Monday, November 7, 2011

First impressions of Korea (1997)

The Land of the Neon Crosses

February 1997--I arrived in South Korea in the dark and the mood was rather gloomy—sort of the thing you would expect from a set for the filming of “Seven” or “Strange Days ‘as the atmosphere was dank and oily. Cars and taxis whizzed by at 100 mph with no particular care or regard for oncoming traffic—especially in our lane. I was picked up at the airport by a cute, yet diminutive Korean gal in a short tartan skirt—Miss Gum. She caught me of guard when she jumped in the back seat with me although it was a sedan but I was too sedated from the long distance flight to really notice her beauty in the dark.
As we cruised into Anyang, I noticed a proliferation of purple neon crosses that dotted the bleak dystrophic cityscape –sort of a McDonalds approach to Christianity. At first, I thought they were hospital signs but on closer examination they were, in fact, churches. I have never been in a place where there were so many churches—some of them rather miniscule, much like everything here. You will find churches in the oddest locations: sometimes they are on the top floor of a furniture store. Their architecture is very futuristic and they would not be out of place from a backdrop scene from “Blade Runner”—very angular and pointed. They are a weird combination of styles with stairs that lead up into nothingness. As we drove on through the metropolis, I noticed that there were a lot of Nazi symbols, i.e. the swastika. For a moment, I thought maybe we had missed a turn and we were in Idaho at the Aryan Brotherhood’s redoubt. Not to worry, these swastikas are the reverse form of the ones Hitler liberated from the Buddhists back in the ‘30s. The Korean swastika is called tcholl and it signifies that there is a Buddhist temple where one can relieve themselves from the earthly cycle of material things or samsara through prostration (not relieve their prostate gland).
One of the Korean teachers here, Esther has a belt buckle with a huge cross on it that she often wears while teaching in class. Unlike in the west where a crucifix is worn as a fashion statement, here in Korea, Esther is a practicing Christian and she described her church as “deeply gospel” (whatever that is). My good Jewish friend Justin has a bit of a crush on Esther and made the mistake of asking her out for a date on Easter Sunday. Well he got his wish-a date at her ‘deeply gospel’ church for the Easter Sunday service—how romantic! At any rate, it sounds like it was quite a wild time as the church has video cameras set up all over the show: one on the pastor, another on the choir, and a roving one. They also have a person who is in charge as a video coordinator for the service. During the service, they pan around the congregation and pick out first-time visitors and flash them on the huge Jumbotron video screen that is behind the choir-nice-eh! I guess they called out Justin’s name but he tried to hide behind the pew to escape notice. Fat chance of that since he was probably the only ferengi at the otherwise all-Korean church service. He was definitely the only Jewish visitor in the audience of the converted. I only found this out the following day at work when he sheepishly told me the story of his romantic date.
Life in Paktal Dong Market
I live on the second floor of a small apartment complex that is smack dab in a busy little area called Paktal Dong. It’s quite a riotous place and resembles more of a circus: constant noise, cars and trucks hooting, fire engines roaring up and down the narrow street. You don’t have to walk far to by anything: there are shoe stores galore, snack places, kebab and pot sticker or mondou sellers abound, sushi joints, Korean restaurants, pizza and fried chicken shacks. There is fresh tofu available either at my local mini supermarket or kiosk. There’s a coffee bon from whence you can order fresh ground coffee or copy as the Korean’s say and it is delivered by sexy, sleekly, scantily-clad long-legged Korean maidens of some sort of ill-repute who may offer more than just coffee and cream on the side, so to say! Nevertheless, it is a carnival atmosphere with shoes stores stereos competing for the loudest sound amongst the cacophony. You are lucky to get 3 hours sleep here at any time as the racket goes on till three am. I’ve been known to fire my water gun out of Jan’s window when things get out of hand.
When I phoned my dad and told him of my address:
Paktal Dong, Anyang-shi, Kyonggi-do, he said—
Aren’t you missing a ding in your address?
All humour aside, back at our Paktal Dong market, today I saw a dog pack which is very rare in these parts, unless they are stuffed in jars at the butcher’s shop. However, I’m afraid these curs would not have made much of a meal. These feral brutes (all two of them) were not much more than a fuzzy pair of rats with tails and I think a Mexican Chihuahua would have given them a run for their money. I think I shocked the poor little things when I tried to talk to them in English—they scurried away to wreak further havoc on our noisy market area.
Moving Day in Paktal Dong—this morning I looked out from our spacious apartment to see what all the ruckus was about. Apparently, we have new neighbours moving in across the way. At first, I thought they were moving out as there were three people who were leaning out of their window looking at the luggage below. They were, in fact, waiting for this conveyor belt truck to back up to their third floor apartment. Now normally this wouldn’t be such a big deal but the streets in our Paktal Dong market are only big enough to squeeze two very compact Hyundai cars into. This conveyor belt truck managed to block the entire street—a very busy market day street at that. There was no end of excitement for the cars and pickups at either end of the street. Nevertheless, the conveyor belt started and it is quite a neat gizmo hat allowed the people to load their gear at street level and shuttle it up to the third floor through the window—brilliant! I have never seen such a moving method, especially for heavy fridges and furniture—sure beats lugging it up three sets of stairs.
The Blessed Marmite
I have just had the pleasure of meeting my friend Brian Rose from Taejon, some six hours south of Anyang. He didn’t know I was in Korea and had been calling my friends (John Jacobs and Anne Webb) in Vancouver wanting to know my whereabouts. He thought something had happened to me—yes, I had come to Korea. Fact is, I had phoned his place in Taejon and left all the particulars with his Korean roommate who didn’t think my phone number was worth keeping or passing on to Brian. Rose is much the same sans beard and he can’t fathom how I have gotten away with keeping my beard—Ha! I may not make any headway with the Korean women but at least I won’t look like a complete fool and be laughed at. Rose was very miffed that I had brought over my mega CD boom blaster but was pleasantly surprised by the quality. I brought over 70 CDs with me and he has left a whack of blank cassettes for me to produce my own version of “Trance Planet series”. This paled in comparison to the excitement that he displayed upon seeing my jar of Marmite on the fridge top—you might think he saw a vision of the Blessed Virgin. No, it was the blessed Marmite! He said, and I quote—“I can go a year without dark beer, women and crosswords but I can’t go another year without Marmite.” The thing that impressed him most was my jar of Marmite I had bought it in a funky store in Itaewon. Making toast is quite a ritual as well. A real toaster would cost anywhere between 75-100,000 won (~$100 US) for a toaster—is nothing sacred! I use the old camp method: start up the propane two-burner, put bread on metal strainer, heat slowly over flame, burn the edges and then stick the bread with a fork and finish off toasting. By this time, Rose was salivating about the Marmite and proceeded to just about consume the whole jar on a couple of pieces of toast—the wanker! I told him he was eating toast and not putting tar on a roof shingle—sheesh wallah? Luckily I ran out of bread.
Scene and passing in Korea
Brian came to visit on the weekend. Rose also pointed out that Koreans spend incredible amounts of money on clothes and how they present themselves in public. Yet, if you were to go into their homes, you might think they were living on welfare. Their homes are bereft of any accoutrements that would signify that they have money—it all goes for presentation in the work place.
Our staff at ECM consists of a motley crew: Justin the Jewish guy from Brooklyn with an Aussie accent but looks and acts like a MOSSAD agent, sex slave Dave, Montana Jan (former cook and bottle washer from Alaskan King Crab boats), broom stick waver Brian from California with his sexy Korean girlfriend, the Southern belle Miche, fill your boots from Fredericton—Andrea, the bluenoser brothers from Antigonish—Billy and Greg-eh, the Canadian hoser from Banff (me) and finally, Mr. Head from Alberta—Ron Limoge.
I have taken a particular fancy to writing down or photographing signs that have been translated into English. I am quite amused by one of the stores at the end of our Paktal Dong market called “Mother Devotion”. Now at first glance, one might think it is a Catholic bookstore or something along those lines, but in fact, it is a kid’s educational toys and local witchdoctor store. Moreover, it is rather curious that in the same store, you can procure a traditional remedy for whatever ails you and get a toy or child’s book for the child that ails you, handy isn’t it? Another dandy is “Baby Hunt”. No, this is not a child search programme for wayward children but a chain of children’s clothing stores. Speaking of traditional medicine, we have a traditional Korean doctor below us with his two pretty assistants—the Miss Kims. The taller Miss Kim, joined me in a game of slo-pitch, dressed in a cocktail dress and cowboy boots—quite the outfit. Maybe Charlie Finlay should consider this attire? The southpaw Miche stymied us with her pitching and her side whalloped us. The shorter Miss Kim is a cute as a button and has arguments with the taller Kim when I visit the doctor’s office. My flat mate Montana Jan Eaton and I get to inhale all sorts of weird and wonderful odours, i.e. ground deer antler (which has the same effect as making tea from my week-old socks) musk glands and something that smells like pot.

