Soju Shenanigans-Memories of Korea

It struck me recently that it has been 10 years since I was in Korea. No one our age should ever say the phrase ‘when I was in Korea’… a friend once said to me. Less humorous was the number of people who asked me whether I was in the north or south.

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It seems pretty surreal looking back on it. I had some really great experiences, and some not so great. The job itself was ridiculous. I taught English of course, as most foreigners there do. All the foreigners I ever met in my seven months had one of three jobs. ESL teacher was by far the leader, followed by American military and a handful of engineers–I couldn’t tell you what any of them were engineering. The whole time, I only ever met two travelers. They were passing through Daegu and stood out to our teacher posse heading to Commune, a regular drinking spot, because of their giant backpacks. Korea tends to get dissed on the Asian backpacking trail.

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I’ve been craving the street food and convenience store snacks a lot lately. I miss my little fish-shaped bread with –I don’t know–a sweet bean paste or something inside. And the convenience stores on every corner of Daegu had these little triangles of rice wrapped in seaweed with different flavors in the middle.

The air was disgusting. I think I coughed for the first month straight. A few weeks in, I went to the top of Apsan Mountain and could breathe again.

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But there were coffee shops with luxurious seating everywhere so it was a worthwhile trade. Coffee ranks higher than oxygen for me. Now that is something Korea has down pat. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops didn’t fill themselves with wooden chairs. You didn’t count yourself lucky to have your request for a booth granted, like in America. Comfy couches were everywhere!

So were the obvious signs that copyright/trademark law didn’t apply. My knockoff Kate Spade bags, the Robert DeNiro Cafe and Titanic bar–yes, a bar covered in memorabilia from the film–were testament to that.

They also had honor bars. It’s quite possible that these are somewhere in America, but I have surely never encountered one. Tables had long ice buckets and you just took what you wanted and paid when you were done.

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I was sick a lot as I had no immunity to Korean germs. And there were a lot more opportunities to pick up the germs. The PC bang, or internet cafes, for one. Everyone spent quite a bit of time there. You see, young children, the Internet, while not brand new, was fresh enough that instead of Facebook, people were signing up for this thing called Friendster, instead of attempting to express your self in 140 characters or less via Twitter, lots of people blogged, and getting e-mail was still a reason to get excited. I still hate Twitter, by the way. I spend the whole time trying to condense my sarcasm under the character limit. I knew I was doomed health wise when the paper cups at the school water cooler were confiscated because the kids liked to throw them all over the hall. They was replaced with a single communal cup. Maybe I could avoid one sniffling kid with pink eye, but not all of them.

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Multiple generations all living together allowed some unique businesses to thrive as kids tried to escape their parents’ — and grandparents’– watchful eyes. I mean, Internet cafes aren’t exactly rare abroad, but Korea is a place where every third shop is full of preteen gamers. Or the DVD bang. This would never work in the States, but it was awesome there. You don’t simply rent a DVD in Korea, you rent a small room with plush couches where all your friends meet up to watch films. That was our Sunday night thing. Dinner and the DVD bang. It was pretty much the only night that didn’t revolve around drinking. This is where I developed my addiction to Asian Horror Films– Ju-On, Gin Gwai, Chakushin Ari and Ringu. Better known here as the American versions The Grudge, The Eye, One Missed Call and The Ring. FYI, the Asian version is better in all cases but The Ring. It’s old hat now, but back then, the Asian-inspired imagery of the long, dark hair obscuring the face of an evil woman approaching with erratic, jerky movements was the creepiest thing I’d ever seen. The only thing scarier was what might have previously occurred on the couches we were sitting on since Korean young couples used it as a place to get away from adult prying eyes.

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Korea is a very homogenous society. Foreigners really stood out, at least away from certain sections of Seoul. I found myself exchanging the knowing “wassup head nod” when passing other foreigners. It was only a couple days before I walked past a kid who grabbed his mom, yelling, “Waygook! Waygook!” when I walked by. The kids were fascinated by my freckles and I was deemed some sort of (beloved) sun monster. They’d grab my arm and and turn it back and forth. The underside they proclaimed “good.” The top freckled side was “bad. Africa.”

