Gangnam Hagwon

On that same Friday Mr. Han was wheeled out as a corpse, he had counted exactly eight mothers in EngLearn’s reception room. Eight mothers meant eight new students and possibly more, for some could be wrangling for sibling packages for their whole litter. Eight mothers waited for a spot to open up. Desperation a necessity, it was the backbone to Mr. Han’s business. Only eight mothers in the waiting room! His eyes widened when he looked out from his office. What would they think of us? Some neighborhood hagwon? We’re in Gangnam for Christ’s sake! That morning, Mr. Han had noticed his receptionists browsing the internet. They could have been making one more call to a mother during that time—a mother who could be sitting in their very reception room, heightening demand. The more the merrier.

Each mother tensed up at the sight of her competition. They scanned each other: the Hermes bag, the Gucci scarf, the Dior suit. They eavesdropped on the mother of the international school brat, the mother of the private boarding school brat, the mother of the to-be-Harvardian brat. Competition made them squeeze their handbags harder, each dangling metal lock glimmering with envy. My child over her child, each of them prayed. Money didn’t matter. This could alter their children’s future: the difference between the inferior UC sch¬¬¬¬ools and the superior East Coast colleges—Yale or perhaps even Harvard. How grand that would look! Their children being retirement plans, only hagwons could transform their financial uncertainty to sumptuous silver towns of their future.

The scratchy intercom sounded and students streamed out. The acrid smell of teenagers permeated the air: sweat, breath, acne. Mr. Han planted himself behind his glass cage, a barrier that kept him safe. Adolescent human beings repulsed him—an unbearable sight and scent, their awkwardly proportioned bodies and excessive body waste. Insects. They bustled like insects. A pig sty would have been less repulsive; animals could at least be whipped into shape. But the students caught him in a paradox. They were like golden eggs, no, they were golden egg laying hens, to be treasured, yet filthy and offensive as the beggars in disguise in those English fairy tales. He would rather run a factory with people wrapped up in vinyl uniforms, all in line, producing at maximum capacity. Maybe with this money he could set up shop in Cambodia or China one day.

But that day may never come, with all those Human Rights rabble rousers around. It was best to capitalize on the steady demand. Since schools didn’t teach and will continue not to, the ones with capital will always be seeking—me. What could he do but provide his services? In his dreams, he bowed and thanked the bribe demanding principals for their corrupted systems. They were the true creators of jobs in this nation, not the government.

As Mr. Han astutely counted the heads, a pain taking the shape of an inverted cone arose from the bottom of his bowels. Just a month before, he had the best physicians at Samsung hospital conduct his check-up. It had been more like a stroll in a five star hotel with chandeliers and polite nurses. Stress, cholesterol, and gout. That had been all, but something tugged at his insides now—maybe the gall bladder? Then, the point of an excruciating pain pierced him. The single point started to tug and a larger force—possibly foreign?—started to rip away his insides. Blood leaked out beneath him. Falling forward, he was engulfed.

Meanwhile, one of the receptionists, Miss Minyoung, saw out of the corner of her big bunny eyes Mr. Han leaning toward the floor, but she kept her gaze fixated on her screen. He was probably picking something up. Minyoung worked as his informant. She reported instructors late to their classes, instructors with many complaints, and instructors scouted by other hagwons. She wondered why others did not take up the simple job. Her deeds had safeguarded her from salary cuts, though she knew better than to rely on her past services for further benefits.

While Mr. Han wasn’t facing her way, she had to make her move quickly. A purchase from Hyundai department store’s summer sale awaited her. The white pearl purse would go so well with her outfits. Although white should be avoided on subways, she would guard it with her hands, probably hold it tight to her chest. She would protect its immaculate whiteness that way. She clicked and placed it in her virtual cart. Her credit card could be slipped out discreetly from behind her cellphone. Thank goodness. If she had placed it in her purse, her shopping would have been too obvious. She slid her fingers most delicately to the edge of the plastic card and tugged at it. Pretending to be typing an email to a parent, she inserted the numbers in order. She was one click away when a woman’s shriek shook the office.

