Rainy Saturday all holed up in my little residence here at Gohan Elementary School. With the TV on. I’ve never been much of a TV watcher, but ever since they hooked up my cable I keep finding my thumb drifting toward that remote. The provision of cable and a TV on which to watch it is stipulated in my contract. This surprised me at first – I would certainly have preferred they provide internet, which I’m still waiting to get hooked up on my own 100 won coin – but I now realize that, at least in my case, cable TV has actually been very soothing. TV kills the silence of living alone, something that is quite new to me. Sure I’ve spent plenty of time by my lonesome, having traveled to many a far-flung spot all my by self. Here now I’m finding out how different moving alone is from staying alone. The part that kills me is not loneliness. The only time I’ve felt lonely, in fact, was my first night here and most of the following day. It was a very intense loneliness brought on by the abrupt transition from the high-drive socializing of a bunch of fast friend peers all lumped together with 10 free evenings at EPIK orientation to a silent night in an empty house in a strange little mountain town. Fortunately, having uprooted myself to strange places before, I was able to identify the reasons for how I felt and knew it would go away. What didn’t go away was the silence. The silence really kills me, it piles up on top of itself, traps and suffocates my brain. Background noise is like a pacemaker for my thoughts, occupying the part of my brain that bounces off the walls if not restrained. TV does occupy more of my brain than I would often like, but at least for now the sound of human voices, even ones I can’t hardly understand, is truly wonderful, if a little bit terribly guiltily so.
Cable TV here has a number of highlights I would like to share with you. Moving up through the numerous channels, you first pass a whole lot of local news channels. While I can sort of guess the news topics from visual cues and the few and far between words I understand, the newsworthiness is often entirely lost to me. They seem to interview a disproportionate number of old ladies who look very disapproving of whatever it is they are talking about, to show a large number of panning shots of quotidian life, particularly of ubiquitous apartment buildings and farm houses, and to sprinkle in a surprising amount of undercover-cam footage with blurred-out faces of people pretty much sitting around chatting very unexcitedly and, I must say, entirely unsisnisterly about something that I can only take on faith to be appropriately nefarious.
Next, there’s lots of talkshowish programs, with plenty of cute font, brightly colored captions bouncing around the screen, highlighting the more amusing statements they’re saying. After that there are pretty much 24/7 at least a few soap operas set in ancient times East Asia, some Korean, some Chinese with subtitles. Among these, the only thing making any of the programs unique to my untrained eye is the wide range of production quality; some of the Chinese ones I’m pretty sure borrowed their costumes from a high school drama class.
Further into the channels come educational programs of teachers lecturing about a wide variety of topics. These are very exciting. Every couple of minutes they even go so far as to change from the predominant shot of chalkboard and hand with piece of chalk writing on chalkboard to show the teacher’s face for at least a few seconds. I have one of these programs on right now. We are learning high school algebra. The teacher has clean fingernails and holds that chalk very well. Unfortunately he uses roman letters for variables, which I find a little disappointing.
After that there are a number of sports channels, showing local and international sporting events.
Following that there are some channels that show a lot of American movies, couple-year-old primetime network series, and a few wonderfully horrible old-school shows (such as the A-team; I don’t know how people took themselves seriously back then!), presenting a surprisingly satisfying selection of programming in English.
Finally come the best channels of all. Second best is the 24/7 Go channel, channel 73. My personal favorites, though, are channels 77 and 78, the live video game channels. Here one can’t help but become engrossed in the epic battle between slightly rotund, sweaty Korean teen-aged boys trying to destroy each other’s avatars or demondroid armies or whatever through the medium of networked personal computers, complete with corporate sponsorship and attractive commentators.
Aside from the above programming, I find the advertisements rather fascinating as well. About half of all advertisements, pitching most any product, are all the same: a cute, mid-to-late-twenties Korean girl against a clean, stylish background, speaking in a sing-songy half-whisper, with some fancy-font words floating by and almost always a very quick little jingle at the very end. Seriously, those are all the same, whether it’s green tea, home lones, or toilets. Also, there are a few great ads on of just the sort made fun of in Lost In Translation, particularly good is one showing Pierce Brosnan in a suit. It just zooms around him for a while, and at the very end, he says, simply and slowly, “The Suit.”
