THE KOREA KRONICLES, PART III: A Homebody Living Abroad

Chilgok I’ve a confession to make. It’s a strange one, I’ll admit, but I think it’s important–maybe crucial–to understanding why I made the decision to move to the other side of the world. Here it is: I don’t like to travel. Crazy, I know. You may be thinking: “You mean you don’t like to travel and yet you traveled to a foreign country where you’ve never been before to live and work for a year? How mysterious.” ‘Tis true, I’m a man of mystery. And, by virtue of my newfound status as an expatriate, an International Man of Mystery. Boom.

Anyway, in the spirit of having majored in English AND communication theory in college, let’s unpack that, shall we? How does a guy who’s essentially a homebody end up moving to Korea for an essentially indefinite period of time? It ultimately boils down to my own definition of–and attitude toward my definition of–“travel.” When I think of traveling, I think of packing, flying, and lots of driving. I think of cheap hotels and endless eating on the go. I think of cramming as much activity, sight-seeing, shopping, and touristy shenanigans as possible into a week because you have to be back at work next Monday. That’s the kind of travel I hate. It’s mentally draining, stresses me out, and isn’t fun in even the most generous nuance of the word. If that’s what traveling looks like for you, feel free to go on without me. I’ll just kick it at home with the cat and we’ll have a ball together.

I’ve been reading a book wherein, in part, the author discusses different approaches toward spatial appropriation within a home as well as the psychological effects of using different types of spaces. His comparison centers on “going-through” and “being-in” spaces and how, in many modern homes, all space either is or can be easily converted to going-through space, mainly by its reliance on mobile furnishings and decor to achieve a distinguishable function (think of a dining room: it’s made a “dining” room by the presence of a table that can be removed, in which case the room loses its function). By contrast, being-in spaces are those which are like notches in a warren tunnel: spaces that are secure, enveloping, and deeply personal (think of a cupboard you liked to hide in as a child). When I’m traveling by my earlier definition, I spend virtually every moment in a space that is going-through space, even if under normal circumstances it’s being-in space. The mere fact that my time to experience it is severely limited means I can’t feel secure in it, from which flows my general displeasure with the enterprise of “travel,” at least by that definition. They don’t call me the Old Man for nothing.

No, for me, travel means living somewhere new, which, by my calculation, takes a lot more effort and dedication than picking some random place and hitting all the tourist hot spots once or twice over a ten-day period. Granted, I understand that for many people that’s their only available avenue to see the world. They’ve got careers, and families, and mortgages, and car payments and can only afford to take off for two weeks or so every year. Alright, I get it. Even so, if our places were switched, my vacations would still, at most, consist of me picking a quiet bungalow on an out-of-the-way island in the Caribbean and holing up for a couple of weeks. That’s just how I recharge. I’ve known for a very long time that I’m not ever going to be Anthony Bourdain, and I’m okay with that.

Anyway, that’s quite enough philosophical shit for now. Since I’m sure you’re reading this to know more about my life abroad, I’ll tell you all a little more about it. In case you’re just now joining the class, this is where I live and work north of the city of Daegu in South Korea:

I’ve got heated floors, my own bathroom, a nice big bed, and a refreshing view of the tree-covered mountains. I don’t have any pictures yet of the classrooms (or of any of the students I’ve taught!), but I’ll try to have some for my next post. The facilities are pretty swank though, at least by the standard of the schools I’ve attended over the course of my life, both public and private.

The way the English camp works is like a cross between a camp and a boarding school. The bulk of the students that come through are elementary kids in the fourth through sixth grades. They typically come for a 5-day, 4-night program which includes opening and closing ceremonies and a variety of situational- and academic-style lessons taught in English by native English-speakers (like me). Generally, there’s no set curriculum and the options of what we can teach in our classes are exceptionally broad, including just about anything where the students are learning some new English vocabulary and phrases. I, for example, currently teach two academic courses, one called “Law” (which uses lots of Schoolhouse Rock!) and “Poetry” (which includes a Dr. Seuss cartoon, The Cat in the Hat, and a game called Rhyming Charades). There are also a lot of different situational classrooms, including a grocery store, a bank, a post office, and a noraebang (karaoke bar). Think Junior Achievement’s BizTown, except the purpose is to teach English. Teachers write their own lesson plans and typically don’t have to give grades or deal with parents. In a sense, we’re a lot like camp activity leaders who happen to teach. In a word, it’s awesome.

