Four years ago in a province far far away . . .
. . . the 3 day 'orientation' is (woooo, verb tense SHIFT!) finally done. I'm sitting in a chair with the 12 other Canadian teachers I flew to Korea with only 4 days ago and we hear the Korean education office director tell us that we will meet our co-teachers tomorrow. We had expected the orientation to run for a week but were quickly learning that things in Korea are subject to change on a moment's notice.
This picture is from orientations in 2006. The orientation I had in 2005 consisted of a 30 minute provincial propaganda video about the province, city hall, its education program, and the political projects being worked on to make the area an economic free zone for international business. The thing that made this really 'fun' for us jetlagged newbies was that it was all in Korean and we'd only been in the country for less than 24 hours. The only other thing that was remotely 'orientation'-like that we had was a 2 hour sit down with an expat who had been in Korea for several years. He had nothing prepared in terms of an information package, a power point, or anything remotely like a presentation . . . in short, his presentation was useless and he really pissed me off with the lack of interest in helping us get settled into our new schools and lives in Korea.
Back to the story . . .
I try to imagine what my co-teacher will look like. My imagination flutters, tries to take flight--and crashes--I sit in my seat visualizing a vague idea of someone exotic, foreign, and who may or may not speak my language . . .
I go back to my hotel room that night with some anxiety and fall asleep. The next morning I wake up and shave, put on a shirt and tie, and head down to eat the hotel's "American" breakfast . . . the eggs are 'interesting' and the bread used to make the toast tastes 'unusual.'
After breakfast we are told to head to a conference room. We sit down in chairs surrounding a long table, and wait . . . and wait . . . and my anxiety builds a little as each minute passes and I wonder what my co-teacher will look like, will they be male or female, old or young, have decent English skills or, the horror the horror, not be able to speak English at all . . .
Suddenly the Korean director walks into the room and a parade of Korean teachers stream into the room to line up against the wall. The energy in the room is full of hyper-charged nervous excitement. The director disappears, and the Korean teachers stand against the wall talking to each other in lightning fast Korean (that sounds to my completely uneducated ears like "Dadadadaimnidadadadadadadyodadadadadgukdadadwaygukdadadaddadada") while the foreign teachers whisper comments to each other and hope to god that one teacher or another is not their co-teacher for different reasons (I'm sure the Korean teachers we're saying something similar to each other too).
Many, if not all, of the Korean teachers stare with lazer-beam intensity at the foreign teachers that draw their insatiable curiosity. Some of them also stare with a smile that has an energy that to my uneducated and non-experienced in Korean culture perspective seems to have a degree of mania or something similar to the grin of a fundamentalist Christian gearing up for a revival . . . a few of us foreign teachers draw more staring than the rest--I seem to be one of them. I later find out that I have "Clark Kent" style short dark hair, blue eyes, white skin, and glasses that fit the image stereotype of what they think is an 'intelligent' person who 'must be a good teacher.'
A picture of my 'Clark Kent hair' taken later after I'd been on the island for a couple months.
Back to the story . . .
Finally, the Korean director comes back and says a whole bunch of stuff in Korean with no translation for the foreign teachers sitting there wondering when the introductions will begin--finally it happens.
Names are read out, and each time the foreign teacher stands up the Korean teachers all make collective reactions sounds that I lack the cultural background references needed to interpret if they are good reactions or bad reactions . . .
As names are called out I begin to get the feeling that my co-teacher is not in the room . . . after the last name is called out I realize this is true.
I stand up and wander over to the Korean director and ask him where my co-teacher is. I am told that 'someone' will come to pick me up to drive me to Ganghwa island--nice, 'someone' is coming to get me.
I watch as the Korean teachers quickly gather up the bags and suitcases of my fellow travelers and foreign teachers, and in minutes they are all out in the parking lot loading everything--and then they are gone.
I wait . . . and wait . . . and about 30 minutes later an SUV pulls into the hotel parking lot. A Korean man in his 40s gets out. He rushes into the hotel lobby and it is there that I find out he is the guy who will drive me to my new 'home.'
We load my suitcases and he opens the back door of the SUV and I get in. During the loading process the director doesn't speak English, and the man doesn't either. No one explains who he is, and I'm not told his name either. We drive out of the hotel parking lot, and I wonder where the hell I am being taken, and what other surprises lie in store for me.
