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Teaching English in South Korea

Grim, grim, grim.

South Korea was the only country I remember that anyone expressly warned me not to visit. Several people had mentioned that it was about the most hung-up, sterile, joyless society that could be imagined. The exact opposite mentality of a easy-going freeloader like myself.

The problem was that the Koreans made it so easy. Whilst job-hunting on the internet in Bangkok, I discovered on an ESL website that Korean language schools would not only pay teachers $1500 a month but would also give them a free apartment and send over the flight ticket.

The idea of acquiring a well-paid job without having to turn up for an interview appealed to my finely honed sense of apathy, Provided I was a native speaker of English and white-skinned enough that I’d look good on the school’s promotional literature, there were jobs aplenty. Before I knew it I was contacting an agent in Seoul to sort me out a job teaching adults. (most of the English teaching work in Asia is more or less crowd control duty with kindergarten and high school classes. I tried out for such a job in Taiwan earlier in the year but five minutes with twenty five year-olds convinced me of the wisdom of a flight ticket out.)

The only snag was that I was required to possess a university diploma. Of course it didn’t say I actually had to have earned the degree, so I just strolled down to Khao San Road and bought myself a fake BA in English Literature for $50. OKay it was half the money i had but i knew education was someting worth investing in.

Suddenly a bachelor of the arts, I felt waves of wisdom and learning wash over me. Having been a roaming good-for-nothing since I hit the road at the age of 18, my parents would now be proud, I knew, that I had accomplished in a matter of minutes what took most people three years of lectures, essays and huge overdrafts to achieve.

I signed a one year contract but within minutes of being picked up at the airport I was checking my watch. Only 364 days, 23 and a half hours to go. Not that the welcoming committee was exactly unfriendly but I soon realized I’d have more fun watching paint dry than making conversation with this bunch of factory-produced suits.

Which is about what I did for the first few days. The school was in the latter stages of construction and the walls were a-gleaming white that teamed up with the neon lights to blind me every time I looked up. I won myself a reputation for being a rather shy, modest type in those first few days, my head forever bent low.

I met the other foreign teacher they had hired, a very American guy called Mike. He couldn’t hide his relief at finally meeting another non-Korean. Around us swirled presidents, vice-presidents, executive directors and every other conceivable combination of titles. An endless stream of chiefs that vastly outnumbered the Indians.

“I’ve been trying to work out the pecking order,” Mike told me, “but no one bothers to tell me anything!”

The only thing we were clear about was that the big cheese was a man called Mr Kim who looked like a cardboard cut-out. He was a millionaire whose ambition was to promote his reputation as a great man by opening a prestigious new English school. As founder and financier of the school, he gave hour-long vision meetings. With the hand gestures of a general he lectured with passion about his dream of bridging the language gap to unite nations and enable Korea to prosper. I didn’t understand a word however as he didn’t speak any English.

As it happened we came to understand that the pecking order was about the most important thing that we were supposed to know. We played it safe for the first few weeks by bowing deeply to just about everyone, the cleaners included. As a result we were ourselves held in high regard for our remarkably inappropriate courtesy.

In Korea, hierarchy is everything. When a Korean enters a room he immediately takes a snap assessment of the ages and social standing of all those present. He has to know where to slot himself in. To my astonishment, a drifter like myself was suddenly elevated to the upper strata of the pyramid in the revered role of a teacher. This meant that in my classes, when I spoke people had to listen.

The novelty of this soon wore pretty thin. Having shelled out large amounts of money to learn English from hired foreign devils, most students were too shy to actually speak except when I forced them to. They were so terrified to make any mistakes that they decided to play it safe by sitting in silence.

And historians wonder why China, Korea and Japan were so insular for the majority of their history – they were terrified of conquering other countries in case they actually had to attempt small talk.

Of course the hierarchy thing wasn’t exactly a catalyst for group discussion. One time in a free-talking class I tried to get a debate going between a 40 year-old businessman called Mr Lee and a female student by the name of Chung. It went something like this:

Chung: I think that war is a terrible thing.

Mr Kim: Ah, but sometimes we must to fight!

Chung: Yes.

Mr Kim: A country must help themself and sometimes fight the war-

Teacher Tom: What do you think, Chung?

Chung: Yes, sometimes war is a good thing.

They joke in America that if you want to pass your exams, you sit next to a Korean. Because whereas they’re often uh, socially-challenged, they damn well owe it to their ancestors to get good grades and be a success. Korea has distilled the essence of the winner-loser culture to the extent that no one can imagine any other way to live. It’s normal for a Korean to work 50, 60 or 70 hours a week. Some of our chiefs were in their offices 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some even slept there at nights. And all of it without complaint because the company is closer to your heart than our own family. Ask not what your company can do for you etc…

Kids in Korea go to school from 9 until 5. Then they usually attend an English ‘cram-school’. Arriving home around 8, they have just enough time to eat dinner before tackling their homework. Only the really lazy kids finish in time to get to sleep before midnight. A New Zealander I knew who taught children told me that he just let them run around as much as they liked.

“This is about the only chance they in their day to have any fun!” He explained.

So how come after fifteen years of such intensive schooling they can still hardly put a sentence together in English? Every time I asked one of my female students something she’d hide her face behind her hands and giggle in embarrassment. And the men, when faced with a question that required them to think rather than just repeat, would resort to the trick of faking a migraine; clasping one hand to their forehead, they went through a series of contorted facial gestures to indicate deep thought until I let them off the hook and moved on.

