Filipino, Persian, and Hebrew Reveries
By Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2014. All rights reserved.
Maria was the most beautiful of the Filipino professors in attendance at the freshman orientation, held at one of the many hotels here in the historically significant city of Gyeongju, South Korea, a small city which was once the capital of Korea¡¯s ancient Shilla Dynasty. Shilla¡¯s importance during its 900 year reign involved its success at unifying the three Kingdoms, Paekchae, Kogyuro and Shilla, into one unified dynasty that would rule Korea for centuries. The tombs of the Shilla kings still stand today in various parks around the city, the tombs being large hill-shaped mounds of earth covered with grass which, in the words of one of my colleagues at the university, made Gyeongu¡¯s claim to fame its existence as a graveyard for ancient kings. During the several periods of Japanese occupation, the last one dating from 1905 to the end of World War II in 1945, many of the ancient relics buried within the tombs, including many crafted in gold, were looted as part of a concerted effort by the Japanese to profit through the exploitation of whatever resources were available to them during the eras of colonial rule.
I, along with many of the other foreign (here foreign meaning non-Korean) professors had been requested to attend the freshman orientation in order to showcase the ¡°globalized¡± status of the university, the word ¡°globalized¡± being one of those numerous buzz words which were overused in South Korea as universities, corporations, the government, and other important institutions in South Korean society attempted to convince observers and everyone else that they were keeping abreast of the most important new world wide trends in economics, politics, technology, and culture. The orientation marked the commencement of my second year at the university and the fifth year out of the last twenty that I had lived and earned my living in South Korea teaching English. Every Korean university I had worked for desired to represent itself as globalized and ready to impart to its students the skills required to interface with the wide world outside of this relatively small country (South Korea being about the size of the U.S. state of Indiana) which was nonetheless the seventh largest trading nation in the world measured according to the total value of its exports and imports.
Many of my friends and colleagues back home in Chicago at the selective enrollment high school where I had taught social science full time for over a decade, as well as my colleagues at the several colleges in the Chicago area where I had taught as an adjunct professor, thought I was out of my mind to give up my job, tenure, and condo by leaving Chicago (once again) to teach English in South Korea. I suspected their reservations derived from an essential lack of knowledge concerning just how dynamic, advanced, vibrant, and productive the South Korean economy was, with these aforementioned qualities enabling me to earn a respectable living here while also receiving a good deal of respect from my students since my social status as a professor and educator in South Korea was significantly more elevated here than it was in the United States. Who could blame my friends back home in Chicago, since so much of the news they received about Korea via the mass media focused on the constant threats and invective emanating from the totalitarian regime in North Korea?
Now before I delve too deeply into political matters, I must remind myself that it is not my intent here to compose a political treatise; neither is it my intention to write an historical essay. Rather, my purpose here is to write another one of my accounts of the unique but also universal trials and tribulations of the expatriates residing far from home, their struggles, their loves, their failures and their achievements, and also their isolation which frequently drew them into an intensive if short-lived camaraderie solidified over multiple rounds of soju and beer at the local hoff or bar. Though I hold multiple degrees in political science, I will once again quite consciously veer away from the political in order to focus on the personal, determined to catalogue in an intimate fashion those areas of life which are so often ignored by the international media with its obsession and focus on the political tensions between the two Koreas and their respective allies, and the horrifying dystopia that is North Korea.
And so I must remember how I began this story, with the words, ¡°Maria was the most beautiful of the Filipino professors in attendance at the freshman orientation¡± and once again recognize that I am once again drawn back to depict faithfully and truthfully through the higher truth of fiction which resides in a realm of honesty hovering somewhere above the reality of hard cold facts and numbers of tanks and artillery and weapons of mass destruction. I am drawn back to the concept ¡°woman¡± and so long to depict via the elevated veracity of fiction the moving power of the beauty I perceive in women, even if means that for the time being, for the short duration of this collection of half invented facts I call my fiction, I shall purposefully avoid a discussion of the threat of genocidal armies with all of their dangerous fratricidal animosity and terror.
