Wednesday, September 2, 2009

An Update at Last!

Well now that I finally have my very own working computer with internet in my office, at my very own desk, I can finally put together a real update. You are going to have to wait for pictures, though!

Lets break it down from when we were together last. On Friday night (late) they posted the districts that we would each be teaching in. Rather than making it easy and putting the common romanization of my district’s name (Gangdong), they chose to put the slightly more obscure romanization and call it Kangdong...leading me to much confusion and questioning why I was living in a place that yielded so few Google search results. I was also not thrilled to see that on the three lists of names going to my district I only knew four. And one of them as my Nemesis.

The next morning (Saturday) we got up and headed downstairs to check out from the dorms. This was a fairly quick and painless process, aside from standing in line at the elevator for long periods of time on both of my trips downstairs (too much stuff for one trip, obvi). After checking out and putting all of our gigantic bags on the correct bus, we grabbed some quick breakfast and headed down to the auditorium for the closing ceremonies. We got SMOE t-shirts (in the tiniest, most wack Korean sizing ever) and sat around waiting for the late ceremonies to begin. After a little while we all had to get up and move so that we were sitting with our districts. The man from Hyundai Learning Center spoke for a bit, followed by two of our fellow new NSETs, a guy and a girl. The guy was alright, and the girl did a really good job talking from the prospective of the “trainee.” Then a woman from the SMOE got up to talk and her English wasn’t super. She dropped the bomb that we wouldn’t be seeing kids the first week because we were on kind of a “modified quaratine” and then just kept on talking. All of us were like “Pump the brakes...what is going on?!” but we never really got any clarification on that matter. Basically we all go into our schools and are not allowed to see any kids for the first week. Kind of a bummer...and also illogical since we could just give the H1N1 (that I don’t have) to our coteacher and have them pass it on to the kids. Whatevs.

After the closing ceremonies we were off to a delicious buffet lunch. Like seriously good. While we were eating a SMOE district person came up and said the buses would be loading to leave at 1pm. We looked at our watches which read 11:45am and figured we had plenty of time to mess around...until she came back ten minutes later and said she had misspoke and we were actually leaving at 12:00pm. Whoops. Had to rush around a little then. And, as most things happen in Korea, it was a “hurry up and wait” situation since we then sat on the bus for about an hour waiting for some elusive guy who never did show up. The bus ride to Gangdong was about 1.5 hours and I ended up sleeping part of the way. When we arrived at the district office we were put into a room to wait for our coteachers to arrive because they had been told to come later. We all felt like we were sitting in an orphanage waiting to be adopted. The first few people whose coteachers showed up all got a cheer. After a little bit we went downstairs to meet our teachers.

My coteacher, Hur Eun Kyung (English name: Sienna) showed up in a car with her fiance to take me to my apartment. (As a sidenote, having an “English name” reminds me of my time in Senora Monroig’s Spanish class in middle school where I adopted the monkier Lulu after Senora told me that I reminded her of a character in a Puerto Rican comic strip.) My gigantic bags barely fit in the trunk and they were gracious enough not to make fun of me for bringing all of that stuff, haha. We drove about 20 minutes over to my apartment and when we arrived I was aghast to hear that I lived on the third floor in a building with no elevator! Nooooo. Haha, we survived, thanks to her fiance. We got my stuff all moved upstairs and they unloaded the the appliances/dishes/sheets/etc that they had purchased for me that morning. My apartment is in a really cute neighborhood with a couple little grocery stores/pharmacies, and open market, about 10,000 restaurants, and easy access to the metro’s purple line (which, according to Carl’s internet research, is the longest subway line in the world). Before my coteacher left they took me down into the metro station to buy a T-Money Card, which you use on the metro and on buses (and some taxis) throughout Seoul.

