Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: My Life That Was Korea: 1990 – ? (page 1 of 16)

Culture Shock! Korea — Chock Full of Information!

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  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) Pte Ltd
  • Date: February 7, 2018

I’ll never forget when I first came to Korea in 1990 to teach English, my school sent me an information packet about the school and Korea. Specifically, it was mostly badly photo-copied material about what I should or shouldn’t bring to Korea as well as adjusting to culture shock (People will stare at you and bump into you when you’re walking down the street). It was useful information when you’re halfway around the world planning to live and work in Korea, but a few days after arriving, it was useless information and soon discarded.

Since that time, there have been various books and guides about living and working in Korea to help foreigners to make those necessary adjustments to overcome culture shock, but none resonate more strongly than John Bocskay’s Culture Shock! Korea.

This well-written and insightful book is chock full of information that would appeal not only to someone coming to Korea for the first time, but for the seasoned Korean old hat who wants to brush up on his or her Korean cultural knowledge (for example, I had forgotten all about bringing toilet paper as a housewarming gift!). To be sure, for this twenty-seven year and counting expatriate, I had a fun time reading this book and remembering what it was like when I first came here.

I especially enjoyed, and this is one of the book’s strengths, Bocskay’s explanation of Korean culture and how it applies to one’s daily life or sojourn here. That alone makes this a worthwhile investment. I liked Bocskay’s casual writing style and the way that he brings Korean culture alive. He covers the gamut of things Korean and how to survive in this dynamic and interesting culture. Whether you have just arrived in Korea or have been in Korea for a while, you are going to want to get this book. This book is an indispensable trove of information that will make anyone’s visit or sojourn here more enjoyable.

Nice Parking, Dumb Ass

2018-04-01 15.56.29Usually, bad parking in Korea doesn’t annoy me (yes, it does, but I am trying hard to be nicer these days), but when I saw the way the driver of this car parked in front of a fitness club next to my apartment, I couldn’t look the other way.

To be fair, it was Sunday and there was no parking available outside the fitness club, but to park like this, simply defies logic and public decency, not to mention safety.

Winds of Change

With talk of summits on the Korean peninsula these days, one might be inclined to believe that peace could very well be at hand, or at the very least, some serious talk about reducing tensions in northeast Asia.

Kim Jong-un’s recent trip to China was definitely an unprecedented move, which could have far-reaching repercussions. My guess is that Kim needed to bring China onboard and seek some advice about what to do, and perhaps what not to do with the upcoming summit with Moon Jae-in and later with Donald Trump. Kim is proving to be a shrewd player on the international stage.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — 2017

wakingUp_colorRevision (1)Another year in Korea. Twenty-seven and counting.

It’s this time of the year when I wax nostalgia and feel homesick the most. And more often than not, I find myself waxing nostalgia for the time when I first came to Korea.

Recently, my friend and book designer, Anna Takahashi, redid the cover design for Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm. It’s a lot more striking and vibrant than the previous cover.

It was astronomer Percival Lowell, who first coined the phrase “land of the morning calm” in his book Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm; a Sketch of Korea. The mornings may not be as calm as they once were when Lowell was here, but after all these years, Korea still fascinates me. 

I tried leaving once.

And here I still am.

Twenty-five Years Ago this Month

snapshots039Twenty-five years ago this month, I taught my last class at ELS, a language school in Seoul near Kangnam subway station.

On November 27, 1992, I said goodbye to my colleagues at ELS and left for Kimpo. I would be back six weeks later, teaching at Yonsei University’s Foreign Language Institute.

The two years I spent at ELS were some of the happiest moments I have spent in Korea. Everything that I would come to love and cherish, not to mention dislike about Korea happened those first two years. If I had left Korea then, I could easily say that I had experienced much about Korean culture and would have had a rewarding experience to talk about for years. But of course, I wanted more…much more. And here I am…it’s 2017 and I am still in Korea.

