Dol Hareubang
Famous Jeju statue, meaning “stone grandfather”.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Now that he’s gone, I can comfortably say that we are rid of our douchebag coworker.  Of the few English teachers who get fired in Korea, he was one of the even fewer in Mokpo.

Although the majority of schools in Korea still engage in corporal punishment, ours does not.  Yet this guy still found a way to use it in his classroom.  He was the type that hated everything.  Nothing, not even the kindest gesture from our directors, was ever good enough.  And he seemed to genuinely dislike children and teaching.  I don’t know if it was his age, his personality, or what, but it was pretty obvious his cheese done fell off his cracker a long time ago as far as the teaching profession is concerned.

Since his being fired, we’ve recently acquired a new teacher, a young girl from Miami.  Big change.  The atmosphere in our office has brightened back to the mood it was when it was just Steve and me.  This made our recent school trip to Jeju Island that much more enjoyable.

After teaching until 10 p.m. on Friday, we woke up at the butt crack of dawn on Saturday to catch a ride to the ferry terminal.  I, of course, showed up with my Victoria’s Secret weekender, looking all uber-American, ready with about 18 different costume changes should the need arise.  I’ve become pretty good at traveling light and living out of a backpack, but I had no clue what this particular weekend or weather would bring.

This was not your mother’s company retreat.  We boarded the ferry at 8:30 a.m.  Beer passing began at 9:00.  We stored our things in one of the large open rooms where everyone sits or lays on the floor and then moved to the noraebong (karaoke room) to have a meeting.  But wait, don’t forget to bring your beer!  Can’t have a morning meeting without a beer.  The meeting lasted for less than an hour, and after that our only instruction was to relax and enjoy the ride.

Our school spared no expense in showing us a good time.  They had plenty of backup plans with regard to weather, and it’s a good thing because it rained the entire weekend.  We toured a cultural village, a botanical garden, and took pictures at the beach we would have otherwise been relaxing at if there were sun.  Being 15 people in total, we rode a chartered bus from point to point.  The minbak-type house was the nicest one I’ve stayed in so far.  One house for the ladies, one for the men.  More Hampton Inn than Super 8 as far as cleanliness.  And two bathrooms for 8 women.  Very doable.  As the former concierge, I was impressed with the level of planning.

Eating with large groups of Koreans, especially those I work with, is still a surreal experience for me.  Dinner was grilled pork (samgyapsal) with various side dishes.  The liquor (two different kinds of soju this particular night) was free flowing.  Now, I’ve done plenty of social drinking at work events, but I’ve never been surrounded by so many shouts of “One shot, one shot!” by my employers.  Steve can always be counted on to man-up, and our co-worker chose a beer chug over soju shot.  Our director looked genuinely disappointed when I could do neither.  So I agreed to fill my glass with one shot of some pink concoction the Chinese department brought with them.  Here’s to you, Korea.  Down the gullet.  It felt like swallowing paint thinner, but as far as my director was concerned all was right with the world again.  In fact, he gave me a Korean name – Yeon Hwa.  It means “lotus flower”.  For the yoga teacher, I think that’s pretty appropriate!  It will continue to strike me at various times how utterly different my life is than just a year ago, and this dinner was one of those times.

Lunch the next day was equally as interesting, but for different reason.  We went to a fish soup restaurant where the basic concept was spicy broth, a few sprouts and onion veggies, and every shelled seafood you can think of thrown into a pot.  I went in with an open mind, but ended up eating just broth and rice.  I love seafood but have never done well with the bivalve types – mussels, clams, etc.  So when a plate of open shelled creatures with a strange texture was set in front of us, I was a bit leery.  When Steve attempted to grab one with his chopsticks and it moved, I lost any nerve I might have had to try it myself.  I so badly want to be the best participant observer I can be here, but at times I’d much rather just watch.  And since you’re wondering, his description of its consistency and flavor was “ear cartilage”.

The ride back was a bonus because the ferry swayed more than any boat I’ve been on.  It was seasick-inducing for most, but for me it was a just a 4-hour amusement park ride.  We rolled home at 10 p.m. Sunday night, exhausted but happy.  Weekends like this are why I came to this country.  Not just to teach English – I could do that anywhere – but to get the authentic experience of truly living in another country.