by Matthew Jirges
By now, if you have an internet connection and are even vaguely aware of what YouTube is, you have probably seen the video for Psy’s “Gangnam Style”. For those who may be unaware, Gangnam is a Gu in south Seoul. Sort of like what we would call a borough, I suppose. It is one of the more affluent districts in the city, full of money and beautiful people, but not that many explosions. It is, however, the only place here that I have seen a Lamborghini. It is a very cliché sounding K-pop song, but it is, in fact, a satire of the K-pop industry. Much like seeing rich, beautiful people on American TV, it is not the experience of most people living here.
Describing what it is like to live in Korea seems like a very difficult thing to do when I think about it. What I will write is coming from the perspective of an American male that teaches English in Seoul. You would probably hear a very different story from someone who teaches in Busan, or the Indian fellows in the foreigner district of Seoul that operate the foreign food market. And another different story from my friends here that own various bars. But this is what I’ve seen and done and how I have reacted to it all.
It’s very strange getting off the plane here for the very first time. I remember very clearly thinking, “As soon as I step off this plane, no one will know anything about me, not even my name.” You could, in a very real way, completely reinvent yourself between disembarking the airplane and clearing customs, although I never had the energy to keep up such a pretense.
What made the biggest impression on me in those first few weeks was how little information I was given by my employer. The owner of the hagwon (private language school) that hired me picked me up from the airport, drove me to my apartment, dropped me off, showed me how to work the gas and heat, and then said she would call in a few days. She didn’t leave a number in case of emergency, didn’t tell me if any of my coworkers lived in the same building, didn’t even tell or show where the school was that I was to work in. I had also kept myself relatively ignorant of Seoul and Korean culture in general because you can read about that stuff for hours and hours but it doesn’t really sink in until you get there, and I like to figure things out on my own anyway. So the first few days I was without work and nothing much to do besides wander around my neighborhood, trying not to get lost. Picking out land marks, mentally mapping the area surrounding my apartment, figuring out how to order food. It is a bit like being in a dream, where everything is just a little bit off and nothing quite makes sense. For me it was a trial and error. The first time I went into a coffee shop to order a coffee, I had no idea the Korean language and no “F” sound. When I asked for coffee, the girl behind the counter had no idea what I was saying. Then it clicked for her and she said “Ahhhh, Koppi!!” I learned there that they substitute “P” for “F”. And that is generally how I picked up enough Korean to order food, ask for directions, get in a cab and tell them where to go, etc. Constantly making mistakes and learning.
The hagwon system here is a very strange thing to be a part of. For one, the standards to get a job are just above zero. All you really need are a college degree, be from an English speaking country, and have no criminal record. You don’t need any teaching experience, no kind of TEFL or TESOL certificate, nothing. These lack of standards is a very big reason why Korea has some of the lowest standardized English scores in the whole world. They will hire anybody. In my own case, I studied ancient history at university, had no previous teaching experience, no experience working with children and, after a 10 minute interview on the phone I had a job. What it comes down to is this: You are a face to put with the language. You are there so the boss can show the parents “Hey look, your child is learning from an educated native speaker.” It’s a business first, an education center second. I know for a fact that at my first school I was the only foreign teacher that never showed up to work drunk or hung over. Can you imagine? Going into a classroom full of 6 year old kids, drunk? It happens. It happens all the time. Hagwons also tend to be a place full of dishonesty. When I took my first job, I made it very clear that I wanted to teach elementary students. I didn’t want to have anything to do with kindergarten. Three days into our two week training period I was told I would be teaching kindergarten. People often get fired in the 11th month of their contract so the school won’t have to pay the teacher their severance money or give them their flight home. You are not allowed to give a kid a grade lower than a C+, for fear that the parents will get upset and take their child out of school. I couldn’t even count how many reports I flagrantly lied on because that is what I was instructed to do. The training you are promised is laughable at best. We were all put into an empty classroom where they gave us every single textbook we would be using, then we were told to read them all. That was our training. No tips on classroom management, no lectures on learning or teaching philosophies. Just stuck in a room and told to look at textbooks. One of my closest friends spent her first year teaching in Daejeon where she was brought into school on the first day, given a textbook and told to go teach. These things are common.
