Well I made it to S Korea in time for the short spring and cherry blossom season before monsoon season hit. Unfortunately, though, I was only able to see it through the barred windows of my studio. Kelly, the hagwon owner’s daughter, was still bringing me food and whatever else I requested. I didn’t fully know what most of the food was, of course, and of the “whatever else I requested”, perhaps a shower towel, a freakin decent pad for the box-spring of my bed (since they didn’t to mattresses) and a few other things that I would later be bewildered hadn’t come with the “furnished” place would have been nice. I was too spun out to notice then though. It wasn’t that she wasn’t trying. I was touched by other little details that showed how much she cared. New coffee cups with cute little spoons attached, a new TV I’d never use, shower shoes about four sizes too small and other non-essentials. Taking it all into account, it was pretty clear that she cared but had never lived alone or had take care of herself to be able to fully figure it out. Not that I’d done much better until somewhere in my mid to late thirties.
Was that a baby crying outside my window or a cat dying? Oh, it’s cats humping. Yeah…I was definitely still on quarantine. That first week of being on lock-down had been nice for recovery and getting used to my new place but I was starting to feel like a weirdo shut-in. Those cats doing the dirty wasn’t the only thing under a magnifying glass. More serious, it was extra scary when one of my bazillion moles became white-tipped (pile it on) and the realization that I lived across the street from a daycare came with a heightened level of stress. That first may have been been perfect timing after showing up spun out from the crazy journey getting there and the rough stuff that had happened right before, even with it being the longest and most isolated stint inside of my life, but it hit it’s expiration. I had caught my breath and was starting to feel the darkness of the shit that had just gone down at home. Messing with my head even more, I still wasn’t convinced that Kelly and her fiance, both gorgeous and all smiles, weren’t models and I was really being punked on some kind of reality show. Especially since they gave me so little information about who they were. I wasn’t then, nor would I be in the future, given more than the most basic information. No instruction about who to contact for what, no numbers, no procedures, no information about the city, no training, nothing. Well, next to nothing. Just a sweet “ask any questions you have” in a way that was so vague it was unrealistic. Add to it colleagues who were teaching English though barely speaking it. Extra fun as it meant they were constantly failing to communicate about work correctly but would get politely frustrated when their instruction hadn’t been fully understood or followed. Extra fun with lesson plans constantly being changed by the sweet woman who was the manager and co-owner without next to no notice, rhyme or reason.
I hadn’t gotten there yet though. At the time, the food brought to me was about as far as I was going to get into the culture. Gimbap and noddles with some kind of dark sauce were the first new dishes I remember as being pretty good. I made note about them somewhere but I took so many damn notes about everything, I’d likely never see them again. The strawberries I tried were some of the best I’d ever had and I was surprised when not liking a certain beef soup I’d accidentally end up eating more than once. Besides the taste, having to constantly pull bones out of food as I was eating didn’t exactly give me a boner. The milk was so good! Probably because it was hole or something like that. Damn if I knew. It even took me a while to realize it wasn’t rice or almond milk. I couldn’t read Hangul (and would continue to not) even after a couple months of practice. Somewhere in those first days, a flyer for food was taped on my door that I was to keep on top of my tiny fridge for a couple months as a goal to order from once I’d learned enough of the language. Eventually throwing it out without ever getting there, I’d find out that the cheese balls I wanted were sweet anyway, so it would end up being more frustrating than a bummer.
Those cheese balls weren’t the only thing that were disappointingly sweet. Enough of the food was to keep me in a constant state of pouting with sarcastic comments about becoming a diabetic when I didn’t even like sweets. Not to mention how hard it was going to be to find decent cheese or wine. There was a lot more I was to find out that I didn’t like than I did. Sweet garlic bread and bean paste, gross. Another disgusting thing that was hiding inside of way too much. I already knew I didn’t like seaweed, kimchi, seafood or most banchan but I thought I’d at least like a decent amount more of the options than I did as I explored. Especially because so many who had spent time in S Korea had raved about the food. Oh well. Even after giving my mind and body time to get used to those new things, it wasn’t destined to be a culture of my culinary favorites. At least I had their BBQ. As long as I didn’t go vegan, there was that deliciousness to keep me semi-content.
