There’s this slogan the Koreans seem to really like: Dynamic Korea. I think that’s because it sounds so much better than “Constantly Changing for No Apparent Reason Korea.”
Change does not come gradually in Korea. It waits behind a corner and ambushes you. The number one thing I have learned about living here after six months is this: Never assume you know what’s going on. You will be wrong.
Last Tuesday the teachers started trickling back into the school, pushing desks around and having whispered conversations in Korean.
“Lauren,” my co-teacher said. “It is possible that we will not be the same team this year.”
“You mean you might not be my co-teacher anymore?”
“Yes,” she said. “I will know more on Thursday.”
On Thursday, she and Jared’s co-teacher started carrying stacks of books out of the office. On Friday, two new teachers moved their books into the office. The two new English teachers were formerly 1st and 2nd grade homeroom teachers at our school. They both have excellent English and seem like they’ll be nice to work with.
Meanwhile, my (ex) co-teacher is now a 3rd grade homeroom teacher, and Jared’s is a 1st grade homeroom teacher. This baffles me. Mrs. N, my former co-teacher, had been an English teacher for several years, and was in really tight with the higher-ups in the education department. But Dynamic Korea says that this year, she is going to be a homeroom teacher again.
The first time I was directly informed that Mrs. G was going to be my new co-teacher was Friday at lunch.
“Did you know I will be teaching 6th grade with you this year?”
I did know, but only through cryptic conversations and through the grapevine. I wanted to hug her for being the first to openly say it.
Changes are not limited to workplaces, either. They extend to your personal schedule as well. As a foreigner in Korea, you must always be prepared to engage in conversation, whether it be about spicy food, your exact height in centimeters, or a lot of nodding and smiling. Jared and I dropped our guard on Sunday morning when we scurried out in the rain to grab some stuff from the other apartment.
Jared was wearing basketball shorts and rugby socks, and I had on pajama pants rolled up to reveal wooly striped socks. As we passed from building 301 to 302, we smelled frying pork. There were several tents set up in the car park, where many Koreans stood, wearing black puffy jackets and drinking soju.
Of course, they zeroed in on the resident waygooks right away. Using urgent hand gestures and pointing to plates of cooked meat, they lured us into the tents. One man went to fetch some chopsticks while another poured us a shot each of soju. It was eleven o’clock.
If I haven’t said much about soju yet, it’s because it deserves no mention. It’s the most wretched-tasting spirit in the history of alcohol. It’s clear, toxic and comes in a telltale green bottle. This ubiquitous poison is always found on the table at special events, from birthday parties to teacher dinners. Usually I can get away with pouring water or cider in my shot glass, but not today.
So we choked down a shot of soju each, then stood around a sizzling barbecue with our neighbors picking up pieces of meat with chopsticks. An aproned woman spotted us, led us to two empty seats, then brought out two hot bowls of kimchi jiggae.
“What is your name?” One man burst out, in English.
“Do you speak Korean?” Another asked, in Korean.
“Is the food too spicy?” Again, in Korean.
We managed to win a few friends with our Korean answers (“a little,” “no”), which led to Jared having a go at beating some rice with a mallet.
“Strong man,” they crowed. Then they pointed at his socks/shorts combo and laughed.
Dynamic Korea also extends to the pride and joy of Korean weather, and that is the phenomenon of four distinct seasons. Before arriving, I read that Korean people love to boast about the four seasons of Korea. “That sounds weird,” I thought.
And also untrue, at least in my experience. No Korean has ever mentioned four seasons to me. But it doesn’t change the facts, and thankfully we are exiting the worst season and entering a good one. We took advantage of the warmer weather and hiked up 3/4 of the way up Bongnaesan, the highest peak in Yeongwol.
All of this change seems to have come on very quickly, after weeks of stagnating in the office by ourselves. That’s what I’m learning to love about life in Korea. You might think you’re in a rut, but rest assured the Koreans won’t let that last for long.