THE JOURNEY BEGINS: I started taking myself way too seriously after writing my last post. Hah! I almost forgot that these tidbits aren’t meant to be overly serious. It is important to communicate thoughts outside your immediate family. Not being able to leads to domestic problems. It’s pretty common in places like this. A lot of drinking.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the expat life. It’s not the life for everyone, but it’s the life for me. I’ve been “away from home” since 2002, and I’ve never actually thought about moving “back home”. Well that’s not true. Now that I have a kid, the idea to move back to Toronto is floating around. I’m not entirely stoked, but more on that later. I’ve got a bedframe to move at some point before dinner prep.
In 2002, a friend of mine called me from Seoul and asked me if I would be interested in teaching ESL at the school he worked at. Seven days later I was on a plane bound for Incheon, and so began my expat journey.
The academy I worked at was in a neighborhood famous for being the oldest outdoor fish market in Seoul. Real working class and densely populated. My friend and I were the only white dudes there. It was a small school. Our apartment was an old cookie cutter flat in a four-story apartment building in a sea of such buildings on the side of a large hill. Borderline decrepit. The drains worked, the door locked, and we didn’t have a lot of bugs. It was decent enough. The building itself had zero character. Like all the others, it was built with pure functionality in mind. But more broadly taken, the neighborhood was a good home for three years of my life.
Generally speaking, three years at the same job for an expat is pretty long, especially for ESL teachers. When I left the school, and that neighborhood, the people I’d worked with my first year had long since moved on…twice over. There are exceptions, but in my experience, expats in Seoul are a real migratory lot.
I figure the best way to explain what Seoul was like my first three years is to dig up something written during that time. I’ve cleaned it up a little.
The following was written on August 18, 2002. Five months “in country”. I was twenty-five.
No grass in Korea. No sprouts. Just dirt. Just ground where large sized Korean style roughage grows. They grow in the tiny patches of earth still exposed in this city. This is literally the concrete jungle. I’ve seen little of what all of nature is while I’ve been here.
When we took the kids to play soccer for two days, we used the playgrounds of two area schools. The large playgrounds with soccer nets in them were void of any green. Just gravel. Lots and lots of gravel. Knees bleed when there isn’t any of that soft, fresh smelling when cut, green. Grass isn’t allowed to grow. It is illegal to grow or possess grass in Seoul. I’m sure of it.
We went to a ‘real’ park with grass, trails, and benches once. Paying to get into this paradise within the urban sprawl of Seoul, I was so looking forward to lying down on the grass and just staring at the open sky.
The grass was walled off by little walls. I could have just gone up and hogged all the grass to myself, but I could not. There were about fifty people in the park, and not one of them was sitting on the grass. Not one of them was even sitting under a tree. They were sitting on the benches, which were positioned so as to give you the most sun in the park. Was there no relief from this void of green?
It wasn’t until we met the new and mysterious English teacher.
On a Saturday the rotation on the two-hour shift is shared between Shane, Tina, and me. It was Tina’s turn and so she was the first one to meet the new and mysterious English teacher. She said he was cool, new, and mysterious. Something about him told her he was part of something big. Big and mysterious. So naturally we went out to Sinchon with him to drink.
He introduced us to a much more dark and sordid side of Seoul by way of oratory transmission. Passing him on the street one might not give him a second glance. He was as normal looking as the next guy, but there was definitely something about him. Something new, and mysterious.
After turning down an offer to go see the Nazi hangout, we ended up in a Voodoo Bar. Indie rock posters plastered one on top of each other; knick-knacks tossed here and there. It was full of burly white men. The kind you don’t often see roaming the streets of Sinchon. I had a gin and tonic and kept one eye on the burlies and one on my drink. This bar was new to me, and yes, very mysterious.
The Voodoo bar was so mysterious we all left for a much less mysterious place. Mongwong is a safe house for the Geum-ho posse. They know what we drink and they know when to walk away from a table having a mysterious conversation. The walls at Mongwong are thick and unrelenting. What we say, not matter how mysterious is safe there.
We hid our true intentions within the common English teacher bravado. We snickered and plotted. We argued and bickered. The group often bickers due to the mysteriousness of the situation. It brings out the worst in us. Adding a new and mysterious person to the equation could have spelled utter and complete death for us all.
It was raining and the mood of the night had become less than appealing. The mystery of it all was too great and I felt compelled to flee for the safety of Geum-ho. However, so did Mr. Mysteria. He cleverly plotted with himself to invite himself into my cab, which would normally have been generously accepted, yet tonight, the night of mystery, the greatest mystery yet was what would happen in the cab. What would I endure? On Donner, on Blitzen.
