By Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2020. All rights reserved.
The two English professors sat talking quietly in the coffee shop in Chunghyodong, the residential area not far from the university campus where the two professors worked. Coffee shops like this one were ubiquitous in South Korea, complete with fashionable decor and comfortable seating. Professor David Moore would rather have been talking over a beer at the local hoff or bar, but since his companion, Professor Paul Robertson, was well known to be a staunch teetotaler, and since it was not yet noon, the two middle-aged men decided they would meet to talk at the coffee shop. Although the university quite recently had employed a large number of foreign professors like themselves in an effort to improve the university’s ranking and standing with the government agency in charge of evaluating and accrediting Korean universities, hard times financially and declining enrollment left the campus with only six foreign English professors on the faculty. David and Paul were the only two Americans, the rest of the small English faculty being just two Canadians, a South African, and a Pakistani. Professors Moore and Robertson had only an hour ago left the campus after turning in their end of the semester grades and paperwork, and the two of them decided they would have a nice long chat before heading their separate ways for the extended winter vacation of approximately two months. David and his Thai wife, Quin, were heading to Thailand for the break, in order to visit Quin’s family and have themselves a tropical vacation. Paul intended to spend his time at his home in Pusan, reading, writing, and enjoying some quality time with his Korean wife Suji and their son, the fourteen year-old Joseph.
In Paul’s opinion, the long vacations and abundance of free time during the school semesters when classes were in session somewhat compensated for the modest salary the professors earned teaching the rudiments of the English language to their not always complaisant students, who were certainly not the top students in South Korea. Paul considered himself to be a scholar and a writer, a would-be man of letters, even though he only held a masters degree and not a doctorate. So much of his academic, scholarly, and creative interests had been colored by his experiences in graduate school at The University of Chicago, and before that at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from which he had graduated with the highest of honors, it seemed to all those who knew him well, as did David Moore, that Paul’s preoccupation with his chosen schools was something of an obsession with him.
Like his friend and colleague Paul, David had also been a standout student in both college and graduate school, and he also hailed from the mid-West, a graduate of The University of Michigan for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in American studies. Also like Paul, David had left graduate school before earning the doctorate degree. The meeting in the coffee shop marked the end of David’s third year teaching at the university. Prior to joining the English faculty there, David had lived for almost two decades in Thailand, employed as an English professor at a university in the northern city of Chaing Mai, where David had met and married his wife Quin. Paul also had lived much of his adult life overseas, in South Korea, though he and Suji for a time, eleven years to be precise, made a good go of it back home as high school teachers in Paul’s native Chicago. The two men had much in common and much to talk about, and they profoundly enjoyed one another’s company and companionship, which in an imperfect and incomplete way compensated for the inevitable loneliness and solitude that from time to time gripped them, separated as they were for long periods of time from their friends and relations back in the mid-West. Skype and Facebook phone chat made it fairly easy to stay in regular contact with the people they cared about back home, but that was not quite the same experience as spending time with family and friends in person. Technology, useful as it was to them for the purpose of staying in touch, remained an imperfect and incomplete solution to this problem.
So the two of them, David and Paul, with so much in common and to talk about, reclined at ease on the comfortable couches in the coffee shop near campus and practiced the lost art of conversation. The topics they routinely covered during such meetings as this one ranged from Paul’s love of political theory, history, and literature, to David’s interest in contemporary politics and comparative cultural studies. These two highly educated men, even without their doctorates, understood that their true passions and interests as academics and writers were located someplace far beyond the far less, to the two of them at least, challenging and interesting field of English language teaching from which they earned their modest living. Their mutual love of great books and weighty intellectual pursuits made them, in fact, kindred spirits.
Today’s conversation in the coffee shop ranged from Jewish theology, one of Paul’s longstanding interests, himself being one of only a sparse number of Jews living in South Korea, to the inevitable discussion of the chaos and strife back home due to the Trump presidency and the current impeachment crisis. The latter was a topic of interest to David both as an American and an Americanist who believed Paul’s training as a social scientist and political scientist made him the ideal interlocutor for such a discussion. The two of them entertained one another during an hour or so of heady dialog about these matters, an hour so satisfying to both kindred souls as to elevate their moods and allow them to relish an escape, if only temporary, from the sometimes dour reality of their status at the university and in Korean society at large. As merely English language professors, they occupied a kind of second class status, complete with its second class salary, compared to the Korean faculty at the university.
Sometime later, the conversation turned toward the topic of two of their students at the university who everyone on campus seemed to be talking about. Though many students were engaged in the worst kind of malicious gossip about the pair in question, David and Paul intended to treat seriously the trying dilemma confronting these two young people due to their inexperience and carelessness as lovers. The two students in question where Vietnamese exchange students studying at the Korean university. Nuguyen Duong Hoang, the young man, and his girlfriend Chu Thai Van, were what everyone at the school referred to as a “CC” or “campus couple.” Both of them had decided to pursue their college degrees in hotel management in South Korea, because they believed that due to South Korea’s advanced state of economic and technological development, a degree from a Korean university, as well as Korean language skills, would be of inestimable value to them as hoteliers back home in Vietnam. The two of them understood that with more and more Koreans traveling to Vietnam these days for both business and pleasure, professional credentials from Korea and Korean language skills would place them ahead of the competition during their careers in the hospitality industry. Hoang’s parents, living on the outskirts of Hanoi, where they ran the family’s small hotel and guest house, encouraged their son to pursue his college education in South Korea because they believed he would come back to them with the skills and knowhow to expand the family business. Hoang’s girlfriend, Van, had an older sister, also living in Hanoi, who worked as a tour guide. This sister of Van’s influenced her decision to go to Korea to study a major focused on hospitality and tourism.