A day before Mr. Han’s death, Mrs. Lim had gotten a phone call from one of the receptionists, Mr. Sean. He said over the phone, “We are incredibly sorry, but Esther could not be admitted to Mr. Han’s College Entrance Preparatory Sessions.” The next day, Mrs. Lim decided to address the matter in person. Pushing down her anger, she hurried to her closet. The St. John suit would do. How dare they forget all the snacks they’ve eaten on my dime? She had enrolled Esther since 7th grade—5 years running. Every beginning and ending of summer, the staff had stuffed their mouths with specialty rolls, sushi boxes, and roasted duck platters. They had forgotten where the food had come from. A reminder was due.

Sean hid his guilty look when he spotted Mrs. Lim getting off the elevators. He did not not expect her to march in, but again, he had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. Three more mothers waited for him, and all of them had arrived early. All the meeting rooms booked solid, he had to conduct his consultations in the crowded open office space. Everyone’s voices could be heard there. No private packages could be offered out in the open like that. That would have to be done on the phone again. Sean sighed, then braced himself. Mrs. Lim looked formidable as always, with multiple Hyundai shopping bags. Her sunglasses hid her glaring eyes.

“Mrs. Lim! What a pleasant surprise! Could I offer you some cold tea?”

“Oh, please, don’t bother. Is Mr. Han busy?” Mrs. Lim and Sean simultaneously turned to Mr. Han’s glass office. He wasn’t in.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Lim. He is not in his office right now, but there is another course led by Mr. Han’s protégé Miss Kim-Engel. She is a Harvard graduate. I thought it might be a great fit for Esther.”

“Don’t let me hold you up. I’ll just pop this in his office.” Mrs. Lim beamed. Her dog-teeth glowered at him. She clicked her heels to the glass chamber in the back. Sean had done what he could. It was out of his hands now.

Mothers like her always demanded to speak with Mr. Han directly. The mothers did not know that Mr. Han despised their children. Outside of his classes, Mr. Han avoided the students at all costs. He would buzz in Sean to bring in reports, coffee, and mail to his office. Mr. Han would find the rolls Mrs. Lim delivered on his return, probably call the mother back, comfort her, and give her what she wanted. If this happened, Sean knew he would have to kick out another student by lying to another mother. He rehearsed excuses. He could say that Mr. Han had a previous engagement that conflicted. Or that a new teacher was assigned to take over the class, which would guarantee that the mother would pull her child out of that session. Either way, more work awaited him at the end of the day. He heard Mrs. Lim shuffling her bags. The door squeaked open and Mrs. Lim’s falsetto scream rang throughout the building. By the time he turned around, he saw beyond Mrs. Lim’s pink suit. A grey being was in a red puddle.

The doctors diagnosed the man’s symptoms as a stroke and wheeled him into the surgery room. They transferred the bloated body to the operating table. To stop the bleeding from what they had presumed to be a ruptured aneurysm, the surgeon cut open the flesh of the man's head. Instead of reaching the cranium, they found a strange layer of rougher skin with prickly hair, something of a second epidermis. The surgeon cut through the layer and reached another slippery black skin. It looked like it could belong to another living creature—A leech? Again, he cut through it all. Blood gushed out of the layers. When the crew recovered from the blood bath, they found that the once swollen figure had withered into a limp grey corpse. They declared the man dead and recommended the corpse for further studies.

With her long purse that jutted out like a sniper’s rifle, Mrs. Han signed to donate Mr. Han’s body to the Medical University. It had not specifically been his wish, but it had not not been his wish. It had not been her plan from the beginning, but after the autopsy, Mrs. Han was intercepted by vultures in suits and ties, handsome young men courting with requisite consolation and concerned brows. They handed her the right things at the right time: a tissue, a cup of coffee, sushi boxes with complementary hot soup. Mrs. Han silently listened, picking at her to-be-manicured nails. Everything was behind schedule. The textbooks had to be sent to the underground copier. Her monthly massage session had to be postponed. Then, the idiotic Canadian instructor had caused a ruckus, kissing a sixteen year old. How had he not kept it better hidden?