It was not and is not that I ever wanted her for my own. Nothing could be further from the truth, me with my Korean wife Suji, and our pride and joy, our son Joseph. I was not and I am not searching for a new love since I am content with that which I enjoy through my marriage and family life. Nonetheless, while I have been married for fifteen years, the power of a woman¡¯s beauty has not yet ceased to move me. I must summarize my feelings about the instinct of attraction by saying that marriage has not made me blind, and so I often find myself writing about the mysterious powers of this Maria or that Natasha or another Julie rather than about the frightening powers of the madman to the North and his flirtations with the equally insane Dennis Rodman.
The students were gathered in the convention hall for presentations and speakers, all part of the orientation, while we English professors had been told we could enjoy a short break out in the lobby of the hotel and enjoy some refreshments. I was seated on a comfortable couch across from Maria. How many of those Filipinos were named Maria after Mary, the mother of their savior? You might be approaching any one of them in a hallway on campus at the university on the way to your class and if you said ¡°Hello Maria¡± because you could not recall her name (after all, there were so many of them) you might be correct 30 to 40 percent of the time. They would always smile and return the greeting, so happy to be at work for a few years at the Korean university where they earned a salary which was more than three times what they earned as professors in the Philippines, while I always found myself in a financial pinch, feeling the middle-class squeeze because my compensation was so much lower in Korea than what I had been used to earning in the United States. We were seated on the couch talking about how much we had enjoyed the performance by the students of the Tae Kwon Do club who had dazzled us with their acrobatic feats of martial arts, all set to the background of modern techno K-pop (Korean pop) music.
Don, another Filipino, who had earned not just one, but two Ph.Ds. from universities in the Philippines was sitting across from me and next to Maria. I knew Don was in love with Maria because he had told me so himself, after Maria had agreed to be with him on my advice which I had offered to her after turning down her proposal that I take her as my lover. As I told her on the day she approached me with the idea on the second floor of the main building on campus in front of the coffee vending machine where I was buying the second of my daily four servings of ¡°can coffee¡±, I never wanted a lover outside of my marriage and was determined to live according to a strictly monogamous lifestyle and the value system which implied that such a lifestyle was morally and ethically required. My assertion of my steadfast devotion to my Korean wife had not convinced Maria to give up hope and renounce her ambitions for a romance between her and me, even though she had followed my advice and become Don¡¯s lover. Right there in front of Don on the couch in the hotel lobby, making no attempts to conceal her feelings for me from her boyfriend, she was still trying to convince me to give her a chance, while Don, knowing full well her feelings for me, had no qualms about helping Maria make her case even though he knew that success in this endeavor would mean he would lose her forever.
¡°Sir Paul,¡± Maria said beseechingly, ¡°You should know that I attended university in the Philippines on a four year scholarship due to my advanced abilities as player of chess. In fact, I am a chess master.¡± She was trying to convince me that she was intellectually up to snuff, that her scholarship placed her on an equal footing with me, since I had attended graduate school at The University of Chicago on a full ride academic scholarship.
