Archive for November, 2005

After what is most likely my school’s Worst Open House Ever, my roommate and fellow teacher M persuades me to go bar-hopping with her. I smear white foundation, gold eye shadow and three layers of waterproof mascara on puffy eyelids, throw on a bronze sequined top, black sweater vest, partially wet jeans (my laundry takes days to air dry) and pointy, faux-leather black boots. “How do I look?” I ask, flat-ironing my hair for the second time that day.

I can see a twitch in the corner of her mouth. “Wear whatever makes you happy,” she says.

The excessively trendy women of Seoul intimidate me. Pale and reed-thin, with their long, glossy black hair, denim miniskirts and knee-high, three-inch boots, their tops screaming with designer names, their faces hold a slightly bored, too-cool-for-school look. “In a few months, you’ll look like them,” one of the school’s Korean teachers told me two weeks ago while we sipped soup.

“I can’t imagine that happening,” I said, slurping fat noodles from my chopsticks self-consciously. Five days later I bought a pair of fake Uggs.

M and I walk back to the school, where we meet up with E and A, two East Indians from Canada who have been living in the country for a year.

“I like your coat,” A says right away, and tugs at the sleeve of my white bomber’s jacket (the label is Ben Sherman, if you must know). It has a removable hood lined with fake-fur, and is the trendiest thing I’ve ever owned in my life. I picked it up from Ross the day before I left California, anxious over the hellish winters my parents warned me about. To my surprise, about 75 percent of Seoul girls have one just like it.

Our new friends take us to a small bar in the city’s fashion district, where they are familiar with one of the bartenders. “Do you mind if we smoke?” E asks. M smokes constantly (in spite of the ugly looks we get from natives when we’re in the streets), so I shrug it off.

I order a Guinness (nine dollars!) and A gets a Heineken (seven bucks), and I know we’ll hit it off right away. Even though most Koreans are thick with racist slurs (as a light-skinned Asian, I have yet to experience it, but other foreigners are not so fortunate), these self-proclaimed “brown girls” are still upbeat about their stay here.

As they sprout off advice and encouragement, the differences in their personalities is quickly apparent. E is cool and collected, genuinely enjoys her job in spite of her paranoid and money-hungry employer, and knows the best, inexpensive clothing shops. A is more gregarious, bursting with enthusiasm and eager to invite us to their town (which is twenty minutes from where I live).

They’re both computer programmers from Edmonton and have been best friends since middle school. E decided to teach here out of a desire for travel and adventure; after a few months A’s mother encouraged her to go so E wouldn’t get lonely. They both have a good circle of foreign and Korean friends that they would like to introduce to M and me. Within minutes of receiving our drinks, I’ve accepted an invitation to join them in next month’s skiing trip.

The “Z” bar is foreigner-friendly. All the bartenders have their English nicknames stitched on the back of the black, laid-back uniforms. As every visitor enters, all the employees bow and shout warm greetings.

Ariel, who is good friends with E, sends us a complementary plate of nachos; an hour later she brings us chocolate sticks. Another bartender shows us a card trick (A trumps him with an even cooler one), Ariel brings us a game, and soon after she learns I’m not Korean she brings over their best-looking employee and tries to hook us up.

The next table over is celebrating a birthday and two bartenders dance and chant adorably, waving firecrackers around with the largest smiles on their faces. Unfortunately, the b-day girl is drunk and sleeping in her boyfriend’s lap. Nonetheless, the party gives me a huge slice of their pineapple cake.

But the highlight of the night is the much-talked about cocktail show. Part juggling act, part martial arts, the smallish room is filled with cheers as every bartender (who spends hours a day practicing before the bar opens) flips bottles, rolls them off their shoulders and back and occasionally drops one or two. My excessive hollering and drunken seat-dancing earns me the prize of the night, pretty blue drink.

At one o’clock A and E make plans to take us to Wal*Mart (my inner suburban weeps with joy) and show us their city’s mall, which they say is leagues superior to the one we have here. For the first time in two weeks, I receive a real embrace before we depart–the shock of it nearly melts me in A’s arms. Warm with alcohol and intoxicated with thoughts of the next day, M and I walk back to our apartment.

So maybe I’ll never be able to pass off as a native. But I’m beginning to think I can really live here.


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Wanderings, Part One

My typical workday starts off with my cellphone going off at six in the morning, blaring a kickass Disco theme that never fails to lift my spirits. Sitting up, I’m struck with a pain on the left side of my neck–my bed is as hard as the floor, although I’m usually too strung out from twelve hours in the office to suffer from any cases of insomnia thus far.

