Category: Korea

What do you mean it’s been 5 months?!

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)
  • Persephone "Sephy" Adler Thorne I

    Persephone “Sephy” Adler Thorne I

  • Turned 26
  • Bought a plane ticket for the minions of doom sisters to visit
  • Roamed around Thailand for two weeks
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  • Petted baby tigers
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  • 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.

I’m the hero of the story

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.

Before (and after) Sunrise

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:

Rural Living

An Hour With an Ajumma.

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.

Beaches

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.

Geojin 

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…

Geojin 3

Geojin

Geojin 1

Geojin 4

Dong Gwang

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.

Dong Gwang

Dong Gwang 1

Dong Gwang 2

Dong Gwang 3

Ocean at the End of the Lane

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.

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Gong Hyeon Jin 3

Gong Hyeon Jin (2)

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Cheon Jin

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.

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Cheon Jin 3

Cheon Jin 4

Cheon Jin 2

Hiraeth

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.

Getting orient-ed: In which I talk about Seoul and resist the urge to make even one bad pun.

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.