Wednesday, 30 December 2009
Saturday, 24 October 2009
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.
Friday, 9 October 2009
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
Sunday, 26 July 2009
Friday, 17 July 2009
Thursday, 16 July 2009
Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Wednesday, 10 June 2009
Saturday, 30 May 2009
Friday, 15 May 2009
I wear a red carnation on my chest, pinned there earlier by a nervous third grade boy. As part of the ceremony select student’s present their teacher’s with a carnation, but that is all a distant memory now as I realise that every eye in the room, and all of the lenses, are focused on me.
The Principal manages to restore order, saying a few short words in Korean, and then he hands me the mic telling me ‘A few words, short’. “Crap!” I get as far as ‘Thank you ev…” before my amplified words are drowned in a of sea cheers and the more than occasional ‘I love you!’ It seems that somehow, I have become a star, although never in the way that I had imagined.
So the ceremony concludes and the madness continues. It’s photo time, and in Korea this is serious business! We head downstairs to the school entranceway where I am quickly accosted by the vice-principal. He takes my hand in a kind of high five grab, pulling me through the crowd and kissing the back of my hand twice, Roman style. ‘Brother’. Somehow the photo works out just as habit is seeming to suggest it, with me, the tall white guy, standing smack bang in the middle and in between, (but just behind) the Principal and Vice-Principal.
Today is ‘Teacher’s Day’, where children and parents give thanks to their teachers. In many cases gifts are given but mostly, students should write letters of thanks to their (favourite) teacher(s). In South Korea the day has a long tradition, both students and teachers enjoy a shorter day and the atmosphere allows for a lot of bonding between students and teachers. Being teacher’s day I couldn’t help but give some thought to those teachers who were so influential in my life. Mrs. Dagg, the economics teacher who lent a sympathetic ear when I needed it, Miss. Figures, who taught me (through her frustration at how little I applied myself) that teachers actually cared about you and of course Mrs. Ireland, with the exception of my mother, the most influential woman in my life. Even today I attribute every success to confidence and attitudes she bestowed upon me. She is my inspiration and driving force behind becoming a teacher and I am a far better person for having known her.
So now that the formalities are over the party heads to a local Japanese restaurant for lunch, courtesy of the student’s parents. It’s set menu, sushi, sashimi, Korean wine and soju. I’m seated next to the Vice-Principal and opposite the Principal, and somehow, I get the distinct feeling I’m sitting with ALL of the school’s royalty. The Principal makes a quick toast and the teachers all chant something in response to the school name. I wish I knew what they actually said, but it sounded more like a war cry.
I won’t describe all of the oddities of lunch because it would take a lifetime to recount and I’m unlikely to do the situation justice. But there were a few worth recounting.
Sometime into the meal the vice-principal disappeared from our table, but as I was seated with the Principal I had no opportunity to go and find him, that is until I excused myself to the bathroom. ‘Andy! COME HERE!’ – the now familiar cry greets me from another room. The cry is loud and one that you wouldn’t dare refuse, but it is neither command nor request, it is somewhere in between. Drinking with the Vice-Principal commences, one shot, two shot, three shot, more. ‘Best teacher?’ he asks me, pointing to himself and referring to our golfing lessons. ‘Yes, really excellent teacher.’ I nod and smile. And then he disappears again. Later, Mr Kim helps explain the situation, it seems the Vice-Principal thinks of me somewhat as his son, who apparently, I either resemble or remind him of. It’s sweet, but is a new kind of feeling for me. Mr Lee offers his own interpretation on the situation. 'Today is teacher's day, but it seems that today, it is really your day.' Try as I might I cannot deny that the feeling is right, my day? No. But I certainly know where he is coming from. We all share in a wedding ceremony, yet we know who's day it is. And today, well yeah - Mr Lee had the feeling right.
Heading back to the Principal’s table I meet the Vice-Principal again and he calls me into the bathroom with him. He embraces me in a hug and more details emerge. ‘학생…’ (students…) ‘students you 사랑해요’ (the students love you) ‘So, I 사랑해요.’ (and so, I love you too). I can tell that he means it, and just to make sure, he reminds me one more time that I am a ‘excellent teacher.’ I guess the cheers at the ceremony must have gotten to him, but then again, it got to me to. Well, actually, the whole day got to me a little bit – am I teacher? In truth, I don’t feel like a teacher, I just feel like some kid who shows up everyday, masquerading as something he’s not, hoping nobody catches him. It’s like I have the model of what I should, I know what I’m trying to be, but the manual they gave me was written in Greek. And then sometimes, just sometimes, something happens and I feel a connection with someone, with a student, and I wonder, just maybe, just maybe I am becoming… or maybe I have become? One day, I hope this will be true.
Wednesday, 29 April 2009
To my family,
Yesterday officially marked the two month point for my stay in South Korea and whilst it has had its ups and downs you can rest assured that I am still thoroughly enjoying myself. Teaching is still proving to be the greatest challenge of my life and I am certainly missing the love and support of my family. Hopefully you’re all doing very well.
At school I seek to connect with every child whom I teach. Some have claimed this is an unachievable goal but I still dispute this. My theory goes that if I can find the individual in each child and remain responsive to their needs I should be able to develop connects with each child, and hopefully, earn their respect and dedication to my subject. As with everything in my teaching, the language barrier proves to be a constant and significant challenge.
