Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Long Day

Well summer vacation has official started. What that means is the kids and the normal teachers are all off. By normal I simply mean the regular grade teachers. A few teachers like myself and one of the other English teachers still have to come to school every day. So for the next two weeks I do not have any classes but am still expected to come to school and be in my office from 8:30am to 4:30pm. Needless to say that is quite a bit of time each day to fill with lesson planning or other forms of work but I’m sure I’ll find something to do.

But this entry is about Monday. Last Friday I was told by one of the English teachers that there was going to be a teachers’ trip on Monday. “What does the mean,” I asked her. She tried to explain that all the teachers were going to go on a trip to a lake somewhere. I was not overly excited about the idea but said okay. She then quickly added that she and my co-teacher would not be going. “What!?,” I said Apparently both her and my co-teacher had other obligations and would not be able (have to) attend. What this meant is that I was about to go on a trip with all the teachers from my school except the ones who speak English. I asked her how long the trip was going to be and she told me we would probably be back around 9 or 10pm. “Really!?” My heart sank ever deeper. I tried, unsuccessfully, to get out of going. But the weekend came and I just put it out of my mind.

Now when I tried to sleep Sunday night I struggled even more than usual. I do not think it was directly related to the trip the next day but it was odd to have to fight so much to sleep. I only slept about 4 hours before I had to get up and go to school. Now I was not really sure what to wear for the day. I wanted to wear shorts and sandals but did not know if that was okay. I knew I was going to be around the principle and vice-principle so I ended up deciding it was better to be safe than sorry and I just wore a pair of khakis and a polo. I would soon discover that being “safe” doesn't always keep you from being sorry. I also grabbed my backpack, instead of my man purse, and threw in a hoodie “just in case” and a book since I figured I wouldn't be doing a lot of chatting on the bus ride.

I ran out the door to discover that it was raining; always a good sign, right? I had gotten into the habit of walking to school in sandals and shorts and then changing into my pants at work because in the rain my shoes and pants, from my knees down, would end up soaking wet and would take a long time to dry. But I did not want to change in part because I didn't want to be carrying my shorts and sandals around with me all day so I just went to school. But as expected by the time I got to school my legs and feet were quite wet. So while that was not a surprise what was a surprise was that as I approached the school I saw all the kids had come and were also entering the school. I thought summer vacation had already started so I was very confused about why the kids would be there. This stirred in me a mixture of terror and joy; terror that I did in fact have class that day and was now unprepared for it but also joy at the thought of not having to go on the trip with all the teachers. Is that as sad as it sounds? I also noticed that a large number of moms had also come with the kids and were just standing around outside the school.

I was eager to get up stairs because I had sandals and a different pair of pants up there that I could change into that would be dry. But when I got upstairs to my room all the doors were locked. The school never provided me a key for the English room. My co-teacher has one and usually the door was either already unlocked from the day before or he had arrived and the room was open. But Monday my co-teacher was not coming to school so I had no way to get into my office. Irritation now joined confusion, sleepiness and soaking wet on the list of un-enjoyable experiences I was having only a few hours into my day. I went looking for someone who could help me. After about 15 minutes of wandering the halls (really just walking from my room back down to the other English room and back again many times) I found one of the other English teachers. She grabbed me and said she needed me. Before I knew it I was being dragged to the school office and then the principal’s office to sign some papers confirming my upcoming vacation days. Okay, fine I thought though I was not sure why it seemed so urgent since those days are a month away. Finally I explained to her about needing to get into my room. So we went back into the office and after about 10 minutes of watching them root around in various draws and cabinets they said they could not find a key for my room. So we went down to the first floor into a different administration office and again I got to watch them look around until they pulled out 3 large key chains with 10 to 15 keys attached to each one. It looked like they had some sort of mark or writing taped to each key and they slowly started examining each one trying to find the right one. Finally they handed the English teacher one of the key chains with a specific key. We went upstairs and it worked.

During this time I had also asked about why all the kids were there. I found out that they had a small ceremony congratulating them on another semester completed and then they would be going home. The ceremony was only one period so basically all the kids came to school so they could be there for 40 minutes and then head right back home. This explained why so many of the moms were just hanging around. Now while this news calmed any fears I had about having to teach any classes unprepared that day it reaffirmed my suspicion that I was going to have to go on the day trip with all the other teachers. By the time I got into my room I only had about 10 minutes before all the kids left and they started herding all the teachers toward the bus that they chartered. Basically I never got to change out of my clothes. The pants were fairly dry by this point but my shoes were still wet enough to be bothersome. I checked my e-mail and then we were off.

