Chonju City, South Korea – Sunday, 7 July 1996

Exactly a month after my last entry, and how things have changed! On Friday 28 June, we celebrated my birthday in Pretoria, and on Sunday 30 June I arrived in Seoul.

I was a bit nervous about my luggage. Pamphlets were distributed on the plane informing everyone that no cassette tapes are allowed into the country, because who knows – you might be a North Korean agent who wants to corrupt the people in the South with your Appetite for Destruction or Eddy Grant Greatest Hits tapes.

In the end, I made it through customs and passport control with all my luggage intact – including a bag full of cassette tapes. A Korean man and a guy from South Africa in a 1995 Rugby World Cup T-shirt awaited me in the arrivals hall. Walking out of the terminal building, the smell and heat and people and buildings drove home the reality – I was in a foreign country again!

After about 20 minutes’ drive through heavy traffic (almost all the cars on the road were Korean models, and no car was more than a few years old) we arrived at what seemed like an office building. On the second and third floors were a language school – like the one where I would work, and on the roof was a small room where the South African guy lived.

Two hours later, the owner of the school who had paid for my plane ticket joined us. The wife of the man who had picked me up at the airport – who was introduced to me as something that sounded like “One Gum” – served us tea, and we talked about the school, class schedules, students, and so on. Then came the instruction that I should confirm the story cooked up by the woman for whom I would work in Chonju that I am an American. This would later prove to be a bit of a thorny issue.

At about six we went to the bus terminal from where Mrs Kim – who could hardly speak a word of English – and I took a bus to Chonju. After about two hours we stopped for refreshments. She bought me a can of cold coffee and a packet of mini doughnuts. At about eleven o’clock that night we arrived in Chonju. Her son, about my age, met us at the bus station. In the car on the way to their home, he played Korean pop music and asked me if I knew the group. I assured him I didn’t.

My first night in Chonju wasn’t great. I had no idea what my situation was going to be like regarding lodgings, but I wasn’t mentally prepared to reside with a family in the same house – a few nights would have been okay, but I am here on a two-year contract! I also didn’t have the faintest idea what the average Korean family home looked like.

The house is in a narrow alley behind a steel gate. It has a small courtyard, with a few stairs leading up to the front door. After we had walked in, I was shown a small room next to the kitchen, which I could clearly see had been the son’s room until that afternoon.

After an hour or so I closed the glass sliding door behind me and sat down on the bed. It was hot, and humid. Mosquitoes discovered another exposed piece of my flesh every few minutes. The only window was about the size of a coffee table book, and I had to stand on the bed to reach it. From the outside, a flashing red neon cross advertised a church in the adjoining building.

The next day I learned through my co-teacher at the school that the room is just a temporary situation, and that I would be getting my own “room” in about two months’ time. By Tuesday, the son had emptied the closet in the room – which at least gave me a piece of personal space where I could put up a photo or two.

* * *

I started work the day after I had arrived. I work with a Korean teacher in the class, which is okay on the one hand, but it also puts me under pressure because my English has to be perfect all the time. She pays attention to every word I say.

The first week of classes went by without any major problems in the end. The children seem eager to learn. They’re also quite friendly – one class even gave me cake for my birthday.

I also had to go for a medical examination this week, which was okay until it came to the urine test … where I couldn’t squeeze out a single drop.

On Tuesday I met a Canadian guy who works at another school in the same street as I. He told me about a place called SE Jazz, close to the university, and he also explained the Korean hot water system to me (after a week of taking cold baths).

About the Jazz place – I went there on Friday with the Canadian and another guy from the US. I’m pretty sure all the Westerners in Chonju were there. Initially it felt like hangouts in Stellenbosch, but after a few beers it got significantly better. I kind of made friends with a few Canadian women. In the end, we were the last people to leave the place (just before sunrise).

Last night I went to an “open house” at my colleague’s place. Very pleasant and much more relaxing than the Jazz. The food was delicious. I reckon she spent all day behind the stove. I was very impressed.


