Korean Kindergarten Graduation Is More Elaborate Than My High School Graduation

Since the Korean academic calendar goes from March to March, the students at ECC are all about to move up a grade.  Most students seem excited because in Korea age is a big deal; the older you are, the more respect you get.  Nowhere is this mindset more apparent than with the kindergarten kids.  They are about to go to elementary school and based off their discussions I discovered the process of getting into a good elementary school in Seoul is a lot like getting into a good college back home.  First they apply, then they take tests, then they get accepted, waitlisted, or rejected.  Apparently there are a lot of politics that goes into the admissions process, including bribes and grandfathering in less deserving students based on family ties with older siblings.  When the students all found out which school they would be attending, they either shared their good news with the class or sulked and looked for sympathy because they didn’t get accepted to the school their parents wanted them to go.

The Ants and the GrasshopperThis intense time in the life of a Korean kindergartener came right as their graduation ceremony approached.  I didn’t have a kindergarten graduation.  I didn’t have an elementary school or middle school graduation either.  My first graduation came when I was 18 and finishing high school.  To say that my high school graduation and this kindergarten graduation were similar would be like saying North and South Korea are similar just because they both have the word Korea in their names.  This kindergarten graduation was more like a variety show put together for the parents who wanted one last photo op before their babies were no longer babies.  Each of the five classes performed a play and sang songs.  Mercury, the class I teach, acted out “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” that story about hardworking ants and a playful grasshopper that is supposed to teach kids to work hard so they don’t die of starvation come winter.

After the play, Mercury class did a rendition of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.”  Why?  Your guess is probably as good as mine.  The kids had been singing that song in class while they were doing their workbooks for the past month or so but I didn’t know it was for graduation.  I just thought they learned random American songs from commercials or something else playing on TV.  They knew all the words and even had choreography.  I’m beginning to think Mercury might have a few students become new members of NSYNC and the Spice Girls.



My Relationship With Korea (As Told by Dunkin’ Donuts)

Black Coffee!Let me start this story out by stating that Koreans tend to drink Americanos rather than plain, brewed coffee.  Dunkin’ Donuts is one of the few places in all of Seoul that sells my regular, brewed black coffee; no unwanted frivolities added.

The walk between my apartment and work takes about fifteen minutes and a couple times a week I like to stop in at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the way.  The first thing anyone sees when they enter the store is an old man behind the cash register next to the coffee machines.  This man works the counter every weekday at approximately 11:00 AM, right when I walk by the store.  He doesn’t look friendly.  In fact, he looks downright angry.  When people say not to judge a book by its cover, they are not talking about this man as he actually is just as unpleasant as his appearance suggests which is why I call him Coffee Nazi in my head.

When I first ordered coffee from him almost eight months ago I used my (very) broken Korean and asked for a black coffee to go.  He replied with “No.”  Nothing else.  I stood there for a few seconds not realizing if he got confused with “no” and “okay” but when I saw he wasn’t moving I got the hint and went on my way.  A few days later I tried my luck again and I got another no.  This process continued for a couple of weeks.  Finally, just as I was losing hope, I went back inside and asked for my coffee, as I had done countless times before.  For some reason, the old man decided I met the requirements that day and deserved coffee, but as he gave it to me he said in a very deep, raspy voice “I… don’t… like… America.”  I was just as speechless as I was when he denied me coffee the first time.

After this encounter I still wasn’t guaranteed coffee.  It was a 50/50 shot at best.  Over time, though, I started getting coffee more than I was being refused service and the Coffee Nazi frequently asked me questions.  They were oftentimes insulting questions, but at least he was making conversation.  He asked me about my favorite Korean foods and when I told him what they were he said I was wrong.  He asked me if I was married and when I said no he said good.  He even went so far as to tell me he does not like black coffee as he was giving me my order one time.

Nothing is official, but all this seems to have changed.  Today I went in for coffee at 11:00  for the first time since my school’s winter camp finished.  During winter camp I went in at 9:00 AM and a pleasant part-time barista/part-time piano teacher gave me coffee and practiced her English with me as she was preparing it.  As I found out today, absence really does make the heart grow stronger.  When the Coffee Nazi saw me he gave me the customary quazi-bow most workers in stores do as customers come in.  This alone was enough to nearly knock me to the floor.  When I went to order my coffee I decided to splurge and got a donut.  Not just any donut, but the bigger king-sized donut.  Coffee Nazi rang up my order and only charged me for the smaller, regular donut.  Not only that, he gave a half-smile as I walked away.

It might not sound like much, but the little 50 cent discount and the semi-smile is akin to anyone else in the world spontaneously giving me a car.  As sad as it sounds, this completely-out-of-left-field gesture of kindness made me much happier than a simple coffee and donut ever should have.  Although Coffee Nazi is pretty atypical when it comes to the majority of the Korean people I’ve encountered this gradual warming has been a good representative of my time in Korea.  A big initial shock, followed by some resentment, which in turn faded as time went by until it nearly disappeared completely.  Now let’s just hope this ceasefire in the new Korean War remains in effect for the duration of my contract.