10 things i hate about you

10 things i hate about you

Note: if your name is Bonne DuCharme, or actually if your surname is DuCharme at all, do not read this post.  Or if you do, approach it with the same wariness that you would a giant spider.  For the rest, continue.

I wish I had some cool trips to report, some earth-shattering discoveries about life or living here in Korea that I could share to shed some light on my experience.  As it is, I’m lamenting that I’m already a month and a half into my second year here, with the “fresh start,” and it seems as if I have barely accomplished anything thus far.  I should consider myself lucky, with a stable job, nice apartment, and short working hours, I have absolutely no grounds for complaint.  My best friend Erin always comments after these kind of posts that they’re really dark, but that she appreciates that I’m honest in them.  Sugar-coating and gilding lilies?  That’s Instagram kind of horseshit.  I’m only a truther on here.

Less than 11 months out and I’ve already begun to convince myself and my mother that I’m returning to the states when this contract is up.  I’m pretty sure that I will.  Until then, I have lots of major diversions coming up: a trip to Vietnam in May, a revisit from Aidan hyung in June, a visit or several from high school friend Sylvia also in June, and perhaps vacationing with my family in South Carolina in July (uncertain).  In December, it looks like my family is coming here to visit Seoul (hence the warning at the beginning of the post).

It’s hard to leave, and I know I will miss it, but sometimes it is also hard to stay here.  I’m reminded of this every time I see a post detailing the horrific racism my fellow foreigners experience on a daily basis or I see somebody spit INDOORS in the subway.  There are many great things about living here, especially as a young person in my 20s, but right now, here are the best reasons I have why living here can kind of suck sometimes.

  1. Hygiene

Sometimes Koreans’ hygiene is impressive; they are militant about wearing the face masks when they are or might become sick and they brush their teeth multiple times a day (perhaps to the detriment of their tooth enamel, but).  That’s where the good hygiene ends, though.  There might be many moral failings in this country, but my personal pet peeve is everyone chewing with their mouths open, coughing and spitting and sneezing wherever and whenever they please.  That’s okay in your own home, but in public, it’s just not sanitary or polite to be doing that.  I’d rather leave a little bit of mystery than see every bit of food you’re chewing all the time.  The only thing worse than these habits is the fact that everyone denies that they do these things, which smacks of willful ignorance and denial to me.

  1. Vanity

Every country has an obsession with being pretty, but Korea’s takes it to a new level.  In what country do they give plastic surgery as a graduation present because they think their daughters aren’t pretty enough?  I know the attitudes are different toward plastic surgery here, but it’s something else to hear about fourth and fifth graders talking about plastic surgery as a very real possibility in the near future for them.  Ridiculous.  Once you’ve got the face you wanted, you have to accessorize endlessly with makeup.  While in some ways it’s cool being spoiled for choice, it’s insane how many products the average Korean woman uses to stay young-looking.

You can’t ever go in the sun because you don’t want to become darker.  Because, of course, dark is ugly.  And dark won’t match the 80,000 won foundation you bought in the wintertime.  You must always be ready with a pocket hair straightener in case your bangs go flat when riding on the subway (???).  When out with your friends, no matter what the occasion, be prepared to take literally a million selfies to post across all your social media.  (To be clear: I love social media and I don’t mind selfies, but the amount of selfies here is insane.  And it’s not always in scenic little cafes or at cool events, it’s sometimes in dingy alleyways or in line at Costco.)  While I appreciate the aesthetic that everybody puts up, I’m certain it’s not worth the effort.

  1. Bad parenting

I know that somebody who’s not a parent has no business telling a parent what they should do with their kid, I really do.  But, as a current teacher and former lifeguard, sometimes the blatant negligence with which the parents treat their children pains me to the max.  I’m reminded of a story where a foreigner at Costco saw an unattended child walking out in front of a speeding car in the parking lot (parents were nowhere to be found).  He shouted to get the parents attention and saved the kid, but somehow the parents and grandpa ended up yelling at the foreigner, attacking him and blaming him for the incident when really he saved their kid’s life.

The cycle repeats into infinity.  The parents have to work their asses off to earn enough for a big house and comfortable life, so they put their kids in myriad after school programs and academies.  On the days off the parents aren’t so good at parenting, usually much more content to take selfies together rather than preventing their kid walking off a pier into the Han River.  It’s amazing natural selection hasn’t weeded out every single one of these babies already, honestly.

  1. World-revolves-around-me syndrome

There’s an element of this one that can be good and freeing.  But mostly, this is damaging to all around.  Like the foreigner who thought that he was doing right by trying to help someone else, it’s usually best to leave well enough alone.  You see somebody drop their card or something on the ground?  That’s their problem.  You’re leaving the bank as somebody else is coming in?  Don’t hold the door for them, they will only look at you with confusion and bewilderment, not an ounce of thanks.  Somebody’s taking too long to order or scan in their card to get on the subway?  Push right in front of them, they should have been prepared.

