A Trashed Message

by Thor May

The apartment building for foreign teachers had an outside veneer of fake red brick trimmed with shiny aluminium window frames. The expensive front door of frosted glass firmly excluded uninvited strangers. Actually this haughty front concealed a dank and shabby interior staircase of stained concrete, and a cluster of dreary little apartments. The building was in an old part of town, a down-at-heel outlying settlement on the edge of Busan. The streets were narrow, and not very clean. The local people were rather poor, and fiercely resentful of luckier Koreans. They didn’t understand the foreign teachers. To tell the truth, both camps had a communication problem.

Take Banfield. Banfield was a hulking American, almost 70, whose discussion of all things Korean came in a steady stream of invective. Long ago as a young soldier he must have had the intimidating presence of a rangy, raw-boned, beef-fed white American male, ready to fight hard, drink hard and lay women at his feet. Now decades of the hamburger diet had dissolved the once taut muscles, a paunch crept over his leather belt, and he had been heard to grumble about having to get a pedicure. That seemed to be an upmarket way of saying that he could no longer cut his own toe nails. Safely on familiar ground, say a foreign teacher's staff room, Banfield was actually quite kind to his friends, and sometimes bought them little treats like American razor blades from the US Army's local PX supply. He had done his time as a grunt sergeant in the barbarian frontier posts of West Germany and South Korea. He had not embarrassed the American army by getting shot, and was eventually paid off with an education from one of those nowhere correspondence universities which the Pentagon keeps in business. Somehow they had managed to award him a Ph.D. in Asian Studies, so Banfield turned to the scholarly life. However, even after eight years in Korea, he couldn’t read or write or speak any Korean. An expedition from the school to his apartment was all through "gook country," as Banfield saw it. He puttered around on a battered maroon scooter, cursing his arthritis, with two fingers forever in the air, shouting at Koreans to "get out of the fucking way!"

As winter closed in and the days seemed bleaker, full hostilities broke out over the trash system in the foreigners’ apartment building. In Korea you have to buy expensive, pre-taxed plastic bags to put your rubbish in. This pays for the trash collection, but of course nearly everyone resents forking out for a mere plastic bag with some government agency's name printed on it. Nevertheless, each week the foreign teachers would dutifully put their plastic trash bags in the street by their flashy front door for a collector to take away.

Several times the foreign teachers came home from a hard night in the downtown bars and found their little laneway a toxic field of half-eaten pizzas, candy wrappers and all the tell-tale detritus that foreigners produce. They were quite upset. Banfield knew a commie menace when he saw one. Armed with a night scope, a camera and half a bottle of Johnnie Walker, he settled in one evening to catch the varmints. They came at last, two tiny wizened ajummas scuttling in the shadows, ashamed to be seen even by the townspeople. Quickly, they worked open the knotted plastic on each bag and scattered the contents carelessly on the road. It was the bags they wanted. This was Banfield's moment. With a roar he crashed his two hundred pounds of sagging bones through the frosted glass front door, snapping the damnable evidence in a blaze of flash bursts. The enemy knew the meaning of firepower. They blinked once at impending doom, cackled some brief Korean spell, and slithered ! noiselessly through a crack in a nearby wall.

The eagle had landed, but the foreign teachers weren't at all sure whether the war had been won. What came next? Contact mines, trench mortars, or international sanctions? Banfield decided on a diplomatic protest note. This he had manufactured by his hapless Korean students. The enemy had no known consular office, so the communication had to be large, colourful and unavoidable by all possible offenders. Banfield did the honours himself, pasting it above the entry door to the foreigners' hideout. Ajummas, urchins and street dogs who even looked at the foreigners' taxed plastic, the sign said, would be crucified under the full force of Korean law.

Within a short time these exotic public threats became a minor tourist attraction. They seemed to evoke mirth, which sank Banfield into dark reflections on the moral depravity of the natives and confirmed his worst suspicions. The idea of a foreigner successfully invoking Korean law could, after all, be a source of some amusement. But nobody had the heart to tell the old man that he had, well, pasted the sign upside down.


* ajumma is Korean for a middle-aged to older woman, or a married woman. The stereotypical ajumma is rather aggressive about getting her own way and taking command of the footpaths. In intensely status conscious South Korea, upper class women tend to dislike the term.

A Trashed Message (c) Thor May 2008, all rights reserved