The Strike

1987 in Busan, South Korea

Sept. 3
Long time.* We rented a car and made money all night driving all over town.** It was a blast. I met Young-Sook and drove all over town to Gwang-An beach and back. I met her again the other night and she came over and I love her intensely. My student in Nam-Cheon Dong quit and I started teaching at Yangsan (Samchullyho Bike Company). I called home for Mom's birthday.

*Eight days without a single journal entry is the longest I went in Korea without writing something. My good friend Brian had just arrived to teach with me at KHI. From now on I use "we" to refer to the 2 of us.

**All of the company taxi drivers went on strike. There really was no way to get anywhere once the personal taxis shut down around dinner time. Brian and I went and rented a car for 12 hours and started picking up people and driving them to their destinations. I drove while Brian DJ-ed from a shoebox full of tapes he brought from the States. Blancmange and The Eurogliders got a lot of air time that night.

We picked up 2 couples from Gwang-An beach, piled the four of them in the back seat and drove them out to Gupo. With almost no other cars on the road, we flew. We blazed up the hill, through the tunnel, and down the hill. Think about that couple for a minute. You think they still tell their friends about that one time they got driven home by two speeding foreigners in a rented car with the windows down, and music blaring? I wonder.

Other highlights: a lone, semi-intoxicated girl walking down the street late that night. We pull up alongside and ask where she's going. She says where and I tell her to get in. She gets in and I tell her it will cost however much. She gets pissed and jumps back out and starts to walk away. I feel bad and drive slowly alongside trying to talk her into getting back in; I tell her I won't charge her. Eventually she gets in and off we go.

In On-Cheon-Jang there where throngs of people stranded with no way out of there. We returned there many times to pick up riders, telling others we'd be right back. A group of friends fold their loaded pal into the back seat and send us to some nearby apartments. We drop the guy, he overpays, and leaves. I still doubt he had any idea who drove him home that night. His friends probably had a good laugh at his expense.

At some nice apartment complex we pick up a very pregnant lady and her mother. Once we are all buckled in, I come flying out of there and am hauling ass around a bend with them both white-knuckling it in the back. Nobody else on the roads, windows down, music blaring. All of a sudden, sirens. I get pulled over by a motorcycle cop. The ladies in back are freaking out, thinking what we are doing is illegal, plus I was clearly speeding. As the copper walks up to the car, I put my head and arms out with palms up and say loudly in English: "What seems to be the problem officer"? He stops dead in his tracks. Looks at me. Waves his hands at me as if to say: "Go on asshole." We drive off laughing. What a couple of tools.

We refueled at least once and by 6 a.m. when we returned the car having driven all night, we had enough money to pay for the gas and the rental fee. Ahhhhh, good times.

I Am Beat

1987 in Busan, South Korea

August 15
The 13th flew and yesterday I went to 송정 with some students. I burnt to a crisp all over. We swam and played. It was fun. After that I killed them in table tennis. Then to 쉼표. I am a strange man. I wanted to go there only to see if Ok-Jeong was there but I didn't want to go alone so I offered to buy the students a drink. How stupid. Anyway, she was there with Young-Sook. I had a brief word. I came home. Today another picnic and I was beat. We climbed high and came down. It was fun but I am beat. Johnson called. He and Mark might come but I doubt it. Did I write before that I doubted it?

August 16
Sunday. Home all day.

August 20
Time flew. Wednesday 5 a.m. Brian ding dong at my door and came in. That night I saw Young-Sook and we walked home together and decided to meet tonight and we had dinner and she was so sexy. She had jeans on and she is really sexy. I was amazed. I want to go around with her. She has no time. Today I received my 250 dollars for teaching a student at Nam-Cheon Dong. I am excited.

August 21
Class. To the Casino. I came out with 10,000 (Won) extra and taxi money. It was fun.

August 23
Yesterday to the picnic. Miss Kim didn't come. I was crushed. It was dead. She called me at Love's Gleaning. I love her. We went to Xanadu. It was dead. Miss Jeong is hammered. I went and lost 20,000 at the Casino. I was beat.

August 25
Two days of classes and it was dead. I want to die. I wanted to die. Young-Sook doesn't love me and I am crushed. I wanted to die.

The Dick Made the Wrong One

1987 in Busan, South Korea

August 6
Class and over to Miss Yang's Aunt's house. I was tired after little sleep last night. I saw Ok-Jeong again at night but couldn't talk to her. I talked to Vince.

