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by Pablo Harris
First weekend after starting a new teaching job, just getting settled in Busan, I went out with a colleague, Bass: an east coaster, a veteran of a few tours here who had recently got promoted to his F2 status. He invited me out to the PuDae neighborhood. PuDae, as my Lonely Planet guide describes it, is the place that used to be “the place” to go. Every first of the month at a little basement bar they have an open-mic stand-up comedy night. Fell for a lithe, pasty, dark-haired Scottish girl who kept talking about her pussy going “flap, flap, flap.” Bass says, “I need a shot before I go on, you like Jack Daniels?” Internally, I’m shouting, “Not as much as I like Jameson, look at the Jameson!” But to paraphrase the tune of the English football anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone, “And you’ll never shoot alone, you will never shoot alone (clap clap clap).”
After the show, it’s around 1 a.m. Bass tries to convince me to go to the casino, to which I decline. Got enough vices, not trying to add any more, so he leaves me smoking alone out on the street. I end up meeting a drunken local, however, who does persuade me to follow him to this really great bar he knows. We proceed to circumambulate the site, like pilgrims in a procession around the Kaaba, before walking back downstairs to the exact bar we were just at. His English is terrible, my Korean is worse, but we both speak drink. So, 1 a.m. turns into 6 a.m. Last thing I remember, he asks where I live. “Suyeong jihachil, ship chil beon,” I slur. He hails a cab, shakes my hand, shoves me into the back seat, and yells something at the driver.
Next thing I know, the sun is up. I look around and I see I am outside a police station flanked by four men. I casually, vato style, look to my left. Lips pursed a bit, shake my head. There’s one cop and the cabbie. Look to my right, two cops. No words are spoken. I stick out my lips like I’m Mick fucking Jagger, more head shakin’. I know the score. I spent all my indigenous currency at the bar, there’s no Won in my wallet, and I passed out in the taxi on top of that. Then the cab driver, from the few words that I gather and his gesticulations, begins to plead to the cops that I am another deadbeat wayguk and that I should be arrested for my transgression. The cops are conferring with cryptic glances, I am still vato stoic. So, knowing the score and without saying a word, I fumble through the contents of my wallet; I find, invaginated behind the expired IDs and tapped debit cards, there is one note there, fifty U.S. dollars. I extract the bill from the leather bi-fold, slap it into the hand of the cop on my left and walk home. Without a word.
* * *
Later that afternoon, beat down and hung over, when given a respite from the internal replays of the night, I recall my first “date” with Jenn Zeek. I was bartending at an urbane, farm-to-fork bistro downtown and dating Mama Steph back then–a petite, olive skinned, tattooed, smokin’ younger lady with two kids and glasses I met in a contemporary philosophy class. Jenn was living with her boyfriend in Davis while she was studying viticulture and enology and had been working with us, hostessing, for about six weeks. Though she was way overqualified to be a greeter and a seater, she was biding her time waiting for an opening on the floor, and socially, wasn’t in yet. She had the restaurant version of Vietnam Syndrome working against her: got to be in country six months before we give a shit about you (like salty profs contempt for newbies). However, from the intelligence gleaned over small talk while folding napkins and buffing flatware, her boyfriend wasn’t into too much other than progressing in an online poker tournament. She was looking for some other action.
So, Friday night, we are sitting out on the patio in our penguin suits enjoying our after work beers and spliffs with a handful of freaks of the industry, discussing plans to go spend the weekend out on the Sonoma Coast–Steph and I included. It turns out on the eve of the trip, Steph breaks up with me via text message. She didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t into her kids. Fair enough, miss you Sweetheart, but you’re right. Jenn catches wind of our plans and the fallout with my girl, so she pulls me aside and explains,
“You know, I am supposed to go to Napa tomorrow but I would rather go with you all to Sonoma. I love pinot noir and the Russian River and I think you need a date, though you know I have a boyfriend. But I promise I’ll be fun. Maybe I can go with you guys?”
