I knew coming into Korea that the culture over here is geared towards education. Education is looked upon very highly, and teachers are treated with the utmost respect. I work at a hogwan; which is basically an after-school center where children focus on their English skills. (They also learn English during their normal school day too. It’d be like sending your child to an after-school center dedicated to teaching them Spanish all year in the States.) But even knowing that, I never imagined it being as complete a departure from the US as it’s turned out to be.
First, writing my name on the whiteboard was completely silly/worthless. In the US this was imperative, at least until the kids learn who you are, otherwise 3/4 of the questions you’d answer would be, “Uh, what’s your name again?” Here, all the students call you “Teacher.” Not “Teacher Tim,” or “Teacher B.,” just “teacher.” It’s a title and a sign of respect here; it’s all you need, you’re a teacher and that’s that. No shame or “oh, you’re a teacher,” looks down, averts their gaze, “I’m sorry about that…”
Next comes the gifts. Nearly every two to three weeks at least one of my students will come in bearing gifts for teacher. First it was with Pepero Day. Pepero Day is sort of a second Valentine’s Day. You celebrate a relationship by gifting someone special to you a pepero. (A pepero being a thin, semi-sweet bread stick often coated with candy. It’s a big business here in Korea, as you’ll see here.)
Pepero Day occurs on November 11th, as numerically it’s 11/11 which looks like two pairs of pepero sticks side-by-side. Supposedly it started when a group of Korean middle-school girls gifted each other pepero sticks with the hopes that each would grow up to be tall, thin, and (one presumes) sweet. (A very Korean sentiment even if the true origins are probably closer to a Lotte boardroom exec meeting trying to think up ways to promote their product Pepero.)
Pepero Day is 11/11, and my first day teaching in Korea was 11/10. Which made for a very confusing second day of work. Why are kids giving me candy sticks? Is this normal behavior?
It turns out that yes, this is normal behavior. As it was soon followed by a giant cookie/sandwich from one of Jeonju’s premiere giant cookie shops. (Seriously, I had just visited the historic Hanok Village across town from me and saw people standing in a line that stretched down the street (in the rain!) to buy one of these monstrosities.)
Another amazing aspect of the respect culture here: I had this cookie sitting on my desk all day, not a single student asked about it. (And by “ask about it” I mean ask me if I either a.) wanted it, or b.) would give it to them.) They were all “hey, that’s a cookie from what’s its place” and it ended there.
Sometimes it’s just little knick-knacks; packages of fruit rollups, etc. Or a giant sponge brick with a heart-shaped inlay.
Today really took the cake though. And by “cake” I mean mini-rolls made out of rice, black beans, and some kind of nut, all held together by a vaguely meaty-smelling covering. I don’t know what said covering is, it doesn’t taste like meat, but it holds the entire thing together. And while it’s definitely tacky to the touch, said substance doesn’t really stick to your fingers. (It leaves less residue than say Chee-Tos would.)
My boss told me that student X’s mother had made some for me; putting two rice rolls on my desk. I told her to thank the mother for me and tell her that I appreciated it. Later that night, at the end of my day, my boss then looked concerned when I left my classroom clutching said snack. “Don’t you want it?,” she wondered.
I explained that I was saving the snack for after dinner, since I hadn’t eaten yet and I’ve been trying to force my body to eat real food instead of banana chips and eggs. My boss laughed and pulled out a bag of the rice rolls. Apparently the “gift” above was just a warm-up for the main course.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the gift and the thought behind it. (After receiving nothing but death threats through all my years of teaching, being appreciated is quite a new sensation.) I just have no clue how I was ever expected to eat them all. My boss explained that since they’re rice-based, they won’t last much longer than a day unless I freeze them. But I have to thaw them out naturally, as the microwave will destroy the magic that is holding them together. So now I’m supplied with finger food for the rest of the month.
A constant reminder that I have the raddest students in the world.