Where the Hell am I?
Culture shock and expatriate nightlife …
Ten minutes away from my Korean home lurks an anti-western monument that was erected in 1871. The Cheokwabi monument reads: “Western barbarians invade our land. If we do not fight, we must then appease them. To urge appeasement is to betray the nation”. The anti-western sentiment was provoked by specific events. Korea took note of the occupation of Peking in 1860 by Franco-British forces, as well as the earlier Opium Wars (1839-1842). Russian war ships appeared on its coast in 1865, and in 1866 the French sent a detachment of troops to Kanghwa Island in response to the persecution of Catholics. The United States, in 1871, sent a fleet to battle on Kanghwa Island in retaliation for the loss of a merchant ship, the General Sherman, which sailed without permission up the Taedong River (now located in North Korea). Koreans attacked the merchant ship, burned and sunk it, then killed its crew – who allegedly treated the locals with disrespect. Moreover, Japan continued to lurk nearby ready to invade and colonize. Thus, is the story of how the former “Hermit Kingdom” was thrust out of isolation into a new age. The barbarians had invaded. For better or worse, the new foreign army is that of English teachers. Armed with recycled textbooks and the dog-ear pages of dictionaries, we continue to mark our place in Korean history.
Fast forward to the year 2004. Directly across the street from the Cheokwabi anti-western monument is a major industrial complex. It is only one of the four in Gumi City. Before his assassination, the military dictator, Park Chung Hee, enforced factory construction in Gumi – to no surprise the city he developed was his home town. A mountain exists nearby to which locals claim bear a likeness to the late leader, including a pockmark where the bullet entered his face. The city where I now teach is known as the “Silicon Valley” of Korea. It produces Korea’s electronic goods, communication equipment, textiles, and semi-conductors. It is more recently famous for its innovative development of LCDs. Western countries are now major trading partners and factory employees struggle to learn English for job promotion. Thousands of Korean children spend as many as six days per week at private schools known as “Hagwons”. These schools have earned an infamous reputation on countless web sites and travel blogs. Hagwons are a rite of passage for many teachers. New recruits often bust their chops with improvised English lessons in classrooms that lack teaching material. Those not broken down by the ceaseless energy of young Korean children are often defeated by ruthless directors that pressure them into extra shifts. The survivors of this cryptic fire become hardened veterans that either reside in Korea longer or move on to a new country to apply their recently acquired teaching skills. After surviving a personal maze of unemployment in the United States, I returned to Gumi without hesitation for a second round of teaching. The anti-western sentiment is fading, but survives in dormancy. Every now and then there is a sporadic outburst or organized protest. However, Korea now welcomes western trade and English teachers like never before.
The first time I worked in Gumi was in 1999 and 2000. I had previously taught in the United States and Eastern Europe. Like most teachers I was motivated by the Korean teaching salary. I found my job on the Internet through the eslcafe website. I blindly signed a contract and traveled to Korea without a clue about the city of Gumi. I knew that it had a beautiful mountain and a polluted river and that was about it. I arrived in Asia with less than $500 in my pocket (unable to save any more money with my Hungarian teaching salary). For the first time I was willing to teach elementary school children rather than students at the college level. Naturally, the Korean kids wore me down in my first six months. I exhausted every teaching technique in my book and resorted to cheap magician tricks, hand-made board games, and sing-a-longs. During my last few weeks I was desperate enough to break out the sock puppets. Oddly, the children loved me. I worked in a remote part of Gumi City – Okgye Dong (pronounced O.K. Dong) – that was covered with rice paddies. I was the first and only foreign teacher that lived in my province. It was months before I met another westerner. Massive gangs of Korean children would follow me to class and joke about the big-nosed teacher with strange blue eyes. They would block my path so they could play with my arm hair and taunt me with phrases such as, “Hello, how are you? I am fine, thank you, and you?”. Luckily, I was hired by a honest director, who honored our contract and treated me to many complimentary dinners. Thus, in 2004, I finally accepted the opportunity to return after teaching two years in Thailand, touring India, and suffering recession-related unemployment in my homeland.
