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None to Help

Alison M. Tomlinson

Copyright Alison M. Tomlinson 2018

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To my friends

(You know who you are.)

. . .they fell down, and there was none to help.

Psalm 107:12 (KJV)


Surely, I can trust myself by now.

Nicole stared at the computer screen.

This was exactly what she’d hoped for.

This was exactly what she feared.

The time had come. She had to face it. She had to deal with it.

Come on, Nicole, you’re nearly thirty. You can’t wait forever.

She stood up and started to pace the small apartment. Just take a deep breath and calm down. She glanced out the window. The gyeong-bi was tidying up the recycled waste area. She smiled. The kind old man was super friendly to her as the only white foreigner in the apartment complex, and he was very patient with her clumsy attempts at pidgin Korean.

She returned to the computer and re-read the email.

Dear Nicole

I hope the students aren’t getting you down. It’s always a bit crazy just before finals, and I know it’s even harder when it’s your first semester. The university’s management fiascos are certainly frustrating, but I hope you can take them in your stride.

Having said how crazy busy we are, my reason for writing might seem a bit odd. I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner one night next week. It would be good to have a couple of hours away from the chaos. I heard you mention you’ve never tried samgye-tang. Soon Koreans will be telling you to eat it on the three hottest days in summer. If you have some now, you’ll know what they’re talking about.

If you’re too busy, we can take a rain check until after the finals and grading.


Nicole desperately wanted to reply immediately saying she’d be delighted to accept, but she remembered her Christian psychologist’s advice: Resist impulsive decisions about men. Take your time. Let your head rule your heart.

OK, Nicole. Do what your organized, disciplined, business-like father taught you to do. Make a list of pros and cons.

She got some paper and a pen out of the desk drawer. She decided to start with the pros. (No subjective feelings allowed. Just facts. ) She began to write.

No relationship for twelve years.

Cleared by psychologist and team leader eight years ago.

Avoided known triggers for eight years.

Remained accountable to team leader for eight years.

Nearly thirty. Time running out.

Dave is a good, respectable Christian.

She read the list. Surely, it was conclusive. You had to rest a broken leg, but there comes a time to try your weight on it again. This was the same thing. If she never tested herself, how would she know?

What about the cons? Were there any?

He’s Korean. Cultural differences.

In Korea. Out of comfort zone.

Work in the same place.

Age difference.

Don’t know him well.

Yes, there were some cons. But were they really cons? I know you want to rationalize these all away, but you can’t.

That wasn’t true. She could. Quite easily.

He wasn’t really Korean, he was a gyopo, a Korean American. He thought like a westerner, not a Korean. Of course, there were cultural differences between Americans and Brits, but much less than Koreans and Brits.

As for being in Korea, maybe being in a different country would keep her on her toes. Yes, maybe it was even an advantage. If she were in her comfort zone, she would be more likely to drop her guard.

They both taught English at the same university, but their different teaching schedules made them like ships that pass in the night. They occasionally met in the photocopy room. They were hardly under each other’s feet.

She knew Dave was thirty-five because nobody’s age is a secret in Korea due to the Confucian hierarchy. Nicole had tried hard to learn some Korean, but the honorific system drove her crazy. Not only did she have to get the grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation right, she also had to choose the right level of language depending on the age and status of the person she was talking to and the person she was talking about. It did her head in. When she first arrived in Korea, she was offended by being constantly asked her age—a cultural no-no in Britain. Then she came to understand that everybody has to know everybody else’s age in order to choose the right honorific language level.

Dave was six years her senior. That wasn’t such a big age gap really. His maturity and greater experience of the world would surely be an asset to any future relationship. And as for not knowing him very well, going for dinner would be an excellent way to correct that.

It was just dinner. That’s all. She wouldn’t be expected to reveal her deepest secrets on a first date. She could just test the water. If it didn’t work out, there would be no second date. And that would be that.

She made it sound so clinical, dispassionate.

Who was she kidding?

It was time to think about feelings. Yes, she was attracted to him. Yes, she always hoped to see him in the photocopy room. Yes, she was drawn to him, and there was no denying it.

And yes, she was terrified. Was she really ‘cured’? Was a cure possible? If it went wrong, she could end up back at square one, nine years of work down the drain.

She put the pros and cons sheet aside, reached for the keyboard, and clicked the reply button.

Dear Dave

Thanks for the email.

I’m just about keeping my head above water with the work.

Thanks for the invitation. You’re right. It’s time to find out what samgye-tang tastes like.

Which evening would be good for you?

Take care


She froze with the pointer over the send button. She felt like she was about to dive off a cliff into unknown waters.

She should wait. She should pray. She should contact someone in her support group back in England or maybe talk to Betsy, the minister’s wife.

No, it was time to grow up, to make her own decisions, to stand on her own two feet and take responsibility for her own actions.

She clicked the send button.

There. It was done. It was decided.

Now to get back to work. She re-opened the document she had been working on before the email arrived. She was writing the final exam paper for her composition class. She really must finish it today.

She wrote one line. She re-wrote it. Then she deleted it. She told herself to concentrate but her mind was elsewhere. What restaurant would he take her to? Would she make a fool of herself eating with chopsticks? Had Dave dated a British woman before? What would they talk about? She imagined the scene, and her brain immediately flipped into fantasy mode.

She shook her head and forced her mind back to final exam preparation.

She wrote one more.

Then she gave up, went into the bedroom, and opened the wardrobe door.

What was she going to wear?


“Paul, if you want to communicate with your average plebeian, you need to bring your vocabulary down a notch.” Nicole handed Paul his marked composition homework.

“What’s a plebeian?” asked Cameron.

“You are,” said Johnny.

“A plebeian is a member of the lower social classes,” said Nicole, glaring at Johnny. “And Johnny, if you want a good grade, you need to bring your vocabulary up a notch. ‘Hey dudes, you wanna chill out?’ is totally unacceptable language in an academic composition as I’ve told you a hundred times.” Johnny smirked, and Nicole wanted to hit him. Maintain professionalism, Nicole.

