Living in Wonju South Korea, These Many Long Years

Living in Wonju South Korea, These Many Long Years: Version 2.0!

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Wednesday night.  For the second week in a row, Waeg finds himself out on the town, this time meeting up with another old hand expat who has been here for years.  Both of them settled years ago, marrying and producing beautiful, smart, twigi kids.  They meet occasionally to share war stories and general information, but as winter is coming and SAD is starting to set in, the conversation returns to a topic they've covered more than once: getting stuck in a rut.

Must be a middle age thing, they muse and laugh, since it follows a nearly predictable cycle.  You get caught focusing on how you always do the same things over and over, caught in mundane uniformity that grinds you down, looking at yourself in the mirror every morning saying this will be the day that you start something new, this will be the day you change... But nothing ever does except something cosmetic, something temporary like feeling better because you bought a new pair of shoes or a new coat or you went to the gym more often.  They joke about going out and meeting new people and some of the people they've met, how they still do it from time to time as this will often alleviate the angst for at least a while.  But they catch themselves and don't fall into the trap of blaming only place and situation, because they're not so foolish as to let the fact that being outsiders limits their responses to boredom.  They've both seen too many waegs over the years fall to the hate, blaming 'society' instead of understanding that it's all in your own head.

As they move to a club, they laugh and joke that they can at least entertain the idea of midlife crisis in these terms.  Sure, life isn't easy, you want to catch that spark again, to remember what it was to be driven day in day out, when you always found plenty to get excited about.  But there are some who can't do that, like the Filipina single mom with three kids they know, came over at 21, so young so full of hope and promise, now 38 and divorced from a deadbeat Korean dad.  She works three jobs just to get by.... She has little time for short forays into the wild side, no inclination to remember things she has forgotten; somewhat broken but not interested in trying to fix it, as there is only time to prove she can do it, she can raise her kids, stand up and represent... She knows a part of her is no more but, well, life.  She would mock their midlife 'problems'.

Or the contractor, whom they used to see more often but is now far from the Wonj; his family is back in the states, while he stays and works.  He knows his wife is getting her freak on with an ex, and his kids rarely respond to his messages and emails, they too busy being teenagers thinking they know what it means, man.  He sometimes entertains the idea of also finding someone new, someone for now, but he knows he needs to keep focused on his job, budget cuts and the like, he's seen too many get chopped over the years, often ones who walked a little too frequently on the wild side. . . instead he chooses to be all stoic and monk like, and just sends the money every month, since, well, life.  He too has little time for midlife garbage.

And of course there is the old old timer they both know, here 30 years plus, married for love and jumped through all the hoops to gain Korean citizenship, not an easy feat at all, less so when he did it.  Speaks Korean like a native, highly educated, has completely internalized the ideal of the Korean scholar, living his life in a manner consistent with the ideal, an ideal that allows for no incursions into the wild side, yet he has always been stymied from rising in academia due to the very real glass ceiling hit by every waeg.  He always talks about love and being happy, but they both know he is one of the unhappiest people they know.  The disconnect that is apparent to them he ignores, since he made his choice and will stick by it, a staunch believer in the Minjok, as he waxes on about his lovely wife and children, a wife who often stays at their second apartment, lovely children who often roll their eyes when dad goes on about love and being happy.  But he has to keep focused, has to keep believing, since, well, life.  He has no time for engaging the typical midlife challenges that often bring a realignment in perspective and outlook.

They stop talking and drink in silence.  Waeg knows that the talk has been good; it will probably stave off the worst of the angst for a while.  But he knows the battle is far from won, and he wonders what he should do next to prepare to overcome.  The battles have become harder over the years, requiring more self delusion or more extreme pursuits; he has seen too clearly in others where following that path can lead.  He thinks about responsibility, duty, and what new accomplishements could be achieved; the silence between them becomes thicker, heavier, almost drowning out the music being played in the club.  He finds himself beginning to fall into it, embracing it, thinking this is what it means to get old, to learn wisdom, when the silence becomes all; then a snide voice inside him says: you fucking coward.  Wake the fuck up.

Right.  He rings the bell, orders a round of shots, and gets up to dance.  There are far more stories to be told and heard after all, something that can't be done in silence.  He wonders what could have made him almost forget this, but then he gives himself to the music and doesn't think at all.


Anonymous said...

Nice piece of writing, man - a touch of cynicism but not in a defeatist sense, if I may say~
I also know a long, long, LONNNNNNG term expat. Well educated, Phd Edu. from a good western uni, shit, he's even co-authored an educational text book, or two. Teaches at a middling K-uni and earns A LOT extra from one on one business english that his Korean wife organises at their sizable pad downtown. All long since paid for, and with an extra one room or two they also own bringing in even more~ Speaks K not quite like a local, but almost!
Thing is - he hates Koreans and Korea for lots of reasons not least being that he's also hit the glass ceiling in work and is being constantly out-promoted by younger Koreans with much less experience/knowledge. He also has a severely retarded adult twigi son. Why does he stay?? Because the retard benefits in his home country are NOTHING compared to what they get in Korea and the wife is too weird/edgy to settle in back in his home country. So he hates his life, hates his wife, not sure about the retard....but on another level he has what plenty of expats would die for in Korea!! Lots and lots of cash + things and fuck off exotic holidays several times a year and the time off to go on those holidays!!! He's still miserable!!
As you say, it's all in the mind!! Sounds like you have a good thing here, despite the occasional bluesy day. FIGHTING!!!

