Our decision to travel to Korea (1994) was based on the many wonderful accounts we had had about the country from our Korean colleagues in Australia. Besides, it was not too long a flight from Brisbane and we had an invitation from one of our acquaintances which made it all the more inviting.
We spent a couple of days in Seoul before venturing into what we felt was the real Korea and there, in Kwang-Ju, we were offered accommodation by our friend, Il-Song. Il-Song met us at the airport and very kindly drove us to his home to meet his parents; little was said as the parents spoke no English but their hospitality was gracious. Il-Song’s father was a post master and had a flat above his work place; this was going to be our residence for the next week.
The flat was approached by a flight of steps at the back of the post office building which led onto the flat concrete roof of the post office that also served as its concrete garden. The view was ghastly, a sea of roofs housing all manner of things from washing lines and television aerials to discarded household paraphernalia and huge pots of fermenting vegetables and fish. Besides this, there was the din of traffic from the main road on which the post office and flat were situated. There certainly were no redeeming features there in terms of aesthetics and we immediately dismissed any thoughts of enjoying the balmy breezes of summer on our rooftop garden. The flat was mere accommodation; the strange musty smells emanating from it made me cringe; visions of immigrants in YMCA buildings and those one time grandiose buildings in New York City now turned slum-like flashed through my mind.
The day after our move, we were surprised to find a dog occupying our concrete garden. It appeared to regard this as its home and being concerned about its welfare, we called Il-Song.
‘Oh! By the way Il-Song, there’s a white dog hanging around by the post office flat. Is it by any chance yours?’ queried Peter
‘Dog?’ said Il-Song, in his monotonously dopey voice.
‘What dog?’ he drawled with disinterest. The conversation was beginning to get irritating.
‘The dog at the post office. The white one, is it yours?’
‘The white dog?’ Il-Song indicated not the slightest emotion. His question lacked any form of intonation as always.
‘Yes, the white dog at the post office,’ said Peter raising his voice another decibel. There was a pause before Il-Song replied.
‘Anyways, we don’t have a dog now. My father told him to go away because you were moving there.’
‘Oh really!’ said Peter showing visible signs of irritation. ‘In that case it must be a stray.’
‘Yes,’ said Il-Song, totally unfazed by the ridiculous statements he had made. ‘Anyways, it was told to go away.’ He repeated this with intense gravity. Peter terminated the conversation while cursing the man silently.
Il-Song’s parents had provided us with plenty of food and we tried to make what we could of the many little side dishes they called ban chan. The kim-chi was terribly pungent and hot, too hot for me but there was plenty of fresh lettuce that I tucked into. After our meal we had a short walk around the block; it was a walk that opened our eyes just a little bit more than I cared for. Next door to us was an undertaker and wide open to the public were large jars with human organs and entrails. The smell emanating from there was more than foul, the same as that in the flat and as we later found out it was the open drainage system that created the lingering smells.
We headed towards the market place where mostly women were busy preparing their wares. I gasped as I watched them washing greens and other vegetables in the drain whilst children were happily urinating and spitting into it. I thought of all the lettuce and other vegetables I had eaten voraciously and my stomach turned, not just then but the next day as well, as I spent most of the morning on the toilet.
Our main concern remained the dog but soon we learned that it had been turned into lunch for Il-Song’s family. We certainly had seen the real Korea and it had not been an endearing experience. I focussed my energy on cutting our trip short.