November 4, Campus

Today was my first… and second to last day of in person classes on campus. It was a taste of all the things that could’ve been but weren’t and I don’t know how I feel about it all.

It was a cold morning and campus was empty at 8AM save for our four level three classes.

COVID reality.

My teachers were both somehow much much shorter than I anticipated, and upon remarking this one Chinese student hit me in the arm as if this was inappropriate. Ironic considering the amount of commentary made on face, beauty, and weight every day by the average Chinese or Korean. If it was wrong, just chalk it up to my bold American charm.

I don’t think either the first or second period teacher came above my shoulder. Despite their size, I was able to concentrate so much more than I ever have in any of our zoom classes. (I usually lose all concentration by the third hour).

Unsurprisingly, I was the student who participated the most. Somehow the English girl and German guy ended up sitting next to me in our little English speaker section where we goofed off and laughed at the behavior of some of the kids.

The German looked back at me often to share conspiratorial glances and winked as much as usual.

The two Chinese boys who never turn on their camera in zoom class and/or are very clearly playing video games during class showed up late, sat in the back corner, ate snacks, and played phone games under the desk the entire time.

At least they’re consistent?

Another one came in late and upon the teacher asking for his name, we are all somewhat unidentifiable by masks required of in person classes, to which he responded “yes”. She asked him his name again and again his response was “yes”.

How did they make it into this level? And why would they stay if it’s clearly so challenging for them?

During one of the breaks two office staff members came in to give each of us black facemask in a little box of goodies. It was a nice reminder, or a somewhat sad reminder, that this was our first time and almost last time on campus. While they came around handing out goodies and testing our temperature, one woman looked at me and asked in Korean if she could take my photograph while I study.

I thought to myself, “this is because I’m a model”.

I quickly flipped open my book and pretended to write on what I now realize it was a completely empty page so I hope they crop creatively.

The woman also asked my Chinese classmate and my German classmate for a photograph, but part of me thinks that’s because she wanted to seem diverse even though I’m sure the ulterior motive was to prove that their campus does in fact have Western students.

As soon as class was over, there was a stampede and all the students but the English speakers were suddenly gone. The three of us remaining made lunch plans while our teacher chatted with us briefly. I imagine she’s happy to have some adults in her class.

The German led us to a rice cup restaurant that was actually cheap and very good and makes me wish we had those kinds of shops on the side of town. I also found out before he started college late, he was a postman among other things.

While it was enjoyable to speak English, the culture shock was a bit strange. Or maybe it’s the age shock.

Both the Brit and the German seemed interested in partying which I would never fault them for. Perhaps it’s because they’re both full-time students at the university and they’re both younger than me. Perhaps it’s because they are happily living the college life and I’m horribly jealous.

It did make me miss my Hankuk friends: eating lunch in the dining hall and complaining about it, studying together, having potlucks at each other’s houses, shopping for dresses, laughing at obscene amounts of milk ice and the reaction to us by the cashier upon seeing such a diverse group of people speaking baby Korean to each other. I miss the relationships we were able to build in live class.

Anyway, it was fun pretending I was a real student again since being a zoom student doesn’t hit the same.

After lunch I wanted to experience as much as campus as possible so I tried to enter the library, not so much to study as to just to do a bit of sightseeing, but my student card was denied.

So I sat in front of a fountain and felt in my feelings. Luckily, one of my young Chinese classmates came to the rescue and helped me register and update my student card with the library desk.

I toured the building but it was so quiet I can’t imagine ever studying there for real: every time I turn a page would be like ripping a phone book in half to the silent students around me.

I abandoned any thoughts of studying there in favor of going to a nearby café where I drank an iced latte, wrote an essay, and kept an eye on election results. The sun was just starting to move downward in the sky and slanted in such a way to be movie magic lighting.

I thought, if I ever want someone to fall in love with me, I should take them to this café at this hour and look at them with this beam of light on my face. 10 out of 10 would date immediately.

Beams of light aside, the day left me in a strange lurch and I found myself as usual when I am in this mood: shopping.

These feelings are not new; I may as well dub them “the emotion of 2020” or the grief for a year that both was and wasn’t. A yearning for all the experiences desired but denied by COVID.

I bought two cute headbands with wire bows that are movable and poseable along with some dangly red earrings that made me feel like a Russian princess. If people back home and people in Korea too are going to ask me if I’m Russian, I might as well start looking the part.

(Two days later a shopkeeper would ask if I’m Russian and I would feel vindicated for the time I told my teacher how often I get asked this and she looked between me and the Russian student and said “you don’t look alike”.)

In spite of it all, I’m glad I was able to get a taste even if it’s a taste that will linger without satisfaction for a long time.

I really wanted to have an experience like I did at the uni in Seoul l down here in Busan. I wanted to attend in person classes and I wanted to make friends with my classmates. I wanted to annoy my teachers into helpless laughter and I wanted to run for a coffee between periods. I wanted to be a student again.

Maybe it was that today made me realize my purpose in taking Korean class was not only to learn Korean but to re-create those great campus experiences from a year ago.

It doesn’t help at this campus is particularly sprawling and beautiful, much more than the university in Seoul.

Of course I’m grateful for my teachers, my progress in Korean, and the opportunity to at least attend in person once. I can’t make COVID go away and I can’t be angry with Korea for doing their best to contain it.

But I can admit that it hurts just a little bit.

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