My flight wrapped up without issue. I sat behind two little kids and by the end of the flight, they were very restless so that was a little annoying. I try to have some grace for kids on long flights; if I’m bored, they sure are! Anyway, I was next to a woman who was probably in her mid-60s. She was on her way to Nepal to volunteer for a women’s rights organization. She was so awesome! Apparently when she retired four years ago, she began traveling and realized quickly that being a tourist wasn’t enough for her. She has spent time in Bolivia, Thailand, Mongolia, and Nepal. She said that she tries to do two 2-month trips each year, and usually works with women’s organizations. Talk about inspiring. It really proves that you are never too old (or young!) to make a difference in the world.
When we landed at Incheon, it was about 5:50pm in Korea but my body was feeling like 2:50am (Texas time). I had taken a short nap - maybe like an hour or hour and a half total - so it could have been worse but I was tired. But I was back in KOREA! And when I got off the plane and saw the sign that said Welcome to Korea and I couldn’t stop smiling! I breezed through immigration and went to collect my luggage. No lost suitcases - success! I made my way out into the arrivals hall and asked an Information booth where to catch the 6009 airport limousine bus to Sinsa. She directed me outside and I waited for around 15 minutes for the bus to arrive. I had known that it would be cold here, but it really hit me when I was standing out there waiting!! So cold!! I connected to a spotty wifi network and let Jessica know I was on my way, boarded the bus, and I was off.
The ride should have been about 50 minutes but because of traffic, it ended up taking an hour and twenty minutes. Jessica had tried to time it to where she could meet me as I got off the bus, but with my delay and us having no way of communicating, I just hoped that she waited for me! When I got to the bus stop, I got off and looked around for Jessica. I was so used to my old neighborhood, which is pretty mild, that this area was intimidating with its sheer masses of humanity and so many lights. I didn’t see Jessica and stood huddled at the bus stop, searching the faces of everyone passing me to see if they were her. No joy. After about 10 minutes, I was freezing my butt off and knew that I was going to have to ask a stranger to borrow their phone to call Jess. I asked one woman, and she looked like I asked her to please follow me off a cliff, and shuffled away from me as fast as she could. The next girl I asked was a bit younger and she still looked at me like I grew two heads when I asked her to use her phone. However, I’m sure the pleading desperation in my eyes must have convinced her I was sincere because she let me use it.
Once I got ahold of Jessica (she having decided to take refuge in a bank to wait til I arrived, but missing my arrival), she came and helped me with my suitcases and we headed through the maze of backstreets to her apartment. It was so great to see her finally! She has been in Korea for around 8 months now, and I’m her first visitor!! It was so cold, though, and we didn’t really chat much until we got to the apartment and defrosted. By then, I was starving so we decided to catch up over dinner. She didn’t really have any restaurants in mind, so we just picked the first BBQ joint we saw in her neighborhood. They only had one meat choice, so that’s what we got. It was so great to sit and talk with her after so many months of sparse communication, and that only over text.
After a bottle of soju and a couple of beers (along with the food), we headed back to Jessica’s apartment so I could get some sleep. I certainly needed it and fell asleep almost immediately.
I woke up at 2:30am, completely wide awake. I knew I wouldn’t be able to completely avoid jetlag, so I wasn’t too surprised to be so awake and restless. After much tossing and turning, though, I managed to fall back asleep for a few more hours. When I woke up, Jessica was getting ready for work (her last day before vacation begins!) and she showed me how to lock and unlock her door, and then headed to work. After posting my last blog, I got a shower and got ready for the day. Around 10:30am, I left the apartment to my first destination: the ISA office!
I topped up my t-money card (subway pass) which I brought from Korea to America, and then back again. I caught the subway and alighted at Wangsimni. I followed the directions for the office, and found it without a problem.
The Seoul staff is comprised on three people -Jonathan, Jaehoon, and Sooji. Jonathan is American born but speaks fluent Korean, as his family is from Korea. The other two are Korean-born. They were all super nice and so hospitable. Their office is still under a bit of construction, as they haven’t been in it for too long and they’re still having interior work done (the building itself is complete!). The office walls are almost entirely windows, and being on the 11th floor, it is actually a wonderful view. It’s really a gorgeous office! We chatted for about 30 minutes, then they invited me to get lunch with them. I decided to go along.
