In Search of Lost G
- onDecember 21, 2017
- Vol.38 Winter 2017
- byKim Kyung Hyun
- In Search of Lost G
In Vice Principal Newsome’s office on the second floor of Stone Hall, Northfield Academy, there are large windows overlooking the campus. Though the office boasts a spectacular view, its windows are always covered with dark brown curtains that block out all natural light. The ambience inside is somewhat reminiscent of Gangnam Cine City’s smallest theatre, Screen 11. However, unlike Screen 11, a tiny 50-seat theatre normally reserved for depressing art films, the vice principal’s office features a spacious study and a huge poster hanging above the couch, which are immediately visible upon entering. The poster is a blown-up image of the cover of Who Ate My Cheese? Underneath the image, G notices a phrase in small print: “This book offers better divorce solutions than the best family law attorney!” Noting that the author is Spencer Newsome, G mutters to himself, “So Mr. Newsome has published a book like this.” The photograph next to the poster shows Mr. Newsome, who coordinates the weekly chapel service every Wednesday, in the company of Oprah Winfrey. He stands tall next to Oprah and, despite the smile on his face, the two look rather awkward. Perhaps it’s fair to say the photograph resembles that of the South Korean president posing with the G20 delegation.
In an effort to drive away his apprehension, G lapses into thought. Mr. Newsome must have had his heyday as a divorce consultant before he joined Northfield. Would my parents have stayed together if they’d had a chance to consult with Mr. Newsome? Nope. The language barrier would have hindered proper communication. Mom speaks good English and Dad doesn’t. Maybe that would’ve aggravated Dad’s inferiority complex and made things a whole lot worse. What does cheese mean to America’s married couples anyway?
“Over here, G.” The voice of a middle-aged white male calls out from somewhere.
Mr. Newsome’s desk is quite far from the study, a penalty kick distance away from a goal post. Behind the desk, the vice principal flicks through a world atlas the size of a 46-inch television as he waits for G to come over and sit. Is he planning a trip to Australia? The pages in front of him show the vast expanse of the Australian continent.
“Sorry I’ve kept you waiting, G. I don’t believe we’ve met before, have we?”
His voice sounds different today. During the weekly chapel service when they sing the school song, “O Jerusalem,” he invariably brings his mouth close to the mic and sings at the top of his voice, so much so that he’s been nicknamed “One-man Choir” by the kids. Here inside his office, his voice is far from the usual choir tone.
In a voice that’s hardly audible, G barely squeezes out an answer from his throat. Last year, they did shake hands at the welcome party for the freshmen, but this is the first time they’ve come face to face in private.
“Please take a seat over here. Would you like anything to drink? Coffee?”
“. . .”
G wants to say, “No, thank you,” but can’t muster the energy to blurt out the sound of an n and an o put together. The vice principal’s kindness is only making him even more nervous. He can’t wait to get this meeting over with. Every moment inside the office feels so tortuous that he doesn’t even have the peace of mind to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Mr. Newsome, in a bow tie and suspenders, waits for G to sit down before taking a cigarette for himself out of a drawer. G has never seen any of the other teachers smoke in the presence of a student at Northfield. He thought all buildings were non-smoking but maybe he was wrong. Thankfully Mr. Newsome doesn’t offer him a cigarette in place of coffee. Nor does he resort to the pathetic excuse that smokers usually come up with: “I quit last year but somehow took it up again. I’ve given up alcohol but this is one vice I can’t let go of.” He takes a long drag on the cigarette and then flips the ash into the waste bin. Soon G’s eyes catch a framed photograph on the desk. The photograph shows three shirtless hippies with overgrown hair. Who are they? The first, a corpulent hippie, sports a thin moustache that hangs below his chin. The second is in a cowboy hat, and the third, a tall hippie wearing red round-framed glasses, has hair the color of autumn leaves that just about touches his shoulders. Is that Mr. Newsome’s son? He looks very much like the vice principal. Seemingly gazing at something curious, the three men have a certain air of melancholy about them. At any rate, they don’t appear as unnatural as the sight of Oprah forcing a smile.
“That photograph was taken thirty-five years ago. That’s me in the middle, wearing sunglasses, and the two on either side are famous musicians. Recognize them?”
Simon and Garfunkel maybe? G thinks as he shakes his head in response.