The drive lasts almost 2 hours. The driver makes one very brief attempt to find out information about me. The first questions are asked in Korean and I feel my face burn a little as I wonder what the polite way is to tell this man that I don't speak Korean. He finally gets a few words in English out.
"I'm 30 years old."
"Ahhhhh, dadadadadada." (He says in Korean.)
About 90 seconds pass in silence . . .
"No. I'm not married." (I wonder why he's asking me this personal question.)
About 90 seconds pass in silence . . .
"No. I'm Canadian."
Silence . . .
Eventually I figure out that our conversation must be over due to the silence that continues without interruption, and stare out the window at the passing signs of stores that have random English words mixed with Korean script, and look at the people walking the streets until we begin driving in areas with open fields and mountains in the background.
After about 90 minutes we cross a large bridge onto the island I assume is where I agreed to be posted when my recruiter asked me if I'd be okay with that as my location for my first contract.
We drive for about 10 minutes and arrive in what looks like a small city. We pull into the parking lot of a government-style building. I'm sitting in the back wonder what is going on and the driver says a lot of fast Korean to me, and gestures for me to get out. He says more Korean and gestures for me to follow him. We go into the building.
Inside the building he points at a bench and says more Korean, I figure out that I should wait there. He disappears . . .
A minute later he's back. I stand up and HE TAKES MY HAND INTO HIS OWN LIKE I'M A FIVE YEAR OLD AND STARTS TO TRY TO LEAD ME SOMEWHERE--after 3 eternal seconds of shock that a man in his 40s just took my hand in his own like I'm a helpless child I pull my hand out of his, and put it in my pocket.
I'm sure my face must have been extremely red and kind of wish that I could somehow have CCTV video or something of that moment because that was probably one of the biggest cultural shocks I had during my first month in Korea.
I follow the driver, BOTH hands shoved FIRMLY into my pockets, down a hallway and into a large office. Inside the office I am introduced to someone--I have no idea who--that seems to be very important. The two men talk a lot in Korean about me, looking at me, talking in Korean, looking at me, and then the driver gestures for me to follow him out of the room . . . I shove BOTH hands deeply into my pockets in case he decides that I've changed my mind because my hands are suddenly available for grabbing again . . .
We get into the SUV again and drive for another 30 minutes and finally arrive in a small village, no, a hamlet with a very large mountain sitting literally right beside it. The truck drives onto a large open dirt playing field sitting in front of a school building.
Standing at the start of the main street looking at the only intersection of the hamlet about 100 meters away . . .
Standing on the main street of the hamlet (the school is behind me) looking at the rice fields.
The driveway going into the dirt playing field of the 100 student middle school I was to live (literally) at and teach in.
The building on the left is the main one with classrooms. In the background and slightly to the right is the cafeteria.
Standing at the END of the second street looking at the one intersection of the two street hamlet. To the right is a tiny bus ticket office, a couple of businesses are in the center, to the right of those an elementary school . . .
. . . that sits right next to the middle school I taught at, and out of the picture's frame and to the right are some mom and pop variety stores and a few Korean food restaurants.
I get out and stare at the mountain in the background, the rice fields that I see in every direction, and think--holy shit!
Standing on the main street looking at my school's gymnasium and Mani mountain that lies just behind it.
I'd often walk down this path to go to the one of the 3 restaurants that actually had tables and chairs in the hamlet.
The dog in this picture was, I think, supposed to be a guard dog for the small garage repair shop that is out of the frame to the right. In the background you can see my school's gymnasium and Mani mountain.
A couple weeks after I arrived on the island I asked my co-teacher if I should be worried about any poisonous spiders, insects, or snakes . . . she said what many Koreans tell me when I ask questions like this: "Don't worry about it." I later showed her this picture--often! Walking back to my hut-apartment one night during the summer I came across what looks like some kind of rat snake . . .
Back to the story . . .
I'm immediately ushered into the principal's office. I meet my co-teacher, a Miss Kim, who is very thin, and dressed extremely conservatively. I also meet a Mr. Jeong who seems to be the school's Vice Principal but isn't, and Principal Kim--a very thin and old Korean man who sits with the air of a King holding court behind his desk.
On the left is a Korean teacher who would stay in the hut-apartment adjoining mine quite often in order to not have to travel the 2 hours from her real apartment in Incheon city to the island school and back every day. I grew quite close to her, and she is an amazing human being. On the right is Principal Kim.
Slightly left of center wearing a beige suit is Miss Kim, my first co-teacher.
