Banpo Bridge (반포대교)

The place where I live seems secluded and narrow, smells like fish and bakeries and fried food and spice and exhaust fumes and sometimes lovelier things—fresh air, dirt—the moment after exiting the underground and breaking street-level. There are a lot of buildings, a lot of apartments, and the looming dark faces of the mountains visible from most windows. There are the udon shops, the soju jibs, the kimbab snack bars, the toast take-out places, the Paris Baguettes and Pizza Huts and Lotterias and T-worlds and second-story bars and underground Norebangs and, the ever-on-the-move landmark visible at most hours from my fifth-floor apartment, the fifty-strong packs of elderly hikers in full hiking gear—shirts, jackets, trousers, trainers, backpacks, hats, and hiking sticks—roving the streets, their own urban trails.

I haven’t seen much of Seoul, yet. Sometimes it feels like maybe I’m not here at all. Living isn’t hard here, or extremely foreign—except the language barrier and the little cultural differences that add up and leave me overwhelmed and sometimes shaken at the end of each day. I find myself wondering all the time—why did I come here? When I don’t even speak the language, when I don’t know anything about it here, when there’s nobody here I know or who knows me… why did I come here? And what I’m seeing, is this the country I came so far to see? I teach “animation” one period to a different kindergarten class each day, usually the animation Franklin about the animal kids, and this past week we watched  “Franklin’s Bad Day,” in which Franklin is upset because one of his best friends moved away. In two different classes it made me tear up—one student noticed me, so I smiled and shook it off. But I’m feeling a bit homesick for the first time, these days. Homesick…but I’m glad I’m not home.

When the line 7 train I’m taking to the Express Bus Terminal in Seocho-gu from Hagye, there’s a jarring moment at which the train exits the darkness and the carriage is washed with white light—I see the blood red sun disappearing into the cotton wool clouds and colorless sky above a mildly shining river, the bridges stacked up with evening traffic headed north after work, the mountains in the distance, the towering buildings, apartments, the vague and frenetic motion of a city quite alive and unaware of my gaze—and I think, this is why I am here—for the privilege of observation and a small partaking in a culture much larger, much more mysterious, much older and much more persisting than any I have ever observed or encountered before—this is the country that rebuilt itself after being nearly eradicated a hundred years ago, and after being rent in two by the bigness of its own aspiration, is at the forefront of world thought—the country and culture that somehow worked its way into my interest and stayed there until I got curious enough to meet it… the culture that met me graciously when I wanted away from my own.

For all the strangeness, the feeling uncomfortable, the tiredness of my days here—at this time I feel the privilege of being here, of being allowed, even sometimes welcomed, to a place like this with a story that is available to me if I chose to find it.

The people facing me in the carriage watch my face as I watch the river. My eyes burn and it is a relief to look back at my feet when we reenter the darkness.

I meet Gina and Tiffany at the Express Bus Terminal station after getting lost in the underground mall. I had heard so many times before coming here that the best shopping you can do (and the most affordable) is in the subway stations. I usually use stations off line 7 in Nowon-gu—Nowon station, Hagye station, and Suraksan station most often—and while they have cosmetics shops and food places, drug stores and convenience stores, I have not experienced underground shopping until I reach the Gangnam Terminal Underground Shopping Center on a Thursday evening.

Most places sell clothes and shoes or accessories for low prices—you can find knock-offs and cheap, bargain-priced things, as well as stores with their own lines and brands. Gina and Tiffany have been out all day by the time I reach them, so Tiffany rests while Gina accompanies me down a row of the mall. We spend about thirty to forty minutes shopping—I buy four teeshirts (one 15,000, and three for 5,000 each) and five pairs of socks (each 1,000)—and we don’t even make it halfway down one length of the mall from where we started. Two of my shirts say Maritime Surveillance in a small print. I am charmed by this every time I think about it.

We walk to Banpo Han-gang Park to watch the Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain show at 20.00. A friend back home who studied a semester at Yonsei a few years ago has told me that this is something I should see, so I am especially glad that Gina and her friend want to see it, too. I have been told that it is something like World of Color at Disneyland, and I have a hard time picturing this of a bridge, so I don’t know what to expect.

