Week 6: The high schoolers (and everyone else, but I’m most prideful of the high school crowd) still enthusiastically say ‘hello!’ and ‘how are you?’ to me as often as they can.
Every teacher has a lesson bomb every now and then, and as a new teacher, I’ve already had my fair share of lesson failures, in which the students just don’t enjoy or understand the activities or games. Having a lesson fail literally takes a stab at your confidence and mood if you really care about your job, like I do. The enduring warmth from everyone is a nice reminder that they still value me as a teacher despite my shortcomings sometimes. 🙂
Generally, everyone really does seem to remain positive, even though schooling is incredibly challenging in Korea. The education system really makes an effort to bring positivity into the schools and classrooms, too. Instead of school bells, they play a short musical piece, which is much more enjoyable. The classrooms themselves are always high-tech and filled with games, colorful decorations, and plenty of teaching/learning equipment to play around with.
I’ve also noticed that the students acknowledge each other’s differences but don’t exclude one another, generally. For example, in all of my 22 classes, there is a wide spectrum of English capabilities, but they all want to help each other out. I’ve learned not to stop certain kids from walking across the room to talk to one another because every time I’ve tried to intervene, I realize they’re doing it for English-related help. They even include the kids with learning disabilities or physical handicaps; it’s quite pristine.
On Tuesday, the student with the weakest English-speaking skills in the class won the game of the day. Everyone was both laughing at and cheering at the astonishment of his win, and they were happy for him. I’ve never seen one of my kids as proud of themselves as he was. This was easily one of my proudest moments as a teacher thus far. It was just so genuine and supportive.
I will admit that South Korea and my life here isn’t perfect, though, obviously.
“Oh my God!” my 4th grader casually said after I tipped my coffee over while trying to protect the bag of candy in my bag.
That’s a phrase I’ve heard quite a bit, even from students that don’t even know how to write their name in English. I’ve also heard ‘what the hell’ and ‘shit’ and some other common swear words/phrases. I’ll take what I can get from them for English I guess, lol.
Even with some of the best English speakers in town, I always sense a communication barrier. First of all, translation between the Korean and English languages is very difficult. Korean words typically have more meaning attached to them than English words, so it’s hard to find words that are interchangeably spot-on. For example, the word ‘well-being’ more likely to be used here than ‘healthy.’ I also have had to learn how to really listen for meaning because some words aren’t clearly heard through non-native English speakers.
Second, intonation and nonverbal communication can easily be taken the wrong way. There have been a few instances when I have to remind myself that the person I’m speaking with is more concerned with their use of language rather than their tone of voice or facial expressions, and they are well-meaning with their words. At least when people see me, they recognize that I’m a foreigner and there will be a communication barrier; some of the Korean-Americans or Asian-Americans that have come to Korea for the first time face frustration from locals that see them and expect them to know the language.
Cultural differences also play a huge part in communication barriers. I mentioned in one of my previous blog posts that a few Koreans have told me that I have a big nose. I did not take this as a compliment, but in Korean culture, I guess it is a compliment!
In regards to physical appearances, I just noticed the other day that I’ve never seen an elderly Korean person with gray or white hair. It would make sense that they all die their hair because appearances are pretty high up on the priority list within the culture. Since they don’t have much diversity, it’s funny, though, that there is one standard look for beauty for men and women. In the US, we have many different forms of attractiveness, from striking features to subtle features to unique features. In Korea, there is a particular face shape and look that is defined as ‘beautiful’ and ‘handsome.’ Most of the high school boys have the exact same haircut.
What’s one thing that is different between the US and Korea, but is something that I really appreciate in Korea? First of all, they eat really fast, which works for me because I tend to inhale my lunch. Also, communication during lunch… there isn’t a whole lot. Not that I don’t like talking to the other teachers, but I’d rather focus my full attention on enjoying the (amazing) school lunch food rather than having to worry about keeping a conversation going.I also have to focus on pacing myself so that I finish my lunch exactly when my co-teacher finishes… it just feels awkward if one of us is sitting there waiting for the other since there isn’t a conversation going on. I’ve had both instances where I’ve finished either early or late, and I swear that the anxiety doesn’t just come from my end! Anyways, a lot of the other teachers don’t speak English very well, so if there is some talk going on, it’s in Korean, and I’m exempt from it because they know I can’t understand.
