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Alex’s Stories from Korea: A Chance Meeting

It has been quite some time since I posted on this blog. Aside from general business, the lack of inspiration for what to write about has also been a problem. After I attended the Toronto e-bloggers’ annual dinner, however, a good friend and fellow blogger on this site told me that the blog’s director had mentioned they’d like to see more stories about personal experiences of Korea. Having spent a fair bit of time there, I have a wealth of experiences that I think some folks might find interesting, and so begins Alex’s Stories from Korea—a series. Here I shall recount chapters from the several-year journey that led me to be so involved in South Korean matters. Not sure how much more personal I can get, really. Perhaps some of you have had similar experiences; perhaps some of these might spark your imagination. In any case, please enjoy this personal account, starting with this story, which does not take place in Korea, but in my hometown of Toronto . . .

Alex’s Stories from Korea #1: A Chance Meeting

From my earliest memories I’ve always had an interest in East Asia. I grew up one street over from Toronto’s East Chinatown, back when it was in its heyday in the early ’90s, and attended Withrow Public School nearby for elementary. All the signage in my school was in English, French and Chinese, if that’s any indication of how many first- and second-generation Chinese-Canadian parents would drop off their kids at the school’s front doors every morning. We had a fairly large library that housed a large collection of books in English about East Asia, which I read often. The Monkey King stories from Wu Cheng’en’s essential piece of Chinese literature, Journey to the West, were my favourites — I must have read them several times each. Lunar New Year was a big deal at my school. Red and gold decorations hung all over the place, the school would bring in performers specializing in traditional Chinese music and dance, and there would be games and activities throughout the day. What does this have to do with Korea? You’re going to have to bear with me.

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Chinatown East as it looked when I lived beside it, before the Cai Yuan Supermarket burned down. (Photo by Jason Allies)

Experiencing all this in my formative years really had an effect on me, and all those people, stories, arts, and aesthetics really captured my imagination. Of course as a child I was unable to fully appreciate how diverse the countries and the diaspora of East Asia really are—historically, culturally, and linguistically—but a seed had been planted and it continued to sprout unabated. Knowledge came with experience. Aside from the majority of my friends being from Chinese backgrounds, in middle school I discovered Japanese anime, which was considerably harder to get your hands on in those days, and in high school I was a Hong Kong film nut. Oftentimes after school I’d run down to Chinatown and buy a pile of bootleg Hong Kong movies and watch them all over the weekend. I’d attend Kung Fu Fridays at the Royal Theatre downtown and download new films from China and Japan constantly and trade them with my friends. I even got my parents into them. I trained in kendo and kung fu and regularly hung out in Chinatown with my friends. My friends would often joke that I was a “white FOB” who was more Asian then they were.

It was at this time that I discovered Korea. In 2002 I was in my second year of high school and the World Cup was being hosted by Korea and Japan. This brought a lot of mainstream attention to South Korea, and CBC Sportsnet would run vignettes on interesting locations in both countries. To add to the attention, the South Korean team made it to the semifinals in a massive upset win over Portugal. At one point I even put a taeguki in my window along with my English flag, since Canada rarely ever qualifies for the World Cup. It was shortly after this that I downloaded my first Korean movie on a whim and watched it. The film? Hwasango (Volcano High School). The movie tanked in South Korea but I loved it. It was like a live-action anime—high school sports club members with colourful hairstyles battled each other and the faculty for supremacy—and it featured (what I later found out to be) a star-studded cast. The film was even shown at the Toronto International Film Festival the following year. I needed more Korean movies.

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The poster for Hwasango (Volcano High School), the first Korean movie I’d ever seen.

After that I went on a download frenzy and grabbed every Korean movie I could find. Coincidentally, it turned out that in the early 2000s the South Korean film industry had been going through a renaissance of sorts, branded as the “Korean New Wave.” Huge blockbusters such as My Sassy Girl, Friend, and Peppermint Candy were released and put South Korea on the cinephile map, so to speak. At that time a friend had also introduced me to my first South Korean song, “Champion” by PSY, which I listened to so many times that I practically memorized it phonetically (this was a full decade before “Gangnam Style”).

Suffice it to say, South Korea had become ingrained in my consciousness, though I admit on a fairly superficial level. I knew of PSY, I knew what kimchi was, I knew taekwondo was Korean, I thought Korean men were romantic but liked to fight a lot, and I thought Korean women were tough (because of Jeon Ji Hyeon’s character in My Sassy Girl). I also thought the language sounded phonetically interesting and I would describe it as sounding like a mix between Mandarin and Japanese. Still, I didn’t know any Koreans or even Canadians with Korean backgrounds. I could count the amount of times I’d eaten at a Korean restaurant on one hand, and aside from what was represented in film, I had no idea what real Koreans watched or did when they weren’t eating kimchi, practising taekwondo, playing soccer, fighting, or being tough and/or romantic. That would soon change.

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Jeon Ji Hyeon in the role that launched her career. Years later I realized that her character was supposed to be unusual, however, between Volcano High School and My Sassy Girl it was etched into my adolescent mind that you don’t mess with Korean women.

About a year after graduating from high school (2006), my three-year relationship with my high school sweetheart came to an end rather abruptly. I was not the most ambitious person in my late teens and early twenties. I had applied to a few universities, by which I was turned down, largely because of underperforming in high school. Eventually I took some courses in film production at Ryerson University’s Chang School for Continuing Education, as I liked movies and didn’t really know what else to do.