“That’s Neil Young on the right, and David Crosby on the left. They were members of Crosby, Nash, Stills & Young. I worked as one of the band’s roadies during their 1974 tour.”
So they weren’t some dancing pop stars but must have been a group of talented idols producing serious music like SG Wannabe. The photograph of the vice principal in his youth puts G’s mind somewhat at ease, prompting him to ask a question.
“How old are you here, sir?”
Amazingly, the ash at the tip of the long cigarette sticking out from Mr. Newsome’s mouth manages to remain intact.
“I’d always aspired to become a musician, so I jumped right into the business without finishing high school. I think I must’ve been about seventeen.”
G takes another look at the photograph. Mr. Newsome used to dream of becoming a singer. Is that why he sings the school song in such a loud voice? Mr. Newsome at age seventeen doesn’t look significantly younger than the other two, though there must be an age gap of at least ten years. Be that as it may, there isn’t much of his younger self left in him now. G is curious as to where Stills and Nash, the other two members, were when this photograph was snapped but checks himself from asking another question.
“I needed to make a phone call first, and it took much longer than I’d expected.”
Mr. Newsome stubs out the barely half-smoked cigarette in the waste bin. Who was he talking to on the phone? G was able to relax for a little while but now he can feel tension creeping back into his body. Was it Mom?
“I just got off the phone with David George and Sam Elliot’s parents.”
G’s feet begin to shake and click-clack against the floor.
“You can face criminal charges for what you did yesterday. It’s definitely beyond the school’s authority. I have the report right here. Let me read it to you.
“At about 6:15 p.m. on Tuesday, near the tray return conveyor connected to the kitchen in West Hall, Gee Sung assaulted two of his fellow eleventh graders, David George and Sam Elliott. They were on their way to return their trays when Gee suddenly attacked them. Gee kneed David George in the abdomen. Open bracket. It says ‘open bracket’ here. Only narrowly missing the pressure point. Close bracket. David George momentarily complained of difficulty breathing. At around 7:30 p.m., he was taken to the ER at Greenfield Hospital. His chest X-ray showed no bone fractures, or any other injuries.
“As for Sam Elliot, G grabbed his face and pressed it down on the conveyor, which could have caused serious injury. Luckily, G let go before Sam Elliot got dragged into the dishwasher. However, Sam’s face and shirt became smeared with leftover food and liquids. Sam is a member of the school’s football varsity but the ER physician, Nils Rudd, forbade him from training for one full week. However, Sam should be able to participate in the game against Deerfield this Saturday, provided that he makes a speedy recovery.
“Meanwhile, Gee received bruises on his back and knees after Mr. Green Hutchins, the math teacher, and a few students tried to stop him. Although David George, Sam Elliott, and Gee are all in the same grade, the three are not close friends. The only class they take together this term is American Literature. There are more than ten eyewitnesses to the incident, including Mr. Hutchins. The statements they’ve given more or less match up. Greta Chow, the head chef at West Hall, claims that the two victims did or said absolutely nothing to provoke Gee in any way. Other eyewitnesses concur that they noted nothing out of the ordinary prior to the assault. Following the assault, Mr. Hutchins went to great lengths to calm Mr. George and Mr. Elliot, who accused Gee of behaving like the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. It took Gee nearly two hours to compose himself. During the self-study session later that evening, Gee’s dorm head Billy Spears visited his room and probed the reasons as to why he had used violence. However, Gee offered no response.”
After finishing the report, Mr. Newsome looks up and stares at G.
“How are you feeling? How are your knees and shoulders?”
They are still throbbing with pain. Yet, the wounds don’t bother G right now since his liver has pretty much shriveled up out of fear, like a burnt piece of paper. In fact, the only parts of his body that hurt are his ears. The pain is so intense that he feels as if his eardrums are about to rupture and he fears he’s losing his hearing. But he doesn’t breathe a word about any of it.
“I’ll start with the good news. I’m not sure how they’d handle your case in Korea but here in the States, this is considered a serious criminal offense. But I’ve spoken with David and Sam’s parents and they all turn out to be pretty generous folks. They don’t want to press charges against one of their children’s classmates.”
All of a sudden, G finds himself on the verge of bursting into tears, hardly able to take in what Mr. Newsome is saying. He means to say, “Thank you,” but instead blurts out something unintelligible like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa—a sound closer to an animal’s groan than human language. Mr. Newsome hesitates for a moment. But he doesn’t even check what G means by that sound, as if he too suffers from hearing impairment.
