I ended my last blog with this, but I realized the other day that this is the first time in my life that I’m not looking forward to anything.  My daily life right now makes me happy enough where I don’t need to, and that’s a beautiful thing.  Both my job and location give me a lot of freedom and time to pursue things I’ve always wanted to do, like traveling and photography, and I’m consistently surrounded by a wonderfully positive environment.

Every day is different, and because communication could be, uh, improved (-.-) between our schools and us native English teachers, I’m always starting off the day thinking, ‘Which of my classes will be canceled today?  Will there be a field trip?  Shortened classes? Will I actually have to teach this week?’  It’s pretty exciting.

When I do work, it’s easy and pressure-free because I know what I’m supposed to be doing now, and I’m treated like an expert just for being able to speak my own language.  I spell the word ‘the’ for my third graders, and they look at me like I’m a magician sometimes.  I can’t imagine a better situation; therefore, there’s no need to look forward to a better one each day.

Something that’s also really contributed to my enjoyment here is a little ironic for me.  Being born and raised as an only child and American, I’ve always heavily valued individual freedom.  When I was preparing to come to Korea, I researched some situations in which their strong ‘group harmony’ values come into play.  Honestly, reading some people’s stories about being expected to attend school events and school dinners regardless of what they had previously planned seemed unfair and ridiculous.

Not only have ‘group harmony’ values in everyday situations not been a culture shock, but I wish every culture behaved this way!  The little things, like spending breaks with my co-workers who don’t speak English for the sole purpose of showing that I care about being included in their group, are common sense decisions for me to avoid awkwardness and build relationships.  It’s really just as simple as consistently being considerate of others’ feelings.  The bigger things, like going to the high school’s sports day on a day off, is not something I’d typically choose to do, but after I was invited and went, I was glad that I did.  The kids were so glad that I came to watch that I felt like one of their parents.  A little effort goes a long way.

I think a lot of Americans opt for the lazy option of skipping out on things simply because they can and so many other people do; I say this because I would, too, back in the US.  With a little cultural pressure for group harmony and participation, not only are my work relationships better, but I’m constantly surrounded by other respectful, close, and supportive relationships.  Everything’s more fun when everyone participates in everything going on, too!  This social construct alongside my interactions and new relationships are what makes me feel like I have a little family here in Korea.

Whether I’m at my small elementary school of 18 kids or at my high school of 300+ kids, I feel like I’m with my school family.  All of the homeroom teachers are literally like daytime parents to their classes, and although the hierarchal values of the culture are apparent, the students and teachers get very “chummy.”  Not in an uncomfortable way by any means, though… in a parental relationship type of way that I think motivates the students to listen and perform better.

At one of the high school’s sports day this month, a teacher was out getting surgery on his leg.  Another teacher told me that everyone was worried that his students would be disheartened by his absence and would lose all of their games because he wasn’t there to cheer them on.  I asked when he would come back to school.  She said that he was supposed to come back in a week or so, but he’d probably come back right after the weekend (a week early) because he was so worried about his kids.

I don’t think most teachers in the States would be compelled to return to school so early from surgery, and I don’t blame them for many reasons.  Disregarding cultural differences, the American public school system is just not designed to feel comfortable or familial-like with its prison-style infrastructure and underfunded everything.  After experiencing both the Korean and American public school systems, I’ve realized how unfortunate it is that with all of our “American wealth,” this is the public school system that we’ve ended up with.

It’s actually a miracle that I’ve gotten here because, growing up, I remember thinking that I could never be a teacher because school felt kind of like a prison.  All-white-everything, the lack of windows, and, well, just the overall lack of efforts by my schools to make it an enjoyable place to come to, and I had it pretty good in Minnesota compared to the rest of the US.  I’m not blaming anything on my individual schools; I blame this experience on the system.  I can honestly say that I dreaded most of my monotonous school days, but I didn’t know anything different, so I accepted it for what it was.  Talking to other foreign English teachers with me in South Korea, many of us are coming to the same realizations.

In Korea, I look forward to coming to school.  (I know the public/hagwon school experience is like night and day compared to the private school experience, though.)  I’ve actually had a few bad nights that resulted in me coming to school the next morning very distraught, and it has never failed to completely lift my spirits.  I thoroughly enjoy being in the colorful, window-covered buildings, and I especially enjoy going to one of the frequent educational field trips and sports days. The Korean education system is far from perfect, but there are a lot of aspects of it that other countries should strive for, too.

Being in Korea and participating in an educational system that is placed at the heart of importance for national development, I couldn’t state strongly enough how much I believe that the public education system in the States is highly undervalued, underfunded and underdeveloped.

