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Archive for August, 2010

Life in Ildong: Part One – Culture Shocked

Sorry I’ve been MIA for the last few days.  Adjusting to my life in Ildong has, admittedly, been a huge adjustment.  As I have told people, stepping off the airplane in Incheon and proceeding immediately to a quarantined orientation in a very fun, hip, and cosmopolitan area of Seoul did not prepare us for the culture shock that was to ensue.  For the first ten days of my time in Korea, I was surrounded by foreigners like myself who were all in essentially the same boat.  I was surrounded by English and Korean educators who not only wanted to make us feel as “at home” as possible, but who knew perfectly well how to do so.  Accordingly, I quickly took for granted just how different Korea is from what I am used to.

Part of this is because I am now seeing for myself just how important Korean etiquette truly is and, even though I am told left and right that foreigners are quickly forgiven for their missteps, I cannot help but beat myself up and stress over every little detail.  The people I have met in Ildong have done everything in their power to try to make me feel comfortable and to take an interest in my life and my background in the United States.  Not being able to speak their language or even properly pour a friend a shot of soju definitely makes me feel uncomfortable.  In the United States, I can’t help but feel like my ability to communicate and socialize was the root of my charm.  Now I am in a place where I cannot simply talk to every person I meet—where the way I bow and the manners in which I attempt to speak Korean matter more than my own English ability.  It’s a shock at first. 

Even when giving gifts—a practice that is frequently associated with the English saying “it’s the thought that counts”—I must take extra precautions because that expression simply does not apply here.  I have gifts at the moment that I cannot pass along to the people for whom I purchased them because the gifts have not been properly wrapped in accord with Korean custom.  Also, I have had to reorganize the gifts I’m giving because giving presents in groups of four is associated with death and other negativity.  I constantly feel the need to go above and beyond and, while I’m not saying that this is a bad thing in and of itself, it is a different sort of cultural pressure than I am used to (says the young man with an M.A. in International Diplomacy). 

Personally, I think my M.A. in Diplomacy is what causes me to stress out even more about these sorts of things.  My problem is that if I do impress the people around me, they may not tell me because I have simply blended in with their cultural setting and made a transition that, while unexpected from a foreigner, was based on correct actions.  If I mess up, however, either they will tell me directly and I feel embarrassed or they don’t tell me and I continue to make the same mistake over and over.  Korean friends who have corrected me on my etiquette can be surprisingly blunt about it, but I would rather know of an error than not know and be doomed to repeat it.

With regard to Ildong itself, however, the town is quickly growing on me.  Size is not the greatest issue, as I am from a town in Kentucky that is roughly a quarter its size and much more difficult to maneuver without a vehicle.  At least in Ildong I can walk anywhere—to restaurants or to a grocery store and, most importantly, to my school—and take a bus to Seoul whenever time allows (which is roughly a one-hour drive).  I am surrounded by beautiful mountains at literally every turn (see my pictures on the right-hand scroll display on the homepage of my blog if you haven’t already) and sometimes, when I feel at my lowest, I simply look at the environment around me and find myself hushed into a more awed calm.  I am reminded of how gorgeous this place is and that I should, above all, be grateful for this opportunity and the new outlook it will have given me upon my return to the states.  Although I miss my girlfriend and my friends in the states, I feel that I am confronting head-on everything that I deem negative about myself here, and I hope to conquer all before I return.  Now if only I could find time to work out.

Some funny notes.  At the grocery store I noticed a type of beer that I would akin to Pabst Blue Ribbon—an infamous, cheap beer in the U.S.  Although the Korean equivalent that I discovered is titled something along the lines of Award-Winning Blue, which is even more ambiguous.  I love it.  I also discovered that a local grocery store deals in delicious “hot chicken” sandwiches and $1 Mountain Dews, which I never expected to find here.  So far, food is not an issue.  If there is one thing I’m not missing right now, it’s television and food.  What I miss is my routine and my sense of belonging.  I am working on both, but I’m not quite there yet.  I still feel like the foreigner I am and even with regard to the other foreigners that I have met, I feel like the token “new guy”.  It’s difficult knowing that you’re replacing someone who has been here for two years and it is very important for the Americans in my area to stay together.  But can you imagine if one of the friends in your group suddenly peaced out forever because his contract ran up and in came a replacement who you felt obligated to include?  That’s how I feel right now.  I’m the replacement.  I’m the new alien on the block.  It’s kinda jarring and, while everyone here has been as absolutely kind and generous as I ever thought humanly possible, it’s still not an emotion or a sensation that they ever dared cover during my EPIK orientation.

