Back in October (my gosh, has it been that long??), my friend Ola and I visited Nari Park in Yangju (양주나리공원). It’s a little off the beaten path (don’t plan on being able to pop into any cafes or restaurants in the area) but absolutely worth it for the amazing views of fields full of flowers. When we went in the mid-morning there weren’t too many people there yet, so everyone was able to maintain a safe distance from others. I can’t say much else so here’s the photos.
For the last week and a half, my hagwon has been holding online classes via Zoom. While the director was initially against this (due to logistics and whatnot), with the 2.5 lockdown being extended past the first three weeks, he decided to go ahead with online classes.
Each teacher has a classroom to themselves, a computer with a dual monitor system, two webcams (one on top of the monitor and another on an extendable arm which we can use to show students books or write on a small whiteboard), and a stand microphone.
Prior to holding online classes, we prepped two weeks in advance and had the bus drivers drop off the files that we prepared for our students. As an afternoon teacher, much of my work is already in their books so I mostly just prepped blank vocabulary quizzes and updated lesson plans. The teachers who teach kindergarten had to prep a ton of material, whereas I spent most of my time prepping my assignments for the two weeks (whereas normally I prep for each day when I arrive to school).
All of our books have been scanned and uploaded to Dropbox, and some of them are also on an interactive website. Rather than reading the script for mp3 files or fiddling around with an mp3 player, I can simply share the screen and play the files, which has been incredibly convenient and helpful. I’m hoping to take this aspect of my work and continue using the files in in-person class if I can.
Read on to find out more about my individual classes:
- Class A is an intermediate class where some students are more advanced than others, e.g. one student always scores perfectly on vocabulary quizzes and another misses the majority of the words. They are bright and funny and sometimes will teach me a Korean phrase or two off-the-cuff. For example, once I had to tell my student who always gets excited and stands up to “sit down” and he sat down and proceeded to tell me what “sit down” was in Korean and made me repeat it a few times. I enjoy teaching this class a lot. One student did have his mother tattle on him and call the hagwon to let us know that he was watching YouTube videos during the class and she would make sure that he didn’t do it again. It’s unfortunate because he is at the lowest level in the class and would benefit the most by paying attention.
- Class B has several 8-year-olds and they are usually ready for class as soon as the bell rings, cameras facing them and microphones on. One student in particular has used this time to shine, volunteering to read and trying his best to talk to me in English. He is not the most advanced in the class, but his eagerness is appreciated. Only one student is not attending this class and he is fairly good at English so I don’t think he will have too many problems catching up once in-person classes resume. For this class, I like the ability to easily show videos to them, as they are the right age for many beginner ESL videos. (Normally, to show videos I have to first stand on a chair to turn on the computer sitting on a ledge close to the ceiling and then turn on the projector, all of which takes a lot of time.)
- Class C is an interesting one because there are only two students: a teenage boy and a teenage girl. Naturally, they tend to joke around with each other to the point I would consider it flirting. They can be a bit uncontrollable at times, but they are smart kids who have a lot of potential. I just wish they would apply themselves a little more, as sometimes certain areas (such as vocabulary) are really lacking.
- Class D is my chattiest class. They are 11-years-old and their level is really low, despite working with intermediate material. They struggle with basic things like writing complete sentences and knowing what tenses to use. My Korean co-teacher and I managed to level down two students, both of whom have unfortunately left the hagwon (one went to a winter camp and the other did not mesh well socially with her new class and I think this is one of the reasons why she left). We have broken down each lesson into two classes, so we can review the homework and work on anything else they struggle with (usually grammar, but sometimes vocabulary). This class also has their cameras facing them and microphones on, but they frequently break into Korean during my class.
