Page Three: The Arrival


'Things take a turn for the personal'

I first touched down in Korea the afternoon of May 25, 1992. I'd met 'Ian' on the plane. As we were both headed to the same school, sent by the same person from the same airport the recruiter had made it easy on everyone involved by putting us on the same flight.

On the way through passport control I decided to try the Korean hello I had 'learned' on the plane from one of those Berlitz pocket guides. I handed my freshly minted passport to the official and with a proud stammer uttered what must have been some of the most atrocious Korean ever spoken at Kimpo. He answered with a grimace, a surly "hello," and a loud 'ker-chonk' of his stamper that meant I was in Korea.

A few minutes later I walked out of Kimpo's big sliding doors to see Ian talking to a couple of people holding signs with our names. They were two of our new bosses, one American and one Korean. The Korean took one look at Ian (hair braided into a two-foot ponytail, 1.9 meters tall, big and still drunk from the free booze on the plane) and volunteered to ride in a cab with our bags. The image of Mr. Kim (the first of many . . .) staring at Ian like he was some kind of ex-convict, biker from hell had me laughing halfway to our new place.

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 any better.
"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 the place.

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