Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Lonely Hearts' Club

I so love commune's, the small bar/hangout in central Daegu that serves as a watering hole where the foreign teacher crowd gathers. Amid the layers of neon glare in the streets of Jungangno, commune's waits with its blue sign and lowercase English: "commune's lonely hearts club." I went back last night. I can definitely see Wednesday nights there being a regular thing. Last night I stayed later than the week before and talked to a bunch of people. The place really fills up later in the evening.

The owner, who speaks English (like, really speaks it) plays the best music ever on a sound system linked to his computer, and you can sit there at the bar and request good stuff and he'll pull it right up. I spent some time with a couple of guys (one Irish, one American) who have been teaching English for years in various countries. They have great taste in music and we found a lot of common ground, everything from Bob Dylan and Neil Young through U2 and Radiohead to the Killers and the Decembrists. It was a great evening with fabulous conversation about music, life, love, Korea, and anything else important we could think of.

There were other fun people around, too. There was even a funny moment when one guy said he loves his job and I said I didn't imagine I would ever utter that exact statement in the course of this year. He asked where I work and when I told him he said, "Oh!" His girlfriend worked for a different branch of my school when she first came here, three years ago, and she quit after six months and found a better job at a different school. She has been happy as a clam ever since. My school has a bit of a reputation, it seems.

Now, I suppose I should count my blessings that I'm at a reputable place that's not totally illegitimate or shady, or that doesn't pay the teachers on time, or something like that. Still, it's hard not to envy someone making close to the same salary to work 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. (as opposed to my 10:30 or 11:00 to 8:30). There's a whole network of people who put in their year at a brutal school or a frustrating one, then find a great gig and never look back. I can see where this teaching English abroad thing can be really addictive. Will I re-up at the end of this year, you are asking yourself? That shall not be revealed at this time...

Today at work I was chatting with one of my Canadian co-workers. He and his wife have been staying out of the "scene" here (expats in general and foreign teachers in particular). In one way, it's a lot easier for the marrieds, because they can be a world unto themselves. He pointed out that they don't have to seek out communication, social life, English-speaking, lifestyle, etc., because it's all found in each other. He also said he's wary of the way the expat scene often turns into a bitch-and-moan fest about what's wrong with Korea, our jobs, and so forth. I am wary that, too, especially because I never imagined I'd be that. But I can't deny that it does feel really good at times to talk to people who understand exactly what I'm going through.

I won't get into all the frustrating things about the job right now. I'm still working it all out, of course. Most of my classes are starting to gel. I'm beginning to understand the interpersonal dynamics of the staff. Oh, pesky office politics!

This week (my sixth, amazingly) was far better than the last two, although my pre-school would not sit still or shut up for more than about thirty seconds at a time. I guess they felt they did their part being quiet last week when I was sick in the throat and for two days had practically no voice. Nah, they probably can't recall what happened ten minutes ago, let alone last week. Oh, I'm kidding! I adore my pre-school! But they need some serious help in the sharing and cooperating department, so I'm trying to work those into my curriculum.

My least favorite class this week was still the level 10 eleven-year-olds. They sunk to a low point last week and are not interested in rising any time soon. Three of the boys are bored studying English and have decided to act up big time. They can get really nasty. I haven't decided the best way to approach it. I'm thinking about the To Sir With Love method of treating them like adults so I can expect them to behave like adults. They're so far beyond the baby games with which I entertain lower levels. Still, they're not adults, or even teenagers like Sidney Poitier had. Plus, he spoke (pretty much) the same language as his students. My problem students think English is hard and boring, and they stop trying to listen, even though they're advanced enough to understand more than they will let themselves.

Meanwhile, one of my favorite classes is turning out to be the one that was just plain awful the first couple of weeks! It's a level 8 class of nine- and ten-year-old boys. Now, they are some seriously maniacal little hooligans, but oh, how they've grown on me! They love to beat each other up and speak in Korean, but their English comprehension is fantastic. The Korean teacher who formerly taught that class with me left (she had given her notice and left this job about three weeks after I started), and she was part of the problem, arguing back to them in Korean and just generally approaching it as, "I can't control them, they won't speak English, they don't understand." As soon as I found out that another Korean teacher with whom I teach four classes and am pretty friendly was taking over that hooligan class, I was so happy! We have transformed it in a couple of weeks. They are still crazy, but their participation has done an about face. I think they're really good kids at heart.

