So… it’s been a while.
I think at this point, I can safely admit that I’m terrible at this travel blog thing. It’s not that I don’t want to blog, or that blog-worthy things don’t happen, it’s that a) I’m lazy and unmotivated and b) once the experience is over, it’s over and often having lived it, for myself, is enough – which of course defeats the entire purpose of social media.
And then there’s the shame spiral.
It begins with your last post. You start off feeling good, accomplished even, thinking “Look what I put out into the world! I’m did a thing! Look everyone! Look at this thing I did!” Two days later, you start thinking that maybe you should do another thing. But you’re complacent. The thing you just did took time, energy. You tell yourself you deserve a break (and maybe a drink).
So a week goes by.
After two weeks, you start thinking, “Hey, I should really do the thing again.” But you don’t. Even though you just had a hilarious interaction with the bus driver. You tell yourself, you have time.
After a month, you’re thinking, “I need to post something, anything.” People are asking how you are. You’ve deactivated your Facebook account because you hate everyone and their stupid lives. This blog is the only thing you’ve got going. “I need to post something,” you think. But you don’t.
After 6 weeks, the shame sets in and even opening your dashboard fills you with feelings of
… and you stop thinking things like, “This will be great to blog about” and start thinking, “Hey, maybe I should just save all these experiences in my private vault of things that happen to me and never share them with anyone.”
And that’s how 5 months go by.
So instead of writing long rambling paragraphs about nothing, here’s a neat list of the
note-worthy things that have happened to/around me in that last 5 months:
- Started a new school schedule which allows me more free time
- Bought a sofa bed (it’s soft)
- Discovered that internet shopping is the cure to all sadness (YOLO!)
- Discovered internet shopping will devour all your money and leave you sadder than you were before
- Adopted a creature (who often takes the form of a cat)
- Turned 26
- Bought a plane ticket for the
minions of doomsisters to visit
- Roamed around Thailand for two weeks
- Petted baby tigers
- Learned two new Korean recipes
- Got a new neighbour
- Read GRRM’s ASOIAF
- Decided to renew my contract for another year
These are the things I remember off the top of my head. I’m desperately trying to think of more things that make me sound cool, but like, buying that sofa bead was a highlight for me.
If all goes well, it’ll take less that 5 months to be crippled by shame and I’ll update sooner. We can only hope.
This is the week humans beings reserve for resolutions and self-reflection, interspersed with copious alcohol consumption and quiet realisations that it never really meant anything and that really, there’s no point to this vast and cold universe that we- wait, what? No sorry, I’ve been told that last part’s just me.
In retrospect, this wasn’t a terrible year. What it was, was a year of quitting an amazing job to live in a garden shack in pretty New Zealand for 3 months (and it was glorious). It was a year of finally seeing the Misty Mountains, a year when all the songs on my indie playlists made sense. A year of sleeping on airport chairs and dragging around that heavy purple suitcase. It was year of kimchi-eating and getting constantly lost in translation.
So no, not terrible, but here, at the end of all things, I find myself so utterly exhausted. So, while everyone’s preparing for 2014, I’m just exhaling and congratulating myself on surviving this far.
Lewis Carroll said, “There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” I like this quote. Schmoop once implied that I was stupidly optimistic for liking it, which is true I guess, because we have no idea if what lies ahead is going to be better. But hope is comforting and in my experience, the best kind of self-preservation against the sometimes scary, sometimes sublime, but always unpredictable world.
So here’s to another 365 days of stuff and things, places and people.
Apparently last night, I fell asleep at about 7:48pm. Apparently I’m actually a 72-year old cat lady. BUT, what happens when you fall asleep that early is that you wake up pretty early too – huh, who knew. So I woke up at 6-ish and in a spark of genius, threw on my fashionable thermals and ran down to to beach, where this happened:
I might have just experienced the most bizarre, most rewarding hour of my life in Korea thus far. No, it was not the “Dead Poet’s Society” moment I’ve always dreamed of, where I inspire my students to burn their terrible Korean textbooks and jump up on desks screaming, “Oh Captain, my Captain.” Though this is still an ambition of mine, The Ajumma Experience was much more unplanned.
