Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Korea Redux

Urban Renewal

This was originally published in the Korea Times on Feb. 21, 2006. It is a bit dated now (Lee Myung-bak is now the President of Korea), but one of the things which has always struck me most about all the years I have been in Korea is that the country always seems to be under construction. Where the heck is all this concrete and steel coming from and with all these towering apartment complexes being built everywhere you go, where the heck are all these people coming from and living now? So, perhaps this essay I wrote two years ago, is just as relevant now as it was back then.

The other day I was going to stop in at this small Korean restaurant that I have frequented on and off over the past few years only to discover that it had closed and in its place was an optometrist’s shop.

What’s most remarkable was that this had taken place within the last few weeks, since the last time I was there. One day it was still a restaurant serving up some of the best darn kimchi stew I’ve tasted in Korea; the next day the interior is gutted like a fish and every semblance of that business is dragged out onto the street, loaded onto a truck and carted off. (Maybe I should have gone to it more?)

A few days and some quick renovation later a new shop is open and ready for business.

That’s too bad because I really enjoyed stopping in there for some of my favorite Korean food.

Whenever people often ask me what it has been like living and working in Seoul all these years, one of the things I tell them is that what has really struck me most has been how much the city has changed and grown over the years. I have literally watched this city grow and expand every which way. I can still remember walking up to the roof of the ELS Language School (now called YBM) near Kangnam Subway Station and looking out across the city and seeing one building after another going up.

I used to joke with friends and family that Korea’s national bird during this rapid urban growth of the 90’s might have been appropriately a crane—sky crane that is—with so many of them filling the skies above the city.

In many ways it has been exciting to watch Seoul grow the way it has over the years. Other than some construction tragedies like the collapse of a bridge and a department store in the early 90’s, the city’s growth has been remarkable to say the least. Although it often feels like the city is just one major construction site with all the construction projects going on (maybe hardhats ought to be handed out to visitors when they arrive in Korea), the city continues to expand and evolve.

It might be hard for visitors or newly arrived expats to the city to imagine what it must have been like here 10 or 15 years ago before many of the modern towering glass and steel structures were built. Even a ride on the subway these days is a lot different than it was when I first arrived here when there were just four subway lines bearing the brunt of transporting hundreds of thousands of Seoulites every day.

Still, with all this urban growth, one gets the impression that Seoul is literally bursting at the seams like one gigantic can of sardines with all of us packed inside.

There seems to be no end in sight for Seoul’s continued growth judging from all the modern hi-rises and other buildings slowly climbing into the skies over the city. Plans for moving some administrative agencies out of the capital to help alleviate the growing congestion and strain on the infrastructure may hardly cause a dent.

Fortunately, there have been some attempts to improve the quality of life in the city. These days urban renewal has taken on a whole different meaning with many of the projects that Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak has spearheaded since assuming leadership of the city a few years ago. Most notable are the Chonggye Stream restoration, a City Hall Plaza as well as a new bus system (helping to move us all along a bit faster) which have improved the quality of life and the city’s aesthetic image.

Now there are plans to create another plaza downtown, this one near one of the city’s more endearing historical structures, Gwanghwamun. On paper it sounds like a pretty good idea. I just hope whoever is in charge of this ambitious project will be able to work out that traffic gridlock that is most likely to occur when all those existing lanes for vehicles are removed.

Sometimes urban renewal leaves a lot to be desired. For the life of me, I cannot understand how city planners and developers would mess with the traditional and aesthetic charm of Insa-dong by permitting urban development to hem in this important cultural attraction.

Closer to home, not long after I started teaching at Yonsei University, I moved into a new apartment building (actually a mini officetel) near the university’s west gate. Back then, there were still many lovely Korean homes in the neighborhood. Nowadays, the area has been transformed into a student ghetto of sorts with all these homes replaced by student housing—pretty much just blocks and blocks of these small apartment units.

As much as I sometimes dread living in Seoul when I have to fight the crowds and traffic when I am out traveling around the city or shopping, Seoul is still my adopted home for now. For as long as I do remain here, it will continue to be interesting watching this city continue to grow and evolve.

One thing is for certain after living in Seoul all these years, you never know when that favorite place you like to frequent is next on the renovation chopping block. So, if you have that favorite chicken place or restaurant, enjoy it while you can. Who knows, the next time you go there, it might be something else.


Today in my afternoon English class the students were reviewing for a quiz when one of the students, a Chinese student (there are six in the class) asked me a question about a workbook exercise I had assigned as homework for today.

Actually, it wasn’t a question but more of a protest he had with the exercise: he refused to write “Taiwan” or “Taipei.”

In this exercise the students had to look at a map of the world and then fill in a chart with either the name of the country, its capital, or nationality.