We walk all the way to the water and I sit with my legs dangling over the river. A park sprawls behind us with trees, tiny grassy hillocks, a bike path, and a small amphitheater facing the river. A few flashily-lit cruise boats move slowly at the other shore. Couples sit on either side of us and pervade the waterfront. I get a feeling for the theme of the thing.

banpo bridge

When the show starts, a song, muffled and foreign, plays from somewhere behind us—I can’t understand it or really catch the tune. Water shoots straight out from the bridge in hundreds of streams that move up and down in choreography with the music, and lights from the bridge shine out into that spray and color it with a modest spectrum. It lasts about twenty minutes, for four or five songs. People take photos and videos the whole time—glancing back into the amphitheater over my shoulder is perhaps more entertaining than facing forward. I look out over the dark water and the dark sky and the dark mountains and the city now properly lit by traffic and building lights, feeling peaceful, and slightly wondering. Is this what people here enjoy? I am far from being touched by the water show itself… but glancing around at the crowd, looking out at the city… that’s all something for me. Afterwards, I’m left with a single overriding impression: quaint.

We walk back to the station in search of food. I am the only one of us that can read Korean so I scan the buildings for promising signs. On a big building outside of exit 8 I catch sight of a kimbab sign directing us to level B-1, so we walk down into the building and stumble upon a hidden food court, interspersed with flower shops. We end up walking into a place that’s almost full because they have bibimbap on their menu. The owner speaks no English but we manage to communicate a little through my limited vocabulary. He gives us menus and after briefly explaining, leaves us on our own. We discuss the things we understand on the menu—kimchi fried rice, radish bibimbap, soft tofu stew, kimchi stew, a bunch of other meat soups, seafood—and then the middle-aged ladies sitting at the table next to us come over to the table and start pointing to things and providing usually one-word translations like pork or drink.

I manage to charm them, in Gina’s words, by speaking with them in fledgeling statements—we know what these ones are, we don’t know what these ones are, what is good, we don’t want to drink. They ask us where we’re from and I speak for us—California. They nod. Ah, America. They tell Gina and Tiffany that they have “Korean faces”—I wonder if it’s their first experience with the non-ill-intentioned but mildly racist statements people—especially older people—sometimes make here—they bristle slightly and say, Chinese. The ladies ahhh. Gina tells me I should tell them I’m an English teacher. I tell them I’m an English teacher and I live in Nowon-gu. The ladies ahhh.

When the owner returns, Tiffany orders three soft tofu stews in Korean—the owner looks slightly pitying, as if we chose it because we couldn’t figure out what anything else was…which wasn’t halfway wrong. At home, I have had good soon-dubu, but Gina, who is wary of spicy food, is wary of what will come our way.

I can tell as soon as I try the banchan that this food will probably be the best I’ve had here so far and I am proved correct when the soup comes out, still boiling loudly.

soon dubu

I can tell it’s made with chicken stock and Gina pulls out a clam from hers—they look at me, worried, but I just pull out my clams and pile them into Gina’s bowl. You will be the clam queen. I tell them that when I came here I had a good understanding that sometimes I would probably have to eat this way. I order a pa-jeon (chive pancake) and jamong-soju (grapefruit soju) for us, convinced by Gina to try it. I end up having two shots and I get a bit dizzy even sitting down, bumping into the table as I reach for things and forgetting what I’m saying in the middle of a thought. I can see your lightweight, Gina tells me. There’s octopus in the pa-jeon. I tell them not to worry about it, I’ll just pick it out or eat the edge pieces.

What would I rather do—eat exactly as I do at home and so pack my own cooking with me and bring it everywhere I go, or experience a new culture to the best extent that I can? Eating meat-based stock and occasionally accidentally eating a piece of seafood is a price I’m willing to pay to experience a part of Korean culture that is inaccessible to me anywhere else. I came here to do something new, knowing it was possible that this sometimes meant changing my habits.

It’s not as though I can suddenly eat barbecue—I don’t know enough about the meat industry here to feel comfortable suddenly completely changing just because it’s what most people do—that’s not my style—and I don’t want to. But even if I did want to, eating meat like that after almost a decade of abstaining from it would make anyone ill. As it is, occasionally having soup with meat-based stock has already had quite an effect on my body…though I imagine it’ll get easier as I continue to do this.

