I spent the winter of 1997/’98 in Seoul. I hadn’t known anything about Korean weather at all before I went. I knew nothing about Korea. Nothing, like I wrote in my first blog post.
I had borrowed an old book that described some facts about Korea from my city’s public library in July of 1997 to try to learn something about the place – anything, even, before I took a plane over to Seoul. The book said that Korean women did not go out anywhere, like to restaurants and other businesses. It also said that the people all wore white clothing…. It was describing what Korea was like before the Korean war! But I didn’t know that before I travelled to Seoul. I fully expected to find a few stores with only men in them when I arrived, and I thought everybody would have white clothes on! During one of my classes in September, I asked the LG students if that book could have been wrong and I told them what it stated. I told them I didn’t notice that women weren’t in public places. The older, highly dignified manager, Joseph, said those things the book said were true, “…a hundred years ago!!!…” while he chuckled incredulously. He couldn’t believe any book would portray Korea as being so backwards, but I couldn’t believe my small city’s library was so backwards back then that it had no modern books about Korea.
I hadn’t brought any warm clothing with me for wintertime. If I needed a coat or a sweater or gloves, I thought, I’d have to buy them there in Seoul. Well, that would have been all right if their women’s clothing was made and sold in large sizes! And I remember thinking to myself before I left, it isn’t really cold there anyway, is it? No one really knew. And after all, movies about the Vietnam War showed jungles, I remember thinking to myself. I am very embarassed to write that on here. Unfortunately, there was no easily accessible internet back then like we have nowadays to instantly find information.
While I spend every winter here now in my remote, rugged area of Atlantic Canada, I often think back to what the snow was like when I lived in Seoul….I imagine feeling the tranquility that was in the air on the mornings after it snowed. On mornings like this, everything everywhere was white and more than once there would be a magpie cawing and landing on a roof of another building as I looked out of the window on the 4th floor of my institute. I can still see the thin layer of snow over the roads, on cars that were parked on the sidestreets and on the tops of all of the buildings. And I can still imagine the peacefulness that was in the air. After a snowfall, the temperature was around zero degrees Celcius, with no wind, so it didn’t feel very chilly.
Typically, only a few centimeters of gentle snow fell during the night once a week or so, and that was mostly it for the winter – except for one time when there was a typical light snowfall one night and then there was another one the next night, but the snow didn’t stop before daybreak – the snow had kept falling that morning. So the accumulation there was 2 centimeters from the first night, 2 centimeters from the second night plus whatever was falling that next morning. Oh my goodness, it was disruptive to the Koreans! Only 2 inches of snow! And I had to go to Bucheon for my Anam class with Mr, Choi that morning. I waited an extra long time for my bus once I got to Baekun. My bus came by but didn’t stop so I kept waiting. It was snowing lightly. I looked at the traffic going by. There was less traffic than usual, going very, very slowly and a few cars had actual chains on their tires. I had heard of “snow chains” for tires but had never seen cars with them before. These cars were not making it down the streets very well. My bus came again and passed me without stopping. Finally, I got on a bus but I was very late for my class with Mr. Choi.
That morning, before I left for Bucheon, when it was still snowing into the daytime after those 2 light, nighttime snowfalls in a row, a Korean man at my institute exclaimed, “We are getting a lot of snow this year!”. I thought it was so funny that 5 or 6 centimeters over less than two days could be considered “a lot of snow”. My hometown in Canada has 77 days on average where snow falls each year. Around that time, I explained to several Koreans about how in my area of Canada, people use “winter tires”, made with heavy treads, so your car won’t slip or slide while you drive it on snow-covered roads. It was another topic for discussion and practice in my English classes. Seoulites had no idea about harsh winters, deep snow or ice or snow removal. Their winters were short. By the time February came in Korea, winter was over. February in my province back in Canada was often the worst month of winter; in February, there’s an average of 16.4 days where snow falls in the city I’m from!
When I was in Seoul, there was never any wind at any time, I remember, and it only rained a few times during my whole stay in Seoul, from September 1st, 1997 until February 14th of 1998. If there was any wind ever during those months, it was a very gentle breeze, and there was a breeze so seldom that I only remember calmness. That fall was so absolutely beautiful, with perfect temperatures and tons of yellow gingko trees and bright red Japanese maples to see. This was after an extremely hot September where the bright sun had been beating down on me relentlessly every day from so high up in the sky, and where I needed air-conditioning in my bedroom every night until September 30th, all night, to be able to sleep.
