Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: My Life That Was Korea: 1990 – ? (page 31 of 32)

Remembering the ‘Salad Days’

When I think about all the years I have spent in Korea, I have to admit that it has been quite the interesting experience. Definitely more than I ever bargained for when I first came here in 1990 to teach English.

Although these days I do not know how much longer I will stay here (there are many variables and scenarios to consider) if I were to leave in the near future, I would leave here satisfied (though not necessarily fulfilled the way I would have liked to have been) with having made the most out of the experience.

As much as I have already planned to take some time off for personal reasons, I would hate to leave here jaded and disillusioned. Even during some of those bleakest and darkest moments here (the 1994 nuclear crisis, the 1997 economic crisis, and the death of my wife in 2001) I always managed to get by when perhaps other individuals might have chosen to leave.

As long as I had a good job and a network of some very close friends for support and friendship, living and working here was never difficult.

These days, it saddens me to no end now how my colleagues and I are faced with some difficult times and decisions to be made. Nonetheless, it has definitely brought us closer together and in some ways has helped to ease some of the anxiety.

As Good As It Could Get

It was a good ride.

I once said that I would know when it would be time to leave Korea—whether indefinitely or for good—and when that time came, I could leave here feeling fulfilled.

I am not sure if I can say with any clarity that I have gotten as much as I could get out of being here for all these years, but it was pretty okay while it lasted. I packed in a lot of life here and had more than my share of successes and failures, happiness and sorrow.

Now it seems that the time to move on has come sooner than I anticipated. In the end, it really wasn’t my decision, though. Maybe if things were better I could have tried to hang on here a little longer when it would have been better for me to leave. After all, I had been planning on taking six months off next year for variety of personal and professional reasons.

No one wants to leave a job without having something else on the back or front burner. On the other hand, if one feels that their present job security or peace of mind is in jeopardy, maybe it takes a little push to get you out the door and onto better things even if you don’t have anything else in the works.

Maybe when things like this happen and you are forced to think about life after Korea—whether for the short or the long term—it is a blessing in disguise or some of that good Karma payback.

Today, everything became crystal clear.

Ray, the Head of Studies at our language institute called an emergency staff meeting to discuss some changes that were about to be implemented. Even before today’s meeting, there had been some discussion and office scuttlebutt about the future of our institute. There have been some rumors circulating that the school is in a bit of a financial crisis and might have to close.

Well, the institute is not going to close, but there are going to be some changes effective immediately which for many of us, are not going to make teaching there as lucrative as it once was. Classes are going to be cut in the summer and winter, and we are going to have to take a salary cut for the early morning conversation class. Now, this may not seem like grounds to suddenly get the urge to catch the next plane out of here, but it’s the way that middle management has gone about implementing these changes.

One almost gets the impression that what is really happening is to tighten the screws a bit to force some teachers to resign. Indeed, there are already plans for a restructuring of the school, including salaries.

It appears now that instructors at FLI will be paid less than instructors at most Hogwans (private institutes) without such benefits like free housing, airfare, and shipping allowance. What really sucks is that we are supposed to be a part of Yonsei University, but only when it is convenient for the university (26% of profits go right to the university, which is a bit ironic when we are told that our institute is losing money).

What’s ironic or just a lack of management skills is that Ray was told by the office to hire more teachers for the summer, but now there might not be enough classes for most instructors. And to add further insult to injury, it took us two years of pleading to ask for a cost-of-living adjustment (everyone else on campus gets one) and we finally got one last month. Now, the proposed salary cuts are going to wipe out the three-percent raise we just got.

Fair enough, salary cuts in the business world happen all the time when companies are trying to survive, but automatically cutting an instructor’s salary without telling them is a bit underhanded. Three instructors teaching a teacher’s training course found out (because an officer worker opened his mouth when he shouldn’t have) that their salary had been cut. The office just went ahead and made a decision to cut their salary for the class. When one of the teachers approached the office manager and explained that if something like this is done, he wasn’t going to teach the class anymore. The office manager’s response: “I don’t care. We’ll find other teachers.”

Last month there was a cookout for all the teachers and staff and we were told that we were doing a good job and that we were all a team. Maybe not on the same team, though.

So all of us are sort of walking around feeling a little gloomy and wondering what to do next. I wouldn’t be surprised if many instructors decide to leave at the end of the summer term. Others might want to ride out the rest of the year and see what happens. My contract is up at the end of December, but I am now wondering and thinking quite seriously of leaving before. Take my chances and find something else—either here in Korea or Thailand—or just take some time off for awhile.

Ironic, a few weeks ago I was talking about how I was stuck in the doldrums.

