Three years have already past since I left Kimpo Airport for Detroit and then Montreal. Yet soon after the steady consumption of kimchi chige, pibimbap and the visual splendor of Mt. Sorak, I plunged myself into a hellish monk-like existence in an intensive MBA program. Indeed, reverse culture shock, as many former ex-patriots can tell you, can cause even more headaches and heartaches than its opposite number. For at least seven days after my arrival in Canada, my digestive system declared unilateral independence from the rest of my body, in the worst tradition of the Founding Fathers. A seemingly uneventful trip to a typical Italian restaurant on rue St-Denis was transformed into a series of long-distance calls to Ralf on the Big White Phone, as we would say in colloquial parlance -- or the more euphemistic Porcelain Bowl, in more polite company.
No doubt that my system, having become accustomed to Korean cuisine, required its daily dosage of tubu and roasted seaweed as a baby to Mother's milk or a bottle of Scotch whisky to the town drunk. But once the expectancy of that gastronomic narcotic remain unfulfilled, then did all Hell break loose ? in more ways than one. Here, a Proustian association comes to mind. When I was living near the Kangnam district, I always knew intuitively when the time would strike midnight, despite having no clock in my room. ( I had to rely on my trusty roommate who had to get up at the same time as me for our 6:30 am shift at ELS.) How was this possible you may ask? It is said that the local inhabitants of Emmanuel Kant's hometown would set their watches whenever the great philosopher would commence his morning walks. Jump ahead two and a half centuries and a continent later, those two anonymous but eminently recognizable salaried men would throw up outside my window, with Prussian precision, at exactly 12:01 a.m., which would give me the signal to tu n off my light and drift off into reveries of buying ice cream at Lotte World or ducking under a display table when the furniture department of a large hastily-built store decides to cave in on me.
Working the split shift -- that is, one part very early in the morning and the remainder late at night -- was taxing both emotionally and physically. Factor in the humidity of a Korean Summer, the air pollution and traffic noise, it was miraculous that I had managed to function at all. During the day, it was impossible to sleep -- or even steal at catnap. I could only stare at the ceiling and listen to the intermittent skittering of mice (or their more sinister cousins) going from one end of my bedroom to the other. After my last class at 10:00 pm, it would take me at least three hours to bring myself down to a proper level that would be conducive to sleep. Once I could manage to snore without hindrance, my roommate's alarm clock would go off at a quarter to five, and a punch drunk feeling would come over me as though Mike Tyson had knocked me out in the 10th round and I was just coming to, if at all. Once I did refuse to get out of bed altogether from sheer exhaustion, but my roommate solved the problem by force-feeding me straight doses of Ginseng tea, which in turn, forced me to arise like Frankenstein from the land of the dead. I thought, ``Who the Hell can speak a foreign language at 6:30 in the morning when I can't even think in my own at this ungodly hour!'' But human beings are adaptable creatures and once a routine is instituted, no matter how rigid or strenuous, they can survive almost any adversity. On Friday nights, many of my colleagues would storm Itaewon and bar hop till the wee hours of the morning. For me, weekends were a time of bear-like hibernation, during which I would desperately catch up on lost winks, only to start the same madness again the next Monday morning.
Once I had got past my extensive navel gazing, by wallowing in my own self-pity, I realised that many of my poor students had to commute from half-way across Seoul for my lessons. It occurred to me that if they were willing to make such a sacrifice at that impossible hour, then I would have to pull my socks up and teach them as best as I could. I looked upon each day as a constant inter-cultural exchange -- more fruitful than the dozens of tiresome hours consumed on inter-cultural management courses in the MBA. You can never learn what I learned from a book or a website, but only from the bittersweet fruits of experience. Here, I would appreciate the daily struggles of salaried employees, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school at the beginning of their work day; at the end of it, having to accept their bosses' invitation for a few drinks after work, when they would rather be at home with their wives and children. I would empathise with the housewife whose Draconian mother-in-law would descend upon her household at a moment's notice, barking out orders like a field marshal. I would begin to comprehend Koreans' visceral fear and suspicion of foreigners. One need look no further than her history. Such is the psychological legacy bestowed upon a country who has been occupied and oppressed by them for most of this century. Gradually, I accepted my role as a mere observer than a participant, thus becoming less judgmental and more compassionate in the process.
I admit that I originally came to Korea just for the money. My plan was to teach, take my severance pay and get the Hell out. I needed funds to subsidise my future business school expenditures, as my present salary as an English teacher in the Czech Republic did not cut the financial mustard. Over time, however, I began to appreciate the subtler aspects of Korean culture and lifestyle, even though I had a tin ear for the language. I could appreciate the fact that Korea had a GDP equivalent of Ethiopia or neighbouring Eritrea in the wake of the Civil War: that a technological Great Leap Forward that Mao could have only dreamt of took place in the space of half a lifetime. Collectively, it mirrored Abraham Lincoln's trajectory from log cabin to White House -- from a backward agrarian society to the 11th most powerful on Earth. Indeed, France and Britain had to wait about 200 years for their respective societies to become fully industrialised. But at what cost? The price was high, which exacted terrible sacrifices from the Korean people. After the humiliation of Japanese occupation and a horrific war (tell me of a war that isn't), Koreans yearned for a contemporary King Sejong who would boldly lead them into the future. Instead, they ended up with Park Chung-hee and a succession of corrupt ruthless dictators. The latter of these cited Confucius when committing atrocities against their own citizens such as the Kwagju Massacre, and constantly violated basic human rights. But did not Confucius himself remark that if the leader is unjust, then the people have every right to remove him? I will not start a tirade by taking some superior moral stance. That is not my place here. I don't claim to have any answers, but the evolution of a totalitarian society towards one based on democratic principles and the rule of law, at the end of the day, can only come from within, not without. No one would have ever believed back in 1988 when president Chun had his soldiers' guns trained on protesting housewives, that a former dissident, nearly murdered by the KCIA, would become the President of that same republic twelve years later! For that, the Korean people don't need to thank anyone but themselves.
Now I am living in Frankfurt, Germany, writing this article just one street away from a Korean restaurant. Some mysterious force guides me there once a month. I knew there were Korean nationals living in the U.S., Australia and Canada, but there are in fact communities scattered across Europe and the world -- Argentina, Brazil, Japan and even Kazahkstan. While searching for a flat in Kronberg, a Frankfurt suburb, I had come across a sign for an inn, the Hotel Asia, replete with the Korean flag and han-gul writing below it. This piqued my curiosity and I resolved to enter the establishment and inquire whether there was a room available for a couple of nights. I rang the bell, whereupon I heard the sound of flip-flops descending the staircase. The hour was advanced, around 11:30 p.m., a time when law abiding citizens should be indoors. After having checked my appearance through the peephole, he let me in, but in such a way that suggested a burned-out kind of sonnabulism. When I bowed to him with a small tilt of the head and uttered, ``An-yong-ha-se-oh ajuchee,'' he nearly fell on the floor. Although my conversational level in Korean could be construed just above that of an idiot, he was about to give an enormous bear-hug, as though I were his long-lost brother. But he checked himself at the last moment. He indicated with the sweep of his arm as if to say, ``The whole floor is yours, choose the room you want.'' I was unaccustomed to such warm hospitality. Indeed, I could have been struck down by lighting while waiting for a bus in a rainstorm, except that, in this context, the psychological sensation was much more pleasurable. I could only presume this, since I have yet to experience a lighting strike. Suddenly I thought,``If people were this friendly in Seoul, I would have never left it.''
The writer is now an English teacher and part-time journalist living in Frankfurt, Germany.…