Editor’s Note: This is part one of several of a self-reflection from a well-known expat from in and around the HBC hood. Due to the honest and perhaps incriminating events in this reflection and the 420- friendly ones in the parts to follow he is sticking with his code name: HBCTravis
This last January was a cold one in Korea. The local drinking hole, the HBC bar was in its death throes, often times staying open for days on end. Kenny and Mikey were running the bar like a couple of crazed madmen, a couple of proud captains going down with their ship. Most of the local drunks were on vacation and those that stayed drank enough for those that had gone. We were all full of piss and vinegar. I was poor, drunk, and content lounging about in the melancholic winter days. The whole neighborhood seemed to be hardly working and hardly caring. Shops and bars would open and close intermittently for days at a time. Local foreigners would hibernate for weeks on end and then come out and drink themselves silly. We were thirsty for something different. The weather was cold and no one wanted to be where they were in life, poor, drunk, and in Korea during the holidays. The whole winter in HBC drifted by in this lackadaisical way, with no one going but no one wanting to stay.
The money was coming in, but I didn’t really care about it. I was spending it as fast as I was getting it anyway. I had managed to convince a Christian hagwon that I would be a suitable teacher for their kindergarten and after school program. The deal was 18 hours of teaching per week for around 2 million won a month with no benefits. As I didn’t have a proper working visa, the school agreed to hire me illegally. “How Christian of them.” I thought as I started my first day of work. I had been doing this job for a year, as devout an agnostic as ever. I was teaching the kids about Jesus and English. There wasn’t much too it. The curriculum was easy and the kids seemed to enjoy the lessons.
The school required all teachers to attend Monday prayer services. The prayer services always went well with my Monday hangovers. The service consisted of a bunch of Christian fanatics dancing around and singing about Jesus. I almost felt embarrassed for them. They would come dancing up to me, try to bless me and put the spirit of the Lord into me. I was usually about two burps away from spilling last night’s drinks on them. I always wondered if they could smell booze on me. No one ever commented, but I made it a habit to try and chew gum on Mondays. The whole scene with them dancing and singing every Monday was surreal. The Korean teachers would make those little shits pray. The pastor who would visit the school for those Monday prayer meetings was the best. He would start off his sermons real slow and then get all revved up into this manic frenzy. He would start yammering in undecipherable low tones under his breath. Once in awhile, the more devout of the Korean teachers would burst into tears when the pastor prayed. The whole scene was an unsettling way to start the week. A teacher from New Zealand quit after witnessing the mayhem just once.
The ‘money woman’ for the Christian hagwon gig was a local ajumma from the neighborhood. She was in her 40s and in love with her dog. Her dog was fifteen or so and going on dead. One time she wheeled the beast into a bar in a baby carriage. The ‘money woman’ would get all drunk and riled up and pull all kinds of crazy stunts. One night I witnessed her do a double smash on two parked cars while attempting to parallel park her car. She called me the next day and said,
“The strange foreigner crash my car last night when he try to park for me.”, not knowing that I had witnessed the accident from a distance.
She was no longer welcome in the local gentleman’s club because she would go bonkers after having just a few drinks. She was constantly late with the cash. We had several knockdown, drag em out shouting matches about pay, with me threatening to expose her as a sham to the hagwon. Eventually, the money was always paid. The Christian hagwon never had any idea about this madwoman. As far as they knew ‘money woman’ was a kind Christian spirit who organized their English teachers for them.
A friend once asked, “Don’t you need a visa to get an apartment in Korea.” “Apparently not,” I replied. Apparently not. I had gone from a legal, “on the radar” English teacher to being a 2010 tourist, teaching illegally over the course of a year or so. A year prior there had been an immigration scare when applying for a new visa and it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to go the legal route without a trip back to the United States. It was easier this way for me anyway. There would be no more messy paper work. No more background checks. No more invasive health checks. I was through with all that. I was doing visa runs every three months. I was playing the game. All the travel was costing me a fortune. All the coming and going was taking its toll on my nerves and finances. There was always another flight to be booked or a ferry ride to Japan to be scheduled. It was a frantic lifestyle. Immigration was always in the back of my mind.
My roommate and I were living above a popular bar on the main drag of HBC. The roommate was an old high school friend. We were always up there in this “hobbit house” as our friends referred to it, drunkenly bitching at each other until late in the evening. We were tolerant of each other, but disagreed about the principles of life. My roommate was a true ESL cowboy. He would bring these crazy girls back to our apartment from time to time. One of the women jumped on my back while I was sleeping and asked my roommate,
“Do you have a knife? I want to kill him. He look like the bad boy.”
