Monday, October 27, 2008

with friends like these...

Being a member of the ex-pat community in Korea is a lot like driving a boat. Allow me to explain. Throughout my formative years as an enthusiastic cottager I have come to be quite familiar with the 'boater's code', which refers to the seemingly arbitrary wave exchanged between passerby's on the water. It's like you are saying 'I see that you are driving a boat. I, too, am driving a boat. Please accept this small hand gesture as a signal of our mutual respect as humans.' This is not to be confused, of course, with the 'I am sorry I chased away all of your fish' wave exchanged at dusk between motorboats and fishermen, which requires the same dexterity but a slightly more regretful facial expression. The wave establishes community, the same way that school bus drivers, motorcyclists, and apparently Jeep TJ drivers give each other a nod as if to acknowledge a commonality amidst a sea of strangers.

Foreigners in Korea are nearly identical to these parallel communities with one glaring difference; there is an underlying suspicion or fear between ex-pats about the sanity and histories of their fellow brethren. It's as if you were happily waving at a boat while muttering under your breath: "I hope that crazy bastard runs into a rock bed." I am sure that I will receive flak for expressing this opinion, but there are a lot of weird white people walking around the Seoul area who I instantly regret making eye-contact with on the subway. As a white man it must appear that I am the pot calling the kettle black on this one, but I take no hesitation in saying that I am skeptical of foreigners when I encounter them on the street or in a social situation. Why are they here in Korea? And why did the indiscretions of so many bad seeds before me make it so difficult for me to get my Visa? What is really going on with ex-pats? I decided to conduct some research.

This is the Foreigner 411. To define my terms, I am only discussing fellow English teachers who have uprooted their lives back home to travel across the world and live here for at least a year. Vacationers - you may carry on free from scrutiny. I spoke to Korean teachers, veteran ex-pats, and did some old-fashioned socializing to reach these quantitative and qualitative results, and I present the data with a declared bias. It's a blog post, not The Atlantic... so forgive the bluntness and let the messenger get home for dinner unscathed. All in all, there appears to be a quiet consensus that 3 distinct types of people come to Korea to find a new life: the hacks, the fratboys, and the worldly.

If you happen to be a hack, then you are the type of person that I would have deemed a loser back in high school. For whatever reason, you just couldn't cut it back home. Your uninspiring, bland personality leaves much to be desired, and your University degree only seems to get you in the door for interviews before a more charismatic person ultimately scores the coveted position. You like Magic: The Gathering. Friday night is spent debating food preferences with your pet gecko that you named after your favourite Star Trek: Enterprise character. You saw Jumanji, like, twice. Most importantly, you don't have a girlfriend or boyfriend. For the hack, Korea is a consolation prize and a last resort, where any male foreigner can land a misguided Korean girl and any female foreigner can wear a do-rag, grow her hair out and become a child of the earth. If you find this somewhat harsh, just go back to the start of the paragraph and find it funny instead. See how easy that was?

Clearly I have run into my fair share of hacks, and I wish you all the best. Fortunately for these people, they find exactly what they are looking for in Korea 95 percent of the time; acceptance, work, happiness, and a spouse. Carry on, Peter Pan. Fratboys, on the other hand, are looking to do the same thing in Korea that they did back home in University, which is meet girls, drink, and pay off debt. These aren't bad things to do, but when they are the sole inspiration for the trip then you wind up with a pretty selfish and belligerent existence that doesn't really help the students you are here to teach. These are the guys picking fights outside of bars in Hongdae and showing up to school hung-over to teach 9 year olds. They don't respect the cultural differences and they don't respect the job, and a lot of these people end up oxymoronically staying in Korea forever for no particular reason. They are overtly negative and hate everything about the country after time, but the money is too good to leave. I have met these people and they are walking contradictions. Avoid them.

The worldly are interested in learning about other cultures, and embrace and respect the opportunities that present themselves. They have fun and put the experience in a broader perspective, maybe because they are considering teaching back home or caught the travel bug and were curious about Korea. This is where my bias comes from; the difference between these three crude generalizations is the personal intent for the trip, and I am really only interested in hanging out with people who have their hearts in the right place and are willing to take risks and grow. Luckily, a lot of young people who have made the journey tend to fit into this latter description of the worldly individual.

I have joked with friends that my first few weeks in Korea made me feel a lot like Will Smith in I Am Legend. Alone, without even a zombie dog to pass my post-apocalyptic days. To be truthful, I am blessed to be surrounded by friends to share my adventures with. I planned this trip with a handful of friends from back home and have met dozens more fantastic people through the Orientation retreat that was organized by the province - these hilarious and amazing Canadians, Americans, Brits, and Koreans are my family on this side of the world, and I appreciate every second I spend with them because it makes this crazy place feel less alien. It makes me feel less alien. So to everyone back home, rest easy. I have friends, and I am not on the road to becoming a crazy cat lady.

