Things were kind of chancy for me back in 2007. I had been laid off at my job and had perplexing trouble in finding another one. My bank account, not large to begin with, shrank more every day. I was on the government dole. Surely I would not become one of the people about whom I had read—those who lost their tenuous grip on a stable life and fell precipitously. The pathetic guys and gals I often saw at major intersections in Austin carrying signs (“Spare change? God bless you.”) haunted me. Actually, no—things could never get that bad, if only because I had a college degree and a strong work ethic, and lacked drug and alcohol issues. But this awful scenario made clear that I should be open to possibilities I might have otherwise abjured.
I have told the story of responding to a Craigslist ad often enough. It called for native English speakers like me to go to Korea and teach. Was I desperate? Let’s say I was flexible. I sold my car, cleaned out the duplex I had lived in since 1991, bought a laptop computer, got on a jet airplane and went. It was a Wednesday. I arrived at Daegu International Airport and was greeted by Jae-young Kim. He directed the LIKE hagwon (private academy) to which I had been assigned. I would soon learn that Jae-young was in over his head; the school was poorly run, the number of students was declining, and I would be transferred to another one in May 2008 after it closed.
Traveling to a foreign country and living in one are not at all the same. I did not feel culture shock per se since I had briefly visited Korea 13 years earlier. But I can tell you for certain, those early weeks and months were quite stressful and lonely. I coped. I was tempted to strangle some of my students, and yet others I loved very much. They say teachers should not get emotionally involved with their students, yet that often happened. Even now, their bright faces are clear in my mind, along with their names—So-Mi Lee, I-Rae Park, Min-Ji Kim, Ji-Hyeong Choi, Seon-Mi Yang, Su-Min Lee, Se-Hwan “Eric” Park, Yu-Jin Yoon and many more.
Some of the sweetest and most joyful times of my life took place in Daegu’s Jangsan Park. That’s where I came to know Yeon-Su Kim and her brother Eun-Su, Min-Seo Jo and her sister Eun-Seo, Si-Hyun Park and her brother Sang-Woo, and about a dozen other Korean kiddos. We played, then we walked down the street hand in hand to buy ice cream. These are memories I treasure. No individual can take them away from me or cheapen them in the least.
I taught for just over a year and could have gone no longer. A different, more suitable and better paying job had to be found, and so it was. Just as coming to Korea took some initiative, so did getting hired at an intellectual property law firm in Seoul. I convinced the boss of Hansung, Kyu-Pal Choi, that my quarter-century as a writer, editor and proofreader would greatly enhance the quality of his English-language letters and legal documents. I hope it does not sound boastful to say that I have done just that. As the only foreigner in the firm, I sometimes feel alienated. This is partly my own fault since I have struggled with the Korean language. I picked up the alphabet years ago, my vocabulary is really not too bad, and I have a certificate from prestigious Yonsei University which attests to my having taken and passed a basic online course. As for actually being able to carry on a conversation in this beautiful tongue, however, I cannot.
While some or many expats prefer the company of their own kind, I am quite the opposite. I steer away from foreigners. Almost all of my friends are Korean, as is my GF, Yang-Hui “Audrey” Lim. I have had a substantial role in getting two of my students, Kyeongyeol “Anthony” Kim and Bomin Paek, into doctoral programs at Indiana University and the University of Northern Colorado, respectively. I am quite proud of them.
The last three of the “Trivia Teasers” books (Cleveland Browns, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago White Sox) I did for Big Earth Publishing came out in 2008. Having learned the formula, I wrote four more (Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers and Kansas City Chiefs) via the Lulu and Createspace platforms. They were published in 2009 and 2010. Two more big writing projects were done on Createspace—Travels of an American-Korean, 2008−2013 (2014) and my autobiography, A Seoul Miscellany (2015). I am in the process of writing follow-ups to both. A couple of years, and they, too, will be published.
I underwent arthroscopic surgery on my right knee at Gangnam Severance Hospital in October 2012.
When people complain that I have yet to master the language, I remind them that I have read numerous books on Korean history and I have seen more of the country than almost anybody else over the past decade. From Baengnyeongdo in the northwest to Busan in the southeast, from Ganseong in the northeast to Mokpo in the southwest and in dozens of cities in between, I have been there. If that does not suffice, I tell them about the 3 ½ years I spent as the director of an NGO, the Committee to Bring Jikji Back to Korea. (Jikji is a priceless artifact that has been held by the French since 1887.) We failed in our objective, but oh what splendid noise we made!
Similarly, I embarked on a one-man project to have Abner Haynes admitted to the College Football Hall of Fame. Although I did not succeed, I got my point across to that institution as well as members of the media. I looked at Haynes’ life quite closely and delved into the fascinating matter of racial integration of college football from several angles. Sporting a green No. 28 jersey with “Haynes” stitched on the back, I met him in Dallas in September 2016. That’s something I will not soon forget. I gave him a soul shake, listened to him and watched him. I think or at least hope that he knows the depth of my respect.
