First Day of School

We were super nervous. No one slept that well and no one really wanted to eat breakfast. We got up early enough to make breakfast but we just ended up sitting around. Sitting on the bed – staring at the wall. Sitting at the kitchen table – staring at the wall. We were tired and there didn’t seem to be anything better to do than just staring at the wall.

But time wouldn’t allow this for forever, so we finally had to get dressed and go.  We had spent half of the night making our presentations about ourselves – we’ve been trying to balance cleaning the apartment, shopping for things we need (you name it, we still need it – garbage bags, soap, etc), and lesson planning for the first day. So we didn’t get to bed until midnight. We were in a huge daze until, suddenly, we reached the intersection where I have to go to my school and he has to cross the street to get to his. We kissed goodbye – PDA is not huge in Korea but it was necessary this morning. I walked into school and changed into my slippers. I was just going to put them anywhere but someone had allocated a shoe cabnet for me. I could tell because all the others are in Korean and mine is in English. Hooray. I started heading upstairs but when I got there, three or four girls screamed and ran into a classroom at the sight of me.

The day before I made two children almost cry in the store. One was playing tag, rounded the corner and there I was. Standing. Her eyes got huge as she slowly walked backwards – much like the way you would if you were playing tag in the grocery store and suddenly there was a bear. You wouldn’t take your eyes off of it until you were rounding the corner and making your escape. The second child was lost – so I can understand the sheer and intense panic when she turned a corner looking for mom and there was a huge white girl staring back at her. She whimpered a little bit, and a huge cry erupted in her throat and she turned and ran before she burst into tears – calling for mom the whole time.

So when the middle school girls screamed in fright at the sight of me, I became a bit unnerved. So I headed back downstairs (I don’t know why, it seemed like a child-free zone down there) I just sort of ducked into the nearest office  I found to get away from students.The day Andrew showed me the school, we went into this office first. So it was familiar, at least.

The 6 Koreans in the office greeted me and then I ruined their morning by asking “English room? English? Andrew”

Unfortunately “Andrew” is his English name. I’m not sure what his real name is, and my Korean pronunciation is so bad it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

They stare. I refuse to leave. I suddenly don’t know where to go – upstairs, is all I know but I don’t want to go exploring on my own. I can literally hear crashing and banging above me. In the United States, when kids are in the hall, teachers stand out there to make sure nothing happens. In Korea, kids change classes for 10 minutes and can do whatever they want in those ten minutes. It was still almost an hour before school, the kids are only in the building to hang out with friends. Of course there was crashing. Upstairs is a scary place to go alone.

The poor Koreans finally talk between themselves until they have a guess of where I should be. But, instead of bringing me there, they have me sit in their office’s lounge. I wait. 10 minutes pass and I am nearing being “late” for work. Does it still count if I’m in the building with my slippers on? Probably not. Finally someone stands up and walks me to the other side of the school.  I don’t know much but I can tell you this is not where I need to be. In fact, the door is chained shut with an actual chain and padlock. Nope, no English class here. But they are convinced that what I need is on the other side of the door, so I’m instructed to stand and wait. I imagine bolt cutters, maybe even the jaws of life will be retrieved -anything to just get this waeguk out of the hallway and out of their space.

Some other Koreans arrive, a gaggle of 6 women, a few nervously say “hi,” and that’s all it takes for me to latch onto them and see if someone, anyone, will help me. I know the English room is upstairs – it’s really not that hard. I just don’t know where, I ask one, “English? Andrew?” She says “its upstairs” in perfect English. Oh thank god. “Will you take me?” I ask like a small child. She leads me upstairs and even has the decency to make small talk. “Your name is Andrew?” “No, I’m looking for Andrew. His English name is Andrew.”

“Oh, I think I know. Maybe he is the same person?”

She opens the door and deposits me in my office with a smile. I made it.

I try to explain what happened to Andrew – it’s lost in translation. I sit at my desk and read about Daejeon for an hour and then we have to go to a staff meeting. Come to find out, it’s in the room that was previously chained shut. This makes more sense why the Koreans were trying so hard to get me in there. We are late to the meeting so as soon as I walk in, a woman in an all pink frock is waving frantically at me to come to her. Andrew tells me to go down there. It feels a lot like the Hunger Games:


The same new English teacher that I sat with when we met the principal is there. She kindly situates my seat for me and has me sit right next to her. We met the principal together – we can weather the introductions together. She tells me when to stand and I bow after her.

