Tomorrow I leave the peninsula of the ROK to head back to the land of the USA. I’ve been allowed a lot of time to reflect how this experience has changed my perspective as well as lament the things I will truly miss (besides the wonderful friends, or as ex-pats say, family I made). In my five years in Korea I feel like I have lived as many lives. I have had the unique privilege of seeing Seoul from multiple perspectives over the years and learning lessons from all the places I’ve been.
First, there was Seongbuk. This was a wonderful introduction to South Korea. I experienced my honeymoon phase here living out of a modest one bedroom apartment where the shower was directly over the sink/toilet. Most everything I owned was handed down by the last guy who lived there, the guy I replaced at the school I walked to each morning. I was using a VPN that severely slowed down my internet but let me watch the Daily Show while eating an alternate between curry and ramen every night. I learned all the tricks to hang drying clothes in an apartment with very little sunlight let in for my view was the brick wall side of a church. It was easy to keep this apartment clean because I kept it so minimal.
This school taught me so much about teaching. Up until then, I had only taught adults and high schoolers. Teaching Korean six year olds through the professional students in grade 6 required a few new skills I had never been taught in all my teacher training classes. It also gave me that first thrill of teaching the same students for an entire year (there is no summer vacation in South Korea, I mean there is but most kids don’t go anywhere for vacation instead attend another school to keep up on their English studies). This allowed me to create a bond, a relationship with my students that I had never experienced before. It was made even more special by the fact that in South Korea, they encourage physical interaction. These are the kids that made me cry tears of joy the first time they read aloud on their own. They couldn’t even say ‘hello’ to me the first day.
Each day I walked to school I passed through a market and there was a women’s university nearby. So I had the benefit of fresh produce and boutique shops appealing to females. I was between two major subway lines so I could go in any direction in the city. My cellphone was cheap- only $30 a month on average because it wasn’t a smart phone and it was pay as you go. No voicemail, mostly text messaging- I was in heaven. There was nothing I was missing, in fact it seemed I was quite well off. I even had a Subway sandwich shop which was the envy of all my expat friends who knew that a good sandwich in Korea was like Bigfoot.
I was also close to one of Korea’s SKY (think IVY league) university hospitals which certainly came in handy one night when I was having major inexplicable back pain. The first night, my boyfriend of the time forced me to the emergency room where it was like a scene out of M*A*S*H. Beds lined up everywhere, people looking like they were on the verge of transforming to zombies, and absolutely no privacy or bedside manner. Not that I would truly know because they all spoke Korean and I didn’t. They gave me the infamous shot in the ass, the pain went away and I went home with just enough time to get ready for school.
But the next night would be a bit more dramatic. This time, my boyfriend wasn’t around so I had to pound on the wall to my next door neighbor who happened to be a co-worker and he went to fetch a taxi before coming to get me. This time, they did x-rays, MRIs, bloodwork, everything from this crazy clusterfuck of an emergency room. It was determined I would need surgery- that I had gallstones. There’s a much longer explanation of the whole thing that maybe I’ll write about sometime but for now you know all you need to know. After I was released, I had to learn very quickly how to rely on people and take it easy. These are two things I had never been good at but would prove invaluable for my future survival and enlightenment. I had to let me friends help me walk, help me buy food, help me pee. Yep, help me pee into a pail for someone to observe. Ewwwwww The principal of my school gave me a loan for the medical expenses since as a foreigner I was not eligible for any payment plan. My school also gave me a part time position, which was not done for people with my visa status, so that I could stay with them an extra six months. However, this meant that I would lose my housing and so after a year in Seongbuk, I moved in with my boyfriend to the same place I visited on vacation- Chang-dong.