The Tank Ain't Empty

Hometown USA 1997

JT told me I would need a tourist Visa valid for five years, good for 90 days and renewable for the same length every time I entered the country. This kind of renewable Visa is a great way for illegal English teachers like JT and his brother to get around Korea's immigration laws. To get a legitimate work Visa you have to sign a contract with a Korean employer for at least one year. That gives the employer so much power over you that it is hard to make the kind of money illegals make, it's also hard to come and go as you please, and you have to pay taxes too.

One downside to this tourist Visa scam is really an upside for many teachers who work in Korea under the table: every three months illegals have to make a "Visa Jump" where you have to leave Korea and re-enter to get your 90 days renewed. "Visa Jumping" can be expensive, but it enables the restless traveler/teacher to go see a different country--if only briefly--every 90 days or so. It's a great excuse to get away to Hong Kong, Thailand, Guam, wherever. And Japan is only a three-hour boat ride or a short flight from some Korean ports.

At least that’s how JT sold it to me.

Personally, I really only intended to stay in Korea for the three weeks, or so, that it would take to substitute teach JT's brother's classes, but I also wanted a few free days to kick around the peninsula. Perhaps drop in on a few old haunts down in Pusan. How could I go wrong; I could scratch my itch to get out of town, see an old buddy in an exotic locale, make some straight cash, and return to Korea for the first time in 10 years.

"Oh, by the way," he asks, "you do still speak some Korean don't you?"
"Well I haven't really tried in years, but I'm sure there's enough still in the tank."
"Good. 'Cuz Korean women are the most beautiful women in the world but I can't communicate with them."

Oh, that's where I come in.

A Master of Arts Takes a Phone Call

By December of 1996 I finished my grad school course work, and I wrote and defended my Thesis. Pretty easy really. Straight A grades (except for a B in a course called "Women Writers"). Basically only took me two drafts to get the Thesis written. The only real drag about the program was the grading of freshman composition papers. Agony.

Not surprisingly, I found myself in no great rush to get a job. I was also realistic (cynical?) enough to know I couldn't make a PhD in literature work. Sure I was still living in my parents' basement and working part-time selling sporting goods, but I had very little money and even less motivation. Out of the clear blue, JT called me. Long time no hear. The last time I saw my old college drinking buddy was right after he had written a goodbye note for his wife, endorsed over his last paycheck to her, and left her--for good.

He came to visit me then, a little sad but a lot free. He told me he was heading out on the road. "OTR" he called it. I doubt he coined the term, but he loved saying it so I let him. Since then, friends had caught random tidbits of rumors that JT had "turned gay," he was living in Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines. I had heard nothing first-hand until now. Turns out JT is in Seoul, Korea, of all places, teaching English with his little brother. Life is great, the cash is good, but his brother is leaving for L.A. for three weeks to get married and he needs a substitute to teach his classes for him while he is gone. That's where I come in. No rent, low cost-of-living, plenty of income. Sounded good to me…

The End of One Detour, Start of Another

Hometown USA 1992

One of the main problems with working in the film industry was the complete absence of a social life outside of the production. In short, it afforded my girlfriend way too much time to be unfaithful to me. Long story short, it ain't nice to be cuckolded at the age of 26 and dumped over the phone after 2 years.

By the end of 1991 I was mentally done with the production lifestyle but I had no other plans. I needed a change of career path, of social circle, and environment. When the TV series I was working on was cancelled right before Christmas, I did what everyone else in the industry does and filed to collect my unemployment benefit. I was entitled to the maximum benefit (US $960/month) for a period of four months. Instead of aggressively seeking gainful employment, I intended to collect the whole amount unless presented with an opportunity I couldn't refuse.

By the Spring of 1992, no such opportunity had appeared and President Clinton signed an unemployment extension for another four months. I took advantage of that to the fullest. I spent hours and hours at the pool. I was getting tan and meeting girls. The Summer of 1992 still ranks in the top 5 all time summers of mine halcyon.

Otherwise, I spent a lot of time in my own head trying to figure out what to do next. I read a lot and thought a lot. I highly recommend such a period. In fact, if I wasn't afraid (by afraid I mean I have a home mortgage, a rental property, a car payment, a wife, and two young kids), I would love to do it again right now.

