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My first week in Korea: Apartment and Job

Officially my first week in Korea will be over tonight, but since I’ll be working today, I decided to write up this post now instead. Overall, it has been a great first week. I moved in last Monday night, met my neighbor, Kayla, who also just moved in, and started making myself at home.

The Net

I bought a router for my apartment that Kayla and I split since her apartment is right next to mine. In exchange, she gave me her extra mattress pad for my bed, which makes my bed comfortable enough to sleep on.

Most of this past week I spent training to take over Tez’s teaching schedule. In general, his classes seem pretty manageable. Each class ranges in size from 1 to 15 students. Most of the younger classes and older classes tend to be 1-8 students. The few big classes I have will be in the middle of the day with the middle schoolers. I will be teaching everything from elementary phonics (bat, mat, cat, etc.) to teaching high school TOEFL speaking (you have 15 seconds to compose a minute long speech defending your opinion).

My Schedule

I need to be at work at 1 pm on Monday and 1:30 the rest of the week. We spend the first several hours planning for our classes, as the academy doesn’t start classes until 4 pm. During that time, typically we’ll look over lesson plans, review the material, or get lunch. During the 4 pm to 10 pm block, basically the rest of my day, I teach 5 to 6 classes, with one day of 7 classes. Within those classes, I have one class period off to eat dinner and another class period off for a break. Each class is 40 minutes with a 5-minute break in between.

I’ve gotten to know my neighborhood a little bit better as well. Its a fairly average working-class neighborhood, which in Korea means lots of PC Clubs, marts, and Kimbap places. PC clubs are internet cafes with really fast computers mainly for gaming. Marts are just minimarts and there is usually 1 every hundred feet if not closer. Kimbap places are little cafes with a small menu of kimbap (sushi-like rice roll), several variations on ramen, and a few rice bowls. I’m sure there’s more to them, but that’s all I’ve had so far.

My first Friday

Going Away Party for Tez and Melissa

Going Away Party for Tez and Melissa

This weekend was my first weekend in Korea, and what a weekend. Friday night we had a small party at work to celebrate Tez and Melissa leaving. They were the two teachers that Kayla, my neighbor, and I are replacing. There was lots of cake (both ice cream and regular) and tons of fried chicken and fried shrimp. Korea has tons of fast food places with fried chicken. They love it here.

After work, the teachers from my school, and the school upstairs, where Kayla works, met at one of the other apartment buildings that a lot of the teachers live at and we had a rooftop party. Their apartment complex is something like 7 stories and it sits on a mountainside overlooking the city. The view is amazing. Unfortunately, it was pitch black up there so I don’t have any pictures of it…yet.

Rooftop Party

Rooftop Party

At the party, we had Cass, OB, and Hite, all Korean beer. They taste like generic light beer from the states and they’re pretty cheap. Aside from Korean beer, most stores also sell Hoegaarden, Heineken, and Budweiser and of course Soju. Soju is a distilled rice beverage usually about 20% ABV. Its either drank straight or mixed with cola or cola and beer. I tried all three forms. Soju and cola is my favorite and tends to be the least alcoholic.

The party was a good way to hang out with my coworkers outside of work. There was a good mix of Korean and American teachers there as well so we all got to mingle and share out culture and stories. I really like my Korean coworkers, they’re all really nice and very helpful.

Korean Beer

Korean Beer

After a few drinks and some interesting conversation, Nicole, Kayla, and I walked back to the apartment to get a little bit of sleep before our beach adventure tomorrow.

Beach Day Post coming soon…

My Korean Apartment in Gwangju

Korean apartments, like most apartments in big cities, are tiny. Most foreign teachers have little studio apartments (one room with a kitchen and bathroom). Originally, I expected to receive a studio apartment. However, I lucked out with a one bedroom, with a decent amount of closet space, and by that I mean there is a closet.

The Entrance

The entrance to the apartment has a little electronic lock on it that looks similar to a hotel lock. You slide up a panel, enter a 4 digit code, then close the panel. The lock plays a little 8-bit (think Gameboy) tune then unlocks. Once you’re inside the panel plays the same little song backward, then locks itself. Its really neat and it makes stopping by friend’s apartments easy. If I’m still at work and Nicole wants to come over, she can just enter the code and make herself at home until I get back.

My shoes beside the door

My shoes beside the door

When you walk into most Korean apartments, there’s a little area by the door to take off your shoes. In all the apartments I’ve seen, it’s a little stone area thats lower than the rest of the apartment, to contain any dirt or water from the shoes.

