Talks in Thailand: The digital nomad

Mr. A explained to me over a Skype call that he wasn’t sure how he would declare his taxes in his home country of Costa Rica. Many countries haven’t yet caught onto this trend.

A growing number of people are supporting themselves with online freelancing. Working online means they’re not locked into any physical location, allowing them to live in a country with a low cost of living while receiving their wage in a strong currency, like the U.S. dollar.

There’s no official name for them yet, but many call them digital nomads.

“I tried to explain what I did to an accountant and he didn’t know. He told me the laws are outdated and don’t apply. Costa Rica doesn’t have the legislation to deal with it yet.” he said.

He had just arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This was his first dive into full time life as a digital nomad, though he had tested the waters during a stay in Hamburg, Germany.

Mr. A did market research. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so he gave me an example.

If an American chocolate company wants to get into the Mexican market, they’ll want to know how much demand there is for chocolate, what the competition is like, what local buying power is, and so on. If they can’t find that on their own, he’s the guy they come to.

He started his marketing career as a typical employee at a typical company, sitting in a typical cubicle and working typical hours. He would try to earn beer money by working for private clients he met online in his free time.

When a client offered him a temporary job in Hamburg, Germany, he jumped at the opportunity. It was a chance to break out of the norm. Do something new. Have an adventure!

But after he arrived, the job fell through.

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

With a two month lease on his apartment, plenty of time to spare, and a need to find income, he decided to turn his free time freelancing hobby into a full time job. Mr. A had just accidentally become a digital nomad.

His story sounded a lot like my own. It’s a story that I found many digital nomads share. The story of stumbling into this lifestyle.

I started publishing articles after I got home from work because I wanted to make the career jump from teaching to writing. I wrote without pay for over half a year, just to build a portfolio.

While teaching English in South Korea, I found paid gigs on Upwork. I began with low end jobs, just trying to build a reputation on the site. And in the field of writing, the low end jobs are as low as low gets. Clients from India were outsourcing work to me.

Slowly, it built to better work. Very slowly.

As my year long contract in Korea came to an end, a buddy in Arkansas told me I could move in with him until I got myself figured out in the States.

He asked if I’d need to find a job or if I could support myself from freelancing. I laughed and told him my writing wouldn’t even come close to paying the bills unless I was living in a small town in Thailand or something crazy like that.

When we ended the call, “something crazy like that,” was all I could think about. Within a month, I had moved to a small town in Thailand. Somehow it didn’t feel crazy at all.

I met a shockingly large number of other people from all over the world doing the same thing. Writers, programmers, English teachers, and marketers from Hong Kong, Italy, Colombia, and Israel.

There was a meetup group at the cafe outside my apartment. There were so many digital nomads in Chiang Mai that a new type of hostel started up called a “Workspace,” which was a mix of hostel and computer cafe.

The point is, this digital nomad thing isn’t a couple people working remotely. It’s a culture developing in a few particular cities across the globe: Chiang Mai, Medellin, Ho Chi Minh, Budapest, and so on.

The number of digital nomads is growing. A few of them believed we were the pioneers of a revolution that will use the internet to change the fundamental structure of labor. A few of them were dreamers.

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

I asked Mr. A how he defines a digital nomad. It’s such a new thing, everyone seems to have their own definition.

“To me,” he said, then thought for a moment. “Someone who moves around and makes their living online. I guess if you look at it, if you want to get really specific, it’s someone who self funds their lifestyle.”

That’s the unifying quality I had seen with all the digital nomads I met. They were people who refused to sell hours of their life to a company, waiting for the end of the shift to relish the sliver of time they had free. Instead, they started the lifestyle they wanted, then found a way to fund it.

Digital nomads may be unified in that aspect of lifestyle, but they’re not unified as far as the name that labels them. In all the digital nomad social media groups I joined, there were always debates about what term describes their lifestyle. A lot of them saw “digital nomad” as silly at best, and derogatory at worst.

Personally, I didn’t see the problem with it. They work online and they travel. Digital nomad seemed appropriate. But Mr. A had another perspective.

He said the term makes it easy when you’re trying to explain what you do to someone who doesn’t even know that lifestyle exists. However, he believes there’s dissention about the term because there is a group of digital nomads that the others would like to distance themselves from.

He said that often the digital nomads who are most outspoken about their lifestyle are those who do “dropshipping.” Dropshipping, as he explained, is buying bulk of a product sold cheap in one area of the world, then selling it in another area where it will make a profit.

Years ago, a good friend told me about someone who made his living buying Oreo cookies and selling them in China. In Thailand, I met a friend who told me he knows someone who only works one day a month because he does dropshipping.