- Class E is my quietest class. They’re at that awkward stage of puberty, 12-years-old, so most of them try to get away with not showing their faces. Two girls actually wear their masks during online class, another focuses her camera on her open books, and a boy focuses his camera on his shoulder and side of his face. All of them turn their microphones off so I have to ask them to turn them on. I’m not worried that this class is doing things like watching YouTube videos while I’m teaching, but I have used the online class to force individual students to read entire paragraphs, since doing round-robin sentence-each isn’t feasible. (I’ve been keeping a list of students who have read so I can make sure everyone gets a chance to read.) I’ve been experimenting with this class and allowing them to write their answers on my shared screen—basically, I’ll pull up the practice book page or vocabulary homework and let them type in the answers. This is particularly helpful for the activity where a passage is written with numerous errors and students have to find and correct them. One student might stamp an X on the mistake and another will write the answer. This class I worry about, as their speaking skills are lackluster and it’s hard to coax them to speak.
- Class F is my most advanced class, and they’re the ages of 14-15. All but one student are quiet, and they’re filled with curiosity. One thing I’ve noticed that I didn’t notice before is the tone of voice used when students at different levels say “Teacher…” In this class, they’re looking for answers, whereas my younger students want my attention and want to give me the answers. This class is working on an intermediate TOEFL book and they don’t like doing it because they find it tedious. I would rather them work on speaking as their writing skills are already pretty advanced.
- Class G has one student. I feel bad for him because originally there were two other students but they left to go to different elementary schools (I think?) and now he is alone. It’s been an interesting experience learning how to go from teaching classes of 6-12 students to tutoring just one, but he makes the class enjoyable. He’s goofy and intelligent and I can’t say enough nice things about him. He’s a joy to teach. We do one in-person class once a week and the rest through Zoom. (The restrictions say that there can be in-person classes so long as the number of students is less than nine, so he is able to go to his math academy one day a week and come to my hagwon afterwards.)
- Class H used to be one of my chattiest classes until everyone dropped out. There are only two boys left, around the ages of 13-14, and they’re goofy. Sometimes I will come into the room and one of them will have their coat on backwards. Zoom class is difficult with them as they tend to be a little distracted and this class features a lot of writing. They also almost never do their homework so I have to find time during class to let them do it verbally, or have them stay late to catch up.
- Class J is my “false-beginner” English class. It grew from five students to ten, and they are all very vocal and boisterous. The youngest, at 9-years-old, is the loudest, whereas the others are 10-12. I admit I struggled with this class because they already knew the alphabet and random English words coming into the class and they were very bored the first few months while we reviewed that. Zoom has enabled me to play English-speaking videos and have them repeat what was said, so we have been talking a lot. I hope to instill fearlessness in them, as our hagwon is very focused on reading and writing and not speaking, which is the area most of my students struggle in.
- Class K is comprised of three teenage girls around the ages of 13-14. They are one of my classes where the students code-switch a lot, speaking a mixture of Korean and English (and not Konglish). They are an absolute blast to teach as they are very interactive and the material I’m teaching them is a lot of fun to teach. I love these girls. They all have their cameras and microphones turned on but with filters applied to “touch up [their] appearance.”
Overall, I’ve been pleased with the results of teaching class over Zoom. I’m glad that my hagwon finally decided to do it, as it not only means income for myself and the other teachers, but the kids can continue their education. As I’m finding out while learning Korean, if you don’t use it everyday, you really do lose your momentum.
That being said, I can’t wait until we can hold in-person classes and I can see my students again. Now I know what everyone looks like under their masks!
While explaining a lesson that involved the story of two students running for class president, one only having a motto and the other having actual policies, I asked my students to think of policies that they would want to implement in their schools. I gave the example of free lunch.
“Isn’t lunch free in the US?”
It’s in these moments that I realize how backwards my lovely home country can be. What’s even worse is how we view stories of good samaritans paying off school lunch debt as “proof that there’s still some kindess in the world” instead of “proof that our country isn’t doing enough to provide for its children.”
