Now that I can look back on the entire year as a sort of unified experience, one that’ll soon have a line drawn under it and be a bygone section of my life, I guess I ought to write something about how I feel about that.
When I came here, I was about as apprehensive as possible. I was on my way to a country thousands of miles away from everything I was familiar with, a country very close to the diametrical opposite side of the clock and the world from the US. And this after having only been out of the country once besides to Canada, with that trip (Costa Rica) lasting just two weeks. And besides that, I knew I was coming to a country with a reputation for groupthinking, rule-following, and strict hierarchies, everything antithetical to my own life philosophies. And I would be teaching, though I had no experience teaching, and no idea if I’d like it.
It turns out that my apprehensions were fairly spot-on, actually. All those things that I was nervous about are the things that I had trouble dealing with during the year. I’ve discovered that, aside from a stay in prison or being stranded on an uncharted island, there are probably few things better than a fourteen-hour time difference to get you feeling isolated from all the people you know. Whenever it’s possible to chat (be it on Facebook or Skype or whatever), one of us or the other, or even both, are at the margin of the day, either just rubbing away sleepy-eye mucus or waiting for the chat to finish in order to go to bed. And it did get lonely. Toward the middle of the long winter, in the lonely days with nothing to do at night besides wait for the next day to start so it could slip by too, was the low point for that. But then it warmed up, everyone here started hanging out together again, and life generally improved. It’s not irrevocable, that isolation. And I did have the odd really awesome chat, like the time when I spent Thanksgiving dinner remotely at Grandma & Grandpa’s house. She probably won’t, but I still like to think Cammy will one day dimly remember that time that her family tried to get her to talk to some face on a screen.
The culture was harder to get over; I still haven’t quite, and I don’t know if any amount of time living here could fix that. Certainly I might get a start on it if I lived someplace where there are people my age who are more communicative. It seems like I never really had a deep conversation with someone who lives here. I have had some interesting conversations, I suppose, but they were hard to find. Even when I had a language exchange with Martin, the second grade teacher from my school, it was awkward and was definitely more along the lines of a lesson than two friends hanging out together. Partly I’m also making excuses because I never went to much trouble to make any friends here. I could have gone back to the soldiers’ temple and talked more with the resident soldiers there, and I probably would have learned a lot. But it did seem like there was a barrier between me and everyone I talked to, even beyond the language barrier. We were informed at orientation that most Koreans only make friends with people in their own very narrow age range, and that’s how it seemed to me. I talked to the vendors at the market, and they treated me nicely, but it never seemed like they had much interest in me as a person. I was someone to whom they could relate their anecdotes about when they, or their sons or daughters or cousins, went to America (and, invariably, visited LA and only LA, and thought it was nice.) But I was the American, or the English teacher, and inside of those boxes was where I stayed for them. And conversely they never related anything about themselves that reached outside the constraints of their role in relation to me, except to mention that trip to America. It was the same with anyone else I met: shopkeepers, my co-teachers, Martin, ladies at festivals, people on the street. The one time I didn’t feel so much like this, it was with soldiers at the soldiers’ temple, who, probably not coincidentally, were just about the same age as me. I really should go back there. I still have some Tupperware I should return from when one of them gave me kimchi.
And the teaching—well, I discovered that teaching really isn’t for me, at least not elementary school teaching, and especially not in Korea. I’d envisioned teaching by way of conversations where I used real with the students while getting to know them and laughing and sharing life stories; I would also break down grammar for them and teach them fascinating differences and similarities between the way our languages work. What I got was a textbook and a CD, and classes never smaller than 24 students, half of whom had no interest whatsoever in English, some of whom couldn’t even write the alphabet right. (You can always tell because they copy every letter directly from some printed material they’re looking off of, and as a result it has fancy-style two-story a’s and double-bowl g’s, and goes up and down and sometimes has no space between the letters and sometimes has an entire word’s worth.) I could complain about the textbook all day, but that’s been more than adequately complained about in other places, like on the forums for English teachers in Korea. So suffice it to say that the book doesn’t teach how to speak English, it teaches how to memorize English phrases and repeat them on a test at a later date. To my endless frustration, I couldn’t think of any way to do better than the textbook if I was going to teach all 24 students at once; it’s optimized for that use, for teachers who will never really get to know their kids closely, and who have no plans on engaging them in real conversations about real topics. Maybe the takeaway from that is that trying to teach such large classes is next to pointless.
But despite all the negative, there were positives that I never dreamed of before I came here, many of which actually belong in the same domains where I just mentioned all those negatives. These are the things I’ll miss after I leave. The food is the easy one to talk about first. It’s certainly not the only one, or maybe the biggest one, but it’s true. I entered this country knowing how to cook maybe six foods. Or, if I had no recipe in front of me to follow precisely, two. (Spaghetti and grilled cheese.) Then I came here and there were so many new foods, and I knew I had to learn them all so I could make them back in the States. My old experience, such as it was, was mostly useless, especially if I wanted to eat fresh from the town market, where processed things like sandwich bread and canned spaghetti sauce are nowhere to be found. So I learned how to do food like Korea does, and in the process I learned that this is a place where “fresh” is a concept that isn’t just paid lip service. Everything here is made from scratch, from real foods that are fresh, partly because that’s the way things are done and anything else would strike people as nasty, and partly because it’s hard to do it any other way, prices on imports being what they are, and processed food being so dismal and sparse. (The prices for out-of-season fruit here never fail to astound me. The price of presumably imported apples at the store in town has held steady for the last month or so at 2500 won or about $2.20, for a single apple. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it as high as 3500 won, though.) As I’ve learned I’ve gotten the courage to do things I never would have thought to do before, like buy completely unknown vegetables on the spur of the moment and do research on them when I get them back home. The only unfortunate part is that when I get home it’s going to be really hard to find all the stuff I’m used to working with here. Does Jungle Jim’s have kkaennip? If they don’t what will my dakgalbi be without it? But I guess that’ll just make me learn more, by figuring out what there is to do with whatever’s at the local farmers’ market wherever I am.