In general, she liked teaching this special class—a small group of students with a high level of English, who used English names. It contrasted sharply with her other classes—teaching ‘Do you like bananas? Yes, I do. No, I don’t.’ to thirty students with impossibly similar Korean names, who made no effort to hide the fact they would much rather be out on the soccer field. However, Johnny tried her patience. She knew he was only doing this course because it was an easy option. He’d been brought up in the Philippines. English came naturally.

“But we’re all going to get good grades in this class, right?” Johnny’s stunningly beautiful girlfriend, Mimi, flashed her killer smile at Nicole.

“It’s true, in such a small class, the university does not place restrictions on the grading curve, and it’s possible for you to all get A+.” Mimi clapped and cheered but soon stopped when Nicole added, “But it’s also possible for you to all get F.”

“You wouldn’t do that, would you?” asked Vanessa. She was slumped in her chair looking grumpy as usual.

“I will award grades based on merit,” said Nicole.

“This is your first semester in Korea, right?” said Mimi, “You don’t understand how things work here. It’s usual for students in small classes to all get good grades. Prof Lee always does that.”

Nicole did not want to be reminded she was the new girl. Nor did she want to be reminded that her attempts to clarify the university’s grading policy had brought vague and conflicting responses from different members of staff.

“I can’t comment on what Professor Lee does—“

“He’s tenure track and head of department,” interjected Mimi.

“Yes, he is, but my understanding is that the government is putting pressure on universities to raise standards. Policies are changing. I have to account for my teaching. I repeat, I will be grading this class on merit.”

Of course, she wouldn’t be awarding grades until after the final exams, but she already had a good idea how it would work out. Paul was clearly an A+. The two girls would do quite well, but they weren’t in Paul’s league. Cameron really struggled academically. She wasn’t sure why he’d chosen this course, but he made an effort, and she would find him a pass grade. Johnny was the wildcard. He was lazy. He just did enough to pass, then went off to practise taekwondo. However, he was capable of pulling off a first class final exam.

“Now, I want to discuss the content of your last assignment. As I’ve said many times, I want to hear your true opinion, and I also want you to effectively argue for that opinion.” She wrote the title of the assignment on the whiteboard, Family: The Basic Unit of Society. “Some of you just gave me the standard Korean perspective on this. That’s fine if it is truly your perspective too, but you must explain why you hold that opinion. Some of you simply threw out the concept of family without adequate explanation.”

“She means me,” said Johnny, smirking again.

“Yes, Johnny, and the only reason you gave was that people should be allowed to do what they want.”

“Well, they should,” said Johnny defiantly.

“They should be allowed to rape and murder people?” said Vanessa, sitting up in her chair.

“Don’t be stupid. You know I didn’t mean that.”

“There is an incontrovertible requirement for established society to mandate behavioural restrictions for the betterment of the populace at large,” said Paul.

Johnny laughed. “Most people choose Harry Potter for light bedtime reading, not the dictionary.”

Here we go. The constant friction between Johnny and Paul made managing this class very awkward at times. They were chalk and cheese, Paul a bookworm, Johnny a rebel. Naturally handsome, Paul put little effort into his appearance beyond the standard requirements for conservative Koreans. Johnny, on the other hand considered himself the coolest dude on the block. The hairstyle alone must have cost a small fortune to maintain— a mass of dyed ash blond hair thrown forward over his dark, Korean eyes in a pseudo casual way.

And Nicole could not claim to be unbiased. She favoured Paul. She had known his parents in England when she was a child. His father studied theology there, and he and his wife were friendly with Nicole’s parents. Paul’s father now pastored an English ministry at a large church in Seoul, and Nicole attended. His parents had kind of adopted her, and they were delighted Paul was in her class. Paul wanted to be a missionary doctor and was doing a double major in life sciences and English. His father held a traditional Korean view of education and pressed his son to memorize reams of English vocabulary.

Nicole tried to handle the Johnny/Paul conflict in an impartial, professional manner.

But it was difficult.

“Johnny, how would you simplify Paul’s statement?” Johnny shrugged. “Come on. You criticized it. Tell us how to improve it.”

“He’s saying we have to stop people doing stuff that hurts others,” said Johnny reluctantly.

“Good, and how does that relate to the issue of family?”

“It doesn’t. How does it affect others if I spend my life fucking goats rather than getting married and having two point four children?”

Nicole hated dealing with Johnny’s little rebellions. In her other classes, the Korean respect for teachers was generally accepted. In this foreign-influenced class, she was constantly juggling between maintaining an open atmosphere for discussion, and maintaining discipline.

“Johnny, I will not tolerate that kind of language. If you can’t discuss this in a sensible way, you can leave the class right now.”

“Will it affect my grade if I leave?”

“Of course.”

Johnny leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.

Vanessa turned to Johnny, “I’d like to know what your girlfriend thinks about your attitude to family.”

Mimi glared at her. Vanessa was her best friend, but everybody knew Vanessa enjoyed stirring things up, causing a small war, and then making a quick exit.

“I think Johnny has a point,” said Mimi, “After all, gay marriage is now legal in a lot of countries. It’s only boring Korea that stays in the dark ages. Thirty percent of the population is Christian, and they force their morality on the rest of us.”

“Secular social analysts also concur with the hypothesis . . .” Paul caught Nicole’s raised eyebrows, “. . . agree with the idea that society collapses when the family unit breaks down.”

Vanessa ignored Paul and said to Mimi, “So, it’s OK your boyfriend just uses you to boost his image and doesn’t give a damn about you.”

The self-satisfied smirk left Johnny’s face. He actually stood up behind his desk and took a step towards Vanessa.

“Sit down,” commanded Nicole with all the authority she could muster. She was losing control. She should have nipped this conversation in the bud. “Please, everybody, get a grip. This is a university English class in case you’ve forgotten.”

