Thursday, April 2, 2009

Accustomation (my first week)

Now you've seen the pictures and read my thoughts from the plane. It's time for me to tell you what my life here has been like for the past (almost) week.

I landed in the Incheon Airport around 10pm on Friday and went through customs and immigration easily. I made a couple of acquaintances on the plane who helped me at the airport, because I was lost, exhausted, and barely functional. As I exited the terminal, I saw a small crowd of people waiting and started thinking of how I could find a phone to call my friend Han, who was coming to pick me up. As it turned out, that was unnecessary, as he stepped out of the crowd and flagged me down. I gave him an exhausted hug and he bought me a sandwich and we hopped on the train to Seoul. While on the train, Han helped me do some budgeting. As he had been in touch with my friend Joohwan earlier, he knew which station to go to to take me to my temporary home. I had never met Joohwan in person before, and had never seen a picture of him. Han saw the stupidity in this and talked to him in person before letting me go with him. So, as Han handed me one of my suitcases over a gate in the subway station, the first leg of my journey was over.

I was so worn out that as Joohwan and I climbed the stairs out of the station, he ended up far ahead of me with one of my 50-pound suitcases, and I had to rest in the middle of the stiarcase with my backpack, purse, and the other suitcase. I began to climb again with one of the handles in my hands, and a middle-aged man came from behind me and grabbed the other handle, helping me carry it to the top. People are kind all over the world. I am learning this every day here; the people in Ggachisan (my district of Seoul) are helpful, smiley, kind, and patient. I tried to roll my suitcase the 5 or so blocks to Joohwan's house, but the hills were steep and the walk seemingly endless. So, he took both of them and talked to me kindly as we continued. When we got to his house, his mother made a whole dinner for me (chicken soup, seaweed soup, rice, side dishes). I thanked her in Korean, but struggled to understand or say anything else. Joohwan's brother is in England now, so they have an empty room in their house. Joohwan gave me his own room, which is bigger, and slept in his brother's room. I took a shower (the showers here are different and were confusing at first so I had to ask for help), brushed my teeth, and collapsed into bed (complete with heated matress pad).

On Saturday I woke up at 1pm to Joohwan knocking on the door. He wanted to make sure I was okay; also, he was waiting for me to eat lunch and he had been hungry for hours. He cooked some beef, heated some chicken soup, served some side dishes, and poured me a cup of cold tea. My clearest memory of those first couple of days is talking to him while eating lunch and feeling like a stranger, but so comfortable. His English is really good, as he studied in Vancouver a while ago. He said that the day he arrived there the only English he knew was 'hello' so when he heard that I would be in the same situation, he wanted to help. After lunch, he took me to three goshiweons where I could live. A goshiweon is like a dormitory, generally associated with people who study 24/7 or can't afford an apartment. The one I chose is near Joohwan's house. It's not the reason I chose it, but it's nice to know he's close if I need him. I chose Atom Village because it's in a relatively quiet part of town, the price was the lowest, and the building manager is really sweet.

Anyway, after looking at potential homes for me, we met some of his friends at a bookstore in a subway station and went to get drinks in Myoungdong, which is kind of a business district hot spot that's really popular for eating, drinking, shopping, etc.. Then we went to a resaturant in Ggachisan to eat samgyeopsal, which is basically pork that you grill yourself in the middle of the table. His friends spoke very little English for the most part, and I speak very little Korean, so most of the time at least one person was left out. Joohwan did some translating, but mostly I just watched and tried to listen and understand what I could. While somewhat frustrating and alienating, it was a great experience and I hope I get to go out again this weekend with some Koreans.

