Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dusting off the dust, strolling down memory lane...history thus far.

On my arrival a very friendly Korean couple, Mr Lee and his wife Sona welcomed me to Korea. It was a cold “spring” night. In Korea, people usually say that winter is jealous of spring because it tends to linger on for a very long time. It takes over some spring days. And so the day of my arrival was one of those days when winter had seized a spring day. The temperature was below zero, I think. The couple picked me up at a place that I would later know as the Joam bus terminal. One of my favourite places in Joam(my little town). Mr Lee and his wife took me to my apartment, a cozy place that was smelling of Kim-chi. Before I came to Korea a lot of people had told me about Korea's signature smell, known as the kimchi smell. I was surprised not to notice this smell when I landed at the airport and I must admit I was kind of happy not to notice the smell. Alas, when I entered my apartment, the kimchi smell was there to greet and welcome me to South Korea, it was so strong I even thought I was going to die at night. Thank God I woke up the next day. After traveling for long hours, I wanted to take a bath or a shower, so I went to the bathroom where I was expecting to find a shower because there was no bathtub in sight. I searched for the shower but I could not find it. I started thinking that maybe my apartment block has a public bathing place. I went outside to look for the bathroom but I could not find it, so I decided to go back in and just make use of what was available to me; the sink. Luckily Mr Lee and his wife showed me how to use the boiler, at least the water was warm. I took my mini bath in the sink. I felt so fresh after my sink-bath. Before they left, Mr Lee and his wife advised me to sleep on the floor to keep warm. My sleeping bag, which I had brought from home came in handy. I slept on the warm floor, first experience as underfloor heating is not common in South Africa. The next day, I was woken up by a knock on the door. It was Mr. Lee and his wife, they were dressed in warm clothes, ready to take me to the school(my place of employment) and shopping in a far away place. A place I would later know as Suwon. Mr Lee and his wife took me to the bus stop, showed me how to take the bus to school and told me what to tell the bus driver when I get on the bus. Oh before we left my apartee I asked Sona to show me where the bathroom was, she took me to the little room which I thought was just a toilet. She showed me the hand held shower thing and told me that that was what I would use to shower with. Ok! So off we went to school. They showed me around and I checked my emails and smsed home to let them know that I was safe, sound and loving South Korea. We drove to Suwon, the trip to Suwon was a bit long and inside I was thinking “damn, I do not think I will do much shopping in the future if I have to travel for such a long time to get to the shops!” In Suwon we went to Emart(emarteeee in Korean). Emart is a huge mart that sells almost everything. I even bought a coat at Emart. A coat that Sona told me was one of the best coats around and that I would never find a coat like that anywhere. She was right about the coat being rare. She was totally wrong about the coat being the best. It was not even warm and it had fur that was falling off and sticking to my clothes and my hair. An embarrassment of a coat! I hate it, but I loved it a lot during the cold days. I loved it only because it was convenient to have at that time and it kept me warm. Plus I hadn't seen a better coat. What a metaphor; learning to love what you have until you find something better. It applies to almost everything in life, from possessions to people. A sad reality - keeping for while to discard later. Shopping at Emart was not easy, everything looked foreign to me. I struggled finding sugar! I mean sugar, how difficult can it be for one to find sugar? What made my first Korean shopping experience even more interesting is the fact that it was not easy for me and my very nice and patient companions to communicate. They understood only a bit of English and I knew no Korean! Interesting times I tell you. I lived through it and I went home with a few necessities. After shopping Mr. Lee and his wife took me out for lunch. Oh, an interesting thing is that in the morning they brought me bread. Just bread because according to the research that Mr. Lee conducted, people from the west love eating bread or rather bread is our staple food. I still remember how happy they looked to give me something that I knew as opposed to giving me some kimchi for breakfast. They are such nice and considerate people. Lunch time we had Korean noodles, its been such a long time I even forgot what the noodles were called. Koreans eat and by eat I mean eat a lot, the noodles were just too much for me to finish. Mr. Lee and his wife finished theirs in no time. Oh the considerate couple annoyed me a bit, they asked the waiter to bring a fork for me. I mean really now, being a foreigner does not mean I can't use chopsticks. I was disappointed because I was dying to show them that I had no problem using chopsticks; I had practiced a lot before I left home. I made sure that I at least knew how to use chopsticks because I was not prepared to bring cutlery from home to South Korea. The waiter brought the fork and boom! I lost my first chance to show off! Thanks to the considerate people I was with. After lunch we went back to Joam. I had a great time, I saw a lot of strange things; old ladies walking around in masks, some walking around in hospital uniforms and some even carrying some medical equipment. My first day out in town was a good promise, I saw a few of the many interesting things about Korea. I