Of schools, home and cheese

Yes, my blog entries are getting farther and farther apart. I guess that’s because as I settle in there aren’t as many “unusual” things to ponder. I mean, I’m used to nearly getting run over every day, eating unidentifiable objects perched between slender metal rods (aka chopsticks), bus radios blasting “n word” rap songs, and navigating the treacherous halls of public schools.

But, since I last wrote, I have quit my public school job, signed a contract with a private school (hagwon), went home for two weeks, started an online TESL course and enjoyed the first warm day of “spring” today – Feb. 12.

About school. I had been thinking of quitting for months, as the situation was not improving, and in fact could not. It’s just the nature of the public school system to be inept and inefficient. Some foreign teachers are able to cope with this because they have good co-teachers who support them and actually teach with them. Co-teachers are assigned to be just that, but in reality they are more like handlers or babysitters. Mine wasn’t even that. My original co-teacher was 8 months pregnant when I started in September, and she left after three weeks. I was then assigned to a teacher that I didn’t even teach with, and who spoke very little English. She would get so nervous talking to me that her neck would break out in red blotches. Poor thing. She was ill-equipped to deal with my demands of, oh, a real co-teacher, or cooperation from the other teachers. My original co-teacher finally returned the day before winter break, but it didn’t take long to see nothing was going to change, and I decided it was time to cut my losses and move on.

I found an after school academy that was looking to hire a second foreign English teacher, so the last day of winter camp I paid them another visit. I signed a contract for the same pay, with less work hours, 33/week versus 40, and far, far less students. I will be teaching classes of 6 to 8 (!) kids every day, up to six classes a day. And it is the same kids every day, so I can actually get to know them. That’s one of the worst things about the public school system – it’s just too many kids! My two schools were relatively small, but I still “saw” nearly 600 students a week. I learned the names of less than half a dozen.
I start that job the first of March. I have to complete six months with the EPIK program or pay back the $900 airfare they “loaned” me to get here. Feb. 28 is six months exactly.

Of course EPIK isn’t making it easy. They are giving me grief about my visa – it’s a long story. I’m sure it will work out. I also have to move, as EPIK is paying for my current housing. My new director is looking for a new place for me. Housing is also included with the new job. The only downside to teaching at a hagwon versus EPIK is less vacation time. I only get 10 days a year, five of which are on school closure days, and they really don’t want me to take the other five all at once, since there are only two teachers!

With that in mind, I used the two weeks worth of vacation I had accrued and went home. I have to mention I feel so fortunate to have a friend who did not hesitate when I asked her if she could watch Sammy for me. She immediately welcomed him into her home and spoiled him rotten. He never had it so good!
The flight was long, but it was great to see everyone again and be back in familiar territory! It’s hard to convey how isolating it is to not be able to converse with people, read store signs, or pick up a newspaper or book. Especially for a writer, it’s like being Helen Keller.
Food here is also a very foreign undertaking. Even if I could speak or read enough Korean to order, most of it I don’t want to eat anyway!

I visited family and friends, ate at my favorite fast food restaurant (Dick’s rocks!), drank buckets of really, really good coffee and gorged on homemade pumpkin pie, crab louie, grilled steak, burgers and microbrews. Thanks, Mom, Dad, Nancy and Six Arms. I also did a lot of clothes shopping, as I can’t buy clothes my size here, and I bought a lot of food items to bring back, like good coffee beans, a wide variety of spices, and pure gold – Tillamook cheddar cheese. Mmmm cheese. I had to buy another suitcase to haul my loot home in.

Surprisingly, I feel pretty good about being back. I have a really good group of friends here, more than I ever had back home. Being an ex-pat gives you an automatic community, one that understands what you are going through. At home I had to keep trying to explain what it was like “over there,” but here, they just know. It was nice to be welcomed back warmly, and I feel ready to take on whatever Korea dishes out. Bring it on. I’m sure I’ll retract that statement in my next blog post.

Also wanted to mention I have been doing some writing for Jeju Life, a fine, fine online publication run by one of my favorite people, Jim Saunders. There’s a link to it right over there – on the right side of this page.
And yes, today it was suddenly warm! Like shirtsleeves weather. I hiked to the top of a wooded hill near my house and soaked up the welcome sun – before it gets unbearably hot and sticky!

3 responses to “Of schools, home and cheese

  1. Was nice to have you back, even for a short visit. Will have more homebrews waiting next time you’re here and the bar is always open.

  2. Been working in Seoul…so sick of the cement. Looking to work in a school in Jeju…any tips or recommendations? I went for a visit this past week and have been rapidly learning Korean. I’d do well with what I’ve learned thus far. I’m just worried at how isolating it could be down there.
    Thanks for your honesty in how troublesome things can be at times. I’m trying to look at the advantages and disadvantages of Jeju life. 🙂

    • Hi – Jeju is awesome. Beautiful beaches, two towns large enough for nearly all amenities, and amazing nature to enjoy when you can. There are about 500 waygooks there, most of them teachers, so it’s a pretty sociable bunch. There is a Yahoo group for Jeju – if it’s still running – called Rhymes With Jeju. There is also an English newspaper there (which I helped start as managing editor) called The Jeju Weekly, http://www.jejuweekly.com, that is mostly a tourist publication.

      Are you looking for a hagwon? Can’t really recommend one, I was EPIK. Good luck!


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