So, after a rather delightful dinner with two of the teachers at my Monday school, I was walking home in the freezing cold, which isn’t an exaggeration, because things are actually starting to freeze, and I remembered that I needed milk. So I go into this tiny, dusty convenience store that I walk by everyday and the ajumma at the counter starts screaming at me. Ajumma (literally translated as aunt), for those not in SoKo, is the the term given to a specific species of female person, over the age of 55. They’re known for their everyday hiking wear, tight perms and constant scowls. Korea doesn’t have many large, scary animals. The war killed off the bears and the cats, but the ajumma survived.
So this ajumma starts screaming at me and I’m standing there, terrified, about to put the milk back in the fridge and run for my life, when I realise that she’s staring past me at the large TV located above the rows and rows of ramen. I turned to see a heavily made up young woman, weeping and wailing into a telephone, while some violin strings crescendoed in the background. I have no idea what was happening in the scene, but in seconds, I was hooked. I stood in front if the counter, milk in hand, debit card between my fingers, being ignored by the woman behind me, but it didn’t matter, I was transfixed. Why was she crying? Why was the lazy-eyed girl so desperate to reach the k-pop guy and what would happen now that they were stuck in the elevator? All these question buzzed around my brain. After a minute or two of this, I felt a tap on my shoulder and the ajumma tore her eyes from the screen long enough to offer me a seat on the crates next to her. You know what? I took it. And there we were, just two soap-watchers, enjoying Ji Eun’s pain. At some point, a guy came in to buy smokes and was defiantly ignored until he gave up and walked out. This was serious stuff. Every once in a while, between yelling at the TV and making dramatic gasps (the latter done by me), my new TV buddy would say something to me in rapid, impassioned Korean to which I would knowingly nod, without understanding a word. About forty seven minutes after I walked into the store, it was over. I got my milk and we parted with the warm of smiles of those who’d just shared a special moment.
I might just go back next week to find out the pretty dude in the elevator ever got to the the girl in time. I sure hope so. For the ajumma’s sake.
I teach at four elementary schools. Each remarkably different. One is a 15-minute walk from my apartment, the other almost an hour away. One is home to three budding serial killers and the fourth is a Waldorf school where students learn through colour therapy and are arguably the most adoptable of the lot. The only thing they really have in common (besides the consistent amount of red pepper paste injected into daily lunch) is the ocean.
My main school, and where I spend the most of my time. This is the only school that isn’t directly opposite a beach. It’s about a 10-minute walk to the harbour. Still, some days I think I can smell the sea from my office window…
This is a little strip of village in the middle of nowhere. It’s where an old woman told me I had a “good face” and a mentally disturbed man tried to feel me up at the bus stop. It’s a weird little place, with weird energy, but I sort of like it.
Gong Hyeon Jin
There’s something kind of magical about this tiny, tucked away strip of road. There’s a hole in the wall that leads to the ocean. It might be my favourite discovery so far.
It’s always raining when I go to Cheon Jin. It’s also always Monday. Then one day, it wasn’t (raining, that is, it was still Monday). The waves here are always turbulent and your lips are always salty after a few minutes on the shore.
A few weeks ago, I met a young British woman in a hostel in Seoul. She was from Essex. She apparently loved my accent. We instantly connected, bonding over colonialism, life philosophies and tattoos. She had just ended a year’s teaching contract in Japan. Adventuring, travelling. “My friends all live vicariously through me”, she said. “They’re jealous that I’ve been to Vietnam and Japan, while they’re at home with gardens and babies. But it’s funny because sometimes that’s all I want.” And that’s the secret, the thing that we adventurers don’t tell anyone, is that sometimes, we’d give it all up for that. For gardens and pets and the simple comforts of familiarity. What they don’t tell you is how lonely this life can be.
It’s not that you don’t make friends or connect with amazing people, because you do, but this lifestyle is so impermanent, days so transient and no-one ever stays. People orbit in and out of each other’s’ lives and the best you can hope for is a lasting Facebook relationship. So it comes down to the experiences. It’s about what these fleeting relationships offer you; it’s about how standing on that shore, overlooking the East Sea makes you feel. These are the only things we can keep. And sometimes, you long for something more tangible. Do I sound homesick? I am. I’m retching with feels. It feels terminal, but I’m 86.2% sure I’ll live. A friend suggested working in 3’s. Get through three weeks, then three months. I don’t want to “get through” it though. I want to enjoy it, live it, experience it (which might be a jingle for a sports drink).