Main Room

Main Room

Floor Heating

The apartment, aside from the bathroom is all wood floors. Korean heating comes from a network of heated pipes under the floor. There’s a unit on the wall, similar to a thermostat that controls both the floor heating and the hot water heater for the shower. I’m told floor heating is really expensive to run, like $7-a-day expensive. Most foreign teachers have told me just to buy a little space heater and keep it in whatever room you’re in, instead of heating the entire apartment.

The closet

The Closet

To the left of the main door is a wall of cabinets, and aside from my kitchen, it’s really the only source of storage in the apartment. Luckily, its big enough to hold all my clothes and most of the luggage I traveled here with.

The Bathroom

Across from the front door is the bathroom. In Korea, there are no dedicated showers. It’s generally seen as a waste of space. Instead, there’s a shower head on the wall that just sprays all over the bathroom and the entire bathroom becomes the shower. It seemed odd at first, but I’ve grown accustomed to it and now I just see it as a giant awesome shower. One point worth noting is that, as you might expect, everything in your bathroom will get wet, so put your toilet paper away and any other electronics (hair dryer, razor, etc) before you shower.

Apartment Bathroom

Apartment Bathroom

The Living Room

The main room of the apartment is the size of most college bedrooms. It’s not particularly big, just enough room for a TV, desk, and small couch (coming soon). My apartment comes with a TV and cable, whether I want it or not. All the channels, aside from FOX, seem to be in Korea. I’m told discovery channel is in English as well. I’ll take a look another day.

There is a set of sliding glass doors that separate the kitchen from the main room. I’m told this is to keep kitchen smells and heat from getting into the rest of the house as well as insulate the main rooms from the cold or heat outside.

The Kitchen

Kitchen

Kitchen

The kitchen has a small sink, a two burner stove (no oven), a 3/4 size fridge, and a washing machine (no dryer). On the ceiling is a drying rack that can be lowered down. Once you’re done washing your clothes, you lower the rack, place your clothes on it, then raise it back up again to keep it out of the way. When you’re using the drying rack, especially in winter, it’s important to close the kitchen doors and open the kitchen window, to keep the rest of the apartment from becoming moldy from the wet clothes.

The Bedroom

Finally the bedroom. It’s in the back of the apartment and about the size of the main room. I have a bedside table and a bed. The bed is interesting. Korean’s have single size beds instead of twins. Singles are about halfway between a twin and a double. There a pretty good size. I wouldn’t mind having one in the states. With Nicole and I sleeping on it, there’s enough space for both of us to sleep comfortably, but no extra space off to one side or the other. The mattress is absurdly uncomfortable. It’s an old metal spring mattress with zero cushion. I’m told this is common in Korea. Kayla, another foreign teacher at my school, and also my neighbor, had two mattress pads, so she gave me one to use. With the pad of the bed, it’s pretty comfortable.

Bedroom

Bedroom

The entire apartment is cooled by an AC unit in the living room that has a little remote for it. Because the apartment is so small, the unit can cool down most of the apartment in 30 minutes or so. Overall, the apartment exceeded my expectations for a Korean apartment, and once I get a small couch, I’ll be pretty happy with the place.

My first full day in Korea

Nicole and I woke up around 5:30 am, not bad for my first day on a 13-hour time difference. Nicole had correctly assumed I didn’t buy groceries my first night in Korea, so she brought over bananas and a granola bar. We ate that and decided to explore my new neighborhood.

Gwangju is nice, this photo is not, better ones coming soon

Gwangju is nice, this photo is not, better ones coming soon

Korea is an interesting place in that nothing is open before 10 am, and I mean that quite literally. With the exception of an occasional coffee shop, 1 in 10 maybe, everything is closed until at least 10. Nicole and I happened to stumble across a little French bakery around 10 and had our first Korean breakfast: bagel pizza. So my first Korean breakfast was an Italian dish from a French bakery. It was interesting, to say the least. First off, I view bagel pizza as a bizarre take on regular pizza and the Korean version was a bizarre take on the traditional pizza. It had cheese, tomato sauce, I think mayo and corn. All the pizza in Korea has corn on it…all of it.

Banana Milk

Banana Milk

Post bagel pizza, Nicole and I went shopping for basic necessities: water, shampoo, etc.

