Children, en masse, are like the sea. They are capricious and dangerous, and awing and inspiring, and also maybe filled with crustaceans. Their emotions are torrential and stormy, and a bad mood creeping over their waters can spell marine tragedy for whatever wayfaring, Ishmael-esque figure decides to brave the waves. And they are controlled by the season, by the moon and the sun, by the passing of time, and the slow burn of spring into summer, the great chill of fall into winter. The tides shift and become impassable, and then suddenly the waters calm.
“Michael, do you think you can go to different school and record their listening tests?” Like most requests that come from my administrators and are filtered through the tremulous, worried tones of my overburdened main co-teacher, this was not actually a question. She phrased it like a question because she knows English, but what she was really saying was, “You have to go and jabber at another school for a day. It will be boring. See you later.”
Why, pray tell, would they need my golden vocal cords? Didn’t they have an indentured foreigner traipsing through their campus already? Why couldn’t he/she do it? Was this one of the schools where the other English teachers were quivering bags of goo when it came to speaking, and demanded multiple foreigners to fill out the various parts of the dialogue for the tests?
As it turns out, their language monkey flew the coop.
Have we talked about the midnight run? The midnight run is when a foreign teacher in Korea packs their bags and screws off back to their respective homeland without telling anyone. Occasionally it is because they are actually in a horrible situation, occasionally it is because they are a jerk (and very occasionally it is both). Either way, this worried me. Just recently, the only foreign person likely in most of their lives shirked all of his responsibilities and ditched back to England. I imagined resentment. I imagined my arrival heralded with suspicious, shifty eyes, and quick efforts to lock up all the silverware. I imagined muttered conversations and disappointed head-shakes. Pitch-forks. Torches. A metal detector and a pat-down. Aspersions cast on my ancestry and my character.
As it turns out, it meant they just had ludicrously low expectations*. When I got into the car, two teachers waited for me, brimming, and nervous. How long have I been here? What country am I from? Did I just sign another contract. …do I like Korea? Kimchi? Jeju and Busan? 4 seasons? They tentatively broached that their last dude had ditched, and were careful not to mention that this sucked.
We got right down to recording, and after each grade finished in a clean 15 minutes, I was responded to with a hearty, “Wow! That was amazing! What a great job!” Wait… are you guys being condescending? I mean… I did a job, certainly. I moved my mouth and sounds came out. Why the clapping like I’m a trained seal?
“Oh. Last teacher… he make some mistakes, sometimes. So maybe recording takes one or two hours.” What? I asked to repeat. I was confused. How did he make an hour’s worth of mistakes on “I like pizza. Do you like pizza? I’m from Vietnam!” This is not exactly reading Tolstoy in the original Russian, here.
Soon after, I asked for clarification of another teacher’s name, which I still misheard, and thus wrote on the paper in Hangul. “Wow, you can read Korean!” Well, yes? It soon became clear to me: I could play these people like a fiddle. I got to work.
As we walked through the hall, a grade 5 teacher passed by and greeted us. Bypassing the English teacher, she asked me directly, in Korean, if I could speak. I responded in kind, and gave my usual mealy-mouthed “Oh, my Korean is terrible!” stuff, to jaws that nearly landed on the floor with audible thuds. When we returned to the office to wait for the next recording, I pulled out my special education textbook, and on their investigation, explained my teaching license, and how I was studying online to improve my degree. They cooed. They were mine.
I don’t like casting aspersions on other foreigners, but it seems like their previous guy was kind of a goon. But in the end, he provided me a great service: I could easily impress another school. (They jokingly mentioned that maybe I should quit my school and come to theirs, ha ha ha with a set of shifty, “But could you?” eyes punctuating the sentence.) In turn, this would impress my own school. And winter vacation negotiations are coming up, which means I need to begin making deposits in the favour bank.
*A current coteacher of mine was last at this school, and it explains her constant waves of shock that I am not a mouth-breathing boob.
When I was young, I was very often awed by my teachers. Not only were they tall and old, things that I was implicitly respectful but suspicious of, but they seemed to have mystical powers, ones specifically aimed at being better at herding children and knowing all of their secrets. They could sense when something was amiss, could see things even when their backs were turned or across an entire soccer field, and were walking human lie detectors with incredibly high accuracy scores. Their eyes were lasers, their spines were steel, and I was relatively certain that they never slept. When did they develop these powers? How did they acquire them? Could I pay to have them bestowed upon me?
