“I don’t know. My brothers are always failures,” said Koka. “They don’t know how to make money so they are always going to my father and asking for money.”

That didn’t sound good, as I was now working for one of her brothers.

“And my brother’s wife hates my father and called him and told him to die. She said, ‘die, old man, die.’ So it is their fault.”

I asked how she knew this. How could she know what transpired before her father’s death. She gave me a look a little like a young child being discovered in  lie. It was small a frail and could have been broken with a breath.

Then she said, “My mom told me,” as if she’d figured out a way out of my trap.

I couldn’t tell Koka what I really thought. I couldn’t tell her that I thought she was so wrapped up in her own guilt that she was throwing it out to everyone else. She was placing it anywhere she could because she knew her father, her family disapproved of her sexuality. Of course that was just another part of this tragedy.

Some weeks later the block of school was over and we were giving tests to the students. I was responsible for conducting the conversational aspect of the test. I looked up an interesting picture and showed each student the picture and asked them questions about it. At the end of each conversation I’d ask, “What will you do after this?” I wondered how they would take such an ambiguous question. “After this,” could mean after this conversation, after school, or after they aren’t studying English anymore.

One student told me, “I will go to different Hogwan (academy) because Koka call my mother and say Jong-Hwa and you can not teach me English.”

English Academy

It took me a moment to figure out what that meant. But later that night I understood what was happening. Koka had left the school, Jong-Hwa was a businessman, but not a teacher, and Esther wasn’t even that accomplished at English. I couldn’t carry the school on my own. Especially if Koka was calling parents of the kids and telling them not to send their children to our school.

Then Koka would call me in the evening and ask me how the school was doing.

“Not so good,” I told her. “A lot of kids are leaving for other schools.”

“Yes, I know it,” she said, but how she knew she didn’t reveal.

I realized I was in something of family feud and it wasn’t anything like the game show. Koka was actively sabotaging the school I was working at and so now putting my work visa at jeopardy. Without the job I couldn’t stay in South Korea. Despite these acts I didn’t hold it against her. She was so wracked with pain and guilt she was acting out of rage toward the world and we continued to talk and I continued to stay on her good side, as I didn’t want her as an enemy.




Koka is a lesbian in a country that doesn’t recognize homosexuality.

South Korea, when I was there, was going through a bit of a 50s era. All commercials feature a husband and wife and one or two kids, a white picket fence, and a dog. There is a lot of emphasis on being “Normal.” Telling someone they are weird is something the kids I was teaching didn’t like. They would call me weird on a regular basis because I had long hair and would dance around to make them laugh.

So, being homosexual is something most Koreans just ignore. Or they might even believe it doesn’t actually exist, I’m not sure. But of course Koka couldn’t ignore it because you don’t choose the hand you’re dealt. She is gay and that’s all there was too it.

Sitting on my heated floor and swaying slightly this way and that from all the beer we drank Koka told me this:

“You know plastic surgery is very popular here. My family is very rich. So rich. You wouldn’t believe it. When I was young my brothers and father wanted me to get plastic surgery because I’m not pretty. They wanted to change me face. I was like, I don’t want to change my face. This is my face. My mother was afraid I wouldn’t meet a man and get married. I was never interested in men. Ever. I wanted to keep my face.

“One morning I woke up and was tied up. I was 16 I think and my brothers and father had tied me up and carried me to the van and were taking me to the plastic surgeons so he would change my face. On the car ride there, they hadn’t tied the ropes very well, I broke free and at a stop I ran out of the car and ran away. My father gave all of us credit cards so before he could cancel it I checked into hotel and books 3 days and paid in advance.

“I called him from there. They had gone back home and after three days living in that hotel I went back home because they promised never to make me change my face. I mean, you know? It’s my face.”

I told her that was one of the craziest stories I’d ever heard. She agreed. it was a crazy story.

“But you know what?”

“What?” I asked.

“Now that he’s gone I realize how much he loved me.”

Inside I cringed. This wasn’t my problem. There was obviously some serious guilt inside of Koka. Why I wasn’t sure. Because she hadn’t been the daughter her father had wanted?

“It wasn’t your fault,” I told her.

“I know that,” she said. “I think it was my brothers fault.”

Those who feel guilt are commonly the ones to place blame elsewhere. This was turning sour in a hurry and I didn’t know what to do.

“I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault,” I said, not wanting to blame her father, as it was, in the end, his decision, but I didn’t think Koka could hear criticism of her father at that moment.



Koka entered the room in tears. Her face was balled up like a piece of discarded scratch paper. It seemed that this suicide attempt wasn’t something to brush off. She left for the hospital and I was left with Esther one of the Korean teachers there, but neither of us could do much without Koka.

The next day was my first day teaching and it went alright. I was pushed into the class with a plan of sorts, but with no real idea what level the students I was teacher were at. Most of it was just testing waters. Joking with students, answering their questions about where I came from and that sort of thing.

It turned out that Jong-Hwa and Koka’s father succeeded in his suicide attempt. Whyever he decided to do this thing was only known to him. In the weeks to come Koka came back to school but only for a couple days, then disappeared again. I was feeling a little abandoned, as she was suppose to be the one helping me make this transition. Instead she was nowhere to be seen.

One night, probably 3 weeks after I’d started teaching, Koka called me. It was winter so the night was thick, almost viscous and the wind howled somewhere in my building and made my door jiggle so it sounded as though someone was about to walk through it at any moment.

“Alex?” said Koka.

“Hi, Koka. How are you doing?” I asked.

“Not so good, you know?” She had spent some years in Australia so her English was nearly perfect, but she still had an accent and would sometimes end sentences with rhetorical questions.

I didn’t really know what to say.

“You know,” said Koka, “I thought we were sorta friends you know? And then my father dies and you don’t even call me.”

I hadn’t really thought she was much of my friend. She was my boss and we’d only had one or two one-on-one conversation before. Also I she hadn’t been coming to work so I had figured she needed her space.

“I thought, maybe, you needed space. That was why you hadn’t been coming to work,” I said.

“I do need space, but I want to be friends you know? Sarah and I were good friends and I was hoping we could be also.”

Sarah had been the foreign teacher at the school before me.

“I like having friends,” I said. That’s cool. I’m sorry I didn’t call. I just didn’t know.”

“It’s okay. Say, is it okay if I come over and bring beer?”

That was, I assured her, fine by me.

She showed up with a smile and a twelver. I had turned on the heat so the floor was toasty and awesome and we sat on cushions and looked at google earth on my computer so I could show her where I lived in the USA. We toasted and drank and drank some more. She brought up her father before I did.

“When I was a kid he was really abusive, you know?”

“Hmmm,” I said, wishing I could have said something more interesting concerning the subject.