Right, your 12 months as a teacher in the Republic of South Korea are nearly up. Enjoy yourself?
I’ve loved it. The way of life for an English teacher here, provided you’ve got a modicum of open-mindedness, adaptability and enthusiasm, is unbelievable. Essentially, after the initial settling-in period, my daily routine consisted of talking to cute children who see you as some kind of celebrity; while at night I would eat cheap and delicious food and meet friends I’ll remember for life. I know it’s supposed to be a small world but it’s gonna be sad to be on the other side of it from so many amazing people.
Aw! So what’ll you miss?
The people I’ve met. The students. The food. The culture of eating together with friends over a couple of hours, sharing different dishes – and the prices in restaurants that facilitate this. Being famous, and a novelty. Korean hospitality (read: free food and drinks from strangers). The opportunity to practise another language daily (I should have made more of this). Having a job. Nights out when it seems like 75% of the foreign population attend. Melon ice lollies. Cheap public transport. Soju. Noraebangs. Girls thinking I’m handsome. Ajummas and their fashion sense. Harmless illogical behaviour, like the ajumma fashion sense. Being so close to the beach. Never having to worry about stuff being stolen. Couples and families dressing the same. Not wearing shoes at work. Underfloor heating. I’ll miss the city, Ulsan too. I don’t think you can live in a place you’ve had such a good time in and not miss your surroundings when you leave.
So why are you leaving? You must have something pretty decent lined up back home!
Nothing, actually. Having spent a year in a completely new place, in hindsight you can paint almost whatever picture you like of the experiences you’ve had, depending on whether you focus on the positives (see above) or the negatives. However, the reality of day-to-day living can be pretty different from this. For example, I’ve had enough of the job here. That’s not to say I’ve had enough of teaching, or these particular students, or even teaching in Korea – but I’ve spent too much time standing at the front of classrooms saying things like “oh! We wear our shoes in the house” or “at the drugstore, go straight three blocks”. When applying for the job a year ago, I’d often reassure myself that I’d be fine as there would be a Korean co-teacher with me at all times, but in fact I’ve enjoyed the times when I’ve been alone – when I can actually teach – the most. Maybe it’s misplaced youthful ambition, but I feel like I’ve got more to offer the world than being a puppet.
There’s also the small matter of Elizabeth leaving, and my friends and family back home.
Right. So after a year of teaching, you’ve concluded that you like it, but don’t get to do enough of it. Apart from listen and repeat exercises then, what won’t you miss?
Being scared to ride my bike on roads. People spitting everywhere. Adults giggling after every sentence spoken to me. Not being able to buy clothes or shoes. Strangers making zero effort to understand my attempts at speaking their language. The haircuts. The bureaucracy and hierarchy. The weather! C0-workers ignoring me at lunchtime and having to fight for every conversation. K-Pop.
K-Pop! Really? C’mon, you must have a favourite song.
Favourite Korean food?
찜닭 (jjim dak) – chicken, veg and noodles in a spicy, soy-y sauce.
This is fun! Favourite student?
I can’t do that! Can I? Perhaps one from my after-school class, who would write me messages on all her worksheets, teaching me Korean – “teacher, Korea say apple 사과!”. Or the 6th grade boy who greets me every time with “Joseph! Long time no see!” and then proceeds to tell me everything he’s done in the last few days. Or the the student who wrote me this:
I want one of those! I wanna move to Korea! Would you recommend it?
Definitely, and especially if you like to challenge yourself. I was pretty nervous about whether I was cut from the right cloth to be able to teach, but I wanted to push myself to do it. I’m still far from being the perfect teacher (in my opinion, that’s impossible, but that’s another conversation) but I’ve learned that common sense, enthusiasm and giving a damn about your students form a pretty strong basis for doing the job more than adequately.