How could they even begin, though?  EPIK can’t prepare you for everything.  That’s what orientation is, after all.  They just point you in the direction you must go.  It’s up to you to walk the road.


First Pictures Added

Check the FlickR link on the right side of the page to see my first pictures from Korea.  Hope you enjoy them!

Korea: First Impressions

It seems almost impossible that I have already been here for a week.  Orientation has been a fascinating but sometimes grueling process.  In some ways, I feel that I have not yet arrived in the true Korea (I’ve been surrounded by Americans and Brits and other English speakers, after all).  In other ways, I feel that I have been here a month.  No minute has been wasted and I feel a hundred times more prepared to teach than I did on Wednesday of last week.  I just hope that the initial feeling of shock upon first stepping foot into my classroom doesn’t completely erase the confidence instilled in me by how far I feel I have progressed in a short span of time.

With regard to Korea, the purpose of this post is not to criticize or even critique the country.  So far, Korea is beautiful and rich with culture, history, and boundless surprises.  I’m still in the honeymoon phase, without question—still eager to explore, however anxious I might be about the inevitable “clashes of civilizations” that await me.  For example, the first time a student performs what is colloquially referred to as a “poop needle” on me, I am certain that I will experience a broad range of new emotions.  For those of you in the states who are unfamiliar with the apparently common and utterly infamous poop needle, this maneuver is performed by a child taking two fingers and putting them together and driving them up your anus when you lean over to help another student.  I am completely serious.  Every teacher I have met either has or knows someone who has experienced the dreaded “PN” technique.  I will be on guard.

The other thing about Korea that fascinates me is a notion that was explained to us by a lecturer formerly from Mississippi yesterday—that “cute is cool”.  In the United States the opposite is true, of course.  We worship the Fonz and Sly Stallone and Joe Camel when it comes to cool—not the Taco Bell Chihuahua.  We worship leather and smoking and tough guy personas—not pink and fluffy.  Korea LOVES cute.  From their boy bands and girl bands who sing pop songs that would make Justin Bieber look like Metallica, cute is everywhere.  If you don’t believe me, look up my personal favorites:  2 AM, Wonder Girls, Girls Generation, etc. on YouTube.

After going into a stationary store with some friends, I am even convinced that there is one Korean gentleman with the greatest job in the world who sits behind a desk all day and—…wait; you know what?  Scratch that.  There is a ten-year-old girl with the greatest job in the world who sits in a massive office behind a desk on the top floor of the tallest corporate building in Seoul and her job is to take common household objects and make them adorable.  I am not even joking.  At the stationary store, I found a contact lens case made to look like a frog with a googly eye on each of the two caps.  I found a tape measure—yes, a TAPE MEASURE—made to look like a panda with a red ruler extending out of its mouth like a tongue.  I even found one of those Velcro bands that you wrap around your laptop cord that was fashioned to look like a fluffy chicken who wrapped his wings around the cable, as if hugging it.

One of our lecturers even pointed out that animals are made to look even cuter so that you don’t feel bad about eating them (not that I, personally, have suffered much inner-conflict with that in the past anyway).  On the streets, it is not uncommon to see a cow standing on one leg, winking and holding up peace signs as he asks you to eat more beef.  You might find a pig with massive eyes who is grinning and blushing and wearing a ballerina outfit as he pirouettes beneath an “Eat Pork” banner.  True story.

I would also take this time to note that this is the last blog entry I will have written before I depart for Ildong, my new home to be.  My first impressions are definitely important but I can only imagine what will become of them within the next 24 hours.  Much is about to change.  As I await meeting my co-teacher and embarking on the next phase of my adventure, I can only assume that the inevitable reality check is already knocking on my door.

You…Shall not…PASS…(up these delicious doughnuts)

So, last night I went out walking with some of my new chums in the EPIK program and suddenly this happened.

