As I sometimes (ok … more than sometimes) struggle to adjust to my new life in Bangladesh, I find myself thinking about the challenges I faced when I first moved to Korea. The story below, originally shared only with my friends/family on FB, keeps popping into my mind. Looking back on it, I realize how much I’ve learned in the last couple of years. For one, I can now read Hangul (even if I still don’t know what most of it means).
March 2, 2010:
I keep hearing how important first impressions are in Korea. Your life will be great if the people at your school like you. If they don’t, you’re screwed. It’s intimidating to say the least.
So the night before my first day of school, I was stressing out about what to wear, what to say, and basically how to show respect in a language and culture I don’t understand.
I had all sorts of nightmares about what could go wrong, but I never imagined what actually did.
First of all, let me explain that I’m teaching at three different schools around the island. When I first arrived in Jeju, I met about five people in about 30 seconds, all of them quickly saying their names and titles and what school they were from. All of it, quite honestly, sounded like gibberish to me.
After the introductions, I was given phone numbers (although I didn’t yet have a phone) and school names written in Hangul (the Korean alphabet that somewhat resembles Chinese characters) and directions to each school.
I use the term “directions” loosely. In the chaos of the meeting, three different people were scribbling down instructions, partly in English and partly in Hangul on the back of a piece of paper. Since I haven’t yet learned the Korean alphabet, I had no idea how to pronounce any of the schools’ names. This proved to be a problem.
My first school was supposedly a 25-minute walk from my apartment, but my instructions were to take a taxi the first time so I wouldn’t get lost. I was simply to show the driver the name of the school, written in Hangul, and he would know where to go.
The day before school started, I reviewed all the information I had received. It seemed like something was missing, but I couldn’t find another piece of paper, so I went with what I had: A chicken-scratched name that I could neither read nor pronounce.
My co-teacher wanted me to arrive around 8:15, so to ensure I wasn’t late, I caught a cab at 7:10 … even though the school was supposedly just around the corner. I didn’t want to take any chances on making a bad first impression.
I got in the cab, showed the driver the chicken scratch and he took off. Except, he wasn’t going in the direction I thought he would. Worse yet, he kept driving, and driving, and driving. I kept thinking, “This isn’t right,” as we kept getting further and further away from my neighborhood.
There was a phone number on my direction sheet, so I mimed to the driver and asked him to call it with his phone. He did, but it was too early and the school wasn’t open yet. So he kept driving and I kept wondering where I would end up. I tried to rationalize it in my head. Maybe I misunderstood. Maybe the school wasn’t a 25-minute walk; maybe it was a 25-minute drive.
As we drove on, the surroundings became increasingly rural and I became increasingly anxious. When we finally arrived at a tiny little school in the middle of nowhere, I was so sure I was in the wrong place that I stayed in the cab until a very nice little man approached the car, coaxed me out and escorted me inside the school.
Per Korean custom, we took off our shoes and put on slippers and headed to the teachers’ office. I tried to ask if I was in the right place, but his English was only slightly better than my Korean. I took out my Korean/English dictionary and started pointing to words on my direction sheet. “Is this place different than that place?”
I found “wrong” in the dictionary and tried to ask if I was in the wrong place. He seemed to think I was in the right place, so I began to calm down a little bit. Maybe I really had misunderstood? I asked what he did at the school, so he took me to a picture of the staff. In the photo, I saw one of the women I had met earlier, but she wasn’t the one I was expecting to see that day. My anxiety returned.
After some more miming and dictionary pointing, I tried calling the cell phone number I was given. No answer. A few minutes later, someone called the school, but the nice man had a short conversation and hung up without handing the phone to me. So I tried the number again. This time the co-teacher answered. I tried to ask if I was in the right place, but she didn’t reply. She just said she’d be at the school in 10 minutes. This actually calmed me. Maybe I was in the right place after all.
My hope was shattered about five minutes later when one of the teachers arrived, looked at me with confusion, and shook her head.
“I’m not supposed to be here today, am I?”
She went to a list, looked at it, shook her head again and said, “No.”
“I knew it. I knew something wasn’t right,” I muttered.
I started trying to explain what happened, but her English wasn’t good enough to really understand. She just motioned for me to sit down while she headed for the phone.
As soon as my butt hit the chair, tears started pouring from my eyes. I tried to stop them, but I couldn’t. The other two teachers had arrived by now, so the whole staff was in the office, witnessing my breakdown and trying to figure out what to do with me. I could tell they were extremely uncomfortable, but they wanted to make me feel better, so they kept saying, “It’s OK. We change schedule. It’s OK.”
After about 10 minutes of searching through phone books and lists and internet sites, they finally figured out how to contact my co-teacher. And although I didn’t understand what they were saying, I could tell they were talking about me. At one point, they all laughed.
I’m guessing they told my co-teacher I had been crying because, when they put me on the phone with her, she was very sweet and supportive. I was overly apologetic.
Clearly I had somehow lost an important piece of paper, and with it, the directions to my first school. I wonder where it is? I’ll probably find it when I move out.
So, the nice little man who first greeted me was given the task of driving me all the way back to my neighborhood and the school around the corner. But not only did he drive me, he walked me inside the school, helped me find the office, and stayed with me until my co-teacher arrived. If I’ve learned anything these first couple weeks in this country, it’s that Korean people are extremely helpful (most of the time).
When my co-teacher first saw me, she was very kind and asked more than once, “Are you better now?”
I nodded yes.
Then she introduced me to the principal and vice principal. They didn’t seem too stoked to meet me, but after everyone talked and laughed about me a little bit more, they seemed to soften.
I’m pretty sure they think I’m a total idiot.
How’s that for a first impression?