Monday, September 27, 2010

This probably should have gone in my journal. Oh well.

It's Monday night. I'll give you three guesses where I am right now. If you're smart, you'll only need one guess.

Also, just so you feel included in tonight's activities, I couldn't get a seat by the window today. I'm sitting awkwardly close to a couple of girls who I think should probably leave so I can have their table. I'll let you know the moment I achieve my directive.

I always feel like when I write a post like I did yesterday, I have to let everyone know the second I'm feeling better. Logically, I know you're not all sitting on the edge of your seats, wondering whether I've started enjoying my adventure again, but I still can't quiet the need to give updates. For the record, I didn't cry at all today. In fact, today was hilarious and all kinds of ways enjoyable. When the kids answer me correctly, I always give them an air-five. Sometimes, however, they run up to my chair and insist they get a "real five" too. Today, they all rushed up to me at the same time, so I had eight little hands flying around in front of me. Out of nowhere, I felt a slap across my face. I turned. "BRIAN!" His eyes got really wide and he said, "No, Teacher, don't worry. I just wanted to high five your face too." How can you not laugh at that?

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about nearly everything under the sun. Yesterday, I spent much of the afternoon trying to decide whether our modern interpretation of the gospels lends itself to blatant hypocrisy (and I have a pretty good argument, if you're ever curious), and I spent today trying to figure out whether I'll move to Cambodia to work in an orphanage or to England for grad school when I'm done here. **Update, I now have a window seat. Booyah** When I spend my time thinking about things like that, it makes it easier to forget that I'm a million miles from all the people I love. I tend to obsess about ideas (and people and things and cities and nearly every noun you can think of), and I've gotten quite good at distracting myself. If I don't divert my own attention away from the fact that I'm so desperately lonely sometimes, I'm bound to end up depressed. I know I haven't been here very long, but I'm really proud of the way I've handled being homesick thus far. I don't ignore it; I get really sad for a while, and I cry and I mope and I whine, but then I do something else. Being homesick isn't going to get me home, and honestly, I don't really want to be "home". I want Korea to be home. I want to feel comfortable and content and happy here. If all I'm going to do is wish I were back in Ohio then I might as well get on a plane right now. I refuse to waste my year longing to be somewhere else. This is a good place, and my life will be good here. Sometimes, when I'm at church on Sunday afternoons, I close my eyes and imagine that I'm back at the Vineyard, surrounded by the people I love and miss. But when I open my eyes, I honestly don't want to be anywhere else. I really like Jubilee, and I'm so excited to be a part of what God's doing there. Also, despite the fact that I've recently been whining about how no one knows me here, I've enjoyed being new to an extent. I had originally told myself that I wasn't going to wrap myself up in serving here; I wanted my weekends free in case I wanted to travel. But... then I found out they're re-vamping their monthly newsletters and need writers... and I found out that they have a homeless ministry that feeds the hungry... and I can't not do it. In Cincinnati, I was "Nikki, the girl who does puppet shows and works with kids", but here, I can be "Nikki, who helps out at homeless shelters" or "Nikki, who interviews missionaries in closed countries and writes about it". Starting from scratch is annoying in some aspects, but incredibly liberating in others. I didn't really need to reinvent myself; there's nothing wrong with puppet shows or children's ministry. But it's fun to spread my wings a little and see what else I can do. Twenty-four is far too young to decide who I'm going to be for the rest of my life. And maybe I'll fall flat on my face. But Korea doesn't have to just be about figuring out who I am; it can also be about discovering who I'm not or who I might eventually become.

I can't believe I've been here a month already. I know my family's going to hate reading this, but I don't know that I can be done here in just a year. I have so much to learn, and so many new things to explore, and I'm just flat out enjoying living. And I'm not quite sure I'll ever be able to "settle down." I think I'm just too transient for the American Dream...

And lastly, I leave you with this: While teaching this morning, it suddenly occurred to me that I needed to know how to write "asa" in Korean. I stopped what I was doing and asked the kids to teach me how to spell it. I wouldn't let them rush the board, so they started shouting out directions. "Circle! Now line! No, down! Now over!" I laughed and scribbled, writing random letters I know I had seen on signs or menus. When I decided I had enough letters, I stepped aside and proudly told them I had written "asa!" They quieted down, trying to pronounce the mess of characters I had splattered across the board. The shyest girl in class finally spoke up... "ah-ss-ho-leh... ahssholeh... Teacher, what mean asshole?" I reeeeally need to learn to read Korean.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A little low tonight

I'm a little sad today. Nothing in particular really happened, I suppose. At least not one thing. Maybe it's a lot of things. Maybe it's plain homesickness.

I've made a lot of friends here so far, way more than I expected to have after only one month. When I walk into church, I can say hi to dozens of people, and I know I can call pretty much any of the teachers at my school if I need them (and Tiffany's right downstairs. Hey Tiff!) But today I miss having people who know me. I needed to talk to a girl friend about a kind of tricky situation today, and I had to explain all of the backstory before I could even ask for her advice. I miss having people around who already know my story. I wish I had someone here who knew why I get upset about the things that upset me, or why something can excite me and make me want to throw up at the same time. I have friends here, but I miss my friends, you know?

I'm also getting a little tired of being new. I go to church twice a week, and each of the last eight times I was there, I sat in a different seat and met new people. I like meeting people, I really do, but I just want something to be consistent. I miss having multiple rows of people I recognize in the back corner of the sanctuary, and I miss having the same faces at Bible Study every week. I know I had to start from scratch here, and I know that building relationships takes time. It takes time to become comfortable in a place, and it takes time to have people feel comfortable around you. But I put in that time - four years at the Vineyard - and I was comfortable there. People there knew when my eyes were really crying even though my face was smiling, and people here don't know that. It's no one's fault; the people here are wonderful and friendly and amazing, but we're still getting to know each other. I miss not having to "get to know" people - just knowing them already.

Right now, I mostly miss my college roommates. I miss crawling into bed with, well, any of them, and cuddling until the world stopped being scary. There's too much going on in my head right now, and I just need to hold hands, make popcorn, and figure things out. I'm extremely thankful for skype, and I know any of my girls would hop right online to talk to me if they knew how lonely I am, but I'm afraid this time it might make it worse. It'll just remind me that the closest I can get to any of them is a backlit screen, and that's an awfully depressing thought.

I know I didn't technically talk to anyone by posting this, but I feel a little better now. I'm going to curl up with my stuffed animals and watch Glee for a while... and tomorrow will be another day.

Lolly, Smelly, Mocha, and Tilly - I miss you guys right now. Too much. But you know what? I'm glad I have you to miss in the first place.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Birthday fun!

Korea and I have a dysfunctional relationship (story of my life), but like any messed-up couple, we set aside our differences for the sake of celebrating my birth. I think Korea was trying to make up for the cold spaghetti, really, but it certainly outdid itself. My birthday was FABULOUS.

My new friend Kristen (whom I met before I got here thanks to some crafty facebook stalking) decided that she didn't want me to be homesick on my special day, so she set up a little party for the evening. Since my birthday landed on Chuseok, however, I had a whole day to fill, not just an evening. I really enjoy exploring things on my own, so I told everyone I had plans when really my plan was to get lost and have fun. People were a little disappointed that I spent the majority of my day in just my own company, but it was exactly what I wanted. Just a little me-and-Korea quality time.

I pulled out my handy "Things to do in Seoul" book again, and this time I chose the Children's Grand Park. The book showed a picture of some kids in bumper cars and another one of kids looking at a fountain, so this seemed like an exceptional way to spend my afternoon. Also, it had its own subway stop, so the risk of getting lost was nil. I packed up my things and headed off into the unknown.

I had no idea what the Children's Grand Park was aside from a grand park for children. When I went inside, I grabbed a guidemap and nearly danced with joy - the Children's Grand Park is a zoo/amusement park/art museum/water park/aquarium/theater/kitchen sink! I don't really even know how to begin to explain it, so I'll just upload some pictures (I'm also waiting on facebook to upload the entire album, but it's going painfully slowly. I promise I'll have them up soon).

First off, I went to the little bird sanctuary.

That's right - that's me, feeding a bird right out of my hand. JUST LIKE A DISNEY PRINCESS, FOOLS.

