Friday, August 15, 2008


So now I’m back in the United States. I’ve been here for over two weeks and soon I’m heading back to work in Seoul for another year.

Overall, it’s great to be home. It’s so easy: I speak the language and I understand the culture! I’ve cut down on the number of hours I sleep simply because I’m not as tired as I was in Korea; my brain felt constantly at work over there, but here, it takes a lot more to exhaust me. And seeing people and eating the food here has been as and often even better than I expected. Also, I’m happy to report that after a year, I can still speak in complex sentences, something I did at times wonder about.

I landed in LA and had a four-hour layover before flying into PDX and meeting my family. There are two things that struck me as I walked around the LAX terminal:

1. Our population has a lot of variety. Compared to Korea, one of the most homogenous nations in the world, America really is a rainbow. The airport had fat old white guys, tall young girls in head scarves, a flamboyantly dressed bald, tan, fit Latino talking to a skinny black woman with a corkscrew afro. Different languages, interracial couples, kids of all different skin shades running around—I know the LAX airport is a more diverse population than in many parts of the US, but even in my small 12,000 people hometown in Oregon I see significantly more variety than I did during my time in Korea .

2. We have small heads. I know this sounds odd, but bear with me—when I first got to Korea, I heard a lot of people tell me and the other non or part-Asians in the program in rather reverent voices that we had small faces. I initially felt confused and a little self-conscious, until I was told that this is a huge compliment in Korea. Everyone wants to have smaller heads, apparently, as it looks cute. I have many pictures of my students using their hands to cover parts of their face in an attempt to make them look smaller when photographed. I didn’t actually think, though, that most westerners have small heads, until I landed in LAX and most of the people around me seemed to have disproportionately small faces.

There's a lot I didn't write around the time I was leaving, but here's one story from my final night with my school:

After my last day of teaching, I went with the school staff and faculty to dinner at a popular pork restaurant. We sat on the floor at long, rectangular tables, grilled marinated meat and garlic, wrapped bits of it in lettuce and bamboo leaves, and washed it all down with beer and soju, Korea’s hard alcohol of choice. There were lots of speeches, I mangled a few sentences to my table companions in Korean, and when my principal visited my table I found a glass and, as is polite, poured him a shot of soju. Already red-faced, he leaned in and slurred something to me. One of my co-teachers translated: “you are born, and then you die.” After a few more lines of translated depressing philosophy to which I did not know how to respond, he returned to his own table and finished his dinner.

After a round of cold noodles to finish off the meal, we all stood up, stretched our legs, and went out to the parking lot. I was preparing to be taken home and work more on packing.
Suddenly the home economics teacher was in front of me.

“You will go?” she said to me and my coteacher in Korean.

I heard my coteacher explain that she would leave and take me back to my apartment.

The home economics teacher began speaking more loudly and quickly and gesturing a lot. After a few minutes and a lot of nodding, my coteacher turned to me, her face sympathetic but firm.

“I’m sorry. You cannot go home yet. Now, our school will go to noraebang."

A lump forms in my throat. Noraebang is Korean karaoke. It is a very popular pastime, and most Koreans get very excited when it’s mentioned. For me, however, hearing the word makes my heart plummet. The way others feel anxious and scared and heart race-y about planes or public speaking or spiders, I feel about having to sing in public. It’s not that I just don’t enjoy it; I fear it. With the assistance of alcohol in the company of very close friends here, I can occasionally do noraebang in Korea. But the idea of singing, on my own, sober, in front of 30 teachers, most of whom are 40 or older and with whom I only see at our bi-weekly staff meetings and occasionally talk about me in front of me in Korean I don’t understand is not how I want to spend one of my last nights in Korea.

“I think…maybe I should not go. Actually I must pack many things and…” I start.

“But this noraebang is for you because you will leave. I think you must go and sing a song. Then it is okay to leave and pack.”

And so ten minutes later I am sitting on a velvet chair, heart pounding, slowly flipping through a sticky black binder of karaoke selections. In front of me is beer, soju, and now whiskey, along with the traditional Korean bar fare of candied peanuts and dried squid. My stomach is churning too much to touch any of it. In front of me, they have already started. The social studies teacher has rolled up his pants into his socks and is doing a jig while the gym and health teachers are belting out Korean oldies while the computer teachers slams a tambourine on her knee. The social studies teacher jigs over to me, smelling of grilled meat and alcohol, and leans over the binder. “Pop song! Pop song!” he encourages me.

I nervously smile and look up again and see that my principal, now maroon-faced, is about to sing. He chooses a rambling traditional ballad. And then he starts. And there is no way around it—he is tone-deaf. He is off-key, loud and the teachers struggle to find the beat to clap along.
Then things start to click in my brain. I consider that my principal is a very bad singer—potentially on par with me. And I consider that to the teachers here, noraebang is a very kind goodbye present to give me as in Korea everyone loves karaoke. And I consider that my arguments about really, truly fearing karaoke will not hold a lot of weight here, in a country of collectivist thinking. I also consider that a number of the teachers are drunk and will not remember this, and that the rest I probably won’t ever see again as in 72 hours I will be on a plane.

And so I stand up after the principal finishes, and a microphone is pushed into my hand, and someone pulls out my camera, and soon I’m on the karaoke stage, listening to the opening chords of “Let it Be.” The words come on the screen and I am singing. Truthfully, I can hear myself, and, as I suspected, I am also off-key. But I am singing. And then the gym teacher starts hitting the tambourine, the math and ethics teacher are suddenly flanking me and swaying and singing what they can of the English with their arms around my shoulders, and the principal comes up and holds my hand and joins in the sway session. And while this is something I did not expect, something that I’m clearly not good at, it is, once I’m doing it, sort of fun.


I don't think I’m going to keep this blog next year in Seoul, so this will probably be my last post. I really want to thank you, though, for keeping up with me, reading, and commenting and putting up with my pretty inconsistent posting. I feel really lucky to have had the last year and to have people to share it with. And if you ever have the chance at a karaoke bar, please sing a song for me.


Aaron said...

I'm glad that I got to meet your principal, because it makes this story about 10 times funnier.
I laughed out loud a couple of times. Oh Korea!

Anonymous said...

You really can't stop blogging, dear Elizabeth. Whatever will I do to get my vicarious pleasures??? I have SOOOO enjoyed your posts, and I would miss them terribly.


Monica Humphrey said...

I'm the neglectful Aunt by not keeping in touch, or up on Blogs, but I found my way to yours this morning. Glad you had a wonderful visit home, just sorry we couldn't break away as a family to visit. Rachel's worked a lot this summer, Senior year for her, Sarah's learning to drive and life continues to move fully ahead.
Congrats on the IDEA position!
Love all you do! Aunt Monica

lydia said...

Oh no! No more blogging? But why?? =(

Can you believe I'm actually starting to miss Korea? A little. ;)

I miss you!

-Aaron- said...

Wow, what a tale! I too laughed aloud a few times, probably mentally replacing your co-workers & principal w/other hilarious phrase-spouting Koreans i've met. And at first i misread your decription of korebang as "korean karate" instead of "korean karaoke" and admittedly was slightly disappointed when i realized my error. :)

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