We end up on a Monday night in the tony hamlet of Healdsburg at the L & M motel: a faded, old-school u-shaped place anchored by a parking lot. An expensive dive just south of the railroad tracks and the town square. Two couples, Jenn, and I checked out of the beach house and decided to milk one more night of this trip. We’d just completed day three of wine tasting, beer drinking, and barbecuing. Jenn discovers a pool room at the motel. She wants to swim. I’m not much of a swimmer but I do like girls that like to swim. So we change into our bathing suits and head over to the pool house. It’s five past 11. We open the door and walk into the room. There’s a sizable, six-foot deep pool and a small, hot, bubbly spa and a man who works for the L & M standing next to the jacuzzi.
“Sorry, closing up,” he announces.
I glance at Jenn, who is standing by the door clearly eager for a dip, and walk over to him. I approach him with, “Look man, I got a girl here who wants to swim, and, I like this girl, how ‘bout lettin’ us swim?”
He bargains: “$40 and you got an hour.”
I reach into the left pocket of my trunks, there are three things: a pack of Marlboros, a lighter, and a fifty-dollar bill. Why I would feel compelled to grab the last bit of cash I have until Thursday to walk 20 feet to the pool room? I don’t know. And how often do you really have a Grant when Lincolns, Jacksons, and Franklins are so much more common? I cusp the paper note in my left hand, surreptitiously move it to my right, extend my hand to the maintenance man, grab his palm and pull him close so Jenn couldn’t hear, and offer, “Here’s a fifty and we stay as long as we want.”
A few weeks later, Jenn and I begin the Sunday Funday drinking bloodies, reading The Times. We recall the L & M. She said she didn’t know the details but she saw me shake hands and the man walked off. She didn’t know exactly what transpired but she knew it was life imitating art in front of her eyes and knew I was the one.
It was the story she loved to repeat to her friends and some days we would reminisce, usually over brunch and a newspaper. It was the story that would certainly be recited by her maid of honor at our wedding. It was the story we would . . .
It was, if not for: Busan Calling.
* * *
Now I’m convinced that after I die I’ll start out in purgatory. It’s exactly where I belong. I know the score. I have not been virtuous enough for Heaven but I also have and will not be nefarious enough for Hell. I’ll be in purgatory and one day the Lord’s Director of Highland Security will come down from his Pearly Gates to assess the situation. I imagine that at least once a year there is a day when the Great Gatekeeper condescends to the middlings, evaluates everyone there, and offers a bit of grace to a couple of lucky souls. He calls them up to the show, like a supplemental draft or making the Hall of Fame on your last ballot. Again, I won’t be chosen.
But, this time, I’ll be in rare form. Having casually maneuvered my way through the field of contestants to the front of the line, as Tom Waits croons a ballad from his pickled piano over the PA, while all the other purgators walk off dejectedly–on this day–I’ll be incredibly, exceptionally smooth. I’ll tap him on the forearm with the knuckles on the back of my left hand, draw his attention with a head nod and whisper to St. Pete.
“Hey, come on man, I think you got room for one more.”
And I’ll fish out of my pocket my last possession, cup it in my hand, and clandestinely pass it to Peter when we skin it. St. Peter will slip the Grant into the front pocket of his robe, shake his head from side to side with an exasperated sigh, before finally divining, “Fine, Pablo, come on up to the house.”
Life in Korea for us is about attempting to brush aside the day-to-day strife and focus in on those smaller, more meaningful elements of life. These are those lingering moments or spots of time that never fade in the memory, money cannot purchase them because they are unique and priceless at the same time.
