Sunday, August 10, 2014

Leaving Korea & The Long Learning Road

It's coming up on 8 days shy of the day I left for Korea, one year ago. I can't decide if time has gone by slowly or quickly. Maybe a year has flown by, or maybe a year isn't much time at all (which is also kind of scary). So now I've shipped my things home, and I'm doing laundry and packing up my stuff, ready for my journey home, and whatever else will follow.

While I wouldn't like to live in Korea again, I do think that this has been an invaluable time. First time really living on my own, by myself, and almost as far as I could possibly get from my family and friends. I realized that I am as determined as I always thought I was, and at this point, I'm pretty convinced that I can do absolutely anything. I've got my health and an eagerness that hopefully will lead me to good things. On a less existential note, this year has also taught me a lot about living abroad, and being a, hiss, foreigner for the first time. While I've visited other countries before, I didn't stand out in any particular way from the locals. It wasn't so obvious that I was a foreigner at all. In Korea? Pretty obvious. So, a list of the things I've learned about being an expat, being a waygook, and a traveler.

1.) Bring your favorite sauces/spices/other treats that you enjoy. Oh god, chamoy, cholula, all Goya I wished I could have had these things.
2.) Be open to new things and new ways of thinking: I did meet several foreigners who just really despised Korea for many, many (many...) reasons. From the people to the cities to the food, it all got to be rather nitpicky. I think this is unfair and it's imperative to your experience (and also mental health) to find the silver lining. When in Korea, do as the Koreans (kind of). It's my belief that you should try everything at least once. There are attitudes and customs that are quite different from your own (couples outfits anyone?), but that's okay, and the world spins madly on.
3.) Being open to new things and ways of thinking, doesn't mean you have to accept them all: I personally think the couples outfits are weird, and the spitting is something I just can't deal with. These are just aspects of Korean culture, for better or for worse, and I let it be. But I still scoff at someone spitting inside a building.
4.) Be fearless. Eat all the food! Unless you're allergic. But otherwise eat a lot of it! The first time I saw jjajangmyeon, I will admit that I thought it was kind of sketchy looking (it was food that was black after all). But oh how surprised I was, and it instantly became my favorite thing to eat.
5.) But not too fearless. If food seems sketchy, it's okay not to eat it. You too can get sick, no matter where you are. You know when you read these travel blogs of people that travel all the time and the best places are those small mom & pop businesses and oh I had the best _______! I have found this to be true on occasion. But I also think that this is romanticized as well. I went with a friend to Jagalchi market some months ago, and we wandered into a restaurant that had massive tanks of octopi just hanging out in front. We decided to try their fried clams and some other mollusks, and they were still alive when they got to our table. The woman at the restaurant cooked them up on our table and everything. The result? A meal that was really kind of...meh. Nothing spectacular. As we were leaving, I noticed a few rats running around near the tanks where all the seafood was hanging out. Had I seen that beforehand, I don't think I would have gone in. And that's okay. If it seems sketchy, don't do it. If you feel comfortable (or reasonably outside of your comfortable zone), then go for it.
6.) Don't get frustrated easily. Patience is key, especially in a new place, where you're not quite functional in the language. It's so important to be respectful and polite. Despite not knowing a ton of Korean, I have found that a smile and a humble attitude will get you pretty far! Sometimes (or a lot of times) you will encounter confusion in the grocery store or looking for something, etc. The important thing is to not get frustrated by your lack of understanding, but treat these situations with a light-hearted attitude and just roll with it.
7.) Guilt - When to Feel It and When Not to. Back to what I said about romanticizing travel. In many ways, traveling is terribly exciting and adventurous and all of those things people always say it is. It's a big wide world with so much to see. And living in another country is also equal parts exciting and scary. But you should not feel bad if you don't like a place. It seems to me that it feels like its almost your duty as a traveler to love every single thing about the place you are visiting. Almost like you are obligated to see only the good and say nothing but good things about it. I think that's bullshit. One of the great things about being in a different place is realizing that while us foreigners are ogling all of these new things, all the locals don't give a shit. Life is going on for them, work, school, families, friends, etc. People are people anywhere you go. And if the majesty of temples is totally lost on you, don't feel bad about it. If the greatest architectural masterpiece leaves you feeling pretty meh, you shouldn't feel guilty about that. And if the overall impression of the country you're in leaves you feeling rather indifferent, that's okay. That's the point of trying new things. I think of it as being similar to going on dates. You date different people to see if you like them or not. Not everyone can be a perfect fit, despite your attempts at adjustment. And that's okay. You ought to feel guilty if you just sat at home all day and never did anything. That's crap. But if you feel like you've given things a fair shot and still don't really like it, you're not betraying some sort of traveler's code. You are free and clear to not like a food or a place or whatever.

