Category Archives: Korea

Santa Teacher

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Christmas was approaching. Excitement building. At first the children spoke in hushed whispers, but as the day came closer their voices grew louder. Eventually they were shouting in hysterics “Santa is coming! Santa is coming!”

I wrote about lying to children in my last post. Well the biggest lie of all is Santa. And as Christmas approached it was my biggest problem.

Pity. That’s what I feel for any white male who works in a Korean hagwon at Christmas. Why? Because there’s a very definite possibility that you will find yourself tasked with being Santa. In a school filled with Korean women, the white guy becomes Santa by default.

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Daniel Teacher’s House on the Moon

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The best thing about working with kids is that they’ll believe anything you say. To children, anybody over 5 years older than them is an adult. Somebody to be trusted. Somebody who tells no lies.

I love a good lie. Something I can really sink my teeth into. Literally. The first time I lied to the children, I said I’d eaten another child.

One student had left the school to go to America. I explained that he wasn’t in America, he was in my belly. I’d eaten him.

At this point in the lie, the reaction is different based on the child. Some automatically believe it to be true. Some want more details (“What part of him did you eat first?”) Some shout out loud that I’m a liar. Then they say that they’re going to call the police and I’m going to go to prison for lying. Everybody laughs aloud.

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Sickness in Korea

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The lack of private toilet time isn’t the only problem I have with working in a Korean kindergarten. Every few weeks I seem to get some new illness. Either due to the lack of hygiene from the kids (Hey, I’ll just sneeze in your face, ok?!) Or more annoyingly the kids who do understand hygiene and decide to use it against you (Hahaha! I’m going to cough right in your face…so funny!)

Inevitably you get sick, but you can’t do much about it. The annoying thing about hagwons is they open before the hospitals and shut after them. The working hours are so long that there’s no time to go to see a doctor. Unless you want to be the stupid white idiot who goes to the emergency room after work with a sore throat.

Worse than this, there’s an immense amount of social pressure to not take a day off. The unspoken rule seems to be that unless you’re dying, you should be in work.

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North Korean Fear

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There comes a time when every foreigner in Korea makes the pilgrimage to the DMZ: the most unlikely of tourist attractions.

At the end of the Korean War, both North and South Korea signed an armistice agreement, basically saying they would cease fighting.  Each side moved back 2 kilometers from the front line of the war, creating a 4 kilometer buffer zone between the countries. This area was quickly fortified by each side and became the Demilitarized Zone. A long strip of land which nobody can enter.

Years later, despite there still being tension between the two countries, the DMZ has become a major tourist destination. There are gift shops, restaurants. Places to take pictures.

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The Art of Bullshit

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Once a month, I look at the school calendar and sigh with annoyance. It can mean only one thing. The monthly kindergarten reports are due.

Each month, I hopelessly search my brain for something to say about how my students are doing. Rarely do I find something satisfactory to say. Instead, I bullshit.

Back when I was a young boy, I got a school report every six months, I never got a report when I was in pre-school though. Possibly because my parents wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Probably because the people at the pre-school realised there’s very little you can write about a child so young.
 
Still, each month I struggle through my reports for kids aged between 3 and 7. Writing a school report for a 4 year old is hard. Writing a different one every month is impossible. What can you actually say about a child that is so young he could probably still be breastfed?
 
The challenge of writing my reports is intensified due to my working for a private school. Parents spend their hard earned money to send their kids to my school, meaning the parents and children have to be kept happy. My reports can’t be negative. Or honest. Heaven forbid I say something bad about somebody’s little angel. If Mother gets a negative report, she’ll be unhappy. Maybe she’ll send her son or daughter to another school. We’ll lose money.
 
Better to have Mother living in blissful ignorance. She can believe her child is a perfect student who comes into every lesson with passion and enthusiam. We don’t have to lie, just bend the truth. That way we’ll be able to take her money each month. The reality of her child will never reach her. Her daughter spends every lesson picking her nose and eating the treasures she finds. There are parrots with a better grasp of English.

