Curriculum Challenges

Month 2 and I still find I just don’t have the time or resources to teach my students all that they should know. Planning for my travel school has become an exercise in frustration.

Here’s an example—

At my travel school, I teach one of the three classes fifth and sixth graders have per week. This week sixth grade starts chapter 3. Chapter 3 has vocabulary like “Earth Day, field day, concert”.

Oh, and the kids are also supposed to already know all twelve months and the ordinal numbers first to thirty first. Was there any chapter that taught that? No. Did they learn months and ordinal numbers in fifth or fourth or third grade? Also no.

This book assumes the students already know the months or assumes that I can teach the chapter vocabulary along with the twelve months and the days of the week across one chapter. More likely the former is true and this book series assumes all the students attend private English classes and thus doesn’t bother to go over the basics. I had the same problem in Seoul. I remember when the vice principal told C and me that “the kids are not good at English”. Of course that really meant, “the kids don’t attend private classes to they aren’t on level with the national curriculum”. Isn’t that rather a reflection of us as teachers? I thought at the time. Teachers at other schools have echoed the sentiment and as someone from a country where all learning takes place at school, I find it sad that students are expected to take additional classes just to be at level.

That any curriculum would assume prior, private learning outside the national public curriculum is a disservice to all students.

At my travel school, I have one 40-minute period with these students for chapter 3, and a majority of them can’t read. What in the world am I to do?

The curriculum is so frustrating.

A similar situation plays out in my main school, but nearly all the students have attended private English classes since they were young. At private academies they learn grammar rules and vocabulary which is something neither school book series does. The school books are written on sentence pattern memorization. I’m surprised my sixth graders knew how to even make a sentence with a pronoun outside of “I’ since the books gloss over verb conjugation for he/she/it/they/we/you.

I joked with my friend Rachel that the textbooks are written like: day 1, ABC. Day 2, Go straight then take a left at the grocery store.

I struggled with this in Seoul and I struggle with this here. With one 35 to 40 minute class per week with my students, I’m at a loss of how to improve this situation when really the national curriculum needs to be changed.

Since I am not the government, I’ll do my best to expose students to native English and make classes that leave them with happy memories of English– they’ll need that for the future when the college entrance exam prep sucks all joy from learning a language.

Life is too short to eat burned bread

I popped my frozen bagel in the toaster and pushed the lever again when they popped out still a little pasty.

Like all toasting situations, I forgot to pay close attention to the millisecond between perfectly browned and burned so as a result two partially blackened bagel halves made an appearance.

I thought, well only the bottoms and edges are burnt so I can scoop out the good parts and maybe I’ll save fifty percent.

Then I stopped myself. I had at least six other bagels in the freezer. I wasn’t hurting for money or food, so why was I trying so hard to salvage the bitter bagel ends when I could simply start anew and ensure a perfectly toasted and delicious bagel?

I stopped to wonder how many other burnt ends I had eaten around in life instead of simply starting fresh.

Being thrifty and economical is smart and necessary— but not to the point of unnecessary self sacrifice and lost enjoyment.

Life is too short to eat burned bread.

Which frog are you?

“The Two Frogs” from Aesop’s Fables:

Two Frogs were neighbors. One inhabited a deep pond, far removed from public view; the other lived in a gully containing little water, and traversed by a country road. The Frog that lived in the pond warned his friend to change his residence and entreated him to come and live with him, saying that he would enjoy greater safety from danger and more abundant food. The other refused, saying that he felt it so very hard to leave a place to which he had become accustomed. A few days afterwards a heavy wagon passed through the gully and crushed him to death under its wheels.

Moral: A willful man will have his way to his own hurt.

Above Ground

Living as a visible minority in another country has taught me a lot about race, colonization, and globalization.

Something else it’s shown me is the delicate underground web we may take for granted in the suburbs.

Everything here is closer to the visible surface— income inequality, pollution, garbage, consumerism, animal cruelty, effects of war.

