Me, I collect Koreans.
It started rather innocently at first. Seung-Joo (nothisrealname) lost his apartment before his work visa expired and desperately needed a place to stay until he finished the magazine job on which he was working. "I stay your couch," he said, "I am good man, no worry. Calm down."
"I-uh- yes," I replied, "It's just, well, how long will you be staying?"
"I stay one month."
"Ah. Well. Uh, .... yes, yes of course you can stay."
Fortunately Seung-joo was an extraordinarily accommodating houseguest. I worked mornings and afternoons while Seung-joo worked nights so I almost never saw him. He would sprawl on my couch, snoring loudly as I quietly sneaked off to work at 7am. When I came back there would be no trace of him except a lingering smell of kimchi soup still warm on the stove. Seung-joo, as a fashion photographer, lived the sort of nocturnal socialite lifestyle that I tend to associate with movies involving evening wear and cigarettes. He would often come in at 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning reeling drunk. Other times he would not come back to the apartment at all and I would discreetly not inquire why.... until one evening after work when I found a lone, alien earring on the bathroom floor. I threw a fit and Seung-Joo apologized profusely. He washed all my sheets and promised that he would never again bring a woman to the apartment while I was gone.
Alas this promise was not kept. The next evening I came back to my apartment only to see a profusion of dainty, high-heeled shoes stacked on my shoe-stand. I walked into the living room and found a gaggle of tall, dignified models sitting on my couch. Seung-Joo was there with a Mongolian man who was clearly a translator. It looked like he was negotiating contracts. "Ah, hello!" Seung-Joo said when he saw me, "Sorry, sorry. Meeting. My office closed so here."
"No problem," I said. I had been looking forward to having some dinner but was now too self-conscious to eat. A model unfurled herself from the couch and asked if she could use the bathroom. She was at least five inches taller than me and fifty pounds lighter. I showed her the way to the toilet, poured coffee for the other models and sat back down on the carpet. Seung-Joo held negotiations for a few minutes longer. He was trying to get the models to agree to do a show for 100 USD a day. They wanted 300 USD a day. "Ah, zugeel, zugeel" Seung-Joo said in his terrible Mongolian, his smile never dimming, "Let's discuss this over dinner."
"Actually, I have to pick up my kid," said one of the models, "He's at the kindergarten now."
"Fine, we'll call you later," said Seung-Joo through his translator. The model picked up her purse, slipped her heels back on her feet, graciously thanked me for the coffee and left. The other two women sat on the couch, radiating pouty glamour. "We really should go to dinner and negotiate further," Seung-Joo said to them. The models nodded in non-committal affirmation and finally everybody got up to get coats. It was amazing to see how high these women towered over the two men (and me). They were goddesses, their posture magnificent and their gazes half-lidded under heavy but expertly-applied eyeliner. The models were utterly secure in their positions of power. Seung-Joo and the translator (I never caught his name) continued to chat and smile genially (whilst tilting their faces slightly upward) but I got the feeling that Seung-Joo was not going to be able to get his contract signed unless it had "300 USD per diem" written on it.
The weeks passed and I grew used to Seung-Joo. He was at the apartment so rarely that it seemed I did not so much have a houseguest as a magic kimchi soup pot and a TV that occasionally switched itself to the KBS channel while I was gone. Then everything changed.
One morning at 2 am I was roused by Seung-Joo pounding heavily on my door. Grumbling I opened it for him only to find that he was not alone. With Seung-Joo was a pale, shivering young man. "This Han-Gyoul," said Seung-Joo, "He now no money. Thief take money. Five Mongolian men take wallet. And knife, knife." Seung-Joo made stabbing motions with his hand.
"Huh? Omigod, is he hurt? Does he need to go to the hospital."
"No, no hurt," said Seung Joo, "Just like this." He mimed holding a knife to Han Gyoul's (nothisrealname) throat and said: "Hey. Money. Give me."
"Oh wow, gosh, that's terrible," I said, turning to Han Gyoul, "Are you okay...uh, 'Genchinayo?'"
"Genchinaa.." Han Gyoul mumbled.
"Han Gyoul now no money," Seung-Joo said, "His money, five thousand dollars, gone. His wallet now gone."
"Oh wow," I said. I remembered how, while in Seoul, I and the rest of my American friends were astounded at how safe the city was. We could all have dressed in miniskirts made of benjamins and tottered home blind drunk at 3am without the slightest worry of being harrassed. Needless to say, Ulaanbaatar- while a comparitively safe city compared to the average US metropolis- was not as free of bad elements. It would be ridiculous to walk around at night with five thousand dollars in your pocket.
"Han Gyoul stay here," Seung-Joo said. It was a statement, not a question. "He not be alone now. He stay here."
"Oh, uh, of course...."
