Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

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

It’s a small world

The other night I am sitting in my room watching the top story on 60 Minutes about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina which to my surprise included an interview with Lt. Gen. Russel Honore the top military leader on the ground in New Orleans in charge of recovery efforts.

I first met Honore in 2001 when I interviewed him for a series of articles which I had been writing for The Korea Times on United States Forces Korea (USFK). Back then, Honore was the commander of the U.S. Second Infantry Division (2ID) in Korea.

In another media report about his arrival in New Orleans—when he pretty much hit the ground barking orders at his subordinates—the mayor of New Orleans was quoted as saying that “Honore was a John Wayne kind of a dude.” Funny, that is exactly how I would have described him when I first met him.

It was a cool, rainy June morning when I traveled to Uijongbu—about an hour north of Seoul by train—for my interview with the General. Before we had our interview, Honore was practicing throwing a tomahawk for an upcoming sports event, aptly called “The Warrior Olympics.” Honore was proud of his tomahawk throwing technique and even had me throwing a tomahawk before I left.

During our interview Honore puffed away on a cigar and was very spirited and colorful (with his noticeable Cajun accent) when it came to talking about his command and the important role that the 2ID has played in Korea since the end of the Korean War.

Ever since I started writing feature articles for The Korea Times, I have interviewed a few prominent people here like Honore that later were in the news. One of them was Gen. Geoffrey Miller who I interviewed in 2002 for a story about USFK’s security support during the 2002 World Cup. After leaving Korea, Miller would later command Gitmo before being transferred to Iraq. He was later in the news during the investigation of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Another officer, Lt. Gen. Lance Smith was the commander of the 7th Air Force when I interviewed him for an article in 2002. I had my own little “scoop” with that interview when I asked him a question about South Korea’s bid to choose their next generation fighter. I just wanted to know what he felt as a pilot about the aircraft. It was an innocuous question, but it created a bit of a stir in the local media here. After leaving Korea he too went to Iraq and was often seen on TV giving press briefings to reporters.

Aside from these military figures there have also been a few celebrities like Johnny Grant who came to Korea as part of a USO tour in 2001. Grant, who is the “honorary mayor of Hollywood,’’ is always in entertainment news posing with celebrities when they get their “star” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Other celebrities that I got to meet who came to Korea with the USO included “Mr. Jeopardy” himself Alex Trebek, Drew Carey, and “Mr. Las Vegas”, Wayne Newton.

Interestingly, all of these interviews were the direct result of all those articles I wrote between 2000-2001 about the Korean War. I would have never been able to meet any of these people if I hadn’t been for all that groundwork that was laid when I was writing about the Korean War commemorative events. I regret that I wasn’t able to write more and follow up with some of the articles that I did write. Still, I was able to meet someone as colorful like Honore and have links to other historical events—both past and present.

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.

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.

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