At the hagwon where I teach, lunch is served each day for the kindergarten students. It’s a separate lunch to the teachers’, which usually features some spicy things. The lunch is provided by a catering business but we make our own rice and food for snack. When I taught English to Tibetan refugees in India, we had simple lunches that usually featured a Tibetan bread called tingmo, and dinner was almost always rice and dal. Fruit was provided once a week and if you happened to get to lunch late, you were left trying to find the least rotten piece of fruit. As to be expected, the lunches served at my school in Korea are much different.
Tibetan college food pictures below, left to right: a bowl of steamed green vegetables and two pieces of tingmo; a bowl of rice and dal with some spinach and tomato; the special Losar (Tibetan New Year) breakfast of a large circular slice of Tibetan bread, a hardboiled egg, and a mug of traditional butter tea (with added tsampa I had).
Below are some photos of the school lunch here in Korea. In the first picture, there’s tofu and mushroom soup, white rice, chicken nuggets, bean sprout salad, macaroni, lotus root, and spicy slaw. In the other photos, there’s various foods such as steamed green vegetables, sliced potato, spicy pork belly, acorn jelly, burdock root, anchovies, cubed radish kimchi, cabbage kimchi, omelet, fish with tartar sauce, spicy cucumber, tuna salad, apple salad, fried wonton, and tteokbokki.
Here is an example of what the kids eat for lunch. They each have their own lunch tray with chopsticks and a spoon, and this kid has a chopstick training kit (which she’s now graduated from yay). There’s rice and some bulgogi with cabbage, bean sprout salad, not-spicy cabbage kimchi, and quail eggs.
I give lunch twice a week, which entails putting food in their tray, helping them pray (a very unbiased “pray, pray, thank you for the food”) for all the food, watching over them while they eat, and scraping leftovers into the empty soup bowl to be disposed of by the kitchen teacher. Usually I will take my tray to the kitchen to get spicy kimchi and anything that was delivered just for the teachers, such as spicy beef or fish filet.
Below is a view of our kitchen at school. In the first picture is the lunch set-up for teachers. If the kids ask for more food and we run out in the class, we send them to the kitchen to see if there’s any leftover. Usually it’s sausage, meat or seaweed. Once a student came into the teachers’ room to ask if anyone had any leftover sausage because the kitchen had run out!
Our kitchen is equipped with a stove, microwave, kettle, and a large rice cooker. There is a kitchen teacher in the kitchen getting everything ready and washing the empty teachers’ plates and the containers; the kids pack up their lunch trays when they’re done and take them home for their parents to wash.
Once a month, we have a birthday party for any students whose birthdays fall in that month. In this day, we have a special lunch, which includes several types of fried chicken, pizza, fresh fruit, and cheesecake.
Sometimes a student’s parent will order us food, such as a couple of pizzas. We also have leftover chicken from Class of the Month chicken parties. We also get pastries, and sometimes iced americanos.
What’s your favorite school lunch?
I am obviously not an expert on Covid-19 (and neither are you) but thought I’d give some more information on how Korea continues to handle the novel Coronavirus.
The first wave of the deadly virus hit the southeastern city of Daegu first, in February. The outbreak was linked to a “secretive church sect” that packs worshippers “like bean sprouts” in the church.
I arrived in Korea on the 21st of February and my school was on a week-long break because of the heightened virus cases.
The second wave occurred in May, and was linked to club-goers in the Itaewon and Hongdae areas of Seoul. There was a minor ripple in the expat communities I belong to saying that Koreans were going to be blaming “the gay foreigners” for the outbreak, as it was rumored that the cluster outbreak was connected to a gay club.
The third wave occurred in August and was connected to an anti-government rally held by a church based in Seoul.
Our school closed for three days at the end of August, and were forced to close by the government the weeks of August 31st and September 7th. We reopened September 14th. We were closed because we were under a level 2.5 out of a 3-point system.