Mr. A said that they’re often the most visible digital nomads. In reality, many of them don’t make much money dropshipping, but they do tons of publicity for courses they sell on how to dropship. The courses become the primary income for many of them.

“The whole lifestyle is about trying not to work,” Mr. A said, explaining why some digital nomads want to distance themselves from the title, which is too often associated with dropshippers. “From an economic perspective, at least for me, it doesn’t add much value.”

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

He told me that he got the travel bug when he was young. He travelled a lot with his family, but decided that’s not the way he wanted to travel. He didn’t want to sprint through a place in a week, stopping for selfies at all the same tourists sites that every visitor stops at. He wanted to take his time and know a place

I felt the same. I taught in Korea for years. During that time, I took a few week long trips to Japan. I saw some cool sites and it was great, but I understand nothing about Japan. However, I have a deep understanding of Korea because I loved and hated and fought and accepted its culture over the years.

That’s what I want from travel. I don’t care for seeing the famous sites and taking pictures, which look exactly like the pictures I’d see on Google Images. Instead, when I travel, I want to understand that country. I want travel to expand my understanding of what human life can be.

You can’t get that understanding in a week trip. You only get it by walking down to the same food stall on the corner for months. Experiencing the same frustrating cultural difference with many different people many times. You begin to pull apart what is cultural behavior and what is purely human.

Still, Mr. A said there are things he misses about a traditional workplace. We both agreed that we miss the social aspect of working with a team, despite the fact that we both identify as introverts.

He said that as an introverted digital nomad, it’s easy for him to fall into a lifestyle of never seeing people face to face for days on end. He has to make an effort to meet people, which feels unnatural as an introvert.

Whatever that urge is to go out and make friends just for the sake of making friends, I don’t have that either. I met most of my friends while doing something. Volunteering, living in a college dorm, gaming, writing groups, and so on.

Work was one of those reliable ways to get in my obligated socializing time. Without it, even I got to a point where I was spending too much time alone. It got to the point where I remember struggling through some conversations like a toddler having to think about which foot to put forward next.

I was even more socially awkward than usual, which is a hell of a thing for someone like me.

Mr. A added one more thing he missed about a traditional job. When you work from home as a freelancer, the actual work is the easy part. The hard part is finding the work.

He said that even when he finds regular clients, he needs to continue looking for new clients so that the pipeline of work doesn’t dry up. If you haven’t been searching for new work and a client doesn’t offer you another project, you better hope you have some savings. The pipeline has dried up and you’re about to go hungry.

Despite the challenges, Mr. A believes, like many of the dreamers, that the digital nomad phenomena could be the start to a new way to make a living.

“It could be something that’s just starting,” he said. “You’re documenting it at the start. It’ll be interesting to see this five years from now and say, ‘This is how it all started.’”


Pictures: Masha Kudrina
Words: Michael Smit

Talks in Thailand: The burger chef

That little burger stand in Chiang Mai, Thailand is Ms. A’s baby. She’s there every day from early afternoon until late at night cooking, taking orders and chatting with her regular customers.

She’s not the only one who works there. A young man and woman, a couple, also work at the burger stand. But it’s her baby.

I asked her if she has any hobbies during the few hours a day she’s not at the stand. She said she makes sandwiches. So when she’s not cooking at work, she’s cooking at home.

She makes those little sandwiches you see in the glass display at coffee shops. This lady exists to feed people.

I started the interview by asking how she got started cooking burgers. I wanted to know because all of her food tastes exactly like home. She served a variety of American meals like steak, burgers, salads, and mashed potatoes.

The mashed potatoes stood out to me. It’s rare to even see potatoes in Asia, but this little burger stand in Chiang Mai served the softest, graviest potatoes I’ve ever had. Anywhere.

After living overseas for a while, you start to crave foods you never even knew you liked. That was potatoes for me. I thought I was sick of them after having potatoes at every dinner while growing up. But a year and a half into my time in Asia, I savored those mashed potatoes like they were ice cream.

The point is that I thought she had lived in America for a while, but that wasn’t the case. She got her start by working in a Western food chain called Mai Burger.

“I always loved foreign food,” she said.

When the Thai economy took a dive, a lot of people lost their jobs. Ms. A was one of them.

“We didn’t know what we could do to get money,” she said. She’s married and has six children.

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

She struggled to find another job. However, she couldn’t take her mind off this one street food vendor.  Amid all the rice and noodle vendors, this one food stall sold Western style chicken and beef dishes for very cheap.

You can’t walk five minutes in Chiang Mai without passing a food stall. Most of them sell simple Thai food like rice and noodles. It’s rare to sell Western dishes from a food stall.

“I talked about it with my husband,” she told me.”We looked at the streets here and saw they had no burger shop. No steak shop.”

