Tutoring English as a part-time job in the last two years as a student while attending the University of Alberta allowed me to meet a wide range of international students who had come abroad to learn English for either educational or job related purposes. Although I had a broad base of students from all over the world, the majority of them just happened to be from South Korea. I had developed a close friendship with some of my students, particularly from Korea, who kindly introduced me to some of the food, culture and customs from this reclusive Peninsular nation, located in the Far East, uncomfortably nestled between the dominant regional superpowers of China and Japan. Through these contacts, I had become well versed in the opportunities that were available for native English speakers who had University Degrees in various disciplines, to go abroad, and teach English in both urban and rural locations throughout the nation. The chance to go overseas and earn money was attractive to me for a variety of reasons and in my junior year of university I had saved up a small enough fortune from my part-time work to go overseas for the first time in my life to check out this land of morning calm known for Kimchi and Taekwondo, in order to see whether or not I´d like to teach there after completing my four year university degree.
Upon arrival I was in total culture shock. For those who have never been to a colossal city in Asia the population density hits you like a harsh slap in the face. Cars are clogging up narrow and crowded multiple lanes, scooters and motorcycles along with a plethora of pedestrians fighting for sidewalk space along with makeshift shops inching for every available uninhabited area with the smell of exotic foods and rancid pollution penetrating the air at the same time. If this wasn´t enough I was for the first time in my life being stared at very obviously and repeatedly by a Korean population that had likely not seen too many pale men with red hair and pasty white skin before in their lives.
Luckily enough, a former student of mine was waiting for me at Incheon International Airport to help me find my long-term hostel in Seoul which I had booked online prior to arriving. A stroll through a very historic area downtown (Insadong) and a nice meal consisting of hamuel pajeon (sea food pancake) and maekeoli (traditional Korean fermented alcohol, milky in substance, with a distinct sour taste) was an excellent introduction to a land that was in all ways still very exotic to all of my senses. I had plans to meet another Korean friend two days later but my second day in Seoul would be my first time totally alone. That is when I met Robert.
Robert was an Australian bloke, about 6 feet tall, and well over two hundred pounds. Although only in his mid twenties, his figure was that of middle aged man who lived a mostly sedentary lifestyle as his belly protruded out from under his t-shirt that was at least two sizes smaller than what it should be, giving the distinct appearance of a tightly wound sausage about to hemorrhage. His hazel eyes were slightly bloodshot red and his thick bleach blond hair totally unkept like a knotted mop. It appeared as if he had not shaved for at least two months as the growth on his face was almost as noticeable as the red sauce that appeared to be dripping from his thickly nestled beard. Somewhat obsessed, but too embarrassed to ask, I thought, what the hell was that red sauce. He spoke with a thick Australian accent and it became quickly apparent that he was not very well educated as f bombs were being dropped all over the place as if directly involved in the most crucial moments of war. Unfortunately, it was monsoon season in early July and the torrential rain sort of sapped my ambitions to go out for the afternoon to explore on my own for the very first time. Instead, I found myself stuck in the hostel with Robert who was more than eager to tell his life story. Still jet lagged and thoroughly disappointed about not going out, I reluctantly gave him my undivided attention.
Robert completed grade 10 in Australia and then dropped out of school altogether. He became addicted to various forms of drugs in his late teens and started selling them on the streets of Brisbane for a living for just under a decade. A few close brushes with death caused him to reevaluate his life and he decided to go abroad for the first time to South Korea upon the persistent request of a friend. This same friend had mentioned that fake degrees could be obtained in Thailand at the drop of a hat and he came up with the clever idea to forge a Fine Arts Bachelor and Masters Degree from the University of Toronto while on a stopover in Bangkok. How he chose Canada and that specific degree was never revealed. The agency from which he bought his papers was diligent enough to produce fake sealed transcripts as well. Armed with the right tools he set off to Korea on a tourist visa (valid for three months) to try and make it as an English teacher. Working illegally without a proper visa required that he had to take a ferry to Japan (Fukuoka) every three months to re-enter the country on a tourist visa. He had now been in Seoul for 5 months working at a variety of private institutes part-time. He had a difficult time keeping contracts though as his students often complained about his limited vocabulary and the fact that he couldn´t really read or write at a level beyond a typical preschooler let alone teach a lick. However, with the market being saturated with part-time jobs and a lack of willing and qualified participants, he found himself employed more often than not. Because he was always hired illegally institute owners were not willing to blow his cover as it would surely lead to repercussions for them as well.
The long afternoon begrudgingly shifted to the evening and it was a particularly quiet night at the hostel with plenty of vacant rooms. Not markedly enamored by what Robert was saying while lying on the couch without a t-shirt on, I suggested we might go for a stroll now that the rain had let up. Not knowing the area at all I was in a sense hoping to use him for a short time to become more acquainted with my surroundings. I had not yet learned how to read all of Korean characters (Hangul) to clearly recognize street signs and was armed with only a few survival sentences to get by on. Thus, I figured a night out with Robert might help me find my bearings tomorrow when I was scheduled to meet my other Korean friend at a nearby subway station. Robert seemed somewhat enthusiastic to get out for a while and went into his room to put on a shirt over his chest that was covered with hair as dense as the Amazon rain-forest. As a side note, I found out later on that Robert was once dared to bike along the Hangang (Han River – dividing Seoul) bare chested. Completely oblivious to cultural norms or standards, it was unclear to Robert that he would be the only one in the entire vicinity not wearing a shirt. Robert eagerly agreed to the bet which would see him collect close to $50 USD equivalent for his dogged efforts in Korean Won. Completely lacking any form of social wherewithal, he began his journey down the river on his used bicycle. Not exactly being Brad Pitt in the flesh, Robert set off quite a frenzy as he was egged more than once and spat on no less than three times within just 5 minutes of pedaling.
