PMS

I keep meeting people. I meet people with abandon, as if it’s what I have to do to stay alive. I meet new friends from language exchange apps, I meet my first ex-boyfriend. I meet my EPIK orientation friends, I meet my uni friend who comes up from Gwangju most weekends. I go clubbing. I start to crave that dark mass of bodies seen pulsing through that ever-present haze of smoke, each body uninhibited, moving just how it wants to without any worries. I start to crave the sickly scent of tequila, my most hated spirit but clubbing drink of choice: it hits you all at once and lasts all night. One night I take four shots: just the thought of tequila for three days afterwards makes me sick, and I come close to vomiting in the hallway of my apartment as an unidentifiable scent vaguely resembling tequila’s rises near the elevator. That’s two days after the four-shot night. I text my friend: don’t let me do four shots again. We talk about it a week later: she tells me, you were amazing, danced really cutely and didn’t lie down on the floor. Go me. I tell her that I know that even though it made me sick, I’ll probably do shots again, and soon.


I keep attaching to people. I attach to people with abandon, as if it’s what I have to do to stay alive. I attach to new friends from apps, I even attach a little to my first ex-boyfriend through the link I often fall prey to–worry. I worry about him after he tells me a fear of his, and I think about sacrificing myself because I know I could help him. I think about giving up what I want because if all experience points to chance my chance is less than slim. I think about living that way, to serve only, to receive nothing. I give up the thought a day later. But I crave people’s presences; I start to crave the shy new first stares of a first date, I start to crave the feeling of holding hands with someone while walking through a crowd. All around me my circumstances are drawing a line but my heart does not heed it. I keep attaching to people. I meet a boy my sister’s age who’s leaving for working holiday in mid-May; despite our age difference and the language barrier I experience immediate attraction and connection; he reminds me a little of myself; a vegetarian, shy but earnest, kind, funny, he likes reading fiction and used to write poetry, he even won awards for his poetry in high school and tells me he doesn’t know why he has a talent for poetry to which I respond you were born with that. He’s small, wiry, he tells me he used to have a good body and then provides pictures as evidence which I do not disagree with, and he expresses a bit of anxiousness, a bit of discontent. We have dinner, then coffee, and later beer. He confides in me and though his English level is not high he makes extenuous effort to speak in a way I can understand. I tell him about some things. When he’s walking me to my line in the subway station I tell him to go to his line or he might miss the last train to his home. He stays with me, wanting to say something. Maybe we’re destiny, he says in Korean, laughs, and repeats it in English. I hug him goodbye. He seems surprised, and waits for me to disappear in the crowds past the barrier before heading his own way. I think about it the whole way home: his frankness is charming, his honesty is charming. If another guy told me he thought we were destiny–and they have before–I would have socked him in the face, at that level of blood alcohol content. But I believed this one and why would that be. I thought about it. I thought about it. I’m thinking about it. I always do this. I always do this. I’m trying to fill something missing. I know I do this. I suffer a loss and out of reaction to loss I dig in my heels, then fling myself at something passing. But hearts are not something to be flung at. He reminds me of this; his mind so candidly, and shyly, on display, I realize what I’m doing, and I’m sick of myself.


I want to cut it all off, get rid of it, like a rotten wound you have to cauterize before it can heal. This and other things, I just want to be done, I want to forget, I want to make new. But people aren’t like that. I know that already. Why is it that while others float I feel, feel, feel, why is it that while others stop I feel, feel, feel….

Advertisements

Apartment

The month my second ex boyfriend and I break up, the towels that will later furnish my YongKang-Dong apartment are made. Catching a glimpse of the tag as I’m drying my face and the immediate association that rises to mind makes me curious about other things in the house; I go on a hunt, looking for the “made on” dates on other items. The kettle, the freezer, the microwave. The slippers, trash bins, vacuum. Not because of any guiding tragic logic that I can see, but just because my own proclivities have caused my life to turn out this way, most months in my memory seemed marked by their own distinct sadness, many of them pivoting upon loss.

I lost that boyfriend and my childhood cat on the exact same day in November; I counted it a blessing at the time that I had one to distract me from the other; I remember this as I forage through the house now, turning things over I haven’t even properly used yet, in search of the year and month dates. Most things don’t have them, so I make them up–that was in January, the last month of my zodiac animal year, that was one year ago December, the month of the first fizzling out; and on, and on, in this way, until my alarm set for six PM that usually wakes me from my afternoon nap beats its shrill twitter into my bedroom’s cold spring evening air.


When a friend comes to see me and stay at my place for the first time, we walk from Mapo station to my house through Mapo Food and Culture street. There’s a statue of a fortune teller on one side of a large intersection; I tell her who he is and she says maybe he has good luck and that’s why you’ve been so lucky. I think, yeah, maybe he’s good luck, and I thank him from across the road, bowing deeply. I have a great school, good coworkers, good students, a big apartment, a lovely neighborhood. Enough to thank him for.

But maybe he’s unlucky in love, my friend says after a moment of thought, with a glance at me out of the side of her eye.


I often have dreams where I end up in England again, but without resources; either no money or no idea where to go, or how to get anywhere, or nowhere to stay. Last night I dream that I make my way to Scotland from London and find my Scottish friend there, and ask her to let me stay at her house. She makes some excuses, all of which I ignore, and park there. Later in the same dream I’m at home in California in March wearing hanbok, and everyone is asking me to change. There are airtight capsules lined up on my desk all full of clothes, but looking at their labels I see they all contain hanbok and I have no other options. My sister comes into my room to make sure I’m going to change out of my clothes. You know these are all hanbok too, I tell her about the other capsules, and she nods once at me, a suddenly conspiratorial look in her eyes. That’s not the right one, she says, gesturing with her chin to what I’m wearing now.

Co-teachers

My first experience teaching English in Korea was at a 학원 (hag-won, academy) and I didn’t really have a co-teacher or anyone at work for that matter who was willing and able to help me adjust into life as a foreigner here. When I asked my boss, who was the direct supervisor of the foreign teachers but who was also just the general manager of the whole academy (I believe), for help setting up an internet contract, for example, she said I just had to call their help line and set it up that way. Although I could read and write Korean alright at that time, I could barely speak it and understand it, so calling by myself to set up a contract seemed too daunting a task to perform and I gave up and went two or three months without any internet in my apartment. I’d set up a phone beforehand through a service that let you do a temporary SIM card before you got to Korea so I had some data to use at home, but other than that I was pretty much just reading the pre-downloaded e-books I’d had on my kindle e-reader at the time (Aesop’s Fables… can u say boring???) and one of the novels I’d brought with me–A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, which thankfully, in contrast to the fables, proved to be quite entertaining.

There were other things I needed help with, but I bet you can imagine the kind of responses I received when I asked for help from my boss. And I bet your imagination wouldn’t be wrong.

This year, my experience has been 100% different in every way I can think of. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) is the actual entity who hired me, and they not only provided all their new hires with a little booklet about life in Seoul and a week-long orientation before that (which I’ve also written about previously here, here, and here), but they gave us actual contact information which we were told we can freely utilize in case we need help AND they gave us their address and invited us to visit them in their office. They’re the people who pay my salary (I think) and they’ve made themselves this available? Shocking.