After unpacking some of my massive amounts of stuff, I went across the hall and introduced myself to Angie. There are 6 SMOE English teachers living on our floor, so that is really nice. Angie and I ended up going out for dinner at this little noodle restaurant that is right next to our apartment. Everything was in Korean characters (not even romanized) on the menu, so we basically just pointed to the first two things. Angie got these black bean noodles that were delicious, and I got a really spicy noodle soup with clams in it. When the girl said “spicy!” to me, I said ok. Yeah...I cried it was so spicy. Tears rolling down my face. But it was really good. And there was more food than either Angie or I could finish for just under $5. For both of us. Together. Awesome. After dinner Angie and I made plans to meet for breakfast and shopping the next morning at 11am, and I went back t unpack some more. Thank goodness I bought that universal power strip before I got over here. My entire apartment has only 6 outlets. And two of them are IN a cabinet.

Sunday morning I woke up and knocked on Angie’s door only to find that she was missing. She and some other people had met up in Itaewon on Saturday night (I was too exhausted) and she ended up crashing at a friend’s house. Since we have no phone or internet there was no way for her to contact me and let me know. I was feeling a little overwhelmed on Sunday and I was too chicken shit to go out on my own, so I basically hung around the apartment all day, unpacking everything, cleaning, reading, studying Korean, and watching Arrested Development (of course). As I unpacked my massive amounts of stuff, I realized that there was, in no way, enough storage for me to put all my clothes in. My room has a shoe closet, and a chifferobe with one shelf. Um, can I please get some drawers! I ended up taking over the bottom cabinets of my kitchen for clothes, and leaving the top ones available for kitchen stuff. Since I plan on cooking amazingly little, I think that set up should work just fine. I crossed the street and went to the Family Mart to get a cup-o-noodles-esque thing for dinner (delicious) as well as some snacks and water before hitting the sack.

Monday morning I woke up and navigated to school without a problem (thank you DC Metro, for showing me the way while growing up). The Seoul Metro is very much like the DC Metro in that each line has a color (in addition to a number) and you need to know which direction you are going in (based on ends of the line). The metro is QUITE crowded in the morning (they don’t need Tokyo guys in gloves to push you on the train, but close) and very warm. There are also about one million and five steps that I tackle in every commute. I am going to have awesome leg muscles. The transfer stations (think Metro Center) are also huge and many have gigantic underground shopping malls in them, like the station where I get off for work (Jamsil).

When I got to school I met my principal and vice principal, both of whom are very nice, neither of whom speak much English. I was also informed that I would need school shoes (every kid changes into their school shoes when they arrive, and so must teachers) which I kind of wish I had known. I could have saved some room packing in my suitcases if I hadn’t brought 14 pairs of shoes that I won’t be wearing most of the time! I met my coteachers, all of whom are very nice. I share an office with 5 other teachers, one of whom spent five years living in Texas with her daughter. Their English is great, so we haven’t really had any communciation problems. I had a tiiiiiiiiiny heart attack when I walked into the bathroom we share with students and found out that ALL THE TOILETS WERE SQUAT TOILETS. As my friend Brigid said, I don’t think squatting is in our Irish DNA. I held it all day because I am terrified I will fall and die while using one. Sad but true.

Due to my modified quarantine, I spent most of the day sitting around, using other people’s computers, and looking at the curriculum. The books are pretty sweet and the teachers’ guides include a lot of game ideas and information. Apparently, though, most of my kids are way above the text book. One of the teachers said that more than five kids in each class (I teach 22 classes with between twenty eight and thirty kids in each) have studied abroad in the US or Canada. She said some kids speak English much better than her. Then there are three special classes I will teach (in addition to my 19 classes where I will see every third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grader). These special classes are for kids that are “return students.” Basically they have been spending so much time in the US, Canada, or Japan that they don’t know Korean well enough to function in a regular classroom. It is like an ESOL class...but a KSOL class, I guess. It should be interesting to see how high their English proficiency is.

