Sunday, February 10, 2013

Seoul Searching

Less than 3 weeks in, and here we are. Very much alive and mostly well, safe and relatively sound. We're finally in Korea and it's not feeling quite real just yet. Trying to write has been incredibly difficult when organizing my thoughts is akin to collating glitter in a sandstorm, and posting something intelligible here even more so (unstable, hijacked internet connection notwithstanding). Bear with me.

After a nondescript 13-hour flight, we arrived at sunset on a day that seems - in the receding fog of sleep deprivation, adrenaline, and feeling jarringly alien - to have been years ago. We promptly began a brutal adjustment period in which our jet-lagged bodies fought for appetites and struggled to break the exhaustion-driven pattern of 4-hour naps and restless nights. Sleeping still has its kinks, but then again, I've never really managed to work them out in any time zone. We were immediately embraced by our of small community of coworkers before even setting foot in the school, and over the boisterous rounds of cheap beer and soju, I don't know the last time I've felt so instantly welcome and seamlessly knitted into the fold.

Not everything has been seamless, of course. Several of my own stitches have been rough and exposed when attempting what, at home, would be the most mundane of tasks. Perfect example: navigating the grocery store alone brought me to tears once I escaped the crush and noise of it all (for someone who is prone to panic attacks in Costco, this wasn't entirely surprising; rather, it was expected and still a nightmare). In my smaller, older neighborhood, where our blue eyes and American laughs attract overt stares, the markets are filled with aggressive ajummas pushing their way through the masses on a mission. (A stone's throw from our apartment, I wandered the open-air Dunchon market, littered with bins of gleaming tentacles and roasted chestnuts. I had let myself get lost in the sounds of sizzling vegetable pancakes and clamoring vendors when I was physically moved by a surprisingly strong old woman, no taller than my elbow, on her way to her desired buckets of  squid and dried corn. Had I not gotten a glimpse of her white perm brushing past as I fought for my balance, I would have thought the stalls were haunted.)

Taking the subway into the heart of the city to undergo our visa-required physicals was an unusual, intimate-yet-estranging ordeal. Much like I would imagine a very friendly Area 51 laboratory tour, our visit entailed an hour of being led through several floors of medical offices in a robe and slippers, passed with oddly-personable efficiency from nurse to doctor to nurse to doctor, from white room to sterile white room, one rapid-fire test and blood draw to another. If you ever want to feel like you've been sent to the future where you don't speak the language and even the Star Trekkian door-opening technology surpasses your logic, get an alien registration physical in Seoul.

Some of the smallest victories are our biggest accomplishments: purchasing the correct garbage bags (Seoul has a very strict waste disposal system), figuring out how the shower works (forget a bathtub - the shower head is connected to the faucet, so you just shower in the middle of the floor between the toilet and the sink), demystifying the produce section of the market, making tea on our tiny gas range, fumbling through Korean directions for the rice cooker, buying paper and pencils to be able to make art again.

On a grander, more impressive scale, we learned to read in about a week and are well on our way to learning what some words we pronounce actually mean, too. Our vocabulary is blooming through study and stumbling immersion. We've nailed the subway, stand a fighting chance in a taxi, and can order take-out. I'm getting used to a lack of personal space and I've accepted that I'm not in control, and won't even feel such an illusion for a long time.

I've fallen in love with the Olympic Park, a 10-minute walk from our apartment and across the street from our school. The first warm day we had (at a downright balmy 36F), I walked the park for over 3 hours, following winding paths through the trees, discovering gardens, excavated tombs, and sculptures, and chasing the many bunnies, pheasants, cranes, and feral cats stalking the grounds. The photos will warrant their own post here. Even frozen and winter-browned, the park is just beautiful, but I can't wait until new leaves feather the naked trees and the icy streams thaw to a familiar music. I plan on ending many summer days there.

Beyond the Park, exploration of Seoul is endless, but we officially began playing tourist at Gyeongbok Palace a short subway ride away. The main palace of the Joseon Dynasty is breathtaking, a quiet bastion of history surrounded by skyscrapers, hushed in snow even amid the nearby thunder of drums and dance celebrating the Lunar New Year. Gyeongbokgung also merits its own future post.

Not all discoveries have been pleasant, if felt more acutely. As my contract doesn't start for another 2 weeks yet, I am alone in the apartment while Adam is at work, and it is hard to ignore the isolation and the fact that I am without my furry shadow. I miss Eliot terribly, especially when I encounter one of our neighborhood's many stray cats, dirty and aloof, I don't dare approach. I miss my friends and family. I miss Seattle fiercely - my old apartment, my Capitol Hill, my old sense of home. I'm slowly making this apartment our own, but it's not easy given our lack of decorating resources beyond my own drawings and the unwieldy furniture provided, plus inherited artifacts of the previous tenants. Optimism will go a long way in this.

The coffee is awful, as the instant variety is virtually the only kind available in stores, but there are plenty of coffee shops brewing from real grounds in the area that can sell us beans once we manage to get our hands on a French press. I miss cheese and peanut butter and my favorite fruits - I dream of Trader Joe's and Seattle's farmers' markets - but my muffin top is slowly deflating into a pancake flop as we de-Westernize our diets, so I'm not complaining much. I am usually cold and stranded beyond meager communication on stolen wireless, yet even more stranded when I force myself outside and find myself alone in the crowd. My saving grace is the little things, like reading for hours in the weak sunlight, the feeling of my bare feet on the heated floor, and the excitement of learning a new word or three. I even found strawberries at a new favorite grocer: an un-looked-for reminder of bright things and the sweetness of summer. This kind of humble promise - and Adam's patient love - keeps my head.

I still can't believe I'm here, and that I've only been here a few weeks. Time passes so quickly, so slowly, I'm a blur. I am mindful of the Lunar New Year of the Snake ushering in our time here: we are shedding our skins, our senses on fire, blinking our eyes open in a different light of the same sun. I'm excited, I'm scared, I'm eager, and I'm uncomfortable - as I should be - and it's okay; it's messy, it's hard, and I love it. My arms are flung open: our adventure has begun.


  1. I'm so very, very excited for you, and for Adam. This all sounds wonderful and exhausting and exciting.

    By the time Jon visits Seoul in the fall for a trip to the film festival, I expect you will be capable and confident when showing him the sights of your neighborhood. :)

    So, um... pictures, please?

    1. <3

      We'll definitely be able to at least order him some delicious food! And as for pictures, you bet - I'm working on editing as I type :)