She Served Him Tteokbokki

2024 Writing Award Sub-Category
2024 Young Or Golden Writer
Equality Award
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
Tyler, a disenfranchised American expat, is trying to survive his first-year teaching in the Korean Hagwon system. As his self-isolating, culture-shock induced depression gets worse, however, he will need to draw on new resources to manage his deteriorating mental condition.
First 10 Pages

The response formed rapidly and concisely, as if by its own volition, the keys cracking and drumming and slamming. He neither paused to think nor reflected. The words just appeared one after the other, and it was as if in that brief span of some three minutes a powerful momentum that had been building throughout his entire life overtook him. “Sincerely, Tyler,” he wrote, banging the enter key repeatedly so it dropped down into the silent spaces beneath.

He scrolled back up and stared at the paragraphs. It would be easy, he thought. So easy to just click send—tell the old bastard off. But even as his finger hovered over the send button, he recollected himself and checked the Wi-Fi. No connection. Touching the backspace key, hesitant at first then with a growing surety of intention, the response began to vanish, line by line, disappearing against a glowing white screen.

“But at my back I always hear.”

He tossed his laptop onto a pile of laundry and made his way to the kitchenette. The mandu had all but burned, crusts of dark brown appearing as he flipped the dumplings one by one, maneuvering the chopsticks with a practiced technique that somehow endured the continued degradation of his fine motor skills. Burning grease spattered across his knuckles, and he cursed, reaching for the faucet. In so doing, he knocked over a full bottle of soju which spilled into the sink, gurgling across the unwashed dishes. “Clean,” he pronounced them. In spite of himself, he laughed, feeling a sense of relief that his mood had at last reversed. Then he picked up the bottle of soju and drank it to its finish.

Against the windows of his studio apartment, the city of Anyang stood in cold relief. Neon crosses of varying hues—reds and purples and blues—burned in the uniform darkness of the East Asian night. When put into English, the name of this city translated similarly to Hello, but only when used in a familiar context, such as when addressing a close friend.

“Hello to you,” Tyler said, pressing his face against the window.

His breath condensed in greasy clouds. He imagined the South Koreans coming to the windows of their own apartments to lift their blinds, silently, without betraying anything of their presence, holding their breath or perhaps holding plates of mandu themselves. They were there, behind those blinds, somehow he knew, they were there, watching him. With his finger, Tyler traced a sentence against the glass and peeled away.

Damp and dark and dirty. He tried again. Damp and dark, deep and dirty. Words began arranging and rearranging themselves in his mind. Twirling the mug in his hand and twirling it again, he watched the alcohol spiral out into recurring funnels of effervescent amber.

Tyler Teacher, I dropped my pencil. Tyler Teacher, I go to bathroom. Tyler Teacher, Jihu hit me. Tyler Teacher, Teacher, Teacher, THIS.

He drank the concoction down to its last drops and collapsed across his unmade bed. Reaching for his nightstand, he knocked over another bottle. It splashed across his books in progress—Nietzsche’s collected works, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther—all of them irrevocably signified by the stench of Korean liquor. He continued to fumble blindly across the nightstand, knocking into a camera and last week’s ramen, nearly tipping the candle that sat flaming at the ledge. Touching his hand to the moleskin travel journal, he retrieved it and—propping his head against the pillow—clicked open his pen.

Tyler Teacher, speak more slowly. Tyler Teacher, I don’t understand. Tyler Teacher, I’m so cold. Tyler Teacher, Teacher, Teacher, THIS. “I hear them.” He stared out the window at the midnight cityscape. The crosses flickered. His eyes glazed.

I can hear the speech of children,

These were the words he wrote:

In the dirty, dark and damp, deep streets of Korea

Broken

By glittering gateways

Into the neon blaze.

Once, and only once

I asked an English woman why she carried a parasol.

She explained to me

That she simply could not endure the sun’s ardent glances.

He recalled the girl on the subway.

Once, and only once

I asked a Korean woman why she did not carry a parasol.

Understanding my English completely

She bit her lip

And it bled neon.

The market.

One thousand eyes shifting,

A buzzing bombardment of gamma-rays.

Threshold, crossed.

It feels like someone put napalm on my altar.

Burning stone, broken Korean.

Ju-Se-Yo, THIS.

