(photo: completely forget)
The plan, of course, was never to be “adjusting” to a slower pace of life, not to fuck off to some desolate hamlet with my existence enclosed by horizon-less farm fields and grey skies.
It was to be a cog in the interminable party machinery of an international megacity: couchsurfers drifting in and out of my cramped yet cozy flat, coffee with coworkers on a Tuesday, dinner with expat friends on a Thursday, getting fricked on the weekend. Ultimately watching myself and the seasons change against the backdrop of a vibrant urban ant colony. And this isn’t quite how it played out. I applied as an English teacher for Seoul, I got , 20 minutes south of , one hour from sanity. But all the while my spirits remained high: “I know I’ll be happy anywhere I end up”. That was the mantra.
Fortunately, one lil’ cognitive trick you can try while traveling is to just frame everything shitty as “an experience”. Upon arrival at Incheon Int’l I was running on fumes, my liver still detoxing from Central America. A send off in style saw me having one last drink, I had it ten times, and once again I was drunk and awake for two strait days. My plans just don’t jive with the way the earth rotates and it was 32 hours no sleep when I landed in the ROK and the sun was rising. But, as the headspace of flights afford I was riding the crest of a wave of new experience, a feeling that extinguishes the need for sleep and pretty much snuffs the rest of Maslow’s hierarchy as well. I could get into the physiology of it or I could just say it’s pretty goddamn magical. In a perfect world a light snack of xanax and airplane wine would’ve slept me for the Pacific, but I knew a drug test awaited on the other side. Along with the HIV test, rigorous drug screening is administered for E-2 Visa-holding foreigners before they settle into the country, as it is well known that white people are licentious junkies, prone to smoking bath salts and injecting krokodil before giving pure, chaste Korean women their immigrant AIDS. Anyway, I didn’t wanna be that guy who just started to make friends at the orientation, only for them to find out I pissed hot and fled in the a.m. of a freezing February night to Taiwan, telling myself it was there I wanted teach this whole time.
The EPIK orientation consisted of long days of lectures on teaching methodology as well as literal constant video surveillance on some 1984 shit. Not even talking about the thousands of fish eye cams on the ceiling throughout the university, staff actually lugged around these giant clunky camcorders off a film set and didn’t stop waving them in our faces for 11 days. Am I in the right Korea, I kept thinking. At the back of every lecture were two Koreans taking notes on teacher performance and scrutinizing everyone’s level of attentiveness, something I found disturbing as I managed to tiptoe past elementary, highschool and university without focusing in class. I even got called out by one of the program coordinators on why I was sitting at the very back of class, to which I replied (in front of the class) was a tactical move in response to my explosive diarrhea from the chasmic shift in diet. I’ve been to 10 or so countries now – still an amateur – but Korea’s has been the first cuisine my gut bacteria has needed adjusting to, which will be like, a metaphor for the rest of my time here, or something.
We watched Korean films and learned its history, though the experience of the week was wholly poisoned by the cafeteria food. White rice, white bread. Sugary cereal, sugary everything, salty everything. Lettuce. Fucking kimchi. The veggies were pickled monoculture from the barely arable Korean soil (GMO radishes, yum!), the toast was bread, the the coffee was coffee-flavored water – similar to the shit Tim Hortons tries to pull but even worse, far worse, if you could imagine. I signed up for the vegetarian option which was a pile of iceberg lettuce with rotating flavors of cake frosting masquerading as salad dressing (blueberry, mango, etc.). Most of this planet views a veg diet as tofu and blades of grass anyway; that a populace whose lifeblood of bulgogi barbecue and fried chicken think no different should’ve been no shocker. It’s been documented that diabetics get their E2 applications minced in the government paper shredder, but it seems possible, nay probable, you’ll get diabetes while living here.
