Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Suburb of Korea

One of my favourite things about my extended family is that we take "extended" to a whole new level. I've heard many stories about larger families that eventually drift apart and splinter off over time. My family, on the other hand, takes immense joy in connecting and reconnecting. Our genealogy is well-documented, and we all take it seriously. Most people would consider second or third cousins as being too tenuous a relationship to bother with, but not us. Basically, if you're descended from my great-grandparents Josef and Ludwina, or married to someone who is, we're delighted to have you. Since they had eighteen children, that's a lot of descendants!

Last summer, I went with my mom, aunt, and grandmother to a celebration honouring my great aunt's fiftieth anniversary as a nun. There, we heard one of our distant relatives comment that she had no family in Ottawa. Well, we were quick to disabuse her of that! Soon Natalie was attending every barbeque, holiday dinner, and family function we had going. This Christmas, Natalie's parents came to visit, so we all went out for supper on Boxing Day.

Sometimes, explaining my international lifestyle to my extended extended family leads the conversation in amusing directions. At the Boxing Day supper, Natalie's mother leaned across a noisy table.

"So where you do live?" she called to me.

"Korea!" I called back.

She looked confused. "I don't know where that is!"

"The country!" my mom explained helpfully.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I thought that's what you said. I just didn't think I could have heard you right, so I convinced myself you were talking about one of the suburbs around here!"

We all had a good laugh about it.

Exchanges like this often make me think about how living abroad sometimes maneuvers you into a position where nobody can truly understand where you're coming from. Your colleagues and friends overseas have shared your experiences there, but they don't know what your home is like and have never met any of the people you've left behind. As for your home and the people you leave behind, you can tell them stories and show them pictures, but they'll never really know.

In either situation, there are things that don't translate, things that can never be adequately explained. I am still ambivalent about this. On one hand, you end up with a frame of reference that is ultimately quite unique. On the other hand, it can be lonely.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Enjoying a White Christmas

It's 4:23 AM and I am wide awake. No time for napping today, so I'm not sure exactly how I will function during my yoga class, hair appointment, and evening at my friend Vanessa's house. Hopefully the excellent conversations she and I always share will keep me semi-conscious.

Every night I've managed to sleep from ten until two thirty, at which point I wake up and am unable to get back to sleep again until about seven, when I manage about another three hours. Last night I made the mistake of staying up until eleven, thinking that pushing through the extra hour would tire my body out enough that I could sleep through the night. Instead, it upset the whole delicate balance, and I have not slept AT ALL. I am this strange combination of alertness and exhaustion.

Even with the jet lag, though, it's still been good to be home. I was lucky enough to make it into Ottawa before snowstorms shut all the airports down, so I have just been kicking back, eating my mom's cooking, and chatting to friends. Since the snow did not interfere with my travel in any way, I haven't had any qualms about enjoying it. The cold air here has made me realize that Canada is really in my blood. I get cranky if I don't get a dose of Canadian winter every year. My daily treks to the gym down the snowy street has been the highlight of each day, even if I haven't had the energy to do any more than that. I love rural Ontario, the old houses, the empty fields, the friendly people.

It's also good to have a chance to sit back and reflect on how the semester has gone. I feel like my life is on an excellent trajectory right now. I am doing a job where I have lots of opportunities to help others, and I am gaining a lot of experience that will serve me very well in my intended field of librarianship. There are still a few tough decisions to make about how long I plan to stay at GSIS, and how long I want to live overseas in general, but I don't have to decide that definitively until October. There is plenty of time. Overall, I am on track and heading exactly where I want to go.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2008 in Review

