My excitement to finally have a visitor in Korea was pretty palpable. That I would both be repaying a similar degree of touristy kindness to Greg and Agatha for showing me around China, hosting old friends from the university days, and showing off both the country that I’ve grown to love and the language that I speak with a kind of childish competence makes the experience all the more fulfilling. There is a lot to show in this country, but I think the primary function of tour-guiding someone around should, as always, be to immerse them in as much local weirdness as possible.
World culture: what’s up with that? My students certainly wonder this from time to time, as I storm about the halls, as they see foreign people and lands on their televisions and ponder as to what they might do with themselves. What bizarre, quivering, gelatinous delights they might suck down into their mouths (if they even have mouths, because, I mean, who knows)? What strange, guttural base noises might issue forth from their vocal cords with which they might communicate? What obscene, confusing, alien activities might they engage in for “fun”? Well, gather your sun hat, your SLR, and maybe a can of mace to keep the weirdoes at bay: we’re going on a safari to find out!
Because of some lingering, weirdo aspects of Confucianism, directness is not well-valued in the Korean workplace. Generally, directness labels you as a rebel, a kind of leather-covered, slick-haired troublemaker drag racing and challenging the system. In Korea, the boss is held supreme, and his or her (but usually his) many and various capricious whims are to be carried out by virtue of the fact that they issued from the mouth of someone old. Trying to get your way when you are younger or subordinate puts you at odds against that system. But your way is really, really good, and how do you go about getting it?
Our current principal is a pretty okay guy, as far as Korean principals go. What I mean to say by this is: Korean principals are generally capable of doing whatever the hell they like. As older (often male), highly positioned educational officials, assignment to a principal position essentially gives you a fiefdom. They have absolute power over basically everyone who works at the school: where they go, what they are paid, what they eat, when and where they may vacation (the principal must sign off on requests for Korean teachers to leave the country). This amount of power can often go to their heads and make them terrorizing monsters, quick-set totalitarians ruling over their schools with a capricious, unyielding iron fist. That our principal passes on most of these and prefers, as some do, kind of vaguely wandering around and smiling at things or chilling in his remarkably swag office has endeared him to me considerably.
That said, I try to minimize my interactions with him. Nice as he is, interactions with a principal in Korea are always risky, and generally go one of two ways. Either you are doing a fantastic, spectacular, unheralded job, or you are the worst bum that Korea has ever seen. Whichever of these becomes the narrative for discussion yields the same two options, which are: lots more work, or lots less work. The chances of either option are about equal.
The last time I had an open class, the principal was duly impressed. After, he inquired as to my credentials (having never really looked into it before, what with the peaceful wandering), he declared in Korean that I was a super-duper teacher. The following days saw the news that I would be heading several new English programs at school, and that my winter camp teaching would be doubled, such was my skill. Yay, it sure is nice to be great?
To avoid these sorts of scenarios, I generally err on playing dumb. I like and do well at my job, but I play down whatever I’m good at, I don’t do anything pedagogically flashy when he is around, and I almost never speak Korean around him unless absolutely pushed. If I am neither seen nor heard, he won’t remember to dump more busy work on me.
Such was what coursed through my brain when I was told we’d be going out for lunch with the principal. It was winter vacation time, and I was spending roughly four or five hours of my day on camp, and the principal wanted to treat us with lunch. I had been working hard lately, and real vacation so tantalizingly close, and I became nervous. Uninterrupted time with the principal would give him at least an hour to think about me, what with sitting directly across from him. This was dangerous. I am far safer when he is not thinking about me at all.
We sat down in the restaurant, and giant, voluminous hot-pots of sea creatures were brought to us. A live squid undulated angrily in one side, while various chitinous monsters quivered in their submarine homes. The whole bowl was a mess of wriggling, and there was considerable debate in Korean at the table over whether it would be more or less delicious to eat the various terrors within the pot before they died or after (thankfully, we went with after). I did as my parents, many years ago when I was an obnoxiously picky eater, would have wanted of me, and simply shut up and ate whatever was given to me, mostly because everyone assured me of how expensive it was.
I kept quiet, answering whatever questions were asked of me in Korean or English, but as usual when I am at a small table with Korean staff, they simply discussed me in the third person like a centrepiece, which I have grown increasingly comfortable with. At one point, the principal half-heartedly attempted to set me up with the librarian.
We had almost gotten through the meal, I had downed the squid’s brain (it is, as I was assured, good for man strength, wink wink nudge nudge), when the subject came once around to me and my coworker. “What time does work finish for you two?” the principal inquired. I tensed immediately. I was working hard on my camp, certainly, but I also had about three hours in the afternoon of quality alone time that could be filled with squalling children, should the principal decide.
I studied his indecipherable expression. His whim could make my life much easier or much more difficult, with but a simple word. I tried not to stare into his soul. My coworker mentioned when we left the school, hours after my camp had finished.
“Oh,” he murmured in Korean. “If you finish so early and you have something else to do, why don’t you just go home? No point in you sitting around all day.” He waved his hand magisterially, and rose from the table, while one of the secretaries took care of the bill.
His majesty had just freed up my afternoons for at least a few days before he forgot his generosity. But I would take this boon, and then go back into comm silence so he couldn’t remember to reverse his decision.
There are times in life that make you truly wonder, “How the hell did I get here?” Circumstance or odd occurrences mount, and suddenly you question the very nature of your existence. Lots of things in Korean schools bring me to the precipice of this feeling, but I am often able to subjugate the emotion. However, there are some things which I am expected to teach–things which I must pass on to my charges as though it is not actually bizarre, inarticulate gibberish, with a smile and a flourish and the projected confidence of a native speaker. It is in these times that I move over the edge. In that vein, I bring you, “My Mom’s Story.”