There are times when being heavily, heavily visible in a foreign country can suck. You’re a target for, well, everything. Stares and invective and anger and nationalistic tides of xenophobic distaste. At the same time, because you’re so visible, you’re also an easy target for pleasantness and the great weirdities of life. Being some of the only foreigners to attend the local Sorae Port Festival, we were stopped at different times in the day to: be interviewed for television and/or promotional subway materials, join a large group of middle-aged Koreans to share in their soju and fresh fish, do some handicrafts typically meant only for kids, receive free calligraphy scrolls, and be adopted by a man who claimed to be a local fishboss (I have decided this is a word). We were invited to do these things because we were weird lookin’ and the people around us felt in a sharing mood, and we stick out as being share-with-able. Being impossible to miss has its perks. Enjoy the glory of the Sorae Festival, in photoglut form.
Korea is a cool place to live. It is modern, with beautiful mountains and scenic vistas, a kind and hard-working people, and a distinct and tasty cuisine. It is thus that its roadways can generate considerable confusion and dismay, as though viewing two entirely separate nations occupying the same physical space. The roads of Korea, the vehicles which thresh about in and outside of its confines, and the people who operate those vehicles, seem to actually be living in a different country – if not, perhaps, another dimension, possibly one eternally racked with hellfire and sadness and ironic punishments handed down from unholy Eldritch abominations. To live in Korea is to experience adventure, and grow as a person. To interact in any way with its roads is to know the taste of eternal damnation.
The School Festival was something I had been anticipating for a while. Basically it’s a day where all the classes get cancelled and my students are set loose into the field to enter various booths to complete activities of various stripes: art, science, handicrafts, cooking. Released from the horrors of learning, my students become actual children again. Even the walking corpses that form most of the grade six student body suddenly perk up when given a chance for yard time. For MichaelTeacher, this meant free time as well: carousing the booths myself, taking photos, and fucking off with great elan.
But then: terror strikes. “Michael, you will help me with the English booth?” It is phrased like a question, but it is meant like demand. It feels like a knife across my face.
To add to the humiliation, I was told to wear a white shirt and black pants, to appear like a lowly waiter to serve the students. They would enter our booth, spout some English from a menu, and could then receive a yogurt drink if they managed to say anything resembling what might be asked for in a restaurant.
It was sluggish, boring work, one which most of my students barely understood the purpose of. Served prop foods, they were left bewildered as to whether they were actually allowed to enjoy their yogurt drinks. But we filed the great masses of the student body through our shanty for several hours, emptied our boxes of Yakult (I know), and sauntered off, happy for the rest of the day. I even got to interact with the grade ones and twos, who heretofore saw me as a meandering specter, a haunt of rumour and mystery, discussed obtusely by their older siblings and rarely seen but through windows and around corners. But we were done. Freedom!
Then: further horror.
“Michael, I heard you are supposed to run the booth for 3 more hours?”
Where did you hear this, pray tell? And can I set fire to them?
“Supervisors will come to school this afternoon for ceremony. So maybe Vice Principal wants to keep school festival going for longer time. I don’t know.”
I instantly went into responsibility-shirking mode, claiming to my oblique and confusing business, and preparing to be away from my desk for the next few hours so no one could reach me. When I was caught, I tried to attack the problem with logic. “But we have no more yogurt? But every student has already done our booth? But by 2, all of the students will have gone home?”
“Vice-president says until 4.” [sic]
There are certain times at my school where I simply don’t fight. I know that, ultimately it is better to make a show of being long-suffering and simply submit to whatever stupid ideas I am presented with than to make any overt attempts at mutiny or rebellion. The truest path to righteousness: do it so half-assed you are eventually released from responsibility. Our booth closed at two. Victory!
*Also, this was the day one of my grade sixes decided to shout “What the fuck?!” right in my face. Apparently my expression was enough to communicate the exact nature and intensity of my displeasure, because as I took him off to stripmine his very soul, he began shouting “Whoaaaa! Whoaaa!” loudly in dismay to everyone around him, looking desperately for assistance. They knew better than to interrupt.
Handed the boon of yet another fall long weekend, I quickly agreed to go on a roadtrip with some of my friends. The road part of the trip definitely took longer than expected (I will discuss this more in the future), but once we finally arrived at the pension, the time was glorious. We stayed up late enjoy prodigious amounts of pork that rode along with us in the car, followed by in-house norae bang. The next morning, I took to the river for early mornin’ wandering and picture taking. A note on the portraits: when you sit yourself down on river rocks, your body naturally splays you out to look stoic. This is just mad fact.
One day I pulled the milk out of my fridge to make tea and was gravely concerned. Vaguely lumpy milk is never a good sign, and it’s the kind of mild biological oddity that makes you uncomfortable and question if its something airborne and going to spread to the rest of your food. Also I couldn’t drink my tea without milk because what am I, some kind of animal? With time, I came to realize the issue: my fridge was bonked. The regular fridge part itself was rapidly becoming warmer, and the arctic ice floe that lived in the freezer above was beginning to gather condensation. My heart sank. The fridge was terminal.