I tend to get pensive whenever the holiday season comes. Not so much because it's Christmas (although I LOVE Christmas) but because it's the end of the year, and I always find myself evaluating where I am, what I'm doing, and where I'd like to go next.
I think that I will probably always look back on 2008 as the year that led me out of the darkness. My students talk a lot about bullying and the negative effects that it has on them, but I always notice that they somehow assume that it is only a school thing, and someday it will be outgrown. The experience I had with a workplace bully, though, was a thousand times more devastating than anything I ever faced when I was in school. I still feel sick when I think about how isolated I was at the beginning of 2008, and how my amazing overseas experience had deteriorated into a nightmare so quickly. In January, after everything that had happened, I felt so broken and lost. All of my confidence was gone and I couldn't take a step in any direction. The decision to leave Korea in February so I could get away from the bully's sphere of influence, without knowing what I was going back to or what I would do next, was the most difficult decision I've ever made.
What was so good about the decision, though, was the realization that my heart always points me true. Within two weeks of being back home in Canada, I knew that I wasn't done with Korea. I also knew that thinking of nothing but myself and my own problems was exhausting me. I wanted to be in a situation where I could be of service to others. The two objectives converged when I first considered working at an international school. To this day, I still don't know where the idea came from or how I thought of it. God was definitely watching out for me when he put the idea into my head, and even more so when I got hired at my school. God found a way to bring me back here.
My job is a lot of work, and I know I complain about it sometimes. I also don't feel like I always do it as well as I should -- it feels like I'm making mistakes all the time. But what motivates me to improve is the knowledge that this job has taught me that I will always keep working to be a better teacher, a better coworker, a better friend. My coworkers are all so healthy in their worldviews and their relationships with other people, which has allowed me to relax and trust new people again. When I think about all that I'm learning from my students, I get more and more excited to improve so that I can continue to help them change and grow. They are such cool people, each with their own goals and ambitions, and I am so happy to be a part of that.
I feel like, this second time around, I have found a new Korea, the Korea that I had originally come here to find. The Korea that I experience through the filter of my own perception, unclouded by anything or anyone else. I am also more productive than I have ever been, doing things I could not have believed I would ever do. In 2009, I plan to push all personal limits and see just how far I can go.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

You know it's exam season in Korea when...

...the hallways and classrooms are strewn with sleeping bodies. I swear, these kids are more dead to the world than...well, the dead.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My Wayward Lambs

One of my ESL classes at school is rather...infamous among the teachers for its less-than-stellar behaviour. Although the kids are all generally good kids when you get them one on one, put them together and it's a nightmare. I call them my "grey hair class," because I always come out of it feeling several hundred years older. The classroom management methods that work so well with other classes don't work with them. They don't listen. They don't do what you ask. They break the English Only rule constantly. They are always screaming at the top of their lungs tattling on each other. They kick and hit and pinch each other. Today, one of them lied to my face. Another swore at me in Korean when I gave him detention for talking, thinking I wouldn't catch him.
In a weird way, I'd almost feel better if they were only like this with me, because it would imply that I was simply doing something wrong, something that could be fixed. But they're like this with every teacher.
One day, in frustration, I found myself yelling at the top of my lungs, "Geez! What does it take to get through to you? Do I have to hit you?"
"Yes," they said, as if it should have been obvious.
I know that corporal punishment is still standard practice in Korean schools, but it had never before occurred to me that the kids' acclimatization to it is likely accounting for a lot of the problems going on with that class. Apparently, one of the kids I gave detention to today -- the one who lied to me -- burst into tears of happiness when he discovered he was accepted here, because, as he put it, "Western schools have no rules."
I thought that was a telling statement. To him "rules" mean "getting swacked". Western schools have rules. We give warnings, detentions, suspensions. But in my students' mind, none of these count. Rules mean corporal punishment. Nothing else gets through to them. Nothing.
As much stress as they cause me, I really do love those kids and I want them to succeed. I don't have them next semester, but I'm going to keep an eye on them anyway to see how they're doing.
It certainly hasn't been a dull semester, in any case.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Let's Speak Together

It never ceases to amaze me how God provides you with exactly what you are looking for.

I have been a little glum lately because it's been really hard to make Korean friends here. I spend all of my time at work with other foreigners speaking English, doing Western things, and eating Western food. In some ways, I am very grateful for this, because a Western work environment allows me to grow and expand, whereas I know first-hand how frustrating, inefficient, and even destructive Korean work environments can be. But in others, I sort of feel as though I'm drowning of thirst in the middle of the ocean. Sometimes I don't even feel like I live in Korea. I'm in a bubble, watching Korea from a distance, but never joining in. It's unsettling. I feel a bit sorry for my coworkers who are here for the first time, because I don't think they're really getting a sense of what Korea is actually like.

On Friday night I discussed this fact with a coworker who feels the same way as me. We asked each other how we could make Korean friends, and concluded that it was probably going to be difficult, if not impossible, and left our conversation on that somewhat pessimistic note.

