Helter Skelter in the Summer Swelter: My Last Months in Korea

These past couple months in Korea have had such violent ups and downs that it was crazy enough to live through,  never mind write about it.  Here’s a brief rundown.

At the end of May, two of my few good friends in Korea were high-tailing it out the same week Ryan told me he could no longer come. The summer stretched before me like an endless heat wave of loneliness and my newfound determination flickered and went out. I gave my two months notice to the school. [ yes, two months].

The next week I lost my wallet at the movie theaters and my bike was stolen and somewhere there’s a Korean guy walking around listening to KPOP on my headphones.

The next week there was a MERS outbreak and general panic in Korea that closed schools for a week. Korea is a lot of people in a little space and I guess they’ve been hit hard by viruses in the past.

Not willing to pass up the time off, we bought masks for the subways and took advantage with a trip to the beautiful costal city that is Busan and wistfully imagined living there instead of Seoul. We made new friends at the hostel, visited a cultural village, ate lunch at a gigantic fish market and for once got to travel and experience Korea without worrying about a ten hour school day the next day.

When we returned we were told we’d be working on Saturdays to make up the days. Classic.

The days started heating up and fresh blood arrived to take the spots of the teachers that left, which meant new friendships were made.

Oh and I finally met Grace, the elevator girl! Again! This time for real. She ended up becoming one of closest friends in my short time left in Korea. I kicked myself for not trying to reach out and find her sooner.

Despite the terribly long work weeks  I was doing more than ever in Korea and it turns out my crippling fear of a long, lonely summer in the city didn’t come to pass. The beautiful sunny days picked me up and helped shake off the dust. I was meeting more and more people, Koreans and foreigners alike. In fact it almost felt as if I were finally hitting my stride. Which makes it feel a little weird to be leaving.

But at this point I am just really relieved and thankful that I am leaving with a much more positive experience and outlook on Korea. I lived in this really unique place and culture for five months. I hiked peaks at five different national parks, cheered passionately at Korean baseball games and ate more than my fair share of Korean BBQ (seriously delicious).  I sang at noraebang with friends and perfect strangers until four in the morning, losing my voice to drunk renditions of Red Hot Chili Pepper songs. My tolerance for spicy food increased ten-fold and I find myself craving ttokbokki on the reg. I visited historic Buddhist temples and witnessed the quiet contemplation and prayer of Korean families in the foothills of the mountains.

And in the end the kindness from everyone as I was leaving was overwhelming. I guess I didn’t realize quite how many connections I had made until I was saying goodbye. I’m so thankful for everyone who helped to lift me up and enjoy Korea for everything it’s worth. Gamsamnida.

Sincerely,

Savanna

P.S. I’m currently on my way home (with a brief stop-over in Prague to visit my girlfriend Amanda) and I’m excited about the next chapter. I’ll be starting a new job as a 5th grade teacher in MA this fall, which will be an adventure in and of itself. Then, who knows? Thank you to all my readers and supporters, who’ve cheered me on the whole way, and understood my lack of posts as just a girl trying to get her shit together. See you next time.

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Spas and Spy Games

When I last left you I was vowing to be the force that turned things around here in Korea. I stopped writing because despite being a world away in a foreign land my life consists of the mundane routines similar to everyone else’s, anywhere else. And also because sometimes too much reflection is the quickest way to panicking, and that was the opposite of what I was hoping to do.

Recently all this optimism and endurance started paying off with a sudden surge of what I like to call “why I travel” moments. And those folks, will now be addressed here.

  1. Jimjilbang (This one’s for the books).

“MONEY,” she said, annunciating carefully. My cheeks flushed and I quickly turned and walked back to the lockers, clutching the small hand towel to my naked body. She follows me.

There’s something about an older Korean woman in nothing but black lacy underwear, waiting hands-on-hips for your money, to make you question your life choices.

I pull out ten thousand won.

“Two”, she gestures with her hand.

—Let me pause here and explain. I’m naked because I’m at a jimjilbang, a traditional Korean spa. She’s in black lacey underwear because that’s her uniform.

She’s a ttaemiri. And I’ve come to get scrubbed.

