BUSAN, South Korea – I am what you would call a "lifer" here in Korea. At times, I struggle with the term. I guess I really don’t believe I’m going to die here. But I have spent half of my adult life and a quarter of my entire life here already. For those of you trying to do the math right now, I’m 40.
There was a time when I, too, was a newbie, living like any newbie does. Living for my next vacation, really taking in the sites, sounds and smells of Asia for the first time. Incessantly talking about the stuff I missed back home. I wanted to learn the Korean language (and Sino-Korean characters too), and eat only Korean food. I was sure I was going to learn Tae-kwon-do, and I would chant with the Buddhist monks, live with the monks, and dress like the monks (for a weekend). Newbies sure have a lot of monk fantasies. I was going to go to Pyongyang and exchange sunglasses with Kim Jong Il, and he would make peace with the South because of me, etc. But of course, life in Korea was shocking… and difficult.
About the only thing I managed to accomplish was the first task of learning the Korean language (minus the Chinese characters). It took a long time, and I wasn’t ready to translate for the UN or anything, but I managed to understand and engage in small talk with Koreans. I could talk about things like, “How old are you?’ and “Why do you have so much hair on your body?”
One unique opportunity presented itself to me about a year or so into my Korean sojourn. I got a call from a TV producer at MBC studios in Busan, and he told me that they needed a foreigner who spoke Korean to do a segment on a weekly TV show. He added that I was recommended by one of my foreigner friends. Upon recovering from the shock that one of my friends would ever know a Korean TV producer, I surmised that he probably walked into our local watering hole on the one night of the week I wasn’t there and announced, “Can anybody here speak Korean?”
I was intrigued by the offer and wondered how many millions of won being on TV would bring me.
“About 200,000 won per episode,” he said. That seemed like a lot, and if the first show went well, he told me, I would be a regular. So I agreed to meet him Thursday morning for the first taping…which would end up taking 14 hours. My booty of 200,000 won was seeming a lot less booty-licious.
The segment was called Gus and Ryu Min Learn Stuff in the Country. I know the title is a little verbose, but it sounded good in Korean. Ryu-min was a Chinese exchange student who was cute and perky (not in a good way, but in a fake way), spoke perfect Korean and was loved by everybody (except for me). The stuff we were supposed to learn was traditional arts, crafts, bamboo weaving, fishing, oyster shucking and a myriad of other “stuff” done by traditional Korean methods. All of which (including the part about Ryu Min), I learned on the van ride to the countryside.
We finally arrived in a small village that was famous for something. They asked me if I had heard of the place (I hadn’t). The day’s task was to make a cheegae, a traditional backpack used in the Chosun Dynasty for transporting heavy materials.
Let me just preface by saying I cannot make things. I am devoid of all artistic abilities. To me, “Art” was Paul Simon’s music partner. Even writing on paper is a stretch. In school, I had to use one of those special pencil correctors that only kids with mittens pinned to their coats were required to have.
As you can imagine, I was not fairing well at weaving the intricate pattern of bamboo, twine and wood as the cameras recorded my folly. The old man and woman who owned the place were very kind, and patient throughout my struggle. Meanwhile, Ryu Min was knocking hers out like she had been working in a Shanghai cheegae sweatshop for years. The producer suddenly stopped everyone and said, “This isn’t working. Let’s try a different angle.”
He pointed to the old couple and instructed them to hit me as hard as they could every time I made a mistake. With my limited Korean, I didn’t understand the “as hard as they could” part until the cameras began rolling again. As if they were trained by the Three Stooges, they both hit me hard (the woman on the top of my head and the man on my back) every time I mis-wove one spot or didn’t pull the twine tight enough. The laughter of the producer and crew only empowered the couple as their blows began to get harder and harder and my mistakes more frequent.
“This is how I represent my country on TV?” I thought. “As a punching bag?” Like a Japanese game show, I just didn’t get it. But apparently, it was hilarious.
The following Monday was the live performance. The hosts introduced us and we watched the edited tape in front of a studio audience of ajjumas who roared with laughter. They especially liked the part when the old woman sprained her hand and had to use a stick to beat me. After the five minute clip ended, one of the hosts turned to me and asked, “How was your experience with Korean culture?”
In the script, there was this bullshit answer about how wonderful it was to learn about Korea’s long and dignified history and how seeing the beautiful countryside made me appreciate Korea’s wonderful four seasons. Instead I said what I really felt, “Painful and degrading.” I got laughs from the crowd that would crescendo into an ovation. From that point, a star was born. We were a hit in that most coveted of demographics, women 50 to 75 living in Busan.
I did that show for another four months and several other local radio and TV shows afterwards. Now, I compare my time in the spotlight with living in Korea. It was difficult uncomfortable and at times painful, but it was a lot of fun and I got to really experience the culture. It didn’t turn out to have the first thing to do with monks, but I wound up getting exactly what I’d wanted in the first place.