Hoang earned an “A” grade in David’s class for the current semester, while Van, a student in one of Paul’s classes, also earned high marks. The two students managed to earn their high grades in spite of the fact that both of them spent long hours outside of class and late into the evenings, and often into the wee hours of the morning, employed in their part-time jobs in Korean restaurants in downtown Gyeongju. The jobs were quite demanding for the two students and many others like them studying at the university. They prepared, sometimes cooked, and served Korean barbecue to the patrons of the downtown restaurants, and when finished with those tasks their duties where only half way completed. They finished their long work shifts late into the night by cleaning up the establishments, washing piles and piles of dishes, cleaning the tables, mopping up the floors, taking out the trash and food waste, and performing other menial tasks. All the while that they were employed, they struggled with their faltering Korean language skills in their attempts to communicate with their Korean bosses, coworkers, and customers. Nonetheless, they repeatedly told their professors at the university, during class discussion, that they thoroughly enjoyed the work since the wages they earned in Korea were many times higher than what they could have earned in similar jobs back home in Vietnam.
The two young Vietnamese lovers had actually met, not on campus or in class, as one might have expected, given the tight knit community of Vietnamese exchange students that had sprouted up at the university over the last few years. Rather, Hoang and Van found one another riding on the same city bus from the campus to their downtown workplaces one late afternoon after finishing their classes for the day. They rode the same bus for months before either one of them found himself or herself to be courageous enough to initiate a conversation with the other, so shy and inexperienced in the arts of love, romance, and even dating were these two.
Over their coffee David and Paul discussed with some fascination, a bit of humor, but also much respect and admiration for the chase purity of the students’ native culture, how both Hoang and Van had openly confessed in class their complete and total lack of experience with any but the most innocent of relations with the other sex. Hoang had told David that, though he was twenty-one years old, he had never had a girlfriend before, and had not even been out on a single, solitary date with any woman. He told David and the rest of his class that he was a shy boy who did not have enough time for a girlfriend anyhow, due to his focus on his part-time job and his preparations for his future career as an hotelier. Van, likewise, was uninitiated into the mysteries and pleasures of love and romance. She confessed to both Paul and her classmates that, though she was twenty-one years old, she had never had a boyfriend, either in Korea or Vietnam, and that her innate shyness and preoccupation with work and her studies served to relegate all thoughts of love and romance to the realm of sheer hope and fantasy.
“How quaint and wholesome it all is, the way our students talk about love,” David remarked to Paul in the coffee shop as their conversation shifted away from their heady philosophical and political discourse to an almost light hearted discussion of the most serious of predicaments now facing the two Vietnamese lovers. The two professors viewed the entire episode with much sympathy, since the manner in which the students discussed their hesitation, discomfort, and even fear regarding relations with the opposite sex so clearly reminded the English professors of their own experiences dating their Asian wives some twenty-five and more years earlier, when such relations were governed by cultural taboos and restrictions even more conservative than the ones existent now. Neither South Korea nor Vietnam are like, for instance, Saudi Arabia, when it comes to the social mores governing intimate relations between the sexes. Nonetheless, the situation there in Asia concerning this issue and matter was and remains far more conservative than what David and Paul were used to from their experiences growing up in The United States.
Paul agreed wholeheartedly with David on this topic, and the two of them exchanged heartwarming stories and recollections concerning their students’ insecurities regarding their lack of knowledge and experience with the kind of dating rituals and customs which the two middle-aged American professors had themselves first encountered all those decades past when they were just high school, or even middle school or junior high school students. Paul declared that it was a terrible shame, how the ubiquitous presence of Asian pornography on the internet left so many people in the West with a grossly distorted and inaccurate view of the more typical Asian attitude toward all things related to sex and romance. Even a cursory glimpse of Asian pornography online had the effect of deeply misleading the weiguksaram or foreigners, that Asian morality was fast and loose when it came to sex and love. This misunderstanding of the matter was so far from the truth, the two foreign professors, with their more profound understanding of Asian cultures gained from their marriages and long experience teaching overseas in Asia, felt a kind of remorseful disappointment at the existence of the more common, but false, view which they agreed was nothing short of slanderous.
This brought the two Americans now to a detailed discussion of the dilemma facing their students, Nuguyen Duong Hoang, and Chu Thai Van. The professors’ understanding of exactly what had transpired between the two Vietnamese students was somewhat less than precise, due to the limited English conversation skills of even these two A students when they attempted to describe their situation to the professors. Then of course there was the pernicious influence of the campus-wide gossip, which distorted and disfigured the truth. The two professor were brought to understand, through much effort and the use of smart phone dictionaries on the parts of Hoang and Van, that the two of them had made their first acquaintance, not in class or on campus, but of all places, on the bus heading downtown and ferrying the students to the part-time jobs at the restaurants which would keep them occupied after school hours and late into the night and next morning. The two students found themselves, on multiple occasions, riding the same bus from the campus to the downtown area where the restaurants were located. David’s and Paul’s understanding of the details of the first encounters between Hoang and Van on the bus were somewhat murky, as much was lost in translation, but here is how Hoang or Van, or someone else with a bird’s eyed view, might have described it all, had any one of them been able to do so in perfect English.