was curious to know about the masks, so I asked my companions and they told me that the people who were wearing masks were protecting themselves from yellow sand. The theory about the masks is that in Spring Korea gets flooded with yellow sand that comes from some desert in China. Apparently the yellow sand is very dangerous so it is important for people to cover up. I still think its just a myth. One of the many myths that Koreans believe to be true. I will leave the “stray patients” story for another day. I still need to ask around and take pictures of the stray patients. Back at my apartment in Himang billijeee(also known as Himang Village) I had to start cleaning and try to get rid of the kimchi smell. Oh, by the way “himang” is hope in English. A good name, hope village. Going home after work everyday made me feel so hopeful because I was going back home to a hopeful village. A village full of hopeful and very curious people. The villagers were curious to know what this strange looking creature was doing in their village, I'm sure some of them thought I was there to steal their hope. Just kidding, but the villagers were curious to know about me, I could tell from the stares I got whenever I went out of my apartment. Some of the villagers tried striking up conversations with me, but we always ended up giving up because the language barrier was just too strong. It was only strong for a short while because I soon discovered body language. After a few weeks I could go to a restaurant alone and order food, have some small talk with the owner. All we used was the language of the world, we somehow understood each other although I was speaking a different language, but it worked. Monday, my first day at work. I woke up early in the morning. I must say, unzipping the sleeping bag was not easy because it was freezing outside. I got up anyways. I opened the window to see how things were like outside. It was freezing cold, there were some residues of snow on the ground. At that moment I started regretting myself for looking for torture - I could have stayed at home in South Africa but I, just like the villagers am a very curious person. I took the plunge and came to Korea. Its the life that I had chosen, I had to trot on. Plus there was no turning back. I took a shower, got ready for school. For breakfast I ate “Post bran flakes” I had never tasted such horrible cereal in my entire life. “Post bran flakes” are sweet and very hard. I could not take myself through such torture so I decided to leave them and make my way to work. I had to find my little journal with all the directions. I found my journal and walked out into the cruel and cold Korean spring day or rather I walked in on a fight between two seasons and boy did I get hurt! Up until the bus stop, I followed the directions very well, but for some reason I missed my bus. I was told to stop a blue bus but I did not see any blue bus. The buses I saw were green and red. So I decided to try and stop any bus that drove by, but none of the bus drivers stopped for me. They probably thought I was crazy or something, plus they had never seen someone like me before. I was an Alien and I felt like one, helpless! My ears felt like they were going to fall off. As I was contemplating going back to my cozy “hopeful” apartment, a taxi drove by and the lady who was driving it stopped for me. What a bummer! The thought of going back home was keeping me warm. Instead of being happy I froze when the good Samaritan came to my rescue. The lady said something to me, and I scratched in my bag for my little journal and gave it to her. She looked at the journal but her facial expression told me that she was just staring at some gibberish she did not understand. There I was faced with a major problem. At that instant part of me wanted to give up and go back to my warm “hopeful” apartment. Looking at the good Samaritan, I was suddenly filled with hope, hope to find the school. I could not afford to be late or AWOL work on my first day. First impressions last forever and I was determined to make a good first impression. I got into the taxi and mumbled something that sounded like “budapest”. Sona had told me to say that to the bus driver. What she told me was nothing close to what I was saying. I later found out that I should have said “pudupang”. As I was attempting to make her understand what I was saying, the taxi-lady just stared at me. I realised that what I was saying made no sense to her. So I tried another word I heard from the nice couple. It sounded something like “sukchunchu”. This one the taxi-lady recognised, although she did not seem sure but it was enough for her to get the taxi going. So off we went to a place I did not know, but because I was at the school the previous day, I recognised some of the places we drove past. And waaaalaaaa the good Samaritan dropped me off at my school's gate. I only had to give her 2000 won. Big number but its actually nothing in Korean money. Thanks to the good Samaritan, I was not late for work. I walked into the staff room, popularly know as “the teachers room”. The moment I walked in everyone froze. Inside I was thinking why don't you just go on with what you are doing. The temperature is cold already, freezing people make the cold conditions even worse. I looked around for Mr. Lee who was the only person I knew at that moment. Mr Lee was nowhere to be seen. Being a hypocrite that I am, I also froze. I was also wondering if the people who were in front of me knew about me or they were shocked to see me. One of the people told me to take a seat. As I was sitting down on the couch next to a very chubby boy and his mother, people dressed in very warm coats walked in, bowed at everyone and walked out. Seeing the warm coats made me feel even colder because I was not dressed warm at all. I