Thor's Korea Diary

The Coming

@5 September 2000
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The knock on the door came a little before 10 a.m. Professor CH wanted to introduce himself so that we could get down to business. This was a new culture and a new job so I had taken the precaution of wearing a white business shirt and suit trousers - a rare venture into formality  for me. The first impression was of a neat, relaxed man wearing glasses, in his mid-thirties. Had I slept well, he enquired. Hmm.

The night before I had arrived in Pusan, South Korea, on a journey that began by falling out of bed in an outer suburb of Sydney, Australia, around 4.30am in the dark. The flight time from Sydney to Seoul is 10 hours, 20 minutes; after, there's a 500 km hop to Pusan on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. The international flight had been delayed, then Asiana Airlines (Korea's second national carrier) left us for 8 hours without food. Their trick was to close all the plane window blinds and pretend that it was night. By the time I stumbled through the airport doors in Pusan around 9pm it had been a long day of suspended animation on a half-empty plane with scarcely a word spoken. Airport arrival concourses the world over are happy hunting grounds for hustlers who at best want to bundle you into an overpriced limo', or at worst hijack you into some sleazy deal. I brushed off the first couple of approaches, but as happens so often, began to feel less than worldly with two heavy suitcases, no local language and no clear idea of where to go next. The other passengers dispersed into the black night.

My supposed new employers had coded their job offer in a terse e-mail, signed nothing, and, it seemed, had not condescended to meet the new foreigner at the airport. There had been the helpful advice to get a cheaper "coloured taxi", not a black one. Signs in Korean script, hangul, stared back at me enigmatically. I had hoped someone could write "Sangsim College of Foreign Languages" in this gibberish for me, to give some taxi driver a fighting chance. Pusan was no village, it was a city of five million people, and for all I knew, the college could have been anywhere. The airport service desks were locked up for the night... Fortunately, one of the hustlers, a leathery, patient man, turned out not to be a hustler but some kind of taxi supervisor. In fragmented English he got the idea of "coloured taxi", and even understood "Sangsim". Quickly a beaming driver with white gloves ushered me into his silver cab, and we purred off on an unknown journey. Let's hope, I prayed, that he's half honest. The cab ride took longer than the flight from Seoul to Pusan, over an hour, in bumper to bumper traffic. Traffic gridlock was apparently a defining quality of Korean cities, and led to a deadly driving style: long periods of enforced hibernation breathing carbon monoxide, then a momentary break in the traffic, violent acceleration, and violent braking as the shoal of vehicles became once more a solid mass. The driver turned on his radio -- sports commentary sounds the same in all languages -- wound up the windows and slumped like any experienced couch potato. I watched the fare meter obsessively.

Whatever the special landmarks of Pusan may have been, they were lost in a haze of headlights, neon signs, looming concrete overpasses, and pools of darkness. Eventually it seemed that the serried shadows of buildings were thinning out, until the roadside was almost dark. We made a sharp right turn across a small river, then the taxi was nosing up steep narrow streets, crowded with small shops in a blaze of neon. Was this an entertainment district? No, there were no theaters or cinemas, or overweight bouncers with crewcuts lounging in club doorways. I was to learn later that Bansong Dong was a relatively new suburb, far in the mountainous northeast districts of the city. Though the bright lights conveyed a sense of bustle and prosperity, these small shops depended heavily on spending from students, and from the poor, working class people whom the government had boxed into massive high rise tower blocks on the mountainside. My destination sat brooding unlit above the town: a collection of teaching and administration blocks at the very head of a narrow valley, thickly walled with pine trees. Inside the gate, fifty meters above us on a precipitous slope, squatted a white, five story edifice. After some backing and turning, my driver delivered me triumphantly to its glass doors. The fare ticked in at 14,000 won, fairly reasonable considering the time we'd spent snarled in traffic.

Two giggly teenage girls in stretch jeans had watched my arrival. My tentative questions in English drew a blank response, but the magic name of Professor CH sent them scurrying inside for assistance. Presently a sallow young man came out to introduce himself in halting English. Apparently he was used to foreigners turning up unannounced in the middle of the night, for he wordlessly led me up five flights of stairs to the "Foreign Professor's Dormitory" and let me into a room. Traces of the last resident were still evident ( I was to learn the next day that he had been fired two weeks previously for chronic alcoholism). My host hastily flushed the toilet, disposed of some cigarette ash and reassured me that the hot water worked. I looked doubtfully at the bare mattress and gently enquired if a couple of sheets and a quilt could be hustled up . For a moment he seemed nonplused (... what, shouldn't international visitors bring their own sleeping bags like boy scouts ? ....), then agreed that something might be available. The sheets arrived ten minutes later. Alone at last, tired and rather hungry, I looked around this empty room in a strange country where nobody understood who I was, or what I was saying. So here was my new home.

"The Coming" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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