There’s an element of this kind of self-defense that is freeing.  Only looking out for #1, or the people in your clique, that makes it a lot easier.  But it’s a lot more isolating.  This is actually one of my main reasons for not staying for another year, or forever.  I don’t want to absorb this element into my personality.  I don’t want to not care about other people.  I want to be nice and help out others, even if it has no discernible benefit to myself.  I would much rather step out of the way on the street than full-on shoulder-check old ladies because they’re too rude to move even a single inch to the side.  Usually I do step out of the way.  But other days, we have shoulder-checking days where I only walk straight, square my shoulders, and plow through everyone in my way.  It’s shitty and impolite but that’s how things are done here.

  1. Why does everything have to be so hard all the time?

Some things here are easy.  Too easy.  It’s too easy to become a full-blown alcoholic or caffeine addict.  It’s too easy to fuel your insomnia or shitty sleep schedule by going to cafes after 10pm (current life).  It’s too easy to get food and furniture and anything you want delivered right to your door without lifting a finger.

Some things, on the flip side, are infuriatingly hard.  For no reason. (Koreans will tell you there is a reason, but really, don’t listen to them.  There is a better way).  In the United States, you can walk into a bank and say “Hey, I don’t know how to write a check, can you help me?”

“Sure, do you know your account number?”

“Nope.”

“Just give me your card and I’ll figure it out.”

Or:

“Hey, I have a whole bucket of loose change, can you count it for me and put it in my account?”

“It might take a little while, but sure.”

In Korea, banking is a nightmare.  Say you want to pay for your plane tickets online.  First of all, you need to enable your card to be used online.  You need proof of employment and a passport and your Alien Registration Card and a score of other things.  You need to create about 5 unique passwords which you inevitably forget by the time the process is even halfway over, making you start again, of course.  And then, nothing works on Chrome, so you must use Internet Explorer for everything, which is absolute bullshit.  I make almost all of my transactions in cash or in person with my card because I still can’t make purchases online with my Korean card, even after more than a year.  In the U.S., if you have a card, you can immediately use it online, at the store, abroad, whatever.  So easy.

  1. Juke & commit

This one is kind of related to #4, but it’s a lot less self-defense and a lot more idiocy.  In the U.S. and other reasonably intelligent countries, if you see somebody directly in your path far ahead of you, you’ll adjust your path by a couple degrees and never run into them.  If you do this early enough, it will be like you never even made the adjustment at all.  Korean method: don’t look up from your phone ever, or better yet, stare right at the person as you plow right through them, coffee or cake box in hand be damned, because your path is more important than theirs.  Most days, I give benefit of the doubt and think, “Okay, that person is in more of a hurry than me, I’ll let it slide.”  But of course the days when I’m in a hurry, everyone else seems to be on a leisurely Sunday stroll with nowhere to be.

Walking is okay because everyone is roughly going at the same speed.  When biking, it’s important to commit to a direction and keep going that way, not swerving.  Koreans are shitty at biking etiquette, I’ve learned (a gripe that didn’t even make the list).  I’ve seen so many almost-collisions on bikes that it ceases to surprise me.  When I’m running on the trails, the walkers stare you down in the same way.  I think to myself, “Do you really want to play this game?  I’m running, I will bowl you over, no hesitation.  This is not a fight you want to pick.”  Usually the walkers spring out of the way at the last second, even though they saw me coming from 100 yards away, outright resentfulness written plain on their faces.  I’m lumping in with this category the driving on the sidewalk.  For cars, usually it’s only to park, but motorbikes and scooters drive for miles on the sidewalks with absolutely no thought to the pedestrians with whom they’re sharing the path.  I’m amazed there aren’t more accidents.

  1. Everything is sweet

To some, this might be a blessing.  But to a red-blooded American who often just craves a salty-ass snack, it seems like an impossible task to find something that isn’t sweet.  Cheetos?  Sweet.  Doritos?  Sweet.  Cheese popcorn?  Sweet cheese.  Garlic bread?  Sweet. (who the fuck decided garlic bread should be sweet because honestly that’s so offensive to my culinary sensibilities).  I’ve heard that Koreans hate our salty American snacks, but I don’t care.  Sometimes you just want something salty, and those kinds of snacks are very scarce here.

  1. Littering is encouraged

This might be convenient to some, but it stresses me out to the max.  There are barely any public garbage cans in Korea, or at least in Seoul.  (They’re afraid you’ll throw your home trash in the garbage cans because you are supposed to buy special garbage bags from your neighborhood store.  Whatever.)  Say you drink your Starbucks iced cherry blossom latte and you don’t want to carry the empty cup with you anymore.   Should you pop into a convenience store and throw it away there?  No need.  Just leave it on any old corner or in a telephone box or on the curb.  Some little old ahjumma will come by a few hours later or that evening and pick up after you.  I suppose this is good that it gives the retired ladies a job, but really just the normalcy of littering here irks me to no end.  It’s to the point where my students even throw things right on the floor rather than putting them in the trash can because they know that somebody will have to clean up after them later (me. It’s me.)

