November started out with a beautiful (albeit temporary) living situation in the enchanting neighborhood named Swiss Village. It was full of colorful buildings, creative artisanal shops and overlooked the ocean beyond some solar windmills. I even had a microwave and American sized fridge. My favorite part of the whole hood was probably a winding uphill street that was lined with a wall painted with all kinds of creativity. At one time I even saw a Korean yodeler being filmed. The whole neighborhood was such a draw that how desolate it was made it twice as eerie. Especially with unfinished forgotten units on the bottom floors of buildings new buildings. It was ominous and made me wonder if I was seeing some of the ghost-town effects of Covid. Still, I was contently inspired enough to dance around my studio, unpacking with a glass on wine while listening to the Otis Mountain Get Down by City of the Son as a download of different thoughts swirled through my head.As far as Korea and the culture went, it was creepy the way everything was attached to a network centered around a messaging app called Kakao. Banking, government, taxis, checking in at restaurants, possibly even government stuff. It was convenient but I didn’t like how unsafe it made me feel for one entity to have so much access to me. Another thought was just how much I didn’t see myself reflected in anyone or anything in the culture. Even the other expats weren’t like me. My mom had said that maybe people like me weren’t drawn to come there. An insight that I found rather poetic. Especially given how seldom I found her to be able to understand anything about me.
While I had a bad habit of only talking about the things that needed to be “fixed” in my life, I was actually a big believer in the yin and yang of existence and did see the flip side of that coin. I was used to focusing on and being consumed by people and their culture. Being in Jeju has taught me something else. Mostly how to look inward and focus on the other things important to me. To grow in the ways I had been stuck. I was experiencing an awakening of balance. I had wanted things to be hard and different in a way that made me flourish in those neglected areas.
So many random thoughts continued to swirl. I missed cleavage. And smiles thanks to Covid. Besides it being frustrating to not be able to use the movement of my mouth for teaching, I had been more saddened to not be able to share the happy energy of my smile or to see that of my students. Students….teaching. I still couldn’t believe I’d become a teacher. I had heard many times in the past that teaching required a lot of patience but hadn’t realize that meant going slow. I was an impatient person so that had been a rough one. Not as rough as how I’d been treated though. While I felt good about the new school I was to start at, I still had mixed feelings about teaching at all after my experiences up to that point. Between working in the gig and hagwon economies, I had never understood and felt so grateful for regulation in my life. Hooray for laws and unions that protect!
Then there was the puppies. Oh the puppies.Why did they always insist on walking directly under my moving feet? As I looked at the chewed up power cord to my laptop, I wondered in frustration when the replacement Kathy was ordering for me would arrive. I was quickly calmed, though, by the thought that I had known what to expect from puppies. Including that there would be collateral damage. Watching the two sliding around Risky Business style on a daily basis, especially when hitting the puppy pads, I thought about how smart Mother Nature had been to make them too damn cute to stay mad at. I loved having them and to finally be back involved with something that had always been so important to me. Animal welfare. Still, I was not cool with the position I had been put in. To a point I understood though. It made me furious and broke my heart the way the country just killed dogs so easily. Especially when having a better program for neutering could have eliminated so much of the problem. As seemed to be the common choir of those doing goodwill work, it was overwhelming only being able to do a small bit for such a big need. Being a part of it meant being more aware of the bigger picture. I felt for the woman who had screwed me over by abandoning them with me because of that. I also had love for her efforts. She did just seem like a sweet gal in general, too. I continued to hope that meant that she hadn’t done it on purpose.
Our correspondence before my booking and after I had canceled another dog-friendly reservation:
I am a very clean person who respects the properties I live in.
I know you have listed the property as “no pets” but thought I would send the message just in case my unique situation happened to fit or you decide it does in the future.
Photo by Oscar K.
