August started off on a Saturday fishing charter for a few hours with an acquaintance from the expat community. Yay! Even though I only caught little piddly things, it was still fun. Well, except for the part where I took so many little lives for only a teensy bit of food. That and paying way too much (40k₩) to have them cooked up. Still, I ate them despite not caring too much for fish so their deaths weren’t in vain.
The next day was water-bound again when I went snorkeling with Gaelan and friends. Climbing the volcanic rock like sand crabs to get out to the water, the tide was rough enough to scare me back in almost immediately. All said and done, I left with only one or two wee cuts. A feat for my clumsy ass. Venturing on, we went to Thai food, of course made me miss it over there, then just four of us continued onto a beautiful lagoon that was so ice-cold that fog layered the top. The hike down was too steep for me to make it for a polar dip but I at least got to watch.
There were spas in S Korea called jjimjilbangs that had heated and iced pools, a wooden area to lie down and some other nice additions here and there. Well, when Gaelan and I made it to one and I insisted on getting a massage, I didn’t exactly get the result I was looking for. Big mistake, actually. Forever to be teased by her for feeling bad about having an older lady do hard work, said woman was about to kick my ass. It also become apparent somewhat quickly that she had no real training. The whole thing was horrible but I felt too awkward to say anything, of course. Also a big mistake, I hadn’t thought about how my platelets being low could play a role but was reminded when parts of me were covered in gnarly bruises a few days later.
The things that had become part of regular life were still truckin. Finding decent wine and cheese, happily watching Honey again, writing, being bullied by Mun*** and more importantly, enjoying all my students. Two of the girls even wrote my name in Hangul, not that I’d ever remember it. My biggest accomplishment for the month was getting an Olle passport. It was a little book to collect stamps in from a series of hiking trails and was one of the main goals for my time on the island. That day ended up being a trek in itself considering how long I was lost while making my way around the miserably hot city while looking for the place to get it. I did manage to see some cool sights and make it to one of the cool coffee shops on my list, though. I paid for it by being totally laid out the next day but at least I got to feel like my weekend had been a success over all.
There were also the new, or maybe not new but more pronounced, observations and revelations that hit every month. One was that I liked the way the elderly had more of a role in S Korea than back home. Less forgotten, more respect. Then were rougher thoughts about how the extremes of weather wasn’t for sissies, and damn was I a California sissy. I was proud of myself for still getting out to explore but it was getting more and more frustrating to have the first sensation when walking out the door to instantly become way too hot and sweaty.
The weekend before summer break, Kathy and I decided to head to the other side of the island to hang with Gaelan, Leo and some friends for an overnight BBQ at a pension (a rental that was pretty similar to an Airbnb). More than that, we were going scuba diving the next day! My poppa had been a big scuba diver until he got sick but I had never joined in because the idea of breathing underwater had freaked me out too much to try it. It hadn’t been freaking me out so much the last couple of years (perhaps because of the seizure meds chilling me out) so I had been determined to do it in his honor. Finally doing it, I indeed didn’t like the breathing underwater part but I could see myself getting used to it if needed. The experience was pretty lame over all though. Hanging at the dive shop with the guys who worked there was fun but we, as seemed to be the norm on the island, first had to climb down a bunch of lava rock with a rope when it was finally time and then the guys taking us under were just going through the motions. There also was next to nothing to see down there. It definitely wasn’t what I had hoped for but at least I had finally done it. I was happy about that.
Photo courtesy of Gaelan Whitney
Something big happened in August. A couple big things, actually. Really big. First it started with my mom telling me (but not until they were getting better) that my sister and brother had Covid. As a reminder, they all live live with our dad who is in bad health and would never survive getting it. Well, I flipped and started tearing up in a half-panic when telling my boss amd Mun**** (oh great) that I’d have to go home immediately if that happened.
The next week was a temporary national holiday given for Covid relief on August 17th. Given by the government, that is, but not to us. The hagwon owner had at first told us we would indeed have it off but then took it back because the parent of a kid who wouldn’t even be at there complained. Cool. Because I had no reason to take that personally. Mr. K didn’t even ask how my family was on the day. Even after I had come in two hours early thanks to Mrs. P giving us too much extra work with too little notice for me to finish during my normal hours. Then Mun**** attacked me at the end of the day.
