The Busan Chronicles, Part 2

I’ve decided to publish the seven or so letters I wrote documenting my experiences in Busan, where I lived for three years before coming to Daejeon. The very first letter appears to be lost.

20 November, 2007

It’s already been one month that I’ve been living and working in Korea. The weather is becoming chilly and windy, but the skies are still clear and my apartment is nice and warm. No climate seems to agree with the people here: when the weather is inclement, their faces are concealed behind masks; when it is warm, they arm themselves against the sun with umbrellas. As winter approaches, the numbing monotony of glass and concrete of the city takes on a gloomy countenance. In any case, nobody would mistake Busan for Chicago, let alone Barcelona: no magnificent sculptures grace the facades of banks, no shady tree-lined parks that adorn cities like London or Paris provide refuge from the concrete and steel and the hustle and bustle of the city; and even the occasional florist seems conspicuously lacking in horticultural know-how. But in the evening, the city is ablaze in colorful neon signs, the air is fragrant with the smells of food stalls, and the streets are teeming with pedestrians.

Although construction on a mile long stretch of new sidewalks with planters has just been completed in Hadan, most of the city is inaccessible to the handicapped — one of the reasons why they aren’t seen roaming the streets of the city, which are hazardous enough for their able-bodied brethren. There was talk of a transit strike on Friday, but an 11th hour agreement to arbritration by an independent body averted the debacle seen in France. Though my social interaction with Koreans is necessarily limited, I continue to find Koreans some of the most courteous people I’ve encountered, in spite of the occasional pushy passenger at the bus stop and motorists for whom the newly inaugurated sidewalk is merely another lane of the freeway. I also suspect that the conviviality of Koreans increases exponentially the farther from Seoul you go.

I had no idea when I rented my first Korean movie at Blockbuster video a few years ago that it would spiral into an all-consuming passion; that I would be compelled to keep a blog on Korean cinema; and eventually leave the United States. And while it is one thing to visit a foreign country for a few days out of curiosity, a sense of adventure or because it looks exotic in a travel brochure, deciding to live somewhere based solely on the movies is an absurd idea. To be honest, it wasn’t only the movies that drew me here — the more I read about the history of the country, the more enchanted I became: over 35 years of harsh colonial rule under Japanese occupation (1910-1945); Liberation by the Americans in 1945; national division when the Americans drew up the 38th parallel; the Korean War (1950-1953), plunging the country further into misery (a peace treaty is being discussed, following the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear capability); then years of enduring repressive military regimes; and, in 1987, the first steps toward a democratic government. Once one of the neediest nations on earth, Korea is now a prosperous nation: the 3rd strongest economy in Asia, and the 11th in the world.

The real turning point for me came when I learned that Korea was badly in need of English teachers, that the pay was excellent and the cost of living very low. The biggest hurdle to overcome was my age, as it is very difficult for those over 50 to find work at a private school. In spite of this, I received hundreds of offers and had dozens of interviews before choosing the school in Jinhae. Yet there was a time when even that position looked precarious, because of a misunderstanding during a telephone conversation with the school’s director and a senselessly complicated itinerary that would have taken me to as many as five airports. Those months of haggling over contracts, changing restaurant jobs, and moving out of the apartment might well have been the most stressful of my life, were it not for the support I received from family and friends.

Ironically, while movies are what got me here, there isn’t a single standing movie theater in Hadan or in Yong Won (where I work); and most people I’ve spoken with seldom go to the movies. Most students are too busy cramming for exams to bother with going to the movies. And this in spite of the fact that Busan is a favorite location for film production and each year the city hosts the largest film festival in Asia. I’m sure that viewing habits must be a little different in Seoul, where there is a greater choice, including a couple of independent theaters and numerous smaller film festivals. I think the capital accounts for as much as 80% of tickets sold in the country.

That might be why, on a recent Sunday evening, my friend Lee and I had no problem getting tickets for a show at the Lotte cinema in Seomyeon (located on the 8th floor of the department store). Lee, 23, works at Uninet, a PC bang (internet cafe) that I go to in the afternoon before work. Lee is an art student, and lives with his mother and older brother, a welder by trade. Lee’s dream is to move to Los Angeles and create video games. Movie tickets in Korea differ from those the US in that theaters have assigned seating, and audiences here are for the most part among the most respectful I’ve ever come across. Contrary to what I’ve read online, the concession didn’t offer dried squid, only popcorn. We watched “The Kingdom”, a Hollywood political action film with Jamie Foxx. In spite of my aversion for Hollywood spectacles and my preference for foreign drama, I let myself be carried along for the thrilling ride, and I was on the edge of my seat for the entire length of the movie. Since seeing Foxx’s performance in “Ray”, I’m convinced that he is one of Hollywood’s most talented actors. Another plus of the film was that not once did they play the race card.

