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.
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.