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.