Namdaemun, Seolnal in 1998:

I loved radish kimchi. This is one kind, called ‘chonggak’ kimchi, because the radish has its stem and leaves still attached to the long vegetable. The stem coming out of the rounded radish reminds Koreans of ponytails growing out of otherwise bald heads that many bachelors had years ago. These bachelors were called ‘chonggak’. Eunuchs who served kings in old times actually had their hair this way, I know. Anyway, these pickles shown above are called ‘bachelor kimchi’ or ‘chonggak kimchi’ or even ‘ponytail kimchi’.

Namdaemun Market….

Soon after my arrival in Seoul in 1997, the Korean people told me about a huge indoor/outdoor market that I had to see. They described how many vendors came from rural areas and brought their produce there to sell to tourists and city-dwellers, and they described how these farmers started in the night, at 2 am, every night, to get set up for the day. It was customary at the time, they all told me, to go to Namdaemun Market at 4 or 5 am to get a good deal on what you wanted. What interested me was that there were over ten thousand vendors (!!!) at this market and the beautiful South Gate of old Seoul was outside of it. By the time I finally went to see it at the end of 1997, I had been lucky enough to have gotten a wonderful female Korean roomate and we went there together.

This was in the area of Namdaemun Market. A huge, western-style fountain is on the left and Seoul Tower is in the middle, looming in the haze. This scene is barely recognizable now, as are many areas because so many new structures have been added since 1997. The man on the motorcycle carrying some kind of wares is interesting and seeing men travelling like this was common at the time.
A government building or a bank, I can’t remember which, across from the main entrance to the market.

The Korean woman I befriended was Kim Ji-Young and she had been living across the nine-lane highway below, with her parents in the apartment complex there. She worked in the old downtown crunching numbers for ING Direct. She was a highly religious Christian and fell asleep in our room while praying a lot, she prayed that much. She was going to marry a Korean man soon. Thank goodness for me she had decided to live in my institute and learn English more. We talked a lot and went places together and roomed together for a few months. I tried to explain to her I didn’t see eye to eye with the other foreigners there and she didn’t seem to mesh with them either. Maybe she sensed their hatred?

My only picture of Ji-Young. She was gentle, smart and classy. Later I’m going to write about how she helped during my husband’s visit.
Korean ‘dates’ and 2 kinds of tea
Stacks of dried squid and packages of dried dark green sheets of seaweed
I couldn’t believe it when I was on a higher floor of a building and looked down: you can see there is a table in the upper right corner selling cooked pieces of pork, unprotected and uncovered, right beside tables of men’s dress pants and kitchen wares.
It’s hard to see, but there are sneakers, containers, clothes, actual whole raw fish, and green vegetation of some kind, all close together.
South Gate. The most important thing to me was to see this ‘gate’. Around 2013 an insane Korean man set it on fire and it was lost. There are videos of it burning that show how people were so upset that such an iconic symbol was being destroyed. The whole country stopped. It would have been comparable to when Notre Dame Cathedral burnt. It has been rebuilt, but now it looks too new…

Husband’s Visit….

My husband was eager to come and his visit was during the coldest week of the year. We wouldn’t have minded but it was such a damp cold and the worst thing, like I mentioned in a former blog, was that my living area wasn’t heated or insulated. I had to teach just the same during his visit. When he wasn’t shivering under the covers in bed next to the portable, partly broken heater that was provided by my boss, he saw Seoul with me.

Sail from the LG class was instrumental in showing my husband the good things about Korea. He made sure it was a good visit for Robert (my husband). You see, things weren’t perfect from the start, what with the lack of heating, and another thing: Korean Air had lost his luggage! I waited extra long at the airport for him to get off the plane so we could take the subway back to my institute. I waited and waited and waited. No sign of Robert… This is where I ordered a sandwich and it was ketchup and peas. A Middle Eastern man with a white beard and a turban bothered me in the airport and latched onto me, going on in a very animated way, wanting me to try to get him into ‘my country’, and I had to try to get away from him. I read an official pamphlet while I waited that had a huge, long list of countries where people from them were not allowed into Korea at all, period. My husband finally came out where I was and didn’t have his luggage.

It was dark by the time the subway came above ground on our long ride from west to east going from Kimpo Airport to Karak-dong. Robert saw the lights of the massive city and orange lit crosses of churches everywhere very well that evening. I brought him to Anam in Bucheon to meet Mr. Choi one day. One Saturday night we partied at a club/bar in Kangnam and found a small Korean restaurant the next day in my neighbourhood to each have a huge bowl of Korean dumpling soup to cure our hangovers. Was that ever good for making us feel better. The soup had all kinds of things in it like many types of vegetables, tofu, clams and ‘ddok’ (pieces of pounded rice) along with a load of homemade dumplings and the price was only 3 dollars per bowl.