We also have the occasional cockroach but they don’t stand a chance as I have my trusty Smith & Wesson to dispatch the hated arthropod. The Smith & Wesson was left behind by the former tenant Billy and it uses ball bearings as ammo. I’ve become quite a deadly shot and have threatened to use it on late night revelers who frequent the street outside or for Korean men who have this annoying habit of walking into our apartment unannounced! This happened to Jan the other morning as she was sleeping. She heard someone at the door and turned to see a strange Korean man in the doorway. I have taken to locking the door behind me when I leave for my morning class. My friend Brian had the same problem in Taejon as a man walked in on him while he was in bed. So now I have a loaded pellet gun in the house and have memorized Clint’s famous line—“Do you feel lucky punk?
We had a bit of a panic the other day with regards to Miche’s laundry. Miche or Michiko is a southern belle from the Carolina’s and she and my flat mate Jan are what one would politely refer to as “full figure girls” so to say. Apparently, Miche had washed her one bra that she brought from the US and someone had stolen it. At first, she blamed me and the other Canadian guy Dave as stealing it. The only crime Dave was guilty of was canoodling in public with Miche. I was dumfounded and told her that two of my man boobs wouldn’t fit into one cup and why would I want one. She then reckoned that the hogwon boss had nicked it. What for—in case he wanted to go to the Rocky Horror Picture Show? At any rate, she would have to order a new bra from the US as the Korean lingerie stores don’t stock her size and besides, the Korean women are not as busty. I guess size does matter.

