Letter from Pusan: The party's over

Rolf Potts describes the heady rise and wistful fall of expat life in South Korea.

Published September 24, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

PUSAN, South Korea At first glance, it's hard to tell that the IMF era has hit Pusan. Nearly one year after the crash of the economy, the streets of Korea's biggest port city still look as crowded and gaudy as they did one year ago. Groups of Korean men still swagger the sidewalks in golf-course plaids like Vegas Rat Packers on their way to three-martini lunches, middle-aged Korean housewives still dress for the market with the frighteningly self-conscious glamour of Zsa Zsa Gabor, and college-age girls still wobble on designer platform shoes and squawk into cell phones at bus stops. Traffic is still a breakneck blur of luxury cars and taxis, delivery trucks and mopeds, overused horns and under-heeded speed limits. And -- towering on every horizon -- enormous construction cranes still hoist I-beams, steadily adding to the city's collection of bland concrete high-rise apartment complexes, which glow yellow in the early evening like cramped armadas of "Battlestar Galactica" spaceships, cruising nowhere.

To the untrained foreign eye, Pusan still looks like a manic boomtown. But the Americans and Canadians who have lived here for the last couple of years know better. This is because the seasoned expatriates of Pusan know their garbage.

Just over one year ago, street-side garbage piles provided an almost inexhaustible supply of perfectly usable desks, couches, tables, television sets, electric fans and personal computers for itinerant foreigners looking to stock a rented room for a few months. At the time, Koreans were still giddy from three decades of steady economic growth, and throwing out perfectly usable electronics and home furnishings was a sly act of one-upmanship among the middle class. Koreans looked on in haughty bemusement as young Americans enthusiastically carted garbage back to their apartments.

These days, what's left of Pusan's expatriate community has all but given up dumpster diving. These days street-side couches are usually stained and sodden; the desks and tables unusable; the cast-off television sets broken.

These days, the garbage of Pusan is just garbage.

I have been living and teaching English in this southeastern Korean city of 4.5 million people for nearly two years now. The city never fails to amaze and bewilder me. The act of walking down the streets of Pusan is an exercise in possibility. On a given day, I am equally likely to be greeted by a Buddhist monk wearing Air Jordans as I am by a woman in a stewardess uniform handing out promotional toilet tissue. I have stopped noticing details such as children screaming "Hello!" or men urinating in public or vegetable truck loudspeakers blasting "Home on the Range." I can attain instant celebrity status on a given street corner by speaking a few phrases of Korean with a rough, drawling Pusan accent.

Even death has a creepy proximity here. One afternoon I was walking to a friend's house when I turned a corner and saw a man pinned between a building and a dump-truck. He had probably been dead for about two minutes. The force of the collision had knocked his pants to his knees and crushed his legs like ribbons. This was not a moment I had prepared myself for, so I stood dumbly watching amid a small crowd of people, not sure what to do. Finally, someone went up and hiked up the dead man's pants. It was the only reasonable option, and I think all the people there were surprised with themselves for not thinking of it first.

Despite such urban jadedness, Pusan has been dubbed the "Korean Riviera" by the local tourist authority in the hopes of attracting Japanese tourists. In keeping with this resort reputation, Pusan's biggest hotel has a Las Vegas show. This summer I lucked into free tickets and witnessed the strangest spectacle to hit this corner of Asia since Dutch sailors first washed ashore 400 years ago: an unrepentantly 1960s-style showgirl revue performed by bare-breasted Russians to a room full of Japanese businessmen on the site of an ancient Korean fishing community. It was like visiting some vulgar, endearing vision of heaven.

Before economic hard times hit, the Vegas show was staffed with genuine American performers, and I saw them around town from time to time. They would show up at various university-district haunts in groups of two or three on Friday nights, and sometimes I would talk to them. They were remarkably down-to-earth. A job is a job, they told me.

I regret I never asked them the question that burned foremost in my mind. "What," I desperately wanted to ask them, "will you be doing when you're 60? How will you rationalize this strange time in this dirty Asian port town to yourself when your body is failing you and the world has become so efficient and sophisticated that it no longer makes sense to you? How will you rationalize this to your children? To your grandchildren?"

But then: How will I?

