Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lisa's 1st week in Korea - Originally published Oct 15/08

Well technically, this blog starts with my last couple of days in Canada, but after this I’m planning to do weekly updates from Friday to Thursday of the following week. Feel free to leave me comments via the google group or Facebook, or send me an email at My new mailing address and cell phone number are listed below.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The plan had been to leave by 6:00 pm and get into Thunder Bay around 11:00pm. There I could get a full nights rest at my brother’s apartment before my flight left at 1:00 pm Tuesday for Toronto. However, any of you who know me can suspect I was not nearly ready for that! There was still quite a bit of shopping to get done plus you know, pack my suitcases! My mom and dad were a huge help with getting me out the door at a decent time, albeit two hours later than I originally planned, and cheerleading me when my nerves were completely frayed. Saying Goodbye to Dryden as I drove away, watching the lights fade in the rear view mirror was a different Goodbye from when I left for University 5 years earlier. It was definitely bittersweet, partly because I was feeling much less sure of myself and because I knew it was the last time I would see the “Home” I had known for the last 15 years as my parents are hoping to sell the house and move before the end of the year. I knew that when I returned, Dryden would be a visiting place and not a staying place. I arrived safely in Thunder Bay around 1:15 am and stayed up chatting with my Brother for a while. Going to bed proved to be a useless attempt at sleep; every time I got close to sleep I would wake up certain that the alarm clock would malfunction and I would oversleep and miss my flight. Hours of sleep: maybe 4.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

After repacking my suitcases (and leaving behind many books I really wanted to come with me!) in order to get my luggage under the weight restrictions I had no problems with catching my flight to Toronto, arrival 3:00pm. At Pearson I was able to keep myself busy by connecting to their wireless internet service and chatting online and reviewing some “Let’s Speak Korean” lessons on youtube. Only major disappointment of the day was that my lack of organization the day before ended up in a miscommunication that kept me from meeting some very good friends for Dinner at the airport . At about 9:00 PM it was time to check in for my flight with Korea Air. I was the only white person and the only English speaker in line. Most of the signs were written in Hangul. Here was first time that I had the feeling to tuck my tail and run. “Mark and Whitney are only an hour away, I could get on the bus...”, “My Aunt Charlotte lives 10 minutes away, she could come get me...”, “I could get on a bus and go to Mexico and start leading another life under an alias and no one would ever have to know what a chicken I am...”. These were the kinds of thoughts that ran through my head as the line pushed me closer and closer to the check-in attendant. It was the first time since I was about six that the sentiment “I wish my mommy was here” felt like an immediate need, haha. Well, sheer determination kept me planted in that line until I was checked in. At security the bobby pins in my beauty case caused a connumdrum at the security gate because they showed up funny on the x-ray and none of us could figure out what it was. We took that whole bag apart before they decided it was unlikely I was carrying anything threatening. I found my departure gate and sat there in a daze for probably an hour before I heard over the Airport loudspeaker, “Korean Air passenger Annalisa Haessler, please go to courtesy mumblemumble, you have a message waiting.” Worried that this is something really important like I left my credit card at the Yogen Fruz stand or they overbooked my flight and now I won’t be able to get on, I go in search of a Pearson Airport employee to find out what this “courtesy mumblemumble” thing is so I can get to my message. Turns out it’s a courtesy phone and the mumble part was to press 2 to get my message. “Annalisa Haessler, the message is ‘Call your mother’.” OK, so now I’m thinking about the things that could have gone wrong at home and how I may be turning around anyway after how brave I was in the check-in line up. At the payphone I call home. “Hey Mom, what’s up? Everything OK?”“Hi sweetie, yeah I just wanted to let you know I was just talking to Joy (my older sister) and she’s going to be visiting us in a couple of weeks and helping out with staging the house, so you don’t have to worry about those unfinished projects.”“Oh. OK, that’s pretty cool. Wait. You had me paged over Pearson International Airport’s loud speaker to tell me Joy is coming home for a visit?”Later my mom told me the real reason was that she really wanted to talk to me one more time before I left Canada, but she thought if she said that she would get emotional so she decided to tell me about her conversation with Joy instead. Aww...When all was said and done I got on my flight with no problems at 11:50 pm. A Boeing 777 jet. Again, only white girl in sight.Wednesday October 1st, 2008 I had been given a lot of really good advice prior to going South Korea. I found two pieces of advice in particular had a major impact on my travel experience. The first was this (from my Uncle Mel): “The moment you get on the plane, change your watch to Korean time.” In doing this I instantaneously lost 13 hours of my Wednesday, but it helped immeasurably with jet lag. Even though it was midnight in Canada, it was now 1:00pm in Korea, and so even with only 4 hours of sleep the night before I decided it would be best to stay up as long as possible. Dinner was served soon after takeoff: a Korean dish called Bibimbap, which was made of ground beef, various vegetables, rice and spicy red pepper paste and was pretty tasty. The big screen at the front of the cabin showed our flight path as flying almost directly north over the pole, not east or west as my mother and I had debated. The in-flight movie was ‘Ironman’; I watched the first hour or so before my eyelids got too heavy. Hours of sleep: maybe 5.

