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Archive for February, 2007

For being the self-proclaimed “most wired country in the world”, it sure is a pain in the ass to get a wifi signal in Seoul. I had better access last week in the middle of nowhere. At least the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” not only lives up to its name, it could kick Korea’s ass in a free wifi competition. Even Yawnsville, USA has two coffeeshops with free wireless. There are internet cafes every hundred feet in my Seoul neighborhood and they are filled with cigarette smoke, zitty teenagers playing videogames and no wifi. I can use a computer for approximately $1 per hour, but I cannot skype, I cannot load photos and I cannot access anything from my own computer.

Throw me a bone, Korea. I’m in the isolation/need-contact-with-the-English-speaking-world phase of my acclimatization. I thought you were “wired”, dude. I feel so duped. I trusted you.

But the worst part is that I can’t get in touch with anyone I know in Seoul…none of us have cell phones yet and are all dependent upon skype. And we are all crawling around our apartments with our laptops to find the one corner on the floor with one bar of a wireless signal. Email is the only way anyone has of contacting me at the moment aside from showing up at my front door. I like to be alone, but this is ridiculous. The plus side is that I am reading a lot of books.

On a jollier note, I jumped two hurdles today. First, I purchased tampons. That should help explain my rosy demeanor. This was harder than one would expect. I mean, really, how do you even know that you are buying tampons, let alone the right kind? The biggest problem I am finding with trying to read & learn Hangul is that it’s like I am totally distracted with how pretty it is that I am making no effort to actually try and read it. It’s one of those moments I wish Janelle was here to catch me in the act and smack me. “You’re just staring at the pretty pictures again, aren’t you?” Guilty as charged.

Second, I opened a bank account through broken English and lots of hand gestures. Good thing I have lots of practice with hand gestures. This means I can get paid, reimbursed airfare, etc. It also means that I signed a form I cannot read. That is an exceptionally comforting feeling especially when it involves one’s money.

This whole living in a foreign land thing is a giant exercise in faith and trust. I trust that I will not die. I will not die from the overstimulation of my brain in doing the smallest of tasks. That opening a bank account will, in fact, not kill me. That I will not die from malnutrition because I cannot identify anything at the market other than the noodles that Mary’s mom always packed in her bag on trips to Massachusetts. That I will not die if I get on the subway and get off at the wrong stop. That I will not die if I have to wait a few more days for reliable internet at home.

I do want to share some tiny observations I’ve made since my arrival.

* Koreans drive on the right-hand side of the road just like we do in North America, however all foot traffic is opposite. I noticed quickly that I was fighting the flow of traffic as I walked down the steps into the subway and people seemed irritated that I was on the wrong side. Same goes for walking on sidewalks, through subway tunnels, grocery store aisles. It is a difficult habit to break and I keep finding myself bouncing all over the sidewalk, naturally gravitating back to the right side.

* There are so many people wearing face masks when out walking in public you’d think we were still in the middle of the SARS epidemic.

* It seems the form of exercise most favored by the older set in Korea is walking backwards. During training we saw a man across the river walking backwards slowly down the hill; twenty minutes later we saw him walking back up the hill backwards. I have seen this nearly every day since arriving in Seoul; in the public parks and on small side streets there is always someone walking backwards.

Tomorrow I am off to Japan for two days to retrieve my work visa. There is apparently excellent shopping near the consulate. I am praying for wifi.

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Let the Culture Shock Begin

This morning I realized that without na├»vety and my hopeless optimism, I wouldn’t do half the things I have chosen to do in my life. It’s like a necessary amnesia to force me over the precipice into unknown territory. Oh, sure, it will be easy. It will be fine. Simple. It’s simple to move to another country. You know. Like moving down the street.

Does anyone recall the teary phone calls in the days after I moved to Austin, not knowing a soul there?

It is my 3rd night in Seoul, my 8th day in Korea and now the culture shock is finally settling in for a nice, hearty visit. Hey! Guess what? It’s really hard to communicate in another language when the only things you know how to say are “hello” and “thank you” and “kimchi”. Hey, you know what’s harder? Not being able to read anything. At all. When I’ve travelled abroad before, I’ve either known the language inside and out (France) or had some working knowledge of the language as well as fluent translators (Central America). This is more challenging than I expected. Excursions are best kept short, as a simple trip to the market down the street is more exhausting than one would think. “Which one of these things is soap??” My brain hurts in a new kind of way, like flexing a muscle that never gets flexed. Ow. Ow.

