Well… I too am in Seoul, South Korea and would like to tell my story as well! Therefore, I proudly present Part 1 of the (partly) fictional account of my time in Seoul to accompany those other unique blogs. Hope you like it!
Just Eric – Part 1
I sat for about 20 minutes in the crappy, collapsing blue plastic patio chair in front of a 24-hour laundromat, which was not called a laundromat here, they called it a ‘Coin Wash’, but whatever, the point is my apartment around the block had a washing machine for the whole floor to share but there was no dryer, so I’d have to wash my clothes there and then drag them to that Coin Wash so I could use what seemed like the only dryer in the entire neighborhood considering how many people were waiting to use it on busy a Friday night. A lot of the apartments around there were for students and were so tiny that there was no room for beds inside, let alone washers and dryers, but that was Korea and if you were a student all you needed was a desk and a rectangle on the floor where you could sleep. Even though I was a white guy from Canada who was used to something with a bit more space and privacy I wasn’t bothered by these conditions like the other foreigners here who didn’t subject themselves to living like students. Since the teaching jobs we all had were pretty lucrative it was easy enough to find a really nice, big and inexpensive apartment in Seoul, especially the suburbs where I was living, but I was there to save money so I did everything on the cheap. I found the dingiest piece of crap apartment, slept on the floor beside a square tube TV, with no computer, no internet, and no phone.
Across the street from the Coin Wash on that night was a group of office people having some kind of after work party at the patio barbecue restaurant that was over there. I tried my best not to listen to them even though they were so loud. I just didn’t want to be evaluating the way people speak when I wasn’t working. That’s what I did all day long as a teacher. Those people looked like they’d been there drinking and eating for a while now by the deep blush on many of their faces and the drenching aroma of cooked pork that wafted at me in the spring night breeze, making me hungry and envious since all I afforded myself to eat was ramen and would never have splurged for that expensive meat myself. Actually, I dreaded that they might even invite me over to join them. That might sound conceited but it wasn’t out of the question, teachers like me were often considered minor celebrities to some people back then, not students or young people but it wouldn’t have been crazy for a bunch of older office people to think I was something special.
They were playing a drinking game that was popular that year, something that helped people use English while they were hanging out together in Seoul. The game was a kind of Pictionary where one team drew cartoon pictures on common square white restaurant napkins while the other team would try to yell out an English word that was opposite from what they saw in the drawing. While I sat there I heard them yelling out words like ‘fork and spoon, spaghetti, bed, pillow, dog, department store, red bicycle,’ and then I looked around and saw a blue car parked next to a convenience store with a cat sitting in a patio chair out front that was next to a plastic table with an empty bowl of ram-yen and two chopsticks on top. I guess they were doing alright, but again I wasn’t trying to evaluate. I knew they’d noticed me when one of the women said ‘ugly Korean’. I just ignored them but there were a lot of guys here then who would have taken that cue and been over there for the rest of the night hanging out and making new friends. That wasn’t my style; I just wanted to blend in and fade into the background, which I know sounds ridiculous considering I was one of the few white faces living in the entire city. Things got much better and also much more uncomfortable during that confusing next year in Korea, but on that night I had the common feeling of wanting to get the hell out of there. There was still 20 minutes left on that dryer and I was too lazy to get up and go for a walk, so I had to sit there for the rest of the time politely refusing their invitation while trying not to look annoyed.
Based on the way I used to dress when I was in university, a lot of people probably thought I was a loser. Obviously people do judge you based on the way you are dressed, I mean you can try and wear something flamboyant or fashionable and you’ll definitely be evaluated for how you look but at least they’ll give you credit for trying. If you don’t try, like I didn’t, they you’re just a plain loser, no matter what kind of intelligent thoughts you might have going on in your head. Fine, whatever, because honestly I had some pretty bad thoughts going on in my head anyways, so maybe all those people were right, I mean, assuming they even cared or noticed, which I can’t even say for sure since I really had no friends back then either. For example, I usually wore the same pair of black sweat pants every day, no matter how many coffees I spilled on my lap while squeezing the cup between my thighs on the bus ride into school. I’d just wash those things on the weekend. I didn’t care at the time because I was busy crafting the identity of a truly great artist and was on my way to do important work in my Drama classes (even though I rarely participated in class unless I was forced too, sat on the outside of all discussions, and never volunteered to take part in any performances outside of class like so many of the other students). Everything I was up to then does seem dumb to me now but at the time it made perfect sense because I was glad to be different. While everyone else might have been happier, more social, and sure, better at the kind of acting and studying we were doing in our classes, they were still the losers to me who weren’t going to end up being real actors, not like the way I was going to blow people’s minds once I pushed through and got out of there.
Then I ended up in South Korea – what a burn! Being a teacher overseas was about as lame and low of an occupation you could think of, a good way to make some quick money but definitely not where truly brilliant artists ended up. So it was a cold shower, if you know what I’m saying, and a good one too because it made me much more realistic. Not at first though, when I took the job I thought for sure that all I would need to do was find something that would help me get rid of all that student loan debt and then I’d be back home in a year or two following my destiny in experimental theatre, or some nonsense like that. Surprisingly, I had to change the way I dressed when I got to Korea to match the conservative expectations of what a foreign teacher should look like. Once I started making this concession away from comfortable sweat pants and t-shirts and into button down shirts and slacks, the ball started rolling and I was on my way to be willing to do anything for money.
On top of my clothes, even the hair on my body had to change once I became a serious new teacher. I came into class my first day with my nice and easy, fully shaved head and all the little kids couldn’t focus on studying because they were so fixated on this white guy with a head like a monk. So I started to grow out my hair and soon had a nice trim style that I had to spend 10 minutes drying and shaping with hair spray. On the opposite side, these kids thought I had way too much hair on my arms and were endlessly amused by comparing me to a monkey in class rather than doing the tasks I was supposed to be teaching them, so I even started shaving my arms in the shower every day. Both of these grooming moves would have seemed insane to me while I was a university student, but showing this commitment to the job was endearing me to the principal at my school, as he used some kind of metrics to measure the happiness of students based on the performance on teachers in the classes. This business was intensely competitive at the time and any dumb little thing could sway students to tell their parents something that would have them pulled out and enrolled in a school upstairs or next-door. The other teachers would let their hairy arms and bald heads show and while the students seemed to be laughing and having fun, what I think those guys didn’t understand was that just amusing these kids with something seemingly insignificant wasn’t actually keeping them happy as students. Culturally, just being cool didn’t actually mean anything, you’d have to be a professional, especially as a teacher. I didn’t blame those other teachers for either failing to get this or just not wanting to do it, because they would get paid regardless, it was just that I wanted to get paid more.