After a small breakfast of cereal and milk, I head for the shower. Until recently most Koreans didn’t use shower curtains–they just mopped up the water afterwards. Thus I have to sit down while I wash, because at that time in the morning I don’t feel like cleaning up after myself. I throw on my new, dowdy teacher clothes, apply makeup until my face appears totally flawless, knock on my roommate’s door to wake her up and head out the door by 7:50 a.m.

I pick up a half-cup of coffee from a vending machine near my apartment for thirty cents, pull on my gloves and begin my short trek to the office. When I’m feeling generous I duck into the Parisian-inspired bakery, where I pick up snacks for my coworkers. The Korean teachers at my school make half of what make, and they’re far more qualified than I am when it comes to teaching. However, they’ve gone out of their way to make me and my New Zealand roommate feel welcomed and appreciated. One has taken us to Seoul for shopping, another has taken us to an Italian restaurant. So I love getting them gifts, although my presents aren’t that impressive–muffins, chocolates, etc.

I actually prefer to eat the Korean food, rather than anything European, American or Mexican, because the Korean’s take on foreign meals is rather uninspired. (I have only been to a few restaurants, though, and I have heard of really good foreign restaurants in the larger cities.) My favorite thing to do in South Korea is eating, by far–I love it when a large, black bowl is slid in my direction, the steam rising, melting my frozen face. It’s so spicy (the soups are freckled an orangish red) that I often break into tears and a runny nose, and since the food is still cooking on its plate, it’s amusing to see the vegetables withering about. I sort of became a vegetarian before my flight to Seoul, but the beef is too good to avoid.

Anyway, back to my walk to the office. My apartment is very close to the school–the only reason why it takes ten minutes to get there instead of five is because there is a shortage of crosslights on the streets. During my first few days, I felt anxiety when it came to crossing, because the cars only seemed to speed up when they saw you on the roads. But after watching five-year-olds walk carefree and on their own, I built up my own confidence.

I get into the office around 8 a.m., almost two hours before my workday begins. I spend my first thirty minutes checking my email before preparing for my first two hours of work. The kindergarten classes (ages 5 to 7) are easy to plot out, but they’re easily distracted and extremely difficult to control. So I’ll usually schedule a quick review of yesterday’s class, an introduction to new words, and a short activity, and then pray for the best. Ninety percent of the time I’ll only carry out the first two-thirds of my lesson.

Lunch is provided by the school, and I eat with my second kindergarten class. They’re still rowdy, so I usually have to pull kids out of arguments–sometimes fights. Every kid approaches me before leaving to get more food or wash their plate. “Pia Teacher–” they’ll say, as they rub their belly, an indication of feeling hungry or full. I’ll pretend to feel concerned as I advise them to eat two more bites or give them permission to get more food. There are a few girls who cry at the drop of a hat, but once I kiss bloody fingers and rub bruised shins they skip back to their seats, oblivious to any of the former, faint pains.

After they brush their teeth–the school is stern when it comes to hygiene–they head downstairs, leaving a milk-and-rice coated table in their wake. I mop and sweep up the mess, sit down with my green tea and rest for five minutes. Then I go into the office to schedule six more hours of work.

The elementary students are more respectful, but still loud and prone to their own distractions, like their experiments from science class (which is clearly the most popular class, my kindergarten kids love their science classes with a mad passion). I feel more comfortable giving them games and activities related to the classes’ lessons, because they’re less likely to go off on their own tangents or fight over the jumprope or spinner. “Pia Teacher, game today?” one student will usually ask in each class. And I’ll break out with a gameboard and marker caps I’ve turned into game pieces–I don’t have much time to be creative, and the school is low on funds so I can’t make anything more impressive than darts or flashcards.

Fridays are tests, which aren’t taken too seriously by the school but always work the kids into a anxiety-ridden frenzy, because one-third of them won’t do their homework. I’ll have one or two brilliant students who will have no difficulties whatsoever, four who get confused but feel the need to complete assignments (most of the time incorrectly), and two who do no work whatsoever and are around just to chat in Korean and smile awkwardly when I ask them questions. The worst students are usually the youngest–why Korean parents insist on spending the money to send their five-year-old into a difficult English program is beyond me. Personally, I would advise most to start their kids at age seven, when they’ll appreciate the lessons more and have more of a mental capacity to take in a new language. But hey, they bring in more money for the school, right?

