Small-scale celebrity is something I’ve grown accustomed to in Korea. As the only foreigner the majority of my coworkers and students regularly interact with, I am a subject of a certain degree of fascination and notoriety. What I do, what I eat, what I wear—most everything about me is remembered and shared amongst others as gossip. It’s not just within the school, either, because my students and coworkers live in the same neighbourhood, and if I am spotted in the off-hours, it’s almost certain to be reported back to the school hive by the next day. With this celebrity, I’ve had to get used to never having any secrets, and to just having my business be everyone else’s.
Our current principal is a pretty okay guy, as far as Korean principals go. What I mean to say by this is: Korean principals are generally capable of doing whatever the hell they like. As older (often male), highly positioned educational officials, assignment to a principal position essentially gives you a fiefdom. They have absolute power over basically everyone who works at the school: where they go, what they are paid, what they eat, when and where they may vacation (the principal must sign off on requests for Korean teachers to leave the country). This amount of power can often go to their heads and make them terrorizing monsters, quick-set totalitarians ruling over their schools with a capricious, unyielding iron fist. That our principal passes on most of these and prefers, as some do, kind of vaguely wandering around and smiling at things or chilling in his remarkably swag office has endeared him to me considerably.
That said, I try to minimize my interactions with him. Nice as he is, interactions with a principal in Korea are always risky, and generally go one of two ways. Either you are doing a fantastic, spectacular, unheralded job, or you are the worst bum that Korea has ever seen. Whichever of these becomes the narrative for discussion yields the same two options, which are: lots more work, or lots less work. The chances of either option are about equal.
The last time I had an open class, the principal was duly impressed. After, he inquired as to my credentials (having never really looked into it before, what with the peaceful wandering), he declared in Korean that I was a super-duper teacher. The following days saw the news that I would be heading several new English programs at school, and that my winter camp teaching would be doubled, such was my skill. Yay, it sure is nice to be great?
To avoid these sorts of scenarios, I generally err on playing dumb. I like and do well at my job, but I play down whatever I’m good at, I don’t do anything pedagogically flashy when he is around, and I almost never speak Korean around him unless absolutely pushed. If I am neither seen nor heard, he won’t remember to dump more busy work on me.
Such was what coursed through my brain when I was told we’d be going out for lunch with the principal. It was winter vacation time, and I was spending roughly four or five hours of my day on camp, and the principal wanted to treat us with lunch. I had been working hard lately, and real vacation so tantalizingly close, and I became nervous. Uninterrupted time with the principal would give him at least an hour to think about me, what with sitting directly across from him. This was dangerous. I am far safer when he is not thinking about me at all.
We sat down in the restaurant, and giant, voluminous hot-pots of sea creatures were brought to us. A live squid undulated angrily in one side, while various chitinous monsters quivered in their submarine homes. The whole bowl was a mess of wriggling, and there was considerable debate in Korean at the table over whether it would be more or less delicious to eat the various terrors within the pot before they died or after (thankfully, we went with after). I did as my parents, many years ago when I was an obnoxiously picky eater, would have wanted of me, and simply shut up and ate whatever was given to me, mostly because everyone assured me of how expensive it was.
I kept quiet, answering whatever questions were asked of me in Korean or English, but as usual when I am at a small table with Korean staff, they simply discussed me in the third person like a centrepiece, which I have grown increasingly comfortable with. At one point, the principal half-heartedly attempted to set me up with the librarian.
We had almost gotten through the meal, I had downed the squid’s brain (it is, as I was assured, good for man strength, wink wink nudge nudge), when the subject came once around to me and my coworker. “What time does work finish for you two?” the principal inquired. I tensed immediately. I was working hard on my camp, certainly, but I also had about three hours in the afternoon of quality alone time that could be filled with squalling children, should the principal decide.
I studied his indecipherable expression. His whim could make my life much easier or much more difficult, with but a simple word. I tried not to stare into his soul. My coworker mentioned when we left the school, hours after my camp had finished.
“Oh,” he murmured in Korean. “If you finish so early and you have something else to do, why don’t you just go home? No point in you sitting around all day.” He waved his hand magisterially, and rose from the table, while one of the secretaries took care of the bill.
His majesty had just freed up my afternoons for at least a few days before he forgot his generosity. But I would take this boon, and then go back into comm silence so he couldn’t remember to reverse his decision.
Before I moved to Korea, I don’t think I ever really said the word “delicious.” I guess I always considered it a sort of cumbersome 10-cent word more easily replaced by its three cent cousins, by either more or less specific terms of taste and flavour. It was just an unnecessary word that existed in my lexicon, one just vague enough to be completely useless in regular conversation, and thus one I didn’t really use or care about. It could be stricken from my brain—incredibly particular and futuristic microsurgery used to scrape it from my very neurons—and I could have gotten by in the English world with little difficulty.
At home, hate was always a transient experience. I met people I would detest, certainly: people with personalities so officious, so jagged and grating, or simply so wholly incompatible with my own that my very skin would try to peel from my body in an attempt to flee. That my internal organs would bubble with fizzing vitriol, tempered only by vomit and petty anger. That my face would instantly sour, as though I was being constantly assaulted by the smell of the fetid, rotting remains at the darkest, backmost recesses of the fridge. But it would dissipate, because escape was always an option. I could get away from the person or people I hated, and life being so big and wide, I would rarely, if ever, have to see them again. And if I did, all of the life and space between would have softened me into tolerating the next encounter.
When you have a greatly reduced social distance, when the social world around you is just closed in (as is the case in Incheon), you don’t have that luxury.
The plane sets down. You’ve been lodged in its depths for 13 or more sleepless, mind-bending hours. You’ve agreed to teach in Korea for a year, if not more. It is the bizarrest decision that you’ve made in your life, barring whatever stupid things you ingested or slept with in college (or Europe), but those don’t count. All of the people that you know are thirteen or more hours and thousands of miles away from you, and you look around and see those who you will need to find a way to befriend. They don’t know who you are: your name, your story, your hobbies or interests or shoe size or opinions on the stability of the Yen. They don’t know anything about you–you’ve got a country full of blank slates to work with.
Who will you be in Korea?
There are people in every nation in the world who are absolutely confident that their country is the best. Not just in a, “Hey, our national cuisine is super! Isn’t our anthem just epic and heart-warming? And just check out that flag—why, I have several attached to my lapels!”, but something beyond that. A weird, seedy, deep-down knowing that your people are basically the Übermensch. That yeah, cultural relativism is nice and all, but isn’t everywhere else full of kind of… icky people anyway?