Kathy pushed me to get through the holiday before making any decisions. She knew I was at the end of my rope. Luckily I had taken the next day off and then our actual holiday started. I had fought to get it because that’s what I had agreed to in my contract. She had tried to say the contract didn’t matter as much as custom because that wasn’t the way things were done in S Korea and it looked really bad since other teachers would have to cover my classes. I didn’t come half way around the world to have those employing me not honor the terms I agreed to. It still blew my mind to think that the other teachers wouldn’t see it as the owner’s shortcoming to not plan for teachers being gone for holiday, because of being sick, etc. Then again, common sense didn’t exactly seem to be a cultural strength.
Leaving the next day for my first time in Seoul, what had happened at work was destined to loom like a dark poisonous cloud that put any chance of decompressing on hold. Not to mention continuing to cause me to act “off” even more than I still was from the remanence of what had gone down in the US. It also made checking out a new city an added stress instead of exciting. Still, I managed to have some fun. Restaurants, shopping, hanging with new people, drinks, animals and more. Yeah…there was good stuff.
Making my way from the airport to the district I was staying in called Itaewon, I found some Thai food for lunch and got my first pedicure in five months. Just as expensive as I had heard at 50₩ (and not all that impressive), the tab for the day was soon over 100₩ after also going out for dinner. Regardless, as the first time in a long time that I didn’t have to pinch my pennies on holiday, it was great. And the pedi was a fun treat while waiting for my spot at the Korean BBQ restaurant I happened upon that had looked trendy based on a line forming down the alley. A nice couple treats (albeit not overly impressive) it had already been an expensive day and active start before even getting to the place I was staying for the next five days. When I did get there, though, holey moley finally some free hubba hubba! Mr. twenty-something Korean Baywatch opened the door with a dazzling white smile, shiny black hair down to his shoulders, red shorts on and nothing else. More than that, he went right in for a hug. It wasn’t the norm for the culture, even less so with Covid, so it was a bit of an awkward surprise. Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice one. A REALLY nice one. Just unexpected.
The next day was a big one. Not making it out until around 11 AM thanks to exhaustion, stress and Jaehoon (Mr. Korean Baywatch) along with his Italian roomie sitting at the table right outside my room, I finally made my way to Lotte World. A mixture of theme parks, shopping, restaurants and more, it was practically an entire city built underground. I supposed that made sense for somewhere with rough weather but being a coastal Californian who usually avoided malls all together, I had never experienced anything like it. At least not that I could remember.
The first thing I did once there was go check out an ice skating rink where there was some serious skaters practicing in figure and for speed. Then I mistakenly spent a couple hours in a kid’s amusement park thanks to being under the impression that it was the way into an aquarium. Being eerily deserted because of Covid, I wasn’t exactly comfortable. Regardless of the lack of crowds giving space for “six feet apart” and S Korea being a pretty safe country, numbers were going up because of a megachurch gathering. I had almost canceled my trip because of it. I also felt guilty and like a hypocrite for adding to the problem instead of the solution by being out.
My dad always loved amusement parks and such so I was at least happy to feel like I was doing it in his honor. Even if it was proving to still not be my thing. At least I got a cheesy samba show with mediocre dancing out of it. So weird in an entertaining way to see in an Asian country. From there I walked what had to be half a mile (.8KM) through the inside stores and restaurants until finally finding the aquarium. What a treat that was. So many beautiful animal and colors! The weightless feeling of being underwater just by watching them. It reminded me how much I love the ocean and that I should try scuba diving again in Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam. No way was I interested in doing it in S Korea again. This gal has been spoiled with beautiful ocean my whole life. I need something to look at!
The day wasn’t over from there. When I later mentioned to Jaehoon that I was debating whether or not to go out for a drink, he suggested a bar where a group of his expat friends were having a trivia night. Tired and on the fence for an hour, I finally decided to go and it turned into a sunrise kind of night! It was great to be around the kind of expat community that mixed with Koreans who enjoy hanging with folks from other parts of the world. That’s what I had been hoping for all along and had though since before coming to the country that I may have to go to Seoul to find. They were a fun lot and even the trivia, something I don’t usually like, was fun. Quite the opposite of what I expected. One of the guys invited me to stay after it was over so why not. Myself and the few remaining kept hanging until that particular guy left after trying to get me to go home with him. A beautiful woman who came with a man from the group ended up staying and bonding with me after he left in a huff about something she had done and all of us headed to a bar under the one we were first in to finish the night. One of the guys, a man I’d be thinking about long after that, ended up being quite a cool chap. Not just loud and empty-headed as I had thought may be the case at first. I was no stranger to being misjudged so it was even more of an ironic treat. Anyway, he knew wine and we started laughing about relating jokes and pranks. Going to someone’s house from there, you could stick a fork in all of us and I was grouchy because I was the only one who wanted to hike to the top of a hill for the sunrise. By the end, we were all scrambling home soon after the sun came up. Ready to crash out and no doubt wake up wondering how we ended up all night.
