Life in Korea often requires one to be a bit of a chameleon. This is not the total casting off of one’s own culture. I think cultural identity is very important to us as foreign teachers. To some extent, we are expected to be ambassadors of our “western” language and culture. However, I have often been quoted the old saying, “When in Rome…” by Koreans who could barely hold their own in basic introductions.
Last night I found myself squarely in Rome, and even though it had been blatantly obvious that I was NOT a Roman, I needed to thread up those sandals, tightly. It was a bit like when Yul Brynner played Monkut, King of Siam. We all knew he has no Siamese hunk, but we appreciated the efforts, and suspended our disbelief willingly. All the teachers from school went out to dinner together. The event was some kind of formality that I wasn’t quite informed about. We ate delicious fried duck and were offered business cards and soju by a dozen small-town politicians running for some kind of office.
Do yourself a favour and get some Hepatitus B shots before you come to Korea. The drinking culture here requires the sharing of glasses and of course…a LOT of drinking. The custom is to accept a glass offered to you with both hands, and hold out the glass so the other person can pour you drink. What you need to know is that you cannot really refuse, but, you don’t really have to drink it either. Cover your mouth and the glass with your left hand and turn away from the person who poured you the drink (unless they are younger than you) while taking a sip, then empty the glass in a bin or empty bowl on the table and offer the glass to the person who poured you the drink, and pour them one.
It helps to be aware of this custom as it can save you from bad work relations as well as having to teach while hung-over. I would usually prefer not to drink at a work event, but refusing a drink from an elder, can cause them to loose face, which is very important in Korean culture. Usually if you empty the glass, they will understand that you don’t want to drink, and pour you very small amounts the next time. I must have received at least 30 drinks last night, but I was stone cold sober all night.
These kinds of dinners (which are usually followed by 노래방 (karaoke)) afterwards, are a way to build 정 (Jeong, togetherness) with your colleagues. I recommend attending them as much as possible, but staying sober. Many of the teachers will suddenly let loose and before you know it, the math teacher, who rarely even looks in your direction, will grab you by the arm to sing a song together. Suddenly teachers who you have seen, but never spoken to will build up the courage to speak to you…in English!
Jeong is very very VERY important. Never think that you don’t “need” your co-teachers. Unfortunately, sometimes people get too drunk and do things they would never do while sober. It seems every party has its overly affectionate, barely standing drunk omie. Last night was no exception and sadly, but not surprisingly, I was on the receiving end of such unwelcomed affections.
At one stage I went to the restroom and when I opened the door I was suddenly met with my concerned co-teacher, who drew me aside for a heart-to-heart on the purity of people’s intentions. For the rest of the night I was his adopted daughter. He watched me like a hawk and fended off most of the unwanted attention. The vice principal, who never EVER even smiles back at me, relieved me of glasses of alcohol that I obviously didn’t want. Suddenly I had five dads and 20 older brothers taking care of me. When I wanted to go home, my new dad even arranged for the 노래방 (norae bang) bus to take me home, yelled at the driver for being late, and dropped me off in front of my house.
Sadly, most of them are a little hung-over today, and some of them don’t remember what happened last night…but I know.
Picture sourced from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7760248@N05/2652908829/