When the Cuckoo Dies
Sitting in my kitchen is a cuckoo rice cooker; it’s pink, not my first choice of colour but at the time of purchase there were only 2 smaller rice cookers both identical, both pink. It sits on a shelf either on duty or turned off but generally it is turned on for months at a time only being ‘stood down’ while I refill it. I suppose it’s one of my most fundamental and important cooking implements, certainly more useful than a microwave even in the absence of an oven, and yet I treat it with little regard. Occasionally it will get a clean, inside and out though last time I opened the lid in anticipation of a clean, I forgot about it and a few days later discovered it was still operating.
My refrigerator, air conditioner and washing machine all warrant the luxury of some consideration because they are problematic to replace and any breakdown would cause a major inconvenience. In an attempt to prolong their lives I regularly adjust the fridge temperature, so as not to over work it, or I will use the fan instead of the air conditioner and then washing machine I will occasionally treat to lime dissolving powder. However, I am aware that all are prone to failure and steel myself for that moment. The poor little cuckoo, as cute as it is, doesn’t even get a look in! I wouldn’t dream of boiling rice in a pan to prolong its life and when it dies it will be chucked in the bin without sadness or ceremony and a replacement, another cuckoo, will be in situ within a few hours of terminal failure.
A lot of teachers in Korea probably feel like cuckoos. I arrived for my first spell in Korea in late August 2000 and looking back over my diary I had deduced an attitude towards foreigners, and especially English teachers, within my first day. I arrived at Kimpo International Airport in the late evening, believing I was going to Ilsan to teach middle to high school age students, a condition agreed upon before I accepted a post. The next day, I was dragged to five different schools in what was clearly an attempt to sell the Letterland system and I was the cuckoo being used to promote it. Even in the car being driven between schools, neither of my hosts saw fit to give me any commentary as I gawked in awe at a culture far removed from my own. And when I asked when I was going to be taken to my school, or what it was like, or where it was, their English suddenly seemed to evaporate. Not much after 10 am and the jet lag began to kick in and in one school I feel asleep in the bosses office. Despite knowing nothing about the Letterland system, a book was thrust into my hand in several schools and I was asked to talk to ‘teach’ the kids. In the evening I was taken back to Kimpo Airport and while I sat intermittently sleeping my hosts were busy on their mobile phones. After an hour of nothing they burst into life and hurried me to a ticket booth and before I knew it I was boarding a plane for Daegu and a post that involved teaching elementary school and kindergarten.
I can imagine the discussions prior to my arrival: ‘If you collect the new cuckoo at Kimpo you can borrow it for the day. Take it around some prospective clients and turn it on, get it to do some work, show it off! Just being a western cuckoo will impress them! Then, in the evening, when you are finished, pack it onto the last plane bound for Daegu and we can have it collected from the airport.’
On my third stint in Korea, teaching in Ch’eonan, I arrived on a Sunday evening, in early September. My new boss collected me at the airport and then took me to my one room. I had to spend my first night sleeping in unwashed bedding with the previous teacher’s dribble stained pillow. It was like sleeping with a stranger; I could smell the guy all night and without a doubt his bedding hadn’t been washed for months. It was horribly humid and no one had thought to put a bottle of water in the fridge, or some toilet paper in the bathroom. When I asked if the school could arrange for me to have internet access, I was simply told it wasn’t possible. The school also took the liberty of billeting me alongside 36 boxes which belonged to the outgoing teacher who was planning to return to Korea at sometime in the future. The boxes took up a third of my floor space and transformed what could have been a fairly pleasant, if not small one room complex, into a warehouse. After a few months they were a daily reminder of my cuckoo status and on more than one occasion I launched a barrage of kicks against them or stabbed them in a crazed carving knife attack. Eventually, I tore a few open and tossed the contents about my room, then claimed I’d been burgled. The next day the school provided a small truck to move the boxes into the school. But guess who supplied the labour?
Just like the cuckoo rice cooker, the cuckoo teacher should have no special needs or requirements. once un-boxed the cuckoo should be ready to function until failure when it can be chucked out and replaced.
Just like you never bother to tell your cuckoo what your plans are or give it some notice prior to activation, many Korean bosses spring things on you at the last moment – often through the school secretary. One boss would occasionally drag me to other towns, always under the pretense of sightseeing and we’d suddenly pull into a school. After meeting the principal and being given a brief tour and lunch, it would then be ‘sprung’ on me that I had to teach for an hour. In the UK we call this kind of teaching ‘door knob teaching’ as generally you have no idea what your supposed to be doing until you enter the classroom.
In the Ch’eonan high school, foreign teachers would arrive at school to find it was a day off or all the staff except you would be in casual clothes because it was a sports day. The status of rice cooker is no more obvious than when you are ill – the equivalent of your cuckoo being broken and of course, carting it to the nearest service center is beyond the question. When I had a particularly nasty flu and had to stay in bed three days, my first boss didn’t even bother to call in and see me and on the third day sent the landlord to summon me. When I returned to school he pointed to the classrooms and simply shouted, ‘do your duty!’ I called him a ‘fucking wanker!’ and promptly resigned. Rice cookers aren’t supposed to talk back! An accident, long illness or some similar calamity and you realise very quickly how disposable you are.
On occasion I’ve been quite proud of my cuckoo, partially because its cute but also because it has a novelty value as they are fairly rare back home. And likewise, there are times when bosses will wheel out foreign teachers to show off. When my high school had a contingent of teachers visiting from the USA, for negotiations concerning a potential partnership, we were summoned to the principal’s office, a space approximately twice the size of a classroom, and were prompted to chat and be friendly while the press took photos. Another boss hated any foreign teacher speaking or learning Korean, except when potential parents were visiting when he’d giggle and ask you to introduce yourself in Korean. I was never quite sure whether he did this to impress parents or provide them a little humour.
Unlike my cuckoo, which firmly belongs to me, teachers are almost seen as public utilities. Every English-speaking waygukin will have experienced those fleeting interactions with passers-by who will use you to speak English or nudge their kids forward for a free lesson. Whereas I am the only person accessing my cuckoo, every Korean sees it as legitimate to finger my buttons. Even when we are ‘stood down’ we frequently get turned back on.
A few years ago I bought a rice cooker in the UK, it’s crap as it cooks rice and then automatically turns itself off as it has no ‘warm’ mode and hence, can’t be so easily abused. As much as I love Korea and enjoy teaching, I often wish I were similarly designed.
© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.