Beyond School Walls

One of the unique things about the Korean workplace is that it is never just a workplace—it’s also your instant social group, whether you’re looking for a new social group or not. Now, I’m 22 years old, and a very recent college graduate with zero experience teaching  and little chance of making teaching a career. My coworkers, on the other hand, are professional teachers that all have several years on me.

Whelp, I thought. This will be interesting.

Over the months I’ve been here I’d seen elements of this social workplace. There was my welcome dinner at a shabu-shabu restaurant, with drinks to follow. There was sushi with my coteacher, and Indian food with my head teacher, and a visit to the hospital when one of my coteachers had an operation. And, of course, there was no shortage of chats in the hallways between classes. In other words, business as usual.

But this past Friday, one of my coteachers surprised me by asking if I wanted to join her at a pottery expo that afternoon. Sure, I said. Why not.

After work, I met my coteacher in the parking lot. Her car was gold, and it stood out against the blinding procession of white cars that covers Jeju streets. We drove to the Seolmundae Woman’s Cultural Center, named after a mythical heroine who built the mountain with her bare hands.

Inside, we met a group of men and women milling around a table on which were spread a number of wraps, some pork, and some delicious mini muffins, as well as a thick rice drink. Seeing as how this was a pottery show, the display was wonderful.

Next we moved into the actual display room. The pottery in this show was of a special kind, made exclusively from clay found on Jeju. The array of shapes and uses were diverse. There were low pitchers, cups, plates, and wall reliefs. There were clay lamps decorated with small holes that cast a pattern of light onto the wall when lit.

At the pottery expo with my coteacher and her friend
At the pottery expo with my coteacher and her friend

The artists were able to make some graceful statements with their work. One of my favorites was a collection of perfectly smooth, symmetrical jars that hinted at modernity, but which were topped with crude handles shaped like the stocky horses found on Jeju. Another showed miniature water baskets of the kind historically carried by women, lain underneath a scythe—water and wind.

As we were looking through the displays, my coteacher explained even the most ancient of items by saying “we use it this way.” This was disarming to me; I had almost forgotten that the pasts of the people in that room was also the ancient past of the island.

My favorite collection was created by my coteacher’s friend, who had made pots with handles shaped to look like volcanic rock. I loved the reminder that the clay for these pots had come from the same volcano that formed the foundation of Jeju’s streets full of white cars, and its schools, and our school dinners. All of the island’s past came together in a simple clay reminder that all this efficiency came from the soil beneath our feet.

The pottery expo finished, my coteacher dropped me off near the bus stop, and I went home to a quiet weekend. But the quiet didn’t last long—on Sunday I bundled up to meet another one of my coteachers for a short walk along Olle 10.

We took the 750 bus, then got off at Hwasun near Sanbangsan. The wind was fierce. We walked for a while, my coteacher trying fruitlessly to keep her hat on, then sat down near a beach to eat some kimbap.

Another windy day near Sanbangsan
Another windy day near Sanbangsan

I had never seen wind affect the water like this. Looking across the water towards the volcanic tuff at the base of Sanbangsan, I saw long clouds of spray lifted from the open water and scattered across the sea like flurries of snow. Wind pushed across the water like a fingerprint, each gust darkening the silver pangs of light. We walked quickly, our fingers frigid. We talked of hypothetical men.

After walking up along the base of Sanbangsan, we stopped at the convenience store to warm up with some coffee and a nice view of the water. I told about my family; she told about hers.

When we went back outside we tried to walk a little bit further, but the wind got the best of us and so we headed towards the bus stop. I tried to explain what I meant when I said the windy landscape was haunting. Then, the bus came. We headed back into the few remaining hours of our separate weekends, until the moment when Monday came to shape the workspace with new layers of solidarity.


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