South Korea: First Week and First Impressions

12109283_901438709926766_7741723750300968074_nAnnyeong haseyo. I’m back! (To my blog, that is. I’m actually in a whole different country now, if you weren’t paying attention.)

I’ve finished my first week in South Korea, and I love the adventures I’m facing. There are aspects of the culture that allude me, but there are parts of it that I feel like I fit into comfortably. However, it can be kind of scary only knowing how to say about five phrases, because eventually you’re going to run into a situation where “Thank you” and “Where’s the bathroom” are not helpful, like in my first Korean cab ride as I journeyed from the Daegu airport to the campus where I’m now living. I self-consciously told the driver, “Hanguk-mal-moteyo” (more or less, “I don’t speak Korean.”), and the awkward chuckle we shared was followed by a 20-minute silence, unless you count the sound of me praying that we were headed to the right destination and that I wasn’t going to end up dead somewhere my first time out of the country.

But, I’m alive, and I have no complaints about this beautiful place. Here are some thoughts on how it made an impressive first impression:

Korean society is group-oriented, and so respect for others is essential. For instance, the monorail that runs through Chilgok has Smart windows, meaning they fog over when passing housing districts, allowing privacy for commuters and people in their homes. Additionally, they have special seats reserved for the elderly, the disabled, and those who are pregnant or have children with them. They also expect you to be quiet on the monorail, like it’s a public library, since commuting is often the downtime of people’s busy days. All of this ensures people are given the space they need to function and have some peace. In the U.S., I’ve yet to encounter the same value of public consideration for others.

Korea has its classy down. On the flight from Incheon to Daegu, they played classical music before take off and after we descended, and the overhead lights turned a calming blue. The flight attendants were 1960s well-dressed. They wore kerchiefs around their collars and fancy bows in their perfect hair. They wore classy gray or turquoise (as I’ve seen them) dress suits. American flight attendants are generally very friendly and good at their jobs, but I just can’t emphasize enough how unclassy Americans seem to look compared to Koreans, at least on a general scale. And I know I’m basing this sweeping generalization on very few observations, but I don’t have time or money to conduct proper research, so my conclusions still stand. Korea is just so classy. Deal with it. Please?

“But,” you protest, “what about those horrible squatty potties???” You might not think that squatty potties, essentially porcelain holes in the ground, are all that classy. “We sit on thrones of porcelain glory!” you insist. No no no. Sit down and shut up, dear reader.

I am all about the squatty potties. I’m at the point where I’m actually disappointed if I open a public stall and it’s not a squatty potty. Here’s why: There is research out there that talks about how our bodies are made to excrete at the angle that squatting allows, as evidenced by the colon and other bowel-related ailments that started after the invention of the modern toilet. So, as long as you have legs that bend and you pull your pants down appropriately, it’s so natural. Super natural even. And if you’re a slight germophobe like me, then you don’t enjoy sitting where so many others have sat their butts, anyway. The benefit of squatty potties is that there is no butt-sitting that will ensure the exchange of butt germs. It’s a miracle! The flushing knob is also close to the floor so you can just step on it instead of touching it with your hand, or pushing it with your foot like I do. And, yeah, I know: “But you’ll get pee-pee on your shoes. Ew!” Yes, yes, this is inevitable, especially if the person who squatted before you was drunk, but Koreans also have an etiquette that suggests, if not requires, you to take off your shoes when entering homes or restaurants like the one I went to my first night in Chilgok, where we sat on the floor–the night I stepped in a drunk person’s urine a little bit (with my shoes on, mind you). So there, everyone. Squatty potties for the win!

In addition to my growing love of Korea and squatty potties, I’m proud of myself for taking risks, however small. Five years ago, I would never have imagined myself living in another country on my own. The night of my first full day at DGEV, everyone went out for chicken and beer for a coworker’s birthday. Jet lag hasn’t affected me very much since I’ve gotten here, so even though the other new teachers were not up to going, I hopped on the shuttle and followed my coworkers to Chilgok. If I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have met a young couple who told me they went to church. If I was still the hyper-cautious, shy person that I was five years ago, I wouldn’t have asked them if I could tag a long. So now I have church buddies. This trip off campus was also a good start to getting to know more people I would be working with. As soon as I stepped off the shuttle, a girl put her arm around me and asked me about myself. That meant a lot to me. They welcomed me into their group, and I felt like I belonged, even though I couldn’t read the hangul that faced me in every direction, even though I barely knew these people.

