Monday, December 29, 2008

Taking a relationship abroad

... You have to be a little bit crazy (or just crazy in love?)

When Aaron and I started talking about going to Korea together, the plan was to get separate jobs and separate apartments. Most employers offer a free apartment with a contract, so it seemed like the logical choice. Aaron had worked in a smaller town in Korea a few years back, so he knew the culture pretty well, and he was excited to show it to me.

However, we found this great contract (the pay was good, the vacation days amazing- we just had no idea they'd have us live in a cardboard box)- but it was a couple job, meaning we'd have to live AND work together. I remember panicking and saying no right away, it sounded like a bit much. At that moment we had only been together for a year, so it was... crazy. I gave it more thought when Aaron mentioned how big Seoul is (third biggest city in the world), and how difficult it might be for me to be alone, and probably far from him. Besides, it could be fun to work together and play tricks on each other at school and share the whole cultural experience.

After almost a year here, I'm happy to say we've survived it (and I don't know how we did sometimes!). Our experiences in Korea were different, too: being my first time in Korea, I went through the whole culture shock while he had been there already a few years ago. Living with a boyfriend is one thing, but working with him is another one. AND seeing him 24-7. And being far away from home, isolated from everyone else. And playing different roles: being his best friend, his family, his co-worker, his girlfriend. We had to support each other through bouts of homesickness, and be there for each other whenever something bad happened at school or back home, and cheer each other up whenever needed. And hear each other whine and complain about the food (that would be me).

We also did amazing things together, such as scuba diving in Thailand, encountering Geishas in dark alleys in Kyoto, partying at an art gallery in Tokyo, hiking the beautiful mountains of the Korean countryside, having our own little Christmas, and travelling across the country in the slowest train ever- yet while still having fun. We also teamed up together when things got out of hand with our employer... and when a burglar visited. Aaron was always very protective of me, so I never felt threatened. We definitely saw the best and worst of each other. Being together so far makes you see other sides of a person, sides you'd not necessarily see in a familiar environment. It also brought us much, much closer.

I must admit we felt like killing each other at times- being together so much is probably not the healthiest thing for a relationship. And I missed missing him. We also had to put up with difficult living and working conditions, which never made anything easier. We did goof around a lot in the teacher's room, and Aaron would sometimes come sit in one of my classes and participate with the students.

But other times we'd get on each other's nerves, especially at work where I'm rather bubbly and he's more quiet. You can imagine. We definitely had our separate lives and friends outside of work, which helped a lot. Yet, I think we chose to be together most of the time, as it's quite an amazing thing to discover a new culture together and share all that excitement.

It's one of the most difficult things I've done in my life, but also the most exciting.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Christmas in Seoul was surprisingly good. Like I said before, Koreans don't really celebrate Christmas, or at least, not the same way we do. They go clubbing and partying, it's not a quiet family gathering.

Aaron and I just stayed in (at my friend's amazing apartment, with her lovely kitten) and ate as much food as we could handle. The night before I ran all over Seoul to pick up hard-to-find ingredients at international markets: cranberry sauce, gravy, Duncan Hines brownies mix, and I couldn't resist a 4$ bag of Doritos, the smallest bag I've ever seen. It was worth every penny, though. Let's just say you don't miss Doritos until you haven't had them for a year!

Christmas morning was spent drinking mimosa cocktails (champagne and orange juice), talking to Aaron's family on Skype, and watching Christmas movies marathons all day long. I baked for the first time in a year (brownies), and it was fantastic. We also had a brief visit with friends from New Zealand and Sweden. It was fun to chat and just be all together on Christmas Day.

I attempted a Christmas feast -the menu: roast chicken with vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, salad, cranberry sauce and red wine. I'm not the best person to be handling food in a kitchen, but it turned out quite amazing and definitely felt like home.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Baby it's cold outside

Okay I felt major guilt for complaining so much yesterday- today was much better. I guess a bad day in Korea is ten times worse, you have so many cultural things to blame.

