Going out to dinner once a week with Kathy was my salvation. Besides being a big-ole exhale to have help with local cuisine and communication, it was great great to have someone to hang with. I knew we were to become friends. Especially after she gave me a giggle one night out when she half-jokingly mentioned that she wasn’t sure if she wanted work friendships to become personal after something I had said spooked her. Based on past experience, that was a jinx that we would become friends. If anything, I would end up being the one to feel spooked and suffocated thanks to my sensitivity of being tied down in any wee little way. Intimacy and commitment issues much?
I was double thankful we had those nights when the hot and sticky as hell monsoons felt like they would go on forever. Those raging storms didn’t bring a bit of reprieve to the oppressively miserable heat that the rain did back at home. Just sideways rain and lots of wind. Damn global warming made it worse than ever before. At least I wasn’t on the coast where it was really doing damage or back home in California where wildfires were raging. The dry riverbed on my walk to work had water for once which was one of the tiny pieces of nature I got to enjoy during my weekdays. What I wasn’t enjoying was a head of frizzy hair that was breaking thanks to what seemed to either be the weather or the water from the shower that I needed a water softener to remedy. Those new little experiences and observations were still coming on a normal basis. Jeju having free wifi over so much of the island was nice. The bad driving on the island got on my nerves more and more, though, as did locals trying to convince me it was tourists from the mainland. You mean that work truck, the person obviously going to work or the parent taking their kids to school are tourists? Yeah right. There were also other things that were getting to me more and more. Ignorance, vanity, superficiality, panicking easily, being self-centered, conservative, sexist, prejudice, polite but in a two-faced way, lack of street smarts and common sense. I was so damn sick of so much sugar everywhere. I mean in wheat crackers? Really?!?
I did see that people could be sweet, helpful and plenty of other good that I probably wasn’t going to be able to feel until I got out of the toxic work situation. I knew those ugly feelings were slanted because of the hagwon jading everything though I had found a little reprieve in Mun***, while still not being great, having gotten better. He had even made his first non-negative comment about my work when saying that a worksheet I had made was fine. Wahoo! And it had only taken five months! He was in a great mood the day of that comment to the point of acting with an uncharacteristic lack of negativity toward me. It made more sense when finding out later that it was his birthday. Maybe not as much as on that day but he continue to be more chill from then on, making me wonder if he had been so horrible because he had been pushing me out on purpose. Maybe, or maybe because I had finally stood up for myself when ripping into him two separate times. Once in front of Mr. K and again in front of Mrs. P. Typical bully BS.
Rob also pointed out that maybe it was because I had started being picked on by others in general. Especially by Mrs. P. She had even had a compete meltdown in front of the entire staff that tripped everyone out (in Korean of course) when I was “so rude” as to leave a file of a class that had been permanently completed on her desk.
I suddenly couldn’t do anything right and the staff was talking about me, which just piled onto the always ongoing BS that already had me so burnt out. One-sided blaming and then maybe ask questions later, usually without letting me defend myself at all. Me, the inexperienced and struggling one, being the one to be given that class during our prep hours as well as an extra couple classes at other times while Rob was given leave two days early on our longer days when the schedule had been switched for the new semester. I was genuinely was happy for him (and it was fun to tease each other with it) but WTF! Not that I expected better.
So much of the typical hagwon crap that drove foreign teachers mad continued on as well. We continued to get “in trouble” for not changing or doing things that we had never been told about, to be put in rough situations in class because of it and to not being communicated with in general. A lot of it being typical of hagwons from what I had read but still a new experience for me. All in all, it just added on more and more to a hurting hear. I often reacted to it by dramatically panicking or freezing, which I didn’t like, but I also tried to remind myself that, not only had I been pulled over from the other side of the world and put in that situation without experience by those people, but it was the first time I was sticking up for myself. I needed to be forgiving and patient. Still, I wasn’t happy about it and vowed to do better next time. I also told myself that if I was as “bad” with the next job, I wasn’t meant for teaching. I’d be relieved to know either way.
