March 3, 2000

Yesterday we had to go to the President’s office, to get formal, bound copies of our contracts.  At first it was intimidating, all those men in rows, like government officials.  But then it was funny; instead of standing and waiting our turns, we all scooted along the benches.  When my turn came, the President pointed to my name in English, and smiled at me.  And he read Igor’s (the pianist who will be teaching music) name out loud, because he gets a kick out of those Russian names.

Then he spoke to the faculty, and he spoke warmly, like a father almost.  His voice was soft and very kind.  Once in a while there was, apparently, a little gentle humor.  I understood nothing, of course.  Afterward, I asked Professor Park what he’d said.  He said to be kind to the students, that their parents don’t love them.  Really? I said.  Well, they are a disappointment, because they couldn’t get into the really good universities, in Seoul.  I loved his attitude.

Culture shock list:

  1. In my apartment, there is a drain in the bathroom floor.
  2. In public places, often the toilets are in the floor.  Sometimes both kinds are available, and you can choose.  Also, toilet paper is a rare item in those bathrooms.  On the plus side, stall doors and walls usually go down to the floor, giving more privacy.
  3. Everyone has a cell phone, everywhere.*
  4. Many girls wear fancy shoes with heels, even climbling a mountain.
  5. There are so many outdoor markets, with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, and various street foods.
  6. Coffee shops with odd English names–“People,” “Coffee and Tomato.”
  7. Driving is crazy, at least in my town.  People drive as if there are no rules.  Stop lights are not necessarily paid attention to.  Pedestrians beware!  If I see a monk crossing the street, I try to walk next to him or her.  Drivers respect monks!
  8. Shoes off indoors, including in restaurants.  People sit on floors, which are often the warmest places, due to ondol, the toasty heating system running under the floor.
  9. No tipping!  This is simply wonderful.  You don’t have to tip at restaurants, in taxis, anywhere.
  10. Newscasters on TV bow at the end of their show.  So do train conductors at the end of the trip, and they wear gloves.

_______________________

*In 2000, when they were rare in the U.S.

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First Days in Korea–8

February 29, 2000

Yesterday Dan Lavelle took me to Taejon, to Immigration, to register.  Good thing he took me!  I would have been lost.

We take a taxi downtown, walk to yeok (train station), wait for the train.  The gate and time are posted, and the train is announced.  Car and seat numbers are printed on the tickets.  Lots of people are taking the train, even on Monday.

Trains have uniformed employees coming through with snack carts here:  crackers, cookies, oranges, various drinks, maybe dried fish.  It’s nice.  I try to listen for the announcement of our stop.  It’s better, Dan tells me, to check the time of arrival for your stop; the trains are on time here, so that really works.

We had to take two trains, changing at Ch’onan, a decent-sized city an hour away.  On the way home, we stopped there, and went to a store called Carrefour, a kind of French Wal Mart, as Dan described it.  There, I found out that my shoe size is 245.  It sounds big, and in fact, is probably the largest woman’s size.  I feel like an elephant here.

In Taejon, we were able to do our immigration business easily.  Then we ate lunch at a restaurant in the tiny but brim-full student village next to Chungnam University.  Outside, the place looked abandoned.  Inside, we were the only customers.  One room had low tables, for sitting on the floor.  We chose one of two tables with chairs in the other room.  A man put a small grill on the table, where he cooked pork.  He showed me how to take big lettuce leaves and small sesame leaves (rough-textured, with serrated edges and a sesame taste), then on top of these leaves to layer pork, onion, kimchi, sance, raw garlic and other raw vegetables, then fold it into a little package and pop it into my mouth.  Delicious!  And he was so kind.

Nothing is extremely difficult here, and people are so willing to help.  I make it through, one day at a time.

First Days in Korea–7

February 27, 2000, continued

Because of the no-shoes thing, you have to dress in a different order to go out–which feels weird, and really is disconcerting.  You can’t put your shoes on until you’re wearing your coat and hat.  Coming home, you remove your shoes, then take off your coat, then  put away your briefcase and the groceries.

I was doing email in my office for about two hours, and it got cold.  The wind was blowing noisily outside.  Before I left the building, I used one of the “eastern” toilets, in the floor, balancing with one hand on the tile.  I managed okay this time, but I don’t know how it could be done with a dress and pantyhose.  I’m not going to try it.

