first days: 23-25 August

I land at Incheon International Airport on Sunday afternoon after a twelve-hour flight from LAX. It takes over almost an hour to get through immigration and baggage claim. I exchange a small amount of currency and converse in Korean for the first time.

My recruiter has arranged for someone to pick me up from the airport. He’s an elderly man in small glasses holding a sign with my name. Another of my recruiter’s recruits, who sat two rows ahead of me on the plane and who’ll be teaching in Daejeon, is waiting with him. The old man grabs some of my luggage and leads us outside to the curb where we wait for a car. The other boy came from Ontario. Daejeon is a two-hour’s bus ride from where we are. I refrain from complaining about how long my flight was or making fun of him for ordering pineapple juice on the plane.

The man puts me into a large black van and gives the driver instructions. I wave goodbye to the other teacher before getting in, realizing vaguely that I have no control over what happens now. The driver calls someone from my school and puts me on the phone with her. She explains she’ll pick me up from the hotel at 10.30 the next day. When I hang up and look out the window to the hills near the motorway crawling with brush, verdant and shadowy in the weak light of the blood-red sun setting in a grey sky, I feel excited for the first time about what my life could be here.

I stay in a hotel right outside of 노원 역 (Nowon Station) for my first few days. When I arrive I accidentally understand the Korean that the car driver and the front desk attendant are exchanging and respond to her question–yes, I’m Lily from Nowon SLP. She immediately hands me a room key and a small packet of toiletries and after thanking my driver, I haul my suitcases up in a dinky elevator to the fifth floor. My key card doesn’t work. I haul my stuff back to the lobby. One of the desk attendants takes my luggage from me and we ride back up to the fifth floor in the small elevator and he immediately opens the door with the key–I just hadn’t been leaving the card in the door when I opened it. He brings my suitcases into the room for me, hefting them over the threshold, and I’m struck by the presence of this new social norm, which I followed at college friends’ houses but which is foreign to my own family and to the prevailing culture at home–taking shoes off before entering a household. After apologizing and thanking him profusely I slip my shoes off, enter the room, and the rest of the night is a daze.

The next morning Dana picks me up from the hotel. We meet at the elevators as I reach the first floor with all my luggage. She tells me I didn’t need to bring it all down because I’ll be staying in the hotel until I move into the apartment on the 26th. I return to my room, rearrange some of my belongings between suitcases, and return downstairs. Dana and I walk to 노원 역 and she helps me buy a one-way ticket. When we get to 하계 역 (Hagye Station) two stops down the line, she helps me buy a T-money card, explaining that it’s a re-loadable subway / bus / taxi / transportation card. She doesn’t know I’m familiar with the Oyster Card, the Clipper Card, the TAP card… so I stay quiet and listen.

We take a bus from the subway, but it’s only another two stops. I make a mental note to leave early to work and to walk the extra distance from the station. Our building has streamers crossing from its facade to poles at the other side of the sidewalk, a CVS convenience store, a Kimbap restaurant, and a coffee shop on the first floor. There’s another hagwon a floor below us.

My memories of my first day are somewhat dreamy–hazy, uncertain. I remember certain things with clarity at first and then think more about them and become unsure. I entered my new homeroom classroom as the kids were finishing their morning snack–japchae–which they eat slowly and with some difficulty. One of the boys throws his up onto the table and it still looks like new, not having been in him long enough to become anything else.

In Korean age, they’re seven, but depending on their birthdays they could be really as young as five. The teacher I’m replacing, Tamara, introduces me to the class and has the kids tell me their names. I’m dazzled by their cuteness. I sit at their table and observe them, and observe Tamara.

I follow Tamara around for the rest of the day. I’ll inherit all of her classes except “Venus” class, who are four years old. All the classes are named after planets. Our homeroom is “Saturn,” and throughout the day I also visit Uranus, and an unnamed classroom hidden in the back where I think my toughest students congregate–twelve and thirteen years old, all boys except one.