Johnny reluctantly slid back into his chair and retaliated with “I wonder what Dave thinks about the family unit.”.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked Nicole.

“You’re going on a date with him tonight, aren’t you?”

The other students looked up with interest. Nicole felt herself blush and hated herself for it. “I don’t know how you know that, but it’s none of your business.” She groped around for a way to take back control of the conversation and said, “Cameron, you haven’t said anything. What do you think?” She immediately regretted this. Cameron didn’t contribute because he couldn’t keep up with the rapid exchange of English. When directly asked a question, he would look flustered and pause while he mentally concocted an acceptable answer. Johnny would not conceal his contempt. Nicole tried not to put Cameron on the spot too often.

After a few seconds, Cameron replied, “I agree Paul. Family important for society.”

Vanessa turned and smiled at Paul. “If you’re so keen on the family unit, why don’t you find a girlfriend?”

Paul looked embarrassed and said, “I’m concentrating on my studies. I’m only twenty-two. I have plenty of time before I marry.”

“Come on, there’s a distinct lack of tall, dark, handsome young men in the dating game round here.”

Nicole sighed and started to lose it. “What’s wrong with you guys? You are the future of Korea. Your finals are approaching rapidly, and I can’t get a serious discussion out of you on a fundamental issue that will affect every aspect of your lives.”

The classroom went quiet. Nicole glanced at her watch. It was ten to five, a little early to finish but no one would complain. Nicole took a deep breath. “O.K. We’ll finish there. If you have questions about your assignment, please ask me individually. See you next time.” She turned back to the desk to collect her belongings as chairs were scraped back and vacated. She intended to catch Paul to offer him some encouragement after his treatment by the other students, but when she turned around he was already darting out the door with Cameron in hot pursuit.

* * * * * * * *

Cameron was desperate to talk to Paul. This was his chance. He couldn’t let him get away.

Paul was walking briskly down the corridor towards the lifts, just a few metres ahead. Cameron would easily catch him at the lifts. But then another classroom door opened, and out streamed a mass of students, all slinging backpacks over their shoulders, intent on getting home. Cameron was caught in the rush. He shouted in Korean, “Paul, wait. I’ve got to talk to you.” Paul turned, saw him, and started running. Cameron pushed his way frantically through the crowd. The students glared and shouted abuse, but he didn’t care. He felt like his life was over. He knew the other students saw him as a short, dumpy nerd. They used honorific language to him due to his superior age, but then treated him with disdain. At this moment, that wasn’t important. Only one thing mattered.

Cameron managed to grab Paul’s elbow just as he was about to enter the lift. “Please, Paul. You’ve got to help me.”

“I can’t help you. Let go.”

“You’re the only one who understands. There’s no one else I can talk to.”

“I’ll pray for you,” said Paul, wrestling himself out of Cameron’s grip. The lift had gone, so he started towards the stairs. Cameron followed.

“What good will that do,” said Cameron angrily. “You know as well as I do it doesn’t work.”

Paul stopped and turned. “We have to trust God. He’s the only one who can help.”

“OK. Let’s go have coffee, and you can explain why faith in God is the answer.”

‘No. Talk to a pastor.”

“Shall I go talk to your father?” said Cameron quietly. Their eyes locked and unspoken understanding passed between them. Paul opened his mouth to speak, then pursed his lips, and turned way.

He walked straight into Vanessa and Mimi.

“Paul, would you like to come for a coffee,” said Vanessa in English. Cameron knew she was using English to cut him out of the conversation. “I’d really like to ask you how you get such good grades in composition. Maybe you can give us some tips for the final exam.”

“I have to get home,” said Paul. The lift had returned, and he followed a group of students into it. Cameron stepped in, but the weight alarm sounded, and he was forced to step back.

“You should try working out at the gym and lose a few pounds,” said Vanessa, as she and Mimi headed for the stairs.

Cameron was left alone in the now deserted corridor. He headed for the toilets where no one would see him cry.

* * * * * * * *

“You’re so transparent,” said Mimi.

“Listen who’s talking, Miss Supermodel.”

Vanessa and Mimi continued in English to keep their conversation private from other students on the stairs.

“I don’t throw myself at men like you just did. I don’t need to.”

“Men use you, Mimi, don’t you realize that? Johnny Just considers you a trophy. He parades you around. Look at me. I pulled the best looking girl in the university.”

Mimi stopped on a landing and turned to Vanessa. “Is he using me, or am I using him?”

“What does that mean?”

“We never agreed on exclusivity.”

“Sometimes I think you’re a slut,” said Vanessa as they started down the next flight of stairs.

“Now listen who’s talking. You’re not telling me you’re after Paul for his superior intellect or that you intend settling down with him and starting a family.”

Vanessa ignored this. “So, if you and Johnny aren’t exclusive you won’t mind if I give him a try. What’s he like in the sack?”

Mimi quickened her descent. Vanessa was her best friend, but sometimes she wanted to throttle her.

When they reached the main entrance, Mimi changed the subject. “Do you think we pissed Nicole off, and she’ll lower our grades?”

“So you do give some thought to studying in between choosing clothes for Johnny to buy you.”

“Knock it off. I’m worried. You know my parents will only support my modelling career if I get good grades and have a backup.”

Mimi’s expression seemed to soften Vanessa. “Nicole said she’d grade us on merit.”

“Yes, but who can be totally objective marking something as subjective as composition?”

“We’ll be OK in composition. It’s Prof Lee’s eighteenth century British literature class I’m worried about.”

“You don’t have to worry, you’re better than me. I can’t get into it. Rochester and Darcy just don’t do it for me.”

They were now standing at the edge of the carpark, waiting for the school bus.

“Well, Mimi, if you’re that worried, you do have options.”

“What do you mean?”

“Anybody who can walk into class looking like Soo Joo on a fashion shoot can find a way to secure an A+.”

For a moment Mimi stared in disbelief at a friend. Then a small smile appeared on her face.

As they boarded the bus, Vanessa glanced back at the carpark and said, “I wonder whose apartment they’ll spend the night in?

