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.
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.
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.