After feeding the birds for a crazy amount of time (I was having more fun than all the kids there put together - at one point, there were FIVE birds in my hand. FIVE!), I wandered to the next spot on the map, the Anistory.

Now, Anistory isn't a word in English or Korean, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But it was six dollars and it was my birthday for crying out loud, so I bought a ticket and waited inside the theater. A precious little lady beside me asked (in English) if I was alone. I told her I was and that it was my birthday. She hopped in her seat and shouted "CONGRATULATIONS!" Then she dug around in her bag and proudly presented me with warm blueberry soy milk as a gift. I accepted it graciously and tried very hard to like it, but really guys, it was warm blueberry soy milk.

When the show started, the sweet lady tried to translate everything for me, but she didn't know very much English. I think at some points she was just making up words, but I nodded along enthusiastically anyway. Her effort was adorable and the show wasn't too hard to follow. It was CINDERELLA with ANIMALS. Holy smokes.

That's a raccoon handing the fairy godmother a plunger. Yeah, so the story wasn't spot on, but I did understand "hana, dul, SET!" (one, two, THREE!) and "bibbity-boppity-boo!" occasionally, so I'm pretty sure it was Cinderella. Well, until a monkey dressed like Snow White came out, fainted, and a monkey dressed like a dwarf pulled her off the stage. You can't make this stuff up, folks.

Looking back, I really didn't understand much of what was going on, but it was probably the coolest show I've ever seen anyway. Parrots flew over my head, a seal played the cymbals, and a monkey fairy godmother zip-lined to the stage. Honestly, I can't even put into words how much fun I was having. I might as well just stop this blog right here because nothing I do in Korea will ever top the Anistory.

After the show, I wandered around the zoo portion of the park for a while, which was fabulous, but I'm not going to explain every animal I saw because it would take forever. I will, however, upload them all onto facebook and you can peruse them at your leisure.

Just before I left the park, I noticed a section on the map called "Totem Pole Village" and knew I had to explore that too, so I hiked back across the park and took a few pictures:

There are, of course, quite a few more, but again you can refer to the facebook album for the others. I have so much more story to tell!

I reluctantly left the park in the early evening because I had to attend my own birthday party (hehe, had to). I found a much more direct subway path home, dropped off my stuff, and headed up to Kyobo to meet my friends. I haven't been here very long, so the fact that I had people willing to hang out with me on my birthday absolutely blew my mind. Anyway, so we went to this little restaurant where they cook the food at the table (which is incredibly popular here, and it never gets old). The food was delicious, and they made us wear these silly little aprons, which I loved.

Here's a picture of all of us so no one feels left out of the blog post :)

After dinner, we went to a photo sticker place. I have no pictures to document this because the whole process takes about twelve seconds and you feel a little bit like your head is spinning by the end of it. Basically it's like the regular photo booths at the mall, but everything you do is timed. You select backgrounds, take pictures, choose your favorites, decorate them, and print them in about a minute and a half (I'm exaggerating. Maybe you have two minutes.) It was hilarious and anxiety-inducing (anyone who has played Catch Phrase with me knows how much I HATE being timed. HATE IT.) but so much fun!

On the way out the door, we noticed two guys playing guitar on the street corner. My lovely friends decided that I obviously needed to be serenaded in the middle of a busy street, so they asked the boys to lead a ridiculously loud rendition of "Happy Birthday". Just in case our traveling band of foreigners wasn't sticking out enough, everyone started singing. People stopped and stared as my face turned every shade of pink, then a few drunk guys ran up to give me a hug. Because what's a birthday without a hug from a drunk Asian?

The serenaders laughed and asked us how much we'd been drinking. Um, nothin, guys. We're just that loud and obnoxious all by ourselves.

We still had another stop before the night was over - cake and ice cream! We journeyed across the street to a fancy-shmancy Baskin Robbins. The girls let me choose the cake (yay!) so I picked this one:

I mean, really, how cute is that?

My friends sang to me, yet again, inside the ice cream shop, and we demolished the cake - which was made of chocolate ice cream and something pink with pop rocks in it. Birthday bliss, I bet it was called.

On the way outside, Kristen pointed out that the poles in Gangnam take pictures. Yeah, you read that correctly. What I had assumed were digital maps are also cameras that send free pictures to any email address. Korea is ridiculously cool sometimes.

Most of you likely got here via facebook anyway, but if you didn't, here's a link to the photo album that has all my birthday shenanigans in it :)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Today is my twenty-fourth birthday. It is also my twenty-fourth day in Korea. I think that's kind of nifty, don't you?

To honor this joyous occasion, I've decided to create a list of twenty-four things I've learned in the past three and a half weeks about myself, Korea, and life in general. I'm sure six months from now, I'll look back on my "wisdom" and just shake my head at my naivety, but that's okay. I'm living in this day right now, so on this day, I'll make a list.

24. Public transportation is convenient and good for the environment.
23. "Qook Show" is an electronics store, not a play about Korean cuisine.
22. I kind of like living alone, but really wish I had a couch.
21. Korea smells funny.
20. ALWAYS carry an umbrella.
19. If I could marry a bakery, it'd be Paris Baguette. And we'd have beautiful little pastry babies.
18. No matter where you go, all people want is to figure out life and find some meaning in it.
17. I'm much too tall and too loud to ever really fit in here.
16. For the most part, people genuinely care about each other. Even strangers.
15. Alcohol + packed subway car = domino effect!
14. Discrimination pretty much blows.
13. Carry more cash than you think you need. Like twice as much.
12. When you leave the country, you find out very quickly which relationships you value the most.
11. Americans abroad aren't typically representing their country very well.
10. Eating on the floor is only fun for a few minutes. Then your feet fall asleep.
9. Living in Korea gives me an excuse to explore and find exciting things, but the more I do it, the more I wonder why I never bothered to live this way before.
8. I value my iPod above every other object I own. Including my passport.
7. It's better to say "thank you" too many times than not enough.
6. Take the time to get to know why people are. Not just who. Why.
5. Just because something looks like chocolate doesn't necessarily mean it is chocolate.
4. Drying your clothes on a rack takes a ridiculously long time and leaves everything wrinkled. Better to just never wash anything, really.
3. Euchre isn't nearly as popular as it should be.
2. I'm braver than I ever imagined I could be.
1. If given the choice between being safe and making a good story, always pick the story. I'm starting to think that's what life is for.

I'm judging myself right now for posting this. I hate when people my age (or younger) pretend they have life all figured out. I'm not saying these past three weeks in Korea have made me some kind of self-actualized guru; I merely want to acknowledge that I've learned something and that I'm continuing to learn. It's when we stop trying to make ourselves better that we start to fall apart.

This has been "Life Lessons with Nikki." And now, back to your regularly scheduled antics.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I like watching the puddles gather rain

Happy Chuseok!

It's Korean Thanksgiving, so I don't have to work most of this week. Last week, I not-so-subtley wrote in my parent letter that my birthday was this Thursday. As I hoped they would, the mommies all went together and bought me a fancy-shmancy cake that I'm planning to eat for all three meals, all three days of this glorious holiday. Mmm, cake.

Since I have three full days off, and I've been in the country less than a month, I had plenty of ideas for how to spend my time. I got a book earlier this week in Itaewon called "Seoul Best 100" that outlines the 100 best places to visit in the city. I read through every page of the book and decided I had one favorite: the Wall of Wishes. It's at a river called Cheonggyecheon, and my research online produced pictures like these:

According to my travel book, the Wall of Wishes is a wall along the river where people have decorated over 20,000 tiles with colorful and elaborate wishes. This wall, combined with the images online and the fact that there is a museum nearby, led me to believe that Cheonggyecheon was likely the very best part of Seoul. I decided my first day of Chuseok would be dedicated to locating this amazing fantasy land.

I actually thought to check the weather before I left today, and I saw that it was going to rain. I had brought a pair of polka-dotted rain boots with me, so I decided today would be an opportune time to bust them out. I coordinated my outfit around the highly fashionable hunks of rubber and set off with my subway map, guidebook, and a whole lot of optimism.