After all this time, I’ve started to perfect the art of bullshitting. The key is to be believable. Otherwise Mother might get suspicious. If I have a child who constantly throws temper tantrums, screaming and shouting to get what they want. I don’t write “Your daughter is a little shit and she’s scaring the other children with her constant noise.” I instead write “Your daughter has a lot of energy which she is using in class.” Sure, she’s using that energy to argue with the other children and throw chairs at me…but she is technically doing it in the classroom, so it’s believable bullshit.
 
If a child is lazy, they suddenly become “comfortable in the classroom”, if a child spends the entire lesson shouting rude words at me in Korean he “enjoys speaking activities”, if a boy can’t concentrate he becomes “imaginative”, if a girl draws all over the desk she’s “creative”. Whatever the situation, there’s some bullshit I can use to spin it. If a child pulled down his pants in class and pissed all over the desk, I’d probably just write that he really feels at home in the classroom.

I’m sure a lot of mothers read this bullshit and believe it. Nobody wants to believe their child is a monster. The truth is a horrible pill to swallow sometimes. We’d all much rather be told we’re an “energetic people person” than a “crazy psychopath”. Parents can easily become deluded about their children. “My child would never come into your classroom and fart in your face! My daughter is an angel who does nothing wrong.” It’s best to just let them keep believing it.

At the same time, no mother wants to believe their child is devoid of personality either – despite the fact that most young children are. You can’t exactly have a deep conversation with a person that can’t understand that 1 plus 1 equals 2. Yet every parent believes their child is special and gifted, so as to not disappoint, I must pretend they are.

“Since last month, Ben has managed to learn the entire alphabet, as well as the words for some colors. Afterwards he also learnt the theory of relativity and independently solved the problem of global warming. He tells me he’s working on a cure for cancer now which should be finished by next month.”

In reality I should be writing:

“Since last month, Ben has learnt absolutely nothing. Every time I ask him to sit down he crawls under the desk and laughs in my face. I tried to teach him the alphabet, but he decided he’d much rather take a box of Lego and pour it over the ground. One positive is we managed to make it through one full day this month where he didn’t poop in his pants!”

Really, I am confused as to why a child that still uses nappies has to have a report card. A report card is used to report on the progress of a child’s mind. How their intellect is progressing. Kind of ridiculous when a lot of my children are so young that they are closer to being vegetables than they are adult human beings!
 
The downside to my bullshit is that those children that do need improvement inevitably don’t get it because the school and parents would rather live a bubble of ignorance. Even worse, criticism may hurt the child or mother which would only hurt the schools profits as the parents would take their child to a “better” hagwon: a hagwon that is better at lying.
 
The expectations from parents are completely unrealistic. But over time I’ve started to fall in line with them. At first, I was of the opinion that my school was asking too much of the students. Expecting 5 year olds to memorise long passages of English, read long books and generally be advanced speakers of English. It all seemed too much. Now I get pissed if a 4 year old can’t sit still for 10 minutes to read a text book. Really, a child of that age should be praised for doing pretty much anything. “Hey, you scribbled on a piece of paper?! I’m putting that on the fridge!” Instead the kids are pressurised to the point of exhaustion.

So maybe in a way, my bullshit isn’t just for the mothers, it’s for the kids as well. It gives them a little break. Those kids that spend all day drawing all over their books, ignoring me, learning nothing. Well…good for them. Isn’t that what they should be doing when they’re kids anyway?

By giving them a good report, I allow them to be little kids for longer, rather than bringing the pressure to be perfect onto their shoulders straight away.

Sometimes it’s good to bullshit.

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 Photo by Jeffrey James Pacres

Pooping in Korea

Until I started to work with kids, I never realised how seriously I could take pooping. Sure, I used to keep a mental list of all the cleanest public bathrooms in Newcastle, just incase the need arose. And of course, I always made sure to go to the bathroom before seeing a movie, even if I didn’t feel the need. But going to the toilet was never an obsession that would be on my mind all day, every day.

