"By the time you finish my class, you will all be able to speak Hangul well enough to appear on national television," says Professor Lee. Tall and thin, not yet thirty but already balding, his doctorate is in Russian — not a high-demand skill in the South Korea of 1972. To earn a living, Lee moonlights at the University of Maryland Extension, teaching American GIs like me to speak Hangul, the language of his country.
As I learn this phonetic alphabet I begin to read, at first street signs, then restaurant menus, soon newspaper headlines. It comes remarkably quickly, it seems to me, so fast that I forget about Lee's opening statement, which I ascribe to hyperbole. So I am astonished and then scared when, two weeks before semester's end, Lee says that instead of using this evening's three-hour class to converse with each other, we will go to a singing nightclub, the Korean version of what will later be known as a karaoke bar, to practice for our final exam.
The exam, he adds, is an appearance on a daytime Korean Broadcasting System game show whose name translates "Joyful Blue and White Games."
We spend an evening taking advantage of the open mike, and I rehearse a takeoff on the Smothers Brothers' act. Singing off-key — of course — accompanied by an Air Force weatherman on guitar, after many fits and starts we almost complete Sarang-hae tongshin-ul, the soulful ballad then topping Seoul pop charts.
Two weeks later I am under the lights with Flyboy, a famous-for-being-famous, over-the-hill television emcee. He rattles off "American" jokes at supersonic speeds; I balance on a flexing two-by-four over a pool of shallow water, trying to nab tennis balls with a butterfly net.
I am not making this up.
Sooner or later, everyone gets wet, and when I do, the rules of this game decree that I sing a song or tell a joke. I belt out Sarang-hae tongshin-ul so badly off-key that everyone in the studio, including my guitar player, is convinced that I am putting them on, the sort of basic, earthy humor that many Koreans find hilarious.
"Do you think many people watch this show?" I ask Professor Lee afterwards, and he beckons over his college roommate, the gameshow producer. "We are number one in daytime," says the producer in perfect English. "Our re-runs air for years and years."
I take my A in the class — those who decline to humiliate themselves in front of the cameras are docked half a grade by Dr. Lee — and go on for three more semesters of Hangul. By 1974 I can understand the lyrics of almost any Korean song, although, even to save my life, I cannot carry the tune of even one.
In July of that year I prepare to leave Korea for what I think will be my last time. I am about to take my Army discharge, about to change my life in fundamental ways, and I crave the solitude of a solo journey as an opportunity to feel, to think, to heal. I also want to experience a region that I have never seen. So I plan a week hitchhiking and trekking through the peninsula's nethermost provinces, so isolated that few foreigners ever visit them.
It is glorious, walking miles down the middle of unpaved roads, accepting brief rides from provincial police, catching a local bus, even resting my backpack on a farmer's cart as I stroll alongside, effortlessly keeping pace with the shambling gate of an ox. It is fine stopping at midday to share my tinned rations and sample the home-grown victuals of barefoot, friendly peasants. They smilingly complement me on my Hangul, exchange sly glances about my Seoul accent, slip into regionalisms and local dialect to talk about me to my face but behind my back. Seoul is barely 300 miles north, but this is another world.
It is a cosmos of close horizons, with steep mountains crowning narrow, emerald valleys, every welcome breeze redolent with turned earth and manure, every field spotted with farmers working unhurriedly through the long summer day. I cover thirty miles or so between nights in one or another yeogwan, the diminutive country inns that offer a coffin-sized sleeping space, a freshly-laundered mat, hot tea on arising and steamed rice with pickled radish and soup to fuel a dawn getaway.
After three days, my transistor radio tells of a vast, unseasonable storm, likely an embryonic typhoon, headed straight for the peninsula. Suddenly the constricted valleys, cut by swift mountain streams that hours of hard rain will send over their banks, seem like a trap. I am two days march from a main road, from a small city where I might take shelter or get a train or highway bus to the safety of Seoul. My map, however, depicts a back road across relatively low hills that would put me a day closer to civilization. What sort of road? My Army map, decades old, doesn't say.
I turn off the main road onto fresh gravel. By noon the stones are gone, the road is a pair of deep ruts. Jumbled rocky hills rise on either side, the air is moist and still, and before me are only mountains and mists. I eat on the march, hoping for a police jeep, a farmer's tractor, anything. At twilight the ruts peter out, and I am on a slim path twisting between steep hills terraced with narrow paddies. I have not seen another human being since midday.
Abruptly the path ends in a tiny village, five or six thatched huts scattered among vegetable gardens. Next to the largest a television antenna, perched atop a high pole and guyed with steel wires, points north towards Seoul. I hear laughter and voices, and trudge wearily toward the antenna. Abruptly upwards of a dozen children come boiling out of the house. They surround me, giggling, pointing. Then a boy of perhaps ten gives me a look. "Omah! Omah!" he shouts, and when his mother's head appears in the open doorway he calls, "Look! It's the long-nose from "Joyful Blue and White Games."
After dinner I am made to sing Sarang-hae tongshin-ul five times. Each time, my hosts, including several adults, laugh uproariously. In the morning, the boy with keen eyes guides me to a mountain path that becomes to a cart track that leads to a road that, after flagging a bus, brings me to the cozy city of Masan. By nightfall, just before the full fury of the typhoon arrives, I am safe.
I like to think that I would have been just as welcome in that nameless village if I had been able to carry a tune — but thinking back to the boy's parting words, I still wonder: "Are you going to be on the TV again?" he asked, and when I shook my head, no, he said, "Do all Americans sing funny?"
© 2009 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.