Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Well That's a First
One other thing they all have in common: they all have a first day.
When I arrived in Korea, I underwent a week-and-a-half of orientation before starting work in the city of Suncheon on Sept. 1. I arrived in the city via bus the afternoon before, where I was informed of my class schedule and living arrangements, and told that I would be teaching the next morning starting at 7 a.m.
The first casualties of my struggle to adapt were my alarm clock and palm pilot’s AC adapter, which were snuffed out in a burst of sparks when both were plugged into an electric outlet converter to help westerners use their electronics. Being unable to charge my palm pilot was unfortunate, but having no alarm clock left me with no recourse for the night except to sleep with the light on and wake up every few minutes to check my watch.
So, with a full night of inadequate sleep, I wandered into a classroom full of curious brown faces that Thursday morning and attempted to create a persona for myself; a kind of inflated blimp advertising that “THIS FOREIGNER KNOWS WHAT HE’S DOING.” I thought I handled it as well as I could, especially since I hadn’t yet learned how to operate the air conditioning in the room and my forehead resembled a kind of apricot-colored marsh.
However, one of my students, a 40-something obstetrician who chose the nickname of “Peter” for my class interpreted the conglomeration of hydrogen-atoms mingling with oxygen atoms on my face differently, though as a native he ought to have known that un-air conditioned rooms in South Korean summers feel like saunas to which everyone wears wingtips.
Picture an average Korean man (which you can do by picturing an average Western man, just four inches shorter, eight-to-ten waist sizes smaller and marinated with tanning lotion) acting as the embodiment of all that is not a self-confidence boost. On this morning, that is what he became, simply by saying “I think you are too shy.” These words were kind of like six separate machine malfunctions culminating to turn my carefully-inflated image into a metaphorical Hindenburg of self-worth.
On most first days, people are usually able to go to McDonalds at lunch time and drown their sorrows over Coca-Cola and an artery-clogging entrée of their choice. In a foreign country, before you have located stores where artery-clogging entrees are to be found, you retreat to your apartment, embarking on the epic undertaking of attempting to turn the appliances on. Call me a dreamer, but I attempted this my first day. I suppose I was aiming high.
Once it was clear that I would fail, my first meal in my first Korean apartment was a potato. It had been heated in a microwave (I couldn’t understand its instructions either; I just pushed a lucky combination of buttons). The potato had been washed, and then little holes were punched into it to make sure it was softened all the way through.
That was all I could do with the potato before I ate it. I offered a silent prayer first, but I’d be lying if I said I thanked God for the meal. I would also be less than veracious if I said I had chosen to think optimistically, and said “It can’t get worse than this.”
In truth, I thought it could. My classes with small children would not truly begin until the following Monday, and my religion class, full of ripe minds who would look to me as some source of Biblical knowledge, would begin a week later. “I can’t make scrambled eggs today,” I said. “And next week my teaching may influence someone’s possible salvation.”
What does a young man in his mid-twenties seeking to establish himself far from home do in a situation like this? At 6 p.m. (4 a.m. in America’s central time zone) I called my mom. “Maybe it’ll get better in the future,” I told her. “Right now I’m about to snap.”
When classes ended at 9 p.m. Pastor Moon, our institute director, offered to take the foreign teachers to dinner. He could’ve chosen any sort of restaurant where a rice-based concoction resembling food would’ve been served, but he chose Pizza Hut. “The first day of the term is always the hardest,” he said to no one in particular, but I think I know who it was aimed at.
Days and weeks passed, routines were formed and what was once unknown became habit. Nearly two months after I arrived, my student Peter offered to buy me a traditional Korea breakfast after our class. “At the beginning of class you were very shy,” he said during our meal. “But now I think you are very skillful.”
As I write this, I’m only one day removed from my flight back to Korea, and my first day teaching at the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute in Chuncheon will July 3. It won’t be easy, nor will it be the last “first” I ever encounter again. However, some of the most rewarding things in life are the hardest to start.
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