You Speak Good English

by Aaron Paulson

“Cultural differences,” he said, tossing back another shot of rice wine, “who taught you that one?”

“You have always been kind with such a bad student.”

“But you’ve improved so much! If you stop now you’ll lose everything.”

“Our time together has been delicious,” she said, brown eyes lowered to the tabletop. “But I cannot be your girlfriend.”

“Why not?”

“I am almost thirty now, and my life will be over soon if I do not find a husband.”

“Is it because of last night? Look, I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean…”

“I think you must find a younger woman,” she said, and stood up to go. “A teenager, or college student, to make you happy. Please have a good time in my country, Megook.”

That was it, he thought. What he’d come halfway around the world to find. So familiar but so alien. Five thousand years of breeding and culture walking out the door on him. High heels and a black and white baby-doll dress. Flesh colored stockings. The real thing.

Megook stumbled out of the street-level drinking tent, into a labyrinth of back alleys and squat houses and close-pressed apartment blocks. Gangs of neighborhood boys and girls clustered around open-air noodle stands ands fish grilles and new motor scooters. Escapees from matchbox apartments, smoking cigarettes and acting tough and sexy. Some of them came to the language institute after school. Now they flirted and played and ignored the alien that walked down their streets, onto the new thoroughfare lined with modern apartment buildings and steakhouses and buffet-style restaurants. He looked up hopefully as a female voice followed him out of the alley, but it was only a middle school student, still in uniform, showing off to her friends.

From the backmost seat of the bus, the suicide seats, his roommate called them, the moon rose as a sliver of raw fish over new apartment blocks that rose out of paddies like sore teeth and stretched off to the distance. The bus followed a river that uncurled between low mountains like a dragon stretching out in its dreams. By dawn, smog would condense into a cloud the color of cherry blossoms. But for the moment the night seemed clear, the streetlights arcades of lanterns strung out between the monumental architecture and decaying concrete of this capital city. Megook could barely make out the pagodas and broad-hipped temples off in the hills, geometric characters written on the parchment of sky.

Crowds swarmed around the glittering facades of five-star hotels and department stores downtown. A platoon of bored men, not much younger than himself, conscripted into grey coveralls and riot helmets, stood with bamboo swords at rest around the gothic stone City Hall and the statue of a medieval admiral. Megook followed familiar landmarks along the unnamed streets: office towers jutting out of the skyline, neon red crosses marching along the rooftops like an invading army, billboards and giant skyvision television sets advertising new cars and computers and rice cookers and whiskey. The occasional blonde or brown-haired head bobbed out of the river of black hair as Megook made his way through a night market of fish stalls and butcher shops glowing brothel-pink down unlit alleys.

Out again in the streets, lined with fast food restaurants and traditional and Western-style wedding shops and pharmacists, Megook hung a left at the university gates, and joined a line of young people secreted between the outdoor toilet of a seafood restaurant and the blacked-out staircase of a basement nightclub.

But this place wasn’t what he wanted. This wasn’t it at all. His students had failed him again, and Megook found himself in a crowd of foreigners all standing around with imported beers in their hands, and even the few locals in the place were dressed like students from Megook’s alma mater. He ordered a beer in guidebook localize, and cast his eye over the crowd and caged-off dance-floor. The foreigners, who kept themselves buttoned down all day in teacher or business suits now bared midriffs and piercings, and seemed obscenely fleshed-out in a country that still carried the memory of famine, disease, and war.

The real thing, Megook had already decided, was a stork, was a praying mantis stretched out on a branch of a cherry tree. And it was the real thing Megook had come half-way around the world to find. Not some shadow, not some second-rate imitation of the hamburgers and milkshakes he’d left in his mid-sized, middle class suburban hometown in the midwest. Even the nickname "Megook," foreigner, that his students had given him seemed closer to the edge of life he wanted, than the Biblical name his parents had bestowed on him some thirty-odd years ago.

The crowd in the bar stank of loneliness and homesickness. Megook wasn’t interested in their women. He was here to lose himself in the exotic and foreign and new. To re-mold himself in the crucible of experience. To transcend the familiar and mundane, and emerge as a new man: a citizen of two worlds, with a new language and all the ideas and experiences it could express.

He spotted it through the curling mists of cigarette smoke and sweat rolling off the dance-floor: the real thing. She was perched on a stool, at the edge of a group of locals and foreigners passing pitchers of beer and packs of cigarettes around their corner of the bar. She was as thin and delicate as a line of ink drawn across a sheet of rice paper. A mayfly clutching a reed. A cat’s whisker floating in a breeze. He was drawn to her carefully painted doll face. Her raven hair and cat eyes. The animal twitch and curl barely concealed under a silk top and leather mini-skirt. Megook made his way through the crowds of desperate pleasure seekers queuing for drinks, and stood for a moment behind her chair. Heard the tail end of a refusal to dance.

“You speak good English,” he finally thought to say.

She turned her large brown eyes on him, and Megook saw there her country’s epic tales of love and war, the poetry of the moon and stars reflected in a crust of ice on a cherry blossom, silk pennants hanging from palaces and temples and gates, and the written characters of her mother tongue dancing across pages of rice and silk and stone. She looked at Megook standing tall and awkward and stinking of too much cologne and the worn collar and cuffs of his shirt and the flecks of dried urine on his shoes.

“And how,” she said, over the industrial-strength dance music, “and how the fuck would you know?”

©2001 by Aaron Paulson

Aaron Paulson currently divides his time between Tokyo and rural Hokkaido, where he teaches English and writes freelance articles and stories for online and print journals. Recent travelogues and stories have appeared in Kyoto Journal, the Blue Moon Review, and Slow Trains Issue 2. Currently he is at work on a book about living and working in rural Hokkaido. See more of his work at his Web site.

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