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Welcome to the Circus

“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen… I have a special treat for you this evening. All the way from Florida, U.S.A., I bring you (insert drum roll) not one, but two, blond-haired, green-eyed white people!”

I imagined the Korean man with his face pressed against the window of Starbucks would have said this if he spoke English.

But instead, just a deer-in-the-headlights stare—from him and about 20 others walking the streets of Myeong-dong.

My sister and I tried to focus our attention on each other, and our soy lattes, as cameras flashed and fingers pointed. But being a pseudo-celebrity is not as easy as US Weekly would have you believe.

So we laughed. Uncontrollably.

Three months of ogling and I still can’t get used to it. Nor can I understand why Koreans find it so unbelievable that a white American woman would take up residence in their country.

But it’s flattering, really. Well, besides the whole feeling-like-a-sideshow-freak thing.

I just need to remember to smile the next time a camera goes off…soy foam dripping from my nose is not a good look.

Does this country make me look fat?

Tales of a travel addict

Photo courtesy of Tales of a Travel Addict.

“You are very beautiful, Jennifer teacher, but you are fat.”

I wanted to end class then and there. I wanted to run home, bury my face in my pillow and cry. But the tears wouldn’t wait. I dropped my scissors, put down the construction paper turkey and cried.

I suddenly missed America—the land where a size six was normal—a place where every retail store sold clothes and shoes to fit my body. But alas, I live in Korea, where normal is a size 0 and a 6 is, well, apparently fat.

Last weekend I finally visited a jjimjilbang, or a public bathhouse. For two months I had heard nothing but amazing things about these hot spots—how the large baths contained healing ingredients like ginseng, green tea and clay, how some of the saunas reached up to 160 degrees. One of my Korean friends even told me about a special kind of egg you could only get at one of these places.

I couldn’t wait to rip off my clothes and relax.

But it’s hard to relax when hundreds of chopstick-thin women are eyeballing your naked body—watching your thighs rub together with every step.

It was humiliating.

There was, however, a bright spot…like a moth to a flame, a heavy-set American woman swam up to me as I was cowering in the corner of the carbonic acid pool. “I hated my first jjimjilbang experience,” she said. “But now I can’t get enough. Trust me, you’ll get over the whole being naked thing and learn to love it.”

She shot me a reassuring smile and walked toward the green tea hot tub.

Her butt jiggled the whole way.

This is Only a Test

“What’s that sound?” one of my students asked, pulling on my shirt. I quickly answered, “It’s probably an ambulance—you know, taking someone to the hospital.”

It wasn’t until I got back to the apartment that my roommate clued me in. “So, did you hear the practice alarms today?”

Once a month, the city of Seoul sounds its sirens—making sure they work for when North Korea decides to attack again. It’s been more than 50 years since the last shot was fired on South Korean soil, but to some, it feels like only yesterday.

A few days before hearing the alarms I visited Seoul Tower, the highest point in all of Seoul, to view its expansive skyline—a sea of grey apartment buildings and office complexes, surrounded by moss green mountains. A stable ominous fog hung over the concrete empire, making the fantastic scene more haunting than beautiful.

Through the lens of the binoculars I saw a modern metropolis—a technologically advanced, thriving city. In my mind I pictured what my grandfather might have seen while he was stationed here. I imagined how the South Koreans felt when they decided to rebuild Seoul. A tear fell from my eye.

The experience gave me a new respect for these people. It made me look at the hardworking produce man down the street a little differently. It made me notice how strong the owner of my school seems, despite her small, delicate frame. The old woman selling seafood pancakes on the corner never stops smiling.

And I smile right back.

This year may be challenging—learning the language, adapting to the culture, being thousands of miles away from my friends and family. But each time I hear those sirens sound, I’ll think of all the challenges the South Koreans have faced, and just how far they’ve come.

Korea by the Numbers

In the U.S., numbers make me crazy. In Korea, well, they just don’t make sense.

Take my apartment building…101. The building to my right, 113. To the left, 104. Don’t try to look for a pattern or make sense of this; addresses weren’t assigned based on location. The buildings are labeled in the order in which they were constructed. So if you don’t feel like getting lost in the second biggest city in the world, make a Korean friend. They’re your only hope, as mapquest and google maps do not exist here.

Once you reach your destination, if you decide to take the elevator, the buttons on the door will read: 1, 2, 3, F, 5, and so on. The number four in Korean reads exactly the same as the word death, so it’s not present in elevators. Many Asians have actually developed such a strong aversion to the number that the ailment has a name: Tetraphobia.

Oh, and, by the way, I live on floor F.

Something else I’ve learned: the kids I teach are really six years old, not seven as I was told. No, the school’s director didn’t lie to me; the moment a person is born in Korea they’re considered to be one year old.

That means I’m 28 here.

Better yet, when January hits, I’ll be 29. Koreans don’t wait for your birthday to slap another year onto your age.

I knew there was a reason I hated numbers.

You Want me to Pee Where?

Going to the bathroom in Korea is like receiving a box of Russel Stover chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.

Day two in Korea, still jetlagged, I had a 9:30am health check appointment at the hospital. A vision test, hearing test, lung X-ray and four vials of blood later, it was time to pee in a cup.

After being pricked and poked in front of what seemed like half of Seoul, a little urine sample sounded relatively painless.

I was wrong. My first public peeing experience—in a hospital mind you—ended up being in a ceramic hole in the ground.

What way do I face? Do I take my pants off? And if so, where do I put them? How am I going to pee in this damn cup with my skinny jeans around my ankles?

So many questions and so little time. My new boss was waiting for me outside the bathroom. So I planted my feet around the hole in the ground, shimmied my way-too-tight pants down to my knees and peed.

And not a drop of misplaced urine.

After the hospital I was off to see the school for the first time. And somehow, by the time we reached the building, I had to pee again. No ceramic holes, just miniature western-style toilets built for 5-year-olds and a few pairs of shower shoes placed at the entrance. I’m still not sure what they want me to do with these.

A few more facts about the bathrooms in Korea: There is no liquid hand soap. That’s right, these people wear masks everywhere they go and don’t allow outside shoes even at a gym, but they’ll happily share a piece of bar soap at their local watering hole. Sometimes you’ll even see it attached to a metal stick protruding from the bathroom wall.

Toilet paper, if there is any, is usually available outside of the stall. I’ve learned to carry tissue paper with me just in case. I’ve also learned that no matter what the bathroom may be like, sometimes you just gotta go.

Food, Glorious Food

Andrew Zimmern taught me that Korea is a soup culture, that its people eat squid while it’s still squirming. Anthony Bourdain gave me a taste of Korea’s street food and an introduction to soju. A 200-some-odd-page book told me all I needed to know about the different types of kimchi.

I had a laundry list of food items I wanted to try the minute I landed in Seoul. But twenty-three hours of traveling will make you do crazy things—my first meal ended up being a cheese pizza and a bottle of Coca Cola Classic.

Day two consisted of processed fish squares, fermented bean and cabbage soup, kimchi, Korean BBQ and a whole lotta white rice. Since then I’ve eaten jelly fish, seafood pancakes, octopus jerky, mandu, spicy rice balls, peppers so hot I couldn’t speak for 20 minutes, shaved ice topped with red beans and condensed milk, and more spicy cabbage and noodles than you can imagine.

Did I mention I’ve been here less than three weeks?

Other than the first night, and a few necessary MacDonald’s runs, eating in Seoul has been, in a word, interesting. I never know what the school lunch will bring, nor do I know what half the items are until already ingested, but it’s all part of the fun.

I’m just trying to figure out how these Korean women stay so damn skinny.

A food-obsessed travel blog.

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