Saturday, November 20, 2010

First impressions (29 – 30 September)

A new alien arrives

As the plane crawls to the gate at Incheon International Airport, the mad exodus of travel-weary passengers begins.  It doesn’t matter that the seatbelt sign is still on or that only so many people can actually stand in the aisles at the same time – we still all jump up to grab our luggage at the first opportunity.  As I stare longingly at my suitcase in the overhead bin two rows down from my seat, wishing I had Fantastic Four Mr Stretch’s abilities right then, my suitcase suddenly crowd surfs over the heads of three passengers and is presented to me with flourish by a group of Korean students – who then push through the crowd to pass me my laptop which is in another overhead bin four seats in the opposite direction before clearing safe passage down the aisle for me to leave the plane.

I’m barely off the plane, to a chorus of “Hello, welcome to Korea” and “Annyeong haseyo”s, when I think, Oh God, what have I done! and wonder if I can get back on the plane.  I’d like to be able to say that the speed with which I move towards immigrations is spurred on by confidence but it it’s more like a survival tactic to avoid being run over by the manic crowd of fed up travellers that seems to multiply with every step.  Thankfully, all of the signs are also in English.  Trying not to look suspicious on a continent famous for targeting drug-mule foreigners seems to be more difficult than I thought as I feel the weight of a dozen eyes zooming in on the foreigners.  Squinting at signs and stopping every hundred metres to check that you still have everything is common practice in Africa; in Korea, it seems to encourage the police to pay more careful attention to you - especially when you’re hunched over, attempting to wheel a bright pink suitcase that is clearly over the weight allowance and keeps feeling over because the handle mysteriously broke mid-flight. 

The impatient mass of travellers carries me to the airport train that leads to the arrivals hall a few minutes away from the seemingly endless gates I’ve just passed.  Queuing behind at least a thousand other passengers for a train, I was inevitably going to be one of the last to try to find a spot or wait for the next train.  An airport official tells me to get on the train and, as I consider the pathetic expression I must have had on my face, I realise that all of the foreigners have been herded onto the train that we assume is taking us to arrivals.  Don’t panic; there are more of us than them is what races through my weary mind when suddenly, I’m being swept off the train once more by impatient passengers eager to escape. 

Somehow I manage to get to the immigration desk where enormous screens show cartoon clips of travellers bringing foreign plants and foods into Korea without declaring them.  The second the passenger walks out of the airport, all of the cows in the country – who, until that moment, had been happily munching on grass – suddenly keel over and die.  The tourist is immediately arrested and forced to wear a mask over his mouth to prevent spreading further diseases.  While watching these clips, the announcements tell us to report to quarantine if we have any stomach pains, headaches, slight fevers or diahorrea. Sit between two overbearing passengers for seven hours – after having already flown for over 11 hours and been in transit for just under 4 hours - and then tell me that you don’t have a headache or stomach pains.

I clear immigration with surprising ease and speed, and proceed to the carousel for my luggage, which, unbelievably, is among the first off the plane.  Purposefully, I march towards customs, fully intent on declaring the bar of chocolate and nougat hidden in my hand luggage.  So paranoid am I that something will go wrong at customs, that I’ve declared every single cent (in all five currencies) that I have with me despite knowing that the total amount is well below the US$10 000 declaration required.  I can see the exit sign, Korea is within reach and I can almost taste freedom when I suddenly notice the drug dog sniffing my hand luggage with great enthusiasm.  A cold sweat breaks over me as I briefly consider my brother’s joke of slipping something into my bag.  Did he?  Relief escapes my dry lips as I realise that, once again, I have the chocolate-loving drug dog sniffing my bags.  With a slightly trembling hand, I hand over the card which the customs official peruses before laughing – clearly my over-declaration on the monetary front is amusing.  I’m waved through to find my way around Korea.

Armed with only brief instructions on what to do when I get to Korea, I fight through the crowd of waiting escorts, each holding up cards with names that I desperately wish were mine.  I’ve never met so many enthusiastic and helpful people in one place!  Consequently, finding the bus stop and buying a ticket is much easier than anticipated.  With ticket in hand, I make my way back inside to find a telephone to request a shuttle to the hotel for which I have only a telephone number.  Thankfully, the shuttle’s already at the airport so the wait is short. 

At this point, I’d sell my soul for a hot shower.  Mercifully, that’s exactly what I can do within two hours of getting off the plane.  I shower, walk about 1km down the road in search of food that I recognise, carefully look around the room that I now realise doubles as an apartment (which explains the strange smells in the passage), compare what feels like Monopoly money (Singapore Dollars and Korean Won) and then spend the next four hours trying to fall asleep…

 Final Eligibility Test

The next morning, Kwon – the hotel manager – drops me off at the airport to catch the 7:30am bus to Jeonju.  Right on time, the bus arrives…followed directly by another one with exactly the same location printed in the front window.   Trying, once again, not to look too suspicious, I surreptitiously attempt to figure out which one is closest to the sign for the bus I’m meant to take.   I’m disheartened when I realise they’re an equal distance apart and I’m starting to think that this is the final test to confirm my eligibility as a Guest English Teacher (GET) – if I never arrive at my final destination, I just go home, right?  A decision needs to be made soon as both buses are getting ready to depart.  With all the confidence I can muster, I pick a bus and head to the luggage compartment.  Mercifully, the bus driver is confirming all tickets before loading any luggage and I board the bus relieved by the knowledge that I have at least three hours before I have to try and figure out how to proceed.  The bus driver clearly takes pity on me and uses his limited English to communicate the length of our stop mid-way, checking that I’m once again on the bus before leaving and telling me when we get to Jeonju.   The bus is comfortable and almost empty so, despite my best intentions, I sleep for about two hours.

