My weird co-teacher, Jay, invited me to what he described as a “technology conference” in Seoul. Having zero idea what that actually meant and it only being my first week in Korea, I acquiesced.
Jay picked me up at 7am sharp. There was an old woman riding shotgun. He would not introduce us, insisting she didn’t like foreigners, which was fine by me. She didn’t exactly strike me as a barrel full of monkeys.
The soundtrack of our trek was peppered with lurid descriptions of club-bound sexy twenty-somethings disrobing each other with their teeth. I doubt the old woman understood the lyrics, but she seemed to enjoy the beats.
The conference center was huge. A weird, beige device on a pedestal was being ogled by people in suits. I was woefully under-dressed. Before I got a chance to see the doohickey, we were escorted into a mammoth auditorium complete with jumbotrons and pyrotechnics. It must have seated thousands. It all felt vaguely cultish. Throw on a couple cloaks and mutter some Gregorian chants and you wouldn’t be surprised to glance to your left and spy a virgin girl being sacrificed to an ocelot-faced god with plesiosaur flippers on a throne made of spinal columns.
Jay tried to explain to me what was going on. Apparently we were about to hear from some American spokespeople. They would announce their future plans, present current financial holdings, award top sellers, and initiate new members. Jay told me that if I joined “his company” and worked for him I could make a profit if I hired sellers beneath me.
“So it’s a pyramid scheme,” I said flatly.
“What?” Jay was visibly disturbed. “No, no, no. See, we all work together to make a profit. You broaden your sales network so you move higher up and make more money.”
“That’s what a pyramid scheme is, Jay.”
“But isn’t that a negative term?” I realized I was meant to be his “in” into the American market and Jay was distraught at the prospect of losing me.
“Look, Jay, I’m not a salesman and it’s my first week at a new job in a new country.”
Jay went on about making money for a secure future and took me down to the front where I shook hands with a man who claimed to have been an ambassador to Israel before he started selling salesmen. “Right, pal,” I think I said, perhaps too audibly. All of the American speakers were like caricatures of sleazy businessmen from bad 80s movies. Yet the throng of eager followers filling the hall was completely taken in. The old lady from the car? She ate it all up. Miss Personality herself. I tried to imagine her sour puss calling her grandkids trying to peddle whatever techo-hokum this snake oil factory was barfing up.
“You know, Donald Trump used to own part of this company,” Jay said, still trying to entice me.
“I don’t really like Donald Trump.” I said.
“But…he is very rich. And he has a TV show. He is very famous. I don’t understand you, Jonny.” He called me Jonny. Jay hung his head, the dollar bill signs in his eyes fading, trying to decide if he was more confused or frustrated. He determined it was the latter.
The conference went on for—I shit you not—over eight hours. After the thirty-second sales award was bestowed to a dumpy middle-aged woman brought out on a palanquin covered in balloons paraded through a gauntlet of indoor fireworks, I left the hall and wandered the facility by myself. Jay was defeated. I found the pedestal that had been admired earlier. All this brouhaha over what looked like the world’s clunkiest answering machine.
“It’s a video caller,” a smartly dressed woman said.
“This is what they’re talking about in there?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “If you have this device you can see your friends when they call you.”
“So it’s like Skype?” Or Kakao or Facetime or any other of the hundreds of video chat apps already in use.
She began fidgeting. “In the future everyone will have one. This screen let’s you see your friends or family.”
The screen looked like a pixelated 1990 computer monitor compressed to about 3-inches. I eyed the hefty price-tag attached to the antiquated gimmick box.
“You do know this is 2012, right?”
Originally published for 10 Magazine August 2015 issue.
Documenting our journey from Cheonan to Busan as part of our comedy tour. Filmed and edited by Wilfred Lee. Featuring Dan Wiberg, Wassim, Jeff Sinclair, Wilfred Lee, and Jonathan Burrello (me).
See the trip from LA to NY HERE.
The summer passed quickly. Lots of time digging up old friends from random corners of New York State and seeing what had become of them since college. Lots of great home cooked Italian meals. Lots of fun adventures with family and what seemed to me very much like getting reacquainted with my two younger sisters. As time went by I was able to see colors in my old home-town and stopped taking only black and white pictures.
My grandmother was beginning to get used to the idea that I was in fact leaving the country. She made every moment make it feel like it was the end. This made the summer have an interesting tone.
