May 12, 2012

How to Drink with your Students

Festival time is when campus goes from this... this.

For weeks, students talk about the festival.

Your assistant tells you at least three times not to cancel class.

"Students will ask," he says. "Probably, they will ask again and again."

For weeks, your coworkers tell you stories of past festivals. About all classes being cancelled on Friday after the big concert. About staying on campus all night, seeing the sky go from dark to blue to hazy dawn pink, beers in hand in plastic chairs. About trashed bathrooms, bonfires in the parking lot, deans downing shots with students, still wearing their pressed suits and silk ties.

Hand-painted banners line the main road through campus, slogans in careful Roman letters. "Go party then now!" "Fantastic, baby!" "Student nightclub building." The name of this year's festival, from what you can gather on posters and volunteer T-shirts, is "Feel Long Ketchup." You don't bother asking your English majors what it means.

On the first night, you will drink beer with the 60-year-old dean in the English Lit tent. Around you, your students wave hellos as they run the barbecue and wait tables. The dean grins hugely and takes your hand. "Thank you for showing solidarity to our department!" she says, as a deep-bowing student presents her a cocktail in a plastic cup.

You will walk around to other department booths, all serving the same canned beer, barbecued meat, and ramen bowls heated on campfire stoves. You will follow the sound of cheering to a gambling tent, where terrified mice race each other down a narrow wooden racetrack. You bet three times on #4, an unlucky number in Korea. No one else will.

You will be sold cheap glow sticks by a drunk kid in green lederhosen. He'll tell you with a nervous laugh that no, he's not a German major.

You will see the shy kid in your conversation class, tumbling out of a bush with a groggy girl on his arm.

You will see the other shy kid in your conversation class, walking around by himself, saying a meek hello to a table of students. They ignore him.

You will hear shrill, booze-watered "Hi Teacher!!" again and again from your students. They will invite you to join them, offer you shots of soju. They will introduce you to their girlfriends, holding hands tightly in the thick crowd.

You will meet other foreign teachers from other departments, all young and rakish, or else older and married to Korean women. You will meet about 40 foreign men, and two women. That's just how it is, you're told, in universities here. You'll meet old profs who now work at different universities. "I came down from Seoul for this," they tell you. "This place has the best school festival, hands down."

Later, when a K-Pop star takes the stage, everyone will scream with a volume you never thought possible, coming from Korean students. They'll bounce out of tents holding friends hands to worm closer to the stage. You'll hear nothing but thumping music and screaming, nodding to the art professor beside you who is still talking, pretending to understand because no matter how close you lean, you'll never hear him.

Around you, you'll see facepainted students slumped sleeping in computer chairs on the sidewalk. You'll see girls crying into cellphones, arms hugged around their stomachs. You'll see an ESL teacher in sunglasses and an unbuttoned shirt, staggering through a thick crowd, his arm tight around a giggling, teetering girl. She must be under 20. She must be his student.

You'll hug your new friends and return your students' giddy waves. And, with a belly full of barbecued pork and beer, ears ringing, slip quietly out the gates and head home.

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