There were many simple places along sidestreets where an older Korean woman would sell her cooking and charged low prices. Men did not cook as a rule in Korea and many men went to these places to have their meals if they weren’t married. If you did buy Korean cooking like that it was very affordable. Sometimes a foreigner like me couldn’t get served. I’ve seen where the Korean people running the restaurant turn away people like me because it’s too hard to understand what they want. Thank goodness I could understand some of the menu that was written in Korean and could speak a little Korean at that time.

At Bongeunsa
We both liked those turtles at Bongeunsa. You can tell Robert is freezing! It was damp and minus eleven degrees Celsius.

One morning during Robert’s visit a Korean student from one of my morning classes right at my institute wanted to take my husband and me to eat at a special place in the satellite city to the south of us, Seongnam. After I had taught a few businessmen for an hour that morning in the 8 o’clock class, I went up to my floor to get Robert and we went in the man’s vehicle to Seongnam. It was funny because his van was not a mini-van like you’d see in Canada. He told us it was a MINI mini-van. A lot of vehicles had to be smaller than in North America due to lack of space. It was a bright, sunny day but cold. I didn’t realise it fully at the time, but the man took us to a famous area where you can get special noodles from that region. This restaurant had a glassed section inside where you could see men dressed in white stretching and pulling the homemade noodles. What stood out to us was that it was very cold, but the outside restaurant door was made of glass, and people kept coming in and out and when that door would open the air was freezing! I don’t remember there being any heat in there either. You couldn’t tell because it was so cold with the door opening all the time. We figured the Korean winter was short so everybody just tolerates the cold for a short while and in some cases they don’t bother to use heat or use heavy doors with weatherstripping, etc. I saw Seongnam twice and each time I saw apartment buildings upon apartment buildings surrounded by mountains.

We both went to Kyeongbokkung Palace with Sail and it was good to show it to Robert and good for me to see it again.

Robert and Sail in front of the structure that has the throne in it. Robert is on the left and Sail is on the right wearing sunglasses, in the front.
This is the most famous gazebo and pond in Korea.

I know it sounds awful to say, but I’ll never forget about what the Korean diet did at first to both of us. Robert and I were on Line 8 on the subway one morning; perhaps we were heading out to Bucheon for him to meet Mr. Choi, and Robert told me he really needed the bathroom. At the next stop, we got off the train and thankfully found a bathroom. I had memorized where bathrooms were along that route. After a few minutes Robert came out of the bathroom and rushed up to me. His face looked really funny and he exclaimed in an urgent voice, “…Jen!!!…Holy ****!!! There’re stems and leaves in my ****!!! I looked in the toilet and it’s just stems and leaves!!!!!…” He was actually scared. I had forgotten that this happened to me a week after I’d been there. It happened sooner with him. I told him Don’t worry, it happened to me at first too. It is shocking that from the sudden, extreme change in diet it caused that in both of us over there. I should have found more western-style food for him but it was really hard to do that. That’s how different their diet is from ours. No potatoes….no bread….no cheese….

At the corner of the building that houses the throne. What I like is the big black iron cauldron.

Sail wanted to bring Robert to see the Lotte Museum. We did go, and Sail went through all the exhibits with us. Their culture was beautifully showcased in room upon room upon room, on and on. There was a huge section where each room had a large display case or two filled with Korean dolls dressed in different costumes, posing in a variety of situations. A display case was maybe 12 feet by 12 feet. The dolls represented Korean people in many places. Display after display after display we came upon. Sail stood back while we marvelled at so many dolls. A number of displays had the dolls lined up in a true to life courtyard in front of the king and his throne. So many lines of different types of servants and soldiers, there were. A few displays showed the dolls as children all playing traditional games outside and mothers were cooking at pots over the fire inside the grass-covered little houses or hanging out clothes on clotheslines. More and more and more displays of dolls there were. Each doll was around a foot high. I think the entrance to this place was only 3 dollars! I later asked my husband what he liked the best about his visit. He said he liked the doll displays in that museum the best out of his whole visit. Koreans have the nicest, most elaborate museums of anywhere, I think.

It is aesthetically pleasing to the eye in Kyeongbokkung. I never got to see all of it because it’s so big. The palaces are photo-friendly as everywhere you point the camera is a perfect shot.

After we saw the museum we went to a Western-style restaurant called T.G.I.F. and Sail ordered a platter of this and a platter of that along with other items from the menu. He paid for everything even though I did not want him to. One platter had Korean seafood pancakes to eat and they’re not sweet like ours in Canada. This platter had pieces of pancake cut into squares with green onion and Korean squash or zucchini inside as well as pieces of squid and you dip your piece of pancake in spicy soy sauce. I was having trouble eating a piece and couldn’t chew it and Sail had to tell me what the trouble was. I was eating a piece that contained a squid’s eye! And it was big and hard. I had to take the eye out of my mouth and leave it on my plate. Robert laughed about that for a long time afterwards.

