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Back You are here: Home Reports from Real Life Oh, The Things We've Seen! Travel Writing The Road to Gwangju
Friday, 03 December 2010 14:44

The Road to Gwangju

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Three planes, one bus, a trip to the otherside of the world that takes about thirty hours.

Looking at that sentence, there's not a lot to be excited about. Maybe the otherside of the world bit, but, and I think we can all agree [yes, we, you, too], no one wants to spend longer than an hour on a plane at a time, let alone over a complete day. 

The day before, it was snowing in Minnesota for the first time that winter, which, in many ways, marks the beginning of winter. Me, despite having lived all my life in Minnesota, hate the cold, so leaving sounded perfect. My bag packed, a final meal, breakfast--bacon and eggs--many goodbyes to family members, including my dog, Lily Belle [pictured above], I was at the airport for the final of many final goodbyes.

The car ride to the airport, my eyes trailing out the window, the snowy streets, the white leafless trees, wondering to myself, What the hell am I doing, and never really getting an answer. In line to get my ticket the same thoughts kept creeping in. Am I really going to Korea? Whose idea was this?

'Hello, sir, just slide your passport in there.'

I stare back at him and remember that, yeah, it's time. He has some trouble finding me, which, because I'm superstitious, means many bad omens and I see myself in the Pacific Ocean clutching my laptop, camera, and iPod because everything else I own is replaceable. He finds me, though, but my bag's oversized because websites lie, so I have to pay $200 immediately. $200 for five extra pounds. Ridiculous.

Bad omen.

I dodge the new contraption that zaps your entire body with X-rays at security and opt for the metal detector. It's bad enough we'll all die of cancer and it just seems rude that even the airports are trying to speed the process. They want to check my laptop for I don't know why and they never tell me. A man just rubs some cloth over every surface then hands it to me and disappears. I look around, wait, put my laptop away, and walk to my gate.

Time to kill so I finish The Love we Share without Knowing by Christopher Barzak, which is a novel about americans teaching abroad in Japan. It was recommended to me for obvious reasons, the purpose of this long journey to Korea being that I'm going there to work as an english teacher for at least one year. While Japan is certainly not Korea, they share many more cultural similarities with one another than they do with american culture. Anyrate, great book about loneliness, love, and what life is like in a land where you don't understand the culture or language.

 At 4:30pm Central Standard Time, the first plane takes me to San Francisco and there is a child who screams the entire three hour flight. Now, this child isn't an infant or even under five. He was at least nine, maybe as old as eleven, and he just screamed and screamed, which caused many exchanged glances between the people around. The greatest, though, was near the end of the flight when he clutches his head, I CAN'T TAKE THIS ANYMORE, his voice gone hoarse by then. The man next to me turned to me and I couldn't help laughing for a few minutes. Such bravado! Theatrics! The kid was genius, truly.

Arriving in San Francisco for an hour of waiting only to leave again for Los Angeles. Seems a waste of time, that they should've just bought me a direct flight, but, I mean, the travel's all paid for by the school I was going to, so it's hard to complain too much. There are very few things that a person can complain about when they get it for free.

The flight, I don't remember it because it only lasted about an hour but I think I finished my book on Korean culture and studied more of the language, and then I was in LA for the next four hours[?], leaving at 12:30am Monday morning Pacific Time, which is about 2:30am my time. I wander around the terminal I arrive in for a while and then notice that my flight's in a different terminal and no one seems to know how to tell me to get there, but I find it after about half an hour of wandering. LA, apparently, has a terminal devoted to asian airlines and it's teeming with people. I find my airline after staring at the confusing flight board, and have to explain that I already paid the excess baggage weight fee and show them my receipt but the cashier still checks with the Manager. I wander around with my new ticket thinking about eating something as I still had about three hours to wait, but nothing looked appetising, airport food being what it is for the price it is.

Security's packed at 10pm, which makes me assume that most flights leave to asia very late. It goes quick, though, until I'm maybe five out from the metal detector when a Security Guard yells, FREEZE, and two run, flat out sprinting into the distance. This being an airport, no one moves for fear of being called a terrorist and having unspeakable violations of privacy done to them. All eyes wide and the omen comes back to me, the wings on fire and me being accidentally shot by security while eating an eight dollar hotdog. The lady in front of me was in the process of removing her highheels and she remained bent over holding one in her hand and looking around, her eyes asking, Am I allowed to move? After about five minutes of awkward bodies sharing too little space thinking that their flight's going to be cancelled or worse, a Security Guard strolls in throwing his shoulders from side to side with big wide steps surprising for his short frame calls, Thank you all for being part of a security drill.

