It’s my last day of teaching so I thought it fitting to post my English campers’ sublime parody of Boys II Men’s End of the Road.
My second, and final, school semester in Korea is coming to an end and I think it’s only fitting that I end it as I did the first – in true British style – complaining about the weather. The sultry days of frantic fanning and saturated blotting paper feel like a lifetime ago. It is now very, very cold.
These days there are two manners in which I wake up – either I’m stiff and aching from sleeping balled up in the foetal position for warmth all night long, or dying of dehydration because I cranked the ondol (underfloor heating) up to the max again. Each morning I conduct the sniff test to determine whether or not it is absolutely necessary to expose my body to the elements for the 30 agonising seconds that it takes to undress and dive into the shower. Sadly for my students and colleagues nine times out of ten the conclusion I come to is, no.
The walk to school can be described, at best, as ‘bracing’. Until recently I didn’t realise that one’s entire face, and not just their lips, are susceptible to chapping. It’s been a painful and unattractive realisation and I’m now seriously considering purchasing a Korean balaclava.
It’s absolutely critical that every acre of flesh is swaddled. Last week I neglected to wear sensible socks one morning and so exposed a slither of skin on each ankle. As penance for my folly I spent the rest of the morning squatting beneath my desk miserably applying heat packs, willing feeling to return.
In respect of my school I think I’m more fortunate than some – the teachers’ office is reliably warm each morning when I arrive, meaning only a single coat and blanket are required to ward off frostbite. In the classrooms I can remove my coat even, due to the 40 bodies crammed into each one. Sadly there is a flipside – unable to escape out of the windows, the dubious odours steadily issuing from my teenage human heaters are amplified tenfold. So while my resemblance to the abominable snowman is temporarily reduced I will die if I breath through my nose.
The school corridors are another story. Here the windows are flung wide open to welcome winter’s wrath inside. I imagine that emerging from the warmth of the teachers’ office into the grey, icy wastes of the corridor feels something like being born. I want to cry every time.
The only place more miserable than the corridors is the toilet. Some days I feel like I would rather rupture my bladder than voluntarily make contact with those ice blocks that are toilet seats.
I will never complain about British weather again (that is lie).
A fortnight ago one of my afterschoolers approached me at my desk. He was very solemn faced and I thought something was wrong when he requested a private meeting with me. His troubled face played on my mind all morning and at lunch I bolted down my kimchi and hurried back to my office to find him waiting for me, looking even more anxious than before. Bracing myself for the worst I asked him what was wrong. He told me he had something to ask me…”Teacher, will you…sing with me in the talent show?”
Singing?! This was not at all what I had expected to hear. I was so surprised that without considering the implications of my answer (and without registering the appropriate level of dread) I said: “Yes! Of course!!”
To be honest I was very touched to be asked. Even if it was a bit of a strategic move to guarantee him a place in the final, I think there was an emotional factor involved too. Once I’d committed, the boy – lets called him GD Junior (he’s a big fan of G-Dragon) – was all business. I was given a lyric sheet and a file of the music video to study, as well as a ppt presentation depicting ‘Gangster Style’ so that I could put together a suitable ‘costume’. That’s right. GDJ’s music genre of choice was Korean ‘hip-hop’.
Self-promotion is something that the British have always felt to be deeply unsavory. Take our televised talent shows for example; It’s no surprise that the X-factor’s viewing figures begin to plummet after the audition stages because its true purpose isn’t to discover talent, but to provide subjects for mockery. In the live stages the acts and the judges start taking themselves ‘too seriously’, so we switch off in disgust.
Although the attitude in UK schools towards publicly exhibiting yourself has since progressed, when I was in secondary school taking yourself ‘too seriously’ – especially in a public manner – was a crime. Despite attending a secondary school that specialized in the performing arts, it was only acceptable to take part in a production if you made it abundantly clear that it was simply for want of something better to do, and that it was all ‘just a bit of fun’. The productions themselves were suitably low key and were attended by very modest numbers.
In contrast at my Korean school the build up to the talent show was tantamount with the royal wedding. There were posters and flyers plastering every available surface and boys singing and dancing absolutely EVERYWHERE AT ALL TIMES. Basically it was like being on the set of Glee for a solid week. As one teacher told me earnestly, Koreans are passionate about two things: Kimchi and singing.
