Monday, December 20, 2010

South Korea: Filling in the blanks

Keumsan Temple
“I have a fill in the blank future and I hold the pen.” My friend wrote this on a blog recently and it has been really running through my mind. Maybe that is why I chose to go to Korea? Maybe that’s why I’ve made most of my decisions in my life. My future is tabula rasa in the sense that it is indeed a blank slate, or a fill in the blank, while at the same it time reflects my past decisions. While sitting at my desk I often have one of those moments where I pull away and have a look around and think, “Wow…I’m in South Korea. Was this a good decision?”            
I’ve had plenty of these moments in my life like when I was choosing which university to attend, what to study, and where to work. However, I think they’ve started to happen more frequently since I finished the application process through EPIK. It seemed to take forever until suddenly my papers were in the mail and I had to sit back and think, “I’m applying to teach English in South Korea. Why?” I had an amazing job at a zoo and I was getting closer to my dream job, to be a zookeeper. I was 24 years old and I was living on my own. After finally establishing myself and getting my own place, I wanted to give it all up so I could travel half way around the world and teach English. I have a bachelor degree in biology for goodness sakes! My friend, who had been talking about the program ever since she started the year before, painted a pretty picture for me. But I was realistic enough to know that there were a lot of pros and cons to this decision. In the end, one of my main reasons for choosing to move to South Korea was that I wasn’t ready to settle. 24 is just too young for me to be settled down into a career and start working on the rest of my life. I am too restless for this and I yearned for adventure. I wanted to travel, and a job at the zoo does not leave a lot of room or money for such ambitions.
So the application was sent and, faster than I thought imaginable, I was on a plane to South Korea. A 24 year old girl from Michigan who’d only been to Central America, and that for a study of natural ecosystems through college, was now headed to The Land of the Morning Calm. I did not feel calm despite arriving in the early morning. I had literally bought my ticket the Saturday before my Monday departure, leaving absolutely no time for a crash course in the language. With only Spanish as my second language I hopped off the plane and blindly followed the crowd, while at the same time trying not to look as lost as I felt. Starting to feel like a small fish in the Pacific Ocean, that is a relatively large and foreign body of water at the same time surrounded by a lot of knowledgeable sharks, I quickly ducked into the closest women’s restroom to splash cold water on my face. Knowing I had small amount of time before I’d lose the crowd, I gave myself a quick pep talk and walked back out. Everyone I saw was Korean, spoke Korean, and everything was written in Korean. I felt like the speck of white in a sea of black and tan; very foreign, and scared that other people might notice that I didn’t belong. Incidentally, I thought back on a song I’d heard my previous boss sing when teaching at the zoo:
“One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others things
Before I finish my song?
Despite the choking fear I started to giggle and immediately felt like I could take on the world. So what if I wasn’t the same? That didn’t mean I did not belong! After walking around for a while I spotted other people who were “not like the others” and followed. I had made it. I was in South Korea, in the right place, and was finally waiting for the bus to pick us up to take us to our orientation site.
Caitlin, Me, and Summer at Keumsan Temple
             Fast forward through orientation: classes to prepare us for teaching English as a second language, a crash course introduction to the Korean Language, and a bus ride to the cities where we’d begin our new lives. Goodbye to the new friends we made during orientation and “Anyeonghaseyo” to our future coworkers. Filled with promises and strange rumors about the customs (do they really eat live octopus) of the native people, I don’t think there was a person on the bus that wasn’t nervous about our first meet and greet with our co teachers. We were told during orientation that they would be our new best friends. They would be our introduction and safety net to catch us when we hit one of the many cultural brick walls in this new land; basically our lives hung by a thread and they held the scissors just like the Sisters of Fate in Greek Mythology. Yes, we were nervous.
             Looking back I can only laugh at that visual image. Sweaty palms, breathless, and my mind filled to the brim with useless knowledge I’d picked up from other people who’d heard from someone else what it was like here in Korea. It seems almost natural to be here right now sitting at my desk and writing this paper. Nervousness has flown out the window and I am once again settled in at my job. My first couple of classes I felt went horribly because I was nervous and really didn’t know how to best communicate with my new students, but I also learned that it happens to everyone. The worst thing I could do is let it affect my day and refuse to improve the lesson.
Teacher picture at Busan Aquarium
             My co teachers have been everything I was promised and more! I have five, and they are the first to notice if I’m not feeling well and to comment if I look tired. My Principal and Vice Principal speak English, for the most part, and that makes my life here so much easier. Notice how I said “easier” and not “easy”. No, as I’ve learned in the past, life is by no means easy, but I’ve been blessed with people who’ve made it a little bit easier to handle. For example, there is this whole lie about Koreans being subtle. I don’t know about other places, but I’ve been told by my co teachers that my lesson was boring and that the students are not interested. When I had planned on ending the class with a song I was asked the relevance of it to the lesson and Lord help me if there wasn’t any. However my co teachers have made the stress of teaching an easier burden to bear. I can go to them with questions and ideas about what they feel the students would like. If a lesson didn’t go well we’d put our heads together and try to figure out where we went wrong and how we can improve. They laugh with me when I make a mistake and praise give praise when the lesson is amazing. With the watchful eyes of the co teachers the students rarely act up and it is great having that support system in the classroom