F5Waeg said...

I've known more than a few waegs over the years caught in the same position: unable to rise above a certain level, regardles of ability, degree of integration, or language skills. Fact is, Korean society is still too immature to deal with non-Koreans in positions of authority. I've heard Koreans moan too many times how they need to get into more positions of power overseas to promote Korean interests, even though Koreans have already been highly successful and have great positions overseas, such as the president of Dartmouth University, head of the World Bank, Secretary General of the United Nations etc etc. .. yet waegs maintain no meaningful positions in Korean society. The result is you have a sizable minority community that simply will not fully participate, since they know the rewards aren't there. I've had more than a few Koreans tell me I should be happy that I can make good bank teaching English, but what it translates to is the lack of options, and the lack of rewards if you do jump through all the hoops.

Anonymous said...

It's definitely one of the expat frontiers, man.
For me, Korea is a hi-tech society superimposed onto a feudal one and all in a very short space of time. Thus, any sophistication/maturity by 'international' standards doesn't exist and will not for some time to come. It's too closed off culturally/intellectually for that kind of thing. Especially regarding the situation with foreigners/integration. After a LOT of quiet observation on my part, I feel that the bottom line is that they just don't get us. It's not that they don't want to, necessarily (like the peasant you mentioned in the twigi story - but who gives a shit about those guys!! Koreans themselves sure don't!!); It's just that I really think they CAN'T!! Koreans DON'T KNOW how to accept anything different because they just haven't been, well, programmed that way.

Very generally speaking, of course. There are always exceptions. But, I just haven''t found any yet! The default is always a marked xenophobia.

My old geography teacher from hi-school was a merchant seaman for decades before semi retirement at a leafy, suburban Jesuit school teaching English and Geography. But, he had a theory and happened to know, by chance for me, Korea VERY well - docking hundreds of times at Busan and Icheon via the big N. American ports. We'd be discussing Asia in general and the Asian tiger, etc - a big part of the curriculum in schools then~

He said that Korea was an 'engineered' society; purposely dragged out of the stone age, teched up/modernised by Western money and know how with input from Korean, western educated elites who themselves placed peasants in as frontmen/presidents to appeal to the masses, of course. The masses were then put to work - hard - while the elites and their western backers divided the spoils: Samsung, Hyundai heavy industries, etc. etc.
Thus, Korea was positioned and used both as a buffer state AND as a massive social engineering experiment with guys like Edward Bernays, and co. having a lot of say in the project!!! The IDEA being to DESIGN a society where everyone gets a standard education, and easy access to LOTS and LOTS of things - food, cars, gadgets, cheap housing, and so on. The REASON being to design a society where revolution/war and most importantly DISSENT is non-existent.

I'm sure you get the picture. Social Engineering on a massive scale, of course. Just a different kind than that of the Soviet experiment, and the French/American revolutions before THAT!

Apparently, they wanted to try it out on the Japanese, also, but for a number of reasons they were judged to be not as compliant as their stone agee Korean neighbours~~

Weird stuff, huh????

Either way, the geography teacher stoked my interest enough for me to end up here and so far I think his old 1990s assessment has been spot on from what I have observed myself!!! He really knew his stuff and was fairly neutral in his observations. (To him, Koreans were immature but hard working.)

Sure, there's (pre organised/designed) anti-western backlash and stuff every once in a while to focus Kim six packs pent up rage and aggression - every nation needs to keep that kind of citizen happy!! But Korea is signed, sealed and delivered to the big agenda, man....and that's not gonna change soon. BRICS or no!!

Just an opinion for what it's worth - and for me, fascinating to watch a social engineering experiment being acted out!!! I sure wouldn't want to raise kids here. What a battl;e for their minds and more importantly their spirits!! Hats off to you for taking that one on, man!!

All the best!! That's my penny's worth!!

James Breakwell said...

You probably covered this in a post years ago, but is there any way you can come back and be miserable in the US instead? I'm guessing the rest of your family doesn't want to leave South Korea. Maybe you can just bring them here on a vacation and never let them go back.

F5Waeg said...

miserable? I'll have you know I am a ray of sunshine, number one most positive blogger in Korea~~ <*V*>~~ Besides you're already doing a much better job than I could covering the American side of it.

But the plan is to send the kids back when they hit middle school so as to avoid the private institution hell that most Korean teenagers have to go through. . . was just talking the other day with a coworker who was bemoaning how spending $2300 a month on private tuition for one of his kids wasn't enough and they were falling behind.

F5Waeg said...

anonymous: that is great insight into the situation and a great read, thanks for that. I always understood Korea in similar terms, the great social engineering project that saw a meteoric rise from agrarian to post industrial society in 50 years. I added some Cold War tinges to it though: the Americans needing a shining example of how good things could be if a society emulated the American system and took on American values, in contrast to what happened if you followed communism. Worked out in some ways, as evidenced by the levels of wealth and the overall standard of living especially compared to the North and Vietnam, with the latter now selling off a lot of their resources and women to Korea and Koreans

Anonymous said...

It sounds like the theme of Billy Joel's "Piano Man."

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