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Travel Stories






Kids will be Kids: Teaching English in South Korea

The old man peered up at me and his leathery face cracked as he smiled and spoke. “You— You Handsome!” He had brownish-yellow stained teeth, gappy like the crenelated wall of an English castle; and his upper body drooped over what seemed like a forty-five degree angle from his waist. The Hunchback of Jisandong seemed like he’d never seen a foreigner before in his life; so I just smiled back and said, “kamsa-hamneeda” to thank him.

It was my first experience of a street-walk in Korea. I had flown to the city of Gwangju in the south-western region of Chollanam-do; and got a taxi to Jisandong, where my new teaching job was located. My initial impressions of Korea were encouraging; and my ego was flourishing. I did a quick metal checklist of the pros and cons so far—

The streets are clean and tidy – a plus point - although they do smell of alien aromas, which confuse my olfactory system - possible minus point. The people are very friendly and complementary – another plus - and the children playing outside are well behaved and polite - I’ll put this on the ‘plus pending’ category.

—I couldn’t think of any bad points so far, except for that ineffable stench, so I nurtured these positives and approached my new job with heightened optimism.

An online ESL forum inspired my trip to South Korea, and I had spontaneously signed a one-year contract with a school that I knew very little about. My directions were perfect and I entered the school and took a deep breath — those bizarre smells caught in my nose again and my nostril hairs played a silent melody called ‘How should I feel?’.

I met my new employer, who was also the school’s director. She was short and stocky with bright red lipstick and a face like an unimpressed bulldog. “You look different from photo,” she had said, pointing at my head. Perhaps the newly shaved bonce might not go down too well here, I’d mused. By order of the director, I began my training by observing another teacher’s class.

I’m not suggested that the teacher’s class was boring, I’m really not, but I spent most of it trying to stay awake. The nine-hour time difference was beginning to get the better of me so I took a break and went to find the restroom; grabbing the toilet roll from the secretary’s desk as instructed – ‘when such needs arise’.

After spending ten satisfactory minutes on the can and almost dozing off during my most intimate business, I exited the toilet and a group of pre-teen girls giggled and went red. “That is girls room. Boy up-stair,” said Mr.Yoon, one of the Korean English grammar teachers who had observed the uncomfortable moment. I guess my guidebook was wrong; not all restrooms in Korea are unisex (in fact, very few are).

I put the communal toilet roll that I was holding back on the front desk and suddenly became self-conscious at the amount of paper I’d used. I started to go a little red myself; even the simplest of things seem complicated away from home.

“Okay, training finished,” said the director, “This your book, but free talking okay first class”

My choice of school, like many first timers, was a blind and rather naïve one. This revelation became clear as I began to be ushered into a classroom with my jacket on a textbook under my arm, unprepared, untrained, and with fifteen equally well wrapped children peering from behind woolly scarves and hoods. The director closed the door and a brief silence ensued.

“Teacher – cold!” said a skinny teenage girl with round glasses and a colourful home knitted scarf. It was a bit chilly.

I was the only foreign teacher at a school that was evidently struggling to make a decent profit. When I arrived in winter, the school’s heating system was only used when deemed absolutely necessary and during this particular time; there was apparently an insufficient quota of sickly staff and students to warrant a blast from the atrophied old boiler. I began to wonder if my decision to sign a contract before arriving might prove to have been hasty.

Suddenly came a barrage of questions as students competed to get my attention. They were shouting out and I struggled to focus and answer one.

“—Do you have a girlfriend?” “—How many is your family?” “—Why arm hair?” “—Do you like Michael Jackson?” It was at this time that I made it clear that the students must raise a hand if they wished to ask a question. I pointed my hand upward to demonstrate what I wanted, but they just kept looking at the ceiling, nodding with misinformed understanding.

After twenty minutes the class was beginning to run rings around me (sometimes quite literally) and my patience was getting streteched.

“Aha, teacher is monkey” replied one of the boys pointing at my excessively hairy arms. I let this one go and continued my instructions.

Then I noticed another boy putting his hands together and closing all his fingers except for his index digits, which were pointing outwards to form a skewer. His face lit with a malevolent grin; the boy next to him was bending over as he struggled to get something out of his bag. I have seen this bizarre, ritualistic child’s prank many times since that first surprising occasion. The unaware victim was about to get a ‘dong-chim’, a painful poke where you would rather not.

“Don’t!” I shouted. But it was already too late— “Aeee-sh!” cried the victim as he clutched his behind and began to squirm around. The perpetrator writhed around in his chair, laughing uncontrollably. They simply don’t teach you this stuff at ESL training schools.

As I walked out of school that day, some of my students rushed past me, shouting in Korean and playing as they went. The mischievous prankster from class passed me and smiled, putting his hands together to form a formidable prodding gun. Off he ran around a corner; laughing and no doubt looking for another suitable victim. I smiled, shaking my head; “Kids will be kids, wherever you go,” I muttered, and began my walk home.

Four years on from that first momentous day on the peninsula, I have since returned to South Korea for the third time and am currently teaching English at a well established language institute in Seoul. I have adapted to my foreign environment to a point where it now feels comfortable and much like home. I have experienced all the various stages and nuances of culture shock and emotion; from excitement, to confusion, depression, and now, to an altogether more balanced and relaxed state of mind.

Korea is not, on the surface, vastly different from life in the West; and unlike more exotic locations, culture shock comes in small drips and subtle differences, which add up and multiply. For a while, things can seem confusing in ways that are not immediately obvious; the language, the food, mannerism and non-verbal cues, all create a mounting frustration that is difficult to identify a cause. But eventually, it all begins to make sense – and those little idiosyncrasies, those peculiarities that every country and its people have; they just become nothing more than harmless curiosities to observe and compare.

By Jason Gaskell, Msc.

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