Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lesson 1: Don’t Get Upset at School Day 8 (7 October)

Culture shock has really set in now!  I can’t believe that kids here stay up until all hours of the morning.  I feel really old being in bed hours before my neighbours put their kids to bed!  Just to be clear: I only go to bed between 22:30 and 23:00.  I’m still exhausted.

Today is my first meltdown and, unfortunately, it happens at work…

My students are currently busy with mid-term exams.  Invigilating mid-terms involves one teacher (usually a Korean teacher) who hands out the papers, gives instructions and does all the invigilation things required while a second teacher (which is the only thing the GETs are allowed to do in an exam) stands at the back of the classroom and has time to consider ridiculous and inane things as our souls repeatedly try to escape our bodies.  It is inevitable that I end up working with teachers I’ve not yet met. 

Cultural Landmine

The bowing and greeting that happens throughout the day is becoming increasingly confusing and I feel like a bobble-head doll as I permanently bob up and down while mumbling something incoherent in an effort not to offend anyone.  Today is no exception.

The oh-so-gorgeous maths teacher I worked with yesterday was so friendly that, even though we didn’t actually speak, we got along easily enough.  The ease of yesterday’s invigilation makes today’s first period so much the more frustrating.  In what is probably best described as a cultural misunderstanding, I can only say that I feel that I was the subject of ridicule in that classroom.  I’m only too grateful to leave the room at the end of the exam and escape to the sanctuary of a garden bench next to the soccer field.

I feel even worse when my co-teacher finds me and asks what is wrong.  I know that Koreans try to maintain harmony at all costs and I’ve only been here a week: How can I already be causing trouble?  Despite frantically trying to pull myself together and minimise the number of witnesses for my bawl, it takes only minutes before my entire office knows that I’ve been in tears – I can’t help wondering if a notice was sent to the entire school on the internal messenger system…  It seems I’m destined to cry whenever someone speaks to me after that, which, somewhat to my discomfort, they now all seem to be trying to do.

Lesson 1: Don't get upset in front of Korean colleagues

Unlike the Western ones who run like their lives depend on it, Korean colleagues apologise profusely for the fact that you’re upset and go out of their way to convince you that EVERYONE in the school cares about you!  My cringe-o-metre is about to explode as I listen to everyone apologising for not doing more to help me feel comfortable when all I really want to do is put my headphones on, listen to a bit of music and work on my lessons until my dignity returns from it’s latest outing.

Thankfully, another English teacher rescues me to take me to the Immigration Office to apply for my ARC (the Alien Residence Card) and change my single entry visa to a multiple entry visa.  The first bit of good news today: I don’t have to pay the 50 000 won (roughly US$50) for the new visa because I’m smart enough to travel on my British passport and there’s some kind of deal between Britain and South Korea.  I love that little red book!

Back at school, we’re allowed to leave after lunch since the students only have self-study and there are no classes.  The Kiwis and I only leave after everyone else just be sure we’ve understood correctly.  I’m still trying to work out who supervises the students if we all go home early…

Target Destination: E-mart

Feeling slightly calmer, I realise that I need to go somewhere other than just the local mart down the road.  I still don’t have a translation of my address but I’ve realised that it’s written on my contract – in Hangeul of course!  Grabbing my contract and shopping list, I purposefully walk to the main road, write down the romanised version of my neighbourhood as it appears on the street signs, say a quick prayer that I’m able to find my way home later and try to hail a taxi.

We don’t really have traditional taxis in Johannesburg so this is still a little new to me.  Taking a deep breath, I raise my hand to summon an oncoming taxi…which flies straight past me, empty.  Slightly puzzled, I pause to consider my approach.  Maybe the red light means that he’s not working today so I don’t try to hail any taxis with red lights.  About 15 taxis pass me over the next few minutes, all with red lights and all empty so I rethink my previous conclusion.  Either there’s a taxi strike or I’ve missed something crucial.  In desperation, I jump up and down, waving both arms frantically above my head leading a taxi to screech to a stop just before mounting the sidewalk. 