“What?” said Mimi as she followed Vanessa’s gaze. Nicole was getting into Dave’s car.


OK, Nicole. This is just dinner with a colleague. Treat it as such.

“Floor or seat?” asked Dave.

Nicole looked around the restaurant. It had two sections, one with customers sitting on the floor at low traditional-style tables, another with rectangular wooden tables with benches. It was a standard, busy, Korean restaurant. There were a number of children. She was relieved to see there were no booths with low lighting and romantic music.

“Seat, please.”

An ajumma bustled towards them, and Dave spoke to her in Korean. She led them to a table set for four and removed two settings as Dave and Nicole sat down opposite each other. The ajumma waited for the order.

“Samgye-tang?” Dave asked Nicole.

“That’s what we’re here for,” she replied with a smile. Stop smiling so much, Nicole. Relax. Act naturally.

Dave ordered the food, and the ajumma hurried away. “So, how are your classes?”

Work. A good, safe topic to start with.

“They’re OK, I guess.”

“You don’t sound too sure.” Dave’s accent was ninety percent American with a slight Korean clip.

“You’re asking me at a bad time. I just had a difficult lesson with my composition class. I like having a small class with good English speakers, but some of them certainly lack the normal Korean respect for teachers.”

“Gave you a hard time, did they?”

“Well, it’s really just Johnny. Do you know him?”

“The guy with the hair? Sure. He’s one messed up gyopo.”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t know if he’s Korean or Filipino.”

“Does it matter?”

Dave laughed. Nicole’s chest tightened. Had she offended him?

“Yes, it matters,” said Dave, “I’m not making excuses for his behaviour, but switching cultures when you’re young and then returning to Korea makes for one heck of an identity crisis.”

“The other gyopos in the class seem better adjusted.”

“Do they? Maybe they just have a different way of coping.”

“Paul spent years in England, but he’s very polite and studious.”

“Is he the tall guy with the vocabulary?”

“That’s the one. I knew his parents back in England years ago. His father pastors the English ministry at I attend at Hope and Happiness Church.”

Dave frowned. Nicole wondered if he disapproved of her church. Stop being so sensitive, Nicole.

“What do think of Korean mega churches?” asked Dave.

Nicole thought for a second. “Rich. Efficient. Of course, I attend the small English fellowship, and I know the minister. I’m not sure how I’d feel about being one of the thousands in the main church. It seems very impersonal. I’ve attended a few services in the main auditorium, and it was overwhelming. I love the music, but the worship all seems a bit scripted. I heard the musicians are professional, and I call the worship leader Mr Perfect.”

Dave laughed and asked why.

“Perfect permed, dyed hair. Good looks. Perfect dark suit. Perfect smile. Perfect voice. Totally professional, but there’s no spontaneity.”

“This is Korea,” said Dave simply.

Nicole wasn’t sure she liked Dave’s skepticism. But she would reserve judgment.

The food arrived in the usual quick, efficient, Korean manner, and Dave said, “Let’s get the food organized, and then I’ll educate you on the trials and tribulations of us gyopos. How are you with chopsticks?”

“Not bad.”

“Samgye-tang is not the easiest dish to eat.”

Nicole looked down at the large bowl in front of her containing a whole young chicken boiled in thin soup. She knew the chicken was stuffed with rice, ginseng, and jujubes.

“The plate is for your chicken bones,” continued Dave, indicating the small, empty plate next to the bowl. He picked up a small open-ended bottle and filled two small cups.

“What’s that?” asked Nicole.

“It’s an alcoholic drink made from ginseng. It goes well with the chicken.” He put a cup in front of Nicole.”

“I’m sorry, I was brought up Sally Army.”


“Salvation Army. I don’t drink.”

“No problem.” Dave removed the cup. “Do you mind if I have some?”

“Of course not.”

We’ve got that out of the way. Good.

Dave bowed his head and closed his eyes. She knew he was privately giving thanks for the meal, Korean-style. She hesitated. Should she do the same? She would have preferred a shared, audible grace. Before she could decide what to do, he had opened his eyes and picked up his chopsticks.

“Use your chopsticks to tear the chicken into pieces,” said Dave.

He watched as she followed his instructions. “You’re going to tell me I’m doing it wrong, aren’t you?” she said. “I was taught by a Chinese student at university. I keep two fingers on the top chopstick rather than putting my second finger in between.”

She demonstrated. Dave tried to mimic her but dropped his chopsticks. “I don’t see how that works,” he said.

“Well, the food ends up in my mouth, so I must be doing something right.”

“Have you ever tried the Korean way?”

“A thousand Koreans have tried to teach me.”

“Can we make it a thousand and one?” Dave reached over the table and manipulated Nicole’s right hand until he was satisfied with the chopstick grip.

(Touch. To Nicole, it was like a recovering alcoholic taking a sip of wine.)

“Try that,” he said. She tried and dropped the chopsticks. He shrugged. “Each to their own.”

“I guess I can’t apply the Kentucky Fried Chicken approach in a Korean restaurant. Finger licking good.

“You can do what you like. You’re a foreigner and therefore beyond the constraints of Korean custom.”

“You’re a gyopo. Aren’t you beyond those constraints too?”

Dave laughed again. “Look at me. I’m Korean.”

She did look at him. His face was a bit broad, and he didn’t have Paul’s sharp features. He didn’t perm his hair like a lot of Korean men, and his tie wasn’t quite straight. But those dark, Korean eyes! She could learn to love them all too easily.

“Any Korean who looks at me sees a fellow Korean and expects me to act accordingly,” said Dave. “When you’ve lived in a freer culture, it feels like putting on a straitjacket. It’s really confusing. Am I Korean, or am I American? I’m both, and I’m neither.”

“I have noticed Korea is a country of limited ranges.”

“What do you mean?”

“For example, appearance seems to depend on age. Take the ajumma who served us. She’s what, going on fifty? She has the required short, permed hair and the loose, dark clothing. I’ve never seen a fifty-year-old Korean woman with long hair and jeans.”

