Wednesday, March 3, 2010

GRRRL Goes Whimpery in Her New Korean Location

How do you take a bath in Korea?  Let me tell you how I just did it.  I washed over my sink and shaved my legs by propping them up on my toilet lid.  Yes, a toilet lid can have more uses than just one when you’re in an efficient country like Korea…

My Korean bathroom (sink/toilet/shower compressed in the same room) is smaller than my NYC apt bathroom

But all smart-assing aside…  You haven’t heard peep from me in a while as I’ve been in an intense transition, which just hit rocky; and the “rocky” is something I’m working through. I’ll fast-forward over my escape from the draft of flu, my partial hearing loss due to airplane travel with a cold and my
suspended bowel movement which had me alarmed for several days. I will blow past my initial romance phase with Korea- my wonderful EPIK orientation, experiencing Korea for the first time, the “Oh snaps,  I love being here!”  No- I’m gonna start my Korean blogging with my first “real” GRRRL whimper… the moment when “yours truly” turned girlie whiny and wanted to book the first flight home!

My bed

They say first impressions count in Korea
… like dressing well, welcoming a new colleague/newcomer and maybe even taking them to dinner after a 3-4 hr long bus ride (and at that point, even a McDonalds will do…).  Nada. Instead, my co-teacher picked me up and drove me to my apartment, letting me know our school/my apartment is located in one of “poorer”, more “remote” areas of Daegu and that the job of co-teacher was something she didn’t have a say in. Our co-teacher (abbrev: CT) is native to our school and the support we were told would help us with our move, but upon our meeting, she was smiling and letting me know that she burdened with by responsibility of it.

My apt building
My apt building

We arrived at a 3-story nondescript and unthrilled-looking apartment tucked into a dark ass-crevice of a street alley. I met my predecessor Suzi, the EFL teacher before me- a young Canadian girl with rosy cheeks, a cartilage piercing which says ‘partial hippie’ and whose backpack was roaring for Thailand. She quickly ran through the operations of the apartment and left me with a tiny 3×5″ notebook paper scribbled with pass-keys for the apartment doors entries (my apt bldg is all electronic and has no keys), the address of my school so that I could have my mail forwarded there (the apartment is a hit or miss with the mailman and taxis), a tiny hand-drawn map to the subway and the name of the subway stop for E-mart (the Korean K-mart). Just as quickly as Canadian Suzi whizzed through the instructions of my apt, she and my CT were off to the airport. My CT left me her phone number (even though I don’t have a phone) with instructions that she would pick me to take me to my first day of school… three days later.

Suzi's instructions
Suzi's instructions- note the crinkly of it is from all my clenching so as not to lose it.

That was it. Outside of Suzi’s tiny map and instructions, I knew nothing about my area. I knew nobody. I was alone.

45 minutes after arriving in Daegu, my excitement…
dwindled. I was now dazed, confused and housed in the seemingly “shadier side of town” with not much to do. Alone in my new one bedroom apartment, my starving vegetarian stomach was giving off an audible growl of “lost and lonely”.  Unpacking, I noticed little “welcome gifts” left from Suzi… crumbs, old  refrigerator food and a thick coat of dust around, under and behind my bed. The bed padding and linens were a lovely shade of “used”, spotted and had grown some blond strands of Suzi-hair in the process. The bed was rickety and the “mattress” was a bunch of springs with a thin layer of dirty-looking padding. My chest started to constrict and I didn’t know whether I wanted to cry or to clench my chest and say “Ouch”.  I didn’t know if having a cigarette would make me go into cardiac arrest or chillax me.  A two-word mantra played in my head: Quit tomorrow!
Life is all about presentation. Presentation colors our first impressions of things. I might have been blindly happy, had someone just lied to me about my location, but no…

Cleaning it up

Unleashing my SoluMel (because I like to "Kill bugs dead")