Beyond this, my actual school and my coworkers and superiors here are completely different. I co-teach classes with about five different Korean teachers total, moving from class to class and pairing up with a different one each time (and sometimes two at once), but the language department head teacher (Ms. Jang)  and contact teacher (Carrie) share an office with me and are my main spokespeople when it comes to interloping with the other teachers or administration. They’re the ones who picked me up from orientation, took me to the school, introduced me to the principal and VP, and took me to my new home for the first time; they’re also the ones in charge of helping me with all aspects of my life here, down to where I can get what for my apartment, opening phone contracts, helping me make haircut appointments, etc.

My apartment’s landlady provided me wifi to use in the apartment, so I didn’t need to bother with trying to set up a contract for home internet, but other problems still arose: when SMOE would pay me my settlement allowance, and getting a cell phone contract, mainly.

On the first day I went to work my contact teacher took me to immigration to apply for my Alien Registration Card (ARC) which is basically necessary to do anything you need to do ever, including setting up any kind of contract or accessing insurance, such as health insurance, so no going to the doctor for cheap until your ARC comes, basically. Thankfully, although I did catch a cold within my first week and my first day teaching was a bit interesting because I was a little hoarse and sniffly (still sniffly), there’s a school nurse who gave me pills–I don’t know what they were but I want to stockpile them because they made me happily sleepy and comfortable, which is a combo of feelings I could go for any time, including when I am not high with a cold–and a Korean herbal medicine / tea called Ssang-hwa-tang, which is a Korean herbal medicine / tea that I thought I already wrote about (I am reasonably sure I did) but cannot find right now but when I can find it I will post a link to that writing here…. So I managed to get by without going to the doctor, which probably blew the mind of all my Korean friends and colleagues–for some reason, even for little things, whenever I express any symptom of any kind, including, I coughed once yesterday, everyone here always asks me “are you going to go to the hospital?”

While in the States and pretty much anywhere else in the world “hospital” is a word reserved for the giant buildings you only get admitted to if you’re on death’s doorstep, here it’s a general term that means any kind of medical clinic, and the translation kind of loses that general meaning because of the strong association foreigners have for the hospital experience. However, I am dull to the shock of the question by now, so I just answer with a smile that they probably can’t understand: no, I think I’m gonna be okay.

My ARC arrived at the school last Friday, about a week after I applied for it. Because I was here last year on the same visa, they gave me the same ARC number  as last year, and perhaps that expedited the processing time, because last year it took a month to get the card back after applying. Everyone in the office celebrated with me as I opened it up, offering congrats and telling me to take a picture of it because it was such a happy occasion. Unfortunately, my picture on the ARC is less than flattering and I absolutely refuse to show it to you.

But I was happy to receive it because it’s like the key to my freedom. I can buy bus tickets online, I can open a cell phone, I can go to the hospital… I can do anything.


Yesterday (Thursday, 16 March) my contact teacher Carrie and I had to take an official trip to the bank, so we left work a bit early. When we finished up all our official things, she decided to come with me to the KT store to help me open up a phone number there. I brought my phone with me, so I had the option of getting a contract that was shorter than 2 years. Actually, I’d called the KT  English help line and had been told that because I had my own phone and because I didn’t want the 2 year contract I’d have to do a prepaid, month-to-month type service.

I can do that for a year? I asked, because I don’t trust anyone, especially phone customer service people. And it’s better than a contract?

Yes, you can do that for a year, and it’s better than a contract, the guy said, so I thanked him and believed him.

But when we got to the KT store yesterday, we discussed the various levels of data plans available for me to choose from and suddenly Carrie turned to me and asked if I’d like to do a contract or pre-paid. I was surprised, but also not surprised, because phone customer service people never know anything and in the research I had done before calling that KT “expert” I’d been able to see that it was possible to contract a mobile plan for 12 months. So I said that if the contract were cheaper than month-to-month I’d rather do that, and it turns out that you get a 20% discount off the monthly rate for opening a contract, so… is that really a question? I suppose for people who aren’t sure how long they’ll be staying in Korea (and why don’t they know? Because they’re on the lamb? Just a thought), a month-to-month plan makes sense, but to someone like me, who has a legal and binding you-must-stay-in-Korea-for-a-year workplace contract, the question doesn’t even make sense. Do you want to pay more money or pay less money? Um…let me think about that…

So I managed to make a 12 month contract for just about under half of what I was paying monthly last year for my month-to-month plan, and even better than that is the discount for the first month. Because we’re already halfway through the month, they prorate the cost, and even plus the 8,000 won fee for the SIM card, my first bill is only about 30,000 won.

They tried to give me the same phone number I’d used last year, but apparently it’s being used or is otherwise unavailable, so I had to choose a new number. They managed to find one that was only one digit different from last year’s, so I guess someone who knew me then could even still accidentally call me now.

(Note: if you need my new contact information and we know each other, please feel free to contact me and ask for it.)

I would have been able to open a contract without my co-teacher, because everyone here speaks a few words of English and my Korean is passable, but the point is that she was willing and happy to go with me. During my first week at work, she also showed me the way to Daiso, went with me to Olive Young, and helped me make a haircut appointment at a place near my apartment. After we opened the contract together she accompanied me shopping again, and offered advice about which products to purchase. I’ve been able to talk with her about a whole variety of things that I never would have imagined I’d be able to speak with a coworker about: my love life (more like my love history lol), my worries, concerns, my plans for the future, things like that. We know each other’s favorite alcohols and we often talk about clothes or skin care products. She feels like a line of support that branches beyond the workplace, and because of that I feel safe, comfortable, and happy in my new situation.

The whole language department office has been so kind to me. Sometimes the Korean language teacher will give me snacks or give me advice, and we chat a bit despite her low level of English and my low level of Korean. When I had to cancel a weekend trip out of town for embarrassing reasons and told them why, they were surprisingly sympathetic and supportive, even when I myself was giving myself a hard time about it and trying to brush off my feelings as unreasonable or insignificant. They often compliment me on something I’m wearing and today when I curled my hair for the first time in an attempt to shorten it, they all noticed and said it looked nice.

Even the Vice Principal sometimes brings me gifts– “Lily, 선물,” (soan-mool, gift) he’ll say, and drop me something over the desk barrier: a yogurt, a piece of fruit, or even once, a loaf of bread. Perhaps I mentioned this before, but he also noticed that I bring my lunch to school and frequently ventured into the main teachers’ room to use the microwave, and decided to buy the language department their own microwave so I could use it more easily. Considering that last year our whole academy had one mini fridge for all thirty something teachers to use and about two-thirds of the way into the year they took it away from us to use to store student rewards (re: ice cream), this new situation, in which I didn’t even ask for something but someone noticed that there was something they could do for me and did it freely, just out of consideration, is almost unbelievable to me.

I realize as I write this that these things are just the gears and cogs of daily life, and probably occur the world over to a lot of people. But to me, these little things about my interactions with my co-teachers and superiors here make my days enjoyable (and sometimes, when I have a lot of ~~~emotions~~~, just make them bearable), and I continue to feel lucky about my placement. Although last year looking at all the things that were going wrong and imagining ways to improve them in my dream world quickly became a hobby of mine, here, I can’t imagine a different situation in which things could have worked out better, and that is quite amazing to me.