If I could go back to any time in the twenty-seven years that I have lived and worked in Korea, I would go back to those first two years. It was a special time to be here. A lot had to do with the freshness and uniqueness of being here. I remember one Sunday afternoon in crowded Myong-dong in central Seoul when one of my students saw me and yelled my name to get my attention. The next thing I know she was introducing me to her mother as hundreds of passersby and shoppers swarmed by us. Or the time when I was in in the Shinch’on subway station, a week after I arrived in December 1990, and I couldn’t get my subway pass to work. Every time I pushed it into the ticket receptacle on the turnstile, a loud buzzer sounded meaning that the pass didn’t work, so I tried to push it in again and the same damn buzzer sounded again. All I had to do was exchange the pass, but I didn’t know any better. A young Korean woman on her way to work or school that morning, sensing my impending cultural breakdown, bought me a ticket, so I could continue my morning commute to school. It was one of the nicest things someone has done for me.

It’s no wonder I often find myself waxing nostalgic about my early years in Korea. It surely was a special time for me.

Shootout in the JSA

75026489wYSNjs_fsWe had ourselves a little incident in the Joint Security Area (JSA) this week when a North Korean soldier defected to the South. This was the story reported by CBS News:

SEOUL, South Korea — Four North Korean soldiers fired about 40 rounds at a comrade fleeing into South Korea and hit him five times in the first shooting at the jointly controlled area of the heavily fortified border in more than 30 years, the South’s military said Tuesday.

South Korean soldiers did not fire their weapons, but Monday’s incident occurred at a time of high animosity over North Korea’s nuclear program. The North has expressed intense anger over past high-profile defections.

The soldier is being treated at a South Korean hospital after a five-hour operation for the gunshot wounds he suffered during his escape across the Joint Security Area. His personal details and motive for defection are unknown and his exact medical condition is unclear.

The last time there was a shooting incident in the JSA was back in 1984:

Monday’s incident was the first shooting at the Joint Security Area since North Korean and U.N. Command soldiers traded gunfire when a Soviet citizen defected by sprinting to the South Korean sector of the JSA in 1984. A North Korean soldier defected there in 1998 and another in 2007 but neither of those events involved gunfire between the rivals, according to South Korea’s military.

The 1984 exchange of gunfire happened after North Korean soldiers crossed the border and fired, according to the U.N. Command. In Monday’s incident, it wasn’t known if the North continued firing after the defector was officially in the southern part of the Joint Security Area. The U.N. Command said Tuesday that an investigation into the incident was underway.

The defection and shootout reminded me of the opening to Bradley Martin’s Nuclear Blues as well as Barry Lancet’s The Spy Across the Table.

Nuclear Blues

Martin 001Bradley Martin, the man who wrote the book on North Korea with his Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leaderwas in Seoul recently at What the Book? Bookstore talking about his new book, Nuclear Blues.

His new book is a thriller set in North Korea that has everything from evangelists running around, nuclear missiles, a blues musician, Heck Davis, investigating the death of his best friend, to a surprise appearance by Kim Jong-un. It’s a non-stop geopolitical thriller that’s a lot of fun to read. While I was reading it, I was thinking to myself, “you know, this could happen. It certainly is plausible.”

With North Korea and Kim Jong-un in the news so much these days, this is a timely novel from Martin. I doubt Kim Jong-un will have this book on his nightstand for some late night reading…but who knows?

All Along the DMZ — Part III

MDLThis is Part III of a five-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired by Barry Lancet’s The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about “the scariest place on the earth.”

Did someone say road trip to the DMZ?

That’s what happened in August 2000 when I was invited back to the JSA, this time from the kind generals of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) Major General Adrien Evequoz, head of the Swiss delegation and Major General Peter Hammarstrom of the Swedish delegation.

They were impressed with my article on the JSA that I had written earlier in the summer and invited me to visit their camp just yards away from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL).

