Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Korean education of Andrea - Part 1

I figure the subject of my learning of the Korean way of life will be something that happens through out my year here, hence my title being "Part 1".

It's been over two weeks since my last blog post.  Much has happened in that time - both good and bad. 

The bad part is: the culture shock hit me earlier than expected.  In some conversations I've had with people before I left Canada, I was told that I should anticipate culture shock really hitting around July when the honeymoon phase of everything had warn off and the novelty of living here had really started to fade.  Since my last post about my apartment, while I have started to find a sense of comfort in my small space, I have started to have developed an sense of anxiety about the life that is all around me.

First of all, I have learnt that I am really not a big fan of Korean food in general.  Because I had really enjoyed dishes like bimbimbap and bulgogi back home, I had hoped that that would translate into my liking more of the common meals I would find here.  It would seem that, unfortunately, that has not been the case.   I can't really put my finger on what is it exactly I don't like about the food.  I just don't find the flavours work well for me, like so many other Asian cuisines do.    I am certainly disappointed with this, but I do make a continuous effort to try it, as I do eat the Korean lunches offered by my school every weekday.  But, since I do need to eat while I'm here, I will likely just cook most of my own food, to suit my own tastes.  I had a difficult time figuring out how to start/work my gas stove (since I've only ever really used electric before), but my very kind landlady (who doesn't speak a lick of English) physically showed me how to do it.  She took my hand and demonstrated on a tea towel how I had to gently press the knob, before turning quickly and letting go slowly before lowering the temperature.  I have also been introduced to the foreign markets in Seoul which are 1.5 hours door-to-door from my place in Incheon.  I am able to buy so many of the foods I would normally cook at home, everything from Thai sauce mixes to cheese to pasta to chili beans.  I will be able to eat well, it will likely just be not very Korean.

The other culture shock issue I've been dealing with is the language barrier.  While I am SO GLAD I learnt to read and write Korean before coming here (it has made such a difference for me), speaking it has been extremely difficult.  I have a very hard time getting even basic things like garbage bags (we need to buy special garbage bags here and I was completely denied to buy them by a local store clerk because I couldn't clearly express to her what I wanted).  Since then, my Korean phrasebook has become my best friend; although, admittedly, my friend does sometimes fail me.

Last weekend, for whatever reason, I felt culture shock hit the hardest.  I sent an email to a few friends back home who had experience living in a foreign country asking for their advice.  It wasn't a pretty email - quite negative in fact.  But, I'm very glad that I did.  Their support/advice/encouragement was so helpful to me.  I thought about exactly what was getting me down here.  I think it boiled down to 3 things: 1) the food (as mentioned) 2) the language (again, see above) and 3) the fact that I'd like to have my social life be expanded to outside my apartment, but not straight into a bar. 

So, I looked at these three problems and thought "how can they best be addressed?"  Number 1 was fixed by going to the foreign markets and learning how to cook at home.  Numbers 2 I plan to fix by joining a local language exchange club, where I can improve my Korean and help some one else improve their English.  Number 3 was addressed by doing the same thing I've recommended to other people who have moved to a new city/country: join groups in  Next weekend, I plan to go to a meetup for something I've been looking at since another English teacher turned me onto it a couple weeks ago: Temple Stay.  You spend a day or up to a week at a Buddhist temple learning all about the Buddhist way of life.  You learn about different aspects from meditation to bowing to food to lotus-lantern making.  It should be an experience so far out of my comfort zone, but I look forward to it!  Last weekend, I went to Seoul with a few fellow Incheon-ers to check out the Lotus Festival parade and the other events kicking off the week of celebrations for Buddha's birthday. In the coming weeks, I also hope to find a yoga class I can partake in.  Even if it's all in Korean, I should be able to follow the moves, right?  I figure these are all great ways to get me out of my apartment to meeting new people & making new friends, and (not necessarily) getting drunk while doing it.

I think by going out and doing as many of these unique things as I can, I will help combat my culture shock and perhaps even learn to love being here.

This weekend (May 17-19) has been a long weekend here in Korea due to the holiday celebrating Buddha's birthday.  Since we have very few official long weekends this year, I decided to come down to Busan, Korea's 2nd largest city to celebrate and check out some new sites.  These two weekends have been the things that have been the good parts of my last two weeks here.  Despite my culture shock, I've met up with many great people to experience different parts of Korean life & culture, and everything in between.

I'll do a proper post on Busan and my weekend in Seoul another time, but for now, I'll say a big thank you to all of those who have helped me through this difficult transition in this new country (you know who you are).  I can't tell you how much it has helped me!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Pop goes my world

This past Tuesday, our long days of orientation finally came to an end.  We were going to meet our Korean co-teachers and be taken to our new homes and finally unpack.  Living out of a suitcase for 3 weeks isn't as much fun as it sounds (and it doesn't even sound that fun) and I was quite keen to put all my stuff away and set up my new home.

I think every one in the hotel conference room was very nervous, both the foreign and Korean teachers.  Who were these people we are supposed to work so closely with?  Will they make our lives great or miserable for the next year? 

And there was still the question of where are we living.  They say all good things come to those who wait.  Finally, after months of anticipation the moment had arrived.  As mentioned previously, I knew that my school was near Inha University.  I didn't know, though, if that meant I would be living near there too.  We were told some teachers may have to commute up to 40 minutes to get to their school.  It turns out my commute is a 10 minute walk up the street.  Which I think I'm pretty happy about, though ask me again when it's raining or freezing cold.  The neighborhood seems to be very trendy; a very university type area with lots of cafes.  To be honest, I haven't had a chance in the last few days to explore the area more but I hope to do so with one of the other teacher who was place near me.

