One of the main classes I had was in Karibong-dong, teaching four businessmen at a building that was run by LG. LG is one of the biggest companies in Korea. My “LG class” was in a large building complex that had a cellphone plant and many offices and a cafeteria in Southwestern Seoul. I knew nothing about any of their big companies when I started the class. And it would have been nice to have been told something about where the class was and who I was going to have to teach when I began this class, and for how long, but I never was told much about anything.
Whenever I went to this LG class, I had to go in the late afternoon on a long subway ride, traveling on and on to western Seoul, but then I had to go on further, south of Yeoido, as well. Karibong was about an hour and 20 minutes by subway(one way!) away from Karak-dong and then there was 15 minutes or so of walking to get from my Karibong subway stop to the LG building itself. It was an industrial and business area that was another concrete jungle like Bucheon was back then. I had to walk through all kinds of streets and even walk alone beside a raised highway after leaving the subway station in order to make it to the LG class. I always had a nice guard to wave to and to speak a few words to outside at the entrance of the LG complex, and smiling, young Korean receptionists to see at the information desk in the building before meeting my ‘students’. This area was where I could buy some warm “bungobang” desserts from a food cart near the LG complex. A bungobang snack is a waffle made into a fish shape, and filled with red bean paste.
I had only been in Korea for about a week when I first went there and was still basically terrified and unsure of myself. That first late afternoon, I found myself in a nice classroom with four Korean men, not knowing what I should say or do. They introduced themselves one by one and told me a bit about themselves. Oh my goodness, I was so nervous. One was an engineer who designed the inner workings of LG cellphones, called Kim Jin Man. He spoke to me very slowly in a soft voice. Another student was an engineer like Jin Man but he was even shier than Jin Man and his name was Pyo Sang-Mun. A third student had very good English and a loud, strong voice. He told me he was a salesman for the cellphones and he was called Lee Su-Il. The fourth man was older and ultra-dignified and he was in charge of a large group of employees there. He was “a superior” to the other men in the class because of his job title, and their society was strict about varying status levels and formalities, but he was very humble, however, in the class. His name was Kim Dae-Sik and he asked me to call him “Joseph”.
Joseph had chosen that English name because he was a devout Catholic. He said there were only two Catholic churches in Seoul and he went every week to the main one in Myeong-dong across the river. He would have had quite a journey just to get to church. At that time, one third of Koreans were Buddhist, one third were Christian and one third were “no religion”. I asked them, What kind of Christian religion? They all didn’t know what I meant when I asked and they’d all say, “Just Christian!”. I was confused. In Canada Christianity was so divided. The different groups seemed to dislike eachother : the Pentecostal people, for example, thought they would be ‘saved’, but other groups like the Catholics or Baptists will not be ‘saved’, and so on.
Thank goodness I could bring photocopies of pages from the books about teaching English as a second language that were in the office at my institute. I at least could have a semblance of professionalism if I had those papers with me to hand out. These four men were eventually involved with me outside of the class. It was my favourite class and one of the longest lasting contracts I had. It lasted 3 months. I had to go there at suppertime every Monday and Wednesday and Friday and it was a long way to travel. I had woken up every weekday at 6 am and had taught classes all day before leaving at 4 pm for Karibong and the LG class. By the time I got back to my building in Karak-dong it was nine o’clock at night! But I always found it enjoyable and looked forward to seeing the men, who had such respect for me and were so funny and interesting at the same time.
Since this area was less modern and less residential, it was less safe for me and I had 2 unusual events happen around here. Six weeks after I started going there a man acted strangely on the street and was saying something to me, but I didn’t know what he wanted. He was agitated. It was fine with me and I was no more scared than usual, but when I told my LG students about that man, they were very concerned and always drove me back to the subway station after the class from then on, so I wouldn’t be walking in that area alone at night anymore.
The other ‘event’ was much worse than the man who was saying something foreign to me on the street. I was walking in the crowded Karibong subway station to get to the exit, and a Korean man rushed up to me and swiftly kicked me hard, square-on, in the shin. That hurts because your shin-bone is right there. He hurried away and I noticed a few people looking a little funny, but they quickly looked down and continued on their way. I had a huge sore purple and green bruise in that spot on my shin for a long time afterward. One of the ministers at the Sejong Institute told me this might have happened because the man thought I was an American….. I never did have a Canadian flag sewn on any of my clothing – I probably should have done that.