On the left, Mr Jeong (the unofficial vice principal (the school wasn't big enough to have one)), and on the right (can't remember, lol) the physical education teacher.
I love this woman. She had a bread maker that she'd make fresh bread with fairly often. At first, I got really pissed off with her one morning for knocking on my door at 6:30am . . . but she had made bread and put it on a platter with some strawberry jam and wanted to share it with me (apparently she'd just finished hiking the mountain we lived next to, she must have woken up at FIVE AM!!! Oh my god) so I quickly lost my negative attitude and thanked her profusely.
Other days she'd drop by and give me an entire meal with things she had made herself, and that her mother had made too . . . wow.
And back to the story . . .
The principal then proceeds to ask me a series of questions. Age, martial status, country, city, and then--"Do you go to church?"
I wonder if my draw dropped a bit when my co-teacher translated that one because I'm pretty sure it must have. I tell my co-teacher to translate that no I don't go to church. The principal's face looks disappointed, and it's at this point that the dialogue via translator dies a bit.
The principal suggests that we go on a tour of the school. He shows me a classroom, the school courtyard, and then takes me into a very large and newish looking building that proves to be a gymnasium with a stage.
I see a ping pong table and ask my co-teacher to ask the principal if he plays. He says yes, and we begin to play a game.
The old man is good, and soon I'm sweating. At this point about 20 middle school students flood into the gym and yelling and exclamations in Korean begin exploding all over the place.
The principal stops playing, insists that I play with the students, and then he disappears back into the other building with my co-teacher and the guy who is not the vice principal but seems to be.
Before leaving, the principal lines up all 20 students at one end of the ping pong table, tells them something that must mean 'speak lots of English,' and then leaves me alone with 20 middle school students to play ping pong.
After about 40 minutes of beating all but one kid who must be the island's grand champion in training I go back into the school to try and find out what is going on, and where I will be living.
I find out that I will NOT be living in the small city that is 30 minutes away from the hamlet. I ask why I am not getting an apartment and am told that the school is poor, and that the area lacks apartment buildings and the few apartments that are nearby are either too expensive or not appropriate for me. I begin to get a sense that the principal wants to keep me within arm's reach 24/7 . . .
At this point they decide to take me out into the school courtyard . . . my 'apartment' is behind the vine-covered stage . . .
. . . to show me the tiny hut of a building that they have decided is where I should live--'if you like it.'
In this picture (above) I sit on a rock bench that is in front of my new hut-apartment (there are TWO apartments in the structure behind me).
The tiny structure sits about 50 feet from the school itself, and there are 3 other small box-shaped buildings just off the school grounds where some other Koreans live.
Picture taken standing in the lane way that runs along the back of the school looking at my hut-apartment.
"The Hut" . . . in the background, center, hidden slightly by some bushes and trees, and the cafeteria is the building with the orange roof.
This picture is taken standing with my back pressed against the wall of the school itself--yes, a LITTLE too close for comfort . . .
This nice little area was often used on weekends by Koreans traveling to the island to hike the mountain. They'd often have picnics and camp out in the space where you see the desks and chairs, and beyond it right in front of my apartment. One weekend somebody brought a portable karaoke machine with powerful speakers. I was sick, and trying to sleep inside my apartment . . . and it just wasn't happening . . . I went and knocked on my principal's office door, and angrily asked in as simple English as I could manage why there were a hundred Koreans partying on the school grounds--he actually said "I'm sorry" . . . I wonder if that's a first in Korea? A principal apologizing to a foreign English teacher . . . hmmmm.
Walking inside my new 'apartment' (the pics below were taken when I was actually getting ready to move to my second contract so things are a bit messy, oh well) I see a tiny kitchenette, a closet-sized bathroom with concrete tiles, and a bedroom that is about 12 by 15 feet. A new washing machine, kitchen table with 2 chairs, a fridge, a gas range, a bed, a clothing bureau, and TV will eventually fill up almost all of the space in my new 'apartment' but at that point in time only a bed and a few other things were present. I began to piece together that organization and planning seemed to be 'different' in Korea . . . .
The green door in this picture (above) was made of thin metal and glass. I later realized that the structure was not even meant to be occupied during all four of Korea's "distinct" seasons. During the winter my kitchen would pretty much be the same temperature as it was outside, and I had to run a space heater for a minimum of five minutes just to heat the bathroom up from freezing to cold when I would take a shower . . .
