I’m not an English teacher in Korea. I came to this country three years ago, in 2012, because my friend convinced me to come here instead of going to Canada. My country is very generous about giving scholarships for studying abroad, so after I graduated with an undergraduate degree in microbiology, I came to Korea to complete my Master’s degree. I had decided that work in a lab was not for me after working as a forensic lab technician for six months. That job was way less interesting than it sounds. In order to do well in my classes, I had to learn Korean and English at the same time, and it was really hard for me here in the beginning, but I always try my best to take advantage of all the opportunities I get.

I used to be really great at gymnastics. I even competed on the national team, but I have flat feet, which limits my athletic ambitions some. Then, last year I dislocated my shoulder when I was doing mixed martial arts, and I had to get surgery, which meant I couldn’t work out for a long time. To cope, I started playing League of Legends all the time. In all my time in Korea I never had a girlfriend until last year. I was way too busy studying, doing martial arts, and trying survive on ramyeon and be awesome. Then one day I met a Saudi Arabian girl on campus, and got married to her eight months later. It didn’t work out at all, and I ended up  getting a divorce. I could never go back to ignoring girls like I had before though.

She super-liked me on Tinder. She was an English Teaching Assistant from America working at a small school in a rural area. This is an exact transcription of our first conversation.

 Dec 10, 2016
Her: Hi. 🙂

I didn’t answer until a month later.

Jan 3, 2017 4:41pm
Me: Hello
Me: Let’s talk in kakaotalk Sarah add me
Me: It’s Dragon44 waiting for u ^^

Jan 5, 2017 8:23am
Her: Where do you live and what do you do for work?
Me: I’m doing master at kyunghee university
Me: Work part-time jobs
Me: Translator
Her: What’s your masters for?
Her: Translating English to Korean?
Me: Marketing
Me: Korean to arabic
Her: Wow nice
Me: Arabic to korean
Her: Where are you from?
Me: Half Moroccan half Thai born in Saudi arabia
Me: What about you Sara? How long have you been here ?

Jan 6, 2017 8:25pm
Me: -_____-
Her: Wow
Her: Sarah*
Her: I’ve been here for 6 months
Me: Lol
Me: You use kakaotalk don’t you?
Her: Yeah haha sorry
Her: It’s airliepanda

The first time we met up I picked her up at her home-stay, in the 시골 countryside. 정말 really yo. 진짜 시골 really countryside. When I saw her my first thought was, typical entitled American girl. I could not have been more wrong. She was wearing this ugly green coat and walking across the street towards me with two sticks she obviously collected from a forest somewhere. Suddenly, I was unsure about the whole thing. I wanted to seem nonchalant, so I got out of the car and walked into a nearby GS25 convenience store.

“Where are you going?” She called to me, her tone somewhat exasperated.

I guess I could have realized how this would go from our first conversation on Tinder, but I’m already here now. Oh well. I reluctantly turned around and began walking back towards the car. She waved one of her sticks uncertainly, smiling.

“Hi, I’m Sarah.”

From the passenger seat she started talking my ear off, but soon, heading towards Gyeryeong National Park just outside of Daejeon, I found I was the one telling her everything about myself and all my recent troubles, barely paying attention to the road. It was like all my frustration and sadness about my divorce came out at once, as I described meeting my wife and everything that happened so quickly afterward. How my wife seemed easy-going at first, but later became difficult, left me, and turned my family against her with her attitude. An hour drive turned into an hour and a half because I was driving slow and talking fast. She kept looking at me sideways as I rambled on, her hands resting in her lap.

I was happy to meet someone so active and cheerful, and as we climbed Gyeryeong Mountain she told me her stories too, everything from past boyfriends who broke her heart, to her spiritual journey and how Korea has changed her.

“I’m Christian.” She said, ending a long story using that statement as a punctuation mark. Our footsteps rustled in the leaves of the trail.

“I’m Muslim.” I said. She was quiet for a minute.

She moved on to other topics, and we continued to climb together. I told her about starting to train Brazilian Jujitsu and how I used to do gymnastics, my American coach back home, my brothers, my aunties, and Saudi food. She asked about my hometown. It was obvious that she felt uncomfortable because she didn’t know anything about Saudi Arabia. I told her Jeddah is lively and people there are happy. She pronounced Riyadh like “Riddah,” and then turned red, realizing she was mixing together Jeddah and Riyadh. The funny thing is she kept doing it.