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The way Koreans interact with foreigners is quite different from how they interact with one another. But rules don’t apply to us. While introduction is a big deal amongst Koreans, we can be approached, asked a thousand questions and recruited for English practice. Sometimes this is a great way to make a Korean friend, and sometimes it’s just awkward, like when the heat in my apartment stopped working (which also controlled the water) and I had to shower at my gym in a big open room (It was winter and my employers were in no hurry to correct the issue). Please don’t play 20 Questions with me when we’re both naked.

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I discovered the greatest food on Earth — Korean BBQ — while I was there. I also discovered the greatest/worst drink on Earth — soju.

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My Korean co-workers seemed quite concerned about my weight. I wasn’t overweight, but they were certainly concerned about me becoming so. Concerns were expressed by a building manager that barely spoke English, but mustered up enough language to discuss my “healthy” appearance. “Healthy” didn’t seem to mean to him what it does to me. And another teacher eyed my instant coffee and snacks between classes, and declared that she was worried about me “fattening.”

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I became a mini-celebrity for a brief time when a picture of my brother slipped out of a book and the students spotted it. He once bore a great resemblance to Harry Potter, glasses and all, and the kids were thrilled that I knew Harry personally. I think this is what led to my brother’s later adventures in facial hair. A few short years later, I would go pick up my brother on a trip home from his art school and would mistake him for a homeless man, which was preferable to a few years later when he shaved his head and looked like an extra from American History X.

I visited the DMZ, where people are very serious at ALL times. My friend Mieka and I made the mistake of laughing slightly when the guide told us how the north and south competed to have the tallest structure at the border. She spun towards and declared, “Don’t laugh! Watching!”

THAT is North Korea.
THAT is North Korea.
The guy behind me is making sure I don't walk through the wrong door to the North Korean side.Technically I'm standing in N. Korea here. I'm pretty sure he'll be understanding if I get confused though...
The guard behind me is making sure I don’t walk through the wrong door to the North Korean side.Technically I’m standing in N. Korea here. I’m pretty sure he’ll be understanding if I get confused though…

Besides the job I was officially recruited for, I had a second side job that was actually not permitted by my visa, as did most teachers there. Almost everyone supplements their income with a second job tutoring, and no one is really clear on the consequences, so everyone pretends there aren’t any. I got hooked up with a job doing English lessons for kindergartens around the area. It was a pretty pointless program. It’s a big selling point for schools to offer English lessons, but they tend to be silly and infrequent. Since I worked afternoons, I’d get picked up on occasional mornings by one of the recruiters who would drive me to a kindergarten. Some I only ever went to once. Some once a month. One time I was hired to put on a show for parents’ day. That was the only time they brought someone in, which didn’t seem to be unusual. Then one day I was picked up to go to one of my regular schools, and when we arrived, there appeared to be someone of authority there looking into things. The recruiter hesitated, stopped me, and observed for a bit. Then we got back in the car and took off. His English wasn’t great, but the best I could gather is that perhaps it was a sweep of some sort for visa violations. And that was the end of my kindergarten days. By that point I already knew one teacher who was sitting in a Korean jail for signing for a package that contained marijuana sent by his brother in Canada. Okay, I don’t know if it would have been that dramatic, but no need to find out. Fortunately, he was able to avoid jail time and got deported instead.

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My real job was an absurd blight on education. Many Korean kids attend hagwons for supplementary lessons in addition to regular school. English hagwons are a major employer of foreign English speakers. I’m not saying all are bad, but some are truly a joke. I worked for a large chain and we were there as marketing tools. Let me describe the training: there was none.