Don concurred with Maria. ¡°Sir Paul, she is indeed a chess master. Although she is my girlfriend now, I know you are her true desire. I think you should give her a chance. She is a genius and qualified for a relationship with a man of your abilities and accomplishments.¡±
¡°If you won¡¯t leave your wife and marry me Sir Paul,¡± said Maria, continuing to plead her case, ¡°Why not take me as your mistress? Your neighbors have told us that you and your wife can often be overheard arguing in your apartment. I am much less temperamental than your Korean wife and my emotions are much less volatile. I won¡¯t yell at you every day like she does. We have so much in common, you and I. Why won¡¯t you give me a chance and let me prove to you that I am worthy of your fondness and affection?¡±
¡°Even though I love Maria,¡± said Don, ¡°I know I am not her first choice. If you will not leave your wife, do you not believe it is permissible to take Maria as your mistress? Or perhaps you can just call her your girlfriend. That is the way of the French, and such romances outside of wedlock are also very common here in Korea and in our home country, the Philippines.¡±
¡°I am a religious man, Don, in my own way,¡± I said sounding quite disconcerted. ¡°I would never condone such behavior. I really do not understand why you Filipinos go to church all day each Sunday, and then you turn around and make such an immodest proposal to man like me, a student of political theory and philosophy, as well as of theology, who consequently takes his oaths seriously. I could never and will never hurt my wife by agreeing to indulge in an affair with Maria, or any other woman.¡±
¡°Do you believe we could go to Hell for infidelity?¡± Maria asked in a voice shaking with a disquieting trepidation. ¡°I know I am a sinner and a hypocrite, but I believe Christ will save me. Perhaps it is that I am simply a weaker person than you are Sir Paul, but I know for certain I am in love with you, and I believe these feeling I have for you are a gift from heaven itself. I promise you I will be pure in my devotion to you, even if it means I will be required to bear the heavy weight of my sins to ask for your love as the most important truth in my life.¡±
¡°Tell us Sir Paul,¡± added Don. ¡°Do you believe Hell is real? You are indeed a man with a strong soul, like so many of the Jews you are irrepressible in your convictions. But I feel I must ask you, who will save you Sir Paul if you have no faith in Christ?¡±
¡°Don,¡± I said. ¡°I could quote the learned rabbis, or Moses Maimonides from his Guide to the Perplexed, or I might quote an appropriate passage from Spinoza¡¯s Ethics. Instead, to make it more palatable to you, a stranger to these great teachers, I will refer you to an old song from a more widely known thinker who has influenced me deeply and profoundly. Bob Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, also has thought seriously about so many dimensions of human life. I own and listen to several bootleg tapes of concerts from Dylan¡¯s heyday, and often when the Christians confront me with their concern for my eternal soul because they cannot comprehend me when I tell them that repentance and atonement take place during the Days of Awe, the ten days in between the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I direct my Christian friends to the old folk song about a self-educated African-American living in the Jim Crow South, Hezekiah Jones. He owned a small but substantial collection of books which he called his rainy season, and his intelligence and knowledge frightened the white man¡¯s preacher who confronted Hezekiah and charged the philosophical old man with the accusation that he had no religion. ¡®But you don¡¯t understand,¡¯ said the white man¡¯s preacher. ¡®There are a lot of good ways to be wicked.¡¯ ¡®I¡¯m good,¡¯ said Hezekiah. ¡®Good as my neighbor.¡¯ And further Hezekiah continued, ¡°I believe one man is indebted to his neighbor, not for the reward of heaven, nor for the fear of hell fire.¡±
¡°What happened next to Hezekiah after he so answered the white man¡¯s preacher?¡± Maria asked.
¡°Dylan tells us in his song that the white people of the town hung old Hezekiah higher than a pigeon,¡± I answered. ¡°Then the white man¡¯s preacher said that the old man had it coming, because the son of a bitch had no religion. I pray you will not do the same to me, hang me that is, when I tell you that my religion and also my decades long study of theory, philosophy, and ethics, convinces me that I cannot and must not take you Maria as my mistress and lover, even though I agree wholeheartedly with Don that you are truly kind, sympathetic, intelligent, and beautiful.¡±
¡°Do you think we need to go to church, Sir Paul?¡± asked Maria. ¡°We Filipinos, that is. It is part of our culture and it seems as though we go all day long on Sunday. I always wondered why you never go to church, Sir Paul, if it is indeed true as you say that you are a religious and thoughtful kind of man.¡±
¡°By all means,¡± I answered her. ¡°Continue to go to church if you feel it is important to you. I will not go with you because as a Jew I would feel out of place and uncomfortable there. If there were a Jewish synagogue nearby in Korea I would certainly go there with my family, my wife and son, but as you may not know, there are very few Jews here in South Korea, and consequently no synagogues. My family and I must be content to observe our traditions and holidays in the privacy of our home.¡±
