Korea

This year, late December to be exact, I came to South Korea to teach conversational English. I had been to Korea in 1989 and enjoyed it so much that I decided to come back for a year or two. This move was probably one of the smartest things I have done in a long time, as my stay here has been even better than I expected it to be. As I have time I will add photos and information to this page to share my visit to this great country with you.

This pic is of Itaewon, the tourist area in Seoul. It is near the U.S. Army post at Yongsan and is very popular among the soldiers. This street is where most of the shops are clustered and about six blocks down from this point is a cross street that leads to the many bars (hence its popularity with the soldiers). I have visited the area twice since returning to Korea, but have found the once irresistible pull of Itaewon easier to ignore. At the time I thought Itaewon was typical main street Korea. I have since discovered that it's more like main street America than Korea.

This time around I am farther South and am about an hour from two major cities, Taejon and Chongju. These two cities have given me more of a taste of the true spirit of Korea than Itaewon could. Though these two cities are still very commercial, with more neon than I have seen in my whole life often clustered on one street, the way business is conducted is very different. As in any other major cities I have been to, the merchants here simply want to separate you from your money. However, this is done with a degree of courtesy I have rarely seen in America. What impresses me most are the little things people do that let you know that they really appreciate your business. For example, when giving a merchant money, and when change is received, the money is held in both hands by both people, a gesture that means that you have each others' undivided attention and therefore each others' respect. This gesture is the most obvious one, but this sense of respect carries on throughout a visit to a restaurant or store.

In my new adventure I have had to take some bad with the good, of course. For instance, South Korea has a severe pollution problem. I expected the smog in Seoul when I arrived; but what I did not expect was to see it nearly as thick in the farm community where I now live. The picture on the right is one I took on a recent trip to the coast and the smog seen in this picture is actually a bit less than I see daily. It is not unusual to see just the outline of a mountain in the distance, kind of a ghost of a mountain. That smog is, for the most part, caused by a steady stream of traffic on every available road space in Korea. When I was here in 1989 I became accustomed to driving a large truck on the freeway at high speed with cars dangerously close behind and in front of me. It's worse now (they're usually busses). Probably the most amazing thing is that the flow of traffic outside my bedroom window never ceases, and I live on a side street.

I also didn't expect to end up in Korea during a time of economic crisis. Since just about a month before my arrival, the Korean government has been fighting to keep their economy from crashing. Prices for most things have doubled, in some cases tripled. Teaching is a fairly high paying job in Korea, so I'm not starving, but I'm not as rich as I expected to be either.

My Home Away from Home

Fortunately, I have a nice place to live with good people here in Korea. My employer's family owns a restaurant in nearby Wannam, and I live in an apartment above it (far right, second floor in the picture). Koreans often combine their workplaces with their living spaces, and it is not uncommon to see children milling around the apartment door adjacent to the business. In my case, there are seven others who also live at the restaurant, consisting of three generations of the Park family. It is also common for families to share a living/sleeping area in a single apartment (I have a western style room with its own bathroom). One of the things I have always liked about living abroad is learning to live in new ways, and my accommodations here are an example of that. As I said, my room is western style, but it is not exactly what you would expect in an apartment in America. It is a basic room with a bed, wardrobe, and a small dresser that is set low to the ground, as most furniture is in Korea. Many westerners complain about how low everything is here, that they have to stoop over to get to anything. The secret is that you must learn to live more like your hosts. Koreans squat, sitting on their heels, when they wish to get something or even just rest. This squatting position wasn't difficult for me once my legs limbered up a bit (of course a few years of practicing yoga didn't hurt either).

My hosts have been very gracious, despite the fact that I came to live in their home speaking very little Korean, and despite the fact that they had no idea what kind of person I was. This is very significant here, as many Koreans think of Chicago gangsters and L.A. drug dealers when they think of America. It took a large leap of faith for me to come here, and an even larger one for them to welcome me into their home. Hisuk is my "Korean mom" here and of course one of her main concerns was what to feed a large American like me. She has been very concerned about my drastic weight loss since my arrival. She seemed very relieved when I explained that I was used to eating Korean food and that I would prefer to eat what they eat. I have yet to be able to convince her that the ten Kilograms (about 20 pounds) that I have lost is a good thing, because here a well fed man is a successful man, and among the questions they ask, "are you hungry?" rates second only to "are you married?".
 
 

Having Fun

Part of coming to Korea was to explore the country more than I had on my previous visit. I am definitely doing that. I have been to quite a few impressive temples, the beach in Kangnung a couple of times, more museums than I can count, and to a few really interesting cities. I've only been here a short time though. I figure within a year or two I can have the whole peninsula mapped.

In addition to traveling I am spending a lot of quality time with my girlfriend. Shortly after arriving I began dating Bong Sun (Sunny), who just happens to be my boss (yeah, I know, its supposed to be a bad thing). Not only is Sunny beautiful, but she is also very intelligent and we share a lot of the same interests. She attended a year of college in Australia to learn English, then returned to Korea to obtain her art degree. Now she owns SEL Foreign Language Institute and we teach conversational English to children and adults. I think what I like most about her though is that she is one of the few people I have met that thinks like me and understands me. I am quite an eclectic person, and easily adapt to new situations, mostly because I like a bit of randomness in my life. In naming the institute, Sunny picked the name SEL for no real reason, in other words the letters mean nothing, and when she told me that I was absolutely thrilled. Not everything in life has to have a meaning, right?

I jokingly threatened to put a page on my web site dedicated to Sunny. The funny thing is that she likes the idea; yes, she knows she's beautiful. I bought a digital camera shortly after arriving here and though it has taken a lot of pictures around Korea, there have been just as many taken of Sunny. The camera lens is embedded in a swivelling head so that the person using the camera can take a self-picture easily. Sunny has done that on many occasions, yielding some of the best photos of her.

Our relationship has been fairly relaxed and fun so far. I have not had the best relationships in the past, and this one has been a very healing experience for me. I must say that this is the first time that I have had a relationship approaching what I would consider normal.

Dating a Korean has not been without its cultural complications, though, and I would not recommend it for people who do not like change. This is a very patriarchal society and what the family thinks of you is very important. Mixed relationships are nearly impossible here and prejudices are high. One of two things have to happen. Eeither the American has to become so enculturated that Koreans forget he or she is American, or the couple has to find somewhere else to live. The first option takes years, and few have mastered it, as our cultures are very different. What this does is add a sort of non permanent feeling to the relationship, knowing that culture can be what ends it, which does make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I am thankful that Sunny has lived in the west, and that she is considering a change of venue, but this does not make it a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination. Not to mention that prejudice toward Asians abounds in certain places in America as well. So what do you do in this situation? So far we have decided to see what comes about, to watch guardedly and hope. As I said before, deciding to live in Korea was a leap of faith, which is true in this situation as well.

© 1998 by the author.