I kept an eye on the weather and noticed the winter was coming very gradually. In my province of New Brunswick back in Canada, the weather was unpredictable and often harsh. The daytime high could be plus 10 degrees Celsius one day but could be minus 5 degrees Celsius the next day. Big fluctuations in our temperatures were common. And there were storms. When I was in elementary school, we would get snowstorms that lasted for days. Storms where I live now and where I grew up can be “ice storms” or blizzards. In Seoul, the temperature gradually got cooler each night and cooler in the mornings when I walked to the subway station to get to Bucheon to teach Mr. Choi. By the end of November, I found it had gotten cold. My toes were cold because I only had the sneakers I wore from Canada to wear, as there were no suitable winter boots anywhere and they had no women’s footwear that would fit me. Men’s winter boots for sale there were all made of black leather and were very sleek and fashionable. They seemed to be made for going from a taxi into an office building to me. One morning around December 1st, when we all had to get up to start our day, there was a thin “blanket” of snow covering the ground outside. It was the first snow of the season there. The snow had fallen during the night. It was calm and peaceful that morning and the air felt so pleasant, even though it sometimes felt cold in Seoul at that time. Canadians call that type of weather a “damp cold” because the ocean is nearby, making the air humid and that makes it feels colder. I figured out back then that Seoul only had a total accumulation of around 10 inches of snow that whole winter, if that. Ten inches measures 25 centimeters. But where I was from, the total annual snowfall was close to 280 centimeters! The freezing wind was raw and bitter a lot of the time in New Brunswick as well.
Sometimes on a December evening where I live in Canada, the winds are calm and the moon shines on the freshly fallen snow. There are only a few times each year for someone to see what actually look like millions of sparkling diamonds on the ground at nighttime when the snow is new. The temperature is sometimes just right in December for snowflakes to twinkle like that. When I’d see a newly-fallen covering of snow over everything in Seoul in the morning, I felt happy because for me it was just like a nice day or evening in December back home. At home in my part of Canada, I felt good if it was 0 degrees Celsius with calm winds. The winter in Korea never progressed to being stormy like I was accustomed to and there was never a minus 56 degree Celcius windchill, which I sometimes had to tolerate back in the North Atlantic.
I found that Korean people had what I call a “romantic” idea towards snow when I lived there. They all told me they thought snow was beautiful. No wonder. In most of Korea they didn’t have storms or have to constantly shovel it or get around in deep snow. Their walking in winter wasn’t too hard and their driving wasn’t difficult or impossible like it is in my part of Canada. I have noticed by watching Youtube videos that Seoul has been getting a little more snow lately than it did in 1997, but their winters are still mild, in my opinion. Many titles of videos filmed in Seoul say “…Heavy Snow…” in their titles but it’s only 5 centimeters that is shown. In my province, a heavy snowfall is one of 15 cm or more.
For a long time, I have wanted to write about what I noticed in regard to males and females while I lived in Seoul. There is a personal case of sexual harassment I experienced while I was there that I should write about as well. I have been afraid to describe most of it because I didn’t want to come across as being critical of Korean society. I love Korea and it’s people and my intent is not to offend anyone, honestly. A few women have recently said to me they are interested in what it was like for a foreign woman to be alone in Korea in 1997. I have never said much to them about the topic, but I will now.
I grew up and lived in a country where women are equal to men. Basically. I usually did things alone in my life, so I had many Canadian men overstep their bounds many times with me through the years. But when I lived in Seoul, I noticed right away that Korea was a male-dominated society. Just to give you one big example of this, I observed how the women all had to look a certain way. Korean women were strictly expected to try to look beautiful and desirable at all times and one way to do this was by buying special makeup products. I always tried to look presentable wherever I went, but I saw that Korean people took “beauty” to a whole different level when I was there.
One evening in October of 1997, I had my eyeglasses on instead of my contact lenses. Sail from my LG class was very hurtful at the time when he berated me right in the classroom that evening for not wearing my contacts and for simply wearing my glasses. In Korea, women should always strive to be as beautiful as possible at all times, he told me. He was discouraged and perhaps even a bit disgusted by the fact that I had worn glasses that evening at classtime, as glasses made women look way less attractive, he explained. It wasn’t like that at all in Canada and I felt bad and thought it was unfair for him to say that. Korean women must be under so much pressure to look a certain way, I remember thinking at the time. Sail used the important word “beauty”, as this national requirement was called in English, in his lecture to me.
On billboards and in newspapers and in advertisements on the walls of subway cars were pictures of countless makeup products and the Korean women all went along with this way of thinking and doing things. One day, the Korean secretaries at my institute were acting giddy. They had packages of little, special, absorbent papers to press on your face to take any shine away. They enthusiastically gave me a few to try, I remember. I thought Korean girls and women were all so very beautiful, they really did not need any makeup at all and it seemed absurd to me that they all had to buy so many products to constantly enhance their obvious natural beauty.
I also learned that women not only had to look a certain way, but they had to act a certain way. Women were not supposed to smoke or swear or be aggressive or perhaps not even be assertive. Every time I used the washroom in the subway, I saw cigarette butts in the toilet or the garbage. This was because the bathrooms in subway stations were where women smoked, if they wanted to smoke, as their society did not permit women to smoke at all. They all said it was because women had the babies and smoking was bad to do during pregnancy. Yes, but in Canada, women can resume being a smoker once her baby has been born, I kept thinking… Many women smoked in Canada. I did. In Korea, women were not supposed to drink much alcohol either, if at all, but men could.
