National Geographic — December 1979

national-geographic-seoulOne of my prized possessions is a 1979 issue of National Geographic that I bought on eBay to remind me of what it was like to come to Korea in 1990.

It was late summer 1990. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, Die Hard 2 and Ghost were two of the summer’s hottest movies, and I had been working at a Del Monte canning factory in Mendota, Illinois since mid-August.

How I ended up at Del Monte, after having taught in Japan just nine months earlier, is not entirely another story, but part of my plan to return to Japan via Malaysia—you know, the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line.

The day after I interviewed for a teaching position at a new language school opening in Malaysia, I was hired by Del Monte and promptly started working the night shift from six at night until six in the morning. If I were headed back to Asia, I was going to need some funds to tide me over until I left. As it turned out, I got to put some of my college skills to good use: my job was tell trucks where to dump their loads of sweet corn and to keep track how much corn had been delivered and processed. I also relieved the two tractor operators who pushed the ears of corn into the processing facility. Actually, it was one of the best jobs I ever had and I really enjoyed the people I worked with at the facility. Had I not been offered a job in Korea (I’m getting there) I had been offered a full-time job at that plant.

At the same time, one of my friends, who worked at a printing shop in LaSalle, told me that one of her clients was the manager of a Japanese plant which made auto parts. This client had a thirteen-year-old daughter going to Washington Grade School in Peru, Illinois. Problem was, the girl’s language skills were too low for her to do well in school. My friend suggested that because of my Japanese language skills, I would be a good tutor for her. In the end, I ended up teaching the girl, her younger brother, and mother before I left for Korea. I’m getting there!

Around this time, I was informed by the recruiter of the language school I had applied for that I didn’t get the job. Although I had done well on the interview (later, I would see the notes from that interview which included the comments, “He has that All-American look; he will sell well in Asia”), the school wanted more seasoned teachers. However, the recruiter told me that positions at two schools in Seoul were opening all the time.
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In the beginning, I taught the girl in the afternoon before I went to work at Del Monte. Most of the times, I got to the school early and waited for her in one of the classrooms while she finished her classes. One day, I happened to notice a stack of old National Geographic magazines in a bookcase. I picked a copy and started thumbing through it. Turned out it was one from 1979 that had a story about Seoul, South Korea. It was more of a coming-of-age story about Seoul and how the city had finally risen from the ashes of the Korean War. One photograph in particular of a housing project near Olympic Park stuck out more than the other ones of salarymen drinking and Andre Kim posing with two models. Maybe it was the stark, cold feeling that I got from the photo which showed the Number 2 subway line being built and the muddy tidal flats of the Han River in the distance which made me stare at it longer than other photographs.

Three months later, I would be living in that apartment complex when I started teaching at the ELS school near Kangnam Subway Station.

Had fate intervened that day which made choose that issue over other issues? I would like to think so. Not long after I started teaching at ELS, one of my colleagues and friends, Ken Celmer had that same issue and shared it with me. I still couldn’t get over how I had seen that same issue rightbefore I found out that I had been hired to teach at ELS.

Looking at it today, it’s 1990 all over for me.

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That’s when I took the road less traveled again…and once again, it would make all the difference in the world.

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