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The Yogwan

by Brad Cran

The guesthouse, or Yogwan, was called The Inn Sung Do and it had an open air kitchen which resembled a back alley, a bathroom that stunk like shit, a shower that I would only use while wearing plastic sandals and a horseshoe of small rooms, the smallest which was nicknamed the coffin and the largest which was a few times the size and nicknamed the Gas Chamber on account of a gas leak that often filled the room with propane. The Yogwan was a home for illegal English teachers and jewellery sellers who sold bags of junk jewellery from India and Thailand at a thousand percent mark up in the streets and subways of Seoul. Most of the English teachers were backpackers looking to make enough money to keep themselves in Asia. The jewellery sellers were mostly Peruvian and the occasional westerner who got tired of teaching English.

In my first week I landed a university teaching job through an American who also lived in the Yogwan. He claimed to have bad luck and was paranoid that he would be arrested and deported for teaching English without a work visa so he always carried an umbrella and swore that if he was ever confronted by an immigration officer he'd poke him in the face and make a break for it. Random deportations were a genuine concern. It meant that if you felt like you were being followed you would duck down back alleys until the coast was clear. It meant on teacher’s day you had to graciously accept bundles of roses from your students and then throw them in the garbage as soon as you got around the corner. It meant you wore running shoes to work. It meant you never used your real name.

My name was Brad Krahn. The American called himself Curtis Mayfield. Bobby Ore and Gord Downie also taught out of the Yogwan and I heard stories about a Terry Fox who had been deported a few months before I arrived. I started dating a girl named Emily whose last name was Smith which she changed to Smithe because that was her ex-boyfriend's last name and she hadn't gotten over him.

Illegally teaching in Seoul felt more akin to dealing hard drugs than being part of the education system. Most of the job interviews I had took place in subway stations or the street. Once I was hired in the elevator on the way up to a giant multinational investment company. I thought I was there for an interview but when I got in the elevator my agent asked me to take out my earring and he handed me the day’s lesson plan and a fake resume which he told me to memorize by the time the elevator doors opened. I had been educated at Yale.

On paydays I met my agents in the street and received a bundle of cash. Korea’s largest piece of currency was the ten thousand won note which at the time equalled about $10 US dollars. So on Paydays I’d have as much as two thousand dollars in $10 notes that I then took to an illegal currency exchange that was disguised as a lingerie shop. Once I had American currency it was okay to take it to the bank and have it changed into travelers cheques without the teller stamping the transaction in my passport which would surely result in heavy interrogation when I was trying to leave the country with my illegally earned savings.

The teaching itself I hated. I was a bad teacher at first and for perhaps a week or so I taught a few good classes but once I learned how to teach I lost interest and was again a bad teacher. The formula for renegade English teaching in Korea was this. The first day of class is always a freebie. You introduce yourself and have the students do the same. Correct them any time they say anything wrong. After that you can use the local English newspaper to prepare your classes on the subway while traveling to class. If you are ever ill-prepared discuss Japanese-Korean relations. Koreans both hate and love the Japanese. In many ways they idolize Japan but they hate the Japanese for being economically superior, invading their country and afterwards taking a large number of Korean women back to Japan to be comfort women.

I was arrested once while in Korea. I had just got home from teaching and my girl friend Emily Smithe was all shook up. Apparently a group of Peruvians had robbed a bank and the police had raided the Yogwan. Emily had been interrogated by a policeman who insisted she was an illegal English teacher and further insisted that she would not be deported if she gave him “suckee, suckee.” And then she described how he stuck his tongue out at her and had pasty saliva in the corners of his mouth.

She was shook up so I made fun of her and did my suckee suckee policeman imitation. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door and when I answered there he was wanting Emily Smithe. He was pissed drunk and told me to leave. When I wouldn’t he pulled out his little inspectors pad and asked for my name. I spelled it for him. K-R-A-H-N. Then he told me Emily was under arrest and that she was going with him. I told him she wasn’t going anywhere and that we were going to phone our embassy. He said I was under arrest too and that we were to both follow him. Again we refused and he pulled out his badge and insisted that we follow him. So we did.

We walked out of the Yogwan and down the alley. When I asked him where we were going he said the Hoff, which is a sort of plastic starter kit version of a German Hoff, and also one of the most common styles of drinking establishments in Seoul. He ordered a jug of beer and I ordered a bottle of soju which is the Korean national drink, and tastes like weak vodka. A Korean man’s manhood is often judged by the amount of soju he can drink. Passing out is not only publicly acceptable, but also a sign of manhood. So I poured us a couple stiff ones and shot mine back. He was already pissed and refused to drink it so I told him we were leaving. He said I could leave but Emily was staying, then he wiggled his tongue at her.

I went to the pay phone and called the Canadian Embassy. When no one answered I returned to the table. The cop was talking about soccer. Korea had just beaten Japan. The highlights were on TV and he shouted a few things in Korean to which the other people in the bar lifted their glasses. I leaned over and told him that it was too bad that Korea couldn’t have beaten Japan when they were over here invading his country. He jumped up and said he was going to shoot me and his arms flailed across his body as if he was looking for a gun. He shouted at me in Korean then he walked out of the Hoff. We ran back to the Yogwan, packed everything we could carry and moved to the other side of Seoul.

Emily and I kept working for another two months until we had enough money to travel through Southeast Asia for a few months. We bought a couple tickets to Bangkok, worked right up to the last day then changed our money and rushed to the airport. Everything seemed fine when we cleared immigration. We went through separately just in case there was a problem. We both made it through okay. We waited at the gate and I got up to go to the washroom. When I got back three men in suits surrounded Emily. She said to me “here’s your luggage, sir.” I thanked her for watching my bag, sat down and pretended to read a magazine. I could feel the immigration officers scrutinizing me but I just looked up and smiled. Then they took her away. I boarded the plane hoping she’d be able to talk her way on to the flight but she didn’t and as the plane took off the only empty seat was beside me. So I pulled up the armrest and sprawled across both seats.

Brad Cran is not too late. At all.

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