Arriving in Korea wasn’t the culture shock I expected it to be. I had prepared myself for the infamous winter. I’d read up on the insufferably spicy food, the apparent xenophobia I would encounter and I had my 5 years of Tae kwon do and a red belt to my name. Stepping out of the airport into the fresh late end of winter wasn’t as bad as I had psyched myself up for.
The drive with our agent through Seoul in the dark wasn’t very revealing, just a lot of lights and tall towers rising as silhouettes against the black sky. As we drove further out of the city the scenery was dominated by indistinct apartment blocks, rows of 1950s buildings erected hurriedly after the Korean war.
I started to feel a little bit apprehensive of what may be awaiting us. I was assured by the agent before boarding the plane that we would be housed in the bustling centre of Seoul and teaching at a well established school with other foreign teachers. It all sounded like a nice landing platform.
But as we drove further into the night and further into what became a small village I realised we had experienced what I would learn to accept as the common Korean exaggeration. We drove down a gravel road with a Heinz factory to our left and a small hut type building at the entrance to a drive way where our new apartment stood.
Though this wasn’t one of the industrial looking apartment blocks we had seen on our way in, this 5 story building was what is referred to as a villa. In the distance was a hilly landscape which we would discover in the morning to be a burial ground. Our new boss ‘Wan Jang nim’ (Korean for female principle) stepped out of her expensive car with her business partner /husband. I felt immediately conspicuously dishevelled next to this immaculate looking woman.
They led us up to the third floor and we walked into our new home. Within a minute I had already made a cultural faux pa by keeping my shoes on and walking across the lounge floor. I should have followed their lead and lined my shoes up nicely in the allotted space near the front door. The place was totally empty, save for a couple of tea towels they had purchased for our arrival and a bag of a random assortment of groceries. Otherwise, we were standing in an unfurnished room with two bedrooms of different sizes and a little compartment off the kitchen with a washing machine. The bathroom was next to the front door as we walked in. I thought ‘ok great, they’ve shown us where we will be staying and now I’m dead tired and looking forward to the bed at the hotel or wherever they are taking us now’ But this was it. They told us they would be back in the morning to pick us up and take us to the school and then they left.
I felt like crying. It was cold, I was exhausted after a 13 hour flight and I missed my family. Our agent just before leaving told us not to leave the apartment and that it wasn’t safe. As soon as they were out of sight we put on our shoes and walked out into the night in search of food and an internet cafe to connect with our families. We took care to remember our route and certain land marks we passed. The building with the giant octopus tank, the petrol station with the gas hoses hanging from the ceiling, the out of place looking designer bedding store on the corner, the bridge over the river with paper lanterns hanging above it, the several PC bangs we passed. We were so hungry and both craving some comforting fish n chips. In the end we pulled out our Monopoly looking cash and paid for some interesting looking squid flavoured crackers and M & Ms and scurried into the next PC bang we saw.
The PC bang was an experience in itself; a clinically clean looking room with lines of computers and ergonomic chairs, a counter you walk up to and the attendant says to you ‘Smoking?’ as in Smoking or non smoking section. Even in the non smoking section does little to protect you from the second hand smoke which hangs stagnant in the air. We took a card with a code then seated ourselves in front of one of the PC’s, switched it on and were greeted by a fairy or some other game world creature. As these PC bangs are primarily used for 24 hour gaming, we had trouble accessing the lesser used internet sites. Then we needed to figure out how to change the keyboard into English.
The time difference meant none of our family at home was online to read our desperate emails.
We found our way home and resigned to our fate settled down on the floor of one of the bedrooms to sleep under our coats. Not wanting to appear too creepy I had to refrain from snuggling against Cara who I’d only met a couple of weeks prior, for some much needed body warmth. I woke up to a rooster crowing, wondering where I was.