I’m positive I’m not the only person in the world that enjoys using the toilet. It’s the perfect escape. A place that’s always quiet, where you can sit back and relax with a good book. You can take your time, forget all of life’s problems and just bask in the moment. Sometimes you can literally feel a weight being lifted from you. Best of all, the bathroom is a private place, where nobody can disturb you, where you can be alone with your own thoughts and feelings.

Until you get a job in a kindergarten.

When I was first given the tour of my kindergarten, the one thing to immediately jump out at me was the bathroom. It’s a tiny box room, with two cubicles, two urinals and not much space between them. One cubicle is so small that even our 4 year olds can peep over the door and look into it. That’s no problem though, it’s for children. It’s not an issue to them because they’re not old enough to appreciate privacy.

The second cubicle is adult sized. Four solid wooden walls with no room to peek over or under. There’s a nice, high wooden door with a lock. That’s important. I always hate going to a person’s house and finding out their bathroom has no lock. How can anybody live like this? I always wonder. You’re living in fear! Any time you’re in the bathroom somebody could walk in at any moment. That’s hardly a relaxing notion.

Fortunately my kindergarten’s cubicle has a lock. Unfortunately the bathroom itself doesn’t have a door. Upon first seeing this my mind couldn’t comprehend it. WHAT THE HELL?! WHAT TYPE OF BATHROOM HAS NO DOOR! Sure, the cubicle has a door, but the bathroom itself?! Hell no. In some places this may not be a problem…but in a Korean kindergarten it’s the biggest problem in the world.

You see Korea is almost 90% covered in mountains, meaning space is at a premium. Buildings use up every inch they can and the result is that my school is composed of lots of little rooms all clustered closely together. The bathroom doorway sits directly opposite a classroom doorway. This leads to an obvious anxiety – when you’re in the bathroom you get the impression everybody in the school can hear you. Gone are the days where I could go to the bathroom and enjoy listening to every little toot and splot. Over many months I’ve tried to develop techniques for a silent poop to no avail. No matter what I try a ninja poop is impossible. Even getting to the poop stage is hard sometimes.

I’ve spent the last year in psychological warfare with my children. The battleground is the bathroom. I’ll wait for a quiet moment during the day when the children are in their classrooms (snack time, just after lunch when the children are playing – each quiet moment of the day is memorised in my mind) and it’s then that the game begins.

I cannot simply walk into the bathroom. First I have to do a stakeout, ensure no children are in there. I slide by the door (or the lack of door) and if the bathroom isn’t empty, I walk by, pretend to be going elsewhere. Most often, I’ll look in to see a child at the urinal who I’ll make awkward eye contact with. Often they’ll wave and call “HELLO, DANIEL TEACHER!” adding to the discomfort.

Since young children lack social boundaries they are masters at creating awkward situations. By the time they’re teenagers they’ll (hopefully) feel so uncomfortable in public bathrooms that they’ll purposefully use a urinal as far away as they can from another human being. When they’re kids though they seem to take an amazing amount of pleasure in public urinating. My brain can’t handle it and I just feel awkward. It doesn’t help that the technique Korean children use for peeing is so exhibitionist. They pull down their trousers and underwear around their ankles. Lift up their t-shirt to show their belly. (At this point they might as well be nude!) They then stand in front of the urinal, thrusting their penis in its general direction. No aiming is involved, they simply lean towards the urinal and hope for the best.

When I’m not confronted by that sight and the bathroom is empty, I glance around me. No child can see me enter the bathroom. If they do, I may as well give up then and there. If they know I’m going to the bathroom, they’ll follow me in due to either their curiosity (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, how strange) or their complete sociopathy (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, let’s fuck with him.)

Once I’ve sneaked into the bathroom. I must be as quick as possible. I pounce into the cubicle, close the door behind me with one hand while undoing my belt with the other. Time is of the essence. There is only a 30 second window. Spend any more time in there and some child will wander in. So quickly, I’ll sit. Squeeze hard.

