The following could have happened anywhere. But it didn't, it happened in Seoul.
Its beyond butt cold outside and this particular Sunday afternoon is moving faster than we can keep up with. We are on our way to Korean language lessons near Sookmyung station off line #4 as we duck into Cheolsan station to begin the subway stint. We converse while riding the puke green line west to east across southern Seoul. We disembark at the Isu transfer station and head for our connection.
A young petite black gentleman approaches the two of us while we wait. He engages us in conversation by announcing that we are the most foreigners he has ever seen in this subway station. I recognize him immediately even though I have never seen him before.
Two days before I had the most intensive interview session of my short working life. After three offers and a pending deadline I decided on a position at a Sangdo Haguan. The application process was extremely competitive and the couple conducting the interview was up-front about everything. I was informed that I was the final interviewee and that, up until meeting me, they had nearly decided on another gentleman. The same gentleman I would meet by coincidence in the subway station.
It is shortly after 9pm, I am holding a paper cup of cooling espresso and sitting in the 3rd floor office of the aforementioned Haguan. I have just blustered my way through an unanticipated request to display my teaching skills. The boss-couple seem energized with satisfaction while myself and their daughter, the audience of my spontaneity, are showing hints of exhaustion. She falls back asleep on the couch and I try to remember when the interview began.
"Let me speak frankly," my boss continues. The other applicant is apparently in a tough position. As it goes, he returned from his winter break to find his Haguan shut-down. He is in dire straight, without a promised pay check and a place to stay.
I verbalize my thoughts.
I state, "I would understand completely if you were to offer this individual the position." I briefly pause and continue. "I would hate to be in his position." My statement is followed by a hasty verbal joust in Korean between the man and woman.
Eventually, Mr. offers me the job but wants me to make a decision immediately. He has promised to call the other applicant by 9pm this evening with his employment offer. Why the haste? The applicant is staying in a nearby hotel and does not have much money.
Their English is not entirely lucid and it takes a minute to sink in. The couple tightens their gaze. A slight panic slips over me, the weight of the entire next year bearing down unexpectedly all at once. For the first time this evening I stutter.
I explain that I will need more time. Siting the length of the commitment, I relate how I would like to give the offer time enough to mull itself over. The couple banters on in this still unfamiliar language.
They have decided to call the applicant to disclose all, and to potentially offer him a part-time job and a temporary place to stay.
I can vaguely here the applicant over the phone. He is willing to accept the part-time position if necessary. They then insist that he stay in their home until they find him an apartment. They matter-of-factly state their intent to pick him up at the motel shortly.
It turns out he has already payed for the nights rent. The conversation is resolved and the pick-up time is moved until the next afternoon.
I am dropped off at the subway station. I have agreed to notify them by 7am the next morning. I shake hands, politely close the car door and start down the escalator; I am overwhelmed with the lingering decision, I board the subway and realize I have forgot the contract-draft in the car.
This man's voice is vaguely familiar but his appearance is the give a way. He is short and petite and African-American just like the couple had described. It was a near dead give away as I had, up until this point, not seen a black man in Seoul.
I am already mulling over the irony of this chance meeting even before it is confirmed. The usual set of questions pass between the three of us. I cut to the chase and mention that I had just signed a contract the day before. His eyes are quick to the realization. He jumps on the comment and asks where the job is.
He reacts, "You're that son of a bitch!" Various deviations were repeated with myriad intonations, innumerable times over. All were in jest and emphasized irony rather than antagonism; nevertheless, the adjectives put me on the defensive.
The three way conversation quickly deteriorates into a monologue with an audience. He boasts an IQ of 150, intent to attend Harvard Law, and military service in Iraq for 6 months as an Army Ranger. We have now boarded the subway train, the doors have closed and Isu station disappears.
Enter a short, thick Korean man with a cane. He physically inserts himself into our conversation stepping between myself and my new acquaintance. He looks directly at the latter and forcefully rattles off an imperative in Korean. He simultaneously places a finger over his own mouth as if to motion for a quite tone of voice.
Our friend stares at the Korean man as he walks between us. I stare at our new friend. Damian glances between the two of us. I turn to ask Damian what has been said. Our friend replies, "You're too loud. You should not speak as loudly."
I laugh off the awkwardness, certain that old age would be excuse enough for the action. I ask our friend how long he has been studying Korean. He responds by saying it was easy to learn. Our conversation continues but our friend keeps an eye on the old man.
Half a minute later the man releases his grasp from the loop support and steps between Damian and me, gesturing with the same hand that holds the cane, repeating the same demand but louder and much closer to our friends face.
I am now in utter disbelief. We are not speaking loudly. The short old man, who must be in his 50s, is speaking to our friend as if Damian and I were not there.
I start to say, "What the fuck is...", when our friend leans in even closer to the instigator and slowly pronounces a phrase in Korean.
The man returns to his previous post, shifting his cane to his left hand and grasping the overhead loop with his right. He spouts off several sentences while gesturing toward the subway door.
I look back at our American friend. He told the man to "Get the fuck away."
The conversation has died. The only thing I can say several times is, "This is ridiculous" or "That's fucked up, man."
Our friend mentions his stop is next. We begin to say our goodbyes. I tell him I look forward to working with him.
About as quickly as the doors open, the man is in front of our friend bumping him in the chest as he exits through the door. Neither Damian nor I anticipated this. We take several steps toward the door.
On the platform the Korean elder is once again within kissing distance of our new acquaintance. I cant decide if I should get off the subway or not.
I ask, "Are you going to be alright, man."
He responds, "Yeah, sure. Don't worry about it."
The doors slap shut and the subway pulls away in slow motion. Our heads rotate to the right, keeping the two in our gaze as long as possible.
My nerves are twitching as if it was me who was about to fight. I turn to Damian and ask, "Have you ever seen such blatant racism?"
The other 50 Korean subway passengers have not reacted to the scene. They appear stoic as always.
Maybe for them this was nothing out of the ordinary.