  1. Treatment of animals

My friend Jenn had a roommate last year who decided to get a puppy.  This roommate had no idea how to take care of a dog, how often you should feed or walk it or bathe it or clean up after it.  She didn’t train it, so eventually the dog, living a life of squalor and neglect in its own filth, became angry and lashed out at anybody who tried to pet him.  At long last, the roommate gave the dog over to her parents, who also lived in Seoul, and they agreed to raise the dog properly.  This is a pretty good allegory for how animals are treated here.  They’re only useful as accessories, but the owners usually don’t understand what is involved in taking care of animals.  I’ve seen far too many animals in this country being hit for not obeying orders.  It’s not the animals’ fault that they were poorly trained and have a shitty owner.  (To be clear: I’m not a dog owner, never have been, but I’d rather stay dogless forever than provide a less-than-adequate home for any kind of pet).

  1. Leaving cars running all the time

Seoulites complain about the terrible air quality all the time.  I know an element of that is the evil yellow dust that comes in from China, but a lot of it is also self-inflicted.  You can’t blame all the smog on China.  People in Seoul are TERRIBLE at turning off their cars when they’re not being driven.  I’ve seen people full-on napping in the driver’s seat of their cars while waiting for their companion to return back from wherever.  My street right now is a hotbed for idling taxis and trucks waiting to be called into service.  I hate how much fuel they’re wasting just on being able to charge their phones and listen to music in the car at the same time.  It’s so irresponsible.

Honorable mention:

Street layout

I know exactly why this came to be, that of course Korean streets are never laid out in a nice grid, usually extending in a sort of spiderweb from the palaces, with the more action-packed streets situated exactly one street back from the main thoroughfares, but it’s nearly impossible for a foreigner to navigate if you’re not familiar with the area.

Cheese

Everything is labeled cheese.  Almost nothing actually IS cheese.

Workout culture

Koreans are all really skinny and look really fit, but most of that is just good diet and high metabolism.  When actually in the gym, most are just walking at a leisurely pace on the treadmill or lifting at the plate machines, often with absurdly bad form.  My friend Matt is compiling a video slowly of all the crazy things he has seen weightlifters do at the gyms here.  I’m sure the video can go on and on all day.

Couple culture

Please ignore this as I’m just being a bitter single person here.  But it’s really impossible to be a single person in Seoul.  Not that everyone is trying to hook up all the time, but rather it’s frowned upon to not be part of a couple.  Everyone walking around holding hands, snogging, wearing the matching clothes, talking in whining voices in the café or subway.  Korea is not a friendly place for single people.

 

Take all of this with more than a couple grains of salt.  I really do love being here.  It’s easy to blame my bad days on the place and the people rather than myself, whereas back in the States, with no language barrier, I’d have no one to blame myself usually.  I don’t regret a single ounce staying for the second year.  Most of my sadness stems from this frustration with the place preventing me from getting out more and making the best of my time here.

Immediately following (within a day or so max) is a part 2, of sorts, or 10 things I love about Korea.  I really don’t hate it here, promise.

everything works out

everything works out

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do, but it’s definitely not this.

I told someone all of that recently and they said, understandably, “…and you decided to stay?”

Hmm, well.

Yes.

It’s possible that I would be much happier elsewhere, doing some other work.  It’s possible that I’m really not cut out for any of this and by this time next year will regret this a lot.  But it’s equally possible that some other place would be worse.  Or most likely, another place would just be different, with its own ups and downs.  So why not take a chance and really make something of my life here?  Happiness isn’t going to fall into your lap when you change locations.  You’re not going to suddenly find the “right” place where everything works out.  Some places are certainly better than others, but basically you will always have to fight for what you want.

About a week ago, after moving house from my old place to my new place in my favorite neighborhood Hapjeong, I took a break from organizing my things to catch a few drinks at my friend’s favorite bar, which happens to be right across the street from me now.  It’s amazing to live in the cool neighborhood you once had to take a long journey to reach.  At that time, my house was just a big empty furniture-less, wifi-less box.  While it was everything I had wanted, it was more than a little depressing at that stage.  So naturally I went out for drinks.

The bar is literally underground and run by surfer-aesthetic people covered in tattoos with raggedy long hair.  It smells like incense and smoke inside and you’re careful not to speak too loud because you don’t want to interrupt the vibe to be heard.  It is Curtis’s favorite bar, but last time Julia and I went, we got absinthe (and I had forgotten that I don’t actually like the taste of absinthe).  Curtis and Julia used to work with me at the old school, but for different reasons, they both left early.  So here we are celebrating getting out of our kind of toxic work situation and heading in different directions.  Any gathering of this sort requires a great deal of shit-talking about the former job, speculation on what’s going on now with the new coworkers, and what all the old coworkers are going to do after their contracts are up.  At one point, Curtis commented to me something to the effect of, “You know, it’s pretty amazing that you seemed to be pretty unfazed by all the shit that went down.”