¡°I do not understand why you and the rest of the Jews refuse to embrace Christ who came from among you and rose up for the world from your midst,¡± Maria said. ¡°But I will try to understand as best as I can for your sake. We all know you have studied theory and philosophy, and that you attend the Gyeongju Philosophy Reading and Discussion group with some of the other theoretically minded faculty at the Coffee Core coffee shop each Monday night. Tell me now, using your command of the academic discipline you have devoted yourself to studying, tell me how my love for you, which seems to me to be so pure and honest, so much so that I know it emanates from the very essence of my being, how this love can be sinful and tarnished and offensive to God. Unlike you, I have never studied philosophy. My graduate degree is in nursing, and I taught aspiring nursing students back home in the Philippines.¡±
¡°Thoughts and feelings which are pure and clean,¡± I explained,¡± Even divine and holy thoughts, can still lead to behavior and acts which I would consider to be unclean and forbidden. I once heard an old and trusted friend tell me that feelings, if honest, can never be wrong, but I also firmly believe that the acts which follow from our feelings are sometimes impermissible and forbidden.¡±
¡°Forbidden by whom?¡± Don asked. ¡°By Jesus?¡±
¡°I would call the final arbiter God,¡± I continued. ¡°Others would simply say we must follow the inner voice of our moral conscience, embracing our duty to love our brothers and refrain from doing them harm. Do no harm. That is one of the keys to the good life, the life guided by virtue and ethics.¡±
¡°But I am harmed,¡± Maria asserted defiantly. ¡°I am harmed by your loyalty to your wife and to your God. As you say, my feelings are not false. Why can I not follow them to where they should lead me, to your side where I will stand for as long as you allow me to? By your side, that is where I believe I belong.¡±
¡°If you followed your heart,¡± I continued. ¡°And if I helped you to do so, we would both injure that of my wife¡¯s, and thereby also mine and my son¡¯s, and eventually your own, since my Suji is your neighbor, and you are hurt in your soul when you injure your neighbor. From a more practical standpoint, I must also add that in my view life is simply far less complicated if we adhere to our oaths and choose faithful monogamy over affairs which can only be had at the price of deceit. I have enough problems and challenges managing my relationship with one woman, my Suji. How could I possibly manage and maintain balance and a life of virtue with two women in my life?¡±
¡°I am a sinner Sir Paul,¡± Maria acknowledged. ¡°Please forgive me. I pray that Jesus will too. I still do not understand you Jews. Why don¡¯t you believe that Jesus is God?¡±
¡°I, like many Jews, acknowledge that there was in fact a wise man, Jesus, who we Jews like to think of as a kind of rabbi or religious teacher. We believe he had many important and profound things to say about love and peace and nonviolence, as well as about sin and so on, but unlike you Christians we do not accept his claims of divinity. We believe he was no more the son of God than you or me or Don are God¡¯s children because we believe that all humans are created in the divine image, that we are all the children of God. The divine image refers not to our physical appearance, but instead to our innate capacity to live ethically, an ability granted to us as one of the most precious gifts from God and closely related to the gift of language and the reason which language makes possible, allowing us to conform our lives to the moral and ethical imperatives. As Moses Maimonides and others have taught us, God himself has distinguished the sacred from the profane, the clean from the unclean, the good from the evil, and as his bequest to humanity God has bestowed upon us the gift of language, thereby making thought and reason possible, and enabling us to follow his commandment to guide our lives by ethical principles and moral imperatives, which we follow when we embrace the good and distance ourselves from evil.¡±
Maria took a sip of her soft drink and looked at me pensively but also with much frustration in her mien. Don too appeared to be disappointed and I wondered silently if I had offended them by my account of my Jewish interpretation of their Christ. I knew that I was the first Jew they had ever met in person during the entirety of their lives, and that consequently I was viewed by them as a mysterious and possibly dangerous entity. They spoke to one another in hushed tones, using Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines, so I could not understand them. A few other English professors had congregated nearby, having overheard our discussion with great interest, and one or two of them seemed intent upon joining us. Several Filipino professors asked Don and Maria a number of questions, again in Tagalog so I could not understand them, and then Maria got up off of the couch and walked over to speak to Natasha, who at just that moment was engaged in a discussion with Cory, a Canadian ABD (all but dissertation) in medieval history through a university in Wales.