I had known for a while that Burning Ban was going to be canceled with everything going on with Covid. It worked out great for me but still, I had so many conflicting feelings. Most of all my already tattered heart shredded into a million different bloodied pieces. I loved that city being built and the spirit it brought. There would be so many people who were going to miss out on their virgin burn. So many who had gone for the first year in 2019 and, having forever been changed, had been losing their mind with anticipation. So many who were counting on it for healing and whose whole life revolved around it. It hurt when people thought the burn was just a big rave. First of all, I’m not into that scene nor am I a “festie”. Not to say I won’t be in the future. Burning man, though, gave me extreme depth in so many of the most important things that didn’t much relate to those other.
BURNING MAN GAVE ME HEALING
From losing my pup.
From sexual assault.
From a world that told me I was wrong.
From shame. Especially in my body and sexuality.
From growing up in the Catholic Church.
IT ALSO GAVE ME
A world where people like me were the norm.
Celebration and community.
An adult playground.
Proof that people can be beautiful to one other.
Creativity and dreams.
So damn much adventure.
And that’s just the start.
I tried to get into the virtual stuff that was done the week the city was supposed to be built. It did help to still see spirit but more than that, it hurt. So much about the burn was foundationally physical, there would be no way to embody it virtually. Still, I donated money and had much love for those putting it on. They had to know that the community would be poo pooing it with their pain, feeling the same way I did. Snark was an unfortunate part of the culture though it was usually only experienced in excess behind the scenes. A lot of people turned into dicks off-playa. It did help to see people post or talk about special moments they did manage to find. Mine totally playing into Burning Man’s spirit when, I had unexpected workshop afternoon of going to a cafe where I painted a coffee filter about my previous burns. Video hangs with my friends, camps and the Sparkleverse ended up giving me enough closure for the year’s loss. So yes, I was indeed grateful.
Life kept on keeping on. With things continuing to get more and more shifty at work, I got paranoid when finding four-inch long-black hairs around my apartment. Especially because I had heard too many horror stories about things hagwon bosses had done to their teachers. Asking Gaelin is she thought I had something to worry about, she said it was probably her dog Honey that I had watched. Duh Robin! lol
Starting to get a little grasp on that new world, I wondered how much money I’d lost by buying stuff I didn’t like due to only being able to guess at what it was. For example, one night I accidentally ate hearts and brains for dinner. Ick. Yeah, I was getting pretty sick of wasting money trying new food just to trash it.
I also started to realize how much time had gone by when having a hard keeping up with the talking speed a nurse in Dr. Vlad’s office was talking when I called about my meds. Didn’t help that she was being less than agreeable thanks to what I assumed was our last encounter when the staff had screwed up my med refill and took a couple months to fix. I wondered if that was how it was going to be from then on and started to question whether or not to look for another specialist. ITP was so rare and specialized, it seemed like a lot of work. Probably too much. I would never be happy with Dr. Vlad disclosing info. to my sister without authorization months before (we still weren’t talking) but I was mostly happy with him. Filing the situation away, it was a battle to be fought another day.
Finally after all that time, I went on my first Olle hike. Trail 14-1 to be exact, and good lord was I excited. Starting at the Osulloc tea house, it seemed the norm for Olles to start at and pass great places that would have been nice to stop at. I would find out a couple months later, though, that I was actually starting at the end. One of the fun things along the trail that surprised me was a set of miniature viking ships. Well, I could only assume were some kind of South Korean ships, but the Viking version was what I was accustomed to. One of the other refreshing moments was when I passed some horses and their foals. A little farther down the trail was a large male horse tied away from the rest who tried to bite my nipple off when I stopped to say hello. I should have known what was coming from his gigantic semi.