Those who know me in the real world probably know how I feel about being condescended to — namely, how I really, viscerally hate it more than anything. Being talked down to, especially in a realm where I consider myself moderately competent, makes me mad. It makes me mad in a vicious, do-nothing, petty sort of way, and my mind goes only to sabotage and how to ruin the system. My brain instantly goes on flights of terrible fancy, revenge fantasies against people I don’t even know that turn into Tarantino films, soaked in blood and talky scenes about my petulant rage. I am never more bitter and self-indulgently full of myself and my distaste than when other people are condescending to me.
It is thus that most of the teacher training in Korea is set-up basically to raise my ire.
Two days of great cultural importance jammed right up next to each other this year in Korea. On Thursday was Suneung (수능시험, the Korean College Scholastic Aptitude Test), a day-long testapalooza for high school seniors that essentially shuts down the entire country. It generates such a wide collective holding of breaths that the natural flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide across the planet is disrupted, and volcanoes on the other side of the earth erupt from the tension. Then Friday was Pepero Day, Korea’s approximate 87th couple holiday of the year, where everyone buys lots of chocolate sticks, sacrifices their firstborn on the altar of the Lotte Corporation, and enjoys a day of showing love and companionship through commerce, as God intended.
An open class is what it sounds like. In Korean schools, it means that the doors of your class are thrown open to observers, so that they can come in and basically be all up in your grille, watch your every move, and judge to their heart’s content. Who can come? Well, it depends. There are staff open classes, filled with principals and vice-principals, teachers and department heads, janitors and janitresses, vice-lunchladies and tech staff and the copy boy. There are parental open classes, where dozens of moms with the day off wander in and see just how often you call on Junior. There are open classes for student teachers, and members of the public, and educational big wigs, and probably one for the Korean head of state, should he ever feel the need to sit down for forty minutes of grade 5 English.
More importantly, though: open classes are times when Korean teachers go completely insane.
“Michael, do you think you can go to different school and record their listening tests?” Like most requests that come from my administrators and are filtered through the tremulous, worried tones of my overburdened main co-teacher, this was not actually a question. She phrased it like a question because she knows English, but what she was really saying was, “You have to go and jabber at another school for a day. It will be boring. See you later.”
Why, pray tell, would they need my golden vocal cords? Didn’t they have an indentured foreigner traipsing through their campus already? Why couldn’t he/she do it? Was this one of the schools where the other English teachers were quivering bags of goo when it came to speaking, and demanded multiple foreigners to fill out the various parts of the dialogue for the tests?
As it turns out, their language monkey flew the coop.
Have we talked about the midnight run? The midnight run is when a foreign teacher in Korea packs their bags and screws off back to their respective homeland without telling anyone. Occasionally it is because they are actually in a horrible situation, occasionally it is because they are a jerk (and very occasionally it is both). Either way, this worried me. Just recently, the only foreign person likely in most of their lives shirked all of his responsibilities and ditched back to England. I imagined resentment. I imagined my arrival heralded with suspicious, shifty eyes, and quick efforts to lock up all the silverware. I imagined muttered conversations and disappointed head-shakes. Pitch-forks. Torches. A metal detector and a pat-down. Aspersions cast on my ancestry and my character.
As it turns out, it meant they just had ludicrously low expectations*. When I got into the car, two teachers waited for me, brimming, and nervous. How long have I been here? What country am I from? Did I just sign another contract. …do I like Korea? Kimchi? Jeju and Busan? 4 seasons? They tentatively broached that their last dude had ditched, and were careful not to mention that this sucked.
We got right down to recording, and after each grade finished in a clean 15 minutes, I was responded to with a hearty, “Wow! That was amazing! What a great job!” Wait… are you guys being condescending? I mean… I did a job, certainly. I moved my mouth and sounds came out. Why the clapping like I’m a trained seal?
“Oh. Last teacher… he make some mistakes, sometimes. So maybe recording takes one or two hours.” What? I asked to repeat. I was confused. How did he make an hour’s worth of mistakes on “I like pizza. Do you like pizza? I’m from Vietnam!” This is not exactly reading Tolstoy in the original Russian, here.
Soon after, I asked for clarification of another teacher’s name, which I still misheard, and thus wrote on the paper in Hangul. “Wow, you can read Korean!” Well, yes? It soon became clear to me: I could play these people like a fiddle. I got to work.
As we walked through the hall, a grade 5 teacher passed by and greeted us. Bypassing the English teacher, she asked me directly, in Korean, if I could speak. I responded in kind, and gave my usual mealy-mouthed “Oh, my Korean is terrible!” stuff, to jaws that nearly landed on the floor with audible thuds. When we returned to the office to wait for the next recording, I pulled out my special education textbook, and on their investigation, explained my teaching license, and how I was studying online to improve my degree. They cooed. They were mine.
I don’t like casting aspersions on other foreigners, but it seems like their previous guy was kind of a goon. But in the end, he provided me a great service: I could easily impress another school. (They jokingly mentioned that maybe I should quit my school and come to theirs, ha ha ha with a set of shifty, “But could you?” eyes punctuating the sentence.) In turn, this would impress my own school. And winter vacation negotiations are coming up, which means I need to begin making deposits in the favour bank.
*A current coteacher of mine was last at this school, and it explains her constant waves of shock that I am not a mouth-breathing boob.
As Korean school children start grade three, they begin their government mandated English education. And with it, their first exposure to a few truths: people are different. People from different countries especially so. They speak wacky, they eat wacky, and they do wacky. But how can we best bring them to this realization? How can we show them different countries from the comfort of a classroom nestled safely in Korea? How can we make the little tots cultured and worldly without actually having to go to all those icky places? Let’s explore together.