Sometimes I pass someone old enough to be my grandmother carting a rickshaw full of cardboard. Social security was only recently established and elder poverty is a huge problem. I see grannies selling gum for a dollar outside department stores selling $500 padded jackets.

Sometimes I see elderly without limbs, or I see a set of retirees talking to each other in sign language.

My friend lives with her divorced sister and two young children in a one bedroom townhouse in the countryside.

I see people walking their ridiculous, tiny, mean, purebred dogs and then I see happy mutts tied up to a six foot chain all day. I see puppies in the countryside I can’t save. I see cats without tails and birds without feet.

I know exactly how much garbage my neighbors and I produce, and I often fight for walking room in the alley with overstuffed garbage trucks.

I see water bottles and juice boxes and beer cans floating in the surf during the summer. I see abandoned takeout coffee cups on street corners.

American suburbs have these same problems— but we never have to confront our consumption or excess because we have the space to pollute and the land to fill with our out-of-sight, out-of-mind, no-questions-asked garbage bags.

Sometimes people come to Asia and complain that it’s dirty. Is it really dirty or is it simply lacking the land mass to hide trash? Not to mention, America has been shipping its garbage to Asia for years.

The world complains that China is a huge polluter— and it is, and needs to face that reality. Yet the rest of the world also exports its manufacturing to the cheapest location possible then in the same breath berates the location for causing pollution.

I worked for a medical company that moved its manufacturing of catheters from the Midwest to Mexico and China, then complained about a decrease in quality and opaque manufacturing agreements.

Color me surprised. I don’t know which Aesop’s fable is best suited for this—the eagle and the arrow? But that suggests some modicum of self reflection.

Despite its own complaints, the company did not move manufacturing back to the US. It was explicit about maintaining the maximum profit, which has seemed to be the driver for every medical company I and friends have worked for, even at the detriment to the consumer– the patient.

It’s not comfortable to look directly into the eyes of a system in which I participate and also helped create. I have to confront the consequences and at the same time parse out the helplessness of feeling so insignificant in a system so vast.

No place is inherently better or worse than another. Every place, however, has varying degrees of smoke and mirrors to cover the less savory effects and history of being human and it’s not always comfortable to see the mirror in the landfill reflecting me.

“You speak Korean so well!”

I stumbled upon the famous Talk To Me In Korean channel many years ago but just found this video today and genuinely laughed out loud. Three Korean teachers reviewed Korean-learning memes and this was the meme in question that struck me as a particular, lived experience:

To explain:

A intruder, labeled as non-Korean, is looking for a Korean stranger. In order to find the person in hiding, the intruder calls out “hello?” in Korean and the Korean says, “You speak Korean really well!” and we assume, meets an untimely demise. It’s analogous to the “shave and a haircut, two bits” scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It simply can’t be helped.

If you’ve kept up with this blog, you know that it is almost a knee-jerk reaction for a Korean to compliment a non-native speaker on his/her language prowess, even upon hearing a single word. The bar is… very low. This exact exchange, sans the murdery aspect, has happened to me countless times.

“Hello–“

“Wow, you speak Korean so well!”

There was even a time where I only said “yes” with very good pronunciation and the whole class of students gasped and exclaimed I could speak Korean.

Memes About Learning Korean | Korean Language Amino

I love having my ego stroked but I’m also a little disappointed that the expectation is so low. Imagine if all expats were shamed into learning just a bit more than “hello, I’d like one kimbap please.” Then I wouldn’t have to think about disowning them on a semi-regular basis.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s very sweet to hear and I love that Korea is cheering me on. (Even if the cheering ends when I’m competent enough to hold a conversation but not enough to set up banking on my own. Ain’t no teller cheering me on when I’m holding up the line trying to understand account forms on my own.)

I just sometimes wish the bar were a bit higher, but until then I WILL keep floating high on the (unearned) praise. Lord knows us language learners need it!

