Published: March 13th 2011March 13th 2011
A dull gray sky hung over rust encrusted fences where dusty brown dogs, with fur that had been born white, strained at their chains to bark at our car. The streets were small, with seemingly no order, and half the place seemed to be alleys. The spidery black lines of Hangul decorated every store front and made my head swim. Korean men and women whose age looked to be in the triple digits milled about, almost looking like they had suddenly been hit with amnesia. Holly, the teacher whose place I was taking, chattered on about my new apartment, what the students were like, and how to settle into Korea and I mentally scrambled to etch everything she said on the walls of my cranium. The car that my soon- to-be co-teacher Maria was driving passed by more restaurants that dripped with images of raw meat. I felt like I was on an alien planet and as my heart pounded, I tried to drown the thought circling in my head, but it just kept surfacing.
"What the hell am I doing here?!"
It has been almost exactly 7 months since I arrived in South Korea. Just as some (mentally questionable)
parents used to throw their kids into lakes to learn how to swim, so we were thrown into teaching. Learn by doing. Time flies when you're trying to control the wildabeast that is the Korean student and teach it English in fun and exciting ways (unlike the books the curriculum forces upon the teachers that seem to have been written by someone with no idea of how people actually talk to each other.) At first the idea that I had made it through more than half my contract already seemed absurd, but as I began to look back I realized that I've come quite far from the freaked out girl I was when I got here. I have come to see that while I'm in no way one of those Korean-ized foreigners who hangs out at the bar speaking Korean, their face basked in the glow of their trendy phone that is weighed down by charms, I have definitely learned ways to assimilate myself into Korean culture and how to survive it. Most importantly, I have learned a lot about myself.
Things I have learned in 7 months of living and teaching in Korea:
Clothes are preposterous (but only to me)
Coming from California, I live in a sundress, flip flops, and some sunglasses. In winter I usually add a scarf. I didn't own any tshirts and found jeans stifling. None of this seemed odd until I moved to Korea where wearing a tank top on a run got me looks from the older women that seemed to scream "JEZEBEL!" and my students would point to my sheer tights and say "oooh sexy". Sexy means inappropriate and/or something a hussy would wear. Do not take this as a compliment.
Korea is Vagabond Central
Honestly, a small percentage of teachers came here because they love teaching and wanted to expand the minds of Korean children. Most of us were jobless, uninspired, restless, heartbroken, broke, and just plain bored. We get paid well, (most of us) do our best teaching and coming up with lessons in the week, and on the weekends we drag a bag of belongings around the country drinking, dancing, and adventuring. People come and go into your life so often that goodbyes seem to lose importance and besides most of your friends will come crawling back to Korea, when America or wherever bitch slaps them with reality. Nothing is permanent in Korea.
The word Maybe means NO.
"Hannah, maybe you will not have hot water this week.."
"Hmmm, maybe your internet will not work until Monday"
"Maybe you have extra classes today?"
Enough said. Koreans like to make negative news sound like it might not happen. But don't worry, it will.
Koreans still don't understand me and I don't understand them
I went to the weekly market by my apartment to get a few mandarin oranges for breakfast. I said "yuk juseo" or six please. I felt cool. The man grinned at me in confusion but then started filling a bag. Success! But he didn't stop. The bag was bulging with sweet fruit and as the realization of what was happening dawned on me I started laughing uncontrollably. So did the fruit vendor but I don't know why. Laughter loves company I suppose. He had presumed I wanted 7,000 won worth of oranges. This equated to about 40 orange jewels in a bag that he handed to me.
This leads me to what I haven't learned yet: Korean.
I have a few phrases and know some words but my Korean is horrific. I went to a restaurant and was able to read and understand about a quarter of the menu which made me proud but then the women started talking to me and I did not know ONE WORD of what they were saying. This was shameful but I am hoping to take Korean lessons starting next month if all goes to plan. I mostly would just like to understand if ajummas are throwing slurs my way. Also my poor students had me laugh in their face when they wrote that the "moon" was an object made of metal. Turns out moon equals door in Korean. The students teaching the master...
Korean food is not as scary as it looks
"Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria's mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once." -Anthony Bourdain
I've taken this quote to heart and lately I've been eating my Korean food with gusto. There is still some greenery that looks like it was picked out of someone's front yard and then covered in slime and those cloudy soups that look like what a soldier in the 1600's would be served are not food for the eyes, BUT mostly everything is edible. I'm starting to love my school lunches and no longer have teachers staring at me and giving me tutorials on how to use chopsticks. I ate fish with chopsticks last week and as I navigated my way around the slivers of bones, I felt like I had reached a milestone. Turns out a lot of the Korean food that looked unappetizing, turned out to be delicious. No fear. Although I was full of fear when my school went out to lunch and we were served a simmering, LIVE, octopus. It's tentacles writhed over the edge of the plate and my stomach and heart went to pieces. I cannot stand animal cruelty, I don't care if it's a fucking fish or bug. It's like people that hurt children; why would you hurt something so defenseless and innocent? But my Korean comrades seemed oblivious. Being respectful I had a bite once the poor thing had died. It wasn't bad, I could eat it, but the texture made me feel like I was eating human flesh. Never again. Yet I am glad I tried it. Again, my apologies creature of the sea.
Army guys are fitting the stereotype...
I have friends in the military. I respect them. I am aware that they are not all ignorant assholes that bleed red. But my god do the guys here keep that stereotype well and alive. All I see from them is drunken brawls and creeping on every girl. The guys I have met were full of ignorance about geography and culture. They didn't seem to know they were living in Korea. They sneered at the fact that we were teachers and tried to impress with booze but no, it wasn't working. I obviously do not want to blanket a judgement on every guy in the army here, but as of now I am steering clear until someone proves me wrong.
One day you will find yourself used to seeing lots of naked Koreans
Jimjilbangs are absolutely crazy. They are one of the most foreign things to me in Korea. To explain it to my American friends never does it justice. I just really never fathomed I would be strutting around naked with old Korean women whose skin looks like a crumpled up paper bag. I would have thought that only if I got put in an South American jail would I be sleeping on a mat in an attic with a foam square for a pillow with a bunch of other women dressed in orange sleeping shorts and a tshirt. I spend most of the night sweating out my vital hydrations. It is just so weird and I gotta admit, it's fun. But only once in awhile..
Korean students are the salt of the earth
I ADORE my students. There is about 25 of them I would adopt in a heartbeat. They are sweet, genuine, and full of spark. Even when they don't understand what I am teaching or yell broken English at me in the streets, I have a fondness for them. Now, it is true that I have some really really bad students. Students that make me want to cry. I don't adore them. But I get where they are coming from and I see them as a challenge. They don't care about English and they want attention. It's a stressful combination but I am trying. Because even if they don't admit it, teachers here want the love of their students. Korean students constantly compliment you, give you gifts, or fawn over you and if there is any that don't it's like BRING IT. I WILL MAKE YOU THINK I AM AWESOME. Or maybe that is just me...:)
Everyday I learn something new. A new Korean word, a place that I want to visit, a strange custom, and I come across new problems in the classroom that need new solutions. I am excited for the next 5 months of my contract in Geumsan. I now know what the hell I'm doing here.