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Thank God it is finally the fucking weekend.

I have now been in Korea for a full week. An incredibly short period of time in some ways, agonisingly long period of time in others. I’m sure that for people back home it simply flew by; for me, it has been as though my consciousness was trapped in an alternate pocket dimension for 10,000 years like that Stephen King story I can’t remember.

Today I got to go exploring on my own, something I’ve been looking forward to since I arrived. The director was taking all the foreign teachers to Costco in the morning, which I managed to slip out of by saying that I have pretty much everything I need right now (in actual fact it’s because I don’t want to bulk-buy two months’ worth of supplies with them, because in less than two months time my ass will be on a plane back home).

So at around 10.00 am I left the apartment and took my first ride on the Seoul subway system. Very similar to Japan’s, though slightly harder to figure out – Koreans like to do the same thing Australians to do, and use signage displaying the track’s terminal station, rather than the next one down the line. This works fine in Perth, which has four rail lines radiating out in straight lines across the flat suburban plain, but when you have eight different rail lines tangling up with each other in a complex labyrinth of underground tunnels, it’s sort of disorienting. But the signs were in both Korean and English, which is really quite generous of them, so I suppose I can’t complain.

I disembarked at Dongnimmun station, which is just a stone’s throw from Inwangsan, an ancient shamanist temple perched on a mountainside. But I got completely lost and wandered through a complex of apartment buildings, before eventually stumbling across the Seoul Fortress Wall – presumably a relic of the Middle Ages – and followed it around to the temple complex. It was sort of cool, but temples never really do much for me. The mountain itself was beautiful, though, and I hiked up a lot of leafy trails to some granite slabs that afforded a great view of the smoggy, repetitive urban monster that is Seoul. I took a different route back down and ended up on a trail that petered out completely, so I had to force my way through some bushes and jump some fences when I got back down to civilisation. All good.

From Ingwansan I was planning to walk to Gyeonghuigung, a palace that supposedly lets you wander around on your own with no fee, but I got completely lost and gave up, so instead I took the subway down towards the Han River. On the way there I found a nice little park where two young guys were playing catch under the gaze of a huge statue of Confucius, which was pretty cool. After catching my breath on a bench for a while I again ended up wandering Seoul’s largely identical inner-city streets, which are a mix of South-East Asian slums and bland Soviet apartment blocks, trying to figure out where the fuck the river was. (Note: invest in a compass, invaluable for urban exploration in foreign lands.) After sheltering in a phone booth for about half an hour during a heavy downpour, I managed to find the river and ended up walking right over it on a large bridge.

There were plenty of dead fish floating by underneath. That’s fine – any river in a huge city will inevitably be polluted, and I doubt the Thames or the Hudson are particularly sparkling either. What threw me a little was when a speedboat powered by, with a bunch of kids biscuiting behind it. Gross. The Swan River is seedy enough, with its salt and murk and disgusting smell, but to go biscuiting or skiing in the Han? Probably an error in judgement.

Water-related sidenote: I’ve heard that Koreans can be very nationalistic and will be displeased at any negative comments about Korea, and so far this has manifested itself in my Korean supervisor’s attitude towards the drinking water. When I first got here I asked if you could drink tap water (I knew you couldn’t, just wanted to doublecheck) and Valerie said no. Sarah (my Korean supervisor; both teachers and students adopt English nicknames) then spouted something about a Korean government study saying that it was fine. And then last night at dinner the new American teacher Tony asked if it was okay to drink the water, and she simply said “Yes.” There was a pause, and then Valerie said “No… no, you can’t.” Quite amusing.

Anyway, I made it onto an island on the south side of the Han River, and walked through several kilometres of parkland full of kids playing. I get enough of kids during my working week, so I murdered all those I came across. When I reached the next bridge I crossed back over to the north side of the river, which featured a small patch of parkland my LP intriguingly described as “Foreigner’s Cemetery.” Most of the graves were missionaries from the 19th century, with a handful of American soldiers who had married Koreans and stayed in Seoul after the war. It was nice, but nothing to write home about.

And after that I came home, because I’d been walking for about seven hours straight and my feet were killing me. And as I walked back down the street to my school building and apartment, a sense of dread descended onto me. I passed the door to the school on the way up to my apartment, and I hated it. I hated the doorknob, I hated the frame, I hated the stupid Wonderland logo and I hated the disgusting mustard colour. Let’s take a moment to stop and picture this: a fully-grown and mentally sound man, staring in disgust and contempt at a door.

I haven’t hated inanimate objects since my days working in a government office for uni prac, when I came to loathe the shirts, the chairs, the keyboards, and even the very walls. Every molecule of every object in that vile place was, in my eyes, a dark and evil stain upon the Earth. And now, after a single week, I feel that way about Wonderland.

It strikes me as unhealthy. I need to get out of this place before I lose my mind and hurl myself out the window into the filthy streets below. Even when I was hiking around Ingwansan, I wasn’t quite enjoying myself, because I knew that in the back of my mind I eventually had to return to this wretched place.

Judging from my first impressions, Korea isn’t a fantastic country. It’s certainly no Japan. But compared to Perth it’s the most stimulating, fascinating location in the world. I could enjoy myself quite a bit here – if only I had a better job. If only I had a job that didn’t claw away at the integrity of my sanity, reducing me to a haggard wreck suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when I climb the stairs to my apartment every night.

It would be easy to say that I just didn’t pick my hagwon carefully (though I didn’t), that I could have found a job with much less stress and much easier working hours. But I’m starting to realise that I’m probably not good with kids – at least not as a teacher. I don’t have the patience for it. Granted, there are a few classes I actually enjoy teaching, where the kids are moderately well behaved and almost fluent in English. But I doubt there’s a job anywhere on the peninsula that would be like that all the time, and it would be impossible to find anyway. In any case, it’s too late – my working visa is directly tied to Wonderland and I can’t change that.

On Monday, Tony and I are going to the hospital to get medical checks. After that we get our alien registration cards – but to do so we have to submit our passports to the immigration office. The thought of abandoning my passport in a foreign land when I’m already planning my departure doesn’t thrill me. But it’s necessary to obtain an alien registration card, which is in turn necessary to open a bank account, which I need to get my airfare reimbursed and my first paycheck. I think it only takes a few days to be processed, and I plan to stick around for a week or two anyway. If they try to screw me over and not give it back (which I doubt they will – when I asked for my diploma back the director ran to her office to retrieve it) then I will at least have a legit excuse for doing a midnight run… which will be hard without a passport. It’s times like these I wish I’d applied for Irish citizenship earlier, so I could already have two passports.

Guess that’s about all I got to say. After an entire day of walking around Seoul I’m exhausted and have a splitting headache.

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July 2009