For school lunch we had rice, kimchi, and the best seaweed soup I’ve ever had. Seaweed soup was something I was not able to get into on the plane or at orientation, and now I realize it must have just been bad. This stuff was good. At the end of the day was a staff meeting where I was introduced to everyone and then excused for the business portion so I went and sat in the infirmary and read until Sienna was ready to go. I navigated home with only one small problem when I got off the train because I was confused, but I would have been okay. Oh well.

I went over and knocked on Angie’s door and we figured out that we both needed to hit the store, so we went down to a grocery story in our neighborhood where I was able to buy some essentials (hangers! trash bags! exciting!) that we schlepped home. Garbage disposal in Korea has very specific rules. Recycling is mandatory, and you have to separate your food waste from your general waste. Each thing gets its own bag and you have to pay for these bags (so hopefully you will throw out less). We randomly got 5 and 10 liter bags, figuring that the 10 liters at least would be the size of a regular bathroom trashcan. Um, I suck at metric. The 5 liter bags are teensie, and the 10 liters are also smaller than expected (way too small for my trashcan). I will work my way through these, but next time I am definitely upgrading to the next size! After carrying everything home and unpacking it, we went out to dinner at Han’s Deli, which claims to be the first deli in Korea. First of all, a place that serves no sanwiches being called a deli doesn’t quite feel right to me. Second, it is like “western” food...but not quite. Angie got a breaded pork chop and I ended up with sweet potato pizza. Interesting experience. It was basically a tortilla, covered with peppers and onion slices, then cheese, with little ice cream scoops of mashed sweet potatoes on each slice. Raaaandom. It certainly won’t replace Papa John’s in my heart! I also used my washing machine for the first time, which was an adventure. The controls are all in Korean, so I just had to memorize what buttons to push in what order. It was pretty easy. There are no dryers here and I already miss my dryer! I had to borrow Angie’s drying rack so that I could put my clothes out.

On Tuesday I got down into the subway and was pleased to see very few people out on the platforms. Perhaps today will be a light day, I thought to myself. Um...wrong. The train arrived and it was PACKED. Everyone squeezes and shoves on and we all got there, but it was a little sketch. You get to know people really quick! One interesting thing I learned at school this morning was that Koreans use a different way to calculate people’s ages, and that I am 25 here. Basically the way it works is that when you are born, your Korean age is 1. The following January, when the new year starts, you turn 2. It doens’t matter how long it has been since your birthday, you still get a year older. And every year after that you get another year older at new years (making it a huuuuge celebration since it is everyone’s birthday!). When they tell me that the kids in my classes are 10-12 years old, it really means they are probably 8-10 years old. But drinking/driving is still based on your western age. Crazy! Once again I spent the morning basically sitting around, surfing the interwebs. I fell in love with the interactive Seoul Subway map ( which is totally awesome and helpful. Thanks to my vigillant Facebook stalking, I found out that we needed to go pick up our health forms from the SMOE main office downtown, which is kind of a hassle since I swear they said the forms would be delivered to our school. I talked to Sienna and she cleared it with the principal for me to leave early.

We had lunch at school again and the main food was some sort of seafood soup. I don’t know what I ate. There was one piece that I think may have been an intact claw of something. I bit down on it, something squirted out in my mouth, I thought I might throw up, instead I just swallowed the whole hard thing. It was bad news bears. But I survived. After some more putzing around after lunch, I headed out on my SMOE adventure. Taking the train there was pretty easy (I love the subway system clean and efficient) and I arrived in less time than I thought it would take. I came out of the metro stop and as I was climbing the GIGANTIC hill up to the SMOE office, who do I run into but Brigid! She had already been to the office and was now making her way down the hill. We stopped for a while and chatted/bitched and she ended up walking me back up to the SMOE office. During our conversation I was treated to a gold nugget of information. Brigid said tha the last stall in her school bathrooms was a western toilet. Whaaat? Could this be true? The holy grail? Might I actually be able to use the bathrooms at work without fear of slipping and dying? I would have to test this out. If they take you into another room, it is bad news.” Dun dun DUN. So, of course, I get called into the second room where the woman says that in my blood test the doctors noted that I had elevated white blood cells. She told me that if I had any other “symptoms of disease” I should seek medical attention. (This pretty much confirmed what I had been thinking...I am pretty sure I have a sinus infection. I brought along a “just in case” stash of Cipro, so I think I am going to break into that and hopefuilly it will clear up. At this point I am taking multiple doses of Tylenol Severe Cold and Sinus each day in hopes of not grossing out my coworkers with my runny nose, sneezing, and nose blowing.)

