The Busan Chronicles, Part 1

I found the first of my letters chronicling my initial impressions of Korea. I have to cringe when I read it now.

October 26, 2007

Hello everybody! At last, here’s a brief report of everything that’s happened to me since arriving in this fair country. Read on.

The flight to Tokyo was the bumpiest I’d ever experienced, but thanks to the nasal spray I took prior to take-off and landing,at least I didn’t suffer the painful ear aches that have plagued me for the past few years whenever I fly. Tokyo’s Narita International airport, the busiest in Asia, is very modern and clean – except for the smoking area, where addicts are banished behind glass doors in a tiny stuffy room equipped with a large, ineffective ventilator in the middle of the floor. I suppose it serves us right! At Busan’s Gimhae airport, passengers descended a flight of stairs, where we were greeted by a bus that drove us directly to to the entranceway leading to customs. The line moved rapidly, and the customs official didn’t ask me many questions. Once I passed through customs and into the luggage area, I was seized with dread that my luggage had been lost. The ten minutes watching the conveyer belt go round and round felt like an eternity. Had they really lost my luggage? One of my suitcases finally appeared, and another five minutes passed before my second piece finally turned up.

I instantly recognized Su, my recruiter, and there was little need for nametags, as I was the only caucasian making the journey from Tokyo to Busan’s airport. She led me to her brand new Kia van parked across the street. A GPS device mounted above her dashboard displayed a map of our location and a synthesized woman’s voice gave directions as we drove. As we headed toward the school to meet my director, I suddenly realized that I’d stupidly forgotten to exchange my money at the airport! But at least I’d arrived safely, the luggage hadn’t been misplaced, and I’d soon be safely at home, where I could unpack my belongings and get some badly needed rest.

Su introduced me to the director of the school, a young-looking man of 35 years. Before running the hagwon (private academy), Lee Chang-ho studied in the Philippines, where he also met his wife, who is also Korean. When I asked Mr. Lee how I should address him, he said to call him “Sky”, which he told me is the English translation of his name. On the way to the apartment, the police were conducting random alcohol testing on motorists. Sky lowered the driver’s side window, blew into a breathalizer, and we were off again. When we’d arrived at the apartment building, we stopped at a party store across the street, where Sky grabbed some strawberry yogurt and bottled water for the apartment. It was around 10:00 or 10:30 in the evening.

We took a shiny mirrored elevator to the fifth floor, and a synthesized woman’s voice softly announced when the doors were about to open or close. Was everything in Korea so high-tech? On the way up, I told Sky that I thought the address Su had given me was wrong, since she’d written apartment 503. In fact, the school in Jinhae just also happens to be on the fifth floor, but she’d gotten the number wrong – I live in apartment 502, not 503. The room measures about 10′ X 12′, in addition to the vestibule and a kitchen/laundry room separated by a sliding glass door. In the kitchen/laundry room, there is a new LG washing machine, an iron, a range with two gas burners, and a line for drying clothes (Koreans don’t use dryers). It took me a while to figure out that the red and blue markings on the bathroom faucet were reversed!

In the living area, there is a dining room table, a refrigerator, a bed, a clothes rack and an armoir. In the bathroom, a shower head attached to the sink hangs from the wall between the toilet and the sink. There is a drain in the floor below. The appartment is heated through the floorboards (ondol heating), which feels great when I walk out of the shower. The mailboxes are situated on the first floor opposite the elevator. All told, I rather like my new living quarters, and the apartment is furnished with everything stipulated in my contract except for the television, which I think Sky is shopping around for.

After unpacking my belongings and while I was getting ready for bed, I noticed that my entire body was covered with itchy red splotches: a rash had spread all over my arms, back, chest and legs that was like having shingles. It looked really serious, but I’d spent around 18 hours traveling, and all I wanted to do was sleep. It was around midnight when I finally dozed off.

I live in Hadan, which is on the easternmost outskirts of Busan, around 30 minutes from downtown by subway. Although you’d think I’d be suffering from jetlag, I was out and about by 6:00 am to take stock of my new surroundings in broad daylight. From the window of my apartment, I could see a woman on the rooftop of the next building hanging squid out on a line to dry. From a distance, the squid, with their translucent grey flesh, resembled so many plucked chickens hung out to dry in the cool air, a far from appetizing spectacle. Even winged scavengers showed no interest in feasting on them.