About halfway through the day I walk down the hallway towards the teacher’s room when a group of about seven little students, maybe five or six years old, suddenly appears in front of me and holds out small pieces of paper towards me–one of them says, “Lily Teacher, I love you,” in a voice so quiet I almost don’t hear it over the murmurs and excited chatter of the others. I realize the papers are cards they’ve made to welcome me to the school. I nearly cry there in the hallway, with kids I don’t know with their arms around my shoulders and stroking my hair. I realize how far away I am from home, how long I’ve wanted to do this, the chances I’ve taken, and the things I’ve left behind to be here.

At the end of the first day I am invited to go grocery shopping with a couple of the teachers. The other new teacher comes along. We walk from the school to a nearby Lottemart, where ladies with food samples call out advertisements. I’m asked directly by one quieter one when I get too close to her booth to try a small cup of puffed-grain cereal, and I do. The teacher I’m with grabs a box, convinced by my own recommendation. We lose the other two teachers and find them near a large booth where a woman is roasting 김 (seaweed sheets). She feeds us each a piece of 김 wrapped around rice.

“맛있죠,” she says to me, with a small smile. I nod, still eating.

“맛있어요,” I say. She hands me a small rice ball made with another kind of seaweed and nuts–주먹밥. I eat it too. Another teacher buys a bag of the crushed seaweed mix. A woman pulls me aside and tells me how to prepare her pre-packaged 떡볶이. I don’t understand everything she says, but one of the other teachers buys a bag.

The other teachers buy a cab to take me back to my hotel and take the subway back to their apartments. One of them tells me she’ll be back to pick me up the next morning.

I’m not someone who is often glad to be around other people–and Seoul feels fairly safe, and strangely, somewhat familiar. I feel okay, here, and I feel like I’d feel okay by myself. But I have been glad for the other teachers, again and again, who have been nice to me when they didn’t have to think of me at all.

On my second day of work–this morning–Heather and I walk to 노원 역 and take the subway to the bus to work. We enter a few minutes late. Saturn class is talking about where I am when I peep into the classroom before running down the hall to put my stuff down. I take a more active role in the class today, leading a grammar workbook activity and helping kids with what they don’t know. I had heard before that in hagwons kids were more likely to be grouped in classes with similar English skills. I don’t think that’s true at SLP. There is a huge diversity in capability and focus. But even Tamara told me that these are new books and they’re above the kids’ collective skill level. Saturn class joined in February with no English skills at all. When I asked Tamara about how that was, she fixed my gaze and was quiet for a moment.

“It was rough,” she said.

I didn’t inquire further.

Over the past few days, teachers have been consistently surprised at my prior knowledge of or familiarity with Korean foods. Part of me just wants to say–listen, as a vegetarian of seven/eight years, do you think I’d have come to this country without having researched on what I could actually expect to eat? And part of me is patient, explaining over and over that I am from a part of California with a high population of Korean Americans, and the university I attended has a high concentration of Asian Americans, so many Asian cultures and their foods are well-known where I’m from.

More than that… I’ve been interested in these things. I have been slightly surprised to hear certain foreign teachers speak in somewhat negative tones about things here, like they weren’t expecting to have to get used to or to learn something new. One of the teachers who went to Lottemart with us seemed to know less Korean than me, and she’s been here a good part of a year, I think.

The Kimbap place in our building has a 유부야채 (fried tofu & vegetable) roll, so I have ordered it the past two days, each time pushing out the little piece of crab stick from the pieces before eating them sitting in private at my temporary desk in the teacher’s room. Each roll of kimbap costs about ₩2,500 (~$2.00). I bought a 2L bottle of water for ₩1000 (~$0.85) at the convenience store next door. Even a six-pack of 2L bottles only cost ₩3,500 at Lottemart. Coming from California–that was a bit of a shock. Tonight I had kimchi-flavored instant ramen at my hotel for ₩850 (~$0.75). I’m still getting used to the numbers–seeing ₩1000 is a lot different from hearing a till person tell me I owe 천원 (cheon-won), and numbers above 10,000 are still extremely difficult for me to manage… so maybe as long as I continue to eat this way I won’t have to worry about that…