One of my examples for this statement is school lunch.  Korean school lunches are some of the healthiest, tastiest, freshest food I’ve ever eaten.  The well-balanced meals are cooked right there in the kitchen with love by the lunch lady fam.  I remember my freshly-unfrozen packaged school meals back in the States being… questionable.

I talked to a few of my co-teachers about my love for Korean school lunches, and they didn’t believe me when I told them about the differences.  First, they thought I was just being nice because they idolize America in too many unfounded ways.  Second, they didn’t understand why so little emphasis on health would be placed in daily school life, where the main focus is for kids to grow and learn.  Specifically, kids should be learning how to eat healthy in school above anywhere else, and they should be given the tools do so.

Beyond just school lunch, I think the US would experience miraculous benefits from investing more time and money in infrastructure improvements, compensating teachers more fairly in relation to their value to our country (in monetary and non-monetary ways,) and catering to the changing needs and motivations of students better.

Adaptation problems are a big aspect of our failing system. Below is a clip of a speech from Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, saying why our children aren’t being prepared for the needs of the future. Everything he says is spot-on.

So, how could our system adapt? Here are some ideas from one of the most-watched TED Talks of all-time:

Do you still need more evidence that education is not being valued enough in the States?  Cue, the “nerds.”

In Korea, your peers admire you more for excelling in your education.  In America, you can be a cool “nerd,” but the prevalence, origin and naturally negative connotations of the label highlight an important issue that further degrades the American education system.  In America, appearance oftentimes calls for more admiration than intellect does, especially in youth, so our social construct is f****ng ourselves in the long-term.

Another thing that I’ve noticed that differentiates the American and Korean school systems is the presence of cliques.  Obviously, there are cliques that naturally form in my Korean schools, but they aren’t nearly as divisive and judgmental as I knew the cliques to be in my school days.  I learned pretty quickly that I have to assign teams for group work, or the students will just sit there, motionless and unwilling to segregate each other into teams. I think this goes back to my point on how they value group harmony.  Just a little more respect for one another and a lot less negativity make a world of difference in the atmosphere here.

I’m certainly not saying that people in Korea don’t tend to notice individual differences as much, though.  In Korea, I think people are more outwardly aware of physical appearances that Americans but also more accepting and less insecure about them.  In America, like I said before, appearance oftentimes seems define a person more than intellect; I think that leads to a lot of deep-held insecurities.  Most Koreans have been raised under the impression that there is a lot more that defines themselves than appearance, like education.  The number one answer you’ll get when talking to high school students about personal insecurities will relate to academic performance rather than anything else.

Why do I think average American insecurities regarding appearance are more deep-held than average Korean ones?  You couldn’t spark up a comfortable conversation about how you think your face is fat and what possible plastic surgery plans you have in your future in America.  Yes, this is normal in Korea.

Conversations about physical appearances have been some of my favorites in Korea, actually… lol.  The other day, one of my middle-school boys was genuinely curious why I wasn’t wearing makeup.  It wasn’t the first time someone had noticed and asked me about it in Korea.  Honestly, I just didn’t feel like the hassle was necessary.  He then proceeded to tell me that I looked better with makeup on, but I didn’t need it.  My first reaction was offense, but then I thought, well, he’s right and meant no offense… and, obviously, I look better with some makeup on.  That was a fact, so why was my initial reaction so negative?  I think an unnecessary amount of insecurity has been engrained in me since middle school.  I really want to make shedding that insecurity a personal growth goal of mine while I’m in Korea.

The following week, my co-teacher said that the boys told her that I was prettier than her even when I didn’t wear makeup because I was younger and Western-looking.  I felt so bad because that actually seemed malicious.  Of course, I replied to her that it wasn’t true… to which she replied back with an explanation of how in their culture, the Western look is what’s most beautiful, so what they said was true, and that it was alright.  Yeah, it was an awkward conversation for me.  I could tell that it wasn’t an unusual topic of conversation for her, though.

I found out later that some Koreans get offended if a woman doesn’t wear makeup for them because it means that the woman doesn’t care what they think of her.  I think it’s interesting how the message, even if it’s a flawed assumption, is important.  Something seemingly entirely superficial has more layers to it here.  To be honest, as a foreigner terrified of doing something wrong and making them think that I don’t care, I’ve begun to make a little effort with makeup for school now.

My Friday school definitely doesn’t care if I wear makeup or not, though.  I thought the vice principal was the gym teacher for a solid three months before realizing that the tracksuit was an outfit preference rather than a class uniform.  So, obviously, I know that everything I’ve said so far is flexible and comes from my personal experiences and opinions rather than worldly facts, but I think that some of the conclusions that I’ve made are important enough for others to at least consider.  If anything, maybe I’ll even learn from those with valid points who disagree with what I’ve said.  You can take that as a challenge because debate is more likely to spark change than passiveness.

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