Look’s like there is a wind picking up.

When Push Comes To Shove

If you are living in Korea, you know the drill.

You are standing in line somewhere, either at a Starbucks or a 7-11 waiting to be served when invariably someone will cut right in front of you. It’s usually when you are at the counter telling the person behind it your order or even paying for your purchase when someone pulls this kind of stunt.

Obviously, the concept of “wait your turn” needs a little more work for some people.

Now I think I am a pretty easy-going kind of guy and try not to let these kinds of things bother me when someone deliberately cuts in front of me or starts telling the lady behind the counter at Starbucks their order when I was already there doing the same thing. At the same time, living and working in Korea for all these years, I have gotten used to this public display of impatience.

However, the other day I snapped.

I was having a really good day (as far as good days go in Korea) and was standing at the counter at a Starbucks in Seoul when this middle-aged Korean woman came up to the counter and started the telling the woman behind it what she wanted.

Like I said, I am a pretty easy-going kind of guy, a firm believer in Karma and generally calm in stressful situations, but on that day I just had to vent a little steam.

“Would you please wait your fucking turn,” I said to the woman.

Now, what are the odds that when you speak English to a stranger that they speak English well? I guess it must have been my lucky day because she knew exactly what I said. Her face went white (as white as it could with all the make up she had caked on) as she sheepishly backed away from the counter realizing that she had been wrong for cutting in front of me.

Sometimes when push comes to shove, you just have to tell people to wait their turn.

Seoul Trippin’

I love Wednesdays.

Never mind the fact that I was born on a Wednesday, it’s a real treat having a day off in the middle of the week. No hump day in Korea. More of a mini weekend to regroup.

Still not sleeping too soundly. I wanted to sleep in today, but I was up again at 6:00.

Down to California Fitness in Myong-dong. Feels good to be working out more regularly. I’ve got my rhythm back again.

When I first started working out there in 2003, most people ignored me or maybe were a little intimidated by all the ink I have on my body. Now, most of the regulars there are really friendly including these serious body builder types who always say “hello” whenever we are working out.

Don’t see this one guy working out there who used to talk to the weights. That’s right. He used to talk to the weights as though the weights were a woman. You could hear him through the grunting and groaning saying stuff like, “Come on Baby. Light weight Baby. Light weight Baby. You know you want it Baby.” Pretty funny stuff.

On my way to the subway station after I left the fitness club I noticed a young lady wearing a t-shirt with “feel like a hooker” written across the front. Wondering if she knew what it meant. Not the kind of shirt she would want to wear on a Friday or Saturday night in Itaewon. Oh, that’s right prostitution is illegal in Korea. I guess those double barber poles you still see around the city mean something else. (A barber shop with two of these spinning poles outside meant that a guy could get more than a haircut and a shave inside.)

Still, her t-shirt pales in comparison to the one I saw a woman wearing last summer. Written across the front of that t-shirt was “fresh and juicy below.”

Whenever I have enough time after working out, I sometimes stop in at this small restaurant Han’s Deli for some kimchi-fried rice. It gets a bit crowded in there, but the food and the prices are okay. I have also become somewhat of a regular and the owners always give me a little extra.

Feeling a bit hungry today I stopped in, but the place was full. I mean, it was so crowded there were people standing inside near the door waiting for people to finish eating so they could get a table. There were even some people milling about outside waiting for a table to open up.

You never forget that you are living in a city of over 10 million people.

Digging some of the looks I got on the subway heading from downtown to Hongdae. There was this one lady really checking out my ink. Most people will look and then quickly look away if I catch them staring at my tattoos. This lady though was definitely into admiring my ink, especially the one of the Japanese Geisha on my arm.

Walking back to Yonhui-dong I noticed an “anarchy” symbol spray-painted on a wall. Wonder if the person who did it knows exactly what it means.

I Don’t Like Mondays

Monday morning.


Where did the weekend go?

Up at 5:00 as usual to get ready for my 7:00 early morning English conversation class. For the life of me, I don’t know how anyone could learn a foreign language at this time of the day. I suppose if you were really motivated enough to learn a language and given most Korean’s penchant for wanting to improve their English proficiency, it probably makes perfect sense to start off the day with a bit of English language calisthentics.

On the other hand, starting off the day with a bit of language instruction might be just as effective as a cup of hot java to wake up before one goes off to work or a university class. Get that English class out of the way first thing in the morning and you have the whole day in front of you to focus on whatever needs to be focused on.

I wonder if I could ever learn a foreign language at this time of the day? Got to hand it to the 12 students in my class though, they are definitely motivated and enthusiastic from 7:00-8:30.