Yesterday I didn’t meet my vice principal. I didn’t even know who he/she was. But today I made an  error. After the meeting, the woman in the pink frock showed up and grabbed/hung onto my arm a little. This is a really nice thing to do here – usually a sign of friendship. I didn’t mean to, and I wasn’t thinking but I sortof pulled away. “this is your vice principal” Andrew says. I bow. Lower. Lower. “I’m sorry!” I say. I didn’t know.  And I got instant skinship  from her but I pulled away like an ass. She was really sweet though and asked me where I was from. In extremely limited English we talked about Colorado – “cold” (emulate shivering).

We go back up to the English office. Andrew shows me my schedule – I’m supposed to teach 4 classes today but not right now. I sit at my desk and read about Daejeon for a bit longer and then he gets up to show me to my classroom. Ordinarily I would have my own class and the students would come to me (usually they stay in their homeroom and the teachers change). But my computer, or projector… something is broken, so today I’m changing classes like a Korean teacher would. We get to the room and someone is in it. For some reason this is wrong, so Andrew leads me back. I guess I’m not teaching that class.

Later, to make sure my presentation works, Andrew plugs it into his computer. It works but he really wants to see it. He is impressed that I like video games. I can add that to a long list of things I do that impress Koreans. It is such a ego-boosting place. Saving face is awesome!

Andrew then told me that I would probably have a school dinner tonight, as well as a lunch with all the new teachers. I begin trying to mentally prepare for this.

I end up not teaching the next class either. At the last minute, a teacher visits me and has me come teach her 3rd grade girls. 3rd grade would be like 8th graders but more like 9th graders given their ages. Korean schools go 6-3-3. So 1-6th grade (elementary), middle school would be 7-9th and high school is 10-13. But you reset every time you hit a new school. So the last year of middle school = 3rd grade.

I walk into the classroom and it absolutely explodes. “hi! hi! hello! welcome!!!!!” ahhhhh screaming!!!!! I wave and say hello then walk to the computer to set my presentation up. The projector is broken so someone fixes it, the whole time I’m being talked about, whispered about in Korean. I am a hot commodity. Finally it’s up and working. I show my presentation. Every single thing I show them is amazing. Picture of Chris, picture of Cedar. Where Durango is. Everything is amazing. My favorite food is pasta – I show a picture of pasta, the room explodes. Although Chris was the biggest deal today. One student said I looked like Olaf.

Olaf-frozen-23173-1920x1200 So I’m lumpy, oblong, obnoxious and I have a huge orange nose. Actually the last bit is true – my nose is pretty big but it’s extra red from the cold I have.

So I’m an eyesore, haha. But Chris on the other hand? Amazing. Eye candy to middle school girls. They screamed when I showed his picture. Classroom control was absolutely lost. “So handsome!!!!!!!!!” screaming. “ooohh!!” “wooowww!!!” “I love Chris!”

I had them draw and write what they like so I know what to use in the classroom. When class was over, they demanded – in Korean – that I show more pictures of Chris in the future. When the class was over “I love Chris!” was shouted some more.

The strangest part about this class was that my co-teacher was brand new. So it was both of our first days of school. That’s a good mix haha.

We both knew we had the new-teachers’ lunch so we rushed down and changed into our outdoor shoes. There were many of us – transfer teachers and new teachers. I walked with two band new English teachers who were extremely sweet and tried to include me in their conversation. An administrator talks to them for a bit. “Oh, so they are worried because we are having … octopus? … uh… Nakchi?”

Oh. Shit.

There are only a few Korean food-words I memorized. Words that I really didn’t want to try. One was dog-meat. One was shark (I just don’t ethically want to eat either). And the last was live baby octopus. It’s not technically alive- it’s just a nerve reaction from being freshly slaughtered. But that is just way too fresh and active, for my sensitive American palette.

I spend the rest of the walk to the restaurant mentally preparing. A few people die every year. That’s right, you read that right. They DIE from eating live octopus because the suction cups are technically still active and they don’t chew – thus  a suction cup to the throat = choking to death. So I’m just trying to prepare myself – try it, chew. CHEW. CHEW I TELL YOU.

We make it to the restaurant. It’s a full blown Korean one where you take your shoes off and sit on the floor. I follow suit. The prinicpal is assigning seats basically and he demands I sit next to an English teacher who can serve as my minder in Andrew’s absence. He gets suddenly really worried and asks my minder if I can eat octopus, she sticks up for me and says I like a challenge.