For the moment I was quite content (or so I thought) to work at a 9-to-5 joe job, go to school in the evening, and hang out with my girlfriend. By virtue of having dated her for so long, I’d sort of assumed I’d marry her one day once I’d got my diploma, was earning a halfway decent wage, and had some money saved up. My world was a lot smaller in those days; once that relationship—around which my entire life revolved—came to an end, I was lost. I wasn’t all that passionate about becoming a filmmaker, and work was something I did so I could have money to do stuff with my girlfriend. I no longer had a purpose or any long-term goals. I frittered away my time and money hanging out with friends and attending classes that, while interesting and ultimately useful, didn’t really ignite my passion.

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An ad for Baek Sae Ju. It’s kind of a funny coincidence that the first night I tried a Korean alcoholic beverage was also the same night I made my first friend from Korea, and that the two were not related at all.

One fateful and rather cold November evening, a friend of mine came over to watch some kung fu movies and drink. Out of curiosity I had purchased a bottle of baek sae ju (a kind of ginseng wine) from the liquor store for the night’s festivities; it was the only Korean drink the store sold in those days. (We thought it was pretty good.) Later I walked with my friend to the subway station to see him off. After we said our goodbyes I began walking home. Suddenly I heard someone call after me in heavily accented English, “Hey! Excuse me!”

I turned around to see an East Asian man in a cardigan, leather jacket and jeans. He wore glasses and had a big smile on his face.

“Yes?” I answered, somewhat wary, as it was midnight.

“Sorry to bother you, but my name is Ju Ha and I’m from South Korea . . .”

Okay, I thought. This guy wants either directions or money.

The man continued. “I arrived in Canada three days ago and I’m a university student, here to study English . . .”

Definitely wants money. My brain had switched gears to a chain of prepared answers.

“. . . and I really want to speak English with a Canadian person. Do you think I can practise English with you? I can tell you many things about my country.”

I remember standing there silently for a second or two, blinking as I took in this new turn of events. “Really?” I asked after a brief pause.

“Yes. Is it okay?”

I thought about it for a second (I was a little buzzed). “Sure, if that’s all you want,” I said. “Which way are you going?”

“That way!” he said, pointing north.

“What a coincidence. Me too,” I said as we started walking.

We ended up talking for what must have been two hours and probably circled the block several times. During our conversation I tried to answer all his questions about Canada and exhausted every bit of Korean trivia I knew. We talked about PSY, movies, the World Cup, taekwondo, food and drink, and all sorts of things, using broken English and copious amounts of body language.

Eventually I asked him, “Do you have a phone? We should exchange numbers and we could hang out sometime. I guess I could show you around the city—it is my hometown, after all.”

“Ah, sorry. I don’t have my phone yet,” he said, looking disappointed.

“What about a pen and paper? I could write down my number or email.”

He shook his head. “No, sorry, I don’t think I’d remember it even if you told to me. What can we do?” he asked, sort of laughing as he said it.

Suddenly I had an idea. At that point we were rather close to my house, but since I didn’t know him that well, I thought perhaps showing him where I lived might not be prudent.

“This might sound weird, but can you wait here for a second while I run home and grab a piece of paper to write my number on? I promise I’ll be back in, like, five minutes.”

Ju Ha hesitated for a minute. “Okay. But you’re coming back, right?”

“Promise!” I said as I ran off.

I quickly booked it down the street and came to my house. I clumsily unlocked the door and ran to the kitchen, where I grabbed a notepad and hastily scribbled my number. I shoved the paper in my pocket and ran out of the house, back to the corner where I had left Ju Ha waiting in the cold. I was really hoping that he was still there. Maybe I thought this guy could add a new and exciting element to my then lacklustre life; maybe I thought knowing him could lead to some new opportunities; maybe he seemed just really relatable and kind of neat—or all of the above. In any case, I was going to be pretty sad if he had decided I wasn’t coming back and had taken off.

When I turned the corner, there he was waiting. He seemed to be genuinely surprised that I had actually returned. I handed him the piece of paper.

I said, breathing heavily from my run, “Call me when you get a phone and we can totally hang out . . .  grab some beers or something, and I’ll show you around.”

“Wow, you are a great friend!” he said.

I laughed. “You too, man. I’ll be looking forward to our meeting. Have a good night!”

With that, we went our separate ways.

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Ju Ha and I reunited in 2008 in Seoul. Haven’t seen him in years though, but we may very well meet again.

Two weeks later I was sitting in a digital editing room at Ryerson, working on one of my projects, and I received a call from an unknown number. Sure enough it was Ju Ha, and he wanted to know if I was free that evening. We did grab those beers and I showed him around.

That meeting kicked off a whole chain of events that eventually led to my actually visiting Korea several times, as well as taking East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto and Yonsei University in Seoul. However, those are stories for another time . . . right here on Alex’s Stories from Korea!

I’ll try my utmost to post another one of these next week! Hope ya’ll liked it!

6 replies »

  1. Wow, Alex, this is a GREAT post! I enjoyed reading it, even though it made me feel a bit jealous. Your elementary school sounds MUCH more interesting than any of the three that I went to! Looks like we have enjoyed some of the same Korean films. I do have several Korean friends, but I did not meet them in such an unconventional way. I have not written a post for awhile, either. I was already feeling guilty about it. . . Now I must really write something soon. (It probably won’t be as interesting as yours, though.)

  2. Please write some more. I loved your story of your introduction to Korea. I found Korea by chance as well. Do you think Korean ancestors may have sent some hardy spirits here to reincarnate? For some reason it all feels so familiar…..

  3. Wow that story about Ju Ha was awesome! What are the chances of that happening? Well with you, it seems like cool stuff like that always happens ;) love and miss you bro!

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