When You Come to the Orient, You Get Orientation

I played chess. I should explain. Victor, who I’ve mentioned before, has four basic activities: work, sleep, eating, and chess. The last several weeks that I was at home, he was living there, due to being homeless and unfortunate in various ways. So he wanted to play chess with me all the time. And once I had gotten packed up and was ready to go to Korea, there was nothing else for me to do as I waited for the minutes to tick off but play chess. So that’s what I did. I believe I won two of three, but I don’t remember exactly. Then Dad woke up and in the psychosomatic chill that comes before sunrise on even hot summer days, he drove me to the airport. We said goodbye and then I walked into the mystery of my next year.

First I had to pass through what may forever be the longest day of my life, at 37 hours. On the flight to Chicago, I heard a guy behind me talking to his neighbor about Korea. “Are you going to Korea?” I said. He nodded. “Teaching?” Nod. “Going with EPIK?” Nod. “See you there.” But he was going to Gyeongbuk province, which, I later discovered, has a different orientation, and I never saw him again.

Instead, when I landed in Chicago, I waited in the wrong place for a while, then asked if I was in the right place, and a guy nearby asked me, when he heard I was flying to Seoul, if I was going to EPIK. He was too, and to Gangwon, in fact. We both found the right place together (it was a train ride away in a completely different building), and joined what turned out to be an EPIK party. All the non-Korean people who were waiting for the flight to Seoul were EPIK teachers. I met, for instance, Matt, who has a handlebar mustache, plays accordion, and was headed to Jeju Island. Altogether there were at least thirty of us there. I sat in front of two, and they were bookending a Korean girl who spoke pretty good English and gave us all sort of an idea of what we were heading for. Unfortunately I couldn’t talk with them well, so I mainly just slept the entire way.

Customs went by in about thirty seconds, and I got my stuff and headed to the EPIK booth at the airport with all the other non-Koreans who’d just stepped off the plane. We were all assigned a bus that was going to leave in ten minutes, and then I realized I was supposed to find my recruiter, one of the people who’d guided me through the whole application process. She had been trying to find me, and she even had a card with my name printed on it. She handed me an envelope and some home-baked ball-shaped walnut treats, which made me soften a bit from how annoyed I’d been with the lack of communication in the process. Then someone led me in a rush to the bus and I started understanding the bballi bballi (hurry hurry!) culture of Seoul.

I sat with people from Canada and England and the USA, including Sean from England, who would end up in the same village with me later. I hadn’t realized how international a crew I’d be with. The bus driver took us with pinpoint accuracy through traffic that never seemed a safe distance away on either side, and we all got nametags and dinner. After dinner we all started getting to know each other. I played a card game called baldrick with a South African guy, an English guy, and the guy I met at the wrong desk in Chicago. Pretty soon everyone collapsed from their long flights.

ight at the beginning of the next day we had a medical exam; a team of Koreans quickly processed all 160-odd teachers, including blood tests and urine samples. They realized what a wonderful welcome this was, and gave us some snacks and drinks afterward. We had the rest of the day free to meet people and make friends, so we all did.

The next three days went by in a stream of lectures on how to teach and evening Korean lessons. Every day we got Korean food for lunch and dinner, and as I was hoping, I really like it, most of the time. I still haven’t gotten past the sound of the word “squid” and the sliminess of the animal, so I don’t eat that, but maybe by the end of the year I’ll be eating it every day. The kimchi there was terrific. In our free time we took walks around Seoul, from which I’ll put up pictures sometime. One of the more memorable things was a stone wall that used to surround old Seoul, and goes up a hill that lets you see a good portion of the city from the top. I started hanging out with two people, Alex and Cody, who both studied linguistics in college. I didn’t know this about them until I’d been hanging around with them for a while already. I think we came together through some kind of linguists’ magnetism. We hung out a lot throughout the week, and a few times I also hung out with Jo, although she turned out to be the instantly popular type, putting her in sort of different circles from a schlub like me. Mainly I just hung out with everyone I could, and had a great time.

On the fourth day we had a field trip to nearby Ganghwa Island. I didn’t realize when I got on the bus that I was going to see North Korea that day, but the first thing we went to see was the Peace Observatory, located at the closest point on Ganghwa to North Korea, only 2.8 km from inhabited areas. North Korea has set up a village there to look very healthy and thriving, and you can use binoculars to look at people doing agricultural things and cranes flying around without any regard for how this land might be somehow different from the land across the strait. First there was a lecture (which I barely understood any of) about the history of the Koreas, in a room with a view across the border. Then we made asses of ourselves by taking mid-air jumping pictures in front of the very sober monument to peace, looked around awhile, and got bussed to a big restaurant for bibimbap.

