July 15, 2012 Enter your password to view comments.
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May 4, 2012 2 Comments
Last night while walking home, I realized how similar laughter and crying sound. We all thought that the woman in the car, sitting next to the man, that she was laughing. And then it dawned on us one by one, sort of at different times, like a wave rippling over a group of people, that she was crying. And crying loudly. He was beating her. He was punching her. He had her hunched over in the front seat and was punching the back of her head and body.
We all just stood there in shock for a moment. It was me and three of my coworkers and another new girl we’ve met in the neighbourhood recently. And then a Korean guy walking a few feet behind us. It was late so the streets were pretty deserted. By this time we’d all had a few drinks. We’d been out for dinner earlier. I don’t know how compromised everybody was. I know one girl had been unable to finish her beer at the last location because she was already tipsy and I was definitely feeling a good buzz. I don’t know where everyone else was at and so maybe that’s part of what slowed our reaction. But eventually it became very clear that this was a man beating a woman in a car. While driving. They were stopped at a red light and that’s why we saw them.
Eventually I yelled “hey” really loud to try and get him to stop. Or at least feel some embarrassment that he was being watched. I don’t think he even heard me. Then the light changed and they drove off. And as they drove off he was holding her by hair on the back of her head.
Later, it came up in conversation again. Just the shock we were feeling about it. It’s kind of weird to go off and sit and have drinks in front of the 7/11 (which you can do here), and try to pretend that what happened didn’t just happen. As it was brought up later, one of my coworkers mentioned that he couldn’t tell what was going in the car initially because his eyesight is so bad and he really is supposed to be wearing glasses all the time, but he doesn’t. He had actually waved to the couple in the car because he thought they were laughing and couldn’t see what was happening. Somehow that just devolved into a conversation about bad eyesight and not how piss poor our reaction was overall. That’s the funny thing about these situations–how quickly you bury them. There was an implicit group decision to not talk about it again after a point.
I felt some ridiculous, ridiculous pride in the fact that I had tried something. At least I yelled when nobody else around me did anything. Not the four other foreigners I was with, not the Korean man walking behind us looking vaguely shame faced on behalf of his fellow countryman. The most that happened with all of us was me yelling “hey” and I took some comfort in that, but it’s ridiculous to take any comfort in that because what I did was completely ineffectual. It was probably more than I would have done if I had actually been completely sober, to be honest. It was was probably more than I would have done if I had been alone and not felt some sort strange maternal need around all these people younger than me to take charge of the situation in some way. But it still wasn’t nearly enough. It wasn’t close to enough.
I don’t know if I could have done more, but I immediately felt guilty. I immediately felt like I should thrown down my shit and run over to that intersection, run into the street and pulled her out of the car. I should have gone over and at least yelled at him enough that he felt something. I should have written down the license plate number, which I started to think about doing and then I realized that I couldn’t read the Korean characters fast enough to note them as the car drove away.
Unfortunately I can imagine what happened to that woman when they got home last night. I’m sure it’s not the first time it’s happened. But it’s sick that that five people stood there and it happened again.
March 26, 2012 Enter your password to view comments.
February 16, 2012 1 Comment
January is, by definition, a month of firsts, but for me, February has been much the same. Here are some firsts that I’ve experienced in the past six weeks.
My First Sick Day I’ve avoided taking sick days for three reasons. First, my Korean co-workers never take them. My supervisor had a car accident, while pregnant and she didn’t take a full sick day. She came in and worked a half day. Granted, it was a fender bender, but still. In North America you’d go home just to mellow out after that. Not ’round these parts.
Secondly, it’s a pain in the ass for my co-workers. There are no extra bodies to cover the work load when someone is off sick or on vacation. We all just have more work to do. This means either teaching more classes, having groups of kids combined into totally unmanageable super-size classes, or both. Usually both. I’ve hated doing it so I avoid putting my colleagues through it if I can help it.
Lastly, we’re supposed to bring a doctor’s note. Besides the fact that when you’re feeling sick enough to stay home, the last thing you want to do is haul your ass out of bed to go to a doctor, the language barrier is also a potential issue. Fortunately, for the most part, doctors here speak some English because many medical text books use English terminology. Also it’s very competitive in med school so most of them try to stand out in other ways, like being impeccable English speakers. However, before you get to a doctor you have to run the gauntlet that is dealing with the nursing and admin staff.
Till now all my doctor’s appointments here have been in Seoul at the International Clinic where everyone (admin staff included) speaks English. But that’s a 4-hour round trip trek (by transit) and not feasible on a sick day. So last week I took myself to the doctor’s office on the fourth floor of the building where I work and made enough hand signals and grunts at the receptionist that she was able to figure out that I had a cold and I wanted to see a doctor. Once that was figured out, she got me to the blood pressure machine and then was horrified when I almost took off my jacket in the waiting room to reveal…a tank top.