On the bus ride I sat next to Lim Suk Ju. Lim is his family name so I just call him Suk Ju (sounds like Soak Jew). He is one of the fifth grade teachers and besides the other English teachers he is the person I know the best. He likes to talk with me and his English is not bad depending on the topic. I found out that my co-teacher had actually talked to Suk Ju and asked him to keep me company. It is funny when a person doesn't know a lot of English (or any language I am sure) because subtlety is not really possible. So Suk Ju told me that my co-teacher said he “had” to talk to me. I laughed a little and questioned him, “did you not want to talk to me?” Suk Ju immediately started saying “no, no, no” showing he understood my question and how I was taking his words but he didn't have another way to say it. “No I like talking with you but I have to talk to you.” I tried to explain to him the difference between the words “have/had” and “get”. It was fun. During the trip he noticed my I-Pod so I showed him my music. I was very surprised to discover which bands and musicians he had heard of. Some of the ones he knew did not surprise me like Michael Jackson, Nirvana, even Coldplay and Green Day. But he knew a lot more rap/hip-hop than I would have ever thought like, Kanye West, OutKast, Eminem and The Black Eyed Peas. And then there were just other random ones from different genres that he knew like Jason Mraz, Alicia Keys, Sum-41, The Offspring, Avril Lavigne (yes I have her on my I-Pod), Placebo and Snow Patrol.

Before we got to our destination we stopped for lunch. It was fine nothing wonderful. Suk Ju tried to make sure to talk to me but at the big table other people began having conversations with him so I spent more time sitting quietly than anything else. With the stop it took us over three hours to get to where we were going. When we got there it was already 2 so at that point I knew we were not going to get back to the school until pretty late. I had been warned that it would be 9 or 10pm but I just didn't want to believe that but now I knew it was true. From the parking lot we could see a large lake. I was told that it was the largest human made lake in Korea. As we walked around I also saw multiple statues and discovered they were all made for the Olympics, which Seoul hosted in 1988. We headed down a large hill towards the lake. Once there we filed onto a medium sized boat. It was motorized and filled with seats facing each direction so people could look at the view. The boat puttered along and took us to the other side of the lake, which is where the trailhead is. The trail leads to a very old Buddhist temple at the top, which is still being used by Buddhist monks. The temple location is almost a thousand years old. The original temple had been destroyed during the Korean War but was rebuilt on the same spot with the same design. The hike was probably my favorite part of the day. By this time Suk Ju started hanging out with some other people. I began the hike next to the group but soon found myself breaking away in part because they really were hiking quite slowly in an awkwardly large herd and also because it allowed me to turn on my I-Pod and enjoy some music during the ascent.

I got to the top in about 30 minutes and by the time I did I was drenched in sweat. At this point my khakis and polo had proven not to be the best outfit for this adventure further the backpack with a hoodie proved to be nothing more than a nice blanket to insulate the heat trying to escape from my back. Better safe than sorry had turned into very, very sorry. All the other teachers were in t-shirts and shorts or some sort of hiking gear. It was clear from the beginning I was the only one who was not aware of what we were going to be doing that day. I still have not become accustomed to the humidity. It was only are 80 or 85 degrees but I couldn't walk 10 steps without sweating and even when I’m not sweating here I just feel moist and sticky. All the places I have lived Denver, Phoenix, Oakland and Pasadena even when they were hotter than it is here they never felt like this. I miss LA. It really is worth the high rent. Okay enough whining.

At the top the temple was beautiful. The temples I have visited are set up as multiple buildings of different sizes. Each building is basically just one room and has one or multiple shrines in it and usually statues of the Buddha. Many of the rooms have places for candles and incense. At this temple there were seven or eight different structures. I walked slowly around and enjoyed each room. All the designs and color are just so amazing. As you visit multiple temples you see that certain shapes, patterns and colors repeat themselves over and over just like for temples and churches in the West. But of course the Buddhist patterns and colors are so different than the ones that I am used to it is hard not to be but taken in by the newness of the experience. After about 20 minutes some of the people from the group I started with began showing up and looking around. For the next 30 minutes more and more of our group made it to the top. I was done looking around as the last members of our group made it to the top. By that point Suk Ju and a few others had also been there awhile so we decided to head back down to the boat. As we went down I discovered that one of the girls spoke English quite well but was nervous about speaking to me. So the three of us chatted the whole way down and she became more and more comfortable as we went. When we got back to the dock there was a long line of people waiting for the boat to come and take them back to the other side. According to the schedule the boats would come to the dock every thirty minutes. I knew we were looking at, at least a three boat wait and that was assuming everyone from our group got back though I was fairly sure would happen since we were looking at an hour and a half wait. As we waited I was encouraged to see that the boats came more often than the sign said. It was one about every 15 minutes. More and more of our group started to show up to the point where it seemed like we could jump on the next boat, this was the third boat so to this point we had had only a 45 minute wait. But when the boat came and our group started getting on it soon became clear that we weren't all going to make it onto that boat. I would say about half of our group made it on the first boat and funny enough it was the group who had arrived at the dock last. Finally we got our turn and made it back to the other side of the lake. In all, we were at the lake and temple for about three hours but an hour of that was spent standing at the dock.