Don't get me wrong; I am not trying to be self-righteous and say that I am judging all foreigner books by their covers. Everyone is here to have their own unique experience for their own reasons and I will respect that. I just hope that regardless of intent, everyone is treating their students fairly and not withholding from them the exposure to English that can vastly improve their lives in this country. Whether you are a hack, fratboy, or worldly, we all share the fact that we teach children and that gives us a higher responsibility to go to work with our heads screwed on tightly enough to be a good influence. We share that goal within our community.

Monday, October 20, 2008

they call me mr. sean-teacher.

On my first day in the classroom 2 weeks ago, I made a promise to both myself and my ESL students: I will do absolutely everything in my power to be the best damn teacher these Korean kids have ever had. Period. Now, I want you to take a second to understand the ambition behind this pledge. Screw good. I want to be the best. I want to be the love-child of Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society', Richard Dreyfuss in 'Mr. Holland's Opus', and Denzel Washington in everything he has ever done. I want to inspire, educate, entertain, and if time permits, shrink the school bus to the size of an atom and explore the human body or outer space. The best.

Take a moment to think about the teachers who most affected your life. What did they all have in common? For starters, they more than likely spoke the same language as you. To the outside observer, this plain fact would appear to confound my dream entirely, but I insist that it is every other common element that made that teacher special: passion, hard work, and resilience. These qualities transcend language, or at least are transferable through the non-verbal cues (read: miming and sound effects) that I use daily to survive. It's an uphill battle, but a manageable one.

Here are the facts. I teach Middle School in Korea, which would be considered grades 7 and 8 back in Canada. As a part of a conservative society that obsessively prioritizes education, my pre-teen students are in class from the moment they wake until deep into the night, missing out on what most of us would consider "childhood." They are happy kids but relatively immature, as books don't do much to develop social prowess. Boys will barely look girls in the eye, and girls' only form of communication between the genders is through hard slapping. They are also a tremendously shy and self-conscious bunch, but this is a complete reflection of the country as a whole. Kids are raised with perfectionism expected of them, so it is quite ordinary for a student to be openly laughed at by both teachers and fellow classmates if they stand up and get a math equation incorrect. Combine this with the fact that speaking Korean and speaking English require entirely different l

anguage flows and sound development and you have a recipe for kids who are terrified of speaking English. Check-mate.

My solution is stubborn and masochistic, and I call it Guerrilla English. We begin with institutionalized failure and allow for no comfort zones; we are all going to make mistakes and take risks together, and while it may not be pretty, we are going to shake the stigmas, have fun, and ultimately learn together. The teacher is the class clown in my lessons, and I like to use the full space, inject a ton of energy, and make myself look far dumber than the students ever could. I let the class teach me what an English word is in Korean and then unintentionally butcher it (see? even I fail...), or we play competitive games that require English speaking and writing and transform the winner into an idol. I make boy/girl pairings a rule, and if they refuse to interact, I come right at them and mediate a 3-way introduction complete with handshake. We sing, we clap, and we stand on desks. There is a lot of positive interaction, and my hope is that they are learning throu

gh osmosis and embracing the activities. Worst case scenario - they get a break from endless tests and laugh for 45 minutes a week.

Today my classes played 'Never Have I Ever,' which came out of a recommendation from a fellow UWO grad whom I hold in high regard. Just in case the adults reading aren't up to date on their inappropriate University drinking games, this is an 18A game that should be kept as far away from G-rated situations as possible. I worked on it this morning, and with a wave of a magic wand and some clever wordplay, this game is a classroom gem that has kids competing to see who has experienced the most 14-year-old friendly activities. A rowdy edition of "Sean Says" was also in order, as students struggle to keep up with my direction until I get tired and decide to just decieve the rest of the group and win the game. I am like Adam Sandler playing basketball in Billy Madison; I will let the kid get a jumpshot off, but don't be surprised if I slap it right back.

As an aside, here is how you can win any game of 'Simon Says' without ever breaking a sweat. You get the group warmed up and feeling confident, then proclaim "Simon Says Jump!" only to shout "Now Land!" while they hang in midair. Unless that kid is Luigi from Super Mario 2, he's toast. Does anyone know why Luigi was able to jump so high in that game? And I am supposed to believe that Peach's dress can allow her to sit stationary in freakin' mid-air for a prolonged period? The physics are bass-ackwards, but I digress. The second way to win Simon Says is even more devious, and it requires the students to literally walk into a trap. Use conventional means to whittle down the group, and when only 8 or 10 remain, declare that you are stepping up to the next level, and you would like all of the students remaining to join you at the front of the room to face-off in front of the rest of the class. When they properly line-up, take an appropriate pause and then inform them that you neglected to say "Simon Says" before inviting them to the front, and they all lose. As always, the most clever takes the cake.