We went down the road to a restaurant and ended up having bulgogi. I haven’t really cared for bulgogi in the past, but this was really good! It was in a soup with glass noodles, and it had great flavor. We chatted over lunch about my time in Korea, their experiences, ISA, and more. It was really fun to chat with them. Everytime I said something flattering about Korea or Koreans, Jaehoon would BLUSH and thank me! It was hilarious, like I had given him the biggest compliment.
When we left there, we went back to the office building so we could take a few pictures together. We ended up having the contractor who was working in the office take them, and it was hilarious because he was basically like a professional photographer; he took like 5 photos at different angles without even being prompted to. So funny! (And so Korean!)
I left the office and caught a bus to my old neighborhood, Jangandong. I could have taken the subway, but then I would have also needed to get a bus, plus Wangsimni is really big and I’d have needed to walk probably half a mile to even get to the train. Instead, I took a nearby bus (thank you Google maps!!). I got off at the stop across from my old school, SLP. What a SURREAL moment to look up and see the sign, to recognize almost everything. So little had changed (minus the big new cafe right next door!). I was too early for my meeting with Jasmine, and too early to see any of my old students yet, so I popped into the CU - convenience store - to see if I recognized the lady who used to work there that I would buy ramen and Twix bars from. She wasn’t there, so I decided to go up to SLP early and see the teachers.
I took the elevator up and when I got off, I recognized the “desk teachers” aka receptionist and one of them kind of looked at me like she kiiiinda recognized me, but not entirely. I told her “Chelsea Teacher!” and she might have understood, but I have no idea. She was always an enigma.
She walked me down to the teachers room and when I poked my head in behind her, Jackie Teacher looked at me completely bewildered. It was like dejavu; literally nothing had changed about the room or about Jackie. It had only been a year and a half, but still, its surreal to return to a place and see that it is exactly how you left it. Jackie immediately began fussing and asking me tons of questions. I told her that I was just visiting Korea, not living here, but I wanted to say hi and maybe see some of my students. We began going over which of my old students were still there, and it turns out that the vast majority of students I still have are on Tuesday/Thursday. The few that would be there today would be in later classes, so 4:10 would be the best time to see them.
After chatting for a few minutes with her and Phoebe Teacher (poor sap is still there, running that entire school on her back), I left with the intent to return after I visited with Jasmine. Jasmine and I were set to meet at 3:30 at the big cafe, but it was barely 2pm by this time and I didn’t really have anywhere else I wanted to go before then. So, I texted her that if she could come early, please do. Then, I posed up at the cafe, got on their WiFi, and waited.
Luckily, Jasmine got the text and she showed up at 2:45. When she walked up, I seriously didn’t recognize her. Maybe it was the big overcoat, maybe it was the new haircut, maybe it was the braces. Whatever it was, it took me a good 5 seconds to register that she was Jasmine. Then I jumped up and gave her a huge hug (which Koreans seem to think is so weird), and she started laughing. At first she was so shy and I could barely hear her talking. I think she had recently gotten the braces, and so she was maybe talking a little differently than I was used to.
I made her sit next to me instead of across from me, so that I could hear her better, and after a few minutes of niceties, she started to relax and I could see the Jasmine I remembered. Talk about grown up - I can’t believe that it has been a year and a half since I’ve seen her! We chatted for a while about school, academy, her friends, her brother, and some other stuff. I remembered that we were in a cafe, and I asked her if she wanted to get something to drink. She nodded yes and we went to look at the menu. She pointed out a few drinks and then I could hear excitement in her voice when she saw Hot Chocolate. I asked her if she wanted one, and she said yes but it is so expensive (and she was right!), but I told her I would buy it for her. I mean, she’s 11 (American age), I’m sure she can’t afford this ridiculously priced drink. She was so surprised and thanked me a bunch. We ordered and went back to sit down. We kept chatting and then our drinks came and she ate all of the whipped cream off the top - such a kid. When we were finished with our drinks, we took some pictures and she taught me in the art of “cute” in Korea. She also showed me that the most flattering angle you can take a photo from is basically 180 degrees above your head (well, thats a bit of an exaggeration… but not much!). We laughed and took probably 50 or 60 pictures before we were done.