I go home alone after work today–the first time I’m out alone in the city. I decide not to take a bus from the school to the subway station, and instead I walk there, relying on my past two journeys to the school on the bus for reference. It’s raining lightly–a typhoon blew through today, bringing slightly cloudier, slightly cooler, and slightly rainy weather to the city. Whereas in England, nobody carries umbrellas unless it’s been raining for forty days and nights, in Seoul everyone carries an umbrella. I have the hood of my windbreaker pulled up as I walk to the subway station, but I don’t feel it’s raining hard enough to pull out my umbrella, so I cradle it in the crook of my arm as I walk, raindrops dotting my face lightly as the wind carries them horizontal.

Nowon-gu is clean–buildings are aesthetically pleasing, in light colors, and signs overhang walkways politely, glowing through mist lightly. Streets are wide and crosswalks are double-lanes. Some older women and men double-take at me in the subway or on the street, but for the most part, I don’t feel out of place or extraordinary here. I feel…content–I think–walking from the school to the station in the light rain, almost completely anonymous. I board the subway easily, choose the correct exit the first time, and walk leisurely back from 노원 역 to the hotel, where the desk attendants bow and I return it without feeling awkward for the first time. I enter my room, staring around at my things and thinking–I just did something I haven’t ever done before.

I stay in this hotel for a few days, but it’s just today that I figure out how to turn the air conditioning on. The past two days I have figured that it was operated by the thermostat next to the light switches on the wall, but today I pick up the TV remote–or what I have thought to be the TV remote–and am surprised to see a section on it labeled 에어컨 (eh-eo-keon–air conditioning). There are buttons labeled 18, 21, 24, 27. I immediately press 18, and a little flap on the air conditioner opens like a mouth, immediately expelling a belt of cold air. That was a few hours ago. Now I’m at the desk shivering occasionally.

Tomorrow I move into my apartment after school ends. Nobody there has given me any details about it or what to do. Tamara has offered to go home with me from school and help me get my things to the apartment and to help me move in. She moves to a public school in Suwon City in a couple days. She told me how when she moved into her apartment the person who was supposed to help her wasn’t there when she got there and so she wants to make sure that doesn’t happen for me. Again, I’m grateful for not only the help of one teacher to a new teacher but for simple human kindness.

Moving here…has not been easy. And I did it by myself. I haven’t really, I think, had it sink in, what I’m doing–I’ve been calm. One of the Korean teachers asked me today if I miss home. I said not yet. I haven’t been gone that long. There were people I wasn’t able to see before I left that I miss–there are things I didn’t do before I left that I wish I did. But for the most part, I have been ready to leave home, and to be here, for quite some time. Still, despite this, I’m in a country over 6,000 miles from where I was born, where they speak a language I don’t know well and have a culture I don’t know well and where I don’t know many people… I’m quiet, and shy, and not great at being social or making friends. I don’t know the area yet so most of the time I have no idea where I am or how to get where I want to go. Everything is new, and I’ve come here on my own.

So when people are nice to me–I feel it more than I have before. The past half year my life has expanded my range of emotions incredibly through new experiences at home, but I think I’m learning true gratefulness here. And I think I will continue to learn other things.

In today’s last class, the kids are eight to ten years old, though they’re all ten or eleven in Korean age. When Tamara introduces me to the kids, a couple of them are looking at papers in their hands that I think they pulled from envelopes. I look through the back of one of the papers and see that it’s a letter–I spot a photo of my own face near the bottom. I realize that it must be a letter that the school sent home with kids to their parents to introduce me before I arrived. A chill crawls down my spine. The kids are unruly, their gazes often flickering to mine before they perform some great disturbance. I sit and watch, observing without making any movements to stop them–it’s still Tamara’s class today, and I’m tired, jet lag having caught up to me by now.