“Of course, that’s not the end of it. I have bad news, too. I had a chat this morning with your dorm head Billy Spears and some of your teachers. And when I came into the office earlier, I found emails from Kendrick and Willy who claim to be your best friends.”
“He says he’s your best friend . . . don’t you know him? Kendrick. Let me just check his surname. Here we go. Kendrick Kuwalski.”
“Oh, you mean Kube.”
“Guess that’s his nickname then. Anyway, the teachers say you’re a sensitive and delicate soul who normally gets along well with others. I understand that you occasionally got carried away with your pranks before, but you’ve consistently achieved top grades. Given this, I wouldn’t hesitate to call you an asset to Northfield that we can be proud of. Your dorm head Billy, Ms. Jane Miyoshi, and Coach Irving all believe that you’ll get into a prestigious college next year. Taking all this into account, I’ve reached a decision.”
Mr. Newsome takes out another cigarette. Americans really enjoy drawing out the suspense in a dramatic moment like this.
“Expulsion seems a bit too harsh. Instead, you will be getting a suspension.”
Caught between the two words, “expulsion” and “suspension,” G tries to pull himself together. He thought he’d be grounded at most.
“Suspension? For how long?”
“A week. But I understand how important this semester is for eleventh graders preparing for college applications. So I’ll be flexible with the disciplinary period and allow you to return to classes next Monday.”
“Where will I stay until then? Where can I possibly go?”
“Kids from the local area would actually return home in a situation like this, but it’d cost a hefty sum for international students like you to travel back to your home countries only to return in a few days. Given the circumstances, I’ll arrange for you to stay with a teacher who lives just outside the school grounds. When I decide that you’ve learned your lesson, you’ll be allowed back on campus. I’m sure it won’t be the case but do bear in mind that if I find you unfit to return to school by this weekend, then you’ll be expelled right away.”
“Who am I going to stay with?”
“Luckily, Casey, the farm director, has agreed to take you in. Only his daughter is back home for a while so there’s no room for you tonight. I guess you can move in tomorrow.”
“So, during the suspension period I can’t go to classes?”
“That’s what suspension means, I’m afraid. You can’t participate in any of the after-school activities, either. As of this moment, you’re banned from talking to other students, and that includes communication via emails, text messages, and phone calls. After dinner tomorrow, Casey will collect you from your dormitory and take you to his place. Until then, you’re not allowed to set foot outside your room unless you’re going to the bathroom. The student hall and the computer lab, not to mention the cafeteria, are all off limits to you now. Your dorm head, Mr. Spears, will bring you your meals.”
Through a crack in the curtains, G catches a glimpse of the campus. A young girl from Lake Cottage is making her way up the hill in a great hurry; she has probably forgotten her binder. The campus that G walks across three or four times a day now appears gloomy and unfamiliar. The entire place even feels rather eerie as if cast under a spell. Suddenly, G longs to see skyscrapers made of concrete and asphalt, and hear the noise of heavy traffic. Why is his body temperature plunging so precipitously right now? His body begins to tremble violently. As if he were riding on a bus to Mujin on an unpaved gravel road, G’s chin shakes uncontrollably, causing his teeth to chatter like castanets left in the hands of a three-year-old.
Mr. Newsome shows virtually no interest in G’s physical condition. The next moment, a beeping noise is heard from his computer.
“Oh my, the ruble is dropping quite a bit again. This is not good.”
“What do you mean by the ruble, sir?” asks G, barely holding his chin steady. Having lost the castanets, the three-year-old starts crying like a newborn baby.
“Well, the Russian stock market has just closed.”
It suddenly occurs to G that the ruble is the Russian currency. That’s right. The ruble. They don’t use the euro over there.
“By the way, what’s the time difference between Moscow and Seoul?”
“I’m not sure, sir.”
G doesn’t even know the time difference between Seoul and Beijing, let alone between Seoul and Moscow.
“Let me check. It’s 5:30 in the evening in Moscow and in Seoul it’s . . . let me see . . . okay, it’s 10:30 p.m. It’s only one hour behind Sydney.”
G wonders if he’ll be able to get hold of his mom. She doesn’t normally answer the phone after ten.