Before I came, people were quite vocal about telling me I’d have a hard time being a vegetarian here, but usually they weren’t vegetarians themselves. Don’t you imagine that perhaps I have a hard time being a vegetarian all the time, anywhere? I’m from the land of hot dogs and hamburgers and sandwiches and ribs and steaks… not as vital as meat is to a Korean diet, but still. The American mindset isn’t one of vegetarianism and meat is taken for granted as a daily need. Basically—I’ve been at this a long time. It’s an effort every day. Not that people who are intent on telling me something I “didn’t know” are actually concerned about whether I’ve already thought about it or not…

We stay at the restaurant for an hour and a half at least—I finish my soup, something I am not known for doing—and we almost finish the pancake between us. I am tempted to take another shot but, knowing I have to get home on my own after this, refrain, and Gina finishes the bottle, apparently not lightweight like I have thought.

All of the food is cheaply priced—our stew is only 6,000 and the jeon is only 10,000, the soju 4,000. It is Gina’s first time eating somewhere that doesn’t deliberately cater to tourists, and the whole time she talks (and more and more as she drinks) about how much she loves this place—the ahjummas drinking next to us, the nice owner who sees us struggling with the jeon’s big pieces and brings us scissors, the quality of the food, the price of the food…she loves it so much that she pays for our meals, smiling and saying, so cheap, so good… Next time I eat out with her I know to get her full of soju…

I can now honestly say I like Korean food, next time someone asks. Every Korean dish I’ve tried at home in CA has either been quite spicy or a bit bland (except when I made it myself), but it’s probably true that everything is better at the source.

This was also my discovery of grapefruit soju. It could be a very dangerous thing to know.

Gina, Tiffany, and I part at the station, taking different lines back. Line 7 is packed and for a few stops I stand, still a bit tipsy, swaying above a tiny old lady on the seat below. Thankfully she detrains after not too long and I take her seat. Throughout the duration of the journey two good-looking guys sit on either side of me and I am careful to hold myself very still. I trip a little walking out of Suraksan to my apartment and wake early the next morning to cut my hair before work.

It’s now just after 21:00 on 12 September. I found out through Facebook that Beirut came out with a new album/record within the last few days and I still don’t have internet so I can’t access it yet. I’ve done a few loads of laundry. Later tonight I’ll have to descend to B-1 of my building to throw out my trash. I watched episode 1 of BBC’s Sherlock, series 1, after discovering that I had it in my iTunes library today.

Being here, I’ve thought a lot about what it is that I want to do. I have vague plans for my future: I want to go back to school, I want to be a professor. Where I’ll be or who I’ll be with are things I don’t know anymore.

Today I decided I’ll try to go home for Christmas on a budget airline. I wondered again and again why I’m here and the reality of it keeps hitting me with the same hard blow: I don’t acclimate to it and it is sudden every time, each time as if I haven’t felt it before. I don’t enjoy work much—I had a nice day on Friday and gave two of my problem students detention, which was suitably satisfying, but weeks seem so, so long, and then I’m almost too tired to enjoy the weekends. Of course—I’m still adjusting to it, here. I haven’t had time to get out much because I’m busy stocking my fridge and replacing things in the apartment. I’m still trying to figure out where stores are and where I can buy what and what’s a good price for certain things.

It’s hard not to have friends, here. I can chat with my penpal, but he’s busy lately and I don’t want to bother him and I’m still sometimes paralyzed by the thought that it’s always me getting in touch and that it might be annoying. One of the professors I learned under for a class called “Women and the City in Korea,” a class that kind of cemented in me a love for contemporary Korean short fiction by women authors, was teaching this last year at Yonsei and may still be there… I may reach out to her soon.

But I kept thinking about it, today—there’s nobody here. At home I have only a few close friends who really understand me and who I feel quite close to—and I left all of them for some crazy thought. I keep feeling sad and scared—and then chiding myself because I chose to be here, and it’s not as though it’s my first time abroad, so of course I knew it could feel this way. But last time most of my good friends were in England at the same time as me. This time…really, there’s nobody here who knows me, who I feel safe with, there’s no unburdened or comfortable friendship waiting for me after I almost cry at work again, after my tampon gets full for the first time in ten years and I get blood all over my hands trying to change it during a five-minute break between classes, nobody who I can just exchange a glance with and not have to exchange words with, nobody I can just be near to and feel better, nobody around whom I am not aware any longer of my own self, my own body… I don’t like hugging people, but there are certain people whose hugs I miss, now. When Franklin’s dad hugs him at the end of his bad day episode—that’s the part where I nearly cry. Can I feel this way? I chose to be here. Why am I here? Why did I do it? Can I last a year? These are things I think of on a Saturday, with nothing else to occupy me.

