Sunday, October 29, 2006

Imagine walking into an Applebees and having every person there turn around and stare. Some will just take a quick glance. Others will hold the gaze for a good 30 seconds as they scope you out top to bottom. If you're white in South Korea, that is your life everyday and everywhere. When I first got here, I've got to admit, I enjoyed the staring. Hell, I'm an American and I took delight in seeing what I intially saw as looks of admiration and fascination. But those Korean eyes have begun to wear on me. I can now see the skepticism burning beneath that glare. It's a questioning gaze, one that wonders what someone so different, someone so far removed from the culture is doing in a city that oozes Korean at every pore. It's that look that also symbolizes what it means to be a Westerner in Korea. Sure, you can come, heck, you can stay for a few years. But this will never be your home. Never even feel like your home. And it won't ever. There are now days when I just want to see a familiar face, a white face, anything that looks like home, anything to bring a sense of comfort among the massive sea of Koreans. In a way, this place robs you of your identity, your place in a community and a member of a cohesive society. You are an outsider. Something to be looked at, not something to be accepted. You do not assimilate. You adjust, you adapt, you cherish the experience, but you always remain just a white face in a foreign land.

I've also realized that in Korea, if there's a problem, something that would be a minor incovenience at home, it generally turns into a monumental struggle. As I mentioned, I burned out my computer plug when I put it into a high voltage outlet. If that happened at home, I would have logged onto or checked out ebay, bought a new plug and had it in my hands within a couple days. But here, it's like trying to sit through 4 root canals in one day while a few toddlers are hitting you in bad places. I went to the electronics market yesterday, yeah, the one that's the largest in Asia, and well, they clearly did not have anything with the word Dell on it. The final straw was when I found a booth that literally sold only computer plugs and when I opened my bag and showed the guy my computer, he took both his hands, placed them on his head and said "Oh God." Ok, fine, I'll just pay the shipping costs and have Dell ship the new plug to Korea. Not so fast. Dell does not ship things to Korea. I must first have the product shipped to an American address and then get it sent here. Not cool. So that's where I'm at now. It's on its way to East Islip, now I'll just wait for the news from Mom about how the post office needs six stamps and my firstborn for customs. It will finally get here in December, I'll plug it in and nothing. The computer was shot all along. Just wait. It will happen. And will I cry? Absolutely.

I'm still learning many of the Korean traditions and etiquette. I have mixed feelings on many of them. Some are just great concepts that America should adapt immediately, others have no place in a civilized society. My favorite is the service bell in restaurants. You do not wait for anything. You ring the bell and bam, there's a Korean at your service. You never have to worry about losing your buzz in between beers. You can get a steady flow going all night long. It's also considered rude to tip anybody in Korea. From a selfish standpoint, it's awesome and it saves me a lot of cash. But at the same time, I think there's a real place for tipping in society. There have been a number occasions here where I've really wanted to tip someone for providing excellent service but hey, I can't go around acting all American. Another great concept: the motion sensor light. They are everywhere here and it's just so damn efficient. For example, the hallway of my apartment is always dark until someone triggers the sensor. The light goes on when needed and stays off when it's not. Sounds good to me.

As for traditions I'm no fan of, the top one would have to be the "you must order food whenever you go to a bar or restaurant." It's like, hey, I love food and all, but sometimes I just want to bar hop and sample all of my favorite beverages and if I'm forced to eat some Korean crap at each place, I'm going to go broke and gain about 150 pounds. And there's all the what I call the "Respect Old People" traditions. Everything is about age here. If someone is older than you, you respect them at all times, pure and simple. At least that's what the book says. For example, when pouring a drink for someone older, you always need to use two hands. I usually forget to do this because, well, I'm drinking. I'm a year older than Erika so whenever she uses one hand to pour me something, I say "Two hands, bitch." To which she appropriately tells me to f-off.

I'll dish on more of the traditions at a later date. My current Korea mood: cautiously optimistic. The last three weeks have felt like three years. I've done more and experienced more in 22 days than I did in all of the two years after college. But when things get rough, they can get really rough. And when you just want to be with the people you know best and they are 7,000 miles away, it can wear on you. I have no regrets, though. I'm happy to be here and I plan on riding this wave until the end.

