Thursday, November 25, 2010

Breaking Bread (2 November)

My co-teacher made a rather surprising confession to me last Friday.  I had tried to phone her a couple of times last week to let her that I had to go back to the doctor the day after I got back from orientation in Seoul and that the appointment was for 10:00am so I would have to miss two classes.  Since I couldn’t reach her by phone, and I couldn’t understand how to leave a voice message, I sent her a text – using the abbreviation ‘Dr’.  As an English teacher, I should know the importance of context: She read the message as the Director (or the orientation session) wanting me to stay in Seoul for tests and she panicked.  This explains the three unusual text messages she sent to me 15 minutes before I got on a bus back to Gunsan.

Lesson 2: Don’t communicate essential information to your co-teacher (anything using the words ‘leave’, ‘gone’ or ‘miss’) in a text message!

My co-teacher confessed that she thought I wasn’t planning to return to Gunsan after the orientation.  She further explained that she was expecting to find my apartment empty of all my things with which I’d arrived and she was disappointed in herself.  I, in turn, felt frustrated with myself that I’d cause the initial misunderstanding and so we continued in circles until we both relented and started chatting about K-pop (Korean pop music) and my recent discovery of Korean boy band, 2am.  She explained that she had been concerned that I wasn’t happy in Korea and that I was battling to adjust but clearly I’ve adjust far more than she’d realized.


There is a (somewhat) logical explanation for her initial thought being that I was planning to leave Korea without saying anything to her: My predecessor did exactly that.  The GET who I replaced was an American woman who, despite being in Gunsan with her husband who is also a teacher, apparently only lasted three weeks.  She left school at the end of the third week, sent an email to my co-teacher over the weekend with a list of reasons to explain why she would not be coming back to school on the following Monday.  Had I not already heard this from NZ1 and 2, I would have been completely baffled by my co-teacher’s frantic text messages.

No one knows the real reason the previous GET left but the reality is that all of the teachers who have broken their contracts at my school have always been women.  My colleagues seem to now expect this of all foreign female teachers and the general consensus seems to be that I will soon follow suit.  It’s not that they want me to leave – they just seem to expect me to do so. 

A Korean Approach

Ironically, this confession was made while my co-teacher and I were walking back to school from the local bakery, Paris Baguette where she had helped me order sweet potato breads for all of the staff at school.  Koreans love to share food! It’s true.  My colleagues are going to either kill me with kindness or with food.  Every time someone celebrates a wedding, birth or any other special occasion in their family, they give everyone at school something edible.  This is often rice cake, or strange truffle like things that look like marzipan but are actually quite gross, or fruit.  Before I’d even left South Africa, I had decided that I would bring some type of food for my colleagues at the end of the first month (pay day!) to thank them for all they’ve done to help me settle in at school and in Korea.  I had to get my co-teacher to help me place the order since I don’t speak Korean and she recommended the sweet potato bread – which sounds gross but it’s actually really tasty!

The reaction from my colleagues was amazing!  My co-teacher seemed surprised that I wanted to do something like this since, as she said, “it’s a very Korean thing to do”.  Then, she told me that it really wasn’t necessary but I insisted and told her that I’d been trying to arrange it myself but language was a problem.  Yesterday (Monday), we had about five minutes in which to hand out the bread.  I carried the box and my co-teacher did the talking as we flew around all the offices in the school.  I don’t understand much Korean but the number of people who said “waegook” coupled with shocked expressions seems to suggest that this is may be a common practice in Korea but not when it’s done by a foreigner. If their surprise and shock weren’t followed by big smiles and genuine thank-yous, I would probably have believed I’d screwed up yet again.

Surprising Results

The after effect is incredible, however.  I’m suddenly greeted rather warmly by staff who previously only acknowledged my presence and my principal always greets me with a low bow – which is generally followed by me attempting to touch the floor with my forehead in my effort to bow lower than he does since he’s both older than me and considerably senior in status too.  Apparently, none of my colleagues have ever known a foreigner to follow such a simple and, let’s face it, fantastic custom.  That’s the best 60 000 won (approximately US$60) I’ve spent so far and, with a bit of luck, a step in the right direction in convincing my new colleagues that I intend staying.

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