I think it’s true that the brain and the heart aren’t quite connected, but it’s not true that the heart doesn’t think. It’s just a brain of its own, not subject to any knowable logic.

Of course I know—in the pursuit of any dream, we make sacrifices for it. The word sacrifice isn’t sacrifice for nothing. Some people dream of a perfect family while in the midst of something less than that and sacrifice real relationships for pursuit of the impossible, the learned ideal. Some of the perfect job, sacrificing interest or passion, some of interest or passion and foregoing a steady income, some of normal things and some of extraordinary things… in any case, we leave things behind when we choose.

I knew in my head how hard I hold to things. But I’m feeling the effects of it, now, in a way I have never felt before. I wanted to do this. I am here. But I am also somewhere else. Who could live in more than one place without their heart hurting sometimes, without feeling ripped in pieces sometimes? Of course when you take apart something that was not apart before, it hurts. It makes sense and I know it, but the pain is still surreal.

I haven’t been living in one place since I came home from England. So this emotional onslaught is not new in substance—but in magnitude. The texture is different, too—it yields less, becomes headstrong. I stop stifling the pain that rises up in my chest like I have done all these nights, all these years, to survive. It sits in me like a piece of wool. It’s hard to breathe. Eventually I fall asleep.

I’m aware that I miss home only because it’s familiar, and not because I liked being there, not because I was happy there, not because there’s a future for me there. What a human thing… and what a human thing to leave behind everything known for the pursuit of the sought after.


Dongdaemun (동대문)

One of my writer friends from California is in Seoul this week, staying off of Seoul Station, which is of course about an hour from me in Nowon-gu. Last night (7 Sept) after I finished work at 19.40, I got on line 7 at Hagye and after a transfer to line 4 at Nowon and about forty more minutes of travel, I detrained at 동대문역사문화공원역 (Dongdaemun History and Culture Park station) and met Gina and her friend from home in front of one of the giant department stores.


I’ve only been in Seoul for just over two weeks now, but most of what I’ve seen has been more like the “suburbs”–if suburbs could have skyscrapers and subways… Anyway I hadn’t been to central Seoul before. Every building has lights all over it–actually, even the small coffee shop in Hagye-dong where I’m at in Nowon-gu has a flashing light display over its main window.

Dongdaemun is well-known and if I’d had real shopping to do, I think it would have been a good stop. We wandered through a department store idly, walked past booths of counterfeits and flashy accessories and street food vendors, took a small tour by the river, and made our way to a street food stall, where it became my fate to order and exchange all communication with the woman in charge.

Originally I was just asking her if she had any vegetarian items and she explained to me (after double-checking if I could eat squid… vegetarian is still a rare occurrence here from what I hear and from what I have experienced) what I could eat, but I ended up ordering for us and asking for her recommendations. We ended up with 떡볶이 (ddeokbokki, rice cakes in a spicy sauce) and 김치전 (kimchi  jeon, a korean pancake/pizza), even though the jeon usually had seafood in it. But I think she made it for us with no seafood because I was able to eat it as well; the whole time I wondered why it didn’t have shrimp in it like in the picture and it wasn’t until I got home that I thought she probably made it special for me since I asked her about vegetarian food…

We forewent soju… all lightweights in the middle of Seoul with only one speaker of semi-Korean on a week night. In the end the other two gave me their cash and I again dealt in Korean, successfully interpreting the number she shouted over the grill at me in one try and handing over the correct bills without fumbling. It seems like it wouldn’t be hard…but anyway I’m still getting used to numbers over 10,000.

We walked around a little more after that and ended up at a cafe before descending into the underground station again and heading back home.

We have plans to meet again on Thursday–we have not yet decided what to do, but I expect to see a bit more of central Seoul~

Nowon-gu (노원구)

Sometimes when it’s all dark and the window is closed, I turn the air conditioner off for a brief moment and lie on my back, waiting to fall asleep even though I know my thoughts will keep me up for a while, still—and a chill bites at my arms, my neck, before I know why. Then I hear it—a strange howling, like the muted roar of the underground or wind whistling through skyscrapers: quiet at first, then cresting like a wave and screeching for a moment before waning and leaving the air strangely dry, and a little bit sad.

A short story I read in college described the sound of darkness as an owl’s hoot, the way it sounds like the darkness opening and opening its mouth. But I think the darkness howls instead over the rocky hills bordering Nowon-gu.

