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A few weeks ago I was pleased to notice that Lonely Planet quoted me when discussing what a terrible place Seoul is. I was even more pleased to notice today (although it’s from back in January) that the Korea Times quoted me in turn while getting its knickers in a twist over Seoul’s harsh branding in Lonely Planet’s Least Favourite Cities list:
A harsh review of Seoul from Lonely Planet, the world’s largest travel guide book and digital media publisher, has drawn mixed reactions here.
Recently, the travel book’s Web site posted a list of the world’s nine “least favorite destinations,” and Seoul was rated third on the list, after Detroit in the U.S. and Ghana’s Accra.
The Web site describes Seoul as “an appallingly repetitive sprawl of freeways and Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings, horribly polluted, with no heart or spirit to it.”
Officials are casting doubt on the basis and criterion of the selection.
According to a recent BBC report, the list was based on comments from netizens and travelers.
A Seoul City spokesman said Wednesday that the list was compiled from a total of 42 comments to the question “What are your least favorite cities?” posted on the Lonely Planet Web site.
Seoul’s position is that the survey is biased and groundless, as only two of the 42 comments were related to Seoul. The criterion, number of respondents and the exact margin of error of the survey have not been disclosed.
“We believe that the list was initiated as a tool to generate a buzz and controversy,” said Cho Won-joon, an official in charge of tourism promotion with the Seoul city administration. “Foreign tourists are increasingly satisfied with their stay in Seoul,” Cho said.
Don’t worry, Korea. You’ll make it to California someday!
Chris and I were doing some trip-planning last night when I noticed a link to an article on Lonely Planet titled “Learning to love Seoul.” I thought “lol that’s a HARD LESSON!” and clicked on it, and was quite surprised to see myself quoted in it:
And yet on this website recently one reader hazed Seoul for being an ‘appallingly repetitive sprawl of freeways and Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings, horribly polluted, with no heart or spirit to it.’ What gives?
They cut off the most important part, though: “So oppressively bland that the populace is driven to alcoholism.”
Now, we all know that my loathsome job harshly influenced my perception of Korea, but I do think Lonely Planet has the tendency to make pretty much any location on Earth sound fantastic. It sells guidebooks, after all.
Today marks one month since my daring escape from South Korea, and my return to a humdrum suburban life in Western Australia. I’m not unhappy at all – I’m hanging out with my best friend again, I’m in a relationship for the first time in more than a year, and I’m generally enjoying a return to normalcy, peppered with news from my past about other native teachers at my school quitting in frustration. The only thing that bothers me is that I still don’t have a job.
After several weeks of failed applications I went crawling back to my old supermarket job, but they can only offer me enough shifts to stay afloat, not to actually save enough money for travelling in 2010. (Besides which, I’m sick of working at Coles.) So the jobhunt continues. I’ve lost count, but I think I’ve applied for around 30 positions so far. In the last ten days alone, I’ve applied for bookstores, wine stores, a video rental store, a pharmacy, a travel agent, two telemarketing jobs, three copywriting jobs, JB Hifi, an editorial internship, a bar on Rottnest Island, and a slew of generic marketing/sales/PR/promotional positions.
Of my entire jobhunt so far, I’ve had two interviews. One of these I got through a friend. The vast majority of applications are either ignored entirely or rejected by email. I’m becoming more and more depressed and convinced that I’m unemployable.
Of course, this is the first time I’ve ever actually had to hunt for a job. My first two I got through friends, and my third I got in a strange and illogical country where anybody with a police clearance and a university degree can earn $24,000 a year.
And of course the most important thing is that I’m not a prisoner of Wonderland anymore – that I escaped intact – that I can thank God that I am…
Only one week after fleeing Korea and returning home, I have received – with virtually no effort expended on my part – a free suit, a job interview and a prospective girlfriend.
I did something bad and the universe rewarded me.
It’s a complicated situation. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to explain even to myself the tangled briar of ennui, naivete and determination to prove something that made me go there in the first place, or the subsequent knot of stress, misery, exhaustion and antipathy that drove me home again. But I can take a crack at it.
Firstly, the hagwon industry is one of the most unappealing I have ever encountered. The entire thing left a bad taste in my mouth. Koreans believe, for some reason, that the best way for kids to learn English is to have a foreign “teacher” (actually anyone bright enough to get through three years of university and not answer the phone drunk). Okay. That’s not so unreasonable – exposure is a great way to learn a language.