When I lived in Korea, women had to study and study for years as girls and then only work for a while until they had their one of two children after marrying. The studying and studying was all just to be at a good job for a few years as they all had to quit and bring up their children once they got married. They usually returned to the workforce once their children had grown up. Women all cut their long hair once they reached middle age or maybe it was once they turned forty. I never did ask. Every one of them did this. My hair was short and I did not have children and I was 28 years old. The Korean men were confused or astounded or downright rude about it to me. Why did I not have children? Why did I have short hair? I heard these questions many times. One minister of the Korean government at the prestigious SeJong Institute asked me, “Why don’t you have long hair?” He was very insistent. “You look like a man!”, he told me, and he went on and on to me about this one day. It was difficult to try to be polite and respectful sometimes when Korean men said these types of things to me. I was hurt at the time by that man’s words, as it is insulting for any woman to be told that she looks like a man.
I wrote in one of my early blog posts that I had a male, Korean friend whom I had met in my neighbourhood, Sang Hyun, who told he liked being with me because he felt free to act like he wanted to around me. He said he could act like he was with a male friend when we were together. He had no male friends left in Seoul. They had all moved away after getting married or had found jobs somewhere else, he explained. He was so happy he could talk about what he wanted to and drink or smoke and relax with me because I was not a Korean woman. He said he couldn’t drink or smoke around Korean women or talk about certain topics. It’s hard for me to fully understand, but I think maybe Korean women were very sheltered and that a Korean man had to be very careful and try not to offend them? I do know he said he had to act differently around a woman than he would act around a man in his society. Maybe things have changed now or maybe this only happened when people were single? He and I were always just friends and were so comfortable together, despite each of us not knowing much of the other’s language. We smoked and had draft beer in a kareoke bar near the Garak Hotel on the night he talked about it. I learned back in 1997 that a Korean woman was not a Korean man’s equal in some ways, but I did see that Korean women were highly prized and greatly respected over there despite this. Men had their place and women had their place in their society and it worked well for them. What Sang Hyun told me about it didn’t mean things would change or should change – it was just the way things were and I still feel I was lucky to have been privy to such knowledge. I remember him talking about it while we were at kareoke and while we walked together in behind the 9-lane wide SongPaDaeRo road and alongside of it at on that Friday evening so long ago. I had no idea things were that way for him and was very honoured by what he explained to me.
I had only been in Seoul for a few weeks and was still feeling very shocked and overwhelmed when I was told I had a new ‘outside’ class. Actually, I didn’t have it yet. I had to try to get it. I was told the offered class was to be held in Yeoido, the financial and media centre of the whole country at the time. A female Korean recruiter came and drove me to the designated building in Yeoido and sat with me during the meeting with some representatives from this new company. This recruiter had a flippant, snobby attitude, I found. Everybody at this ‘interview’ spoke together in Korean and I didn’t have to say much.
Anyway, I got the contract, this haughty recruiter informed me at the end. It was never explained to me, but I figured out eventually that a recruiter got paid by a company to find a real English speaker to help their employees to communicate better in English. Businessmen over there told me many times they had to speak better in English to expand their companies and increase trade in order for their country to succeed globally. My boss used this particular English-speaking Korean recruiter a lot to get jobs for “his” teachers. He got paid whenever his teacher got a contract. Since nobody ever told me that’s how things went, this lack of communication added to my anxiety while I lived and taught in Seoul.
I was shown the next morning by one of my institute’s secretaries how to get to this class by subway. I was to go in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and teach the head boss of this particular company for an hour. The company I would be working for was one of the biggest “chaebeols” in Korea at the time. A chaebeol, such as LG or Hyundai, was one of seven Korean businesses at that time that were the biggest in the country. Chaebeols all had subsidiary companies like national baseball teams and grocery stores, in addition to a main well-known company, like Hyundai Automobiles. For example, Samsung was famous for electronics but had other businesses affiliated with it, like Samsung’s Korean baseball team, and maybe certain Samsung appliances, and perhaps there was a Samsung Insurance Company, and so on. The huge company Lotte was a chaebeol that owned luxury hotels at first but eventually added shopping malls and cracker-making and cookie-producing companies, etc. to their conglomerate.
Subsequently, I had to travel to this class alone by subway and it took a while. To get there, I had to travel most of the way across the southern part of Seoul, from East to West, transferring twice. So I went on the Pink Line, the Green line and then the Purple Line just to get to this one class. It was lovely travelling through Seoul in late autumn. The air was cool and fresh. And in the mornings, the sun shone pinkish-yellow on the cement and glass surfaces of the buildings I passed. Many people were on the streets going to office jobs and many were on the subway but everyone was always quiet and orderly. Hardly anyone ever spoke on the subway or even on the street. I saw hundreds and sometimes over a thousand Korean people each day but it was only once in a long while that I might spot another foreigner like me.