First he asked me what “Taiwanese” was and I told him that it was the nationality of Taiwan.

“Taiwan” is not a country he said.

Okay, fair enough I thought honoring his political views (and not wanting this to go any further) I told him it was also the name of the island.

“I cannot write this name,” he said.

I shrugged my shoulders and thought “whatever.” Best thing to do was let him alone and not say any more. None of other Chinese students seemed to mind.

Interestingly, it this brief English exchange was the most he had said in class all semester.

Thankfully, “Taiwan” or “Taiwanese” was not going to be one of the answers on the quiz.

It’s Daejeon?

Almost everywhere I go in Daejeon I see a banner, sign, or some other poster with “It’s Daejeon” emblazoned on it.

I am not really sure what “It’s Daejeon” is supposed to mean. After all, it is written in English, but I don’t think it is meant for the small foreign, English-speaking community here.

And would such a catchy slogan written in English be for the benefit of the Korean community? If so, why does it have to be in English? If one is trying to “sell” Daejeon by indicating that it is Daejeon, what is the intended market? Who needs to know that “it’s Daejeon?” Koreans? Foreigners?

When I’ve asked some of my students what “it’s Daejeon” means they cannot give me a straight answer, so then I am even more confused because if a Korean doesn’t know what it is supposed to mean then maybe it is for the foreign community after all—which brings us right back to where I started trying to make heads or tails out of this whole “It’s Daejeon” thing.

Obviously there is something here that would prompt one to say or feel “it’s Daejeon.”

But what is “it’s Daejeon?”

It’s a mystery in a riddle wrapped inside an enigma.

Trip to immigration

In the not-so distant past when it was time to extend your sojourn status in Korea and you had to go to your local immigration office, it sometimes took anywhere from one week to ten days to have this done. 

Now, it takes no more than thirty minutes. 

At least that was how long it took me this morning to extend my sojourn status and apply for a multiple-reentry permit. 

(Oh, for those of you keeping score at home, I decided to stay at Woosong for another year instead of taking a job elsewhere. Despite a lousy vacation schedule, it was just better for me to stay where I am at.) 

It probably took me longer to get to and from the immigration office by taxi than it did for the immigration official to extend my sojourn and issue me the multiple-reentry permit. Well, things are a little bit quieter here in Daejeon than they were in Seoul when I had to go out to Mok-dong and have the same thing done.  

Anyway, I am good to go for another year.

Hell hath no fury than a woman scorned…

and especially if you try and break up with her as one unfortunate Korean man found out recently in a story reported by the Korea Times. 

“Police Monday arrested a woman Monday for the attempted murder of her boyfriend.

Last week, the 22-year-old woman, identified as Kim hired a 21-year-old man to give her boyfriend a ‘lesson’’ because he tried to break up with her, according to police officials. On Jan. 23, the woman invited her boyfriend to her house. The man ambushed and assaulted him, causing severe wounds.

The two then decided to kill him to cover up the assault. They put the boyfriend in the trunk of a car and drove for two days searching for a place to bury him.

When the boyfriend told her that he was sorry and promised to ‘make her happy forever,’ she changed her mind and the two released him.

However, this was not a happy ending for her. The boyfriend called the police and the woman and man were immediately arrested.” 

What gets me is the woman and her male friend drove around for two days trying to find a place to bury her boyfriend and then, when the estranged boyfriend says that he’s sorry, she has a change of heart. I guess she never really wanted to hurt him; just wanted to teach him a “lesson” as reported in the article.

Another week; another schedule change

That’s right my schedule changes again. 

For those of you keeping score at home this is the third time my schedule has changed the past three weeks. First it was a teacher’s training camp for two weeks, followed by a government children’s camp for a week. Now it’s a conversation class. 

Well, at least it’s going to be a short, sweet week. I just have to teach Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 7:00-9:00. It’s an upper level class, a so-called “free-talking” class whatever that is supposed to mean.

Oh, I know what “free-talking” is here in Korea and it definitely does not mean talking freely. Whenever I have had a student come up to me and say that they wanted some “free-talking” or when a class asked for some “free-talking” time a red flag would pop up inside my mind and I could hear the Robot from TV’s Lost in Space go “warning, warning Bill Robinson” because a warning is what you needed when it came to “free-talking.” What it could be loosely translated as was the students wanted to speak Konglish (Korean/English) with a smattering of English and more than likely mostly Korean. 

Well, that’s the way it used to be and I haven’t taught the class yet so maybe I am going to be in for a surprise when I walk into the classroom tonight. 

Wow, it’s already the end of January. Gee, this month sure did fly by.

Hey you guys, it’s “hump day”

Some things just don’t translate well at first. 

