How Moving to Korea Changed My Life

Part 1: Land of the Morning Madness

by Dave Hazzan

I came to Korea on January 15, 2002, on Asiana Flight 271 from Seattle to Seoul. I was 25 years old, and had been drunk and/or stoned for about a year.

I had been living in Vancouver, in a basement apartment on 20th Street and Cambie. I was jobless, broke, and deeply in debt. When I had money, I drank. When I didn’t have money, I sat on the couch and stared vacuously at the wall, too depressed to open a book or even turn on the hockey game.

I smoked enough pot to stuff a loveseat, and when the doctors prescribed me Ritalin, I crushed the pills up and snorted them, fistfuls at a time. When my girlfriend woke up in the hospital from emergency gall-bladder surgery, I was at a Halloween party in the East End, blasted on ecstasy, with no nagging feeling at all that I was forgetting something.

I went to the new Korea. Travel to work there came like a saving angel, as it has for so many young, unemployed Canadians. In my five months in Vancouver, I had sent out hundreds of resumes and applications (or so it felt), and had gotten two interviews, neither one successful. When I applied to Korean recruiters, I sent out six resumes and was interviewed by all of them. Within a week of accepting a job I was in Seoul, teaching kindergarten and primary school, of all goddamn things.

If Vancouver is the world’s most liveable city, Seoul is its most explosive. It explodes with red Christian crosses on tin roofs, a dozen to a block. It explodes with dilapidated brown brick housing, at the feet of monstrous white tower blocks that go on for miles. People burst out of its shops and offices, restaurants and bars, subway stations and temples, bus shelters and car parks, roads, highways and overpasses, trees and rivers and mountains, and it never seems to end.

You can hop on a train at any one point and get off after two hours of random transfers and swear you haven’t moved an inch. You are always surrounded by this amorphous mass of people, things, food, drink, smoke, sweat and life that can only be called Korea. In the day, it is like some kind of Asia Disney on meth. At night, it looks like Blade Runner.

Most teachers back then just did a year, took their money, spent two months in Thailand getting blasted, and then went home to kids, car, and mortgage. But I stayed. I had a plan.

I moved out to Ilsan, a new and modern satellite city north of Seoul. I found a decent job and got promoted. I got a girlfriend who became a fiancée who became a wife. I wrote in the mornings and worked in the afternoons, and completed a master’s degree. And then every four years, we strapped on a backpack, quit our jobs, and disappeared.

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Dave and wife Jo

The first time we left on an epic journey we took the boat to China and the bus and train up and around the country, through nine provinces on the coast and in an arc through the centre, ending in Chengdu. The food was excellent—we would order by pointing at food groups in our phrasebook and asking “have/don’t have?” in Chinese. They would then run down the menu: “Have, have, don’t have, don’t have, have…” The beer is tasty too, and it helps you deal with the culture shock, like when people gather around you in a doorless toilet stall to say hello.

We flew to Nepal, and saw the streets of Kathmandu literally run with sacrificial blood (of animals). We made our way south into India, and then doglegged through the east coast and centre before flying to Sri Lanka. In the ancient city of Dambulla, terrorists blew up a bus full of nuns, and we felt like assholes walking past it, asking for directions to Sigiriya. On Valentine’s Day, I puked all over a beachfront bar because of a dodgy lassi.

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Xiahe and India

Back in India my wife Jo was groped by some bastard in the centre of Madurai. Emotional breakdowns became more and more common as the poverty and filth took its toll, and liquor became harder to locate in the more conservative states. When we returned to Vancouver, we were reminded what air conditioning and sheets feel like.

Two years later we did it all again. We flew to Hanoi, site of our engagement. We crawled the length of Vietnam, and double-backed into Cambodia and Laos. We saw pyramids of human skulls in Phnom Penh, unexploded bomblets half-buried in the Laotian mud, and had bonfires in empty bomb casings. Crossing into Thailand, there was an accident on the road up ahead, and we spent seventeen hours stranded by the roadside, where we ate grasshoppers and rice with the locals.

We lay on the beach in Ko Lanta and drank bhang milkshakes. In Malaysia we discovered that the largest flower in the world is a parasitic plant, and in Singapore we learned the meaning of fleecing when I paid $18 for a Singapore sling. We drove through the centre of Australia and up the coast to Queensland, where we flew to New Zealand, to get married.

And the Korean zeal for education, combined with enormous helpings of white privilege, means we could come back to Korea jobless and still find work within a few weeks.

Korea is only moderately well-placed for jumping off to the rest of Asia. Until North Korea opens up, there are no overland routes out of the country. Japan and China are the two closest accessible countries, and there are scores of flights and ferries to both. (Though getting your Chinese visa in Seoul can be tricky—check this website for the newest regulations first.)

The nearest flight to the Banana Pancake Trail is to Hanoi, about four and a half hours away, and North America, Australia, and Europe are a solid 10 to 14. So the best way to explore, leaving from Korea, is to make it a good, long trip—and crawling through China is guaranteed adventure.

But don’t forget Korea, and don’t make the mistake most visitors do of spending a day in Seoul and then moving on. The country is small, but it is fascinating.

I’m now a year away from my fortieth birthday. I have spent three-quarters of my adult life in Korea, or backpacking somewhere in Asia. We have no house, no children, no pets. People often ask us when we are going to settle down and return to “real life.” We are living real life—it’s so real, I feel it in every breath. People who say this isn’t real life think real life has to suck.

In my next two guest columns on Korea I’m going to lay out all the South Korea travel tips you need. In the first, I’ll discuss two of South Korea’s two most magnificent natural features: its mountains and islands. In the third column, I’ll show you how to best visit Korea in two weeks—from the DMZ to Jeju Island, we’ll go by boat, train, and bus through the ancient kingdom.

Click Next to Read Part Two of Dave Hazzan's Korean in Two Weeks: Mountains and Islands

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