It was very important that I remove my footwear and put on special slippers that were provided for me every time I first entered the office building, before I would meet with my “student”. Having to do this was common in Korea. In many instances outer shoes were not to be worn inside apartments or in prestigious buildings. I had to go to the lockers area and find my appointed locker and switch my sneakers for the same pair of silky slippers every time I went to this class. I’d leave my sneakers in the locker while I taught. These slippers, which were always in my locker, were a very pale pink colour and reminded me of ballet shoes, even though they had a flat, obvious sole.
Going to Yeoido was exciting, since there were no financial centers in my home province at all. And no other business districts were in Seoul at the time, either, back in 1997. My hometown had one tall, ugly office building in it. Only one. On that first day I was nervous about meeting my student. I’ll call him Mr. Park. I remember watching and waiting on the ground floor of the building for him to arrive on that first day. I was with a nice male staff member of that company. My “student” was in charge of this whole, tall building, I realised. “It’s Mr. Park!”, the male staff member who was with me announced after a short time of us waiting. Mr. Park arrived in a chauffeur-driven, big, dark-coloured car and everyone who greeted him bowed to him. As he walked through the building, from the dark car to his office, men and women of all ranks bowed in front of him. The staff members all wore tan-coloured smocks. Canadian culture has no bowing, so it was very different and a little intimidating for me to see, especially so much of it.
I was to sit in a big, nicely-furnished office with Mr. Park for this class. The office looked like a nice hotel room, with a plush sofa and chair and a huge, long, polished wooden desk and nice curtains with sheers. Mr Park was very friendly and short and older. His stature and composure weren’t like those of a powerful, commanding, successful businessman at all. He had a different, funny personality but it was not unlikable at first. What I’m trying to say is that I think he tried to be personable, even though his accent was very strong and his Eng!ish was limited and there was a world of difference between us. He was trying to make me comfortable, at least I thought he was, and at first, he told me some interesting things. At first. And not for long. His heritage was North Korean, he said. Some of his family had been displaced and separated because of the Korean War. This is common over there but he’s the only person that told me it happened to him and his family.
I tried to look at practice readings and exercises with him and we practiced speaking English by having little conversations about the topics in the readings I had brought with me. I have to admit I was so new to teaching in Korea that I honestly did not even know what I should be doing. No one ever told me much about what I should be doing or how to go about teaching English in this type of setting or in any other setting when I was living in Seoul. I always had papers I brought with me that were photocopies I’d made from teaching books to have Mr. Park read. Then we’d discuss important points in the readings in order for him to practice speaking. One of these readings would be about how the rest of the world viewed South Korea at that time, or it would be an opinion piece written about how all people should have babies….. A person could give their opinion or add to a point from the article or ask a question about it, or say other things. Sometimes, like in most of my other classes, I used a paper to write words in Korean and English or draw pictures to help the discussions along.
It sounds all right, doesn’t it? Well, there was one hitch. It began right away. Maybe it was during our second time together or our third meeting… Mr. Park turned the class into talking about female body parts when it started. I tried to talk about the statue down the street I passed on the way there of the bull that copied the famous statue of the bull on New York’s Wall Street. I had drawn a little picture of the bull statue on my paper to show him, as he didn’t understand it when I was verbally describing what a bull is. At that point, he stopped me from talking and focused on the cow’s udder. He pointed and it turned out he wanted me to say “nipple”. He went on and on wanting me to say it. He did a few other things like that at first too. I remember being so frustrated with being interrupted during my explanations and the class wasn’t flowing along smoothly at all. I hadn’t said anything about the “nipple” incident but I didn’t like it and thought it was very, very perverted.
Soon after, the class was monopolized by him telling me he wanted to sleep with me and have me as his mistress. I would not want for anything, he kept saying. “I want you to be like my wife”, he insisted on repeating. Part of what was ludicrous to me was that he was ugly and funny-looking and old. Not that I wanted to sleep with any Korean students or anybody there, whether they were rich or not. I wasn’t interested in any riches as payment for sex and I was not interested in sex at all over there. I was married and my husband was waiting for me back in Canada. Mr. Park hadn’t started this after a lengthy teaching relationship with me. He had started this indecency right away. The whole thing was very absurd. And not right.
Along with talking about how he wanted to travel with me and put me up in my own apartment, he hugged me at the end of the last few ‘classes’ we had. The first hug was of course intrusive, but the second hug was him pressing my body extremely close against him with my breasts being crushed into his chest very hard. There were not many classes before I told my secretary at my building about what was going on. This was hard, as there was a big language barrier in the way. In order to show her it was very serious, I hugged her the way he had hugged me that last time and she cried out in anguish and agreed I would not be able to return to teach Mr. Park anymore. Then it turned into her calling the snooty recruiter to tell her and the recruiter argued and disagreed and she telephoned me in the teachers’ area of my institute and argued and argued with me. She accused me of being attracted to Mr. Park and of leading him on because I had told her that he was “a cute man” at first. Well, if you know the nuances of English, at least in my area of Canada, you know that an old, ugly man who is friendly or funny can be called “a cute old man”. It does not mean the woman saying that finds him attractive. I had struggled to think of something nice to say about him and thought that would be okay to say when I was asked, after our first meeting, that’s all. And the whole time I was defending myself on the phone with the recruiter, some of the other teachers who lived on my floor and some of the live-in Korean students and a few secretaries from my Hanbo Institute had gathered around and were listening to everything. Eventually after a long time of me explaining and reasoning, but not getting anywhere, one of the secretaries took the receiver out of my hand and hung up the phone. I looked up and there were many people who had gathered and they were standing around me, clapping.
