Saga of a Desk Warmed

Today's agenda.


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.

Korean flashcards! I could read you!

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?!”)

I COULD read, sure. Or I COULD stare into space for the next half-hour.

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.

16 thoughts on “Saga of a Desk Warmed

  1. Very nice. I feel the exact same way about desk warming. I, too, was also strangely shocked to look up at the clock and see that the day was over after having spent the previous 8 hours in some kind of semi-conscious dream state, fortified by supersized Ghana chocolate bars and banana milk.

    • Ghana bars! I should have brought them in. But then I would have bought more, and more, and more, and soon, well, whatever I was being paid would have dwindled to nothing.

      (During this period, I did get a wicked care package from home though, that was mostly Christmas chocolate.)

  2. Have you seen Waiting for Superman? There is a room in a building in NYC I think where all the bad teachers sit and get paid day after day while they are in limbo. Some are waiting for court cases and some they just don’t know what to do with. Sad. You really need to write a book. Maybe just get the outline going since you are still in the middle of what you might write about. You don’t want to forget any of the details.

    • I haven’t, but I am definitely interested in seeing that film. In Ontario, at least, where I’m from, it is so nigh-impossible to get hired in the first place, and the budgets so screwed that getting a job never means actually keeping it for long, I couldn’t imagine a place where they would simply hold teachers with nothing to do. (My college of teachers also has something called the Blue Pages, essentially a big shame circle of court cases where we get to learn the names of the teachers who were really bad. I want my quarterly issue!)

      In a way, this blog is like one big, long outline. Writing longer-form, I take a very long time to get my ideas ordered into anything resembling coherence, so the blog allows me some rapid-fire ordering of smaller ideas. I have about a dozen posts that went nowhere lingering on my computer, too, so I have most of my experience here logged.

      Also, looking at the amount of posts I have so far, and how long I usually make them, I’m already burgeoning on book length.

  3. This is great! This describes exactly how I feel about deskwarming – I haven’t been able to articulate it without sounding ungrateful. I can’t even post on my own blog if I wanted to from my school, since it’s blocked by the internet filter. 😛

  4. Hahaha, I feel your pain. My goal was to improve my Chinese in the two months I had off. (Time spent without money, thanks to Chinese Hospital Bills.) I instead read Moby Dick, A Picture of Dorian Grey (which I was looking forward to reading; but, now that I’m done, can’t really recommend), The Hobbit, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Robinson Crusoe. If one chose to use the analogy of a flowing stream to express the process of language acquisition, one would most likely placed me somewhere in the category of oxbow-lake / stagnant-pod.

    Keep up the good work!

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