On the 10th day of orientation, I was FINALLY on-time for something: leaving. Except I wasn’t… because just like everything else in Korea, the bus time changed last-minute, and apparently I was the only one that didn’t hear the intercom announcement, so I was 30 minutes late. I had woken up with really bad strep throat that morning, as well. Not only was it hard to get excited about the biggest day in my entire journey, but it was pretty hard to do anything at all.
Did I mention that we didn’t know anything about where we were going, what was on the agenda, or when?
I hopped on the bus and just focused on being able to breathe through the strep throat the entire time. About an hour later, we arrived at the Jeonbuk Office of Education, and I struggled to lug my 5 suitcases up to the building, unsure of what was next. I quickly ran to the bathroom; when I came back, a well-dressed, older Korean man awaited me with a big grin. I knew right away that he was my co-teacher, my direct supervisor.
Imagine how awkward it would be to meet the most important person of your year if you were completely mute and at the peak of sickness? On top of that, I was expecting a young, unmarried woman about my age because they are typically in these English co-teaching positions. Before you jump to conclusions about that statement, you have to know that Korea is incredibly hierarchal. The more experienced teachers on the higher hierarchy levels teach other subjects or move into management positions in the school. I’ve already had a few of my Korean acquaintances ask me, “how old are you?” They use age and marital status to determine a chain of respect and how they should act around one another. Coming to Korea, one of my biggest fears has been to unknowingly disrespect Koreans through cultural ignorance. Now with such a great power distance between my co-teacher and I, and with an added emphasis on the importance of respect due to the generation gap, the extra pressure was on.
He led me to his car to drive me to Sunchang, which he said would be another hour drive. He told me his name was “Mr. Lee” or “Sam Teacher,” and since I didn’t understand Korean well enough to know that “sam” means “teacher,” I went on thinking his name was “Sam” for 3 days before someone corrected me. We stopped for lunch at a really fancy Chinese restaurant, and that was a little awkward, as you can imagine because I was mute. I let him order chicken fried rice for me because I didn’t really have the option to explain to him that I was a vegetarian, which has been almost unheard of in Korea since recent years. He told me about his high school students, which prompted me to mime a question to him about where/who I will be teaching because I was under the impression I’d be teaching elementary students. Mr. Lee told me I’d be teaching high school students with him but would also be teaching other grades at other schools, but he didn’t know anything about that.
Mr. Lee’s English was very good, but just like many English-speakers in Korea, there was a slight communication barrier with some words because English is such a difficult language. When Mr. Lee took me to the two-room hospital as soon as we got to Sunchang, and the only word I picked up between him and the doctor was “infection,” which they said a few times. Okay, so I have an infection?
Then, the nurse led me to a corner and motioned me to pull down my pants. Slightly confused, I did as she said. She proceeded to stick a giant needle into my right butt cheek and slapped my butt a few times; she then told me to pull up my pants and go on my way. Okay, so there were saying injection, not infection?
I followed Mr. Lee across the street, where he picked up an array of pre-packaged pills prescribed by the doctor for me to take in the morning, afternoon and night. The whole charade cost me about $28 and 25 minutes. Apparently, you can get your appendix removed and have a 4-day hospital stay for about $300, too. First-world quality. Yes, Korea’s national healthcare system is FANTASTIC! Take note, ‘Murica.
Next stop, my apartment…