Friday, November 2, 2012

An exciting introduction to life on Jeju

My first Friday in Jeju was weird, and more memorable than I thought it would be, if for reasons I hoped it wouldn't be. Read on for details.

I'm going to do a separate entry about the school I will be teaching at for the next year, but I guess it's worth providing a few details now, since they're mildly relevant to the story. I work at the biggest middle school on Jeju island. Something like 2000 students attend the school. The English department consists of maybe 10 Korean teachers, and 2 Native English-speakers, myself included. My Canadian native English-speaker co-teacher, who I will for the duration of this email refer to as Co-teacher #1, is going to be a good friend of mine. I can state this with certainty, based on the unusual bonding experience we shared on Friday, October 26th. There's also a male Korean English teacher, which is pretty rare. Almost all Korean English teachers are women. I will refer to this teacher as Co-teacher #2. A few years ago, he quit his previous, high-paying job as an international translator for his current job. They both seem like good people that will be fun to hang out with in the upcoming year.

Co-teacher #1 has a little car that he bought for 1.2 million Won – something like $1100. I may very well follow in his footsteps and purchase a little car to get around here. Because he has a car, he was assigned to help me move my stuff to my new apartment on Friday afternoon, once he was done teaching. So at 2:30, Co-teacher #1, Co-teacher #2 and myself got in Co-teacher #1's car, and drove for about 20 minutes, mostly on a highway, to get to my apartment. Because of the distance from my school (and the town itself) to my apartment, I'm probably going to end up moving. It's a 10-minute walk just to the nearest bus stop. Ugh. Also, there are only two restaurants and one little 7-11-style corner store within walking distance of my apartment. It is cool in one way though – it's a building with 16 apartments, and each of these is occupied by an English-speaking public school teacher. I haven't figured it out yet, but I could see this place kind of being like the mid-twenties dorms. At 30 though, I may very well be the old man of the bunch.

Upon arriving at my apartment, we had to wait a while for the cleaning crew to finish getting my apartment into move-in condition. I had to sign a few papers, and then I moved in. My room is much nicer and bigger than the one I lived in when I was in Tongyeong a year ago. Probably something like 1.5 times the size. And it's pretty nice, frankly. Here, have some pictures.

My front door and entryway.

My gigantic house.  Yes, that is roach spray in the corner, because I once saw a terrifyingly-large cockroach.
I took this photo at night, but in the day, this series of confusing glass doors leads to a semi-enclosed balcony with a nice view of  Hallasan, the highest, now snow-covered mountain in South Korea.  It has an elevation of a whopping 1,950 meters.  I'm gonna go climb it one of these days.

My bathroom has the rarest of commodities in Korea, a bathtub.  A bit luxurious for me, but I'll take it.

After moving my stuff from Co-teacher #1's car to my apartment, we got back in the car and went on a thirty-minute drive to the restaurant where my school's English department was holding a goodbye-old-teacher- / hello-new-teacher-dinner. It began, I believe, at 5 PM. Retrospectively, I should have known that any celebratory event that begins at 5 PM and entails irresponsible quantities of alcohol consumption could only end badly. At this amazing dinner, I enjoyed another delicious, traditional Korean barbeque dinner while being pressure-drinked like a mofo by a Korean co-teacher who spoke almost no English. Apparently the English department is not limited to people who have some grasp of the English language. It is worth noting that pressure-drinking-co-teacher wasn't drinking alcohol himself, but did have the courtesy to drink either water or Korean Sprite with Co-teacher #1, Co-teacher #2, myself, and Co-teacher #3, the fellow Coloradan English-speaker who had just showed up, and whose job I will be taking over.

Delicious pork, beer, and soju were all consumed, not necessarily in this order, in unhealthy quantities for the next couple hours. Korea is kind of funny, at least when viewed from an American perspective, in that for men, drinking oneself stupid is not viewed as irresponsible, or even, necessarily, in a negative light. And while I maintained a respectable degree of perceived sobriety throughout this dinner, Co-teacher #1 ended our dinner, somewhere near 7 PM, at 10 PM-drunkenness.

The rest of the English department gradually bid adieu to Co-teacher #1, Co-teacher #2, Co-teacher #3 and myself, and we subsequently took a taxi to the Shi-Jung (City Hall) area of Shi-Jeju, which translates to New Jeju, and which is the area of town in which all the happenin' night spots lie. It was a 10-minute cab ride from the restaurant, and it was during this ride that I learned an interesting but previously-unknown, and now-obvious bit of international-travel trivia. It's well-known that many Americans who travel around the world and act politely tell people they meet that they are Canadians in order to avoid any unpleasant experiences with those who hold anti-American sentiments, which are, unfortunately, many. Frankly, while I don't typically prescribe to this behavior, I understand it, if only from the perspective of trying to avoid unnecessary conflicts. But on this cab ride, I learned that obnoxious, drunk Canadians sometimes claim to be Americans in order to shift the blame of obnoxious, drunk Canadians to “Ugly Americans.” Thanks a lot, America's Hat.

Our next stop, which lasted a whole 5 minutes, was at “Island Stone,” a small bar that draws a large expat crowd. It being only shortly after 7, we were the first ones to roll in. We were immediately handed a drink menu … on an iPad. This is irrelevant to the story, but a small detail possibly worth sharing, if only to give some perspective on the state of society on Jeju. I pointed out that since it would probably be hours until anyone started showing up, we might as well save our money by drinking outside a corner store. This isn't a viable option in America because of the whole illegality of it, but here, it is legal, encouraged, and awesome.

