From Eumseong: the Teacher is Not Coming in Today

by Jennifer Westbrook


When you must leave a place you have loved, even if you never called it home, you are grateful that you inherited a good memory from your father’s side, that you can keep for good the long drives by the rice fields on the way to school and the mountains that bordered every place you turned your head. You get to keep also the rainy season and the heat and even the path behind your house that led through the woods to the little lake you can keep a secret even now.

If you had left after the first year, you would have only remembered Eumseong, that town in the soft middle of the country which most people in Seoul only an hour away had never heard of, the town with the noraebang, or karaoke room, the “love” motels for the lonely men in town, the main street with a few shops and their strange advertisements for chicken or beauty products (“Audrey Hepburn says, I am secret!”), and, of course, a school. But you stayed another year away from home, you are your father’s daughter and you do not always get to decide what you will forget.


The doctor doesn’t speak to me but to the woman beside me. He hands me a small bottle of pills, smiles kindly. “He says this will help you,” she tells me, and I thank him, holding the bottle up to see the name, only I have been lazy and have not learned to read or speak the language except for the general introductory statements and phrases like Gimbap hana chuseyo—“One gimbap give it to me”— which is a surprisingly polite way to ask for a bite. I hold the pills to my face, those pills the color of salmon that I will imagine untaking every night for a year.

First came the headaches, the slow burn of the veins constricting, those little feeders that beat in the temples and the back of the head. Then came the numbness in the left hand and the burning in the right ear and now me standing in the bathroom on the second floor of a Greek restaurant in Itaewon, the foreign area of Seoul where the U.S. soldiers play, thinking I have not been so faithful this year, I should pray, I am having a stroke. I do not know even what a stroke is, but this is what it must be, I say to myself. In the taxi my friend says, “hospital,” and I keep repeating bali, bali, bali, because I must get there quickly, I cannot die in a taxi in a city I do not call home.

In the student hospital I stare at a water stain on the ceiling tiles, wondering how it got there and how they will get my body to my mother. The nurse tries to start the IV unsuccessfully, keeps missing the vein because she is new at this, because I am shaking. For a month afterward I will get my students to quiet down by lifting my sleeve and showing them the black blood stain underneath the skin on the tender place of my arm.


But you can decide not to forget the students and their fascination and envy of your Western “high-nose” and how eager they were to share their food with you, even placing it at your lips and feeding you like a bird while you stood there chewing awkwardly. They saw differently than you, than anyone you ever met, so focused on every detail of your face that they couldn’t pay attention to what you were saying the one day you wore earrings in class, they would draw pictures of you on the back of their tests.

They gave everyone an animal nickname based on his or her features, so there were students with nicknames like Koala running down the halls, or even one poor girl called Sméagol. You asked what your animal was once, but they couldn’t decide: either a baby cat or a turtle. One teacher they called Toad, and though she never understood why, that was all you could see when you looked at her from then on. You spoke slowly for them, low and slightly monotone, and they would laugh and complain that they couldn’t hear you, that your soft voice was like a lullaby. When they were quiet you knew it was because they had a question: sometimes about where exactly Oklahoma is (“right in the middle, shaped like a pot, right above Texas”), but mostly they wondered about when you will marry.


“It is medicine,” the doctor says, at least I think he’s a doctor—he is young but also in a white coat and that must mean something here too. “It is … It is …” He looks at me with the same look as one of my students when the right word doesn’t come. “Side effect,” he says and nods, says there is nothing wrong but that my skin will feel numb when I put pressure on it and the veins in my head may feel constricted and my circulation may be slightly off for a few weeks, explaining what I understand to be a “half-life” in the medical world by pointing his fingers in the air in front of me and then up and down his forearm.

Now I am in hell, I think, only no one said that it should be so cold at night, when I wake up every hour because the back of my legs are numb or because I can’t feel my neck or the back of my head. The doctors say it is nothing but bad medicine, nothing wrong but the skin and the sleeplessness and the headaches that come in waves and cripple, even in the classroom. They do not say anything on the loneliness of a body that fails you, this creeping fear that there is something wrong only not one among them can find the right word. I am on a sack full of pills I take with slight uneasiness, pills in many sizes and variations of white, this time for anxiety and pain and to help me sleep, and when they aren’t enough I walk to the bathroom and run water on my face, tell myself it is time to go home now.


When you must leave a place wounded, even then, you must decide what you will keep. You must think of the colors at the end of summer, every variation of green in the trees and the vibrant, almost dreamlike yellow of the fields before harvest. You must remember that you sat on the floor to eat with friends who gave you a Korean name, Hyejin, because it sounded like your English one. You even went to a bathhouse by accident and let yourself be bold enough for once to be seen by other bodies, be washed by the hands of a mother who was not yours and knew nothing about you.

A few nights before you flew home you took the slow drive from the school to your house and hit a deer standing in the middle of the road, and though everyone in the car was screaming, you were proud because you didn’t swerve the way you always thought you would, because you were brave. When you are home and you tell others that you have been somewhere, that you have seen the East with its sounds and lights and people, you will be told that you must be glad for the experience, that your mother must be glad to have you back on this side of the world.

You will learn to sleep again in your own bed in a room that doesn’t seem to fit anymore, and though it feels impossible, you will promise to go back to that place with the yellow fields before you forget where the roads lead, when you are ready, when you are a healed thing.