A FARE DEALEvery cab driver in Seoul has a story. Some can ramble on for hours, but in most cases the drivers stick to just politics and current events, nothing personal.
Kim Nam-hyuck, 41, has been driving a cab for two and a half years and he too has a lot to tell, but in his case, everything is personal.
“I have climbed to the top and tumbled down to rock bottom,” Mr. Kim says. “I have made it back from scratch and slowly started to live a second chance in life, even if it is driving a cab, which most people consider the last stop in life.”
Mr. Kim says that it was possible for him to move on in life only by throwing away the past. “Most people when they lose everything, they tend to cling on to past glory,” Mr. Kim says. “I did too at first, but I realized I had to let it go.”
In fact, before driving a cab Mr. Kim burned all of his photographs. “I didn’t want to look back at my past life,” Mr. Kim explains.
But in his case, burning all his photos meant a great deal. Mr. Kim was for years a photographer in the presidential Blue House.
The short stocky man with a round thick glasses actually majored in photography at Chung-Ang University.
When he was a senior in 1989, a local sports daily said it was looking for two students to intern as photojournalists. “I was one of the two interns that were handpicked by our school’s dean,” Mr. Kim recalls with pride.
For eight months Mr. Kim says he attended at every sporting event, from baseball to hockey, with a camera in his hand.
“I could have continued my career at the newspaper but I wanted something more,” Mr. Kim says.
After graduating, Mr. Kim was hired by the Blue House as the presidential photographer.
“I didn’t take the president’s portraits that are hung in every room in the Blue House, but I closely followed the president with my camera at every function,” Mr. Kim says. “A lot of friends envied my job.”
Mr. Kim only worked at the Blue House during the Roh Tae-woo administration. Mr. Kim says that he went to various public events and functions that the president attended, and from time to time he would even ride on the same plane as the president.
Yet, “after 13 years it’s not easy for one to remember all the details,” Mr. Kim says to excuse himself from providing further details on his life at the Blue House.
“The memorable moment, however, was when then-Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev visited Jeju Island for the first time,” Mr. Kim says. “It was a period in history when Korea and the Soviet Union had started to open up to each other and it was an honor that I was there to take photographs.”
Mr. Kim says a lot of other people including his passengers ask a lot of questions about his days in the Blue House, but Mr. Kim is not enthusiastic about talking about those times.
“It’s all in the past, it’s the present that’s important to me now,” Mr. Kim stresses again.
So how did Mr. Kim go from the Blue House to driving a cab?
After Mr. Kim left the Blue House, the former photographer worked at a Korean consulate in China; it was then he started his own business.
“In the mid 1990s, China was undergoing a lot of changes,” Mr. Kim says. “The entire country was slowly grasping the concept of the free market. And it was about then that the infrastructure, such as the construction laws, was making changes, too.”
Mr. Kim decided to jump into the fire safety industry, making appliances such as fire extinguishers and fire alarms. “But business didn’t go the way I hoped, and I lost almost everything, including some of my father’s properties,” Mr. Kim says with a shrug.
Mr. Kim lighted a cigarette and continued. “I came back to Seoul in 1997, but luck was not on my side as the infamous financial crisis was breaking out in Seoul,” Mr. Kim says.
Jobless, Mr. Kim says he spent most of his days spiritless. He can’t even remember how he passed many weeks. “I felt hollow and depressed most of the time,” Mr. Kim says.
Mr. Kim was so broke that he had to sell his house, which he recalls was quite big, and trade it for a one-room apartment in the Dobong district of northern Seoul. “My 7-year-old son from time to time would ask if we could move to our old home,” Mr. Kim says with a sigh.
With nothing to lose, Mr. Kim says he decided to drive a taxi for three reasons. “First, I was mentally confused at the time and someone told me that if I worked at a job that wore my body down, I would be too tired after a day’s work so that I wouldn’t be able to think of all my troubles,” Mr. Kim says.
The second reason Mr. Kim gave was that he figured he was living his life entirely wrong. With a new life he wanted to meet different people and experience new things. The third reason was he wanted to completely leave his past behind. “I graduated from college, was an intern reporter and a member of the Blue House staff,” Mr. Kim says. “But I told myself that it was all in the past and today I have to look at myself straight in the face and tell myself that everything would get better if I keep doing my job.”
And that’s how Mr. Kim became a cab driver. Mr. Kim says that since childhood he had a habit of keeping a diary. Mr. Kim says he has written down almost everything he has experienced while driving the cab. After the first six months he looked back at his diary and thought that the memoirs he had written were quite interesting. Wanting to share them with others, and wanting to do more than just drive a cab all day, Mr. Kim turned his story into a book titled “A World Seen Through the Rear View Mirror.” “I work 12 hours a day, and you wouldn’t believe how many interesting things happen when you’re driving a cab,” Mr. Kim says.
Most of the stories in the book are about the passengers he met and the stories he heard from passengers, including his own opinions on, yes, politics and current events.
Mr. Kim says his current life is good, although since the Blue House he hasn’t taken any pictures. “I just can’t find the time now because I have to work a lot of hours for my 7-year-old son,” Mr. Kim says. “Later I want to be a lecturer for a university or a company. Then will I take my camera and roam around the country.”
Mr. Kim divorced his wife last year and has been rearing his only son by himself.
Mr. Kim’s mother, Choi Ok-soon, winces at the thought of all his son has gone through. “My boy has always been good at heart, but it was that money that made him miserable,” says the 71-year-old.
“But with his past failure, my boy has learned about society and people, and has matured,” Ms. Choi continues.
“For almost a year since my son got divorced I cried every day, but today I’m proud of him,” Ms. Choi says.
by Lee Ho-jeong