The Bohemian Experiment

The Kimchi Chronicles (Volume I: A Stranger Arrives in a Strange Land)

Posted by beckert10 on January 13, 2010

“Welcome to Seoul.” announces the flight attendant. As she says these words I momentarily panic. This is the furthest I’ve ever been from home. The unknown is always met with equal parts fear and excitement.

I’ve been told that ‘somebody’ will meet me at the airport. After being herded through immigration, baggage collection and customs I emerge in a lobby where scores of people are waiting to meet passengers. I’ve never seen this many Asians in one place, except maybe when free furniture was left on the curb near my apartment in Boston.

I hope that whoever is waiting at least has a picture or some other way of identifying me. Several people hold up signs with passengers’ names on them. My entire life I’ve wanted to have a chauffeur awaiting my arrival with a sign that reads: “Brian Eckert.” I always imagined it to denote some level of importance.

I’m not sure what a sign reading ‘Briv Ecklbert” denotes. The flight number matches mine, while the name is less certain. I approach the man with the sign and nod. Without any confirmation that I am in fact Mr. Ecklbert he snatches my suitcase and grunts for me to follow him. He leads me outside and across a parking lot to a van. Once we’re settled inside I ask him how far it is to our destination. He doesn’t answer, as he’s busy entering coordinates onto a GPS mounted on the van’s dash. The machine robotically speaks a language I can make no sense of. As we start moving I again ask about where we’re going.

“No Englishey,” he says brusquely and turns on the radio.

The English teaching business is unique not least of all because one of its core requirements, being a native English-speaker, has nothing to do with individual merit. Being born in America and inheriting her mother tongue can no more be credited to me than my eye color or height. When first considering a job teaching English I found it hard to believe I could work in hundreds of countries by virtue of a natal fluke.

However, it was refreshing to discover that being American made me automatically qualified to do something overseas besides don a uniform and join the ranks of an occupying force. And although teaching English is itself a relic of colonialism, it can also be quite lucrative.

I came to South Korea in 2006 after returning home dead broke from a backpacking trip in South America. I needed a job but I also wanted to continue traveling. Teaching English overseas seemed to be the perfect gig. My first choice was Japan, I country I’d always longed to see. I applied to a bunch of schools there but was rejected by some and told by others that placement could take up to six months. Needing more immediate means to earn money and continue my peripatetic ways, I decided to look elsewhere.

Korea was a place I knew almost nothing about, but also one where I could make thirty five grand a year for a 30 hour work week, not to mention free airfare, accommodation and health insurance. It had the added benefit of requiring very little from prospective employees except for the aforementioned nationality, a college degree and the nerve to fly 13,000 miles and plunge headlong into a career that your studies didn’t even remotely prepare you for. (I would find out later that being fat, misshapen/deformed, disabled, ugly, black(or even quite brown) or bearded are generally grounds for rejection.)

Within a few days of sending out emails to a recruiter I had a telephone interview with a Korean woman named Jean. After explaining to me that her school was not only “convenient” but also “funny and joyful,” she asked how soon I could start. While I’d done my best to prepare for the interview, I hadn’t once imagined a job offer in the first thirty seconds. I asked for a day to think about it and then sat down to make my decision. I was unsettled by the sheer vagueness of the move to Korea and Jean’s inability to speak coherent English, but in the end I was moved most by the potential for adventure. A week later, I was on a flight.

The van makes its way through Seoul rush hour traffic. Even as I gaze out the window at the Hyundais, Kias and Daewoos driven by people with Asian faces, it hasn’t quite hit me that I’m in Korea.

We must be getting close because the driver is on the phone trying to get directions; at least I think that’s what’s happening. At home I never appreciated the simple luxury of understanding what the people around me are saying. For all I know I’ve been kidnapped and am en route to North Korean officials who will hold me as a bargaining chip in their international nuclear talks. In case that’s true I try to get my bearings but everywhere we’ve been looks exactly the same: a collection of high rises and shops that are stacked on top of each other in a way that’s at the same time orderly and chaotic. Outside of Vegas I’ve never seen so many neon lights. I feel I might have a seizure from all the flashing colors.

The van stops on a street corner and the driver gets out. I stay put, waiting to see what happens next. He opens the door and grunts. I get out and survey the scene as my bags are piled at my feet. A man on a motor scooter barrels down the sidewalk inches from me without batting an eye. There are students in navy and black school uniforms walking in troops everywhere. Men wearing shiny metallic suits strut down the street together with the look of those emboldened by alcohol. Young women in obscenely short skirts giggle and walk arm in arm. Elderly people line the sidewalks selling produce, fish and street food.