was dressed to the nines, to impress on my first day at work. Though I was feeling cold the bows made me warm because it was hilarious. I'd never seen so much bowing in my life. Not that I did not know that Koreans bow, I knew but seeing everyone do it was hilarious. As I was enjoying the live comedy in front of me, Mr. Lee walked in to disturb me! He also bowed at me. I bowed back! As the saying goes if you can't beat them join them and so I joined in on the bowing. Meeting the boss was one of the most unforgettable experiences. Mr Lee took me to the Principal's office. The interior of the Principal's office was beautiful. The office looked more like a living room and not an office. There were sofas and a nice coffee table. Sitting in front of the computer was a chubby-serious looking old man. And that my readers, was the principal, my boss. I greeted him in English. He just looked at me, inside I was asking myself questions and rebuking myself for being rude. Someone had told me to bow when I greet my superiors in Asia, but my memory was frozen. All I could do was what came naturally and at that moment, I thought it was polite. I uttered a very polite “good morning” accompanied by a very cheerful facial expression. The principal was not impressed, at that instant I made a note to self - what worked in the west will not necessarily working in the east. I had to learn the eastern mannerism very quickly to avoid offending more people. Mr. Lee said something in Korean to the principal, the principal responded. Mr. Lee was the middleman between me and the principal. He turned to me to tell me that the principal wanted to know if I understood Korean. I smiled and said no. However inside I was saying “Hello, I'm not Korean! Is it not obvious that I do not understand Korean?” I was having a great monologue inside. It kept me smiling, I did not stop smiling even though the principal gave me the chill. I felt even colder when I saw that the principal was disappointed with in my disability to speak Korean. Mr. Lee told the principal who I was and everything he knew about me. There was such a contrast between the Principal's and Mr. Lee's facial expressions. The principal was refusing to smile and Mr. Lee was smiling all the way. I later discovered that the principal was not cold towards me but he was just terrified by me. I have that effect on people, especially those who do not know me - young and old. In between the interpretation, Mr. Lee advised me to bow at the principal when I leave his office. So I bowed at him and said good bye. I was taken back to the teachers room where I was supposed to wait for my coteacher. I was disappointed to find out that I was not going to work with Mr. Lee. I mean, him and I had an understanding and he seemed like a pleasant person to work with. I sat down disappointed but still smiling at the teachers. The chubby boy and his mom were still in the teachers room. The mother was watching TV on her cellphone – better known as a mobile phone in Korea. Whatever she was watching seemed interesting, there was a lot of laughter on the show. I later found out the she was watching one of the many Korean gag shows. Her chubby son was sitting there looking like a very sweet boy. I do not know, but I think the cold must have clouded my judgment because I liked the boy when I saw him and I was looking forward to teaching him. My wish was granted, I taught the boy and he was one of the naughtiest boys at the school. He sometimes made me laugh but he annoyed me most of the time. Back to the teachers room, I was sitting down waiting for my coteaher. I looked at everyone that walked in, hoping they would be my coteacher. Now that Mr. Lee was not going to be my coteacher, I was just hoping for a female coteacher. As I was sitting there making wishes, a young looking guy walked in and offered me a cup of coffee. I was very happy to drink coffee, I needed it. He came with a half-filled small paper cup of coffee. I was grateful but I was just wondering why he offered me coffee if what he wanted was to give me an opportunity to taste Korean coffee and not to drink coffee. I mean the paper cup was already small, the best he could do was to fill the cup up. The coffee had a strange taste to it, but it tasted good. The young guy introduced himself to me as Mr. Lee. I told him that I had already met Mr. Lee. The young guy told me that his name was also Mr. Lee. His first name was Kyung Hun, which sounded similar to the other Mr. Lee's first name Hyung Hun. It took me almost six months to be able to call the right person by the right name. So the second Mr. Lee and I had a lovely conversation. He asked me to tell him about myself. I was really happy to meet yet another person who understood a bit of English. I found out that Mr. Lee also lived in Himang Village. He offered me a lift to work. Yay! I was set, no more searching for a bus. My conversation with Mr. Lee was cut short by a short, pleasant looking middle aged man. His name was Mr. Kim. Mr Kim walked in, bowed and said “Hey come on”. He was speaking English, I naturally assumed that he was talking to me. So I got up and followed him upstairs to the English Zone also know as the “Englishee Jone” in Konglish. On our way up Mr. Kim introduced himself as my coteacher, he came clean and told me that he does not know English. I introduced myself too and told him a little bit about myself. He was quick to say ok ok, I doubt he was even listening to me. He just wanted me to shut up already. Speaking English was giving Mr. Kim a very hard time. I spent the day at the English Jone, speaking to Mr. Kim. One of his questions was “Are you married?” I was not so happy to be asked that question, I mean really now. How can a young person my age be married? My answer to his question was a polite NO. I knew what the