Gangnam wasn't raining at all, so I felt a little silly traipsing down the sidewalk as though I were on my way to go fly-fishing, but I had had nothing but candy for breakfast, so I was in a great mood. I successfully navigated my way through three line changes on the subway and emerged from the Jegi-dong Station, fully expecting the lovely river to be flowing along beside me. Instead, all I found was rain.

Somewhere in my near-quarter-century of life, I had developed the belief that rain boots would cause me to be entirely impervious to all natural elements. I chose a direction at random and headed off down the sidewalk, splashing in puddles and making a complete fool of myself. Due to the horrendous downpour, there was hardly anyone on the streets, but this didn't deter me at all. Remember, I was going to see a pretty river with a Wall of Wishes!

After tromping around aimlessly for a while, I decided that it was entirely unlikely that I'd stumble across the river on my own, so I stopped at a police station. I walked in, dripping wet, and simply said "help?" The police officer looked vaguely concerned about my state of well-being but he hardly spoke any English. Hoping to get some clear assistance, I pulled out my guidebook and pointed to the page about Cheonggyecheon. The officer shook his head and handed the book back, but I refused to take it. I pointed again at the picture and smiled encouragingly. At this, he became visibly flustered and started miming rain, a rising river, and a "whoooosh!" sound over and over again. I think he was telling me that if I got close to the river, it would sweep me away, but I remained unconcerned. When he realized I wasn't going to give up, he reluctantly led me to a map and pointed out the easiest route. I suddenly remembered the museum and tried to ask him where it was. Since he didn't know much English, and I don't know the Korean word for museum, we didn't get very far. Finally, I pointed to a random spot on the map and asked "museum?" to which he smiled and nodded. Success! I now knew where to find both the river AND the museum! He sat down, shaking his head at the crazy foreign girl, and I splashed back out into the monsoon.

Thirty more minutes of stomping in puddles followed while I tried to find my destinations. I decided I wanted to go to the museum first in case it closed early for the holiday, so I tried to remember where the man had shown me on the map. A lot of walking in circles later, I saw a sign with happy children on it and did a little dance; my museum was right up the road! I followed the sign around a corner and down an alleyway to the Seoul Folk Flea Market.

I knew as I approached that I was not at the right place, but I kept walking anyway. My socks and dress were soaked completely through, and the candy-high was beginning to wear off. Dozens of old Korean men stared at me as I entered the building and accidentally hit myself in the face with my umbrella.

I didn't spend much time inside the Flea Market, but I did notice a few things I had of course been trying to find: 8-track tapes, MRE's, and an absurd amount of leather. I wandered for a few minutes, but when I stumbled upon a bucket of dead fish, I decided this wasn't quite what I was looking for. Luckily, they had a tourist information spot, so I popped in and asked where to find the museum. For the record, it was nowhere near where the police officer had directed me, but it was somewhat within walking distance. By this point, I was determined to find the damn museum.

I headed out toward the river, thinking perhaps I could gaze out over the lovely landscape for a few minutes before I hit the museum. Unfortunately, because of the rain, the river looked like this:

Not quite what was in the brochure.

Sadly, I had to concede that perhaps I would not be visiting the Wall of Wishes today. However, this only made me more devoted to locating the museum so my day wouldn't be an entire waste. I splashed across the bridge, laughing maniacally at the flooded river below me. I walked for what seemed an inappropriate distance and nearly gave up before I finally saw the museum up in the distance. I skipped the rest of the way there and practically danced inside.

The museum was completely empty. I wandered from exhibit to exhibit, pretending I could read the Korean signs that accompanied miniature statues like these:

All in all, the museum was dreadfully boring, but I didn't want it to end because I was dreading going back out into the rain. The novelty of puddle-jumping had long since worn off, and I was cold, soaked, hungry, and about an hour and a half from home. I got lost trying to find the subway station and ended up hopping on a bus I knew would eventually take me somewhere near my home if I waited long enough.

Basically today proved that, as is most often true in life, the journey is infinitely more entertaining than the destination itself. Also, even if you're wearing rain boots, you'll still get really wet if you jump in enough puddles.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Aluminum foil and cold spaghetti

How long does "Korea is so amazing and I loooooove it!!!" last?

Turns out seventeen days, two hours.

Last night, I went back to my current favorite coffee shop to write the "things that make me smile" post. I knew it was going to be funny, and I had a blast writing it. But about halfway through, I looked out the window, the Pandora's Box in my mind flew open, and a million little thoughts flooded through my head.

"Seoul looks an awful lot like downtown Cincinnati! I HATE downtown Cincinnati!"
"That guy is staring at me! I bet he's going to follow me home!"
"Why are there so many couples here yet I'm so lonely? Am I that unlovable?"
"I hate grapefruit juice. Why did I buy this? I'm wasting all my money!"
"Everyone around me is Asian!"
"What if I can't find my way home?"
And, most prominently, "WTF AM I DOING IN SOUTH KOREA?!"

I should have known it would catch up with me sometime; the transition was just too smooth. I made friends so easily and I've kept myself super-busy, so I never really gave myself time to process anything. Even my journal is full of "this place is magical and beautiful and lovely and charming and blah blah blah" - I never really let myself acknowledge that I'm scared. Truth is, though, I'm pretty terrified.

After I freaked out in the coffee shop, I wandered back to my apartment and watched American tv until I fell asleep, thinking perhaps I could suppress my misery and trick myself into being happy again (because that always works, right?). I woke up this morning, ate my Frosted Flakes, and walked to work with my friends. Then all hell broke loose.

Today shouldn't have been difficult, really. We had "International Costume Day", which means the parents spend insane amounts of money dressing their kids up to match arbitrarily chosen countries and we parade around the school, making crafts and snacks in each "country". A bit like Halloween on steroids. But as soon as I came in today, Robin threw a hunk of wood at me. Asa. I totally exploded and punished the whole class (why? because I'm a fabulous teacher, that's why), and I tried to calm back down. Then I found out that my craft was "too simple" for the six-year-olds who would be completing it, so the administration made it more complicated. They decided to attach aluminum foil to cardboard using sheer willpower as an adhesive agent. I tried every glue and tape in my classroom, but nothing worked. The principal came in and told me I was doing it wrong. Doing WHAT wrong, exactly? FOIL DOESN'T STICK! Not even Korean foil! So I took a deep breath and promised to try harder.

The other six-year-old classes came into my room to do my "craft." My class has five kids, and that's plenty, but each of the other classes has fourteen. Imagine trying to convince fourteen six-year-olds that if they try hard enough, they can make foil stick to cardboard. Now imagine doing that in a language they don't entirely understand. Now imagine storming out of your room and crying on the bathroom floor.

By lunchtime I had calmed down a little bit. I walked into the cafeteria and was delighted - nay, overjoyed - to find that today was spaghetti! This is the first non-Korean school lunch I've had, and I was giddy with relief. I loaded my plate up and pranced back into my room where I made a painful discovery.

Spaghetti is served cold here. Dammit, South Korea. Why you gotta kick me when I'm down?

I successfully completed the rest of the day, if you can call hiding in the bathroom and sobbing a success. I know that it doesn't look like much really happened, and I know most of the people reading this are thinking "wow, Nikki totally needs to chill"... but I don't think you can really understand unless you've lived in another country. Sure, it's not a big deal that I can't read any of the functions on the computer, but when I'm being told that I need thirty copies of something and the printer isn't responding, I kind of need the error messages in English to be able to fix the problem. Today's disasters wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't woken up this morning already feeling like I would give my right arm in exchange for a ticket home. Looking out the window at the coffee shop last night had me literally shaking; the city that felt so welcoming and exciting last week had morphed into downtown Detroit. I felt like the city itself had fooled me, tricked me into believing that I belonged here then ripping off my rose-colored glasses to reveal a ferocious death trap. Yep, I'm exaggerating a lot. It's not that bad. But in the moment, it felt that bad. It felt like everything was closing in on me and I was abandoned in a city that scorned my very existence. Tucking those feelings away overnight only made them doubly horrible when they exploded out of me this morning, and that's how I ended up a weepy mess on the bathroom floor.