(Photos- top-Erika and me in the creepy horse head and some students during the party)

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Whatever was messing with my head yesterday seems to have passed. That whole thing was pretty surreal and I had no idea feeling something like was even possible. But anyway, I am still satisfied with the experience here so far and there's plenty I have to look forward to over the next year.

I moved into the new place on Monday and it's really pretty sweet. Smaller, yes, but so much newer. I can still fit one couch in there, it has AC and there's no mosquitos. Although that may have something to do with the fact I refuse to open any windows, ever. The shower head actually is higher than my head. There's card access to get into the building. Luxury, baby. So yeah, I am very happy with the new place. Only problem so far is that I destroyed my computer plug. Someone forgot to mention the top socket is 250V, and my computer can only handle 240V, so that was terrible. Hopefully I can pick up a new one at what is supposed to be the largest electronics market in Asia tomorrow.

Things have gotten better with my classes. I made a lot of kids sit in the back corner this week and I spanked a few more. Some of them just refuse to respond to anything, so that's an ongoing battle. I got destroyed this week with the Halloween Party at school. We had to stay late last night to plan for it and then the actual event today was brutal. I wrote a scary story to tell the kids, but my boss insisted on translating it into Korean as I told it, which just made me want to strangle here. There's just no way to make anything scary when someone is there stopping you every two seconds so they can translate. My costume, a giant horse head, was a big hit though and I do have some good photos. Once I get my computer back in shape, I will post them.

It looks like it's definite that both of the other foreign teachers are leaving at the end of next month. So I guess I'll be the senior teacher come December, which is really scary. I still can't get to work on my own and I still would be waiting for my first meal here if it weren't for Erika. I need a poker fix real bad and this Internet Cafe can make the cards really big. And man, that's so hot. Till next time...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Something hit me today. Just a wave of sadness. And it's not one of those things where you're not really sure why you're feeling down. It's very simple and every inch of my body feels it. I miss my family. Even though I lived in Richmond for pretty much 6 years, I always felt like I was still somehow connected to home, connected to my family. I don't feel that anymore and that just leaves a part of me empty all of the time. When I was talking to my Dad on the phone last night, I wanted to hop on the bus and head straight for the airport. I wanted to be sitting at home on the couch playing Madden with Danny. I wanted to be back at that party over the summer where Kevin and John were there. Anything, anywhere involving my family. Don't get me wrong, I miss all of my friends dearly. But this place, probably any foreign land, changes you and it doesn't take long. It's already given me such a deep appreciation for everything I have at home and everyone I love.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The cultural and language clashes are usually either really frustrating or just hilarious. Bender and I experienced both sides of the spectrum in about a half hour tonight. We managed to buy tickets to World Trade Center after a few awkward looks from the cashier. I think Bender finally got someone to understand when he said "9-11". We then had about an hour to kill so we went to grab a beer around the corner. In Korea it's pretty much illegal to purchase just a beer at a restaurant without ordering some sort of food plate to go with it. We ordered a couple of cheap beers and the only thing that looked half decent on the menu was the "French Fried." The silkworm larvae wasn't gonna do the job. Now we weren't expecting to be served up with American fries, but what arrived at our table may just have been the nastiest combination of foods I've ever seen. Basically, it was a tray of corn covered in cheese. Bender took one bite and said "I'm done." I made it a couple more, but then the gag reflex started to kick in and that was the end of that adventure. Yeah, that one fell on the frustrating side of things. I was hungry.

When we got back to the theater, we handed one of the doormen our tickets. He immediately began to smile. And this wasn't the "aww foreigners" kind of smile. That bastard knew exactly what was about to go down. He led us to our seats. Hold on, I mean seat. It was a love seat. When we purchased our tickets, there were red seats and green seats. We didn't know the difference so we just picked two next to each other on the green side. Yeah, they were next to each other alright. There were couples all around us making out. Really, it was just two seats together with no armrest in between, but it was easily the gayest experience here so far, and also one of the funniest. Luckily once the movie began, we were able to spread out and we each got our own loveseat. I gotta say though, I did miss Bender a little bit when he moved away.

