Noobish mistakes in Korea

While I’m sure I continue to commit cultural faux pas on the regular here, there are a few particularly embarrassing ones that I thought I’d share to perhaps help other noobish expats out. Or just for your amusement.

Most of them occurred very early on in my time here, so don’t judge me too hard.

I shall omit the Getting Lost Incident, which has been previously documented.

1. The taxi incident.

I was taking a taxi to an open class observation at another school which was pretty far away from my own. After managing to get the driver to understand my feeble “[school name] ga juseyo“, I was feeling quite empowered by my clearly amazing Korean abilities. So when he asked me something in Korean to the effect of “do you mean THIS school or THAT school,” I confidently replied 몰라요/mollayo,” which means “I don’t know.”

The driver chuckled in a surprised way and repeated, “몰라요?” “네,” I said, feeling oh-so-proud of myself.

(Luckily for me, the driver knew where the correct school was anyway and dropped me off there with another little chuckle as I handed him the money.)

What I found out MONTHS later is that there are two ways to say “I don’t know” in Korean. 모르겠어요 (mollegesoyo) means “I don’t know, but I’m willing to find out/I’m sorry that I don’t know.” 몰라요, which I used, has a connotation of “don’t know don’t care.” LOL. Sorry, Taxi Driver Ajeosshi. Didn’t mean to be rude. At least he found it funny.

2. The bus incident.

I still cringe when I think about this one.

In my first couple days in the city, I decided to attempt to take a bus that I had been told would stop near my school. I wanted to prepare myself for how I would get there come Monday, my first day of teaching. I knew the general area but didn’t know exactly how to get there from my house.

Can I just say that Korean buses. are. terrifying. I can take them now, but I prefer not to for fear of being thrown into the windshield before I have a chance to grab onto something after boarding.

So I got on this bus, and after a couple of stops I realized I was now the only person on the bus. And it seemed like we were going the wrong way (not that I really had any way of knowing).

Worried that I would end up in like another city, maybe, I cautiously approached the bus driver in this empty bus and said in Korean, “Chogiyo, ajeosshi (excuse me, sir),” and then said what I now realize is the Korean equivalent of “Bus go [school name]?”

The gruff bus driver responded with a few grunts and then energetically waved me off at the next stop. He probably thought that I thought that he was some sort of taxi driver who would take me exactly where I wanted to go. Obviously I was just trying to figure out if we were going to get close to my school, but I must’ve seemed like an extremely clueless and/or entitled weirdo with the language skills of a two-year-old.

Anyway then I took a taxi and found my school and was able to work my way backwards to figure out a walking route and it was all fine.

Come to think of it, taxis saved my life more than a few times in the first couple months.

3. The Olive Young incident.

Olive Young is a makeup/beauty products chain and my go-to for buying BB creams and facial masks.

Whenever you check out they’re required to ask a series of rapid questions including “Do you need a bag with handles?”, (if yes) “It costs xyz extra, is that okay?”, “Do you have an Olive Young rewards card?”, and “If you want to return anything, you have to do so by this date.”

Nothing out of the ordinary, but the first time I experienced it, I only understood the “do you need a bag” part. When she said the part about the price, I had no clue what she was saying and just stared at her helplessly, which led to a series of even more confusing attempts at communication as I didn’t know whether to say “yes” or “no” and she didn’t know how to explain it any differently, apparently, so eventually she just charged me for it. Of course, it just so happened that half the population of Daegu was behind me in line, witnessing the whole thing.

Not that this is the most embarrassing thing to ever happen or that it’s the only awkward communication issue I’ve had, but it just illustrates how frequently you can feel completely stupid when you first arrive and don’t know much of the language yet.

Incidentally, I recently had one of the Olive Young cashiers do her spiel entirely in English for me, which impressed me greatly since the location I go to probably doesn’t get many foreigners. I know Koreans have no obligation to speak English to foreigners in Korea, so I always feel warm and fuzzy when they do. Especially in grouchy Daegu.*

*I love Daegu but it’s a little bit of a crusty old man sometimes.

4. The co-teachers incident.

I guess it sounds worse than it is, but it’s still a bit of a faux pas. When I first met my co-teachers I tentatively addressed all of them as, for example, “Kim Seonsaengnim” or “Park Seonsaengnim” (“Teacher Kim”/”Teacher Park”).

Yeah… don’t do that.

I was trying to be respectful, but it just sounds really clumsy and awkward and will probably make your co-teachers feel weird.

Honestly, you should just ask them “What should I call you?”, since some like to go by an English first name, others like to be “(Korean Name) Teacher,” and some (rarely in my experience) like to be “Mister/Miss (Name).”

Personally, when I’m referring to them to the students, I use “(First Name) Teacher” in English, or just the Korean way of referring to other teachers, which is “(Full Name)쌤/Saem.” However ‘saem‘ is technically slang and is a casual, borderline too casual way to say ‘teacher’, so don’t use it right away / unless you hear other teachers using this method. English is the safest bet.

5. The paying incident.

This one is an ongoing cultural muddle for me. In Korean culture, when you go out to eat, traditionally the oldest person pays for everyone in the group (part of the Confucian hierarchy, and I suppose the only beneficial part for younger people, is that older people are supposed to take care of and look out for them). If there’s a round of coffee or dessert after the meal, the younger person can then pay for this smaller bit as a way to say thank you.

