Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
18Trip End Aug 25, 2008
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May is the awkward month when the heat arrives but before the fans can be turned on. They sat motionless and covered in the staff room, regardless of heat or humidity, regardless of the deranged games the foreign teacher organised to tire his students out and shut them up.
The vice principal took up his stained fly swat, and re-commenced the bloodbath I had witnessed when I first came to the school at the other end of a Korean summer. With decisive strokes and an empty zen face he marched about the staff room, killing flies wherever they landed. It was a familiar massacre. My year was starting to conclude, to return to its starting point.
Outside the rice fields had become familiar too. Hump-backed ajumas waddled barefoot through the thick mud, picking weeds and arranging their rice crop. Ancient rice-planting machines lay down crooked, juvenile lines of rice plants that turned the entire landscape bright green. While the crop stayed low the flooded fields reflected the colours of the sky like huge mirrors. Then the rice grew taller, blocking out the sky and leaving only those drunken, staggering lines to adorn the land.
One morning as I walked to school I was surrounded by choirs of frogsong that floated up out of the fields, the invisible amphibs celebrating the return of life to the land. By the next day the frogs had fallen silent though, as the long-legged herons came stabbing over the fields, elegant coils of white in the world of green.
This was the Korea I had remembered, it had come back, and I realised that my year was ending already. The whole long winter, the brief eruptions of spring and autumn collapsed into truncated memory. Had there really been time for the seasons to wheel so quickly by?
May was a strange month for the schools. Long weekends multiplied as class time dwindled away; national holidays, a school birthday, volleyball tournaments, English festivals, training days, a field trip all encroached upon the school days. On the long weekends every person in Korea took the roads and went travelling and visiting. My spirit of adventure, however, ebbed low. I visited Busan again. I visited Seoul again. I visited Buyeo again. May was a paradise of time-off and of time away, but these diversions proved dangerous; the extra days inadequate to the desire for freedom stirred up by the warming weather.
With a collective groan the English teachers decided that teaching wasn't really for them after all. Everyone I talked to felt suddenly stifled by their work, felt desperate to fly free, to explore the land before the weather turned oppressive. I started finding more and more inventive reasons to have time off work. I became resentful whenever I had to work a full week. As the long weekends dwindled away so did my desire to renew my contract and keep teaching in Korea. The country had never been prettier or more interesting, but the desire to work and to explore the country in tiny two-day windows had never weaker. I began to think about all the unfinished business I had involved myself in, and how I might go about it bundling it all up into neatly completed parcels.
But there are far too many loose ends, far too many started and unfinished projects, far too many students that still don't speak English.
At the end of May my sis came to visit, and I tried to share my whole experience of Korea with her in three short days. Most of the weekend was spent on overlong bus or train or subway rides, trying to visit as many places and cram as much into the evaporating days as possible. It was in fact a very good sample of my time in Korea, of my life spent in transit, of my many ideas all half-baked and half-completed.
And then there was hours of tambourines and hoarse voices in a luxurious noraebang, the spicy everything, the quirky bars, the packs of old men and their games of checkers, the sweaty subways, the cool mountains, the big Buddha, the empty temple, the late night ramyeon, the sun coming up far too early, the wrong bus, the early morning wake-up, the photos with strangers. All the things that fill those brief days between the working weeks.
The mad month twisted to its conclusion, and I counted three months left in Korea. The rice grew taller and the sun rose higher. And then the kids all came to school with haircuts marking off another month passed, and June arrived, bringing with it the summer rains and the Mormons, and the countdown to the completing of my cycle, and to my departure.