She knew she there was a market and she knew she could make good food, but it was still a risk to open a shop without much savings. “First we thought about if we’d get customers or not because people didn’t know about us. They know McDonald’s. They know KFC.”

She continued, “When we opened, we tried to catch some customers from the university. Some not so rich people.”

Most street vendors sell dishes for about 40 to 50 baht, which is a little over a dollar. A typical McDonald’s meal in Thailand is about 150 baht. She managed to make burgers at her stall that taste better than McDonalds and only cost 50 baht.

“Was it okay at the start?” I asked.

“No!” she said. “For the first day, I could sell only 375 baht.” 375 baht is about 10 bucks.

But they kept at it. Eventually other street vendors opened shop around them, which helped draw more customers. They also got a feature in a local English magazine after one of their writers ate at Ms. A’s burger shop and loved it.

They didn’t have a name for the shop when writer came. At the time, they were still a grill on wheels with a menu written on a whiteboard. They had to make up a name for the article feature, so they went with “Mark’s Burgers.”

I asked, “Who’s Mark?”

“There is no Mark,” she said. “Just a good name.”

Business got better. At one point, I asked what she does when there are no customers, but she laughed and said, “Always have customers.”

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

Our conversation was a lot of fun, as it was every time I talked to Ms. A. She was friendly and had a good, honest laugh. But when I asked a question I thought would make her proud, it took a turn.

“How long have you owned this shop?” I asked.

Her shoulders sank and I could sense that my question brought up something awkward. With a sheepish laugh, she said, “Now, I’m not the owner. I gave it to her, she’s the owner now.” She pointed at the younger girl who works there.

Ms. A explained that her children had medical problems over a long period of time. As soon as one got healthy again, another would get sick. At first, she tried to borrow money, but the interest rates were killing her business. She had to sell the shop

The younger girl’s father is a business owner. He bought Ms. A’s burger shop and gave it to his daughter. Ms. A still runs the kitchen with a smile and teaches the younger girl how to manage the shop. She never hinted that it upset her to answer to a new owner, but I wouldn’t blame her if it did. She built that shop out of nothing.

Ms. A went on to explain the medical problems her kids had. She told me that Thailand has national health care and public hospitals, but it’s limited.

When her kids got sick, she first took them to the public hospital. If they didn’t get better, she had to transfer them to one of the private hospitals that can offer better care but costs significantly more.

She also told me that while people are happy with the national health care–without it, Thailand’s poor wouldn’t have any medical care at all–it does have significant problems.

The public hospitals are limited on the types of medicine they can prescribe. They often give a plethora of pills whose combined effects achieve what one better, more expensive pill could do from a private hospital.

Taking so many pills causes wear and tear on the body. She told me that this results in widespread kidney failure among Thailand’s lower class.

Trying to find common ground, I told her about some of the issues in our own mess of an American medical system. I shared the story of one of my students in Los Angeles who had a seizure during class. We called an ambulance and got her to the hospital. They got her feeling better again until they handed her the massive bill which included $2,000 for the ambulance trip alone.

We went on for fifteen minutes talking about hospitals and medicine and insurance until we remembered we met to talk about burgers. That’s how it was with Ms. A. She made you feel comfortable enough to just ramble on.

(illustration credit: Masha Kudrina)

“What are your plans for the future?” I asked.

“If I can clear my money problems…” she thought for a moment.

She told me about an idea for a baby food service. Customers could place orders online and she would make the food with fresh, local ingredients which are clearly marked for parents to see. She said she’s not sure if she can do it, but that’s her dream.

“I think that’s a great idea,” I told her. “So you just love food business, huh?”

“Yes, because I like to eat,” she laughed.

There’s a lot of things I miss about Thailand, but more than anything I miss the warmth of its people.


Pictures: Masha Kudrina
Words: Michael Smit

Talks in Thailand: Ms. A the Ladyboy

We rode on her scooter past the ancient walls of old Chiang Mai city from the hostel where she works.

When we got to the restaurant, I felt like everyone was looking at us. Even now, I’m not sure if this was real or just in my head. She had make up, a short black dress, and high heels, but there was still something masculine about her.

She had gotten dressed up for me. She was still putting on her makeup when I got to her hostel at 7:15, which is when she finishes work.

“You’re so cute,” she had said when I arrived.

“Thanks,” my discomfort levels were maxed out. I had never talked to someone like her before, but I was trying to play it cool. Everything about this felt like a date.

That shouldn’t be too surprising, because I met Ms. A on a dating app. I had been using the app to try to find a date in Thailand, cautiously examining every girl’s shoulders and chin to see if she might be a ladyboy before I sent her a message.