So great, a good area (although not particularly close to the "going out spots" in Incheon, but cabs are stupid cheap here so it shouldn't be too much of a problem, right?), but what about the apartment??? I said, the area is good. :-P

My apartment, or should I say "apartment" is very much a traditional Korean apartment - the kind I saw on Youtube videos in the past.  Meaning, it's teeny tiny.  When I arrived, with my two 50-lbs bags, I had a small bed in the corner (with no bedding), a wardrobe closest (with no shelves or hangers) a desk that wasn't set up and both a bathroom and kitchen sink that leaked.  Needless to say, I wasn't thrilled.  I still had to go and visit my school and register with the Immigration office, but all I could think about was all the things I was going to have to get in order to make this place a home.  Thankfully, my co-teacher brought me to Homeplus (Korea's answer to Walmart) and I loaded up on the essentials: bedding, toilet paper, hangers, etc.  Sometimes previous teachers will leave lots of useful things for the new teachers that are taking over the apartment.  I had no such luck.  He left me with next to nothing: no plates, forks or glasses.  All I had was a pot, a pan, a cutting board and knife and a toaster (and I don't even like toast).  I had no place to put my folded clothes and both the bed and computer chair were/are wildly uncomfortable.  So, I made a 2nd late night run to Homeplus (thankfully, they close at midnight).  It's amazing what a little organization can do for the mind.  Once I bought things that started to make me feel more comfortable (ie bags unpacked and put away rather than in the middle of the floor), things started to take a better shape.

Here's a quick tour of my pad:

The bed area

The entertainment/work area

Sitting on the bed looking into the "kitchen" & apartment entrance

The "kitchen" - if you're asking "where's the fridge?", please see previous photo
Bathroom & laundry doors

The bathroom/shower

The laundry closet

I won't lie here.  Once I was alone in my new apartment that first night, I cried.  I felt so overwhelmed and alone and scared.  Thankfully, I had internet access in my apartment so I was able to call Fabian and my mom to have them help relieve my anxiety and tell me that it would be ok.  I was seriously this close to saying "Nope, sorry, I can't do this".  But with the help and support of the other foreign teachers who are having the same experience as me, in addition to my family and friends back home, my confidence is coming back that I can in fact do this.  I was thinking about it the other day, and in some strange way, I feel like I am doing this for my future kids: so that I can focus on them and not have a nagging thought in the back of my mind "I wish I had done ____ when I was younger"; so that I can share my worldly experiences with them and enrich their lives; so that when they are going through hard times in life, I can tell them about my hard experiences and help them through their troubles.

Now that the bubble of orientation I had been in for the last week is gone, reality has taken over.  It is scary, certainly, and there are times where I feel like I can't take it.  The culture shock has already started to hit me.  I will rely on you, my friends and family and general readers, to help me keep going through this wild adventure.  All supportive comments are greatly appreciated!

It's all in the preparation

After a week and a half of orientation both in Seoul, I can not tell you how excited & anxious I was to finally find out details about my new life here in Korea.  What grade(s) would I be teaching? Where will I be living? Is my apartment bigger than a shoe box?

Last Thursday, we met our coordinators for our respective areas and found our school names and where they were located.  Finally, it was confirmed to me that I was teaching elementary school.  Great!  It was my first choice (I'd rather not deal with the raging hormones of teenagers).  Next, I found out that it is near a university here in Incheon.  That's cool.  But there was still the nagging question of "where the heck am I going to be living?"  It was a question I'd have to wait another 5 days to answer.

On our last morning of our EPIK orientation in Seoul, 18 or so other teachers and I got to preform for the rest of the 200+ new teachers.  While they had been learning Korean over our few days there, our small group was selected to learn how to play Korean traditional drums.  It was actually pretty fun!  Here's a video of our performance and a picture of me all kitted out (NOTE: while you can't see me in the video as I'm blocked by some one, I'm the one that says "Drumming's cool, drumming's wild - let's play drums Gagnam style!")

*Thanks to Cory for filming and posting this!*

Sitting on the floor (especially cross-legged) gets harder with age

Since the teachers at the schools in Incheon were only finishing their contracts on the 29th of April, and ours started on April 26th, there was no place for us newbies to teach or live.  So, we got a bonus 4 days of orientation that was Incheon-specific.  Some of it was really helpful.  Some of it was clearly time filling.  But, all in all, I'm glad I went through so much orientation.  It gave me a chance to get to know the other teachers I would be seeing & hanging out with regularly in the city, in addition to getting to know the city itself better and learn a few useful Korean words/phrases.

My new stomping grounds!

We also got the chance to go to one of the rural islands near Incheon and see North Korea from across the river!  For those that know me well, you'll know how excited I was by being so close to such a foreign and isolated land.  We went to a peace monument/museum and looked at exhibits (all written in Korean) and read (or at least attempted to read) about people's wishes to be reunited once more.  They also had those viewing stations where we could pay 50 cents to get a close up view on the other side of the river.  Of course, I did it, but as I looked at the desolate land in front of me, I felt very odd.  I felt like I was spying on these people.  Like I was at some kind of side show where everyone gawks at those who are different. 

North Korea

View from across the river

Through the viewfinder!

We were about 2.3km away from one of the most isolated countries in the world!

That said, I should also mention that I did not in the least feel tension or fear to be there, so close to "the enemy".  It just felt normal, like there was no division.  If you didn't see the barbed wire fence on the drive in, you'd have no idea you were in a technical war zone.  It certainly doesn't feel like it, no matter what the media tells you.

Getting to know the others who will be working in Incheon has been a Godsend too.  We've bonded well over soju drinks and norebang.  They will be part of the crutch that helps me get through the hard times of this year.  I'm glad to have had more time to get to know them well.

And then came Tuesday, and everything changed.

To be continued...