Yesterday was a change from the normal school day. The students had “Science Day” which is a fun day where students get to do all kinds of science experiments including launching water-filled soda bottles in the shape of rockets. Much more fun than “Science Fair” back home.
Then, halfway through the day I got to join the faculty on a retreat about an hour and a half northeast of my school, only 20 miles from North Korea, which is the closest I’ve been so far, to an area called Pocheon. You can tell you’re getting close to the North when you are sharing the road with army tanks and you begin to see armed soldiers. One of those reminders that you are in Korea. Unfortunately, none of the other Korean English teachers were able to attend this retreat so I was a little nervous. I figured this would be my chance to use as much Korea as I could. Surprisingly I know a lot more than I expected or anyone else for that matter. It’s amazing to realize how well you can communicate in another language when you are forced to do so. We took a bus to a beautiful place called Sanjung lake. This area is surrounded by huge mountains.
I have become so accustomed to the loud noises of the city that when I go to a rural area the silence feels so peaceful and calming. It was such a relief to breathe in the mountain air and smell the pine trees and blooming flowers. Nice change from the dirty polluted air in Seoul. We walked around the lake for about an hour and I practiced my Korean phrases to comment on the beautiful sights.
Then we went to dinner. Another opportunity for me to put into play the cultural skills I have been practicing, but this time I had no one to communicate with if I was unsure of anything. I think this was truly the first time I sat down at the table surrounded by Korean food and felt comfortable and confident knowing what to eat, how to eat it, when to serve others, when to use two hands, and how to drink properly. I felt accomplished and almost a little Korean. Many of the teachers I have been saying hello to for the past eight months finally talked and joked with me. It was really a great time. Without my Korean co-teachers by my side, I felt so independent. We ate barbecued Korean cow meat (which is apparently super expensive), many side dishes, and drank boxed wine and막걸리 (“makolli” or rice wine). After drinking many of the teachers gained that liquid courage to talk to me and I had the confidence to use my Korean so in the end we were able to communicate well. I ended the trip by breaking out a box of Girl Scout thin mint cookies that my mom sent me and shared them with the faculty. They were really happy. For anyone back home ever planning to go to Korea, sharing small gifts and drinking together does a lot to strengthen the relationship between foreigners and Koreans.