Crisis averted?

I guess.

The rest goes off normally, no stops at security, but there's so much time, so I end up buying a really small quesadilla for ten dollars that had a great picture to go with it, but, I forgot how airports are airports, and I get this microwaved pile of meat and beans within a soggy shell. I spend the rest of the time reading The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer. My nonstop flight to Korea with AsiaAir, the announcements all in Korean, none in english, so I just keep reading because there's nothing for me to miss.

Boarding and takeoff are easy and finally have a few english announcements that I ignore out of habit. None of it feels like it's happening yet. I know I've been travelling all day with a destination, but that destination never really registers or exists in a tangible way, and I'm so tired by this time that I don't even care where I'm going so long as I can maybe sleep for an hour or two. In the air, I browse the movie selection on the plane and there are a few I want to watch but it's already 4am my time so I put on Despicable Me, which I liked well enough for how much of it I saw. They brought a meal, too, which was quite good, but impossible to finish. One thing I would come to realise, Koreans give you heaps and heaps of food. The flight was no different, and it was quality food, not the typical flight fare. But, alas, I was halfasleep and sent back most of it.

I sleep. Never really done that for a significant amount of time on a plane. It helped greatly because this flight to Korea is twelve hours and I'd be arriving at about 7am their time which was who-knows-what my time. I wake up and my aisle's empty so I get up to piss and walk around. It's about 4am Korean time, which, yeah, means nothing to me. I meet the man who has been sitting next to me and we talk a bit. He's a Korean, maybe fifty years old, flying to China for a mission trip. He's spent a few years in India and LA and, being Korean, knows many people in the country. He knows a lot of english speakers and english teachers there, too, because, apparently, he's a recruiter. He gives me his card, which is a very common thing in Korea, apparently. In business, everyone has a business card with all sorts of information on there and they trade them like baseball cards.

We sit again and I nod off for a while then watch a movie, Cyrus--very much enjoyed--and eat breakfast, which, again, very good and just too much of it, so I don't finish. There's about two hours left to the flight so I turn on The Karate Kid remake because why not? I stare out the window and the sun comes over the horizon above the clouds and it begins to hit me. I'm about to land in Korea. Korea. Korea. Me. In Korea. It's real. It's happening, and I'm smiling on accident and my heart flutters because that's what hearts do in the air.

The land comes into view and we fly over Korea. I know it's Korea the same way I knew I was flying over Ireland almost exactly two years before. I just knew. My cheeks hurt by the time we land from smiling and all nervousness, all the apprehension and fear that I felt, the uncertainty, the loneliness I expected disappears and I'm on the ground in a place I never imagined I would be standing in even though I got on that plane way back in Minneapolis, which felt like weeks ago by then but also just moments ago when I was drinking with friends and holding my dog.

Somewhere, South Korea

Everyone in Korea is the nicest person I've ever met and so very helpful. Me, I stick out right away as a foreigner, being tall, blonde, and unusually pale, even by western standards, so it's no surprise that everyone speaks english to me. What is a surprise, though, is how helpful everyone is and how accommodating. Without these random Koreans, I probably wouldn't have been able to buy my bus ticket to Gwangju [the place that would be my new home] or call my Director to let her know when I was arriving there so she could pick me up. In fact, I was so helpless using the payphones [which, in my defence, are quite confusing, especially if you don't read Korean], that a man came up to me and offered to make the call on his cellphone, which he did. He told my Director everything she needed to know and told me that she would be waiting at the bus station for me.


Bad omens don't cross oceans, it seems.

Prayers over the Pacific.

I wait for the bus and there are a lot of buses coming. I'm not sure which one is mine, only that I'm at the right place and the bus leaves at 840am. The right bus comes but I've no idea, only a small inclination, so I walk to it, try to find the driver to ask him, but, instead, a Korean man about my age tells me that, yes, this is the bus I need to get on, and so we both get on.

In four hours, I'll be in Gwangju.

Some idiot looking idiotic

The Korean countryside is beautiful and I can't sleep because of the excitement until I do because my body just shutoff for a while. We stop after two hours for a bathroom break and I start talking to the guy who helped me get on the right bus. He just spent eighteen months in australia and is finally coming home to Gwangju, his hometown, to finish his final semester of university. Very nice guy. Back on the bus, we drive the rest of the way there and my excitement just rises and rises and rises.

