Monday, 24 May 2010

A New Website, A New Blog, A New Adventure

Hey everyone, I just wanted to say thanks to the few of you who were kind enough to read my ramblings over the past year. As of May 2010 I've opened up a new website dedicated to providing advice and assistance to prospective and current teachers in Korea. Please take a look at it and drop me a comment on the new site, it would really make my day. Better yet, if you think the new site has any merit, please link me to your blogs and let everyone know about it! The website is called 'How to Teach English in Korea' and can be found at

Also, keep your eyes peeled for a new and more comprehensive blog starting June. Kicking off in August I plan to travel around the world on an extremely limited budget. My new blog will be chronicling the adventure and hopefully, be featuring many of you as I cruise past your home cities. More on that one soon. Until then, stay cool!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A Strange Name for a Girl

The name 'Jeong-Ja' (정자) is a 'boy's name' occasionally given to Korean girls in order to ensure that the next born will be a boy. When I drew a picture of a bean sprout (콩나물) and a student uttered 'Jeong-ja' and giggled, I discovered it had another meaning. A quick Naver search confirmed it - Yup! Jeong-Ja means 'sperm'. What a nice name for a girl...

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Racism in Korea

Racism is never particularly pleasant and being a white boy, it's not something I'm particularly accustomed to experiencing. To be singled out by a stranger, to be insulted, and to be threatened, solely on the basis of your skin colour and appearance conjures feelings inside of me which I find extremely difficult to put words to. Those of you who are most unfortunately more accustomed to the experience may do the description far more justice.

These bad feels are difficult to shake, perhaps especially for a white boy who hasn't had to develop the hardness of skin to defend against them. Somehow, the racism affects your very core, for you've been attacked by something completely and utterly unchangeable about yourself, about who you are. Clothing can be changed, attitude and actions can be thought about and reversed, but your skin and race is with you permanently and forever.

The scariest part about racism is that I find it contagious in nature. The hurt afflicted by just a short exposure draws you into a very dark and scary place. The reality of the situation in Korea is that I've only been (definitely) subjected to negative racism twice, that's TWICE in eight months! Two middle aged men are hardly a census on the Korean people right? But in both instances after being subjected to racism I immediately felt overwhelming aggression and malice towards almost all other Koreans around me. Suddenly friendly faces and ordinary people are transformed into potential haters and aggressors, whispers between friends turn into comments about the white boy standing over there. Giggles between the guys nearby are clearly concerning you and your appearance. Suddenly, you want to punch somebody out, hide away from them all and return to your own people, never to deal with those arseholes again. Don't they realise they're just like you? Don't you realise the same... And then you blow off steam and you realise what just happened, how one person, one stupid person changed your entire perspective on a culture, and you wonder how the real victims of racism survive.

Fighter Jets

Fighter jets continuously roaring past the roof of my home make me nervous, I don't like the occasionally whistling sound that follows them, whether real or imagined is irrelevant, the fear it instills is real. The complacency and utter disinterest of the Korean locals in the matter only cements this fear deeper inside of me.

Invariably the jets fly east, or north east. They come and go from a near by airfield and whilst I'm sure they're harmless, their very existence is a blatant reminder of the tensions between North and South. Though no shots are fired, this is still very much a country locked in a prolonged state of war.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Expectations of and Intrusions into the Private Lives of Korean Teachers

Public school teachers in Korea are (generally speaking) treated with a great deal of respect from others in society. And likewise, they are expected to maintain respectable lives, worthy of this respect. They are afterall, guiding the youth of Korea through their early development. In many cases, teachers could be considered to play a larger role in a child’s development than their own parents. This is due to the immense amount of time children spend at school, greatly reducing their time to grow and learn under the guidance of their parents.

However, a respectable life is a matter of perspective and often, the perspective of the school’s administration do not match that of the teachers. For Korean teachers, serious breaches of the administration’s view on a respectable life could result in ill treatment, reprimand or firing. For a foreign teacher working in a Korean school, the punishment is likely to be the same, however more slack is given due to cultural differences.