I always like getting up at 5:00. Maybe it has something to do with being born at this time. I like having this time to myself to drink my coffee, smoke a couple of cigarettes and see what has been happening around the world since I went to bed the night before.

Still not sleeping too well. Getting by on 4-5 hours of sleep a night. Good thing I have a light schedule during the day. The 1-2 hour power naps that I have been taking in the afternoon keep me alert for my two classes in the late afternoon and early evening.

Monday morning again. The weekends just fly by. Of course having some private gigs on Saturday doesn’t hurt any if you are into time flying by. Spent this past Saturday traveling from one part of the city to the other. Left home at 10:00 and didn’t get back home until almost 11:00.

When I got home I called Jimmy Wong. He was happy that I called. Talked for about 15 minutes. Talked about the tattoos I will be getting in June. I am stoked that he is going to start work on this Thai-style Ramakien design tattoo on my chest.

Speaking of tattoos, got this email from some women in the UAE who had come across one of my web articles on Jimmy and wanted some information how she could contact him. Turns out she is going to be in Bangkok this week and wants to get some ink done by Jimmy. We sent a bunch of emails back and forth and she managed to get in touch with him.

She asked me if I had any ideas for a small “sexy” tattoo. I told her that I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head, but told her that when it comes to a “sexy” tattoo, it is not so much the tattoo as it is where the tattoo is located. You know like on the upper breast, around the belly button, or lower back. I have a thing for women with tattoos, especially these kinds of tattoos that you can partially see depending on what kind of clothing the woman wear.

She never got back to me about this. I hope I didn’t offend her.

Yesterday I was really lazy. Just hung out at home all day. Finally got around to watching Seven Samurai. I can’t believe that I have never seen this film before. What a classic.

Why Does She Keep Sending Me Text Messages?

Sarah sends a text message today. All her messages are about the same–about how much she is thinking about me and how much she misses me. It’s become somewhat of a ritual for her to send me at least one or two such messages a week in the eight months that we have known each other. Problem is, we have only seen each other two times in those eight months. I hate text messages.

Not Just Another Day In Korea

Sometimes one day seems to blur into the next. There’s a routine with little deviation. Days begin the same. A cup of instant coffee and a couple of smokes. Turn on the computer. What has happened around the world since you went to bed? Checking email and hoping for some response to email sent the day before. What did we do before there was email? How did we survive? Were we more sociable getting out and meeting people and making contacts, or have we become more isolated as we stare at those messages on our monitor?
Feeling a bit groggy and hungover this morning. Last night fried pork, beer and some really sweet alcohol that I am going to have to ask one of my colleagues what it was that we drank. As a rule I don’t usually drink Korean beer. Leaves me with a wicked hangover the next day. Pounded the beer last night though. Hite. Some people call it Shite.
It’s raining and cold outside. The weather has really sucked the past few days. One day it’s the yellow sand blowing in from China. The next day its warm enough to run around without a jacket. The next day it feels more like autumn than spring.
I am running late this morning. I have to go down to my fitness club, California Fitness in Myong-dong (downtown Seoul) and renew my membership. Haven’t worked out since February. Starting to feel a little beefy around my midsection. Maybe that is why I have been having problems sleeping at night. Need to exercise more.
Whereas some people might envy you being at expat living in Asia, there are many days when there is nothing extraordinary about what you do. I still put my shoes on the same way, I just can’t wear them inside my apartment.
Some people wonder why I travel so far to work out when there are fitness clubs nearby. I think having to make the effort to get downtown is more of an incentive to maximize my work out regime. Let’s face it, if I have to travel that far to get to a fitness club I am going to work out for more than an hour or two. Besides, the scenery in Myong-dong is quite lovely.

In the Doldrums…Sort Of

Well, here I am back in Korea after being in Thailand for a month. It was a good holiday. I got a lot of things done that I wanted and needed to do while I was there. I was still on this “tattoo high” after Jimmy Wong’s tattoo festival when I arrived in Bangkok so it was cool to talk to Jimmy about the festival. I am pleased with the work that Jimmy was able to do on this massive cover-up on my left arm.

This trip I spent 28 hours getting inked spread out the month that I was there. It’s going to take a couple more sessions to get the design and the color right when I am back there again in June.

When I got back my room last night I discovered that the radiators had burst while I was gone. Bummer. Fortunately, someone must have noticed that there was water coming out of my room and notified the housing office. Nonetheless, there was still some water damage.