Before packing up the loose things strewn about the hotel room, I sit on the bed and listen to the sound of a train rumbling over nearby tracks; the occasional tapping of rain at the window; the squeal of tires on the wet ground below; the chime of the elevator passing through the fifth floor as it runs up and down the building. Another train passes. A pair of footsteps sounds from down the hall. I turn off all the lights and open the window. From below, a car starts in the darkness.

packing (pt. 2)

When I was looking at my suitcases while they sat empty in my closet the past week or so, I thought they were too big… but now that I have packed nearly all the clothes I own and 2/3 of the shoes plus the other various things I wanted to bring with me in case I end up not finding them in Seoul, I have found that while there’s a little wiggle room in each, I used up more room than I thought I would. I’ve already second-guessed taking everything several times, but I packed my clothes into compressor bags and it’d be a hassle to sort through things again. I suppose when I weigh the luggage later today I’ll figure out if I’m really able to avoid that kind of thing.

One of the things I despaired about when considering the move was that I won’t be able to bring my books with me. It’s probably just as well… I don’t know how much free time I’ll have when I start working / making attempts at being somewhat social / exploring. So I ended up choosing my enduring favorites, a scant five paperbacks, one hardback, and a few printed-out PDF files of short stories. I’m already amused thinking about the tiny impact they’ll have on my new apartment compared to the brimming bookshelves I have in my room at home.

(Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog by Dylan Thomas, Widow by Michelle Latiolais, Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, Fragile Acts by Allan Peterson, “Chinatown” by Oh Jung Hee, and “The Last of Hanako” by Ch’oe Yun… if you were curious.)

Time has really gotten away from me lately. I’m usually really efficient about packing, but as someone pointed out to me, this time I’m packing for a longer period of time than I ever have before–not just the physical labor of that task is more daunting, but the emotional impact is completely different. There’s some security in packing up a few of your things knowing you’ll be home in a few months and can resume a lifestyle of wearing more than two different t-shirts each week…

I’m still tired–physically, my body just feels heavy. I’m hoping to stay up all night / most of the night tonight and sleep a few good hours before leaving for LAX early tomorrow morning. A friend of mine introduced me to melatonin pills yesterday and I think I may finally have found something that helps me feel vaguely like I slept at all–which is nice, and I’m glad it’s new, so the novelty of a good night’s sleep has a chance of enduring through this transition.

packing (pt. 1)

My personality is, I think, a strange hybrid of planner and procrastinator. I spend most of my time in my head, anyway. Overthink things, as a rule. But for some reason my plans for my future are only certain in general ideas—I will go to Korea, I will go back to school for at least two more degrees, I will finish that book before I board my flight, I will finish sorting the papers under my bed before I leave… But when it comes to figuring out the details of how I’ll do those things, I tend to wait until sometime uncomfortably close to the last possible moment. I suppose that I like to leave my options open, and I’m pretty good at making decisions or springing to action on my feet; I tend to rely on a kind of intuition in the moment, and sometimes it’s just a kind of physical foreboding that tells me, it is now time to do this thing that you’ve been putting off.

The thing is, while I’m putting it off, I’m thinking of a lot of different possible ways I could do it. So I guess I’m prepared when it’s time to make a decision. In any case, this is how I tend to live day to day.

