Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Grand Palace of South Korea

Written: 1/22/11
My day started just like any other school day. I woke up, got ready, rushed to school and was, of course, five minutes late because I am always 5 minutes late. The school year just recently ended and the new year does not start until next week. This means a week of teacher work days. Cool, I have a lot of planning to do. This also means I should be able to dress casually, right? WRONG.

Today I wore jeans and a hoodie, totally acceptable on any other day but today. About an hour into the day and without having realized the dressy attire of the other teachers, my co-teacher tells me that the school staff will be attending a lunch for the principal's last day before retirement. We've had lunch gatherings about three other times: once for the teachers leaving this year, once to celebrate winter break/the holiday, and the last just for the heck of it. They are slightly awkward for me because the few that speak some English are generally afraid to give it a try and those that speak more fluently feel forced to keep me company (at least I think). Anyway, they are uncomfortable, still kind of fun, but one thing they are not is formal. Except for this one.

Myself and three girls I arrive with ride the elevator up to a place called the Grand Palace. In the midst of their Korean conversations in the car, I had heard the name numerous times, but figured they were talking about Thailand's Grant Palace. Ehhhg, wrong. "OK," I think, "So it's a restaurant called the Grand Palace. Sounds neat? Influenced by Thailand?" When in the middle of such Korean conversations, my head is constantly spinning. I'm trying to gather what little clues I have and piece them together to form any sort of logical idea of what is being discussed. My thoughts take a 180 turn for the worse when I walk into what appears to be a ballroom of a palace; chandeliers hang from the ceiling, a fancy buffet lines a wall, and fancy circular tables are scattered throughout the enormous and intimidating room. "Why am I wearing jeans and a hoodie and why was I told of this event the morning of?" I think to myself. Sigh...important information somehow never seems to make it my direction.

"What have I just walked into?" My thoughts of escape were suddenly interrupted by the room full of people standing up and turning their bodies to the Korean flag. My right hand finds my heart just before the Korean national anthem begins. "Whew!" What happened for the next hour and a half is quite a blur. I understood some, but very little as speakers took the podium and the crowd clapped. I tried to look calm and collected, but am certain the discomfort showed on my face. Being the only foreigner in a crowded place is not new to me, but still, this experience somehow was. Oh, maybe it was the presence of the cities senator or the fact that I had hardly a clue what the different parts of the traditional ceremony signified. Or, MAYBE, it was the fact that I was the only person not dressed up and certainly the only person wearing jeans. Everyone look at the unclassy American!

The ceremony ended with a cheers that included some Korean-brand of Sprite. This I could do! Food followed and the tense mood started to settled. We chowed down on the most delicious buffet of Chinese, American, Japanese, and Korean food. And the best part- a chocolate fountain! After talking to some teachers sitting nearby, I realized that others, for different reasons than myself, felt a bit uncomfortable as well.

Sure I wish I had been given a heads up about the ceremony/lunch and sure it was the most uncomfortable I think I have ever felt in Korea, but I can happily say that it was very unique experience that I am glad to have been a part of. The respect teachers and the education administration have for one another, along with the traditional method in which they express such pride is truly something special about South Korea.


  1. Dude, that's totally not cool. I've read this type of situation in a multitude of blogs. The English speaking teachers are always left in the dark when it comes to schedules and events at the schools. I wonder why that is?

  2. Ah that must be scary to not be dressed for the occasion, but at least you got to have some yummy food =D