Take for example the expression “hump day,” which is sometimes used when greeting people—such as in “have a happy hump day’—on Wednesdays back in the States (or anywhere else people have a five-day work week). A few years ago that expression would be hard to explain to a class of English-language learners in Korea when most people were working a six-day work week and students were also going to school six days a week. I wonder if that will change now with more and more people working five days a week?

It’s always been interesting for me, at least as an English teacher in Korea how certain English expressions and aphorisms have evolved here. Take for example the expression “hey you guys, how’s it going?’’—which has become quite popular (at least the “hey you guys” part) with younger, hip Koreans. I wouldn’t be surprised if the popularity of expressions like this one were in part due to the popularity of sitcoms like Friends. I started using this expression years ago and it wasn’t too long after that I started to hear many of my students using it in class and outside of class. Another example is “What’s up?” That one has become very popular with younger Koreans. 

Now, if we can only get people to stop the blatant misuse of English in expressions like “let’s” in ads such as “Let’s KT.”

When West meets East and Vice-Versa

Sitting here at my desk with my second cup of instant coffee this morning. Just looking out the window and watching the snow coming down. In the distance the mountains are shrouded in a veil of falling snow and low-lying clouds. 

Another cold, damp, rainy/snowy, gray day in Daejeon. Actually, I love these kinds of days. Feels more like November weather than January weather. I am sure, right now it is snowing a lot somewhere in Korea. It’s 9:30. Another hour and I will hit the gym for two hours. Then stop off for—at what has become my favorite little Korean restaurant—a take out of kimchi-fried rice. That’ll be my next few hours. Mapping out my day; making all the necessary arrangements and adjustments to the schedule that I have this week with these government children’s classes I have to teach in the late afternoon and early evening. One thing is for certain; this week is going to fly by. Then just three classes next week followed by one the following week and then, on vacation again for twelve days. 

To the untrained observer, this might not sound like the exciting and exotic life of an expat teaching English in the Orient. Then again, I have been here for so long I am not always certain myself what is supposed to be exotic anymore or what was supposed to be exotic in the first place. It was kind of like when I first came here and had certain preconceptions on what I thought life was going to be like in the Orient. Imagine my surprise when I first came to Seoul in 1990 to teach English and ended up living in this block of apartments that could have been in Chicago or New York. And then, imagine my further surprise when I turned on the television my first night in Korea (the apartment the school had set me up with was furnished) and I could watch David Letterman.  

Perhaps a lot of people are the same way after reading about the Orient and deciding to come here for a few years. One of my friends said that he first became interested in Japan after reading Shogun. Sometimes that is all it takes—a novel or movie to feed one’s desires to leave home for any length of time and see a part of the world, and perhaps, even become an expat. 

However, once one is lured to the Orient, it’s not all about quaint Buddhist temples tucked away in spirit-filled mountains, disciplined tea ceremonies, terraced rice paddies, glimmering statues of gold, mysterious ancient cities and misty groves of bamboo.  Just visit places like Shinjuku or even here in Korea Itaewon to have all those images and romantic notions dashed. 

And at the same time, I am sure that a lot of people might feel the same way about what life is supposed to be like in the States. When I was in Japan in 1989 and told students that I was from Chicago, they wanted to know all about Al Capone and all the gangsters. One student even asked me if I had a gun when I was living back home. Maybe these students had seen the movie The Untouchables. 

These preconceptions, and sometimes misconceptions, which drive us, fuel our imaginations, and for better or worse, make the world an interesting place to live. Even when we get some things wrong, or are way off base, it is what makes the world go round and round. It definitely makes life colorful and interesting and perhaps, that’s what we really want in the end.

8:25 Monday Morning…

Sitting here at my desk, cup of coffee in hand trying to wake up. Trying to function. Another week in front of me.  

Outside it’s snowing—not much but just enough to add a bit of wintry charm to this morning; just enough to tug on the old heartstrings of helpless romantics (like myself) who love snowy days of coffee shops and teahouses and walks in the park. 

There’s a guy yelling fruit from a small blue truck slowly making its way through the neighborhood. Later, it will be an elderly woman ringing a bell and announcing tofu, or tubu as it is called here. 

Today I don’t have to go into school until three-thirty. My schedule changes again—one class in the afternoon and another one in the early evening. Last week it was a teacher’s training camp. This week it is a government children’s camp course. Winter language camps, boy that sounds like a lot of doesn’t it? Gee, when I was a kid winter vacation meant sleeping late, playing all day and just having fun being a kid. When did kids stop being kids? 

There’s more of that white stuff coming down now. Hmm…maybe it is going to snow more this morning. I’ll make myself another cup of instant coffee; catch up with what’s been happening in the world overnight or for me over here in Korea, what is happening right now—yesterday back in the States. 

This is how my Monday begins.

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