Then and Now: Japan and Korea

August 28, 2010

To anyone who’s been following my posts the past few week, I’m sure it’s immediately obvious I have a tendency to compare my time in Korea with that of Japan. After all, this is the second time I’ve signed up for a year’s contract to teach English in Asia, and since I’ll be “settled” for a while, I’m going through almost the same procedures that I did in the land of the rising sun. Incidentally, Korea is known as the land of the morning calm; sounds much more peaceful.

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This sign appears outside of the main bus station in Bugu… I honestly have no idea what the police are trying to tell me in English. Any experience with them will be less than pleasant?

While waiting for my regular bus to Deokgu Hot Springs, I was sitting, writing notes on the Korean language, and minding my own business in the corner. An old Korean woman was on the couch across the room. After a minute or so, she stood up, approached, and, with an almost pitying look on her face, muttered something to me in Korean and handed me a pamphlet. I took it, and, without a word, she sat back down. I was rather puzzled, until I took a quick glance and discovered that this literary marvel was produced by Watchtower: Jehovah’s witnesses.

This was certainly the most off-handed approach I’ve ever experienced in Evangelicals and JWs trying to indoctrinate me. Why would she even consider me? As a westerner, I’m far more likely to be Christian than a Korean (only 25%). Part of me just wanted to step in front of her, tear up her propaganda, and eloquently expose the flaw in her techniques. But, with my limited language skills and my desire to avoid any confrontation, I think it will be easier to simply wear my Buddha pendant everywhere.

I’ve been thinking more about just how easy it is for me to adapt to a foreign environment. Living in Japan was my first serious attempt; naturally, there were errors, fears, and differences with my time in Korea. Let’s look at some of those:

First Week

Japan: June 2006. I spent my first days in the AEON training center in Okayama. Internet access was limited to international centers. I went out to karaoke a few times that week. There was a little language training: by the end, I could say “hello”, “thank you”, “my name is…”, and my telephone number. Our training consisted of long hours, and pounding the AEON method into our brains; I was nervous about teaching, and thought it would take me too much time to prepare lessons. I wasn’t confident enough to eat in restaurants by myself; I usually stuck to a bento box for lunch, which was also how I got my listening practice (“would you like it heated up?”) Even picked up Dr. Peppers in the import store.

Korea: Not as rough a transition period as I arrived in Seoul; the brand names were familiar, the rules similar. I wasn’t mystified by the currency. In short, I wasn’t afraid. I knew how to find places; I knew that Family Mart would have food if I wasn’t ready to try restaurants. I didn’t eat out alone anytime this week, but I did manage to hop a bus and make my way over to Deokgu Hot Springs… within one week. Language skills consist of “hello” and not much else. Medical exam and alien registration in the mornings before work. I didn’t fear the kids that first lesson; in fact, I pretty much just stepped in and continued on as though Ben (outgoing teacher) had never left. I still have questions and want information about bus times and fares, gym access, and my surroundings, but the internet is available, and I know how to insert foreign characters now.

Second Week

Japan: Relocated to Higashi-Hiroshima to work at my school. First time taking the shinkansen, and by myself at that; I had no clue how easy it would be to navigate the trains. Had a welcome dinner for me, a goodbye dinner for Jason, the departing teacher, and typical dealings with bureaucracy: my gaijin card. I didn’t know anything about my contract, about my rights as a foreign resident. I was only 35 minutes away from Hiroshima by local train, but I didn’t leave my town just yet. There was a supermarket next to my apartment. I studied Japanese every night from the Lonely Planet phrasebook. No internet access, and I didn’t know where I could find a cafe. Dinner was ready-to-eat meals from Fuji Grand and bento boxes from 7-11.

Korea: I’ve already discovered two good places to run and fumbled my way into the Energy Farm gym; in fairness, I bought tickets for bowling and a kid’s pool fare before correctly purchasing a day pass. Things aren’t difficult. I don’t fear what the day will bring when I wake up. Lessons require little prep time, not only because they’re easy, but because I have experience; I can deal with kids. I’ve already made weekend plans to go hiking and see Uljin. In many ways, the setup is similar to Saijo – close to a larger city, but not lacking for any amenities like a gym, store, and friendly people. I haven’t been practicing my Korean at all, but I am familiarizing myself with the city names and store front signs.

Third Week

Japan: Signing up for the gym was the first time I realized I needed to know the katakana letters for my name (ターナーライト); fortunately, the attendant had a good ear and transcribed it correctly on my membership card. I didn’t even bother to double check this when filling out paperwork for my bank account and cell phone; I just looked at the letters I had written in language journal and copied them. A few notable events: I had to deal with the cleaners for my work shirts, and attempt to have my suit pants hemmed. A student offered to tutor me in Japanese for free; I accepted, but after the appointment, realized that she was one to look upon everything I did as a foreigner to be amazing. If I had kept meeting with her, I might start to doubt my own abilities. I was venturing farther and farther from my apartment – searching back alleys, side streets, looking for restaurants and supermarkets, places to run – but still had not stepped on a train or a bus. My blog entries (found the international center) were shallow and based on gaijin mentality. Keep in mind, hot springs weren’t part of my world in Saijo; I wouldn’t take a soak for eight months.

Korea: Where I am today. I spend the first half of the day getting a very specific discount card from Deokgu; as a resident of Bugu, I only have to pay 4500 Won. I can’t write any Korean, but I am starting to write down the phrases I need to begin conversations. Through the power of Couchsurfing, I found two Australian expats in Juk-Byeon, south of Bugu, and went over to their place for a movie night with two American teachers. I’m running on the beach. I tried one restaurant, but it was a copout: English menu and too comfortable (AC, too clean). I’ve already begun my search for a set of slippers that will fit me, something I doubt I would have considered at AEON (shoes are allowed in the school). I’m not letting school preoccupy my time. I know ways to connect to other travelers. I’m just… comfortable. As soon as this apartment is clean.

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