Arguments for Atheism - Changwon Nam Middle School
Posted: 2011/07/18 By: Rastus (Views:1790)
Which type of school should I try next? The Catholic school system in Canada came to mind, so
I thought of well-mannered students who were academically a cut above the rest. There is no
shortage of churches in South Korea, nor is there a dearth of self-proclaimed pious people,
I threw caution to the winds one more time and signed a contract with a parochial middle
A Christian middle school said that they wanted to hire one or two foreign native ESL
instructors. They offered an average salary, a fully-furnished apartment, and they boasted
that their city, Chang-won, the capital of Kyeongsangnam-do, offered everything and was a
place to live. A provincial capital, I reasoned, would have everything I needed and had
for so long: bookstores, stationery stores, English newspapers, a range of restaurants.
An e-mail to the administrator, one Mr. Ryu, yielded an immediate response. Stating
that they were impressed with my experience and glowing letters of reference, they offered me
position right away. My degree and transcripts got couriered that day, and I was kept in the
loop about the preparations being made for my arrival.
“You will have your own apartment on campus, and it has everything that you need.
We look forward to meeting you. God bless you.”
Frequent invoking of the Lord’s blessings was always part of the e-mails I
received, though I am reluctant to use myself as a conduit or channel for divine beneficence.
Probing questions about my degree of piety were answered that my only belief was in the
A couple of glitches appeared in my visa application process. A terse and angry
e-mail from Mr. Ryu demanded to know why I had sent him defective documents. I asked
what the problem was. The Korean immigration bureaucrats would not process work visa
applications unless university transcripts in an unopened, stamped, signed, and sealed
were less than three months old. The ones that I had sent him were older than that, so I
couriered a fresh set out at once.
Needless to say, no mention of this requirement was to be found on the Korean
consular website. This was not the first time I had proven myself inept at mind reading.
when I had gone to Vancouver to get a work visa, I got to the web-listed consular address at
eight-thirty, half an hour before they opened. Being late for my appointment at nine
would earn me immediate censure. An empty floor was all that greeted me. Panic set in, so I
raced to the white pages, but the same invalid address was listed there. Numerous calls to
listed phone number were futile, for no one answered. “Maybe it’s a recent move,” I
thought and dialed 411. The operator gave me the same invalid number and address. Finally,
phoned the property management company for the old address and asked them to where the
consulate had moved. They steered me the right way.
When I got to the new and correct address, all the staff were on the phones busy
giving out their new address.
In the middle of this ado, Mr. Ryu informed me that he, his wife, and his baby
daughter, Mi-so, were going to Australia for a few weeks.
“Don’t worry. Someone else will take care of your paperwork. You must get here
as soon as possible. God bless you.”
My visa came through, and an airline ticket also surfaced without much of a search.
A travel agent in Vancouver to whom I like to give my business is consideration itself. The
package he set up for me included a gratis one-night stay in a luxurious JAL hotel near
Airport. So, I had a day to acclimatize, re-set my clock, and sleep in a real bed.
The next day, I arrived in the mid-day heat at Kimhae Airport, Busan’s bustling
terminal. A far cry from the cold of Canada that I had left behind, I realized that I was
somewhat overdressed. My tweed jackets and woolen pants wouldn’t get much more use.
After I had cleared customs and immigration, I went to pick up my baggage. Often
reminded by a friend that the happy traveler is the light traveler, I have always found that
advice wise but difficult to heed. Still, I had condensed my belongings into two pieces: an
almost bulletproof army duffel bag into which I had unceremoniously crammed clothes and
and a new yellow fiberglass cello case into which I had placed my bubble-wrapped electric
and gear along with even more books. During my layover at Narita Airport, I again checked
pieces of luggage, and they appeared none the worse for wear.
When I went to collect them off the carousel at Kimhae, they were both in a shambles.
The duffel bag had been slit, gutted from stem to stern, and plastic wrap was all that held
together. The cello case had been given such a beating that it was broken in a number of
places. The bulge of the fingerboard on the case had a full-length longitudinal crack, and
three of the five hinges had been compromised.
