Friday, February 15, 2019

So It Would Seem

I'm getting ahead of myself, but that isn't news to anyone who knows me.

I'm an impatient fellow who becomes easily agitated when I'm made to wait. And with my recovery from foot surgery, I haven't been able to contain my desire to rid myself of the cast that has protected me for nearly three months.

When I had my last appointment with my surgeon, we had x-rays of my foot taken and it was deemed that the operation was a success, that the bone fusions had gone smoothly. I was told that I was able to start using my left foot, that I no longer needed crutches or my peg leg.

I did, on the other hand, still require to keep my foot in the removable Aircast that I've been wearing since the end of November.

"One week before your next appointment," I was told, "you can try walking without the cast." I was to see how my foot felt, unprotected.

I'm an impatient fellow.

A week after I was able to walk with both feet, my left foot felt strange but there was no pain. As with most surgeries of this kind, there was some trauma to the nerves in my foot but no permanent damage. No major nerves had been severed.

And, indeed, the nerves are starting to heal. I'm regaining sensation in some areas, though I sense the occasional jolt between my big toe and the incisions, as though I'm receiving an electrical shock.

One week after that visit, I tried walking across my family room. My foot was numb but there was no pain. Each day, I ventured a greater and greater distance.

Two weeks after my last visit, I attempted a shower, standing in the stall in bare feet. Because I moved gingerly, the attempt was a success. I haven't taken a bath in the tub, since.

Three weeks in—a week before my next visit—I spent the entire day without my cast. I climbed stairs. I walked around the office. I carried the recycling bin to the garage.

This week, because of the snow storm, I was confined to the house. I haven't worn my cast since Sunday, when DW and I ran some errands and I was walking around Costco and the grocery stores. My Aircast allows me to walk more quickly (rather, I'm not as cautious with the cast).

On Wednesday, after DD17 and DW cleared the snow from our driveway, I decided to up the ante: I walked down our snowy street, to our mailbox, to retrieve its contents. It was the first time since November 15 that I had worn my left boot. It was a bit snug and I couldn't tighten the laces, as I could with the right boot, but I had it on.

Careful not to slip in the driveway and on the road, I slowly walked the 100 metres or so to our mailbox. So far so good.

At the mailbox, I was met with an obstacle that nearly had me turn straight around: the snow plow, which had cleared our road earlier in the morning, had left a sizable snowbank between the road and the mailbox. Even on two good feet, I would hesitate about stepping into deep snow in my boots, which only come up over my ankles.

Should I return home, change into my Sorels, which come up almost to my knees?

No. I'm an impatient fellow.

Slowly, carefully, I took my first step onto the snowbank. With any luck, the heavy snow would be packed so densely that I could walk atop it.

No such luck. Leading with my left foot, I sank almost to my knee. About as deep as my Sorels are high.

In for a penny...

I took another step. Sank. And another. Sank. And another. Sank.

If the mailbox had yielded no letters, I would have been disappointed, would have felt foolish. But I knew that this was the first visit in almost a week. At worst, I would have had to clear our box of mounting junk mail.

To turn around, I put one hand on the mailbox, to balance myself, lifted my left foot, and pivoted myself on my sturdy leg. I then planted my left foot in one of the holes I created and retraced my steps out of the snowbank.

There was no pain, no discomfort. I walked the 100 metres back to my house without any trouble.

Today (February 15) marks exactly three months since my surgery. Thirteen weeks and one day. At the time of writing this blog, I don't know the outcome of the x-ray that is to be captured, of the recommendation of my surgeon. But for the last three weeks, I've listened to my body, moved according to the signals it's given me.

It would seem that my foot is fit to return to normal usage, that I'm ready to begin physiotherapy. To that end, while I will bring my Aircast with me when I return to the Civic Hospital, I won't wear it to the appointment. It will remain in my car, just in case I've done something incredibly stupid and the doctor insists I return to wearing it.

But I'm optimistic. I'm certain that this time, being impatient has paid off.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Korean Friends

DW and I were very lucky when we were in Chŏnju, South Korea.

We had a fellow teacher meet us at Kimpo International Airport and escort us from Seoul. This teacher also took the time to show us around our new city, to where the best restaurants she knew, to where to buy necessities, to the bank from where we would wire money home, to the temples in the nearby countryside, to the neighbouring city to process our work visas, to where to socialize with other teachers.

And more.