That is exactly what you think it is.  Unless you think it’s NOT a gigantic freaking statue of Gandalf the White from “Lord of the Rings” in a place where its presence has no discernible rhyme or reason.  It simply is as if it has always been and forever shall be, towering over the entrance to a Mister Doughnut shop where we enjoyed drinks and pastries as we marveled at its stature.  I’m going to be very happy in this country.  This is a sign.

Day Two: Where Seoul Meets Body (Part Two)

If there’s one thing I can say about bureaucracy it is that it tends to transcend cultural rifts and national quirks.  EPIK (English Program in Korea), so far, seems better than some other organizations by whom I have had the pleasure of being bored, but is far from a flawlessly-honed machine.  Let’s start with the big humdinger.  The elephant in the room for me.  Upon arriving at the NIIED (National Institute for International Education), I was informed that I am not supposed to be here.  Not yet.  Not for another week or so as it turns out.  The kind people with EPIK seem more or less baffled that I made this mistake, given that my contract says I am not expected to arrive until August 31st.

This is where being an American applying for a job in Korea through a middle party in Canada has made things complicated for me.  Teach Away—my EPIK recruiter—insisted shortly after my acceptance into EPIK that I join the Facebook group page for EPIK teachers making the journey to Korea for the Fall of 2010.  I wasn’t even on Facebook at the time but I begrudgingly rejoined and did as instructed, joining the EPIK group as instructed.  Shortly thereafter, I began to receive emails through Facebook informing me about the EPIK orientation to take place roughly the last week of August.  Not knowing and not clearly instructed that I was not meant to attend this orientation session, and reading on the Facebook invite that Gyeonggi-do teachers like myself were supposed to arrive on August 19th, I purchased my plane ticket and followed through with what I assumed to be the logical point of entry into EPIK:  Arrival, orientation, departure for Pocheon (my city), and first week of teaching.

Evidently, that order only applied to every other person accepted into EPIK…but not to me.  No, I was supposed to arrive on August 31st and be escorted to Pocheon by a Teach Away liaison, begin teaching with virtually no prior instruction, and attend my orientation later (around the end of September).  What?? 

Fortunately, EPIK has been kind enough to let me proceed with all the orientation festivities for which I mistaken arrived and I’m not convinced that things won’t work out for the best.  I’m getting all the bureaucratic hurdles out of the way sooner, rather than later, including the medical check-up, and I will also be getting to spend three or four extra days in Seoul strictly as a tourist.  Fine by me!  My only concern now is transport almost 100 pounds of luggage to my new home, but I will eat that kimchi when it gets here. 

With regard to the EPIK program itself, I am happy to say that the hospitality has been top-notch.  Every employee with the program is extremely nice and our gift bags included an EPIK polo, an EPIK alarm clock, an EPIK towel, and plenty of tourist goodies to help us get around.  Overall, that aspect has exceeded my expectations.  I do wish that I didn’t have quite so much downtime—that they could just plow through the material and force us to rally so we can get out of here all the more quickly, but I understand their reasoning.  The jetlag has kicked my ass the last two days and they’re trying to give us time to rest.  By 8 o’clock each night it has been greatly appreciated. 

I have also been increasingly impressed with the other people in this program.  Hailing mostly from the United States and Canada, but with a considerable number from South Africa and the United Kingdom, as well, we’re a diverse lot and I’ve enjoyed getting to meet some truly unique people who share my lack of prior teaching experience matched with enthusiasm to make the most of the process and Korea, in general.  Without question, there are some people who seem to be seeking different things from their affiliation with EPIK and there are some people who, quite frankly, don’t strike me as very effective teachers, but then that’s the point.  This is a maturing experience for the majority of people here.  We’re not teachers yet.  Some of us aren’t truly even adults yet.  For many of us, this is our first attempt at going it alone.  This isn’t studying abroad.  No, this is working abroad and I am about 10 days away from becoming extremely isolated.

I would be interested to rendezvous with the people who I have met so far one year later just to see how we all have changed and grown.  Some won’t, I’m sure, and they will be poorer for it, most likely.  Others will redefine themselves in spectacular ways.  I can only hope I’ll be among the latter.

