First blog entry and I’m already behind. Welcome to Korea. It’s the morning of day three of the latest phase of my life, teaching English to Korean children on the island of Jeju. I have a contract with the Korean Public Office of Education’s English Practice in Korea (EPIK) program to teach conversational English to elementary school students.
As if packing up my life and moving to a country that I’ve never been to, don’t know anyone and can’t speak a word of the language for a year wasn’t challenging enough, I brought along my cat, Sammy. Dealing with a cat on a 12 -hour plane ride was not my first choice, but he’s 11 years old and we are very bonded. I don’t know which of us would miss the other the most if we were separated for a year. I know he’s not much for writing, and he never calls….Anyway, he was a real trooper on the plane, never let out a peep the whole trip, crammed in a carrier at my feet. I kept checking to see if he was still alive. He didn’t eat, drink or use the “bathroom” the whole trip. Going through security at Seattle and again in Seoul I had to take him out of the carrier to go through the security gate. He just clung to me in a way that made everyone smile.
I must note that the trip on Asiana Airlines from Seattle to Seoul was fantastic. The seats were comfortable, albeit a bit snug for my American-sized rear, the food was good and served with real metal utensils, the wine and beer were still complimentary, and the flight attendants were beautiful and ultra-polite. Truly a world away from flying the surly skies of any U.S. based airline.
There were two other Americans going to teach English on Jeju on the flight, J and K. J is going to teach in a remote area and I may never see him again, but K I will see every day. Funny thing, she is from Seattle and we had connected via the Jeju foreigners message board online. We met for the first time in the airport and when we got to Jeju found we were going to be living in the same apartment building, right next door to each other. Small world. I am used to traveling alone, but it was nice to have someone to share the experience with.
After landing in Seoul, I was very nervous about what the quarantine inspection process would be like but it turned out to be all that worry for nothing. The polite quarantine officer barely glanced at the paperwork before sending us on our way. One stamp and we were officially in Korea! The requirements for bringing a pet to Korea are pretty lax compared to other countries. There is no quarantine period, so no surrendering your baby for weeks or months of solitary confinement. All that is needed is a current rabies shot and a health certificate. After breezing through customs and quarantine inspection I took a shuttle bus to a cross-town airport for the domestic flight to Jeju.
On the hour-long flight the small plane was crammed with Korean Boy Scouts, apparently returning from an outing on the mainland. It was like riding a school bus full of high-spirited 10-year-olds without their parents. Two girls accompanying the group wore Playboy-type bunny ears. Why, I don’t know. At least the flight was short. My “group” and I didn’t realize until we checked in for the flight that I was on an earlier flight than they were, so we parted ways. I was glad to arrive an hour earlier anyway.
I was greeted at the airport by “Jimmy,” who said my apartment at the Foreign Language High School wasn’t ready but that he would take me to a temporary one in the same building, where I would stay “overnight.” Overnight turned into two days.
After 15 hours of traveling it was disappointing to be lodged in a small, dorm-like room whose previous tenant had moved out hastily that same day, doing no cleaning on her way out. As we pulled up to the building, which is in a rural area about five miles outside of town, the strong aroma of cow “fertilizer” filled the air. And the apartment. But, dirty apartment and bad odor aside, it was good to be in Jeju – finally!
I let Sammy out of his carrier and he told me all about his trip while checking out his newest digs. Poor guy. We’ve moved a dozen times in his life. I filled his food and water bowls, put my familiar sheets on the bed and he knew he was home again.
Even though I arrived first, I got put in the temporary apartment while K was given her permanent one down the hall. I’m jealous that she is already decorating her apartment, while I’m living out of my suitcases. Oh – and there’s no hot water because apparently the gas was turned off when the apartment was “vacated.” So I had a cold shower my first morning.
Invigorated by that bathing experience, K and I headed into town to meet up with Jimmy to get our health checks and meet our Korean co-teachers.
The way the English program works here is that native English speakers (that’s me) pair up with a Korean teacher to team teach the classes. I knew I was going to be teaching at two elementary schools, but that’s it. The EPIK program seems pretty disorganized, with information coming in only at the last possible minute. Even then it’s subject to change. Also, for some reason a few of us Jeju teachers were not “invited” to attend the supposedly mandatory two-week orientation held previously for all EPIK teachers, in Seoul. Talk about flying blind.
I met up with my two co-teachers, one of whom is 8 months pregnant and speaks English fairly well, the other much younger and not so fluent. I had hoped they would finally clue me in on just what was expected of me in the classroom, but they seemed more concerned with discussing the bus schedule and whether I should bring my own lunch or eat Korean food in the school cafeteria. I think I will be just talking about myself for the first week, but I also might be cleaning up after a construction project at the school. It wasn’t clear. Koreans are loathe to dispense bad news, I am rapidly discovering.
Between the health check and the teacher meeting we had five hours to kill, so a group of six of us went exploring the environs. We ended up spending the entire time in two huge department stores, E Mart and Lotte Mart (pronounced low-tay mar-tah). They are basically WalMarts with an Asian twist. If you want a quick culture lesson, just head for the nearest E Mart. Things were familiar and yet foreign at the same time. The baby aisle had Pampers, but it also had tiny “training” chopstick, with loops for holding baby’s fingers in the right place. So cute! There is a big Thanksgiving-type holiday coming up this month, and Spam, yes, Spam, gift baskets were all the rage (see photo).
We marveled at how heavily staffed the stores were. In addition to greeters at every entrance, every display had a person to bag your peaches, select your fish, or guide you to the soy sauce. The produce department alone must have had 50 people working. You literally could not turn around without bumping into someone there to help you.
K and I went back the next day to do some real shopping, although I didn’t want to buy much since I was not in my permanent home and didn’t know what kind of supplies I would need. She is a vegetarian with a shellfish allergy but is very excited about cooking local foods, so she loaded up on all kinds of “exotic” things. I got instant curry noodles, milk and nectarines. I plan to go back today after I move into my apartment – and take a long hot shower!