Korean food consists of meat and multiple side dishes: rotten Sriracha lettuce (kimchi), rotten cucumber in the same sauce (garlic chili salt paste), stems of green vegetables (the part you throw away) in the same sauce, some distant cousin of scallions in the same sauce, bean sprouts, and the same sauce (uterine-wall discharge) on the side, just in case you didn’t get enough sauce on all your fermented (rotten) vegetables. Koreans don’t just “eat” Italian one night, then Thai another, and then have a stir fry, or some shit. It’s Korean food around the clock, with an occasional break for fried chicken, which they know to be Korean food. Who would’ve thought an isolated peninsula would for thousands of years have developed their own odd intracultural agreement on taste?
On a day of particularly drab, dead colors of winter we took a field trip to a museum and learned the history from some local ajumma who volunteered as a tour guide and who spoke just enough English to be completely incomprehensible. We explored an ugly park and a shitty museum and kept listening this old bag talk about the ‘Yung Dynasty’, which coincidentally is also my rap name. I hiked part of a hill at the edge of the park and thought I could escape for a cheeky forest smoke to alleviate the tedium before I realized the giant CCTV sign and video camera pointing at me. Ya, you’re being filmed fucking everywhere here. South Korea has never invaded another country, and while this is good for them and probably contributes to their ethnocentric tendencies and deep national pride, it makes for a boring history and some painfully generic mythologizing which I was force-fed during the field trip and for the duration of the orientation – also every time I crack open the dog-eared K-copy of Lonely Planet I pilfered from Simon’s Airbnb in Hongdae.
EPIK accepts South Africans, Americans, Canadians, Kiwis, Aussies, Irish and Brits as applicants to the program, so that’s who I shared the uni with. We did the typical icebreaking chitchat and taekwondo and sat through lectures, some bomb and some of them bombed, commiserated about the state of the orientation and at night, we drank like it was competition, in order to mentally assimilate the feeling of leaving behind our whole lives. The verdict on Soju: surprisingly drinkable, surpassingly regrettable.
So that thing wraps up and I part with my new friends. I’m stoic about it because what else could I ever be, but there’s a considerable few emotional wrecks in the Gyeonggi crew, mostly people who’ve never left their middling mid-American town but even a few former globetrotters, all about to be dropped alone in some remote podunk on the outskirts of a city. With us there was a vague sense of needing to stick together, but in a way the Seoulites seemed socially heedless, like, “we’re gonna have a sick life no matter what happens during this meaningless week.”
I’m at my school, and this place is cold. In just a few years Korea built itself up from the rubble of WWII and 50 years of suffering colonial rule at the hands of the rapist warmongering Japanese into one of Asia’s four tiger economies – a strong bounce back from near-cultural genocide. But with that comes its costs, in their love of things like spam and leaving off the heating. These people don’t know what it’s like to walk into a warm building and be at peace with your body temperature, which I think if rectified could lower the suicide rate.
In tandem with this batty energy ““efficiency””, clothes dryers here are forsaken, which means you have to hang dry your wardrobe, which means three days of no clothes. The second week to school I wore my cold wet jacket to class and shivered beside the coil heat lamp in my classroom until the light bulb appeared above my head, and I realized I could dry the jacket on the heat lamp, thus being warm in a non-painful hotcoldfreezing fashion. 25 minutes of watching UFC fights later, my co-teacher walks in and starts gagging on a cloud of black smoke while my once jacket, now melted trash-bag sizzles in the heat. In one fell swoop I destroyed both mediums of warmth, buttfuckit, spring is next week.
My first class of the year I’m helping this learning-disabled girl so the other kids stop bullying her. Five seconds later, some kid comes up to me, doesn’t say anything and slowly holds up his hand, which is geysering blood and nearly sprays on my shoes and to try and stop it from bleeding everywhere he’s holding the bleeding hand in his other hand, but he’s squeezing it, so he looks like he’s proactively wringing his blood out onto the floor. My CT is nowhere to be found when I actually need him, setting the stage for the rest of my year, so we sprint downstairs and get this kid sorted. He goes to the hospital and the janitor cleans up the crimson waterfall spiraling from the top of the fourth staircase to the principal’s office on the main. I finally find my coteacher.