Once when Robert was down on the third floor with me where the secretaries and Mr. Kim were, Miss Park took me aside and told me that Robert had good eyebrows. She said Koreans liked big, strong eyebrows on a man, and it was good that my husband had them. It meant something important if a man had pronounced eyebrows, and I can’t remember what it was…. I always find it so funny and so strange that they like men’s big eyebrows and women’s big eyelids. We all never think about those things in Canada.

Solnal 1998….

The week that Robert was in Seoul was Solnal time, or Korean New Year. He and I were invited to Ji Young’s family’s apartment across the nine-lane road for dinner one day. Her parents were very nice and could speak a lot of English. Her father had worked for the government in a high-up job that had to do with international relations. We sat around their dining room table and talked and that huge long table was absolutely full of nice dishes, one after another. I know there were many types of soups. The most beautiful soup was made with eels! I had never eaten eels before because in my area of Moncton they were thought of as gross. That soup was wonderful. Koreans make excellent food with eels and sardines and squid, and everything else for that matter. I had a nice clear turnip soup too. Before we went back to the institute, Ji Young’s parents gave me a set of bronze-cast cranes! They are old and they are precious to me. What a gift!

The tall one is 13 inches high. I love birds and any cranes delight me.

Speaking of Solnal 1998, when Robert and I were going to Sail’s apartment to go sightseeing with him during that time, we got lost. We knocked on someone’s door in Seollung in Gangnam-Gu. A Korean man answered and he was wearing one of their special Hanbok outfits and I could see his family waiting inside in their colourful outfits. I felt so bad for disturbing them while they were performing their rituals for Solnal. I think I had to get the man to call Sail. It was so hard to find a place because they didn’t go by a street and number on that street. They only seemed to name a huge neighborhood and perhaps used landmarks after that to get anywhere. This is another reason it was scary and intimidating for me to use their taxis – there was no western-style address to give the driver.

Sail personally drove us up to Seoul Tower also. On the way, Sail had to stop and ask directions from someone. He stopped and talked to a Korean man. I remember noticing how remarkable it was for them all to live in a homogenous population. Everyone was like a friend or relative and they were all familiar and at ease when speaking to Korean strangers. In Canada many people are wary and cautious of everyone, even a next-door neighbour.

Then on the way once we had found out how to get to Sail’s, I needed the bathroom. You will think I’m odd and obsessed with toilets, but I’m just describing that even using the bathroom was different there. One of the teachers at my institute had told me that some older bathrooms in Korea that were for women had no toilets, but these older bathrooms had an oval ‘toilet’ built right into the floor, so a woman had to ‘squat’ and do her business. Could I imagine the audacity of Koreans, she asked indignantly, expecting women to squat to use the bathroom because their anatomy is a certain way? The woman (from Calgary, Alberta) telling me was resentful and hateful, and looked for anything to run the Koreans down. I pondered what it would be like to have to use a ‘squatter’, and was hopeful after she told me about it that I would never have to use one. The bathroom I found on the way to Sail’s in Seollung had a squatter!!! I wasn’t angry or resentful at all after I used it. Later, I did come across a couple more of them in Korea and I didn’t mind at all. It was just different. Like everything there, it was different. The squatters are probably all gone now.

More about Karak-dong….

On Songpa-daero, the nine-lane highway I lived on, in 1997. On the left is my brick 5-storey building and you can see three apartment buildings, the Han Shin Apartments, sticking up (one is beige and brown and two are white and turquoise) behind it. On the right is where the ‘Olympic Family Apartments’ were. If you walked ahead a few blocks you’d reach Munjeong Station and you’d be going south..

In the bottom of my building in Karak-dong, a person would first wave to the old Korean man who always had his beautiful little dog with him before he/she went up the stairs. He was a security man. They were extremely common everywhere. Then a person would walk up the four flights of stairs, as there was no elevator, and come to the landing of my floor, which had 2 bathrooms and a digital clothes washer. If you kept going up the stairs, at the landing part of the way up to the fifth floor, there were a few clothes-drying racks to hang your wet clothes. This was extremely important there, to have these drying racks, as there were absolutely NO CLOTHES DRYERS in Korea. While being transported across the city, everywhere I went, I saw clothes hung up in the windows of all of the apartment buildings! When I used the digital washing machine, the information was in Korean. We all just pressed some buttons and had to hope it washed our clothes!

If you walked about 8 steps across the landing at the 4th floor and passed the bathrooms and the washer, you came to a glass door and a bunch of footwear on the floor. You had to take your shoes off and leave them there and put on a pair of rubber slippers. Then you could open the glass door and enter our living area. There was a small lounge with a television and a fridge and a phone on a desk. This is where we received our calls from friends and family. You couldn’t just call a restaurant or anywhere and ask a question because no one spoke English. I remember one Canadian teacher yelling into the phone over and over, “…Yong-o…!!!….Yong-o…???…Can you speak English???!!??!!…Does anyone there speak English..!?!!?…Yong-o…???…” ‘Yong-o’ was English. There were many bedrooms beyond the lounge. On the tv, there was a channel that showed The Jay Leno Show and Seinfeld. Thank goodness I could see Seinfeld, but only once a week on Thursday like back home. Other than that we used the tv to see American movies on videotapes we would rent and watch on a vcr. Koreans were always interested in the latest American movies. I saw some of the latest ones while there like G.I. Jane, Murder at 400 and Twister. Only certain ones had been ‘approved’ for them to see. The Korean students watched The Jay Leno Show on Friday nights. Anthony and the men loved it.

