Saturday, October 4, 2008

Travelogue #54: What I Will (And Won't) Miss About Korea

he other night I couldn't fall asleep. It was very late and I was very tired but still my mind trilled like a xylophone. Suddenly, I recalled a post I made on this blog last November: "Three weeks down in Korea and forty-nine to go," I wrote. Three versus forty-nine.

Now, I'm on the other side of those numbers: forty-nine weeks down in Korea and three to go. Like many who've come before me, I've started to ponder what I will (and won't) miss about everyday life in this great peninsula. (Disclaimer: my views are shaped by my personal experiences as a hagwon teacher living in Sunae-dong, Bundang-Gu, Seongnam City, Korea from October 2007-October 2008.)

I Will Miss...

The Kids- A student of mine named Andy is nine-years old. He's got big ears and is gleefully oblivious to their size. He also has a reddened face, and I like to accuse him of drinking dong-dong-ju (a sugary alcoholic drink.) He responds by shouting "NO!" and flinging his little feet under his desk.

Another student I have is Joy. She's also nine, and at the risk of sounding cheesy, she is indeed a joy: always smiling, always scribbling the right answers in her notebook, and always politely asking questions. But the cutest thing she does is when she doesn't know an answer: she smiles, and says, "I...don't know." Not knowing has never seemed so endearing, especially in a room with a brat named Eric who wears rollerblades to class and a guy named Bob who, after I returned from the bathroom one time, pointed at me, waved his hand, and said, "Teacher, poo smell."

As for the children outside of my classes, the children I see in the streets, I act like a giddy fool in front of them. Whenever I see their suspicious eyes, I read a who-is-that-strange-foreigner question written in their pupils, and I comply with whatever preconception they might have of me: I dance, I arch my eyebrows, I puff out my cheeks, I squiggle my nostrils. I act like Robin Williams at a talk show appearance, reveling in attention ranging from smiles and laughter to absolute confusion.
In short, I've participated in a number of crazy-eyed staring contests with little Korean kids. I like the liberty of their low expectations: if they look at me strangely when they first see me, I can thereafter be as silly as I want. Win-win. Or in the words of Michael Scott, win-win-win.

The Foreigners - By foreigners, I'm talking about "waygooken," that is, non-Koreans. In Korea, I've met a fascinating melange of people: take the lanky African-Canadian who plays basketball to hide from his overprotective Korean girlfriend, or the biracial Hawaiian anarchist who plans to go into farming. I met both of them by chance: the African-Canadian saw me walking into town with a basketball and flagged me down, introduced himself, and asked if I needed another body to hoop it up. We played one-on-one and he told me about his history of more than a hundred sexual acquaintances. "You can write my book, man," he told me. As for the Hawaiian, I was in the same writers group as he, but we only had lunch because he found me in a random Itaewon backalley after a writers meeting. Itaewon is a crackling stew of hundreds of Americans, Canadians, Russians, and Nigerians, so it's a wonder that he spotted me.

And that's what I will miss: the spontaneity of encounters with people you only find because your different lives somehow crossed and brought you to, out of all places, Korea.

- The Secretaries - The secretaries at Leadersville English Institute are cute. They smile and say, "Annyong, Alex-a."

And they're also fun when they're not working.

It's the perfect way to start a shift. I sometimes wave at them and then stay in one spot waving for an uncomfortably long time.

- The Food - Through the year, I've talked alot about Korean food on this blog: the communal sit-around of the long tables, the alluring spices of dakgalbi, samgyepsol, and bulgogi, to name just a few of the dishes. What I will remember as an I've-officially-adjusted-to-this-life moment is the one late night in November when instead of craving a Wendy's Spicy Chicken Filet, I craved Jaeyuk DapBap, a Korean dish of sesame-seasoned spicy pork mixed into a big bowl of rice.

My cravings had matured. I was not only going to be okay with a year of Korean food, I was going to enjoy it.

- The Ice Cream - Koreans must love ice cream. For evidence, look at my neighborhood of Sunae. Within a forty-second walk, you'll find a Cold Stone Creamery, a Blue Ice Gelato, a Red Mango, a Baskin Robbins, and a 24/7 convenience store with an ice-case bundle of popsicles, my favorite being the one shaped like a shark's back and called "Jaws". When my parents visited in May, they enjoyed Red Mango's iced yogurt concoction called papbingsu. It was their favorite Korean treat.