A quick note on the movie, 20 minutes in, I knew I wouldn't be able to handle it. I saw United 93 and it was pretty emotional, but WTC was about 10x that. I think it was a good movie, probably too good for just five years removed. I don't know, Ground Zero is still a massive void and they just found more human remains at the site yesterday. It's still too real. That was the most uncomfortable I've ever been in a movie theater.

Friday night was our first time experiencing Itaewon at night. David, the foreign teacher I work with, lives down there so he showed us around. He showed us too much. Really, the problem is Itaewon does not close. There's usually that point where you're forced to stop drinking because, well, the sun is coming up. When that stop trigger isn't active, things can get messy. The last place we went to, the one that left Bender and I in a coma all day on Saturday, was at a place called Hooker Hill. It was just as sleazy as it sounds. A lot of the bars had girls sitting outside yelling out in Konglish trying to seduce foreigners. Thankfully we avoided those places. But what we unfortunately did not avoid was Polly's Kettle House. All they serve there is Soju Kettle. Soju mixed with Kool-Aid. It tastes pretty damn great. So great that after we left the place at 6 am, Bender and I both tried to get in separate cabs to bring us home. Seems normal, but remember, we don't speak Korean. We both know what station we live out, but Korean is all about pronounciation and damn, I can't even pronounce it right when I'm sober. So we didn't get anywhere. I was also on a bus at some point. I have no idea where I thought I might be going. I finally made it home at 8:30 am. Bender passed out in a cab, lost his debit card and then resumed passing out on the subway. He got home at 11am. It was pretty horrendous. But I feel like we needed to get that night over with. You know, the one where you hit bottom and then the only place to go is up.

Teaching was going great until the end of last week. I feel like I tried too hard in the beginning to be the "cool teacher" and while doing that, I think I missed my best chance to gain the kids' respect. There's only a few classes that are really out of control, but they are driving me crazy and it's kind of ruining the rest of what's been a good experience so far. I'm gonna have to get tougher this week. I might make the bad students sit on the floor during class. In one of the worst classes, where all the boys do no work and just yell all class, I told them I was going to throw them out the window. They said the police officer would come and get me. I told them there's no way he would care. He'd understand. And really, I think he would.

I moving into my new place tomorrow. It's definitely going to be smaller, but I'm so looking forward to it. I've been sleeping with the light on the past few nights just to tame the mosquitoes. The two dogs in the apartment complex bark 24/7. The fruit guy driving around in his van at 9am with his boombox hawking apples never fails to wake me up. It's just got to be better than this. As I was telling Bender earlier, I think tomorrow will be a big day in my Seoul experience. If the apartment is half-decent and I can get back on track with some of these kids, I'm locked and ready to ride out one hell of a year. Otherwise, the long cold winter in Seoul may feel just a bit more colder this year.

(Photos- A Buddhist temple in Anguk (top) and the boys getting silly in Itaewon)

Friday, October 20, 2006

This is what most of my students are doing during class. Actually this kid's English name is, and this is totally serious: psycho killer. Really every other kid at the school has a normal english name except for killer. So anyway, yeah, I took his picture in class today when he was out cold. I couldn't think of a game to play at the end of class, so I just turned the lights off and took pictures of killer. All of the other students loved it.

At the end of every class day, the students who failed their word tests during regular class have to stay late to take a makeup test. These kids are the worst. One of them, who I call "the fat kid," made me hug him last week. Literally, he pushed me up against the blackboard. Yesterday he said North Korea was going to nuke the Statue of Liberty. Then tonight while he's studying, he looks up and goes, "Ryan, I love you." I left the room for a few minutes and while I was gone, fat kid bit another kid. So there was blood. That was awesome. The head boss at the school then took fat kid to another room with the big stick thing and I heard some loud noises for a minute. The weird thing was when they came back out to the classroom both the fat kid and the school director were smiling. I had no idea what was going on.

There was almost a brawl between a drunk Korean guy and this Japanese guy in a suit at this tiny chicken place we ate at tonight. Apparently Koreans hate Japanese people because they destroyed Korea for hundreds of years or something. Whatever.

Sometimes I get annoyed at myself for still wanting more. Like even though I'm across the world in a foreign land experiencing all these new things, I still wonder sometimes if I'm doing anything meaningful with my life. Then I drink six beers.

