Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Seoul (page 1 of 4)

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.

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.

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.


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

Picture of the Day: Portrait of an Artist


Seoul’s palaces are a magnet for artists and photographers, especially in autumn and winter. I snapped this photograph ten years ago on one of my visits to Kyongbok Palace which was not far from where I was teaching at the time, Yonsei University.

I thought this would make for a nice photo commentary in the Korea Times. Sadly, I never got around to submitting it.

However, I did write about it and other visits to the palace in Waking Up in the Land of The Morning Calm.

Seoul — 2002

Kwangwhamun EditedCame across this photo the other day of downtown Seoul and the Kwangwhamun area. This was taken right before President George Bush’s visit to South Korea (I would later be part of the press pool at Osan Air Base where Bush delivered a speech prior to departing).

Stopping by a snowy palace on a winter day

Kyongbok_Palace_March_2004_007Who cares if this was taken in March.

It’s still snow.

It still looks like winter.

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm


This was my first morning in Korea, December 8, 1990.

My apartment, which was located in Chamsil 2-Danji (in the background you can see 5-Danji), would be home for the next two years.

Gangnam Style Turns Tragic

It’s not all singing and dancing in Seoul’s exclusive Gangnam district.

Some times a person can get killed.

Not to make light of this tragedy, but what is so surreal about this incident is the guy goes outside to “retrieve a knife” from his Mercedes. What the hell was he carrying a knife in his car in the first place?

Waking up in the Land of the Morning Calm

It’s not just a state. It’s a reality.




Redeployment of Tactical Nukes on the Korean Peninsula?

This is the kind of news that’s going to raise some eyebrows. A lot of eyebrows.

If folks in Korea were concerned about Mad Cow disease earlier this month when they took to the streets, I wonder how people are going to react to this news.

Seoul officials and experts cautioned against the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula proposed by some in the United States, which they fear could refuel an atomic arms race in Northeast Asia.

The US House Armed Services Committee on Thursday approved an amendment to the fiscal 2013 national defense authorization bill that calls for the re-introduction of the sensitive weapons to South Korea, according to the diplomacy publication Foreign Policy.

While the South Korean government is not openly criticizing the idea, concerned ministries say that Seoul remains fundamentally in favor of denuclearization of the peninsula and that such developments will bring little security benefits for Seoul.

Read the rest of the article here.

In the East Asian Politics class I am co-teaching this semester, the authors of our textbook talk about the notion of a critical juncture. I’m not really sure if this qualifies as a critical juncture, but it definitely is going to get people talking about it. And how is Pyongyang going to respond to this?

Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm — Who’s that guy with Danny Partridge?

Give up?

Guess I did have this Danny Partridge look going for me (or Where’s Waldo? sans stocking cap) when I interviewed South Korean President Lee Myung-bak when he was the mayor of Seoul back in 2004.

Read that interview and other stories when I was an accidental journalist in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.



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