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

Friday, 17 July 2009

My favourite troublemakers

Call me insane but one of my favourite classes is 1-9, the lowest and the baddest of them all. These kids are not bad kids, they're just not suited to the typical learning system of sit down, take notes, memorise and reproduce. Sure, this class is the biggest headache, but its also the source of some of the greatest rewards. Here's two stories, just to prove the point.

One of my low level students gave me the biggest smile ever today. He clearly has a social problem, is extremely skinny, perpetually nervous, and barely speaks a word of English OR Korean. He's so terrified of other students that he refused to work with a partner for our recent speaking exam and I've never seen him converse with another student inside or outside of class. But everyday he's the first one to my class. Maybe he enjoys it there, or maybe he's simply taking the chance to escape from the others, but either way, when he sees me his entire face lights up, bright smile and bright eyes. In or out, I'm treated to the same result, bright eyes and wide smile. Honestly - I don't know if I'm teaching the kids any English, I really don't. But I damn well hope I'm making them feel better about themselves, and I guess that's an important lesson in itself. That's the reason I'm teaching High School, to make a difference. Now for my favourite trouble maker. I found him in the hallway as I often do. He was cleaning, the school's favourite punishment for anything from smoking, to being late. Today it was for wearing pants which were an inch or two too short, revealing his socks, black with a fluro rainbow pattern. That darn kid! He should have known better! He's a repeat offender too! But anyway, he greets me as he always does, 'Hello teacher', I respond and continue about my business.

That day I roamed the corridors a lot and passed him on numerous occasions. Each him he says 'Teacher, two times we meet'. This continued until we hit 'Teacher, five times we meet.' Whoever said 16 year olds couldn't be cute? It was about this time he explained his story to me, as best he could. I know I shouldn't, but all I could really do was laugh. There was another teacher nearby, but she didn't hear me. The boy was missing out on all of his classes, running about the corridor with a small group of other trouble makers, cleaning and generally having fun. Occasionally they were checked up on by other teachers, but really,
there has to be a better way. There have been
times when six of my 1-9 class (low level My two favourite trouble makers, taken on sports day.
computer students) have been doing this
ridiculous punishment. Today it was only
three. Perhaps in future I'll move my class
to the hallway and we can all clean and
learn together, yeah, that'd show them!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The problem with being liked.

Now this is an interesting predicament I find myself in, and that's the problem of being liked. First of all this isn't something I'm used to and second of all, I certainly didn't go out of my way and ask to be treated this way. But nevertheless, such is my situation.

My Vice Principal likes me - no, scratch that, loves me - in fact he's gone out of his way several times to tell me this. In both Korean and English. So what happens when somebody likes you too much? Well, you run the risk of every little thing you do causing them grief, worry or concern. The smallest of your actions need justification, clarification, phone calls and SMS messages. You're no longer letting the company down, you're letting down a friend. But these details are minor. And you might even say, 'What are you whinging about? Surely this means you'll receive preferential treatment and your school life will be grand!' Well, this was the assumption and the above mentioned problems aside, this has been the truth - until now.

It would seem that the Vice Principal likes me so much that my presence is demanded at all possible times, for as long as possible, irrespective of whether or not I have any work to do. Of course I'm referring to the summer teaching program. Now Korean schools are not like Western schools when it comes to holidays. Holidays simply mean 'time to focus on studies more specific to your interests'. Hence I'm teaching a dozen students for 3 hours every day, for three weeks. Now typically teachers go home once they've finished their teaching, however in a moment of panic the Vice Principal has explained that I should stay until 4pm (my contracted time) simply to plan lessons for next semester. Okay - that's all well and good, but preferential treatment? And what about the fact that I will be the only teacher in the school as all the Korean teachers, also needing to plan lessons, will leave around noon? *sigh* I've seen that expression before, it happened the other week when I was required to stay back after all the Korean teachers had left. Why? To pay regular visits to an old Korean dude in need of some company. I've got no problems with that, in fact I really like the guy and am very thankful for his assistance and the golfing lessons. But come on man, I'm working my butt off for you I'm burning out. It's summer holidays and I really need a break.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Two Lives

I've come to realise that I have two lives now, far and distant between, both populated with people I love and care about. Both filled with ambitions and desires, the paths of which intertwine and weave, criss crossing through and around memories. Memories of friends, memories of family, memories that I wish would remain forgotten and memories I fight to hold onto. And amidst all of this I find myself asking the same question that has haunted me all my life, who am I?

