The teacher takes Yanling to the front of the class and for practice, asks if we have any questions, so James asks, “뭐살이에요?” and everyone in class titters. She paws the ground with her foot and says it is a secret, but after further questioning, James finds out that she’s been working for 10 years. The next morning, he asks his other Taiwanese classmate how old this makes her, and with further computation, he finds out that she is 33. James is also 33. The number is compelling. To James, it allowed him to entertain numerous fantasies about her, starting with her blue Addidas leggings, her thick and long wavy hair, and, as if God wanted to moderate her, she had black teeth.
James had silently noted the black deposits between her teeth and confided this to a friend over coffee, who chided his Asian obssession on appearances.
“What is it about Asians? I’ve had comments on my eyebrows, especially my right one, and how it looks particularly good.”
However, James could not get over it, he thought about how derelict her dentist must be, and whether the dubious food in Taiwan had a part to play in this.
According to Samantha: “She does look homely – she would be perfect as a housewife. You go back home and she’s got everything laid out for you and she says ‘Dinner’s ready!'”
All of us agreed to that, and when the question of the prettiest girl in class is thrown up, James says it probably is Liz.
He says, “Well, I don’t see too many Americans around, so, you know, I think they look better.”
“Well, that I see all the time, I actually think it’s the Chinese girl you know.”
“What, the one with the fat face?”
“No, the one fat face is always with. They’re always together.”
“Oh, Yanling you mean.”
James looked around just in time to see her squeezing some lotion out of a tube onto her finger and applying it over her lips while checking herself with a small mirror. James found it to be so sensual and private he wondered if he should look away.
Black teeth and domesticity notwithstanding, she was walking right in front of James on a Friday afternoon after class, so being polite, James hurriedly caught up with her to say hello and ask her where she was going. She said yesterday she had had a sudden craving for fried oyster omelette and so had gone to Itaewon to look for some (there were none), and defeated, she went to the basement at Hyundai to get bubble tea at Gong Cha. After that, a creepy old man started following her and she took the longest time to shake him off, but today, she didn’t really have anything in mind, unless, of course, he wanted to follow her.
James laughed and suggested tea, which was about the only thing they could have done, because Yanling was vegan, allergic to garlic, and did not have a phone. She agreed, and together, they walked along the dirty road, James trying his best to listen to her over the rumble of traffic. She was awfully quiet so James had to do most of the talking, but he did this without any resentment.
“What do you do on weekends?”, she asked.
“Well, I just study.”
“Dont you have any friends?”
“Yeah, sure I do,” James said. “I have lunch with my friends sometimes from last semester … Why am I even justifying myself to you?”
“Do you cry yourself to sleep?”
“Yeah, I go through a box of kleenex a day. I really should stop, it’s depleting my bank account.”
James stretched out his arms irritably and changed the subject. When he talked about how the last semester seemed to be so much more fun, she told him how everyone in class had turned against her and how she had turned purple from head to toe and all the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. He talked about the truism that school is much funner than working, and to that, she said that as a child, she did not have many friends and her family lived on handouts. Discouraged, James talked instead about how he wanted to look like Jesus Christ and have the long hair and goatee.
He said, “I havent been studying much lately though, I just lost all my motivation.”
She reached out and rested her fingers on his forearm. “That’s because you don’t have a social life.”
James sensed that a door had opened. Later, in his idle moments, he would imagine scenes of shared domesticity – they had a son together, always a son, never a daughter, who would bear his likeness. He would love his child and give him space to be whatever he wanted to be. His child would love him back and when grown up, would say his father was heartless and never made a strong impression.
At that moment, the weight of his collective hopes bore down on him and he could only flinch and talk about some inconsequential thing.
After tea, Yanling left abruptly at the pedestrian crossing while James walked the other way thinking about things to say and assuming she was behind him. Such missteps are only to be expected so James thought better of it and went home. Fearing that he had expected too much, he tried to push images of shared domesticity and conjugal happiness out of his mind, but it was hard to evict Yanling from the darkness of his small room when her nakedness made even her black teeth look inviting.
The next day in class when Yanling sat again at her usual spot in class, James said, “Have you considered emigrating to another table?”
