a doctor’s clinic, a coffee shop, and a smoke-filled bar. It was in Old Jeju City, where houses with colorful shingled roofs coexisted with the essential amenities of modern life: bars, coffee shops, and 7-11s. The Korean teachers preferred to live in New Jeju City, the part of town full of dizzying apartment buildings all built within the last decade. They didn’t understand why the exiled Americans thought Old Jeju felt more like Korea.
“Damn it!” Sean yelled as another taxi drove by without stopping.
They had quickly realized how difficult it was for a tall white man to hail a taxi in Korea. When the weather was bad, the drivers claimed white men smelled. When the weather was good, the drivers claimed white men were drunk and disorderly. Cass had walked down the street with Sean one rainy day and watched the taxis turn off their vacant signs one by one as they approached.
“This must be what a big black guy in America feels like,” he had said.
“Come to Chicago sometime and see for yourself,” Cass had replied.
Now she stepped to the curb and immediately, two taxis appeared. She opened the door to the first one and got in.
“Ahnyeong!” she said with a smile. It was one of the few things she could say convincingly in Korean. The driver gave her a grin which quickly turned into a scowl when Sean jumped in.
“Downtown, please,” he said, in much better Korean than Cass. “The Tom N Toms coffee shop.” The driver muttered something under his breath about American men and Korean women as he pulled into traffic. Cass leaned her head against the cool window. She closed her eyes to the rows of swaying palm trees and tried to remember the night before.
The little bar is empty except for them. Red and green lights twinkle through the cigarette smoke. A plastic Christmas tree sags in the corner. These are the only evidence that it is the holiday season back home. “In the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes,” says the stencil on the wall.
Mandy had left hours ago after Sean started yelling, “This man is getting married!” to the five or six exhausted waiters standing around them with polite smiles. Rob has finally given in to his college girlfriend and is going to propose over winter break. They all toasted him, even the waiters. By the sixth round, Rob was dancing by himself under the Christmas lights, flailing his long arms like an apoplectic preacher. He is now passed out spread-eagle on the floor.
“I don’t understand,” Sean says to Cass. “Why am I the only one without somebody?” He downs his beer and yells to the ring of waiters around them for another.
“I could’ve gone to an Ivy League!” he says. “I was nationally ranked!”
“In what?” Cass asks. “Soccer?”
“Fuck yeah!” he says.
Rob lurches to his feet and stumbles towards them.
“Ayem gunna git maaaaried!”
“You’re what now?” Cass asks.
“Gunna git maaaried!”
“You’re getting married?”
“Yes, ma’aaaam!” He hiccups, then giggles, then sits down and falls asleep with his head in his arms.
“Well, I don’t want to get married,” says Sean, wiping beer foam off his mouth with the back of a hairy hand. “But Rob found someone. You’ve got Tom. Even Mandy has Mike.” His dark green eyes are unfocused, one looking deadly serious and the other struggling to understand.
“I’m a good looking guy,” he says, to her and beyond her.
“Yes, you are, Sean.”
“Tom’s a good looking guy, too,” he adds graciously. “But look at ME!” He burps. A spray of beer and spit flies into the air. She watches a bit dribble down his chin.
“I’m a good looking gu-uy.”
“Ayem gunna git maaaaried,” mumbles Rob. He slides onto the floor again.
Suddenly, Sean takes Cass’s hand and pulls her off the stool. They twirl around the empty tables while he hums, “da-dum dee-dum da-dummm.” His heart thump-thumps against her ear and his belt buckle scrapes against her stomach. She can smell his aftershave and musk. They twirl painfully close and suddenly painfully apart again, stepping over Rob’s prone form. They twirl to the rhythm of the “da-dum dee-dum da-dummm”s which is always softer than the music but louder than her thoughts.
Cass squeals as he catches her in an exaggerated dip, the hard muscles of his arm hurting her back. She feels the moisture of his palms soaking through her thin sweater. She runs her fingers through his blonde curls and traces the stubble on his jaw as his lips, still singing “da-dum dee-dum dee-dummm,” come closer and closer.
“I’m tipsy,” she says. “But I’m never drunk.” He laughs, spraying them both with the sour smell of cheap beer.
There’s something about living in a foreign country that accelerates the pace of relationships. In America the four of them might have never even talked to each other. Here, surrounded by unfamiliarity and stuck on an island for a year, they’ve become practically family.
As the taxi pulled up to the three-story Tom N Toms coffee shop, Sean and Cass can see Rob, the only redhead on the whole island, silently sipping a cappuccino by the window. Mandy was clicking on her laptop and chattering away at him. She had dyed her hair a dark brown before coming to Korea, and the blonde roots were now growing in. Her mother had warned her about being too blonde when traveling.
“I Skyped with the girlfriend this morning,” said Rob when they walked in. “She’s strongly hinting she wants a bigger ring.” He was planning on doing it right and asking with his grandmother’s ring, an heirloom from the Old Country. He would need to take out a loan to afford the ring she wanted.
