Summer of '96 in Pusan

by Ben Bangs, Nov 11, 2002 | Destinations: Korea, S / Pusan

Imagine if you will being desperate to live and work in Asia for a year, but being 'different' in some way (not blond, blue eyed, 6'3'' and tanned to a crisp). Imagine trying to raise the money for an adventure like this with no job. This is the challenge which faced me in the late summer of 1995. Having been to Southeast Asia several times already, I considered myself an old hand. But could I perhaps manage more than just a vacation this time? Could I find WORK in the Far East? You know what's coming, I'm sure. I trawled the ads for English teacher prep places, choose one and spent the next month in San Francisco's Union Square while I learned how to teach the language I've grown up speaking. In the middle of my course, I got offered a job by another graduate of the same place from a few years before. Thrillingly enough, he didn't even mind that I had a visual handicap! Once I actually arrived in Bangkok however, suddenly the story changed. "Sue me" was what I got from the sponsor of my working visa, the American who had signed a contract with me after full disclosure. I spent until Christmas Day bouncing around between Thailand and Viet Nam, getting offered yet another job (this one in Sai Gon) I reluctantly had to walk away from because it didn't pay enough. That, and a certain Vietnamese consular official didn't believe in disabled folks any more than my friend in Bangkok had! Still determined to make a go of it, I was back in SF right after New Year's, where I used the training school's 'job file' (a looseleaf binder with English school's ads) to locate a place in Korea that needed me. This time I declined to mention my 'disability'. This didn't go over too well with the training school, which bodily kicked me off their premises (so much for lifelong support in the field!). These creeps had a 'working relationship' with the school in question that they didn't want to 'compromise' by offering them what they viewed as defective goods. On a more positive note, I can tell you this training center went out of business shortly thereafter. Now though, I found myself once more without a meal ticket to Asia. Indeed, I quickly found myself on the wrong end of the country, first with one parent, then another. By late March it began to look as if I might not get to Asia for years. I decided to investigate graduate school. My family gave me money to investigate a program in San Jose. They made no promises of any kind, and another school with active recruitment in Viet Nam expressly discouraged 'non-local' applicants. In short order, I took what I had left to the Korean consulate in S.F., then to a Chinatown travel agency. As California's Pacific coast slipped away I felt tangibly looser and less stressed -- even though I was flying halfway around the world 'on spec'. A few moments of doubt on arrival in Seuol were easily enough conquered with the old "I've come too far to quit now" rouse. I checked into South Korea's most downmarket accomodation: the imfamous Inn Daewon, a place only not-yet-employed ESL teachers frequent. Within two hours of tacking an improvised business card on the Daewon's corkboard I had a prospect. "Buy your own ticket to Pusan" it said, I'll meet you there. The prospect turned out to be a kid even younger than I was with a briefcase and a cellphone who took me around several schools on the subway. I spilled hot coffee on the stockinged legs of one director -- not the best interview technique -- but number three took me. I was to get a million won (about eight hundred US) a month. Like most schools, this one had rented an apartment for its teachers. So for the next two and a half months (May thru mid July) I found myself teaching English conversation to kids from the local junior college at the far end of the subway, in a part of Pusan called Hadan-dong. My teaching colleagues were an oddball mix of the serious professional, surfer dude, midlife crisis and a few Koreans entrusted with the lower level students to make sure they understood enough to remain interested (and paying for classes). The school was one of a bunch of unrelated shops in a nondescript office block across from the junior college -- a place specializing in technical eduation, from which the brightest went on to finish real degrees or get engenieering work. Shifts were split: seven in the morning till ten, then six till nine at night. During the daytime, when we weren't sound asleep in our hovel-cum-perk of employment, the local wharf, downtown shopping or the local Buddhist temple beckoned. One weekend I climbed the local mountain with a Korean couple. Sometimes the teachers from this particular "hogwon" would find themselves in a local middle school. The kids were rambunctious and didn't care much about English, but I got them to practice by promising basketball afterwards. A fun-loving bunch, I was sorriest of all to leave them. But when the time came, I had no choice. It happened like this. At the end of every month, nobody got paid unless and until we Western teachers formed a menacing huddle around the owner, who then reached into his picket and divied up what he had among us, which was never a million won apiece. The most anybody ever made was seven hundred thousand. Threats to strike made no difference; this guy had inherrited the school from his brother, and didn't care if it succeeded. When I put my foot down and demanded better pay or else, this creep decided on "or else". I was the last Western teacher to go. Indeed, I even gave him a second chance, returning a few days later to discuss the matter. A certain justice had caught up with our unwilling schoolmaster; he had lost all his Korean teachers too, and therefore all his students, and was now living in the uninhabitable habitation in which he had housed his teachers. I took what I'd saved of my earnings and flew to Viet Nam, then Hawaii. Not a bad deal, but not a year of working in Asia either. The best parts of this job were getting it right away, and the students -- all of whom (without exception) were warm, smart and eager to learn. Right here at home, you couldn't pay me enough to be at the office and ready to work by seven in the morning. But in Pusan it was a joy. I'll also treasure the memory of coming to class one evening and wading through a sea of riot police who'd taken over the building, but in no way interfered with classes. Or the times I used role play and pantomimne as teaching tools, or the day I had to physically restrain a shy middleschooler from dashing back to his seat, then took them outside as promised for basketball, only to hear their English suddenly improve dramatically. In the end, any situation is what you make it and what you are willing to take away from it. Pusan proved to me the dignity of meaningful work and the truth of the addage: "Good things come in small packages".