Haves and Have Nots (Part 1)

A friend once asked if I was someone who was more likely to spend my money on experiences or possessions. I answered that I was more likely to spend my money on stuff, as I liked to have something tangible, with a bit more permanence to show for my efforts. But choosing to travel is choosing experience. Either that or large international shipping expenses.

This blog is not some insightful piece about possessions or the lack there of, but more of a log of things I have experienced (in no particular order), to be followed up shortly by a list of have nots.

I had reduced my earthy possessions to two boxes, 1 suitcase, and a carry on. Oh, and a dining suite and set of drawers. I have now gone on a mad shopping spree, buying an entire summer wardrobe in an afternoon (and in doing so bumped myself up to two suitcases). I now have some very Korean outfits; pretty dresses in pastel colours, a gorgeously tailored trench coat in tan, the ‘it’ colour of the season, cute blouses to pair with short-shorts and heals, or short shorts and baggy tops. I’ve also bought some tops from a hiking shop; total bargains at W15,000.

I have learnt that if you put food in front of me, I’ll eat it. I may not like it, and if it’s Korean food the odds of that are greatly increased. But for some reason I’ll keep eating. If I have to eat with chopsticks I am more likely to persevere with eating despite not liking something because I enjoy the challenge of getting food from plate to mouth without it ending up on the table or in my lap. Noodles is an exception to this. Noodles + chopsticks + overbite = damn frustrating and messy.
I’m determined to give things a go and at least try them once. Korean food often does not look or sound appealing so I’ve adopted an eat first ask later policy.
I’ve now eaten sashimi (including squid, sea-squirt and some kind of snail), shaved dried fish that is so fine it crumples in the heat and so looks like it’s moving on your plate, kimchi of course, a whole chicken stuffed with rice and served in a steaming pot of broth.

I’m learning that one question should be asked before I eat. “Is it spicy.” I’m not very good with spicy foods, and don’t really feel the need to prove I’m tough by eating it. It’s really not pleasant when it goes in, and it’s certainly not pleasant the next day, and thus it should be avoided.

Not only do I seem to eat anything that’s put in front of me, I seem to drink anything that’s put in front of me. I did not drink beer before I came here, but I seem to have had a lot of if in the past few months. And yet I still do not like it. The closest I got to liking a beer was actually a NZ Larger that come with the cover charge of a bar we went to.

I have gotten drunk on soju, and decided I actually quite enjoy the drink. I much prefer it over a beer. A friend convinced me to try ‘soco’, soju mixed with iced coffee. Not being a big alcohol drinker, or a drinker of coffee I didn’t expect to like it. But it’s now become my standard drink for having in the park at the start of a night in Hongdae. It helps that the ingredients can be bought at the local convenience store for about $3.

But my time here hasn’t been all about eating, drinking and shopping. I’ve been to enough palaces, temples and pagodas to not feel the need to see another in a very long time. The palaces are certainly impressive and the colourful painting on everything very beautiful, but it’s all far too similar. The other weird thing about visiting a lot of these places is that the site may be very old, but the buildings themselves often are not having been destroyed by invaders and rebuilt, often very recently.

I have travelled to the southern end of the peninsula to visit Namhae Island. A weekend trip that provided what has thus far been my only trip out of this city. I enjoyed watching the landscape roll by through our bus window. The mountains, the rivers and the ocean. The patchwork of fields and terraces of rice, garlic, and other crops grown in small quantities. I travelled out to smaller islands, went sea kayaking, fishing (and caught several fish), swan in the ocean, attended a garlic festival, and trecked up to a budhist temple on a mountain peak to watch the sunrise.

I have been to the zoo. I could not tell you if any of the animals I saw were indigenous to Korea. Perhaps the did not feel them worthy of inclusion.

I have been to half a dozen swing venues, dancing mostly lindy but a bit of blues and bal, and even taken a few tango classes. A number of times I have left a bar after sunrise to make my way home on the subway which opens at 5:30am.

