by Thor May
Alana was a Russian teacher, a good teacher, and the unshakeable stereotypes of her host community in South Korea made her unhappy. She wasn't aggressive about it, she could put up with the unknowing contempt of strangers, but the casual disdain of Korean colleagues who couldn't parse the human equation of Russian + woman + professional, drove her to quiet despair.
The lot of a Russian woman in Busan is written in the tawdry bars of Texas Street, which in spite of its name is “the Russian district". Some Russian faces in Busan are small traders dreaming to cream a million won here or there from discards of the Korean manufacturing miracle. Then there are crew-cut men in cheap jackets off trawlers, or perhaps come to catch a berth on some container ship. And there are women of a certain age with big bosoms, industrial strength thighs, and sometimes sad eyes behind the mascara and heavy makeup. A clapped out ferry from Zarubino near Vladivostok comes in to Sokcho once a week, but most have probably arrived by the daily air link. The drifting Russian community has been part of the fabric of this port city for many years. The Koreans of Busan pride themselves on a kind of rough honesty, a gruff dialect and a social conservatism where women know their place and men know their soju. If you are a Russian woman, well everyone knows about that too.
We wondered why Alana stayed, but then we didn't know much about the area she had come from either. Neither did the Koreans in Busan. Yet Koreans have a long history of settlement in Russia Primorye, the forgotten eastern regions of the Russian state, nine hours flying time from Moscow. Many came there before the decaying Ming Dynasty ceded the area to Russia in 1858, and perhaps they were too successful. Large numbers were shipped off in cattle trains to Central Asia by Stalin. Knowledge of such events is little known by many peninsula Koreans, who can talk freely about the latest American pop idols, but have next to no contact with neighbouring peoples. For the few who were interested, one could dig up dark stories about the rusting Soviet fleet of nuclear submarines sinking at their moorings in Vladivostok, and in the winter of 2001 there was some brief reference to people freezing to death in Russia Primorye when the power stations were shut down for their unpaid bills. Nobody, it seemed, really cared about this corner of the Russian state. Since 1991 the population of the region has dropped from nine million to seven million, concentrated mostly in three main cities, Blagoveshchensk , Khabarovsk and Vladivostok .
Somehow in their insularity Russia’s masters back in Moscow have never grasped that Russia Primorye is a front door to the most dynamic cultures on the planet, rather than a back door to the illusions of 19th Century czarist Russia. When the place has to be mentioned at all, the media stereotype is that in so-called frontier lands of the east Russians still feel insecure, living in an uneasy state of race relations with pressing Chinese hordes to the south. There are sporadic alarmist reports in the Russian press of creeping Chinese settlement in the thinly populated border regions, but also recent bemused reports in the Chinese press of retiring eastern Russians buying houses in cheaper north eastern China. Whatever the cultural wrinkles, shopping and other worldly comforts are better here for such outlanders than in Vladivostok.
Maybe eastern Russians needed to stand up somehow, have their own Boston Tea Party of the soul, come to terms with their real neighbours. Perhaps they needed to find a place in the eastern sun, to nurture and offer more than the dogged labour of whores and fishermen and despondent submariners condemned to exile. Could it be that Alana was a gentle pioneer of this new order? Perhaps. We could only guess. She had apparently been teaching in the north eastern Chinese province of Jilin, which also has a heavy Korean presence. For the rest of us it was all an invented tale though, jigged together out of brief hints and passing references.
Alana's employer in Busan was a tertiary college of foreign languages, not notable for its academic standards, but home to a remarkable assortment of foreign misfits. The minority languages had attracted professional teachers eager to exploit the meagre opportunities for adventure in their field. They were scarcely respected and often underpaid. Yet even an obsessive Korean national demand for English could not draw professional English teachers from well paid positions in their home countries. The fill-ins were mostly in it for easy money, new graduates paying off loans, or backpacker adventurers, or refugees from a Western rat race, or sometimes alcoholics, and occasionally deviants. A handful managed to take themselves seriously, and a scattering of others were serious students of oriental cultures. All claimed to have degrees of some kind, but few were teachers, and fewer knew what they didn't know. It was enough to get through the teaching day mouthing textbook sentences, and retreat for real living to a foreigner bar in quality time.
Oddly enough this motley cavalcade suited many Korean English professors with a shaky grasp of the English language, who could safely claim that they were the real professionals. The professional teachers from minority languages left Korean professors feeling inadequate and easily shamed by their students. The very few professional teachers of English were a downright threat to Korean professors of Engish in a country where the ruling ethic is chemyeon, or face. Perhaps is was some fellowship of professional isolation that attracted Alana to Brian.
Brian Crane was an anomaly, an Australian English teaching professional who had spent most of a long working life in outposts of the Anglophone empire. He said he preferred to live in the shadowlands where cultures meet. Probably, like many wanderers he savoured the slight frisson of being "foreign", and found the ordinariness of home country suburban life tiresome. In Korea he was tolerated but hardly welcomed, although students soon warmed to his competent, often humorous approach.
In this business, the coveted jobs went to the young and sexy, whereas Brian would have been a perfect spy if there had been anything to spy on. On the street he was socially invisible, of average Korean height, anonymously fifty-something, and indifferently dressed. From the tilt of his lips to the droop of his eyelids, nothing about Brian Crane was quite symmetrical. By all the measures of the alpha male, he was kind of ugly. Certainly women had thought about it that way for decades, so he was astonished and a little alarmed when Alana showed distinct signs of preferring his company.
Alana was not an unattractive woman. Somewhere in her mid thirties, girlishness had matured into a sophisticated woman, well-cared for and still unravaged by time. She kept her body trim, dressed tastefully and moved with quiet confidence. She was a nurturer, not a predator, but her steady grey eyes showed no sign of yielding to misfortune. Home was with the other foreigners in a 5th floor concrete dormitory box, with a shared stove somewhere down the corridor. As the semesters slipped by, many a neighbour spiraled into a shambolic life of cheap soju, takeaway meals and late night drunken stumbles into bed. Alana, like Brian, went to the supermarket, bought fresh produce and then juggled her own brand of Russian cooking on the shared stove. From time to time it was natural for each to offer the other a taste of this and that, a spoonful of your borsch for a picking of diced raw carrot and celery.
One evening Alana in a passing joke suggested that Brian should learn to make real cottage cheese, the Russian way. He nodded non-commitally. Cottage cheese was not a big thing in Brian's life. A few days later Alana slyly observed that his salad would taste much better with some cottage cheese. Brian nodded non-commitally. He had learned long ago that it was useful sometimes to don an invisible cloak of male stupidity when it came communicating with women. He liked Alana a lot as a human being, but for reasons he never understood himself, when it came to woman as woman, he preferred the Asian flavour. The tides of passion don't play fair. A week later, as they munched diced raw carrots, Alana told Brian with some determination that she had just prepared a fresh batch of cottage cheese. Why didn't he come back to her room to try it?
There was no help for it. Brian meekly followed Alana down the corridor. On the little bench beside her dormitory sink there was a damp bundle of something tied up in bleached cloth. "Here", said Alana. "I made it specially for you." Deftly she untied the string at the top of the damp bundle and unwrapped a crumbly mess of what was definitely cottage cheese. "It's easy", she continued in her most matter of fact voice. "You take some yogurt and tie it up like this...".
"Thank you", said Brian. "That's really kind of you. I mean.." His voice trailed away. This was the moment. He backed slowly out the door and closed it quietly. But not before he caught a shaft of pain, just a hint of moisture in Alana's calm grey eyes.
Alana's Story copyright (c) Thor May 2008, all rights reserved