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"Welcome to Korea" -- An Excerpt from Part I of Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm

"Welcome to Korea" -- An Excerpt from Part I of Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm

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Published by Jeffrey Miller
Lost Luggage, Digestive Crackers, and David Letterman

“How did you end up in Korea?” is a question that most people have asked when they learn that I have lived and worked in Korea. “I turned left at Japan,” I’ve often replied, tweaking a famous line from The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night when John Lennon was asked, “How did you find America?” upon which he replied, “Turned left at Greenland.” One thing is for certain, I didn’t end up in Korea based on what I knew or didn’t know about the country.
Lost Luggage, Digestive Crackers, and David Letterman

“How did you end up in Korea?” is a question that most people have asked when they learn that I have lived and worked in Korea. “I turned left at Japan,” I’ve often replied, tweaking a famous line from The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night when John Lennon was asked, “How did you find America?” upon which he replied, “Turned left at Greenland.” One thing is for certain, I didn’t end up in Korea based on what I knew or didn’t know about the country.

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Published by: Jeffrey Miller on Apr 14, 2012
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04/14/2012

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Copyright © Jeffrey Miller 2012 All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrievalsystem, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without theprior permission of the publisher.
Lost Luggage, Digestive Crackers,and David Letterman
 
How did you end up in Korea?” is a question that most people have asked when they learn that I havelived and worked in Korea.
I turned left at Japan,” I’ve often replied, tweaking a famous line from The Beatles’
 A Hard Day’s Night 
 when John Lennon was asked, “How did you find America?” upon which he replied, “Turned left atGreenland.”
 
One thing is for certain, I didn’t end up in Korea based on what I knew or didn’t know about thecountry. To be sure, if you were to have asked me prior to 1988, which Korea was the communist one, who Kim Il-sung was, or where Korea was located specifically in Northeast Asia, I probably wouldn’t havebeen able to get all three of them correct.I had heard of Korea though. Two of my uncles fought in the Korean War. One of my high schoolfriends, Louis “LJ” Kirsteatter learned Taekwondo in the 70s, (he could tell you what the symbols on theKorean flag “
Taegukki 
” meant—pretty impressive for him to possess that cultural knowledge about the flag back in the 70s when not too many people knew about Korea). And I had a Korean roommate when I wasat college. I knew a few Koreans in some of my classes, but we never talked much about Korea. Sadly, formost people from my generation our knowledge of Korea was limited to what we could glean from thepopular TV show 
 M*A*S*H 
.On the other hand, the few times that we did hear anything about Korea was when there had been somebreaking news story like the
USS 
 
Pueblo
seizure in 1968, the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident in 1976,Koreagate, the downing of KAL Flight 007 in 1983, and student demonstrations in the 80s.Despite these international events, our knowledge about Korea remained limited. Even the Korean War, which was for all semantic purposes a substitute for World War III, had sadly been called “the forgotten war.” Even my two uncles who fought in it never talked about it.Of course, the world would learn much about South Korea in 1988 with the Seoul Olympics that couldbe best described as one massive “coming out party” for the nation and its people. As far as teaching English, Korea was not some place that you just heard about one day and decided thatis where you wanted to go to teach. At a time when there was no internet and a letter to and from Koreacould take as much as three weeks, Korea was not some place you just showed up at one day ready toteach. It was still a place that you had to have heard about somewhere from someone who had either beenthere or knew someone who had. People just didn’t end up here by accident. Fate maybe, but not by chance. On a cool, clammy Friday night in December 1990, just two weeks before Christmas, I arrived in Seoul.For some, traveling to another country around the holidays to begin work might be a little depressing, but I was too pumped up to feel depressed. The recruiter, who had phoned me back in October and offered methe job, told me that I would be too excited to feel depressed. She was right. Then again, it wasn’t my first Christmas away from home and definitely not my first Christmas overseas.I had spent the previous Christmas in Japan and there were the two Christmases I spent in Panama back in1976 and 1977 when I was serving in the United States Air Force; so the holidays were not much of a
 