There was no toilet paper, but I had Kleenex.  And there were no hand towels, but I had my men’s handkerchief, thanks to Janet, who suggested buying a supply of them at Wal Mart before I left.  An excellent suggestion!

I think I am going to like it here–except the young people are so well dressed, sleek, thin, feminine women with beautiful hair and long fitted jackets.  And the ubiquitous cell phones.  Yes, I should have invested in them, as that investment broker at home suggested.

I went to the coffee shop again today.  I love it–a couch to sit on, coffee, nice relaxing atmosphere (except the rock music), people to watch, be with, and a great place to read.

My young waiter spoke English shyly, and it was sweet.  He said, “May I please have your order,” or something; I couldn’t quite hear him.  When I said excuse me, he quickly switched to Korean, something ending in “chuseyo”  (please).  I didn’t understand, so he went back to English.  I said thank you when he brought it.  Smiling, he ventured, “You’re welcome.”

When I left, I decided I had to be brave and try Korean, so  I bought a loaf of bread at the bakery on the corner.  I said “Kamsa hamnida” (thank you) and “Anyong hi keseyo” (goodbye).   This is fun!

I miss my daughter though.

 

First Days in Korea–6

February 27, 2000

Yesterday Dan, the other American professor, took me downtown.  We can get the bus right in front of our apartment.  It stops about every ten minutes, and costs 540 won, about 50 cents.  Arriving downtown in about ten minutes, it goes to the station, which is a big parking lot with a tiny little old building for buying tickets.  It is peopled with old women with bent backs, sitting on their heels; students in uniforms; children;  just everybody.  One man seems to direct the buses and tell them where to pull in, but you have to be careful; it’s so crowded and active there; a bus might back into you if you’re not watching.

We went to the Korea Exchange Bank, where Dan has an account, and opened one for me.  He showed me how to work the ATM.  Then we went for train tickets, passing the outdoor market.  Dan bought fresh strawberries.

The train station was upstairs, in a dark old building with a 1940s movie atmosphere.  Dan pulled out his schedule card, wrote dates and times on paper.  When the clerk took a while and got confused, he blew up and started ranting loudly.  Men came and watched.  It was embarrassing.  He got results, though.    A younger woman took over from the muddling older one.

This place–downtown, etc.–seems ramshackle, haphazard, the buildings stacked together without a plan.  Roads and cars come out from nowhere.  Every time I’ve been in a vehicle so far, I’ve thought, we will be in an accident.

We got tickets to Taejon for our trip to the immigration office.  Then Dan took me to a shop for the pictures I will need to give there.  It was a fun experience, a tiny photo studio up the back stairs, with a nice young guy about twenty-two or so.  He told me–in English–to have a “little smile,” “soft smile.”   He brushed my hair back.

While we waited for the pictures, we went to a coffee shop down the street, upstairs.  It had a nice, quiet atmosphere, with spacious upholstered booths by the window.  I had a Coke, and Dan ordered coffee.  But they give us each a free cup of barley tea, and crackers at first.  With our drinks they brought a little pack of pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate, free.  They served us, but there’s no tipping in Korea!  Our server didn’t speak any English.  She was sweet, though.

We went to the grocery store.  It was pretty confusing, but I got rice, cups, soy sauce, Oreos, etc.  Dan blew up again, at the checkout counter. It was because the girl mistakenly rang up our orders together.   A perfectly understandable mistake.  I saw a girl laugh, embarrassed.  I was freaked out.  But they stayed calm and checked us out separately, and we got a taxi outside, 3,000 won (about $3), and went home.

He’s been helpful to me, and I’m grateful.  But he’s really a hothead; you never know when he’s going to erupt.

First Days in Korea–5

February 27, 2000

Last night, the maintenance guy came to fix my heat. I was so glad! I was rolled up in the fancy bedspread I’d dragged into the living room.  I was watching TV–mostly CNN, but also a Korean game show that featured kids being given clues by adults, and a very strange English lesson that repeated a dialogue:  “Why are you in a hurry?  Because I’m late for work.  Why are you late for work?  Because I couldn’t get up.  Why couldn’t you get up?  Because I worked late last night.  Why did you work late last night?  Because I was late for work yesterday morning.”  The people were British or American, but their  intonation was unnatural, robotic.  The man who was late for work looked like a chronic alcoholic, complete with red, blotchy face.