It’s a funny thing, Korean women will wear booty shorts and skirts that are scandalously short, but they will never show off their chests. I don’t think of a tank top as showy, but I have a much bigger rack than the average Korean woman so it sort of immediately looks scandalous if I’m not dressed pretty conservatively. In any case, it was amusing how many times the nurses sought to cover me up during my visit. Eventually I managed to leave with my doctor’s note in hand. Surprisingly, it was not as stressful as I had imagined it would be.
Club Hopping I have never been one for clubbing. I have long refused to contend with coat checks in the winter so that nixed clubbing from about October to May in Toronto. And in the summer months I just sort of found other reasons not to go. Not wanting to feel like a slab of meat on sale, being the main one. But something about being in Korea has changed all that. Maybe it’s that all my friends here are younger than I am, but I doubt it. Some of them have told me that they refused to club at home too. I think it’s just this thing all we expats get caught up in where we feel free and so we do stuff we just didn’t do at home. Like taking up a martial art, visiting art galleries, cutting our hair in weird styles, wearing things we’d never wear at home, and, apparently, clubbing.
Not only have I been willing to club in the dead of winter (though admittedly the dead of winter hasn’t been that cold here), I have worn scandalously short skirts and dresses while doing so and I have let a strange man grind up against me and just kind of laughed it off rather than being mortified. In a total change of form I decided that for my 29th birthday (version 7.0) I wanted to go dancing.
Let me back up here. I need to tell the next story, in part, because it will explain how I met my new friend Kim, but mostly because I think it’s an awesome story. There are few places to get plus size clothing in Seoul and one of the most popular ones is called OK BT. OK BT has a communal dressing room. Actually, to call it a dressing room is to overstate matters tremendously. It’s a stock room that doubles as a communal dressing room. Necessarily, you bond pretty quickly with the other women in the dressing room if you speak the same language. I’ve met a lot of really lovely women in that dressing room but often they live nowhere nearby. Foreign women come from far and wide to shop there. A couple weeks ago, however, I hit the jackpot in that I met a really cool girl and she lives in Seoul, which, while not super close, is close enough. And we hit it off. She said to me: “Can we keep in touch, because you’re the first woman I’ve met in a long time who isn’t bitchy. That’s rare here.” I love her to death.
Kim is a fellow Canadian who has taught in Korea for years. She is older than me but is wonderfully young at heart. And she’s really social which is great. She turned out to be game to go dancing with me for my birthday, so she and I and another friend, Tracy, headed to Hongdae (the club district) this past weekend, in search of some places Kim had been to before. As it turned out, it’s been a while since she went dancing in Hongdae so most of the places she’d been to were gone. We ended up trying out a few places to find one that wasn’t a complete let down. Hence, my first time club hopping.
One of our stops was a place called Ska 2 which featured stripper poles that you could dance on if you felt led.
Tracy and I commented that we found it odd/horrifying. Kim said “Am I weird, I don’t find it odd at all.” She’s been in Korea for nine years. Enough said.
At the beginning of the night we asked a couple foreign guys for directions to a club called Hodge Podge (which turned out to now be a bar rather than a club) and they told us they were heading to another club if we wanted to join them. The fella who told us this had an accent so we all thought he’d said a few different things: fiat, Kia, fear, among others. We opted to keep searching for Hodge Podge though. Later that night we strolled past a place called Via and finally cottoned on that it was the same joint. We checked it out and I liked it. I only regret that we didn’t join them in the first place. They were cute.
Sexual Misadventure No I’m not pretending that I was a virgin before I got here, but when I arrived, sex just wasn’t initially a priority. Also I have turned avoiding eye contact with strange men into an Olympic event, so it’s really hard for me to get picked up. Not that men in Incheon are trying to pick me up anyway. I have to go to Seoul for that.
Eventually, however, I decided a little sexual healing might be nice. I will not get into the gory details, but I will tell you about the most hilarious road block to having sex here: condoms, or rather the lack thereof.
While men who want to get down have been plentiful once I started looking, men who come equipped with their own birth control/sexual safety devices are strangely hard to find. I have yet to see a penis that belongs to a Korean man, but rumor has it that foreign men here have a hard time fitting into Korean-made condoms. In my attempts to break my celibacy streak, I have met two men with this very issue. Unfortunately one of them did not bother to procure American-made condoms from the air force base where he works. Epic stupidity. The second managed to scrounge up some Japanese-made condoms at the convenience store, but let’s just say it was a tight fit.
Apparently, American-made condoms can be had at sex shops in the foreign district (Itaewon) and at some locations of major supermarkets like Home Plus and EMart, but no one I’ve met has bothered to make sure they had them on hand. What I’ve found amusing and horrifying is that in both cases the dudes asked me if I had any better condoms on hand. As if I’m the one with the penis in the room.