“He’s telling me that I should move”
“No no no, I didnt meant that,” James smiled, “I was just kidding, I mean, Liz, help me out here…”
Later, during the coffee break when Yanling was munching on peking duck flavoured Peppero sticks, James asked her, “We’re good right?”
In reply, Yanling offered James a stick. To demonstrate that all was forgiven, James pouted and refused, to which Yanling kicked his shin and admonished him for ungentlemanly behaviour. He laughed and grabbed at her box, spilling its contents on the floor.
James bumped into her again one day after school at exit 8.
“What are you doing here?”, he asked.
“I vaguely discussed meeting with Lynn at exit 8. but I wasn’t sure, so I came just to make sure. What were you doing?”
“Ah, the same things, studying in school… Actually, you know, I don’t feel like coming down for class anymore”, James said. He imagined kissing her.
“Then don’t come then.” Yanling smiled and looked at him.
“Yeah, right. Alright, then, I’ll see you around.” James left and wondered how he could have let her long wavy hair make him overlook her teeth.
The next day, he felt Yanling’s persistent gaze on himself but he ignored it. At the end of class, he gave in and Yanling looked back at him brazenly, daring him to say something. James walked in front of Liz, removing her from view, and loudly invited Liz to lunch together.
James thought that it was nice being a student again in a foreign country. He imagined week-long love affairs, being caught in a triangle between a heavily-made up Japanese teenager and an ex-Chanel saleswoman, and his possibilites in life suddenly expanded beyond functional specifications, business needs and project deliverables.
James was in a pub with some friends, and his classmate told him how much she and her boyfriend loved chinese movies. She then turned to Jean and spoke in french, which left James with nothing to do but to finish his cigarette, the complimentary nuts on the table, his drink, and finally, he looked forlornly between his friends and the empty space between them, beginning to wonder about his walk back home and that especially slippery stretch before his goshiwon where the snow had frozen over on the pavement. His friend laid an arm around him to explain what they were joking about. “No, in France, my car (I have a car) is really small, and we were just saying how in Korea, it is so expensive!” To allay his distress, James agreed to another round of gin, and stole a cigarette. This banished all thought of returing home and he talked instead about Hooker Hill. “How do you get there from the station?”, he asked, “I hear they’re dressed in lingerie.”
“Listen, I have a secret I’ve told Liz but I havent told you yet,” Jason said, “The korean girl I’m with, she’s not divorced yet.”
James laughed. “What?!,” he thought for a moment and said, “Well, I’m sure you can talk your way out of it with your rudimentary Korean if the husband arrives. 웬일이세요?!?! 불고기 1인분 주세요.”
Another day in class, and Yanling today was dressed in her customary green sweater that reminded James of a Tonberry especially when she hunched. But spring had come and because of the warm weather, she took off her sweater and James noticed the black t shirt underneath. James could not stop himself from looking at her long hair that flowed over her chest, the hair that Yanling had said a store employee had followed her around for before finally asking if she could touch it, and she let her.
Yanling rekindled an interest in Chinese in James. James found that being in a foreign country always inspired a kind of zealousness in his mother tongue. When he tried to buy his coffee at the vending machine, he noted ruefully that he didn’t have the word for it and a host of other everyday objects. But to remedy this, he began to journal in chinese. One of his belated discoveries was that the word for oral sex is 口交. While James was noting this in his journal, Jason catches “oral sex” amid a sea of chinese characters and raises an eyebrow at James, who merely shakes his head.
These were all clumsy efforts at improving his Chinese, so when James took out his laptop, it was with hesitation before he understood what Yanling was saying, which in fact was: “Are you going through your secret porn stash?”
James replied, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…”
“I don’t have one, it’s all in my head.”, she said, pointing.
The class had an excursion to watch a play. James met up with the class milling outside Dongkuk Palace and saw Yanling hunched, standing, beside the 2 japanese girls. James went up brightly and joked with a chinese classmate. Finally, he asked Jason, “what’s happening after the play?”
“Well, we might check out the palace.”
“Yes, you’re coming with me,” Yanling tugged at James’s sleeve. “Yup, we should.” James said.
