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SONGSAENGNIM: A KOREA DIARY
By Ross Brown
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Ross Brown
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNamsan Tower hung in a perfectly framed window, the centerpiece in a gallery, where the frames on either side offered snapshots of the surrounding sights of Seoul, South Korea. The tower was perfectly composed: just off-centre, clearly observing the rule of thirds that makes for a good photograph. The sky was a peachy pink and orange that provided a unique cast to the background, the colour offering evidence of a smog-induced sunset. The wisps of cloud, far away, were a brushed purple. It was a lovely row of images.
But this was not an art gallery. In my sleep-deprived state, I saw these frames as frozen images, as snapshots, though in truth they didn't last long. As my eyes moved from frame to frame, the subjects moved or disappeared altogether. I was, in fact, looking across the aisle and toward the starboard side of the airplane that was taking me across the city on its final approach to Kimp'o International Airport. The setting sun lit Namsan Tower on its hilltop peak. It was, for me, the symbol of the 1988 Olympics, which, in turn, was a reminder of Canada's shining moment and greatest embarrassment: the fastest runner in the world; the great doping cheat. But here and now, looking at the tower made me feel that I was not only in an alien country, but in an alien world, one with an atmosphere completely different from my own, illustrated by its fiery sky. Breathing in this atmosphere would be tantamount to breathing in flames, to inhaling toxic fumes. Certainly, there was something lethal out there.
How am I going to adapt and survive in this new environment?
Looking out my side of the plane, I was blinded by the sun's peachy glow. As the plane prepared to land, so too did the sun seem to be on its final approach to Earth for the day. Directly below, streets emitted vibrant colours of their own: neon pink, red, green, yellow, and blue—colours that ran endlessly along the labyrinth of alleyways and avenues that made up Seoul, South Korea. And after more than nineteen calm hours between here and Ottawa, my anxiety was finally getting the better of me.
What if I don't like it here? What if the people don't like me? What if I can't communicate with anybody? What if I can't bear the food? What if they discover me for the fraud that I am?
Too late to worry about these things now.
Within a few moments I would be touching down in the Land of the Morning Calm, a world so different from my own that every day promised to bring something new.
You wanted a change in life, Roland, to start over again. And now you've found it. Here's your fresh start. Deal with it.
It was Saturday, March 1st, 1997, and my life was about to change forever. Again.
As we sank lower, as the dark earth reached up to catch us, the cityscape changed to farm fields. The surface was a dirty, dry brown. Far away, in Ottawa, where my journey had begun, its residents were still dwelling under a thick blanket of snow. Looking over this landscape, there was absolutely no evidence that it had snowed at all, though I knew that snow, though uncommon, was possible in this country. I had seen wintery pictures of Korea in travel brochures and guide books. I had studied as many of them as I could before leaving home. But where, when, and how much it snowed, I had no idea. From above, it looked as though winter was finished, that the earth was waking up, was about to get out of bed, get dressed. For this country, as it was for me, it was truly a time to move forward.
Get up. Get dressed. The words echoed in my head. Words that had been used on me not that long ago, replaying as I observed the Korean landscape from high above.
As the plane sank lower and entered airport limits, I could see a row of orange and white helicopters sitting idly outside small hangers containing who-knows-what, and before I could think of what, the Korean Air 747 hit the runway with a solid thump. Once again looking out the opposite window, I could see the airport terminal buildings and the rows of airliners parked at their assigned gates, like newborn creatures suckling at their mother's teats. Our plane left the landing strip and headed for its expectant gate. The flight attendant for my section unclipped herself from her seat and prepared for our exit. She was young and quite beautiful. Indeed, all of our female flight attendants were lovely: slender, hair expertly coiffed, makeup applied to perfection. Perhaps that was a job requirement. Quite the opposite of most Air Canada attendants, whose appearances seemed to have been neglected or placed low on the list of priorities, in favour of the skills required in saving lives, should the situation ever call for such needs.
Yet, despite physical appearances, none of the Korean attendants smiled. They seemed so serious, although that's what their job was about: being serious. At least an Air Canada attendant smiled when you engaged one. Not the Korean Air attendants. Were they so serious because of their training or was it due to their Korean demeanour? Were all Koreans this serious? How was I expected to behave? None of the brochures or guide books really helped me in this matter.