It wasn’t a scam, though. Not only was I about to staycation but I was going to do it for free and while doing my favorite thing on the island. Hiking! I was intimidated by how much, three trails in three days, but I was in! There were eight of us and I was the only one who lived on island. Then there was two sweet and young European guys in their early twenties. The stereotype of college-aged kids getting out there and traveling before likely settling into a more traditional adult life. My favorite person by the end was a quiet gal in her thirties from Mongolia. Who had unsurprisingly caught my attention at first, though, was an outgoing Korean woman who was somehow tied into the program in that she was the one who had found all of us on social media. There was also a laid back DJ from South Africa and a sweet Korean man who was also somehow volunteering with the program. How, I once again couldn’t tell you. It was surreal how little we were filled in about. Though I was becoming pretty used to it being a foreigner who didn’t speak the language. Other participants included an older couple from Canada consisting of a Korean woman and western man. I also enjoyed them and found it to be a bummer that they spent most of their time separated from the “younger” crew. As tended to be on repeat in my head, I thought about how, if they realized how old I was, they may have felt more comfortable to join. I also liked our sweet tour guide, though her being so soft-spoken often hard to hear her. Lastly there was the token obnoxious person. A man in his late twenties or early thirties who was so annoying, ignorant and insulting that I started to understand why so many Indian women had apologized to me about the men from their country. So many little things he said were just…I wondered if he was doing it on purpose to entertain himself. How he hoped Trump would stay in office purely for his entertainment, arguing in a cocky manner that hanging laundry was better vs using a dryer, the stupidest shit. He seemed quite intelligent in some way, though I had met plenty like that who still had terrible social skills. Regardless, it was hard to believe someone would constantly be as bad as he was.
Photo by Oscar K.
Meeting at the airport was a strange and fun start given that they were all flying in and I was just coming from down the street. Then going to lunch, I felt a sense of pride when we went to a beautiful tea house that I had been to before. It made me feel like a local though as a temporary expat, feeling any sense of ownership also felt wrong. After lunch, we went to a stone park that I likely never would have gone to otherwise. It was nice. More than anything it was great learning about the island’s heritage through the guide. One particular legend we learned about was how a large man-made cauldron had been a huge pot in the past that a woman named Seolmundae Halmang had fallen into when making food for her 500 sons. They were called the 500 Generals and were stone statues there. Not realizing that their mother had fallen in, they ate her when they got home. Alrighty then…
Checking into the hotel was a treat given that I never stayed in them on my own whims. It was a true staycation, though I couldn’t actually stay there the first night since the pups were home alone. Before having to make the hour and a half bus journey with three transfers home only to pay for a decently expensive taxi to return about 8 hours later, we all went to dinner. I found it strange that black pig BBQ or any meal at all hadn’t been set up as was done with the rest of the trip. Especially since black pig BBQ was one of the things the island was known for and what I found visitors usually wanting to eat as soon as they got there. Unofficially lead by our Korean compadres, we ended up at a traditional nothing-special restaurant with no kind of ambiance besides depressing old white white walls devoid of any kind of life. The sweet Korean man who in career was trying to do goodwill work in pharmaceuticals got on my bad side for a hot minute when purposely disregarding my three requests to order soju and beer. He didn’t drink and didn’t think anyone else should since we were on a hiking trip. I doubted he would have ignored the request from any of the men, though. Even the young ones. Already annoyed at being at a lame place with food choices that Westerners wouldn’t typically be fond of (something that seemed to be a common theme with the meals provided), it was probably for the best that I missed the rest of the night out with those who didn’t head directly back to the hotel. I did get a kick out of the irony of passing one of my favorite BBQ spots that I had no idea we were close to on my way to the bus stop though.
I may have ended up getting a miserably small amount of sleep but at least I got to get puppy love for the night and to see a beautiful sunrise in Swiss Village. From there it was another long trek back where I had half an hour in my hotel room before meeting up with everyone for the hotel’s included breakfast. After that it was only Olle route 1. Immediately hitting a super steep oreum (small volcano), the same man continued to get on my nerves when pushing me to keep going when it was physically possible to see how hard my heart was pumping and that I was breathing so hard that I could easily collapse if I didn’t take a breather. Even so, I thought he was sweet and just trying to fulfill his role (whatever that was) of being a volunteer with the group. Even though I was ready to strangle him.
