When you go to the bakery in Korea, what is your favorite thing to get?
I love those steamed rolls filled with red bean paste called “JJin BBang” 찐빵.
The amber glare in my eyes. The sun was escaping and I wasn’t done yet. Wait for me! I darted out of the doorway of the school and into the street. Grasping the remaining minutes of the day. We waited at the crosswalk for the light to change. James said, “see you guys tomorrow,” as he went on his way and Jillian lived one floor below me. I walked her to her door and continued on to my room. No plans tonight, but I was going to E-Mart. It was near my apartment.
I noticed the puzzle shape and how neatly the red bricks fit together on the ground I was walking. The silver flag poles crowned with neon spirals evenly spaced down the sidewalk. The air held the sun’s light for as long as it could. A cluster of high-school girls like grapes hanging on to each other as they sat with their phones glowing in their faces. I entered the E-Mart and noticed the glances. There was an big open room with a line of small restaurants. Lime-green square tables and yellow plastic chairs and the reflection of white tile. A young girl standing behind a cash-register. I walked over to someone and asked for some food. A reply was given and the motion for me to go to the woman wearing the paper hat. I pointed to a plastic display of what I wanted to eat. She nodded and gave me some paper. I waited. I sat down. Eyes with a red and yellow cap motioned me to come over. I picked up my tray of new food and sat back down. I felt the cold between my fingers as I held the metal chopsticks.
Suddenly, there was Jillian in a green knit sweater. Our world was very small and it was no surprise to see her. She sat down next to me. Soon I began to recognize someone. It was a little girl in the morning class. Her parents were with her and her sister. They made a slight bow and welcomed me with a smile. The greeting was warm. I invited them to join us. They knew English, we could communicate! It was a fresh conversation. They spoke so highly of me. I was a diplomat, a learned professor. I didn’t want to burst their bubble. The father was a confident, but humble man who wanted to use his English and the mom with long full black hair was soft spoken. I mentioned that I drank a lot of water in America, but wasn’t able to locate a place to buy any here. She said something to her daughters and the 6 year old took me by the hand. I stood in unbelief as these children escorted a complete stranger away from their mother to the second floor of a massive department store. I started to look at this culture more closely. Would a mother in America trust a complete stranger with her children and send them off on an errand? We got the water and returned. I felt so welcomed into their world. What an act of trust! Were things really that different here?!
Jillian went on her way. The family invited me to go with them to their church that night. The father didn’t attend the church, so he dropped us off at the door. The sanctuary had a high ceiling with wood-stained pews along the floor. The music was beautiful and I was moved. What was God doing in my heart here? Why did I care about a people that I knew nothing about?
After the service was over, the girl, her sister and her mother, walked with me 8 city blocks back to my apartment (about a 30 minute’s walk). I still did not understand their hospitality. I was a guest of honor living in the household of their country.
That morning the unknown was approaching and I could feel the wings of butterflies in my belly. As I went through the rectangular doorway into the school and up the stairs the roar of children grew louder. The smell of bread or cookies baking in the oven. Where did it come from? I could see myself in the granite tile. Rectangular proclamations of triumph and praise hanging on the walls. I hiked up to the third floor. Removing my shoes and putting on red slippers and opening the door. Why was there such a fanfare upon my arrival? Was I a guest in their home? I felt my identity was mistaken. The owner of my school was a happy face and a generous soul. Ready to overlook my faults. She was cheerful and always padded the moment with laughter. Her English was on the level of an infant, but she had plenty of servants to interpret for her. She was the Queen and the school was her kingdom. And I was a diplomat from a far away land read about in books, and seen in movies. It was my first dive into Korea.
James and Jillian were rest stops along the way. Places were I could stop and say, “what is going on? What does this mean? Why do they do this?”. And I would get a Western mind’s explanation. They were my fellow travelers. James was a teacher from Tennessee and Jillian was a blonde from Oregon. James gave me a small explanation of the schedule and a strategy for running the marathon. After the brief in the war room, I was led into a class to observe how things would be conducted.After observing the teacher, it seemed like it would be a lot of fun and easy to manage. After viewing several of these classes, I thought I would go out and explore unnoticed. Soon I found a little monkey swinging on my leg….The morning classes I would be teaching were going to be fun: 6 – 8 year old students with a beautiful assistant helping in each class.