Joining Everything After months of fighting the flow, I finally conceded that a reasonable social life is only to be had by being prepared to go to Seoul regularly. And that’s not necessarily easy. Even when I’m willing to do the 4-hour round trip commute, the subway system stops running around midnight and it’s about a $35-45 cab ride to get home from Seoul. But it dawned on me that being in Seoul makes me happy in a way that hanging out in Incheon just never does. In Incheon you can eat, get shitfaced and go to norebang. That’s about it. In Seoul you can do everything else. So I started joining things.
I’ve been to a book club meeting and really enjoyed the group, even if I hated our first read (1Q84 by Haruki Murakami). I bumped into one of the girls from the club when I was out for my birthday and we hugged like we’d been friends for years. It was so neat. It was incredibly refreshing to have an intellectually stimulating and challenging conversation with a table of people. And the club is called Books and Booze–you can’t really go wrong there.
I also joined a writing collective but so far it seems like it’s defunct as the organizer is no longer able to organize. I contacted him a couple times about taking over duties for the next six months but haven’t heard from him. In the meantime some of us in the group are trying to connect and form smaller location-based groups so we’ll see if anything comes of that. However, one great thing that has come of joining this group is that I also joined their facebook page where I saw an announcement for a regular open mic night in Seoul. I went to it a couple weeks ago, read a short fiction piece and got a good reception. I’ll be going again this Sunday. While there, I also met a guy who might be able to network me into a good job for next year. So, win.
As I’ve thrown down about a zillion dollars on cameras since I got here, I’ve also been looking to find a photography club where I could improve my skills. So far, no luck, but there’s a dude who lives in my neighbourhood who’s agreed to go on some photography walks with me and teach me a thing or two. Also a win.
Lastly I’ve joined a music appreciation group that just goes and sees live music together. I’m going to a traditional Korean music concert on the 25th of this month that I think will be really cool. I’m looking forward to meeting people in that group as well.
As if to repay me for taking this leap of faith, the universe has provided me with two people (Kim being one of them) who are cool with me crashing at their places here and there if I stay in Seoul. So even more winning.
It’s taken longer than I would have liked but I feel like I’m finally starting to find “my people.” And frankly, maybe I would have been less grateful for them if I’d found them any earlier. Should I stay another year here, I feel like I’ll have a good network in Seoul already in place, which is fantastic.
This is not to say that everything is perfect right now.
Cutting My Losses One thing that’s been a real first for me is to make a decision about cutting my losses a lot more quickly. The last couple months have seen my job satisfaction take a serious dip. This was never a dream job, but the shenanigans of management have really gone into overdrive since the beginning of December.
What makes the situation harder is that this is not isolated. It’s not just one bad hagwon–it’s the hagwon system. It’s a set-up that is systemically flawed by making parents customers with almost unlimited bargaining power. Parents get mad if their kids don’t advance to the next level at the appropriate speed, even if advancing is the worst thing possible for their kid. If they feel like you’re the reason their child is not advancing they just move their kid to another hagwon. So the management is always at least as concerned with retaining the customer as they are with teaching the child–if not more so.
All that aside, it is simply not a given that your contract will be respected. In addition, all kinds of shit gets thrown at you last minute with no regard for how it affects the teacher, and thus the students.
I have vacillated between trying even harder to make this work and just phoning it in. It’s difficult though, in that, if I half-ass this, it’s not my inane managers who suffer, it’s the innocent kid in the middle who does. I’ve felt enough discouragement about the issue to prompt me to enter a short non-fiction piece in a contest about feeling like I can’t call myself a teacher at all. And then today, after having a discussion with a friend about just not giving a shit, I had some of the most engaged and successful classes I’ve had in weeks. Maybe because I didn’t give a shit? It’s hard to say. At this point I just try to take it one day at a time.
One thing I am clear on, however, is that I do not want to live in Incheon for another year and I do not want to work for a typical hagwon. I’m now starting to pound the pavement in search of a hagwon with 1) low turnover (indicating happy foreigners) that is 2) in Seoul. If I can’t find a hagwon that meets those two requirements, I won’t stay here another year. That may sound simple and reasonable to you. That’s a huge change of head space for me.
The version of me from 2010 would have given this three more years of discomfort to play out. Maybe more. Until finally conceding that continued stability wasn’t worth being miserable. The new me says “fuck that noise” and realizes that if it’s not making me happy it’s not really worth continuing to do long term. I’m not saying there isn’t a time and a place for sticking it out. This just isn’t that time or that place.
As I said, I feel like I’ve finally started to find my people and the things I enjoy about Korea, so I would like to be able to stay. I’d like to pay down more debt and have more of a chance to travel. But whether I leave here after a year or I stay for five, I will do it with no regrets. To be thinking that way is an enormous first for me.
As I said, things are not perfect, but for now, it’s really cool to be having so many firsts.
January 19, 2012 8 Comments
It’s been a long time since I wrote about anything relating to the actual name of this blog, but a couple incidents in class this week begged to be retold.
