“So,” a co-worker asked me this morning, “Are you going hiking today?” She mimed hiking by pumping her arms vigorously.
“Hiking?” I asked, imitating her arm-pumps.
“Yes, hiking,” she said, both of us now breathing heavily from our actions.
“Um, no,” I said. I didn’t like the way this conversation was going, and sensed an impromptu teacher’s hike. The event would likely be supplemented by awkward conversations and snacks of dried squid.
“Some teachers are going on a hike this afternoon,” Mrs J explained. “Over the mountain. Mrs. G and Mr M from our office are going.”
My co-teacher, Mrs G, had given no indication of said hike. I gestured at my skirt and tights combo.
“I didn’t know about the hike.”
“It is not required,” Mrs. J said. “I am not going. But some teachers will go.”
In Korea, saying something is not required is not the same as saying we don’t have to do it.
Mrs. G arrived a few minutes later, dressed in jeans and a hooded t-shirt. Just the sort of outfit you’d wear, say, if you knew you were going hiking that very afternoon.
Mr M walked by, a tanned, burly man of few words. Rumor has it that he drinks every night and does not wish to be disturbed in the morning. He is also a PE teacher. He and Mrs G had a brief conversation that included the words, “Lauren,” “Jared,” and “galbi.” Chances were good that not only was a hike in the works, but a dinner was to follow.
But I wasn’t to know, because the principal walked in, which meant everyone had to spring to their feet as quickly as possible. When the principal, vice principal, or head teacher enters a room, everyone stands as a sign of respect. Jared and I usually remain standing until someone whispers to us that it is OK to sit back down.
After the principal enjoyed his tea and observed us to his satisfaction, Mrs G and I gathered our books and headed across the school to the English classroom.
“There is a hike today,” she said.
“Oh, really?” I said, feigning total ignorance.
“Would you like to come? You do not have to,” she said. “I must go,” she added, with a touch of remorse.
I pulled at my flouncy skirt and acted sad. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I am not prepared.”
“I understand,” she answered.
Nothing more was said until the afternoon, just before the hikers departed. Mr M strolled in and inquired as to whether or not Jared and I would be attending. He was shocked to find out that we weren’t.
Mrs G explained that I was wearing a skirt, and therefore could not clamber over a mountain. He grunted a little bit but seemed to accept the excuse. Bloody women and their skirts.
Relieved, I went on to teach my after school class. When I returned to the office, Mrs J beckoned me over to the coffee table.
“Eat some tteokbokki,” she said. “The students made it in cooking class.”
She pushed over a styrofoam tray full of tubular rice cakes smothered in kotujang, a spicy red sauce. I picked at it with my wooden chopsticks, wishing they had made macaroni and cheese or chocolate chip cookies.
“Many teachers were asking about you, and Jared, today,” she said. “‘Why,’ they said, ‘why did they not come hiking? Jared likes exercise.’ We said that you didn’t know.”
“Yes,” I said. “Maybe if we had known, we could have planned.”
Usually, advance warning is preferable, but in this case, I was glad to have gotten out of it.
“Eat,” Mrs J urged. “We have cookies, too.”
I bit into an individually wrapped sandwich cookie, spilling crumbs all over my lap.
Beats dried squid any day of the week.