So imagine my delight today when my neighbour, whom I've said hello to a few times, knocked on my door to bring me a bag of puffed rice. It's very common in Korea for people to give small gifts like this, even though they're usually things that Westerners would consider really random (like puffed rice, or, as another example, Spam). She speaks almost no English, so we had to communicate in my choppy, faltering Korean. She asked me to tutor her daughter. I told her that my visa prevents me from doing so, but I would be happy to do a language exchange instead. She then asked me over for tea and apples, and we spent an hour and a half chatting with each other. If it's one thing that my time in Korea has taught me, it's that a Korean-English dictionary and a whole lot of determination can take you surprisingly far. Our conversation was quite comprehensive.

She had a little notebook with some English expressions in it. I asked her if she was studying English as a hobby.

"No," she told me in Korean. "I am learning English so I could talk to you." Then she flipped to a page in her notebook and pointed to the word "Lonely." "I thought you might be sad by yourself," she said.

The warmth and generousity of Koreans still take me by surprise every time, even as long as I've been here. She was trying to learn English just so I would have somebody to talk to! I nearly cried. We then made plans to go out to supper together with her husband and daughter next weekend, and parted on the promise that they would learn a lot of English from me and I would learn a lot of Korean from them. I am looking forward to spending more time with them and getting to know them better!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Evening Latte

Sarah Vaughan drifts through the air as I sit here, awaiting my Chai latte at yet another ubiquitous American coffee chain. The menu is in English, the music is in English, and I can almost forget where I am. It is easy, right now, to lose sight of the fact that my home and I are on opposite sides of the world.
I often think of the fact that, unlike all of the people who lived in the hundreds of years before me, I was born in an era where I can cross the earth in a day. The world has never been more open to those who want to explore it. Nobody thinks about this, which in my opinion accounts for all of the people who talk and talk about travelling but never actually do it -- they have forgotten how easy it is now and how it might not last. But that same ease of travel, the convenience of flying from one continent to the next, has robbed the experience of much of its allure. Nineteenth century travel narratives like Anna and the King of Siam, for example, wrote of brightly coloured foreign lands with strange customs, inscrutable people, exotic aromas. Whether these accounts had any truth or not is almost incidental. Travel writers back then spun fabulous tales, and the Victorian reading public consumed them voraciously. There was more romance in the Age of Sail, even with all of the unpleasantness that must have accompanied long voyages. Travel then must have seemed all the more mysterious for being so inaccessible to the average reader of the time.
There is nothing inaccessible about my experience in this coffee shop. It certainly wasn't necessary for me to come all the way to Korea to find it. The latte has arrived and it is comfortingly identical to all of the lattes I drank in Canada. This is not unwelcome, as it tastes like Christmas, and I reflect with satisfaction that I am going home for Christmas. I can be home and back here in the space of a few days, stepping seamlessly across an ocean.
No, after a year and a half in Korea, the differences lie not in the grand, striking things I expected at first, but in nuances, the tiniest details. No vulgar shouting here when your latte is ready, the ragged voice of the barista barely heard over the customers' gossip. In Korea you are given a small plastic disc when you order. You take it with you to your table, and it lights up and vibrates when your drink has been prepared. I wonder how Canadians would react to these blinking plastic discs. I picture them being waled across tables, tossed in the air, tucked surreptiously into backpacks. The smallest things, I guess, most reflect the larger cultural differences. Blinking plastic discs are possible because theft is not a concern here.
Across the street from me is a huge multiplex theatre with an overpriced department store in the lower levels. Korean is renowned for being a literal language; it harbours few of the illusions so rife in English. Koreans carry this bluntness over into English when they use it, and so the multiplex has the word MEGABOX blazing across it in massive neon letters. It's amusing to me to see the building's purpose laid so bare. Native English speakers are forever assigning slippery names to such places, names that reflect our strangely modern refusal to acknowledge their bleak, utilitarian purpose. We all pretend to be embarassed by big box stores even though we all shop there. Koreans have no such scruples. The store is, indeed, a mega box, so that's what they call it. The Korean letters on the other side confirm this: "Really Big Department Store" would be a good literal translation. This is not to say that the Korean language is without its own deceptions. It must have them, but they are of a different nature, a nature that is not open to me.
Some mysteries, then, can be maintained through less tangible things than lattes and mega department stores.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Un-Teacher

One of the reasons I took a job at an international school was to find out whether or not I wanted to be a teacher or a librarian. I thought that the two years of my teaching contract would give me enough time to sort this dilemma out.