She served me Tteokbokki

Eyes meeting

Broken.

She spoke of me in convalescent Korean

To another vendor, this I gathered

Eyes shifting

Sleepy brown, Korean

Broken

By exhaustion

Change

Too much change,

Won, Korean

Too little dollars

This I gathered,

And paying, left.

Women, forty years my senior

Tteokbokki, steaming

In red-pepper sauce, neon blazed,

Glass coals, glowing

Strangely, absurdly on the altar

Of my irradiated ego.

Working himself out the tangled sheets, he staggered back to his kitchenette and switched off the burner. The cast iron gave off a ticking sound. Tyler stared without comprehension at the dark brown mandu smoking in their individuated pools of vegetable oil. All the lights were still on. So were his dress shoes. He had cut his thumb, and his blood was mingling with the oil splattered across the countertop. He wiped his hand on a towel and without thinking, he spoke:

“I don’t want to be here anymore.”

He said it again, feeling the sentence on his tongue to see whether it was true. Then he crawled back onto his mattress and pulled his knees to his stomach. He could hear the couple in the next room fighting. The man’s voice was a low rumble, the woman’s a living ruin. Tyler used the candle as his still-point, staring at it until the room stopped turning. The voices diminished, and yet the candle remained where it was. There it flared with deathly brilliance, untended and unwitnessed, devouring itself all through the night down to its last bit of charred wick.

He didn’t know why expected the next morning to be any different. Or why he should deserve any special treatment. The sunrise had come and gone, and it brought him no relief.

But surely somebody must know by now.

He sat in the gym of his hagwon, sweating into his argyle sweater-vest. Five classes moved through the hallways of that academy, guided by Korean Teachers. Two groups of seven-year-olds, Daffodil and Tulip Class. Rose and Orchid, the six-year-olds. Then the five-year olds. Tyler was the only English teacher. As such, he would teach straight through the day. Though his watch read 10 a.m., he wished already that he was back in his room.

His stomach churned within him. He flipped through the pages of his journal, passing over lesson plans and school rules, nightmares of dark forests and half-recollected dreams of homecoming, until at last he alighted on the page he had written the night before: Burning stone, broken Korean, Ju-Se-Yo, THIS. New lines arose within him. He pressed his pen to paper.

“Teacher!” said a Korean woman. She walked into the gym with a small train of button-eyed five-year-olds following close behind, and she gasped. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m fine,” Tyler answered.

The woman’s name—or rather the name assigned to her in her English—was Lilly Teacher. The gentle swell of her cheek, the knowing sharpness of her eyes. The way in which she placed her delicate hand on Tyler’s forearm when she spoke to him. All these things made him burn within himself. She was dating a Korean man now, and so in that vast silence that followed, Tyler snapped his journal shut, rose to his feet, and—shunning her entirely—took command of her children.

He set them in ragged lines where they waved their arms and danced about. The six-year-olds filed in behind the fives, all shouts and cheers, “Tyler Teacher! Tyler Teacher!” And then Lilly and the other Korean instructors retreated to take their coffee and begin calls with the hagwon moms. One of the sixes, a pig-tailed little girl named Julia, broke from her line, and ran to Tyler, grabbing his bandaged hand, jumping up and down, yelling:

“Daddy! Daddy! You’re my Daddy!”

“There is no father,” Tyler said, conscious even as he spoke that these were not the words he meant to say. Releasing his hand, Julia grabbed a bottle of water from the mat and pretended to take a swig from it.

“Teacher,” she said. “Soju.”

And she began to stagger about the gym.

Through force of will alone did Tyler endure that gym class with its head-quaking gauntlets of Simon Says, Duck Duck Goose, and Limbo. He turned the three classes back over to their Korean Teachers and rushed through the hallway, broadsided by a bombardment of sunrays, moving fast, inwardly rehearsing for his next cycle of lessons. On the way to the second floor, the hagwon director—variously referred to as gwajang-nim or Chloe Teacher—called him to the front desk. Tyler nodded and veered towards her, his arms loaded with books and markers.

The first day he had met her, she picked him up from his studio apartment, told him he looked handsome like a missionary, then gave him a pan and a spatula. A pan and spatula, as though this were all he needed to survive the Korean education system. She drove him to school the same day, still jetlagged and culture-shocked, hungry from want of familiar food, then made him teach nine classes with no training or instructions on how to fulfill his duties. Since then, the director—this gwajang-nim—had become an endless funnel of parent complaints for Tyler.

