Breaking the Surface – Insadong, Korea

Breaking the Surface
Insadong, Korea

If I were going to choose one event, one reason, one weave in the rope of my life that brought me back to Korea, I would have to pick that moment crossing the street from Tower Records (it is now a McDonald’s) to Insadong in 1999. That’s correct. I said brought me back, and to be brought back somewhere, you obviously have to have been there before, which I was, in 1999. The previous year, on a half whim, half day dream, I gave up my career as a public school teacher in New York City, a career I loved, to join the United States Army as an Infantryman.

The reasons are not important for this tale. You can say I was more than a little surprised when I got my orders after Basic Training. I was being shipped to Korea, a place I would probably have trouble finding on a map. (Okay, let’s see, this big one is China, these islands are Japan, and here’s Australia. Wait a second, I think I skipped it).

My friend, reading from a book, described sort of the same way the meteor’s climate is described in Armageddon – hot and humid in the summers, frigidly cold in the winters. I imagined myself bivouacked in a muddy, feces-smelling rice paddy somewhere, soaked and cold, cursing my National Guard friends who were home laughing and drinking tea with super models.

Well, I have not yet bivouacked in a rice paddy, and my friends haven’t dated any supermodels. To both of these, I must add “yet.”

I was stationed at the JSA, an area made popular by a movie a year or two after my time there, that topped all the Korean movie charts. At the time we affectionately called it the place where no women were stationed. You were given one three-four day pass off post once per month, if you were lucky.

After breaking up with my girlfriend, I found myself hanging out with many of the English teachers who worked in Seoul on my once-a-month passes. It was on one of these passes I found myself listening to my walkman, heading into Korean traffic – the New York way of crossing the street – step out into traffic, inch closer to the middle of the street, till there is a break and then cross. It’s like The Matrix. Once you understand the rules, you bend them. That’s it, Keanu Reeves, Shawn Marion and I. We have something in common. We’re Matrix-like in our maneuvers – Marion in basketball, Reeves in the Bill & Ted movies and me in my ability to cross the street against the light.

I digress.

My lead into the street was maybe a meter or two. Traffic was heavy. I was playing it safe. Scared of being thrown out prematurely, I felt a tug on my shoulder, a sharp tug, the kind you feel when someone is pulling you back to lay one on you, and I don’t mean a kiss.

I turned around. My fist was tight and my arm was cocked back, my left hand reached out, more reflex than choice, to grab my assailant (in New York you get tugged that way for only one reason). The young Korean man seemed unafraid.

I am 6’3, 240 lbs. This man, possibly half my weight, couldn’t understand the situation. He pulled me back again and gestured to the traffic, crossing his arms in what I would eventually come to understand was the universal sign for “X” as in “Don’t do that,” “Wrong,” and “That’s not how you win the prize baboo!” He was pulling me out of traffic, out of harm’s way, from what he was certain was, the jaws of the beast.

I am huge. Weight lifting is my passion. I wear the high and tight haircut. I look like a soldier – not a nice, baby faced soldier. Rather a big, white, “show-me-where-you’re-hiding-the-beautiful-women-and-booze” type soldier. That never stopped students from leading me kilometers out of their way to take me to the place I was having trouble finding. It never stopped old people from smiling at me and talking to me in whatever English they could muster. To my undying gratitude, it never stopped old couples from insisting I stay with them in their house rather than at a hotel when I was traveling. Korea is friendly, neighborly and everyone wants you to have a good impression.

I came back to Korea in 2001. Over the last two years some things have changed and some things haven’t. The political climate is different. There is a more anti-American sentiment prevalent in the culture. One could wonder why Koreans insist on harping on their past victimizations when they are probably the most economically stable country in Asia.

There are many things that haven’t changed. I am still 6’3 and not baby faced. Koreans continue to show me unending hospitality that includes opening their houses to me. I still have to trick my Korean friends into letting me pick up the tab at meals, karoake, or drinking binges (fewer and farther between). Having been here awhile, people practicing their English with me is not as immediately enduring as it once was. I will say this, though, despite many foreigners sort of universal allusion to the opposite, I have never seen a woman hit in Korea. I have never been in a car accident. I have never been called a so-and-so dirty American.

When I leave Korea, in a few short months, it will be with an overall positive feeling towards the country. I will depart because it is time for me to move on, to see what other countries have to offer.

Korea has been good to me. I will focus on the amazing friends and co-workers I have had while I have been here, how on the night I had to stay late to meet a deadline, most of my Korean staff stayed in the office to show support and solidarity. “You go, we go,” they seemed to say in one single and overwhelmingly positive voice.

Korea is a country with a lot to offer. It is, unfortunately, burdened with a foreign population more concerned with drinking and meeting easy women then exploring the countryside, islands, cities, temples and national parks. There is nothing wrong with moderate drinking or meeting easy women.

I enjoy having those spots more or less to myself when I travel. It is one of the few times I still get followed by kids who laugh and yell Miguk Seram (American), or Weiguk Seram (Foreigner). Seoul is not saturated with foreigners, only the ESL types.

If you go to Korea, go beyond Itaewon and Sinchon and the obvious trips to Jejudo Island (mistakenly nicknamed the Korean Hawaii). Gyeongju is beautiful and Seoraksan National Park remains my favorite.

Find your way to drinking rice wine with an old man outside Hyang Ilam Hermitage on the Southern Edge of Korea, South of Yeosu, before waking up at four in the morning to watch the sun rise. Stay up all night on the Western Shore eating shell fish and crabs on a grill with some friends, and have a free lunch with the monks at Tongdosa Temple, between Busan and Gyeongju. Visit the tiny hourglass shaped island of Hongdo, with cliffs that rise right from the water. Hike Hwaseomdunngul Cave near Samcheok, or the tighter fitting caves near Danyang. See Naejangsan National Park in autumn for the turning of the leaves. There’s a huge variety of things to do in Korea. I have barely scratched the surface.

Sure, Korea doesn’t have the wilderness of Thailand, China, or Nepal. It doesn’t have the Temples of Cambodia, the Plains of Mongolia, nor the thick, tangible feel of history that Kyoto, Japan, does. The mountains, to my great distress, don’t get higher than 2,000 meters. Nice beaches are few and far between (try a bungalow at Sapsido, though). Enjoy the Korean people, what Korea has to offer and save some money in the process.

I’m saying, don’t order a hamburger at a Chinese restaurant. Try the Chinese food – in this case, the bibimbap.

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