Page Nine
Let the Dating Begin

We got back from the vacation feeling like we’d learned more about Korea in a weekend than we had in all of the weeks previous. School was already becoming less of a challenge and more of a job. We’d settled in enough to feel like we could go places and do things without having our hands held by one of the older teachers. Hardly experts, we were simply adjusting to life abroad.

They say culture shock has three main steps for those moving to a new country.[1] First comes the wide-eyed acceptance. Everything is so exotic and exciting, so new and fresh, that you couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Stage two is the opposite. Everything exotic is now an abnormal pain in the ass. New and fresh has become mundane and lame. You wonder how anyone could live their whole lives in such a place and can’t figure out what in the world brought you, or anyone else, here in the first place.

Over time I’d get the idea that most foreigners in Korea arrived at stage two relatively quickly and never left it. People soured on the country very quickly and, in a lot of cases, very permanently. Ian and I hadn’t hit stage two yet but we could see it developing in some of the other teachers who'd arrived a few weeks earlier. We wondered when we’d be hit.

Stage three is the comfort stage. You’ve adjusted to the country and are ready to take things as they come. No place can be as good as you thought in stage one or as bad as you thought in stage two. The place you live is what you make of it - you want to make it hell then that’s what it will be.


That summer though Ian and I seem safely ensconced in stage one. I’d almost gotten shot on one beach and then turned around and gottená ripped off at another but things still looked pretty rosy. I wrote glowing letters home about what was going on – even trying to convince some friends to join me. In a few months that would actually happen. For now though it was sit back, get to know some more people and enjoy the summer.

Turns out enjoying that summer was directly related to the people I was meeting. Not only lucky in getting a good crew at ECC, I was starting to meet people outside of school as well. The first person I met came the week after we’d gotten back from Donghae. Walking to the bus stop one day after the morning shift I was stopped by a woman who asked if I happened to be an English teacher. “Sure,” I replied, wondering if this was someone interested in one of those lucrative private tutoring lessons I was beginning to hear about.

Her next sentence seemed to confirm my suspicions. She said she was interested in studying English and asked me to coffee. Saying to myself I would never be in such a hurry that I would refuse to spend time with a (gradually dawning on me) very attractive woman, I suggested now as being a good time. That seemed to be what she had in mind as well and the next thing I knew she’d taken me to McDonald’s (American company, American person – she was trying to make me feel at home). As we sat there trying to communicate in her pidgin English and my nonexistent Korean I realized this woman was after more than just a few English classes. We agreed to meet the following weekend for dinner. Riding home later on the bus I pondered a whole new side of life in Korea, that of the exotic bachelor. I even thought of Peter’s reason for studying Korean and realized he had a good point – knowing the language would definitely speed things up in the local lady department. I studied a little extra that day. The benefits in this new area might be a bit more, tangible.

The one problem with dating at this point though was going to be financial. I was discovering one thing that I really missed about working in the States – weekly or at least bi-monthly, paychecks. In Korea, most of Asia really, you only get paid once a month. Though by this point I’d been in Korea for nearly four weeks I had yet to receive any of my salary. Payday was still a couple of weeks away – not until the 7th of the following month. Being a wild bachelor was going to cost money that, at this point anyway, I didn’t have.

When I got back to school that day I went and talked to the money man, Mr. Contract, Dave. He referred me to a section in the contract offering an advance of up to 200,000 won (about $240) midway through the pay period. With this info in hand I went and talked to the boss and sure enough, it wasn’t a problem. I filled out a form and within a couple of days I had some money to tide me over and allow me to try the Korean dating game.

I found out from talking to the other teachers that they were having the same problems getting used to the pay system. It hadn’t seemed like such an important thing back in the States reading the contract for the first time but once I was faced with having to get through the initial week of training, then a month of teaching, and finally one more week until payday it was quite a financial stretch.

I asked John, our boss and school expert on all things Korean, why this was so. Why couldn’t we get paid more than once a month? He wasn’t sure himself but figured it was probably a combination of several reasons, most left over from when Korea was a war ravaged wreck. By paying only once a month it forced people into strict budgeting and frugality (did it ever!) and allowed companies and banks to keep access to much needed capital for as long as possible. Also it was simply easier for the company to process everything once a month than once a week. It cut down on paperwork and accounting. And, he mentioned, “our accountant is an idiot who can barely handle it once a month.”

Great, just what you want to hear about your new company! I always looked over my pay receipts real careful after hearing that and, oddly enough, it turned out to be true at nearly every place I ever worked in Korea. You could almost never trust when you would get paid or the amount you would receive. It was always best to make things very clear from the beginning and then double-check come payday. Errors were common and, in my experience, resulted more from incompetence than any nefarious scheme to rip off the foreigner[2]. Errors, once explained, were almost always apologized for, corrected and then repeated at some later date.