There is a “Dutch pay” concept (a.k.a. splitting the bill; somehow “going Dutch” got Konglishified into “Dutch pay”), but it depends on the circumstances and who you’re with.

However, deeply ingrained Western norms about splitting the bill when out with friends or coworkers plus confusion about what is expected from me, as an often-younger yet also foreign person in Korea, make this such an uncomfortable situation for me.

I’ve had many an awkward half-conversation, half-skirting-around-the-topic with my Korean co-teachers, something like “Oh, I can -” “Oh, next time -” “Can I -” “I invited you -” “Half? -” “Don’t worry -” *awkward silence*.

I honestly still have no idea whether I’m supposed to keep completely quiet and just thank them, offer once and then shut up, or continue protesting. I suppose I should try to figure that out.


Okay, there are my Top 5 Embarrassing Moments in Korea. (I’m sure there are others that I’m forgetting at the moment.) Thankfully these days I’m a bit better at remembering to avoid most of the faux pas.

Also, though I’m grateful to all the taxis that saved me in the early days, I now avoid taking any form of transportation that is not my own two legs whenever possible. Walking is the one method of getting around that is guaranteed not to stress me out.

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i’m alive and stuff.

thinking about explaining why i haven’t blogged makes me want to close my browser, so let’s just strike while the iron is hot (at 11:58pm on a monday… okay…) and ignore the fact that it’s been MORE THAN A MONTH. I SKIPPED SEPTEMBER.

that’s fine with me. september wasn’t so great.

On a different note (which deserves proper capitalization and punctuation), when I reentered the blogging arena tonight I discovered I was nominated for the One Lovely Blog Award by the very lovely Adina (check out her blog, unfiltered freckles!). I’m honored and grateful (and also feel bad because it’s been several weeks since she posted the nomination, and those were the weeks that I didn’t have the motivation to even check my WordPress feed).

The rules are to nominate 10-15 other lovely blogs – which I will try to remember to do at some point (but this is just my ‘I’m still here’ post, and honestly I haven’t been reading many blogs lately) – and to list 7 facts about myself.

I’ll try to list things that I haven’t previously brought up (or beaten to death) about myself in other posts. Like, ‘yeah, we know Maddy, you’re all introverted and hypochondriatic and stuff. cool story.’

  1. i have a playlist of certain music videos that i watch when i’m in the mood to cry (among them are “Set Fire to the Third Bar” by Snow Patrol & Martha Wainwright, the acoustic “Thinking of You” by Katy Perry,  and “Elastic Heart” by Sia). please tell me i’m not the only one? (i mean, not necessarily with those songs, but just having a crying playlist. it’s healthy to cry for no reason once in a while.)
  2. i once lightly tossed my hairbrush towards my bed because i was apparently, in that moment, too lazy to put it down somewhere like a normal person, and my Herculean strength overthrew that thing straight into the window and cracked it. actually, that was a few months ago and my window still has a spiderweb crack in it. ooooops. welp, that’ll be coming out of my housing deposit.
  3. living in a perceived mess, or things appearing dirty or unkempt around me, causes me a great amount of stress.
  4. when i was young, i was a voracious consumer of books, i thought i loved dogs, and i thought fruit snacks were disgusting. now i am 26, i can’t remember the last time i picked up a physical book, i know that i’m not fond of dogs, and i quite enjoy fruit snacks. weird how life does that to you. (and yes, i am an adult and i eat fruit snacks. don’t judge. they’re made with real fruit juice.)
  5. when i’m nervous or stressed, i pick the skin around my nails. that poor skin will probably never know wholeness.
  6. a couple weeks ago, i went to see Sully with my 3rd year girls’ English reading club (it was after the midterm test, so all the clubs had some kind of special activity in the afternoon, and we were the lucky ones who got to see a movie). It was amazing and I highly, highly recommend it. i cried (speaking of crying).
  7. Good Mythical Morning (Rhett & Link) is my favorite thing on the internet, and almost my favorite thing anywhere.

it is now 12:41 am and i should definitely be sleeping.

so, yeah. anyway.

i’m alive, and stuff.

week in the life of a hypochondriac

The following semi-fictitious post is directly based on my true personal life experience.*

All diseases and health problems mentioned are actual true things that can actually happen to you. Probably even like a whole 1% chance, probably. All links provided for your reading pleasure. Some have pictures. Click at your own risk.

Warning: If you are yourself a hypochondriac, I strongly recommend not reading this post, as it will only give you further material to freak out about. Seriously.

Monday- Odd pain in my lower right abdomen. Definitely appendicitis. See the doctor at once to prevent instant death. Doctor says the appendix is fine? Well, it’s obviously the lesser known chronic appendicitis, which comes and goes, unlike the acute appendicitis everyone thinks of. Doctor clearly has no idea what’s going on here.

Tuesday- Strange throbbing sensation in the center of my chest along with a weird pain towards the bottom of my right side rib cage. No worries, a quick Google search will sort things out. Oh God, I have an aortic aneurysm just waiting to rupture AND it’s clearly comorbid with an infected gallbladder! Lie in bed clutching my phone, clinging to Dr. Google and awaiting certain death. Surprised relief when I survive the night.

Wednesday- A small bump on the side of my nose that wasn’t there before. Definitely not a pimple. A search for “small bump on nose” is warranted, which obviously narrows it down to basal cell carcinoma or angiofibroma (never mind that the latter usually affects teen males; there’s always an exception). Either way, I’m clearly going to lose my nose. Obviously they’ll have to chop the whole thing off. Try to reconcile myself with living like Voldemort in exchange for not dying.