These two incidents were really out of the ordinary in Korea. Everyone was orderly and never bothered anyone. The LG students were right to be concerned about that agitated man acting unusual and saying something to me in Korean because over there it would be so rare to get harassed or bothered. It would mean there’s something very wrong with that man. I did have a few other awful or odd experiences in Seoul but considering the fact that I might have one oddball per every 10 000 Korean people I saw, I thought that was pretty good!
The class had a different feel or dynamic, depending on who came. Sometimes I was with only one of them, or with just 2, or three or all four. In this group, as in all of the English classes I had in Korea, there were a few who were aggressive and talked a lot and wouldn’t give the more reserved men a chance to speak. I had to let the confident speakers talk but I had to interrupt them here and there so I could ask a shy student what he thought of the topic. It was mostly discussions that we had in all of these adult classes. Practicing speaking was important for them. They all had years of looking at English textbooks in school,but needed to listen to native English speakers like me. I found it so interesting that all the businessmen I met in Seoul told me at first that it was extremely important to them that they learn to speak English. The business world was turning “global”, they said. They knew they had to branch out and sell their goods to other countries. This was the way of the future, they all told me. In my remote area in Canada, I had never heard about this. When I read articles lately about their national and global success that has multiplied since I was there, I am truly happy for them all.
Mr. Lee was one who insisted on talking and not letting the others speak much; even the older, ‘superior’ Joseph always let Mr. Lee talk uninterrupted. When Mr. Lee wasn’t there, Joseph talked the most and the other two men couldn’t get a word in. After a few weeks of my teaching them, they said I should eat supper at their company cafeteria. I would meet Jin Man when I arrived, usually, and we would talk and eat, like I did at Anam with Mr. Choi. I think it was in that cafeteria that one of my meals was ‘blood sausage’ or pork intestines, which is an old-fashioned meal in my area in Canada but I would never accept to eat it when I lived in Canada. In Korea, I found it was edible and of course it was a moderate amount in a little dish, served with a number of other little dishes, like rice and kimchi and soup. I was so accustomed to eating something objectionable, or foreign to me in Seoul, that I just ate what was given to me. I remember around once a month at a workplace cafeteria like this they would serve ‘curried chicken’ and the Koreans loved it and were very happy if it was on the menu.
One thing I never forget is a sidewalk stand near this LG building that sold “boong-o-bang” for 50 cents each. It was a waffle-like batter poured into a hot metal mold shaped like a fish, with fishscales decorating it, and filled with the red bean paste Koreans ate it as a sweet snack. The person operating the stand was pressing the waffle-iron down to cook the batter and heat the filling, like when you work a waffle-press. So you bought a hot, delicious ‘fish’ to eat that was a sort of dessert. They were really something, and had a crisp outside and a rich taste, but not too rich. I would buy 2 or three at a time. If I look online at places in Koreatown in Toronto that sell boong-o-bang today, they are filled with custard filling, and not red bean paste. Oh, to really be there in Korea and get some!
I do remember sitting alone in the classroom with Mr. Lee one time, and he told me to call him ‘Sail’. It was easier. Later, when I got the hang of his real name, I realised it’s because his name was Su Il. He was very remarkable. He was instrumental to LG’s growth because his English was so good and he had such confidence and presence. They sent him to Singapore and the Philippines and other Asian countries to head up their global cellphone sales. Later, he was a frontrunner in the US and England for these sales. He was the only Korean person I met who knew about the Maritimes in Atlantic Canada, where I was from. He told me he had to know about all of the world when he did research for sales and that he had seen information about Halifax, which is where I went to university.