But the Korean mindset twists this into something that is borderline racist. Having a foreign teacher at a school is a massive selling point. Schools with more English-speaking teachers are more appealing to the pushy parents who want their precious flowers to receive what they are told is the best education their money can buy. Here’s something else about Korea: looks are everything. Makeup goes on like concrete, plastic surgery is rampant – and I was apparently hired because I am attractive. While that’s flattering, it doesn’t speak highly of my employers’ business ethics. Korea is also an extremely homogenous society. The idea of other races walking amongst them is still a novelty and as such they haven’t really grasped the idea that stereotypes aren’t true. It’s apparently harder for black and Asian Westerners to find work in Korea, even if they were born and raised in the US and went to Harvard. This is because they don’t fit the notion of what an English teacher should look like. Again: it’s all about looks.
Combine this with the actual poor level of education I was giving the kids (considering I was given no training, feedback or supervision whatsoever), the way we had to bow to every pedantic whim of the parents, the presence of CCTV cameras in every room so the parents could watch classes, the fact that I was told to adjust tests to a level where the kids could easily pass (so they would feel good), and the time I was told, when sending the kids’ completed textbooks home, to tear out any incomplete pages (so the parents wouldn’t realise they’d missed anything) and you’ll see how my hagwon was not concerned with how well the kids were learning English, but rather with the impressions their parents received. For the third time: in Korea, looks are everything.
I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a completely corrupt institution so hungry for cash that it steals the kids’ lunch money. My coworkers and employers obviously cared deeply for the kids and many of them were learning English very well, particularly those who started from a young age. But the primary concern was always, always, always keeping the kids and parents happy in order to retain clients. Everything else was secondary. It’s a highly competitive market, supported by a disturbing amount of zeal in wider Korean society. Before I came, I found it convenient that these strange foreigners would give me a job based on nothing more than my white skin and pretty face. Now that I’ve actually been there and done it, it makes my skin crawl.
Basically, I felt like I was working for the bad guys.
I never felt particularly welcomed by the school. Aside from the fact that they threw me into the classroom on my first goddamn day, they also housed me in one of the shitty apartments on top of the school, which was the plumbing hub of the entire building, so there were pipes running across the ceiling and the place alternately smelt like sulphur, salt or human faeces. Or all three at once! And while living upstairs saved me a commute, it also meant I was stuck in that awful place 24/7, blurring the boundary between home and work.
Nor were they particularly helpful. They made us pay for our own medicals. It took them three weeks to reimburse my airfare and they dragged their feet all the way. When Valerie arrived, she gave them her passport, and a week later she received her alien card. They paid for it and did all the work for her. When I got there, I was told to go and get it done during the holiday break, and was left to my own devices to figure out where the immigration office was, find out which documents I needed, and go there to get it and pay for it myself. In a country where I don’t speak the language. It didn’t cost much, and it wasn’t that hard to figure out, but it wasn’t very accommodating of them when I’d just arrived in the country. Throw in the fact that was generally treated by Korean administration as a pretty white face/walking dictionary/swine flu vector, and you can see why I don’t feel particularly guilty about leaving my bosses in the lurch.
The job itself was awful. I worked 40 hours a week, for roughly $2000 AUD a month. That works out to about ten bucks an hour. And before you scoff at the lazy 20-year old who thinks working a 40-hour week is a terrible injustice, bear in mind that I was teaching (not for the entire 40 hours, but still for a good chunk of it). And teaching, for me at least, was mentally and physically exhausting. You have to be switched on 100% of the time. You have to be checking every kid every spare second you have, because they’re talking or drawing or wandering off to pick through the crayons. I already thought the people who write letters to the West Australian whining about how teachers have it so easy are wankers; now, I’d actually take a swing at them.
I could handle exhausting and stressful work if I enjoyed it, or had a passion for it, or was building towards a career. But I hated it. I like to think I’m okay with kids – not great with them, but not bad either. That’s when I have one or two of them, and I’m just playing and messing around with them. Not when I have a class of ten and my job is to actively prevent them from having fun. I took a few videos of myself teaching, and my clear lack of passion is painfully obvious (it had my relatives in stitches).