At last, help had arrived. These nice men in nice tight suits cared for her. What they offered was exclusively for her—a good package with the coverage of all funeral fees, a guaranteed date and their personal help. They reassured her. All would be taken care of—free of charge. On the designated day, she would be expected to relax in the VIP lounge, show up to be consoled by guests, and collect the guests’ funeral money. Mrs. Han had quietly nodded, and signed to accept their care. In the end, they knew how to do business, and who would blame her for being a helpless widow?

The office seemed the same to a visitor. It seemed quiet only to those who knew its secret. The notice of Mr. Han’s death had been hushed up by Mrs. Han who calculated that the news would strip them of their reputation. Already, they had cancelled the special classes conducted by Mr. Han. Mothers were outraged. How could they find another star teacher so late in the summer? Mrs. Han had handled all the apologies and promises of future price reductions.

The receptionists clicked on more quietly than ever. They whispered amongst themselves only for critical information. Lunch time came around 2:30pm when the tide of students poured out into the streets with awaiting Mercedes and BMWs.

“Everyone, jja’jang’myeon?” asked Mr. Sean.

“I’m wearing white. I’ll pass. I’m headed down for kim’bap. Anyone want any?” Miss Minyoung could not afford any black spots on her white blouse. She pounced towards the elevator in her white pumps, slightly greyed from being stomped by other passengers on the subway.

“I’ll go,” joined in Miss Hailey. Her real name was Li’you, but Mrs. Han told her that Li’you was too Chinese. “Mothers don’t come to EngLearn to be greeted by Chinese,” Mrs. Han had snapped and so Hailey she became.

Mrs. Han watched in disgust as the receptionists perked up at lunch time. Their limp bodies somehow found energy, who knows where, when it could not be found a moment before. They had all been surfing the internet, she was sure. The only exertion of energy had been through their index fingers. Why did they need twenty minutes for lunch? Hadn’t they been sipping on their bubble tea all day long? They were absolutely unaware of the bloating fat cells around their waists, inside their thighs, and underneath their chins. Her own shape had been the fruit of hard work. Not a moment had she relaxed her abs and buttocks. She would not let their sluggish, unproductive, furtive activities bring down the hagwon. Did they expect her to loosen up the standards? That would not do. There always needed to be a supervisor. Humans were weak that way.

Mrs. Han continued to look over the invoices. Why had there been so many markers ordered? Those American teachers had no sense of frugality. They always opened up new boxes whenever they pleased. What were those numbers? For office beverages? Who was drinking up all of the ginseng tea reserved for VIP mothers? The receptionists could never be trusted. They were the only ones with access to them. Did they pay $6000 for their children’s summer course? No, they did not. Who did they think they were? They did the simplest of all jobs: taking phone calls, which they did not do most of the time.

Mrs. Han took in a deep breath—her pressure rising. She felt a pulsing in the back of her neck where it connected to her skull. Another migraine, she thought. She opened the window for fresh air. The muggy humidity triggered them at times. Or maybe the air-conditioner had mold. Yet the tugging spread upwards. Was it an itch? The itchy tugging pulled on her chin and the back of her head. Perhaps her plastic surgery’s side effects were returning. Then, a piercing; as it reached her nostrils, she found she could not breathe. In confusion, her hands covered her face, trying to trace what had overcome her body. She pulled at her cheeks and nose, desperate to be rid of the mysterious layer. Air could not come through her mouth either. Something blocked her system. Enveloped. Something had enveloped her. What had the doctors said about her husband?

Sean glanced back towards Mrs. Han’s cubicle. She had her back towards them, facing the window. The others had nudged him to go ask her out for lunch as a formality, of course. It was the Catch-22 of their daily routines. Although they knew she did not lower herself to eating with them, she certainly held it against them if they didn’t ask. He sighed. Sean, the go-between.

He had submitted his resume to other hagwons in the opposite side of town. He was sure he was not the only one. Everyone had to fend for oneself. He glanced back at Mrs. Han, who seemed to be rocking back and forth. Was she screaming into the phone again? Perhaps another instructor was asking for a raise. He could be next, finding out he would not be getting his month’s pay. How then, could he possibly be expected to worry about her meal? If he didn’t ask her, no one would blame him in this tumultuous time.

Meera Han was relieved to find the procedures simplified. Her mother opted for cremation before her death. She imagined her mother arranging the logistics: a sensible woman, always prepared. Likewise, her mother was rational even at the death of her father. Meera attended summer session during his funeral.

