I remember distinctly what he told me, that last conversation before I boarded that plane, the one I had with my new boss. It still remains etched in my mind. He said that I would be teaching in one of the most beautiful parts of Korea, an island I was enthusiastically informed of. That conversation left my mind filled with all sorts of possibilities. Being someone who has an overactive imagination, being so tantalizingly vague was an unfair thing to do to me. If you don’t give me specifics, my mind wants to fill in all the blanks as much as possible. Obviously as I was craving a new beginning after leaving my life in New Zealand which had fallen into disarray, my mind was desperate to cling to all the wonderful possibilities the term ‘island’ promised me.
This was highly problematic, because the term island carried an already well-formulated vision in my head. An island is closely associated with insanely beautiful beaches, mild, bordering on tropical weather, majestic sea breezes laden with refreshingly salty winds that carried on into lazy evenings where one would drink a special beverage overlooking the ocean, counting the many sails that dotted the watery horizon.
I blame the lottery of birth for making me this way. Being brought up in New Zealand, a sub-tropical group of islands, and regularly holidaying in my ancestral homeland of Samoa, two of the world’s most stunning island groups, my standards were already impossibly difficult to match. To this day, no island I’ve visited has been able to surpass the majesty of my homelands. And I don’t say that in any form of arrogance. If you’re from where I’m from, you know what I mean. If you’re not, then you better get out there and visit those islands before they become forever altered by the forces of climate change and human negligence.
So it was with great anticipation that I was seeking to land and live on an island in a foreign country that promised so much in terms of a new cultural experience for me. But what kind of cultural experience was I going to have? As I mentioned earlier, I had no clue where I was moving to. The only thing I knew about Korea before I left for Seoul was that it had hosted the Olympics in 1988. It was New Zealand’s most successful Olympics until the London 2012 games in terms of medals collected, so I knew that it was a somewhat important country if it were granted the rights to host one of the world’s greatest showpieces.
Short of that, I knew nothing about the place, I knew no one except my friends who had jumped into contracts a few months before me, and I was fortunate that I would be starting my contract at a school where my friend was already teaching. I was to be posted on the island of Geoje, in the Gyeonsangnam-do Province, deep south, as south as you could go in South Korea before hitting the ocean.
In fact, Geoje-do itself is an island that is connected to mainland Korea via a bridge, where it joins up with mainland Korea at the town of Tongyeong. Geoje is so far south that it’s actually faster to reach Fukuoka in Japan by boat than it is to take the bus to Seoul, the capital city of the Republic of Korea.
As my Singapore Airlines flight began to near Incheon airport, after what felt like a lifetime of being in the air, including my 1 hour stopover in Singapore, where I failed to follow the air hostesses instructions of taking the skytrain to the next gate. Which proved a stupid error as I found myself literally walking off one plane and running on to the next.
You see in New Zealand, airport gates are very close to each other. And not having been to an airport any bigger than Auckland International Airport before (which I thought was the best airport in the world at the time), Gate A1 and B2 seemed like it would be just next door to each other. Instead, I walked for an entire hour to get to the next gate where I would board my connection to Seoul. Singapore’s airport quite literally is bigger than most of the towns in New Zealand. And there was my first lesson about the miniscule nature of where I actually came from.
So as my plane began its descent into Incheon International Airport, I was terrified more than anything else. My short experience of Singapore really brought home to me the fact that I really was just a small fish in this massive ocean and as excited as I was, I didn’t know what I had actually got myself into. I suddenly realized that I had not even performed a single google search about Korea once before leaving! Can’t imagine ever traveling like that again! As I looked out the window, it was a hazy day, and I couldn’t quite see much as we were approaching
As we began our approach, most of what I saw was grayness. And then all of a sudden there was Seoul, some distance away. I knew that the airport was very far from the centre of Seoul as my friends had informed me. So the scale of the city that I would later move to and call home for 4 years was not quite apparent at that point. But what was apparent by this brief look, was that it was not a place whose buildings showed much diversity.
I bore witness to row after row, for mile after mile of square looking rectangular boxes that rose from the ground in the most random of places. There would be mountains, rice paddies and then these tall buildings that would appear in clusters. There would be industrial areas, and then more random buildings that popped up into the sky in a scarily uniform pattern.