To summarize, I am trying my best here but the circumstances don't make it easy. My classes are full of good kids and I truly believe that they will learn if they commit themselves to giving their best. Every day is a learning experience for me as well, as I realize that some methods work better than others, and the students constantly teach me about themselves, their language, and their culture. I came to Korea with a choice; either view this expeirence as a paid vacation or view teaching as a noble calling that deserves my full commitment. I will let the students tell me which one they think I chose 11 months from now.

Friday, October 10, 2008

'your face is the face of matt damon' and other questionable korean observations

You know that oxymoronic feeling you get when it seems like you have just arrived somewhere, yet been there forever?

Eleven days ago, I left YYZ behind and found myself - a mere 16 hours later - jet-lagged and alone in my small Korean apartment. It felt like such an ordinary transition when juxtaposed with how extraordinary the change was going to be for my life. Could you really just apply for a Visa, snap up a giveaway job in another country, and then follow the instructions on the boarding pass? Somehow, it felt like turning the world on its head would take more effort, but I suppose that's exactly where most people get it all wrong. Hitting a home run, it seems, has more to do with stepping into the batter's box than the swing.

Culture shock is a weird sensation to describe. It's like stepping into the middle of a complicated movie and trying to sort out the plot without asking anyone around you. You can pick out clues here and there, like "that is probably the price of that food-looking dish" or "I could maybe pee there." The rest, you are left to figure out, and you'd better learn quick or you might not make it through tomorrow. It takes a while to determine whether the whole experience should be exciting, terrifying, or hilarious. I tend to favour the latter, because how can you do anything but laugh when you find out the hard way that you have improperly used a bidet? Or shown up to a spa ill-prepared to share it with hundreds of completely nude Korean men? You simply swallow your pride, smile, and dive in head first. (To the situation, of course. Never dive head first into a bidet or a hot tub full of naked men. God, you would only make that mistake once, or at the very most three times.)

There are a number of adjustments that a Canadian must make when they arrive in Asia to work, but first let me remind you that I am not just any Canadian. I live, breathe, and exist the quintessential Canuck life: Kraft Dinner is my favourite meal. Hockey is my religion. I privately celebrate the birthdays of Tim Horton, Ron MacLean, and Terry Fox. I am a left-leaning, Canadian Politics graduate who is euphoric when I am able to blend intelligent debate with purely hedonistic activities. I went to Winnipeg and didn't mind it. To quote my good friend Michelle, "Korea is about to be hit by the whitest man on the face of the earth." Touche. Any belief I had that my Greater Toronto upbringing and infrequent trips to Pacific Mall were enough to prepare me for the level of homogeneity I would experience was sadly misled. I am a spectacle. I'm Shaq. Kazaam.

The biggest surprise doesn't come when you walk down the street, but rather, when you walk inside of a school full of Korean children. It's pretty surreal the first time that a mob of literally dozens of teenagers swarm you in a hallway reaching for you, screaming, and shouting "you are handsome!" I was flattered at first, feeling like some kind of Beatles incarnate, until an ethics teacher I was having dinner with informed me this week that my "face is the face of Matt Damon." Then it clicked (once I was done laughing, of course). When the only white people you see also happen to land on People's '50 Most Sexiest Men' list every year, you instinctively believe that all white men are Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, or any cast member of Ocean's 11 that isn't Don Cheadle. Children just have a different way of expressing it.

In my first week of class, I decided to curb this excitement by using my first week of English classes as an opportunity for the students to ask me any questions they had about my life in Canada. I teach 13 and 14 year olds, but for whatever reason I neglected to forsee the types of questions they would ask, nor did I imagine how hilarious I would find their use of the language. I provide a few examples for you to peruse:

- Hello. My name is John Junson. I have two questions. Did you went basketball-court to see NBA match? I like NBA. And, can I get your number?
- 1. How much is Toronto? 2. How much is Ottawa? 3. How much is Montreal? 4. If I buy a Canada where you are?
- I am hungry, you too?
- How many teeth do you have?
- Tell me about your weight.
- Are you married? Do you like terrible fish?
- Do you think that you are handsome? Your parents is handsome?
- You look like Beckham (soccer player). You know? This is secret - you are more hansome than before teacher.
- My name is JangJisu who love Wondergirls.
- How many hairs do you have? Do you have baby?
- Do You have a girlfriend? What kind of girl do you like? Can you love the student? Teacher very handsome.
- What do you like style girl? Where do you live? You can love we? Do you remember my name??? We love you.
- How are you? I love you.
- I have a sister. Will you marry my sister? P.S. My sister likes pretty doll and she is three years old.
- How old are you? Do you love me? I'm ugly?
- Are you gentle?

Believe it or not, those were just examples taken from my first day in class. The lesson lasted five, and every one of these questions came out in various different ways over the course of that time. After eleven days I am enjoying myself but admittedly still adjusting to this new life abroad, so stay tuned for more interesting, hilarious, or downright bizarre accounts of my job in Korea, presented in all forms of multimedia. Should be a wild ride.