When I am at work, I work. I bring energy and enthusiasm into the classroom, grind out lesson plans, and put on my most pleasant personality. It’s not fake. It’s my best foot forward. I bring positive energy with the hope that positive energy will follow.
Most importantly, I work hard because I like to play hard.
In my previous American life, I experienced mostly mellow weekends. I read books, hit the gym, studied calculus, and took EdX courses. In Korea, I have acclimated to a more vibrant social life.
I have many great friends back home. However, most are busy with their lives. Some are married, others are engaged, and another lives multiple states away. I am establishing my own life a whole ocean away. Therefore, our social gatherings tend to be of quality rather than quantity.
In Korea, I coalesced with six new JLP teachers to form a core friend group. I self-titled us “The Mokpo Misfits”. We have absurd conversations on Kakao (Potato and The Bard speak the most. I just follow along and inject a comment or two at random times.) We also tend to meet up every weekend for story-swapping, soju sipping, and shenanigans.
We are a motley, misfit, and diverse ensemble. We hail from Canada, England, and three different corners of the U.S.A. In a way, I feel like a regular cast member on a sitcom. I tend to appear in weekly episodes. Our air slot is either Friday or Saturday. Sometimes it’s a double-header.
At times I wonder if anything aside from relative propinquity and common language brought us together. Regardless, our tribe is strong.
First, we meet The Bard – A Texan who might as well be a “citizen of the world” (as much as I hate that cliché). He somehow crammed 55 years of life experience into 26 years of life. One week he speaks about life as a traveling bard who delivered a lecture at the University of Chicago. The next week, he casually mentions that he solo-ventured through war-torn countries. Rarely have I met a self-proclaimed introvert so externally fearless.
He has a peculiar balance of personality. Beneath his ostentatious and outgoing surface, further conversation belies a sentimental sensitivity and nonchalant nihilism. On one hand, I can tell he genuinely cares about each of us. On the other, he is capable of leaving the group without as much as a “see ya” and retreating to a sauna for a 3:00 A.M. nap. I can relate a bit. I can’t stand goodbyes.
His ability to pivot from intellectual depth to shallow silliness is very endearing. In one moment he explains an in-depth comparison between the politics of medieval Denmark and the 21st-century United States. In the next, he says one friend is missing because they “left to make poopies.”
By virtue of his introspection, seething intelligence, and mind-warping stories, he frequently forces me to mend my mental models of what it means to be human. Often these schematic shifts contribute to my mental maturation. Therefore, I am grateful.
Next, I must announce the presence of his majesty the Oregonian King (cue trumpets).
He is an exemplary Oregon duck alum and a model representative of the west coast – the best coast. A benevolent leader, he reigns with a firm, yet fair hand. He surveys his kingdom from a 2-bedroom Mokpo palace and graciously hosts many of his subjects on his living room floor.
A skilled logistician, he brings law and order to our group’s otherwise chaotic and nebulous plans. Thanks to him, our cast took lodging in the finest apartment in all of Seoul. (Not really, but it did have a kitchen, as well as running water – all for a good price.)
Despite his royal status, the King appreciates opportunities to mingle with us commoners. He appeals to our plebeian sensibilities with dry and sarcastic hypotheticals.
“How many people do you think died here?” He asked me one day as we meandered around a palace.
“Like executed?” I asked far too seriously.
“I would say 17,” he replied. I lost it.
He also utilizes a comic voice redolent of a California surf bum with a squirrel stuck in his mouth.
While he reigns with responsibility and resourcefulness, he injects enough sardonic sass to leave us bent over in stitches laughing. I’m proud to consider myself a loyal subject.
Next, I present Potato – a cacophonous, clumsy, catastrophe-inducing Canadian. At 22 years young, she is the baby of the group. She always adds a dollop of initiative to our stack of waffles. Without her ready restaurant suggestions, we would likely starve.
We often struggle to settle on decisions. Her suggestions keep us moving. It’s just the kick in the ass we need.
She also injects a host of honest commentary (for better or for worse). For better, I rarely worry about her authenticity. What you hear is what you get. For worse, Potato rarely ceases to speak and speak well. She is a tough verbal joust. Conversing with her is a solid rhetorical workout. At times, this can become tiresome, especially when my social batteries deplete.
However, despite her propensity for boredom, she is very understanding of people’s occasional need to withdraw and is fully capable of entertaining herself.
We already have a King, but Potato is the princess of puns. Sometimes these puns are well-timed dynamite – deadly. Other times they clunk around like a child pounding a square peg into a round hole. All the time, however, I find them entertaining.
Because one title is not enough, I will also ennoble her as our Countess of Cards. Her rapid shuffling technique and even more rapid suggestions of card games facilitate hours of fun. My recent favorite is a game of President combined with elements of Speed.
Finally, she is resilient. This young woman hopped on an incorrect bus traveling the opposite direction of her desired destination. Another time she futilely searched for a taxi in Namak for one hour. She lived without aircon for one summer week (in Korea, the summer heat and humidity are no jokes). She manages to muddle herself in mishaps week after week. Yet after she eats something and produces a pair of puns, she always rebounds. I respect her resolve.
