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Smog is real. So is acid rain. At least in Seoul, South Korea, these are truths. So is wrapping presents in silky fabric, and the host of the restaurant giving you an umbrella for your walk across the street, maybe expecting you to return it later. A studio apartment spacious enough for you and the assortment of clothes and knickknacks brought along, in a building where a couple other foreign teachers live, in a neighbourhood where other English speakers live, in similar high rises (which you’d never live in, but because Korea), some in much smaller studios just across the square.
Classrooms of adorable children, a room of foreigners, a room of Korean ladies, everyday, ten hours a day. Wake up, do some yoga, read, bike to work, figure out what you’re doing in class 5 minutes before you go in, deal with cuties and brats, read and write and play. Ride home, make dinner after walking through the street market to buy cheap produce. Read a book. Have some wine. Play guitar. See if your friends are doing anything.
Fridays, take a nap until you can go downstairs to meet the gathering of foreigners and a handful of Koreans that hang out at the same table every week at the restaurant in your building. Some Americans, Canadians, Scottish, Irish, Brits, occasionally an Australian, or a crazy South African girl that likes to take off her shirt. An old man, a few guys in their 20s and 30s, many with Korean girlfriends, a lot of girls in their 20s, mostly singly, some with white boyfriends, only one with a plethora of Korean men. Some there for years, many just for one year.
Some weekends are spent hiking, exploring parks, going to museums, palaces, neighbourhoods with good vibes and cool shopping. Saturday nights spent in Hongdae wandering around from bar to bar, dancing, drinking, singing, yelling, crying, more drinking, more dancing. Sundays spent lying in parks and eating cheap weirdly delicious pizza. And probably a movie at the huge cinema, where we sit in the front row and put our feet up on foot rests and add soju to our chilsung/sprite-like pop.
Wednesday nights spent watching films or series with another American girl and an Irish girl, ladies you’ve bonded with for whatever reason, and are suddenly and lovingly life long friends with.
Occasionally a night out during the week, taken out to dinner by your boss, bottles of soju, and playing darts after taking flaming shots at the cowboy bar down the street from school.
Grabbing bbq whenever you can, because its cheap and delicious and we can sit outside.
Smoking tiny cigarettes that taste like coffee.
Taking walks on lunch breaks because its the only time outside of the building all day.
Riding the trains with tons of people that don’t mind pushing you out of the way.
Hiking in street clothes when everyone else on the mountain has all the colourful gear.
Biking along the river and accidentally riding 100k in one day with your Korean bosses.
Trying to stay out until the train starts running again at 5am, but just end up taking a cab because we just want to get home, and hope that the driver understands what neighbourhood you’re saying/hope that one actually lets you in the car.
Hanging out in front of the 7/11 drinking cheap Hite and cheap wine and once trying caviar from Russia. And of course eating ice cream and ramen.
Eating a lot of chicken. Drinking a lot of beer. Playing more darts at the bottle bar in your building.
Finding the tallest and smartest dressed white guy in the bar to make out with.
Avoiding conversations with American guys that are stationed there.
Getting dropped off in the wrong neighbourhood and passing out on the sidewalk and still having all your shit when you wake up a couple hours later. (Because theft is so rare).
Playing an open mic and then singing in the park or on the subway platform with your guitar while your friends dance around.
Drinking in the park in Hongdae, where there is an actual playground, and sometimes rap battles happen.
Walking for hours, because there’s nothing else to do.
Palpably feeling the passage of time, in its slowness and its speediness. Making friends that seem so close and so real, but its weirdly normal to spend so much time with these people, even though you’ll most likely never see them this much again.
But then you do have these people around the world that you’d love to see again, and who’d love to see you again, and inspire you to leave the comfort of home for awhile, because these people you’re comfortable with, that is a new home. That sometimes made you miss your friends at home, but you know will be there when you get back, and things won’t be much different, and these new friends will be the people you’ll be missing.
And suddenly the experience is over and its a year since you’ve been back and you’re one of the few that have taught English in South Korea, and you’re in this club with some people you know and so many more that you don’t, and its awesome, because you’ve been privy to a world thats such an interesting dichotomy of revered tradition and praised western culture, it takes any outsider a minute to understand what is up. A collective society that worships the sameness of cool, where plastic surgery is a common graduation gift, superficiality is king, and its normal to brag about spending an absurd amount of money on something, because it shows you have money and don’t care. This culture where its super important to have a significant other and dress in matching outfits to showcase weird possessive qualities of love that are commonly practiced.
For a tall curvy blonde white girl with an armful of tattoos, sometimes I got my picture taken at the top of the mountain. Rather than the view being the subject of the frame, me and my even taller gorgeous gal pal were. Especially outside the city, we were a spectacle. We got used to getting gawked at. I’m proud to be the stylish and unique individual that I am, but I can’t say that I completely enjoy sticking out so much.
It made me appreciate the fashion freedom I have in Chicago. It made me appreciate my culture and what I’m used to. Ordering food from a menu I can read and understand. Shopping in stores that have my size. Not seeing selfie sticks everywhere.
But I do miss South Korea, and that time, like I knew I would. I also know, that I could go back, and enjoy it in a completely different way. That group of people I fell into has split and gone their separate ways, and if I had gone at any other time, I have no idea what I would have experienced. I expected to go and be more alone, but I found I fell in love with those people and that time we had together, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Even though I downplay this accomplishment, (because after getting there, you realise that pretty much anyone could do it if they had enough desire,) I am very proud that I had this year of teaching and living and learning, and the few weeks I got to explore Asia, only made me want to go back for more. Which I will. Every experience leads to the next and I have an undeniably and unpredictable force of motion in my life that cannot be stopped.
I wanted to summarise a bit on what I experienced in that year and I hope this does that.