Saturday, February 27, 2010

First 24 Hours

Well, the East is not the same as the West. And anyone who tells you that it is has probably lived their whole life in some little podunk place where nothing EVER changes...Like Nebraska.

I don't think that it was until the last half hour of my 16-hour flight that it hit me how far away I was and how different life was going to be and how long a year could potentially last. As we started flying over the country toward the Incheon Airport, I gazed out of my window on the brown and green land below and thought how similar it looked to home from the sky. Up there, with the details blurred into masses of color and line, I could not believe that I had come nearly 7,000 miles. Birds must think all the world is the same. But as we started passing small islands dotting the sea like little anthills and I looked down at could see a clear green crystal ocean shoreline, I realized that this was not at all the same as home.

Incheon is the third largest city in South Korea, and the Incheon airport is located, not on the mainland coast with most of the city, but on an island just off shore. When I realized this, I was fascinated at how the city had spread until it bled out into the ocean and then just kept going.

By the time we landed, it was nearly 3am my time, about 7pm local time. The sun was setting over the ocean islands and the airport was bustling with a lot of not-Americans. I spent the next hour in the airport trying to figure out how to use a luggage cart, convincing a taxi-driving con man to let me use his cell phone, and boarding myself on a train, hoping it was headed the right direction to take me to the stop I needed to be at to meet the director from my school who was going to drive me to my apartment. I'm sure I looked quite ridiculous as I tried to maneuver two large suitcases and two more shoulder bags around. I will admit that there was even one point that I tripped over my own luggage and fell flat on my face...but we won't talk about that.

As it was, I did get off at the right stop. And as I stepped out onto the street, the city greeted me. For anyone who has not seen a big city in Korea, it was about like the Las Vegas strip times a billion. Skyscrapers towered into the sky, and everything was lit in bright, flashing colors. The signs were all written in hangul, the Korean alphabet--flashing messages across billboards and theatres, clubs and banks. It was not Western, but it was a city as I have never seen "city" before.

As I stepped off the train, there was a man who got off at Geomam also, with his wife, who saw me struggling with my luggage. He walked up, took my biggest suitcase, and without a word, started walking toward the elevator. I followed somewhat hesitantly, trying to talk to him, but he chattered back at me in Korean, and it took me about two seconds to realize that we were not going to understand each other. But he most certainly was going to take my suitcase. I was protective of that suitcase. I followed it. I half-wondered if he was the one who was supposed to pick me up, but if he was the director of an English school, shouldn't he speak English? Well, he wasn't the director of the school. As we got to the sidewalk outside, he stopped and tried to talk to me again. After a bit of gesture, I concluded that he wanted to know if I had a ride. He stopped a girl on the street, talked to her, and she pulled out her cell phone and gave it to me to call Patrick Kim, my contact. Then, they were on their way, with smiles and waves and even a bow (very unsual to do to someone younger than you). As they went their own ways, I thought about how, even though everything is different here--the culture, the language, the fashion, the landscape--people are all essentially the same.

There are those who will try to cheat you (the taxi driver I met in the airport), those who will ignore you (the lady at the first currency exchange desk I went to), those who will ridicule you (again, we won't talk about that incident), and those who, though strangers, will go out of their way to help--who look out for you when there is no one else but God.

Well, Patrick Kim and his wife, Sunny, finally did come to get me, and dropped me off at my apartment. They are the kindest, sweetest people I will probably meet in this country. Or ever maybe. Mix traditional Korean honor and hospitality with youthful enthusiasm, kindness, and exuberance, and you have the Kims. They were even so thoughtful as to leave breakfast on my counter for the next morning, and provide my apartment with slippers (since it is a cardinal and eternal sin to wear shoes indoors). They did not, however, know how to work my washing machine. Tomorrow I shall have to start just pushing buttons.

My apartment, though cozy inside, looks from the outside like I should fear for my life. I don't know if I will EVER go out after dark. Since my door has two deadbolts and a video camera so I can see who is knocking outside, I'm going to assume that I should probably also not trust my neighbors.

Well, today was spent meeting kids and touring my school and sitting through hours of orientation/training. It was rainy and half the city disappeared into a fog that hung over the city and lasted all day. I wanted to be outdoors more, but it was fun being in the school as well. I am something of a celebrity to the six-year-olds who insist that I am the sister of the other American teacher who "looks just like" me. Anyhow, this is a long post, and it is time to be off. I shall leave you with a list of observations from my first few hours here:

1. Koreans have the most eclectic taste in footwear that I have EVER seen. If the color exists, they wear it on their feet in a variety of colors and ridiculous shapes.

2. While not allowed back home, taxi drivers here may solicit for customers in the airport as much as they please. I may be naive, but not naive enough to not realize that it would be stupid to pay W50,000 for a cab fare when I could go downstairs and pay W2,800 for a train ride.

3. You are not cool if you don't own a black coat. Luckily, I do.

4. Americans in foreign countries are obnoxious. I knew this, but it was reconfirmed to me.

5. I will miss my raisin bran. They do not eat cold cereal here, one of the great loves of my life.

6. Koreans love Spam. This is an ideal gift for a hostess when you are invited to someone's home.

7. 12 kilograms is too much for carry-on luggage when you are going to be lugging it around airports for hours. I don't even know how much 12 kilograms is. But my shoulder does.

8. The Korean alphabet is not like a "secret code."

9. Koreans like red. Even my microwave is red.

10. Hamburgers here are not actually hamburgers. And they have broccoli and mushroom paste instead of ketchup and mayonaise.