Last friday was a national holiday in Korea, celebrating the independence of Korea from Japanese rule with the close of World War 2. I must say, for an animosity that is even present today, I rather expected a lot more celebrating going on, but everything seemed pretty tame.
I took the 3-day weekend as a cue to get some much needed R&R. With a bunch of coworkers, mostly the cool ones, we headed out to Daejeon (대전) which is on the west coast of Korea. It never ceases to amaze me how beaches in Asia are so damn warm, but I suppose that’s a product of my Canadian upbriniging. For me, water usually means hypothermia.
And it was great. It was, more than anything else, a bonding experience for a number of reasons. The first was that the women out at the beach were simply beautiful. Call it my bias, but Korean women are pretty thin out her– the ones who wear the bikini’s know how to wear it well. I think that as teachers working on a street called “Academy Street” we naturally start to ignore the women in our environment, because they’re not women– they’re jailbait. But, at the beach, anyone’s in our league, and at the very least, the male teachers could relate.
Being foreigners, we kind of stand out as well. I’m a bit of an exceptional case, because even though I’m not Korean, I’m almost always mistaken for one because I’m Chinese. Nonetheless, hanging out with my buddies at the various bars, we met plenty of people who were just there for the same reasons as us– to have fun. While at the bars, we had some guys politely and embarassedly come up to our table and ask for a toast, because they wanted the opportunity to say that they had toasted with Americans (which we later corrected them on, since we were mostly Canadians). Another dude wanted to take pictures with one of our female teachers, because his buddies had dared him to do so. In revenge (goodnaturedly) Trevor and I went to their table and shook hands with everyone at their table and he even stole a kiss on the hand of the most beautiful woman at the table, who we codenamed WhiteSox because of her hat.
Though we left for the coast only friday afternoon and arrived only int he evening, by Friday night, most of the group was completely wiped out with alcohol. Yet, they still insisted on takng a 2am swim in the waters. Who was I to object. And honestly, it felt good to do so.
The next day was more of the same, although there was some lounging around at the beach and the playing of some good old roughhousing sports like 500 and American football. Someone’s fingernails took out a chunk of my wrist but other than that it was all without incident.
Night came and we hit more bars, and then went to a noraebang, which is the Korean equivalent of a karaoke room. I say karaoke room because they’re actually rooms, not a huge open floor where everyone in the bar is focused on one singer. A group can rent a private place and just rock as hard or as soft as they want. While we saw everything from Backstsreet to the Doors. By the time I was singing Beat It, my voice was starting to crack and I wasn’t quite able to sustain the high notes anymore.
Somewhere at that point, one of my coworkers who I almost never talked to more than casually at work started to lean up against me as all of us sang backup for the people with the mics. Next thing I knew, her hand was on my leg and her head was on my shoulder.
To me this is a strange experience– I’m not the kind of person who’s openly physical with my friends, much less people I hardly know, unless I’m trying to beat you up. Yet here I was. I was somewhat annoyed at first, to be honest– did I look so drunk that I could be taken advantage of? And in truth, I was pretending to be drunk– it was the easiest way to find an excuse to let loose and to get people off my backs about drinking more. I was slightly buzzed, but impairment hadn’t come near to hitting me yet.
Yet on the other hand, and I think this is why I just went along with it and played by ear, I was flattered.
By the time we were done in the noraebang we were back outside on the boardwalk and she was stretching out her hand to me, expecting me to take it up. I sorta pretended I didn’t see it. Call me a conservative or call me a purist, or whatever you want– I wasn’t going to give false signals. I suppose the bottom line here is that I wasn’t really interested in her. She’s not my type. The fact that we were in this sort of situation was part of the reasons why.
The most I afforded her was leaning against her abit due to my ‘drunkenness’. It was decided that we’d all go for a swim again. A bunch of them went for the 500m swim to the buoy, which I wisely dclined– I’m really not that much of a swimmer to be honest. Even when I hold my breath and relax completely, I eventually sink like a rock.
I flopped on the ground of the sandy beach, about ready to pass out from exhaustion of the days events. I told them I wanted a nap, which they took as me being too drunk. But she grabbed me by the arms and practically dragged me to the water. This too surprised me– what, did a couple bottles of soju suddenly make us a couple? We still hadn’t exchanged more than a paragraph of words together and here she was whining at me the way girlfriends do when they want you to just do something for them, just because it’s them.
Reluctantly, I got in the water and swam out as far as I could while still having some land under my feet. At some point I decided that was enough– I was tired. I don’t mean I was in a bad mood– I was in a great mood! But as all people there, I was physically exhausted– it was about 3 am, and I’d been up pretty late just the night before.