Me: How did he cut himself?
CT: He cut his hand, with knife .
Me: What the fuck, why does he have a knife!?”
CT: “The students… they… habba knife”.
Apparently they sharpen their pencils with knives here. Brilliant.
No one has bled since but there’s some colorful characters in a few of my classes. Let’s see, there’s Filipino girl, who people bully for not being a pure blood Korean. There’s pretty girl, who says “Pretty! I am pretty/” like a broken record every time I see her. There’s teacher handsome girls who make it a point to scream “TEACHERHANDSOME” if we come within a 50m radius. There’s kids who shout incessantly during my presentation and suddenly get painfully shy when I follow with a simple CCQ. Oh wait, that’s most of them. There’s a weird looking girl who just unflinchingly eyefucks me every time I assign group work. Not the worst though – Nancy mentioned a boy was actually jerking off in her class; Maggie said her elementary kids punch her in the vag.
The weird looking kids should really be paying extra attention – they’re not at fault for looking weird, but they exist in a society which faults them so. This place is the plastic surgery mecca, where your job application invariably needs a photo paperclipped to the front page, just in case the employer isn’t “down” to share a workspace with someone ugly. Not a day goes by I don’t see groups of girls with anime eyes cartoonishly disproportionate to their facial structure and their being Korean. Social pressures to conform and to be beautiful are so large that 40-50% of women get plastic surgery, rendering half the female population strait up looking like clones. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go image search ‘k-pop group’. No, they don’t all look the same because they’re Asian, silly, it’s because they’ve all had the same nose jobs, eyelid reworkings and jawbones shaved down for that oval/alien facial shape.
I’ve got my own classroom which is chill, but I also start every day in the teacher’s office. The other day a coworker gave me a ‘brown sugar candy’ which was literally a cube of brown sugar. Today was ‘Pie (3.14) Day’, and I received my first choco-pie. According to the wiki, choco-pies, a veritably delicious symbol of capitalism, can fetch 10,000 KRW on the North Korean black market, which sounds like sales propaganda but maybe North Koreans and choco-pies are somehow similar to western white girls and green tea kit-kats. Giving out sweets is customary I think, in a few weeks floating through this office I’ve eaten enough glutinous rice confections (mochi) to span this lifetime and any possible future incarnations. I actually took a field trip with the kids to make this “traditional” “Korean” “food” which consisted of beating the Christ out of a giant white blob with a wooden sledge hammer until it was warm from the energy of the beating. Right now I’m sitting next to a small paper cup of neon pumpkin sludge a colleague gifted me, essentially the equivalent of that pumpkin-flavored science goo from the Starbucks shelves but it’s got a slight tang of liquefied oatmeal.
The first Monday of each month we have a ceremony in the teachers office where the staff faces the t.v. in prayer position and bows approximately 12 times to an arrhythmical chant, which I’ve deduced w/ my sharp cognitive skills might be the national anthem, a capella. My life history indicates I will do something during one of these ceremonies to offend a roomful of people but so far (one ceremony) I’m in the clear. Religion is taboo in public schools (like anywhere) but the bowing is an essential social tool to show respect to your elders, who are superior because they’re older. They’ll let you know it, too, there’s always some old fuck waiting to appear out of a mist of vapor in a public park to tell you how to act, performed as an overwrought tantrum. Triple the frequency if you’re a woman. Plainly put I’m more of the Will Smith than Confucius state of mind, but to each their own.
A heuristic for the way elders are more valuable would be that we have heated toilet seats and the kids have to squat over a hole in the ground. And the fact that 300 kids bow to me per day. It’s like when I was in Japan grabbing sake and cigarettes @ 3am from the 7/11 and got my change with two hands and synchronized bowing from three cashiers. If ever there was a time you didn’t feel worthy of receiving a bow, it’s here, but also, it’s everywhere all the time. Age, with some exceptions is a poor metric of both intelligence and maturity. In a culture so homogenous however, there must be some measure of social control and a way to feel superior to others, thus, age reigns supreme as hierarchical indicator of worth, followed by gender (men are superior), and then occupation (chaebol > everything).