As I’m writing this, the bell rings for lunch time. The cafeteria is down the hall from the teacher’s room, so the girls line up in the hallway and make quite a racket out there: yelling, singing, sometimes even dancing. Today a lively chorus of “The Three Bears” rings out in the hallway in front of the language department door, but I hear other things: shouts of “얘들아 버스킹 클럽에 가입하자!” (guys, let’s join the busking club!), and, among other shouting, “Lily Teacher, Lily Teacher,” in several different sing-song voices, together rising above the din in almost bell-like tones.

Teaching: Week 1

Sometimes when I walk into the classroom for the first time all of them go silent, watching me sharply–I look out at them and smile. About thirty two of them in each class, more grown than most students whose gazes I’ve held in the past. Sometimes they talk with their friends about me as I enter–I hear pretty, cute, clothes, among other whispers, and am relieved; first impressions in this country are written in stone. Sometimes the students cheer loudly, standing at their desks, waving their books and pencils in the air. What must they think of America now? I wonder, and me someone from that country, and them so excited to see me? Politics must skate a bit over their heads; after all, they’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old. As a week passes and I teach eighteen classes and meet almost the entire student body of just over 600 girls, I start to realize we have a lot of the same concerns: which color lipstick to wear today, when is the next album from an artist I like going to release, what stores are having a sale this weekend, does he like me back or not. Yes–I think this will work out.


But some of my old tricks have in one shot lost their usefulness. When a student bursts into tears in the middle of class, rather than finding my impromptu rendition of “The Three Bears” endearing or comforting, these new students are likely to take offense or more probably assign me to a category in their social reckoning saved for the sort of old men who hawk a loogie right in front of them on the sidewalk. Similarly, when students misbehave, pulling them outside into the hall and getting into their face and unleashing my choice few words–a disciplinary habit of mine which last year earned me the nickname “gangster teacher” from some of my older students who repeatedly witnessed this event–is probably going to result in me getting beat up rather than the usual response: either tears or fear and a pitiful retreat to their seat while their friends help them catch up on the work they missed while we were outside and I was teaching them the real lesson.


Thankfully, although stripped of my ready-made arsenal of “scary teacher” tactics, I still have a powerful weapon up my sleeve: my co-teacher(s). In each class, though I may teach the lesson material alone, roaming the desks with his or her hawk eyes and air of superior authority and experience is my Korean co-teacher, or in some cases, my Korean co-teacher + a bonus, second co-teacher. During my first week I teach 18 classes, each of which is organized by English level (though I gather this is self-assessed): advanced, upper-intermediate, intermediate, pre-intermediate, and first years. The bulk of intermediate leveled classes are mixed (upper and pre, inter and pre, even advanced and pre), meaning that there will always be a few smiling faces out there and a few rolling sets of eyes, a few sleepers, a few note-takers, etc. There are benefits and not-so-benefits of teaching leveled classes, but a constant benefit no matter the class is that the co-teacher is there, understands me and the students, and has the authority required to instil a bit of fear and respect into students who are less than thrilled that they’re now to speak English with me for forty-five minutes a week.


As mentioned, first years are not separated into levels but are lumped together by year regardless of English ability–the result being that there are some students in each class who could easily join the third year advanced level without any problems and some who not only cannot understand a single word I say (and I usually adopt a speech pattern in these classes similar to the one I used with kindergarten last year until I receive feedback that suggests I can pick up the pace), but who have no interest in understanding me. The English is dumb, I don’t like it, it’s too hard, the teacher speaks too fast, this has nothing to do with me and also all adults are incapable of understanding me sentiment that one could reasonably assume middle schoolers to adopt–I’ve felt that most so far in first year classes.

However, I have also had some of my most delightful interactions with first years–while setting up one of my classes, I look up from my paperwork to see the student sitting directly in front of me staring straight at me. Upon catching my eye, she immediately launches into flawless English–“um, the blackboard over there, you can pull it out so there’s more room to write”–I stare at her in shock for a moment before I remember to thank her for her advice, and throughout the lesson she continues to listen very carefully and ask clarifying questions. Other than this, there are a couple other students who’ve clearly lived abroad; I’d been told on the first day there were about five students who’d lived abroad who’d come here to study. One of them in the same class as the board advice student speaks in a thick but properly posh English accent, and asks me questions that other students with less understanding won’t have been able to ask for lack of clarity on my lesson–another student in a second year advanced class today says she lived in Canada, and I’m pretty sure I could locate the other two students among my other second year classes as well. Overall, first years are still interested in English and haven’t resigned themselves to not understanding, so at least are paying attention to me while I’m speaking even if they don’t understand. And attitude counts for a lot.


My very first class is with a third year upper-intermediate level class. They understand me a bit better than I’ve expected, and occasionally react in a natural way to something I’ve relayed, which indicates to me that beyond a language level, I’ve made some sort of connection. From that point forward, any smile, any question, any laugh, any “awww,” any emotional response at all from the classes become anchors for me, a good indication of whether or not students have apprehended, and whether or not I have successfully relayed, my intended message. Third year advanced students are on the whole as tall as or taller than me, so when they’re sitting down they’re just students to me, but when I pass them in the hallways I’m forced to confront the fact that these are pubescent teens I’ve been charged with: emotional, mostly quite happy-seeming, but sensitive nonetheless. Different to young children, who say this and that often without capability of gauging the reactions of anyone to anything they say, teenagers are calculating in both what they hear and what they say. Of course this differs between personalities–some third years I’ve met so far and for that matter second years as well–seem like conversation machines, incapable of staying quiet for more than a few minutes even if they are actually interested in what I have to say–and some have hardly spoken a word, even during class speaking exercises with provided answers–but the biggest difference I notice between things these girls say to me (and want to know about me) and the things younger kids have to say to me is that the things girls say are often positives about my appearance (although I did hear a second year today get excited about a picture of me that was so white I looked like a ghost), and their questions are almost all exclusively about my love life and inner thoughts.

Compare for yourself, if you’d like, some real questions I’ve received in my life as a teacher in Korea:

Kindergarten Middle School
“Teacher has a mom?” “Do you have a boyfriend? / Do you have a Korean boyfriend?”
“Teacher eats meat…Teacher will die?” “Why did you start not eating meat?”
“Teacher’s favorite color is blue?” “What’s your ideal type (in a man)?”

Of course, the girls also ask me how old I am or what’s my favorite Korean food, but more often they ask for the reasons behind things they know about me: why did I come to Korea, why did I become a teacher, etc. Otherwise questions are almost exclusively whether I got married or whether I’ve dated Korean guys before. Often when I tell them I’m not married, I don’t have a boyfriend, or something like that, they all go awww like how sad for you, but I wonder how many of them have actually had a boyfriend before…? Not because of their age, but because of their reaction. Could it be that some of them have had the experience of a boyfriend who didn’t turn out to be a disappointing experience in summary? If they have…well, they’ve got me beat. It’s difficult for me to even imagine any romantically-related interaction with a guy without wanting to curl into a ball and go to sleep forever, or else throw up, but I guess I do like to believe there’s a world in which not every young girl has such violent associations for the male kind. Perhaps these girls are my window into that world.


