Archive for August, 2012

Happy White Day!

Today, I woke up at 4:00 AM feeling very rested after sleeping a full 10 hours. Despite my initial misgivings, the 2-inch thick mat (in Korean, it is called a “yo”) that is on my bed in place of a mattress is actually very comfortable – once I get to sleep.

I awoke inspired to write. For the first time in at least two months, I finally took the time to journal my experiences so far in Korea. I was immensely satisfied with my accomplishments of waking up early AND  writing – two rare occurrences in my AL  (after law school began) life.

I entered the classroom for my first class, Global Antitrust Law, at 8:00 AM, hoping to be early enough to meet other students before the class commenced at 8:30. No one entered the classroom until 8:35 when the professor entered and began talking to me about my interest in human rights. After fifteen more minutes, one other student appeared, and we discovered that the class just might be canceled if not enough students decide to attend (the minimum for a class to be kept is five students).

After the class, I went to the office and got a student locker. The first key I was given opened a locker that was already being used, so I went back a second time to use my new key. This was for Locker # 13… it is a good thing I am not superstitious because waiting on my locker was a heart-shaped sticky note with the words written in capital letters: “Happy White Day!”

I am sure it was leftover from last semester, but the irony certainly brightened my day. I so far was the only white student in all of my law classes, something that until that moment of reading the note hadn’t really affected me. But as I was standing by the locker, excited squeals, laughter, and giggles as only girls can produce were echoing around me, and I had that feeling of being an outsider. A white outsider. Race-consciousness is a funny thing: I have decided I will refuse to let it bother me and I will not let it bother my relationships with others, but for all that, it is still semi-alive, lurking somewhere in the back of my consciousness.

There have been many very kind students here – it is not that I do not feel welcome. Many of the girls have gone out of their way to do things like eat lunch with me, or show me a classroom, or translate Korean for me. I feel very welcome. But I do feel very different, and it is almost as though everything I try or need to do requires someone else to help me somehow. Being independent, I hate this because 1) it limits me, 2) it makes me look incredibly incompetent, 3) it reminds me that I am a complete rookie and outsider, and 4) it causes someone else to be burdened.

Today was yet another day of learning more options and how behind I am when it comes to human rights and international law. I’m taking mostly upper level electives in international law and it is therefore disturbing to think that I’ve not had any basic introductory courses in international law before jumping into all of this. It is as though I am way ahead of expectations for myself, considering my background and personal history and opportunities, but for where I hope to be or where I want to be now, I am very behind.

Or maybe I just feel that way. Who knows yet? I suppose that remains to be seen this semester.

Tonight after my last class ended around 4:15, I decided to be brave and try Korean instant soup/noodles. I bought a few different varieties at the convenience store and as everything was in Korean, I had no idea what I was purchasing. My first experience with the Korean version of Ramen soup was definitely not boring! Not knowing what was in the seasoning packet, I happily dumped all of it in the hot water/noodle mixture, eager to taste the yummy-looking noodles. I proudly trotted over to a table with my soup and took my first bite. I am not sure which happened first: my tongue feeling like it had been coated with jalepeno pepper seeds, or my throat feeling like fire was coursing down it. Swallowing the noodles unleashed a fit of unstoppable deep coughing. (In my defense, I still have a very bad sounding cough that I frequently had to suppress today in class…) I’m sure the other people in the recreation room where I was eating were getting immense entertainment by my obviously first encounter with Korean noodles. Determined that I was going to finish that soup for dinner or do without, I decided that I’d just try to avoid the broth and eat the noodles. After about five bites, my new plan seemed to be working – or maybe my taste buds had simply become numbed. Either way, I ate most of the soup and actually quite enjoyed it!

All in all, my first day of classes was a success. I was definitely reminded that I was not in Kansas anymore, but I don’t feel any desire to click the heels of my ruby red slippers. I like Korea! Happy White Day!