The first meeting took place on an ordinary afternoon in late October during only the second semester the students had been enrolled at the university. As was commonly the case, at the late afternoon hour when both Hoang and Van had separately boarded the bus, they were jam packed inside of it, as if the bus was a can of sardines, full to the brim with multi-national crowd of students; Koreans, Vietnamese, Uzbeks, Chinese, and even a few Russians. As luck would have it, the two of them, Hoang and Van, found themselves squashed and pinned together near the rear of the bus due to the manner in which the large throng of other students squeezed and packed themselves on to the vehicle. Hoang and Van were both wearing blue jeans and those punk rock style black leather biker jackets so fashionable at the time in South Korea. Of course almost none of the many students possessed of this almost required attire were aware of or familiar with the significance of the jacket as a symbol of youth rebellion and protest for the punk rockers who had worn similar apparel in decades past. Certainly not a single solitary student on campus knew what a beatnik was and how they had popularized the style after Marlin Brando had first donned a biker jacket in the pre-punk classic movie, The Wild One. That was years before the punk rockers revolutionized the music scene in the late seventies and through the eighties and beyond, adopting the black leather biker jacket as their uniform of choice and protest. For the two Vietnamese students, soon to be lovers, the jackets were worn simply because that was the prevailing style of the moment, which for them lacked all manner of political significance as a symbol of rebellion.
Nonetheless, the two of them there on the bus could not help but to notice that they were dressed in matching and almost identical clothing, as they were squeezed tightly against one another by the swarm of other students pressing in on them from all sides on the bus. For several long moments, out of sheer embarrassment due to the awkward nature of this first meeting, they spoke not a word to one another, even though they were scrunched up face to face and could even smell each other’s breath, which held the distinct scent of a mixture of can coffee and cup ramyon. Positioned as they were on the bus, the two shy students, who tried to avert their eyes from the other’s out of embarrassment and modesty, were forced to look directly into the other’s fearful, hesitant gaze. At the same moment Hoang and Van permitted themselves to look at one another face to face, an eventuality made inevitable by their sheer proximity of one to the other on the crowded bus. A pair of humble smiles of shame and modesty crossed both of their faces almost simultaneously, and these two handsome young people instantly sensed a deep connection and longing drawing each of them toward the other. They both began to laugh and giggle from sheer relief from their mutual but silent compact to gaze into the other’s eyes without further hesitation, searching for and finding a sign of mutual understanding and comfort with the unavoidable and now welcome fact that they would be forced to remain in this position on the bus for the duration of the twenty minute bus ride from the campus to the downtown stop where they would both exit the bus in order to report to work. Van surrendered to her desire to gaze expectantly into the eyes of the handsome Hoang, whose quasi-effeminate, quasi-boyish visage complemented his short hair dyed silver gray in the punk rock style which again, neither he nor Van truly understood the origin and significance of as a political statement of youth rebellion. Hoang, for his part, became overwhelmed by a new and sudden realization that he was inestimably pleased to be gazing upon the sheer beauty of Van’s youthful face, with its big round eyes, big and round by Asian standards at least, and the long black hair so delightfully complimented by the black leather biker jacket.
The two young students were about the same height, which was noticeably short and diminutive by both Western and Korean standards, but quite ordinary as stature goes for the Vietnamese. The longer they remained caught within the rapture of this serendipitous, almost inexplicable mutual understanding, the more each of them struggled to find the courage to speak to the other. Though the words simply would not come, they both knew they were communicating a deep and overwhelming interest for the other, a kind of desire which neither of them, uninitiated as they were in the ways and methods of romance, had ever permitted themselves to feel before. Hoang was literally afraid to speak and break the silent trance they were caught within. He said not a single word to Van, who for some inexplicable reason garnered sufficient courage to initiate a faltering conversation she hoped would lead the two of them on a journey down a path of romance neither of them had even once traversed before. Hoang remained silent, made speechless by the rapture in which he was held by the sheer beauty he saw so close to his longing gaze. He was paralyzed by an insurmountable fear he could not shake away, stemming from his total lack of experience with any situation like the one he found himself in on the bus. Van, more courageous and uninhibited than Hoang, took the lead and initiated the two lovers’ first hesitant conversation. The conversation was of course conducted entirely in the Vietnamese language.
“Are you going downtown to work, like I am?” Van asked Hoang. “What is your name? I’ve seen you around campus many times before, but we have never spoken to one another before. I do not believe we have been properly introduced.”
Relieved to see that the ice was finally broken, Hoang mustered the courage to answer the young woman.
“I am Nuguyen Duong Hoang. I am going to work now at a kalbi restaurant. I am so pleased to meet you. I am a very shy person, and I rarely speak to women, especially women who are as beautiful as you are. It is my honor and privilege to make your acquaintance.
