I learned an important lesson about living in Korea today, and I learned it at the point of a gun, which may just make it stick for a while, for a change.
Most people who come to Korea to teach, whether at a hakwon (the catch-all term for the private-study schools that can be found literally 10 to a city block, catering to the monomania not for quality but quantity of education here in Korea, many of which specialize in English and employ most of the short-termers in Korea), or a university or foreign school, or in-house at a company, or somewhere else entirely… most of them are provided with housing.
This is, few actually realize, mandated by the legislation controlling E-2 (English Teacher) visas. Which is not to say that this legislation is universally obeyed (‘rule of law’ not being a concept that has caught on to any great extent in Korea thus far), of course, but it goes some way to explaining why the feared-and-loathed, almost invariably dishonest and money-grubbing hakwon owners actually do something that does not financially reward them in any tangible way. That is, provide housing for their English Monkeys.
There are some decent private schools around, and a fair number of goodish universities, at least in terms of working conditions, and they do occasionally provide their foreign employees with reasonable accommodation. Some very few go one better, and provide housing that is very comfortable indeed. This is the exception, rather than the rule, naturally.
Back when I was a bachelor in the mighty metropolis of Busan†, I lived for nearly two years — although I was working for one of the better schools — in a 3 metre by 4 metre closet in which there was room for a bed, desk, fridge, (and a few dozen empty bottles, of course), located right beside a textile factory. By right beside, I mean that my one window looked directly into a window on the factory floor, about 18 inches away. Right beside.
[†I liked it better when Busan was romanized as Pusan, and pronounced Poosan by foreigners, ‘san’ being the Chinese character meaning ‘mountain’, and I could thus refer to the city as ‘Poo Mountain’ and actually be able to explain why without being quite as longwinded as I am right now. ‘Boo Mountain’ just doesn’t have the same sophomoric poop-humour ring to it.]
The chatter of hundreds of sewing machines didn’t actually bother me much, as I was too regularly and fully inebriated at that point in my life to care, and rarely at ‘home’ other than to sleep, anyway. Life was good, in a dissipated and decadent, perpetually-sozzled sort of way. It was the last gasp of a bachelorhood that was becoming less amusing, rapidly.
The last couple of years, though, have seen my wife (who I met as I was leaving behind that rocket-fueled lifestyle) in the lap of relative luxury, in Australia, and after our return to Korea, in the two large, brand-new apartments which were provided by the university where I worked until recently.
The other reason for schools to offer accommodation when you take a job with them — the one that people usually assume to be the primary one — is that it is effectively impossible to find your own, as a non-Korean. This is in part a manifestation of the blithe racism that informs much of mercantile Korea’s dealings with us hairy barbarians, and in part a reasonable response to the infamous behaviour exhibited by most GIs and many young, inebriate, wacked-out English teachers (of which I was once one, with a vengeance). Stereotypes exist for a reason, after all. Not what you’d call most-favoured tenant types, most non-executive expats in Korea. If you’re married to a Korean, yes, but alone : nuh-uh, unless you want to rent a room in one of the ubiquitous yogwan f–k-hotels on a monthly basis, which many single guys do.
I’ve known some of them, guys who were capable of ignoring the nasty omnipresent fug of stale semen and cut-rate detergent, the dim green and pink lighting (creating that ambience of a festive abbatoir that just screams romance) and the weekend puddles of pinkish kimchi vomit in the hallway, the drunken screams and shouts from 11 pm to perhaps 3 or 4 am each and every night from the short-timers. Better than we deserve, though, I’m sure.
So when my contract wasn’t up for renewal (for reasons that boiled down to my lack of over-demonstrative lovin’ for the baby jesus™, basically) last month, it was a particularly stressful time, as I was forced not only to look for other work, which would then allow me to get a visa, but to do so before the beginning of September, in order for us to actually have somewhere to live (and put our worryingly large collection of furniture).
The right job didn’t materialize, and in between our chicken-little panic-stricken thoughts of bailing to Canada, or Mexico, or Thailand, or anywhere, really, we decided the cheapest and wisest option was just for me to do a visa run to Japan (Canadians get 6 month tourist visas here, on entry) and come back, and to rent our own house. That sounds blindingly obvious to the good people out there in Normal, Illinois, I know, but being locked into the mindset of job=visa=house, it really hadn’t occurred to us. Plus, I was kind of keen on hitting the beach somewhere, somewhere other than Korea. She Who Must Be Obeyed had predictable thoughts on that idea, unfortunately, and the plan was dismissed out of hand.
So we wandered hither and thither and even over yon a bit, looking for places to live, even as I was going to first and second interviews with likely employers and finding them all wanting, in one aspect or another. Seoul, for those of you who might wonder, is not small. Hither is about 3 hours from yon, and thither is another couple of hours beyond that.
