13 July 2008

Adventures in Public Transport

Just when I thought that I was getting used to the public transportation system in Seoul, I experienced three rather disturbing events (within a span of about 24 hours) that have left me somewhat…shaken. First off, on my way home from work on Friday evening, I found myself on a jam-packed bus, without a seat, stuck in traffic. Sounds bad, doesn’t it? That’s just the beginning…

I was standing there, feet aching, nostrils filled with the many unpleasant smells of a crowded Seoul bus, when the driver did something really bold. He left the bus-lane and headed over to the painted median, deciding to use it as a passing lane. There he was, honking his horn, getting his busload of weary passengers out of the traffic-jam, my hero: the daring bus driver. Just when I was thinking, this is my kind of bus driver, something terrible happened…thump! The entire bus gasped. That’s right; he had hit a car (in which the passengers were a woman and two young children).

Don’t worry, there were no injuries, just an ugly looking scratch along the side of the woman’s pristine, white Kia. In fact, one of the little boys seemed to think it was all very exciting that mommy had been hit by a bus. I know this, because I happened to be standing right at the front of the bus and watched the whole apology (with profuse bowing on the driver’s part) and trading of insurance information spiel between the woman and the driver.

While this was going on, several passengers decided to get off the bus and brave the three lanes of oncoming traffic to get to the sidewalk. I decided that I would get off at the next stop, even though I was far from home. I had dinner at a restaurant and by the time I was done, the traffic had waned and I boarded a bus driven by a less audacious bus driver. I made it home safe and sound.

On Saturday, I braved public transport once again. I had an appointment for a facial at a spa in Itaewon, followed by my bi-weekly massage at Healing Hands. I was waiting for the subway at Sadang, and as it arrived, three drunken men in their late fifties (it is quite common to see older men drunk off their asses in the middle of the day here in Seoul) push to the front of the line and board the subway.

I found a seat, unfortunately directly facing them, and watched the bedlam ensue. Two of the men had found a seat, but the third wasn’t as lucky. He tried to squat on the floor of the subway, but toppled over. Then, he decided to attempt to sit in his buddy’s lap and tumbled onto the unfortunate young woman sitting beside him. She hastily stood up and walked over to the subway door, turning her back to them.

I sat there, trying not to make eye contact with the drunken trio. They were very loud and obnoxious, especially the most inebriated of the three (the fellow who had forced the young woman out of her seat). Let’s just call him Mr. Topsy-Turvy. He kept yelling out the same phrase (my Korean still sucks, so I can’t repeat it for you) and hugging his friends. Then, he grabbed his friend’s face and planted a wet one on him, much to his protest. This was the last straw for the stern-looking gentleman sitting directly to their right. He stood up and walked over to where the young lady was standing. From there, he gave them the evil-eye.

In the meantime, there were three school-aged children, a girl and two boys, who had been fooling around on the subway, running back and forth, being typical kids. The little girl finally got bored and sat on her mother’s lap. The boys, however, continued their boisterous subway game. Every time they passed in front of the drunken trio, I would think to myself, something’s going to happen. Well, it did. The stern-looking gentleman, clearly perturbed by the behaviour of the intoxicated trio and the misbehaving children, had had enough. Again, I can’t repeat exactly what he said, but he shouted something at those kids that sent them scurrying back to their mom.

Well, this infuriated Mr. Topsy-Turvy. He stood up, fell once again, then recovered himself and stumbled over to the mom and her two boys. I have no idea what he said to them, but the mom briskly took their hands and lead them as far away as possible from Mr. Topsy-Turvy. I was very relieved that the next stop was mine. This was all too much for what was supposed to be my relaxing Saturday afternoon.

My final anecdote took place on my way home, after my wonderful massage. I had stopped at Sadang to do a little shopping at a cosmetics shop that I like there. When I emerged from the subway station to take the bus, it was raining cats and dogs. I patiently waited for the bus, under my umbrella. When the bus finally arrived, I struggled with my umbrella and managed to close it just in time. I was glad to see that the entire back of the bus was free. I headed over to find a seat but stopped dead in my tracks when I saw that the reason why there were so many free seats was that someone had puked back there. Suddenly, I wished that I were still standing outside in the rain.