Under a 2.5, all chain cafes must do take-out only, and restaurants and bars must close after 9pm. I didn’t wander around Uijeongbu past 9pm during the 2.5, but I imagine downtown was completely empty. For the most part, people stayed home during the semi-lockdown and ordered take-away or only ventured out to buy groceries. (I was the former. I prefer calling it “supporting the local economy” not “sheer laziness.”)
Some examples of more permanent changes include checking your temperature whenever you enter a building and either writing down your name and phone number or checking in with a QR code connected to your KaKaoTalk account. KaKaoTalk is a messaging app, first and foremost, but functions like an all-in-one app for almost everything else. This level of contact tracing would be fought against by your average American, but I will gladly give up my information because, let’s be real, my phone is already tracking my movement and at least this kind of tracing is for the greater good.
There are also hand sanitizers everywhere. Including ziptied to a tree along a nature trail and to a lamp pole, as seen below.
Starting Friday, November 13th, the government implemented a fine for non-mask compliance in public spaces and on public transportation. Prior to the fine, you could be turned away from buses without a mask and if you were on a subway not wearing a mask, you would be told to wear a mask. There were some cases of older men refusing to wear a mask on the subway and the ensuing fistfights, but for the most part, everyone is wearing a mask.
Several weeks ago, my school closed for two days because a child was a confirmed case that had Taekwondo with two of our students. Everyone at the Taekwondo academy tested negative, but we closed out of an abundance of caution, and the two students are quarantining for two weeks and not attending classes. We were sitting at a level 2 in the greater Seoul region, but with strict measures implemented: for example, no cafes (including small mom-and-pop) are allowing dine-in and all restaurants and bars must close at 9pm.
And now, as I write this on the 17th of December, we have been without work since the 8th. We are at a level 2.5 with rumors that we may eventually hit level 3, as cases have been creeping up on 1,000 new cases each day. We will hopefully go back to school on December 29th, but if they raise the level to 3, then we may be out of work even longer. Going online is not an option; only two parents have requested it, while a number have confessed that they would be unable to have their students be taught online, so our hagwon loses less money just closing rather than trying to figure out a new system for virtual learning.
For the most part, people here are wearing masks and taking precautions. I feel safe, which I can’t guarantee I’d feel back in the States. Wear your masks, people. Stay at home as much as possible. Don’t be stupid.
More information can be found here.
When I noticed that the director, putting my bags into his car, was a little careless in tossing my backpack on top of the purple pet carrier that Merlin was hiding in, I realized something was off.
As it turned out, the director was never informed that I would be bringing a cat with me to Korea.
I learned early on in my interviewing for teaching positions not to ask if it was okay that I would be bringing a cat with me. Recruiting companies are looking for red flags, and asking if the school-provided housing will allow pets is considered a red flag because it’s one more thing they have to worry about on their end.
I didn’t mention my cat to the recruiter I worked with until I had a job offer on the table. The person in Korea that my recruiter was working with took a few days and got back to me, saying that as long as I am responsible for any damage that Merlin does, that it’s okay I bring him. Merlin is a very well-mannered cat and doesn’t damage anything. The worst is that his fur sticks to the textured wallpaper when he rubs his face on corners, so I have to wipe that down occasionally.
My director wasn’t informed that I was bringing a cat and the reason for concern is that the other new teacher would be living with me for our week of training. I moved into a male teacher’s apartment while he moved in with the other male teacher who was leaving, and the other new female teacher would stay with me for a week before taking over the other male teacher’s apartment. If she happened to be allergic to cats, there would have been a problem, and had the director known, he would have had to plan around it.
Luckily, she wasn’t allergic and Merlin just hid under the bed from her for that week. I’m also lucky in that it turns out the director has two cats of his own and we sometimes trade cute cat photos through KakaoTalk.
When I was figuring out how to take my cat with me to Korea, some people on the internet told me I was an idiot. I knew I was probably going to be staying longer than a year and knew that I would never regret taking him with me, but I would forever regret leaving him with someone. Merlin has been through a lot of shitty situations, having been a rescue from the streets when he didn’t even weigh a pound, to spending days in the hospital with some kind of infection, to living through a hoarding situation that he needed to be rescued from. He’s my fat cuddly buddy and I can’t imagine life without him.
