Remember how I said, like, yesterday that I was going to be setting up a new author blog? Well, I got around to that a little sooner than I had anticipated. To those of you who are subscribing to Sean Chandler in Korea, thank you so much. I do not plan to shut down this blog, but I will be doing the bulk of my blogging over at my new blog “Sean Chandler is Naked…And also Writing” (working title). Yeah, I’m kind of running with the whole “Naked in Korea” thing. It’s funny and tongue in cheek and, most importantly, different. You can find me here:
This is just a test-run, for now. I’m not even completely sure I’ll stay at Tumblr unless the feedback I get is mostly positive. I’ve been happy with my success at Sean Chandler in Korea. I just haven’t been happy with WordPress’ decision to make me pay to customize everything. Also, seeing as how I’m not professional blogger, Tumblr is just more colorful and fun, which is great for me. Head over there and feel free to let me know what you think.
Another week, another update on the blog I abandoned for almost a full year.
I am still planning to transfer this entire blog to my new author blog, as soon as I decide exactly what I’m going to call it. That will be a time-consuming process, so basically I’m just too lazy to get cracking on it. The good news is that once I do finally have that blog up and running, I’m hoping to consolidate all of my writings there, so “The Notice”, “Naked in Korea”, and all of my future books will be there in one place with excerpts, updates, and reviews. I’ll also update it from time to time with more random stuff like my Gotye zombie cover which garnered quite a few hits.
I’m currently blazing through the sci-fi story I’ve been drafting for the last few months. I have almost 20,000 words in the bag on it and I’ve only been writing for a little over a week on that. If I had any initiative at all, I’d probably be done with it by the end of May but as busy as I am with other stuff, I think that book will land on Amazon in some capacity by August. Still, I am very, very excited about the story. Some will cry that I’m ripping off “Hunger Games”, but I will have a blog post listing 20 reasons why I’m not.
#1: I’ve never ever read the damn thing. All I know for certain is my book has little in common with the movie.
My dystopian novel is a future apocalyptic scenario…about soccer. Dystopian books can be so cliche and contrived in our society, but I don’t know of one that deals with the game of soccer. I’ve got a good story outlined with decent characters and, of course, unexpected turns. I’m amped for people to read it. I can already say I’ve never had so much fun writing a book and that has made the process easier. The tentative title is “The Last Cup” (as in World Cup), but that could change.
I thought this up a few minutes ago and wanted somewhere to post this in public. I don’t usually post this sort of stuff on my blog, but I thought it was funny and thought a few people might enjoy it. Weird Al Yankovic, if you want to use this, you are more than welcome to it. I’ll sue anyone else who tries to make this into a song without giving me credit for the lyrics. That said, enjoy!
“Some Zombie That I Used to Know”
Now and then I think of when you weren’t infected,
When you were dead but then you opened up your eyes.
I told myself that you’d be kind to me,
You were still my friend so far as I could see,
But then you groaned and it’s a sound I still remember.
You can get addicted to a certain kind of organ.
Said you were hungry for some brains…always some brains.
So when I found your hands around my head
I started wishing you had just stayed dead
And I’ll admit I started thinking “Yep, he’s a zombie.”
But you didn’t have to gut me out.
Make out like you wouldn’t eat me and then bit my shoulder.
And I don’t even bleed that much, but
You started with my kidneys and it feels so rough.
No you didn’t have to start so low.
Had your friends devour my legs
Because they shared your hunger.
Guess that I just ran too slow,
Now you’re just a zombie that I used to know.
Now and then I think of all the times you chewed my liver…
But had me believing it was always supper that I was.
Now you don’t want to eat my brain.
Said you’d never cause me pain.
You said that you could let it go
and I wouldn’t catch you gnawing on somebody that you used to knoooowwwww…
But you didn’t have to gut me out.
Make out like you wouldn’t eat me and then bit my shoulder.
And I don’t even bleed that much, but
You started with my kidneys and it feels so rough.
No you didn’t have to start so low.
Had your friends devour my legs
Because they shared your hunger.
Guess that I just ran too slow,
Now you’re just a zombie that I used to know.
Now you’re just a zombie that I used to know.
Some zomBEEEEE…(that I used to know)
Now you’re just a zombie that I used to know.
Just an update, everyone. Thanks for keeping up. Right now I am anticipating a mid-May Kindle release for my upcoming book “Naked in Korea”. Just finished up the first round of edits this afternoon and now I need a fresh pair of eyes to give it a good go over. Also, I’ve started reading the “Game of Thrones” saga and it has obliterated my productivity completely. Like, if we want to stop the violence in Syria, we just need to airdrop thousands of copies of Game of Thrones and I guarantee you that everything in that country will stop tomorrow. Make it happen, Congress.