Thank God for the other teachers. On my way back to my room, I stopped in Jeanne's doorway and just stared at her like my favorite teddy bear had been shredded to make toilet paper. She walked over, and in her comforting southern accent, said, "What's the matter, buddy?" With tears in my eyes, I told her that I hated Korea and wanted to go home. She replied, "We all do. But we're stuck. Want a hug?" Looking back, I know that's not true. She doesn't hate Korea any more than I do, but in that moment, it was exactly what I needed to hear. I talked with my friend Meghan a little while later, and she gave me a hug and told me it's all a mess, but we deal with it because we're all in it together. I can't even begin to articulate how much it helped me that her eyes held empathy instead of sympathy. It's such a slight distinction, but knowing that she knew how much cold spaghetti can throw you right over the edge made me feel normal again. I guess I had decided that if I cried, it meant I was too weak to handle this, and I hate the thought of being weak. But it turns out that everyone cries, everyone freaks out over nothing, and everyone helps each other get through it. The rest of the day, teachers kept stopping in my room to check on me. They all had the same look on their face, the one that says, "I get it. You're not the only one." I haven't been here long enough to see anyone else break down, so I still feel a little silly about it, but they all assured me that we'll each take our turn. But no one gives up and goes home because we all help each other get past it.

We've decided that Fridays are for Mexican food, so after school, Hana, Jeanne, and I headed back to Dos Tacos. We laughed and talked and stuffed ourselves with decently authentic Mexican before heading our separate ways for the evening. On the way home, I stopped at a market (and by "market", I mean a man selling fruit on the back of a truck) and decided to get some ridiculously expensive grapes. The man smiled at me and tossed an extra bunch in my bag for free. In a weird way, it's like Korea was apologizing. I imagined it saying, "I'm sorry if I came on too fast. You don't have to fall in love with me quite yet. Let's just be friends for a while and get to know each other better." Okay, Korea. I'll give you another chance.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Things that make me smile

I'm a kid. If you've ever met me, or if you've read any other post on here, you probably know that. During college, Mocha, Lolly, and I would play with silly putty during class, and my only run-in with the law involved a dozen or so photographs of belly buttons and butt cracks. It's been four years since Disney, but Ben still picks on me about the time we watched Wishes from behind Cinderella Castle and I spun around like I was being flushed down a toilet, trying to see all the fireworks at the same time. I know I'm a "grown-up" now and all, but I'll argue until I'm blue in the face that childlike joy is as Biblical as prayer, and I strive to find it in everything I do. Korea is no exception.

For the past week-ish, I've been keeping a list of things that I enjoy about Korea. None of them were really long enough to create an entire blog post about, but I think I have enough of them to stick them all back-to-back and pretend they have a unifying thread. Without further ado and in no particular order - things that make me smile in Asia!

1) Automatic lights. In Korea they're really energy-conscious. The first morning YJ picked me up to walk me to work, he pointed at my AC unit and said "off." I instantly pictured myself walking into thick, humid air after work and groaned, but I did as I was told. He must have noticed my displeasure because now he doesn't trust me at all; he'll frequently ask me if I remembered to turn off my air and my hot water. The one benefit I've noticed to the ridiculous levels of energy conservation is that lights turn off when you leave a room, which means they turn on as soon as you step into a room. When I leave my apartment in the morning, there are no fewer than six individual auto-lights that turn on as I walk down the stairs, and every single one makes me feel like a Jedi. It's what I imagine it would be like to have a ninja for a personal assistant - sneaking through the stairwells before I reach them then darting out of sight. Sometimes I chase the imaginary ninja, and by the time I get to the bottom of the stairs, I'm giggling like crazy. My neighbors must think I'm a lunatic.

2) Pringles. I understand very little in the convenience store. I think I've been purchasing milk for the last two and a half weeks, but I can't be sure because "maeil" doesn't produce anything on google translate, and it's the only word in English letters on the carton. I can find the Ramen noodles, but I can't read anything on them, so I'm too nervous to make a purchase lest I end up with spicy anchovies or something. I located Frosted Flakes because Tony the Tiger is apparently a universal character, but other than that, there's not much I can buy. Except Pringles. Pringles are EVERYWHERE. They're on prominent display when I walk past nearly every convenience store, and they line the shelves in the E-mart. They're one of the only American foods I've found that aren't "Korean-ized" (Kit-Kats are "KicKers" here), and I smile every time I see them. Why Pringles, Asia? Why not Doritos or Lay's? Or Tostito's? Or Cheetos? Or any number of other junk foods you could have adopted into your culture?

3) Not smiling in public. I have unreasonably good manners. When I meet new people, I sound like a southern belle desperate to be courted, and I threw a bit of a fit when I discovered there's no direct translation for "please" here. Therefore, when I walk down the street, I tend to smile at everyone, and everything, in every direction. That's completely counter-cultural in Korea; if people even look up from their various electronic whatevers, they almost always have a snarl on their face. (Okay, maybe not a snarl, but a look of indifference, which is as good as a snarl to someone like me). I find this to be ceaselessly amusing, so I grin even more than usual, practically forcing people to notice me. On the other hand, the one night that I was ridiculously pissed off (for unwarranted reasons that I'm now pretty ashamed of), I felt like I fit in perfectly. I didn't feel the normal societal pressures to look like I have everything together when in the presence of others; I stomped and grunted and threw a tantrum the whole way home, and no one regarded me any differently than when I smile.

4) Seeing other foreigners. According to the Korea Times (are you shocked that I read that? Me too, actually), there are 870,000 foreigners in Korea, over a quarter-million in Seoul alone. Yet most days, the only ones I see are the other teachers at my school, so I get embarrassingly excited whenever I cross paths with another non-Asian. I can spot them from blocks away now, and by the time they approach, I've already scripted out a heartwarming reunion between long lost family where we rush into each other's arms and reminisce about how much we miss Wendy's. By the time the person actually reaches me, however, it becomes clear that they have not memorized their lines in my little fantasy play. They trot right on past, leaving me disappointed and grumpy in their wake. If I were in any city in the US, I wouldn't think twice about these strangers. But here I feel like I'm supposed to know them for some reason, like if we don't acknowledge one another, we're breaking some kind of rule about American patriotism.

5) Manners mode. When I put my phone on vibrate, the phrase "entering manners mode" flashes across the screen. I don't have anything clever to say about it; I just really like it.

6) Subway salesmen. I was not excited about public transportation. The only mass transit vehicle I've ever enjoyed spouted out "Por favor, mantenganse alehado de las puertas" at every stop and landed me at the official home of Mickey and the gang. Here, however, I have to take either a bus or the subway if I want to get anywhere outside of Gangnam, and sometimes I do. Tomorrow I'm going to explore Hongdae after work, and Saturday I'm taking a deck of cards and a map and attempting to locate my euchre partner in Anyang. Luckily for me, the subway is far more delightful than I could have imagined. It's way too crowded and I always, always fall down when it takes off, but for some unknown reason, I feel like I'm being treated to some kind of rare field trip every time I step onboard. I stare around at all the walls and pretend I can read the poster that has jumping teenagers on it while I wait for the salesmen. During peak hours, people wander down the subway cars, selling things you never knew you needed but honestly can't remember how you lived without. So far I've only been on the subway less than half a dozen times, and I've already seen flashlight-fans, shopping bags that fold into strawberry-shaped packets, and drain cleaner. I get excited every time I know a subway is in my future, and I've actually considered riding it in circles just to see what kinds of treasures will be offered to me.

7) Couples outfits. It feels like Asia is divided up into pairs. Everywhere I go, people are holding hands or linking arms, and it makes me awfully lonely. I do recognize that my blatant lack of a significant other could be the fuel behind my inability to see anyone else walking alone but me, but unfortunately, it doesn't help me tune out the cute little Asian duos that line the sidewalks. Of course, as with everything here, there is a silver lining: couples outfits. That's precisely what it sounds like: couples who dress completely identically from head to toe for no obvious reason other than to look silly. The only logical conclusion I can come to is that even Asians have a difficult time telling one another apart; therefore, they wear parallel clothing on the off chance they get separated from their significant other and need to locate him or her in a crowd. I can't imagine who decided this phenomenon was a good idea; why on earth did the first boyfriend in this particular fad agree to participate? Is there no Korean equivalent to the phrase "I'd rather not look like a douchebag"? Regardless, it brings me unknowable joy to walk past a couple who matches from top to bottom; I like to imagine my amusement is inversely equal to the boyfriend's misery.