On Sunday I woke up very early because of jetlag, but I didn't want to disturb Joohwan. So, I used my computer a bit, took a quick shower, and did some reading. By the time he knocked on my door for brunch, I was starving! I could have gone out and made a lot of noise to make it obvious that I wanted to be fed, but I felt that would be rude and I didn't want to ask anything when they had already given me so much. After eating, Joohwan helped me move into my goshiweon. He was adamant about being a gentleman and rolled both of my suitcases about 5 hilly blocks, then carried them up a tall, steep flight of stairs (one by one; he told me to wait for him at the bottom while he took the first one up) and down the narrow hallway into my room. Panting and sweating, he introduced me to his friend Miju, who lives around the corner and down the hall from me, before she went out. I invided him to sit down on my bed to catch his breath, and as he sat there he listed everything he could think of that I should know and said he would come back to check on me around 4. When he came back, he called Miju, who knocked on my door, and I went outside to meet him. It's a girls only goshiwoen so the only reason he was allowed in while we were looking at it and when I moved in was to translate. I haven't seen him since then, because he has school and probably spent too much time on me last weekend. Miju said he told her he'll bring me a cell phone today or tomorrow. It's 7pm now, so maybe it'll be tomorrow.

Sunday night, Miju took me down what was then an unfamiliar street to a restaurant called Lotteria, which serves "American" fast food. We each had a bulgogi (beef) burger, fries, and a soda. She can speak English about as well as I can speak Korean, maybe a little better. So, with Korean, English, hand motions, and a cell phone translation program, we had our first conversation. Miju is from the countryside about an hour and a half away from Seoul, and she has a boyfriend back home whom she sees once every two weeks. She's a musical theater major and goes to school during the day 3 days per week, and she works from 6-11pm on weeknights at a bread store chain called Paris Baguette. She's a few years older than me, and treats me like a little sister and a good friend. I'm thankful for all the help she gives me, and I think she's thankful to have a friendly face in the goshiweon other than the manager, who lives next door to her. She told me that she (Miju) is my eonni (big sister) and the manager is my eemo (maternal aunt).

At some point on Sunday, I went to the ATM on the corner of my street and the street with the subway exits with Joohwan to get money for rent. Then Sunday night Ma (what the manager told me to call her) gave me a pillow and a blanket, and I payed my rent. Talking with Ma is like talking with Miju in terms of our discombobulated mode of communication, but Ma knows more industry-specific words in Korean. The relationship itself is a lot like an aunt-neice relationship, in which she eagerly gives me guidance when I need it and greatly enjoys watching me learnKorean and about Korean life.

On Monday, Miju took me to a general store to buy shampoo, soap, a laundry hamper, a shower basket, etc. and to an outdoor market to buy side dishes so I would have lunch while she's at school. The general store had Andes Mints (my favorites) and I was so surprised and excited that she bought some for me. She, like me, is a price shopper, so when I shop with her she knows the cheapest place to buy anything. She asked what kind of food I like, and I said my favorite Korean dish is yukgae jang (spicy noodle soup with beef and vegetables). She also loves it, so we went to a restaurant to have yukgae jang together for lunch. All of these places are on the same main street that is now pretty familiar to me. In Korean culture, older people buy food and drinks and such for younger people, no questions asked. So far I have yet to pay for a meal at a restaurant because, with the exception of Han, everyone I have done anything with here is older than I am.

In the evening, Miju had to work, so I took a shower and went to my room to unpack. I got hungry and tired at the same time, and since eating would be a lot more frustrating and confusing I just went to sleep without dinner.

Tuesdays Miju has class so I didn't get to see her. But, she had suggested on Monday that we write each other short notes every day so we could help each other learn. When I woke up on Tuesday there was a note she had written in English the night before taped on my door. I realized that I didn't have any stationery and my pencil was almost out of lead. So after a breakfast of rice alone in the dining room, I took a shower and went to the store she had taken me to before to buy paper and pencils. When I got there at 8:30am (oh, jetlag...) the door kindly informed me that the store hours are 10am-10pm. So, I kept walking until I got to the next crosswalk, crossed the busy street at the green pedestrian light (if you cross on red you're bound to get hit), and walked back the way I came. By then my ankles and feet were so sore from all the walking I'd done in the past few days, but I ignored it and kept walking all the way home. I enjoyed walking around town so much that I've made it a daily morning ritual, and my body is getting used to it now. Anyway I was quite embarrassed about the whole ordeal, so I didn't return to the store until around 11:30. The ladies who work there recognized me (I think I'm the only foreigner around here) and I went about trying to find pencils and paper. After much scrutinizing of shelves and price comparison, I bought a two-pack of pencils and a pad of paper for less than $1 each, and returned home feeling accomplished. When I opened them to find drawing pencils and carbon paper forms, I literally laughed out loud for about five minutes. On the bright side, this carbon paper works with pens AND pencils!