Korea is so different from North America in so many ways, it’s impossible to talk about all of them, but I’ll talk about one. People go out of their way to avoid confronting you directly about issues that could bear some conversation, but will hasten to say things to you that just don’t need saying. Like the time one of my students intoned that I needed to go on a diet, or the time a random lady walking by me in a subway station looked over at me and made a gesture to indicate the largeness of my belly or all the other entirely un-subtle indicators I’ve been given that I am waaaay larger than the Korean idea of normal. And I’ve lost weight since I’ve been here. It’s just always open season here on letting you know that you could stand to drop a few. Younger, hipper Koreans won’t tend to do it, but the sorta old and the very young will. With my elementary students, the youngest ones will say things utterly guilelessly. The ones old enough to know better won’t dare say it to me, but I’ll tell you what they do.
In one of my classes on Monday, we finished the lesson a little early so I let them play Hang Man while I finished some marking. Usually I control such games in a pretty draconian manner but I decided to relax and let the kids run the game. One of the boys asked if he could write a whole sentence instead of just a word and I said sure, as long as he could keep track of the spelling. As the sentence started to materialize on the board behind me, I saw one of the girls’ names, Dina, was part of the solution. I realized blessedly quickly that it was going to be a disparaging comment about her weight, so I shut the game down and gave the boy who’d started the puzzle a bit of a verbal lashing.
The boys in that class constantly go for the jugular with Dina, calling her pig or just otherwise making comments on her size. In addition to being a little heavy (not much, mind you) she’s one of the tallest people in the class and is very likely to just lengthen out someday–assuming she doesn’t fall into some death spiral of eating her emotions and actually end up with a real weight problem. But for the moment, she’s significantly bigger than everyone in that class, male or female.
In another class that same day, I had the kids working on a series of chain stories. Each student wrote a sentence to begin a story and then left their notebook open on a desk. All the students then wandered the room adding sentences to every book to create a story. It’s one of the few times that the kids have an opportunity to be creative so I was letting them write down just about anything that popped into their heads. I participated as well and, incidentally, a lot of stories centered around my dying, going to hell, farting or otherwise coming off less than positively. As I wandered over to one book the boy writing clamped down his hands so I couldn’t see what was on the page. When he finally left, I took a look and it was a long sentence about one of the girls in class and how she is so big, with her proposed weight in kg and some indication that she’s a bad person as well.
This particular girl, Jenny, is one I actually worry about a little. I’ve had her in at least one of my classes for as long as I’ve been working at the school. She’s a bigger girl who’s a bit boyish. She’s got a sweet core but she’s a bit hapless and her way of coping with that is to be overly aggressive. In an essay about her best friends, she wrote repeatedly that her friends were all pretty and thin and that she was fat and ugly. Now every girl may feel this way in 5th grade but I get the impression she feels a bit more keenly because she gets that direct feedback from the other kids. In a bid to be “the teacher who changes her life” I wrote in the comments of that essay that I thought she was pretty. I’m fairly sure it had zero effect.
When I saw the sentence I erased it and told the boy it wasn’t appropriate. Even when the sentence was erased though, two of the girls hovered over the paper trying to make out what had been there before and as they were deciphering it, read it loudly enough for Jenny to overhear. She is usually hard to control in a classroom but that knocked the wind out of her sails for a while. Which just hurt my heart.
In both cases, the boys doing the teasing are not ones I consider to be the worst of the pack by any means. In fact, the boy in the writing class is one of the brightest, hardest working, most well-behaved, and nicest students I have. Also in both of these classes, there are boys who are a little fluffy around the edges as well but they don’t catch flack for it at all–maybe because they lack the height to stand out.
While I didn’t have a full on flashback in the classroom or anything, all this did remind me of the unpleasantness of my teenaged years being around a mother who had me terrified that I might get fat and convinced that nothing in life could be worse. I was actually a perfectly reasonable size for my age if incredibly buxom, but I managed to think I was fat for all the years that I wasn’t, until I actually got fat. Now as a fat adult, I deal with North Americans who have a purely aesthetic problem with fatness attempting to render their dislike righteous with a pretense at caring about the health of random fat folks and concerns about the beleaguered health care system that they suddenly have so much concern about, or Koreans who just don’t have any filter. I know what mental gymnastics I have to do to try to not eat my emotions, to focus on being healthy at my current weight (and not go on crash diets to become “acceptable”) and to like myself as I am. But I wasn’t equipped to do those mental gymnastics as a teenager, and as 11 and 12-year-olds, I highly doubt these girls in my classes are equipped to do so either. I have no idea how they’ll be affected by the taunts they’re dealing with right now. I hope they’ll fare better than I did. But whose to say? They are both beautiful girls and I really hope they figure that out if they don’t know that now.
A couple things are for damn sure: kids are cruel no matter where they’re born and it still isn’t safe to be a big girl.
January 4, 2012 4 Comments
I was told by a fellow who had taught in Korea for about 10 years, that Koreans consider the employment contract the “beginning of negotiations, not the end.” I didn’t believe him. I was an idiot.
