Culture Difference (part 238479234)

I’ve been at the school since February—now, at the end of October, nearly 8 months later, students still don’t know how to greet me when they pass me in the hallway. There’s always the hesitation over whether to use Korean or English, and if they use English, what should they say? Most first year students greet me comfortably with “Hi, Teacher,” a group of third years in my advanced classes have a little sing-song of “Hello, Teacher” that they like to throw at me even if I can’t see them over the masses of other students in the hallways between classes… and others usually stutter through whatever it is they choose to say, half-bowing, half-smiling, caught with only a split second to make a kind of decision that isn’t necessary in any other realm of their daily life.

As you may know, it’s customary in Korean culture for students (or any company / gathering-place junior) to bow and politely greet their teachers (and seniors, including older, known students). Because I fit in some students’ minds quite neatly into the teacher category, most students bow politely to me and mumble the standard Korean an-yeong-ha-se-yo as they pass. Other students want to interact directly, so sometimes I’m stopped by students with random questions. I like this best, actually. Teacher, what’s the most popular food in California? Teacher, do people know BTS in the USA? Between these two groups of students are those who recognize Korean isn’t my language and that I may not understand their intention or meaning when they greet me in Korean, and who because of that awareness hesitate and deliberate between hi or hello and who chatter about it in Korean afterwards, how they still don’t know what they should say to me when they pass me in the halls.

To be honest, I kind of dread these interactions because I also kind of still don’t know what to do. I have to actively pay attention to how they’re engaging with me—if they bow, I nod my head back and smile. If they say hi, I say hi back. If they greet me in Korean, I respond with hello. If they ignore me completely—which sometimes they do—I don’t make a big deal about it.

I recently talked with my co-teacher about this culture difference. Because I teach the entire student body, all students know me, as opposed to other subject teachers who teach only a portion of their designated grades. And because I teach all students, I receive a lot of greetings in the hallways. From the second I exit the classroom to the second I enter the office. I was walking with my coteacher back to the office from one of our shared classes and after my fourth or fifth “hello,” she asked me if students in America greet their teachers like that. I almost didn’t have to think about it—my neck sprang into action before my mind, shaking my head a vigorous no. I told her it was only if students were really close with that teacher would either greet the other. Or just if the kid is friendly. But to be honest, I can’t exactly remember what happened if I ran into a teacher outside of their classroom in high school. In university I always greeted professors outside involuntarily, spurred by my fanatical respect and/or admiration into greeting them heartily, even from far away.

Although I’ve lived in Korea nearly continually since August 2015, there are still some elements of culture difference that will perplex me and aggravate me to no end. I was talking with a friend earlier this year, maybe springtime, and she said something that I thought a lot about at the time. That as visitors we’re just observers of different cultures and it’s not really our place to say whether or not that culture is right or wrong, just whether or not that culture suits us or not.

I don’t agree.

Okay, yeah, if you speed through a country on a world tour and come back spouting things about which country is good and bad or make premature judgements without engaging enough with information or data on an issue, then it’s not really your place. Sometimes it’s not your place. But I don’t think we should withhold judgement about right and wrong just because the culture is different. I completely understand that I will never, ever, completely grasp or comprehend a culture that is not my own. I know I can never understand the ins and outs and the history and all the complications. However, after living within (or among) a culture for a couple years and seeing its effects on people and using my actual observations and experiences, I think it’s okay, and necessary, even, to attempt to combat something I think is wrong, even if it falls under the guidelines of a culture that I didn’t come from.

I’m not going to go around telling people “yeah um hi excuse me your whole culture’s way of understanding and talking about feminism is deeply flawed and harmful” but I’m still allowed to think that, and share that opinion with friends if they ask me. I think I’m allowed to attempt to secretly disseminate empowering ideas to the young women I teach because I believe that the culture they’re growing up in is systemically oppressive to all members of their gender. I would never say to a classroom that the way they’ve been taught to think about themselves as relating to men and to others in general strips them of their ability to think healthily about themselves or makes it much more difficult than necessary to establish truly meaningful relationships with the opposite gender. But if a student comes to me seeking advice in a safe setting where she can choose to leave at any time… I’m going to tell her what I truly believe.