One day a foreign teacher said I had better come and see what they do there. I looked out the window and there was a huge crane-like vehicle or machine at the bottom of one of the HanShin Apartment buildings beside where we were. The vehicle was extending a long metal crane or tube up to the window of one of the apartments in that HanShin building. People moved their furniture in or out of apartments this way. A sofa, for example, was shifted through the crane-like tube and it moved down to the vehicle, or maybe a sofa would travel upwards in the long extension if someone was moving into a place. So no one is carrying furniture and bags into elevators at all. They do everything in a convenient and sensible way.

I spent a lot of my time standing here because it was where teachers could smoke.
This was what I saw out the window when I had my cigarettes beside that washing machine. This is an auto-shop. Down on the ground right beside this turquoise and white apartment building was where the moving crane was that day.

I want to also say that it was so different being there that when we stood talking by the washing machine having our smokes, the Korean men went in the men’s bathroom and went to the urinals while leaving the door open. The women or anyone by the washing machine could see the men using the large bathroom. I couldn’t believe it!

Robert’s visit ended after the third week of January and I continued on travelling to classes and missing Canada more as well as worrying about the financial crisis.

At First….Garak Market

This is what I saw when I looked out of the window of the airplane after the pilot said we were about to land in Seoul. The hundreds of apartment buildings looked funny when you were so high up in the air looking down at all of them – like tiny beige matchboxes. I had never imagined anything like it.

I didn’t know anything. I knew nothing about Korea. Perhaps that was best. Here I was on a plane from Canada to Seoul. It was my first time on a plane and I didn’t know anyone in Korea or anyone on the plane. I was completely alone and didn’t mind.

I was used to doing things alone, as I had gone away to University alone, but this was a very big deal to me because I had spent my life living in “The Maritimes”. The Maritime Provinces of Canada are small land areas that stick out into the Atlantic Ocean. “The Maritimes” include islands too. I grew up and lived in this Atlantic area, in New Brunswick. The forests and lakes and ocean views are lovely in these provinces but any cities in this region are small. This means low employment and I had always said, “There’s nothing there”.

It was unusual for women or anyone from my remote Atlantic province to go alone to live and work in Asia. I had signed a contract teach English in Seoul for a year. And I was leaving my husband to go there. You see, in New Brunswick I could not find satisfactory employment. The economy was poor and I couldn’t use my degree, so all I had to do was get through a year of teaching English…and I’d have lots of money saved from my job in Korea…surely to goodness I could do that. I gave my husband instructions on how to pay the bills and I waited so eagerly to be able to get on a plane to Seoul. After all, I had always wanted to go to a far away place.

People told me not to go. “You’re going to be the only person like you on the subway…” “People don’t leave their husbands to go do that…” “You’d better like rice. That’s all they eat!” “You might not want to go there. I think that’s what M.A.S.H. was about!” My grandmother thought it was dangerous and prayed and prayed that I wouldn’t end up going. She told me this when I went over to her house to say goodbye.

Of course, I did not know all or anything about what Koreans eat, and I wasn’t sure if M.A.S.H was about the Korean War (wasn’t it about Viet Nam, I thought?) and how could my grandmother be right, since she worries too much about everything? As far as leaving my husband to go, it didn’t feel inside like I shouldn’t go. It felt like I should go. I did believe in fate and in karma and Tarot cards and those types of things and I felt underneath it was my destiny to go to Korea. On the surface, I needed money and would save a lot of money, but underneath, I felt compelled to go. I had planned to have $10000 at the end of the one-year contract to be able to pay off my $15000 student loan.

I was getting ready to leave in the morning so, so early and saw on TV they seemed to be saying Lady Diana had been in a car accident and was dead. It was an early report at 4am Atlantic time. By the time my father came to take me to the airport, it had been confirmed. She had been killed. Such a larger than life figure would never do more great things. And she was so beautiful and caring. I took it to heart and at that point thought it was a bad omen to be going so far away and taking on this huge, life-changing trip when such an event had just happened. I couldn’t exactly change my mind at that point but started to have doubts and fears about my journey and destination.

The plane was close to landing and when the pilot said we were over Seoul. I looked out of the tiny window and I just remember seeing clusters of similar-looking apartment buildings on the ground below. I just saw many, many plain-looking apartment buildings in rows at first, as the plane descended and headed toward the airport.

