“Sojourn” appeared in A City of Han: Stories by expat writers in Seoul and the other cities of South Korea, edited by Sollee Han (Seoul: FWS Publishing, 2020).
“Lastly, in Sojourn, I found an absolute treat to finish the book. It was a fantastical, fitting, frenetic finish to the series. I enjoyed the playfulness as the characters bring themselves both out of their own loneliness and take us triumphantly out of the collection.”
— Adam R. Carr
“When I was reading Sojourn, my interpretation of the ‘deviant’ individual is someone who doesn’t fit into society for whatever reason, and I definitely still feel like this whenever I’m interacting with other Koreans. I’m not someone who fits into a box. I don’t like boxes. And it’s hard when people treat me differently because I don’t fit into a certain box.”
— Jisun Lee
“Sojourn” is less a superhero story than a story about the heroism of people struggling to eke out something bearing some semblance to normal, happy lives in a world polarized by the experience of superheroes… and how that polarization would manifest differently in different cultures and places.
It’s also very much a transrealist story, to use Rudy Rucker’s term for a autobiographical fiction infused with speculative fiction tropes and weirdness. More than a little of this story recalls my first 20 months in Korea, when I found myself working in a busy University Language Center that was saddled with crazy office politics (and definitely a few crazy foreign teachers), a Director who viewed the position as an onerous obligation, an office staff that managed to be perpetually both bored out of their skulls and totally confused, both in their dealings with us, and with their own inept and uninterested supervisor who—I kid you not—was more often than not was found practicing his putt in the middle of the open layout administrative main office.
The place was a hot mess in the way so many other Language Centers and hakwons are here, but I have to say that teaching elementary schoolers was actually really fun: they were still young enough to have no yet internalized all the stuff that made teaching middle schoolers a Sisyphean struggle, and they actually wanted to have fun in class. I actually miss teaching kids, some days, especially during those semesters when I happen to have two classes with too many of the kind of students who drag their feet and do the bare minimum—the form of resistance most commonly adopted when it comes to mandatory language courses here.
But it was also heartbreakingly obvious that some of these ten and eleven-year-olds were being worked to death. I felt like I could see the kids being worn down into nubs, some of them, and whenever I (often) hear an adult Korean complain that they felt their creativity had been leached out of them in the deluge of school and hakwon study, I think back to how there were always a few kids who slumped into class with bags under their eyes, and nodded off in class, and a few others who finished workbook work as quickly as possible so that they could slip out their workbooks for school classes, or for classes from other hakwons.
The experience is strange, and for me maps onto the superhero story in a couple of ways. It’s not just the desire to rescue those suffering kids from all the boredom and work they have to wade through—something that made a lot of us teachers work extra-hard at turning our kids’ classes into oases of fun and engagement—but also the weird relationship that forms as Korean kids and foreign instructors clue in on the fact that they’re both square pegs inside a system filled mainly with round holes that they’re somehow supposed to dutifully slot themselves into, impossible as it is.
This story is much less about that ultimate endpoint of that dynamic—the way some in both groups either find a round hole capacious enough to accommodate a square peg like them, or allow their corners to be worn down until they fit, or who eventually give up and leave for places where they find a more accommodating range of pegholes—so much as it’s about the way that a Korean kid and a foreign adult can both sort of awaken to that reality at the same time, in a random classroom in which they find themselves randomly thrown together.
Well, and I guess it’s about the sense that I got that, as the adult in the room, my job wasn’t to “rescue” these kids from their horrible situation (a futile project, if there ever was one for a foreign teacher here), so much as it was my job to support them in their own efforts to find a way to survive long enough to rescue themselves… or something like that.
If that sounds kind of heartbreaking, well… that’s because it sometimes was. But there’s dignity in the struggle, at least.