Looking back :: 2003

Today, I’ll follow on from the theme I first started a couple of weeks back where I look back at pivotal, interesting and memorable years of my life, and look at the music which was influential at the time and remains in my memory when I look back at my adventures and whereabouts at that time.

I’ll be looking at 2003 today. Eight years ago, 2003 was a year that was marked by a memorable move which profoundly changed my outlook, experiences, values and worldview. It was the year that I first traveled to South Korea to commence working as an English as a Second Language teacher in the regional city of Jeonju, South Korea. What had all started from an interested query into the possibility of teaching abroad in Asia after discovering a job online teaching English in Chengdu, China; led to me on a bus down to the city of Jeonju from Incheon airport little over a month later. I wrote this entry a few years back on the eventful day and experiences arriving in South Korea for the first time.

“Clocks” by Coldplay, I remember listening to this song repeatedly on Discman walking home from my regular private class during the first month or two in Korea, trying to make sense of my new environment and surroundings. It can be a magical experience moving to a new, and completely foreign, country and culture. Eventually you settle in, adapt and eventually everything almost feels like home, which in a way is a shame as almost nothing is as magical as being a newbie, fresh meat, somewhere new and experiencing new adventures for the first time.

The move was fast, sudden and had a profound effect on my life then and ever since, and made me value the concept of just getting on board and giving something a go, rather than avoiding new experiences due to insecurity, fear or anxiety. As if I hadn’t taken the adventure, got on that plane and bus to Jeonju, the past eight years would not have happened and I doubt my life over this time would have been half as interesting, eventful and stimulating had I not taken that jump.

The whimisical song, “Kimbap” by The Jadu, named for the ever-popular kimbap – vegetables, rice and meat wrapped tightly in a dried seaweed roll. Somewhat similar to sushi, and Korea’s equivalent of sandwich, being a popular lunch time or afternoon snack.

Here I was working part-time at a department store in Wollongong, about to re-commence my Graduate Diploma to complete the one remaining subject that I had previously failed the year before, desperately reluctant to return to the course at that time and desperately keen to find more reliable work as my position was initially intended just for that summer. However, they had kept me on but one three-hour shift a week was doing nothing for my bank balance. I was looking online for work when I suddenly came across and responded to a job which completely changed my paradigm and left me fascinated for the adventures, challenges and new experiences it may hold. As I mentioned earlier, it was a position teaching English in Chengdu, a city in the Chinese province of Sichuan. After spending a number of days therefore assessing the pros and cons and viabilities of teaching English in Asia, I came to the conclusion that China was too challenging and not as financially rewarding as other places at that time, Japan sounded great but wanted me to fly to Brisbane to attend an interview for a job I might not get which wasn’t appealing for someone without money. Whilst, South Korea sounded like the perfect mix – a country that provided airfare and accommodation, a unique, relatively less known , yet relatively affluent nation whose passion and spirit during the 2002 World Cup some months earlier had piqued my curiosity. South Korea it was, and one month I was there and in over my knees.

“Rise and fall” by Craig David, featuring Sting. A melancholy ballad I lked to listen to during downtimes such as when my first Korean girlfriend ran off with another fella!

My only knowledge of South Korea at that time consisted of the World Cup, MASH re-runs, kimbap some Korean friends would occasionally pass on during lunch at high school, and the fact that most of the Korean guys at my high school had a reputation for being protective of their sisters and/or female Korean friends, and were good fighters – a reputation earned having comfortably accounted for redneck bullies after racist slurs on a number of occasions.

The grammatically incorrect “10 Minutes” from sexy K-pop starlet, Lee Hyori. Arguably the biggest K-pop hit of 2003 and a mainstay of Jeonju’s clubs and bars during the summer and onwards.

Needless to say, despite my vast experiences and pre-conceived notions beforehand – I was in for quite a shock when I first landed lost in Jeonju. (I accidentally got off at the wrong stop). Suddenly, everything was new, everything fresh, everything unusual, and everything seeming so crowded, chaotic, yet functioning. I was loving every minute of it all. Finally, I was living for the moment, at the here and now. I was no longer a passenger but a willing participant.

“Swallow” by Kim Gun-mo, one of the great Korean hits of 2003 and a memorable song of my time in Jeonju.