My friend didn’t mean it wasn’t okay to do those things. I know she just meant we shouldn’t pass judgement on things we can’t fully understand. But in terms of a different culture, that’s something we can’t ever fully understand. If my reason for believing something is wrong is because I believe it fundamentally harms an entire group of people, and I just want to help those people, I think I have the right to judge even though I don’t fully understand.


 

I recently posted a status on a language learning application about my frustrations with my co-worker’s appearance and the fundamental assumption in Korean culture that if you dress up or “look pretty” you’re doing it in order to gain someone else’s approval. The comment that made me upset was “You look really pretty today. Do you have a date after work? No? Then you’d better make plans for one.” I posted the quote and noted that I know it’s culture difference but I don’t think people should say this kind of thing at work; also, this question was coming from another woman, and why is it always the assumption that women’s effort to look beautiful has to be effort made to please men, OR, that it has to be made “useful” in some way, usually by appealing to men?

More than any other status I’ve posted before this drew a lot of comments, but the most opinionated commenters were men. One man felt it was his duty to point out to me that not only women receive those kinds of comments. (Thanks cause I didn’t know that already or anything and oh yeah thanks for reminding me that this status update was actually about YOU.) Another man told me that he was a guy and he cared a lot about his appearance and he dressed up for women and it was just a way of being in the office, it wasn’t a comment with a lot of malicious thought or anything, it was just a standard saying kind of like a greeting. He also took the trouble to explain to me (because I am an imbecile) that the reason people dress up when they’re going on a date is because the other person likes it when they do that. I wanted to comment back that the fact people say it as “just a greeting” is kind of exactly my issue with it. Because it’s been so normalized to think that way, that “dressing up” (as the guy put it) is ALWAYS for someone else and because of that beauty must be made useful in that way, people just say it without thinking and if people keep defending that kind of statement, then Korean culture’s acceptance of people always making it their business what other people look like is never going to self-check, it’s never going to loosen up, and people’s daily routines will always center upon that vicious, poisonous awareness of society’s gaze. But I did not comment that because I lost energy and I’m not sure how to get it all across in Korean.

People who, never having been to Korea, wonder why parents are buying their teenage kids plastic surgery packages as high school (or middle school) graduation presents, I invite you to come and spend a couple years here. The answer is suffocating, inescapable. Everybody makes other people’s appearance their own business. They care about it. They talk about it. They think about it. Why is that happening on such a scale that I can basically never feel like I get away from it? And I’m a foreigner? This phenomenon occurs to some extent in any culture. Humans as animals care about the appearance of other humans. But I don’t think you’d argue with me, had you been here for as long as I have, that it’s amplified to an intolerable scale here.

Also, while I’m at it.

The fact that mostly men commented with opinionated comments on a status about my experience as a woman, trying to modify my thinking for me even though they’re a man and can’t know or share my experience in any way… Well, that’s just more of the same, isn’t it.

In talking to my coworker (who is a math teacher) about feminism yesterday, she told me that when she was a kid, she overheard the line in a drama that a man said if a woman weights over 60kg (just over 130 pounds), she’s not a woman, implying that she’s a pig or animal instead because of her weight. My coworker told me she had been shocked by that, but I could tell that her reason for being shocked was different from mine. I think it was the number itself that shocked her.