All this said, I would not recommend bringing your cat if you only plan on staying a year, or if your cat is older. The flight is hard on even the toughest of cats. Merlin didn’t meow at all, just kept looking up at me with sad eyes, and threw up the little food that he had been given before we left. The girls beside me thought I was crazy until I told them I wasn’t just whispering into the void underneath the seat in front of me but that there was an actual animal there.
So what do you need to do to travel with your cat? Well, first off: your cat needs a microchip and a rabies vaccination. The rabies vaccination was $40 at my vet and he waived the health check-up that would have been $32. You need a rabies titer test, which ran me $200 with a sedation and overnight stay costing $50. You also need a full health check-up within ten days of travel that has to be apostilled by the USDA. The vet initially thought he could turn in the health check-up results online on a Saturday, but when he realized he couldn’t, he had to mail the results in and wait for them to get back to us. There was a Monday holiday that week that pushed everything back, so it wasn’t until 9am the day before my flight that I got back that piece of paperwork. (And you may have read that I was so reluctant to let go of it, the customs officer had to tell me that it would only be valid for thirty days and I’d need a new one for travel again.)
At the airport, he cost me a one-way $200 fee. So a breakdown would be:
- rabies vaccination: $40
- health check-up: $32
- rabies titer test: $200
- overnight stay and sedation: $50
- one-way in-cabin flight fee: $200
- cost of mailing the health check-up to and from New York: $??
That’s roughly $600 to have Merlin travel in the cabin with me. If someone told me that it would cost that much, I would have probably cried and wondered where I’d get the money. I’m glad it was spread out over a few months, and no matter the cost: you make things work for the ones you love.
As far as how Merlin has adapted, he’s pretty resilient and adapted right away. I tried to switch him to tofu-based litter but that smelled bad, so I found a brand comparable to what he was using in the States. Although he was initially a touch fussy with the new Korean brand food, he still ate it, just more slowly than usual. He doesn’t like the Korean cat treats that come in a little squeeze pouch for them to lick, but several of my local marts stock Temptations brand and Friskies brand treats. (And my mom sends me Greenies brand treats for him, spoiled cat.) He usually sleeps with me in my bed or on the second-hand chair I have in my room, which is something that he scratches at occasionally even though he has a scratching post. He is probably looking forward to winter, when I turn on the floor heating, because last winter he loved sprawling on the heated floor and sleeping.
I have no regrets taking butthead to Korea with me. I hope he’s my kitty forever.
I left my apartment for the first time in three days to go to the McDonald’s that’s a five minute walk away. I took these shots along the way. And yes, there are that many convenience shops within such a small radius.
I remember a guest coming in towards my expected flight date and asking me if I was worried about Coronavirus. I said no. At the time, the virus was mostly constrained to China, affecting me only in that my chosen flight path would have to have me transfer somewhere other than China.
What would I say now?
I’m not worried about myself.
I’m worried for my family back in the States, where my brother works as a pizza delivery driver, coming into contact with who knows what kind of germs; where my dad is considered an “essential” worker because he works in the food industry; where my mom finds herself with less and less dictation work as hospitals cancel or postpone all elective surgeries.
Where, you know, you can’t find toilet paper or basic necessities like, apparently, yeast, since we’re all going to come out of 2020 being master bread bakers.
No, I’m only worried about myself insofar as I might be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 and unknowingly pass it along to my students, who range in age from 6ish to 15ish. (I say -ish because Korea has a different aging system as the rest of the world, which usually puts them at least one year older than their “international” age.) And kids will be kids, especially the littler ones who run up to you and hold your hand when you’re walking to the gym, or sneeze directly onto your hand while you’re guiding them through an assignment. (This particular kid is a handful and wasn’t wearing his mask at the time, of course.)
