Prisoner of the Politically Correct (PC)
Coming into the apartment on a Sunday afternoon, I caught my roommate Dwayne fondling his girlfriend's breast. They were sitting on the living room sofa fully clothed and watching TV with those sappy "we've been married 25 years and still love each other" expressions. But they had only started going together three weeks ago. And he had dropped hints when drunk that he didn't like Koreans -- why was he dating her?
Averted my gaze and ducked into the kitchen to fix a sandwich. Too late! He caught me looking, and I could almost hear those beetle brows come together with a snap. Dwayne was very good at scowling, and he'd been doing a lot of that lately.
"Five more weeks and the jerk will be bound for Canada," I muttered to myself. "Let's hope he pretends he never saw me looking." But Dwayne was PC-compulsive. After a five-minute pause he and his girlfriend came into the kitchen.
"Steve, have you met Lou Ann?"
"Well ... we've seen each other around. Hi Lou Ann?"
"Hi." She was a slender twig of a Korean woman with a very round head and a very sunny face. I was reminded of a ripe tomato in July.
"Lou Ann teaches piano," Dwayne said.
"The Ding Dong Musical Academy," she said.
"Ding Dong!" I chimed. She laughed, and Dwayne scowled again. "Ease up, Dwayne," I said. "Just a little Korean whimsy." He nodded curtly, and then they went out, leaving me to my sandwich. From the kitchen window I could see them walking down the street. She was hanging on his arm as if she were really going for him in a big way.
But that was the whole point of the introduction. He had to show me that his new girlfriend was respectable and middle class, not some chippie he'd picked up in a bar. For Dwayne was a prisoner of PC. He couldn't make a move without worrying about the right way to do it.
Later that night Dwayne came back and walked into the kitchen frowning and sniffing. "What's that smell?" he asked.
"Kimchi chigae. Pork stewed in kimchi. A recipe from a book I bought in Seoul. Not too bad, but the local restaurants do it better. Does the smell bother you?" I could tell from his face that it did, but he was too PC to admit it. Saying nothing, he took two frozen hamburgers out of the fridge and popped them into the microwave.
"Now it's all wrapped up," I said placatingly, covering the bowl in plastic. "Won't contaminate anything. Now for a few shots of that Wizard Air Freshener your Mom sent."
I was trying to be nice, but it didn't work. His mother was always sending him things like air fresheners and toilet seat covers. He had been sensitive about her gifts since she sent him a Canadian cookbook, "Let's Break Bread Together," an anthology of church supper recipes and gushy prose. I had said: "Hey Dwayne. Here's a recipe for 'Marriage Stew.' It says, 'Take two rounded measures of sex and sauté with love and tenderness.' Are these breasts -- no, must be testicles! Ever eat prairie oysters, Dwayne?"
Yes, I know. I grew up in New York City and have a "trash mouth." But I had just wanted him to lash back, to clear the air and tell me where to go. For now there was something serious to say.
"You know, Dwayne, if you and Lou Ann want to do it, go right ahead. But please give me advance notice, and I'll clear out. How about a sign on the bedroom door 'Humping in Progress'? Or a big wall calendar that says 'Always on Sunday'? Just so I don't find the two of you doing it on the sofa. I'd be embarrassed and you'd be devastated."
"Mummfsh!" He had his jaws around that burger and wouldn't let go. He was very insecure and my teasing just made his insecurity worse. So he just didn't want to answer.
What is it about Canadians? Of all nations they are the closest to the U.S. culturally and yet, to my way of thinking, very weird. Did they invent PC and then sell it to the Americans? Consider those two "anchor people," Peter Jennings of ABC and Robert MacNeill of PBS, Canadians who came south for the big bucks. With what icy control they glide over the distempers of our world each night! Rather and Brokaw are clods by comparison. They have to work at PC, and the strain shows.
Ridiculous as it may seem, Dwayne's mother had sent him to Korea to become PC. He was a Nova Scotia boy, and the family had been in the fishing business for several generations. Dwayne had grown up helping out on the boats and you could see it in his walk, rolling on the balls of his feet like a dancer. He also had a weightlifter's build, broad across the shoulders. "Big Dwayne," his Korean students called him, although he was just six feet, my height also. But he could "walk tall."
His mother was ambitious, making sure that he finished college, the first member of his family to do so. With a degree in business administration, Dwayne worked in the office and occasionally directed fishing crews. But after a few years the fish went south (or wherever fish go) for the winter and the business went south also. Father was ready for retirement, but what should Dwayne to do?
Then Mom swung into action. A "career change" was called for, something more genteel and middle class than fishing, which she had never liked. What about teaching? In Canada, as in the U.S., public school teaching is tough to enter without the right credits. Maybe a private school? In any case, he had to get away from fishing. Teaching English in a foreign country was one of the few options available. There are many Canadians in Korea "getting their tickets punched" for Canadian jobs. So last summer Dwayne and I were foot soldiers in the ragtag TESOL (Teachers of English as a Second or Other Language) army that now circles the globe preaching and teaching the virtues of the "international language." I came because I was middle-aged, divorced, and very bored with technical editing in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Almost anyone can become a TESOLer. All it takes is a four-year college degree in any subject. Before coming to Korea I had never formally taught anybody anything. But a Korean friend suggested the idea. "You know your grammar, Mr. Stephen," he said. At the time, any place seemed better than Cambridge. I jumped on a plane for Seoul.
