Orienting in Seoul

It’s difficult to remember that I am in Korea during orientation. Even though we’re being lectured on Korean culture and language, and there’s a lot of talk about teaching in Korea, I spend most of the days within the campus of this international college, going from lecture to lecture and speaking to other native English speakers. In the evenings, finally free to roam the streets of Seoul after the twelve-hour days of classes, it’s hard to convince my brain that I’m not just in a giant ‘Koreatown’ neighborhood back in NYC. A very giant, extremely authentic Koreatown, but still.  Being half way around the world and actually in Korea just isn’t registering.

Not that my brain really had a chance to register its change in location. As soon as I got off the plane at Incheon Airport, I found my way to the orientation site, quickly fell into a jetlag-induced sleep, and started a full day of orientation the next morning. There wasn’t really any processing time.  To further confuse matters, I ran into a guy who lived on the same floor in my dorm freshman year of college on my way from the airport. (Who isn’t teaching English in Korea these days?) People on the streets wear baseball hats promoting American baseball teams, shirts emblazoned with NYC and Brooklyn, and fashion that’s straight out of NYC’s Soho. Where was I?

A night on the town

Not that Seoul was entirely like New York City. And I’m sure if I spent enough time there I’d find it was nothing like it at all. One of the first things I noticed when arriving at the airport and trying to get help finding which bus I needed to take was how incredibly friendly everyone was. Just out of their way helpful in helping me buy my bus ticket, get my bags to the bus stop and load them onto the bus…that didn’t feel like NYC.

The orientation is six days of trying to give us soon-to-be English teachers as much information about teaching, the Korean school system, Korean culture, history and language as possible. While the information is helpful, it becomes quite frustrating to talk so much about Korean culture when we could be going out and actually experiencing it for ourselves. People who had already started teaching shared stories that mainly told us that everyone’s experience was different, and there was no way to know what to expect. How much could you really prepare for the unexpected?

One of the best parts of the week was visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace. The palace was built in 1395, and was the largest palace in the Chosun Dynasty. The palace’s name means ‘Bless all the people’s luck in the peaceful period,’ but, of course it was nearly completely destroyed by Japan during an invasion (in 1592). Since then it has obviously been reconstructed and still looks rather awesome today. For me, it was rather amazing to see the traditional Asian architecture that I had been looking at pictures of before I left, and that I remembered seeing in ninja movies I used to watch when I was little (although the movies were probably in Japan). It felt like I had actually arrived – I was in Asia! The architecture and colors on the buildings were also pretty mind-blowingly incredible.

Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace
crazy eyes 2
crazy eyes
Temple in Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace

Our brief forays into the city in the evening provide little glimpses into Korean culture. Such as: People generally eat as well as drink at bars, and the wait staff will not appreciate it if you just try to order drinks. Also: soju is cheaper than water and it’s usually BYO in the noraebangs.

Cocktails in a bag!
Noraebanging - with the drunken Koreans from the room next door

Perhaps my favorite moment of the week was getting from the airport to the orientation site. After getting off the bus an hour and a half later than I should have, having missed my stop and gone on an unexpected ‘detour’ with another lost EPIK orientee, I fond myself in a rather busy neighborhood full of university-aged types. On the corner trying to catch a cab, I ran into the guy I knew from NYU, at which point everything felt kind of magical.

I hailed my new friend and myself a cab NYC-style (which was all I knew – I now know that Koreans have a rather different manner of cab-hailing in which the palm is down and they wave their fingers in a ‘come here’ motion. It will take me a while to get used to this). The cab driver that stopped for us didn’t seem to speak any English, and we definitely didn’t speak any Korean, but considering we had been given driving directions written in Korean communication didn’t seem all that necessary. However, when loading all of our luggage – which was quite a bit, considering we were both set to move in for a year – the driver packed the bags quite precariously into the trunk so that it could not close at all. My friend from the bus seemed quite concerned, as his suitcases were most precariously positioned. Not that he could say anything to the cab driver, whose only word of English seemed to be – of course – ‘Ok?’

‘Ok…I guess…’


And with that we were off, and at a rather quick speed considering the wide-open trunk. The cab driver was balancing his cell phone on the steering wheel, trying to see the phone number on the directions we had given him as he simultaneously navigated the car. Sitting in the front seat, I realized that for the moment the fate of my belongings – and myself – was entirely out of my control and in the hands the cab driver sitting next to me. And that was ok. Watching the Korean signs and streets wiz by through the window, I had my first sense that I had just embarked on an adventure.


(evening out pictures on this page were stolen from my friend Ellen!)

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Mark Payne
    Oct 12, 2010 @ 20:36:41

    I made it in twice!


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