One of my British friends summed it up perfectly when he described it as an experience of mistaken identity. It seemed as if we had landed into a communist paradise, that somehow our plane had gone off course and landed in Pyongyang not Incheon. For what I was to learn later, is that those buildings that looked like carbon copies of long rectangular boxes were in fact apartment blocks. And for a country like Korea where space is at a premium and the population is at seemingly bursting point, making use of limited space is somewhat of a national talent crafted out of sheer necessity.
Before I knew it, the plane hit the runway, and the first thing that I noticed was that unlike when a plane lands in Auckland, where the pilot slams on the landing breaks to try and lessen our speed as quickly as possible so we don’t run out of runway, it seemed like the pilot had an endless supply of track to burn off our excess speed. And when the plane finally began to slow down, I realized that we were nowhere near the gate. In fact, it seemed like an eternity before the plane even began to get near the terminal. And when it did, I was shocked at the scale of the airport.
We kept passing gate after gate after gate, and there were what seemed to be a sea of airplanes all over the tarmac. I had never seen so many planes in one place at one time before in my life. Just imagine that in Samoa, where I would regularly visit, the airport is only used when a plane comes in, which normally means that there’s only really one plane at the airport at a time. That same plane would refuel, and fly back to the host destination, usually Auckland, which means that only one group of passengers arrive and leave at the same time from Faleolo International Airport. And Auckland International, although a busy airport by New Zealand standards, it’s not really by international standards. And most of the planes at Auckland International have the Koru of Air New Zealand on their tails. I’m afraid to say that that Summer’s day in 2008, I saw so many different symbols on the tail of these planes that half of them I had never seen before.
I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, entering the great hall to see the Wizard, but overwhelmed and intimidated by the awe-inspiring sight that lay before me. I thought for certain that I would be on the first available flight back to my homeland once this contract was over.
Finally, after battling through scores and scores of people and luggage I managed to clear customs, I entered the arrivals hall, and it was some experience. Incheon International Airport is the best airport in the world in my opinion. It’s massive, modern, efficient and easy to get around. But on that day when i landed it felt cold, unwelcoming, impersonal. It was the first time I had ever gone to a destination and not have anyone wait for me on the other end. I got out of the airport and I was confronted by a sea of people who were waiting for their loved ones, or tour groups, or business guests.
When I realized that there was no one waiting for me, it hit me there and then, it was time for me to finally grow up. I had been dependent on others for so long, for my family to help me if anything went wrong, for my friends to lift me up when I was down, from now until this day, the most important thing that living in Korea has taught me, is that there is no one responsible in this life for you but yourself.
Subsequently, having declared my independence, the first thing I did as a truly independent person was make a stupid choice.
I had been informed that I was booked on a connecting flight from Gimpo Airport to Jinju (Sacheon) Airport, where my new boss would be picking me up from. So in order to get to that airport, I was to take the airport bus from Incheon Airport to Gimpo Airport, which would cost me less than $5.00.
In the commotion and the hustle and bustle that was the overwhelming attack I was under by taxi drivers in the arrivals hall, I fell victim to paralyzing anxiety and fear, and was talked into taking a premium taxi instead of going out and getting the bus. So what should have been a $5.00 bus ride ended up being a $100 taxi ride. At the time, I had no sense of what the exchange rate was and how the won (korean currency) worked. So I had no idea hat I had just blown $100 on a taxi ride. All I felt was relieved that I was going to be taken to my destination simply and directly and comfortably.
It was on this ride over to Gimpo that I finally got a sense of what Korea’s landscape was like. Let’s just say that I was not particularly impressed. The weather was very pleasant, but the scenery was not.
The greyness of the skies didn’t help, neither did the size of the highways and the dead look of the greenery that seemed more brown than alive. The marshland around the airport wasn’t very inviting, and I consoled myself with the fact that I would be going to an island, and that surely it would be much better than the city that my taxi driver seemed determined to make disappear into a streak behind us as he pushed speeds of 120km per hour. At one point, I actually turned to the driver and asked him in a very diplomatic way: “What’s the speed limit here?” hoping in vain that a Korean taxi driver would pick up on my innuendo!