All the complaining and shit-talking, I would participate in it, maybe, but overall I didn’t really let it get me down.  Perhaps it was literal ray of sunshine, Maxine, who kept us all afloat.  Perhaps it’s a love for country (here) that the other coworkers lacked.  Perhaps it was the thought of a new job that kept me going on in spite of it all.

It’s been a pretty wild ride this year, and it seems like it’s not likely to calm down in the next year.

Midway through January, I probably took one of the most interesting trips of my experience here.  I had not made any cool, high-flying plans to go to other countries for the Lunar New Year, or Seollal, vacation, which is wise because travel in this part of the world at that time of year is a nightmare.  But I’d had a vision to go to an island.  I found a travel group that was going to Geoje Island, the largest island in Korea after Jeju Island.  I like these travel groups because they take the planning aspect out of the equation, giving you options to do whatever you like or just lounge about or go drinking or whatever.

I almost didn’t go.

I almost missed the bus leaving at 6am from Noksapyeong.  Every other person thought ahead and took a taxi but I thought it would be cute to take the subway.  Luckily, they held the bus.

We arrived in Geoje after traveling for most of the morning on the bus.  I’d entertained thoughts of just letting the bus leave without me and going back to bed, but I’m glad that they held the bus for an extra 20 minutes.  Geoje Island is a starkly beautiful place, even in winter when we went.  We were told it would be much warmer than Seoul, and while it was marginally warmer, it wasn’t, say, shorts weather as I’d expected.  But the warm sun felt good on your face and it was a nice break from the biting seoul winds which rip down the long straightaway streets like a hurricane.  The landscape looks a lot like New England in the states or maybe Nova Scotia, big pine trees and rocky beaches.  We didn’t get to properly enjoy many of the things Geoje is popular for because kayaking and ATVing are more summer pursuits and it was still quite cold when we went.  Nonetheless, it was nice to be able to get out of the city for a while and make some new friends.

On Friday after the rooms were distributed we had South African vetkoek (fat cake), which is basically a fried donut-like roll with curry inside and spicy fries on the side.  I had never expected to learn so much about South Africa on a trip in Korea, but as the tour group owner was South African and my roommate, Hilary, was too, I inadvertently learned a lot about the country from them.  We ate on the bus while we were touring round the island.  We saw a beautiful black-stone beach where all of the stones were polished smooth and flat.  The sound that the waves made as they rushed over the stones was so surreal that I never wanted to leave.  Each stone was a perfect skipping-stone or paving-stone; they didn’t even look real.  Nature is so cool.  After that, we also saw a windmill, which is apparently very famous on the island.  We had the option to “hike” down to that windmill (in all, a 20 minute walk and not at all difficult) and then got to play on the sea cliffs a little.  I met some new friends, and we talked about the struggles of teaching and what we were planning to do for the next year.  Things are a lot less nebulous for you when you like your school and/or are head teacher.

When we returned from the island tour, we had also consented to go on the sunset cruise.  This, too, I almost bowed out of because I’ve been on probably one too many “sunset cruises.”  Again, I’m glad I decided to go anyway.  We took the bus to the marina and then boarded two boats.  To be honest, they were small little fishing boats, but they got the job done.  While a bunch of guys from a Saudi company took the bow of the boat, we made ourselves comfortable at the picnic table at the stern.  It was freezing cold in the wind but we all had concealed soju and beer in our jackets, so that kept us warm.  Our boats darted in and out of sea cliffs and pillars and through huge flocks of seagulls resting in the water.  The sunset was fantastic.   On the boat, we made friends with some Irish teachers, Diarmuid and Rachael, and had lots of laughs.  I’m always a little wary about these kind of trips, that I’m bugging the people I’m with, but these guys seemed pretty genuinely kind, which I feel is rare.  It’s even rarer to open up in the first day of a trip to people you’ve never met.

That, I felt, was the highlight of the trip for me already.  When we returned, it was time to braai (South African for “barbeque”).  It took ages to set up, as there were many people to coordinate and lots of different moving parts, and we were all starving.  We ate all of our sides and drank our convenience store beers in record time, while waiting for the preparations to be complete.  We got mussels and scallops and shrimp, but my problem is I don’t like any of these things.  I made a deal with the Irish friends and still got them (on the offchance that I might actually like them… I didn’t.) and then gave them the shellfish I couldn’t eat (which was all but one of them).  I keep trying and keep hating shellfish.  I consoled myself by telling myself that there was steak coming!  We had pretty big steaks that we were all allowed to grill over the open fire.  We were basically barbequing in one of the minbak (bed and breakfast) garages, all open-air.  It took ages to grill the steaks, as maybe 15 people were vying for space on the small and inefficient grills.  Not to mention, many of our steaks were frozen.  We couldn’t see in the dark, so we took our chances with food poisoning as we ate the steaks.  We kept making trips down to the maejeom (convenience store) for more soju and beer as the night progressed.  The group attempted to teach me how to play “King’s Cup,” a drinking game to which every single player had been taught different house rules.  We also had a ludicrous amount of rum and coke, rum being left over from the enormous orange vat of “jungle juice” the tour group had prepared for the braai.  There were stunning overtures of friendship and promises of future visits to home countries made.  Everybody is so much more earnest and generous when they’re drinking.  As we stood warming our hands over the dying barbeque fires, we watched some fireworks over the beach.  Someone in our tour group was setting them off.

