Thursday, February 23, 2006

First Impressions of Korea (10.28.05 - 11.11.05)

Annyeong Haseyo From Korea!

Jetlag is a BEAST! And so are the Hangul and the Korean language!

I’ve been here for about 2 weeks now, and I’m just starting to overcome the worst case of jetlag ever. There’s a 14 hour difference between this time zone and the one I left a couple of weeks ago. I slept a little on the 15 hour flight from Atlanta to Seoul (at least it was direct), but cramped seats and crying babies made it impossible to get more than an hour at a time. The result was that my internal clock was COMPLETELY discombobulated! I was nodding off in E-VER-Y ONE of the classes I was supposed to be observing the first few days! Then I would find myself staring at the ceiling and trying not to get out the bed at 3AM!

I’m embarrassed to admit that McDonalds was the first restaurant I looked for here in Korea.  Trust me, I’m more horrified than you are, but I have an excuse. For the first time in my adult life, linguistically speaking, my communication skills resemble those of a deaf-mute 3-year-old. No, I didn’t SPEAK Italian the first time I went to Italy. Nor did I speak Spanish the first time I went to Central America. But I had at least studied Italian before going to Italy, so I had a foundation on which to build. And Spanish is similar enough to Italian that I could understand and make myself understood with a little effort in Nicaragua. But Korea is a whole new ball game! We’re dealing with a completely foreign “alphabet” here! You can’t intuit meaning from characters that look nothing like anything you’ve ever seen! They’ve Romanized the language so that words can be written in the alphabet familiar to us, but I was hard pressed to find Romanized words on signs or menus around the Daewah subway stop in Ilsan on Friday morning.

I mean, honestly, can YOU find the restaurant in this building?!

Commercial Building, Ilsan, Korea Posted by Picasa

Due to unforeseen circumstances, the studio apartment that the school is renting for me had only been vacated the day of my arrival. The Director didn’t want me to spend my first night there because it hadn’t been cleaned yet. So they put me up in a hotel, and I told them I’d find breakfast on my own. A little more challenging than I had thought it would be.

Let me start out by saying I knew I was going to love Korean food as soon as I was served Bibimbap (sticky rice, veggies and meat in a spicy sauce) on the flight over. So I’m psyched about exploring the cuisine. But I woke up at 3AM craving pancakes and not being able to go back to sleep. I wasn’t sure what would be open for breakfast at 6AM in that part of town, but I was willing to wager that if anything was open, it would be McDonalds. And the fact that all I’d have to do was point to a picture, or hold up fingers to indicate which meal I wanted was comforting to the soul.

Lucky for me there wasn’t a McDonalds to be found (I found out later that they don’t serve breakfast here anyway). For if there were, I might have missed out sheer joy of experiencing the unknown, which in this case turned out to be the typical Korean breakfast of soup, kimchi and rice for breakfast. I started out being ignored in a few places in which I could have pointed to photos with prices next to them. I ended taking a roll of the dice in a more crowded place in which a smiling waitress eagerly invited me in. I’m sure she said something to the effect of, “What would you like to eat?” I smiled holding up a finger intended to mean, “Please give me a minute to consult my phrase book.” By time I pulled my head out of the book there was a tray in front of me. Apparently I ordered the first item on the menu. They don’t use forks or knives here, so I had a good time cutting my kimchi with scissors and learning how to manipulate my chopsticks and spoon like the friendly Koreans sitting at the table next to me.

I don’t like to play into stereotypes, but I have to say the crowd of people who flew over with me had to be the most punctual group of people ever! Lately most of my flights have been to/from Latin America. Dealing with Taca you have check-ins happening up to the last possible moment, delayed flights, people sprinting down the corridor to get in before they close the cabin door. Not on this flight. The flight was scheduled to leave at 1PM. Not only was everyone checked in by 11:30AM, I damn near had an anxiety attack thinking my watch was wrong because I was the ONLY one on the train and corridor leading up to the gate. I was the last one to arrive at the gate at Noon. I don’t think I have ever experienced such a phenomenon.

Speaking of airports, the architecture of the Incheon airport is pretty cool. Reminded me of something out of a sci-fi movie.

I’m feeling good about my decision. I’ve been hired as a teacher, but teaching English is only a pretext. It is simply a means to several ends. Foremost of which is my desire to reconnect with my creative nature and focus on personal development. Translation: I want to write a book, start lifting weights again, explore Asia, launch a website, and get out of debt. I’ll be working a minimal, stress-free work week that is 25 hours long (basically 4:30PM – 9:30PM), and the cost of living is so low that I’ll be sending $500-$1000 to my US bank account each month.

After reading a few horror stories on-line before coming, I was a little worried that I could have been getting scammed and that the above would not be true. But my recruiter, Don Park is a good guy (, and I’m happy to say that my experience thus far and my co-workers testimonies have eliminated my fears. While my rent-free housing is a studio apartment, I do live alone (as opposed to shared accommodations), and furnishings include a computer and a washing machine in addition to a stocked kitchenette, bed, couches, tables, chairs, closet and storage space, etc. My co-workers took me out for a night on the town in Seoul. During an enjoyable night of dinner, drinks, hookah pipes and dancing they confirmed that they’re saving money AND living it up.

Ilsan is a young satellite city of Seoul (50 minute subway ride away). It’s only been around for 10 years so it’s not as crowded or polluted as Seoul, but it is pretty well developed with all the amenities you’d want in a city. It’s like Baltimore in relation to Washington, DC. You can click on the following website to see photos that should hold you over until I break out my camera: I don’t know Patrick or Heather, but they taught in Ilsan recently, and have some pretty good photos of the city. My current apartment is not as nice as theirs was, but I’ll be moving to a nicer place when the lease is up next month. I’m currently a 15 minute walk away from school. The location of the new apartment will cut the commuting time in half.

There are Ski Mountains within a 2 hour drive, so I’ll definitely be hitting the slopes as soon as the snow starts falling. But I’ll probably end up heading out to the spot that’s 4 hours away. Yongpyeong Ski Resort is considered one of the best in Asia. According to Lonely Planet, “It just missed out on hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics to Vancouver by 56 votes to 53.” So if you’re up for a snowboarding holiday let me know. I’ll probably be there November 26th through 30th, and December 29th through January 2nd. I’m postponing trips to Thailand and the like until February or so.

So the language barrier is a challenge, but I like challenges. The survival skills I’ve been teaching my students over the past couple of years came in handy as I took a solo trip into Seoul and bargained for the speaker system I bought for my Ipod at one of the biggest electronics markets in Asia.

Gotta get ready to go find lunch. I hope you are happy, healthy, and enjoying life.



Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just read about your two week in Soule looking for a MacDonald. I'm so glad you made that choice to go there. I am so proud of you. I love you so much. Mom

4:32 AM  

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