Hello, my name is…

Yesterday and today I introduced myself to my 3rd and 4th graders. After a short presentation, I invited each class to ask me questions. The #1 question for ALL class periods, except for one, was “How old are you?” My co-teachers warned me that I should keep my real age to myself, because the students won’t respect me as much if they find out how young I am. Hence, I told them that I am 100 years old. In response, the students laughed and gasped, and some yelled “Liar!”/”You lie!”/”Grandmother!”

Some class periods were more interested in/comfortable asking questions than others. Other questions were:

  • “Do you have a boyfriend?”
  • “Are you married?”
  • “Did you go to Harvard?” (from one creative 4th grader)
  • “Do you like kimchi?”
  • “How much do you weigh?” (Note: Western-taboo questions of this ilk are considered completely okay in Korea)
  • “What is your favorite food?”
  • “What is your favorite Korean food?”
  • “What is your favorite color?”
  • “What is your mother’s name?” (another 4th grader)
  • “What is your last name?”
  • “Do you have a pet?”
  • “Do you know Angelina Jolie?”
  • “Do you know Big Bang/Girls Generation/[insert Kpop band]?”

The 4th graders made name cards today. They had the option of either romanizing their Korean name or using an English name. Most chose a basic English name like David, Angela, etc., although some of the more innovative results included “Pinky”, “Bunny”, “Super Mario Brothers 2”, and two boys who opted to call themselves “Jay 1” and “Jay 2”, respectively. They were, quite literally, beside themselves in amusement. 

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Seoul life 1-2-3

Right now I’m sitting on the floor in my apartment, savoring the existence of air conditioning. I arrived in Seoul on Tuesday after a week of training with several hundred other EPIKers in Daejeon, which is in central Korea.

My three co-teachers are: Mary (my main co-teacher, 3rd and 4th grade), Sara (6th grade), and Hannah (5th grade). All of them are incredibly sweet and helpful; if I could take them out to dinner every night for the next twenty years, I couldn’t even repay their kindness to me over the past three days. Here’s just a sampling:

Tuesday

  • Mary and another teacher picked me up, helped me with my luggage, and took me to my apartment to unload.
  • Mary took me to lunch (at TGI Friday’s, oddly enough), Sara joined us, and the principal had given money to pay for it.
  • Mary showed me how to use the buses and subways, took me to the grocery store, and showed me around my neighborhood. Then we went to school to meet the principal and vice-principal.

Wednesday

  • Mary took me to the Immigration Office to apply for my Alien Registration Card. Essentially, I can’t do anything (open a bank account, get a cell phone, pay bills) until I get this card. We saw a couple of my EPIK colleagues from orientation. They had been waiting for several hours, but since Mary had called ahead and made a reservation, it only took about 30 minutes for us to get the paperwork, and I will be able to go pick up my card around September 12th.
  • Sara met us at the Immigration Office. The three of us had lunch together, and then visited a historic palace. On our way to the palace, we passed some peaceful protestors (regarding the Sewol Ferry tragedy) and signed their petition. Sadly, some people are starving themselves as a form of protest against what they perceive as the government’s inexcusable silence and inaction.