Nonplussed with the care afforded to my luggage, I was unfortunately no stranger to
it. Years before, I had airmailed myself two boxes from Canada. In one box were a number of
books, and Korean customs officials had ripped each of the hardcovers from its bindings. In
the other box, I had placed 38 music CDs into a hardwood carousel, then wrapped the whole
in two new and thick bath towels. Each CD was removed from its case, broken by a swat from a
truncheon, and then the carousel itself was reduced to splinters. “Opened and inspected by
Korean Customs” read that yellow band around each box. Neither my students nor my Korean
colleagues could furnish me with an address to which I might complain.
“How did you send them?”
“The cheapest way. By surface mail, so they took almost three months to get
“Unless you send them by registered first-class mail, you can’t complain. They
will say that you should’ve sent them by registered first-class mail.”
“But I can’t buy that music here. That’s why I sent it.”
“Maybe the government thinks that you could make a lot of money by selling them,
and they don’t want that.”
“Who buys used goods in Korea? No one.”
With my tattered goods in tow, I went out to meet my reception party, Mr. Ryu and his
“Hey! Foreigner! You are so fat! So fat!” a chubby dwarf called out to me.
“Yes! This is my family: my wife and my daughter, Mi-so.”
As we threaded our way through the parking lot, I stopped just short of his car, set
down my cello case, and opened it. After regarding the great pains to which someone had gone
to scratch the cello’s body and neck, I groaned and removed a few items.
“Mr. Ryu, here are a few small gifts for you and your family. The Casio
electronics are for you. I know how hard it is to get foreign electronics in Korea. For
wife, this nickel and chromium compact mirror is a rare and beautiful accessory. For your
daughter, this Gund plush toy is both soft and safe. They’re not much, but they’re
of my consideration, and I hope you all like them.”
“Why didn’t you buy anything for my sons?” he shouted at me.
“I didn’t know you had any sons. You only told me of your daughter.”
“They will be angry!”
All four of us piled into his car, and we drove for half an hour. A few minutes
after we had entered Chang-won, Mr. Ryu said, “We’re almost there. Your new roommate has
already been here for a couple of weeks.”
“Roommate? I thought that I was going to be living alone.”
“No. You must live with him. He applied first and moved in first, so he got the
large bedroom. I am sorry.”
We pulled off of a ten-lane boulevard, and right on the corner was the school’s
apartment building. Mr. Ryu accompanied me to the fifth floor, where we met Daniel, my new
Despite having infested the apartment for a scant two weeks, Daniel had already given
the suite a lived-in look that is usually the result of close cooperation between an elderly
and eccentric recluse and 200 cats. Garbage was everywhere. Packing boxes matted the
Rotting fruit and veggies covered the kitchen table. A dozen dirty cups and innumerable
filters with their coffee grounds were the counterpoint to his cappuccino machine. A
meter-high hill of dirty dishes sat in the sink. Balled-up socks cowered in the corners.
and games for his two computers were everywhere, and a topnote of cigarette smoke had settled
on everything in the suite.
As is the case in virtually all two bedroom apartments in Korea, one is of regular
size, and the other is only large enough for a small dog. I schlepped my luggage into the
latter bedroom. With a bed, a wardrobe, and a miniscule but empty computer desk, the
floorspace was less than three square meters. The room’s sole saving grace promised to be
the window, a segmented meter and a half wide unit that ran from the floor to the ceiling.
However, from the first night on, all the window provided me was the non-stop noise of the
boulevard’s traffic intermittently punctuated by the blares of horns, the skidding of
and the breaking of glass.
That evening, as a form of introduction, Daniel took me on a walking tour of the
“So, where did you go to university?” he asked.
“Lethbridge. And you?”
“The University of Alberta in Edmonton. The oldest in the province, you know, and
frankly speaking, a world-class institution. I had to go there. I’ll never forget that
speech where Seneca told the masses, the populi, that it is your duty to rise to the top of
“I see. What did you study?”
“The same thing that my grandfather studied: the classics, Roman and Greek.”