I took the GRE, nailed it, applied to grad schools, and got accepted to a Master of Arts program to study literature. I also got an assistantship to teach English Comp 101 and 102 along with a nice stipend and an office (really a closet) on campus. Come Autumn 1992, I was full on into a new chapter of my life. It was not necessarily a chapter that would lead me on a road to immediate financial independence and wealth, but it certainly was a timely escape from the limbo of the early 1990's.

The Detour Part 3

Hometown USA 1990-1992

At the risk of being called a "name dropper," I herewith list some of the actors I met during the course of my 3-year detour. Some you have heard of for sure, some you might need to look up in IMDB. Anyway, in no particular order:

Vanessa Williams
Robert Urich (not one of my faves)
Chris Noth
Dalton James
Aaron Eckhardt
Gail O'Grady (one of my faves)
Elizabeth Berkeley
Brooke Shields
Joanna Kerns
John Trudell
Wilford Brimley
Kathleen Lloyd
Ed Begley Jr
Richard Farnsworth
Dennis Franz
Pam Dawber
Bruce Altman
Gregory Harrison
Michael Apted (Director)
Marlee Shelton ("oiling and lotioning")
Louise Fletcher
Saul Rubinek
Lloyd Bridges
Beau Bridges
Gerald McRaney

You get the picture.

The Detour Part 2

Hometown USA 1990-1992

I have tons of stories from my days working in film; not all of them great. But I'm trying to fast forward to my next Korea chapter so I'll save those stories for another time and place. Well, maybe one story right now wouldn't hurt.

I was 2nd Prop Assistant (working on set) on a TV Movie of the Week. There were four of us in the Prop department. We kept a very clear line of distinction between us and the Art Department; they were responsible for set design and decoration and we were responsible for anything an actor touched. They generally worked one or two weeks ahead of us so we rarely saw each other. They were a zany bunch of kids who had worked on many shoots together. I had worked with most of them on several occasions.

They had a totem that they each carried around with them. They claimed it was their source of strength. It looked like a Bishop from Chess with a smiley face on the front. They tried to secretly place a large one somewhere on each set they decorated. Nobody watching the show would ever notice it, but it gave them a huge thrill to see their source of power on TV.

One day at the Production office, I found myself in the Art Department office while they were all away. Next to their computer was a large one of their totems. I couldn't resist messing with them. I tied a string with a mini noose around its neck and tacked the other end of the string to the ceiling so it hung down at eye level. I stepped back to admire my work. But that wasn't enough. I grabbed an art pencil and wrote on the front of the totem: "I like to f*ck." I left the defiled fellow hanging from the ceiling.

The Detour

Hometown USA 1990-1992

Short version: I worked in the film industry for three years.

Long version: From my humble beginnings making Korean props for a failed movie, I moved on to set construction for local commercials and small productions. I got a "break" from a local Prop Master I met who hired me as the Prop Buyer for a TV series (it ain't what you know, it's who you know). The Buyer role was pretty fun, and it paid a flat $150/day. I was getting paid to drive around and spend someone else's money on stuff we needed for the show. Shooting schedules on a TV series are tight so I had license to throw money at something if I thought we really needed it.

Example: We were to shoot a scene that called for homing pigeons to fly off and the actor had to hold some sort of tracking device. I made a black box with flashing red LEDs from parts I bought at Radio Shack. I also ended up hiring a Falconer for the day, including his equipment and expertise. He didn't want to do it, but I kept offering him more money until he finally agreed. The scene looked realistic, and we even put the Falconer in the shot for a brief moment. Everybody was happy.

That series got cancelled after a mere 8 episodes. From there I moved on to other productions where I worked in the Prop or Art Departments. I was 2nd Assistant Props on a 12 episode TV series, same position on a TV Movie of the Week, Assistant Set Decorator on a couple Movies of the Week, 1st Assistant Props on a low budget feature, and myriad roles on countless other commercials and productions. All those jobs paid between $150 and $225 per day. The most money I made per day was as the Greensman on a Chevy Truck commercial.

