Eric in Korea

eric-in-korea-smallIt’s been about two weeks since I’ve gotten back from my vacation, and I’m only four days away from being in South Korea for six months. It’s been nothing but a whirlwind so far. A lot of my friends here, both old and new, are leaving soon. For some, their contracts are up, and it’s time to go. For others, their hearts are simply leading them elsewhere. Despite my having a hard time readjusting to life here, I feel lucky to still have six more months left. I don’t know what I’m going to do after that time is gone, but I have a feeling I’ll have figured it out by then.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about why I want to travel. I’ve been trying to understand the effects travel can have on a person. I’m not sure I have any kind of firm grasp on this yet; I haven’t traveled all that much. A little in the United States, mostly in the Midwest and on the East coast, and of course, South Korea and the Philippines. I always experience an elation upon arriving in a new place for the first time, whether that place was a different state or country. It’s a high, a lot like the feeling of love. I hate to think this feeling goes away, but, of course, it does. After that initial high, you begin to see things more clearly. I think this is where I am with South Korea right now, and I think it’s a great place, maybe the only place, to begin to cultivate something meaningful and real.

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The photo was taken on Valentine’s Day. A friend asked me to be her date to a fancy dinner an international women’s organization hosted. Her date had cancelled on her at the last minute. It was a great evening: a good dinner, professional dancers, who danced the waltz, tango, and foxtrot, for entertainment, and then some unprofessional dancing of our own. Afterward, I met other friends at a noraebang, and before we left I of course had to sing a song. I’ve never been much for karaoke, but that night I rocked out an energetic version of Hey, Jude. Later, as you can see, I meet up with my real date, Winnie the Pooh.

This is me in Korea, and though I see things here a bit differently now, I think that’s how they were supposed to be seen all along. Here’s to making my time here the best it can be. Cheers.

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Take the beach, for example.

img_1977For the past week, I’ve been trying and failing to make progress on a fictional story I started in a very nonfictional way. I suppose it’s the bad tendency of the out-of-practice writer to take his own experience and try to turn it into a successful piece of fiction. Perhaps this is my bad habit alone. In either case, it’s not a memoir I’m trying to write, and I’m fairly convinced now that no memoirs are successful and engaging unless the author utilizes the imaginative process one uses in the creation of a novel or short story. Memoirs are devious creatures indeed – ones in which I rarely place any faith. When it comes to writing fiction, memory is the same way: take the beach, for example.

My favorite place in Boracay, in the Philippines, is a secluded beach called Puka Shell Beach. It’s absolutely beautiful there. Hardly any people know about it, and so most everyone stays on White Beach, the main tourist spot of the island. I knew about it because a local informed me of it and its location and how to get there. You have to take a motorized tricycle about twenty minutes north. You shouldn’t pay more than 25 pesos (that’s less than a dollar). You should go if you want to get away from all the people, and I really wanted to get away from them. I could have stayed on that beach for a very long time. There are a few people there; I even saw one girl sunbathing topless. But that in itself gives you an idea of how few people there really are. And it’s serene, so serene. I believe in many ways it opened my heart.

But if I want to use this beach in my current work-in-progress, I have to leave the image I have and my memory of it behind. If I don’t, it makes it very difficult to let my imagination take control. I don’t just want to fill in the gaps of my experience there. I don’t just want to put myself in the scene, and wait for an appearance of the wild monkeys. They’ll never come, because I never saw them (though I heard them and saw bats one evening). I wanted to see those monkeys while I was there, but now I’m glad they never showed. I’m perfectly content in letting them live in my imagination. Perhaps I’ll even let them start my story. This is the problem when you try to write fiction from memory: if it didn’t happen, then you can’t write it down. So, the fiction writer, instead, writes from imagination. Everything that didn’t happen on my vacation, including my not getting around to visiting Dead Forest or seeing a cockfight, is just waiting to be developed in story.

In that way, I’m able to relive my time in the Philippines – time I’ve been missing very much since I’ve returned to South Korea.

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To the Philippines

Taking a midnight train, an early morning plane, then another, and a mid-afternoon boat ride — all to end up on Boracay Island, on the beach, in the sun, where I’m very certain they don’t have computers. I’ll write a proper entry when I return in February. Till then.