“Don’t you mean Latin and Greek?”
“So, do you use them much?”
“I read that you studied French and German. BFD. French is a Latin language.”
“Yes, French is a Romance language, as are six others.”
"What is French for ‘house’?”
“Maison, la maison, feminine, parce que ce mot se termine en –aison.”
“What did you do after you graduated with your degree in Classics?”
I owned and operated my own business.”
“A bicycle courier. You?”
“Studied accounting, then worked in industrial engineering.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Cost accounting, mostly. Some labor usage and mechanical efficiencies.”
We walked through the dense downtown area of the provincial capital.
“What is there here to see in Changwon?”
“Factories, factories, factories, factories, and factories.”
“Are there any factories?”
"Almost nothing but. What do you think factory workers like to do in their off-hours?”
“Drink and whore.”
"Zackly, but don’t forget phoning home. They like to get likkered up, then they visit the
no-rae-bang, and then hit the room salons, whorehouses, you know.”
“I once worked with a Russian whose literacy was lacking, and he told me that he once
spent a night in a warehouse.”
“Any more genteel establishments?”
“No. It’s impossible to buy an English newspaper or magazine here. Ditto for nicer
restaurants. Only two stationery stores, and one of them, the nicer one, of course, is
down soon. No dry cleaners, no video rental shops, doodley-squat. But what there is here,
“It’s a captive market. Everyone knows that the factories here have made a huge
investment, so the market is guaranteed. Capitalism and human nature being what they are,
prices are considerably higher here.”
“Who works in the factories here? Koreans?”
“Damned few of them. Foreigners, mostly. Filipinos, Malaysians, Indonesians,
Pakistanis, Tibetans, Nepalese, even a few Russkies and eastern Europeans.”
“How do you know this?”
“They all congregate outside the Tesco department store. All sorts there. Stop
and chat with them sometime. It’s an eye-opener.”
“How can you meet other way-gook ESL devils?”
“That’s a tough nut to crack. I’ve been looking, but even though there are a
few hagwons here, few of their teachers come to the bars.”
“Which watering hole do you frequent?”
“O’Malley’s. It’s okay at best, but you can get a good meal there. A couple of
Korean cuties work there, and I think I can get one or both of them to climb on Daniel’s
Tower of Power.”
“Know so. I would have to rate myself as being in the top one percent of desirable
males,” he said as he pulled a long ropey booger out of a nostril and began eating it.
“They’re Koreans: Once they pop, they can’t stop.”
“Pringles’ Potato Chips’ logo.”
“I don’t eat that shit. I like to cook, you know, and I consider myself a
“Yeah, I saw all the dirty dishes. Cook a lot of spaghetti, do you?”
“Almost every night. Make my own sauce, too.”
“It’s not too hard. Even you could probably learn how to make it. The trick is
to always use olive oil. Lowest flash point, you know. The same reason I only drink aged
whisky. Lowest flash point again.”
After our tour of the city, we returned home to get some rest for the start of the
new semester the next day. Rather, I tried to shut out the noise of the street as I closed
eyes, but Daniel displayed yet another side to his unique character.
Determined that Koreans should not be the only ones to expire after playing video
games non-stop for three or four days straight, he would spend most of his spare time
aliens and going on bombing sorties that his flight simulator provided. His games’ effects
were amplified through a Bose sound system with a huge sub-woofer, and as stimulants to help
keep him alert, he preferred that the television also be on and his second computer
play a random selection of downloaded music. If I changed the television channel, he would
inevitably call out that he was watching that. My selection of earplugs got pressed into
but even with them, I would occasionally awake at two, three, or four in the morning. Daniel
would ask what I was doing up.
The next day, we were assigned our desks and began earning our keep. My neighboring
teacher was a Korean woman only slightly past her prime but still very much on the prowl for
man, any man. In her mid-thirties and still sporting a teenager’s case of full-blown acne,
knew that her search would be a hard one. Some advice I gave her on the possible benefits of
not using so much makeup was immediately rejected, as was the foolish notion that powdering
face every hour might be clogging her pores. Being Pizza Hut’s best customer was
counterproductive to her goals, I tried to tell her, but her mind was closed. Coupled with
fact that her attention span was less than five seconds, I soon learned to save my breath.