The language barrier was bad but the cultural barrier was even worse, I discovered during this fiasco. This man was the head of a prestigious company in a male-dominated country. People bowed to him all day long. He had a chauffeur and lots of money. This made others greatly intimidated, especially people who were his underlings in an influential company. All employees of any company anywhere in Korea were submissive to elders and bosses and laws to start with anyway. In their society, Koreans must obey parents, younger people must bow at a certain angle to older people, and everyone followed all rules and laws to a “T”. In Korea back then, men got away with these behaviours easily because of these written and unwritten rules of their society. My situation with Mr. Park was worse than if it had happened in a western country. And the stuff Mr. Park had said and done to me in just a few weeks was stranger and more exaggerated than if a man in a western country was sexually harassing a woman at work. I didn’t try to scold him and put him in his place. I thought at the time and still do that telling him to stop wouldn’t have done any good. So, in the end, my secretary told me they were going to tell the company he ran that I had been in a car accident so I could not return….many times while I was teaching in Seoul I heard that foreign female teachers had been “…in a car accident…” and were not coming back anymore to a class…. I know I was not the only woman that experienced such a thing.
I remember hearing about the term “culture shock” soon after I arrived in Korea. Well, I thought about this as I was so very much in shock from the vast difference between my remote little province in Atlantic Canada and the highly populated, busy place I found myself in. It was too hot and it smelled bad. Everyone looked ‘different’. No one, even the other Canadians, understood me and I mean the Koreans didn’t understand much of my language and no one there at all understood my specific culture or background. This is because Canada is very diversified across 3000 miles. Canada’s people are not homogenous like they mostly are in Korea. It’s funny because many times the businessmen I spoke to were confused when I’d try to say that Canada was different from area to area. My home province had higher unemployment for example, than some other provinces, I had said. One man could not understand that Canada was not homogenous(the same people, culture and economy throughout the country) and I remember he said in a confused way, “…No jobs in Canada…??…” I could not make him understand.
The main thing that gave me culture shock was their food. I had been expecting to eat meals consisting of Canadian-Chinese food, which is sweet, in spite of being salty, and tasty. I thought I’d find all kinds of variations of pieces of chicken or pork in batter, deep-fried with thick, sweet sauces and accompanied by seasoned fried rice. After all, it was near China, right?
The only book I could find before I went overseas to Seoul was an old, out-dated one at the public library. It would have been so wonderful if there had been internet back then, or even someone around my city who knew and could have prepared me for what was in store for me. In that library book it said Korean meals consist of food in many little bowls. This was true but there were no little bowls of sweet and sour chicken balls or fried rice. Or deep-fried egg rolls with plum sauce. The bowls there had fermented cabbage or Korean turnip or cucumber all rubbed with hot red pepper flakes. So strong and sour. The sticky, short-grain rice was always plain and white. Many times there would be a hot bowl of soup with little fish in it, even for breakfast.
I would eat at a big, long table in the basement of my building and teachers ate for free, which was good. My boss must have been making money from getting the cleaning and cooking woman to feed many others in the area as well. There were a number of long tables for people to sit and eat down there. I can remember being down there at first 23 years ago, in total culture-shock and I remember the smell of garlic and kimchi and the heat that hung in the air at first. I recall my anxiety and fear that I couldn’t help but feel at the time. All those Korean strangers. And none of them spoke English. What was remarkable to me was that when it was a soup that was served to all those Korean men sitting eating at the long tables, there would be about 25 of them all slurping the soup very loudly all at once! They all had their heads down looking at those bowls, intent on slurping their soup, but using spoons, mind you. I thought it was so funny, because in my experience, slurping was always frowned upon, and it was so loud, ha ha!
Of course, I was not at my building for long every day because most of my teaching jobs were outside in a far-away place in Seoul. Some were across the entire city. I travelled many hours almost every day on the subway and buses and sometimes taxis to get to all of these jobs. Therefore I wasn’t at my building most of the time in order to be able to eat for free in the basement. So I had to eat at workplace cafeterias, which was all very different to me, as I’d have a tray-full of authentic Korean food there each time which was complimentary. That cafeteria food could be actual raw squid in spicy sauce and all the accompaniments like rice, soup and kimchi or it could be another whole authentic meal. This happened if I was at Anam Semiconductors or LG Cellphones because there were so many employees there all day and they ate lunch and supper together every day at work. Most times, though, I had to grab a snack at a convenience store or buy a snack from a street cart or a bakery. I didn’t mind and crunchy rice snacks or waffle-fish with red bean filling were lovely to eat. The public transportation and outside food had to be all paid for out of my own pocket, as my contract stated this and I had agreed to it and signed it back in Canada before I flew over there. The travelling to teach mainly adults was better to me than staying at my institute and teaching little Korean kids all day, which is what all the other teachers in Korea like me were stuck doing. I was lucky to have travelled so much while teaching and I had invaluable conversations with the Korean businessmen, diplomats, civil servants, office workers, engineers and housewives. It was very enjoyable for me but still was difficult in ways at the same time. Some foreigners would have preferred staying at their institute every day teaching children instead of what I did.