Gladly I don’t need to wear “The Suit” myself at work. I do, however, have to wear a collared shirt and non-jeans. I actually haven’t been explicitly told not to wear jeans, but I plan to wait until I’ve thoroughly ingratiated myself before asking. I have been explicitly told not to wear flip-flops, yet at the same time it is required at the elementary schools to take your shoes off at the door and change into slippers. I bought my own pair of slippers to take with me after spending all Wednesday with half my foot hanging off of the biggest extra pair they had. I’m glad no students noticed this, as I’m sure they would not have let me hear the end of it. This I am sure of because of all the other things they don’t let me hear the end of. Of foremost interest are the presence of hair on my face, the relative lack of it on my head, and the size and shape of my nose. Whether despite or because of such exotic features, the majority of my younger female students have been assuring me that I am “very handsome,” even a few male students and teachers have echoed that. In fact, last Saturday, when I was meeting people at some schools before starting work, several teachers happily said to me “good imajee [image]!” My co-teacher in charge of helping me out, Mr. Heo, explained that they were pleased that they got the most tall, anglo-saxon looking of the new teachers coming to the county. Clearly my English is thus the most authentic, right? Anyway, the girls’ middle school is probably the best place to teach; perhaps it’s just the novelty, but they were glued to my every word. And while for now I just let the rockstarstatus amuse me, I very quickly grew tired of the one girl who decided to stalk me through the hallways all day long. At one point she saw me talking to some other girls at the other end of the hallway, I suppose found this unacceptable, and literally sprinted over and tried her best to edge the other girls away. I think I need to practice the Korean for “Thank you, I’m very flattered. Please do be so kind as to relay your positive impressions of me to any sisters or cousins you might have who are about ten years older than you are.”
At the boys’ schools, don’t get this kind of attention, which can certainly be a relief. Still, the boys seem to like me too, and I have had absolutely no discipline problems at all, something other teachers are already complaining about on our EPIK 2006 email list. I am keeping in mind that the lack of misbehavior might, like the girls’ attentions, fade as quickly as my novelty. They do still use the “love stick” in schools here!
I teach at two elementary schools, the boys’ middle school, the boys’ high school, the girls’ middle school, the girls’ high school, and once it’s completed, at the “Jeongseon English Experience Center,” a brand-new facility for role-playing English practice, about 30km away. That is 7 schools, depending on how you count – since the boys’ high school and middle school are connected, as are the girls’ schools. In total I have 24.5 class hours. My contract limits me to 18 class-hours, so this means (should mean – I’ll be looking very carefully at my paycheck!) 6.5 hours’ overtime each week. They call these “special classes,” and never asked me if I wanted to do them. According to my contract they should have. I suppose I could complain, but at W20,000/hr (about US$21/hr) overtime, the added income is enough for me to try and put up with it. What I’m worried about is how much work it will prove to be, outside of class, to prepare material for 10 different grades, as well as the English Experience Center. But, as with everything, time will tell.
For now, I’m more worried about being able to teach effectively and cheerfully, with a loud enough voice, come Monday. Since about Thursday, I’ve had a sore throat, very unpleasant nasal congestion, and fatigue. Seriously I’m pretty sure it’s SARS, but I’m telling myself it’s a bad cold, brought on by the stress of getting adjusted during my first week. I was thinking of leaving town this weekend, possibly even going to Seoul to buy some things I want, particularly an electronic Korean-English dictionary and some Korean grammar books, but instead I’m just resting, writing this freaking novel (hey, you’re still reading it, aren’t you?), and watching TV.
Epilogue: On the way to the internet cafe, USB flashdrive with this post in my pocket, I was harangued by some middle school girls. They were very concerned that I am unshaven, and truly shocked that I should be wearing flip-flops with no socks! They must have been very concerned for my naked feet because they proceeded to follow me down the street and giggle rabidly. Don’t worry ladies, my toes can handle it!