Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Chuseok! and the end of our Contracts.

It's Chuseok time in Korea.  For Koreans Chuseok means the nightmare of navigating over-crowded superhighways (a 4 hour drive can turn into 10) and awkward family dinners, answering questions like "Why aren't you married/why don't you have a better job/why don't I ever see you/where's my grand-child?"  For me, Chuseok means three days off and out of the meat-grinder that is my job.  After a year at CDI I feel like hot dog stuffing.  All ground up and squeezed out.  The monotony is relentless.  The tedium never ending.  Well, it'll be ending very soon for me.  I've got 7 working days left on my contract and I couldn't be happier.  My goal was to come to Korea for a year, save some money and travel.  Because of work I wasn't able to see any of the world (The three days of Chuseok are more holiday's than I've had all year), but I did save some money.  

A lot of money.  Enough money that Sara and I should be able to travel for the next year.  So I didn't get to China or Thailand, or the Phillipines, or Japan, or even Jeju-do.  Now I get to see the world, or most of it.  Our contracts end Oct 1 and we'll be out of Korea on the 3rd.  From here we go to Turkey where we'll spend 12 days in Istanbul.  From there we're going to Madrid for two weeks and then on to Paris.  Back to Madrid for Christmas and then to SE Asia to start the New Year.  Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia.  Then back to Madrid for March, April, May.  In June, my sister Katie's getting married and we'll spend the summer in Hawaii.  August should bring new jobs in Beijing or Riyadh or Istanbul or some place else.  Probably not Korea though.

I wouldn't wish my Korea experience on anyone.  It wasn't so terrible, I never got sick or hurt, I didn't lose my job and nothing catastrophic ever happened.  But, I feel like I got water tortured to insanity.  Slowly, every day my work and the nation of Korea laid me out flat on the table and dripped fat beads of water onto my forehead.  Every day, drop after drop, slowly drilling into my brain and driving me crazy.  I recently read an article that said that by September of the average year Korea has 212 sunny days.  This year, they've had 170.  Those 42 days nearly drove me insane.  The weather here is worse than anywhere I've ever lived, including Nebraska and Southern Illinois.  The winter was so long and so dry that my skin cracked and if I didn't sleep with the humidifier humming next to my bed, I woke up with a sore throat and cracked and bleeding lips.  The summer has been so rainy and so humid that as soon as I step into the elevator lobby of my apartment building my sweat glands pop and my clothes fill with sweat.  It rains five days a week and it seems like every day somebody reminds me that Korea is never like this and this weather is highly unusual.  Well, a lot of good that does me, now, living here this year.

At work, I've finally reached a stage where whatever crazy, half-cocked, spur of the moment idea they bring to me, I laugh a little and say, Ok, you want me to do that, fine.  I'll do it.  Last week on Wednesday night my boss came to me and asked if I would conduct a thinking project for 10 mothers.  At the school upstairs, where I do not work, on Thursday, tomorrow. At 11 in the morning, 5 hours before I normally report for work.  Later that night he handed me three pieces of paper and asked me if this project would be ok.  Sure, I said.  Then he told me that there would not be 10 mothers that instead there would be 30.  Or 50, he wasn't sure.  Ok, I said.  

I showed up the next morning at 10:30.  Another boss asked me what I would be doing.  I stared at him. "What would I be doing?"  "Yes," he said, staring back at me.  "A thinking project, for the mothers," I half asked.  "Good.  Ok.  I will translate for you."  Wonderful.  37 mothers showed up.  About 4 spoke any English.  I work with 9,10,11,12 year olds every day.  They speak English.  They require a great deal of energy from me to keep them focused, working, and caring.  They spend 12 hours in school or academy, you have to give them something.  My teaching persona is somewhere between Ronald McDonald and a gorilla.  Korean mothers have little patience for these antics.  I stood and listened to my boss give a presentation about the school, all in Korean.  He finished and I stepped up.  The mothers stared.  I started my presentation.  A thinking project has three parts.  Part 1 - Brainstorming.  "Why do you want your children to learn English?" I asked.  Blank stares.  My boss translated.  More blank stares.  When I ask my students why they learn English they almost always say "Because my mother makes me," so I figured the mothers would have a good reason for torturing their sons and daughters with expensive English academies.  I was wrong.  Here, you do things because everyone else is doing things.  Because it's just what you do.  After poking and prodding and pushing, I got "Get a good job," "Read Harry Potter," and "Communicate while travelling."  CDI costs $250 a month.  For 12 months, that's $3000.  Students can stay at Chungdahm for 5 years.  $15,000 to learn to read Harry Potter and order pizza with double cheese and double pepperoni while on vacation in New York.  

Step 2 of  a thinking project is the actual creation of something.  A skit, or a song, or a poem, or a poster.  I opted for a poster because I thought it would be easy and it might be fun and it doesn't require any English language skills, a safe choice, but also risky because these women do not look like they have touched a crayon in decades (When my students take these types of creative projects home, the posters often end up in the trash because mom does not consider them learning).  The idea for the thinking project was to have the mothers draw a poster of what they hoped their children could achieve with their English language skills acquired at Chungdahm.  I asked them to draw this.  Blank stares.  The hum of the air conditioning.  My boss translated.  More stares, more humming.  I pushed, I prodded, I poked.  I went to one group and picked up a crayon.  9 mothers around a table.  1 piece of paper and some crayons.  I drew a face.  Dotted in some eyeballs.  Happy or sad? I asked.  Happy, I lined in a smile.  The mother described her daughter's goals.  She hated Chungdahm but she wanted to be a writer.  I drew books and some stick-man fans.  The drawing was terrible.  Did the mother appreciate this?  Was this something the mother wanted for her daughter?  I have no idea.  I got up.  The mothers chatted quietly in Korean.  I walked the room.  2 groups drew their son's playing soccer.  1 group drew their son as a diplomat.  I thought that was pretty good.  5 minutes later 4 of the mom's actually stood up in front of the other mothers and completed step 3 of the thinking project.  Presentation.  They stood and they described their poster and they described what their children wanted.  They did it in English.  They did a fantastic job, confident and clear.  That was pretty cool.

When the project was over my boss excused me.  "Ok, you can go."  That's the last he said to me about the whole thing.  No "Thank you," no "Good job," nothing.  Fine, ok.  They did buy us Pizza.  One of the hardest things about this job has been the lack of feedback.  No one has said anything to me in 11 months of teaching about what happens in my classroom.  This, despite the fact that we have CCTV in our classrooms and I know our bosses watch and file a report at least twice a month.  No good job, no bad job.  No one says anything.  From what I understand, the paycheck is the reassurance that you are doing what you should be doing.  If it's there on the 5th of every month, keep it up.  If it's not, see you later.  It must be my American attitude towards work.  I'm soft, I'm weak.  I need someone to tell me I'm doing something good, something right, or that I'm doing something wrong.  Something.  I must be crazy.

Also, I'm 3 months sober, so there's that.