8) Piercings. Korean culture is not very accepting of body piercings or tattoos. When my school sent me my contract, the principal included a little note about the dress code: "Tattoos and piercings are not allowed because in Korea they are the sign of the gangster." I was afraid I'd stumbled into another job where I'd be covering my ichthus with a bandaid every morning, so I was delighted to find that other teachers in my school are equally rebellious. A handful of them have tattoos, and at least three of the teachers have facial piercings. On Tuesday, Kat and I decided to go out for Thai food, and came back with nose rings:

When I came into work yesterday, Hana stared at my face and said, "Oh my! Why would you do that? Now you look cheap!" I tried to convince her that I actually looked quite badass by doing this:

She replied, "No, no, no. You look cheap and easy. Oh dear. Your face has bling bling now." This reaction is actually good news; if this whole teaching thing doesn't work out, clearly my bling bling face has me right in line to become an Asian hooker. I wonder if I need a different Visa for that kind of work?

Monday, September 13, 2010

My heart hurts

In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have posted this. I wouldn't want anyone from the school to see it - I'm worried about what kind of trouble I could cause by making accusations based on the testimony of a five-year-old, so I'm taking down the original post. If you happened to see it and are praying, thank you so much. If you didn't see it and are now burning with curiosity, just know that people are broken and life is sometimes too hard for those who don't deserve it. Keep my kiddos in your prayers. Me too.

Sorry Sorry!

It's Monday night and, true to form, I've found myself in yet another overpriced coffee shop watching hundreds of people scamper past the window. If it weren't for the fact that these lattes are so not worth what I'm paying for them, I'm positive I'd hang out in coffee shops every night of the week. People watching never, ever gets old. I'm going to be known as the creepy foreigner who stares out of second story windows if I'm not careful.

I know I ended my last post with how comfortable and happy I am here, so I'm hesitant to mention it again lest I sound like a broken record. Nevertheless, this blog isn't just for hilarious stories; I'm trying to record my adventure exactly as it unfolds, which unfortunately means you're going to have to read about how much I love it here. Just be glad I'm in love with a country and not a person - you'd get awfully sick of reading about how "his smile takes my breath away." At least Korea's not sappy and lame. :)

I'm still delightfully surprised at how quickly I snapped into life here. The only other time that something in my life made this much sense was when I moved to Oxford. The first time I set foot on Miami's campus my senior year of high school, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I belonged there. College was absolutely not the easiest four years of my life, but I never once questioned whether I had made the right choice. Through everything, I knew that Oxford was where I was meant to be, and I never regretted the decision to go there. I know I've only been here two weeks (today's the two week anniversary! asa!), but I already know that I fit here. I'm sure it will be impossibly hard at times, but I'm equally sure I'm never going to regret this. Moving to Korea might not always be a walk in the park, but it will always be exactly what I was meant to do.

Last night, I had my first Bible study at Jubilee. The people in my Bible study are really great, and I'm so excited about studying with them for however long this group lasts. They were incredibly welcoming, and they laughed pretty much every time I tried to tell a story (not in a rude way - I'm often funnier than I intend to be). When the group left, I stayed and talked to the leader for a little while, and she told me that she could just see peace on me. Now, if you know me, "peaceful" is typically the last adjective anyone would use to describe me, but it's really how I feel here. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn't have a single prayer request to write down. I feel like God's been providing before I even realize what I need, and I'm just along for the ride. Maybe this is what it's like when you find yourself right smack in the middle of His will? It's funny how we exert so much effort fighting to plan out our own lives, but if we let go, things start to work out for themselves. If only I could translate that into other areas of my life, we'd be smooth sailing.

This weekend was a whole lot of fun. On Friday night, I went bowling with some people from Jubilee. When my Cincinnati crew used to go bowling, we never took it seriously (I'm thinking specifically of the time when one of the boys shattered the light at the end of the lane), but my new friends here consider bowling, like, a sport or something. They broke up the teams based on skill and every pin was a HUGE deal. The teams were super-competitive... and also insanely encouraging. I'm certainly not going pro with my skills any time soon, but every time I got a strike, both teams cheered and gave me high fives. We were competing, but it was also like we were just one big team. Everyone groaned when someone missed picking up a spare, and everyone celebrated when someone got multiple strikes in a row. I felt a little bit like we were in a Disney Channel movie... and I loved every second of it.

Saturday was the Jubilee anniversary BBQ. I knew Seoul was expecting rain, which left me with two options: I could gather up my rain gear and huddle under a tent, protecting myself from the elements as though melting were a legitimate concern... or I could dress for a mud battle. This was a genuine dilemma for me; if I prepared for mud and didn't find any friends to play with, I could potentially end up being known as "that weird girl who sat by herself in a puddle during the picnic", and no one wants to be that girl. But then again, if I dressed like I had a rain allergy, I could end up missing out on a lot of fun. Ultimately, I readied myself for the mud and hoped for the best. And the best is what I got.

Frisbee. Mud. New friends. And joy.

Saturday night I'm sure I could have found something to do, but I decided it was finally time to make my apartment look less like a hotel room and more like home. I blasted music and cleaned the kitchen, occasionally breaking out into dangerously loud solos and award-winning dances. I can't remember the last time I had so much fun alone on a Saturday night, and I'm proud to report that my sink no longer smells like rotten vegetables.

Sunday I had lunch with my lovely Hana, and we spent hours talking about our lives. Apparently no matter how many time zones separated your lives before, you can always talk about how much boys suck. I'm obviously not going to recount everything we said, but I will show you some pictures:

Have I mentioned I adore her? Because I do.

When I went into work this morning, I was actually really excited to see my kiddos. I know this is going to fade VERY soon, but right now, seeing these kids is something I genuinely look forward to. I wrote down some of the hysterical things that came out of their mouths today for your enjoyment :)

Me (to Hana): Why does the milk taste different here?
Evelyn: I am genius, so I know. In USA, they squeeze the cow to get the milk. But in Korea, they just take it out and send it straight to market.

Me: I'm going to pull all my hair out.
Brian: Your hair won't come out; you have a belly button.

Me: *explains definition of "capacity"
Evelyn: So you have a big capacity for love of the bank boy, right, Teacher?

Me: *gives synonyms for "funny" so the kids will stop calling me "crazy Teacher"
Evelyn: Oh Teacher, you are so he-ware-us!

Brian (to Robin during play time): Do you know the crap? I will be the crap. What will you be? Pikachu?

Me: We're going to read a story called "Who Is Best?"
Brian: I am the best. I have SIX girlfriends.

Me: You are all so smart. I should just go back to the USA.
David: Teacher, if you leave, I will go with you because I love you too much. **(Kidnapping these kids is going to be a piece of cake)**
Youn-ha: Why would you go back, Teacher? Korea is home.

And in closing... whenever I tell Robin off for doing something bad in class, he breaks out into this crazy dance that looks like a mentally challenged cross between the macarena and lord of the dance. Usually I just stare at him until he finishes, and I'm sure the expression on my face is remarkably similar to that of a dog hearing a high-pitched noise. He's been doing this since the first day, and I couldn't figure it out to save my life. Today I finally asked Hana what on earth the kid was doing, and she told me it's a really famous dance by a really famous boy band. America - I'm thrilled to introduce to you: Super Junior!

I dare you to not have that song stuck in your head for the next hour.

Also, while I was researching (ie: watching youtube videos at work), I came across this one of inmates doing the "Sorry Sorry" dance. Potential future bridesmaids: you will be selected based on your ability to properly and enthusiastically execute this dance and your willingness to do so at the reception. It's worth noting the groom will be chosen using identical criteria.

You didn't honestly think I'd tell you all that then not post a video of my kids dancing, did you? Don't you know me but at all?!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

No pants

I'm going to apologize in advance; I don't have any pictures for this post. Well, okay, I guess I can give you this one of me and Hana:

Oh, and here's a picture of me trying to eat spaghetti with chop sticks:

Oh, and here's a picture of a women's toilet that's just a hole in the ground:

Satisfied? Great! Let's tell some stories, shall we?

