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.
-The first real week alone has been marked largely by disconnect. In Canada, I often would like to claim to myself that I could certainly survive without the many technologies I encumbered myself with: I could wander about cell phone free, no internet to speak of, and surely my life would be little different. This is a monumentally foolish thing to think.
When you move to Korea, immigration requires that you go through a registration process to get an Alien Registration Card. This ARC entitles you, essentially, to hang out in Korea for more than 3 months working, and lets you open a bank account, get a cell phone, and hook up some internet. Because the process takes about 10 days and requires that you have your health check in, the vast majority of the new teachers have gone mostly communication free.
Though not entirely. As a friend said, “Just tell me of the plans before 5 p.m. and I can be there.” We have internet access at our schools, and as ESL teachers, we have lots of down time. Whether through pity for the foreigners, or because most Koreans don’t waste their time on Facebook, most of the common Western time-wasting sites remain blissfully unblocked. For eight hours, minus, you know, actually teaching and planning and eating, you can tap that sweet, sweet broadband directly into your veins. I forget that I have been an avid internet junkie since the age of about 11. I think I may have actually gotten internet delirium tremens at some point.
-My principal is a continual joker. One day I wore a black tie, not knowing the implications, and he sat across from me at lunch with a playful scowl. Through my co-teacher, he communicated that that was strictly funeral wear. The next day, noting my blue tie, he asked, “Oh, did you just buy that this morning?” When my classes finished the other day, he summoned me from down the hall to drink coffee with me and speak Korean generally at me (I think giving a speech in Korean gave the wrong impression: I’m not actually that good with the language yet). I don’t drink coffee, so they gave me some traditional Korean tea, with an indecipherable fruit on the packet. When my co-teacher tried to look up a translation, the internet yielded “jujubes.”
I also received an offer that day: if I come in early some days and greet the students at the doors in English, I can leave early those days. As such, I stood at the entrance and waved about 1000 times. At one point, both the principal and vice principal came out to watch, and to admonish any student who dared not bow to me. At another point, my co-teacher darted out to film me greeting the students, and to take my backpack, so as I could be unencumbered and more presentable for photography, I suppose. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a fever dream of teaching and that none of this is real.
-The students are getting braver in approaching me. Formerly it was only the older students, the ones I directly taught, who would say hello to me. Today, I walked down to the bathroom, and a second grade boy, ebullient and swimming with pride, blurted, “HOW IS THE WEATHER?!” And then scampered off. I went into the bathroom to dry myself off (Korean humidity makes me sweat like I’m in a sauna), and I heard commotion gathering. The bathroom door is a sort of smoky glass, so I could see bodies assembling. As soon as I opened the door, two dozen 8-year-olds shouted “HOW IS THE WEATHER, IT IS HOT!!!” and then immediately ran back into their classrooms.
-One night, I wandered with Thanh and Pierre about our neighbourhood, searching for somewhere to eat. As is common for Thanh and I, we walk forever, needling each other to just pick a place already, before we eventually settle on whatever is closest to the exact location where we tire of walking. It was intensely Korean, offering floor seating and tables, soju bottles littering nearby surfaces, English nowhere to be seen. A happy looking pig beamed prominently from the sign outside. We entered.
This was our first real Korean restaurant experience on our own, without an interpreter or a particularly linguistic proprietor nearby to aid us in the process. We managed to order beer and get some water, and then the owner stood at our table, waiting for us to order. It was at that moment we realized our folly.
Panic struck me in a wave. We had no idea of what to do. The menu was on a wall, too far away for us to simply point and grunt our acquiescence to one dish. I browsed my phrase book, looking up the word for “pork” and “beef,” to little response. If we couldn’t manage this, simply ordering in a restaurant, how would we survive a whole year?
We eventually deployed the safety parachute: “Mweo ga ma siseoyo?” (What is delicious?) The proprietress responded with something impenetrable, which we nodded at (upon later investigation, it turned out she was saying “samgyeopsal”, fried pork belly). We cowed in our seats, but buoyed at the arrival of food. We had scrambled and sputtered, but food had arrived at our table, and that was an achievement to be celebrated.
-There is a Korean hipster bar in my neighbourhood. We were walking around, looking to settle in for a drink or two, and saw something that looked new, clean, modern. We walked in, saw that it was empty, and were still not scared away. As we sat at the bar, I realized something. Sigur Rós was playing. I saw album covers for bands that I knew and liked. The bartender spoke fluent English. When I later told this to a friend in email, she replied, “How is that possible? You can’t even find bars in Canada that play music you like.”
-I have survived the Korean roadways. I’ll discuss it more later, but suffice it to say, the roads here seem positively post-apocalyptic, as drivers crash around corners and veer down one-way streets in every possible direction, slamming their brakes once they’re on the sidewalk as though the zombie hordes were nigh.
In order to get my ARC card, I needed to drive with one of my co-teachers to the immigration centre. A religious woman, before she turned the keys in the ignition, she gave a quick, silent prayer. I considered joining her, such was my abject terror. Getting into a car and going onto a Korean road seems like Russian Roulette, except most of the chambers are loaded, and you only half remember the rules, because they were explained to you in another language. I remain alive to type this passage, but please all fellow people in Korea, stay off the roads. And the sidewalks. Try to learn parkour or human flight.
-The lot of us from orientation were all in a tizzy from waiting on our health checks to come back. Possibly it was the draconian efficiency of the Korean hospital, where we ran a gauntlet of tests administered by dainty, incredibly specialized nurses. Possibly it was the fear held by some that they would test for pot and summarily boot them from the country. I, and I think others like me, were not used to having our employment hedge on information gathered and assessed by a series of shadowy doctors who we couldn’t even speak to, or beg. Before this, I had never had a physical, or even bloodwork (meaning I got to find out my blood type from the test, which is good, because Koreans frequently inquire in this regard). When mine finally arrived, and my co-teacher assured me I would not be deported, I heaved a sigh of relief. You know, on some theoretical level, that you don’t have tuberculosis or AIDS, but man, what if you did and this is how you found out?