Forgive me a moment while I salute my own flag, but I do extremely well with online dating. I’m an introvert, a writer, and a nerd. It’s written in my DNA to excel at e-dating. The best way to do it, as a guy, is to find one good opening line, and mass send it to every girl.

Depending on the line and your profile, somewhere between 20% and 40% will respond. Talk for a while with those who respond, then focus on one after that. I know this isn’t romantic, but it really is the best way to do it.

It’s like applying to a job. You don’t try to snipe your dream job. You shoot your resume out like buckshot and take the best target you hit. I’m not good at metaphors, but in this one the target is the girl and the buckshot is your dorky opening line.

And if you’re a girl using a dating app, the best way to do it is to open the app and scroll through the hundreds of messages you receive every day, trying to find a guy that doesn’t set off your creep alarm. I don’t know, I’ve never been a girl on a dating app.

Anyhow, that all changed once I decided to continue my interview series in Thailand. Ladyboys have become an unintentional cultural icon of this country, so my goal on the dating app flipped. I started seeking ladyboys. I loaded up with the buckshot of a new opening line for them.

I had no idea what to expect once they started talking to me. I’ve had no direct exposure to transgender people, as far as I know. And every movie I’ve seen set in Thailand has at least one part with a ladyboy preying on an unaware hetero man, like a spider entangling its victim in a web of confusing genitals

What I found was the opposite. Every ladyboy I talked to was very upfront, making sure I understood she was a ladyboy even if I hadn’t asked. In return, I made sure they knew I wanted an interview, not a date. Some weren’t interested, some were busy. Finally, I found Ms. A, who said yes.

But as I waited for her to finish her make up, I realized our roles had swapped. It didn’t matter how many times I told her I only wanted an interview. She had become the one firing the buckshot and I had become the target. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this role.


Now, as we walked into the restaurant, everyone seemed to watch us. The most uncomfortable part was that I couldn’t figure out why it made me uncomfortable. I was there to have dinner and talk to a person. What’s more normal than that?

Once we sat down, I told her, “I want to start by saying that I don’t know anything about… this. I have no experience. So if I say something stupid, I’m really sorry.”

I wasn’t just being polite. Transgenderism is a hot topic in America these days, from Caitlin Jenner to Target’s bathroom policy. But I have never once spoken to a trans person.

My complete lack of transgender understanding is both why I needed to do this interview and why I needed to preemptively apologize for any embarrassing questions I was about to ask. It’s one thing to support their rights and try to use the correct terminology, but it’s another thing to sit across the table and listen.

“It’s fine. Ask me anything.” she said.

I asked her if the phrase “ladyboy” is derogatory. I thought it might be better to say “transgender.”

She told me there’s nothing bad about the phrase “ladyboy.” She explained that she’s not transgender.

“Why?” I asked. “A man gets an operation to become like a woman. Isn’t that transgender?”

”Ladyboy still has… I mean, a ladyboy had the operation to get tits. But below? Not yet.”

”Do you want the full operation eventually?”

”No. I heard they can’t orgasm, so I’m not interested.”

It got personal very quickly. I should have known we’d talk about the nuts and bolts of this subject eventually, but I still felt self-conscious discussing it in the middle of a cozy restaurant in Chiang Mai. We picked at marinated beef and sauteed zucchini while we talked about transgender genitalia.

That’s really what it’s about. These genitals or those ones, and why some people go to such extremes to get the other ones.


“ How old were you when you got the operation?”

”Seventeen,” she said.

Ms. A was twenty-eight at the time of the interview, meaning she’d had eleven years to grow comfortable in her new body. She told me that while many ladyboys take hormone pills to help their bodies continue the transformation, she doesn’t need to.

“See? My body is already soft like a woman’s,” she said as she extended her arm towards me. I touched it and it was soft, I suppose. She smiled. I pulled my hand back.

“How long had you known you wanted to get the operation?”

”Since I was a kid.”

”And how did you know this was right for you?”

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know. It’s hormones, right?”

We hadn’t even finished appetizers and I already threw out my first stupid question. Of course she can’t answer that question. The old argument came to mind of, “When did you decide to be a straight man?” I didn’t. I guess that was all hormones too.

It is all hormones, isn’t it? I can’t say for sure. I’ve never experienced being anything other than a white, hetero male. But if it’s all hormones, why are there so many ladyboys in Thailand and so few in Korea? Are the Korean transgenders repressed or are the Thai boys encouraged? I can’t answer these questions through my own experience, so I have to take it on the faith of others. I’ve never been good at that.

She continued, “All my life, I had wanted to be a beautiful woman. So I found a solution.”

She told me to put down my notepad and eat like a normal person so my food didn’t go cold and my beer didn’t go warm. As we ate and talked, she asked me, “You’ve really never done anything with a ladyboy?”