Whether he’d said 40kg or 100kg, to me, it doesn’t matter. To me, the fact that men think that it is okay for them to define what it means to be a woman, to define the scope within which a woman is allowed to experience life as such, is a fundamental problem that men themselves cannot understand, and which most women are living unaware of. Every time a woman says she can’t be a feminist because she wants to have a rich or handsome husband, every time a woman says she has to wear makeup or weigh in at a certain number in order to be successful, these women are letting men make the rules of who they can be and how they can be themselves. And when women, like my coworker, tell other women to make their beauty “useful” by planning a date on a day they look pretty so their beauty doesn’t “go to waste,” they’re only perpetuating the cycle.

So these days, I’m a little frustrated.

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For the first time in my life, I destroyed a diary.

I opened it up and laid it on the shower floor before starting the water. I expected to see the ink run, but it didn’t. I had written almost fifty pages in two and a half weeks in what was apparently waterproof gel pen. I watched as the water beat holes into the pages. When it was sufficiently marred, I turned off the water and left the diary there, not sure what to do with it.

Why do good people hurt others? Why again, again, and again, do I get hurt by people whom I trusted? I can barely breathe without feeling like I’ll throw up. I’m angry and in denial in turns. Sunday morning I slipped on my bedroom floor and fell. I was surprised that my body didn’t make more noise; stunned by that fact more than the jolt of the fall, I laid on the floor and took stock of my body–was it really there? Why didn’t it make any noise when it hit the hardwood? Maybe if I don’t really exist then it makes sense that everyone keeps treating me like I’m worthless, expendable, like the fact that what they’re doing will really hurt me, will really ruin me, doesn’t matter.

Then I started to wonder if I really fell. But I have budding bruises on my left hipbone and elbow. A dark yellow, almost orange color.

Everyone is telling me that he was just a bad person, that I don’t deserve to be treated how he treated me. They’re telling me not to give away my heart so quickly next time. They’re telling me I’ll meet a better person someday.

Why isn’t anything anyone is saying making me feel better? Why doesn’t the knot at the bottom of my chest go away? There are moments of stillness in which it feels like everything was a dream. I often have nightmares, anyway. Then there are moments when I feel like the whole world is ending. I can’t breathe, and I can’t escape the feeling that something awful is about to happen. Dread. Fear. Grief.

Then I feel lightheaded, faint, like I could fade away. I feel homesick for the first time since I’ve been here, and afraid not to be in contact with people I know. I want to keep texting. If I stop texting, I feel unsafe. And I’m dreading telling my friends who don’t already know what happened. I know more of the same horrible words are coming. That he’s a bad person and I don’t deserve it. I don’t want to hear that again. I just want to stop feeling anxious and to stop feeling sad. I want to forget it.

But I can’t. I keep remembering times when I was with him and I find myself smiling. I bought him an umbrella because it was raining so hard one time when we were planning to meet and he’d told me he hadn’t brought one with him to his academy earlier. When I gave it to him he said thank you, Lily, I’ll use it well. He let me keep it when he went home because it had stopped raining by then. But before that, on the way to a pub after dinner, we got lost. We came out of the restaurant and I walked in the wrong direction and he followed me. I stopped, and said is this right? in Korean. He told me it was right. But after a few more minutes he stopped and turned to me.

맞나? he asked, smiling widely. I laughed. He looked beautiful, holding the umbrella I’d bought for him over his head and smiling at me. His face was shining. It was raining lightly.

There are a thousand other moments like this that I think about and smile and then catch myself smiling and then remember what he did to me and that he didn’t care about me at all, and that he doesn’t care about these moments like I care about them, and that he probably doesn’t think about me at all now when all I can do is think about him and wonder what happened, why he left, why he chose me to do this to, why he let me feel like it was safe to give my heart to him only to throw it away. Why he doesn’t care whether my heart is broken or not.