I don’t know how I managed to do anything the next day but I did. Not only did I but I did something way out of my comfort zone. I went shopping! It felt like shopping was everywhere I turned in that city. Was that the majority of what Seoul was made of? Shopping and food? The district I went to was called Myeong-dong. My favorite part about it was accidentally stumbling across a place called Eeden Meercat Friends that I had already been curious about. Meercats, wallabies, exotic cats and raccoons, there were a lot of cute animals but I agreed with feedback about it being cruel to keep them in a big room as entertainment objects. It had been why I hadn’t visit the tigers in Thailand, though I admit to having given in with the elephants. Getting home later that night, Jaehoon had friends over. Presumably from the same group, though not many of the same ones. I hung for a bit, which wasn’t easy given the hangover from the night before, but it was still a good time and I was glad I did it. I mean, it wasn’t like I was getting too many days of socializing back on the island.
The next day was more animals when I made my way to a spot called Thanks Nature Cafe for some writing time after grabbing some glorious yet mediocre Mexican food. After that, I walked around in the stifling and wet heat of summer checking out the neighborhood until I stumbled upon a darling ravine that had a park built into the middle of and shops lining both sides. Stopping at a cute pizza spot to get a couple pies for sharing with a social group that I can’t remember for the life of me how I found, I made a mental note to make it back knowing fully well that I probably never would. Meeting some local Lebanese guys on the underground bus platform on my way, I hesitatingly gave my number to one of them. Something I would soon regret when he proceeded to hit me up every time he got drunk until I finally told him that I wasn’t interested. Responding by telling me that I looked like a pig, I found a little entertainment at the thought that he was apparently into pigs.
Making it to that social group from there, the night started at a way too small dive bar with an owner who was down the street instead of serving us drinks and ended at a soup spot after running away from some African guys after the one interested in me kept getting more annoying as he drank. Annoying but it was still a little nice given how much I wasn’t exactly the preferred type in S Korea. I was definitely getting more love in Seoul during those days than the whole time combined on the island though. Getting more shopping in the next day, for dinner I made it to a really cool South African restaurant called Braai Republic that had been recommended and it was my turn to crush. The owner was a sweet, attentive and manly guy who was stocky and had a big smile. I didn’t see any sign of his returning my favor but it was still refreshing to be attracted to someone after so long.
All in all, I was still wheeling from what had gone down at work before I had left the island and was feeling pretty beat up by the previous few months, so I decided to go home a day early. Checking out a big city had been great but it was pretty rough considering. I needed rest. Besides, the weekend was hitting which worried me as being a bigger and more irresponsible risk regarding Covid. A special treat in doing so was how damn easy changing my flight and getting home was. Maybe two and a half hours after I made the change, even with a refund on some of the cost with Jeju Air, I walked through my door.
The second day back to work, it inevitably happened. At our weekly meeting on Tuesday, Mr. K asked me something along the lines of if I was doing OK and I said no. Everyone laughed thinking it was a joke about vacation being over. When I responded that it was about the school, the room turned awkwardly silent. We met after but with Mun**** there which meant that there was no chance of anything productive coming out of it. I was cut off almost every sentence and Mr. K wasn’t being translated most of what I did manage to say. He also took my body language toward Mun**** personally and soon we were all pissy. Having given up composure as I snapped at Mun**** to let me finish a sentence, I asked for maybe the third time how much experience they thought I had before coming and for the third time, no response. I also asked about any kind of training and brought up that not even a single day had been given when I first got there. Mr. K’s response was that it wasn’t worth the effort to train someone if they weren’t going to stay for at least three years. That’s when he asked if I wanted to quit and I said yes. The reason why was really about Mun**** bullying me for four months but the final straw had been the cruel way he had handled the Covid situation. Mrs. P’s way of “managing” the actual lessons, and other parts of the curriculum, especially regarding us westerners (lots of not giving us info and then us getting in trouble for not knowing it later), would have made unhappy anyway but I would have toughed it out without the other two factors. Maybe I was crazy but I liked their family. I wanted to be a good teacher, though, and the way it was, I never stood a chance. Not to mention being screwed over before even getting into the country.