“She’s going to be so surprised when you come home next month!” Sean tumbled into the seat next to Rob and punched him in the shoulder. “You’re gonna drop in and – boom! Pop the question!” Rob had asked him to be best man only last night. They had known each other for four months.
“I was talking to Mike,” chirped Mandy. “He’s really obsessed with Angry Birds. I tell him ‘Mikey, honey, you need to do your homework’ but he just can’t stop procrastinating.”
They watched Sean try to order a coffee in Korean. The waitress kept giggling and eventually turned and ran away. He sighed and reached for Rob’s coffee.
“This is what I get for dating someone younger,” Mandy continued, rolling her eyes but smiling. “He’s so eager and sweet, but it always feels like I have to look out for him, you know? In college I always had to tell him, ‘Mikey, honey, do your homework. Mikey, honey, do your laundry. Mikey, honey, the sex was great last night. Don’t overthink it.’”
She looked at Cass out of the corner of her eye. “How did you survive college? You never sleep.”
“I never played Angry Birds.”
“Wait, never?” Sean put down Rob’s mug and wiped foam off his upper lip. “How have you not mastered the art of procrastination?”
“Flying cartoon birds into cartoon structures is an art?”
“It is! It speaks to the child in all of us who wanted to knock over another kid’s building blocks for fun.”
“How is that fun?”
“Ask Rob over here. He’s the Fulbright champion of Angry Birds.”
Rob stared into his empty coffee cup.
“Angry Birds is the best part of any Skype conversation,” he said solemnly. And they knew he would be taking that loan.
Cass pays the waitress who had been eyeing her all night.
“Ko-re-an?” she asks, giving each syllable the same weight as a word.
“No, I’m American.”
“Your face! Ko-re-an!”
“My parents are Chinese.”
“Ahhh!” The waitress seems relieved
“CHINESE!” she shouts to the other waiters. They all say “Ahhh!” and smile and nod.
“You. Very pretty.”
The waitress points at the two boys — Rob, the red-headed giant passed out with his head in his arms, and Sean, the blonde All-American, slowly sliding out of his chair.
“Yes.” says Cass, dryly. “Both of them.”
“Really?” Her eyes open wide. She starts furiously whispering with the other waiters.
Cass turns to collect the boys.
“I’m up!” Rob shouts cheerfully. He falls out of his chair. Sean spills his beer on the concrete floor trying to finish the last of it.
The food stalls on the sidewalk had long closed, but multi-story, 24-hour coffee shops still light up every street corner. A few twenty-somethings are inside Tom N Toms, enjoying cappuccinos and French toast at 2AM while watching drunk Americans stumble out of empty bars. A row of taxis waits outside. Rob jumps into the nearest one before the driver can protest. Sean and Cass watch him give the address and then hold his unflappable Georgian grin until the driver turns away with a scowl and lurches out of the queue.
They climb into the next taxi. The driver looks meaningfully from Cass to Sean, but fortunately does not ask any questions. Sean leans his head against the cool window and closes his eyes.
He falls out of the car when they arrive.
The driver points at Sean and asks Cass,
“No.” They watch Sean stumble up the path.
“You. Very pretty.”
“Thank you.” She pays him and hurries after Sean.
“Ko-re-an?” the driver calls after her. She does not answer.
The waiter lugged over their giant bowl of patbingsoo: a glorious mess of fruit, cornflakes, chocolate chips, rice cakes, and soft serve ice cream in a bowl large enough to be a trough. Today, for some reason, the coffee shop added corn and chocolate syrup. During the week, they dutifully ate their host-moms’ kimchi in the mornings (though to the envy of them all, Cass’s host-mom had started making bacon and eggs after seeing that on an American sitcom). But on the weekends, they treat themselves to the food of their Korean peers — jalapeño cheesy bread and ice cream and pizza with grilled kimchi.
Five middle school girls ran up to their table giggling behind their hands. The boldest one stepped forward. She looked at Sean and asked,
“Tom Cruise?” They all blushed furiously and giggled.
“Thanks girls, but no,” said Sean, smiling.
The girls conferred amongst themselves in hurried whispers. Finally, they bowed and ran away in a flurry of knee-high socks and high-pitched laughter.
“I would take that as a compliment,” said Sean, “except Tom Cruise is ten inches shorter than me and thirty years older.”
Sean was handsome in the way all tall, young, athletic, white men were handsome. He was six feet two inches of wiry muscle, with curly blonde hair and a ready smile. The sun damage and drinking were already starting to take a toll on his skin, but for now, he can still walk away with the prettiest girl in any room.
And he knew it.
“You should find a Korean girlfriend while you’re here,” said Mandy.
“How would that work? I meet a girl at a bar. I think she looks twenty. She acts like she’s twelve. And then I find out she’s forty-two. And she probably thinks every white guy looks like Tom Cruise.”
When he isn’t around, Korean women their age actually describe Sean as a “little boy” and say they couldn’t take him seriously enough to date him. But they do think he looks like Tom Cruise.