I’ve heard horror stories of people not being paid on time or at all, unlivable accommodations or a work load that bore only a vague resemblance to their contracted workload. I know two teachers who are treated shamefully by the Korean staff at their school because they agitated about getting *half* of their contracted lunch break. I have suffered nothing like that. The company I work for has a chain of schools and is a multimillion dollar enterprise, so getting paid has never been a problem. My initial accommodations were fine but then I was moved a few weeks ago (albeit incredibly inconveniently–I was told Thursday at 9:45pm to be ready to move by Friday at 1:00pm) to a much better, newer, cleaner apartment with an eat-in kitchen and heat that works properly. Definitely a win. My workload hasn’t ever been out of control (though I can’t say the same for all the teachers here–there’s one middle school teacher, Mike, who teaches a third more classes than almost anyone on staff). Mostly I don’t have any contract issues but a couple things have come up: working hours and vacation time.
According to my contract I work Monday to Friday 2:30-10:30. In real life I now work some Saturdays as well. The middle school department doesn’t have enough foreign teachers (or teachers period, it seems) and so instead of being allowed to hire another teacher, the director is trying to cut costs by using the manpower he has on the ground. At first they (I say “they” because our director doesn’t speak any English so it’s never clear who’s making decisions) tried to wrangle one of us foreign teachers into working every Saturday for three months and we all balked at that. We don’t have much of a social life apart from the weekends and working every Saturday would effectively cut all of us off from most of the other people we’ve met in Korea. So we managed to push back a bit and say we would rotate the schedule so each of us worked one or two Saturdays a month. The $15 an hour (or something like that) we’ll be paid really doesn’t compensate for the hole that’s blown into prime weekend time though.
Vacation time is another weird issue. Contractually we all get 10 vacation days with 3 of those being during the time when the school is closed for summer break. So essentially you’re left with 7. But you can’t take any more than 3 days at a time. So unless you can combine them with a holiday it really doesn’t give you a lot of time to go anywhere far. One of my colleagues asked to take off her 3 days in conjunction with the Lunar New Year only to have the director say no, based on the fact that the kids would be doing term testing. I don’t know if he’s been paying attention but that’s actually the easiest time to have a teacher away because we don’t need all of the staff on duty to do the testing. We actually all got a free day off during the last testing period. Eventually he reversed his decision and said yes but that took three weeks while the cost of her plane ticket increased steadily. Watching that craziness unfold I’m not sure if I should bother trying to book vacation time or just avoid the debacle and make sure that I get paid out for it at the end of my contract.
These aren’t massive encroachments but I do fear that the fact that we’ve kind of “taken it” on these issues means it’s going to get worse in the next seven months. At just under five months in we’ve already been pushed on this stuff and I wonder how much more we’ll let them push on. It doesn’t feel like we have much leverage though. If we want to work elsewhere and we break our contracts we do need the school to sign a release to move our visa to another employer. It doesn’t seem like breaking one’s contract is a great idea unless you plan to leave the country. At the end of the day threatening to quit does seem to be one’s only recourse and that would be pretty financially risky for me (read: disastrous) so there’s not much point in my making a threat on which I can’t or won’t follow through.
I’m not up nights worrying about how things will go for the next seven months. But maybe some nights I fall asleep more slowly wondering what things will be like by the time I leave this place…
That last sentence was actually written about a week ago. I started drafting this post around December 15th and I still felt the same way on December 27th, even after the text-book writing insanity (producing multiple 25-page texts in a week during Christmas). But I’m adding to this post because today they managed to finally push enough to piss me off. Not just annoy me or irritate me, but royally piss me off.
As of this week we start a month of classes during which the kids are on vacation from school. We start earlier in the day and offer extra classes (the ones we had to write the texts for–oh and the Korean staff just photocopied their pages out of existing books–nice job). Our schedule for this month is 1:00-9:00pm which I actually prefer. I find it easier to get to bed at a reasonable hour even if I have less time in the morning to get things done. I was here for this type of work load and schedule in the summer so I know what’s coming and I’m ready for it.
When I came in today I saw the lead (Korean) middle school teacher, James, talking extensively to the lead (Korean) elementary teacher, Cathy (to whom I generally report). As soon as I saw that I thought “that’s not a good thing.” And I say that because James is a manager of the worst type. He teaches fewer classes than any of his staff but doesn’t seem to make up the extra time doing anything to support his staff. The one foreign teacher who works full time in middle school, Mike, teaches about 28 classes a week compared to about 20 for all the other–read Korean–middle school staff. Two of us elementary foreign teachers have had to cover some middle school classes during the week and all of us are pitching in on Saturdays and still, James sees no reason to increase his own workload. He’s the guy who yells at teachers for letting out students five minutes early when he’s the one who gave you a schedule with incorrect times. He’s the guy who seems to genuinely enjoy meting out corporal punishment with the kids. While most Koreans avoid conflict like the plague as a cultural thing, this guy is just kind of a two-faced asshole. He’s worked for years outside of Korea so he gets foreigners better than most, but he certainly doesn’t act like it.