No, I’m not worried about myself. Toilet paper? Sitting outside the grocery store on the sidewalk. Easy meals? Ramen is aplenty here, in all different types and flavors. (My life has personally been changed forever with the introduction of jja-jang-myeon, black bean noodle.) There’s hand sanitizer on the bus. Most everyone is wearing masks, and there’s enough to go around, as Korea has implemented a strict policy allotting the purchase of two masks per person per specified day of the week based on the end number of your birth year, e.g. my birth year ends on 5 and so I can buy masks on Friday when those whose birth years end in 5 and 0 can purchase masks. The delivery system in South Korea is unparalleled, and even if I didn’t want to walk the seven minutes to McDonald’s, I could have it delivered faster in the time it would take me to get home with it. (This also includes grocery deliveries.)
I’m worried about my former co-workers, who have suddenly found themselves without jobs. I’m worried about the hoarding of essential goods like toilet paper and bread. I’m worried that the US economy will never recover from this, and the various industries being hit hardest will be forever changed, in ways we can’t imagine. I’m worried, obviously, about the frontline fighters who didn’t ask for their lives to be a “sacrifice” but get ready for work each day anyway. I’m worried about those whose pre-existing conditions mean that facing the virus is a true battle for life or death.
Here in Korea, almost all of us wear masks. There is plenty of hand sanitizer. We make our kids wash their hands and use hand sanitizer before playing. We take our own temperatures and the kids’ each day. Thanks to Korea’s preparedness, its economy has not completely tanked in the way that the US economy has. Sure, public schools have been delayed for over a month now, but life seems to go on, and it gets more and more “normal” by the week as the numbers of recently infected each day in Korea dwindle to under 30.
I’m safer and more well prepared to handle life as a whole, healthy or not, in South Korea. I am really thankful that karma decided to put me here now, as my life back in the States would be a hellish nightmare right now.
Last week the other new teacher and I went to the local hospital for our medical exam. In order to get an ARC (alien registration card), you must pass a medical exam.
Before we were allowed into the hospital, a nurse standing outside in a face mask, gloves, and a gown asked us if we had a cold and what the purpose of our visit was. They provided hand sanitizer for us to use and gave us a little sticker to wear.
First, we were taken into a room to have our height and weight measured. In that same room, we were told to cover one eye and read a few lines on an eye chart. We also were seen into a small soundproof booth and given a set of headphones, and told to raise our hands when we heard a beep. (I am hard-of-hearing in one ear so I was very familiar with this aspect of the exam.)
Then we were taken into a room with a doctor who asked us if we had any mental health problems, skin problems, and any other internal problems. While I waited for the other teacher to finish her consultation, the director of my school who had accompanied us to the hospital told me, with a clicking of his tongue, that the doctor doing the consulation was actually an OB-GYN who had found himself out of work in his field due to the low birth rate in Korea.
We were then seen by a nurse who took a blood sample. I watched as this nurse drew one vial of blood and then proceeded to pour bits of it into other vials, all with her hands, and all without gloves. You could tell that she took hundreds of these samples a day, but I was still very worried for her safety.
Then she gave us an open paper cup and instructed us to pee in the cup. I noticed, for the first time since arriving in Korea, a squat toilet in addition to a Western-style toilet. There was no lid for our sample, and we opened up a little cupboard where a mirror would normally be in the restroom and sat the cup there. It was open on the other side so a nurse could reach in and retrieve the samples, but I was very surprised that they would just leave the cups open like that.
Next up was the chest x-ray. We were shown into a room and told to take off our shirts and bras and put on the open shirt provided. The other teacher and I were unsure of what to do so we also put on the provided pants, which proved unnecessary. The x-ray was super quick and we were back in our clothes.