Now you might be thinking that this is all fair, that a teacher should be expected to maintain a clean and respectable life, and yes, I absolutely agree – within their role as a teacher. But to what extent should their personal life be governed by the will, expectations and whims of the administration? When you are a public school teacher in Korea, your personal life is not entirely your own. Your actions outside of school if they are discovered, can and will affect your working life. Is this really fair? After all, we do not live to work, we work so that we may live. Do schools have the right to control a teacher’s personal life (vicariously by placing pressure and expectations on them) when it does not affect the school, the students or their teaching?

But I’m rambling; so let me cite two recent examples that have directly affected me. I recently had a great fight with a fellow foreign English teacher over some holiday photos we had taken, specifically a short video clip. The video was taken at Jeju Love Land (제주러브랜드), a comedic sex themed sculpture park found on Jeju island. Picture giant penises and vaginas made out of every conceivable object doing just about every conceivable sex act and you’re pretty close. It’s not pornographic, rather it’s a lot of fun and even explores Korean sexual culture and identity somewhat. (Particularly well done through a series of dioramas) But I digress, the video featured a Korean English teacher animating a kind of ‘wind up’ sex sculpture (essentially two outlines of people having sex, you wind a crank and the man moves up and down) with accompanying sex sounds provided by myself, off camera. The video was clearly in good fun and when we played it back, we all had a good laugh. However the laugh was cut short when paranoia immediately took place, stirred up by my friends comments about ‘don’t post this on the internet’. An argument took place and the video was hastily deleted (against my will) within about 5 minutes of viewing it. Friendships were damaged in the subsequent fight and it was this incident that caused me to think so deeply about this problem. And it is a problem.

Map of Jeju Love Land

Given time to reflect on this incident I can now understand the irrational panic which encapsulated the Korean teacher. If the video were viewed by other teachers, they may question the subject’s lifestyle and ultimately, question the influence the teacher is having on the children. All these questions, based entirely on a twenty second video, taken in personal time, in a Korean amusement attraction, amongst adults and friends, completely within the law. If administration were to view the video, I can only imagine the same questions would be raised but enforced by harsh reprimands and threats of job loss. If the video were to find its way into the public media, I can easily imagine a scenario were the truth was thrown by the wayside and elaborate stories and fantasies were created about a promiscuous teacher holidaying under the influence of foreigner’s without morals. You may laugh, but I don’t believe that I’m at all stretching the truth.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Cementing these views comes a more recent incident and one that is much closer to home, occurring between myself, the Principal and the Vice Principal. Now before I start I should emphasise that my relationship with my school’s administration, Principal and Vice Principal is particularly good. We generally treat each other with mutual respect, I practice golf with the Vice Principal in the morning before school (actually, he teaches me) and he often treats me (with some embarrassment on my behalf) like his son. So it was all the more surprising when I was questioned in some depth concerning my activities outside of the school.

Word had reached the Principal and Vice Principal that I had been going to Hongdae, a university area of Seoul famous for clubs and young nightlife, for dancing. The assumption had been made that I was going to clubs to dance, which was far from the truth. When the Principal asked me if I had been going to Hongdae for dancing, I however, replied yes, for this was true. Most Mondays I travel to Hongdae to take part in a Merengue class. (Merengue is kind’ve like a two-step salsa.) Immediately I was simply told not to go to Hongdae for dancing because I was a teacher and that ‘To go, is to die’. (This isn’t the threat you might believe it to be, but when English is limited it’s a simple way to get your point across). After a great deal of broken English and broken Korean I managed to explain that I wasn’t going clubbing, rather I was going to ‘sports dance’, that it was clean, respectable and presented no problems. They seemed okay with this answer, although they still reminded me not to go. (I suspect because they assume I may later go to clubs.)

