Orientation week for the Incheon school board is pretty much like high school, and a little bit like a cult. We’re stuck in a hotel which originally seemed luxurious and pleasant, but by now feels like a horrible prison. Bonding is easy: we’re all in the same bizarre, in-transit mode of life as our every move is watched and controlled by an imperious Korean named Serah, as we wake up early, sit in lectures until nine, and get carted around. Away from home and friends and everything we know, prodded by numerous Koreans in the hospital, the people at orientation are all we’ve got. Add in the matching sweaters they gave us, we may as well be in Heaven’s Gate.
I whine, but it’s been pretty decent. They’ve fed and kept us well, as the tiny, industrious maids clean up our mountainous piles of filth, and even gently fold the clothes I leave strewn from one end of my room to the other. It’s a way of giving us some sort mothering while we are away from our own mothering providers, and some part of me appreciates it.
The issue, mainly, is the isolation and insulation. It’s hard to feel as though I’m actually in Korea: I wake in a hotel staffed by fluent English speakers, I eat and sit with people from Canada and other English-speaking countries, and Korean is only really heard during the arduous Korean lessons every night. I am fairly confident in saying that orientation planners keep you cooped up and scheduled into oblivion to maintain better control and evade drunken tomfoolery so early into the process (another sly method: each room was only given one key, meaning you had to buddy up with your roommate if you wanted to go anywhere).
For the most part, much like most giant, doldrumy lectures on the nature of teaching, the presentations were useless at best, and offensive at worst (airhead who informed us we should ask the male students if they are gay when they are affectionate towards each other to make them stop: I’m lookin’ at you). One or two managed to shine some light on the life of the waygook out in the Hanguk world, and the presentation on elementary school managed to inject actual fun, rather than a long, slow slog through Power Point slides. The Korean presenters were similarly hit or miss: almost all had serviceable English, but they were often given boring subjects to discuss or didn’t have all the nuance of the language they needed to get everything across.
When we weren’t being harangued, we were eating. The hotel was pretty good in this regard, though the menu choices betrayed some interesting ideas about Westerners. Breakfast was buffet style, and invariably featured corn flakes, mountains of bacon, smoked chicken slices, salad, and fries. The other meals alternated between Korean and Western, with each of the latter being a bizarre, fun-house mirror simulacrum: one night we had “steak”, a burger slathered in A1 sauce. I committed myself to this country that I moved here, so I would be okay if they had stuck to what the chefs knew.
When things finally let up at 9, the hotel became a college dorm, as we meandered to our rooms in flip flops, dumped our books, and usually went for a drink. The first night, my head buzzing with jet-lag and fever, I managed to at least take a walk up to a Korean War memorial and all through the streets of Songdo. The other nights, we mostly ended up on the patio in front of the convenience store called K-Mart, where we had beer and soju and began building the friendships that will probably sustain us for the coming year.
I was lucky in that I had a friend pre-installed: I moved to Korea with my friend Thanh from teacher’s college, a sort of tiny human security blanket that I could feel myself beginning to cling to even in the airport. But friends are not terribly difficult to come by, although most of the major groups at the orientation formed along national lines: Canadians hung out with fellow Canucks, the Aussies with the Aussies, the surprisingly numerous South Africans with the other South Africans. Even still, Canadians were in such abundance that I was to have no worry of finding friends for the following year. It certainly didn’t hurt that the pre-assigned roommate turned out to be just my speed. The universe conspires towards conviviality.
And eventually, after many days of sitting, we were taken on a field trip: we bussed out to Ganghwa, a small island off the coast of Incheon, to tour around for the day. First we stopped at a history museum detailing the past of the island, which I frankly glossed over so that I could stand outside in actual sunshine and bask in real, legitimate Korean landscape. Suddenly, I was actually in the country. On a guided tour bus, camera in tow, surrounded by foreigners, but I could see Korea as though through a big cardboard eclipse viewer.
The gem of the tour was a hike up to Bomunsa Temple. The sun was burning hot, and my face soon became shellacked in sweat, but the tromp to the top was worth it. The grounds were washed in the expected serenity, even beset as it was with tourists. I took pictures of everything I could, though any time I saw a monk or someone who at least looked Buddhist I shook my camera and gave an inquisitive “Kwaen-chan a yo?” (It’s okay?) to make sure I did not defame anything by my photo whoring.
Not to say that I wasn’t tempted, as everything was beautiful, drenched in sumptuous, deep magentas and greens, with gleaming Buddhas and Bodhisattva statues everywhere. A tiny swarm of buckets held an array of growing lotus flowers. Trees were surrounded by growing stone sculptures . And at the very peak, you could see for miles, back to Incheon and beyond.
The final leg of the day included a jaunt to a peace centre where, largely, the only thing to do was buy ice cream and look at North Korea from a distance. It is quiet, and looked, from our vantage, much like South Korea, if possibly less joyous. It seemed ludicrous to be standing on a hill and staring down the barrel of giant pay-binoculars, gazing into the depths of North Korea, a land I can barely conceive of outside of newscasts about fascism.
The last days returned to the ho-humness of lectures and safety, though on one momentous evening we met all of our co-teachers while we were terribly under-dressed (we had taken to wearing our bum-around clothes for the lectures). When I met my co-teacher, I spat just about every Korean greeting I knew in one breath, producing an extended slew of Hanguk phonetics: “Annyeonghashimnikkasonsaengnim. JeonunMichaelimnida. Jeonun…” We talked more and more, and I showed her some of my drawings and tried to really oversell myself as an educator, worried as I was that she would assume me some unemployed slacker who couldn’t hack it in his own country (not to say this isn’t vaguely accurate).
But within a few more days, it was done. Suddenly it was our last night and our last morning, and we ran around with pens and paper like they were yearbooks, getting people’s numbers, emails, facebook accounts. Let’s keep in touch! we all swore. After being together for one solid week with nothing but each other, we were about to be shuttled out into the world with little way to contact one another for at least a few weeks.
And then our co-teachers came. We dragged our numerous bags and items to the lobby and saw each other off. I walked through the electronic, perpetually moving revolving doors, and finally entered Korea.