Let’s talk feelings.
Lately, my feelings have turned taken on a gloomy hue, somewhere between a dim grey #696969 and a cadet blue #5F9EA0 on the colour chart, as I countdown the days before I leave.
I alternate between desperately wanting to spend every second with every person I love and wanting to be shut off from the world, so I can think inside thoughts and lament my impending departure while lying under my duvet, listening to Radiohead and Elliot Smith. It’s a high-school type melancholy, except this is not the night before my final science exam, and I’m not watching my best friend do a maniacal interpretive dance to System Of A Down while I should be studying. Though the analogy remains the same – I feel like I’m going through a sort of puberty (thankfully this time the hair growth is minimal). Maybe it’s a quarter life thing or a moving countries thing or a combination of both… thing.
You’d think the second time would be easier. After all, I‘ve done this before. Not Korea specifically, but the leaving and goodbye saying. The ugly airport-tears and my Barney-purple suitcases, heavy with stuff and things. Old life to new life. I know what it feels like to sit in a too-narrow airplane seat for 20 hours, talking to the Australian-Iranian woman next to me just because she reminds me a little of my grandmother. I know the joy of touching down in a foreign place after seeing two sunsets through a thick glass window and having to train my brain to erase every horror movie image I’ve ever seen as I spend the first night alone in a new apartment (that stupid little boy from The Grudge stops being funny at about 3am when you’re alone and everything’s creaking).
I remember all of this and I’m already exhausted and homesick. But this is a new adventure, I have to remind myself. New destination, new stuff in (same) suitcases. New people on plane – hopefully less chatty and more incorporeal so that I can stretch out. New everything, same me.
And I may be jumping the gun here. I’m still home, still in my bed, still annoyed by squabbling sisters, still ignored by my emotionally withholding cat. And everything is the same. Except not quite, because I’m acutely aware of the fact that this is the last time I’ll be here, like this, maybe ever.
And that’s bittersweet.
So those are my feelings. Gross. I’m sorry. But there’re there and they’re holding on.
Crazy amount of deodorant and enough toothpaste to get me through a nuclear war: check.
I’ve never felt so organised, or so safe from impending perspiration. I’ve discovered that checked off to-do list however, comes at a heavy price. I’ve spent so many hours wandering the fast-food scented, teen-infested, morally repugnant alleys of the mall, that I’ve lost a piece of myself I’ll never quite get back. The only consolation is staring at the things I’ll be stuffing in my suitcase and trying to figure out a military-style packing strategy.
If I close my eyes, I can practically smell the kimchi (though I’m not too sure what kimchi smells like at this point).
So as I while away my days, alternating between total zen and complete emotional chaos, I’ve decided that it might be a good idea to actually learn the language of the country I intend to spend the next year or so in. I had spent almost a year in Serbia and my most used phrase was “Ne razumem” I don’t understand. And also, “naročito sa masline” with extra olives. Thus, I’m determined to go to Korean with a little more than the vocab for my favourite pizza toppings.
I started learning the alphabet phonetically and trying to memorise a few basic phrases. Enough to suitably impress my future principal with my knowledge of formal thank yous and to vaguely understand the public transportation system, should I get lost and find myself on a lonesome bus station in the middle of Nowheresville, Gangwon-do. The thing is, language learning can become really boring if you’re not particularly interested in it. Don’t get me wrong, Korean’s not terrible by any stretch, but it’s not exactly eargasmic either.
So after a few days of studious language learning and wishing I had a pair of tortoise shell-rimmed spectacles that I could wipe in a scholarly fashion to the swelling chords of a James Horner score (because in this fantasy montage, I’m Miss Honey), I had a brainwave. Since my Korean language levels were below that of a 2-year old, I may as well learn like one.
Enter Pororo the Little Penguin. This strangely animated show about a penguin dressed in aviation garb and his crew of friends, including a large polar bear in a Hawaiian shirt and a yellow robot with a permanent serial killer smile, has become my primary source of learning. Everything is high-pitched and overly exaggerated. It’s like the lovechild between a pokemon and a teletubby (a poketubby? a telemon?). I don’t know whether I hate it or find it endearing. After watching six episodes, I’m leaning towards hate. BUT, I have learned at least six words since discovering Pororo. It’s not like watching a film in Korean, where you’re so focused on reading the subtitles, you miss the actual words. No, this is all Korean, all the time – much like the situation I’m going to find myself in in 19 days. Oh Glob.
Chaotic emotional chaos: check.
So you know that moment when everything you believe to be true and real gets turned on its head and suddenly you’re Alice, falling down the rabbit hole and all those true, real things are now upside down and inside out? That’s kind of what applying to teach in Korea has been like for me. The only difference is that my rabbit hole was a seemingly endless trek through mountains of paperwork and weeks of frustrating radio-silence.