Flatbed trucks circulate around the neighborhood selling produce, with speakers announcing their wares. Within easy walking distance of the apartment are family-owned markets, dry cleaners, restaurants, banks, a post office, clothing stores, appliance stores, and internet cafes, or PC Bangs. According to one of my co-workers who lives nearby, Hadan is neither the best nor the worst neighborhood in Busan. Downtown Busan has more movie theatres, restaurants, pubs and bars. In fact, there aren’t any movie theaters in Hadan.

My routine: I usually go to bed by 11 pm and get up around 8 am. I make a cup of coffee, which isn’t like the coffee we drink in the States, but individually wrapped cellophane sticks, which you rip open and pour into a cup with some hot water. The most common brands are Maxim and Maxwell House. Packages come in quantities of 20, 50, 100 and 180 sticks, mocha and hazelnut being the most popular flavors. Each day I try to read a few pages of Voltaire’s Essais sur les moeurs, a universal history, then I usually listen to a half hour or so of Michel Onfray’s lectures on the Enlightenment philosophers before heading outdoors.

There is construction going on everywhere; shops selling designer goods (a Calvin Klein store just opened in Hadan); high-end electronics stores; alongside shops selling more moderately-priced goods. Stores selling music or DVDs are practically non-existant: Koreans prefer to download music or watch movies online for 100 won. Calvin Klein, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza Hut and Outback are just a few of the foreign companies I’ve run across so far. Street vendors selling food are everywhere too; the warmth under their tents is especially welcome in the cool night air. There are wide walkways along the major roadways, but none down the small sidestreets, meaning that you must continually dodge traffic. And no picture of Busan would be complete without noting the dragonflies that dart everywhere you go, occasionally landing on someone’s shoulder for a rest.

Sky picked me up at the apartment at noon. Although I asked him if we could eat at a traditional Korean restaurant, we had lunch at Lotteria, Korea’s answer to MacDonalds, where I ordered a squid burger and french fries. At the school, he showed me the books I’d be using and how to work the computer. At 2:30, I was introduced to the other teachers: Debbie (who’d only been working there for a couple of days), Ms. Kim (major: Russian, English, Japanese), who was leaving to go back to school, and her sister Angela, who majored in Japanese and English. Although Debbie majored in English and teaches grammar, she hardly speaks a word of English.

The kids started to arrive at around 3:15, greeting me enthusiastically with, “Hi, teacher!” So even though I was supposed to have a two-day orientation, I started teaching practically from the moment I stepped off the plane. The teaching methods here leave much to be desired: TPR (total physical response), and drills are the norm. While I’m not allowed to use corporal punishment, teachers in Korea don’t spare the rod, and Sky is no exception. Yet, as far as I can tell, aside from two or three of my students, the children at the school don’t have any serious discipline problems. They are bright, inquisitive and enthusiastic learners. My job consists mainly of reviewing material already covered by the Korean teachers, and my greatest challenge is finding enough games, activities and excercises to keep the children occupied. Classes begin at 3:30, but I arrive an hour early to prepare the day’s activities. I teach 6 classes a day and each class is 50 minutes long. Class sizes vary from one to as many as 10 students. My last class ends at 9:20. The bus stop is about two minutes from the school, and I never have to wait more than ten minutes for a bus to arrive. It takes around fifteen minutes to get home.

According to most foreigners posting in forums on the internet, all Korean customs are strange, the people are rude, the cities are boring, and the apartments are small, dirty and cockroach-infested; bosses at hagwons regularly threaten and swear at foreign teachers, and co-workers are friendly to your face but are just waiting for a moment to stab you in the back. These opinions are widely held by an expat community of 20- to 30-year-old men, who form the majority of foreign teachers in Korea, who also happen to be the most vocal internet users. The American embassy has received so many complaints about unfair treatment of foreigners that they and the State Department have gone so far as to issue a bulletin warning prospective teachers of the deceptive practices and mistreatment by hagwon owners. But are Koreans really as bad as all that?

I find Koreans to be some of the gentlest, most gracious people I’ve ever met. One night, on my way home from work, I got hopelessy lost. Fortunately, I approached a man who spoke a few words of English, and I explained to him that I’d lost my way. He called Sky on his cellphone and was soon able to lead me safely back to my apartment. The following day, Sky gave me a cellphone to call him with should I ever need his help. He even offered to give me a cash advance when he learned from one of the other teachers that I didn’t have any Korean currency. One day, a taxi driver, seeing me standing for a while at the bus stop, pulled up a milk crate for me to sit on. At the PC Bang that I go to in the morning, the young attendant lets me go online for free. And when I had dinner with Debbie one evening, she insisted on paying for the meal.