Since we weren’t paying attention to time, it got dark, and we took the wrong trail a few times before we made it back to the paved entrance path. She said she loves to sing and played songs by Passenger on her cellphone, singing along with a voice like an angel. Our hands touched accidentally.

It was around 9 pm when we finally made it off the mountain, and we had Korean food at a restaurant that was still open in the tourist area near the entrance to the park. Sitting across from me and smiling, she said it felt like she had known me forever. We didn’t make it back to her 시골 until 1 am so we stayed at the 찜질방, sleeping some, but mostly laughing in stifled giggles at the snoring monster in the common area. The next day was Sunday, and at the end of the day we found ourselves still together, sitting by the sea in Seosan, not wanting to end whatever was happening, even though we had no idea what it was.

We talked everyday that week between when we met and the beginning of her vacation from school. She was teaching a winter camp about American holidays to a bunch of unruly elementary school kids who did not want to be there. She sent me pictures of popsicle-stick American flags, handmade Halloween baskets, thankful turkeys, Christmas ornaments, and Valentine’s cards. I invited her to stay with me in Seoul the week before she went to Japan, and she said that would be really great. She arrived on Friday night and we ate Indian food at my favorite place, Bina. Feelings we hadn’t been sure of quickly evolved. Like our hearts had waited a long time to touch, we dove deeply. Heads spinning with music and stories and exotic food, we cruised around Seoul together, singing in the car, and cooked chocolate chip pancakes every morning. There was so much to learn about each other, so much to share: our two cultures, music, movies, religion, spirituality. We danced to music all day, went to the gym together, and stayed up all night laughing, feeding off each other’s energy. Our connection was intoxicating. When we touched hands, or sat close together on the couch, my head swam as I wondered where she stopped and I began. We had both loved before, but we agreed that the chemistry between us was something we had never felt.

We each ordered a drink and shared nachos at Mike’s Cabin that Tuesday night. There was no one else there, but it didn’t stop her from dancing like it was her last night on earth. We kissed and continued dancing in the car on the way home to Closer, by The Chainsmokers. She told me she doesn’t hook up with people, but I was afraid to ask her to be my girlfriend because I’m not ready to take responsibility for anyone again.

“There’s nothing to fear because love is the only thing that is real, and it’s in charge of my life, so there is no possibility of pain or loss,” she told me, but her eyes told me the story of how lonely she was, starving for connection.

“You precious little thing,” I said to her over and over, as I touched her cheek, her forehead, and asked her, “will you be my girlfriend?” Swallowing my reservations.

We came up with nicknames in no time. I called her B, short for her Korean name 빛나. It means “shining.”

“I’ll call you Mo,” she said. I think calling me Mohammed reminded her too much of things she didn’t want to think about.

We talked about how English teachers make a lot of money in Saudi Arabia because no one wants to live there. I described my city. It’s on the coast, so it’s a really liberal place, by Saudi standards. The women there wear colorful, sometimes bedazzled, abayas, and a few even go around without a hijab at all. As a port city, it is modern, and cosmopolitan, far removed from the suffocating conservatism of the capital in Riyadh. She said it would be so cool to go there, and admitted that she was totally ignorant and definitely more than a little brain-washed about the Middle East. I watched her eyes sparkle as I opened a door to my world. We discussed religion, telling each other some of the oldest stories from our traditions, and, because many of the tales are so similar, we had fun comparing details. She let herself consider a totally different kind of life than she had ever before dreamed of for herself. We both agreed that openness and love are the things you can’t do without, and everything else is just details that we can work out together.

Friday night she left for Japan. When I hugged her by the gate of the airport subway line, I began to have a bad feeling. I told her not to tag me in any pictures on Facebook, and she called me from Incheon Airport to ask why. We just don’t do that kind of thing, I told her. Even me and my ex-wife didn’t post pictures together. We believe if you have something good, it’s not right to flaunt it. She didn’t understand. We started to talk about the future and would I tell my family about her? I said no. She found out other things about Saudi Arabia on her own.

“Women can’t drive, and they need a male relative’s permission to leave the country?” She was completely overwhelmed.

“If a bird and a fish fell in love, where would they live?”

“Just be, B.” For the sake of what may be. But at that moment she couldn’t, and as I felt her disappearing, sinking into the quicksand of her fear, I realized I would have to save her.
“Let’s just be friends,” I said.