Wednesday, March 1, 2017

New Lands

March 1, 1997

For the first time since our journey began, in Vancouver, the sun had disappeared. As our plane descended and touched down at Narita International Airport, we passed through a grey blanket of cloud and into light showers.

We had left Western Civilization and had entered the Far East. Ironically, doing so by travelling westward.

Both DW and I were impaired. Not intoxicated, though we had enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine over the journey. The alcohol was not nearly enough to prevent us from getting behind the wheel of a car, but our other impairment would have negated that ability. We were fatigued. Though it was only late afternoon in Tokyo, we were 12 hours ahead.

And we weren't finished travelling.

We said goodbye to our Canadian Airlines staff. From this point on, we would be interacting with East-Asian society. We collected all of our luggage and looked for our connecting flight.

The first thing that DW and I noticed, at this airport, was that the flight attendants that we saw seemed to be attired in uniforms that would have fit into the 1960s. Form-fitting dresses with short skirts, and little designer-level hats. Bright colours. The women who wore them were beautiful, though heavily made up, and perfectly coiffed hair. They seemed better-suited for a fashion runway than an airport tarmac.

DW and I had trouble, in our exhausted state, to properly discern where we needed to be to catch our Korean Airlines flight. We asked an impeccably dressed information-kiosk worker, who pointed us to a small, light-rail line that took us to another terminal.

More searching, without result. At the new terminal, we asked again, showing an airport official our tickets. This official directed us back to the terminal from which we had just come, and again we rode the light rail, through a rainy airport, to our starting point.

The rain, we could see, wasn't going to last. Though the sun was hidden from the clouds, we could see clear skies to the west, an orange glow, and the far-away silhouette of Mount Fuji. The rain was dissipating, and anyway, we would soon enough be above it.

Back at the first terminal, we found another official who was able to direct us to our gate. A light-blue KAL jet proved encouraging. A sign with our flight number and the word Seoul, relieved our stress.

One benefit of getting lost at Narita was that it occupied the time. By the time we reached our gate, the plane had begun accepting passengers. A boost of adrenaline in making our way to our gate kept the fatigue at bay.

Checked in and seated in a full plane, the seats crammed in to fit as many bodies as possible, we made our way to South Korea. Once above the clouds, we were greeted with a low-hanging sun. It had been with us for our entire passage but it too, was becoming fatigued, was making its way to bed. It would set long before we reached our final destination.

Flying over the Sea of Japan, we were clear of clouds, and we could see the approaching peninsula that would become our home for the next two years. As land expanded below us, I could see the wrinkled mass of hills and mountains. I had read that if you could flatten Korea, could iron it like a giant, crumpled shirt, the area would be as large as China. I couldn't see snow on the peaks, didn't see much green. For late winter, the colour of this country seemed an earthen brown.

The flight was short and we were soon descending. I had a port-side window, and I could see urban development sprawling below me. Though the sun hadn't yet set, lights started turning on in some neighbourhoods. Neon colours seemed to breathe life into the land, compensating for the brown rural zones.

On our final approach to Kimp'o International Airport, my head swivelled to the right, and I caught a glimpse of Namsan Tower out of the starboard window. It hung, for a moment, like a framed photo in the window, as though time stood still. The realization that we had arrived finally hit me, sending the remaining adrenaline through my veins.

What if I don’t like it here? What if the people don’t like me? What if I can’t communicate with anybody? What if I can’t bear the food? I'm not an English teacher. What if they discover me for the fraud that I am?

Too late to worry about these things now.

DW and I looked at each other, clearly thinking similar thoughts. But DW was a certified teacher of English as a second language, had taught for a couple of years in Ottawa. She would be in her element.

Everything—absolutely everything—would be foreign to me. 

Too late to worry about these things now.

Off the plane, into the customs lines. I showed my contract to the official, who gave me a temporary work visa. I would have to apply for my official immigration card within three months.

Now processed, DW and I passed through the security doors and out into the main concourse of the airport. We searched for the person who was to meet us, to take us to our ultimate destination, Chŏnju.

We had spoken to Linda several times over the past few months. She was our official liaison for the language institute. She would be the one to get us settled, not only in the school but in the city and, possibly, the Korean culture.

She was easy to spot in the crowd of Koreans who were waiting to receive arriving passengers, family and friends. She was tall, her head breaking above the others. Pale skin, seeming to cast a glow. She held a piece of paper up high, with both of our names. Strangely, seeing our own names in a foreign land brought me comfort, made me relax. We greeted our fellow teacher and made our way out of the airport.

Linda explained that we had to move quickly to get to the bus terminal that would take us to Chŏnju. There were only a few buses that would still be running for today. At this point, everything seemed rushed, moved faster than my eyes and brain could process. We were merely following a person, relying fully on her direction.

Months down the road, DW and I would learn that a direct bus ran from Kimp'o to a hotel in the heart of Chŏnju, and would not require us to find our way to a bus terminal that was more than 30 minutes from the airport, but Linda didn't know of this convenience. And, in our effort to reach that bus station, we missed a bus and would have to wait a few hours before we could take another one.

The airport shuttle bus ran every hour. Had we known this, we could have returned to the airport and still been ahead of the intercity bus.

DW slept for most of the journey. I chatted with Linda, learned about how she had had to find her own way to Chŏnju, when she had arrived nine months ago. The ordeal made her resolve to never let that trauma happen to another teacher. I promised that when it came to our turn, we would return the favour with the next teacher.

The cities appeared as a blur of lights as the bus made the three-hour journey to our city. My eyes registered only snapshots of darkened structures. I barely took in our walk from the bus to a taxi, but I was jarred awake as I learned that traffic was a free-for-all, how traffic lights were a suggestion, how brakes were only applied to avoid collisions.

At our apartment, DW and I learned that we were sharing accommodation with Linda, something that was not part of our original arrangement. Our director, Kwon Tae-ha, had promised us our own apartment.

We were a married couple, after all.

We would have to sort that out later. It was early Sunday morning, we would begin our first day of work on Monday, and we had a lot of rest to catch up on.

I fell asleep, barely remembering the longest day of my life, my journey to these new lands, my only functioning sense was the one of smell, of which I still remember the scent of burning garbage around our apartment complex.

Tomorrow was going to be the official start to our new lives.

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