I called mother, and I called sister - hear me, listen to me, love me. This is all I want, all I need. Validate me. I call mother because she's easy in the way's mothers must be, but also because that validation and love is priceless, in the same way that only a mother's can be. I call my sister because her's is harder to come by, too caught up in adolescent self concern. I don't blame her, she's growing and needs the care more than I. I hope that in the middle of my own self interest, I managed to give her some.

I'll repeat again that teaching is the hardest thing that I've even undertaken. There is just too much to care about and too many lives to invest yourself in. If you have 530 students and invest just a fraction of your self into each of those, then how much do you leave for yourself?

When your life is split into two, divided each way by a mere 8200 kilometers, how do you bridge that divide without dividing your self?

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The First Time I Cried - A Collection of Experiences, Pent Up, Bottled and Shaken

My eyes sore and my nose is blocked, mucus clogs my throat and makes it hard to swallow. Trails of salty tears run down my face, glistening in contrast to the dark patches and shallow skin beneath my eyes. Today marks the first time I cried, the first time my tears have fallen on Korea soil, and for what? Mounting pressure? Home sickness? Delayed culture shock? The inability to fulfill my own unrealistic, potentially impossible expectations of myself? Or perhaps it was just imagining seeing my family again, those that I do miss so dearly. Today, I feel utterly alone.

Really, the day wasn't that bad. This has been a build up, like steady rain and a rising river. No matter how gentle the rain, if the sun doesn't break, or doesn't break for long, the banks will eventually burst. Right now I am that river and my school, my struggles, they are the unrelenting storm. At the dawn of every week I'm faced with over 530 teens, all of whom I will only see once this week, for 50 minutes. In that 50 minutes I must motivate them, get them excited to learn a language that many of them never expect to use, (at least in the realistic and foreseeable future for a teen) build their confidence, teach them new expressions and give them an environment in which they can practice their English, and all of this whilst sticking to randomly selected textbook topics like 'Pluto, Whatever It Is, It is There' and 'FAQs About Oral Hygiene' - both useful AND fascinating. Why my Korean lessons haven't been based on these topics I simply don't know. Oh yeah, and the kids struggle with answering 'how are you?'.

Out of my 530 plus kids I'm emotionally attached to at least a quarter of them, these are the kids that have annoyed me, befriended me, are super smart, are troubled, are in love with me, disabled, really fat, really skinny, really beautiful and really ugly. Sorry if you're a normal kid guys, you're just not that memorable - but I'm trying. But you know what? It's killing me. You kids don't realise how much it hurts me when something is wrong, when you don't try, when you don't live up to your own abilities. With every triumph there is another sad tale.

I remember Minjae (민재) clearly, a bright young girl, pale faced and quiet. But I remember her for her smile, a smile I don't think many were privileged to see, a smile that made her face shine like the light of the universe was contained within her, a bursting to get out. When
I first met her though, she was a troubled girl, quiet and reluctant to participate. At first I picked on her, scolding her for a lack of interest and punishing her for passive resistance, that was until I saw the hurt on her face and realised the damage that I'd done. So we met after class and I asked for the real reasons, could she not understand me? No! She understood everything and that was part of the problem - she had lived in Russia for some time, spoke Russian, Korean and English to a reasonable degreee - she was bored and troubled and nobody seemed to care. So I apologised and offered to try and change things, to challenge her, and we left it at that. The next time I saw her was two weeks later at the sports carnival, she spotted me and called to me, bright and cheery. As I turned she snapped a photo of me and smiled, the universe smiled with her. Cheeky bugger, I snapped a photo of her back. Two weeks later she left school and I haven't seen her since. I was devasted. I know she's smart, I know this is best for her right now, I know that she'll be okay - but in my heart of hearts, I feel this - that we failed her. The school had failed that girl and it should never have been that way.

