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Lunchtime in Koreatown – the TEFL Teacher's Nightmare

When you teach English in South Korea you have to practically threaten the students with a sharp piece of chalk to get them to speak. But at lunchtime they never shut up…

First day of the new school year. Early March and there was cold in the bones and dread in my heart. The memory of Thailand only one week old as I wondered for the 3rd time that morning if I shouldn’t have stayed there. Crawled out of the taxi and walked into the new school just as the weekly Monday morning speechmaking session got under way. Not knowing anybody or where to park it I dump my ass at a table near the center of the large room. Along the wall and out of the way. But you’re never far enough out of the way when as a waygook in small town South Korea.

I sat quietly and noticed with amusement the stolen looks in my direction. Unable to catch the meeting’s content I used those twenty minutes to sit and observe, make tea, write a grocery list… anything and anyhow to keep my mind free of the anxiety soon to begin. But that first day in early March I was brand freaking new and anxious as hell. Watching the new colleagues point and snicker in my direction like the schoolchildren they were paid to teach… priceless.

Eventually, my new cubicle partner came over and introduced himself; Mr. Namsung was the name. I convinced myself it was a good omen that he shared the name of the school where I had just finished working. I was asked to take the microphone and managed a respectable ‘Good Day’ and short introduction in Korean. This prompted a polite and unexpected applause but as I leaned into the mike the smell of fresh of kimchee almost overpowered me. I finished quickly the typical remarks (in English) about being excited to be there, etc. and sat down to waste the morning fiddling around with the new computer; switching out the browser and setting passwords to the different sites I would spend my free time surfing soon.

I had been teaching in Iksan, South Korea for six months and just gotten back from a desperately needed two week hiatus in Thailand. After five more days of a special place in hell called English Winter Camp I was prepared to resume my position as the native English teacher at the Namsung Girls Middle School. Two days before we started I was called into the office and told that would no longer be the case. I was now the new native English teacher at the Won Kwang Girls Middle School.

“Why?” I asked. “Two days before the start of school?”

I had lunch partners and a Tuesday evening volleyball routine. I had a very comfortable black leather chair! Had I done something wrong, was somebody angry with me or disappointed in my performance? Had I been traded for a player to be named later? These were some of the questions asked but never satisfactorily answered. In the immortal words of Ricardo, my friend and colleague:

“Forget it, T, its Koreatown.” And so I did. And so I did.

The lunch room was vast, spartan and rectangular in shape; a 2:1 proportion, length by width. Six long lines of tables ran vertical along the length of the room; students on each side numbered about thirty-five. Thirty-five students times two rows/table times six tables equaled four hundred hungry, shrieking girls in the room at any one time. Under a low ceiling and institutional lights there was something to seeing seventy black heads in a row bent to sup between laughs, screams and jabs to each other’s arms. Schedules willing, the teachers tried to eat early and avoid the pandemonium of the lunch room.

The men sat at one table and the women at another. The rice had its place on the tray and so did the soup. The chopsticks were to be held ‘just so.’ I generally ate with the women and put my rice any damn where I pleased. I was practically invisible to most of the women in any case. Unless they noticed my rice or soup out of place of course.

The bibimbap had no bones and there was no soup. As such, very little got spat back upon the lunch trays that day. Neither was soup slurped in unison or at record pace. The men were responsible for these cultural ‘differences’ far more often than the ladies. An excellent reason to sit with my fairer colleagues.

Generally, I chewed in solitude, quietly proud I might have been the only one in the room eating with my mouth closed. I generally tried to keep my back to the students lined up and edging slowly along the walls. The alternative was eye contact and that meant a small wave and/or mouthed greeting every three seconds. I used that free time to be alone with my thoughts. If my thoughts had nothing to offer I enjoyed challenging my dexterity by alternating the metallic chopsticks between hands. This often brought furtive glances but never a word. In Korea, everyone eats with their chopsticks in the right hand.

I learned to enjoy the quiet really. I fancied myself a peaceful eye in the midst of a very powerful and Korean hurricane. After spending most classroom mornings listening to my own voice, the silence at lunch provided a much needed break for the vocal chords. My ‘discussion’ classes lacked a critical element of…discussion as the students preferred to ignore my questions or the fact that, yes…yes!…Yes!! I WAS SPEAKING TO YOU!

My co-teachers would tell me the students were too shy to speak to a foreigner but I couldn’t help but notice they weren’t too bothered about ignoring me to carry on with their own private conversations. As much as I was required to speak in the classroom, as frustrated as I felt coaxing conversation from where there was none, it was good to find peace outside that dreadful room.

The man who sat across from me that first day; I was unsure at the time about his level on the school totem pole but he was sporting a very shiny and possibly water-resistant suit capped off with a snappy powder-blue tie with silver sequins. Experience told me that the flashier the dresser (faux diamond cufflinks, velvet jackets, pink and purple color combinations) the greater the authority. In the future I would be sure to mask the smell of residual morning alcohol in his presence. Unless of course its origin was at the pleasure of his company the night before. Sharing drinks with a figure of authority would become an instant badge of honor with my co-workers. Underperforming at the job but sharing soju with the boss? No worries matey, all is well. Maybe not so different from home after all.

While I was unsure about our drinking future together, I could guess at his questions about me. It would be accurate to say that after six months in Iksan my Korean skills hadn’t progressed beyond ordering beer or complaining about the cold. After nine months I had added complaints about the heat to the repertoire. But for whatever language ability I failed to develop it was also true I sharpened to a razor’s edge my powers of…shall we say, deduction? Because even if you never pick up more Korean than the average monkey a fella develops a sort of sixth sense to answers like…Thomas…Namsung…USA…solo (not married).

I often considered having my compensation changed. If I had one Korean won for every time I said “hi”, “hello” or “good morning”…I would have earned ‘many money’ as the students liked to say (outside class). This was especially true during the lunch period when the students occupied every available square inch of space in the foyer/gauntlet between the teacher’s room and restrooms. Those were the students waiting for their turn to devour bibimbap and, for whatever confidence they lacked in the classroom, they absolutely made up for it in the anonymity of the human crush.

I ROVE YOU!’, ‘TEACHEL, YOU SO HANSUM! replaced the normal blank looks I received after a classroom question about the weather, their favorite hobbies, music or any other category you might think would promote a decent discussion.

Looking back that could have been my Eureka moment. English conversation lessons in the lunch line! The real secret to success for teaching English in South Korea. I could go back armed with that knowledge and confident in its success. You can save many money there and they pay for your flat and a round trip ticket. Another chance to add to the Frequent Flier mileage and only one more year from my life.

Thomas Bianco has worked as a waiter in Yellowstone NP, a business analyst in Budapest, a construction worker in Norway and an EFL teacher in S. Korea. He strongly recommends thinking twice before accepting a teaching job in any Korean city not named Busan. He enjoys drinking beer, bowls once every two years and specializes in underachievement. When he’s not busy day-dreaming about the next adventure in Vietnam or South America he might be found following the St. Louis Cardinals, listening to Modest Mouse or playing chess on Facebook.

Thomas Bianco