Second years are the most comfortable of the three years for me so far. I don’t know that there’s any specific reason, or rather, even if there is, I can’t quite identify it. Even the mixed classes still seem interested in what I have to say, or at least bother to be polite enough to act like they’re paying attention. There are of course some students who have just resigned themselves to not understanding English, who don’t even bother to watch me as I lecture…and this first week of lectures has been about ME, so I can hardly imagine that later they’ll be more interested in their textbook lessons than they are in their new foreign teacher. The second year advanced students have a big interest in interacting with me and without fail react to my jokes, puns, et al, and so win real favor with me, but all second year classes have a good attitude, want to participate, and at least pretend they’re listening to me for the duration of the lesson. Their questions are some of the most interesting–for example, I receive the question about my ideal type in a second year class.

She asks in Korean so my co-teacher can translate, but I know the term, and my mind begins to reel as I wait for the translation to come… not having given much thought to my ideal type, I find I’m a bit put on the spot, and I catch a case of the giggles from the girls in the front row as soon as my co-teacher provides the translation for me.

“My ideal type?!” I say, bidding for time. The students all smile expectantly.

“Kind…funny…and stylish,” I say after a moment of thought, ticking off on my fingers, and with the last word gesturing to my own body so they know I’m talking about clothes. It goes over well; everyone understands and seems to enjoy my answer.


Also, while I’m thinking about it, let me just interject on an important subject–bidets. In the time I spent travelling in Korea last year staying in hotels or more usually motels, I came across a good deal of bidets, but my fear of getting sprayed with water from a part of the machine I didn’t know how to use had paralysed me from pressing even the most clearly-labeled buttons. Sometimes I even tried to lift up the bidet seat to see if I could just use the regular toilet underneath–thinking about it now that probably put me in more danger of being showered than anything else I could have done in my fear… Anyway I never tried to use them and never believed in them BUT let me tell you something I have learned about bidets: they have … um… seat heaters? Not being a bidet person I couldn’t tell you the exact term, but in any case with whatever name, this is probably my favorite bathroom discovery so far in Korea except for the first time I remembered to take toilet tissue inside the stall with me when there was none inside.

It’s cold in Korea now, getting warmer, but schools don’t really use heating in the hallways or rooms that aren’t receiving a regular flow of traffic, so the teacher’s bathroom on the second floor isn’t heated. And I don’t need to detail the experience of having to bare your skin to the cold to use the toilet, you all know what that’s like, so you can also imagine the happy surprise to find that instead of icy cold plastic down there it’s pleasantly warm plastic and the shock you’d prepared your body to sustain dies on impact…

You’re welcome for that short story.


During my last day of teaching my self-introduction, a student who’s been smiling at me throughout the entire class comes up to me after it’s over and I’m packing up and tells me she’s so happy to meet me. Her sincerity is palpable; I tell her I’m happy to meet her, too, and she asks my co-teacher to translate something so she can tell me. My co-teacher tells her how to say what she wants to say.

“See you next time,” she says to me, smiling widely, and bows to me the whole way out of the classroom.

EPIK Orientation Feb 2017: Days 7-8 and Meeting Co-Teachers

Day 7

The last day of lectures includes a quite enjoyable class on Storytelling and, after lunch, a whole long set time to work with our lesson demo groups on our lesson. I honestly can’t even remember the specifics of what we do during this time besides clarifying the roles that we will each perform in the demo and we run out of time so we will have to go back to the classroom after dinner and practice again.

But before that and after dinner there’s the SMOE meeting. Seoul teachers sign their contracts at this meeting and find out their exact placement (school name, level, and location). Seoul teachers all know that we’ll have an elementary school placement and have known that for several months. We’ve been told to dress very nicely; in other words, I can wear what I’ve been wearing all day but pyjama boy should change.

I don’t know what to expect at this meeting; who I’ll meet or how nervous I should be, so I settle on a level of nervous that causes me to forget to bring a pen. To a contract signing meeting. So… a not-lethal but still definitely damaging level of nervousness.

When we get there it’s set up just like a classroom with the contracts all piled neatly at individual spaces; imaginings I’d had of being led into a small room by myself and forced to read the contract together fizzled away into a whispy nothing. The SMOE people are less scary than I had imagined they would be and the whole ordeal was less formal and…um…less Korean than I had imagined and feared. We sign our contracts on the assumption that we’d read them before signing them in the past (which we had done as part of the application process) and then are instructed to make two lines in order to hand in one of the three copies we’d just signed.

This is a slightly disorganized affair, and we stand  in line for what must be  ten minutes before we start moving toward the destination: desks at the back of the classroom. During this waiting time some people decide to check the posted lists on the wall to see what their school assignment is. A girl in line next to me offers to hold my spot while I go to check but the squeeze through others and tables to see the closest list does not appeal to me so I thank her anyway and stay in line. I already know where I’m going to be placed, so unless that is actually a mistake like I feared upon learning it, there’s really no surprises waiting for me over there.

I make my way through the line and ask the SMOE guy what the second and third contracts are for. He exclaims “I knew I forgot to say something!” and then “you know, sometimes when you’re getting all prepped to leave a place you do your best but…” (His last day is the next day.) I commiserate with him and he tells me one is for immigration and the other is just for me (which he has already mentioned, but his last day is tomorrow). He gives me an envelope to hold everything together. I move to the end of the table where two EPIK staff members (one of whom is my kind Class 1 teacher, Ellie) give me my certificate of completion and my sealed medical exam results, which I should give to my school.

Now I’m free to  check my assignment. Sure enough, in a list of dozens and dozens of people assigned to elementary schools, there I am smack in the middle of the list, “middle” listed under the level section. I stand in shock for a moment. Middle school… I read the school name. Seoul-yeo-jung. Seoul Girls Middle School.

I vaguely recall someone asking me how it went and my own soft-spoken reply… “I got placed at a middle school…” which draws the attention of the male EPIK staff member who’d just a moment earlier been telling someone higher up in line that she would be teaching at his school, so I think for a split second–could it be? But it turns out my school isn’t his and he was just overhearing.

The rest of the night I feel a strange sense of elation to know my placement and to see that it’s not been a mistake, that I am in Mapo-gu. I don’t have experience teaching Middle School, but I do have a lot of knowledge in my subject and perhaps this is an opportunity for me to work at a slightly higher level than I’ve been able to so far. I’m hopeful on the whole, and a bit intimidated, but overall, pleased.

We move our luggage down to the room where we completed registration. Now all that’s left with me in the room are my carryon and backpack and the clothes I’ll wear the next day.

My lesson demo team meets up again in the classroom to practice. Two EPIK teachers sit in on the class before we’ve practiced at all, so we tell them and they come back later and participate in our class as if they’re students. We run past 10.00PM and move to the conference room in the dorm building to practice again. It might be 10.30 or 11.00PM by the time we go back to our rooms. I know I should be sleeping but I stay up reading articles on the NY Times to ease my nerves and go to bed after midnight.


Day 8

Breakfast starts at 6.30. Because lesson demos start at 8.00 sharp I shower before breakfast for the first time all week and run to the cafeteria with wet hair.

Lesson demonstrations go okay. Our group is fourth to present. Some members forget when it’s their turn or what to do. Overall we have a successful demonstration with some necessary tweaks. I’m just relieved it’s over and I’ve done all that I could do bar doing it all by myself.