I’m also EXTREMELY excited about the dystopian/sci-fi novel I’m working on right now. Imagine “Hunger Games” meets The World Cup and that’ll give you an idea. I promise it’s going to be better than it sounds. Trust me, nobody rolls their eyes at “dystopian futures” these days more than I do, but I literally can’t wait to give you a taste of the concepts I’m crunching. Hopefully, that one will find a mainstream release. As eager as I am, I really think I’ll have a version of it ready before summer is up.
In the interim, here is another taste of “Naked in Korea” for you to enjoy. Feel free to let me know your thoughts.
Chapter Twenty: “Golf” and Other Four-Letter Words
“Naked in Korea” Soundtrack: Track #20– “V.V.I.P.” by Seung Ri
Korean Film Recommendation: “The Chaser” (2008)
June and July of 2011 were two of my easiest months in Korea, primarily because Mr. Lee seemed to be constantly looking for ways to keep me busy. Knowing that I was near the end of my year in Korea and wanting to make sure that I got to see as much of his country as possible, he truly outdid himself during the sweltering months of summer. We spent an afternoon at the Korean Folk Village in Yongin , where he and Roy served as my personal tour guides in a mock community made to resemble the ancient villages of Korea’s great dynasties. We spent an afternoon playing soccer and choku (a local game combining volleyball and soccer) on a military base with local soldiers. I even had the opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee by a gorgeous lake atop one of the nearer mountains in a house that I was told had formerly been one of Kim Il Sung’s summer homes (Kim Il Sung was North Korea’s first president and Kim Jong Il’s father).
One of my favorite summer events involved Mr. Lee inviting me to go “fishing” one afternoon. Never learning from my other experiences, I assumed this would be a standard fun-filled day of rod & reel fishing out of a nearby lake. Of course, fishing in Korea was anything but fishing in the U.S. When we arrived at a relatively mellow river outside of town, Mr. Lee and I promptly stripped down to our underwear and waded out into the river with plastic traps. Then, following his lead, I swam to the bottom of the river (only ten or so feet at its deepest point) and used stones along the bottom to pin down the traps. The fish we caught were meager and slimy, but Mr. Lee paid me back by roasting ribs on a makeshift grill he had fashioned along the bank nearest his car. It was a scrumptious, if unorthodox, way to kill a blistering afternoon.
And, indeed, the weeks were melting away from the heat. It was so hot, in fact, that one afternoon while I was waiting for the bus, an elderly woman came up to me and grabbed my Gatorade bottle right out of my hand and drained it in front of my dumbfounded gaze. That actually happened. Then she looked me square in the eye and tossed the empty bottle on the ground…right in front of a trash can, as if knowing beforehand that my liberal environmentalist sensibilities wouldn’t allow me to let the bottle just sit there. Basically, what I’m saying is that this ninety-year-old lady stole my Gatorade and then made me pick up after her. To this day, that moment remains the least amount of damns I have ever seen given by a human being.
Wait, where was I? Oh, right. Anyway, my ticket back to the United States was already booked and soon I would be heading back to my homeland. Everything seemed to be winding down for me. I was nearly convinced that Korea had no more oddball events to throw at me.
Then, sometime around the middle to latter part of June, my Korean father revealed to me that I would help him bring mini golf to our humble, little town of Ildong. Sounds like fun, right? Well, what ensued was one of the most prolonged, frustrating affairs of my entire time in that country—a long lesson in misunderstanding and good intentions that will forever be remembered as the month I spent unwittingly trying to grasp Korean-style business.
I know I have already spent at least two chapters emphasizing the fact that Mr. Lee was a hiking enthusiast, but golf was his second biggest passion. Even in his crowded stationary store, it was impossible to miss the impressive shelf of golf trophies that were always on display right over his head while he sat at his counter. He even had his own personal driving net that he had set up on the roof of his apartment building where I went to practice my own swing once or twice. Mr. Lee was even able to nab us tickets to the Korean Women’s Professional Golf Championship that was to take place at the nearby golf course in Ildong, which was rated as one of the country’s finest courses.
You read that correctly. Unbeknownst to me for most of my time in South Korea, my little Podunk town in Pocheon was home to one of the ten highest ranked golf courses in the whole country and was about to be home to the women’s national championship. No one was more surprised than I was. What I also didn’t realize until about that time was that one of the largest resorts in the country was also being constructed on the outskirts of town, in association with that renowned golf course. For now, Ildong was a somewhat isolated community in the mountains known only for its military bases and the occasional golf tournament, but soon it would be a haven for throngs of Korean tourists. I heard there were even plans for a top-tier skiing facility.
All of which was scheduled to open the year after I would leave Ildong. Figures, right?
