By: Kelly Riley
My worst fear about moving to Korea was the isolation I might feel. I didn’t speak the language and although Rachel would be in the same country, I wouldn’t get to see her every day or even every weekend. I am a social creature, if I spend too long alone I tend to get depressed. The last day of orientation was also when a typhoon hit. It wasn’t scary, just endless amounts of rain. I didn’t even know I had experienced a typhoon until someone told me later. This was also the day we had to present our lesson plans and demos for our class and a judge. After we would meet a representative from the Chungnam Office of Education and receive our placements…finally. We all had known which province we would be in for a few months by then, but I guess Korea liked to keep you on edge and withheld our specific placement until the end of our orientation. We were all dressed up in business attire, scampering through the rain and practicing demos in corners of the campus, looking very much as though we were all losing our minds. After 9 days and hours and hours of classes, we probably all were, at least a little.
I would be delivering my lesson with a woman from Chicago named Hedy. She was in her early 30’s and very friendly. We worked well together, carving out practice time over the week in between classes and lunch. This meant that following our 2 hours of Korean classes, which ended at 9pm, we would be free to crawl to bed and not have to try and work on our plans late into the night. This paid off as we were quite well prepared for our demo. After we all delivered our lessons, the class and our judge voted on who’s presentation was the best. She announced that group 6 was the winner. Hedy and I looked around expectantly when all of a sudden all eyes turned to us. Apparently we were group 6, go us!
After receiving our prize of random Korean snacks, our class was shuffled into another room to await our placement. After months and months of waiting, and a grueling week the representative began to describe the cities in our province. I quickly scribbled them all down so that when she announced where I was to be placed I would remember how she described it. There was Cheonan, the biggest city in our province, Taen, which was by the sea off to the west, Boreyeong, where the annual mud festival happened, Cheongyang, the smallest and most rural of the cities, and many more. She began to call people’s names and tell them where they would be placed.
“Kelly…” I looked up, nervous but also excited. I knew I wasn’t in Cheonan so I held out hope for another big city. “Oh…I’m sorry…you will be in Cheongyang.”
I’m sorry? Really? She told Nam, another teacher from Australia, who if you have been following the blog learned how to peel potatoes on our Thanksgiving celebration, that he would also be in the smallest city. We smiled weakly at each other across the room, though he seemed more excited than me. My worst fears were being realized. The next day they drove us to the Board of Education office where we would meet our co teachers. Half of the room was filled with the Korean co teachers staring expectantly as they filed us Native teachers in. We stared back across the room, wondering which one would be our closest coworker and hopefully friend for the next year. The head of the board of education gave a speech, that was mostly in Korean. I was unprepared that from then on most of the official meetings I would attend would be in Korean and go straight over my head.
They called my name and my new coteacher’s name. I turned to see a petite woman with long brown hair, glasses, and a kind face. She told me her English name was Jenny. Luckily I ended up with a sweet, supportive woman as my co teacher. She has helped me with anything I have asked and has been extremely encouraging. She drove us into Cheongyang, and slowly the buildings faded away and were replaced by mountains and farm lands. I was bracing myself for my first glance of the town. I knew I would be in the middle of nowhere. I kept telling myself I could handle it, that I would learn Korean quickly and make friends with an Ahjumma and have her teach me how to make tofu and kimchi. I would be ok, I am a Girl Scout, I can do anything!
Luckily the center of town was larger than I expected. There were restaurants and stores and every street light looked like a plastic pepper, which was what they were famous for. My panic was starting to settle. I wouldn’t be living on a farm somewhere at least. We arrived at the school so I could meet the staff. I learned I would be in the largest elementary school in Cheongyang. This also meant I only had to teach at 1 school. This was actually quite rare, nearly every other teacher in my town has two different schools that they alternate at. I was impressed with the size of the buildings as we walked through the front gate. There were some children playing on the playground right inside. They spotted me and much whispering began and even some hello’s. I smiled and greeted them back, and some of them began to say “beautiful!” Korea really is a confidence booster as I would find out.
Lucky for me, the teacher who I was replacing was still in town while she waited for her next teaching gig in Korea to begin. Jenny called her and put me on the phone with her. Her name is Erica, she is from Texas and she asked if we could get dinner together that night. I was so grateful I nearly cried. Erica picked me up at my house, her old house, and we began to walk into town. We met up with her friend Miriam, another teacher in town who moved to Korea from England and who would become a friend of mine. They brought me to a nice little restaurant in town and Erica even bought my meal for me. They began to tell me about life in this small town. Neither was too pleased with it, which was part of the reason Erica chose not to renew at my current school and sought to move to a larger city. Miriam’s contract was also almost up and she too would be looking to move out of the city. They were real with me, taught me where the bus station was, which would be my only escape from this place. They also brought me to Topresso, a coffee shop they said I would end up frequenting. They weren’t wrong. I’m there nearly 3 times a week. They know me so well they gave me a new calendar.
