For foreign English teachers in South Korea, “desk-warming” is a very particular and horrifying phrase. It describes a time during the year filled with nothingness, with utter, unrelenting boredom. It is a black hole of time and space where one’s brain slowly degenerates into something resembling seaweed soup, where one’s buttocks begin to develop bedsores from sitting for so long, when all joy seems to seep from the world. I never thought “we will now pay you to sit around and do nothing” would actually fill my very soul with dread, but here we are.
Desk-warming comes during the long winter and summer breaks in the Korean school year. As a bone thrown to the regular Korean teachers, who slavishly do unseemly amounts of paperwork and come in every other Saturday, the foreigners are required, by contract, to come in during vacation time. There is no reason for this, other than the contract stipulation. There is no mission, no job, no work given. No meaningful experiences or efforts should or will happen. This is the point.
I try not to complain, because, as stated, I was still being paid to do nothing, which is ultimately pretty amazing. I’ve been provided with a lot, and I’m very lucky, and yeah, it sucks the Koreans have to work on Saturdays.
This was, of course, my mood going in to desk-warming. It is very easy to be magnanimous when one arrives fresh off a plane from Hong Kong and Thailand. No minor pittance on the altar of the contract gods seemed too arduous, and thus I stumbled up to my co-teacher’s desk, sat down, and got to nothing. My skin was tanned, my tongue still whet by foreign, exotic flavours, and no amount of stupid sitting around could get to me.
I had plans. When you are told, “Come in and exist for the next month,” it sounds like a golden opportunity. Study! Watch movies! Read books! Do push-ups! Clean the office! Develop a cure for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma! Solve that whole business with the North! Become fluent in Korean! Oh, was I prepared. I would come out of this month smarter, more charming, capable of speaking the local tongue and conversant in Russian geopolitical issues, the works of Chaucer, and operating with a working understanding of the Large Hadron Collider.
Things started off okay: the first day I sat down, turned on the ass heater and the nearby space warmer, and typed up some blog posts. It was just after vacation, and I had so much to say. After hundreds of words, I took a brief break, and looked to the internet. There was some youtube, and some reading, and then I watched some downloaded videos. I ran into problems when I tried to come back around to work.
Maybe I could plan for the coming year? Well, no, I didn’t have any of the books, nor did I actually know which grades I would be teaching. Perhaps I could finally begin working on that novel that has been kicking around on my brain, its half-finished and wallowing form mewling and ticking away from the depths of my laptop like a tell-tale heart? Maybe, but I don’t really have the inspiration, and I really shouldn’t force it. Maybe I should start drawing again! But I didn’t bring paper, and these pencils are all wrong. Maybe I could study Korean?! But there was no one to talk to, as the other teachers at lunch had no interest in slowing down to a speed I could understand.
In the stead of actual goals towards which I want to work, I took up new, unrelated hobbies. For two days I did nothing but fold origami. I watched television shows I have no interest in, and read websites featuring stupid opinions from people I find awful. Where I could have been spending my time learning about photography, or writing grand new stories, or reaching new heights of 한국어, instead I quickly gave up. I melted into a pile of do-nothing goo. When I would bring myself to the brink of actual effort, I remembered that the ambient temperature in my English zone was just barely above freezing (this is not hyperbole), and I quickly realized I didn’t actually want to do anything if it meant removing the gloves from my hands.
It is hard to motivate yourself when there is literally no pressure. Aside from the bare minimum of “Actually show up,” nothing at all was expected of me. People would only check that I remained alive occasionally to make sure the contract was upheld, and occasionally to summon me down for lunch. (The lunch calls were the best parts of my day. Some former English teachers would be forced to phone, and thus I would be rewarded with a brief, fleeting English conversation. Other times, the teachers would forget I spoke any Korean, and haltingly shout into the phone what English they knew. “Michael… lunch…. WHAT?!”)
Whole days stretched out into all-consuming vortexes of boredom, and simultaneously also seemed to flit through as though fever dreams. There are possibly very few things less horrifying than looking up at 4:30 and realizing that you just spent 8 hours doing absolutely nothing. Nothing was accomplished. Neither you nor anyone else around you has improved, or grown greater, or even worsened. I couldn’t even sleep. A coma would have been more productive, in that it would have saved my bodily resources.
The Bene-Gesserit were full of crap. Fear is not the mind-killer, rather, boredom is. I would have paid to be scared, or stressed, or angry, or even unhappy. For something to do, for some motivation, for some push. I was a blob of existence with no goal, no aim, and no particular inkling to acquire any of them. Living in Korea, I now feel as though there are not many cultural differences or pedagogical challenges which could truly defeat me, but becoming a dead-eyed pile of meat on a butt-heat-pad in a lonely English classroom certainly came close.