After our lesson demos Seoul teachers have to take the bus up to the “meeting point” at a Seoul High School where our co-teachers will meet us and take us first to our schools to meet our principals and vice principals and then to our new homes. I drag my luggage to the bus and as the driver catches sight of me from a slight distance he does a double take and exclaims 오! 한국인거같네. (Oh! [It appears] You look like a Korean.) I laugh, surprised, and shake my head no, boarding the bus and wondering if I heard him wrong.

I manage to get a seat by myself in the bus and spread out my many things onto the seat next to me. I zone out until we reach the rest stop where I buy a bagel and coffee and help one of the other teachers placed at a middle school make his order. We sit in the sunlight outside the food court until we have to board our busses again. It’s about two hours left until we reach the meeting point from the rest stop. I think I may even fall asleep on the bus for a while, but as we were told to dress formally because we’d be meeting the principal, my clothes aren’t comfortable enough to conk out completely.

We’ve been told that our co-teachers may be quite late to the meeting point, but that they know which bus we’re on and will be holding signs with our names and the names of our schools. Only about five or ten minutes after we’ve pulled into the lot I spot two women walking towards our bus with a sign with my name on it, so I wave to them and exchange greetings in Korean, though I quickly figure out that’s not necessary as they’re speaking English to me. As they deliberate in Korean about which luggage to help me with, I hear them wondering about the biggest one and offer to take it myself. They’re shocked that I’ve understood them and responded, but later quickly become relieved when they realize that this will make communication a bit easier between us.

They take me to their car where the head language teacher’s husband is waiting. He says “nice to meet you” in English and loads my (very heavy) luggage into the car by himself. They drive me to the school–our meeting point is in Gangnam so we have to cross the river and head west to Mapo-gu. It takes about half an hour. During that time we chat about my background and the principal, who has worked zealously to get a native speaker  to his school, which hasn’t had a native English speaking teacher for four years now. His major was English in college so he speaks English. In addition to working hard to bring me to his school, he also went out himself to find a good apartment for the new teacher, walking in the cold on his own time. I begin to feel like I have fallen into a lucky situation; the co-teachers are friendly and the school is glad to have me.

When we arrive at the school, we go to the principal’s office and are joined by the VP. The principal’s English is good, excellent, even, as expected. He tells me my co-teacher prepared a lot for me and the co-teachers counter that he also did a lot. I do my best to show my appreciation and to appear friendly. The co-teachers tell the principal and vice principal that I can speak a bit of Korean and can listen to it well and some other things about me. They tell the principal that I studied Korean by myself and with the help of friends. She has Korean friends, they say. The principal says “any girlfriend or boyfriend?” I smile. No, just friends, I say, and the VP says 사람친구 (“person” friend as opposed to “girl” friend or “boy” friend).

We take a brief tour of some facilities and I meet some others. The other male English teacher who introduces himself as “Dean. You know James Dean? Well, I’m Dean, Kim Dean” and the administration ladies and a very young, shy looking male maths teacher. Until now I’ve spoken with most teachers in Korean but the math teacher pipes up, “nice to meet you!”

After loading a school chair into the front seat of the car to take to the apartment, they drive me to my new home. The neighborhood is residential with smaller, older-style apartment buildings that cap off at seven or eight stories, most shorter than that. My building has five floors and I’m on the third. We struggle to get the luggage into the elevator but when we land on the third floor, the landlady is there waiting and takes us on a short tour of the house, explaining how to use appliances and how to take out the trash, etc. The school has provided me brand new almost everything down to house and shower shoes and the first toilet paper roll. The apartment is big, two rooms, and spacious, with clean white walls, large tinted windows, and light wood floors. The furniture is white and clean. All in all, it’s definitely my style and I feel more than lucky to have been placed here.

After they help me move the luggage in and make sure I know how to use everything, the head teacher and her husband leave and my contact teacher Carrie walks me back to the school so I can know how to get there the next morning. The school is almost a straight shot from my home, so I remember the way back with no trouble. We chat along the way and get to know each other a bit. She says I like you because you speak Korean and English.

She drops me off at home and we say goodnight and see you later.

I’m exhausted by now, but I have to wait up for the previous tenant to come and collect his luggage. While I wait I use google maps to find out where exactly I am in relation to areas I know. I’m extremely close to the Han River, about a five or ten minute walk from the park–I’m about a ten minute bus ride from Sinchon Station (and Sinchon is one stop away from Hongdae)–I’m a ten minute walk from Mapo Station–and there are plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, hair salons, pharmacies, etc, in my immediate neighborhood. I’m feeling quite relieved and a little high on my luck.

After the previous tenant comes to collect his things, I have little to no recollection of what I did. I believe I made a run to the nearby HomePlus Express to buy some groceries, ate dinner, and went to bed. In any case, I had the next day, March 1st, off, so I didn’t need to worry about getting up early the next morning to go to work.

EPIK Orientation Feb 2017: Days 3-6

Day 3 (continued)

After lunch we start lectures at 2.00PM on “After School Classes & Camps” and “EPIK duties and regulations.” While neither of these is exactly amazing, particularly the first lecture gives us some good ideas on the wide range of options we have for running After School Classes as well as the Winter and Summer English camps that we teach as part of our contract. These classes are required in many cases but unlike our regular class hours do not come pre-arranged with a built-in lesson plan or teacher’s  guide. So basically we’re on our own as teachers to come up with a complete curriculum including activities and objectives. For new teachers, I’m sure this seems quite daunting. For the seasoned of us, we know the giant amount of planning involved, and it still seems daunting. But to me it also seems fun, and  there’s a lot of freedom involved in being able to choose any topic and completely create your own classes around it.

EPIK duties and regulations is more of a mishmash of topics, only some of which fit the title. The lecturer is an EPIK coordinator and he shares information about what to expect in terms of housing, phone contracts, bills, getting around, etc. For me it’s mostly review. In fact nothing stands out in memory that would suggest it’s not review entirely.

After dinner we have our first “Survival Korean” class. We’re separated into classrooms based on level. As I’ve placed into advanced, I join a few other early students in a classroom with the luggage ballerino and the teacher I’ve seen taking everyone’s photo and video at the board. In the first class we play a couple games and practice speaking. My listening skills are good enough that I understand almost everything the teachers say, but the speaking abilities of some of the other students in the class surpass my own. But class is fun and the teachers are entertaining. Korean class is quick to become my new favorite class period.

When it ends at 8.30PM, I head straight back to my dorm room and I believe I immediately fall asleep. My roommate comes back just before curfew at midnight.


Day 4

Today is the first day of full lectures. Beyond sitting in class from 9.00AM to 8.30PM with breaks for meals, I could hardly tell you what I did. I do remember one particularly strange lecturer who lectured on “classroom management” who was a bit all over the place in terms of “this will work for sure but also it won’t work sometimes,” and who was probably having some kind of hot flash so asked us if he could turn the heater off and then stripped to his t-shirt which frequently rode up while he was gesturing and bared his belly or back to us. COME ON. Nobody wants that. He had a kind of full-of-himself attitude so he probably was thinking something like “oh, you’re welcome for that glorious gift” each time he felt a draft on his bared skin.

On the other hand there was also an absolutely fantastic lecture on “English Comprehension” by a lecturer named Charles Ko who spoke about how to make your English comprehensible to an EFL learner by stressing key words, pausing between units of thought, and other useful information that a native speaker with no background or training in teaching EFL would find difficult to consider or even come up with without some guidance.