“My name is Chu Thai Van. I am on my way to work downtown at a fried chicken restaurant. I cut the chickens and I flour the chickens and I fry the chickens and I serve the chickens to the Korean customers. Then I clean up after closing time. I don’t get home sometimes until after 1:00 a.m. I live alone in a tiny studio apartment not far from downtown. Where do you live?”
“I also live alone near the downtown area in a small studio apartment,” Hoang said. “I do not get home from work until after 1:00 a.m. or sometimes 1:30. I fall asleep fast due to my exhaustion. Then it is back to campus for classes early in the morning. Most of the time I am so tired from working in the kalbi restaurant that I have trouble keeping my eyes open in class.”
“I know what you mean Hoang,” Van told him in sympathy. “My job tires me out as well. I wish I did not have to go to class tomorrow and could just lie in bed under my warm blankets and sleep all day long. Then I could dream about Vietnam and warm weather and my family and our food, instead of nearly freezing to death traveling to campus early in the morning.”
“Yes Van,” said Hoang. “That would be so nice, to spend all day in bed dreaming the time away, all alone with no one to bother me and force me to speak English or Korean.”
“Yes,” agreed Van. “That would be lovely, to spend the day alone with no responsibilities to interrupt my dreams.”
Van looked into Hoang’s eyes, and she smiled a wide smile when she did so. She startled herself by her own self-confidence talking to Hoang, this handsome young man she had admired from afar on campus, but with whom she had never spoken before. How amazing and delightful it was to be now finally speaking with him, she thought to herself, lost again in the revelry of the happy gaze he returned to her own. How nice this new feeling was, and how adventurous this was to be talking with man with her miraculously discovered confidence. Thoughts entered her mind without intention, of how far away she was from Vietnam and her family there. Her parents in Vietnam always admonished Van to be careful around young men because there were so many ways a young man could get a young woman into trouble, sometimes into serious trouble. Momma and Poppa and all of their rules and restrictions were far away now, and Van just at that moment discovered she was no longer a child to be admonished and chided into conformity with the demanding expectations of adults, teachers, and parents. She then resolved to not be so careful around this handsome young man who good luck and good fortune had placed directly in front of her, fate literally squeezing them together on the crowded bus. Van felt a sudden need to tell Hoang what she was really thinking just then, and to find out if he was thinking the same thoughts she was, but she could not do so openly in public on the bus, surrounded as both of them were by the throng of other students headed to work in the restaurants downtown. She gazed again into his eyes with the hope that he would understand her thoughts without the exchange of spoken words. The way he smiled and gazed back at her convinced her instantly that yes, they were in fact communicating and of the same mind. This sense of mutual understanding swept over her like a moment of heavenly bliss and she felt the two of them melt into the person of the other for a brief moment of cosmic delight.
Finally, when the bus reached the stop downtown where they both exited together after squeezing through the crowd of students, Hoang’s hand brushed up against Van’s hand without intention or purpose. Then the two of them stood on the sidewalk, looking dreamily at one another but not talking. Instead they remained there, waiting for the other students who exited the bus with them to move on and away toward their destinations, leaving Hoang and Van alone there on the sidewalk where now no one would be able to hear what they truly longed to say to one another. Van remained still amazed by a new sense of self-confidence she had never in her life felt before, and she hoped that Hoang, the shy youth he normally was, would somehow also discover this same self-confidence in himself and tell Van what he was really thinking. Van prayed Hoang would reveal his innermost thought to her at that moment.
Much to Van’s disappointment, Hoang found himself at a loss for words, because the truth was he was terrified of saying the wrong thing in this situation with which he was so unfamiliar and inexperienced. Time appeared to pass very slowly as the two of them were engulfed by the long silence so that the whole world swirling around them seemed cold and frozen and dead. Van suddenly realized that she would be forced again to take the initiative and directly tell Hoang what she was thinking and what she really wanted from him.
“Hoang,” she said pronouncing his name firmly and with determination. “On the bus we both told each other that we wanted to spend all day tomorrow alone, dreaming the lonely hours away in bed with no one to bother us and force us to speak Korean and English.”
All the petrified Hoang could do at that moment was to nod his head in agreement, since the right words would not come to him just then.
“Well Hoang,” Van continued. “I think now that was all a big lie we told ourselves because we are both so young and inexperienced. I have never had any boyfriend before, and I can see just by looking at you shaking like a leaf in front of me that you have no experience with any girlfriend.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Hoang somehow mustered the capacity say.
“I don’t want to spend all day alone in my apartment tomorrow, Hoang,” Van told him directly. “I want to be with you in your apartment. I want to spend the entire day with you. I want to live my dream with you all day long because I know when you will be next to me you and I will live the same dream together. We will dream together in the very same bed.”
Hoang remained silent, though not completely shocked because during their close encounter on the bus his head had been filled with thoughts similar to the ones Van had just pronounced. Instantly and inexplicably his fears and discomfort with this new situation and these new feelings melted away, and Hoang resigned himself to acting with more determination and purpose. He gave Van his smart phone number and also told her the directions to his studio apartment. Van laughed with glee and excitement at these strange but delicious new feelings rushing over and through her at that moment. She reached out to Hoang, grabbed him by the shoulders instinctively, and kissed him on the cheek, before turning quickly around on her heels to run away from him and leave him standing alone and spellbound on the sidewalk.
