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 twenty 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