I found out later the reason why payday wasn’t the last day of class but rather a full week into the next month. It was a system designed to keep the schools from getting screwed by disgruntled employees. The theory went that if those darn, untrustworthy foreigners got paid right at the end of the month they might just take off with their money. This left the school in quite a bind when next month’s classes rolled around. How would you find someone to fill in on such short notice? The solution was in forcing the teachers into working a week or so before they got the previous month’s paycheck, thus making them think twice about giving up that first week’s pay. That plus it was hoped they would feel guilty about abandoning their new students.

In practice however this rarely worked. If someone hated their school enough they were more than willing to forgo a week’s pay to screw over their boss(es) and get the hell out. Once I figured this out I realized it was even a good way to judge the trustworthiness of schools – if they had payday relatively near the beginning of the month then they hadn’t had too many teachers pack up and take off without notice. Thus, a decent place to work.

If they had paydays back into the second or third week of the month though it was a signal that they had probably been burned by a lot of people leaving. People rarely left on a whim - it was a sure sign that something was seriously wrong with the school. Those schools ended up preying on na´ve newcomers, especially those working under the table and without recourse if they got burned. The day I arrived, the day I first left six years later and practically every day in between the Korea Times featured an ad in their help-wanted section for Mido Language School. Now why did they constantly need new teachers . . .

Early on though I didn’t realize how lucky I was at ECC. The 7th was (at that time) about the average day when most teachers got paid. Later on it would become one of the earlier paydays in town. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be smart when it comes to choosing schools. My going in blind hadn’t hurt me, yet.

My advance that month turned out to be a real lifesaver. Even with it I still had to go to a bank and take out some cash on my Visa plus sell a bottle of Jack (a going away present from a friend in the States) on the black market. Living overseas for six weeks on the little amount I had upon graduating college had proven far more difficult than I envisioned.

As I filled out the paperwork for the advance I wondered how smart it had been going on that vacation. Especially considering the huge fish bill we’d nearly been stuck with. I made a decision then that caused me a lot of problems later, but one I’m happy I made just the same. You can always make more money but you can never replace a good trip. That kept my Visa bill out of whack for years but also made for some great memories.

Now that I had come up with the money for the date I just needed a place to go and something to do. Time to ask around again. Dave’s ideas were pretty interesting but not, I figured, suitable for a first date with an actual human female. Pete’s ideas mostly involved him telling me how much easier Japanese women were and how conservative their Korean sisters seemed to be.

So it looked like I was on my own. We were meeting that Saturday afternoon in Chongno so I figured dinner and drinks might be best. Chongno offered a million places to go, was relatively cheap and I was itching for some conversation time where I could try a few choice new Korean phrases I’d talked the secretary into teaching me. John seemed to concur with my idea, if not my new phrases, pointing out that this was probably her first date with a foreigner and that anything we did would seem interesting and exotic by default. Pretty much how I was feeling. My main hope was that I didn’t blow it by doing something ‘too foreign’.

The week actually went by pretty quickly. I was beginning to find out that once I was able to drag myself out of bed the day usually went smoothly. Every day began with me laying in bed trying to convince myself that this wasn’t all some kind of sick joke - I really did have to get up before 6 am. But by the time Friday evening rolled around all that tiredness was forgotten in favor of a big blowout.

A week’s worth of 15 hour days demanded to be ended with a bang - I felt like I was back in college I was drinking so much. Though unlike college here in Korea we all had curfews. At that time in Korea all bars, nightclubs, restaurants, etc. were required to close by midnight. This also meant the buses stopped running at midnight. So unless you wanted to try and get a taxi with five billion other people it was either get out early enough to grab a bus or be prepared for an ordeal getting back home.

Later we were to find out the ways around the 12 o’clock curfew. Itaewon, for one, was open all night. In fact it didn’t really get going until after most other places shut down. The large international hotels also had an exemption that allowed them to stay open until 2 am. Of course you needed your own personal mint to pay their prices. Thankfully the government ended this practice in the late 90s and now most places stay open until the last customers leave.

At the time though if we wanted to stay out much past 11 (keep in mind we didn't finish work until 9) it was either go all the way to Itaewon, burn money in a hotel, or, as we learned more about the city, look for the secret after-hours bars that broke the curfew. You either learned from your students where these places were or simply stood around in one of the college districts and waited until you saw a group of people head into what looked like an empty building. If they didn’t come back out within a couple of minutes it was a pretty safe guess that you were in front of an after-hours bar. You’d open the outer door into some grungy, dimly lit stairwell. Usually you would then be able to feel the floor vibrating and you headed down. After going through one or two more doors, presto! You were in a whole new world. It was always rather strange to go from a pitch black, totally silent street into a jam-packed, neon crazed, walls-thumping-with-music Seoul college bar. A lot of fun and usually very safe – if/when caught they always paid their police well.

