Lets get physical

This past week I’ve set out on the daunting task that is applying to PGCE courses from abroad. As part of my application I need to compose a glowing personal statement so, like a good student, I’ve been doing my homework and bringing myself up to speed on the UK teaching environment, which has inevitably prompted me to compare my current classroom environment.

There are some fundamental similarities but on the whole Korea does things rather differently, and there is one practice in particular that I know I’m going to miss.

In the UK any physical contact between teachers and students – in particular teenagers – not deemed absolutely necessary is strictly prohibited. This applies to female teachers to a lesser degree than their male counterparts, but contact is still very much restricted. Like so many other British cultural norms it’s not something I’d ever really questioned; I understand why the restrictions are there and have no doubt that countless potential victims have been protected as a result of their enforcement.

But then I moved to Korea. Korea,  where everything is topsy-turvey and you suddenly see everything you once took for granted in a new light. Where it’s OK not only to rest a reassuring hand on a student’s shoulder, but to give them a full-on embrace. I first witnessed one such episode a couple of weeks in. A student came into the teacher’s office, visibly distressed, and reported to his home room teacher, who took one look at him, gathered him into his arms and cuddled him close against him. It was a genuinely touching sight, but it surprised me.

Over the coming weeks I frequently witnessed similar physical displays of affection between teachers and students. I saw teacher’s giving students’ heads fond ruffles in passing in the corridors; a teacher softly holding a distressed student’s hands between theirs while the student confided his trouble; and even a teacher jokingly hand-feeding a rice cake into a student’s mouth; in class, teachers massaged sleeping students’ shoulders to wake them.

Without being a Korean student on the receiving end of a head-ruffle or a hand-fed rice cake I can’t say for certain that this practice of unrestricted touching definitely has a positive effect, but from my observer’s perspective it certainly seems to. And that applies to the teachers as well as the students.

This tactile approach is reflected in all Korean relationships. You’ll regularly see old men walking down the street arm in arm, or a couple of old girlfriends hand in hand. On a recent school trip I thought my heart would explode when I saw my (15 and 16-year-old) students happily walking hand-in-hand with their mothers and fathers.

I know I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions my fondness for the bromances I see being played out in my classes. In the last decade movies like I Love You, Man have made closeness between young  men more socially acceptable in the west, but  back home I never saw such natural displays of affection between my younger brother and his friends, as I do between the boys in my classes.

You’ll very rarely find a boy on his own. Generally he will be glued to one body part or another belonging to his best friend – it may be an arm loosely slung around a friend’s shoulders, or a hand absently running through another boy’s hair. If they’re seated in class they may be holding hands, and sometimes feet (this I’m not so fond of if they’ve just had PE). They’ll sometimes offer a pat on the backside to show their support when a friend is called on to present to the class.

If Korea sounds like a homosexual haven, sadly it isn’t. In fact, Korea is still getting used to the idea that homosexuality might not be an exclusively ‘western problem’ after all. In general, Koreans simply don’t interpret physical closeness between members of the same gender as anything other than a demonstration of platonic feelings. And it seems to be this blind rejection of the existence of gay Koreans that has allowed this tactile culture  to flourish.

Sadly there is another huge drawback. It is the aspect of Korean teaching that I dislike the most and the one thing that I just can’t get used to. Though it does seem as though with each generation the popularity of physical disciplining is fading, judging by the experiences of friends and acquaintances, it is still very much an issue in Korea today.

As Korean educational culture begins to incorporate more and more western-style practices and methodologies it’s likely that the acceptance of positive physical contact between teachers and students will become prohibited too. But perhaps not. Perhaps the Koreans will do what we didn’t in the UK and find a way to retain the good, while throwing out the bad. It’s a nice thought.


Down the aisle Korean style

Recently I was able to strike another entry from my Korea bucket list – attend a Korean wedding. As with many Korean invitations, this one was extended seemingly out of nowhere and at the very last possible moment – in this case the night before the wedding.

It’s become common practice for Korean couples to have two weddings – a traditional low-key Korean one and a big, brash imitation ‘western’ one. The father of the bride must foot the bill for BOTH sets of nuptials and so for dear dad’s convenience the Koreans have invented ‘wedding centers’ – sprawling, shiny buildings that can be identified by low flying planes from the inflated portrait of a glossy wedded couple plastered across the front. Here you can hit two birds with one big, tacky wedding stone.

Walking in is like stepping onto the set of a Mariah Carey music video. So much diamante and glaring white faux marble. Plastic chandeliers and plastic plants everywhere. Suited men with ear pieces and dark shades striding around would-be-purposefully. Piped chamber music. Waitress uniforms inspired by Britney Spears circa Toxic. Many elaborate water displays involving cupids in improbable poses.


Because wedding centers are roughly the size of the London O2 it is possible for 244598943 weddings to take place at once. Our wedding was happening on the third floor in the ‘Fantasy Fairy Bride Suite’, which was as fantastically tacky as the title suggests.