With packing—it’s like this, too. People have been asking me for months now if I’ve packed or started packing… that seems like a question in a foreign language when I hear it. I stifle the impulse to say, if it were YOU would you have packed a month before your flight? Or would you have waited till the night before like I probably will? and instead I say no, I don’t mind packing, I don’t have a lot to take, I’ll probably do it sometime before I leave lol haha I really don’t know when I’ll do it and I’m not doing it right now… so I’ll do it later…

It’s getting to be later. My flight is midday on Saturday (22 Aug) and today it’s Wednesday (19 Aug). Of course, for weeks I’ve been thinking about what I’ll bring and what will be in which suitcase and what shoes I’ll have to leave behind and what books out of the hundreds gathering dust in my shelves I’ll have to part with and whether to bring the last few issues of my subscription of Vegetarian Times in my carryon or to leave them behind… A few weeks ago I bought compression bags and plug adaptors and since then I’ve been stocking up on things I won’t be able to find once I’m not in the States anymore, but all of the things I’ve gathered have just kind of scattered throughout my room and heaped in piles on the floor even though I’ve had my luggage for over a week, now, and it’s just sitting empty in my closet.

Figuring out what to bring is the most difficult part of packing, in my experience. The physical act of moving things from drawers to luggage isn’t tedious to me, and I actually enjoy rolling every item of clothing I own into the smallest roll possible and stacking it into the space like Tetris blocks. There’s something satisfying about being able to carry your stuff around with you when you travel; the self has tangible borders… there’s no other time in your life than when you’re moving that you have all your things on you at once, I think.

I’m still sorting through my college papers. As an English and Creative Writing major I produced an incredible amount of written work over the four years, plus the drafts of a few projects I’ve worked at since that time. I have a huge headache from all the dust and I’m relentlessly tired lately, so it goes slow, and I’m running out of time. I think I won’t sleep very much in the next few days…

pre-move: introduction

Of course the question is why, or what made you want to do that. I don’t have a true, short answer. I could get philosophical–I could get I don’t really believe the place you’re born is the place you should be or I felt what it was like to belong somewhere before and I don’t feel it here so I’m leaving. But those are probably just sligtly-dramatic explanations for something that, in fact, is simple and behind which there are no complicated reasons. I was looking for a job. I felt compelled to seek out a teaching job in Korea. I felt like I should do it. I still feel I’m meant, somehow, to do this, but saying exactly why… I don’t think I can say exactly why. My answer is slightly different every time.

I’m trying to answer the questions again anyway.

I was first made aware of the possibility of teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) abroad in October 2013, when I received an email from the Career Center at UC Irvine advertising JET, the Japan Exchange and Teaching program. For a while I looked into it, but the deadline to apply was only a week or so later than the email came, and I had nothing prepared. But it was in my head. I gradually started looking more seriously into the opportunity, facing blunt and often skeptical questioning about my motives. I wasn’t convinced that I had to have my motives sorted before applying, but in the end, I still put off applying to any program like JET seriously until well after I graduated from UCI in June 2014.

Applying through just one recruiter at first, I found out the hard way when I was accepted as a teacher into a chain hagwon (private school/academy) but then later it fell through for reasons out of my control. When I had shaken off that disappointment, I took some actions to try to repair the damage, but I wasn’t, in the end, able to make it happen. By this time it was March 2015. I spent some time thinking quite seriously, critically, about why I wanted, so badly, to teach English in Korea, what my motives were beyond a kind of vague conviction that it was something I was just supposed to do, and if it wasn’t just better to enter the corporate machine as many of my same-year friends from uni had already done much earlier. But I knew that wasn’t what I graduated from uni with an impractical degree in English literature and creative writing for, so I held off on rekindling my perfervid affair with full-time local job applications.

After a little while, I visited a coffee shop one day with a high school friend visiting  from Seattle where she was then (and now, as I publish this post) working at Amazon and applied to ten different recruiters in a single sitting, overcome by a bout of productivity and single-mindedness. I pounded out the same responses to the personal questions that asked me why I thought I’d be a good teacher, why I thought the recruiters should choose me, what my experience was, what I thought about cultural differences, etc etc. Within the next week I received answers from almost all of them, and most of them requested interviews.