One huge new stressful wrinkle that added to my shock was that there was no fork available anywhere to eat with. I was not prepared for having no utensil to eat with. I would have to get used to chopsticks. Just using the chopsticks alone was so novel to me, but there were also so many other new stresses to face at the same time all at once. I ate with chopsticks every day and concentrated very hard. I had never used them in my life. It took a whole month for me to be able to use them comfortably, even with daily practice and no other alternative. I do remember that. After a month I could pick up a targetted, single grain of rice, which to me was quite a feat.
During the first few times in that basement kitchen, another Canadian taught me to say, “It’s delicious!” by saying, “Mashiseyo!” I always remembered how to compliment the Korean cook or host that way. That was very important to me, along with thanking them, of course, which I learned as soon as I could too. One time at first, the cook was serving cold, cucumber soup, which was customarily served in the heat to help cool people off. It tasted sweet and vinegary at the same time. It was very nice and so different to me. It was very muggy and there was a heavy, humid, relentless heat in September when I tried the cold soup.
As time went on, after a few months there were no men sitting at the tables very much anymore and the variety of foods given to me had dwindled because the whole country was in big economical trouble due to the 1997 Financial Crisis. My boss must have not been buying much for his kitchen down there other than rice, eggs and kimchi during the ‘crash’, because by January of 1998 that’s all I was served when I went downstairs to have a meal. I found a plastic bottle of ketchup to put on my bowl of rice that had a barely-cooked fried egg plopped on top of it and I mixed it around with kimchi. This is not a fancy meal but even today if I eat a bowl of this same meal it is a great comfort food to me. I have even greatly missed eating that meager meal and I am happy when I have something like it to eat today.
I added ‘barely-cooked’ before ‘fried egg’ because they only fried eggs partly sunny-side up and there was a lot of raw white and yolk to every fried egg they cooked so it could be mixed around with the hot rice. Sometimes the runny uncooked part of the egg will still cook a little more while it’s mixed with hot food, depending on what type of dish is served that way. Even the fried eggs were so different than what I was accustomed to and I found that alone to be so strange.
You can see how every single thing was so different for me when I was in Korea. The main thing that stood out to me while I lived there was the loneliness. I was so very lonely. Mostly everything I did was while I was alone. This is why I cherish the fact that a neighbour in Karak-dong, Sang Hyun, wanted to be my friend and gave me great company on some days. I started to realize after I was back in Canada for a while that, yes, I had succeeded against great odds over there. I always think of that stark, almost constant loneliness and of having no fork, for example, and having to try not to get lost and I think of the severe language and culture barrier I had to constantly struggle to overcome. This may very well be the reason why my memories of Seoul are so very important to me now.
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.
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 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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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!
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….
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 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.
Five blocks southeast of the North Gate was a temple called Chogyesa. It was considered to be the main Buddhist temple in all of Korea. And the richest one. Even though it was the richest one, it wasn’t as pretty as bright-coloured Bongeunsa and frankly, it wasn’t as nice-looking as the other temples in the country were. But it had a unique character and had a number of very special qualities of its own. And being located in the old downtown near the palaces and next to a neighborhood known for antique shops and Korean tea-drinking added to its authentic atmosphere.
I found Chogyesa by myself one day in December of 1997 and I found that it was so interesting. Chogyesa was right in the middle of the metropolis, with city buildings and streets close beside it. A wonderful thing about this temple was that monks who lived there were often chanting and hitting rhythmic blocks and this was hear knowd over speakers inside the grounds as you walked around and it could be heard outside of the temple too. There were speakers on buildings out at the sidewalk and people walking by on the street could hear the chanting and block-playing. A colony of monks lived at the temple and you could see one of them sometimes. Chogyesa had a long history that I could feel while I looked at the wooden buildings that really seemed to be old and weathered. This was good because all of Seoul’s Royal Palaces and all of the temples in Korea have been rebuilt in recent years to represent all of their original buildings that were destroyed by fire or by the Japanese hundreds of years ago. Therefore, some of these traditional attractions can look fake if their most recent paint job doesn’t look good.
