If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.
-- Cop 223, Chungking Express
1999 was a good year for basketball. The NBA lock-out -- which shortened the regular season to 50 games -- notwithstanding, it was the year that the Knicks, whom I had rooted for since childhood (and stopped rooting for after moving to Korea, partly because I could no longer watch them regularly -- I'm from Southern Ontario, and the Buffalo NBC station always showed Knicks games -- but mostly because of their bone-headed managerial decisions), became the first 8th-seeded team in NBA history to reach the finals. They ended up losing in the Finals to the San Antonio Spurs, but I was still pretty elated; they had had a terrific playoff run, dispatching in dramatic fashion their two biggest rivals at the time, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. I was also becoming a fairly impressive basketball player in my own right. I knew I'd never be able to play at a pro's level (my ball-handling is terrible, for one), but that didn't stop me from every day, if the weather was nice, hitting one court or another with a small circle of "basketball jonesers"; and when it rained or got too cold, we often played at the Y.
I may be accused of having delusions of grandeur here, but I am convinced that, had I been adequately coached (I've never played organized ball), I could have become, on a semi-professional level, a decent 1 or 2 guard (failing that, I'm positive I could have been a professional wrestler).
Certainly I felt I had it in me, because after graduation all I seemed to care about was basketball. My folks -- at first subliminally, and later outright vehemently -- urged me to look for work. I paid them lip service. My three passions at the time were, in no particular order, basketball, girls, and hip-hop. It was only at the threat of being cut off by my parents that I realized I had better try to find something (or make it look as though I was trying to find something; I can't lie, that was my true intention) if only to appease my folks.
This was early-July. Every morning, after my father left for work, I would eat breakfast and browse the classified section of the newspaper. I could and perhaps should have searched on-line as well and posted my resume on various job sites, but seeing as how I wasn't very keen on finding work anyway, it's easy to see why I didn't. Around 10 or 11, my good friend and reliable basketball comrade (let's call him D) would drive up to my place. We'd smoke a couple of cigarettes while shooting the breeze, then it was off to the court, where we'd usually play for 2 or 3 hours.
Man, I know I was a complete slacker back then, but those are fond memories.
Around the beginning of August my folks started getting really adamant that I find work, any work, even suggesting that I take a part-time job at a bookstore while looking for something better and full-time. Feeling more than a little guilty at my parents' patience and generosity, and knowing that sooner or later I'd have to stop procrastinating and get a job, I resolved to follow their advice -- unless, I told myself, I found something more attractive in the classifieds the next morning.
I didn't find a better help wanted ad, but what I did find piqued my interest considerably. It was an advertisement for a TESOL (Teaching English To Speakers Of Other Languages, for the uninitiated) course. The ad's headline was what roped me in: TRAVEL THE WORLD TEACHING ENGLISH! Below that was a list of the benefits being an ESL teacher offered. It sounded quite appealing. What really got me interested was the tagline "only a high school diploma is necessary." See, I hold a degree in English Literature, but until reading that I was convinced that only certified teachers would be eligible to teach English in a foreign country. I had some experience tutoring grammar to exchange students while at university, but an English teacher I most certainly wasn't. Nevertheless, I called to inquire about the course. After speaking to a representative of the company, I realized that taking the course was what I wanted to do. I can't lie, my mind was aflutter with fantastic thoughts of exotic locales and carnal delights; not once did I consider that I was taking the course to help secure employment. I didn't want to be an English teacher so much as I wanted to be Lord Jim.
There was, however, one big problem. The course was 850 dollars. Where the hell was I going to get 850 dollars? The idea of asking my mother or father for the money was laughable: there was no way they would have lent it to me.
Thankfully, providence stepped in.
The very next day -- a Wednesday, as I recall -- a letter addressed to me arrived. It was from my university. I timorously opened it, perplexed and fearful of what the letter might be about. Had Dean Wormer found out it was I who dropped a truckload of fizzies into the swim meet? Had he learned that it was I who delivered the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner? Was there some loophole he had found which would mean I'd have to do my senior year all over again, only this time blindfolded?
