Feb 24, 2009

Chapter One: I've got Seoul but I'm not a Seoldier.

We will begin with a riddle. Tell me what you think the below picture is. I'll make it multiple choice, and give you the correct answer in my next post

A) Key Chain.
B) Bottle Opener
C) Personal Defense Whistle
D) Cigar Cutter
E) Combination bus pass/subway pass/taxi account/phone card/prepaid credit card.
F) None of the above

My first week in Seoul was, in a word, challenging and non-stop. More than one word, yes, but that's the best I can do. My first couple days I left work and either went straight to my apartment or quickly ended up there. Between the cold weather and jetlag and the culture shock, I was glad to read and watch movies on my laptop. But now, beginning my second week, I'm beginning to feel a little more comfortable. Despite what you may have heard, I'm not exactly the most cunning of linguists--and I've had a hard time even learning "hello" and "thank you" in Korean so far. (Though the equivalent of "cheers" was easy and fun.) Meeting a few other people in the orientation helped, and my two co-teachers have been immensely helpful and nice so far.

A recap, though warning that this post gets a little long.

Day 1:

I got in late Sunday night, around 11 pm, and felt exactly like you'd expect after 20+ hours of transit. I hadn't heard from anyone from the school for over a week, so I wasn't entirely sure that anyone would be there. But as I finally collected my bags and headed out through the least stressful customs ever, there they were. Claire and Brant, the hagwon owners. And Nate and Jennifer, the other two English teachers. They were holding a sign with my entire name and it was great to see them.

A quick 45 minute drive later, we were at my place. It was nice, and huge for a studio. I was sorta hoping for talking doors and heated toilets, but it's pretty old school. I unpacked a little, then Nate and Jennifer came back over and invited me to Nate's room. (Jennifer lives right next to him). It sounded like fun and so I gladly went with them (about 5 minutes away from my place). Nate asked if I wanted a beer--I said sure and instead of going to the fridge he was out the door before I closed my mouth. Less than two minutes later he was back. At least in my part of town, anywhere you live there will be a convenience store that's open 24/7 within a minute or two of you. Also you can buy alcohol all night long. Also you can drink on the street. Or on the subway. I'm liking this place so far.

We talked for a bit, but I was sleepy and went back to my apartment. Uh-oh. My outer door was locked. I ended up sleeping on Nate's floor on some yoga mats. At that point, I think I could have slept on volcanic monkey poo. I was out instantly for the entire night. I'm pretty sure I keep Nate up all night with my snoring, but if so he's too kind to make a big deal out of it.

Day 2:

Woke up, went home, took a shower. There was no warm water, but oh well it was nice to feel somewhat clean. I went to school and observed some classes. Nate has been here a year and Jennifer half of a year and they both knew so much about Korean culture and even the language. It was a little intimidating, but nice to be able to draw on.

Classes were different than I expected as well. The kids were, well, a little wilder than than I anticipated. Class sizes were small--from 2 kids to a max of 10. But they were 4-8 years old, and as crazy as anyone that age is. One 7 year old got busted for texting on her phone. Another little dude made me laugh when he wrote about "putting things in the whore" instead of "putting things in the whole." And any thought of them being afraid to be individuals was dismissed in the first few minutes--some did gorilla impersonations, others acted like Transformers, Pokemon, or monsters. They were mostly just amazingly funny, like the kid who when asked what the businessman does said "plays on the computer."

After school, my coteachers took me to the grocery store. The nearest one is called Homeplus, and is in some kind of partnership with Tesco, so there is some british food there too. (No irn-bru though). I got stuff for peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches, cinnamon raisen bagels, pasta and marinara, and some rice. I've cooked for myself largely so far and am pretty happy to do so.

Day 3:

Wow, I didn't even notice cameras everywhere before. Even in the teacher's lounge. There are at least two banks of monitors where the parents, kids, co-teachers, and any one else can watch you do your thing. Not a bad thing, but a little different. It's awkward observing, because my instinct is to try and bond with the children...but this obviously starts to infringe on their teachers and the relationship they have.

Also, some other differences become more obvious today. (I call it Day 3 but it's really my 2nd day here and I'm still getting over jetlag). Everyone knows you take off your shoes going inside here. But when you work on the 3rd and 4th floor, constantly going back and forth, it equals a lot of slipper and shoe switching. It doesn't seem all that practical. And the shoe area is sacrosanct--slippers are verbotten.

And the hand motion here for "come here" looks to me like "go away." It took me 10 seconds of staring at my boss wondering why she was telling me to go away when i already wasn't very close to her.

I went to the bank and found out some ATM's are global and some aren't. I took out a lot of money (We're not talking about a lot of money, we're talking about a sh*tload of money!) 700,000 Won or just under 600 bucks. The highest denomination here is 10,000 Won so it's like having 600 bucks in 10s. I think about taking a bath in my huge collection of money...it can't be worst than showering in cold water.

Day 4:

Very frustrated at my continued lack of hot water. It's cold in Seoul now, not getting in the positive Celcius. The windchill feels excessively cold because, as I have recently found out, it literally blows down from Siberia. It snows today.