She sounded surprised when I said I hadn’t. I reminded her that I’m straight, but she responded that all her ex-boyfriends were straight. Now I was the one sounding surprised. I was pretty sure being a straight male meant you weren’t into other people who had male parts.

She said, “I just wish you were open to having a new experience with me. What happens in Thailand, stays in Thailand, you know?”

*                                         *                                        *

“Why do you think there are so many ladyboys in Thailand? I was in Korea before coming here, and I never even heard about ladyboys there.” I asked.

She thought for a moment, then said, “Because in Thailand, we don’t care. We respect people. If you’re a good person, we don’t care.”

I don’t have much experience in Thailand yet, but I agree with that so far. People don’t seem worried about labeling others here.

“Is there a ladyboy community out here?” I asked.

“Yes, I have a group of ladyboy friends.”

This was the question I was most excited about when I was planning for the interview. I imagined there might be an entire ladyboy subculture, complete with it’s own cliques and personality. I asked her how she met her ladyboy friends. She said through other friends or at a bar. I asked what they do when they meet. She said go shopping, watch a movie, or have some drinks.

I realized this was stupid question number two. Her group of ladyboy friends are just a group of friends, and they meet up to do friend stuff.

She added, “But usually I don’t like other ladyboys.”

“You don’t like them? Why?”

“They steal. They work in the bar.”

“What does working in a bar mean?” I asked.


I had a suspicion that’s what she meant. The prostitution business usually runs from bars out here in Thailand. You can order a drink, and if you see a waitress you like I guess you can have her too.

The Thai baht is the currency here. A typical meal is about sixty baht and you can find rent for as low as three thousand baht a month. In USD, sixty baht is just under two dollars and three thousand baht is about eighty five bucks. A buck goes a long way out here. A steady stream of lonely, male tourists with fistfuls of baht might seem like an opportunity for a poor boy with no options.

I knew about the prostitution, but I was surprised that stealing was the first thing she said about other ladyboys. It’s an answer I never would have imagined and I wanted to know why.

“Why do they steal? Is it difficult for ladyboys to find work?”

“Normal jobs don’t take ladyboys. They have to find jobs that accept them. They can’t even work at 7-11.” She added, “I’m lucky. My hostel accepts me.”

”I thought you said Thai people don’t care. They accept ladyboys, right?”

”No no,” she said. “They accept ladyboy for normal life. But for work we have to be professional.”

She explained that Thai culture is still very conservative, despite how many ladyboys there are. They only accept people as men or women, nothing else.

She told me that ladyboys cut their hair short and try to look masculine when they go job hunting. Once they’ve been with a company for years, they might be accepted to continue working as a ladyboy. Or they might not be.

Thailand is already a poor country where it’s difficult to find a job that pays the bills. That job market becomes even smaller for ladyboys.

We finished our meal and got up to pay. As we walked out of the restaurant, I thanked her again for talking with me. I told her I had asked another ladyboy to have this conversation, but she had said no. She had said she doesn’t like to talk about it because she wants to think of herself as a real woman.

After Ms. A heard that, she said, “Yeah, we want to think like we are a woman. But it’s true. I am a ladyboy.”



Ms. A kept hitting on me through text for a week after the interview, saying things I won’t print here because my parents read my blog. Every time she did, I told her very clearly that I wasn’t interested.

I also said that I was sorry every time I explained my lack of interest. I know I didn’t do anything wrong, but I really felt sorry. Is this how women feel when they reject a guy, or does that feeling numb after the hundredth time?

I realized there’s so many more questions I should have asked, but didn’t. I knew I should do a follow up interview, but I felt uncomfortable talking to her because she couldn’t get over seeing me as a target.

I thought of girls in my past who had stopped talking to me after I flirted with them. At the time, I thought they should feel flattered because of my infatuation. But now I understood. It was impossible to have a real conversation because Ms. A always rolled the conversation back to attempted seduction, no matter how many times I told her I wasn’t interested.

It made me wonder if I’m just as annoying when I’m going after a girl. I’d like to think I’m not, but I really have no idea. Love may be blind, but hormones throw dirt in your eye. In the moment, I can’t objectively see my own behavior well enough to judge.

It’s that instinctive, animal like drive. That’s the drive that make me into an idiot when I like a girl. I would probably choose to turn it off so I could think straight, but I can’t control it.

That’s also the drive that makes Ms. A go so wild for men that she wants to radically change her body. She can’t control it either. I imagine if she had a choice, she’d turn it off too so she didn’t have to become such a social oddity that people gawk at and businesses won’t hire.

Eventually I decided to just ask her one more question through text. “What are your plans for the future?”

“To find someone I love and stay together forever,” she said.