The challenge also comes from adapting to a new country and way of life. Korea does things differently to the UK – from obvious things like the language to those you might not automatically think of, like forcing me to come to school today, where I’m writing this, when there’s not a single other teacher in the building – and it would take a whole year to think of and explain them all. But that’s part of the fun, learning while you live and work. I just hope my students have learned as much as I have!
No matter how far I got with it, I’d always think I could have got further with learning Korean. As it is I didn’t even get particularly far, and I regret not putting a bit more effort in. I’m also pretty jealous of all my Western friends who have taekwondo belts now too. Nothing serious though!
How time flies. I’ve got 80 minutes left of my last day of regular school, after which all that will stand between the end of my adventures in Korea is a bit of deskwarming and two weeks of summer camp. This morning I was whisked into the broadcasting room to deliver a live goodbye speech to every student via their classroom TVs. I even slipped in a bit of Korean, but I’m unsure whether it was understood, or even noticed. The day’s been a bit of an anti-climax as I haven’t had any classes since Wednesday and I’ve been seeing kids for the last time since the beginning of last week. Grade 6 have written me a lot of goodbye letters: all are very cute, most make sense, about half contain email addresses and/or phone numbers, a few are professions of undying love and one is from “Lionel Messi”. Grade 5 did the same, only theirs are copied from a template and hence identical, significantly reducing their sentimental value.
However, we did have a few tearful goodbyes in our last-ever after-school party lesson this afternoon. Children have a tendency to nod and feign understanding even if they haven’t got the slightest idea what’s going on, so when I told them at the beginning of the lesson that it was to be our last together, everyone nodded and “ahhhhhhh”d in unison.
“What month is it?”
“How about next month?”
“Good! In August, Joseph-teacher will go home to England”.
“So today is our last lesson together. Final class. Finished”.
“Teacher, today vacation”.
“Yes, so I will go home”.
Our ‘party lesson’ consisted of pass the parcel, musical statues and laughing at photos from when Mum and Elle came to watch a lesson. Then, when it was time to leave, and I’d given them all their little acrostic poems (Lisa Is A perfect Student! Nana is Always happy, Never Angry. Lily, I Love You!), they started to cotton on that something was different. My co-teacher explained that this was the last time we’d see each other. Ever.
“Teacher, you go 영국 [England]?”
“Because my family is in England. I miss them”.
And then it hit me too how sad it was. I managed to hold back the waterworks – just – but some of these lil’ guys I’ve seen every school day since September. Since none of the teachers really talk to me, they’re my best friends at school. We don’t share secrets or talk about our relationships or have sleepovers, but I really am gonna miss them.
Here are some of those photos.
Now, usually I’m a pretty positive person as far as people go, but sometimes My Terrible Life as an ESL teacher in South Korea just manages to bring out a side of me that no other country I’ve been to has. And, let me tell you, I’ve been a lot of coutries – Paraguay, New Zealand, Europe – and I’m a pretty laid-back guy, but there’s just something about Korea that gets me all hot under the collar. I hate to complain, I really do, but sometimes you’ve just got to get things off your chest. Know what I mean?
Take this morning for instance. Take every freakin’ morning of the week actually, now you mention it. I get to school and I’m sooo hot, dripping with sweat – who’d have thought Korea would have a different climate to that back home? – and school is literally full of children. They’re everywhere! Some are in the playground running around, getting themselves all excited just before class; others are studying quietly indoors – God, it’s pathetic how much they study here, at that age at that time of day they should be running around letting off steam so they’re not all excited during class. Walking through the corridors to the English office I’m greeted with at least three “Hello teacher”s, to which I’m obliged to respond in kind with added hint of smile. Can’t these kids smell last night’s soju on my breath? Don’t they know I’m hungover? I wish they’d just give it a rest. Let’s see: 3 greetings x 6 trips down corridors x 5 days a week x 40 weeks of term + summer and winter camp… that’s like a million times I’ve got to talk to a child during my year in Korea. I don’t know what I was expecting when I took this job but it certainly wasn’t interaction with children. How I long for real, meaningful conversations with mature adults who can communicate on my level. Life’s so tough without them.