August 7
Class and Busan Bank (부산은행). I opened a 자유저축 (savings account). I met Ok-Jeong after class and we ate with her friend Young-Sook. She was rad too. We walked and talked. She wants to live alone and never marry. I wouldn't be afraid to be alone with her in a quiet dark private place. I would like being friends with her. Miss Yang told me she couldn't be friends with me. She blew it.

August 9
Sunday to Gwang-an. Miss Jeong is back. She gave me my tape that Carrie had. Also she bought me the new Psychedelic Furs album. Went looking for a new apartment with Mr. Shin. Nothing around so we may move to to 동일 park. We may buy it. I don't know. It is so very far from town. They say that the rich people are moving up here because the air is fresh and the subway is through.

August 11
Class and I went to NamPoDong to meet 미연 and 지연. They are twins and young. It wasn't too fun. So I went to see 지영 but she was nowhere. I am worried. Class and went to get my ring but the dick made the wrong one. I was pissed but held back.

August 12
Class and not much. I am feeling lonely again.


Hometown USA, 1997

It was the first time and the last time I ever got paid to work as an interpreter.

A Public Defender named “Amerigo” engaged my translation services on account of he was very frustrated because of a client he couldn’t communicate with. He thought the problem was a language barrier due to the client being Korean-American. We met at the County Courthouse where his client had already been behind bars for some 32 days. After passing all the security checks, Amerigo and I were escorted into a dingy holding cell where “Komidge”* was humbly sitting handcuffed in an orange jumpsuit. The cell reeked of body odor and stale sweat, and as we sat down, I could smell Komidge’s pungent breath from across the table. It stank as if he had survived for 32 days by sucking on garlic cloves and cigarettes without ever brushing his teeth.

Amerigo was not subtle about his distaste for this client and this case. He handed me the police report and curtly told me to translate it to Komidge and ask him what he had to say. I soon realized the communication problem was due more to the fact that Komidge was perhaps a bit simple, and very easily distracted. He would switch between Korean and English randomly, while showing an obvious preference for English. Whenever we got any momentum by me sticking to Korean, he would stop and ask me in English how I came to know Korean. It’s a common problem for Koreans to not be able to process the fact that someone so clearly not Korean could possibly be speaking the 조선말. It just does not compute.

The police report said that Komidge had made sexually suggestive gestures and comments to two little girls at a homeless shelter playground. As I was fumbling through my 한영영한 사전trying to translate the report aloud, I asked him if he had solicited sex from the two “girls (여자).” He reacted immediately to my use of the word “여자.” He got agitated enough to speak Korean and denied all the charges saying, “They weren’t ‘girls,’ they were 'young children' (어린이).” It was as if the distinction indicated a deeper sense of morality that would prevent one from doing the things Komidge was accused of. I told Amerigo what he said and shared my impression. Amerigo, visibly disgusted, got up and left the stinky cell.

Three weeks later Amerigo called and asked me to come appear before the judge and interpret for Komidge. He had struck a deal with the Prosecutor to lower the charge to some misdemeanor. The Prosecutor would request credit for the time already served if Komidge agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge. Komidge, nearly crying, defiantly asserted his innocence. I asked him if he wanted out of jail. If so, all he had to do was cop to it. It clearly didn’t sit right with him, but he said he would. When the judge asked him if he agreed with the terms of the settlement, he paused for quite some time. The judge asked me what was going on. I turned and simply whispered to Komidge to say he was guilty. He bowed his head and with slumped shoulders, meekly whimpered “guilty.” The judge credited time served and closed the case with a crisp crack of the gavel.

Amerigo got up to leave, turned back to me and said, “Tell him he better leave town and never come back.” I feebly muttered “Freedom” to Komidge in his mother tongue and left the courtroom with a gnawing in the pit of my stomach.

I never saw nor heard from Amerigo or Komidge again.

*Names have been changed. Komidge is not a Korean name that I have ever heard. But neither was the alliteratively similar name that the client actually used.

The Best Way to Remove a Band-Aid

August 1987

Over the next few weeks, Young-sook and I continued to see each other. But it was becoming more and more clear that she was losing interest.

One night after class I went down to a flower shop across the street from Spa Shopping and sent some flowers up to the Levi’s Corner for her. I asked the flower lady to write the card for me. I remember exactly what I asked her to write but it really was too pathetic for me to put down here. It worked. As soon as I walked back into KHI, I had a message from Young-sook. She wanted to meet.