We go to such lengths to be wanted by those we want.

Pictures: Melissa Beth Rose 
Words: Michael Smit

Authors note 11/5/2016: 

A few friends who read this post messaged me about part of it being incorrect and/or offensive. Specifically this line, “That’s also the drive that makes Ms. A go so wild for men that she wants to radically change her body. “
My purpose with that line was to make a connection with the previous paragraph about how my own sexual drive turns me into an idiot. But the line also implies that Ms. A’s attraction to men played at least a part in making her want to look like a woman.
In reality, she probably wanted to look like a woman to feel comfortable with herself, to feel on the outside the way she feels on the inside.
I don’t know if anyone was offended by any inaccuracies in this post. I hope not. My blog is my expression on how I see the world. That comes with the good and the bad, the revelations and the inaccuracies. Please do not read my blog as a scientific resource. I couldn’t even explain to you the chemistry and processes going on in my own heterosexual, male brain. Much less a transgender female brain.
Going in, I knew I was certain to get some things wrong. But like I said in the post… it’s one thing to use support their rights and use the correct terminology, it’s another thing to sit down and listen. I wanted to do the later. I probably got some things right and some things wrong, but I’m happy with the result. At the end fo the day, I now have a fuller, more human view of Ms. A. Hopefully I gave some of that view to you.
Furthermore, if you ever read something in my blog that you disagree with or think is factually wrong, leave a comment and let me know. I love the discussion and the only way we grow is by challenging the things we think are true.
Anyhow, the point is that I’m going to try to do a follow up interview to this with a transgender person from Los Angeles, and hopefully we’ll all learn more. That’ll be rad.

Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Taxi Driver

I asked him if he had any funny stories about driving a taxi and he thought for a moment.

“Three years ago I picked up two drunk customers,” he said. “They wanted to go to a farm at the top of a mountain. Maybe they lived there, I don’t know. I answered the call and dropped them off at the top.

“The road was very narrow on the way down. And dark. Suddenly, I stopped because a boar ran onto the road. It was big. I had never seen one before. It was so big. I heard they can attack people.” He held his hands next to his mouth with the index fingers up like tusks and swooped his head at me.

“I worried that if I used the car horn, maybe it would attack. I turned off the lights and the engine. It was me and him on the mountain in the dark. I was so scared. He didn’t move. Just sit in front.”

After fifteen minutes of staring each other down, the boar moved on. But Mr. K would never forget his moment on the mountain with the wild.

taxi vs boar1 copy

I met Mr. K because I was late to work. I usually took a bus to work, but I had to get a cab if I was late. This wasn’t a problem. Taxis are everywhere in Korea. And they’re cheap. My school is five miles away, and I can get there for just five bucks.

There’s a taxi stand right next to my bus stop. During the slow hours, taxis line up here to wait for customers. I can look out the window right now and see the taxi line. There’s seven cabs. But during rush hour, people line up to wait for taxis. There’s no need to call one. You can stand on any street and immediately find a taxi.

So I stood on the street and waited until a taxi picked me up. I got in and told the driver, Mr. K, my school’s address. Halfway through the drive, he asked me in clear English for help understanding the lyrics of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” He played drums in a rock band and they were covering it. I helped him with the lyrics and he gave me his number, telling me to call him if I ever needed a taxi.

I never did need a taxi. I bought a bike. But two weeks ago I decided I’d love to know what it’s like to be a taxi driver in Korea for a day. I called Mr. K for the first time and we arranged to get lunch.

taxi line copy

“How old are you?” Mr. K asked. I had just told him how many years I had been teaching English. He was surprised.

“I’m thirty.”

“You look so young.”

“Yeah, I don’t know why.”

“Your skin is white and clear.” Despite all the formality of Korean culture, they’re very direct when talking about appearance.

“I guess so.”

“My skin is green and unclear,” he said.

I disagreed. He actually looked very young for his age, and I had told him so before. But he’s a modest man.

He said, “Too much sun on my face.”

“You mean you get too much sun while driving?”


“How many hours a day do you work?”

“Twelve to fourteen hours.”

“Wow. Twelve to fourteen hours in the car? Don’t you get tired?”     

“So tired. My back gets sore from sitting all day.”

He explained to me how he tries to get out and stretch while waiting in the taxi line during slow hours, but it’s not so easy. Every time he gets out to stretch, the car in front gets a passenger and the whole line moves up. So he stays in the car all day.

“What was difficult when you first started working as a taxi driver? For example, it was really difficult for me to manage time when I first started teach.”

“The first time I started,” he thought for a moment. “Well, I have to be in the car all the time, like I told you. That was difficult. I do many things in the car. For example, I have an exercise band.” He moved his arms to demonstrate how he uses an elastic resistance band, pulling it across his chest. Like pushing open elevator doors.

