Not long ago I blogged that I first started to write War Remains back in 2000 when I decided to read and review Retrieving Bones, a book I came across at the Kyobo Book Centre in downtown Seoul, one cold February afternoon.
Yes, it's true that after I read and reviewed that book, I would review many more books on the Korean War. And yes, those book reviews enabled me to cover Korean War commemorative events, which eventually took me to one commemorative event at Chipyong-ni where some of the veterans I met would become the inspiration for my novel.
However, if there was a starting point for all of us, it would have to be twenty years ago today, when I first came to Korea and when the die was cast.
This originally appeared in a blog in October 2009 and later, in the anthology, The Sanctuary.
When you decide to leave your country and travel halfway around the world to live and work-in my case to teach English in Korea-there are some things that you are never going to forget about your experience abroad and your life as an expat.
It goes without saying that for every foreigner who has set foot in Korea to live and work a universal chord is struck by what we all have in common. Whether it was getting accustomed to a new culture (with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies), attempting to speak the language, as well as making new friendships and enjoying a lifestyle commensurate with our professional and personal pursuits, much of what we might remember fondly is of this shared experience.
On the other hand, for better or worse, there are other things of a more personal nature, which will always remind us of the time, we spent in Korea. For me-after living and working in Korea for 19 years (and still counting)-one thing that will forever stand out most was my first week here and how I ended up in Korea in the first place.
“How did you end up in Korea?” asked an acquaintance who I had not seen since 1984 and who I had recently reconnected with on Facebook.
“I turned left at Japan,” I replied, tweaking a famous line from The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night.
(In the movie, John Lennon was asked, “How did you find America?” upon which he replied, “We turned left at Greenland.”)
One thing is for certain, I didn’t end up in Korea based on what I knew or didn’t know about the country. To be sure, if you were to have asked me prior to 1988, which Korea was the Communist one, who Kim Il-sung was, or where Korea was located specifically in Northeast Asia, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get all three right.
I had heard of Korea though. Two of my uncles had fought in the Korean War, my high school friend “LJ” had learned Taekwondo in the 70’s, and I had (until he decided to return home) a Korean roommate when I was at college. I knew a few Koreans in some of my classes, but we never talked much about Korea. Sadly, for most people our knowledge of Korea was limited to what we could glean from the popular TV show M*A*S*H.
On the other hand, the few times that we did hear anything about Korea was when there was some disaster or tragedy like the USS Pueblo seizure in 1968, the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident in 1976, Koreagate, the downing of KAL Flight 007 in 1983, and student demonstrations in the 80’s.
Despite these international events our knowledge about Korea was limited. Even the Korean War, which was for all semantic purposes a substitute for World War III, had sadly been called “the forgotten war.” Even my two uncles who had fought in it never talked about it.
Of course, the world would learn much about South Korea in 1988 with the Seoul Olympics that could be best described as one massive “coming out party” for the nation and its people.
Korea was not some place that you just heard about one day and decided that is where you wanted to go. No, Korea was a place that you had to have heard about somewhere from someone who had either been there or knew someone that had. People just didn’t end up here by accident. Fate maybe, but not by chance.
Two years after the Seoul Olympics, I found myself in Korea to teach English. I had not intended to teach in Korea when I graduated from graduate school in 1989. After a year in Japan and a semester teaching ESL at a community college in my hometown, all I could think about was getting back to Asia. Call it the lure of the Orient or something that I had to get out of my system before I could get on with my life, I applied for teaching positions at various schools in Asia.
One day, out of the blue I get a call from a language school recruiter in Culver City, California asking me if I wanted to teach in Korea.
“There’s a position opening up at a school in Seoul in December right before Christmas,” she said. “Are you interested?”
Before she had a chance to finish, I had already made up my mind.
I was going to Korea.
Yeah, I guess it was fate after all.
I arrived in Seoul on a cool, clammy Friday night in December 1990 just two weeks before Christmas. For some, traveling to another country around the holidays to begin work might be a little depressing, but I was too pumped up to feel depressed. The recruiter, who had phoned me back in October and offered me the job, told me that I would be too excited to feel depressed. She was right.
Then again, I had spent the previous Christmas in Japan and there were the two Christmases I had spent in Panama back in 1976 and 1977, so the holidays were not much of a problem.
The only problem, at least after I had arrived in Korea was going to be a change of underwear. I’ll get back to this later.
I had left Chicago the day before at 7:00 in the morning on my way to Seattle and then on to Seoul. The day before I left was a bit of a trip down memory lane. I had lunch with Dick Verucchi at the House of Hunan in Peru, bumped into Steve Stout there, went to Vallero’s Bakery in Dalzell on a bread run for Verucchi’s Ristorante and later that day, hung out with LJ who quizzed me on the Korean flag.
I had to get up to O’Hare early in the morning and my friend Mary Sue Hurley drove me up. It’s sad and ironic when you look back and realize that on what would end up being one of the major turning points of your life, would also be the last time you would see some very special people in your life.