My friend had given me a letter of introduction to the Dong Soo Industrial Group, a huge conglomerate located some 60 miles from Seoul. The first interview went well. They would hire me but .... The job was only part-time, editing and coaching salary men for the TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) examination, about 25 hours a week.
And I had to be connected to some sort of organization. The Oriental mind recoils at the idea of free-lancers floating in space. The obvious solution was a "hogwon," or private language tutoring school. A few phone calls and one was found, the Happyland Bilingual Academy. Most of their students were elementary and middle school children, but they cheerfully accepted money from anyone. So I signed the standard year- long contract and moved into the apartment provided. Dwayne (who had already been there nine months) was my roommate and three other Canadians lived down the hall. All were much younger than I. We had little in common, and I wound up spending my weekends in Seoul.
Dwayne had a strange habit I found disgusting but also fascinating. He would use the toilet and walk away without flushing. Two weeks after moving in with him, I complained. "Low water pressure man, low water pressure," he mumbled, sidling away. Well, there was low water pressure maybe 5 percent of the time. The toilet was full of crap maybe 50 percent of the time after he used it.
I'd had a fair number of roommates, but never one with this particular problem. Hadn't his mother potty-trained him? As I got to know him better, he talked about the fishing business and made a chance remark that cleared it up. The boat he was on had a hole in the deck high above the water line. This was a "Turkish toilet" above which you squatted. Just let fly and Mother Nature took care of everything.
My theory is that Dwayne had an anal fixation, but nothing like the one described by Freud and his disciple Karl Abraham. They say: "The first phase of anal eroticism is linked to evacuation and the sadistic instinct to destruction of the object."
Sadistic hell! What Dwayne and the farmers and fishermen want is the reassurance that Nature will absorb their wastes and go on. Thus I have seen elderly Korean men shambling into an alleyway to urinate rather than use the public toilet next door. It is, if you'll excuse the expression, a kind of morning prayer that all's right with the world. His non-PC asshole was rebelling against him.
I gritted my teeth and vowed that, since he was leaving in a month, the problem could simply be flushed away. It was not his toilet habits that caused the final blow-up -- it was sex.
I'd come into the apartment the next Sunday afternoon after a weekend in Seoul and wanted a shower. To get hot water, you had to press a red button inside Dwayne's bedroom. His door was closed. I sensed that Lou Ann and he were in there. There was a strange cigarette lighter on the coffee table.
Walked into the bathroom and found the toilet full of crap. That did it! He deserved no mercy. I pounded on the door and shouted as loudly as I could, "Hey Dwayne, hot water please!"
I could hear the two of them whispering. "OK, OK, done!" Dwayne finally shouted back.
Took my shower, went into my bedroom, closed the door, and started reading. Then they turned the TV in the living room on, as loud as it would go. The war was on. But I had a cassette player with good volume and a tape of blues singer B.B. King in concert. All they had was a Kevin Costner movie on the one English-speaking channel. B.B. King can out-shout Costner any day of the week. After a half-hour they gave up and left.
The workweek began and the sniping continued. He complained in a written memo that I'd used the coffee pot to heat soup and put the forks in the wrong drawer after washing them. I did more than my share of housework. By Thursday morning I sat down at my computer at the Dong Soo Group and composed a letter that I then glued to his bedroom door while he was sleeping that afternoon. The entire reverse side of the letter was smeared with glue -- he'd have to rip it off in little pieces.
Here's the letter:
"It's clear that you were mightily pissed off last Sunday afternoon when I knocked on your door and asked that you push the hot water button. Did you lose your erection just before orgasm? Poor baby! Now you, a guy who can't remember to flush the toilet, are leaving notes on housekeeping!
"Well I did foresee that something like this would happen and did suggest that we work together on a system whereby one of us would not be around when the other wanted to get it on. You did not respond. It's clear that you're just like Bill Clinton. Planning is impossible -- you want it bad when you want it and right now!
"OK, but I have rights too, among which is the right to a hot shower after a long day. If Sunday's episode is repeated, I will go to the school's director and complain. Sure sex is a "private act." But the apartment is small, the walls are flimsy and transmit sound readily. When you screw, you compel me to walk around on tiptoe. I resent this compulsion.
"It's also clear that you have no respect either for yourself or me or anyone else. If you had respect, we could have worked something out beforehand. Most of all, you have no respect for the poor girl who's in love with you. Even prostitutes get hotel rooms to screw in, but you won't spend the money.
"OK, we have one month to get shed of each other. I will try to stay out of your way and hope you will do the same, Steve"
Walked off to class feeling smug. What could Dwayne do? I had all the bases covered.
