Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Don’t get your panties in a twist

130164741After flying halfway around the world to South Korea, one of my first priorities was shopping.

Not knowing when my luggage would arrive, and wearing the same underwear for three days, I had no choice but to spend my first Sunday in Korea shopping for clothes. I had packed a pair of jeans and a sweater in my carry-on, but not something that I wanted to wear on my first day on the job.

Surprisingly, finding shoes, socks, pants and a few white dress shirts was not a problem. However, when it came to buying underwear that was an entirely different and embarrassing story.

I figured all I had to was find the men’s section in a department store, locate the underwear (hoping that there would be some familiar brand name) buy a few pairs and be on my merry way, or so I thought. So, with this in mind, I headed over to the Lotte Super Store, which was part of the sprawling Lotte Shopping and entertainment complex not too far from where I lived.

My spirits were dashed when I couldn’t find any familiar brand names like Jockey Calvin Klein or Fruit of the Loom. The only brand names (in English) that I could find were James Dean (that’s right, that rebel without a cause had a line of underwear named after him in Korea) and BYC and TRY (I have no idea what these acronyms meant, and I never bothered to find out).

“Well, you’re in Korea now,” I thought, “I’ll just have to make do with what’s available.”

The other problem was that they came in four sizes 90, 95, 100, and 105-but would a Korean medium/large be the same as a Western medium/large?

And then there was the timing of this underwear expedition. Imagine if you will a busy department store on a Sunday afternoon two weeks before Christmas. Now, intensify that by being in Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world and only able to speak a few sentences of Korean. That’s when the fun started.

No sooner had I picked up a package of underwear to check the size when out of nowhere three female clerks materialized to help me with my purchase.

“Panties?” one of the clerks inquired with a passable English accent.

“No, underwear,” I said, showing her the package.

Ne (Korean for yes), panties,” she said smiling.

Before I knew it, the three giggling clerks started to open up various packages of underwear for me to choose. Like some scene out of a musical, they all took turns holding up the “panties” for me to observe and hopefully select as they pranced around me.

I could feel my face getting redder and redder as they held out in front of me zebra-striped bikini briefs, polka-dotted bikini briefs, and even some camouflage ones.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see customers stopping and staring at this foreigner surrounded by these three clerks dancing around me with “panties” waving in front of my face.

I ended up buying five pairs of these “panties.” Later, I discovered that in Korea, “panties” was Konglish (Korean-English) for underwear for men.

Come Monday morning; I was ready to begin my sojourn as an English teacher in Korea wearing my new panties.

One thing which I liked about ELS (actually ELSI which stood for English Language Schools International and had schools overseas as well as a few in the States back in the 90s) was how they gave you a week of orientation to acclimate yourself with the program as well as give you time to settle in, recover from jet lag, and take care of immigration formalities.

I had to sit in on a few classes and at the end of the week I had to teach one class. If you had very little teaching experience, it was a pretty straightforward way to prepare you for when you started teaching. Unlike the horror story, I heard from one expat teacher I ran into at Kangnam subway station a few weeks later. He told me that when he arrived in Korea, his director took him straight from the airport to the language institute, threw a book at him and told him that his students were waiting for him.

During that first week, I also learned that I was very diligent. At least, almost every student I ran into told me that.

“What time do you wake up?” a student asked.

“Six o’clock,” I said.

“Hmm…you are diligent.”

“What did you do last night?” a female student asked.

“I wrote in my journal and read for one hour,” I replied.

“You are diligent,” she said. “I envy you.”

Koreans, especially language students, are sticklers for certain words in English-translated from Korean. Diligent was one such word. It carries a lot of weight in Korean, but when students told me how diligent I was, it just seemed strange. I heard diligent spoken more that first week in Korea than any other time in my life.

My luggage finally arrived on Thursday. Only took one week. And then, the airline expected me to go out to Kimpo to fetch it. It took a bit of pleading, but finally, it was agreed that it would be delivered to the language institute. I still had to lug it home, which was a bit of pain in the ass. That was the first and the last time I flew on Northwest.

Most new teachers who were at ELS worked the same schedule: 10:00-12:00 and then again 6:00-10:00 five days a week. The two-hour morning conversation class would be a breeze, but I could see that four-hour block in the evening getting a little grueling especially come the end of the week.

Going home on the subway at night wouldn’t be a problem because the rush hour was over. However, with there was an unusually high number of sloppy drunks on board given all the bars and a few discos around Kangnam Subway Station. Back in 1990, there were not too many foreigners in Korea and not too many traveling on the subway from Kangnam to Shinch’on at 10:15 at night. As such, people–usually the brave and drunken ones–would spot us and then, to impress their friends or in the case of one salaryman one night during my first week in Korea, some of his female colleagues.

He tried out what little English he knew, probably learned it at the same kind of language school that now employed me. His female companions giggled a lot, making sure to put a hand over their mouths.

The first couple of days in Korea, I kept on coming across all of these red and orange amoebae-shaped patterns of noodles splattered on the sidewalks and on the streets when I was going to school in the morning or coming home at night. I thought that maybe these noodles had been spilled when the garbage had been taken out, or one of these take-out delivery drivers had spilled them. I would soon find out the truth behind these amoebae-shaped patterns of noodles, or as I would soon begin to call them, “vomit landmines.”

After a night of drinking, a lot of people would stop off at some convenient store and slurp down bowls of instant noodles-or as they are called here, ramyon/ramen. Problem was ramen doesn’t mix too well with a stomach of beer and soju (Korean rice wine) and public vomiting is quite common. No one bats an eye when they see someone puking out their guts on the streets, in subway stations–pretty much anywhere.

Over the years, I’ve seen some of the most beautifully dressed women, immaculately applied makeup hunched over a trash can or squatting over the side of the road throwing up. And they are never alone. There’s always a friend nearby to help them.

“A good friend in Korea is someone who helps you throw up by pounding you on the back,” a student would tell me later when I inquired about this vomiting duet.

Hmm, guess it gives new meaning to the expression, “a friend in need, is a friend indeed.”

On Friday night at the end of that first week in Korea, I was walking to my apartment when I saw two salarymen throwing up in a trashcan. One of them saw me coming, and with one hand wiped away some of the vomit from the side of his mouth.

“Welcome to Korea,” he said as he wiped away the rest of the vomit from the corner of his mouth.

The last sound I heard, as I turned the corner and continued onto my apartment–located in the bowels of the concrete labyrinthine housing gulag-was their retching duet, throwing up in that trash can.


  1. Jeffrey- I’ve always enjoyed your writing, and I’ve trolled TIBU and your blog to get my fix. You were- and remain- one of my favorite writers. I’ve learned so much from you about a life I’ve never lived. Your posts are always such an eye-opening look at life and culture from a perspective far-removed from the American mainstream.
    Thanks for the bon mots.

  2. Thanks so much Dr. Larry for your very kind comments. I appreciate them so much. Comments like yours mean so much to me as a writer. Thank you again my friend.

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