Tonight the teachers had a special 회식 (staff dinner): a goodbye dinner for our principal. He’s been promoted and will be abruptly leaving us next week, just three weeks into the second semester. The following day the new principal will arrive, and word on the street (or word in the classroom) is that no one knows what we’ll get. Man or woman, friendly or standoffish, lenient or strict. It’s all luck of the draw.
I’ve got to pull the formal Korean introduction phrases from the back of my brain and dust them off in preparation for meeting this new principal. It’s been quite a while, since our current principal has been at my school since I arrived.
Speaking of him, one thing is certain: the new one can’t possibly be kinder. This principal was always supportive of the teachers and did everything he could to make our work easier, not harder. He went out of his way to make me feel comfortable and supported, both figuratively and by literally walking two stories up and all the way to the end of the hall to my office several times a year to ask me if I have “any problems in my Korea life,” and that if I ever did, I should tell him so he could help me.
My first memory of him is being ushered into his office on my first day of teaching ever, gripping the paper coffee cup he’d offered me for dear life, awkwardly wondering what to say or do beyond “Annyeonghaseyo, bangapseumnida (hello, nice to meet you).” Then he smiled and told me in English to “sit comfortably” (I was already sitting, but he probably noticed my death grip on the coffee cup or my general tension) and asked where I was from and told me that the class size at this school is small compared to other middle schools. Eventually a co-teacher arrived and rescued me, taking me up to my office.
Tonight at dinner, he stood and gave a short speech to all of the staff, and I sat there wishing that I could feel the meaning of his words like all the other teachers could. I know from what I could catch that he was saying things like he’s glad we all persevered through the stress and rough times of teaching and he’s sorry to leave us, but it’s different when you can absorb the nuance of the chosen words. I want to be told that I persevered through hard times too, dangit.
On another note, the restaurant of choice tonight was a 횟집, a.k.a. a raw fish/sashimi place. This is not what the average American pictures when someone says “let’s get sushi tonight.” This is straight-up whole baby octopi (about the size of a quarter, kinda cute but not exactly mouthwatering), an enormous platter of thickly-sliced, very sinewy and chewy raw fish (that’s how they like it here), strips of eel, an entire larger boiled octopus (about the size of a fist) whose rubbery legs and head must be cut into pieces with a kitchen shears, revealing its little heart or brain or whatever is in there… and so on.
It was my great fortune to be sitting with probably the only other three teachers in the school who also dislike raw fish: my young co-teacher, the IT teacher, and one other teacher. Other than my co-teacher, no one around us could speak English, but I quickly gathered from their conversation, body language, and laughter that we were all on the same page. (A page of commiseration.)
We amused ourselves by covering up the gaebul with rice because nobody wants to see that unholy site at the dinner table. (Check the pictures at the link and you can probably guess this wormy fish’s unappetizing nickname [hint: male anatomy]).
Then we picked at a few side dishes, tried a few pieces of this or that to see if our tastes had changed (spoiler alert: they hadn’t), drank a lot of Coca-Cola and Sprite, and slipped out as a group in raw-fish-hating solidarity after just enough time to not be totally rude.
And let it be known that I truly appreciate that this was a fancy and probably quite expensive place. I mean, we had a large room reserved to ourselves (separated from other areas of the restaurant by traditional sliding doors). It was traditional-style dining, so we all sat on the floor around long low tables, three full tables of teachers, probably 30-40 of us. Each table of four people was served dish after dish after dish of fresh fish and countless side dishes, plus sodas, plus ice buckets full of beer and soju (of which my table did not partake).
I appreciate it, but I appreciated being able to leave at a reasonable time even more.
We’ll see what happens next week as the big change occurs. I wish it didn’t have to happen now, mid-semester. Maybe I’ll update on the situation, but – as has become clear I think – no promises.