Needless to say, it was a night of far, far too much drinking for me.  I can maybe only do one good night of drinking a week, and that was it for me.   I was really sick the next day, partially from drinking, partially from staying out in the night air cold all night, partially maybe from food poisoning.  Saturday was rough.

Since Saturday was Lunar New Year, we had the traditional breakfast of japchae, sweet potato noodles in a sesame oil and soy sauce dressing, ddeok guk, flat circle rice cake dumpling soup with seaweed and beef, jeon pancakes, and kongnamul bean sprouts.  My stomach was not having any of that.  While the other kids went ATVing or to the spa, I was hoping that a walk in the fresh air would cure my condition.  It took most of the day but it eventually worked.  I walked down the beach and up to the pier, hoping that I could get a climb on some of the cliffs.  In my kind of sick state, though, I didn’t much trust my ability not to fall down and hit my head, so I ended up not climbing anything.  I had been reading Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons at the time, so while I got a mocha at the sunny and peaceful second floor of Don Quixote Coffee, I read and enjoyed the sunshine.  I thought it would be unbefitting to fall asleep in the café, so I ended up going down to the beach for a nap.  They only give out one key per room in the minbak, you see, and I was not the lucky key-holder that day.  After some sleep, I felt marginally better and met new friend Shane at the GS, where we ate ice cream and those “Nacho” brand chips.

We headed out to Jisimdo, one of the outlying islands from Geoje, after that.  I had the feeling that on a nice summer day, Jisimdo would be a bustling hiking area, and missing the ferry back to Geoje would be no big deal, as there were many guesthouses and cafes and restaurants dotting the hillside.  As it was New Year’s Day, none were open that day, so we had to be sure to catch that last ferry back.  Shane and I walked around, exploring the old Japanese battlements and trails.  We had picked up long bamboo spears somewhere and were swinging them around dramatically as if we were in some old samurai anime.  Near the end of that adventure, I did get really dizzy.  Maybe it was dehydration or still food poisoning, but I was feeling really bad as we were getting on the ferry back.  Back at the accommodations, I took yet another nap and was restored to full health!

On Saturday evening, we were scheduled to go “bar hopping” in Okpo, which is the main town area in Geoje.  I’m always wary of stuff like this on trips here, because—while it might be cool and novel to go out partying for many, who might live in remote little towns that don’t even have a single noraebang to boast, or if not, then on military bases—it’s not all that novel or cool to someone who actually lives in Seoul and not outside of it.  I’m made even more wary when they describe it as a place with “lots of foreigner restaurants.”  As it turns out, the “suggestions” that they made, everyone either ignored or only listened to one single one, the one for the Indian restaurant, so 60 of us shuffled in all at once to this restaurant on Lunar New Year night when the restaurant only had 3 on staff.  You can probably guess where this is going, but basically we were the last to order as the staff ignored us for upwards of half an hour to even take our orders and then it took another 2+ hours for our food to come.  Somehow we bullied our way into a discount.  I’m glad for friends who can take matters like these into their own hands.  I’m the sort of confrontation-avoidant person who would never say anything and just lose two hours of their life with nothing to show for it.  We were expected to go out and drink at the little bars surrounding Okpo after that, but after all the waiting, I had no desire to stay in that area for even one more minute.  Plus, I was averse to ingesting any more alcohol that weekend, unfortunately.

We woke up Sunday to clouds threatening to rain and headed to breakfast, which was “the full English,” always a treat.  We emerged from the minbak after breakfast to find a steady downpour.  The weather was just nice enough that I just walked over to the area where the cafes were to wait out the rain, if I could, and if not, to wait until it was time for the bus to go.  I hung out in a café and ended up meeting the Irish friends, who had come in for brunch, having missed the tour group’s breakfast.  We shuffled back to the bus after that, stealing the ideal seats in the back, elevated so we could see all the way down the aisle easily.  The bus stopped after a few minutes to pick up the tour group members who had gone to Geoje seaworld that morning and then we headed on to Seoul.  We hatched a plan with the Irish friends and American friend Colton and his girlfriend Yoojin, to go out for dinner (huge bags in tow).  I’d suggested, since we got out at Noksapyeong station, that we go to one of my favorite café-bistros, Fat Cat, but it turned out to be closed.  We instead got burgers bigger than our faces at a place called Burgermine (there are about 3-4 burger places within spitting distance of Fat Cat if you ever happen to go and find it closed) and made plans to see one another again.

In between saying goodbye that time and the next time I saw them two weeks later, I had interviewed for the next year’s jobs and begun the narrowing-down process.  My future was a lot more certain after two weeks.  We had hookah, drinks upon drinks, and stayed out until the train started up again at 6am.

