Sunday, March 15, 2015

alternate histories

My buddy Mike and I have known each other since the third grade. Almost exactly twenty years ago—right around the Ides of March—Mike was in Korea, visiting me, back when I was working at my very first job at Korea Foreign Language Institute. Mike's visit was a couple months before all the unpleasantness occurred, when I sued my stupid fuckhead of a boss for stiffing me of my final month of work and cheating me out of my retirement allowance (twaejik-geum). March 1995: it was the perfect time of year to come to Korea. The weather was warming up, but still cool; the spring flowers were just starting to bloom; the whole country was waking up from its winter slumber. We did parts of Seoul and even went down to Gyeongju (back then, I was spelling it "Kyungju," and Busan was spelled "Pusan"), visiting Bulguk-sa, Anapji Pond, the Gyeongju National Museum, and so on. Back in Seoul, we did a walking tour of Changdeok Palace with a guide who was about our age. Mike deemed her cute and wanted to get to know her better.

Anyway, Mike went back to the States, and I stayed in Korea, moving over to Campus Foreign Language Institute in Gangnam (we spelled it "Kangnam" back then). That proved to be a bust for me: I quit that school after four months of bullshit. I then worked a couple months for SsangYong Paper Company in Yeouido; it was a cushy corporate job, but rather mind-numbing, and the 7AM start time for my early-morning English classes meant waking up at 5AM every day to beat the traffic. That got old fast. Mike, meanwhile, found love. By October of 1995, while my suit against my first boss was in progress, Mike met the woman he would spend the rest of his life with, all thanks to a mutual acquaintance—someone Mike knew from university, but whom I knew from church. The Korean tour guide at Changdeok Palace had been long forgotten, and it was wedding bells for Mike the following year. I was his best man.

That period of my life saw me losing direction. I hadn't had the best time working in Korea, mainly because I'd made the classic mistake of sticking with hagweons. Mike landed temp work that became semipermanent, and I stayed in the States and landed temp work, too. My temp work eventually turned into a longer-term gig with a company called APIC, and I stayed there right up until the time I started graduate school in 1999. Grad school, and moving out of my parents' house, was prompted by a big fight I'd had with my mother in 1997, the same year my goddaughter, Mike's first child, was born. My goddaughter was born in September; my fight with Mom happened right around Thanksgiving, and that provided the impetus to move out. Mike had relocated to Virginia Beach; my goddaughter was christened at Star of the Sea Catholic Church, just a short stroll away from the ocean.

The years rolled on, and Mike and I lived very different lives. He and his wife had another daughter, followed by another son. They relocated to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where they still live today. I finished graduate school in 2002 and decided to give Korea another try. I freelanced to earn a little money while I took an intensive, Level 4 Korean course at Korea University, whose clean, no-nonsense campus I loved. Mike, meanwhile, began working for his brother-in-law. He now had several mouths to feed and a large suburban house to care for (not to mention a dog), so he was constantly busy, as was his wife, who is an elementary-school teacher in Stafford County, Virginia.

On July 4, 2003, I started blogging. My friends and I were having intense email exchanges about the Gulf War, which was in progress at the time. I was the lone voice against the war; my friends, by contrast, were very gung-ho. I took the long view, and none of what's happened since—to Iraq, to our troops, and to our economy—has been much of a surprise.

In 2004, I stupidly bit the bullet and signed on with another hagweon, English Channel. That gig lasted seven months before I started going nuts. I jumped ship to what was to be one of the very best periods in my working life: Sookmyung Women's University. English Channel's grueling hagweon schedule had us proles all working split shifts, averaging 44 hours a week (we worked 8-hour Saturdays every other week). As for vacation—ha! What vacation? We had national holidays; I don't recall having much of an extended break while working there; maybe we had time off for Chuseok or something (it's all on the blog, so I can go back and check what 2004-05 was like). Coming to Sookmyung was like entering a new world: we had two whole months of vacation every year: July and December. Our teaching schedule was 18 hours a week, which didn't include prep, but prep was a damn pleasure. My students were generally great; I had stellar evals every semester; life was good. I could even afford a trip to Europe, which I did in December of 2007. I lived in a campus studio that was roomier than anything I'd had in the past; I had no complaints, and I stayed with Sookmyung for three full years.