“You’re right,” said Dave as he deftly ripped a large chunk of chicken with his chopsticks.

“And there’s a very limited view of beauty.”

“Right. When the movie ‘Titanic’ came to Korea, people complained the heroine was fat.”

“Kate Winslet?”

Dave nodded.

“You’re joking. She was beautiful in that film. Anyway, Korean women are straight up and down. No figure.”

Cool it. Don’t get defensive. Nicole was having a minor panic attack. Her own figure was not unlike Kate Winslet’s, not fat but not Twiggy either. Was Dave telling her she was fat and she had to lose some weight if she wanted to go out with him? Don’t be ridiculous.

She hadn’t dressed up for the occasion since it was a casual, straight after work dinner. Anyway, her hair only had one style. It was straight, dark blond, and cut just below the ears. She was wearing day makeup, but had touched it up just before leaving the university. Her dress was formal professor-wear, but she thought the colour brought out the green in her eyes.

Dave had obviously picked up the sharpness in her voice and was looking uncomfortable. She quickly took control, “So, how long were you in the States?” She took a spoonful of soup.

“About thirteen years, between the ages of twelve and twenty-five.”

They were back on safe ground.

“And you were with your family?”

“Yes, my parents and my older brother, Sam. but they came back earlier than me. I stayed to finish my degree in education, and I tried to work over there, but it didn’t work out.”

“You said that in a Korean way.”


“You specified your brother is older.”

Dave smiled. “A vital piece of information in Korea. Actually, he’s five years older. We’re not close, but we both still live with my parents.”

Nicole knew it was normal in Korea for sons to live with their parents until they got married, but she didn’t like it. She also knew Koreans were expected to get married about the age of thirty. “Your brother’s not married then?”

“No. The shame of it,” said Dave with a wry smile. “My poor parents. Two bachelor sons who should be married by now and providing grandchildren.”

Was that a hint? Was he telling her he was looking for a wife? She knew Koreans went on sogaetings—a kind of blind date with a view to finding a spouse, often arranged by parents. But this was just a dinner between colleagues, with a view to seeing if they both wanted to date. Or was it? She didn’t know the rules.

“What does your brother do?” asked Nicole.

“Sam? He works for Samsung, something to do with phones.”

There was a pause as they both concentrated on their samgye-tang.

“So, you were brought up in the Salvation Army,” said Dave.

I guess he wants to know if I’m a ‘good Christian’.

“Yes, both my parents were in uniform. I grew up believing in Jesus.”

“My family are nominal Buddhists. I became a Christian at a school camp in the States when I was fourteen. I now attend a small, local church.” He chewed on a large piece of chicken, and Nicole got the impression he was thinking carefully about his next question. After a moment he said, “So, what has God done in your life?”

He’s wondering if I’m really a Christian because I didn’t relate a conversion experience. How do I answer? I can’t tell him the whole story yet. We’re nowhere near ready for that.

“To be honest with you, there’s a very deep, real answer to that question, but I’m not comfortable giving you the details on our first . . .” She stopped. Should she call this a date? “. . . just yet.”

“No problem.”

“What I will say is that I had some serious emotional problems during my teens that left me scarred. I went through years of counselling, but with God’s help, I eventually got my act together.”

Dave looked her in the eyes and nodded. There was that moment when the facades drop a few inches and a connection is made. Nicole well remembered her counsellor’s words. If a couple do these three things, the relationship will turn romantic: spend time together, confide in each other, and help each other. The first two requirements were now in place. She felt a rush of warmth. She also felt terrified. She wasn’t ready to slip further down the slope.

“And here I am teaching English at a Korean University,” she said, trying and failing to sound casual and to get the conversation back on safer ground.

* * * * * * * *

An hour later, Dave stopped the car outside Nicole’s apartment block. Was he going to walk her to the door? His next words made it clear he was not. “It was great to talk. Let’s do it again some time.”

“That would be nice.”

“But let’s wait a couple of weeks until we’re not so busy. Even after seven years, it’s tough getting through finals week and grading. It’s even harder in your first semester, so let me know if you need any help.”

“Thanks, I will.” Was this a gentle, polite way of saying we’ll do it again sometime never? Nicole hesitated. No peck on the cheek? He was waiting for her to get out of the car.

She got out, turned, and leaned down to say, “Well, thanks for a lovely evening. See you at work.”

“Bye. God bless.”

She closed the door and he drove away.

* * * * * * * *

She had failed in every way.

Nicole was lying on her bed, with her hands behind her head, staring into the darkness.

She had intended to take the evening in her stride, then calmly consider whether she wanted to pursue the relationship. Right now she was anything but calm. Her emotions were churning.

She had planned to walk a delicate line, holding him at arms-length, but not pushing him away. Instead, she had tried too hard to please him and revealed her hypersensitivity.

She had wanted to appear stable and together, but she was sure he realized she was a fruitcake.

Nicole tried to analyze what she felt for Dave, but then told herself her feelings were now irrelevant. She’d put him off on their first date.

Forget feelings, Nicole. Use your head.

She needed to talk to someone, but she was in Korea. She’d taken herself away from her support network. Of course, she could still contact them, but the time difference made phoning difficult.

She should never have agreed to a date while she was still experiencing culture shock. She should have waited a year and got settled in Korea before even considering testing her wings.

It wasn’t too late to back off. Dave didn’t seem too keen anyway. She would just let it drop.

Who was she kidding?

Face it, Nicole. You’re falling for him.

Pain is coming.

She would just put it aside and concentrate on her work. And thinking of work, she had to go to sleep right now, or she’d be dead tired in the morning.

But she knew sleep was impossible.

What would she do when she saw him in the photocopy room? She would be friendly, but she wouldn’t demand his attention. Fat chance. She would do what she always did, pull too hard, show herself to be too keen, and drive him away.

She was back at square one. Years of counselling had been swept away over one bowl or samgye-tang.


