Monday, December 17, 2007

Travelogue #17: A "Routine" Day in Bundang, South Korea

<---Travelogue #16: Flirtation, Painful Massages, and Language Barriers in South Korea
---->Travelogue #18: Korean Snowball Fights on my 23rd Birthday

Routine scares a lot of people.

Who wants to be that guy with the fluorescent-bulb job and ham-and-cheese life, that guy who considers double-clicking exercise and YouTube a night out?

Some of us embrace such an existence, others explore first and settle for it later, and still others keep searching, searching, searching...or doing: work we hate, work we love, work we love to hate. The traveler might think the cubicle worker's an insular-worlded sap, while the cubicle worker might consider the traveler an avoiding-responsibility sap in his own right. Is the very idea of "routine" one to be embraced as adult and mature, or is it merely a straitjacket to true freedom?

Viva Revolucion?

Last summer I became sick of driving the same route to work everyday, sick of the same roads, the same bookstore shifts, and the same fast food. Wendy's Spicy Chicken Fillet lost its romance. The act of driving bored me, as did the CDs in my car, a steadily bleating soundtrack to an in-between chapter of life, one where all the subplots had either ended or not yet begun.

Dammit. I was bored.

And then came Korea. I was going to Korea. Good-bye, railroad tracks lining Park Avenue. Good-bye, Nora Hess books. Good-bye, Memphis. Farewell, same-shit different-day!

In my first week or two in Bundang, I had no recognizable routine. I was the new guy, tagging along the veteran teachers, accepting advice on how to politely say "I want something" ("chuseyo") and how to ask for water ("mul chuseyo"). Meals and drinks were ordered for me. Others' nightly plans became my nightly plans. When I was asked what I wanted to do, I'd usually say, "Hey, I'm just going with the flow."

The head teacher Mike told me that he still didn't have much of a routine, even after spending almost a year here. "You don't want one," he said, grinning widely. "It's better that way."

I could see his point in this sense: wouldn't having a routine run contrary to the adventure of dropping everything and moving to Korea? What's the point of replacing one routine with another?

As it turns out, I wasn't running away from the idea of routine; I was only running away from a particular lifestyle I had experienced during the summer of 2007. In Bundang, my weekdays have fallen into a certain structure, with enough variables thrown into the mix to keep things fresh.

10:45AM My iTunes alarm wakes me up. I roll up the blinds. Good morning, Korea.

11:00AM-noon- Gmail. Facebook. And webcamming with my mom. I'm impressed by my mother''s know-how when it comes to the webcam, even though she happens to shove her upper forehead towards the monitor, giving me a good look at a close-up of her eyebrows.

noon-1pm- I work out at the Royal Palace Housevill gym. The place is almost always empty, with a boombox in the corner blaring a curious mix of K-Pop and Norah Jones. Nothing pumps Koreans up for benchpress more than "Don't Know Why." Meanwhile, my iPod mix rocks out Justin Timberlake, Bloc Party, and Spoon. Yes, Justin Timberlake. What was once a guilty pleasure is now a staple in my workout mix. I even snap my fingers to the beats. It's okay, because the only thing watching me is my image on the mirror.

1pm-3pm Lunchtime and Slingbox. Late-night American television live on my laptop in Korea. In the middle of the afternoon. Cool.


10:45AM-3PM- A bus trip into Seoul.

Palaces. Or mountains.

Or bowling?

3:20pm I walk to work.

4pm-11pm- Three recent highlights from my classes:

1) "Teacher, you look different," said Mikey, one of my mid-level students. I shaved before the class, so Mikey had a point. "How do I look different?" I asked him. Without hesitation, he answered:

"You had face surgery!"

2) Higher-level class. "Kevin, do you know anybody who's running for president in the U.S.A. for 2008?"

"Um, a woman?"

"Good, do you remember her name?"


3) I taught a poetry lesson to a mid-level class. Their homework was to write a poem. This would be a challenge, for these students had never before crafted a poem in English. To my delight, Jay was up for the test.

She plays with toys

Then she plays with boys

She made a lot of noise

So her mother gave her rice

She eats rice in silence.

"Wow," I said, "That's deep." I was honestly impressed. "So, it sounds like maybe the mother was upset about her daughter playing with boys...maybe she screamed at her before they ate the rice in silence? I don't know, but I like it, Jay. So what would you say the poem is about?"

Jay hesitated, his eyes wobbling behind his glasses. "Rice," he said, "rice is delicious."

Rice is delicious? I asked Jay to title the poem and he scribbled one down:

"delicious rice"

I shook my head and laughed. When he's right, he's right. Rice is delicious. There's your poetry.

In-between classes- Dinner. Within walking distance are several great eateries. As is the custom, I peel off my shoes before I enter the dining area. I sit Indian-style atop a little pillow. Chopsticks have practically become extensions of my fingers.

Sometimes we eat dak-galbi, the warm-and-fuzzy favorite among my co-workers. Dak-galbi is a golden-orange concoction of chicken bits, onion, little eggs, spices, and pork bones. The owner is always toothily smiling and sweaty and shaking our hands. His name is Mr. Park. When I told him I like tennis, he mimed the swing and said "Sampras." "Alecs," he said, repeating my name, "Like Rodriguez?"

Another culinary favorite of mine is the restaurant that serves daeji-galbi and bulgogi, with which we're served more than half-a-dozen complimentary sides: creamed corn, crab legs, and radish rectangles to name a few.

When I don't have enough time between classes, I might run to "gimbop lady" and buy a roll of delectable seaweed-wrapped squares.

Also in-between classes: CO-WORKER #1: "You need to listen to yourself more."

CO-WORKER #2: "But, you see, I try, you don't understand - "

CO-WORKER #1: "You're not doing a good job of making me understand!"

This is just a sample, but I never know when I'll find myself accidentally eavesdropping on a deep conversation between my colleagues in the middle of the office. I suppose that's the product of having a workforce mere months or years away from college: as I've said before, dorm room conversations have sunk into working hours.

I kind of dig it.

11pm- Maybe I'll go play darts with the fellows at the local Western-style bar,
or maybe I'll go back to my apartment for the night, where the heating rises from the floors. In Korea, it's called andal. Keeps me warm and cozy for the winter.

As long as I have the free will to choose my own, I'm not scared of "routine" anymore.

Good riddance.



Anonymous said...

That was nice, not a bad show of observational technique. I like the poem. The kids here are something else. said...

Great piece..well written and entertaining. I'm planning to ship off to Bundang soon. Hope I will have just a great a time as yourself. Thanks and Happy New Year

Tim said...

I think its called " On-Dol "
which means, warm rock( like.. warm floor).

^^, but that is cool
how you told mid-level class
to write a poem.

Christianne said...

I stumbled upon your blog, and have been reading your archives. I've been loving it, you're a very funny writer! I want to go to Japan (I'm half Japanese, speak none) or Korea to teach in a year or two. Did you do it through a program? Are you qualified as a teacher or can anyone do it?