My head was spinning from my introduction with CoolMessanger. Right after that, my co-teacher apprised me of a surprise meeting.
“Okay, and let’s go now,” I said falling back on my improv training.
I sat in a conference room with the vice-principal, my three co-teachers, and the English program head. They proceeded to converse in Korean for about ten minutes. I just smiled, nodded, and played along, doing my best listening impression. Again, the improv came in handy.
The following transcript is a reenactment of my experience (note: I do not know the Hangul words. I copied and pasted them from a website in a repetitive loop. Don’t judge me.)
VICE PRINCIPAL: “본 논문은 영어권에서 개발된 Ian Schneider 소프트웨어를 한국어로 작성된 메시지의 내용분석을 위하여 변형한 curriculum 프로그램을 소개한다. 논문의 목적은 listening and speaking 의 사용을 원하는 학생, 일반인.”
CO-TEACHER 1: “연ISchneider 이해를 돕고자 실제 사례를 통co-teaching 분석절차를 구체적으로 제시하는 것이다. 논문은 크게 Michael (the former native English teacher) 프로그램이 기반하고 있는.”
ENGLISH HEAD: “이론적 모델인 사회 네트워크적 내용분석에 대한 개괄과 Ian 에서 제공된 지역혁신에 관한 뉴스를 이용하여 수행한 실제 분석사례로 구성되어 있다.에서 제공된 지역Schneider한 뉴스를 이용하여 수행한 실제 분석사례로 구성co-teacher.”
I had so many questions. Were they comparing me to the last English teacher? That hardly seemed fair on my first day. Was I in trouble already? The expressions of the interlocutors swung from deadly serious to laughter by the minute. For them, this was a routine meeting. For me, it was a muddled morass. Thankfully, one of the co-teachers turned to me and said, “he just paid you a great compliment.” I smiled and relaxed.
They went on in Korean for another five minutes until another co-teacher teacher turned to me said, “I know this must be awkward for you.” I wanted to laugh but decided to play it cool.
“It’s okay,” I said, nodding politely.
After several more Korean-laced minutes, the meeting adjourned. Later, I translated the meeting minutes from CoolMessenger. They were discussing curriculum and potential after-school programs. I was later asked to think about teaching an after-school writing program. I wasn’t ready to commit. It was my first day. However, I appreciated their high hopes for me.
After the fourth period, some teachers invited me out to lunch. This would be my first experience in a traditional Korean restaurant and legitimate culture shock. The shock was not in the food (though I ate too many fish bones to count). The shock came from sitting cross-legged and trying to eat with chopsticks. Each bite contributed to painting my pants red, orange, and green. Noticing my struggles, two of the teachers came to my aid (sort of).
“Yeo-gi-yo,” one of them said.
The waiter approached the table and exchanged some Korean with the teachers. He nodded, left briefly, and returned with a bib. I was dead with laughter. One teacher placed the bib in my lap and my slacks were spared of further abuse. Fortunately, I found a good dry cleaner near my apartment and my pants lived happily ever after.
Standing up was the next culture shock. Both of my legs were dead asleep. First, as I stood, they were completely numb. Then, as the feeling returned, an overwhelming tingle washed over my legs and made me grimace a bit.
Despite being tall for most of my life, I tend to move quietly. I have a tendency of startling people when I say “hello” to people from behind. This was not the case at Namak High School. Blending in was out of the question. I stood out, and the students made sure I knew. Many students waved, said “hello,” commented on my height, or just said, “handsome!” Many other just looked at me with this “whoa,” expression. I felt like a B-list celebrity – a feeling to which I am unaccustomed.
As with any new job, there are habits and routines that require acclimation. I’m not used to having my own office cubicle with a government-issued desktop computer with an interface in a foreign script. I’m not used to brushing my teeth four times a day (teeth brushing is huge here.). I’m not used to asking for help at almost every turn and relying on mostly gestures and translation apps to do so. I’m also not used to having so much downtime to lesson plan (this I can get used to).
While teaching, I notice both cultural differences and similarities between Korean and American students. For example, like in Western schools, students have a broad spectrum of interest in language learning. While some students are very engaged, others prefer to sit in the back and idly chat in Korean. My challenge (like the challenge of most teachers) is to design lessons that will engage as many of the students as possible. In other words, encouraging them to speak English.
Differences pop out as well. Korean students seem much more tired than their American counterparts. Airplane neck pillows and blanket capes look like fashion statements. I passed one girl wearing a sleep mask around her neck.
Much of this has to do with Korean students’ demanding study regime. Many students stay in on-campus dormitories and study from 9:00 until 22:00 with few breaks. Sleeping in class is a regular occurrence. Sometimes I try to wake them up. Other times I just let them be, especially when they are sick. Sick days are less common than in the States. You better be very sick – like “please take me to the hospital” sick.
Needless to say, I am very impressed by Korean students’ work ethic. Compared to my substitute teaching experiences, Korean kids are much more compliant with instructions and more obedient of authority figures. When I was an American substitute teacher, commanding respect was a constant battle.
The number of on-task students is strikingly higher than I would ever see substituting in an American classroom. At orientation, I learned that Korea has immense pride in their human capital investment. I saw that investment in action during my first day in school. Hour by hour, I piece together the puzzle of this culture so unlike my own. It’s exciting, illuminating, and eye-opening. It is exactly what I hoped to get out of living abroad.
Finally, because of a demanding work schedule and a premium placed on punctuality, I’ve seen some Korean teachers napping at their desks as well. It seems that what you do at your desk is of little import as long as you are on-time and prepared to teach. While I have yet to succumb to a mid-work siesta, I may welcome the opportunity in the future.
We rented tiny scooters and rode up and down the waterfront. It was more fun than I had anticipated.
By Korean standards, Namak is a small suburb outside of Mokpo. However, seeing high-rise complexes like these makes me think otherwise.
I went to Chosun University in Gwangju to play basketball. Some of the on-campus scenery reminds me of the landscaping on some American university campuses.
Namak is a strange mix of urban high-rises, suburban stores, constant construction, and empty lots loaded with vegetable gardens.
“So, how’d you two meet?”
“He took me to this restaurant. When I saw the sign, I just knew it was meant to be.”