By Candy Lee, ETA ’15-’17
The first time we meet is marked by a large bouquet of flowers and the click click of his DSLR camera. It’s departure day at Jungwon University, and I’ve just met my co-teacher. I’m nervous; my first impression of him is that he is older than the majority of other teachers in the crowd. Later, when I learn he is almost 60, I will tell him he is so young for his age.
At first, we speak in stilted English, with many gesticulations and repeated questions. I talk slowly and carefully, measuring out my language before speaking so I can slice off any superfluous words that might be difficult to digest. He shows me our gyomushil1—ours, because it’s solely for English teachers, and in our small school, that means me and him.
Our gyomushil is our sanctuary from the rowdiness that is an all-boys school. There are succulents on the table—he shows me how they grow and how much water they need. When a spider’s egg sac hatches on one of the plants, he gives them a day in our gyomushil before bringing the plant outside—just because he wanted to see how far the spiders could build their web. When it’s cherry blossom season, he brings in a fallen branch and places it in a cup of water to see it bloom. He identifies the horticulture on the school grounds; plucking unassuming garden weeds and telling me that in his time, people used to boil and eat them.
He tells me he wanted to be a tour guide for English speakers visiting Korea’s national parks, but he didn’t think his English was good enough. His English teachers were German, and their pronunciation was very difficult to understand. The Korea he remembers is a very old Korea, one that lives solely through memories and history books. He has never ridden the KTX and tells me that his children frequent Starbucks although he himself has never been. Whenever I have a problem with anything tech-related, he goes to get someone else to help. Once I showed him how Google Drive worked, and it amazed him.
When summer gives way to autumn, we go see the oksae2 during our lunch break and the danpung3 at Mudeungsan4. He shows me a special tree that is used to make wine corks, teaches me how to differentiate pine trees based on their fascicles and takes me to an old friend who sings pansori5 for us. We go to the small island where he taught for two years and where the parents of his old students still call him to ask for advice. I hold wriggling abalones in my hands before eating them raw, drenched in sesame oil. We go fishing with a simple pole and bait, and every time I cast it into the water, I’ve got a floundering fish on the other end of it. They are sliced and cleaned of guts, then eaten raw with spicy gochujang6 sauce.
Despite all our adventures together hiking and traveling, I would remember our gyomushil best. It was the space where we felt safe, where we would sit on the sofas and talk about politics and history with steaming hot tea in front of us. It was where I brewed coffee, and where I managed to get my co-teacher hooked on the delicious black beverage (no sugar for both of us). It was where drowsy wasps managed to fly in through the closed windows in the winter, attracted by the heat. He would bring in homemade yogurt made with the leftover school milk. We would eat cup ramen and go on shopping trips to Lotte to replenish our snack supply. If he disappeared mysteriously from the gyomushil, it usually meant he would return with some treat. Periodically he would go downstairs to the general gyomushil and bring back fried chicken and slices of pizza held on napkins. He asked me if I wanted sangchu7 because he was tending to the school garden. I went along once, and he identified all the plants for me: rows of purple and green lettuce, garlic, chicory, beans, beets, Chinese bellflower, green onions, carrots and potatoes. He showed me which plants would turn into tomatoes and which ones would grow into peppers. I would walk back to our gyomushil after, tracking in dirt from the garden.
The second time we meet at Jungwon, he’s there empty-handed. We go to a flower shop and I pick out a plant—a huge, spiky succulent. The principal explains that it was my co-teacher’s idea to get a plant instead of a bouquet this year. Something that will continue to grow instead of something that will wither away.
I can close my eyes and recreate our room down to the battered paper snowflakes taped to the window. Too soon, other people take our place in the third-floor gyomushil. But in my memories, we are sitting on the sofas, drinking our tea and coffee and wondering what sort of adventure we should try out next.
Candy Lee is a 2015-2017 ETA at Yeongsan Middle School in Naju, Jeollanam-do.