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.