My future.

Thursday- What’s this small pink bump on my arm? Look, there’s another one. And another. Three pink bumps. Kind of itchy, too. Must Google this in case it’s some infectious disease. Oh, oh my God. They’re bed bug bites. Bed bugs bite in threes. I have bed bugs. I can feel them crawling on me right now! Isn’t that another bite? Must scan every inch of every surface in my room. Must identify every bug I find. Must check my body every 3-5 minutes for new bites. They’re totally crawling all over me and biting me. Wait, do I have delusional parasitosis? Am I going crazy?

Friday- Drank some alcohol (not excessively, because no way am I going to risk throwing up because along with hypochondria comes emetophobia), and then noticed a weird tingly/exhausted sensation in my arm muscles. Clearly a sign of alcoholic myopathy, never mind that I don’t drink often, and before long all my muscles will atrophy and I will be a useless blob on the floor. And die.

Saturday- Really weird tingling shooting pains in my head. Well, now, this is definitely not temporary nerve pain due to my (actual, not imagined) TMJ. It’s far more likely that I have trigeminal neuralgia or brain cancer or something and will need surgery to survive.

Sunday- No pains or mysterious symptoms today. How odd. Go to bed. What if the fan starts an electrical fire if I leave it on while I’m sleeping? Turn it off and lie there in the heat. What if the room overheats without the fan and I die of being baked in an oven? What if a regular old fire starts in some other person’s apartment? What if someone climbs up three stories and crawls in my window if I leave it open for fresh air and kills me? My chest starts to feel tight. Maybe I’m having a heart attack. Maybe… maybe… maybe…**

*Hypochondria is a real anxiety disorder, now classified as “somatic symptom disorder” and/or “illness anxiety disorder” by psychologists. It’s characterized (similar to OCD) by obsessive thoughts (thinking you have an illness or health problem) and compulsive checking behaviors (checking Google, researching all kinds of diseases to rule them out, going to the doctor for reassurance) which continue in a vicious circle. The brain continuously seeks that temporary relief from its anxiety via the checking behaviors, but the relief never lasts as there is always a new symptom to cause anxiety and restart the cycle.

I have it, but it’s mild enough that I don’t need any professional treatment. It doesn’t interfere with my life or make me miserable (most of the time). Although this post details daily occurrences, for me it only happens a few times a month to a few times a week, depending on my overall stress levels and mental state. (However, all of the examples are actual things I have experienced and feared.) I typically handle it with humor (poking fun at my irrational fears, such as through this post) and/or telling my mom every single perceived symptom and the diseases I probably have (sorry, Mom!) and get reassurance from her. That’s usually enough to subside my fears in time.

I’ve definitely improved, since for example when I was 12 years old I had anxiety about vomiting to the point of developing psychosomatic stomachaches every single night (out of the fear/anxiety of throwing up – how ironic, right?). Only after multiple scans and being told there was absolutely nothing wrong with me did they subside. I’ve certainly learned to cope with the anxiety and recognize psychosomatic symptoms much better over the years.

Important (lengthy) note: I am very aware that there are people who actually suffer from these diseases and other serious diseases. To them, I’m sure hypochondria seems petty and ridiculous and even cruel and selfish towards those who have real health problems. In a way, that’s true, and I think that focusing on that can help someone with hypochondria to put things in perspective (by getting out of their own head and having empathy for another human being).

However, do keep in mind that (certainly in more severe cases than mine, anyway) hypochondria [just like any mental disorder] is a health problem in its own right. It’s caused by neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain. People with illness anxiety aren’t intentionally belittling the experiences of people with actual illnesses; they’re just overwhelmed with and trapped by fear.

And even though rationally speaking some of these fears might seem ridiculous, I assure you they can become very real at the time – and the increasing anxiety only serves to intensify the symptoms or even bring on new psychosomatic symptoms. That’s where the need to develop coping skills comes in (or possibly seek professional help if the anxiety becomes severe).

**Since hypochondria is a type of anxiety disorder, it can be comorbid with other anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety, OCD, panic disorder, etc. That’s why in the “Sunday” entry, I wrote about general anxiety (unrelated to illness) – which then leads to illness-related anxiety. It’s pretty typical.

Final note: My goal in writing this post is to somewhat humorously introduce the experiences of someone with mild hypochondria / illness anxiety and how I personally deal with it – nothing more! Please don’t take offense.

living alone vs. living isolated

The weather is lovely today, not too hot or too cold. It’s sunny. Birds are singing outside my office window (which I’ve left open in spite of the fact that my allergies are clearly kicking in, in all their sneeze-inducing, nose-stuffing, chest-tightening glory).

ALL my kids are on a camping trip today and tomorrow, and most of the Korean teachers went with the kids as chaperones, which means I have the school all to myself (basically) in glorious silence.

It’s perfect timing; later this week, I’ll be reviewing everything we’ve covered till now for the midterm exam, and I’ve been wanting to make some really fun/cool Pokemon-themed PowerPoint games for that. This year I’ve mostly avoided PPT “bomb” games in normal class and tried out other kinds of games with them, but of course the kids love the bomb games the most. Since they’re studying their little brains out for midterms, now seems like a good time for a treat. A lot of them seem to like Pokemon, or at least Pikachu because he’s cute. And themed games (with music, GIFs, and maybe even videos embedded along the way) get them much more excited than a regular “bomb game” template.