This teacher, Linda, also introduced us to one of her Korean friends, who then became our friend. This Korean friend, Kyung-hee, showed us so much more of Korean culture and life in Chŏnju, and introduced us to one of her best friends, Ji-yeong.

When Linda finished her contract and left Korea, at the end of June, Kyung-hee and Ji-yeong became our best Korean friends. We spent almost every weekend touring the countryside with them. Both of them spoke excellent English and were helpful in teaching DW and me some basic Korean.

These friends also introduced us to some people with whom we would teach, privately.

Together, we were the fabulous four.

Me, DW, Kyung-hee, Ji-yeong
On one day, in May of 1997, the four of us roamed some of the parts of the city that seemed almost hidden: Tokchin Park, which spanned to the north-west of Chŏnbuk National University, and the Chŏnju Zoo, north-east of the university campus.

(I've never cared for zoos, seeing animals in captivity, far from their natural habitats, but Chŏnju Zoo is especially bad, for the small, confined spaces and its visitors' apparent lack of respect to the animals—many people threw food into the cages; some even climbed into the pens to get pictures next to the poor creatures.)

After our long wander, Kyung-hee took us to her home, where she lived with her mother. Kyung-hee retrieved one of her hanbok—a traditional Korean dress—and insisted that DW try it on. Though the bright pink did not compliment DW's blond hair and fair skin, she tried it on out of politeness.

She looked like a china doll.

Of course, DW commented on how beautiful the dress was. And, of course, being a polite friend (I once commented on a cute set of coffee spoons in a restaurant and Kyung-hee talked the owners into giving me a pair), Kyung-hee insisted that DW keep the dress.

She's only worn it once, on that day in May. It's carefully packed away in her closet.

Though our friendship was close, it didn't last long. Kyung-hee moved to Australia to study for a year. Ji-yeong was finishing her masters and needed to concentrate on her dissertation. When she graduated, she was married and moved to Seoul. We last saw her at her wedding. We kept in touch, briefly, and DW and I heard from her shortly after we moved into our home, but then that was it.

Kyung-hee returned to Chŏnju in the summer of 1998 and our friendship resumed, but she was now teaching and her job kept her very busy. By this time, DW was teaching at Chŏnbuk National University and I was at Jeonju University. Kyung-hee would occasionally visit my office for lunch, and DW and I would get together every once and a while, but we weren't as close as we were in our group of four.

Kyung-hee was with us at our last goodbye party in Chŏnju and came to Seoul for our final goodbye, before DW and I returned to Canada, in March of 1999.

In the summer of 2000, Kyung-hee came to visit us in our new home. It was a wonderful visit but she also wanted to explore more of Canada, and so the visit was short. We've managed to keep in touch over the years, through e-mail and online message services. A few years ago, Kyung-hee and I connected through Facebook, though she doesn't appear to use it often.

I've sent her messages, through the Facebook messenger, letting her know that I'll be back in Chŏnju in May. So far, I've heard nothing.

Twenty years is a long time to maintain a long-distance friendship. And while it would be wonderful to reunite, my purpose for returning to Korea varies from any reunions.

But I'll never forget those friendships.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Naneun Kaenadain Ibnida

Then, as per most of my life, I ran like clockwork.

My daily routine was scheduled such that anyone would know where I would be at particular times of the day. That's not to say that my daily movements were carved in stone, but if there were no plans made, I would be at the same spot at the same time.

This was my life for much of my first year, teaching English in Chŏnju, South Korea.

DW and I lived a 10-minute walk from our hagwon (language institute). To get to work, I walked the narrow laneway toward the Chinbuk Woosung Apartments, where I cut through the complex of 20 high-rise apartments (in which I had two private students). On the other side, I'd cross a wide plaza that seemed to double as a parking lot and walked a narrow street, filled with auto repair and body shops.

At the end of this short street, several lanes split in many directions, and on the far side of the split stood the six-story Youngchin Building, which was known to all as the Taepyung Yang Sooyung Jang building—the Pacific Pool building, known for its public swimming pool.

Funny: I never swam there.

I taught at the language school from 7:30 to 10 in the morning and from 4:00 to 7:00 in the afternoon and evenings. As soon as my morning classes were done, I would head to the neighbourhood near Chŏnbuk National University, where there was an Internet café I used to catch up on e-mail. I would have lunch at one of the inexpensive restaurants, teach some private students, and then return to the flat for a nap.

On my way back to the hagwon, before I reached the apartment complex, I would pass a small building that housed a piano school. I was surprised, on a recent Google Maps street-view "walk," that the school was still there (as late as September, 2015).

