The people who have defined me — Part I

There are going to be a lot of things that am probably going to miss about Korea when I leave here soon, but none more than the people I have met and worked with over the years.

Some people have already gone before me; others will continue to live and work in Korea. There were friendships that only lasted for as long as some people were in Korea; other friendships will extend far beyond the time we spent here.

One thing is for certain, all of these people who I have gotten to know and who have defined me, will forever be connected to the time I have spent in Korea. Long after you’ve forgotten some of the things that might have made living here enjoyable (and perhaps not enjoyable) you’ll never forget some of the people who made being here worthwhile.

It goes without saying that the expats you meet when you are living and working in a foreign country are by large a colorful assortment of characters, many who you would probably not have hung out with or even gotten to know back in your own country. As dissimilar as we might be—coming from different backgrounds and walks of life—there is much that we have in common, not the least of which is choosing to come to Korea (or another country) in the first place. To be sure, I think one of the reasons, which bind us, is of course the shared experience.

At the same time, how well one adjusts to living and working in a foreign country often depends on the people you meet and work with. I am sure if you are working somewhere by yourself and having limited contact with other expats, you are going to have a totally different experience than those fortunate to be around many expats day in and day out.

I have been fortunate that while I have been in Korea I have worked at two very good language institutes and have met some really cool, dedicated, and special people, but none more so than the people I have gotten to know at Yonsei University’s Foreign Language Institute.

Unlike ELS where there seemed to be a high turnover rate with instructors leaving every couple of months after having completed their one-year or two-year contract, the majority of the instructors who have worked at FLI have stayed much longer. It’s no wonder then that our language program was one of the best in Korea because instructors—having job security and stability—could contribute more to the program knowing that they were going to be here for awhile.

This is not to say that I didn’t meet my share of interesting and colorful types when I was teaching at ELS. Korea was not on the ESL/EFL radar screen that much in the early 90s, so the people who ended up here had already been teaching in Asia or had heard about Korea when they were at university or in some cases having been a member of the Peace Corps. Back then teachers came to Korea because they knew something about Korea. For the most part, just didn’t end up here and pound the pavement looking for a teaching job.

One of my best friends and colleagues when I was at ELS was Ken Celmer who I had the chance to travel with on my first trip in Korea. Ken was one of the first people I met at ELS and we started hanging out immediately. He was very personable and helped me get acclimated to living in Seoul whether it was showing me where the best places were to shop in Shinchon (not far from where most of the ELS teachers lived) to taking me around to some of his favorite bars and restaurants.

If you have lived overseas for any length of time, you’ve met those special people who sort of take you under their wing and help you settle in (later when I started teaching at FLI, it was Ross Kilborn who helped me and a lot of other teachers out immensely). Ken and I hung out a lot and sometimes after we finished teaching I would join him and his girlfriend for dinner or some drinks.

One night he asked me if I wanted to go to the airport. I thought he meant Kimpo, but actually it was a bar called “The Airport” near Kangnam Subway Station. Inside there was a section of a plane’s fuselage that you could sit in.

That was the same night we stumbled into this other bar, that I swore was like something you would have expected in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series. The décor was this funky red-crushed velvet, dimly lit and there was—I kid you not—a dwarf working as a doorman who reminded me of a dwarf in an episode of Twin Peaks. Later, I would find out that the place was a “stand bar” a kind of bar where you would pay a set price for beer or whiskey and have your own private hostess to pour your drinks. Some of these stand bars even had leggy go-go dancers who would get up on small platforms and dance to 60s/70s pop music.

Of course, my most memorable moment was when Ken and I went to Kyongju and Pusan. That was my first trip in Korea and Ken was a really good travelling companion.

It was too bad that Ken left about seven months after I had arrived here. We’ve stayed in touch over the years (as much as we could) and the last time I saw Ken was in 1995 when he and his wife came back to Korea. Together with my wife Chanpen, the four of us went to Kyongju and Pusan—doing the same course that Ken and I had done five years earlier.

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