The country itself? Not great. Seoul is a much cooler place to live than Perth, but then, Leicester is a much cooler place to live than Perth. In many ways Seoul is what I imagine Perth to be in a hundred years time: a huge city, but with with no heart or spirit to it, just endless repetitive apartment blocks and freeways and franchise stores that were all cut from the same mould, sprawling out across every horizon, with every district looking pretty much the same as every other district, the sheer blandness driving the populace to alcoholism. I’m not alone in commenting on the Korean landscape’s uniformity; apparently is has something to do with Confucianism, which is also responsible for the shitty ant-colony hierarchy system. Confucius sucks. (Cultural apologists can fuck off. Civis Occidentalis sum.)
Okay, so I’m being a little harsh. My job negatively coloured my experience of the country as a whole. I don’t mean to say that Korea is a bad or uninteresting country. There’s lots of cool things to see and do here if you know where to look, and while the culture can border on infuriating at times, so can every culture. It’s just not amazing enough to outweigh all the negative aspects of my personal situation. Few countries would be.
To sum it up, I simply wasn’t happy there. Towards the end, in fact, I was starting to have a mental breakdown. I could do it. I probably could have done it till the end of my contract, although my brain would have been stretched and warped beyond recognition by then. I just didn’t want to. Life is too short to spend a year doing something you detest.
So why did I just run, rather than give notice? Well, in addition to paying my airfare back, I would have had to stick around for another month while they sought my replacement. Given their behaviour towards me, and how displeased they would be at my decision to leave, I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided not to pay me for that final month. There would have been very little I could do it about this; in Korea, the legal system is quite heavily stacked against foreigners. I preferred to take matters into my own hands and rob them of the chance to exploit me any further.
I feel bad for my fellow teachers, who will have to cover my shifts for a while. I also feel bad for the kids, who don’t deserve that kind of upheaval in their lives (although, in the long run, they’ll be much better off with a teacher who actually cares about his or her work). I don’t feel bad about admin at all. Maybe they should treat teachers better if they want to retain them. The Korean faculty actually fared a lot worse than the foreign staff; all the Korean teachers quit shortly before I arrived, and one of the new ones was talking about quitting right before I left. Several times the director or the supervisor would ream them out in Korean in the office in front of everyone. I don’t feel any remorse whatsoever for abandoning rude, arrogant people who treat their employees like dirt.
Tony, who isn’t any happier there than I was (but who is a lot more committed and determined) contacted me on Facebook after the run. He seemed to find it funny and congratulated me on having balls. He mentioned that a few of the other teachers said what I did was unprofessional, which is true, but guess what? I’m not a professional! I’m a 20-year old kid they plucked out of a supermarket because I had a university degree and a pretty white face. You reap what you sow.
I don’t regret going to Korea. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience, and I could count the number of times I was genuinely happy there on one hand – walking down Cheonggyecheon, exploring the city on my first weekend, hanging out in Hongdae with Alex and his friends, the few times I went out for drinks with some of my fellow teachers and drunkenly bitched about management. But even considering that 99% of my time there was awful, I learned a lot, grew a little and got a lot of great stories out of the experience. I’ve proved to myself that I can do things on my own, that I can live overseas, that I’ll be able to take another crack at a working holiday as long as I land a job that doesn’t wear my sanity down like a belt-sander.
In the meantime, it’s fucking amazing to be back home. I went for a drive along West Coast Highway on my first day back (which was probably a bad idea given that I was on 60 hours of no sleep, but whatever). I had my window down, Triple J playing, the salty wind coming in off a beautiful blue and indigo ocean. Rottnest on the horizon. You could see the sky and the air smelt good.
Perth has a lot of problems, and I don’t want to live here for the rest of my life. But this city will always be my home.
Chronicling the events of September 13-14, 2009
4.25 AM – Sitting in my dark and empty apartment. Turn off laptop. Shove it and the charger into my carry-on. My pockets contain my passport, iPod, wallet and 3,000,000 won in cash.
4.26 AM – Load my huge backpack onto my back, and sit on the bed listening quietly. The building is silent. Adrenaline starting to flow.
4.29 AM – Take a deep breath.
4.30 AM – Open door, lock behind me, leave key on ground.
4.31 AM – Walk right past boss/neighbour’s front door. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. If she steps outside right now it will be the most painfully awkward freeze in human history.
4.32 AM – Emerge from stairwell at bottom of building, and quickly head down sidestreet. I have now left the Red Zone: my apartment, the corridors, the stairwells and the immediate exterior of the building, all places where I could conceivably bump into the six or seven people who could blow the lid right off this thing.