Upon arriving at Gimpo International airport, I found that this airport was smaller and more resembled Auckland International. It was here though when things became even more awkward, I had to wait a few hours for my connecting flight to Jinju, and so I popped out the front to quickly open my carton of holiday that I had brought with me from New Zealand and eagerly looked for comfort through one of my many vices, cigarette smoking, and when I was in the middle of my third drag, I was suddenly confronted with a soldier carrying what I thought was something that looked like a machine gun!
I was flabbergasted, I had never seen a gun before. And it’s always a rare sight in New Zealand to see military personnel in uniform in a public place like this. I froze and felt for certain that he would find any reason to point his gun at me (I watch too many movies). So when he finally walked past me in that slow deliberate, glaring, watch-like military style, I hurried back inside and went to line up for my flight.
It was here where I experienced my first Koreanism. The airport was very busy that day, as it usually is at Gimpo, which functions as both a domestic and international airport. At the time, every passenger had to pass through one gate to enter the departure lounge that led off into different departure gates. I went to the back of the line and waited for the line to move forward.
Astonishingly, after 5 minutes of standing in the line, I hadn’t even inched one centimetre forward. But I knew that people were being processed because I could see people emerging on the other end. When I looked properly at what was going on in the line, I realized that I was the only one lining up!
People were entering the queue from all directions, from the side, some people had walked around me and pushed ahead, others just walked straight up to the counter without even bothering to see who was there behind them. Naturally I was enraged, but I noticed that no one else had even batted an eyelid at what was going on. Instead everyone else was joining in on the free-for-all. A light bulb went off in my head, it was time for me to join in on the fun. I found myself pushing forward, and prior to that, I had been quite careful of my size, knowing that I am much larger than the average Korean, I didn’t want to hurt anyone. But at this point I realized that I had much smaller women in front of me deliberately putting up their elbows to force their way through.
It was time for me to drop the niceties and found that my body had responded in tune. Before I knew it, I had pushed my way forward and was at the front of the queue.
Let’s just say that pushing in line took a lot of time to get used to over here, but when I leave, I have to make sure to leave that practice behind, because in New Zealand, that’s how you end up in hospital.
Needless to say, I was relieved when our plane finally touched down in Sacheon. This little regional airport was more of what I expected. It reminded me of Hamilton airport’s old tin shed arrivals building. My boss was there to pick me up, and he was nice enough. Although from the get-go, it was obvious he wasn’t comfortable about my weight. At that point I didn’t really care, I had been traveling for what amounted to about 24 hours, and I just wanted to get to this promised island that I had been waiting to inhabit.
And when Geoje finally came into vision, it was unlike any island I had ever imagined before. Not only was it a heavily urbanized island, it stunk a familiar stench. The sea breeze was not fresh, it carried the stink of pollution. I recognized the smell from when Auckland’s now pristine waterfront thanks to the America’s cup makeover it received, used to also smell of the same stench.
But it was much worse, this island was being used as a manufacturing ground for Korea’s shipbuilding industry, one of the biggest in the world. Not only that, the island was plastered with neon lights, there was a starbucks in front of a huge shopping complex, there were cars everywhere, and as I arrived in the evening, I arrived just as the first shift of Samsung workers finished from work, and they flooded the streets in their astronaut-inspired uniform on what seemed to be an endless procession of motorbikes. The air was thick and heavy with smog, and when I was finally brought to my apartment, the tiny space that I was given as my humble abode brought home to me the fact that I had done something that I was completely unprepared for.
Luckily for me, my friend had prepared dinner for me, she brought it over, and that evening she was flying out to Shanghai as I had arrived during a long weekend, June 6th is a public holiday here in Korea.
As she went on her merry way, I ventured out to the local supermarket to see to some essentials like toothpaste and perhaps getting some supplies. I quickly found that I recognized nothing, couldn’t understand anything or anyone and I quickly retreated back to my apartment that evening.
I closed the door behind me, looked at my flower covered bed spread, dived head first into the pillows, covered my face and began the inevitable shivering.
I turned off the lights, and began repeating to myself.
What have you done?
Before long it was morning.