Anyway, Mr. Lee was in fairly high standing with the golf course and resort, being a prominent local business owner, golf aficionado, and all-around good-natured guy. He was on a first name basis with the owner of the golf course, teed off there on occasion himself, and was even able to negotiate free lessons for Roy, who, of course, hated golf like everything else. So, when the owners of Ildong Lakes Golf Course and the representatives of one of Korea’s foremost noodle companies decided they wanted to bring cheesy-themed American putt putt to South Korea, Mr. Lee and his trusty Caucasian sidekick were on the job.
Of course, I was eager to help Mr. Lee but also very reluctant about the whole thing. I wasn’t a businessman. Okay, so I had a few economics and business courses in college, but I was about the last person who should have been responsible for negotiating a deal to bring a high-end mini golf course to Ildong, of all places. I was humbled and even kind of touched that Mr. Lee had enough confidence in me to volunteer me for the job, but I was baffled that these prominent businessmen actually seemed content to involve me in the project. Indeed, my American friend Paul, who had recently moved to Ildong as an elementary school English teacher, and I, seemed to have been made their primary consultants before we had even shaken hands for the first time.
Our first dabble in this cultural fiasco came when I was spontaneously invited to lunch one day by Mr. Lee, who had asked my school if he could borrow me for a couple of hours. I was happy to escape work on a slow day, so I hopped into the car with Roy and his father and we picked up Paul at his school before heading off into the mountains. Along the way, Mr. Lee did his best to explain that he had some friends he wanted Paul and I to meet and asked if we would be willing to hear their plans about a business venture. We knew it had something to do with golf, but Roy’s English wasn’t quite good enough to deeply explain the intricacies of such a convoluted plan.
I assumed we were just going to have to shake some hands and smile a lot—maybe drink some soju and show off our chopsticks skills. Usually when Mr. Lee invited me to meet a friend or colleague of his, this was how it worked, and I was a pro at this sort of interaction. I was just his handsome, young foreigner and, for the small price of just sitting there being polite and charming, he would buy me lunch or dinner. It was a relationship that worked. With certainty, I felt a bit like a trained monkey wearing suspenders and smoking a cigar, but we trusted each other, and—like I said—FREE MEAL!
But this time was different. From the moment we walked in and I spotted the two well-dressed businessmen waiting at the table for us, with several manila folders and carefully sorted documents stacked up neatly between them, I knew this was something more serious. Following Mr. Lee’s cues in introducing myself to them, I took my seat at the table and began to wonder just what I had gotten myself into this time.
Although I could barely follow the conversation—I was too distracted by the fact that, for the first time in eleven months, the waiter at this restaurant had given me a fork instead of chopsticks (I was the only one to whom he gave a fork, mind you)—they conveyed their general desire to build an elaborate miniature golf course in Ildong. It seemed easy enough. These gentlemen clearly had money and they looked capable of spending it. I couldn’t quite understand why they needed me.
Well, it turned out that they had their hearts set on a specific golf course that they had stumbled upon in Florida. How exactly they had found it was beyond me. The golf course had an “African Safari” theme and, of course, tons of corny sculptures and animatronics, but it looked like any other nice putt-putt course I had ever seen in the United States. What I quickly realized, though, was that these two businessmen had never seen a real putt-putt golf course in their lives, and as far as they knew, this place in Florida was the only one like it that existed anywhere in the world.
But the problem was not that these kind entrepreneurs wanted a course like this one in Orlando. The problem was that they wanted that specific course in Korea, and I was going to help them do it.
Now, trying to explain to these enthusiastic Korean businessmen (who were buying me lunch) that they couldn’t have this particular mini golf park photocopied and dropped in the middle of Ildong was like trying to tell a group of orphans that there was no Santa Claus. Actually, I take that back. They were so eager to get to work on what they suspected to be a goldmine waiting to happen, that trying to explain to them what I considered to be the enormous complexities behind this process felt like telling them there was a Santa Claus, but that I had killed him. All these men knew is that they had they money, they had the resources, and they wanted this one putt-putt park in Florida to come to Ildong.
It hardly seemed to matter to them that there were dozens of international mini golf course designers who probably could have been baited to build their course instead. It didn’t even seem clear to me why this group in the middle of Korea had decided that they had to have a “safari-themed” mini golf course when literally endless possibilities existed. I tried to explain that, for the right price, they could have had a “Kimchi-Themed” putt-putt course if they wanted, or even something devoted to K-Pop. But they were fixated on this putt-putt course in Florida and only this putt-putt course and when it came to these sorts of negotiations, I was beginning to think that Koreans were about as flexible as bamboo.
