21+ Years of Experience Speaking English; Time to Be Paid for it

I’ve been in Seoul for just over a week now. It feels somehow normal already, but at the same time, I feel like I’m gonna wake up and be back in Mpls tomorrow. It’s a weird transition, one eased by having good friends to acclimate me.

I’m not sure exactly what form my posts will take over the course of my year in Seoul, but I’ll start by going over my first week: my flight, my arrival, my classes, and the few adventures I’ve had so far. With 24 hours straight of travel time from the 612 to Seoul, I had a lot of time to write while on planes, buses and in between. So this post starts out with some live action, en route blogging from the travel days. Then I made some edits from the comfort of my fake leather couch in my A/C’ed apartment. I’ll cover the rest of my first week in a follow-up post, as this one is too long as it is.

Enjoy… [what is “cheers” in Korea? Investigation time.]


I write this from my seat on Korean Air flight 038. As I watch “Clash of the Titans” on the seat back in front of me, I am equal parts anticipation, reluctance, and homesick.

When my flight lands in Seoul, I will begin my year’s tenure teaching English at a private school. I speak no Korean, but I do have the equivalent of $500 in Korean won.

It’s been nearly a year since I have last written anything for this blog; I regret not having written sooner, but the whirlwind of the last year has kept my attention at bay. Here, in an extremely brief burst, I all recapture the milestones of my eventful year:

In July, I started an internship as a food inspector for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. I also crashed my recently assembled fixie, “Lightning,” severely bending the rear triangle and mangling a chain ring. My internship pretty much ate up my summer until marching band started in August. In my final year with the “Pride of Minnesota,” I acted the Block Captain and Team Lead of the Tuba section.

School started back up after labor day; my fall semester had the busiest and most difficult schedule of my college career. Between an overbooked course load, band, and my internship, I had no time leftover to relax. I had even less when a bike accident separated my shoulder and forced me to walk everywhere for several months.

Things were okay until around early November, when I had an awful two weeks of illness, personal issues, midterms and the end my marching career. These two weeks almost made me fail all my classes for the semester. Luckily, following the end of marching band, I found a little more time to catch up on homework. Two all-nighters in a row during finals week, and I managed to scrape my way through with passing grades.

Spring semester was decidedly easier in terms of course work. For my last semester, I only had three days of class with two full days at the internship filling out the week.

At some point late in the summer of 2009, I had brewed a couple of beers: a coffee porter stout, an EPA, and a set of coffee and oak infused old ales (that particular batch was intended to be an experiment to determine the best coffee and oak infusing techniques and combinations). Unfortunately, simply wasn’t a priority during my fall semester, so brewing fell by the wayside.

When I realized how easy my spring semester was, I had hoped to get back into the swing of things. While I had no time during the fall semester for brewing,in the spring, I had no money. I haven’t brewed in almost a year. I regret this greatly, but don’t see many things I could have done differently.

[I have to pause here, as I wipe a warm towel on my hands and face, to interject that this flight to Korea is pretty awesome. It’s direct from Chicago to Seoul, so it’s a 12 hour flight, but the airline is doing an awesome job keeping me sane and satisfied. I’ve already had my first Korean beer, Cass, before even leaving American airspace. The first meal was some sort of beef stroganoff type dish, which was more than edible. The alternate Korean dish looked even better, but the flight attendant was too soft-spoken for me to realize it existed until after I got my food.]

Other than being broke, spring semester was intentionally less eventful than it’s predecessor. Playing in the Men’s Basketball Band took up a good deal of time, with Tubby leading the team to its first appearance in the BigTen Championship game and its second NCAA tourney appearance in a row (also the second year in a row for an NCAA first round exit). My senior project, in which several classmates and I  developed and manufactured a vitamin fortified snack pretzel, also took a great deal of time. It was the type of project where the outcome is as good as the amount of time and effort you are willing put in, but could also be worked on indefinitely.

The semester ended, I finally graduated after five years of being a terrible student, and I was thrust into adulthood. I graduated on a Friday and my father passed away the following Sunday. I was offered a full-time, albeit temporary, position at the MDA, which I accepted. I only had the job for about three weeks, however, before I agreed to move to Seoul for a year to teach English.

That brings me to my present time and location, on this turbulent prone, but otherwise excellent plane ride over the Pacific. While in the airports at Minneapolis and Chicago, I found myself with an overwhelming feeling of loneliness, being faced with my longest trip away from home. It feels a bit like the first day of college, that I have to begin the friend making process all over again.

In reality that’s not true at all. Two friends of mine have been in Seoul dong this very thing for eleven months; they are actually how I got this job. They will be here for four weeks after I arrive, which should be plenty of time for me to find my bearings. During that time, I’ll probably get to know the other English teachers at my school. Struggling to get internet access waiting to board flight 038 to ICN, I was still struck with this fear of being totally lost and alone when I land. Eventually, I succeeded and found information on the ICN layout, so I can find a phone card the bus that will take me into Seoul proper. One of the school’s teacher’s is supposedly meeting me there, but I haven’t communicated with them directly yet. so we’ll see what happens.

Sometimes I wonder why I am actually doing this, such a departure from my normal life. The most obvious reason is to have an adventure. I’ve just graduated, and the only thing holding me to Minneapolis are friends and family. A guaranteed year of decent pay is hard to pass up. If I can explore the world at the same time, it’s almost a no brainer. Still, though, I imagine the language barrier, culture shock, and distance from home would dissuade many from this path. So, I guess what I’m saying, is that this wasn’t really a clear-cut decision, but I’ve made it.