Anyone who’s been reading the ‘bottle for any length of time knows how much I loathed the industrial nightmare of an area where we used to live, nuts deep in garbage and banana-peel-slipping-around on the constellations of comedy throat oysters horked up by the denizens of Gunpo City, south of Seoul, near Suwon. It was true that most of the other places around the city and its skirts that we looked were somewhat nicer, but mostly only in degree. Unpleasant, of course, but less so. Not precisely enticing, particularly when I had been thinking along the lines of Koh Samui or Whistler or Zihuatanejo.
Until we found the area we’re living now. I’m telling you, angels descended and blew their tinny trumpets in my ears (not unlike the appearance of the choir invisible when I first used an electronic bumrocket bidet machine in Japan on my subsequent visa run) when we started looking around here. It is the first place — anywhere in Korea — that I’ve seen that shows evidence of actual urban planning, where things are built on an almost-human scale, neither crowded together like barnacles nor consisting of massive slabs of concrete looming over massive courtyards of concrete, brutalist Pyongyang penile-surrogate stylee. No, this area was clearly designed for cyclists and walkers as well as cars, and isn’t outright antagonistic to its residents, unlike most other places in Seoul I’ve been.
Seoul is a city (like every other urban environment in Korea) that hates its residents.
I could tell this suburb was different, though, as soon as we’d walked around a bit. About as far to the west of downtown as we were to the south in Gunpo, I saw the full bike-racks beside the subway station (something I’d never seen before in Korea, as there are few cyclists in most places, it being simply too dangerous and heavily trafficked to bother) and tree-lined paths winding through each block, expressly for pedestrians. Trees everywhere, in fact, not just on top of the fortunate stubs of mountains that hadn’t yet been leveled to feed into grinders and rise again as the vast human beehives where 70% of the population of the country live. Wide, straight roads. And, astonishingly, people who didn’t perform the ‘oh-my-god-he’s-not-Korean‘ doubletake that had left me so unwilling to dare set foot outside our apartment for the last couple of years.
Even my wife, who’s spent almost her entire 31 years in Korea, said she didn’t know there were places like this here.
So we found an apartment, in one of the newer style buildings that have started springing up all over Korea, geared to singles and young couples, called ‘Officetels’ in Konglish. Basically — and completely unlike the standard, cookie-cutter ‘apart’ concrete beehive family apartment buildings that rise everywhere out the earth like buboes on a plague victim — they’re like western-style apartment buildings, down to the gardens on the roof, the hot-water-on-demand, and the emphasis on sky-light, and air, and brightly lit cleanliness.
We found a small loft, with west-facing 4 metre windows taking up one entire wall, and rather than sucking car-exhaust from the perpetually-roaring highway that was behind our first apartment, or looking straight into the baby-factory slum windows over which our second apartment had a glorious low-rise, low-rent panorama, I can watch the sun go down out over towards the West Sea. I honestly never thought we’d live in such a lovely place, here in Korea. I hadn’t thought they existed, except for the rich in downtown Seoul, and on TV. We gave our huge fridge and washing machine to the wife’s bachelor brother, and left some furniture in the apartment for the new (cheaper and more malleable, more bible-thumping) university hire to use (rather than just chuck it all), and moved on up. To the top. To a deluxe apartment. In the sky-eye-eye.
It’s no Sydney, or Vancouver — hell it’s not even Toronto — but it’s pretty nice.
One of the only good points of our previous university-supplied place, other than the fact that we were first to live there and thus didn’t need to deal with filth, was the proximity of a small mountain ridge, up and along which we (and thousands of others, it seemed) could walk, escaping the apocalyptic vision, if not the all-pervasive noise, of the concrete wasteland that is Gunpo. That was pleasant, and walking there in unaccustomed green along the trail that wound its way a few kilometres along the ridge was enough to recharge my batteries, at least when there weren’t too many shrieking, pudgy children up there too, dragged away from their computers and compelled to exercise by their parents.
The new area, Songnae, has a few wooded mini-mountains within walking distance as well, and I resolved today, after failing to find my way through a military base to a likely trail at another nearby mountain to the west, last week, to attempt to find my way up the even closer megahillock to the south. The wife begged off, and I headed out, with my usual lack of preparation. I crossed the subway tracks – on the surface, this far from downtown – and wandered around for a good hour before I found a trail that led upwards.
The weather has been flawless for a good week after a miserable summer – unsmoggy blue skies, dotted with fluffy cumuli, hot sun cool shade. It was gorgeous today; the sun spattered through the leaves as the wide trail wound its way up to higher heights, at a much steeper grade than our old daily walk in Gunpo. I got past the thundering-heart first ten minutes, and fell into the euphoric groove that exercise almost always brings, when I’m out in nature, senses heightened, brain clear. There were only a couple of people around, trudging down as I headed up. Past small plots of vegetables the trail rose, and soon became almost alpine, studded with those massive, rounded rocks protruding from that tightly-packed, cafe latte-coloured dirt that always make me think of Korea and Japan. The perfume of pines baking in sunlight. I was happier than I have been in a while, and it was good.
I reached the first summit, and there were a number of smaller trails heading off from the glade atop the ridge, wandering off to various points of the compass. Thinking one might lead to a vantage point unscreened by greenery, where I could get a good look at the geography of our new home, I struck out along one of the paths, towards the sinking sun. I realize now that that military base I’d been unable to find my way around last week was to the west, too. You know, the direction I was walking.
