It was my first day at Inil Girl’s High School for my teach abroad program in South Korea. The school sits high on a hilltop backed by Jayu Park, which is home to the famous statue of General Douglas Macarthur. I had just a brief tour of the building the day before. It had been eerily silent and empty; pristine corridors glinted in the sunlight which shot through the floor to ceiling windows, outside lay a stunning panoramic view of Incheon beneath a cobalt sky, and I could hear ships sounding their horns in the distance.
“Do you like what you see?” my co-teacher gently asked, as if I would find fault in the view. I imagined the grounds carpeted with cherry blossom once spring arrived and I tried hard to suppress a beaming smile of satisfaction at the luxurious school grounds I was to work in for the next year.
“It’s quite a view,” I replied happily. But where were all the students? During the entire two weeks of my stay in Korea I had only seen one small group of elementary children splashing their way through puddles on their way home, and they had quickly scampered away at the sight of me.
I finally got my first glimpse of Korean young people the following day at the school opening ceremony; albeit the backs of hundreds of heads and stockinged legs, all standing poker straight and silent ready to start the new school year. Bowing before the school under the bright lights of the stage I’d never felt so exposed and, well, foreign. Hundreds of eyes looked me up and down but their faces gave nothing away.
Lunchtime came around and still I felt like a ghost having had steely silent responses from all the students I had briefly met in the corridors. That was until there was a knock on my office door. A head peered round and quickly disappeared and I could hear tittering in the corridor, then a student, I now know as Ye-un, stepped in and greeted me with a big grin.
“Hello please come in!” I stood up to introduce myself, eager to touch base with my students.
“Aha your pronunciation is so funny!” Came her reply, and she dissolved into a fit of giggles.
“When is your birthday?” Was her next question.
“June 8th” I replied in my best British accent which prompted another bout of hysteria. She then informed me that hers was last week.
“And I had a party with just a few of my friends, but we all have to study so hard for the college entrance exams that we don’t get out much.” Without taking a breath she continued, “The last teacher was an American and she sounded so different to you!”
Before I had a chance to engage further the school bell sounded and she skipped off to her next class. So that explained the absence of teenagers in Korea; they are all at home studying for their college exams or at private academies until late in the evening.
Ye-un now comes to see me most lunch times and drags a couple of her friends along too. Once the giggling fits have subsided they are funny, bold and cheeky- just like the teenagers I worked with back home. I’m still only on observation duty this week and have yet to teach a class of my own, but as word gets around that there’s a native speaking English teacher in the house who sounds ‘funny’, it seems the students are thawing out a little. The pristine corridors are now coming to life with shouts of “Hello teacher!! Tee he he he!”