Day One: Where Seoul Meets Body (Part One)

Late on Thursday night I arrived in Seoul, utterly exhausted and almost completely physically and psychologically broken.  Abouthalfway through my 14 hour flight from Chicago, the realities of my situation began to sink in and, almost on cue, so began some very much unwanted turbulence beneath the plane.  We shook and rattled and bounced about for quite a bit as I began to realize all that I am leaving behind in the states.  Ultimately, it’s the people who I will miss the most; everything else simply pertains to the comfort zone that I am naively swapping out for the exact opposite.  I am trading something familiar for something entirely alien and I am the odd man out racially, culturally, and socially on about every practical level.

Upon landing in Korea and making my way out of the airport, I already had a massive headache from lack of sleep and dehydration.  The food on the plane was top notch, as was the in-flight service, from which I partook of four glasses of free wine and a couple of hot towels.  The fact that the only open seat on the plane was on my immediate left with the aisle on the right didn’t hurt matters.  In between walks around the plane to keep my legs from atrophying I enjoyed “How to Train Your Dragon”, “Date Night”, “Greenberg”, and “Iron Man 2” (for the second time).  There wasn’t a four-star flick in the bunch but all were enjoyable enough to pass the time.

Too bad I only enjoyed about 1 hour of quality sleep on the entire flight and I did not sleep the night before in Chicago either.  All in all, I accounted for about four hours of sleep across the roughly 80-90 hours episode between my sleeping on the couch in Bagdad, Kentucky on Sunday evening and my arrival at Incheon International Airport.

Let’s move onto Incheon.  Arriving at the airport is not unlike how I imagine it must be to land in Hawaii.  Immediately, you’re aware that you have come to a place that is geographically separate from the United States.  Islands dot the ocean beneath you like scattered jigsaw pieces as you come in for a landing, but the Americans sitting around you on the plane hold back that utter realization that you are arriving on the other side of the planet.  I got off the plane and followed plain English signs through visas and customs (never before have I completed this process so quickly) and entered into the noticeably abandoned airport.  Clean as it was, and impressive, there were simply no people aside from those who had arrived on our flight, and upon exiting the terminals I was greeted with my first glimpse of a place to eat in South Korea:  Baskin-Robbins.  Seriously.

Here’s a funny story that I will tell countless times over the rest of my life.  Upon arriving, I also converted roughly $1000 US into Korean won to sustain me through my orientation week and my initial arrival in Pocheon.  I handed the sweet girl at the counter the money and she examined my passport as she fed the money through a rather intimidating machine that roughly resembled an automated card shuffler.  She handed me back a thick wad of won bills and I paused at the weight of the stack of money but ultimately thought nothing of the transition as I had no idea what one-thousand bucks’ worth of won was supposed to feel like.  Two hours later, in Seoul, I received a phone call insisting that I come downstairs.  The girl from the bank in Incheon had been forced by her manager to track me down to the university in Seoul where EPIK teachers are undergoing our orientation.  She had accidentally given me more than 3,000,000 won by mistake.  Or roughly $3,000.  How’s that for an exchange rate?

As for the bus ride into Seoul, I was treated to a very fascinating introduction (I was tempted to say “crash course”) into driving in Korea.  Leaving Incheon was no trick.  The roads are clearly modeled after the American system and, in many ways, almost directly mimic it.  The Interstate, in particular, was as familiar to me as cruising down I-64 in Louisville, Kentucky, except in a bus, surrounded by other buses and vans and more Hyundai Sonatas than any person could ever hope to see.

Then the apartment buildings appeared.  Miles and miles of towering, massive apartment complexes—many of which don’t even seem occupied yet.  Whole cities of buildings overlooked by monstrous cranes without even a road yet built to enter them.  Amidst a vast and flat landscape, I could see only apartments and the distant mountains indicating my eventual destination.  But I knew that Seoul would be my limbo for the interim, so I tried not to think too far ahead.  As the roads began to narrow and the number of lanes started to wane, we entered into Seoul and I watched as guys on motorcycles navigated crowded traffic as if we had driven onto the set of a John Woo film.  Stoplights became optional and horns became a rampant, but futile, means of shaking an angry fist at drivers who wouldn’t have looked to see it anyway.  And the roads were winding for a city.  Passing areas of the suburbs that appeared simultaneously to teeter between Third World poverty and First World hedonism, I kept a keen eye out for English.  I would have felt better with just a few more signs but I’m left more optimistic than not.

