Friday, 18 May 2012

On Living and Teaching in South Korea

When I first started talking to my friends and family about moving to Korea their opinions of my choice were divided. There was one thing that everyone’s opinion on the matter had in common however and that was the idea that moving to Korea was brave. The mantra “I could never do something like that” got thrown around quite a lot. I never thought moving here was a particularly brave decision. If I’m honest I never really considered it a big decision at all, for me it was as easy a decision as deciding to have Weetabix for breakfast, or deciding to grab a Cornish pasty for lunch.

I understand why somebody might think that the decision to go and live in a foreign country that has hardly anything in common with the one you are accustomed to is a brave one, but after living here for nearly ten months I’ve come to the conclusion that I was right. There are no brave people here. The expat community is full of disillusioned misfits, credulous dreamers, and wannabe students. It’s full of people desperately clutching onto their adolescence, people aimlessly trying to make sense of their lives, and people living for a pay check, day by day, just like they would back at home.

This isn’t to say that every expat living and working in Korea falls into one of these categories but the vast majority seem too. It’s led me to question my motives. Do I really slide into one of those overly simplified categories? Do people really come here just to put off their impending adulthood for another year or two? There are no responsibilities here, apart from the responsibility to educate. You can distance yourself not just from your work but from the whole of society, you are not expected to fit in. I came here to travel and that’s my honest answer. I came here to see what life was like on the other side of the planet, what did it smell like? What did people do for fun? Are they happy? Are they just as confused about life the universe and everything, as I am? Yes, I wanted to teach but it was a secondary necessity to the experience of living in Asia.

Education is important in Korea. Yes, education is important everywhere but here kids are at school for long hours and they are pressured to work incredibly hard from a very early age. A Korean child (on average) will enter kindergarten at three years of age, they will enter first grade at six and graduate elementary school at twelve. After this follows three years of middle school between thirteen and fifteen and three years of high school (although I’ve also heard it can be two) from sixteen to eighteen, university education is four years minimum. Students at my elementary school can be seen around the corridors from as early as 8am and most of them won’t leave until 5pm / 6pm. They will also have after school classes (hagwons) for further education from around 7pm until 9pm. You might say that South Koreans have an addiction to education. I’ve even read about a curfew in Seoul for hagwons, in which students are prohibited from studying at hagwons past midnight. It’s educational masochism. Last year over 75% of South Korean students attended a hagwon. Top grades are praised as the only road to professional success. From the outside looking in this might appear enviable, I caught a glimpse of my fifth graders maths books the other day and they were doing equations of the sort that I had never even seen before.

So, why would the South Korean government hire native English teachers with no educational training, no English test on entry and no experience of living and working in a foreign school system? Nearly every other country (especially in Europe) has much stricter entry requirements for their English teachers at the very minimum a CELTA certification. Things are changing and this year’s intake of EPIK teachers are under stricter regulations (a minimum grade average and a TEFL certification as standard) but when I applied for the program just one year ago all I needed was a bachelor’s degree of any grade in any discipline. This has always seemed strange to me, for a country that is so obsessed with its education standards. Because, do you know what you get when you tell a group of recent University graduates that they can come and work in South Korea for over two million won a month, free housing and a paid flight? You get people teaching English who can’t spell ‘beautiful’ or who don’t know the difference between there, their and they’re. Why would the South Korean government allow this? The least they could do would be to give each new teacher a grammar and spelling test. They don’t.   

What has happened is that a mish-mash of personalities have ascended on the “Land of the Morning Calm” and they are all trying to make sense of what they’re really doing here. I wonder if before they packed their bags and jumped onto a plane they were asked “why are you moving to Korea?”, or “how will you teach without speaking Korean?” and I wonder what their answers were. I wonder if they were told, “you must be so brave,” or “that’s such a great opportunity” and I wonder what they were thinking. Because they are here now and a lot of them have been here for many years. I’ve been here for ten months and I have yet to make sense of it all. It feels like I’ve been in this dream state and I won’t wake up until I finally get home. I fear that I’ll never fully understand how things work here, and maybe I’m not supposed too.

I sometimes wonder what my students will be doing ten years from now. I wonder if they’ll remember me and I come to the harsh conclusion that they probably won’t. Because there are so many of us and we come and go with no thought of the consequences. If a student has a different English teacher every year (which some of them don’t, granted) then they could have over twelve different native teachers over the course of their school careers. That’s a lot of teachers. Why would they remember me? Because I’m fun? Because I try and listen to them and help them? That’s wishful thinking and I have no conclusions, I’m just full of questions. I sit on the bus on the way to school and I watch the trees and the hills fly past my window and I wonder if I’ll miss it. I wonder if my students will miss me. Then I’m back at square one, questioning my motives again and wondering if I’m one of those disillusioned misfits or wannabe students and I hope that I’m not.

Because like most of the expats that are working here (at least, most of the expats that I know) I’ll be leaving soon. The education system will stay the same and my students will be moving onto schools where pressure will be applied even harder than it is here. I’ll be exploring the temples of South East Asia when a new teacher will be taking up my mantle. Hopefully they will know the difference between there, their and they’re and hopefully they’ll try and have as much fun with the kids as I have. It’s not really my place to have an opinion though I suppose. But, as long as my kids have had fun, that’s what important to me, and as clichéd as it sounds as long as I’ve managed to make every student in this school forget for just a moment that they are a ‘student’ and remember that they’re just a kid then it doesn’t matter if they remember me or not. Maybe moving to another country is a brave thing to do after all. So, here I stand, wilful and wild-spirited amid a wasteland of wild air, long legs and screaming children, happy that I did this, excited about what I’ll do next and proud to say that I don’t think I’m one of those disillusioned misfits, at least, not anymore. 

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