Not much was accomplished during that first meeting, for obvious reasons. Although noble in their intentions, the two businessmen with whom we spoke simply had no idea how to properly go about this process. They expected a group from Florida to come and build the damn thing without even taking into account the fact that neither of them spoke a word of English. When the two men asked Paul and I to have a look at the “important documents” they had brought along in the aforementioned manila folders, we discovered nothing but a completely useless putt-putt article and a construction proposal for some sort of handicapped elevator at one of the Florida franchises (I could not make this up). Since neither of the men spoke English, they had simply printed out everything they could find related to the golf course in question and assumed that everything they printed was relevant and important.
Paul and I could only laugh about the absurdity of the whole project. While we both agreed that a miniature golf course would probably be pretty popular in Korea, we could not wrap our minds around the way this business group was going about building one. I mean, for all intents and purposes, the head translator for the whole project was Roy—an apathetic 13-year-old who was gifted in English but possessed almost none of the necessary vocabulary for this sort of transaction. We would ask the businessmen a question about contractors, funding, landscaping, resources, etc. and Roy would have no choice but to look up the words on his phone dictionary—something I could just as easily have done myself.
Of course, we didn’t blame Roy. He wasn’t supposed to know those words! Roy knew how to talk about music, order food at restaurants, and converse about things that mattered to middle school students—not how to seal the deal on a golf course contract! Naturally, every time we tried to bring this matter up to the other adults overseeing the potential project worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, we were completely dismissed.
A real translator? But that would cost money!
Unfortunately, this whole ridiculous affair soon became one of the few real cultural skirmishes I encountered in Korea—which was bound to happen, I suppose, in hindsight. In the beginning, I was willing to do anything I could to help advance the project, including calling the particular golf course in Florida to see if there was any possibility of them coming to South Korea to recreate one of their parks. That phone call was and continues to be the most awkward of my entire life, as I got the distinct feeling that the secretary with whom I spoke was immediately convinced she was being pranked or scammed. I might as well have been a Nigerian prince.
But as time went on, I admittedly began blowing the project off because of what I considered to be a laughably unrealistic business strategy and, while I’m not saying it wasn’t, I soon realized that my increasingly flippant demeanor was starting to drive a wedge between myself and my best friend on the entire Asian continent. Whether I liked it or not, Mr. Lee seemed to perceive me as being the difficult one. He and his colleagues simply could not understand why no amount of money would bring them the golf course they wanted (which just happened to be the first and only one they had even bothered to look at). I knew that in order to save face, I would have to come up with either a viable alternative for them or flee to Thailand.
As you can probably guess, I did a little bit of both.
For my summer vacation, I did everything I could to help out with the doomed mini golf project, while also enjoying myself with what little time I had left in Korea. For several weeks, I did more research on the intricacies of putt-putt course design than I ever could have imagined I would do during my time on this planet. Paul made several more phone calls on Mr. Lee’s behalf to companies in the United States and I looked up a variety of international contractors who specialized in this sort of thing and printed out the results—not so much so that Mr. Lee would have the information as just to show him that I cared about it.
Progress was slow, which was fine by me. It kept me from having to really do any exhaustive work on the project, while also ensuring that I would be on my flight back to Kentucky before anything significant could happen. It was a win-win…at least, for me it was.
On the weekends, though, I would occasionally go to hide in Seoul and my first stop was my first professional baseball game between the LG Twins and the Samsung Lions. This was one of my favorite experiences in Korea and, let me tell you—Koreans know how to do baseball. Not only do they excel at the sport itself, almost everyone in the stadium brought in a picnic’s worth of food and beer was only $3. Our party enjoyed some bowls of nangmyeon next to the parking area before carting in several boxes of fried chicken from a KFC inside the stadium. I can’t remember who won the game, but I’ll tell you who lost: My waistline, which is the way it should be. Finally, I bought a hat and a scarf to cap off the evening and remember the experience. I have since worn my Samsung Lions baseball cap around Kentucky in a half-hearted attempt to get noticed by local Koreans, but I think everyone just assumes the “SL” stands for “St. Louis.”
My desperation to escape the minutiae of putt-putt construction came to an impasse by the first of August, however, and I fled to Phuket, Thailand for a week. There, I expected a relaxing week along some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world—basking in the sunlit tropics while peaceful waters kissed white sand for miles in all directions. Boy, was the joke on me.
I won’t belabor my experiences in Thailand, except to say that after a week in Phuket I was ready to come crawling back to Ildong. Don’t get me wrong: The Thai people were great and every time my friends and I found ourselves surrounded only by the locals, we discovered fantastic food at wonderful prices and were met with nothing but friendly smiles. Whenever we wandered into Phuket’s many tourist traps, however, we were met with the kind of experience that makes me want to never go back to a place.
