Saturday, March 13, 2010

Now Arriving Korea!

By plane Seoul is about 12 hours, 5100 miles, and one world away. I left Seattle at 1pm and it never got dark during the whole flight. Flying Air Asiana was nice between the 15 channels on my own screen, good Korean food, and the ever-vigilant flight attendants who came around offering beverages literally 15 times. I happened to sit next to a Korean-American man who lives in Shoreline. His daughter goes to Shorewood and we discussed the pros and cons of her going to the UW vs. WWU.

When I got out of customs, two young women were holding a big sign that said "Amber". They were teachers from the school, who were in Seoul for a workshop that day so it was arranged that they would just take me back to Gunsan on the bus with them. They were so sweet, extremely friendly and speak really good English. It was a fairly chilly night, and as we drove out of the city there were patches of melting snow on the ground. It was about a 3.5 hour bus ride, and we stopped at a rest area for a late dinner, where we ate spicy ramen and udon and kimchee out of the same bowls like old friends. We arrived in Gunsan around 10:30, and I briefly met the Headmaster of the school before they took me to my hotel. It was a really sweet spot, with a computer in the room, flat screen TV, and ultra-violet ray sanitized drinking glasses. Whoa.

It's funny, I knew almost nothing about the school before I got here. It's called the Gunsan English Learning Center, and it is a public school. I originally thought I would be teaching at a hagwon, which is an afternoon/evening private school that most student attend after their public school. So the GELC is like an intensive English class extension for public middle schools in the city. Students will leave their regular school for one week at a time, and come to our school all day for that week. Essentially we have a new student body of 65 every week. The upside is that this is a new and exciting experience for the students, and the downside is that we don't get to create a long-term relationship with them. The school itself is really nice- big, clean, modern. All the classes are set up to be experiential, "real-world" settings to not only teach English, but to teach it in cultural contexts. So there is an immigration counter, a doctors office, a post office, library, bank, an airplane, a kitchen/cooking class, art room, travel agency, etc. It's really cool. Right now there are no students since it is a vacation time, but the new term starts on Monday. There will be 12 teachers at the school, 6 Korean and 6 native speakers, and we will always be paired together to co-teach classes. The Korean teachers are already here, all women and all young. Only 3 of us foreigners are here though, the other 3 arriving next week. So far the other two native teachers are a Korean-American from LA who has been teaching here for 2 years, and a former Spanish teacher from Tennessee who has been here 6 months. They are both super nice and have been helpful in answering my questions and helping me get settled.

Friday was errand and orientation day for me. Jina, the senior teacher who had picked me up at the airport, took me to the hospital for my health evaluation. I got the standard height, weight, vision, hearing, and medical history check, as well as a urine test, blood test (AIDS), and chest X-ray, all for a whopping $30. Back at the school, the Korean teachers were cooking lunch for the staff, a Korean dish of thin strips of pork belly, which are cut into small pieces, then you dip in sesame oil and chili paste before wrapping in lettuce with garlic, dried fish, and/or kimchee. It was delicious. They were impressed with my use of the chopsticks and the fact that I like kimchee. Then I got a tour of the school, got shown my desk, played mini-pool, and headed out to check out an apartment.

Aparently there had been some complaints from past teachers about the condition of the employee housing. The teacher from Tennessee said that when he arrived, his apartment was old, dirty, a lot of things didn't work, and eventually he had to move. In an effort to make sure teachers are happy from the beginning, the school was looking into leasing rooms in a totally new building that they have never used before. They wanted me to approve it before they decided to pick this one. I never saw any other housing options so I have nothing to compare it to, but I really like my apartment. I said yes right away, and even got to pick between 3 different rooms and get the lighter, bigger, and quieter of them. It is a small studio apartment, but new, clean, just has a good feel. There one main room, then the kitchen and laundry room are partioned off by sliding glass doors with frosted glass so the light still gets through. I have a new washer with drying racks hanging above. My door is locked via electronic keypad. And get this: instead of having the 10 digits fixed like on a telephone, the numbers scramble every time so that some one watching over your shoulder couldn't follow the pattern of your PIN, nor see your finger prints on the numbers you may have pressed. There is a TV, a built-in closet, and the school brought a bed, a microwave/confection oven, and will bring a table and chairs next week. There is also free wireless(!) which was working great last night but for some reason today the signal is too weak to connect to. There are restaurants, convenience stores, and an internet place on my block, and I'm within walking distance to school. I was able to get blankets and dishes left at the school by old teachers, and yesterday Jina took me to the dollar store for basic housewares. Today I got groceries and next week Jina will take me to a bigger store for more house shopping.

Every one from the school has been so kind and helpful in me getting settled. The school gives a settlance allowance, plus they have taken me out for meals and given me their home phone numbers. I am so grateful to be so well taken care of.

Not speaking Korean is a frusting and exciting experience. So far I can really only say Hello and Thank You. I'm stoked to learn, but I sort of just wish I could download it instantly into my brain. At least the currency conversion is easy- it's approximately 1,000 won to the dollar, so you just have to subtract three zeros.

One thing that strikes me though is the juxtaposition between the rundown/underdeveloped, and the advanced technology. There are shabby building, dilapidated houses, yards of rubble and scrap material, yet there are also fancy technological gadgets. For instance, every one has cell phones... there are seat-warmers on the toilets at school... electronically-dispensed hand sanitizers... most cars with GPS... and in Jina's car when she puts it in reverse, a camera on the back of the car turns on so you can see EXACTLY where you are backing.

I already feel pretty adjusted to the time difference and am glad I have this weekend to rest up and relax before starting classes. Overall I feel happy, thankful, and excited to dive in to the job, the culture, and the language. More soon, Kom Sam Ni Da for reading!


ElizaBeth said...

Fascinating! My favorite part is eating out of the same bowls like old friends. As we've talked about many times, it's so important to have community everywhere you go and it sounds like yours came ready-made, at least while you work on expanding it yourself. Can't wait for more updates.

AmberAnda said...

Thanks for the encouragement, and the comment! Today in the teacher lounge a coworker asked if I was free to go out for a staff dinner tomorrow night. "Um, all my friends in this country are in this room!" Needless to say, I had no plans. I'm looking forward to expanding my community, but am pretty grateful for the little one I have.