next question was going to be, and so I was prepared for it. The question was “Are you boyfriend?” My answer to that question was also a no, I must say I was beginning to feel uncomfortable because I think its very rude to ask someone about personal stuff on your first meeting. With time, I discovered that the questions Mr. Kim asked me were common Korean questions. A lot of people asked me the exact same questions until I got used to it. For lunch the school threw a mini party. Mr. Kim took me downstairs to the science lab where I met the rest of the staff members. Being an ignorant South African that I am, I grew up thinking that the whole of Asia is China and that everyone in Asia is Chinese and that they eat dog meat. I went to the mini party expecting to see a whole dog on the table. To my surprise there was no dog meat in the science room. I was happy. Still smiling and enjoying the warmth of my smile and the warm welcome the Koreans were giving me, I looked around the room to sass out what we were having for lunch. To my dismay, I saw some black interesting things that were floating in black water. The sight was not at all appetising. Interestingly, everyone looked like they could not wait to start feasting. Finally, the principal walked in. He delivered a very long speech, the only familiar thing he said was Mamello, the rest sounded like gibberish to me. When he finished his speech, the principal took one of the black things that were floating in black liquid and threw it into his mouth. The principal handed me chopsticks and said something to me, I assumed he was saying I should do what he just did. I wanted to, but I was just not sure what the stuff these people were eating was. So before I ate one of the interesting little balls I walked across to where Mr. Lee was standing and asked him what we were feasting on. He told me that the food we were eating was a delicacy in Korea. We were eating boiled octopus heads with the eyes, brains and everything. I took one of them and threw it into my mouth. It tasted like tripe. Tripe is one of my favourite South African traditional food. So I was not bothered about the octopus head. It tasted good. Everyone around me clapped when they saw me eating the strange food. Mr. Lee asked me what I thought of the octopus head. It was ok. A warm welcome to South Korea, after the octopus head. Through Mr. Lee, the principal wanted to know if I was a drinker. I said no, they were disappointed. The principal said something to Mr. Lee, in turn Mr. Lee told me that its part of Korean culture to drink. I was expected to drink at least a shot of Soju - Soju is traditional Korean alcohol that is usually drunk in group gatherings while eating. It's unmixed and portioned into shot glasses. I had to hold my glass while the principal poured Soju in it. Everyone had to do the same. We all had to wait until everyone's glass was filled with Soju before we could all drink. The principal said “gombe” we all had to follow suite. So we all said gombe and enjoyed the feast. At four thirty we all went home. I was getting a lift home from the young Mr. Lee. A very cool guy, in his car he was playing songs I knew – he even played some 2Pac songs. I was happy to know that Koreans do not have a totally unique taste in music. I relaxed a bit. On our way home, the young Mr. Lee asked me the same questions Mr. Kim asked me. I told him I was not married and I had no boyfriend, I told him my age. He told me that he was also single and that he did not like our little village because there were no girls to date there. Within ten minutes we were in Himang Village. Our conversation had to be cut short. I went home to my warm apartment. At my apartment I did not have any form of entertainment, no radio or computer. I had a lovely TV that my school bought for me. The problem with it was that I first had to get my Aliena Registration Card before I can get to watch TV. An Alien Registration Card is a foreigners' identity card. I was shocked to find out that they call it an Alien's Card. Knowing that my identity card was called an Alien's card made me realise that I was actually an alien in Korea. I was totally different, hence my identity card was called something else. For a few days, I went to school and did nothing. I was supposed to be observing Mr. Kim. However, Mr. Kim never taught. I would go to work, get there and sit in front of a computer until the end of the day. I did this for almost two weeks. It was not nice at all, I even had serious back pains from sitting dpwn. After a couple of days, I went to one of the biggest hospital in Suwon for my medical test. Mr. Kim took me to the hospital. On our way to the immi we had a great chat, we both had a lot to say until we arrived at the hospital. At the hospital I did the tests and very quickly it was over. What I did not like about the tests is that they drew three test tubes of blood from me. I mean really, I need blood as it is. I made sure that I ate as much as I could for the next few days to make sure that I do not suffer from a shortage of blood. I started teaching and the students were really awesome and very curious to know about me. We had problems communicating, however we always ended up understanding each other. Thanks to body language. Time went by and a lot happened, some of the things I have forgotten and some, I cannot find a mouth with which I can tell the stories of. Some I have chosen to forget because they are not worth being in my memory and not worth sharing. Summer came and with summer came a lot of interesting occurrences; one of them being me eating dog. Add Image

1 comment:

mapoza said...

Lovely story.Reminds me of my first time in Asia. The bowing and the language barrier. And I had grown up being told that English is an international language. Keep the stories coming.