I think the general perception of students in Korea is that they are very respectful to their teachers, they listen well and are very studious. All of that is very true if the teacher is Korean. If the teacher is a foreigner, none of that is true. They absolutely do not respect you. Very rare is the student who will actually do the homework you assign them. Rare are the students who will actually go into your class thinking it is anything other than playtime. They know you have nothing to threaten them with and that there will be no consequences for their actions. You can’t call the parents, because you don’t speak Korean. Go ahead and tell your partner teacher, he or she won’t communicate it to the parents because they don’t want to deal with it. At the very core of it, the students, for the most part, have no desire to learn English. The parents send them to an academy but they don’t want to be there.
For my third year in Seoul I was hired by a private elementary school in northeastern Seoul, what we teachers here affectionately call a “real school.” The difference is night and day from a hagwon. Instead of teaching 8 classes from noon to 8:00pm every day, I teach 4 or 5 classes, starting at 8:40am and ending between 2:00pm and 3:00pm, depending on the day. I have until 4:30pm to do any prep work that needs to be done and then I clock out. Everyone I work with has at least a year experience, most of us 2 or more, one of us 8 years. The Korean teachers have similar experience levels. The administration is much more respectful of our authority over our classes and we have complete freedom over grades and can implement the textbooks in whatever way we see fit. We do have occasional observations from the head of the English department and the principal of the school, which is understandable and, I think, completely necessary. But we are given a lot of trust and that is, for me, very much appreciated and gives me extra motivation to make my lessons the best that they can be. If I don’t think my students will respond well to how the material is presented in the textbook, I am free to develop that topic in whatever way I see fit for that given class. Just knowing that someone in a position of authority believes in me that much and it not ruled by what paying parents will think or say, has done wonders for my mental health and made me much more comfortable in class, and if I’m comfortable and confident, it translates to how well the students respond to the subject matter that is presented to them.
As far as people go, my social circle started out very small. If I remember correctly, the first school I worked for brought in 7 new teachers at the beginning of the 2009 school year and for the first 3 months or so we did nearly everything together. We all latched on to each other at the beginning because we were all making this journey for the first time, together. But then you realize the people you have things in common with, the people who are annoying, the complainers, the negative and the positive people and we all moved into groups within the school, both newbies and veterans alike. I would say out of the 15 foreign teachers at that school, I was really close with three. We did everything together. The rest we got along with but just drifted apart as we found other things in the city that interested us. But we would all hang out together on a Friday or Saturday night at our local bar, our own personal cheers, but for the most part, we split into different groups pretty early on. In fact, as I sit here and think about it, my social circle is still very small. Part of it is my personality, I’m just not that outgoing, and a part of it is how short of time most people stay here. The longer I stay the more I notice what a transient lounge the foreigner community is here. I have seen it change a little since more people are coming out here for work because there isn’t much back wherever they came from, and part of it is I’ve seen the foreigner community become more self-involved. There are plenty of sports to be involved with, hiking groups, biking groups, Bible study groups, whatever it is. Maybe I didn’t notice it my first time through but it seems that there are more and more reasons to stay.
My perception of Koreans has changed dramatically since I first arrived here. My initial impression, and one that stayed with me for a very long time, is that Koreans generally do not like foreigners. To a certain extent, that is true, especially with the older generations. Rare is the Korean who has anything good to say about the Japanese. They are also very nationalistic, very proud of their pure bloodline and very proud to be Korean. I can understand a lot of that. Feel a lot of the same things about the United States (minus the bloodline thing). Koreans are very formal, and they can seem very cold. At my very first job my partner teacher’s name was Song Soo Yoon. I got to know her well enough to where I would call her nuna (Older sister). One day I looked over at her and said “Soonuna” and she looked at me as if I had told her I just killed her grandparents. I asked her what I did wrong. She said I had to call her Soo Yoon nuna, because only her close friends would call her Soonuna. On the other hand, I hate being called Matthew, my full first name. I have always gone by Matt, but I could never get Koreans to call me that because the way we shorten names is completely foreign to them, and in their culture, only my really close friends would do that anyway. I finally had the clever idea of either introducing myself as Matt, or just telling them face to face that I hate my full name and please don’t call me that.