4.33 AM – Heading down the sidestreet to the canal, it occurs to me that I severely understimated the Red Zone. I am walking down a street full of bars and restaurants, all of them still full of people and open to the street. What if my boss is in one of them? Or her family, or friends? Jesus fucking Christ I can’t believe I’m doing this.
4.35 AM – Reach canal.
4.40 AM – Still walking down canal, but much further from my building now. Okay. Passed the first hurdle.
4.55 AM – Arrive at Jeungsan subway station, which is still closed up for the night. Plop bags on floor and sit down for a while. Hope I don’t get mugged.
5.10 AM – The roller doors are pulled up, and I am granted entry into the subway station along with several early morning aj-folk.
5.11 AM – An insistent ajumma tries to help me recharge my T-money card. I guess with the bacpack I look like a tourist. Despite reassuring her that I’m fine, she calls for the subway attendents. I KNOW HOW TO DO IT OLD WOMAN STOP DRAWING ATTENTION TO ME.
5.13 AM – Take a seat at the far end of the subway platform. Sit there quelling panic.
5.21 AM – An ajossi wearing a shiny silver suit and holding a briefcase is slowly shuffling up and down the platform. Where is he going? Work? At 5.00 AM on a Sunday? This is the country I am escaping.
5.45 AM – First train of the day arrives, and I scamper onboard.
5.50 AM – Subway stations I will never see again slide past: Susaek, World Cup Stadium, Mapo-gu Office.
6.15 AM – Several transfers having come and gone, I am now sitting down on the purple line and nodding off. Nearly everyone in the car is. Slap myself to stay alert.
6.25 AM – Gimpo Airport station. Drink shitty vending machine coffee before boarding the AREX Express.
6.34 AM – The Arex emerges from her tunnel into daylight. When I entered the metro system it was still completely dark – now the sun is rising over the green hilltops to the east. Concrete apartment blocks and rice paddies shrouded in mist slide past as the train powers on towards the islands of the West Sea.
7.01 AM – The AREX Express arrives at Incheon International Airport, a vast complex that is fresh and clean and new… everything Korea is not. Koreans believe in the power of first impressions. Or just impressions, actually.
7.05 AM – Push my bulky, backpacked form through a convenience store to refund the 5000 won left on my T-money card. This may seem petty when done by a man with the equivalent of $3000 AUD stuffed in his pockets. Duly noted.
7.09 AM – Take the travelator across to the main terminal.
7.10 AM – Begin lugging my tired, nervous ass up and down the three kilometre width of the terminal looking for the Cathay Pacific desk, carrying 22 kilos on my back.
7.22 AM – Success! A Chinese desk clerk informs me that check-in is not until 12.15, a five hour wait. Hoo boy.
7.45 AM – I have now been without sleep for nearly 24 hours. Caffeine is a neccesity.
7.51 AM – Cafe Pascucci located.
7.55 AM – Jesus Christ, why is all the coffee in this country so fucking awful?
7.58 AM – Incheon’s wifi is also awful.
8.10 AM – For some time now I’ve been having severe stomach cramps; it has become clear that this is not merely stress, but an urgent message from my nether regions. Shouldn’t have had Lotteria for dinner.
8.11 AM – Urgently begin looking for somewhere to keep my backpack, which will be quite cosy in a toilet cubicle.
8.21 AM – Locate a locker room and shell out 7000 for storage.
8.25 AM – Locate bathroom.
8.26 AM – Ahhhhhhhh, yeah.
9.00 AM – Have breakfast at Paris Baguette’s. A woman who resembles a Midwestern stripper is eating lunch with her blonde, mullet-haired son. If that kid’s name isn’t Tyler I will eat my hat.
9.08 AM – Why can’t I find a bar? What kind of fucking airport doesn’t have a bar?
9.17 AM – Fuck it, Bennigan’s will do.
9.18 AM – Order a draft beer and sit down. Just as the bartender starts walking towards my table with it, my iPod shuffles onto “Shining Star” by Earth Wind & Fire. Maurice White wails out “Yeaaah!” just as I take my first grateful gulp.
9.34 AM – Too goddamn fidgety and nervous to sit still. Drain the last of the beer and start wandering the airport again.
