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.
The following narratives can be taken as advice for foreign English teachers new to Korea. I’d done a fair amount of research before going about how not to bomb in front of the school, and thus I say with possibly the opposite of standard Korean humility that I damn near killed it that first day.
Firstly: bring gifts. Three is best, they should represent your home country (or region, if it’s known especially for something), and if possible it might be best to get three variations, each slightly better than the last. One is for your main co-teacher, who will basically adopt you as her/his adult child for the following year, taking you out into the world, setting up your affairs, and basically ensuring that you do not die. The other two are for the vice principal and the principal, figures whom it is critical to impress. They are incredibly highly regarded, and making a good impression can seriously do you a world of good in the long run.
Another way to get in on everyone’s good side: approach lunch precisely and with skill. I followed exactly what my co-teacher did, putting my rice only in the left big bowl, my soup on the right, and the various other items in their respective tray cubbies. I can use chopsticks decently well at home, but Korean chopsticks are metallic, so even the most skilled can find them a little slippery. As such, I had practiced at every meal at the hotel, trying to fetch up slippery, round, and tiny foods I didn’t even particularly want to eat. I also kept trying to eat things I don’t usually like, namely the spicy stuff, because I wanted to be able to down the Korean school lunch completely. And indeed, I did: I ate it all, savouring the kimchi, working the chopsticks like a pro. I could feel Korean eyes on me: the other teachers, observing my eating habits, my chopstick skill, my mannerisms. The students stared. And so did the principal, given that he sat directly across from me. Once or twice, via translations, I figured they were asking the standards: “Do you like it?” “Can you use chopsticks?” “Have you had Korean food before?” My principal, having a positively mischievous although possibly serious twinkle in his eye, remarked that I needed to eat every last bite.
We met with each of the head cheeses in their respective offices, and there was a lot of bowing and honour phrasing, and I did my best to not let my growing flop-sweat show. I was not prepared for the heat, and especially as I was schlepping my numerous pieces of luggage around in formal clothes, I was begging to dampen. They smiled, happily accepted my gift (after deciphering with my co-teacher what, exactly, maple syrup is), and sent me on my way. Oh, the principal added, and can you deliver a speech at the teacher’s meeting later? Thank you!
I let this particular tidbit fester in the back of my mind while my co-teacher and I then darted around Yeonsu Gu, getting me a back account, exchanging my traveller’s cheques (I am now a wonmillionaire), and dumping my things at my apartment. In short: my apartment is tiny, and has some quirks, but it is nowhere near some of the horror stories I have heard and am hearing. It may not be the palatial loft apartment my friend moved into, but it’s not a dank hole, and I for one am willing to settle.
We quickly returned to the school (as I tried desperately to memorize the route, knowing absolutely nothing about the neighbourhood), and I met my other co-teachers. One is a Korean amazon with a dramatic, hilarious flair in her English, the other a first-year newbie like myself. I think I may even be older than him. I saw my classroom, and my desk, and my English zone, and my school. I saw my students. I began to attach the possessive, and I felt a sudden rush as I realized that I was actually a teacher, that people were paying me for it, that a government actually saw fit to fly me over and actively support me in doing it. It was no longer just a hobby. I could tell people “I’m a teacher” and not be only technically correct.
The next stop was the teacher’s meeting. We stepped into the computer lab, and I was confronted with 40-50 Korean faces, all studiously looking at their notes and setting up. I fumbled to my seat and rehearsed my speech again and again in my head. I probably overexaggerated the seriousness of it, as they could clearly read my nerves and would certainly be kind, but I was pressuring myself to make the best first steps possible. And so I gave my speech entirely in Korean, to what I can say was thoroughly impressed applause. Thankfully, they then gestured me out so I could dick about the English zone and calm down my heart palpatations.
Eventually the day ended, and with apprehension my teacher cautiously sent me on my way, only after my assurances that I would not curl up and die in the gutter. The walk home was the first time I have ever really been left alone in Korea, and as such it was both exhillerating and terrifying: the first baby steps in a strange, unfamiliar world populated by people with no qualms at staring openly and assessing your every move and gesture. Hangul littered the signs, neon was beginning to flicker on as night approached, and the smell in the air was distinctly Other.
I was then confronted by my apartment: lonely, solitary, tiny and riddled with detritus, but mine. I began the long scouring: while the previous tenant had left a number of pleasant surprises (a futon! Numerous vacuums! Abundant shampoo!) I was keen to clean the room of her presence and make it my own. I began to post pictures, flags, beer coasters. I put my things on hangers and in drawers, and managed to shove away my luggage. This was actually to be my place.
My first and only time living alone, and it only took me a 13 hour flight and the promise of a cushy job to do it. I make it seem as though I’m independent now, but really I rely upon Korean strangers more than I did my mother in Canada. I live and shop and eat on my own, but without the help of the numerous Koreans required by law and government to ensure my continued survival, I’m not entirely sure I can make it.
Knowing my situation, my teacher led me to the neighbouring Lotte Mart, a giant Korean superchain of department stores. I sought out everything I felt I would need: my own pillow and blankets, groceries (including numerous expensive western fruits, as the lack at the hotel left me feeling like I contracted scurvy), various detergents and soaps to scrub the apartment better.
Partway through the great cleaning process, I climbed into bed, set my alarm clock (also left by a previous tenant), and thought about the following day, and the next. This day was the first day of my actual life on my own. I had yet to die terribly. I think I just might be able to do this.