friday, at 11 AM, we pulled up in front of a huge conference center in downtown gwangju. we were herded into elevators and exited out onto the 3rd floor, where we saw dozens of tables set up with tiny dishes of food. it was the room where we would eat lunch with our new co-teachers.
a note about co-teachers: most of us have 2 co-teachers, because most of us are teaching at 2 schools. we have a main school we teach at 3 days a week (wednesday, thursday, friday) and a visiting school. co-teachers can make or break your experience. they are your constant partner in the classroom, and a good relationship is essential. up until this point, we’d been told a host of stories about co-teachers, some wonderful, and some harrowing. while some would bend over backwards for you, go hiking with you, and be your new best friend, others were known to sleep or read the newspaper while you taught, or worse, not show up at all. in a culture of formality and customs, we were told not to do anything that would offend or upset our co-teachers, but we also weren’t totally sure what actions would or would not give off a proper good impression.
in short, we all were incredibly nervous.
we went into another room first, and found the table where our co-teachers would be sitting. david split off from me, and i saw him greet his 2 teachers. i went to a table and found one of mine – the other wasn’t there because she has a young baby she needed to take care of. my main co-teacher asked me to call her “sunny” since it is easier to say than her name, and explained how she’d taught in wyoming recently for 5 months. we made chit-chat, while i tried to speak slowly and concisely. after about 15 minutes of introductory conversation, we went to eat lunch. it was a meal called bulgogi, and was the best thing i’ve eaten in korea so far. delicious! all during the meal, i tried to remember what was proper korean dinner etiquette (don’t talk too much, let the oldest person start eating first, pour the drinks for them, don’t get up until they do… and many other things that i’d probably forgotten or didn’t know).
after lunch, we partnered up with david and his co-teachers, loaded up our luggage, and drove off to see our apartment. we pulled up in front of a 5-story brick building, and hauled our bags up 3 flights of stairs, dripping sweat the entire way. upon first inspection of our new home, i felt relieved. partially because the waiting was over (and we could finally unpack and settle in to our life here), and partially because it is a decent size. we get 2 huge rooms in addition to our bathroom and laundry room. it feels open and it gets a lot of light. we could certainly use some more furniture, and some things on the walls, and it is an older building, but it will be perfect for us.
david left for a bit with his older co-teacher to go visit one of his schools. i hung around the apartment with the other 2, making a list of what i’d need to buy at Home Plus. it was a little awkward with them standing around, talking nonstop in korean. i invited them to come in and sit down if they’d like, so they did, and they sat promptly on the floor. when i was done making my list, i figured i ought to sit on the floor too, and so i did. they laughed at me and told me i didn’t need to do that, and that i should just sit in a chair because i’m american. so, i sat in a chair.
we swung by my main school on the way to meet david, and i had to sit in the car while my co-teacher went in to get some things. she told me that if i met my principal today, it would make our relationship “very complicated” and that i needed to wait to meet him until wednesday. i have no idea what that means, but i know that principals are the big kahunas here, and they run the entire school with an iron fist. so, i sat in the car.
Home Plus was another lesson in confusion. it’s like a giant super-walmart with endless aisles and even different floors. the grocery section was like being on a different planet. so much produce that i didn’t recognize, and then there was a massive seafood section where you could buy whole squid, or huge purple octopus arms, or giant white fish cut open and displayed on hooks, or whole live crabs, or whole shrimp, and on and on. as i pushed the cart through the endless selection i just kept thinking “i don’t know how to cook any of this. and i don’t want to eat any of this.”
in true american fashion, here were the staple foods we settled on: chicken nuggets (basically the only available chicken in the place without bones/feet/feathers still attached to it). spaghetti noodles and sauce. rice. grapes. a couple sushi (kimbap) rolls. cereal. milk. bread. coffee. soup packets. chips. orange juice. adventurous, right?
we continued through, buying various little items for our apartment. our poor co-teachers followed us slowly alongside for awhile, until we let them know that they could go sit down while we shopped, since we were taking an eternally long time. they met up with us again at the check out, where we quickly realized that they don’t give out grocery bags. you either have to bring reusable, or grab a free box and load all your stuff into that. we grabbed the free box.
after that excursion, we went to barter at a local furniture shop for a couch. our place wasn’t furnished with one, but we got it fairly cheap with our co-teachers there to haggle. after we purchased it, the owner served us coffee and juice, and we all sat around and had a chat (translation, they had a chat, while david and i looked on with grins pasted to our faces, trying to give off a nonverbal aura of friendliness). lastly, our co-teachers helped us get bus passes at the local hi-mart, and then they were off. they were both incredibly kind and patient with us the whole day, and i hope we can continue to have a good relationship w/them.
we spent the evening unpacking, trying to figure out our internet, and eating our kimbap rolls and grapes for dinner. we flipped through the channels on our tv, marveling at the spastic intensity of korean commercials. the sun set, and we hung out our windows, amazed by the views of endless city lights, with mountains in the distance. i’ve certainly never seen anything like it. but we will call this home.