Aging

South Korea went from being one of the poorest countries on Earth to the world’s tenth largest economy in less than 70 years. Korea has almost all the luxuries of American life, plus benefits my home country lacks: universal healthcare, cute school supplies, and extensive food delivery that UberEats only dreams of being.

But seventy years is not a long time and even through through the Miracle on the Han River, age cannot be hidden.

American culture seems almost ashamed of the elderly– put them in nursing homes until they are forgotten. I never really saw age until I got to Korea.

In spite of the massive economic growth, sparkling chrome skyscrapers, and never-ending construction, Korea still has a touch of the old country left.

There are women who probably lived through the war, their backs bent unforgivably towards the ground like a comma, their canes the only thing keeping them from falling forward entirely. I see women with bow legs and out-turned feet that just don’t look quite right. I see women so small and wrinkled but still selling vegetables or carting a rickshaw towered high with collected cardboard. Occasionally there are old men, skin so weathered and thick that I can’t see their eyes; missing arms or legs; arguments in sign language with their friends on the subway.

They live until they die.

They also don’t have a choice: Korea’s social security system wasn’t developed until later and many elder Koreans live in poverty while also having an extremely high suicide rate.

I look at some women and wonder if they lived through Japanese enslavement, separation from their family at the 38th parallel, the Gwangju massacre. I wonder if they are filled with a hundred years of knowledge, or if they would just tell me I need to get married.

They say aging is a privilege. To see it is another entirely.

Touch

On a long bus ride home, several people avoided sitting in the empty seat next to me, less because I smelled (probably), and more because sitting next to a foreigner can always be a little bit scary.

Finally, the bus was too full to ignore me any longer and two very tall college boys got on. One gestured to his huskier friend to take the seat next to me but that friend insisted on standing.

The first guy sat down in defeat.

The seats were too small to avoid touching thighs even though he gripped the seat edge and sat rigidly straight on turns to avoid bumping shoulders.

There was an animal something in me that enjoyed the closeness and reveled in his discomfort because I knew it was unintentional and therefore safe. Maybe I should have tried my experiment then:

“Ha, wow this bus is pretty crowded right?”

“……yes.” He says, eyes darting wildly, silently begging his friend to save him from English small talk.

COVID has made me aware of how much physical contact I used to have and how little I have now.

I’ll take it where I can get it.

These days I don’t have student hugs or high-fives or puppy piles. My school training handbook even mentioned to be aware of “close proximity culture” in our Korean kiddos.

I have to make do with playing with Freshman‘s hair or petting the corgi when she feels like being pet.

Korea gave me all the platonic physical affection that America never could only to take it away six months later.

I know that Americans like to think that they are very touchy because they hug others. And while hugging is seen as overly intimate among acquaintances in Korea, America lacks the casual and daily platonic “skinship” that defines much of East Asia.

I think I’ve always felt a bit odd with hugging strangers which made me feel like there were no other avenues for physical affection and left me at a bit of a touch deprived dead end in America.

American friends don’t exactly hold hands or link arms or play with each other’s hair or pat each other on the thigh. Nearly all touching seems to be reserved for romantic partnerships, in which case you may go hog wild.

But it is a bit strange, right? Americans think kissing on the cheek as a greeting is weird or two boys holding hands that are not dating is weird but instead expect two near, or actual, strangers to press their bodies together.

There’s nothing like the tight warm, tight hug of someone you care about fitting your jagged pieces back together and nothing quite so diametrically opposed as the cold, awkward side embrace from everyone else.

I remember years ago I told one of my coworkers from Eastern Europe that I was leaving my position. She grabbed my hand, held it tight, and asked if everything was okay.

I’ll never forget how important and special that kind of platonic touch was, and how tightly I gripped her hand back, unaware of the anchor I needed until she reached for me.

Sometimes, unbeknownst to us, we are someone else’s life raft, however briefly.