I am no longer in the bubble of the training session, which was held at a retreat center two hours south of Seoul in the mountains of northern Chungcheong Province. A week-long bubble of Canadians, Americans, three Irish girls and an Australian. A bubble that included four or five Korean Americans who held our hands through every meal and schooled us on customs and etiquettes. Three outstanding meals a day with the freshest, most incredibly delicious food. A week in which we hardly left the building and there was no town to visit. Until yesterday, my only true interaction with Korea was through a car window.

Training was demanding, challenging and intense but it will be well worth it in the end and brought me some new friendships which will prove invaluable to each of us during our first weeks in Seoul. I am grateful to have met two funny and wonderful girls from New York and New Jersey who also happen to be Korean-American. They are going to come over and label everything in my apartment so I can figure out how to use the microwave and washing machine. I am jealous of the two Irish girls and the two American boys (oh yeah, by the way, everyone is half my age) who came together as friends and have each other to lean on in these early days. I miss my girlfriends like a hole in my side and am painfully aware of how much easier this would be to discover as a pair. Janelle? This means you.

But with all this hesitation comes the new delights and discoveries around each corner.

Saturday we returned to Seoul and after a slightly traumatic episode involving being trapped for 45 minutes by myself on the 18th floor of our HQ building, I was picked up by my Director and taken to my new apartment. I live in the southeastern district of Seoul called Songpa, in a neighborhood that is much like Times Square meets the Garment District. I am thankfully on a quiet side street. Every square inch is devoted to (brace yourselves, ladies) discount retail shops. I am not much of a shopper, but I have several girlfriends who are already planning trips to visit me, and I think I just sealed the deal. Ev-er-y-thing. Paris to Milan to Calvin Klein to Korean, Chinese & Japanese designers at 50-70% discounts. Maybe I will finally learn how to dress myself. I’ve seen designer shoes out there for $10. Right. On.

My apartment is adorable, if not slightly cavernous. I could use a little more sunshine, but all the more reason to go outside, eh? It is quite liberating to have things simplified down to one room and four bags worth of stuff. The only thing I wish I’d brought is a towel, as Korean towels are the size of a piece of legal sized paper. My director had set the apartment up with some kitchen basics, fresh new bedding, some new toiletries, a toothbrush and a fridge stocked with water, a bottle of coke, and some coffee drinks. It was a very sweet welcoming and much-appreciated.

There are many corner stores crammed with products, reminding me of the pulperias in Central America. I can get the basics of what I need, however it is so inexpensive to eat out, I will probably be frequenting many of the local eateries. I just need to learn how to read a menu first. Or a sign for that matter. “Oh, this isn’t a restaurant?”

Today and yesterday have been about the small victories. Yesterday I bought some groceries at a corner market and some basic household items at the Korean version of Sears. Today I successfully navigated my way through the subway and finally purchased some power adaptors at TechMart, a multi-story department store and electronics wonderland. I visited my school this afternoon, met the staff and received my textbooks. This all still gives me heartburn at the moment, but I am looking forward to getting through the initial bumpiness & learning curve and start to settle in to this new world.

If we had 20/20 vision of the challenges in each new endeavor, we might never walk outside our front door. And we would lose so much in giving in to that fear. I remember how unexpectedly I was gripped with terror the second I hit the Mass Turnpike on my way to Austin. I had crossed the country back and forth three times, twice by myself. Why was I suddenly such a puss? I spent my first week in Austin thinking I’d made a horrible, horrible mistake even though it was a knowing so deep in my bones that brought me there in the first place. We have guts for a reason. Austin brought amazing people, amazing music, amazing career opportunities and amazing BBQ into my life. Stuff I never would have known had I turned around and said “Ok, fear. You win.”

So I’m all the wiser this time, as I notice those moments where I just want to get on a plane and return to what is familiar. Return to the roman alphabet, full-sized towels, 110V power cords and the comfort of familiar faces. It would be nice and it would be simple, but I would miss knowing what is around this corner. Call it a hunch, but I have a feeling there is something magical around this corner. And I’m certain it’s better than BBQ.

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