I recall what I can only refer to as “the Adirondack high.” Driving up to Plattsburg to visit a good friend we had to pass through several hours of Northeast mountain air. We cracked the windows and stuck our noses out like cocker-spaniels and inhaled deep the thick, fresh, piney mountain air. Feelings of euphoria not wholly unlike certain illicit substances rushed over us. I could not tell whether it was the pureness of the scent or the fact that we had been nearly hyperventilating for over an hour to keep smelling it. You can believe what you want, but whatever it was it was downright magical, I tell you.
The summer had taken me to Plattsburg, Syracuse, Albany, Schroon Lake, Utica, and Old Forge and now that it was coming to a close it was time to make one last locational maneuver. We left Herkimer for Long Island to spend the night with my grandfather. The next day would see me up early to go to JFK and then onto a nonstop Asiana Airline flight for over 15 hours over Canada, Alaska, Russia, and China before finally nestling down at Incheon airport. I can honestly say I felt neither excitement nor apprehension. I don’t know what I felt. Perhaps I felt nothing. Since I knew so very little about what I was actually doing, perhaps it had not yet set in emotionally.
The Airport and the Arrival
The march of the stewardesses. These women were chosen for their beauty. Or rather seemingly for their eerie uniformity of measurements.
The flight was long.
When we landed the runway snuck up on us. A typhoon had caused a terrific fog. It was sometime during our descent that it occurred to me that I had little notion as to what I needed to do or who and how I was to meet anybody. I had to pass through customs and meet a driver. That was as far as I knew. After obtaining my bags I wandered in search of my driver. Where was I to meet him? After a fairly un-suspenseful search I found a little man who held a paper with my name on it. I approached him uncertain if I was meant to bow, shake, or even tip. His English was extremely limited but he helped me to the kiosk to change my money. The drive to my new apartment was mysterious. Fog enshrouded everything. The strange buildings of Incheon, Seoul, and Suwon loomed like the ghosts of edifices past. That some appeared to be under construction gave them a zombie-like aura as their visibility waned in the soupy atmosphere.
My first impression of South Korea chiefly concerned the looming, repetitious architecture. It struck me as a cross between the city in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the planet Vogshpere as it was portrayed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie. This perception would alter over time.
The first day of work saw me standing outside beneath the Korean flag as the 1,100 children and 60 something teachers sang their national anthem. I was then invited to give a small impromptu speech of introduction at the podium. Having been a public speaking teacher but a few months prior perhaps I was cocky. Over the next few days I began to meet some of my many students. It was overwhelming and strange. What’s more, one week had gone by and I had not seen a single non-Korean. It was bizarre coming from America, as I had come to associate large metropolitan areas with ethnic diversity. Korea is a homogenous society and I was the only mustachioed round-eye in a city of near one million it seemed.
I was informed, just before class started, that I could not molest the children. That rule suited me fine, but they continued to explain to me that I must not molest the children. Molesting kids is very bad, I was told. I’m not sure where it was they believed I had come from or what was customary there, but I tried my best to assure them that it was the furthest thing from my mind.
Every Korean must learn English all throughout their education much like how they also must go for compulsory military training if they are male. Here was a country that was shipping native English speakers from all over the world to make their kids learn the international language of business and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it just for international prestige; to be able to say that their students spoke the best English? To say they spoke better English than China and Japan? Maybe so.
All the while, as my stay went on, there were murmurs and whispers of the English program gradually becoming extinct. Perhaps I had gone not a moment too soon. Perhaps in five years or so English teachers would not be as in demand.
My exposure to only Yongin had led me to believe that all of Korea was this low-key. Not so.
I went to Suwon. I had to brave the treacherous bus system alone in order to meet the only other round-eye I saw on the plane. He was teaching in Suwon and was meeting new friends there. I was invited. We went to an expat bar that served much western booze and much sub-par western cuisine. The westerners had come from all around to get drunk and see other westerners. One fellow had been teaching in Korea for five years. Was that to be my future? I examined the man. We were not so similar but I could not rule out the possibility that I might be gazing at my own future.
Suwon was a proper city with neon and grime, but Seoul one-upped it. Saturday saw me navigating the buses again to get to Jukjeon station to meet two Americans working in Yongin. From here we took the subway into Gangnam, but not before helping a pair of lovely Canadian twin sisters move their bulky mattresses. In stereotypical gender role fashion I and the other male carried the mattresses.
