Stranger in a strange land

College graduation was my chance to get away. South Korea was the place to run to. Now I’m a man with two homes.

Establishing that he did not really mature that much during his time in South Korea, writer Ben Garrido demonstrates the gesture <i>ddong-chim, </i>a Korean version of a goose.

Establishing that he did not really mature that much during his time in South Korea, writer Ben Garrido demonstrates the gesture ddong-chim, a Korean version of a goose.

I was standing at the airport in San Francisco when I uttered my first words on American soil in a long time.

More than a year earlier, I had left behind my family, my friends and my job in Reno because Chungdahm April Language Academy offered me work teaching English in Korea.

My cabbie, the recipient of my first words, was understandably confused.

“Sorry,” I said. “Please take me to the Greyhound bus stop.”

I took my seat in the back of the comically large Ford sedan. “Had Crown Victorias seemed so ridiculous before Korea?” I asked myself. “And what about these people? They look so butch, so ludicrously tough guy.” The cab pulled to a stop, and the driver asked me for $38, about four times what I’d grown accustomed to paying for cabs in Korea.

I got out and went inside the bus stop. The jet lag came at me in waves. I had to find a restroom. The friendly lady with green eyelashes and heavily greased hair pointed me in the right direction. I walked past homeless Vietnam veterans and gangsters with vacant stares, dirty jackets and missing teeth. I closely held my valuables and planned escape routes. “You should not be here with two suitcases, a laptop computer and an expensive looking button-down shirt,” I thought.

Filled with the experience of culture shock in my own native land, I ducked into the bathroom thinking I could sit in one of the stalls and get myself oriented. It was a good thought, but someone had taken a dump on the floor, and the excrement spread out through the bathroom like the world’s smelliest Gustav Klimt painting. I’d find a different stall.

I’m not being fair to San Francisco, of course. I didn’t have a car, and I was using public transportation, which, if I’m honest, is primarily used by weirdos and druggies in the United States. I was seeing the worst of the Bay Area, but none of that made the reunion any less intimidating. It wasn’t Daegu, Korea, anymore. Only a year away, and I’d become a stranger in my own country.

As I waited for my bus to arrive, I drank three cups of coffee and started reading Dante’s Inferno. I finished the first few cantos in which Dante loses his way and is compelled to cross into the alien lands of hell. That’s when the strangest realization of my adult life hit me: America didn’t feel as much like home as Korea did.

The view from the roof of Ben Garrido’s apartment in Daegu, South Korea.

Seoul asylum

It was my first time outside North America. It was the first time I’d gone farther east than Orlando, farther west than San Francisco, farther south than Tijuana or farther north than British Columbia. I had just crossed an ocean, and my passport was about to lose its virginity.

Incheon International Airport is designed to serve Seoul, the capital of South Korea and a metropolitan area of 24.5 million people. It’s really big. I don’t think I have ever gotten my luggage from baggage claim without assistance even in a small airport and, as such, Incheon threatened to permanently separate me from my clean underwear. Thankfully, an exceptionally tall, prepubescent-looking airport employee spoke enough English to get me my bags. From there, my new employers had commanded I get on the shuttle running from Incheon to downtown Seoul. I found it through a combination of dumb luck, trial and error. There were many signs in English, but I was too distracted by the Chinese, Korean and Japanese script written alongside to make any sense of them.

The bus was huge, brightly colored and trimmed with gray fake velvet. I grabbed a seat next to the window and got my first real look at the country whose children I would spend the next year educating. I saw mountains rolling off into the horizon, the Han River cutting its way to the ocean and an almost complete lack of suburbs. Cities begin in one place, wilderness abuts the city, and there are no single-family homes on one-eighth acre plots to ease the transition. I also noticed the most spectacularly ugly automobiles in the world. Google “Ssangyong” if you want to see that to which I refer.

The bus reached Seoul’s incredibly dense outskirts around 10 p.m. The horizon was no longer defined by mountains but by enormous apartment towers glowing a gentle green through their energy-saving, coated windows. It took another hour driving at normal speeds in light traffic to reach central Seoul. We arrived at the COEX bus station, and I caught the Chungdahm-affiliated taxi service to my hotel. I found my room without any problems, laid down for a quick rest and woke up 14 hours later.

Ben Garrido and his friend Andrew Merchant check out the sights in Gyoung Ju, the first capital city of Korea.

Teacher, teach me

Chungdahm trains all its future employees in one central Seoul office. To keep the operation going smoothly, the academy also rents several rooms at the very nice Coatel Motel year round. They usually have two trainees in each room. The Coatel features restaurants, spas, a mini-mart and lots of places for overwhelmed foreigners to gather and converse. That last feature would turn out to be most important for my fellow newbies and me.