It rained on us some that first day of hiking but I liked it. I also liked that we were in my favorite area up to that point, Seogwipo, and I was getting a kick out of how the outgoing Korean gal also somehow involved with the event would go ahead every few hours to run into cafes for coffee. I tended to prefer hiking alone and was often in front of everyone. It wasn’t fun trying to chat when I was struggling to keep up. Plus is was beautiful and there were so many things to take in. One of the stops I found particularly interesting was a museum where I learned about an artist named Lee Jung Seob from N Korea. I had previously seen his artwork on a street wall that had shocked me with giggles since it was adult cartoon-like sketches of naked bodies and crabs doing strange things. It was entertainingly out of place in such a conservative culture and a breath of fresh air to non-conservative me. A darker side of his story was that he had died a year after arrival due to a sickness caused by starvation. It was a sad tragedy that added a different dimension and drew me in even more.
Some of the loveliest moments came about because of participating in the Olle walking festival. One of those being when a group of teens were doing choreographed dances with the ocean in the background. Another being at the end of the last day when we plopped on the ground at a tea garden while a musician performed fun songs. Another of the places I had been to previously. I had also done half of one of the trails already as well as having visited some of the waterfalls I had already gone to. Of those of us who went out at night, our outgoing gal introduced us to a couple of cool new spots she had found by being in Jeju a lot is the recent past. It always cracked me up when someone from the mainland introduced me to new stuff on the island. The places were unfortunately dead but the night I lead the crew (on the DL of course) to a tourist bar overlooking the ocean named Sunset Cliff, it certainly wasn’t. I found the escapade especially entertaining when I got “in trouble” for dancing inside. It was apparently not allowed. Because of that, people were cramping into a very tiny outdoor lounge area attached to the inside in order to boogie. Beyond that, there was a much bigger space overlooking the ocean with cabana beds that gave our tired-asses a chance to lounge for a bit. I was uptight about not drinking too much or going to bed too late since we had our next hike in the morning. Especially since I tended to give into a “screw it” mentality and go all in if I was having too much fun.
Tangerine picking on a tangerine farm, fun lunch boxes and loving on random goats, dogs, horses and other animals…there were a lot of enjoyable moments both big and small that made me believe that the staycation I was on was going to end up being one of the fondest memories of my time in S Korea. We even went to a Korean winery for a tasting. I didn’t like the product but it was still fun. The whole shebang was a great time over all. By the time the end came, though, I was grouchy from being overstimulated and tired. Not to mention the goodbyes I was so bad at having arrived. A combo that lead to my bolting once back at the airport on the last day before saying much of a goodbye. Whoops. Well, goodbye my lovely compadres (minus that one dude). It was a great time with good people.
Being bad at goodbyes wasn’t the only reason I had bolted. Another was because the ride I had coordinated to help pick up the pups was already going be waiting at the guy’s house who had been watching them for the weekend. Not only had I never met the woman giving us that ride, I also hadn’t ever met the man watching them, either. That meant I had double the reason to not keep them waiting. Francois, the man watching the boys, was a colleague of Gaelin’s and already a super sweetie in my eyes for watching them. Both factors made it a little less surprising when finally meeting and instantly feeling drawn to him. I got a kick out of what his impression of me must have been of me, though, covered in hiking swag and dried sweat in my typical chaotic rush. Especially since the woman giving us a ride was already waiting in her car with the door open when I arrived. No pressure.
And the beat goes on. Somewhere around the time of finishing that adventure and starting my new job, I realized that I’d finally moved past the chapter of dealing with the heavy stuff that had gone down back home right before I had left the US. My first thought when realizing it was that those things must had attached to my first teaching job. When I had left the school, it had shut the door on both. A relief but also melancholy in that it had also shut the door on certain aspects of life and relationships that I didn’t want to be over.