Today, a woman on the bus let herself lean a little into me on sharp turns. I didn’t mind. Maybe she’s like me: maybe she just needed a little point of contact in this new, contact-less world. A reassurance that we are human, and that we need just same. A float to hang on to for a single breath of air.

September 27, Language

I felt a cold creeping up on me last Saturday which also happened to mark the midpoint of perhaps the most stressful two weeks in a long, long time. Immigration inconsistency (again), politics in my home country, personal relationships, identity, school exams all formed the least delicious ice cream sundae.

The cold finally reared its head Friday and I decided to heed the old advice and just rest. No gym, no sightseeing, no guilt. By Sunday night, I felt replete with an energy I hadn’t had in weeks.

Is this what it feels like to be well rested? I could feel this way every day?? My god.

Friday afternoon in spite of my burning eyes I went to campus to retrieve my student ID and meet my incomprehensibly tall German classmate with whom I doused fiery rhetoric about US politics. As a European he was both well informed and sympathetic.

As I nibbled through my second cafe cookie he told me that I was really good at Korean. And he “wasn’t just saying it like Koreans tend to say all the time to foreigners who can manage one 안녕하세요.”

“So how much do you study?”

Oh boy. There was no easy way to put it except:

“I don’t.”

Aside from doing assigned homework I don’t actively study. Even when I was at the inarguably more challenging Hankuk University I didn’t study because four hours of coursework plus another hour or two of homework was preparation enough. Not to mention there we had to write and memorize eight minute speeches in Korean…

“Oh. I study every day. I’ll probably study over the holiday for our exam.” He added almost sadly.

I know I should study for the midterm. If I get top marks I can get a scholarship for next semester, and I’m all about a bargain.

No matter the language I’ve almost always gotten the highest grade in the class, and with little effort. Language is the only thing I’m good at without trying and in this day and age that values STEM over all else, I’m not quite sure what to do with it.

I know its important, look at Uhura! Or the Star Trek episode where one alien race speaks only in historical metaphors so the crew’s mechanical translators didn’t work. Or Amy Adams’s character in Arrival.

I suppose there’s something to say in that language ability only seems to be valued in SciFi.

Should I be pursuing translation work? Should I be working in linguistic academia? Or should I assume this talent is like a side hustle, useful for bragging but shameful as a full time career?

I just know I like it. And I’m good at it, somehow.

For the brief time during training and my visa run to Japan, my mouth missed speaking Korean. Forming syllables and molding the trickier or more delicate consonants. I imagine I’ll be especially bereft when I’m in America for two weeks without a single double consonant to keep me company.

Shall I schedule a tutoring session for my long distance relationship?

Surely I’m not the only one who can miss a language like a lover.

Tomorrow we meet again for four hours and I’m sure the love will be strained. Our love will definitely be tested during the midterm.

But last it shall.

September 24, Re-center

Because of (another) Christian cult, cases spiked a few weeks ago in Seoul and haven’t been completely eradicated. 

I texted with C briefly and she told me they are now doing online interactive classes at the elementary school. “All the kids look sad and bored,” she said.

I was inexplicably filled with that ghost of rage regarding English education and I had to take a step back to ask myself why.

It’s no secret that I am not a fan of public school English education in Korea. A focus on reading comprehension is a detriment to the most fundamental use of language: communication.

It feels in my experience that Korean teachers of English are neither prepared for nor passionate about the subject they teach which is opposite to the experience I’ve had from every teacher I’ve personally learned a second language from, including Korean language teachers.

Toward the end of last semester you can probably tell that I started to have serious misgivings about the whole institution, and wondered why I should even stay if my native language wasn’t particularly of any concern— everything is taught just to pass a test anyway.

Some native English teachers (in Korean we are called “Native Speakers” rather than “teachers” as our title) come as a gap year, or to take a break from teaching in their home country, or to travel and sightsee in Korea.