Eventually, I had to go back to SLP and we left the cafe. She walked to SLP with me and then headed to catch her bus. It was so sad to say goodbye; she asked me when I would come back to Korea and I told her I don’t know, but it might be a long time. She promised to keep writing to me, so hopefully we stay in touch for a while :) Who knows, maybe next time I visit she will be in high school or maybe university. What a crazy thought!
It was now 4:10, and I headed back up to SLP again. There were kids running around everywhere and I tried to get a look at some of their faces, but I didn’t recognize anyone. I went into their waiting room area, and Phoebe was getting them organized to go to class. She saw me and called out for Julie and Tommy to come over. Julie was one of my favorite students and I had her from New High Kids 2 (basically the second most basic class after phonics); she was very soft spoken in English, but could certainly get her point across in Korean as I witnessed many time in class. We actually share a birthday and we always got along well. She looked at me for a second without recognizing me, and Phoebe told her, “It’s Chelsea Teacher!” and her eyes got all big and she didn’t even know what to do with herself. I told her to give me a hug and she did. It was really sweet! Then Tommy, another student I’d had in that class who, while very sweet and loud in his English in class, didn’t really know how to have spontaneous conversation. He looked a bit bewildered, and Julie told him again, “Chelsea Teacher!” he nodded that he understood, but definitely didn’t know what to do. His version of a hug was hilariously bad, but they both stood there and kind of talked to me for a minute. When I asked how they were, Tommy immediately responded “I’m fine!” and Julie, while totally giggly, didn’t answer. Then Julie said, in a very measured English, “Teacher, I want to tell you. You look very beautiful and changed!” I couldn’t help but laugh. I told her she was too! They’d both grown about a foot; why do kids do that?! Change and grow?!
Anyway, they had to run to class so, being that I didn’t really know anyone else there (I’m sure I could have found someone… maybe), I left pretty quickly after that. Jessica was about to get off work and start heading over to my neighborhood, so I walked to the part where I used to live, about a 10-15 minute walk away. It was bright and sunny, albeit cold, but the walk was nice. It was totally surreal to do that walk again; literally nothing had changed. When I got to my area, I walked to the 7-Eleven I used to go to all the time to see if the lady who worked there was around. She always loved me and would chatter to me in Korean. I went in and there was a guy working, and I showed him the photo I took with the lady and asked if she was there. He shook his head no and said something. My first thought was she had died. I must have looked horrified, because he immediately tried to start explaining, but then he realized I don’t speak any Korean and start to search for words in English. I asked, “Tomorrow?” wondering if she’d be there, but he couldn’t give me any response really, until finally he managed “She work today at 15:00.” I took that to mean that she worked until 3, and then went home. Bummer!
I waited for Jess at the nearby Cafe Bene and stole WiFi for a while until she was at Janghanpyeong station and then we met up. I walked her by my old apartment and I saw my old landlord Mr. Kim. He smiled and laughed in his usual way, and I have no idea if he understood anything I said. We moved on and headed to my favorite BBQ place ever. It was only around 5:30, but there were a few other people in the restaurant. I ordered our food - galmaegisal or pork skirt - and we settled into a booth. The food came and my mouth was watering. The meat, the marinated bean sprouts and lettuce, the dipping broth… nommmz. My first bite was literally heaven. I can’t express adequately how much I’d missed that BBQ the past year and a half. Jess liked it a lot as well, and we stuffed ourselves. It was funny to compare dinner Friday with dinner on Thursday - It was less than half the price and probably twice as much food, and twice as delicious at my favorite place than the other. Success!
Our last stop for the night was my old favorite bar, which is self-service and has a good selection. I supposed that I could get any of those beers back home, so I had my old standby - Cass Light. It was only 7:30, but we were pretty tired by then and decided to head back for a wine night at home. We made the trek home, nearly freezing in the process, but finally made it. Neither of us had much energy by then - it was a matter of walking, catching a bus, getting the subway, changing lines, and then walking some more - and went to bed rather early. We decided to go to bed early in hopes of getting up and having a full day!
It was a great and FULL first day in Seoul! Saturday will bring shopping and more delicious food as we prepare for Japan on Sunday…