Six weeks into the school year, and I already have my answer. I do not want to be a teacher, especially not a drama teacher, as they are expected to give up a significant portion of their personal time. I will, of course, continue to put great effort into my job and I will finish out my contract; this is not a concern. But being here has already taught me something I already suspected about my personality: I'm a hermit. Sometimes I wonder if this makes me a bit of a freak. For instance, dating is not even on my radar right now. Maybe if I meet somebody I like, my tune might change. But now, when I think about it, it feels like a burden or a chore.

The reason? I like being alone.

Yes, I'm quite social, and I try to maintain a wide circle of friends, but I only have interest in doing this if I get enough time to myself. Lacking time to myself, I become sluggish and irritable. I isolate myself from people and hole myself away.

In my current job, it is not the teaching that I enjoy most. It's the planning, the marking, the tasks that are done independently. I like my students, I like my coworkers -- that's not the issue. I would just prefer a job where I could work in relative solitude. I am always thinking of the library and how much I would enjoy it there. You could argue that this is a case of "the grass is always greener", but here I don't think that is so. It is simply an acknowledgment of my personality, which can be seen in the way that I spend my spare time.

I don't have much spare time, so I make efficient use of what I do have. I leave school and I exercise, scare up some supper, and then I do my non-work-related work: writing, art, reading, something along those lines. I never bothered hooking up my cable and I have not put anything in my apartment that might distract me from the task at hand. If I am productive with these things, I feel satisfied and fulfilled.

This is why I feel that for me, the teaching profession is an ill-fit. I do like teaching enough that I hope to find a library position that incorporates it in some way, but I do not want it to be my primary responsibility. Fortunately, my work history would definitely qualify for a position as an academic liaison librarian or an archivist, both of which are hugely appealing to me. I find myself checking the website of McGill University's library program often, reading the course descriptions, getting excited about a future that still seems a long way off.

Regardless, I am glad that I came here. My coworkers are great people, the students never cease to shock/amuse, and I am growing professionally by the day. I will be able to save enough money that I will not have to take out more debt to do the library program while still chipping away at the debt I've already got. I still sort of feel as though I am in limbo, but it is good to know that when I exit that limbo, I will have made it possible to have the future I want.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

You've Heard About It...And Now, The School!

Well, folks, would you believe that I've been back in South Korea for nearly a month now and it's taken me this long to get around ye olde blogge. I love my new job but it is quite time-consuming, so blogging has taken a backseat to things like scrubbing dishes and doing laundry. They gotta get done, yo.

Nonetheless, I am almost ridiculously happy to be back here and working in such a good environment. The school is beautiful and the administration treats us really well. Since I didn't have a digital camera the last time I was in Korea, I am happy to be able to show all my family and friends images of my new workplace this time.

The school is only entering its third year now, so it's quite new. The government of Gyeonggi-do, the province where I am now living, was so desperate to have an international school in the province that they actually surrendered part of a provincial park for the campus. As you will be able to see, we back onto some lovely green space.

So here goes! When you head up to the school, this is what you see:


The rest of the building, looking towards the auditorium:


If you go up through the main doors, through the lobby, and out the back of the school, this is what you will see:


Looking towards the right:


The sports complex (a whole separate building from the main school):


On the soccer pitch looking back at the school. The building on the right is the school's dormitory for the boarding students.


Well, that's about all I have energy for at the moment. This weekend, the administration is taking all faculty and staff on a retreat to Gyeongju, which is one of the most historic areas in Korea. I'm excited to go there because I didn't make it the last time. I have signed up to visit a Korean folk village and learn Korean paper craft. Photos will be forthcoming!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Everything's Easier The Second Time...

I'm heading back on Wednesday, and I must say that my preparations are going much more smoothly this time. I have tried to keep the departure drama to a minimum. My family and friends have been pretty supportive in this -- everybody's been friendly in their goodbyes, but nobody has made a big deal out of it, which suits me. I'm planning to come home for Christmas, so they'll see me in about four months anyway.