I was getting around on weekends and work wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed the kids and doing art projects together when we could. It was going to be hard leaving them but it was a sadly toxic situation that had to be changed. Every once in a while I would see how much the stress was get to me. One night I literally scared myself when walking past the mirror to see a haggard reflection with horrible bags under my eyes. An internal voice scolded me. I couldn’t keep letting myself be exposed to something that was doing that to me. It was too unhealthy.
It never stopped being entertaining how much the big and life-changing moments so often came about unexpectedly. Meeting up with a local expat who had Jeju shirts made that many of us had gone in on, she told me about a dream job listing when asking how things were at work. It was to start part time and was looking for a teacher who was affectionate, really cared about the kids (not a “thing” for many soulless hagwons) and whose teaching style was through art and activity. I stopped right there in that pet store where we had met and applied.
Speaking of pets, I got my first foster! A little girl pup who had been found stuck in a drain and AHAA did I love her! So did all the friends and family back home, especially if we video-chatted, most of whom was probably my pop. Everyone, including the couple who had rescued her and half myself, expected me to adopt her. Just like how so many had been supportive of my idea to get a conversion van, so did adopting seem to be believed to be a good fit for me. That was great but also an uncomfortable feeling given that I had lived a life of a lot more disapproval for my thoughts and choices. Also ironic since I was trying to hold off on adopting considering that I wanted to travel in between leaving Jeju and going home to the US. Thinking about how upset I’d be if Covid killed that travel, I was struggling to fight off thoughts about giving in since I’d be double bummed if I hadn’t adopted because of something that never came to be anyway.
I first named that little girl after my niece but quickly changed it to what had been the second choice for her name, Aurora. My heart ached with the affection I felt for little Aurora’s personality. She was impartial the way cats tended to be which reminded me of my girl, Layla. The dog I had lost four days after her 10th birthday, on my mom’s birthday, five years before. I loved Aurora instantly. For reminded me of Layla, for her being my first foster and because it was too damn darling how little she was. There was drama right away, though, when I got blamed for the dog who had been barking upstairs since I had moved in. An attached not fun moment was when another tenant of the building blamed me for having the dog that had been barking since I had moved in. An accusation that also caused drama with my boss who then said that I would have to pay more for cleaning but at least he didn’t say she had to leave. Aurora even been alive for half the time that barking had been going on and yet I was being blamed for it. I hoped it wasn’t a prejudice based on my being a local female foreigner but it sure felt like it.
Lord knows how I was doing it during such a stressful time but my “things to see” list was getting impressively shorter. I was down to the things lower on my list like finally making it to the Manjanggul Lava Cave on the other side of the island. Not the best to do it when hungover, especially when already having bad balance and vertigo, but I did it none the less. The uneven and slippery floors made me think about how it wasn’t something that would be allowed in the US. It also made me think about questionable terrain that I had been on with my teens in India. It hadn’t dawned on me that being in a slippery cave might also freak me out after I had just fallen on the wet steps outside my place with the pup in my arms a few days before. We were OK, her having twisting and turned on the way down and my trying to keep her from getting hurt before saving myself, but it was still scary after such a bad fall not too many months before. At least I hadn’t landed on my back and butt on the actual stairs like the time before. It did piss me off enough to finally talk to Mr. Kim about both times though. Fairly certain he never talked to the owner which did piss me off even more. Add it to the list, eh? The cave was cool and I was glad that I finally did it but it kind of boring. Just like Aaron, my buddy back home, had said of the caves he had visited. If a NASA geologist thought it was boring, there was no way I wasn’t going to.
The weather was finally not horrible that weekend so I forced myself to make an effort the next day to take advantage of it. Making it to a beach where I was looking for a secret swimming hole, I never found it but did manage to find a beautiful view with a long rock coming out of the ocean that I jokingly called Cock Rock. I was too weak and worn out after that, though, to do much other than a short walk along a beautiful Olle hiking trail while making note of doing the whole trail for the future. My highlight for the day being when I found a little hut that sold coffee and fresh tangerine juice. The place was totally my style and so was it’s gorgeous coastal jungle location. It made me think of Thailand and was just the kind of scene I came to Jeju for. It was like a shot of calming medicine, though I did find myself frustrated at forgetting bug repellent when I started being eaten alive thanks to the mosquitoes that came out.