The process since then has been long, confusing, and frustrating. Interviews and interviews and interviews–for someone who is shy like me and more articulate in writing than in speaking (under pressure), the process was unnerving. I was told again and again that a specific kind of countenance and personality was attractive to employers but to be myself… which was like being told to make cold water hot with my own willpower. But I managed to do it, apparently, and I landed a job with a hagwon in the northeastern-most district in Seoul: Nowon-gu. It’s kind of an ideal geographical situation, especially for a first-time teacher. I have to thank my recruiter for getting me into Seoul. I hear it’s not easy these days, as the ESL market in Korea becomes more and more inundated with foreign English teachers.

Answering the question–but why?–I don’t really know how to answer it. I know that in the past when I’ve travelled, that special and private loneliness and openness to newness and novelty has felt so … so like me, that it’s become a vital part of my self-identity. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of loner who could occasionally share in society… a wanter of things who never really spent the time to build up the social repertoire to get them, I like my vagabond self, my hermit tendencies, my secret humor at the big world that rushes and converges around me but whom I still manage not to touch… except when travelling, when I find myself removing my coat in beer-crusted pubs in a town I’ve never been before speaking an accent I don’t quite understand and not feeling like my skin is crawling, instead thinking, I could come here again, or I’ll remember this place the next time I’m writing

I feel my true self when travelling, as a vessel of observation and curiosity. There’s a poem that’s made a huge impression on me, called “Free Dirt” by Henri Cole. In particular, a few lines have branded themselves into me so thoroughly and permanently, and so describe me to myself, that I often find myself reciting them without thinking–

What am I but this flensed
syntax, sight and sound,
in which my heart, not
insulated yet, makes
ripple effects down the line?

Writing… I have this theory that writing is about letting your heart get full as you go through your days, filling it by observing, by experiencing, by finding out, by paying attention, by remembering and thinking and being aware of what goes on around you, by letting feelings have a certain reign without questioning them too much… until it becomes unbearably stuffed. When it’s too full, that’s when you sit down and write, unstuffing, as it were, what’s in there, and examining it closely. From there, I shape all of that into something that resembles a story, moving it around physically–the syntax, the space on the page, the visibleness of words, these can be moved–and questioning it–what if, this, what if, that–and asking it to bear some extra material–from dreams, from wonderings, from experiments… So writing is made of experience after it’s gone through the filter of my body… I take in, I write out on paper. With my life, it seems like the responsible thing to do, to travel as much as I can, to learn as much as I can, if I hope to write something really good someday. I think… I think I was born to write something. So I live my life in hopes of finding out what that is. Until then, I prepare for it. I would like to be ready for the story when it’s time for me to write it.

As for Korea, specifically, and teaching English, it comes down to this: I love language. I love English. I like its weirdness and specific capacities, its confusion and its greediness, its evolutions and its secret transformations. This paired with some experience in teaching, with some experience with kids… with some interest in Korean culture after having taken some Korean literature / culture studies classes at university and having begun the horrible process of teaching myself the language and learning the country’s long history, studying its national rebirth after the Korean war and its development into one of the world’s greatest economies both struggling against and preserving its own ties to its past… things led to this. I feel that things have led to this.

I was hired in May. These last few months have been languorous and odd; I have often felt that I may have been born full of longing, riotous with distances, but it’s grown sharp lately, acute somehow, as if the act of waiting is a catalyst for my mutation. These days (and always), no matter how excited I am, I’m always sleepy, like my body’s never forgotten what it was like before it was born, filmed with a milky protective layer it sheds after birth, aqueous, aware of a bigger heartbeat. I like the Korean phrase for “sleepyhead” — 잠꾸러기 (jam-kku-reo-gi); there’s something cute about it, and pertaining to me, there’s something a bit … funny about it, too, ironic, maybe. I’ll be working full time and I still have plans to explore the country, perhaps to travel abroad to Taiwan or Japan or Hong Kong. I think… it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to sleep as much as I’m used to, and certainly not as much as I have lately. Right now I sleep like I have not yet been born.

So in memory of a time that I slept and could be my true self, I’ve chosen my URL. I look forward to seeing how much I will be able to sleep from now on.