"When do you think it would be acceptable to leave?"
"I think we have to wait for Mr. Cho to leave." I looked over to our director, who was in an animated discussion with Choi Chul-won, the only Korean in the foreign-language department of Jeonju University. I had met Chul-won during my interview, in December. He taught English grammar to our students, doing so in Korean. The native-English teachers gave the students practical experience in the language.
It was hard to tell if the two men were ready to leave, but their plates and bowls were empty, their cups of cha—tea—were almost finished. Would they call for another pot or call it a day?
There were four other teachers at today's meeting. I expected more, but when I realized that this meeting was an orientation session and a meet-and-greet with the foreign language department director, it made sense that the returning teachers would not attend.
After gathering in Mr. Cho's office with the new teachers, we were plied with strawberries and handed our contracts to look over and sign. My allergies prevented me from actually eating the luscious, oversized fruit, but I could, at least, devour their fresh aroma.
Everything in the contract was exactly as it had been stated during the December interview, had been signed and stamped with a doh-jon, which made it official. Or, as official as a personal stamp could be. I still had the doh-jon that I bought at the Iri Cherry Blossom Festival, last spring, after my young students from the hagwon gave me my Korean name: Kim Mihn-Shik.
While there was no problem with my actual contract, there was an issue with my work visa. Or, more specifically, my lack of one. When I agreed to work for Jeonju University, the administrator promised to post the E-2 paperwork to my Ottawa address. It wasn't waiting for me when I first arrived home, wasn't there when I returned to Ottawa from Scotland. Meeting with the administration department, after the strawberry feast with the director, I learned that although the paperwork had been prepared, it hadn't been sent in the mail.
A communication mixup, the administrative secretary had said. Typical Korean screwup, I told myself: the paperwork for my visa for my previous job, at Kwon's hagwon, had also been delayed so long that I had had to make a rushed trip from Ottawa to Toronto to get the forms processed in order to make the booked flight, which had already been delayed by several weeks. I had initially blamed the fiasco on Kwon's secretaries: now I was starting to think the administrative failures were cultural.
Mustn't be so cynical, Roland. Fiona was with me, the voice in my head was hers.
The problem was swiftly remedied. A flight was booked for Fukuoka, Japan, for tomorrow morning. Paid for by the university. I was told that if the Korean consulate wasn't busy, they could rush the paperwork through and have it ready in a matter of hours. If not, they would have it within 24 hours. The secretary who booked my flight told me that if I had to wait overnight, the university would reimburse me for hotel and dinner expenses. I only had to keep my receipts.
At our initial meeting, there seemed to be a good selection of English teachers. There was a married couple, Nelson Cathnelson and his wife, Cathy. Nelson's parents had a sense of humour in naming him, and that sense of humour obviously carried forward when Nelson chose his life partner. And Cathy further showed a sense of humour in taking her husband's surname. They were from Salt Lake City, Utah, and were quick to point out that they were not mormons. No one in their families were. They seemed defensive, even though no one was saying anything. But they were kind, smiling, laughing. They were young, in their early twenties, and had only been married for a year. When they looked in each other's eyes, you could see that the honeymoon hadn't ended, might never end. They were enjoying their adventure together.
The other woman in our group was Françoise Dubé, from Dijon, France. Naturally, she was brought in to teach her native language. I would have been surprised that another language other than English was being taught in Korea, had this been my first time in the country and had I not met a Korean woman last summer, at the Internet cafe, who was studying French. When she saw me sitting at a workstation, deep in e-mail correspondence, wearing a shirt with CANADA stamped on it, she approached me asked if I spoke French, knowing that Canada was a bilingual country. We soon learned that she spoke the language far better than I.
Turning to my new colleague, proffering my hand, I said, "I'm Roland, nice to meet you."
"I'm engaged," were the first words to come out of her mouth, her hand seemingly reluctant to take mine in what wasn't so much as a shake as it was a brief touch. It was the oddest greeting I had ever faced. What had I said? Nothing in my words or gesture had indicated anything more than a simple "hello." Was she often accosted in France? Did she assume I was hitting on her? Only seconds before, I had greeted Nelson and Cathy in the same fashion. What was Françoise's story? Was she full of herself? Did she think that every man who approached her wanted her?
Physically, she did nothing for me. She had a small frame; not an unattractive figure, but nothing that would make me take a second look. Her face was plain, her skin pale. The glasses that defined her hazel eyes typified a no-nonsense, prudish school teacher. Her reddish-brown hair was cut short in the back, was even shorter than my own. The style didn't appeal to me. Both Kristen and Tanya had long, straight hair.
No, there was something in Françoise's prickly response that told me we were not going to be friends. Which was fine: my words to Siobhan echoed in my head. I'm not here to make friends.
The other gentleman in our party was another Canadian, Russell Symes. When we shook hands, he was the first to speak: "Where in Canada?" It was the standard question that folks from the same country asked.
"Ottawa." My Scottish accent was buried, much as it had been last year when I taught my students, as it had been the first time I spoke to Linda Bryce, a woman who had been teaching at my hagwon when I was first considering working there. Our relationship was one that had gone from friendly to strictly professional, to one of animosity, and then, finally, hatred, contempt, loathing.