“Geum-ho dong ka ju-sae-oh”
“Geum-nam-si-jang ka ju-sae-oh”
The ride was quite interesting. In the four years Mr. Mysteria had been working in Korea, he had worked under assumed names and without any legal permission. He was a wild man, living in a strange land without any kind of protection. What had he seen? Who had he known? He reminded me in an infinitely small way to the operative in the Quiet American.
Shane had discussed with Mr. Mysteria how grassless the city was. The Koreans have let green space, as an urban planning concept, evade them, and while they have set up designated green areas in Seoul, they are few and far between. Green spaces are like red light districts. If they are too far for the masses to take advantage of, then street prostitution and drug use will continue. The same goes for green spaces. As soon as those green spaces are out of reach, a criminal element appears; the green element. It was an element Mr. Mysteria reluctantly accepted membership.
The cab moved along the pavement like a marble moving down a plank being tossed and turned by a child. Mr. Mysteria calmly poked his head up into the cockpit of the taxi and requested information from the cabbie. Speaking Korean, Mr. Mysteria added countless dimensions to the events and happenings of which he was responsible. When he leaned back and turned to me I flinched in my seat.
“He says he’s not drunk. Just tired.”
I got out of the cab. Mr. Mysteria stayed in and continued on towards the love motel he was staying at up on the other side of the school. I’m glad I got out first. I’m glad I got away. It was good to be once again alone.
A couple of days passed by without any word from Mr. Mysteria. Apparently he had met with my boss and they had both created distrust of each other. The deal was off and so was Mr. Mysteria. Last I heard it was japan. We knew he’d be back in Korea. There wasn’t a doubt. I knew I’d be crossing paths with Mr. Mysteria again; but what form that crossing would take I was still unaware.
Wednesday. Estimated time to the school for the third day of classes was around ten seconds. Once again my mind on that walk to work filled with thoughts of green. Of grass. Of that fresh cut smell.
Those thoughts quickly dissipate as I enter the ‘we can do it’ academy. Instead of those cheery thoughts of green, my thoughts turn to the ‘oh how I dislike the ground floor of this building’ kind of thoughts I have when I enter the school on a Wednesday.
There is a phone call for Shane. Someone calling himself ‘Turf’ is making a call on behalf of Mr. Mysteria. I’m not sure what kind of negotiations went down, as I only became privy to this information towards the end of the day. However, I knew of operation “green-retrieval”. Having grown up in the green enriched confines of Canada, with lots and lots of green space per capita, I knew little of what kind of operation I was now committed to.
At the strike of ten to ten on my classroom clock, operation green-retrieval had become official, and it started. We packed our things and made sure we had what we needed, locking and loading just before escaping ‘Don’s W.E.’.
We knew we were not safe using public transit that night, so we hopped in a cab and made our way to Itaewon, an area of town notorious for its toothless Russian hookers, StarCraft junkies, long legs, cheap drinks, and sauced up military police. Dodging in and out of shadows, both fixed and moving, we made our way to the Seoul Pub. The Seoul pub was situated on the main Itaewon drag. Cautiously we made our way up into the pub; located on the second floor. With every turn we cut the pie like we would have done if we’d been on that arms deal in Beirut circa 84. We didn’t want to take any chances. We didn’t know who Mr. Mysteria worked for. We didn’t know if they had been cleared by the word on the street. We were walking into a situation blind. As we entered the pub, my hand reflexively moved toward the back of my trousers. I was jittery. Canned coffee and Mysteria will cause hysteria if you don’t watch out.
The dude going by Turf was big, fat, and jolly-ish. He stood six five and loomed over us. I could have sworn he’d been an MP back in the day, but as he shouted over the Ricky Martin it turned out he had been with ‘the cause’ over on Vancouver Island during the whole Clayoquot Sound revolutionary war.
He was to be trusted.
It happened that he had grass for sale. It was nature’s black market he told us.
“They think they can put us down by taking away the earth. They think they can humble us into being sheep. Sheep!”
His nostrils flared and he kicked at the hardwood floor with his boots.
“EVEN sheep need to graze. Even sheep need the earth!”
‘Amen brother’ I thought as I sat down with a beer and lit a cigarette. Pretending to check out the jukebox I kept an eye out for the nature police. Crafty sons-of-bitches the nature police are. Dressed in the most convincing urban camouflage you’ve ever seen, they pop in and out of walls with court orders so unexpectedly and without warning many other operatives in the business Turf was in had fled to the safety of the United States and Canada. Not Turf.
The deal went down.
We finished our beers, like any other normal pub goer and left. You could feel the heat consuming the Seoul Pub. You could feel the eyes wondering what had just happened. Operation green-retrieval was a success and we rejoiced.