Koreans are very punctual too – Sky met me at precisely noon on Tuesday afternoon just like he said he would, and Angela always met me on time at the bus stop in the afternoon when I was still unfamiliar with system. The bus and subway systems are also very reliable.

It would seem that the majority of foreign teachers are malcontents with little or no interest in assimilating Korean culture, and whose sole purpose is to make a lot of cash, cruise the bars and vent their spleen on the internet. While Korea might not be exactly the number one vacation destination of Americans, it is a popular tourist attraction for Japanese, Chinese and Russians, and I sometimes wonder if the disgruntled teachers venting in the forums are writing from North rather than South Korea! Or it could be that I am just extremely lucky…

The outward display of generosity by shopowners and passersby does not unfortunately extend to motorists, who are some of the most aggressive drivers anywhere, running red lights, ignoring pedestrian crosswalks and even driving on the sidewalks and bicycle paths. In case of accidents, Korean law finds in favor of pedestrians, but what pedestrian wants to take that chance? Most major roads are equipped with Orwellian surveillance cameras, and traffic violators are issued tickets, but I think most motorists have devices that help them avoid detection. I’ve also seen men obeying the call of nature on the street in broad daylight; and people seized by coughing fits, the likes of which I’d never encountered before, and which can be heard from my fifth floor apartment – a ruckus that can be quite unnerving in the close confines of an elevator!

Looking at the world map that hangs on the wall above my desk at the school, Korea, a tiny peninsula with about 50 million inhabitants and some 7,000 miles away from home, looks like the remotest spot on earth. Only a couple of years ago, I would never have imagined that I’d call it home. Everything about the place agrees with me. I haven’t experienced the culture shock so many people write about. Korea seems to have everything going for it, and my only regret is not having come here when I was in my twenties.

I’ve compiled a short list of a few things I don’t miss in the USA: paying for gasoline, car payments, television, home computers, having to drive everywhere, waiting on customers at the restaurant, the 70s brown shag carpeting in my old apartment, working for tips, and income tax. I’m in charge of my classroom, my kids are adorable, the boss has never once criticized me and says he just wants me to enjoy myself.

Things I do miss: the Detroit Film Theatre, National Public Radio, John King bookstore, and being able to share my pungent wit with other English speakers.

Things I’m grateful for: that the airline didn’t lose my luggage; that my debit card works overseas; that the keyboards in Korea use English as the default language; that my co-workers and boss and students are all pleasant; and that my apartment isn’t a filthy hovel overrun with cockroaches.

In Korea, it isn’t uncommon for young adults in their twenties and thirties to live with their parents until they get married. Koreans are delaying marriage, preferring instead to become established in a career before raising a family, and most would like only one or two children, because of the expense of bringing them up. Especially education: a good education is considered essential, yet many consider the Korean system indadequate. Consequently, they send their children abroad. If the public school system resembles in any way that of the private schools, with their emphasis on rote and repetition – a system that might have been useful in the 60s and 70s when the economy was undergoing industrialization and independant thinking was not only unnecessary, but a hindrance – today’s environment requires more independent thinking. Koreans today enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents, and are reluctant to raise children themselves when it involves so much self-sacrifice.

Some observers have criticized the need of Koreans to display their wealth. One obvious example of this are the fuel-guzzling SUVs and large cars they drive. Because Busan rarely sees any snow in winter, the roads don’t have potholes like we see in Michigan, and the cars all look new because they aren’t rusted through by salt. And in spite of the free-trade agreement, the cars on the road are almost exclusively Hyundai and Kia, American automobiles being all but non-existant.

The Seomyeon subway station, located about 30 minutes from Hadan, is the most crowded in Korea. Seomyeon, in downtown Busan, is decidedly more upscale than the lowly area of Hadan, which is on the very outskirts of the port city. The streets are livelier, the shops carry nicer goods, and passersby are fashionably dressed. Lotte department store, as luxurious a temple of consumerism as you are likely to find anwhere, boasts a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlor and designer boutiques like Fendi, Coach, Dior, Gucci, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, and Prada. While most of the floor space is devoted to clothing, there are also household furnishings, appliances, electronics, a food mall and a movie theater. Now Japanese owned, the outlet boasts 600 retail shops. There is a sprawling underground shopping mall as well. When I was in Seomyeon, a group of young percussionists was playing on a stage that had been set up in the middle of the shopping district. That was followed by four stunningly beautiful young women dressed as cheerleaders with red boxing gloves doing a routine.