Today was the last day of teaching before the Winter break, and I had a little party with my afternoon class- they brought tons of cookies and we watched "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!". The ultimate Christmas movie in my opinion.

Also, the Mac 'n Cheese last night definitely helped. And I'm meeting a friend for coffee later tonight, and I have my plane ticket in hand! We finally made our travel arrangements for February.

The weather is getting colder (which I don't mind, being Canadian and all), and this morning some snow fell. I love how Korean kids get so excited when they see a tiny bit of snow. I think Korea doesn't get much snow, so the kids try to make snowmen and slide. I bet they'd go nuts if they saw the amount of snow we get in Canada. I'm hoping for a white Christmas- to me, Christmas is not the same without snow ;)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Is it February yet?

Warning- major ranting.

On days like today I'm counting the days. 54 days left. Less than 2 months until I can breathe some fresh air, live in a real home, shop at the grocery store without it being a challenge, and understand what is going on around me. No more people pointing at me and whispering, no more old ladies pushing me, and no more drunk men asking me if I'm a prostitute.

That was a bit harsh, right? This whole year I've tried to keep a positive image of Korea, but these days I don't care any more. Right now I wish I could just fly home. Maybe things wouldn't be so much better in Canada, but at least it's home.

I don't know why I'm so hateful about Korea right now- perhaps because it's Christmas time, and it doesn't feel like Christmas here, as it's not as celebrated. Or perhaps because my school is being horrible and not caring about our safety since we had the break-in.

I hate being one of those people who are all depressed about Korea, I did pretty well all year long. But right now all I can think of is how happy I'll be once I'm sitting on that plane at Incheon on February 14.

Anyhow- here are some good things today to be happy about:

-I had a wonderful, relaxing weekend at my friend's apartment
-I get to see a cat when I finish work
-I have great foods awaiting me (wine, cheese, fruits and veggies)
-Only one more day of work before the vacation!
-I'm having a mini Christmas party with my kids tomorrow
-I'm re-reading The Catcher in the Rye
-I'm watching tons of Christmas movies
-I still haven't touched the Reese's and Mac'n Cheese I got from home (I'm saving them for Christmas- although tonight is definitely a Mac 'n Cheese night).

Friday, December 19, 2008

Holiday Home

I'm so happy the week is over, I think it's been the worst since I got here. After our little encounter with the burglar and a few sleepless nights, I woke up on Wednesday with an intense sore throat. After a visit to the doctor, fifty dollars and an injection on my lower back area (was it really necessary?), I found out I have pharyngitis. Oh, and today I noticed I caught the pink eye from one of the kids. Ah, the joys of teaching children. I'm already feeling better though, the mysterious medicines I was given seems to be working.

However, today is Friday, it's the weekend, and I get to take a mini vacation away from my neighbourhood. I'm staying at my friend's apartment to look after her adorable kitten while she's gone home for Christmas. Her apartment is so lovely, warm, and cozy, and is located in the posh part of Seoul. It's seriously a real vacation for me, getting to relax in a plush environment with big windows, French doors, white walls and bedding, a real bathroom, and big kitchen.

I'm at a walking distance from all the best spots in Seoul- to me at least: the biggest underground shopping mall in Asia (Coex), and the Beverly Hills of Seoul (Apkujeong, where the nice shops and cafes are). It's been a real treat to walk home and look at the fabulous sights, and try new cafes and bakeries.

It's a bit of a subway ride to work (45 minutes), but it's nice, I get to have a morning routine again. Our own apartment is right behind the school (like right in the backyard!), so I don't get to have a relaxing morning time, listening to my ipod, getting a coffee and watch people. I also have a few days off around Christmas, so I'll get to stay in with Aaron and cook real meals, and eat tons of sweets (I got a great package full of candy from my sister).

Fun times!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

No sleep.