This day is my lowpoint so far, as I succumb to culture shock while still held down by the last vestiges of jetlag. I go to work for another 9 hour day and while observing some teachers, making lesson plans for my classes next week, planning to take the subway to training on Th, F, and Saturday, and then Saturday get from training to graduation across the city, I am so overwhelmed that I just shut down. I find myself daydreaming of hopping on a plane and going somehwere else.

This is stupid and I know it, but it doesn't seem to matter. Part of it is exhaustion--getting ready for coming over here has left me without a day of rest in over a month. Part of it is the culture shock--I still am afraid of doing the wrong thing whenever I go out. I know though that overall it's too early to make this kind of decision. If in a month or two I hate my life I can consider giving this up. But leaving less than a week into it isn't cool, especially since it would let a lot of people down over here. Still, though, I never felt that overwhelmed urge to leave while in the UK or Oz. It is more different here, as you'd expect. Knowing that and experiencing it are two different things though--I know, for example, that it's hot in the desert. That wouldn't necessarily help cool me off if I was lost in the Gobi or Sahara though.

Oh yeah, the pollution today is worse than ever. Walking up a couple flights of stairs feels like I'm at 9,000 feet up--it's hard to catch my breath. After a 20 minute walk to check out the subway, my mouth tastes oily. Phlegm has become my constant companion.

Days 5-7:

This post is approaching novella length so to sum up, the next three days are spent in training which is boring but I meet some great people and we do some exploring of the cool parts of town by night. By Monday, I am trained, have some new friends, and feel much better prepared for my second week in this city, the second largest in the world.

South Korea - The Prologue

I have been in Seoul, South Korea now for just over a week. I officially start teaching kindergartners English next week.

Why Korea? I first got the idea from travel writer Rolf Potts, who saved up enough money whilst in Korea to begin the trip that spawned Vagabonding. (Note: I can't recommend Vagabonding enough to anyone who likes traveling. It is THE book.)

More generally, I was completely amazed, astounded, inspired, and challenged by two journeys across the world. The first is by a Scotsman travelling the world with his wife; he is a brilliant writer and amazing photographer. The second also comes from the UK and is somehow even more ambitious, from a couple who biked from Scotland to Turkey and then liked it so much that they kept going. I was educated and entertained by their account in a way that few other stories have, regardless of medium.

After reading of those amazing journeys there was no way I could resist the siren call of travel anymore. But where to go?

I had considered volunteering in a place like Patagonia, but paradoxically I couldn't afford the fees it costs to volunteer. So Korea won kind of by default--it's one of the few places where English teachers can actually make a little bit of money. But I don't mean to imply that I came over here begrudgingly. I like that it's a mix of mountains, temples, and cities. I look forward to living in a technological culture, one with highspeed trains and starcraft tournaments broadcast on tv and phones that you can write the numbers in the air with. I like Oldboy and other movies from Chan-wook Park. So Korea = winner. Yay!


I did some thinking about vagabonding and wanderlust on the plane ride over. Since I moved out of my mom's house at 18 to go to college, (so admittedly 12.5 years ago) I've moved to 20 distinct places. My place in Seoul will be number 21, and the 4th contintent since high school. The longest I lived in any one place was I think on Salmon Street in Portland back in 2001-02 for a year and a half. I know I get really antsy after 1 year in a place and 2 years is about my upper limit. Compared to professional vagabonders, this is miniscule, but it does seem like quite a lot of places. Is the constant need to be exposed to new information a flaw in myself or should I just learn to accept it?

I had been in Portland for just over 2 years this time. And I love Portland. For a hiker who likes reading, drinking beer, and cheap movies I don't know if there could be a better place to live. I know I will miss it but it's currently time to get away. I'm looking forward to Korea, even though it's one of the few places I've heard more bad things about than good.

Chief among my challenges will be that I'm teaching kindergartners. This is going to be challenging for many reasons, not the least of which
a)I've never taught kindergarden
b) I never even went to kindergarden. So I have no idea what to expect.

While I'm aware that there may challenges, I'm hoping to keep as open a mind as I can. Worst case scenario is that it's an ends to a means, and will end up in enabling me to travel to other places.

My long term travel goals are not defined but could certainly include any combination of
SE Asia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Nepal, Japan, Hong Kong, or, well anywhere else.

I have a list of places to see within Korea as well. I'll get 10 days off for the year, plus weekends and holidays. Enough to visit Japan once maybe and see other parts of Korea. But the one place I really really want to see is called Paekdusan. It's like Oregon's own Crater Lake, and on the border of China and North Korea. South Koreans, Americans, and other "anti-North Koreans" can enter only through China. Siberian Tigers wander the area

I'm not sure if I've met my nerd quotient for this post(though honestly I've probably unwittingly exceeded it), so I'll add this. Looking around in this city reminds me of the beginning of the first book of Foundation, when Gaal Dornick looks around on Trantor for the first time:

"He could not see the ground. It was lost in the ever increasing complexities of man-made structures. He could see no horizon other than that of metal against sky, stretching out to almost to almost uniform grayness, and he knew it was so over all the land-surface of the planet...There was no green to be seen, no soil, no life other than man."

Thus concludes the prologue. I will update more with pictures and stories soon