On March 17, 1997 I left the US for a visit to Korea. I was working as a government contractor for the US Army. My trip was scheduled for only 60 days but I stayed until June 17. In that time I learned much of use to American and native English speakers. Let me share with you.
Taxicabs in Seoul, where I landed, come in three flavors. There is the expensive delux cab, usually painted black with brown-gold band striping the side. These cabs will charge an initial fare of 3000 Won for the first X kilometers. Then, they charge a standard rate. The interior of these is always nicer than the other two cab types.
The second type is the grey cab. The interior is often messy and always personalized by the driver. These cabs charge an initial fare of 1000 Won for the first X kilometers and go from there. The side markings are written in blue.
The third type of cab is of interest only to US government people. They are the AAFES cabs. They can travel onto US military installations. They are more expensive than the grey Korean cabs and less than the Delux cabs. However, these cabs will accept both US dollars and Korean Won.
Be cautious when using taxis! The driver may not turn on the meter and then say, half-way through or after the trip, they have to charge you some ghastly amount, greater than the meter fare would otherwise have been. This advice should be extended to any international traveller.
When returning to the airport with luggage, the porter is required to accept 1000 Won for his services. Stop him from charging you anything more unless he provides service above or beyond the call of duty.
Korean Won rates change quite frequently. During my visit the Won rate fluctuated around 875 Won per US dollar. In common circulation are the 10, 50, 100 and 500 Won coins. The currency in most common use are the 1000, 5000 and 10,000 Won bills. I didn't see any 1 or 5 Won coins but suspect they did exist in the past. As 10 Won is worth roughly a penny, 1 Won would be basically meaningless.
Each Korean bill has a face on one side and a feature of interest on the other. The ten thousand Won note has a metal stripe and all notes have a watermark that can be viewed best by holding the bill to the light and looking at the blank area on the side opposite the face.
Tennis shoes, leather goods, tailored clothing and custom made shoes are all available in Korea. None of them are cheap. Particularly in Seoul.
While staying in Seoul I bought a tailored suit for about $300.00. This was in the Itaewan shopping district. Later, when I visited Songtaek, just outside of Osan Air Base(US) I found tailors who would have made me the same suit for a hundred dollars less. Lesson: Shop around and if in Seoul, HEAD SOUTH before you buy.
Okay, so that wasn't nice to teachers. Anyway, here's the story. Korea employs gobs of English teachers. The only requirement is that the teachers have a degree and are native English speakers. That's it.
I met several men and women who were over there to teach. They seem to meet each other quite quickly and share their tragic tales. I myself had about a 100 percent average for hearing a story from a teacher. There was the girl who was sold to another hogwan (I don't know how it's spelled but that's how it sounds). She was hired by a good-paying company who sold her contract to a cheaper group. She was making less than the first company promised.
On the bright side, she related how she turned the big company in to the Department of Immigrations and they had to pay her off to the tune of whatever she wanted for damages. You see, a person working over there must have papers stating who she's working for. The girl is much happier now.
The moral to all of this is that there is work to be had for degreed people. These young folk were making somewhere in the neighborhood of $35.00 per hour for the two or three hours they worked per day. Some were working for two or three different groups for six or eight hours per day. Not too shabby!
I'm a Seoul man. You knew I had to write it.
Seoul is, to Koreans, much as New York is to Americans. It's overcrowded, prosperous, polluted, historical, beautiful, ugly, a great place to meet people and a great place to find people who hate everything they see. It's not, however, cosmopolitan. First and foremost, this is a Korean city.
All of the signs are first in Hungul and then in English. That is, except for those few buildings that have Cyrillic messages for Russian visitors. The people of Seoul recognize foreigners and don't seem to accept anyone as a resident unless they look and can speak as the Koreans do. It doesn't seem to be a matter of prejudice but of recognition. I cannot walk down the street of my home town and tell if a person is from another country until they open their mouth. Koreans can!
There are many attractions in Seoul. I visited few of them due to time constraints. That is, if you except the Shilla Hotel (and Itae-Won). This is a hotel that was rated by Asian Business Weekly as the best hotel in Korea. I checked and it is one of four Asian hotels listed as one of the Best Hotels in the World. If it sounds as if I'm gloating, I'm not. Of course not. Would I ever do that?