I wrote a ton during quarantine. It was to end up being the kickoff of a lifestyle that was to include more of that on a constant basis than I had done in my entire life. So much so that I probably got as much done in 10 days as I had in the six months before that. Definitely a launching point that came at a great time since I wasn’t going to be feeling up to being my normal social self for a long time. The book I had written a decade earlier was even coming back to life. While there was to be a constant level of melancholy to my near future, it was a worthwhile sacrifice that gave me the chance to skyrocket with those other things important to me. That also included doing twice as much yoga.
Quarantine ended on April second or third but I was told last minute that I wasn’t going to start working for a few more days. Testing for Covid had become free if within the quarantine period so Mr. Kim, the hagwon owner, wanted me to get it done and wait for results. I had suggested it to Kelly a couple days before but was to find out that she often didn’t pass on a lot of what I said to her. Thanks to what I assumed was a culture and language barrier, she didn’t seem to understand that I was giving her info to share as my only professional contact. That meant that it didn’t happen until my last day on quarantine when Paul finally took me. Driving up to those white tents with people in hazmat suits yielding long q-tips, the experience felt more like a scene out of Alien with Sigourney Weaver than a quick medical procedure. Quick but surprisingly unpleasant. Once the q-tip was in my throat by way of the nose, I would be coughing with watering eyes for the next five minutes. After that, the A-OK results took a couple days to come back. Ones I wished I could save for later because holy hell was it to be off to the races from there.
The 7th was the first day I was at the school but Mr. Kim would say once I was there that the day after would be my actual start date. Such hagwon BS. Especially when I should have already been on the payroll for a couple weeks. Only having been informed two hours before heading to the airport in CA that I’d be on an unpaid quarantine had been a joke. That first day may have only been a few hours of general intro info (the most I was going to see of any kind of training) and one wee class of co-teaching three kindie-aged students but lord was it exhausting enough to deserve to get paid. Especially given the stuff I was told I had to take care of before even getting to the school. An exhaustive experience that was to continue for the next couple months as mornings were to consist of going to work early to train myself and nonstop errands to set up life. A bank account, new number, all my medical BS (to come on my own later), paperwork for my visa, etc. You’d think a day or two would have been reserved before I started to take care of it all but nope. I suppose I should have been grateful for any help at all, though, given how much worse I had read (and would later hear) hagwons could be. Mine seemed pretty middle of the road on a scale of good to bad, minus a head teacher who was soon to become my arch-nemesis. Shitty treatment from him didn’t exactly help add to a good working relationship. Even if I did like the family who owned the school.
Being thrown into the fire tits first wasn’t anything new for me but damn was I sick of it. Regardless, teaching was about to make me start liking kids more from that very first day when, on the walk home, a creative little girl of the three I had co-taught (who was a little slow), started yelling from behind me while hanging out the front window of a car that was slowly driving by. Not knowing the Korean word for teacher, I hadn’t thought anything about the commotion until I could actually see her waving like crazy. I was cheesing for an hour after that.
Ugh! I hated being new and awkward. Oh how I dreaded going back that second day. Going to get a physical for the first of what would be two times at 10:50 AM, an extra little bit of fun to the experience was added when the nurse gave my weight to Paul. As a reminder, he was the super hot fiance of the also super hot daughter of the hagwon owners. I have grown into having more self-confidence than most, and am proud to use my body as a tool to advocate for others finding the same, but that still wasn’t fun.
I went to the school early after that followed by working on the clock from 1:30 PM – 8:30 PM. It was miserable how much new info there was to take in and how much I was going to have to struggle without help (besides the only other Westerner when he could) to get good. A reminder made clear when I was thrown into classes with little kids who spoke next to no English at the beginning of the shift. It was a day of eternity.
What surprised me the most about my new home on the other side of the world was how on target I had been with what to expect from experience and research. Only a couple things caught me off-guard. The biggest being the lack of eye-contact. The people weren’t being nasty in the way I had experienced growing up in SJ though. It was just a part of their culture; considered too brazen and rude. I missed that one in my research. The reason I had come to S Korea instead of Japan was because of the good info I was getting about how they reacted to foreigners. As time went on, I would continue to not like it but found solace in how they reminded me of the Buddhist monks in India in that when I did catch their attention, I usually got a big and very sweet smile. Still, it was a shock coming from a couple decades of San Diego beach towns that were all about community and connection. Another new experience that was unnerving as an American woman was to constantly have men walk right behind me when there was plenty of room to stay out of each other’s personal space. It was great to be somewhere so safe but I still had four decades of experience that told me that meant danger.
