New Year, Old School, Big Changes

One month into the new school year, I have substantially adjusted to my school’s many personnel and office changes.

In Korea, teachers and other public officials are required to change venues every 3-5 years in an effort to promote educational equity and discourage corruption.  Therefore, statistically speaking, 20-33% of my school’s teachers are brand new.

I felt the wheels of adjustment turn the second I walked into my (old) office.  The administrator who sat beside me last semester was now a stranger, likely an incoming journeywoman.  I looked down at my desk with widened eyes to see a surprise.

There was a letter emblazoned with the Jeollanamdo Office of Education logo with the English word “congratulations.”

“Yes!”  I thought.  “I was finally receiving the award for ‘Most Awesome Native Teacher Ever.’”  With only six months of work under my belt, I was obviously delusional. However, it’s nice to dream.  I continued to examine the envelope.

“Who the hell is “Yoo-Mee?”

At that moment, my delusions of grandeur fell through the floor.  I tumbled down to Earth as my eyes flitted up.

That is not my name tag.  I have to change offices.

An English teacher preemptively averted my confusion.

“Ian, your office is now next door.”

Next door I  noticed my name tag alongside three other office mates – one Chinese name (the new Chinese NET I assumed), one science teacher’s name I recognized from last year, and one English teacher’s name I did not.

“She will be your new co-teacher.”

I beat all of my new office mates to school but was far too distracted moving all of my things to worry about meeting them.

“Hello, Ian,” said one biology teacher in my old office room.  “Looks like we’re next-door neighbors now.”

“Yeah.  You moved into the cool room.  I was kicked out of the cool room.”

As I reorganized my noticeably smaller new desk, I met the new native Chinese teacher.

“Hello.”

“Hey.  How are you today?”

“Nay?”

She was very friendly, if not a bit shy.  I can’t blame her. I fondly remember my first day of school.  Skeptical optimism stilted my behavior to nothing but polite nods and silence. 

Her English was definitely below that of the original Chinese teacher, but that’s an unfair comparison.  The previous teacher shocked me with her command of English.

Several minutes later, a new Korean teacher slid open the door.

“This must be my new co-teacher,” I thought.

“Hello,” she said.  “I’m your new co-teacher.”

“Nailed it,” I thought.

“Hello,” I actually said out loud.  “Jay ee-deum-eun Ian eem-nee-da.” (My name is Ian).

“Yes, I know.”

“Stupid,” I thought.

The familiar first-week jitters I felt on that August car ride to Namak returned.  In many ways, I felt like I was starting over. The nerves and tension in the air were palpable.  I can imagine similar thoughts passing through each of our minds.

“Who is this person?”

“I hope we get along.”

“Is this person going to help me or make my life hell?”

“I hope he is like [previous co-teacher/native teacher].  They were so [positive trait].”

It wasn’t easy the first time I met my main co-teacher, and it wasn’t any easier the second.  It’s understandable yet unwise to feel such pressure about this first impression. She was essentially my lifeline to the Korean educational and governmental bureaucracy.  While the system may very well be efficient, I would have no idea. As a foreigner, it is a foreboding Byzantine labyrinth of Hangeul, uniforms, and signatures.

On the co-teacher’s end, an English NET can either be a minor inconvenience or a major headache.  My mentality last semester was to save my requests for big things. I know how busy they are with their own paperwork.  In many ways, I am another part of their to-do list. It behooves me to help keep that list short.

Speakers at orientation consistently stressed the importance of a NET’s co-teacher relationship.  It has made and broken many people’s experiences in Korea. While first impressions aren’t everything, they are certainly important.  Needless to say, I was nervous all over again.

Several minutes after meeting, I made my first co-teacher ask of the new year.

“When is my first class today?”

“Let me check.  There is a temporary schedule.”

She glanced at her screen.”

“Oh, you are lucky.  You have no class today.”

She showed me the schedule.  While I have three early classes on Fridays, students were occupied with first-day rites like settling into lockers and receiving class schedules.  I sighed in relief. I had a free deskwarming day to process this cavalcade of change.

Life in Korea moves fast.  While I have mentioned in previous posts that nothing is permanent and everything changes, the rate of change just feels steeper here.  As I result, I also think the turnaround time for nostalgia is equally quick.

I found myself missing the consistent chatter of a 13-person office, the extra space of my old desk, the water machine in the corner, the constant comings-and-goings of teachers and students, and even the way the administrator would pick up the phone and say, “An-young-ha-say-yo.  Nam-ak-go-deung-hak-yo kyo-moo-sheel eem-nee-da.” (Hello. This is the Namak High School teacher’s office.)

Fortunately, with several deep breaths, I remembered that this feeling shall pass.  Just as disturbed sediment always resettles on the bottom of a riverbed, I knew I would inevitably settle into a new normal.

Photo Corner

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Some student drew me on the whiteboard.  I love how they captured my slight anterior pelvic tilt.  It inspires me to redirect my gym goals. #saynotomuscleimbalances

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I took some photographs on a Sunday bike trip around Mokpo.  These park-like walking paths are pleasantly common.

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The boss read about the benefits of Vitamin D on Huffington Post and decided that “all meetings will be held outdoors on sunny days.”

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It’s good to know where your city hall is (though this is technically not my city’s hall).  Regardless, it is good to know where I can to raise a petition and get summarily shot down for being a foreigner who speaks limited Korean.

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Mokpo has a soccer stadium as well.  I can’t wait until that natural grass gets just a little greener.

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One rewarding aspect of Mokpo is the mixing of urban life and nature.  This fun hiking trail nestles right in the middle of an older city neighborhood.

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I found an abandoned park ranger office or something and accidentally took a strange picture thanks to the magic of mirrors and glass reflections.

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The view wasn’t as great as Yudal Mountain, but the exercise made it worth the while.

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My favorite slightly rundown traditional market.  Elderly Koreans hock cheap vegetables and fish while others run jokbal (ham hock) restaurants in the back corner.

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