Monday, March 15: I teach at two elementary schools in rural Seongju County, but I live in the city of Daegu. So… each day I have about an hour commute each way to work; luckily I’m able to carpool with some of my fellow teachers. Otherwise, I’d have a horribly inconvenient trip by city bus and then by rural bus which could take me 1 1/2 hours and 10,000 Korean won/day. The teachers offered me the option of carpooling with them during my first week. I think it may have been a temporary offer, but now, much to their dismay, they are stuck with me; I’m like the guest they can’t quite shake, the visitor who is overstaying her welcome. I’m playing dumb as long as I can….
Welcome to Seongju
Carpool #1 to Chojeon Elementary (M, T, F): I ride to work three days a week with three funny guys: my co-teacher Coffee-J, Mr. Yun, the PE and head teacher, and Mr. Sun, the 5th grade teacher. During the entire drive, they talk together animatedly in Korean, laughing, making hand gestures, cracking crazy jokes; it’s high jinx. Despite the fact that I can’t understand a word they’re saying, I find myself laughing along as if I understand their jokes. I want to belong to their little group, but clearly I don’t. Being the only woman and having very limited Korean speaking abilities, I mainly stay quietly amused in the back seat.
Coffee J, Mr. Yun, and Mr. Sun at Chojeon Elementary School
I don’t know quite what to do with myself. Some days, I simply fall asleep when my mind wanders off into an imaginary land where Englishy is spoken….inside my own head. (Koreans add “y” to the end of many English words: Englishy, lunchy, clothies, etc.) Sometimes I pull out my Korean flashcards and mutter words incorrectly to myself until one of them overhears me and corrects my pronunciation. (Odee, Yogi, Chogi – Where? Here. There.) Other days, I stare absently out the window at the miles of vinyl houses where the yellow melon is grown. Other days I just can’t keep quiet and I start yapping to Coffee-J in English, probably taxing the poor guy’s mind first thing in the morning. When I do that, of course, Mr. Sun and Mr. Yun become the outsiders, as they can speak very limited Englishy. I don’t like to do this too much as it disrupts their camaraderie and may get me ousted from the carpool. That’s something I DO NOT want to happen.
This past Friday afternoon, Coffee J and I got behind a slow-moving vehicle and he impatiently tried to get around. He said, “What do you call this, this slow-moving car?” I said, “Hmm… I guess you’d say he’s pokey.” He said “porky? like the food?” I said, “No, p-o-k-e-y, pokey. Not a food! You’d probably call him a slowpoke.” He said, “Oh, ok, a slow-pokey! That’s funny!” Then he kept saying that word all the way home. “Oh, another slow-pokey. Haha!”
Tuesday, March 16: Carpool #2 to Byeokjin Elementary (W, Th) : My other carpool is with Mr. O, the 2nd grade teacher at my other school. He is also my “manager” at Byeokjin. I was excited before I met him because Coffee J said Mr. O has a Ph.D. in English. However, Mr. O speaks very limited Englishy!! As a matter of fact, hardly anyone at Byeokjin speaks Englishy; I honestly have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing at that school!! Apparently Mr. O got his Ph.D. in English many years ago and, like many who study foreign languages, learned to read and write but not to speak.
The first day Mr. O picked me up, Coffee J met us in his car at the pick up spot. Coffee J and Mr. O got out of their respective cars and Coffee J introduced me to Mr. O. I promptly got in the front seat of Mr. O’s car, but first I had to move his briefcase, his phone, and his jacket to the back seat. It happened to be snowing that day, and Mr. O drove very nervously and slowly to Byeokjin. I could tell he was quite on edge, between the snow, trying to speak to me in his very poor Englishy, and having a strange woman in the car with him.
On Friday, I was back in my regular carpool with the Chojeon guys. Coffee J’s phone rang and there was a very loud voice on the other end. Coffee J held the phone away from his ear and then thrust his phone into the air so everyone in the carpool could hear what the other party was saying. The three guys were laughing their heads off, but I was clueless as usual. After he hung up the phone, Coffee J said, “That was Mr. O. He called to say that the next time you ride with him, he wants you to sit in the back seat. He can’t concentrate with you in the front seat and he feels very nervous!”
