Culture Shocked

I’m really sorry there are no pictures. I do have, but I need to move them from Facebook into the blog, and the PC I”m currently using is seriously aged. Korea may have the fastest internet inthe world but it seriously needs to upgrade its hardware. And software: what is with still using the fail Internet Explorer 6?? We’re three upgrades on! And there are way better brosers out here! Smdh. Anyway, on to the blog: be warned, it’s super long. They will get shorter in time; everything is just so strange right now I want to document every detail.

On Friday morning we awoke far too early for our liking, around 7:30am (midnight local time), to have “breakfast” and make our way to the department of education, as we had been told to be there before 2pm, but ideally as soon as possible. (This is an important point for later.) “Breakfast” consisted of toasted white bread with strawberry jam (applied liberally with a spoon) and (tiny) cups of delicious orange juice. We were also successful in finding coffee – our first experience with the pre-mixed sachet of instant coffee. I assumed it was a hostel thing. I assumed wrongly.

We called for a taxi around 11. Upon his arrival, he exclaimed aloud at the size of our luggage. (Seriously. Travellers. Taxis cart them. I don’t see why “luggage” is such an impossible concept to grasp.) We went on a 20 minute drive to the address provided by the agency in South Africa. We arrived at an official-looking building where the taxi deposited us, luggage and all, and drove off. We hauled our stuff up the stairs, through the door and into a small, heated office. We beamed around as if to say “Here we are! The English teachers. We have arrived.” We felt relieved at the thought that our journey was complete. A man offered us a seat and coffee, both of which we gratefully accepted, and waited for someone to attend to us.

Only: “Can I help you?” asked someone, slightly perplexed. We were similarly perplexed. We’re the English teachers? From South Africa? The ones who you insisted be here before 2pm today? No, she knew nothing about us. The alarming thought crossed my mind that everything had been a mistake; they had no positions for us after all! But after a series of phone calls and rapid conversations in Korean, we found out we’d gone to the wrong building. Of course. Fortunately someone from the office offered to drive us to the right place so we didn’t need to take another taxi. (This guy had ample boot space.)

Finally at the right building, they were surprised to see us there “so soon”. Sylvia’s co-teacher was only arriving at 2pm; mine after 5pm. We had to wait around until then.

Our first wait took place in the icy “women’s lounge” – icy because the heating is turned off everyday between 11am and 12pm. Which was just when we happened to be there. Of course. There was a TV in the room and we managed to find an English channel. We watched “Tasty Trails with Benjamin” – a Korean food show hosted by an Italian named Benjamin. It was…interesting.

We joined some of the office staff for lunch at a seafood restaurant. There was more rice and banchan, and seaweed soup (surprisingly tasty) and a shellfish soup – containing whole shellfish. Mussels, clams, abalone (which I felt very guilty about eating), crab and prawns. It was good, but weird. The only things I recognised on the table: pork, mushrooms and onion.

After lunch we went back to the office, had some sachet coffee, listened to a protest outside (they were protesting the state building across the street, don’t know why. No tyres were burnt), and waited some more. Just after 2pm Sylvia’s co-teacher arrived and Sylvia went downstairs to meet her, leaving me to wait some more. We spent the rest of the afternoon signing contracts, visiting the local hospital (to see where we’d have to go on Monday for our medical check-up) and finding an international bank (mission: successful). I also received the key to my apartment, but was saddened to hear it would only be ready the following day. Sylvia’s situation was worse: her place a. was out in the rural area and b. would only be available the following Wednesday (also her birthday!). Sylvia found out she would be teaching at a school in Jeju City (so why the rural lodgings, heck only knows. Again, severe logic deficiency) and I learnt I was teaching at TWO schools, both out in the rural area. (And I’m living in town. Go figure.) Sylvia’s co-teacher is named Joyce and is very nice: she took us to the hospital and to find a bank. We also settled into the motel where we would both be staying that night. Sunny, the lady in charge of our programme, told me that my co-teacher was a man and would come meet me at my hotel later that afternoon. She also told me that the school was having one of its once-a-semester parent-teacher dinners and I was welcome to attend, although if I didn’t feel up to it I didn’t have to go.

