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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A New Year

Homemade kimchee jjigae in hand, Jen, John Stephen and I discuss plans for New Years. Being the new kid on the block, I’m pretty much down to do anything. There has been talk of a boozy club night in Hongdae, a neighborhood of Seoul known for its club and bar scene, and I smile and nod without much enthusiasm. Something about going out to spend a bunch of money for an evening I likely won’t remember much of the next day seems a little depressing when I’ve only just arrived here. Really, I could have just stayed in the States for that.

So when Jen mentions something about a bell ceremony at midnight, I jump at the idea. She has been doing research into what the Koreans do for New Years, and is also feeling as strapped for cash as I am. We make plans to meet up around 8pm, get some dinner, stuff some soju in our purses and head to the Jongno district for the ceremony. In the morning, she informs me, Koreans traditionally hike to the summit of a mountain to watch the first sunrise of the new year. You mean to tell me that I will literally ring in this year with a bell ceremony and a mountain summit sunrise?! Yes, please. Count the new girl in.

The idea, no surprise, catches on fast with our coworkers. Soon a group of eight is looking forward to the late night events, the attempt to stay up all night, to catching the first subway on New Year’s Day.  I’m actually giddy with the prospect. We meet at a Hof (beer bar) around eight in the evening, pre-funk with some cheap beer and soju, eat a plate of garlic chicken goodness (which I’m pretty sure was actually pork) and head to the subway.

The Bosingak Watch-Night bell ceremony takes place every year in Jongno on New Year’s Eve. Since 1953, prominent figures and celebrities have attended the ceremony, and there was rumor that the new conservative female president of Korea would be there to take part in the ceremony. She wasn’t. The mayor of Seoul was, however, as was the Superintendent of Education.

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(photo courtesy of visitseoul.com)

In the subway, the car begins to fill. First a few get on, then streams of people are flowing in and all around us, taking up every available inch of space. All sense of personal bubbles fly out the door, along with valuable oxygen and any hope of escape. If you want to get off next, you better start elbowing. Tonight, however, everyone is going to the same place. When we finally reach the Jongno station, the dam breaks and the train must look like a punctured vein from above, people like cells flowing out at all angles, trying to revive their arms and legs, take deep breaths, stretch their necks. After a brief moment, we are back in the flow, traveling to the next destination, just a cluster of American, English and Canadian faces like huge white cells among all the Korean blood. We hold hands so as not to lose each other. Without a phone or internet, being lost in this throng would be tragic. Cut to: still image of me standing a head taller than everyone around, facing the camera as Koreans stream past and around me. I call it: American Island.

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We make it to street level, together and in one eight-piece unit. What we find there is a whole new adventure. If we thought the subway was packed, the tens of thousands of people in the street soon put it in perspective. There are bodies absolutely everywhere, and surprisingly I see more English faces than I have in my entire time in Korea so far. It’s amazing to feel this sense of camaraderie, and difficult not to just smile at everyone I see. There is certainly a sense of freedom being in such a large crowd. You become just one of the mass.  The soju helps.

We push forward to try to see something, anything, but there are too many people. It’s minutes to midnight, and Rob points out that we are the among the first in the world to celebrate the new year. Our families back home won’t celebrate for hours. I close my eyes in the crowd, imagine the world turning, internalize the physicality of the time zones. My ‘present’ is both accurate and bizarre when compared to those of my friends and family back home. They will celebrate the new year tomorrow, once I have already spent an entire day of 2013. I feel like a trailblazer. A woman of the future.

Suddenly, I hear shouting… and what can only be counting, even though I don’t understand the numbers. The excitement makes it plain: this is the moment! The countdown! 3,2,1….. Happy New Year! It hits me: I am in Korea. This year, this entire year, will be spent in a new country, with new people, new food, a new job… and by the end of the year it won’t be new anymore, and a new year will begin again. Time. Yet another new path, a new chapter of my life beginning.

Soon after the countdown, I hear the sound of an enormous bell ring. Once, twice.. I begin to count but soon lose track amongst the noise and activity. It is an amazing feeling, being surrounded by people, staring up into a sky lit by fireworks and bright lights on tall buildings—and to my right over the top of some trees I can see the Bosingak Belfry, its traditional architecture in stark contrast with the modernism all around. An urban blend of new and old, traditional and innovative. In harmony. The history is audible.


When my alarm goes off at 5:40am I struggle to remember why, dear god why, I agreed to this insane plot. Legs go over, and body follows. By the time I’m standing, I’m awake and excited again. This morning, before it is light, I will climb a mountain.Back at Rob’s apartment, we sit in a circle on his floor eating 7-Eleven snacks and passing a bottle. Our eyes are sore from the hour but our hearts are swollen with the evening’s excitement. A new year! In a circle like this, anything is possible. I agree to come back to Rob’s at six to make some coffee, and I head to bed to catch a few hours of sleep.