The early '90s was a unique time for young Americans looking to
live overseas. Historically, American expatriate life -- while
glamorized by notions of Hemingway in Paris or Kerouac in Mexico -- has
consisted of upper-class Americans visiting foreign lands for study or
international business and working-class Americans seeing the world as
soldiers and sailors. But in the late '80s and early '90s the
dawning of globalization and the rapid economic success of East Asian
countries created a new niche for young Americans looking to live and
work abroad as English teachers. Unlike missionary or Peace Corps endeavors of past years, these were not volunteer positions:
These were well-paid jobs. Inspired by the promise of overseas living,
cultural adventure and wages better than most entry-level jobs in the
United States, thousands of young Americans set off for Japan, Taiwan
or Korea after graduating from college.
Of these three countries, Korea had the most lenient hiring
policies, and saw an unprecedented boom in foreign English teachers from
1993 to 1997. In the span of just a few years, Korean cities like Pusan
went from hosting isolated, self-sufficient populations of American
soldiers, missionaries and businessmen to supporting thousands of
young, semi-qualified expatriate journeymen who worked and lived among
the general population.
Considering its history of isolation, it's a wonder Korea embraced
globalization so quickly. But then, Korea's social and economic
progress in the last 50 years has been a wonder in itself, with the country having
transformed itself from a war-ravaged peasant culture to the 11th largest
economy in the world in one generation. By the mid-'90s, Korea was a
strange mix of cellular phones, squattie-potties, luxury cars,
semi-permanent architecture, urban bustle, environmental blight and a
newly empowered middle class.
A main distinction of this Korean middle class from its American
counterpart was its obsession with education. Ever since the days of
the Chosun Dynasty 500 years ago, Korean society has functioned as a
loose Confucian meritocracy, where advancement at various levels of
society has been based on standardized examinations. And while this
system has effectively turned bribery into a cottage industry in Korea,
it has also instilled Koreans with an almost fearful respect for
education. Learning is seen as the only dependable method of getting
ahead in the world.
Private extracurricular study institutes, called hagwon,
started to import large numbers of native-speaker English teachers
after the 1988 Seoul Olympics. As the spending power and social
competitiveness of the Korean middle class grew, so did the demand for
these foreign teachers. American English lessons became so fashionable
among Korean parents in the early 1990s that native-speaker hagwons
became a virtually unregulated entrepreneurial gold mine. Businessmen
with no educational background rented classroom space, printed
advertisements, imported Americans and made money hand-over-fist. It
seemed too good to be true.
Correspondingly, want ads were appearing in the classified sections
of major American newspapers, promising one-way airfare to Korea and
highly competitive wages for any American with a native understanding of
English, a college degree and a pulse. To many, this also seemed too
good to be true.
The golden age of middle-class expatriatism in Korea was under way.