I found a seat near the front of the bus, opened a window and stuck my head out, in order to escape the smell, paying no heed to the downpour. I watched as every new passenger boarded, looking surprised and grateful for the abundance of seats at the back of the bus. One after the other, they would do what I had done; head to the back of the bus, take one look, make a disgusted face and head back to the front of the bus. I kind of felt like I was watching an episode of candid camera, until it happened; this bloke got on the bus, headed straight to the back, looked down, saw the vomit, and sat down! I couldn’t help myself; I gasped and then stated, out loud, “He’s sitting in the puke.” A few people stared at me. I didn’t care. That dude was sitting in puke. That was all I could think about the rest of the way home. I kept turning around, to see if he was still there, and he was, smiling inanely.

So ends my adventures in public transport…until the next time, that is. Today, I have no intention of leaving my flat. However, tomorrow I’ve got to go back to work, which means braving public transport once again. Wish me luck…

15 March 2008

Good News

I have some good news. I think that I have entered the Adjustment Stage of Culture Shock. Of course, the Withdrawal Stage could once again rear its ugly head. To be honest, the experience that I had with Asiana Airlines is probably what triggered the Withdrawal Stage for me. That, coupled with the initial communication problems at work. Although things could be better, the communication issues have improved, mostly because I've learned to cope with the way Koreans go about doing things. I am, after all, a guest in this country and it's up to me to adapt. My biggest problem still lies with the communication problems and general rude behaviour of pretty much half of the teaching staff. I've chosen to focus on developing as a teacher, my lovely students and my positive and helpful co-workers.

As explained by Kwintessential Cross-Cultural Solutions...

'Culture shock' is used to describe the emotional rollercoaster that someone experiences when living in a new country. Anyone that has worked and lived in a foreign country will experience culture shock of some sort.

Culture shock affects anyone from business personnel and their families, to EFL teachers to sports stars. Recognising culture shock is an important way of being able to deal with it. Dealing with it helps minimise the risk of becoming disillusioned with a new country and the possibility of deciding that a quick return 'home' is the only solution.

Experts agree that culture shock has stages and all agree that once people get beyond the initial and most difficult stages, life in a new country becomes a lot better.

Outlined below is an example of the stages people go through with culture shock:

Stage 1 - Excitement
The individual experiences a holiday or 'honeymoon' period with their new surroundings.


  • Feel very positive about the culture
  • Are overwhelmed with impressions
  • Find the new culture exotic and are fascinated
  • Are passive, meaning they have little experience of the culture

Stage 2 - Withdrawal
The individual now has some more face to face experience of the culture and starts to find things different, strange and frustrating.


  • Find the behaviour of the people unusual and unpredictable
  • Begin to dislike the culture and react negatively to the behaviour
  • Feel anxious
  • Start to withdraw
  • Begin to criticize, mock or show animosity to the people

Stage 3 - Adjustment
The individual now has a routine, feels more settled and is more confident in dealing with the new culture.


  • Understand and accept the behaviour of the people
  • Feel less isolated
  • Regains their sense of humour

Stage 4 - Enthusiasm
The individual now feels 'at home'.


  • Enjoy being in the culture
  • Functions well in the culture
  • Prefer certain cultural traits of the new culture rather than their own
  • Adopt certain behaviours from the new culture

© Kwintessential Ltd

04 March 2008

My Head is Stuck on Something Precious...

Last night, I went to the opera for the first time in my life! I saw Bizet’s Carmen at the Seoul Arts Center with Gen. I enjoyed the performance, but I was lost, since the dialogue was in Korean and although the libretto was of course performed in the original French, I was only able to catch words here and there, because I am not accustomed to the operatic style of singing. Nonetheless, it was an interesting experience and made me feel very grown-up and civilized. I have always wanted to clap my hands and shout, “Bravo!” Another dream fulfilled.

Speaking of dreams and things to look forward to, I am going to see Duran Duran in April at the Seoul Olympic Park! I'm especially stoked because I never got to see them live when they came to Montreal in 1984. I was only 13 and I wasn't allowed to go. I did see them open for Bowie in 1987, but sadly, haven't seen them since. Then, in 2005, I was living in Japan, when I found out that I'd finally get my chance to see the original line-up (Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, Roger Taylor & Andy Taylor). I purchased VIP tickets to their show in Fukuoka. I was devastated when I found out that the Japanese leg of the tour had been cancelled. So, you can see why I'm pretty stoked about seeing them here in Seoul (even though Andy has left the band). It's been a long time and I've missed them...