Alley leading to the house – Chonju, South Korea
Outside commode – Chonju, South Korea
Kitchen of home in Chonju, South Korea
Kitchen of home in Chonju, South Korea
My co-teacher and I at Samtur Hagwon – July 1996 – Chonju, South Korea

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Basically a tramp

Monday, 27 May 1996

I have now been living the life of a drifter for thirteen and a half months: little money, no income, creditors who try to pick up my scent, no home of my own, belongings in different places around the country, and no satisfactory answer to the difficult questions at social events.

“What,” an interested person may ask, “have you learned from the life you’ve lived these last thirteen and a half months?”

The answer is simple – money. Without money, you have nothing, and you are no one. Without money, you cannot conform your life to the style and standards of the community; consequently, you are not taken seriously. Without money, you are depended on and left to the grace and mercy of others; therefore, you have to adapt your lifestyle and your personality (or curtail your lifestyle and personality) in order not to upset your protector and provider.

The world is not made for people with no money. Magazine articles are not written for people with no money. Without money, your dreams remain … just that. Without money, you can’t really improve yourself. You can’t register for a course in interior design or gourmet cooking because you can’t pay for it, you don’t have an address, and you don’t have any facilities.

Without money, you are basically … a tramp.

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The pawn and the order of kings and bishops

Saturday, 4 May 1996

Order is based on one thing: the acceptance by the majority of the population that things are the way it should be. Of particular importance is the acceptance of the order by the “soldier”. If the soldier doesn’t accept the situation, the entire order can collapse.

That’s why the 1917 revolutions in Russia succeeded– the soldiers no longer accepted that the czar necessarily had to be in power. The person who has a weapon in his hand is the key to the survival or decline of a particular order. When the czar’s soldiers started ignoring his orders, the whole thing collapsed, and Czar Nicholas II was suddenly nothing more than an ordinary man in his late forties.

Does that mean the pawn is the most important figure on the chessboard? As long as he accepts the order of the “king/queen” and the “bishops” and follows their orders, he is just a pawn in their hands. But as soon as the pawn (or enough pawns) refuses to accept and obey, the situation changes. Then both the pawn and the king are just ordinary people, with the difference being that one has a weapon in his hand.

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“Jacob” writes a story

Thursday, 18 April 1996

I have to keep myself busy to calm my nerves seeing that I’m still waiting for the green light to go to Korea.

So, here comes a story that has to be good, because it must make up for the fact that I am still in Pretoria. I ought to be able to comfort myself with the fact that if I were in Korea at this moment, I would not have written this story.

The story is of course entirely fictional.

———–

Jacob has now been at his sister’s apartment in Pretoria for three weeks, waiting for something to happen so that he can go – away, to a foreign land. (His sister is the financial manager at a local construction company. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a neighbourhood of apartment complexes near the business district. As the oldest, she has learned to be patient with her two younger siblings, especially since they don’t seem to have a clue about what to do with their adult lives. It’s the second time in three months she’s had to provide one of them with her spare mattress, bedding and space on her living room floor.)

Standing back from the whole situation, Jacob can see it for what it is: him waiting for something bigger in life, something that may just provide him, too, with a place in the sun. He also knows the current situation is simply the next chapter in his story, a continuation of a phase in his life that began the day he wrote his last paper at university. The time had come for him to decide what direction his life would take, since his friend from varsity, Jane, had convinced him to postpone his ideal of becoming a hermit – to let his hair and beard grow, and to only now and then open the curtains to see what season it is. (Of course, even hermits need an income these days.)

A few months before graduation he had decided to shift the inevitable lifelong struggle for money, house and children off the agenda – until further consideration. He would first go travelling for a few months. He knew that would not necessarily give him a place in the sun, but as he explained to someone over a beer one evening, the landscape of a foreign country would hopefully give him a shot of courage for mainstream life and perhaps some inspiration.

So, off he went to Europe. His plan was to work somewhere for a few months, travel to a few countries, and then on a bright spring afternoon return to surprise his younger sister in the college town of Stellenbosch. He would wait for her at their favourite coffee shop and bakery on her way back from school. Then he would spend the afternoon telling her of all the things he had seen, and all the fascinating people he had met. She would listen like one whose world would widen with every word, right in front of her eyes. She would comment on his long hair and beard, and opine that people won’t even recognise him. He would be a pilgrim who had unexpectedly returned home.