Thursday

  • Today was my first day at school. I attempted to get coffee around 7:30 a.m., but the coffee shops here don’t open until 8:30 a.m. Although Koreans are just about as obsessed with coffee as Americans, apparently they don’t have a morning ritual that involves stopping by a local coffee shop.
  • I took the subway to school because I couldn’t remember how to get there via bus or walking. After I got off the subway, I knew I was right near the school, but I couldn’t find it. It’s confusing because the area has lots of schools, and they all look similar (to me, anyway). I showed the address to several people, and after being pointed along my way, I ended up in the school yard of a middle school, and a very kind lady (who turned out to be an English teacher) walked with me most of the way to Jungwon elementary. She then pointed to a little boy and told me that he’s a student at Jungwon. I was worried I’d be late, so I smiled and waved at him, but walked ahead of him at a more brisk pace.
  • Once at school, I met my third co-teacher, Hannah. Since it was the first day of the semester, the school gave a video broadcast. I had to introduce myself briefly, in English. It was slightly terrifying, but it went fine. I spent the rest of the day at my desk with my co-workers, preparing a Prezi and struggling to change the default language of Chrome from Korean to English (I eventually succeeded). I share an office with my three co-teachers and another teacher. I won’t start teaching for another two weeks; first I will introduce myself to my classes with the Prezi I prepared, then I will watch and learn from my co-teachers.
  • We had lunch with the rest of the teachers, the principal, and vice-principal. Then my three office-mates took ice cream upstairs and we shared it and talked. My co-teachers speak English well, and the other teacher in the office speaks quite well, too. They think I look like Natalie Portman. I’m not seeing it, but I’m flattered. 🙂 They asked me if I’m having culture shock, if I like Korea, what the weather is like in Washington, and whether my blue eye shadow is make-up or the natural color of my eyelids (“Some foreigners have different facial features, so we aren’t sure”).
  • There is a teachers’ meeting at 4:00 p.m. every Thursday, so Mary told me to prepare to introduce myself. The principal had me stand up in front of everyone with him, and after he introduced me, I stumbled through a short introduction in Korean. They clapped and gasped when I said hello, laughed good-naturedly when I apologized for my poor Korean (with butchered pronunciation), and clapped again when I finished with saying “감사합니다” (“Thank you”).
  • Sweet Mary is letting me borrow her previous cell phone, so we went to the cell phone store to get a SIM card for me. Now I have a basic phone for the next few weeks while I’m waiting for my ARC. Essentially, I’m a dependent baby until I can use the subways and buses confidently and learn more Korean besides simple phrases like “Hello” and “Sorry”.
  • While Mary, Hannah, Sara, Sara’s friend, and I were walking to the phone store, a man started talking to me at the crosswalk. He wanted to know if I was British or American, and then asked me to correct his pronunciation of the word “electricity” several times. His English was very good, especially demonstrated by his impressive (albeit a little too familiar) use of simile to tell me that my eyes are beautiful like sapphires. My friends thought he was very rude, and Mary wanted to make sure I knew that I can ignore any strangers who approach me in the future. Since I was with friends, it didn’t bother me, and I found it rather entertaining.

Overall, I’m enjoying my new life in Seoul very much. I’m excited and nervous to begin teaching, and so grateful for my new friends. Little everyday things are a challenge, but it is satisfying to overcome them, and I am learning new things all the time.

Much love to all you friends and family afar!

FAQs

Questions Americans asked me before I left:

Why Korea?

Adequately addressing this question would require an entire post of its own, but part of the answer lies in the question itself. “Why does everyone keep asking me, ‘Why Korea?'”, I wondered. If I had chosen to go to China or Japan, I doubt I would get this question nearly as often. Korea is an enigma to many people, and somehow, this contributed to its appeal. (Of course, I’ll readily admit that great job benefits and delicious food also factored into the equation.)

So you must speak Korean?

아니오. (No.) I can say a few phrases (hello, how are you?, goodbye, can you help me?, I would like kimbap, etc.), read Hangul (Korean script), and recognize a few words. Korean language skills are not prerequisite to teaching English, but I’ll be studying Korean for the sake of survival outside of the classroom.

You’re not going to NORTH Korea, right? (often followed by a chuckle, indicating that the speaker thinks their remark is incredibly original)

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. Please come visit, since I probably won’t be sending any postcards.*

So when are you leaving for – wait, where is it you are going? [Insert non-Korean country in Asia], right?

As much as I would love to travel to Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Japan, etc. someday soon, I don’t have any set plans. Korea prides itself on being very unique, which it is. Hence, I find it odd and slightly disturbing when people equate Korea (or any country) with an imagined milieu of Asia as a whole.

All Korean students are really well-behaved, right?

[Laughter.]

How long will you be gone?

My initial contract with EPIK (English Program in Korea) is for one year, but renewal is an option. Choosing to stay for more than a year depends on the interaction between a lot of variables: the English teacher’s temperament/future plans, the Korean co-teacher (every EPIK teacher has one, and their reported experiences with co-teachers vary from heavenly to hellish), etc. And of course there’s the impending doom of budget cuts. But that’s a whole other apple.

So are you all packed?

[Bitter laughter.]

Are you scared?

Not nearly as scared as I should be. I have my moments, of course, but I’m saving the feelings of sheer terror for an appropriate time, such as the first day of class.

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” -Helen Keller

*Author is not held liable for readers’ potential lack of sarcasm detection skills.

Unprecedented

Lately people have begun asking me how I feel about this whole strange business. I usually tell them that I’m feeling a little of everything, which is true. But inside, when I try to wrap my brain around my feelings, the overarching emotion that saturates me is silliness, pure and simple. My mind can’t process what’s going on, because I don’t have any remotely similar experiences to compare it to. So, drawing a schematic blank, the little grey cells are forced to conclude that this entire plan must be a complete joke, E-22 visa and all. As a result, it’s almost embarrassing to tell people I’m moving to Korea; I feel as though I’m lying. Making up such a crazy story would be bizarre enough, but oftentimes truth truly is stranger than fiction. Ironically, sometimes it takes more faith to believe in reality than imagination, especially when reality is something we cannot imagine.