Sorry, I got a little carried away there...
The envelope contained a check, a refund for the unused amount remaining on my student meal plan. Normally my school didn't refund this, but only because most students ran out of money on their meal plans and had to pay extra, or because the amount was too small for them to refund. I think their policy was anything below 200 dollars, though I can't be certain. The check representing my remaining balance was a whopping 1100 bucks. I shit you not.
See, I attended a university close to my hometown, but I stayed in a dormitory. Or rather, I had a dorm room; during my final year, I rarely stayed there. I had a girlfriend back in my hometown, and spent the nights I wasn't cramming -- which was just about every night -- either with her or hanging out with my hometown friends. My parents, who footed some of the bill for my dorm room, were none too pleased, but after a while they got used to it.
So it's easy to see why I rarely used my meal plan, instead opting to eat my poor folks out of house and home. Still, the staggering amount of the refund stunned even me.
I used 850 dollars to enroll in the TESOL course (the rest I blew on inconsequential shit, such as music CDs, beer, fast food, beer, some clothes, and a blow-up do…um, a nifty haircut). These courses are generally (for there are a lot of them out there) of rather dubious prestige, but nevertheless appear attractive on a resume. Mine took 4 weeks, after which I knew nothing about being a teacher and a little about the ESL industry. Was the course worth it? I guess so. If I hadn't taken it, I'd have been a lot more naive than I was when I first arrived in Korea (though I was still really fucking naïve, but we’ll get to that later).
That was August, 1999. After "graduating" my TESOL course, I sent my resume and profile to schools all over the world: Chile, the Czech Republic, Poland, the UAE, Japan, Turkey, Stankonia...you name it. I had no idea where the hell I wanted to go, just that I wanted to "see the world." A few weeks passed with no responses, after which I started to wonder whether my resume-writing skills were weak, whether I was a lot uglier than I thought, and whether I was lied to when I was told that "all you need is a high school education" (which, by the way, is true for some countries, but very few). Then I received a call from the director of a school in Istanbul, Turkey. We spoke for only a few minutes, then he said good-bye. I wasn't very optimistic regarding my chances at that particular institute. In my defense, I had a vicious hangover and was unprepared for a telephone interview. I hadn’t been given prior notice that the gentleman would call.
So it looked as though Turkey was out. Not so bad, though. Besides the weather, what's so hot about Turkey, anyway?
After a few days, I decided I'd better try my luck at sending my resume to a few more places. It was then that I realized that the attachment I had e-mailed to every school and recruiting agency contained a picture of my cat, rather than my resume. I swear to god this is true, which goes to show just how computer-illiterate I was back then, being unable to tell the difference between a Word file and an image file. For the record, the reason the school in Turkey replied to me was because I filled out an application on the school's website, rather than sending them my resume/cat photo.
I corrected my mistake and in less than a day was contacted by roughly 35 billion recruiters from Korea. I chose one and a week later mailed them my documents, including a notarized copy of my diploma and a set of transcripts. I figured I'd be in Korea in less than a month.
But that was not to be. I don't know when the recruiter received my materials, but, perhaps because I used regular mail instead of a courier service, I'll hazard a guess that it took quite a while, for it wasn't until the following March that I heard back from them. In the interim, I hadn’t really thought about Korea much (if at all). I was once again occupied with sloth, doing a lot of nothing and generally getting on my parents' nerves by doing ("not doing" is more apt) so. Then, one Sunday evening in early-March, my recruiter called me. He wanted to know if I could arrive in Korea at the end of the month. Sure, I told him. I didn't have any plans.
And so it followed that I interviewed that same evening with a school in Seoul. I was offered the position on the spot, so to speak, and willfully accepted. Sans any kind of research into the job, sans speaking to another teacher at the school to see if the place was reputable, sans just about every precautious step it's advised that newcomers to Korea take, I said "yes" then and there.
Korea, here I come!
I dove in headfirst. Since then, diving in headfirst has become a genuine habit. I suppose I'm lucky that, like a cat falling off a counter, I've always seemed to land on my feet, pretty much unscathed.
[*knocks on wood*]