When I was finally left alone, laying in my bed, staring at the faded flowers on my wallpaper I thought of how far away my home was, and how quiet and small this town was. How would I pass the time? Where would I go on the weekends? I didn’t even understand the buses. I pulled out my laptop to talk to Rachel, to try and devise a plan to meet up for our first weekend in Korea together.
That Friday I would be traveling to Daejeon with Nam and the other teachers in my district to file for my ARC (Alien Registration Card) which was necessary to do just about anything in Korea. I needed it for opening a bank account, getting a phone, and paying bills. I asked if Rachel could meet me in Daejeon for the weekend since I would know how to get there. Rachel lived very far away with no direct bus to Daejeon and it seemed so daunting to try and figure out how to navigate to where I would end up.
“Maybe we should meet next weekend?” She typed to me. A weekend alone in this town? Where nothing happened? Where there was no one to talk to? I felt a pang of panic and desperation begin to claw at my stomach, and began to sob. I couldn’t do it. But Rachel wouldn’t stand to have me in such a state. And bless my sweet Frouple, she figured out the buses and even took an extremely expensive taxi to make sure she could meet me in Daejeon that first weekend. And I couldn’t have been happier.
But I would still have to survive this town. And one of the ways I have found to fill the days with meaning are meeting and bonding with all the wonderful foreign teachers in my town. It is thanks to them that I was introduced to the Cheongyang Women’s Soccer, and I began to fall in love with my life in this small town in Korea.
Feroza, a teacher in town from South Africa used to play on their team until she tore her ACL. She asked them if they would like a new player and they invited me to a practice. Interestingly enough, the day after I messaged Feroza saying I wanted to join the team, my co teacher approached me all excited.
“Kelly! You will play soccer?” she asked. I paused, extremely confused.
“How…how did you know that?”
“Oh! Coach is my friend!”
Welcome to life in the country, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Plus being 1 of 8 foreigners, everyone most certainly knew what I did! Feroza came to my first practice with me, which I was very thankful for since she speaks much more Korean than I do, and the team speaks very little English.
Our head coach, my co teachers friend, is named Boram. She is fairly tall, pretty, with chin length brown hair, and you really don’t want to go against her on the field. The assistant coach is named Haemi. She has short hair, and at first meeting she seems a bit distant but after a couple drinks she is quite funny. She is also amazing on the field.
As I tied the cleats on that Feroza let me borrow, the team crowded around me, asking me questions. I couldn’t really make out anything they were saying, and Feroza translated.
“They want to know how long you have played soccer.”
“Oh well I played from elementary through high school, so…8 years? I haven’t played since high school though,” I answered. Feroza translated what I figured to mean 8 years and they all gasped and turned around to me extremely excited.
“Oh! Oh no! No! I haven’t played in years! Oh god no, please don’t think I’m good!” I stammered waving my arms to try and play down their expectations of me. After a mostly sedentary life, and no competitive sports in about 8 years, my first practice (and nearly every single one since then) was a challenge. Sometimes some dormant muscle memory would come into play and I’d automatically slide the ball just out of reach from a defender and to my teammate. But in Korea, they don’t joke around with soccer.
When we would switch exercises or drills during practice, the coach would describe it in Korean and everyone would start moving. My closest friend on the team, Hyun Jung, who also drove me to all practices would try and use her English knowledge to explain to me what was expected.
“Running, Stopping, Pass, go! Ok?”
I would strategically place myself in the middle of the line so I could watch what the others did, then just copy. It made my nonverbal communication skills increase. I also learned simple commands in Korean as well. One drill during one of my first practices was so hard that I was having trouble completing it. Poor Hyun Jung would come over and try and explain what I needed to do, then again I would fail. So she would come to explain again. I just didn’t know enough Korean to tell her that yes I understood, I was just bloody terrible.
They invited me to play in a couple of games one weekend that Rachel was in town. It was at the local high school and against two other teams. Hyun Jung picked Rachel and I up and brought us over to the field. We were to play against two other men’s teams. I looked around to see if there were any other foreigners playing for them. Nope. Rachel and I were the only Waygookins(foreigners) around.
Back in the states I used to play defense. It suited me, I was usually bigger than the other girls and could be intimidating. But this team needed forwards, so they put me as center forward, or striker. I hadn’t played a game in 8 years, so Rachel has this wonderfully awkward video of me standing center field and my teammate having to take my hands and lead me to where I needed to be. Good times.
What is great about being a member of the soccer team, and a member of anything in Korea really, is the sense of community it gives you. After one of the games I walked over to the bleachers where I had left Rachel. She was nestled under a blanket eating fried chicken. She said one of my teammates had given her the blanket and another Ahjumma who was cheering on our team had offered her chicken. Just because she was my friend and I was on the team. Oh Korea, you truly are a beautiful people!