I did my research on Korean Spas before I came. It’s a part of the culture here and I knew I wanted to try it. The men and women have separate baths, and then there is a common room with saunas, massage chairs, napping mats and snacks (heaven? Even better: Jimjilbang). Despite being a conservative people, going to the spa on Sundays with your friends and family and hanging out naked is like, totally a thing. So I went.

I paid my 7,000 won and received a tiny towel and a soft pair of shorts and a t-shirt, light pink, to be used later for the common room. Then I mustered up my courage and went to the lockers to get into my birthday suit.

The final piece to this puzzle is that there are some special services you can pay for when you go to the spa and one of them is a scrub. And my thoughts were, “It’s all or nothing, right?”—Okay, back to my weird life:

I look up at the woman waiting for my cash and gesture to the empty wallet.

“I’m so sorry, I don’t have enough, never mind,” I say hastily, realizing this was going to be tricky to get out of. The ttaemiri is non-plussed and asks me something in Korean. “Card?” I reply, because I have no idea what she said. She takes me by the hand and marches me out to reception. Oh dear God.

Some painful negotiations ensue, ones that involved me standing around red-faced while the receptionist (fully clothed) and the scrub-master (still in uniform) argued about payment. It was all in Korean and so I could only stand there, politely wait and mull over the phrase “died of embarrassment” and wonder how they’d get my body back to the U.S.

But alas, I did not die and we finally came to some sort of understanding. She once again grabs my hand and leads me into the wonder that is jimjilbang.

A wonder, indeed. We entered into a wide room of jacuzzis with varying temperatures and scents, steam rooms, exercise pools and showers. But before I could explore, of course, I had to get what I paid for.

She brings me to a room on the side and I won’t get into details, only that it involved a couple of loofa mitts and twenty minutes of elbow grease. I was, head to toe, soft as a baby’s bottom by the end (ew I hate this phrase but really it’s the best description). I’ll be honest I closed my eyes and enjoyed every second. “THIS,” I thought, “is a damn unique experience”.

  1. The Escape Room

I’m locked in an office with the lights off. With my small flashlight I survey the room, black leather chairs rest in the corner around a small table with a chess board, the pieces splayed out in mid-game. A large desk sits in front of the darkened window, with office supplies neatly organized and a couple of coffee mugs with their last remaining dregs still at the bottom.

I scan the shelves, my light flashing over picture frames and encyclopedias until finally, I find the safe. Time to get to work.

Am I  a super stealthy spy breaking in to my boss’s office to steal important manuscripts? No, but that’s what they told us when they locked us in the room. And that’s what it felt like.

I had never heard of an Escape Room before, but damn it was fun.

We had two teams of four and we were playing against each other and the clock. The other team was locked in their own office. My team and I had one hour to break the safe and discover the code to escape the room, the police were on their way, after all.

Everyone in the group worked individually on some part and then repeatedly came together with information to solve another piece. We deciphered codes and solved puzzles, discovered secret messages in invisible ink, each clue taking us to the next.  Alex discovered some chess pieces were stuck to the board: B7, G2. Zach grabbed the encyclopedia’s with those titles and found messages inside. Amber revealed numbers on the bottom of the coffee cups, when you tilted the coffee away. We used those later to enter the code on a key safe hidden behind the curtains. We worked meticulously, adrenaline pushing us forward, occasionally high-fiving when another part was solved.  We only paused once to say “Guys, how cool is this?” and then we were back at it, racing to beat the other team.

The count down on the clock read 23:00 minutes when we entered the touch code on the door handle and it swung open. The other team hadn’t escaped yet, an uproarious celebration followed.

The staff was watching on the cameras and they were just as excited as we were , “You guys solved everything so fast! I was like, oh wow I’m not giving them any hints. You were close to the record!”

We couldn’t stop talking about how fun it was. And truly it was. Point for you, Korea.

(Actually they are everywhere. Look and see if one is nearby and take your friends or family for a different kind of night out. You won’t regret it.)

  1. Buddha’s Birthday

This post is getting absurdly long so I’ll save this story for another day. Give you something to come back for.

Gamsams for reading.

Sincerely,

Savanna

Beondegi Anyone?

