Going "Home"

Trip Start Aug 25, 2012
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Trip End Feb 25, 2013


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Flag of Korea Rep.  , South Chungcheong,
Thursday, August 30, 2012

So orientation was over. We had a dramatically boring closing ceremonies replete with awarding us our certificates of completion, speeches by the staff and some of the trainees, and a slideshow of our training set to music. Afterwards the new teachers were introduced to their new co-teachers who would take them to their new homes. My co-teacher found me right away, an eager eyed young Korean man who told me his name, but said I could call him Gin (sounds sort of like Chin). He whisked me and my luggage out into the rain and to his car so he could drive me the hour and a half to Dangjin and my new apartment. We got into the car and headed out, windshield wipers counting down the seconds until I got to my new home.
We made small talk in the drive there. Talking about where I had traveled and how long Gin had taught. Talking about the kids and how naughty they are. Gin's English is pretty good so it wasn't too hard for us to communicate. It was as pleasant as one could expect. After we had been in the car for a while Gin told me that one of the staff members of my school was retiring and they were having a going away party. He asked me if I would like to go and I agreed (it's not very polite to say "no" so... what the hell). He informed me that we would be arriving a little late but that it would be okay.  Shortly after that he received a call on his cell phone. He exchanged a smattering of Korean with someone on the other end and when he hung up he informed me that he would not be my co-teacher. There was a woman at the school who would take the position. A woman would be able to help me better, he supposed.
So we made our way to the outskirts of Dangjin and the rain was starting to let up as he drove us slowly past my new school, pointing down a drive way toward a large brick building. He then drove us a few more blocks to where we would be having our party. He parked the car and was greeted eagerly by a half dozen Korean men on the front steps of a small, squat building. We hurried inside and Gin quickly pointed out the important members of the party, including my principle. We entered the building to much excitement and I found that the establishment was much smaller than I expected. We walked into a small tiled room that looked directly into the kitchen, which was mostly open to the rest of the place.
We went toward a small room that reminded me of a Japanese tea room in a sushi restaurant except much bigger. We stripped our shoes (why did I wear my boots?!) and were led up two steps into a room with two long, low tables. My new principle beckoned me to sit next to him on the floor in front of the grill that was set into the center of the table surrounded by empty green soju bottles. My new principle had obviously been partying for a while and his face was flushed crimson and slick with sweat. His black bangs clung to his forehead over his sunken, bloodshot eyes, but he looked up at me eagerly. Gin sat across from me, looking mildly concerned as the rest of the party (the males at least) surrounded me on all sides, leaning in to catch every foreign word and expression I had to give.
Gin continued to introduce me around the table, my principle, my vice principle (a very proper and slightly concerned looking woman), the other English staff (all of whom are Korean) and specifically my new co-teacher. Mrs. Lee hurried over, looking absolutely thrilled to meet me. She is an adorable, short woman who sat next to me briefly and shook my hand, introducing herself briefly.
Without missing a beat my new principle asked me (with the help of Gin's good English skills) whether or not I had ever had soju before. I informed him that I had tasted it once before (the night before with some teachers from training) but that I hadn't had very much (which I hadn't). He grinned at me, handing me a shot glass and pouring it full of soju. He then handed me the bottle and I took it with both hands (look Ma, learning the new culture!) and poured a shot for him. He raised it to me and I clinked my tiny cup against his. I looked to Gin and inquired whether I should sip the soju slow or fast. He told me slow was okay so I gingerly downed about a third of my tiny glass' worth. Now, soju isn't as high a proof as Western liquor (and I would like to think I know my limits when drinking) but there are a lot of stories about Korean teachers getting Western teachers drunk on soju, so I wanted to take it slow and not make a fool of myself. As I finished my first sip the teachers leaned forward, looking to see if I scowled or coughed. I smiled and gave a thumbs up, which was met with an uproar of approval.
Soon after a tray of raw meet was brought out and Ms. Kim (another of my English teachers) started to lay strips of beef (or maybe pork?) onto the hot grill. I watched with interest, looking around at the trays of condiments that surrounded the grill.