Overall this time in Korea has given me one very important thing, and that's confidence in myself. I think back and it all seemed so simple; I wanted to move abroad, so I made a plan and I did it. Now I think, well damn, I can just go anywhere. If I want to move to Colombia or France or Australia or wherever, then I have not a bit of fear in doing so. I recall my first days here, and feeling so terrified, feeling like I may very well just succumb to my anxiety and go home. And that feeling didn't stop for a good while. But eventually I gelled, and things became easier and I feel more confident than ever before. So far that, thank you South Korea. Sarang heyo. 


P.S. I will also miss the jjimjilbang and milk tea so damn much. Ugh, can't I bring that with me?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The IUD and Beyond

Coming from the US, I am very much in appreciation of the Korean healthcare system. In the most basic terms, it's a universalized system which everyone pays into and so a trip to the doctor is much cheaper here than back in the states. For a doctor's visit, with insurance, I pay maybe $2-3. Yeah. Cheap as hell.

So I had been contemplating different methods of birth control for quite some time after being on the pill for two years. After a lot of research and a lot of thinking, I decided I wanted a copper IUD. I asked around, and turns out that I could get it done here in Korea for about $150 total. A fraction of the cost than back home! I talked to some other foreigners who had had the procedure done and got their input, and they all said that they had had positive experiences, so I made the appointment for a Saturday at a big hospital that even had an English service.

I brought a friend with me and upon my arrival I was asked to take a seat and fill out a form. After a few minutes of being incredibly nervous, I was told to go into one of the exam rooms. There I "met" my doctor, a man who, when I said "Hello", responded with "What's wrong with you?" I figured that was his way of asking me what I was coming in for, and I figured Well I made the appointment specifically for an IUD, surely he should already know why I'm here? He looked at the form and then responded with: Based on your previous menstrual dates, you are in the luteal phase of your cycle. This is not the appropriate time for IUD insertion. Please come back when you are 5-11 days after your menses. And then he said goodbye and I was shown the door.

Erm...awkward. First of all, I had read that getting an IUD inserted while on your period would make it slightly easier, but I hadn't read anything that said that it couldn't be inserted during any other time. I found the visit to be pithy and awkward, and the doctor to be terribly rude and disconnected. His English wasn't incredible or anything, so I'm sure there was an issue of communication and he was trying to communicate this information to me in the best way he could but I found it to be very cold.

So I rebooked an appointment for the following week and asked specifically for a female doctor, as I felt that I would be more comfortable. I came in the next week, and when I was called into the exam room, had a sit down with the doctor. Her English was pretty good, and I had heard that it is common here for doctors to cut the IUD strings very short. I didn't want that, as I wanted to be able to check them myself from time to time. I discussed this with her and she told me how short she would cut them. Then I was told to go behind a partition where there was a chair suited for an exam. I undressed my bottom half, put on a paper skirt and sat in the chair.

There was a nurse there, but the weirdest thing was that she pulled a curtain between me and the doctor. So I was just sitting there, staring at the ceiling, while two other people were messing with my lady parts on the other side. I felt a real lack of bedside manner, as the doctor didn't even tell me when she was going to begin or what she was even doing. I was just lying there when all of a sudden she just went ahead and started things.

All the things they tell you about IUD insertion and how it hurts...yeah, they're not kidding. Since I had no idea what was happening, I kept thinking it would end but it just got worse. I was staring at a spot on the ceiling, trying to breathe but I started to break into a sweat. They say that it feels like the first pain of labor (except labor just gets worse), and I can officially say that I am so happy that I will never be experiencing that shit.

The whole procedure probably took only like 2 minutes, but because I was clenching my sweater and it hurt so damn much, it felt like ages. At one point the doctor told me to please relax but how is that even possible? Sure I'll relax while you stretch my cervix, it's no prob!

Afterwards I felt a dull cramping, but nothing too bad. She told me that since I had never given birth, it was difficult to insert and that's why it hurt so much, but that in future if I get another one, it should be less painful. The following week I came back for a checkup and she did an ultrasound and everything was in place and totally fine. She then asked me if I had any more questions and I thought of one that I, in hindsight, probably should have asked straight away but just kind of assumed...