My roommate would sit up there in our apartment and rail against Korean society. He hated Korea, Koreans, and things Korean. He would fight with taxi drivers over routes and fare differences. He was once arrested and forced to pay 800,000 won (700 $) to a store owner whose store he smashed apart during an altercation. He was a loose cannon. He had been fired from several jobs during his time in Korea, but always managed to have steady work. He was good with money and had saved nearly $40,000 during his time here. He was a bull in a china shop. He loved to hate Korea and couldn’t get enough of the place at the same time. He was addicted to the scene.
Our apartment was the smallest piece of shit you could rent in Korea for less than 400 bucks. The place was shaped like the top of a pyramid, and to shower you had to sit on a small stool and look at yourself in the mirror like a fucking imbecile. My roommate’s ceiling was so low that he was unable to stand up in his room. He looked like a caged gorilla when he was in his man cave. The place was an absurd death trap. It was always trashed with yesterday’s parties and a small mountain of garbage had managed to collect outside over the course of the winter. It was perfect for the time and place we were in our lives.
We were two illegal immigrants waiting to be busted and deported from Korea. Two grown men sharing a slop job apartment above one of the busiest bars in HBC. Two yankees living on the fringes of Korean society. I felt that it was just a matter of time before ‘immi’ came a’ knockin’. “This wasn’t how I pictured it,” I would think to myself, as I sat stooped over, staring at myself in the mirror during my morning showers.
“Where would I go on my next visa run? How could ‘immi’ not be on to me? I had gone rogue almost a year ago now. They must know the score. Or maybe they do and don’t care? I know many people who are doing this.” These were the topics of conversation amongst ESL trashbags in Seoul during that winter. We would sit around, drinking, smoking, and worrying openly about ‘immi’ with each other. Someone always knew so and so who had been busted, but no one had direct personal experience of Korean immi’s wrath on themselves. The whole thing seemed a bit ridiculous. You would sometimes hear rumors of an ‘immi’ raid in HBC where they would nab a van load of Filipino’s or Nigerians going about and minding their own business. When would it be our turn? I would sit there and imagine that van rocking up to the HBC Bar and grabbing us all. What a crazy gong show that would be. That would be the end to our sojourn in Korea. We were all living on borrowed time.
I had spent six long years in the factories of the Korean ESL industry. I had worked in hagwons, public schools, for profit public after school programs, universities, voice acting gigs, private lessons with Koreans from all walks of life, winter camps, Saturday morning camps, Internet study groups, morning corporate classes, and kindergartens. You name it and I had taught it while I was in Korea. I had done both legal and illegal work and I had played the role of a clown with a smile on my face. I had been handed envelopes of cash by smiling pot bellied adjussis. The jobs and money had been consistent over the years. There was always work to be had.
I was getting fat off the tit of mother Korea and the benefits of being a native English speaker. This was how it went for 6 years. The money was always there. All you had to do was show up, smile, and make a half hearted attempt at teaching and you had it made. It was easy money and easy living. After six years I was still amazed that they were paying us handsomely to do something that we were born doing, no special skills required aside from speaking. It all seemed too easy and unearned. I was making more than enough cash to live comfortably, my belly was full, there were women to keep me warm, and the drinks were flowing.
I had done my time in the dive bars that populate the “foreign” areas of Seoul. I went and saw the indie gigs, with the too cool for school hipsters. I hammered down with older expats, who would reminisce about days gone by and lives wasted in the ROK. I had strange dates with awkward Korean women that I had met on the internet. I listened to tales of the boom and bust of the Korean economy from adjussis who went bankrupt during the late 90s. I had heard the war stories of the older generation. I had been called out in the subway for being a “Yankeenom.” They remembered the war; oh did they remember it sometimes. I had stumbled drunkenly around the streets of Seoul, with other lost souls, looking for something which was never found or realized by any of us. I had served my time here and come of age.
All the debauchery had taken its toll on me after six years. Those late nights of linger were beginning to show in my eyes. I was zoning out on the long subway and bus rides across Seoul. I was thinking constantly about the never ending mountains, valleys, and rice fields that make up the Korean peninsula. I was dreaming of about what my grandfather must have been thinking of when he was fighting and killing in Korea during the 1950s. “What a generation does,” I would think. “He killed them and I teach them.” I was dreaming of all those faces I had seen. I was dreaming of all those people taken by the war, all those folks up North, the friends, the ex girlfriends, the HBC stay drunks, the GI’s, the beautiful Korean girls, the drunken locals, the whores, the faces of children I taught, of old grandmothers and grandfathers just riding the subway around the outer limits of Seoul, the homeless men decamped in underpasses around City Hall. All the faces of those faces I had seen, all the crazed humanity that came my way while in Korea. I would ride around Seoul, reconciling old ghosts, deeds done wrong, and try to understand what exactly had happened to me during the last six years.
“Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
It’s a Henry Miller quote and I was giving up all those old ghosts and getting ready to move on. I was ready to get off the bus if it would just slow down and let me jump off.
End of part 1