Of rice cakes and weddings

Monday dawned, appearing warm from my well-insulated flat. I was lulled into leaving my scarf behind; a move which I came to regret as we drove out of the warm city and into the chilly countryside.


This was only the start of my second week of actual teaching but I was already feeling much more confident and relaxed in the classroom. The grade 1s were quickly becoming my favourite class; not only are they extremely well-behaved and obedient, they’re ridiculously cute too. The grade 3s, however, are another story. The class is mostly boys and they’re…challenging to teach, to say the least. I have to use my Stern Teacher Voice with them more than any other class.

The grade 3 homeroom teacher told me to come to the staffroom during break, as there was “delicious food”. I smilingly agreed before remembering that it would not be MY idea of delicious staffroom teatime food (sausage rolls, cupcakes, sausage rolls, sausage rolls). I was not wrong. What was laid out on the table was an assortment of Korean delicacies: variations on the theme of rice. Yes.

Look delicious, no?

Following the lead of the principal, I selected what I believe to be the least appetizing thing EVER: a solid white rectangle of rice, pounded to a fine paste and smooshed into a cake-shape. It. Was. Revolting. It was like eating rubber. Tasteless, chewy rubber. But stickier. I managed to grin and chew my way through the whole thing, but even the fourth grade teacher, possibly noting my grimace beneath my heroic smile, told me, “That, that is not very delicious.” Yeah. I also had something which was much nicer; puffed rice stuck what may have been peanut brittle. But frankly, anything would have been an improvement over that white rice cake. Shudder.

The grade 4s are mostly girls: they’re loud, as only a bunch of 10-year-old girls can be loud. We’re supposed to be moving through their Monday textbook as quickly as possible, but it’s difficult when some people finish much faster than others. But we’re getting there.

The grade 5s are another great class. There are eight boys and two girls, and they’re all really cool and smart. The two girls are really good at English and two of the boys struggle quite a bit, so it all balances out. They love games, which we always have time for because the textbook is so ridiculous (about four really short exercises per 40 minute lesson). On Monday we played bingo, which they thoroughly enjoyed.

I was informed by my co-teacher that from Monday I would be teaching the advanced “half” of the sixth grade class as well. I was a trifle annoyed because I had enjoyed sitting back and watching a teacher who knew what he was doing, for a start, and generally taking it easy and doing little admin tasks in his class. It’s not really extra preparation because I have to teach grade 6 at the other school (all elementary fifth and sixth graders use the same textbook. Very useful for sharing lesson plans and ideas) but as they are behind this school, I was kinda maybe hoping to just repeat my co-teacher’s lessons. Sigh. I’m now doing 17 different lesson plans a week – but at least I’m never bored!

Two grade 6 students: Eun Ju and Joory.

While I was waiting for the other teachers after school I stood on the front step in the sun, enjoying the warmth. I put my sunglasses on, because, you know, the sun was in my eyes.  And did the other teachers stare when they saw! The older generation doesn’t really wear sunglasses here; it’s mostly young people and bus and taxi drivers who sport them.

That evening I received another visit from a random TV/internet repairman who rang the bell, asked if the TV was working; when I said no, disappeared to the cable room, checked stuff, came back to say again “Tee bee no?” with accompanying X arm movement, and then disappeared. I still don’t know why.

Something like this. Only, you know, with Korean people.

I think I’ve mentioned how spicy Korean food is. Well, even the Western-style spaghetti sauce that’s next to the proper Western spaghetti sauce, is inferno-like. I found this out the hard way.


The next morning I was sitting in the front of the bus, as I usually do (I like the view), just minding my own business, perhaps dozing off ever so slightly, when I noticed a dog and a man walking on the side of the road. Next thing the dog suddenly ran out into the middle of the road, and froze on the centre line. Instead of slowing down or swerving, the bus driver kept going, and hooted. Yeah, that’s going to work on a frightened dog watching a huge bus barreling down the road towards it; it’s not going to scare it even more or anything. (Sarcasm font.) I don’t know what happened next because I had my eyes shut; the bus did eventually come to a stop but I don’t think we hit the dog. I hope. Most bus drivers drive like maniacs. Seriously.

The textbook I would be teaching the grade 1s and 2s from was not impressive, to say the least. It’s all in Korean, from the teacher’s guide to the instructions in the children’s textbook. Half the time I have to look at the homeroom teacher helplessly until she explains: to the kids in Korean and to me in some form of English. We manage! The grade 1s are very cute, of course.

The third grade class, never a peaceful lesson anyway (class of 26, 70% boys) got even more exciting when a fight broke out between two boys, with about four more piling in. The head teacher and the other adult in the room (a minder for a special needs boy) pulled them apart, yelled at them, and then dragged the two who started it off to the vice principal’s office (I’m assuming, but the VP is generally the one who deals with the more serious behavioural issues). Fun times.

The head English teacher told me that I could leave at 4:45 and so catch the 4:50 bus, which I;d never taken before. I was sitting in the front as the bus was quite full already, so imagine my horror, as we approached Aewol High School, to see a crowd of easily more than a hundred teenagers. They piled onto the bus, an endless stream of adolescents. The driver eventually had to close the doors on them. In the meantime, because I was sitting in the front, I literally got sat on. My personal space was deeply and tragically violated that day. I concentrated on my iPod and sought my happy place. Fortunately, it’s only been that bad once since then. Again, fun times!

