John Lennon wrote, “Instant Karma.” But, what did he know? He was just a self-indulgent rock star. And, what did I know? I was just a self-indulgent, newly turned 30 year old, on my way to a booze up in the industrial city of Seongnam, South Korea.
I was headed to factory town on the edge of the city. To a plastic factory, where I was going to meet my “student.” Seongnam was a relatively new town. Once a newly created ghetto where a former president moved all the poor people in Seoul, so the darlings who attended the 1988 Olympics couldn’t see them. But, Seongnam had changed much in the 10 or so years since.
The dictionary defines karma as: (In Buddhism and Hinduism), the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. Informally: destiny or fate, following as effect from cause.
My student was the manager of the factory, son of the owner. As the eldest son, his whole life had been molded to do as his father had wanted. I was his escape; I was his cover; I was a window of liberation, as I was for all my students, just in different ways. For my student, to go out drinking and partying was a no – no. But, practicing English and taking out his English teacher was a-oh-kay. And, I was all-in for the expected, well-practiced debauchery.
It was a circuitous journey. First I had to walk to the main street in the town I lived, Anyang. It was about a 15 minute walk. Then, I had to buy an intercity bus ticket, followed by waiting for a bus that you never were sure when would arrive. Then, there was the long bus ride to Seongnam, on the other side of Seoul. This was followed by the wait for a local bus, and take it to the factory. Then, after hanging out at the factory, my student would drive us somewhere for the night’s festivities. If I wanted my debauchery, I would have to be patient.
I had taken the first few legs of my route, by completing the intercity bus route from Anyang to Seongnam, and now I was waiting by the bus stop for the local bus, which would take me near the plastic factory. I had slept on the bus ride over and I was still a little groggy. Anyway, I am sure the rest would help harden my body for the damage I had planned to do to it that evening.
And then, an elderly woman walked up to me and handed me the rough equivalent of $20. I was stunned looking down at the two green Korean bills in my hand. I looked up at her warn yet warm, friendly face and I handed the money right back to her. She shook her head and handed the money back to me and pointed toward my legs, at my jeans, at the holes in my jeans.
I was wearing ripped jeans. I had waited a long time, my whole teenage years, for a cultural fashion that fit me. I was no prep. And, I wasn’t a goth. I wasn’t really a burn-out, though I was sympathetic. I really didn’t fit in at all – until grunge. It was like looking in the mirror. Plaid shirt. Check. T-shirt. Check. Long, scruffy hair. Check. Ripped jeans. Certainly, not bought in the store, but well earned, by use and misuse. Check.
And, here I was in Seongnam, South Korea, on the edge of factory town, waiting for a bus, so I could meet my student for some debauchery, when my fashion sense earned me nearly twenty whole dollars! Easiest money I had every earned, right? No way! I gave that money right back to her.
Her motions quickened. She firmly, and quite strongly put the money back into my hand. Her face turned from indignant to righteous before my eyes.
But, I was not having it. Her purse was unzipped and I put that money right back into her purse.
Her eyes tried to burn holes into me. With one motion, she scooped those two green Korean bills in her hand, put them in mine. Clasped her hands around my hands, to hold them in, and jumped on a bus that had just pulled into the stop.
My first thought was Korean grandmothers can move quickly when they want to, like when a seat opens up on the subway.
My next thought, of course, was what to do with those two bills in my hand? She had left me holding the money.
I decided if she really wanted her money to go to charity, I would have to do it for her.
You see, (I know you don’t, but you will) this guy had shown up at the private tutoring academy I had been working for in Seongnam. This guy’s mother was Korean. His father was American, or so he told me, standing out a window in my apartment in the hallway that my boss had provided for me and my coworker. He said that his mother had fallen in love with his father, who was a U.S. soldier stationed in South Korea. They had married. After, his father’s enlistment had been long enough to earn a pension, the two of them left South Korea for Alaska, where he had been born, making him an American citizen.
He told me that is when his father had changed. He had stopped doing things. He just watched TV all day, every day. His eyes never left it. Maybe, now that he had left the army, he didn’t know how to behave, or what to do with his life. It was just him and the TV now. He stopped talking to his mom. He never talked to him. He was there; he paid the bills; but he never raised him.
So, this guy decided to go to Korea to discover his roots – his mom’s roots, because it seemed his dad’s roots had not lead him anywhere. And, he had found himself at the tutoring academy I had previously worked for. He asked for and my boss had given him a “job.” He was hired as a teacher like I was but his situation was different, because, as he said, he was a Korean-American.