The 500-year old pine tree that was still growing there in 1997 added to the historical aura of the temple along with the various paintings on the prayer buildings. Chogyesa’s wooden buildings had very elaborate golden statues of the Buddha in them but since I was a visitor and a “foreigner”, I didn’t want to be forward and interrupt anyone’s worship time by entering any structures to take pictures. I heard from the other teachers and read tourist information saying that you should ask permission to take pictures in Korea. Most Korean temples have Temple Stay options for visitors who want to learn about Buddhist traditions from real monks and stay overnight on the grounds for a few days. Those tourists can easily see the inside of prayer buildings, but things were different over twenty years ago.
Unfortunately, Chogyesa has now been completely changed and has garish gold-coloured figures scattered throughout it, like most Korean temples have in them nowadays. When I look at current videos of it I feel sad at the loss of the statue of the lion I liked so much(pictured below) and the paintings of km in Inn birds I saw there in the late 90’s.
Well, I had never imagined what happened next! After I took a picture of this special pine tree, one of the Korean monks appeared and spoke to me! He was so kind and was smiling. He asked if I wanted him to take a picture of me in front of the pine tree. Of course, in my utmost happiness and shock I said yes. After he took the picture I mustered the courage to dare to ask if I could take a picture of HIM in front of it. And he smiled and agreed. I asked him “Do you live here?…” and he said yes, he did live there. And then he had to move on. I can still feel the thrill I had.
Exploring with Sang-Hyun…
After my solo visit to Chogyesa, Sang Hyun and I went there on one of our sight-seeing days together. The weather was better that day then when I had gone alone so the pictures were brighter from the sunshine. I bought a few souvenirs too. This made my memories of that day even better than they would have been without the souvenirs and without Sang Hyun. You see, he explained about my Buddhist purse that I bought, and took me to a Korean Tea House nearby.
That Buddhist purse had a tiny Buddhist Bible inside. You can see how small it is. If you open it, it really has Korean writing, very tiny, inside on the small pages! Sang Hyun put a few coins inside the purse for me. He said this is for ‘good luck’. One of the coins above is ₩500 (500 Won) and I of course loved those particular coins because of the flying crane pictured on them. They were like 50 cents. It’s funny, someone could look at my 3 dollar purse and say, well, so what?, but it has a lot of meaning for me.
We also went to Kyeongbokkung that day and stopped at his workplace that was across the street from the palace.
I didn’t fully realise it that day, but Sang Hyun did me an extra favour by bringing me in a Korean Tea House. Going to a tea house in that neighbourhood near the temple is a tourist attraction now. There are rituals to follow and it was complicated, unbelievably. I do remember we sat together and had a cup of green tea. The cups are very small and you sip it slowly.
A few times it was really unbelievable that Korean babies could see I looked different. I would be on a crowded subway car and a woman would be holding an infant a few months old and that baby would be crying and crying. The infant was inconsolable. When the baby saw me he stopped crying abruptly and stared at me! This happened more than once. I couldn’t believe it. An infant! The babies who did this stared at me and couldn’t take their eyes away from me! Staring and staring and not crying anymore. Everyone on the train noticed, of course. And then THEY stared! The people who told me I shouldn’t go to Korea and said I’d be the only person like me on the subway car had certainly been right. I was the only person who looked like me on the whole train.
This of course made me more painfully aware that I was very different and alone and when it got to me that I missed Canada, I was feeling an alienation that is hard to describe. It’s a wonder I could do what I did, when I look back at it all. Even though I had wonderful Korean friends and loved it I missed reading English or seeing it most of all. There was hardly any English anywhere ever, at all. It gets to you that no one understands how you feel about anything over and over again. I started crying at a park with Sang Hyun once because I saw a few Korean family members laughing and enjoying that park in front of me. He was not wanting me to cry, and didn’t know what to do, but I couldn’t help it. By the end of it I missed hearing French too, I remember, as I had studied French for 12 years of my life and my city in Canada was 50% French. Funny, I get annoyed with French while I am in Canada, but everything was so absolutely different and so totally foreign when I lived in Seoul that missing Canada nagged at me more and more once the culture shock had subsided. I did a lot to experience Korea in my five and a half months there though. I would never have chosen to not experience it. There were 2 older foreign English-speaking men I met who lived in apartments on their own and did a few classes for Mr. Kim here and there. They loved Korea and had chosen to permanently live there long-term. One gave himself a Korean name and the other one was from South Africa. I understand those men, but my husband was not legally allowed to work there because his education was different than mine, so I decided to live back in Canada later instead of getting my husband to live there with me. I did strongly consider living there long-term with my husband back then.
Every week while I lived there on Sunday night, I’d go downstairs and over to the next lot where the Han Shin Apartments were to call my husband and then my mother. There was a payphone to use outside. I used a phone card or coins. It was Sunday morning in Atlantic Canada when I called them. I always asked my husband how our 2 cats were. I wrote letters to people back home and their letters took 2 to 4 weeks to arrive. I don’t know how any mail got anywhere, period, as everything was written in English.
