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February 16, 2012 1 Comment
January is, by definition, a month of firsts, but for me, February has been much the same. Here are some firsts that I’ve experienced in the past six weeks.
My First Sick Day I’ve avoided taking sick days for three reasons. First, my Korean co-workers never take them. My supervisor had a car accident, while pregnant and she didn’t take a full sick day. She came in and worked a half day. Granted, it was a fender bender, but still. In North America you’d go home just to mellow out after that. Not ’round these parts.
Secondly, it’s a pain in the ass for my co-workers. There are no extra bodies to cover the work load when someone is off sick or on vacation. We all just have more work to do. This means either teaching more classes, having groups of kids combined into totally unmanageable super-size classes, or both. Usually both. I’ve hated doing it so I avoid putting my colleagues through it if I can help it.
Lastly, we’re supposed to bring a doctor’s note. Besides the fact that when you’re feeling sick enough to stay home, the last thing you want to do is haul your ass out of bed to go to a doctor, the language barrier is also a potential issue. Fortunately, for the most part, doctors here speak some English because many medical text books use English terminology. Also it’s very competitive in med school so most of them try to stand out in other ways, like being impeccable English speakers. However, before you get to a doctor you have to run the gauntlet that is dealing with the nursing and admin staff.
Till now all my doctor’s appointments here have been in Seoul at the International Clinic where everyone (admin staff included) speaks English. But that’s a 4-hour round trip trek (by transit) and not feasible on a sick day. So last week I took myself to the doctor’s office on the fourth floor of the building where I work and made enough hand signals and grunts at the receptionist that she was able to figure out that I had a cold and I wanted to see a doctor. Once that was figured out, she got me to the blood pressure machine and then was horrified when I almost took off my jacket in the waiting room to reveal…a tank top.
It’s a funny thing, Korean women will wear booty shorts and skirts that are scandalously short, but they will never show off their chests. I don’t think of a tank top as showy, but I have a much bigger rack than the average Korean woman so it sort of immediately looks scandalous if I’m not dressed pretty conservatively. In any case, it was amusing how many times the nurses sought to cover me up during my visit. Eventually I managed to leave with my doctor’s note in hand. Surprisingly, it was not as stressful as I had imagined it would be.
Club Hopping I have never been one for clubbing. I have long refused to contend with coat checks in the winter so that nixed clubbing from about October to May in Toronto. And in the summer months I just sort of found other reasons not to go. Not wanting to feel like a slab of meat on sale, being the main one. But something about being in Korea has changed all that. Maybe it’s that all my friends here are younger than I am, but I doubt it. Some of them have told me that they refused to club at home too. I think it’s just this thing all we expats get caught up in where we feel free and so we do stuff we just didn’t do at home. Like taking up a martial art, visiting art galleries, cutting our hair in weird styles, wearing things we’d never wear at home, and, apparently, clubbing.
Not only have I been willing to club in the dead of winter (though admittedly the dead of winter hasn’t been that cold here), I have worn scandalously short skirts and dresses while doing so and I have let a strange man grind up against me and just kind of laughed it off rather than being mortified. In a total change of form I decided that for my 29th birthday (version 7.0) I wanted to go dancing.
Let me back up here. I need to tell the next story, in part, because it will explain how I met my new friend Kim, but mostly because I think it’s an awesome story. There are few places to get plus size clothing in Seoul and one of the most popular ones is called OK BT. OK BT has a communal dressing room. Actually, to call it a dressing room is to overstate matters tremendously. It’s a stock room that doubles as a communal dressing room. Necessarily, you bond pretty quickly with the other women in the dressing room if you speak the same language. I’ve met a lot of really lovely women in that dressing room but often they live nowhere nearby. Foreign women come from far and wide to shop there. A couple weeks ago, however, I hit the jackpot in that I met a really cool girl and she lives in Seoul, which, while not super close, is close enough. And we hit it off. She said to me: “Can we keep in touch, because you’re the first woman I’ve met in a long time who isn’t bitchy. That’s rare here.” I love her to death.