One side benefit of the after-hours places was that you had a place to hang out until the hordes of people trying to get taxis disappeared. Usually by 1 or 1:30 most places had cleared out, people had crammed into their cabs and everything was kind of quiet. There were still plenty of cabs running around only now they were empty and more in the mood to deal with a group of foreigners. I can’t count the number of times that, unable to find an after-hours place or a driver willing to take a group of foreigners, I had to break down and just walk home. After a week of 15 hour days and a night of hard drinking the last thing anyone wanted was an hour-long walk home. Hence, once we found out about the after-hours places we usually hung out until the crowds had dispersed and we were free to go at will.

That’s how it went the Friday after our big trip to the East Coast and the day before my big date. Saturday morning I slept in late enough to wear off most of the hangover, grabbed a late lunch and then it was off to Chongno for date numero uno.

Having spent so much time in Chongno the past few weeks I’d been able to see the crowds of people waiting to meet their friends at every possible landmark. Usually there were so many people waiting to meet people that you couldn’t get through the crowds to your designated meeting point. Here is where the beauty of having an office in Chongno came into play. I’d could either arrange to meet right at the school[3] or someplace close by. I never had to stand on some street corner packed in with 500 other people all waiting to meet someone at the same time in the same place.

In those pre-cell-phone days this came in even handier when the person I was meeting was late. I could run back to the office and kill another ten minutes or so before checking back in. Since Seoul traffic was so nightmarish it wasn’t uncommon to have someone running 20 or 30 minutes late. Being able to wait inside while reading the paper or, heaven forbid, getting some work done made for a much more acceptable stress level.

I didn't need to worry about that on this day though - we both managed to show up relatively on time. After standing there saying hello a few times we took turns mangling each other's language until we both understood that dinner would be good. McDonalds would be bad and a Korean place would also be good.

So after walking around for a bit, back when traditional Korean restaurants actually existed in Chongno, we finally settled on a little place back up in an alley. At first we were both feeling a little awkward. I was nervous about saying or doing something stupid. She was worried about her English and being able to communicate. After a little time and a couple of soju shots though we realized about what level we were at and kept the conversation there for the rest of the evening. The level wasn’t high but hell, I’ve been on dates with other native English speakers where less was said. It was the feeling behind our short, choppy sentences that made the difference.

That feeling could best be described as one of enjoying the exotic. For me the whole environment was still strange and new. The idea of sitting in a restaurant halfway around the world eating food I hadn’t even heard of a month before, all the while talking to someone in broken English and butchered Korean was challenging and enticing at the same time. For her the scene and food might have been normal but here she was sitting and talking to one of those big-nosed foreign barbarians. In some ways it might have even been stranger for her than it was for me. It’s hard to convey just how uncommon it was to see foreigners in Korea at that time - especially away from a military base, tour group or big business hotel. We could both feel the number of people staring at us, shocked and amazed at the spectacle we presented. Uncomfortable at first, once we sat down and relaxed it started to produce an ‘us vs. them’ reaction that further helped break the ice.

As dinner progressed we both got to where we tried to see the reactions of people walking in to the restaurant and seeing us for the first time. It was kind of funny and helped keep the conversation easy and light. By the time we were done with dinner and the bottle of soju we were both feeling relaxed and comfortable.

But what to do next?

I was still too new to Korea to think it would be acceptable to invite her back to my place already, so I figured I was in for a lesson in Korean dating culture. Sure enough, she soon explained to me that after dinner and drinks a coffee shop was usually the last part of the program. So, off we were to one of Chongno's ubiquitous coffee shops. Perhaps explaining why they're so common . . .

At the cash register there was a brief fight. Seems she wanted to pay for dinner and was surprised when I tried to pay. Having always been a little old-fashioned when it comes to dating I had fully assumed I was to be the one paying (hence the advance at work). She would have none of it though, insisting that I was a guest in her country and she should pay, etc. etc. I backed off and the matter was settled. I found out later that I was expected to pick up the tab at the coffee shop or wherever we went next[4]. A common practice among Korean friends (but not couples) was that rather than splitting the bill one would pick up the tab at the first place and the other would return the favor at the next stop, almost exactly like taking turns buying rounds of drinks at a bar. Korean slang even referred to these stops as 'round one', 'round two', etc. If one round was more expensive than the other well then, that’s the way it was. Hopefully the next time the friends got together things would be reversed. And if they weren’t? So what! What mattered most was having a good time with your friends. Koreans generally find the Western fixation with balancing things down to the last cent a bit ridiculous and more than a little tight-fisted.

