September 24, 2012 by travelinggrits
As the weeks pass, I’ve fallen into a rhythm. Life has become a steady cycle of work, exercise, evenings spent watching TV with the host family or self-study of Korean (not too diligently, I admit). My homestay is not more than a five minute walk from my school, so it was easy to settle into small, comfortable circle of activity.
During the month of September, I spent my Saturdays teaching English camp at school. I admit that I was slightly dismayed when I first learned that I would have to devote another day of my week to teaching, but the experience was much more pleasant than I anticipated. In an effort to build a close relationship with my host family, I had made a mental pact to stay close to home rather than travel for the first six weeks, so my Saturday commitment helped reinforce this resolution.
I was directed to teach “American culture with fun games and activities,” which sounds easy enough—but I spent considerable time mulling over how best to reduce America’s varied character into the space of three Saturdays. I was pleased with the end result, however, which I felt gradually narrowed in scope with each lesson:
- Broad overview of America as the cultural melting pot
- Characteristics of different regions (and making a postcard for an imaginary visit to a desired location)
- States (through the state fair and a mock midway game)
- Comparing and contrasting the student experience in America and Korea (and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches)
- American games and celebrations with family and friends:
American football (including watching Super Bowl commercials, making paper footballs and creating fantasy football teams) and American weddings
But last weekend, after my last camp session concluded, I hastily packed my backpack and made my first venture away from home. The downfall to staying so close to home is that my host mother is still quite protective; she walked me to the bus stop. I looked forward to building a little more self-confidence and flying solo for a while.
I took the bus to Cheongju, where I met my good friend Lauren and her host family. Her host family has two younger girls, who at first glance immediately hid behind their parents at the sight of the curly-haired, blue-eyed monster before them. Thankfully, within half an hour I had warmed them up with some silly antics, and they were holding hands and skipping with the Wild Thing.
We piled into the family SUV and headed to the Cheongju Jikji Festival. The Jikji, a Buddhist document printed using movable metal type, was dated to 1377—that’s right, long before the Gutenberg Bible’s distribution in the mid-1400s. This communications major geeked out considerably at the chance to wander around the Jikji museum and Heungdeok temple, where the Jikji was found (the remaining volumes of the document are now on display in the National Library of France). I had never learned about the Jikji before, and it was enlightening to look beyond my Euro-centric knowledge base at this foreign chapter of communications history.
Later on, after an evening of songs and games with the girls, the host parents tucked the children in bed and invited Lauren and me to share some wine. We toasted a month since our arrival at our homestays. Such a short time, but my exposure to such a large volume of information and experience thus far has made it feel like so much longer.
The next day, we woke at 4:45 a.m. and stumbled out the door to catch our bus to Seoul. We arrived with the first rays of the sun and joined about 15 other Fulbrighters for a whitewater rafting trip on the Han River.
Hands down, whitewater rafting is my favorite outdoor recreational activity, and it was one of the top items on my bucket list for my time in Korea. The sky was clear, the air slightly cool with the first traces of fall. A beautiful day to enjoy this much-loved pastime.
At the river, we strapped on gear, divided into groups and pushed away from shore. Perched precariously on the edge of the raft, I was invigorated by the mere sight of the river ahead. But as we received our first instructions from our Korean raft guide, I realized that even this familiar experience would be transformed by the international setting. The guide kept the commands as simple as possible:
화이팅! (A “Konglish” expression similar to the English word “fighting” that is used to cheer on or encourage, or as “Let’s go!”) Ah, one, two…
…three, four! We responded, as we made strong strokes in unison.
The river was class 2, but there were still enough rapids to keep me squealing with delight. And I found that raft guides everywhere do have one thing in common: they are pranksters. Before long, the caravan of rafts in our river party were jovially splashing each other and colliding like pinballs.
The mischief was not confined to rival boats, however. Before long, a few boaters had been playfully thrown overboard. During one calm stretch, as I innocently gazed at a dragonfly resting on my paddle, the raft guide chose me as his next victim. He deftly slipped the T-grip of his paddle into the back of my safety jacket and yanked me backward. But after two summers of rafting during my job as an outdoor adventure camp counselor, I had already firmly anchored myself by wedging my feet into the creases of the raft. I was pulled into a 90 degree angle from my legs, but I snapped back upright. I brandished my paddle in defiant victory.
The raft guide still had it out for me, though, and he took advantage of when the boat was rocking to test me again. This time, he caught me more off guard—my feet weren’t anchored as well—but I grapped the center rope and held on for dear life. I don’t think the guide expected a girl of my size to put up so much resistance, but I refused to go down without a fight. The raft guide had to wrestle me free to throw me out.
The rest of the afternoon floated by too quickly, and soon we were headed back to Seoul. We all parted ways at the bus station, running off to buy tickets to our varied destinations. The lines were long; Sunday evening generally marks a mass exodus of weekend visitors to their homes in other parts of the country. As night fell, I grabbed a blueberry smoothie and boarded a bus, settling myself comfortably for a three hour ride back home.
As I gazed out the window at the darkness whizzing by, I reflected on the weekend’s opportunities to prove that I can hold my own in Korea, whether it be riding the river’s waves or navigating the public transportation system. It’s good to be in a comfortable rhythm.