So, one thing that surprised people was our seemingly sudden move back to Korea. Not just because people were surprised that we moved so suddenly, but also because we chose to come back to Korea specifically.
Like any major decision in life, it’s a complex mix of things, some of which I won’t talk about here, but I thought I’d say a little about it anyway. For one thing, life on tourist visas with short-term health insurance policies (I can only get six months at a time these days) was growing increasingly untenable. (My health’s fine, I’ve actually lost plenty of weight and adopted some healthier habits, but having only a six month window on health insurance is a pain, really, and so is being constantly on a tourist visa.)
Saigon was good to us–for the most part, at least, and especially in 2014, and was a good base for our visits to Singapore and Indonesia. Singapore actually interested us as a relocation destination, but, for one thing, Seoul seemed a better choice. Here are some reasons:
1. It’s the likeliest place for us both to find decent work. My credentials and background university teaching here is a big leg up… which helps explain the timing: it’s harder to get a university position from overseas, even with great references, an outstanding CV, and lots of experience… and we realized that the hiring for next semester would be getting into full swing in late December, so we decided to move up the date from what we’d originally planned. (We’d been shooting to arrive in mid-January, which, well… that would have been kind of late.) Also, adjusting to working full time would be easier with a familiar setting and dynamics,and Mrs. Jiwaku would have a lot better chance of finding some kind of work related to media or filmmaking in Korea, given how miniscule (and controlled) the industry is in Vietnam.
2. We figured if we were in Korea, there were some, er, things we could sort out. For one thing, we have a lot of stuff in storage here. Likewise, Jihyun has some legal paperwork she needs to get sorted out in order to avoid long-term issues, and it’s the kind of thing that can only really be sorted out in-country. So, coming here was handy in a few ways all at once.
3. The two places we know about that are really strong work destinations in East Asia–especially for TEFL–are Vietnam and Korea, and we had felt we’d been in Vietnam about the right amount of time: still liking the place, but starting to see clearly the things we didn’t like without being really grouchy about it yet. We were ready to leave, while we were still about to smile about it all. Also, the pay in Korea is better, at least if you can find a proper university job — which is what I’m aiming for.
4. We were finding diminished returns on writing “uninterrupted” by full time work. For the record, I wrote about 150,000 words of what’s either a massive novel or a trilogy, and rewrote about 25,000 words of a second novel that has become the main project in progress now. I wasn’t unproductive, but I was also finding it harder and harder to be productive while feeling stalled in the same apartment, in the same city, and without much stimulus from outside the house except the same few students we tutored part-time.
Some people also are surprised because, well, if you’ve read my blog, you know that by the time we left Korea, I was very ready to leave. The thing is, our stay in Saigon somewhat helped me let off some of the steam built up over the years, and besides, we realized how much a change in neighborhood and living circumstances can change perspective. When we lived in District 1–scooter-filled, loud, busy Saigon–we didn’t like the neighborhood at all, and the living situation (shared house with friends with whom we turned out to be deeply, or actually fundamentally, incompatible in many ways) didn’t help much. Once we relocated to Nhà Bè, on the edge of District 7–a quieter area far from the city center–we were quite a lot happier. Which is to say what I’ve already said before: a lot of my problems in Korea were related to being stuck in Yeokgok, along with being trapped on Line 1, for seven years straight.
(Therefore, we need to exert a little more control over our living situation, and choose a neighborhood that agrees better with us. We’ll see if we can pull off that trick: I certainly hope so, at least.)
In any case, the last couple of weeks or so were kind of a whirlwind of packing and sorting things out, meeting the wonderful Chris Azure and his family one more time, and sorting out job applications from overseas, which is no small fear, let me tell you! Still, our last day in Saigon was kind of magical: we had some good phở for lunch, got an impromptu lesson in coffee-bean roasting from a Korean Dutch Coffee shop owner in Phu My Hung, ate at one of our favorite places in the city (Scott & Binh’s), and then a final whirlwind packing session and off to the airport.