Next is Nightmare. Nightmare is too soft-spoken and polite to deserve this name. Like a soaking wet bag of earl grey tea, he is deeply steeped in English cultural mannerisms.
Sweetly-spoken, endearingly sensitive, and intensely loyal, he provides a fun foil to Potato’s frank button-pushing ways. His courtesy often lulls us into a false sense of security. I often wonder what thoughts he holds back in group conversations.
That is, until he drinks. It all started when we sat in a circle, playing the “Most Likely” game beside Mokpo Harbor over rounds of soju.
“Most likely to get kidnapped by one of their students,” Nightmare let slip.
“What?” we reflexively replied our of sheer surprise.
When he wriggles from his conversational straightjacket, Nightmare gives us fits of knee-weakening laughter with uncharacteristically uncouth comments. Homicide, kidnapping, and other heinous crimes frequently characterize his taboo tangents.
However, despite his capacity for crass and crude conversation, Nightmare reminds me of a puppy that I just want to hug and remind that, “It’s going to be okay.” His awkwardness, intoxicatedly indecent interjections, and exotic accent are welcomed and loved.
Then there is Sugar. She wants a Korean Sugar Daddy.
“He has to be rich, good-looking, and like me a little bit,” she said.
She is a short-statured Sacramenten with the heart and ferocity of a lioness. I’ll never forget meeting her. We were eating breakfast at the Shin-Yang Park Hotel, sitting one table apart when Potato snagged my attention.
“Ian, didn’t you say you were from Sacramento?”
“You’re from Sacramento?” Sugar asked, a shy smile crossing her face. “What part?”
“Fair Oaks,” I replied.
Sugar’s brow furrowed. A switch flipped.
“You ain’t from Sacramento! Don’t go claiming that shit.”
My mouth dropped ever so slightly, taken aback – mostly from the sheer contrast. Somehow I tripped the ghetto circuit. Potato intervened.
“She told me she was very shy.”
23-years young, Sugar is mature beyond her age. Many consider her the mom-like figure of the group. She is a woman of many layers. On the surface, she is shy as a shadow. An admitted introvert, it is easy to tell when she maxes out on our group’s shenanigans. Her affect flattens and her eyes zone out. I used to think she was mad at us. Now I know she merely moves inward.
At the second layer, her voice reflects Del Paso Heights (one of Sacramento’s toughest neighborhoods). When she gets angry, watch out. I call it the, “I wish a mothafucka would” voice. She is five-foot-nothing but might as well be six-foot-two when animated. She posesses palpable underlying strength.
Finally, however, underneath all else is a third layer of calm compassion, no-nonsense convictions, a strong will, and an indomitable spirit. She is also a sucker for cuteness, especially for dogs.
“Aww..puppy! It’s so cute!”
Strong and sweet, Sugar is an amazing person to have in your corner.
Last but not least we meet The Immortal. His white-dyed, self-cut hairstyle conceals his advanced age (28). He is a Koreatown native straight out of D.C. By virtue of years of Korean classes and a Korean neighborhood upbringing, he is the most linguistically capable among us.
This leads to comical situations. Four of us seven would ethnically identify as Asian (Vietnamese, Chinese, Hmong, and Korean-Sri Lankan to be precise). Therefore, whenever we encounter Koreans in restaurants, cafés, or other social settings, most Korean sentences are directed their way.
From there, they redirect.
“Immortal, what did she just say?”
His linguistic and cultural wisdom (along with devilishly handsome looks and charisma to match) has helped him cast a wide social net across Mokpo. Every time we go out, I am surprised to meet someone he knows (Korean or not). He is a convivial conduit of connection. Moreover, when he drinks he can fearlessly (and nearly fluently) converse in Korean.
One day, I joined Immortal and Sugar at a club in downtown Mokpo. There I witnessed the perfect storm of Immortal’s charm and dancing abilities. Koreans crowded around him like he was a low-key Youtube celebrity. As he pumped his fists, they pumped their fists. As he clapped, they clapped. The old me would have been jealous. The new me is grateful. Travelling in his entourage means I receive some of that positive attention by proxy.
His personality is a magnetic mix of positivity and equanimity punctuated by measured outgoingness. I hope to learn from his social intelligence.
We are a variegated group brought together by a foreign country and a common language. We are American, English, and Canadian. Most of us met at orientation. Others joined right after. One joined after a chance encounter in Lotte Mart. Individually, we are teachers. To each other, we are adventurers, comedians, poets, and friends. Together, we are the Mokpo Misfits.
Ignore my photobombing finger. This is the temple at Wolchulsan.
This is an accurate reenactment of how I punish misbehaving students. They must read ten pages of the English dictionary out loud.
“Oh, no! You totally backed Mom’s car into a tree after she told you not to drive it.”
“I know. What are we going to do?”
This Posthuman exhibit piece at the Gwangju Art Museum signifies the deleterious effects of ozone layer depletion and the ascension of skin cancer as a public health concern.
On second thought, it could simply be a pretty array of lights and colors. I don’t know art.
Happy Seoul bus is happy. Coming up next: I travel with The King, Nightmare, and Potato to Seoul for a weeklong Chuseok adventure. Stay tuned.