Soju: Water or Vodka?
ONE OF THE most common things you hear about teaching abroad, is that your co-teachers can make or break your experience. Each day I'm learning how important communication between us is, even if the communication is a guessing game, a constant struggle to get past the language barrier. Conversations will be held, and then five minutes later, "So did you mean you will make the lesson tomorrow or I will?"
However, it's three weeks into the game and I can vouch for a positive co-teacher experience. They always step in if I need them, and during lunch it's always Teach-Heather-Korean-For-What's-On-The-Menu time. And while the honeymoon period's still going on with my elementary kids, I have to say what a delightful bunch they all are. They're respectful and curious; some are talkative and others shy-- I really want to target the shyer ones to help them build confidence speaking English.
There was a recent hike and faculty dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant. I was really disappointed I couldn't go on the hike, but I'd come down with a horrific case of sinusitis. Winter chill had settled upon the city overnight; although everything was bright and sunny, the sunlight was like shards of ice, bitter and cold. Co-teacher Lynn and I hid from the cold in our toasty classroom. The school hallways are never heated, so venturing out of the room is like stepping into the drafty passages of an old castle.
We did attend the faculty dinner, however. I noticed the sea-green glass bottles on the table: soju. Just the other weekend, a friend and I had ordered two bottles of soju, straight. Our Korean friend later told us people only usually ordered it that way if they were going through a break-up, or looking for a good time. The evening went along. I sampled everything with the oblivious smile on my face, an expression I'd gotten used to wearing while everyone around jabbered away in Korean. The man next to me was an older fellow. Our non-verbal conversation consisted of him nudging side dishes toward me: salty crab soup, water noodles, peppers, and me: "Choseumnida!" However, one of the others cracked the first soju bottle, and everyone clamored to pour the foreign teacher a shot.
I drained it, aware that the vice principal's eyes were also on me. "Wow," I said. "Tastes like vodka."
Immediately, there was a hubbub, although I couldn't figure out why. Finally I caught some English: "She thinks it tastes like water! Pour her another!"
"No!" I protested. "Vodka! You know, Russia? Vodka!"
I blame it on the sinusitis. It made the two words sound alike. Before I knew it, the vice principal himself was pouring me a shot. I had no choice but to cheers him "Konbae!" and drink. Lynn watched me with a raised eyebrow. "It's good thing you are not driving, hmmm?"
I may have finally convinced the English-speaking teachers of the miscommunication, but as far as I know, the majority of my co-workers may think I'm some iron-bellied alcoholic.
I searched Guri high and low for a Halloween costume.
After two hours of searching, it turned out to be a crinkled scarlet phantom mask tucked away in a Claire's-esque accessories boutique. However, the two hours gave me much-needed time with my new home. Streets unfolded; the blend of familiarity and new alleys made Guri simultaneously smaller and bigger than before.
There are still the walls of blinking neon lights and the maze of flowing Hangeul script. I can pick out norae-bongs (karaoke) and restaurant names now, although to do so I have to pause on the sidewalk and risk being swept away by the throngs of purposeful people. There is no wait here, only go. Cars shoot out from alley ways as if the crosswalks are starting lines, and don't get me started about the motorcyclists. They seem to be under the illusion that they're riding bicycles. I enter the emerald archway that leads to tiny side streets filled with market vendors, hot, steaming dukkbokki, and rows of fish and crab laid out on ice. Yet my ears are constantly turned for that telltale roar of the motorcycle, before it veers a corner and sends people scattering to the edges. Packages and boxes often bounce behind it.
For Halloween, our destination was Itaewon. My friend and I sat on the subway in our glitzy attire, trying not to look at the old man who kept chuckling at us. However, once the elevator delivered us upon to Itaewon's main drag, we blended in. Foreigners from all over caroused about in costumes; some were cheap, like mine-- a backwards baseball cap here, a pair of funky shades there-- and some had gone all out- Fiona from Shrek, the King of Persia, the alien from Predator. We spent our time between the Wolfhound Pub (packed to the max) and a snazzy decked-out club Latina America. To my surprise, this club played salsa music, and the people were pretty damn good at doing the salsa. However, they were also friendly to beginners, and showed me the steps. We met a Spanish-speaking band who often played gigs, and we had so much fun that we stayed out past the subway running period. The subway stops running at midnight here, and doesn't start until 5:30 am. We'd heard humorous stories of people who'd spent the night in DVD bongs, but we decided to catch a taxi. Once back in Guri, we gorged on McDonalds and stumbled back to the apartment; content, sore, our high heels long ago traded in for flip-flops--we fell asleep.
Disclaimer: the above is presented as opinion, not fact