I feel like my head has cleared, here. Spending so much time absolutely alone, when I would usually think and over-think, and yet finding myself without any option but feeding on survival energy as I learn a new way of life… I never fully furnish any new thoughts. I’m too exhausted. I’ve tried writing a little, but these blogs are the most I can produce. I go back and edit old works. I go back and edit old thoughts. Things I couldn’t wrap up at home, things I was dwelling on, things that bothered me and things that I wished I could change, people with whom my relationships were stunted or stagnant or a source of hardship and anxiety to me, and the fervent dreams I had for my future that had petered out within the last few months… I see them differently, here. In some cases, a different point of view is simply a case of not seeing at all. I tried to leave things the best I could where I had the chance. But there were some things I couldn’t do anything about. Before I left I was so hard on myself for being unable to fix certain things or for not wanting to, for not caring anymore. But now I think I can see that I did the best with what I had and what I knew how to do, and that certain uncertain things were actually not so uncertain after all.

I will not make the same mistakes, here. After not having talked to my pen pal friend since meeting him, I thought I’d wait until he contacted me, first, because that seems to mean something. It was silly to decide that—I always, always, after meeting someone for the first time, am the first one to get in touch afterwards. I wonder why? And I always wonder why, and I always have questions, and I want more than I let on, and for every thing I say there’s a lot more I don’t—and in the past this has sometimes cost me. I remember wondering out loud to my dad if I should try to get back in touch with this person or this person or not and he said—I think you should say hi whenever you feel like it. At another time, I said to a good friend that I was thinking about saying something to someone after we hadn’t talked in a while but I wasn’t going to because I thought it would look a certain way… and he said that everyone probably overthought things like that and that’s why sometimes people just didn’t talk at all.

At home, I thought it was good advice, but I still didn’t always follow it. I had reasons not to. I was trying to account for too much. And over here I can see what time I may have wasted keeping certain things to myself. I want that time back. How can I expect or want other people to be honest with me if I can’t do it with them when it’s something even as simple as wanting to say hi? …I don’t know why it’s so difficult. When I was younger I couldn’t even order my own food or say what it was I really wanted because I was so shy. It’s different now, and not as strong…but it’s hard to be vulnerable even in these simple ways—admitting—I was thinking about you…

I sent my friend a message. He responded right away.

Something I knew already but am learning in practice: you can have the best intentions, you can feel so much. But if you don’t do anything…nothing happens.

By the time I finish writing this two different guys have asked me out to drink with them tonight over HelloTalk, a language exchange app, within ten minutes of saying hello for the first time. The sound of late night traffic wafts to my window, the shape and texture of a waffle-knit blanket, spongy and shallow. Next door neighbor is watching TV.

(23:41, 5 September 2015)

5 September

Today (5 September) I took the subway and bus to the Lotte Mart in Junggye-dong. The 1224 bus was so crowded that I got off two stops early and walked the rest of the way. It took me perhaps ten minutes, and I’d walked the route before at night, so the sights were familiar to me. Even so—Nowon-gu feels safe, like if I got lost I could easily right my way again. I have yet to travel to the busier areas south of me in the city, closer to the river. Possibly there getting lost could seem much more daunting.

Everyone I know who knows Korean culture warned me of the drinking culture, often in response to my confessions that I don’t drink well or after having seen the photos my friends have taken of me laying on the ground in public places after getting plastered. At some point in the future, I’m sure I’ll have to deal with the consequences of my being a lightweight, but for now, I simply observe the effects of mass-drinking sessions as a curious and—now—somewhat wary passerby.

Tonight at the last intersection before reaching the gigantic, towering Lotte Mart, where I could disappear in a maze of overcrowded aisles and shop in relative peace, I passed a Soju jib on the corner and attracted the attention of a few middle-aged men who decided to pop up from their plastic table outside of it and hover near me with a bellicose air. Even in two weeks I’ve become quite used to stares and even some young kids have waved at me—most notably (and cutely) a baby, maybe a year old, from the back of a car parked near my apartment building’s convenience store. Nobody’s been rude before, though I know enough Korean to know when people talk about me after noticing me quite obviously.

Tonight, I think even if I didn’t speak any English at all I’d have been able to tell quite clearly that these men were less than pleased by my passing by their hangout on my way to somewhere that was none of their business… I kept inching away from them as they swayed angrily near me at the curb, one of them pointing extremely obviously, his whole arm raised. The girl on the other side of me crossed the street even though the light was red. I avoided acknowledging what was happening, but it’s the first time I’ve felt uncomfortable here or have felt singled out for being a foreigner.

