The Squid Zone

20 Nov

Koreans love eating squid. They like it raw, cooked, fried, grilled, ground up into a little powder and drunk with hot water. But it’s only when you enter a soccer stadium and see the sign, written in English, that you realize… you’ve entered “The Squid Zone.”

I guess that’s a good metaphor for the “expatriate experience.” I only lived in Korea for a year, so compared to some of my friends, my knowledge of that country is limited… and now, twenty years old. My “two truths and a lie” is always, “I partied with a quarter million Koreans on New Years Eve 2000.” Also took me two hours to get back to my hotel afterwards because they closed the Metro at midnight.

I worked at Taejon Christian International School in Daejeon, which is about two hours south of Seoul. Again, with the high speed rail built for the World Cup (which I also missed), you might make it one hour.

I had the opportunity to watch a game between the Taejon Citizens(?) play… someone in the old stadium that had a statue commemorating the Independence Movement with a heroic Korean standing in 20’s clothes, holding a grenade in his hand. So… that’s different. Then I’m going to my seat and I see the “Squid Zone” sign–in English–and had that seared into my memory.

They didn’t sing the national anthem–they played it, everyone stood, but no one sang. The hype guy had the Republic of Korean flag painted on his face and carried a little cymbal that he dinged to pep up the crowd. I honestly don’t know if he was hired by the team or just did this for kicks. I remember that the Taejon team lost, not surprising, since they were down in the standings that year.

Taejon (or Daejeon, they changed the official transliteration after I left) was probably the best place I could live. It was a “small town” of a million people, but because it was so packed together in the mountain valley, I could walk to the other side of the city in half an hour. I could reach nature easily, even when surrounded by multi-story apartment buildings. I stripped naked for hot spring baths and could still eat Pizza Hut, but frankly, they had NO Mexican food. I craved Taco Bell when I got home.

I still prefer Korean ramen over Japanese–there was a ramen machine right outside my apartment. I loved being able to go to cafes and have omelets. Street vendors with corn dogs. PC-bongs (computer cafes) where you could play games when you wanted to get out of the house. And going to movie theaters to watch English movies with Korean subtitles. I danced in the streets of Seoul at the drum festival and watched Armed Forces TV.

I love travel–usually hated the jobs that allowed me to do it–but I was so happy to live a life less ordinary… if only for a few years. Have you been an ex-pat? What’s the first thing you discover about living in a new place? Let me know in the comments below.

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