My Way

I woke up Thursday morning around 4:30 to get all my things together and start the last minute rush to make it to the Minneapolis Airport on time for my 7:45 AM flight. A little over four hours later, all my good byes had been said, I had made it to Chicago, and I was on board a 777 Boeing, settling in for a 14 hour flight to Seoul. Even when the plane began its ascent, it did not feel real that I was actually going to Korea. I was just grateful that the sinus decongestant that I had picked up 30 minutes before my flight was actually working and the head cold that had previously prevented my ears from equalizing was finally not interfering this time! (The flight from Minneapolis to Chicago had been brutal.)
On the way over, I rehearsed the plan numerous times in my mind: get through immigration checks, get through customs, get my luggage, find a payphone, call Ho-Seok, find the bus station, buy a ticket, and board the bus to Pohang. I would have to be ready to board the bus in an hour from landing. Thinking of all that could go wrong (I randomly end up on the wrong bus, I miss the first bus and have to wait 3 hours until the next, I get kidnapped at the airport by sex traffickers, I never get picked up from the bus station at Pohang by Ho-Seok, I somehow get kidnapped while traveling on the bus, etc.) was easy to avoid for the first 2 hours of the flight. Talking to my neighbor, Kim, was incredibly fun. She was a graduate of Liberty University, a few hours away from Regent, who was headed to Korea to teach English. After talking with her for an hour, we ate dinner and both decided to bravely try the Korean option: bibimbop, a dish with rice and mixed vegetables and various side dishes. One of the side dishes was dried fish of some sort that more closely resembled tiny minnows without tails. Their eyes and vertebrae were still very much intact, however! As I ate two mouthfuls, I merely thought how much protein I was eating.
After trying to sleep a few hours, reading, talking, and not finding anything interesting to watch, I was bored out of my wits and began watching a Korean thriller that showed a police officer’s daughter being kidnapped and trafficked in Seoul. After this. the doubts were much harder to silence.
I began thinking long and hard about my way. Was this “my” way, or God’s way? Would he let me be trafficked here, or did he have a plan apart from that for me? Was this me reading too much into everything, or should I be legitimately concerned? Could I ever live with myself if I were to become a heroin-saturated trafficking victim? Would I lose my God as I lost my mind?
At 4:00 PM Korean time, our flight landed promptly in Incheon, near Seoul. My first glimpse out the plane window showed a few green mountains, an overcast sky, and a huge airport. I went through immigration and customs just fine and ended up even getting my luggage within 20 minutes of getting off the plane. Next, I found my way to the currency exchange station, then found a payphone, and dialed Ho-Seok’s number. He never answered. I had about 20 minutes left to find the bus station, buy a ticket, and board. I couldn’t risk missing that bus. I would figure something out on the way. My ears had decided they didn’t want to cooperate any longer, and they never equalized from the plane’s descent. I felt deaf and stupid as I had to ask people to repeat themselves when I would try to get directions.
I hurried to the door I’d been told was the bus station exit. I crossed the street, and voila! There was the ticket booth! After purchasing my ticket to Pohang, I stood in line for the bus. In my head, I was rehearsing options: did I write Ho-Seok’s number down incorrectly? I didn’t write the second contact’s phone number down (Why didn’t you remember to do this, Sarah????) and I never wrote the school’s address down (Again, Sarah, brilliant. What am I supposed to do when I get to the bus station and have no idea where to tell the taxi driver to go???), so my options were becoming more limited. It didn’t matter: I was where I was supposed to be, and I was on my way. Nevermind that my cell phone didn’t work, and I had no idea how I would contact Ho-Seok.
The bus took off right on time. I watched, fascinated, as mountains rolled past my window, along with some water, a few large apartment complexes, and some dilapidated looking houses. About 20 minutes into our drive, we passed a very modern looking city that had a Starbucks on a corner road… I immediately thought of my friend Candace and our adventure at Starbucks in Switzerland last month. Then I remembered what Candace is always telling me: “Jesus has this.” That relaxed me a bit, and I became incredibly sleepy.
I slept on and off until the bus pulled into a bus stop around 7:30. Everything was dark by this time. The driver parked, then barked out some Korean that sounded like an order, and then people began getting off the bus. I had no idea where we were, but I knew it wasn’t Pohang (because that was supposed to be 5 hours away!) and although I was incredibly thirsty and having difficulty breathing (the air was incredibly humid and my nasal congestion wasn’t helping anything).
A Korean woman walking by my seat looked down at me and very sweetly explained that we had 15 minutes to get out and then the bus would leave again. What an angel she was to take pity on the poor confused blonde! I rushed off, found a payphone, dialed Ho-Seok’s number again, and this time, he answered! I told him where I was and he explained that he’d be at the bus stop. Feeling much better about life, I then found some apple juice and reboarded the bus. A few hours later, the bus again pulled into a stop, but this time, it was merely a city corner, and I had no idea whether it was Pohang or not. Again, I simply waited, and sure enough – it wasn’t Pohang. Next stop was my destination.
