Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Author: Jeffrey (page 195 of 195)

The accidental journalist

I have never fancied myself much a writer when it comes to many of the contributions that I have made for The Korea Times the past five years. It’s all been pretty accidental–being in the right place at the right time I guess.

When I started writing feature articles for The Korea Times in the summer of 2000 (after two years of writing essays for the paper’s “Thoughts of the Times” column) I was able to take advantage of the commemoration events for the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. I got my foot in the door as it were by first writing some book reviews in addition to my occasional “Thoughts of the Times” contribution.

Looking back, I guess I must have been pretty lucky. I was the only reporter for the two English-language newspapers covering these commemorative events and the only book reviewer. However, I didn’t know what I was doing at times though and didn’t think that I was a good writer. It was just something that I enjoyed doing. I wasn’t even sure if many people were even reading what I was writing. I have often thought that if I was a good writer, maybe I would have gotten more responses from readers. At the same time, I have also wondered if I was reaching the right audience.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed writing those first “feature” articles for the newspaper and many of the interviews that I had with some very prominent people. I was also fortunate that the newspaper gave me a lot of freedom when it came to many of the articles that I would write.

If I had more time, I know that I could have done a better job writing many of the feature articles. More often than not, when it came to writing most of the articles I did for the newspaper, I had just enough time to make a deadline. Sadly, I know that many of my articles might have read better if a copy editor at the newspaper would have looked at them more closely.

Looking back, I just tried to do the best that I could. It was an honor to attend many of the Korean War commemorative events and meet many of the veterans. I’ll never forget how I managed to talk my way into the main commemorative event held outside the War Memorial Museum in Seoul on June 25, 2000. A few weeks before I had interviewed Korean War hero Gen. Paik Yun-sop for a book review of his autobiography. After the interview, some of his staff assured me that I would be able to get in to the event and I gave them my personal information.

Prior to this event I had written two feature articles: one about a trip to the Iron Triangle and an interview with Dr. Horace Underwood, grandson of the founder of Yonsei University in Seoul. Underwood was one of the interpreters (along with his brother Richard) at Panmunjom during the armistice talks.

The people who define me

What I have come to enjoy most and perhaps appreciate even more about living and working overseas is the opportunity to meet different people from all walks of life.

Whether it’s the colleagues I teach with, the students in my classes, or the people I meet living and working in Korea, without question over the years I have met many interesting and colorful people. At the same time, the personal and professional relationships which I have cultivated and fostered for as long as I have been in Korea have in many ways defined who I am, not to mention make my own life more interesting.

This past weekend, a former colleague of mine, Kyle Devlin, who is in Korea for a couple of weeks, stopped by for a few hours. We haven’t seen each other since last June when he left Korea to go to Indonesia to teach. Even though we have kept in touch through email the past year, it was really nice to spend a few hours catching up on each other’s lives.

Kyle is like many of the English instructors I have met since I first came to Korea. Even though we all come from various parts of the world with different backgrounds and even different likes and dislikes when it comes to music or our favorite brand of beer, once in Korea we all share the same common denominator of being an expatriate. Whether you just talk when you are at work, hang out after work for a few beers at our local watering hole, or perhaps even do some traveling, as expats in Korea we all have that one thing in common while we are living and working here.

Even though there are probably some people that I would have never hung out with back in the United States, once in Korea we have become very tight and have fostered friendships that in many ways are richer than some of the ones I have had with friends back home. That’s just the very nature of the whole expat experience of bonding with each other and dealing with things that most people back home would have a difficult time comprehending.

To be sure, once you have lived and worked overseas for any length of time, it’s often hard to try and describe what it is like being an expat to the friends you used to hang out with when you were growing up. Try explaining something like language problems or cultural differences that we sometimes have to deal with on a daily basis here. On the other hand, the friendships you make overseas, at least to me, seem more enduring and no matter if those friends leave Korea, you will always share that same common denominator of having lived and worked here. There is always someone you have worked with in Korea who will know what you are talking about.

Although Kyle and I were not the closest of friends the first year that he was here, by the time he left Korea last year we were pretty tight. Other than going out for the occasional beer after work with other colleagues, having similar interests in sports and movies, what really made us tight in the end was the friendship which grew out of our professional relationship.