We live somewhere in between Gangbyeong Station and Guui Station, and the location is ideal for our collective situations. The apartment is tucked away from the main road and despite being tiny, we are incrementally turning it into the sweetest of homes. We have Daiso to thank for that one because we purchased from them a whole bunch of quirky little nik-naks to spruce the place up a bit. Here are a few things we have changed since living together:
- We finally got a bed! Not only a bed, but a Queen Size bed that slots perfectly into the corner of the room. Getting a good night sleep is a quintessential part of life and it has definitely meant that we can wake up in the morning void of back pain and with a marginal smile on our face. The beauty of this bed was that we got it for free. These freebies are somewhat inaccessible to foreigners because buy and sell websites like Craigs List are occupied by expats trying to make a quick buck. If you can speak Korean however, the game suddenly changes and you can utilize resources such as: http://cafe.naver.com/joonggonara.cafe
People here are just trying to unload goods completely free of charge, and the user base is immense to say the least. Users post up freebies seemingly every minute or so, and members snap them up moments later. You have to be quick, but luckily for us, Jiwon stayed up half the night waiting for the right moment to pounce, she really is one numble critter indeed
- We got a miniature Christmas Tree from Daiso and have absolutely no intention of taking it down! I purchased it and decorated it personally, surrounding it with gifts and surprising Jiwon when she came home from work. I don’t think anybody has even given her so much as a single present before, and it took some time for her to digest what had just happened. The gifts verged more on the ridiculous than the lavish, but in our relationship, it is and always will be the thought that counts. Somehow we have brought light into one another’s lives, and the way we have transformed the apartment from a characterless space into a cozy retreat is testament to this fact.
- Recently we put together a memory board and stuck it up above the bed. We just grabbed some tacks and coloured paper on the cheap from Daiso and are slowly fashioning a collage of some of our fondest memories along the way. It gives me so much pleasure to get in from work after a terrible day of nonsense and workplace/university politics, grab a milky cup of tea and take a trip down memory lane for a moment or two.
- Jiwon bought a huge angry bird pillow that I have quickly grown attached to, and we even have a new addition to the family: his name is Mr. Dangle Dong, and he sits, legs hanging wide apart on the bedside table. I am sure he could tell you a story or two!
No matter how much I enjoy moaning about anything and everything, as you see from this blog, I also understand the concept of making the best out of a bad situation. As we get to know one another more and as we grow in this relationship, our home comes along for the ride. We are not big shoppers, and we hate the department stores that literally bludgeon you into submission with their relentless selling tactics. On the other hand, we enjoy wandering around and window shopping on the odd occasion. On that note, I feel compelled to share with you a few recent photos from our trip to Toys R Us. Life can be far too serious for my liking in this day and age, so it is an absolute necessity to let your inner child out of the cage in a fit of spontaneity sometimes. As you can see from the pictures, no matter how old we get, we will always be children at heart!
I didn’t make it out to last Friday’s Daeboreum Festival as my wife is more important to me than photographing a burning pile of sticks for the umpteenth time. At any rate, here are some shots from the past. Sadly I don’t see many people doing Jibulnori, or swinging buckets of fire which I always like watching. I think that it may be a good thing as I don’t think that it is too safe. At any rate, this is one of my favourite festivals and I really want to get out to the Jeju Festival some time. This year is it is taking place on March 7th to the 9th
After the events from yesterday, I realized some people will think I have sonething against (Korean) Men but I don't and I refuse to believe guys are only nice because they want something jn exchange...
Today I met up with Oppa, he is the only friend I dare to call Oppa, he has been a true Oppa (big bro) to us, for a second ~when we met him~ I thought he might wanted to get something in exchange for being so awesome to us but with the time, I've realized he really does care about is in a brotherly way.
He can be a little weird sometimes but he compensates his weirdness with his care towards us (lol), he is the cool Oppa that got us Ice cream as a Housewarming gift, he constantly check on us and is always amazed with how we live our life.
Today I met him by myself for the 1st time (ever!), one of his first questions was "Did you try the kimchi I gave you?" lol, I thought it was gonna be awkward and I kept playing the scenes of what happened yesterday in my mind but soon I realized he wasn't like that, we got to talk more about what was going on these days and somehow we started talking about guys and I ended up telling him what happened yesterday, he was a good bro and told me the guy was a "bastard" hahaha, I asked him if he had any cute/hot guys and he said (and I quote) "I'm the hottest among my friends" I had to really laugh out loud, not because he is ugly but because of his sudden confidence.
