Their affirmations of “yes, teacher” were of course accompanied by seismic eye-rolls and I had little confidence in their intention to heed my warning. In fact, I think we barely made it another minute and half before I simply stopped trying to talk over them, walked to the back of the room and turned off the thermostat, then methodically unlatched and slid open each window in the classroom. With the windows open, there was nothing to hold back the hot, sticky, Korean summer air from steamrolling through and turning the classroom into something just short of a sauna, which it did, and in barely any time at all.
As I retook my place at the front of the room, I turned once again to face my class of 18 middle school students from a middle school, and said, “Everyone, please stand up, push in your chairs, and sit down on the floor.” I further explained that both chairs and conditioned air would be unavailable to them until they ceased talking and had remained absolutely quiet for a period of not less than five minutes. To further complicate matters, I made a point of resetting the clock each someone snickered, or complained, or muttered something under their breath. Oh, if looks could kill… What made the whole situation so funny is that the students were, I think, genuinely shocked that I’d followed through on my threat. I think they were surprised that someone in the role of “teacher” would match their hostility with a hostility all his own, and one far more potent by comparison. And the reason for that, you see, is that I really don’t give a damn whether I’m liked or disliked by my students, especially my teen-aged students; I get paid one way or the other. Obviously, my preference is to have fun with them and make their experience enjoyable, but if they’ve decided they aren’t interested in having fun, then I’ll certainly oblige them.
As they sat on the truly filthy floor in their stiff uniforms enduring both the sweltering heat and an imposed silence, I watched as they steadily came to the realization that I was more than willing to play dirty. While there was certainly resentment in their eyes, there was also something else: resignation. Hate it though they may, they were resigning themselves to the fact that I was in control of my classroom and would do exactly as I pleased if they refused to cooperate. After resetting the clock twice, they finally made it a full five minutes in silence and then were most happy when I allowed them to retake their seats. In the interim, however, I simply stood over them at the front of the room sipping ice cold water and thinking to myself, “Welcome to my world, kiddos.”
It’s been over a year since I first learned I would be moving to Daegu, South Korea. I still remember the feeling of absolute elation when I realized that not only was my job search finally over, but I was going to be doing something few other people have the opportunity to do: live and work in a foreign country. A little over three months later, in February of this year, I boarded a plane that took me to a country I had never before seen, inhabited by a people who speak a strange language I did not (and, to be honest, still don’t) understand, to do something I’d never done before. As if that isn’t remarkable enough, I never panicked. Not once. I never lost my nerve, never curled into the fetal position and wept, and never resorted to cigarettes or cheap liquor. Ten months later, I am now settled quite comfortably into my foreign home. You’re all welcome to enroll in my newest class: How to Not Flip Shit 101.
The anecdote with which I began this entry occurred on Monday, June 11, 2013, at approximately 5:00 p.m. It happened during the week that has come to be known among its survivors as Hell Week, the week when I got my first taste of just how awful Korean middle school kids can be. Granted, I’m sure American teenagers are worse, but, when we’re comparing them to the middle school kids I had in class that particular week in mid-June, not much worse. Nonetheless, that was the week when I learned something about myself: I can maintain my poise in the face of openly hostile pubescent human beings. Despite all that I thought to be true of myself before June 11, 2013, I am not afraid of teenagers, nor of children. I am not afraid.
There are mornings when I smell or hear something that reminds me of that first morning not very long ago when I awoke for the first time in Korea and all my senses were super alert because all the stimuli were so new and different. I’d spent the previous night sleeping on a bed that was too firm in a room that was too cold, but only because I didn’t know how to turn on the heat. It was very early, four o’clock to be exact. It was frigidly cold outside and I could see the strange-looking conifers on the hillside occasionally waft back and forth in a fitful breeze. I was still very tired but too jet-lagged to sleep. I opened up the welcome gifts I’d received the night before from other teachers, took a swig of what I thought was water, discovered it was soju, and then laughed that I hadn’t yet been in Korea 24 hours and already had a funny expat story to tell.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I work at Daegu-Gyeongbuk English Village in the mountains north of Daegu, South Korea. My legal status is “English instructor” and I hold an E-2 visa from the Republic of Korea which allows me to teach in the country for a period of one year. We get new kids every week and I teach the same classes over and over again. What I do is a strange combination of helping kids at varying stages of fluency–some speaking in sentences, others still learning the alphabet–practice their English and essentially babysitting them. But, then again, I suppose that half of teaching is babysitting anyway. A lot of the time, I and my fellow teachers are the first 외국인 (“waygookin,” foreigners) they’ve ever spoken to. Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, the word for “foreign” in Korean can also mean “strange” and, given how some Koreans interact with foreigners, that doesn’t surprise me.
It seems that my students are always saying the cutest, funniest, most outrageous things you can imagine. They have no qualms about reaching out and caressing my beard or petting my arm hair, which would be insulting were it not for the fact that they’re children. I do tend to shoo them away before too long, though; trust me, they’re kids and it’s appalling how little they wash their hands. They incessantly tell me I’m handsome, to which I’ve begun responding, “I know.” They always ask me if I have a girlfriend, and I always tell them “no.” If they ask why, I simply say, “It’s complicated.” They think I’m hilarious and I love to make them laugh. And, of course, the weeks when I have teenagers are always fun, in their own way. As the story I shared at the beginning of this post shows, middle school students are often a challenge. I’ve since learned, though, that the problematic ones are just as much of a pain in the ass with their Korean teachers as they are to us when they come to Village. We’re nobody special, as it turns out. Still, sometimes I get a group of teenagers and I somehow get them to see that I’m on their side and that I want them to enjoy themselves. Those classes are probably my favorites.
That’s really all there is to say about my job that hasn’t already been said many times over. If you’re interested in knowing more about what I do and where I work, I suggest you check out The Korea Kronicles, a series I’ve been writing since I first arrived in Korea documenting in more detail the work I’ve been doing. This entry, though, is a little more focused on digesting my experience of this year, on finding patterns in the chaos, and on saying things I haven’t said yet.
As I hinted at earlier, living and teaching in Korea has taught me a lot about myself that I didn’t know before. For one, I’m actually good at working with kids. It is work, of course, and I can assure you I wouldn’t do it if I weren’t getting paid, but I’m still astonished that I’ve discovered I’m quite good at it. I’m fun, but firm. I want to give my students a chance to have an enjoyable experience while still learning something new, but I’ve zero tolerance for nonsense. At this point in my work, I’ve found my groove and I know what works best for me. As far as jobs go, I heartily agree with my grandmother, who told me just after I arrived in Korea that she was pretty sure I’d found a “bird’s nest on the ground.” Anyway, don’t be surprised if I blog very little about my job from here on in; there just isn’t that much left to say about it. DGEV and the self-contained system that sustains it was a nice set of training wheels for a while, but I feel myself growing more and more comfortable riding without them.
In the interest of holding your interest, I’ve split this post into two parts. You’ve just finished part 1 and if you’d like to read Part 2, simply click here. If the link takes you to a blank page, it hasn’t been published yet; just stay tuned.