Sunday, August 29, 2010

Offically a Month

I now have internet in my apartment! Skype me!

As of the 26th, I have been here one month. Time is such a bizarre illusion. It's odd how when you're in a space where everything is new, and days are so very full of things, a single day can feel like a week. So, you ask, does it feel like a month has passed? Yes, at least. If not two.

These days my sleep schedule has been completely wacky--many nights I'm up until 5am. I get up around 1 or 2pm, and do my morning routine--coffee, breakfast, exercise/guitar/writing, shower--before I have to be at work by 4:30pm. That's still a good full 8 or 9 hours of sleep, and more than I've gotten on a regular basis in years. But despite the longer (and deeper) sleeps, I don't think it will ever feel normal to me.

Though all of this does sound somewhat crazy, just as in New York City, Pohang (and probably the average Korean metropolis) is a place that never sleeps. Bars, take-out joints, and norebongs are opened all night, at least until 6am. You see people on the streets for most of those hours as well, on weekends. On weekdays, even young kids are walking around unchaperoned until eleven pm or so, on their way home from academies. But not to worry, that last fact points out that there is always a sense of safety--and from my last post, you may have some idea where it comes from.

I really am not sure how I feel about keeping these hours. It can't be bad for me, can it? I am rested, fed, and getting a healthy amount of downtime in between. But something in me just can't sit with it. Maybe it's a whole lifetime of being on more "normal" hours. Perhaps it's that I really do enjoy the early morning quiet, when the sun isn't yet at it's brightest, and the morning birds have just begun to sing their songs. It could be the nostalgia that I've always felt for those precious hours connected to my father's morning cup of coffee, and in more recent years, his morning sudoku puzzle. He is quiet and calm. With the scent of the coffee beans and the ruffle of the newspaper, the day is held softly at bay and the moment is now. It is a moment I always hope to share with him when the timing is right. When we do share it, we don't say much, but I feel how he is my dad, and I'm his little girl. It is a moment I have found myself missing on some mornings, with each time I leave home.

Or perhaps in addition to all of this, in my current situation, my uncertainty and indecision comes from the prospect of waking up to hours of unscheduled time laid out before me, to do with as I will. What freedom. What a feeling of satisfaction--that more of my life is about living, and less about working.

The reality is that when you get off work at 10pm, and eat dinner around 11, it just doesn't feel like it's time to go to sleep. I often come right home, but even after I've eaten, I'm wide awake, so accustomed I've been to a work schedule that gets me home with 6 hours of down time before bed. In truth, on some Fridays when my coworkers and I go out, I honestly have no idea how the wee hours of the morning creep up on us, until we start to see the first lights of dawn.

All of this being said, there are days when I attempt to go to bed earlier, determined to have an early start, and steal back my morning. It is difficult to do, as the body likes a good routine, but at times, I find it is worth it. On other nights, I have felt rewarded by the choice to stay out a little longer, stay up a little later, because I am enjoying the magic of an evening, the sharing of a life experience with another human being.

From what I can tell, the jury is still out, but none of the options are bad. I was sitting up late with my friend Joe the other night, and out of the corner of my eye saw on the clock that the hour was approaching 5am. I let out a deep sigh and couldn't help but smile. Another late night. Or more appropriately, another early morning. We had spent a night talking and laughing, thinking and asking questions. We had shared so many stories about our families and where we each came from, and I was feeling grateful and warm. I felt overflowing with everything, and yet we were only beginning to scratch the surface. I looked at him and said "Life! It's so crazy. ...and so good. Isn't it?" He had to agree.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Values of Respect

I am eagerly awaiting the time when I have an internet connection in my own apartment, (tomorrow, maybe!) but until then, I have been hopping down to the coffee shop on the corner, called "Holly's". I have been here enough times now that the young man who works here recognizes me, or so it seems. Every time I order something, we exchange awkward konglish, and he says a lot of things in Korean that I absolutely don't understand. Many of the things he says sound like questions, but I just smile stupidly, nod, and apologize a lot. He also apologizes, which I find sort of funny, since I am foreign in HIS country, and he should not be expected to be able to speak my language. I think this aptly illustrates a certain politeness I feel everywhere I go here. It truly is above and beyond the expected.

This politeness points to a sort of deep respect for other people that surpasses anything I've seen in my travels to any other place. It feels like a cultural belief in basic human decency. I've noticed it a lot when I am interacting with people as a customer, but it's more than that. When I pass people on the street, they aren't overly friendly--they don't really say hello like at home, but as soon as I look like I need some help, they help me as best they can. It's just a given.