“I’m in Korea,” I keep thinking, but the idea still doesn’t ring true. The scene is utterly surreal.

“Ahhh, you Brian. Welcome Korea,” says a voice in a protracted, nasally whine that sounds vaguely familiar. I turn to see a short Korean woman in glasses.

“You more handsome than photo. I can see you best teacher.” she says.

“I’m sorry, who are you?” I ask.

“I am school manager Jean. We phone speaking.”

The twenty five hour journey from Boston provided more than enough time for me to doubt my choice to come to Korea, and the closer I got the more dubious it seemed. Now, standing on a frenetic street corner in Seoul, struggling to get my bearings among the onslaught of foreign sights, sounds and smells, I must concede I have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into.

“Please, your come inside me.” says Jean.

No idea at all.

I collect my bags and follow the diminutive stranger into the building. During the elevator ride she locks a toothy, awkward grin on me. I don’t know if I should respond in some way, but I at least can be sure I’m not in the hands of the enemy. She doesn’t seem to have the brain power required for international conspiracy.

We stop at the third floor and I step into the lobby. Two Korean women wave at me from behind a desk.

“We here,” says Jean.

I put my bags down and wander through the halls, peeping into the classrooms. I’ve nearly forgotten that teaching is the reason I’m here.

I ask Jean how many days I’ll train before taking over a classroom of my own.

“Actually, your begin tomorrow,” she says.

“Really? But I have no experience. I’ve been on a plane for almost a day. I’m not at all ready to start.”

“But is OK because you very handsome. You can do good job.”

I look at her, flabbergasted, until circus-like music sounds from unseen speakers. The classrooms empty and the lobby is suddenly filled with Korean children. They whisper to each other and point at me. Jean brings a pair of girls over and tells them,

“Here new teacher Brian.”

They stare at me, clearly uncomfortable.

“Hi,” I say. “How are you?”

Blank stares.

“What are your names?”

Jean says something to them in Korean.

“Sally,” says the student on the left.

“Sally,” says the student on the right.

“You’re both named Sally?”

More staring.

The other foreigners eye me on their way back from class.

“Come on,” says Jean. “Let’s meet teachers.”

The teachers’ room is long and narrow with desks arranged on each side facing the wall. Jean’s desk is at the back of the room looking out toward the door.

“Everybody please listen to me.”

Only one teacher looks up; the others vaguely glance our way.

“OK so this new teacher Brian of USA. Please help make the welcome feeling.”

I nod and introduce myself to the guy nearest me. His name is Dave, from Indiana. He’s clean cut, excruciatingly polite and there’s a bible lying on his desk with highlighted passages. Jesus freak…we’ll likely maintain a professional but distant relationship.

Next to him is Joe, from Mississippi. He is impeccably dressed in a charcoal suit with a shiny pink tie and is checking out a webpage entitled, “Ten Surefire Ways to a Sleek, Sexy Midsection.” Fag…which means he probably at least likes to party.

To my left is Betty Anne from Florida. She has greasy, mousy-blonde hair, a bad complexion, a nervous demeanor and too-huge boobs. Just plain frightening…I will go out of my way to avoid interacting with her.

To her right is Seth from Orange County. He wears a gaudy gold watch, a baggy polo shirt and has a mop of curly hair spilling from his chest and head. Ex-wigger Italian or Jew…from the outset the pick of the litter.

After the brief introductions the teachers make a b-line for the elevator and I’m left alone with Jean.

“So, you pleased at conditions?” she says.

“Ah, sure,” I say. “So, I’m really starting tomorrow?”

“Yes. Don’t worry. Students are beautiful and joyful.”

“Well, I’m sure they are but…um, where am I sleeping tonight?”

We park in front of a tall building downtown and take the elevator up to the fourth floor. Jean speaks to the woman at the desk and gets a room key. When I open the door I’m greeted by a square, windowless space. It’s as charming as a bank lobby. I set my bags down and walk in.

“Your is fine?” asks Jean.

“Yeah, no problem.” I say

“Please your ready tomorrow by 10 a.m. I take you school.” she says, then leaves.

Alone in this box there are no signs of the alien world outside. If I squint I can still convince myself I’m at home.