problem. The only problem, at least after I arrived in Korea, was going to be a change of underwear. I’ll get back to this later.I left Chicago the day before at 7:00 in the morning on my way to Seattle and then on to Seoul. The day before I left, I spent hanging out with friends from my past. Kind of like Ralph Edwards, this is your life Jeffrey Miller sort of thing. First, it was lunch with Dick Verucchi, former drummer of Buckacre and The Jerks and whose family’s Italian restaurant in Spring Valley, Verucchi’s Ristorante, is one of the Illinois Valley’s more famous eateries. Well, we didn’t have lunch at his family’s restaurant that day; instead, Dick recommended Chinese at theHouse of Hunan. Guess he figured that I needed to get back into the routine of eating with chopsticks. There we bumped into Steve Stout, a renowned local author, who wished me luck. Later, Dick had someerrands to run for his family’s restaurant, including picking up an order of bread from Vallero’s Bakery inDalzell, a small town between Peru and Spring Valley, Illinois. We caught up on our lives as much as two old friends could in a few hours. While we were waiting forthe bread order, Dick turned to me and said, “You know they eat dog over there in Korea.”I shrugged my shoulders. There would be many things I would find out about Korea in due time.Later that afternoon I visited my friend LJ, who quizzed me on my knowledge of the Korean flag. In theevening, I called my friend and college roommate, Luke, who was attending the University of Kansas. Justa few months earlier, he visited me in LaSalle, a small town 90 miles southwest of Chicago, and we went toan outdoor concert in the neighboring community of Oglesby to see Peter Noone. After the innocuous,but vocal heckling Luke and I gave Noone at that concert, Noone probably would have been relieved (if hehad known) that I wouldn’t be around the next time he played Oglesby.
I’m leaving for Korea in the morning,” I told Luke.
Be careful,” he warned. “Don’t go causing any trouble over there.” This was from a guy who hung a bedsheet from the window of his third floor Eureka Collegedormitory room with “U.S. out of Nicaragua” written on it. A gutsy move in my book, considering thatEureka College was President Ronald Reagan’s alma mater. Finally, my good friend, Mary Sue, drove me toO’Hare at three in the morning. Inasmuch as I was excited to be heading overseas again, it was abittersweet send off when you have to part ways with friends, some of whom you may never see again. Atthe time, you don’t think you’re never going to see someone again, when you’re about to start a new chapter of your life, but that is exactly what happened when I came to Korea.If you had traveled to Korea prior to March 2001, when the new Incheon Airport opened, you had togo through Seoul’s Kimpo Airport. What I remembered most about Kimpo that night, and all the other times I flew in and out of thereover the next eleven years, was how dreary and archaic it was. There’s no question that Kimpo was anobvious testament to Korea’s rapid economic development in the 70s, which came with a price tag: theairport still had this sort of “developing nation” feel to it. Even though Korea hosted the Olympics justtwo years earlier, one really felt as though they had stepped back into time—back to the 70s—when youhad to go through Kimpo; either that, or some Cold War thriller, which was reinforced when passengershad to pass through another metal detector and have their luggage screened after they cleared immigration.I have flown in and out of Korea countless times over the years, and usually when you go throughimmigration formalities, the immigration officials hardly utter more than a sentence or two, if that.However, on that night the immigration official asked me for a stick of gum. Well, it was more like “giveme a stick of gum,” but I have to give the guy credit for trying out his language skills.It made me think about that classic line from
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 
when Jack Nicholson gets The Chief (Will Sampson) to finally say something—“Mmm…Juicy Fruit.”If my first night in Korea was going to be a memorable one, it was not going to get off to a good start when I soon discovered that my luggage had been lost. Great, I thought. I start work on Monday and Idon’t have any clean clothes to wear. After waiting until the last bags from my flight were unloaded and then needing to fill out some forms,
 