On the beer note, Erika and David (the British teacher) now have taken a liking to calling me "Granny." Because I don't go out drinking until 4am every night. Every night around midnight, Erika knows I'm going to start checking my watch every couple of minutes, just craving the best part of everyday, sleeptime.

I'm waking up tomorrow at 9, three hours before usual. There's only one thing that could get me up that early: Game 7, baby. I'm breaking into Erika's place, with its luxurious cable, and I'm gonna pop open a cold one. Ok that's not true. But I will be watching the game. If the Mets win, I'm flying home tomorrow night for the Series. Seriously, I might. LETS GO METS!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The mosquitos. Seriously. They are ruining my life. The last two nights I have spent more than 3 hours hunting for them in my room. I hop into bed around 2am. Then the buzzing begins. There's always one. I can kill most of them by just slamming them into the wall. But that one. He's so fast. So crafty. So freakin loud. I flick the light on. He disappears. Doesn't make a sound. The second it gets dark and I make any sort of attempt to engage in sleep, he makes his grand return. Sometimes he's a real bitch. He'll wait a half hour or so, just at that moment when I'm about to enter another world and bam, buzzzzzzz, right in my ear. It took me until 6am last night to finally kill the bastard. Granted, I may be partly to blame as I've been leaving the living window open a couple hours each night so I can steal Erika's internet. But still, it's pretty bad. My students kept pointing to the side of my head today yelling, "teacher teacher." Actually they just yell that constantly but that's not the point.

The whole teaching thing has really progressed quite nicely. I am honestly enjoying being around these kids. Even after I finished teaching today, I played around with a few of the middle school students for a bit. There's always a couple girls in each class who are just angels. The boys are usually another story. One class I had today, all of the boys got zeros on their speaking tests. And they don't care. They just sit there and laugh. And sadly I am not allowed to beat them, despite the intense desire to do so. The Korean teachers do hit them with this stick, which is awesome. I think I teach about 13 different classes each week and I'd say only about three of them really make me want to hang myself. Otherwise, after a week and a half of teaching, I couldn't be happier.

I've started to talk to the Korean teachers in my office a bit more. They're all woman, mostly in their 20s, and I guess they're about 6 of them. They all seem pretty cool, although I think some of them are afraid to talk to me because they're neverous about speaking English to a Westerner.

The one holdup and this is probably the case at a lot of jobs is my boss. She's 37 years old, never been married which in Korea means she's got some serious issues. Whenever we go out after work with her, basically when she finds out we're going out and then tags along, she's always talking about how she's lonely. I think she started crying at the bar table last night. That around the time one of the Korean teachers asked me if I liked Korean girls. Which is a dumb question on the surface, since I wouldn't go someplace where 99.5 percent of the population is one race if I didn't find their members of the opposite sex attractive. But anyway, what she was really asking was whether I wanted to date a Korean girl and I think probably if I'd be willing to marry my boss. When I said I wasn't looking for anything serious and wasn't going to bring a girl home, my boss started with "well, you shouldn't rule anything out. anything can happen." Alright, gross. Oh yeah, my boss also slept with one of the other foreign teachers on his first night in Korea. Now the whole office knows about it and yeah, there was some crying involved with that situation too.

I thought I was moving to a new apartment in a month. But that's gotten moved up rapidly. I think the date is now set for next Monday. The new place with be smaller, probably a studio, but it's supposed to be in better shape than my current one. It's also right next to the Suyu station, the subway stop, which is great, since right now I've got to walk 10 minutes to get there. Only downside is I will probably be seperated from Erika and since there's no chance I can speak in Korean to cab driver and tell him how to get me to work, that could be a dilemma.

Random thought: It's amazing how many people here blame the U.S. for the situation in North Korea. You just want to be like, Are you serious?

Koreans guys have no gaydar. They all carry man purses, which are really women's purses. They walk around with their hands all over each other. Granted, some of them are probably actually gay, but come on, the whole damn country can't be knocking at the back door.

I'll post some and add pictures later, once I drag myself out of this Internet Cafe with the 20 Koreans playing computer games.