"Greensman" is a bit of an ironic title for what I did on that shoot because it was the most un-Green thing I've ever done. Al Gore is turning over in grave as we speak. The genius director wanted me to cover up 200 yards of barbed wire fence by attaching plants to it. I rented a 27-foot U-Haul truck and drove around the nearby countryside with a chainsaw just mowing down any kind of vegetation I could get my hands on. It took two days to gather and attach all the greenery I needed, one day to shoot the scene, and one day to break it down and haul it to the landfill. $1,675 dollars later and I needed a serious nap.

The film industry certainly isn't all glamour and glitz. Work days were usually 13-16 hours long with only an 8-hour turnaround guaranteed before they could require me back at work. Add it up and it equals zero social life. There was no time to spend any money so I was saving fairly well even though I was pretty much scholarshipping my mean girlfriend through college (maybe more on her later).

Thanks to Bill Clinton, I spent the majority of 1993 collecting my unemployment benefit and getting a rockin' tan. I firmly believe everyone needs an extended poolside period to get their head right. It worked for me...

Overthrowing the Dictator

Hometown USA 1990

I had a short phone call with a guy who was working on a film about the current state of democracy in South Korea. They were planning for a scene of a massive demonstration; ubiquitous in Korea at the time. They needed to make it look real and planned to outfit hundreds of extras (background actors) with banners and headbands with slogans. The pay was ridiculously high for the amount of effort I wouldn't have to put in. I agreed to do it.

One morning a few days later I found a huge pile of supplies on my porch. There was plenty of banner paper, markers, paint, and hundreds of plain white bandannas. I sat around for a few hours writing things like "독재 타도" on banners and bandannas rolled into headbands. I had a few other slogans I used too but I don't remember them anymore.

When I was done I left the whole pile out on the porch and the guy picked them up in the morning. I placed a makeshift invoice in with the "props" I made and eventually got a check for $450. Decent. Now that is putting your degree to good use eh?

Even though I hadn't met the guy who contracted me to phony up some Korean "demo" materials, we did have a mutual friend. That friend later hooked me up to do some more work for the guy. We then became friends. He worked in the film industry, generally working in props or the Art Department on whatever shoot he could get hired onto. My friend told him I needed to make some money and the next thing I knew I was pounding a hammer on the set of a mattress commercial starring Vanna White as the spokesperson. And that one small mistake started me on a miserable and dark 3 year career detour...


Hometown USA 1990

I was flat broke when I graduated. I had rent and some small bills to pay. I had a smallish student loan to pay back. And, thanks to an over-optimistic view of my immediate earning potential, I had a car payment on a brand new 1990 Honda. I wracked my brain but I could not come up with a way to make all those payments while I was off in Korea on a scholarshipped scholarly trip. In the end, I called my teacher and told him I was not going to be able to go with him to Korea that summer. Bummer.

I had two job interviews in Dallas that summer. Brian was living in Dallas at the time, but we hadn't spoken since his wedding. My older brother, whom I did not get along very well with, was living in Dallas with his first wife (whom I couldn't stand). I wasn't very keen on moving to Dallas.

The first interview was with a customer support company that needed a Korean speaker. I nailed the interview and the woman had all but offered me a spot on her husband's softball team (not a euphemism) when I went in and met the supervisor. He was a young-ish Chinese-American guy. He started the meeting by saying "안녕하십니까"? I responded appropriately of course, but he just stared blankly at me. After an awkward moment he asked me to say something in Korean. I realized he didn't know any Korean other than that most basic greeting so I thought for a second about what to say.

I've always thought that anybody who speaks a second language, or who has studied one, would never ask someone to just "say something." What's the point? I could say "I love silk worm larvae" in Korean and tell the guy I said he was "very handsome" and he would never know the difference. Anyway, I said something in Korean and of course he asked me what I said. Not the most productive interview technique I've ever seen, but apparently it worked to weed me out. I expected an offer and one never came. A few days later, I called and asked for an update. He told me he hired a Korean friend.

I bombed at the other interview in Dallas too. It was the same kind of job at Sprint. As my younger brother loves to say: "hindsight is 50/50." Secretly I am glad I never moved to Dallas.