We ended the day with our “Survival Korean” class. We played a game where we were shown photos of strange Korean things (for lack of a better phrase, excuse me) and we had to guess their name and use.

For example:

1696881_1

Though I knew what this was and its use, I couldn’t for the life of me remember its name. However, if you’re not Korean and haven’t lived here at all, you’d probably have no idea what this is, right?

It’s called a jook-boo-in, or 죽부인, which in English is “Bamboo Wife” and is used similarly to a body pillow. In the summer when it’s hot, instead of pulling your wife close to you for some bedtime snuggles, you can instead cuddle with one of these and fall asleep in cool peace.

The activity was a lot of fun and a good way to practice speaking in a natural way without feeling pressured to come up with topics on the spot, which is usually what happens to me when meeting with friends who tell me randomly to “speak Korean” without providing me with a topic of conversation….


Day 5

Field trip day. We were shuttled on a bus to a location about ten minutes away. Our class went to the Gongju National Museum first. What appeared to be a giant building housed only small exhibits; I was surprised to see that a lot of what was on display was replica and not original. However, I enjoy wandering museums and was able to have a few precious minutes to myself before colleagues caught up to me (and proceeded to zoom by).

We then boarded back up into the bus and shuttled to the Tomb of King Muryeong. A long long time ago the peninsula that is now South Korea as well as domain stretching up into the continent that is now North Korea, China, Manchuria, and Russia, was actually home to several different kingdoms. At the point in time that Muryeong was king there would have been Gogeoryeo in the north, Baekje in the west, Silla in the east and Gaya in the southeast. You may have heard of the “Three Kingdoms” of Korea because Gogeoryeo later became known as “Goryeo,” from which we get the name “Korea.”

Muryeong was the king of Baekje from 501-523. Baekje as a kingdom was very artistic and technologically advanced. They adopted and adapted Chinese style and custom into their art and tradition and Buddhism played a main role in its culture and art. The tomb of King Muryeong is one of the most intact royal tombs ever discovered  in Korea and was accidentally found during a draining of tombs 5 and 6 (out of the seven total) in 1971. While other tombs had been robbed during the Japanese occupation and otherwise damaged, the tomb of King Muryeong and his queen had been untouched since the bodies had been interred there in ~525 and is therefore effectively a time capsule. Literally thousands of artifacts  were found inside and since the tomb itself was intact much could be learned about Baekje tombs and both the parallels between and divergences from Yang Chinese style tombs made at the same time. From the tombs evidence of a new Korean style tomb could be found and a lot could be learnt about Baekje art and culture at the time.

While we couldn’t enter the tomb itself a replica tomb was available for exploration. We had a lovely tour guide as well for maximum educational value.

When we returned to the university, we had lunch and afterwards a series of “cultural activities.” First was craft time with Hanji, or Korean paper. Hanji is made out of mulberry tree fibre and is extremely strong. It can be made into an astounding variety of items including furniture such as stools and bookshelves. We didn’t aim that high with our craft, however, and settled for a prettily and traditionally decorated pencil case. The girl sitting next to me on the left, with whom I was sharing a bowl of paste, was incapable of waiting for directions from the teacher and kept grabbing all her pieces of hanji and trying to glue them on before we were given instructions, which was stressing me out. Then, one of the last pieces we had to put onto the pencil case was a circular piece of paper bearing a Korean traditional symbol. The girl on my right put it on before the instruction slide went onto the board showing rightway up, so she put it on sideways. Um. How can people expect to be teachers if they can’t even follow the directions of the teacher before them? Inquiring minds want to know.

After craft time we went upstairs to the auditorium. I knew this was Taekwondo hour and had previously joked about sitting it out (since we’d been informed that it was a voluntary activity), but when we entered the room and saw that not only was a taekowndo master in attendance but some of his students ranging from elementary to high school, I lost the will I had had to skip out. These kids are probably going to someday sit under the instruction of a teacher like me. I wouldn’t want to set an example for foreign teachers by being uninterested enough in a proud part of Korean culture to sit out. The kids had probably been excited to come here and interact with us as well. In other words, I’m a complete sucker for kids. I will go to great, great lengths to ensure they’re happy and comfortable, including making a complete fool out of myself.

Not many people know this unless they knew me back then but in middle and high school I actually played softball quite regularly. Thinking back, this is a mystery even to me. How did I survive that? Running laps? Throwing myself into harm’s way just to make an out? Weekends spent in 100+ degree weather being eaten alive by mosquitos in the outfield just for a tournamen

I’m just mentioning that as a fun fact because it actually has nothing to do with my athletic ability. Though I felt thoroughly self conscious and sufficiently ashamed when unable to do some of the jumps, my kicks weren’t half bad. I can admit that much. Actually, I will change that from a fun fact to a slightly relevant fact–even back in the day my hand-eye coordination was what allowed me to play centerfield in softball and occasionally score under par for certain holes on the golf course during my comical stint as a member of my high school’s JV golf team.

When taekwondo was over, I admit it, I was slightly sore. That should give you a clue as to how much muscle stretching / strenuous activity I engage in on a daily basis.

To end the day we had a section in our schedules labeled “networking time” which just turned out to be fancy talk for “get together with your lesson demo group.” I believe by this point we had actually already met once to do a basic overview of the lesson.

To make a long and somewhat painful story short(er), we butted heads. The lone New Zealander of our whole orientation group, who had been on the same bus as me going down from Incheon airport and who had spoken, loudly, the entire ride to the orientation venue, a few days earlier, was in my group and had a lot of ideas that I just didn’t agree with. And not just because of my personal teaching focuses, but because I thought she was straying a bit from the structure we’d just been taught to emulate. Throughout my entire history as a member of group projects, I always seem to be the only one to understand the rubric we’ll be graded on and to have any real aspirations of somehow adhering to it. So I get it, I can be overbearing and stubborn. But it’s for the grade entirely, and it’s not personal in any way. I feel most people my age would understand this. But I think I just rubbed Ms. New Zealand the wrong way. As I continued to counter her offers and disagree with her ideas she became more and more “whatever” and finally got up and told me, when I announced that I was going to do one last thing before heading to sleep, “well, if you have the energy to do that at this point that’s fine, but I…” and she left. Until then I hadn’t realized the meeting was over.

Our other group member was a somewhat timid but very nice Londoner who had never taught before. She would have an idea then second guess herself. I would tell her when I thought her idea fit with the outline but I would also tell her straight when I thought it would take too much time or would be repetitive or unnecessary. All in all I probably didn’t do wonders for her confidence level. But man just give me a task in which I have to earn a grade and it’s the grade on my mind, people. Not everything is about you.


Day 6

On day 6 we have another full day of lectures, including “Lesson Planning II” which takes place in a computer lab and which is actually more of a workshop in which the lecturer comes around and asks us all about our lesson plans and demo plans. We get a bill of clean health from him with some minor concerns about time management, but overall he likes how methodical the plan is in that each activity is building up to the last, which is free use of spontaneous English within the confine of an interview. My team members and I are working more smoothly together by now, as Ms. New Zealand has sort of taken a backseat in the lesson planning itself and has taken it upon herself to make graphics (using photoshop or whatever all that is) for all our handouts. I recognize the unfair distribution of work but I’m happy to do extra because it means that we’re going to perform to the rubric.