To be clear, teaching at an English village is NOT AT ALL like teaching in Korea’s EPIK program or for a university or hagwon. I might only interact with a particular group of kids three to four times over a week-long period and then will probably never see them again unless they come back for another 5-day, 4-night program. If you’re interested in teaching and want the experience of long-term interaction with a small and consistent group of kids, do not teach at an English village. You will probably hate it. Lucky for me, this is right up my alley. I’ve never taught before and this is an excellent place to start building good teaching and classroom management skills since I have to be very adaptable and able to change my technique and sometimes even my content on the spot to accommodate groups of differing skill levels and temperaments. It’s been an intense growing experience these past few weeks and I’m loving it.

So far, Daegu is a really interesting city. Most of the buildings aren’t very tall with just a few skyscraper-ish buildings downtown. Oddly, the vast majority of the really tall buildings are apartments and are on the outskirts, very different from most cities in the U.S. The downtown area is a maze of twisty, crowded, visually loud streets chocked full of wonderful little shops and hideaways and I’ve already found a favorite haunt called “Buy the Book.” It’s a like a little slice of Portland in the middle of South Korea: used books, organic food made to order, beer, furniture that was probably pulled out of a dumpster. In other words, a hipster’s paradise–not that I’m a hipster or anything. I’m still building up my courage to attempt the subway and the bus on my own, but overall it’s very easy to get around. Plus, if I get lost, cabs are cheap and if I’m in Chilgok (a smaller city north of Daegu; if you’re from Tulsa, think Owasso), I usually only have to tell the cab driver, “Yeong-eo ma-eul, jooseyo,” meaning, “English village, please,” and they know where to take me.

One thing that I’ve had to get used to since moving here is a lot of staring. Koreans aren’t afraid to stare and will only avert their eyes if I look at them (in Korea, not making eye contact is a way of showing respect, particularly to a boss or teacher). For one, I’m a lot taller and massive than most Koreans, who tend to be short and fairly petite (even the men). I also have really thick facial and body hair, which is virtually non-existent in Korea, plus blue-green eyes and brown hair. In fact, I found out that in Korean, they have different words for head-hair and body-hair, with the latter literally meaning “fur.” In a country that is upwards of 95% ethnically Korean, a furry bearded Irish-American stands out like a bottle of Guinness in a bowl of kimchi.

The great irony is that when I first got here, I thought, “Wow, there are a lot of gay guys in Korea.” As time went on though, I realized that Korean men just tend to act far more femininely than do straight men in the U.S. I mean, I knew that it was common for straight friends of the same sex to walk arm-in-arm, but I didn’t expect such a vast difference in gender norms. As I understand it, there’s a greater cultural desire for men to be “pretty” in Korea and they often walk in what Americans might call a “dainty” fashion, wear really tight clothes, and speak and gesture in a somewhat flighty and flirtatious way. Anyhow, the irony is that I am gay and yet I act much more masculinely than do a lot of the straight men I encounter. On a side note, yes, I realize I’m stereotyping, but just believe me when I say I was seriously confused at first. I am American and from Oklahoma after all, so cut me some slack.

Next week is my first full teaching week and I’m super stoked for it. On Monday, I’m teaching Bank, and then later in the week I’ll teach both my Law and Poetry classes. The other thing I keep in mind is that even though I’ll enjoy the next year or so that I live here, I know myself well enough to know there will come a morning when I wake up and say to myself, “It’s time to move on.” This is my kind of travel–pick a place and be there–but it ultimately is travel and, by virtue of that fact, will one day come to an end. There’s great comfort in knowing that this is just a season and that, one day, I’ll move on to be somewhere else. Where will I go next? Who the hell knows. For now though, gamsahabnida to my host country for inviting me to stay with you and teach your children. Maybe we can both learn a little from each other in the process. Annyeonghi gyeseyo!

Chilgok

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