I’m delivered to the Core Hotel four hours later where I am to meet my co-teacher who will take me to the Jeonbuk Department of Education.  I feel a bit like Shrek as frightened children watch me from behind their curious parents as I stumble into the Core Hotel where no one is waiting.  I spy some computers in the lobby and think I want my mom when my co-teacher suddenly approaches me.  We get into her car and I proceed to bombard her with all the questions I have about my school as we head towards the Department of Education to sign my contract.

At the Department of Education, we’re directed to my supervisor’s office via the ‘discreet’ entrance.  Being unable to speak, understand or read Korean, and accompanied by someone who has also never been to that office before, is probably why they were kind enough to direct us via the longer, more obscure, poorly sign posted route instead of the elevators directly behind the reception desk.  I make a mental note that GETs are to use the ‘back entrance’.  I meet with my supervisor, the first of several Mr Lees I am to meet that day, and his assistant, and I hand over the documents that I spent several frantic hours tracking down just before leaving South Africa.  I’m placed on the highest entry salary, sign an updated contract, get told to have a medical exam, get an Alien Registration Card and open a bank account so that they can pay my travel and settlement allowances.   I’m in Korea less than 24 hours and they already want to give me money!

From there, we drive to Gunsan (about 50km west of Jeonju) and I try very hard not to fall asleep.  I’m encouraged to take a nap if I’m tired and, before I realise it, we’re in Gunsan.  We arrive at school in the middle of lunch.
Chopstick Test

Jeonbuk Foreign Language High School is huge.  There are only approximately 350 students although the grounds can probably accommodate three times that with ease.  I’m greeted by my actual co-teacher who ushers me to the cafeteria.  Having not yet tasted kimchi, and regarding the meat rather dubiously, she plays it safe and gives me a doughnut with some rice, potato and some very hot green stuff.  Now the real challenge arises: only chopsticks and a spoon are available for eating…

I’ve read a lot about Korean customs over the past month so I’m hesitant to use only the spoon as I don’t want to offend anyone.  Instead, I try the chopsticks, much to the delight and amusement of my new Korean colleagues.  I wonder if chopsticks were first discovered as an effective diet tool: You can only eat what you manage to hold between the chopsticks on the way to your mouth.  After about the fifth unsuccessful attempt to hold the food long enough to eat it, a colleague reaches over and pushes the chopsticks that I’ve been clutching in desperation to the correct position – all the way to the other end of the stick – enabling me to eat a few mouthfuls.

Whirlwind introductions and de-militarized zones

Next, we meet the school’s principal.  He quizzes my co-teacher about my lunch and I hand him a copy of my contract, which he proceeds to peruse.  Ah…Level 1.  Almost Level 1+ - next year.  Is all he says to me in English.  I smile and nod, trying very hard to figure out what is going on.  He talks to my co-teacher who asks me what teaching experience I have.  She translates my answer and then tells me that he’s impressed with my salary ranking.  I feel the temperature in the already overheated room suddenly rise considerably with the pressure of unspoken expectations.  What, exactly, they’re hoping I’ll be able to do at school is still uncertain.

A whirlwind of introductions (including two New Zealanders with whom I will work) leads us to my apartment with great apologies that it still needs to be cleaned.  Disinfected from head to toe is more like it.  I sign a contract that I can’t understand trusting that my co-teacher and school aren’t part of some white slavery ring, and pay my first month’s rent.  I’m given two days ‘free’ rent (which amounts to approximately US$20) since I have to clean the apartment myself.  Part of me wants to ask if I can rather pay the 20 000 won and have the apartment cleaned for me.  A brief re-arrangement of the furniture and a valiant attempt to clean months of accumulated dirt leads us all to the same conclusion: detergents – the nuclear kind – are our only hope so a trip to E-mart moves to the top of the agenda.  A trip to Kunsan Air Base would probably be more successful for the type of products we’re going to need.  After all, the Americans are good at invasions…

E-mart reminds me of Walmart in many ways – except for the minor and slightly inconvenient detail of not being able to understand what is written on 99 per cent of the packaging and not recognising 0.9 per cent of the 1 per cent of stuff that is written in English.  Two hours later, having said goodbye to more money than I anticipated parting with in my first 48 hours in Korea, we’re back at my apartment where I bid my co-teacher goodnight feeling a bit guilty that she’s getting home later than usual.  I attempt to fumigate my apartment alone and decide that I’m not really hungry so a clean bathroom and a bed consume my last reserves of energy before I collapse in exhaustion.

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