[box type=”notice” ]UPDATE: the shampoo I bought is amazing, possibly the best shampoo I have ever used and fortunately for me it comes with a giant refill bag of more shampoo that I can siphon into the original bottle. All the Korean shampoo I’ve seen comes with this additional refill bag. It’s odd, but incredibly thrifty.[/box]

Around 11 Nicole had to leave to go to her school so I wandered over to the Samsung store and bought myself a router. In Korea, Samsung makes everything: Forklifts, A/C units, routers, and the usual electronics they make in the states. When I got back to my apartment the router didn’t work, hence the delay in posting these blog entries.

As far as I could tell, this store only sold eggs.

As far as I could tell, this store only sold eggs.

At this point it was around 12:40 so I met up with Kayla, the other new teacher that lives in the apartment next to me and we walked downstairs to meet Judy, another one of the teachers who’s been here awhile. The three of us picked up more Kimbap at the little restaurant we’d stopped at on my first night in town.

When I got to the school I spent most of the day just observing other teachers. Around 8 pm the director of the school let me leave to get some rest and try to adjust to the time change. I took a cab to Nicole’s apartment and we drank Hoegaarden and hung out before passing out around 10. Adjusting to this time change will be harder than I thought.

Landing in Korea and my trip to Gwangju

Landing in Korea

Landing in Korea

When we finally landed, it was time for customs. On previous international trips, I’d flown through Europe and the EU passport line was always much shorter than the “everyone else” line. In Korea, the lines were reversed. It was mostly Koreans flying to Korea so they had a fairly long line, while the line for foreign passports was only 3 people long by the time I reached it. The customs process was fairly interesting. I had to get electronic fingerprints made of my index fingers and my photo was taken. European customs generally ask me questions like “where are you going?” “what brings you to Korea?”, Korean customs didn’t seem particularly interested in any of that. After the fingerprints and photos, they just waved me through.

Grabbing My Bag

I grabbed my bags off the carousel and made my way to the main terminal. Where I bought a bus ticket to Gwangju, the city I would be working in, and set out find a pay phone that would let me make a call. The task was easier said than done. None of the phones wanted to take my credit card and the phone card I bought from the airport’s convenience store seemed to be the wrong one. After looking like an idiot for a few minutes trying several different phones, an older Korean man came up and let me use his phone card so I could call my Korean contact and let them know I would be on the 6 pm bus to Gwangju.

A Bus to Gwangju

After calling I walked over to the bus station and boarded. I didn’t realize the seats were marked and so I accidentally sat in someone else’s seat. They politely let me know in broken English and asked me to check my ticket. It was at this point I realized that I didn’t have my ticket. At some point, I must have lost it. Luckily a Korean guy about my age offered to help out. He asked the bus driver to wait for us and helped me buy a second ticket to the same bus. It seemed like a big waste of money, but at least I was on my way and aboard the bus.

I found out the guy who had helped me was named Song. He was returning to Korea to attend grad school in Seoul in the fall. Song had spent the last several years in the states living in North Dakota for high school and then college. He’d spent his last few days in the states visiting New York and apparently, he’d been on the same flight as me.

Korean Rest Stop

Korean Rest Stop

After the first two hours of our bus trip, we arrived at a rest stop to use the bathrooms and buy snacks. I wasn’t too hungry and incredibly dehydrated so I bought a Gatorade and got back on the bus. The old man sitting next to us offered Song and I some sort of chips that tasted like Fruit Loops. I had a few because he was really pushy with his offer and then declined his next 3 offers before he finally gave up on asking me.

Arriving in Gwangju

When we finally reached Gwangju it was about 10 pm and I was exhausted. Two of the employees from Avalon, my school, picked me up and helped me load my bags into the car. Betty, I found out, is one of the foreign teachers and spoke some English. Our driver, Eric, spoke no English and I believe he is the bookkeeper at Avalon.

The two of them took me to my apartment and helped carry my bags up. They told me after I set my bags down that we would now go to the academy and meet the director. I was still in the clothes I’d traveled in. I asked my Korean companions if I could change, they told me not to worry about it, so I met my new co-workers in my dirty clothes. They didn’t seem to notice though so I think I’m good.

The school was a short drive from my apartment. It’s on the fourth floor and really brightly lit, like CVS pharmacy bright. I’ll write another entry about my school later.

After the 30 minutes, or so of the new school meet and greet. The other foreign teachers and I walked to a little Kimbap place about halfway between our apartments and the school. I had some tuna Kimbap and kimchi, it was about $2, delicious, and filling.

After dinner, the gang of new teachers and I came back to the apartments. Judy, one of the co-teachers I work with lent me some toilet paper and pillows for my bed from her apartment below mine. After that, I walked up to my apartment and met up with Nicole before calling it a night.