While I was waiting for Charles to arrive (for so his name turned out to be), I discovered that the toilet in my room leaked rather badly, so, armed with my phrasebook, I went downstairs to attempt to communicate this with the aged proprietor of the building.

I bent down and peered through the small glass window. Spying no one, I pressed the buzzer and waited. A little old lady appeared. We looked at each other. “Uh, English?” I asked. She turned and yelled for her husband, who soon trotted into view. Feeling rather like Twoflower the Tourist in Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, I read out: “Moon-jeh-gah eet-ssum-nee-dah?” (There’s a problem.) He disappeared and then reappeared by the lift. We rode up to my room together. With many gestures I attempted to convey to him that the toilet leaked. He agreed that the toilet leaked, but apparently, because of the drain in the floor, this was ok. “But it leaks all over the floor when you flush!” I said in frustration. He seized my phrasebook and started reading down the list of all the essential hotel phrases. I spoke in English. He jabbered on in Korean. We stared at each other some more. Then, “Changey?” he asked. I sighed. As I had no means of communication, and the little old man appeared to think a leaking toilet was nothing more than a minor inconvenience, I decided to let it go. “No changey,” I said. With much thanks and bowing, he left the room, only to knock on the door two seconds later to tell me not to wear my shoes in the room.

My co-teacher arrived just after five. He’s about as tall (or short, depending on your point of view) as I am, and in his thirties I should think. When I invited him in he asked if I could come out instead, and join them at the dinner. I hesitated. “Do you want me to?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered simply. Sigh. Fine.

In the car, upon hearing I like reading, Charles asked if I enjoyed  “nobles”. I’m sorry? “Do you like to read nobles?” Nobles? Then I clicked. Novels. Yes, yes I do enjoy reading novels, thanks for asking.

The restaurant we were going to was a raw fish restaurant. No, that’s not sushi, that’s raw fish. We were the first to arrive, so to fill up the time, Charles asked me about myself, as he would have to introduce me to the parents and staff.

“Where do you come from in South Africa?”


He solemnly proceeded to write down “Victoria.”

Much spelling confusion later, I took the pen and notebook from him and wrote down everything myself. He was fascinated to hear my mom teaches “life skills” (easier than trying to say “life orientation” I thought), and although I tried hard to explain it to him, I still don’t think he quite got it.

At length everybody arrived, all extremely interested in me. Then a Korean girl appeared and said “Hi.” Englischer! I was so happy to have someone there who could interpret a bit for me.

At the start of the meal everyone had to stand up (yes, we were sitting on the heated floor – and yes I was still cold) and introduce him or herself. Well, I’m assuming, as obviously I had no idea what was going on and just fixed the politely blank smile of incomprehension upon my face.

When it was my turn I had to stand while Charles read out, in Korean, what I had told him. I caught the words “roast chicken” (my favourite food) and “national communications” (what my dad does). Then: “Say hello to everyone,” he instructed me. I stared down at the assembled Korean faces staring up at me. I waved, once. Then I said the only Korean I knew: Gam-sam-nee-dah (thank you), bowed quickly and sat down, to general cheers and applause.

Dinner turned out to be a 7-course meal, starting out bizarre but gradually calming down (in other words, from raw to cooked), with the odd dish of crazy thrown in here and there. This place is to Kung Fu Kitchen what the “guesthouse” of our first night is to the Hilton.

The “appetizer” was some sort of runny tasteless porridge: not appetizing at all. There were three sauces in front of each person: hot (red) sauce, some kind of salsa, and at last something I recognised: soy sauce. However, the wasabi (wassup, bee?) had been pre-added and of course added in large amounts, so the soy sauce and wasabi was more like wasabi soaked in soy sauce. Sigh. Can’t a poor Westerner catch a break?!