I remember the shape of his ears; I caught a glimpse of them once from above while he was sitting down and I was returning to the table. There was a little white bump on the back of one, maybe just the shape of the cartilage. He used to hang his head and laugh when I’d said something that surprised him. Sometimes he’d just meet my eyes and smile. He was soft spoken, and when he thought of something he wanted to say he’d inhale lightly but audibly, his lips pursing and eyelids fluttering for a moment before he told me what he’d thought of. The first time he did it we were at dinner deciding what to do next. I told him I’d finished my cold medicine sometime earlier, but now we were almost done eating and he said that because it was raining we should decide where to go before leaving. He looked to the side for a moment, his lips slightly pursed. He did the little inhale thing. You said you finished your cold meds? he asked. Yes, I said, yesterday. Then how about getting a beer? He said. I said okay, good.

The same thought had occurred to me earlier, that it’d be nice to get a beer with him. When he did the inhale, I thought he was just pretending to think of it then, but that maybe it had occurred to him earlier, too. But then he inhaled like that other times and I realized it was a real habit. It was cute. Endearing. Like all of his quiet, soft qualities. But then, maybe pretending was a real habit of his, too.

There’s another moment I can’t stop thinking about. When we were riding an escalator out of the subway station to catch a bus back to my apartment—he always saw me home after we met, even if we weren’t nearby my place, before he walked to the nearest subway station to take the train back to his hometown—and on the escalator, I was on the stair before him. When we were almost at the top he said from behind me, now your height is similar to mine, and I looked back and met his eye. He was right. We were at eye level. I thought he was looking at me with something like affection. I smiled and turned away. Now the glint of his dark eye, and the image of the one cute freckle under it, is playing over and over in my mind.

I thought it was affection.

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….

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.

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.

vegetarian doenjang jjigae (된장찌개)

One of my favorite Korean dishes is unsurprisingly a soup / stew, called Doenjang jjigae (pronounced: dwen-jahng jeegae), which is named after “doenjang,” which literally translates to “thick sauce.” Doenjang is fermented soybean paste. It has a salty, nutty, and—well—fermented flavor that I found slightly addicting as soon as I first tried it. As a vegetarian in a land of meat-eaters who don’t consider seafood to be meat at all, I often find myself shelling out the short-necked clams that usually come in the soup and piling them into the bowls of my eating companions, knowing that the broth is still made with anchovies. Because I’m here and I want to experience the culture as far as I feel I can, I don’t let these things bother me, but I still always feel much better eating something I know is completely meat-free.

That only happens when I eat my own cooking.

There aren’t many ingredients in doenjang jjigae, so after a while of suffering cravings, I finally decided to make it.

Doenjang is a very old part of Korean cuisine. Some of the earliest recorded varieties of kimchi were made by smearing a Korean radish in doenjang and letting it ferment that way. A poet whose name I forget described the flavor of that kimchi in the summer as sweet as a pear. But if poetic quality isn’t enough for you, doenjang is actually really healthy: it’s full of flavanoids, vitamins and minerals, phytoestrogens, and lysine, an ~essential~ amino acid you can’t find in rice. All of this survives boiling, by the way.

Traditionally, the base of the soup is made with anchovies and kelp, boiled for fifteen or twenty minutes, after which the fish and kelp are both extracted. It’s easy enough to substitute a premade, vegetable-based stock for the anchovies, although the flavor will admittedly be different from a true, traditional taste.

Here is the recipe I used to good results. I traded out the traditional ingredient of mu, or Korean radish, for enoki mushrooms, because mu are quite large and I didn’t want to try to store it after I cooked since I wasn’t about to make kkakdugi or anything with it afterwards. However, mu are a little bit spicy so I recommend using red pepper flakes if you don’t use mu to make up for the enoki mushrooms’ lack of flavor in that area.

You can find any of these ingredients at a Korean mart or you can substitute what you can find at your own supermarket for anything here… except the doenjang, of course. If you need help finding anything at the Korean mart, I’ve written the Korean words for the ingredients in parenthesis by the ingredient so you can show that to someone who can help you there!