Thursday October 2nd, 2008

We landed smoothly at Incheon International Airport just outside of Seoul at 2:30 am. I had checked thoughout the flight, and at no time was sun shining during those 14 hours so sadly I didn’t see the ocean from 35 000 feet. That’s alright, there will be lots of opportunities in the next year. Having arrived at Incheon and fumbled my way through customs to get my stamp in my passport (yay!), I immediately bought an international calling card. I didn’t immediately call my parents though, haha. No, I followed that second piece of excellent advice I mentioned earlier: I went to the basement level of the airport and found the all night sauna/bath. I had a few hours to kill before I needed to catch my bus to Gimpo airport, and Shane (the director of Canadian Connection) recommended the sauna to me. It was wonderful and, although pricey, totally worth bathing naked with some older Korean women in order to calm my nerves and get freshened up. In Korea, communal bath houses are still very popular. The tradition has continued long after indoor plumbing would’ve replaced it I think because of the Korean emphasis on community. Women and men come with the friends to share a long soak in multiple shallow pools of various temperatures and switch to a sauna room or two. There’s also usually a jinjubong (resting room) where you can go sleep on heated floors. After my lovely sauna, I waited outside the airport for my bus to Gimpo to arrive. Here I met a very nice Korean woman named Jay who had grown children in the US so her English was very good. She helped me find my way at Gimpo Airport and was another friendly stranger to make my journey easier. The bus picked us up at 6:15 am. The sky was going purple as we got on, and I watched the sunrise on the way to Gimpo. After helping me check in for my flight, Jay gave me a hug, I gave her a Dryden pin and she headed to her hotel room. I went in search of food. I picked a decent looking noodle bowl with beef and veggies from a numbered menu written in Hangul. It was enormous and tasty but I probably only ate ¼ of it, it was such a big portion. The flight from Seoul to Gwangju lasted about 50 minutes. I enjoyed the scenery before sleeping for about a half an hour. Korea is 70% mountains so it was beautiful, I don’t think the pictures do it justice. At Gimpo airport I was met by Mr Yang, the provincial co-ordinator for English Teachers in Jeollanamdo and Seon-hee Park, my co-teacher at Suncheon Girls High School. Mr Yang shook my hand, welcomed me to Korea, asked me for a copy of my contract and then got in his car. Seon-hee (pronounced Sunny) helped me with my bags and we got in her car and drove to Suncheon (about an hour away). That drive was the most surreal. My brain seemed to catch up with my body and as I watched the mountains roll by excitement filled me up. I did it. I actually made it. Nothing horrible happened, no strange twist of fate kept me from realizing this dream. I didn’t screw it up!Once in Suncheon, Seon-hee got me set up with a bank account and took me to the hospital for another physical. Here’s my favourite part of my first day in Korea: Getting on a weight scale and having a big red “FATNESS!” appear above my weight, hahaha. Lots more paperwork was done etc etc etc. The afternoon felt like a big hazy blur of signs I couldn’t reach and conversations that were about me but I couldn’t understand. In the early evening, my co-teachers helped me get some groceries and took me up to my apartment. Just as we were getting into the elevator , a white girl was walking up to the second elevator (one elevator only stops on even floors, one only stops on odd floors, don’t ask me why) and I had never been so relieved to see a stranger in my life. She must have seen it on my face.“First day? My name’s Jodie, I live in ***. Come visit me anytime.” And the doors closed. Now it was past 7PM and I was feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. My co-teachers made me something to eat and they were so sweet. All I could think was “Jodie lives in ***...Jodie lives in ***, don’t forget Jodie lives in ***” as my head hit the pillow.