The discussion between Cory and Natasha was more like an interview, since the Canadian had cornered Natasha (Ph.D. Linguistics) against a partition screen and was laying it on thick. It was obvious to any observer that Cory was deeply attracted to the beautiful Persian and was at that moment trying to convince her to give him a chance and go out on a date with him. The stunning dark-haired Natasha appeared to be confused and set of kilter by the intensity of the medievalist, and was trying somehow to politely escape from this interview and pursuit, when Maria, understanding as well as I did just what Cory was aiming for, stood up and walked over to Natasha and rescued her.
Maria took Natasha by the arm and led her to the couch where Maria and Don had sat during our discussion, leaving Cory in his agitated state, a sure sign to the rest of us that he had so immediately fallen head over heels for Natasha who had completely captivated his interest. Natasha had only arrived in South Korea a week before for a multiple year sabbatical from her university in Iran where she taught linguistics and research methods. She was an accomplished academic in her field, having already published fifteen books in her native country even though she had not yet reached forty years of age. In addition, she had recently accepted a position as the editor of an important Asian linguistics journal. When she had arrived at the hotel for the orientation earlier in the evening, I had remarked while chatting quite casually with Cory about his dissertation which at that time was still in progress but almost finished, that I thought the beautiful Persian looked to me to be a descendant of Queen Ester of the Old Testament, if she was not in fact a reincarnation of Queen Ester herself. The Canadian looked at me incredulously as he had no idea what I was talking about since he was not a Jew and knew next to nothing about our Purim holiday and masquerade during which the little Jewish girls dress up in costumes of the Queen to commemorate the redemption of the Jews of ancient Persia and their narrow escape from decimation. It was this Queen Ester and her brother Mordecai who had convinced the King of Persia not to exterminate the Jews of his realm after the evil henchman Haman had persuaded the King to commit just such an atrocity.
¡°You think she is a queen? Really?¡± asked Cory, obviously confused by my joke.
¡°I am certain Queen Ester of our Purim festival must have looked something like her. But Cory, do not take me too seriously. I am speaking in metaphors and allusions now. Be aware that when I reference the Book of Ester of the Old Testament in jest, I speak as I think and write, in simile and metaphor.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t understand,¡± Cory said, not looking at me when he spoke because he could not take his eyes off of her. ¡°Are you telling me that she is or are you telling me that she is not a queen? Do you honestly believe she has royal blood? I have never heard of this Purim holiday. I grew up in rural Manitoba where I never came across a Jew in all of my childhood, so I have never heard of this carnival you speak of.¡±
¡°I am just saying that I agree with you that she is beautiful, and I added a little joke for your sake to calm you down because it is obvious to me and to everyone else who has seen you speaking with her so avidly that you are drawn to her. You should stop gawking at her so passionately because you reveal too much in your gaze and it is also considered rude to stare as you do.¡±
¡°I¡¯ve been avoiding women lately, ever since my divorce with my Korean wife, and also because I am focused on the dissertation. You can say I am a bit gun shy around women now after getting burned so badly in this awful mess that was my divorce. Paul, I have heard you have been married for fifteen years to a Korean woman. What did I do wrong? Why was she always yelling at me with such bitterness and anger? I need your advice and your help. Perhaps you understand these Korean women, and perhaps any other race of women, better than I do. Why did she leave me?¡±
¡°Cory, we have not talked much before about your relationship with your Korean wife, your marriage, or your divorce. I really do not know what you did wrong or what mistake you made, and I feel much uniformed about the entire affair. I hesitate to guess that perhaps you failed to grasp the unfortunate truth that it is difficult, I might even say next to impossible, to win an argument with a Korean woman since they hate to concede victory and accept defeat. When engaged in a dispute, or even a casual conversation, with a Korean woman, and especially when arguing with my Suji, I have found from experience and hindsight that it is usually better to let the woman win the disputation, or at least allow her to believe she has won while you hold fast to your position inside your mind and silently unproclaimed, enabling her to claim victory and permitting you to enjoy some peace and quiet with the cessation of hostilities.¡±
