Thoughts of the Times; the Korean Experience -- 3 Years Later

Article excerpt

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. …