Herewith a “What it’s like living here” essay & photos from Liz Blood who has taken an adventurous turn and fled her native Oklahoma City for the exotic wonders and mysteries of South Korea where she is now teaching (Liz and students pictured above). What is unique about this piece is that it’s about discovery and newness, not about a place Liz knows well or loves from habit, but a place in which she cannot even make out the words on the store signs. Everything is new, she feels awkward, nothing is easy. Going out to buy instant noodles at a convenience store is an expedition into the unknown. Liz’s words are fresh and revealing in their honesty and detail.
What It’s Like Living Here,
from Liz Blood in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, South Korea
There are marks everywhere that you don’t understand—on cars, buildings, flyers in your mailbox. Squares, circles, upside down Y’s—sometimes it looks more like a game of Tetris to you than a language. This makes almost everything a real chore, but none so much as getting a meal. What will you order? How will you order? Are you even sure that’s a restaurant? When you first arrive in South Korea you don’t go out to dinner alone. Instead, you walk down the cold, granite steps of your apartment building, through the air-compressed sliding glass door (which you’re sure came from the set of Star Trek), and head out onto the street for the nearest convenience store.
As you leave your building—which is called Dreamplus, a fact you find funny since you’ve had so few dreams since coming to this country—you consider the sliding glass door and the ease with which it moves. Whooosh. It took you six or seven trips out that door to realize the sensor was above it and that, when the door wouldn’t open, a simple wave of the hand would suffice. All that jumping around and on and off the steps was unnecessary. Perhaps, one of these days, you will move with such ease, act right on cue. Like the door or even the children in your English classes, you will know the proper response. I’ll have a beer, the pork dumplings, and kim chi soup, please.
But, until then, you simply round your corner in Jigok-dong—the name of your neighborhood, which you say proudly because it is one of the only things you can say properly—and walk into the 7-11 to find a pack of instant noodles. You choose any one of the packages without drawings of shrimp or fish and place the noodles on the counter, not even bothering to listen to the cashier tell you the amount—the register’s screen points outward, the numbers glow neon green. You breathe easy and relish the convenience.
It’s raining and you have no food. Instant noodles won’t cut it, and neither will the dumplings at the place you’ve visited four times this week. You remember the restaurant near the busy street that has the pictures of bowls of noodles and vegetables on front. You step down into your sunken entryway, put on your waterproof hiking shoes, grab your flimsy umbrella, and set out for a dinner for one.
Inside the restaurant, you point to a picture on the menu as a way of ordering. It’s worked before, but it’s not working now. You don’t know why the waitress is shaking her head. That’s what I want to eat, you think. And then you realize she is trying to speak English, and she is saying baby food. As you find something else on the menu, two girls about nine years old walk in and pick up takeout. You laugh to yourself. Here are children doing an adult thing while you, the adult, order baby food.
The restaurant is small—seating about twenty-four people—and warm. From the outside it glows a yellow orange. You sit in a booth facing the front door and watch as people trickle in from the apartment complex across the street. The street, their shoes, umbrellas, the wind—everything is washed in rain. The spicy beef and rice porridge you’ve ordered is hot; you’re grateful for the cool air every time the door opens. You smell leeks, pepper, metal, and the damp dark outside.
It’s Saturday and you’re sick. Sick with snot, sweat, a sore throat, and general disgustingness, but you have to get out of the apartment—out of the one-room studio where you live and alternate between looking at the mustard-colored flower wallpaper on one end of the room and the fuchsia flowered wallpaper on the other. Besides, dinner was your suggestion and you don’t know enough people to start breaking dates. You have plans with Jeff, Joey, and Michelle—fellow Americans whose syrupy Southern accents, slow-moving like honey, you are sure will soothe you like the green tea you’ve been sipping all week.
You decide around noon to go to the hospital because you don’t know how to find a regular doctor. You know the trip is unnecessary, wouldn’t happen “back in the States,” but it’s been a week and you’re no better. So you march yourself down the cold stairs, through the Star Trek door, and to the corner of the nearest busy street where you hail a taxi, climb inside, and say in your best Korean-English, ho-si-pi-tal.
At the hospital, you speak slowly, enunciating each syllable of your symptoms. This is going well, you think, as the doctor nods and you nod and admire the whiteness of his coat, made even whiter by the fluorescent lights in the emergency room. He lets you finish, then says, Ok. What are your symptoms? You think, Oh, boy. The nurse beckons you over to a hospital bed. She’s holding an IV of liquid that looks like lemon-lime Gatorade. Vitamins, she says. You nod. Well, what the hell.
The mattress is thin but firm, the plastic slick beneath the rough white sheet. You lie down and look at the people sharing this space with you. Some look like they are knocking on death’s door. An old man is helped into a bed by his bent-backed old wife. The man can barely breathe. Each heave of his chest makes you tired, and when the nurse brings out the respirator you remember your younger years of asthma attacks, breathing machines, your mother there for you and not a nameless nurse behind a mask. Another old woman is rushed in on a stretcher. In the next few minutes, eight members of her family come through the door and surround her bed. Some cry, some hold their faces. But you close your eyes and put all of this out of your mind. You have dinner plans.
When you wake, the IV has dripped empty. The old woman is gone. The nurse comes over and slides the skinny needle from your hand, which is a bit bruised now. You pay in the dark front hallway and go outside. Buoyed by the sun—so bright things are almost in Technicolor: yellow lines in the road, orange taxis, cerulean sky—you walk home.
Later, at the restaurant, you sit cross-legged on the heated floor and order the spicy chicken stew: Dhak dori tang. Your co-teacher taught you just how to say it; you have practiced. The stew comes out red and bubbling, steam spilling over the edges of the large bowl, chunks of orange carrot, brown chicken legs, and slivers of green onions peeking out. This particular dish is a first for everyone. Your new friends sip beer and enjoy the food. You smile at this small success.
—by Liz Blood
—Post design by Natalia Sarkissian