The children’s music blared as always from the as yet un-vandalised loud speakers that lined the pathway down the hill. I sipped my coffee and attempted to admire the view from my apartment building, which was called Earth. The giant domed roof of the concert hall loomed up behind the new residential buildings. The newly transplanted trees were dusted with fresh snow. To the hearing-impaired this would be idyllic. I grabbed my coat and resolved to continue my futile quest to locate whichever administrative employee was authorised to explain the music. Why was children’s music playing at nightclub volume in the residential areas of the village, at eight o’clock in the morning, two hours before the park opened its gates to the public? Why, God, why? In a nice twist, that morning’s obscenely loud offering of ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ was syncopated by the equally ear-splitting sound of heavy machine-gun fire from the top of the hill just behind my apartment. The sound of bullets ricocheted sharply off the buildings and surrounding hills. At least I hoped that it was only the sound that was ricocheting – it was very close, and loud enough that I instinctively ducked down, the way people tend to do when approaching or departing a helicopter even though probably aware that they are not twelve feet tall.
I decided to pick up the pace a little. Nobody had mentioned anything about bullets. It was a short morning commute though, and a minute after leaving my apartment I arrived at work.
The day visitors were beginning to arrive. Family groups and young couples strolled around taking photos of the buildings, each other and, well, pretty much everything. A Russian woman and a South African man were chatting with a purple hippopotamus. They bid the brightly coloured mascot good morning and made their way up the steps to City Hall, leaving the poor purple creature defenceless against an impending martial arts attack; a rapidly approaching swarm of five-year-old boys.
Later it would be decided that the hippopotamus and his animal friends should have minders, not only because of the constant threat of child attacks but also because the giant smiling animal heads afforded those who donned them a very limited field of vision (I don’t know what it is about mascots and Schadenfreude, but people do tend to laugh, at least a little, upon seeing a bright purple hippopotamus falling down a flight of stairs). At least there was padding inside those suits. For now I could only wave to the hippo and wish him the best of luck. This was not my fight and besides, I had work of my own to get to. The hippo waved back with one hand while shielding his crotch with the other. A large happy-looking pink rabbit was approaching to lend assistance.
Amid all the usual morning activity I failed to notice that the gunfire, though now sporadic had still not ceased. Oddly enough, I seemed to be the only person who could hear it. Everybody else was just going about their business, happily taking photos, kicking hippos and such. My five weeks in this bizarre place had been long enough to learn that the Koreans are exceptionally good at playing a strange game called “This Isn’t Happening”. Perhaps the gunfire was all in my head. A passing Romanian woman raised her shoulders, arms and eyebrows in a ‘what the fuck is going on?’ kind of way and kept walking. Good. I wasn’t going mad. It was time to go into a building called ‘Funworld’ and begin my day.
After two hours in Funworld (a name I knew would become increasingly ironic as the weeks and months progressed) I went next door and spent an hour baking cookies in industrial pizza ovens with a dozen excitable, confused six-year-olds, pausing occasionally to sing a song about the cookie-baking process. Some of my new friends and colleagues were nearby in the bank singing songs about being in a bank. A Russian/Ukrainian jazz band marched past again, playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ on a seemingly endless loop. I wondered if I was the only person who stopped what I was doing several times a day just to look around and wonder how the hell I ended up here. Apparently I wasn’t.
170 foreigners from seventeen countries had been brought here to educate and entertain Korean children and families, in English, in what would ultimately become one of the grandest and most expensive failed educational experiments ever devised. Our new home was called ‘English Village’, a brand new, ninety million dollar theme park with no rides; a zoo in which I was one of the exhibits. It was all very exciting… at first.
Like a lot of the guys at the Village (a seventy-acre compound 50 kilometres North of Seoul) I was quite pleased that the forty eastern European girls had recently arrived to begin operations of the commercial street, not only because the restaurants (and more importantly the pub) would finally be open for business, but also because a lot of these women were pretty hot.
I had been hired as a musician and songwriter, and after cookie-baking time I had to grab a quick bite, then run back to my apartment and change into my kilt (as you do). My afternoon job was to stroll around the village with my guitar, have my photo taken with groups of visitors, sing an occasional song and explain three hundred times a day why I was wearing a dress.
This was actually not a bad job to have. I strolled at my leisure, chatting with the thousands of visitors and with the newly arrived Eastern European girls staffing the restaurants. Emboldened with the knowledge that some women have a weakness for musicians (this is why straight men own guitars) I was also learning that, for whatever reason, some women seem to like the idea of a man in a kilt, or indeed any kind of weird costume. This was good.
I wandered up the hill to the massive castle gates, out of the “Village” proper, and down to the immigration building where pretend customs officers dressed for some reason not entirely unlike Sgt Peppers’ (sometimes also me) sat in pretend immigration booths, stamping pretend English Village passports and asking Koreans if this was their first trip to a foreign country.
I wandered past the immigration building, past the replica of Stonehenge and across the street, to smoke a cigarette and look down the hill toward the river, and the cold, barren hills on the other side, about a kilometre away (aside from neglecting to tell me about the military firing range in the hill behind my apartment, my new employers had also not rushed to inform me before arriving that the world’s most bizarre children-oriented theme park was about a kilometre from North Korea).
I stared at North Korea for a few minutes, wondered aloud how the fuck I ended up staring at North Korea whilst wearing a kilt, finished my cigarette break then went back to work.
At exactly six o’clock I made straight for the Double Decker, a “traditional English pub” without English people. I had been a regular there since it opened the week before and had made friends with Hoony, the very angry young Korean man who ran the place. Hoony was quite open, to me at least, about the fact that he didn’t really like other Koreans very much, or Korean culture, and he didn’t seem to like other people or cultures much either. He liked beer though so we got along fine. Also at the Double Decker I had become friends with the young Greek woman and the two Romanians who worked behind the bar. They each spoke at least three languages, held Masters degrees and, like most of the European girls in the commercial area, were massively overqualified for their positions. We chatted that evening, like most evenings about how incredibly fucking weird everything about this place was.
That evening at the pub I also got talking with one of the new girls who worked at the “Fun Museum” just up the hill. She was a tall blonde, wearing a black knee-length leather jacket, and said she had seen me walking around in my kilt. I told her I liked her accent. She said she was from Serbia.
That was my 37th day in South Korea. The Serbian girl and I left the English Village together exactly two years later with our baby daughter.