To dive deeper into this world and understand our cast of characters, see WHO’S WHO.
To dive deeper into this world and understand our cast of characters, see WHO’S WHO.
I spent the afternoon in near hysterics having realized that the way I applied for an absentee ballot was completely wrong for a citizen abroad.
Once that was sorted, I ate a boring and healthy dinner due to the copious amount of cookies I had for lunch, and was joined by the Brazilian and the male Korean roommate.
What a strange little family we are, I thought to myself at one point.
The Korean asked me if I was from Miami since I said I was from Florida and Miami is a Florida city.
“No,” I answered, feeling gleefully vindictive in a short and obvious reply.
The Brazilian had made both of them garlic olive oil pasta to which the Korean said had an aftertaste of Yakult, a drinkable yogurt.
The Brazilian and I looked at each other.
“But isn’t Yakult sweet?” He asked.
“Yes, it is,” the Korean responded, still somehow finding something sweet in a pasta that has no sugar.
“Yakult is a very famous Korean drink,” he explained rather needlessly since the Brazilian and I have been in Korea long enough to see the yogurt ladies driving their motorized carts and clipping pedestrians’ heels.
“Is it from Japan?” The Brazilian mused. I agreed and did a quick search to confirm.
“My girlfriend and I argue about that all the time, she gets so mad if I say it’s from Japan,” he commented while I read him the Wikipedia article, which is understandable if you understand Japan-Korean relations.
The Korean asked me if all the Chinese students in my class yell.
“No, they don’t yell.”
The Brazilian, who was working in China up until borders closed, added that older Chinese people are loud.
“Just like Korean older people! Must be a senior thing.” I explained.
I think the Korean started to realize I was making fun of him which made the effort lose its fun and instead made me reconsider that he was human and I shouldn’t judge him on a single note.
As an unspoken offering, I later brought him some candy from the German classmate. I warned him that it was sour and then sweet to which he replied,
“So like Yakult!”
The Brazilian and I bust out laughing.
I’ll admit, he has great comedic timing even if he doesn’t know it.
I took a long walk on the beach as the weather is cooling off and when I got back I discovered the Brazilian in his day clothes with interesting additions of green plastic slippers and a lit cigarette.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I only smoke when I’m stressed.”
“And why are you stressed?”
“I’m arguing with my girlfriend.”
“What am I doing if she doesn’t even care about me?”
He looked at me with that naked look of a drowning man and I had the horrible realization that he was about to cry.
My immediate thought was, young love, followed by a rush of gratitude that I don’t have it.
But the Brazilian and his girlfriend are in their mid-20s, and I think of them as young mid-20s at that. I’m sure they’ll be fine shortly.
Although I do hope she remembers that while she might be in her home country, her boyfriend is trapped in a country that’s not his own and also not his place of work.
However, if there’s one thing I can do, it’s talk my way out of awkward situations.
“You’ve almost made a complete ajusshi transformation,” I observed, waving to his cigarette and shower shoes. I told him the only thing left to do was an Asian squat.
We tried but heard his knees crackle in protest and echo in the alley and thus promptly gave up, but not without a few laughs.
I told him about my walk and the misspelled tourist sign and we briefly discussed the cost of cigarettes in our respective countries.
The key to comforting a boy fighting with his girlfriend is to never comfort too much and so I soon told him not to stay out too late and have a good night.
I can be and enjoy being everyone’s big sister.
During my walk I left my bedroom window open and now it smells a bit like my hair used to the morning after Thursday Thursdays in college. It’s comforting in a way.
Or maybe that’s just the smell of fall.
I felt a cold creeping up on me last Saturday which also happened to mark the midpoint of perhaps the most stressful two weeks in a long, long time. Immigration inconsistency (again), politics in my home country, personal relationships, identity, school exams all formed the least delicious ice cream sundae.
The cold finally reared its head Friday and I decided to heed the old advice and just rest. No gym, no sightseeing, no guilt. By Sunday night, I felt replete with an energy I hadn’t had in weeks.
Is this what it feels like to be well rested? I could feel this way every day?? My god.