My initial feeling is that Seoul is a city of beauty and wonder in which I could easily lose myself, both physically and from a curiosity standpoint.  I hope to enjoy my time here, but it’s difficult not to feel like I’m in limbo in Seoul.  It is where I am; not where I am going and I am very much eager to explore my new home.  In the meantime, tonight feels like a decent time to wander my neighborhood and test the waters.  I don’t feel safe yet but, strangely, I can’t remember the last time I felt so at peace with a new place.  I’m uneasy, for certain, but I have never felt more secure.

Next up, I’ll be blogging about my first few days with the EPIK program and its teachers.  In the meantime, I already miss Kentucky but curiosity and excitement are definitely leading me forward.

“The Incredible Hulk” and Korea

Man, if that headline doesn’t get your attention I don’t know what will.

So, I’ve had this…I wouldn’t call it a problem, persay.  It’s more of a “Please, don’t let anything of international media attention worthiness happen in the next year” sort of thing.  Here’s the deal.  So I started out believing that I was going to be somewhere in the city of Pocheon, north of Seoul.  Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me start out by explaining that I had been hoping for months before I had ever heard of a place called Pocheon that I would not be placed anywhere remotely close to the demilitarized zone.  It’s not that I’m especially worried about war breaking out or that I’m even all that concerned about North Korea’s intentions or plans for the region in the foreseeable future.  I’ve just been a little uneasy about being within the vicinity of the northern treaty line just as any fresh-out-of-college, card-carrying American would be.  Especially knowing that I’m going in as a teacher with no combat/military experience outside of “Halo 3” and “Gears of War”.

So, needless to say, I was a little nervous upon finding out that my placement was going to Gyeonggi-do, which I had listed as my first preference on my application.  After all, I want to be close to Seoul and I want to be close to the action, in general.  I figured the odds were relatively remote that I could possibly be placed anywhere north of Seoul, given all the juicy locations south of the city that are just begging for a strapping, young go-getter like myself.  Naturally, karma came back around to spite my ego and I landed about 25 miles south and east of the DMZ.  This is where I was informed that my location would be, roughly, Pocheon, with a bunch of other meaningly words scribbled off in the margins in Hangul.

Not so fast, as it turns out.

I have recently discovered that my actual location is a township outside of Pocheon called Ildong-myeon, which looks like a very wonderful suburb complete with two or three spiffy-looking golf courses, more restaurants than I can shake a stick at, barbershops a plenty (which I’m sure are all just like that Ice Cube movie), and shopping galore.  It looks like a very pleasant neighborhood and I literally cannot wait to move in and get to know my surroundings. 

But there is still the nagging presence of that forbidden territory to the north.  I’m not accustomed to being in a place where I know my feet are not meant to tread beyond a certain invisible line.  It’s kind of intimidating and, believe me, I have no intention of treading anywhere near said line.  None.  At.  All.  I’ve estimated that the closest point of the DMZ is about 21 miles from where I will be teaching.  21 miles.  That’s closer than the distance from my home in Bagdad, Kentucky to Louisville or Lexington; two cities which I have frequented as a University of Kentucky graduate and as a former club soccer player in “Loo-uh-fool”.  And relations between the Koreas have not been particularly amicable of late given recent events widely-covered in mainstream news. 

So how do I cope with my apprehensions about living near to a place of real historical and relevant significance of the international relations stage?  How do I make sense of my proximity to such a complicated and emotional arena.  It’s simple.

“Incredible Hulk jumps”.

It seems futile to try to make sense of my plight by constantly endeavoring to determine my distance from North Korea in terms of miles and cardinal directions, when I am quite buffered by a considerable number of South Koreans in neighboring towns of the Pocheon-si area who will become my friends and colleagues for the next year.  They will become my lens in observing “life near the border” and I should not neglect the beauty and richness of the environment and culture that are soon to become my new home. 