Something else which I find to be connected to this idea struck me a few days ago-- it is so clean here. It is quite clean in Portland, to be sure, but since I have been here and been wandering all over Pohang, I have not seen one single example of graffiti. Not one. I also have seen all kinds of municipal workers and store employees grooming the street, sidewalks, and plant life around the city and the local establishments. It is nearly pristine.

Not only that, but I have noticed that people leave their bicycles outside, unlocked. Everywhere. Tony told me that one time, he went on a big shopping trip at E-Mart (equivalent to Fred Meyer), and accidentally left one of his bags on the sidewalk outside the store when he got in the cab. He got home and didn't realize it was gone until a few hours later. When he did realize it was missing, on a chance, he went back to see if it was still there, outside the busy shopping center. It was. It had not been touched.

All of this tells me that in Korea, it seems there is not just a underlying respect for other people, but for things. People treat each other with a certain respect for one another, simply because they are living beings. They treat their own possessions with respect and value, and also respect that when something does not belong to them, it is not theirs to abuse or to take if the opportunity should arise. I think there is more to be said and discovered about this, the longer I am here, but I am beginning to appreciate it. I am curious to know what formed the culture in this way. Or maybe a better question is, how did western culture come to deviate from these values so much? How has theft of unattended items and tagging downtown buildings become the norm? I wonder a lot about these things, and have a few ideas, but for now, I'll leave it as food for thought

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Taste of Home

I am a little behind on my weekly post, better late than never!

This past weekend was a whirlwind with my teacher friends and our Korean friend Joe. First, I cooked dinner for Tony and Steph at my apartment, the first I've hosted anyone since I arrived. It felt really good. We talked and drank wine while we chopped vegetables and stirred sauces. Ben and Joe joined us a little later, and we all played bananagrams and dominoes. I felt more at home than I have since I first arrived. After a few rounds, we went out for the first time to some foreigner bars downtown.

Foreigner bars are exactly what they sound like--a place for ex-pats to find each other, and have a little taste of home. It was the strangest sensation. Since I have arrived, apart from the people I work with, I have seen maybe 5 or 6 foreigners on the street. We walked into this bar, and EVERY person was a foreigner. Everyone was speaking English, laughing loudly, and behaving as westerners do--a little, um, less reserved than the Koreans I have met so far.

Also, here in Pohang, and in most of Korea I have been told, it is not so easy to find a good microbrew or a nice bottle of wine, least of all for a reasonable price. Most beers are the equivalent of a PBR or Natty Lite... a far cry from what I was accustomed to at home in Portland. At the first bar we went to, my jaw dropped in surprise to learn that they had an amber ale on tap. And, that the bartender gave me a taste of it in a shooter, like they do back home. I heartily thanked the bartender, ordered an amber, and asked him with a smile if I could please give him a tip. Remember, there is no tipping in Korea. The first time I ate out, I was by myself, and I attempted to leave a tip on the table. The server chased me down the street a few minutes later, extending the money to me in his hand, smiling and shaking his head. At the foreigner bar, I just wanted to express my gratitude, and have a little sense of home. The bartender smiled and said, "sure you can, there actually is a tip jar, but tips are not expected."

The rest of the evening continued with much enjoyment. At the next place we played darts and then a game of pool with some people from Italy, England, and Michigan respectively. It was delightful. I realized I had been craving not just more people to be around, but I had been missing the ability to strike up a conversation with an interesting person, taking much for granted what the common ground of sharing a language can do. The only regret I have at this point in my journey is that I made NO attempt to learn any Korean before I left. I feel like this was the only thing I didn't really think through before hand. I think I was feeling daunted by how vast the difference is between English and Eastern languages, but the reality is, I didn't even try. It is not too late, and I am now making an effort. It is slow going, but worth it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

cultural differences

Well, I've made it through 2 full weeks in Korea, and my first week of teaching! A lot has happened, but then, that's always what it feels like when everything is new.

I have moved into my apartment, as previously stated, and it is REALLY good to finally be in my own space, and not be living out of my luggage. My apartment is quite sizable and comfortable, though I will admit I was a little disappointed that I have to move again in 3 months. Oh well, I will still continue to settle in despite this fact--I know myself and I just won't be comfortable unless I allow myself to nest. One of the added bonuses of getting this big apartment is that the previous couple left me their elliptical machine as well as many appliances and housewares, which I will likely be able to take with me to my next apartment. Talk about luxury!