They walked inside the palace just in time for the changing of the guard. Three costumed men in fake luxuriant beards walked towards the gate as the crowd parted around them. James had walked past the palace earlier and seen a glimpse of the cherry blossoms lining the road, petals falling amidst the breeze. In this picturesque scene, he imagined telling Yanling that he would be leaving. She would hold him and beg him to stay while he would have to refuse firmly but kindly because of a vague but pressing reason. He liked the sound of that.
In Dongkuk Palace, James found a pedestal to sit on, and when Yanling came out of the toilet, he patted beside himself and told her to come on up.
“I don’t know if I can,” but she hoisted herself up, and they sat together swinging their legs looking at the toilet in front of them. James decided against telling her then that he was leaving. He took her hand, pulled down the hood of her hoodie, squinted, and traced the lines on her palm. “This is your fate line, and it tells me that you had a traumatic incident when you were growing up, but you can be thankful for it because it made you who you are today.” She laughed it off, “You’re just making it all up.”
Before James could continue, a man came over and told them to get off. They walked further along, and James finally said, “Well, actually, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
James and Yanling walked about in the palace a while longer, they looked at the throne room which was boarded up, and took more pictures. They then left to walk along Cheonggyecheon stream, and he kept silent as he thought about how he’d be in transit in Kuala Lumpur Airport the next day and be sweating on the tarmac as he made the walk from the airplane to the budget terminal.
“Haven’t you seen Gyungbeokdung? I think it’s at the end of this stream.”, Yanling said, so they walked alongside, and Yanling told James about her life. She had been working for 8 years, and she talked about the different jobs she’d had.
“I couldn’t hold a job for long, they always said I had a personality problem. There was one time I was hired and fired on the same day. They said that we don’t think your personality is a good fit for us.” She added with extra bitterness, “It seems I get fired a lot.”
They continued walking, and James looked at his watch.
“I’ll let you go if you don’t want to go to Gyungbeokdung”, she said.
“I really have to print my boarding pass.”
“I don’t believe it. You can’t be leaving.” Yanling said.
James showed her his ticket.
“Just because you bought it doesn’t mean you’ll leave. I can’t believe you’d do it without saying goodbye properly.”
In the train, as it ticked away to Sinchon, they both stood in silence as the stations announced themselves. James looked at her and made to say something but stopped and found nothing to say. Yanling squeezed James’s shoulder.
“I guess I’ll see you around.”, James said.
“Really, that’s it?”
James gave her a half hug, walked out and didn’t look back.
In the airport, James left his peacoat in the toilet stall, this final act preceded the day before by the green checked lumberjack shirt he left in the recycle bin (for plastic and paper) in his goshiwon. Before that, he left his textbooks and papers in the lounge on the ninth floor beside the vending machine.
At the departure hall, James walked both ends because he was becoming sentimental. There were smoking lounges in which men were smoking, and he was tempted to try going in to bum a cigarette, but thought better. He went to his departure gate and asked for a coffee, “Americano 주세요.”
“Three-thousand five-hundred.”, the cashier replied stiffly in english.
James persisted with, “감사함니다.”
As James stood on the gangway, he allowed himself to cry quietly but here was essentially a woman with nice hair and black teeth that he had never slept with. He thought it probable that he wanted too much to commemorate this last day with sentimentality. He looked out a porthole and composed himself as he stepped onto the plane and showed the stewardess his ticket.
Yanling emailed James, and ended her email with 2 x’s. She says she will come visit. That she didn’t even have enough time to say goodbye properly and would have cried all over him. She x’s her email, and asks if James will miss her. James replied yes, but couldn’t find it in himself to x his replies. Although he had imagined kissing her and marrying her and having children with her and many maudlin things, without her presence, the emails would stop and that would be the end of it.
James had a picture of Yanling bending over her okonomiyaki and another one of her all dark and underexposed beside a cafe window. It was there she had pawed the air in front of her and exclaimed, “Imma a cat!”, and gone limp in her chair. James remembered how he had laughed and wanted to tickle her tummy. He also had the last picture they had together with the palace in the background. The one constant in these pictures was that she looked good in all of them because James had thrown out all the pictures of her with thinning limp hair or looking unnaturally fat, and had kept all the good ones to send to her.