Many times, Sail would drive me home or close to his home in Kangnam so I could take the subway from there to Karak-dong. This was really something as well! Many Koreans, including Sail, would take a few hours to get to their job and would be at the job for 10 hours, and then they would travel for a few hours more to get home afterward. It’s the same even today. Their days were long like mine were. We would go to the underground parking and get in his car and then when we were leaving the complex, we had to stop for the guard at the gate. The guard would go around to the trunk and open it and check to see there were no company secrets or electronics being stolen. Everyone leaving was checked. There were many, many cars in Seoul and so much population that on the drive, we were in traffic jams the whole time. And all the drivers regularly beeped their horns at one another. I think it was just to warn drivers and say, I’m moving now or Be aware of me. Beeping the horn in traffic seemed to be a habit. I remember being stopped waiting to move a lot and hearing constant car horns. And it would be dark by then so all the buildings were lit up. And of course we would talk the whole time. Sometimes the radio would be on, playing lovely pop songs. The songs were all in their language and the melodies were beautiful. And sometimes Sail would stop at one of Seoul’s bakeries and buy me a Korean “vegetable pocket”.
I knew his spending time with me was mainly so he could further practice his English but I did not feel used and found him helpful to me – he and his wife are the ones who gave me that special red winter jacket I had on in the GuRyeongSan photo. He would also bring me to his ‘house’ and his wife would have cooked a late supper for us. One time it was a rice dish and I told her honestly it was the best, tastiest rice dish I had ever had. She was surpised and said it was just ketchup in the rice. I don’t know what she would have done with the ketchup and rice to make them so delicious.
The best thing of all was that he and his wife had a tiny, white toy poodle! They treated that dog so well. I had never been around a toy poodle before. He was so tiny! Like a toy that would almost fit in your hand. And they fed him fruit! I remember Sail giving him Korean grapes to eat when he begged. They had called the dog ChoRong and Sail told me it meant ‘shining’ like calling your dog ‘Twinkle’, like a star twinkles. Chorong was very smart and he was trained to pee and poop on their bathroom floor so the small amount of pee went down the drain that was in the middle of every bathroom floor over there.
When my husband came to visit in January, Sail insisted on being his “personal guide” while he was in Korea. I have always looked back and thought of how the Korean people would go out of their way to help us and show us their culture even though their society was so ‘closed’ to the world for so many years. Also, a number of them told me they felt it was very important for them to try to make foreigners feel more comfortable in a strange land. Some acted like it was their personal duty to do so.
Taking the subway in that region was not very modern at all. In Part 1 of this blog I mentioned that everyone had believed there was no place without English in the Seoul subway system. Well, one day I found a spot near Karibong with no English. I had gotten lost and must have missed my stop one time around 5:30pm on my way to the LG class. I found myself on the outdoor platform looking at the signs. Why were all the signs in Korean only, I thought. There must be at least a name of a neighborhood printed in English here somewhere…. There wasn’t! I knew I had to go in one direction or another, and as I stood on the platform outside, that looked like the photo above, I dug out my complicated subway map that contained no English. Since I had taught myself how to read their language by then, I could find the place that was written on the station’s signs. Then, I looked at my map to see how how I could get on another train that was going back in the right direction. You might think I only had to get on another train going back from where I came from, but I didn’t know which stop I was at. It’s awful when you don’t know where you are and all of the signs are foreign to you and you can’t ask anybody for help. I was so happy that I could read the sign saying Dosan, although I had to look at my phrasebook to identify the Korean characters. It would have been a huge predicament to ask a Korean speaker what to do. No one would have known what I was saying. Knowing their alphabet really came in handy that day.
That old, original subway line had a spot where the train would stop and the lights would go out for quite a while enroute to Karibong. It happened every day in the same place. It was like what happened on a Seinfeld episode once. But wasn’t it worse and scarier if you were in the middle of a strange, huge city and it happened? And what if you’re the only person from a western country, and no one can speak your language and you can’t speak theirs? I did look at the workmen walking around the tracks outside and saw all kinds of buildings just the same while I was on that subway route, since part of the route was above ground, at least. Everyone waited and was quiet during these blackouts and stoppages. No one ever said a word. I was always so glad when that train got moving again. What long days I had. I was up by 6am and home at 9pm. Many days I had 10 hours of travel time alone in that one day.
