When the first rains of monsoon season fall, I walk into school looking like I have spent all morning wading in the lake. The principal asks if I used an umbrella, but I don’t have the words to tell her that I can only shrink myself so much under its cover. Water squishes out of my socks with every step as I trudge up three staircases to my office.
Inside the school, it is always raining. Clouds line the ceiling of my classroom and pour down until a child asks in broken English to open the windows. The class, up to their necks in water, the small ones already submerged, let out a collective sigh. We drain out slowly enough that the humidity creeps in, settling over the class with an unconscientious greed.
During lunch, I ask my co-teacher how long the rain will last for.
“I don’t know,” she says, looking out the window. “Maybe a month. Last year the season was very short, so maybe this year will be the same.”
I read once that running in the rain only absorbs more water. One could stay drier by walking calmly between buildings instead of dashing across courtyards. During monsoon season, it rains an average 11 inches per day in Daejeon, which is better measured by pizza deliveries per week and hours spent in bed. There are some cities that might be worth braving the rain for, but Daejeon is not one of them. Even in rainy season, the KTX still operates across the country with speeds of 305 kilometers per hour.
After lunch, I walk up to my office where I’ll stay hidden until it’s time to go home. My umbrella is propped open beside my desk, a wet omen that refuses to dry. Walking to and from work used to be a battle with the heat, annexing me in layers of sweat by the time I reached school. Summer brings a new struggle, taking the form of a relentless rain that does not care about white shoes or weekend plans.
A common trope in dramatic literature is for a woman to slowly walk out into the ocean, dripping in grief and weighed down by a flowing dress, until she is never seen again. Take Shakespeare’s Ophelia, who gathered flowers around the mountain of white that hung off her body until there was no need for her to float anymore.
A student, no older than seven, knocks on the office door and cracks it open. Water rushes out into the hallway, and he wades into the room. His hair is matted to his forehead, whether from rain or sweat I cannot tell. His legs make strong strides to my desk, where he lets out a long string of words without taking a breath. I decide that he must be doused in layers of sweat. He repeats the same string of words as rain begins to assault the roof above our heads. Words tumble out of his mouth in the silence between droplets of rain, but I only understand the words “English teacher.” My co-teacher floats over to answer him in Korean, give him a candy, and send him wading back to the door.
“Does he not know who you are?” She asks.
“I’ve never seen him before.”
I spend the rest of the day folding old crosswords into flowers and placing them around my classroom. I run out of paper quickly, so I print out several hundred more and watch as raindrops run the fresh ink off the paper, dripping letters into the half-submerged room. When the room is finally a soggy mess of paper balls, I stuff the rest into my pockets and close the windows, watching the water rise.
On the second day of the monsoon, I wear shower shoes to work. The sidewalk is a gridlock of pastel umbrellas, ensuring everybody will be late behind the first graders who lead the pack. As the road curves up the hill, the colours bob together in unison like a caterpillar inching along in the rain. Koreans usually opt for monochrome tones ranging from charcoal black to pearl white, yet appear to express themselves through the twirling clouds they hold above their heads from late June through July.
My first three classes proceed as usual, but after lunch everyone is weighed down by the humidity that has taken over the school. The rice we eat everyday balloons in our stomachs as the rain continues to fall. The air is a wet blanket that no sixth grader can sit still under, so we opt for a lesson outdoors.
My students complain even more outside, now exposed to the earthy smell that arises from the ground. From the west entrance, we can look out at the courtyard below, where younger grades are practicing flood evacuation drills. In the distance, the Gyejok mountains look as if someone has coloured over them with a gray crayon.
“Teacher, what are we doing?” Asks the class leader.
“Naming the raindrops.”
“In English raindrops have name?”
“No. We will give them names.”
Half of the class doesn’t understand. The higher level students shout over each other to give each droplet the best name. The first raindrops that fall outside the school are named after K-Pop idols, fruits, Spongebob characters, and farm animals. It doesn’t take long to exhaust those possibilities. It is monsoon season after all.
The next round of raindrops is random English verbs. Run, jump, eat, drink, play, study. The whole class understands by this point. Low level students opt for the conjunctions. And, but, so, for, or.
“I’m fine!” The class leader yells. “I’m happy! I’m tired! I’m bored!”
We shout names at the sky until our throats are hoarse. Something must be listening, because the rain lightens up for a minute and then stops altogether. The bell rings, signalling the end of the school day.
“Good work today,” I say with a smile on my face. “We will work on this again tomorrow.”
While my students run off to their after-school activities, I linger in the humidity, looking up at the grey sky. My clothes are dripping with sweat and water. I’m half expecting the sun to come out, but instead a black fly buzzes across my nose. On the first day of the rain, a downpour followed every five minutes of clear air. Defenseless without an umbrella, I head back to my office, where I will wait until the next rainfall.
When I initially imagined moving to Korea, I envisioned myself strutting through a mega-city in a black face mask with clean pores. I would be the pinnacle of Korean fashion, dressed head to toe in the latest one-size-fits-all jumpsuits and a firm understanding of ten-step skincare.
Instead, most of my free time in Korea has been spent covered in sweat and grime on a ~stylish~ hybrid bike with nonexistent brakes. My trusted bike has taken me along four rivers, up five mountains, through countless cities, and to one hospital.
