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.



I arrived on Jeju Island on a cloudy night. I’d been traveling for hours but adrenaline kept me high. At the airport I was greeted by two Koreans. Koka and Jong-Hwa. Sister and brother. They owned the school together. Koka was the director of teaching. She organized what would be taught in each class, the tests and student placement in classes depending on their capabilities at English. Jong-Hwa was the business aspect of the company. I didn’t talk with him much in the first weeks of being in Korea so didn’t get to know him well.

They deposited me at my new apartment that they paid for. It was just a flat. One room, a small bathroom (though it had a bathtub which I found out later was a luxury) and a small kitchenette. Instead of a heater or vents like we have the States most homes have heated floors and it was no different in my apartment. If turned on high the Formica linoleum could get downright hot. Everything in that apartment was different shades of beige.

The first couple days and nights I had there were terribly restless. Getting over that much jet lag and that time change was very difficult. I had arrived a week before I would need to start teaching, so it wasn’t a big problem, just uncomfortable. I bought food at the local market, but couldn’t quite figure out what to eat yet. There were a lot of things I didn’t recognize and so didn’t buy. I wasn’t in the habit of eating much meat so stuck with rice and vegetables. Kimchi turned into one of my main snacks. It took my stomach about a week to get use to the food there, but I never got sick or anything like that.

Between naps and walking adventures I spoke with family and friends letting them all know I was alright, had made it and was settling in.

Five days in I went into work just to take a look at classes and meet some of the students and my fellow teachers. Koka and I looked over test scores of different students and talked about what they needed help with. Now I had never taught a class by myself and so I was terrified.

The next day I went into work again and Koka and I were talking when the phone rang. Koka was called into the office and then I saw Jong-Hwa gathering his things like The Flash and he was gone. Koka came back with a set jaw and pale. She informed me her father had just tried to commit suicide. She seemed more upset with him than concerned. She said this is something he had done many times before and it was always a cry for help. I had never dealt with anything like this and so was unsure how to react. I couldn’t concentrate on the work at hand knowing this was happening. The school I was a part of was small and I was the only native English speaker there. What had I gotten myself into? Then the phone rang again.