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My Terrible Life as an ESL teacher in South Korea

10/07/2012

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!

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