It’s been about a month since then.  I haven’t been avoiding the friends, per se, but it’s hard to commit to staying out until 6am.  My old lady soul protests to it unless there’s copious amounts of food or coffee involved.  My life is a whole lot more certain now that it was even a month ago.

Spring is a good time to reflect about old things dying and new things beginning.  That’s why I’m kind of grateful that the school year here starts in March.  It’s the perfect time for a new beginning.  The anger and stress and bad feelings all die with the cold weather and peace returns on the calm spring wind.

Near the end of the old year, not only were all of the students acting up like crazy—perhaps on some subconscious level understanding that they’d never see most of us again—all the teachers were going crazy, too.  Everyone leaving became lazier and more spiteful. Things seemed to speed up exponentially as the new teachers came in from Canada, Australia, America, and we had to attempt to fit a year’s worth of our learnings about how the job works into a few days at most.  The social scene at the end when everyone is leaving is fun, tragic, and hectic.  Everyone tries to fit all of their “lasts” into a single week.  It’s i n s a n e.  It’s so sad because some of these friends you know you might never see again in this life (in person, that is), at least not without the huge difficulties of crossing oceans.

It’s sad saying goodbye to humans who mean a lot to you.  It’s also sad saying goodbye to places that mean a lot to you.  I’m so incredibly grateful that I don’t have to say goodbye to Seoul for another year.  As I took my run last weekend, I was struck again (as I am nearly every day) by how beautiful this city is, how lucky I am to live here.  I’m already becoming sad at probably having to leave it, and that’s 11 months in my future.

In the meantime, I moved into my new job, the after school working only 5 hours a day in Dangsan-gu, just a short one-stop ride away from my home right next to Hapjeong station.  I found a perfect little loft (being short, lofts are perfect for me) which is exactly equidistant from Hapjeong and Sangsu, which leaves me situated in literally my favorite neighborhood in Seoul.  I’ve almost completely decorated the new house, which is fun but difficult, being an adult, y’know, but now the space really feels mine.  I do almost all my own cooking and have to manage my own affairs much better, now that my boss or coworkers aren’t right there to solve all my problems for me.  Every problem seems magnified when you can’t just lean back in your chair and ask 10 people who have had the same problem before.  But I think this year will be a tremendous year of growth.  It’s also a bit lonely so far.  I’m great at making friends, but I’m horrid at going out and finding friends, especially given the language barrier.  So we’ll have to learn to break through that.

Looking forward, I’ll continue to better manage the new house, find some Korean lessons so that I can really get more out there in the community, and keep discovering more and more about my neighborhood and my city.  I’m so happy and excited to be here for another year, loneliness be damned.

 

A toast to embracing the loneliness, using it as medium to create something new everyday.

 

 

let that be enough

You don’t need more motivation. You don’t need to be inspired to action. You don’t need to read any more lists and posts about how you’re not doing enough.

We act as if we can read enough articles and enough little Pinterest quotes and suddenly the little switch in our brain will put us into action. But, honestly, here’s the thing that nobody really talks about when it comes to success and motivation and willpower and goals … : you are as you are until you’re not. …

You don’t get to game the system of your life. You just don’t. You don’t get to control every outcome and aspect as a way to never give in to the uncertainty and unpredictability of something that’s beyond what you understand. It’s the basis of presence: to show up as you are in this moment and let that be enough.

You don’t need more motivation or inspiration to create the life you want. You need less shame around the idea that you’re not doing your best. You need to stop listening to people who are in vastly different life circumstances and life stages than you tell you that you’re just not doing or being enough. … You need to understand that what’s right now becomes inspiration later. You need to see that wherever you are now is what becomes your identity later.

Years from now, when I’m on the right side of the CMO desk, I will tell my employee (younger, fresher, more afraid than me) the parable of catch up the schedule.  I will be able to laugh about it then, as time has dulled the pain and outrage to not as keen a slice.  Until that time, I’m allowed to be salty for a little while.

I don’t like to complain about work and stay positive most of the time, but here’s now the parable goes: once upon a time, the month before Christmas, we had a paper full of schedules and instructions dropped on our desks.  This was in lieu of having an actual meeting to explain all of these things because the management can’t be bothered to have face-to-face meetings with us teachers most weeks.  Most of us were more concerned with the practicalities of the upcoming special day and open class at the end of the month, so a small, short item was slipped in that everyone seemed to understand quite well: “catch up the schedule.”  At least, nobody seemed to require any clarification on this item.

We had “Compassion Day” at the end of the month, which required our kids and their parents’ participation in fundraising for “little kids in Africa” (let’s not talk about the problematic nature of the relative “white savior complex” our school is promoting).  We also had Open Class, which is the most nerve-wracking day of the semester, where the parents come in to watch their kids in class.  In theory you just teach a “normal” class and want to show the parents what their kids are like in school, but in reality it’s designed to make the parents feel good about their kids each being the smartest in their class, and designing flashy, work-intensive games to entertain the parents and then practicing the answers so that everyone seems perfect that day.  Also during Compassion Day, since it was near Christmas, each class had to pick a festive song and train the little ones to sing it perfectly and dance a choreographed dance (ours was “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”).  We also had report cards and scores of other grading from elementary school tests at that time.  What I mean to say was, the month of December was busy as hell.