¡°I do not understand yet Paul. What are you trying to tell me? What did I do wrong? Why was she always yelling at me with such bitter invective and anger in her voice? Was she crazy? Borderline insane? Hysterical?¡±
¡°Cory. Next time around, perhaps this time around with Natasha if you are able to hit it off with her and make her yours, when she wants to fight just say ¡®Yes Dear. Yes Dear. Whatever you say Honey. I could not agree with you more. Once again I am the fool. Once again you are right and I am wrong.¡¯ And address her with humility in your voice and physical presence. Then a few hours later when she returns to a semblance of sanity, you can soft pedal your ideas and thoughts and see if, as always, against the odds, you can¡¯t bring her back towards reason and a peaceful concord and sympathy with your position.¡±
¡°So what should I do now about Natasha,¡± Cory asked me. ¡°She¡¯s gorgeous. Sometimes I think I am ready to give up on women entirely, and then I meet someone like Natasha and I ask myself if it is worth the effort to give it all another try.¡±
¡°Yes Cory,¡± I reassured him. ¡°Why don¡¯t you give it another try? It is obvious that you want her badly. You are practically salivating all over your suit and your eyeballs are about to pop out of their sockets when you gaze upon her. Go over there and chat her up. Do it now before someone else gets to her before you do. I have noticed more than few of the other male professors have been watching her with great interest, while some of the females have been observing her with much envy.¡±
¡°What about you Paul? Are you going make a try for her? Why did you call her Queen Ester? Who was this queen anyhow and why do you Jews always leave me so confused? When I read about your history and your current political situation in the Middle-East I just do not understand why you are the focus of so much attention. You should know that you are the first Jew I have met and befriended in person, as I grew up on the rural Canadian prairie where one never runs into one of your kind. Are you trying to tell me she has royal blood? Must I address her as royalty?¡±
I laughed aloud and said to him reassuringly, ¡°Metaphor and simile. Allusion and allegory. A biblical reference sparked by a living moving representation of a beautiful image set deep within my mind since childhood. If you knew how it flows and meanders and transports me through space and time you would know something crucial about art. Just address her as Natasha. Or how about Professor or Doctor? Go to her quickly now and talk to her. Not a moment to lose as I have been watching some of the other men around here and it looks as though you might have some stiff competition.¡±
He turned away from me, still deeply confused about why I had referred to the beautiful dark-haired Persian as a Hebrew queen, and that was when, over-eager as he was, he cornered her against the partition screen and pleaded his case before her, almost drooling all over his shirt and tie he was so far head over heels. While Cory pursued Natasha, I was engaged in my dialog with my Filipino interlocutors on the couch, and a few other professors who had been listening in with great enthusiasm as all things regarding love and religion seemed to pique the interest of the Filipinos, and after some time we all arrived at the moment I described earlier when Maria left her seat on the couch and rescued Natasha from Cory who was just then then too vigorously presenting all of the arguments in favor of she agreeing to go out on a date with him. Maria rescued Natasha and led her by the arm to a seat on the couch next to me and across from Don, and we all resumed our discussion with Natasha as an additional participant.
Natasha, who had the self-confidence and poise of a serious and accomplished academic, came straight to the point now that she had joined our little group. She addressed me with a question.
¡°Paul, why was Cory being so forward with me just a moment ago? Why does he always look at me with such freighting intensity in his eyes? And why are so many people here, professors and students alike, and even you I have noticed more than once, staring at me without shame? Do you all think I am a terrorist?¡±
I laughed aloud and tried to explain it to her. ¡°No, no, no,¡± I said. ¡°You are a beautiful woman, and many of the people who have their eyes on you, especially the Koreans, have never seen a true Persian beauty up close and in person before. You must know there are very few Persians here in Korea.¡±
¡°I have never met any Persians in the Philippines,¡± said Don.
¡°Neither have I.¡± Maria concurred.