You can watch a movie online for 100 won, rent a video for 1,000 won or watch a movie at a DVD room for 7,000 won. Not to mention the proliferation of pirated DVDs for under 2,000 won. Just in order to be able to share with you what one of these rooms is like, I went to one located near the university. I first chose “Secret Sunshine”, Korea’s submission for the Academy Awards, but the version didn’t have English subtitles, so I watched “Black House”, a horror film about a mild-mannered insurance adjuster investigating a claim involving the suicide of a young boy and his psycopathic parent. The room is reasonably large, with pleather seating cushions that can be separated or put together, with pillows, ash tray, box of kleenex (which I assume is for wiping away the tears after a melodrama, but who knows?), an amplifier which you can adjust, and you can turn the lights on or off and lock the door.

I haven’t sampled Korean cuisine yet, but the sheer number of restaurants and vendors (pojangmacha) on every street is amazing. Dumplings, sausages, rice cakes, tempura battered shrimp, fried squid, and fried wonton.

One thing that strikes the westerner is how these old men and women remain crouching on the ground for hours at a time without any sense of strain. A few of the restaurants in the campus area display plastic replicas of the dishes on the menu – soup, sushi, pasta, steak, rice, shrimp, mushrooms, fried egg, cappucino and gravy. The less expensive restaurants list the prices as well. I can neither confirm nor deny assertions that dogmeat is a delicacy here, but dogs are conspicuously almost non-existant here. In the doorways of some party stores here, I’ve seen adorable little dogs, but they are too lean to be of interest to any but the least discerning diner! The grocers here for the most part run clean and neat shops, and don’t resemble at all the smelly, dirty, crowded little Asian markets seen back home.

In Korea, the internet is never far away… There are two internet cafes in the building I work at, and both are open 24 hours a day. There have been stories of denizens spending so much time playing games without sleep, food or drink that they’ve actually died. The computers have large flat screens and the stations are comfortable, with nice seating. Fortunately, the keyboards on computers use English as the default language. Pressing a key located between the space bar and the Alt key changes between the languages. One evening, I saw one guy masturbating to a video. On more than one occasion, I spent two hours at the computer while a young man was sound asleep in his chair at a computer nearby. One time I was leaving for my dentist appointment, I had 45 min. remaining on the computer, and the attendant said to come back next time and he’d let me use the computer for an additional 45 minutes.

Learning to use the bus system can be a challenge even back home, but when you don’t know a lick of Korean, it can be a daunting prospect. Unlike back home, public transportation is highly developed in Korea. The subways are well marked, clean, and spacious. The buses run on time, and the vehicles are comfortable, with windows that open, curtains, and covered headrests. Because the buses run fairly frequently, overcrowding isn’t generally a problem, and I’ve never seen anyone who had to stand. There is no need to ring a buzzer or pull on a cord in order for the bus to stop, all you need to do is begin walking toward the door, and the driver will pull over at the next stop. Every day I go to work, right by the bus stop I see a bunch of hospital patients in white gowns sitting outside on a bench smoking and talking on their cellphones.

The subway system in Busan is the cleanest, most modern and efficient I’ve ever used. The floors and walls are spotless. Most conspicuous by its absence is grafitti. No beggars roam the subways, and no homeless people sleep in the passageways. The shops in the subway are very well maintained. The passageways and stairwells, often cluttered and crowded in other cities, are spacious. The automated machines, which have both Korean and English menus, are easy to operate, and they accept coins and paper money. I met a young Vietnamese man in the station who spoke English, and invited me to join him and some friends for a festival for foreigners downtown. Dung is a student at Dong-A University, where he is studying something that begins with geo-. Along the way, I met an American, 67-years-old from Oregon, who has been teaching English here for some 15 years. He gave me a number to call where a group meets on Saturday afternoons to teach Korean, the cost is only 3,000 won – a month! We met Dung’s friends – two Korean women and a Nepalese man. One of the women, whose English name is Gina, is an English teacher at an elementary school. She studied English in New Zealand. One of the first questions she asked me was whether I was Christian. Evidently, the four of them were going to a stadium where a well-known American religious leader would be speaking. When I realized this, I told them I declined, and went off on my own to Seomyeon, but not before I took down Dung’s phone number. First lesson: before accepting an invitation to a concert, gathering, poetry reading, you’d better first ask if it’s a Christian revival meeting…

