If you know me you know I am a notorious procrastinator. So around 10 PM the night before my flight to Korea I had begun to start packing. Trying to fit a year’s worth of stuff into a suitcase, carry on, footlocker and backpack is a daunting task. Luckily I had Kevin to help me, poor guy. At around 4 AM in the morning, suitcases near bursting at the seams, backpack expanded to the size of a fat toddler, we had finished. The fact that I would soon be leaving half way around the world hadn’t quite sunk in yet, and even as I write this, sitting haggardly on my bed at the end of day 2 of my orientation in Korea, I’m still not quite sure it has.
My father, mother, Kevin, and Rachel all decided to drive me to the airport at 6 in the morning. Running late as usual, having to figure out how to pack a couple last minute things I decided I couldn’t live without, I stopped to say goodbye to my dog Sonja before rushing out the door. She looked confused but accepted my kisses and hugs, and even got a little jealous when I gave Charlie (Kevin’s dog) a goodbye as well. But walking away from her stung and it took all I had to not start sobbing. A whole year without her, a year without her spooning me, licking me, farting so rancid I’d be woken from a sound sleep. It was almost too much to bear, but I swallowed the tears, because I knew if I started to cry, it would be the end for me and probably everyone else.
We finally got to the airport, and since we were running late we didn’t have time to park, leaving mom to drive the truck around while Dad, Kevin, Rachel and I lugged my monstrosities inside. I began to paw at touch screen in the kiosk for jetblue, attempting to get my boarding passes printed when Dad finally asked for help.
“Oh the flight to JFK was cancelled, we sent out an email,” the crew member told us. Email, hm? Never got one of those! We were ushered into a line to have my flight rebooked. The woman, dear sweet poor Paula, began to tell us she could book me on a flight to a different airport near JFK and they would provide a shuttle for me over to JFK.
“So she would have to carry all this to a shuttle and then into the next airport by herself?” Dad asked, incredulously. The woman smiled unsure, but realized even if I did manage to carry 200+ pounds of luggage by myself, there would be no way to make my connecting flight to Korea. I of course began sobbing. About four hours passed, and with 3 different crew members taking over and attempting to figure out a way I would be able to get to Korea before the last shuttle for my orientation site, the best they could offer me was a flight to San Francisco, where I would then board a plane from a different airline which would fly me to Los Angeles. From there I could catch a flight leaving at 11:30pm to Korea. This would allow me to arrive at 4:30 am two days later.
Over 2 hours after arriving at the airport, I am finally ready to head to security and begin my journey. It was hard to say good bye, so I managed hugs, kisses and see you laters. Compartmentalizing is a hell of a coping mechanism. It’s still hard to allow myself to think I won’t see my parents for a year or my home and friends. I’m afraid I might fall apart if I indulge that sort of thinking.
Having barely 1 hour of sleep, I fell immediately asleep on my first flight. I adopted my usual plane sleeping position, hunched over my own lap as to not disturb my seat mates. When we finally arrived in San Francisco, 6 hours later, I pulled out the ticket stubs I received from JetBlue to figure out where to head for my next flight. They told me I would have to have them print my next boarding passes and that it was through Virgin American, but that was literally all I knew. I began to wander the airport, searching for someone from virgin air to question about where to go. I didn’t know when my flight was leaving, or if I had missed it. I couldn’t find a soul to ask, and panic began to set in. I called my father, who obviously had no way of helping me and got even more upset. Crying, I walked back to Jet Blue and asked if they knew where I could find Virgin America. The man looked at me like I was disgusting and said I was in the wrong terminal, and that I had to go to terminal 2 questioning why I was even over here. I tried to explain I had gotten off of Jet Blue and had a connecting flight with Virgin, I asked if he could check if the flight to LA had left and he barked at me that he couldn’t do that.
I wandered off down the terminal, looking for signs for Terminal 2. They led me out past security. I found a guard and asked how to get to terminal 2. Turns out I had to leave the airport, walk around the outside of it, down the front of another terminal and finally I would reach Virgin America. I called Kevin, crying and walking. It was almost dinner back home, the change in time a bit jarring; little did I know how crazy it would be when I got to Korea.
