“How did you end up in Korea?” is a question that most people have asked when they learn that I have lived and worked in Korea.
“I turned left at Japan,” I’ve often replied, tweaking a famous line from The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night when John Lennon was asked, “How did you find America?” upon which he replied, “Turned left at Greenland.”
One thing is for certain, I didn’t end up in Korea based on what I knew or didn’t know about the country. To be sure, if you were to have asked me prior to 1988, which Korea was the communist one, who Kim Il-sung was, or where Korea was located specifically in Northeast Asia, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get all three of them correct.
I had heard of Korea though. Two of my uncles fought in the Korean War. One of my high school friends, Louis “LJ” Kirsteatter learned Taekwondo in the 70s, (he could tell you what the symbols on the Korean flag “Taegukki” meant—pretty impressive for him to possess that cultural knowledge about the flag back in the 70s when not too many people knew about Korea). And I had a Korean roommate when I was at college. I knew a few Koreans in some of my classes, but we never talked much about Korea. Sadly, for most people from my generation our knowledge of Korea was limited to what we could glean from the popular TV show M*A*S*H.
On the other hand, the few times that we did hear anything about Korea was when there had been some breaking news story like the USS Pueblo seizure in 1968, the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident in 1976, Koreagate, the downing of KAL Flight 007 in 1983, and student demonstrations in the 80s.
Despite these international events, our knowledge about Korea remained limited. Even the Korean War, which was for all semantic purposes a substitute for World War III, had sadly been called “the forgotten war.” Even my two uncles who fought in it never talked about it.
Of course, the world would learn much about South Korea in 1988 with the Seoul Olympics that could be best described as one massive “coming out party” for the nation and its people.
As far as teaching English, Korea was not some place that you just heard about one day and decided that is where you wanted to go to teach. At a time when there was no internet and a letter to and from Korea could take as much as three weeks, Korea was not some place you just showed up at one day ready to teach. It was still a place that you had to have heard about somewhere from someone who had either been there or knew someone who had. People just didn’t end up here by accident. Fate maybe, but not by chance.
On a cool, clammy Friday night in December 1990, just two weeks before Christmas, I arrived in Seoul. For some, traveling to another country around the holidays to begin work might be a little depressing, but I was too pumped up to feel depressed. The recruiter, who had phoned me back in October and offered me the job, told me that I would be too excited to feel depressed. She was right.
Then again, it wasn’t my first Christmas away from home and definitely not my first Christmas overseas. I had spent the previous Christmas in Japan and there were the two Christmases I spent in Panama back in 1976 and 1977 when I was serving in the United States Air Force; so the holidays were not much of a problem.
The only problem, at least after I arrived in Korea, was going to be a change of underwear. I’ll get back to this later.
I left Chicago the day before at 7:00 in the morning on my way to Seattle and then on to Seoul. The day before I left, I spent hanging out with friends from my past. Kind of like Ralph Edwards, this is your life Jeffrey Miller sort of thing. First, it was lunch with Dick Verucchi, former drummer of Buckacre and The Jerks and whose family’s Italian restaurant in Spring Valley, Verucchi’s Ristorante, is one of the Illinois Valley’s more famous eateries.
Well, we didn’t have lunch at his family’s restaurant that day; instead, Dick recommended Chinese at the House of Hunan. Guess he figured that I needed to get back into the routine of eating with chopsticks. There we bumped into Steve Stout, a renowned local author, who wished me luck. Later, Dick had some errands to run for his family’s restaurant, including picking up an order of bread from Vallero’s Bakery in Dalzell, a small town between Peru and Spring Valley, Illinois.
We caught up on our lives as much as two old friends could in a few hours. While we were waiting for the bread order, Dick turned to me and said, “You know they eat dog over there in Korea.”
I shrugged my shoulders. There would be many things I would find out about Korea in due time.
Later that afternoon I visited my friend LJ, who quizzed me on my knowledge of the Korean flag. In the evening, I called my friend and college roommate, Luke, who was attending the University of Kansas. Just a few months earlier, he visited me in LaSalle, a small town 90 miles southwest of Chicago, and we went to an outdoor concert in the neighboring community of Oglesby to see Peter Noone. After the innocuous, but vocal heckling Luke and I gave Noone at that concert, Noone probably would have been relieved (if he had known) that I wouldn’t be around the next time he played Oglesby.
“I’m leaving for Korea in the morning,” I told Luke.
“Be careful,” he warned. “Don’t go causing any trouble over there.”
This was from a guy who hung a bedsheet from the window of his third floor Eureka College dormitory room with “U.S. out of Nicaragua” written on it. A gutsy move in my book, considering that Eureka College was President Ronald Reagan’s alma mater. Finally, my good friend, Mary Sue, drove me to O’Hare at three in the morning. Inasmuch as I was excited to be heading overseas again, it was a bittersweet send off when you have to part ways with friends, some of whom you may never see again. At the time, you don’t think you’re never going to see someone again, when you’re about to start a new chapter of your life, but that is exactly what happened when I came to Korea.
If you had traveled to Korea prior to March 2001, when the new Incheon Airport opened, you had to go through Seoul’s Kimpo Airport.
What I remembered most about Kimpo that night, and all the other times I flew in and out of there over the next eleven years, was how dreary and archaic it was. There’s no question that Kimpo was an obvious testament to Korea’s rapid economic development in the 70s, which came with a price tag: the airport still had this sort of “developing nation” feel to it. Even though Korea hosted the Olympics just two years earlier, one really felt as though they had stepped back into time—back to the 70s—when you had to go through Kimpo; either that, or some Cold War thriller, which was reinforced when passengers had to pass through another metal detector and have their luggage screened after they cleared immigration.