I woke up Sunday at 4am to some strange sounds. The front door of our apartment was open and I could hear the wind. I got up and peeked in the living room, only to see a Korean man standing right there. Yes.

I screamed, terrorized, and Aaron woke up immediately and bolted out of the room, chasing the man out of our apartment. I stood there, frozen, while I could hear him scream and running down the street. The man got away, no one got hurt, he did not have time to steal anything (the laptop was on the coffee table), but we were left shaking for the rest of the night... and day... and next night.

I nervously dialed the police number (apparently it's not 911, but 112, as I found out), and simply gave what I knew of my address in broken Korean. Fortunately, 5 minutes later the police showed up and one of them spoke some English. Turns out our apartment has the cheapest door ever made and an even cheaper lock (easy to pick), so the burglar easily let himself in. I'm just happy I woke up to the noise and saw him before he could do any damage. The police also said that the burglar probably knew foreigners live there, as we have a reputation for having lots of money and valuables. Very creepy.

After just shaking in our bed for the rest of the longest night ever, we learned from our neighbor that our apartment was robbed twice last year, while another foreign teacher lived there. The man (probably the same we saw), entered the apartment and even watched the guy while he was sleeping.

I just don't feel safe at all anymore. The police said we live in a very safe neighborhood, that there's nothing to worry about. I know it's a safe area, I walk alone at 3am without ever being scared. In fact, I always felt much safer in Korea that back home, I felt like nothing bad could ever happen.

I don't think the intruder will be coming back anytime soon, Aaron caught a glimpse of his face as he made eye contact. Still, I don't know if I'll be able to sleep peacefully again. Every time I close my eyes I see the image of this man invading our space, it's awful. I also hate my school for giving us such an unsafe apartment, and for hiding the fact that it's been robbed a few times before. I hate them for not caring and for only telling us to make sure we double-lock our door. I feel like we're living in a cardboard box.

Moments like this I just want to hop on a plane back home and live in a safe place. I know it could have also happened back home, so I really don't blame it on Korea per se. Korea is not a dangerous country, the crime rate is rather low. I think the school is at fault for being so careless and stingy.

The good thing is, for the next few weeks I'm cat-sitting for a friend who's going back home for the Holidays- she lives in the nicest, coziest apartment in one of the best areas of Seoul, so I'll get to live there for a bit... and it's safe, no cardboard doors or anything like that. Should give me some time to recover from the break-in. I'm just thankful nothing bad happened, and that I wasn't alone.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Showering in Korea

If you go back to my early posts, you'll see a lot of emphasis on the Korean shower. I think the shower was my first- and biggest- culture shock in Korea. No kidding. I still talk about it after ten months, so I owe you some pictures and an explanation:

There are no shower stalls in Korea. The whole bathroom IS a shower stall, and the floor has a drain for the water. The shower head is usually connected to the sink, and located between the toilet and the sink. Therefore no room to roam around, or no room to stand directly below it.

Please note that the pictures above are not of my bathroom! Unfortunately not. I cannot even stand up straight in my bathroom. I promise you pictures next month. I'm still too ashamed to post them now.

So when you shower, the whole bathroom gets wet- which can be a good thing, since it cleans everything up. However the bathroom remains wet for a few hours afterwards, so if you want to go brush your teeth it's a bad idea to wear socks. Here come the plastic shower sandals that we slip on every time we must use the bathroom.

One of the best things about the Korean shower (besides easily keeping it clean) is the "steam room" feature- on cold days, I turn on the hot water and close the door and let it run for a minute or two. When I enter it, it feels like a steam room, it's quite nice. A real luxury considering what my bathroom looks like.

The bad thing is, I always need one hand to hold the shower head since I cannot stand below it, so showering is twice as long as usual. The water pressure is non-existent in my bathroom, and the water doesn't stay hot very long, so it's not always fun.

Yep, that's the Korean shower!