I wrote above that I was involved outside of the class with these men. It wasn’t only Sail. After quite a while of knowing them in the small way that I did, I tried to “set up” Sang-Mun with Hee Nam, my secretary and friend, Miss Park, who took me to Seoul Tower once in an earlier blog. I went with Hee Nam to meet Jin Man and Sang Mun, I can’t remember where, and we talked and probably got something to eat. Unfortunately, Jin Man was married, and not surprisingly Hee Nam told me later she would have been interested in him, but not Sang Mun. He had no personality. I remember her thanking me for honestly trying. On the last day of this class, the students presented me with a gorgeous high-end scarf and a European soft leather wallet. We all walked to a “sum” restaurant and Jin Man went to a little nearby store at my request and picked up a bottle of traditional, sweet rice wine for me to have with the meal. We had pork lettuce-wraps and of course they would not let me pay for anything. Then Joseph personally took me in an expensive taxi, a black taxi that hardly anyone took, all the way to Karak-dong to the Karak Hotel – not for something seedy! The basement of that hotel had a dance floor and loud music and expensive fruit platters and liquor. Beautiful Russian women would dance on stands in skimpy clothing. I could not judge. It’s the way it was.
Joseph kept telling me that night that he was very thankful for what I had done to help him with his English, although I am still baffled by this. I felt I hadn’t done any kind of an effective job at all, as I always felt when I was teaching in Korea. Joseph paid for everything that night. It would have been expensive. One day Kim Jin Man told me at LG that I had helped him! In his cautiously-slow, sweet voice he described a business call he had to make to a supplier in a Scandinavian country. He was so excited he was able to tell the person on the phone in English that the electronic parts they sent him were no good. He was so pleased and he said couldn’t believe he had been able to make that call. He said it was because of me.
Sail told me a story one evening that was similar to Anthony’s sad one. Sail had a great love that he was passionate about in the past. Everyone must go to a government building in Seoul to check their national genealogy registry with 3000 years of history before they decide to get married. They have to check officially to see they aren’t too closely related before they are allowed to be married. He and the girl were not allowed to get married. He had to find someone else….
Gasan Digital Complex….
I must write that all of Karibong, even the name, is now gone. I was looking for it on Google Maps in 2018, and wondered why I couldn’t find it. They changed the whole huge area into a modern business area and shopping mecca. It’s called Gasan Digital Complex now. They think of it and a few neighborhoods beside it as a tech city. This new tech city goes on and on with many streets with tall, huge glass buildings and beautiful malls. Near there as is a sprawling Chinatown of sorts there too. It wasn’t like this at all during my time in Seoul.
I've always been interested in people's attitudes and perceptions. My thesis at university was about attitudes towards mental illness. The most fascinating thing I heard from anyone in the LG class was part of a sort of mistake, I think. In one of the classes in Karibong all 4 of the students were standing up with me near the blackboard while I wrote English words on it. We got on the topic of people from other countries. Sail burst out saying that Koreans were disgusted with western people like me because they can smell our underarm sweat! He said a few extra sentences describing their horror at our 'smell'. I had never thought of something like that, but I can see why it's true! We North American caucasians all need 'deodorant' to put under our arms but Koreans do not! There are no sticks of deodorant for sale there. There's no deodorant section in any of their stores. They don't sweat the same way as we do. They don't need 'underarm deodorant'. Poor Joseph was looking so funny after Sail blurted that out. Joseph thought, I think, that Sail shouldn't have said that. I wasn't insulted at all. I had never thought of it before, actually. I told them that Caucasian people notice that Africans have a strong body odour. Many of us find it offensive, I told the students. I don't mean African-Americans, I mean people directly from Africa. It's true. I do believe the Korean people probably don't need underarm deodorant because of their diet. At the time I thought it must be a 'racial' thing. But when I lived there and was eating their diet, my sweat didn't smell anymore either! I noticed that. Is it the kimchi? Or race?
More fascinating than the billions of neon lights at night were the lit up crosses on buildings that housed churches all over Seoul. I can never find a picture of a neighborhood with lighted crosses everywhere to show people what it was like. It was amazing though. In the daytime, there were some churches with steeples here and there. But at night, the crosses on all of the churches were lit up. You couldn’t see there were places of worship in a lot of non-descript buildings in the daytime. But everywhere you looked at night, there were bright orange crosses in spots where you wouldn’t know there was a Christian meeting room or ‘church’. There were so many of these orange crosses everywhere that it was magical. Every night.