The morning was finished and our supervisor Mary wanted to treat us. Nobly we rode in her car as honored guests. Soon arriving at a Korean BBQ house near my apartment. The restaurant had two sides: Western style tables and Korean style floor tables. I voted Korean style, so we removed our shoes and sat on the square pillows. It was painful sitting with my legs directly under my body. Its a challenge if you have never done it. Sitting on the floor is something Asians do naturally and is a healthy alternative to the chair.Mary called the waitress over and said something in Korean while we waited. Soon an old face came to the table carrying a pink pile of pork and a metal tennis racket. She turned on the gas and we waited for the red glow. Mary laid the pork strips on the round racket as the smell of grilled meat filled the air. Our mouths began watering- we were getting ready to eat Sam-gyup-sal 삼겹살. This popular food is known as pork belly. We took leaves of lettuce, placed a slice of garlic and dab of pepper paste inside followed by the cooked pork and ate like kings. The rice was an excellent compliment. We had seconds and thirds and then everything was gone. I finished it all with a hot glass of water. And like a stuffed turkey trying to stand up, I overcame gravity and balanced my way out the door.
We arrived back at the school and the leg of the race was about to start. I thought it would be similar to what we had done in the morning, but I was simply introduced to the older class, given a book and the door was shut behind me. Standing in a cage surrounded by chimpanzees, my thoughts were replaced with instinct. I would stand my ground until the reinforcements arrived. I looked for the lifeguard hoping she would see me… drowning. So I opened my book and began.
“What is this?! This is a cup!”, I proclaimed, hoping the sound of my voice would spell out authority. Amidst the quiet roar of unfamiliar noises occasionally I was noticed and given a treat. How could they be informed that what I came to bring to them was actually good and they should want it? Hey kid, don’t you know that you’ll grow up someday and have to be responsible and learning to speak my language is good for you?!! No response. This mountain was big. Where was my climbing gear?
Soon the referee burst through the door and sent the fighters to their respective corners. We were given the rules again and then round #2 began. I decided to put pencils in their hands and open their books in front of them, walking each child through the process of learning. I asked a Korean teacher to have them draw their current state of emotion onto a piece of paper. I had taught boys gymnastics before and that was a joy and a challenge, but this was another level of difficulty that I had not encountered. How do you direct them, if they can’t understand what you are saying? Puzzled looks, needing hearing devices. Leaning in to listen to me. Soon breaking focus and continuing down their river of conversations. How could I pull them safely to the shore? This would be a process of learning and trying new methods and making mistakes and repeating them over again. “You can’t succeed until you fail”, that is what they say… when you find yourself in the midst of your problems, don’t leave–there is a solution.
The day was over and I threw the weight off my back. I flew out of that place and we took a deep breath. The smell of cookies. A woman in a cart frying chocolate cream pancakes. How lucky was I? The stress melted with hot brown oozing as I pulled it apart with my teeth. I could eat these forever. After the fourth one I felt sick to my stomach and woke from the dream. ^_^It was good to have James around. He had been there 8 months before Jillian and I had landed. He was our flashlight. He showed us where it was safe to jump in and places we should avoid. Really, the amazing thing about South Korea is the crime rate. It doesn’t exist. Drugs are no where to be found and the culture of family is very strong. Korea is an isolated place, cut off from the big bad world. Its like going back to the 1950’s in America when you could leave your front door unlocked. As we carried on, we found our way to a place called Grand Mart. It was a competitor with other department stores like, E-Mart and Lotte Mart. We wandered in and found interesting things: A happy pig made of jade, a ring with a Buddhist cross, and Korean spam. As well as a Korean tailor, Korean Tony the Tiger and a radio called “Pooty”.
We made our way back outside and continued our conversation about our personal experiences and what had brought us to Korea. It was an exciting time in life. We were living an experience and no matter what the circumstances were, it would not be mundane.