To quote Obi Wan Kenobi, as he and Luke Skywalker stood on a cliff looking down at the desert city of Mos Eisley in “Star Wars”, we could not have expected to find “a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”. Every step we took, we were either being insulted by someone for not spending money, assaulted by throngs of girls and transvestites hawking massages, or Indian gentlemen trying to sell us suits despite the fact that we were clearly on our ways back from surfing at the beach—exhausted, covered in sand, and dripping with salt water. I could barely walk twenty feet before someone would grab my hand and, in an attempt to win my wallet by making small talk, lob a dart at a map of white people: “Oh…You’re from New Zealand?” No. “Ireland?” No. “Um…Malta?” Sure, let’s go with that one.
Evidently, these salesmen didn’t greet too many American tourists that time of year.
In other words, Phuket was kind of like Las Vegas, in a sense. If you came for debauchery, you were going to find a lot to like. If you came for a relaxing vacation, good luck. Me, I just tried to appreciate the irony of my last excursion outside of Korea: One of the highlights of my whole trip to Thailand was playing dinosaur-themed mini golf. Ultimately, I left Korea to return to the United States before a deal was reached on the ill-fated Ildong putt-putt course, but something tells me they will eventually get what they were after—no matter what it takes. I just feel for the poor American who ends up helping them build it.
Just finished cranking out this pretty simple book cover for “Naked in Korea”. Yes, that is my handsome back and, yes, the original idea did involve showing my pasty butt. I nixed that really quickly and opted for the towel. Pretty happy with how it came out. And, in case you’re wondering, the Korean script on the left-side just says “Welcome”.
UPDATED: It has come to my attention (courtesy of my doting mother) that some people might be offended by my using a South Korean flag towel on the cover. This was a completely unexpected reaction to the picture as my basic train of thought was just “South Korea + Sean Naked + Book = $$$$$$$!” I honestly don’t see the offensive side. American flag towels are all over the place online and the only instance I ever found of someone getting offended was when one Amazon reviewer remarked that the towel he or she had ordered was a thin, cheap piece of crap. There was nothing said about the flag on the towel being offensive.
I mean, to me, a flag is a flag and a towel is a towel. If I were drying myself with the actual South Korean flag, I could see people being offended; instead, I’m drying myself with one of my fiancee’s towels that (on closer inspection) has clearly been Photoshopped to look like a towel with the Korean flag on it. Offensive? Americans put our beloved flag on everything from thongs to condoms (look it up, if you don’t believe me) and even Lindsay Lohan got away with having a picture taken with one: http://www.whatsonningbo.com/ent_images/94ba46fcd12a5adc_Lindsay_Lohan_1.jpg But my flag towel is supposedly just too much for people to handle??
Well, anyone who looks at my pasty back on that cover and is offended by the towel, probably isn’t my target audience anyway. In fact, I could not find a single instance of anyone being offended by “Flag Towels” out of principle when I ran a Google search. But perhaps Koreans are offended by this sort of thing, more than Americans (which would shock me, frankly, but I’ll at least entertain the notion). I thought I’d welcome the input of my subscribers and readers: What do you all think? Is my book cover a chuckle-worthy eye-gag that invites the reader, or is it an appalling middle finger to veterans the world over?
I just wanted to add a small post thanking everyone for supporting this blog. I’ve had three new followers in the last week, which may not sound like much but I’m pretty sure I only had like one subscriber up until March 2012. Thanks for the support if you found me on Twitter!
Also, thank you to anyone who nabbed my book when it was FREE last weekend. You helped carry it into Amazon’s TOP 250 E-Books and made “The Notice” a Top 5 in Historical Fiction and #2 in Ghost Stories, which is nothing to scoff at. Hopefully “Naked in Korea” will do even better!
As promised, here is the first (rough) excerpt from my upcoming memoir/travelogue “Naked in Korea”. Should have the cover reveal up in a few days. I hope someone wants to see me naked, because, well…that’s the idea. In the meantime, enjoy this account of my many troubles with my apartment during the harsh south-Siberian winter in Korea. Beware of centipedes!
Chapter Fourteen: Slumdog Thousandaire
“Naked in Korea” Soundtrack: Track #14 – “Jumping” by Kara
Korean Film Recommendation: “The Day a Pig Fell into the Well” (1996)
The New Year started with a triumphant, life-changing experience that I will undoubtedly spend the rest of my many new years to come trying to top. That hike was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and on our way back to Ildong, I eagerly wondered what new adventures awaited me in 2011. Then I returned to my apartment and discovered that Mr. Lee’s whole spiel about the Siberian winds hitting your body on New Year’s morning being good luck turned out to be total hokum.
…Actually, wait. Maybe it wasn’t. Come to think of it, maybe if I had gotten naked like he insisted none of what I am about to tell you would have ever happened. Nothing awful befell Mr. Lee that afternoon, after all. Damn. For future reference, if a Korean ever tells you that you probably need to take some of your clothes off to prevent a catastrophe, just listen to him. He probably knows what he’s talking about.