So, yes, I am appoximately 3 or so miles closer to the DMZ in Ildong-myeon than I might have been in Pocheon.  Who cares?  I’m not close enough to hit it with the proverbial “thrown rock”, and Internet estimates guess that the Incredible Hulk (with leg muscles greatly augmented by his gamma-irradiated transformation) can jump miles in a single bound.  Although the exact estimate of how far the Hulk can leap eludes me, probably because the Incredible Hulk’s potential leap capacity is exceeded only by his potential capacity for strength, which some say is immeasurable by definition, estimates seem to average out at around 3-4 miles per bound.  So it would take the Incredible Hulk at least 5-6 solid jumps in order to reach North Korea from the middle school where I’ll be teaching, and something about that bestowns upon me a sense of calm almost as immeasurable as said Hulk’s monstrous strength.

Suddenly, the distance between myself and the DMZ seems so much more vast, knowing that I will be and shall stay a mere Bruce Banner during my stay in Korea.  If something should happen to change that…Well, you can pretty much forget about me continuing with the blog at that point.

Pre-Departure: Vol. 5 – Pack to the Future

In case you were wondering what it looks like BEFORE "the cat's out of the bag."

Before I leave, I thought it prudent to reflect on my month-long packing experience.  Clearly the abovementioned title is a “Back to the Future” reference, as I will be packing for the remainder of the Korean summer, the cool Korean autumn, the harsh Korean winter, and a distant (and presumably wetter) Korean spring.  My advice right off the bat is to not get bogged down in the “pack to the future” mentality.  Largely, it simply isn’t practical.

Which is why on my first attempt I ran about 10-15 pounds over the maximum weight limit Korean Air allows, and my cat may or may not be crammed somewhere in my carryon.

For me, I tried to find a nice equilibrium between nicer clothes I would enjoy modeling around the country and clothes that I would feel comfortable leaving behind upon my return to the states a year later, in order to make room for souvenirs and who knows what else.  I’m probably taking too many sweaters, but just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean you can’t dress like Kanye inside.  I had to cut my jeans from 7 to 5.  I pretty much only wear jeans when it’s not summer, so this was a huge sacrifice for me, but it cut down on quite a bit of weight.  Not to mention, I’m probably taking 20-something t-shirts—a number which I had reached after almost halving my initial wardrobe.  Once again, remember that you can buy a lot of this stuff in Korea and Koreans look to be quite the fashionable lot, as well.  I’m already peeping out a location called Myeong-Dong, which is a celebrated shopping district in Seoul where you can get pretty decent running shoes for about fifteen bucks. 

Just don’t ask why the swoosh is upside down and the brand says “Mike” instead of “Nike”.

I guess my big piece of advice would be to pack all your liquids in the smaller of your two carryon bags.  I know Korean Air allows two bags and each can weigh as much as 50 pounds, assuming they meet the predetermined area limit that includes both bags.  I believe the total limit is 107 square inches for both bags.  Obviously, your larger bag is going to weigh more than the smaller one in most situations, but just because it has more storage space inside does not mean you should pack your liquids there.  If you’re like me, liquids will comprise the bulk of your dead weight by the time you factor in two bottles of shampoo, two bottles of body wash, toothpaste, deodorant, cologne, contact lens solution, daily moisturizer, etc.  Do your best to fit them in your smaller carryon, as I have found it almost impossible to cram 50 pounds into the smaller bag, while my larger case could hold as much as 70 pounds if I really tried.  If you’re a male teacher or traveler, and you’re unconcerned with things like dandruff or specific brands, you’ll probably have little trouble finding most of your needs met in Korea.  It’s going to be more complicated for women, probably, but I would recommend finding a good blog or info site penned by an American abroad for the specific needs and grievances.

A note to all travelers, however—I’ve been told repeatedly that Korean toothpaste is not palatable to Americans and deodorant is virtually nonexistent!  This last point was strange to me because I almost never used deodorant anyway (my sweat naturally smells like cinnamon and wildflowers with a touch of lavender), but after about ten people told me to make sure I packed deodorant, they created a false frenzy in my mind that prompted me to go out and buy about four packs to make sure I’m covered.  Just goes to show how easy it is to incite hysteria in young Americans 😉

Finally, I’m packing a nice raincoat, a tasteful blazer jacket, a black longcoat for the winter, and a hoody or two to see me through the autumn and spring.  Nothing too riveting about the rest of my packing, but I did include the proper electrical current adapters, some DVDs for entertainment (including “the Big Bang Theory” with Korean subtitles which I might be able to utilize in class), and enough wet wipes to convince airport baggage screening that I must have a baby crammed into my luggage somewhere. 