9.49 AM – Settle down in the viewing lounge next to Bennigan’s, watching sky blue Korean Air planes taxi and take off.
10.03 AM – Fucking awful hip-hop blaring out of the speakers drives me a’wandering again.
10.35 AM – Shuffle from couch to couch and chair to chair all over the airport. Sitting still for too long makes me nervous. Well, more nervous. I passed the first hurdle, which was getting out of the neighbourhood. Now I face the second: clearing customs. Time drags, its natural passage held back by the claws of worry and fear. Oddly enough it reminds me of scuba diving, of the low-key anxiety, the barely suppressed terror I always felt whenever I was breathing underwater. So I wander, and sit for a while, and wander again. It’s so fucking hot. Or is that my imagination?
11.23 AM – I must have passed the same pair of patrolling security officers five times by now. And these are the intimidating ones, the paramilitary dudes with black uniforms and Ray-Bans. I’m a sweating, nervous wreck with bags under my eyes and a bloodstream full of alchol, caffeine and several litres of adrenaline. Not for the first time, I realise that I probably look like an uncommonly well-dressed drug mule.
12.07 PM – GODDAMNIT DEPARTURE BOARD DISPLAY MY FLIGHT ALREADY I CAN’T STAND THIS ANYMORE
12.15 PM – Ok, check-in open for business.
12.17 PM – Pick up backpack from storage.
12.25 PM – Display passport at counter and receive two Cathay Pacific boarding passes: Seoul – Hong Kong, Hong Kong – Perth.
12.26 PM – Stare at the customs gate with swelling panic. I have been warned that, passing through customs, I may be detained and interrogated by officials who are well aware of what I am doing. It is not a crime and they have no legal right to arrest me or make me miss my flight. I still don’t relish the idea.
11.28 PM – Come to think of it, while the soundtrack to Waltz With Bashir fits my mood right now, it isn’t really calming my nerves. Turn off iPod.
12.30 PM – Okay. Time to run the gauntlet.
12.32 PM – Push bags and laptop through X-ray machine. Pray that the tightly rolled wad of cash in my jeans pocket isn’t too obvious.
12.33 PM – Wanded, and given the all-clear.
12.34 PM – Permit myself fifteen seconds to briefly scan the immigration lines and find the friendliest-looking customs officer. Settle on the single female.
12.36 PM – Have conversation with customs officer:
“You have alien card?”
“You come back?”
“You leave… but visa not finished?”
“Okay. I keep card then.”
“Thank you, have a nice day.”
12.37 PM – Holy shit. Did that actually just happen? Am I really free?
12.38 PM – I have never been this relieved in my life. The knot in my stomach untwists, and the pressing weight on my shoulders is lifted. Am I really free? I can’t afford to get careless. Not until I am off Korean soil will I let myself smile.
1.00 PM – Locate boarding gate. The plane is being prepped outside, a spectacular machine gleaming in the sunlight. The Cathay Pacific flight attendents seem like the most beautiful women in the world to me.
1.01 PM – Flight doesn’t leave for some time yet, so I set off to find lunch.
1.06 PM – A convenient food court with a number of different restaurants. As one final act of contempt, I order Japanese.
1.12 PM – My udon noodles and fish arrive… with a side of kimchi. Oh, Korea. One last ditch effort to win me back using the same failed ploys? I do not hate you, Korea – I pity you.
1.40 PM – After finishing lunch, I duck into a toilet stall to check that my three bundles of cash are still secure, tucked away in various pockets in my jacket and jeans.
2.05 PM – Sitting around at the boarding gate, I am approached by a friendly young man doing a tourism survey. He’s quite nice, so I’m more generous than I really should be in my answers. When I come to “Would you recommend Korea to others?” my pen trembles and I just barely manage to settle on “Not sure.”
2.55 PM – Begin boarding Cathay Pacific Flight 411, bound for Hong Kong.
3.30 PM – Takeoff. Yes. Yesssssss.
3.35 PM – Naturally I have a window seat, since I was five hours early for check-in, so I’m treated to my last glimpses of Korea from high above. It seems strangely satisfying to be leaving by plane, to look down on this place from above. I am untouchable now. I am invincible. I am in the sky.
3.38 PM – The last of the islands disappear as we climb above the cloud layer. After a few minutes, I permit myself a Michael Clayton smile.
3.40 PM – Insert iPod. Listen to “Exogenesis Part 3: Redemption” by Muse while the plane gently rolls left and right through the cloudscape, sailing towards freedom.
5.16 PM – After three hellish hours of constant nodding-off and re-awakening, the half-sleep that torments the body and soul (with a timezone change thrown in for good measure) we land at Hong Kong International Airport in heavy fog.