After the rather good bibimbap—and the so-so dotorimuk (acorn jelly), which didn’t taste like anything, and isn’t as good as what I’m told you can get at other places—it was just a short walk down a street along a rice paddy and we got to a hut where we would be trying out hwamunseok, the traditional way to weave sedge mats. We all sat in a big room on benches with iron spools hanging from boards in front of us. Then we learned how to be proto–sweatshop workers. Each stalk of sedge took at least a couple minutes to add to the mat, and we were only scheduled for about an hour. Given about a year, we could have created something that you could actually have a seat on, and cover your floor with. But with the time we had, we each managed to weave a mat large enough to set a drink on—two if you’re careful. Based on invisible criteria, the old ladies running the hwamunseok place declared winners (all of them female as well), and we went on to our next tourist thing.

Things picked up a little, because we moved on to a dolmen, which is a giant stone monument to the dead. There are thousands of these scattered across the Korean peninsula, north and south, dating back to prehistory in many cases. We had come to see an especially big one—maybe the biggest, but I don’t remember. It was made of two flat stones tipped onto their thin sides and buried in the earth, diagonal but parallel, with another flat stone on top, large enough for several people to dance on and thick enough to shield you from a sizeable bomb if you hid underneath. I think I remember hearing that it weighed fifty tons. Can you think of any way for stone-age people to move that? I guess maybe they buried the supporting stones, then had a huge crew of strongmen with ropes drag it across level ground until they got it to the right place, then uncovered the supporting stones. I’m suitably impressed with whoever they were honoring.

Lastly we had a tour of the place where a palace used to be, back when the capital had been moved to Ganghwa Island for a little while, a few hundred years ago. The Koreans are serious about their ornate architecture. Every one of the hundreds of roof beams was painted with an intricate design in red, yellow, and blue, on bright green. The palace grounds were a very serene place. I could imagine sitting down in any building there for several years of peace and quiet to determine the nature of the universe. But I had a commitment to teaching instead, so I went with everyone else back to the bus into Seoul, so I could listen to the rest of the week of lectures.

I started getting a feel for Korean culture, too. It didn’t hurt that a couple of our lecturers explained it to us so we wouldn’t have to figure it all out for ourselves. The starting point for Korean culture is Confucianism. Confucius, whose name is known all across even America, though his words aren’t, had an idea for how society should be. There were wars and strife going on all around him, and his idea was this: everyone has their place, and let no one try to break out of it, and let the structure of society be sacred. For a long time it was this way all acros Japan, China, and Korea, but now Korea is the only country left that still has Confucianism at the center of its culture. The effect for Koreans today, and for me, is that there’s a hierarchy, and everyone has their place somewhere there. You can move up the hierarchy as you get older, but don’t try to overturn it with brash young ideas, or you’ll get nowhere but ostracized. Old people are given everything here: special elevators to subway stops, seats everywhere. When we were in a bus together once, Cody, who has studied Korean culture a lot harder than I did, told me to get up from the seat I’d taken, and that I should never sit down in an even moderately full bus ever, because I’m a man and I’m under thirty. The principal of my school got to be principal by sticking to schools for a long time, and now he has the privilege of a job where, for much of the day, he can sit in a chair and read the newspaper.

As you can imagine, I chafe a bit with that, because if anyone’s a brash young firebrand who wants to upset the political, cultural, and moral order, it’s me. It might be a tough year for me, submerging my ego so as not to be made miserable by those who have power over me and would feel wronged by my even considering that I might be right and they wrong. I think I’m starting to understand part of something else I heard about Korean society. One of our lecturers told me that the typical idea in Western places about what Korea must be like is: boring and stuffy. The Koreans, he told us, have a response to this: Korea is actually “exciting hell”, while America is “boring heaven”. Hell, I suppose, in that until you become a geezer, you have to put your head down, work harder than any human should, and go with the flow. Korean high school students, the youngest people who I suppose are considered aware enough to take part fully in Confucian order, have a saying that was explained to us: “Four, pass; five, fail.” At the end of high school, Koreans take an enormous test that, basically, their entire schooling career has been building up to. This test basically determines the course of the rest of their lives. The saying, it turns out, is about hours of sleep. Five hours is considered a reckless luxury. With this in mind, the high suicide rate of Korean high-schoolers is fairly explicable.

But it’s an exciting hell, and I’ve picked up on that as well. Over the course of my getting ready to go to Korea, there have been several small towns that I thought I might end up in. For each one, I went to Wikipedia to find out a little something about it. In America, this would be a most unprofitable endeavor. The article for an American small town gives its population, its demographics, and maybe the name of a park there. But in Korea, every town has something like this, which I’m paraphrasing from the entry for Hwacheon (population around 24,000): “The town is famous for its annual ice fishing festival, which spans most of the month of January. Visitors come from all over Korea to fish for sancheoneo (wild trout). The festival’s organizers estimate that up to a million people visit the town each year to take part.” Something interesting is never much more than spitting distance away in Korea.