Teaching. Sometimes I like it; most of the time it is just so tiring! (It probably doesn't help that I get very little nourishment here.) I teach eight classes on Monday and Wednesday, five on Tuesday and Thursday, and seven on Friday. Pre-school is every day from 11-12. Other classes meet M-W-F or T-Th, except my one-on-one conversation tutoring session that is just twice a week, M-W. That one-on-one would be the best part of my week if I weren't so tired but the time I drag myself in there at 7:30 p.m. Then there are the dastardly notebooks of lesson plans, the great void into which hours of our days are sucked. We also have a weekly meeting on Tuesday, a project on Thursday, and telephone teaching sessions. Telephone teaching consists of calling our students at home to get them speaking English outside the classroom. It's just a few questions, but at 2-5 minutes per student the time adds up.

Also, phone teaching pretty much has to be done in the evening, so don't count on getting out of there before nine on days when you have a lot of kids to reach. The great part is the initial conversation of getting the student on the phone. I've learned to say in Korean, "Hello. This is Linda teacher. Is Joey home?" When the answer is no, it just spirals downward from there. It helps if they're at taekwando (we can make out that word!) and some parents can say, "Uh, no, Gina piano. Nine clock." But sometimes it's just a string of Korean to which I say, "OK, no Patty?" and then "Thank you" in Korean. It's a good time.

All three of the Canadians I work with (not sure about the Brit) plan to be teachers when they return home. It's a little bit better paying and frankly a better respected job in Canada than in the States. I'm not so sure. I think I still like teaching and training, but this job makes me think if I never stand in front of another classroom the rest of my life I'll be just fine with that. My supervisors think I'm better with the older students than the young ones. I completely agree (with the exception of pre-school). Many days I wish I were teaching adults. That's yet another reason I like the one-on-one: it's with an adult, the branch manager of the bank that's in our building. His bank was bought by an American bank, so he's coming to us to improve his conversational English.

But the smart kids are so wonderful! As are the ones who behave. As for the communication problems between the Korean teachers and the foreign teachers, they're an inherent part of this system, really. I am starting to see that what we perceive as ridiculous behavior, insensitivity, or oblivion is so often insecurity about speaking English to us. I mean, this is their actual job, not some "finding myself" year abroad. They are clearly investing themselves in teaching English and have worked really hard at studying and mastering it, and then we just blow in and are probably seen as pretty cavalier. No matter how much they've worked and accomplished with the English language, they will still make mistakes and they know it.

I was talking with an assistant director about this when she did my evaluation/class discussions last week. She is really cool and confident, even though her English is nowhere near perfect, and she told me a lot of them are almost afraid to speak to the five of us (English Native Teachers) sometimes, whereas we're over here perceiving it as, "Why don't they ever tell us what's going on?!" Oh, life is so interesting.

I kind of wish my fellow foreign teachers weren't so irritated by the Korean teachers all the time. We're all just human beings, you know? We're all in this together.

Speaking of forgetting that other people are humans, I haven't heard too much about W's Asian sojourn. I heard some of his buttering up of Japan, and I know he's got issues with China, but I haven't heard much about Korea other than that "the North" is on the agenda in addition to APEC.

When I read the Korean proclamation of independence a few days ago, I was struck by a line that in 1919 referred to Korea and Japan, and which I was thinking about vis-a-vis the U.S. and Iraq today amid questions of "should we stay or should we go?" But I suppose it could refer to a whole host of situations:

"Ought not the way of courage be to correct the evils of the past by ways that are sincero[sic], and by true sympathy and friendly feeling make a new world in which the two peoples will be equally blessed?"
--the proclamation, written in stone in Seoul's Tapgol Park

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