By Rachel Fauth, ETA ’16-’17
In the back seat of a car with three strangers driving three hours south to Damyang, traditional lute music on the radio. I think the man in the passenger’s seat is the vice principal, but the role of the man driving is undetermined. There are very few facts in the car.
The first real gift I receive is the immediate kindness of a woman, Yoejin, sitting to my left, interpreting back and forth for the two austere middle-aged men and me. She looks to be about 20 so she’s probably about 32. Maternal energy, Christian, ponytail and front bangs, sleeveless dress with a short-sleeved T-shirt underneath, petite and assertive. She’s diligently engaged in the act of translating and doing everything possible to break the invisible partition between front and back seats. Seatbelt-less, Yoejin leans forward to volley eye contact between us and the vice principal, creating this sort of triangular field between the front seats and the back. She’s careful not to smush the two bouquets of baby’s breath and blue roses lying on the center console. Miles of green under an unsurprisingly gray sky whiz past outside Yoejin’s window and mine. None of it is painful, just strange.
When I speak, the vice principal doesn’t turn his head, so Yoejin sort of takes my eye contact and packages it neatly, then delivers it to him. He looks back and responds something brief and syllabic. Yoejin catches it and passes it back to me, definitely taking creative liberty with her translation. “피곤하고 말라 보이는구나,”1 churned through her circuits becomes “The vice principal wants to know if you are sleepy. He says you are free to take a rest when we get to Changpyeong.” In the initial hour, it’s this quality of hers that holds everything together like gravity. The phrase Yoejin, thank you for lying, streams quietly through my mind on loop.
We pull into the gravel parking lot of a rest stop. I get out. It’s a long brown building standing alone in the Korean countryside. A wooden deck with a myriad of pop-up stands sells corndogs and other miscellaneous meat sticks; hot things in flat crinkly grease-resistant bags. I see some round, fried things covered in sauce and poked with toothpicks, grouped together in a little cardboard boat, and a Korean person holding it.
Then, at staggered and surreal intervals, I momentarily pass Evan, Jared and Sun. I feel a total rush of either love or recognition. We instinctively smile and wave and make fleeting appearances in each other’s vision. Three familiar aliens similarly strapped into business professional and the heat, they’re each flanked by strangers en route to some destination far from Goesan, where we spent the last six weeks with 73 other Americans preparing for this day. Shamelessly, I romanticize this aerial-view image of all 73 of us trickling around the map of Korea. I picture them in the back seats of similarly compact Kia cars on the highway, ignorant of having hurtled in the same cardinal direction up until this point. I wonder at what moment on the road we’ll splinter off into different trajectories. We spread out and away in waves from a fixed center, like ink dropped in a glass of water. All the while Yoejin, vice principal, ambiguous man and I sit sweating at a folding table in a convenience store drinking canned coffee, trying to assemble mostly-silent triangular conversation.
One hour to go. Big swaths of farmland and greenhouses, long foil-covered plastic cyndrillical structures. Rice fields and squatting women in visors preface the main street of Changpyeong. There’s a sudden slue of one-story concrete buildings, each labeled with peeling red or black or blue algebraic writing. They’re almost post-apocalyptic. At the edge of town we pass only one pristinely-kept building. Beside a barred entrance gate, white hibiscus bushes grow into vines draped on the sidewalk. The hedges are pruned in the shape of stacked bulbs, swirls and other arbitrary designs. Yoejin: “That’s the school.” It passes by in a blur and immediately changes size.
Later that afternoon I arrive at my homestay, but the host family is out of town at a funeral. The day I arrive they are at a funeral. Perhaps these two facts have a complicated relationship. I have no idea. They could have no relationship at all. To my surprise, instead of moving into a room in their apartment, I’m told that I have my own apartment and the host family lives downstairs in a separate abode altogether, but I’m to have every meal with them for the next year. How to digest this? My apartment is well lit, big and empty, fit with a teal door. While I’m unzipping luggage a woman pops her head through the open doorway, hands me a key, smiles and disappears anonymously. When she leaves, it’s just me and my suitcase in this apartment. I time 30 minutes of unpacking my life before Yoejin shows up at the door.
She and another ambiguous man come and shuffle me away to the grocery store. Walking down the snack aisle, the ambiguous man—another teacher, I learn—pulls a crinkled slip of paper from his back pocket. Reading, he asks: “Do you like Skinny peanut butter?” and I laugh when he picks up a jar of Skippy, buying me bread, fruit, water and peanut butter to put in the fridge just in case the family doesn’t come back until tomorrow night. The bread is sweet like cake.
At dinner, the entire English department meets for samgyeopsal at a local restaurant—thick strips of bacon-like pork barbecued at the table and served with a thousand side dishes in little white ceramic bird-belly-shaped bowls. We sit comfortably on floor pillows, pretzel-style and barefoot in nice clothes. Beside me, Yoejin takes a seat. There are 10 other English teachers who speak in mainly Korean; all jovial, mostly male and slightly drunk. They clink green bottles of soju2 above my head in my honor or perhaps in my excuse. Yoejin closes her warm brown eyes and prays.
The dinner is for me, new foreigner, person who cannot and does not have to speak. New foreigner. Person who speaks when spoken to. Recipient of simple and direct compliments, free of obligatory dinner conversation, enjoyer of meal in peace. Sizzling on the grill, the meat turns from raw to edible. Silverware chimes around me in different tones, different tinny notes. An unintelligible language goes through a series of sweet translations I take with a grain of salt. My bowl fills and empties, fills and empties. Outside turns from day to dusk. I meet the principal who hands me a third bouquet and speaks one direct word for the night: Welcome.
Rachel Fauth is a 2016-2017 ETA at Changpyeong High School in Damyang, Jeollanam-do.