Namyangju. Picture courtesy of:
Day 1: Lost
THE DRIVER dropped me off in front of a sky-rise apartment building. Off one alleyway, the road dipped down into a vibrant marketplace. The streets swarmed with cars, people moved with the purposefulness of stalking lions, and drug stores and cafes competed with glowing advertisements for wall space. The strange characters flashed like rapidly blinking eyes in violet and green neon lights. I wasn't even sure what my apartment was called. I would be lying if I didn't say my mind wasn't one, big, what-the-fuck.
Coming to my rescue was my welcoming Korean co-teacher, who for the sake of privacy I will call Lynn. She showed me the apartment, which is actually quite cozy. It has a loft for a bedroom, and the rest is like a studio. The view from the 11th floor is great. Again, I was in shock, because I have never lived in a city before. Namyangju isn't a tourist-catering city. If you see another foreigner there, they're here to work. Lynn gave me a whirlwind tour of the surrounding shops, for it was getting late. School was the next day, and I was to report at 8:30 sharp. I toddled behind her feeling ridiculously like a chicken: I took my steps cautiously and my head bobbed about as if my life depended on cramming everything into it.
That night, I stared out at the shroud of smog enclosing the city. I felt like I had wandered into an otherworldly island, dream-like, cut off from the way of life I had known. The smog hid the city from the rest of the world.
Day 2: The Devil is in the Details
I woke up ravenously hungry. The prior occupant, also the previous teacher at the school, had left me some tuna, noodles, and rice in the cupboards. I lumped it together, heated it, and drenched it in soy sauce. So I had my first meal in Korea, and it tasted damned good.
Shopping for laundry detergent and putting money on a bus pass are suddenly challenges that require a brave heart. I squint at the characters on my thermostat and microwave, sounding out the words, but not knowing the meaning. It is very lonely being trapped in such a bubble of silence: unable to communicate with the people around you. However, I feel very welcome here. I've never felt unsafe on the streets alone (knock on wood). When I was attempting to put money on my card for the bus, three people crowded around trying to help.
The previous night, Lynn had told me she was worried about me taking the 20 min bus ride by myself to school. Immediately, I felt the need to rise to the challenge. It was with great triumph that I arrived at the elementary school without getting lost. Other foreign teachers had told me their first day was just introductions, and then they went home to recover from jet lag. Lucky me, my school decided I could start work immediately instead. While lamenting the fact that I had arrived Monday instead of a Friday, I met my first batch of kids.
They're really great. Extremely curious, talkative, and will turn into screaming devils if you turn your back on them too long. But isn't that the same with kids everywhere? I was the newest animal at the zoo. The most common questions were, "Is that your real eye color? Is that your real hair color? Do you have a boyfriend?" When I said yes, they shrieked their excitement and demanded I bring in a picture.
The question I always dreaded was, "Do you speak Korean?" I spoke a couple phrases, and they applauded my attempts. The driver on the way over told me something I hadn't though about: for English speakers, we are used to people of all nationalities speaking English in a variety of accents. We can still understand what is said. In Korea, they are not used to a strange accent speaking their language, so it seems very funny. This only makes me motivated to study Korean more, because it's frustrating not to be able to speak with the kids when they really want to get to know you!
8 hours at the school, and my day was only just beginning. Next I had the medical exam, and then passport photos taken, and then a welcome/goodbye party. I was arriving; the prior teacher- we'll call her Katy- was leaving. I met many of the first grade teachers and we had a yummy Korean dinner. Korean food is reaaallly good. I had no idea I would like it so much. The pork and marinated beef was turned over on the fryer at our table, grilled with mushrooms, garlic, and onions dipped in soy, and then wrapped in a lettuce leaf like a sandwich ball. And the beer! Again, another pleasant surprise.
After dinner, the night was only just beginning. We went to a karaoke house and sang and danced our hearts out. My coworkers would sing slow Korean ballads, then fast-paced ones, and Katy and I would add our American numbers (Backstreet boys and Journey, hell yeah). I got dropped off at my apartment, but didn't recognize that it was the back way in. It's amazing how hard it is for me to distinguish buildings and streets- the Beer Factory on the corner is the landmark I use to know I should get off at the next bus stop.
Day 3: Lesson Plans on the Fly
I put the rice cooker on, and glanced at the clock. 4:30 am. I had two lesson plans to write: one for my first third grade class, and the other for the after-school fifth and sixth graders. I thought of my 2.1 million won salary, and smiled satisfactorily at the thought that yes, in this lifetime, I will be a millionaire. Then I cranked out those lesson plans and was on the bus by 7:50. My clothes suitcases were still unpacked.
Katy had told me that it took her about three months before she began feeling settled in here, but even then, there were moments of loneliness when she looked out at the laughing friends on the playground, or met another teacher in the hallway and could only smile with an awkward "annyeong haseyo." However, I am very lucky. My co-teachers always make sure to include me at their lunch tables, and Lynn has been a godsend getting me settled in. Her English is very good. The classes are challenging, but there are those moments when the kids are so engaged, voluntarily taking the information one step further without prompting, that you feel this thrill, this, "Yes, this is what it should all be about."
I get off the bus around 5 pm, practically running to my apartment in my excitement to take a nap. However, an older American guy falls into step beside me. Whenever we foreigners see one another in Korea, we go dashing into each other's arms as if we're family. Once linked arm-in-arm, we feel more confident in exploring the wonders of the exciting, new cityscape around us.
"You're a teacher, aren't you?" this man asks me.
"I could tell. You look as green as they come."
It turns out, this man, we'll say Paul, has been in Korea for two years. With the friendly air of an older brother taking pity on a shy sibling, he shows me around the train station, good places to buy groceries, and where the movie theater is. I'll never get tired of gawking at open market fare: fried shrimp sticks, deep red peppers, dukbokki (hot and spicy rice cake), crawling octopus tentacles, Belgian waffles topped with pillars of whipped cream and berries, and my favorite: jja jang myun (black bean noodles). He also tells me where to pick up packages from home and tells me a bank is actually on the third story of our building. Shows how much I've explored the apartment.
Jja jang myun. Myun = Noodles. Picture courtesy of:
Taking great pride in his impromptu tour guide ability, he next informs me that he used to be in the stripper business. I ask what exactly he means by that- like Chippendales? "Yes!" he exclaims, and then lists off all the girls he knows in the building. At this point, I feel a little weirded out. However, Paul does earn the spot as first apartment friend.
You meet one, and then they all come out of nowhere. The next day I would meet a man from Canada on the bus, who knew Katy before me. He tells me he can introduce me to the other foreigners in the apartment, and I feel like it's college move-in day all over again. Then the teacher I met at the airport hits me up to go to Seoul on the weekend, and I immediately say yes. I have a social life!
So in between culture shock, becoming coffee buddies with Lynn at the school, meeting all my students, and missing all my family and friends on a daily basis, I realize I can do this. And I'm ready to travel outside that veil enclosing the city. The sun broke through it today, and I saw hills carpeted with trees. I wonder where they lead.
I promise I'll start taking pictures soon!
Disclaimer: The above is opinion, not fact.