“You’re late. Where have you been?”

Dave’s mum was sitting on the sofa in the living area, staring at a Korean soap opera on the large, flat television screen on the opposite wall. She was munching on slices of persimmon. Her husband sat next to her sipping soju. On the screen, a beautiful young woman with a pained expression and a single tear rolling down her cheek watched as her handsome young boyfriend walked away.

Their apartment was on the twenty-first floor and the layout was typical for Korea. The central living area adjoined the kitchen area. Dave’s brother, Sam, was standing at the counter making coffee.

Dave didn’t answer his mother immediately. He knew what would happen if he confessed to having dinner with a single woman. He had enjoyed his date with Nicole, and he wanted to pursue the possibility of a relationship, but he wanted to take his time.

When he didn’t answer, his mum tore her eyes away from the TV and said curtly, “Dong-Jun-a?” She always called Dave by the diminutive form of his Korean name, and they always spoke Korean at home.

“I went out for dinner,” said Dave, hoping that would suffice. He should have known better. He loved his parents. They had been children during the Korean War and he knew they had suffered. Now they were retired, and his mother had nothing to distract her from the lamentable lack of grandchildren.

His mum asked the inevitable question. “Who with?”

Sam flashed a warning look at Dave. Dave knew he was telling him to lie. It’s what Sam would have done. But Dave didn’t like to deceive his parents.

“A colleague.”

“Man or woman.”


Sam rolled his eyes as Dave as if to say, “You idiot.”

Dave’s mum put her plate of persimmon on the low table in front of her and shuffled to the edge of the seat. “You didn’t tell us you were dating someone.”

“It was just dinner, that’s all.”

“How old is she? Is she from Seoul? What does her father do? Where was she born?”

Dave tried to hide his exasperation. “In Britain.”

His mum hesitated. “Of Korean descent, right?”

“No, of British descent.”

“She’s British?”

“Yes, mum. People born in Britain are British, regardless of descent.” Dave knew he was flogging a dead horse. To Koreans, the blood line was everything, the place of birth was irrelevant.

“Cross-cultural marriages are very difficult.”

“We’ve had one dinner together. Who mentioned marriage?”

“It’s about time you did.”

Dave wasn’t sure what would constitute a ‘cross-cultural marriage’ in his case. He’d had a steady high-school girlfriend in the States for three years. It had been nice, but she’d found his Korean-ness difficult. He’d tried dating Koreans in Korea, but they’d found his gyopo-ness difficult.

“Please, mum, it’s late. I just want to get to bed.”

“You always have an excuse not to talk. I’m nearly seventy years old. Will I hold a grandchild in my arms before I die?”

“Please stop pressuring me, mum. I have one dinner with a woman, and you start planning the wedding.”

“How many nice girls have I found you both, and you’ve turned them down?” Sam ignored this. He obviously had no intention of being dragged into the conversation. “Just find someone quick. Anyone. A nice Korean girl from a good family. A young woman who has plenty of time to have babies.”

Dave didn’t like young Korean women. He found them whiny and immature. He preferred women his own age.

“You’re not bad looking,” continued Dave’s mum, “but you got into sloppy habits in the States. Why won’t you let me choose your clothes? And why don’t you check out Sam’s hairdresser?”

Sam conformed to expectations for an employee at Samsung. He was wearing a nicely tailored business suit. His hair was stylishly permed.

“If you smarten yourself up, you’ll easily find a decent girl.”

“I’ve told you, mum, I won’t marry just anybody. She has to be a Christian, and I have to want to spend the rest of my life with her.”

“Why does she have to be a Christian?”

“Because Christianity is very important to me.”

“It’s not important. Getting married is important.” She turned towards her husband. During the exchange, he had not removed his eyes from the television, desisted from his soju, or spoken a word. “I told you this would happen if we took them to the States.” Her husband gave zero response.

During their time in the States, Dave’s mum had kept herself to the Korean community and had hardly noticed she was abroad. She certainly hadn’t adopted American culture.

While his mum’s head was turned, Sam winked at Dave and said loudly, “My computer’s on the blink again. Could you come and look at it?” He jerked his head towards his bedroom.

This was an obvious lie. Sam was much better with computers than Dave was. But Dave welcomed the reprieve and followed Sam into his bedroom. Sam’s computer was fine. He’d been watching Les Miserables and had the screen paused in the middle of Hugh Jackman’s rendition of ‘Bring Him Home’.

“Why didn’t you just tell her it was a hwe-shik, and you were obliged to attend?” said Sam as he closed the door.

“I don’t like lying or pretending to be something I’m not. I want to be real in my own home.”

Sam raised an eyebrow at him. “But when you set her off, she starts on me too.”

“You don’t get it as bad as me.”

“She’s given up on me. Do what I do.“

“No, thanks.”

“Bring a nice girl home occasionally. Let mum get excited, then drop the bombshell that her father’s in prison on something. Do that enough times, and she’ll get discouraged and back off.”

Dave didn’t want to argue with him. He flicked absent-mindedly through the pile of phone brochures on Sam’s desk as Sam continued. “Just play the game in the house, then do your own thing as soon as you leave.”

“I can’t and won’t do that. Anyway, you’re leaving soon, aren’t you? When are you going to tell them? Come to think of it, what are you going to tell them?”

“I’ll think of something.”

The door opened and their mum entered. She hadn’t knocked. “What do you know about this girl?” she asked Dave.

“I thought you weren’t interested in foreigners.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers. What does her father do?”

“I don’t know.” All Dave knew about Nicole’s father was that he was in uniform at the Salvation Army.

“You don’t know? You didn’t ask?”

They drifted back into the living area. Dave’s mum had the typical walk of an elderly Korean woman, slightly stooped with her arms and shoulders held back in an abnormal position—back trouble caused by working in the paddy fields with little nutrition.

“No, I didn’t ask. It was just dinner. I wasn’t grilling her for marriage.”