After I’ve hauled home with my groceries and a few other household items, my apartment is better stocked, but still doesn’t look or feel like my home, yet. There’s a Home Plus near work, too, where some of the other teachers have gotten furnishings for their rooms. I’m glad to have inherited almost everything I need, down to a batch of green apples in the fridge, two sets of blankets (summer and winter) for the bed, three tables (two of them slung low to the ground, I’m not sure what they’re supposed to be used for…), a desk, a built-in-kitchen table, clocks, a coat rack, a toaster, kitchen utensils, even a hair curler and straightener… But because I didn’t choose them, they’re more of a convenience than a comfort. I have plans to buy new blankets (and sheets) as soon as my first paycheck comes in, and maybe some decorations for my walls—the tenant before the girl before me was a smoker and smoked inside, so some drawers in my closet still reek and the walls are yellowed.

The other teacher who came a few days before me has already been out and partying for the past couple weeks and invited me out today—part of me feels pressured to go out, go out, see everything I can in my spare time—but then I think, give yourself time. You always do everything at your own pace anyway, and it often seems like everyone else is rushing by. For now I spend a lot of time cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry when I come home from work in the weeks and on the weekends so far, I have slept, shopped, and done chores… I’m still trying to make it feel like a place I like to be.

first two weeks

As I write this, thunder claps tremendously over the building—children outside scream loudly—and a light rain falls from the sky. It’s 30 August, and I’m newly moved into my apartment. A load of laundry is spinning in the small washing machine under the stove in the kitchen and I sit at the table right next to the bed. I don’t have internet in the room yet—it turns out I forgot the ethernet cable adapter for my laptop at home and my dad has offered to send it to me, but until it gets here, I will be without internet on my computer. Since I set up a SIM card before I got here, I have access to 3G on my phone, but I have been cleaning, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, reading, writing, watching the one movie I have with me on my laptop—Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart.

Now it’s 1 September. I feel…one moment I laugh, the next I feel like crying. Friday my students were so discouraging that I sat at my desk and cried briefly, blotting my tears into the sleeve of my t-shirt discreetly. Yesterday—or was it today? It was today—in my homeroom one of the students got mad at me because I didn’t read his mind—literally—and got mad enough that he was kicking his chair and I had to bring in a Korean teacher to talk to him. She sent him to the teacher’s room where he stood wordlessly until lunch time, when the teacher could finally get him to talk. Later he came back into the teacher’s room while I was on a break and apologized to me for getting angry; apparently the Korean teacher told him that nobody can read his mind and this was news to him.

For me and for the kids—things really move that quickly—one moment, the next, the next. I hardly have time to become overwhelmed, but sometimes when I lie awake, waiting to fall back asleep after waking at 3 or 4AM most nights, listening to the sparse traffic of the street below and absorbing the half-hearted washes of air my AC belches into my face and hair from above me on the wall… I get unspeakably sad and I miss things that I can’t identify or put a word to. I find myself writing letters in my head of all the things I wish I had said to some people before I left. And then I shake my head, tell myself it’s okay, I’m going to be okay. It’s only a year. It’s okay.

I have always comforted myself this way: usually at night, always quietly, always trusting the kindness of my own future.

This morning I went to the bank to exchange some of the American cash I brought with me into Won. I pulled a number and waited my turn, walking slowly to the counter when my number flashed on the screen above the desk. The teller smiled at me kindly. I paused a moment.  So often people meet my gaze with hesitation and apprehension. Her face was soft.

“미국 돈 있어요,” I said. I have American money. “원 싶어요.”  I want Won.

It was clumsy. She understood. I walked out of the bank a few minutes later with 215,000 Won and a vague glow. I later put a word to it: successful. I felt a little bit successful.

Kids here are very… we would say in America, “touchy-feely.” Kids are slung around my back and neck as soon as I sit down, braiding my hair, cupping my face in their hands—one even kissed my chin and I was forced to say, you cannot kiss teacher! while he leaned in for another onekids grab and hold my hands in the hallways, cling to my arm, put both flat palms on my butt if I stay still too long. A girl in my homeroom grabbed one of my fingers today while I checked her workbook and looked at it closely. She looked up at me, pointed to my nail, and said, “why is there nothing here?” By this time, after acclimating to their chatter and the patterns of their words, really incredible considering they knew no English at all in February, I could understand her—she was asking why my nails were short.

