Happy December! The school year is almost over. One more month plus that weird week for graduation and then we’re done!
The following is a guest post by my friend Mike.* (Names have been changed.) Mike’s perspective is especially interesting in that he is a vegetarian and did not particularly enjoy his time in Korea. Since writing this post, Mike has completed his 1 year contract and moved on. If you’re looking to teach in Korea, it’s always nice to read as many different perspectives as you can.
This is Mike’s story:
I’m Mike and I’ve lived in Korea for 10 and a half months now. No, this isn’t my opening statement for Korea Anonymous, but I do have some confessions before I get into this. Confession 1: I’ve never written a blog piece before so apologies for this. Confession 2: I am a (strict) vegetarian, and as such I am on the periphery of Korean social culture which invariably centres around food and restaurants. This has no doubt had some considerable effect on my ability to integrate into Korean society, and certainly affects my views of life in Korea. Confession 3: Before this, I wrote a 3 page rant about Korea… I was trying to write this blog post and it just developed into a looooong, rambly rant.
I consider myself somewhat well traveled. I’ve visited around 30 countries across 4 different continents so far, and I’ve liked all but two of the countries I’ve visited; Bulgaria and Korea.
In fairness Korea is the country I have spent the longest time in outside of my home country, and therefore I’m bound to find more negatives than I would on a 2 week holiday. Also, this is the first country I’ve worked in outside of the UK (excluding volunteer work), so again that is bound to colour my views somewhat.
Teaching in Korea is very different to teaching back home. Besides the obvious difference which is that back home I am trusted and respected in my own right as a teacher, whereas in Korea I’m not technically a teacher. Only a Guest Teacher. No doubt my teaching experience in the UK has helped me here, but at times it is almost irrelevant. For example, in the UK I speak to my students a lot, develop strong relationships and it is through those relationships I manage behaviour. In Korea, no English equals minimal relationships equals difficult behaviour management.
There is a philosophical incongruity between the approach towards students in the UK and Korea. Korean education is dog-eat-dog. Kids sink or swim. You’re SEN? Sorry, sit at the back. This one jars on me the most. I have a lot of experience working with SEN kids, and the lack of support they receive in Korea breaks my heart. These poor kids don’t stand a chance. Throughout my teacher training I was taught to care for children, to differentiate lessons, to provide additional support to the weakest students so they can access the learning material. Korea expects students to keep up and achieve regardless of personal background, disability or any other factors. I dislike this approach. It seems cold, hard and does not enable kids to reach their full potential.
Discipline in Korean schools is another big issue for me. Physical punishments are common in the schools I work in, and verbal assaults on individual students seems an almost daily occurrence. What message does it send when a 50 year old man is screaming, screaming, at a 14 year old kid for 20 minutes straight?! A number of teachers seem to lack the emotional control that they themselves should be teaching these pubescent teenagers.
I’ve been here almost a year, and I have to say I couldn’t really explain Korean culture too well. There is a clear hierarchy. That much I know. I’ve been told it is a hierarchy based on showing respect, but as the saying goes, shit flows downhill. If you’re the new guy at work, you’re screwed. Respect doesn’t come into it. This is a country where I have heard stories of bosses yelling at employees in public places, forcing highly skilled workers to do maintenance work, embarrassing and belittling those at the bottom of this hierarchy. I don’t see the respect.
Food-wise, Korea is a very difficult place to be Vegetarian, which is a shame as much of Korean social culture centres around food; Hweshiks, Food festivals, snack time. It’s rude to reject gifts of food, and it’s hard to avoid offending people if you’re vegetarian as 95% of Korean dishes are non-veggie. It’s difficult to keep a smile on your face when taken out for lunch and ordered 2 different meat dishes before being sent home and told it’s impossible to eat here… It’s difficult when even non-Koreans socialise at food places and you have to choose between awkwardly perching around a BBQ stuffed full of meat, or sitting home alone for the evening bored out of your mind. It’s tough. Practically, and mentally, it’s tough.
Much of the difficulty comes from the Korean culture of deception or trying to please people (I’m never sure which one it is). Not being told the full truth, being deliberately or accidentally lied to and having difficult questions go unanswered are some of the major issues I have with the culture and the work environment. Just be honest with me. Please! It is an issue that affects me food-wise, with a number of meals having to be left uneaten, but also a work issue. I don’t know when lessons will be cancelled, so I waste time planning them. I don’t know what my co-teachers don’t know, or if they know the answer and are lying to me to avoid giving me an answer I don’t want to hear.
What do I like about Korea?
Hmmm… I like how there are some incredibly nice people, like the guy who pulled over after my first day at my village school and offered to drive me home. He didn’t speak a word of English and drove me 30 minutes home, asking for directions at least 10 times before taking me close to my door. Top bloke!
I like the wifi everywhere. I like Seoul. I like the terrible English slogans on t-shirts that they wear proudly. I like the kids that know these are terrible English slogans and use them regularly in class for a giggle. “I’m fine-apple” being a common response to “how are you?” . I like that kids around the world can make me laugh, regardless of language barriers. I like that I meet like-minded people here, such as the girl of my dreams who I met right here in Korea. I like the money. I like that my co-teacher tries to talk to me about incredibly complex subjects like Brexit when he can’t even communicate to me exactly which lesson is cancelled that day. I like having fun playing Volleyball with my colleagues, the one time I can actually socialise with them. I like that just because im a foreigner, everything I can do well amazes the kids. I kick a football and the “oohh”s and “aahh”s make it sound like Messi just strolled across the pitch. Similarly, I find it funny that everytime I walk outside the school I get cries of “handsome, handsome, youre so handsome”. I know it’s just cos im white and have ‘big eyes’ but it’s still pretty nice. I like the sauna, which I did NOT expect.
Shitty veg that goes off in 30 minutes after buying it, buses that go from full speed to stationary in 2 seconds flat while I’m white-knuckled grasping the pole, lies, damned lies and…., work hours, unbearable heat, unbearable coldness, unbearable raininess, unbearable mosquitoes, communication issues, weird pizzas, Koreans Navering shit all the time, ajeoshis barging me out of the way, lack of veggie food, disrespectful kids, dreadful English standards, not being in the loop on anything at work, planning lessons for unmotivated students, Dokdo, how far away the supermarket is, the obsession with appearance and the sexism that encourages it, still not being great at telling the difference between my students.
I think that’s it. Korea is a difficult place to summarise. There are so many caveats to so many things I want to say, I could write my dissertation on it. It’s complex but, in my own opinion, difficult to love and pretty damn hard to like.
More Guest Posts:
Josh – Changseon