“How old is she? Is she attractive? You might have to snap her up. Is she very British?”

“What do you mean ‘very British’?”

“Is she into guns and stuff?”

“That’s the Americans, not the British.” Dave knew that most Koreans considered Britain to be an annex of the States.

“If you like her, why don’t you ask her to marry you?”

Dave closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “We’ve had one dinner together. I don’t know her.”

“Nobody knows their spouse until they marry them. You’ll get to know her later.”

As Dave sighed, no longer able to conceal his frustration. Sam said, “Shall I call the wedding hall and see if they’ve got a free slot tomorrow?”

Dave glared at him. “I’m going to bed.” As he walked towards his bedroom, he heard Sam singing,

I’m getting married in the morning.

Ding dong the bells are going to chime.”

Back in his bedroom, Dave sat on the bed, pulled off his tie, and ruffled his hair. Maybe Sam was right. He should have told a white lie.

He thought about the dinner with Nicole. Yes, she was attractive. He wasn’t one hundred percent comfortable in her company, and he didn’t quite know why. Maybe he just didn’t know her well enough yet. Maybe it would come. He just wanted to take it slowly. But how could he do that with his mother breathing down his neck?

Anyway, the next two weeks would be crazy busy. When the summer vacation arrived, they would have plenty of time. He would think about it then. Right now he needed some sleep.


Nicole hated being late for anything, but her desperate lack of sleep had kept her comatose through her alarm clock, despite its loud, abrasive tone.

She walked through the tall double doors and was greeted by a much pleasanter sound, the last few strains of How Great is Our God. The singers were in full voice; the volume on the keyboard and guitars was turned up; the congregation had their arms raised, their eyes closed, and their faces tilted towards heaven. The atmosphere was joyous. None of the worshippers noticed her as she accepted a newssheet from an usher and slipped into a seat in the nearly empty back row.

As the singing stopped and the musicians stepped aside taking their microphone stands with them, Nicole looked down the tiered rows of seats in front of her and spotted another late comer. Cameron was taking an end seat next to Paul. She saw Paul turn his head and see him. Cameron smiled, but Paul immediately stood, picked up his bag and pushed past Cameron into the aisle. Paul climbed the steps between the rows, and Cameron followed. Paul spotted Nicole and came to sit next to her. Cameron stopped, stared at them for a moment, and then walked past to the exit doors.

“Cameron seems to be bothering you recently,” Nicole whispered to Paul.

“Yes,” he replied simply as he got a notebook and pen out of his bag.

“Have you talked to your parents about it?”

“No.” It wasn’t like Paul to be so abrupt.

“It’s obviously causing you some distress, perhaps your father can help.”

Paul looked into her eyes and said, ‘I love my parents deeply, but some matters are too burdensome to confide.”

Very true. With the best intentions in the world, parents don’t always understand their children.

Nicole smiled, then turned her attention to the newssheet in her hand. Her heart sank. The sermon Scripture was 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, verses three to five.

For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God:

(Pastor Peter Kim used the King James Version, despite the fact about half of his congregation only attended the service to practise their English, and he knew they found the thees and thous obstructive.)

Nicole had the awful feeling she’d heard this sermon before.

A million times.

And she seriously doubted it would help her manage the Dave situation.

Don’t be so skeptical. Maybe this is no coincidence. Maybe the Lord wants you to hear this.

As Pastor Kim approached the podium, she determined to listen carefully with an open mind. Beside her, Paul prepared to take notes from his father’s sermon like any good Korean Christian.

“Before I start this morning, I just want to check that all the children have gone out.” Pastor Kim looked around the small auditorium and seemed to satisfy himself that all the Koreans and foreigners in front of him were of age. Nicole knew that his wife, Betsy, would currently be busy supervising the children’s classes.

“This morning, I want to address the delicate subject of sexual morality. I know this isn’t a comfortable topic, especially for Koreans, but I’m seriously concerned that the moral decline in our society is infecting even the church.”

Too true. As a foreigner, and therefore outside the scope of Korean culture, Nicole’s students sometimes confided in her. One older Christian student had asked her an unanswerable question. “Which is better, to marry a non-Christian with good morals, or a Christian who sleeps around?”

“I realize I’ll be speaking mainly to the men here,” continued Pastor Kim, “but it won’t do any harm for the ladies to be reminded too.”

What? Did he really think his female congregation consisted of vestal virgins?

Nicole’s decision to listen carefully was already being challenged. Most certainly, Pastor Kim was going to major on the physical aspects of sex rather than the emotional, and he was going to tell them they could all resist temptation if they read their Bibles and prayed more.

How many times had she heard that?

Sure enough, Pastor Kim went on to give practical advice as to how to overcome sexual temptation; exercise, get enough sleep, eat well, take up a hobby, keep your mind usefully occupied by, for example, learning English vocabulary. He spoke with the air of one who was bravely tackling a difficult subject for the sake of his precious flock. He tried to present himself as a friendly, approachable pastor; a brother not a judge.

He went on to talk about the evils of pornography. The figures for adult internet site use in Korea were through the roof. It was considered acceptable, normal behaviour. But they were Christians. They were called to be separate.

Nicole’s mind wandered. Porn films were not her problem. She could probably watch them dispassionately. Not that she would. The film she couldn’t watch was Titanic. The vintage car scene wasn’t the problem. Put your hands on me, Jack. It was the front of the boat scene. Do you trust me? I trust you. I’m flying. The strong hands round the waist. The entwined fingers. The kiss. The protection. The perfect combination of strength and tenderness.

Stop it, Nicole. Stop it now. She was triggering thoughts that, for her, were the first step on a slide that would plunge her into self-hate and depression.

She forced her mind back to Pastor Kim’s sermon.

“Some would have us believe that psychology excuses sin. Some would say that difficulties in childhood lead to sexual addiction. But we must remember Paul’s words—Saint Paul that is, not my youngest son.” The congregation laughed politely. Next to Nicole, Paul did not react. She glanced at his notebook. He was making copious notes. “The apostle Paul said, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. We must set aside past troubles, and press on with God at our sides, our helper and comforter.” He was like a colonel rallying his troops, calling for white-knuckled determination.