Five weeks after he had left for Europe – not long enough to make much of a difference to the hair or the beard, he was back. To the few people who asked, somewhat bewildered, “Already?” he replied with the same illusion with which he tried to overcome his own disappointment: He had only returned to “get his things in order”. He was planning on leaving again “within the next month or three”.

Months of hardship and increasingly fading hope followed.

When people asked him why he was still in Stellenbosch, he replied with another half-truth: He had decided to help his sister through her final high school year since their parents were by now living in a different part of the country.

By Christmas, he was flat broke. His sister had by then already left for their parents’ new home in KwaZulu-Natal. He stayed behind in the municipal flat with months of unpaid electricity bills, and rent that was steadily heading in the same direction. To stay alive, he sold the furniture, until he was left with only a few blankets and pillows, and a borrowed black-and-white TV set. The power – as he had been expecting – was cut off early in January. He spent the evenings in darkness on his bedding on the otherwise empty living room floor.

“My life has started to stagnate,” he thought to himself one night. That he had to come up with a plan to get out of the mess he was in, was clearly not in doubt.

A month after Christmas he packed up his personal belongings, stored a few boxes with a friend, and offered for sale in the local newspaper his 1967 Wolseley that had been accumulating leaves and bird droppings for almost a year. A few days after he had sold the car, he took the train north. This year things would be different, he told himself. He was ready; indeed, he was hungry for new experiences.

Not long after arriving in the dusty town of Pongola, in Kwazulu-Natal, he got a call from a South African teacher living and working in Seoul, South Korea. He immediately recalled the day in December when he saw the advertisement for English teachers in the Cape Times (“Teach in Korea,” the headline said, with a name and a number). He also remembered how enthusiastically he rushed back to the flat in order to respond to the ad. The South African on the phone asked him if he were still interested. “It will take about five weeks to finalise all the arrangements,” the voice promised. Jacob was assured he was first on the list of new teachers.

“The answer to all my problems!” Jacob excitedly thought to himself.

Five weeks are now fast becoming three months. In the meantime, he waits, mostly on the couch in his sister’s apartment. He sleeps on the living room floor, smokes the cheapest cigarettes on the market, drinks coffee and eats sandwiches. He reads about fashion and relationships in his sister’s magazines, tries to follow what’s happening in the world on a TV that shows more lines and dots than anything else, and walks to the OK Bazaars every morning – for exercise, but also because sometimes it’s better to go anywhere than to go nowhere.

Jacob has come a long way since graduating from university. Perhaps, he believes, it would do him good to go for a walk through the familiar landscape of the town of his birth.

———–

Okay, so it’s not a masterpiece … and it’s not entirely fictitious.

Maybe I should go and have coffee somewhere to create the illusion that I am not spending the entire day in my sister’s living room.

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Back to 15 April 1996 at 19:56 and 25 seconds

Monday, 15 April 1996

I am almost 25 years old, almost halfway through what is described as the best years of one’s life. So far I’ve experienced glimpses of it, but also the downside – the restlessness, the uncertainty, and the financial and emotional instability. I am convinced that if I can survive my twenties, I’ll be okay.

[…]

I overcome my bleak moments with a cautious, optimistic faith in the future. And I’m not talking about a distant future; I am talking about the following five years, what remains of my twenties. I believe I’m going to see more of the world in the next few years. I am also going to work on my identity in creative ways. Maybe I will meet the ever-elusive love of my life. And I believe, or hope, that I will experience somewhere down the line, within the next five years, stability in my life.

Back to 15 April 1996 at 19:56 and 25 seconds, 26 seconds, 27 seconds, 28 seconds … 58 seconds. This is a passing moment and day in my life, and in this period of my earthly existence. It will pass. I will go through a metamorphosis and eventually I will wake up in a new period of my life. When I look back on 15 April 1996 one day, I will see that it was just a fleeting moment, just a small part of a greater whole, or a part of a larger portion that will eventually be part of an even greater whole.

To give up now just because I am going through an uncertain, unstable, somewhat lonely existence is not realistic. I have experienced many such days, and such times in my life. In fact, some of those times were much worse than now, and somehow I still survived! I’m glad I was strong during those times, even though I didn’t always have hope. Or maybe the following statement is closer to the truth: I am glad I never had the courage to give up during those times, because I was definitely not always strong.

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