So this incident was fairly harmless, but again it got me thinking, what if I was going to clubs in Hongdae once a week? What if I was going, even nightly? It clearly isn’t affecting my teaching, nor is it being passed on to the students, my co-teachers could testify to that. So why is it relevant to my position? If I were drinking to excess and partying in the school uniform, then my personal life suddenly becomes relevant, but otherwise, it is just that – my personal life.

Hongdae - Part of the problem (apparently)

Again, the media is partly to blame for these problems. There have been incidences in the past with Korean newspapers reporting on the supposed shady activities of foreign teachers, but this is a different problem and should not prevent individuals from seeking satisfying and fulfilling personal lives.

Further to this though was the contradictory nature of our outing. The discussion took place during a teacher’s hiking trip and was followed by a teacher’s lunch. The Vice Principal and Principal had brought well over 30 litres (a conservative estimate) of wine to this lunch for the teachers to share. Very nice of them really. What was more interesting however was the implications of the pre-dinner speech, where the Principal urged us all (bear in mind this is my memory of a translation provided to me from another teacher) to ‘drink all of this wine and don’t let anybody use the excuse of I’m driving to prevent them!’ Say what?! Perhaps this was an error in translation or a misunderstanding, but whatever the case, it’s safe to say that getting (really) drunk together with the other teachers is perfectly acceptable behaviour. Dancing with friends and a single drink in Hongdae however, is not. I suppose I should mention that in western years, I’m 24 in age and the university districts are very much populated by my demographic.

So what should we make of all this? Honestly, I’m not sure and I certainly don’t claim to have any answers to these issues. But it’s interesting to consider how intrusive Korean workplaces seem to be on your personal life. So ask yourself, particularly if you are working in Korea, do you live to work, or do you work so that you can live?

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Leaving Seoul Seeking Soul

In a mere 6 hours time I will begin my journey south east, leaving Seoul for the greener pastures of GyeongJu City. Seeking peace of mind and comfort in heart I will stay at Golgul Temple for several days and possibly more, living with the Monks, practicing Seonmudo and meditating. I hope this will bring some peace and focus to my rather turbulent existence.

I admit that I am nervous. This is, truly, my first time traveling by myself. Sure, I came to Korea alone and have travelled three days in England alone. But in each of these instances I quickly surrounded myself with people of the same trade, same purpose or with distant relatives. This is my first time traveling alone in a country whose language, I am far from mastering.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Kindness Cheers a Lonely Heart

It was a lonely ride and the subway car seemed cold and sterile, and the people, distant within the circle of their own. Thoughts of isolation and longing swam in front of my eyes, clouding my vision, making it difficult to comprehend the Gaiman novel my hands. Longing; longing; longing...

Longing for intimacy, longing for touch, longing for whispers of stolen secrets in the night, longing; longing; longing...

The doors open, I push past, the escalator whirls to life as I approach. Nothing more than a charade, it knows only my weary legs yet it does not care. And then a distant smile, an excited but hesitant wave, my old 'friends' from Icarus, extreme martial arts. Essentially we practiced flips, cartwheels and kicks for show, but never spoke very much, language being a significant barrier. My Korean has improved though and we talk briefly, and I smile a little bit, these guys want me back at training. Smalls things.

We hit a stumbling block and we're lost for words, but then from nowhere a stranger appears, a small Korean woman wheeling a large travel bag behind her. 'Excuse me, do you need my English? Can I help you? Are you lost?' The sincerity, the kindness and the care in the voice melted my cynicism in my mind, warmed the loneliness in my heart and kept my despair, thoughts of the bottle, at bay. I did not need help and without words she realised 'oh, you speak some Korean?' I replied that I did and that I lived nearby, and with that she was gone. But the effect resonated, such simply kindness produced from nowhere, given freely and without cost.
It is the value of a smile, of a warm thought, of a hug given unasked, but sorely needed. It is a commodity we could not do without.

Thank you subway lady, where ever you are.
oh how long for intimacy, for the capacity to share myself, f