All of us at the orientation had known our provinces since before we landed, and had been sorting ourselves into little groups based on those, but not until the very last day did we actually find out what towns we would be going to. Actually, I didn’t find out until I was on my way there. I was one of two people given a confusing placement at the Hwacheon Office of Education. That seemed to mean that I was going to be delegated to whatever school had need of me. But then, on the day when we all said our goodbyes (Jo teared up, and probably wasn’t the only one, even though we’d only known each other a week), I got off the bus and into my co-teacher’s car in Chuncheon (capital of Gangwon province), and she drove me to Hwacheon, but not to stay. I was only meeting my predecessor, and after considerable confusion, I found out that I would be staying not in Hwacheon but an hour or so away in a little town called Sachangni.1

First thing in, I got a tour of Sanae elementary school, where I’ll be teaching. It has a dirt field out front, where a bunch of kids were playing a pick-up soccer game. “Hello!!” they yelled out to me. “How are you??” One ambitious little guy worked up the nerve to try something more complicated—”I’m playing soccer!” I had been warned that my heart would melt, but I was unprepared. They’re all so earnest, pure, and rambunctious, or at least so they seem so far. I also got to see the inside of the school, where you’re not allowed to wear shoes, and meet the principal, who was in a chair reading the newspaper. The school is basically a long hall with classrooms along it and a couple other buildings at one end.

One of the other buildings is the English classroom, or, as it’s styled on the entrance, the Sanae English Experience Center. Here I saw how serious the Korean government is about teaching kids English. The room has two TVs in it with even bigger screens than Grandpa’s and Dad’s. One of these is also a touchscreen, which allows one to use one’s hand as a cursor to do stuff when the screen is displaying the screen of the computer next to it. The other one, as far as I can tell, is never even used. There are English teaching materials everywhere, with scarcely any place to put them all. All the textbooks are the latest edition of 영어 (that’s yeong-eo, the Korean word for “English”, and even though I know how to sound it out, it still looks more like modern art than language to me). Two laptops are present, both connected to a program that allows the teachers to send messages and files to each other within a little school intranet. It’s pretty impressive.

And yet, besides “Hello”, “How are you?”, and the occasional “I’m playing soccer”, the only thing that comes out of the kids’ mouths without steady coaching and a clearly visible written example is Korean. It leads me to believe that, becoming suddenly profitable, the Korean government ended up being profligate and buying all sorts of stuff for the schools, on the theory that it must be some good, and it’s the right thing to do. This fits in with my view of Korean society. I don’t know if this has anything to do with Confucius, but it’s a very materialistic place. All through the orientation, the organizers were giving us more gifts than we could handle. That’s the polite thing to do, and they felt, I’m sure, that it was expected of them, even though by the end I heard at least one person say quietly at an assembly, “Oh please don’t give us anything else.” Your decency is measured by your generosity. Also by your sense of style. I don’t know if I’ll be able to work my way down, fashion-wise, to anything less ostentatious than a button-down shirt and pressed pants this entire year, at least at work. (And so it will be a big relief for me when I become a hobo and get to wear the most casual uniform of any job outside of the Naked News people.) The government spends a lot of money helping teach kids English with the latest technology, which I suppose makes them a good government in the eyes of the South Koreans (or at least so they hope). But it disregards the fact that snazzy technology isn’t what makes kids learn a language. What does? I’m not sure yet, and I can hardly claim to be an expert at this point (tomorrow is my third day on the job), but I know that having a five-foot touchscreen to do a fill-in-the-blanks activity on CD isn’t the best allocation of money.

After my tour of the school, I moved in to my apartment. It’s right next to the school, giving me a walking commute of about two minutes, and kids don’t really hang around after school, so I don’t have to worry about having constant playground chatter slowly drive me mad. The school and the apartment, while by no means at the top of the town, are at the top of a steep rise above the main bulk of the town, so I can see almost all of Sachangni from the roof (there’s a door on the third floor that leads to a roof-level porch with an overlook and a clothesline). Surrounding the town are mountains, mountains everywhere, the highest ones a little under four thousand feet. Pervading the town are Korean military men, seen all the time walking around in their camo, talking in groups or having pizza alone. Because oh yes, did I mention? Sachangni is about twelve miles from the DMZ. When people at home told me, “Don’t walk too far north,” I chuckled and said something like, “I don’t think I could possibly do that without realizing it,” but this means that, conceivably, if I were an utter idiot and planned extremely poorly, I might just be able to walk, not all the way into the DMZ, but probably into a line of angry and puzzled South Korean soldiers trained to use big guns.