So, I wrote a note to Miju in Korean with a drawing pencil on paper I tore out of one of my notebooks and taped it with her note and my corrections on her door. This has continued every day :) After that I spent some time on Facebook and chatting on MSN and had rice and side dishes in my room for lunch. Once again, I fell asleep without dinner. Before falling asleep I sent an email to Joohwan trying to gently elicit a visit because I was bored. Unfortunately for me, he's busy with school. The only people I know in Seoul right now are Joohwan, Han, Miju, and Ma, and I live with two of them....

After my morning walk (about an hour) and a breakfast of rice and side dishes, I occupied myself a bit more around my room and got a knock on my door in the early afternoon. It was Miju. She asked if there was anything I wanted to do that day, and I said I wanted to buy shin ramyun (spicy ramen) because I used to eat it at home in America and I was getting tired of only rice and side dishes for every meal. Oh, by the way, the side dishes I have now are ojingeopo (spicy dried squid) and some form of kimchi. So, we went to the grocery store (also on that main street) together. I bought some eggs, apple juice, meat, ramyun, cereal, snacks, and curry. I won't have to shop for food again until next week. The cereal is by Post and is comparable to Frosted Flakes. Oddly enough, the cereal is less sweet than in America but the apple juice is sweeter (it's kind of cloudy white like actual apples instead of orangey-brown). Sometimes I'm surprised that they have American things here, but on closer examination they're a little different. Like, there are 7 Elevens, but they don't have Slurpees :(

At some point while shopping, I mentioned that I love to play piano. Miju was very excited and told me that she plays, too, and there's a church close to our goshiweon that has a piano the public can use. So, on her way to work, she took me there and excitedly watched me play. She says it's open from 8am to 9pm on weekdays. It happens to be Joohwan's church. I tried to go there and play today, but as I walked past there were a lot of people and I felt embarrassed, so I just walked on by.... twice. I watched CSI and and the second half of Superman Returns on the American channel. It has Korean subtitles and Korean commercials. I didn't realize that Grisham had left the show, but that's a huge ad campaign for CSI here. Once again, I fell asleep without dinner.

Today I woke up when it was still dark outside, and struggled to go back to sleep. After a while I gave up and opened my computer to see the time. 6am. Miju had to wake up at 7 for school and had asked me to knock on her door to help her get up, so I gave up my battle for sleep and stared at the ceiling for half an hour. Then I played around on the internet for another half an hour and went to go wake her up. Ma laughed; I'm sure she thinks our friendship is adorable. She commented on the notes when we started writing them. After waking Miju, I stumbled back to my room and tried one last time to go back to sleep. I was successful and woke up again around 9. I started my daily ritual: shower, dress and put on makeup, check my email, go for a walk, come back.

For lunch I made my shin ramyun. I filled a pot with water and put it on the stove, but noticed that it was dripping. It had a tiny hole in the bottom. That wouldn't be good for my ramyun or for the open-flame stovetop, so I got another pot and filled it with water. I turned the dial on the stove, but nothing happened. I switched my pot with the frying pan on the other burner and tried again, but still nothing. I switched them back and looked on all sides of the stovetop (just a stove, no oven; sits on a countertop) and I couldn't find a switch. So, embarrassed, I shuffled to the front office and in broken Korean told Ma that I was making shin ramyun but [insert hand motion and sound effect for flame here] wasn't there. She lead me back to the kitchen and explained that the blue knob in the pipe behind the stovetop controls the gas flow. Then she chatted with me while I cooked about how she and many other Koreans don't like shin ramyun because it's too spicy, and about how she likes her noodles to have tension, but I like mine overcooked.