I’m not entirely sure how I conceived the idea of cycling across Korea, but it had something to do with enhancing my body’s physical capacity as much as intellectual capacity. Instead of joining a gym or something normal, I insisted on trying to bike coast to coast despite the fact I had zero cycling experience. In recent years, the Korean government had created an extensive coast-to-coast bike trail, stretching from the northwestern tip at Incheon, running diagonally down southeast to Busan. If that wasn’t fun enough, the trail is lined with red telephone booths roughly every 80km where you can stamp the location in your very own bike passport. Collect all the stamps for one route and you are bestowed with the highest of honours: a gold medal with your name engraved, worthy of bragging rights for years to come.
At the mention of being able to flex on the degenerates in our teaching program, my most loyal friends Shane and Dallas wasted no time in forming Korea’s most dysfunctional bike gang with me, AKA Shitty Bike Club. As soon as Chuseok vacation hit, we were soon soaring from the start line, our sights set 650km ahead of us in Busan.
The first rule of Shitty Bike Club is to never discuss our glaringly obvious faults until after we’ve already made a foul mistake. All the lessons we gained from our first disaster ride to Boryeong dissipated from memory, as we failed to properly adjust our bike seats and complete any training whatsoever, both of which led to my tragic downfall. Our logic was that each 120 kilometer day was training for the next 120 kilometer day, which only had to be repeated five times in a row until we reached Busan. Anyone with common sense could have foreseen the major flaws in this plan and opted for spin class instead, but we have never claimed to be all that rational.
If you research biking Korea’s cross country trail, you will find lots of blogs that insist the journey “isn’t hard” and “anyone can do it.” I will be the first to tell you that this is a blatant lie. Most of the people writing these blogs are experienced cyclists, not a couple of random fucks who bought $100 bikes off Gmarket, $1 bike accessories from Daiso, and $10 bike shorts from a Chinese warehouse that are two sizes too small and make my legs look like sausages ready to burst from their casing. It took us seven months, two painkiller addictions, and one torn Achilles to realize this, but when we did we felt liberated. Who cares if we ride slow and hold our bikes together using masking tape and Kakao bandaids? Does it matter when the average cyclist’s bike costs $1000 and can propel them to speeds triple ours while our brakes are pretty much stuck on the entire time? Shitty Bike Club is symbolic for the adventure and recklessness of the open road (or a mostly paved and well marked bike path), and that counts a lot more than crossing the country in five consecutive days.
But for real, how do regular people do the entire 633km trail in five days? On our first day we biked from the western tip at Incheon to Hanam, a city due east of Seoul, which took a mere 10 hours. Only 15km after leaving the start line, Dallas’ front tire blew out, Shane’s back brake detached, and I left my bike bag open, spilling the contents of it into the middle of a busy intersection. The light turned red and I was too stressed to pick anything up so I just left it there. This error made Dallas rather angry, causing him to turn around two kilometers later to retrieve the lost items, only to discover that my extreme exaggeration of “everything falling out” just meant one granola bar and a bottle of Purell. He hasn’t trusted me since.
By the late afternoon we were cruising the Han River through Seoul, weaving between casual citizens just having a leisurely ride and ahjussi bike gangs covered head-to-toe in spandex. Riding through Seoul at sunset felt like I was some futuristic dream world as depicted in movies from the early 2000s. Trains soared overhead at lightning speeds, juxtaposed against a hazy pink sky that settled around the crisp curves of silver skyscrapers. People zipped along the boardwalk, laughing candidly on tandem bikes or lounging in the grass with an effortless calm, all of whom possessed a physical beauty I only thought possible in teen dystopian films. I have never felt as small as I did crossing the vast stretch of bridges that lined the Han, each time feeling as if I were traversing a border to a new country. With the exception of Tokyo, east Asian cities are underrepresented on the travel radar in favour of what Western-based organizations deem as worthy. I had limited intel on Seoul prior to setting my sights on Korea, but I was tragically in love as we cycled out of the metropolis and into Hanam.
The magic of Seoul faded the next day as we awoke to grey skies. Our ride took us straight through the mountains in these multi-million dollar tunnels pulsating with coloured lights that felt better suited to a bike rave than ride, cruising alongside Korean cyclists mostly over the age of 40 with thighs of solid steel. It was to none of their surprise when it started pouring rain. Shitty Bike Club, staying true to our name and values, consulted our rain plan: pray it doesn’t rain. Needless to say, our plan failed quickly with no backup, leaving us to cover our backpacks in plastic bags and push through the cold. Things went from moderately shit to really shit as my brakes wore out, Shane got high off Korean painkillers, Dallas blew his back tire, night began falling, and we couldn’t find a place to sleep.
Some people might credit coincidence, but I like to think it was fate that lead us to the Green Light Motel, a building that rivalled Dracula’s castle outlined in red neon lights on the very top of a steep hill. For full disclosure, we did push our bikes up the hill, because we were one downpour away from a mental breakdown, and I was beginning to feel a strange pull at the back of my left foot every time it hit the floor.