If you had traveled to Korea prior to March 2001 when the new Incheon Airport opened, then you had to go through Seoul’s Kimpo Airport.
What I remember most about Kimpo that night, and all the other times I flew in and out of there, was how dreary and archaic it was. There’s no question that Kimpo was an obvious testament to Korea’s rapid economic development in the 70’s, but still had this sort of “developing nation” feel to it. Even though Korea had hosted the Olympics just two years earlier, one really felt as though they had stepped back into time-back to the 70s-when you had to go through Kimpo.
I have flown in and out of Korea countless times over the years, and usually when you go through immigration formalities, the immigration officials hardly utter more than a sentence or two, if that. However, on that night the immigration official asked me for a stick of gum. Well, it was more like “give me a stick of gum,” but have to give the guy credit for trying out his language skills.
“Mmm… Juicy Fruit,” he said.
If my first night in Korea was going to be a memorable one, it was not going to get off to a good start when I soon discovered that my luggage had been lost.
Great, I thought. I start work on Monday and I don’t have any clean clothes to wear.
After waiting until the last bags from my flight had been unloaded and filling out some forms, one of the ground staff assured me that my luggage would arrive in a day or two. It didn’t.
I wasn’t alone. A few other passengers, who had flown out of Chicago with me on Northwest, were also missing their luggage. I should have known there was going to be a problem when I checked in and noticed that the luggage conveyor belt was broken and the luggage had to be carried downstairs by the Northwest staff. Well, that sort of thing is just begging for a problem to happen.
I was not the only teacher arriving that night. There were three other teachers who would be joining the ELS Kangnam (a district in Seoul, referred to as a Gu in Korean, south of the Han River) school staff (one more was due in from Thailand a few days later). After we had met, we got in a van and headed to Chamsil (located very close to Olympic Park), which would be my home for the next two years.
Say what you will about the pitfalls of the hogwon (institute) system in Korea, (there have been countless horror stories of teachers coming to Korea and after being met at the airport being handed a book and told that their students were waiting for them in some crowded classroom) but ELS, at least back then took very good care of its teachers and made it very comfortable for a person to come to Korea to teach, especially when it came to your accommodations.
(ELS, which was based out of California had schools and franchises around the world. The three ELS schools in South Korea in 1990 were owned by Sisa-Yong-o-sa, at the time, Korea’s largest English book publisher; now it is called YBM Sisa.)
The school put us up in these rather spacious apartments in Chamsil not far from Olympic Sports Complex and only meters away from the sprawling Lotte World shopping and entertainment complex.
Back in 1990, Lotte World was one of Seoul’s major attractions that had everything from a classy hotel, department store, and indoor swimming pool to Lotte Adventure, what came across, for better or worse as a bit of a Disneyland knock-off.
The apartments were starting to look a little rundown back then (the housing complex was leveled a few years ago and new apartment buildings have already gone up), but if you didn’t mind the rats scurrying above in the crawl space and the black soot from people still burning yontan (cylinder-shaped, coal-like briquettes used for heating) which darkened the walls, it wasn’t too bad of a place to call home, especially when you didn’t have to pay any rent.
That night, I was the last person to be taken to an apartment. I remember standing outside and having a smoke and listening to the steady drone of traffic speeding along Olympic Expressway. The housing complex had this “gulag” feel to it, row after row of apartment buildings all looking the same with a central heating plant located in the center.
I might have been in Asia, but it sure didn’t feel like it.
Unlike the other teachers who arrived that night, I did not have a roommate waiting for me when I was taken to my apartment. He was supposed to arrive from Thailand a few days later (which turned out to be a week later). I got a quick tour of the apartment and was told that in the morning another ELS teacher would show me around town and how to get to the institute (just a ten-minute subway ride away). So, at least for this night, my first night in Korea I was on my own.
The apartment came furnished and even included a telephone and a TV. The refrigerator was stocked with a few items to satisfy any hunger pangs that I might have until I could get to the store. I didn’t find the package of “Digestive Crackers” too appealing (gee, I hope I could digest them), but a few hours later and feeling a little hungry, they hit the spot. They were similar to graham crackers and I had no trouble digesting them.
I turned on the TV and the David Letterman Show was on-courtesy of AFRTS, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service or as it was more appropriately called in Korea, AFKN (Armed Forces Korean Network). Weird. I might have traveled halfway around the world and ready to experience another culture, but there was David Letterman beaming into my apartment. And if I might also add, just in time for his Top Ten List.
I walked out on the balcony to have a smoke. On the sidewalk below I could hear people walking home from work and the bars. It had gotten foggier and cooler. A thousand points of light in the towering housing gulags across the street that dwarfed the smaller housing complex I lived in.
I listened to the night. I listened to this strange, new language drifting up, wondering how long it would be before I would be able to understand it.
And I wondered if I was going to like it here.