And wouldn’t you know it, she was a lifeguard in a previous life before she became a teacher– seeing that I was couging (due to the lung problems I’d been having for the last 3 weeks) she assumed that I was in trouble, and started dragging me back to shallower waters. It’s been a while since I’ve had that kind of contact with a woman– she in a bikini and me in a set of hiking shorts, there’s a lot of skin in there. To the point where I said “I”m alright, it’s fine. You can let go.”
The whole experience was kinda surreal. “Is this going to be strange on monday?” I asked.
“It can be whatever you want it to be on monday.” That kind of comment raised my eyebrows.
We got back to the shore and I mostly ignored her for the rest of the night, because I was too wierded out by her forwardness. I don’t think she’s a bad person– but I think she’d had a bit too much to drink. She was so out of character even for someone who I didn’t know well and this didn’t seem like it could lead anywhere but a regretful place if we kept on this path. I don’t really think the possibility of alcohol related memory loss is a good enough reason for a one night liscence to do anything one wants, as tempting as the idea might be.
Some people might object to my choice of action for any number of reasons, but simply put– I’m not that kinda guy.
We all got back to the min bak (민박) sometime like 4am. A min bak is essentially an empty room with no furnishings except a kitchen sink. There’s a bathroom and shower too. But for the most part, it’s a traditional korean kinda room, where you’ve got a bunch of bedrolls and are expected to just sleep on the floor. There were 12 of us in the room and though I ended up sleeping next to her, I sat up most of the night, my back against the wall, trying to stay up so that my chronic coughing wouldn’t keep the others awake. There were a few hushed conversations floating around the room and in those hours of the morning I really developed an appreciation for those coworkers who were still able to stay awake and talk. It made me think about life and everything in general– especially the question of whether or not I wanted to return to Korea after this contract was over. It’s a difficult descision to make, one that would change my life even the second year around as much as it has this first time around.
At about 6 am, when they were all asleep, I lay down for some rest, more or less certain my coughing wouldn’t wake anyone.
I dreamt of the happiness I had in the days events, shouting and screamingn on the beach, singing our souls out with the slight aftertaste of soju on the tips of our tongues. High fives around the table, and warcries all around the bar as Korea scored a goal on the screens.
By the time monday came, I’d be ready to really teach the shit out of those kids.
The foreign teacher is an interesting kind of being. Though I can only speak for the kind that work in Korea, the general point I’m trying to make is that we’re a bunch that is in part machine, in part animal. Teaching is a large part of our lives– and I don’t mean that everyone wants to be a teacher or that everyone does it well or that anyone is better than anyone else– but it is our circumstance, it is our responsability and it is our condition. We all share that warfront.
A classroom is the full range of emotions– not just the students, but the teacher too feels things out there. I mean, a teacher can feel the joys and that’s all good, but what really test the teacher is the moments of stress.
And in that way, hanging out with teachers, while it can be depressing to be with people who are just complaining, on the other hand you can see a part of them that you don’t get to see at the workplace that they’ve wanted to get out all along. You get to see some of the other colors to people. 3 days off? It’s a huge thing and really, between the songs and between the shouts and the high fives, you get a bit more in touch with the humans beneath the professionals. In the silent moments between smiles, sometimes a teacher’s mind may wander back to the classroom– he or she will worry about that student that cried in class last week, or the one who was bullying another, or the one that wrote an essay that seemed like a suicide note– and yet, they’ll smile.
They won’t smile because they’re sociopathic or psychotic– they’ll smile because cards will be dealt and hands will be played, and you do what you can with what you have. And therein lies some comfort of our stock– that we’ve all got that in common, and that we’re not alone. That all our professionally-rooted eccentricities will be accepted instead of laughed at. Mostly, anyhow.
“They is a nice word.”
“I like the word weren’t‘ It really rolls well when you’re typing it. It’s like a left handed alley-oop to the right or something. It feels smooth,” I say.
Mike tries it out. “That is smooth.”‘
“You guys are such losers,” says Erin, his girlfriend, sitting at a computer a bit further off.
“Fuck you Erin.”
Today is Wednesday. I’m at the checkpoint. Halfway to friday. On friday, I leave for a week vacation in Hong Kong with Zanshin. I hope to squeeze more writing in, but it’s pretty hard to determine if that’ll happen before the end of this week..
I’m not certain that happiness is a choice. But unhappiness certainly requires effort.