“What about class tomorrow?” Hoang shouted after Van as she hurried on her way to work. “We must go to class tomorrow.”
“We don’t need or want to go to class tomorrow Hoang,” she shouted back to him. “We will have many more important lessons to teach to one another in your studio instead. Together we will make a better and more enjoyable education for the two of us.”
Back at the coffee shop in Chunghyodong, the two English professors continued to discuss the love affair between their two students, and each told the other what he thought about the terrible predicament the two young lovers had gotten themselves into due to their rashness and inexperience. David wondered aloud whether one, or even both of them, would be forced to leave school in order to take care of the child on the way, and he lamented the fact that Van, a young woman with so much potential, had apparently squandered her dreams and bright future by failing to take the necessary precautions. David remained skeptical concerning the young couple’s stated intention to be married as soon as they could come across sufficient funds to pay for a respectable wedding. How could such young people pledge themselves to a lifelong commitment like marriage, after they had been together for only a few short months? Especially worrying for David was the fact that, before the inception of their relationship, neither of them had any prior experience with love and romantic relationships. Professor Moore sounded quite pessimistic about the entire matter, and he told Professor Robertson that he did not expect the relationship, come marriage or not, to last for more than a few years. How could anyone so young make such life changing decisions and enter into such life determining commitments? Neither of the two lovers had sufficient income required to support a family, leaving them and their child to remain dependent on the financial assistance of their parents back in Vietnam, which was now required to give even a sliver of hope to the successful fruition of all their plans for a life together, plans and dreams made with all of the blind rashness and passion of youth.
Professor Robertson critiqued the dour outlook of his friend and colleague. Paul told David that his own prior experience as a high school history and social science teacher in a Chicago Public School for over a decade, convinced him to maintain a brighter outlook concerning the trouble in which the two Vietnamese lovers now found themselves. Paul explained to David how not a year went by during his employment in the high school without him having to deal with at least three or four, sometimes more, pregnant teenage girls in his classes. This was the case mainly with his lower level and remedial classes. Due to his experience teaching the inner city youths in such classes, by the end of his time teaching in the high school, Paul was no longer shocked to see 15 year-old girls pregnant out to here. The students in Paul’s higher level and gifted classes seemed to be, if not more chaste than the remedial students, then at least more careful than them. In all of his years teaching the advanced students, Paul never once encountered a pregnancy case among them.
Paul then related to David his very worst experience with the problem of teenage pregnancy during his tenure as high school teacher in Chicago. This experience was in fact one factoring significantly in Paul’s decision to give into his wife’s repeated requests for Paul, Suji, and their son Joseph to leave Chicago, with all of its crime, social dysfunction, and unfulfilled promises for their family, in order to return to Suji’s homeland. There in Korea, Suji was convinced she and Paul would be able to raise their son Joseph in a more wholesome and safe environment. Even with Kim Jung Eun and the North Koreans breathing down their necks, threatening them with nuclear annihilation, Suji firmly believed the family would be safer and better off living in South Korea. Paul told the story of one of the final straws breaking the camel’s back concerning Paul’s accession to Suji’s plan for a better future for the family living abroad.
“It was the middle of my eleventh, and what was to become my final year teaching history and social science at the selective enrollment high school in Lincoln Park. I believe I told you before, I was in hot water with the administration because they believed I was overqualified for the job, given my prestigious academic credentials. More than once, important people in the administration and the lackeys close to them told me they believed I was throwing my CV away by remaining at the high school. In their opinion I could and should have been somewhere else doing something else more appropriate for a graduate of The University of Chicago, who was also a Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude. In order to force me to think more carefully about my future and potential, the administration purposely took away my gifted and advanced level classes from me, and they placed me in multiple remedial level classes which they packed with the school’s most troubled students complete with all manner of learning disabilities and behavior and emotional disorders. They did this intentionally to wear me down, burn me out, and force me to quit because they believed it was possible and necessary for me to pursue a more satisfying career someplace else, anyplace else, with greener pastures.”
“My third period class was a remedial level Law in American Society class, and like my other lower level classes, it was full of troubled youths. I still remember clearly, and will always remember what is impossible to forget; a fifteen year-old pregnant girl who lived in the Cabrini Green housing projects, one of the highest crime and highest poverty areas in the city, sandwiched between the upscale Old Town and Lincoln Park communities, and the vast wealth and economic power of the extension of the downtown area north of the Loop. She was well known to be a frequent drug user, and she rarely bothered to attend class. On the rare days she was in attendance, she habitually secluded herself in the back of the room with her head on her desk, sleeping off the haze of the previous night’s drunken or drug induced craze and ribaldry. I tried to reach out to her as best as I could, to counsel her away from her self-destructive behaviors, but in all honesty, I was simply overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and number of cases of severe social dysfunction I encountered in my emotionally draining and punishing schedule of remedial classes. High School teachers in inner city schools are forced to take on the roles of social workers due to the devastating and crippling nature of the mental health issues facing so many of their students. I, who was not so talented and comfortable with that role of social worker, a role for which I had never received any prior training, failed miserably in my attempts to reach and transform the life of this particular pregnancy case. This of course was just what the administration hoped for, sticking me in those lower level classes. They were counting on me to burn out, break down, lose it completely, and eventually to walk away from it all in order to find a more suitable career and life for myself.”