When I woke the next day, I wandered down to the lobby and out onto the streets, where I immediately noticed two things. First, little old ladies walking home from church will not hesitate to run your ass down if you don’t move in time. Second, men on scooters use the sidewalks as passing lanes. Feeling a little like a refugee from the Frogger video game, I looked to a convenience store for both refuge and my first Korean meal.

I had decided before leaving that I would not shy away from new experiences. I would do as the Koreans did, and I would leave my Americanness in America. As such, I decided to only purchase things I didn’t recognize during my first week in Seoul. One of the bilingual Koreans in my training group, upon examining the wreckage, later told me that my first breakfast had consisted of kimbab (rice, meat and seaweed wrapped together), 40 proof rice wine, a strawberry health bar and a women’s drink designed to fight off menstrual cramps. No wonder the clerk had given me such a strange look.

That Monday I rose at 7 a.m. and had breakfast with some of the other trainees. Some were Canadians, one was South African, two were exceptionally annoying Irishmen, and about half came from the United States. None of us had the slightest clue what we were doing until the bilingual Korean trainees took pity on us and told us how to order breakfast, explained where to exchange our money for Korean won, and assured us that the bus to training wouldn’t arrive for another three hours.

That brought me to my first realization about the Korean national character: The people I met had indulgent attitudes toward the idiot foreigners who were doing everything the wrong way and generally making a mess. The native Koreans I dealt with could have cheated me out of my money a hundred different times, they could have told me to buzz off, and they should have yelled at me for screwing up their work. None of that happened even once.

The training program itself was nearly worthless. Mock teaching helped, going over the books helped, and watching videos of experienced teachers while they worked helped. Those things together unfortunately covered barely four hours in the 20 hours of classroom time. The rest we spent learning the intricacies of scheduling, the importance of never exceeding five minutes for warm-ups and how respectful the students would be.

Our instructors led us to believe that a large percentage of new arrivals would fail and then be evicted from the country. They convinced us that memorizing the schedule and the order of classroom components was of utmost importance, and they encouraged us to form study groups. This all became a source of annoyance when at the end of the week everyone, even the ones everybody knew would make awful teachers, passed the final tests. The only person I know of who failed was a girl who cried all the way through her mock teaching, and even she only had to retake the training course. So, to summarize, if you get a teaching gig in Korea, you should study hard, but you probably don’t have to.

At the conclusion of the week, I jumped on the comfortable and inexpensive 190 mph KTX bullet train and headed to the city I would call home, Daegu.

This 8-year-old, nicknamed Paul, was one of the writer’s students. He called himself “Monkeyboy.”

Ben Garrido becomes Benjamin Teacher

Before I went to Korea, I knew I liked children. I found them entertaining and interesting, and I could remember my own childhood when I spent time with munchkins. Then I became a teacher and discovered that I not only like children, I love the little monsters. It took less than a week before I started worrying about them. In a month I knew who had the crazy, demanding mothers, who didn’t sleep enough and who the others picked on. By the end of the year, I could tell when one of the students did well on his or her tests even before they told me. Not to say my friendships with the students were entirely positive experiences. For example, while getting hugged by a 6-year-old is cute, getting a high speed, running hug from a student whose forehead is exactly at testicle level hurts like hell.

Another surprise was learning what amazingly good senses of humor Korean 6- to 11-year-olds have. I learned this after the two-class, “teacher is new, be careful” grace period expired, and my kids started acting like children. I started taking on nicknames like Benjamonkey and bumjae-sunsangneem, which roughly translates into “professor of crime.” Several students were kind enough to introduce me to ddong-chim, which involves making a “handgun,” sneaking up behind the teacher and doing your best to sodomize him with your fingers. The first time that happened I could do nothing more than turn, face the little boy and look amazed. “Did you really just do that?”

Not that I did a whole lot to discourage such behavior. If a boy called me Benjamonkey, I would ask the class if they wanted to see his “girlfriend.” Invariably, the victim would yell “no no no no” while the rest of the class clapped and encouraged me. A portrait of Dennis Rodman in drag got reliable laughs, as did pictures of female bodybuilders. If a girl said “teacher is crazy,” I would play the MadTV parody of Shakira wherein the dancer smears herself with mud, slaps herself on the butt repeatedly and makes raspberries with her lips. “This is her favorite dance,” I would say. And I would also like to take credit here and now for introducing the wedgie to Korea.

This goofy approach to class seemed to work smoothly because the kids I taught were different from American children in two key ways. They work much harder than even I or my goody-two shoes, geek friends ever did in elementary school. It’s normal for a Korean 8-year-old to have 12 hours of class and homework every day and go to school six days a week. The other thing is that many of their teachers are massively boring parishioners at the church of memorization. Make the kids laugh and ask them to think creatively, then watch as your class changes from place-to-study-foreign-language to educational-happyland- of-amazingness.

