Watching the Sunset of my 20th Year in Korea

Twenty years ago today when I arrived in Korea, the first ajeossi I encountered was one of the most awesome men I’d ever met. But the next ajeossi was my boss, who stole my female coworker’s underwear.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Thursday, May 11 2000, was Buddha’s Birthday—a national holiday. Which was a blessing, in hindsight. If I’d arrived any other weekday afternoon, it’s likely my new boss would have demanded I teach the evening shift. As it was, he had to be content with driving me straight to his hagwon from the airport, then lecturing me on minutiae about the textbooks—despite knowing full well I’d just spent the last 18 hours traveling, and that I had a terrible flu to boot. After putting up with about half an hour of this, even falling asleep at one point, it finally dawned on me that this was no simple cultural misunderstanding. He really was being that thoughtless, and had no intention of letting me shower and sleep in the apartment I’d be sharing with my coworkers first. So, I had to insist. That was when I found out I’d be teaching at 6:30AM the next day, rather than 8:30AM as I’d been told by my recruiter, and would only be getting six hours sleep a night for the next year.

My boss thought he was being reasonable. Maybe he was. Due to my recruiter’s incompetence, I’d arrived two weeks late. And it was my recruiter who’d lied to me about the horrendous split schedule, he insisted, not him.

So, when my boss broke into my apartment a few months later, and stole all my female coworker’s lingerie, he had a perfectly reasonable explanation for that too.

You see, a few days earlier a male coworker had wisely fled back to Utah upon receiving his first paycheck. (He still owes me 50,000 won, so let’s call him Alan.) My boss’s reaction was to use his key to the apartment to sneak in while my female coworker, her fiance, and I were sleeping in our bedrooms, go into Alan’s old bedroom, take all his belongings, then ransom them when Alan inevitably called from Salt Lake City to demand my boss send them over.

That Alan would have taken everything of value, and would not be all that heartbroken over a few tourist maps of Jinju, some odd socks left under the bed, and dirty ashtrays, never seemed to have occurred to him. Nor, that all the bras and panties hanging up to dry probably didn’t belong to Alan either, but rather to my female coworker taking advantage of the newly-vacated bedroom.

With great reluctance, the next morning my coworker’s fiance and I had to physically restrain her from punching our boss, and her underwear was rapidly returned to her. Genuinely confused as to why she couldn’t understand it had all been just a big misunderstanding though, let alone why she’d scream at him in front of the entire staff and students of the hagwon that she’d beat the shit out of him if he ever pulled anything like that again, the only remorse he could offer was in the form of a gift of a whole can of Pocari Sweat a few days later. Then, by asking her to teach Alan’s classes for free.

I’m surprised I lasted the whole year there, considering.*

Fortunately though, my boss wasn’t the first Korean person I’d met on my travels. That would be the very friendly ajeossi sitting next me on the plane. Who, correctly perceiving that I was completely freaking out over my first solo trip and move overseas, warmly welcomed me to Korea, told me how delighted he was I’d chosen to teach in his country, and then gave me several warm, affectionate, lingering pats on my inner thigh to make sure I knew it. The first time I’d been touched there by a man, I quickly realized, since my father had dressed me as a child.

Did I mention the plane hadn’t even taken off yet?

Again fortunately though, I’d already read that Korean men were much more physically affectionate than New Zealand men. I’d also just happened to have spent the last 18 months living with stereotypically, flamboyantly gay sex workers, who’d all been convinced I was also gay really, and who constantly vied with each other to prove it (let’s just say my boss’s break-in wasn’t the first time I’d woken up to find underwear had gone missing). So, truthfully, I didn’t need to think twice about giving him the benefit of the doubt. And, sure enough, he gave no other indication that it was meant as anything other than genuine friendliness. Later, at Gimpo airport (no Incheon back then), instead of going home to his family he spent well over an hour of his time ensuring my zombie-like self got on my connecting flight to Jinju first.

I really regret now not holding on to his business card.

But it would be an exaggeration to say that my experience of meeting him would inevitably lead to this blog 8 years later. I already knew there were healthier alternatives to New Zealand’s (then?) homophobic, toxic masculinity—that was precisely why I was leaving. Still, it’s a nice story I like to pretend that did, which always gets laughs from students as I use it to break the ice at the beginning of the semester.

The one about my hagwon boss though, which is just too surreal to be made up? I wisely reserve that one until the end of the semester, when we all know each other a bit better.

Maybe one day, one of those same students will then feel comfortable enough with me to suggest that my current university photo above, taken for my recruiter in April 2000, is a little out of date? ;)

*Update: Perhaps I should add that it’s only so easy to laugh now, because the break-in was only the latest and most egregious in a series of equally bizarre displays of behavior by my boss. Also, because his shortness and waif-like physique meant that, despite everything, it was still very difficult for any of us find him physically threatening (my female coworker was much taller than me).

But of course, people coming into your home while you’re sleeping is no joke, no matter who they are. And unfortunately, even if the same thing happened to a young teacher today, the particulars of Korea’s teaching visa, which ties you to your employer, mean there’d be still very little they could realistically do about it. Specifically, if we’d quit our jobs, even with the required month’s notice, then our visas would have been instantly revoked and we would have been forced to leave the country, not being able to work in Korea again until the period of our original contract had expired. And perhaps not even then, considering how often such “uncooperative” teachers got flagged by immigration.

So, we all stayed. But actually things improved a great deal from then on, because we’d well and truly burned our bridges with our boss through everything said and done that morning. But that’s a story for the comments section!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

2 thoughts on “Watching the Sunset of my 20th Year in Korea

    1. Thanks for reading. I think things have changed for the better, mainly because the process of applying for jobs has become much more formalized, and because absolutely everyone uses the internet now, so there’s so much information available about teaching English in Korea before you come, and resources, groups etc. to turn to for advice when something bad does happen.

      Specifically, the process of applying became more formalized because of the “EnglishSpectrum Gate” incident in 2005 or 2006, after which foreigners applying to be English teachers in Korea needed to undergo criminal background and medical checks (previously, just having a degree was sufficient). It made the process of applying much longer–about 6 weeks on average–and more of a financial and time commitment for both teacher and hagwon owner hiring them, meaning teachers were generally much more clued-up about what they were getting into, and in turn that it was much harder for shady hagwon owners to retain teachers or find replacements if they left.

      My wife was a recruiter for 10+ years actually, and it’s from her I learned that the recruiter has to return their placement fee if the teacher left within the first 3 months. So from 2006-ish, recruiters had every incentive to avoid problem hagwon owners, and to only place teachers who they thought could actually handle living in a foreign country too.

      That’s not to say many hagwon owners aren’t still constantly taking advantage of and scamming of their (usually) young, naive, non-Korean speaking foreign teachers, and a big factor in that is that the teaching visa is still tied to the hagwon (i.e., if you quit your job because of bad conditions etc. you usually have to leave Korea before getting another job). But when something bad does happen, it’s easy to get lots of advice and phone numbers etc. if you join ESL groups on Facebook and elsewhere. Whereas my coworkers and I didn’t even have computers let alone smart phones in 2000, and so felt very much on our own.

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