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Under the Full Moon

full-moonThe city covered by the full moon outside, inside I have dreams, lying on my heated floor, listening to the voice of a favorite female singer, well-known in American independent music circles. When you have dreams this way, on a heated floor, it’s a lot like lying on the beach, except the sun burns from beneath you, not above. I can’t really sleep on the floors, though sometimes I can, so maybe I’ve made some progress, but something about lying on them now, taking in these songs, is rather pleasant, even peaceful. And it shares another similarity to lying on the beach: It makes you satisfyingly drowsy. Then the dreams come, like I’m not even in South Korea anymore. The dreams are a nostalgic mix of memory and imagination, or perhaps of past and future. Of life in the United States and of life in South Korea. How does one reconcile such a thing? In the dreams, I’m nowhere; I have no place, not a sense of home or of belonging. Each country in the world is only a place to visit, not a place to call my own. I’m country-hopping, slowly, the journey only at its beginning. Yet I’m inescapably connected now to two countries – first, the United States, by birth, from growing up there, from the way I look (though many have said I look European, which I always take as a compliment) and second, South Korea, by relocation, from teaching here, perhaps even from my feeble attempts to be more Korean. Still, when I come out of the dream, I have only one home. But more and more – if I can accurately articulate this – I’m finding this to be a problem. I’ve left all of my deepest connections. That is the sacrifice you make when you leave your home country, the country in which your family resides, among other things and people. And it’s not even that you’ve left them; it’s that they’ve become intangible. You begin to wonder what the solution might be, still coming up more or less with a blank response. For now, I’m going to go back to the dreams, the moon still bright and clear. And I’m going to let imagination take over a bit more. What else is it there for, anyway?

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My vacation in Korea

I want to talk about my job, namely what vacation is like, but before I do I should make one important distinction. I work at a public school, not an academy or hagwon, in Korean. And if you want to do what I’m doing, I recommend getting a public school job, not a job at any number of hagwon[s] all over each major city. With a public school job you will know what you’re getting into, you will be compensated for overtime work, you will get a seven day vacation, but you may not get these things at a hagwon.

Now, vacation at a public school. My school has been on vacation since the end of December, and as far as I can tell what this means is, regular school classes are not in session. What it also means: teachers must come to school to do paperwork on two random days as assigned by the principle and vice principles; some classes, at least one computer class that I know of, are in session; and I, on a different contract than my Korean co-teachers, must come to school on days I’m not teaching at English Camps or basking in the sun in tropical Boracay.

I must do this until regular classes resume again in the second week of February. What I do while I’m at school is undefined. So far, I read, and make lessons for my English camps. If you’re confused, you can imagine my frustration when I found out that many of my friends don’t have to come to school at all. Yes, they are contractually obligated to, like I am, but, in turns out, whether or not we have to fulfill this obligation is at the principle’s discretion. After some discussing, I got off easy anyway. I only have to sit at school until 12:30, then I’m free.

This, of course, assumes you understand the definition of English camp. Students in Korea still go to school during the so-called vacation. They go to hagwons, and they go to what are called English camps, three- or four- or five-day classes, at which the foreign teachers are dispersed. In the case of my first camp, each teacher will teach a different lesson to eight groups of fifteen students, though this varies by camp. This, one of two camps, starts tomorrow, at a material-less school an hour away. I will be sleeping on heated floors. Ah, when teaching in Korea.

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On becoming a minority

A friend from Seoul came to visit me this weekend. A Korean girl, born in Seoul, who I met at Indiana University South Bend, a graduate of Notre Dame who is now doing graduate work at my old university. But before you think oh, what a small, small world this really is a month or so ago I met a Korean girl who lived in South Bend for six months and went to the South Bend English Institute, where I had tried to get employment before coming to Korea. I never would have thought either of these two meetings would have happened, but happen they did.

The friend from Seoul reminded me of a fact which I had not yet acknowledged, and that’s that I’m now a minority. Here I am, a brown-haired, green-eyed, white-skinned American in a sea of brown- and black-eyed, dark-haired Koreans.  Why this had not struck me in impactful way prior to her mentioning it, I don’t know. Even now, it doesn’t really strike me. When I first came to Korea, I found myself socializing with a group of Korean-Americans, standing out from the start, and not caring one bit about it. It was quite good, actually; it was like a crash course in Korean culture.

Now, though, I don’t see those friends much at all, which means the people I hang out with are more diversified. Some are from the United States, others from Canada, still others from Korea, all with different backgrounds, many of which I don’t understand very well. But this is one of the most challenging parts about being here: Meeting people who have different backgrounds than I do and trying to understand them. And I suppose I am a minority here, but I’m also in a minority group, us waegukin, us foreigners, and we tend to find and commune with each other. This happens naturally, like a force pulls us toward each other or at least makes us acknowledge one another on the street, with brief eye contact, a slight head nod, or any variation of hello.

This, I think, is good, so long as we don’t band together so tightly that we shut the majority out. So long as we don’t start to think Korea should cater to us as Westerners. So long as we keep in mind that we are in fact minorities who have been given the privilege to live here, if only for a short, dizzying time.

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Life resumes as normal

The following is an attempt at a short first person account of seeing my sister off at the airport. First person account, it should be said, minus all first person pronouns.


She’s gone now, made it through the line, through the agony of flying standby. She received a seat before going through security, was given the choice of sitting next to a window or the isle. On recommendation, she took the window. Her indecision, though at first mistaken as simple indecision, came from the need to get on the plane, the focus not on where she will sit, but that she gets to sit at all. And so it goes when flying for nearly nothing back to the United States. A benefit with any luck not wasted in the future.