Friday October 3rd, 2008

After 13 hours of sleep, I awoke to a familiar feeling: "Holy crap, I'm in South Korea." It's a feeling that sinks in at least once a day. I spent a good part of the day unpacking my belongings and cleaning up my apartment, though the previous teacher had left the place in really good condition for me. She also left behind some handy things like speakers for my computer, a hair straightener and some nice bedding. My apartment is a small studio style apartment on the 17th floor of a 19 floor apartment building, situated on the side of one of many small mountains around Suncheon. Once I was done unpacking, I sat in my apartment wondering what I should do next and feeling a little trapped. I didn't know how to read or speak anymore and I didn't know where anything was except for the grocery store down the block and the internet room across the street. The internet room! A connection with the English speaking world! I was on my way. Internet rooms or PC bongs here are very cheap: 1000 won for an hour. The clerk didn't speak a word of English, but that's fine, what else would a waygook want in a PC Bong but to use the internet? I felt much better being able to check email and facebook and still know that friends and family were just a few mouse clicks away. That evening, back at my apartment, again feeling confined, I decided I had better stop being a chicken and go knock on Jodie's door. Jodie lives with her husband Steven and their tiny white dog, Wicket. When I knocked on the door they also had their friend Fraser over visiting. They were very welcoming and had plenty of advice for me. I don't remember what any of it was, but it was good to know I had met some friendly Canadians who could help me out while I was settling in.Saturday October 4th, 2008 Jody offered to show me around our neighborhood and the city a little bit, so we walked a lot that morning. She took me out for a beef soup lunch that was very tasty. Meat portions for soups are often left in very large pieces, so the soup was served with scissors to cut it up with. Eating out in Korea is very cheap ($4-$8 CDN), and every Korean entrée comes with 6-10 seasonal side dishes included. Usually there will be two or three kinds of kimchi and various vegetables. Traditionally Koreans don't drink anything with their meals, a cup of soup is served on the side for washing things down. Strangely I have found this difficult to adjust to since everything in the meal tends to be spicy or very salty. Most restaurants however now offer cola and cider (like gingerale) to drink, especially to foreigners. After lunch we went back to my school to meet Seon-hee, who wanted to be with me when the men came to install my internet and television. Seon-hee had been waiting for us to eat lunch, so we ate lunch again in the school cafeteria (it would have been considered rude to refuse). So far cafeteria food at the school has been quite tasty, though I find the kimchi too spicy.After the internet and tv were hooked up, Seon-hee took me to watch an English Speaking contest in the nearby city of Gwangyang which her sister had organized. It was in a building called "The World Marine Life Center" and it was 17 floors of glass windows; the building itself was shaped like a sail. Unfortunately, at 17 floors up the only view offered was of the surrounding shipping docks, not picturesque but still interesting to see. On the way back to Suncheon we picked up Seon-hee's daughter and went for another meal near my apartment. Soon after I got home I hit the sack for another 12 hours. I think being busy all day since I've arrived has really helped with jetlag, as I am forced to stay up all afternoon.

