Elwood 5566

Ancient Korea – 2000 AD

Posted in Daegu, Westerners by 노강호 on September 11, 2011

My relationship with Korea began 11 years ago this September when I arrived for my first one year English teaching contract. I subsequently returned in 2003, 2005 and have remained here since 2007. In the UK a stretch of ten years doesn’t seem that noticeable. I recently returned to the town where I spent my childhood and even after ten years absence the changes weren’t that remarkable. In Korea however, changes are so rapid and widespread that the point at which the past becomes another country can be measured in a couple of years, not generations.

The Korea of 2000 was indeed another country and my memories, like old photos found in an antic, are faded and yellow. Apart from one year, when I lived in Ch’eon-an, I have lived in the same block on and off over 11 years. I spent my first year teaching in what was the largest and most successful haggwon in Song-so, Daegu and must have taught several hundred students and yet I’ve only met one former student  since the end of 2001.  Not only have buildings and businesses changed and disappeared, but so too have the people. In the entire area with which I am intimately acquainted there are only a handful of business that were trading in 2000 and high rise commercial blocks now stand in plots that were once deserted and home to nomadic soju tents.

in the foreground are the three one rooms I have occupied between 2000 and today

When I arrived in 2000, I flew into Kimpo International Airport. It was old, small and dingy and you could walk from one end of the main building to the other in less than two minutes. At the time, Korean Air flew from Britain’s Stansted Airport which outside London surmised Korea’s global insignificance. Today, Air Korea operates out of both Gatwick and Heathrow and a host of other airlines run daily services to the peninsula most of which fly into the amazing, and massive, Inch’eon International.  In 2000, with the KTX, high speed rail network still several years from completion, there were two flights an hour from Kimpo to Daegu or you could opt for the lengthier rail or bus journeys.

Kimpo International Airport around 1994 (courtesy of, Rants in your Pants)

Being stared at was an intense and continuous experience, especially outside Seoul or away from US military bases. EPIK had yet to provide most schools with foreign English teachers and many students had never met a foreigner. I remember one boy, Duk-hyeon, who was so terrified of me that he would sit out my lessons in the main office. Whenever Korean teachers tried to integrate him into my class he would start shaking and then breakdown in a flood of tears. Despite months of friendly smiles, funny faces or kind acts, he could not be pacified. On the streets, fellow foreigners were few and unlike today, where many shroud themselves with a sense of being the only foreigner in Korea and subsequently blank you, most were only too eager to talk. In my area of Song-so there were a handful of foreigners and we all knew each other. Life in Korea was so alien, so different and was so much further from home than it is today, that most westerners had a need to talk to each other. Today, fellow foreigners seem to regard each other as a threat and blatantly shun each other perhaps because other foreigners are a reminder how un-unique and tame your experience really is.

Inch’eon International – voted 5 consecutive times the world’s leading airport

The navigation of daily life, and especially traveling, was both challenging and exciting because so little was written in English. I remember a trip to Pohang in December 2000, where the bus terminal only provided information in Korean and hanja and the tickets for trains and buses weren’t bilingual. Ordering food was just as challenging and other than large western style fast food restaurants which provided accompanying photos or English translations,  everything was in Korean. Ordering food was usually a culinary mystery tour.

Pohang. Christmas Eve 2000

Fermenting foods, such as kimchi and makkeoli required a small hole in the packet or bottle to release the build-up of gas. On my first trip back to the UK, I put a small packet of kimchi that had been served with the in-flight meal, into my top pocket. When I woke an hour later, to a strong and unpleasant smell, I discovered it had leaked down the front of  my shirt. Today, the fermentation process is curtailed and packaging subsequently sealed.

‘Video Bangs’ were prolific and probably as common today as are mobile telephone stores. In the absence of digital photography, there were numerous photo stores which very often had a large photograph of a naked baby boy in their window. On this topic, there was also  a shop in downtown Daegu which amongst other things, had plaster casts of little lads dicks. I vaguely remember seeing one or two houses with chillies hanging from the front door, which was the traditional way to advertise the birth of a boy and imagine the prestige of having a son could be immortalized by making a cast of his dick, spraying it gold or silver, and mounting it in a small frame.  How widespread this custom was I don’t know but I know several students and Korean men who have a photograph of themselves as a toddler, on the wall of their living room or hallway in which they are naked.

On the streets, at pedestrian crossings, the red man ruled with absolute sovereignty and on deserted roads pedestrians patiently waited until the green man, who was often turquoise, appeared. Today, I am often the only person left standing and even elderly citizens will jay walk. And teenagers holding hands with the opposite sex and being affectionate was an absolute social taboo.