Anyway, I saw them conversing at 1:00pm and heard nothing so I forgot about it. At 9:00pm, as we’re all getting on the elevator to leave, Mike tells the rest of us foreign staff that we’re now expected to come in from 12:30-9:00 for the month, as of tomorrow. This is what that conversation between Cathy and James was about. Already seething, I asked why. The reasoning: we need more prep time.
Really? See that’s funny because no one asked me about my prep time needs. I came in early on Monday, of my own volition, to prep because we weren’t given our new class schedule until 9:30 Thursday night last week (we weren’t in on Friday) so there was no time to plan for Monday’s classes. But I haven’t come in early for the past two days because I haven’t needed to. For James to suddenly start deciding my prep time needs when it means I have to now work more hours, makes no bloody sense to me. And the fact that Cathy knew all this at 1:00pm this afternoon but avoided the conflict all day, telling Mike to tell us as we’re walking out the door, utterly chaps my ass.
I think when I wrote the first part of this post, part of my fear was that that I’d never push back on anything; that I’d walk away from this experience feeling as pushed around as I have felt my entire life. I think I feared that I’d end this year feeling as powerless as I’ve always felt in every conflict situation. And the first couple times that they pushed on the contract and I didn’t come out swinging, made me feel a little freaked out inside. I wondered if I wasn’t so much “picking my battles” as much as just avoiding a scary conflict. But what I’d forgotten was that I have a deep, deep well of rage that tells me when I need to push back. A rage that sometimes comes in very, very handy. And one of those times is now.
So my plan is to talk to James and Cathy tomorrow and sort this shit out. Because that half hour is worth more than $7.50 to me. One of my foreign colleagues has kind of backed away from the whole thing–ironic, since she’s the one staff member who has commitments every day before work and if the schedule starts any earlier she’s screwed. But I’ve started to get the impression she likes conflict even less than Koreans do. The other foreign elementary teacher was screaming bloody murder with me all the way home tonight about this issue and then texted me later to say he didn’t think this was a battle we should pick. I think his sudden fear comes from the fact that, even though he thinks he led the charge to make sure we didn’t have to work every Saturday, he didn’t, and this would really be the first battle that we’ve picked (though amusingly, he was gung ho about my talking to the Korean lead teachers solo). I texted back that I’d be certain to mention that I was only speaking for myself.
I’m not sure what I’ll do tomorrow. Maybe I’ll wimp out or maybe I’ll go in guns blazing. Ideally I’ll calmly draw a line in the sand and they’ll respect it even if they don’t respect me. One thing I think I can say with sad certainty, I’m sure this won’t be the last attempt at a breach of contract.
December 20, 2011 2 Comments
I have a rare break between classes and I should really be working on the 25-30 page student text I’ve suddenly been asked to whip up in a week (uhm, colour me stressed out), but it’s impossible not to write about current events here on the peninsula.
Unless you’ve had your head firmly lodged in your behind for the past couple days, you know that Kim Jong-il, the illustrious “Dear Leader” of North Korea, died on Saturday (though the news was not reported in North Korean state media until Monday). When friends from North America asked me what the mood was like here yesterday, I wrote back basically “seems like no one gives a shit.” But I was dead wrong.
What was actually happening was my lack of Korean rearing its ugly head. How do you know if you’re missing water cooler talk if you can’t actually understand what’s being said around the water cooler? If I was at home and something like this happened, I’d be able to understand snippets of conversation around me and I’d get a much better sense of the “vibe,” but here I can’t get a vibe at all.
Also, I haven’t plugged in my TV since I got here. When I was back in Toronto, the news on TV was the background noise to my getting ready for work in the morning or fixing my dinner at night. Sometimes I’d even catch a few minutes before Letterman. Without news being pushed to me by way of the TV, I forget to go looking for it. And when you don’t check the news you miss a lot.
I realized this morning though, that I can ask pointed questions and when I ask enough questions of enough people I might start to get a vague sense of the mood here. And the vague sense I’ve gotten is one cautious relief/low-level anxiety.
People are not running in the streets freaking out and I actually saw a soldier calmly enjoying a meal yesterday while I was out at lunch. There is a sort of happy relief that Kim Jong-il is gone. But there’s definitely a little bit of anxiety about the unknown quantity that is his son Kim Jong-un. Maybe the passing of the father will leave the son free to throw open the doors of the isolated nation, or maybe it’ll just be same old, same old. Or, and this is where the anxiety comes in, the son will feel the need to rattle his sabre hard enough to cause a real conflict between the two nations.
To a certain extent none of these questions are likely to get answered until after the funeral on the 28th of December. Right now North Korea is ostensibly in mourning for their Dear Leader. After that though, it’s anyone’s guess. For my part, that second year of teaching in Korea I was planning on suddenly seems a lot less certain.