When we finally pulled into another stop, everyone acted like they were collecting their belongings and preparing to leave, but the “stop” was a gas station, and there was no one there to meet me. I decided to simply wait yet again, and sure enough – the bus driver had merely stopped to talk with someone at the station for some reason. He climbed back in the bus, and away we went again! FINALLY, we arrived in Pohang, and I got out and collected my luggage. I still didn’t see anyone, but by the time I’d lugged all three of my heavy duffel bags onto the sidewalk, I heard someone ask whether I was Sarah, and there was my hero, Ho-Seok!
We took a taxi to the university, and I entered Bethel Hall – my home for the next week. I was a day early, I learned, so I needed to pay $5 extra for the night. NO problem! At this point, I was a hot, sticky mass of sweat and frizz, and I just wanted a shower and a clean bed. Ho-Seok, my valiant hero, translated everything for me and told me that I was assigned room 422. Unfortunately, he was sorry, but he could not help me bring my bags to the 4th floor because it was an all-girls’ floor and he was not allowed there. I took the elevator to the 4th floor, and was greeted right away with dozens of shoes and sandals all over the floor right before the hall way. I remembered I was in Asia, and removed my smelly sneakers. Then I walked up to 422 and of course, no one opened the door. I had no key code, so I walked back downstairs (taking the stairs because the elevator didn’t work) and while dripping into a puddle in the hall’s main office, tried to explain that no one was in the room to let me in. The office worker followed me back and had similar luck. She then said that I could stay in her room for the night. She helped me get all situated and I learned that her name was Hyo-Hyung, but I could call her Clara because that was her English name.
My first night in Korea was a blur of sweat, confusion, and thirst. I did manage to take a shower in a public shower area (something to get used to for the week), and I unpacked and slept surprisingly well on a tiny 2-inch thick substitute for a mattress. Clara had told me about church the next morning, so I woke up around 8:00 and found my way to the campus chapel for service. It was very enjoyable, despite stifling deep coughs and sniffles during the sermon and prayers.
After it ended, I met an extremely kind 2L named Esther who volunteered to show me around campus a bit. She brought me to the campus convenience store which happened to be in the basement of my dorm, and then took me to the law school classroom building where I was finally able to access wireless internet! I then met a professor and his wife and family, the Mundys, for lunch. They were incredibly kind and made delicious eggs and biscuits – a very welcome reminder of the States!
Then I walked back to my dorm and was found by another 2L student, Rachel, who was going to give me a campus tour. Rachel and I hit it off immediately. She is from Kenya and can identify with the adjustment that “Korean time” creates. In her words, “Korean time is supposed to be about flexibility – that you are flexible and just have to go with it. It isn’t that way. Instead, everything is last minute and either it works or it doesn’t. There is no flexibility!” I couldn’t agree more. BUT, I’m learning that if it works, it was supposed to, and if it doesn’t, be prepared next time!
Talking with Rachel was the first time I really felt at home here. I love the friendly people, especially Clara, but everything was so different and required some sort of adjustment from me, that it was nice to simply be with Rachel and not worry about whether I had to be somewhere or do something or somehow make up for someone else’s mistake or miscommunication.
After our tour ended, I got a computer converter and ethernet chord at the campus store and returned to my room in much better spirits. Clara was there, and we began talking.
She opened up to me and shared her background and come to find out… she’s an International Studies major who toured Europe for a month in January! What a small world. We then began talking about what Clara calls “our visions” and “ways.” She said she didn’t know what her way was, where she was supposed to work, what she was supposed to do, etc. I told her that I didn’t know mine either, but I felt very sure of my focus.
She didn’t know, but just a few hours earlier, I’d been discussing my plans with a professor and was yet again overwhelmed with how many options there are and how impossible they all seemed. I had begun to seriously doubt whether I was even supposed to be here.
But talking with Clara totally reaffirmed that I do in fact know my way. I do not know where it will take me, but I do know that I am supposed to be taking it. God has led me this far, and despite appearances, I think I will learn to fit in well here. Everything was new, yes. But I expected it to be. I really love the people at the school here, and I can learn to live with the humidity. The mat I have already gotten used to, as I slept a full 10 hours before waking up at 4:00 AM here to write.
I am blessed beyond measure. I have a chance to find more of my way. And I am now confident that my way leads to Korea.