In the fancy ballroom of the Shin-Yang Park Hotel, during a lovely lunch with my new co-teacher, the rosy lenses of my orientation glasses fogged up. As I slowly strolled through my meal (enjoying the leisurely dining of orientation), my co-teacher gave me a look of urgency, as if we were already late. “Is it time to go?” I asked.
“We have a busy day ahead.”
Before I knew it, we threw my luggage into a black Mercedes sedan and departed for Namak. I managed to say goodbye to two people. The rush was real. However, I did muster a single high-five with one fellow teacher out the front passenger window as we descended the hill into downtown Gwangju.
“Damn,” I thought. I sobered up to reality.
In the car, my nerves were on high alert. I knew where I was going, but I didn’t really know who I was going with. Throughout orientation, speakers told us ad-nauseam that our co-teachers are critical sources of support. It is the relationship that can make or break a Native English Teacher’s Korean experience. I spent the whole week hoping that my co-teacher would be kind and understanding.
I was very confident about my first impression. On the last day of orientation, every new English teacher introduced themselves in Korean to a room full of Koreans. I have a newfound respect for foreign-born college professors and public speakers who lecture in their second language to native English-speakers. Like most teachers, I toted a handy cheat sheet with my Korean sentences. Our regional coordinator provided a very helpful script.
ME (in Korean): “Hello. My name is Ian. I am from America. I am going to Namak High School.”
Then, I called an audible.
ME (in Korean): “my Korean is as short as a mouse’s tail.” (“Han-gook-mal-jui-ko-li-man-kum-hae-yo”.)
Shoutout to Beeline Language for my new favorite Korean icebreaker. Many people laughed.
I followed that up with a Korean phrase that makes me laugh to this day. The loose English translation is, “please be nice to me” (“jal-bu-tak-im-ni-da“). I can picture starting work at an American company, meeting my co-workers in the breakroom, and asking them to be nice to me. I cringe and laugh when I think of this. However, in this case, the phrase was well-received.
Finally, to seal a solid first impression, I agreed to perform a K-Pop dance with two other colleagues. I have yet to see video evidence of this dance, so I will just assume that I was amazing. My co-teacher laughed and said I should perform in the school talent show.
One hour later, we were riding in the same car. She sat in back while I rode shotgun. Another administrator drove. The carefree attitude I felt through most of the orientation was now a distant memory. A cheek-clenching tension crept into its place. Anxiety-Brain rattled off a list of Do Nots.
“Do not fart. Do not pick your nose. Do not pick your nails. Do not wipe your mouth on your shirt. Do not breathe loudly. Do not do everything you do when you’re nervous you nervous son of a bitch.”
Luckily, my co-teacher interrupted my inner harangue. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I replied, appreciating the respite. “I’m just a bit nervous.”
“It’s okay. I’m nervous too.”
And with that, my muscles relaxed a bit. Fortunately, the driver also spoke English and was quite pleasant. He was the school custodian and drove a Mercedes which is pretty awesome.
He self-proclaimed himself as a comedian. For the sake of harmony, I agreed. He was also legitimately funny. When we crossed the county line separating Mokpo and Namak he called it the DMZ. He also had great taste in American blues, R&B, and rock. It made the 50-minute ride 100 times more enjoyable.
Our first stop was the immigration office, which served as my baptism into the hurry culture (pa-li-pa-li) that often characterizes Korea. One reason we rushed from orientation was to beat the other Mokpo-based teachers and reduce our wait time. It worked. After furious form-filling (mostly by my co-teacher) and a bureaucratic journey I can only describe as a cocaine-fueled trip to the DMV, I applied for my Alien Registration Card (ARC).
I re-gathered my documents, received a temporary paper ARC, then it was pa-li-pa-li to Namak High School to meet the administrators. With an armful of M&M’s and Chips Ahoy Brownie cookies, I bowed, smiled, gave gifts, and recycled my Korean greetings. My self-effacing “mouse’s tail” comment went 4 for 4 in eliciting laughs. It felt awesome.
Once they showed me my office, it was back in the car for a very brief trip to see my apartment. I realized that walking to school from my apartment was shorter than driving. This pleased me. I was also quite satisfied with my living space. I’ll dedicate a post to it later, so I’ll leave it at that.
I was also quite satisfied with my living space. I’ll dedicate a post to this later, so I’ll leave it at that.
Finally, my co-teacher was kind enough to drive me to the local Lotte Mart for some shopping. I didn’t need much, but I wanted to buy some dinner and a candle for morning meditation. I was grateful for the free ride. From my apartment, it’s a 20-minute walk.
We browsed the grocery aisles. I said I wanted to cook. She was incredulous, but I was adamant. If I am going to live right, I have to eat right. I found a nice-looking marble-coated fry pan for ₩5,000. I was almost giddy with excitement. She found my excitement strange. I think she finds me strange in general. When I say things she frequently tilts her head and says, “really?”
“I kind of enjoy washing dishes. It’s peaceful and mindless work.
“I’m not a fan of rice or bread.”
“These seaweed crisps look delicious.”
Overall, it was a good day. I exhaled and decided that my worries were for naught. I was going to be okay. After riding a whirlwind of activity from Gwangju to Namak, I sat alone in my apartment, stir-fried pork and vegetables, and blasted rap music. I had an introduction lesson to prepare, bags to unpack, and clothes to wash. Orientation was over. Real life had just begun.
There is no garbage day to worry about in Korea. Just buy the official garbage bags, fill them up, and put them on the correct street corner. Every day is trash day.
I love this library. It is quiet – an oasis apart from the near-constant din of most streets.
I will leave this here as photographic evidence that I have friends (or at least a group of people that let me hang out with them more than once). Also, shoutout to anybody reading this in Kentucky. Go Cats!
I live on the second floor of this building (unless you’re reading this on a stakeout. Then I definitely live on the third floor). There is a seafood restaurant below me. Every day I receive lovely smells of freshly cooked fish along with less pleasant smells of fishy refuse. You take the good with the bad.