by | May 6, 2012

This post was imported from an old wordpress.com blog I used to have.

Creative Non-Fiction Class

The second assignment was to write about a place. I knew I wanted to write something about the time I spent in South Korea, but it took me a long time to settle on what story to tell. I really struggled with this one. In fact, I almost dropped the class before this was due. After all, I was only taking it for fun, and the stress of writing, along with the pressures of my work and personal life took me to a level of anxiety that I almost couldn’t handle. I made an appointment with my prof and she talked me down off of the metaphorical ledge and gave me an extension on the due date. This is probably my worst piece from the class, but I’m sharing it anyway. Why not, right? It is a good story. (November 2010)

On my first night alone in South Korea I got trapped in my bathroom.  A new door had been installed in anticipation of my arrival.  I could tell that it was new because there was still plastic around the handle and the doorframe.  The door opened fine from the kitchen, but I guess no one bothered to go inside and close it to be sure it worked from the other direction.  I didn’t usually go to the effort of shutting the bathroom door when at home alone, but the apartment didn’t feel like home to me.

I had been transported to my new accommodations by Lay and Mr. Ko: two Korean English teachers from the school where I would be working.  I was disappointed by the appearance of the building when we pulled up, but I kept a smile glued to my face.  I didn’t want to appear ungracious to my hosts.  The entrance was an unmarked door that faced an alleyway so narrow there was barely enough room for Mr. Ko’s car to drive through.  Looking up, I could see no windows in the three-story beige cement façade.  Not that there was any scenery in the alley other than garbage bags and a few small red and blue plastic pails (which I later discovered were for the disposal of food waste) lining the front of the buildings.  You can imagine how lovely the alley smelled in the thirty-degree heat and humidity of late August.  Welcome to Korea!

Mr. Ko, the strong silent type, wrestled my heavy suitcases up the flight of stairs to a second floor apartment.  He then grinned at me, shook my hand and bowed his head, then hurried back to his car, leaving me alone with Lay.  She showed me around my new home, dutifully pointing out the many items that had been provided for me by the school.  I smiled and nodded and said “thank you” a lot.  Before leaving, Lay gave me a sheet of paper with my new address written in both English and Korean.  She also gave me her cell phone number (in case of emergency) and left me with a hand-drawn map and instructions on how to get to the school the next day.  Although I didn’t want to be alone, I was relieved when she said goodbye and left so that I could drop the brave face I had been wearing all afternoon.  I threw myself facedown on the single bed and cried like a little girl.  I let all of the stress that had been building since I landed in Seoul six days earlier pour out of me on to my pillow.

My little meltdown didn’t last long.  When I ran out of tears and my breathing returned to normal I made the conscious decision to get the hell up and familiarize myself with my surroundings.  After all, I was excited about this adventure.  I wasn’t about to let a little fear and loneliness ruin it for me.  If this was going to be my home for the next year I might as well try to make the best of it.

The apartment itself was dingy, but all of the furnishings were new.  The bedroom was a decent size with a wardrobe, a low table with drawers and a small television perched on top, and a single bed made up with a neon orange and pink bedspread.  It hurt my eyes, but I appreciated the splash of colour in the otherwise dreary space.  On the wall above the bed, up near the ceiling, I discovered an air conditioning unit that was controlled by a tiny remote.  I couldn’t read the symbols, but after a little trial and error I managed to get it working.  The cool air was refreshing and made me feel a little bit better.

Although from the front of the building there didn’t appear to be any windows, I actually had three in my apartment.  One opened out to the hallway and had metal bars on the outside, presumably to deter thieves.  I could see through the window into the apartment across the hall.  The window on the opposite side of the room faced the brick wall of the building next door.  I opened it and peered down into the narrow passage that ran between the two buildings – definitely no view from here.  I sighed and began to accept the fact that my room felt like a prison cell.  The vertical beige lines on the cheap wallpaper didn’t add to the aesthetic.  The only other window in the place was a tiny one in the bathroom.  I closed the bedroom windows and the plain beige curtains and let the air conditioner work its magic while I moved to the other room.