"Same as me," said Russell, who then clarified, "sort of. I live about forty-five minutes away, in Fitzroy Harbour."
"I know the place," I said, "though I've never been."
"There's not much to see," he said. "It's sort of a bedroom community. Few shops—just a general store, a liquor store, and a small Home Hardware. If you want to do any real shopping or any recreational activity, you need to drive into Kanata." Kanata was a small city on the peripheral of Ottawa's west end, much like how Nepean bordered along the south.
Russell had been teaching at a small hagwon in Imje, a village between Chŏnju and Iksan, when the institute ran into economic troubles, much as had been the case with my hagwon. Russell had been teaching for only a couple of months; he had been fully paid, but the sudden collapse had left him in a lurch. Luckily, a student's father was close friends with a professor at Jeonju University: a call was made, and Russell was in.
"The university wants me to enroll in a Masters program," he said. "They feel my Masters in music isn't sufficient."
"I'm in the same boat," I said. "They told me if I considered enrolling in a Masters program, they'd hire me right away. I told them at the interview that I would consider enrolling: I've considered it and I've decided not to."
"Have you told them?"
"Not yet. I thought I'd wait until the subject came up. Most importantly, I thought I'd wait until the contract was signed and I had my work visa in hand." One of the first things I did once I had my contract in hand was to scour it for any mention of a Masters course as a requisite for my employment: thankfully, there was none, so my declination would not be a breach upon which I could be terminated.
"I've already paid for my first set of classes," said Russell. "I should have waited. I don't really want to take any courses. Did you know a Masters degree from here means nothing outside of Korea? It doesn't even count if you want to change universities within this country. And Jeonju University isn't exactly a prestigious institute; it's actually considered the last-chance U. If you can't get in to any other university, this is where you try out of desperation. " If you are rejected, you may as well apply for a job as a garbage collector."
"Really?" asked Cathy, who overheard us. "I wonder what calibre of student we're getting."
"I've talked to one of the other teachers," continued Russell. "Raymond." I knew Raymond Close, had first met him on Cheju Island. "He says they're mostly good kids. They're either not the brightest or their parents aren't wealthy enough to put them in better schools."
"As long as they want to learn, I'm happy," said Cathy. She wore a perpetual smile, gave the impression of a person who was always optimistic, always looked at the bright side of a situation. The same went for Nelson. They seemed like naturally happy people.
Hopefully, Korea wasn't going to change that about them, wasn't going to spoil them and turn them into cynical pessimists. Like my first year had done to me.
This is a clean slate, Roland. New year, new attitude. Indeed, the university seemed much more stable, much more organized. It seemed a healthier environment, with a good staff and good teachers. Take your experience with the culture and go into your new role with the confidence and positive attitude with which you used to approach life. Again, Kristen's voice overrode my inner one.
Our day had been long. After the initial meeting in his Mr. Cho's office, Chul-won took us to our office, where we picked out our desks. Russell and I chose to sit close to one another, as far back in the office from the front door as we could get. Only the two returning teachers, Ashley and Brian, and Chul-won, sat further back. I insisted that Russell let me take the desk that faced the door, and he was happy to accommodate. He preferred the other desk that was tucked behind a row of lockers, where more privacy was given. I told him that I didn't like to have my back facing doors, that I hated being surprised. He said that he valued his privacy, and that if a student only peeked inside the office, searching for him, he wouldn't be spotted unless the student actually entered, walked the twenty feet, beyond the lockers, and peered around the corner.
"Do you have something to hide from? A jilted lover?"
"No," he laughed. "If a student is serious about seeing me, he or she will come in. But if he or she is only looking for an opportunity to chat, not seeing me right away, and seeing other teachers, might intimidate them into staying away."
"You don't like idle chat?"
He smiled, knowing that I was trying to trip him with our idle conversation. "Not from students, truth be told. When I'm not teaching, I like my solitude."
The day had gone smoothly, which suited my jet-lagged, sleep-deprived brain just fine. I remembered my first full day in Chŏnju, last year, when a former teacher from my hagwon, Jason, gave me a tour of the city. I couldn't have been in a bigger fog, could not have been more unobservant, had I been in a drunken stupor.
And I knew drunken stupors.
The preliminary meeting in our director's office had been quick. Mr. Cho explained that Jeonju Dae, as it was affectionately called, was celebrating its twentieth year as a university. Before then, since the early sixties, the institution had held college status. The current campus was built in 1981 and was set to undergo expansion over the next few years. The most-recent structure was the massive library and administration offices, in which we now sat. The imposing structure sat on a hillside and offered an impressive view of the south-western edge of Chŏnju. There were classrooms in the building as well: some of us would be using them, though most of our classes would be taught in the Foreign Language building, just down the hill and closest to this building, known simply as the library. My interview had been conducted in the Foreign Language building: these were the two buildings that I would be using the most.