In the span of a lifetime, a year isn’t a long amount of time, so I want to make the most of this little slice of life coming up. I am compelled to define some goals for my trip. Some, I imagine, will be very tangible and easily accomplished (Attend at least one LG Twins baseball game, for example). Others, however, will be more subjective or abstract. I want to understand things like how other culture’s appreciate and celebrate life, what conceptions other people have of the US for example. These aren’t things I can accomplish with the same ease as crossing milk of  a grocery list. They may not even be achievable in the course of a year.

My immediate concerns, other than the recent announcement about a passenger’s medical emergency and the following announcement of an expected half hour of “severe turbulence,” are regarding what I do when I actually set foot on Korean soil. So in lieu of goals for this trip, I’m going to come up with some goals for this afternoon (After staying up all night before leaving MSP, my body has absolutely no fucking clue what time it is supposed to be right now).

My first goal will probably be to use a bathroom, because the turbulence is keeping me out of the lavatories on the plane. Then I need to find a map, and determine whether phone cards, baggage, and bus tickets are in the secured area, outside, or both. Then I need to get through customs–am I supposed to claim my computer? I guess I’ll find out shortly. Then I need to actually get my phone card and bus tickets, call the teacher that is hopefully meeting me, and bus out. Doesn’t sound too intimidating until I realize I also need to find these things in English.

Props to Korean Air for having Jay-Z, Nas, and Biggie on its music list. Also, is it reasonable that I fell awkward watching  “Greenzone,”  a fictional movie about Matt Damon’s hunt for WMDs in Iraq, while being an American on an International flight? I suppose it’s better than watching “Snakes on a Plane” or “United 93.”

All told, I believe my flight experienced 138 turbulences. I didn’t mind that nearly as much as being informed in Korean and then in English that my body was shaking and that I should keep my seat belt fastened and refrain from pooping EVERY SINGLE TIME.

I’ve made it out of the airport without much trouble. I quickly found a bathroom, completing my first and probably most important goal of my trip. I made my way through customs, where I learned not to declare my computer because it just confuses the security staff. I was able to find a phone card and reach my contact, after some struggle to figure out how to use the card. Apparently the trick is to follow the directions on the card several times in a row, then it magically works (more likely, you just have to wait a few minutes after you buy the card before it is activated). Getting a bus ticket was confusing, mostly because I apparently butcher the phrase “Mang-woo” beyond recognition but also in part to the seemingly kind taxi drivers who really want me to ride with them.

After boarding the “limousine bus,” which I’m told will take 90 minutes to reach my destination, I finally start to appreciate that I’m in a foreign country, don’t speak the language (don’t you hate those people?), and that I’m going to be okay. Trying to figure out buses is hard enough in America, so this will hopefully be the most difficult experience I encounter during my stay.

Leaving Incheon airport, I am struck by the disparity of the scene outside my bus. On the right is almost exclusively dirt, sand, and gravel configured either in mounds or fields. Off in the distance are giant buildings, which I can only assume are apartment complexes. What is odd about them is that each building is easily 20 stories tall, that 7 or 8 identical buildings are grouped into a tight cluster, and that these clusters are surrounded by fields of dirt until another cluster pops out from the horizon further on. Meanwhile, out the left window I see alternating lush jungle and small city like clusters of two or three-story houses, with the occasional massive industrial facility thrown in for good measure.

JUST SPOTTED MY FIRST BIKE PATH! Milestone. Too bad I have no Idea where I am…

Before I came, I sat down with my Grandmother to look at some pictures my late uncle took while stationed in Korea in 1971.  Definitely, one of my goals for the trip is to seek out new life and civilizations, to boldly go… oops, sorry. I want to find as many of those same places and take pictures of what Seoul looks like 40 years later. Just on this bus ride, I am noticing how much more modern everything is than in the pictures. That’s not to say that everything is remarkably advanced here, just that Korea had to come a long way to get this far. 2010 Korea appears on par with 2010 America. 1971 Korea did not appear on par with 1971 America, by any means.

More homogenous apartment farms now. the only difference is that the clusters are closer to each other, running from one right into the other. The appearance of five identical buildings in a row is very odd. When the same thing is done with suburban houses in America is annoying ugly and dumb. When it’s done with skyscrapers however, it’s more creepy than anything else. Imagine the limbo/subconscious world from “Incpetion.”

Lesson #1 on Korean traffic: Cars are driven from the left seat, and on the right side of the road. It is apparently kosher to park on the shoulder of a busy highway as if it were a side street. Those popular makes of cars appear to be Hyundai, Kia and Daewoo.

I think I’m in Seoul proper now, on a freeway along the Han river. I see a very wide dedicated bike path, with plenty of riders. Riding this trail is another item on my list goals. Buildings appear to be less homogenous now, however clusters still appear out of the cacophony of tightly cramped unique buildings. The buildings, in general, appear to be of much better quality than those in my grandmother’s photos. I am overwhelmed, however, at the sheer density of the living quarters. There seem to be very few, if any individual family residences. Every building appears to have multiple units. As I notice the proximity of the mountainsides, I realize the two are probably connected. With all the mountain forests sprinkled throughout the city, there just isn’t enough space left over for anything but multi-unit homes. I wonder what the population density of the city actually is, considering the amount of green space I’ve seen already.

I eventually made it to Mangu station and met my first coworker. He flagged us a cab and brought me to our mutual apartment building. I settled in and began my life in Korea by sleeping immediately. By now, I’ve finished my first week and had a few adventures to describe. Stay tuned to hear more. I’ll try to recap the last 7 days soon.

Parting gifts: Here’s my apartment in Seoul, and here is my school, a short walk away.


About foambrew

I'm a food science graduate from the University of Minnesota. I spend my time being in Seoul for a year, brewing beer, consuming food, biking, playing the tuba, and enjoying the Twins and Gophers. I can usually be found doing some combination or derivative of these things.
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