After rehearsing the "Runaround Sue" number on Saturday for a couple hours, especially the acting bits at the beginning, I was excited in a way I hadn't been since rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream two years ago. Min Gi and I were driving to go get a late dinner, and I tried to explain why I was so giddy.
"It was just like doing theater back home." He nods, listening. A sudden wave of homesickness hits me. "Acting. It's the thing I miss the third-most about America. I'm glad that swing dance can give me a bit of that feeling."
"Third-most? What are number one and two?"
I smile. "Number one is family and friends, of course."
"And number two?"
"Useful? Being useful?" English is his second language, and sometimes he has to check that he heard me right. I find it reassuring. I don't think anyone has listened that carefully to me in a long time.
"Yes. It's hard to explain." I pause, trying to find the right words. "In America, I was a teacher--a high school teacher. Here, I'm a teacher, too, but it's so different. I was needed there. Necessary. I talked to kids about their problems and lives. And they needed to know English in a much more significant way than they need to know English here."
"They need English here, too. To get good jobs."
"I know, but it's not the same. Sometimes here I feel like a very expensive, white, English-talking, life-sized doll. A novelty item. Frivolous. In my job--especially at a hakwon. I love the particular hakwon where I work--I'm supported as a teacher and treated as a teacher--but it's the nature of being a foreign teacher--of being a foreigner in this country."
"Maybe it will be better in your new job."
"I think so. I hope so. It seems like it will suit my philosophy and my talents better. Leah says that I'm useful in my life here as a kind of pro-American ambassador, which is true, but even in my life sometimes I'm useless. Like with that fight I saw this morning."
"What was different in America?"
"I knew what to do there, you know? Like I could call the police, or I'd know if I should step in or not, or even what the hell they were fighting about! And I used to work at the hotline and talk to people and really help them in a meaningful way. Here, sometimes... I just feel so lost. Useless."
He thinks about this for awhile. It occurs to me that I know him well enough now to know that he's thinking about what I just said in the silence that follows.
Later that night, he asks, "Would you need to be useful to stay in Korea?"
I would. But there are many, many ways to be useful in this world.