The first course was sashimi, beautifully presented on coils of some twirly white stuff (no idea). It was…ok, but kind of rubbery. And fishy. There was also raw abalone and, horror of horrors, live squid. It moved when you poked it. (I did not poke it. Or eat it. EW.) Also present: a host of unidentifiable side dishes. I took some white kimchi, which I guessed was some kind of cabbage, and it was SPICY. (But nothing compared to the red kimchi, as I was to discover.) I must have looked so miserable, try as I might to smile, that someone took pity on me and ordered some kind of onion spicy (NOT HOT!) and nigiri.

The soup was delicious. I was so grateful at actually being able to eat something without my tongue bursting into flames, I nearly cried. The nigiri, however, was a different story.

Everyone who’s eaten sushi with me knows I eat one fish: salmon. It’s delicious, and I see no reason to change this. Now, of course, I had no choice. This fish was pale, almost colourless, and there was a lot of it. I took one, put it in my mouth, and chewed. And chewed. And chewed some more.

Finally managing to swallow it, I turned to Mary and gasped, “What is it?” “Flounder,” she said. Flounder! That happy blue and yellow fish, friend to Ariel and all undersea creatures?! Was that what I had just eaten?! The horror. Joking aside, it was really not pleasant.

At last the cooked stuff came out. Abalone grilled in butter (amazing), green sea shells on a bed of burning salt (er, don’t ask. Because it’s fancy, apparently), sea cucumber (really gross. See, they don’t talk, sea cucumbers… Sorry. Inside joke :P), sea urchin (a really expensive delicacy that was urged on me. I ate the whole thing once I’d heard how pricey it was, but really it just tasted like sea water that had gelled together.) and finally the most delicious item of the evening: sea bass. It was soooo goooood. It tastes something like snoek, but more buttery and almost pork-like. Once they’d seen I liked it, they kept offering me more! Well, I wasn’t saying no.

The same happened with the soju. Soju, if you don’t know, is basically Korean vodka. It’s really gross. Koreans have this whole ritual for drinking soju, particularly (I’m assuming) at more formal dinners, like the one I was at. Someone calls you over and offers you a shotglass, which you must take with both hands (“is very polite”) and pours you a shot, probably while saying something. Then you have to do the same for them. It’s not done to pour for yourself, so if you want a drink you have to pour one for someone else. I drank soju with the principal, vice-principal and head teacher, as well as other people I don’t remember. They were rather taken aback by the fact that I downed the shots with seeming ease. Firstly: I’m from South Africa. We do things right there. Second: the stuff is so vile I can’t imagine wanting to sip it like tea. And of course, with enough soju, everything stops being so grim and starts being rather funny instead, which helped. I was also privately amused by the thought of the teachers at my old school sitting around on the floor eating raw fish with chopsticks and doing shots. Lol. They also did very many toasts, which were loudly applauded. I couldn’t get the hang of what they were shouting (and had no idea what they were saying) so I just clapped along with everyone and clinked glasses at the appropriate time.

After a last toast from the man buying dinner for us (I heard it was something like 50,000 won a person. That’s about R350 a head. Sheesh) we all left the restaurant and stood around on the pavement while they debated lifts and car pools. (There are no words for how cold it was. No. Words.) Charles and I finally piled into a car with several other people, only to hear the husband giving a quick driving lesson to his wife, who must have not been drinking. That was a little terrifying, I won’t lie. They drive like crazy people over here: on the wrong side of the road, first of all, and with seeming scant regard for robots and pedestrians and lanes – they’ll straddle lanes, gooi U-turns in the middle of nowhere and sail through red lights as if they aren’t even there. TERRIFYING.

After a quick chat with Sylvia, I headed for bed. We had another early start the following day…


2 thoughts on “Culture Shocked

  1. So entertaining Ta! I have jsut read your story to nanny, granny and papa G. Dad and the kids also listened. All thouroughtly enjoyed your experiences! We llok forward to the next one!.xx

  2. Oh. My. Word.
    That dinner sounds like the most interesting thing ever!!! Wow, all that raw fish…and NOT sushi?? What is wrong with them? Glad you showed your SA prowess at the shots – that’s my Tarryn!

    I’m getting kinda jealous hey, it’s all so exciting!!

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