Looking into the kitchen from the one other room in the hut-apartment . . .
I brought with me from Canada some old calendars with pics I liked and put them up on the walls . . .
TV, entertainment furniture thingy, chair (the cushions are sitting on top of it, I forget why, lol) . . . .
Closet . . . I took the doors off of it to make the room feel bigger . . .
Back to the story . . .
My co-teacher and the principal keep asking me if I "like it" and is it "okay?" I think to myself about how back in Canada we were warned that saying "no" in Korea generally doesn't go over well at all, and that we should try to say "yes" even to things we don't like, and just accept the majority of cultural differences and adapt to them. I said the apartment was okay (which turned out to be a colossal mistake of epic proportions).
That evening I was taken out for dinner. Sitting on the floor in the Korean restaurant directly across from the principal, my co-teacher on my right side, and surrounded by the 15 teachers from my new school, I was asked more questions.
The question of religion and going to church came up again. I politely deferred from giving too much information. I was asked why I didn't go to church anymore, and just said that I had had a lot of life experiences that led me to make some changes. The principal then invited me again to go to church with him and I said that I'd "think about it" hoping that that would be the last time he would ask me, and that it would become a forgotten issue (later on I would realize that this is NOT the best way to deal with that kind of request).
At this point the physical education teacher began trying to get me to drink shots of soju with him and the other male teachers. I politely explained that I wasn't going to drink because I had to teach the next day. I watched in quiet shock and and little bit of dismay as the male teachers proceeded to hammer back shots like they were 20 years old and at a frat house party . . . wow. The principal was very impressed that I was not going to drink because I had to teach. I thought that it was odd he was impressed by this, and not upset or something that the Korean teachers were all getting totally hammered when they would be working with children the next day--but then, I was in a foreign culture and had no clue what was 'normal' for Korea . . .
My co-teacher, Miss Kim, and I didn't really talk all that much. It wouldn't be until many weeks if not months later that I'd realize that because I was an unmarried man, and she was an unmarried woman, that that had been the reason for her not talking to me much during the entire course of the first day. I just assumed at the time that she was shy, and that she was being deferential to the principal/King's style of social introductions . . .
It would be during the course of the first month that I would actually begin to get to know my co-teacher better, and begin to learn about what co-teaching involves . . .
Living next to a mountain with the path just 50 meters away from the door of my hut I got a LOT more exercise than I do now. Looking at this picture makes me realize how much work I have to do to get back to looking like this . . . sigh.
And lastly some pics of things that gave me some degree of culture shock though not necessarily in a bad way.
School lunches . . . I was immediately told that I had put my rice on the "wrong" side of my tray. Me being who I am I proceeded to put my rice on the 'wrong' side of my tray for the rest of the year . . . I can adapt and submit to cultural norms to a degree but damn if I won't put my food where I want it to be comfortable when I'm eating!!! Lol . . . I think it took almost a month before the students and teachers finally let it go--I think they thought I'd cave . . . nope.
Sometime in the second week in Korea I found out that I'd be teaching at my 'home' middle school twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays), an all girls middle school that was a 30 minute bus ride away on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and on Friday I'd take a 10 minute bus ride to a middle school that lay in between the hamlet I lived in and the small city on the island where the all girls middle school was.
Eating lunch in an all girls middle school (see the pic above) is a very very very NOISY experience. Most days I'd shovel the food down my gullet and get the hell out as fast as I could.
The picture above is of the two other Korean teachers (not co-teachers) that I shared an office with at the all girls middle school. They were very friendly. One had intermediate level English, and the other not very much. But regardless of language ability we got along great, and had a lot of fun times.
Mr. Jeong, one of my first year in Korea co-teachers at the all girls middle school . . . his English was . . . something . . . and our relationship . . . was something else. Let's just say that after several 'issues' the regional director made a phone call for me and I didn't teach with him in the second semester. Needless to say I was very very happy . . .
Anyways, this post is laying the ground work for me to reply to a comment Brian made about co-teachers in the post I did about co-teaching strategies and co-teachers,
"The vast majority of my coteachers either don't come to class or sit in the back of the room reading a magazine or flipping through a book." (from here)
I'm going to try and write a new post with more of my views and suggestions on how to proactively create good co-teaching relationships and co-TEACHING in the classroom . . .
I'm pretty written out right now, though, and need to go play some mindless facebook games and chill out for a while.