Sometimes he practices drumming on a pad he keeps in the car. He pulled up a picture on his phone. It’s a single drum pad that holds onto his leg with a Velcro strap.

He also reads while waiting for passengers. He even met his girlfriend because she was a customer.

Mr. K gets a lot done in that taxi cab.

phone drum leg copy

When he finished, I asked him, “What hours do you like the most? Night hours or day hours?”

“I liked the night hours when I first started, so I did that for about two years. It’s better money. But it’s too much trouble. Now I work daytime hours from seven in the morning until nine or ten.”

“What kind of trouble did you have with the night hours?”

“I had a lot of trouble. Drunk people. Rude people.”

“What do people do that’s rude?”

“I look young. Many customers talk to me like…” his voice trailed off as he searched for an English word on his phone. He showed it to me: discrimination.

He explained that he’s in his forties, so customers should use word choice to respect that. But they didn’t. Even after he told them his age.

Korean, like most languages other than English, has formality structures built into the language. Korean sentence structure ends with the verb. The verbs can end with an “eh,” “ayo,” or “imnida” sound. These verb endings are respectively informal, formal, and very formal.

There’s no equivalent in English. But if you know any Spanish, it’s a little like “tú” and “usted.” One is informal and used when you can speak casually. The other is formal for when you need to use language that keeps a respectful distance.  Latin Americans are pretty relaxed about the difference, but it’s very important to Koreans.

I don’t think about formal and informal structures often as an English speaker—an American English speaker on top of that. But it’s a theme that I’m seeing in my conversations with Koreans. In fact, it reminded me of a story that the convenience store owner from the previous post told me.

He once had a female employee that was in her fifties. A male customer, also in his fifties, came in and spoke to her using the informal “eh.” That pissed off the employee, and they got into a shouting match.

When Koreans meet each other socially, one of the first questions they ask is how old everyone is because they need to know what types of words and tense endings to use with each other. This is difficult to explain because Americans and Koreans, as far as I can tell, are at polar opposites of the cultural slider scale with this. I mean, we do respect age differences. But if we were put on a mathematical graph of “age distinction” next to Korea, you could basically round our value down to zero.


The closest English equivalent I can think of would be if you go to a restaurant and say, “Could I have a water, please,” instead of, “Get me a water.” Even then, the later is offensive or charming based on the speaker’s tone. But assuming it’s said in an offensive way, that’s the best comparison I can do for you. One is a regular transaction. The other feels like belittling someone because of their position. And in Korean, that’s just the difference between ending a sentence with “ayo” or “eh.”

Whatever language you speak, just be kind to people. You have no idea how hard they might work and what wild boars on a dark mountain they may have survived.



Pictures : Melissa Beth Rose 
Words : Michael Smit

Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Convenience Store Owner

I don’t get why people read blogs. I don’t know why you would want to read my thoughts when you have perfectly fine thoughts of your own. Or if you’re going to read someone else’s thoughts, at least make it someone worthwhile. Like Mark Twain.

But you do read my stuff and I’m thankful for that, so I want to make it worth your time. I was thinking about what I would like to read in a blog and I got an idea. You see, blogs are a bit voyeuristic. Like a personal diary you found lying on the ground. Or like people watching at the mall.

I used to do that when I was in high school. I’d sit in the mall and watch people and think “I wonder what a day in his life is like.” I want to know what it’s like to be a taxi driver for a day. I want to know what it’s like to be a Walmart greeter. That’s what I want from a blog, so that’s what I’m going to write.

diary_blog copy

I’m going to start doing little interviews for this blog. No names or pictures. It’s not a biography. It’s a day-in-his-shoes-ography.

I won’t do this for every future post, but often enough.

For the first one, I interviewed the owner of a twenty-four hour convenience store in Korea. We’ll call him Mr. K. I made up that name. “K” because he lives in Korea.

Conversations in Korea: Mr. K the Convenience Store Owner

We had just finished our interview. As we sat watching the first real snowfall of the winter from the coffee shop window, he told me, “You know my part-timer? The young girl who works at my store? She will achieve her dream next month. She will save one hundred thousand dollars.”

“Sorry, a hundred thousand?” I spoke slowly. I was sure he either confused his English numbers or was speaking in Korean Won instead of US dollars. A hundred thousand Korean won is roughly a hundred dollars.

“Yes, a hundred thousand.”

I wrote the number down to make sure nothing was getting lost in translation. “The girl who works part time in your convenience store saved a hundred thousand dollars in seven years? Not won, but dollars. How?”

