Life in South Korea

We had been married four years when my husband, Scott heard about an elite overseas job available with JUSMAG (Joint U. S. Military Assistance Group) in Seoul, South Korea. The assignment was to be an advisor to the Korean Air Force. The tremendous opportunity to serve under the State Department in a foreign country wasn’t the only consideration for Scott. This assignment could also be a brilliant career move, because Scott’s focus on a promotion to chief master sergeant began from the beginning of his air force career. This was the highest rank possible for an enlisted person, and his goal was to do it in less than twenty years, which was almost unheard of. To get this overseas assignment, would be a feather in his cap at promotion time.

We discussed this assignment at length, and decided that it would be a good thing for him to apply. The reasoning behind this decision was threefold: the entire family would get to go; it was an exciting opportunity to live in a foreign country; and Scott, more than likely, would come back to the United States as a chief. Many people were competing for this plum assignment, but the opportunity to serve in Korea came to Scott, where he would be working side by side with members of the Korean Air Force. The children and I stayed behind for a couple of months.

We arrived in the middle of the night, and once Scott rushed us through customs, we hopped into a van for our journey from Osan Air Base to Yongsan. Our driver was a Korean national with the normal Asian “speedster-driving techniques.” It was pitch-black outside; we sped up and down an unpaved, unlit, winding road at sixty-five to seventy miles per hour, braking only occasionally. To avoid ruts in the road, the driver would zigzag back and forth, brushing the side of the van against a tree now and then. Whew! What a ride!

Our arrival at Yongsan, where we would spend the next three years, was surreal. As I opened the van door, I stood up to stretch my tired body, when suddenly a foul-smelling, moist fog swallowed up the air around us, and I thought I was going to gag. A giant machine, mounted on the back of a flatbed truck, was spraying noxious chemicals. “No problem—it’s just the bug spray machine,” Scott told me, as we scurried into our side of the military housing duplex. Exhausted, we tucked the kids into bed, and made our way into the master bedroom.

“What?” I said. “Twin beds?”

“Don’t worry. Tomorrow we’ll move them together and it’ll be just like having a king-size bed,” Scott replied. All I could think about was a king-size bed with a giant fault line down the center!

Scott had to go to work early the next morning, so he left us all sleeping in bed. I slept like a log, as did the children, until the doorbell rang at around 8:00 am. I bolted out of the bed, noticed that Scott was gone, grabbed my bathrobe, and groped my way through this strange house, to the front door. There, in the hot humid air, with the sun blinding me, stood a Korean woman, and as she swished her hands through the air, in a circular motion, round and round, she kept repeating the phrase, “Washee window, washee window?” I was catatonic from jet lag, so my reaction was to shake my head no, and shut the door.

When Scott came home at noon, I could tell he was excited to show us around the base. It was July, so the humidity level was high, along with sweltering heat. When we entered the bank, my nostrils flared. The overwhelming smell of garlic breath, I later learned came from kimchi, a fermented cabbage dish, eaten by Koreans three times a day. It is spicy, loaded with garlic, and full of red hot peppers. The extreme garlicky smell emits from the skin pores on the chests of those who eat it.

The teller lines were long and sweaty, with very little space between them. Many of the Korean men were in “wife beaters,” which meant that the hair in their armpits was exposed, as was the sparse amount of chest hairs found on Asian men. The place stunk, and I was dripping in sweat from the humidity. I remember thinking to myself, “How am I ever going to live here?”

After getting signature cards signed, the six of us left the bank to go out to lunch. I ordered a cheeseburger. I cut my first bite short, when I saw a small bug sitting on the lettuce leaf of my burger. I quickly yanked it out. My look of desperation was not lost on Scott. He quickly flicked the bug onto the floor. With the humidity, heat, and the odors of the day, my first experience in my new community was a bit of a skid. It’s humorous now.

The Korean experience was life altering, to say the least. It produced social, mental, spiritual, and educational growth in all of us. I would not change it. Not only did it broaden our horizons for future travels, but also we became more flexible because of living in a foreign country for three years. We gained a fresh and greater appreciation for the privilege of living in America; our social skills broadened by the diversity of our many people-to-people interactions; and the children experienced a higher level of education from the Department of Defense educators. All of these things are why I am so grateful for the opportunity to have lived in a foreign country.


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