During these boom years, few Americans came to Korea to find
themselves or even to lose themselves. Most of them come to make money
or buy time.
I first considered the possibility of expatriate life in Korea when
my friend H-Man moved to Chonju City in 1994 and started sending me
postcards about hunting mutant chihuahuas in the sewers of Seoul,
teaching De Sade's "120 Days of Sodom" to classes full of Korean
housewives and watching "Die Hard" while drinking peach liqueur with
Buddhist monks. I didn't believe a word of it, of course, but I
appreciated the idea that -- if he wasn't finding himself -- he was at
least reinventing himself. Life overseas suddenly seemed more appealing
to me than graduate school, and -- after a couple years of post-college
traveling left me penniless -- I decided to go to Korea myself.
By the time I arrived in 1996, upwards of 10,000 Americans and
Canadians were teaching in Korea on one-year E-2 visas, and more were
coming every day. Of these new expatriates, an embarrassingly small
number of them had teaching experience, TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification or even a
genuine interest in Korean culture. Most of them were middle-class
Americans with lots of wanderlust, useless liberal arts degrees and a
keen desire to make fast money to pay off student loans or fund
international travel. Perhaps at no time in history had so many young
Americans been making so much money in a foreign country with absolutely
no grasp of the native language or customs.
Add to this the fact that many Korean hagwon bosses were charlatans
out to make a quick buck, and the problem became obvious. The untrained
recent college grads who naively assumed they would be treated by
Western standards of workplace fairness were suddenly forced to
supervise elementary-aged children at 6 in the morning with no planned
curriculum, to live in unheated shoe-box apartments and to play
hardball every month when it came time to negotiate overtime pay.
Scores of neophytes flew back home or bugged out on hasty tours of
Southeast Asia after just a few weeks of working in Korea.
However, those Americans and Canadians who chose to stay created a
vibrant Korean subcommunity. Perhaps to escape the rigors and
idiosyncrasies of work, teacher expatriates in Pusan formed poetry
circles, blues jams, rock-climbing clubs, underground newspapers, art
exhibitions, basement raves and Web sites. On a given
weekend, a bored American could attend a Bible study or a homosexual
support meeting, hang out with Russian sailors at a downtown disco,
work with Korean children at a suburban orphanage, ride with a
motorcycle club or go for a polar bear swim in the Strait of Korea.
Pusan's expat cow-punk band recorded a tape and toured Taegu and Seoul,
and a local world-beat band consisting of Americans, Canadians and
Koreans made so much money playing college festivals and department
store promotions that they were investigated by immigration for
work-visa violations. The streets of Pusan began to look downright
cosmopolitan. Even the traditionally hooker-infested go-go bars
adjacent to the U.S. military base began to resemble Aurora, Ill.,
dance clubs on Saturday nights.
At the height of the Pusan expat scene, I lived in a huge house at the
foot of Kumjang Mountain with seven other foreigners. We all worked
long schedules and tutored privately well into the evening, but nearly
every night we would find time to sit on the upstairs balcony to drink
beers together. It was an oddly satisfying experience. Someone had a
Benny Goodman tape, and we never tired of listening to the tinny old
music as we looked out at the lights of the city. None of us knew the first
thing about 1930s swing, but it sounded curious, alien and exciting,
like transmissions from outer space.
At least once a month, my housemates and I would throw all-night
theme parties that would attract upwards of 50 people -- Koreans and
expats alike. Our crowning achievement was a St. Patrick's Day bash
that featured what could have been the only Korean bagpiper on the
Pacific Rim. He only knew three songs, but nobody seemed to mind the
repetition. Needless to say, our neighbors despised us.
In the same way that 1920s American expatriate life in Paris
exuded a grim revolutionary spirit of reaction to the world, 1990s
American expatriate life in Pusan took on a casual party spirit of
distraction from the world.
It's too bad it couldn't last.

When the Korean economy crashed and the won devalued by half last
December, Korea's expat teachers quietly began to leave. In droves.
These days, what the Pusan expatriate community lacks in usable
garbage it makes up for in available jobs. So many Americans and
Canadians have skipped town that university English teaching positions
-- once highly competitive and sought-after as a stable alternative to
hagwon work -- sometimes go unfilled. Though I have no more than a
bachelor's degree, I easily found a job at a respected technical college
earlier this year. After six months, I am now the ranking foreign
teacher, and I have my own office and a four-day work week. Two years
ago, my salary would have translated into $40,000. This
year, I'll be lucky to clear $20,000.
Those hagwons that didn't crash with the economy and can still
attract American teachers pay about $9,000 a year. And while $9,000
is certainly more than a language teacher could earn in Vietnam or
Bulgaria, it doesn't put much of a dent in a college loan after living
expenses have been subtracted. Consequently, Pusan's influx of young
Americans has slowed to a trickle. A year ago there were so many
Westerners here that we ignored each other on the street; these days I
go weeks without seeing a new American face.
This sudden demographic change has made me more independent, more
Korean. Sometimes at night I walk the streets of Pusan's Onchonjang
district, near my new apartment. Three hundred fifty years ago, this area was the
national center for trade with Japan; the fish market there has been in
continuous operation since before the United States existed. These
days, Onchonjang is a haunt for low-rent gangsters who cater
to -- and prey on -- middle-aged people. The whole neighborhood is full of neon-swathed
nightclubs where groups of Korean businessmen can drink premium whiskey,
sing karaoke songs and grope high school-age "hostesses." Now that
the expat exodus has reverted me into a novelty to these businessmen,
they sometimes approach me and invite me to join them in the hostess
Sometimes I accept. And while the experience of having
mini-skirted 17-year-olds shove chunks of pineapple into my mouth makes
for interesting journal entries and my karaoke rendering of "Hound Dog"
has evolved into a show-stopper, I nonetheless miss the insouciant
energy of the old expat crowd.
No doubt as the English language grows in international popularity
and once-poor countries gain the economic clout to flash money at
adventuresome American college grads, that old expat crowd will resurface
elsewhere -- but I can't shake the wistfulness of knowing that Korea's moment is already gone.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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