Nothing comes at first. The moment of elation I feel by sneaking into the bathroom has made me so excited that my whole body has tensed up. I squeeze my eyes, think of calm, flowing images. (A waterfall is my go to image, something about all that rushing out seems to tell my body to do the same.) Soon, I feel myself easing up, feel something start to move. Then I hear a noise. Footsteps.

I hold my breath. Whoever it is…maybe they’ll just turn around and leave. Right? RIGHT?! But then there’s a knock on the door and a small childish Korean voice. I knock back to let them know somebody is there. “Whatever you do, don’t speak…they’ll know its you.”

But they find out it’s me anyway. They kneel down…look through the tiny crack beneath the door. They see my shoes. “IT’S DANIEL TEACHER!”
Immediately it starts.

They yank on the door violently, pulling it again and again. I stare at the latch which once looked so sturdy, but now looks so flimsy. It seems to groan with every pull on the door. “DANIEL TEACHER! DANIEL TEACHER!” A second child arrives and screams with glee “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” Soon three children are hammering on the door shouting my name.

The crowd gets larger and larger. “Go away…” I mumble over the door, without a hint of conviction. All I can think about is how if the door snapped open they’d see me sitting on the toilet, pants around my ankles, my hairy white legs like two albino giraffe necks. I would never survive the humiliation. The children would joke about it every day for years to come – even when I’m long gone and dead of embarrassment. “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING AND HE HAD HAIR EVERYWHERE AND IT WAS SO FUNNY! RIGHT!? RIGHT!?”

By now, I know it’s no use. My butt cheeks have squeezed together so tightly that they could probably snap a piece of bamboo. Still – I reason – maybe all their noise will muffle the sound. So I try to relax. The children continue to yank on the door and with every pull I feel my sphincter tightening even more, becoming a black-hole, sucking up more and more of my butt cheeks.

Suddenly a new voice arrives. A Korean co-worker. She shouts at the kids to get out, but instead they just turn to her and shout “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” I groan. Daniel Teacher is most definitely not going to be pooping now.

I quickly pull up my pants. Flush. Open the door and push through the crowd of children. “DANIEL TEACHER! WERE YOU POOPING?!” Sheepishly I protest. “Er…no…” “DANIEL TEACHER! YOU WERE POOPING!” I’ve suddenly shrunk by a foot due to my butt sucking itself up in the absolute horror of the moment.

Washing my hands, I escape, but they follow me. Taunting me with their toilet talk. Eventually they get bored and disperse. I start to gain back my height. Relax a little. Anxiety seeps away. Soon it’s replaced with that feeling again. The feeling of needing to go. And that’s how I spend the rest of the day, in a state of psychological constipation. Always needing to go but never getting the opportunity due to the children. Those damn children!

From time to time, I manage to elude them, but even then the torture doesn’t end. After flushing away the spoils of war, I’ll wash my hands, whistling merrily to myself, whereupon a child will come running in. They’ll inspect the bathroom thoroughly and eventually catch a whiff. With all the energy they can muster they’ll run from the room screaming “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING! DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING!” and I’ll attempt the task of denying it for the rest of the day to the children that just wont shut up about it. Me? Pooping? Pfff. No way. Whoever smelt it dealt it.  Who ever denied it supplied it.
But denial in the end is useless, because one thing I’ve learnt is that although children are good at smelling shit, they are even better at smelling bullshit.

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Photo by Michel Filion.

Living in Korea

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Almost five months ago now, I landed in Korea and started a new stage in my life as an English teacher. Time has gone by as it usually does, impossibly moving along slowly and quickly at the same time. February seems a lifetime ago but at the same time its almost like yesterday.

Five months should be a reasonable amount of time to get even the slightest of grips on anything, but in those five months I feel like I’ve learnt only the tiniest amount about Korean culture, how Korean society works and what its actually like to be a Korean.

