Just Another Day in the Life

After what I consider to be way too long, Alec and I had a Skype session this morning. A Friday, I wake up an hour early and rush to make coffee as I sign in. I admit it has been a little rough lately. Definitely time for a chat with my BFFL. IMG_3804

That’s Best Friend For Life, if you don’t know.

She is baby- free for the moment, eight-month-old Soleile is napping, and we chit chat about life, homesickness, adaptation, care packages, my experiences as a teacher, various ways I kill small children in my dreams. Not exactly the best thing for a new mother to hear, but as my friend she makes it constructive and by the end of the call I know I will survive another day. She is very good at this. I am glad she is a mother.

To better my health, and my mood, Alec has me on a new exercise regimen. Together we position our computers and she leads us in a twenty minute workout. Ok, fine, it was fifteen minutes. Maybe ten. Soleile audibly wakes up and crawls into the room. Wondering what the heck is going on, she sees her mom talking to a computer with a face and adopts the confusion-to-acceptance face I know I’ll continue to love her for as she gets older. No big deal, Mom’s talking to Auntie Em on another continent and they are doing kickboxing kicks and lying on their backs making pedaling movements. Cool.  What’s for lunch? HEY! I said what’s for lunch?!

Psyched for the day by fresh endorphins, I head off for school. Did I mention it’s Friday? Working odd days in a kitchen where your weekend falls mid-week, you dont quite appreciate the communal nature of TGIF… But let me tell ya, the learning curve was quick. Thank friggen AthiestBuddhaGod it’s Friday.

Today I kind of ‘wing it’. I have a long break around lunch and I have to head to the bank to open an account. Banks in the United States are often intimidating, at least for me, a poor person with no money. I always feel like I am underdressed, or that I should have brushed my hair. Wells Fargo is not the kind grandfather institution who wants to hold my money gratefully and give me interest, no, he is the evil uncle trying to swindle my poor self out of my last dime with overdraft fees, checking account costs and, what’s this? I transferred from my savings account one too many times in a time of need? Well, here’s another $35 for you. Anything else I can get you? Coffee? Footrub? Firstborn? IMG_3860

Korean banks are intimidating, but in a different way. It makes me a little nervous just walking in without knowing if they speak English, or how to say what I want in Korean. Like the rest of the day, though, I wing it. Winging it gets me pretty far.  Luckily Korean banks, surprise!, treat you like the customer you are. You walk in, there is a friendly desk agent who you can ask where to go or what the protocol is, and then you take a number and sit on comfy benches until it is called. No waiting in line, no high-eyebrowed glances at the tag on your jacket to see if you are actually worth helping. As a foreigner, I waited for someone who spoke English, was taken into another room, and have two people helping me. Nice.

From what I can tell, Korean bank accounts are more similar to American savings accounts. You do have a check card, which works like debit and at an ATM; it can also serve as your loadable subway card if you choose. Singular, fast, efficient. And rainbow colored! I get to choose my maximum withdrawal limit per transaction and per day, unlike Uncle Wells who decides everything for me. I leave the bank with my new card in hand, a bank book, and an account with zero dollars in it. I get paid in eleven days.

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On the way back to work I realized I have missed the lunch service so I pop into a convenience store for some gimbap (think Korean sushi roll). I eat hurriedly at my desk before the next class period starts, and then we all head up to the Playroom (not that Korean children ever actually get to play) where there will be an assembly to award prizes and talk about the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday.

Cate, the head foreign teacher, has prepared a PowerPoint presentation and somehow I find myself volunteering to demonstrate a traditional Korean game without quite knowing what it is. When I’m up in front of the class I’m handed a stick with ribbon tied around it, and instructed to try and throw it into a bucket across the room. It reminds me of horseshoes. I realize that in this moment I could go down in ECC history: if I make this shot I will be applauded by halfpints for days! Do I? No, silly, Laura would readily tell you that naturally my aim makes the stick land about two feet wide of the bucket, and I try to play it cool. There goes my opportunity to gain the admiration of a roomful of children. Alas.

After the assembly, I whiz through my last classes, eager for the freedom of Friday afternoon. At 5:55pm the bell rings and that’s it! I’m a free woman.

