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.