Photo courtesy Google. The road to the right led to my flat.
Being on schedule, I would always see two young boys sitting outside the piano school. The first time that I encountered them, one of the boys pointed to me and said to his friend, "Mee-gook saram."


"Annyo," I would reply, much to his surprise, "Kaenada-saram ibnida." No, I'm Canadian. Without missing a beat, I continued on my way.

The next day, the two boys were once again sitting outside the piano school. "Mee-gook saram, mee-gook saram," the same boy said, a big grin on his face, finger pointing at me.

"Annyo," I repeated, "mee-gook saram inibnida. Kaenada-saram ibnida." No, I'm not American. I'm Canadian. I wagged a finger at him and kept walking.

Day three: I could see the boys as I approached the corner. The boys were waiting, watching me approach, anticipating my arrival. The only talker of the two was ready to go. "Annyong, mee-gook saram!" Hello, American.

It was my turn to point my finger. "Ilbon-saram."

The boy gasped, taken aback as though I had just slapped him across his young face. His friend also gasped in surprise but then pointed at his friend and laughed.

Though I wasn't particularly insulted by being called an American, I knew that the boy thought he was being bold, thought his words were slightly hurtful. But my response was, to a Korean, one of the biggest insults I could have dealt.


The boy dropped his head and in an almost inaudible volume, muttered, "Kaenada-saram."

I smiled and continued on my way.

For the next day, I came prepared once again, but not with the word for Japanese. The boy had the same idea. He called me an Australian. I called him French. The next day, he called me German: I called him Spanish.

I've forgotten the vocabulary now, but within a week, I had memorized a handful of nationalities.

Eventually, we just said "hello" to one another.

It's something I'll have to remember when I return to Chŏnju, in May, as I'm surely called an American by a Korean as I walk down the street. I can use the informal phrase that I had learned more than 20 years ago or I can speak more formally.

"Naneun Kaenadain ibnida." I am Canadian.

Monday, February 11, 2019


In my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary, I wrote about a Scottish-Canadian, Roland Axam, who goes to South Korea to escape his tragic past. When I originally started writing the book, however, Roland wasn't the central character: I was.

I had planned to chronicle DW's and my two years in Korea, adapting to our new lives as English teachers in East Asia. I wanted to give readers a glimpse into what it was like to teach abroad.

It was an exciting time in South Korea. Political corruption, financial turmoil, and an election where one of the candidates was a former exile and political prisoner, who had survived assassination attempts. He ultimately won the election.

During the first year in the country, DW and I had to overcome several challenges. In addition to learning our new surroundings, understanding the cultural differences, and learning how to speak and read Korean, we had issues with our work, dealing with an unpredictable employer and various teachers who either were unwilling to adapt to the students' needs or were dealing with emotional baggage that they had brought from home.

We even had a thief in our midst.

While I wanted to highlight our experiences in Korea, I felt that presenting it from my personal point of view was too flat, and so I brought in a fictional character with his own backstory, and embellished some of the drama (though I kept true to the original narrative).

As I make plans for my return to Korea, in May, where I hopefully become inspired enough to finish the sequel to my book, I can't help but recall some of the memories from when DW and I first arrived in the country. I'd like to share some of those memories on The Brown Knowser.

The first chapter of my novel is largely true.

When DW and I arrived in Seoul, we were met at the airport by one of the teachers at our hagwon (learning institute). When this teacher had, herself, first arrived in the country, she had no one to meet her and had to find her own way to Chŏnju, a city that is a three-hour bus journey from Seoul.

We couldn't imagine how stressful that would be, seeing that we were anxious enough about arriving in a foreign country, not as tourists but as residents and workers. DW and I were grateful for having this fellow Canadian as our escort.

We encountered our first problem after the teacher led us, by shuttle bus, from Kimpo Airport to the Express Bus Terminal. We had just missed a bus to Chŏnju and had to wait another three hours before the next bus departed. It was a Saturday night, and we were stuck in Seoul until 11:00. With no lockers to hold our belongings so that we could explore the city and no benches on which to sit and wait, it was the longest evening for two travellers who had already experienced their longest day.

We stood with our belongings while we watched Koreans come and go in the main area of the bus station. Silently, to myself, I read the Hangul signs that listed various destinations, sounding them out in my head.

