Published: March 24th 2010March 24th 2010
I have arrived! Korea, land of Kimchi, gigantic cities, beautiful mountains, and of course… Soju. A land rich in history, culture, and a plethora of various sights and sounds to see as far as the eye can see. Right after stepping off of the plane, I breathed in a heavy sigh of relief that my travels thus far have not been in vain. After months of stressful paperwork, multiple international shipping deliveries (those things are expensive!), visa runs, training in foreign countries, and living on the edge each day about whether or not this trip would actually come to pass; I have finally reached my final destination. I’d like to take a few minutes to thank the one person who has made this trip possible: Thomas the Train. Thomas, you taught me what it truly meant to try your hardest. To push forward through every obstacle by just believing and thinking to myself: you can. You’re my boy Tom, you’re my boy.
Now that all my gratitude’s have been given, on to telling you about life in Korea. In a word so far it is: fantastic. Every second of everyday, I have been surprised at the way this
country operates, how its people treat me, and how awesome my life really is here. I live in the city of Yongin, South Korea, in a town called Suji. Suji is the most modern town in the city and, when I say town, it really is a major city by American standards. Filled with high-rise buildings, mega-shopping centers, restaurants, bars, and schools, bright flashing lights, and bustling intersections riddle this city and keep me discovering new sights each day. It is a great place to live and I look forward to truly amercing myself in the city in the year to come.
The one thing that has thrown me off since day one is something that I did expect before coming to Korea, but it still just confuses the hell out of me… none of these damn people speak English. I mean.. no one! Its killer man. You cant even read the signs outside; everything is in the Korean alphabet called Hangul. So I literally cant tell the difference between a restaurant and a library. Well okay, I guess I could go inside and find out, but then I risk the chance of trying to go eat and ending
up in a library! Libraries terrify me and I won’t have myself accidently wandering around in one in South Korea. I won’t have it! So, you see my unrelenting predicament. Though I have made progress in learning the language and alphabet, I am still completely and utterly lost most of the time. It’s a miracle I can even babble off where I live to a cab driver the few (there should be a star next to this word and an explanation of what “few” means to me at the bottom of this page) nights I’ve gone out drinking with friends. Yet, somehow I have managed to get along fine and still love every second I have spent here. Once I pick up a little more Korean, I’m sure things will become easier.
Right after getting off the plane, a “tip top” ole cabby (who I quickly named James) was anxiously awaiting me with a vibrant blue poster that read “Andrew Godlewski.” I approached him and stated in a very snooty fashion “to the park James. And please mind my baggage on the way to the car; there are delicate items in there. Pip-pip now James skip to and hurry
now. I don’t want to be late.” Alright I didn’t say that… but I definitely thought about it and that needs to count for something! So we then drove for about an hour and a half to my new school in Suji called Hongcheon Elementary School.
My co-teacher greeted me at the door and from that moment on, I began my daylong journey as a celebrity. Any other ESL teacher in Korea most likely knows what I am speaking of, since I have heard similar tales of fame from others. The most common phrase out of every person’s mouth is “so handsome.” Jeez! Its like being back on the streets in Thailand! I mean, I know I got a well groomed face but come on people, enough is enough. Okay, I’m lying again, I do love the attention. If you recall from one of my former posts, I rely heavily on the patented “Pak Warn Self Esteem-O-Meter 5000” (I know… I got the upgrade last week). The meter fly’s off the charts whenever I set foot in school. Children and adults alike stare at me like I am some sort of alien out of the late 1990’s film entitled
“Mars Attacks!” It’s crazy… I can never catch a break. Everyone constantly approaches me to simply say “hi” stare at me for 3 minutes, giggle to their friends, and run away no doubt planning their next assault on Teacher Andrew (aka Andrew Teacher). Luckily I am not the vain or narcissistic type, so these encounters rarely go to my head. Can you tell when I am lying in these posts yet? If not, catch up man cause you are behind the curve… I love the attention. I throw out more waves and “hi’s” in school than an usher in a Broadway lobby (weird comparison I know). Walking through the school cafeteria feels like I just returned from war with a Medal of Honor. I toss out smiles, point and wink, strut my stuff, and wave until the cows come home…. loving every second of it.
The one thing in Korea that I have learned quick is, you can’t be shy. Korean’s are quick to ask you every single piece of information about your personal life without hesitation. The first question my co-workers asked me was “how old are you?” followed by “are you rich?” followed by “are you married”
followed by “how much do you weigh?” and the list goes on. It’s like being on a game show. I sweat out every answer hoping not to say the wrong thing or offend anyone while trying to keep my cool. “Congratulations Andrew you are a winner! Johnny tell him what he’s won!” It’s a trip (not the prize… the experience).
