My one-sided romance with Tae Ho, neither reciprocated nor noticed, matched my relationship with South Korea. I started out enthralled with the country, even when living in the workaday city of Pohang. When I learned how to read Hangul, the Korean alphabet, and could understand signs and ingredients, my heart sang. When I had my first taste of sogogi bibimbap (a popular beef dish) and japchae (thin noodles), I nearly wept with pleasure.
Yet with knowledge comes clarity. Rose-colored glasses never left my face for the first year, but bit by bit, glare by glare, I was made to remember who I was. On the subway, seats next to me would remain empty. In normally cramped cafes, I would have an entire table to myself. And when applying for jobs, recruiters would inform me that parents didn’t want their child to have a Black teacher.
Cracks also began to appear in my dealings with Tae Ho. He was often tired and didn’t seem as dedicated to his English education. He was opening his own gym and perhaps had concluded that English wasn’t necessary. He canceled more frequently with real reasons but little notice. My texts would go unanswered until, after I swore I would focus on other clients, he would send an emoji letting me know he was thinking of me.
Can it be emotional abuse when only one person is emotionally invested?
Things began to stabilize in the spring and Tae Ho and I, along with his wife, started hanging out more, getting food or a coffee at Starbucks. I normally hate being a third wheel, but observing their interactions made me want to do better.
Our time together began to resemble my old life in New York, where I could complain with the full support of my friends. My new life in Korea was wearing thin, and I was becoming more critical of the gender, sexual and racial disparities. Tae Ho and his wife nodded their heads and offered their own views on the messy side of Korean life, not touched on by K-pop or K-dramas or K-beauty.
We met every week for a few hours, the English lessons dissolving into chatter about marriage and societal expectations. I felt bad for breaking into Korean; he was paying me good money for English conversation. Yet the melding of languages created a new sense of intimacy, and he shared with me how much he loved his wife. His YouTube videos, to which I had begun adding English subtitles (for free, of course), broadcast to the world the Tae Ho that I actually knew. He was happy. And I was becoming something close to happy.