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Achasan is one of the easier mountains in Seoul to climb. In winter, when the earth is icy, it seems an ideal choice for a climb in the darkness and a co-worker has confirmed that the trail is mostly stairs and will be ascendable. I pull on my boots, silk long underwear, a down jacket, gloves, a JL wool base-layer, my handmade Alec Hat and, still half asleep, head over to Rob’s. It is snowing outside. The world is quiet before dawn.

Rob is also grumbling about waking up, but when he sees my face he pulls it together. Somehow grumbling+grumbling=Let’s Go Climb a Mountain! About half of last night’s group meets us outside and we head to the corner store for supplies. It is 6:15 am.

P1060586A few stops from Achasan, the subway begins to fill with fellow hikers. Appearance in Korea is everything, and these early risers have not come to disappoint. Decked out in high tech gear, crampons, hiking poles and packs, these guys mean business! Even with my Goretex boots on I feel ill-prepared. By the time we exit the subway, we are flanked on all sides by summit-hungry Koreans. Whereas the night before I had seen many Western faces scattered in the crowd, today we are alone. I notice a few glances our way but they seem friendly; maybe our early presence is scoring us bonus points. There’s a sense of community as we watch sleepy children having their coats zipped up under their chins, men testing each other’s crampons, packs being zipped up by friends. Everyone is ready.

We have directions to the trailhead, but there are enough people here in the darkness that we just follow. Up a hill, around a corner, through a sleepy neighborhood. Stairs appear on our right between apartment buildings and we start to climb. The trail is busy. Once again we are in a line of people, only now it is to walk up a mountain instead of onto the next subway. It is still snowing, and soon my hair is covered. When I reach up to brush the snow away, I realize it has frozen. My hair is frozen! Yet another new experience. I tuck it up under my hat, and continue uphill.P1060602

Near the top, we reach a flat area topped by a magnificent temple. Intricate architecture is further ornamented by colorful paintings, and there are people everywhere. Let me just say this again, we are hiking up a mountain before dawn, and we are hiking in line, only to reach the top and have to fight for room to stand. On top of a mountain. I’m confounded. Some have brought small backpacking stoves with them to make tea, others are slurping up ramen, some, like us, are just standing around taking pictures. It is a powerful moment for us, here on top of a mountain at dawn, surrounded by the people of this land who are so better prepared than we are. Respect flows from me for these people who have maintained such a beautiful custom, and as I stare down at Seoul I realize yet again that this is truly a new beginning for me. It helps to feel a sense of community at this moment. As always I am surrounded by people, and I allow myself for a moment to feel that I am one of them. We continue on to the top and experience the snow fall stop and the sun peek through the clouds. The ground is covered in fine powder and we have a view for miles. Everything feels new. I send silent thoughts to friends and family back home, feeling concurrently the distance and the presence of them in my thoughts. It is beautiful, this feeling. Powerful and charged. Full of the unknown. Part of an international community of people I love, trust and can share this moment and these thoughts with.

P1060642The camaraderie continues once we are back down the mountain. Everyone and their mother (this is Korea, so, literally) is out trying to get some hot soup after the long, cold climb. Most restaurants are empty and the few with people inside are completely packed, with lines out the door. We find one with an empty table and manage to slide in before there is a line. Apparently we have chosen the place well. There is a man walking around just giving toasts, raising his glass and yelling. Everyone laughs, raises their mug and shouts back at him. Even without understanding the words, the meaning is clear.

Happy New Year.

 

 

Bosingak Belfry
“From the early Joseon era dating back to the 5th year of King Taejo (1396), the bell at Bonsingak was tolled twice a day in order to open and close all the four major gates (Sungnyemun, Heunginjimun, Sukjeongmun, Donhuimun) as well as the four smaller gates (Hyehwamun, Sodeokmun, Gwanghuimun, Changuimun) of the city.  
The bell was tolled 33 times every morning (“paru”) at about 4 a.m. to signal the end of the night curfew and the start of a new day, and the city gates were opened. It is tolled 33 times because the Goddess of Mercy in Buddhist religions manifests herself in 33 different forms in order to save mankind.
※ The bell was originally called Jonggak, but it was re-named as in 1895 when King Gojong granted it a votive plaque with the name “Bosingak” engraved on it. Unfortunately, due to the turbulent history of late Joseon Dynasty, the bell suffered a lot of damage, and can now only be seen on display at the National Museum of Korea.The bell that is currently standing at Bosingak was newly cast with contributions from the public. It was hung in the belfry on August 14, 1985, and was first rung the following day in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1945 liberation.” *courtesy of http://www.visitseoul.com

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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