So my coteacher is late, he's starting to make a habit of this and we need to talk. Not that there's much coteaching happening, but every time I ask for input the responses are muted by the Korean way. I like to think I operate outside of the box and maybe this is part of the problem. This time around though, I notice him in the edge of my peripheral, filming me. When did this start and why? Knowing better than to embarrass him in front of the students I continue as if all is planned and I'm fully aware and the next thing I know, he's gone. I'm solo teaching - wtf? Now I don't mind this, this is fine. But I've got 33 kids who don't speak English well and no ready means for translation. The classroom internet has gone down, something I immediate attribute to his tinkering without telling me. (Another habit he has. I'm happy to admit that the English room is for all to share, but it's only my lessons which get done in there. In that respect, it's my territory and they can't expect to change things on me without telling me.) I make a mental note to discuss this with him, later discovering that he has left the school and is attending a conference. Ah, so now I know who is watching the video of me. Shame about the class, it was a poor lesson, shame about my appearance and teaching energy, I was tired and felt like shit. Thanks a lot, I'd just like to point out that I'd never do the same to you.

My life is filled with good people and good students, but through my own setting of unrealistic expectations, I remain destined to fail.

I'm in a dark place and the pent up emotions of my struggles are cascading down my cheeks.
I made a rule sometime ago that I would not publish anything to this blog if I were in the down stage of the cycle. Because life here is like that, like anywhere else, a cycle of ups and downs - only here life seems to be magnified a thousand fold. But to hell with that, it's time to be honest.

If you've read this much then thanks, a part of my Self not belongs to you, treat it well.

With love,

Saturday, 30 May 2009


Somehow you just get the feeling they got it right when it comes to baseball. Tired as hell and armed with little more than the baseball knowledge i learnt from the wii i simply hoped to have a good time. All doubts were instantly dispelled the moment the k-pop hit my ears. something was different. It is a tuesday night and the stadium is filled with the thunderous applause of thousands of paddle balloons clapping in unison. Each player and play has its own choerographed routine - but never fear, never fear! For the uninitiated there is the team cheer commander - jumping and prancing around the stage he leads the crowd in the cheer routines, guiding you to cheering success and fame! Oh and don't forget the mega hot cheer girls too. they're there to help sell the scene and bring sex into the equation - but don't for a minute think its in the vulgar and sex driven manner of Australian NRL. These girls have a purpose to their cheerleading and that makes all the difference, and the crowd digs it, but i already mentioned that didn't i?

I guess it's important too that baseball seems to be a pretty simple game and quick to catch onto. But really, the game is almost a footnote in the fun. At 7,000 won a ticket, get yourself along for a night you won't forget! Go Doosan Bears!

Friday, 15 May 2009

Teacher's Day

The school auditorium is packed and the cheers of nine hundred Korean teens fill the space, echoing and bouncing around the cavernous ceiling. But I think surely, something is wrong. There are no pop stars in the room, Girls Generation are not about to perform and the Big Bang couldn’t make it. No, the scenario is quite different – it is teacher’s day and the Principal has called to the stage. And the cheering? It’s all for me….

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

A letter to my family

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.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

G'day everyone and welcome to the blog. Tuesday marks two months of living and working in South Korea and I have to say that at times it feels like I've been here a lifetime. Life is busy and growing busier - the life of a teacher is not an easy one, although it is already proving exceptionally rewarding.