Monday, October 16, 2006

I really can't believe I've only been here a week. I only know like five Korean words but I still find myself mumbling them in place of things like "Oh man" or "Ahhh". It's kind of weird, but after hearing a million people speaking the same language everyday, it gets planted in your mind pretty quickly.

So I made it through a week of work and really for the first time in my life, I got to experience that after work beer on a Friday night that tastes like heaven. My boss handed me a giant envelope of cash (the biggest bill here is about $10) on Friday paying back my airfare, which was solid. My apartment is still in pretty poor shape, with the sink leaking and some type of insect digesting my body, but I'm moving in a month so I'm not worried.

Went out Friday night to a new part of town and you know, it really doesn't matter what we did early in the night. All of it was rendered immediately meaningless and boring the second Bender and I wandered into a norebang, a Korean karoake bar, around 3:30am. We were really just looking for a beer or two to kill some time before the subway reopened at 5am, but somehow it became so much more. As we walked downstairs, you could already drunken Korean belting out songs. We grabbed a few beers from the mini fridge near the register, plunked down 15,000 won ($15) on the counter and headed to our own private room. Basically this place can only be described as the best place on earth. Huge red couch, 5 tv screens, 2 microphones, a thousand songs, oh, and two tambourines, can't forget about them. Man, we must have sang at least 20 songs. We're both terrible singers, but there was something about those microphones that make everyone sound like Billy Joel. Yeah, we did sign Piano Man. Koreans kept peering into our room. We must have been really loud. When we left, my throat felt like it had just been run over by a truck. What a great concept, Bender and I are already planning a sequel.

Yesterday we checked out one of the biggest shopping districts in town. Never seen anything like it. So many Koreans, so many stores. If I were a chick, I would have been totally turned on. Last night a Korean bartender blew in my ear. That's all I'll say about last night.

Today Bender I and two of my coworkers went to Lotte World, which is Seoul's version of Disneyworld. It was pretty ridiculous. While on line at one ride, a park worker pointed to Bender in the line, motioned with her hand over her head and lead him off the line. He was too tall to ride. It was hilarious. And also kind of sad since he missed one of the better rides in the park. We also got banned from one ride, one of those giant, get strapped in, go up 500 feet and plunge back down jobs. We tried to bring our beer cups onto the ride. Beer was $7 all you can drink. The guy checking tickets stopped us. Apparently some kid got drunk, forgot to buckle in on a ride and got shot off, ending in, well, his death. I also got my first look at the Korean wave today. They don't just move their hand back and forth in a horizontal motion, they do some sort of sick twisting thing, something I had only seen demonstrated before by really special kids. Literally they had park workers whose only job was to stand at the exit of a ride and do this wave, it looked like it would get painful after about 2 minutes. At the end of the night, a fat sweaty Korean kid made Bender and I take photos with him.

I've been pleasantly surprised by how nice the weather has been here. Hasn't been a drop of rain since I arrived and the temperature stills hits 80 during the day. Of course that will change and I think winter will be even more brutal than in NY, but that's something to cry about later.

I hoping to be better able to post more once I get a reliable source of internet. Right now I'm just picking up a crappy wireless signal. I have to sit with my computer hanging out of the window, which may explain a lot behind all the bugs sleeping with me. Week 2 at Topia English Zone begins tomorrow. Stay strong, America.

(Photos: Top- Lotte World Castle, Middle- Barbie, Erika and Bender, Bottom- Myeong-dong Market)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A new blog, a new job, a new city, a new life really. It just turned Thursday in Seoul. I've been here five days and this is the first chance I've had to breathe. It's all been a complete blur. I took off from JFK friday morning and landed in Seoul at 5pm on Saturday (13 hours later here). I got the sense of the fascination Koreans have with Americans even before the plane took off. I booked my ticket three days earlier so when the ticket agent said sorry, we dont have anymore aisle or windows seats, i was thinking sure that sounds about right. An hour later at the terminal gate, i hear my name called from the gate desk, i get up there and with about 300 Koreans with their gazes fixed square on me, the guy up there says here sir, we found an aisle seat for you. Okkk, thank you. The flight was 15 hours long, but the food was good, couldn't fall asleep but well, let's just say thank god for xanax. When the plane landed, I wondered out into the airport looking for my name and yeah, it was not there. Some guy kept asking me if I was Joey Miller. After an hour, I checked my passport just to make sure I wasn't Joey Miller. My boss, who had been drinking all day, eventually had me paged over the PA and we took off on a bus headed for Seoul. Hmm, I think as a new advanced feature in the new blog, I actually space things out instead of making it all one giant paragraph so here...