This small command fell by the wayside, until it started to become a problem.  See, everyone on our side of the office took this item to mean “catch up the work you haven’t done yet because there are tests and special days at the end of the month, so finish anything that you’re behind on.”  What we were supposed to have understood but nobody was told was that it meant “get ahead of the schedule since the fourth graders are moving to fifth grade and the parents will be sad if they see empty pages in the students’ books.”  The Korean teachers were mad at the foreign teachers for not understanding this poorly-worded sentence and the foreign teachers were mad that they were expected to read the Korean teachers’ minds as to the future plans of the fourth graders.  My personal solution was: I went into my fourth grade grammar class and asked, “Okay, raise your hand if you think your mom or dad would be sad that there are blank pages in your book.”  Nobody raised their hand.  One kid volunteered that there are already blank pages, and another supplied that his mom has literally never seen the inside of his book.  So that settled it for my class.  The other teachers were not so lucky.

This is a long story for a very simple moral: communication is key.  If we could have had a meeting to iron these things out, a lot of time and frustration on both sides could have been avoided.

There are bad things in every workplace.  Some more than others.  I can go on for days about how I don’t like how things are always sprung on us last-minute, how the foreign teachers are treated as simpletons who can’t follow simple directions at best and with stalwart contempt at worst.  I can tell you about our shitty apartments or how every request is met with abject annoyance by our vice-director.  I can tell you about the endless communication problems between the Korean side and the foreign side (although me and my co-teacher Miss Tiffany seem to be the exception) and our vice-director straight-up badmouthing us foreign teachers to our Korean coworkers.  Our problems are not real, you see.  All foreigners do is sit on their asses all day and complain, if you can even call them “teachers,” you see.

It’s really easy to get bogged down in that negativity.  It happens to me once a day.  It’s easier than breathing to be consumed by the complaints and the mental noise that forms when you’re in a constant state of anger.  I see some people consumed by that anger day-in-and-day-out.  It seems exhausting.

When I ask the kids about feelings each morning, almost none of them are angry.  What is there to be legitimately angry about when you’re so young?  Almost all of the kids are feeling happy and excited every day.  I try to make it clear that there are many kinds of excitement, because there are so many things to be excited for.  Excited for snack time.  Excited for the weekend.  Excited for their next birthday.  Excited for next Christmas.  Excited for the next time they can pet a dog or see a movie.  That’s a good way to live.  My favorite emotion is chill.  The second-to-last emotion is always chill.  I do a wall sit on the wall and cross my right ankle over my left knee, hands clasped behind my head, eyes closed, and let out a long-suffering sigh.  If I’m not feeling chill, I tell the kids, they should all be very scared.  But also very nice.  When I ask the kids about feelings each morning, the last one is always confused: “Raise your hand if you’re confused.  ‘What’s my name?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What am I doing?’ ‘Where am I going?’ ‘Why is it February already?’”  I’m feeling the most confused now.

Why am I here?  I’ve been having to answer that question more and more these days.  I came because in summer of 2015, applying for those marketing jobs, to fulfill my “destiny” as it were, I could never really bring myself to send out those applications.  Something stayed my hand every time.  Being both enrolled in Korean classes at the university and also a former-English-writing-major-turned-English-literature-minor, several people told me “hey, you should think about teaching English in Korea.  You’d like it.”  I shrugged it off at the time, but the idea took root and sprouted over time.  Now, just over a year ago, I’m still trying to see if this was the right path for me.

Why am I here?  So many signs say that I should dislike it.  Chief among my concerns was my disdain for the supremacy of the English language worldwide (just because I like the language myself doesn’t mean everyone else should have to learn it).  I don’t like that everyone else in the world is expected to learn at least English if not a myriad of other languages, while the Americans just laugh it off and say, “Oh, they’ll just get a translator.”  I don’t like that the kids are worked to the bone here, even from kindergarten age they are shuttled to and from classes and academies until late in the night, where they then have to do homework until the wee hours of the morning.  It’s hard work getting ahead.  I don’t like the focus on tests and quantification rather than understanding and practical knowledge.  I’d rather the kids be able to understand and talk about the book but not have anything tangible to show me than to have a packet of perfectly completed worksheets and no knowledge of the material we just learned.  I hate that the students are so beat to death that even by the time they are in first or second grade, all the creativity is drained from them, so the only thing they’re capable of doing is perfectly copying the lines written on the board and looking for the answers in the book, rather than thinking and understanding for themselves.  I hate that when told to write a story, they don’t even have the creativity for that, so accustomed are they to just copying and pasting what they need to write.  I hate that all the wonder is so sapped from them that I try to talk about space or cowboys or princesses, things that should interest them, but instead I get blank stares.

“Okay, but, why are you staying if you hate it so much?  Why are you here?