As I mentioned already this post comes almost two months into a long and eventful journey, so rather than fretting about what has already happened I'll be focusing on what is recent, relevant and upcoming. Having said that, a short introduction is in order.

I teach high school English in the south eastern most corner of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. My background is in broadcasting, not in teaching and prior to arriving here I had no teaching experience save a short online TESOL course. TESOL stands for 'Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages' and frankly, the certificates are not worth the paper they are written on.

Teaching has thus far been trial by fire and every lesson has been completely experimental. Lesson activities have ranged from some of the most bizarre games I've been able to imagine to fits of frustration resulting in periods of 'listen and repeat' readings from their textbooks. I make no claim to be the greatest teacher, I only claim that I am giving it the greatest effort that I can and I hope that that will be enough.

A source of constant amusement for the is the rock star status that I'm still finding myself privileged to receive. Students greet me with enthusiasm in the hallways and on the streets. The boys scream 'high-five', 'i love you', 'nice guy' and 'handsome guy' - the girls just scream and leave me gifts of tea, chocolates, drawings and love letters. Is this what fame undeserved feels like? I'm just me and have done nothing special yet to given all of this special treatment, well - its strange. It would be easy to let it go to your head.

Moving away from school comes some of the insanity and magic of Korea. Yesterday we journeyed to the magical land of 'Everland' - a theme park just to the south of Seoul. The weather as looking grim and the day was marred by drizzling rain from around mid-day onwards and two of three roller coasters closed for annual maintenance. (The third was later closed due to bad weather) But having said that the day was still a magical day of fun, our first stop was the 'T Express' - the steepest wooden roller coaster in the world with a jaw-dropping drop of 77 degrees! By far one of the most exhilarating roller coasters I have ever been on, out ranking Movie World's 'Superman Escape' by far. (Thrills and length, the ride lasts around 2 minutes!)

The 'T-Express', foreground is 'Holland Village'

Wandering the park I encountered a strangely aggressive teddy bear mascot who for some reason seemed to want to fight me. He had spotted a small stuffed teddy bear protruding from my jacket pocket and took this as an excuse to get started. So that got weird very quickly and he then got very friendly with Shirley, a little too friendly - in my opinion confirming that it was a guy inside.

This is the teddy bear that started it all.

By the end of the day we were all exhausted, having Safaried, Rollercoastered, Spun, Flipped, Dodgemed, Shot Ghosts, been in a 4D adventure and a rotating house. The only thing left to do was to have one more crack at a surprisingly addictive basketball game. I guess it helped that I realised I was pretty good at it. Earlier that day I had given my teddy bear away to a group of elementary school girls waiting in line at a rollercoaster. It seemed like we were the only westerners in the park and as usual were the subjects of great attention and many stares. The girls had to 'Ga-wee, Bah-wee, Boh' (scissors, paper, rock) for it but I think it may have made their day. They are so curious about westerners and I love being the nice, kind westerner.

Anyway, within seconds of me approaching the basketball machine I had a crowd of kids around me, curious to see the tall westerner in action. After pounding basketball after basketball through the hoop I was awarded another teddy bear, which I promptly turned to the children and gave away to a cute little girl. It looked like she could hardly believe that this was actually happening to here, I had to give it to her. But now I had started a riot - oh okay, I'll play again... (more children gathering...) Each new toy was followed my a round of Ga-wee, Bah-wee, Boh and a lucky winner walking away with a stuffed bear or big stuffed love heart. Our final round saw myself, Maria and Ed all played simultaneously and more prizes awarded to the children. For me, this was the absolute highlight of the night and I would've happily stayed there another hour if we didn't have to leave.

Will I do Everland again? For sure! And if the roller coasters are out of action, you'll know where to find me - look for the crowd of children and the basketball machines.

Below 1: Maria, Dave & Lexi boarding the Pirate Ship
Below 2: Everland at night, right before I had a total wipe out as I left in front of Lexi's camera when she was trying to take a very similar picture. I deserved the wipeout...