Arrived at my apartment, dropped off my stuff. I could have passed out cold right then, but hey first night, might as well get silly. A half hour into dinner with my boss and a couple coworkers, I had already experienced plenty of the Korean version of really cheap liver-destroying juice, soju. It's basically vodka that Koreans drink as if it were a bottle of poland spring. Afterwards Erika (one of the two other foreign teachers at my school)and I went to bar just around the block from the apartment. I think I went to bed at 4am, just about 30 hours after the plane took off from JFK. You know how sometimes you wake up after a night of drinking and need to do a couple double takes to figure out where you are. Well, I did about a hundred.

On Sunday I took my first trip on the subway, which is really easy to use and all the stops are listed in Korean and English. Met up with Bender in Itaweon, which is basically the place where the few thousand white people and military guys in Seoul hang out. It wasn't nearly as Western as I expected though. You go Chinatown in NYC and you have a tough time telling what continent you're on. Sure, Itaweon has a few white people walking around, but it's still swarming with Koreans. The English signs around the city are all hilarious. One outside a clothing store said "All Most Free". After grabbing a bite, Bender and I explored a few other parts in the city. And let me clear up a flatout lie in Bender's blog,, right now. Yes, this American girl started talking to us on the subway and yes, she did ask us to come with her to this ultimate fighting there. BUT, and here is where Bender tosses out the truth. Bender did ask me if I wanted to go, however, my response was not a blank stare as he claims, but instead I said "I don't care" meaning he was free to make the decision. So he turned it down. Deep down I really did want to go to that fight. Thanks a lot, Bender. Who's terrible now?

I need to speed this up. I haven't even got to the work stuff yet. Bender and I ended up in the Perky Cat, gayest experience of my life. No one else there, white leather couches, black and white strings hanging everywhere. The only thing that could make it gayer (actually I'm not going to finish that sentence since this blog link is going to my family, just use your imagination.)

Work, well, it's been work really. A bit harder than I expected, but's the first week and I haven't quit yet so I think I'm in this for the long haul. I have about 6 classes a day, all different levels. The best class at the school, a group of middle school girls, know more English than me. When a girl in that class asks me what a word means, one of the other girls usually has a much better answer than I can offer. Most of the kids are great and the whole teaching thing is pretty exciting. Tiring, sure, but exciting definitely. At the end of each class, I give the best student a shiny penny. The best really just means the quiestest one who did their homework. Then I tell the loud annoying ones to not to be so loud and annoying next time and they can get their own penny. It's pretty weird, in a good way I guess, to be a white guy over here. On the subway, Koreans were coming and sitting next to me even though there were plenty of seats open. When me and Erika were walking home last night, a young girl saw us from her bike and her eyes, I can't even describe the look. Sheer amazement. Also, this girl should not have been riding her bike down an alley at midnight, but that's another story.

Most of the food here is either deathly spicy or involves something really gross. I've managed to get by only because Erica has been pointing me to the few things that my body can tolerate. But today, I only ate a few slices of pizza and some ice cream. That arrangement may need to change.

When I got back from work last night after grabbing some food after work at 11:30pm, I was so ready to crash. But alas, I managed to leave the heat on all day. And heat in Korean is not just heat from the vent, it's heat everywhere. The floor, the bed. Yeah, the bed thing killed me. Even after I turned the heat off, the bed was hot for the next three hours. Not cool. At all. That mistake will not be made again. And yes, the shower is just a drain in the middle of the bathroom floor and yes, the living room got soaked the first couple days when I forgot to close the bathroom floor. But hey, I'm learning.

Man, I could write for a few hours just about my first few days here, but I'll save some of the excitement for later. Everything isn't great here and I've already had my share of annoying experiences. But you know what, I feel really alive for the first time in a long time. And that, I think, is a good thing.

(Photos: Bender and I at the Cat and a shot of my living room.)