A non-answer: there’s something valuable about being a minority, especially when few of my kind of privilege can experience being in this position.  It makes you both more empathetic to the plights of others, and also makes you care a little less about your own self-righteousness and your own social standing.  Whatever you do, no matter how long you’re here, you’re just another foreigner.  It would be the same whether you’re a tourist just visiting for a week or a student here for a year or some foreigner who’s lived here for years and holds a Korean passport.  We all look the same to the Koreans.

And a real answer: I really do like teaching.  I did not expect to like it that much, but there’s something so satisfying about rephrasing your explanation in a different way and seeing it finally stick.  There’s something so satisfying about watching your students improve throughout the year, being able to do things at the end that they couldn’t have even dreamed about at the beginning of the year.

There is a terrible moment when your student says something incredibly stupid-sounding and you wonder, “Why has nobody taught them better?”  Or they say something that’s incredibly insensitive, either racist or heteronormative or queerphobic or any number of other ugly traits, and again you wonder, “Why has nobody taught them better?”  That’s what I call a “teaching moment.”  You realize that this is why you’re here, this is why they brought foreigners rather than using Korean teachers.  You bring a perspective that is different and much-needed to these kids, especially when their parents have taught them some downright damaging things about the world around them.  This is the time when you have the chance to make a difference.

I really do like the kids.  When you’re sick or angry or hungover and feel like the earth should just swallow you up in one piece, a well-placed cute comment or a kid hugging you round the middle and saying “I love you, Miss Georgia,” can melt all of your troubles instantly.  The kids’ joy is so pure and they can be entertained by watching the same video (like the songs from “Moana,” for example) over and over again for a month.  It’s really amazing to see the kids who could barely tell one letter from another at the beginning of the year to be able to read full stories with seeming ease by this time.  It’s a really fulfilling job sometimes.

In September-October-November I was thinking about having to go back to America. (This was before the election results which made this even more unpalatable than before.)  I thought to myself, “Man, I really don’t want to go back just yet.”  And then, “Well, is anybody really making me go back?  No.”  My parents were surprisingly understanding when the news that I was staying came their way.  Of course, I’ve been saying that I’d switch schools since around that time, and I procrastinated finding the new position until only a month remained…

If you’re thinking this is a good idea, don’t.

I, of course, was not worried by this delay, but everyone around me demanding the play-by-play on my plans?  It was the people around me who actually spurred me into action.  The last week of January was a flurry of activity and my own complaints about updating my resume, writing cover letters, and getting passport photos done.  The very next day, I sent 5 emails and got 5 requests for an interview.  Within 24 hours, I had 5 interviews (two via skype on the Friday and the next day, 3 in-person interviews).  Within 24 hours of that I had 5 job offers on the desk.

In the United States these days, especially for young people, you become accustomed to and come to expect to send out many, many job applications, have many interviews, and never get a call-back.  Mostly just throwing your resume into an uncaring void.  You rarely get an offer, let alone having multiple offers to juggle.  You even send out applications to the less-desirable places just so that you might have a job at all.  It’s not so in Korea.  At least, for English speakers it is quite easy to get a fairly decent job.  Here, it seems, the recruiter doesn’t request an interview unless they’re all but prepared to give you an offer.  The interview is mostly to confirm what they already know and to iron out the contract details.  I don’t think that I’m exaggerating much when I say that I will probably never have as life-affirming a job search process as the one I’m currently in the midst of.

Consider this:

Job A: in a decent area in Seoul, Yeoksam, the school is in a literal house that they bought and renovated, with cool little lofts and attics and slides and stuff for the kids to play on.  It seems like a really cool environment and all of the teachers and management seem really nice and close-knit.  Good pay.  Shorter hours than I work now.  The other teachers will help me find what I need, like churches or post offices or swimming pools or Korean lessons.  The downside is that I have to plan my own lessons, which adds to the amount of work significantly but would also be more like a “traditional teaching experience” and therefore more fulfilling.

Job B: it’s an afterschool position, which means that I go to a public school after regular classes are out and teach the kids there.  The hours are literally 12-6.  Time is one of your best assets on this earth and the sheer time that I would have to do other things is alluring.  The better quality of life that will result from this situation is more DIY than the other one.  The curriculum is already planned for you so all you have to do is implement it.  Low brainpower.  Downside: there’s only a housing allowance so I’ll have to find my own place, but hopefully I’ll be in a good area that I like, such as Sangsu, my favorite neighborhood, so that I can afford to have a decent apartment.

They release the list of schools hiring afterschool teachers tomorrow.  After that, I’ll have my decision for next year.  Tomorrow we have the “graduation” field trip for kindergartners and the level test for elementary schoolers.  In the evening I will eat dinner, smoke hookah, and drink buckets of questionable cocktails to celebrate coworker Stephanie’s birthday.  Sometime in that mosh pit of events, this list will be released.  I will accept one offer and will have to turn the other down.  At this point, I’m not quite sure which I will choose.  I leave you now on a cliffhanger.

A toast to having options but still being completely unsure of what lies ahead.