Judge for yourself if the cost of living in Korea is exorbitant:
USD 1.00 = 916 Korean won
Internet rooms 1,000 won/hour
Doctor ~12,600 won for an office visit
Dentist ~12,600 won for a filling
Coffee Free at some appliance stores, many other businesses and shops, internet rooms
Hot meal at street vendor 2,000 won
Meal at restaurant 5,000 won and up
Bowl ramen noodles 560 won
Cigarettes 2,500 won (Marlboro Lights box)
Bus 1,600 won one way ticket
Hamburger ~ 4,500 won
Utitlities ~30,000 won/month
Men’s dress slacks 10,000 won

If you live frugally, it is conceivable that you could get by on $500/month. And I suppose if you dined out once in a while, took in a movie every now and then, and did a little traveling on the weekends, $1,000 would probably suffice. The cost of living in Busan is much lower than that of Seoul.

An enterprising individual could conceivably make fortune giving private English lessons here. The Koreans can score perfectly on exams, but completely unable to master conversational English. Within only one week, Sky asked me if I’d be interested in earning a little extra money (300,000 won/month) doing a job in Masan, about 1 hour away from Jinhae. It would involve a couple hours in the early afternoon a few times a month. Legally, without written approval from Korean immigration, I’m only allowed to work at the school.

On Saturday, I went to the hospital where I was seen by an internist who spoke very little English, who told me I had had an allergic reaction to something I’d eaten on the flight! I realized later that it was the antihistamine I took. My symptoms showed no sign of abating, so I decided to go the hospital where I saw the patients in white hospital gowns, crutches, braces, and occasionally even sporting an intravaneous bag. I often wonder if they are the casualities of hit-and-run drivers. Although there were a number of patients and visitors waiting in the lobby, I was seen right away by an internist, who had me pull up my shirt. He asked if I had a fever or itching. He said I was suffering from a food or drug allergy and asked whether I was taking any medications. I tried to recall what I was served on the flight, but nothing I’d eaten had ever given me any problems before. He asked me to return again in a week. I didn’t have to give them any insurance information, fill out any lengthy forms, or present any identificication whatsoever. When the attendant presented me with the bill, I thought it was 126,000 won, but it was only 12,600 won, or roughly $13! It was only after leaving the hospital that it dawned on me – it was the antihistamine I took that caused the reaction! [Update: I learned a year later that it was the coffee mix that I was allergic to]

When I was having dinner with my co-worker Debbie at the restaurant, I cracked one of my lower molars on a piece of barbecued pork. I was supposed to go with Debbie in the morning, but she slept in and didn’t answer the phone. So on Monday, I told Sky about it, and he showed me to a dentist’s office on the 3rd floor of the same building. It is the most elegant office I’d ever seen, with long black leather sofas and a flat screen television. As the building I work in has a bank, two internet rooms, a hairstylist, and several restaurants, you can take care of almost everything there. Meanwhile, I stuck to eating soft food like roasted chestnuts, yogurt, and ramen, trying not to chew on that side of my mouth. I could feel the tooth jiggle with my tongue. Dentistry in Korea has gotten a bad rap. I took off my shoes at the door and put on a pair of slippers. The receptionist talked to me, but I couldn’t understand, so I put her on the phone with Sky. He arrived at 1:00 pm and we went into the office together. A dental assistant examined my tooth and took some x-rays. We went back into the room, and the dentist covered my face with a mask with a hole in it. She prodded around the tooth a little, explaining to Sky what she was about to do. She gave me two shots, they didn’t even prick, and she instantly set about to work. I never felt any numbness or tingling in my lips or gums. While she worked on me, I wasn’t a slobbering idiot, because she adjusted the suction to remove the water. She put a silver filling in. I will have to return on Wednesday for more work. I will be getting a gold crown. The office visit only cost 15,800 won for the x-rays, the anesthetic and the filling, and was finished in about 15 minutes. The crown will cost around 380,000 won, a bargain by US standards. My second visit on the following day was terrible. After a bunch of injections, I still felt pain. The dental assistant even stabbed me in the lip once with the needle. The LCD screen in front of me displayed photos of idyllic Korean landscapes. Instead of the tiny cramped rooms back home, the oval office has large glass windows and 5 or 6 stations which the technicians and dentists can easily walk from one patient to the other. One mystery remains- why don’t technicians and dentists here use latex gloves, putting their fingers and hands directly into patients’ mouths, whether to place x-ray film or to give an injection. Who could have imagined that within hours of stepping off the plane, I would already need to make two trips to the doctor?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

Up ↑