Sunday October 5th, 2008

Seon-hee had told me over and over not to be late for the teachers meeting on Monday morning, so I spent a good portion of the day riding the #59 bus and wandering around downtown trying to find my school. No such luck. OK, I figure I will take a cab and get there just fine (oh wishful thinking…).On Sunday evening I tagged along with Jodie to a book club meeting for foreigners living in our complex. There were about eight of us there, and it was great to meet some more people my age and talk about our favourite books. Being in Shi-dae apartments feels like my first few weeks of University, where everyone is very friendly because you don't have a lot of friends (even more so here because it's exciting to meet someone who speaks english!) and you can just go up or down a few levels and knock on someone's door if you need to. Shi-dae is known for having a lot of foreigners living in it. I still meet people on my bus or in the elevator. Note: at this bookclub meeting Jodie made the best homemade brownies this girl has ever eaten!
Monday October 6th, 2008

Monday was my first official day of work. Got up early, all ready to go. I hop in a cab at 8:15, and I figure that is plenty of time to get there since it only took Seon-hee 10 – 15 minutes to drive me home over the last couple of days. However that had something to do with the driver knowing where she was going. I had the address of the school written in English, and told the driver "Sucheon Yah-go" thinking that was the Korean name of the school was. Nope, I was mispronouncing it and he couldn't read english. So instead the cab driver proceeded to drive me to local schools (he correctly guessed I was a teacher at least) and when I shook my head and wouldn't get out of the car, he'd try another one. After 3 schools he finally pulled over and asked a nearby businessman for help. The man looked at my paper and then told the driver "Suncheon Yo-go" and poof! He knew where to take me! So I walk into the teachers meeting a few minutes late, very embarrassed and feeling unnerved. Mr. Kim informs me I will be introduced next. When the vice-principal puts down the microphone, Mr. Kim picks it up and introduces me as "Our new English teacher from Canada, the most beautiful western lady!" and hands me the microphone. Well at least it gave me the opportunity to apologize to everyone for being late. As luck would have it, my first week of classes were cancelled because of exams, so "you have all week to prepare your lessons" Seon-hee tells me. Haha, well not quite. On Monday, Seon-hee took me around and introduced me to a lot of the staff, one whom was Gwang-ja, the hilarious PE teacher. Gwang-ja used to play volleyball professionally for Korea; she also insists on talking to me very enthusiastically in Korean even though I can't understand a word she says. Now I should tell you that Volleyball is HUGE in Korea, and since I had found this out I was using it to make a good first impression with a lot of the teachers I'd met so far. When I told Gwang-ja I had played setter in High School she went nuts and drafted me for the team. And because this week is exam week, we had three-hour team practices on Monday and Tuesday to prepare for the match game on Wednesday. At Monday's practice I discovered several things: Koreans don't sweat, western girls who are out of shape DO, Koreans play with nine people on the court instead of six, there is no such thing as rotating in Korean volleyball, I need to buy knee pads, there is no such thing as an illegal lift or hit in Korean volleyball (kicking the ball was quite popular), and Koreans have a great sense of sportsmanship.The English Teachers also treated me to a Traditional Korean Lunch (Lunchee as they say it here) where we sat on the floor and ate lots of raw fish and squid and plenty of things that I'm glad I didn't know what they were. And traditional Korean Lunches are 3 full courses. Because of how salty things are, I find that I lose my appetite quite quickly here. But these skinny Koreans eat so much its hard to believe, it's really impressive. It is also common to drink beer and do shots of soju (a vodka like alcohol, very popular here) at lunchtime. Thankfully Seon-hee explained to the teachers that I don't drink alcohol so there was no pressure.After the school day was over, Seon-hee made sure to walk to me to the nearest bus stop so that on Tuesday I wouldn't be late.