I finally reached Virgin America and went to the kiosk to swipe my card and print my boarding pass. The computer popped up with an error screen informing me to go to an attendant and that my boarding pass couldn’t be printed. I almost laughed I was so frustrated and walked up to one of the desks to ask for help. She asked for my name, and told me I wasn’t in the system. She tried typing just my last name, nothing. I decided lying on the ground and admitting defeat was a viable option at this point when we discovered that in Fort Lauderdale, Jet Blue had entered my first name as my last name. So Riley Kelly had a ticket, but Kelly Riley did not. With the mystery solved, she printed my ticket and off I went for my ridiculous 1 hour flight to LA.
LAX is a big airport with a huge international terminal. When I exited my flight from Virgin America, my next task was to find out where Korean Air was and have them print my boarding pass. At this point, I had no shame and walked up to the clerk of a store and asked. He was very interested why I was going to Korea. Turns out he was Korean. I told him I was going to be a teacher there and he told me how to get to the international terminal and wished me well.
I found the terminal no problem, and even converted the rest of my money into Korean Won. With only a little bit of wandering I found the booth for Korean Air. They told me they weren’t checking people in for the flight until 8:30 so I had time to kill. Sitting on the floor, cradling my laptop and building a fortress with my belongings, the pain started to settle in. I shuffled off to a small store to buy some advil. I’m going to blame tiredness and stress for the fact that I forgot I wasn’t supposed to take any pain medication up to three days before my medical check-up I would receive in Korea. I would panic all week at orientation that I would be sent home due to advil, but as I write the rest of this from my apartment in Korea, we know I passed the drug test. The woman who sold me the medication chatted with me for a while. We talked about where I was traveling and why. She enthusiastically told me about her friend teaching English in Egypt, her home country. And as I was leaving she asked me to wish her good luck. She told me it is a custom in her country that when you are starting something new, be it a job or a move, you will be successful if someone wishes you good luck. She had just started her job at the airport, and she told me it was such a huge step in her life and asked me to wish her well. I did and she did so for me. Turns out Americans were the only jerks I would be meeting on my journey. Go figure.
8:30 pm finally rolled around and I entered the line to check in for my flight. This is the first time I have found myself in a sea of Koreans. I caught a few people looking at me, and they automatically looked ashamed they had been spotted. It was amusing enough. While I waited for the plane, I looked down at my phone to answer some messages and when I looked up a flock of Korean Air stewardesses had appeared. They looked like Korean Stepford Wives, and would maintain this look for all twelve hours of the flight. I looked down at my phone for a bit and when I looked up again they were gone. Mythical Creatures.
Soon I boarded the plane, and it was honestly the biggest metal bird I had ever stepped foot on. It had a row of three seats, a row of four seats and then another row of three. I was on the aisle of the row of four, beside me a Korean ahjumma (older Korean woman), and who I presumed to be her two daughters to her right. Besides the usual goodies they give you on a long flight, pillow, blanket and headphones, we received a package I had no clue what the contents of were. It took very little time for the ahjumma to my right to enlighten me as she pulled out plastic slippers and slid her feet into them. This is obviously something I needed to get used to.
I had spoken to my recruiter on the phone before boarding my flight and I was to meet another EPIK teacher at the airport when I arrived at 4:30am. We would then meet a man who had our pictures, who would help us purchase a bus ticket to the Daejeon Government Building. From there, we were on our own to find a taxi to the Orientation Site. She also told me that I couldn’t eat anything after 10 PM, Korean time so that I could take the medical test when I arrived in Korea. So naturally, I didn’t want to miss the dinner on the flight, but fatigue took over and I was soon passed out. When I awoke, they had already gone around passing out the complimentary nuts. I was a bit disappointed when the ahjumma beside me nudged me and handed me nuts and a hot towel. She had collected them for me while I slept. I wanted to cry, but instead managed a small nod and kamsahamnida (Thank you) and ferociously tore into the nuts.
I slept again for a while and awoke in time for dinner. A handsome male steward was delivering the meals. He too maintained a flawless look for the whole flight. They were like unicorns. He asked me if I wanted beef, chicken or the Korean meal. Korean it was and he handed me a few containers and an instruction card. I was to try Bipimbab, a dish I had heard about from Rachel that sounds too much like Bibbity boppity boo, and would thus be known as witchcraft not authentic Korean food. Well here it was sitting in front of me. So common it was now served as airplane food. Myth was becoming a common place occurrence to me. I was on my way around the world to a country that I was learning I knew very little about. My instruction card became hard to read as my eyes started to well up. This was when it sunk in, tears brimming as I shoveled rice into my mouth. I contained myself as best I could as to not alarm the ahjumma. This was the first time, of many, that the realization of being in a foreign country would hit me at the oddest times.