Friday, August 28, 2009

Quite an Introduction

Yesterday morning at 10:30ish pm, following many hours of hauling luggage outstanding distances, exchanging phone numbers on our new phones, and enduring many concluding speeches from various official entities, we embarked on our 6 hour bus ride to Taebaek. Since there were only five students going to our particular section of Gangwon-do we were put on a smaller bus (insert obligatory "short bus" comment here).

My first of many surprises occurred when, after dragging my luggage several football-field lengths, sweating copiously the entire way, I gave my name and was immediately introduced to my co-teacher. (My co-teacher, for those of you not also teaching or otherwise familiar, is the number one most important relationship of my time here. She's basically my liaison to the school and EPIK and responsible for helping me acclimate to my life here.) I guess the people at the EPIK office wanted someone who spoke both English and Korean on the bus and I was the lucky teacher whose co-teacher (or "handler", as one lecturer referred to them) got picked.

Youni (this is her "English name", Korean names are notoriously difficult for Westerners to remember and pronounce) is in her mid-30s and has been teaching for 12 years. Her English, I'm happy to say, is good. I would also say she seems exceedingly nice but I feel like the same is true of basically every Korean person I have interacted with here. Anyway on the bus ride I gleaned that my elementary school is very small, with only one class for each of the six grades plus a kindergarten class that I will apparently be "playing with" (her word choice) 20 minutes a week. What this breaks down to, so far as I understand it, is that since I only teach each class once a week, I'll be teaching far less then my contracted 22 hours (which I'll be paid for anyway). I am also given to understand that I'll be teaching a number of after-school classes, which are classes taught between 3:30 and 5pm whose curriculum I get to entirely design and execute. They're like English-oriented electives. I'm pretty jazzed about that.

ANYWAY, fast forward 6 hours of scenic mountain views and we're at the Taebaek EPIK headquarters. I was expecting more ceremony but within five minutes of disembarking the bus everyone had been snatched up by their co-teachers, hustled into waiting cars, and driven off. From the EPIK office we went by my new apartment (since this post is already looking to be incredibly long I'm going to save THAT topic for later) and picked up Andrew, the previous tenant whose post I'm filling. Then from there (more driving) we went to dinner with myself, Youni, Andrew, two of my other soon-to-be Korean co-workers, the school Principal and his wife. Needless to say, my earlier feelings of embarrassment about being disheveled and sweaty were not alleviated by this development. However, the dinner seemed to go off very well and I think I only violated about five ancient Korean customs and traditions. I think they mostly found it quite amusing.

Dinner was bulgogi (grilled meat cooked right on your table) and the usual assortment of 20+ side dishes. The custom here is to forgo plates and instead wrap the meat in lettuce. I also has some wasabi squid (ok) and quail eggs (yum) plus large quantities of soju. I'll save tedious explanations of drinking customs for another post but courtesy makes it difficult to drink lightly. My principal, a very jovial older man with some English seemed to enjoy explaining the customs and food and was impressed by my ability to use chopsticks. He also kept mentioning that he should be abstaining from drinking because he drank heavily last night and woke up with a vicious hangover this morning (I'm paraphrasing here). All of the above said while putting away significant quantities of soju.

There was also apparently a second course of rice that could be had but by that point I was already very full and slightly drunk. We bade goodbye to the Principal and his wife and then myself, Youni, Andrew and the two other teachers went to a bar. More beer and soju later (when I asked Andrew what people do here for entertainment his answer was, "drink") we were joined by some of Andrew's ex-pat friends who I'll be inheriting, two very nice late-20s couples. Since conversation was a little difficult for the whole group we played drinking games. My favorite was one called "titanic" where you float a shot-glass in a mug of beer and then go around the table pouring tiny quantities of soju into the shot glass. The person who finally sinks the shot-glass has to pound it. There was a lot of cheering and shouting.

(Also worth mentioning is that during the above several orders of food were brought to the table and consumed. To keep up with all the excessive boozing Koreans constantly graze and Andrew said it's not common for Korean people to go to a bar and just order drinks without some sort of food item.)

You may think that that would be enough excitement for one day but OH NO. After the bar I was escorted by the ex-pats to a Nori-bang (Korean karaoke) where we sang for what felt like a couple hours. Unlike back home karaoke here is done in private rooms and this particular one was equipped with tambourines, bongos, and laser-lights (to set the mood, I guess). Since Andrew leaves tomorrow it was basically his goodbye party and everyone sang and there was some dancing. Then I fell asleep and was kindly escorted back to my hotel (Andrew moves out this morning so I was here for the one night).

It was a really exciting, scary full and intense day and as long as this post is there was a lot I had to gloss over. I haven't even described the town or the individual characters of the expats and co-workers I met. Hopefully there will be time for that soon. At the moment I'm in my hotel room killing a couple hours until Youni picks me up to move me into the apartment and (I think and hope) take me shopping for household items and food. I am going to spend that time in bed finishing reading my book.


  1. Yay!

    I suck at commenting on blogs, but I just want you to know I'm reading and am so excited to hear of your adventures! Whee!

  2. Whee! That sounds like a lot of fun - even with the customs you didn't know :D

  3. Soph --
    YOur mom just read your blog out loud to Nana, Mandy, Future Kunkel and me. You write so well, so vivdly ... we laughed out loud. Looking forward to seeing your photos too. Up in NH. It's raining and cold but wonderful as always.
    Hugs and kisses.