Fishing Indoors With a Former Member of the Korean Army

The author with his former student Lee

BUSAN, South Korea—Though I passed a fair portion of my Korean expat tenure sitting in bars, I spent the bulk of my time in Busan at the front of classrooms. Lee Oh, my favorite student from those teaching years, has just finished his mandatory two-year stint in the South Korean army—and I’m marking this proud occasion by taking him indoor fishing.

Admittedly, indoor fishing is probably not what Lee was fantasizing about during the months he spent on a military compound within artillery distance of North Korea—but I figure it’ll be a better activity for him than playing video games for 12 hours at a stretch, which, as a 24-year-old Korean male, is his first instinct when faced with unstructured free time.

Originally developed for elderly Korean urbanites pining for the village fishing excursions of their youth, indoor fishing became an unlikely fad in Busan about four years ago. At the height of the craze, eight different establishments competed for the business of indoor anglers. After a TV exposé suggested that indoor-raised saltwater fish might cause cancer, business largely dried up. Only one indoor fishing establishment remains in Busan, so I’ve decided to indulge my curiosity before the trend dies out altogether. My old student and I hail a taxi and head for Sea Fishing World.

I met Lee through his father, a Busan surgeon who’d hired me to help proofread a medical journal article about antiperistaltic ileostomy (an endeavor that earned me a coveted translation credit in Diseases of the Colon and Rectum). At the time I began to tutor him, Lee was a quiet 14-year-old with an affinity for Disney movies and a disinterest in the rote methods of Korean schooling. Looking back, I can’t remember what I taught him, specifically. I usually visited his house from 10 to 11 o’clock at night, when we were both exhausted from a day’s worth of other classes and tutorials. For the most part, we watched English-language videos and had aimless conversations. One time we went outside and tried to watch the Hale-Bopp comet through his dad’s binoculars. Another time we stole off to a late-night game room and played pingpong.

Like most expats who traveled to Busan on teaching contracts, I was never trained in the ways of pedagogy. Due to Korea’s ongoing drive to globalize, learning English was in vogue among the upwardly mobile middle classes, and all that was required to land a job as a teacher was native-speaker fluency and a college degree in any subject. Moreover, owners of extracurricular-learning institutes (called hakwan in Korean) weren’t required to be credentialed educators, and many such bosses hired expats less for proven teaching skills than for white skin and a presentable appearance.

Inevitably, this resulted in a weird professional environment (largely unchanged to this day), wherein expat hirelings rarely knew the distinction between teaching, babysitting, and killing time in the classroom. Amid the confusion, a fair number of otherwise-unemployable American con artists, drunks, and sociopaths landed Korean teaching jobs—a fact that is exploited every few years by the more alarmist ranks of the domestic press (a recent such episode came earlier this year, when Korean teaching experience was discovered on the résumé of JonBenet Ramsey murder suspect John Mark Karr).

Despite the seeming unreliability of Korea’s English-teacher import system, however, it seems to have largely worked out over time. Perhaps less important than actual lessons was the sociocultural exchange that happened every time a Westerner walked into a Korean classroom. Once known as isolationist, Korea is now home to a generation of college students who’ve been interacting with expat teachers since they were in grade school. Those teachers, in turn, have returned to the West with a better appreciation of Korean virtues like discipline, family, and spicy food.

In Lee’s case, my English instruction was secondary to my becoming a kind of American big brother to him. When his parents expressed concern that he was too much of a dreamer to withstand the inflexibility of Korean high school, I arranged for Lee to live with my parents and attend high school in America. Eventually, Lee was accepted into the University of Kansas, where the quiet kid from Busan bloomed into a strapping undergrad with a gaggle of international friends. In a scenario that would have been wildly improbable a generation ago, Lee has become a devout Lutheran, mastered the acoustic guitar, traveled to Mexico and Alaska, found a passion for humanitarian volunteer work, and fallen for a blue-eyed Irish-American girl (whom he will marry in Kansas City next year).

Lee trolls the waters of a basement fishing hall

Lee and I arrive at Sea Fishing Land to find a place far more bizarre than I’d imagined. Located in a cement-walled basement not far from Gwangan Beach, the indoor-fishing room resembles a darkened parking garage that has been outfitted with an oversized hot tub full of carp and catfish. Out in the lobby, Lee and I plunk down 8,000 won each (about $8) to rent 3-foot rods, glow-in-the-dark bobbers, and golf-ball-sized lumps of crumbly brown stink-bait. We duck through a curtain into the dim fishing room, where we belly up on barstools and plop our baited hooks into the water. Mr. Pak, the proprietor, brings us paper cups of sweetened coffee and terry-cloth towels that we’re supposed to use when handling the fish. Through the darkness, I can see three other people—all of them men in their 40s—with their lines in other corners of the pool.

We eye our phosphorescent bobbers for signs of movement, and Lee tells me how he kept a daily journal in English for the entire two years he was in the army (a detail which may well count as the finest legacy of my erstwhile career in education).

“What did you think of the army?” I ask him.

“It was like losing two years of my life,” he says. “I spent most of my time making coffee for a general.”

“Well, at least you’re out now. What’s next?”

Lee thinks for a moment as he checks his hook and drops it back into the water. “I don’t know,” he says. “Get married, I guess. Certify as a math teacher. Maybe live in Mexico for a while. Learn some Spanish, do some mission work.”

I tell Lee that it’s good to be vague about the future, and we quiz each other on where in the world we’d like to travel in the next five years.

As we talk, Lee’s bobber zags in the water; he sets the hook with a twitch of the rod and pulls out a small gray carp. Cradling the fish into the terry-cloth towel, he removes the hook and returns the carp into the water. It’s the only fish either of us catches.

When I return home later in the day, I notice I have a text message from Wonsuk Chin. He wants me to meet him in Busan’s dicey Texas Street entertainment district, where he plans to shoot portions of Expats next spring.