As I have said, Cheongyang is in the province (which is much like a US State) of Chungnam. One of my fondest memories of my team was when we went to play in the Chungnam Province Soccer Championship. I wasn’t able to play due to paperwork but I went anyways to cheer on the team. Our first day of games was at a university in the mountains. The rain and cold wind was so ferocious that we could barely see the tops of the mountains, just this hanging ominous fog. More often than not the wind would send the rain in sideways, coating us and all we had with water. The players weren’t allowed to wear anything onto the field but their uniforms which consisted of (thankfully) a long sleeve jersey, shorts, cleats and the tall socks to secure their shin guards. They were drenched within moments of entering the field.
I watched as the puddles grew, and cringed as one of my teammates would kick a ball, fully confident in its trajectory only for it to hit a puddle and stop dead. Then the constant slipping as the slick grass refused to catch their cleats. It was frightening, but what was even more frightening was when our Coach Boram went down, she not only kept control of the ball, she did it while spinning on her ass. It was truly an amazing sight, and the enemy team didn’t stand a chance. Our coaches had brought in a new goalie for the championship and she introduced herself to me. I told her my name was Kelly and a huge smile spread across her face.
“Kelly?! That’s my English name!” she told me. That made two Kelly’s I had met in Korea so far. I had no idea my name was so popular here! By the end of the day, our team had won 3 games, drenched and beaming with pride. We all piled into the cars and drove off.
“Kelly…we go to Sowhna. Ok?” Hyun Jung said to me as we drove.
“To what?” I honestly thought she was saying the name of another city.
“Sowhna, take shower,” she repeated. Then it clicked.
“Oh! Sauna! Ok sure!” I replied. I could use a shower, we were all drenched and freezing.
We all walked into the locker room to put our shoes away, and everything seemed normal to me. Then we walked into the next room and my eyes were bombarded with naked women. Jimjilbang, or a Korean bath house, is a public bath house. And I did know this, but I was completely unprepared. One of my teammates led me over to a larger locker area where we were to put our clothes. I was to strip down, and head to the shower with them. One of the loud and amusing women on the team appeared beside me. (I actually teach her child, so it may have made it even more awkward for me). She started going off in Korean at me as usual, trying to get me to take a towel from her that was no bigger than a hand towel but was somehow supposed to dry me. She acted like everything was completely normal but she was completely naked. Suddenly nearly my whole team was around me talking and all were completely nude. Then there I stood, in all my waygookin glory, totally dressed and totally in shock.
Luckily one of my teammates noticed my discomfort. She waited behind with me, also still in her clothes as the rest of the team left.
“Kencha na?” she asked, wondering if I was ok.
“Oh…mi gook(America), no clothes…no…” I told her, trying to motion how in America public nudity wasn’t a thing. She nodded and waited with me until the rest of the team was finished.
Since our team had won all of our games we were to return for the finals the next day. The field we played at had a platform to the side that raised up over it, looking all sorts of official. A group of older Korean men stood on it, and I began to refer to them as the Council of Soccer Elders. They were members of the Board of Athletics for Chungnam. The game was set to begin so my team emerged from the corner of the building we had decided to nest in. I walked with them, and the Council of Soccer Elders turned and for the first time ever I heard revered whispers of “Waygookin……” as I descended the stairs with my team. I had heard rumors of Koreans doing this from bloggers and other teachers who lived in Korea. That sometimes Koreans would be so shocked to see a foreigner that they would just blurt this out. This was my first experience.
The game was quite a sight, but they didn’t stand a chance against us. My teammates passed and scored all while having played multiple games and in terrible conditions the day before. The whistle blew to signal the end of the game and I passed out waters to my teammates. The Council of Soccer Elders descended from their perch and the team made me line up with them to shake their hands. A professional photographer buzzed around taking pictures of things. The Director went down the line of my teammates shaking each of our hands. When he got to Coach Boram the photographer took a picture. He finally reached me and I grasped his hand with my right hand, my left hand clasping my ribs to show respect and we both bowed….and then a flash and click indicated that the photographer made sure to take a picture of this too. The waygookin…who hadn’t even played. I guess I need to get used to being a photo op.
Afterwards we drove back to Cheongyang as province wide champions and ate like the Queens we were. The trophies we received where these crystal vase looking beauties, and being Koreans….they proceeded to fill them with beer and challenge each other to chugging competitions. They turned to me, and Coach almost didn’t let them challenge me. But little did they know I went to FSU, former #1 party school in America. Needless to say the American schooled them all.
Being on my city’s soccer team has truly been an experience. Though I am usually the only foreigner and the only English speaker, I never feel left out. Korea has an amazing way of making people feel included. I can’t believe how scared I was of living in Cheongyang when I first got here. It may be a tiny city, but it has given me some amazing experiences and brought some truly awesome people into my life. Here’s to 6 more months in this land of the Pepper!