Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Korean Redux

Is that a burger I smell cooking?

Not long ago, I was walking back to my room after class one day when I pass this Korean restaurant specializing in Bulgogi and Kalbi—two popular Korean meat dishes—and when I catch a whiff of the meat cooking inside (it’s the kind of restaurant where customers grill the meat at their tables) I swear it smells like a burger frying on a grill.

My mouth begins to water. My gut begins to churn.

And just like that, my mind is transported back in time and space and I could be walking somewhere back home and having a similar olfactory experience if I happened to catch a whiff of some burgers sizzling on a grill at an outdoor barbecue or picnic.

It’s funny how the sense of smell can trigger something in your life and make you feel a little nostalgic when you are halfway around the world and years away from everything now tucked away in your memory bank.

Sure, I can have my burgers here, but for that second or two when I smelled that meat grilling, it wasn’t that I was craving a burger; maybe it was something much more.

Another time I was walking down the street with a colleague when I suddenly stopped in my tracks and turned to my colleague, “ Do you smell that?”


“It smells like someone just cut the grass.”

Sure enough, someone had mowed some patch of grass somewhere and on that warm, spring night I could have been walking back home in La Salle or having just finished cutting my grandparent’s lawn and ready to quench my thirst with a tall glass of iced tea.

Just a whiff of the sweet, fresh smell of cut grass (thank God I don’t have allergies!) was enough to open up that memory bank and for a split-second—for as long as it took for that smell to register—to feel a little nostalgic.

As much as I love being overseas and traveling on the path I have been on for as long as I have, there are times when feeling a little nostalgic (and not homesick) is a good thing. It’s a bit of reality check I guess. When we need to open up that memory bank from time to time.

Running around Daejeon to get a tetanus shot

I’m cleaning the drain in the bathroom yesterday and when I go to remove the drain cover, it doesn’t budge at first. I try again and too hard this time because I end up cutting myself on one of my fingers.

At first it didn’t look too bad and a Band-Aid was all the cut really needed. However, it had been over 10 years—in fact, 17 years—since my last tetanus shot, so to play it safe I decided that today I would get one.

How hard can it be to get a tetanus shot in Korea, right?

Wait a minute. This is Daejeon and even though I have been here for a year, I still don’t my way around the city too well.

Where the heck am I going to get a tetanus shot?

I’ve only been to the doctor one time here in Daejeon and that was last year when I had come down with a nasty cold. So, I decided to pay him a visit.

Now, the nice thing about having to see a doctor or dentist in Korea—at least in Daejeon or back when I was living in Yonhui-dong in western Seoul—is that you don’t really need an appointment. You just walk in and wait your turn. Sometimes you don’t have to wait long at all.

And then there’s the cost. Not much at all. It’s no wonder that when Koreans get sick they immediately go to a doctor or hospital no matter what ails them. After all, with national health insurance, it only costs a few thousand Won to see a doctor, and in some cases, maybe nothing. That’s what it cost me to see the doctor today.

However, the doctor who runs this internal medicine clinic across the street from Woosong Language Institute was not the doctor I needed to see. I stopped in after my 9:00-10:30 class to see if I could get a tetanus shot. After waiting about 30 minutes to see him, he told me that I would have to go another clinic.

Great. It wasn’t going to be that easy after all to get a tetanus shot.

No problem. The clinic that I had to go to—an orthopedic clinic—was just down the street, about a fifteen-minute walk.

Strange, I could only get a tetanus shot at an orthopedic clinic (or a hospital had I elected to go that route).

So, it was off to this other clinic where I ended up having to wait almost 45 minutes before I finally got my tetanus shot. Fortunately some of the staff spoke a little English and the doctor spoke pretty good English, so I was in good hands when it came to explaining what I needed.

The doctor told me that I could expect some side effects like sweating, soreness in my arm, and a fever. He also advised me not to take a shower until tomorrow. What’s that? I can’t take a shower until tomorrow? Hmm… I have never heard of that before. Any doctors out there want to respond to this kind of injection after care?