We arrived just in time for Wedding Part I and elbowed our way into the wedding ‘chamber’, plonking ourselves down on some gaudy golden chairs by a pair of asjoshes making an early start on the soju.

In my experience wedding services can drag on so with a double feature in store I had envisioned a long day. The first service was over in no more than 15 minutes. The priest said approximately five words. The rest of the time was filled with a serenade delivered by the couple’s friends, from a kneeling position at the couple’s feet, accompanied by a women wearing white feathers playing a white grand piano, with water cascading down the wall behind her. Then the couple kissed and everyone clapped and the couple strutted down an elevated catwalk and posed at the end for the bank of waiting well-wishers. All while a montage of photos of the couple posing with cupcakes and harps played on a loop on the widescreen tvs in the background.


After such a long, draining service the guests were in desperate need of sustenance so we followed the crowd downstairs for eats. Instead of trawling John Lewis for a cutlery set that will sit in a cupboard the Koreans cut to the chase and hand over a (small) wad of cold hard cash on arrival at the wedding. This entitles them to a food coupon which gives them entry to the biggest buffet in the galaxy. I only wish it had been a little later in the day so that I could have been as shamelessly piggy as I wanted to be, but as it was I wasn’t prepared to tackle cooked meats and seafood at 11am.

Refueled we headed back upstairs for Wedding Part II. The next western ceremony was already in full swing in the Fairy Suite we’d vacated literally 20 minutes before, which also happened to be attached to the broom cupboard where Part II was about to begin.

While we were chowing down the bride had switched from her western gown to her traditional Korean dress (Hanbok). She looked pretty spectacular and super uncomfortable. It took a couple of people to maneuver her into the correct position to begin the ceremony.

At the heart of the ceremony is bowing. The couple bow to each other. The couple bow to his parents. The couple bow to her parents. I think the parents might have bowed to the couple at one point. It all looked very tiring for the bride. But they did get to eat some tasty looking snacks that represented a long, harmonious marriage, and after that one of the fathers tossed some small objects into a blanket to see how many grandkids he could expect (six). And then it was all over.


I was looking forward to abusing the buffet again at the after-party but sadly there was none – perhaps because abeoji bankrupt himself shelling out for two weddings. So with that we got our complimentary Decoration Cake Box Sets and hit the road.




In praise of studes

School started back three weeks ago and on the first day I was something of a nervous wreck. Having not taught properly for almost a month I was convinced I’d lost the ability altogether, and I was less than confident about the returning students’ enthusiasm for the semester ahead.

I remember being fifteen and actually looking forward to going back to school. After six glorious weeks of freedom I felt recharged, and with the evidence of a new season all around me – the sparse trees, the reinstated knitwear, the dark, crisp mornings – by September I was ready for a fresh start, however short lived it might be.

Unfortunately my students don’t have the luxury of a generous break and a seasonal prompt. When they finished school in July it was hot and humid. For the entire duration of their holiday period – all three weeks of it – it was hot and humid. And wouldn’t you know it, when they started back at school in August it was hot and humid. This depressing lack of development in the weather was compounded by the fact that they had to attend two weeks worth of its-not-technically-mandatory-but-if-you-don’t-attend-just-consider-all-of-you-future-hopes-and-dreams-dashed extra-curricular classes and camps.

The solitary week that the kids had to call their own was one of the two hottest weeks in the year (the other being the week they started back at school) so most of them just stayed inside in their ACed apartments until they had to attend their evening and/or weekend academies.

Essentially its as if there never even was a holiday…

Ignore your feelings students, there was a holiday

So I had resigned myself to my fate. As I walked to my first class, fan thumping up and down at my side like a demented death knell, I pictured the rows on rows of comatose students that would surely greet me.

Imagine my surprise when on my entrance I was met with a supersonic wave of ‘hello Teacher, long time no see’s from forty expectant, shiny faces. What followed was one of the most  enjoyable, productive classes I’ve had to date. And it set the trend for the rest of the week. Yes this initial zest for learning has now dissolved into a soup of lethargy and mild contempt but I accept that because at 15, even in spite of my generous holiday time and the cool weather, I was well over my ‘fresh start’ by the third week back too.

The fact that my students were able to summon the energy to be enthusiastic about learning a second language after virtually no holiday whatsoever, in challenging weather conditions, with no AC (!!!!!!!!!), is pretty inspiring to me. Yes they often give me good cause to grumble but its too easy to forget that these kids are expected to learn under some spectacularly challenging conditions all year round, and that sometimes they need to be cut a little slack.

So from now on whenever they’re being little horrors I will count to ten, take a deep, calming breath and cast my mind back to their best, first-week-selves – the students they could be on a more regular basis if numerous influences weren’t conspiring to make their educational career as difficult as possible.

With any luck the memory will deter me from launching one of them out of the window.