On Friday afternoon, September 10, my Korean co-teacher Coffee J (who is my assigned manager and “advocate” here in Korea) pops his head into my English classroom and asks me to come on down for a drink and an ice cream treat. I say, Really? To the teacher’s room? He says, No, come to my classroom! I think, Nice! A party!
Little do I know I am being set up for an ambush. I go to his classroom and in the room are three people, Coffee J (aka Kim Hyun Jun) & Mr. Son, who are both in my Chojeon carpool and Mr. O, who is my Byeokjin carpool. After joking around with me and asking me what are my plans for the weekend & how my day has been, etc., and after I finish eating my fish-shaped ice-cream wrapped like some pastry in a waffle-cone, Coffee J says to me: Mr. O and we, myself and Mr. Son, think that it is time to end the carpool. We think you should start taking the bus to work now.
I say: Why? It is no inconvenience to you whatsoever. It is not out of your way and I just sit quietly in the back seat. He says, No reason really. We just think because of “cultural differences,” it is better. He says, It doesn’t mean we don’t like you or anything like that.
I say, Do you know what this means? I stand up and start writing things on the board, like the teacher I am. I say: Right now, I give you all 100,000 won each month for the carpool. If I have to start taking the bus, depending on how many work days there are in the month, at a cost of 8,600 won a day, my cost for transportation will go up from anywhere to 172,000-189,000 won. In addition, because I have to take two buses, from Daegu to Seongju and then from Seongju to either Byeokjin or Chojeon, my commuting time will go up from one hour each way to one hour 30-40 minutes each way. So now, instead of 2 hours a day of commuting, I will now commute 3+ hours a day and spend nearly two times as much. Are you planning to give me the additional amount of money each month that I will now spend over my rural allowance of 100,000 won?
They just sit there. Coffee J says, I don’t know about the money. I say, I just now told you about the money! I don’t have an extra 100,000 in my budget, halfway through my contract, to start paying an additional 100,000 in commuting costs!
He says, well you CHOSE to live in Daegu. This is where I want to rip his head off. I say, I CHOSE to live in Daegu because when I came here, brand new to this country, you showed me one dingy apartment in Seongju and then said that most Seongju teachers live in Daegu. You said that there would be nothing to do in Seongju and that I would like living in Daegu much better. I asked you about the commute and you said it should be about an hour. I asked about the cost of the commute and you shrugged and said, I don’t know. It shouldn’t be a problem. You should have researched the cost and told me this so I could make an informed decision. And then you offered to include me in your carpool for the time being which was fine. I paid you 100,000 won, which is exactly covered by my rural allowance, and it was no inconvenience to you as all you had to do was stop right along the side of the road where you always drive every day and let me get in the car.
He just sits there. He has nothing to say. Mr. O is being his usual slimy self, wiping his sweating face with his plaid handkerchief. Mr. Son has his head in his hands, avoiding looking at me. Coffee J just sits there with a smug look on his face.
I look at them all. I say, And don’t tell me it’s not because you don’t like me. It is exactly because you don’t like me. So, let’s just be clear from now on. We will NOT be friends. We will never again be friends. We will keep at an arm’s length distance from each other. This will be the way it is from now on. We will be work colleagues only. So don’t try to be my friend!
Cultural differences. Yes, we are culturally different. I am an American and I will never be a Korean. Did they think when they hired me that I would be something other than what I am? When there are problems in Chojeon, the only school where I actually ever have problems ( I love Byeokjin, by the way, EXCEPT for Mr. O), I speak up about them. The fact that they control the heat and air-conditioning from a central location and I have to argue with them constantly so that I don’t have to work under harsh conditions of extreme heat or cold is the reason for their claim of “cultural differences.” As an American, I will speak up if something is not right. This issue has been a bone of contention since the moment I arrived at Chojeon in March, when it was freezing and they never turned on the heat. The same in the summer, when they refuse to turn on air-conditioning. Nowhere in my contract does it say I am expected to work under harsh conditions of heat and cold. Nowhere.
So, yes. There are cultural differences. Did they really think that when they brought me to Korea, that I would become a Korean? I am not one to suffer silently under any circumstances. Koreans are. They will give up their entire summer vacations without a protest. They will suffer silently under extremes of heat and cold. They will never call in sick, no matter how horrible they feel.
Other than this issue of climate-control, I can think of no other issue with which they could have a problem. Maybe they resent it that I actually took a summer vacation and left the country to go to Turkey for two weeks. Maybe they resent it that I’m not required by my contract to work every other Saturday as they do. Maybe they resent it that I’m confident and not willing to be pushed around. Maybe they are afraid of me because they can’t speak English and they are embarrassed that they can’t (although I don’t speak Korean either, so they shouldn’t avoid me on that count!).
Yes, there are cultural differences. But I know I am a good teacher; many other teachers who teach with me have told me as much. I know that my students love me. I know that their abilities in English are improving. For the first six months, I never took a single sick day, even though I was sick several times. I am always on time to work and come fully prepared to teach their children every day.
Today, I find out that coming to Byeokjin by bus is even more of an issue. I leave Daegu on the 7:25 bus and arrive in Seongju at 8:10. The next bus leaves for Byeokjin at 8:40. The previous bus was at 7 a.m., so coming earlier is not an option. I am supposed to be at work at 8:30. How will that happen? It is impossible. Since I haven’t yet taken the bus home from Byeokjin, I have no idea where the bus stop is, or what time it leaves. I suppose I will find that out after Chuseok, because my two friends, Kim and Julie will give me rides to Seongju in the next two days.
Now, because of this issue, I am likely to have a miserable remaining time in Korea. As of today, September 15, I have 5 1/2 months. Believe me, I was already counting the days, but now it is more insufferable and each day that I complete here will be a cause for great celebration.
Yesterday, I wrote a long letter to EPIK outlining this entire situation. The letter I received back from them basically said there is nothing they can or will do. How many days do I have left remaining? 5 months, 15 days, 3 hours and 37 minutes.
The abominable Mr. O (& the back-stabbing Coffee J)
I have come to despise Mr. O. And I am not the only one who feels this way. None of the other teachers at Byeokjin like him. He has a class of 6 tiny 2nd grade students and he can’t even control them. Just last week, in the cafeteria, I watched as he knocked one of his tiny little boy students upside the head about 4-5 times. The poor kid was in tears. Really, Mr. O. You have 6 students and you can’t even control them without resorting to physical violence?
I’m actually happy to be out of his carpool, though not being in it will cause me great hardship and money. Just two weeks ago, he got in an incident of road rage with me sitting in his car. He was speeding, zig-zagging back and forth in front of another car on the road. The other car was doing the same to him. I yelled, Mr. O, please stop this! You are putting my life at risk! Of course, he can never understand me despite his Ph.D. in English, or maybe he just chose to ignore me. Luckily I made it to school in one piece.
If anyone has ever seen the PBS mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice, and you know who Mr. Collins is, Mr. O is a malevolent Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins is a social misfit and an idiot, but at least he’s harmless. I cannot say the same for Mr. O.
As for Coffee J, I can no longer trust him or count on him in any way. He is self-centered and has no heart at all. He is supposed to be my manager and someone who will support me and be my advocate here in Korea. We will now have only a very distant working relationship.