There’s English and Korean music TV, maybe even French.  One show features dancing that looks Indonesian.  And there are several sitcoms in Korean, which I don’t understand at all.  I watched an Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito movie dubbed in Korean–if you can imagine!  Later, an old black-and-white British movie in English with subtitles in Korean hangul.

But back to me, and my problem of freezing to death in my apartment, not wanting to bother Dan.  (He might be drunk or get mad; I’ve seen his temper flare up; no thanks.)  I didn’t want to bother Professor Park either.  But I was thinking I was going to get sick, maybe get pneumonia and die in Korea.

So I’m rolled up in the bedspread in front of the TV, thinking maybe I can survive the night this way.   I think of campers, of Jack London.  I’m an adventurer!  But then, tomorrow’s going to be another day of freezing; why do I have to wait?

I start dozing off, falling forward.  I’m in two straight-back office-type chairs, one to sit in, the other for feet.  It’s my only living-room furniture.  The phone rings.  It’s Professor Park!  She’s calling from her home near Seoul, to ask if everything is okay.  No, I say.  It’s cold.  I’m afraid I’m going to get sick.

Oh no, she says.  What to do?  What to do?

Maybe nothing can be done, I say, regretting my words immediately.

Oh no, what can we do, she continues, thinking out loud.  And by the way, her English is perfect.  Then she comes up with a plan.  Find Korean people in the building (oh my God).  Knock on doors upstairs and down until they answer.  She even gives me the exact words to say in Korean, “Munjeh-ga itsumnida.”  It means “There is a problem.”  She’s terrific!  She tells me to get the man of the house to come and look at it.

Are you sure? I say skeptically.  Yes.  Then call her back.

Gingerly I go downstairs, ring bells.  No one answers.  I come back to my next-door neighbor.  I’ve never seen who lives here.  A woman answers.  She seems nice, lets me in.  I give my message.  She calls Park.

This woman is studying or working.  She appears to be a professor.  Everything is neat and square in her place–stacks of copies on the table, bed, bookcases, and books, almost all in Korean.  These don’t seem real to me, somehow.  But of course they are; I just have no clue what they’re about.

She comes over in her slippers, calls someone, calls someone else–on her little cell phone; I guess everyone here has one.*   She has a little address book with pictures.  She writes down for me, Min Ju Baek, with a number.

I thank her and she leaves.  I think he’s coming but no one comes.  Was I supposed to call him?  I call Park.  In the middle of our conversation, he comes.  Knock, knock, knock.  “School!” he says.

“Min Ju Baek?”  I say, opening the door.  He responds with what appears to be the Korean equivalent of yeah.

He is a far cry from the maintenance men I know at home, with their torn jeans, dirty caps and swaggers.  This guy is well dressed, for one thing. He wears clean, brand-name-embossed sweats, pure white sneakers.   Also, their is no indication that he might be on drugs or hung over.  And he is in such good shape!  He jumps onto the heater with an animal grace.  He moves to the floor where the heat is supposed to be, works sitting back on his heels, then stands up in one graceful motion.  He zooms around my apartment,  paying me no mind.  He sings to himself a little.

We communicate with very few words, me throwing a couple Korean ones at him, he using some English, some Korean.  It’s amazing that we can talk in this way.  When he lapses into Korean sentences and paragraphs, though, I lead him to the phone, and Park.

Everyone is happy–especially me; I finally have heat. And Ji Yeon Park is very relieved.  She’s so nice, sweet, smart–and a really good problem-solver.  I’m so lucky to have her.

 

_______________________

* In the year 2000, very few people that I knew in the U.S.  had cell phones.  In South Korea, everyone did–except me.  But I had a land line in my apartment.