December 1, 2011 3 Comments
I realized during my walk this morning that it’s been far too long since I posted about my students. We start a new term tomorrow though, so this seems like an appropriate time to write a tribute of sorts to the kids who have inspired, amused and driven me nuts for the past three months.
As I mentioned in a previous post, most of the elementary students choose an English name and some of those names are all kinds of awesome. Some are spectacular choices while others are just spectacular failures. Some kids choose a name and then never bother to check into common spellings for that name. They proceed to spell the name both incorrectly and strangely and will not budge when you suggest a more common spelling. Some kids simply can’t pronounce their English names very well and I’ve spent a lot of time in classes having a student repeat their name over and over again, only to realize it’s something really basic like Brad or Amy. What I find super odd is their propensity to choose names that include sounds that don’t exist in Korean. Most kids find the consonant sound “v” difficult to say but lo and behold there’s an Elvin in one of my classes (and no he will not spell his name “Alvin”). The letter “r” is also a challenge and yet there are no shortage of Rachels, Richards and Brians.
I find all of this so amusing that I’ve actually picked my three favourite English names out of my 40-odd students.
In third place, Rubby. This is one of my favourites mostly because the child in question considers her name to be “Ruby.” When I first read her name on an attendance sheet it was well after I’d heard her pronounce her name aloud so I assumed I was seeing a typo. Not so much. I soon noticed that whenever she handed in work, “Rubby” was emblazoned across the top of it. I conceded defeat. I won’t lie though; I chuckle “rubby” to myself when I’m marking pretty often.
The runner up, Captain. Do I really need to say anything about this? He’s a cool kid with an even cooler name. He makes me want to name my future son Captain. I also like to call him “Cap-i-tane” when the mood strikes. He seems to enjoy it. I’m not sure if his name entirely suits him or not, but he takes the prize for sheer cool factor.
And the winner: Yetty! Now Yetty is probably my very brightest student. So bright that she’s being moved to a level in which she’s the only student in the class. I’ll be teaching her again (yay!!). She knows what a Yeti is. She still rocks the name. She used to actually have another far more conventional English name but she decided it was too common, too plain. She wanted something unique, so she cast off Sally and took up Yetty. She has, by far, the most amusing and yet awesome name of all my students.
In a sea of Kevins, Sallys, Jennys, Lenas (not sure why that’s so common), Kellys, and Harrys, and at least one kid who asks to be called Harry Potter specifically, there are also some stand out selections that impressed me when I first heard them. In no particular order they are:
Tomorrow I get a crop of new kids. Who knows what names await!
November 10, 2011 4 Comments
My dear and beloved readers, I apologize for my hiatus from the blogosphere. I’ve been all kinds of busy about all kinds of things, but it’s high time you got an update. The last few posts before my long silence seemed to be all about one crisis or another. Well here’s what happened with all those crises.
First up, the neighbours. It took a month, but things have almost normalized. When I went to work the Monday after that fateful night, one of the guys who had been at that rocking party, Rick, went out of his way to make sure we were on speaking terms. It wasn’t the apology I had hoped for but it was something, so I accepted the olive branch. Mike, the neighbour that I work with, though, well he wasn’t speaking to me. A couple days later I realized I had been suffering from raging PMS the night that the whole thing went down, so I hoped that maybe the absence of crazy-making hormones would help relations improve. (I’ve since downloaded a period tracking app on my iPhone–it warns me when the PMS is coming!) Just as I was starting to think things might be okay, a week later these signs appeared on my neighbours’ door:
Assuming this was directed at me, I was horrified. I stopped making any effort to speak with Mike at work after that. Then I eventually found out the signs were directed at someone else entirely. While I still think the signs are pretty awful (and a month later they’re still up), it was a relief to know they weren’t for me. With stops and starts Mike and I managed to get back to being friendly with one another at work–helpful since he sits right next to me. As I still haven’t been in their place since all of this went down, I haven’t actually seen the other neighbour, Sam (who no longer works with us), but we’ve communicated by text once and it seems the waters have calmed. I’m still treading lightly and I doubt things will ever be quite like they were before–but I kinda think that might be a good thing anyway. And they certainly haven’t woken me up since then.
In unqualified foreign teacher news, Mona is supposedly out of a job as of December 1st. While it sucks for her, it’s good for the kids and the rest of us teachers. In the last week or so I’ve gone from assuming that most of the trouble she was having on the job was about her lack of English skills, to realizing she just isn’t terribly bright. We had to do testing on all the kids this past week so we foreign teachers had a meeting just to ensure that we were all grading by the same standards to keep it fair. Since there is some pressure to maintain enrollment we discussed the fact that we really need to grade on a bit of a curve. This idea could not–COULD NOT–be understood by Mona. It was mind boggling that we couldn’t get her to see the shade of gray we were going for on this–she kept seeing the black and white of “pass all the kids,” or “fail every kid who could possibly be failed.” No in between. It was baffling. So no, she will not be missed.
