As they pulled into Daejeon, it was raining.
Head pressed against the glass of the moving bus, Carly thought it had to be a bad omen.
There hadn’t been a drop of water the entire week of orientation, but suddenly, on the most important day in South Korea so far, the rain had come to un-ravel her hair, give her a wet dog smell, and further complicate the process of getting her (too full) bags to her apartment.
They pulled into the DMOE (Daejeon Metropolitan Office of Education) around 10:30am for the welcoming ceremony. In her skirt and blouse, with her hair in what were once perfectly adorable milkmaid braids, and with a frown on her face, Carly grabbed her bags from under the bus and moved as quickly as possible to the awning at the front of the building. She and the rest of the EPIK-Daejeon teachers were ushered inside and led to a storage room at the back of the lobby. After ditching her bags, she raced to the bathroom to check the state of her appearance — this was no time to worry about inner beauty. She had one chance to make a first impression and the humidity was not doing her any favors. She touched up her makeup and did her best to mend her hair, finally deciding to embrace the “messy look” because, hey, maybe it made her look more approacchable anyway? Whilst giving herself a last once-over in the mirror and practicing her best so-happy-to-meet-you-but-not-creepy smile, she heard the DMOE supervisor making an announcement and rushed out to joint the others. They were split into two lines — one more primary school teachers and one for secondary school teachers– and were marched upstairs to the auditorium for the ceremony. After waiting outside the doors in a nervous huddle, they were finally ushered inside into a…..very underwhelming audience.
It’s not that she had been expecting a large amount of people to show up in order to witness the relatively normal situation of accepting a job, but the absurdity of the situation was hard to ignore and almost made Carly laugh out loud. Inside the auditorium, a venue that could easily hold 500 people, sat (maybe) 50 people — a co-teacher for each GET (Guest English Teacher), and a couple of guests. Furthermore, they were all sat awkwardly apart (in assigned seats!) in order to allow room for the GET’s upon “acceptance”. In single file, Carly and the rest of the new EPIK teachers waiting on the edge of the auditorium while groups of teachers, ten at a time, were called to stand on stage and meet their co-teachers. She watched as her friends stepped forward and awkwardly bowed, shook hands, or, in some cases, hugged their new co-teachers. Carly breathed deeply and closed her eyes, nervous about how she should greet her new co-worker and hoped, for the hundredth time that day, that she would be a woman.
You see, the day before, along with the information about her new school, Carly had received the name of her co-teacher. Not very familiar with common Korean names, her co-teacher’s name seemed rather ambiguous in terms of gender and had been the cause of great anxiety for the past 24 hours. Of course she would be able to get along with and perform well with a male co-teacher, but she was looking forward to the relationship she would be able to have with another female. After all, the main co-teacher’s role in her life would extend far outside of school life and would most likely include inquiries about trips to the doctor, the dentist, and other personal matters with which she thought a woman would be more familiar.
And so, when Carly finally stepped forward as her name and new middle school were read aloud, she let out an enormous sigh of relief at the site of her tiny, female co-teacher walking toward her. She shook hands whilst doing an awkward bow and was lead to her seat in the middle of the auditorium to watch the rest of the introductions.
From the DMOE, Carly and her co-teacher drove toward her new middle school in awkward silence. They made casual conversation about family and friends. Carly tried her best to be friendly and enthusiastic, but felt that her eagerness was rejected by her co-teachers stern disposition. She reminded herself to stay positive — first impressions can be wrong and first introductions are always awkward.
They arrived at the school around 11am. Immediately after stepping off of the elevator Carly was hit with a wave of male voices screaming “HELLO, TEACHER!”. Confused and starteld, Carly turned to the sound of the voices and saw that, below her in the courtyard, a group of students were playing soccer in P.E. class and had spotted her from the window. They waved up at her, smiling and jumping over each other, putting their game on pause. Carly waved back and turned to her co-teacher, beaming. “They’re excited to meet you,” she said, leading her down the hall to the third grade teacher’s workroom.
Inside, she showed Carly to her desk and instructed her to drop off her things. Much to Carly’s liking, the workroom was empty, and so no introductions had to be made. She was feeling more nervous by the second and could only handle so many new faces in one day. Her co-teacher suggested lunch, and Carly eagerly agreed, feeling a slight headache come on from her ~hearty~ breakfast of coffee and rice cake. They walked downstairs but, instead of heading off campus to grab a bite to eat, Carly’s co-teacher, who we’ll now refer to as Jinsoo, led her to the school cafeteria. Carly tried her best to push down her expectations and keep an open mind, but part of her was a little disappointed that her first Korean meal outside of orientation was to be in a school lunchroom.
But they got their lunch and ate in silence, sitting on the same side of the table and watching the elementary children gobble and grumble. On the way back to the workroom, Jinsoo took Carly to the administration office to meet the head English teacher, Minji, and pick up her computer. Carly accepted a vitamin drink from the head English teacher (the first of many) and exchanged pleasantries about life back in the states and adjusting to living in Korea. After heading back to the workroom and grabbing her things, Jinsoo suggested that they head to Carly’s apartment and finish up the tour on Monday. Carly acquiesced, for she had no reason not to, but was a little confused by the sudden change in plans and the short amount of time they had spent in the new school.