I change my shirt and decide to have a look around. As I step out into the hallway I notice a commotion a few doors down. Several men in suits are gathered around something on the floor. I pretend to be going that way to get a closer look.

From ten paces away I can smell the booze on them. When I get closer I see one man on the floor, too drunk to stand. A few steps beyond him two men in formalwear are squatting against the wall, holding hands and talking about something very seriously.

“Hey, hey, you you!” one of them says to me. “Where’s your from?”

“USA.”

“Ahhhh, America good. I like you. You handsome boy.”

He takes me by the hand.

The man on the floor is swaying and burping stuff up.

“Thanks. Your friend…he’s OK?”

“Yes, he drunken many. Now sleeping time. Hey, you drinking? You come me?”

He begins petting my head tenderly.

“No, thank you. I’m very tired.”

“Please, you are coming me. Is Korea do. You know Korea soju?”

“No, I’ve never tried it. OK, OK, one drink.”

At 3:30 a.m. I stumble out of the room and almost trip over the passed out Korean man. In the past several hours he’s managed to strip down to his underwear and vomit up something extremely orange.

On the way back to my room I notice a half-open door. I step through it and onto a balcony. There is a makeshift clothesline strung across it with towels and other linens hanging. The mid-November air is chilly, but still somewhat pleasant. I look out over Seoul. It reminds me of a pinball machine with its flashing lights and strange music. 3:30 a.m. is officially the hour when nothing happens, but here, the nocturnal procession carries on. The streets are filled with people.

I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. The rice liquor has left me feeling warm and content.

“I’m in Korea,” I say aloud. “I live in Seoul. I live in Asia.”

An abstract notion of world travel has finally fused with reality. I’ve made it.

There’s a noise behind me. I turn around and see the Korean man in his underwear stumbling out onto the balcony. He slumps down to his knees and expels more orange liquid. It clings to the slotted metal for a moment before dribbling onto the street below. Some of it lands on the female half of a smartly-dressed couple walking hand in hand. Her boyfriend looks up and sees me, then shouts in perfect English,

“You! Hey! I’m gonna kill you motherfucker!”

Click here to read Volume II: A Speech Contest Day Miracle

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11 Responses to “The Kimchi Chronicles (Volume I: A Stranger Arrives in a Strange Land)”

  1. I like it…

    I’ve been working on my own story about arriving in Korea and although it’s never seen the light of day, I’m confident in it. It actually reminds me a great deal of this – the sense of impending doom, the unpleasant shock at the surroundings, and the surprise at the ‘education’ system…

    Just consider yourself lucky you didn’t end up in Daegu.

  2. i love it. especially the part where you describe your co-workers. brilliant! i am also working on a few more stories about the kim-chi stained underbelly of seoul and it’s characters….let’s keep each other in the loop.

  3. […] not sure I’ve recommended it here before, but Eckert’s latest adventures abroad remind me to share The Bohemian Experiment with […]

  4. junk said

    I am so sorry for you being in Korea. You will hate Korea more and more. You will start thinking North Korea might be better place than South. And then, you will find a joy of laughing at Korea. Please do not hate Asian. I want you to know Asian are not racists except Korean. Asia is good place to visit or live except Korea.

    • beckert10 said

      Haha…I don’t hate Korea, but sometimes it can be difficult to live there…and I don’t hate Asians. Where are you from, Japan? I have traveled there many times and love Japan…it is a wonderful country. In general, Asia is a huge and fascinating place and I can’t wait to come back. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. Sarie said

    Love the essay, brings it all back to me ! Miss you

  6. Gary said

    I remember your first day. You looked half asleep and I was happy to have another football nut and someone to have a conversation with. You even inherited my old room!

  7. My first day was slightly different. I think I shocked my head teacher more than she shocked me. I had a white suite and white cowboy hat. haha I remember just being told to “teach” and use the book. I was in college so of course I know how to do it. Only thing is I had a nice big place with two rooms…and no co-workers. That was the hardest part..cause the head teacher didn’t bother showing me where to buy food or anything..just showed me the handimart..so that’s where I went to get food at until I met a foreigner who pointed me in the right direction.

    But..one last note…Not every person that dons a uniform is an occupying force. If American troops weren’t here in South korea..there would definately be some serious fighting..between who knows how many countries.

  8. Keep it up, bookmarked and referred some mates.

  9. […] […]

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