Delivered safely to E-mart, I bravely venture forth to do my shopping.  E-mart seems to have permanent in-store promoters – who actually work for E-mart - in almost every section, which makes it almost impossible to avoid them.  I find myself guilted into buying the more expensive yoghurt because the woman is so kind to me and then buying a fruit juice (I think) because it came with the orange juice that I wanted and the girl who sold it to me spoke English and I clearly had a ‘what-the-heck-is-this’ expression on my face while considering different items.  I then proceed to chase a frightened couple down four aisles because they had an ironing board in their cart and I was trying to find one.  Fortunately, I find the boards during the chase and they manage an escape.  My final item is paper towels for my kitchen.  Once again, I’m forced to buy a year’s supply at once as they’re only packed in 6s.  I realise that the spare room in my apartment might actually be intended as storage space for all of the bulk purchases I seem to have to make with essential items.

Finally, having found everything I need (well, everything that I can understand), I make my way to the tills thinking that I’ll cave in and buy McDonalds for dinner on my way home.  I discover I have to buy McDonald’s before paying for the rest of my shopping.  I’ve reached a new low: For the first time in my life, I am devastated about not being able to have a McDonald’s burger, which I’ve only eaten twice in the last seven years.

Getting home

I manage to understand the cashier when she points that my purchases need to go into the boxes provided at the exit as there are no plastic bags.  I’ve bought more than I had planned and think that boxes will be a great help.  While neatly packing my purchases into two boxes, I am dismayed to realise that I have bought very little actual food.  I then realise that I have no idea how to get everything outside by myself or where to find a taxi.  Will I be able to get home or will I appear on tonight’s news as the homeless waegook who never left E-mart with her two boxes, laundry basket, an ironing board that is so overly-politically correct even Snow White’s dwarves would find it ridiculous and enough paper towel to make a good start in drying up a small stream?  With surprising force, I realise that I’m tired.  I’m so tired of functioning on high alert and having to think so unbelievably hard all the time just to cope with everyday basics in another language.  Out of sheer exhaustion, I seriously contemplate just walking away from my purchases – walking and walking until I can’t walk any more, which will probably only get me as far as the parking a hundred metres away. 

I consider my options: phone a friend (co-teacher) and ask what to do but that seems really silly or 50/50 - take half of my purchases at a time but this seems like a lot of extra work even if it’s common in Africa.  Just as I’m considering asking someone around me for help, a lifeline is extended to me in the form of an E-mart employee.  She understands the word ‘taxi’ and, like a guardian angel, proceeds to help me get my purchases out to the taxis waiting in a designated area.  My good luck continues when I show the driver my contract for my apartment and he answers me in English!  I think I may cry yet again today.

Back in my apartment, I’m hungrier than I’ve been all week.  I can’t face spaghetti and sauce again and, although I have strawberry jam, I have nothing to put it on.  My only other options are a tin of green peas, a banana that I’m pretty sure might verbally object to being eaten at this point or yoghurt so I check out the little store next to my apartment that everyone at my school seems to frequent, and am greeted by about 10 students who’ve come to buy food.  Apparently the quality of boarding school food is universal – it’s bad in every country.  They’re all buying the Korean equivalent of cup-of-noodles (another boarding school universal, it seems) and they take great pleasure in explaining to me what each package says.  They somehow convince me that this is not only proper food but tasty too – even though just a few weeks ago, I was telling my niece and nephew how bad two minute noodles are for you.  I pay for my noodles, realise that the long wooden things the store owner gives me are chopsticks and am relieved that no one will witness my clumsy attempt to use chopsticks that far surpasses any comedy show on television.  I’m surprised to find that cup-of-noodles may just turn out to be my comfort food in Korea as I’m transported back to many happy memories of my boarding school days instead of getting around to the ironing that needs to be done. 

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