Lastly was the dentist check-up. I swear, this dentist spent maybe thirty seconds looking at my teeth and pointing out that I have cavities and need to have a scaling procedure done. (Once my insurance kicks in, I plan on visiting a dentist that will take longer than thirty seconds looking at my teeth.)
Unfortunately, the other teacher has a shy bladder so even after we were finished with all the steps of the medical exam, we still had to wait on her to give a urine sample. Fortunately, I had purchased a 2 litre bottle of water before leaving our apartment, so she was able to down the vast majority of that to assist her. I also helped by playing her a video of a waterfall on my phone, and the director distracted her by telling her the story of another teacher who was so afraid of needles that he passed out while they were drawing blood.
A week later, we went to pick up our medical exam results which we were embossed and sealed in an envelope. The next day, we went to the immigration office, which provided hand sanitizer and a quick thermometer check before we were allowed to enter. We had to give fingerprints there and then went to Burger King afterwards, as one does.
Even the director pointed out that he doesn’t understand why we must perform all aspects of the medical exam. I know they are testing for hard drugs, HIV, and tuberculosis, but is a dental exam really necessary? Is it possible to have one cavity too many and be turned away for improper brushing? I also have a lot of opinions about the full breadth of what they are testing for and how some of it is discriminatory but I’ll save that for another time.
My blood type is A, in case anyone is wondering.
On the day I left for Korea, I faced every traveller’s worst nightmare.
No, not a long delay or a cancelled flight.
I forgot my passport at home.
*insert Pac-Man dying noise here*
In my defense, I hadn’t slept well and woke up at 4:30. I remember my friend Carin pointing out to me not to leave my bag and I thought I had slung it across my shoulder, but I had actually slung across my Hydroflask in its carrier. Normally I don’t use my large 32 oz Hydroflask but wanted it for the long flight, and my muscle memory must’ve thought that I had grabbed my bag.
I didn’t realize I didn’t have my passport until I got to the check-in desk. Cue the frantic messages and phone calls, and somehow I managed to get a hold of my roommate before she left for work. The problem was then having my friend Carin drive from BWI airport all the way into DC and back with enough time for me to catch my flight. I wasn’t worried about catching the actual flight, but about the bag check-in, which cuts off 45 minutes prior to the flight.
I cut it close, but in the end, Carin and LaTroy came through for me and I made my flight.
I didn’t run into too many hiccups during my flight. When I first checked in to BWI, it took a bit of time for them to check me in because of my cat, but after a quick looksie at my paperwork, they verified that I was good to travel. My newest piece of luggage came in exactly at 50 pounds, which was great, but I knew that my second, older piece of luggage was going to be overweight, which was another fee.
The big question: how best to get Merlin through security. While I had asked for a private screening, I was told that I’d still have to send all of my luggage through the xray machine and take Merlin out of his carrier anyways which kind of… defeats the purpose of a private screening? So I waited until the last possible minute, reached in, wrestled him from his harness (which would have set off the metal detectors), and held onto him for dear life.
He squirmed a bit but he was mostly calm. I waited for what felt like ten minutes until the TSA agent gave me the go-ahead to walk through the metal detector, and then she told me she’d have to swab my hands. I asked her if I could put my cat back in the carrier and she asked if I was traveling with anyone, implying that if I was, I could hand the cat over to them. Luckily, she allowed me to put him back in the carrier and immediately swabbed my hands which, by that time, were covered in black fur.
My carry-on bag got pulled aside for extra screening and this time, it wasn’t because I was flying with coffee. (Pro-tip: if you fly with coffee, be sure that it’s easily accessible because they will have to screen it as coffee is apparently often used to smuggle drugs and/or money.) Turns out I had another “organic material” in my bag: cat litter. The TSA agent opened it up, put a little litter on two pieces of paper, administered two separate chemicals, and then let me go. She told me to take out the litter the next time I flew and there wouldn’t be a need for the extra screening.