I ran out of tissues today, so in the middle of writing this entry I went to the 24-hour corner store and bought a big box (about $1.50). The air here is different than in Lansing or Rochester, MI. Sometimes it smells fresh and clean like I'm used to. Sometimes it smells like fumes from passing cars. Sometimes it smells like dust and sweat from construction sites as I walk past them. Often it smells like Chicago or Detroit, that dirty city smell that is difficult to describe but has a signature pungence to it. When I walk by fish stores it smells like fish, and when I walk by restaurants it smells like the food they serve, and when I walk in the outdoor market, the smells and sounds change with every step.

The sounds here are mostly unusual for me, but I'm already getting accustomed to them. In my room, of course there's the traffic at all times, the vroom vroom of car and motorcycle engines, the shrill beep of the Korean horns (similar to in Europe), the click-clack of heels and the voices of people walking by. There's also some construction during the daytime really close to me, so the drilling and sawing and yelling can be incessant. The sounds I've never heard before are the trains as they pull into the subway station just below frequently, and people driving or bicycling by with megaphones shouting what I can only guess is advertisements or propaganda. Inside my building I can occasionally hear the shuffling sounds of other womens' slippers, the opening and shutting of their doors, and sometimes I can hear the woman in the room next to me talking on her phone. So, I try to be quiet most of the time unless it's the middle of the day. I don't want to annoy anyone, especially since I probably represent Americans to these women.

Today I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom when another woman came out of the stall. I moved aside so she could wash her hands, and she said something I didn't understand. I gave her a confused look and she motioned for me to follow her to the laundry room, where she pointed out two sinks there. I'm supposed to brush my teeth there. Oops. I bowed a little to thank her, because my toothbrush was still in my mouth, and she smiled and said something else before walking away. It was just another reminder of how everyday activities here are so difficult for me. Eating and using the bathroom are not things I expected to be confused about after a week. A friend translated a picture of a sign in the bathroom stalls for me, and one of the rules was "Put your used toilet papers (or pads) into the garbage bin." Since I read that, I've been trying to figure out whether it means just pads or both toilet paper and pads, because there seems to be a lot of toilet paper in the garbage cans, but it doesn't look used.... That same sign also asks that we remove our slippers. Well, does that mean removing the hallway slippers and putting on the bathroom slippers, then wearing those into the stall; or, does it mean removing the hallway slippers, putting on the bathroom slippers, walking to the stall door, taking off the bathroom slippers to pee, then stepping back into them to wash my hands?? The second option seems a little ludicrous to me. I just wear the damn bathroom slippers into the stall because I tried taking them off a couple of times but I felt dirty and foolish so Ma can just deal with it. If she sees me doing something wrong, she'll gently correct me.

Now, I'm going to finish my cup of tea, go wash the cup and return it to the kitchen, and once again go to sleep without dinner because I'm too tired to deal with it. I had a couple of handfuls of cereal while writing this. So, whatever. I'll make a good breakfast tomorrow. Eggs and meat and rice and side dishes and hot tea.


  1. goodness kristin this all sounds so exciting! What an adventure!
    Just thought you should know that earlier today, before I saw this, I was wondering when the next time you would post was going to be. I'm so eager to hear about your adventures!!
    You know, I just moved out to sacramento, CA....but it is nothing compared to what you're going through. I'm super impressed and support everything you do!!
    Can't wait to hear more. Good luck with everything!!
    -Your old roomie, Megan :-)

  2. Hey girl!
    Sounds like things are going really well. I'm so happy you're enjoying yourself & slowly learning the cultures of Korea.

    Did you by chance receive an e-mail from my dad's student? Has it been any help?

    Can't wait for the next post! Good luck with everything!

    Your very cool friend, Erika

  3. I just commented on your other entry but I'll say something here too.

    It sounds like you're having a great time! I'm glad your transition is going well. I'm sure it's pretty tough, but you seem to be handling it well, and that's awesome. I'm really glad it's going well for you. Stay safe & keep having fun!!

    <3 Anna

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