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.
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.
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.