I was waiting to take the subway today when I noticed a bizarre looking man haunting the platform. He was Western, but bore no hint of the easy affluence that 99% of anyone Western in Korea bears. He looked like he’d sleepwalked his way into the station: his gait was uneven, his hair looked unwashed and he generally had the air of a man that had been lost for some time and given up looking.
I inadvertently made eye contact with him, and he held his stare as I looked away. The train arrived and I got on, and I lost sight of him as I found my spot to stand on the carriage. By the time I looked up again, I could see him staring at me from the other end of the carriage. His face was narrow and his eyes were large. Although his eyes were wide open, he looked like he had not slept enough. He had started to walk towards me through the people on the carriage, and although I had the feeling that the looming conversation was probably not going to be too enjoyable, I took my earphones out in preparation.
“Where are you from?” His voice was American and I guessed New York: it was certainly very nasal and he looked at me intently as he asked me, with his head slightly lowered. He was balding from the forehead up.
“England” I said, as if to say, ‘ aha, how interesting it is that I’m from England’.
“But is your FAMILY from England?” He pressed me, he wasn’t satisfied with my answer. At this point I began to wonder if he was Jewish, and whether the guy had made such an intense beeline for me because he (like many others before him) had thought that I was Jewish.
I gave him the usual spiel about my lineage, ‘half-English, half-Colombian, yada-yada’. Everyone must have these stock blurbs that they have to spin out every so often: I wonder what’s going on in my brain when I’m repeating the same thing for the thousandth time: I would hope it’s doing something else at the same time really.
“Yeah you look kinda Latin”. I agreed with him. “Where are you from?” I asked. “Buffalo” he said. “That’s North of New York right?” “North West” he said. “But I’ve got family in Eastern Europe and in Israel too”. I expressed interest non-verbally.
“Do you know who you look like?” he said. “Go on” I said, my interest piqued. I must admit, I love it when people play this game with me. Over the years I’ve had David Baddiel, David Schwimmer, David Blaine and virtually any vaguely Jewish looking person with dark hair and glasses who’s called David. Sadly, I think David Baddiel is the most accurate of the David Trinity.
“Elvis Costello” he said, “you know, with the thick rimmed glasses and dark hair”. I was a bit disappointed because I don’t really like Elvis Costello for some reason, not sure why. He explained that he was a big fan and reeled off some detailed information about the bands that Elvis had played with, casting aspersions on some and bestowing affirmation on others. I said something like ‘He’s bigger in America than he is in the UK’ and that was met with a sense of doubt that was becoming increasingly characteristic from the sleep-deprived rodent-man.
He asked me how long I’d been teaching in Korea (I’m not sure at what point we’d confirmed that we were both English teachers, it’s essentially a foregone conclusion whenever you meet another native English-speaker here) and I told him, 6 months. I reciprocated the question and he said 4 years. I asked him if he liked it here and he said it was ok, as if to say he’d had better: “The problem is that I don’t have a Korean girlfriend, I have a FiliPINO girlfriend and I’m just knee-deep in….”
He stopped himself from going on and looked down and away, helpless. This was the kind of thing that I was expecting from the moment that the conversation began. “Knee-deep in….?” “Ahhhh I mean she’s got a kid and she’s over there and I’m trying to get her to come here and I have to send her money and….” He broke off again, looking no more or no less helpless than before. “You’re never knee-deep in anything good are you” I said. He seemed to like that.
He started to talk about other bands that he liked and then I told him that I had to go because it was my stop. He looked like he wanted to carry on talking and he seemed to go up another gear of consciousness as the conversation was ending. He told me to add him on facebook as we shook hands, and that his name was Darrell Kramer, with two l’s and an e. I haven’t added him: not just because it’s far easier to write about people if you’re not friends with them on facebook; but also because I simply can’t find him.