I get to the office and massage my aching jawline. God, I hate smiling. No improvement on the meaningful conversation front here. I really miss normal office banter, you know – forwarding hilarious chain emails, sharing favourite reddit.com links, stuff you can’t really do with Koreans. I find out my first class is cancelled. I’m told to “take a rest” (I killed the last Korean who said that to me) and I’m livid. I spent a good 3-4 minutes while brushing my teeth this morning on waygook.org and had downloaded such a cool PowerPoint game I really wanted to try out for the first time; and OMG if I die today and go to hell I’ll be forever deskwarming. I could not think of anything worse. With my joint art history and textiles degree and a 20-hour online TEFL course I’m already the perfect teacher so I can’t spend the free 50 minutes improving my lessons and I can’t abide reading the news, reading books, watching TV, watching films, studying Korean, studying anything else, walking round school, napping on my desk, planning my holiday I can afford thanks to this job, talking to anyone (see above), emailing/Skyping my family, eating, drinking, daydreaming, writing, origami, humming or going to the toilet so what the hell am I gonna do? At least these school computers haven’t blocked Facebook. I can’t believe they’re paying me for this. Wait, should I be complaining about that last thing?!?! I DON’T KNOW!
I somehow manage to survive the snoozefest that is my job – although I almost cried when a co-teacher shouted at a child, I can’t believe they allow that kind of corporal punishment here – and make it to the cafeteria for lunch. We’re apparently allowed to bring our own lunches in but I get the feeling everyone will judge me if I do, so I force-feed myself school dinners, which are always one of slightly too salty, fatty, sweet, spicey, peppery, tasteless, weird, healthy or just plain disgusting, and there’s always either too much or not enough. Even though I serve myself. I sit with my co-teachers but find their attempts at English conversation laughable and pathetic, so I move to sit with another group, who just plain ignore me. You just can’t win with some people. I wish I was allowed to eat at my desk, because with just the three hours of lesson planning time after lunch I don’t have enough time in my day to twiddle my thumbs.
Finally I leave school. I try to slink out, avoiding anyone I might need to utter a goodbye to – or worse, any teachers who might invite me out for (free) dinner and drinks. The binge drinking culture here is just abominable, by the way, don’t get me started on that. I wonder what to do with my evening – soju’s disgustingly cheap and hence disgusting; the wine’s disgustingly expensive; and the beer’s just disgusting. I’m a bit of a connoisseur, you know. It’s hard to know what to do for dinner too – it’s just so difficult being white in Korea because everywhere you go you’re a celebrity. We really have it tough. At restaurants I can’t eat in peace – I’m taunted with cries of “cool guy” and “handsome”, and there’s really no need for this kind of sickening racism in the 21st century. I just hate the attention, which is why I eat at home most nights, posting status updates as I go. “Cooked a sausage in a rice cooker tonight – hooray for improvisation! I wonder if this kind of quick thinking is what cavemen had to resort to in the olden days”.
I’m so happy for these experiences!
It’s dawning on me how close I am to the end now: only three Mondays of regular school remain; and two paydays. Yes, that’s how I measure time, in Mondays and money – two ‘m’ words firmly at opposite ends of the ‘how good stuff is’ spectrum. Their alliteration is perhaps not something I would’ve noticed before but I think like a teacher now, and having spent five hours of each week for the last 10 months with my group of 6 and 7 year olds sounding out words I’m now really good at phonetic spelling, and I’ve been hardwired to inwardly and appreciatively doff my metaphorical cap in the direction of any outstanding orthoepic occurences.