We left the bar, wandered a block off the main street to a “CU,” which stands for “See You.” CU is a common corner store on Jeju island. I'd say there's a decent chance I'm going to spend some significant time getting drunk at CU for the first time since 2006. (The hilarious joke, for those of you that don't know me, is that I graduated from the University of Colorado – CU – in 2006. Someone once told me that jokes are extra funny when they require a separate parenthesized explanation.)

Co-teacher #1, Co-teacher #2, Co-teacher #3 and myself spent a couple hours at CU drinking mediocre Korean beer before Co-teacher #2 announced that it was time for him to return home. He's in his mid-thirties and has a wife, so without calling him a pussy too many times, we let him go, and shortly thereafter, returned to Island Stone.

The next few hours, which we spent at Island Stone, were fun, but frankly, forgettable. I met probably 30 Jeju residents, mostly native-English speakers, but a few Koreans, Japanese, and people of other nationalities as well. Everyone was really friendly, and having met these people, I have no doubt that I'll be able to have an enjoyable year here. At around 2 AM, Co-worker #1 (Co-worker #3 had disappeared a while before this) told me he was going to go home. I was thinking of leaving too, so we walked out the door together. I guess now is as good a time as ever to mention that Island Stone, the bar we were at, is on the second floor of a building, and it is accessible by a concrete staircase. I mention it now since it now becomes extremely relevant to the story.

For reasons I cannot begin to comprehend (but I actually can … drunkenness), Co-worker #1 decided to take a shortcut down the first half-flight of stairs by tripping and flying head-first down them, rather than the traditional method of, you know, walking. The next few minutes, while not as “slow motion” as a stereotypical near-death story, do stick out more clearly in my memory than most of the preceding hours.

I stood at the top of the stairs and, with hindsight being 20/20, regrettably laughed casually at the situation, with the bouncer, about Co-teacher #1's clumsiness. I shouted something to the effect of, “C'mon, (Co-teacher #1), get your lazy ass up!” Co-teacher #1, I noticed, after a short while, was a remarkably good actor. Remarkably good at acting to be seriously injured. At this point, I broke off my conversation with the bouncer, and wandered down the half-flight of stairs that led to Co-teacher #1's disturbingly unmoving body. Then I noticed the eerily movie-like pool of blood that was slowly spreading from his head. The bouncer had followed me down the stairs, and realized at almost the exact moment that I did that this wasn't the joking matter we'd been making it out to be less than 30 seconds earlier, and ran up the stairs to call an ambulance.

My first thought was “[Explitive] [explitive] [exlitive]! [Explitive!] [Explitivingly-][explitive!]” I immediately checked Co-teacher #1's pulse and was, to put it mildly, relieved to find a strong pulse. Not really knowing what to do, and in fear of making a bloody horrible (pun intended) situation worse, I gently pulled Co-worker #1's body away from the wall, propped his head up on his own sweatshirt, that I had somehow come to be in possession of, and tried to slow the bleeding with one of the sleeves of this same sweatshirt. My under-qualified check-out of Co-worker #1 told me that the only obvious injury here was an approximately 1-inch cut on the top of his skull that looked deep, but not life-threatening.

A few minutes before the ambulance arrived, Co-worker #1 came back to (semi-) consciousness. In a more slurred voice than could be attributed to simple drunkenness, he elicited to me his curiosity about what was going on, and even more than this, he made it clear to me that he was sorry. You know what I mean, right? Drunk people love to apologize. That tendency is even more exaggerated in drunk people suffering from considerable blood loss and head-wounds. I let Co-worker #1 know that no apology was necessary, he just needed to follow “Rule Number One: Sit still!”

Over the course of the next couple hours, which were spent in an ambulance and a hospital, I had to tell Co-worker #1 to “...shut up and follow Rule Number One!” on more occasions than I would have preferred. There was also more otherwise-awkward male hand-holding occurring during this time than I'd have been comfortable with in other circumstances. But these weren't other circumstances. These were these circumstances, so, even though I knew that the gays were about to be responsible for Tropical Storm Sandy (this was before all that went down), I went ahead and held hands with a man.

I didn't take this picture because I didn't have my camera with me on the night of this particular incident, thank god.  But this is about the size of Co-teacher #1's head wound.  He later claimed he was Frankenstein for Halloween, a frankly brilliant idea.

A couple hours passed. Co-teacher #1 had an MRI that revealed no damage. He also had the joy of having a nurse walk up behind him, stapler (visually identical to a stapler you'd find in any school or office) in-hand, and tell him, “this will hurt,” prior to having his no-longer-bleeding skull literally stapled shut. The tense-ness wore off after the first 30-minutes, and we both just realized that the situation, memorable as it might be, basically sucked. Eventually, we were allowed to check out.

After Co-teacher #1 paid his $75 dollar hospital fee (yes, you read that correctly. An ambulance ride, a thorough examination, an MRI, and staples-to-the-skull costs a grand total of $75 in a first-world country with awesome, socialized medicine), we took a taxi back to Co-teacher #1's house. I volunteered to sleep on his floor in case anything went horribly wrong during the night. Fortunately, nothing went wrong, and late the next morning, we both wandered down the street – one of us under his own power for the first time in 12 hours – to an amazing Korean restaurant where we enjoyed a brunch of what is literally translated to “Hangover Stew.” We both needed it, but one more than the other.

Here's looking forward to another year's worth of hopefully less bloody, but equally amazing adventures.

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