As for the flight, I’ll just say that nobody should be flying China Eastern or China Southern Airlines. Sure, our plane didn’t crash like Air Asia did that day, but as a commercial service, I think not crashing is kind of, well, a pretty low standard. Both of these airlines offer a very bad experience. We took the former on the way down to Vietnam, and the latter on the way back, and while their glaring flaws and horrors differ in some respects, there’s enough in common between the two that I can say, without reservation, that the extra hundred bucks to fly a better airline is totally worth it. Also, never go to Guangzhou Airport if you can help it, not even for a (supposedly) three-hour stopover. Trust me on this. (Pudong Airport is also badly bottlenecked for no apparent reason, and basically a site of highway robbery beyond even normal airport highway robbery, but at least it’s heated, and you don’t end up being a hostage of an airline that delays flights endlessly, like, for almost half a day.)
Oh, and one observation: the airports I’ve visited that have most energetically adopted the whole of America’s security theater procedures are all in highly authoritarian (and often highly corrupted) states. Vietnam, and Indonesia, come to mind. (China too, in terms of authoritarianism: I don’t know how corrupt Chinese airport security is these days, but the authoritarianism maps.) Whether the multiple layers of security are necessitated by the corruption, or by perceived dysfunction of other authoritarian states’ spread-too-thin overreaching security systems, I don’t know… but I haven’t been asked to remove my belt and my shoes in ages, and when did I have to do it?
In Pudong airport, right after stepping off a plane I’d entered only after having my bags and person scanned twice already, after being rushed to the head of a line for a flight I was transferring to catch, because the transfer passenger checkpoint was a massive bottleneck in permanent crisis management mode.
Anyway, we’re in Seoul now, subletting a place till near the end of February, when we hopefully will both have jobs and, dare I hope, a place to move to.It’s actually nice to be back, or nicer, at least, than I expected, though Seoul’s cold… well, not really, but after a few years in the tropics, your internal thermometer recalibrates.
The next few weeks, and especially the next week, will be a real whirlwind, but soon things will calm down, I think. I hope! Social meetings will have to wait a bit. The job application and interviewing process is time-consuming, mainly because in South Korea, employers don’t assume applicants can create a decent CV of their own… so they require everyone to fill out lengthy application forms, asking for excessively specific details (on what day in May 1998 did you graduate from your BA program?) and they serve up the forms in formats that aren’t designed for computer input, since Koreans mostly just handwrite the forms. And those forms are also mostly created in nonstandard word processing software (especially Korea’s favorite, Haansoft Hangul). I’ve had two application forms so crufted junk data added in file conversion that they actually crashed my (healthy, two-year-old) MacBook, and plenty more that required me to change the language settings manually every time I clicked on a new field in the form, so I could enter text in English. In an all-English form.
And that’s to say nothing of the interviews, though I’ll save those stories–the amusing ones, anyway–for another day.
The long and the short of it? We’re in Seoul. Oh, and I’m in the market for a baritone sax–useful for a music project I want to try launch this spring–but don’t exactly have the cash for one till I’m hired and we have an apartment. Which makes me sad because there’s a good horn available at a good price in Seoul right now, and I can’t just go and buy it, and it might be another year before one like this comes onto the market again.
But we have other fish to deep fry first. And, anyway, if I get hired at the place I’m hoping to get hired, I might be able to buy a B♭ Bass Sax (Jinbao model, which seems to have gotten a ton of positive reviews, and isn’t that expensive via Wessex Tubas, in the US) instead. (Somehow, they charge a lot more at the factory, though maybe if I contact them it’ll be cheaper to visit Tianjin, buy a demo model, and carry it back to Korea directly.) I’d really prefer a bass sax to an E♭ Baritone anyway.
Chances are this horn will weigh more than my wife does. But I haven’t just gone deranged: there’s a reason why I’m looking into it… a music project I’d like to start in the spring or the summer, with a very interesting angle. If I can get some bari or bass sax, that is. (I prefer bass since it’s in B♭, like my tenor, instead of in E♭, a tuning I’m not really accustomed to. But I’ll settle for a quality bari if I can get one. I’ll be good to play some live music again.
Ha, well, till I have a job all of that is just speculative fiction anyway. But even in the last week some decent gigs have opened up, so… you never know!
As for my writing… ça va, ça va. Well, not lately… job hunting is pretty busy work, and moving from one country to another is too. But it was progressing well, and I hope to get back to it soon. When I land a contract, we’ll sort out housing, get stuff out of storage, and I’ll plan classes for the first half of the spring semester… and then I’m back to the novel project, with a vengeance.