That night though I just blindly stumbled onto the idea - offering to pay for the coffee shop (or, 'round two') just seemed like the polite thing to do. She gave me a, 'duh, that’s what you’re supposed to do' look and off we went. She took me to this 'great coffee shop she knew' that looked exactly like the five nearly identical places we walked by on the way to it. This one was somehow special though (probably newer) so that’s where she led me[5]. I asked about the coffee. Which item made this place so special and what did she recommend I order. She just gave me a funny look and said something to the effect that she just liked the way it was decorated. It made for a nice atmosphere. Stupid me.

The menu was the common one for coffee shops of the era (this was pre-Starbucks) - American coffee (black), cappuccino, expresso and instant. Frappuccinos and iced lattes were still a decade away. What the shops lacked in choice they made up for in ease of menu reading - the English words had simply been written out in Hangul. It took me a while to go through and sound out all of the letters but once I did reading the menu was simple - oh, here’s the cappuccino, there’s the espresso, etc. When it came time to order she said she didn’t really know the difference and usually just ordered the house special (generally meaning the cheapest coffee the house could find). She just came to coffee shops for a place to talk and wasn’t all that interested in coffee.

Turns out this was the most common reason for going to coffee shops. Since most Koreans live at home until they get married (and for the eldest son even on after marriage) you can’t just invite someone 'back to your place'. Instead people head to coffee shops. Not so much for the coffee but simply for a place to sit and talk with friends or dates. You weren’t so much paying for the coffee as renting a place to sit and hang out. Perhaps also explaining the sky high cost of a cup of coffee.

I ended up just ordering what she did and then attempted to recapture the mood. We’d actually been having fun before and I didn’t want the change of scenery to slow things down. She didn’t either apparently and we were just drunk enough to pull it off. We continued with our pidgin conversation, asking questions not so much for the answer but because that was all we knew how to say. Favorite color (tough to answer if you like anything other than one of the basics – my ‘aquamarine’ didn’t get too far), favorite season, how big our families were, our favorite foods, etc. Actually an interesting way to get to know someone – see how creative and funny they are on a limited vocabulary.

It was the last question though, the one about our favorite foods, that was to spice things up. I answered that mine was spaghetti, specifically the kind that I made. This piqued her curiosity. “You can cook? It tastes okay?” “Sure, no one’s died eating it yet.” A joke that took a little while to explain but brought a nice laugh nonetheless. “I’d like to try it sometime.” There you go. I invited her back to my place for some homemade foreigner spaghetti the following weekend. She loved the idea and it was settled. My place that next Sunday (I needed Saturday to run all over town tracking down all of the ingredients).

The date kind of wound down from there. All the concentrating on what to say and how to say it (not to mention trying to decipher what had just been said) was starting to give us both headaches. As we left I was finally able to pay a bill without a problem, then it was out into the Saturday night hordes of Chongno. After battling our way out to the main street it was determined that I was going one way and she the other. Amid the jostling of the crowds I bid her farewell until the next week and then hustled to my waiting bus. Looking out at the wall-to-wall people I was suddenly glad to be sitting in the bus in wall-to-wall traffic. I looked down at my watch and realized only a little over two hours had passed since we met. I still had time to get home and go out drinking with the guys. Perhaps the perfect date.

[1] Or in their old one after a long time away. I’d feel this more and more whenever I went home. By the end their were some things I was more comfortable doing in Korea than in the States. Driving, as crazy as it is in Seoul, is one of the things I prefer doing in Korea.

[2] Though such schemes did exist, were even quite common. The Internet is filled with stories and warnings about places and people to avoid in Korea. Anyone thinking of working would be advised to consult these ‘black’ or ‘gray’ lists before signing any contract or walking through any school doors. Nobody wants to find out that after working for a whole month their school isn’t going to pay them.

[3] Which I was to gradually learn was a pretty uncool place to meet dates. The guards, Korean teachers, bosses, pretty much every Korean man on staff or attending the school truly hated seeing a foreigner dating one of ‘their’ women. I sooned learned it was best to meet outside, away from prying eyes.

[4] This was not the normal dating pattern in Korea where the man nearly always pays for everything, especially early on in the relationship. A bonus for being foreign that some really took a long way, almost never paying for anything.

[5] Until I realized that everyone always had their own favorite coffee shop that they were sure was better than the ten others on the block just like it I got led all over the place by friends and students. Finally I got tired of fighting the crowds and just started saying I also had a favorite place that they should try. Surprised that a foreigner had found a favorite coffee shop in Seoul, and curious as to what it must be like, everyone nearly always agreed to go to my choice. No one ever figured out that mine was always simply the closest one.

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