5.30 PM – This airport has the longest corridor I’ve ever seen. I can’t actually make out the finer details of the far end, and I’ve already been walking down it for five minutes. Fuck my legs hurt.
5.45 PM – A frustrating search for a meal in a very inefficiently designed airport. WHY IS EVERY RESTAURANT CHINESE WHY WHY WHY oh yeah
6.12 PM – Burger King for dinner. I’m burned-out on Asia.
6.55 PM – Locate boarding gate, settle down in chairs with laptop.
6.59 PM – Email Internet acquaintance who gave me advice on pulling a midnight run, having done one himself the previous month (customs detainment and all). Never heard from him after the first email, in which he wouldn’t tell me where he fled because his school was sending him death threats, but I wanted to let him know I’d made it. Somewhere between the use of codenames, the phrase “off the grid” and listening to “Extreme Ways” by Moby I feel like I’m living in a thriller movie.
7.34 PM – Watch a dry thunderstorm roll over the city. Lightning flashes down and stabs at the dark outlines of the mountains above Kowloon.
7.57 PM – Why the fuck is it so hard to find a single place selling water? No I don’t want your touristy knick-knacky airport shit, I want water. I NEED IT TO LIVE.
8.01 PM – In a chemist, of all places.
8.15 PM – Back to the gate to kill some more time.
8.35 PM – Maybe it’s the sleep deprivation, but the CNN anchors look like aliens. Their skin is stretched too tightly across their faces. Are they some kind of advance scouts for a coming invasion?
9.12 PM – My legs hurt bad. Whether I leave them on the ground or cross them or stick them on the chairs, they hurt bad.
10.55 PM – Boarding begins for Qantas Flight 68, bound for Perth.
11.25 PM – Plane begins trundling out to the furthest runway.
11.55 PM – Delayed, waiting at the end of the runway because of a tropical storm in the South China Sea. A Cathay Pacific plane crawls past, an enormous dark monster in the shadows.
12.04 AM – Finally take off, the plane rumbling down the tarmac and powering into the night sky. Hong Kong drops below us. Pulses of cloud-damped lightning flicker over the city, and in the harbour fishing boats are lit up like golden scarabs.
12.07 AM – After arguing with his wife and calling her a cow, the cunt in front of me reclines his seat all the way back into my face. I think you can judge a lot of a person’s character by how far they choose to push their seat back on a plane.
12.17 AM – I want to sleep. But I also want food and drink. Oh, God, how I want a drink.
12.44 AM – Oh come on, this is minor turbulence. Take the seatbelt sign off and serve us dinner already.
1.10 AM – Flight attendent asks me if I would like the beef or the chicken. “Whatever’s the least Asian, please.” They forget to give me a coke with my bourbon, but my psyche is so ravaged by the last 24 hours that I barely notice.
2.00 AM – Try to get some sleep, face up against the windowpane, shoes off, curled up underneath my jacket and an airline blanket. Feel half-drunk and empty.
5.00 AM – Emerge through a very thick layer of noise, dream fragments and blindness into full consciousness. Pull sleeping mask off and rub eyes. Another three hours of awful half-sleep. Not sure if they even turned the cabin lights off.
5.30 AM – Because, this being Qantas, they have to serve us both dinner and breakfast! Who cares if we only get three hours of sleep in between! What if the passengers began to starve to death, and resorted to cannibalism, the flight crew holing up in the cockpit while the rest of the plane became a bloodbath of violence and anarchy? That would make QF72 look like a joyride.
5.31 AM – I guess I am hungry though.
5.40 AM – Eat some kind of potato cake and fruit salad. Insert iPod to drown out the domestic dispute in the two seats in front of me. Bloc Party, “So Here We Are.”
6.00 AM – Daybreak over the desert. Out the window below is the rocky landscape of the Pilbara, blue in the pre-dawn light. Endless plains of rock, trees clinging to the creases of the creeks and streams. Ancient and weathered by time. As the sun rises it shifts from blue to violet to pink to red. No buildings, no sign that humans can even inhabit this place. Borne across it by the white wings and red tail of the flying kangaroo. Australia. Home.
It is 4.30 AM. My bags are packed. My apartment is clean. I have $3000 cash, my passport, my wallet and my iPod in my pockets. The streets outside are as quiet as they ever get around here.
Zero hour. Time to go.