I'm glad we found such a nice friend/big bro even if at times we stil feel weird when he worries so much about us.
I'm sorry guys, I lost the idea of my post, but I guess that happens when you stop typing to have a long dinner~~~
In my previous post on Korean working culture, I discussed life in the ESL game. For this one, I will focus more on my internship opportunities. Before I get down to it, I would like to provide slightly more insight as to what exactly constitutes work culture in this country.
Certain features of the Korean workplace are unavoidable for any worker here, and personally, I have found the environment to be a little oppressive and sometimes toxic to be a part of. Once again, I am not saying that this is uniform, but it is certainly what I have discovered first-hand.
Koreans work hard and that is a fact. Workers put in a lot of graft and this hard-working ethic oftentimes goes under-appreciated and remains poorly compensated. In the workplace, your boss or superior is the king, and it is your role to take on a subservient dimension and pander to certain whims. Whilst Koreans seem to handle this with more grace, I personally find it difficult to conform to such a role. The places I have worked at have been suffocating, and as a lowly intern, my voice has been muted even more severely. I have often been disheartened and left feeling redundant due to a slow and gradual hammering down process. The only exception was my time as an Intern at the ………… Fire Station…(Note: names have been changed below)
Playing the fire fighter was unique, and like the true little boy I am, I relished dressing up as a fire fighter and going up in the fire-truck crane once in a while! I worked in the public affairs team and I assisted the department in expanding their health and safety training scheme to the surrounding expat community. Whilst I have made it sound grander than it actually was, for the first time in South Korea, I was treated with a touch of class and respect within the confines of the workplace. They did not try to take away my dignity, and whilst it sounds like a given, this was extremely important for my self-esteem. I met a few once-in-a-life-time characters along the way too.
Mrs. Kim was my supervisor and she was always lovely to me. She treated me like royalty and seemed to relish talking to me in English. I soon realized that once again, this was a little more about appearance rather than reality. The men in the office hated her, and the reason for this was that she always made a conscious effort to do as little work as humanly possible. True to form, she would strike up a sturdy relationship with the boss and utilize it as a platform for career progression. She used me as a reason to slack off of work as much as possible, and eventually it became a little tiring to behold. It was a weird one to handle. I discovered her true colours, but she was so kind to me at the same time, and for that, I will have to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Rob was there too, one of the most stand-out characters that I have ever met in my entire life. He moved to the UK when he was a kid and went through the school system not too far from my home town. As a Korean guy, he had returned to his homeland to do military service at the Fire Station. Rob suffered some problems in the UK and found himself mixed up with the drugs scene. One night he had a bad trip and from that day on, he was never the same. Nowadays in Korea he is on anti-psychotic drugs and suffers from depression and borderline schizophrenia. He was kind hearted though, and my presence at the Fire Station seemed to fill his life with a sense of hope. For the first time in god knows how long, he had found somebody that would talk to him and look past his imperfections. If you know Korea, you will understand the way in which psychological illness is perceived, and this made his life even more unpleasant than it already was. Military culture is huge here in Korea, and Rob told me that he could never really relate to Korean guys because they would always discuss their military service exploits first and foremost. Rob was at the fire station due to his troubles and doing military service at a place like the fire station, in an office, was considered a very lowly act indeed here in Korea. He told me that Koreans perceive these people as cultural rejects, and the crappy, poorly made black uniform they made him wear was a testament to these words.