¡°I still don¡¯t understand Professor Robertson,¡± said Natasha. ¡°I think I look like a thousand other women from my homeland. I do not believe there is anything special or unique about my appearance.¡±
¡°They see you as foreign and therefore as an exotic object of their desire,¡± I responded. ¡°Your appearance is unique among the rest of us foreign professors here. I might add that I concur with the general consensus. Whether you are aware of it or not, you are indeed beautiful in our eyes.¡±
¡°I refuse to believe it,¡± she contended. ¡°Is there any other reason why so many people are staring at me all of the time? Why did Cory corner me up against the partition screen and act like he was about to tear my blouse off?¡±
¡°Without meaning to offend you,¡± I told her, ¡°I have to say that your sense of fashion is a bit risqué for a professor. If I wanted to make a joke about it I would be forced to inform you that you dress like a tart. Just look at those black fishnet nylons you are wearing tonight. Totally out of character for an esteemed professor and academic like yourself.¡±
¡°Now I think my friends back in Iran are right about you,¡± she retorted. ¡°I do not want to make a joke about it when I am forced to inform you that I am terribly afraid of you. They tell me back home that I should never trust you because you are a Jew and that the Jews are a cunning and duplicitous people.¡±
¡°Natasha,¡± I said trying not to sound hurt and offended even though I was. ¡°You can trust me. I want to be your friend. You must understand that the information you have been fed about the Jews by your government, your media, your teachers, your family and your friends, everything about Jews you have seen in your newspapers and on your television screen has filled your mind with mistruths, half-truths, distortions, and out and out lies and defamation. I am trying to be your friend because I want to convince you that the Jews are a good people.¡±
¡°They told me back home you would stab me in the back and try to get me fired,¡± she told me.
¡°Even though the government of Israel and the government of Iran are declared enemies, I hope that you and I can forget about all of those politics for our time together at the university. I hope that you and I can get on together amicably. I hope we can be friends. I believe we are already friends, don¡¯t you too?¡±
Natasha looked at me pensively, like she was reviewing the possibilities silently in her mind.
¡°If you want to be my friend so much, then why did you just a moment ago call me a tart?¡±
¡°Look in the mirror,¡± I admonished her. ¡°You are an attractive and beautiful woman. I fully understand why you dress so seductively as you do. High heeled dominatrix boots with black fishnet stockings. This is your first time away from home and you are fully taking advantage of your newfound freedom here to express yourself through fashion. No headscarves or burkas are required here in South Korea as they are required in Iran, but I think you have gone slightly overboard and you have unwittingly elected to present yourself in the guise of a temptress from the East. You might be arrested in Iran for dressing the way you do here in Korea where you may present yourself as you will.¡±
¡°Do you think I should dress more conservatively Professor Robertson? Would that stop them from staring at me like I am a pornographic image on a computer screen?¡±
¡°No. No. By all means,¡± I said eagerly. ¡°As they say in some quarters back home, ¡®If you¡¯ve got it baby, flaunt it, flaunt it.¡¯ So go ahead, flaunt it to your heart¡¯s content. They will gaze at you like zombies and try to undress you with their eyes regardless of what you wear. Remember, you are almost certainly the only Persian these Koreans have ever seen or met in person.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t understand their interest in me, or why you told Cory that I looked like that Jewish queen; I think he said Ester was her name. No one back home ever told me anything about any Jewish queen named Ester. Do you really think they all lied to me? The teachers? My government? I remain as I am though you invite me to be your friend. I am afraid of you, afraid to sit here next to you on this couch and listen to your stories about this mythological Queen Ester. My brother just texted me from Tehran a moment ago and he tells me it is all a fiction, that there was never any Queen Ester in Persia. My brother also tells me there was never any Mordechai either.¡±
¡°In the Old Testament the Book of Ester tells us about the Purim story. You can find it all written down in the Old Testament, in the book we call the Megillah. I am sorry Natasha; I feel I must inform you that I believe your preconceptions about me as a Jew are twisted and distorted, full as they are of exaggerations and distortions, defamations and outright lies. But please, I beg of you, let us forget about our allegiances to governments for a while. I hope we can set politics aside and try to be friends, in spite of what we read in our newspapers or see on CNN.¡±
I was pleased to watch her fear and astonishment melt away as her entire face broke into a wide smile.