But other stuff, too. Like the culture. I know I just decried it as exclusive and unfriendly, but even from without, I’ve been able to see some fascinating things. Just earlier today I saw the guy who lives downstairs go out to his garden and start working on it with a hand sickle. Would you ever see that in America, outside of an organic farm on an intentional community? No, and nor would you see produce drying on bamboo mats on the roof or by the side of the street. All through the summer stuff is drying all over town, sometimes so that you have to step around it on sidewalks so as not to squish it: peppers, chwinamul, deodeok roots, greens I haven’t learned anything about. This part of Korea’s culture is unfortunately ceding to a youth that wants a machine for everything, but for the time being I can still see the workers who are putting up a building in town doing everything by hand, the hard way, and I can watch old grandpas in the city pull gigantic handcarts full of cardboard to be sold to a recycler, and I can stand on the bridge and see people who walk through the river with fishnets rather than go down to the store and pick up a box of frozen fish. I can even meet ginseng men who make their entire living out of doing things the hard way. This sort of philosophy is starting to catch on in America, where a small movement of forward-thinkers are starting to question the value of a convenience-based society where everything is automated and people are all estranged from the real-world effects of their work. It’s a way of thinking that people seem to believe is good in theory, or if you’re the sort of person who enjoys that sort of thing and has the leisure time to devote to it, but could never catch on because the easy way is just so darn efficient. Meanwhile, over here it’s just old-time common sense to do things that way. The wife of the guy with the hand scythe, who has a whole bamboo mat covered with hundreds of red peppers that she sets out to dry when it’s sunny, isn’t making a political statement. She’s just making kimchi. That’s how you make kimchi. Obviously.
And it’s a place where everyone is family. I’m not just talking about how the same three last names (Park, Lee, Kim) account for 45% of the Korean population. There’s also a trust here, a faith that everyone is looking out for each other. It’s to do with the groupthink, I suppose, but while I’m generally against everyone thinking alike, especially if it’s because everyone has accepted some sort of conventional wisdom unquestioningly, this is a facet that I enjoy. You can leave a bike unlocked around here and go away for hours, and it’ll still be there. I sometimes walk into stores and find no shopkeeper there, and anyone could easily rob the place, but no one does. No one takes the food that’s drying in the streets, either, or shortchanges you even if you’re clueless, or vandalizes stuff (except in a little section of Hongdae where graffiti seems to be encouraged). Generally you can trust almost anyone, probably even a bum on the street, to be upstanding and have a strong personal moral code. I don’t know how they manage it.
And I suppose being all on my own has forced me to figure out how to go about being my own person. Of course, I’ve already spent four years at college alone, after a fashion—at least not with my parents. But out here, I’m living an independent life, the only support structure being my free rent, plus a person I can call to sort out contractual questions and such. I’ve had to decide what it is that I do with my free time when I have free time. And the answer to that hasn’t always been something I look back on proudly, but I’ve been getting better at it, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll get better still once I leave my computer behind and especially once I get home to the States where I can communicate with people and make new friends and not be in a perpetual state of mild confusion.
There have even been parts of the teaching that I’ve enjoyed, despite the somewhat belittling work environment. There are a few students that I’ve really connected with. Jin-seon is really good at English and he and I have talked a lot: about his dad (Army commander of some rank), his ambitions (scientist with a cool car), his family (twin brothers, among others), and other stuff. I’ve also gotten to know several of the other kids from my after-school class fairly well, even the rambunctious ones. They’re sweet kids, really, and I’m sure I’m going to miss them. (Although it might take a while for that to happen, because first I’ll have to get over how glad I am not to have to stand in front of a classroom full of kids every day, and I don’t think that’ll happen all too fast.)
I guess what it comes down to is that there’s good and bad in the year, just like there is in everything. Some things I’m pretty sure I won’t miss. The cobbled-together concrete architecture. The occasional unexplained bomb tests at nearby military bases. The feeling of never quite knowing what’s going on. Having to climb a big hill and then two flights of stairs to get home. Soju. Plastic surgery ads everywhere. The way you can hardly explore anywhere outdoors without accidentally stumbling onto a military base. K-Pop. Eight-hour days in an office working on pointless, ineffectual textbook lessons.
But I like to think they’re more than outweighed by the miscellaneous little things I will miss. The mountains. The misty mornings (even if I wasn’t awake for very many of them). The way you can find a 400-year-old pagoda without even trying. The way the old lady at my favorite vegetable stall slips a few hot peppers or leaves of lettuce into my bag for free. The little trumpet fanfare that plays when a subway train is approaching. The unbridled enthusiasm they put into their terrible karaoke. $2000-a-month paychecks with practically no bills to spend them on. Sitting out on the roof, or going out to a restaurant, or playing cards, with all my expat friends. Makkeolli: $1 for a one-liter bottle of 7%-alcohol sweet ricy goodness. Opening and closing ceremonies for everything. Getting a necklace of clover flowers or a dried squid tentacle from a student.
If I had to do it again, sure, I’d do some things differently. Motivate myself more, write more, figure out how to make the lessons more useful for the kids, make more local friends. But on the whole, I have to say I think I’d live the same story. I’m glad I came.