One of the things that I missed most when he left was how each morning we would catch up on the news from around the world before we started teaching. I honestly believe that when you live overseas you tend to follow the news more closely and in many ways have a clearer perspective of things when you get your news from a variety of news sources on the Internet. (I sometimes feel that these days I am better informed living overseas than I am whenever I spend any time at home.) Every morning, without fail Kyle and I would discuss what was happening either here in Korea or around the world bouncing our own opinions off each other for good measure.

It goes without saying that there is something universal which all expats share with each other when they work and live together. If it’s not talking about the latest news or sports scores, it’s talking about our lives here in general. No matter how far we tend to immerse ourselves in our own work and life pursuits, the friends we make while we are overseas impact our lives in many ways.

Sadly, like Kyle and many other people I have met while I have been in Korea, once they leave it’s often hard to meet up with them again. Even though email and an occasional phone call keep us in touch, for many people we meet, we may never see them again. Nonetheless, we will always be a part of each other’s lives no matter where we go.

As for all the colleagues I have gotten to know while in Korea, I have been grateful not only for their friendships, but also for their professional and personal advice which has helped me countless times over the years. The people I have met and worked with over the years have enriched my life and have made my life complete. I would not be the person I am today if it hadn’t been for the people I have been fortunate enough to meet along the way.

An Evening with Jimmy Wong — “A Work in Progress”

It’s 10:30 on a Tuesday night in late June in Bangkok and I am waiting for Jimmy Wong to arrive at his tattoo shop in Bangkok.

I’ve been coming to Jimmy Wong’s tattoo shop quite regularly (which means every time I am in Bangkok) ever since I first stumbled across his shop by accident in 2004. Back then I was thinking about getting a tattoo when I was in Bangkok (I already had plans to get one in Phuket) and when I spotted his sign outside his shop on Sukhumvit Soi 5 (I was staying at the Bel Aire Princess at the end of the soi) I stopped to take a look.

It was early on a Sunday morning and when I peered into his dark studio, I could see a man who appeared to be busily drawing a sketch for a tattoo design. Little did I know at the time that the man was Jimmy Wong, one of the more famous tattoo artists working in Bangkok, not to mention Southeast Asia. Only later did I find out from his daughter Joy, who also does tattoos (a very good tattooist in her own right) and has a shop just around the corner from her father’s that Jimmy only works at night. I would have to come back later that night.

Actually, I had heard about Jimmy before I went back to his shop that night. Years before, while getting “inked” at a tattoo shop in the Bangkapi Mall, the tattoo artist “Ton” (pronounced like “tone” with a harder “d” than a “t”) told me that there was a famous artist working in Sukhumvit; I didn’t put the two together until I actually met Jimmy later that night.

Jimmy’s tattoo shop which is located behind a 7-11, just off Soi 5 is like most of the tattoo shops that I have seen in Bangkok—very small and crowded. He’s had a couple of shops in Bangkok before moving to this present location which is pretty easy to find.

Walking into Jimmy’s shop was like taking a walk back in time as soon as you see the walls covered with photos of Jimmy, many of his clients and the work he has done over the years. Walk into any tattoo shop and you can pretty much judge the artist’s work by the number of photos the artist has on all the walls. (I feel honored that among all these photos, Jimmy has included one of me posing with him.)

In Jimmy’s case, over 30 years of tattooing has made him one of the more sought after artists for people looking to get inked when they are in Bangkok. Go to Jimmy’s shop any time and you are likely to see people from all around the world stopping in either to say high or to get a tattoo from Jimmy. If someone is in Thailand on holiday and they have heard of Jimmy, you can be assured that they will stop in and see him.

One night back in 2004 when I was getting one of my first tattoos from Jimmy a man from France stopped in. He wasn’t interested in getting a tattoo; he just stopped in to pick up one of Jimmy’s business cards for a friend back home who had heard of Jimmy. Turns out, this friend back in France had heard that Jimmy had once tattooed legendary punk rock icon Johnny Thunders and wanted one of Jimmy’s business cards.

Perhaps a little history of Jimmy Wong is worth sharing to know more about the man and his art. Jimmy got started tattooing back in 1971 during the Vietnam War. It was by chance, in Jimmy’s words during an interview in 2004 with this author, how he came to get interested in tattooing. He had been watching this Chinese tattoo artist do tattoos and decided that was something he wanted to do. Later, this same artist become Jimmy’s mentor and taught him the craft.