My kiddos aren't allowed to speak Korean in class. They've broken the rule a couple times to teach me words, and I am proud to report that I can now say both "thank you" and "I love you." Problem is, to my English-speaking mind, "kamsahamnida" and "saranghamnida" sound so stinkin' similar that I tend to mix them up. Fortunately, my students are the only ones currently declaring their love to me, and either response is appropriate. The issue arises when someone in a store or restaurant hands me something and I respond with the wrong one. You can imagine how that goes over.

The kids have also taught me "asa" (ah-SAH), which is the Korean equivalent of "awesome" or "cool." (Ben, if you're reading this, I know you taught me first, but I forgot until one of the kids said it.) I'm kind of in love with this word. Readers, I'm issuing you a mission: please have the entire US using this term by the time I return home. Thanks. Even though I now use the word in class, the kids aren't technically allowed. Hana translated it for them one day and told them the proper English term is "hooray." That pretty much works, but my adorable little Korean monsters pronounce it "HOOOOOOO-RAY" and it cracks me up every single time.

Today I went to the hospital for my health check. Apparently my tears last week had convinced YJ that I needed his escort, so he accompanied me across town. When we arrived, I darted into the bathroom and discovered yet another location that uses the awkward blue soap-on-a-stick, and came back out to wait in the waiting room until I was called. The health check was comprised of a series of tests, executed in a completely random order by doctors who spoke little English. When it was time for my chest x-ray, I was led into a tiny room and told to put on a gown. I stripped, pulled a piece of cloth off the shelf, and wrapped it around me. I looked down, and much to my discontent, the gown only reached a little past my butt. I dug around the shelf again looking for some pants to go with my gown-shirt but had no luck. I stood in the room for a while, debating whether the cloth was too short because I'm American and inappropriately tall or because finding pants in the little room was a test of my mental competency. After a bit, I realized that I had been in the room far longer than was needed to change clothes, so I just waltzed out in the too-short gown. When the x-ray technician saw me, his eyes grew wide, and he pointed at my legs. I tried to explain that there were no pants in the room, but he was too embarrassed to watch my gesturing. I should have recognized ages ago that I'm the kind of person for whom it is crucial to know the phrase "no pants" in as many languages as possible. It wasn't until after the x-ray, when I was redressing, that it occurred to me that the cotton leggings I had worn that day would not have affected the x-ray in the slightest and would have prevented this entire train wreck of a situation. Oh well; next time I find myself pants-less in a foreign country, I'll know precisely what to do.

And now we change gears entirely, sans an acceptable transition...

Tonight when I got off work, I gathered up my things and headed to a Starbucks. Sipping my over-priced latte, I stared out the window for a long time, watching hoards of people file past in their outrageously fancy clothing and ankle-breaking heels. I brought a book with me, but I was too wrapped up in people-watching to really pay attention to what I was reading.

One of the things that had worried me the most about Korea was being in a big city. I'm not in any way a city girl. I was raised camping in the country, and I consider the Miami Metro "public transportation." Even in the two years I lived in Cincinnati, I never really enjoyed being downtown. I only went there when I had to, and even then, I power-walked, eyes down, clutching my belongings as though my mere presence would get me mugged. I've always felt the most at peace when I'm sitting around a campfire, making a necklace out of leaves and flowers, or fighting orcs in a Louisville park with my friends. So moving to a huge place like Seoul didn't exactly thrill me, but someone talked me into looking for jobs right in the middle of the stinkin' city.

Which brings me back to the Starbucks. Hundreds of people must have passed my window while I watched, and I wasn't able to read a single sign as far as I could see in either direction, and I couldn't have been more content. With all the hustle and bustle going on outside, I sat with my book, and I contemplated this adventure. There's no question that Korea is sensory overload. Every step you take, someone wants to sell you something, or stare awkwardly at you, or walk straight into you without apologizing. But right now, my life feels delightfully simplistic. Sure, there are shops and restaurants and bars and people everywhere I turn, but I currently don't understand 95% of what goes on around me. All I know is how to get to work, how to buy basic foods at the convenience store, and how to get to church... and it's such a relief. My primary needs are met, and I don't even really have that many wants. I can literally entertain myself for hours wandering around the Daiso (Korean dollar store), and I'm unreasonably pleased with myself when I successfully purchase a cup of coffee or an umbrella. Once the dust clears and things settle down, I'm sure this whole life will begin to feel routine, and it'll take more and more to sustain my contentment. Perhaps life is always that way; things begin so harmlessly, so full of simple joy. But once we begin to feel happy, our systems begin to crave things in excess; essentially, it takes increasing amounts to reach that original high, and we get so bogged down trying to please ourselves that even seeking pleasure becomes a chore. My current prayer is that I can appreciate these simple joys as long as possible. One day, too soon I'm sure, sitting alone in a Starbucks is bound to make me lonely and homesick. But right now, I'm beautifully content.

The week before I left, I was terrified. Moving to Asia seemed irrational, stupid, and ridiculous. I'm ten days in, and it feels like I've been here an hour and a decade simultaneously. Korea is crowded, confusing, stuffy, huge, strange... and a perfect fit for me. I can't believe it took me so long to find it.

The other day, my kids were playing quietly with Legos during lunchtime. Out of nowhere, one of my girls hopped to her feet, punched her hands in the air, and shouted, William Wallace-style, "I LOVE KOREA!" 

Me too, kid. Me too.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

This post is slightly inappropriate. You've been warned.

This morning when I got to work, David filled his cheeks with orange juice then slapped his hands on the sides of his face, spraying orange juice all over the room. Most teachers would have disciplined him, but I'm not most teachers. I cracked up. :)

I'm getting more accustomed to teaching, which is so nice. Last week, I felt like everything I did was so hastily thrown together that the kids would run home and tell their parents how useless the teacher was, but now I'm starting to get into a groove. Sure, I'm still making copies during class, but at least now I'm coping the right pages. The kids haven't been in school before, so it's proving a little difficult to teach them simple things like "sit in your chair" and "don't punch each other", but I'm getting to the point where we can actually work on the lessons sometimes. And I've noticed most of the other kids in the school now have to walk with a bubble in their mouth (you can't talk when you have your cheeks puffed out, so it's golden), which makes me feel like I must be doing something right.

Lunch at the school is always pretty iffy. I never really know what's on my plate, so I kind of stick to eating rice and salad every day. Today, there was a pile of something fried that looked remarkably like chicken. I did a little dance to celebrate recognizable food, and Hana frowned. She told me it was actually rabbit.

Like bunny rabbit.

Like hop hop hop.

Naturally, my face fell. I was really looking forward to having some protein with lunch, but I wasn't quite sure I could stomach eating a bunny. Hana tried to make it better by telling me they don't eat the big, fat rabbits - just the baby ones.

That's not better.

I sat in the room for a minute, trying to decide whether I wanted to try the bunny. In the States, you'd have to practically drug me to get me to eat Thumper, but here, I've gotten slightly more adventurous, and I finally decided I'd rather have the experience than chicken out. I gathered up my courage and headed to the kitchen, where Hana stood, laughing with the cook. The woman who cooks out lunches is darling, but she speaks little English. When she saw me in the doorway, she pointed at the meat and said "chicken!" Hana practically fell on the floor she was laughing so hard.

I got my lunch, and Hana and I joked about the meat the whole time we were eating. Nothing escapes my students, so after a few minutes, they realized that Miss Hana played an oh-so-funny trick on Miss Nikki, and they all made fun of me too. I'd have been embarrassed if it hadn't been so funny.

A few hours later, we were working on food groups and the food pyramid. We talked about breads, fruits, and vegetables, and we got to the section on the pyramid for proteins. I asked the kids what their favorite meat was...

"Bunny rabbit!"

Screw you, Brian.

After school, Kat and I headed out for dinner. Pretty much everyone I hang out with tries to teach me a little Korean, but I just store it up in my head because I'm so nervous to use it. I've become much more understanding toward the Koreans here; I know that most of them know a little English, and at first I would get irritated that they didn't say hello back to me. But now that I know some Korean, I've become uncharacteristically shy, and I freeze up every time I walk into a building. I know how to say hello, and Hana tells me my pronunciation is very good, but I always get choked up. Sometimes, I actually almost say "Como estas?". It's like my brain recognizes that English is not the correct language, so it automatically substitutes Spanish. Eh, not so much. So today for dinner, I decided I would actually use the Korean I've been learning, and I said "kamsamnida" when I took my tray. I can't get too proud of myself, though; I was at Burger King.