Seoul Tower stands atop a forested park hill in the heart of downtown Seoul. It is lit up at night and is a landmark that you can spot from twenty miles out. There is a resturant in the top that I didn't visit that presents a view I didn't get to see. Okay, there's your revenge for my earlier gloating.
Another of the places to go in Seoul is the Ministry of National Defense War Memorial Museum. It is located in downtown Seoul next door to Camp Yongsan, a US Army installation.
Across the busy street from the museum is a building housing part of the Ministry of National Defense. If you are associated with the US Military, you can go downstairs to the cafeteria at lunchtime and eat for 3500 Won (about 4$ US). All you can eat. The food's good, plenty and very Korean. Now, there's an attraction!
To Stompers goes the dedication for the Seoul section. It is at the top of the Hill. Not the Seoul Tower hill, which has no initial capital, but the Hill. It's just off of Itaewan, and it's where to go to party. When you're bored with partying on the Hill you go across Itaewan and just a little way down to the Hollywood Bar. There, you'll find Johnny bartending. He's a born Vietnamese American adoptee who knows some Hungul and who is the expert drink pourer in the place. Here's to you, Johnny.
They say that airmen are whimps, effeminate, weak and useless. So why is it they get the best looking girls to enlist? Be that as it may, I'm not really even talking about Osan, but the city outside of Osan Air Base. It's called Sangtaek, but I guess it was incorporated into Pyongtaek some time ago, so old-timers will likely recall only the old name.
Anyway, somehow the airmen of Osan have managed not to tick off the local Koreans. Perhaps the gentle attitude of the airmen has its place in the world after all.
I stayed in a hotel in Osan where they were glad to see us, all but one grumpy guy at the front desk who didn't even seem happy to see his friends. At every other hotel I stayed in Korea the laundry was by the piece, one place charging 4000Won (about $4.50 US) for a sock. One sock! This place, the New Osan Hotel, charged me 5000 Won for one laundry bag. The clothes were even basically folded. It's no Shilla but the friendliness is more personal here. To these guys and to the Chinese resturant on the second floor across from Wendy's I dedicate this Osan section!
The people of Sungtaek like Americans. Their prices are low, their resturants welcome Americans and they serve one hell of a fish and rice soup(heads available upon request). The soup I bowls I ate had shrimp, sea cucumber, squid and . . . sea stuff. Spicy, hearty, filling and flavorful, it was sweet and so delicious when accompanied by a local beer.
Travelling South from Seoul, on the left hand side at Waegon is the Cass Beer Brewery. I saw this historic place but didn't get to visit. Damn! The other beers big in Korea are OB (stands for Oriental Brewing company) and Budweiser. I didn't check to find out where the KorBud was brewed. Never even drank the stuff. What I did find is that there are two size bottles that local beer came in. One was about 300 ml and the other a merer 200. In Sungtaek they sold the 300 ml bottles for what you paid to get the two in Seoul. Not that it slowed me down much in Seoul. Also, one of the 3's is enough to start a great buzz.
I'm freshly back from another two weeks in Korea and rearing to do more on the page. I've partied here in Southern Arizona and found it, to some extent, wanting. You see, the bars in Korea generally close about the time that the last patron leaves. And then, there are folks outside selling such delicacies as yaki-mandu (again, my own spelling), breaded and fried squid (yum; believe it!), scallion pancakes, kim-chi, soup, fried potatoes and something like sweet spaghetti with noodles the diameter of a dime. There's more, of course, but I don't eat chitterlings or hotdogs in the 'States either.
On a trip North to Uijongbu I encountered those warm mink blankets but priced MUCH more reasonably during the heat of summer. However, being as busy as I was I found little time to shop for those few real bargains I found last time (3500 Won for a scarf that sold at the duty free shops for $80 US). They also had movie CDs that didn't say "DVD" and so probably weren't. My problem with them wasn't the price but the fact that I could not tell if they were dubbed or subtitled. I could have asked but, sales men being what they are . . .
I imagine some of you out there are curious about the language. Good for you! It is probably little more difficult than other languages to learn. The funny thing (Can you hear my giggling even over the Internet?) is that reading Korean is simple! I mean, simple rules and strict! I'll give a simplified version in my Hungul Page.
Updated January 24, 1998, 10:52pm. firstname.lastname@example.org