VEGETARIAN DOENJANG JJIGAE (serves 1-2)

ingredients:

– 1 tablespoon condensed vegetarian soup base

– 3 tablespoons doenjang (된장)

– 1/2 tablespoon red pepper flake (고추 가루)

– 2 tablespoons minced garlic (다진 마늘)

– 1/2 small white onion (양파)

– 1 or 2 green onions (파)

– 1 or 2 small bunches of enoki mushroom (팽이버섯) OR 1/4 Korean radish (무)*

– 1/3 Korean grey squash (애호박)

(you can use a regular zucchini for this because it’s basically the same)

– 1/3 package of mid-firm tofu (찌개용 두부)

– 1 Korean green pepper (풋고추)

*don’t mistake this for daikon! Korean radishes are round like potatoes rather than long and thin like a carrot (this is a daikon), although their coloring is almost the same.

1. Broth

– bring a small pot of water to a boil and add the condensed vegetarian soup base.

– let this simmer while you prepare the vegetables

2. Vegetables / Tofu

– cut the 1/3 Korean grey squash into thin rectangular pieces

– cut the bunches of enoki mushroom about halfway down the stalk (the bottoms can be discarded),

– or, if you use the Korean radish, cut it into similar sized pieces to the squash

– cut the 1/2 onion into small pieces (but don’t mince it)

– cut the tofu into small cubes

– cut the green pepper into thin, diagonal slices (don’t fear or remove the pith/seeds, they’re flavorful and not spicy!)

IMG_0042
chopped vegetables on the world’s smallest cutting board

3. Seasoning

– add the doenjang to the soup base, and let boil for 3 minutes

– add the red pepper flakes

– add the minced garlic and enoki mushrooms

– boil till the mushrooms are cooked (~3 mins)

4. Add the Vegetables

– add the squash and onions

– boil for ~3-4 mins

5. Finishing

– add the tofu

– top with green onion and green pepper

IMG_0046
everything added~

 

Serve with rice and side dishes (kimchi, kong-namul, miyeok-muchim, sigumchi-namul, and oi-sobagi are some of my favorites) if you want to experience a closer semblance of a Korean meal.

surgery in Korea

It is difficult to know how to begin this post.

In fact I’ve begun it and erased it a few times now.

This is a subject I avoided for several months of my recent history and I suppose it’s maintained a resistance to my airing it. So, after a lot of effort and several revised drafts, here it is:

I recently had minor surgery to remove part of a toenail that had become ingrown. Details: I allowed it to be ingrown for several months, thinking I was avoiding the emotional trauma of visiting a doctor whom I barely understood and before whom I would have to stand ashamed and admit that I’d endured the occasionally severe pain of an infected digit for so long and then, on top of that, not even know how to say that…

So I was well and on my way to ignoring this forever… embarrassed by my own affliction, I guess, which might not be uncommon, I don’t know—but then my friend Kelsey and I planned a trip to Osaka and Kyoto for my summer vacation in July and August and my friend Gloria, freshly arrived in Gwangju, agreed to go with me to Seonyudo over Memorial Day weekend in June. Both trips which would involve extensive time on our feet (and on a bike, in the latter’s case), and I finally faced up to my reality: I couldn’t do that with my stupid, wounded toe. And I’d already booked tickets.

Timidly—and after several days of conveniently “forgetting” to—I asked my coteacher if she knew of a good podiatrist. When she asked me why, I told her something was wrong with my foot, and she suggested the “bone doctor.” Another coworker, in whom I had confided my horrible secret, piped up from her corner—“It’s not a bone problem…” When I subsequently  appeared to be incapable of explaining my own situation, this coworker continued: “It’s an infection on the toe.”

I covered my face in my hands and flopped back in my chair as if mimicking a dying fish would change the fact that now half the teachers in the teachers’ room were listening in on my well-guarded private problems.

My coteacher told me I should see a “skin doctor” and proceeded to look one up for me, finally locating one at Nowon Station and calling them to see if they could help me. She’d ask me questions while talking to them—where is it, exactly, is it bad? or not, and finally, how long has it been like that?—to which I had to ashamedly tell her it’d been something like five months and to which she promptly rolled her eyes at me before relaying this to the poor, poor soul on the other end of the line.