The weekend is always so full of possibilities. For the past three I have been lying low after the stress of the workweek, hanging out most of the day Saturday at a jimjilbang (Korean spa/bath house) and spending Sunday doing pretty much nothing. It’s strange… Making this huge leap and moving to a foreign country feels like it should be an entirely new experience. What will I encounter daily that I’ve never done before? What will I see and smell and hear and do? The promises of an exotic lifestyle make the harsh reality that much more sobering. In truth, my day to day life hasn’t changed that much. I go to work five days a week, and work much longer hours than I did in Seattle. I’m in earlier, out later, and unlike working in a kitchen my work now often comes home with me. Papers to grade, lessons to prepare… About 80 percent of my weekdays revolve around education. When I’m finally off work, all I want to do is relax and rest, watch downloaded TV shows, read a book, go to bed early. It’s lame, but the paycheck (so I’ve heard) and lack of rent makes up for it. I’m paying my dues. And learning a lot about myself in the process:

1. I need sleep. I’m not someone who can get six hours and be totally normal the next day.

2. Getting up early is great. Alec and I have been ‘Skypersizing’ in the mornings and it is fantastic. Mostly just to start my day by seeing one of my favorite people.

3. The best moments here are ones when I do something completely new. I climbed a mountain on Saturday! Amazing. Restored my faith in this decision.

4. I have nightmares about small children. I wake up frustrated, and instead of going to work and taking it out on a pile of uncut vegetables or a thirty-pound halibut with a knife I grind to a razor finish, I get to work and PTNSD (Post Traumatic Nightmare Disorder) kicks in. Keep your cool, woman. Just keep it cool. That kid isn’t out to get you.

5. As it has always been, my sense of homesickness is primarily for people, not places. I do desperately miss the Northwest, however. Strange that my sense of belonging is tied there; I wasn’t sure a few months ago.

6. Every time I try a new Korean dish this wave of euphoria overwhelms me. I still really want to cook. Markets have been some of my favorite places I’ve visited.

7. Speaking of which, I have been cooking for myself almost every night. If you know me well, this is unheard of. It’s nice, to know exactly what I’m eating. Hopefully more vegetables will become available come springtime.

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For now, that’s basically my weekday. Get up, work, go home, cook dinner, read/ relax/ zone out, fall asleep. Seattle minus intoxicants and plus more work. I guess I’m glad I didn’t realize this reality until I was about a month in. Still waiting for the culture shock. Of course, what makes every day worthwhile is actually the kids, as much as they drive me crazy. No polite hand-covering-mouth cute Asian giggle for me, this stuff gets a full on belly laugh. Hey, I’m around kids all day. My sense of humor isn’t exactly getting more sophisticated.

Planning a temple stay for the first weekend in March. Let the Wow Moments live on.

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The Great Korean Adventure Begins

And so… Here I am. The Mayans may not have predicted the end of the world, but they certainly had an idea when my world would take a drastic turn.

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IMG_3673It’s Saturday, around 1pm Seoul time (you are all just finishing dinner, I expect) and I’m sitting in a cafe a few blocks from the apartment I’m crashing in. Americano in hand, I’m almost enjoying the Christmas music blaring on the stereo. A few songs in, you can tell the Korean cover of ‘White Christmas’ from the others and it is rather endearing with its ‘May arr your Christmas be white.’ Ill take little bits of home where I can get them. Next up: Korean techno Christmas song. My favorites are the ones with an English chorus and a Korean-rap verse.

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The apartment where I’m staying belongs to Tim Teacher, one of my fellow English teachers from Canada. The place is kind of what you’d expect from a 25-year-old male recent college graduate: dirty, clothes everywhere, a few necessary dishes getting cycled through the dish rack, nothing in the fridge save some eggs I definitely won’t touch and an entire condiment shelf packed FULL of Korean Taco Bell hot sauce. Homey. To tell you the truth, I’m super grossed out, and the thought of having a place of my own in about a week feels like the best prize someone could give me for completing a week of training.
There are some perks of the place though, namely the heating. It comes through the floor, I’m assuming distributed by heated water in pipes. It’s awesome. It keeps the room warm and when you step out of bed it radiates up through the soles of your feet. Ok yeah, that’s really the only perk I can think of.
YBM Sungbuk ECC (my school) is pretty amazing. The children already know so much, and they are only six! In Korea you count your age from when you are born, so when you turn one in America you are two in Korea. The age system makes a lot of sense, and explains why the kids here are so advanced. I certainly couldn’t read another language, much less do addition and subtraction, when I was in kindergarten! It almost makes me feel better when they count on their fingers.

