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.


  1. Nikki...I know how you feel...I feel the same way when I moved to nyc.Every Morning, I pray that God brings me joy for the day, I hope your situation will get better! Enjoy as much as you can:) Ye

  2. oh the ups and downs of living abroad, sorry you had a bad day on international costume day :0(

    i'm glad korea apologized with grapes and that you are just going to try to be friends for a bit :0)

  3. dang it KOREA! KOREA! (see how i put that twice to make up for the lack of it in the last post? So I'm still winning)

    Do you want me to come beat it up for you? Cause I will...


  4. You are a FANTASTIC writer. I'm so glad I stumbled upon your blog!

    Here I am, in the United Kingdom, where everyone speaks English, yet drives on the other side of the road and doesn't smile at me when I pass by them on the street, and I start to get really homesick...but for what? I WANT to be here. I don't want to be at home (though right now, I would pay a massive amount of money--that I don't have--to hop on a plane and go back to what's familiar), and you feel the EXACT SAME WAY. Only it must be ten times harder for you, since Asian cultures are just so different from ours. Definitely puts it into perspective for me. :)

    I hadn't let myself cry yet until I read this post. And you know what? Now that I've cried, I feel better.

    I'm going to start following your blog, because you say whatever you feel. My blog is dedicated to documenting all of the "cool" things I do in Scotland, not about how much I want to freak out when someone is inadvertently rude to me (because Brits tend to be a bit harsh). Have worried grandparents reading, you know. :)

    And just know that you're not alone. I'm feeling the same things you are on the other side of the globe.