Best day ever

Wednesday was an awesome day. All my classes went well, we had an amazing lunch (not-at-all-spicy yellow curry with rice, and strawberries!) and my co-teacher took me to set up my bank account and cellphone.

Shiny new cellphone! I could live without a phone, but not without internet. There must and shall be Tweeting!

We also stopped by the education office where I discovered, to my utter joy and excitement (literally. I jumped a little and clapped a little and grinned a lot) that despite the complete lack of communication and information up to that point, I would in fact be going to Seoul for the April 2011 EPIK orientation: the very next week, in fact. I was even more thrilled to hear that Sylvia and about seven other people from Jeju would be going too.

I met up with Sylvia later at our favourite coffee shop where I told her the good news about Seoul (no, of course they hadn’t told her. I think they were planning to send a carrier pigeon though) and we revelled in the excitement together. We had dinner at the local Indian restaurant, the Raj Mahal (no, it’s not just a joke from The Big Bang Theory, apparently). We both had the butter chicken with garlic and butter nan bread and basmati rice. It. Was. Amazeballs. That is all.

As I was in the lift going up to my flat that night, my dad called me. I was so engrossed in the conversation and the new phone that I got off on the wrong floor. When I tried to open “my” door I was amazed and annoyed to find it impervious to my attempts to unlock it. I heard footsteps inside and for a split second wondered “Who the heck is in my flat?” before the truth dawned on me. Too late: the door swung open and a very large Korean man in very small boxers stared out at me. With a horrified and apologetic smile I bowed and hurried away. Oops.

A much less awesome day

Classes on Thursday weren’t exactly fantastic. The useless grade 2 textbook again left me floundering; fortunately I had YouTubed an alphabet song which we sang several times: girls, boys, this row, that row…

The grade 4s were nightmarish: they were so naughty that the head teacher made them all kneel behind their chairs at one point (that’s what they do for punishment in these parts). I know the TaLK teacher at the school also struggles a lot with the grade 4s so at least I know I’m not alone in my suffering!

With the grade 3s and 4s on Friday we do a different textbook, which the 3s appear to hate less than the Monday book, so we actually managed to have a not unsuccessful class (mostly, I must admit, due to the awesome power of Colouring In).

We had another excellent lunch that day: what I am informed is called “sambap”, although I am quite willing to be corrected on that. Small pieces of cooked meat (in our case, pork) wrapped in a lettuce/cabbage leaf with a small bit of the most delicious paste in the world (samjang) and a bit of rice. Absolutely divine.

Friday night and Saturday I took it super easy; on Sunday I attended the wedding of my principal’s son. It was…interesting.

Get me to the, er, hotel on time!

The wedding was held in one of the conference rooms at the Jeju Grand Hotel. It was decorated with flowers and fairy lights and there was an aisle down the middle. Everyone was seated at round tables; people who arrived late had to stand around the sides. And people kept coming and going – it was very strange. While the ceremony was going on too!

The wedding venue.

Most people were dressed quite smartly but there were a few who showed up looking like they’d just rolled out of bed (cough*our phys ed teacher*cough). The fathers of the bride and groom wore suits while the mothers wore traditional Korean dresses. The groom was in a formal suit and the bride wore the most insanely froufrou dress ever: it was blindingly white and poufy and sparkly. I totally admired her for wearing it.

The dress. It sparkled.

Elements of Western white weddings and receptions were mixed in with Korean rituals. They said vows and bowed to their parents. They had a long video montage set to epically cheesy Western pop music and musical items by their friends (off-key karaoke version of Justin Bieber’s Baby. No words). They’d also taken pre-wedding wedding photos, dressed in their wedding regalia, and had them hanging up everywhere. I thought it was odd. After the ceremony they walked down the aisle and their friends sprayed what looked like shaving cream on them – the bride did not look best pleased.

Dude. Not cool.

The hundreds of guests enjoyed the hotel buffet while the bride and groom went off to change into traditional wear. The food was surprisingly good – I could identify most of it and was very happy to see plates and knives and forks on the table!

The mother of the bride doing the rounds with her daughter dressed in traditional dress (hanboks). The menfolk are on the other side.

The bride and groom came out and were taken around the room by each set of parents and introduced to each table. There was much bowing and smiling and so on. After a while I was done eating, but everyone just kept sitting around and talking. And talking. And talking. It was only about 1pm and I was already bored out of my skull, but my co-teacher had told me and the TaLK teacher we should stay until around 7: to “be polite” and “show support” to the family. Er. The TaLK teacher bailed around 1:30 and I was left with absolutely no one to converse with. They eventually took pity on me and said I could leave, and I took full advantage of the opportunity.

I walked back to my flat and on the way strolled through a little park right next to my apartment block: it was a lovely sunny day.

What a nice day!

Next time on The Complainant in Asia: the weirdest museums of all time. Seriously.


2 thoughts on “Of rice cakes and weddings

  1. “My personal space was deeply and tragically violated that day.” LAUGHED when I read that; what a great line! Am also going to use the word ‘Amazeballs’ now. Sounds like the food might be the biggest adventure of all over there :)

  2. My life is dull and boring in comparison, I’m so jealous of you right now, sounds like an absolute scream, memories to last a lifetime… keep the hilarious posts coming

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