The support doesn’t end there. What amazes me is the continual support I have from the people I met at orientation. Honestly, I didn’t think we’d be in contact after we were transported to our different cities. In my orientation class, we were actually split into different provinces so meeting up is even more difficult for us than for others. Yet we still manage to keep the support system up, and all of us are willing to share stories about great lesson plans (and even complain about the bad ones). Not one of us has something that we wouldn’t change but I can guarantee all of us have parts of our job that we absolutely love. Sometimes it’s that one student in the worst class that keeps smiling at you, despite your absolute failure at getting the point across.
                          Since arriving in my city of Andong, I have been pushed to the limits of my patience, understanding, and even compassion for other human beings. There are days where I just want to sit at home and rage at the differences between our cultures and feel justified in my anger. However, this only lasts until I realize that not only am I a native speaker, but I’m a guest English speaker in this country. A guest does not rage at the host’s inability to make things exactly to their specifications and how they’d like for everything to be. I’ve had to learn how to find delight in the differences that I enjoy and humor in the ones I do not. Sometimes a simple shake of a head and a smile works wonders to improve my attitude towards something very strange and sometimes "backward’ to me.
             My students have been teaching me a lot about Korea, while I am at the same time I am teaching them about American culture. They’ve taught me they are all hard workers and really do want to do well in everything they do. For instance, I am proud to say that I let my emotions show when I am angry, happy, upset, or confused with the behavior of the students. I do let students know when I will not accept their bad behavior. Sadly, in Korea, you do not do this. It's ok, though. I found another way to make my students behave. I stare at them. I stare at them and smile. I smile so large and so sweetly I think it unnerves them. It helps that I don't say anything while I'm smiling at them. It hasn't failed me yet. Who knew silence was the best way to gain the attention of 35 noisy teenage girls?
EPIK trip to Keumsan Temple
             I’ve learned more than just discipline. I’ve learned to laugh while I make a complete fool of myself in order to help the students understand my meaning. In the end, does it matter how I look if the student remembers me hopping around on one foot shouting, “Are you alright?!” If they remember that during the English test and it helps them answer the question then it doesn’t. My friends tell me stories of how they literally trip and fall down in front of all of their students, just so they can teach them the word “embarrassed”. We are a dedicated group of native speakers who at the end of the want to brag to others about how amazing our students are that they remembered last weeks lesson and I am proud to say that mine are some of the best.
             I’ve heard a million times that students are at various levels, and it is true. I have 2nd year students in my middle school that I can literally sit down and have “girl talk” with about boyfriends, or even what they want to study when they go to University. I have 1st year students who show no fear when getting in front of class, and will perform a melodrama about finding a boyfriend, kissing him, getting an upset stomach, and needing to go to the doctor (that was an amazing class that I will never forget!). Then I have students who only say “hello” to me and can’t get over the giggle-fits when I respond in kind. However, to get anything else from them is like pulling teeth. The students knowledgeable in English answer me before the other students get the chance to even process the question. I’ve had to adapt to this language barrier and different levels of comprehension by keeping them on their toes. If there is a competition, I make sure that even the students who are poor at English have a fighting chance at winning some sort of prize for art or creativity. I incorporate pop music in some of my lessons so all students are at least practicing English in a very fun and safe environment.
Outside of school and the many lessons I teach, I sometimes find myself struggling to combine my American ways with the more traditional ways of the Korean culture. When I do, it often results in a mess that really isn’t helpful until I can pick it apart and find some strange lesson in the end. Relationships between friends, co workers, my boss, and even the opposite sex can get all muddled and confusing that it makes me want to just throw my hands up in the air and distance myself from them as much as possible. However, that is impossible since personal space is a ‘foreign’ concept to a lot of Koreans. I’ve learned that I am not Korean and that means I will be treated differently than if I were a Korean woman. Men can be sweet and kind but if you answer “solo” to the question “are you single?” so I am now prepared for being asked for a phone number, to go out for soju, or maybe be introduced to their son. I’ve learned to take this all in stride with a few trial and errors. The same simple shake of the head and sweet smile helps with would-be suitors when I am gently telling them “anio” (no).
Despite the difference in culture there is one thing I had no trouble soaking in: the scenery. The mountains, beautiful trees, and fresh air sing to my biologist soul like nothing I have ever experienced before. And nestled in the mountains are traditional temples and villages that make me feel like I’ve stepped back in time. Despite my heart belonging to the sciences I have a passion for history and South Korea is full to bursting with rich history. I’ve visited the history museum in Seoul, walked the halls of Gyeongbokgung Palace, sat in the waiting room to the bed chamber of an ancient king, traveled to the Keumsan Temple and watched as Buddhist monks prayed to their golden statues, and even been shown the oldest standing pagoda in South Korea.
Minyong Kim and me atGyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul
The blanks in my future as starting to fill in, and I am happy I hold the pen to writing it. What an amazing future I have, surrounded by this wonderfully strange, unique, beautiful, and culturally rich land. Not only do I look forward to my future, I am also looking forward to telling my story. That is why I am here in South Korea. I will continue to add to my wonderful story and keep others interested in it. I’d advise everyone to do the same thing. To push themselves. Engage in conversations and (safe) situations they’d never think to find themselves in. In the beginning of this essay I asked a very good question; if this was a good decision for me. Looking back I wouldn’t trade a moment I’ve had in Korea for anything in the world, and I am looking forward to the next 8 months.

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