“This particular deeply troubled girl I just described to you, she was six months pregnant when she showed up to class one day as high as a kite. Talking loudly to herself about how everyone she knew was out to get her in trouble, she proceed to sit down in the back of the room, laughing at the top of her lungs about how she was going to “Show Mr. Robertson and everyone else who looks down on me because I am pregnant that you are all going to get what is coming to you.” Overwhelmed by the situation and unsure of how to respond most effectively in order to calm the girl down and encourage her to sober up, I was almost paralyzed by my lack of training for such an eventuality as this. As I was about to commence a lesson on the unit of Family Law, the pregnant girl pulled a tube of rubber cement out of her pocket, squeezed a blob of the cement on top of her desk, bent her head down on the desk, and began inhaling the fumes deeply as one does when sniffing glue for its narcotic effects.”
“Needless to say, the remainder of the fifty minute long class was a complete wash. Even after I had a security guard report to the room to escort the pregnant girl out of class, the remaining students persisted to harass me in the same rebellious spirit the pregnant girl had commenced with. Later that day, during my lunch period, prep period, and planning period, I reported the incident to the school nurse, the school therapist and social worker, a guidance counselor, and the principal of the school himself. They all told me the same thing. The girl in question was a hopeless case. There was nothing they nor anyone else could realistically do to dramatically improve her situation, given their limited resources. I pleaded with them to think, not just about the health and well-being of the student, but also about the fate of her unborn child. The school principal, quite typically, tried to pin the blame on me, telling me that if I had better classroom management skills and could control my class, the girl would not have been so bold to get herself high directly in front of my face. I was not the least bit surprised by the egomaniac’s thuggish response, and I immediately realized it was one more ploy in the administration’s project to force me to resign and think more seriously about putting my esteemed CV and educational background to a better use.”
“So here I am with you today David, a Professor teaching at a university in South Korea. I am here for a number of different reasons which extend far beyond motives like the one I just describe to you concerning the effect and impact of that unhappy incident with the pregnant teenager in my class. Now I think you can understand why I am not as worried as you are about the future of those two students of ours, those Vietnamese love birds, who I concede have gotten themselves into a terrible mess with their pregnancy. They are so unlike the desperate girls I taught in Chicago, like that poor kid inhaling intoxicants so deadly and dangerous for both herself and her unborn child. The situation facing Hoang and Van is incomparably different, and I am confident those two, with the good heads they have on their shoulders, will in the end make out much better than all of those teenage pregnancy cases I witnessed while teaching in the Chicago Public Schools.”
David then told Paul that he thought it was just terrible what goes on in the Chicago Public Schools and in so many other similarly distressed, underfunded, and poorly managed school districts across the United States.
“I understand why you gave up your tenure and your career in Chicago to return to South Korea with your family, Paul. I agree with you in your opinion that the environment, especially for your son Joseph in school, is more wholesome and safe here. The big problem with teenagers here seems to be computer game and phone game addiction, together with the less common but still worrisome cases of teenage smoking and drinking. Of course, we both know that young people the world over are often filled with a rebellious spirit leading them into trouble, but the potential for the more serious kind of problems here in South Korea is worlds apart from what you witnessed and faced on a daily basis in Chicago. A few of the Korean professors at the university have told me they are concerned that young people in Korea are becoming more like young people in the West. I always reassure them that computer game addiction and an unhealthy fascination with K-pop idols are a far cry from the teenage pregnancy, drug use, gang violence, school to prison pipeline, and panoply of other social dislocations afflicting the prospects of far too many young people caught in the desperation of underfunded and underserved school districts across the United States.”
“I could not agree more with you, David. “Suji and I are very pleased with the education our son Joseph is receiving in his Korean school, both in terms of the school’s focus on academics, as well as on ethics and character development. We do not think Joseph is missing out on much being raised and educated here in South Korea.”
“Yes Paul. Joseph is a fine boy. You and Suji are raising him up to be such a considerate and creative young man. Now let me return to the topic of the young Vietnamese couple with their child on the way. Hoang was enrolled in one of my classes this past term, and I know that Van was a student in one of your classes. By any chance, did Van come to speak to you about her predicament and ask for your advice? In my case, Hoang and I discussed the situation on several occasions after class. Of course we had some difficulty communicating due to the language barrier, even though Hoang is an A student. One of our conversations after class went like this.”
“Professor Moore,” Hoang said as he approached me after all the other students left the class upon the conclusion of my lesson. “I need to talk with you and ask your advice about something important.”
“Go ahead and tell me all about it,” I responded, already knowing what Hoang would talk about, since by that time the rumors and gossip about he and Van had already spread all around campus.
“My girlfriend, Chu Thai Van, has our baby in her tummy, and I need to ask your advice about our situation,” he immediately confessed to me.
“Yes Hoang. I, as well as everyone else on campus, have heard about it already. The two of you are the talk of the town, so to speak. You had quite an unfortunate accident, the two of you did. Tell me Hoang, what are your intentions for your girlfriend? I sincerely hope you are not planning on leaving her in the lurch and abandoning your responsibilities towards her and your child. A man of character, a true man of honor, Hoang, never leaves unfulfilled his obligations towards the one he loves, especially when he shares at least half of the responsibility for getting his beloved into such a terrible mess.”
