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...