Numerous hints about her availability were dropped my way. Mr. Ryu told me that she
was very holy.
“Pious,” I replied.
“She goes to church every day, twice on Wednesdays, and all day on Sunday. Why
don’t you go to church with her?”
“For the best of all reasons: I don’t want to. Christianity depends on what you
do, not where you congregate.”
“No! You must go to church!”
“It won’t happen. Nothing personal,” I explained to Miss Shin, “but it’s
just not my thing.”
“I want to marry a religious man,” she told me and showed me a Korean book she
was reading: How to Marry a Man Like Jesus. “I am a Jesus Teacher. Some teachers lead the
Youth For Christ groups.”
“Good luck,” I told her, “but maybe you should start looking in places other
than your church.”
I had no desire to be cruel to her or blunt with her, but her goals were painfully
obvious, and with her M.O., she never made any progress towards any of them.
Her cell phone would ring throughout the day, and her personalized ringtone was the
voice of a little child: “It’s the phone! It’s for you! Come quickly!” Initially
cute, but soon depressing.
Once in a while, I would get a postcard, letter, or package from a friend, and these
deliveries usually sat on my desk for a period or two before I returned from the classroom.
Miss Shin would invariably read the return address and then quiz me about the sender.
“Who is she?!” “Do you love her?!”
A sad, sad case, and I tried to spare her feelings.
She knew that I was not interested in her, nor was she interested in me. Still, there was no
reason why we could not be friends and even have some fun, share a laugh or two. Every day,
brought a small bag of mints with me to work. The grand majority of them got distributed to
the female students who came to the staff room at the end of the day to do the cleaning. I
distributed the mints as small tokens of my gratitude for their housekeeping. As part of my
good neighbor policy, I also left two or three mints on Miss Shin’s desk every day.
One day, she asked me, “Giancarlo, could I have a mint?”
“Of course. How many do you want?
“Here’s one,” I said as I unwrapped one and held it between my teeth. “Take it,” I
said as I leaned in close to her.
She recoiled and said, “You are so funny.”
I gave her a fresh mint, and we both had a laugh.
Once when we were having lunch, I made the mistake of complimenting one of the two
administrative assistants at my table on her dress.
“Miss Lee, you are always so fashionable, so classy. I think that you could be the
next Miss Korea.”
Right away, five of the single female teachers at a neighboring table yelled out
their reasons why that could never be.
“She can’t be Miss Korea! She is too short!”
“Her teeth aren’t perfect!”
“She is too old!”
“She wears glasses!”
“She isn’t slim!”
Miss Lee hung her head in sorrow and shame. I told her that I thought she was
That evening at home, Daniel said, “I saw you chatting up Miss Lee at lunch. Save
your breath. I’ll be tapping that booty soon.”
“I doubt it. Never a good idea to shit where you eat, you know.”
Despite his constant bluster and bravado about being the über-male, I had my doubts
about Daniel’s orientation. The prior Sunday morning, I had awoken at six to go and do my
weekly shopping at Tesco, a fantastic department store that stayed open 24 hours a day. I
emerged from my bedroom to the rasping snore of a fat bastard on the sofa. Two large and
strange pairs of brogues were in the entrance. After I had returned from my shopping trip,
Daniel said that I must have seen the guy on the sofa. “Met him and a girl at the bar last
night and brought them back here. Gave her such a f*cking.”
Daniel also had the habit of leaving his used condoms everywhere. No idea why he did that.
Proof that he was still potent, perhaps. No way in hell was I cleaning up after him.
Miss Shin sensed my lack of desire to be groomed as spousal material, so she began
paying attention to Daniel. However, after he hit on her best friend, the comely but very
married school nurse, she stopped speaking to him.