Rob was treated like muck and it was tragic to see. He broke my heart everyday because I could see his potential, a potential stifled by his culture and his mental illness. Whilst insightful at times, he would often descend into idle and mad talk about how the world was going to end and how we should realize it sooner or later. I always said I would keep in touch with him, but I did not. For that I will always be ashamed of myself. Whatever Rob may have been, despite his issues, he was my friend, and I wish the best for him always…
I was happy during that summer, but the workplace is not always so tolerable here in Korea. Before I go, I would just like to point out a couple of reasons why:
The working world seems to about networking here in Korea, and inter-company relationships are of paramount importance. Jiwon tells me that despite a fundamental lack of communication, they try to put on the facade of being reminiscent to a family-unit. Whilst foreigners may get away with it, as a Korean, she is expected to do as the Koreans do, and this has bothered her since the beginning of time.
Jiwon dreads company outings. She does not describe them as outings, but rather boozy bonding sessions that only the men seem to like. Whilst on the surface these events are not mandatory, if you do not attend you will be considered an outcast, the black sheep of the family if you will. Jiwon hardly ever attended…she was pushed out of the door just a couple of weeks ago.
In some of my workplaces, the contract is just a piece of paper, no better than a slice of cracker bread. If it states that you have to work 9-6 with a 1 hour lunch-break, this means that you have to work from 8:30 until 6:30 with a 30 minute break in between. It is relentless if nothing else…
I am sure that I have barely scratched the surface, and I could tell you so much more if I was not compromised right about now. Whatever the story, I have grown immeasurably as a person here in South Korea, and I will always thank the country for that fact alone.
As unfortunate as it may be, I need to control my fingers as they type these blog posts nowadays. I find myself in certain, how do I say, abnormal situations, bordering on the ridiculous, but for my own sake, I cannot disclose certain features about my life. In this world there are indeed eyes and ears everywhere. That being said, I would like to take a moment to comment upon the working culture here in South Korea, as always, from my own personal experience.
I used to be an English teacher somewhere in Gyeonggi-do, and let me be frank; it was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. I am not too proud to admit that from time to time, I used to cry myself to sleep at night way back when. I realized certain things about human nature during that time, and let me tell you, it can be pretty primitive at times. The hagwon I worked for was very typical in its design: the boss cared more about money than education, and the well-being of the kids and the employees was always second best. This lady would commit sins and utilize her social standing and religious zeal to conceal and justify the abuse. I would often see her take advantage of the staff and then retreat to her little den of an office and pray.
I will be honest, teaching was not for me, and I was incapable of controlling the young ones. They saw me coming a mile off and ripped me to shreds in the classroom for good measure. I worked tirelessly at home and found myself preparing for the next day until the early hours of every morning. Nothing I tried was successful, and I came to a startling conclusion: I was just not the type of person that could stand up in front of the class, play the fool, sing, dance and engage the babies. I was out of my comfort zone and sinking day by day. On the other hand, I worked like a Trojan horse to prove myself as competent and to give the students the best part of my personality day in and day out. I could just about tolerate the nature of the position, but what I could not accept was the behaviour of the boss and my co-workers. Let me start with the latter –
I was the only foreigner at the school, and the Korean teachers seemed to resent my presence at times. They, for the most part, harboured predetermined opinions about native ESL teachers and considered me as inferior, in both credibility and approach. I was probably earning more than they were, and because they were vastly more experienced than I was, it created a strong distance between us in the office. I understood their gripe, but I did not make the rules, I did not design this topsy-turvy educational system.
The boss enrolled her son at the school and he was the ring leader of the mayhem. He was a little demon and he came to the realization that he could utilize his privileged status to destroy any lesson plan I may have put together. I could not reprimand him because of who he was, and I could not report his actions because the response was always the same: it is my fault as the teacher for the problems in my classroom. These were petty, but one day things took a turn for the terrible.
One of my colleagues was a Korean woman; she was fairly young, dedicated to her job and about to go on maternity leave. On her last day of work the boss called her into the office and fired her, without as much as a penny in severance pay. This was nightmarish and stressful for a pregnant woman to deal with, and I always wondered as to how, as a woman and a mother, the boss could be so cruel. She said that my colleague had not performed well enough, but the reality was rather different: the school was facing financial difficulties and this was the end-result. I wrote a letter stating that if the boss did not reinstate her, or at least pay some compensation, I would not work anymore. I knew that the school could not even open without me, because the parents would not even consider sending their kids to a school without a native speaker. My colleague convinced me otherwise and I felt utterly dismayed by the whole sordid state of affairs. The thing was, even though I was the only native teacher at the time, I was nonetheless 100% expendable.
