Story Time: Teacher’s Trip to Tongyeong.
Alternatively, the first time I was, within the bounds of Korean workplace culture, forced to do some embarrassing in front of my co-workers.
It involved a bus full of teachers, soju, and the US national anthem.
But I digress. Let me start from the beginning.
So on occasion Korean schools will deem it necessary for all of the teachers to have some kind of bonding experience. Usually this takes place in the form of the hweshik 회식, also known as “company dinner” in English. But sometimes you get really lucky, sarcasm intended, and the school decides you’re all going to pile into busses, drive for a few hours, eat, get drunk, do some sightseeing, then pile back into the busses and come home.
Schedule may vary.
So Friday morning found all of us standing outside the school in the cold deciding who would get on which bus. Eventually we were shuffled into our respective busses, told where to sit, and settled in for the three-hour drive to Tongyeong in the south of the country.
The drive there was relatively uneventful and when we arrived our first stop was for lunch. Tongyeong is apparently famous for oysters, so you better believe we ate oysters. Raw oysters, boiled oysters, fried oysters, oyster pajeon, oysters in gochujang, and oysters in doenjang jjigae. More oysters than I’ve ever seen in my life.
Most Korean people pretty much expect foreigners to not be able to eat Korean food and typically I hate actualizing that stereotype. But the truth is, even though people eat oysters plenty in America, I just don’t really like them. So I played the foreigners card and ordered a bowl of rice and ate that with the soup and pajeon. Which was actually pretty good.
So while I ate my foreigner friendly lunch I also got to watch as, mostly the men, enjoyed their seafood along with a not insignificant amount of soju and beer. Mind you this is the middle of the day. We still have all of our sightseeing to do after lunch.
One teacher who was sitting across from me, the only other teacher who wasn’t eating the oysters, said at one point very begrudgingly to himself, “Ugh, we have to ride the cable car’s with them after lunch.”
Usually I think it’s funny to watch everyone be silly at hweshik’s, because I get to just sit back and take it all in. Teacher’s who never usually speak to me will have a ton to say, my head teacher can suddenly speak English if he’s had enough to drink, and one of my office mates will call our boss hyung (older brother in Korean).
But this time around, unfortunately, it didn’t just end there.
So after consuming a lot of oysters and walking around a traditional market for a bit, we got back on the bus to head to the cable car.
When I sat down, almost immediately, the teacher next to me started saying, “hey you should sing a song for all of us.”
Unfortunately my Korean was enough to understand him and say, “No no no, really I can’t sing well” and he seemed to take my answering as a sign to keep going. And my co-teacher was pointedly very busy with something on her phone so as not to be dragged under with me. Fair enough.
It’s worth noting at this point that I had not had anything to drink. And as such was even less inclined to stand up and sing in front of everyone than they might have expected me to be.
“Yea but if you sing in English they won’t be able to tell the difference!”
“Please no no, really I can’t sing well.”
“I’m okay, really.”
“Everyone has popular song’s they remember from middle school or high school!”
“I don’t know any songs.”
“Just one song.”
“Really I’m okay.”
The real mystery here is where these people are during the week. The other teachers, besides my buddies, never speak to me. Ever. But suddenly they come out of the woodwork after a few bottles of soju and some good seafood.
He then proceeded to get the microphone from the driver, force it into my hands, and made me stand up in front of the entire bus.
It was about then that my soul left my body. I will maintain that, from here on out, whatever happened was not my doing.
Looking desperately at my co-teacher, bless her heart, she had nothing to say to help me.
“Just sing some American song.” Was all she could offer me.
American song? Song? In that moment I couldn’t think of a single song I’d ever heard in my life. The only thing, and coincidentally the most difficult song to sing in the world, that I could think of was the US National Anthem. Or Frozen’s Let it Go but I wasn’t about to sing that in front of people to whom I try to project a semblance of professionalism everyday. Although in retrospect it would have been better.
I’ve gone over this scenario in my head before. What happens when one day Korean culture finally catches up with me and I’m forced to do something embarrassing in front of my co-workers. I’ve even thought on a few occasions about what songs I could sing in this very situation.
But there I was awkwardly holding a microphone in front a bus full of teachers, everyone’s eyes very expectantly on me.
“Anyone want to sing?” I asked in Korean. Laughs but no answers.
“It’s okay!” Someone shouted.
“It’s really not!” I said back, more laughs but no help.
I thought if I stalled for a bit, as horribly visibly uncomfortable as I was, that someone might come to my rescue. But alas. A very awkward minute or so later there I was singing the first verse of the American National Anthem. They all started clapping along with it, which doesn’t really work at all, and as soon as I finished that verse it seemed like enough and so I said, “Finish,” bowed dramatically, and sat back down.
They clapped and seemed appeased. I, however, had to sit and wait a few minutes for my heart rate to slow and my soul to return to my body. It did eventually and before I knew it, maybe because I wasn’t entirely recovered yet, we had arrived at the cable car site.
As soon as we got off my co-teacher kind of herded us over to where the other teachers, who had all indulged a little less at lunch shall we say, were all standing. I started chatting with my other teacher buddies who thankfully hadn’t witnessed what just happened, and soon I felt much better.
At one point as we waited in line for the cable car my head teacher, who I am both a little afraid of but also aspire to be, came up to me and said, “I’m sorry about them. Come on our bus on the way home.” She and I don’t do much by way of exchanging pleasantries, so to me this was actually really sweet. Maybe not worth the humiliation that necessitated it, but touching nonetheless.
Anyway, we did make it on to the cable car eventually and then up to a look out point. This made the trip, and the situation on the bus, absolutely worth it. I haven’t spent much time in the south of the country so I guess I was surprised at just how stunning it was.
From where the cable car let us off we then climbed up a lot of stairs to another view-point.
We made it pretty far but decided not to go the whole way. It was a lot of stairs.
After that we got back on to the busses, I got on the less rowdy bus this time, and we headed home. Apart from the air inside being roughly 20 million degrees and stuffy, it was significantly more relaxing than the other bus would have been.
It was an eventful day to say the least, and while I probably could have done with out the public humiliation, I guess it’s part of this whole, “working in Korea thing.” And I suppose I can endure a few moments of discomfort for all the other reasons I love living here.
I hope you enjoyed this post! Thanks for reading!