So, after greeting a few people when I arrived, I followed my co-teacher straight to the classroom. I was shocked and terrified to find that I was expected to get right up and start my lesson. My face must have been priceless. The one thing that curbed my fear a bit though, had to do with the fact that I had several drinks on the plane ride from Malaysia, which lasted 10 hours, and I was unable to sleep a wink all night. I was a mess! Yet, an excited and happy mess.. so it all went down smoothly and I was able to struggle through my first day without incident. And don’t get all uptight and bent out of shape, I wasn’t drunk teaching my students…. I was just not really sober either. I like to refer to
it as: a very happy medium. We all okay with that? Don’t judge me, I sure as hell don’t comment on your blogs and judge you… what are you like a… judge... or…. something.
Moving along then, I just want to say a quick word about my co-teachers. They are amazing. Definitely the opposite of what I was expecting. They are not at all “all business” types. They enjoy having fun, love talking with me, and are so quick to help me sometimes I don’t even finish a question before they start moving. Their names are Yi and Heo. Heo prefers I call her mom Heo and has kindly asked permission to be my Korean mother. I hope my mom doesn’t mind. I think I am in good hands though. Most other teachers I know don’t have access to a phone yet since, in Korea, you need an alien registration card in order to do just about anything. On day one, my teachers took me to a shop, hooked me up with a free phone, and put it under their name so I could get in contact with people. I am telling you, they are the best people ever.
They NEVER hassle me about my lesson plans, they don’t complain about anything I do wrong, and they are always smiling, bubbly, and a joy to be around. One night, they took me to a lavish dinner, took me shopping for apartment things, and bought me a couch, toaster, vacuum, and table (well I think the school actually footed the bill but still, awesome nonetheless).
Okay okay, enough business right? What have I been doing for fun here? Fortunately, there is a lot to do for fun around where I live. I am sure each day will present more opportunities and more memorable stories. The first night I went out was Saturday. My friend Jake was able to get in touch with me and we planned a meeting in Suwon, a city about 20km from where I live in Suji. The first hurdle was figuring out this bus system. When I said everything was in Korean before, I meant it. I stood in front of the bus stop for about 15 minutes just hoping that maybe, just maybe the Hangul letters would switch over to English lettering by some miraculous aligning of the stars. I closed my eyes, clicked
my heels and… crap...still in Korean. O well, I was able to read enough where I worked up the guts to jump on the bus (which the driver insisted I didn’t have to pay for... I love Korea) and hopefully head towards Suwon Station. After about 45 minutes, I abandoned ship because I felt I had made a mistake. 2 minutes later, I found the station and realized I was on the right bus the whole time. Score one for the big guy!
Jake and I went out to Korean barbeque for dinner. Korean barbeque my friends… is the bees neez (I know this slogan failed miserably in that Geiko commercial, but I felt like it may be time to bring it on back.. one love Mr. Geko). The succulent raw meat is brought out in tender slabs of pork, beef, or chicken and cooked right in front of you over hot coals. Then come the side dishes. Side dishes range in their quantity, but each meal comes with at least 500 different side dishes. I know it seems a bit unreasonable, but the dishes take up the entire table leaving no room for personal plates! Side dishes range
from an assortment of dipping sauces that can be spicy, salty, or sweet, to lettuce wraps, Kimchi, various vegetables, coleslaw-ish stuff, onions, and salads. They make the meal a complete and total adventure, especially due to the fact that all the dishes are shared and, no matter how many people are eating, everyone eats out of the same dishes. It seems a bit strange when in comparison with Western dinning practices but I assure you, it makes for a much more interactive and exciting meal to share with friends.
So a quick word on this fabled delicacy I have been referring to as “Kimchi.” Kimchi is ubiquitous throughout Korean cuisine. They eat it at virtually every single meal and prepare it in hundreds of different ways. Essentially, it is cabbage that is mixed up in sauce and spices and then (traditionally) left to ferment underground anywhere from a few days to a few years. At first, it is a bit strange to sink your teeth into, but after a while, this healthy Korean treat becomes as addictive as a pack of Marlborough lights is to Sam Eliot (I always pictured him as a smoker at least.. sorry if I’m mistaken Sam-o). My personal favorite type of Kimchi so far is Kimchi Jjigue (rough estimate on the spelling there folks). It’s a version of Kimchi which is cooked and mixed in a type of stew with pork. The stuff is delicious I assure you. I look forward to the opportunity of eating many more varieties of Kimchi especially in school where it is served in some form at every lunch.