I managed to shuffle myself out of the teachers’ room after my coteacher told me to go in the next morning before work and I might have gone to sit by myself in one of the kiddy toilet stalls in the bathroom to be alone for a while, but I don’t actually really remember what I did, oxygen being in some little supply to my brain at the time.

I made my way to 이지함 피부과 (Ee-jee-ham Pee-boo-gwa) out of Nowon Station’s fourth exit the next morning.

I have become accustomed to being greeted by a certain facial expression accompanied by a sort of rigor-mortis-like stiffening of body when I walk in somewhere and someone realizes that they’re going to have to try to speak English. So when I walked into the “Skin Clinic” (which I quickly realized was more like a cosmetic-surgery / skin clinic) I was ready to be greeted nervously—judging by the average reaction to my entrances, I am probably a close relative of the Grim Reaper—but actually, I don’t recall any hyperbolic expressions. Only one receptionist / front desk girl approached me and asked me hesitantly if I spoke Korean.

“A little,” I told her, and then said in Korean that it was my first time so I wanted to register. She switched to English slightly falteringly to ask if I could read Hangeul, and even though I said I could, she still explained the form to me as I filled it out. She mistook me for a student—I don’t really resemble the average English teacher, I suppose, and my casual appearance has even sometimes elicited negative reactions from subway mothers—and wrote my address as “USA,” but I thought things were going quite well until she asked me what was wrong.

“There’s some problem with your skin?” she asked, gesturing to her face. I paused a moment and wondered what she must have thought of my complexion before shaking my head and figuring out how to say what I had to say in the least amount of words possible.

“My toe,” I said, “has an infection.”

She proceeded to ask me details that I was embarrassed to relay, and then finished up the interview by drawing a cartoonishly inflated toe on a tiny foot on my file and double-checking with me that it looked okay.

Then she tried to ask me what doctor I wanted to see, but she called them “teachers” —in Korean, you’d address or call a doctor the same word for “teacher” (선생님) so I was confused at first until I translated in my head and realized what she was asking. I told her in Korean that any doctor was fine and she told me I’d wait for thirty minutes.

I looked at the clock. That would put me late for work. So I texted my coteacher who offered to cover my first period, and sat to wait nervously.

In about the right amount of time the nurse called me—Lily님~—and I walked forward into 한희진’s office.

I met with a kind-faced, slightly graying woman with glasses and a very comfortable demeanor, and very natural and non-threatening-looking for someone who worked in a cosmetic surgery clinic. I greeted her in Korean, but she said “Good morning,” and asked me how I was doing, it was nice to meet me, and verified some details about my problem.

The dreaded moment arrived—when I’d take off my shoe and reveal the wound. While I was unlacing, I hesitated, wondering if she’d find it extremely odd if I suddenly bolted—but instead, I simply apologized and warned her it was not pretty.

“It’s okay. I’m a doctor,” she said, amused. But I knew that smile would not last long. Guiltily I peeled off my bandaid.

She gazed at it, inspected it, poked at it, asked me if this or that hurt (it did), asking me how long it’d been that way—looking at me an extra second when I told her and then composing herself professionally, but not before I could tell she was wondering if she heard me right or not—and then finally looked up at me with something like—sympathy? pity?—before observing pithily, “there is some….severe….swelling here.”

“Yes,” I said.

She told me we’d treat it in stages. Start with a week of antibiotics, pain meds, and ointment. She asked me to come back in a week and she would decide if I needed surgery or not. If I needed it, she’d have to remove part of the nail itself, but if surgery was unnecessary, she’d just remove the dead tissue from the area. At that point—I was so relieved she spoke perfect English and was kind and not grossed out by my grossness—I would have said OK if she’d said, let’s amputate!, so I happily accepted her advice and made my way out to the waiting room again. Before I was called up to pay, Doctor Han came out of her room to find me and told me that the antibiotics were quite strong (which she had already told me) so I needed to take yogurt with them. I just include this detail to show how she went out of her way to help me, which she would continue to do throughout my stint there.

