An empty school. An empty parking lot. Maybe three teachers tops are presently at the school for the day processing paperwork and answering the photos for their “duty” day required of them in between semesters. And you, the foreigner are at your desk all day long trying to find anything that comes your way to pass the time more quickly. You know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s desk warming!
I will never in my life be able to forget the long days filled with sitting at my desk when 99.9% of the time I was sitting alone in a bare unheated office asking myself over and over again why I had to be there in the first place and what on earth was the purpose of my existence in an empty school when I could be sitting in my apartment doing the same thing except in my pajamas but in front of my heating fan with a bowl of hot ramen to warm me up.
When you sign your contract to teach at a public school in South Korea you basically are signing your life away to many important tasks that you must fulfill in your duties and that does include desk warming. Desk warming are essentially days that can turn into weeks where you are required as per your contract to come to school like a regular school day except no children are there.
All of the school staff have to rotate this task as well whether it be three teachers a day sitting in the main office doing paperwork for the school and answering phone calls. You however, the dear foreigner, waygookin, most likely will be joining them in the main office watching them or alone in your office next to the English classroom. Be prepared to fulfill these duties as it is a requirement and there is no scurrying out of it. Following the standard code of Korean way does prove your “diligence” as it is however a very strange concept of wasting time.
My desk warming days were ones that I will never miss. They were filled with endless cups of hot tea and instant Korean coffees,munching on choco pies, googling “how to survive desk warming”, watching YOUTUBE videos on desk warming, writing emails to my foreign friends who were also desk warming and browsing through waygook.org creating forums with the title “why do I have to do desk warming?”
In the winter they were long miserable days where I dreamed of being on a warm tropical beach laughing at my empty and cold office and never looking back. My days were spent with all layers of my clothing on including my winter jacket, scarf, hat, and sometimes mittens because the pipes had frozen and the cold air was coming through the windows.
Looking back I laugh more at my desk warming disaster in the winter months because of how cold the school was and no matter how many layers I had on, I was still freezing. My body wasn’t very adaptable to the drastically cold temperatures of winters in the ROK.Drinking cup after cup of hot tea with honey to warm me up and slurping instant Korean noodles while drinking the steaming broth still could not warm my freezing body.
The only thing I can say to make you to make you feel better about your future of desk warming is that it will get better in the summer months because you will busy planning for summer camp while no classes are in session and usually your co-teachers will be planning the budget and outline of the camp. Oh, and you won’t be freezing! Instead, you will be snacking on Korean drinking yogurts, seasonal fruits, and ice creams to keep your body cool because Korean summers are very humid and sticky. Instead of freezing your buns off , you will be laughing back at yourself of your cold winter months at your desk with no kids. Good luck!
You can find more about how I spent my days desk warming here.
Living in South Korea for three years of my life helped me evolve into the person I am today. A lot of memories were made.A lot of kimchi was eaten. I ate a ton of rice cakes on a daily basis. Yummy snacks appeared on my desk on a daily basis. When I told my close co-workers that I was cutting back on choco pies and rice cakes the treats mysteriously kept appearing. I explored every corner, crevice, city, province, that my guide book offered me in Korea. A lot of great people came into my life. A lot of great people left. A lot of visits were made at the swimming pool in Gumi to do laps where nobody would talk to me. I accepted that. I could ramble on and on of what I wish I was prepared for when I left Korea for life back in the USA.
I wish somebody told me that it was going to be hard. That not everybody would want to hear my endless stories. Stories about kimchi. Stories about my coteachers. Stories about how cool the public transportation system is all around the peninsula. Stories about he time I toured the DMZ- the most heavily protected borders in the world. Stories about all the cool cafes in Seoul including Hello Kitty in Hongdae. Stories about the moments that made me into who I am today based on the coolness I experienced.
I wish I was prepared to know that my pictures didn’t justify what I really experienced. That talking about my travels would be compared in translation to someones weekend at home at the bar or a birthday celebration. That I was going to feel extremely confused and sad sometimes. That I was going to feel at times that something in my life had died. That finding Korean food at home was going to pretty hard and non existent basically. That my chopstick skills didn’t impress everyone. That my thoughts would be consumed with my experiences and tales in Korea.
That I was going to miss Korea for a long time. That I would still be talking about Korea almost every day until that day I would visit three years later. That soondubu jiggae would be my favorite food and I would long for yummykorean snacks that I could not find at home. That choco pies became my go to comfort food. That on cold winter nights back home I would be longing for Korean ramen.
I wish someone had told me that I was going to feel disconnected from the place that I grew up. That I would constantly compare South Korea to the United States.That I would always wish and talk about how great the public transportation is in South Korea and how I didn’t need a car when I lived there. That the healthcare system in Korea was awesome and seeing a doctor cost me $3 compared to the crazy $100 co-pay to see a doctor back home. That I would love and embrace Korean strangers. That at any chance I could get I could try to talk to a Korean person and share with them how much I love Korea and that I lived there for three years and ask them if they had ever had the chance to travel to Dokdo and Ulleung Island like i had.
Moving forward hasn’t been easy. At the beginning stages of initially leaving Korea it felt as if I was mourning a death of something so dear to me that I lost.However after a recent visit I made finally with South Korea, it really opened my eyes to how much of the world I have seen in the past three years and how much Korea has not changed. Of course I think I am not as homesick for Korea these days. It is not Korea I long for as a place now. Instead what I miss are the people who made my life better and showed me how to be a good friend and taught me how to learn to enjoy Korea. What I know now is that I will always have love for Korea and Korean people. That dried seaweed, bibimbap, chamchi kimbap, and soon dubu jiggae will always be my favorite Korean comfort foods. What I do know now is that Korea will always be there and I can always visit. It is a place I can always return to in the case that I need a reminder of how great I had it there.