I never visited the city where I'll be living this time, so there will be a couple of awkward weeks while I learn my way around. But I speak enough Korean to get by and I know the subway systems, how to read, etc. the social mores and all that. On one hand, that takes the fun out of it, because it's figuring that stuff out that is the most rewarding/frustrating part of being an ex-pat. On the other hand, I don't have to worry about it this time. Fine by me!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Water Moment

Recently, an American friend commented that she wished Americans had the chance to use languages other than English, rather than just mimicking them in an artificial classroom environment.

For a number of reasons, I am glad that English is my native language, because it has given me numerous advantages. But also think that in many cases, being a unilingual, native English speaker puts you in the unfortunate position of not having to make an effort. In my travels, I have encountered dozens of indifferent Canadians, Americans, Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders who think that learning another language is a waste of time. "Everybody speaks English," they shrug. "What's the point?"

Although I am a citizen of a country with two official languages, I grew up in a part of Canada that is entirely anglophone. I took French classes in elementary school, but I didn't benefit from them other than learning to recite a few stock phrases ("C'est vendredi. Ou est le bibliothéque?"). When I was eight, my parents took me to Ontario to spend Christmas with my grandparents. One evening, all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins came over for supper. The meal was just about to begin, and I was sitting under the table playing. I heard my mom and aunt speaking badly butchered French to each other. My grandma jokingly chastised them in her own perfect French. They were all laughing about it, but listening to them suddenly filled me with a deep, inexplicable sadness. My two French grandmothers had not passed their language down. French was suddenly more than just a boring subject in school. It was a tantalizing part of my history and my past to which I had no access. In that instant, I felt that French was my language, but it was lost. I vowed to myself then that I was going to learn it. Unfortunately, though I tried hard in my French classes, it never seemed to click. French just wouldn't stick in my brain. In high school, I found myself in the beginner class. It was a blow to my ego, but I was determined to trek on.

My teacher, Mme. Gomes, turned out to be absolutely fantastic. From the moment she introduced herself, I knew that she was well-suited to teach me, because she wasn't a native French speaker -- she had learned it through effort and hard work, like I would have to do. The first day of class, she asked us to write self-introductions but forbade us from writing them in English first and translating them. "Translating doesn't work," she said. "You will never learn to be a spontaneous speaker if you always have to fall back on English in your head."

At the time, I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard. At that point, my French was restricted to "bonjour" and "merci," so writing a self-introduction without using English first seemed impossible. How could she expect a beginner class to do this? I did as she asked because she was a very good teacher, but there was always a lag there, always a translation in my head. I kept up with French through high school and university. I enjoyed it, but a mental barrier remained. It was often a downright slog.

Then, all of a sudden, one day the magic moment came. It was similar to Helen Keller's description of the day she learned to communicate the word "water":

"Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me."

It was like that for me. I was visiting Québec and walking down the street, listening to the French conversations around me, and suddenly I understood. It was different than all of my laboured efforts in my French classes. This time, there was no lag while my brain processed the grammar or puzzled over the words. It just made sense. The moment was one of the happiest, most exhilarating of my life. I cannot describe how I felt a part of the world open up. I suddenly had access to something I hadn't even known existed.

This is not to say that I now occupy a French utopia. I may be conversant, but I am not fluent, which is an endless source of frustration. In Canada, many francophones, especially francophones in Québec, turn down their noses at anglophone Canadians, and are very emphatic that Québec is solely a part of la francophonie. As a result, my visits to Québec typically result in an uncomfortable catch-22. On the one hand, the Québecois expect that in their province, French will be spoken. I saw graffiti to that effect during my last visit to Montréal: "En Québec, on parle français!" ("In Quebec, you speak French!") However, if you attempt to speak French and they discern even the slightest trace of the hated anglophone accent, they will switch to English automatically. I find it immensely frustrating. I am making a solid effort to reconnect with my language and my culture, but the plain fact is, I will always be an anglo. My accent will forever mark me.

For this reason, I sometimes find studying Korean to be more enjoyable than studying French. If I fail to understand something in French, I feel very frustrated, because it is yet another reminder that I am cut off from my own background. But with Korean, the pressure is off. If I understand it, it is a pleasant bonus. If I don't, well, it's not my language and never was. Although my French is infinitely better than my Korean, I often feel more comfortable speaking Korean. Koreans are delighted if foreigners make the smallest effort to speak their language, whereas the slightest French error will earn you only a smug smirk in Québec. Also, English and French are a lot more similar to each other than English and Korean are. Both English and French support Western, European ideologies and modes of expression. But as my Korean improves, my insights into the culture grow, and my perspective on the world shifts much more dramatically.