As an Asian-American, I speak fluent “Asian”.
The first impression of my new host was colored in the shade of bleak. Being a watered-down Asian-American who may not speak fluent Korean or Japanese, doesn’t mean I slack on my expectations for other Asians, when it comes to knowing/expecting a proper Asian welcome. In fact, sometimes we tend to be inadvertently more critical of on our own kind, as we are all raised with a similar discipline towards tradition; and there’s simply no excuse for being a bad Asian when you live in Asia!
Hostels abroad vs. Homes abroad: the difference between dating and marriage.
As a traveler, I’ve roughed it before and in invariably worse ways… insect-infested rooms, rooms without ventilation or sleeping bundled up with layers of scarves, mittens and coats to avoid the cold or…bundled up to my eyeballs to avoid mosquito bites.  So why am buckling in this one-bedroom mildly furnished apartment of warmth, which to an average New Yorker may seem (aside from the bathroom…) pretty palatial?
Why? Simply put- I am ball-and-chained to my situation for a year! I liken this to my vegetarian dietary habits abroad. For instance, when backpacking through a developing country or meat loving society (and not a vegetable is in sight), I know there’s an eventual end to my starvation rainbow. Though I can’t taste it, I can see it. But when you’re contracted to a country for a year, there’s no way to hold out on eating for that length of time unless you’re a Buddhist monk!  You must either make concessions, which you will not like or changes which are more effort than its worth. Me, being chained to a potentially lame situation spells a bad marriage to have to live with and I won’t do it.

911: The Immediate Panacea for Panic
I’d love to say I dug my claws in and handled my panic with a steel-cut New Yorker GRRR! But this did not happen. I was “freaking out”, didn’t think I could make it past a week and called the one number which was foremost fresh in my mind . It was the number of a quite solid, but roguish U.K. lad- Adam- whom I’d been briefly acquainted with through my orientation.

Adam presents the irony of the situation
Adam presents the Korean irony to emergency situations

…And that’s how friends are made!  (Ironically, this introduction scenario to my new Korean location is a very similar story to my N.Y.C move also- life repeats itself- but I’ll get into that 911-stranded story only if I need to…) Adam was kind and understanding and put me up for the night. His situation wasn’t perfect either- his apartment was still unmade, but his school/ co-teachers were generous to provide accommodations for him, until they could go shopping with him for furnishings the next day.

Expat life: When loneliness calls, sometimes you have to run to your instinctual safety.
When you’re feeling panic, lost and lonely in a foreign country you’ve just moved to, building a bridge to familiarity and support is key. Sometimes, you don’t have time to develop a support group or “make friends”, but you make the best out of your limited resources and the kindness of people whom you’ve met along the way. I went through my EPIK orientation with approximately 100 other newbie Daegu-placed EFL teachers like myself. New to Korea and the EFL teaching experience, we are like solo travelers, who met as strangers and share a similar journey.

My fellow EPiKers having a nite out in Daegu

While I’d like to have more than just expat friends, knowing other expats can feel essential to the grounding process. Expats help you gain a better perspective and understanding of your own situation. Our experiences were all varied and mine stood somewhere in the middle of the road- not the worst and definitely, not the best. Comparing notes of our experiences with our new apartments, co-teachers and school expectations from us, made me feel infinitely better about my challenge and allowed me to put my situation into proper perspective.

Things to try when you’ve moved to a new place & you begin freaking out:

1) Remain flexible and open.
Try to never have expectations about how things will turn out. This was my killer

2) Keep some of your normal routines (i.e. your workout program, yoga, meditation).This helps you to own your new space, your place and stabilize the shifting of your life.

3) Give yourself time and the situation/people a second chance.

Try your best to suspend your judgement and verdict.  Wait for the light of day and things may look different… or not.

4) Take a day to explore your area and find the romance in it.
Be curious about it and the people- find ways to fall in love or find familiarity with it. Own your location by making small connections through a favorite grocery store, etc… Check out the resources you do have in your area.

5) Be active- join activities, expat meetups and clubs… make friends.

6) Remember- Everything happens for a perfect reason and in some way, what you get is something you need.
Explore the lesson you might learn and think about the a higher reason/goal/responsibility that might change your experience into a positive one.  For me, it’s been a dream to provide education to children who are under-privileged.  This reminds me that in a way, this situation is not an accident.

7) Definitely 911-it for help or support when you feel you need it.
Other people can lend you an alternate perspective, a word of advice, a friendly ear to help put your own feelings/situation into perspective.

Trial periods, holding your breath and waiting it out

Do I feel wimpy? Hell yeah! In the grand scheme and from what I hear about others’ situations, my situation and living space is really not bad or the worst it could be. Still, I had my fragile moment… Thankfully, this wasn’t my very first impression of Korea- I’m still very excited by it. I love being in this country and I’m all for giving things and people a second chance. For now, I’ll just give it some time and see…

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