In short, I will miss wandering out of my apartment at 2am and returning minutes later with Jaws on a stick.

- The Walking - I walk to work. I walk to the subway or the bus stop when I want to go into town. When I see the neverending congestion of Seoul traffic, I'm thankful I don't drive a car here. Also, there's something about walking that gives you a feeling of independence in a big city where you can get lost. And believe me, you can get lost.

I Won't Miss...

-- The Crowds- There are so many damn people in Seoul. Let me repeat: there are so many damn people in Seoul. And with the crowds in the city come the smells of tossed-away garbage and the pushing and shoving and the sense that you're not so independent, that you're an ant and you're squeezed and there's no escape, because there's always somebody walking centimeters from you.

Where's my oxygen mask?

- The Summer- Damn.

- The Lack of Meatballs - I've seen dozens of Italian restaurants in Seoul and not one of them serves meatballs. Seriously. Seriously. I feel the urge to become a bad caricature of an Italian man and thrust my hands into the air and say, "Why no meatball, my friends?"

- The Tired Students- The last class of the day starts at 10:05pm and ends at 10:45pm. That's late. And if I'm tired, my students are exhausted. Most of them wake up at 6am, go to school from 730am-3 or 4pm. They take a short nap, eat, and come to hagwon. Their eyelids droop as I teach them about TOEFL speaking and ask questions like "Some people enjoy having many friends. Others prefer to have few friends. Which do you prefer? You have fifteen seconds to prep, and forty-five seconds to speak."

The bell rings. They go home and do homework. Then they go to sleep.

That's childhood in Korea, or at least in a large, growing segment of the country.

- The Business of Hagwon- I won't miss the indirectness and the occasional language miscommunication that happens in the office between Korean administrators and American teachers.

If I ever miss my boss, I can just take a look at the picture I snapped of his three-story tall banner.

Let us hail our Glorious Leader.

- The Distance- As for distance, it's not just miles, it's minutes. What I mean is that I can never quite overcome the idea that my morning is America's night and vice versa. At night, after work, my Slingbox airs The Today Show. In June, I watched the primetime NBA Finals with my breakfast. Weird. Still weird.

Sure, the Internet helps when it comes to communicating with family and loved ones from back home. But it ain't the same, Jane. I miss being able to call my family in the middle of the afternoon, just to say hi. I haven't seen my sister in person since Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton were the frontrunners for the 2008 presidency.

Let's just say that I'm excited for the day when my mom and dad will be three-dimensional people rather than pixelated webcam images.


I haven't yet mentioned my co-workers. The truth is, to some of them I'm deeply appreciative of what they've taught me and how they've surprised me. Fairly or unfairly, I've always been a first impressions guy, quick to label a person upon first glance as somebody I expect to like or dislike. Well, dare I say it, I've become more open-minded: though I still think that first impressions do reveal a certain side to a person, I've found that most people have other sides belying first impressions.

If you think this is no-shit-obvious, you might be right. But it's one thing to supposedly know this and another to actually feel this, to see certain people surprise you with a zippy sense of humor or a heartfelt gesture that you never quite foresaw. I will take that knowledge with me, the knowledge that the person at whom you first roll your eyes might just become somebody you genuinely respect. People can surprise you, but only if you let them.

Most of the stories I've written on this blog have been about the sometimes humorous, sometimes befuddling criss-crossing of cultural norms and expectations in the eyes of an American in Korea. But what's striking to me is how much I will take home in terms of insight to my own countrymen, particularly those who worked with me in such close proximity for six days a week for fifty-two weeks. Sure, it's not all peaches and cream. As with any office, you have your gossips and your liars. I will not miss them. But as I prepare to return to America in the coming weeks, I've learned to keep my eyes open for new and unexpected friends.

I've learned to keep my eyes open for surprises.



Jovan said...

It's been a pleasure my friend. I always enjoy reading what you have to say, and hope to read much more in the future.
Best of luck.

Ploch said...

Alex, please do keep blogging. It's much more difficult to keep it up in the USA, but I need something to procrastinate with.

Anonymous said...

Overall, you've had a great year and learned so much about yourself, as well as those around you. You've really grown and I, for one, am very proud to have a US citizen such as you, Alex, represent our country "out there" in other parts of the world. My best to you always and I'll keep reading your blog!