Brigid and I left the SMOE office looking for another adventure. She had mentioned trouble withdrawaling money from her US bank account. Korea is the only country I have ever been to that makes it anywhere near this difficult to spend your money. In Korea, you have to specifically visit an international ATM in order to take out money from an overseas account. These are not very easy to find. Brigid said one of her coworkers had mentioned that she needed to find a “365 Bank.” Thanks to my obsession with finding funny or interesting signs, I had seen one of these on my way from the metro to the office. We decided to investigate.

We walk in the entrance to a little vestibule that has four ATMs. We jump in line and try out the first one closest to the door. Both of us try our cards. Both are unsuccessful. This process probably takes about 7 minutes. I decide to go into the bank and ask, figuring we must be doing something wrong. Now how in the heck do you get into the bank? We go out the door we came in, and enter door #2. Nope, not right. We go around the outside the building and enter door #3. Still wrong, it appears. But we have now been on EVERY side of the bank. How do you get in? OF COURSE! You go through the camoufloged door that is blocked by a sign! Why didn’t we think of that, hahah. We finally get IN to the bank and a girl (who says she can’t speak English), tells us that we have to go to the ATM on the right. Back out we go, back door #1 and the bank of ATMs. Sure enough, we go all the way to the right and find that the ATM says “International ATM” on it. We are home free. But...wait. The cards still don’t work. Over the next (not exaggerating) maybe 20 minutes, we struggle to figure out this confounded machine. I am able to see my account balance. However the buttons that allow you to choose “withdrawal money” disappear on the English screen almost immediately. We try to outsmart the machine by pushing the buttons super fast before they disappear. This is successful only if our goal was to receive an error message and have the machine shut down. And, helpful as always, the error message is in Korean.

Bank into hidden door #3 we march, determined to get someone who can shed some light on this mystery machine so that we can get some money. The same girl repeats that she cannot speak English and refers us to a man who can help us. He may have been able to understand English, but he definitely spoke less than the first girl. We explain/pantomime our problem and he escorts us back out to the ATM bank where he walks us through it. He also talks to someone through the 2-way glass (who has, embarassingly, been watching us this whole time) and the machine becomes unfrozen. Doing EXACTLY WHAT WE DID, he is able to pull up the menu and help us extract won. Korea wins again.

Brigid and I went down into the metro station and I was (perhaps too) excited to see that I was able to read the sign saying Sangildong (which is the direction in which I needed to catch the train). I am slowly but surely beginning to learn the Hangul alphabet! And I am pretty pumped! We headed our separate ways and I went home (the stairs out of my station might throw me into cardiac arrest one day soon). I stopped by the Family Mart (convenience store) across the street from my apartment where I picked up some bottles of water. I also talked to the woman behind the counter who is a total sweetheart and always tells me my total in English. She always looks genuinely glad to see me when I walk in, which is always nice. I ended up going over to the noodle place for dinner and getting the black bean noodles pojonghaejuseyo (to go). While I was there I totally scoped out other people’s meals and now I know what to order next time, haha. It may sound dumb, but going out and ordering food on my own was kind of a big step for me. I am beginning to feel confident enough to try things on my own, which will make it much easier for me to live here! Everyone is so nice and understanding if I make mistakes.