Back at home I was getting desperate for some income. A friend of a friend approached me with a most random request. This guy was working in the prop department on a film about the state of democracy in South Korea. I don't think the film ever even made it to video, but it had enough of a budget to ask me for some favors...

Getting My Learn On

USA 1988-90

I progressed through the Asian Studies/Korean program without much issue, and without much challenge. I got one grade below "A" and that was in Korean History. My research paper really sucked and that brought my grade down. I was supposed to take a position on whether or not US Forces should remain in Korea and I waffled back and forth through the paper without ever really taking a side. Grade for the course: "B." That was the only chink in my GPA armour until the spring term of 1990.

In the spring of 1990 I met with the graduation counselor and all was set for me to march into commencement with my double major. There was, however, the problem of Anthropology 400-something. It was a cultural anthropology class focusing on Asia. One day per week we met in a large auditorium for lecture-style learning generally, and twice a week we broke out into smaller groups by country of interest. I was in the Korean breakout with 8 or 9 others. It was a fun group, a diverse group, and we really got into the guts of Korea. I liked it a lot. I had a solid rapport with the teacher and was tops in the Korean section.

The problem was that we had to deliver a 20-page Ethnography by the end of the term. That involved many long conversations with Koreans focusing on some aspect of culture we wanted to study. I could not bring myself to do it. Just couldn't even start it. It was not going to happen.

I came up with the genius workaround to see if the department chairman would let me count another course instead of Anthropology and still graduate on time with the double major. He looked at me like I was from outer space that day. It was not a fun meeting. He went so far as to tell me the graduation counselor had miscounted (double-counted) my credits and I was not even close to the double major I was already counting the chickens of. I could still get the Korean degree but could only get the Asian Studies minor. While that was not the news I had hoped for, it certainly made my decision much easier on what to do about the dreaded Ethnography. Correct, I bagged it entirely. If I had simply done the Ethnography, even a shitty job of one, I would have that double major today.

I continued to attend the Korea breakout twice per week, but took no tests and didn't lift a finger on the Ethnography. The instructor, thinking he was doing me a favor, offered to give me and Incomplete on it so I could finish it over the summer, but I quickly disabused him of any such notion.

I graduated in the spring of 1990 with no real plans and only a couple of job interviews where I could use my Korean. There was an opportunity that summer that intrigued me. The instructor of the Korean Anthropology breakout was leading a group to Korea for 90 days to conduct cultural anthropology research. The whole thing was paid for (funded by some Korean conglomerate heir or something) but he could only take 3 students. I applied. I applied even though I had basically failed out of his course because I refused to do an ethnography. I applied to get paid to go to Korea and do an ethnography even though I refused to do one for free in college.

Of course I was accepted and we started making plans for the trip...

Getting Settled Back Home

July 2009: I just returned from a week in New York City. While there I tried to drown my liver, managed to deprive myself of sleep, and spent far too much time talking to the 19-year old daughter of a famous tennis player. Call me slow on the uptake, but I knew it was "too much time" when she told me she named one of her breasts "Chloe" and the other "Coco." Chloe was mostly on display most of the night. Coco is a bit more shy it would seem...

Other than all that, I feel fresh enough to now resume the my Korea narrative.

1988: I eventually settled in to the ol' college routine. I decided to pursue a degree in International Relations. In addition to the required political science classes and whatnot else, the program required 2 years of a foreign language (student's choice). Not surprisingly I jumped on the Korean.

I was well ahead of the other non-Korean students and it showed in the test results. In one Korean class we studied "sound changes" for a while. Before we started on the topic, the teacher gave an assessment-like test to gauge the students' understanding of sound changes. We were to read several pages of Korean text, circle any sound changes and write in the proper pronunciation (example: if the text read "밥을 먹는데", you would circle it and write "밥을 멍는데" because that is how it's pronounced). I got the highest score in the class (even better than the one Korean girl). Sound changes are hard for most non-Koreans it seems, but I had them down. I only missed 4 out of 100 on the assessment test. (I missed "그렇다." I should have circled it and written "그러타.") See?

We then spent a week learning all the sound changes and took the test again. I got 100%. The Korean girl got 98%. The next highest score was in the 70's.

The point is, I quickly bailed on International Relations and switched to Asian Studies and Korean.