“I am an honor man, Professor Moore,” Hoang replied. “At least I will try to be such a man. I do not intend to desert my Van and our baby. You know, Professor Moore, so many of the students here at the university are talking about the two of us, Van and I, and they are saying that Van is a very bad, immoral, and immodest woman. But you must believe me Professor, it is not true. My girlfriend is a kind and sympathetic woman, and her heart and love for me is pure. She is not the easy woman they say she is, and I am not a playboy. Both of us, Van and I, want to do the right thing. That is why I am here to talk to you about our situation.”
“Are you or Van considering termination of the pregnancy? What I mean to say is, are you contemplating the possibility of an abortion?”
“No. Never. Impossible,” Hoang responded firmly, surprised and offended that I thought it appropriate to suggest such solution as even within the realm of possibilities. “The Buddha will not permit it. Our baby inside Van’s tummy is a living human being. We will never murder our baby for the sake of our own convenience. The Buddha knows our baby has a human soul already and wants to live. We will never destroy a living human soul simply to make our lives easier.”
“Well then Hoang, I am glad that matter is settled,” I said to him, pleased to hear him reject so firmly my suggestion, since I believed it to be evidence of the strength of Hoang’s commitment to Van. “I know the two of you are very young, and that you came to Korea to prepare for your careers and futures. “Have you considered marriage? Are the two of you ready and willing to make the kind of commitment required for marriage, even at your young age and with your inexperience with love?”
“That is what I wanted to talk to you about,” Professor Moore. “You told our class that your wife is from Thailand and that you got married to her in Chaing Mai over twenty years ago. I want to ask you if you have any regrets about your decision to get married. Do you believe marriage is the right path to a happy and fulfilled life?”
“That is the right question precisely,” I answered Hoang. “I have almost no regrets about my decision to marry my wife Quin. I am a happily married man, Hoang, and I am certain Quin feels the same about our life together as I do. Our only regret is that we have not been able to have any children together. We tried for many years to make a baby, but fate would have it that we were unable to bless our sacred union together with the birth of a child. You must know Hoang, although your predicament is less than ideal, given your young age and incomplete education which will to a significant degree be disrupted by your early marriage and fatherhood, I consider you and Van to be luckier than me and Quin. Perhaps your Buddha intends to bless you with this child, even though this blessing is not to be bestowed upon you at the most opportune time in your lives. Yes Hoang, I envy you for your good fortune. I say this to you as a highly educated man who understands the kind of hard work and sacrifice required to obtain an education leading to a fruitful career. Some fortitude and determination is required in order for one to make his way in the world. I believe you and Van are doing the right thing by bringing this child into being and life. Perhaps the Buddha is right, and you understand him well. Count your blessings I say, as a childless husband of a childless wife. You will have to plan and plot out your future more carefully now, in order to find some way to juggle school, marriage, and parenthood all at the same time. I think you can do it. I am confident you will succeed Hoang.”
“Thank you Professor,” Hoang then said with a new look of fortitude and determination on his face. “Thank you for your good words about us. I will go find Van now and tell her your good words. She is waiting for me in the campus snack shop downstairs. Thank you.”
“Then Hoang left to go meet and talk with Van, and I was alone in my classroom thinking about my wife Quin, feeling deeply a mournful empathy with her unfulfilled desire to have a child of her own.”
David finished telling Paul about his conversation with Hoang. Then Paul spoke to David about his opinion concerning the disappointment David and Quin felt about not having any children of their own.
“I’m sorry that you and Quin remain childless,” Paul said considerately. “Children truly are a joy to bring into this world, a troubled world though it may be. Have the two of you considered adoption as a solution to your problem? An adopted child will love you and fill your hearts the same way a child of your own would. By adopting a child you will also save another human being from a life of struggle and perhaps even dire poverty as an orphan.”
“I have brought up the topic of adoption more than a few times with Quin, but she is not interested. Unfortunately I believe she almost prefers to mourn the absence of a child of her own due to the fact that we had two miscarriages. Getting pregnant was far too easy for our students, Hoang and Van, but for Quin and me, trying to have a baby of our own was an ordeal fraught with anxiety, disappointment, and remorse. Quin will remain opposed to your proposed solution, and I do not intend to push her to change her mind because I believe it is her decision to make, not mine. Paul, do you and Suji have any experience with adoption?”