When I was walking through the metro station today, past the AMAZING scents of the waffle shop, I overheard a vendor at a little store repeating the lines from a Learning English CD. “Where is the taxi stand?” “Where is the taxi stand?” For some reason that really choked me up a little bit. Everyone here is trying so hard to learn this language. As it said in the English textbook, English is the language of commerce. It is the language in which most scientific/professional journals are written. English is necessary in today’s world. I wish that in the states we picked a languages (or five) that we were as passionate about as they are about English here. Well maybe not quite as passionate, with the crazy schedules and pressure and after school programs, but you know the idea.

Today I came in to school and signed in for work in the Vice Principal’s office. He had my sign in sheet moved there so that he could say “hi” to me every day. I think he is just trying to practice, so I am all for it. When I got up to my office I was presented with an interesting proposition. Another elementary school in my area is in need of a native speaker for an after school program they are doing. They offered to give me the job, working from 3:30pm-6:00pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays I am done here at 1:30pm, and on Thursdays I am done by 12:50. The afterschool program will be 3 forty-minute classes of small groups with ten minute breaks in between. They are going to pay me 40,000 Won per CLASS. Which basically equals out to about $800 per month. Which sounds a lot like being clear of all credit card debt in a year, plus some. So I am in. Tomorrow I am going over to interview some kids and see what their proficiency level is like and talk to the teachers about the curriculum. Pretty psyched.

This morning I spent my requisite time online while everyone else is teaching, including another long chat with my mom, which I really enjoy. I look forward to getting internet in my apartment so that I can do video chatting again. After talking to people online, I think we are going to do a Seoul City Bus Tour on Saturday (kind of like the DC Tourmobile where you pay a flat rate and can get on/off all day at will) and maybe hit some palaces or parks. It will be fun to get out and explore the city some more.

On Wednesdays lunches are “special” and today I guess it was international food. We had very good chicken/veggie curry and...corndogs. Sort of. They were sausage on a stick that was breaded with what I believe are cornflakes. How random. As Sienna put it “what a peculiar hot dog.” Today my most exciting thing was that two of my co-workers who until today refused to speak English in front of me (but definitely understand most of what I say) spoke to me in English for the first time. I am glad they are feeling more comfortable with me.

This morning in another stunning act of going back on their words, SMOE sent out a notice saying that our 300,000 Won settlement bonus (about $240 that we were supposed to get this first week) wouldn’t be out until our September 24 paycheck. Now I had forgotten about the settlement bonus, so I didn’t budget expecting it, but many people did. There were a lot of people who were counting on that money to get them through this first month. So that blew. (Later in the day SMOE sent out a retraction saying that the money would be available immediately. How many people do you think called down and complained?)

The only thing stressing me out at all right now is my stupid Alien Registration Card (ARC). You need this card for...pretty much everything. I can’t get internet or cable in my apartment until I have my ARC. I can’t get a cellphone until I have my ARC. You have to go down to immigration to apply, and then wait five days for it to be processed. I couldn’t go before today because I didn’t have my medical form back yet. Since I went to pick that up yesterday, all my paperwork was squared. Now there aren’t any available appointment until next Monday afternoon. Wonk wonk. I might as well say hello to another week without internet at home. Not having my passport on me for 5 business days makes me a little nervous, but oh well. Not like I really have a choice.

All in all, I am really happy here. Most of the misunderstandings and annoyances I have just been able to let roll off my back. I am super super thankful that I am living so close to so many other English teahers. I would feel very alone if I didn’t have them around.

Here is my address in Korea. Apparently it doesn’t really matter if you break up these lines on to multiple lines on an envelope. We will see if stuff gets to me, haha!

Seoul, Gang-dong Gu, Gil-dong, 392-1

Korea Builing, Theme e-room #310 Meaghan Shanahan

134-813 Republic of Korea

Much love to my peeps on the other side of the world!


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