My cousin Tory and I spoke today about the resentment we still feel sometimes about our struggles with French. I often think that my life would have been so much easier had I been raised speaking it. But then I always pause and think no, it is probably better that I had to struggle. Being bilingual from birth might have made me complacent. I needed that fight so that I could have that breakthrough.

After all, when I study Korean now, the difficult part of the work is already done. Simply accepting a language for what it is, without always comparing it with English, is half the battle. I don't try to reconcile the grammar or pronunciation with their English counterparts. They are what they are. My knowledge of Korean is poor, but I do have moments when I hear a Korean phrase and understand it as easily as I understand anything in English. The resulting euphoria is extremely gratifying. It's like crack, actually, and since there's always something to learn, there's always another fix around the corner. In fact, the more you learn, the better it becomes. These days I have been studying Esperanto, and it is fun to activate different parts of your brain: "Oh, this syllable is like the sound 어 in Korean, this word sounds like French, this word comes from English." I can even practice my French by doing my Esperanto lessons in it. The more connections you make, the easier and more delightful it becomes to make still more.

To me, the point of learning other languages is the joy of reliving that "water moment" over and over again.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Gigs You Can Get in Korea

Coming back to Canada, I've been sort of surprised by how many misconceptions people have about what teaching in Korea is like. For the most part, people assume that teaching in Korea is much the same as teaching in Canada -- that you are in a classroom in a proper school teaching a class of your own, using Western teaching methods and practices. Strangely enough, because I'll be working at an international school, my job will actually fit this misconception. It would appear that I am the exception that proves the rule. But as an employee of an international school, I am actually part of a very small minority on the Korean ESL teaching scene.

My attempts to explain to Canadians just how different schooling is in Korea have generally been unsuccessful. When I tell people here how much the Korean education system is reliant on rote memorization and test scores, people just say, "Oh, well, it's like that here too." But that is not the case. While Canadian schools put some emphasis on memorization and tests, the two systems cannot be compared, and most Canadians simply lack the frame of reference to understand what the average Korean student's day is like, or the sort of employment situation that most foreigners are walking into.

The three main Korean employers of foreign teachers are hogwons, public schools, and universities. Hogwons, by and large, are the biggest employer of foreigners in the country. They are everywhere. There might be two dozen or more of them on any city block. They are privately run businesses intended for education (similar to Japanese "cram schools"). Koreans are obsessed with education and will do anything they can to make sure their children get ahead, which means enrolling them in multiple hogwons after the regular school hours to give them a leg up. Conditions at hogwons vary widely. I have some friends who are very happy with their hogwon jobs and have stayed for many years, but I have also heard horror stories -- you can find a "hogwon blacklist" online that warns potential teachers away from the worst ones. One of the major downsides of hogwons is that you hardly get any vacation time -- five days if you're lucky, and they're not necessarily consecutive. Hogwons make up the backbone of the Korean economy. Most foreign teachers work at hogwons. They usually work evenings though, so I was only able to see my hogwon teaching friends on the weekend or holidays.

In the past few years, public schools have also become really popular for foreign teachers. They are generally pretty good gigs, as you get more vacation time and fewer contact hours than at hogwons. When you work at a public school you teach a class jointly with Korean teachers. It can sometimes be a source of trouble if the Korean teacher is insecure about their level of English, but it can also work out really well. It just depends on where you are.

University jobs are very highly sought on the ESL scene because they have a reputation for low contact hours, good pay, and ample paid vacation (sometimes four or five months). Unfortunately, over the last few years the quality of university jobs in Korea has been steadily declining. The pay is getting lower, contact hours are rising, and vacation is disappearing. (At public schools and universities, vacation time is becoming a contentious issue, as employers are starting to demand that foreign teachers do additional "camps," something with extra pay, sometimes not.) Good university jobs with ample vacation and good pay can still be found, but the problem I ran into is that a lot of these employers assume that their employees will be "lifers" (which I am not) who already have their own housing. Koreans have quite a different real estate system than North Americans. Getting a decent apartment in Korea generally requires a deposit of at least $30,000. You get it back when you move out, but I was only planning on 2-3 years, tops, and I didn't exactly have that money kicking around the way a lifer would. Also, even though furniture and appliances are cheap over there, it's still a big expense to furnish a place you only plan to inhabit for a year or so.