To this day we don’t know exactly where we were, but it was a tiny village of no more than 50 people on the outskirts of Gyeonggi Province. I do know that one room at the Green Light Motel cost ₩35000, there were no beds, the reception desk was covered in phone numbers and photos of naked women, and I felt like I was in a horror movie the entire time. Yet, stopping in this tiny village was the highlight of our entire cycling trip. After hiking down the hill we ate the best fried chicken of our lives, which says a lot for gluttons like us. I wish I could go back, but I genuinely have no idea where we were.
The next morning, Shane’s eyes did not open.
Not because he was dead. He awoke with the crustiest eyes in Gyeonggi, which was later diagnosed as pink eye. Ripping across the country without sunglasses isn’t really the greatest idea if you are prone to allergic conjunctivitis, so after failing to find a pharmacy (closed) or a hospital (closed down), we resolved ourselves to that fact that suffering must be Korean Jesus’ plan, and onward we went.
As we pushed through the countryside at 7am on our third and unbeknownst final day, I began to understand why Korea is dubbed the Land of the Morning Calm. The landscape was painted with a smokey palette and the air held an unparalleled peace. The only sounds for miles were my complaints about the constant sharp pain at my left heel and my melodic interpretations of “More Than a Feeling” by Boston.
As the misty morning dissipated into a sunny afternoon, the pain at the back of my foot only grew stronger, eventually peaking when we rolled into Chungju, the final frontier before our ascent into the mountains. After somehow ripping out a quick 80km, the painkillers I took in the morning had worn off. While trying to dismount my bike, I discovered I couldn’t put any weight at all on my left foot. As I cried into a plate of bulgogi at a restaurant in the bus station, my friends kindly suggested that this would be the best place for me to quit, as we were in the last city before riding at least a day into the mountains and unbound wilderness.
Giving up after I had planned to do this trip for months (ok, a month and a half) seemed foolish to me, but so was continuing to bike when I could hardly walk. I consider myself a rational thinker, so I did what any rational thinker would do and popped several pills, chugged a bottle of Pocari Sweat, and put Yeezus on repeat as we headed for the hills.
And by hills I mean mountains, the first of which was a straight 5km uphill climb. Flash forward about an hour and we had inched out of Chungju and into the countryside, past shining emerald lakes and lush forests, where began our first ascent. Cicadas hissed secrets at each other among the trees, hushed by the breeze that blew off the lake when I suddenly heard a pop, and felt every ligament in my Achilles tear apart.
I immediately began sobbing and rolling around on the road until a car came roaring at me and Dallas dragged me to the side, where I proceeded to roll in gravel until I was significantly crustier than I’ve ever been. Soon the tears and sobs began alternating with a hysterical deep-belly laugh, much to the horror of my poor friends. I could have spent my vacation in Seoul having a good time, yet there I was with a ruptured Achilles on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Convinced I was dying, I called my best friend Caitlyn, who proceeded to ignore my call because she was trying on perfume at Olive Young.
I call the Foreigner Hotline (1330 from any phone in Korea) more than I’ve ever drunk dialled any of my exes, so next I desperately gave them a quick ring and they told me to go to the hospital and delete their number. There was no way I could get back on my bike or even walk, so we tried hitchhiking, to which zero cars responded to. To be fair, if I saw myself in that state with snot running down my face, laughing and sobbing like a dying animal, I would not have stopped my car either. We were getting hopeless and I began reciting my will as I accepted my fate to perish on the mountainside, when suddenly the heavens opened up and beamed down Korean Jesus.
Korean Jesus pulled up in a red and white spandex onesie, matching his red and white bike perfectly, and asked if we needed help. Shane, our resident translator, explained the situation and just at that moment, an old Korean man driving an empty pickup happened to be passing by. With the force of just one pedal, Korean Jesus rode into the middle of the road and the truck stopped at his holy command. Exchanging no more than a few words with the truck driver, Korean Jesus loaded me, Shane, and our bikes into the truck and soon we were flying back to the hospital in Chungju. There was no room for Dallas, but being the only fit member of Shitty Bike Club he was fine with cycling back to the city.
However, when we arrived at the hospital it was closed for Chuseok, which we only discovered after I had already crawled on my hands and knees to the second floor. After a minor breakdown we hailed a taxi and ended up at a state-of-the-art orthopaedic clinic, where a doctor who spoke no more than a few words of English confirmed that my Achilles was ruptured and I would need to be on crutches for several weeks. As I cried on a glass table getting an x-ray, Shane, being the supportive friend he is, leaned over and whispered, “I’m glad you’re injured because now we don’t have to bike to Busan.”
After my hysterical laughter had subsided and the doctor was writing a prescription for heavy painkillers (which I never ended up getting filled because I mistook it for my hospital bill, not a prescription), Korean Jesus walked in the door with Dallas behind him. He saw me with the splint on my leg and crutch under my arm and gave me two thumbs up.
“All good?!” He asked with a big smile.
And as quickly as he had appeared, Korean Jesus was gone.
For those who are uneducated in the field of muscular trauma (unlike me, a doctor), pulling your Achilles is an extremely painful and serious injury that requires immediate surgery and carries the possibility of never being able to walk again. My injury came from my bike seat being too high, which I had raised because during our last trip to Boryeong my seat was too low, resulting in sore knees. Korean Jesus was looking over me that day on the mountainside because I only partially pulled my Achilles, meaning recovery would be slow but possible.
