Instead I get to spend the day watching kids from the age of five to fifteen doing awfully choreographed dances to K-Pop and traditional Korean music. They have been practicing for months, but their dances look like they were put together the day before. The event is riddled with technical glitches, but no one cares – it’s a day of no classes and students are on a natural high, running around in frenzied excitement.
The primary school kids are sickeningly cute in their little “bring bring” (bling bling) costumes while the middle schoolers (grades 7-9) strut about the hall, showing the primary schoolers who’s boss in their cooler-than-Vanilla-Ice hip hop outfits (a hoody over their uniforms). When it comes to their turn, they stand in their positions ready to dance the stage off to the latest K-Pop hits. But whoever is operating the music in the backroom makes a blunder, leaving them hanging for a good five seconds. Second time lucky and they dance. I use the word ‘dance’ loosely here seeing as they have the same amount of rhythm and energy as a table.
Still, everyone’s having a merry time drinking their tiny cups of instant coffee and eating their rice cakes, except one woman. I can see her whispering to another woman while shooting me half glances. I assume she’s just taken away with the presence of a foreigner in the room. And then she starts walking towards me.
She introduces herself as my student’s mother. I assume she wants to meet her kid’s English teacher. Then her tone changes. And she starts pointing her finger at me. And she starts yelling. Something about the essay competition we held about three weeks ago, which I was in charge of. I don’t need Sherlock to tell me she isn’t happy with the results. I remember clearly who I placed in the top three and her kid wasn’t one of them.
People are starting to stare, rice cakes are being forgotten and coffees are turning cold. When I manage to get a word in, I try to explain to her that her kid’s essay isn’t good enough to be in the top three. While I speak, she obviously looks at me blankly because I obviously speak English and she obviously does not understand a word I say. So she just continues to yell at me in Korean. I look desperately to my co-teachers for help. They just stare. Behind us, the K-Pop blares and the kids keep dancing. I am missing some of my favourite kids on stage. Thankfully her kid is up next on stage. She walks off to find the perfect spot to video her performance. Oddly, she doesn’t come back when the performance ends, leaving me alone to cry in the corner of the auditorium.
My co-teacher finally realises something is wrong when she sees my tears.
When I fill her in, in between my chokes and splutters, she hugs me and says, “But Sam, you must be strong like American.” Whatever that means. She doesn’t stop holding me until the festival ends.
At the close of the festival, I walk back into a quiet school to my office. All the kids have gone home and I have some time to put the madness behind me before the usual post-festival teachers’ dinner.
But my door’s ajar. She’s there, sitting at my desk, with her kid’s essay in her hand. I thought of walking past my office, straight to the teachers’ office one floor below, but she catches my eye in that split second and immediately rises from my seat. I walk in and take my place at my computer while she moves to the front of my desk. And like a horse-racing commentator she goes off again on her rant while pointing at various sentences in the essay and at the “great effort” I wrote at the end of the essay to justify her rant. In response I open Facebook on my computer.
She yells at me while I ignore her for half an hour before my co-teachers finally decide to come up to my office to see what is going on. They argue and they point to things on the essay and they argue some more. Suddenly her stony expression disappears; she takes my hand and cups it in hers and looks at me like I am a lost puppy. My co-teachers must have told her she brought me to tears. I mumble “don’t worry about it” in Korean and she leaves. I stare at the door, mouth half open, and try to figure out how this day, which I was looking forward to the whole semester, ended up like this. I look at my co-teachers and we share a quiet moment. They hug me again.
“Sam, don’t worry, the nightmare is finished.”
“Yes, don’t worry, now we will celebrate the festival; we will have squid for dinner!”