Germs and nutjobs

A good rule of thumb for Korea is to assume that half of what you see will be very familiar and half will look like something invented by Martians. You can find multitudes of Martian-like behaviors by examining the things Koreans fear and the things they couldn’t care less about.

Koreans do not like infectious diseases in the same sense that Glenn Beck does not like Nancy Pelosi. When I search for a descriptor, violent panic most often comes to mind. Fear of mad cow disease was so intense, the ban on American beef only recently expired. I was asked somewhat regularly if anyone I knew in America had died in the scourge of mad cow. Swine flu, or “shinjong influenza” as the worrying mothers were apt to mention every 14 seconds, was even more horrifying than mad cow. This resulted in millions of people walking the streets of Daegu with cotton masks, the sort you’d expect to see used against the Andromeda strain. Of course, my friends were always astonished when I remarked that mad cow disease was about as likely to kill you as falling meteors, and that the dreaded swine flu had a fatality rate of between .01 and .03 percent.

However, they do not fear North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il even one-tenth as much as we do. Ask a Korean if he or she fears invasion or nuclear bombardment, and they will likely ask you from which country. Say North Korea and they will explain that the North is just making noise, like it always does. While my friends, family and family of friends were always sending us breathless letters and emails about the eminent doom from North Korea, my Korean friends usually didn’t know about the “international crisis” until either I or some other foreigner told them.

People are strange when you’re a stranger

For my year of teaching, I lived in Daegu, a city of about 2.5 million. I started out knowing exactly zero people and finished the year with more friends than I could make time to hang out with, which brings me to another observation about Korea. If you can’t make friends there, you either stink to high hell, look like a murderer or have a truly rancid personality.

The first friend I made was Gyeong-sok, a 28-year-old who was employed with Chungdahm. His job was helping foreigners settle in, and it turned out we both liked playing cards, so I taught him poker, and he taught me go-stop. This led me to become friends with his wife. Then the other foreigner in my office, Mike, invited me down for dinner. He mentioned his project of writing a novel, so we started a writer’s group, which attracted fellow writer Jake from two stories up in the apartment building. Jake introduced me to all his coworkers, among them my good friend Melissa, and to his Korean friends, whom I befriended. One of them was Hyo-jung. Hyo-jung became one of my best friends and of course introduced me into her social circle. Then I met Kim Yong-woo on the subway. He wanted to open a language academy and thought it would be good to practice on me. I agreed. He taught me Korean, and I helped him with his English. This connection led to several private tutoring lessons and acquaintances. Then I had weekly coffee with my Korean coworkers Min-sung, Andrew and Hae-yun. The friendliness grew so intense that after about two months, I had to start cutting people off.

That brings me to the ladies I encountered in Korea. Daegu seemed to have only two types. Most were modest, classically good girls who wanted marriage and children and a good education. Then there were the streetwalkers. Some worked in “massage parlors” and some strolled town looking for johns, and some made the rounds everyday “delivering coffee” to the businessmen. There were also establishments that combined karaoke and hookers and, I shit you not, barber shops that offered oral sex in addition to hair cuts.

Speaking of vice, Korea’s two most common liquors are soju and mugguli. They are both tasty, they are both 30-40 proof, and they both cost about the same as bottled water. To illustrate the potency and attainability of soju let me offer this anecdote: Before I left the United States, I had never experienced a hangover. By the time I returned, I’d worked my way up into the double digits. If you want to be an alcoholic but can’t afford it, Korea is the place to go.

All this stuff kept me busy. I regularly had barbecues on the roof, card-nights, norae-bang sessions (think karaoke but in a private room with disco balls on the ceiling), writer’s group meetings and hiking trips. And then of course I got hammered a couple (dozen) times, none of which, I can assure you, involved me applying jujitsu choke holds on my female friends’ frightened love interests.

You can go home again

Leaving San Francisco on the Greyhound bus, I slowly reoriented myself to America. The people who all drive cars to work and speak English, the fact that I had to tip at restaurants, the weirdness of handing merchants money with both hands. It was then I reflected on how, in one year, Korea had supplanted so much of the culture I spent my first 24 years immersed in. I looked out the window, went blank and ignored the smelly people talking loudly at the back of the bus.

“Dear Korea,” I thought. “Thank you for giving me freedom.” For that year, all the things expected of a young man in Nevada melted away. In that faraway land, the people expected me to be nothing except different from them, and with that, they offered me the freedom to make Ben Garrido into whomever I wanted. Perhaps that, even more than the friends and the students and the easy life, is why I felt like I had left my real home behind when I crossed east over Donner Summit.