Robert came out of the room wearing a ragged and noticeably odor ridden t-shirt, this time three sizes too small, depicting Hitler working at McDonald´s – the kind of thing you´d pick up at a outdoor shop in South East Asia. Out the door we went through the gauntlet of urban sprawl that finally led us to an outdoor section selling Korean food. A popular dish called Deokbokki was Robert´s favorite. I had tried it twice before in Edmonton and found it quite tasty. Rice cakes with various ingredients saturated in a spicy red pepper paste sauce was found simmering right before our eyes. The food is typically a late night Korean snack and although not nearly as unhealthy as most western junk food, it´s not exactly considered a complete meal either. Robert, not exactly concerned with balancing his palette with the four food groups, had been subsisting off of this stuff for nearly half a year and one could tell how malnourished he was by more closely examining the rough appearance of his skin which was plastered in acne behind the thick beard he was sporting. Robert had only mastered two words during his 5 month stint, a half assed hello that was only semi correct and this popular national dish butchered with his strong Australian accent. Properly pronounced ´Deok Beok Kee´ by locals, Robert instead called it ´Dawg Bog Gah´ to the horror of the lady dishing it out in front of us. Even worse, was the fact that this delicacy often requires the addition of something called Dwee Kim, a kind of accompanying battered objects (shrimp, sweet potato, squid) that could be added to the sauce upon request. Robert not having a Korean vocabulary beyond two words, used wild hand gestures and barked off English towards the poor old middle aged lady who probably knew less English than he did Korean. Gulping the dish down with toothpicks, as opposed to chopsticks, which he was still unable to master, Robert was finally satiated as I noticed the red sauce once again dripping from his lips and beard as I was now FINALLY able to figure out what it was that I had noticed earlier this afternoon. Mystery solved!
I specifically asked Robert to show me around the area and to his credit he was doing an amazing job of getting us lost. I had no idea where we were and the maze that led us to the street stalls was now completely out of distance. Robert insisted suddenly that he wanted to get his haircut. Now close to 10pm I could not help but wonder what the hell was going on. Who in their right minds gets their haircut that late at night? I questioned him on it several times, but he continued to banter on about it with distinct urgency. Taking one glance at his unkept mane was convincing enough in my mind to think he was actually serious. We walked around an area where I noticed flashing barber poles. Apparently, this is where he´d come for a variety of choices. Being a little wet behind the ears and completely naive and unaware of what these signs meant I joined him in the basement of one of these finer establishments. Down the rickety old stairs flashed a bright red light that was far too intense for my eyes to look at directly onwards. We entered a room and I suddenly realized this was no ordinary hairdresser.
To the right of me was three stalls made from likely large cardboard sheets covered with tacky wallpaper. I didn´t notice any clippers or shampoo. In front of me stood a middle aged Korean women, short but slim, typical of her cohort, clearly uncomfortable with aging gracefully, wearing far too much white powdered foundation and glossy red lipstick with dyed jet black hair and fake tattooed eyeliner. She flashed a phony greeting smile and her suddenly impeccable makeup cracked at the sides as I noticed the wrinkles of her face protruding from both sides of her lips in a circular manner in a way she was so desperately trying not to reveal. The lady appeared to be making gestures for me to go into one of the stalls. Using my limited vocabulary I said Annee oh, which meant no in Korean. Robert on the other hand had already found his favorite spot on the far right hand side. I kind of had a feeling of what was going on but was not quite sure. I was hoping my hunches were not gospel. The lady seeming to sense my difficulty with the situation handed me a banana. Not knowing what to do with it I placed it on the other side of the cushion. Moments later she disappeared under the curtains, just like the Wizard of Oz. Suddenly and most unfortunately I couldn´t help but notice Robert taking off his pants behind a screen that was no less revealing than a cheap old shower curtain worn beyond its years. I wanted to get up and leave immediately but realized I had no idea where I was and couldn´t quite remember the name of the hostel I had checked in only 40 some hours ago. Jet lagged and ready to crawl out of my skin I heard moaning noises coming from the stall. Robert appeared to be enjoying himself thoroughly. I quickly thought to myself that this was the kind of place a only a loser would come. Not only was the lady unattractive and middle aged but it appeared that she was doing nothing more than hand stimulation. Only a sexless man on a tight budget might come to a place like this no more than once or twice a month I gasped internally.
Suddenly, a noise so wretched penetrated my eardrums. It sounded like the kind of scream one would give if they were pinched far too hard in only sensitive places on the body that are not meant to be touched roughly. Having looked away from the ensuing spectacle for quite some time I suddenly turned my head towards the direction of the stalls. It appeared as though some kind of liquid substance was being poured onto his chest through the silhouette in the curtains, although I couldn´t quite make it out, yet, and I wasn´t exactly overly eager to find out either. Later on when Robert was finished being serviced he enthusiastically revealed it was some kind of hot wax penetrating his beastly chest. It´s too bad she didn´t do the world a favor and start shaving some of it off. Reality started to kick in as I heard the rain pour down and the thunder roar from the heavens outside. Here I was stuck in this seedy room with a pathetic guy I barely knew who was getting a handjob from a middle aged women while feeling totally dependant on him not knowing how to get home, forgetting the name of my hostel and not feeling confident enough to communicate in Korean to find my own taxi without getting completely lost. Anyhow, at that exact moment, feeling lower than somebody hitting rock bottom, I quickly turned to the banana that had been handed to me a few minutes ago. I peeled it and took a bite wondering HOW THE HECK did I ever end up in such a place only on my second day in this far away land which I was soon to call my home away from home.