I remember a couple of things from that first car ride across Seoul.
One was all the damn traffic. Good god was it terrible, one of the banes
of my upcoming existence. The other thing I remember thinking was that
it didn't look too different. Downtown Seoul looked like any big city
in the States only with more Asians, indecipherable writing and, as I
may have mentioned, ungodly traffic. Either way though, it was different.
My worries about not going to grad school were fading fast - life was
definitely taking a turn for the interesting . . .
Reality has a very nasty habit of whacking you upside the head. We were
finally pulling up to 'Sam Chang Plaza', my home-to-be for the next year.
From the outside it didn't look too bad - a basic, 16-story, white office
building. The lobby wasn't bad either. There was a guard station as you
walked in and, very conveniently, six elevators poised to whisk us up
to our new homes. Clean, not too crowded, and apparently, very efficient.
We all loaded our bags into the elevator and went up to the 12th floor
and my new place. It was when the elevator doors opened that things started
to go sour. Walls that were once white were now kind of grimy brown. As
you left the elevator you came out at the toilets and a hallway. It turned
out each floor was like two interlocked figure-eights lined with ugly
doors, old pipes and gas meters.
As we negotiated our way through this monument to utilitarianism John,
the American boss, explained the idea behind 'officetels'. They are a
combination 'office' and 'hotel' (hence the clever name). You could work
there, live there, or both. That was the theory anyway. In reality it
was more like a dormitory where some of the rooms had been converted into
offices. It was supposed to be very convenient; with restaurants, stores
and even a bowling alley in the basement. The other side of the coin,
my actual room, was to be far less pleasant.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into my room was that the window
(the only window) was covered with a kind of gray film. John explained
that because there was an older building across the 'alley' (all of two
meters) my building, in deference to the people who lived in the older
building, had grayed out all the windows on that side. No staring at the
neighbors. And no sunlight, nothing to see and almost no airflow. The
rest of the room was the same grimy brown - from the ceiling to the floor.
That aside, and grasping at straws, I was happy to see everything the
contract had promised. I had my own phone, TV, washing machine, bed -
the whole works. It wasn't all that clean or large but it was mine and,
in theory, it all worked. Then John gave me an advance on my first month's
salary - 300,000 won. I signed for it and was told it would be taken out
of my salary in the upcoming months.
"Yeah, in Korea, most of Asia for that matter, you only get paid
once a month. We pay on the 7th. So for the next three months we'll
deduct 100,000 from your salary."
With that John took Ian up to his new place and I was alone. Not a bit
of jetlag. I was stoked. I opened my suitcase and made a vain attempt
at unpacking. That failed. Next I tried moving furniture around. That
was better. A little physical exertion burnt off some of my nervous energy
and came with the added bonus of getting the place squared away.
Then I started to get thirsty. That proved to be a problem. Empty fridge,
no cups and, according to the handout on 'Life in Korea' that John had
given us, the tap water wasn't safe to drink. Though I had my brand new
gas burner there was no kettle to boil with. Time to venture out.
About that time the phone rang. Different from home - the rings had less
of a pause between them. More insistent and less patient. Hmm, the amount
of time between phone rings as a relative indicator of a given society's
patience . . . I was beginning to feel quite philosophical as I took one
step from the kitchen to my bed and picked up the phone . . . or maybe
the smaller size of the homes lead to smaller pauses between rings . .
. the possibilities seemed endless.
"Hey man, this is Ian. You hungry?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact I am. Actually I'm always hungry. The
amount of hunger just varies."
"Oh, you wanna go get something? Go out on walkabout?"
"Sure. Where are you?"
"I'm up on 14. I'll be down in a couple of minutes."
That took care of that. I thought about washing up a bit and went into
the bathroom for the first time. Weird, it was all open. There was a tub
and shower on the right side but no curtain or anything to keep the shower
from spraying everywhere. There was also a big drain in the middle of
the floor. Apparently it was made so the whole room could get wet and
then go down this central drain.
I didn't realize two things at the time. One was how great of a system
this actually was - it made 'cleaning' the bathroom a 30 second job at
the end of my shower. Throw around some soap, spray down the walls and
you're set. Maybe scrub a little here and there but all in all pretty
damn functional. Of course this also meant the bathroom basically stayed
damp and musty 24/7 but hey, nothing's perfect. The other thing I didn't
realize yet was that I actually had a western-style, sit-down toilet.
I would come to appreciate this.
"What the hell was that!?!?"
"SCREEEEECH, SCREEEECH!!!! Hey man, it's your doorbell. Open up."
I could hear Ian yelling from outside the door but, I thought to myself,
what kind of door 'bell' was that? The dead wouldn't just be woken up
by that thing, they'd be downright pissed.
"I hope mine's not like that," Ian added, "that sucks."
"How's your place?" I was curious to see if Ian had faired
"Exactly the same as yours. Same layout and everything. Even the
same damn gray shit covering the window. I noticed that if you open
the window (the bottom eight inches of the window swung out to let in
some air) you can stick your head out and see around a little. There
looks like some traditional buildings up on a hill near here. Wanna
go check them out?"
Turned out to be one of the most interesting walks I'd ever have in Seoul.
I would repeat it a couple of times during my stay but I was never quite
able to recapture that initial feeling. Partly because I'd been awake
now for about 1000 hours but also because everything was so new to me.
We only walked a few hundred yards from our place but as we started up
a hill it seemed like we had gone through a time machine.
The 'street' was only about four feet (1.3 meters) wide as it wound up
the hill. Other little trails shot off, helter-skelter, in all directions.
The street was lined with dilapidated traditional housing - a front gate
that led to a small courtyard surrounded on three sides by the house.
Various rooms from the houses opened into each little courtyard where
you could see the ubiquitous kimchi pots. Every house had several pots
each, some in the courtyards, others on the roof. Garlic cloves, onions
and other unidentifiable vegetables hung on the walls or in the courtyards.
The smells were various. Sewage mixed with, by far Korea's most dominant
taste sensation, garlic. It being dinner time cooking smells also filled
the air. Red peppers were drying in the evening sun. Over everything was
Seoul's pall of smog.
It was then that I really began to notice the staring. Everyone did it.
Not just a quick peek but a hard-core, no-holds-barred stare. The feeling
of having stepped through a time machine got stronger and stronger. It
was like we were the first white people ever to venture into the area.
It could easily have been May of 1892.
Ian and his hair were the true conversation stoppers. At 6'4" and
over 200 pounds he was, if nothing else, perhaps the largest person to
walk through there in some time. Throw in the two feet of hair hanging
down the back of his head and he truly must have looked like a barbarian
invader. Luckily my lack of Korean at the time saved me from what must
have been some very earthy comments.
After awhile the stares, plus our hunger, ended the walk and drove us
back to Sam Chang. We did, after all, have another 364 days to explore