In three days I went from being the crustiest girl in Korea to the crutchiest girl in Korea. I had nothing to show for all my struggle, no gold medal to hang around my neck except for a single crutch because the doctor didn’t have two in my size. That proved to be fine though, because I had Shane and Dallas to alternate carrying me through the streets like an actual queen.
I wish I could say the trip ended there, but it didn’t. Fast-forward several months later, my Achilles had healed and I was back to tripping over the curb on any given day. Shitty Bike Club might be a lot of things, most of which are synonyms for bad, but one thing we are not is QUITTERS. We had gone through far too much leg, knee, neck, lower back, and Achilles pain to give up the chance for personally engraved gold medals, which could later be worn to the club and become the envy of all our peers.
Believe it or not, but we had pretty much reached the halfway point when I had my accident, which meant we only had 300km more until the finish line in Busan. With no more vacation days until the sweltering heat of summer, we decided we could “easily” finish the trip in two weekends.
Crust Country Take Two took place at the end of April, starting in Suanbo, a small town in the mountainous heart of Korea still reeling from its glory days as a honeymoon hotspot. Finally understanding how to learn from a mistake, we began our reunion tour by stretching our legs and properly adjusting our bike seats before setting off for 3000m of elevation under a clear blue sky. Busan lay ahead of us like a foggy paradise we’d only imagined in our wildest dreams, which involved biking straight into the ocean and swimming back to shore empty handed.
For real, how do regular people do the entire 633km trail in five days? On our first day in Suanbo, we went up and down so many mountains that we stopped locking up our bikes at rest stops in the hopes that someone would steal them and save us from our misery. Some of these hills are so impossibly steep that there are road signs encouraging cyclists to try hitchhiking with any trucks passing through, but of course none wanted to stop for three crusty foreigners.
Saturday took us on a twelve-hour marathon that involved non-stop rolling hills, one mountain, six Ghana bars, water scarcity, several temper tantrums (me), two sobbing fits (also me), one flat tire, and the return of Korean Jesus, who this time took on the form of a sweet ahjussi who was well equipped to fix said flat tire.
Blinded by sweat and tears, we didn’t know that Saturday would lead us to one of the greatest wonders of the East: an English man attempting to cross Korea on a scooter to bring awareness to veganism. Like any white saviour in an Asian country, he informed us that locals ate dogs and it was bad. His main method of saving animals appeared to be wearing a shirt that said “Go Vegan” in English, which I can only assume is next to useless in a country like Korea. Shortly after we parted ways with him, we came to a stretch of the path that was flanked by factory farms on either side, cows mooing out at us as we flew by. I didn’t see any liberated cows so I think his message might have gotten lost in translation.
Some people might insist that the hardest part of the cross country trail is butt pain, but let me assure you that the worst part of crossing Korea by bike is not being Korean. Every time we went up a grueling mountain, we found it odd that we were alone, whereas we usually passed a few other cyclists on flat river trails. About 50km past Daegu, we were trying to recover from our latest uphill stint by eating churros on the side of the road. A 50-something Russian man pulled up beside us on a weathered-looking bike packed with camping gear and a Korean flag.
“Did you come over the mountain?” He asked in a thick accent.
He smiled and pointed to a road that went in the opposite direction of Busan. “There is a flat road that goes around. If you go back that way, you can go around. Are you going to Suanbo?”
“No, we did that already.”
“Oh, there are a few roads around the big mountains there too. If you do it again, now you know. This is my thirty-second time.” With a smile, Russian-Korean Jesus rode away, his flag flapping valiantly in the wind.
These hidden roads are a national secret held only by Korean cyclists and the occasional middle-aged Russian. Had we known this months ago, perhaps we could have avoided much booty pain, but I’d like to believe we are all the more stronger for it. But not that much stronger. I would never do this again, let alone thirty-two times.
That was enough for one weekend, but for some godforsaken reason we did the same thing the following one. Busan was the blinking green light ahead of us, always out of reach but still in sight, and we were a crusty version of Jay Gatsby with much less wealth and much larger thighs.
Our final ride to Busan should have been a glorious triumph full of laughter and a few happy tears. We should have all cheered and hugged and set fire to the deathtraps that brought us across the country, but instead we woke both days to pouring rain. The skies and weather forecast predicted between a 95-100% chance of heavy showers for the next eighteen hours. The end of our coast-to-coast journey would have the shittiest ending possible, which perhaps was only fitting for a bike club like our own.
The final 60km went by quicker than we expected. All we wanted to do was escape the rain, which soaked through our ponchos straight to the bone. Rolling up to the finish line was maybe the most anti-climatic moment of my entire being, involving a quick cheer then trudging into the bike certification center to apply for our gold medals, only to be informed that they would be shipped in 1-2 business months.
Any feelings of grandeur and endurance morphed into a desire to be dry and warm. Mentally and physically unprepared to bike any further, we checked our phones and noticed there was a subway station conveniently placed five minutes away from the finish line. These five minutes should have been a breeze after 633km, but naturally were filled with strife as a car flew through a puddle and splashed about six gallons of water right into Shane’s open mouth.