Cass pours a glass of water as Sean makes his way to the bathroom. She walks unsteadily to the living room. I am never drunk, she says to herself, but I do feel fuzzy. When Sean appears next to her, she hands him the glass.
“Why, thank you, Cass.” His eyes are calmer now, but one is still just a little unsure. He bends down to look into her face.
“You’re very pretty, you know.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“No, I’ve never met anyone as smart as you AND pretty.”
“Thank you?” She wonders if she is smart for a pretty girl or pretty for a smart girl.
“I’ve never dated someone smart,” he muses.
“What about that rich girl you dated in college? The one you were going to marry?”
“She wasn’t smart. She said I should propose before graduation or we should break up. So now I’m here.”
“Are you going to ask me again why you’re alone?”
“Why don’t you tell me, Cassandra?” He puts his arm around her and buries his face in her long, cigarette-scented hair. “You always know everything, and you always want to tell.”
And he’s right, she thinks. She does want to tell.
She wants to tell him that she sees him in a boring cubicle job someday with a wife who is rich and stupid. He will get everything he ever wanted because he would never be brave enough to want anything difficult. Someday he’ll be fat and middle-aged. He’ll have coffee with some young, bored intern and talk about that year he spent in Korea. And maybe he will remember her. Maybe he will spew the same self-absorbed bullshit about finding yourself like so many of their peers do. How do you find yourself by moving from one place to another? You are always yourself. Nothing more. Traveling doesn’t suddenly make you interesting.
But she also wants to tell him about the little crinkles around his eyes when he is telling a story. She wants to tell him about the dimple on his right cheek when he is playing a joke on Mandy. About his voice singing “da-dum dee-dummm” and the heat of his hand on her lower back. About the All-American-ness of him: the blonde curls, the athleticism, the middle-class insecurities, and that damn obnoxious American confidence.
Hemingway, Fitzgerald –the writers every young expat reads and secretly imagines himself to be– they were all golden once. Golden and male in the way she could never be. And look what they did. Sure, they drank themselves to an early grave and probably antagonized the locals, but look what they did. They looked for meaning and beauty when they left America. And when they realized meaning and beauty weren’t things to be found, they created them.
But he does not have the courage and that is a waste.
SHE does not have the courage and that is also a waste. Her parents went to America for a better life. She left America to avoid it.
We have talent and beauty and youth, she wants to say. And we waste ourselves with drinking and mourning because we know we won’t be young forever. We think that being on this island makes the world stop and wait for us until we are ready. Maybe next year. Maybe when we turn thirty.
It breaks her heart how easy it is to be unremarkable.
“Nobody likes to hear the truth about themselves, Sean.” She brushes her lips against the stubble on his cheek.
“You always know how to twist the knife,” he says into her neck. The tip of his tongue lightly –very lightly– touches the soft valley above her collarbone.
Cass closes her eyes. She breathes in the sharp scent of his aftershave and musk and suddenly, she is dizzy. It’s too easy, she thinks.
“That is not going to happen,” she says softly.
He rests his head on her shoulder and sighs. Then, he burps.
She watches him stumble down the hallway and fall into bed face first. She can never tell how drunk he actually is and what he will remember. But she would never doubt his intelligence just because he was pretty. She lies down on the cold leather couch and watches the city lights dance on the ceiling until the sun rises over Mt. Halla and even the palm trees stand still.
“So how is your fiancé?” asked Mandy, pouring three packets of fake sugar into her coffee.
“Busy with med school,” said Cass. “He’s thinking of taking a year off to do a startup.” Tom’s life in America seemed to move so much faster than hers now.
“Let him do it,” said Rob. “He is young — And now is the time to take risks.” Rob was younger than Tom, but he had a way of pausing in the middle of his sentences and stroking a long finger through his beard that made him look as if he might be wise.
Suddenly, Mandy grabbed Cass’s arm. “Are you wearing the same dress as yesterday?” she whispered loudly.
“I just made sure Sean got home last night instead of passing out on the sidewalk,” Cass explained. “It was late and I crashed at his place.”
“Nothing happened,” Sean added quickly. Mandy’s grip slowly loosened.
“Nothing that happens here really happens anyway,” said Rob still staring at his empty cup.
“Don’t worry,” said Cass. “We’ll be back in the real world soon.”
“You’re not going to stay another year?”
“We could stay and teach,” said Rob, “like that guy Lennie from the program who’s been here for ten years.”
“Everyone likes him,” added Mandy. “He’s not creepy like the others.”
“For every Lennie, there’s at least ten other beer-bellied expats hitting on teenage girls and showing Simpsons episodes instead of teaching,” said Cass. The American at Rob’s school last year was one of those. He called himself a writer. He’s in law school now.
“If I really wanted to teach,” Cass said, “I’d go back to school and get a teaching degree. Get certified. Actually do right by my students.”
“Yes,” said Sean. “Do it right.”
“It’s too easy to be American. I can’t believe they let us get away with this bullshit.”
Sean raised his spoon. “To being American!”
They laughed and dug into their ice cream.
Outside the wind picked up again and the palm trees swayed drunkenly. They never fall.