You see, when I came back to my apartment that afternoon, the first thing that struck me was that it felt a little cooler inside than I remembered leaving it. No big deal, I thought. After all, the thermostat in my apartment had barely worked since my first day in Korea. Heck, in the summer, my apartment wasn’t even equipped with an air conditioner; I had a small, oscillating floor fan to move air around a 95-degree apartment and that was pretty much it. In fact, since making the move to Ildong and coming to terms with my situation, I had come to accept that the temperature of my apartment was just one thing over which I would simply have no control. I had learned to pick my battles and as long as I could keep my home “habitable”, I had decided that was good enough.
So I was a veteran by that point when it came to being too hot or too cold in my apartment. Nevertheless, I could tell that this time there was something different going on. I wandered into my bedroom to check the thermostat and, where the digital display screen should have listed the apartment’s temperature in Celsius, I found a blinking “Error” message and discovered that the control box was suddenly unresponsive. I’ll let you guess the profanity my tongue chose in that moment of frustrated horror—your choice.
While I recount to you my tell of wintry woe in a tiny apartment south of the DMZ, I might as well also take this opportunity to educate you about the finer points of heating in Korean apartments. You see, Korean apartments typically do not operate on central heating like most homes in Europe or the United States; instead they use a system of underfloor heating in which hot water is carried throughout the apartment by pipes that circulate radiant heat from room to room. Archeologists have determined that variants of this system may have first been used in the Koreas as far back as 3,000 years ago, when wood smoke was used to heat giant masonry stones embedded in the floors of Korean homes.
Although those early variants weren’t exactly the safest methods of indoor heating, modern water-based systems have actually been associated with improved air-quality and living conditions that are less hospitable to bacteria and mold. What’s more, when working correctly, they feel amazing when you’re walking around barefoot at night on a snowy evening. The problem with my case, as you can probably guess, is that even on their best day, my floors never worked correctly. I spent half of October and November sleeping in a bed with my jeans and jacket on in an apartment that hovered around 40 degrees because the boiler that was supposed to heat the water in my floors did everything except what I would argue to be its most important function: Boiling water.
It had taken my school more than a month to resolve that situation, so as I stood there watching the malfunctioning display on my bedroom wall try to sum up with five blinking letters just how screwed I was, I wondered how long it was going to take this situation to be fixed. My co-teachers, who were in charge of translating my problems to the school administration, had understandably gone home for the holidays, so there was little they could do help me. My landlady, who was approximately four-feet tall, 100 years old, and had survived the Korean War (I assumed) by exploding tanks with harsh, calculating glares, spoke exactly zero words of English and utterly terrified me, so that wasn’t an avenue I was eager to try either.
Basically, I did what any guy in my shoes would do—I logged onto Skype and complained about my situation to Mommy and Daddy, who were 14 hours away.
The gist of that conversation was that it was time for me to put on my big boy pants and figure out how to fix things myself. Sure my parents had heard about the whole boiler incident from 2010. They knew all about my unbearable September spent sweltering in an apartment with no air conditioner. They knew all about the infestations of ants and the “Korean Cough” I had contracted from weeks of exposure to invincible mold and mildew. They had even listened to my completely fruitless complaints about the alcoholic living in the apartment above me who I assumed, based on the sounds I heard at least one night a week, passed the time between his delirious screaming matches to no one by trying to murder the floor with a bowling ball. From across the planet’s largest ocean and half a continent away, my parents had calmed me through one crisis after another, but this was something I would truly have to do on my own. So I shrugged, accepted my fate, and did what any guy in my shoes would do after that…
I got a second opinion.
Yes, I picked up my cell phone and called my newfound Korean parents about the debacle. Low and behold, they were far more accommodating to my indignant neediness and Mr. Lee promptly got on the phone with some of my school officials and told them all about the unhappy American who was bravely periling the viciousness of the Korean winter while wrapped up in his University of Kentucky Snuggie™. By the time the sun had settled, bringing an eventful end to my first full day of 2011, Roy had called me back to assure me that his father was working on taking care of everything and that I should come to their store tomorrow to discuss things.
I naively thought that the worst of it was over. All I had to do was weather one cold night in my apartment and everything would be fixed the next day. I had no idea that while I sat there doing nothing, pipes were continuing to freeze and this was not a good thing. At about 1:00 in the morning, I awoke with a sudden urge to visit the bathroom so I scrambled out of bed and put on my bathroom slippers before turning the corner and stepping through the doorway in search of my toilet.