I was a mega Duranie during my formative years, between the ages of 13 and 16, and I still have a soft spot for them. They remind me of my early teenage years, when I was all sweet and innocent. They were the first band I ever loved. Duran Duran were responsible for the beginning of my true appreciation of British music and were most likely responsible for turning me into an Anglophile. Then again, that particular obsession probably started way earlier, because my older brothers used to listen to the Beatles, the Who, and of course, Bowie and I would sneak into their room when they weren't home and play their albums.

However, Duran Duran were the first band that I could truly call my own. I saved my babysitting money to buy their albums and spent my weekends hunting down rare import singles and long-versions. To this day, my Japanese import single of Planet Earth (Late Bar b-side - awesome!) is one of my most prized possessions. I anxiously awaited each new issue of BOP!, Tiger Beat, Teen Beat, etc. I bought every book on Duran Duran that I could find. My walls (including the ceiling) were adorned with Duran Duran posters. I watched every video show televised in Canada: Video Hits, Good Rockin' Tonite, Friday Night Videos, praying that the Fab Five would make an appearance. If I was lucky, they played a video. If I was super lucky, I got an interview too! I was the only one of my friends to own Sing Blue Silver & Arena and watched them over and over. "I mean, gimme a wristbaaaand!" I still have a crush on Simon Le Bon. He will always be my first true love.

01 March 2008

The Flight from Hell

It was with a heavy heart that I bid farewell to my mum, dad and nephew Michael-Todd at PET Airport on the 29th of December 2007, having only had three hours of fitful sleep. I honestly felt like I was making a huge mistake. I kept shaking my head and saying, "What am I DOING?" Still, I walked through that gate...and only looked back once.

Sitting at gate 78, unable to even find the energy or motivation to listen to my iPod or leaf through one of the magazines I had bought, I sat there sighing deeply and staring off into space. Suddenly, I realised that someone was talking to me. The person in question was a lovely woman named Kathleen. Now, this lady was very excited and nervous, as most people boarding an airplane for the very first time would be. It was actually her first time in an airport and the kicker is...this lady is 62 years old! She's from Saguenay Lac Saint-Jean, but she's an Anglophone, of Irish decent. She has lived in Saint-Jean her whole life and is an English teacher there. In fact, when she found out that I was headed to South Korea to teach English, she suggested that I look for work as a teacher in Saint-Jean upon my return, as they're always looking for English teachers there. I thanked her for the advice, but of course, explained that I didn't want to be a teacher forever and that I was planning on most likely pursuing graduate studies after my Korean adventure.

Talking with Kathleen was very comforting. For one thing, her exhilaration at the prospect of boarding a flight for the first time was contagious. She told me all about her trip, and that helped distract me from my melancholy. She was flying to Chicago, then Minneapolis where she was meeting friends she had met on the Internet and embarking on a road trip to California. This was not only her first time on a plane, but also her first time travelling outside of Canada. Furthermore, she was sort of like a mother figure and really easy to talk to. I barely even scratched the surface on the bizarreness of my life, but she told me that I should write a book. I enjoyed listening to her stories about her teaching experiences in small town Quebec and tales of her rebellious daughter who has tattoos, piercings and pink hair, but is also a teacher. On top of that, I was able to offer her all sorts of advice and actually ended up coaching and calming her throughout take-off, in flight and during the landing, as I was sitting in the same row as her on the tiny Air Canada Jazz aircraft. So, that was the flight to Chicago...

When I arrived in Chicago, I decided to think positive. I was actually starting to feel a lot better, sitting there listening to The Colourfield on my iPod, watching people go by as I waited for the Asiana counter to open. I decided to go outside for a smoke and met a Jordanian man who works in Chicago and had just said goodbye to his wife and daughter, who were going to Jordan for the next six months. When he found out where I was going and what I was going to be doing there, he started asking for advice about English colloquialisms and pronunciation. He explained that when he first arrived in Chicago, he could barely speak English. He too, was a pleasure to converse with and he actually hugged me and wished me Happy New Year before we parted ways.