I've been craving sweets since the day I was born, but I haven't really known what to get here. Korean snack foods are not at all what Americans eat as snacks; here, it's not uncommon to have cereal and milk for afternoon snack one day, and cold corn on the cob for snack the next morning. The first time Hana handed me a potato on a fork, I thought she was kidding. Although I know they sell cookies here, I pretty much just sit around and dream about Oreos and Fudge Rounds, but today I decided to buy some Korean junk food.

The first box is essentially tiny graham cracker sticks with chocolate mushroom shapes on top. They're quite delicious, and I kind of ate a whole box of them before I got home. The second snack is extremely similar to Koala Yummies (does anyone outside my family know what those are? I think we made up the name), but even more delicious. Kiss and B - you'll be getting plenty of them for Christmas, assuming I can keep them in my possession long enough to put them in a box without pigging out on them. That last snack... well, look again:

Oh Korea.

I have one more picture I'm trying to decide whether to post... I took it originally to only show my college roommates, but I can't stop laughing every time I think about it... so here it goes. Don't judge me. If you're reading this out loud to a child, please PLEASE stop here.

Here's a sink I found in one of the subway stops. That blue stick-looking thing near the faucet is a bar of soap. I'm not going to spell it out for you (I'm blushing just thinking about the fact that people are reading this right now), but just imagine how you get the soap onto your hands. I've never laughed harder (or been more embarrassed) while washing my hands.

In an attempt to partially redeem myself, here's a really cool picture of a multi-colored fountain that sprays out over a bridge:

Please still love me.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The longest blog post in the history of the world

I've been in Korea for a whole week today - hooray! I've yet to panic and try to book a flight home, but I think I can attribute that to the fact that I'm treating this, in my head, like it's just a little vacation. I aggressively deny the fact that I now LIVE in Asia; I'm just visiting for a little while and I'll be home soon. If I come home, however, I'll lose the money on my plane ticket, and I'll owe John Wilkinson $20. The latter concerns me far more since it's tangled up with my pride.

So far, every day here has been busy busy busy. I'm rather glad; it hasn't given me time to really let it sink in that I'm in Asia. Most of the time I feel like I'm at camp, like I'm making new friends and going on adventures (to the grocery store, but that's much more of an adventure than you'd ever realize). The people at Jubilee have been more than amazing. I've only been here a week, and I already feel like I have friends. Not best friends yet, of course, but people who are excited to help me navigate this crazy new world.

Saturday morning, I met my new friend Jo for lunch. Since I don't have a phone, meeting people right now consists of walking to an unknown location and sitting, hoping the other person actually arrives. When I met Jo, we had arranged to meet at the Sinsa Station, exit 2. I arrived a few minutes early, so I found a bench and watched the crowds roll by for a while. About ten minutes in, I realized that I didn't know whether meeting at exit 2 meant the top of exit 2 or the bottom (there's a staircase that takes you into the subway), so I hopped down the steps. At the bottom, a tiny old Asian woman walked straight up to me, looked into my eyes, said something Korean, and walked away. She didn't seem angry, but the whole interaction was a more than a little strange. I decided I liked being upstairs better, so I headed back upstairs to wait.

When Jo arrived, we wandered around what I am told is the celebrity area of Seoul. Of course, I have ZERO concept of Korean celebrities, so I could have just as easily been wandering through escaped convicts and been none the wiser. We found a restaurant and Jo got an octopus on her plate. I have a picture of it, but I'm not quite sure the best way to make friends is by plastering their meals on the internet, so I'll hold off. Just know it was bizarre.

One of the things I'm liking most about Korea is that every foreigner I meet has a story. I know that everyone in the States has a story too, but everyone here has a weird story, one that lands them in Asia at the end, and it makes them feel like my kind of people. We all have something crazy in common - each foreigner I meet decided one day to uproot themselves and replant on the other side of the world. I love asking people to tell me stories, and it's fantastic to know that everyone here has an automatic one that's bound to be pretty exciting.

After lunch, Jo and I went to get gelato, which I'm pretty sure is my new love language. Kat was at the gelato place too (you have no idea how fun it is to walk in a restaurant in Asia and actually know someone), so Jo passed me off to her, and Kat and I headed up to Itaewon.

Itaewon is full of foreigners. Some of them are annoying as heck, which makes me a little embarrassed about my heritage, but for the most part it wasn't bad. Before I left, Ben gave me a list of places to go, and I was THRILLED to be able to cross one off:

We didn't spend a lot of time in Itaewon, so I don't have much else to report on that at the moment. I've heard from many different people that it's not an area I want to be in alone at night, so I'm planning to make all my trips with armed body guards.

Kat and I had a few hours to kill before the party we went to Saturday night, and she wanted to take a nap, so I decided to head out into Banpo and take some pictures of my surroundings. I'll post everything in a facebook album eventually, but here are a few to get you excited:

I live at the top of this hill. It's disappointingly horizontal in the picture, but it feels like I'm climbing straight up into the sky every single time I try to go home. In case you were wondering, my butt is going to be in fantastic shape by the time I return to the States.

The other teachers at my school have a very complex naming system for the streets. In Korea, they don't name streets - like at all. You have to give landmarks and hope the person you're meeting is competent. To keep track of all our friends, however, the other teachers began labeling the streets in our little neighborhood. I live on Green Salad street, and I take Merry Christmas street to get to work.

While I was on my picture-taking excursion, I decided to stop for a pedicure. Despite the fact that I'm known for being pretty girly, I've never had a pedicure in my life, and Asia seemed like the perfect place to start (yes, I'm subscribing to extreme stereotypes here). I thought this was likely another situation where taking pictures was a tad bit rude, so I don't have any action shots for you. However, I do have some commentary. When I walked in the shop, it was clear the girls spoke little English. I pointed to my toes and asked how much, and the girl closest to me held up the amount with her fingers. I smiled and nodded, and she led me to a seat. One of the other girls jumped up and changed the tv channel to something in English (Pirates of the Caribbean, to be precise), and the girls kept offering to bring me snacks and drinks. At one point, one of them said "five discount" and they took five dollars off my bill at the end.

I don't like being American here. I feel like I'm some kind of celebrity, and it's not that I don't like the attention (heaven knows I love attention); it's the fact that I don't feel like I deserve any of it. Why should I get free cookies and $5 off just because I'm white? I know they're being generous and I genuinely do appreciate it, but it's only one week in and I'm already starting to miss my anonymity. I don't like being treated in a different way because of my light hair and thin face. I don't like that the teenage boy at the convenience store giggles like a little girl when I walk in, and I don't like that people shout "I love white girls" when I walk by. I'm not that pretty. And to top it all off, I'm actually feeling painfully insecure everywhere I go. I've never felt more overweight and underdressed than I do here (and I spent four years in Oxford, for crying out loud!). The girls here are tiny tiny, and they are always dressed like they stepped off a runway. I've never had the best self-esteem, but I spend a lot of time wishing I could just be invisible. Not only do I feel awfully inferior to the women here, but it's magnified by the fact that I'm so noticeable wherever I go. The cotton dresses that used to make me feel pretty now feel like burlap sacks, and my flip flops practically scream "I have no fashion sense!". I don't feel any need to lose weight or buy new clothes per se, but I do already miss fitting in.

I'm not sure if the hour-by-hour rundown of my life is starting to annoy any of you, but it's kind of annoying me. On one hand, I know it'll be fun to look back on this first week and see all the things I did. But on the other hand, it's just life. Yes, the grocery store was hilarious because Heather thought the free sample lady said "dog" instead of "duck"... but in the end, it was just a grocery store. I love writing things out because it's just the way I process life, but I kind of feel like I've decided I'm more of a reporter than a participant in my own adventure. I take pictures of all the meals, and I write down funny things the kids say (for all you Brian fans, today he INSISTED that he is a pretty princess)... but it kind of distances me from what I'm doing. I'm not going to delete this post because I've already spent so much time working on it, but I think from now on, I'll stick to topical posts. This whole diary thing isn't working for me.