We met at 쉼표 and ordered a couple OBs. Long story short…she told me she had a boyfriend. A Korean one. I didn’t believe her but I had no cards left to play. I asked her what she wanted me to do. She shrugged cutely and said: "그냥 가지 뭐."


Today she is likely a 40-something mother of a couple high-schoolers. She probably wears her hair like a helmet and putters around the house in 몸배 while her husband gets his drink on with his emotional mistress.

My Kind of Tour Guide

I was really looking forward to finding out what Young-sook meant by “play all night.” That next Thursday after work we met at 흑백 for dinner. 흑백 is near KHI Institute and close to Young-sook’s neighborhood. We had some pork cutlet with steamed rice and a couple OB lagers. After dinner she suggested we take a walk and we set off in the direction of her parent’s house. I started to get bummed out because I thought she had changed her mind about “all night” because “all night” usually meant downtown and downtown is the other direction. The more we walked the more I moped along. Then out of the blue she asks, “Have you ever seen a traditional Korean 여관?

“I’ll take you on a tour of one.” I remember her exact words: “구경시켜 줄께.”


She turned us down a sidestreet and wordlessly steered us into 세종관 여관. Up the stairs I followed, she said something to the owner and handed him what looked to be a single 만원자리. He, in turn, handed over a room key. I got the distinct impression she had done this all before.

There was no bed in the room. A thin pad on the floor and two hard block pillows. While I puzzled and giggled to myself, she disappeared into the bathroom. When she returned she was wearing a long-sleeved button-up dress shirt over her panties. Where that shirt came from I have no idea.

The next morning, for some reason that I myself cannot explain, I left Young-sook at the 세종관 very early to go teach my morning “free-talking” class. My most hated class.

I had pretty much understood a 여관 to be a cheap, no frills motel, but I didn’t grasp the unspoken significance of 여관 in Korean culture until many years later. Many years after my first all-night guided tour of one with Spa Shopping Levi’s Corner’s Kim Young-sook. She was a true ambassador of Korean culture and I celebrate her to this day.

My Mind, An Overnighter

I might never have seen Ok-jeong again if I hadn’t stalked her out at Spa Shopping. She manned (womanned?) a tiny Levi’s kiosk with a rotating host of female co-workers. To avoid getting her in trouble with her boss I would occasionally buy some overpriced item that she thought would look cute on me. Sucker. For several years after I had a bright yellow shirt and a pair of Khakis I bought from her. An ink pen leaked into the shirt pocket and ruined it. Inside the pants in the back was a patch that read, “This pants was once loved by an American hero and gives you now a good sensation.” I don’t have those pants or the patch anymore, but I still carry the “MY MIND, LEVI’S” keychain she gave me:
My favorite kiosk mate of hers was called Young-sook. She had been drinking at Miss Yang’s bar the night Ok-jeong took me for a walk and the power went out. Young-sook was on the tall side, and slim, she wore her wavy black hair long with short bangs. She didn’t have the typical flat back side like most Koreans who grew up sleeping on the floor; in fact she had a nice hump for a rump. She once remarked how people thought she had a “Western ass.” I had to concur. When I would visit the Levi’s Corner she would just stand there laughing without even covering her mouth. I laughed too.

Once I showed up at Spa and Ok-jeong was not there. Young-sook was there alone. We made a bold and secret plan to meet on the sly. I can’t even remember how it came up, but Ok-jeong never knew about it. We went out a couple times. She came to my apartment a few times. She gave me a stuffed teddy bear that I took to bed with me every night for a long time.

One night I rented a car and drove us down to Haeundae Beach where we sat in a 포장마차 and shared raw sea cucumber and a couple bottles of 소주. The 소주 was working and Young-sook told me she had the next Friday off from Spa and she could tell her parents she was staying with her sister up in Yangsan so we could stay out all night and play…if I wanted.

Ummm. “OK.”

A Power Outage

August 1987 Busan, South Korea

KHI Institute was on the third floor of an office building one block from the main entrance to BNU (Busan National University) so the majority of the students were of college age. Mr. Shin had sternly advised me against dating any of my students. "That would be too scandalous," he said. (Great word Shin!) Of course it didn’t stop him from doing it. Neither did the fact that he was married. But that’s another story.

