Friday, September 14, 2012

The Korean "SURPRISE!"

This is Adam. 

He's been in Korea for almost two weeks and has just completed his training in Jeonju, along with a couple hundred other teachers. He is now on his way to his designated province to sign some paperwork and then settle into his new life for a year. 

He, like me and the other 3 teachers on the bus, had no idea where or what he'd be teaching just 1 day prior to this photo being taken, even though he packed up and moved thousands of miles from everything he knows. 

He, like me, probably had concerned friends and family at home frequently asking, up until the day of his departure, "But....but...don't you know WHERE you'll be living? Do you know what age you'll be teaching? Haven't they even told you that?" I remember the lady at the luggage store nearly having a panic attack when I wasn't able to give her details about my placement. Must be hard for you, lady.

Here's the deal. We didn't know squat. None of us did. And it's not like it was being kept a big old secret. Maybe it was. It's just...the Korean way, it seems. Information is spotty, at best. And as teachers here to teach English for a year or more, we seem to be a group of people who are okay with the not knowing. Okay with having things explained at the last-minute. Or not explained at all. Okay with plans changing on a dime.

It's what I call The Korean "SURPRISE!"

Case in point-

Here Adam is at the Gyeongsangnam-do Office of Education. We were excited to sign our papers, meet our co-teachers, and separately head out to our new living spaces. I had just found out I'd be teaching at three *gulp* middle schools in a small town called Hadong. Adam would be an hour or so away in another town. At two schools.

While all five of us sat at a long boardroom-type table signing papers, our coordinator left the room and came back with an announcement. Adam's placement was changing. He would now be in another town. With another grade level. "SURPRISE!"

A few minutes later, the man left the room again. He came back with another announcement. Adam's placement had changed again. "SURPRISE!' He would now be in yet another city. "Better for you. Closer to Busan." Different schools. "SURPRISE!" Adam took it in stride and went with the flow. It's what you do here in Korea if you want to keep your blood pressure down and not get your traveling panties in a bunch.

I got my first big dose of the Korean SURPRISE! in my second week on the job. I was at my tiny rural school that I go to on Thursdays. I see the entire school in three class periods- no class larger than 9 students. It's a cushie job. I'm not gonna lie. I get there about 9:40 and don't teach until 11:15. A break. Another class. Lunch. A long break. My final class. And that's it. Sweet.

I had done it once before, so I was in the groove by week two. Having navigated the bus route by myself and hopped off in the middle of the otherwise barren road, I walked across the field to my school, thinking of what I good life I have.

When I entered the building and swapped out my street shoes for my school slippers, I was met by my co-teacher, Mr. Kang, a nice if not somewhat reserved man.

"Ah. Bridget," he side-whispers to me. "There is a...ah...schedule change today."

"No problem!" I grin. I am a happy person who doesn't mind going with the flow. My great uncle has given me the nickname "La-Di-Da" as a result. I can do this.

"Yes," he continues."Your...ah...afternoon class has....ah...moved to the morning."

"Oh!" (SURPRISE!) "No problem. Thank you for telling me." 

"And it is okay? You also have extra class at 4:15?" (SURPRISE!)

"Extra class?"

"Yes, yes. Extra class. Conversation class. is....ah...okay?"

"Okay. Sure. No problem!" I smile again. I have no idea what an extra conversation class is, but I'll teach it. I can probably figure something out. "Until when?"


"When is the extra class over?"

"Ah! 5....ah....5:15." (SURPRISE!)

Dang. That's a late day. But, I do have the easiest schedule in the world, so I can't complain. Alright. I'm in. I'll just walk to my classroom and get set up for the class I have to teach in 2-ish hours....

(SUPRISE!) There are kids in my classroom waiting for me to teach! Right then! (SURPRISE!) The schedule change he was hinting at refers to the fact that my afternoon was currently IN my classroom and had been waiting there for me to show up. 

True, I could have been called the night before or even that morning so I could get to school earlier. But that would ruin the SURPRISE! And who, really, likes to ruin a SURPRISE? No one. At least, not Koreans. 

During that SURPRISE class, Mr. Kang again approached me with a side-whisper. "Ah...your period 4 class. It is...ah...canceled." This happens quite a bit. If you're lucky, you'll be told in advance. 

Otherwise, you may find yourself at the front of the class, powerpoint loaded and ready to go, worksheets copied, and ten minutes past the time your class is supposed to start, you classroom looks like this:

Where are your students? No idea. 

Will someone come tell you about it? Probably not. Will your students be coming at another unexpected time in the day? Could be. Not sure.

They may be on a field trip. They may have a special listening test somewhere else in the building. There may be no school, and you were the last to find out about it. SURPRISE! Go with it. Why not?

Other times you may be walking into what you think will be your empty classroom because you don't teach for several hours, only to find this:

I've had a student pop into my room and I'll think, "Aw. That's cute. They must just want to visit." A few minutes later, another student enters. Then a few more trickle in. By the time 30 are in my room, sitting at their desks, looking at me expectedly, I get the gist that there was a schedule change. This is my class. I'm supposed to be teaching it now. SURPRISE!

Back to that Thursday with my SURPRISE morning class and my SURPRISE added conversation class. The day also had a canceled class. (SUPRISE!), a class show up 2 hours early (SURPRISE!), and a teacher remove an entire class from my room 15 minutes into the lesson (SURPRISE!) for God knows what.

Maybe a year from now, this will really piss me off. Maybe I'll pull my hair and curse at what could be perceived as a complete and utter disregard of professionalism. That's possible. 

But for now, I like the Korean SURPRISE! It's like a little jolt of "Whoa!" in the middle of the day. A reminder that I have little control over what is happening around me.

But isn't that the case all the time? Isn't the SURPRISE! really that control is an illusion, at best? I think so. 

Next time I'm expecting class and 15 minutes later I poke my head into the halls and see this:
I'm throwing myself a little SURPRISE party in my head. Why not.


  1. Good way to live life. Let's all live in the "surprise" and be grateful for it!

  2. Do I see the beginnings of a book? You write so well. I enjoy your SURPRISES.
    Harold Renshaw