Anyway, the point is that staying alone in the office made me think about living alone in general.

For someone like me, living alone is pretty much THE BEST. Peace and quiet, no interruptions, setting your own schedule and your own free time and meal times. I have hermitish tendencies that can make me forget entirely about the need for socialization sometimes.

And it is a need. I would go crazy if I never went out of the house. It’s just that A) my need for social time builds up much more slowly than in, say, an extrovert, and B) even when the need to socialize or at least GET OUT OF THE DARN HOUSE is making me stir-crazy, sometimes it still takes an extra self-administered kick in the pants to actually go out.

Not because I feel depressed or anxious about it. I know logically that going out, even if it’s only walking to the grocery store and looking around and not buying anything (except ice cream because you know, I can’t just walk past the ice cream), will give me a little dopamine brain boost for changing up the scenery and the routine. But being alone at home in yoga pants is so much more comfortable.

Until it’s not, because if I allow myself to stay in that comfort zone too long, it becomes isolation rather than solitude, and loneliness instead of peace.

Maybe you’d think that living in a foreign country is enough to push you out of your comfort zone – and for a while, it is – but honestly, we will all build and rebuild our comfort zones no matter where we are. I can stay in my little bubble of introversion every day if I want to, but is that really what I should be doing while I’m living as an expat?

Today was one of those days that I had push myself not to take the isolated path. When the VP sent a message to the handful of teachers deskwarming at school (including me), “식사하러 오세요~” (Come and eat lunch) – instead of hiding out in my office with the excuse of “I couldn’t understand the Korean” (which I could’ve gotten away with even though it’s not true), I put on my brave grown-ass woman pants and went down to the 2nd floor office, where a group of teachers welcomed me kindly.

While we ate, I taught them that “jjim” means braised, and braised is the word for the kind of cooking used. (Because of course we had 해물찜, fish jjim, for lunch today. See “The Bad” in this post for more of my thoughts on fish jjim.) And that “shikhye” can be called “sweet rice drink” in English. Not that we have anything close to this sweet-tasting, watery concoction with paper-like grains of rice floating in the bottom. I’m actually kind of a fan of shikhye, but some foreigners hate it because of the weird rice texture – probably like how some people dislike bubble tea because of the tapioca ball texture.

sikhye-korean-sweet-rice-punch-c

Shikhye (kimchimari.com). Usually the rice all sinks to the bottom, though.

When I tried to help clean up afterwards, they shooed me out good-naturedly (“OK OK, yes, bye bye!”), and so now here I am back in my office, playing with Pokemon GIFs, with a very confused fly buzzing drunkenly around the florescent lights to keep me company (and/or drive me crazy with his incessant buzzing).

I guess this rambling post was an attempt both to give insight into the mind of an introvert and to remind myself that one massive leap out of one particular bubble of comfort (i.e. moving to Korea 1 year ago) does not adequately cover the rest of my life. It’s much easier to learn and grow when you’re pushing yourself than when you’re sitting in your pajamas in your comfort zone.

vacations are wonderful things

Particularly in the education field, I feel, but just generally speaking, who doesn’t need a vacation once in awhile? I think we don’t even realize how the daily wear and tear is affecting us sometimes, but coming back to work after a good vacation is so refreshing (provided you like your job at least a little bit, I guess).

I spent the last 2 weeks in America on a surprise visit. It was so fun to surprise family and friends, lovely to spend time with them after a year apart, and strange but nice to feel things clicking back into place almost as if I’d never left.*

*With a few exceptions, mostly related to social interactions.

– Weird: Within 5 minutes of stepping off the plane onto good old American soil airport floor, a random stranger made small talk with me about the crazy length of the customs line. I was weirded out. Why is this human I don’t know talking to me? Then I realized how handy it is that everyone speaks my language when I asked another random stranger a question about the customs computer check-in. Then I eavesdropped on 5 different conversations because I could actually understand them and felt weird again.

– Troubling: I was never pro at small talk or glib conversation, but after a year in a country where small talk is nonexistent and I get by speaking in fragmented sentences which nix all parts of speech but the most essential, simplified nouns and present-tense verbs, I find myself to be much more awkward and not-ready-with-natural-comebacks than usual.

– Encouraging: I noticed that I am no longer too timid to ask questions of doctors, hygienists, and store clerks (I was always the person who would rather search around for 20 minutes than ask where something is). I also no longer rehearse what I’m going to say before making a phone call, which is truly progress. Phone phobia is a real thing, people.

The problem with expat life, though, is that once you’ve established a home in a foreign country, you will forever be missing your other home no matter which country you’re in.

So, it was nice to arrive back in Korea yesterday. It felt like coming home – a completely different experience from arriving here a year ago, when I had no clue what I was getting into or where I was headed.

And today, the first day of February 2016, here I am back at my desk and back to blogging. This is an interim week between “winter break” (month of January) and “spring break” (month of February), so all the kids are back today. Apparently I don’t have to teach any classes, but the other teachers do. Friday is graduation day for the 3rd graders, who are moving on to high school in March.

This arrangement is beyond nice for me, since this week I can use the deskwarming time to start planning for next semester (if my productivity levels stay as high as I want them to), and then I get more vacation days for the Lunar New Year (Seollal) from Feb 8-10.