On the way to Jinsoo’s car in the parking garage, they ran into the Vice Principal in his car. Jinsoo waved him over immediately and he stopped his car to get out and greet Carly. Caught off-guard by the sudden high-profile introduction (the Principal and VP are two very important figures in a Korean school), Carly stumbled over her Korean and shook the VP’s hand with an awkward bow. “Welcome!” he screamed in English, beaming up at Carly from his 5’4 stature. Carly smiled back and felt a pang of relief as Jinsoo led her away from the Vice Principal, explaining in Korean that they had many errands to run.
After the immigration office to apply for her ARC, they headed to the bank, where Carly showed Jinsoo a script she had written with a friend during Korean class at orientation. In the class, Carly and her friend had been given the relationship of “boyfriend-girlfriend” and instructed to write a short dialogue. The script was short and cute and Carly thought that showing it to Jinsoo would be a nice way to pass the time and a good icebreaker.
“Wow,” Jinsoo said, after reading the script. “So, you really want a Korean boyfriend, right?”
“No!” Carly said, a little too loudly, drawing the attention of other waiting customers. She could feel her face turning red. “It was just an assignment for the class. We wanted to write something funny.”
Jinsoo nodded, her face expression-less and incredibly hard to read. Carly put the script back into her bag and waited in agony for the bank teller to call her number.
After the bank was her apartment, a decently-sized studio with a door separating the kitchen from the living area and, best of all, a shower detached from the sink with a half wall of separation! Carly thanked the apartment gods and proceeded to look through the items that the previous tennants (the EPIK teacher before her and his wife) had left behind, making a list of what she’d need to purchase for her new home. Then they were off to Homeplus, a target-like superstore a mere four minute drive from her home (and directly in front of her school). While instead, Carly and Jinsoo ran into two tall, young (and, uh, really cute) Korean men pushing a cart full of choco pies. They stopped and conversed with Jinsoo in Korean and Carly heard them ask if she was the new English teacher and when she had arrived in Daejeon. They finished talking and gave Carly a once-over, then left without even introducing themselves. Confused by the interaction, Carly followed Jinsoo into the produce section and focused on the task at hand. There would be time for cute Korean guys later. (Carly later learned the two men are working at the school for their military service. More on this to come.)
They shopped for forty minutes or so, Carly feeling guilty and rushed every step of the way because of her co-teacher. Jinsoo wasn’t hostile, but she wasn’t exactly happy…or helpful. Carly was unsure about normal prices for household items in Korea and was also having trouble reading packaging, but every question she asked felt like a burden to Jinsoo and a waste of her time. So Carly finished her shopping as soon as possible, forgetting several key items and paying more than she should have.
“Should we have dinner?” Jinsoo suggested, after steering clear of the check-out line with Carly’s enormous cart of home goods. Starving from the little that she ate at lunch, Carly smiled and nodded, excited to have a meal at an actual restaurant. Her face fell, however, as her co-teacher guided the cart toward the food court.
THE FOOD COURT?!
Carly tried her best to hide her disappointment and shovel away her expectations, but she didn’t think it was asking for a lot to expect something more than 2,000 won food court ddeokbokki on her first *real* day in Korea (outside the transplanted foreigner world that was orientation). Hell, she’d even pay!
But Carly definitely wasn’t going to suggest anything different — she was at the mercy of her co-teacher and tried to be grateful for everything she had done so far, both behind the scenes and in front of her face. So she ate the ddeokbokki and fish cake with a (fake) smile on her face, making small conversation only to be met with one-word replies. (Note: Homeplus food court food is actually pretty bomb, but Carly was expecting a dinner with JUST a bit more sustenance and/or nutritional value for her first dinner in Daejeon).
And then something wonderful happened.
In the middle of their meal, Carly heard a gasp from her right side and jumped in her chair. She turned and saw a middle school girl, still wearing her uniform, standing stiff as a board and covering her mouth with her hand. Her eyes were wide and she stared straight at Carly. Jinsoo spoke in Korean, explaining that this (Carly) was the new foreign english teacher. Carly smiled at the girl, waved, and said “hi”. The girl’s eyes grew wider, something Carly didn’t think possible, and she let out the smallest, meekest “hi” from behind her hand. Carly laughed gently and asked for the girl’s name.
“Subin,” said the girl, still from behind her hand.
“It’s nice to meet you, Subin,” Carly replied.
“Oh mo!” the girl said, fanning herself with her other hand. “Oh mo!” she said again, and Carly saw tears (yes, tears) start to form at the corners of her eyes.
“It’s nice to meet you, too,” the girl finally squeaked.
Jinsoo spoke to Subin swiftly in Korean, and Subin nodded and turned to go.
“See you on Monday,” Carly said as she was leaving. Subin turned around and bowed at Carly, one hand still on her mouth and eyes still full of tears.
Jinsoo went back to their meal (rather, their snacks) without a word about the strange introduction while Carly was shocked, confused, and flattered. What would her first classes on Monday be like?
This interaction stayed with Carly for the rest of the night, as Jinsoo drove her home and helped her unload her things, as Jinsoo gave an awkward good-bye and hurried out the door an hour and a half before she said she was obligated to stay, and as Carly drifted to sleep that first night alone in her new apartment. She replayed each moment and each first greeting over and over in her mind, wondering what kind of impression she had made, but this interaction with Subin made her feel that, no matter what, her life in Korea was sure to be interesting.
*name has been changed