And, as it turned out (because this was an orthopedic hospital) the doctor I talked to can also help me with my carpal tunnel syndrome. Cool. Now I don’t have to worry about trying to locate a doctor.

Although I didn’t have to pay anything for consulting with the doctors, I did have to pay for the tetanus shot—25,000 Won, about $25.00.

Well, in the end it wasn’t that much running around after all. I got my shot and was back home around noon to rest up an hour before teaching again in the afternoon.

“November Rain” in April

This might not be what you expected (though it was raining here the other day) but there is a Guns N’ Roses connection. Trust me.

Yesterday in one of my classes I was teaching the reduction of “and” in expressions like “cream and sugar”—“cream ‘n’ sugar” and “bread and butter” – “bread ‘n’ butter” from the textbook and thought I would come up with a few of my own: “rock ‘n’ roll” and “Guns N’ Roses.”

The activity, at least the way I was setting it up before the students had to do some choral repetition was going quite well until….

“Teacher, what is a Guns ‘n’ Roses?”

For now I would let the wrong question word and obvious subject/verb agreement errors slide. What I wasn’t going to let slide and what surprised me most was that in a class of 27 students, no one had ever heard of Guns N’ Roses.

Well, it’s been nearly fifteen years since the band was together. Back in the early 90s Guns N’ Roses ruled in Korea as far as a heavy metal/rock and roll favorite among university students—especially when Use Your Illusion I and II were released here. I can remember going to the Block Hof, this video bar in Shinch’on (near Yonsei University) and watching one Guns N’ Roses video after another back in 1993.

Now, it seemed that the band, at least for these students at Woosong, had been all but forgotten.

Hoping to jog their memories I mentioned a few songs like “November Rain” (that song still rocks as does the video!) but the students shook their heads. Now far from being a big fan of the band itself, I do like this song a lot and was surprised that no one had ever heard of this song.

“Sing us the song!”

Yeah, right.

One student thought that song was by The Beatles.

Like I said, I wasn’t going to let this—not ever hearing of the band—slide. I joked with the students and told them that their homework for next week is to listen to the song or watch the video. I’ll be curious to see, come next Tuesday in class, to see how many students will actually take me up on this.

Good-bye AFN: Thanks for the memories

The other day I received an email from one of my former FLI colleagues lamenting the disappearance of AFN from cable service in Seoul.

She went onto to say that she contacted the local cable company in Seodaemun-gu and inquired about whether or not Star TV would be added to programming the cable company carried (years ago, Star TV and NHK were “dropped” for no reason—other than, and don’t quote me on this, but according to a cable rep at the time, only so many “foreign” channels are allowed in Korea). 

No more AFN in Korea—at least, not available from cable companies in Korea. I am not even sure if an antenna can still pick up AFN. I’ve been without a TV since I came back to Korea a year ago, so I don’t know what the status is of the “English” programming that is available for expats in Korea. However, there have been times when I have missed AFN—at least the AFN I remember when I first came to Korea. 

Awhile back I blogged about Korean cable companies no longer permitted to have AFN as part of their cable service which got me reminiscing a little about AFN in Korea. 

There was a time, if you were an expat living in Korea, when the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service—better known as AFRTS—and here in Korea, the Armed Forces Korean Network (AFKN) was your link to the outside world and an entertainment, news, and sports lifeline. Even if you despised all the military PSA propaganda as well as a lot of American culture being rammed down your throat, AFKN, which eventually became AFN made living in Korea less insular.

In a time before the Internet, DVD’s, downloading and file sharing, AFN was a very important source for news, entertainment and sports.

I’ll never forget the night I arrived in Korea in December 1990 and was taken to my apartment in Chamsil in Seoul. There was a TV in my apartment and when I turned it on, there was David Letterman delivering his opening monologue.

Well, it looks as though the AFN era—at least for cable subscribers in Korea—is about to come to and end with the recent announcement that Korean cable companies will no longer carry AFN as part of their cable programming.

“South Korean cable companies will cease broadcasting the AFN Pacific Prime channel this month, leaving some U.S. personnel living off base looking elsewhere for the programming they’ve grown accustomed to.

