As of today, I have been in Korea for 6 months. As soon as you start teaching here, people are already asking if you plan on staying a second year. "Uh, I've only been here a few weeks so it's hard to say," I would reply. Now that I've been here half a year, I finally have a more defined impression of things.
I am very grateful to Korea to give me a job and the chance to live here. As a whole, the country is dedicated to learning English, and from native speakers. My Korean coteachers are awesome- such helpful, resourceful, fun people to work with. I really like the food here- a good balance of meat, tons of different vegetables, and spice. I still can't speak much Korean, but I can read and write Korean (hangul) and feel pretty cool using a non-Roman script. Life is simple and low-stress compared to back home, with no car and minimal bills. When you do pay bills you can do it at any ATM which is an easy and brilliant system I wish we had in the U.S. You can transfer money from your account into any account in the country, business or personal, as long as you have the bank name and account number. No mailing checks or setting up PayPal. It's awesome.
But of course it's not all kittens and roses living abroad. Before I left, my mom's Korean friend told me a Korean proverb which is, "You know the number of chopsticks in your neighbor's kitchen." It's true. There are 50 million people living in this country the size of Indiana, mostly residing in new and cheaply-built apartments with minimal insulation. You hear EVERYTHING. I don't know when any one sleeps, because there is always some one making noise. I would probably know the details of all my neighbors' habits if I could understand them. Not speaking Korean is very frustrating, for me as well as Koreans who have to interact with me. I am really, really tired of always being stared at. For a country that has so much international business, American TV shows, American movies always in the theater, foreign models on billboards, and competes in the Olympics and World Cup, it surprises me that I get looked at like an alien all the time. Riding a bike here is liberating and also completely infuriating. Cars don't follow traffic laws and are totally unpredictable, and pedestrians walk in bike lanes all the time. I mean, I don't speak Korean but I'm pretty sure that the PICTURE OF A BIKE PAINTED EVERY 20 FEET translates "bike lane". I could be wrong.
There have been many ups and downs these last few months, but overall I'm comfortable and have figured out how to get by on the day-to-day tasks (thanks largely to coworkers who translate, explain, look up bus schedules, and make phone calls for me) . So my official stance on whether or not to stay another year in Korea is that I would be open to teaching here longer, but not immediately following this contract. I really want to be back in the U.S. for more than a few weeks, plus I'd like to do some other traveling as well. And I would NOT stay in Gunsan another year. Maybe if I were raising a family or doing a Masters online or had something major to inspire me... but otherwise another year here would drive me insane. I know there are many parts of Korea with more cultural action, but here there is absolutely nothing in the way of live music, poetry, literature, independent film, dance, or art galleries. It makes my heart ache.
I've learned a lot in my 6th months here, like that apartment floors get dirty fast, even when I take my shoes off at the door and sweep and mop all the time. It REALLY makes me leery of carpet.
I've learned to make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold... as my mom always said.
I've learned you can grow an amazing amount of food with no irrigation, especially if the growing season is the rainy season.
I've learned that pointing to your wrist and looking quizzical is no longer a charade for asking the time. I've done it several times here and only gotten puzzled looks. Every one uses their cell phone as their time piece.
I've learned that few foods make me feel as healthy as kimchi, but even a wide variety of kimchi is no substitute for cheese, glorious cheese.
I've learned there are many types of people who teach English abroad, for all sorts of reasons.
I've learned so much more, and there are 100 more things I want to say, ideas to share, images to convey. I want to stay up late with you dear reader, drinking tea and chatting nonstop, scraping out my brain and trying to show it all to you. But it's impossible, of course. For now I will just say that I'm very happy that it is the day it is, and I am where I am. The past week has been cooler, heavenly bearable. I still wear shorts and short-sleeves, but instead of sweating I am perfectly comfortable. The sky is bluer, the air clearer as the humidity decreases. Even when it rains it's nice- cleans the air instead of just feeling like a sauna. I had a mellow weekend of walking, riding bikes, watching movies, and having dinner with the first friends I met from Gunsan. Very fitting for my anniversary.
We rode bikes under the grey sky, the air still thick but a cool breeze blowing. We rode just out of the city, through the fields, the same ones I watched being planted months ago with short plugs of sprouting rice. Now they are 3 feet tall, with seed heads bending just so. When do they harvest? We rode past the little country homes with strong squash vines growing up the sides and tops of the houses. A pumpkin hangs from a gate and a zucchini is visible on the roof, an explosion of food. Then out of the fields and onto the main road where the gritty dust from the factories stings my eyes. This is the long long street of refineries, glass, cement, and paper plants. But gardens still creep out of forgotten crevices, peppers and dandelions, cabbage and flowers. We ride under the fruit canopy of persimmon, pears, kumquats that hang over the sidewalk. We get back to town just as the sky opens, fat drops hitting us as we duck in for lunch. We sip miso soup and watch yellow leaves spin toward the ground. I've never been so ready for autumn.