But at least the worst of the packing madness is over.  I leave in one week so when you next hear from me, I should have arrived in Seoul to begin the orientation process.  It’ll be great to finally meet some others, face to face, who are going through the same ordeals.  If I don’t post before then, I’ll see you on the other side…

Pre-Departure: Vol. 4 – Veni, vidi, (E-2) visa.

By now, the secret should be out that I relate to life—reality, in general—through movies.  My favorite films are the lens through which I admire and critique the world around me.  In keeping with this trend, I now come one entry nearer to the end of my pre-departure series with the arrival of my long-awaited E-2 Visa. 

At first, I was inclined to compare the arrival of the visa to the famous scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where Indiana Jones pauses in front of the long-sought idol in the ancient temple at the beginning of the film—you know, that same temple that is now the archetype for every token ancient temple in any film whatsoever which would have such a temple…yeah, THAT temple.  Beholding my visa for the first time was like examining that golden idol, shifting the weight of the bag of sand in my palm as I prepared to make the switch.  THIS was my idol.  All my travels and dealings with bloodthirsty savages had delivered me, at last, to my prize and all I had to do was make the trade.  BUT…then I recalled all the shit that happens to Indy after switching out the bag of sand for the idol statue.  In short, he dodges throngs of poisonous arrows, a plethora of other pointy objects, and, to top it off, has to outrun a boulder the size of any Kentucky trailer home.  All of this before dodging spears from an army of angry natives as he leaps to safety on a plane, where I’m pretty sure he’s molested by a snake.

He HATES snakes.

Accordingly, with all the bad things that happen to Indiana Jones after he takes the idol, I concluded this to be a reverse metaphor.  I’ve already outrun all my boulders.  I’ve already dodged all my spears.  Obtaining my E-2 visa is the end (hopefully) of my death-defying deeds, so I altered my analogy to fit a more appropriate Stephen King story.  I feel far more like Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption”, having crawled through my God-only-knows-how-many football fields’ worth of excrement and foulness to finally escape (temporarily) from the prison of unemployment and international bureaucracy.  I am standing in the downpour of a long-fought victory with my arms outstretched, embracing my freedom and the new life that awaits me in Korea. 

And let me tell you.

It feels…anticlimactic.   

Even Andy Dufresne still had one heck of a journey ahead of him before he reached Mexico.  I guess a 14-hour plane ride isn’t that bad.  Now who wants to play Morgan Freeman and come pay me a visit?

Anyway, I want to return to my earlier criticisms of the Korean consulate with whom I interacted in obtaining my visa.  After my unfortunate experience the first time on the telephone, I called again to check on the status of my E-2 visa.  Their website insists a 2-3 day processing time and I called on the third day for an update.  The woman who answered was very helpful, even if she ended every sentence with the same intonation that most English speakers use to indicate that they’re asking a question, which was very confusing when she insisted “Your visa will be mailed out today” and I heard “Your visa will be mailed out…today?” 

One problem I would note if you’re hoping to overnight stuff to your nearest consulate.  Don’t overnight your stuff on a Monday!  By the time the consulate gets it, it will inevitably be Tuesday and probably Tuesday afternoon, which means they will begin processing your visa on Wednesday and mail it back to you on Friday.  Well, guess what, boys and girls; most overnight shipping only applies to business days so you will probably end up like me and pay for overnight return mail, only to find out that your passport and visa made it back late Friday night, where they were detained in limbo for the entire weekend, leaving you to finally get your package the following Monday wondering why the hell you paid thirty bucks to have them overnight it back to you.  Honestly, there’s no one you can blame and if you call UPS, they will blame the consulate for shipping the goods on Friday, and if you try to blame the Chicago, they will probably laugh at you.  Game over.  So just be smart in planning your visa preparation.

