Korea has been a culture shock of immense proportions. I wasn’t even nervous on the plane ride over. The whole time, I had this arrogant thinking of “I’ve lived abroad before. I’ve got this in the bag.” I thought that living and working in Thailand would have been a far larger culture shock than Korea.
My Crazy First Week in Korea
As I wrote in my previous blog post, stepping into my dilapidated apartment that first night sent me into a tailspin. The agency had sent me pictures of an entirely different apartment, a cute little loft with a window view and a western shower. When I finally heard back from the agency the following week, the recruiter sent me a completely ridiculous email about how she said I would be staying in the loft *if* they didn’t run into any issues. There must have been problems with it that couldn’t have been relayed before I boarded my flight.
After cleaning up the apartment, it started to look a little less dreary, but not quite what I would call ‘home.’ My first week teaching led to more shocks and surprises of the unpleasant variety. First, the working hours are insane. Maybe not insane in Korean standards (9am-7pm TTH and 9am-6pm MWF), but insane for Western standards. My contract stipulates 40 hours per week, which this does not come out to. The school subtracts your lunch break and another break (which is essentially used for planning time.)
Secondly, the most senior teachers at my school will have been there for 5 months. This is not good. Apparently there have been ‘runners’. These ‘runners’ are sad foreign souls that make a break for it in the middle of the night to avoid paying the recruiter fee. The recruiter fee can be determined by the school, ranging anywhere from 800$-2000$. When I asked the agency about teacher turnover, the recruiter stated it was great and they had many returning teachers. (Belated note to self: don’t trust Korean agencies.)
Third, there is a weird divide between *some* of the Korean teachers and the foreign teachers. Apparently one of the Korean teachers told a former foreign teacher that they were instructed in meetings to spy on us and basically make sure we are not leaving the school at any other times except our designated 40-minute break period. However, I am lucky to have an incredible co-teacher who is so kind and helpful.
So, all in all, my first week of orientation was overwhelming. We had ‘water fun’ day, in which the kids had to scoop mud-fish out of buckets and carry them to another bucket to score points for their team. Half of the sad little fish were lying dead in the water, and half were swimming around frantically, trying to escape their impending doom. I realize it’s cultural, but I have always believed that culture isn’t necessarily an excuse for cruelty. I hope that if I make it to this time next year I can use this as an opportunity to teach my students about compassion for all living things. I also witnessed a child’s birthday party, where the schools professional photographer came in and shot pictures. It was a weird experience. I can only describe it as scripted and surreal. All the kids had to put on cone hats, pose while eating cake, and come up one by one while the poor birthday boy sat there through endless photos with this confused little grimace on his face.
I teach kindergarten in the morning, which is essentially ‘my’ class. I then teach after-school classes to elementary and kindergarten students for kids whose parents send them for intensive English. We were reading the book ‘Sarah, Plain and Tall’, about a young girl who grew up on the prairie and nearly put the kids to sleep. When asked what they wished would happen at the end of the story, one boy raised his hand and said morbidly “I wish everything would dry up and everything would catch fire and everyone would die. I also wish I could go home and eat food.” I feel you kid, I feel you.
So, teaching in Korea hasn’t been what I expected. On a positive note, the kids are cute. Like, picture-perfect cute. (Apparently if they get a small scratch on their face parents will pay to laser it off.) But- that’s beside the point. They are friendly, sweet little students. The money is great. Is the lifestyle worth it? I’m not sure yet. I guess I will figure it out. One of my co-workers jokingly stated “Sometimes on my lunch break, I run up the hill to my house. No reason really. Just to feel something.”
I guess I’m starting to understand that sentiment. In all seriousness, I have a week off before school starts again and I plan to go out and try to enjoy Seoul and figure out how I’m going to make my time here more…doable. Maybe I will go cuddle some kittens at one of the many cat cafes. Wish me luck.