Friday afternoon in spite of my burning eyes I went to campus to retrieve my student ID and meet my incomprehensibly tall German classmate with whom I doused fiery rhetoric about US politics. As a European he was both well informed and sympathetic.
As I nibbled through my second cafe cookie he told me that I was really good at Korean. And he “wasn’t just saying it like Koreans tend to say all the time to foreigners who can manage one 안녕하세요.”
“So how much do you study?”
Oh boy. There was no easy way to put it except:
Aside from doing assigned homework I don’t actively study. Even when I was at the inarguably more challenging Hankuk University I didn’t study because four hours of coursework plus another hour or two of homework was preparation enough. Not to mention there we had to write and memorize eight minute speeches in Korean…
“Oh. I study every day. I’ll probably study over the holiday for our exam.” He added almost sadly.
I know I should study for the midterm. If I get top marks I can get a scholarship for next semester, and I’m all about a bargain.
No matter the language I’ve almost always gotten the highest grade in the class, and with little effort. Language is the only thing I’m good at without trying and in this day and age that values STEM over all else, I’m not quite sure what to do with it.
I know its important, look at Uhura! Or the Star Trek episode where one alien race speaks only in historical metaphors so the crew’s mechanical translators didn’t work. Or Amy Adams’s character in Arrival.
I suppose there’s something to say in that language ability only seems to be valued in SciFi.
Should I be pursuing translation work? Should I be working in linguistic academia? Or should I assume this talent is like a side hustle, useful for bragging but shameful as a full time career?
I just know I like it. And I’m good at it, somehow.
For the brief time during training and my visa run to Japan, my mouth missed speaking Korean. Forming syllables and molding the trickier or more delicate consonants. I imagine I’ll be especially bereft when I’m in America for two weeks without a single double consonant to keep me company.
Shall I schedule a tutoring session for my long distance relationship?
Surely I’m not the only one who can miss a language like a lover.
Tomorrow we meet again for four hours and I’m sure the love will be strained. Our love will definitely be tested during the midterm.
But last it shall.
Because of (another) Christian cult, cases spiked a few weeks ago in Seoul and haven’t been completely eradicated.
I texted with C briefly and she told me they are now doing online interactive classes at the elementary school. “All the kids look sad and bored,” she said.
I was inexplicably filled with that ghost of rage regarding English education and I had to take a step back to ask myself why.
It’s no secret that I am not a fan of public school English education in Korea. A focus on reading comprehension is a detriment to the most fundamental use of language: communication.
It feels in my experience that Korean teachers of English are neither prepared for nor passionate about the subject they teach which is opposite to the experience I’ve had from every teacher I’ve personally learned a second language from, including Korean language teachers.
Toward the end of last semester you can probably tell that I started to have serious misgivings about the whole institution, and wondered why I should even stay if my native language wasn’t particularly of any concern— everything is taught just to pass a test anyway.
Some native English teachers (in Korean we are called “Native Speakers” rather than “teachers” as our title) come as a gap year, or to take a break from teaching in their home country, or to travel and sightsee in Korea.
For those of us that want to teach for the long, or longer haul, it can be somewhat depressing to work in an environment that doesn’t seem to care. Or maybe that’s just the attitude of elementary teachers here and I didn’t know; that’s at least the feeling I got in the challenging spring semester.
That’s not to say that working as a “native speaker” at a public school is bad. The kids enjoy and benefit from seeing someone unlike them and they at least hear a little bit of native intonation.
Plus the benefits are good, the job is easy, and I saved about as much in a year here as I did at my manager position (rent in an American metropolitan city took a huge chunk of my pay along with health and car insurance) so these are the good points to remember.
I’ve broken from the spiraling thought pattern of spring semester that “nobody wants you in Korea”. Somebody does, but maybe not at public school. Or a city public school.
I’m returning to America at the end of November to finally take my teaching exams. FLDOE never did bend to making accomodations even given this global pandemic but what else would I expect from the state that opened back up even at the peak of its infections?
This is all to say that even though my last school, and maybe my next school, don’t or won’t value English (and me, as a result) it’s not the end of the world. I know that I may have to put in my time as an “entry level” employee before I can move on to bigger and better opportunities.
There’s no shame in putting in the work and not getting an early promotion. I have the rest of my life to learn and teach all over the world.