That didn’t mean that my life was calm. That never happened. It only took three days for there to be more drama with the pups. The last interaction with the host had made me think it was OK to keep them after all but that I needed to work hard to find them new homes. Nope. With the communication between us continuing to be shit, Kathy started to play intermediary instead of the translation apps that had so obviously been failing. Her help definitely made things easier, though he continued to hit her up for everything and anything even after I had asked him to stop. I didn’t fight it too much, though. It was a relief (and a lot less work) to get the help.
During the ongoing communications with him, he had mentioned that he may have known of another property I could go to. After checking out other spots, I finally gave in and said OK. I still didn’t understand how he was attached to the property, nor had I seen it beyond some vague pictures, but I was too exhausted by the whole thing to figure out another option again. Both of those things made me uncomfortable, absolutely, but he said he would help me move and Kathy thought it was a good deal so I gave in. It was the norm anyway to only half understand what was going on as an expat who didn’t know the language. Oh how easy life was going to feel when I got back to the US. Easy and overwhelming given how I’d have so much more stimulation again once I could understand what everyone was saying. The bubble of leaving that part out wasn’t terrible.
Having to move again hit on the first week at my new hagwon. I was also catching a cold from Kathy who had been sick when we met to talk to the property manager (on the phone) a couple days before. The place was an hour and a half from the school and ended up being a building that was still under construction on the inside and was in the middle of nowhere along a highway. I was not happy. Especially given that I was paying about 20% over what I would have been elsewhere. Well, if I had been willing to sign a lease at least.
As far as the new hagwon went, it was instantly clear that it was better than the last one. I had known it would different, that’s why I had been drawn there, but it was still surprising how much. The vibe was about fun and caring with teachers being able to set up lesson plans however we wanted. A down side of the school being so laid back was that classes and students were so disorganized that I often got confused about which classroom I was supposed to be in, who my students were or what time my classes started and ended. The list of student’s names being in Hangul on the schedule also wasn’t helping to memorize who was whom. Indeed, even the best things had a “bad”. Thank goodness I had learned to remember that. One last example being that, while I was happy with my new classes being shorter, it was exhausting having eight back to back. A great outcome of no breaks, though, was my new work hours. They allowed small pleasures like getting to dine at restaurants I’d been eyeing and hadn’t been able to when getting off work too late. A definite win.
It came as both a relief and saddened me to constantly notice how the warmth toward students celebrated at the new hagwon had been almost frowned upon at the last. I even found a little dreaded entertainment in the fact that my worst student from the last had moved to the new. I didn’t know it then but he’d be gone within weeks, though, and was rarely in class anyway due to bad behavior. That being said, he had been surprisingly better with me than in the past. Beginning days at a new job always came with unexpected discoveries as well as some humorous stories to tell. One of my first being when my nipples got hard in class and a student asked if I was cold. Speaking of cold, the one I had been fighting had at least waited until the Friday of that first week to hit hard. There was a lot of pluses in that but my first thoughts had been “there goes my weekend” and “oh great, now my first impression on the students and their parents is that the new teacher is bringing in Covid”.
I was pretty much out for the count the next week. That included being so sick and exhausted that I fell off of a bench at a restaurant (with no one offering to help me up) and another time when I fell flat on my shins and knees on the stairs outside of my place when the toe of my shoe caught on the small part of the granite design that stuck out on each stair. I hurt myself pretty bad. Bad enough that I’d still be having issues a couple months later. I should have gone to the doc but, as an American who was used to horrible medical and treatment when trying to utilize it, I still avoided going unless absolutely necessary. It would take a long time for me to get over the PTSD of past experiences to trust good (or at least not horrible) medical.