Way back, I had initially planned to go to Busan, which is in the south-east of the country. Why Busan? Because the beaches looked pretty and kind of reminded me of Cape Town.
I didn’t overthink it. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be in Seoul or anywhere near the north really. The logic behind this was that I imagined Seoul to be overwhelming and claustrophobic and too near the scary North where agents of the dark lord would almost definitely kidnap me and sell me into a life of waygook slavery.
And okay, yeah you could argue that it’s all the same, a foreign country is a foreign country and the culture shock is going to sneak up on you no matter where you’re placed. And this is true. But in a process where you get very little choice at all and most things, like your school, the ages you’re teaching and your specific location are kept until the very last minute, it’s comforting to have one or two details to obsess over while the administrative cogs and wheels turn.
So I had my preference firmly placed in the south of South Korea, preferably somewhere near the coast. Then, I had my interview (which I was convinced I failed, but didn’t) and was promptly told that due to my late application (despite having planned this for months, my application was only sent in May due to things like not wanting to leave the perfect dream job back home), positions in Busan were all taken. The scary Canadian (not an oxymoron, I assure you) on the other end of the Skypeverse then suggested I change my placement preference on my application to Gwangju.
Initially, I was crushed. I wanted Busan. I had googled images of Busan. I had youtubed apartments in Busan. Now she was telling me to reboot my mental process and do some sort of geographical paradigm shift?
Gwangju. Not quite on the coast, but in the south-west, so that was good. I googled the images and youtubed the apartments and within two hours, gone were my feelings for Busan. All I wanted with all my heart was to be placed in that little city (the 6th largest in Korea) in the middle of Jeollanamdo Province. I was set.
Days went by, weeks went by. By early July all of my documents were in and people were starting to receive their contracts. People were getting their orientation information. I had received neither. I was worried. Then I got an email with those two dreaded words – Waiting List.
Anyone who’s applied or followed the EPIK program knows that this basically means that every position is full and the only way you’re getting to Korea is if someone’s grandmother dies and they drop out or if they’re kicked out of orientation for being drunken whores during orientation. (FYI, I was hoping for the latter.)
I had known this was a possibility. But it was hard not to feel a sense of doom and gloom and general whyisthishappeningtomeeeee- syndrome. At best, this meant I would leave two months later than anticipated, at worst it meant having to wait until the Spring Intake in Feb 2014. I had visions of lying on The Mother’s couch, wasting away 6 months, watching reality TV in a tatty robe, oozing with the stench of self-pity and despair.
For two weeks I moped and sulked and stared longingly at the little dot of Gwangju on the map, knowing that if I did get placed, it would most likely not be in my preferred area.
Then, just 5 days before the Fall applicants began orientation, I got an email saying that I had been accepted! My contract was on the way! I was part of the September intake! I was going to Korea! I was placed in Gangwon! I was… wait, what?
Here’s the thing about Gangwon. I knew nothing about it, except that it was a large province. A large province in the north. So north in fact, that it contained the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). So north, that it was at least 4 hours away from Gwangju. At this point, it should be noted that one of my favourite people in the known universe had been placed near Gwangju.
Upon hearing about my placement, I did what any excited, flexible traveller would do – I cried. I cried and seriously considered waiting those 6 months in my stinky robe. And after 20 minutes of glorious self-pity, I went to google images and tentatively typed, “Gangwon-do Province.” The images that came up were all sorts of pretty. Like, mountains and seas and forests kind of pretty.
I felt seduced against my will. Then I checked out the facebook group for expats living in the province. They were nice. Like super friendly, incredibly helpful nice. What’s more, these people seemed to actually like living there. Could it be that life in Gangwon was actually good? Was it true that one could traverse most of the country in just 6 hours? At this point, my poor brain was so tired of these geographical paradigm shifts that I think it short-circuited slightly and fell into an endless loop of “Gangwon! Yes. Pretty. Good. Fun time place.”
Which is sort of where I’m at now. A month away from leaving, and I’m excited. Really excited. So much so, that when my recruiter (TeachKorea) mistakenly sent me a letter confirming my placement in the city of Ulsan, my first reaction was, “NooooOOOOoo!! I must be near the north!! Winter is coming!”
Am I still concerned that I’m close enough to be kidnapped by Kim Jong Un’s minions? Mildly. Does it still suck that I’m hours away from places that I want to be not hours away from? Infinitely. Am I going to try and make the most out of this situation and eat kimchi with the best of them? You bet I am. I guess I’m trying out that compromise thing that seems to come hand in hand with moving countries and embracing new cultures. So far, it seems to be working…
*all images courtesy of the all powerful internets.