I say this because I really forgot what my visa was for– job seeking. I have been so filled with adventure (and stress) from my new experiences here in and around Busan that I literally forgot that I am also supposed to be ensuring my future.
I also say this because when I think about what jobs I currently am qualified for and the ones I’m almost qualified for, I wonder what is possible. I want to work in a place where I am valued, but I also want to be with kids from average families.
The reality is private school jobs come by word of mouth, and there are very few, and international school jobs are no dice unless you are already certified and have legitimate experience. There’s an international school on Jeju that sounds wonderful but I am very far from being competitive (currently).
So by next March, which is fast approaching, what are my options?
Most schools are hiring now, or soon– and I have no license to show, though that won’t stop me from applying if the opportunities do appear.
Public school is my main plan given that I likely won’t have my license in hand when the school year starts and I desire stability of a confirmed job over the promise of a position given our global circumstances. Likely in Gyeongsang as we’ve discussed, or maybe Jeolla.
I like to think that country folk might be a little more interested in the foreign teacher.
I just have to remember that if I ever feel undervalued or a bit unchallenged, it’s okay– this is a stop on a long journey. There is no shame in stability or working at entry level; everyone has to start somewhere and the promise of a fixed (if low) salary and housing for a year is a boon given, well, everything.
I’m the type of person who has always felt if I am not absolutely running myself into the ground with work and extracurriculars, that I am lazy. I’m trying to break free of that and understand that living well and progressing steadily rather than immediately is nothing to be ashamed of.
What I mean to say is, even though teaching at Korean public schools is not my long term goal, I’ll happily do it for another year to get some more experience and live with ease while I make my next move.
Or as one of my favorite poems goes, “[you are] the hook at the end of a long, long line”.
Before I enrolled in this college Korean course, I took private lessons online. One of my tutors was from Busan and after I shared the news of my move, she invited me to her hometown which is an hour west of my house.
We visited the tomb of Korea’s first international power couple (the Queen was from India). I like to think they had a good time.
As this dynasty is not very well known the grounds weren’t busy.
I didn’t know this was the start of a ten hour day but was a great kickoff.
She then drove us to a series of cafes in a valley that was very reminiscent to the area I became S’s fourth family member.
We settled in a tea shop where I ate too much sugar and enjoyed a mountain view — a site still surprising to these Florida eyes.
By then it was three and I assumed she was just going to drop me off at the station. Instead she asked, how about we eat dinner at my parent’s house?
Y’all know that is my favorite thing to do. Cue adoption 2.0!
We stopped at her place which she shares with her sister and her sister’s two children.
I had met her sister briefly on camera during our online session when a woman in what appeared to be a tutu jumped on my tutor’s bed in the middle of class causing my tutor to pinch her nose in annoyance and profusely apologize.
I just thought it was funny.
My tutor had mentioned her niece and nephew before and somehow my brain never made the connection between tutu and children.
The tired looking woman in an apron telling her kids to clean up is not what I expected.
My tutor told me she doesn’t want to get married to the wrong person because her sister, tutu, was actually 29 and divorced. The the tough times she went through had also upset her parents.
So as I looked at the woman with big eyes and a strong but heart shaped face I wondered about her story. And I thought it can’t be easy being a divorcee or single mother in conservative Korea.
I knew it wasn’t the right time to ask but I know I’ll find out. I tend to collect secrets after all.
Instead, I played with the kids who are seven and nine. The boy and girl are very similar in personalities except that the girl is quick to cry. I pretended the mop on the roof was my long lost boyfriend and they laughed. They accepted me without a second thought and started calling me 이모, auntie, from minute two.
When we met again at my tutor’s parents’ house, the girl gifted me a handmade necklace which I first stretched across my forehead and asked if that was right.
I wore it for the rest of the night, on the subway, and home to show my female roommates who offered me cake and asked about my adventures when I dragged myself though the door many hours later.
Seoul people have warned me time and again that I wouldn’t understand the Busan or Gyeongsang accent. Joke’s on them, I already don’t understand Korean!
I was well and truly exposed to the full force of the Gyeongsang accent today. Seoul people say it sounds like fighting, and it does. I think that’s because they were in fact fighting. Well, ribbing each other in the way close families do.