I said, So, this is good for 10 years right? And she said, Oh no, only 5. And I stopped for a minute. I had gotten the copper IUD instead of the Mirena, and everything I had read said that Mirena is good for 5 years and the copper IUD is good for up to 10. There were many factors that influenced my choice but the 10 year thing was a big one. Needless to say, I felt very upset. Violated almost. Maybe it was my bad for not knowing that not all copper IUDs were the same, but I didn't really know that there were such a variety, or that they had different lengths of efficacy. Five years is still good, but damn....I was definitely upset.

But yeah, that was in February, so it's been 4 months now, and things are pretty alright. Definitely worth the money, but if I could do it over again, for the total experience, I might have waited until I got back to the States. Just me tho.

Until next time!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Halfway Mark

It has now been 6 months since I've been in South Korea, almost 7. Wow, when they say time flies, they really mean it. It feels like I just started working, and I ask myself, What the hell have I been doing for the past 6 months?

The new school year (because the school year in Korea begins in March) promises to bring with it some new challenges. Whereas last semester, I had to teach 5th and 6th grade, with one great coteacher and one awful one, this semester I will only be teaching 5th grade. The awful coteacher that I would have to teach with is, fortunately, going on a semester-long training course. However, as a substitute they have brought in a new teacher, who has just graduated university. I assume this is his first job. I only met him once, briefly, and he seems very shy. Now, I only have one semester more experience than he does, so I hope he's not expecting that I will be a seasoned professional. I also have to have storytelling class again (which is a complete headache), but this time with another new teacher. Whether or not this is a good thing doesn't bother me as much, as that class is only once a week.

So what have I learned this past 6 months? Well, I can tell you that I will not be resigning at the end of this semester. I feel like when  you first come here, the foreigners are often portrayed as belonging to 2 groups: those that love Korea and those that hate it. I feel like it should be more along the lines of people that will stay in Korea for a long time, and people that won't. I get the vibe that people that leave after only a year are often viewed as those who "didn't try hard enough to appreciate things here," or "didn't try hard enough to blend in." You hear the horror stories of people who were rude, awful, and hated Korea with a passion, and left because they couldn't take it anymore. And then there's those who come back time and again, or who have been here for years and are buying cars and making other long-term commitments.

I don't really think I'm either of those kinds of people. I like Korea, I like Koreans, I like Korean, and I like Korean food. I have learned a fair amount of Korean, though nowhere near conversational, but I don't plan to stay here longer than August. One could argue, so what? It would be good to learn anyway. But, I'm trying to appreciate my time here through other pursuits. First one being dance. The dance studio I go to is all Korean, but dancing is what I love and I've found that I can make friends and connect with people through that. While there are plenty of beautiful things to see and do in Korea, I've never been much of a sight seer. I've always just enjoyed doing the things that normal people do, in order to connect with locals.

Being here has definitely improved me in a lot of ways, and that's a great thing. I've also learned that while it is "easy" (comparatively), this job is just not for me. Perhaps it's different in other environments, in different cultures, in different countries (and the money is good too), but I have several interests and passions in life, none of which include teaching ESL for a prolonged period of time.

So the next 25 weeks? I'll keep living, loving, and eating and ride out the rest of this wave.



Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Spaland and the Beauty of a Jimjilbang

In a fancy department store called Shinsegae, there lies, nestled on the 2nd floor near the scarves and sunglasses section, an entrance to a magical land...
The pearly gates...
Like in other Asian countries, public bath houses are commonplace. Here they are called jimjilbang, and the greatest of them all (in Busan) is Spa Land. Of course, I'm biased because Spa Land is the only jimjilbang I've been to (so far), but oh how it's made a devoted follower. 

Basically, for the price of about $11, you can spend 4 hours in a wonderfully hot bath (indoor or outdoor), have access to several sauna rooms, an outdoor foot bath and for about $1.50 you can sit in a massage chair for 20 minutes and get worked. When you're ready to leave, you can dry and style your hair, apply lotions and creams, even buy new underwear from a vending machine. It is fucking incredible. 

If you're like me, then you love to pamper yourself and Spa Land is the place to do it. In the states, going to the "spa" is nothing like this and it is triple the price. Here you can get a facial and rub down for $20. This is perhaps the greatest place on earth. Where you can go and unwind after a long day (entrance is cheaper during the week, and early in the morning/late at night), and love on yourself just a little. If I could go to Spa Land every day, I would.