This morning I get an email from the editor of the Korea Times informing me that my weeky column has been terminated, effective two days ago. It’s a good thing I didn’t start writing this week’s column. The editor didn’t say much other than that some editorial changes had been made.Just like that I am no longer writing for the paper. As much as I enjoyed having my weekly column, I was getting a little burned out and having a hard time some weeks coming up with something interesting to write about. Still, having to write a weekly column forced me to write something every week.

So, for the first time since 2000, I am not making a contribution to the paper. I suppose I feel a little bummed out especially that I wasn’t given any warning that my column was going to be terminated. I suppose I feel a little annoyed that I have never really been thanked for the contributions that I have made to the paper over the years. If it hadn’t been for me, there wouldn’t have been any book reviews, travel articles, or foreign community page. Maybe someone might have done some of these articles, but not the kind of weekly contributions that I made a few years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I got paid for what I did and probably made more than most of the staff writers, but then many of them just rewrote articles or press releases. It was a lot of fun and I probably got to see more of Korea and meet more people than most expats do.

The editor still wants me to make contributions, so I will just have to wait and see what happens. We haven’t been on speaking terms since last year when we had that falling out over not being paid for my contributions. On the other hand, I don’t know if I want to write for the paper anymore. It was different a few years ago when I was writing more.

A journey back in time

Sometimes for a journey back in time, all it takes is a subway ride.

Today I went to Chamsil in southern Seoul to meet my special lady friend Sarah for lunch. She has a private teaching gig over there, not far from where she lives and because it has been hard for us to find time to meet, I suggested meeting for lunch at the Lotte shopping and entertainment complex.

Today was just the third time that I have been over to Chamsil, and only the second time that I have been in Lotte since I started teaching at Yonsei University in 1993. Of course, Chamsil was the area that I lived in when I first came to Korea in 1990 and where I would end up living for two years. I have just never had any reason to go back there (other than for a newspaper article on Lotte World in 2003) until today.

Riding on the Number 2 (green) subway line to Chamsil was a journey back in time for me. A journey back to my old neighborhood in Korea. Those two years that I spent over there and all those initial experiences of being in Korea pale in comparison to everything since, but without question it was a very important time of my life.

I was overcome with nostalgia as soon as I walked through the subway station and then outside to have a cigarette before moving back inside to wait for Sarah. With the weather a bit chilly today, it really reminded me of the day I first came to Korea. Interestingly, when I did arrive in Korea, Lotte World was the first place that I visited and also the place where I would enjoy my first Korean meal—bibimbap. Standing there outside today and enjoying my cigarette, I could have closed my eyes and still see the big poster of Al Pacino for The Godfather Part III which was playing at the Lotte World Cinema back then. And with all the Christmas decorations up, it reminded me again of coming to Korea just two weeks before Christmas.

Chamsil has changed a lot since I last was here. Gone is the Hanyang Shopping center that I used to do most of my grocery shopping and where I had to buy all new clothes my first weekend in Korea because my luggage had been lost. Chamsil 2-Danji, the residential complex that I used to live in has been demolished and a new housing complex is slowly going up. Towering apartment complexes have hemmed in the area, dwarfing smaller blocks of apartments, which at one time were the tallest in the area.

Just like Chamsil and other areas of this city have changed in the past 15 years, I too, have changed a lot since I got off the plane at Kimpo one cool, clammy night in December 1990. Back when I came to Korea I was filled with much hope and anticipation. So much has happened in the time I have been here. I have packed in a lot of life. There have been a lot of good times, some not so good times, and some pretty lousy times. Through it all I think that I have become a better person and have done a pretty good job—whether it has been teaching or writing for the newspaper.

While I was waiting for my friend to arrive, I walked around inside the Lotte Shopping complex. You know, when I was living over here from 1990-1992 I was coming over here almost every weekend. I spent so much time here.

So there I was walking around when this young woman approached me. I had seen here milling about, holding onto a notebook and could tell that she was waiting to talk to somebody. Sure enough, when she worked up the courage she came up to me and, in very good English asked me if she could ask me a few questions. Turns out that she was a student at Hanyang University and had a homework assignment to interview foreign tourists about their experiences in Korea.

I was already feeling a bit choked up with this wave of nostalgia that I had been feeling and now she was asking me questions which were about the same things that I was feeling and thinking about.

Like I said, it just got me thinking about what it was like when I first came here when anything was possible and when I was filled much hope and anticipation. It has been such a strange and amazing journey when I think about it.

I’m Too Old For This Shit

The other day one of my colleagues was talking about this new club that he had been to in Itaewon. Judging from his fervid descriptions of his most recent visit to the club, I was going to have to check it out for myself.