I looked around the aircraft and noticed that many of the passengers had already removed their seatbelts. Others were out in the aisles, collecting their belongings from the overhead compartments, oblivious to the fact that the seatbelt warning light was still displaying—and I could have sworn that I heard the head flight attendant, upon touching down, asking passengers to remain seated until the plane came to a complete stop. Maybe the Koreans didn't think this rule was necessary. I saw a few other Westerners, who, like me, were still strapped to their seats, watching the Koreans with the same bewildered look that I imagined I had. We were all in store for a lesson in cultural differences.
* * *
The arrivals area of Kimp'o was sterile, like so many other airports: no places to sit, just the cordoned, zig-zagged line-ups to the immigration and customs gates. No windows, no natural lighting. Just the bright fluorescent lights on grey walls and marbled floors. The tired faces of passengers and the serious faces of the customs officers, neither looking happy. Both looking like they'd rather be elsewhere. But for the passengers, they would soon be on their way. The customs officers had to wait until the end of their shifts, after seeing countless faces.
Despite the long line, getting through Customs and Immigration was surprisingly quick and painless. Because there were so many Koreans and so few foreigners on our flight, a line was made at the side of the meandering line, where newcomers like me could bypass the crowds. It took only a few minutes to get through this express line. The officer saw my E-2 visa—a basic instructor work permit—stamped my passport, and instructed me that I had ninety days to get an immigration card. He passed me a slip of paper with the address and phone number of the nearest immigration office to where I would be living. Ninety days. That was one-quarter of my contract period and half of the time that a Canadian was allowed to stay in Korea as a visitor. By contrast, Americans were allowed to stay in the country for only ninety days on a tourist visa. I don't know why I thought about that rule at this particular moment. Perhaps it was a bit of my nationalistic pride coming out: Canadians are welcome in Korea for longer than Americans are; twice as long, apparently.
With all of my belongings collected, I headed towards the exit. I had a largesuitcaseandasixty-litrebackpack,eachweighingpreciselythirty-two kilos—the maximum allowance. A carry-on suitcase, packed to bursting, and my camera bag. Thus laden, I headed to the massive pileup through customs declaration. To my surprise, one of the officers was ushering the foreigners ahead, past the crowd of Koreans. No point in delaying a Westerner who was coming with nothing but the tools to teach.
Again the anxiety came, but this time it wasn't over the fear of being in Korea. I had made it to Seoul. That was the easy part. Now all I had to do was to get to Chonju, my ultimate destination. I had already spoken to one of the women who was working at my institute, another Canadian who was also from the Ottawa area, and she told me she would meet me at Kimp'o, would get me to Chonju. It was a kind gesture, especially when I learned that it was a three-hour bus ride in each direction. I only hoped that in the confusion and crowds of the airport, we would actually find each other.
I exchanged one thousand Canadian dollars and received a little more than six hundred and fifty thousand won. So many pieces of paper: the largest denomination being a ten-thousand won bill. I hadn't been concerned with the small packet of bills that I had carried halfway around the planet; now, I was nervous with a thick wad. And there was no telling how far this money would get me. It was going to be another month before I would see my first paycheque and another three months before I received compensation for my airfare—the cost of which, according to my contract, was to be paid by my employer. Though I felt I had brought enough cash, it would be best to conserve funds for the time being. At least until I could access cash from home.
Cash. Money. The bane of my life. Money wasn't a problem for me. Money was a curse. I didn't come to Korea to make money. Money wasn't my motive at all. If money was what drove me, I would have stayed home. I would have stayed in Ottawa. But Ottawa was the last place on Earth where I wanted to be.
My Korean liaison in Ottawa had told me to pack light, that things were inexpensive in Korea, but I hadn't listened to her. She was Korean-Canadian and would have no problem shopping in her home country. I, on the other hand, didn't speak the language, nor did I know my way around the country. I could foresee all kinds of problems in taking her advice. It was better to take as many essentials as possible.
I hauled my belongings through the sliding glass doors that led out of the customs area and was met by a swarm of people, all waiting to greet the latest arrivals. My eyes scanned the unfamiliar faces: some holding cards, others waving frantically to get someone else's attention. I weeded out the Asian faces and looked for a Western one. Anyone who resembled my idea of a Canadian woman. The woman from my institute, Linda Bryce, said there would probably be few foreigners waiting in the arrivals area, so she should be easy to spot. She wasn't wrong.
There were only three non-Koreans—or, more to the point—three white people that I could see: one was a man, another was a middle-aged woman who was almost immediately met by an American soldier, and the third was a woman in her mid-twenties who was holding a name card that was beckoning Rolland Axem. She was quite large, her rotundness seemingly magnified by the smaller, slimmer natives around her. Attired in a simple, flower-patterned dress that hung off her round shoulders like a tent, she seemed unusually large. She had shoulder-length black hair and her skin was a shade of pale that displayed a strong need for a dose of sunshine. Even though it was still technically winter and she probably hadn't had much time to bask in the sun, her paleness seemed unnatural.
