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.
Past the security checks (Michael is brilliant: I forgot an enormous pair of school scissors in my laptop bag), we wandered through the airport with our probably too-massive carry-ons and discovered the posse of English teachers. Our agency is one of many, and it originally had the bulk of placements for Incheon, but due to bureaucratic shenanigans, the number from Toronto and the surrounding area was reduced to about 20, with 14 of us on the same flight. We bonded fairly instantaneously: the linkage you make up with people before the metaphorical gallows, a kind of shuffling, haha-what-are-we-doing camaraderie. Were we crazy for agreeing to this? Well, we could be crazy together.
The first taste of foreigness came when the stewardesses arrived at the gate: beautiful, delicate, and each accented with an origami-tourniquet scarf. They assembled into a perfect row and sat silently, waiting to board. They were alluring, bizarre, an hors-d’oeuvres of Korean life presented on our soil. Soon they boarded the plane, and we followed.
The flight itself was as pleasant as a 13.5 hour slog of flying can be: the flight attendants freakishly attentive and caring, impeccably bi- and tri-lingual, the screen-in-chair entertainment serviceable, and the comfort about what one could expect. The problem: I don’t sleep on planes. I shift, and turn, and jam my legs every which way, but I am never comfortable enough to sleep. Even with the free red wine (free!) with dinner, I sat, burning awake, for the entire journey.
We set down in Incheon smoothly, Koreanishly, and disembarked. Bonded already through stress and exhaustion, drenched in our own brand of slept-in-clothing and terror sweat, we were happy to follow each other through the airport, dragging our enormous luggage carts with us. Our agency director hadn’t been able to schedule a bus until 9:00, and our arrival at 4:00 a.m. meant we would need to make up the intervening 5 hours in the airport. Like the honking westerners we are, we found the airport McDonalds and settled in. (Hangul fun-fact: “Egg McMuffin” translates as “Egg-uh Maek-mo-pin” in Konglish).
When our agency head arrived, we wheeled our conga-line of luggage carts out, hauled our baggage onto a bus, and drove into the city. It was occluded by mist, like we were driving into Silent Hill or some sort of murder mystery drama, and Incheon came on suddenly, towers and buildings shuddering out of the fog. The skyscrapers seemed at once familiar and Other, the first hints of oh, we’re on the other side of the world.
As it turns out, hotels don’t check you in at insane times of morning, so we were turned away for another few hours. While the area surrounding the hotel wasn’t a tourist attraction by any means, everything ignited my naive joys at being in such a strange place. I can’t understand anything that is around here, I thought. How exciting! What will certainly become frustrating and bewildering in the future comes, at first glance, as thrilling and fresh. The street signs, the restaurants, the buildings: all were in Hangul, and my haplessness almost gave me a kick.
I guess this is to be expected: moving to a new country, the beginning is all romance. Everything seems charming and quaint, every obstacle surmountable and nothing to fret over. We later sat at the K-Mart across from the hotel, drinking Korean beer (the beer snob in me turned up my nose, the pragmatist accepted it as moderately tasty), and a middle-aged man approached some of our friends to speak to them (and also to offer some makgeolli). When he later joined us, we sat together for over an hour, as barraging him with poorly-enunciated Korean, he replying in his similarly mushy English. There, our failures to communicate seemed like pittance, while every phrase received properly seemed like victory.
It is hard to really feel that any of this is indicative of the coming year. Orientation week in Korea, at least for the public schools, is deliberately insulated. You are surrounded by English speakers, both the foreign incoming teachers and the staff (practical application: hooking you up with dozens of other English speakers to form your support system). Your food is provided, and they schedule you into the ground so that you have no energy to go out and get blasted at the end of the day (not that it’ll stop you, really). Today, we had twelve hours of seminars, and had to dress up for education big-wigs who never showed (beginning of the new semester kept them busy enough to not be able to show). I’m unbelievably excited for the coming year, but it’s difficult not to feel as though I’m not even really in Korea yet.