Aju Middle School…
Another class that started in the fall of 1997 was the Aju Middle School class. It was always at 2 in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I’d go after being in Bucheon with Mr. Choi. Aju was near Asia Park around the Sports Complex subway stop, 4 km northwest of Karak-dong. I was really weary when I’d arrive at the Sports Complex station from such long rides to Bucheon and most of the way back. I remember it wasn’t a busy time at 2 o’clock in the subway. One time on the way out of the station on the stairs a Korean man was exposing himself to me and he was crooning something in Korean to me as he did it. I had to think quickly and decided in an instant, without stopping, to go right past him up the stairs. I was so rattled I couldn’t even do any teaching in the classroom for a long time once I made it to the school. I was so disturbed. Who could have done anything to help me? No one could have.
There were wonderful things about the Aju school experience, but not necessarily the people. A stern-looking Korean principal was involved and he seemed to be in such a horrible mood and even mad at me when I saw him. The students were a class full of 15 year-olds with an attitude. After the first few classes they all flat-out refused to open their English books so I couldn’t get any lessons done. Each week there were less and less of them coming to class and one day I looked out the window and most of the boys were playing ball! I do remember some of them even now. I do believe they were so tired of studies and I can understand but I didn’t know how to get anywhere with them. I tried buying a cassette tape of their favourite new English singer, Mariah Carey, and trying to get them to translate the lyrics of their favourite songs with me. I tried playing ‘Hangman’ where they came up to the blackboard to take turns guessing the letters and guessing the mystery word and no one spoke at all. I tried writing my own funny dialogues for them to take turns reading. None of this was enough. A funny time, though, was when they got me to try to properly pronounce all their names! There was one obnoxious boy called Ta-Bom and I tried and tried but it sounded like ‘The Bum’ when I’d say it. Did they ever laugh at that. They all roared laughing over and over because I’d try saying it again, over and over and each time, it was apparently wrong! They really got a kick out of me trying pronunciations. I never got it quite right.
One time I went to another classroom down the hall and found the Korean girl who was hired at the same time I was. She was supposed to teach another class at the same time as me and I wanted to know if she was doing something right. She told me she was beside herself having the same trouble as I was having! And she was Korean! So I had to give up and grin and bear it.
In the area, there were many trees and there were some cicadas singing in them. I was told that a few months before that time of year, all summer long, the cicadas were more plentiful and would have been even louder. One of the kids at Aju drew a little picture of an ugly big winged insect to try to explain a cicada. They aren’t found in my area of Canada and I only just heard a few outside the school in the trees. It sounded like part cricket, part bat and it was loud. A loud, constant metallic humming. The branches of big trees were hanging over the street near the school. I would sit in Asia Park, where there were more trees, before the class would start. One day it was so beyond beautiful in the area because it was the peak of their autumn foleage. The temperature was perfect and winds were calm and I saw coloured leaves that were so perfect everywhere I looked that day. The leaves were gently falling.
Not long after I arrived in Seoul, the Koreans explained that there were big companies unique to Korea called chaebols, and they are considered conglomerates. Chaebols are so powerful because they have, for example, automobiles, banks and grocery stores and other endeavors in the same company. They all owned their own national baseball teams. Samseong, Hyundai, LG, Lotte, Kia, SK, were some. Over the years the most successful one will move up in the top spot, and the order of who makes more money changes over time. Lotte makes snacks and has a few large hotels and malls and other sub-companies. LG is known a little in Canada for appliances but over there they made cellphones and had other companies under them on the go. I remember Sail telling me in class that LG stood for Lucky Gold Star.
The Lotte Department Store and Lotte World in Jamsil near my institute were places I went to sometimes. I found it interesting that since Korea had such a population and not much space, the department store had a number of floors so it wasn’t flat and one-story like Canadian department stores and malls. Our malls took up a lot of space and were spread out over a lot of land. Even our parking lots in Canada took up a lot of space. It wasn’t like that there. And there was no sense trying to buy clothes in this beautiful store, or anywhere else there, because my frame was naturally large and everything would have been too small for me.
The Lotte World complex was so entertaining you could live there forever. The mall had a huge indoor skating rink and there were eating terraces. I bought a box of donuts in there one day and they were the nicest, most delicious donuts I’ve ever had. Truly! I seem to remember they were similar to honey-dipped and there were sugar donuts in there too.