It was a frigid Monday and a holiday! I timidly put one foot in front of the other and slid out the front door. Slowly crawling into this strange world, becoming suddenly aware of the dark ocean around me. Like black mops swinging and bouncing as they flowed by. I looked closer. It was the hair of many Asians. My white Texas face shouted, “I’M NOT LIKE YOU. I STICK OUT LIKE A SORE THUMB!” The walls of my room could no longer shield me from the eyes of the passers by. Like the points of needles, I felt their stares as I swallowed the discomfort. I grasped my way into a small restaurant squeezing out the words,”nang-myun chuseyo.” as if their ears were made of delicate ceramic. I poured into the nearest chair. Time seemed to stop, until a smile greeted me carrying a spicy bowl of noodles and ice. She called it, “Nang-myun 냉면”, meaning “cold noodle”. The circular bowl was unfamiliar. Inside of it, I found sesame seeds floating on ice, slices of green cucumber, half-circles of Asian Pear topped with a slice of boiled egg and a strip of meat. Underneath it all, strings of noodles wrapped in a bun keeping everything afloat.
My stomach was going to burst as I hobbled around the block and explored more of the neighborhood. I could barely speak to anyone. If I got lost, I didn’t know the address to my apartment! I didn’t know the name of my school! I walked down blocks of gray square buildings laced with neon. I must remember the path I had taken. Loud music playing and smoky restaurants open to the street. Coffee shops on every corner. Asian faces warmly bundled. Occasionally seeing the familiar. A 7-Eleven! O thank heaven! The 7-Elevens were 24 hour, just like the West. Soon upon entering, the familiarity was gone. Things like black bean milk and squid jerkey hanging in the isles. The bean drink was known as “Kaman-kong (까만콩)”. It was refreshing!
I found the road back to my apartment after navigating the high seas, but upon returning, I noticed rectangular buildings lit up like Christmas trees. Some were castles, some looked like alien space ships. These buildings were hiding a secret. I could see myself in the lipstick red tiles, as I stood outside, pondering in the glow of their radiance. What was the intention of these bright buildings? The structures beckoned me to come inside, but I played it safe and stayed warm in my bed that night.
The first thing I remember was the doorbell ringing. My supervisor was here and it was Sunday morning. I received a wonderful invitation to attend her church. Like opening the refrigerator door we set off into the frigid air outside. A thick fog blanketed the ground. Rubbing my eyes, I followed this excited woman and her husband down a sidewalk lined with trees and little shops. The surroundings were beautiful and the air screamed of freshness. I remember the blinding sunlight playing hide and seek through charcoal trees.
We got to the church and there was an English service for foreigners. The pastor was a missionary from Nepal. He couldn’t really speak Korean either, but his English was perfect. The service was so much fun. Koreans have a childlike innocence about them and I could see it in the songs they sang. There were three Koreans leading worship and they had choreographed dances for each song. It was a lot of fun.
After the service, everyone in the entire church met for lunch. The church was 5 stories tall and everyone met on the 4th floor. We had Kimchee, rice and a hot soup. It was getting cold in Korea and the soup hit the spot. I met a few faces and joined them downstairs for coffee and cinnamon tea. The amazing thing about Korean church is that it goes on all day. There is an early service that starts around 5am and then several more services spread out throughout the day. Attendance is optional, but most of the members are there all day. In addition to this, there is an early morning prayer service at 5:30am every morning Monday through Saturday. I was amazed to find out that the ministers in the church attend the 5am prayer service 7 days a week! When do they ever sleep? And yet, they never seemed exhausted, but always healthy and happy. The 5am service is called Sae-byok-ki-do (새벽기도) which means, “dawn prayer”.
While visiting with new faces and unfamiliar accents, we shared a cup of cinnamon tea called Su-jong-gwa (수정과) near a warm gas heater. The best cinnamon tea ever! They drink this hot tea during the wintertime keep warm. The ingredients include: dried persimmons, cinnamon, brown sugar and ginger. It really opens up the nasal cavities. And it can also be served cold as well in the summertime. One of my favorite teas. I even learned how to make it in my apartment. It took a couple of times to get it right, but I am now a brew-master.
After the service I did a little exploration. Down the street from my apartment, in the opposite direction, there was a big building called E-Mart. This E-mart could be the equivalent to a Wal-mart in America. The building was about 6 stories tall and several blocks long. The first floor was a department store and the remaining stories above were a parking garage. Upon entering, you could find your way to escalators in the back going down further. The second basement floor had sporting goods, electronics and goods for the home. The third floor basement was where all the food was located. It was down here that I could find fruit and canned tuna and bottled water, etc. On Sundays, just like America, there are grocery clerks everywhere handing out free samples of food. A little pinch of squid here and some interesting spicy vegetable dipped in a sauce over there. And the milk was so good! There was even a bakery where you could find bread balls stuffed with sweet cream. I made myself sick eating too many! There was an isle for dried ramen noodles of all kinds.
