June 30, The Center of the World

The last day of June is here and officially there are now less than two months before my contract ends.

The morning started with me actually applying eye shadow. I had to brush dust of the palette that fell into disuse while my poor eyes were plagued by yellow dust. If the rainy weather and lessening pollution trend continues, I’ll be back to get an eyelash perm as soon as I can.

I gathered my hair into very un-Korean milkmaid braids and on a whim, detoured to the coffee shop. I missed my girl!

I didn’t register this until later but when I first came in, her mask was pulled down and the braces I’ve seen her in for a year were gone! I need to congratulate her next time. I, too, know the sweet freedom from braces.

She commented about the weather and that it was raining a lot today. After a few attempts I was able to say that I like it because when it rains, there’s no pollution!

Barista Violet also had a peculiar change of eye color. “Oh, I got new lenses, are they pretty?”

“Yes, they are!” I said. She asked if I too was wearing lenses. It then turned into a moment of us leaning over the counter and staring into each other’s eyes.

“No, but I really want some colored ones. Maybe gray.” I sighed after.

I couldn’t help but ask her if she’s seen the new drama I’m binge watching.

“I don’t really watch dramas but it’s good? Who’s in it?”

Thankfully I am obsessed with both the lead actors for their skills and their absurdly beautiful faces so I was able to (almost) tell her.

“Um. Soohyeon. Park Soohyeon? Uh, Kim Soohyeon?”

Luckily he’s famous enough that she knew who I was talking about.

“And Seo Yeji.”

“Ah, she is so pretty.” Violet agreed.

I am so glad someone shares in my obsessive opinions.

For those interested, the drama is “It’s Okay not to be Okay” on Netflix and is airing here in Korea. Sometimes I watch it on cable to help their ratings and because I can’t wait the extra hour it takes for Netflix to post. Do I understand the dialogue without subtitles? No.

The Korean title is 사이코지만 괜찮아 which means “Psycho but that’s okay” and I suppose that may be off putting to a Western audience, even though that’s a fair summary of the show thus far.

The show has some dark and nuanced themes about family abuse and mental illness but is the first Korean drama I’ve seen that looks mental illness in the face with both gently and realistically. The main female character displays the actual clinical symptoms of antisocial personality disorder rather than the cold murderous sociopaths of other shows: she’s impulsive, lacks empathy, has trouble connecting to others. But she also finds value in people and helps in her own way… and her outfits are AMAZING. (The actress also studied in Spain for three years and we stan global women).

However, my day was not only forcing my hobbies on others; sixth grade was mild as usual until we got to 6-3. Our unit was on going to the doctor and students practiced a dialogue that went:

What’s wrong?
I have a… (stomachache/toothache/fever/cold).
Take some medicine/get some rest/go see a doctor.

One boy asked suspiciously, is this real American conversation? I told him yes but it turns out the whole class was confused because in Korea, you just go to the doctor if you feel sick.

This led to a conversation on the American medical system and prices. My co-teacher wanted to say that “America and Europe are more expensive than Korea” which is wrong because I know the British healthcare system is usually free, at least from what expats have said on YouTube. Luckily she turned to me in the middle, questioning, and I got to tell the kids about how I once got charged $500 to see a podiatrist.

It was the most alive and interested I’ve ever seen them but in the end they insisted they were too afraid to go to America so they didn’t need to learn the phrases.

“What about if you go to Britain?” I asked in Korean.

“No!” They shouted.

“Or South Africa? Or Australia? Or literally anywhere outside of Asia?”

“We’ll never leave!” They shouted back.

“What about making non-Korean friends? You’ll never have one?” I yelled over the chaos.

“NO!” The entire class answered and I didn’t know if this was a joke anymore.

Unfortunately, I think they’re right. The large majority of them will grow up in Seoul, work in Seoul, make friends in Seoul, die in Seoul.

It’s comforting for the home-bound and slightly depressing for the traveler like me. And South Korea is a world player in both terms of economy and politics; there is even an entire branch of the Korean military that only allows high level English-speaking Koreans to join. English is a requirement for Korean employees in local branches of international companies.

I often try to frame my frustration with Englishphobia and foreigner fear in cultural terms and with an understanding of globalization and colonization lest I truly go mad. But I also wonder, how can I lessen the fear of English when their very own teachers avoid speaking it at all costs?

Yesterday one of the (many) students who came to makeup homework left the room shouting in panic “I’m really not good at English, I don’t like it, Ahhhh!” His screams echoed down the hallway as C and I laughed.

Then I stopped laughing– even the adults at this school feel the same, albeit in a much quieter way.

One of the missions of world language teachers is to create “lifelong learners”… and it’s hard to inspire any interest in our world’s lingua franca if the students simply don’t care about life outside South Korea.

Can I be surprised that kids in the most homogeneous country in the world (okay, second: first is North Korea*) never want to have any experiences outside of it?

Maybe I need to give them credit for being honest, at least. It made me consider how I can make my future students “global citizens” and how I can connect them to a world outside their own.

Hope was not lost, however. I Skyped my North Korean tutee for our lesson (I’m a volunteer with an organization that teaches refugees English) and it’s very clear how motivated he is! He asked questions about proper intonation and I imagine part of his drive comes from the reality of knowing some of his relatives are in the U.S. He always pushes through without shame, just like my other tutee, and I imagine as refugees Englishphobia is barely a blip on the scale of the obstacles they’ve faced. For the sake of their privacy I won’t say more but teaching someone who wants to learn is a world of difference in nearly every way.

Their motivation gives me motivation, too.


*For more information:

According to one type of measurement, the ethnic fractionalization index, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan are, in that order, the least diverse countries in the world. China at fifteenth ranks below a few European countries like Germany which is not too surprising if you know that China is home to many different ethnic groups. The U.S is seventy fifth.

Another type of measurement includes North Korea, South Korea, and Japan in the top three least diverse countries after small island nations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s