Yesterday I went on a hike with some friends from school and someone they knew from church. Peter, as he’s called, has been living in and out of Korea for quite some time, so he was more than comfortable getting around and best of all, he spoke Korean. There’s nothing like having a tour guide you can blindly follow. We hopped on a couple buses and walked through some Bucheon neighborhoods until we found the mountain(s) we were looking for. It was a beautiful, 75 degree Saturday afternoon and everything was green green green.

City View2 Mountain Selfie

mountain selfie ^^

Korea2

Afterwards we walked back into Bucheon and Peter kept leading the way. I started getting concerned though when he would ask,”Okay, left or right, who wants to choose?” But turns out even without much of a planned route he knew where we were going. And eventually we found ourselves at the Hans river where we enjoyed a little jazz music and the views. And the street food. Sorta.

Hans River bugs2

Beondegi or silk worms.

Bugs

Waterfall

Eight hours of exploring with good company. It was a little slice of adventure exactly when I needed it.

Sincerely,

Savanna

P.S. How cute is my cactus though?

Cactus2

May Resolutions

A couple weeks ago I had my resignation letter printed out and a list of reasons written furiously in my journal of why I was leaving Korea. But Monday came and went and I didn’t do it. Something about it didn’t feel quite right to me. I looked at the faces of my students each day and cringed a little thinking about handing them over to some stranger. I considered what would be next, what it would take to get another good job and all the effort I had put into getting here and felt exhausted just thinking about it. Above all, I kept thinking that if I gave up on this then what did that mean for who I am and who I want to be. I had this sinking feeling that perhaps I would lose the confidence to ever travel again.

I had to do some hard self-reflection and I came to the conclusion that I was waiting for my situation to change and it wasn’t going to. Korea wasn’t going to change. The job wasn’t going to change.  So I would have to. I could do better.

So I said my goodbyes to Don Draper and put down the Netflix. I bought scented candles and a colorful cactus plant for my apartment. I splurged on some sweet new Birkenstock sandals and summer dresses (retail therapy, am I right?). I dragged my ass out to the park every night for a run and I took the time and effort to buy real groceries, veggies and all.

Side note- I asked my kindy if they knew what a cactus was the other day: “Yes,” Roy told me confidently, puffing out his chest in an imitation of the superhero, “Cactus America”.

I stopped hating my apartment and vowed to clean it a million times if I had to, I would get it to a place where I could love it. I started learning the Korean alphabet so I can at least read the signs, even if I don’t know what they mean. I finally mastered “Hello” confidently and can stop mumbling whenever I am greeted. “Annyeonghaseyoooo!”

I’m trying to be more conscious about handing things to people with two hands (one hand place on the inside of the elbow). Anything I can do to improve my daily interactions. It’s true Koreans don’t like outsiders, but I know they appreciate a little effort.

Maybe this isn’t some grand travel adventure like the one I had in mind, but I am still here, living on my own in a foreign city. I can do this. I can work towards being the person I want to be. I can adult.

Especially in these new sandals.

Sincerely,

Savanna

For Your Viewing Pleasure

Here is a taste of what my little people and I have been up to for the past couple months. I was recently invited to see the website on which these pictures are posted for the parents and selected the following few gems (out of the hundreds) :Kindy

kindy6 Kindy2 Kindy3 Kindy4

I teach four classes but spend the most time with this kindergarten class every morning. I never imagined enjoying them as much as I do. They are the best part of my days. “Who loves you?” I ask when they line up for lunch. “Teacha does!” they grin. You betcha.

The Doctor Will See You Now. Like, Right Now.

Okay, so obviously with my last post I hit rock bottom. I was sick, miserably so, and my loneliness and frustration with Korea came pouring out of me like an oozing sore.

On Friday I finally went to the doctors. I had been putting it off because I imagined the hassle that would come with getting an appointment, explaining myself to a doctor who most likely wouldn’t speak English, and getting medication. The office was closed by the time I got out of work each day and getting up early was the last thing my sick body wanted to do. But after a week I was fed up and went on my lunch break.

Enter the miracle that is the Korean medical system.

