Tag Archives: Daegu

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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Tavel Stories You Don’t Tell Your Mom

I don’t know what challenges lie ahead for Connor, but I hope that he will get to travel. This is a long post, but I think I almost died a couple times, which my friends will enjoy, even if they don’t care for my wordiness.

My obsession since college has been travel. I credit a few things for leading to this. One is that I’m an Air Force brat and we moved all over until I turned 12, including California and Japan. Another is my college friend Cecile who had dual citizenship because her mother is French. She was always traveling back and forth, and when we’d all converge back on the dorm, she’d dump out a suitcase of French gummy bears and chocolates, and share adventures from the Paris Metro. Meanwhile I tried to tell impressive stories of all the movies I’d seen at my local Regal cinema and frappucinos I’d downed at Starbucks. Most of my early overseas trips involved her. We went to Spain and Costa Rica, and I would later visit her in France, then Germany as she moved about abroad. (Warning: never move somewhere interesting and make one of those empty “come and visit anytime!” offers to me). I haven’t yet made it to Switzerland, where she currently lives.

In Rennes, France with Cecile in November 2002.
In Rennes, France with Cecile in November 2002. I finally got my own Paris metro adventure. Flashed by a man in a trenchcoat!
Spring Break Madrid March 2001 with Sara, Cecile, me and Asma. Home of the famous quote, "SHUT UP! SHUT UP! NOBODY TALK!"
Spring Break Madrid March 2001 with Sara, Cecile, me and Asma. Home of the famous quote, “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! NOBODY TALK!”
At Hofbrauhaus in Munich in May 2005. Cecile is farthest right, next to me.
At Hofbrauhaus in Munich in May 2005. Cecile is farthest right, next to me.

The third was my anxiety, which would landslide into depression at times, and left me with a feeling of being constantly restless. I always felt like I was looking for something, and I figured the best way to find whatever it was, was to hop on a plane. If that thing I was looking for was a fairy tattoo from Thailand, selected solely because I thought the silhouetted wings looked cool, I found it. On a side note, a few years after the dust settled on people thinking I was mental for getting stuck with a needle in Thailand, Hangover 2 got released and when it comes up, people look at me like I’m crazy again.Gathering the courage to get tatted.

tattooThis story I actually did tell my mom. Just not for a couple of months. You see, I’d threatened to get a tattoo all through college, but never followed through. So by the time I graduated, she thought she was safe. Whenever I’d bring it up, she’d mock me and say, “Oh are you? Well if you do, I’ll go get one, too. We can match.” I basically started this same conversation again, as if I didn’t already have one. When she pulled out her usual mocking threat, I said, “Really? You mean it? You’re gonna go get one?”

“Suuuure!” she replied.

I yanked up the shirt to reveal my lower stomach, and silence. Jaw drops. Finally, “Robert! Get in here! Your daughter got a tattoo!”

It was hilarious. It was also nine years ago. She has yet to follow through.

With Mieka at Phuket, Thailand drag show in February 2004.
With Mieka at Phuket, Thailand drag show in Tebruary 2004. Mieka was a teaching friend from Daegu. The first time we went to the tattoo parlor, she went through with it. I chickened out. We went back the next day.