I went for a walk tonight, listening to my iPod and ruminating on my destiny. It started raining. The wind swept a few yellow leaves down from the trees, the first casualties of autumn. By the time I was on the street back towards my school/apartment, it was lashing down with rain, melting the headlights and traffic lights and neon hangul into one huge colourful blur.
It was just a simple circuit around Eungam – the canal, Emart, the dozens of interchangeable streets with identical franchise stories and creepy red crosses and noraebongs and PC bangs. Yet somehow it seemed different. I was looking at it through less jaded eyes, through a temporary lens. A man who understands he will not be here for long and needs to soak up what he can, whether he likes the place or not.
I love big cities. And I love living overseas: I love not being able to understand what people are saying, I love being a stand-out face in a crowd of black Asian eyes, I love being constantly bombarded with strange glyphs and signals that mean nothing to me. I love being in a place I don’t and can’t understand.
And I’m not done with it yet. My plans for this weekend are not a rout; they are a retreat. I’m not going back to Perth forever. It’s just a fallback point where I can figure out my next adventure. I tried Korea, I gave it my best shot, and it didn’t work out. Such is life. I don’t regret it one bit.
Tony got into a fight with admin today. Two of the kids were screwing around in his class, and one of them slipped over in the puddle of water which pools beneath the broken air-conditioner (I also teach that class, and have been urging the school to fix it all week because it’s a fucking liability, along with the whiteboard hanging from a single bolt in my other kindy class, just waiting for the chance to buckle and injure a child). The kid hurt himself moderately, and Tony was blamed for it because he was sitting down at the time.
Apparently we’re not supposed to sit down. This is news to me. Maybe we really aren’t supposed to and they never told us that, or maybe it’s a bullshit buck-passing backpedal made by a gaggle of morally bankrupt weasels. Tony was understandably pissed, especially when they handed him an official warning letter, and he responded by announcing that he is quitting on Monday.
He went off to have a meeting with admin after work hours, and I don’t know how that turned out. Maybe they reached a resolution, maybe not. Like me, Tony has never been particularly happy here, but unlike me, he always takes a “let’s solve this” attitude as opposed to my own preference, the “withdraw all my cash, book plane tickets and leave in the dead of night” approach. (And I prefer to think of my way as “cavalier” and “adventurous,” rather than “irresponsible” and “selfish.”) But he doesn’t actually want to quit – he said that to me several times – which is the thick line dividing the two of us. As we were discussing this over dinner I considered revealing my own plans to him, but the conversation never went that way, which is probably for the best.
So basically Monday will either be a shitstorm, or a Category-5 Kimchi Bowels Splatterfest.
It won’t make much difference to me. Leaves are falling all around, and it’s time I was on my way. YEAH I WENT THERE. I’VE HAD A BIT TO DRINK OK.
Time in korea is odd. I guess any time when you’re not enjoying yourself stretches out, but in Korea a week feels like a month. It’s an agonising crawl across a hellish wasteland with no end in sight. Harpies shriek and dive at you while the relentless sun beats down, and you’re dragging yourself across the hard-packed clay with shredded fingertips, but it NEVER ENDS BECAUSE THERE IS NO END IT’S ONLY HERE AND NOW FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER
I’m a little drink. I guess. What’s wrong with that? You want to start something? I have less than 100 hours to shove some mpre glorious raspberry wine down my throat, rapsberry wine being the ONE AND ONLY good thing about Korea (okay, barbecue restaurants are cool too).
(and kiwi soju)
Anyway. Anyway. I was going to talk about how… I don’t know, I think about how I’m starting to count off the ‘lasts?’ last Monday, last Tuesday, last Wednesday. Last time I’ll eat at the awesome restaurant downstairs with those onions soaked in that glorious vinegar sauce. last time I’ll have to sit through a bullshit meeting. Last time I’ll haave to draw up a bullshit weekly plan, write some bullshittests, serve some bullshit lunch to the kids which apparently doesn’t count as work seriously come the cufk on charles all the other kids were done fifteen minuts ago and you’re jsut sitting there slowly shovelling it down what are you storing it for winter i want to have my lunchtim nap hurry the fuck up.