The commute to work was still pretty rough from the new place but not having to take a connecting bus did show itself to be a big improvement. Walking close to 15 minutes to get to the bus stop wasn’t fun since it was along a highway but the nature on both sides of the road made it worth it. Between that walk from/to home, the 10 minute walk to/from the hagwon from the bus stop and 20 minute walks with the pups twice a day, I was getting my steps in and enjoying being mentally lazy about keeping up with workouts. It was also pretty great to be slowly losing weight without trying. Especially when I wasn’t watching what I was eating. Great but I was nervous about getting too used to it being such a piece of cake (pun intended) in regard to what would happen when I went home. It was also sad to think about what it meant in regard to what was in our food and my lifestyle back home. I tried not to think about that, though.
The pups kept growing and taking over my life as well as well as my bank account. Connections I made through animal welfare continued to help in every aspect, though. One way at that time being when one of the moderators for the Jeju Animals group on Facebook gave us a ride to the vet to get a round of shots. She was awesome and had a history of helping in animal welfare, though her focus was mostly with cats. A fact that quite obvious from the tons of cats she had at home and the impressive palace she had built for even more outside. Treating me to lunch after the vet visit, I thought for maybe the third time that day about how much I tended to like the people I met through any kind of shared love for animals.
Meeting her was one of the highlights of my month. Another was getting back the ceramic coffee filter I had painted at a cafe a couple months before as a remote workshop in honor of Burning Man. The third highlight was when I got the chance to walk to the beach from my new place for the first time. It may have been a little cold and rainy but it was was still pretty and an easy half an hour. That was exciting. One last highlight was starting to write sock puppet plays and making the puppets at school. It was a really fun first project and the owners were stoked on it. Indeed, it continued to prove itself as a very different place.
Come the end of the month and it was already time to move again. Ugh. I had been trying to decide between a few places on Airbnb and had finally committed to a high-rise apartment in the main downtown area of City Hall. Besides being location-convenient for their vet and work, the woman who lived there said she was OK with two puppies and that she loved dogs/would help. Excited at the potential, I was filled with love when the same woman who had given me a hand with getting the pups in for shots the week before (and her husband) came to help me move. Excitement turned into shock, though, when opening the door to the new apartment. The place was trashed. So much so that I instantly became worried about the host’s mental state and wanted to figure out a way to turn around and leave right then. Unfortunately I had to deal with Airbnb first.
Even my new friends had been worried enough about the condition of the apartment to start looking for a new place for me. There was no way I would be able to let the pups free in that environment which meant that they were trapped in our shoe-box of a room. About the only in-apartment positive of being stuck in there was that it had a beautiful view of the city and ocean in the distance. Well, that and a microwave in the kitchen, but I didn’t find that until I was moving out thanks to so much junk everywhere. Being able to leave didn’t happen for a couple weeks thanks to Airbnb. Man, I had loved them in the past but the shituation with the last place and the way they hadn’t helped had already broken my faith in them. The way they handled, or should I say wouldn’t, couldn’t and/or didn’t handle the new situation was at a whole ‘nother level.
The break in faith with them continued to get worse fast. I hadn’t bolted immediately as I had wanted because I wanted to confirm I could leave with a refund since I had already paid for the entire month. Instead, I couldn’t get a hold of anyone for days. When I finally did, it was (once again) a lot of generic responses and blow-offs. I was basically told to take care of it myself just as had been the case at the last place. My experience with them was so much work and so bad that it may had actually been the worst part of dealing with that dump. When I say dump, it’s literal. There was stuff dumped everywhere.
Being realistic, I knew I would keep using them if I had no other option. If I could find something else, though, I was done. At least I got a little reprieve on that first night after briefly meeting the woman hosting me (she didn’t speak English and I felt super weird given the situation) when heading to Hitchhikers for a couple drinks and apps with Kathy. Getting lost on what should have been a 10 minute walk there thanks to no GPS to use in those confusing urban streets (cue my once again being annoyed at our old coworker for telling me I wouldn’t need more data for things like that), she gave me a much-needed laugh when telling me through shivers that me she didn’t love me anymore after having made her wait half an hour.
Sorry friend. It had been one hell of a day.