At Chicken Daily, we sat on the floor at a low table in our socks and chopstick-fed ourselves breaded chicken. I had a shot of peach-flavored soju which did not exactly taste like juice as someone had promised me, but it was much, much better than the beer, which was real bad, just as they promised.

I’ve had great food so far. Our cafeteria, unlike most school cafeterias in Korea, is quite good. The rice is sticky and I don’t have to eat tentacles with every meal. There are also always American options, too, even if that just means chicken nuggets or a PB&J sandwich. And, again, I can’t complain. I will take fried, breaded sweet potatoes or kimchi or tentacles over something I would have eaten in America. Because it’s different, and that’s what’s exciting.

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A Swollen Suitcase

The first time I traveled by plane, I was 20 years-old and couldn’t take my eyes from the window. The earth passed underneath, a landscape of black ink blots and dark-brown, dotted lines, like a scarred face or a child’s scribbles.

From my seat, I saw the shadows of clouds. You sit outside and the passing of clouds subtly turns the sky dark, veiling the brightness of the sun like a fraction of night is returning. But from a plane, you can see the full shadow of a cloud stretching out; the darkness is happening to someone else now, and you watch. I realized that I could, for the first time, see from a different point of view. I was above the clouds, instead of the clouds above me. The strikes of lightning that came later when the sky grew dark on that plane ride looked like cloud-islands bursting from the inside.

I couldn’t wait to be in Memphis. Crossing the United States, I thought I might find rest for my wanderlust, which I carted around like a swollen suitcase.

*

I grew up locked in land. Nebraska is bordered on all sides by cornfields shooting deep in the soil, prairies bending in the wind, and big cities that outsiders fail to acknowledge: “You’re from Nebraska? So what was it like growing up on a farm?”

My home was in the suburbs. The creek that ran at the edge of our dead-end street and a long field that stretched from our house to a neighborhood adjacent are misrepresentative. Our neighborhood was also bordered by car dealerships, endless rows of houses, and city parks. The creek itself was strewn with gardens of misplaced clothes, vines of graffiti on the concrete tunnel that ran beneath our street, and a harvest of twisted pop cans.

My adventures didn’t often go beyond Pinkney Street, my homeschool friends’ houses, and the public library. We came up with our own ways of traveling, using the imagination that our parents and PBS Kids fostered in us.

My oldest brother, Aaron, wrote an elaborate story on a yellow legal pad—a sort of Chronicles of Narnia meets Lord of the Rings that described children entering into a new world through a gate and meeting strange creatures from bordering lands who battled each other for some underdeveloped plot reasons. Aaron made my other two brothers and I act these adventures out, our own personal book-to-movie adaptation.

We unlatched the metal gate that led from our backyard to the fenced-out wilderness of the tangled trees that led to the creek. I remember there were Ghost People and there were Fire People. And, most of all, I remember wandering away from the game (probably bored with my character’s lack of development and dialogue) to seek out my own story, talking to the trees like friends and unburying secrets from the trash-strewn dirt.

Though much of the storyline evades me now, entering through the portal-gate is what intrigued my childhood self, equipped in a purple and turquoise windbreaker and shoes caked in mud. It was from there that I could enter the brush on the other side of the fence and create my own space around what already existed there. Because I could enter through the gate, duck under a branch bent in an arc and twisted into another tree, and open onto a space that was continually changing and adapting in my mind, that space was all I needed.

In the realer world, I usually only traveled two places: my grandparents’ house in Wheatland, Wyoming and some close family friends in Florissant, Colorado (okay, there were a few other places we visited, sprinkled throughout my life—Mount Rushmore, the very edge of Iowa, the farther reaches of Wyoming, a road trip through Missouri). It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized a road trip to visit relatives didn’t “qualify” as a “vacation.”