{Pictures from Flickr}

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas Cheer

Holidays are usually the most stressful time of the year- at least for me. So much to do, presents to buy, shopping crowds, parties to attend, appropriate attire to find... should be enjoyable, but it always ends up being a burden. Therefore I never really get into the whole Christmas spirit, I'm too busy being worried.

However, this year, I'm happy to announce that I feel pretty merry about Christmas. Which is odd because it's a bit of a sad situation- Aaron and I are all alone in a foreign country, far from our roots, not celebrating with our families, and without traditional foods to be had. Christmas is not a huge holiday in Korea- children get presents, but it's mostly celebrated among couples. The big holiday here is New Years.

I've been dreading Christmas all year- I knew it would be kind of difficult, being so far away from home. But as the time approaches, I feel pretty serene without all the stress and social obligations. I happily went shopping for a few traditional goodies to send to my family, and spent long hours at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf writing Christmas cards to send friends.

And I think my first (and probably last) Christmas in Seoul will be (and should be!) fun. It's a good reason to get together with my friends, stock up on sweets, go out for a decadent meal, and perhaps for a night walking around downtown and admire the city lights. And I'm not all alone, Aaron is here so I'm sure we'll somehow have a blast.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The End is Near

Although I've sometimes been counting the days to my return home, it just hit me now how close it really is. Only two months left! Yesterday we had a meeting with the school's principal, and he offered us another contract for next year. I was surprised they wanted us to stay, after all the drama we've had this year. Aaron and I happily said no (not because we don't like Korea, but it's time to go back to real life). I think they're probably relieved we're not staying.

So, real life. Kind of scary going back home, not really knowing what I'll be doing. Time to work on my resume, and contact everyone I know, and look for job offers. Ugh. It's exciting though, this year made me realize how much I missed my field and my old job, so hopefully I can find something similar. I had loads of time to think, and loads of time to take it easy this year, so I'm ready and motivated to go back. I don't know if my stint in Korea will hurt or benefit my career- probably a little bit of both. On a personal level, it was probably an amazing thing.

And the school is buying our plane tickets this week- the countdown is officially starting. Must start a list of things to do before leaving Seoul!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Sunday Night in Seoul

Or, our first pizza delivery in Seoul.

You can get anything delivered to your door in Korea: pizza, ice cream, bibimbap, and even McDonald's. Yes, McDonald's! It's called McDelivery.

Anyways, last Sunday night Aaron and I were feeling quite lazy, tired, and hungry for pizza. We usually pick it up at the local pizza joint, which is a 15-min walk from our place. However, it was cold and rainy, and that's when I got the genius idea of ordering it.

Ordering pizza proved to be more challenging than it should be: first, I cannot make a complete sentence in Korean, although I extended my vocabulary to 72 words. Second, we don't have an address. Seriously- we get our mail delivered at the school, they never gave us an address and our building does not have a number, and our street doesn't have a name, like many places in Asia (they use a different system). And third, I didn't know the phone number of the pizza joint. It seemed like an impossible task, but the pizza craving had no limits. Here's what happened.

{Step 1}: Finding the pizza phone number. I googled the name, but no luck. I decided to give tourist information a try, although I felt bad bothering the nice lady with such a stupid question. But she didn't seem to mind, and in less than 2 minutes I had the number for Sharmang Pizza in Hoegi-dong.

{Step 2}: Finding out where we live. Our South African neighbours have been here for several years, and they order food quite a bit, so Aaron went over there to ask. Our neighbour gave us detailed information about what to say, in Korean, to the pizza man.

{Step 3}: Ordering. Luckily, the man working there spoke pretty good English, so ordering wasn't a problem. We made sure they didn't put corn, sweet potatoes, or mayonnaise on it (yes, those are regular toppings in Korea). Aaron dictated the directions, and apparently the guy knew about our apartment building since it's mainly foreigners.

{Step 4}: The pizza came within 20 minutes, without a problem, on a fast motorcyle- Korean style.

Yes, a whole entry about getting pizza delivered. The joys of living abroad!