I also have to focus on pacing myself during lunch so that I finish my lunch exactly when my co-teacher finishes… it just feels awkward if one of us is sitting there waiting for the other since there isn’t a conversation going on. I’ve had both instances where I’ve finished either early or late, and I swear that the anxiety doesn’t just come from my end! Anyways, a lot of the other teachers don’t speak English very well, so if there is some talk going on, it’s in Korean, and I’m exempt from it because they know I can’t understand.
I’m also exempt from small-talk in most situations in general (like waiting beside one other person at the bus stop) because of the language barrier, which is a breath of fresh air. I could go on about how much I hate small-talk. There just isn’t enough substance or importance in it to keep my attention.
Oftentimes, when I’m in public, a Korean will come up to me or my group and ask us a question, like, “Where are you from?”
After answering, they’ll either ask 1 or 2 more questions about me, or they’ll smile, giggle, and walk away. These interactions actually make me quite happy. It shows me that they are genuinely curious about me, and that makes me feel pretty special. The best part is that they are so cute and genuine about it, and they don’t linger once you’ve answered their question. It’s very respectful. I’ve been in plenty of situations where people ask me questions like that and try to spark up a conversation simply because they have time; I never have time for small-talk.
In general, the conversations that I’ve had with many Koreans here have had substance and have been very authentic. I like having the expectation of honesty while talking to someone. The other day, I was walking outside with Mr. Lee, and I noticed that the vice principal was operating a drone. I pointed out how cool I thought it was, but also how expensive drones are. With no sense of negative intonation, Mr. Lee said, “He was born with, what do you call it, a silver spoon.”
Sometimes I do wish there was more communication, though. Like, to tell me changes in the schedule. At least once a week, something in my schedule is different, and I never know what to expect. I’ve never been pre-warned that class is canceled due to testing or other various reasons, but I have been notified on at least 6 occasions that class is canceled… after showing up to the classroom. “Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” they say.
I actually don’t mind the lack of heads up because it adds a little flare to my life. When class is canceled, I always have something to do, too: whether it’s blogging, doing lesson prep, or keeping up with a social life. I’m more productive when I’m at school, anyways.
I think I’ve absorbed the Korean culture at least a tad bit. Most things in Korea are last-minute and quickly changing, like schedules, which is why communication isn’t the best sometimes. I used to be semi-OCD about finishing tasks way ahead of time and always being prepared, but lately, a lot of my lessons are put together last-minute. There are a few reasons for that.
I’ve had both teachers and students very specifically ask me to change lesson material or presentation tactics throughout the past 6 weeks. I’ve had requests for more board games, more physical activity time, to move through the material at a slower/quicker pace, and etc. Since lessons can take a good chunk of time, it’s safe to just wait until I absolutely need to prepare the lesson so that I can be sure that the basis of it won’t change and I’m not wasting any valuable time.
It’s also funny how a lesson can go completely different in the classroom from how it went in my head. I’ve walked into a class before where students have immediately begged me to play bingo, and because of that, the activity that I was excited to present to them that day was met with disappointment because they just wanted to play bingo that bad. So, we played bingo with the same set of vocabulary, and they loved it.
My most effective lessons have been the ones where I kind of just ‘winged it’ and thought on the fly due to extraneous circumstances. One time, at one of the elementary schools, I accidentally prepared lessons for all of the wrong topics because I thought the kids were more ahead in the book than they actually were. So, I pulled up my scratch list of games and put together some vocab games during each 10-minute break between classes. The class ended up being very fluid and natural, and the kids loved it, to my surprise.
Of course, everything is this blog is from my perspective and may not hold true for other people with similar experiences. If I learned anything from online research or EPIK orientation, it’s that every person’s situation is different, especially in Korea. For example, everyone had told me that it was a big no-no to turn down a cup of coffee or piece of food that another teacher offers you in the teachers’ lounge. It really just comes down to common sense and whether or not you should accept something based on their attitude while offering it to you and if you really want it. No matter what country you’re in, if someone seemed super eager to give something to you, you’d feel impolite turning it down. One morning a teacher offered me a third loaf of bread that her mother-in-law had made over the weekend, and I told her that I was full; we laughed, and she understood why I wouldn’t want it. I’m glad I didn’t just assume I needed to accept it based on what I had read and what I was told.
In the end, I want to highlight a certain reminder that this blog is based on my experiences in Korea, and there are a lot of different experiences to be had. There’s been a lot of fear placed in Korea by the news lately due to the threats from the North, but I don’t think the assigned level of fear is valid for a variety of reasons. Living a life in fear is not a life at all, actually. South Korea is a wonderful place, as you might be able to see by my posts, so I hope you have a chance to form your own experience of this place one day soon, too. My door is always open here for visitors, too!