My co-worker, Canadian, and myself, American, were paid a salary, guaranteed every month. We had received an airline ticket over and would be provided with one home at the end of our contract. We were provided with housing, furniture, a TV, all sorts of utensils and cookware.
The Korean-American co-worker was given none of that.
He was told that he could have a percentage from the students he brought in. And, when he told our boss that he had no money for housing, our boss took him to the church down the road.
One of the good works of this church is that it housed and fed foreign workers that had no place to go. Korea’s factories, at least these small and medium sized factories, like the plastic factory I was going to, were fed on foreign workers. Koreans sometimes called them 3-D workers, because they did the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs that Koreans didn’t want to do. And I guess, at times, they needed places to stay, and food to eat. I knew they were not always paid what they were promised. I could relate; me too. I had not always been paid what I had been promised and had worked for at the job I had before this one. But, at least I had a roof over my head, food in my belly, and an appointment for debauchery.
My Korean-American co-worker told me through the window into the hallway where he stood that he envied me. That I was more accepted into Korean society than he was. That I had been provided with housing and he had been shown to a flop house in the basement of a church.
And, that is how I knew about that church.
He had mentioned it to me.
And, now an old woman at a bus stop had changed the direction of my karma.
My circuitous route to debauchery would have to wait a little longer. I had a church to look for. It wasn’t like I’d probably have to wait for my student to finish work, anyways. Though, admittedly, I did enjoy talking to the cute secretary that had a bit of a shining toward me while I waited. She, herself, a fully-grown orphan, with surprisingly good English, and a job answering phones, at a plastic factory in the factory town part of Seongnam.
I had never been to the Church before but I knew the general direction. One foot in front of the other, I began my walk.
Once, I arrived, I wasn’t really sure what to do. I just opened the door and walked in. It was kind of dark. I was not sure if the lights had been turned on – just light streaming through the stained glass windows. Soon, I was met face to face with a priest. He smiled and asked me in English what I was doing there. I wondered if he wondered if I was looking for a bed.
I told him: I wanted to donate some money.
He asked, “How much?”
That is when I got embarrassed. How much? Was the rough estimate of $20 all that much?
I showed him the two green Korean bills.
That made me feel better.
He took the money I had tried so hard to give back to the kind, elderly woman.
We walked into another room where he put the money in a transparent glass jar stuffed full of other money – all the colors mixing together in a rounded jar collage.
He then asked me, “Do you want to see something?”
I didn’t really know what to do. I said, “Ok.”
He took me to a stairwell. We went downstairs. Then, down a hall, we arrived at a door.
And, I thought I was going out drinking. Why was I in the basement of a church with a priest I had never met before, leading me to a strange door in the dark. Thoughts of Edgar Allen Poe filled my head.
I watched the priest as he opened the door. He pulled down on the string and a low watt bulb burned white-yellowishly-brown. It was not much light but it illuminated the room well enough to see that its three walls where lined with shelves with jars on them.
The priest started talking: Foreign workers come to Korea to work. They work in the factories. Sometimes, there are accidents. Maybe, they lose a finger or a hand. Sometimes they eve lose their lives. But, some don’t have any money, or their family doesn’t have any money to get the body home. Sometimes, we don’t know where home is. So, we cremate the body and put the ashes in a jar and we leave it on one of these shelves until we have enough money to get it home.
I just nodded.
He looked at me.
I wondered if he hoped I’d give more money.
I just said, “Thanks for showing me this.”
He nodded again.
Back into the bright light that shone on the street outside the church, I decided to take a taxi to the plastic factory since I was now late.
Instant karma. What did self-indulgent rock stars know? What did I know? I was going to drink until my student could barely stand and need to stagger home. I probably staggered home as well.
But, my jeans, the one’s with the holes in them, had earned instant karma. They had become “Holy.” They had earned a dead man’s ashes a ride home to their family.
As Jack Kerouac said, “This really happened.”
A.E. Pole is a writer who had lived in South Korea for a rough estimate of 20 years. His upcoming debut novel “You Can’t Get Jack Out of This (The Story of Language Whore)” is a fictional story loosely based on his experiences and travels as an English teacher in Asia and his life growing up in the U.S. This short essay is non-fiction unlike his novel, but if you like this sort of thing, please check out “You Can’t Get Jack Out of This (The Story of Language Whore),” available this summer on Amazon. Also, feel free to comment and communicate with the author here on this blog or on facebook. Feel free to ask questions and start a dialog.