American Forces Network-Korea personnel take a satellite feed of the Pacific Prime broadcast and insert local command information including nightly news broadcasts, Korea-specific commercials and alerts such as school closures and product recalls.

That product is then provided to the on-base cable subscribers and is sent out over the open airwaves, so any USFK member who has an antenna and is within range can pick up the signal.

The purpose of the over-the-air broadcast is to provide another means of emergency-information transmission, a supplement to the primary radio outlet, according to USFK spokesman Col. Franklin Childress.

But South Korean cable companies also capture the signal and then sell it along with their other programs, according to Childress.

American companies attempting to sell their programming in South Korea in recent years raised the issue, saying that you guys have got to do something about it.”

Well, something was done about it and now, AFN won’t be available to expats and the Korean community at large, at least not available from any cable companies. 

You know, there was a time when I joked with some of my former colleagues that if there was no AFN, maybe that would be time to leave Korea. I was worried about what I would do when football season rolled around and I couldn’t keep up with Da Bears and other teams as well as my weekly fixes of my favorite TV shows from Letterman and Leno to Saturday Night Live (when it was still hip). 

For years, during football season, when Tuesday night rolled around it was time for some Tuesday Night Football (Monday Night Football). When I was teaching at Yonsei, I always requested a Yonsei Evening class so I could finish teaching to make it home in time for the kick-off. On many occasions some colleagues and I got together to watch the game.  

Later, when the time was changed to an earlier start time, I often recorded the game and watched it later, around 10:00pm.  

Of course, during the day on Tuesday no one was allowed to talk about the game, which was on during the day here in Korea. That was a no-no. Likewise, those of us interested in watching the game that evening had to be careful when surfing the Internet as not to see the score as well as watching the evening news. 

When I first came to Korea I watched a lot of TV, but then later I didn’t watch it as much, at least didn’t watch AFN as much as I had when I first arrived here. Back then, from 1990-1995 that’s all there was for expats to watch. In 1996 though, when I was living in Yonhui-dong I got cable and could enjoy a few movie channels as well as Star TV and CNN. In fact, the main reason why I got cable was so I could watch AFN; where I lived it was hard to pick up AFN with an antenna. 

Of course, it sometimes depended on where you lived in Seoul as to what cable programming was available or not available. For example, when the cable company in Seodaemun-gu dropped Star TV, it was still carried by other cable companies south of the Han River. 

Well, it’s too bad that AFN is going to be harder to watch now if you are an expat. As much as people knocked AFN’s programming over the years, it is going to be missed by many who need their TV fixes. It sure did make living here a little more tolerable at times. 

I have a lot of fond memories watching AFN over the years from the Bulls NBA Championship seasons to the final episodes of Cheers and Seinfeld. Up until I left here in 2006 for a few months, all those shows, sporting events, and news underscored the time I spent in Korea.

Yeah, thanks for all the memories AFN. 

Another quiet Sunday in Daejeon

I’ve been having a lot of those since I first arrived here a little over a year ago; however, my Sundays and in fact most days and nights are not as quiet as they once were here ever since my very loud upstairs neighbor moved in a few weeks back.  

There’s no other way to put it—this guy is loud. I’ve already had to mention it to him once—about the noise level—but I don’t think it registered. I haven’t said anything since hoping that the noise will go away—that it was just a part of settling into his new surroundings—but in fact it has gotten worse. I am going to have to say something soon because he’s upped the noise ante as it were by starting off the day with a few primordial grunts and groans when he yawns in the morning.  

Last night was the first night since I returned from my last trip to Laos that I slept more than seven hours. I must have been pretty tired last night because I slept well. Got up a little after seven, made some coffee and called Chiu (On) and Mom. On was feeling okay this morning, but Mom was in some pain and feeling a little depressed. When my brother flew back to Houston on Friday she took it pretty hard. It was the first time in years that my Mom and brother had spent any quality time together and last week was when she really needed some of the quality time. She has more doctors to see in the next two weeks and then she will be able to start her chemo treatments. 