We have our last lecture on “Educational Magic,” in which a lecturer actually shows us how to use magic tricks in the classroom. However, some of his tricks are complete failures and his attitude is strange. When one of his tricks doesn’t work, he blames it on the audience volunteer. That completely turns me off to him. I find myself checking the time for the entire duration of the lesson.

We have our last Survival Korean class after dinner. Luggage ballerino has to teach the class by himself because our other teacher has to go take photos of the other classes. We play a group game of charades using phrases we’d learned last class about bodily symptoms to tell the doctor in case of illness. My Korean level is overall at a higher level than my teammates, but they choose me to be the first actor and there’s some difficulty guessing what I’m acting out. We come in last place. A tiff even occurs between two of my teammates because one of them didn’t pay attention and didn’t know how to play the game so lost us some valuable time and the other is annoyed about it.

We end the class by taking a series of group photos, some more flattering than others. I think it’s a shame that we’re only able to meet three times. To my surprise as I’m leaving the female teacher gives me a hug. I tell her I’ll live in Mapo-gu as she’s told the class she’ll move to Hongdae soon, and I ask if I can contact her later. I’m a part of the group on facebook so I ask if I could send her a message. She tells me I can go to the head office later and get her phone number, or facebook is okay. Since I don’t have a phone yet, I tell her I’ll contact her by facebook and am one of the first to leave the classroom.

EPIK Orientation Feb 2017: Days 1-3

Day 1

Upon arrival to the orientation site, 공주대학교 (Gongju National University), we were instructed to cart our luggage inside and then enter a lineup that included several stations at which different things were available to pick up. Whilst struggling to haul my two large and heavy suitcases up the wheelchair ramp, I was approached by an energetic EPIK staff member who said “Oh! I should  take your bag!” and proceeded to take the largest one from me, sort of skipping it up the ramp and putting it down delicately before twirling around and helping someone else. I later described this as “luggage ballet,” and this staff member was later to become one of my two Korean Language class teachers.

As I headed into the lineup, I picked up my nametag and took a peek at some of the others: our names were listed, each with a colored heart sticker next to it, and at the top was our location: either Seoul or Gyeonggi, depending on which Office of Education had hired us. We also had a mysterious set of numbers listed: at the top, a three-digit number (mine was 016) of which I couldn’t ever make sense until the last night… and another combination of number-letter, of which mine read 1-B. I didn’t find anyone else from my 1-B group during my precursory scan and was quickly arrived at the first table, where they asked for my nametag and added to it a sticker bearing my room number and gave me my room key.

I moved on to the nurse’s table. I handed them my nametag and she stuck a thermometer in both my ears (not at the same time… ). Despite my sudden spike of anxiety my body temperature appeared to be normal and I was allowed to move forward in line.

I’d noticed the staff member at the next table making eye contact with me while I’d stood in line: me, not understanding yet that these were to be our teachers and thereby our direct superiors for the duration of the orientation and finding him to be fairly attractive, well… I just stared back or looked away as I would with a peer, summing him up to be probably my age. When I got to his table he smiled at me and said “nice clothes,” and handed me a tote bag. I said thank you and moved on, feeling slightly self-conscious. Earlier that day at the airport my recruiter had met me and the first thing he had said to me was “Wow! You look fantastic. Today you just dressed all green clothes?”

This was a bit of an overstatement, but not un-earned by my choice to pair bright green cords with a slightly darker green satin bomber. I was beginning to regret drawing attention to myself from the get-go, but at least the second remark was a clear compliment.

I moved to another table where there was a selection of snacks and after choosing was ushered back into the hallway, instructed to take my luggage up to my room.

Luggage boy was back. He helped me and another girl struggling to carry everything to the elevator and we made our way to our rooms.

I can’t remember the exact details of meeting my roommate for the first time, but I recognized her right away as half of a couple I had noticed earlier. She seemed quiet and not unfriendly. Although I had misplaced her accent as UK she’s South African and told me she was one of five South Africans in our whole group; I would go on to eat dinner at the same table as her and her boyfriend. Both were quite friendly but her voice was quiet and accented so I had a bit of trouble understanding her at times which I’m sure was just as uncomfortable for her as it was for me.

After dinner some people went out into town which I gathered was about a thirty minute to hour walk away depending how far one wished to reach into the small city’s downtown. I opted to stay in and sleep instead, which I believe I must have done.


Day 2

Breakfast begins at a staggeringly early 7.30AM. As there’s hardly any opportunity to get food here unless at the designated meal times, I resign myself to awaken to eat this morning meal with my colleagues. I roll out of bed, brush my hair and teeth, dress myself, and stumble to the cafeteria without even washing my face. Breakfast is some kind of cream soup and salad. I eat both unhappily and rush back to the room. It’s raining somewhat steadily, misty and cold. We’re to have our campus tour today.

I had been instructed the day before that I am in class 1, and so have the earliest campus tour time. We have a class meeting at 10.00AM in the dorm lobby and shortly thereafter depart. I had imagined, when hearing the words “campus tour,” that…well, that there would be some kind of broader campus to explore, that we’d go outside and kind of…walk a lot. But the campus tour didn’t end up like that in the end: we walked through each of the three main buildings (which were quite small) and located key classrooms, the nurse’s’ office, the head office, the place we were to have the medical exam the next day, etc. At the end we were lead to an area out back of one of the buildings and instructed never to go up into the forest. All together I believe it might have taken 30 minutes start to finish. We were let loose until the Opening Ceremony that would take place at 2PM.

Prior to arriving, I’d been quite concerned about dress code. I’d packed a separate bag full of business casual / business attire and had planned to wear this attire for the entirety of the orientation. I was one of very few who subscribed to this dress code. In fact, there was a certain individual who showed up to meetings, classes, and cultural activities all wearing his plaid pyjama pants. Others were in hoodies, yoga pants, etc. Pretty much every casual item of clothing you might imagine one could wear in late winter/early spring weather could be found. And then there was me. But isn’t it always that way in the end?

I kick off our opening ceremony by sitting down in the completely wrong section and being forced to move across the large auditorium at the viewing pleasure of the rest of my colleagues who have somehow figured out how to read the backwards map displayed at the front of the hall. I’m joined a few minutes later by a few boys who’ve made the same mistake as me. I privately think of our row in the Class 1 section as the “Midvale School for the Gifted” row until we endure frontal attack from a chatty theatre buff who turns around in her seat in the row before us to regale us with theatre jokes and other batner that we just do not understand here in Midvale. As it is becoming painful to endure, we’re saved by the ceremony.

I forget what the ceremony was about. All I know is after it was over we had to sit through a long lecture about Korea’s History and Culture, as told by Mr. White Guy. To be fair to him he’d lived in Korea for almost 20 years or something like that, and if I’m honest, being lectured by a non-Korean about Korean culture is actually more immediately helpful than learning from a Korean, who is unable to understand completely the point of view that non-Koreans like us would be coming to Korea with, or the things that we would probably all find particularly different or strange.