When we got back on the bus it was a little past six so I once again got a little hopeful that perhaps I would be home by 8 or 8:30pm. But alas it was not to be. After about 30 minutes of driving the bus pulled over at a restaurant and we all got out and had dinner. This restaurant was really just a house in the middle of nowhere. There wasn't another building in sight from it. We were still up in the mountains somewhere. Dinner was actually pretty good. By this point Suk Ju and most of the guys were drunk or at least fairly tipsy. And the more they drank the harder it was for any of them to speak English so by this point I just sat and watched people converse. Like most dinners the actually eating only took 10 or 15 minutes but the 15 minutes before the food gets there and the 30 or 45 minutes of hanging out afterward was just one long scene of watching people’s reactions to their conversations. I of course don’t have a clue what they were saying but I am starting to notice a difference between when I listen to conversations now and when I first arrived in Korea. I am starting to be able to distinguish words and clear sounds. Basically I have no idea what the words mean but they are actually starting to sound like words instead of just noise. Still an hour of listening to words you can’t understand is fairly dull.

When we got back on the bus I was finally getting a little excited. It was 7:30 by this point and we had been driving for a little over 30 minutes so I thought okay 1 and a half hours to go that puts us home at 9pm. I mentioned the time to Suk Ju and then he told me that we actually had gone the opposite direction of the school to go to the restaurant. So instead of being half an hour closer to the school we had moved half an hour further away. I couldn't believe it. I asked why the heck we did that and he said the restaurant we went to was one that the principle really liked and wanted to go to. My head just dropped to my chest and I slouched over in sadness. That moved my calculation of 9pm back to 10pm assuming all went well. We did end up making one more stop about 15 minutes later. It was just at a large gas station rest area type of place so that everyone could use the bathroom before we got back on the road. This is the type of stop I couldn't really be too upset with. Anytime the bathroom is an option I take it especially before long car/bus trips. I had actually been fairly disciplined all day with the amount of water I drank trying to keep it to a minimum so that I didn't need to use the restroom that often. Still this stop cost me another 15 minutes.

So finally we were on the road headed towards home for sure. Now the bus we had been riding was fairly nice and high tech. It had a large TV and a P.A. system that allowed people to speak into a microphone at the front of the bus and be heard by everyone in the back. My seat was actually right below one of the speakers. I have found that a lot of Koreans still tend to yell or speak quite loudly when they have a microphone basically acting as if they didn't have one, which is tough on the ears when your right next to the speaker in a small enclosed space like a bus. I had put my ear buds in and was trying to listen to my I-Pod but one of the teachers up front was going on and on about something. Then suddenly everyone started cheering and pointing my direction. Suk Ju got up from his seat and went to the front of the bus allowing me to see that they were pointing at him not me. Suk Ju took the mic and music started playing and then the TV started flashing pictures of people dancing. Then it happened Suk Ju started singing. I was in a karaoke bus. The lights on the bus were turned off and they had multiple little disco balls that made lights flash everywhere like we were in a club. The singing was deafening from my seat. I couldn't hear anything from my I-Pod. I kept cranking up the sound more and more to the point where it was hurting my ears as much as the speaker right by my head. The rest of the trip was spent with various teachers going up to the front and singing karaoke music. Now every song was in Korean, no surprise there, but I was amazed to discover that even though I couldn't understand any of the songs I could still tell who was good and who was not. And there were a lot more people who were not good at singing than those who were, in part I am sure it was because by this point most of them were drunk.

The ride home was looooooooong and painful, I mean that literally by the time I got off the bus my ears were ringing. It was about 10:30pm when we finally pulled up to the school. I jumped off the bus as fast as I could. All the teachers were standing around waiting for the gates to be opened so they could get to their cars but I just said good-bye to Suk Ju and took off towards home. I walked in to my place around 10:45pm and just collapsed. I am not social by nature so even if I had done this exact same trip in America with all English teachers I am sure I would have been fairly drained by the end of it but not like this. This trip was over twelve hours a majority of which was spent on a bus and being constantly surrounded by conversations I couldn't understand in an environment that impeded any attempt of mine to enjoy my own music, podcasts or read a book. But relax, it’s over.

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