Integration Field Trips

I sit in the back seat, middle. In both Korea and the U.S., I am considered short, so I don’t need leg room. Wedged in between two other teachers, bracing to avoid sitting in someone’s lap. First Korean car trip. Saccharine Kpop plays from a mix on the stereo. Our supervisor is driving us. One teacher asks me, what do I think of the mountains here, being from Colorado? The mountains of Chilgokgun are beautiful, but in a different way–like moss, the smooth roundness that the treetops form as they rise in soft angles in the foggy air. The rich, dark green. Colorado pines are brittle and triangular like the mountains themselves, reaching up sharply to the sky.

In the car, we tell stupid jokes and our supervisor is silent. Traffic is like a crowded, toothy smile, cars packed in tightly together on the street. Side roads have barely enough room for traffic. No parking tickets. Please, don’t let us crash. Oh no, we’re going to hit somebody. And then, we neatly back up into a parking space. And our supervisor is silent, smoking cigarettes when we leave the car. Outside, we walk past patients wandering in hospital gowns, their IVS following next to them like loyal pets. There’s a coffee shop inside and stations for every ailment, disease, condition. We travel up an elevator. I try to sound out the Korean hangul that I see all around me. Nah…Nah…Ri…? We arrive at a desk with a young woman shuffling papers. “She’s new.” A small, elderly nun smiles behind me in line. Paperwork in my hands that I can’t read. Did I bring my passport? Won? 30,000 won? Passport photos?

We wait on a brown leather couch. A nurse gluesticks my photo–my painful portrait, my wincing smile–to paperwork. They measure my weight, my height, my chest size? My hearing, my color-sight, my blood pressure. I sit on a couch, watch the three other teachers be examined. Our supervisor translates. Our white faces are dumb.

New station. A small child barely walking. “Annyeong haseyo! Annyeong! Aw, so cute!” The child stares intently at my eyes. I wave. The mother waves the child’s hand back at us. And then hand-holding, moral-supporting, breath-taking, blood-drawing. My turn. The nurse wears no gloves. The pinching of the needle–it pinches. I blush from the pain and two teachers and one supervisor looking over my shoulder as the nurse, bare-handed, empties my arm of a vial of blood.

Dixie cup. Bathroom–squatty potties. Yes! Squatty potties! Pants down, urine collecting, awkward walk, carrying my own pee across the hall to place it on a tray in the fridge, like, “It’s cool. Just putting a cup of my own piss in this display case for all the see.” My sample is healthy; someone else’s is tomato juice-orange. I marvel at my sore arm. Wash hands. A nurse runs into me with a tray of dixie piss cups. Splash. Not on my clothes, thank goodness. That was almost the worst day ever. That was a close one. I hope whoever owns that orange pee gets well soon. Back to the elevator. Time for Xrays. First, “crazy test.” Fold in your fingers from thumb to pinky to prove your mental stability. “Do you have any disorders?” “No.” The doctor’s smile is huge. Goodbye, I guess? “Kamsamnida!” And then…waiting. Extra long wait. I practice Korean. Try sounding out the syllables. I suck at this. Play “Pop Popping Korean” on a phone. Netflix. Fifteen minutes of Portlandia. People-watch. I wonder what was up with that orange urine. Tap my feet.

Xray. What did she say? I take off my shirt, my bra, put on a purple hospital scrub. Hug a plastic machine. My lungs are healthy. No TB here. Changing room again. Finished. Finally.

We go out to lunch. “Chicken is not real Korean food.” “Barbeque is rare for lunch.” The city rises upwards. Tall apartment buildings, tall shops, short me. Motor bikes shoot past us. Hangul everywhere. You don’t notice so many words around you until you can’t read them. Try to sound out the syllables. Do…Re…Mi…Fa…Fried rice with an egg on top. “Just use the spoon.” “That’s what it’s there for.”

Next day. Immigration. Back to the middle seat. I’m the fresh meat in a foreign teacher sandwich. Supervisor’s ecigarettes smell so good. Like cotton candy? No. Like the best smell ever? We try to walk casually behind him. A competition to see who can breathe in the most second-hand smoke. Delicious lung cancer. The smell is “My Wife.” Supervisor driver is tired, so we stop at a rest station. Squatty potties! Yay, squatty potties. And the next best thing, ice cream in a bag. A bag of ice cream that tastes kind of like my mom’s homemade recipe. My fingers burn red from the cold.

Immigration. Signatures on paper. More paperwork. I sit down and wait for the clerk to stop typing and ask for money. I can’t count the wons with the man and my supervisor watching. What is math? I fumble with the money. Passport photos? Of course. Of course I have them but can’t find them in my purse or in my folder of paperwork. Are you kidding me? I paid ten dollars back home for those! The passport photos are not with me. I thought I had them with me. “Choesong hamnida. Yes, copy my passport page.”