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I’ll finish my classes at around 6:15–Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. Most of the time I’ll stay for an hour to check homework, check my email or plan the next day’s assignments. After leaving the office, I’ll go back to the Parisian bakery–I’ve developed a little crush on one particular baker, not unlike the infatuations I developed on Starbucks baristas back in the States–and pick up a delicious ham and cheese croissant for less than a dollar.

On my way home, I’ll duck into a Tae Kwon Do studio–classes are cheap compared to the U.S., but I’d like to look around and see how my budget works out before I commit–and watch for a few minutes. My chest aches whenever I see one of my students in a TKD or Kendo uniform, but everyone is on the lookout for a good school for me. I’ll get home, sip more green tea, plan a few lessons for the next day, watch some American programs on the television for an hour, and dive into bed at around ten.

I’ll detail my weekend trips later.

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Updates on Saturday!

Since I have a key to the office, on Saturday I’ll be able to sneak in a few hours before our open house and update my mediocre blog for you guys. And I’ll email those pictures. Eventually.

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I know it’s been ages since I’ve updated (okay, maybe a week). Updates: I was almost interrogated by customs in Canada–they hate Americans, supposedly–moved into my new place, have spent 12 hours a day in the office, went shopping in Seoul and am learning the language at a nice pace. I will send pics to you guys via email soon! I am having a good time, don’t worry. Shout out to my lovely coworkers at the bank. I think of you often! Love P

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Pride and Prejudice

“Korean men are like Filipino men. They’re conservative about dating. When you date one they expect you to date him and no one else. They’re not aggressive like Americans are–I know you don’t like . . . you didn’t like how forward they were with you. Start dating again. We’re not talking about marriage here.”

I’ve dined with friends and coworkers since announcing my relocation overseas, and the idea of dating a native is on everyone’s lips. “You’re going to get yourself a Korean husband,” people have told me, without the slightest hesitation.

“My mom says Korean and Filipino men are the same,” I said at work one day, my eyes lowered as I flipped through checks. “And I would never date a Filipino guy–I mean, a Filipino-American, yeah, but a guy from the motherland? Never.

“A lot of men over there think they own their wives and girlfriends and think it’s perfectly acceptable to beat them and their kids into submission. If Korean men think the same way, no thanks.”

“The city guys have to be more progressive,” S said over coffee two weeks ago.

“Or you need to date a rich, foreign businessman,” V chimed in. “South Korea’s economy is growing. There have to be thousands of those there.”

To be honest, I’m not really looking for a long-term romance with any sort of man at the moment. Dating could be fun, sure, but given that I don’t know any Korean whatsoever, I don’t see that happening. And I’m grateful I’m not seeing anyone right now, otherwise I would have never jumped at the chance to teach overseas.

Most people my age are looking for their soul mate, or at least a commitment and the promise of that four-bedroom home in the suburbs. I can relate–I never said I’d want to travel forever, and eventually I’ll tire and want to settle down. But right now I have no responsibilities, no massive debt and no boyfriend. Why shouldn’t I hop on the next plane, explore a new career and live day-to-day on a measly paycheck?

I’m not asking for fame, riches or even a book deal. All this country mouse longs for is a studio apartment, job security and stamps in her passport. When I hint at this, every middle-aged Filipino woman clutches her child to their bosom and, through narrowed eyes spraying bullets into the back of my head, prays their innocent spawn will not be inflicted with the same case of wanderlust.

Over the years, however, Mom has grown accustomed to the idea that I will most likely stay single for the rest of my life. (After all, she has two other strapping young daughters who can provide her with bundles of fat, smiling children.) Understandably, she’s worried that no one will take care of me when I’m elderly, or that I’ll be alone. To her, no fate is worse than that of solitude.

“You’re going to have to go out and be social, make friends. Sure, you can be alone and you could survive. You’ve lived that way before. But why would you want that for yourself? Go out, have fun–put yourself out there.”

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Just to let my faithful readers (all five of you) know that I will be making some extensive changes to the blog. Not only have I changed the site’s address, but my profile photo has been taken down as well. Note, however, that my childhood pics are still around for ridicule.

Anyway, I’m cutting out anything that remotely hints at my identity because I would like to keep this travel journal as honest as possible. In order to do so, I can’t take my employer or acquaintances’ feelings into consideration, no matter how kind and accommodating they are.

And since I’d like to avoid termination, please don’t make statements listing my real name, nickname or hometown. I know you haven’t been trigger-happy with the comments section, but keep that in mind just in case you decide to publicly flog me in the near future.

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