In the classroom, western obscenities and terms such as ‘gay,’ ‘homo’ or ‘fuck’ were either unheard off or simply never uttered. I have yet to hear the four letter ‘c’ word but like fat Koreans and other social problems, its arrival is inevitable And ten or eleven years ago,  Harisu (하리수), Korea’s first trans-gendered celebrity, was a popular enough to have ‘pin-up statue among teenage boys.

between 2000 and 2003, Harisu was popular with many teenage boys

In the days before Tesco’s Home Plus, even the largest supermarkets lacked anything but a few solitary bottles of wine and western beer. The only cheese one could buy was plastic play cheese or the likes of ’Einstein’ cheese slices which were believed to increase the cognitive abilities of children. Decent butter was unobtainable and coffee beans were not just expensive but difficult to buy. Around 2001, the Song-so, E-Mart, had a working coffee ‘peculator’ on display which used to attract a small crowd of intrigued customers.

English teaching contracts did not include air-conditioning as part of the package and split shifts were a regular teaching condition.  However, I used to make up to a weeks haggwon salary in a couple of hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon teaching small groups of students in my free time. Everyone wanted to learn English and as the haggwon industry hadn’t exploded, there were plenty of students and parents looking for English teachers. I’ve been offered jobs in KFC, MacDonalds, in the bathhouse and on street corners but in the last four years I’ve not once been offered a paid teaching  job by a stranger.

But the greatest difference between the sepia tinted Korea of 2000 and today, was the absence on the internet, certainly in English, of anything pertaining to Korean culture or life. Google Earth, Youtube, Wikipedia, WordPress and Blogger etc, were either in their infancy or hadn’t been released. There were no online language resources and indeed to write in Hangeul on a computer in the UK, even until around 2004, demanded the purchase of Microsoft Proofing Tools. Until fairly recently, if you wanted any information on Korean food, making kimchi, the Korean language, Hanja, taekwondo, etc, you had to buy books and even then there were topics that weren’t translated into English. The Korea of 2000, even 2005, had to be physically explored but today there is little about Korea that is secret or shrouded. A million blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and a myriad of sites provide the most comprehensive coverage of Korean life.  The internet has very much tamed and demystified Korea making it accessible and user friendly. Today, you can explore every facet of Korean culture without even leaving your home country.

from the days when you needed a package to write in Korean and Hanja

How I wish I’d arrived in the 1990’s or 1980’s. Our Korean experiences, serialized in the posts of our blogs and video-casts are increasingly trivial, familiar and often mundane but to have experienced the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ before it met EPIK, before it was so rudely exposed by the internet, before it was ‘made simple’ and subsequently accessible to an army of people who would have otherwise stayed away… now that’s the stuff of travel books, autobiographies and the content for real adventures.

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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7 Responses

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  1. waeg said, on September 11, 2011 at 11:48 am

    It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the ‘real’ Korea. . one of the reasons why I like spending so much time in the countryside. Although every city does still have its down and dirty side if you can find it.

  2. wetcasements said, on September 14, 2011 at 4:26 am

    For what it’s worth, during my first week of classes this Fall I had a college student who wouldn’t speak to me when I addressed him directly. He was absolutely terrified of speaking to a foreigner.

    He’s an obvious exception out of 300, but still.

    • 林東哲 said, on September 15, 2011 at 11:59 pm

      Oh, I sometimes have students who won’t speak but they probably wouldn’t respond to a native Korean speaking English. I have one class where almost every student refuses to speak. Are you in a university in Daegu? Any jobs on the horizon? Looking for a change.

      • wetcasements said, on September 16, 2011 at 5:18 am

        Actually, my boss wants to hire some more foreigners for next year, possibly.

        I’ll let you know.

      • 林東哲 said, on September 21, 2011 at 12:41 am

        I’ll send you an e-mail in the next few days – look at for ‘Bathhouse Ballads’ in your spam. Thanks.

  3. audience said, on September 15, 2011 at 3:24 am

    The picture of you in Pohang brings me back some childhood/early teen year memory. I left Korea in 1995 and the last time I visited the old country was in 1996 to renew my student visa. By the way, I’m a naturalized US citizen. I’m glad to know that you are having fantastic time in Korea. You don’t seem like a lot of jaded expats that I encounter in K-blogs or Korea related Youtube channels. I don’t blame them for being jaded and skeptical either. There is nothing funny about being cheated over pay and contract.

    p.s
    Please take it easy on the UK. Every society has its fair share of problems and headaches.


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