Letters from Korea

Sixteen years ago, I arrived in Seoul, South Korea to begin teaching English in a hogwan (after school institute). I recently found hard copies of the first two email I sent home describing my earliest experiences.

A lot has changed since then. Korea was my first experience living in a foreign country (I’d traveled a bit around Europe and the South Pacific, but S. Korea was my first experience living by myself in a foreign land.

Here’s what I captured of the experience:


Subject: Where the streets have no name

Hey all,

So I’m in Korea, possibly firmly entrenched for a year
or two, and there’s a lot to tell (so this is long).

I’m living in a city called Bundang (pronounced
poon-dong, slight emphasis on “dong”) about 20 km
south of Seoul (two mountain ridges south) and it is
beautiful in a very modern way.

The city is clean, and designed for a much higher
population density than it has. The major streets, the
only ones that have names, are 8 and 10 lanes wide,
making a grid of rectangles about 1 km x 0.5 km.
Instead of street names, these grids are numbered. My
apartment, for example, is 44-10. Only large or famous
buildings have names, and they are often used as
reference points for deliveries and for directions.
Somehow they managed to deliver mail here, but from
what other teachers have said, they don’t do it well
(except for bills, which arrive alright somehow).

These large residential blocks have their own wide
pedestrian concourses and green spaces. The blocks are
filled, for the most part, with high rise apartment
buildings — each block’s buildings painted a distinct
pattern. This painting makes it much easier to
navigate around the city on foot, as you simply have
to know the pattern of where you started and where you
want to end up.

There is very little crime here (or anywhere in Korea)
with the exception of break and enter, which is
apparently common. The lower floors of my building
have bars on the windows. There’s some problems with
alcohol abuse also, moreso than we’re used to seeing.

My apartment is small, but clean and modern. When I
moved in, the school (who found and are paying for the
apartment) had a number of additions waiting for me –
toilet paper, bottled water, new kitchen pots and
utensils among others. I had to wait almost a week for
my dresser and dining table to arrive, but that’s
fine. Nothing here happens fast.

Bundang is an affluent neighbourhood, a place where
families who are on their way up live. These are also
the people who are the most enamoured with all things
American. So, this means that I am continually
surrounded by many American icons. I live two blocks
from Pizza Hut in one direction, and two blocks from a
7/11 the other way, and there’s a Domino’s Pizza
around the corner from the 7/11. On the way to work I
pass a Subway, McDonald’s, Baskin Robbins, Paris
Baguette, Haagen-Daz and another 7/11.

Oh, and across from my school is a “Canadian Coffee
House” an imitation Tim Horton’s without the donuts.
Interestingly, the Koreans are crazy for
Italian-American food – with pizzerias and New
York-style Italian eateries dominating the landscape.
The Korean word for an Italian restaurant is “eatery”.
There’s a “Tex-Mex” restaurant near the school, one of
it’s specialty is Calzone. I have no idea if they
think that that’s Tex or Mex, but when I really crave
cheese or tomato sauce, that’s where i go (I’m

There is a major American presence in South Korea, as
both countries are still technically at war with North
Korea (in spite of the fact that there hasn’t been
combat in 50 years). We went to one of the inner
neighbourhoods of Seoul, Itaewan, and it was just
crawling with U.S. soldiers.

We have many American TV programs here. Law & Order,
CSI, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Survivor, Alias and
many American movies appear daily, usually with Korean
subtitles. Unfortunately there is very little news,
and until I get the internet in my apartment, I’ll
feel completely out of touch (I have discovered that
BBC World News does show here daily, but very early in
the morning).

The TV ads here are interesting. They do have regular
TV ads, but often commercial breaks become 10 minute
home shopping channel segments. What’s more
interesting are the ads on the American Armed Forces
Network. Many of these ads are about how to vote, and
while they don’t endorse any one candidate, they do
talk about how you have to make an effort to make a

I’ve only actually eaten Korean food a couple of
times, the first on a school luncheon. As much as I
tried it before I left, it is much spicier here. I
think the Korean school staff got worried when they
saw my face go red over the Kimchi, but now that they
know that I cook for myself (something that most
Koreans — and most teachers — do not do), they’re
less worried.

Grocery shopping is interesting. Every Korean who
passes you feels that they have the right to examine
the contents of your shopping cart. If you stop and
compare two products, by the time you move on, there
are three or four people behind you watching to see
which one you chose. It gets to be annoying at times.
In some stores, the staff will try to remove items
from your cart and replace them with others  (they do
this to Koreans as well as to foreigners, but it’s
still shocking the first time, especially since the
Korean shoppers passively allow this to happen. I just
walk away and pull my basket with me.).

Even within grocery stores, there are competitors
trying to get your attention. as all of the seafood is
fresh daily, there are (blood covered) butchers
walking around shouting out about what they have in
stock and trying to get you to buy from them. Even
though I don’t eat seafood, i did watch fascinated as
a butcher carved up a massive fish (possibly a tuna?
It was bigger than me) and sold various cuts.