The strongest peculiarity of this regional accent is the inflection and final syllable: in casual language here, every sentence ends with a down-turned “na”, like the blunt swipe of a club.
왜 (weh) “why” also changes into a pronunciation I can only describe as Chinese.
I watched 50 episodes of a Chinese drama and if there’s one word I know, it’s “why” in Chongqing dialect.
(Unsponsored promotion: watch The Untamed if you’re haven’t! It’s on Netflix! If you like cheesy graphics, beautiful people, sword fights, and having your heart stomped on this is the show for you!)
The accent was spectacular and I can’t wait to absorb the slang.
In spite of the many warning from Seoullites, I still managed to catch the drift of conversations and also talked briefly with a very old granny from next door who had the smallest head I’ve ever seen on someone that age, like the head of a child.
Her legs were so thin I wondered how she had wandered into the house without crumpling under her own weight but she pat my leg with a surprisingly warm and strong hand. Not to mention she had her own touch screen flip phone which was very impressive.
My tutor and I walked along the country roads where one old man driving a truck smiled at me and she introduced me to a surprisingly hip and busy cafe.
She knows the owner who these days really struggles with the rude customers who leave trash by the river and don’t stop their children from pelting rocks at local wildlife.
Her mother called us to dinner and we made our way back but were interrupted by three abandoned yipping puppies. One was brave and approached my tutor, only to back away when she put out her hand. The puppy that looked just like the breed I imagine raising one day watched over its youngest and most scared sibling underneath the car.
She and I were at a complete loss: if we called animal control and no owner was identified, all three would be put down within two weeks. Neither did we have a place to put them: I live in a sharehouse and she already has five dogs, three of which are tied up in her parent’s minuscule backyard in the traditional Korean way (it’s not a very pet centric culture in the country).
I felt helpless and hated that even as an adult there were problems that didn’t always have a solution.
When we got back to the house, dinner had already started.
Her father is a strikingly featured man who I’d dare say is handsome, in a way fitting of an American Western. The comparison of course ends there as he spent most of his time napping or simply disappeared.
Sometime between my third and tenth bite of kimchi he disappeared again.
I talked to the kids and the boy said when he first saw me he thought I was Thai.
“Have you ever seen a Thai person before?”
My tutor quizzed her niece on English:
“How do you say America in English?”
Her mom stage whispered, “S-U— oh wait…”
“What are you spelling??” I asked her to everyone’s laughter including hers.
My friend swatted at her ankles and asked me why I wasn’t getting bitten by mosquitoes. I just shrugged but my complacency would be punished by my later discovery of a slew of red spots when preparing for bed.
To my friend, her mother said “because you’re fat,” in the direct but not mean-spirited way of Korean mothers.
My tutor just hit her mom on the arm.
It was so iconically Korean that the nephew and I burst into laughter, though I tried to hold it in.
Later I played monkey in the middle with the kids. In the dirt I spotted a mop:
“Oh boyfriend, why are you here? You’ve gotten so thin!” I said to my poor lover, to the laughs of the kids and my tutor from our sustained inside joke.
Their neighborhood is the type of neighborhood where neighbors somehow gather like a rolling snowball. A middle-aged man with a fishing vest and apparently nowhere better to be somehow joined up with the father who reappeared and they watched us play for a few minutes.
The father smiled and I couldn’t help but be struck again by his uniquely strong face (and feel immediately pervy that I might call my friend’s sixty year old father good-looking).
My friend eventually extracted me from the kids to get a move on home. Like any Southern American woman, her mom insisted on giving me a big jar of kimchi, then a pear, then threw in a few K94 face masks, and was about to add seaweed when I stopped her.
“I have that at home, it’s okay.”
“Do you have rice at home?”
“I don’t eat rice very often.”
“You need to eat rice, it’s healthy for you.”
This must be what my tutor meant with her warnings of “my family nags” but it was too reminiscent of my Southern family to be anything but welcome. My tutor also mentioned that some American men come fishing on the bridge and the first time, her mother asked where they were from and if they liked sandwiches.
(Their answer didn’t matter, she brought them sandwiches.)