Last Friday, I was in a dreary mood. I hadn’t been paid on the 10th, Sky (my boss at the hagwon) hadn’t opened a bank account for me, and my paycheck was already a week late.  When I went in to work that afternoon, I was fully expecting to stage a sit-in until Sky paid me according to the contract. I’d also drawn up a list of things that I wanted done no later than the following week: a television for the apartment, to establish a bank account, and to furnish proof of my health insurance. Koreans might be very punctual as a rule, but bosses are notorious for not paying on time. Not wanting to jeopardize what I consider to be an excellent working relationship, I was reluctant to have a confrontation. As it turned out, he made a special trip to the bank and returned to my classroom with a bagful of banknotes — over 2 million won — an impressive-looking bundle when you consider that the largest denomination the treasury mints is a 10,000 won note. The feds recently issued a smaller sized version of the oversized currency, but many of the larger bills are still in circulation. There is talk of changing the currency, maybe getting rid of some of the zeroes, but that won’t happen with election year just around the corner, and the financial uncertainty with the dollar hitting new lows and the cost of oil at an all-time high. The treasury will be introducing 20,000 notes sometime in 2009, I believe. Sky only kept 130,000 won, for utilities and taxes, which means I keep 94% of my paycheck. I’d expected to be paid for a half-month’s work, but Sky paid me for the entire month. I even told him I thought it was too much, but he just laughed. In any case, the small windfall will come in handy, as my dental work will come to around US $500 when all is said and done.

Regarding the devaluation of the US greenback, Jim Rogers, a former partner of investor George Soros, said last month that he’s selling his house and all his possessions in the US currency to buy China’s yuan. “The dollar is collapsing,” Rogers said last week in an interview. “I’m moving to Asia because moving to Asia now is like moving to New York in 1907 or London in 1807. It’s the wave of the future.”

South Korean Banknote

Jungchul Language Institute
As I said, the school is in Yong Won, which my co-teachers inexplicably think of as the countryside; which perhaps conjures up images of saplings and vines bursting forth with ripe fruit, gently sloping valleys traversed by murmuring streams, as the intoxicating fragrance of hyacinths wafts along on balmy breezes, transporting the sightseer with its unspoiled rustic charms… Yet by no stretch of the imagination is Yong Won, a jolting twenty minute bus ride west of Hadan (a harrowing journey that of itself might account for the 40% of worshippers in the nation), an idyllic retreat of rolling hills covered with poppies. It is rather a prosperous community with traffic congestion and saturated with motels, billiard halls, opticians, shopping malls, bakeries, hospitals, hair salons, banks, convenience stores, and high-rise apartment buildings.

There are anywhere from 1-10 students per class and ages range from 10-14 years old. My job consists of reviewing material already covered by the two other Korean teachers. The materials furnished by the school are atrocious, and if any student manages to cobble together three consecutive sentences in English, a rare occurence, it is in spite of, rather than because of their instruction. Classes last 50 minutes, with a 10 minute break each hour. Discipline is occasionally a problem — if the children really get out of hand, I fetch Sky, who takes them out in the hallway and bludgeons them with a metal baseball bat. Not really.

I’m gradually becoming acquainted with the many destinations where I can spend a couple of hours reading the newspaper or brushing up on my Korean, when I don’t feel like going straight home after work. There are a number of casual dining spots near the school and the apartment that provide a wholesome alternative to the greasy fare offered by the food stalls. One of my favorite foods here is kimbap, essentially a nori roll filled with rice and pickled vegetables. One roll with a bowl of hot soup and kimchi runs around 1,000 won, or about US $1.25.

A sliced roll of Kimbap, with some kimchi.A sliced roll of kimbap, with some kimchi.

Food stalls in Nampo-dong

Proposed Visa Rules Threaten Teacher Crunch
A new set of rules to be introduced by the Korean government in December threatens to disrupt hiring of new English teachers by hagwons (private schools). All new working visa applicants will have to supply criminal background checks and health checks including drug tests, in addition to already existing requirements. According the the FBI’s website, a country wide criminal background check can take as long as 4 months. And that’s before you apply for the visas, which can take a few more weeks still. Schools are already in a bind, and it they say that even with the present rules, it takes too long to recruit teachers and get all the required documents and obtain visas. The new laws won’t effect public schools, which already require the criminal background checks and health records. Private schools have a higher turnover rate, and this will really put pressure on them, but I’m not sympathizing with them. If they treated their workers better, there wouldn’t be such high rates of turnover. On one site alone, when I was looking for work on the internet, there were at least 700 hagwons looking for English teachers, and they all needed them ASAP. Many people won’t want to go throught the hassle of a police check, especially with the long delays. Because of database protection, those already living in Korea may not even be able to obtain their records by post, leading to further problems. As if that weren’t enough, they are saying all new applicants must personally go to the Korean consulate in their home country for an interview — even though most live hundreds of miles from the nearest consulate! I don’t think targeting the 100,000 or so foreign teachers is the way to go about restoring credibility to the system.

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