Attitudes are changing at school. By this I’m mainly referring to students’ attitudes towards a particular co-teacher; a particular co-teacher’s attitude towards me; and, circuitously, my attitude towards students. I think a lot of relationships begin with tentative feeling out, cautious attempts to ascertain stances, viewpoints, beliefs, tastes, reactions to certain situations, senses of humour – the nature of the other party. Such gradual exploration I have witnessed in the lessons I co-teach with one particular guy, all fifth grade classes and one sixth. They’ve had 16 weeks together and the students’ repect and cooperation has declined in direct proportion to the amount of time being taught English. I’ve been trying to work out recently if their Korean teacher hasn’t noticed, doesn’t know what to do about it or just doesn’t give a damn. His attempts at discipline are sporadic, half-hearted and seemingly random. They’re also unfair, because he’ll allow the same group of kids to get away with the same kind of behaviour for weeks and then suddenly turn around and punish them for it.
His lessons are all wrong and the students control them: any textbook work he just finishes in silence by himself (often incorrectly); each class consists of at least one game (something that should be a reward) and 5-10 minutes of whichever one of the Spiderman films the students ask for on the day; he allows students to walk around during class, sit on each others’ laps and throw screwed-up bits of paper at each other – if he decides to punish more than one student at a time he’ll send them to a table at the back of the room where they sit together and chat, if he tries to remove kids on their own they just tell him no. He’s cultivated a classroom environment in which kids can do what they want – and they know it. Since this has happened gradually as students have realised they can get away with more and more I have little authority and it’s often undermined – I confiscated a tipex that was all over the desks and my co-teacher returned it immediately to the culprit. I’ve offered suggestions outside the classroom more than once, but these have been ignored.
He’s anolder male, and his attitude towards me has become more stereotypical. He’ll often get me to do his photocopying, return his lunch tray to where it gets collected from (our canteen’s being renovated so we get little lunch boxes delivered), or other menial little chores that are too worthless to argue about or question.
It’s a peculiar situation though, because I like the guy. I struggle to hide my contempt when he asks me to do something that really should be his job to do, but otherwise we get on when not teaching together. He grows little plants in the English room, and he gave me one to take home the other day. He leaves little sweets on my desk when I’m out of the office (that’s another thing – his overuse of candy in the classroom). He responds to every powerpoint I present with a smile and an “awesome job, can you save PPT my computer?”. I talk to him about weekends, holiday plans, feelings about Korea, progress with Korean than all my other co-teachers put together. He just seems to lack a good deal of common sense. I hate it when people feed their dogs at the table and then slap them on the nose for jumping up at mealtimes when they suddenly decide its wrong or for begging when guests are round, and that’s kind of what he’s done with these kids. The vice-principal walked in to one of his lessons the other day (I wasn’t there) and observed how ridiculous it was – now he’s been warned about his teaching and he seems to realise something needs to be done. Hopefully things can change, or both these students and their next English teacher are going to have a horrible time when they meet next year.
My attitude towards teaching is changing too. In these lessons I feel really bad for the handful of kids who sit quietly, earnestly listening to what you’re trying to teach, so I’ve been focusing on them, chatting to them rather than chastising others during revision or individual work time. This has extended to my other classes too, for better or worse: when I introduce a topic I spend my time having conversations with the interested students and inviting questions, rather than trying determinedly to coherce every last person into another listen and repeat exercise. Instead of games where teams have to repeat a textbook phrase for points (“Nami is stonger than Jinho”) I’ve been doing quizzes or debates (“who would win in a fight between Spiderman and Batman?” Spiderman, because he is stronger”). I know I should aim for maximum participation but I feel like the kids do enough mindless repetition when I’m not there, and practise of “real” conversations with a “real” foreigner is priceless.
The past 10 days or so have been spent in the company of Elizabeth’s parents, visiting Korea (and Asia) for the very first time, from England. When they touched down at Incheon International Airport a week ago last Thursday the number of people in Korea with Elizabeth’s accent skyrocketed from one to three. Aside from how nice it is to be reacquainted, if only briefly, with someone from home – to hear stories firsthand about little English goings-on – the visit forced Eliz and I, in an effort to give them a proper taste of the place, to keep busy – there were a few ‘firsts’ for us, too.
