Archive for July, 2012



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.

You got me…

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!

Any regrets?

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!


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Last Day of School


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”.
*Wide eyes*.
“So today is our last lesson together. Final class. Finished”.
“Teacher, today vacation”.
“Yes, so I will go home”.
*Pause*. “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

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]?”
*Pause*. “Wehhhhhh?”
“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.

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My Terrible Life as an ESL teacher in South Korea


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 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 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!