Yet we beat on, shitty bikes against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the path.
I spent the last week at work scrolling through thesaurus dot com in search of the perfect word to summarize the past six months in South Korea. I’d like to give an honorary mention to ephemeral, fleeting, hedonistic, and temporary to almost making the cut but eventually bowing out under the weight of nihilism (like we all do). I have been living the life of a self-serving nihilist since moving here, which has included looking up the definition of nihilism to check myself before flexing my intellect on all twelve of my blog readers.
I have procrastinated publishing several posts, which I already regret because none of them are timely nor relevant to my life anymore. A lot of really unfortunate things have happened since I last overshared my life with the internet. I have so many self-deprecating stories to tell involving hot oil massages, inopportune timing for foot peeling masks, setting my apartment on fire, and desecrating two of Busan’s finest Angel-in-us coffee shops. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to occupy this space in which I casually re-account my life’s lowlights on an easily traceable platform. I’m so afraid of my students (who sometimes struggle with the English alphabet) finding this blog that I told my grade five class that my full name is Hannah Hannah when they asked for my last name.
A large part of my newfound nihilism stems from my angst over working a dead-end job in a foreign country where I cannot communicate with the majority of people. I live for the weekends and spend half of Sunday dreading going back to school, as do most English teachers I know. In a new all-time low, my friends and I ate old jjimdak (Korean braised chicken) that sat out on my counter for over 24 hours in hopes of getting food poisoning, so we wouldn’t have to go to school the next day. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, but we did discover that day old jjimdak is still delicious, and stays preserved due to its vinegar content.
Is the root of my problem the capitalist work week as opposed to an inherent lack of meaning in life? Maybe. Nihilism is a symptom of capitalism. But my nihilism ties into neo-imperialism: I find this job meaningless because of its neo-imperial roots that do not align with my ethics. I do not believe that foreigners should be allowed to teach in Korean public schools just because they are native speakers, unless they have a basis in the Korean language and a relevant education degree. Foreigners, such as myself, who possess neither are wasting the government’s resources and getting paid higher than Korean teachers for making little to no difference. I have been granted the opportunity to teach abroad solely due to my nationality, not credentials. In Canada, nobody can be a teacher without a teaching degree, so I don’t know why any less should be expected in Korea. Even more troubling is the fact that even though over 40 countries have English as an official language, the EPIK Program only accepts applicants from seven predominantly white English speaking countries.
But alas, a job is a job, and I’m not sure if teaching abroad is any less ethical than working in Toronto for a corporate conglomerate that exploits the environment and the working class both domestically and internationally. I made my first million (won) back in September, which sounds really cool in text but doesn’t reflect my inability to save money. After paying off my winter vacations and seeing my account balance, I voraciously scoured my credit card statement, sure that I was being hacked and there it was: $170 for something in November. I don’t buy things within that price range, as all of my money goes towards food under $10. But lo and behold- it was the gym membership I bought a month prior and totally forgot about!
Monday is my new favourite day of the week, which is completely limited to the fact my gym is closed on Monday. I feel no guilt as I eat my second dinner, and look forward to the next day when I can have a nice long soak in my gym’s hot tub. I don’t want anyone to think I have started to take fitness seriously- I workout solely so I can relax in the hot tub afterwards. The joy the hot tub gives me is the closest thing I’ve had to existential meaning in the past six months.
I had the time of my life at my neighbourhood gym for a solid two weeks, all until one fated Friday afternoon. In the midst of taking off my pants, the ear-splitting squeals of elementary-age children reverberated through the locker room. I’m terrified of my students finding my blog, so you can only imagine my horror when I realized they shared the same communal showers as me. Is there anything more mortifying than your 11-year-old students watching you shower naked at the gym? There is! It’s when they catch you naked as they walk out of swimming lessons with their parents.
My movements in the gym change room now resemble those of Harry Potter fighting the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. I peer into a mirror that rounds the corner so I can make sure there are no children around before exposing my breasts to the ajummas around me. Once in the shower, I angle my body towards the corner whenever I hear girlish giggles and strategically pretend to scrub my face with a wash cloth until I have confirmed they are over the age of 12.
Although fear beats through my heart at the prospect of being recognized in public, being Asian in Korea has opened me up to a new realm of possibility. Back in Canada, my Chinese heritage renders me a visible minority. Growing up in a small white town, I was forced to be aware of how different I was from other people. I hated being the perpetual foreigner and never wanted to stand out because of my ethnicity. But now that I am a foreigner in Korea, being vaguely Asian is the only thing that allows me to blend in. I feel invisible as I glide through the showers and dip my body into the hot tub, shielded by the comfortable guise of being ethnically ambiguous. A small pit of anxiety stirs in my stomach as I worry someone might try to speak to me, but I can still close my eyes and sink into the hot water without drawing attention to myself.
For once, I’m not exoticized as the Oriental other. Being invisible is a privilege I’ve never known. I’m not just “that Asian girl” or referred to as the name of the only other Asian girl in the community (shoutout to my classmates and teachers who called me Jessica Lai for 12 years). Until I open my mouth to speak, I can enjoy freedom from prying eyes, questions, and racial remarks. It’s been nice.