Eventually the money stopped coming in and enough was enough. I have never taught English since that day and to be truthful, I do not intend to ever again. That is not to say that I do not genuinely value education in all of its forms.
I think I have said enough on this matter and it was great to get it off my chest. The point is, in Korea and everywhere around the world, finding the ideal job is one of the most important journeys an individual will ever embark on. For me, even if I have money flowing out of my pockets, if I am fundamentally unhappy at work, I will never have the capacity to enjoy it.
This is part one of my working exploits in Korea and I will go into a little bit more depth in my second post.
I remember when I first saw door guards on cars in Korea and couldn’t believe that they would actually be used to protect car doors. I still wonder how useful they really are. They come in all different shapes, but I find angel wing door guards (도어가드 천사날개) the most amusing.
About the girl
Thank you so much for visiting and reading.
If you have been around Korea long enough, you will have most likely come across the term: jeong.
Interestingly enough, when I talked to Jiwon about this, she connected jeong to a deep rooted and persistent sense of expectation from her own Korean society. Like jeong, this often lacks logic and reason, and as a result, kids are expected to do certain things in life even before they have exited the womb. It is this predetermined nature of life that has weighed upon Jiwon’s shoulders for some time now, and the fact that she somehow discovered the light at the end of the tunnel is a testament to the strength of her character. Just like many other Korean girls, she was expected or at least hoped to get a certain job, marry a certain type of guy, you know the drill right? Jiwon has always had the courage of her convictions though, and she has always possessed the wisdom that indeed, only she can dictate life’s journey. If you ask me, she can be extremely proud of that fact. When we met I called her Cassandra. Reason being, if you have ever heard of the Cassandra Complex, is that she was right, but unfortunately, nobody else listened.
I will introduce jeong with an example. The best one that I can come up with for now is the image of an elderly couple, still living with one another, staying loyal and keeping the faith despite the fact that the romantic spark died out many moons ago. Jeong is nurtured over time and it develops into a form of emotional attachment to one another in a relationship. There are of course different types of jeong, for instance: jeong deun nim (meaning sweetheart). Just like is the case with the old couple, a strong emphasis is placed on commitment, and this commitment exists without reason. If commitment is not contractual like in the western world, then it goes a long way in explaining the collectivist nature of Korean society today. In Korea, you refer to your spouse as “our wife”. The point is that individuality takes a back seat in order to support the development of jeong in the relationship.
Tongjeong refers to an affair, and I would like to suggest that many Korean married couples do not actually love one another. Instead of love, they have mastered jeong, and this acts as a very good excuse to stay married to each other despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Of course, I am not saying that every couple in Korea is like this. When the kids finally come along, then jeong is consolidated even further and the family unit takes precedence over the concept of love. Many affairs take place here in Korea, yet these people still do not admit that they want a divorce.
From what I have noticed with Jiwon’s family and many other people in Korea, they find it extremely difficult to display feelings of love towards one another. It is painful to see sometimes and I have seen it before too. Everyone has a particular role in the family, and these status roles must be conformed to, carved in stone, and solidified over time.
I think Jiwon often wonders why her parents fail to accept her decisions in life. Her mother does try her best to understand our relationship, and just when it looks like we have won her over, she will come back with a comment like: “how come you don’t find a Korean guy?”
It’s difficult because they are thinking about jeong: a place in which the sanctity of marriage is much more important than passionate love will ever be. Bridging this gap is a difficult hurdle for us and a variety of other mixed race couples here in South Korea.
To the obstinate families out there that refuse to bend, I have just one question for you. When you look back at your own lives and when it is all said and done: was jeong really enough for you?