Korean people explained that there were many places called Public Bathhouses that you could go into and have a bath or take a sauna. They described the inside and the towels and soap and possible rooms to go in and what everybody did in them. They said the Bathhouses were common and very popular. I would have loved to go and try it but never got a chance. Many, many times a place had a sign with a picture of rising ‘steam’ on it and I think this meant it was one of these baths. Also, they explained there were Places of Rest, where you would go in and pay to take a nap. They said there was even one of these places behind my institute. I had heard that they did this in Japan but didn’t know they did it in Korea too. Seeing everyone asleep on the subway made me think it was a good idea. By the end of it, I was sleeping on the subway too in the afternoons travelling to Aju from Bucheon.
One day Sang Hyun had a special treat in store for me. We got in his little white car and drove and drove. It was a Sunday, I remember. We went north and to the west of Seoul. On and on. And on. We came to a satellite city called Goyang-shi and stopped there and visited someone he knew in one of the apartment buildings there. Then we went further west. We were going to an observatory where you can view North Korea! There is Panmunjom, and it is mentioned and shown on the American news a lot. If you go, it is formal and you may be filmed and no jeans are allowed to be worn. I was wearing my jeans that day. Odusan Observatory is one of several places other than Panmunjom along the North-South border to view North Korea that is never mentioned to westerners.
My pictures of the land of North Korea were faded so I didn’t include any here. But it was interesting what I saw there. Korean people were very somber and serious. They were standing outside and inside, staring sadly towards the North. It was really something. There are families who have been separated since the war and cannot see eachother. A few times both countries (it depends on North Korea) have agreed to let some families meet one more time and they are for example, a 74 year-old son who hasn’t seen his 95 year-old mother for almost 70 years! Then they have to say goodbye again forever. It is extremely sad.
Floral and Fauna…
I did learn a little about what was different in Korea about insects and flowers. In my province in Canada, we suffer with aggressive mosquitoes for over 4 months. By September, there aren’t as many as in summertime and in October there are a few that you don’t notice bothering you and then there are none until the end of May in the coming year. Over there, the mosquitoes were smaller than ours and their bites were smaller too. There were a few inside even in November and December but they seemed ‘stunned’ to me, as they weren’t ferocious like mosquitoes back home. On the subject of flowers, you wouldn’t expect to see any in such a crowded city, but it was common to see real red roses that had been planted along the sidewalks. I swear I even saw a red rose growing in such a way on December first! Where I’m from, gardeners pray their rose bushes will live and most of them do not make it through the winter. Small, tame mosquitoes and red roses in the streets…..seemed pretty good to me!
Not long after I had arrived in Seoul, people told me that it would soon be Chuseok. It’s a week-long national, traditional holiday in October where family members make fancy, beautiful food offerings to their ancestors and relatives who have passed away. There are certain rituals they do that last for 3 days. They dress in their unique (families have their own official colours and patterns, like Scottish tartans) satin-like Hanbeok outfits. This was all done again for a week in January when it was called Solnal. Sometimes you hear of traffic jams in China because of people all driving to their hometowns at the same time for Chinese New Year. This exodus also happens in Korea. It goes on twice a year: once during October for Chuseok, and once sometime in January for Solnal. Some westerners think of the October holiday as Korean Thanksgiving and Solnal as Korean New Year. We teachers had a week off for each holiday. Speaking of holidays, I noticed that they had many, many holidays in Korea because they had such an extremely long history. It was mind-boggling. There was Kids’ Day, Grandparents’ Day, and every kind of ‘Day’ you can imagine, as well as numerous historical days to mark independence from Japan, China or Mongolia. Some holidays remembered battles, or kings and queens, or were special religious days for Buddhists or Christians. One time I looked at one of their calendars and the whole thing was peppered on every page with holidays.
One of the reasons males seem to be preferred over females in a number of ways is because during Chuseok and Solnal, the oldest son must perform the ceremonies at home when they bow to their ancestors and make their offerings. Sail talked about this and said it was stressful and a lot of pressure for him because his father, who would have done a lot of this, had passed away a few years before. He told me it was very traumatic for him to lose his father and see him die of stomach cancer. On an off note, stomach cancer was the leading cause of death in Korea at the time, because of the acid and spice from all the kimchi people eat. The second leading cause of death was a car accident. In Canada, our leading causes of death were heart disease first and the second was cancer in general, I believe, at the time.
The ceremonies they perform at these times are strongly connected to Buddhism, I always thought. At one point in the past they all followed Buddhism or a Shamanistic religion. Ancestors are not supposed to be gone forever and are sleeping or have been reincarnated. Sang Hyun told me his parents who lived on the coast to the south of Seoul were still following Buddhism but he was “no religion” himself. In many of the little restaurants I went in there was a dried fish hanging above a main doorway to ward off bad luck. Buddhists did this. Sang Hyun had a dried fish above one of his doorways in his apartment. He said his mother gave it to him and insisted he put it there, even if he wasn’t going to practice Buddhism. Most Koreans had Buddhist beads or symbols hanging from their rear-view mirror in their cars to protect them from being hurt in an accident, they all told me.
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…
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.
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.
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………
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You must be logged in to post a comment.