Mike's life, during this time, was fairly stable, at least in terms of work: he was still with his brother-in-law (as he is to this day), and his kids kept growing and growing. My goddaughter is now just about to shove off to college; she's chosen to attend an in-state school, where she wants to pursue a science-related career. Good for her. She's turned into a very talented young lady, and before we know it, she'll be followed into college by her driven little sister, and finally by her little brother, who's currently in elementary school.

In 2008, I decided to leave Sookmyung—not because I hated it, but because I had hoped to do a walk-across-the-country project before I turned 40 the following year. Call it my midlife crisis. I had saved up quite a lot of money by that time, and because I'd worked at Sookmyung from 2005 to 2008, I had built up a few thousand dollars' pension. I set up a blog, Kevin's Walk, came home to Virginia in 2008, trained by doing 10- and 20-mile walks for a month, then set out for the Pacific Northwest to begin my journey. I covered about 600 miles in three months, which is a snail's pace. I also ended up injuring my knee around Mile 150, and the pain of that injury only got worse over the subsequent 450 miles. I eventually gave up, came back home to Virginia in September of 2008 to recuperate, and had intended to pick up where I'd left off come spring of 2009.

That's when life went to hell. Mom was diagnosed with brain cancer in mid-April; there was no way I could abandon her, so I stayed by her side almost every day for the next nine months. The cancer eventually rode her into the ground, as every doctor had told us it likely would. Throughout all this, Mike would visit as often as he could, and sometimes he'd bring his family. His life, as different as it had been, was woven into mine. Mom died in early January, 2010. Of my circle of friends, I was the first to lose a parent.

It took me a while to get back on my feet. By the time I had gotten a semi-steady job, I was no longer on speaking terms with my father, and I moved out to Front Royal, Virginia, to the foothills of the Shenandoahs, in search of peace and healing. My job with ETS didn't work out because it was too unstable: the work was too infrequent. I then hooked up with YB (not the company's real name), and working there, with kids of all ages, proved to be therapeutic. After two-and-a-half years there, from early 2011 to mid-2013, I had rejoined the human race, and it was time to think about going back to Korea. YB was good work, but it didn't pay enough to cover my debts. University work in Korea, plus some side work, would cover my debts a lot better. Such was my reasoning, anyway, so in August of 2013, I headed back to Korea—to Daegu this time, instead of to Seoul. Mike, meanwhile, kept plugging away with his brother-in-law, living a lively suburban existence with his wife and kids and dog.

So here we are now, twenty years after Mike's visit to Seoul. What different lives we've led, Mike and I. I'm still single and still struggling to make ends meet. Mike's pulling in a comfortable salary that, coupled with his wife's income, allows him to take his kids on trips and to hockey games. I envy Mike sometimes, but I know he's worked hard to get where he is, and I don't begrudge him a single thing. For myself, once I switch over to the Golden Goose this coming August, I'll finally have a taste of what it means to live comfortably—to be able to pay down debts while also having the means to take, oh, the occasional trip to Europe or to the States. I won't be in a free-standing house with a yard—such animals are rare in Seoul—but I'll have room to breathe, both physically and financially. And once my debt is paid down, I'll be able to look out to the horizon and tackle whatever's coming my way next.



John (I'm not a robot) said...

Enjoyed this.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks. I was aghast to see that I had written that my walk had been "60 miles" instead of "600 miles." Yikes. Fixed that.

John said...

When I think back to my time in Korea and I always grateful for the 'adventure' that part of my life gave me. I can still feel the 'adventure' when I read your blog.

Kevin Kim said...

John the Kiwi,

Many thanks. It occurs to me that I met you in '95 as well, so damn... it's been 20 years. (Or was it late '94?) Your life has followed a trajectory more similar to my buddy Mike's than to my own: marriage, family, house, earning the big bucks.

Charles said...

A lot can happen in twenty years. I'm glad that I've been able to spend at least a portion of that time as your friend.

Kevin Kim said...


The feeling is mutual, good sir. A Charlesless life over this past decade would definitely have been less interesting.

The Maximum Leader said...

Well, for what it's worth... College will put a serious strain on finances for me... I haven't saved enough for it. So in retrospect, some of the vacations and sports frivolity seems a little more... Frivolous.. (Actually, the spending was always the serious point of serious discussions between R and me. R wanted to make sure the kids had "memories" of good family times. Her position carried the day...)

And to quote one of our favorite movies (in a line delivered by the late lamented Leonard Nimoy), I am and always shall be your friend. Thanks for the many years of friendship.

(And I need to figure out how to get to see you out in Korea...)

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, Mike.