I’ve been here for about 7 weeks. Feels like longer.
My first night in Seoul was spent eating lunch at a South African restaurant (where I snorted two bottles of Savannah), dinner at an amazing Mexican place (kimchi fries, anyone?), live music in Itaewon, dancing in Hongdae and general subway hopping. I remember most the people I met and have a vague recollection of some of the places I saw. There was a moment as I was moderately intoxicated, dancing under throbbing green lights, surrounded by baby-thin Korean girls gyrating on tables and guys puking in corners where I realised that it’s all the same. It doesn’t matter where you go or who you’re with, humans do life the same. The realisation was both comforting and disappointing. Still, a successful introduction to SoKo’s neon capital.
On Sunday, I lugged my suitcase and backpack onto the subway and to NIIED for EPIK’s October orientation.
My roommate and I had actually met on the bus for the September intake, so awkward introductions were bypassed. Day 3, I discovered she was a giant Lord of the Rings fan. After that, she pretty much became family.
The first night a bunch of us ended up drinking soju and beer in the park. This is evening is significant for two reasons. Firstly, public drinking is a time-honoured Korean tradition and there I was, fully immersing myself in the culture of my new people. I felt like John Smith on a date with Pocahontas. The second reason this night will stay with me is due to the guy on the giant marshmallow rock who scowled at us, made uninterrupted eye contact with anyone who dared catch his eye and came over every few minutes extending his hands in search of free soju – 2 parts hilarious, one part creepy.
The days consisted of lectures, which I actually found really entertaining or at the very least, informative. The lecturers were pretty great actually. At this point, I’m mildly infatuated with at least two of them. It was like being in varsity again, except this time, I’m crushing on a hilarious 40-something mid-westerner, not Natasha Distiller.
Then there were times when I felt like Jane Goodall, spying on a troop of silverback gorillas. Stepping into the cafeteria and observing the curious social practices of foreign 20-somethings is an interesting game. I discovered, by day 2 that the dining hall consisted of four types of people. Those in Korea because they genuinely wanted to travel and teach, those who were there to pay off student loans or debt, a combination of these two and The Fourth Kind – the socially awkward freaks who couldn’t get it together in their home country, so decided to jump on the k-wagon. The latter seemed to be in abundance at this orientation.
I’d like to think that I found a mildly functional group of humans to call my friends. Four South Africans and an Aussie – we made a motley crew and had disgusting amounts of funtimez. There were others who flitted in and out and general merriment was had all round. The best thing about meeting so many people from all around the country is that you’re pretty much sorted with free accommodation wherever you go.
We had an assigned cultural trip, where we, wearing our name-tags out and proud, got on a bus and went to see the musical Miso, which was so fucking amazing that I ceased to can mid-way in and ended up crying all through the last act.
By the end, Stockholm syndrome kicked in and no-one wanted to leave. It’s amazing – like those gorillas who adopt kittens and sloths – the best of friends are made in captivity it seems. Looking back, I can say I broke a board in taekwondo, I taught an emotionally exhausting 15 minute lesson with two other, um… passively involved teachers, I drank soju in the park, I met people I want to know for a very, very long time and I learnt more than I ever thought I would. And this was all in a week. I’ve still got about 48 ahead. This leaves me feeling both terrified and excited, which seems to be my perpetual state of being in Korea.
And now I’m back, north of the wall and winter is coming and I really need a warm coat.
I was recently described by Schmoop (bff/life-partner) as a sad optimist: someone who has the ability to gain perspective when you need it, and to lose it when you need it. I find this to be hilariously accurate. The talent to just kind of skip over the bullshit (when it suits me) and move on without really thinking about it is a skill I’ve acquired and refined over the years. Most call it denial. I call it not dwelling. It’s easier for things to feel okay when you pretend they are. This works some of the time. But, as I’ve discovered this week, there are exceptions.
Exhibit A: my 5th Grade class at my Wednesday school. I have three 11-year old girls who, until forced to interact by their homeroom teacher, I thought to be savant mutes. They refused to make any sort of eye-contact with me and instead proceeded to aggressively colour in in their text-books. Despite my wild gesticulation, desperate animal sounds and eventual singing, they barely enaged (except to tell their homeroom teacher they would rather be outside than in my classroom. It was raining at the time.) Ten minutes into the most frustrating class of my life, I scraped the prepared lesson plan and put on a Pixar short (because who doesn’t love a Pixar short, right?) Well, apparently these girls, who never even looked up to see the adorable green extra-terrestrial fail his spaceship driving test. Did I mention it was a double-lesson?
