Interview

31/07/2011

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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