One night after my last class I went downstairs to Miss Yang's Bar (the aptly named "쉼표") for a couple of unwinders. Miss Yang and I had become friendly, she was studying English upstairs, she owned the bar and gave me free sandwiches for lunch almost everyday (with the crusts cut off). I liked to talk to her because she would give me the straight dope on the subtleties of Korean culture.

As I sat alone at the bar one particular evening, there was a rambunctious tableful of young women enjoying a variety of alcoholic beverages. They smoked, laughed, drank, and had a good ol’ time. Such a scene is pretty rare so I stared at it—in 1987 it was the Korean men who were known as "the Irish of Asia," not the women. Picking up on the fact that I was intrigued, Miss Yang employed an age-old Korean hostess trick and promised to introduce me if I sent over a round of OB Lagers. I agreed.

"White, this is Ok-jeong. Ok-jeong, this is White. He is a teacher upstairs at the 학원."
"Hello Mr. White. Do you like walking?"
"Ok. We'll take a walk later. Don't leave."
Me, like an obedient puppy, I stayed.

That was pretty forward for a Korean girl at that time. Ok-jeong was tall for a Korean, thickset (dare I say big-boned?), somewhat square-headed with the popular shoulder-length bobbed haircut, the standard black, thick-rimmed glasses worn most likely for fashion. She looked more naughty than hotty but I was interested in spite of myself. An hour later it was stormy out and we were walking across the BNU campus, "Are you a student?" I nervously stammered in busted Korean.

"No. I work at the Levi's Corner at Spa Shopping near 온천장. Do you know it? I never went to college, just started working at Spa two years ago. It's really fun. Those girls back at 쉼표 all work at Spa with me, but only one of them works at the Levi's corner. She is Young-Sook. She is my best friend, the same age as me. We went to school together at On-Cheon Girls High School. We like to go out after work and drink alcohol sometimes, but my mother doesn't like it. My father is in Saudi Arabia right now. He has been there for one year and a half. Miss Yang said you teach English at KHI. Let's sit down. I'm going to smoke a cigarette."

I didn't think there was much more to talk about but she was on fast-forward and smoked and talked non-stop until she decided it was time to start walking again. "Let's hold hands," she proposed as the weather worsened. Soon we were at the front door of my apartment and the wind was kicking up. Before any awkwardness could set in I grabbed her and kissed her. She leaned in. Her flavor was a pleasant blend of smoky citrus and alcohol. She was a little drunk. I walked her in without asking. She gracefully found the floor in my bedroom. Around 2:30 a.m. the power went out.

"White, perhaps did you tell the power to go out"?


Busan, South Korea

August 4, 1987
Andy was unhealthy and the 학원 seems a shambles and I am the only stable man. So I think that says a lot. Tomorrow is payday. I am feeling lonely lately but I don't necessarily feel like going about with certain students. Today during my nap I awakened to find myself lost without any clue as to the time of day or my whereabouts. I was freaking out.

August 5
Nothing much*. I was feeling really terrible about my complexion but at 쉼표 Miss Yang introduced Ok-jeong to me. She seemed rad so we talked. After, we walked home and she came in and she was forward. She was hooked. I needed her for then. We will meet in the future. She had had much to drink. I will be busy. I got paid 907,500.

*Nothing much? That is certainly underselling what happened that night as well as what is here-to-follow...

The Golden Ring of Entitlement

Busan, South Korea

August 3 1987
Class and Mr. Moon is gone and Mr Cho too. I had some 보신탕* and got measured for my gold ring**. 59,000 won. I was pleased. My parents called last night for some chat.

*'Tis the season for the dog meat stew, eh? Feels like I'm eating it almost every day.

**Mr. Shin was trying to show some gratitude and/or bribe me to be happy so I might stick around longer. Kind of like a 3-month performance bonus. So he and I went to a jewelry store and picked out a gold ring for me. He had more input into the selection than I did, but in the end "I was pleased."

Looking back I strike myself as someone with a misplaced sense of entitlement. As if the ring was my god-given right. As if it was owed to me. It's not like people went around giving me jewelry back then (they don't today either...). But I can't find anywhere in my journal where I wrote about gratitude. In fact, I distinctly recall being pissed off when I went to pick up the ring and it wasn't exactly the design I had ordered. I was convinced Mr. Shin had gone back and changed the order to be more like the one he had liked, possibly even a cheaper one. A conspiracy!

If you've been following this series for a while you are probably expecting me to post a picture of the ring. Alas, I don't have it. But to tell now what happened to it would be to spoil the excitement of November 1987.