The next day, I dutifully got into Mr. O’s back seat when he picked me up. I figured since he wanted me to sit in the back seat (despite the fact that a perfectly good front seat was available!!) that I could just mind my own business in the back seat. I planned to busily occupy myself putting phone numbers into my new Korean phone, looking over my lesson plans, reading emails on my blackberry.
Surprisingly, Mr. O talked to me non-stop. He told me a story that went something like this: “I don’t like autumn. It remembers me of my girlfriend in college. She was rich and liked to eat (some kind of food I didn’t understand). She was the brother of my wife. OK? You understand?” There was some other stuff about the girlfriend eating a lot of some kind of food. I tried so hard to understand what he was trying to tell me. Did the girlfriend get fat eating all that food? Did she leave him or did he leave her because she got fat? Did he meet his wife through his girlfriend’s brother??
Vinyl houses for growing the yellow melon
a typical rainy winter day waiting for the carpool on the main road from Daegu to Seongju
I patiently tried to process his convoluted tale. Then Mr. O said, “By the way, I talked to Mr. Kim (Coffee J) and he told me you are a lot of fun, that you like to drink alcohol and soju. So one night, I want to drink alcohol with you!” Huh??? Now that’s an experience I can’t wait for:-)
Monday, March 29: Today, I’m informed by Coffee-J that our carpool is going out for dinner and drinks tonight after work. This seems to always be the way things work in Korea. No one asks if you might have other engagements; they simply announce some plan and expect you to follow along. Usually, because I’m a foreigner and hardly anyone speaks English, I’m always the last to know.
Tonight we go out to a Korean restaurant in Daegu and eat bulgogi. On this outing, it’s just the Chojeon car pool teachers; Mr. O is not included.
Mr. Yun and Coffee-J, making a toast with soju
Bulgogi is made from thin slices of sirloin or other prime cuts of beef. Before cooking, the meat is marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, pepper and other ingredients such as scallions, garlic, onions or mushrooms.
Bulgogi is traditionally grilled, but pan cooking has become popular as well. Whole cloves of garlic, sliced onions and chopped green peppers are often grilled or fried with the meat. This dish is sometimes served with a side of lettuce, which is used to wrap a slice of cooked meat, often along with a dab of ssamjang (a thick spicy sauce made of soy bean paste, a red chili condiment, sesame oil, garlic, green onions, and optionally brown sugar), or other side dishes, and then eaten together. (Wikipedia: Bulgogi)
Mr. Yun, Coffee-J, me and Mr. Sun at our bulgogi dinner
As always at any Korean gathering, the meal is accompanied by huge amounts of beer and soju, a distilled South Korean beverage traditionally made from rice. It tastes similar to vodka but sweeter (Wikipedia: Soju). There are always some bottles of Fanta also floating around.
Me and Mr. Sun making a toast with soju
In short order, with all the soju and beer going around, everyone is quite drunk. We laugh a lot and I feel like these carpooling co-teachers of mine are becoming good friends.
Mr. Sun and I have a race to see who can drink our soup the fastest
Mr. Yun doesn’t speak a word of English, but he’s always a jolly fellow
After dinner, we go to noraebang, where we all have a grand time belting out songs, both Korean and English. Crazy times!!
me, probably singing Hotel California, always my song of choice! 🙂
me and Mr. Yun singing in the noraebang
Tuesday, April 27: Today, I’m informed once again that we’re having a carpool party, this time including Mr. O from Byeokjin Elementary. After work, we head to a restaurant between Seongju and Daegu. As always, the meal includes a lot of beer and soju and as always, there are lots of laughs and high jinx. This is typical Korean culture that I experienced too many times to count!
Coffee-J’s face always turns bright red when he drinks
me holding a bottle of soju
Coffee-J with chopstick teeth
the typical Korean pose with the V-sign
Take one down and pass it around, 99 bottles of soju on the wall 🙂
a pose with bottles of beer and soju