So I took antibiotics for a week. After a few days I could tell the swelling had gone down, but not as much as I’d thought it would. After a week, I had a feeling that I’d need surgery. I went back to see Dr. Han again and she let me know, with kind of a sad look on her face, that I’d need surgery after all. She apologized—no, no, I said. I could have said thank u please take it all. She leaned down and felt my shoes, wondering if there was enough room in there…and I realized, she’d be doing the surgery that day.

Back in the waiting room, I began to get nervous. I was glad it would be over with and in healing mode from that point forward, but, well, I think nobody likes to wait for their own surgery.

But then, a receptionist called me up—I paid, and she gave me my prescription and I thought, oh, maybe they scheduled the surgery for some other time, so I walked out to the elevator and had just pressed the call button when I see Dr. Han running towards me, gesturing me inside.

“Today!” she said, seeming flustered. “We will do the surgery today.”

I apologized and returned to my seat. The receptionist apologized but I shook my head and smiled. Twilight zone-ish. So I went back to being nervous.

Doesn’t help, either, that the only other surgery I’ve undergone, I also had to be awake through, and it was extremely traumatic—wisdom teeth removal. They gave me a sedative which made my body hard to control but which did nothing to ease my mental or emotional discomfort, and being awake while people mine through your mouth for things that are attached to your bones isn’t exactly what I’d call a good time. I remember crying and mumbling nonsense at the dentists and then crying when Mom bought me a smoothie after the surgery and I couldn’t keep it in my mouth—it just kept dribbling out and everything was numb and swollen. I mean—extremely swollen. I already have round cheeks, so think bowling-ball-sized-cheeks swollen. 

And it wouldn’t go unswollen for two weeks. Some people I know recovered in a couple days from theirs…but me? No, two weeks of vegetable stock. I remember I cried (a theme with me) when I ate my first Pillsbury croissant (aka the softest solid food in the world) after two weeks of chewing only air and Vicodin dreams—and my memories of these dreams are interspersed with hazy flashes of the two-AM, thirty-minute infomercials my medicated, delirious self became extremely interested in during that dark time…

Anyway, I was nervous about the surgery. I still had to go to work in like an hour and I was by myself and I was about to get cut open and here we were dealing with something that I had tried to ignore for almost half a year, something I had tried hard not to acknowledge, something that embarrassed me and plagued me and was painful, something I’d tried to keep hidden being dragged up and addressed in a big way. Since the new year—actually, since before then, maybe the end of December—I’ve been what can be properly called an emotional wreck—I went through a painful breakup and resurgences of panic attacks, bouts of my usual, but super amplified depression and anxiety, sadness, restlessness, tiredness, sleeplessness—just things I’d been living with, like I’d been living with this infection. As I waited in the surgery room, and the nurses quietly prepared for the operation, I remembered what it felt like to stop denying myself, to stop ignoring myself, to stop denying and shaming my own needs, to stop ignoring my health, and what it felt like to do something good for me—things which people like me, who suffer emotional disorders, might find it hard to remember to do.

When Dr. Han entered the room, she asked me if I was nervous.

“A little,” I said.

My friend and Dad had been texting me their well-wishes. My phone vibrated on the table behind me.

I watched as Dr. Han prepared the area and disinfected it, but I turned away when she pulled out the syringe—the needle was uncomfortably large, as all local-anesthetic needles are, I suppose. I declined to watch as she administered the injection—I’m sensitive, but I also think my pain tolerance is reasonable—but this really hurt. I think I stopped breathing until everything was numb. Then Dr. Han looked up at me, surprised. I hadn’t made a sound.