Classes were over at 6 p.m. and no Dwayne. Friday was a Korean holiday. Three days in Seoul to enjoy myself!
Then he came bursting into the classroom doorway. "I'm going to punch you in your damn mouth!" he shouted, dancing on the balls of his feet and swinging his right like Kid Gavilan about to throw the famous "bolo punch." Then he stopped and spat on the carpet. "That's what I think of you," he said, rubbing the spit out with his foot.
Two chubby Korean children appeared at the door, 12-year-olds curious about the noise. "Out!" he shouted, slamming the door in their faces. He turned to me. "Let's go down to the parking lot and settle this."
That was silly. The school was in a busy commercial section with police always on patrol. Two foreigners fighting would simply have been arrested, thrown in jail, and sent over to Immigration in the morning.
Very suddenly the fight went out of him. "You ... old, you ... old. Who the hell do you think you are?" he sputtered and then stopped. Even now his PC would not allow him to insult me with a reference to age. Then he sat down heavily in a chair and began gasping like an exhausted swimmer staggering out of the surf.
"So rude ... so crude ... arrogant!" The last word was a snarl, "r-r--gant!"
"I don't like you!" he suddenly wailed, his voice becoming higher and shriller like a little boy who suffers playground humiliation. "I just don't like you. Ugh! Ugh!"
I felt a sharp twinge of joy. That was why I had written the letter in the first place, to get him out of my face, to be free of his smothering presence and black scowl. Now he would go elsewhere to shit and screw. And in a month he'd be gone completely.
But there was a last act to his tantrum. He staggered to the door and groped for an exit line. Finally he said, "You have no people skills. I hope you stay in Korea for the rest of your life!"
Out in the hallway the three other Canadians were waiting for us, their brows knitted in PC concern. Dwayne ran past them into the teacher's lounge, and they looked at me questioningly.
"This is what happened," I said. "You know the red button for hot water? In our apartment it's inside Dwayne's bedroom. I knocked on his door and asked him to push it while he was having sex with his girlfriend. A week before I'd asked him to work out a schedule or system, but he refused to listen. When he got angry, I compared him to Bill Clinton. He just went ballistic, and you can see the results."
They just nodded in humorless PC style and filed into the teacher's lounge to hear his story. Picked up my textbooks and teaching aids and walked out. Through an open doorway I could hear Dwayne once again gasping, "Oh the letter ... the letter ... so rude ... so crude!" I had to get the hell out of there. Took the next bus to Seoul and spent the weekend with friends.
Back in the apartment late Sunday night and no Dwayne. I took a shower and went to bed, wondering with some apprehension whether he would attack me while I slept. But the lock on the bedroom door was sturdy and a fire escape led directly to the street.
My last month with him was an ordeal. Silence on both sides, but he had a talent for hostility that I lacked. Unexpectedly, in the apartment or at school, we'd meet and he'd start glaring. Was this a tactic to intimidate me? I got his class schedule from the office and arranged my comings and goings to avoid him.
The Canadians were no help. "Do you understand," I finally asked the three of them, "why Dwayne is so angry?"
There was a long silence. "Well ... something about a letter," one said.
"Did he show you the letter?" No answer, and I knew he'd ripped it up.
"Let me say this," I concluded. "The guy has serious problems -- he's mentally disturbed. But I'm no psychiatrist. In that letter I promised to stay out of his face if he stayed out of mine. Just so you understand."
They nodded unhappily. He was their friend, but they didn't understand him any better than I did. PC was on my side this time and would keep him from knocking my block off. He took the TV set into his room and seems to have spent his last few weeks in Korea watching ESPN and reading "Hustler" magazine (banned in Korea).
But now I think there was a "figure in the carpet," to use an old-fashioned literary phrase. Lou Ann suddenly disappeared. No one saw her, either around the school or with Dwayne. I asked the Korean teachers, who did not like her.
"She wants to escape Korea," said one curtly. That was it. For a Korean woman, dating any Westerner is off-limits, especially in a small town like this. But there is a small minority willing to buck tradition. For example, I have gone to the movies with Korean women and we had to endure catcalls from teenagers. Lou Ann wanted to get away from all that, I now believe, to marry Dwayne and move to Canada. And, like the wimp he was, he had used the quarrel with me to break off with her. "Honey, it will never work. The world is against us ...."
So what is the moral of the story? To conservatives PC is ridiculous, phony pretentiousness and arrant hypocrisy. To liberals it is an ideal of human brotherhood and world community.
But let's get real. Dwayne was a Nova Scotia working stiff, and PC had little effect in shaping his real views. A year of teaching had prejudiced him against Koreans, yet when Lou Ann came along he leaped at the opportunity for easy sex. The blow-up gave him an exit strategy for getting away from her. No, he wasn't "disturbed" as I thought at first. Just devious.
Suppose he had disregarded his mother's advice and gone north to Alaska where fishing jobs are plentiful. I can imagine him now, scowling and squatting over a Turkish toilet while the winter wind bites savagely at his bare ass. Not a life that I would like. But at least he'd be a better person and his own man.