Then suddenly it was time to go through the tunnel to get off the plane and into the airport. And it hit me like a ton of bricks – the heat and humidity. And the heat and humidity were constant for another month to come. Kimpo Airport was the only international airport in Korea at the time and it was huge but it wasnt new or especially modern or nice. I had never been over there or anywhere, really, so I thought it was pretty exciting. I was with a girl who was on the plane from Ontario, called Bronwyn, who was nice and seemed to know things about Korea whereas I knew nothing. She was friendly and I appreciate the advice about being in Korea she that she gave me and I still remember her kindness. I can’t remember much of what she said about Korea but I know she told me, “Don’t blow your nose in Korea!”. However, I got off the plane knowing nothing of what was waiting for me…

This is only about 20% of Seoul. Karak-dong, where I lived, is to the left in this picture. You can see Kangnam in front and the Koex Building, which is the Trade Center. It has a stripe down the middle of it.

Karak Market

I was with the young woman from Ontario called Bronwyn in the “arrivals” section at the airport. A Korean man was holding a sign saying “Bronwyn”. We waited. No one showed up for me. Terrifying, really. I was so scared and upset, not knowing any of the language or the continent of Asia and I only had about sixty Canadian dollars! I didn’t have much money to bring with me and the ‘recruiter’ back in Canada had told me I wouldn’t need any, because all of my meals were supposed to be included, according to my contract. I had borrowed the money from my mother for the plane ticket as it was. Most people in Korea were only paid once each month, I was told at first. In Canada nobody was paid once a month; everybody was paid once every two weeks. So it was very bad, I felt, to have to live there for a month with only forty-seven Canadian dollars. (I had paid $13 for the taxi.)

I got in a taxi with the Korean man who met Bronwyn and Bronwyn herself, as the two of them had agreed together that they would help me, thank God. Bronwyn got out of the taxi after a short while, where she would be working and living, and I continued on in the taxi with this Korean man who was paid by English institutes to pick up and deliver foreign teachers to their bosses. I was so terrified. I didn’t know who this very foreign stranger was or what his job was. I had no clue about Seoul or Korea. The man, however, was very nice. I loved Korean people right away, despite being so thoroughly scared over there at first. They were all so nice and inquisitive. He told me his last name was Kim and he was trying to orientate me a bit to Seoul but it would take me 3 months to feel somewhat comfortable in Korea.

My long taxi ride that day was during my very first few hours in Korea. The heat was new and strange to me while I sat there, and I can’t forget the overwhelming, unending traffic and the endless concrete buildings and seeing so many signs everywhere with bold Korean characters only on them. And I can’t forget the heightened anxiety I felt at first. It was just too foreign to me all at once.

I enjoyed talking to Mr. Kim during this taxi ride. And I could see Seoul for the first time on this ride too. We were going most of the way from West to East across the southern half of Seoul along the humongous river that crosses the city. It took around an hour to go by taxi from Kimpo Airport to my address in SongPa District and it only cost me $13 from Bronwyn’s departure, which was near the airport, to my stop. In my city in Canada, that taxi would have cost an awful lot more.

I got to my building, such as it was, and I had jet lag like crazy, but was supposed to start teaching immediately! I talked briefly to a few Canadians and right away everybody asked, “Why are you here?” because they all hated it there. They completely and absolutely hated Korea. Most of them, I found, were there as a sort of escape from problems they had back home. I did not feel negatively about Korea or its people while I was there. Also, the Canadians who were at my institute didn’t like me, much to my chagrin, because they had a bad attitude towards people who were from Atlantic Canada…I wasn’t from an important place, where people were with-it, apparently, according to them. This made it worse for me at first, when I was already struggling with my extreme “culture shock” as it was.

This is the view from the fourth floor window of my building, looking toward the Karak subway station.

My institute was in a plain, red brick building that was 5 stories high. The “institute” was on the third floor of the building, where there were classrooms, offices and meeting rooms. I slept on the 4th floor with other foreign teachers and with Korean people who paid to stay there while they worked and went to English classes. The Korean students who paid to live right at the institute could practice speaking English with the teachers in the common areas of the 4th floor and have discussions with them in order to learn to speak better.

The trip over for me was even longer than Bronwyn’s because I had even further to travel. Over 1000km more than she did. Around 20 hours of flight time in total. The time-change is around 11 or twelve hours because Korea doesn’t use Daylight Savings Time and we do. So I was accustomed to sleeping when they were having daytime. This made it difficult to function in a work environment.

I had to go in a small classroom that first night and talk to a Korean adult student and another foreign male teacher. As far as teaching went, a pattern emerged right away, in that I had to talk about the differences between Canada and Korea in most ‘classes’. I listened to Korean businessmen, mostly, tell me all about Korea the whole time I was there. I learned so much over time like their heating systems, how and what they pay for their children’s weddings, their religions, their history, their food and attitudes, and so much more. Thank goodness I was allowed to sleep eventually that evening in a tiny, tiny room with paper-thin walls and no insulation to outside. I had air-conditioning at first because I wouldn’t ever have been able to sleep at all without it for the first month. The most striking thing to me was the noise of the traffic. I noticed that I was living on a nine-lane road that was a main throughway. In the night I would wake up at 3am, especially at first, and I would lie there wide awake listening to that traffic. The unpopulated province where I was from had only 600 000 people in the whole province, and at that time, 1997, Seoul had 11 million people or some estimates gave 15 million when they considered people coming to the city from other places in Korea or Seoul vicinity to work or sight-see. My city in Canada had around 55 000 people at that time. Imagine me there.