“Oh… good patient,” she said, then the nurse said—but her face is a bit…—so Dr. Han told me I could lay down if I wanted.

“I will do that,” I announced, and then did it. They put a pillow under me and then handed me a stuffed panda bear wearing an American-flag patterned, knit sweater. I wrapped my arms around it as Dr. Han told me she was starting the operation.

Of course—if you’ve had surgery like this, you know. It’s numb, so it doesn’t hurt, per se, but you can feel it. It’s not…comfortable, but it’s not uncomfortable. Two nurses were in the room now, and they all three were making comments in Korean, not knowing I could understand them, about how much it was bleeding—I was glad again I’d opted to lay down. Thinking too much for the moment, feeling too much for the moment, thinking this was a big metaphor for something when it was in fact one of the most physical of physical, actual things that can happen to a body—I was strangely emotional, but I managed to hold back tears. I’m pretty good at doing that, as a kindergarten teacher can’t let the leak drip just any time she wants.

But suddenly—it was almost silent in the room—Dr. Han started humming, just a simple, somehow sweet tune—and I lost control, tears falling out a couple at a time at first, but I had a good cry in private, the stuffed bear hiding my face from view. One of the nurses looked up to check on me—tears still rolling slowly down my face—I nodded, I’m not sure why, maybe to acknowledge what we both knew, that I was crying, an adult who maybe didn’t feel like one clutching a stuffed bear to her chest on the operating table. Her grip tightened on my leg slightly for a moment.

The surgery was over quickly. It lasted maybe ten minutes. Afterwards, when Dr. Han was going to put stitches in, the anesthetic had worn off a bit, so it was painful—I didn’t know if it should hurt or not (dumb…I know), so I didn’t say anything, but at one point I think I flinched hard enough for her to notice.

“It’s painful?” she asked, surprised.

“Yes,” I said. She put in more anesthetic, and continued. It hurt a couple times, but nothing like before. She told me afterwards that she’d changed her mind and instead of suture had opted for a “chemical” sealant. Then they wrapped me up and I shoved my club toe into my running shoes and then Dr. Han brought a box of chocolate into the room and shared it with the nurses and me. I wondered how they could eat that after what they just witnessed… but kept these thoughts to myself as I exited for real this time and made my way to work.

I had to return the next few days to have the post-op wound examined and dressed, but they told me it was healing well and eventually told me I could self-dress. Dr. Han had been coming in on her off-days because she “knew my file,” and wanted to make sure I was doing okay. Whenever I thanked her for taking such good care of me, she’d waive it off and say something like, “it’s my job,” but actually, it wasn’t. At one point, she told me that her husband is Korean-American—ah, I thought. Your English. I now know.—and on my last visit up, I went up to the clinic in the same elevator as Dr. Han, and caught a glimpse of her husband through the closing elevator doors as he waved goodbye to her. He had the same genuinely kind, peaceful expression and same gray hair—I realized with a start, that man drops his wife off at work. This woman came in on her days off to take care of me. What a special, unusual, enviable couple.

My nail is growing back. I’m putting on this stuff called “medifoam” to protect the bare skin where nail should be, and I’ll do that until it’s fully regrown. I can wear any pair of my extensive shoe collection these days and I’m much more mobile now, my whole five-foot-one frame zooming around at unnecessary speeds just because it can. Someone less riddled with social anxiety and generally better at taking care of themselves might not have waited as long as I did to address this problem, but I’m healing as well as that person would—which, for me, is a little bit incredible.

I’m finishing writing this up after one-AM on a workday, and I’ve got to—as it happens—go to the doctor tomorrow morning to try to get a bad cough sorted…  and certain chronic problems persist… insomnia, amongst others—but now I can wear my Y-3 boots again, kids aren’t stepping on my open wound anymore, I’m not limping around all the time, and I’ve met perhaps the nicest doctor in Korea. So things are on the up.