Jimmy would later hone his skills by tattooing U.S. service members at an air base near the Thai/Laos border toward the end of the Vietnam War. I suppose if one was ever to become good at their craft, it has to be someone like Jimmy who would go on to do countless tattoos for these service members.

What’s most interesting about Jimmy is that he only works at night. I once asked him why he prefers to work at night and he told me that he works better at night because there are not too many distractions.

“During the day there’s always someone calling me wanting me to do this or that,” he said. “At night there aren’t as many distractions and I can focus more on what I am doing.”

When I am getting more work done by Jimmy I usually get to his shop right around 10:00. If Jimmy hasn’t arrived at his shop yet, I usually hang out at this small coffee shop near the entrance to his shop. He usually gets to his shop between 10:00-10:30 on most nights. Most of the time he already has an appointment or two lined up for the evening. In my case, I usually book a few nights the first night I get into Bangkok.

Tonight Jimmy was running a little late. I order a café latte at the coffee shop and sit near the front so I have a view of the street as I wait for Jimmy to arrive. There’s a steady flow of people walking up and down the street on their way to this sports bar across the street or the 7-11. I am about halfway through my latte when I spot Jimmy walking down the sidewalk. Jimmy sees me immediately and waves as he continues toward his shop.

By the time I get to his shop a few minutes later, Jimmy is already at work preparing his machines and ink for this session. His workspace is a bit cluttered with designs of tattoos he has done or will do hung up around his desk; some taped to a desk lamp over the desk. One of the first things Jimmy does when he comes to work is make himself a cup of coffee, light up a cigarette and then get his machines ready for the evening.

Of all the times I have been there no one has ever walked in and gotten a tattoo without an appointment. Although he has a large sign out in front, he doesn’t seem to get a lot of people walking off the street to get a tattoo. From time to time there might be someone “who is thinking about getting a tattoo’’ after a night of drinking and checking out some of Bangkok’s steamy nightlife, but Jimmy usually sends them on their way. After tattooing for as long as he has Jimmy can easily spot someone who is really interested in getting a tattoo or not.

“I can usually tell when someone wants a tattoo as soon as they walk into my shop,” said Jimmy. “They already have some idea of what they want before they come in here.”

This night it is some young American clutching a bottle of whiskey who staggers in with his Thai girlfriend and asks Jimmy (in very passable Thai) about a tattoo. Jimmy is working on a “Thai” style tattoo (similar to images you would find in the Ramakien) on the inside of my right arm and tells the man to come back later. Chances are he won’t come back that night. Even if he does, Jimmy will tell him to come back the next night if he is still interested in a tattoo.

While Jimmy is carefully doing the outline of this tattoo on my arm we talk about my vacation in Thailand this time and when I will be back here again in September. Jimmy loves to talk when he’s doing a tattoo and the stories that he tells are fascinating especially those about some of the tattoos he has done and the people he has met over the years. It’s no wonder that he is a legend. Of course Jimmy would probably disagree. He’s just happy to be doing what he his has dedicated his entire life to.

On this night I am in the chair for a little over three hours. Tonight Jimmy started working on what is going to be a Thai mermaid from the Ramakien (you can also see similar images in Wat Phra Kaeo). These kinds of tattoos are one of Jimmy’s specialties and you are not going to find many tattoo artists doing similar tattoos of the same quality that only Jimmy can do. We’ve decided on a couple of tattoos from the Ramakien on my chest; the Ramakien-style tattoos inside my right arm (and later my left arm) will blend in with the ones that Jimmy will do later.

I am surprised that this tattoo on the inside of my right arm does not hurt as much as I thought it would. Then again, Jimmy has a pretty light touch when it comes to the delicate and intricate detail of these tattoos. The coloring will have to wait until I am back here in September. Since Jimmy started working on this arm a year ago, he has done six tattoos, not including the one cover-up of a Geisha. This cover-up is taking a little longer to finish and will probably require one or two more sittings to complete it.

How Did They Know?