Cordial relations were kept up with Miss Shin, and a gaggle of staff often sat
together in the teachers’ cafeteria. A chance for Korean teachers to practice their
and a communal experience for all. Mr. Ryu would try to chastise the foreign heathens for
praying before the meal. I told him that I had little use for public rituals of piety.
His neighbor, Mr. Kwon, was an agreeable enough sort. Brimming with curiosity, he
wanted to know everything, and his English was good enough for both production and
comprehension of complex expressions.
“Giacarlo, why aren’t you eating the tiny shrimp in your soup?”
“I don’t like to eat anything that is staring back at me. Koreans love to eat
all sorts of seafood, so tell me, how many legs does a shrimp have?”
“Eight?” he ventured.
“No, the same as a squid, oh-jing-aw, a crab, and a lobster.”
“Ten, that’s right.”
“Trivia!” Daniel shouted from the other end of the table.
Turning back to Mr. Kwon, I told him, “All of those animals belong to the order
Decapoda, which is Latin for ‘ten feet.’ ‘Dec’ is Latin for ‘ten,’ and ‘pod’
or ‘ped’ is Latin for ‘foot.’”
“No, it isn’t!” Daniel interjected again.
“You studied Latin, didn’t you?” I asked him. He was as annoying as rectal itch and
just as hard to get rid of in a socially-acceptable manner.
To Mr. Kwon, I posed the question of what you called a group of ten years.
“Good, and what do you call the numerical system based on the numbers from zero to
“The decimal system.”
“And what do you call someone who is walking, going on foot?”
“And what do you call a foot doctor?”
“Exactly. When you know the Latin and Greek roots, you can expand your
Unsure if Daniel’s need to be the center of attention wherever he was overrode
common sense, I decided to test his world-class education in Latin and Greek.
One day when I arrived home, I saw him finally attacking the mountain of dirty
“Giving your uxorial skills a workout, are you?”
“Uxorial, adjective, uxor, Latin, noun, wife.”
“I would say yook-so-ri-yall.”
“Did you also get all of the cups, plates, and cutlery out of the bathroom?”
I asked, for Daniel’s habit was to sit on the commode while eating and drinking
with the door open so that he could watch TV at the same time.
“Of course! What do you think I am? A pig?”
I declined to answer. The bathroom was usually a disaster area, and I was determined
not to become a maid. Dirty crockery and cutlery littered the bathroom floor, as did his
skid-marked underwear and holey socks. More often than not, he would leave a gigantic
king-coiler in the toilet for all to see.
“Is there something wrong with the toilet?” I would ask.
“I did that.”
“Yes, I know.”
“That’s a big one, isn’t it? You can just break it up with the brush, and then
the toilet’ll choke it down.”
“Not going to happen. I’ll use the main floor facilities.”
Most evenings, I would park on the sofa for a half-hour or so to do the day’s
crossword puzzles that I had printed out. The television I usually switched to CNN to ensure
that I was staying on top of the news. Daniel would be killing aliens on his computer.
“Hey, what’s the eighteenth letter of the Greek alphabet?” I asked him.
“Damn! I should know that!”
“Don’t worry: I’ve got it. Five letters, so rho, sigma, tau.”
Another evening when I came home, I saw a sewing kit on the kitchen table.
“Got some sartorial chores ahead of you?”
“Latin ‘sartor’ is ‘tailor.’ The longest muscle in the human body is the
sartorius. The old tailor’s sitting position, you know. Got some sewing to do?”
“I knew that.”
“You should’ve asked me. I’ve got a sewing kit with bobbins of thread in most
colors. Scads of needles and buttons, too.”
“Yeah, I’ve gotta sew on some buttons. I need some new socks. Next Tuesday is
my birthday, you know.”
“Mr. Ryu and I are going tomorrow to get my alien card.”
“What? You don’t have it after four months?”
“No. Haven’t gotten around to it.”
“You’re here illegally then, you know. You have to have it after three months
“Mr. Ryu didn’t say anything to me. When did you get yours?”
“A week after I arrived.”
“Got right on it, eh? Efficient.”
“Is that valued here?”