I was initially planning on sneaking away to a family restroom to let Merlin have the chance to use the toilet before my second flight, but by the time I got from my previous gate to the next, they had already started the boarding process. I had only given Merlin a small amount of food in the morning, so I hoped he was going to be okay. I took someone’s advice from the internet and bought a bunch of cardboard shirt boxes that I could fill with litter and then dispose of.
The first flight from BWI to Detroit went by smoothly and quickly. The second flight from Detroit to Incheon wasn’t too bad either–I mostly slept or stared into space, although I did watch “Parasite” for the third time.
When I finally got into Korea, my overwhelming emotion was… I’m sweaty. Really, really sweaty. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not they’d let me into the country (they did, and that was painless), or even whether or not they’d let Merlin into the country (I had all the right paperwork)… I was just sweaty and pretty miserable, waiting in line after line.
Going through customs was an interesting experience. When I got to the first agent, she peered into my bag and her eyes lit up. “Ohhhh he’s so big and cute!” She then told me that I had to move to a different line and she shouted at her colleague (in Korean) that she had a cat.
The new agent checked Merlin for his microchip and went over the signed paper from the USDA and asked to see the original rabies titer test results. Then I had to hand over the signed paper from the USDA and, seeing that I wasn’t so willing to give it up, let me know that it was only good for thirty days from the signing.
I was particularly stressed out about that piece of paper and for a few days, there was a question of whether I would even be able to make my flight, as I wasn’t going to fly out without my cat. In order to travel to South Korea with a cat, the cat must first get a rabies titer test, the results of which can take up to a month. Then, within ten days of travel, the cat must have a full health check-up and the results must be sent to the USDA to be apostilled.
I took Merlin in for his check up on Saturday and the vet told me to call the USDA on Monday to make sure they got the digital paperwork. Problem was… Monday was President’s Day. I got a call on Tuesday from the vet, saying that they needed a more specific address to list on the form (not just “South Korea”) and I could only give them the school’s address, which I hoped would be enough. Oh, and they weren’t going to be able to send the paperwork digitally so I would have to pay for them to FedEx the forms.
I received the paperwork on Thursday morning, before my Friday morning flight. As you can imagine, I wanted to hold onto that paperwork for as long as I could because I had stressed out so much about it.
When I finally got through customs, I noticed that there was no one waiting for me as there should have been. I gave a call to the director of my school and he answered, apologizing for not being there when I landed. He had mistaken the terminal I was flying in to, so I waited a few minutes outside my terminal for him to pull up. Then it was an hour drive to my apartment.
Merlin bounced back pretty fast from the trip. He threw up the little food I gave him before the first flight, but didn’t defecate or urinate in his carrier. He immediately ran out of the carrier and under my bed but came out a few minutes later to poke around the apartment. I will note that it was a few days until he used the makeshift litter box, probably because he was scared of my temporary roommate (another new teacher) and the new environment.
So, Lessons Learned:
1) It is totally possible to fly internationally with a cat. I am blessed that my cat is super chill and quiet and has been through a lot in his little life so he bounced back pretty quickly from the trauma of a 14-hour flight.
2) If traveling with a cat… realize that your cat will take up most of the space at your feet. You also won’t likely be getting into your carry-on in the overhead bin, so don’t pack it like you’ll be able to easily reach in and grab things.
3) Be nice to flight attendants. If they find out your favorite cookie is Biscoff (Delta’s cookie of choice), they may just give you extra cookies.
4) Sometimes plane food is great. Other times it’s worse than Mickey D’s.
5) For the love of all that is holy… Make sure you’ve got your passport!
Yes, everyone, it’s official: I’m moving to South Korea at the end of this month! I just bought my plane ticket and am actually currently on hold with Delta regarding taking Merlin with me.
This is a dream ten years running, and I’m about to make it a reality.
Edited to add: the one-question questionnaire that I was given after the phone call was to rate the customer service representative based on whether or not I would hire them for a customer service rep job, one being “definitely not” and five being “definitely yes.” Never got that one before.