Sunday, October 09, 2005


Why have I come to South Korea? Well...

(Note to readers: This was written in August and published in the Post-Intelligencer the week before I left.)

When those you know discover your intentions to move away, it usually results in remarks like “Oh, really?” followed by requests for phone numbers and/or mailing addresses. My decision has prompted these responses, but the conversation tends to take a different quality upon word of my destination.
“So when are you leaving?” they’ll ask.
“Near the end of August,” I respond.
“Now where is it you’re going?”
“Actually…South Korea. I’m going to be teaching English,” I’ll say, and wait for their reactions.
The variations have been entertaining. My personal favorites: “Not North Korea, right?” “Are your parents okay with it?” and “Have you warned them about your freakish height?”
For your edification, the answers to these questions are, “No, I’ll save a voyage to a Stalinist regime for my second overseas trip,” “Yes, they’ll let someone else feed me for the next year,” and “This may be my only chance to be good at basketball.”
And then there are those who have simply wondered, “Why?”
That answer is much longer. I’m going through my church, so some think of it as a noble call to service. Some assume that I’ve been looking for a way out of Paris. Others are certain it’s just the lure of Asian women.
In a way, all of these reasons have contributed, though I’ll let you guess at which of those three ranks highest. I learned about the opportunity earlier this year through an advertisement in a magazine published by Seventh-day Adventists. I’ve long desired to travel, but South Korea had not been high on my list of places to see, and not only because of their proximity to a five-foot-tall lunatic armed with impossibly gelled hair (Kim Jong-Il, not Clay Aiken).
But then I began to tell myself that this was a real opportunity. “Self,” I said, “You want to come back a few stories to tell. You want to do some good for society, even if it’s in a foreign land. You want to see more of the world and be a more thoughtful person because of it.
“You want an entire culture to look to you in awe because of your freakish height, and this is that chance.”
There is something not entirely altruistic about the journey, because it’s not just about what I can do, but what South Korea can do something for me. In a sense, I’m leaving because rural West Tennessee is boring. In another sense, I’m leaving because I’m boring, too.
I think of my ordinary life, and I compare myself to people who rose to prominence by making a difficult choice. I think of Meriwether Lewis, who overcame a less-than-masculine-first name and ended up having a cross-country expedition named for him, when he could have simply remained another government employee in the early years of our republic.
I think of Harry S. Truman, who overcame a tragically stunted middle name to become the president most responsible for the election of Dwight Eisenhower, when he could have simply remained another senator from Missouri.
And I think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who overcame having a name even he can’t spell to become governor of California, when he could have simply remained your average, run-of-the-mill bodybuilding champion/movie star/real estate magnate worth north of $300 million.
With these and other inspirations in mind, I’m leaving this week. I’m trying to pick up the language, but so far it sounds like someone with an Asian dialect making incomprehensible baby sounds and looks like a series of ornate kitchen utensils. I really have no idea what to expect, and no one I’ve spoken to has much of an idea either; they keep referring to concepts like “yen” and “Geisha” which are strictly Japanese. But whatever I find out, I promise to keep you posted.

Former Post-Intelligencer reporter/photographer Rob York will be teaching English and religion in South Korea for the next year. He can be reached at

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