I gave Han Gyoul some coffee and tentatively tried to chat while Seung-Joo raided the linen closet for extra blankets. It was difficult to chat with Han Gyoul because my Korean is awful. I asked him if he was tired (yes) and what he doing Ulaanbaatar (studying) and where Seoul he live (Hangnam but he was now living in Los Angeles) and oh Los Angeles what he do (he was a student at UCLA).
"Wait, you speak English?" I said, switching back to my native tongue in surprise.
"Yeah," said Han Gyoul. He didn't say anything more. He sat on the couch, sipping coffee while staring out into space. Meanwhile Seung-Joo had arranged a sort of bed on the carpet for Han Gyoul. "You sleep," He said to me, "We talking."
And thus Han Gyoul joined my collection. He was the exact opposite of Seung-Joo, taciturn and a real homebody. He lived in my living room, eating ramen and watching soap operas full of women of such unbelievably celestial looks and men of such nauseatingly effeminate prettiness that it would have made John Keats long to crack open a cold one and catch the Knicks.
Seung-Joo continued to flit in and out of the apartment, assuring me that Han Gyoul wouldn't be staying for long. He just needed to get money from his parents to fly back to Los Angeles. "Mongolia finished," Seung-Joo said, "Han Gyoul not stay here. No like. Go back Los Angeles." I found the concept that Ulaanbaatar was so scary that it made L.A. look good in comparison extremely amusing.
Nevertheless I was not sad to see the end of Han Gyoul. He was annoying in his sluggishly silent way. Despite the kid's fluent (I assumed) English he constantly made Seung-Joo talk for him. Also I was getting awfully sick of Boys Before Flowers every night at nine... a Korean serial drama about an ultra-exclusive private school tyrannized by "The Four Flowers." The Flowers are a group of four divinely beautiful boys whose exquisite looks are only surpassed by their cruelty. The Flowers pout and stride about the corridors of the preparatory school in 5,000 dollar suits. They humiliate the female students who dote on them and are oddly girlfriendless, apparently preferring to lounge around in high-end Seoul bars with their arms thrown casually about each others' shoulders. This Wildean sex fantasy is disrupted, however, by the appearance of a spunky new female student who appears in their lives to a) teach them the meaning of good character and b) steal the hearts of the two most beautiful boys.
It's a ridiculous serial and one that was clearly aimed at a fourteen-year-old female audience. I was curious as to why Han Gyoul enjoyed it. "My girlfriend likes it," was the only explanation he would mumble to me. "Accchhhhh!" Seung-Joo replied. He shared my views about the show. Also he was usually cranky on nights when he was forced to come home before nine.
One month turned into two. Boys Before Flowers celebrated its Christmas special and my houseguests still had not moved out. Apparently there was a delay in Han Gyoul's ticket money. Also a good apartment within Seung-Joo's price range did not yet appear though friends of friends were being talked to and every lead scoured. I resigned myself to my life of sharing a home with a highly gregarious phantom and a silent couch potato. I wondered about making them pay a portion of my rent.
The issue never arose. Around December 27th I arose at 6:30am to get ready for work as usual. As soon as I went into the kitchen to make coffee I noticed that Seung-Joo and Han-Gyoul were already awake. More specifically, they were both sitting up in their respective make-shift beds and staring silently at me.
"Good morning," I said.
"Good morning," Seung-Joo said. "Unh..." Han Gyoul said. They continued to stare at me. It was clear that there was something on their minds.
"Um, did you sleep well?" I asked. It sounded so awkward.
"Oh yes, yes," Seung-Joo said.
There was an awkward pause.
"Do you want some coffee?" I asked.
"Oh, um, no... it's..." Seung-Joo clearly looked like he was thinking of the best way to say something. "Uh, you, uh... you, last night remember?"
"Last night?" I remembered going to bed after drawing some cartoons. Han Gyoul had been watching TV as per usual. Seung-Joo had been out.
"Last night you very much dreaming," said Seung-Joo.
"You very much bad dreaming," said Seung-Joo, "You 'Seung-Joo! Seung-Joo! Bad dream!'"
"What?" I didn't remember any of this at all. As far as I was concerned, I had slept through the night. "Did I wake you up?"
"Yes, you-" Seung-Joo mimed someone shaking his shoulders, "'Seung-Joo! Bad dream! Bad dream!'"
"Really? Wow, uh... I don't remember any of this at all. Gosh, I'm so sorry. This is embarrassing."
Seung-Joo and Han Gyoul looked at each other. They looked deeply uncomfortable.
"You were screaming," said Han Gyoul.
"You no remember?" Seung-Joo asked. He looked incredulous.
"No... gosh, I'm sorry."
Seung-Joo and Han Gyoul moved out that evening. Seung-Joo had found another friend who was willing to rent a room for a hundred bucks a month. Han Gyoul's money had come through at last and he was taking the next week-end flight out of Mongolia. Aside from an occasional text message from Seung-Joo I haven't heard from either of them since.
But Boys Before Flowers is still airing every night at nine. I think Jin Hoo's gonna propose!!