Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Aliens Have Landed (Day 15 – 14 October)

I am now a registered alien in Korea, and after today, I truly feel like I’ve landed on another planet.  I’m still chuckling over the absurdity of today’s events.

Don't talk to strangers?

I started the first of the 15 lessons that I have to complete as part of my contract.  The ‘cheese factor’ of these lessons is incredible and I have to try very hard at times not to shriek with laughter at my desk.  The ‘survival Korean’ lesson, which my Korean colleagues find very amusing (I find it ironic that it’s intended to be the last of the 15 lessons), has proven to be rather useful.  I have managed to figure out two grammar principles in the past two days so I’m feeling rather proud of myself at the moment.  I even did an impromptu ‘happy’ dance in the middle of the school parking lot much to the amusement of several students.  When I then managed to apply these principles in a completely different scenario to that of the lesson, I surprised a Korean colleague by answering her question in Korean and followed the exchange with my second ‘happy’ dance in less than an hour.  Needless to say, things were starting to make a bit more sense and I felt slightly more confident this morning as I walked to school.

Thinking that I may just survive my year in Korea after all, I enter the school with a definite spring in my step.  I’m now accustomed to cars screeching through the school gates – I have yet to see a speed limit sign posted anywhere in my town.  What I was not expecting was to have a delivery van come flying past me and its occupants jump out of the van to talk to me.  Before I can figure out what was happening, a man greets me and starts talking in Korean.  The blank look on my face is a dead giveaway that I don’t speak Korean.  Unlike everyone else I’ve encountered outside of school, he promptly changes to English – albeit it limited English - and asks if I speak English.  (Aren’t most foreigners in Korea English teachers?)  Affirming this, much to his delight, he proceeds to introduce me to his son, pushes us together and then tells me that he’ll leave us alone to talk.

Oh dear. 

Wondering what type of ‘lost in translation’ scenario I now found myself in, we introduce ourselves.  I then wait for him to clue me in as to what is happening.  He proceeds to ask me several personal questions (which is a fairly common experience as Koreans try to work out social ranks for politeness) while his father steps in every few minutes to give general encouragement and tell me that his son is studying medicine at a university I’ve never heard of but which is clearly meant to impress me.  Very impressive…but I’m starting to feel a little uncomfortable as suspicions about what might be going on start to settle in.  After all, this kid may be gorgeous but he’s still a good 6 – 8 years younger than me even if I don’t look that much older than him.  Thankfully, I can legitimately excuse myself by needing to get to work.  I walk away feeling quite bemused by what has just happened…

More new experiences

Walking into my office, I start to suspect that strange events may be a recurring theme today.  I’ve barely said hello before my Korean colleagues are handing me strange foods to taste.  The Spanish teacher is charged with translations between me and the rest of our office.  To my relief, the strange-shaped, soft, slightly warm brown thing that has been thrust into my hand is only a sweet potato.  With relish, I peel and bite into what turns out to be the chewiest sweet potato that I have ever encountered.  Furthermore, it seems to swell in size in my mouth. Not only have I now taken a rather large bite that is rapidly mutating in my mouth, but my colleagues seem to have decided that this is our quality time together for this week which means lots of questions from them about me.  Choking down what now tastes like a cup of flour, I attempt to respond which leads to yet more food being handed to me: Chestnuts.

I’ve obviously heard of chestnuts before but I always associate them with a very Dickensian image of 19th couples with fur mufflers, skating on the frozen pond, couples sitting in the park and children running around – all eating chestnuts around Christmas time.  I’ve never pictured eating them in an office in the Korean countryside with half a dozen people watching me like I’m a performing monkey who is about to do an amazing trick before returning to my corner.  Feeling a bit like Bridge Jones, yet again, I attempt to open the chestnut as I bite and bite unsuccessfully.  It finally cracks open and the chalky gizzards trickle into my mouth.  It’s perhaps one of the worst things I’ve tasted so far but I manage to smile and make ‘yum’ sounds while swallowing several times in desperation and slowly inching towards my desk.

This is illogical!  I'm in Korea...move on

I retreat to the sanctuary of my desk only to have another Korean teacher tell me we’re going to the Immigration Office to collect my ARC.  This means that I can open a bank account and get paid!  The excursion turns into another episode of the Twilight Zone when the officer there explains what I will need to do if I decide to renew my contract and visa.  I have to submit a police clearance certificate from the country in which the visa was issued.  Herein lies the conflict:

I hold dual citizenship: British and South African.  I tend to travel on my British passport as it’s easier in most countries but I live in South Africa.  My visa clearly says ‘Issued at (sic) SA’ but because it’s in my British passport, I have to submit a police clearance certificate from the UK.  When I try to explain all of this, I’m told that they won’t be able to renew my visa on that passport which means I’ll have to apply for a new visa from outside of Korea.  I’m then told that since I haven’t lived in the UK, the clearance certificate won’t be a problem because I obviously won’t have a criminal record there then.  This same logic doesn’t seem to apply when I point out in response that, if I renew my contract and extend my visa, I will have been living in Korea for the past year so there won’t be any difference between a foreign police clearance certificate a year from now and the one that I’ve already submitted.  After all, if I’m going to be committing any crimes over the next year, they’re likely to be in Korea or neighbouring countries and renewing my contract won’t be an option then anyway since I’ll probably be in jail or my family will have been billed for the bullet.  The only advice I’m given is to contact my embassy.

The rest of the day passes with less excitement than it began: another lesson spent trying to draw blood from a stone, a conversation with the Kiwis about yet another exciting game of ‘guess-the-English-word-that-I-know-exists-but-can’t-think-of-right-now’ with a few colleagues (today’s word is ‘antiphonal’ and our only clue is ‘a man and a woman singing together’ – I bet you all guessed ‘duet’ too!), and two more lessons of intensive listening in conversation classes. I can open a bank account tomorrow, my co-teacher has already recommended a particular bank and I read up on precisely this after school; the office is deserted apart from me and a male teacher.  In the still of the typing, and the middle of an email to a friend in Japan, there reverberates the longest and loudest fart that I have ever heard someone emit in public!  Struggling to contain my laughter, I hurry through the rest of the email so as to excuse myself from the most bizarre day I’ve yet experienced in this little town of Gunsan.  Maybe it was the Choco Balls I had for breakfast this morning…

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