I couldn’t believe I was in another country and that I would living here for a year!
I remember that night so well. Driving off to the airport. My family, standing in the drive way, saying goodbye. As if they would never see me again.
I made it to the airport, boarded the plane and took a deep breath. This was it and there was no turning back. Could it really have taken me 2 years to make this decision?! Sometimes hurdles in life seem a lot bigger than they really are. The biggest hurdle is our own doubts.
The flight was long and it gave me a lot of time to put my thoughts down on paper. The plane finally landed in Incheon International Airport. I grabbed my bags from the overhead cabinet and made it out of the plane and headed to customs. It didn’t take too long and soon I was outside of the airport. I noticed the ratio of dark headed hair to blond had changed and how the air was much cooler. The school had already arranged for a taxi to pick me up from the airport and it was there waiting for me.
It was a long, quiet ride to the city with Korean radio softly playing in the background. Occasionally my driver would attempt to practice his English. I knew a little Korean as well, so it was a warm-hearted exchange. Koreans are very ambitious to learn English, so they are taken back when an American knows how to speak their langauge. Even if it is only a simple greeting, they are always pleasantly surprised. So don’t be afraid, give it a try!
The school was eager to greet me. It was night and my new boss and her supervisor had stayed at the school waiting for my arrival. It felt so good to finally meet them. I didn’t feel like I was an employee, but more like a guest visiting their home. They gave me a tour of the classrooms I would be teaching in and the school’s amenities. I was pleased. Uncertainty turned to relief. I had made a good decision. It was going to be a good year.
After seeing the school, I was went to see my apartment that I would be living in. It was an efficiency about 10 minutes by foot from the school. Kitchen, drier, and stove were included. The floor even had a heating system that used hot water running through tubes inside the floor, so the floor itself heated up from the inside.
The supervisor took me to the nearby bread shop and I loaded up, then went back to my apartment and got ready for the next morning. It was a Saturday and tomorrow would be Sunday. Monday was a holiday and work would start on Tuesday.
. . . . .
. . . . .
How many times have you thought of doing something truly different in life, but only to find yourself held back by doubt and uncertainty. I found myself in that place for a long period of time. It was fall of 2007 and my best friend from college had graduated and left the country to go and teach English in South Korea. It was such an exciting idea, to actually go and work overseas. It must have been an adventure everyday! Imagine being in a country for a year! I envied my friend. I was stuck in school with one more semester before I could graduate.
Two years later, it was summer of 2009. I had delayed making the decision to go overseas and teach for too long. I got on the internet, went to an agency and filled out the application, waiting for a reply. Two nights later, the phone rang…. “hello, is this Jonathan?”. The Filippino accent was intriguing. I had an interview with a teaching agency over the phone. (many of the agencies are based in the Philippines) There are multiple agencies online that act as intermediaries finding potential teachers in America in order to gather information about them and market them to schools all over South Korea.
After I had the phone interview with the online agency, I was given instructions about required documents that I would prepare in order to continue the application process. Documents including: Federal background check, resume, and passport photo, etc. Originally I applied in October ’09 and finished the application process around January ’10. But during this process, I was able to speak over the phone with several potential schools and I was provided with photos of the school and the staff. I was given a few cities in Korea to choose from. I picked Incheon. It was a large city just west of Seoul. Not too far from the action.
The most difficult part was waiting for the documents to process. Other than that, it was an exciting time patently waiting.
When I got on the plane, I couldn’t believe it. I was actually going to Korea! For a YEAR!!! What was it going to be like? How would it change me?
I want to help you if you are in the same place as I was 3 years ago. In doubt and uncertain. I never regretted my decision to go to Korea, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I learned so much! I grew so much! I hope to provide the necessary information so that you too can have an experience like mine!! The biggest hurdle is making the decision to go! If you have come this far, then lets go all the way! 우리 가자!!
다음에 봐요(see you again),