As a middle-schooler, I saw a picture of my friend stretched out on a boat deck, her hair blowing in the breeze. I saw my aunt’s two sons smiling at Disneyland. I saw my best friend posing with her grandma at the Grand Canyon. My brother’s digital footage of museums in Germany. The missions trip photos of so many people I graduated with, holding African children in their arms.

Suddenly my grandma’s tiny town in Wheatland seemed so much smaller. Suddenly the minivan we drove from state to state seemed suffocating.

*

My childhood best friend flew nearly every summer to the Grand Canyon with her dad. I was continually impressed that she had this opportunity—how can her parents afford that? She just goes and sits and reads a book while flying millions of miles in the air?

I became used to people finding out I’d never ridden a plane and exclaiming, “What?! You’ve never been on a plane?! Okay. We’re going this summer. My parents will pay for it.”

As a kid, I never realized how much money we didn’t have. We were wealthy enough—I had food and clothes and an education. But, the times we ate out were often because we earned free coupons from the library reading program, much of my clothes were handed down from me by family friends who had daughters, and I was blessed to be homeschooled by my mother who was a teacher before she started to have kids. We were definitely not poor. But a plane ride for a family of six was beyond my imagination.

Before my first plane ride, one of my biggest claims to adventure was moving from Omaha to Colorado Springs when I was eleven. I wandered the house aimlessly, trying to process having to leave everything I’d ever known—the one house I’d ever lived in. The one town I knew well enough to get to the necessities—the library, the swimming pool, school. I wouldn’t get to see my best friend anymore. Tears flamed behind my eyes. I sobbed at my mother.

“You can call her whenever you want,” she tried to reassure me. I was terrified of having to make new friends—of knowing I wouldn’t continue to grow up with them. It was like losing siblings.

The rope tying me to the doorstep of my home frayed and snapped with every mile our car drove away, and the city passed by in a blur through my tears.

Our first summer in Colorado, my brothers and I explored the mountains in Florissant, shimmying up boulders and peering over steep ledges onto the tops of pine trees. The air was thin and the everyday weather contained all four seasons. There were no fireflies. But the moments I experienced on the edges of rocky cliffs, in caves, underneath towering trees that smelled like Christmas made me fall in love with a changing environment. Sun, rain, snow. Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado.

*

About nine years later, my uncle invited us to visit him in Tennessee. We would fly on a plane. We didn’t have that kind of money. Dad said no. Uncle Steve offered to pay for our tickets; he was a surgeon and a saint. My parents discussed it. My father hesitantly, but appreciatively, said, “Yes.”

I tried not to get too excited (but I was electric with excitement). Soon we were mentally preparing:

“Sarah, research how much shampoo we’re allowed to take on the plane.”

What time do we have to get up in the morning?”

“How loud do I have to say ‘bomb’ before they do a strip search?”

No one is going to say the word ‘bomb’ while we’re at the airport. Just don’t.”

My family’s excitement about getting on a plane might have been adorable. To other passengers, it was probably like we were telling them, “I’m so excited to ride in an automobile! I’ve never ridden in one before. Only biked. In fact, I usually just roller skate everywhere.”

In Tennessee, I didn’t want to leave. It was hot and muggy and there were fireflies. I loved that there was more ethnic diversity. I loved that we could set off fireworks and not get fined. This all felt like Nebraska, like home. Beautiful and comforting. But it was also like being in a wilderness so unfamiliar I wanted to reach out and tangle myself in the impenetrable forests draped in the thick nettings of vines we drove by on the highway. I wanted to bring the color green back with me to Colorado Springs.

*

As the plane picked up speed and I braced myself against its accelerating kick and rush, it felt like an elevator lifting to the next floor. We were quiet, listening to the hum and creaks of the plane. Outside the fields rushed past.

Right when I thought it couldn’t possibly lift off the ground, the plane rose into the air.