But as I’ve spent more time here I have come to realize that it is not so much an innate coldness towards foreigners but a shyness about their English ability, at least with the younger generations. There is so much pressure here from a very young age to be the best, to be perfect, that they are very scared of making mistakes. I’ve never once heard a Korean say that they could speak English well, no matter how fluent they are. They are very self-conscious about speaking English and it makes it hard to break through and become friends. But if you can manage it, they are some of the nicest, most helpful people you will ever meet. Just the other day I was complaining about not being able to find shoes my size here (I wear a size 14 American) and one of my Korean friends went with me as a translator to five or six different shoe shops to ask if they would special order shoes for me. I had another friend schedule me into (what I was told is) an exclusive shopping center in Gangnam usually reserved for celebrities, just so I can look for shoes.
A lot of the perceived coldness towards foreigners would be easily solved if we would take the time to learn their language. I did take classes for a while but with my work schedule, as awesome as it is, I am not able to do so because of how far away I live from any place that offers them. I have learned enough to sort of get around, order food, direct a cabbie, ask for directions, count money, basic survival stuff, but not enough of us are willing to take the time to sit down and learn. I know one teacher here who has been here close to 5 years now and can only say “hello” and “thank you” and brags about it. It is something I cannot understand. I would expect someone visiting my country for an extended period of time to learn enough English to get around, or at least make the effort. Why should we be any different?
One of my favorite things to say about Seoul is, good people don’t end up here. That includes myself. I washed up here in a storm of personal problems, job loss, depression and boredom. I never really had any desire to be a teacher at first. I came here because I was running away. Scratch the surface on most people here and you will find a similar story. We all messed up back home somehow, or didn’t fit in, drove everyone away, got into drugs, whatever it was. The best and brightest of the west don’t make it here. They stay where they belong. They may travel for a bit, maybe even a year. Not many people that actually have it together stay here for very long. We are all running away from something and found a place to fit in where we don’t belong. I can very accurately some up teaching here in a very few words: It’s not about the job. Most people come here because it’s easy money, they can get drunk and stay that way for a year and generally re-live or extend college life for another year.
All that negative stuff being said, there are so many positive things to experience here as a teacher. As much as the students treat the foreign teacher classes as play time, you do get to teach some wonderful kids. I taught at my 2ndhagwon for 19 months and I had one class that I taught the entire time. I loved that class, looked forward to teaching it every day. I loved each one of those kids as if they were my own. You have the unique experience of being able to connect with kids in a way the Korean teachers cannot because you are outside of their rules of etiquette. You can laugh and joke with them in ways the Korean teachers can’t. In short, you get to be the “fun” teacher. And even now, every day, I see or hear something that makes me laugh. I still have moments where I stop and look around and can hardly believe I am here, that this is all real and not some sort of crazy dream I’m about to wake up from. I have met a handful of teachers that I know I will be friends with for a very long time, regardless of the distances that will come between us in the future. I have become more involved in the foreigner community through club sports that Koreans also participate in and have gotten to know what it is like to live here as one of them and to help build cross cultural relationships. I think that is especially important because, even though Korean and the U.S. are allies and my country has a lot of troops stationed here, the way we civilian Americans interact with the local population is just as important for building our alliance.
Some tips for those who are thinking about teaching in Korea, or abroad anywhere. Get a CELTA. It’s expensive, it’s intense, and it is completely worth it. It will give you the tools you need to make your teaching life easier and it is well worth the money. Always be aware of the fact that you are a guest in a foreign country. Be respectful of the culture, even if you don’t understand it and curse it privately. If you’re an American, realize that we are not well liked, even in allied countries. Every encounter with a local is a chance to give a good impression and perhaps change a mind or two. Be flexible, have a sense of humor and don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s a journey, a process, keep trying and keep learning.
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