The NNSC was one of the three bodies created by the Armistice Agreement at the end of the Korean War in 1953. In accordance with the Armistice Agreement, the NNSC consisted of four neutral nations: Sweden (although Sweden had provided medical assistance with a hospital in Busan it was still considered neutral) and Switzerland in the South, and Poland and Czechoslovakia in the North. Their role, as stipulated in the armistice was to supervise, observe, as well as inspect two specific dispositions of the agreement: the reinforcement of military personnel and the reinforcement of combat aircraft, vehicles, and munitions.Panmunjom012

Originally, six neutral countries were proposed. In addition to Sweden and Switzerland in the South, Norway was the other country proposed. Besides Poland and Czechoslovakia in the North, Russia was the third country proposed. However, Russia did not qualify as a credible “neutral” country, so Norway was dropped and four nations became the NNSC.

Although their duties are “limited” their presence along the DMZ reminds one that the Korean War didn’t end with an armistice and that the two Koreas are still technically at war.

Later that year, I went back to the JSA again, this time to do a story about American troops serving at Camp Bonifas. It was a nice Christmas story and the soldiers I interviewed were happy to talk about serving in the JSA although they were feeling homesick at this time of the year.

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The USO Cookie Train visits the JSA. Wonder what the Norks thought about Santa Claus.

 

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ROK Ready: Two ROK soldiers inside the MAC building. Notice their taekwondo stance.

 

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The Bridge of No Return on a cold, dreary December morning.

 

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The highlight of this trip was being allowed to get out of the United Nations Command vehicle and walk out onto the bridge.

All Along the DMZ — Part II

73396520knZKAv_fsThis is Part II of a four-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired in part by Barry Lancet’s The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about the DMZ and JSA.

Summer 2000. Somehow I had talked myself into writing feature stories about the 50th anniversary of the Korean War for the Korea Times and wouldn’t you know it, for my efforts, I was given the chance to visit the JSA again, this time as a journalist where I was given the VIP treatment which included having chow with the soldiers in the Camp Bonifas mess hall and interviewing the commander, Lt. Colonel Miller right outside one of the guardhouses with the Bridge of No Return in the background.

This time I would be riding in style, one of the Korea Times staff cars (if you were in Seoul at the time you couldn’t miss those green sedans), accompanied by a driver and the photographer for the newspaper. I was fortunate at the time, teaching at Yonsei’s Foreign Language Institute because we did not have to teach on Wednesdays. This was some arrangement that used to correspond to “chapel” which was on Wednesdays meaning that there would be no English classes that day. For some reason, it became the normal schedule for the institute. When I left in 2006, we still had Wednesdays off. The reason why this was good was that on Wednesdays was when the 8th Army/USFK Public Affairs Office had the press up to the JSA. Worked out quite nicely for me and the writing that I would do from 2000-2006.

The bridge on the left used to be the way to Camp Bonifas; the bridge on the left had been destroyed during the Korean War.

 

One of the reasons why I wanted to go back to the JSA was to find out if there had been more tour groups because of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. It was still business as usual:

“It’s still business as usual,” remarked Lieutenant Colonel William B. Miller, JSA commander when asked if there had been any changes in readiness following the North-South Summit in June.

This reporter caught up with the JSA Commander at one of the UNC checkpoints during a recent tour of the JSA. Miller, a native of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, has been commander of the JSA since April.

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Lt. Colonel William Miller, JSA Commander

“There’s been no change in our readiness, and as much as we can tell, no change in the KPA’s readiness on the other side,” Miller noted.

Readiness has always been the key priority for troops serving in the JSA or along the DMZ. The ROK and U.S. troops who continue to guard this boundary remain vigilant at Freedom’s Frontier. From the Camp Bonifas base camp to the JSA, it’s a series of checkpoints down Highway 1, which runs through anti-tank barriers, minefields, and the concertina wire that stretches into the distance. Then there’s the propaganda, albeit the signboards (one on the right of a UNC checkpoint translated from Hangul reads “Self Reliance Is Our Way of Life”; another, on the left translated from Hangul reads, “Following the Path of the Leading Star”—in reference to Kim Il-sung. Although the anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda messages blaring from speakers from the North were reported to have stopped following the summit, they are back on again.