This gives you a sense of the magnitude of the number of buildings and traffic. I could always see the mountains surrounding the city as well. I loved it. This is a view of the Central part of Seoul and I lived at least 10km from here. The area was not quite as built up as is pictured here back then though.

There was another unexpected and noticeable thing in Korea that first night for me. Along with the humidity there was a horrible, strong smell of something I had never smelled before. I thought at first it was all of Korea or all of Seoul that smelled. I found out from one of the Korean people later that the horrible smell was coming from a huge abattoir across from the nine-lane highway below me! The largest agricultural market in all of Korea was attached to it, hence the name Karak Market. In the heat and humidity the smell was worse. This was another negative thing that added to my feeling of alienation in Korea at first. I laid there in bed that first night feeling like I should be awake instead of sleeping, and had the traffic roaring downstairs and that horrible heavy smell, and the heavy humidity in the air also. I did think all of Korea must smell like that at the time, and it was a ‘rotten’ odour hanging everywhere. Since there was no insulation in that building, as was the case in many buildings there, and the windows weren’t ‘up-to-code’ like they are in Canada to keep out cold, the traffic sound was even louder and felt closer than it would have back in Canada.

The next day I would have to go out into that huge city………

The Subway….

A subway car. My closest subway line was Line 8 and it was new and very modern. I looked at the advertisements on the walls a lot and always wondered what they were saying. Most ads were for cosmetics. I also had to hang onto the stirrups hanging down when the car was crowded.

On one of my first days there, my boss (who was creepy and aloof – I did not get a good feeling at all when I met him) sent a Korean man to show me how to use the subway system. I knew there was a subway, but I was scared to take it. Growing up I saw on television and the news that the subway was dangerous. That’s all I knew. I really was scared to go see. I went on a subway ride with the man explaining. The subway system in Seoul is one of the biggest and most complicated in the world. It was around 65 cents to go quite far. And in Toronto the subway cost three times that at that time. The subway map was very daunting with 9 lines crossing eachother, and maps were mostly in Korean, making it even worse. Now, over 20 years later, the map has twice as many lines crossing eachother. They all said the Seoul subway has English everywhere so not to worry.

Map of Seoul (2019). I lived in the bottom right-hand corner near Karak Market Station and Munjeong Station. The subway lines are on this map. The line is pink on this map going through where I lived showing Line 8. 1cm is around 2km.

I lived along a nice new Line 8 called the pink line to Moran or going south to a new satellite city called Seongnam. It took me a while to know I lived in Southeastern Seoul. That 9-lane highway outside my building was a main throughway eventually going to another major city, Busan, at the SouthEastern tip of the country. Their subway system was modern, clean and orderly. When I travelled outside, which was usually all day, I took the subway a lot and saw what they do. Everyone is neat and freshly scrubbed in the shower with not one hair out of place. They do not generally speak on the subway and they actually used it as a chance to sleep on weekdays because they were working long hours with not enough sleep at night, so you’d see them sleeping sitting up a lot. I noticed that and thought it was certainly different. You just wouldn’t see that in the Maritimes or anywhere in Canada. When I was walking in some long hallways to get to the subway car, I could smell garlic and sweat and kimchi and perhaps car exhaust and it made another unusual common smell there.

Try as I might to purchase a ticket at the counter, the poor man behind the glass hardly ever knew I was saying Karak Market. I tried saying it so many ways…

The nicest thing about the subway was that sometimes it is running outside, not underground, and you see views of the river and neighborhoods on your way.

An example of a subway car running above ground. (This is a modern picture and I don’t think it was taken in Seoul.)
One of my most cherished memories is of sitting so long going many kilometers across the city on the subway in the morning, and suddenly coming above ground and seeing the morning sun shining on the gold-coloured 63 Building. There’s nothing like seeing that. You can see the 63 Bldg on the right in the morning sun in the distance here.

The bus…

I still had to take buses as well to get to my teaching spots. My first outside job, given to me on one of my first days there, was to take a bus 78-1 to Kangnam to ‘teach’ businessmen who worked for a Scandinavian company called Votra. I didn’t know what I was doing at all or where I was. I just explained to these Korean men about Canada, and showed them the few pictures I had brought with me of my family back home. One of them, when I was first there and in shock, explained to me that in Korea they have a saying when they talk about the weather. If the sky was blue and mostly clear, he said “We say, ‘The sky is high today’, to someone when we meet them”. I had learned my first Korean saying.