Now the etiquette is standard, you must wash (standing or sitting shower) before you get into the hot tubs and you have to keep your hair up. This hot tub area is separated by gender, so the women's locker room leads to the women-only washing area. And yes, in order to get into the hot tubs, you will be naked. I personally don't take any issue with this, and I feel like even if I were skittish about being naked around about a hundred other women, my fears would be quickly calmed by the fact that nobody cares. You will see little girls (ages 7+ allowed) and old women and women of all shapes and sizes walking around, just tending to themselves and their kids/moms/friends. As a foreigner, you may get one glance or two, but no one is going out of their way to examine you, because they don't really care, because this is totally normal. 

For someone like me with tattoos, some rather large, you may get a few more glances, because people are prone to staring in general at them, but you just shrug it off and go about relaxing yourself. Quick note about tattoos: The sign when you enter SpaLand says that people with tattoos are prohibited. However, if they are covered when you pay your entrance fee, you can rest assured that you don't have to worry about getting thrown out once you are inside. People stop caring once you're in the locker room and beyond. 

I don't know how often I try to convince people to go to SpaLand with me, but it must be a weekly occurrence because I love it. The thing I will miss most about Korea will definitely be that! So to all those visiting or who are living here, I advise you go to SpaLand or a jimjilbang every chance you get because it is wonderful.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Swimming with Sharks

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me about his plans for the upcoming winter break, and he mentioned that he was going shark diving. Always a sucker for adrenaline, my ears immediately perked up; shark diving?! where?!

Yesterday we went on our dive, and it was a really awesome experience. It was at the Busan Aquarium, which was fine with me, as this was my first time scuba diving and I did not want my first time to be out in the ocean somewhere!

At first I felt pretty non-chalant and cool about everything, but once the instructor started discussing the different technical aspects of the equipment and all the hand signals, I started to get kind of anxious. My anxiety only grew, as we stepped into the tank to practice some techniques before heading further down. It had never occurred to me that it would take so much mental stability. When I tried to go under and breathe normally, I felt panicked, almost as if I were breathing too slowly and that I would somehow choke. The instructor was very calm and knowledgeable, and could tell that I was very nervous. We practiced going down again and again until I started feeling comfortable. When we started off, I still didn't feel 100% comfortable, but I felt like a lot of it was just me psyching myself out. Thinking about thousands of gallons of water above me, and what if something happened and I couldn't breathe and what if what if what if?!

As we explored the tank, things got a little easier. There were a few times where I felt myself on the verge of panic, and I couldn't look up because it freaked me out. But I calmed down, and just breathed into the respirator. I finished the dive and was really proud of myself that I had done it. The sharks themselves were pretty low-key, and it was definitely interesting to see them just kind of ignoring you really, though they definitely knew you were there. You usually only see sea-life behind glass or from above, so it was definitely cool to be in it.

You can still be fabulous underwater.

Afterwards, my friends and I went to Spaland at Centum City, which I will dedicate a whole other post to next time. It felt great to bathe and wash off all the salt water and fish crap that I was probably swimming in. After that, my friend Jess and I went to a WordZ Only spoken word event at a place called Cafe Radio in KSU. Really great stuff, everyone there was fantastic! My friend Jess read, and I filmed it. You can read more of her poetry and see the vid at her blog: Jessica Moves to Korea

I walked away from the open mic night feeling really inspired! It's great to hear other people get up and read what moves them, I so often wish I had the courage to do so myself. Maybe one day. 

Until next time,


P.S. If you're interested in doing the shark dive, or getting your scuba certification, this is the instructor's website: Enjoi!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Graffiti Project

Greetings and Happy New Year!

After some time, I am back in the blogosphere. Here to reveal my latest endeavor.

When I first arrived in Korea, I was starting the teacher orientation in Jeonju. We were all being house at Jeonju University, and one of the first things I noticed was that in the parking lot there were these large, manga-style murals. I have always loved street art and graffiti and loved the idea of anonymous people tagging in a place that generally prides itself on its low crime rates and homogeneity. I'm still not sure if tagging is a crime in Korea, but it seems to be less frowned upon that it is back in the states. But after that, it made me curious about what kind of street art was being produced here and what aspects of Western art had been fused with Korean style? Thus began my graffiti project.

I haven't done too much traveling around Korea so far, but I have been collecting images of graffiti in some spots around Busan. I am starting my 2 week-winter vacation this week and instead of jetsetting to other lands, I will spend it traveling around Korea in search of graffiti. I want to see what Korean artists are producing and what they are bringing to the table.

I've started a tumblr, which will serve as the space to host all of my images, but I am considering switching to Instagram for easier access and reach. In the meantime, enjoy the slim pickins so far and let me know if there is any graffiti near you!