one of the ground staff assured me that my luggage would arrive in a day or two. It didn’t.I wasn’t alone. Turned out, a few other passengers who had flown out of Chicago with me on the sameflight were also missing their luggage and looked just as disoriented and pissed as I did watching the empty luggage carousel go round and round. I should have known there was going to be a problem when Ichecked in the day before and noticed that the luggage conveyor belt was broken and the luggage had to becarried downstairs by the ground staff. Well, that sort of thing is just begging for a problem to happen.Lost luggage aside, I was not the only teacher arriving that night. There were three others who would bejoining the ELS Kangnam (a district in Seoul, referred to as a
Gu 
in Korean, south of the Han River)school staff (one more was due in from Thailand a few days later). After we met, we got in a van, handedan envelope containing 200,000 won for traveling expenses (sweet!) and headed to Chamsil (located on theeastern fringes of the city that had just started to spread out amoeba-like swallowing up the landscape and very close to Olympic Park), which would be my home for the next two years.ELS was a franchise language school based out of Culver City, California. Back in the 90s, when Istarted teaching, ELS had schools around the world including South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Spain, andeven some in the United States. The three ELS schools in South Korea in 1990 were owned by Sisa-yong-o-sa, at the time, Korea’s largest English book publisher (now the company is called YBM Sisa.)In Korea, ELS was one of a handful of language institutes, called
hogwons 
(institute or academy)operating in the early 90s. Over the years there have been countless horror stories about the pitfalls of these institutes like the stories of teachers coming to Korea and after being met at the airport being handeda book and told that their students were waiting for them in some crowded classroom.However, back in 1990, ELS took very good care of its teachers and made it very convenient for aperson, who had just flown halfway around the world, to teach English in Korea. Helping newly arrivedteachers settle in and get acclimated before the first day of classes started with putting up teachers in thesespacious apartments in Chamsil, not far from the Olympic Sports Complex, which was only meters awafrom the sprawling Lotte World shopping and entertainment complex.In 1990, Lotte World was one of Seoul’s major attractions that had everything from a classy hotel,department store, and indoor swimming pool, to Lotte Adventure, a Disneyland-like theme park. Insteadof Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, Lotte had characters patterned after raccoons—Lotty Raccoon andLorrie Raccoon; problem was there are no raccoons in Korea, at least I have never seen one, not unless of course you count those two lovable raccoons prancing around at Lotte World. The apartments were starting to look a little rundown back then (the housing complex was leveled a few years ago and new apartment buildings have already gone up). If you didn’t mind the rats scurrying abovein the crawl space and the black soot from people still burning 
 yontan 
(cylinder-shaped, charcoal briquettesused for heating and cooking) which darkened the walls, it wasn’t too bad of a place to call home,especially when you didn’t have to pay any rent. While I waited for the school director and a staff member, who were taking two of the teachers to theirapartments, I stood outside and had a smoke. I listened to the steady drone of traffic speeding along thenearby Olympic Expressway. The housing complex had this “gulag” feel to it, row after row of apartmentbuildings all looking the same with a central heating plant.I might have been in Asia, but it sure didn’t feel like it. A few residents passed by and gave me a quick look. Obviously, they had seen a few foreigners in theirhousing complex, but over the course of the next couple of months, those quick looks would soonbecome hardened stares. For now, they were innocuous.Unlike the other teachers who arrived that night, I did not have a roommate waiting for me. He wassupposed to arrive from Thailand a few days later. For now, it was just a quick tour of the apartment. Inthe morning, another teacher would take me around the neighborhood and show me how to use thesubway to get to the institute (a ten-minute subway ride). The apartment came furnished and even included a telephone and a TV. The refrigerator was stocked with a few items to satisfy any hunger pangs that I might have until I could get to the store. I didn’t findthe package of “Digestive Crackers” too appealing (gee, I hope I could digest them), but a few hours later

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