I told my curious audience that I didn't know how to eat Korean BBQ and that I would need to be shown. My principle perked up, grabbing chop sticks up and asking me if I knew how to use them. I nodded and picked mine up as well, ready to mimic what he did. He took a lettuce leaf off of a plate and placed it in his left hand, then looked at me with expectant, if not drooping, eyes. I followed in suit, suddenly feeling nervous as the small amount of alcohol hit my empty stomach and I realized that everyone was judging me. My principle then took his chopsticks in his right hand and reached for a piece of grilled meat that still lay sizzling on the hot griddle in the middle of the table. I struggled with the placement of my chopsticks, clumsily picking up my piece of meat and placing it on my lettuce leaf as I was instructed. My principle then took some peppery red sauce from a dish, smearing it on his grilled meat and I followed along after him. He picked up a sliver of raw garlic and as I reached to follow Mrs. Lee looked shocked and shook her head that it would be too strong for my delicate Western palate. My principle then topped his pile with shredded beans and I mimicked him the best I could. Then, with one fell swoop he bundled his food up within the lettuce leaf and crammed the whole lot into his mouth. I watched him chew cheerfully for a moment and then opened up and pressed my lettuce and its contents into my mouth. I felt grease drip down the palm of my hand as I nodded eagerly to the Korean faces surrounding me, waiting for my first reaction to Korean BBQ. I gave a thumbs up as I struggled to process the first big bite of my meal.
Soon after my first few bites of my meal my principle was pushed aside by another faculty member from my school.  He stumbled down next to me, eagerly encouraging me to finish off my shot of soju so that he could pour me another. I cast a glance toward Gin and he shrugged at me so I tossed my soju to the back of my mouth. Honestly it doesn't burn as much as a shot of Tequila, so whatever. He grinned at me with wide, crooked teeth and then held up his own glass, waiting for me to fill it according to custom. He then clinked his glass against mine, indicating that I should shoot it down, wanting me to catch up with the rest of the crowd. A small group of women (I was never introduced to them) eyed me suspiciously from the corner of the table, waiting for my reaction. I shrugged and dropped another shot of soju in my mouth. Another round was poured and I set my full class of soju down on the table, focusing on trying to eat my meal as it cooked on the table in front of me. My new best friend continued to try to chat me up in broken English, leaning against my shoulder as he laughed at his own, confused jokes. He waved his hands dramatically during both Korean and broken English orations and I swear he would have poked my eye out if I hadn't been wearing glasses. He told me (with the help of my co-teacher, Mrs. Lee) that he wanted me to come visit him at his home, meet his children, and drink soju with him. I nodded quietly, continuing to eat and not look too terribly awkward.
Before too long Mrs. Lee had to go back to her family and looked at me with apologetic eyes as she stood up to leave. My new best friend continued to encourage me to drink soju and I did my best to not offend him while keeping myself as sober as possible. Gin looked increasingly nervous with every sip that I took. Sitting in front of a room full of strange Koreans, with a grill inches in front of me, while drinking alcohol, my cheeks started to burn bright red. Most of the Koreans in the room took this to mean that I was very drunk and Gin was concerned for me and my state. I tried to quietly assure him that I was alright, while the rest of the room told me that I looked beautiful in my blushing state.
Finally the party was starting to wind down and Gin was more than happy to load me back into his car and take me (with Ms. Kim, the other English teacher) back to my apartment. We all loaded up with my luggage and climbed to the 4th floor where I would be living. We entered and Gin showed me around quickly while setting down my things. Slowly it dawned on me... where was my bed. Was there another room that I hadn't seen? I turned to Gin and asked him "Um... do I have a bed?" Gin and Ms. Kim looked at each other and showed me a pile of blankets in the wardrobe. I squinted in disbelief. "Do you need a bed?" asked Ms. Kim. "Many Koreans do not have beds" Gin chimed in. I blinked, confused, exhausted, and maybe just a tiny bit drunk. Umm... I don't know. Do I need a bed? Maybe. "The last teacher who lived here didn't have a bed." Oh... well in that case. Um.
I felt tears burning behind my eyes. Really I just wanted them to go away. Really I just wanted to be alone. No... really I just wanted to be home. I was exhausted and this was not something I could deal with very well right now. "I don't know if I need a bed" I blurted "Um... I will see how it goes" and then they were gone.
The moment that the door closed tears welled up in my eyes and started to drop down my cheeks. I shakily went to the wardrobe, pulling blankets out to lay on the floor.
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Comments

Benny on

Wow, that sounds like a rather stressful way to be introduced to your new school. I know how pink you turn when you have a little bit to drink though, and I believe that people who don't know you would be surprised by that!

Carlo on

Harrowing!

I am glad you were able to hold your own through that, ah, gauntlet of cultural challenges. Sounds predatory. You should ask why the women weren't in front of the grill...

Christine Jacobs on

Oooo this made me so sad :( I just wanted to reach out and hug you. I'm so sorry that it was so hard for you. Even the strongest of us reach our limits. I hope that in the next blog I read, things are looking up for you. Know that we all love you and miss you-you are doing a good thing! xoxoxoxox LOVE YOU!

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