Friday, February 5, 2010

Life in Korea

I have never been this happy in my entire life.

I have a job I love, a great relationship, an awesome apartment and I make enough money to live comfortably on and even save some for future plans. I’m losing weight, I’m exercising. I’m even posting on my neglected blog. I feel like I’m doing everything right. All of this in spite of the fact that I live in a place where not only can I speak about ten words, but I can’t even read. I’m working on these things. A very nice friend is helping me learn to read and speak and in exchange we chatter a lot in English so that he can practice his foreign language. His name is Je Gwan. I doubt that that is how you are supposed to spell it when writing it in English, but that’s my best approximation. We meet once a week at a coffee shop (which are in abundance here) and he helps me in my desperate attempts to speak Korean and I correct what little of his fabulous English speaking skills need correcting. I really like him. He’s so nice, and so helpful. Je Gwan might be one of the nicest people I know. Every so often, though, when we are talking he’ll say something that makes me feel sad for him. He is planning to go to university in the states for a little and we often talk about where he might go. I asked him once about his major, and he said art history. My immediate response was to ask if that is why he wants to go to the states, to study art history. “No” he said “I have to study international business for my father.”
The next week, we were talking about the things that we love to do. He kept telling me that he used to be a swimmer, but he quit because he’d never be number one. He used to study photography, but he quit because he’s never be number one. Whether this is a Korean trait, or one specific to him I don’t know. But he seems to be under this pressure that is a different kind of weight. It is a pressure of acceptance and resignation. I can see it in his face when he talks to me. I often think about his face as he told me about abandoned passion after abandoned passion while I look at my students’ furrowed brows over their test papers (which they get every class period). This always makes me a little sad, but shortly one of my students will draw a picture of poop on their test complete with swarming flies and I remember that everyone is not Je Gwan. And that’s the flip side of my experience here; the whimsy and giggles of my students that I experience everyday. Sometimes it’s annoying. Like when they are supposed to repeat what I say and one of them will inevitably go incredibly slow, like he’s been electronically slowed down. They think this is hilarious. And I do too, but as a professional teacher I can’t laugh or the delicate balance of power in the classroom will shift and I will be on the losing side. And my boss is right, these kids can smell blood. Most of the time, I find their antics heartwarming, like when they try to distract me from the lesson of the day with questions about whether or not fish can make sound. They really are some of the cutest children in the world. Korean kids really have a monopoly on that market. The little girls always have the most complicated bobbles in their hair; from elaborate bows and ribbons to entire plastic representations of all the food groups. That’s another market they have the monopoly on, cute bobbles.

And then there are the pencil cases.

These kids have pencil cases that make the cockpit of an F-16 look like a light switch. They actually have buttons for each pencil that, when pressed, ejects the desired pencil into the air for easy and immediate access for the pilot. And every now and again, when things are very, very quiet in class because they are taking their tests, a rogue pencil case leaps from a desk and lands with a loud and resounding CRACK making every student jump, the owner of the unfortunate pencil case gasp in despair at their ruined equipment, and me cringe with exasperation.

But somewhere between the drawings of excrement and the pencil cases, I have a lot of fun at work with my students. I love my job. I know that I am a glorified babysitter and that my lesson plans have been teacher proofed by an R &D department so that they cannot be screwed up by some of the Neanderthals that come here from the states to teach, but I can feel that the days I am trying hard to get the kids involved make a huge difference for their learning experience as well as mine. And there are days when I don’t try as hard, when I’m frustrated by their behavior or the meeting I just had. But I still love my job. As it turns out, I was right; I do want to be a teacher. If I can enjoy this teaching, that can really get pretty mechanically repetitive, than I must have chosen the right profession. I’m really lucky. I don’t have to work so much that I get too frustrated with my job, in fact, there’s a lot of time in my day when I get bored. The students are busy memorizing or taking their tests or writing their stories…like right now, while I write this blog. I wish this weren’t the case. But I have absolutely no control over the curriculum or the lesson plans. They’re done for me. And if I get too off the mark, they check CCTV. I’m recorded every single day and watched randomly in case I need to be reminded about the specific lesson plans that I might accidentally veer away from. But most the time, I’m having fun. In the classroom, out of the classroom I am really glad every single day that I came here. Even if I am illiterate.