While I was waiting for the bell to ring the other day in my homeroom, one of my students put his hand on my stomach and said, “baby?” When I told him I didn’t have a baby inside, he didn’t believe me. He said, “then what is it?” And when I said it was just my body, he frowned at me like I was lying before tickling me, as if to investigate further.

Another girl in another class stared at me for a moment before saying, without preface, and without having said anything else to me at all: “you have a small face.”

The teacher I’ve replaced had a huge bush of curly hair. Some students ask me why my hair isn’t curly, and some still accidentally call me Tamara Teacher.

Kids often ask me why my eyes are green. If I say, “because my parents gave me green eyes,” it seems to confuse them, so I usually settle for a dramatic shrug and a drawling I don’t knooooooooow!! and they laugh and forget about it. Today a girl in a different kindergarten asked me why my “eye-fingers” were so long. When I told her they were more commonly called eyelashes and said, “I don’t knoooooooowww!” she stopped, cocked her head, came within an inch’s distance of my face, observed me closely for a moment, and then sat back down. “Lily Teacher, why are you cute?”

Her class later asked me why my skin was so white. I paused—and one boy said, “Teacher, I think you drink a lot of milk.”

The older kids are slightly more scheming. In their textbooks they’ll come across photos of white people—blond, or red-headed, but mostly blond—and then call me to their desks to see. “Teacher, it’s you!” They think it’s funny every time, even if they already made the same joke with the same picture five minutes earlier.

Back in February or January I joined a language exchange app called HelloTalk and shortly after began chatting regularly with a guy a couple years older than me whose English was already extremely good. We talked frequently at first, mostly about books and answering each others’ miscellaneous questions. I rarely spoke Korean because if I did, it opened a floodgate and he sent message after message in Korean that I couldn’t understand—but one I took the time to decode, after we hadn’t spoken in a month or so and I’d reminded him he could sometimes tell me how he was doing. There are a lot of things I would say but I don’t have the language and I have been busy, you know, studying for exams and looking for work… 

When I was deciding what school to choose after getting two offers back in May, I asked him what he thought. After that, every time we talked, he asked me how my moving plans were coming along, or when I would arrive. So when I got here, I waited a while to tell him I’d arrived, knowing he’d probably want to meet quite soon after that. I’m already shy—but more than that, being here, the language barrier, the cultural differences and mysteries… and I’m still tired. But this weekend I reached out and said hi. We talked about meeting next weekend. Late on Sunday night, after I’d fallen asleep, he’d texted and said hey, how about we meet on Tuesday?

We met this evening after I was done with work at 6PM. His university is about fifteen stops away and when he finished classes he headed to the station near my work. I don’t know anything in the area yet. So he told me, I’ll meet you outside the station, that’s what Seoul people do when they don’t set a place to meet.

We met at the station and walked through a cluster of high-rise apartments to a small, hidden cafe. He paid for my drink—not knowing cultural custom well, I didn’t know what to make of it. At some point a bug flew up to my cheek and I brushed it away without thinking, but he’d moved towards me for a split-second, too. I didn’t think on it. We talked there for two and a half hours. After a while he asked me, do you feel better now than when we first met? No matter how much I warn people that I’m shy—I think they underestimate me, or don’t believe me, or haven’t met a shy person before. I nodded.

He’s insistent that I get out and explore and make Korean friends. Otherwise I’ll live the same life I lived at home, just in a different place. I know he’s right. He’s already offered to introduce me to his friends and to check out books from the university library for me. I think he’s made plans for us to study English/Korean at the same time together. I have a hard time differentiating between his interest in a language partner and his interest in a friend. I don’t know if it matters.

When we walked back to the subway, he said, in a month or two, you’ll have to get a haircut in Korea, right? gesturing at my short fringe. Do future semiconductor technicians need to have accurate awareness of hair-growth rates? Or was he telling me to let it grow out? I told him, I cut it myself.

He saw me onto my train and waved goodbye, garnering the interest of everyone else inside. I stood and faced the wall until my apartment’s station, not knowing if I felt like laughing or crying.

Things really move that quickly—one moment, the next, the next. But sometimes they also happen all at once.

The fear that grips me all the time at home—should I stay still, should I act, which one is a mistake?—I have no time for that fear, here. Here I act, I act, I act. The mistake is clear. So I am exhausted, and scared, and tired, and I feel silly all the time—but I think I’m living honestly. And that is such a relief to me.