I awoke on July 2nd knowing full well that I would spend the next 48 hours either awake or nodding off and waking up in five-minute spurts while thirty-five thousand feet above sea level. The most pressing issue on my mind was what to do with my mattress.

I’ve long nurtured a comforting relationship with procrastination. It served me fine in college, but tends to become a problem when I bring it into the realm of non-academic responsibility. So it was on July 2nd when I knew I would be on a plane traveling to the other side of the planet in less than a dozen hours, yet still hadn’t packed and was more concerned with squeezing every last moment I could out of my mein kampfy king-sized mattress. A mattress I had no idea how to dispose of. Lo, my mother and step-father arrived, and, an hour of bickering, yelling, and shaming later, all issues were resolved to a middling degree and I was whisked to the airport, where another problem loomed: I’d packed two gigantic bags, either of which may have been over the acceptable limit and would have entailed extra (non-extant) funds to be flown alongside me to Seoul.

My mother, ever the nay-sayer, chided me mercilessly until I unpacked clothes, books, my Holga, my brother’s far-superior laptop he’d left behind when he joined the Army (intended to supplement my own for … some reason), and other odds and ends until I was satisfied both bags would be welcomed aboard. Upon receiving my tickets at the terminal, I was kindly informed both bags were small enough to be brought along but too large to be considered carry-ons. So I selected a book to read from one bag and made my way to Los Angeles.

A gaggle of fellow program* members were at LAX, and we talked until boarding time. Asiana Airlines flew us to Incheon Airport, and crispy Christ if it wasn’t the greatest trans-Pacific flight I’ve ever had. Good food (omelets for breakfast! on an Asian carrier!), mini-LCDs on the backs of the seats, decent foot room and apparently one flight attendant for every three fliers. They were everywhere, and attentive as hell. As if Air China didn’t look bad enough already.

Some thirteen hours later, we landed and disembarked. Our program leaders met us outside baggage claim, distributed a stipend and some handouts, and shuffled us onto a bus where we drove for four hours to Jungwon University where we arrived at 9 am. Local time. And the day was just beginning.

Jungwon University is a bizarrely wonderful mixture of palacial resort, golf course, and seat of academia. There are fewer than 200 Korean students still active on campus (although it’s summer, of course), making us nearly a third of the total residents.

We met with the University president who was very affable and welcoming, and in a charming but not-quite-joking Asian manner informed us of what a burden it has been setting everything up for us. And it shows. Three meals a day, free internet, and a tight schedule where all the rooms we need are always free and well-kept. Word has it that the President personally oversaw the distribution of fresh linens, placement of beds and dressers in the dorms and everything else necessary for hosting 80 people for nearly two months. The University itself is its own kind of awesome: two pools, spas, a golf course, two gyms, two restaurants, a basketball court, a convenience store. Not that I’ll be using any of that beyond the restaurants and convenience store, but still. It’s nice to know those things are there. None of its free, but the program negotiated excellent prices for their use.

I also get my own elevator. Well, we do. The males. Gender segregation is a big thing in Korea. Most of the schools we’ll be assigned to teach at are all-boys or all-girls. Even the co-ed schools, apparently, often have gender-segregated classes within them. So, naturally, each gender received its own dormitory. No fraternizing allowed. Oh, and there’s CCTVs watching the public hallways to enforce this. Seriously.

My favorite part of the campus is a massive veranda. It’s pretty huge, and it’s where the inter-cultural club meets a few times a week. Americans and Korean students talking, occasionally drinking (off-campus, of course), and getting to know each other. It’s one of the best parts of the trip so far, and will hopefully help prepare me for what lies ahead. When the space is empty, it’s even better just to sit and stare at the grounds or read. Very peaceful.

But back to the Fourth of July. The day ended forty-something hours later after it began. Workshops, meetings, countless introductions and faces (virtually all instantly forgotten). And it was barely the early hours of July 4th in the USA when I went to bed. A most remarkable Fourth of July apart from the fact that no one in the program ever once mentioned that our first full day in Korea was, indeed, the Fourth of July. It simply never came up apart from a footer at the bottom of a handout. But no one seemed to mind.

* The “program” is referred to as such based on a request by the program coordinators. Apparently a past grantee blogged about their dislike of Korea (presumably due to culture shock or all-around douchebaggery), and a minister or member of the State Department or some other high-placed person stumbled upon it and was not happy. The blog in question mentioned the name of the program repeatedly and negative cultural views are completely antithetical to the entire purpose of why we’re here – cross-cultural communication and understanding. The first picture gives it away regardless, but I’ll still just call it the program out of my own sense of self-preservation. I like the experience so far, but who knows what I’ll manage to bitch about in the next 12 months.

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