I used several Korean sayings to break the ice with other Koreans from then on. They thought I must have been all right if I knew those things. One saying was “Sum Han Sa On” meaning their Seoul weather in winter has 3 days of cold, then 4 days of warmer as a rule. Someone like me could only know this by talking to a Korean about it. There was also a saying meaning somebody was not too smart, “Deok Mori”, meaning ‘chicken head’. The young Koreans loved that and would laugh when I’d mention I knew that saying. My favourite was “See a ‘gachi’ in the morning, and you’ll have good luck all day”. It meant it was good for business to see a magpie in the morning, especially for a store owner – it meant many customers will come in the store that day.

I heard and saw magpies all the time in Seoul. That was exciting to me because I had always been a birdwatcher and in Eastern Canada where I am from there were no magpies. Magpies are only found in Western Canada. They are a large, loud, black and white bird related to jays and crows with a bit of purple and blue iridescence on their wings and tail. They were all throughout Seoul flying around the tops of buildings while they cried, especially in the morning.

A Korean magpie or ‘gachi’

This first class I just wrote about, Votra, was in Kangnam-gu, which was a trendy new area, they said. A Gu is a huge neighbourhood. I had to pass the bus driver a note written by one of the secretaries from the Institute so he’d let me off the bus at the right place. It was fascinating taking the bus there. There were so many businesses and office buildings and apartments. And the mornings in Seoul were so wonderful. The sun would shine a light orange glow on everything. You could see such a wide endless area of blue sky and mountains in the distance everywhere, some with granite on them, surrounding this city of neverending buildings. It was breathtaking.

I went to Votra on weekday mornings to talk to some businessmen in a small boardroom. There were papers for me to copy from English-As-a-Second-Language books and bring to class to give students. Students were supposed to take turns reading paragraphs out loud and then we could discuss the not-so-good topics. A lot of the time in all classes we would all just talk about the way it was in Korea, so I learned a lot. Also, I would try to explain where my home in Canada was. I drew pictures on a blackboard like a map of Canada to do this. I noticed most Koreans assumed that all of Canada was the same everywhere in every region. They didn’t see that if 2 places are 3000 km from eachother, they would have different temperatures and different geography. At the time, I figured they must think think like that because their country wasn’t big and vast like Canada was.

This is near Yeoksam in Kangnam, where I would go on the bus to Votra. On and on the buildings and traffic went…. I remember seeing many places that sold cars here and a movie theater.

One day I tried to return to my building on the same bus I had been taking. I had been in Korea for a week. The bus was moving along as normal, and there was a recorded woman’s voice announcing something over and over. This is what happens on the subway and buses, so I thought nothing of it. After a while I realised no one was on the bus anymore! And suddenly the bus was pulling into a rural-looking place with chickens on the ground! I was so beyond upset. I could not speak ANY Korean and the middle-aged bus driver could not speak English. Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying for a 28 year-old woman from a small area in a foreign country who could not tell them anything and could not understand what they could say. And I was so new to Seoul I didn’t know any areas at all yet. I went with the bus driver to a desk in a small rudimentary building and I made a gesture that looked like I was dialing a phone and holding a phone receiver. He knew right away what I meant and handed me a phone. I called the main secretary at my place and she explained to the driver how to bring me ‘home’. I sat on the bus in the seat trying to look out the window and I had tears coming down my cheeks. I was so upset over this mishap and could not speak the language – I don’t know what upset me more, the fact that I was lost, or that I could not communicate my problem. The driver turned back toward me to look at me and pointed up to the ceiling of the bus, pointing, pointing and pointing. Ha ha, my goodness – he thought I was sweating, not crying, and he was trying to tell me to use the little personal fan above me to cool off! He saw me wiping my tears away and thought I was wiping sweat away trom my eyes! I sat there alone, crying on the bus, feeling so terrified, embarassed, helpless and frustrated all at the same time. And, when the driver let me off the bus, I said ‘thank you’ in English but vowed to myself I would learn how to say Thank You in Korean. I was so grateful and so wanted to thank him. So that was the first thing I learned how to say and I didn’t wait long to learn it. But I also learned how to write it and read it in Korean. And I kept on learning more of the language after that.


This is what their Kimbap looked like. In my area of Canada we call it ‘sushi’ but that’s not what it is. They sold trays of it everywhere and it only cost a dollar or $1.50 for a lot of fat rolls – the best you’d ever eat.

On my first full day there, another Canadian who knew I didn’t have much money for the next month said I had to get some kimbap. In Korean, rice is ‘bap’ and seaweed sheets or laver is ‘kim’. So it’s a filling covered in sticky rice and rolled up with a seaweed sheet and sliced. In Korea, they are big, fresh and cheap. I found I liked ketchup and mayonnaise on them. Honestly, it’s really nice. Usually the inside of the roll had a piece of cucumber, a piece of carrot, some scrambled egg and a piece of pink and white ‘immitation crab’ meat.

I ate in the basement with groups of Koreans at first because it was free at the Institute. A nice lady cooked and cleaned for us. She couldn’t speak English and was friendly. We called her ‘Agumma’, as that means ‘middle-aged female server’. She mopped all the floors with just water and baked huge sardines for us in hot sauce. There was an old man downstairs who guarded the door and he had a sweet little dog with him all the time. They were lovely people, but could not speak a word of English.