I shuddered as I plunged my foot into two inches of icy water and flipped on the light to find my bathroom flooded with a day’s worth of backed up shower water and, likely, urine from the two apartments above me. Obviously, washing my foot immediately took precedence over using the bathroom, so I sprinted for the kitchen and stuck my foot into the sink while I scrubbed it with soap. Here, the plot thickened. The pipes connecting my kitchen sink to a separate drainage system had also backed up and created enough pressure that when I added water to wash my foot, the weak sealant connected to those pipes suddenly popped loose and sent a stream of water across my kitchen floor in addition to the unholy mixture seeping out of my bathroom.
Stay with me because the mishaps that befell me that night are about to switch from Shakespearean tragedy to something more akin to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
I had no way of knowing that the pipes connected to my kitchen sink were also connected to the hot water pipes still currently frozen under my apartment floor. Since I couldn’t see them, it never occurred to me that suddenly turning on the water would create enough pressure in the boiler unit on my porch to rupture the tubes that had already been weakened from swelling during the freeze. As I dammed the water in my kitchen and living room with all the clean towels I had at my disposal, I gradually became aware of a shrill whistling sound coming from the porch and went to investigate the sound. When I arrived, I found a torrent of pressurized water bursting from the plastic tubes connected to my boiler, blanketing the walls of my exposed porch in so much frost and ice that I should have expected to find Morgan Freeman and a colony of emperor penguins out there filming a documentary.
Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to immediately secure the shut-off valve on the boiler unit and block off all water flow to the apartment. How did I know which lever was the shut-off valve on a boiler I had seldom used before? I have no idea. Raw instinct took over and suddenly I felt like I was channeling the knowledge and insight of long-dead Korean master plumbers. I didn’t have any water in the apartment, but at least it took care of the water on my porch and the flood coming out of my kitchen.
The bathroom fiasco, however, would have to wait.
The next morning I set off for the Lee family’s store, wondering how in the world I hadn’t seen this coming. The teacher I had replaced tried to warn me that he had experienced the same problems with the apartment during his two years in Korea. I had already coped with not having air conditioning or heat in the place for my first two or three months. Even when I had returned home one afternoon and flicked on the ceiling lamp in my bedroom, only to have it explode and set my bed on fire, I had stupidly just shrugged and never made a big deal out of it once someone was sent to repair the damage.
I had dealt with ants, cockroaches, and even the common house centipede, which may not seem like a big deal, but let me stand on my soap box for a moment: Centipedes are a godless abomination that you would think would be clumsy and slow on account of all those legs, but are actually a hundred times faster! How many legs do they have? Centi—that’s how many! They feed on spiders, bite humans, and I’m pretty sure there was one on the grassy knoll the day that JFK was assassinated. I killed them during my time in Korea the way “Skyrim” players slay dragons and spent many a night waking up with the twitchy paranoia you might expect from a prison inmate who’s been winked at just a few too many times.
At the store, I found my Korean father already on the phone with someone from the school. I couldn’t understand most of what they were saying but I knew he was getting down to business and trying to figure things out for me. One of his employees found me a chair and fetched me a cup of coffee, which I sat sipping while I watched the master at work. About ten minutes later, he hung up the phone and turned to Roy to explain the situation so that it could be relayed to me. Evidently the landlady and the school were in a pissing contest as to who was going to pay for the repairs my apartment needed. It was going to work out eventually but, like all things in Korea, the process was going to take time—maybe weeks. In the interim, everyone agreed that I could not continue living in a heatless apartment with a flooded kitchen and bathroom. Their alternative was to move me into an empty room in the teachers’ dormitory beside the middle school for a few days until everything was sorted out.
I quickly agreed, of course, and Mr. Lee drove me over to my apartment so that I could collect everything I needed for a miniature vacation and we set off for the dormitory. I will admit that I was annoyed by my circumstances—all of these emotions and grievances being exacerbated by the freezing cold—but I also understood that it was a bad situation for everyone and did my best to make the most of it. I knew how my school operated and, financially speaking, convincing them to find a new apartment for me or to pay for massive overhauls to my current dwelling would be like pulling teeth. I did my best to be flexible.
Thus, when I arrived at the dormitory and found that it didn’t even have a bed, I just did my best to laugh it off. Sure, I could sleep on the floor for a few days. At least I would be warm.
About a week passed after that and I did my best to keep my mouth shut even though Mr. Lee seemed increasingly indignant about the way the school was handling things. He had practically become my attorney, constantly calling the school officials and even visiting in person from time to time to represent my interests. It was in those frigid weeks that I discovered that a true Korean friend might be the best kind of friend you can have.