Tuesday October 7, 2008

On Tuesday, Seon-hee and I drove to Yeosu to apply for my alien registration card at the immigration office. She told me we would be meeting some teachers for lunch when we got back to Suncheon, but on return we had some time to kill so she took me to exchange some money at the bank and then to the 5-day market in the centre of the city. It's an enormous traditional Korean market where vendors sell produce, live animals for slaughter, fish and all kinds of seafood, plus clothing, crafts, jewellery and anything else you could think of. I bought a beautiful Korean quilt for 33000 won. I love it! Lunch turned out to be the entire school staff including our principle being treated to Korean Samgibsa by the parents of the students who had been elected chairperson of their grade. Samgibsa is pieces of pork, mushrooms and onion grilled over coals. The grills are in the middle of the table so you cook it yourself. You take the pieces of cooked pork, place them in the middle of a lettuce leaf, add some sauce and some veggies, wrap it up in the leaf and shove the whole thing in your mouth. It was quite tasty and I was relieved to eat cooked food, until the next course came out which was soup and another full serving of various raw seafoods. Still it was impressive to sit among such a large group for lunch, and an honor to have a seat at the same table as the principle. After lunch was another 3-hour practice of volleyball, where I was presented with a pink & black school jersey to wear to the game on Wednesday. That night Jodie and Steven were a huge help and took me shopping for things for the apartment and groceries! It was great to start feeling like I was getting settled.
Wednesday October 8, 2008

Today was the match game against another school's teachers. I wasn't nervous until we stepped into the gym and there was quite a crowd in the stands and both school's principles and vice principles on stage. And even though we had just had lunch, there were tables and tables of food, and lots of beer and soju going around! Now the nice thing about Korean volleyball is that the height of the net is low, so I can actually spike and block at the net (handy since Korean's don't rotate so I'm ALWAYS playing front row centre, ie I'm blocking every spike coming from the other side). We didn't win our game, but the guys team did and here everyone seems to genuinely enjoy playing the game so there was no sourness about our near miss. Afterwards, they gave out draw prizes. My number was picked from a hat and I got (drum roll please…): a tube of toothpaste! A tube of toothpaste?When I got home my muscles were killing me. Truth be told they had been killing me since Monday. So I decided it was time to check out the sauna at the DongSu gym beside my apartment building. It was exactly what I needed. This sauna has two sauna rooms: a salt sauna and a crystal sauana and 5 different baths of various temperature and featuring powerful jets of water you can turn on if you like (great for getting out those kinks!) The two-hour soak was exactly what I needed.Thursday October 9, 2008 You still with me? Ok so Thursday Seonhee informs me that the school is going to pay for the teachers to go to the Cinema downtown in the afternoon and that we are going to drop by a cellphone store and see if we can get me a phone even though I don't have my ARC card back yet. We saw "Go Go 70" about a Korean rock band in the 1970's named "The Devils" who became famous playing western rock music and were consequently thrown in jail when the government put western rock and roll under prohibition. Good movie, although it was all in Korean. Afterwards I got a cell phone! Yay! Seon-hee put it in her name to save some me money and just like that, I was a cell phone carrier. It's a new experience for me, but I like the security it gives me, living in a foreign country. Once the cell phone was bought, I went out for dinner with Dean (the coordinator for teachers in Suncheon) and his wife Mandy, who live just two floors up from me. We went to one of the only Italian restaurants in the city, the Gran Piatto, and I had some DELICIOUS chicken pizza. I didn't realize how much I would miss western food until I got here. Breads and cheeses are enough to make you stop dead in your tracks if you see/smell them. Dean and Mandy were very kind, and also lent me their hammer when my vanity fell apart that night while I was rearranging the furniture.

I'm having a tremendous time, even though its still an emotional rollercoaster. Everyday is something new. As promised here is my contact information:

Please send mail to:
Ms. Annalisa Haessler
c/0 Suncheon Girls High School
88 Bunji, Jeojeon-dong
Suncheon city, Jeollanamdo
South Korea
Postal Code: 540-180
It's safer to send my mail to the school, kids may get curious about Canadian mail at my apartment and the mailboxes aren't locked. I would love to hear from you!Cell phone: 010-5872-5161.
To dial direct from Canada you would dial 011-82-10-5872-5161 (right mom?) Don't worry about the time difference, call me ANYTIME!!! Stay tuned for my next blog featuring: mountain hike and temple excursion, bowling and noribang with the waygooks, the jinju lantern festival and my first week of teaching!Thanks for all your support. I miss you and love you all, hugs from the other side of the planet!!!


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