Aside from the opportunity to assist students in an effective way, the housing and vacation issues were one of the reasons the international school circuit appealed to me. We are given what sound like very nice apartments. Also, we still have generous vacation time and do not have to worry that it will be taken from us.

If you are interested in getting a sense of what hogwon jobs generally entail, you can check out this really popular job board. There are postings for hogwons, public schools, and universities here.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Giving 'er Another Go

In less than four weeks I am leaving my family and friends in Canada to go back to South Korea, a country with which I have a somewhat tempestuous history. Although that history cannot be erased, I am returning again in the hopes that I can at least give a proper finish to my experience over there, an experience I feel was cut short prematurely.

When I finished my masters' degree in English Literature here in Ontario in 2006, I was burned out, exhausted, and indebted. Years of university had made it nearly impossible for me to do the travelling I had so long wished to do. Upon graduating, with no immediate job prospects on the home front, I decided that it was time to travel. I knew that if I didn't do it then, I would soon settle comfortably into working life here and would never work up the nerve to go.

But where to go? My best friend was teaching in Japan at the time and seemed to enjoy it, but the working conditions in Japan didn't appeal to me. I started looking at South Korea and I was fortunate to be offered what seemed like an amazing job at a university. When I went to South Korea, I felt comfortable instantly and settled in well. My students were a delight (for the most part), I made friends easily, and I liked the small city where I was living. I soon knew that I wanted to renew my contract there and stay for a second year. But as the months went by, my job became a political minefield. I was caught up in a conflict between my colleagues that steadily escalated. I have no wish to go into much detail, but the situation was, by far, the most stressful experience of my life to date. In the end, due to a combination of forces beyond my control and situations/people I could have handled better, I decided that it would be best to return to Canada for a while to recover from the chaos.

Korea wouldn't leave my mind, though, and within a couple of weeks I was already considering how I would return. I knew it couldn't be right away - I needed time at home - but I was also sure that if I did go back, I would do it in a way that suited my needs. Thinking about the pitfalls that had arisen at my first job, I made a list of things I required in a new position. I am willing to make sacrifices and compromise on many points, but there are several necessities. If I did not succeed in finding a job that provided me with each of these requirements, I would not go back. It was that simple.

My list:
1. The students had to be the number one priority of the teachers (whether Korean or foreign) at the school. Not politics. Not petty games. The students. I recognize that politics happen everywhere, and on some level you will always have to play the game. But I wanted to find an environment where such schemes would be discouraged as much as possible in the students' best interests.
2. While completely willing to follow a curriculum that might be laid out for me, I wanted to have the freedom to teach to my own personal style and to employ effective pedagogical methods.
3. A reasonable amount of vacation. My previous job had had over four months of paid vacation a year, but by the end of my contract I felt as though I'd put more time into fighting not to have it taken from me than I had actually spent enjoying it. I was willing to take a cut in vacation time in exchange for knowing that what I did have would never be taken from me.
4. An apartment furnished and ready to go. It didn't need to be the Taj Mahal. But it had to be a place where I would feel comfortable living.
5. It had to be in a part of Korea that I liked. By this point I had visited enough cities and towns in Korea to know where I would like to live and where I wouldn't.

I took a look at this list and knew that the only sort of place that could meet these conditions was an international school. How unfortunate for me that, while my masters' degree would make me a highly desired candidate at a hogwon, public school, or university in Korea, I lacked the teacher's license that international schools require.

Something told me to take a stab at it anyway. I e-mailed one of the more established international schools in Korea and was upfront about my lack of teaching certification. I added that I did have a Masters and a year of previous experience in Korea. They wrote back that they might still be willing to consider me and asked that I send my CV along. In the end, I did not get a job with them, but with their fledgling sister school in another city. Although I still didn't feel ready to leave Canada again when I was hired, I've since had four months to further decompress in familiar surroundings. Now I feel ready to go back.

I've felt nervous here and there, but I am far more excited than anxious, which I feel to be a good sign. The contract is for two years (although I plan to spend my two months of summer vacation back here in Ontario). I will aim to learn as much as I can in my new position, and I hope to travel to Thailand and India as well.