I have flown in and out of Korea countless times over the years, and usually when you go through immigration formalities, the immigration officials hardly utter more than a sentence or two, if that. However, on that night the immigration official asked me for a stick of gum. Well, it was more like “give me a stick of gum,” but I have to give the guy credit for trying out his language skills.
It made me think about that classic line from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when Jack Nicholson gets The Chief (Will Sampson) to finally say something—“Mmm…Juicy Fruit.”
If my first night in Korea was going to be a memorable one, it was not going to get off to a good start when I soon discovered that my luggage had been lost. Great, I thought. I start work on Monday and I don’t have any clean clothes to wear.
After waiting until the last bags from my flight were unloaded and then needing to fill out some forms, one of the ground staff assured me that my luggage would arrive in a day or two. It didn’t.
I wasn’t alone. Turned out, a few other passengers who had flown out of Chicago with me on the same flight were also missing their luggage and looked just as disoriented and pissed as I did watching the empty luggage carousel go round and round. I should have known there was going to be a problem when I checked in the day before and noticed that the luggage conveyor belt was broken and the luggage had to be carried downstairs by the ground staff. Well, that sort of thing is just begging for a problem to happen.
Lost luggage aside, I was not the only teacher arriving that night. There were three others who would be joining the ELS Kangnam (a district in Seoul, referred to as a Gu in Korean, south of the Han River) school staff (one more was due in from Thailand a few days later). After we met, we got in a van, handed an envelope containing 200,000 won for traveling expenses (sweet!) and headed to Chamsil (located on the eastern fringes of the city that had just started to spread out amoeba-like swallowing up the landscape and very close to Olympic Park), which would be my home for the next two years.
ELS was a franchise language school based out of Culver City, California. Back in the 90s, when I started teaching, ELS had schools around the world including South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Spain, and even some in the United States. The three ELS schools in South Korea in 1990 were owned by Sisa-yong-o-sa, at the time, Korea’s largest English book publisher (now the company is called YBM Sisa.)
In Korea, ELS was one of a handful of language institutes, called hogwons (institute or academy) operating in the early 90s. Over the years there have been countless horror stories about the pitfalls of these institutes like the stories of teachers coming to Korea and after being met at the airport being handed a book and told that their students were waiting for them in some crowded classroom.
However, back in 1990, ELS took very good care of its teachers and made it very convenient for a person, who had just flown halfway around the world, to teach English in Korea. Helping newly arrived teachers settle in and get acclimated before the first day of classes started with putting up teachers in these spacious apartments in Chamsil, not far from the Olympic Sports Complex, which was only meters away from the sprawling Lotte World shopping and entertainment complex.
In 1990, Lotte World was one of Seoul’s major attractions that had everything from a classy hotel, department store, and indoor swimming pool, to Lotte Adventure, a Disneyland-like theme park. Instead of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, Lotte had characters patterned after raccoons—Lotty Raccoon and Lorrie Raccoon; problem was there are no raccoons in Korea, at least I have never seen one, not unless of course you count those two lovable raccoons prancing around at Lotte World.
The apartments were starting to look a little rundown back then (the housing complex was leveled a few years ago and new apartment buildings have already gone up). If you didn’t mind the rats scurrying above in the crawl space and the black soot from people still burning yontan (cylinder-shaped, charcoal briquettes used for heating and cooking) which darkened the walls, it wasn’t too bad of a place to call home, especially when you didn’t have to pay any rent.
While I waited for the school director and a staff member, who were taking two of the teachers to their apartments, I stood outside and had a smoke. I listened to the steady drone of traffic speeding along the nearby Olympic Expressway. The housing complex had this “gulag” feel to it, row after row of apartment buildings all looking the same with a central heating plant.
I might have been in Asia, but it sure didn’t feel like it.
A few residents passed by and gave me a quick look. Obviously, they had seen a few foreigners in their housing complex, but over the course of the next couple of months, those quick looks would soon become hardened stares. For now, they were innocuous.
Unlike the other teachers who arrived that night, I did not have a roommate waiting for me. He was supposed to arrive from Thailand a few days later. For now, it was just a quick tour of the apartment. In the morning, another teacher would take me around the neighborhood and show me how to use the subway to get to the institute (a ten-minute subway ride).
The apartment came furnished and even included a telephone and a TV. The refrigerator was stocked with a few items to satisfy any hunger pangs that I might have until I could get to the store. I didn’t find the package of “Digestive Crackers” too appealing (gee, I hope I could digest them), but a few hours later and feeling a little hungry, they hit the spot. They were similar to graham crackers and I had no trouble digesting them.
I turned on the TV and the David Letterman Show was on—courtesy of AFRTS, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service or as it was more appropriately called in Korea, AFKN (Armed Forces Korean Network). Weird. I might have traveled halfway around the world and ready to experience another culture, but there was David Letterman beaming into my apartment. And if I might also add, just in time for his Top Ten List.
I walked out on the balcony to have a smoke while David counted down his list that night. On the sidewalk below, I could hear people walking home from work, stores, and the bars. It had gotten foggier and cooler. Across the street, a thousand points of light shone from rows of towering housing gulags, which dwarfed the smaller housing complex that would be home for the next two years.
I listened to the night. I listened to this strange, new language drifting up, wondering how long it would be before I would be able to understand it.
And I wondered if I was going to like it here.