Finished? That’s it? We’re legal! Back in the car, back to the school we pass on the highway, the English Village standing its ground in the hills, protected by trees.

A week later, the bank. Another Korean staff member. “Nice to meet you.” Crawl to the back of the van. I’m the smallest and I don’t need leg room. Rumble up through the hills to the Daegu Bank. The staff member, she drives us down a tight entrance to a small place to park below ground. Deep breaths, the van barely fitting, tires grinding the wall. Screech, teeth grinding, no place to park. Park anyways and leave a note. Inside the bank, the clerk speaks English well. I hand her money, passport, no ARC as of yet. Wait. And wait. “Korean language. Korean language. Korean language.” Signatures, signatures. My ATM card offered to me on a little tray. I take it. Done. Next. Small talk. Bank talk. Then the van barely makes it up the exit ramp. Accelerate. Accelerate. Accelerate. ATM card, empty bank account. Busy city. Here I am.

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Being a Foreigner Abroad

Today’s guest blogger is Mike Smith. Check out his travel blog here.

“If you’re a giant freak monster here in the U.S., then it HAS to be even harder for you there in Albania!”

Truer words never spoken, friend.

Sometimes it is tough to be me in general. I have, unfortunately, never been able to fit in or go unnoticed anywhere in my life just because of my physical appearance alone. When traveling abroad, that feeling is amplified exponentially. Sometimes it is hard dealing with all of the attention I get, positive or negative, and it can be a bit tiring when everyone stares at/wants to take pictures with you when all you want to do is go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. To add to the whole sideshow attraction feeling, I make up about 25% of Albania’s current black population (maybe a little more since I’m bigger than the rest of them) so you can get an idea of how life is for me at present. If you’re just going on vacation somewhere, then it’s not that big a deal, but if you plan on living somewhere for an extended period of time, it can eventually become overwhelming and incredibly stressful.

That’s why I wanted to share with you Big Mike’s Top 5 Ways to Not Feel Like the Unwanted Foreigner in a Different Country (or “Coping Mechanisms” for short).

1. Walk with confidence! – Stand up straight. Shoulders back. Head up. If you walk with confidence you will FEEL confident, and that feeling will carry you through a lot. It seems like a small tip or common knowledge, but you’d be surprised how many times I see other visitors/my fellow volunteers hunched over slinking through their towns staring at the ground because they are afraid to make eye contact with the locals. That demeanor can actually ADD to your fears or unhappiness and give you that nagging, “I can’t wait to go home” thought in the back of your head. Get yourself together, fix that posture, and strut!

2. Learn the language! – Again, one would think that this is common sense if you are living in a country that doesn’t speak your L1 for an extended period of time, but I wouldn’t be bringing it up if I didn’t see people ignoring it everyday. You need to know at least enough for things like everyday conversations, work, travel, buying things, etc. When I see people just slamming English into everything and refusing to learn the language of the place that they live in it irks me. You don’t have to be perfect, but showing the locals that you’re trying does wonders for your approval rating and they will really appreciate the effort.

3. Make local friends – You need friends no matter where you go. Either someone that you can visit or can visit you. These friends can help you get adjusted or introduce you to other people or things that you may have never known about otherwise, and they are invaluable when settling in at a new place. And that doesn’t mean you have to make friends with EVERYONE. One or two really good friends will do just fine. It’s always better to have 4 quarters than 100 pennies.

4. Make American friends – We are quite literally everywhere…like a virus or a plague. Americans are absolutely all over the world, and chances are high that you will run into a few wherever it is that you are traveling to. You may even know some before you go. Some people will tell you that if you want to really be successful, you have to spend as little time with people that are like you as possible. I call b.s. You need as many connections as you can get in your strange new land, so don’t shun anyone! Odds are that they have gone through the things that you will go through as well and can help you to adjust more quickly. ‘MURICA /salute

E. Accept invitations – Inevitably you will be invited out to do things with local people, whether it be to get coffee or lunch or what have you. Make some time to go and hang out with your new peers and neighbors. Everyone will want to know about you, why you are there, for how long, what toothpaste you use, etc. Go out and get to know about them, too! Being open to little social meetings will do wonders for your integration and you could even find some new friends from there as well. Of course, use your judgement when accepting invites to things. Don’t go to someone’s house for “Netflix and chill” if you just met them, obviously…

If you find things getting a bit rough for you, these things will definitely help you get through most of it. You will find that most things that you are stressing about are all in your head and the more you integrate the faster they will go away. It will not be instantaneous, and it will feel like ice skating uphill for a little while, but eventually you will find your groove and start to love your new place.