“We never had to seriously consider adoption ourselves, mainly due to the fact that we were blessed to have and raise our own son Joseph. Back in Chicago though, when I was teaching in the high school there, I was surprised to find that over the course of my eleven years there, more than a few of the teenage pregnancy cases at the school asked me, even pleaded with me, to adopt their children. Even that girl I spoke to you about earlier, the one with the serious substance abuse problem, she literally begged me to adopt her child. Each time I was asked I refused. That was as close as I have ever been to considering adoption. I remained for some time confused about why those students of mine, who were all troubled students and “problem” cases considered to be “at risk” students, I was baffled about why they wanted me, who experienced so many difficulties with them with respect to discipline issues, to adopt their babies. Finally one of my female colleagues in the History Department explained it all to me. She told me that while those students were indeed problem students in terms of disciplinary issues, they routinely viewed me as a kind of father figure to them. My colleague told me that these young girls from the projects had few, if any, adults , and especially few male adults, who they could view as any kind of predictable and stable presence in their lives. Apparently, according to my female colleague, I was the most predictable and stable feature in their entire lives. They could count on me to be there at the head of their classes trying my best to teach them every school day. They were fond of me because even with my struggles with classroom management issues, I remained even keeled, clam, and friendly, almost never raising my voice in anger during class. Consequently those pregnant girls viewed me a kind of father figure, like the fathers they always wanted growing up, but who were all too often absent from their difficult and troubled lives. Their trust in me was deeply touching, even though everyone in the school, students and faculty alike, knew I dreaded teaching those hard to control kids in the lower level and remedial classes.”
“Now that is truly heartwarming,” David told Paul after hearing him describe his experiences with the teenage pregnancy cases he encountered back in Chicago. “Perhaps someday, when Quin recovers from her disappointment, when she is done grieving for the miscarriages, she will change her mind about adoption. But for now it is just the two of us in our home. I am not saying we are unhappy together. Like you and Suji, Quin and I are a well matched, happy couple. Other than our childlessness, I would not alter a thing about our lives together, and I know I must be somehow blessed by God himself to be able to say this.”
Paul again apologized to David about David’s and Quin’s big disappointment. Paul tried to reassure David that someday Quin might change her mind about adoption, He advised David to remain patient with his wife and then perhaps the desired change would come.
David told Paul that he hoped, for the, sake of Hoang, Van, and the child on the way, that the two lovers were as well matched for one another as David and Paul were with their own spouses. David said he believed the two students were showing some inner strength and fortitude in their decision to keep the baby and get married. Hopefully their love was not merely some passing fancy of youth, here today and gone tomorrow, the product the impetuous and fickle nature of young hearts. Paul concurred with David on this point. He said he remained hopeful that all would turn out for the best. Van had come to speak to Paul about the predicament after class one day, the same way Hoang had come to speak with David about it. Though her English was faltering at best, Paul was able to understand the essence of Van’s thoughts and concerns.
“I know all the students on campus are talking about me and I know what they all are thinking,” Van told Paul in the classroom after the other students in the class had been dismissed. “They all say I am a bad woman, and an easy woman. Some of them call me a slut behind my back. I know just what that word means in English Professor Robertson. Please do not believe them because it is not true. It is all a big lie. I am not an easy woman. It is true that Hoang and I were careless and made a big mistake, so now I have his baby inside my tummy. But we are not bad people, Hoang and I. We are not children and we chose to love each other like adults. We have a big plan for our problem. Fortunately our parents back in Vietnam agreed to help us. Hoang will remain here at the university until he completes his degree. I will return to Vietnam and live with Hoang’s parents in their hotel and guest house. Hoang’s parents, so generous they are, agreed to help us in this manner, and also financially. I will give birth to our baby in Vietnam and stay there with the child. Hoang will visit us during school vacations. Hoang’s parents agreed to help us with this plan so long as we committed to getting married. We have a plan to wed in Vietnam after the baby is born. I will care for the baby at the hotel with the help of Hoang’s parents. After Hoang graduates from the university in a few years, he will return to Hanoi to help run the family business. When the child is older I will have the time to finish my education at a tourism university in Vietnam. Professor Robertson, it is true we are young and made a big error. But we are determined to keep our baby and raise him or her well. We are not the trash people everyone on campus says we are. Abortion is out of the question because the Buddha forbids it. Our baby has a soul that has occupied many other bodies in the past. This soul is being reincarnated into the body and life of our baby. To destroy such a living spirit is like murder and an offence to the great chain of being and the transmigration of souls. Both Hoang and I were raised in religious families, even though the communist government in Vietnam does not encourage us to follow the Buddha. The government says we must follow the party instead. Those other students here on campus say I am a very easy girl, but it is a lie because I always align my life with the teachings of the Buddha.”
“Good for you,” Paul told her. “I fully support your decision to keep the baby and marry Hoang. You are fortunate to have such kind and understanding parents to help you though all of this. I know someday you will repay them for their kindness and assistance. You are one of my top students this semester. I am confident you will eventually complete your degree and make a great career for yourself as a tour guide and hotelier. Ignore those other students and their malicious gossip. I believe in your potential because I know you are a thoughtful, considerate, and diligent young woman. You will have many years of happiness and good fortune with Hoang, your child, and the rest of your family in Vietnam.”
David next told Paul that he would hope for the best for the student couple. They will face many challenges, he told Paul, in the coming months and years, despite their good fortune in finding themselves enmeshed within the loving concern of a supportive extended family. The two professors in the coffee shop each took a few sips from their coffee mugs, silently allowing the fundamental truths from their long conversation to sink in. A few moments later the conversation reverted to political, academic, and theological matters which kept the two of them occupied and intellectually stimulated for the better part of an hour. Upon the completion of their lengthy dialog and discourse, they two of them bid one another farewell for the day. They left the coffee shop to return home where their wives, books, intellectual and creative projects awaited them enticingly for the duration of their lengthy winter vacations.