The last morning of training began with the usual sound of the construction workers exercising. I watched them for the last time, wondering if they had ever heard of the Village People, and if they knew how to dance the YMCA.
Breakfast was overly sweet cornflakes and a tuna sandwich made with onions, carrots and cucumbers. I didn’t recall ever having eaten anything quite like that when I lived inSeoulbut this was the country. Perhaps things were done a little differently down here.
Today was the day we had been waiting for with both anticipation and trepidation. We were to be picked up by our co-teachers, taken to see our new schools and meet our new principals. In honour of this, we had all dressed in our best – suits, dresses, skirts, heels and ties- we looked fabulous, if I do say so myself. A little hot but fabulous nonetheless.
Sadly, being picked up by our co-teachers meant that we had to take everything with us. I know I looked rather silly in a pretty red dress, pearls and fancy shoes lugging two large suitcases, a full backpack and a computer bag. I am a firm believer in never packing more luggage than I can carry on my own (you never know if help will be available!) but I hadn’t ever planned on carrying my luggage in heels and a freshly ironed dress.
It didn’t matter though. The wait was over. I have to admit to being an anticipation kind of girl. I like the build up, the imagining, the promise of what is to come. In my head, my co-teacher would be keen, helpful and have excellent English abilities. He or she would be open to new ideas while having plenty of their own. My school would be modern with top of the line English teaching equipment; my students would be divinely behaved angels. And my apartment! Ladies and gentlemen, in my mind, my apartment’s absolute perfection knew no bounds.
But for better or for worse, the day of truth had arrived and soon we would anticipate and wonder no more; we would know.
After a morning of more helpful training sessions, we nervously awaited the arrival of our co-teachers. I was sitting in the conference room chatting with some friends when I noticed two short, plump women step nervously into the room. In their hands they clutched small pieces of paper.
“Exe-cuse-e me?” one said hesitantly, and as if on cue they both held up the papers they were holding.
“Carrie” said one in bright green bubble letters, and “Kierstead” read the other, this time in yellow bubble letters.
They had come for me.
I rose slowly to my feet, said my goodbyes and made my way over. I watched their eyes grow wide as I got closer and the full extent of my height became clear.
“Wow!” one little lady squeaked. “You very big-u!!”
Sighing inwardly, I held out my hand and introduced myself to the older of the two.
“You are fromCanada!” she told me. “I likeCanada.”
“Oh, how nice,” I replied, somewhat at a loss.
We gathered my luggage and headed for the car. They seemed astounded by the amount of luggage I had. This seemed a little odd to me. Compared to other people, I really didn’t have that much. Besides, I was moving toKoreafor a year. How much luggage did they expect me to have?
Their car was tiny. It was a very good thing my bags were relatively small. One suitcase fit in the severely undersized trunk and we piled the rest around me in the middle seat. Koreans don’t wear seatbelts in the backseats at the best of times but I certainly didn’t need one now! We would need to find a shoehorn to get me out of there!
We started driving and they announced, somewhat flustered that they were taking me to a hotel because my apartment wasn’t ready.
“That’s fine with me!” I told them, hoping they would put me up in a love hotel. I’ve always wanted to stay in one.
Still apologizing, my co-teacher pulled out onto the main road without looking. The oncoming cars slammed on their brakes and leaned on their horns. Blithely, she proceeded to drive at exactly 35 km/hr to my hotel. Occasionally, she became a little excited by our conversation and she would accelerate to 37 but she always noticed and slowed back down.
At first, I didn’t want to make conversation assuming from her speed (or lack thereof) that she was a nervous driver. This didn’t appear to be the case as she confidently swerved in and out of traffic, skilfully avoiding the other lunatic drivers on the road all the while carrying on a conversation by staring at me in the rear-view mirror. It appeared that for some unknown reason, she was simply choosing to drive at 35 km/hr.
Personal choice seems to be the by-word by which most Koreans drive. Travelling at 35 km/hr gives a person a lot of time to ponder the driving habits of others. My co-teacher was by no means the slowest car on the road, nor was she the only one to pull out onto main roads without any apparent awareness of oncoming traffic. A lot of personal choices are made on Korean roads: choosing to stop at a red light, choosing to honk at pedestrians who aren’t crossing on crosswalks fast enough, choosing to pull a U-turn into oncoming traffic on the highway… the possibilities are endless!
Eventually we made it to the hotel. To my delight, it was in fact a love hotel. The entrance to the parking garage was covered by a curtain which we drove through at 35km/hr. Funny how what seemed so incredibly slow a few seconds ago now seemed outrageously fast.
Thankfully there was nobody on the other side of the curtain and we flew into one of the last parking spots. Clearly it was a popular hotel. We pried my bags out of the car and headed into the lobby. The reception desk was a small sliding window at waist height, presumably so the staff couldn’t identify the clients. How deliciously shady.
My room was on the 5th floor and fulfilled all my images of a love hotel. There was a heart shaped tub, a circular bed (with a series of knobs and buttons on the night table that made me suspect the bed vibrated and possibly spun), mirrors in a variety of strategic locations, a HUGE wide screen TV (which I’ve heard shows nothing but porn; Asian porn so all the bits are fuzzed out), odd lighting choices (normal, red or blue), high-speed internet with a computer screen almost as large as the TV screen and a vending machine in the hall that sold an astonishingly diverse selection of “accessories”. It was awesome.
It was also only2:30pm. My co-teachers started to take their leave and I had a small moment of panic.
“Could you show me on a map where we are now?” I asked.
“You are not tired? You look tired,” was the enigmatic and faintly insulting reply.
“Tired? No, not at all!” I lied convincingly.
“Ok! We give you tour!”
And we climbed back into their little car and headed back out through the curtain and out onto the main road at 35km/hr.
They gave me a quick tour of the neighbourhood the love hotel was in and then asked if I wanted to see my school. But of course!
We pulled into the parking lot of the largest elementary school I have ever seen.
“Big-u big-u!” co-teacher #2 exclaimed waving towards it. Big-u big-u indeed. Yikes.
My co-teachers hadn’t introduced themselves and I was pondering how to ask their names politely as we walked through the front door. A frazzled looking woman rushed out of a door ahead of us and stopped short when she spotted me.
“Ah!” she exclaimed followed by a stream of unintelligible Korean.
“Oh!” exclaimed co-teacher #1, clapping her hands. “She says your apartment is OK. Let’s move in!”
“Yahoo,” I mumbled, mustering a smile. I really wanted to stay in the love hotel.