My only complaint this morning was that the school apparently maxed out our electricity limit or something, because every office and classroom was getting about 5 minutes of heat followed by 10-15 minutes of no heat whatsoever (on a rotating basis). Believe me, that 5 minutes of heat was not doing much good for my frozen fingers and toes.

But now, post-lunch, we seemingly have our act together and the heat is staying on. Woohoo!

To return to this post’s title, I have to say that this mundane Monday felt fresh for me because of my extended vacation away from school (and away from Korea!).

The greeting song that blares through the loudspeakers (like, you can hear it from the street…) every single morning at 8:15 a.m. filled me with nostalgia, recalling my first day of teaching and hearing this song that morning.

Here’s the song so you can also experience the EXTREME CHEERFULNESS!

Everything today is great – the school smell (my school has this smell that, if I pay attention, takes me directly back to my first day here – not unpleasant, not a specific odor from a food or something, just a smell which I can’t describe!), the other teachers, lunch in the cafeteria.

Lunch was that spicy yet bland soup that is just spiciness and bean sprouts, which is normally tiresome, but today I ain’t even mad.

image

For one thing, I haven’t had school lunch in like a month since the cafeteria was closed for winter break during January, even when I was at school to deskwarm. I missed the hot lunches.

Plus, forget about that spicy-bland sprout soup, we had potatoes with chicken. I love me some potatoes. Just give me potatoes with whatever the rest of the meal is and I’ll be happy. And rice! After eating rice on the daily for a year, 2 weeks without it starts to feel like a nutritional deficiency. Rice is da best.

Getting a little sidetracked here (when am I not?), but I’m really grateful that the school lunches force me to eat at least one healthy meal per day (meaning lots of vegetables, some protein, and little carbs or sugar). One major thing I did notice in America was that I had headaches every day and felt kind of sluggish and tired (and I don’t really get jet-lagged, so it wasn’t that). I’m pretty sure it was diet-related, either the high carbs or the excess dairy or sugar or something. I think it’s something you definitely have to get away from and return to in order to notice the difference that diet can have on your energy levels and general wellbeing.

Okay, signing out for today.

strange aloneish thoughts in crowded places

Prescript (as in Postscript, but before not after): Please note that if you want to read about the title of today’s post, you need to scroll down. A lot. I kind of rambled. Sorry.

Today I signed a piece of paper (several pieces, actually).

Those pieces of paper state that I will remain in Korea as an ESL teacher (working with EPIK) for another year.

Ultimately I knew I would regret staying here at least 1% less than going home this spring. So, I’m staying. The “adventures in Korea” chapter of my life isn’t quite finished yet.

Of course, my decision wouldn’t be complete without a good old Korean surprise. Just 1 week prior to contract signing day, I received the news that I will teach exclusively at my small school next year.

You know that tight, sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you get unexpected bad news?

This means that I won’t be able to teach my lovely, bright, hilarious, sweet students from my main school next year.

Hence the “change is hard” post from a few days ago.

This week I went through a very mild version of the 5 stages of grief.

  1. Denial- First, a mix of emotions rising up in my chest without words, then “No way, this can’t be right.” I felt dazed, like someone hit me in the head.
  2. Anger- “Why would they change it? Why didn’t they tell me earlier? Why don’t I have a say in this?” (sidenote: it’s in my contract. I’d already agreed that I don’t have a choice about where I work before I even arrived in Korea. this was the crazy desperate voice in my head.)
  3. Bargaining- Emails and messages sent to the Office of Education, my co-teachers, and anyone else who would listen, asking if there was some way to change it (there isn’t).
  4. Depression- Considered backing out of my contract for a minute. Consumed with the sadness of not seeing my main school kids next year, of being replaced by some other random person, of them forgetting me within the year.
  5. Acceptance- Thankfully I managed to pass through to this stage within a week, since that’s all the time I had before contract signing day.

I’m exaggerating a bit to make light of my situation. Obviously this is a first world problem and I know it’s time to suck it up and move forward, commit myself to teaching at the school that will now be my only focus.

The most painful thing is thinking of the 1st graders. Although I stopped teaching them in the middle of this semester (so that I could teach 2nd grade), I never said goodbye to them properly. I (foolishly) assumed that I would be back next year to be their 2nd grade teacher.

The fact that they said to me, “Come back next year!” and I said, “Yes, I will!” kills me. It also kills me that a new NET will be teaching “my” kids. Sigh.

Anyway, let’s get to the actual title of this post.

So I went to the Office of Education Center of sorts for the contract renewal meeting. I found myself sitting in a small auditorium in a sea of foreigners (about 40 of them). I felt extremely strange and uncomfortable.

Korea, you are not doing anything for my casual socializing ability.

Not that I had a great deal to begin with. (See: introversion)

I mean, walking around the streets, and even going to work each day, I never ever ever have to make small talk. I never even feel pressure to say a single word most days. In fact I think I’ve actually had days where, outside of teaching class, I haven’t said a single word to anybody except hello and goodbye. It’s not antisocial, it’s just not necessary – and sometimes it’s too much work. I’ve written before about the comfortable bubble of protection that the language barrier creates for an introvert.

So here I am, watching people find their cliques and chatter loudly (why are Westerners so LOUD?! I suppose it’s just because I can’t easily tune out their English conversations like I can with Korean).

giphy

Me, essentially. P.S. if you love Mr. Darcy raise your hand. *raises hand*

Sitting alone with my aloneish thoughts.