The first few days were a whirlwind: in between meeting the Korean class crew, two consecutive nights at a noraebang (and the subsequent necessary recoveries), a visit to Bulguksa temple, a delicious Indian lunch at our friends’ apartment, a trip to the beach and first experiences of Korean BBQ, kimchi, jjigae, bibimbap, soju, makgeolli and my Korean cooking there was little time to catch our breath. Bulguksa is probably my favourite temple I’ve seen so far. It’s not too dissimilar aesthetically from most of the others, but its location – deep in the hills surrounded by nice-looking vegetation – and its layout – vaguely pyramidal with ascending levels having decreasing areas – appealed to me. We also travelled to nearby Seokguram Grotto, where I learned that you can use the word ‘grotto’ after words that aren’t ‘Santa’s’, and we saw a giant holy Buddha.
Weeknights were spent trying to work out which were the cheapest and tastiest restaurants that would cater to all tastes while offering the most authentic insights into Korean cuisine. This was not easy, and in fact one night “the girls” went for chip butties. Meanwhile, “the boys” ate at one of those ubiquitous street vendors – but instead of dining outside stood up, we went inside, something I’ve never done before. I was only able to vaguely translate about half of the menu, and our options were narrowed further when we were told there were no bibimbaps or soups available, but we settled on sundaewith kimbap and a rice dish to accompany. Sundae is animal intestine filled with blood that I think I’ve had before; and this time it came with liver and other entrails. I won’t be orderding it again. After eating, Eliz and I would try to keep up with her parents at a bar or a cafe serving makgeolli, but mindful of the fact that we were working while they were on holiday, we often abandoned them early with garbled instructions on how to get home in Korean.
The following weekend we went hiking in the Yeongnam Alps – a series of (ten?) peaks exceeding 1000m in height. Knowing that the plains atop Sinbulsan are one of Ulsan’s famous 12 scenic sites, we decided to attempt to scale that one. Having learned from our culinary mistakes the last time we went up into the mountains, we equipped ourselves with sandwiches and snacks galore; but set off pretty late into the day, meaning we had to quick march all the way to the top. The first half hour was tough and sweaty – there were steep climbs up rocky steps and slippy slopes – but the subsequent 90 minutes or so were trekked on a windy road, which occasionally afforded us impressive views of Eonyang (in West Ulsan) down below. At the end of this was a sort of giant natural crossroads, with paths leading directly up to two peaks as well as indirectly to the rest of the Alps. The natural beauty of the place (and the plains) was spolit slightly by the huge wooden veranda and convenience store that had been built there – but otherwise how would we have got ourselves a well-deserved melon ice lolly?
I tried to eat said lolly whilst hiking the remaining kilmoetre or so to the top of the shorter peak (fading daylight and our legs would only allow us to go this far) and learned that you can’t eat while walking uphill. So, Elizabeth and I lost her Dad and spent half an hour looking worriedly for him only to be reacquainted at the benches outside the shop with taunts of how he made it all the way but we didn’t. The following day was spent resting our weary thighs at the beach in Busan and then it was over as quickly as it had begun and we were bidding farewell once more to a reminder of home, and a reminder of just how different the life we lead here is. I hope they had a good time!
It is going to be boiling in August. It’s going to be sick. Long ago I confined my warm workwear to a dark corner of my wardrobe and already I’m starting to get jealous of the students who dress in shorts and sleeveless tops for school. I’ve been to hot places before but none that have ever required me to stand up and do stuff for most of the day; this morning it took me until lunchtime when I returned to my desk in front of an open window to stop sweating. Luckily children are pretty smelly themselves, so as long as I can conceal any damp sweat patches that materialise I shouldn’t get ruthlessly bullied by them – it’s just all my co-workers I’ll have to avoid for the next 3 months.