“Teacher,” she said.

“Yes, gwajang-nim.

Tyler’s eyes flicked to the cake on the countertop behind her.

“Jihu’s mom called yesterday… are you unhappy?”

He stared at her.

“You know what fun is, don’t you?”

It seemed like an odd follow-up to whatever complaint she was trying to lodge. Tyler glanced at the cake again and wondered if he did, indeed, know what fun was. “I have a class,” he answered, and broke from their conversation. Making his way up the staircase, Lucy Teacher paused to greet him. “Teacher, your eyes!” “I’m fine,” he shot back and pressed past her. On the second door, he threw open the door to his classroom. “Tyler Teacher! Tyler Teacher!” “Who’s sitting nicely!” he called out. “I’m sitting nicely!” they chanted back. Thereupon he began his reading lessons, first to Daffodil, then to Tulip. As he delivered his instructions on how to close read The Big Melon, he periodically stopped midsentence and stared out the window, amazed at what an absolute waste his college education had been. Midway through his lesson, Sun-Young Teacher—the Korean head of staff—knocked on the door and called him to the hallway.

“Tyler Teacher,” Sun-Young said.

She shoved a stack of white notebooks into his hands.

“You forgot.”

But Tyler hadn’t forgotten.

Throughout his first month and a half he had gone out drinking with Sun-Young and the other teachers to blow off steam. Monday nights, Tuesday nights, Wednesday nights, it didn’t matter. Most of the conversations proceeded in Korean with only the occasional sidebar to inform Tyler of what was being said or else to redirect a question at him. Some night the brothers showed up, and the bottles of soju multiplied across the table. Other nights it was just the women. “You’ve never had a girlfriend?” Sun-Young asked him one night. “But Teacher, you must be so horny!” Later when Tyler was making his rather fumbling attempts to stop her from pouring more soju—she had been standing behind him when it happened—she licked her fingers and reached down the front of Tyler’s dress shirt, squeezing his nipple. The exact context of this encounter he could not recall, but since that night he had stopped going out with the Korean Teachers.

She stood before him now, nearly a foot beneath him in height, yet lord and master of his working life. “Forgot what?” he asked her. The journals were stacked in his hands. She was trying to tease him out, humble him into confession. But Tyler had his own pride about him and would not be made into this woman’s plaything.

“I told you in the last meeting, didn’t I?”

He offered no response.

“You need to write messages to the moms every day.”

He knew damn well what he had been told to do. Tyler closed the door and turned round on her. “I teach ten classed every day,” he said, “and I don’t get a lunch break. Tell me, Sun-Young, at what point in my schedule am I meant to write letters to all those housewives?”

Sun-Young pushed up her glasses and her teeth glistened.

“No Teacher!” she snapped. “This is your fault!”

There was a great deal Tyler wished to say to that, but it would have been foolish to continue challenging her authority so directly. None of the Korean Teachers backtalked. She’s not going to lose face in front of a subordinate, Tyler—back down. Nodding his fuming obeisance, he pivoted and returned to the classroom, shutting the door, tossing the pile of notebooks onto the conjoined tables. The students stared up at him, and he understood what they were thinking.

“There’s nothing to worry about.”

He sighed heavily.

“Back to work, my little friends.”

At lunchtime Tyler rushed to the dumbwaiter and threw open the sliding metal doors. A fusillade of sunrays struck him as he walked back down the hallway burdened under his heavy cargo. The smells of various Korean dishes—beansprouts, seaweed, fermented squid, kimchi—swirled into a vaporous stench that poured forth upon him. By the time he had transported everything up to Daffodil, he felt like he was going to throw up. Jennie Teacher was waiting for him, and they went to work, shoulder to shoulder, serving these dishes into the students’ trays.

Rice on right, soup on left…

“Jennie Teacher?”

She looked up through eyes so wide that she looked simultaneously shocked and horrified. Though Tyler had never asked, he was fairly certain this woman had undergone what was called double-eyelid surgery. With her bobbed hair, circular face, and unnaturally large eyes, she might have passed for some beautiful and frightened life-sized doll. The other teachers referred to her as Tyler’s “work-wife,” given that he and Jennie managed the same homeroom. But in truth, she never spoke to him, save when Tyler became confused and so pressed his queries to her.