Thoughts like…

– Other than the slightly humiliating stigma of being a loner when everyone else seems to have a friend group, I prefer this. It feels superficial and daunting to chat with people who clearly already have a clique. Do you know how hard it is to break into people’s cliques?? To me, it’s just not worth the effort, especially considering that in my daily life I have little opportunity or desire to meet up with them at clubs and bars. (Sidenote: I understand that other people may disagree. Kudos. I envy your mad socializing skills.)

– Why is the heat blasting. It’s not even that cold outside.

– Oh, look, there’s that guy. He was at my orientation. Oh and apparently he knows that girl from that one training seminar. Wow, guess they’re a part of that one clique. Who knew all these people would be renewing.

(after frantically scrabbling my fingers around in the bottom of my huge laptop bag) YES! I do have a pen! I’m not that person who forgot to bring a pen to an important contract-signing meeting! I AM THE BEST!

– Dang it’s hot.

– Should I avoid making eye contact with this person whose name I know because she was in my orientation group but she probably doesn’t know who I am anymore? Oh shoot we made eye contact. What do I do? Awkward tight-lipped smile, yes. That’s the way to go.

– I am SO glad I don’t have to meet an entirely new set of CTs and adjust to a new school. However, it’s amusing as names are called and foreign teachers and Korean teachers have to find each other and have that anxious, awkward first meeting.

– Oh thank goodness my amazing CT finally got here. I AM NO LONGER ALONE.

At this point she and I had to sit in on a quick meeting specifically for the Korean teachers about paperwork, and then we skedaddled out of there as fast as possible. And she drove me home because she’s awesome like that.

Hopefully this doesn’t make me sound like a social outcast. Or a sociopath. I promise I’m not. Well, I’m not a sociopath anyway.

Honestly, the expat scene in Korea is just not my style. Making friends with people who will only be here for 6 months or a year seems like a whole lot of effort.

Also, there are well-established cliques. I’ve already stated my feelings towards cliques. It’s great when you’re in one, but when you’re not it’s just kind of vaguely annoying to be around them.

Also, most (not all) foreigners like to party hard in the downtown areas. I like to watch YouTube in my pajamas.

So those are my excuses. Poke holes in them if you want. I’m content with my life here, and I’m certainly not unfriendly or unkind to the foreigners I do interact with.

Just do your own thing, people. Socialize and be outgoing if you want, or don’t. Dance to the beat of your own drum. Don’t worry too much about what other people think of you. (Don’t do mean and stupid stuff either though.)

If you need me I’ll probably be at home, wearing my pajamas and a fleece blanket, watching my Christmas tree lights dance on my ceiling and eating ice cream.

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Both GIFs in this post are from that simultaneously wonderful and horrible place, tumblr.

 

 

One of those mornings

Talk about a rude awakening.

My eyes popped open this morning and I almost simultaneously shot straight up in bed as my heart dropped to my stomach in the despair of realizing that I was not waking up to an alarm and feeling in my bones that it was way, way later than it should be.

A frantic check of my phone – 8:28 a.m.!!! [reminder: my start time is 8:20] – led to even more frantic dashing around my apartment, grabbing clothing items, slapping on powder and mascara, sticking a toothbrush in my mouth, packing my bag, slathering on deodorant and perfume and wishing I had dry shampoo because there was no way I could take a shower. (This headless chicken method of getting ready ended up being far less effective than if I had calmly gathered what I needed.) All the while, I was repeatedly trying to call any of my co-teachers to let them know why I was late and that I’d be there ASAP, but I couldn’t reach any of them because they’re all homeroom teachers and had to be in their classrooms at that time.

10 minutes after my eyes had opened, I was outside my apartment in the blazing heat, desperately looking for a taxi and noticing (in the way one notices completely trivial things in a moment of crisis) how differently the sun illuminates the city at 8:30 a.m. than at 7:30 a.m., the time I usually walk to school.

I found a taxi a couple minutes later and we sped to my main school (thankfully it’s only like an 8 minute drive from my house) and I definitely overpaid the driver but I Did. Not. Care.

Then I had to make the walk of shame past some 2nd graders who were preparing for 1st period P.E. class outside (thankfully they didn’t seem to notice the fact that I had just clambered out of a taxi 1 minute before their first class), dashed up the 4 flights of stairs and into my office, shamefacedly murmured a greeting to my coworkers, whipped my laptop and class materials out of my bag just as the bell rang, ran back downstairs to Classroom 304, and smoothly started class like it was just a normal day.

Lucky for me, no one seems to care that I was late at all. One of my co-teachers said they’d been worried about me, but that was it. Every co-teacher I talked to about it just said “Oh, it’s okay!” or “Oh, you must be tired!” I’m sure if I made a habit of it, that would be different. But hey, I didn’t miss even one minute of my first class, so we’re all good.

But guess who’s going to be setting five different obnoxiously loud alarms for tomorrow morning?

Highs and Lows

I’ve been wavering between posting and not posting today, because everything I try to write seems redundant and uninteresting. (Possibly because I’ve already lived through it, I suppose. Also possibly because today has been a bit exhausting and my creative juices [what little I had to begin with] appear to be drained.)

I also usually try to keep my posts focused on the positive things from my day, but I don’t want to sugarcoat. Trust me, it’s not like my days consist entirely of me floating through the hallways leaving a trail of rainbows, butterflies, and lovestruck middle school boys in my wake. (Well, okay… sometimes… on the good days… for brief moments… it does feel a little bit like that. Not gonna lie.)