The Thailand trip came on the heels of a six-month stint teaching English in Daegu, South Korea. South Korea is a very dangerous place to live, in that it feels so safe that your guard will be significantly lowered when you leave. As far as safety is concerned, I have never felt so free as I did there. Perhaps my inability to read and follow the news exaggerated that feeling, but a random murder in Seoul made such a splash that it actually seemed like murder was a big deal there, as if it didn’t happen every day. And so I felt free to wander down dark alleys I wouldn’t have otherwise. The biggest danger I faced there was an angry Ajumma (older, married woman) openly disapproving of my wardrobe. Man, they hated that red, strapless dress of mine. I couldn’t understand what they were shrieking, but nothing got the octaves up like that dress.I only remember being scared there once. Most of the time I was there I live in a dorm near downtown, but for a brief period I stayed in an apartment about 15 minutes out, near Kyungpook University, with a Canadian roommate. This was the setting of Travel Story You Don’t Tell Your Mom #1. In the middle of the night came a wild  knocking on the door. I came out of my bedroom just in time to see my roommate wrestling a Korean man back out of the door and slamming it shut. He continued to bang and yell while we looked at each other confused. At this point we realized we had no idea what the Korean 911 was. Instead we attempted to start calling the school headquarters, as it was approaching 6 am. One of the managers answered. But since he spoke no English, he just kept hanging up on us. Finally we were able to get one of the owner’s sons on the phone. He contacted the police for us. The banging had gone on for over an hour, but in the meantime, he had taken a fall back down the stairs and was passed out on the landing. The only way for us to get out was to step over him, which wasn’t going to happen. Eventually he awoke and was back to trying to gain entry. During this whole time, not one neighbor did anything. Finally the cops arrived and we opened the door, a thick Canadian girl armed with a bat (where the hell did that come from?) and me with a heavy, metal statue of the Hindu god Shiva. It turned out the man was so incredibly intoxicated, that even having two white girls open the door was not sufficient to convince him that he had the wrong apartment. He lived in the next building. I will say, on his behalf, that those apartment buildings do look like they rolled off a conveyor belt built by Paul Bunyan. The cops thought the whole thing was hilarious, and laughed as they dragged him away, still screaming, I presume, that it was his apartment.Beyond the insult of the cops finding our fear hilarious, the boss’s son never did check on us to see if we were okay. One of many reasons I had no guilt about breaking my contract halfway through. But my ridiculous job there is another entry to come.

Cambodia Angkor WatThe unsettled feeling had arisen once again, so I booked two months in Sevilla, Spain of language courses, but decided to go through Thailand (where I would obtain my tattoo) and Cambodia on my way out of Korea. Why Cambodia? Cambodia had garnered some recent attention due to Angelina Jolie’s adoption of baby Maddox. While in Korea, I took to reading about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge when they took over from 1975-79 and destroyed the country, coating it in landmines and murdering much of the population. I selected it because in my mind, I would be wandering through jungles, maneuvering around land-mined areas to explore the ruins of Angkor. It turned out that the only thing I had to maneuver around were Australian backpackers. It was an early lesson in that if Lonely Planet has been there, so has everyone else. Land mines were well cleared and danger areas off limits. Bummer. But as I mentioned, Korea destroyed my sense of danger which is how Travel Story You Don’t Tell Your Mom #2 happened. I went alone, but had met another American on the flight into Cambodia and we were traveling together now. On our way into one of the temples, we encountered a couple of young local boys who wanted to give us a tour so they could practice their skills and eventually get jobs. Tourism is a lifeblood industry in this poverty stricken country, so we said no problem. Of course, we knew they would want a couple bucks at the end. Not an issue. So the four of us wandered around the temple and they described the temple friezes and what they meant. The area was drowning in tourists, so we had no reason to be concerned. But there was one part that was set apart from the rest, and before we realized it, we were headed for it via a woody path. Other tourists were fewer and farther between. I hadn’t realized that Cyrina and her tour guide had dropped back a bit, and suddenly my guide stopped. He informed me that he had to go to class and wanted money. His demeanor went from friendly and jovial to aggressive. I said, sure, no problem and started to reach for my Thai baht (even the Cambodians don’t want their own currency). Then he demanded 2,000 baht specifically. I just looked at him dumbfounded. That was over 50 bucks. Was he on crack? “You mean 50 baht? Right?”

“No! I have pay for school! Give me 2,000!”

I glanced back at Cyrina and could see she was having a similar conversation with her guide. I wasn’t scared of him. I couldn’t process more than that he had suddenly lost his

With Cyrina in Cambodia.
With Cyrina in Cambodia.

mind thinking I was going to give him that much money just because he demanded it. He was definitely getting creepier by the moment. And then I heard a magical Australian, “Hello, there!” It was an older gentleman we met in our hotel. “Oh, hello!” I exaggerated and ran to his side and we walked back to the main temple, grabbing Cyrina on the way. The guys just glared after us. Back at the main temple, another backpacker we had met previously expressed concern because she had seen us with the guys and she had heard it was a ploy to get tourists away from the crowd and rob them. I never even felt fear during this entire encounter as Korea had slowed my danger processing so much that I didn’t register what truly could have happened until it was over. I’m not normally this stupid…I even keep my keys between my fingers when I’m alone in dark parking lots, ready to gouge out the eyes of an attacker. Damn Korea’s low crime rate. It almost got me killed.