Teaching is going well. I must admit, my first day was somewhat haphazard, and I was a little confused about the wheres and whats and whyfores, but it was a great gift to have a 6-month seasoned teacher (Tony) there to help me and my fellow new teachers (Stephanie and Ben) ride out the turbulence. For example, on my first day, the school had not given me the correct schedule, and if it weren't for Tony, throughout the day, I would have had several classrooms full of students wondering where their teacher was! By Friday however, I had figured out the general rhythm and I think I will do just fine.

The students are, for the most part, respectful, well behaved, and engaging. At times, I have to be a little more energetic and bubbly due to dry subject matter, but I almost enjoy this the most. I get a kick out of their reactions to me, the crazy foreigner, jumping around in front of them and asking silly questions of them. I realize I somewhat enjoy the way they perceive me as odd, maybe as much as I have perceived of some Korean customs. The other day, I wore some earrings I have which are made from welded and twisted forks (anyone from Portland knows the Saturday market artist well!) . When a student raised her hand, tugged on her ear, and asked "teacher, octopus?" I replied, "no! they are forks!" with a gesture and a face indicating eating a delicious meal. The students giggled and exchanged looks disbelief with raised eyebrows. I smiled and made a face of complete disbelief to match theirs. Another day, as I was checking a student's homework, I saw at the bottom of her work a little cartoon sketch of what I could tell was me and her, smiling, with a message, "welcome Kirsten teacher!" I grinned and told her "thank you for the beautiful drawing, I am so pleased to be your teacher!" I am looking forward to getting to know them more.

Some of the past few weeks has been challenging for me, as could be expected. I am fairly isolated from everything I know, and contrary to what I had thought prior to coming here, not many Koreans do speak English. Living fully immersed in a place that does not understand me, even in the simplest way, is a real first for me. True, Africa was pretty different from home, but the ability to converse and communicate with the people there right from the first moment made such an immense difference. I was able to connect and make friends with Africans, and completely take for granted that the first step to successful communication is simply sharing the same speech. Tony has given us all copies of the Korean alphabet, and believe me, I am working to learn it fast.

My thoughts are with you, thanks for keeping in touch!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My address, for now!

Just a quick mid-week post to share my address:

Kirsten Smith
Green-vil apt, #502, 991-4
Daejam-dong, Nam-gu
Pohang-si, Gyeongbuk

I will be living at this address for the next 3 months, and then I will be moving again! Though this is inconvenient, I understand why it has to be this way. You see, two of the teachers who my counterparts and I are replacing were a couple, living together. When they left, there was still 3 months on their lease. Normally, Moon Kkang would just renew the lease for the next teacher, but they do not often have a couple, and they never give one individual an apartment of this size (it is quite large!). I am finishing out the lease before they find me somewhere else to live. My next apartment will be in the same building with 2 other teachers, but for now, I am just close by to 2 of my teaching counterparts, but in a different building.

When my address changes, I will be sure to post it. But send me letters! I promise, I am an excellent pen pal and will respond. :)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Roman Candle

It's a week now I've been in Korea, and tomorrow, I begin my life as an english teacher. I have been trained, and I am eager. I feel ready. After 3 days of observations and a weekend full of sufficient distraction, I can hardly wait to have a classroom of my own. In the time between, I have found some space for fun!

Last night, my new friends (Tony--already teaching at our school, Stephanie--new like me, and Jo--former teacher at my school and native Korean) and I drank wine and ate cheese while laughing and learning each other's quirks. We then struck off to the beach to set off Roman candles (completely legal!) and wade in the shallows. I felt in some of those moments overwhelmed with the aliveness within me, and the colors and flavors of this vast and tiny earth. There is so much life to live! When we had our share of mayhem, we were still brimming with energy, and so we went off to close out the evening with norebong (karaoke!) into the wee small hours.

This afternoon, after plenty of rest, we returned to the beach, where we sat beneath beach umbrellas and took in the sun, sand and surf. The others ran off to the water and I stayed behind in the shade. I looked out across the sea at the penninsula--the tail of the tiger that forms Korea--and studied the rise and fall of the tree topped mountains, just barely visible through the ocean mist. A part of me feels like I'm crazy for being here. There is so much unfarmiliar, so much that I simply don't know, and very little to hide behind and find comfort in. For some reason, I know that's alright, and by now, I know that those feelings are only fleeting; temporary. I have been here before. I remind myself therin lies the point. This is an adventure I have embarked upon to test my very limits--not unlike some choices of which I have already come to see the labors and fruits thereof. Even still, I find it hard to imagine that I could come to be so comfortable in a place where I am so different. I am optimistic, and we shall see.

Tomorrow the real challenge begins. Tomorrow, I will begin to see if teaching--a life long curiosity--is one of my talents, and maybe even one of my callings.