I Want to Remember…

Traditional, decorative wall

There are many things from my experience in Korea that I can’t forget. For instance, I took the picture below of some people playing a traditional game during the Seolnal holiday, or Lunar New Year, in January of 1998. I was with my husband and ‘Sail’ Lee at Kyeongbokkung Palace during my husband’s visit to Korea while I was teaching. My roommate back then, Ji Yeong, told me the game is called ‘Hwal’. It’s nice that it looks like families were doing something wholesome on their holiday, which is around 4 days long. I was lucky to experience both of their big holidays while I was there.

You can see here they are holding sticks in between rounds of throwing them into receptacles. The decorative, tall pagoda-style museum on the grounds of KyeongbokGung is on the right. I love the quaint look of the trees.

When I searched online for the game called Hwal, a bunch of sites came up calling this game TuHo, and no information called it Hwal. Royalty used to play TuHo and in English it’s called ‘Pitch Pot’. The only game in Canada I can think of that’s comparable to TuHo is ‘lawn darts’!

A few times in the past, I’ve heard of bathrooms and tubs being different somehow in Japan. In some kind of an old documentary I remember seeing Japanese parents in funny, small bathtubs with young children. A few times throughout my life, I would hear that in Japan, they all have naps in the middle of the afternoon in office buildings and they shut down everything to have their naps. I heard about these things such a long time ago it’s hard to remember details. We never heard anything about Korea; it was always Japan that I heard about, whether any of it was true at all. However, while I lived in Seoul, I could understand that bathrooms, bathtubs and naps were very different from those in western countries. When I lived there, no one had bathtubs at all. There would have been some in certain hotels. When I was in the communal ladies’ bathroom in Garak-dong, I had to stand naked in front of the sink and hold a metal hose that sprayed water on me to have a shower. When my husband and I stayed with SoJoung in her apartment in Gangnam-gu in 1999, Robert was not used to taking a shower that way and got too much water all over the bathroom. I felt so terrible because SoJoung was not easygoing most of the time and was quite scandalised at the mess. It was just something we’d never have to do in Canada. The bathroom floors had a drain in the middle of them so the water from your shower went down it.

Everywhere you went, if it wasn’t a restaurant or retail store or highly public place, you had to take off your footwear and grab one of the pairs of “slippers” that were always sitting there in the entryway to put on and wear while you were inside. Many times, these “slippers” were made of rubber and had open backs. Each apartment had a tray with a number of these rubber sandals inside the door. I could see it made sense to have rubber ones because the bathroom floors were often wet from someone taking a shower when you went in them. This alone was very, very different to me and made my experience in Korea seem so unfamiliar, yet it was so sensible at the same time. Everyone had to live the same way, so everyone did this with the rubber slippers and handheld showers.

This is what the “slippers” looked like that you had to put on. This one looks like it has some fabric on it but most were all rubber and many did have stripes. The most common ones were navy and white. I can never forget them.

I had mentioned the napping when I wrote above about Japan. In Korea, the whole society worked or studied constantly. The hours worked were longer than developed countries had in the west. Most people worked Monday to Friday for more than 8 hours a day if they had an “office job”. Even now, the government is slow to regulate this and has reduced the hours in the work week over time but today it’s still not like it is in the west. They do not get 8 hours of sleep because they eat late and get to bed late. This is why many people slept on the subway. I had to live this way too with long hours, so even though I wasn’t the type to sleep on public transportation in Canada, I slept on the subway too while I lived in Seoul. It took a lot of getting used to. Like I wrote in a former part of this blog, it took 3 months for me to become accustomed to life there, physically and mentally. On the subway, you’d look around and see many people sleeping.

The children hardly had leisure time. After school and most times in the evenings they were required to study, study, study and have paid lessons, even on Saturdays and Sundays. Every week. Sometimes the parents arranged for a private “English lesson” from a foreigner like me, or they made the kids take piano lessons, for example. Even now, Korean children must obey their parents and must conform to society and constantly study. This is why I had such a hard time getting most of the students to listen or open their books at the Aju Middle School. They had had enough and had to slack off in English class, to keep their sanity. Many times when I had young Koreans to “teach” I gave them a break and just played the hangman games with them, because I understood how they had to live.

There is fierce competition and honour among parents to tell one another that their children made the highest marks on special entrance exams, so they are/were able to go to the best universities. All the parents compete with eachother in this regard. The children must follow this and keep studying for these special exams so they can enter one of Korea’s “top” universities. Now, as Korea becomes more like the west over time, there is more unemployment, however. All of the women are still expected to study for years and after a woman completes a university degree and gets her “office job”, she is expected to leave the job when she gets married. This expectation is quite rigid and she should marry around the age of 25 years and quit that job that she worked so hard and long to get so she can take care of the one or two children that society and the government says a Korean couple is allowed to have. Many women go back to work once their children have grown up. This is the way it goes and they are ostracized if they do not do this.