At the bus terminal, my new Korean friend stands with me and I can't find my Director and she can't find me. I don't know what she looks like but she's seen pictures of me and she had no indication of who she was. We walk around for about ten or fifteen minutes until my Korean friend, Lucas, helps me call her and it turns out she's standing right behind me.

I bid farewell and give a few Thank yous to Lucas for his help and then the Director and I head to my apartment. We talk a bit in the car but I can't remember what about. She leads me to my apartment and hands me a bag of apples, a bag of oranges, and a bag of pastries. She tells me to settle and if she needs anything to call her.

I unpack and sort all my things into my new apartment. It's nice, bigger than I expected [pictured below].


The first thing I realise, though, is that there's no tub or shower stall, just a showerhead and a drain in the floor of the bathroom. I figure out how to turn on the hotwater pump, take a shower, and eat a bit. I go for a walk around my area and start laughing on the side of the road for maybe a full minute. I'm in Korea as a teacher and I can't read a word of Korean. Everything's in Korean. Yeah, obvious, but it didn't hit me till that moment and, even still, having been here for a week, I'm not used to it.

It hits me maybe once a day: Everything is in Korean.

I call Director and she takes me to the school to meet the rest of the teachers. There are four Korean teachers, Brenna, June, Alexia, and Branden, and two foreign teachers, Georgette [who I replace], and Elizabeth. I shadow Georgette for all her classes because they would soon be my classes and Director buys us dinner, which, yeah, again, too much food, but so so good.

As some or many of you know, I'm a remarkably picky eater. I'm getting past that. Really, I have to here. And I'm glad I am because everything's delicious. But, I mean, I didn't travel across the world to eat hamburgers and potatoes. Nothing to do but dive in and taste it all, experience it all. That's been my mindset and it's working well. It doesn't hurt that everything is just ten kinds of awesome.

After work, I walk home with Elizabeth because we live in the same apartment building. We end up buying suju [Korea's most popular alcohol], which costs about one dollar american per bottle and drink in her apartment and get to know one another. I get back to my apartment at about midnight, my first day, Tuesday, now finished, and I'm so tired and so happy.

I wake up, take pictures, then start teaching myself the hangul alphabet so that I can eventually be able to read. I spend the week shadowing Georgette as she teaches her classes as a form of training and then teaching myself the alphabet at home. Thursday, I teach my first class and then Friday, Georgette's last day, I teach all of her [my] classes. That night Director paid for all of the teachers to go out and drink, which, in Korea, includes eating great food, so that's what we did, which was nice because I got to know everyone a bit better, especially the Korean teachers.

It's funny, too, because I got to know Georgette best right away from spending all day with her, and then, now, she's gone already. Such is life. She reminds me of someone but I can't place it. I enjoyed her a lot, though. Very nice person.

After drinking and eating with the Korean teachers, Elizabeth and I decide to continue the night so we meet up with her boyfriend and wander, drink, play pool, and sit by a lake.

The next day, Saturday, I spend with Elizabeth and her boyfriend. We ate my first Korean style meal [shoes off, sit on the floor, way way way too much food, and so very good] wandered around Gwangju, rode buses, took the subway, rode in taxis, hiked up a mountain, saw the whole of Gwangju from above where everything's silent and I saw my first Korean star, went to downtown which is so packed with people and so bright it's uncanny, and wandered some more. It was a spectacular day and I never stopped having fun. Everyone's so great and so kind and so helpful.

Monday was my first official day of teaching. The kids kind of love me for the novelty of having a big american male teacher. I also had my medical examination and found out that I'm six feet tall, which is two inches taller than I thought I was.

Sometimes I watch Korean television and try to imagine what they're saying. I study the alphabet and can read now. Kung-fu Panda has been on television twice in the week I've been here. CSI type shows are on all the time. Also, Koreans are great at making any style of food. Pizza here is wild because they've wholly made it their own, with ingredients you'd never expect. Any kind of meat, crust stuffed with sweetpotato [yeah] and all sorts of other oddities that, really, are so perfect and so much better than any pizza I've ever eaten. Oh, one thing, though, traffic here, man, I'm pretty sure there are no rules, only suggestions followed when convenient. I'm very glad I don't need to be in a car because it is absolutely wild on the roads.

I have only good things to report so far about Korea. I'm loving it, truly. Back to school to teach again in an hour and, even the job, so far, is great.

I'll report back again later.

Take care, Star Children.

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Last modified on Thursday, 15 March 2012 04:43
edward j rathke

Getting foppish since '96.

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