But there are kids who don’t respond to me. There are kids who sullenly stare at the ground while I plead with them to practice the dialogue with me one-on-one (whether it’s because they’re shy, low level, or just stubborn, I can’t be sure). There are times I say something and get blank stares until my co-teacher translates and I watch their eyes light up with understanding. There are times when I want to go crazy from trying to keep up with lesson planning. There are classes, on Mondays and Tuesdays, when I try out a new lesson for the first time and it utterly flops, and that feels horrible.

So with that said, here is the good, the bad, and the ugly from today.

High: The weather has remained cool to the point of needing a jacket some days, and I am eternally grateful for this. Daegu is known as the hottest, most humid place in Korea in the summer, so I’ll take cold/cool weather for as long as I possibly can.

Low: One of my classes that’s normally really good started to fall apart a little bit today. Not that they were being intentionally disrespectful, but because I had put them in groups with their desks facing each other, the non-class-related talking got out of control and the noise level rose to where I couldn’t even make myself heard. Does needing my co-teacher to silence them make me a failure? Because it sure felt like it.

High: One of the teachers in my office brought me a few unwrapped squares of a chocolate bar in his bare hands. Why is this a high point? It’s weird, right? Would anyone in Western office culture do this? Probably not. But it touches me the way everyone shares food in such a familial way. And although we can’t speak the same language, they never leave me out.

Low: One of my classes was unexpectedly (for me) canceled due to a listening test today. Which is fine except that this is the class I have to do an open class with next week (the one where other native English teachers and the Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education supervisor come to watch/evaluate) AND we have midterms coming up in two weeks… which means that next week, for the open class, not only will I have not seen them for two weeks, but I’ll also have to try to cram in two lessons’ worth of material to prep them for the test (which includes boring textbook stuff) while making it look fun and exciting and awesome. This doesn’t bode well for anyone involved.

So there you have it. It’s not perfect here. My kids aren’t perfect. My co-teachers aren’t perfect. My school isn’t perfect. I’m certainly not perfect. But even so, I am incredibly happy with my life here, and I find joy in the small things from each individual day. I can use the less-than-desirable moments to improve myself, my teaching style, and my approach. (Or at least, that’s what I try to tell myself after a class that bombed or an embarrassing moment.)

I came here to grow, and I guess there’s bound to be some growing pains along the way.

Moments from today

This morning I walked into what I thought was my class (at least, it was my class at that time last week!)… then one of the kids said, “Teacher! Social studies.” “Really? Now?” “Yes.” “Oohhh… um, bye!” Whoops. Guess my schedule changed again. At least the kids shooed me out quickly, before the social studies teacher got there and I further embarrassed myself.

*     *     *

I was given a delightful Korean surprise today regarding my first after-school class. I had been under the impression that it would be only 3rd years, but was informed 1-1/2 hours before class that it was actually 1st, 2nd, and 3rd years with mixed levels – meaning 12-year-olds to almost-15-year-olds, some of whom may speak very little English and some of whom may be nearly fluent. And after-school classes don’t have Korean co-teachers, so it’d be just the kids and me.

Cue frantic tearing apart and rebuilding of lesson plan.

Cue panic.

Cue despair.

10 minutes before my class, a student came up to me in the office (this never happens) and said, “Teacher… you have class?” “Yes.” “Unlock the door?” Cue further panic as I tried to figure out which of my non-English-speaking coworkers had a key to the English Room. Thankfully one of my co-teachers came along and found one, and I got into the classroom on time at least.

The lesson definitely wasn’t as good as it should’ve been, but I managed to keep things running for 45 minutes. The kid who came to get me about unlocking the door turned out to be my only 3rd year today (of the 14 students on the class list, only 9 of them showed up today, mostly 1st years) – hence, he was the oldest in the class and suddenly appeared extraordinarily mature and big compared to the 1st and 2nd years. Since he’s a 3rd year, he’s also been in my regular class a couple times already.

He not only helped me out during the class by translating a bit for the younger ones, helping me read their Hangul names, and volunteering to go first for activities, but afterwards he told me, “Teacher, you had good class. Fun class,” and we actually had a bit of a conversation for a couple minutes. He’s a really sweet kid, but not the kind that stands out during one of the big classes amid the whir of noise and activity that 36 fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds can make. In that environment, the loudest, boldest, and most boisterous kids win out. With this smaller class, I’m really looking forward to being able to talk with the kids more and see their personalities come through.

One other thing I like about the after-school class is there’s a sense of teamwork going on (at least for now) in that it’s just them and me. No translator, no mediator. We have to figure out what the other person is saying together; we have to create our own classroom culture together. It’s challenging, but in a good way.

*     *     *

Okay, this actually happened a few days ago, but I’ll include it here anyway: as I was leaving school, a group of boys waved, “Hi Teacher!” I waved back; then one approached me and said, “Teacher, I am… handsome guy.” I agreed, repeating “Okay, you are a handsome guy,” which sent him whooping for joy down the sidewalk.

Getting Lost in Korea (literally)

This would happen to me.

Day 1 in Daegu: I met a few of my new co-teachers for my two middle schools here. One of them drove me to my apartment and literally spent about 4 hours helping me settle in, taking me to my school to look around, taking me shopping at the local E-Mart (which is basically the best store ever, by the way; it’s huge and has everything you could possibly want or need and then some), and even setting up my internet router for me because the instructions were all in Korean. I felt a mix of incredible gratitude and incredible guilt at my helplessness.

