Saturday marked my first day of sleeping in. I turned my phone over looking at the time and saw 10:00am and I was unnecessarily proud of myself and my body: I was finally over jet-lag. These last few days have been a whirlwind and that sleep was needed for the sake of decompressing and recharging. Thursday I started Korean classes. We spend 4 hours each day, Monday through Friday, in the classroom. The class is taught solely in Korean by two professors from Korean University. Its been only two days and I already am feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and envious of peoples’ brains. Simultaneously, I remaining excited and optimistic. As I said its only been two days and I am already beginning to become familiar with the alphabet. I can even write my name: ㅁㅐ튜. Unsurprisingly, I found my greatest nemesis is hearing. My teacher will read out a word in class and we are asked to write out what we hear. I listen intently, but the letters blur together and I am left bewildered. Nonetheless, learning Korean is unlike any other educational experience I’ve had. Each day I am able to walk out of the classroom and be constantly reminded of the lessons and the impact of learning the language.
Friday we had our language classes and series of cultural and teaching workshops so our schedule was packed. Following the workshops we had our dynasty challenge. We were divided into several small groups and asked to compete against in each other. Think a mix between Harry Potter houses and Hunger Games fight to the death. I was a part of the Baekje Dynasty. In this night’s challenge we were asked to play Ninja. I laughed to myself, thinking how one decision at the school has now influenced our group activities. We were asked to play with our dynasty to select a tribute to fight the other dynasties. I played hard, but came in second. So another member of our group competed and she played smart and well, reacting quickly when needed to and ultimately won for us (rewarding us 100 points). By 7:00pm we finished our programming.
It was now the end of the week and officially the weekend and I was craving something sweet (facing an ice cream withdrawal). So a few of us adventured into town and tried Patbingsu (Shaved Ice). It was delicious. We can walk into town from the university and it takes about 10 minutes. Its a small rural town. I didn’t notice much besides a bridge we had to cross that overlooks a large creek with stoney sides that looks like a great spot to sit and hangout around. While walking I had the chance to talk with one of the Korean students from the university. His English was great and we were about to hold a great conversation. He was a social work major and was interested in working with troubled teens. The conversation excited me to learn more about the social issues in Korea and think about how I will connect with my community during my teaching year. Finally, we arrived at a small cafe that was recommended so we adventured in. Several of us ordered Patbingsu and one person ordered Honey Bread. Patbingsu is served in deep bowls made for sharing. So our group decided to try two, the berry and mango. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it looked beautiful. The ice was compacted together like a snowball with the toppings generously spread throughout. Someone mentioned that we were suppose to smash and stir. So we repeated the action several times until the fruit juices sank and mixed with the ice. It was delicious and unquestionably refreshing. Each bite tasted like a swirl of summer and winter together because of the cold touch of ice and the sweetness of the fruit. We sat in the cafe for awhile just talking. It was nice to feel that the conversation, was no longer “hi my name is Mat, what’s yours?” and began to foster genuine laughs and meaningful talk. I also was able to try a bite of the Honey Bread and it definitely is on my list to have at a later date. It tasted like sweet french toast with fresh whipped cream. The dough was crunch on the corners and soft in the middle, a perfect blend. Finally, we all decided to begin heading back and along the way we saw our fellow American friends (we were easy to spot) on the streets beginning Friday night shenanigans. Many of us felt tired by the time we got back to the university, but also had a fear of missing out so instead of going the night over we began a game of Settlers (something don’t change). Quickly I realized that was a mistake. My first turn I rolled a 7 and placed the robber on my own resource. Nevertheless, the game was fun and I wasn’t the target for losing (but I didn’t win either). I went to sleep tired, but happy. I felt like I was beginning to settle in and connect with the group.
Saturday morning after I relaxed in bed I headed downstairs regrouping with people from last night and we walked into down craving some waffles for breakfast. We heard waffles are a popular dish here so we wanted to try them and I am so glad we did. They are served in a burrito style so the two waffle halves are pressed together and you can eat them one handed. I had the apple topping with whipped cream in the center. It was delicious. The store was a tiny shop with one line of chairs that we occupied and the people were so friendly. Its apparently common in Korea for stores to offer service gifts so the family owners gave each of us coke (not my ideal drink with breakfast but I had it to be polite). We bowed and left the shop promising to come back. By the time we returned from town it was lunch time. I wasn’t hungry, but I knew I should eat. Following lunch we had a workshop and a Dynasty Challenge. The workshop was on cultural adjustment. We started the lesson with talking about culture and personal culture. I thought the concept of personal culture was interesting because it signifies the connection and adoption of a number of cultures we a part of that help formulate our beliefs, values, and assumptions. The facilitators then asked us to write our top 5 values on a worksheet designed as a T-shirt (to indicate we wear our values). I have been asked this question a number of times over my years at Elon and each time I just pause and think, always finding myself coming back to words like perseverance, knowledge, and community. The workshop was a good foundational review and I am hoping it will lead to interesting conversations. The challenge was a scavenger hunt where we had to go into town and talk pictures of random places. By the end we all were feeling the heat and humidity. My clothes were sticking to me and I felt sweat on my back. Later in the day was dinner. It was my favorite meal so far. We had fried chicken. Apparently Korea loves this dish and there are many restaurants that solely serve fried chicken (I can totally live with this). Of course the chicken was served with white rice and not mash potatoes, but I will live. After dinner we watched a Korean historical drama called Taegukgi. I wasn’t expecting to like it, but I thought it would be a good idea to watch for the sake of cultural immersion. Surprisingly, I became deeply invested in the movie. It was a story about the Korean War and two brothers who were forced to fight. The love of the brothers were so profound that when one of the brothers thought the other died he joined the North Korean soldiers in enmity. I definitely recommend it.