Let me start out by highlighting how quickly things change in Korea. On the small-scale, one day your favorite coffee shop is there, the next day it isn’t. For the bigger picture, if you look at the development of Korea as a whole from the end of the war in the 1950’s up until now, it’s absolutely amazing. Their viewpoints and proactive efficiency for growth deserve praise.
It’s not uncommon to have outdated assumptions of what South Korea is like because its pace of growth in the past few decades is pretty unfathomable to outsiders. South Korea and North Korea are not only different countries but have grown in entirely separate directions. A lot of people that aren’t familiar with South Korea have shown concern to me that I’m going to some barbarian country, LOL… you know SK has the fastest internet speed in the world, right? In many ways, it’s more technologically advanced than the US. People have approached my move here like I’m dropping off the face of the Earth for awhile, ROFL >.<
Well, you can contact me at any time in any of the following ways (surprise, I have wifi!): email, FaceTime, GroupMe, WhatsApp, Kakao, Snap, Facebook, Text, iMessage, Instagram … am I missing anything?
Anyways, my new city, Sunchang, is quite a rural farm town known for its pepper paste. First world advancements are relatively new; a sewage system was installed 3 years ago. The town is kind of in this awkward limbo between agriculture and small city; there are elderly people that cane-walk around with 90-degree backs from their younger farming years – holding their smartphones. One second, you’re looking at a chicken coop in some kind of boarded housing area that a well-dressed elderly woman is walking out of, and right next to it is an up-scale bank.
So, Mr. Lee drove through the alleyways, stopped and said, “This is it, 104.” (This was his first time seeing my living situation, as well.)
I’m terrified of Asian horror movies – my mom had to sleep in my bed all throughout my 6th grade because the movie “The Grudge” was scarring for me; this 1st-floor apartment in the alleyway looked like it could be the setting of an Asian horror movie. He opened the door, and the first thing I noticed was the grimy floor. We didn’t take off our shoes, despite the slippers at the door (it’s Korean custom to take off your shoes and put on slippers when entering schools or housing).
There was an old (unusable) TV and a bunch of dusty shelves and tables laying around, alongside half-full trash bags. The bathroom looked like a cleaning closet – hair, grime, caked-on dust, mold, dirty pans… it was disgusting. We went to the kitchen, where it looked like a rice cooker had exploded a few weeks ago. Whoever had used the fridge, microwave, washing machine, stove, cupboards, and sink had left everything in entirely unsanitary conditions. I knew I was going to have to scrub everything, even things that shouldn’t have to be cleaned… like, the washing machine. Then, I noticed the roach traps laying around.
The worst was yet to come. In the middle of the main room, there was a bed and mattress. On the mattress, there was a bottle of water and a book: “Damien,” by Hermann Hesse. The book is about a demonic child, and this particular copy had a bunch of deep pencil stab marks all over it. Then, I noticed the shoe marks on the wall near the ceiling in the entryway. Was the previous person that lived here possessed? Is this apartment haunted? I started shaking with terror and tearing up, thinking to myself that I was going to be living in a horror movie. I quickly ran out of the room and asked a woman on the street where the community trash area was so that I could discard the book.
Coincidentally, this walk back from the trash area was when I noticed the big, beautiful church across the street from my building. I’ve never been so happy to see a church, seriously. This was the turning point to my day.
After that, Mr. Lee took me to his home to meet his family. He grabbed me some apples, water, and warm bedding that I could borrow from him during my stay in Sunchang. He also ended up grabbing a vacuum to clean my floors for me! After he took me back to my apartment, vacuumed, and left again, I realized I was alone and scared, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it except keep on truckin’. I turned on music and started cleaning.
Pretty soon after I started cleaning, some knocks on my door startled me. It was 2 of my friends from orientation, Courtney and Tori! They pointed out that they live in the 2 apartments next to me; above them, there is a 5-year Sunchang English-teaching veteran, Chris, that would show us all the ropes. Another one of our orientation friends, Travis, lives down the street. We are incredibly lucky because a lot of EPIK teachers just get dropped off on their own to figure things out, like bank accounts and bussing to schools.
Courtney and Tori brought me up to the rooftop of our building, which has spectacular views of the city and mountains. Chris told us that there are a few more foreign English teachers from other programs in Sunchang; so, we all went out to dinner together, and they started leading us around the city and giving us tips that night. These guys have been in Sunchang since late-2016, and they were friends with the guy who lived in my apartment before me. Turns out, he is a really nice guy who probably just doesn’t know how to clean. It was beyond comforting to find out he wasn’t Satan.
They also showed me the school schedule. I found out that I would be teaching at 5 schools throughout the week, switching schools mid-day Tuesday and Wednesday, and I had 5 co-teachers to work with. Co-teachers are the native Korean English teachers, and I’m, well, the native English speaker that doesn’t speak any Korean… I think it’s obvious why this system is set-up like it is. Every co-teaching dynamic is different, but I was told to respect the teaching preferences of the co-teachers. I have 2 elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and the high school with Mr. Lee. Lesson planning for the variety of levels would be challenging, especially without textbooks, but the guys gave me some tips on the schools and overall system.
When I got back to my apartment, I left all the lights and music on all night, but I was able to sleep, feeling relieved that the Devil wouldn’t be slithering out of the walls overnight. I slept through the next day with my extremely painful strep throat, finally able to recover a little. Thursday came around, and I had enough energy to scrub and scrape and clean the entire bathroom. My mom would be so proud of me.
It took a few days, but by Sunday, I managed to clean every crevice of the apartment and finish making it feel a little like home. I was able to shower for the first time. I also finished coughing up blood and gained my voice and health back. It’s been years and years since I’ve been so sick that I couldn’t go on a run for a few days.
Thank God I could finally go on a run and explore the town! I’m also incredibly thankful for the bags of Baby Ruth bars (hence the excitement for a run), eggs, tea, ramen, and coffee that the previous teacher in my apartment had left me, despite everything else. He also left me quite a bit of kitchenware to use, and a lot of EPIK teachers walk into basically nothing, so I got lucky in that arena, too. I probably wouldn’t have eaten or nutritionally-cared for myself during the days of my sickness if he hadn’t left me that stuff.
I’m sitting here before bed in my orderly apartment, freshly showered and feeling good after a run, all prepped and ready for my first day of school. Honestly, after the past few weeks… right now, I’ve never felt stronger.