For those of us that want to teach for the long, or longer haul, it can be somewhat depressing to work in an environment that doesn’t seem to care. Or maybe that’s just the attitude of elementary teachers here and I didn’t know; that’s at least the feeling I got in the challenging spring semester.

That’s not to say that working as a “native speaker” at a public school is bad. The kids enjoy and benefit from seeing someone unlike them and they at least hear a little bit of native intonation.

Plus the benefits are good, the job is easy, and I saved about as much in a year here as I did at my manager position (rent in an American metropolitan city took a huge chunk of my pay along with health and car insurance) so these are the good points to remember.

I’ve broken from the spiraling thought pattern of spring semester that “nobody wants you in Korea”. Somebody does, but maybe not at public school. Or a city public school.

I’m returning to America at the end of November to finally take my teaching exams. FLDOE never did bend to making accomodations even given this global pandemic but what else would I expect from the state that opened back up even at the peak of its infections?

This is all to say that even though my last school, and maybe my next school, don’t or won’t value English (and me, as a result) it’s not the end of the world. I know that I may have to put in my time as an “entry level” employee before I can move on to bigger and better opportunities.

There’s no shame in putting in the work and not getting an early promotion. I have the rest of my life to learn and teach all over the world.

I say this because I really forgot what my visa was for– job seeking. I have been so filled with adventure (and stress) from my new experiences here in and around Busan that I literally forgot that I am also supposed to be ensuring my future.

I also say this because when I think about what jobs I currently am qualified for and the ones I’m almost qualified for, I wonder what is possible. I want to work in a place where I am valued, but I also want to be with kids from average families.

The reality is private school jobs come by word of mouth, and there are very few, and international school jobs are no dice unless you are already certified and have legitimate experience. There’s an international school on Jeju that sounds wonderful but I am very far from being competitive (currently).

So by next March, which is fast approaching, what are my options?

Most schools are hiring now, or soon– and I have no license to show, though that won’t stop me from applying if the opportunities do appear.

Public school is my main plan given that I likely won’t have my license in hand when the school year starts and I desire stability of a confirmed job over the promise of a position given our global circumstances. Likely in Gyeongsang as we’ve discussed, or maybe Jeolla.

I like to think that country folk might be a little more interested in the foreign teacher.

I just have to remember that if I ever feel undervalued or a bit unchallenged, it’s okay– this is a stop on a long journey. There is no shame in stability or working at entry level; everyone has to start somewhere and the promise of a fixed (if low) salary and housing for a year is a boon given, well, everything.

I’m the type of person who has always felt if I am not absolutely running myself into the ground with work and extracurriculars, that I am lazy. I’m trying to break free of that and understand that living well and progressing steadily rather than immediately is nothing to be ashamed of.

What I mean to say is, even though teaching at Korean public schools is not my long term goal, I’ll happily do it for another year to get some more experience and live with ease while I make my next move.

Or as one of my favorite poems goes, “[you are] the hook at the end of a long, long line”.

Who’s that strange man?

Whenever I see a mannequin in Korea, I experience the most cognitive dissonance. Or rather, just post-colonialism.

Excluding small island nations, Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. The Koreans of today can be traced back to the Koreans from almost 5,000 years ago in nearly the same location on the peninsula. I know because I read it about it in a bus station museum somewhere in Gangwon province.

And yet every time I see a mannequin, it’s white. Not only in color, but in very obvious Caucasian European features.

It’s not only local brands or big-name shops. It’s also municipal branches like the police department or traffic association that employ these import foreigner mannequins.

Thrice now I have entered a strange confusion when passing by a construction site only to see that the mechanical waving dummy dressed in Korean security guard clothing looks distinctly like he just flew over from a runway show in Paris. 

There’s something to be said in the abundance of these plastic “Hénrè”s and moreso the casual acceptance of these plastic foreigners by the local population.

Something indeed.