Coimbra, Portugal was location of my scariest encounter, Story #3, which was ironic because I had initially planned to travel to Honduras that summer. But my mother had to go and read the state department’s travel advisories, and man, you never saw someone so nervous about a few machete murders. Look, it’s a small country. You do what you gotta do to get a good spot on the beach. Since my mother took it so well the previous summer when I told her I would be traveling alone for five weeks through Thailand (again), Laos and Vietnam, I thought I’d cut her a break and alter my plans.I’m not sure when the Portugese encounter started. I do know when I first saw him. I had crossed a bridge over the river to see a monastery (I think…that’s kind of cloudy now). There was this dirty looking guy carrying only a camera bag. I’d been out of Korea for a few years now, so suspicious mode was back. He seemed weird and I caught him looking at me, but he could have just been some dirty backpacker. The camera bag mellowed me a bit, but it wouldn’t be long before I started to think there were scalpels rather than cameras inside. I started to walk back across the bridge, and knew he was behind me. He came closer and closer, so I stopped next to some tourists and let him pass. He breathed heavily behind me as he did so. I gave him a reasonable head start and continued. Then he stopped, as if looking at the water, but I could see he was checking my progress. So I hurried past him and made a right through a crowded park at the end of the bridge. I found a place to sit and relax and let Mr. Weirdo go about his day. Within a few minutes, he took a seat just a few yards from me. At this point, the prickles of annoyance turned to fear. There was no doubt about what he was doing now. I made my way through people to a riverside pizza place. My brilliant plan was to have dinner as he would surely lose interest in that amount time. My mistake was that the restaurant was almost entirely windows. I could see him pacing from one side to the other, watching me eat. Now I was entering panic mode. It was Sunday. Most things were closed. I was currently in the busy tourist area, but I would have to pass through some quiet streets to get back to my hotel. I desperately tried to communicate my problem to the waiter in my crappy Spanish, hoping it would be similar enough to the Portugese I needed. He seemed to get the basic idea of what I was telling him and pointed out a nearby police substation. I waited until Captain Creeper circled around the other side and made a run for the busy street. Somehow, magically the traffic cleared for me and I made it, the hole filling in quickly behind me. He spotted me too late. I continued to run and he couldn’t get across. I made the split second decision to head for my hotel because at this point there was no way he could catch up. Even for the few months I did 5ks I could never run like that again. I reached the hotel and locked myself into my room, and left town the next day. I will always wonder what his intentions were, especially considering he did this with so many people present. I also wonder if I should have gone to the police anyway. He probably would have melted into the crowd, but maybe, just maybe, they would have picked him up and discovered he was wanted for rape or murder or something.

In spite of these stories, I generally feel very safe when I travel. I generally try to follow the rule of not looking too much like a tourist. No fanny packs…both for safety and the massive offense to fashion. I quit the whole travel wallet strapped to the body thing years ago. I hate those and prefer to carry no more than I can afford to lose, but if you’re going to use them, carry just enough for basic purchases in a regular purse or wallet. It kind of defeats the purpose when you have to make a big show of practically undressing yourself at the cash register. Be cautious at ATMS, but it is not necessary to have your wife hold a jacket over you to shield the screen from prying eyes. That makes ME want to rob you out of spite, and probably signals thieves that you have a good amount of money in there to be that cautious. You also shouldn’t walk around with guide books and maps in your hand, but I freely admit to breaking that rule as my directional dyslexia won’t allow me to process and retain directions beyond a block.

Oh, and upon further review of these stories, Connor is not allowed to travel. He’s not even allowed to leave the house. Ever.

Sorry, Mom.