Almost one full week ago, my feet touched the soil of the United States of America for the last time for a while and I officially became an expat. Life Achievement unlocked, +1000 points. Ever since fastening my seat-belt on the Korean Air flight from Dallas, I feel as though I’ve been hurtling through a warp tunnel. So much has happened, in fact, that if I hadn’t experienced it, I’d say it’s a bit absurd to claim so much happened in such a short amount of time. What I can say is that even though I’ve only been at the English camp for a week, I can already sense myself starting to settle in, which is a lovely feeling. I sometimes think moving to a foreign and unfamiliar country is a bit like an organ transplant, which always seems to carry the possibility that the organ and the new host will reject each other. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened and I’m increasingly confident that Korea and I are going to be chummy in no time at all.
Anyway, where to begin? Have I mentioned I hate flying? Just in case I haven’t, let me just state it for the record: I hate flying. Were there a bridge across the Bering Sea and if driving through North Korea into South Korea were an option, I’d have given driving here serious consideration. And I hate driving too. It’s not that it scares me, there’s just very little about it I find enjoyable. Anyway, now that I’ve got that out in the open, I would like to go on record and say that all things considered, my experience flying with Korean Air from Dallas to Incheon to Daegu wasn’t all that bad. The food was good and they made sure to keep us fed; I drank my first Korean beer on the plane as well–it was called “d” and was a little light for my taste but nonetheless enjoyable. And, in due course, I had an adorable child sitting behind me the whole fifteen hours who I thought it would be nice to rock me back and forth in my chair a bit. God bless that little angel.
Our flight path took us over the Aleutian Islands, the Bering Sea, and the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia (more or less following the Ring of Fire). You’re apparently supposed to keep the shades down after an hour or so into the flight, but on the few glances I was able to steal out the window, I saw lots of icy ocean and snowy peaks. But, as delightful as seeing those scenes was, let me just say that fifteen hours is a hella-long time to be sitting on your ass, a fact my ass kept me well informed of from about six hours into the flight until we landed. Oy.
After a brief layover in Incheon/Seoul, I and some other camp/college staff with whom I was traveling boarded our second and last flight to Daegu International Airport. I was, by this point, ridiculously exhausted. I can’t really sleep on airplanes and by the time we landed in Daegu, it was early Monday morning in Oklahoma, which meant I’d been mostly awake for nearly 24 hours–those who know me well know how delirious I am past my grandpa bedtime of 9 p.m. Some staff from the English camp and Yeungjin College (which operates the English camp) met us at the airport and put us in a cab to the village. The cab had a TV and was carrying newsreels of the inauguration of Park Gyeun-hye, South Korea’s first female president, which had taken place earlier that day. Lots of new experiences going around, and not just for me.
After being warmly received upon arrival at the English camp, I was led to my room, at which point I promptly showered (which was an adventure all its own) and went to sleep. Tuesday morning, I awoke around 4 a.m. and sensing jet lag would make attempts for any more sleep futile, I got up and began settling into the space that will be my home for the next year. Can I just say, What the hell, ORU? These Koreans know how to make a dorm room and this isn’t even a college. It’s a week-long camp for middle schoolers. Geez. I’ve got heated floors, my own bathroom, a balcony, and a wonderful view, which includes this:
On Thursday, after a couple of days of observations and training, I taught my first two classes. Ever. Well, not quite ever, but almost, and it wasn’t bad at all. In fact, I think I’m really going to like it. There’re two types of classes at the English camp: situationals and academics. Everyone makes their own lesson plans and we have a lot of latitude with our academic courses. Basically, the goal is to introduce some basic vocabulary and phrases and also a bit of American/English/Western culture; this is, after all, an English village. My first class was a situational: the bank. The English camp has rooms designed specifically to teach situationals and they’re often mock-ups of real places: a grocery, a video store, a fast-food restaurant, a pet shop. Think Junior Achievement’s Biztown for a cognate in the states. So, for my class, I introduced them to basic English words one might need to know in a bank (deposit, withdrawal, exchange, etc.), American currency, and exchange rates. Obviously I saw ways I could tweak my lesson plan, but all in all the classes went really well.
Thursday was also my twenty-third birthday. After work, a group of my fellow teachers took me to the local big-box store, Homeplus, to stock up on essentials and also to just show me where it is since I’ll be going there A LOT. The English camp is about twenty minutes from Chilgok (“chill-goh”), a smallish suburb of the main city, Daegu (“deh-goo”), which is about forty minutes away by shuttle (if the traffic is good). And, since it was the day on which I commemorate my entry into this world, they also took me out for a beer at a bar in Chilgok called Fiesta (which is pronounced “piesta” since Korean doesn’t have an “f” sound). In one of the best birthday stories ever, a random Korean man named Mr. Kim who the guys I was out with met on an elevator met up with us and insisted on buying me a cake when he found out it was my birthday. He even put us in a cab to a bakery and paid the fair.
The next day, Friday, I went to my very first professional development meeting and felt like for the first time I was really wearing my big boy pants. Then, that night, I and a bunch of the other teachers took off for downtown Daegu to hear this gal sing the blues at a jazz club. I know some pretty cool and semi-famous people, dudes.
Let me tell you, I forgot how well Colleen can sing. Wowza.
To top the week off, Saturday was my first legit Korean cultural experience. I ate my first meal sitting on a pillow on the floor and it was real Korean food, guys. Don’t ask me what any of it was called, but we’re talking sprouts, and sticky rice, and fried shrimp shells, and kimchi, and tofu soup, and on, and on, and on, and oh was it delish. I’m still working on the whole chop sticks thing, but I’ll keep you posted. After a brief tour of a wine tunnel (not much to report here: just bad wine and a humid hole in the ground) and a winding ride through the hills of Gyeongsangbuk Province, we pulled up to a stunningly picturesque Buddhist monastery. I could tell you more, but let me just show you.
Then we went back into the city and ate burritos. The End.
It is, upon consideration, a little absurd that a small-town ranch boy from Oklahoma would end up a teacher in a South Korea. But, then again, I suppose it’s arguable that this modern life itself has a certain level of built-in absurdity. What I can say is that I’m already starting to feel at home here in this strange city with cracked sidewalks and stinky streets and barely-organized chaos on the roadways. There’s a certain magic to the place that, if from nothing else, flows from its newness. So, until next time, annyeonghi gyeseyo!