“There’s been a heavy influence on music recently,” Miller said, “about the greatness of the North and Kim Jong-Il.”

However, Miller pointed out that there seems to be less angry rhetoric these days than in the past.

“From what the ROK soldiers have told us, there is less anti-American and anti-ROK propaganda,” he added.

There’s always this eerie, almost surreal mood as one enters the JSA and walks out onto Conference Row. For anyone who has ever been to the JSA, it just might seem a little absurd to stand just a few feet away from the enemy or to walk into one of the MAC buildings and peer out at a North Korean soldier looking in at you. On this day, though, one tall, rather presumptuous North Korean guard crinkled up his nose in deference to a military camera crew filming him.

“He’s a bit of a troublemaker,” noted our security escort.

This originally appeared in the Korea Times, July 2000

There was an added highlight to this trip to the JSA: a group of North Korean schoolchildren on a tour.

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 Surreal, huh? Someone told me that the kids were either the children of party members or North Koreans living in Japan. They look pretty well-behaved in the photo.

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It’s all about intimidation in the JSA. I think the ROK soldier eyeballing the two North Korean soldiers has the advantage.

The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

Breen's BookThe New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

By Michael Breen

Hardcover: 480 pages

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (April 4, 2017)

When it comes to writing about Korea—its people, culture, and history—there is no one better up to that onerous task than Michael Breen who has devoted most of his life observing and writing about the country. In his latest book, The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation, Breen does what he knows best. Sorry, if I seem a little bias, but I have known Breen since 2000, when I started writing feature articles for the Korea Times. In all those years, there is no else who can come up to his level when it comes to talking and writing about Korea.

However, this is more than just an outsider’s take on Korea. To be sure, Breen with journalistic flair and cultural sensitivity offers an in-depth look at modern Korea that is unrestrained and honest. This is more than a history of modern Korea, though. Breen endeavors throughout this impressive tome to help readers understand who the Koreans really are through anecdotal musings and historical evidence.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the opening chapter which talks about the Sewol tragedy when a ferry sank off the southern coast of the peninsula in the spring of 2014. This was a rather bold on the part of Breen to lead off with this tragedy, but this chapter and his delicate, cultural understanding set the tone for the rest of the book when he tries to make sense of why something like the tragedy and its aftermath could happen. I remembered when this tragedy happened and immediately on Facebook, foreigners in Korea started to chime in about “their take” on the accident and the “culture” that allowed it to happen. Breen, though, the acute observer of Korea that he is, can analyze something critically without being shackled by his deep appreciation for the country. In the process, he helps the reader understand the Korean psyche and character without running the risk of being bias.

One of the things that I liked most about the book were all of his personal anecdotes and his loving attention to detail. Even for this old Korean hat who has lived and worked in South since 1990, I learned some new things about my adopted home. Whether it’s talking about why there’s a wastepaper basket next to a toilet in a public restroom or the manner in which Koreans number and name their streets (one of the first things I learned when I came to Korea and took a taxi—in the days before GPS—was always to make sure I could tell the taxi driver a landmark to help with navigations) Breen’s observations and analyses make for some very enjoyable and insightful reading.

Another thing I liked about the book was how he divided the sections and named the chapters, which helps readers develop a better understanding of Korean than by saying this happened, and then this happened because something else happened. We want to know why it took Korea as long as it did to finally rise from the ashes of the Korean War and become the nation that it is today. We want to know why the Chaebol continue to have a stranglehold on the Korean economy and culture. We want to know why men like Park Chung-hee and Kim Dae-jung played pivotal roles in South Korean politics and their legacies that remain until today. We want someone to explain why K-Pop has become an international phenomenon. And yes, we want to know why something like the Sewol incident could happen.

If there was one book that I would recommend to anyone thinking about coming to Korea to work, study, or simply visit, I would recommend Breen’s book hands down. There’s no one writing about Korea these days more knowledgeable and understanding of Korea than Michael Breen.

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