Across the street from the Lotte complex in Jamsil, pronounced Shamshil, was Sokchon Lake, a man-made lake that looked like glass. The Lotte Amusement Park, that had elements of Disney World, was sticking out into this lake. I took pictures one day in the area but never went into the amusement park. The pictures were beautiful just the same when I was standing outside of it.
Interesting to read. You have many details including about marriage and researching the family tree. I never knew that. Teaching at the middle school was challenging for me , also. As I mentioned when I went for a walk in the evening, I ran across drunk middle schoolers: so much pressure for them. I was never kicked but I was accosted by drunken Korean men as you know some of them could drink into oblivion! Your business class sounds lovely. I was never taken to a strip joint or club like the one you mentioned but I was taken to lots of formal buffets where they paid for everything. The nicest gift was a certificate for $100 to the grocery story. One year, the indoor pool collapsed in a Dept. store in Korea. It was on the top floor and the same year, a bridge collapsed. I am very impressed with all the details you remember. Do you work in Mental health? You mention something about mental health. Keep on writing!
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I’m glad you read it and like it. I like what you say about it and what you remember too. My dream was to be a psychologist but I worked mostly helping the elderly in nursing homes – I loved the elderly but would have had better jobs if the economy in my remote area were better. Now, I’ve had to stop working altogether because I’ve developped an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis…. The blog is all I can do now. At least I can have a record of my time in Korea recorded. I am praying about your husband and his cancer.
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Thank you! His son has moved near us with his family and a new job, so this is good. I hope things work out for you, also. I am glad to find a kindred friend.
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I understand. The economy has been up and down for teachers for many years. I am an adjunct with two universities
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The economy has been challenging for me as has been a public school teacher in our local district. I am currently an adjunct with two universities. I returned to get certification and completed the lengthy list in my 40’s! However I seem to be better at the adjunct gig.
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Do you have children? A husband with you? Family? Thank you for letting me into your times. I can appreciate your journey. You have also helped me make a decision to share more of my time overseas.
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I wanted to mention to you that one day I met a woman in Korea who had left her husband in Canada and was alone in 1997. Wouldn’t that be interesting if it were you? What a great story!
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I sometimes pretended to be Russian because I didn’t want to speak English. A friend pretended to be Canadian. Some didn’t like Americans, especially the first year (1994) as there was rioting and tear gas in front of the American Embassy. It has been so long ago that I would have to goggle what they were fighting for. I do think their dedication to English and to their mi-kook (foreign) teachers was a smart business decision!
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(Supposed to be for the former comment) I’ve seen articles about a huge tragedy in a department store back then but I think it was a fire. One time I had to turn back while I was walking near where there was a protest in the downtown. I see now they have protests frequently there. I do get some things mixed up but I think it’s their city hall south of Kwanghwamun. Many Koreans thought I was Russian when I was on the subway. I have so many things I learned that were interesting there. If my blog space will allow me to document my vacation over there in October 1999 I want to do that too.
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Yes, the bridge collapsed and then a pool which was on the top story of a building collapsed. I forget the details.
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I might be able to find an old internet article about that building/pool collapse… I have the same husband for 25 years now. I had my son later in life when I was 36 yrs old in 2005. So I have a 13 year-old boy! My husband cried and begged me not to go to Korea. I will write about his visit in January 1998, when he had to stay in my freezing hagwon. He spent all the money I had wired home to come visit! I felt I had to go…
Oh, interesting. I don’t have children. I do have stepchildren as I didn’t get married until I was 36! I now have grandchildren and had my first one at the age of 40 as my husband, retired military married and had children very early.
We are taking care of a 15 year old grandson now while they relocate nearby. My stepson just got a great job in the Clearwater area.
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I would have been terrified to pretend to be Russian at that time because I think from what I could understand, that they thought of those poor Russian women as prostitutes, or something similar to that, and I really would have had bad luck with that, I think..
I read that Bill Clinton was good for keeping the peace with North Korea, and it was called his ‘sunshine policy’. I could detect no anti-American sentiment at all during my talks with the Koreans.
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I hadn’t seen your comment about meeting a woman who had left her husband to be there in 1997…I wonder if it could have been me but I do honestly think I would have remembered you – with my memory! If you can remember where you were when you met her I could think…?