Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2023 by Giles Ryan

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Korea, anyone who does not fall into a set category or fails to do the expected will certainly attract attention, and not necessarily in a good way. This includes by definition an “old bachelor” — a nochonggak.

In the winter of 1970, I first arrived in Chunchŏn as a young bachelor in my very early twenties, and there was nothing remarkable about my single state; indeed, it was entirely normal. The same could not be said of an unmarried man ten years older, and this pressure to marry grew stronger each day a man stayed single past his early thirties. To be thirty-five and still unmarried was to invite the usual jokes about nochonggak, and while the typical tone might be good-humored and jocular, there was also a hint of derision. An ‘old bachelor’ was, I came to understand, no better than an ‘old maid.’ A single man in his mid-thirties or more was somehow not quite right, not yet a complete person.  

To be sure, some old bachelors carried their state with dignity. Our vice principal, Mr. Mun, was almost forty and still unmarried, but he was such a serious person, almost forbidding, and carried an effortless air of authority, was clearly not a man to trifle with, and certainly no one made nochonggak jokes in his presence. And yet when he finally married, and I was among the many guests at his wedding, I noted that all of his friends and colleagues were clearly relieved that he had, at last, solved this serious problem. But other old bachelors had to grow used to hearing comments on their condition, and they might try to laugh it off or make some remark about ‘waiting for the right person,’ but this could not be convincing in a culture where arranged marriage was still the usual thing, all the more so in the socially conservative milieu of school teachers in a small provincial city.

One nochonggak of my acquaintance was Mr. Song, an English teacher at a girls high school very close to the boys middle school where I taught. He lived in a boarding house not far from mine, and it was usual to meet him on the way to school in the early morning, and as we walked along for a spell he would ask me questions about English usage and grammar. But he could not always wait until then, and sometimes he came to my place early, and he would find me at the single faucet of the cement washstand out in the open courtyard, the place where the other boarders and I gathered to wash up, brush our teeth and have a shave in the brisk, chill morning air, (I still remember well this Spartan start to the mid-winter day.) Looking back on it now, I recall that his early morning visits were not always welcome, I was not always ready for social engagement at sunup, not always in the best state of mind, but he was so sincere in his intent to learn our impossible language, and I was equally eager to learn his, and so I did my best to meet him halfway. I can even say I encouraged him.

His questions about our language were the usual ones, and I could give clear answers about colloquial idioms and clarify definitions of words with useful examples, but there were also the other questions he raised, some of them exasperating. Many Korean English teachers had the notion that there was a significant, qualitative difference between American and British English, a notion I vigorously fought. I explained that while Americans say elevator and the British say lift, this does not make lift somehow better. I would insist that they were simply different, and neither one was better. But Koreans had the idea that the British were in the role of older brother to the Americans, and, in a Confucian mindset, clearly the older brother was ascendant. As an actual younger brother in my family, I strongly resented this view of the social order, but this did no good. Mr. Song also had questions based on Hollywood English, an English phrase book popular in the post-war years, which promised to improve the Korean student’s English conversation skills with expressions taken from American films of the past era. I assured him that the semi-literate, unrefined dialogue of a John Wayne cowboy was no fit foundation for proper conversation — not for a teacher like himself and certainly not for his high school girls. I had better results on this point, especially when I put to him the question: should I learn Korean from a yangban (a gentleman scholar) or from a ssangnom (some ill-bred fellow off the farm)? Our talks were often brief, but on a few occasions we met for a drink in the evening and talked at length over a bottle of soju, (well, perhaps two.)

And so we met for several months, but our contact never really became close, largely because he was at a different school. I knew he was from the North, as were most people in Chunchŏn in those postwar years, and his age meant that during the war he likely served in one army or the other, but I never learned any details in this regard; (many men, I found, did not like to discuss the war.) I don’t recall we ever talked about personal matters or his marital prospects, if any. Our conversations dealt mostly with language, and I enjoyed this because he spoke English well, and my interest in language equaled his.

And then one day he was gone. I didn’t notice at first, but a couple of weeks passed without seeing him. Then, by chance, I met on the street a mutual acquaintance, an English teacher from another school, and I asked, “How is Mr. Song? I haven’t seen him in a while.” The reply was hesitant and tentative, then eager. Didn’t I know? Had I not heard? There was a scandal, extremely unfortunate, (except for those who enjoyed this sort of thing.) Mr. Song had simply disappeared, left without notice. Worse than that, one of the senior girls had also gone missing at the same time and it was generally assumed they had left town together. The school was deeply concerned and acutely embarrassed, and the girl’s parents were furious. The matter had even been reported to the police. Well, no one liked to speak of it, but since you asked..... 

In the end I never learned the full story. For a few weeks, there was speculation among the teachers I knew, but then it faded. Much of this talk concerned Mr. Song’s bachelor state: how did a girls high school hire him?... who had vouched for him?... what were they thinking? And then there was the fact that he was alone in Chunchŏn, had no relations or old friends in the city. This last point stayed with me, and my lasting memory of this episode is shadowed by the possibility of his loneliness, for I have passed enough springs and autumns since then and have a better understanding of what it may have been like for him. After all, his state was, superficially, like mine. Like me, he was a stranger come to town, making a new life from scratch. Is it possible I failed him in fellowship?  Could I have looked for some commonality and done more to engage him as a friend? If I had known him better, would it have made a difference? Probably not, and anyway, my time was much taken up, I was seldom alone, there was school during the day and there was usually someone who wanted to meet after hours.  

But there was something I could never understand. His Lolita lapse — if I may call it such — is beyond my comprehension. How does a mature man fall into infatuation with a girl half his age? Did they both fall into what the French would call une grande folie, all intense emotion, with common sense cast aside? And how could this be? Two people truly in love inhabit each other, share the same silent thoughts, but so great a difference in age imposes an inequality where there should be none. Clearly the young girl was impressionable, susceptible, as a young girl might be, and she must have been flattered and swayed by the attention of this older man. But his action was inexcusable, even if his feelings were sincere, for he was in a position of authority, and there is no avoiding the conclusion that he took advantage of her. How could any of this possibly end well?

Which begs the question: what was the dénouement? Whether they sought the anonymity of a city or the distance of one of the remote islands, they could not possibly escape notice in a society where everyone had a role. Their very appearance would exclude them from any set category —  a young girl in the company of an older man would fit no one’s expectation, and would certainly attract unwanted attention. The best end I could imagine would be the two of them sharing a cramped room in some squalid urban setting where he might eke out a living by tutoring English, or doing hack translation for a pittance a page — and begging for the payment. Would the stress of poverty take its toll? Would she regret her impetuosity and begin to see his shortcomings, his flaws? Would he come to question what he had done, how he had given up his livelihood and reputation? 

It’s a fate I would not wish on anyone, very likely a fate worse than living out one’s life as a nochonggak

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