In my time here, I’ve found many a blog from people in exactly the same position. Many of these blogs have provided some commentary on Korea – usually going for the option of comparing the differences and similarities between Korea and America (or England). As time goes by though, I’m starting to realise that any experience I have in Korea, is not a true Korean experience, but rather an experience shaped around who I am and where I’m from. As an expat, I am not actually living within Korean society, I live outside of it, in a bubble. I am an outsider. I do not experience Korea, I experience a warped version of Korea presented to me.

I don’t live like a Korean, I don’t eat like a Korean, I don’t speak like a Korean. I am not Korean. I do not live the Korean life. So really, I can’t comment on what it’s like to truly live in Korea. Naturally, my life shares many experiences with that of a Korean person, but all of these experiences happen to me through an English lens.

Going to a new country, we often see uncanny things, because we are experiencing a new place while imposing expectations from places we are used to. Really, these things we experience aren’t strange, just different. I’ve come to understand that what I see as strange, a Korean doesn’t see as anything, they have no opinion on it at all. My experience of Korea is nowhere near the same experience as a natives, due to my reaction to this new environment being completely different.

One thing I’d like to take as an example is the strange (to me) lack of public garbage cans in Korea. If you find yourself buying, and eating a Snickers bar you’ll soon find that there is nowhere on the street to dispose of it. Public garbage cans barely exist and they’re commonly only found in civic buildings or subway stations. The lack of garbage cans is almost immediately noticeable and even more immediately annoying. I’m sure I’m not the only foreigner to fall to my knees and scream “Where’s all the garbage cans!?! ARGH!!”

Now lets look at the other perspective. When living in your home country have you ever spared half, or even quarter of a thought to public garbage cans? It’s not something you would ever think about. How many times have you used a garbage can without conscious thinking? Be honest. You don’t think about throwing away garbage, you just do it, its part of life. You never feel any opinion towards it, because its so ingrained into your routine as to be invisible, subconscious, you never think about.

It’s part of a routine, the garbage routine – you eat your food, you realise you have some garbage to get rid of, you find a nearby garbage can, then you throw away your trash. Once that routine is broken though – as it is in a foreign country – that’s when the whole activity of getting rid of your garbage becomes a conscious thing.

The routine for a Korean person is different, when they eat a Snickers in public they don’t immediately start to seek out a garbage can. They put the wrapper into their pocket and wait. Go on with life as normal. A garbage can will come eventually. As an English person though, this will not do. I am so used to the idea – the routine – of a garbage can being immediately accessible that when it isn’t I can’t snap out of that routine which quickly leads to anxiety or rage.

Essentially, what I’m talking about, as I have done a few times on my blog, is culture shock. This time about the disconnect between the routines I am used to in the West – that are subconscious – and the routines I now face in Korea – which I have to consciously think about. This disconnect becomes tiring as you need to think about every little thing which before wasn’t worth thinking about. Garbage. Taking a taxi. Shopping. Paying bills.

All of these things that were once ingrained in me, I have to learn again, and because these things are now more noticeable, they are the things that shape my opinion of Korea. If you ask me “what is Korea like?” my first thought will be “there is a complete lack of garbage cans” and really this shows I’ve learnt nothing about the actual country and that all I can make are comparisons to England which seems to only scratch the surface.

Eventually, I’m sure I’ll become completely immersed into Korean culture, I’ll no longer think about where to find a garbage can, I’ll just think much in the same way as a Korean person would, by not thinking at all. I will have learnt all of the routines. Day to day living will no longer be an issue.

So really, if you wonder “What’s it like to live in Korea?” you already know the answer. It’s the same way as living anywhere else.You know all the rules. You know all the routines. It’s comfortable. 

Note: I wrote this post 6 months or so ago and its been sitting in my drafts folder since then. My WordPress end of year report revealed that in 2013 I only published 3 blog posts. It was quite a surprise to me and slightly disappointing. I’ve grown to fear clicking publish, so I’m going to try to go through my drafts and publish a few.