Since coming to Korea in 2007, I have taken part in 10 marathons (and a few half-marathons and 10K’s). I used to run every day, same as when I lived in the USA. Note my use of the past-tense verb. I regret to say that I can no longer run. The spinal fusion I had 47 years ago has started to degrade; the doctor calls it “age-related degeneration” and says the best we can do is to slow the process down. This is an unfortunate matter, and yet I must keep it in perspective. Many other people born in 1952 are in far worse shape, if not dead. I remain active in spite of the aforementioned problem by riding my bike, taking early-morning walks and stretching.
During these 10 years, I have visited Japan and China thrice each. (A trip to Indonesia is planned.) While I am no fashion plate, I have bought a trio of custom-made three-piece suits: one gray, one blue and one white; perhaps I fancy myself a latter-day Mark Twain or Tom Wolfe. I gave money so that two deserving Filipinos might live. Sad to say, both Barry Bascar and Daniella Lorezo did not make it. I am paying for a memorial to be erected in Daniella’s honor at Calatrava Central II School; we do not want the Little Princess to be forgotten. I arranged for a basic but solid house to be built for the Bonghanoy family in Camboyobo. Our purpose was to keep Daryl, a youngster born without legs, in school. I made an interest-free loan to a pair of sisters (Andrea and Ana Urbano) to run a rice-and-pigs business in Antique. And in Bacolod, I made a similar loan to Bey Jalbuena and Kean Nawang to open and operate a bar/restaurant named Bully’s Bistro. It has been a smashing success. I paid for Yaline Bayonas and Lenlen Dos Santos to go to college, and for Myline Cornel to finish her doctorate in educational administration. I facilitated the move of Myline’s niece, Ritz Lazarito, to a culinary job and career in Miami, Florida. Her sister, Frievel, Shonna Trinidad, Daryl Deanne Danayan, Leah Lim and others have received gifts from their Uncle Richard for academic achievements, a new pair of glasses, an acoustic guitar, a smart phone, dental care and things of that sort. I sponsored a writing contest at Santa Rita College. In 2011, I was informed that seven young Filipinos had caught dengue fever and were in danger of dying. How could I allow that? I sent some money, and I am pleased to say that all of them are now vibrantly alive. Evelyn Lazarito, mother of Ritz and Frievel, was in debt and I cleared it for her.
I supported my longtime Romanian friend, Elly Rus, until she got her government pension. Every Christmas, she and I combine to help a poor local family.
Another Christmas project pertains to the women who clean the Halla Classic Building, home of Hansung. Most people, if I may be candid, ignore them. After all, they are just cleaning ladies. Not me. I acknowledge them, greet them warmly and show them respect. Every Christmas, I present the four of them—the cast of characters in this low-paying job changes often—with gift certificates from a local shop. I make up a poster with their names and statements in Korean and English, showing them just how valued they really are.
I have no family in the USA other than my cousin, Pat Gary. Born severely retarded, she lives in a group home in Abilene. However, I have kept close bonds with friends such as Brian Ullom (to whom I dedicated one of my books), Bob Gibbons, Jon Wisser, Kenny Hausmann, Dr. Hoda Maalouf of Beirut, Lebanon and Dr. Victor Hugo Limpias Ortiz of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. By means of Facebook, I have been able to re-establish contact with a couple of high school buddies—Gary Scoggins and Kevin Nietmann, not to mention my childhood girlfriend, Cindi Williams. This, I tell you, is of great value to me. A friend I have never met but who is also quite important is Darrell Holmquist of New Lenox, Illinois. We laugh, joust and communicate via e-mail nearly every day.
Korea is not heaven, not at all. I have seen too many sobering, depressing and bewildering things over the last 10 years to have any such illusions. But I feel that I have truly lived here. I have sweated in the summer and shivered in the winter. I have celebrated births, attended weddings and mourned deaths. If the novelty has long since vanished, the excitement nevertheless remains. Just about every weekday morning when I walk the 25 meters from home to office, I realize again how fortunate I am. Not lucky, but fortunate.
Numerous people in the USA have expressed concern about my safety on the Korean peninsula, given the belligerence of the so-called government up north. Don’t confuse me with Alfred E. Neuman, Mad magazine’s goofy bumpkin, but why should I worry? Most of us in Seoul and elsewhere just carry on with our lives, assuming we will not be incinerated in a horrific nuclear war.
Ever so gradually, Korea is becoming a multicultural—a seemingly innocuous term I loathe because it has been twisted beyond comprehension by lefties and neo-racists—nation. In my 10 years here, I have seen a change, and Koreans I have talked to confirm it. If only because of the low birth rate, we have no choice but to bring in more foreigners. Yes, immigration. I mention this only because I would like to have dual citizenship. Up to now, the government has maintained stringent controls on these things. Ten years should be enough to show that I belong. I have no desire whatsoever to return to the USA. Korea is home.