This awesomely kind co-teacher was very worried that I wouldn’t be able to find my sister’s apartment and meet up with her, so she then offered to drive me there. I reluctantly agreed (at this point very conscious of how much unpaid time she’d given up to help me out). My sister’s apartment is a straight shot from my place, about 10 min by car and about 30 min walking. When my co-teacher asked if I could walk back to my place on my own, I said yes because I didn’t want her to have to do anything else for me.

After all, it was just a matter of walking straight back up the road for about 30 minutes, right?

Wrong.

I left my sister’s apartment around 6 p.m. because I wanted to walk back before it got dark. Started walking up what I believed was the same road I’d come from… and 25 minutes later I realized nothing looked very familiar and it was getting very dark very fast.

Okay, no big deal. I’ll just turn around and go back to my sister’s apartment.

Aaaand 25 minutes after THAT, I realized I was 100% undeniably lost. In a foreign country. Without phone service, without the contact information of any of my new coworkers, and most importantly, without even my home address. My co-teacher had written all these things down for me… and we’d left them at my apartment.

Panic started to set in a little bit because it was very dark and very cold. It felt a little nightmarish, like This is not happening to me. After a few more minutes of helplessly wandering around and imagining the news story the next day about a foreign girl dying of exposure to the elements on the streets of Daegu (no, this was not a rational thought; I was sort of freaking out), I decided hailing a cab was my best bet. No, I didn’t know my address, but at least it was warm.

Thank God that there is no shortage of taxis in Korea. The old ahjussi inside smelled like smoke and when I hesitantly, feebly told him the name of my apartment building (a name which, I now know, was incorrect and unhelpful), he said “Eh? Where?”

*Please note: Although I will recount our conversations in English, everything this taxi driver said was in Korean. My communication with him consisted of broken Korean and some random English words. In the end it worked quite well. And it turns out I know more Korean than I thought, in terms of listening and understanding anyway.*

With some difficulty and my limited Korean vocabulary, I made him understand that A) I was lost, B) I’d just arrived in Daegu today, C) I didn’t know my home address and D) my phone didn’t work here yet. Basically, I threw myself on his mercy.

He started driving me in the general direction that I pointed him in, and then I thought of telling him one of my school names. He took me there, and seeing that I still had no clue how to get home, he pointed out a Daegu police station across the street. He then proceeded to take me there, saw that it was closed, told me to wait in the car, got out and called the police to come to the station and help me out.

The two police officers spoke even less English than the taxi driver (aka none). However, the taxi ahjussi explained my situation in Korean, causing looks of bewilderment and consternation on the cops’ faces that I would’ve found funny if it weren’t for my extreme embarrassment and general state of cold, hungry exhaustion.

The taxi driver told me he would leave me with the police now, and took me outside to check the meter and pay him. 11,200 won (about $11) in exchange for not freezing to death on my first night in Daegu? I consider that a good deal.

Back inside, I gave my passport to the cops so they could find my name, and managed to explain (in Korean) that I’m an English teacher for so-and-so schools. This led them to somehow contact one of my co-teachers (not the one that took care of me today). I then had a cringe-worthy conversation with her in English about the fact that I was lost and at the police station.

Yes, that’s right. I haven’t even started my job yet and my employers have already received a call from the police about me. I’m off to a great start!

Co-teacher: “You’re lost?”

Me: “Yes. I’m so sorry.”

Her: “It’s okay. Do you know your address?”

Me: “No.”

Her: “Okay, can I talk to the police officer?”

About 10 seconds later, the cop hung up the phone… and said nothing to me. So I sat there for a few minutes wondering if I was going to get picked up by my co-teacher like a juvenile delinquent being picked up by a parent.

Then I saw the map on the wall behind the desk, which looked really familiar to the map my co-teacher had shown me earlier. The cops noticed this and ushered me behind the desk to point at where I thought my apartment was. (As it turns out, the place I pointed to was almost exactly where my apartment actually is, although I didn’t know how accurate I was at the time.)

The cops then guided me to their car and said (in Korean) they would drive me around what was hopefully my neighborhood. While they were doing so, a small miracle happened. My phone picked up a smidgen of somebody’s open WiFi and a few Kakao Talk messages popped up from my co-teacher (the one who went shopping with me). One of them included my address in Korean.

I showed this to the officer, they showed it to a local shop owner, and minutes later one of the cops was escorting me to my front door. He then proceeded to write my address on a sticky note and give it to me. I apologized and thanked him in Korean and hurried my humiliated self into my apartment. It was 8:20 p.m., almost 2 1/2 hours after I’d left my sister’s place.

To top it all off, about 30 minutes later my landlord and an administrative official FROM MY SCHOOL (not the school they called – the OTHER school that wasn’t even supposed to know about this) show up at my door to check if I’m okay because “they heard I got lost.” The admin guy came over on a Friday night to check on me. It’s both sweet and embarrassing. So basically, everyone knows. Everyone. Knows. I have branded myself as the waygook (foreigner) who got lost before she even started.

Well Daegu, I’m here! I’ll be in the corner memorizing my address.

Lessons learned from this fiasco:

1) NEVER go ANYWHERE without my address written in Korean. And English.

2) Korean people are so kind. The taxi driver could’ve taken my money and made me get out, but he didn’t. This was just one example of the genuine kindness and desire to help that I’ve seen here already.

3) Did I mention the importance of knowing my address?