My name is Henry Lee and I live in North Vancouver. I’ve been writing a short-short story everyday for the past five months on this blog in order to explore issues of ethnicity within fiction. For those of you new to the site I always introduce a story with a different identity. The point of this has been to explore different cultural points of view. I’ve been intentionally appropriating different voices within the color spectrum of race to tease out the commonalities and differences that exist within people of different cultural  backgrounds. 

   I hope you enjoy today’s short-short story…


An Almost Korean-Canada


   I think I’m turning Korean. I make short, sucking sounds to express disappointment, I can’t go more than two weeks without eating Korean food and I wonder how much Han I have. Can a white guy have Han? I play dumb and ask students to tell me about Han. “Han can’t be explained,” they say. “Is it having to endure suffering while not being able to do a single thing to stop the source of your agony?” I ask and sometimes they light up and surprise takes over but other times they insist that’s not an adequate definition. It can’t be explained, they say.

   I started teaching ESL in Burnaby twelve years ago at a private school that had just opened in Metrotown, right next to a dentist who provided anesthesia through hypnosis. (So they advertised on the door.) I knew the owner/direction of the school from university where we’d taken some third year philosophy classes together. “It’s really easy,” he explained to me in his office while playing on-line chess, one of his addictions at the time. “Just get them talking.” My first two students were from Korea, Sanae and Sue. The first week was interesting enough; I looked at photos of Sue’s 5,000-dollar traditional Korean guitar. No 7,000 dollars. No, that was Won. No, that was Canadian. I learned the confusions of converting sums for students. The simultaneous juggling of numbers and language. I waited patiently while Sanae yawned. 

   Over the following weeks, the class grew to include a nine-year-old Korean, a 60-year-old Japanese man, five other Koreans and one Japanese woman named Midori. There was barely enough room for all their yawns. It was not easy. My boss continued playing online chess, often several games at once.

   One Tuesday night in 1996, at the Fifth Avenue cinemas, a friend leaned into me, “We’re thinking of going to teach English abroad, want to come?”

   “Yes,” I said but after six months of sweating in Taiwan as I made the daily race from a factory where they manufactured cute Mickey Mouse telephones to a manager’s office in an upscale banking district to a day-care in the south, I was exhausted. I couldn’t take the crush of people packing in the heat.

   Back in Vancouver, I moved to Gastown where I applied for a job at a small ESL school. “You live just down the street,” the boss said with wide-open eyes that pushed his bald scalp behind his head. “Can you start on Monday?” At LRS I taught three students at a time for an hour. At six groups everyday I learned how to quickly get them talking. Corrections were made quickly so as not to interrupt the flow. It was the triage of ESL teaching. “Tell us about the Mother Frog story?” “Tell us about a the golden axe story?” “Tell us about the first Korean?” I asked like a child insisting on a favorite bed-time story. Over the eight years that I taught at LRS, I started to really enjoy teaching and when I visited students in Korea and Japan in October of 2001, it felt like remembering a dream.  

    In 2006, LRS went out of business and I’ve taught at two other schools since. A medium sized school of 300 students from all over the world and a much smaller school with under a hundred students. Right now I have a class of ten Koreans. I’m supposed to teach business but some of the students at the level where they confuse lend with borrow. I patiently correct them as I wait to get into a graduate program in creative writing, as I send off another story to a literary journal. I sometimes wonder if I’m being punished for enjoying M*A*S*H too much in my youth, laughing at the goofy Koreans who played the bit-parts. Other days, I think that I’m luckiest almost Korean-Canadian in the world. 

   And I’ve started to stumble over the same mistakes my students make.

   I patiently correct myself.