I found out at the start no one could give me a fork. It took me a whole month to be good at using chopsticks. I loved it. I could pick up a single grain of rice at a time to eat once I could use them. If we went to an expensive Western restaurant we could ask for a fork. There were many convenience stores and they had Korean rice wine and beer for sale in the coolers. Some of the ‘soju’, or Korean rice wine, cost LESS than a bottle of water! And outside, you could always find a cigarette stand selling a pack of 20 Korean or American cigarettes for a little over a dollar. Korean beer was very good and the bottles were much bigger than ours. With the cheap taxis, subway fares, beer and cigarettes I was in heaven.

This vendor has rice snacks for sale

I went to vendors in trucks or stands everywhere. A few times I bought rice snacks – you could get a huge mixed bag of rice crisps and rice puffs in different forms for a few dollars. My tooth broke from the crunchiness of some of it once and the dentist who fixed it charged a third of what it would cost in Canada. Sometimes the blue Daewoo trucks that were everywhere drove in the streets announcing to the people to come buy Korean pears, seafood, eggs, or any other wares. We often heard the loudspeakers doing this or we would often hear car brakes screeching and then a loud crash from the nine-lane road outside, meaning there had been an accident. Sometimes a fight between Korean men would break out below our windows of the building we lived in where the auto shop was – many problems seemed to be about a parking spot. Also, a few times I looked out at the nine-lane highway at nighttime and saw a severely drunk man was crawling home on the ground along the highway. He would flounder and yell while he crawled. Because the liquor was so cheap this happened, they said.

Sang Hyun….

I had run out of money and was so despondent, not being able to relate to the other English speakers in my building and having no one to talk to on my off time. I went and sat outside my building in Karak-dong. The most amazing thing happened that evening. It was nice and warm and calm and around September 9th, 1997. I was sitting on a piece of concrete after suppertime feeling so sad. A Korean man who was around my age stopped to talk to me. He said he lived nearby and asked, “Why are you sitting alone like this here?” I did not know how to begin to explain. I remember distinctly he said he wanted ‘a foreign friend’ like me and asked if I would want that too. In Canada or most other Western countries a man stopping to talk to you like that would have alterior motives, but I strongly sensed it was safe, even good, to make friends with this person. He asked if I wanted to walk up the street and get some chicken. I had no money for a meal and cautiously followed. He was so nice and down to Earth. He told me he was engaged and would soon be married to an elementary school teacher who lived in Suwon, which was a city with a historical fortress to the south of Seoul I had heard of. He had travelled by himself to China and Australia a few years ago, he said.

The meal was so interesting – a little restaurant that sold ‘smoked chicken and pickled radish’. They called them Chicken Houses. I looked and saw he was spending 6 dollars on me and it bothered me but I explained about my situation as much as I could. I didn’t know then, but Korean society doesn’t think of money the same way we might. They are happy to pay for you, as they often insisted on with me. They said always, “I asked you to have dinner here with me so I must pay”. Not too many would ever be dishonest or money-grabbing.

Baek Sang Hyun (A picture taken 20 years after I knew him. I copied it from Facebook.)

Small residential street where Sang Hyun lived in Karak-dong behind my building.

After we ate the chicken he asked if I wanted to come to his apartment nearby that he shared with his brother, who wasn’t there often. I took a big chance it could be safe to do that and went. He showed me a videotape on a vcr that had his two trips on them. He said after he graduated from university, he wanted to pat a panda bear in China and he wanted to bungie-jump off a cliff in Australia. He did those things and showed me videos of both. It was entirely safe! That night I saw a picture of his fiancee. She was so beautiful, like a movie-star or model. While I was in Korea, Sang Hyun would call me every week to ask me to do something like go eat or go sightseeing or go to a large mall, anything. He had a nice sense of humour and is smarter than I realised – he was an engineer for the government at that time. Now, he has an even higher position and travels giving seminars and speeches about how to deal with waste in Korean cities.

When he would call me, the secretaries always answered and passed the phonecall upstairs to our lounge but they did this reluctantly. They always tried to get rid of him and didn’t believe I was friends with him. They did not want strangers taking advantage of me or bothering me and protecting me was part of their job. No one there understood that we were friends and doing good for eachother. He told me once he had no one in Seoul, like my problem I had there as well. His male friends had moved away to work or get married. His family lived far away. More than that, he couldn’t be free talking to Korean women, he said, because of the strict rules in their society. He was happy he could swear, drink, and smoke with me even though I was a woman. He could tell me anything he wanted. I was like having a male friend, which he didn’t have at that time. I listened to him but it was difficult to understand. In my Canadian society the roles of women and men were more equal. His family name was Baek, and he would always say when he called me and I got on the phone, “…I’m Back..!!!…” so it would sound like “I’m BACK now from somewhere” as a play on words.

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