08 August 2011

Return to Seoul: Week 1

I've had some tricky flights to Asia but this is the first time that there were no delays at all and my two flights (Montreal - San Francisco, San Francisco - Seoul) went extremely well. The second flight was with Singapore Airlines and yes, all that you've heard is true. The service was incredible, the food was good and the in-flight entertainment was fantastic. Not to mention, I had two seats all to myself! Heavenly. Nonetheless, let it be known that I do not sleep on planes. I wish I could, but I simply can't. I arrived in Seoul on Saturday at 6:00 pm local time. I was in my apartment by 8:00 pm. I unpacked the essentials, took a shower and went straight to bed.

After a fitful night of sleep, I awoke to the sound of chirping cicadas at 8:00 am on Sunday morning. Before even leaving Montreal, I had made plans via e-mail to meet my new bosses, Paul & Aileen for brunch in Itaewon at noon. Although it’s been over two years since I last lived in Seoul, I felt fairly certain that I’d be able to make my way to Itaewon since it was an area that I had frequented rather often.

The only thing I had in the fridge was a bottle of water so my breakfast choices were pretty simple. I had a glass of water and a cigarette, the breakfast of champions. I took a shower and continued the unpacking I had started the night before. At 10:45, I decided to leave. I figured an hour and fifteen minutes would be ample time to get to destination. However, I almost didn’t make in in time…

It was raining pretty hard so I brought an umbrella (which I later ditched because it was a piece of crap) and took a photograph of the address plate outside my building as I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find my way home. I headed out the door and logic told me that as long as I could find a main street, I would find a subway station and then the rest would be a cinch. I’d forgotten just how difficult the side streets of Seoul are to navigate, especially when one doesn’t read Hangul and only has an arsenal of about 12 words in one’s vocabulary. Long story short, it took me 45 minutes (of mostly uphill walking) to find a main street. Seeing as my last meal had been on the plane, nearly 20 hours prior, it’s a miracle that I didn’t pass out! The funny thing was, once I did finally make it to a main street, the first thing that I saw was a subway station and it happened to be on the same line as Itaewon, just a few stops away, so not only was I on time for my meeting, I was a few minutes early.

Although we had never met, it was very easy to spot Paul & Aileen. There they were, a lovely Canadian couple in their sixties, beaming at me from beneath their umbrella. They took me to a restaurant I had never been to, The Flying Pan Blue, for a delightful brunch. Afterwards, they showed me where the newest foreign food shop, High Street Market was. I was pleased to see an extensive bread selection and cheese counter but since I’d just arrived from Montreal and was not yet craving these delicacies I simply bought two things that I know are nearly impossible to find outside of Itaewon: some muesli and a box of corn tortillas. I was offered a free umbrella with my purchases and this one was much sturdier than the one I had brought from home which is why I ended up throwing the other one away. I should mention that the largest United States Army Garrison in Seoul is near Itaewon and that’s why it’s the best place to go to find the things that expats crave the most, namely a wide variety of familiar grocery and pharmacy items as well as English language books and magazines. Yes, almost everything is totally overpriced but at least it’s available. Nonetheless, Itaewon can be kind of a dodgy area, so my visits there tend to be rather short ones.

After my meeting with Paul & Aileen, I decided to try to find an E-Mart (Korean equivalent to Walmart) to pick up some food and a few items for my new apartment. I never did find it but I did find another supermarket where I managed to pick up a few food items, lots of cleaning products and a coffeemaker. I bought way too many things and it was ridiculously heavy and cumbersome. I found myself several subway stops away from my new home and caught in a torrential downpour. The only thing I could do was stand outside the supermarket and hope that a cab would drive by. Just when I was beginning to lose hope, the friendliest cab driver in Seoul drove by. He helped me with my packages and laughed when I showed him the digital photo of my apartment but hey, it worked! I made it home.

The next day, I took my trusty camera along with a notebook and pen and ventured out once again. I got to know my neighbourhood quite well and made several trips back home after purchasing more things for my apartment. I wasn’t going to have a repeat performance of the previous day’s fiasco. I did finally find an E-Mart but it wasn’t the greatest one and I still haven’t found everything I need but I’m doing quite well. After a coffeemaker, the most important thing on my list was a new pillow because, the pillows that came with my furnished apartment, just like my last time in Seoul, are as hard as rocks. My mattress is also as hard as stone, but that’s another story.

On Tuesday, I was chaperoned to work by my neighbour and colleague, Dao. She’s a lovely girl, originally from Laos, but raised in Minnesota and I’m so lucky to have her as a neighbour. From her, I found a much easier way to get to the nearest subway station. From Hunter, another neighbour and colleague, from Toronto, I found out which bus to take to work. I prefer the bus, not only because it’s more scenic than the subway but because you can usually get a seat as it tends to be less crowded than the subway. I actually pass Seoul’s three major palaces to get to work as well as Insadong, one of my favourite places in Seoul.

All in all, I’m pleased with where I am living and the commute is much shorter than it was the last time I lived and worked in Seoul. It usually takes me under 30 minutes to get to work. The first time I tried to go home alone, it took me three hours to get home but that’s because I took the bus in the wrong direction and also managed to get off at the wrong stop. Well, that’ll never happen again!

I work with an extremely friendly and helpful team of teachers and for that I am eternally grateful, considering my last experience in Seoul. Everyone has been so wonderful, I feel like pinching myself to make sure that this is all really happening. It’s very surreal being back here. Although it’s familiar, I am quite certain that this is going to be a much more positive experience than it was the last time.

I am very impressed with the students at my school. The classes are small, so you really get to know your students, the classes are divided by age and the groups are almost completely homogeneous in terms of language level. I spent the week observing two high level classes (one group of first graders and one group of third graders) who I will start teaching next week. I’m blown away by the amount of resources available to us. The classrooms are kid-friendly and well-equipped with a variety of teaching materials, toys, books, etc. This is nothing like Gwacheon English Town! I’m a little overwhelmed by the school curriculum, but I’m sure that everything will eventually fall into place.

I taught my first class on Saturday (after four days of orientation and observation) and it went exceptionally well. This particular class was an extremely well-behaved group of 7 year-old beginners. The kids that we teach during the week (the school week starts on Tuesday) are full-timers and are in an immersion programme whereas the kids we teach on Saturdays only come once a week. As far as I can tell, I’ll be teaching the same three groups of kids during the week but I may not get the same class every Saturday. I still have a lot to learn but as I mentioned, the staff are very helpful and Paul & Aileen are wonderful directors, so I’m in good hands.

I'll explain a little bit more about the school in my next post. There are so many different types of classes and hundreds of students. Last week was a complete whirlwind. In addition to learning the ropes, observing classes and planning lessons, I was also taken to a hospital in Insadong by the lovely Jihae who works in the finance department for my medical check (where I discovered that I no longer have 20/20 vision - my left eye is much weaker than my right eye - I guess I'm getting older) and to open a bank account. Incidentally, Jihae is also the person who helped me get Internet at home. I just got it installed this morning. Later in the week, I was taken to apply for my Alien Registration card by JY, a funny bloke who also works in the finance department and is under the false impression that I speak Japanese fluently. He also thinks I speak Russian, but that's a whole other story...

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