I teach a variety of levels here, from afterschool clubs of advanced learners who I can converse with to kids who don’t know the alphabet and probably never will (can’t force it), from dead-eyed throngs of robbed childhoods to enthused groups shouting out the answers. There’s this one girl who I converse with, looks like a lil Korean Charlie Brown with the same facial shape and life outlook but with these big round glasses. This week she slept 2 hours a night because there were exams. Every Friday I ask her plans for the weekend, and every Friday she tells me she has to study. All weekend, after studying all week.
Me: Do you like to study?
Charlie Brown: [low, mumbly tone approaching a brassy growl] I haaate to study.
If you could’ve heard the way she said this, you’d know, a rawness more real was never emoted, by EFL or ESL speaker alike. In this one sentence I heard the tortured, sleepless groans of children across the country making their way slowly, onerously through the meat-grinder of the Korean educational system. Good on ’em for working so hard though, I didn’t rally like these 14 year olds when I was an undergrad.
ESL tutoring is a potentially lucrative job market. With apps like Boxfish you can do it from the frontcam on your smartphone, in some cases teaching a classroom full of kids in China or Japan over Skype. If you know how to lesson plan for learners that don’t know the alphabet, can effectively teach a point of grammar without a CT holding your hand and have an in with a learner somewhere like Seoul or Dubai, you’d best believe you could be getting paid for this relatively easy job.
For the shrewd GET, this program isn’t just a gap year from real life and a chance to have sex with a Korean. It’s an opportunity for professional development – to figure out what skills, if any, you possess, how to parlay them into money and potentially a future. For some, this means spending weekends in a stuffy classroom, or completing online degrees of questionable utility. For myself this involves traveling the world in some capacity. The whole thing. In my school hours unobstructed by kids and diffusing emails from the rents about nuclear armageddon, I’ve been reading and [redacted] and [redacted]. A laissez-faire teaching environment allows for such a level of free time you’d be hard-pressed not to work something smart out, there’s only so many hot (horrible) new Netflix originals you can watch without feeling like a worthless piece of shit, right?
While I don’t keep a gratitude journal, there’s surely a mental tally. I’m going to go on record and say everything is beautiful and nothing hurts because:
• There’s a small group of amazing people in my life, and every time I put in effort I make new friends.
• I’ve been exploring every weekend with no plans to slow.
• No work on weekends. A breather from the restaurant industry.
• I’ve been partying a lot, which is good for the soul.
• No classes Monday or Friday. I barely work.
• Teaching is flippin’ sweet. I don’t give or grade tests or homework. Some of my students are pretty cute, although there’s a couple kids I wanna burn with a cigarette. Middle school means less babysitting and more teaching
• Lots of paid time off: Busan through Buddha’s birthday week to kick off May, Jeju in the Summer, Taiwan on Thanksgiving for 11 days, a month of Myanmar for my paid winter vacation & Shanghai for Lunar New Year.
Plus another 5 long weekends to get my rove on, may that find me gambling in Macau, hiking in Tibet, clubbing in Beijing, or coming back with amnesia from the weird part of Russia (the IRL deep web). That’s minimum five new passport stamps, endless adventuring and opportunities to swap stories with strangers.
• Saving 15K+. Generous flight allowances, guaranteed contract bonuses, free furnished housing and a low cost of living quickly turn a meager seeming salary into far more than what I was making back in an industry I despised more each day.
• A chance not just to see, but to know a new place like I know home, accept it wholesale, imperfections and all. When you live somewhere, that’s your only option.
Nearly two months in, I keep getting these little electrical jolts of reality, where in a headrush I suddenly realize the shift in my life, and the dreaminess of the present becomes real.
There’s more to say. I’ll cap it here.