Then there was the time I ordered something at this restaurant down the street, because I was ravenous and my cupboards were so empty, Mother Hubbard would have taken pity on me. I thought I’d be daring and not go to the fried chicken place, but instead try the little Korean pub I’d been to once before (with a friend who could read the menu). So instead of ordering what I’d had before, I went for this chicken dish because the picture on the menu seemed to look like a nice, non-threatening chicken stirfry). I walked home with this steaming plate, my mouth watering, my belly rumbling, only to find the “chicken” was instead some scaly, starfish-shaped meat (that I’m pretty sure was not from the sea, or even this planet) which I tried so I could say I know what disappointment tastes like.
So, there was that and the numerous other language-barrier related incidents that have me too exhausted to rehash. It’s not really as torturous as I make it out to be. But for someone like me, someone who appreciates applause if I get dressed before 11am, I feel like I should get a 10-minute standing ovation at the end of each day, for making it out the other side. I want to walk to my apartment after work and have the streets lined with people smiling warmly and slow-clapping my achievement of surviving the day. Not unlike the end of Titanic when Dream-Rose is walking up the steps. “You did it!” they would say. “You’re amazing!” they would say. “You deserve those three choc-chip cookies you’re going to scoff down after your dinner of instant noodles,” they would say. And I would smile graciously at these common-folk who so clearly appreciated my great effort.
But there are no people smiling. And there is no applause. Because honestly, I’m not doing anything that thousands of English teachers before me haven’t done. This rite of passage is old and boring and I’m no different from the hundred other foreigners who arrived three weeks ago who are having the same kind of chaotic interactions in this chaotic country.
And so, I spend a lot of time staring out of windows. A lot of time. Which could be a great (read: accurate) analogy for my life, but I mean it literally. I take a 40 to 60 minute bus ride through the sublime county almost every day. I spend my mornings before school with a palm pressed up against the cool glass of my balcony door, observing the rural happenings below me (which, as you can imagine, is just riveting). It’s a lot of introspection, a lot of inside thinky thoughts. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.
In some ways, there are more distractions, new people, new sights, everything colourful and smells different (yes, I am thinking of that guy who stood awfully close to me on the bus yesterday), so it’s easy to just lose yourself in the anonymity of it all. On the other hand, every night, I’m coming home to me and there’s no squawking family (I love you all) or emotionally distant feline (for now) to distract me and so I’m forced to hang out with me. And there’s all this Inception-y losing myself within myself. “Which is both terrifying and freeing,” said the sad optimist.
And now I leave you with this random gif of a puppy cutely assaulting a cat.
I’d been in Korea for exactly 15 hours when I got on the bus with about 20 other people going to Gangwon-do Province. Everyone was in that weird, confused, hyper friendly state, bonded through shared anticipation and terror. Like we were all plane crash survivors, trying to make it on this strange island. Except without any polar bears or smoke monsters… that I know of.
Since we’re late intakers and only going to orientation at the end of October, we were given a speed session on the bus, which basically covered everything from lesson planning to getting a cell phone. To be honest, I was half listening, half trying to see the names on the clipboard the EPIK guide held close to his chest. You see, that clipboard held our placements, which determined who’d get the city and who’d get the sticks.
Gangwon’do is a huge province, 80 percent of it is covered in uninhabitable mountainous area. And oh those mountains. Second to New Zealand, this is the most epic landscape I’ve ever encountered. Actually, it does look a bit like the LOST Island. Gigantic mountains, covered in thick, dark green pine forests envelope the province. And in between the mountains, there is the East Sea. It’s breath-taking. Since I’m half-kelpie, I was hoping for something coastal but not too rural (or far north). So basically, not Goseong.
(spoiler alert: if you’ve read the title, you know how this ends).