We conversed with our fellow teacher, asking about our private school, the students, the other teachers, and our boss. We talked about the city—its size, ease of commuting, the attractions, the food. DW and I had learned, from books and from a Korean consulate worker, as we prepared for our departure, that Chŏnju was the epicurean capital of South Korea. Food was exceptional.

By the time we arrived in Chŏnju, it was 2 am. DW and I had been travelling for days: Ottawa to Toronto, and then on to Vancouver, where we visited a friend for a 24-hour layover. The next day, we flew to Tokyo, and then to Seoul. We had departed Ottawa on a Thursday. It was now Sunday (though, in our Ottawa-aligned heads, it was technically Saturday afternoon).

Part of our negotiation for our teaching contracts was to have our airfare reimbursed after three months and to be provided with a private apartment, rent-free. We were a married couple, after all, and deserved our own accommodation.

When we arrived in Chŏnju, our fellow teacher hailed us a cab and directed the driver to take us to an apartment in the remote neighbourhood of Dongsan-dong. This neighbourhood is close to where the Honam Expressway, which took us from Seoul to Chŏnju, and the exit for our city meet. Our escort pointed out the neighbourhood as we passed it and I was surprised at how far the bus continued to its terminal. It was about 15 to 20 minutes, by taxi, to head back out to Dongsan-dong.

Dongsan-dong Woo-sung Apartments. Our unit indicated in red. Photos courtesy Google.
The teacher brought us to the eighth floor of an apartment complex. Outside, in the dark, and in the open hallway that looked into the parking lot, the foul smell of burning garbage singed my nostrils. It's a smell that, to this day, I can vividly recall.

View from outside our unit. Garbage was burning in the yard below.
The teacher produced two sets of keys. One, she gave to me: the other, she used to unlock the apartment at the end of the hall. It was at this point that DW and I learned that we were sharing a two-bedroom unit with this teacher.

Problem number two: this would not do.

DW and I explained the arrangement that had been made with the hagwon director but there was nothing that we could do about it now. We'd have to wait until we met with him and get this straightened out.

As it turned out, we didn't meet with the director until the end of our first week, as he had been out of the country, on business (he also owned a trading company). It turned out that one of the hagwon's other teachers was using the apartment that was promised to us. By the time that the issue was settled and that teacher found another place to live (she moved in with a friend who was teaching at a different hagwon), it had been two weeks since DW and I first arrived in Korea.

The new digs was smaller, but roomy enough for DW and myself. It was an extension to a private house that was owned by friends of our director and his wife, and was possibly, at one time, a servant's living quarters.

The house was located along a narrow alley in Chinbuk-dong, just a 10-minute walk from the hagwon. Our flat had three rooms: a living area, where we had a table, fouton, foot stand (two boards, covering two milk cartons, which held our books, CD player, and speakers) and a dresser; a galley kitchen; and a washroom. The kitchen could be accessed from a mini-door in the main living space or from a door that led from the courtyard at the side of the house. The washroom was only accessible from the courtyard and had no heating.

Chinbuk-dong flat, indicated in red. Photo courtesy Google.
Living area/bedroom, before we purchased our yo (fouton). Door led to the house (locked). Our flag worked as a curtain: A Korean flag (not shown) covered the other window.
Bedroom, looking toward the kitchen (mini-door) and storage space, above.
Kitchen, viewed from the courtyard door.
Standing in the courtyard, looking into the washroom (left) and kitchen (right). We placed a 1-inch piece of Styrofoam at the kitchen door to keep the cold (and unwanted bugs) outside.
It wasn't optimal but it was private and was in a convenient location. The mini door and main door to the living area could be locked. A gap under the door to the kitchen was a couple of inches: we had to fit a 1-inch piece of Styrofoam in the door jam to keep the winter draft from freezing the kitchen and to give creepy crawlies from easily accessing the galley.

Food was kept in sealed containers and in the refrigerator. With the exception of an errant cricket, we had no infestations. Dishes were cleaned after every meal and the tiled surfaces were disinfected weekly, without fail.

Though a washer and drier also occupied the washroom, they were disconnected and didn't work. To wash our laundry, DW and I drove to the Dongsan-dong apartment each week.

DW and I lived in this flat from mid-March, 1997, until the end of December, when the economic crises that was afflicting so many East Asian countries had finally taken its toll on our hagwon. One of my loyal and favourite adult students helped us move out of the flat and into a spare bedroom at our friends' flat, another couple who we met in Beijing and continue to be friends with, today.

More memories to come.