Kim is a fellow Canadian who has taught in Korea for years. She is older than me but is wonderfully young at heart. And she’s really social which is great. She turned out to be game to go dancing with me for my birthday, so she and I and another friend, Tracy, headed to Hongdae (the club district) this past weekend, in search of some places Kim had been to before. As it turned out, it’s been a while since she went dancing in Hongdae so most of the places she’d been to were gone. We ended up trying out a few places to find one that wasn’t a complete let down. Hence, my first time club hopping.
One of our stops was a place called Ska 2 which featured stripper poles that you could dance on if you felt led.
Tracy and I commented that we found it odd/horrifying. Kim said “Am I weird, I don’t find it odd at all.” She’s been in Korea for nine years. Enough said.
At the beginning of the night we asked a couple foreign guys for directions to a club called Hodge Podge (which turned out to now be a bar rather than a club) and they told us they were heading to another club if we wanted to join them. The fella who told us this had an accent so we all thought he’d said a few different things: fiat, Kia, fear, among others. We opted to keep searching for Hodge Podge though. Later that night we strolled past a place called Via and finally cottoned on that it was the same joint. We checked it out and I liked it. I only regret that we didn’t join them in the first place. They were cute.
Sexual Misadventure No I’m not pretending that I was a virgin before I got here, but when I arrived, sex just wasn’t initially a priority. Also I have turned avoiding eye contact with strange men into an Olympic event, so it’s really hard for me to get picked up. Not that men in Incheon are trying to pick me up anyway. I have to go to Seoul for that.
Eventually, however, I decided a little sexual healing might be nice. I will not get into the gory details, but I will tell you about the most hilarious road block to having sex here: condoms, or rather the lack thereof.
While men who want to get down have been plentiful once I started looking, men who come equipped with their own birth control/sexual safety devices are strangely hard to find. I have yet to see a penis that belongs to a Korean man, but rumor has it that foreign men here have a hard time fitting into Korean-made condoms. In my attempts to break my celibacy streak, I have met two men with this very issue. Unfortunately one of them did not bother to procure American-made condoms from the air force base where he works. Epic stupidity. The second managed to scrounge up some Japanese-made condoms at the convenience store, but let’s just say it was a tight fit.
Apparently, American-made condoms can be had at sex shops in the foreign district (Itaewon) and at some locations of major supermarkets like Home Plus and EMart, but no one I’ve met has bothered to make sure they had them on hand. What I’ve found amusing and horrifying is that in both cases the dudes asked me if I had any better condoms on hand. As if I’m the one with the penis in the room.
Joining Everything After months of fighting the flow, I finally conceded that a reasonable social life is only to be had by being prepared to go to Seoul regularly. And that’s not necessarily easy. Even when I’m willing to do the 4-hour round trip commute, the subway system stops running around midnight and it’s about a $35-45 cab ride to get home from Seoul. But it dawned on me that being in Seoul makes me happy in a way that hanging out in Incheon just never does. In Incheon you can eat, get shitfaced and go to norebang. That’s about it. In Seoul you can do everything else. So I started joining things.
I’ve been to a book club meeting and really enjoyed the group, even if I hated our first read (1Q84 by Haruki Murakami). I bumped into one of the girls from the club when I was out for my birthday and we hugged like we’d been friends for years. It was so neat. It was incredibly refreshing to have an intellectually stimulating and challenging conversation with a table of people. And the club is called Books and Booze–you can’t really go wrong there.
I also joined a writing collective but so far it seems like it’s defunct as the organizer is no longer able to organize. I contacted him a couple times about taking over duties for the next six months but haven’t heard from him. In the meantime some of us in the group are trying to connect and form smaller location-based groups so we’ll see if anything comes of that. However, one great thing that has come of joining this group is that I also joined their facebook page where I saw an announcement for a regular open mic night in Seoul. I went to it a couple weeks ago, read a short fiction piece and got a good reception. I’ll be going again this Sunday. While there, I also met a guy who might be able to network me into a good job for next year. So, win.
