“Naked in Korea” (An Excerpt)
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.