In front of me is a boiling plate of red liquid. Oh thank god, it’s cooking it -but  oh my god it’s still moving. The tentacles are moving, which I was mentally prepared for. What I wasn’t prepared for was the pulsating body. So they slice it into bits, throw it in to the pot (for the customer to stir) but then they throw the body in there too. It was moving much the way a heart would. I’m sorry animal lovers. And I love Octopi – I think they are strangely adorable. But right now this was a matter of saving face and impressing my school. I get the feeling I’m not too high in my principal’s book right now. And eating Korean food is the best thing I could do.

A Korean nearby sticks a spoon in the communal pot and sips it. “OH no, it’s spicy.” They fret over my spice-eating capacity for a while. “Can you eat Kimchi” I answer yes. I can but I don’t like it. Everyone “oohss” in amazement.

So we take turns grabbing what we want out of the pot. I probably could have taken just noodles but I grabbed noodles, pork, cabbage and some now-finally-stationary octopus tentacle. I avoid it for a while, the image of it wriggling still fresh in my mind, but I finally eat it. Not bad, a little suction-cuppy.

My minder leaves – the first graders have a rose ceremony soon. So I’m left sitting by myself. A Korean administrator is sweet and doesn’t want me left out so she tries to ask me some stuff. But, apparently, I’m eating my rice wrong. She hands me a bowl full of seaweed.

I really, really don’t like seaweed. I hate lettuce and I hate fish, a combo of the two = seaweed. I would rather eat kimchi, and fish, and a salad than eat seaweed. Yuck. Blech! But she hands me a bowl and demands I put it in my rice. I take a spoonful and try to stir it in. “More!” she shouts (she doesn’t even speak English but she knows ‘more’).  I take three heaping spoonfuls and try to look like I’m busy stirring it in. For the next 5 minutes I eat around the seaweed. I accidentally get a huge bite of it – disgusted, I get an octopus leg to wash it down. Korea, what have you done to me?

On the way home, the teacher’s and I were more friends. EPIK said this would happen – the bonding over food. So the teacher dinner (not that night but some other night this week) should be interesting.

After lunch, I’m desk warming when someone randomly appears. “You missed my first class” uhh okay? “Can you come teach right now?” Uh, sure. It’s actually better to find out last minute because you don’t get worked up about it. So I come with her. It’s an all boys class and they don’t give a s**t about English. I show them the same presentation as the girls – they don’t care. Even things we can relate to like video games and sports  – they don’t care. The coteacher feels bad and says they are shy because I am a woman.

I get them to do the activity – what you like and don’t like. 5 or 6 just don’t do it, at all. The rest, I try to comment on how good they are at drawing or that anything they do is interesting. They aren’t doing it that enthusiastically – especially compared to the girls class earlier. They were getting restless and starting to throw things, so we stop early. My co-teacher suggests we have them show what they wrote- I don’t like this because it puts them on the spot. I ask for volunteers – no one. So she looks to me to pick someone. Of all the boys, a group of 4 were just messing around the whole time. I walk straight back to his desk. The desk is completely empty – I tap on it. “You present” I tell him. He shakes his head no but finally stands up. He actually has to reach  down where he had been stomping on the sheet with his shoes. That’s what he was doing instead of the assignment -stomping on it. He tries to smooth it out – it’s blank. I wait. The group had been throwing things and getting rowdier and rowdier the more time we gave them to complete the project. This is the class that needs a stricter teacher and fortunately I’m all out of patience. He takes almost 3 minutes to complete the task – just reading one thing he likes and doesn’t like. The co-teacher feels bad for him saying he doesn’t know English. It’s not about knowing or not, it’s about trying and not stomping on the assignment. He sits down finally.

I call on another boy to present. He is really sweet and I didn’t want to put him on the spot but someone had to present. While he’s reading it, a boy behind him pulls his chair to the side, so that if he sits down he would fall. “No” I say walking back. The nice boy finishes and I replace his chair and to the prankster: “you next. all of them. Read all of them” The boy who wanted to play the prank is dark red. But he stands up and presents his.

In both classes, we had some question and answer time at the end. Koreans are very open about things – they will ask anything. Blood type, age, marital status. Some of the question are necessary to place what hierarchy tier you are on (and then determine how to address you). But often it’s just curiosity and culture. So the questions were “invasive” but cute. Marital status and age were very big concerns but my favorite: “baby?” “when are you having a baby?” “do you have a baby?”

And, strangely “are you happy?” At the time, I wasn’t because of the boys class but I like that he asked.

Those were all the classes I had. So I spent the rest of the day just sitting around. I didn’t have a computer so I just sat and hung out. Finally, school was out – we didn’t have a school dinner but Chris’s school did. I walked home alone and hung out until he got back. He might write a post about what he has been up to at school later.


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