Korean 28

Posted on: December 11, 2014

“I’ve been dreaming about planes.” Ellen-Teacher tells me.

“I know it’s stupid...but...I think I want to be a pilot.”

We’re sitting in one of the bars near Lotte Cinema. The dim one with giant teddy bears in glass cases. The teddy bears aren’t for sale. They aren’t for anything.

Maybe it’s the mutual dissatisfaction with our job or maybe it’s the teddy bears in glass cases that make me encourage her.

“You should take flying lessons.”

Ellen-Teacher slides her glass of Hite closer and glances around before taking out her third Dunhill of the night.

No one’s watching. No one notices the female South Korean lighting another red. Everyone is busy watching themselves, taking selfies, texting, or fixing their makeup. But Ellen-Teacher looks as if her father might pop up at any moment.

“I can’t.” She says.

Ellen-Teacher can’t do a lot of things. If I ask her out for a beer, Ellen-Teacher has been directed to tell me “I can’t.” Director Randy, our boss at the English school, forbade her. He didn’t tell her why. This may also be why Jessica-Teacher answers me in small grunts and glares at me from afar.

Director Randy chose his English-speaking name by naming himself after Randy Rhoads. Sometimes he rollerblades around the carpeted office and once a week he asks me to guess how old I think he is. He’s balding. It’s week 17. Every time he asks, I smile uncomfortably and shrug with false uncertainty.

The first time Ellen-Teacher invited me to get a beer, she told me about this rule. The invite was a pity one. She saw me through my classroom window. It’d been hours of speaking in my well-crafted English slow-tongue. I’d emphasized every R and L ad nauseam to my beginners. I’d made sure my intonation was welcoming and bouncy, like the lovechild of a mid-westerner and a Southern Californian. I’d spent the last few hours of my shift trying to teach English to adolescents who only questioned my importance. “Why we need English?” I didn’t correct their questions. Like a real adult, I told them to ask their parents.

Ellen-Teacher saw me through the glass square in my door using my hand to keep my head from falling on the desk in defeat. Outside, out of Director Randy’s view, she invited me to share our first pitcher.

Ellen-Teacher and I are both 28. I lost two years during my 17-hour flight from the States. In Korea, you’re one from the moment you emerge from your mother. Your birthday means nothing. Forget about it. Your birthday is now the New Year. Everyone’s birthday is the New Year. Back in Buffalo, New York, I was a young 26 but Korean Standard Time declared me 28. I’d missed my chance to join the 27 Club entirely and glided into the not-so-golden age of a Korean 28.

Korean 28, for a woman, means marriage with kids on the way. Korean 28 does not mean teaching over-privileged Korean students English. That’s the equivalent of a spinster. I might as well resign to a life of lonely Sundays where I watch infomercials as if they are real television programs and start calling product helplines just to hear another person’s voice.

I learned my status as a spinster from every conversation with every South Korean cabbie ever.

The driver looks in his rearview and asks where I am from.

“Where are you from?”

“New York.”

The driver assumes that “New York” means the city and makes weird shout-outs. He lists the things he knows and thinks about the city, each its own exclamation or statement:

“New York!”

“Big Apple!”

“Time Square!”

“Very many people.”

I nod in agreement as these are also my thoughts on New York. We nod at each other until there are no more nods. When the nod-off ends, the driver asks how old I am.



Horizontal nod.


Another horizontal nod.

I can see his scrunched brow in the rearview. He retires to a disappointed silence. I want to add another detail about New York with an exclamation point at the end.I want to say anything to take us back to when he was excited to know me. But his silence is a strong one, a finite one.

Ellen-Teacher isn’t married either and she doesn’t have a boyfriend. Ellen-Teacher's first name is not Ellen and her last name is not Teacher. Euna chose “Ellen” as her teacher name. My teacher name is Letia because that is my birth name. When Euna is asked why she chose the name “Ellen”, a shrug is the reason. Like me, she is confused as to how she wound up teaching English to the over-privileged kids of her country.

Ellen-Teacher lives with her parents. Ellen-Teacher had a brother. He left Mokpo to live in a bigger city. Their parents disapproved. He bought a motorcycle. Their parents disapproved. Ellen-Teacher’s brother died in a motorcycle accident.

There is little hope of Ellen-Teacher flying anywhere.

And though we both know this, that we’re a couple of Korean 28s and that it feels too late, Ellen-Teacher continues to dream of planes.

“You could take lessons.” I suggest again.

After all, Amelia Earhart’s legacy was of trying.

“Do they have flying lessons here?”

She tells me they do, she explains the expenses a little, and ends her last sentence with a but.

Even Amelia got lost.

After Ellen-Teacher’s pack of Dunhills is lighter and we’ve drained enough pitchers to find our lives laughable-laughable instead of pathetically-laughable, we part ways for the weekend.

Ellen-Teacher goes home. A hallway away from her parents, she lays her head down and dreams the same dream again. The one where she is flying above us all, wearing an Amelia Earhart leather aviator helmet, and watching the world below move on.

Written by: Tia Brown
Photograph by: Emily Blincoe

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