“No, and don’t take it the wrong way, but I think you’re stupid for busting
your ass for these people. You should just do what I do: play Hangman. They know it and
it. I also give them a few pages of English out of my Teach Yourself Korean book, and that
good enough. You prep way too much, and what for? Nobody cares.”
“Some people do.”
True enough, for only some of the students were benefiting from the lessons. In
addition to the regular classes for the first-, second-, and third-year students, I also
a supplementary morning class. In that hour, we burned through material: over six readers,
scores of comprehension exercises, and every day had grammar games and activities. Those who
put in the time and the effort advanced.
One Sunday when I was heading back from the stationer’s, I bumped into one of my
early-morning students on the street. Even though I had already identified her as one of the
shining stars in the class, she thanked me for the variety and pace that I gave to the
“Before I took your class, I wasn’t sure of my English, but now I am confident.”
Balm on my soul, for many of the boys’ classes during the day were a challenge.
Leaving chalk in the antiquated classrooms was something that I learned not to do,
for the boys would fill the boards with rude comments, attempts at English profanity, and
than flattering pictures. Their desktops would get the same treatment. I erased what I
If they were able to rip off the top layer of laminate off new desks, they did so. Respect
for others’ property was a lesson that no one had taught them.
Unlike the public schools, the classrooms had neither A-V equipment nor student
lockers. An ancient blackboard covered the front wall, and a large but sorry bulletin board
covered the back wall. On the bulletin board, I pasted interesting pictures on a daily
Strange people and animals, some of them photo-shopped, some of them not, they were always
focal points for the pre-class crush. Laughs and vocabulary were shared, and most enjoyed
wall. However, twice a week or so, some boys would slash the collage with their razor
I would reprint and replace the damaged photos.
Getting some of the boys to buckle down and do any work took a lot of effort. After
teaching a skill or structure, I would explain the ensuing activity before I handed out the
photocopies. After counting out ten copies for this row or twelve for that one, I would hand
them to the student at the front of the row. Often the copies never made it to each desktop.
Some boy would cram them in his desk, throw them on the floor or out the window, or a class
clown would roll up the copies into a tight cylinder and chew them until they were destroyed.
I imagined that a lot of the boys would end up working in Chang-won’s factories.
Punishment was unheard of in this school, and any teacher who tried to bring a
student into line soon had the police and the school administration on his back. All
packed cell phones, and one call, often made with the teacher in hot pursuit, would bring the
police and county education officials. Teachers were forced by the police to apologize to
students, and a few were even monitored for weeks by the educational authorities.
As a perk for the students’ parents, I also provided English classes for the
mothers once a week. They were ideal students: punctual, keen, and attentive. Fifteen or so
of them came to every class, and they got a workout in pronunciation, listening
grammar, and thematic group discussions. They took to it like a duck to water, and I was
overjoyed with their effort and progress. They were happy to be my students, and sometimes
they gave me small tokens of their gratitude: fruit, soft drinks, rice cakes. One mother was
the Korean equivalent of Denise Richards, and when she hugged me, I have to confess that the
sensation was far from unpleasant.
Ironically, the teachers’ classes that I gave twice a week were often as agonizing as the
boys’ classes. Teachers would show up late, without pens, or refuse to speak at all. Mr.
Ryu appointed himself as class leader, and after his late arrival, he always started his
contribution to the class by shouting out the Korean translations of the exercise that we
“Stop that!” I told him. “These students will never develop any speed if you
keep on translating everything for them.”
“I always do!”
“Not anymore. This is my class, and if you want to be part of it, follow my
Chastised, he slumped in his chair and did nothing for a few minutes. The rest of
his group began working again without his contributions. Then he shouted, “This is
boring!” and left.
“Close the door behind you, please. Come back when you’re ready to work,” I
called after him.
Back in the staffroom, Mr. Ryu sat at his desk with a scowl on his face.
“Do you understand why I don’t want you translating everything into Korean for
the other teachers?” I asked him.
“I know, I know! I am not stupid! I am working on my Ph.D. and soon will be
“Is that right? How long have you been working on it?”
“Eight years. I think you don’t respect me. Why? My IQ is tested two times. I
am 93! I am normal!”