As fun as having Asian privilege and soaking in the hot tub has been, after six months I can’t say that I have come closer to finding inherent value while living in Korea. Everything I do seems futile considering I already know the expiry date on my experiences here. That’s not to say I am not enjoying myself, but I am becoming too aware of how disposable this sort of expat lifestyle is. Everything moves in cycles: you shove your life into two suitcases, have intense friendships spanning a few months to a year, then move on and repeat. I still retch at the idea of doing something “permanent”, but I’m starting to wonder if there shouldn’t be something that will disappear as quickly as it begins.
There are still some things here that make me smile, like the six-year-old boy who recently befriended me and walks me to and from school, yelling “Englishy teacher!!!” across the street when he sees me. I might hate my job but I still manage to find the LOLs in it, like when I tried to play a school-friendly version of fuck, marry, kill with my students. But none of this is enough to even make me consider staying.
Last month I wandered alone through the alleyways of Seoul at three in the morning and came across a sign lit up in pink neon, claiming “It hurts to be alive and obsolete.” I sat down on the steps of a dark building across the street and revelled in the melodrama of being a self-aware English teacher. If I am a nihilist here, moving on to Paris or Toronto or wherever won’t change that. I laughed out loud and took the first train back to Daejeon.
Whenever something mildly inconvenient happens to me, whether it be spilling water on my laptop or running into my students while wasted and trying to buy foot deodorant, I find myself crying on a park bench wondering why such misfortune must befall me. After 22 years of searching for an answer, my newfound love for cycling has recently led me to realize that that I’m not actually plagued with bad luck; I am just incredibly stupid.
There are a number of reasons why biking is my calling, and one of them is that you can enjoy the feeling of working out from the comfort of remaining in a seated position for hours on end. Not only is it an eco-friendly way to travel, but you also get to see a variety of gorgeous landscapes while picking tons of tiny bugs out of your eyelids.
Not wanting to hoard the joys of cycling to myself, I rallied up two of my most loyal friends, Dallas and Shane, and together we formed Daejeon’s very first Shitty Bike Club. The name came naturally to us because we quickly discovered that we’re the most dysfunctional bikers in the city, and perhaps the entire Korean peninsula.
I haven’t been able to bike for longer than an hour since high school, so I thought I should begin my new life as Lance Armstrong with a light 140km bike ride from Daejeon (central Korea) to Boryeong (west coast). The fact that Korea is comprised of 70% mountainous region did not deter us from failing to plan a route, buy helmets, research the destination, or even check if our bikes were functional before setting off. We wanted to see the ocean, so we geared up and set off to see the ocean.
To give you some quick team stats: Dallas spent the last year wrangling wild horses in the South American outback. He’s our DIY mechanic and fixer of anything that goes wrong, like when a few cords were falling off my bike and he held them together using Kakao Friends band-aids. Shane looks ambiguously Asian and previously studied abroad in Seoul, thus is our resident Korean translator and Naver Maps navigator. He can order fried chicken (with or without sauce) faster than any other foreigner in the land.
While you could make a case that Shane is our MVP and without him we would not survive, I will note that I am the prettiest girl in Shitty Bike Club and self-appointed vlogger. You could argue that vlogging is useless and does nothing to contribute to the general survival and wellbeing of the team, and you would be right. In fact, it has caused me to crash off the path into foliage several times, twice being into a thorn bush.
We chose Boryeong as our destination because we wanted to swim and it was the closest coastal city to our inland location. But before we even could get out of Daejeon, Dallas discovered his gears didn’t change, Shane suffered serious booty pain, and following a near-death collision with a car I realized my brakes didn’t work. I suppose that’s what happens when you buy the cheapest bikes possible on Gmarket and pay $20 to have them assemble it for you. Despite our total lack of bike preparation, we had kimbap, oreos, and garlic toasts in our backpacks. So instead of investing in tools, we barrelled onwards, fuelled by the sheer force of saving our reputations because we had already posted on Snapchat AND Instagram that we were biking to the coast.
The beginning of anything is always the worst. This applies to biking, relationships, and salad diets. After our first 25km out of Daejeon, things were a breeze. Korea has well-maintained bike paths that go across the entire country, making cycling super fun even when you have to hand-tighten your gears after they come loose in the middle of a rice field in the rural provinces.
At first, not having brakes was great and made me feel like I was too fast, too furious for anyone. I felt infinite flying down hills and dodging all the snakes, spiders, and ahjossis (older Korean men). Unfortunately, this freedom faded after we came to our first city. I went from loving the feeling of wind in my hair to crying at the top of hills, wondering why it never occurred to me to buy a helmet before a 12-hour bike ride through a country full of mountains.
We didn’t plan a route to get to Boryeong in advance because we couldn’t find any information online, which we assumed was because it was all in Korean. Somehow this plan worked out fine for the first 100km, which was along these beautifully paved paths that took us through a stunning array of scenery. We rode through electric green farm fields, wound around mountainsides, coasted along the river, and accidentally found ourselves in the middle of a bike race at one point.
