Letter from Seoul: The gift of patience

About a month after arriving in Korea my colleague, Miss Lee, told me that we were going on a staff outing. The kids were to leave early so staff members could spend the afternoon visiting a museum. This wasn’t my idea of fun but I’d rather go on a cultural outing than spend the afternoon at work, right? Although the outing had been planned weeks ago I was only told about it the day before.

Excited about the prospect of working only half-day I arrived at work as usual wearing a formal shirt and tie. The first thing I noticed when I went into the staffroom was that all the teachers were wearing tracksuits and takkies. This was odd but it was only between the second and third periods when I saw the principal, who without fail wears a suit, was also walking around in a tracksuit that I decided to find out more. Miss Lee went bright red as she tried to explain. I thought she was going to faint from embarrassment as she went into detail about how the plan had changed and she’d forgotten to tell me. The planned outing to the museum had overnight changed to a walk in the mountains – thus the sports attire. Everyone had been informed by SMS, but Miss Lee had forgotten to translate the message and send it to me.

The headmaster had decided he’d prefer a walk in the nearby mountains to the visiting a museum. So of course everyone fell in with his plan. This was the first of many communication gaps and misunderstandings I was to encounter in Korea.

I asked my colleague if it was in order if I slipped out during our lunch break to also change into a tracksuit and takkies. In Korea it’s not the done thing to leave work for personal reasons, but because everyone bar me had received the message about the change in plans the headmaster agreed that I could go home to change into more suitable attire.

Twenty minutes later I was back, dressed in a comfy tracksuit and takkies, ready for our hike. Just before we were about to leave I was told that the walk was off and that instead we were going to see a movie. I’d gone home and changed all for nothing. The headmaster had decided it might be too hot for the older teachers to go on a hike, so we should all rather go to the movies. So we went to see Hancock, starring our own Charlize Theron.

The fact that everyone had been told about the plan and that it had changed twice in the space of 24 hours is something that happens regularly in the Korean workplace. Being a foreigner I’m always the last to hear about it. This is because they simply forget or mostly because they’re too shy to convey the message in English. Koreans are incredibly friendly, hospitable people, but they feel awkward if they’re unable to speak English to foreigners.

I’m an impatient person but Korea has taught me to be more patient. A year after being in Korea I went home and after spending a few days with my family my sister remarked that something about my personality had changed but she couldn’t put her finger on what exactly. A day or two later she hit the nail on the head when she said I’d become more patient. So I’ll be eternally grateful to Korea for its gift of patience.

Until next time.


-       Joe Makka is from Hopefield in the Western Cape and teaches English in Seoul in South Korea.

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