I had my last gym class today. I’mnot meant to teach gym but “the government passed laws saying all teachers have to speak English” (translation: we felt like firing the extra teachers to save money and getting you waegukin monkeys to do their jobs 9instead) so i’m meant to teach them gym/PE every wednesday. They gave me this bullshit curriculum which basicaly said “make tghem stand one leg the whole time” and said the exact same thing for the next week, so I jsut let them run around and play instead. God knows they get precious little of that in the grand master plan for Asian ant colony supremacy, STUDY STUDY STUDY, FIVE-YEAR OLDS! Nice break for me too because I get to wander around and give them dizzy-whizzies or let them stand on my feet while I walk around. THIS is when I’m good with kids, when I get to let them play. Not when I have to actively prevent them from hacving fun and force them through a textbook way too hard for them. Every five minutes or so I have to solve some dispute about toys or who hit who, but their language skills are pretty limited (and when they’re in tears they tend to clam up and only speak Korean) so I generally let anarchy rein. I am an indifferent and impotent god, children.
Am I really going? Am I really doing this? it seems so easy when I’m drunk, or when I don’t think about it. I’ve tracked down every single story of a midnight run on the Internet. Not once have I come across anyone feeling guilty and awful about abandoning theirnfellow teachers, even people who were close to the end of their contract. Not once. Am I close to these people? Not really. Do I feel bad about walking out unexpectedly. yeah. A lot. Does that make it okay?
Maybe… it does?
Moot point because I’m doing it anyway. Today was exhausting and felt like an entire year of my life was drained from me. I was banging my head on the table at some points, I didn’t care about the kids or the windows or the Orwellian CCTV cameras. I don’t care anymore. I just want out. This is killing me.
88 hours to go.
I made the mistake of talking to Swine Flu Sally for a few minutes during one of my breaks (after all, she lives next door to me). Somehow the director found out and organised an emergency meeting during the lunch break to discuss about how deadly serious the swine flu pandemic is, how it could shut the school down if even one child gets infected, and how under no circumstances must we break their half-assed quarantine by having any contact with Valerie. A paranoid hypochondriac who has no concept of how respiratory diseases and airborne pandemics work, fed on a diet of media hysteria, ranting at us for half an hour in Korean. This is why I love my job. Sarah awkwardly translated for her, but she was only saying like three sentences after a ten minute spiel. It was like that scene in Lost In Translation where the commercial director is talking to Bill Murray for ages and then the translator says “Um, he wants you to look at the camera.”
I suspect Sarah was toning down the recommendations a little, because she knew the native faculty would find the original script ridiculous. “Be careful in public,” I’m pretty sure, was originally “Don’t go to Itaewon or Hongdae.” Maybe even “don’t leave your apartments unless absolutely neccesary.” They have this perception that Korea is a hermetically-sealed, sterile bubble, and that only foreign contaminants could possibly be vectors for swine flu – probably from Japan, that’d be typical, just like those bastards to infect Korea with disease.
Like I said, they clearly have no idea how the spread of disease works. Let’s say that Valerie really does have swine flu (which she doesn’t). Even if I don’t have any contact with her this week, she’s still going to visit Homeplus to buy groceries to stay alive – where she’ll infect the staff and the customers, who will then pass it on to me when I pop in the next day to pick up my usual shopping load of alcohol and chocolate. Once the disease is in the country, it’s in the country. I’m more likely to catch it from the kids than they are to catch it from me, because they have contact with far more people in more diverse locations than I do (my average working day consists of teaching at the school, going to Homeplus, and then sitting in my apartment drinking wine and wondering why I decided to exile myself to this awful place). If you really want to ensure that there is no chance your students will catch swine flu, you need to dress them in biohazard suits and shuttle them from school to home along enormous plastic tunnels like the government used in E.T. Not slap one of your teachers in bullshit “quarantine” because she went on a weekend jaunt to Japan. For fuck’s sake. There have been four thousand cases of swine flu in Korea and only 4 of them were fatal. It’s not like we’re in the deepest basement levels of the CDC and sombody dropped a fucking test tube. It’s a standard flu strain that’s slightly stronger than usual, which happens roughly every three years. The only difference between now and the last thirty years is that we have a 24-hour news cycle that encourages us to freak the fuck out over every little thing. And like many other things that also exist in the West – an obsession with physical appearance, racism, excessive nationalism – Korea takes media-inspired panics to a whole new level. Throw in their natural hypochondria and it’s a recipe for frustration.
For the record, my flu-like symptoms disappeared with a good night’s sleep, leaving me with nothing more than a scratchy voice and a metric fuckload of phlegm in my sinuses. Naturally I tried to cough and sniff as much as possible during that farce of a meeting, but it’s just not the same as shivering weakly with pale white skin.