The best part of this apartment building isn’t the great view or the underfloor heating or the nice balcony in my room. It’s the fact that five other English teachers live here, all the ones in the town. This includes Sean, the guy from England who I met on the bus away from Incheon Airport. Turns out he came here because he loves to climb mountains and be in the outdoors. We get along great. There are also Russell, a Scottish guy who’s a little bit quiet, but still game for mountain climbing; Amanda, an English girl who taught in Busan a couple years before and then went insane in Bali for a little while; Ben, a veteran teacher on his third year who’s now working at the Hwacheon Office of Education, and goes to Chuncheon a few times a week, which will be handy; and Deanna, who I’ve barely met yet, so the only thing I know about her is that she wants to climb stuff and she plays Mortal Kombat with Ben. We’re going to have some great times together.

Which is nice, because if these first two days at work have set the tone for the year, it could be a long one. The teaching is going fine, although I’m off to a bit of a rough start due to having never taught before. I’m getting along just fine. The trouble is the office politics. On my first day, my co-teacher sent me and Amanda a message asking if, as a favor, we could come in half an hour early to school every day to open the windows and prepare lessons. I was ready to accept this as a cruel twist of fate, but Amanda thought differently, because she’s been here for a month, and asked if we could leave at 4:30 instead of 5:00 if we came in early. This is when difficulties arose. My co-teacher said we certainly couldn’t do that, because all teachers come in half an hour early without pay, and that’s just the done thing. But we pointed out that our contract says we only have to work eight hours, and more can be required, but we have to be paid overtime. My co-teacher took this as a total refusal of her polite request for a “favor”—Amanda and I later agreed that a favor can be refused with no consequences, and this was definitely an obligation instead—and so she has begun to see us as mannerless jerks, apparently. We questioned the hierarchy. I wouldn’t have done that, but Amanda was very confident in her ability to appeal this, and also angry, because last Friday, she asked—as a real favor—if she could leave half an hour early to catch the 4:40 bus, since she wasn’t doing anything in the last half-hour anyhow, and they refused her. And I went along with Amanda, swept up in her confidence. It’s gotten escalated, first to the vice-principal, then to the Office of Education, then to the EPIK supervisor. And now, apparently, a decent chunk of the school hates both of us. Or maybe just my co-teacher does. We don’t know where this will head next, but hopefully it only gets better.

Anyhow, at least the teaching isn’t too bad. At first I envisioned Korean students as orderly, military-precise ranks of nearly identical black-haired heads all sitting attentively and ready to learn. But really, kids are the same everywhere, and trying to make military ranks out of them will fail in any country. These kids are rowdy, they hit each other, and they have personalities. They’re adorable. Now all I have to do is figure out if I can teach them some real English.

By now this probably ranks among my longest entries here, but that’s about all I have for you, so you’re free to go take a bike ride or something. I hope everything’s going well over there. Keep me posted.

  1. In Korean it’s spelled 사창리, which works out phonetically to “Sachang-ri” (with -ri being, I think, a suffix that means more or less “ville”). But in Korean, if you have an ㅇ (ng) followed by a ㄹ (r/l), the ㄹ becomes an n sound instead. There are loads of little rules like that. Fun, huh? 

File under: traveling, teaching · Places: Korea

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I would suck it up and come in when they ask…it's too early to rock the boat. It's tough to learn the manners and politeness rules of a new culture. Maybe once you are settled and have a routine and prove you are doing a good job, you can question it again…sounds like they have their unwritten rules for teachers…half an hour is not a big deal and it's better to be prepared and ready than to walk in late. Would love to see some pics of you and the kiddos.




Amazingly enough, your early experiences as a teacher are very similar to mine. The shock at knowing how politics runs the school, instead of logic, merit, or any thing besides sucking up to the powers that be, who never have any common sense. School administrators must be the same world round–you succeed when you make them look good and fail when you buck the current, even if you are TOTALLY in the right. I agree with your mom. Go with the flow when you are new and don't yet know the rules. If you don't, you will always be ostracized. And always remember, it's a life experience, one very few of us get a chance to have, and even if you were in the States in your first job, you'd be having the same pecking order experiences. That's life after college. Suck it up. And enjoy your year there and your new found friends. Grandma

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Sounds like life anywhere. You have the A-teamers, who are incapable of saying no to anything. And then you have the sad sacks. Chronic complainers who only have a future being union steards. The sweet spot is being the best B-teamer. Let the A-teamers work themselves to death in a brown-nosing push for the top, while the sad-sacks self destruct in a blaze of non-glory.


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Exciting times. What a year you will have. Enjoy yourself. Have you had time to stomp around in the mountains? When you return home you wll miss Korea , that's my prediction and I am sticking with it. Grandpa

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