However, as we entered the last 40km, the aforementioned bike path suddenly ended, as did any sight of fellow riders. We started cycling down an elevated freeway with transport trucks flying by us. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but we sensed instant death was only a meter away, separated by a single paved white line. Our unpreparedness had finally caught up with us: there was no bike path to Boryeong. We put zero faith in Korean drivers, so we huddled on the side of the highway and tried to decide what to do. After a few seconds of deliberation, we realized that we legitimately could not turn back because a) we were on an elevated highway and b) we didn’t know where the nearest city or bus was. There was no option but to go forward, which we did.
The highway only lasted for another 10km, but for anyone considering biking the Daejeon-Boryeong route I would recommend skipping Boryeong and following the bike path to Gunsan. I would actually not recommend doing this trip at all, especially if you have the fitness endurance of a two-day old bowl of oatmeal. I would particularly advise against completing this trip after August, because September is jellyfish season at the beach. Naturally, we did not realize this crucial fact until it was too late and I was screaming for someone to carry me out of the ocean and pee on my leg (please note that this cure is actually for sea urchins).
You know how some people see the Virgin Mary in rock formations or spaghetti sauce and think they’re seeing God? That’s how I felt when Boryeong’s local buses came into view. The sun was beginning to set and the sky was softening to blue linen. Gold light filtered between the mountains, which was blinding but in a cinematic way. I couldn’t see anything, certainly not the gaping hole on the side of the road I nearly ended my life in, but it was a magical sort of blindness. We felt lighter too. Despite our exhaustion peaking on its eleventh hour, we knew the city was just around the corner.
We biked that corner. Then biked another corner. And that corner turned into a slight incline. And that slight incline turned into a decent hill. And that decent hill turned into a mountain. And that mountain had no mercy on our legs or how many kilometers we had already biked or that night was falling or that we didn’t buy bike lights because we thought we’d be finished by early afternoon.
In an executive decision for the wellbeing of the team, we decided to take the bus into town because our map said we had not yet reached the peak. It was too dangerous to bike in pitch darkness on a winding mountain, cars whizzing by every minute. We waited 15 minutes for the bus until its headlights rounded the corner. I looked down at my bargain bike and back up the mountain. After pushing twelve hours through rural countryside, it was all about to end on a sweaty bus. There is no victory worth that ₩1,200 bus fare. We gave up when we had come within single digits of reaching our destination, all because we failed to buy lights.
Except the bus didn’t stop for us because it couldn’t see us in the dark. \ (•◡•) / So onwards we went without consulting the map. Ignorance is bliss until you find yourself hurtling down a mountainside and into a high traffic tunnel at over 60kph with dysfunctional brakes. The best way to describe this was that one scene from Perks of Being a Wallflower where Logan Lerman leans out of the sunroof and feels infinite, except I was a lot crustier and probably much more finite.
When we finally got into Boryeong, we were ready for the sweet release of death. I somehow survived the mountain without brakes, gears, lights, or cardio endurance without falling once, but as soon as we got into town I somehow managed to topple over sideways on the curb of 7-Eleven. All the skin ripped open on my calves didn’t matter because I was starving and so ready to tear into a seafood pancake.
At traditional Korean restaurants, you take your shoes off at the door and sit cross-legged on the floor as you enjoy the best meal of your entire existence. I hadn’t realized how this custom discriminates against long-distance bikers until we took off our shoes for the first time in 12 hours and nearly died from the stench that filled the room. I have never had to choose a meal based on how little clothing I need to remove and I hope I never have to again.
Several fried chicken burgers and grape sojus later, I crawled into bed and prepared for a relaxing sleep, but was unexpectedly met with perhaps the worst night of my entire life. I know I have a reputation as the queen of exaggeration, but know that I am not stretching anything in the least when I say I woke up every half hour crying and whimpering in pain because my legs felt like someone had simultaneously set them on fire while slowly ripping the muscles apart. Sometime around 5am I rolled over and googled “Can you die from leg pain?” to which I found the answers “no” and “see a doctor immediately”. The thought of having to speak Korean to an ambulance driver terrified me, so I hoped it was the former and tried to go back to sleep.
The next day, Shane and I popped a few painkillers while Dallas happily led the way to the beach. Minus the fact it was jellyfish mating season and I still felt like my life was ending, we had a lovely day eating fried chicken, splashing in the Yellow Sea, buying matching helmets, relaxing at a Korean spa, and finally taking a bus back to Daejeon. This dumb trip was the most fun I’ve ever had, but there is no amount of money in this world that could have convinced us to bike home.
While we do consider our trip to be a general success despite its many unfortunate events, it didn’t have the happy ending we hoped for. The perfect ending to our first bike trip would have been returning to the bus station to find our bikes stolen. But unfortunately, due to Korea’s extremely low crime rate and 1984-style surveillance, they were still locked to the bike rack. And thus, stay tuned for the Shitty Bike Club’s next adventure as we attempt to bike across the entire country, 650km from Incheon to Busan during Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)! Will we throw ourselves off the top of the nearest mountain?! Will we quit and take the train in Daegu?! Will we finally invest in foot deodorant?!
The answer is probably yes. But stay tuned to find out anyway.