Be nice, Roland, this is someone you need right now ...
I walked straight to her. "You must be Linda."
"Nice to finally meet you face-to-face," she said, her voice much bolder and louder in person than over the phone. "I hope I spelled your name correctly," she added, waving the name card.
"Close. It's actually 'Roland,' with one L, and 'Axam,' with two A's, no E."
Linda smiled out of the corner of her mouth and turned her head so that she looked at me sideways. With her dark hair and dark eyeliner, she appeared sinister. "I never noticed your accent over the phone. It's a lot stronger now. You're Scottish, aren't you?"
"Guilty as charged," I admitted, "A Scots-Canadian, mind. I tend to dummy down my accent from time to time and, if need be, I can lose it altogether. I thought that because I was applying for an English-language teaching position, I wouldn't muddy my chances by being hard to understand, especially over the phone. I plan to speak Canadian-English to my students but will let my true tongue go on my own time."
"That's pretty cool. I'm sure it will come in handy with your students. Personally, I like your accent." Her smile now seemed playful, but perhaps she was just being friendly. And perhaps my fatigue was clouding my judgement. "Anyway, I'm sorry about the spelling of your name. I wasn't sure about your last name but I did think there was only one L in Roland." She shook the card she held. "This is how Mr. Kwon spelled your name and I thought he knew something I didn't. I should have known better."
Mr. Kwon Tae-ha was our boss, the owner and president of our English hagwon, or private institute. He should have known how to spell my name: I had sent him my résumé twice. He had lost the first one. From what he had told me over the phone, he wore many hats: English-language institute owner, trading company owner, building contractor, and he was even considering running for a regional political office. All that and a family too. He certainly had his hands full. I couldn't blame him for misplacing one résumé, nor could I fault him for a simple spelling error. English was not his first language, after all, and my name was not a common one. No harm done.
Linda looked at her watch. "It's almost eight," she said. "We'd better get going to the shuttle bus. The last one leaves soon and it's too expensive to take a taxi to the express bus terminal." We would have had plenty of time, had my plane arrived on schedule, but it landed almost a half an hour late and it took another twenty minutes to reach our gate. It was a good thing I was swept through customs and immigration. "Can I carry anything?" she asked.
My backpack was strapped in place, my carry-on bag secured to its matching suitcase, which was on wheels. I handed her my camera bag. "Thanks," I said, "If you take this, I'll be better balanced for wheeling my bags."
"Don't be ridiculous," she said, and took the handles of my suitcases from me. "You must be tired after your flight. What was it, eighteen hours?"
"Nineteen or so, including the transfers in Vancouver and Tokyo, but who's counting?"
She wheeled by luggage toward the exit and I followed. For now, I'd allow this co-worker to be my guardian angel.
* * *
My fatigue hit me hard as we worked our way from Kimp'o to Seoul. As we sped along the Olympic Expressway, following the south shore of the Han River, I gazed out at the hypnotic traffic lights and neon signs. It was dark now and I was disoriented. All that I knew about the layout of Seoul was from a map I had studied in the days leading to my departure, a map that I had acquired from the Korea National Tourism Organization office in Toronto. I knew where the National Assembly building was, where Namsan Tower was, and most importantly, where the Canadian and British embassies were (if one wouldn't take me, the other would). I knew there were four or five bus stations in the city but I didn't know which one we were heading to. I felt both physically and mentally lost. My head was trying to cope with the lack of sleep and all of the new information flooding my senses. I had so many questions to ask, so many things I needed to know about what I was getting myself into, but I couldn't organize my thoughts into sentences.
When we arrived at the bus terminal, Linda propped my bags against some benches and told me to sit while she got our tickets. By the time my wallet was out, she was already gone. I remained standing. I'd been sitting on a plane since Vancouver and felt the need to stand. I looked around the terminal. It was a Saturday night and the place was bustling like a popular night club, packed with people out for a good time. Everyone walked with great purpose, the majority of them stone-faced, scurrying to their respective buses or out into the city streets. I was acutely aware that I was the only non-Korean in sight. Many people stared at me as they passed by, not once taking their eyes off me or looking away as my eyes met theirs, as though I were a green, scaly beast.
What did these people think of me, a foreigner in their country? Was I welcome?
Excerpted from SONGSAENGNIM: A KOREA DIARY by Ross Brown Copyright © 2012 by Ross Brown. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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