Vast Visions

a year abroad in south korea

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The Ahjumma Made Me Stay

When my co-teacher opened the door to my apartment, I don’t know what I was expecting. Here, around the corner of the middle school that I work at, in a small building three floors up. When she opened the door, I thought that I really had the worst luck in the world.

I was greeted by a horrible mildew smell and absolute filth. The place seemed like it had been used by four people and then ditched for five years. The floors were caked with dust. The sheets smelled bad. The kitchen was covered in an ungodly amount of food residue and spilled sugar. Laundry room reeked. The place was awful.

After this first look, all I could do was drop off my luggage and head off to the school to meet my superiors for the first time. But I made a mistake that would make matters worse – I locked the inside door. When I came back from the school visit, my co-teacher and I were bewildered that the second key on the ring didn’t work. All of my money and possessions were in that hellhole, locked up. We called the landlady but she was out. I had to go back to the school while my co-teacher called a locksmith.

Half an hour later at the apartment, the locksmith hobbles over and picks the lock.  The landlady, back from her excursion, also came to see the spectacle. From what I could understand, she asked the locksmith how much it would cost to change the lock but she determined that it was too expensive… I picked up some money and off to Homeplus we went.

Just when I thought I had the lousiest luck that day, things turned around. While shopping, my co-teacher and I ran into two students from school. One was quite bold with her English, a bit tomboy-ish and the other was a little more reserved. They talked to my co-teacher and she told me that they wanted to help me shop. One started pushing the cart and I asked them about what foods I should get. It was so cute ^^ They also wanted to help carry all the things to my apartment. My co-teacher bought them ice cream and we went back to the apartment.

When we got there, my door was already open…inside was the landlady ahjumma cleaning the apartment because she felt bad. I said goodbye to the students as my co-teacher took them home, and I immediately started cleaning with the ahjumma. She has a strong Daegu accent and can’t speak a word of English but I managed to use a few Korean expressions with her and converse as we cleaned and scrubbed side by side. Despite the language barrier, we appreciated each other’s company. I insisted multiple times in Korean that “I’ll do it” but she didn’t want to leave T___T She stayed until around 11pm.

The next day after class and a solo trip to Homeplus, she was there again, this time washing the sheets. While it was going we sat on the floor and watched TV together. It was surprising when she started singing along to one of the Trot songs playing, my heart melted a little.  I told her she has a pretty voice LOL I really stretched my Korean abilities to its absolute limits in the few days I’ve been here. I don’t know how anyone could manage without knowing any Korean at all. When she was leaving I offered her Peppero but she politely refused and pointed to her teeth. I’ll have to think of something better to give her.

Right now I’m still cleaning my apartment, the kitchen is taking two days at this rate but at least I’ll know that things are clean. The girl who lived there before me, if I meet her, she better run the other way because the filth she left behind was straight up illegal.  With every blackened paper towel I hate her more, but hopefully when my apartment starts smelling nicer I”ll forget about my murder plans.

So why didn’t I simply move or request a new apartment? Because I want to make this work. I don’t need a fancy apartment or new appliances, I just need a place to come back to. It may be tough to live there but it’s gotten better. And, of course, my landlady is awesome :)


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Friends with Strangers – Orientation

On arriving at Incheon Airport, after going through immigration and picking up way, way too much luggage, I find myself looking around for other lost (foreign) souls with equally as much luggage. We are all going to be in Korea for a year, no way we could stuff our belongings into just one bag. The comforts of home require space and a herculean effort to lift, roll and drag around the things that will be our lives for a long time. It’s worth the effort.

Before passing out on the bus to Jeonju, I look outside and see an expanse of sea and greenery cut by clean steel. I remember thinking that I really am 7,000 miles from home. But in a cool, awesome,”woah, what the hell” kind of way.

One of the first obstacles I faced was talking to others in an effort to make connections – you need a lot of them to get a good network going on this side of the globe. However, I am largely unaccustomed to seeming friendly to strangers. In an environment like New York, you don’t just chat up the guy next to you: “Hi, nice weather, right? I really like your jacket by the way. Are you from around here?” Smiling out of place makes you look homicidal. The dude smiling through the subway stops is definitely up to something. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t look lost. Head up, clenched jaw, maybe even throw in a mean look. Give off the impression that no one should mess with you. Now…ease up on all that because you need to make friends.

How did I go about unlearning all of that?

I talked to everyone, indiscriminately.

Here, trust is a game of minute exchanges and a few good answers. Ok, I don’t really know you. But hey, we’re both in a foreign country. Let’s be friends. That easy.

Thus, orientation progressed for nine days. It felt like a suspended reality of Korea because we were surrounded by English speakers in a collegiate setting, eating bibimbap and drinking Coca Cola.

Overall, orientation at Jeonju was a lot of fun, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was too “college-y.” Relatively soon, people developed cliques and a “choice group” which I thought was laughable. You’re in a new country with tons of new people who speak English and you still only want to associate with one group? For shame…

The social opportunities after the day’s lectures finished were drinking. Sometimes eating. Maybe singing. But mostly drinking. There were several places to hit along the main street of the university, but some people went downtown by taxi to get food and drinks.  A “cool cultural thing” that I came across is drinking outside a convenience store. The 7-11s around school were teeming with EPIK teachers, nametags and all, brazenly downing soju and makgeolli. Of course, some people stayed in and slept off jetlag, but the more adventurous ones stepped back inside the dorm at 11:58pm. (I think some people got locked out too, haha.)

So, sightseeing, orienteering, rapid friend-making, strangely good cafeteria food-eating and then WHAM you get an envelope and a map with your future on it. Mass confusion, bummed that you’ll be far away from your bros, and then swiftly picked up by your co-teachers. Meeting one’s co-teacher was an awkward “ceremony” of EPIK people lined off at the front of a stage, looking into the audience of co-teachers as they filed down one by one to “pick up their foreigner.”

A 5 min. car ride and a shit apartment later, here I am at my school typing out this post as I deskwarm for the rest of the week. That’s it for orientation, my apartment story will be my next post. Until then.

(As I’m typing at my desk I’m laughing because someone asked in Korean what they should do for lunch, and one guy shouted “KOGIKOGIKOGIKOGI” [meatmeatmeatmeat] LOL)