As part of the tour, Chul-won took led us to the classrooms where most of our lessons would be taught: rows of partitioned tables that would allow students privacy, where they could connect headsets into jacks in the walls, enabling them the ability to listen to recordings of spoken English as well as the ability to speak into microphones, the sound transmitted to the teacher's headset. Lessons could be individualized.
I also saw it as an effective means to keep students from cheating—conning—during written exams.
Chul-won took us to the Student Union Centre, where the stationery store, barber shop, cafeteria, and other student services were located. We were taken to a small, brightly lit office, where middle-aged women who never smiled operated industrial cameras for ID photos. We were instructed to pose as though we were having portraits for passports taken. Not only did students carry identification cards, but the teachers and faculty as well.
The secretary who accompanied the director to our late-afternoon lunch rose from the table, clutching an envelope that seemed to be holding a modest stack of won notes. "I think our tab is being paid," I said to Russell, watching as the young, pretty secretary walked to the cashier. "It shouldn't be long now. Mr. Cho looks like he's finished." Had he been ordering rounds of soju, we might have been forced to remain. But our director was not about to get drunk with his new employees. Perhaps, another time, when this day was less formal. It was still early in the day, barely four o'clock, and I had the impression that he would be returning to the office.
Mr. Cho hadn't been with us since the initial meet and greet, but before we left his office with Chul-won, our facilitator for the day, he did promise to take us to a restaurant when our day was done. Chul-won spoke with a voice that was as expressionless as his face. Although his words were composed in a way to sound positive, they were delivered in a robotic tone, without emotion. It was impossible to discern whether he was happy to be fulfilling his assigned task or pleased with the new colleagues who would share his office space.
I would never want to play poker with him.
I was reminded of the poker game that Brad had taken me to, at a hagwon across from city hall, next to the pink-light district, where Chŏnju's brothels blended into the other low-income housing. I had only played with the other foreigners the one time: it seemed so long ago, and I wondered if any of those folks remained in town? I had lost touch with many of them after Brad, Wilma, Tanya, and I had abandoned SE for Urban Bar. Where was Nigel, Colin, Sean and Donna? Had they finished their contracts? Had their hagwons survived the economic downturn that crushed my former institutes and so many like it?
Over the next couple of weeks, I would have to venture to the various bars that were popular to the waeguks, to see which familiar faces were still standing.
Jody and Jamie had been regulars of Cloud 9 but would also come to Urban Bar. Cloud 9 was closer to their apartment and also featured live music, some of it from the foreign teachers. Raymond, who had not only been teaching for the last two years at Jeonju Dae, was also a good friend of Jamie's form when they lived in Alabama. He and another of our department's teachers, Ashley Burchell, a Canadian, were accomplished musicians and often performed at Cloud 9. Tanya and I had promised several times over the fall to attend one of their shows, but as creatures of habit, we were hard-pressed to change our ritual, of finding ourselves with Brad and Wilma at our regular table at Urban Bar.
In the afternoon, the new teachers were introduced to the dean of the Korean Cultural Studies department. A petit man with the physique of a teenager, Dr. Kim was in his late forties, though the lines in his face made him appear older. He was dressed in flared, black polyester slacks with a mustard-yellow shirt under a dark brown, corduroy blazer. Complete with longish, unkempt hair, Dr. Kim looked like he belonged in the 1970s.
Dr. Kim spoke in a kind, soft voice, his English only slightly accented, and perfect. He was an American-educated man, having lived in California for almost ten years. All of his students were required to take English-language classes, and so Dr. Kim spent many hours each week liaising with Chul-won and the foreign teachers. It was his responsibility to coordinate the marks that we assigned to our students and to ensure there was a balance between the grades of the students who juggled both departments.
"Your marks must fall within the same bell curve as mine," he told us. "Ten percent of our students are A-level achievers; fifty percent fall within a B; twenty percent are worthy of a C; fifteen percent will earn a D. Only five percent of our students shall fail." It was important that the students that lined up with our grades matched Dr. Kim's.
A student would automatically receive a failing grade, he told us, if he or she failed to take the mid-term or final exam, or if he or she missed more than five classes without a satisfactory excuse.
Dr. Kim took us, page by page, through our contracts, where our duties were outlined. Russell found one item in our contract and read it out loud to me: "Teachers are forbidden from having physical relations with the students."
"Makes perfect sense to me," I said. One of the teachers at my former hagwon had married one of Kwon's secretaries and took her with him when he returned to the United States. This angered Kwon to no end, and he had made it clear to me that his other employees were off limits. No one would have dreamed of getting involved with a student, though one of mine, Mi-gyeong, had tried to start something with me.
"Yes," said Dr. Kim, who had overheard Russell. He spoke so that everyone could hear him. "No teacher may have a sexual relationship with a student unless he plans to marry her." His words seemed directed to Russell and me, the only single teachers in the room. He was putting this clause on the record.
Dr. Cho got up from the table. Our meeting was over. We all stood and bowed to him, thanked him for the meal and for making us feel welcome. As he and the secretaries left the restaurant, Chul-won turned to us and said, "we can go. See you next week."
"I don't need to be told twice," I said to Russell, "I have a bed with my name on it."