Having said all that, I’m happy to report that this did not become my problem because Mona and I had a frank talk about a month ago. I finally told her that she needed to stop acting like I was some sort of human job/life handbook. She wasn’t too thrilled to hear that from me and seemed genuinely shocked and hurt which made me feel like a total shit for waiting so long to tell her this. It was tense for about 24 hours, but then we bumped into each other on the elevator to the office a couple days later and all seemed well. She even claimed that I looked like I’d lost weight. She clearly knows the way to my heart.
While she can still manage to get under my skin, she doesn’t ask me nearly as many questions. She spreads the pain around a bit more too. It also seems like my not being so angry with her all the time has caused everyone else to kind shift a bit in their attitude towards her. I’m not really sure of why that is–maybe they know that I won’t Hulk out if she’s around so it’s not such a big deal to have her around? In any case, this shift was good because the night she found out she wasn’t long for this job, we all felt enough compassion to go out for drinks with her and stay out until 3:00am. I think if I hadn’t been honest with her before that, I wouldn’t have felt enough compassion to even be civil let alone social. In addition to all of this I’m not walking around in a vein-busting rage all day at work which is a nice change of pace.
So remember that book club I talked about starting? Well I did it, but it’s not quite what I had hoped for thus far. At the moment there are three of us, with a possibility of a fourth. I met the first two members, let’s call them Jack and Diane, a couple weeks ago and we chose a book. Jack and I both thought it best to meet in a couple weeks to give us all time to read the book, but Diane insisted that we meet in a week, citing boredom. I reluctantly agreed and so we met this past Saturday with the plan to do a review of the first two chapters of the book. I had a bit of a rough week so I had to wake up early Saturday morning to read those chapters. I realized they were quite short and assumed everyone else would have gotten farther in, so I hurried through the first 50 pages…only to find that Jack had read nothing and Diane–oh she of boredom–had read *two* pages. Then we spent four hours waiting for Jack’s friend, who might join the club, to meet up with us. While socializing is nice I was a little annoyed and to be deadly honest, I’m not sure I enjoy spending time with these folks enough to do it without a book to discuss! And the point of all this was to meet kindred spirits. I can read books all on my own really. I figure I’ll give this a couple books to come together and turn into either a good, solid book discussion group or a good, solid social group. If one of those things doesn’t take place, I may choose to spend my Saturdays otherwise engaged.
You may recall my griping and whining about not knowing the language. Well I enlisted the help of a Korean teacher and she has turned out to be batshit crazy. Alright highly, highly eccentric. Initially I thought I had scored with someone who was fluent in both English and Korean but she is proper nuts as a friend puts it. And she’s also not very good at this gig. She just sort of sits next to me in a cafe and rushes me through a text book at the speed of light. At first I thought, “well at least she’ll be like a warm body to keep me accountable,” but she doesn’t even achieve that, and I haven’t the energy to tell her how to do her job. And you know, she’s batshit crazy.
Also, strangely, I’ve felt a lot less urgent about learning the language in the last few weeks. I’d still like to pick up enough to function with ease, but I realized that suddenly it’s not my main priority anymore. I think I realized how well I could function once I stopped being so anxious and got more confident in my ability to make myself somewhat understood. I’d like to do more traveling and sightseeing and writing and picture-taking and friend-making, but I’m not sure I’m that interested in spending a lot of time on language study at the moment. I’m gonna give my teacher the heave ho this weekend after my lesson tomorrow. Yeah, I’m too much of a wimp to do it in person–she’ll get a nicely worded e-mail or phone call.
Lastly, there is another thing I do need to be a lot more focused on which has taken up a bunch of my head space, and that’s my health. I went to the doctor with one symptom–painfully, chronically (well since June) swollen feet. He did a bevy of tests and found that I am borderline anemic, on the edge of osteoporosis, deficient in vitamin D and suffering from mild arteriosclerosis. The first three are not so bad; I take iron and A LOT of vitamin D and a fair bit of calcium. The last one though, that’s a doozy. Apparently I have stiff arteries and that causes poor circulation which causes my feet to swell. My weight and standing on my feet for work exacerbates this. The swelling has put some of my shoes off limits–I simply can’t fit into them. A friend went to the trouble of shipping me my favorite heels only to discover when I tried to put them on for a party, that I can’t get into them. The doctor had me on diuretics to begin with but you can’t take those forever, so the long term remedy is to exercise, drink lots of water and lose weight. Yeah, cause exercising and losing weight are easy.
This turn of events has been overwhelming to say the least and I can’t describe how frustrating/annoying/disheartening it is to see my feet constantly look loaves of bread. I actually used to think of my feet as two of my most attractive physical features and now they have utterly failed me. The exercise is up and down but coming. However my feet have not responded quickly at all. I go back and see the doctor again in about a month and hopefully there will have been some improvement by then. For now I grit my teeth and keep working at it.
This post is getting lengthy so I’ll end it here for the moment. But don’t fret, I’m just brimming with things to say so you won’t have to wait long for another one. And in case you thought “Headline News” was made up song title, think again.