Sun was setting on the river, clear for now but the land has been scheduled for apartment construction.
Even though I got bit a few more times by swamp bugs, the view was absolutely worth it.
With the little power left in my brain after a full day of trying to speak Korean, I thought again about city life.
Times in Busan have been tough (four hour online class every day is more tiring than I imagined) but good, and I considered simply staying and scrounging for a job here.
But a recent meetup with foreigners and the view of the countryside, still wholly accessible by public transportation, confirmed my decision to eventually move out next year.
I don’t particularly seek Western friends because they often know very little Korean, have little interest in Korean culture, and also like to party. To each their own of course, but I really have come to know that I personally prefer cultivating relationships in average, everyday moments over a night out. And that there’s nothing wrong with that.
If my options were go to the hottest club in Seoul with VVIP or spend a day with a Korean granny and grandpa on a farm, you absolutely know I’d choose the latter. Nobody “vibe checks” every ten minutes while farming.
So I have to take every foreigner’s warnings about the countryside with a grain of salt because what I value is different from them and also from a lot of other people my age.
After all, I’m 28 and still trying to be adopted by every Korean family I meet.
I made a true American brunch for freshman and houseowner, complete with mimosas. The freshman appeared from her room in a long, high waisted skirt.
“Are you going somewhere?”
“To our brunch!” She replied to my utter delight. Someone who enjoys themes, excellent!
I can’t often cook for other because iconic American dishes require an oven so it’s always a high point when I can share a little piece of home.
After a conversation where I answered “where are we meeting again” four times too many, I finally wrangled a third of the class to meet in person.
The first to arrive was the German who towered over our handshake at six foot seven. Our Uzbek classmate with theee Chinese students were next, then the round faced Chinese boy who is adorable and sweet in every way sat down, and last to arrive was my hot pot classmate from last weekend.
We talked in a mix of Korean, English, and Chinese for two hours: we complained about our test, we talked about representative foods from our countries, I explained that America is not full of rich people and don’t believe everything you see in the movies, and we figured out who is the oldest and who is the youngest after which I referred to everyone under 22 as a baby which they did not appreciate (but is true nonetheless).
The Chinese trio on the end later asked if my whole family was American.
I’m not sure if my looks or my mannerisms inspired the question or if it was something entirely different.
After three weeks of seeing their faces through Zoom, it was nice to meet in person. One of the Chinese is the same age as me and we shook hands in solidarity. She held my arm later walking to the station which was sweet and very standard for Chinese female friendships.
Our group slowly wittled down to three after goodbyes and separation. At last I parted ways with the last two, our Uzbek and arm holder.
When I scanned my subway card to go eastward and passed through the gate, something made me look back.
I turned around to find them on the other side of their turnstiles waving goodbye to me.
I powered through another 4 hours of online class, just barely, and on the advice of my nutritionist tried to take a breather. She explained to me that our body does not differentiate the type of stress we experience– physical, mental, emotional– and it’s all coded the same. Therefore powering through or “pushing through the pain” will only cause your stress bucket to overflow.
With that in mind, I haven’t worried so much about making it to the gym. I already follow a fairly regulated eating plan and walk 2 to 6 miles a day. If I’m adding cups of stress to the bucket, the cups this week have been going to Seoul to get my visa and wading through opaque immigration guidelines regarding quarantine and documentation if I want to take a trip to the US, then it’s okay to move a little more slowly in other areas of my life.
So the solution was, take myself out to lunch.
I thought that Busan calling itself “Marine City” would mean seafood would not only be plentiful but also cheap.
I could throw a rock and hit a noodle restaurant but seafood, affordable seafood for one person at least, has been a challenge.
The houseowner told me that Kakao maps is more like Bing in the sense that it’s older and less informative.
“If you want to find a copy store or a pajeon restaurant, use Daum apps like Kakao. If you want everything else, use Naver.”
Naver is Korea’s Google and it has been a game changer. You can shop on there as well, demonstrated by the giant crate of mango ice cream my interesting roommate ordered.
Naver Maps gave me local seafood restaurants and on this rainy afternoon I walked into a small lunch restaurant run by two type A ladies.