Aurora got her first big walk at a little over a mile when going to the vet to get her started on shots. She still had a chest infection so couldn’t end up doing it but going made me feel all warm and fuzzy when the vet gave me the meds she still needed for free. Wow. That certainly wasn’t like California. What started as a doctor appointment ended up being a lovely morning of watching her walk in that cute, excited and clumsy way puppies do, enjoying carrying her like a little Joey in my Camelbak and coming across a little patch of forest that had been turned into a neighborhood park instead of being cleared. All that time it had been less than a mile away. At first I got frustrated that I hadn’t thought to look at a map of the area where I might have been able to discover it but I probably wouldn’t have seen it anyway. When overwhelmed/overstimulated, my mind always did this thing where I couldn’t take in anything else, even if it was right in front of me. In a sense, I’d go blind.
That Friday, I met Met Leo and Gaelin at a casino for a night out, half wondering if it would be worth it. Getting off work at 9:30 PM already meant that the party was likely to be in full swing by the time I got there. Add in that I had to go check on the pup, too, and it could already be winding down. Oh well. I didn’t like gambling anyway. It was fun to meet them, though, even if it was for a short while. It was also entertaining that it ended up being in the hotel Glen and I had stayed in. It was also nice to have a reason to get a lil snazzy with a leopard cocktail dress and to say to say hi to their friends who I had met at the pension. Enjoying a couple beers on the sea wall, it was back to the pup just a couple short hours after I had left.
Kelly from work texted me that Sunday saying that she wanted the toaster oven back that she had lent me when I had first moved in. Though typically out of character, I half-thought it was meant to be a jab with the way it tied into all the other drama. Already agitated later that night while thoughts about how my weekend had been a flop, I broke a bottle of expensive wine when getting back from the store. Ever seen the meme about getting a belt loop caught on a door handle being the final straw? Yeah, I was there.
Given the previous weekend, I was more than ready for Gaelan and I to have a big night out the following Wednesday for the kickoff of a holiday weekend. The Korean version of Thanksgiving, a harvest festival called Chuseok, also gave us Thursday and Friday off just like in the states. After meeting up with her, Leo and two couples they were friends with at a convenience store called CU in the area called City Hall (where drinking on benches outside was allowed), the three of us went to a restaurant. Gaelin and I had previously seen it during the day when the neighborhood was a ghost town with that particular restaurant displaying a chandelier hanging almost to the floor. It had made the scene even more eerie during the day and I continued to dislike at night.
Leo was buzzed, tired and started passing out soon after ordering some delicious pasta. We all dove into it instead of us dames diving into the tacos we had ordered. Turned out there weren’t actually Mexican tacos but some kind of seafood that we ended up offering to the cute Korean gals sitting by us. After Leo left, they ended up asking to join for an impromptu lady’s night, which was the cutest thing, but worried me because they seemed so young and innocent. As the night went on, I had the inevitable first experience of some drunk punk chicks talking shit about my weight in Korean (as if I couldn’t figure it out) while Gaelin tried to comfort the “friend” of their group who was obviously the one they normally picked on. Other than that, it was just a random ‘ol night of fun and debauchery with the young ladies indeed running off once we started talking sex. What can I say. We were Western and older. It was bound to happen. Those sweet little things were in way over their heads. The next day I was to wake with a big ‘ol gigantic knobby bruise on my leg. When asking Gaelin if she remembered what happened (I was clumsy in general so typically dismissed slipping, running into things, etc.), she eventually told me that some random blacked out guy had accidentally rammed me into a table after his friend had woken him up. First, though, her response had been to send a picture of the two of us with me blowing a smooch at a statue of Iron Man. It was an epic response that I’d be laughing at for weeks.
Photo by Gaelan Whitney