After spending nearly 5 months (!!!) in Korea, I have started to acclimate to the culture. I realized this the other day when I was walking down the street and stepped over a dead octopus without thinking twice about it. And again, when I caught myself eating scrambled eggs with chopsticks while sitting on the floor. People still stare at me all the time and I never know what anyone around me is saying, but those things have faded to background and I have more or less accepted them as normalcy. I thought to commemorate 5 months of life in Korea I would share my best “pinch me” moments so far.
- Living in a Love Motel
Love Motels are rampant throughout out Korea and exist for exactly what you would think. Couples rent Love Motels out by the hour so they can have somewhere quiet to sit and talk and really get to know each other. It is standard for Koreans to live with their parents until they get married so having a space where couples can go for private time is somewhat of a necessity.
This was not my experience in a Love Motel.
When I landed in Korea, the teacher I would be replacing overlapped with me for a week so she could train me and show me around Daegu. This was invaluable and I really appreciated all she did for me. But what it meant was that she would stay in the apartment for the first week I was here and I would be hosted in a local Love Motel.
The Motel was called “Motel QT” and the door to my temporary home had a sign on the front declaring it a special love space. Every night when I came back to the motel the front desk lady would hand me (from behind a screen to ensure privacy) my keys along with a care package. The care package included condoms, lube, massage oil, a razor, some juice and some cookies. Every night I ate the cookies and watched Korean dramas or American B movies with Korean subtitles and contemplated the reality of my new life.
I am pretty sure I was the Motel QT’s longest resident.
- The Time A Student had a Hamster in His Backpack
He reached in his back pack and clunked the hamster on the desk, looked at me proudly and declared “it’s cute!” The hamster was in a TO-GO CUP for ice coffee with some wood chips on the bottom. I asked him where he got it, and he said the street. The disturbing image of a man on the street selling hamsters in to go cups to children with enough change to afford one was a hard one to shake from my mind.
A few weeks later I asked the student how the hamster was doing and he said dead.
Sad but not surprising.
- The Time I got Picked Up On the Side of the Road
Walking to swimming one morning a car pulled over, rolled down their windows pointed at my swim bag and then gestured for me to get in the car. I got in the car. The lady spoke no English and I spoke no Korean. The most I could tell was that she was concerned about the warmth of my jacket. It turns out she recognized me from the pool and she swims during the same hour as me. She was being generous and offered me a ride because it was a little cold outside.
The walk to the pool takes me about 10 minutes. The drive to the pool took about 12, and through some crazy traffic. We had a nice exchange of words and she taught me the Korean word for cold. When we got to the pool she valeted her car and waited in line for the elevator to take her to the pool. I waited with her and thanked her for her generosity. Now she is my new friend. It was a pretty benign experience but the first few minutes in the car when I wasn’t sure why she picked me up or where we were going were a bit of a trip.
- The Time My class was a Photo shoot
I was told I would be teaching an extra class one day but I was not told why or what for. You are often thrown surprises here and I just figured it was an extra class that had been added to my schedule. I showed up not really knowing what to expect since the students where made up of students from all different classes and levels and my only instructions were that I would be reading them a Korean fairy tale. I began reading to the group of students and I was surprised when the camera was pulled out. I realized the class was just a set up and became acutely aware of the fact that I hadn’t washed my hair that day. I turned bright red and did my best to pose as a quintessential blonde, friendly, helpful teacher giving a good name to my kind. I think I nailed it.
A few weeks later the Reading Star calendar came out and I was miss January. I was also given extra calendars so I could share with my friends back home my new-found success as a Korean Education Model.
- The Time A Rabbi Built A Pop-up Sukkah
I had e-mailed a Rabbi in Seoul when I got here to see if he could connect me with a Jewish community for Rosh Hashana. Connecting with Jews is one of my favorite things to do while travelling. I love that people from entirely different backgrounds can come together in this faraway place and without knowing each other share culture, traditions and food. These experiences have always been so welcoming and no questions are ever asked besides “would you like more Matzo Ball Soup?” Seeing as Rosh Hashana was coming right up shortly after I moved here I thought this would be an interesting experience. The Rabbi connected me to the “Dae-Jews” and I had a wonderful evening of exactly that.
A few weeks later, the Rabbi e-mailed me to see if I wanted to meet up with him. I Said of course and recommended a Starbucks which was easy to find and in between my home and work. I genuinely believed we would get a cup of coffee and he would ask me about where I came from and why I was in Korea.
But I was wrong.
The Rabbi (and his friend) showed up at the Starbucks and immediately began to assemble a pop up sukkah on the (busy) sidewalk in front of the coffee shop. I thought I got stared at a lot in Korea before this. I was handed a Lulav and Etrog, ushered into the pop-up tent and lead in prayer. That Americano I had been banking on was very far from my reality.
Afterwards, the Rabbi handed me a calendar and some Shabbat candles, disassembled the pop-up tent whisked himself into his car and drove off to bless all the other Jews of South Korea. Seriously, he had a list.
So there you have it, the top five pinch me moments of life in Korea so far. Every day you have to make room for the unexpected and when you inevitably meet it, you must approach it with humor, flexibility and as much grace as you can muster. I’ve learned to prevent expectations from defining my experience and pride myself on rolling with whatever is thrown at me. I thrive on the unpredictable elements of my life in Korea and I can’t wait to see what else is to come.
Cheers to 7 more months of pinch me moments and wild life!