Korea consumes more alcohol per capita than any other country. A friend told me that. I haven’t done the research to back it up, but it sounds plausible and I’m the trusting sort.
Seoul is a fascinating place by day, but perhaps even moreso by night. All public transportation save for taxis stop at midnight and do not open again until 6 in the morning. This is to ensure that rowdy western drunks and fall-down Korean drunks do not dominate other the trains, buses, etc. It just makes sense.
By 4 in the morning the streets are full of drunk people either sleeping, barfing, trying to get home or a weird combination of the three. At around 4:30 troupes of hunched old ladies start to scuttle about in the alleyways, their bright colored uniform garb denoting their intent. These are the city’s cleaners. Much like plecostomuses this gnarled geriatric army waits for the grime and then goes to work. If the whole city can get wasted and trash itself then you must have some means of tidying up before dawn.
Actually, regular garbages are hard to come by in Korea. There are also stingy with napkins and do not encourage flushing toilet paper. Despite these oddities it is a remarkably clean place for the most part.
After one particular proper night of popping in and out of different venues of swift inebriation, we found ourselves in a unique position: we needed to go home, but the subway doesn’t open for another hour and a half. We were too exhausted to wait and so hailed a cab. Split four ways it wouldn’t be so bad, we thought.
We could not have foreseen the flat tire that was to occur en route which delayed us an hour and a half. Shivering, tired, perhaps slightly hung-over (our group as a whole, that is), we waited by the side of the road. The driver had never changed a tire before and we could not properly assemble his tire-changing tools. The roadside assistance fellow was there in a snap, unfortunately the cabby waited an hour and half before calling him. The sun was up before my head hit the pillow.
There was no discount on cab-fare that night.
The Busan International Film Festival saw me finding my way to the other end of the peninsula. After a slight movie hiatus I was all too eager to make a meager 5 hour train ride down south. The films were altogether wonderful. We saw In Another Country (South Korea), Fly with the Crane (China), Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA), and The Pirogue (Senegal). They fit nicely around our wandering and eating in Busan.
Before coming to Yongin I knew almost nothing about Yongin. I was aware it was in the same province as Seoul (Gyeonggi-do, that is) and it was a sister city to Fullerton, California which was a fine city in walking distance of my last apartment. I was also aware of two landmarks: The Korean Folk Village and EverLand.
I went to the Korean Folk Village with two fine folks from Minnesota or Michigan or somewhere. I’m pretty sure it had an “m” in it. Maybe it was Indiana. It was Chuseok the weekend we went. Chuseok, apparently is the biggest holiday in South Korea. Needless to say, the premises were crowded. The old historic houses and costumes made me get a better sense of the country I was in. It was much needed as I frequently forget I am in another country. Moving from Buena Park to Korea is not great a culture shock as you might think. The weather was starting to get to me though. The Folk Village was proper historical pageantry and reminded me of a Renaissance Festival on valium. I mean that in a good way.
Only real quibble with the Folk Village? It is near impossible to get to from where I live. There is apparently something called ‘living too close.’ No buses will go near there from my apartment. We wound up somewhat lost and were forced to hail a cab. Cabs are much cheaper than in America, but the even cheaper buses have spoiled me and I resist taxis whenever possible.
I experienced EverLand some weeks later. It is an amusement park not unlike Disneyland in craft and attention to detail. The rides were short and the lines were long, but the weather was nice and my three world-wandering companions for the day made it quite enjoyable. I call them the wanderers because when one inquires as to their land of origin they proceed to look up and to the left and begin listing off countries. Clearly traveling was well woven into their lifestyles. As only a novice wanderer, I envied them.
After a month and a half there was really only one constant thing in my life: it was the coughing man. Every morning I heard the coughing man. He sounded like a slightly clumsy man perhaps in his thirties. His cough was harsh. It sounded like he was dying. He stumbled up and down the stairs and coughed every morning. I could hear him grasping wildly for the railing as his coughs catapulted him into the walls. I would be in my apartment and I would hear him upstairs. There would be a sudden, loud, and frightfully aggressive cough usually followed by the dropping of some crockery or glassware. I don’t think I ever saw his face. I heard him every morning and every evening. He never sounded better and he never sounded worse.