I would also note that, given the abundant discrepancies in E-2 Visa requirements between EPIK and different consulate websites, I mailed literally everything I could imagine that the consulate might possibly need and they actually mailed back to me everything they didn’t use.  They even sent me back my official college transcript still unopened and sealed in its envelope.

Finally—and this is important—I would note the difference between single-entry and multi-entry visas.  A single entry is $45 and a multi-entry is $80, but I’ve seen several sites claiming that Americans are granted multi-entry visas by default in most situations or that one can be obtained for $45 or requested at that price.  It’s confusing.  Suffice to say, I requested one in my cover letter to the consulate which I attached with my visa materials, but was still issued a single-entry visa only, which means I cannot travel around the continent and return to Korea without handling this matter in Seoul.  Most teachers making the yearlong trip over there are going to want a multi-entry visa, so make sure you call your consulate and confirm with them what you must do to obtain a multi-entry E-2 visa.  If you end up in my situation, stuck with a single, DON’T FRET—evidently it’s fairly easy to take care of once you arrive in Seoul and go to get your Alien Registration Card.  It’s just a hassle more than anything else.

On the plus side, Korean visas are very beautiful.  I like the dark red, blue, and white layout.  Very tasteful.  They are pasted right into your passport so that’s pretty convenient and they look very, very exclusive, which I like.  Mine even has a note about EPIK on it, which leads me to believe I’ll probably be bumped up to first class on the plane over and treated to all sorts of luxury that a boy from Bagdad can only conjure up in dreams.  Sweeeeeeet.

Pre-Departure: Vol. 3 – A Family Affair

Mary J. Blige:  “Family Affair”


Uh.  Yeah.  Sing it, Mary.  Clearly, Mary J. Blige did a tour as a teacher in Korea, as well, and chose to lay down a track about the resulting stress it imposed upon her family in the United States.  You have to listen to the song several times to get the message, but it’s there.  Like she says, when it comes to moving away from your family for a year, “We don’t need no haters; we’re just tryin’ to love one another.”  Truer words were never harmonized.

I’m an only child.  I studied in England for 3-4 months while a student at Centre College, but completed both of my degrees in Kentucky within about a mile of home.  I’m close to my parents.  I love my folks and tried to see them about once a month or more throughout my college days.  So, clearly, the revelation that I’m about to move to the other side of the planet for an entire year with virtually no likelihood of even a brief visit in the interim, “Average Joe in Korea” is just as much about the impact on Mom and Dad as it is on the young teacher making the journey.

I bought them a copy of “He’s Just Not That Into You” to try to help them through the process but, frankly, I think it’s sending them the wrong message.

When you’re as close to your folks as I am, it becomes difficult to maintain any independence in the process.  Psychologically and emotionally, they’re going to Korea just as much as I am.  Immediately, I was worried about all the travel books and guides that my mother was going to purchase for me.  I was worried about my dad staying up until the wee hours of the morning racing well ahead of me in terms of logistic and planning.  Thus far, I have tried to take care of everything at my own pace and tend to matters in my own way.  Ultimately, this isn’t quite practical for the family as a unit.

What I’m trying to preach, then, is to embrace such a journey as a family affair.  Work together and collaborate because I predict that I will become extremely grateful for all their help upon my arrival in Incheon.  I think it goes without saying that their wallets have come in extra-handy in planning this whole adventure, as well as their time and patience in dealing with me as the stress has mounted.  And believe me, the stress will mount.  Coming to terms with what you’ve gotten yourself into can only be the tip of the iceberg at this point.  Once I arrive in Korea and the true culture shock of landing in a city roughly five to ten times more populous than my home state will truly begin to sink in.  At which point, I’m going to find myself undoubtedly relying on those weekly Skype meetings with “the Birth-Givers” all the more crucial and bittersweet.

It’s your adventure, for certain.  But you’re not the only one who stands to be impacted by such a bold hiatus from the states.  Invite them along for the ride to the maximum extent that is possible for your particular family.  Most of us venturing over to Korea for an EPIK stint are about to be minus a family for the next year.  That’ll be an adjustment.  In some ways, it’ll be better for everyone involved, but I have to be effing realistic—I didn’t get this far alone; I doubt I’ll make it to Seoul that way either.