“I have to pass history if I want to graduate,” she had explained to her mother on the phone. Her mother had agreed with her.

“How hard your father worked to send you to Harvard!” And that was that.

After the lawyer read aloud her mother’s will, Meera Han sat with the hospital consolers, who had come out of nowhere. Her mother had wished to be cremated and placed in a prepaid gold urn.

“But,” they said, “Mrs. Han’s condition being so peculiar, we would like to further search for the reason for her passing. Her giving spirit could make a world of a difference in medical history.” Then they emphasized, “For the good.”

Wouldn’t her mother want to do some good for once? This might save her soul. Her mother was the one who opted her father’s body to be donated. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Meera could still follow her wish. It was only a difference in timing—being promptly burned (though the calendar was booked) or burned later. Meera, having to finish her last year at school, could not be troubled by all the delay. Despite being swamped by her medschool applications, she’d flown in, but could not divert any more of her time. Her parents had wished her to become Dr. Han.

“Sure,” she said and signed her mother’s body over to the care of the gentle hands. The same hands then guided to her a cup of coffee.

EngLearn closed down on the basis of the will. The mothers camped out for their refunds, scrambling for openings elsewhere. The lawyers transferred all the monetary profits to the daughter’s account.

The white pearl purse in hand, Minyoung came back for her wireless mouse and her mug. The office key was yet to be changed. Minyoung hadn’t found work yet although a month of searching had passed. Other English hagwons had started to shut down. Lower demand? Rise of Chinese instruction? Who knew? All milked anyways, thought Minyoung. The government, for one thing, cracked down on them. They set curfews for hagwons—no student could receive any private tutoring after 10 p.m. EngLearn and other buildings had stayed lit until 3 a.m. most days. A curfew at 10 meant five less hours in the day. Some hagwon owners came on the news, mosaicked on screen, charged with disobeying the curfew. Secret agents had sought out curtained buildings with light leaking out. Five hours constituted a 25% drop in revenue; it was no wonder they were closing down.

As Minyoung collected her belongings, her eyes went to Mrs. Han’s office. It was an open secret that the Han’s kept multiple books. One for the government and another for the true profits. Minyoung gravitated toward the glass office. Surely, Mrs. Han would have taken extra care to do her dirty business elsewhere. But Mr. and Mrs. Han rarely left EngLearn, and their deaths were so sudden, so perhaps the books could be here. Not in the hackable computer, no. If the books were here, Sean would have accessed the information, but maybe he’d run out of time, having gone the way the Hans had. If she found them, she could hand them over to the government watchdogs. She could be the glorious whistleblower—hammer down the hagwons nationwide. EngLearn of Gangnam, one of the top five academies. Though its life was over, its reputation lived on. She could taint it, forever ruin it. Truth shouldn’t be buried with the Hans, should it? Minyoung’s fingers trembled. The paramedics had not cleaned up. With a pen, she pushed the crusted sheets of paper out of the way. Blotched but not drenched, she found Mrs. Han’s fake invoices there with all the others. It was too easy.

Minyoung thought about the risks this would entail. Li’you could testify against her if she found out about it. But would she? Just to be careful, she’d make sure to give her a piece of the pie. Who wouldn’t want to make the Han’s turn over in their graves? Li’you of all people. Then again, Minyoung would be doing a favor for the deceased Sean as well. Most instructors reviled Mrs. Han for her consistent cruelty, but Minyoung knew the blame lay with Mr. Han. He snorted at them when their backs were turned, his nose like a pig’s, stuck high up in the air. He started her off at half the pay as the rest of them because she’d only graduated from community college. Though, Minyoung later learned, he himself had been fired from an international school for masquerading as a Harvardian. Then there was that greedy appetite of his, hogging all the snacks brought in by the mothers. Maybe Mrs. Han would pick at a pastry once in a while, but mostly Mr. Han would finish them in a day. No sharing. This would ultimately be his end.

Minyoung placed the booklets into her white purse and clicked her heels toward the door. The vertigo hit her, or she hit the vertigo. Maybe she didn’t eat enough? Surely, the diet had done something. Then, a piercing pull shot upwards from her uterus.  

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