After the lecture we have a class meeting at 4:30PM in which we learn several important things about how the week will progress and the horrifying fact that we are to report at 7.00AM the next day for our medical exam, while classes 2 & 3 can wait until 8.00 and 9.00 respectively. We’re broken into our lesson groups, and find the partners that we will give our lesson demonstrations with. We also are “tested” into our Korean class  levels. We’re given a few sentences on the board and asked how many we can read and how many we can understand. Beginners separate from intermediates. Then another slide appears with more sentences. Advanced students separate from remaining intermediates. I’m placed in the Advanced class, but if I judge simply from the test, I think it might still be too easy a class. We’re told our first Korean class will be the next night, so I can only wait to find out.

To end the eventful first day, we attend a “Welcoming Dinner” in the same auditorium we’d had lecture in earlier. There are several large circular tables where people can sit and mingle at ease. I stand in line with a couple girls I’d befriended at lunch and, yes, here she is again, the theatre buff from the row before. But she’s engaged two people in conversation behind me so I am able to ignore her at ease except when her tone becomes so emotional with her love for theatre (“you don’t understand, This or That Musical None of You Have Ever Heard of is the BEST THING IN THE WORLD”) or her lack of desire to eat sushi that I can’t help but overhear because I am in the vicinity. By now I’m sometimes making eye contact with the “nice clothes” boy whom I’ve learned is one of two class teachers for Class 3.

There are three or more large tables laid out with assorted foods, the first table of which seems completely dedicated to salads of various shapes and sizes. I forget the specifics of other tables, but I end up with salad, japchae, kimbap, vegetable gratin, pumpkin porridge, and janchi-guksu (banquet noodles), as well as a couple pieces of freshly tempura’d vegetables. This amount of foods in this variety is more than a small victory for a vegetarian at a venue that has promised it will not provide any alternative / vegetarian options at meal times.

The couple girls and I sit at a table with another girl and continue for the whole dinner as just a group of four, as nobody, it seems, wants to share our table. We engage in what becomes a slightly emotional discussion about whether or not it’s strictly necessary for dog people to hate cats so much (cat people outnumber dog people three to one, so you can imagine how the conversation goes) and wondering whether the “mingling” that’s listed on our schedules will, in fact, be forced or not. I end up going back to the tempura table and grabbing more seconds than I can finish. We locate the mix coffee and end the meal when we’re told by the main EPIK coordinator that we can leave so they can clean the room.


Day 3

We have been instructed not to drink or eat anything for several hours before the exam, so naturally, there is no breakfast available before the test. It’s Thursday, although if anyone were to ask me I wouldn’t know. I’ve already lost track of time. A lot has already happened.

We’re filed into a room where first we sign in, pay our 50,000 won fee, and then all take the exam in line in the same room. I’m second in line. I become nervous as I approach the machine that simultaneously measures your weight and height; last year, the machine I used called out my weight and height aloud as it recorded, and I’m not shy to admit that that is the LAST THING I want announced to a group of 50 of my peers, even if it is in Korean. As we’re in public, I keep on two of my three layers rather than stripping down naked (which everyone knows is how most people weigh themselves) and glance nervously at the nurse who records my height and weight. The machine makes no proclamations, but I catch sight of a KG number quite higher than I had anticipated despite knowing that I’d gained more than 10 pounds when I’d gone home to California for my five month’s rest. However, I find I am also about three centimeters taller than I had believed myself to be, a whopping 159.9.

We move on through seeing test (the doctor keeps pointing to VERY small things to which I can only say “um…yeah I can’t read that”), blood pressure test (doctor nods with approval and says “very good”), hearing test (four beeps, done), another test I can’t remember, and then the dreaded blood pull.

My veins are, history will prove, very difficult to locate. I’m seated in front of a soft-spoken woman who directs me in Korean to sit, make a fist, etc etc. She prods lightly at the insides of both my elbows, instructing me to hold a tight wrist, for what I believe to be about three or four whole minutes, while on my right side in front of the other doctor/nurse/person people are whizzing past, getting their blood drawn in no time at all. Finally she decides to use my right arm and hits the vein on her first try, drawing two vials. My hand is still tightly fisted; she tells me to relax. When it’s done she gives me a cotton wool and tells me to press for five minutes. I sit without checking the time. After a while I remember what I’m supposed to do and have to ask someone to help me peel the backing off my bandaid as I’ve got on acrylic nails and have no dainty-item grip finesse…

I’m directed to a table outside where the man hands me a cup wordlessly. This is like a dixie paper cup. I look helplessly around me and then the woman next to the silent man gestures that I should go to the bathroom, so I gather that this is the cup that I’m meant to use for the urine sample. When she says “half a cup” my suspicions are confirmed. Although I’m pretty sure that this is the most unsanitary thing a doctor has ever instructed me to do I follow her instructions and then deliberate over whether or not to cover the cup with a piece of toilet tissue just out of politeness. But I decide against it and, instead, launch myself out of the bathroom towards the table at top speed and hand off the cup as quickly as I can manage, as if that will absolve me of responsibility for what I’ve done. The woman takes the cup with a smile–yes–and the unspeaking man suddenly bursts to life and tells me to go down to the bus outside.

I walk downstairs and a female EPIK staff member approaches me and whispers at me, are you wearing a bra? She’s so quiet that I can’t hear her. I ask her to repeat it, though in hindsight I realize I probably had just forced her to re-undergo a horrible ordeal. Are you wearing a bra? She whispers again and I hear her this time. I tell her there’s no metal in it and she gives me the OK to head to a bus outside where I gather I will have my chest X-ray taken. I accidentally almost walk into the males-only bus so a staff member leads me to the correct bus frantically. I enter and the doctor instructs me in Korean to hold my breath in front of the machine. It’s over in a moment. I head back into the building to retrieve my snacks (given in lieu of breakfast) and head back to the dorms, where I wait with a couple others in the lobby until 8.30, the time Seoul teachers have been instructed to go to a computer lab to be aided in reserving an appointment with immigration.

Luckily I’m among the first to arrive so I’m among the first to be guided through the process. In order to find out which of the three (or four?) immigration offices in Seoul is the one where we should make our appointment, we have to find out which district we’ll be teaching in. I await nervously–my last job and home were in Nowon-gu, the north-easternmost district of Seoul on the border with Gyeonggi. I figure with my luck I’ll be in the same neighborhood teaching the same kids. But to my astonishment, delight, and disbelief, the EPIK coordinator tells me I will be in Mapo-gu. The girl to my right will be in Nowon-gu, and then Guro-gu, and Dobong-gu. I’m so relieved and happy that I’m almost convinced it’s a mistake, and yet still somehow high on the news.

For those who don’t know, Mapo-gu (the “a” pronounced not like the “a” in maple nor in map but like the “aw” sound in awesome) is an affluent area of western Seoul just north of the river. The district houses some of my absolute favorite neighborhoods of Seoul including Hongdae and its sort of “backdoor” neighborhood Sangsu. Hongdae is an extremely popular destination for young people (and some celebrities), mainly due to its high concentration of artsy cafes, good shopping and food, and its nightlife. I like to go for the shopping, atmosphere, and food mostly, but may or may not also possibly be spotted in my off hours at a hip hop lounge or club.

The girl sitting two seats away from me leans over and says “you’re in, like, the coolest area of Seoul,” smiling jealously.

“I know,” I say, and the disbelief is audible in my tone.

After booking my appointment, I had about an hour and a half before lunch. I forget what I did during that time.