“Jennie Teacher,” he said. “Rice on right or left?”

“Left,” she said.

“But rice on right sounds better.”

“No, Teacher. It’s Korean way.”

She turned her perpetually horrified gaze away, and Tyler wondered whether she was gifted with shamanism and the room was filled with ghosts. After the metal trays had been divided among the seven-year-olds, the students began their lunch song: “Thank you for the food we eat,” they sang, “it’s a very yummy treat, and the nutrients that help us grow—”

Tyler rubbed his forehead and cut them off.

“Just eat.”

Taking up their starter-chopsticks, the children began to pick over the food, working their way through the saltier portions before moving into the flavorless mounds of white rice. Throughout their meal they chatted and bantered, sometimes in English, sometimes in a language that slipped out of bounds, foundering in a linguistic limbo which was neither Indo-European nor Koreanic. Tyler listened to these exchanges silently. The classes were leveled, and these students were the most intelligent in the kindergarten. As such, Tyler would periodically seek deeper codes of meaning in their exchanges.

“Who wants to see my cholloman, raise your hand,” Jackson said.

JJ raised his hand.

“Let’s see,” Elin said. “I will marry… Alex!”

Alex turned and stared darkly at the wall.

“I want to marry all the boys in the world!” Sophia said.

“You can’t marry all the boys in the world!” June said, smiling and arcing her hands over her head as though forming little rainbows. “You would have one million babies!”

The other girls nodded their heads and chewed their rice thoughtfully.

“I want to marry Tyler Teacher!”

Tyler smiled. Flattering, he thought.

But June shook her head.

“You can’t marry Tyler Teacher, Dorothy! He’s so scary and soooooooooo so so sad!”

Tyler sat up straight.

“What?”

“June!” Jennie Teacher snapped. “Don’t say that—eat your rice!”

Liam turned to Tyler.

“Who will win,” he asked. “A brachiosaurus or a stegosaurus?”

“Iron Man,” Jackson interjected, and the boys nodded.

“Ca-Pu-Ten Am-Meh-Ree-Ka”

“JJ! No Konglish—eat your rice!”

“You’re going back to America, Tyler Teacher?”

Tyler and Jennie looked at Hwan.

Every day at lunch, Hwan sat next to Tyler, needling him with questions about his homelife. Sometimes he asked after the welfare of Tyler’s two dogs or about the amount of snow that fell on his home. At other times he asked about the family Tyler had left behind. Though Hwan was seven years old—six by American standards—Tyler got the uncomfortable sense that this child was trying to psychoanalyze him.

“No,” Tyler said. “I don’t think I should go home, Hwan. It’s like, how do I say this—kind of a rock and a hard place.”

“You live in a rock?” Liam asked.

“Liam!” Jennie Teacher snapped. “Eat your rice!”

Yessir-Chessir-Madagasc—”

“Liam,” Tyler said, and his voice deepened. “Rice.”

Tyler’s teaching day was broken up into two mesocycles, the first being his kindergarten lessons, the second elementary. Between these was a gap in which the kindergartners departed, and the elementary students arrived. 2:20 to 2:40. This was Tyler’s only break on Wednesdays, and as such he checked his watch all but continuously throughout the final kindergarten class of the day, hoping for a bit of rest.

Almost there, Tyler—get it done.

“This is Max,” he said.

“THIS IS MAX,” the students shouted.

Shockwaves trembled through Tyler’s cerebral cortex. He shut his eyes and exhaled. “Inside voices, Orchid. Inside voices…” This was the bottom tier of all the reading classes. Whatever foreign teacher had filled Tyler’s shoes the previous year had neglected to teach these students any form of functional phonics whatsoever. Consequently, they were back at square one with supplementary lessons every Friday at Tyler’s expense.

He was about to repeat the sentence when a pencil dropped on the floor.

“Tyler Teacher, I dropped my—”

“Pick it up.”

Another pencil fell.

It’s like goddamned pencil rain in this motherfucker.

“Tyler—”

“Pick it up.”

He saw Kevin, the class clown, smile and reach for his pencil.