Four years ago when I imagined my post-grad life as an English major, I envisioned myself writing a book while perched on the windowsill of a New York City loft. I would be working as a waitress, but I’d be happy because I’m doing what I love. However, my dream sounded akin to almost anyone who has ever read and enjoyed a collection of poetry, so I knew I had to do something ~unique~ upon graduating.
Four years later, in a totally expected and rather typical fashion, I packed my life and Arts degree into two suitcases and moved to South Korea to teach English. I was accepted into the EPIK Program to teach in Daejeon, the country’s fifth largest city, commonly referred to as the Silicon Valley of Korea. I later found out that within the country, Daejeon is actually referred to as the most boring city in Korea, but alas, we live and we learn.
I’d like to think that most people I interact with are decently rational thinkers, but I don’t want to admit how many people asked me to clarify which Korea I was moving to. Before you go off spewing ignorant misinformation, I invite you to please try to locate North Korea on a map. From now on, I refuse to engage in semi-intelligent conversation with anyone who cannot complete this task.
Canadians always ask me if I’m afraid of North Korea, but in all honestly my safety here is the least of my concerns. My greatest fear is running into my students when I am at a bar in a crop top. I live within walking distance from my school, so it is impossible to walk down the street without running into little Minju or Jiyeon. Although values are changing, Korean fashion is still fairly conservative, thus showing skin from the waist up is considered scandalous. I’m trying to not set a reputation among my students’ parents as the biggest hoe in Daejeon so I always leave the house in a disguise, AKA a long sleeve blouse which I quickly shove into my bag as soon as I’m in the clear.
I teach grade three, five, and six, but I think I’m learning more from them than they are from me. I’ve been taking style tips from my sixth graders, who come to school in all black jumpsuits, rompers, and non-brassy blonde hair. Those cursed with poor vision sport trendy wire-rimmed glasses that would have every head at Trinity Bellwoods on swivel. Whoever said Paris is the capital of fashion was obviously a Eurocentric blogger, because Korean style is light years ahead of anything I’ve ever seen in the West. When I was in the sixth grade, I’m pretty sure I wore Aeropostale tracksuits and had tiny oval transition lenses. Aside from the fact that Korean clothes are one-size-fits-all and I have not been able to get a single skirt over my thighs, I’m anticipating becoming a Korean style icon by the end of my teaching contract.
My decision whether to renew my contract, which lasts until next August, weighs upon a number of factors, including but not limited to whether or not I survive school lunches. Although my school’s cafeteria food is honestly delicious, lunch is a physical and mental struggle every day. As a Chinese-Canadian, my diasporic and cultural anxiety is at an all-time high as I feel too Asian for the Caucasians and too Caucasian for the Asians. My facade of passing as Asian quickly slips away during lunch as I strain every muscle in my upper body on not letting the fried chicken drumstick slip off my metal chopsticks. Yet, during EPIK Orientation, at least one white girl would sit with me during dinner and demand that I teach them how to use chopsticks.
I’m still not sure what food is socially acceptable to eat with your hands, so I’ve been piercing my chopsticks through cherry tomatoes and struggling to hold up the weight of corn on the cob, lest my co-workers think I am uncultured swine. I have kimchi stains on everything I own, from my shoes to my notebooks to the white skirt I wore during a welcome ceremony with my entire school and their parents.
Prior to stepping foot in Asia, I had planned to start a Korean dating blog, aptly titled “BAEJEON”. In preparation for my dating blog I overlooked the most crucial aspect in writing about my search for love in Korea: I don’t speak Korean. Except for learning the alphabet and two basic greetings, I prepared nothing before uprooting my life and settling down in South Korea. It is completely irresponsible to prepare nothing when moving to a foreign country as an English teacher, and I admit I am guilty. “Globalization” is just a buzzword; expecting everyone to cater to your Anglophone-speaking needs is prime Western Tourist Complex. Don’t worry though- I’m currently writing a comprehensive analysis on the neocolonial impacts of teaching English abroad.
Teaching English in Korea is a huge job market occupied by a majority of white Americans, and with a great number of Americans abroad comes a great number of blogs (Ancient Travel Proverb, n.d). Many people prepare for their time teaching abroad from these blogs, myself included, but I soon realized that these blogs are written for and by white people. Expats of colour have much different experiences than white people who are just realizing that race is a factor that influences one’s daily interactions.
To make a pretty mediocre long story a pretty mediocre short story: living in Korea is hard. Blogs like to omit the less glamorous details. Blogs talk about the exhilaration of clubbing in Seoul, not the frenzy of trying to cancel an accidental 1000 page print job on a Korean printer. Blogs tell you living here is easy as drinking soju outside 7-Eleven and singing your heart out at noraebang. Blogs don’t tell you how to cope with finding out your students are being abused. Blogs tell you it’s cute and funny to have to mimic what you’re trying to say in Korean. Blogs don’t tell you that teaching your language is sometimes a form of imperialism.
However, I’m quite excited to have a relative amount of Asian privilege! Getting harassed for being a minority? Not in this country! During EPIK orientation all of the English teachers stayed at a Korean university dorm where the curfew was 11pm. My friends and I, who are all Asian except for our Token White Friend, strolled in casually at 11:04pm one night. Our white friend got written up as late and we walked away without a second glance. I guess there are ups and downs to every experience!