Accepting a ride from the boss will test all that adviceIt was a cold and blustery day, the kind when your landlord knocks on your door to tell you to keep your faucets at constant drip so that the pipes don’t freeze and burst. I don’t know about bursting, but I was certainly freezing as I shuffled a block-and-a-half to my hagwon, full of pep and ready to begin my third week as an English instructor.
The honk of a horn behind me was immediately irritating. “I’m walking here!” I thought angrily. I turned to see my boss, the hagwon’s owner, gesturing me inside his car for a respite from the chill. I was pleasantly surprised, even though it was literally a parking lot’s distance to the school’s door. Not wanting to appear rude by refusing his gesture of kindness, I hopped in.
After all, this was my first month in Korea, and I was told by everyone ― people who had been here, people who were currently here, by myriad books ― that Korea would be a wholly new encounter for me. This would be like nothing I had ever known, I was told.
This is a different culture, they said, and every gesture, every comment, would be read not only literally but symbolically, a telegraph of exactly what kind of person I am.
While I always take advice with a grain of salt, I was the new guy, and needed to be careful not to offend before I myself could ascertain if every interaction really counted as much as I was told it would.
The 30-second ride ended, and I started to open the car door. Then, I was staring, dumfounded, at the door handle. It was easy to examine closely, because it was no longer attached to the car. I had ripped it off the door.
The next step? Surreptitiously trying to push the handle back into place, in one of those hopes ― the ones we only have in these kinds of moments ― that perhaps the plastic would show a wonderful molecule-realigning capability and “heal” itself on the spot, Terminator-like. That did not happen.
Then I began to fear the repercussions of my action: What would my boss think of me now? I did not want the gnarled door handle to be a metaphor for the brutishness and stupidity of my people ― foreigners -- nor did I want him to think that I harbored any negative opinion of early-model Korean hybrid plastics. Rather, I merely wanted him to realize the brutishness and stupidity of me alone. I will be the first to admit my naivete; my year of experience here has told me that things don’t work like this at all. (Well, at least my Korean friends let me hang out with them after I do stupid things.)
Everything turned out fine between my boss and me; we ended up having a great relationship, and laughed about me redoing the car’s interior almost immediately. If I had listened to what people told me, I would be afraid to leave my house for fear of offending. My advice: Replace all those books ― and friendly advice ― with firsthand experience.
by Jason Zahorchak