I have been traveling to Thailand for years as well as getting tattoos done while I am there and this is the first time that I have stayed at a hotel where there was a “warning” like this left in the room. Obviously, this hotel in Phuket has had problems with some of its guests getting inked and staining the towels and linen. Posted by Picasa

Tattoos by Jimmy Wong: Cover-up in progress


Jimmy finished this cover-up on my right arm this trip to Thailand. He is going to have to add some more color when I am back here again in September. Posted by Picasa

Small town guy…Big city living

The other day I was packed in like a sardine along with what probably seemed like a couple hundred other commuters on a subway car heading to the center of Seoul, and I thought to myself, “man, how could anyone do this day in and day out?’’

I am a small town guy, born and raised in a town with a population pretty much the same as that of an apartment complex in Mok-dong. It was the kind of town that you could go somewhere and leave your doors unlocked or ask your neighbor to pick up your mail and newspapers when you went on vacation. Everyone either knew your name or your family. The only grocery store in town was still a place where you could strike up a conversation with the people in line and not just talk about the weather.

Even though I grew up not far from Chicago, the city, despite its towering skyscrapers and notorious rush hour gridlock, pales in comparison when put next to Seoul. Still, as a young man growing up in the heart of the American Midwest, I yearned for the bright lights and excitement of the city and despite all those small town ties, I couldn’t wait to strike out into the world on my own.

When I first came to Seoul, it took awhile to get adjusted to this big city living. Fortunately, I have always lived close to where I teach, so I have never had to fight the traffic to get into work. Nonetheless, when you live in a city this size it is bound to get intense at times whether you are packed in like sardines on the subway, stuck in traffic on a hot, humid summer day, or fighting the crowds in a supermarket on the weekend.

Let’s face it, even though Seoul is a dynamic and interesting city, living here can be a little crappy at times when you figure in the traffic, the crowded shopping areas and the pollution. I am always excited the day after it rains because usually the air is going to be so fresh and clean. I often joke with my colleagues and students that it is the kind of day that I wish I could bottle up and open in case of an emergency for all those really lousy days. Unfortunately, there are not always enough good days to go around.

What I have learned most about living in Seoul is to appreciate those good days and all those small things which balance out the good days with the bad days. I think I am thick-skinned enough not to let some things bother me like people bumping into you, drivers ignoring pedestrians, or even people looking down when they walk to avoid eye contact. I am no sociologist or anthropologist so I am not going to even begin to try and figure out this kind of public behavior, but there is some benevolence to be found in our daily wanderings.

To be sure, even when it comes to living in one of the world’s largest cities there are some small town touches out there. If you know where to look for them, or if you are lucky enough to have already come across them, they certainly help to take off the edge of all those bad days.

Take this small store not far from where I live. I have gotten to know the owner quite well over the years and he always takes time out to stop whatever he’s doing to chat with me. Likewise, whenever he gets in any “foreign” products he always makes sure to tell me. Then there’s the guy at the fruit shop. I used to see him at this health club I worked out years ago. Even though I stopped working out there, he still remembers me and whenever I buy some fruit at his shop, I can always count on an extra apple or orange being thrown into the bag.

From the security guard at the Korean Exchange Bank in Yonhui-dong (who has to be one of the friendliest and helpful Koreans I have met) to the brother and sister who run a black market stall in a neighborhood supermarket (who always make sure to stock my favorite brand of cereal), these small town touches have made living here more tolerable.

Even when I venture deeper into the city, away from the circles that I usually travel in, I come across friendly faces in shops, restaurants, and even on the streets. I’ve become a regular at this 7-11 in Myong-dong the past couple of months and now, when I pass some of the clerks on their way to the shop, we greet each other and smile as we go on our way.

To be sure, these are not random acts of kindness. No matter how hectic it might get living in Seoul, there are moments and people who really make living here worthwhile. Sure, there are plenty of unpleasant things to go around to frustrate us at times, but that’s just a part of big city living. You just have to take the good with the bad and always hope for the best, or in this case just try to find a way to take the edge off all those bad days.

So, the next time you are out somewhere in the city and you stop in at that shop to buy something to drink or pick up a newspaper at some sidewalk kiosk, go the distance and flash that smile and say hello. Who knows, that person just might be from a small town as well.

Would You Want to Drink This?


I am sure a plum-flavored drink would be very refreshing on a hot day, but I think whoever came up with the name of this product should have given more thought how it would sound in English.

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