This healthy Korean dish is another one of my favorites so far, and I haven’t even tried it in its originating city yet. Dak galbi, which translates to chicken ribs despite the fact that chicken thigh or breast is usually used, is a specialty of Chuncheon in Gangwon Province. It consists of marinated diced chicken cooked in gochujang (hot pepper paste) along with green onions, sweet potato, cabbage, and tteok (rice cake). It’s quit spicy (surprise!) but oh-so-flavorful. Like many Korean dishes, it’s cooked at your table and is meant to be shared. Oftentimes dak galbi is served with leaves of lettuce as well as ice cold bowls of pickled radish for when the heat really gets to you.
The day started out like any other Monday in Korea. I taught three classes before lunch, then prepared for three more in the afternoon. On the way back to my classroom from the cafeteria, my co-teacher and I are stopped by another teacher and they have a five minute conversation in Korean. I hear my name a few times so I smile and nod, pretending I vaguely know what they are talking about even though I have no idea. It’s then relayed to me, very simply, that I have to take a “business trip” to Cheongju. Today. I look at my watch, it’s 12:55. Cheongju is an hour away by bus which runs infrequently in the afternoons.
Ok, so I assume my afternoon classes will be cancelled?
What is the business trip for?
A cultural class.
Oh, ok. When does it start?
At 3 maybe.
At 3, maybe?
We then go speak to the vice principal, who doesn’t seem very happy about this business trip. The two teachers and the vice principal carry on a 20 minute conversation that feels quite fierce. There seems to be some confusion with paperwork. Again, I stand there smiling and nodding, trying not to look like I am so confused about what is going on right now (all I could think was how intense this seemed for a last minute cultural class and why am I just now hearing about this). My co-teacher decides to go with me to Cheongju to show me where the business meeting is since I have no idea how to get there. Turns out neither does she. After taking a bus to Cheongju, asking a few people for directions at the bus terminal, hopping on a local bus for a few kilometers, getting off the bus, getting in a taxi, getting out of the taxi only to discover a few minutes later we are at the wrong place on the opposite side of the city, getting in another taxi, then wandering around two huge buildings, we finally arrive at 3:45 (I hate being late!) when the meeting started at 3, maybe. My co-teacher leaves me to attend the business meeting or what I understand to be a Korean cultural class. More like Korean surprise! This is not in fact a class to learn about Korean culture. This is a meeting to discuss the guidelines of the class I am teaching about American culture to middle school students in various schools throughout the county. Oh, I see, I volunteered to teach cultural classes. Maybe? Yes maybe.
Aside from the language barrier, I think the most challenging part of living in Korea has been learning how to deal with varying degrees of Korean surprises. Things tend to change or happen last minute and there are quite a few aspects of Korea that don’t seem to make sense logistically. There have been times when I’ve quickly become faced with awkward, frustrating situations that have pulled me completely out of my comfort zone. I can certainly be flexible, but I will say I’ve always been a pretty organized planner. So when I was suddenly told I had a business trip in another city, immediately, and that’s all the information I got (I still have no idea what went on between the teachers that day, or why I had no knowledge about volunteering to teach extra cultural classes) my initial reaction was to freak out and demand to know why I was just receiving this information. But I’ve encountered quite a few circumstances similar to this in the past three months that have required me to pause, take a deep breath and trust that everything will be just fine in order to avoid a meltdown, as that won’t get me anywhere in Korea.
Sometimes it’s frustrating tidbits of everyday life, like the bank requiring you to have a local phone number to set up and account and the phone company requiring you to have a local bank account to activate a phone. Huh? Or walking into the teacher’s lounge first thing in the morning and finding out it’s hiking day as you look down at the dress and tights you’re wearing. Or being told on Tuesday you don’t have to teach classes on Wednesday so you don’t prepare anything, only to hear on Wednesday morning you will actually be teaching and class started five minutes ago. I have definitely had my moments of hair-pulling, cursing and crying (mostly in private), but I am getting better at recognizing the things I can’t control and just taking a breath, putting a smile on my face, and giving thanks for having the opportunity to live and work abroad so I can enjoy my pocketful of delicious kimchi. If that doesn’t work, I attempt to laugh without smiling. It works every time (thanks, David).