“You have to learn to respect others’ rights. Some want to learn, so you should
not destroy their learning environment.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.”
My agony at that school ratcheted up, for Mr. Ryu became malcontent with everything I did.
Most of the boys were out of control, and school administration refused to punish offenders.
Some barely pubescent boys in our school achieved a degree of notoriety for raping middle
school girls. Rumors ran rampant, and I believed them when I read newspaper accounts of the
misdeeds in the national dailies. The parents of the raped girl would show up at the police
station to lodge their complaint, and the rapist’s parents would also be there.
the police would harass the girl’s parents for trying to bring shame on the community. The
rapist’s parents would then threaten the victim’s parents with violence once out of the
Granted, this is a sorry state of affairs, but what else can be expected when judges
routinely let off child rapists with little or no punishment because “he was under the
influence of alcohol” at the time?
South Korea produces so many aberrant personalities, and it should not come as a surprise
that even some serial killers have a fan base. When, if ever, will this population produce a
vigilante? Korean law is an ass, but if a vigilante took out a rabid dog or two that was
running amok or even a judge or two, I wonder how Korean society would react. I suspect that
radical attempt to force Korea back onto the straight and narrow would probably not be
Permitting change from within is a bitter enough pill for Koreans, so external pressure for
change is cast off as soon as possible. Stories of international intolerance of criminal
behavior are given little or no coverage by the Korean media. For example, Cambodian women
no longer allowed to marry Korean men, for too many tales of domestic abuse and battery
resulted in that door being closed.
An acquaintance of mine in Vancouver used to arrange homestays, but more and more Canadian
families say, “No Koreans!” The old stereotype of a modest and polite Asian is all but
invisible in South Korea. My travel agent tells me that a lot of tourists bypass the Korean
experience, for in-your-face rudeness finds few buyers at any price. What a pity, for the
country has so much to offer: a phenomenal transportation system, great cuisine, affordable
hotels, and scenery that is nothing short of breathtaking.
However, Koreans do not know the limits of tolerance largely held by the rest of the world.
Not everyone travels, so those who do have the obligation to be ambassadors of their
When I was in Chang-won, I tried to change their behavior by leading through example, and
the longest time, hope buoyed my spirits. I found fertile ground, not all the time, but I
wandered into the occasional restaurant where they understood my Korean, served me my order,
and smiled and laughed at my compliments.
Every four or five weeks, I went to Lee Ka Ja, a national chain of beauty salons. My
thinning and graying locks are hardly worthy of tonsorial care and luxury, but how nice it is
nonetheless to be warmly welcomed and doted upon. I know that I am not the only one who is
willing to pay a premium for such service.
Over time, I began to realize that I was fighting a losing battle in Chang-won. The boys
were entrenched, and I couldn’t budge them, let alone make them move. Stress took its
and I made more than a few trips to a neighborhood pharmacy for headache pills. In the
politest and most formal language possible, I would kindly ask the pharmacist to please give
a blister pack of ibuprofen tablets. He would get apoplectic with rage at me for . . . what?
Being a foreigner, I guess. Each time, he would shout at me to write out my request in
Korean, and this I would do. My Korean is good enough, and I always have a pencil and a pad
Post-It notes with me. When he finally acquiesced and slammed down my pills on the counter,
would invariably demand a price greater than the price on the tag. Even though I would pay
price, thank him and leave, he never learned to welcome my business.
The city of Chang-won would not exist if it were not for its foreigners who do the mundane,
dangerous, and poor-paying jobs in the city’s many factories. With the lowest birth rate
all OECD member countries, Korea’s affluence is largely owed to its foreign workers.
Unfortunately, this fact remains as hidden as the existence of the United Nations cemetery
An EPIK colleague with whom I had stayed in touch had also had his fill of the national brand
of ingratitude. “Where am I going to go? I don’t know. One of the ‘Stans, probably.
I’m not a Muslim, but that’s okay. I am tolerant of people who don’t share my
If the same courtesy were extended to me here, I would stay.”