I don't mean to be such a downer. Here's a funny story to lighten the mood: I went to the bank today to open an account, and only one person in the whole place spoke English. Unfortunately for me, he was super attractive, so I couldn't even remember how to spell my name on the application. It took a while to cash my travelers checks, so I spent about an hour talking with this guy, and I was totally smitten by the time I left. I got back to my classroom and told Hana that I fell in love; we both laughed and went back to work. At the end of the day, one of my little girls told me she couldn't ride the shuttle home because she had to go to the bank to meet Miss Nikki's new boyfriend and see how handsome he was. Oops. :P

Friday, September 3, 2010

Those aren't tater tots; they're squid.

Hello, America! Before I dive into yesterday's adventures, I'd really like to thank everyone who sent me some form of encouragement yesterday. Life felt unnecessarily hard all day, and I was literally checking my facebook and my blog every hour or so to see if I had any new messages or comments. I heard from people from high school I haven't talked to in years, friends of family members I've never met, and, of course, the people who have been holding my hand from the other side of the world all week. It's a little embarrassing how many times I've read the comments and messages - I know there are 18 on my last post, 9 on the one before it, and 8 on the one before that, and I've lost count of how many messages are in my inbox. Every single one of them has been so encouraging to me, and it's really amazing to know that so many people are behind me even when I'm feeling terribly alone. I sincerely hope that Kimi's right and it's mainly just the jet lag; I know I'll be homesick and sad at various points throughout the whole year, but I feel a little like a failure that I couldn't even make it my first week without crying. I'm going to blame it on the jet lag.

I didn't get lost going to work yesterday, so that's fantastic! The schedule was off again because we had our Star of the Month assembly, but that just means every student in the school was in the gym, all saying and doing hilarious things at the same time. I didn't think to start writing things down until the program was nearly over, but here are a few gems:

"Is dentist a sport?"
Mr. Spencer: "What's your favorite healthy food?"
kid: "Gooood mushrooms."
Mr. Spencer: "What is a habit?"
kid: "It's a bad thing that you do all the time and you should STOP DOING IT!"

The assembly was actually a lot of fun, and I'm kind of looking forward to taking the kids to it every month. I think it's the only time all the kids are together in one space, and a hundred-plus Korean kids in one room guarantees some hilarity.

Also, we took this class picture:

Hana refused to be in it because she was dressed like a soccer player and thought she looked silly. She wouldn't let me take a picture of her all day... which of course means that's the ONLY thing I wanted to do all day. Since she was so adamant against you all seeing her in her soccer garb, I'll hold off until next week to post a pretty picture of her. (For the record, though, she still looked adorable.)

After the assembly, YJ brought me a map of the subway and three sheets of paper (all in Korean) and told me to go get my health check up. I was already pretty fragile... so... I started crying. I waited until he left the room (thankfully), and I tried really hard to hide myself, but Hana still caught me. I showed her what I was supposed to do, and she became very indignant. She stomped off to the principal's office and demanded that someone go with me to help me find the hospital. A few minutes later, YJ came back in and explained that he was very busy and couldn't go with me. He highlighted the correct route on the subway and nodded encouragingly... and Hana told him no. She insisted that someone go with me, and if everyone was busy this week, we'd have to wait until next week. YJ begrudgingly agreed to let me go next week and left. I... cried again.

This time, we had some kiddos in the room, so Hana stood behind me at my desk and I typed out everything so she could read it. I tried to explain that I just feel so helpless here. I don't have a bank account, I can't ride the subway, I don't know how to order in a restaurant, I can't read ANYTHING, and I don't have a cell phone to call someone if I need help. I took cold showers all week because I didn't know how to turn on the hot water, and I couldn't ask the landlord for help. It's fun and humorous for a while, but you get to a point where you just think "okay, that's enough. I'm ready to actually do something for myself now"... but you can't. No matter how long I stare at a street sign, I don't know Korean. Hana is so wonderful because she lived in Canada for a year during college, so she knows what  it's like to up and move to another country where she didn't know anyone and couldn't get around. She said she was lucky though because she spoke the language, and she can't imagine how hard it must be for all of us. She's been an absolute dream come true. Yesterday she noticed I liked the juice we were drinking at snack time, so she slipped the rest of the bottle into my bag, and she wrote me a note to give to my landlord to ask him to fix my hot water. I'm kind of scared that one day she'll just disappear - she's too good to be true.

I don't want it to sound too much like I'm throwing myself a pity party. It's true that I don't know how to do hardly anything, but thus far, I've managed to get around just fine. I haven't needed to take the subway yet, I still have some cash left, and I don't have to go anywhere alone really. Kat's been with me at some point every night, and the two people I met at Jubilee have both been really great. I had dinner with Heather two nights ago, and I'm meeting Joanna today for lunch. Kat's coming to meet me after lunch and we're going to Itaewon (there's a bookstore there I'm dying to see). When I think logically about it, I've had more support than I ever dreamed, and I'm being cared for very well. Unfortunately, I'm a girl, and less than 1% of my brain power is devoted to logical thinking, so things like subway maps sometimes cause me to burst into tears.

I've kind of lost track of where I was heading with this post... Umm... here's a funny picture of Brian playing golf:

And here are some funny sentences the kids wrote on their homework:

Write a sentence using the word "crack"
When the crack in the Korea, we go to the airplane.
Write a sentence using the word "mighty"
Miss Nikki is the mighty teacher.
Write a sentence using the word "horn"
My mommy has a horn when she is angry.

And while I'm just listing random things, one of my students lived in Chicago last year. She was telling me about her life there, her school and her friends and her church. Guess where she went? Willowcreek! Smaaaaaall world!

Last night, Kat took me out for some Mexican food. Yes, I know I'm in Asia, but I like Mexican food so leave me alone. I got to experience the bus for the first time (it's not nearly as intimidating as I had decided it would be), and we went to this big mall in Chungshankyodibonchoi (there's a slight chance that's not the right name, but that's what it sounded like to me). She kept trying to point out landmarks so I could find my way back to it, but I honestly wasn't even paying attention. I'm lucky if I can find my own kitchen most days, so finding the Mexican restaurant in a part of town I can't pronounce is out of the question. We shopped for a while after eating, and found this in a bookstore:

How is it that this is one of the coolest things I've ever seen and yet I'd never found one in America? Oh my gosh, just seeing it again makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

We went in tons of stores in the mall (including a Hello Kitty store to buy things for my momma), and every single one of them was new and exciting. Granted, we weren't going in the Samsonite store; we obviously picked the stores that looked like the most fun. Their toys are bizarre to say the least. There's a hamster-ish dude who looks a lot like a brown slipper with eyes, and I fell in love with him. Every store we went into, I picked up the biggest hamster thing they had and hugged him while I walked around. Kat kept telling me to just buy the darn thing, but I only have about $75 left in Korean cash, and I didn't want to blow $20 of it on a pillow with a face. But now that I'm thinking about him again, I miss him, and I'm totally regretting not purchasing one. Kat said if I don't get one before my birthday that's what she'll get me. I'll carry it everywhere, no joke.

As we were leaving the mall, I stopped in the middle of a bunch of huge buildings and just stood there. It's crazy hard trying to adjust to Asia; sometimes, I'll be walking down the street, and the fact that I'm in Korea just ambushes me. It sneaks up behind me and jumps on my back, shouting in my ear, "What the hell were you thinking?! Do you know you're in Asia right now?! You're insane!" But then sometimes, I stare up at the buildings and I watch the people flooding down the street around me, and it just fits. It feels like this is where I'm supposed to be, and it's scary and strange and sad and lots of other s words, but I know I didn't make a mistake coming here. For whatever reason, this is right where God wants me, and I'm just so glad I listened.

I can't wait to go to an actual Sunday church service at Jubilee tomorrow. I kind of feel like I'm playing a big game with God; he told me to move to Asia, and I did it, so now I have to track down the reason why I'm here. It's like a big scavenger hunt, really, one with kimchi and hamster-slipper toys, and I love that this whole big game is for me. God's been taking care of me since before I even left Ohio, and his people picked me up the second I landed. It's going to be a really hard year, but if life's always easy, you're not doing it right.

I'll leave you with my favorite thing from yesterday, knowing full well that you'll all be super jealous you don't live in Asia too. Until tomorrow, loves!