Friday, February 15, 2013

Hold back the tears (but pour the soju).

The element of surprise: something that people either love or hate. There's the whole argument that you don't want to be surprised with something you aren't ready for and then there's the argument that that's half the fun (you know, the spontaneity of it all). Korea teaches you something about surprise, and that is to be ready for it.  People just love to throw you into the pool without floaties in this country. Be ready for anything and always always accept whatever is thrown at you because there is no saying "no," in Korea. These surprises sometimes range from- "SURPRISE, we have a staff dinner no one told you about" to "SURPRISE, today you will tutor the principal in English for an hour" to "SURPRISE you are going to participate in a staff volleyball tournament today!" (Okay, okay, okay- oh and... THANKS for the heads up, I wouldn't have worn heels.)

When you are called upon to give an impromptu speech to a room full of Koreans, the element of surprise can be a bit nerve wracking. Just as I was beginning to get comfortable at last night's staff dinner, I heard my name leaving the head teacher's mouth as my co-workers urged me to move to the front of the room. There I stood in a line of about five other teachers. At first I thought, okay, I'll just have to give a bow when they call my name, but THEN the microphone started to be passed and I was second in line.  "Shit, what am I expected to say?" I scurried back to my co-teacher and whispered, "Jiyoung, what am I supposed to talk about?" She just nudged me and said,  "Whatever you want!" Really? Whatever I want? Well if that's the case... "Have you guys heard about the new wolverine movie coming out?" No, but seriously  I don't even know what kind of speech this is supposed to be and none of these people will even know what I'm saying!   Being that it was an end of the year dinner and many teachers would be moving on to new schools, I assumed it should be some sort of goodbye speech.  I listened as the teacher before me gave her own short speech and I smiled and nodded accordingly (truth be told... I had no idea what she was saying.) While I waited, anticipating what would come next, I tried to calm my nerves but before I knew it I had a microphone in my hand.  I started off by saying thank you to everyone (simple and easy to understand) and told them how very grateful I am to the staff and students at Yeon Ji for always being so kind and welcoming. They helped make my year here a wonderful experience. While speaking, I tried hard to hold back my tears. I quickly went from a nervous mess to an emotional basket case.  "Don't do it Rachel... DO NOT CRY." I succeeded in getting through it, and as expected, everyone smiled, nodded and clapped. Even if they didn't understand me word for word, I still believe that knew what I was trying to say.  Back to my seat I trotted and thought to myself, "harmless enough, task completed, eh, that wasn't so bad, and also... man I am NOT going to miss those kinds of surprises."

Once the speeches ended, the feast began and the soju started flowing.  This has always been a somewhat strange experience for me.  In America, if you are a teacher, the last thing you want is for your principal to discover you taking shots at a local bar. In Korea, you slam them back WITH your principal and it is disrespectful to decline. Culture shock 101: this is not a trick, you will not get fired, but you will move up on the social ladder at work.  Over time I have become accustom to this; I know that Korea is a big drinking culture, and it's actually quite enjoyable to let loose with your coworkers.

Korean dinning and drinking is something I'm really going to miss when I go back to America.  Surely I can find a place to grub on some Korean and without a doubt I will be drinking with my friends and family at home.  However, it's the WAY it's done in Korea that I really love and it's experiencing it with Korean people that I sincerely enjoy.  Going out to a traditional Korean dinner and being the only foreigner there is a pretty special experience.  Everyone wants to teach you something, whether it's how to hold a shot glass when accepting soju from your elders, or how to wrap your galbi with raddish peels.  There is a way to eat everything and there is a way to accept and pour drinks. As I sat at my table, surrounded by the people who have become my coworkers and friends over the past year, a sense of fondness and appreciation overwhelmed me. I brought myself to Korea but these people brought Korean culture to me. In that moment, I felt as though I was having an out of body experience. I saw everything going on around me, but the only thing I could hear were my thoughts. I looked around at everyone smiling and clanking their glasses while the green bottle got passed from person to person. Sadness crept into my lungs.  I thought back to my first staff dinner and remembered this exact moment being one of my first big cultural experiences only 12 short months ago. "I am so lucky," I thought to myself, and I meant it.  I have been truly blessed to have been able to be a part of this culture, and what a wonderfully rich culture it is. I am so proud to have spent one year here. As my thoughts enveloped me, I masked my sadness, held tight to my appreciation, brought myself back into the moment, and shared another shot with my friends at the table.


  1. Rachel this was beautiful and I do not know how you did not cry. The surprise thing would be tough for me. The rest makes me feel like I need to go to Korea. I love that there are certain ways to drink, pour, eat, and accept things. I am curious to see how you do things from now on when you come home. We are all excited to have you back but reading this I know you made the choice to leave. You are a very lucky lady.

  2. I remember how mad you were when you didn't get the job at Holy Family... and look at you now! The experiences that change us are often the ones we never planned for. You will always have these memories, and they're going to help shape your entire future. Good for you.