“The place was just crawling with women,” he said. “After most of the military personnel cleared out after curfew, all these women were still there. It was unbelievable.”

I don’t get over to Itaewon as much as I used to when I first came to Korea. Other than some occasional shopping or meeting a friend for a drink when they come to Seoul, (sometimes for grins and giggles we have gone up “hooker hill” which is still the seedy, raunchy underbelly to Itaewon) I have pretty much stayed away.

So, when my colleague described his most recent night out to Itaewon and looking a change of scenery myself, I was definitely going to have to check out this club and see what all the hype was about.

In the old days when you went to Itaewon there was only one place to go: Hooker Hill. That’s where pretty much all the action was. Back then there were places like the Twilight Zone, All That Jazz, The King Club and the landmark Itaewon establishment The Nashville to get things started, but when the night dragged on, you were making your way up the hill past all the hole-in-the-wall juicy bars and juicy girls standing in the doorway trying to lure you in. If you could run this gauntlet, there was the Kettle House at the top of the hill for another round of drinking before heading back down into the maw of debauchery.

Nowadays that has all changed. While there are still a handful of these watering holes on the hill, these days there are more upscale establishments. However, no matter how much people try to improve the image of Itaewon—it is still Itaewon.

The night might have ended up being a total bust if my colleague and I hadn’t stopped at this new eatery in Itaewon. If you happen to find yourself in Seoul one day either living here or just visiting, you definitely have to stop in at the Smoky Saloon (located on a back alley which runs behind the Hamilton Hotel) which has some of the best darn hamburgers you will find in Korea. The burgers might seem a little pricey (hey this is Seoul remember and everything is expensive), but they are worth the price. The place is rather small, just a few tables inside so you might have to get that burger to go.

So, after we have our tasty burgers washed down with our favorite beverages, it was off to this new club that Keith had been raving about.

Like I said, when Keith first told me about this club, he said it was crawling with women the last time he was there. Well, it was crawling with people all right, mostly guys just standing around or sitting. As soon as a woman or a group of women walked in, all heads turned to the door. Most of the clientele were US service members hoping to get lucky before curfew and no doubt English teachers waiting to get lucky after curfew.

Keith and I found a space at the bar and ordered a drink. There was a small dance floor in front of the bar—a pretty stupid place to have a dance floor especially if you needed to get to the bar to order a drink—but I guess if you were at the standing at the bar, it was your best advantage point to see who was there and who wasn’t.

I wasn’t too crazy about the music. I guess I am just getting old. I would have rather gone somewhere and listen to some rock or blues, but this is Seoul and if you want to meet anyone, you just might have to swallow your pride. Either that or mass quantities of alcohol to get a good buzz going so you forget about the music.

Next to me at the bar was this GI and either his girlfriend or wife (non-Korean). They didn’t pay much attention to me when I sat down at the bar, but when they decided to dance; the woman bumped into my leg. It seemed more of a deliberate bump because there was plenty of room to walk past me (I was sitting facing Keith). She apologized, but what was really weird was how she touched my leg and leaned in close to say that she was sorry. Okay, so she’s being very considerate, but it was obvious she was flirting with me—or so it seemed.

Just how obvious her flirtations were soon became quite apparent when her and her male companion returned to the bar. I was still sitting with my back to her, when she tapped me on the shoulder and asked for a light. When I held out my cigarette lighter to light her cigarette, she gently steadied my hand and gazed into my eyes when I lit her cigarette. How more obvious can you be? She thanked me and I turned back around and continued talking to Keith.

A few minutes later, she tapped me on the shoulder again and I turned around on the barstool I was sitting on. She leaned forward and asked me if I was bored. No, I told her I wasn’t. I love your cologne, she said. I thanked her and turned back around again.

“That guy is giving you some dirty looks,” Keith said.

“What guy?”

“The one next to that woman you were talking to,” Keith said. “Looks like he wants to bust a beer bottle over your head.”

Great, a bar fight with a GI.

Either the woman was coming on to me for real or she was just trying to piss off her male companion. I guess I should have picked up on that one. They hadn’t even spoken a word to each other since Keith and I arrived.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “This place sucks.”

The night was still young, so we stopped in another bar—Woodstock—just down the street. There’s usually a band playing there on the weekends. I’ve been there a few times. It’s okay. If the band is any good there’s going to be a good crowd. The band playing that night must not have been very good because there weren’t too many people there. We had a couple of beers and stayed for one set. The band was pretty lame and not really worth staying out late to listen to.

So, that was my unforgettable night out on the town in Itaewon. Almost got into a bar fight and listened to a shitty band.

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