Back to what I did have right, actually experiencing all those new things, even though I expected them, was indeed a lot harder in real life than just knowing they were coming. Being in such a conservative country was an unhappy aspect that played a big role. Besides the nature on the other side of the island (when I could actually get to it between work and the crappy weather), it was going to take a long while to see much of myself in anyone or anything. Everything seemed drab and monotone. Nothing was sexy. It was popular for females to dress in muumuus (dresses that were way too baggy), high water pants (a fashion no-no back home) and it was inappropriate to show even the top of the chest. I was all boobs! I mean, fuck, the whole thing was a flashback to the ’90s and not in a good way. And what was with women wearing pumps with everything? Even t-shirts and basketball shorts! To each their own but it wasn’t my style and definitely left me scratching my head. Especially in a country known for being fashionable. Was that just referring to the mainland? I was still months away from finding out.
Establishment interiors in my neighborhood consisted most of the time of black, white and tan colors in boxy concrete buildings that had been built out of a need to get something up fast when the island had been growing rapidly. Clean lines with so little decoration or design that I could have sworn they had all just opened. It was killing me. I was color, fireworks, sexuality, life and dreams. To me, it felt like the Nothing from the NeverEnding Story. At least they had cafes there, though. Tons of them. It was shocking! How much coffee could Koreans drink? And I thought California was overwhelmed with them. Ha!
It amused me how the beginning of being in a new place was so exhausting but also when I got out the most. Partially because of the excitement, sure, but more than that, from being in a panic about knowing that I’d have a harder time kicking myself in the pants to get out and explore later on. The third of the main factors, none of which I expect to be much of a surprise, was that I desperately wanted to get to know the area so I could get comfortable and settled in faster.
I’d always found the easiest way to start getting to know a culture was to go to restaurants. Finding comfort in the little bit of familiarity of a more westernized spot that had opened in the same building as my hagwon, the decor of that Chinese food restaurant actually had a tiny pop of color and decorative style. It made for a pretty easy decision to stop in and enjoy honey walnut shrimp and a big bottle of Tsingtao beer after the third evening of work. It was a big deal for me. My first time out on my own and a culinary score given how much I was to dislike the majority of the food.
Of all things I did like, corn on pizza (something I had also experienced in Thailand and India) was one. Something resembling hummus on the other side of the pizza I had picked up from Dominoes, not so much. I also tried to buy something new at the local market whenever I went grocery shopping, though the first attempt was a fail. Some kind of fishy and wet egg or bread pocket, it was totally gross and I didn’t know how to cook it. But hey, at least I tried. Another new flavor that I didn’t like (but wasn’t going to be able to avoid) was soju. IWW! It tasted like bad vodka. I had hoped that it was just bad luck with the brands I was getting but beer was in for the win over the next couple of months. Lord was it depressing to not be able to find decent wine.
My highlight of that third day of work (before Chinese food) had been when a little boy drew a dick on the board. At first I thought it was a nose that happened to look like a dick. Nope. I’d figure it out a month later when seeing more of his masterpieces that it was indeed meant to be a peepee. Of course it cracked me up. More importantly, it made me feel a bit more comfortable.
Those weren’t the only small moments that felt huge during the first lonely days of counting my blessings. ZOOM had come in hot and heavy and would seem to fizzle out just as fast a couple months later. For the time being, though, it had been one of the things that had kept me going. Hangs with the Spanky’s and Twisted Swan camps, a crew from the mountains that Rupert put together, Brigit and Aaron and a few more. They seemed to be popular for about as long as I needed then before everyone must have gotten sick of them all at once. Without solid organization, there was only so much disarray one person could handle.
It had probably been the strongest form of support during those devastatingly hard first few weeks but the other smaller things helped a lot, too. Moments as small as taking comfort in shuffling around on towels to clean the floor after giving up on an actual mop because, oh yeah, I loathed mopping. There was also more obvious moments of greatness like when I got a small view of Mount Hallasan from one street over from my pad. So cool!