After about 5 minutes of blissed-out traipsing along the trail, all Homer-in-Chocolate-Land, and before I quite knew what was happening, there were shouts in Korean, and as I abruptly came back to earth, I noticed in quick succession that: the clearing ahead of me had a tall chicken- and barbed-wire fence along it, that there various dishes and antennae and stuff behind that, and that the half dozen camo-clad Korean men approaching at a trot were all carrying weapons that I could only presume were automatic.
My crappy command of Korean being what it is, I had no idea what they were saying, but from their tone I could infer that they weren’t asking me in for a cup of tea. They were young, of course — just the age of many of my university students, and no doubt doing their two years of compulsory military service and quite happy to have pulled light duty sitting on top of a mountain somewhere. Nonetheless, their excitement coupled with their tendency to gesticulate with their guns was making me a wee bit nervous, I have to admit. In response to what I thought was an inquiry as to precisely what the f–k I was doing, I shrugged, and made the two-fingers-walking gesture, which in conjunction with a goofy grin and vacant swinging of the head, as if communing with butterflies, was what I hope was the universal sign-language for ‘just, you know, wandering around, being a nature-boy doofus’.
They peppered me with more questions in Korean, none of which I understood sufficiently to make any attempt at answering, in sign-language or otherwise, and eventually the eldest, who couldn’t have been more than 25 or so, said “OK” quite clearly, waved the back of his hand in the general direction of the trail along which I’d been walking, and said something in Korean which, near as I could tell translated roughly to “Get the f–k outta here, and you’re lucky we don’t arrest your ass. Sir.”
I got the f–k out, and continued my walk, no worse for wear, up into the almost-alpine and the green, blue and white, being extra-careful to stick to the main trail.
And so, my lesson for the day, one that all Koreans seem to learn at some point: stray from the well-trodden path at your own peril, smart boy. A lesson that came complete with a moderately-sized brown spot in my boxers, for punctuation.
I learned an important lesson about living in Korea today, and I learned it at the point of a gun, which may just make it stick for a while, for a change.
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I’ve done lots of walking up and down Korean mountainsides… only I was one of the guys carrying the weapons. ^_-
I even have a picture hanging on my wall right now with me posing on top of a rocky hill in the ‘nature preserve’ southwest of Uijongbu, with the city spread out in the background.
Fantastic blog, man. And a really good tale– one for the kids.
Stav: Keep up the Spalding Gray stuff, man. Good show.
Well, I never know places like that existed anywhere near Seoul either (not that I have spent a great deal of time there, but it all seems to be concrete and filth). I did find something of an oasis from the city on my second trip, though – I climbed up some “mountain” which was quite a popular place for the locals apparently. I can’t remember what it is called, but it has the big observation/transmission tower on top of it. Anyway, while walking up, there were times when nobody else was in sight and all was peaceful, with the leaves drifting around my feet (it was Autumn) and it reminded me of being back in Auckland, on the Domain with the oak trees shedding their leaves. Then a bunch of locals with snotty-nosed, whining kids would appear and shatter my illusion. No one pointed a gun at me though, so I guess I got off better than you.
Having mainly Universities for clients, I have to deal more than I’d like with that nasty habbit Koreans have with contracts: “Sign first, then negotiate”. That was until a Korean colleague/competitor taught me the “most fearsome expression in the Korean language”:
Let’s do it just as stated in the contract!
(Which means of course that one does need a contract before being able to wield that sword…).
Regarding housing, I disagree partly with you that foreigners can’t rent decent lodging on their own. You can, as I and friends have done so far in the last 10 years, but you need to speak Korean (and stay away from certain areas tagged as ‘expat only’). It doesn’t hurt to have a Korean national help out, but it is not so different that trying to rent a place in my home town, in the middle of France, if you don’t speak French. Tough! The one thing that really makes it harder is the Ã¥âÂ³Ã¨Â²Â° / key-money system, which requires a hefty amount of money. THIS is what makes it difficult… Forking 50, 60 million KRW or more for a one or two-room flat is not something we are used to…
You’re right, dda, definitely, but the dollars do open the doors, it must be said, and for most of the civilian expats here (who are, if not ‘migrant workers‘, precisely, still are not that far up the economic ladder) I think, the dollars are too scarce to open the right doors to make it as easy as it might be, and it is true that you need to speak Korean to make it happen, as you say…
It is better than I’ve read that it is in Japan, though. I recently read a (blog entry? forum post? I can’t remember) that told the tale of going to a real estate agency in some city in Japan and having a list of something like 50 possible apartments in the right area and price range reduced to 2, when the filter of ‘will accept gaijin’ was applied.
Lesson Learned by Stavros
He’s moved to a new apartment in a miraculously pleasant part of Seoul. When he takes a walk to explore the neighborhood, he ends up in a place that could be very dangerous!
Fantastic post. Just one thing: you can still call it Pusan if you feel like it. Who’s gonna stop you?