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I got off a plane on a Friday night. I observed another untrained teacher playing Hangman with the students on Saturday afternoon. Monday I became expert Hangman teacher. And this was how the cycle went. More new teachers would arrive, observe other untrained teachers with no prior teaching experience and begin teaching. But, hey, our photos looked good in the newspaper ad. Eventually a “no Hangman” rule was passed. We had to stick purely to the in-house created textbooks. I wish smart phones and Instagram had been the thing so I could show you photos of these textbooks, but alas, at this point, digital cameras were still exciting (I was the only one still rocking film-I am always a good couple years behind on technology). But I will describe one of my favorite lessons to give you an idea of what we were dealing with. One of the middle school texts was called “English Through Cartoons,” and one of the lessons was called “The Keyhole.” The drawings consisted of a scantily clad woman with a large chest barely contained in her shirt sitting on a bed. A young boy has busted in, and she is upset that he didn’t knock. He informs her that it’s okay, he looked through the keyhole before he walked in on her. MUCH better than Hangman.

On Halloween one of the staff asked me to tell a scary story. He said he’d interpret it. I told him I wasn’t sure I knew any appropriate for elementary kids, so he had me tell him a story, which he then approved, and said he’d interpret. It’s that old story about the babysitter lying on the couch after the kids have gone to sleep and the dog is under the couch licking her hand. She goes upstairs to to check on the sound of dripping, and finds the dog decapitated and hanging. When she runs downstairs, she sees the escaped mental patient from the news under the couch. When I came home and got my master’s in education and started teaching, it occurred to me that telling that story here would probably land me in the administrator’s office. But in Korea, it sent two girls screaming out of the room and it was all good.

This kind of stuff wasn’t unique to my chain. This is from a friend of mine, Mieka, who worked at another major school:

Ahh the Flaming Children story . . . Like many of the English schools in Korea, Ding Ding Dang, the school I worked for, embraced all the North American holidays with vigor. So at the end of October we had Hallowe’en celebrations with costumes, candy and jack o’lanterns. We also had games and crafts and ended each party with a mummy wrapping competition. For six class sections this went off without a hitch. The pumpkins were displayed on the front desk and some enterprising Korean teacher decided not to waste the extra candles and set up the extra candles next to them for some mood lighting (can you see where this is going?). For the seventh and final Hallowe’en party, the “mummies” from the different classes were standing in front of jack o’lanterns, waiting to be judged. One of the boys stepped too close to the open flame of the extra candle and the toilet paper used as mummy wrapping caught fire. The girl next to him panicked and bumped into him and caught fire as well. Jonathan and Lee grabbed the kids to try stamp out the flames while I grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher to put out the fire. The kids were okay, their clothes protected them from the worst of it. And I had the most interesting story at the Commune that week. Oh and did I mention all this happened on my 26th birthday!?! I think the story may have become an urban legend among the foreign teachers in Korea but I can attest it is true!

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Mieka’s school also had some questionable text books. Foreign teachers would often be hired to create these publications, and they liked to slip stuff in that might not set of the radar of administration, but the teachers thought were hilarious. Unlike me, Mieka took photos.

Exhibit 1

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Exhibit 2

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I was in the middle of a lesson one day and another teacher popped in and said, “Watch this!” He threw a handful of candy in the air and all the kids dive-bombed the floor like vultures. This was the work environment. And I didn’t really appreciate how insane it was until I started teaching for real.

The Americans and Canadians had it pretty easy, though. At least we weren’t in the same boat as the English, Irish, Australian and New Zealanders who were constantly informed that they weren’t speaking correctly.

But none of that silly work stuff mattered because this:

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3 thoughts on “Soju Shenanigans-Memories of Korea”

  1. This is great! It’s giving me a list of things to tackle before I head back home to Canada 🙂 Interesting to know that, even though Korea has changed so much in the past 10 years, there’s still a lot about Korean people that hasn’t changed at all. And Korean BBQ, street food and soju are definitely the worst/best thing to ever happen to me. Full agreement there!

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