Nicole sighed and stared at her hands. She had spent twelve years trying to forget the past. She thought she had succeeded, but then, after one date with Dave, the torment of past emotions had returned with a flood. She needed help. Who could she talk to?

Pastor Kim had reached the last verse of today’s short Scripture. “We must not give way to sexual temptation like non-believers. We must take every thought captive, and make our paths straight, so that whatever is lame will not be put out of joint but rather be healed. If we don’t, we could find ourselves falling deeper and deeper into a pit of perversion. Romans 1 tells us how unbelievers became so depraved they fell into homosexuality.” He lowered his head and his voice. “The Bible tells us such things are too shameful even to mention, so I won’t go there. Thankfully, Korea has not sunk to such degradation, and we don’t have to deal with it. Yet.”

Nicole consoled herself with the fact she was not a lesbian. Her issues were strictly heterosexual. She glanced down at Paul’s notepad and saw he had written ‘NOT YET’ in capitals followed by several question marks.

Pastor Kim concluded his sermon with a lengthy prayer, calling on God to cleanse his humble servants. The service finished with the song Purify my heart.

Nicole wasn’t sure what to do next. She really needed to talk to someone, confide in someone older and wiser. But that sermon had certainly not encouraged her to speak to Pastor Kim. She thought about his wife, Betsy. She was a kind soul, who wished for nothing more than to serve her husband and sons. She would listen compassionately, but could she help? Sometimes just talking helped, even if the confidante did not offer good advice. Betsy was her best option. She would talk to her. But how? As the pastor’s wife she was crazy busy on Sundays.

The problem was solved immediately. Paul had turned his phone back on and was reading his messages. He turned to Nicole, “There’s a communication from my mother, expressing a desire that you and I meet her and father at a local restaurant for lunch. Their afternoon will be encumbered with obligations, and they wish to partake of a peaceful but speedy repast before their attention is demanded elsewhere.”

“They want to grab a quick lunch before they get crazy busy?”

“Precisely. Our presence is requested with haste.”

“OK. Let’s go.”

* * * * * * * *

The restaurant was tiny. Nicole sat elbow to elbow with Paul as four bibimbaps were placed on the table. Paul’s parents sat opposite. Paul offered Nicole a dish of gochujang, and she took just a little. She liked spicy food within reason, but couldn’t keep up with the Koreans. As she stirred it into her bibimbap, Pastor Kim asked, “How’s Paul doing in your class, Nicole?”

“Well, I shouldn’t say this in advance, but unless a bomb drops on the university during the finals, he’ll be getting an A+.”

“That’s my boy. We had some problems with Paul’s two elder brothers, but never with Paul. He’s always been the model son.” He smiled at Paul. “I couldn’t be prouder of you.” Paul tried unsuccessfully to smile back.

“What’s the matter?” Betsy asked Paul.

“I’m fine. Just tired and busy and nervous about the exams.” He added another sentence in Korean. Betsy’s English couldn’t match her son’s, and he was always careful to make sure she wasn’t left out of conversations.

“There’s no need to be nervous,” said his father, “The Lord will reward your diligence. He cuts down the strength of the wicked but lifts up the strength of the righteous.”

“There is none righteous, no not one,” retorted Paul. He looked dejected.

“Is Cameron getting you down?” asked Betsy. “He seems to be bothering you.”

“He’s jealous, that’s the problem,” said Pastor Kim wisely, “The untalented, disfavoured boy who wants to bask in the reflected glory of the more accomplished.”

Paul carefully considered his next words. “God does not show favouritism. Cameron and I have both sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Paul looked at his father and waited for a response.

“Of course, but that’s not what we’re talking about. I must confess Cameron tries my patience. You’re quite right. As a pastor I should be impartial, but sometimes I fail. I’m no angel.”

“Neither am I,” said Paul. This reply seemed to puzzle his father. Pastor Kim studied his son’s face, seeking the underlying message.

There was an awkward pause. Betsy decided to fill the silence. “How’s your life in Korea, Nicole?”

Nicole hesitated. Was this an opportunity to bare her soul? The circumstances were hardly ideal—a crowded, noisy restaurant with limited time. Also, Paul was there. She felt a closeness to Paul, but there were some things you just didn’t discuss in front of your students. She couldn’t allude to an unnamed man. Paul would know it was Dave after Johnny’s disclosure in class.

“I’m settling in slowly, but there’s a lot of pressure at the university, and I’m finding some aspects of Korean culture a bit difficult.”

“Such as?” asked Pastor Kim.

“Well, you indirectly touched on it in your sermon. The whole man-woman relationship thing here follows different rules, and I don’t understand them.”

“Are we talking about a particular man?” asked Betsy.

Nicole glanced sideways at Paul. “Maybe you and I can have a private chat about it later.”

“Of course. You hold a special place in my heart. It was your mother who changed Elizabeth to Betsy, you know.”

“Yes, you told me.” A hundred times.

Nicole was about to pin down a specific time and place for the soul-baring, but Pastor Kim’s smart phone bleeped. He read the message, and stood up, abandoning his half-eaten bibimbap. “Excuse us, we have to go right now.” He threw a couple of ten thousand won notes to Paul and said to his wife. “Come on.” She obeyed. As she hurried after he husband, she turned and said, “We’ll talk soon.”

Nicole was left with Paul.

After a pause, Paul said, “Relationships are troublesome, aren’t they?”

“Fraught with hazards,” agreed Nicole.

Little did she know that the relationships around her were about to go from troublesome to all-out traumatic.


She was there, standing at the photocopier.

Dave tried to back out and close the door quietly, but Nicole had spotted him. He had no choice but to smile and enter the room.

“Hi, Dave,” she said, returning his smile.


“We’re out of A4 paper. The teaching assistant has gone to find some.”

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