Days, weeks and months went by. My work was long and chaotic as our manager ran several schools under his chain and then prostituted us teachers out to various schools/houses/hagwons (English academies) after our regular classes for a fraction of the money he earned doing so. Somehow I found myself in the office of his company recruiting fellow teachers from overseas after only a few months in the country myself – one of the previous recruiters had done a runner. It’s fair to say that 95% of the places I worked in that first year were done illegally as they weren’t on my registration card. And, immigration did catch on and I was led into Jeonju Immigration Centre just three months into my tenure. It took a letter acknowledging my guilt and the customary greasing of palms behind my back from the boss, for everything to be clear sailing again. My boss was one of the shadiest, arrogant, profoundly obnoxious middle-aged men I’d ever met, the first thing he said to me upon arrival was that “it doesn’t matter what I teach as long as the parents keep paying and the kids keep coming back“. Money was his god, and he was one devote, greedy pig. He was an arsehole, but an arsehole who paid on time and in full – overtime and all. Ironically, these attributes stood him above many of the cowboys, crooks and cranks running the ESL racket in South Korea at that time. Thankfully, most have been forced on now and the situation is much, much better but there are still plenty of phonies about.

“Dasin” by Lee Jung, another memorable K-hit of 2003.

Months went by, I got to know and hang out with plenty of fellow teachers. There were around 60 or so Westerners in Jeonju at that time. The vast majority were ESL teachers, although there were some Mormon missionaries, a couple of students and one dude whose businessman father had sent him to South Korea to learn Korean to help his business projects there – I only ever saw him drunk.

“Ae Song” by the very sexy Lexy. Another big hit on the dance floors back in ’03.

The year filled with new experiences, activities, long days working only rivaled by long nights drinking or partying. It was a year in over-drive, a year where I fit just about as many cultural experiences, activities, parties, drinking sessions and lessons as humanly possible. It was a year I barely rested but felt refreshed. A year where I crammed as much into every moment as possible and felt alive.

“After All These Years” by Aussie trio from Newcastle, Silverchair. A beautiful, melodic ballad I also used to listen to repeatedly on my Discman when trying to make sense of my surroundings and place in South Korea during those first few months.

9 responses to “Looking back :: 2003

  1. Isn’t it wonderful how travelling to a new place can be life changing for people! I’ve enjoyed reading your journey, Ben. I look forward to reading your future ones too. You’re a remarkable man :)

    • Thanks Sam, I’m not a remarkable man, just an ordinary guy who’s experienced many ordinary, and some extraordinary things, and enjoyed every minute of it – both good and bad.

  2. Ordinary people can be remarkable! I have a great admiration for anyone who explores the unknown and remain open to what may come their way. You just happen to be one of them! Don’t worry, I’ll lay off the flattery for a while ;) Keep the blogs comin’!

  3. Thanks Sam, and thanks for laying off the flattery ;)
    Unfortunately I’m not sure how many blogs I’ll be cranking out from next week on as I’ll commencing uni but I’ll try to knock out a few beforehand and should be able to publish the occasional blog during uni.

  4. Good luck with the studies, then! What subject are you studying again? Must be looking forward to it! Any time you want a break from the studies for a few minutes but don’t have the time for a blog, feel free to send a quick email or jump onto chat.

  5. Thanks, I’m doing a Dip. Ed. one year teaching course so afterwards I’ll be a qualified teacher. I’m a little daunted by it as I’ve heard the course is pretty intense and attempting to teach in front of 30 Australian teenagers could be a challenge but it should be fun! Cheers

  6. a couple of the songs i really remember when i first arrived in sk in ’05 was ‘la tortura’ by shakira, ‘hip hop music’ by joosuc and ‘because im a girl’ by kiss (the korean group not the 70s make up rock band…which u should check out the video for the song…cheesy drama!). i also remember a korean rap duo called all black. one of the boys had to be no older than 13…i remember seeing him do a crip walk on a tv show. and most all, i remembered watching a girl named jeong hye bin on a variety show there.she was my crush for the first few months lol

  7. I’ll have to check them out. I’ve only heard of Shakira out of them, I probably heard the others songs but never knew who sang them. I’d drifted of K-pop after my first year for the most part.

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