Photo courtesy of Gaelan Whitney.
Lord did it get messy from there. Mrs. P finally tried to show me a few of the ropes but was all blame without taking any responsibility. She even told me I should be the one apologizing to Mun**** for the way he had treated me because he was stressed from parents bitching at him about my screwups. Something I wasn’t happy about either but it was also part of his job and often related to ways where I was set up to fail, often by him. I don’t know why they they would have wanted to keep me, but her finally stepping up a little made me worried about whether or not they were going to let me quit without issue. Sorry honey, the effort was appreciated but where had you been all those month when I had been asking for help? A little too little a little too late. Indeed, once she finally believed that I was quitting after I flipped out on Mun**** in front of her and Kathy had spent a night out at dinner trying to play the middle “man”, she started getting nasty from time to time. Things also soured with the prissy Korean teacher who sat next to me in the teacher’s office and had said all of twenty words to me in the past. First, she didn’t even say thanks when I left her expensive lotion with a thank you note for the classes she had to cover during my day off thanks to substitutes not being set up for time off and illness. Then she had a fit when I didn’t assign our students work in essay books after her senior, Mun****, had instructed me to focus on comprehension questions followed by Mrs. P telling me to focus on assigning the kids separate essays. It wasn’t new for me to not be given all the information or proper instruction. That kind of BS was common in hagwons from what I had learned in my research but man, I had never experienced it to that level. It boggled my mind.
I had read horror stories about it before coming to S Korea so I knew in theory what I might be up against. In reality, I had indeed ended up having to deal with it for months and I had hit my limit. Still, I was going to have to miserably continue for a two month notice while keeping on with life as usual. Well, with the exception of work turning into a worse hell than it already was. Oddly enough, Mun**** got a little better after I flipped out on him separately in front of Mr. K, Mrs. P and had quit. It made me wonder if I had been pushed out on purpose.
If I hadn’t been grasping for any little piece of comfort before that, I sure was then. In India, I had found a kind of pancake I loved that had green onions and more savory ingredients of deliciousness in it. I had liked it enough to think about it ever since. The time Kathy and I had gone out when she played the middle “man”, I had been excited to find out that S Korea had their own version called the pjeon pancake. Another treat was finally checking out a coffee shop in my neighborhood that I had been wanting to for it’s creative edge, though it was a bit of a letdown considering that it didn’t have the kind of warm vibe I was looking for. The last small lifeline was finding a beer and chicken spot around the corner from my place that was open late almost every night. Ironic. Five months after moving there and two months before moving out, I finally found a convenient spot for when we got off work late.
A lifeline that packed a little bit more of a punch for the end of the month was the first time I started circling back around to some of the things I had liked on a different part of the island. It made me feel like I had accomplished something. Come full circle in some way. Those places started with the Bomnal coffee shop to ask if the bungalows attached along the coast were for rent. Then I checked out another spot with a high view for some really yummy ice cream that I had made note the previous time to check out. Checking out the see-through kayak rentals (expensive) for another potential sunset, I finally made it back to my favorite bar on the island (to that point), Sunset Cliff, for that day’s actual sunset. I wasn’t even that mad when I spilled some of a 15₩ mojito (after a pina colada of the same price) on me. After all, I had gotten an outdoor cabana bed on the top floor of the almost empty bar. One of the perks of Covid I suppose. It did make me get a little homesick though. Not just for the sunset but because there were some more edgy twenty-somethings who reminded me of home. I was entertained by the thought that they may be used to people thinking of them as intimidating. Oh honey, you’d fit right into my scene. Actually, they might have even been a wee bit vanilla. Anyway, it was a nice night and a nice end to a month that had it’s fair share of highs and lows.
I may not have studied abroad in school like I had wanted but it sure felt like I was making up for lost time. You could have convinced me that I was away at sophomore year in college with all of the trials and tribulations that had come with. I may have showed up with a little experience but man was it still hard. I was growing at least. Good and bad, I was growing. And I was proud of myself for it.
Photo courtesy of Gaelan Whitney.