¡°And if I tell you I feel the same way about you that Maria does,¡± she said excitedly, ¡°What then? Would you sin against your wife and your God to take me, who you say resembles a beautiful queen from your ancient past, as your lover?¡±
¡°I must apologize to you Natasha and tell you this can never be. Though I am flattered by your proposal, I need to let you know that I only have room for one woman in my life. That woman is my Korean Suji. You and I Natasha can only be friends. So let us enjoy our friendship and agree that we need not be enemies.¡±
¡°If you will not have me,¡± she continued, ¡°Do you think I should agree to Cory¡¯s proposal and go out on a date with him? He seems to be so intense and serious to me. Something about him frightens me. One of the reasons why I left Iran to come here to Korea for my sabbatical is because my relatives back home, in particular my mother and my older brother, have been pushing hard to convince me to get married. I am already thirty-eight years old and they fear I will become an old maid if I do not permit a Persian man to take ownership of me through a marriage I never wanted. They tell me I must get married soon before it is too late for me or I will be fated to live alone. But I do not want to give up my career and place myself in a subordinate position to any man, even if he claims he loves me. I am not a tart and I do not believe I need boyfriends and lovers. I simply refuse to voluntarily allow myself to be the prisoner of any single man.¡±
¡°What does your father say about this dilemma of yours?¡± I asked her.
¡°My father died of cancer ten years ago. That was a terrible time for me, the most terrible episode in my life. I spent several years in therapy to learn how to cope with my loss, but I still now feel the emptiness of his absence from my life. When he was alive he always supported me in my professional ambitions, even though he too tried, unsuccessfully, to see me married off.¡±
¡°My father passed away as well, quite recently in fact,¡± I said in commiseration. ¡°Our supervisor here at the university, Doctor Han our Department Chair, told me when I requested some time to travel back to Chicago for the Shiva, which is something like but not precisely similar to a Christian wake, that when we lose one of our parents, and especially when we lose our father, it feels to us as though God himself has died. It requires much time and strength of spirit to recover from the death of the person who has led and supported us in our childhood, and later on in life if we are fortunate enough, like a benevolent king.¡±
¡°I suspect Cory, a Westerner, will want to sleep with me if I become his girlfriend,¡± Natasha said with a sense of regret in her voice. ¡°This is what I know about how romances proceed in the West. Do you think I should let him? I am beginning to trust you now and I hope you will give me an honest answer to my question.¡±
¡°Whether you agree to sleep with Cory or not is a decision you must make on your own, searching deep within your feelings and conscience, considering your culture and your most treasured beliefs as well as your own unique personal philosophy to arrive at an answer to this question which can only be yours and yours alone. However, I must also tell you that you must understand that sex with a Western man does not necessarily imply that the man feels obliged to marry you in the way you might imagine it to do so in Persia. You must be aware that sex may have a different moral component attached to it for Cory, a significance which may or may not correspond with your own views of the matter.¡±
¡°Paul, thank you for being so candid,¡± she said. ¡°I feel overwhelmed and unsettled by an unfamiliar sense of freedom. A freedom to live as I choose, but also a freedom to suffer the consequences of my autonomy, alone and isolated as I feel when I anticipate the darkness and hopelessness of a love lost forever. It is like death itself has entered into my mind to confront me once again with its inescapable inevitability.¡±
I nodded my head in sympathy and agreement and we all sat in still silence on the couch for several long minutes. But soon afterwards one of the Korean students interrupted our meditations. She was a sprightly and vibrant young woman in the junior class who had volunteered to help out with the orientation. She politely informed us that the foreign faculty were wanted back in the convention hall to hear the welcoming address by the Madam President of the university. Our conversation finished, we all filed into the crowded room to listen to the speech of Madam President. The title of the address was ¡°A Globalized University for the Success of a Globalized Korea in a Globalized World.¡±
Just as I had expected, the speech by Madam President was delivered entirely in the Korean language. Most of we foreign professors comprehend not more than a few words of it.