It was the norm for teachers to get pictures drawn of them by students every once in a while. I am still beaming with pride all these months later when I say that the 17th was the day that I got my first one. Being a sentimental person, I adored it. That masterpiece would soon be hanging on the wall at home after a couple weeks on the wall above my desk. It was a happy moment in the slow progression of my new life. Another was the first big night out with a colleague who was becoming my work buddy. Kathy was Korean (originally from Seoul) but had spent her teens in Canada. It was a late one and neither of us could move the next day but I appreciated even that aspect of bonding. Especially after having to process through such rough stuff alone for the previous month.
The errands Paul and Kelly had been taking me to run continued on with the main focus being on getting my ARC card. I resented Mr. Kim’s panicked pressure about it when I had been so clear about the situation with my paperwork before coming. Originally only getting my ARC for three months while waiting for the physical diploma from my college (they had been holding it hostage for an unpaid class), I had to jump through the hoops of a physical, cost, etc. twice since he was too spazzed out to wait. I liked him as a person well enough but swore that no one had ever stood up to or taught him about his responsibilities. His mentality about the recruiter who he had commissioned directly to hire was that he would reimburse me for some of the things I was told would be but acted like he was doing me a favor. Not that he was accountable for the actions of the person he had appointed to take care of the business side. He made enough of an effort to stop me from telling him to piss off but WTF? Especially considering that I was later told that the recruiter wasn’t paid after all the shit he pulled. Being told every so often that S Koreans, specifically hagwon owners, weren’t very good business people made me a little more forgiving toward him but over all annoyed me even more. What were these people doing with a business then? Especially one that was all about dealing with people! Freakin frustrating, man.
Man was my body showing age like never before when completely jacking up my foot somehow just jumping around doing a cardio dance class online. A bone-head move given that I wasn’t wearing shoes thanks to trying to honor the custom of no shoes inside, but to be fair nothing in my foot had ever popped out of place (my knees and shoulder were a different story) and my body was just starting to lose the invincibility of youth. I wasn’t used to it. When talking to Kelly about it, she asked Mr. Kim and Mrs. Phong (her mom/his wife) who all thought I needed to go to the hospital. No thanks. They had said that if I had to pay out of pocket because my alien status wasn’t solid yet, I would be reimbursed. They also knew that I barely had any money to cover that and besides, I was American. We didn’t go to the hospital for every damn little thing without trying to take care of it ourselves first. Not to mention how shady experiences with being reimbursed were back at home. I knew I was in a different country and culture but there was a lot of history to make that a hard move. Not to mention all of the unknowns of being somewhere unfamiliar.
Waiting worked out as something popped back into place within a couple days (gross) which came as a relief when the swelling instantly starting to go down. A close call that spooked me and also a big intro for the next few months of weird parts of my feet and ankles aching along with my back. Always the hot mess, I was as true to form as ever.
I was starting to make it to more coffee shops. One of the things that wouldn’t seem like a big deal to others but was to me. Writing with good ambiance was what centered me. Getting to that point meant that I was getting a hold of my surroundings, even if I was to spend more of those first visits working on lesson plans than writing. Still, I was excited when finding a cute cafe right by my pad and another on the path to work that specialized in ice cream. Plans of future writing time was forming and that alone was the most comforting thing I had experienced since making it to the island.
It would be the first, and maybe last, time to go out with the work crew. Two restaurants and tons of soju. The food was delicious, even the salmon, and I learned that it was common to hop from place to place (drinking at restaurants was more the norm than bars without food) which left me way too full and shocked at how much Koreans could eat. With how many thin people I had watched eat me under the table, you’d think I would have been used to it. Nope. It was still a shock. Amusing but also a shitty “not fair” feeling. It was pretty damn fun, though, with Kathy and I acting like the entertaining but slightly annoying giggly drunk girls together as I walked her home, getting kicked out of a convenient store along the way after going back in thee times.
It turned dark from there. Really dark. Not too surprising, I got lost for two hours after dropping her off. It was then that I went to the dark side and had the major meltdown that had been a comin. It was the last straw of everything that happened before leaving home and having isolated on the other side of the world with no support from there. The pressure cooker finally boiled over. It was dangerous but part of me was relieved to get it out of the way. The sooner I could fall apart, the sooner I could get over it and move on. That falling apart included hitting up Brigit and Aaron along with a burner buddy, Ish, unfortunately, since he was one of my only homies online at that time. Sorry bud.