However, when I returned to my apartment a few days later to collect a few necessities and investigate the progress that had been made on fixing my apartment, I instead discovered that the parking area immediately under my dwelling had become a bit of a tourist attraction in Ildong. You see, the root of the problem had been that the drainage pipes leading from my apartment to an underground reservoir were completely exposed to the subzero temperatures of the Siberian winter—protected only in certain places by a thin cloth that someone had brilliantly tied around them. In other words, they might as well have hired someone to hug the pipes all night to keep them from freezing. The pipes also ran parallel with the ground above the parking area, meaning that, in addition to being idiotically exposed to one of the coldest winters in East Asia, they were also arranged in a manner that was probably as inconducive to water flow as humanly possible, trapping and freezing bits of water every time the pipe was used.
Bear with me; I know this is getting awfully technical.
Anyway, this caused those pipes to gain quite a bit of weight, as you can imagine, and weaken enough at the joints that water and “waste” began to seep through with increasing frequency and run along the side of the building for all to see. I have already addressed the particular contents of these pipes—mostly shower and bathroom run-off of all sorts of unpleasant colors. Returning to my apartment after half a week away, I discovered—along with many of my neighbors—that the accumulated seepage of this “waste” had resulted in a frozen cascade roughly seven feet tall and at least two feet thick in some places directly below my bedroom window. On that particular day, there were at least two gentlemen standing there taking pictures of the sight and ribbing each other while they jokingly pointed at the “poop ice sculpture”.
Thank God it was too frozen to smell.
When I went upstairs, I was surprised to find the door open and a chubby plumber crouched down under the kitchen sink inspecting the damage. The plumber that either the landlady or the school had hired to fix my apartment was extremely nice, but he had the befuddled look of someone who had just decided to become a plumber the day before with absolutely no training…and I was his first assignment. On the street outside, I had my suspicions that if you torn hard enough on the sticker for his plumbing service, it would peel away and reveal something like “bicycle repairman” or “pizza delivery”. We were able to communicate pretty well with each other because this man was an absolute professional at using logical hand gestures, and I knew enough Korean to make sure I understood what he was trying to explain to me, but everything he did seemed to be a process of trial and error.
He would come to the apartment one day and swap out a pipe, only to have that pipe freeze and crack, after which he would simply replace it with a new, slightly different pipe. If that pipe started to freeze, he would wrap a piece of cloth around it, and if that didn’t work, he would come back and wrap more cloth around it or get a third pipe. When he couldn’t immediately fix the sealant under my kitchen sink, he did what I would have done and slapped so much caulk and duct tape on the thing that there was no way in Hell any water was getting through.
Just how bad was this plumber? On the day that he came to fix my bathroom, he was nice enough to lay down a whole new floor and install a new drainage system under my sink. However, doing this required him to unfasten the hose that connected my washing machine to the drain, which he then forgot about. You can imagine how angry I was when I discovered that he had inadvertently covered up the washing machine drain with cement and I now had to hold the washer’s hose over the toilet every time my laundry completed a rinse cycle.
The thing is that, by this point, I was so tired of complaining about what was going wrong with my apartment that I didn’t even tell anyone. I just spent the next six months flushing excess water down my toilet and flooding my bathroom every time I did laundry. I considered that easier than having someone attempt to fix the problem.
I thought about closing this chapter out with a list of the most reliable plumbing services in South Korea, but instead I will just advise you that if you are in the market for an apartment, do your research. If you are a teacher on your way to Korea and you find that your apartment is an utter nightmare, take the appropriate steps towards finding a new residence. Try to be diplomatic by working with your school and co-teachers, of course, because these are not evil people who want you to be miserable; chances are, they just know they’re getting a great deal on your place (because money is everything) and they aren’t actually even aware of everything that is wrong with it. However, if your school refuses to take action or, as was largely my case, attempts to evade the issue of solving your housing crisis, do not be afraid to contact whomever is your regional representative and inform him or her of the situation. Although I managed to grit my teeth and suffer living in what was basically a slum, as all my friends in Korea agreed, I don’t think 9 out of 10 people would have tolerated living in my conditions.
In fact, the only upside to the apartment was that it was large enough to probably house a family of three. Too bad no family would have wanted to live there.
My advice: Be tough, but be reasonable. You’re rolling the dice when you go anywhere to teach. You shouldn’t expect the lap of luxury, but you should expect to live in a place that is clean, uninfested by insects and vermin, a comfortable living temperature, and that has everything stipulated in your contract. Also, document everything that happens. If you see a centipede the size of a West Highland Terrier, take a picture of it before killing it. If your bathroom is flooding, take pictures and even videos. If your foot spontaneously bursts through the floor while you’re walking to the kitchen, grab the nearest umbrella and try to nudge your camera close enough to reach it. That way, your school can’t turn around and try to hold you fiscally responsible for the damages. Fortunately, everything worked out for me in the end. My deposit was returned and I left Korea with a greater appreciation for American apartments.