The front door opened directly into the kitchen and was made of thick grey metal.  It had three different locks.  I had learned that the crime rate in Korea is quite low, but between the bars on the windows and the ultra-secure door I started to wonder about the neighborhood I would be living in.  On the wall by the door I found a strange box, bigger than a standard thermostat, with a few different buttons and some knobs.  The Korean words beneath the buttons meant nothing to me, but I suspected the box might control the under-floor heating that I had heard was standard in Korea.  I was half right – it turns out that it controlled my hot water heater.  While I didn’t need the floor heat in thirty-degree weather, I shivered my way through three days’ worth of cold showers until the landlord kindly stopped by to show me how to work it.

I had been provided with a table and two chairs rather than the traditional low table and cushions on the floor.  I was glad, not because I’m particular about chairs, but because I didn’t like the looks of the linoleum floors.  An enormous rice cooker sat on the table – the focal point of the kitchen.  I had also been provided with other kitchen essentials like dishes and a few food items.  It was a pretty standard kitchen.  The only notable thing was the gas stove that Lay had made sure I understood before she left.  You had to open the gas valve on the wall before you could start up the stove.  It reminded me of using a propane BBQ: open the main gas line, turn on the stove gas, turn the knob to light it, and when you’re finished cooking, turn everything off.  I figured I could manage to cook without burning off my eyebrows or blowing up the apartment.

The bathroom was in a room off the kitchen.  It was small, with a standard toilet, which I was relieved to find.  I was not looking forward to using the infamous Korean squat toilets.  A glass cabinet on the wall revealed a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner.  It was a nice touch, although I had brought my own toiletries from home.  There was no bathroom sink (I would be washing my hands and brushing my teeth in the kitchen), but a set of hot and cold water taps jutted out of the wall at knee level and connected to a long hose that led to a showerhead, which hung at hip level.  Showering was going to be… interesting.  The drain was in the middle of the bathroom floor, but there was no shower curtain or designated bathing area.  The entire room was the shower.  I could live with that, but I was a bit concerned by the final piece of equipment in the room – a washing machine with a digital screen.  What if it got wet?   I was going to have to get out of my habit of taking long luxurious showers every morning.

Suddenly overcome with the urge to pee, I turned and closed the door and sat down on the toilet.  Afterwards, I headed to the kitchen to wash my hands.  Except the door handle wouldn’t turn.  I tried harder.  Nothing.  Confused, I bent down and looked closer thinking maybe I had locked it by mistake.  But regardless of which way I flipped the lock the handle still wouldn’t turn.  It dawned on me that I was trapped in the bathroom in an apartment in a foreign city with no way to get help.  I flashed on an image of myself screaming from the tiny bathroom window and realized that I didn’t even know the Korean word for help.  What was I doing here?

My heart started racing and I thought I was going to pass out.  I sat down on the toilet and put my head between my knees to keep myself from freaking out.  I repeated the phrase “everything is going to be OK” over and over again.  If I had to I would kick down the door.  I wasn’t entirely sure that was an option, because it seemed pretty sturdy, but just telling myself that I could gave me courage.  I looked around the bathroom for something I could use as a tool – toothbrush? No.  Maybe I could use the shampoo bottle to bash the door handle off?  Doubtful.

I started to giggle hysterically at my predicament and sat down again to catch my breath.  I kept thinking that when this was all over it was going to make for a great story.  On my fifth attempt, using all of my strength, I managed to haul on the door handle hard enough to get it to turn a bit.  This small success gave me the nerve to keep working at it and eventually I managed to escape.

I was only trapped in the bathroom for a half an hour, but the anxiety stayed with me the entire time I was in Korea.  Although I tried to keep my sense of adventure and stay positive, I didn’t even make it through three months of teaching English in Korea.  I ended up breaking my contract and fleeing home to Canada.  I felt like a failure, but at least I was free.