So, by the time I got in line at Asiana, now listening to Oasis on the iPod; I was actually feeling somewhat cheerful. I was one of two non-Koreans in line and was secretly re-living fond memories of Japan in my mind, telling myself that this was going to be an adventure and an unforgettable experience and that I'd meet all kinds of fascinating people along the way. I mean, I had already met two interesting people and hadn't even left Chicago. That's when it happened. That's when Don't Look Back in Anger was interrupted by who would turn out to be one of the most obnoxious human beings I've ever met in my entire life...Daniel from Kingston, ON. That's when everything really started going downhill...

Remember Spike & Chester from Looney Tunes? Spike was the bulldog and Chester was the annoying little sidekick terrier. Well, if you want to get an idea of just how annoying Daniel from Kingston was, just think of Chester. Better yet, while we’re on the topic of annoying, comic-relief sidekicks, just think of Jar Jar Binks. Honestly, I think I would have rather been stuck at Chicago O’Hare Airport with either Chester or Jar Jar Binks than Daniel. Words that spring to mind when I reluctantly recall the nightmare that was spending six hours stuck in the shittiest airport in America with Daniel are: ADHD, spastic, pseudo-intellectual, over enthusiastic, hyper, know it all, uncool, wannabe-raver, fake, egocentric, boring.

In fact, I am not going to waste any more time writing about him, because I just can't truly capture the level of his repulsiveness without the irritating tone of voice and affected mannerisms. So, the next time you see me, just ask me to do an impersonation. I have an incredible memory when it comes to human behaviour, and will never forget those dreadful hours spent with Daniel. If I ever feel the need to add an annoying sidekick to the novel that I will one day write, he will make an excellent reference. However, for the time being, I have more important things to do than write about him.

I’m sure that by now, you all know that Asiana Airlines lost my luggage. What you may not know is that when I arrived at Incheon International Airport (three and a half hours late, I might add, since the plane sat on the tarmac in Chicago for three and a half hours because there was something wrong with the cargo hold door) exhausted after being on that plane for 17 hours, emotional and still uncertain about my decision to come to South Korea, I had a breakdown. The breakdown in question occurred when I found out that the airline had lost my luggage. My eyes filled with tears, I blurted out, to some random Texan and his wife at the lost baggage counter, “This is a sign! I’m making a huge mistake! I wasn’t meant to come to this country! What have I done?!”

Well, here we are, two months down the road. I still feel that I’ve made a mistake coming here, but I’m trying to make the best of it, taking it one day at a time. Lately, I’ve been feeling somewhat depressed for myriad reasons. First of all, I found out for certain this week that my suitcase is lost forever. I am in mourning over the priceless items that I will never see again. Moreover, I found out that I will only be compensated for 460,000 WON (about $500) as this is the policy of most major airlines ($20 per kilogram for a maximum of 23kg). At least, I am covered by my mum’s insurance policy and have opened a file regarding my lost suitcase with Allstate. This means that I have a lot of work to do. I am in the middle of compiling a comprehensive list of all of the items that I have lost. Many of these items were purchased abroad; in England, France, Switzerland, Japan, Thailand, Egypt, so it is quite the daunting task. Some of the items are of sentimental value and can never be replaced, unless someone invents a time machine in my lifetime.

Furthermore, I’ve been sick for over two weeks and can’t seem to regain my health, as I feel extremely overworked and exhausted. To make matters worse, although I can’t say that I hate my job, because most of my students (both children and adults) are lovely and I am enjoying the freedom and creativity of planning all of my own lessons, there is a grave communication problem at my workplace and it’s really starting to bring me down. I truly feel that half of the teachers that I work with really don’t seem to care very much at all and there is a great lack of team spirit, camaraderie and unity, compared to other overseas teaching jobs that I have had. Lastly, and I may just be experiencing “Stage 2” of culture shock, but I honestly feel that I will never have the same affinity or sentiment for Korea as I do for Japan. My experience in Japan was very special and I realise that, now more than ever.

Now, to end on a more positive note…my manager at Gwacheon (Jin) was away on business in the Philippines and was temporarily replaced by Leo from the Sadang office, who is extremely helpful and kind. He volunteered to call Asiana Airlines for me and managed to get me a slightly better deal. In addition to the 460,000 WON, the airline will provide me with free return airfare to Japan. I’m thinking about heading there for my birthday in May, but have made no definite plans yet. It’s something to look forward to.