They seemed a tad bit suspicious of the foreigner at first, but once I ordered 생선구이 from their three item menu of the day, I sat back and watched the rain.
One of the women placed thirteen side dishes in front of me along with a steaming bowl of tofu soup and a whole fish, guts included.
She told me she rice was self serve and we had a funny moment where I had to ask for her help in opening the giant rice maker.
I had been trying to open it from the hinge.
I was so excited to plow through the extravagant amount of side dishes and happily bounced in my seat as I ate.
Another older man came in later, destroyed soup and fish in five minutes, then left. I had flash backs to the office staff and my stomach gurgled with phantom pain.
After I paid, one of the women told me I speak Korean well and also use chopsticks well.
This falls a bit into the category of “things we say to foreigners” like “can you eat kimchi” and “do you know BTS” but I don’t mind the compliment.
After all, eating fish on the bone with chopsticks is not easy— I remember my hand cramping terribly the first time I did so in 2016. I was a beginner then and ended up shredding the fish into a thousand tiny inedible pieces.
I would say I prefer Spanish Mackerel in Seoul to the catch of the day here but the roasting sauce was good and the side dishes were amazing. My favorite was sweet marinated potato.
As I had an exam the following day, I trekked down to Starbucks on my once yearly trip to see if it indeed had brewed coffee. Dunkin Donuts at the airport did not which baffled me; isn’t that their signature drink?
I’m adding a Dunkin Donut latte and PSL to the growing list of things I want to eat when I’m in the US again.
I was actually looking forward to the familiar burned taste but “coffee of the day” at Korean Starbucks is still hand drip. It was delicious and I hate them for that. Burn the beans and give me a taste of home, dammit!
The houseowner who also runs a cafe told me that the demand for brewed coffee is simply not high enough in Korea to put it on franchise menus here.
I watched the sky darken as I drank my cooling coffee and powered through worksheets.
It was a good way to unwind after the stress of the previous day, previous week, 2020 in general.
For thirteen hours I traveled.
For thirteen hours I was in and out and on and off public transportation, all so I could get that one magical item that unlocks just about everything in Korea.
As you know, I had to apply for my D10 visa in Seoul and for reasons unclear to me, I was also required to return to Seoul to pick it up. No mailing options available.
Plane tickets were both fastest and cheapest so for 40,000 won (about $30) I bought a round-trip ticket to Seoul. Domestic flying is very straightforward in Korea and Busan check-in plus security took less than five minutes, then I was free to buy coffee and stare at an eight foot painting of horses.
Being in Seoul again was not strange; I knew the layout well and the cacophony of buildings and gray smog were familiar.
I did make the mistake of getting on a local bus to get back to the subway station. Local buses, unlike city buses, do not go in a circle or straight line. Their routes look like a drunkard trying to make his way home.
I got on the green bus and started to worry when it exited from the main road and kept getting farther and farther from the expected route.
My phone of course was also on one percent battery. I made a hasty exit at a stop near enough to the subway and felt lucky I knew the way back to the airport without the support of gadgets.
It was tiring but there were perks: I got to use my five dollar coupon at the bakery across from immigration that I got there two weeks ago; the train ride to and from Busan airport is beautiful; I thought again about how grateful I am to be in Busan.
I thought nothing could top the faux fur-lined crocs of a monk riding the subway but I was proven wrong.
A young man was decked from head to toe in Gucci: ugly green and red sneakers, a GG tracksuit, a Mickey Mouse Gucci T-shirt which calls into so many questions the business relationship between the two, and a Gucci cap.
He also had a bag slung across his shoulder and by the red and green straps I knew that too was Guccci. He had glasses but I’m not hip or rich enough to tell if they were a local buy.
His two friends were in brandless gym clothing though one had in Gucci slides that he either borrowed from Mr. G himself or had funneled his paycheck into the only Gucci item he could afford.
Personally I don’t like modern name brands for name brand sake. They broadcast neither quality nor style; they are made in the same factory by the same (potentially slave) labor as the Walmart store brand.
I do appreciate his loyalty but no one can convince me that an overpriced tracksuit is any more stylish than the crushed velvet warmup set of a Jersey Shore DJ.