On the morning of the day marking my eighth week in Korea, I wake up cold for the first time and wondering about how to use the floor heating in my apartment. I shower and make toast and some of the precious coffee that a barista friend sent me from Seattle. On my walk to school, I go a little out of my way to pluck some leaves from a tree. Autumn came very late this year.
Amidst the morning chatter of the office, I hurriedly make some worksheets and scuttle off to teach my first class. In the hallway, students from my second class try to pull me into their classroom first, shouting, “Don’t go to Kiwis! Teach us!” But I go to Kiwi class anyway and when Tyler cries because, as he states, I always call on Eric first to talk about his feelings, I kiss the top of his head, smooth his hair and assure him that tomorrow he will be first. Tyler rarely cries and when he does, it’s really heartbreaking. We work in our Jelly books, and the kids practice their song and dance and we spend a long time talking and playing word games.
In my second class, Kai asks me if I can make a copy of the lyrics to our Halloween song so that he can take them home to study and my heart melts right then and there. Kai had a bit of a meltdown during class earlier in the week because the song is difficult and the other kids were yelling at him to sing louder, so he had refused to sing at all. The fact that he is taking initiative to ask for the lyrics on his own, the fact that he wants to study so that he can be better for the performance, that’s what makes him one of my favorites.
At lunchtime I scoop bony, scaly fish and spicy rice cakes and kimchi into ten little plates. Earlier this week, my Korean co-teacher told me that I need to help train my kids to use their chopsticks properly at lunchtime, a task I didn’t know was necessary, so one that I have been neglecting. So, I did that, too and laughed at myself for thinking that these kids were born with the dexterity that has taken me months to learn. It was a sort-of out-of-body experience, to watch myself training kids to learn chopsticks in a country where I just got the hang of it. Korean chopsticks are metal and heavy and more difficult to use than Japanese chopsticks.
On the afternoon marking my eighth week in Korea, I walk home during my break in the finally-crisp air, and make coffee and try to find some sort of calm. The seafood restaurant across the street from my apartment has a tank outside and usually it’s just boring mollusks’ and such. But now, they’ve got octopi and I can’t help but stop each time I pass. I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t often think much about the animals that I eat, but an octopus is a sentient creature with three hearts and the tank makes me sad. The tank makes me think about han.
On the way back to school, I pass a group of my kids on the sidewalk. One of them is my beginner phonics student, KJ. He’s a troublemaker, but there’s often this sweetness in his face. He skips up to me with his friends and says “Hiiii! Teacher!!” and then keeps walking.
Back at school, in my third and final class of the afternoon, my brain is scurrying for activities when I realize that I’ve got 25 minutes left of time to fill and my students already know know the material for the day. So, I pop in the CD we have for the book; it’s the first time I’ve used the CD and I didn’t realize that it has songs. So there I am, softly crooning about the days of the week and slowly rocking back-and-forth in my best Jessica Day imitation and as I’m singing, I’m thinking about five things at the same time.
One: I’m thinking about the friend back home who first put a name to my sarcastic kindergarten teacher voice and the arms of my mind are suddenly, desperately, ferreting about for some sort of traction before I spiral into that warm and dank tunnel of homesickness. Two: I’m thinking about how my voice rarely has any trace of sarcasm in it when I’m talking to my kids, especially to my beginner phonics kids. Three: I’m thinking about how my friends would laugh if they could see me at this present moment. Four: I’m thinking about how often I shut off my brain in Korea while I’m working because, although it’s hard, it’s easy and often it’s mindless or maybe I shut down as a sort of defense-mechanism because the spinning of a my hectic days makes me so dizzy. I’m thinking about all the ramifications of the brain-turning-off-thing and how I need to deal with it on a daily basis, how I have to train myself to find the switch to turn myself, my real-self, the non-zombie-teacher self, back on. Five: I’m watching the faces of my students as they quietly mouth the words of the song along with me. I’m wondering if they think I’m crazy. I’m wondering if they buy my act of the super-sweet teacher who sways back and forth and sings about the days of the week.
I’m wondering if I buy my act. And, I’m wondering if it’s an act at all.
Back in the office, I spend an hour trying to download the software for our office printer. In the two months that I’ve been working, I’m still unable to print from my own computer. If I want to print, I email my co-teacher the document. It’s more than a bit inconvenient. While I’m tinkering, another teacher gets a call from a parent. Later, she tells me that one of my students, KJ, was in a car accident. He’s alright, but he’s in the emergency room. When I leave the office, my frustration with technology is overshadowed by my worry for my student.
Korea. For all the reading I did, nothing really prepared me for Korea. This country is an endless juxtaposition of shiny and dingy, safe and dangerous, modern and timeworn.
Earlier this week, I sat in a cutesy little wine bar in my city with one of my favorite expat friends. We stared into the glass table filled with discarded corks and twinkle lights and we talked and laughed and complained about this country, so new to both of us.
“I wanted to love it more than I do,” I said to her.
“Same,” she said back.
When I got home on the evening of the day marking my eighth week in Korea, I re-read a letter written to me by one of my best friends before I left Seattle. I squeezed my eyes shut and I tried to remind myself why I’m here, why I came to this country that I don’t yet quite understand and probably never will. And then I finished my coffee, I put my cup in the sink, and I walked out into the night to gather supplies for my next day of classes.
**Han or 한. Han is a concept in Korean culture denoting a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of overwhelming odds. It connotes aspects of lament.