Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Living In Korea

Korean Adventure (September 20, 2002 Chautauqua)

I'm going to try and reflect some facets of my life here, in the hopes that they may complete a picture, and show what I am experiencing.
I live in a one-room flat, in a three-story building. The other foreign teacher at my school has her apartment next door. Most schools provide the apartment rent-free, and all the teacher has to pay for is the utilities and the TV. As you walk in the door, there is a small area to leave your shoes. It is impolite to walk into a Korean house with your shoes on. I like to walk around in my slippers at home and at work. It is very comfortable.
I have a fridge, which is fairly large compared to other fridges I have known. Opposite is the sink/stove/cupboard area. It's all one unit, and that's my kitchen. I've gotten fairly good at preparing delicious meals on a two-burner gas range. It's pretty standard for most Korean households. Ovens are a rarity. Most Korean dishes are prepared without one.

One of the roads up to my con-apt, which was a block to the right. I did get a lot of what Flint calls 'Christers' visiting my con-apt. I was never as... curt as Flint was, but I did learn to shut the door on them after a while.

I have a TV/VCR unit, and I am limited to watching movies or whatever programs are part of the American Army's channel. They get most of the shows that are part of the lineup I was used to, but they can be some months behind. They have no paid advertising, but a lot of service announcements that let the soldiers know what's going on in their area. There are a lot of reminders about what it means to be a soldier. These are produced by the soldiers themselves, and some of them can be a little amateurish. I get a lot of laughs in this way.
The bathroom is a tiled room, with a toilet, a tap with showerhead attachment, and that's it. There's a drain in the middle of the floor, and that's where all the water drains. I've gotten used to washing my hands while standing back from the tap. It will be strange to return home and get used to water that drains "normally."

The street leading up to my building, which was on the right, the last building but one.

There are taps in my bathroom that would usually hook up to a washing machine. The other teacher has to deal with this, but my washer has been installed in the "back room," which is like a storage area. I have no dryer, and I take care of that job by hanging my clothes on a rack, which is standard issue for most teachers' apartments. Some buildings have a tap out front, and I have seen some Koreans using this to wash their dishes and their clothes.
I was really lucky to have a double bed in my place. Most flats have single beds (my first one did). Koreans, of course, sleep on the floor, and one of my friends (tired of the cramped and lumpy single) has switched to this with satisfactory results. I also scored a microwave, which comes in handy when I want to cook up some popcorn. That is one of the snacks that I really missed when I came here.

There were two busy streets that I had to cross on the way to work. North of this one was the neighbourhood where my con-apt was situated, which was mainly three-story one- and two-room buildings. South was full of those huge blocks that marched off into the distance.

Koreans don't usually eat popcorn. They have some... different...flavours for their chips, too. Some of them are really spicy, and can cause your tongue to dial the fire department if you're not careful. Some of their chips are sweet-tasting, as well. I remember a comedy sketch from a while back about a man who gave a snack bar attendant fits by asking for "Raspberry Ripple" flavored chips, and so on. He would have got on well here.
I live approximately fifteen minutes away from the school (by foot). There is a big hill behind the building, where I like to go hiking on the weekends. The trails are well maintained and travelled. Hiking is a favorite activity for many people, and there are camping areas that feature equipment for the serious hiker. You can do chin-ups, sit-ups, play badminton; there's even a set of barbells to do some press-ups.

This is the second busy road I had to cross. Right on the corner, almost at my feet as I took this picture, there was always a pile of tofu for sale. It sat on the corner every day, absorbing the exhaust fumes, burps and farts, narrowly missing being spat on by some mook. I... never really liked tofu after that.

The area I live in is predominantly three- and four-story apartment buildings. There are a couple of private dwellings, but these are scarcer than hen's teeth in a space-premium country like South Korea. I imagine you have to be wealthier than Croesus to afford a private dwelling. Surrounding the neighbourhood where I dwell, is the main living space for Koreans, the high rise, which go on for miles. I tried to get a picture that would show these buildings stretching to the horizon.
I pass through these on my way to work, and they are like little villages. The buildings are about 15-20 stories high, and about 10-15 apartments wide. They each have their own little strip malls, and "police" forces to keep an eye on traffic. There is a lot of foot traffic going through, mostly mothers with their kids in hand. Foreigners have a lot of eyes on them.

The building where my hagwon lurked. The PC room I used was across the street. The hagwon's name was New York, and the lobby featured a mural of the city skyline featuring the twin towers of the World Trade Centre front and centre. I worked here the year after 9/11, and it was always a little jarring to see that photo every day.

I've heard that this type of dwelling is more expensive than the one I live in. They don't seem much different inside, and I'm not sure I would want to live in an area so crowded, with people on either side, and on top as well as below you. You have to deal with a substantial loss of "personal space" when you come to Korea. There is no such thing as waiting patiently in line for anything. It's every man for himself, and don't be afraid to use those elbows.
Still, there are perks. I use a computer at a "PC Room," and the owners have gotten very good at arranging for a monitor away from the smokers. I get a nice comfy chair, and an iced tea. Being served in a restaurant is a pleasant experience, and you get a lot of "service" (free stuff!) if you become a regular.
And the beer! Ah, the beer. Their draft comes in inexpensive pitchers that always taste like another one. A night out with a group of teachers looking for a way to unwind can go on for a long time, with no appreciable dent made in your wallet. Most bars like to try and sell you a side dish to go along with your beer, and it's not unusual to see a table of Koreans enjoying a nice array of ... fruit?... to go with their beer. Or if that's not to your taste, you can always try the seaweed. Dip it into a little soy sauce. Mmmmm.
I've had a couple of hagwons try to get away with just supplying me a beer fridge. They look at me strangely when I tell them I need a regular sized fridge. When you consider they have fridges just for kimchi, I don't think it too much to ask.
I remember in my first year, my roommate's girlfriend kept kimchi in the fridge, and whenever you opened the door, the smell would hit you like a punch in the face.
I was always impressed with the relentless way Koreans exercised. I was never able to get motivated enough to follow their example. I'm flabby and out of shape, and I would be of no use in a crisis. I thought, 'Either get in shape or hope there is never a crisis.' I always hoped there was never a crisis.
I remember going to one teacher's wedding. He invited me up to their con-apt. They were just moving in. The place was chock-a-block with all the newest appliances and electronics still in their boxes. It was too bad when she gave him the boot the day after the wedding, but he deserved it. He romanced a foreign teacher and then dumped her on the advice of a fortune teller.
What a douchebag.
I almost lived in one of those highrises during my third year, but was lucky enough to get a solo con-apt. For me, it's the only way to go.
I still didn't have a 'puter, and I didn't get one until my third year. The PC room I used in my second year was a pretty good one, and the owners were very nice to me. But having your own 'puter is the bomb. I was really happy when I got my first laptop.
This neighbourhood was in West Daegu, and the local bar we went to was called Elvis. More often than not, the waitress would insist we order a side with our pitcher. I got to like the dried squid with peanuts. You could dip the pieces of squid in mayonnaise, or hot sauce, or both. Mmmmmmmmmm.
But getting used to the side dishes that most Koreans took for granted was difficult for me. I missed the usual salty snacks that we get back here in The World. There were a few places that served popcorn, like the Hollywood Bar in Cheongju, but then you'd go to a place like The Berkeley in Daegu, which served squid-flavoured crisps.

1 comment:

  1. I was always polite with the Christers the first time. After that the kid gloves were off. ;)

    I do miss the bathrooms ... they were so easy to clean. Spray everything with tilex and spray it down. You didn't worry about getting the floor wet.