As I’ve thrown down about a zillion dollars on cameras since I got here, I’ve also been looking to find a photography club where I could improve my skills. So far, no luck, but there’s a dude who lives in my neighbourhood who’s agreed to go on some photography walks with me and teach me a thing or two. Also a win.
Lastly I’ve joined a music appreciation group that just goes and sees live music together. I’m going to a traditional Korean music concert on the 25th of this month that I think will be really cool. I’m looking forward to meeting people in that group as well.
As if to repay me for taking this leap of faith, the universe has provided me with two people (Kim being one of them) who are cool with me crashing at their places here and there if I stay in Seoul. So even more winning.
It’s taken longer than I would have liked but I feel like I’m finally starting to find “my people.” And frankly, maybe I would have been less grateful for them if I’d found them any earlier. Should I stay another year here, I feel like I’ll have a good network in Seoul already in place, which is fantastic.
This is not to say that everything is perfect right now.
Cutting My Losses One thing that’s been a real first for me is to make a decision about cutting my losses a lot more quickly. The last couple months have seen my job satisfaction take a serious dip. This was never a dream job, but the shenanigans of management have really gone into overdrive since the beginning of December.
What makes the situation harder is that this is not isolated. It’s not just one bad hagwon–it’s the hagwon system. It’s a set-up that is systemically flawed by making parents customers with almost unlimited bargaining power. Parents get mad if their kids don’t advance to the next level at the appropriate speed, even if advancing is the worst thing possible for their kid. If they feel like you’re the reason their child is not advancing they just move their kid to another hagwon. So the management is always at least as concerned with retaining the customer as they are with teaching the child–if not more so.
All that aside, it is simply not a given that your contract will be respected. In addition, all kinds of shit gets thrown at you last minute with no regard for how it affects the teacher, and thus the students.
I have vacillated between trying even harder to make this work and just phoning it in. It’s difficult though, in that, if I half-ass this, it’s not my inane managers who suffer, it’s the innocent kid in the middle who does. I’ve felt enough discouragement about the issue to prompt me to enter a short non-fiction piece in a contest about feeling like I can’t call myself a teacher at all. And then today, after having a discussion with a friend about just not giving a shit, I had some of the most engaged and successful classes I’ve had in weeks. Maybe because I didn’t give a shit? It’s hard to say. At this point I just try to take it one day at a time.
One thing I am clear on, however, is that I do not want to live in Incheon for another year and I do not want to work for a typical hagwon. I’m now starting to pound the pavement in search of a hagwon with 1) low turnover (indicating happy foreigners) that is 2) in Seoul. If I can’t find a hagwon that meets those two requirements, I won’t stay here another year. That may sound simple and reasonable to you. That’s a huge change of head space for me.
The version of me from 2010 would have given this three more years of discomfort to play out. Maybe more. Until finally conceding that continued stability wasn’t worth being miserable. The new me says “fuck that noise” and realizes that if it’s not making me happy it’s not really worth continuing to do long term. I’m not saying there isn’t a time and a place for sticking it out. This just isn’t that time or that place.
As I said, I feel like I’ve finally started to find my people and the things I enjoy about Korea, so I would like to be able to stay. I’d like to pay down more debt and have more of a chance to travel. But whether I leave here after a year or I stay for five, I will do it with no regrets. To be thinking that way is an enormous first for me.
As I said, things are not perfect, but for now, it’s really cool to be having so many firsts.
October 14, 2011 4 Comments
Tell me you remember this old song by the Partland Brothers. Every time someone inadvertently says Seoul City (which happens when speaking about the subway line) this song goes through my head. In any case, as promised, over and over, without delivering, some pictures from a few of my trips into Seoul. I’ll add more albums in time, but here’s a taste.
The first album is pictures from a couple of visits to the foreigner district of Seoul – Itaewon.
The second album is from a quick jaunt to the old palace.
I also have some pictures to upload from life here in Incheon soon. Enjoy!