Day One

Sunday, March 2, 1997

Three hours.

That's how long my body was at rest. Just over three hours of deep sleep, and then I was wide awake.

The sun was just rising over the mountains. It was the first time that I had ever woken up, looked out a window, and seen mountains. The pointed peaks weren't as high as the mountains I had seen only days ago—though, in my brain, it was the last morning I had witnessed, in Vancouver, before I had flown out of Canada and skipped the next morning by crossing the International Date Line.

These mountains, to the east, certainly dwarfed the Gatineau Hills, which I had known for most of my life. Between these mountains and the apartment building was a bare, flat field. Rice paddies, I guessed. In this late-winter weather, the void was an earthen brown that stretched for kilometres. Beyond, I saw urban development: other apartment buildings, church steeples, and office towers.

DW stirred but wasn't fully awake. She saw me standing at the window and had me describe what I saw.

I retrieved my camera from its bag and took a couple of snapshots. I had last used it in Vancouver, had taken only a couple of shots, wanting to conserve film until I knew the cost of it over here. If it was expensive, I'd really want to be particular about what I shot.

I remembered a little about this building, despite my heavy fatigue of a few hours ago. The outer hallway looked out into the parking lot, and I remembered seeing small piles of fire burning in the space next to it. I quietly walked out of the bedroom, being careful not to wake up Linda, our fellow teacher, and left the apartment.


There was a small community below us with a mix of buildings in various states of newness and disrepair. I could see other apartment buildings and small houses, some with traditional, tiled roofs. A large area, near the parking lot, appeared like a junk yard, in which I could see the small piles of smouldering trash, the thin black smoke still trailing skyward.

The smell filled my nostrils, still comes back to me, to this day, when I think of it or when I see the photo that I shot.

Back in the apartment, I pulled my short-wave radio from my suitcase, inserted my headphones, and scanned the frequencies for any English-language station. I found some music, but nothing that held my interest. I was hoping to find CBC Radio International, but had no luck. After a short time of fiddling with the device—a gift from my last job—I put it back in my luggage.

We weren't going to unpack our belongings. We had no intention of living with our workmate. On the rare time that we spoke with our director about our contract, he had been clear that he had a one-bedroom apartment that we could use. This apartment had three. We would stay here until we could speak with Mr. Kwon and would get this situation cleared up.

We snoozed, off and on. At 8:00, we heard Linda in the shower and, shortly after, she emerged from her room, fully dressed. We greeted her and she showed us where everything was, told us to help ourselves to food. She was heading out to teach her private students (told us that despite it being illegal, being against our work visa, it was widely done and was how many teachers richly supplemented their income) and would be back later in the afternoon. She rightly assumed that we would just want to hang out at the apartment, would want to deal with our jet lag.

She was right.

It wasn't until late in the afternoon that we felt we had enough energy to venture out, to see something of Chŏnju. Linda was tired, having also had a long day in Seoul, coming to collect us from the airport, but agreed to drive us around.

She never had to leave the parking lot. As we headed to the small car that Mr. Kwon had provided for the teachers, another westerner pulled up to us, looking for one of the teachers who DW and I were replacing, only to learn that he was too late, that the former teacher had left on Friday.

Linda introduced us to Jason, who in turn offered to show us around the city. He was killing time, as his wife was teaching her private students. He offered to take DW and me for a bite to eat.

Jason had taught at our institute but had left several months earlier, and he and his wife were now living in Taejŏn, a city that was about an hour away. He and his wife were exclusively teaching privately, living on tourist visas. It was risky, but he and his wife were making a fortune.

He showed us where we worked: a five-story, purple building at an intersection that saw five roads converge. He showed us the bus station and city hall, and he treated us to massive bowls of chicken noodle soup that cost next to nothing. 

By the time he returned us to Linda's apartment, the fatigue of jet lag left us feeling like we had gone on a drinking binge. We briefly mumbled some incoherent words to Linda and returned to our bedroom, where the day closed like a light shutting off.

Tomorrow, we would be starting work.

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