Did I mention I get lunch at school yet? If not, I do and this food they give me there is the (got to try this word out once more) bees neez. Every meal I get a bunch of rice, some sort of delicious meat, Kimchi, vegetables, and a soup. It may sound basic, but for healthy food it is the best stuff I have ever eaten. I only wish I had the cafeteria food offered for dinner as well. My only gripe about lunch time is that the kids all huddle around me and stare at me while I eat. It’s not an easy life being a celebrity and in my delusional state, I like to think of the kids at lunch as the paparazzi. You know there my biggest fans, they’ll follow me until I love them, papa… paparazzi. Quick shout out to Lady Gagga there from Korea. Keep wearing those crazy outfits and shades girl.
So I just got seriously sidetracked and lost in a world of food. Where was I? So Jake and I finished a delicious meal and slammed back a few bottles of Soju. Wow I really can’t move on with my story. I need to stop again to explain to those who don’t know the effects of Soju what is in store for me over this next year. Soju is liquid crack. It is addicting like a lays potato chip (you can’t have just one shot), it keeps you up for hours, everyone drinks it in Korea, it’s delicious, and it’s cheap. It is actually a rice wine made here in Korea. At about 19% alcohol by volume, it packs quite the punch after you polish off a few bottles with some friends. Its typically common at meals to take a lettuce leaf, add your meat, sauce and vegetables, then down a shot of Soju before indulging in the meal. I’ll tell you that Soju and barbeque are like beer and cheesy fries (what!... you would prefer peanut butter and jelly perhaps), they match beautifully together.
After having our fill of Soju and Sam Gyup Sal (rough translation that is probably incorrect but means essentially “Korean Pork Barbeque) we moved on towards the bars.
Well the bars in Suwon are all I ever really expect in a bar: noise, alcohol, strange smells, confusing hallways, and bright flashing lights at every turn. It was… awesome! The night was made even more complete by trying out my luck with a new dish (as all food is to me here) called Dakbulgi. Its basically just thick rice noodles mixed up with some vegetables and of course Kimchi with spicy red curry sauce poured all over it. Truly the finest thing a partially to very drunk man could ask for while roaming the brightly lit streets at night.
The beer here is relatively inexpensive, the Soju might as well be free, and in areas like Suwon and Seoul there are a plethora of colleges that provide fantastic deals on certain night of the week. For example, a new ritual I have with a group of friends takes place on Wednesday nights in Bundang (about 15km from Suji). The name of this bar we go to is called the 121 (or is it 123… maybe 456… I cant remember right now to tell you the truth... alas the effects of long term exposure to the elements… and by the elements I of course am referring to Scotch Whiskey) and on Wednesday they do an absolutely delightful special providing the patrons all you can drink beer for the low price of 5,000 Korean Won (about $9 USD). With prices like these, a guy could go blind in this country.
So, for our first Wednesday out, we proceeded to begin drinking a few responsible sips of Soju with our dinner at nice restaurant, before moving on to this veritable sea of booze in the evening. Granted, I had to teach the next day so I swore I would take it easy. Next thing I knew, I am in a small room underground belting out “ANNDDD AFTERRR ALLLLLL! YOU’RE MY WONDERWALLLLLLLL!” at 2am while my friends and I all tried to keep one another from falling over onto a table full of beer. I should explain this quickly. South Korea is well known for karaoke rooms. They litter every street corner and are a very popular activity. I have been a part of no less than 5 sessions in the brief 2 weeks since I have been here. That’s an average of approximately 1 session every 2.8 nights! Not bad at all… to put it in batting average terms… I am batting a proud .357! Why again haven’t the Red Sox called me up? To be fair... of those 5 nights… maybe only 1 or two consisted of vocals that were at all decipherable in the English language. Still... not too shabby at all. Oh by the way, in Korea these karaoke bars are not called “karaoke” at all but instead are referred to as Norebong… hehe… I kind of said bong right there.
So, after nights such as these, not all of my mornings go so well. You cannot imagine the pain of a Soju hangover is like until you mix it well with a class full of rambunctious, screaming, energetic, and sometimes... merciless 2nd grade English students. It begins to wear me down. However, this is not a frequent occurrence... I do try to maintain somewhat of a professional manner (I wonder how many people actually just laughed in their chairs… thanks guys).
I think this is all I will write for now. My days have slipped by ever so quickly these past weeks in Suji, and not a moment has been a dull one. I look forward to learning more about this culture, making new friends, and of course... finding new places to get into some trouble at while here in Korea. I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to land in such a beautiful and entertaining place and wish that the good times continue to roll on over the course of this next year.