Of course they were very sweet and generous people, too. One private student I had insisted on bringing bags and bags of groceries that I never could have consumed on my own. It got worse and worse to the point that I had to meet her in the car park to carry up to my apartment an endless stream of fruit, ceramic bowls and jars of pickled radish.

At times the gift-giving could be almost mysterious. I filled in for a Korean teacher who was feeling ill and in return she presented me with a token of her appreciation. At least that’s what I think that’s what it was. She gave me a tea bag. I tried not to laugh but I couldn’t help imagining a similar scene in the West:

“Hey, Mary! Thanks for picking me up from work yesterday!”

“Hey, don’t mention it.”

“No, really. And I’d really feel better about it if you would please accept this stick of chewing gum in return.”

“You what?”

Anyway, it was things like the everyday hospitality that were proof of the traditional hospitality that still lurked beneath the gloss of the surging consumer society. Despite the looming monolithic department stores, street markets still thrived in the alley ways where the old folks still had a good time haggling over octopus tentacles.

And everyday the banana man came around on his pick up truck to wake up anyone who might be trying to sleep. With a loudspeaker attached to a recorded sales pitch, more than once he was in danger of being hit by a flying ceramic pot or jar of pickled radish.

But even he wasn’t as bad as the cheerleader dancers who came to open the new convenience store at the foot of our apartment building. Whenever a business in Korea wants to drum up business, be it a liquor store or a mobile phone shop, the formula is simple – they hire two teenage girls to dress up like space tarts. With plastic miniskirts, matching caps and boots, they prance, sing and recite sales monologues through a PA all day long. It was a sight too bizarre and awful to merit commentary.

But I’m certain that it’s those very dreadful sidewalk cheerleaders who become the moped girls. In every Korean city you’d see young women buzzing around on their scooters, making deliveries and delivering documents. And as a vastly more profitable sideline they render themselves too if a customer should so wish.

A friend of mine told me he was once buying a car in Korea and when a moped girl arrived to deliver lunch, the guy selling the car offered to buy him 30 minutes of her services.

“Did you take advantage of the proposal?“I asked.

“Nah, Of course not.”

“Well, good for you.”

“Yeah, if I’d taken her into the back room I’d have been obliged to buy the car…”

Our supervisor, a typical middle management backbiting bitch called Jane, liked to joke that we foreign teachers should relieve the stress of teaching by hiring one of the moped girls. This was about as crazy as staffroom humour got. The faculty were morally-uptight catholics who considered an evening at the karaoke bar as a wild night out.

But in truth, Korea is about as wild as a caged earthworm. Freedom and spontaneity have benn choked to death by a mesh of social expectations. The fear of being rejected by their peers is so great that no dares question the hoops through which society demands they jump. As meekly as sheep. And as I watched I felt the onset of a very deep sleep.

Drowsiness is the biggest killer if foreigners in Korea. Especially when waiting for the little green man to give us permission to cross the road. Sometimes I waited with a crowd of patient Koreans for up to ten minutes for the light to change and it was all I could do not to just lurch forwards into the oncoming traffic.

But even if there had been no cars on the roads everyone would still have waited for authorization to cross. It was one of my few sources of amusement to try and get Koreans killed on my way to work. I’d strike out from the pavement to thread my way through the traffic and a few businessmen and housewives would instinctively follow, imagining that we’d been given the signal. It was poetry to watch their faces when, halfway across, they’d freeze, mortified with the sudden realization that they’d been duped into such a heinous crime as jaywalking.

A month in Korea felt like three. And as I’m still young enough that such virtual longevity is not yet of great appeal, I made my plans to leave. But as I’d arrived in the country with less than $50, I had to collect my pay before I could make my “midnight run.”

The average stay of foreign teachers in Korea is said to be four months. I’d met quite a few people who were intent on completing their one year contracts and it seemed downright irresponsible. Their reckless commitment was jeopardising the expectations of imported foreign clowns. I mean teachers.

But dull, unimaginative and pedantic as the Koreans may be, they’re not exactly stupid. Thus most schools only pay the wages on the 10th or 15th of the following month. As a kind of insurance against deserters like me. So when we do split they’re compensated for the cost of the flight ticket and upset timetable by the ten or fifteen days we’ve worked gratis.

Still, it’s the last thing they want to happen and in the week preceding payday, an uneasy distance grows between managers and teachers. New arrivals are paranoid about whether the school will cough up at all, while the directors are seen to huddle together in corridors to share their misgivings about the hired help, shooting black looks at us as we pass.

In my case, it seemed that the immigration office was raising some awkward questions about the validity of my diploma. It’s a sad world we live in that no longer understands the meaning of trust. I had the terrible notion they would contact England to see if I really had obtained my diploma, or indeed, if I had ever enrolled at all.

The relief I experienced when the director took a chance and paid me my wages was beyond my power to describe. Perhaps equivalent to when the parched plains of India receive the first rains of monsoon after a merciless summer.

The salary was excellent and for a good three, maybe even four seconds I considered hanging on for another month. But I had to make it to Tokyo in time to for the Christmas markets to sell cheap jewellery on the street.

Perhaps my words on Korea sound a little harsh. And the last thing I’d want to suggest my visit there was bereft of positive experience. Indeed, after 30 days in Korea, everywhere else in the world seemed like a great place to be. North, south, east and west, the grass was glowing ten times greener.