I walked in the office and asked to see the doctor. They took my alien registration card and asked me to wait. Less than FIVE minutes later I was in his office explaining my symptoms. He examined me and told me in broken English that I had an infection in my lungs and also the common cold. He gave me a prescription and I walked out to pay for the visit. A grand total of four dollars. I took an elevator down to the pharmacy and wa-la! I had a week’s worth of SIX different pills to be taken morning and night. Another grand total of eight dollars. I even had time to get a sandwich at Subway afterwards. I was stunned.

I took the pills with my lunch and by five o’clock I was truly feeling like a brand new woman. Unbelievable. I was so giddy to be feeling even the slightest bit better I decided to go for a walk at the park after work. A decision I quickly regretted and cut short to go back to my apartment, take the pills again and pass out.

Isn’t that the most efficient thing you’ve ever heard of? It took twenty minutes for goodness sake! It would take that long of a phone call just to make an appointment in the States.

Anyways, being sick had a huge impact on my mental health and perspective. Being healthy again quickly reminded me that life isn’t so bad. Yes my apartment is shitty, but it’s free and it’s mine. Yes, they take an absurd amount of photos at my school, but some of them are pretty cute.

Yes, Korea is definitely not what I was expecting it to be, but that’s life. I was strong enough to come out here and try, and each new experience helps me grow. I am thankful for a healthy body, a loving family and the opportunities life presents me with. I am thankful for sunny spring days and skype dates with my boyfriend, who doesn’t mind if I am blowing my nose through most of it. I am thankful for the few friends I have made here, sharing my struggle and lifting me up with kind words and good company. And I am thankful for you, readers, for your kind support and encouragement.

I’m not sure how much longer I will be here, but for now I am taking each day as it comes and making the best of it; something we are all doing, somewhere, somehow.

Sincerely,

Savanna

A Woeful Wednesday

On Wednesday I was sick as a dog. I went to school with a deep cough and enough snot to empty out your freshly opened tissue box. I didn’t call in sick because well, that’s not really a thing here. My school allows three sick days and if you take them they insist on taking you to the doctors themselves. You better be dead or dying because your boss will be waiting outside to hear the diagnosis. They don’t have substitutes I guess. My school is a private academy. It’s a business. We fudge grades so parents will be happy and rush through advanced arts and crafts projects so there’s time for the photo op at the end. I’m not kidding.

“Look we’re making waffles!” ( I made waffles. They’re 5 years old for goodness sake.)

“Look we celebrate St. Patty’s day!” (They gave each kid a green balloon and a shamrock headband.)

“Look we made Easter Baskets!” ( 7 oragami baskets in 20 minutes. The kids put the stickers on.)

“Look at the pretty white English teacher working with your kids!”

Now, I’m not singing my own praises, it’s widely known Korean’s are lookists and your chances of getting a job increase ten-fold if you’re attractive. South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world. It’s a common high school graduation gift for most girls. It’s why they ask for an intro video and multiple photos with your application. Glad I made the cut but now hundreds of photos of me posing with each individual child are on some website somewhere for the Korean parents to comment on. Yikes.

Since it’s such an expensive private school, the main thing is keeping the parents happy. Us teachers have little input. The Korean staff and administration handle it all, and then speak to us if there is a problem. “Why didn’t you sign the kid’s homework?”

“Because he didn’t do it?”

“Okay but then he did it afterwards, you should just sign.”

Whenever my kids fail a test they retest with the Korean helper teachers the next day and come back with one hundreds. I mean really?

ANYWAYS there I am snotting all over myself at the start of my nine hour school day (yes, nine), maintaining little-to-no control over my classes and being too tired to care, when my boss asks to see me.

Now, I’ve mentioned a couple of times my apartment is pretty rough. Originally I was resigned to that fact but when I eventually got to see all of my coworkers apartments I realized I REALLY got the short stick. I knew that having a nice place to come home to would improve my general outlook and mental health, so I asked to be moved.

I asked a couple of weeks ago and so when she wanted to speak with me I knew it would probably be about that.  And it was.

She admitted in broken English that my apartment was very old and needed repairs.  And then she tried very hard to explain why it would not be possible for me to switch. Or that if I really wanted to it would cost somewhere around five hundred dollars.

I just thought to myself, that money would be better spent towards a flight home. Then I went back to my kindy kids, handed out crayons, sat down and stared at absolutely nothing while trying not to cry. Only 7 hours of the day left.

Sincerely,

Savanna