100000 dollars copy

“Yes. She was in eleventh grade when I hired her. She gave up on going to university. I told her ‘You listen to my advice. Save your money. Do not buy clothes. Do not meet your friends. Just save your money and you can achieve your dream.”

Mr. K owns a convenience store down the road from my apartment. Convenience stores are the lifeblood of Korea. You don’t realize how, well, convenient they are until you move away from here. 7-11. CU. Buy The Way. 365 Plus. No matter where you are in the city, you’re guaranteed to see three of them. One to your left, one to your right, and one straight across the street. Imagine a world with a 7-11 on the corner of every neighborhood. It’s not high quality, but where else can you get milk when it’s two in the morning and you want a bowl of cereal? It’s beautiful.   

Mr. K speaks English very well, so I sat down with him to talk about what it’s like to run one of these convenience stores in Korea. This side story about one of his longest term employees came as a surprise after the interview had finished.

“When she started working here, she made three thousand won (roughly $3 USD, which we’ll use from now on for convenience) an hour and only worked a few hours a week,” he told me. “She saved two thousand dollars after her first year. She showed it to me and we were proud. But then she needed braces and used all her money. The next year she saved three thousand dollars. Then her father needed surgery and she used all her money again. Now she makes six dollars an hour. Another employee quit and she asked for his hours. She works many hours now.”

He continued, “So I said to her, ‘Don’t tell anyone how much you save. Don’t tell friends. Don’t tell family. You just save.’ And she did. She works twelve hours a day, seven days a week,” he told me. “She doesn’t need food, she can eat in the store. She doesn’t need a car, she walks a short time to the store. She doesn’t need to buy new shoes, she’s just in the store all day. She lives with her parents and just saves and saves. She doesn’t even have a cell phone. If her friends want to see her, they must come to the store and see her.” 

But he still refers to her as his “part timer.” I’m not sure what the distinction of being a part timer means out here in Korea.

ConvStoreInkedbw copy

He told me, “She spent no money for the last five years and achieved her dream. In a few months, she will have saved a hundred thousand dollars.”

From the very start, the whole interview went in a different direction than I expected. I wanted to know funny stories about how 24 hour convenience store employees entertained themselves during the slow hours of the night. I wanted to know what they thought about the strange customers who walk in at two in the morning to buy toenail clippers and a bottle of vodka. But I got a different story.

The interview derailed after my very first question. I asked, “Are the night hours slow? What do you do during those hours?”

“Usually my part timers work in those hours.”

“But you never worked through the night hours before?”

He thought for a moment. “I didn’t know anything about convenience stores when I first opened this shop. I was an import/exporter in USA. But my friend owns the building my store is in. He told me to not spend time in USA. He said I should come back to Korea and own a convenience store.”

“The first two days, I had no part timer. I worked all day and night by myself. I thought, ‘I don’t know why I have to do like this.’ Finally I hired a part timer. I walked to the bank and I felt like my legs were, um…” he shook his arms to demonstrate how wobbly his legs were. His legs felt like jello. I believe that’s the phrase he was looking for to describe how he felt after working forty eight hours straight.

He could finally go home at night after hiring someone to work through it. But this created a new problem. He finished work at midnight and started at eight in the morning. And he lived an hour and a half away. “When can I sleep?” he asked me.

After a month of commuting every night, he took a sleeping bag to work and found some cardboard boxes to throw on the ground in the small employee room at the back of the store. He sleeps there through the night–every night, because he works every day. He told me he only goes home two days a year during harvest and spring festivals.

BackRoomSketch copy

Here’s his schedule now. He wakes up at eight, checks his inventory, and orders items he needs. At ten, he has breakfast and then goes to the bank to deposit cash. By noon, he’s finished his business and takes a nap on his box bed for a couple hours. His employee finishes work at four, so he works the cashier until about seven. Another employee starts work at seven, and his store’s inventory delivery arrives around the same time. He finishes inventory by eight and has dinner. After dinner, he takes a rest on his box bed again until about ten. He gets up at ten to receive another delivery. He stocks his store and gets to sleep a little after midnight. Then he wakes up at eight and does it again.

As we walked back to the store after the interview, I didn’t know what to think of this unassuming man in his vest which matches the color of his store’s  logo. He sleeps on a pile of cardboard boxes every night, but he might be doing very well for himself. He told me he lives in Gangnam, which is a lot like the Hollywood of Seoul. Of course, you can find cheap living in Hollywood if you’re willing to bend your standards. But the point is he might be doing very well for himself. I hope he is. He’s a good guy and he deserves it.

The thing is, even if he was doing very well, you’d never know. He would just sleep on his box bed, work seven days a week, never buy new shoes, and save and save and save.

GangnamProviceSketch copy

Pictures: Melissa Beth Rose 
Words: Michael Smit