I did have a private job when I lived there, which was illegal. I made some extra pocket money and found it interesting. Someone had quit and left the company I worked for and I accepted her private teaching job. I can’t remember who helped me to acquire it. I had to go in the evening one night a week across the nine-lane road out front to a large apartment complex and find the right apartment building and go up in the elevator to a certain apartment. Good thing I could remember things well, because everything looked the same and it was dark. There were many apartment buildings in this “Family Apat” complex and they all looked the same. Once I found the right apartment, I had to greet the mother of a teenaged girl and go in the girl’s bedroom and “teach”. A friend of the girl was there for me to teach too. The lack of English was such that I couldn’t tell if the 2 girls were friends or sisters. I had the impression they were friends. The mother wasn’t listening to us, thank goodness, because I was just mostly playing word games or asking a few questions for them to get some practice. They giggled a lot and were very nice, but the late time of day hindered learning. When I think of it now, I tell myself I helped them by just being maybe the only native English speaker they’d ever spent time with. I have to hope they picked up on something useful. I did tell the girls to write a paragraph about their week and looked at those each time I was there. I did not feel very effective as those 2 girls and I were running out of steam in the evening and we all had long work hours, although we all did what we could. Before I left each time the mother passed me ₩40000 which was like maybe $40 for an hour and a half, but this was 23 years ago, so it would be more money now, so the money was good. English instruction was a coveted, lucrative business over there. I felt a little nervous when I went to my “private” though, because my boss, Mr. Kim would have hit the roof if he knew I was giving my time to someone other than his “Hanbo” business. I was there for his use and I was there for him to make a profit off. It was called illegal by everyone there to give private lessons, like I wrote above. I never did ask what the consequences would have been….

This reminds me of the large group of apartments called Olympic Family Apartments where I gave private lessons in Songpa-gu at the end of 1997 and early 1998.
There were so many lights and signs at night when I made my way home to my building.

I mentioned Olympic Family Apat(Korean way of saying ‘”apartments”) because my whole neighborhood, Songpa-gu, was made at the time of the Seoul 1998 Olympics and was a new neighborhood in 1997 when I was there. Currently, over 20 years later, it is one of the most expensive places in Korea to live. I know its subway line was very new when I lived there. South Korea’s exponential growth in the past 67 years is considered to be a miracle, as Seoul, especially, was built up after being decimated during the Korean War. I hear or read “The Miracle on the Han River” a lot because of this. The Han River runs through Seoul.

I have no photograph of them, but when I’d look at the city and the many buildings and streets from a window up high, I’d often see huge high green fences taking up large areas. They looked like vastly big high green cages. These green cages stuck up and stood out among buildings in views of many neighborhoods. I asked someone what they were, as there were many, and I was told they were places to practice hitting golf balls! A lot of Korean men were absolutely fascinated with golf, and unfortunately, space for anything there was hard to find. They told me if someone wanted to join an actual golf club and play golf on a real golf course, the person had to be rich to afford the monthly fee. Sports are/were important to them and they are good at them. They loved soccer the most and told me they were going to host the World Soccer Cup in 2002 and they were preparing a stadium and souvenirs already in 1997! It was a sensational thing. They also had their own baseball leagues and the main companies there owned their own national teams.

Koreans are stringent about healthy eating and physical fitness. No one can be fat. One nice businessman told me in a class that he felt very badly because he was thought of as “fat” by his society. He was trying to say he was just built that way. I am the same way and have a big build so I understood. I told him in Canada he would not be considered fat at all. And he wasn’t! I’ve looked at news articles from Korea through the years to see how things might have changed socially and I think ideas have changed somewhat concerning women or weight or homosexuality since I lived there, but not enough. They still have enormous pressure on them to be perfect and they do not have enough leisure time or a variety of stress-relievers like people in the western world have.

It was common to see a guard or a (very young) policeman, although the uniforms had no yellow on them back then.

Guards are everywhere at entrances of most office and apartment buildings. That was new to me. On the main streets, groups of policemen walked there, patrolling. I thought it was a little amusing that the policemen looked so very young, like teenagers. Once I threw my cigarette butt on the sidewalk and the Korean man (the recruiter who taught me about using the subway) I was with told me the policemen who looked at what I had done did not stop me and fine me $75 because I was a foreigner, but I “must be careful…!!!” Someone gave me a small plastic case with Korean writing on it and it was actually used to store cigarette butts! I kept it as a souvenir.

By jcorvec123gmailcom

I have a deep passion for Korea and love reminiscing about my time spent there in the late 1990s.

5 comments

  1. Hi Jennifer,
    For some reason, I was not following you and just came back to your site. I remember all of these things, extra money by tutoring and not allowed…I actually had to go to a police station as my wallet was stolen. It was extremely intimidating as no one spoke English. I was new in Seoul and did not want to get anyone involved, so I handled it myself, mostly. Years later, I am surprised he didn’t jail me as I yelled hysterically at him in English. Poor fella!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am relieved that I wasn’t the only one doing private lessons…I will get back to your site soon, as I had gotten away from everything too! I remember your wallet was stolen on public transportation by a couple, I think? Funny about you yelling at the man – we needed so much patience, as the language gap and ‘tight’ culture (? I don’t know what word to call it) was so hard to deal with. We never got a break from the extreme differences between us and them. I missed reading English words.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, you were not the only one. It was great money. The policeman was very rude to me, not characteristic of all Koreans. Most were very generous and spoke more English. Okay. I will get back to reading your site also. I mentioned it today at the end of my blog. I am focusing this summer on my journal entries. Maybe we can collaborate!I am watching Schitt’s Creek, season 5 tonight. So good.

        Liked by 1 person

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