American Werewolf in Busan

It’s been a week since I moved into my workstay in Busan so I think it’s time for an update, don’t you?

Most of you are probably unfamiliar with the concept of a language café, so I’ll start there. Basically, Koreans pay a membership fee (like you would for a gym), and they can come in the café whenever they want and chat with foreign staff members (us.) Members come pretty regularly. usually a few times a week, some almost every day, and they typically stay for several hours. And although most of the members come to practice English there are a few who are learning Japanese or Spanish as well.

Besides the managers, the staff are all traveling volunteers, like me, and they are literally from all over the world (though everybody speaks English.) Out of the dozen or so staff members none of us are from the same country. Many of them have traveled all over and are really fascinating people. I think this job attracts very easy-going, mature people who like to travel and make new friends, so we all seem to get along pretty well so far.

Those of you who know me well know that I am generally an introverted person. Usually after spending a lot of time with other people I need to go home and recharge and avoid all human contact for several hours. So you can imagine that for me, the idea of doing a job where I’m supposed to talk to strange people for 6 hours a day every day was only slightly less mortifying than when there’s a spider in your room and you turn away for like 1/100th of a second to find something to kill it with and when you turn back the spider is gone. I was honestly really worried about how I was going to do this job, but the first day of work it took me about 5 minutes to get in the groove of things. It’s actually a bit like spiders: the Korean students are generally more shy of you than you are of them, so you just have to smile and be friendly and make them feel comfortable. Also, the fact that I can speak Korean is really useful for helping the less experienced students. So far I’ve been having a ton of fun.

Even though my job is great so far, the more I think about it it’s actually a very strange job. Basically I’m being paid (okay, not really paid. Compensated with food and housing) to be friends with random Koreans. Our job is to be super friendly with everyone and make sure that all the café members get to participate as much as they can in the conversation. We usually spend most of our time at a table but the café has board games and foosball and a pool table too if members want to do something else while they chat. Basically we have to be charming and make sure the customers have a good time (and yes, I know how that sounds. Don’t worry, we’re forbidden from dating members.)

The amazing thing is that you actually do become real friends with the Korean members. A few days after I got here two staff members left to continue their travels and both staff and members were very emotional. I think when you spend that much time with someone every day for several weeks it’s hard not to become real friends.

The language café is located in a busy college neighborhood (a lot like Sinchon neighborhood, where I was staying in Seoul), so we’re surrounded by bars and restaurants and loud drunk people at all hours of the night. The owners of the café also own two apartments in a building just around the corner from the café. Both apartments have enough bunk-beds to sleep about 25 people (yeah, it’s crowded. I share a room with 3 other people, though some of the rooms have 8 people.) One of the apartments is the “hostel”, which is used for backpackers and other guests, and the other apartment is for the staff, so that’s where I’m staying. We don’t have enough staff to fill all the beds so there are also Korean students living here for the summer. It’s a good deal for them because they get a cheap place to stay that’s close to school AND free English tutoring all day long, and it’s cool for us because we get to make friends with Koreans who aren’t café members (and maybe be invited out for drinks and karaoke, like I was two nights in a row. It was fun while it lasted, but not a good idea in the long-run: I’m sooo tired.)

The staff also has to clean the hostel and the café, so another part of my job includes cleaning shifts a few times a week, but I don’t mind too much. I get two days off per week, in case you were worried about me working too hard.

And Busan? Oh Busan… I’m pretty acclimated to Korea by now so the biggest shocker for me was the Busan accent. Apparently no one thought it was important to warn me that they speak really different in Busan. It’s so different, in fact, that I actually have a hard time understanding people (good thing my job is to speak in English, right?) Some of my Korean roommates explained to me that they consider the Busan accent to be “manly” and the Seoul accent to be a bit “girly.” They say that Seoul-ites think people in Busan sound too aggressive when they speak. I’ve noticed that the Busan accent is less “sing-songy” than the one in Seoul, so to me (and my English brain) it feels like the difference between a British accent and an American one (except that we all know Americans don’t have an accent.) I think Americans would think of a British accent as more posh and “girly” than ours. As for the culture, Busan-ites seem a bit more boisterous than Seoul-ites. I’ve noticed that people are louder on the subway and they bump into you a lot more. My personal bubble took a beating this week.

Wednesday was actually my first full day off so I got to take a little subway trip and finally see some more of the city. I went to the famous Jagalchi fish market

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Very fresh, obviously, but I opted for lunch at the less-fishy market across the street. I’ve told you about hoddeok pancakes, the fried donut-like cakes filled with nuts and melted brown sugar, but they’re typically a winter treat so I was really surprised when I found them here in Busan. Not only are Busan hoddeok filled with the same brown sugary goodness, but when you order one, the little old lady at the street cart opens up a separate part of the pancake like a pita and scoops in a different, special sugary nut mixture with lots of sweet, crunchy seeds. It was 80 degrees out but I ordered a piping hot hoddeok anyway… no regrets!

Just up the hill was the Bosu Book Street, which is a quaint little alleyway of tiny shops filled with crazy amounts of books.

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I even found a few familiar titles, both in English and Korean.

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That’ would be “Merida and the Forest of Magic”. Sounds a lot more exciting than just “Brave”, if you ask me.

I crept around the neighborhood for a while and then followed some random stairs up to the top of the hill and was able to see a pretty good view of the city. Busan, unlike Seoul which has one city center and is situation between several mountains, is built around several mountains, so it’s sort of divided into several large areas and it’s really throwing off my sense of direction. I miss knowing the lay of the land. Seoul was MY city, you know?

I only have a few weeks here but I suspect I’ll get to know Busan just as well. I still have yet to go to one of the beaches. There are also some great hiking mountains and temples around here as well. And since Busan hosts the Busan International Film Festival in October every year, there are supposed to have some really awesome movie theaters here. If there was anywhere you should spend a rainy day at the movies (and rainy days ARE coming!) it should be Busan.

Though I think I’ll be happy if I just figure out what the heck everyone is saying!

Oh! But I heard this great family joke:

가족!

Ha ha. I’m so funny!

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