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Severe case of wanderlust. Sitting in Incheon International, ear buds in, salsa music flowing from iPod to brain to feet, it hits. Coming to Korea was not enough. Just not enough. It should have been, but it isn’t. Sitting, feet kicked up, watching passengers from Korea, from France, from the United States, from everywhere fuels the drive, creates more lust for travel. Lucky then that flights have been booked, rooms have been reserved. The Philippines. Boracay. In less than twenty days. The sun, the sand. A drink, a book. Perfection. Now, though, the waiting, waiting for the bus back to Daegu after departure.

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From the future: I have seen 2009.

img_2844My friends, sister and I brought in the new year with the crowds of people at Guk Che Bo Sang Park downtown. The celebration was complete with tribal music which made it seem like a sacrifice was about to be made, several song and dance performances including one from Momma Mia!, a coutdown that was of course screamed out in Korean, and the ringing of the bell to signal the start of the new year during which time the host announced that certain demographics should make their wish.  Then the crowd dispersed some and we moved closer to the front, only to turn around and witness quite the spectacular fireworks show.  Prior to this we had dinner at a traditional Korean restuarant where they fill the table with colorful sidedishes, then we went to play several games including Jenga, Tumbling Monkeys and Holli Galli at a board game cafe. It was an all around fantastic way to end 2008 and start 2009.

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Christmas in Korea

santaChristmas in Korea is not Christmas in America. Christmas in Korea is more like Valentine’s Day. It’s a holiday made for couples, not families. Families with small children will probably spend it together, and those children may receive gifts (then again, they may not; I’m still confused as to who gets gifts, if anyone gets them at all), but mostly this holiday is about taking your girlfriend or wife out and showering her with dinner, presents, flowers, perhaps serenading her with a song of sarang and playing the piano for her, as one of my teachers had planned to do. The Christmas I know does not exist here. Kids do not make Christmas lists – though they did in my classes, as a short writing/speaking exercise in which I discovered that many want mp3s and mp4s and Nintendo Wiis. They do not wake up early Christmas morning and open gifts with their families. When I told them that this is what people do in the United States, many of them said they wanted to go to America to have Christmas there. The city is not lit up with decorations, only a few trees outside the local Homeplus and a handful of Christmas trees made of lights scattered over town. No driving around to look at snow-covered homes glowing green and red. The homes are not homes as we know them in the States; they are huge apartment complexes. And, of course, there is no snow here. All that said, Christmas in Korea was still pretty good. My parents sent my sister to be with me, the Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education (DMOE) threw a Christmas Eve Dinner Party for the foreign teachers in a wedding hall at a hotel downtown, and on Christmas day my closest friends in Korea gathered at my house to eat and celebrate.

But I think the highlight was taking a bus to the hotel with my sister on Christmas Eve. Filled to capacity, my sister and I stood at the front, holding on, bracing ourselves. I didn’t have exact change, so I asked a woman if she could change a 5,000 won note (oh chun won), but she didn’t have change either. She asked the bus driver who said we could ride for free. The bus driver was dressed as Santa Claus and he had decorated the front of the bus with lights and Merry Christmas signs. He seemed to be quite pleased with himself. And despite the craziness of that bus ride, I think so were we, my sister and I, sharing Christmas together in this strange, strange place.

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Scenes of Celebration

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Take one:  The teachers and I celebrated yesterday, celebrated the end of open classes, the end of other teachers and the Godfather-esque administration standing in on our classes and evaluating us. The end of the open class. We went to a nearby restaurant, we ate galbi, probably the best dinner I’ve had since I’ve come to Korea, like sliced pieces of grilled steak, but better, way better. We sat on the floor, it was a traditional Korean restaurant, I’ve gotten used to this by now, never thought that would happen, and the raw meat cooks in front of you, you staring at it waiting and hunting for the perfect first piece. You can wrap it in lettuce, adorn it with a sauce or two, onions, garlic, or you can eat it by itself. A stand alone bite of perfection. I do both, depending on the mood of the moment. We drank soju and cider – cy da. We drank the main alcoholic beverage of Korea and the equivalent of Sprite. I drank one shot, as they say, “One shot!”, of soju at lunch, with my co-workers, in the middle of the school day. Then we ate Korean oranges, had cups of coffee, like fat bears getting fatter not for the coming winter, no these are bears out for the pleasure of eating and drinking, these are the bears that take things in stride, sitting back, stretched out, that’s who we became yesterday at lunch.

Take two:  The teachers and I and the Godfather-esque administration celebrated today, celebrated this time the opening of the new school building, the building in which I will have my own English classroom, starting the middle of this month. We celebrated this time with chicken, mekju, cola, tangerines, rice cake. All of us in a first grade classroom, the desks turned together to form three long rows, all of us sitting like students at those little desks, using chopsticks to eat fried chicken marinated in teriyaki sauce, pouring mekju and cola into little paper cups, the standard in Korea. As was the case yesterday, no one got drunk on the mekju or soju, but we all raised our cups “Konbae!” then drank, then ate, and turned once more into those same fat unhibernating bears, bears who thought this could not be better.

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