Something I do find in my favour is the lack of any significant age difference between my students and I. It seems easier for me to gain the respect and trust of my students, as many are able to look up to be as an older brother. My ethnic differences add and build on this and hopefully, my eccentricities will add further to create a person they are constantly interested in. Every day I am reminded of Caitlyn as my youngest students are the same as her, they are a mere 9 years my junior and my oldest, are only 7. With the advantages this creates there are also some inherent challenges too, notably that of the alpha male and pack leader. Whilst this happens in any classroom with a teacher of any age and sex, there are a few students who seem to have noted my young age as something worth challenging. However, so far I believe by playing firm but fair, these students too are giving up the fight and being to come over to my team.
Every morning I wake to the most sickeningly sweet ‘good morning’ melody played from my phone. Sometimes I think everything in Korea is super cute. It is the crack of dawn, 05:50 am and the (relatively) quiet and very sleepy suburb of Bokjeong is still for the most part fast asleep. Eating as quickly as my sleepy body allows I rush to school, unshowered but shaven, to meet Gyo-gam-seon-saeng-nim, Vice Principal in the golfing nets below the school. One of the many curiosities of my school is the golfing nets and relatively spacious gym located in the school’s basement. The best theory I have so far is that they were commissioned by the vice principal inorder to fuel his love of golf, however their true age is unknown to me. The students are fortunate enough to receive golf lessons as far of their curriculum should they choose, pretty cool really.
Now Gyo-gam-seon-saeng-nim is the exact image of what you would imagine a vice principal to be. Firm and unyielding in his decisions, sailing the ship between rocky waters and ensuring the crew arrives safely. He is an intimidating man with a kind heart. The kind that has grown wise over years of supporting and nurturing scared and insecure youth. Over the last three weeks I’ve developed a deep respect for the man who has now become my golfing instructor. That’s right, I’m now learning to play golf.
The idea was not mine, but Gyo-gam-seon-saeng-nim’s. He had discovered during one of our ‘teaching the teachers’ classes that I had no knowledge of golf and he insisted to take me for a quick lesson. Unable to refuse without insulting the man I went with him, a little excited but mostly terrified. Golf is something I have wanted to learn ever since my first lesson with my father, which I can remember didn’t go too well. We were on the driving range at Morisset golf course, my heart was racing and my body shaking, finally I was getting to know my father, taking part in the sport which makes up a seventh of his life. (Every Saturday, rain hail or shine.) But I was unable to successfully follow anything dad said, I was too excited, too terrified. I suppose it may be true that the worst person to teach a son may be his father. The father sees his son, made in his own image and he desires nothing but the greatest for him, that his is a success, a winner and the greatest. That he is everything the father is and more, and so the father enters the lesson with an impossible dream. Conversely the son enters the equation hoping for nothing but a safe escape from the dangerous situation. Even to a teen, even to an adult, your father is your dream, your father to some extent is like god. Pleasing him will validate your worth, displeasing him will trigger childhood insecurities. Nothing is worth more to a son than to hear words of praise from his father. And so with such high stakes riding on such a simple event, is it any wonder that it ended so terribly? Frustration mounted quickly, these fears aside I was terrified of damaging my father’s beloved clubs. I can’t remember the rest too clearly, but I think we left quickly and without much success on my behalf. We’ve never golfed together since.
So what began as a casual lesson with gyo-gam-seon-saeng-nim has quickly ballooned to daily sessions at 7:00am before school. This has since expanded to include a half of my lunch break each day, although we may have reigned this one back a little (time will tell.) Much of our instruction involves sign language and repositioning me like a manikin, my Korean is terrible and gyo-gam-seon-saeng-nim’s English is not much better. However my lessons seem to be progressing well and other teachers have remarked of his fondness for me.
After a successful swing it’s not uncommon to hear shouts of “GOOOOD SHOT!”, failure to ‘cork’ my wrists properly will result in the most distressed (and loud) “NOOO CORKING!” I have ever head. There have been two occasions now where he has produced candy from his pockets and stuffed one into my mouth following a ‘baek (100) percent shot’. Although the vice-principal is reason enough to continue these lessons I’ve never once forgotten my father during my time in the golf nets. This blog post was originally meant to be an email to my father, but, proving more difficult to write than I realised it has evolved into this. I’ll send dad the link and hopefully he will read this. It’s important that he does, because I’m continuing these golf lessons with the dream of one day soon playing a full game of golf with him. One in Korea, and one at the home ground of Morisset, as soon as I return to Australia.
This may sound childish but I hope you’re all proud of me. I know what you’ll say in response to that but I wanted to write it anyway because I’m missing you. I’m missing Caitlyn’s smile and the grumpy faces she pulls when I tease her, I’m sorry about that, it might not be fair but its always so funny. I’m missing Daniel and his constant invention of new and increasingly destructive toys, I wish we had gone to shoot arrows together. I’m missing Timothy and the adventures we’ve began to have, you should come to Korea so we can hit the crazy night scenes here. I’m missing you too Mum, I’m missing your cooking but most of all I’m missing your hugs, your smiles and your kind ears, for listening when I just won’t shut up. And Dad I’m missing you most of all, because we’ve started to connect more these days and I want that to continue and I want to hear about your past, and most of all, I want to have those rounds of golf with you and a beer at the pub afterwards. Once I’m good enough the vice-principal has promised to take me to the golf course on the American military base in Seoul. With some luck, we’ll be able to play our first game together there too.
Thanks for reading everyone, I know this has been a long one.
Much love to you all.