It might be a quiet Sunday in Daejeon with nothing to do but I have a lot on my plate—and a lot on my mind. It’s no wonder that I have been having a hard time sleeping the past four weeks.

The last day of February

It’s a cold, gray day with either snow or rain on the way. 

The kind of day that I love just to sit here in front of my computer with a cup of coffee and write as much as I can (before my carpal tunnel syndrome starts bothering me) and just look out the window at the mountains in the distance.

It’s been 12 days since I have been back here in Korea; 12 long days and nights of missing On so much. Two weeks ago we were on the bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. Three weeks ago we were in Vientiane having breakfast and thinking about the day ahead of us.

Have to go into school today for a teacher’s meeting. It should only last for an hour and then I will spend an hour or two at the gym before stopping off at my favorite Korean restaurant for some kimchi-fried rice.

Korea Redux — One year later

Yes, it’s been one year since I came back to Korea. 

One year last week, but last week I was in Luang Prabang with On and just enjoying myself too much you know to sit down in front of a computer and write about what it has been like to be back in Korea this past year. 

I am surprised at how fast the past year seemed to fly by; of course there were many, many times when I was missing On so much and feeling more homesick than I have ever felt before in all the years that I have been away from home when the time seemed to almost stop. Especially last autumn when I was sad that I could not go home for Christmas to be with my Mom and the rest of my family as well as how hard it was to be apart from On. 

It was a good year for the most part but only when I knew that I could get away. Sadly I have never really felt comfortable living in Daejeon (I still haven’t explored much of the city) but this is where I am going to be for another year. 

I started writing again for the Korea Times—just one or two Thoughts of the Times submissions a month, but it is good to be writing again. Just wish they would pay me for the ten essays I have already submitted. 

I can’t really say that my life is any better than it was when I was living in Seoul and teaching at Yonsei. I am just fortunate that I have a decent job and that I can pay the bills, put food on the table, help out my Mom and take care of On. So, in that regard I am doing okay. 

One year later, here I am still in Daejeon. 

One more year in Korea.

Weird scenes inside the goldmine — Beating the winter blahs

Two weeks into the New Year and dealing with the winter blahs. Sort of. As winters come and go in Korea, this one hasn’t been too bad.

As for the weather, it hasn’t been too cold here in Daejeon this winter. It was a bit chilly yesterday and this morning, around 26 degrees but it warms up to the lower thirties by afternoon. We missed out on all the snow that Seoul got last week. Had a few flurries the other day but that was it.

Into school at 9:00; finished by 12:00. Back home for an hour then off to the gym. At least this week. Next week my schedule changes again for a week and then changes again the following week. Is there a method to this madness?

Stop in at this Korean shiktang (restaurant) when I finish working out at the gym for a takeout of kimchi fried rice. Just 3,000 Won (about $3.00). It comes with a fried egg on top and a bowl of soup (actually beef broth with some onion bits and pepper). It’s filling and nice after working out.

The other day when I was there waiting for my order, this middle-aged Korean woman strikes up a conversation with me (in Korean); wants to know where I am from and if I like Korean food. It’s the only conversation I have in Korean all day. Nice that someone cares to ask me where I am from and what kind of food I like.

Back home I have a cup of yoo-ja-cha (citron tea) to warm up. It’s quite tasty. The smell reminds me of Christmas for some reason.

One year later

It was exactly one year ago today when I marched (it sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it?) into the Yonsei University Foreign Language Institute’s office with my letter of resignation in hand and began the next chapter of my life.

One year already.

A lot of has happened in one year, and other than being on holiday in Thailand right now, I am back where I started.

Am I better off than I was a year ago? It depends on how you look at it. I really can’t say with much certainty if I am better off now than I was a year ago when I decided to resign from FLI. One thing is for certain, there have definitely been a lot of changes in my life. If I hadn’t resigned last year, I would have never gone to Thailand for two months and would have never met On last November. At least for now in my life and where I am at today, that was one of the more significant things which has happened to me in the past year.

It’s all a matter of perspective and what means the most to you.

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