About two hours from Seoul, we stopped for a lunch break and I got my first taste of kimchi and bipimbap – which is a mixture of rice, meat, sprouts and other veggies, served on a hot skillet thing (I burned myself twice). You’re also given a side of kimchi (cold, fermented cabbage covered in red pepper paste and served with just about everything) and a little tub of hot sauce which you’re supposed to spoon into your dish. It was… interesting. Completely different to anything I’d ever tasted but mostly enjoyable. I say mostly because I’m not a fan of the sesame seed sauce over the veg, which I foresee to be my downfall.
So we drove, we ate and we were getting antsy. Then our EPIK guy handed out the placement sheets. Not only was I placed in the northest point of Korea, but I’m in Hicksville (Google maps calls it Geojin), teaching at four different schools and have to commute daily among them. Honestly, at this point, I was like, “Fuck it. I’m here. It’s pretty. I’m here. Let’s do this.”
So when I met my main co-teacher at the drop-off point, I had zero expectations. As if sensing my apathy, fate got bored of torturing me and gave me a break. My co-teacher, along with the teacher I’ve replaced are currently among my two favourite people in the known universe. Maya, the pretty curly-haired Californian I’m replacing basically left me a fully stocked apartment with everything from make-up remover and towels to stationary and books (including the Neil Gaiman novel I’ve been wanting to read since forever) to 6 different kinds of teas, spices and a partially full fridge (with alcohol in it!). I half expected a butler to emerge from the closet and offer to shine my shoes or like, walk me to the bat-cave or something (clearly I have no idea what butlers actually do).
JinHee, my main co-teacher, whose job it is to see me acclimatised and get all my documents sorted, is amazing. Not only is she young and easy to talk to, but on my first day at the school (which I got lost walking to and found myself overlooking the beach instead) played Florence and the Machine in class. If you know me at all, you’ll understand why I now worship her. I also have two neighbours, both teachers like me, one a South African, the other an American, so I get to hear English when I step into my hallway, which is nice after a day of being lost in translation.
So I’ve been in my place for three days now and I feel at home, which is really the best thing I could ask for at this point. I’ve been to Sokcho, the closest city, I’ve made the internet connections with people I’ll still meet, I’ve visited my schools and found the bus station.
I guess this is where it really begins.
In which I describe my journey to the tiny city (barely) of Goseong with an overuse of adjectives:
It started with me being late.
By the time the short security official was checking the inside of my thighs for missiles, I was already being called on the scary airport speaker system, so I didn’t really care that they confiscated my mouthwash (because all the cool terrorists are using mouthwash bombs these days). I hurried (harried), looking like a crazy backpacker, all the way to my huge business class seat, already stocked with champagne and steaming fluffy towels with which to wipe my hands.
The flight from Cape Town to Dubai was uneventful. I slept like baby in my huge business class seat, ate delicious business class food from real plates and received a fancy package filled with designer toiletries. Oh, business class.
Then a two-hour stop in Dubai (which was 32 degrees Celsius at 2am in the morning) before I was herded along with the other slaves into my tiny animal-class seat, where I was offered stale coffee and a lukewarm napkin which which to wipe the sweat off my brow. The stench of overcooked beef and old man feet permeated the air. The Korean woman next to me snorted back a wad of mucus before falling asleep on my shoulder and remaining lifeless for the rest of the 9-hour flight (including the time I accidentally punched her in the face as I struggled past her for a bathroom break).
After 18 hours of flying, I was elated to be in Seoul and even more so, when the customs guy checked my visa and said, “Welcome Teacher!”.
I have an occupation. A place in the world. No longer am I destined to warm my mother’s couch while watching New Girl reruns. High off jetlag and new found feelings of purpose, I headed to the hotel with my life in two and a half suitcases.
The hotel was standard, and served as a great introduction to the Korean bathroom system which involves a wet floor and water just EVERYWHERE. I may have broken the fancy toilet, which did everything apart from telling my future (no, seriously, it does everything). I was later told that Koreans don’t traditionally throw paper down the toilet – they put it in a bin beside it. This is something I cannot bring myself to do. I’m currently testing the limits of my home flushing system, trying to work out a compromise.
Anyway, back to the hotel. Where I barely slept and instead took advantage of Korea’s supafast internets by streaming episodes of New Girl (hey, you can take the girl off the couch, but… no wait that doesn’t work).
Needless to say, by the time I got back to the airport to be taken to my final destination point, I was high off no sleep, caffeine and raw terror. Which, is how all the great adventures begin… right?
Part 2: Road to Goseong coming soon.