Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving, is a time when many Koreans visit family with gifts and food, and pay respects to dead ancestors. For English teachers in Korea, it means three days off in the middle of the week, and maybe a Monday or a Friday (or both, if you’re lucky). Going through the extended immigration process to declare yourself a resident alien meant I wasn’t sure of my ability to travel, and thus I was left in Incheon to figure out what I could do with a week off.
Korea and Me – a series of photo essays detailing the particulars of the waygook in Korea. These, really, are to show you the individual examples of the general truths for foreign English teachers. My apartment, my school, the neighbourhood, the typical restaurant… I will photograph them endlessly and then write a big slew of words telling you about them. It seems fitting I should start with the apartment.
As someone young, foreign, male, unmarried, and unsupervised, many Koreans I encounter assume that I am utterly helpless. How do you continue to not be dead? they seem to wonder. By all logic, I should have curled up in a husk in my officetel apartment, weak from lack of food or potable water, my lonely corpse to be discovered by my building manager, should he ever get around to fixing my window. That I am able to maintain my own vital signs seems, to many, something to be congratulated for. Everything I do is lauded, and sometimes I feel as though I am a Korean Kindergartener.
While I twiddle my thumbs and think up proper posts, I will occasionally bring you, dear readers, snippets from my life in Incheon. These will be more personal posts, whereas in others I will try to approach subjects more universal to the foreign English teacher. Weekly Waygook is the feature that will allow me to spill out all the weird things that I’ve done or have happened to me in the span of the last little while in order to parse them. In other words: the anecdotes that just don’t coherently form a single narrative justifying their own post.
North American society includes a fair degree of anonymity. You walk down a busy street in Canada or the U.S., and you can be fairly confident that most people will not notice you in the slightest. You are another person, sure, in some vague, theoretical sense, but you are not in a stranger’s monkeysphere, and neither are they in yours. They are people academically rather than practically, meat obstacles taking up the seat you wanted on the bus, walking too slowly in front of you on the sidewalk, standing dully before you in line. You don’t really notice them but for the physical space they occupy, and they don’t really notice you. It is thus that moving to Korea and being noticed every second is a very jarring turn.
It’s hard to really communicate the surrealness of driving away from the hotel with my co-teacher and vice-principal (he picked me up, making the experience already more nerve-wracking). We drove away from my hotel bubble into areas unknown: a neighbourhood I barely knew the name of, a school I had just barely managed to see a picture of via a Korean google equivalent, my first ever apartment by myself. This frankly seemed like the kind of thing that would occur for someone far more adventurous, someone debonair and lustful for life, that I was simply having an extended out-of-body experience and would return to the safe familiarity of home at any second. But no. I was doing this. I had done this. I’ve moved to South Korea, and life is actually starting.
Orientation week for the Incheon school board is pretty much like high school, and a little bit like a cult. We’re stuck in a hotel which originally seemed luxurious and pleasant, but by now feels like a horrible prison. Bonding is easy: we’re all in the same bizarre, in-transit mode of life as our every move is watched and controlled by an imperious Korean named Serah, as we wake up early, sit in lectures until nine, and get carted around. Away from home and friends and everything we know, prodded by numerous Koreans in the hospital, the people at orientation are all we’ve got. Add in the matching sweaters they gave us, we may as well be in Heaven’s Gate.
It was not difficult to pick the English teachers out of the crowd: obviously non-Korean, nervous, and encumbered with their lives in 150 pounds of luggage or less. There was the vague sense of people setting out on a long adventure, and also people who looked a little bit like they had no idea what they were doing. A woman from our agency swept in when I approached the line, calling my name as she recognized me from the abundant photocopies of my passport she must have seen. She told me of my assigned school (elementary, as I had repeatedly requested), gestured to the enormous line for Korean Air, and sent me on my way.