Things that are hard to find would include chicken
(but not duck. I thought i was buying a roasted
chicken, [takgawgee], but I ended up buying a roasted
duck [awreegawgee]), vinegar, (real) teriyaki sauce,
bar-b-cue sauce, white bread (but not whole wheat or
peanut butter, which is everywhere), salt and vinegar
chips (but not sour cream or bar-b-cue), junior mints
(but not M&Ms – they’re everywhere too), or almost any
cheese except cheddar or kraft slices. I’ve heard
rumours of a store that sells goat cheese.

But then again, we hear a lot of rumours here. More on
that another time.


p.s. Even though I’ll miss the Run for the Cure this
year, I am doing the Seoul edition of the Terry Fox
run this Sunday.

2 —

Subject: Rumours of Glory

The thing about being here is that I feel like I’m out
of touch with the world. Slowly but surely I’m
changing that, but it is taking longer than I’d like.
I’ve discovered the International Herald Tribune
(published daily by the New York Times) which is very
informative. But you can’t buy it in Bundang, only
Seoul, and subscribing for home delivery is expensive
(about $75 per month). There’s no point in reading the
Korea English language papers unless you’re playing a
game of “find a real fact” as they appear to be rather
rare. the papers are no more than press release for
the government and larger corporations.

At some point I’ll get my own internet here (maybe
next week – I live in hope) and then maybe
I’ll feel like I can keep up on what’s going on around
me. In the mean time, I get sporadic access to the
internet, and tons of rumours of news from those
around me.

Some examples:

1) There was an explosion in North Korea last month.
We heard rumours about it for along time, then it
finally hit the news. It was a nuclear test – no it
wasn’t – yes it was – no it wasn’t. It was an accident
– it was on purpose. They blew up a mountain, They made
a hole for a dam. Who knows. Then there were photos,
and denials and somehow the British are involved in
explaining it all, but we still don’t know what it
was. Or even if this is something that we should be
worried about.

2) This past weekend was a holiday weekend here –
Chu-seock. On the US Armed Forces TV channel, there
were all these notices that a) US troops are to avoid
public transit and b) all US troops have a curfew – 9
p.m. I have no idea why, but it sounds like there’s
been a threat to their (and through association – my)
safety. I wish I knew for sure. the weekend passed
uneventfully, and the curfew has been lifted, so who

3) Apparently the Canadian embassy is sponsoring a
thanksgiving dinner next weekend in one of the larger
hotels in Seoul. Turkey! My favourite food, and you
can’t find it here (except as processed deli slices at
Subway). No one seems to have the exact details…
just rumours.

4) Kim Jong-il’s (possibly first or possibly only)
wife may or may not have died. He’s the leader of
North Korea and generally seen as an unstable wingnut.
If his wife has died, he might be more unstable. I’d
like to know these things.

Add onto all of this is the fact that every day we
have any number of military helicopters (Apaches)
flying over (usually in 2s and 3s) and you definitely
get the desire to keep yourself informed.

Of course, the students are too young to be really
news-oriented, although all the older kids know who
Bush is and dislike him (they call him “bushie”). But
you can’t ask them about news because they don’t
follow it.

But not everything is about the news.

A couple of us went hiking this past holiday weekend.
There are trails all around in the mountains, you just
need to find the access points. the trails themselves
are quite crowded. The mountain that we climbed was
344 metres tall, and tree covered the whole way
around. It had a well-worn trail. It was quite pretty
and relaxing.

I work directly with a “counsellor” who filters
parental feedback to me and passes on information
about the students to their parents. How old is this
counsellor? Well, that depends. She was born December
19, 1979 and as such, according to our ways is 24
going on 25. But that’s not how Koreans do it. The day
you are born, you are 1 year old. The following
January 1st, you become 2, and every January 1st you
gain a year in age no matter when your birthday is.
So, she was never less than one year old, and become
two years old thirteen days after she was born.
According to the Korean method, she is 26 going on 27.

The kids can be fun, although I don’t have a lot of
stories about them. With my junior class, i read a
story called “Simon and the Spy” as part of the book,
I taught my kids how to write coded messages (ROT 13
and a simple swapping of numbers for letters). After
finishing the book, each student who had written me a
coded message got a “certificate” from my spy school.
Three students refused to take it. I asked one of my
older classes what they thought of this and half of
them said they wouldn’t take something that said that
they had been studying spying.

So now with my seniors, I’ll often call one or another
of them a spy. It usually gets a laugh. They’ve caught
on and will sometimes call each other that when one
gives a wrong answer.

I had a bit of a laugh with that same class earlier in
the week. One of their stories had a bit about a
science experience where plants were exposed to
various types of music to see if it would impact their
growth. So we got talking about classical music. Many
of them study piano. I asked for a list of their
favourite composers. They mentioned most of the usual
ones – Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and one that I had
never heard of, “Poe.”

I finally had to get one of the students to write it
on the board, figuring it must be an oriental composer
I hadn’t heard of. So she got up and wrote it on the
board and sat back down and triumphantly said “Poe” –
On the board it said “B A C H”

As Radar O’Reilly once said on MASH, “Ah… Poe!”

Until next time,


Leave a Reply