Fish, anyone?
Fish, anyone?
The classes themselves are small, usually under ten kids to a class. We have a set curriculum to get through but if we finish early we play games like hangman or quackdiddilyoso or Simon Says or Freeze Dance. The ‘kindies’ are so adorable. One girl came up to me and just put her cheek on my arm and didn’t move. I think she was trying to be a kitten. Another boy tried to tickle me under the arms and I had to ask him to stop a few times before giving him a stern look… Which totally worked. Guess I can be scary when I want to be! Ill have to remember that. They are all very interested in my tattoos (I actually put a cardigan on after the first class), and are a little surprised at how big I am. The door in the bathroom is covered in ‘being slim’ propaganda (well, I think it’s propaganda): posters about ‘you are what you eat’ and why ‘slim is healthy’. It made me immediately feel bad for the one girl at the school who is bigger than the others… And for myself,  if you must know. I am definitely the tallest of the female teachers, and all the male teachers have quite slim, Emo body-types. As we were walking back to class, one little boy said, “Teacher, you are heavy,” and I just smiled and said, “It’s because I’m so tall!”  He seemed to accept that after a minute of mulling it over, although I think he was trying to get a rise out of me. Ahh children, you don’t know but you will teach me so much about myself.
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Can you find the heron? 
***
Ayesha meets me at the coffee shop after we message back and forth on Facebook. She has spent the morning at an international fair at school, and is tired and a little grumpy having had to work on a Saturday. We head off to Daiso (the dollar store that has EVERYTHING) to pick up some things she needs, and walk the couple blocks to where her apartment is. I have been so looking forward to seeing what my apartment will look like, and apparently I will be in a different building that is much nicer. That’s always good, although her apartment is nice enough, and definitely big enough for one person to live comfortably.

 

Let me tell you something about Korean apartments. The bathrooms generally don’t have showers. Well, not the shower you would think of, rather a hand-held nozzle on one wall and a drain in the middle of the floor. You basically stand in the middle of the room and get water on everything, including the toilet, washing machine and sink. In the states this might feel luxurious, but here it is taking a little getting used to. Bathroom Slippers, plastic slip ons that you can wear after everything is wet, are necessary for survival and will be my first Daiso purchase.
Everything is new, and strange, and exciting, and overwhelming, and wonderful. Minor moments of panic are pushed aside by the amazing feeling of walking down the street of a completely strange city and realizing that this is probably one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I really do thrive in moments of change, and this… this takes the cake.
Notes on Korea:
1. If you don’t jaywalk, you won’t get anywhere.
2. Octopus is more likely to be roadkill than squirrels. (Probably off the back of a truck, but still. I’ve seen three with tire marks today. Took me while to figure out what it was.)
3. Convenience store gimbap (rice rolls) are perfectly acceptable. The orange triangle ones are quite good. And cheap.
4. Coffee is big here, and refills are available. My americano this morning cost 2,500 won, and my refill was 1,000. Not too bad, since in the states I could spend upwards of $5 on coffee a day. To save money, I bought some instant coffee today. It tastes like… instant coffee.
5. Men on the street are polite, the old women are the ones you have to look out for. Shameless. They look you up and down and sometimes shake their heads. I always wonder what they’re thinking.
6. Everyone wears dark colors. I feel super flashy in my magenta down jacket. Not like I wouldn’t stand out anyway.
7. Faux fur vests are super in. So are super baggy sweaters. Hopefully a baggy sweater on a Korean will be a decent-fitting sweater on me.
8. There is no flouride here, in the toothpaste or in the water. All the kids have silver molar teeth. Their baby teeth have cavities!! They also brush their teeth after every meal. Someone please send me some American toothpaste.
9. Korean BBQ is amazing. You can sit for hours, eat slowly, drink slowly (or not), and come out smelling like a campfire. They have bottles of Febreeze by the door in case that smell is not your thing. I think it’s homey. There are worse things to smell like than smokey delicious meat. (ha)
10. I have never seen anyone carry this much stuff on the back of a motorcycle. It basically becomes the size of a small car, and you can barely see the person driving. INSANE. I will not be jaywalking near anyone driving a giant moving pile of garbage bags.
Until next time, love from across the pond.
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