I have been pushed into a subway carriage that resembled a can of sardines. I’ve taken buses and wished there were seatbelts… and helmets. I’ve ridden in taxis and felt my driver thought we were in fact in the grand prix.

I’ve hired a bike for free and spent half a day peddling along a river not really knowing where I was or where I was going but just loving being on a bike (as crappy as it was) after so long and enjoying the sights along the river.

I’ve taught English (funny that). Teaching in full emersion. I’ve found that Korean kids, in contrast to some peoples assumptions are not perfect students. Some are really motivated, but even they have their off days. Some start out super quiet, but then never stop talking. Others are moody, mischievous, or demanding. Some are clearly very ‘special’. Some adore me (or at least that’s what I tell myself), some love to wind me up and others I’m sure couldn’t care less about who was standing in front of them. As such I’ve had classes I thought went really well, and classes that have gone terribly. But I don’t think I’ve cried yet, so things haven’t got too bad.

I’ve had conversations (very brief and basic) solely in Korean, and felt that at least some of what I said and what I heard was correctly understood. I’m often told I have good pronunciation, which I think is often just a polite response to my speaking, but then I heard other foreigners try to speak the language as if it used only English phonemes which clearly it does not.

I’ve become a millionaire. Millions of won entering my account every month. I’ve put aside a bit of money already to put on my student loan, but am mostly enjoying finally having a disposable income after living the student life for so long and of course making sure I’m not so stingy I don’t make the most of my time here. I’ve already got a couple of weekend trips out of Seoul lined up, as well as an upcoming trip to Beijing. Christmas this year will likely be spent in Thailand.

I’ve joined a gym. A women’s gym, called Diva Fit, that has pink stuff. On the surface it is so not me, but I’m enjoying doing some regular exercise in an environment with a regulated temperature. More so I’m enjoying doing something other than work in the community where I live. Most people there have proven to be friendly attempting to communicate with me in whatever way we can, whether it be English, Konglish, Korean, Google translate or a lot of hand motions. So I start my mornings with a good workout, a Korean practice and K-Pop induction.

I have been to a Jimjilbang; a Korean sauna, with single sex areas with pools of varying temperatures and steam rooms. The thing with these is that you have to be naked. So it took a fair bit of courage but I did it and did my best to relax. At places like that I’m glad that I can’t see very much without my glasses, and kinda forget that other people can see better than me. It can however be bad if I forget that blob I’m absentmindedly gazing at is actually a person, a naked one, and they probably think I’m having a good geeze.

I have met some great people who have really helped make the weekends something to look forward to. I’m really grateful for those people. I’ve also had great people to work with and found myself in a well run (or at least that’s what I’m still thinking 4months down the line) hagwon who have been really welcoming and appreciative of my contribution to the team.

I have also been homesick, and at times have had a good cry about it. Food has been a site of struggle, as has the lack of a social life during the week. But none of this has been bad enough to consider packing it all in and heading home. Skype dates and mail from special people have been greatly encouraging. There have also been reminders that home is already different, and in returning I couldn’t slip into the life I had 4months ago. I decided to come to Korea for a reason; (at the time) I didn’t feel like I was making any headway in terms of a career, or a relationship, so why not go out and have a bit of adventure. So I’m well aware that I’m here to make myself feel like I’m doing something I want to do, even though I’ve never had any desire to go to Korea, or to teach English. It doesn’t help that four months into my contract I still don’t feel strongly for or against teaching, or Korea, and so am filling my weekends with various activities to make me feel like I’m doing something cool. I’m quite happy to move on to something new at the end of my year, and know that I have a lot of options (recent politics have closed off a few), but don’t feel that there’s anything that I particularly want to do, which I find really frustrating. So in absence of a grand Plan A, I’m sticking to Plan B, which is to stay in Korea for a second year (probably with the same school), try to pay off my student loan as best as I can, whilst exploring as much of Asia as 2 weeks annual leave will allow, then head to the UK while I still can and do the traditional OE there. It sounds good, but I’m still not sold on it.

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