The memories are vivid, even as I sit here in the spring of 2013, four years later.
Part I: "A Pig Virus Delays My Arrival"
Part II: "Into the Wild Neon Yonder"
Part III: "Meeting the Boss"
[Simple synopsis of Part II: From the airport to my new workplace; observations along the way]
[Simple synopsis of Part III: I meet my new boss (whose personal history I relate); we depart for the restaurant]
The restaurant was humming with activity as we walked in. The owner or manager of the restaurant seemed acquainted with my new boss (Mrs. Y). It's likely she'd been coming here for many years.
"What kind of restaurant would be so alive at 11 PM?" -- I don't remember if I asked myself that question as I was walking into the restaurant with that night. I may well have. Many establishments, drinking-oriented, have their prime hours around this time, of course, but this one seemed on the food-oriented side.
It was much later that I realized why this food-oriented place was so alive at 11 PM. It's because we were on Ilsan's "Hagwon Road". This was one of the many restaurants on that road that catered to hagwon teachers and staff. In those days, most hagwons had quitting times of 10 PM or 11 PM.
A table full of people awaited, seated around a rectangular table of Western style (i.e., no sitting on the floor here, though sitting-on-the-floor places were not hard to find, if desired). All eyes were on us, or perhaps on me specifically, as we approached. I was introduced.
I remember a lot of giggling in those first minutes, which I interpreted to be at my expense (and may partly have been), but which I realize now was them trying to be polite, giggling being a common way Korean women are polite.
One of the souces of the giggling was a comment by one of the Korean teachers -- maybe Kang, maybe Yoon -- that I (supposedly) looked similar to one of the English-speaking cartoon-characters used in the textbooks. Was it supposed to be a compliment? The others found this quite funny. I never got a chance to see this cartoon-character.
Ages of the Other Teachers
Of the eight to ten people eating together that night, I was certainly the youngest. I make a note of this because age matters a lot more in Korea than it does in the West, as I later came to realize. I spent a lot of time in 2009 wishing I were a few years older, to relate better to my coworkers.
The four regular Korean teachers -- all women at that point -- were born (I believe) between 1979 and 1983, with Kang being the youngest. Yoon, who was born in (I think) 1980, was very concerned that she was soon becoming (according to her) an "adjumma", a middle-aged woman. She was only turning 29 that year, though. The outgoing "foreign teacher" was born in the mid-1970s, and so was older than the Korean teachers. I was seated next to him.
The bosses, Mr. C (born in the '60s) and his wife Mrs. Y (born 1970), were -- naturally -- the oldest. (Though husband and wife, they did not share a family name, which confused me. I didn't know, that night, that women in East-Asia retain what we call the "maiden name" their entire lives. Much later that night, I called my boss by the wrong name, assuming she bore her husband's name. It was not my first display of cultural ignorance, and not my last.)
Fulfilling a Social Responsibility by Acting Excited
I already noted the giggling, but I strain my mind to remember anything more specific about the mood. Four years on, it feels like a faded dream a few minutes after waking up. In retrospect, I think the Korean teachers' mood was one of nervous-excitement. I don't think I'm projecting onto them my own feeling, though that was, also, my feeling.
Anyway, it's fair to say that, insofar as the Korean teachers were trying to fulfill their roles as good subordinates (which is to say, good Koreans), they were at least trying to play the part of "nervous-excitement". I mean, it is a Korean social responsibility to seem enthusiastic in the milieu of the "work-dinner", or hwe-shik (회식) as it's called. Only later did I learn the word hwe-shik, and only later still did I realize its importance. But there I was, maybe two hours off the plane, in the midst of one, my first one. . . .
[Next: Part V, Part VI, and Part VII]
[Previous: Part I, Part II, and Part III]