The school day started with me sitting in a pimped-out coach bus, looking up Marilyn Monroe’s skirt. It looked like my daily trip to Crazy Town was going to be shorter than usual. “I’m sorry, where did you say we were going?” I asked the third-grade teacher.
“Chee-ja Village,” she said, flipping through the pictures on her phone while the students bounced on their seats in a state of noisy exhilaration. Chee-ja is the Korean word for cheese. Why this was so exciting, I had no idea—Koreans aren’t generally big on dairy products. But it is the fate of the Guest English Teacher to be perpetually in the dark. I hadn’t even known it was field trip day until five minutes prior.
The third grade teacher passed me her phone again. She had visited Chicago over summer break, and was giving me the photo tour of her trip. This was another compromising shot of Monroe’s windblown statue. “Yeah, they really captured her thighs, huh?” was all I could think of to say. She giggled.
The bus was a standard Korean karaoke affair. It was swagged with great swoops of purple fabric—pleated here, canopied there, adorned with rows of dangling yarn balls. The plastic seats were wrapped in oriental-print covers, and even the water cooler had a jaunty fez. It felt like we were going on tour with Arabian Nights on Ice.
The Cheese Village turned out to be a long, one-room building at the top of a small mountain. It looked like a provincial ballroom, with globe chandeliers and a blank upright piano, but had been filled with rows of picnic tables. I was stationed at a table with seven third grade boys, where I finally learned the purpose of this field trip: DIY cheese.
As a Wisconsin girl, I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea how cheese is made. Apparently, all you do is sprinkle in a little white powder into a jar of milk. Add a squirt of yellow liquid, and screw the lid on tight. Then take a break to stop a bunch of squirrely nine year olds from killing each other with the plastic knives. After which, you simply open the jar and voila: curds and whey.
We made ma-ja-ray-la (a.k.a. mozzarella) cheese, which needed to be pulled like taffy before it was finished. The boys loved this. They especially loved flinging it at each other and also gnawing on it. When they’d gotten it as grubby as possible, it was divided into little containers to take home. Then we had lunch.
For the first time ever, I saw Koreans eat American-style food, in American-style portions. Wheels of pizza. Platters of breaded pork cutlet. Tureens of baked spaghetti. There were six of us at the teacher’s section, and it took two picnic tables to hold all our food.
“Erin, eat. More eat.”
This came from my vice principal, who sat across the table from me. In Korea, if your vice principal says eat, you eat. She is only one promotion away from God. I ate. And ate. But the orders kept coming from above.
“Erin, eat, eat.”
Korean women have the same reputation for compulsive feeding as Jewish grandmothers. Actually, worse. At least Jewish grandmothers stop when your dead.
With lunch finished, it was naturally time for a snack. We trooped through the woods to a clearing that held a man, a goat, an open fire, and...
“Um, what’s with the cannon?” The nervousness may have come through in my voice.
“It’s for tee-bap,” the teachers explained, as the kids screamed with delight and stuffed their fingers in their ears. Tee-bap is Korean traditional popcorn. It’s actually not corn at all, but rice. Instead of salt and butter, they make it with sugar. Instead of a microwave, they use a cannon.
As any stage professional will tell you, Exploding Snacks is a hard act to follow. The Chee-ja Village, however, knew how to keep the kids adrenaline level high. The next item on the schedule was sledding.
We lined up and marched, sweating in the warm September sunshine, to a pile of plastic sleds. The swath of mountainside below us had been cleared of trees and covered in green, rubber-backed carpet. Over this went a layer of plastic netting.
I don’t know what genius thought this up, but he deserves the Nobel Prize for Awesomeness. The sleds careened merrily downhill, and there was no cold, wet snow to get in your shoes or down your collar when you wiped out.
You bet I tried it.
Eventually, they prized the sleds from our hands and herded us back up the hill. We now had to shoehorn fifty maxed-out, sparking, hyperactive children back into that bus. Oh…dear.
Thirty minutes later, we pulled out of the parking area. All six teachers had their heads in their hands. Behind us, the children were erupting in noise, crumbs, and random acts of violence. Grubby fingers passed me snack food—rice chips and puffed fish balls. I thanked them profusely and palmed the food into my backpack. The only thing worse than not knowing where children’s hands have been is knowing exactly where their hands have been. And that is what I learned on field trip day.