I wasn't nervous about moving to Korea until I was on the final plane of my trip. I had made it to the Boston airport fine. I had said goodbye to my then-boyfriend, friends, family. I was completely fine until I sat down on that Asiana Air flight from LA to Seoul. That is when I had my moment.
My "what the fuck am I fucking doing" moment.
What business did I have uprooting myself? I took a NyQuil, drank a glass of red wine, and tried to sleep it off.
My flight was the first international arrival of the day. My recruiter who had set me up with this job wouldn't be there until three hours later. I had been told to wait at the far end of the arrivals terminal and "trust us, you'll know who you're looking for."
Apparently who I was looking for was a guy I'd seen on the flight from Boston. A short, handsome Massachusetts native who had also decided to completely uproot his life. He joked about how he had seen me at our gate in Logan Airport. He said he had taken one look at me and thought, "huh, she's doing the same thing I am." I guess he was probably tipped off by the large amount of carry on baggage I had.
Slowly we were joined by others whom would be attending the same orientation we were. My biggest shock of the day was my first conversation with an Australian guy. He looked laid back enough, seemed highly personable and magnetic. I had decided he might be a good person to get to know.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"Maine," I responded innocently enough.
He rolled his eyes and groaned, "You FUCKING Americans! Always assuming that EVERYONE knows ALL of your damn states!"
We would see a young person looking around confused and instantly welcome them to our rapidly growing family. This is where we got our first taste of the conversations which would be repeated hundreds if not thousands of times over the next year or, if we chose, years of our lives:
"Hey, what's up, I'm ________. Where are you from? Oh, cool, I'm from ________."
The expat version of butt-sniffing is the "where are you from" question. It would, in broader circles, be expanded to include "What do you do? Oh, nice, me too/ I'm a teacher." This is how you find your tribe.
My recruiter came and went in a haze on inconsequentiality. Our small herd was loaded onto a bus and driven through the fog of late-August Korea to a college campus in a suburb of Seoul. We would be given name tags, dorm assignments, and then given the simplest language comprehension test of all time. Most of us didn't make it past the first question: Read the following to your test administrator "안녕하세요". The few who could actually read the simple Korean word for "hello" were moved into the level 2 Korean class, those who could then go on to answer simple questions were in level 3, those who could identify the nouns to match flashcards got level 4, but the vast majority of us "uhhhh"-ed our way into level 1.
Those first two weeks were a dizzying whirlwind of classes on classroom management, Korean culture, and lesson planning followed by nights of binge drinking and placing best on who would hook up with who first.
My roommate was an extremely bubbly Korean-American girl named Gina who talked in her sleep and allowed me to join her group of fellow Korean-Americans. I was able to bathe in the light of them actually knowing what the crap was going on when we would leave campus. I spent most of my class time with a Scottish girl I nicknamed "Veins" (she called me "Muscles"). She was very pretty and helped me fool the other pretty people into thinking I was funny.
At the end of the orientation we were presented with a certificate of completion, a DVD of our awkward "getting to know you" first weeks (which I now, looking back, wish I hadn't thrown out), a free t-shirt, and a slap on the back. With that, we were sent out into Seoul. The goodbyes were hurried, everyone was nervous and anxious and didn't know where the crap their bus was. Your bus would take you to your school's district. You were lucky if you knew even one person on that bus.
I forgot most of the bus trip because: 1) I had no idea where the bus was going 2) I didn't know how far my district was from the university 3) I *really* had to pee.
When our bus stopped I raced off. I saw some people holding up a sign for me, but blew right past them with a hurried "SORRY!" as I took off into the nearest building in desperate search for a toilet. Once I stepped back outside I blushed brightly and gathered my things.
The two women who picked me up were both from my school. One was a stylish Korean woman in her 40s who was VERY chipper, but who I would barely see after that, and the other was a young blond American girl named MaryBeth whose job I would be taking. They took me to the apartment which MaryBeth was just finishing moving out of. It was small and down a dark alley, but she assured me I'd be moving to a better building where her best friend, Kelly, currently lived.
MaryBeth showed me around the school and left me tons of teaching materials and some sage advice. I have to say this was an excellent situation to be walking into.
That night I attended the last-night outing for MaryBeth and met JiHyun, who would be in charge of me for the next year. I also met Samuel, who would be an endless source of entertainment for the next few months (he also taught me my favorite pun "Why do you take a ho to a hotel? Because a ho-don't-tell"). I was tired and left the evening early with MaryBeth's assurance that she would pick me up the next morning at 7:30 since I had no idea how to get from the apartment to the school.
The next morning 7:30 came... and went.... then 8.... then 8:30.... then 9
I had MaryBeth's old phone, but only recognized three names in it. She had all of the names of her coworkers listed in Korean, and I still couldn't read "안녕하세요" let alone names I barely knew. I eventually got a hold of one of my co-teachers who, while being at first highly annoyed that I was calling her after the first class had finished when I was supposed to be there 30 minutes *before* the first class, instructed me to get into a cab and just hand the phone over.
This was the first of the many "let a Korean fix it" problems I would face over my time in Korea.
The first, but certainly not the last.