29 08 2010

He picked me up in his old, beat up Kia and we headed to The Coffee Bean for 4,000₩ Americanos and language exchange.  He is back in Korea after a year studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia.  The 9AM sunlight was too much for our eyes that morning, though he had a legitimate excuse having had only 3 hours of sleep after a long night of English to Korean translation for the new side job he had picked up, not to supplement income (as it pays shit, apparently) but because he “loves English”.  I tell him of my plans for future travel and other countries I dream to teach in.  My ever-lingering, slight guilt is even more present while I muse of these things to him; how is it fair that my luck of a birthplace in an English speaking country allows me to throw the daily grind to the wind and travel the world, while he wants nothing more than to return to the land of 6PM BBQ’s, beer and relaxation, but is unable?  Instead, he will head to work at his family owned coffee shop for his 11 hour shift, for the 7th day this week.  All of which is endured for a measly 1,000,000₩ per month (half what I make for my 7 hours/5 days per week).   He gets no days off unless he asks his step mother for it, from which he tries to refrain at all costs to avoid creating any tension between her and his sick, aging father.  Naturally, he will take over the shop when his parents retire.

Korean fathers play a role of omnipotence/omniscience in the family that is strongly projected to the children.  One day not too long ago, his father broke down to him, admitting regret for having bought the coffee shop as he is getting old and they are loosing money.  It was the first and only time he had seen his father like this; in that moment he appeared weak and it was too much to bear seeing him like that, so in love and pity he agreed to take over the shop, knowing and accepting the constraints this promise would hold on his life.  His dream of life as a businessman and return to Australia is even further off now.  So he does all he can do, which is go to work everyday and make the best of the situation.  It is his mission to make sure every customer walks out of the shop with a smile on his face as it gives him some purpose there.  He wants everyone around him to be happy.

He has been dating his girlfriend for 5 years, and she speaks of wanting to leave Korea as well, but to much frustration does not know a word of English and has no plans to learn.  He wants to move to Australia and have children there so they can grow up bi-lingual and with better job opportunities than they have in Korea, but this dream will be even more difficult to achieve if his wife doesn’t speak English.

He asks me what my greatest accomplishment is in life, a question to which I had no idea how to answer.  I scanned my brain for any certificates, awards, or the like I may have picked up along the way and tossed in a drawer of the dresser that now collects dust in a $47 a month storage unit in West Valley, Utah, but none came to mind.  I told him this, that I couldn’t give him the answer I was sure he was looking for as I don’t judge my life’s accomplishments by paper certificates, but by my experiences, level of happiness, and relationships.  He said that living in Australia made him agree with me.  He grew up like any other Korean child, working tirelessly to obtain this certificate, that award, the best grades, so one day he could hopefully find a good job where he would be overworked until he could retire at a very old age.  He jumped through those hoops and is now in a situation where he can’t even go out to find his own career.

I am not quite sure how to end this post.  Experiences like this are very humbling/eye-opening and make me appreciate the choices I have in my own life.