April 30th – First day out exploring Jeju
I could vividly remember people telling me in my twenties, especially men I worked with, that I needed to learn to compartmentalize. I had been so self-conscious about my inability to do so that it had quieted my voice from being pissed off. Being spherical wasn’t wrong just because it was different. I was sick of people making me feel like I was a screw-up for not being like them. Well, I didn’t know when it happened but I did eventually, to my surprise, become a pro at it. Who knows; maybe it was just age. Or maybe enough bad stuff had happened to make me adapt in order to survive. Whatever the reason, five weeks and three days after my arrival, I was about to take advantage of it.
Our first four day weekend came around and I was on it with having planned a ridiculous amount of stuff like I always did. More than half of which I’d never get to, of course. Therapy and fun in the sun for sure. After the pain in the ass of finding out that the idea of a private taxi driver was out once Kelly looked it up for me from Seoul while on her own trip to work on her and Paul’s wedding (thanks, girl!), it was on to plan B. I wasn’t about to pay 150k KRW plus treating a driver to lunch while only being taken to one part of the island. Hard pass. I may have still been bleeding money thanks to being overwhelmed and not having grasped the currency yet but even I was confident that, while I expected to still end up paying for plenty of taxis, it would be lower. Something that would prove to be true after becoming exhausted once I had tried for a couple hours to figure out the bus system. Still, even with that, it ended up far lower than I would have guessed. Even with other annoyingly costly moments such as when I realized that one of the drivers took the long way to one of the beaches. Shocker. Literally, actually. I was getting the impression that S Koreans were honest people. It was something that had quickly become one of the healing positives I hadn’t thought about much before getting there. Oh well. At least I got to be excited by it being the first taxi ride with its own wifi. Pretty cool to experience, even if my back was almost breaking and I’d need a breast lift by the time I got home by the way he (and so many other cabbies) drove there.
Getting to Hamdeok Beach about 2 PM on what was to be my big day out, a starting time that was to become the norm given work hours, I lucked out in finding a bakery cafe that Kelly would later tell me was one of the more famous spots on the island called Cafe Delmoondo. It was a God-send given that it had a big deck overlooking the ocean where I could recover from those couple hours of trying to find my way there. I even managed a few minutes to read the book I had brought once my brain had rested enough to turn back on. The price of two big pastries and a vanilla late at such a touristy place wasn’t as ridiculously price as the US, something quite noticed, but ambiance was the main selling point. Besides a vibe the old wooden building put out of a life well lived, the 1920s style bossa nova music playing overhead had me taking a big long happy exhale. I was sold.
Being surrounded by people at the cafe wasn’t the biggest deal. I expected it at such a touristy spot. On the actual white sands of the beach, though, the volume took me by surprise. Aha Asia. The land of a million selfies. Even worse than Southern California. Not just selfies but people fully clothed including closed-toe shoes. Some women were even wearing their pumps in the sand. I wondered again if fashion was so awkward through the entire country, it was just the island or merely a cultural difference. Whatever the reason, I didn’t have much room to talk given the raggedy bohemian writer and traveler thing I’d been doing the last few years. Besides, being plus size was the ultimate sin as a woman, so I knew too well what BS judgment was.
After the beach, I took a long walk along the coast with a stop for delicious pizza that no doubt tasted 10 times better since I was having such a hard time finding food that I liked. More importantly, an even harder time finding cheese. One light beer got me buzzed and, after not knowing what else to do with myself, I headed home an hour before sunset. I know, I know. I should have waited. On the taxi ride home, I sleepily thought about how the GPS ringing when going any amount over the speed would have driven me bananas as a rideshare driver. I also got a small kick out of my driver, same guy who took me the long way, trying to flip off another car stealth mode as we cut them off when making a dangerous U-turn. Oh well. At least it was better than India.
Over all, that first staycation day cost me 72.5 kr ($60). Not too bad.
- 15k won taxi there
- 18.5 kr lunch
- 22kr dinner
- 17kr for taxi home