First Days in Korea–4

February 26, 2000

It’s a twelve-minute walk to the building where my office is.  I go out of my apartment and through the parking lot, down a drive and to the right.  On the left, at the side of the road, is an orange tent where people stop.  I’m not sure, but I think someone sells barbecue inside.  I continue past a field, with a court where boys are always playing basketball.  I don’t know who they are.  Far above, you can see university buildings.  I walk about a block, turning left at the corner where there’s a convenience store and some newspaper slots and a few other shops.   I have no idea what these places are, but that’s the benefit of being a worker instead of a tourist, staying in one place; sooner or later, I may find out.

The street slopes uphill for a while, not steeply but steadily, past a little set of stone steps, and some buildings.  One of them contains what’s called the General Affairs Office, and the President’s office.  You get to the top and start down.  My building is in back, with arches at the entrance.

It’s not as I pictured it, before I left home, a scenic jaunt through woods.  It’s streets, and hills.  But what I like is seeing mountains in the distance.  It’s a nice surprise.

I met the president of the university yesterday.  Dr. Park and I went to his office at 10:30, and we were in there until 12:00, talking.  He was charming; I enjoyed our meeting.  Dan had said he was relatively young, around fifty-three.  I thought he seemed younger.  He was worldly and smart, with a sense of humor.  He lived in Germany for eighteen years, so he knows German, and his English is almost perfect.

He has been to the United States, too.  He told a story of driving in some big American city and getting lost, and he was afraid.  He said that a friend had told him to carry a twenty-dollar bill, for giving to someone who wants to hold you up with a gun.

He was kind, asking if I was tired, asking what I’d had for dinner the night before.

In the afternoon I walked almost to downtown, to the post office.  I read signs and I  passed the prison.   It has some painted murals in front that make it look festive.  When I first saw it, I was with Professor Park.  “What’s that?” I asked her, “a resort?”  “No,” she said, “it’s a prison.”

Everything looks thrown together here–unplanned, kind of shabby.  The people are attractive, though.  Young students are well dressed.  Girls hold hands.

It’s a good thing I brought long underwear.  It’s really freezing in this apartment.  I don’t think the heat works.

First Days in Korea–3

February 24, 2000, 7 p.m.

Random thoughts:  The floor is the warmest place.  I’ll get in shape here, walking up and down the hills to work.  Dr. Park is overworked, and she complains–but cheerfully.  She thinks we work more than at other universities in Korea.  It’s not hard to believe; I’m teaching 21 hours.  She has 14, plus an administrative assignment.

We had a bizarre little English faculty meeting, with some chat in English, some Korean.  At first I was nervous.  Then I realized that I was not expected to participate–and I began to enjoy the positive side of not knowing the language.  It’s kind of fun just sitting there not understanding anything while two colleagues talk.  These faculty meetings are going to be a lot less stressful than the ones at home!

I met Professor Lee, a handsome, tall man, Director of Language Labs; Professor Kim–also some kind of administrator; Professor Kang–Chair of the English Department, pretty, nervous, sarcastic, oddly flirtatious; Dan Lavelle–the returning American professor, dressed in a suit, smelled like booze.

Professor Kang was sophisticated in a grey suit and high heels.  I had chosen a denim jumper and white shirt, which was normal attire at home, but here I felt sloppy.  Professor Park wore a dark-colored pants suit, not sophisticated, but more professional than I.

 

February 25, 2000

Dan, the other American professor (I’m called Professor too, here; I love it!), told me he asked for fewer hours this semester, acknowledging that it means less money.  He needs the time more, he said.  I could really understand that; it’s what I want too!

But they’ve given me a killer schedule, 21 hours of teaching.  I can’t believe they could be so cruel.  Yesterday I thought, this is going to kill me.  How can I do it?  But I didn’t complain.  How can I complain?  I was depressed last night, thinking, I don’t care about travel one bit, just get me out of here!

This is spring term though.  It has to get better.  The weather will get warmer and prettier.  Life will be easier.  Won’t it?

Some of the challenges here are fun.  I pick up words from conversations--Yongeo, English; chigeum, now; onje, when.  Inspired by my former students in the United States, I walk into stores, speak in gestures and one-word sentences.

The post office lady asked me if I wanted coffee.  “Kopi?” she said as I was leaving.  I said no, flustered and taken by surprise.  Coffee at the post office?  Probably she wanted to practice her English though.  Next time I’ll say yes.