Hippocrates wrote that you can not step into the same river twice. The truth is that the Gumi city that I returned to after four years was not the same as when I left. It had become HUGE and the population surged during my absence. The rice paddies were all gone. A fourth industrial complex was built on the site. An entire mountain was cleared away to create more space. Residential homes were bought and enormous 15-story aparment buildings stood in their place. When I first lived in this section of Gumi there were only a handful of restaurants in the area and no hotels. Now there exists an entire main street with dozens of nightclubs, eating establishments, and places to spent the night. In 2000 my school was the only hagwan in the area; now there are at least 9-10. The saturation of new hagwans has actually caused a small crisis, since competition is so strong that profits are down. All my former students had since relocated or transferred to a different hagwan. There was nobody for me to surprise with a visit. Virtually zero expatriate teachers remained from my past. To be fair, I never expected the song to remain the same, but I wrongly believed that I could still find blasts from the past. The palimpsest that I stepped onto was an entirely different city. The students were gone, the teachers were gone, and entire areas flattened and rebuilt. When I finally resettled into my old home of four years ago I was pleased to discover one lone survivor from my past – a single tea cup that I had purchased from a local artist. It had since passed through the fingertips of four new rounds of English teachers; circling back to me once again. I filled the chalice with green tea and thought about continuity. Had all my energy and efforts vanished into non-significance? Did my teaching have any lasting impact?
I struck out to find the western voice. I was curious to learn how Gumi went from point “A” to point “B”. The easiest way to find expatriate teachers is to head to the local watering hole. I ventured to two old bars called the “Hardcore” and the “Extra”. For me this journey was an one hour bus ride to Gumi’s central business district. In earlier days, these two clubs were hot spots for teachers to meet every Friday and Saturday night. In my book, Road Rash: Western Tourists and Expatriates in Asia’s Global Village (published by Thailand’s Post Books), I analyzed the dynamics of expatriate teachers at the local bar scene. I fancied rebooting myself to the environment that had given me so much drunken pleasure, wild sexual encounters, and severe morning hangovers. However, the Hardcore was no longer in existence and the Extra had been remodeled and was nearly empty. What happened in Gumi was that the population of English teachers had gotten so huge that it began to fragment into cliques. Some hagwans employed so many teachers now that they established their own cliques and bars to meet. Expatriates formed groups limited to their own nationalities. The small, tight, community of teachers that I had known split into multiple cells. All the passion that was exchanged at these bars had dissolved into nothingness. They vanished like the heat from my butt on a bar stool on a cold winter night.
Persistence furthers, however, and in time, I eventually located a new nightclub where I could meet teachers. It was located across the street from the Extra on the third floor. The place is called the “Psycho”. Despite cliques and divisions, every Friday and Saturday at 11:00 pm dozens of expatriates gravitated to the site. There was a variety or English teachers from across the globe, a number of U.S. soldiers out for a night of celebration, and a fleet of German engineers. In many ways the Psycho reflected the spirit and dynamic that I described in my book. However, there was one major difference. This time the bar was operated, but not owned, by an unique blend of westerners. Expatriates had set out to carve their own niche in Korea and create a sense of place. There were sexy bartenders to fall in love with and wild managers that plied me with free tequila while I danced on wooden tables. Beautiful Korean women flirted and cool music pumped its way into my soul. I offered private toasts to Graham Greene and the Ugly American. Perhaps it is the foreigners who are now the isolated ones, forming our private Hermit Kingdoms in Asia, or perhaps we are just having fun. As the bar began to empty at 4:00 am I realized my role in the continuity of expatriates. I am the nameless teacher that passed by Gumi on my way to someplace else. I barked at the midnight moon and raged not softly into the morning light. In all this physical exchange and spilled beer only one thing remains after it has all evaporated away. What exists is the spirit of the foreigner living abroad. The missing link wasn’t a single person or a name that could connect me with the past. What survived was the energy of the expatriate. I drink from this cup of playful passion and pass it along.