Well, things are looking up—I am now a “Registered Alien”. I knew there was something different about me, now it’s official. The Korean officials even went as far as to fingerprint me and asked for a mug shot—but I am innocent! Andrea, the other new kid on the block almost got us into trouble at the registration centre with the stern-looking officials. It didn’t help matters that we had to wait forever in a lineup from hell to apply for the “alien registration”. The setting is very Kafkaesque, much like the scene from “The Trial”—grandiose oblivion. You enter a glass cubicle or rather we got stuffed into a tiny glass cubicle—all three of us, Andrea, our trusty Korean director-Rocky (aka Jae, Roc-Koh) and my own largesse frame. We had filled out the forms—both printing and writing our names out in longhand. The agent did not like the way Andrea and I printed our names in English so he corrected them for us. I quipped to Andrea—
This guy doesn’t even speak English.”
Andrea started laughing.
If he doesn’t speak English, how can he know how to print our names?” I added
Andrea’s laugh got louder, the kind of laugh that penetrates bank vaults—everyone must have heard her. Little Rocky was not amused. He told Andrea—
Do not laugh!
This was no laughing matter to Rocky but he just made Andrea laugh harder at the absurdity of it all. Next, we were taken around a corner office where a man grabbed my hand and starting rubbing ink all over my fingertips. We were fingerprinted and will probably appear on “Korea’s Most Wanted” with Elliot Ness (Tea) as the host. I have never been fingerprinted before and this is a bit much since the only crime I have committed (so far) is posing as an ESL teacher.
My former friend Justin and I had a falling out the other day over a proposed trip to the DMZ area with North Korea. You see, South Korea is still in a state of war with the North since 1950 no less. On the 15th of each month, there are bomb drills and air raid sirens that go off as if you were in London during the Blitzkrieg. Police cars cruise the streets with sirens blaring advising the populace to seek shelter—“If any member of the family should die whilst in the shelter, put them outside, but remember to tag them first for identification purposes” (thanks Frankie). At any rate, I find this whole thing ridiculous in light of the fact that there are American forces bases all over the country, US satellites overhead and AWACs everywhere and I find it hard to believe that the US would not know when the North was going to invade. The South is afraid that the North will succeed in building a tunnel into the South. Be that as it may, Justin wants to organize a day trip to the famous DMZ (De-militarized zone) in the world—all organized by your neighbouring USO office—how quaint? You see the South Koreans can’t go to their own bleeping border but everyone else can—that is if you are properly dressed.
Here is some of the dress code for visiting DMZ:
1)    No t-shirts, tank tops, shirt (tops) without sleeves.
2)    No dungarees or designer jeans (darn!)
3)    No shorts of any kind, i.e. Bermuda, cut-offs or short-shorts.
4)    No mini-skirts, halter-tops, backless dresses (how risqué-I thought this was de rigueur for DMZ)
5)    A favourite—No item of outer clothing of sheer variety!!
6)    No shower shoes, thongs, flip flops…tennis shoes are acceptable but must be in good condition.
7)    No military clothing
8)    (My own) No t-shirts that say—“My mom went to the DMZ and all I got was this f****ing t-shirt.
9)    Just in case you forgot—“Personnel are reminded that shaggy or unkempt hair (i.e. me) is not permitted.”
I guess #9 let’s me off the hook for going on this stupid thing as my hair has never been kempt (Mein unkempt, bitte?)
This begs the question—why all of this bullshit with regards to dress, shoes and hair?
Apparently, the South Koreans (& US) say that the North Koreans regularly take photos of ‘unkempt southern visitors’ and use these photos for propaganda purposes—Who the hell cares what some hermit supposed Stalinist kingdom thinks? This is where Justin and I fell out as I wasn’t going to get dressed up in casual attire, spiffy shoes and have kempt hair so that some friggin’ commie North Korean can take my photo. Korea—the land of contradictions continues.

1 comment:

  1. Very entertaining Em. This must have been before you went to the Emirates?