Meanwhile, at the weekends when I’m able to wear slightly airier clothing we’ve been managing to enjoy the sunshine by spending the last couple at the beach in Busan. Last weekend Elizabeth and I were sitting on a bedsheet on the sand playing cards and eating grapes we were accosted by a group of probably 25 middle-aged Koreans. They conducted the most efficient whirlwind of a picnic I’ve ever seen: in literally 10 minutes they all arrived, unpacked dozens of trays of food, summoned us over to forcefeed roe and soju to us (laterally for photographs in a variety of poses), took some snaps of each other rolling around in the sand, packed up and then left. This generosity and conviviality shown to foreigners is characteristic of groups of picnicking locals and one of my favourite things about living here.
It doesn’t seem too long ago when the dry, biting winter here threatened to cut into any enjoyment of time spent outside but it’s amazing the difference a few short weeks can make – and they have been very short, whizzing by now. It’s almost as though I wake up on Monday mornings, robotic and bleary-eyed, and then the next time I take a minute to reflect it’s Thursday. Incredibly, I occasionally feel a bit panicky that I won’t have time before I leave Korea to eat my lifetime’s fill of kimchi. This particular week has whizzed by with a very, very polite Korean man lurking behind me for many of my lessons, whispering apologies in my ear. Every morning he knocks the softest of knocks on the English office door before it opens to reveal legs and the hairy crown of a head, and as they retreat I realise it’s a human form bent double, muttering honorific salutations. This is how this man greets his co-workers, the principal, the dinner ladies, the students – if he’s married I bet this is how he greets his wife, children and pet pink chihuahua too. He looks to me in lessons for permission to speak, to press play on interactive English CD ROMs and to pick his nose too. One co-teacher has been absent from work all week and this is the guy they found to replace him – as if to say “look Joe, you’ve been getting complacent. You appear to be adapting too well and too quickly to the quirks of Korea, here’s a little something to throw you off a bit. Good luck”. Well Korea, you’ll have to do better than that.
This Saturday just gone was the main event of this year’s annual Whale Festival in Ulsan, and it was a really excellent day. Of course in the preceding weeks all the buzz and the build-up had centred around the dragon boating tournament – especially as training sessions had started in earnest – and with 15 or so teams of 18 foreigners signed up, bragging rights were well and truly at stake. Each team was named after a different whale and the Narwhals – having had one semi-successful practise under a monsoon a week prior, and having been given just the one day to prepare suitable matching outfits in the style of a “post-apocalyptic, Mad Max, barbarian, viking, neon, glitter bandit” – assembled in dribs and drabs, collectively a hotchpotch mishmash mess, shortly before 9 in the morning. Someone suggestively pulled a couple of six-packs of lager from a rucksack, everyone eyed everyone else with silent, superficial “should-we-shouldn’t-we?” stares, then someone else cracked one open and our preparations began.
Yesterday was my 8-month Korea teaching contract anniversary; I’m two-thirds of the way through it and with just four months to go and plently still to see here I thought it would be a good idea to write a bucket list of sorts. I’ll include things I’ve already done, as the memories of them will bring a great big cheesy grin to my face as I write. If anyone can think of any more that would be fantastic!
Since the new school year started in March, I’ve had lots of new roles and responsibilities here at school. Today is a test day (meaning no lessons, which is why I’ve got the time to write this) and before settling down at my desk for a taxing day of surfing the internet I went to fill up my water bottle at the other end of the school. From every classroom I could hear a recorded, robotic voice saying things like “number one: the pencil case is under the chair; number two: the computer is on the desk”, or “Hi Jiho, how’s it going? Great, Minho. How about you?”. I then realised the voice was mine. All this week I’ve been arduously recording the English listening tests that the students are taking now. Each lasts about 20 minutes, but thanks to a combination of our poor technologcial resources and our inept editing skills they have to be recorded in one take, so a single, simple slip of the tongue means the entire process has to be repeated. Reading words off a sheet clearly, slowly and in order is one of those things that’s so easy it becomes hard, like playing table tennis against someone who loops returns back to you at half a mile an hour, and it seems like every spare moment I’ve had this week has been spent speaking into one of those Britney Spears headset microphones.