“Why don’t you give her a call? If she can fly over and spend some time with you, it’ll do you good. Let me just look up your information in the school database. Your father is not around, and you mother’s name is Young-mi So. She has a master’s degree from Syracuse University. Her English must be very good then, right?”
Mr. Newsome must have clean forgotten that he and G’s mother shared a long conversation in English about Syracuse when she visited Northfield with G last autumn. The vice principal picks up the telephone next to his computer and motions G to call home.
“You talk to her first and put me on the phone.”
The phone rings more than ten times.
“The number you’ve dialed is busy. Please leave a message after the tone.”
G has never been happier to hear the pre-recorded voice of a Korea Telecom operator.
“She’s not answering the phone.”
“Is that so? Well, I’ll try ringing her myself later. I’ve sent her an email too, so I should expect to hear back from her soon. Are there any close relatives that we must inform? Your guardian in the US is written down as Kyung Kim from California . . .”
“He is my mom’s cousin but I don’t really know him. I’ll just wait until the afternoon and speak to my mom on the phone. I’ll try calling her again, too.”
“Oh, but your suspension goes into effect this very moment. I’ll look after your phone for the time being and pass it on to Billy later. You can get it back from him after the suspension.”
G lets his mind wander and imagines what it’d be like to have his father here right now instead of his mom. Does Mr. Newsome like to play golf? They’d get on like a house on fire if they played golf together. If I could get Dad to complain that my punishment is too severe, would Mr. Newsome accept it without further argument? Although Sam did get covered in food, he suffered no injury. David George slipped on his own and let his own stomach come into contact with my knee. How am I gonna explain all this to Paige?
The map of Australia spread across the desk catches G’s attention. The vast continent shaped like the head of a horse lying on its side is mostly colored in yellow. According to Anton Hwang, a Chinese kid from Hillside Hall, despite the seemingly endless stretches of land on the Australian continent, there are very few habitable regions. The whole area is no different from the deserts in Arizona. G was planning to run away from school anyway. Now that things have turned out this way, does it matter whether he finishes the fall semester? What if he just springs into action now? Having thought thus far, G finds that nothing frightens him anymore.
“Anything else, sir?” asks G boldly.
“That’s it. Billy will be here to escort you to your room. Let’s wait a bit.”
At last, G realizes that he’s become a prisoner. He carefully considers what that means. The body of a prisoner. Coincidentally, the Korean words for “English” and “prisoner” are homophones. How does one write the word for “prisoner” in Chinese characters? As if to mark the end of his official duty, Mr. Newsome performs a quick dolphin show, tossing a cigarette up in the air and then catching it in his mouth.
“What did your mother study at Syracuse?”
“English literature, sir.”
The vice principal stops battering the keyboard.
“Do you know her thesis topic?”
“I don’t have a clue, sir.”
“I did my master’s at Syracuse too. I was a Russian literature major, but I hung around with kids from the English department a lot. I don’t think I met a Korean girl back then. Maybe she came to Syracuse after I left.”
“. . .”
G says nothing. How come Mr. Newsome has so utterly and completely forgotten the conversation he had with G’s mom only a year ago?
“I didn’t major in counseling at university, actually. The title of my dissertation was ‘Russian Literature on the Eve of the Revolution: Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.’”
“Yes, sir . . .”
G has no interest in Russian literature.
“It seems ridiculous now but I was completely obsessed with all those dull, boring characters back then. Russian literature is like a contest among peculiar and incomprehensible characters. People say the dissolution of the Soviet Union caused the sudden drop in the popularity of Russian literature. I have a different theory though. As far as I can see, there’s only one reason. Page after page in Russian literature, you’ll find disagreeable characters who are all seeking revenge. Spiteful and unlikeable!”
Once Mr. Newsome starts talking there’s no stopping him. G hasn’t come all the way here to listen to a lecture on Russian literature. He wonders what time the dorm head is supposed to turn up. As if copying a George Clooney character in a Coen brothers comedy, an unfazed Mr. Newsome continues to spew a stream of quick-fire questions and answers.
Translated by Helen Cho
Illustration by Amy Shin
Kim Kyung Hyun is a novelist, scholar, and film producer. He studied at Oberlin College and earned his doctorate from the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He serves as a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages & Literature at UC Irvine. His publications include Virtual Hallyu and Korean Popular Culture Reader. He has also coproduced feature films Never Forever and The Housemaid.