On the day of my big debut there was drama a-plenty. In true Lauren style I left part of my costume at home (gangster footwear) and GDJ was adamant (understandably I suppose) that our credibility might be undermined if I went on stage wearing my school slippers. Then our place in the running order got changed last minute, and the PE teacher insisted on force-feeding me 20 pounds of cold pizza and a gallon of coke right before the show began. But finally the show did begin, and it was a million miles away from my secondary school productions. There were lights, there were pyrotechnics, a deafening sound-system, a huge audience and the vice-principal wearing a comedy-size sequined bow tie.
Every act – the good and the bad – was met with rapturous applause, and – try as I might – I could detect NO IRONY WHATSOEVER. Well, my British sensibilities bristled at such unapologetic displays of enthusiasm and commendation, and after a particularly exuberant reception to the school heartthrob’s rendition of ‘You raise me up’ ON THE KAZOO I desperately tried to catch the eye of some fellow sane individual. But there were none to be found, every eye was transfixed by the sight of a boy playing his heart out on a kazoo.
And it was at that point that I realised that it was time to stop resisting and to embrace the madness. So when the boy put down his kazoo I whooped along with the rest of them, and when I got on stage I raised my hands in the air like I just didn’t care and willingly high-fived the line of clamouring colleagues as I exited the stage. Yes, I can never un-watch the imported high school girls’ creepily sexy dance recital, and I still smell faintly of smoke, but when I emerged from that gymnasium my cold British heart had grown three sizes.
When I was 16 I sat my GCSEs. In the month leading up to the exams I seem to recall studying sporadically and half-heartedly on a friend’s bedroom floor with multiple and increasingly lengthy ‘study breaks’, in which we ate many custard creams and quested on the N64. My mum did hire a Maths tutor for me (in vain) but I was more committed to ‘discovering’ the far-flung corners of my town on my bicycle than solving maths equations.
When it came to taking the exams I imagine I felt a degree of anxiety and afterwards I probably celebrated with more biscuits and the Legend of Zelda. If you were to ask a Korean about their memories of taking the CSAT exams (the equivalent of GCSEs) I suspect they would be somewhat less vague.
The CSATs are a national obsession here in Korea. To say that today (Nov 7th) will be the most pivotal day in the current high-school seniors’ lives is not an overstatement. Unlike in the UK, where test results are just one of many considerations in university admissions decisions, here in Korea a student’s CSAT score alone will determine the university they enter, and as a consequence, the course of the rest of their lives.
This video shows the extreme and unusual measures Korean society goes to, to try and ensure students’ exam success.
Think back to the first semester. You know, those halcyon days when seeing a traditional temple was still a novelty and the mention of an organised trip didn’t send a shiver of revulsion down your spine. Back in first semester we were still busy trying to navigate our ‘flexible’ timetables, how to order in restaurants, and the seeming neon maze of downtown. All that adjusting and gallivanting didn’t leave time for much else, so extra-curricular activities extended to loitering on the street outside Gogos with a cocktail in a bag.
This semester we’ve got our shit together (to a greater or lesser degree) and we’re all making a conscious effort to be more proactive. One of my own efforts was joining a local non-profit, cultural exchange/mentoring programme that pairs native English speakers with Korean teenagers. The programme has provided me with a reason not to fester in my apartment watching old episodes of Made in Chelsea, plus the novel opportunity to interact with that alien species: the Korean teenage girl.
Working at an all-boys school has its perks and I’m pretty fond of the little toads. That being said, it can get a little Mad Men around here at times, which is down to the prevailing Confucianism philosophy that governs Korean society.
Despite evidence to the contrary (which I routinely plaster across the TV screen and wave beneath their noses in the form of handouts) a lot of the boys I teach would have me believe that their female counterparts aren’t in possession of brains or courage or strength, and that their passions are aesthetic only.
Despite admonishing my boys on a regular basis I realise now that I too was beginning to form my own uneducated ideas about Korean teenage girls. I’m ashamed to admit this but after eight months adrift in a sea of testosterone I crashed into the rocks of lazy ignorance. Based on a toxic blend of the boys’ warped depictions, fleeting glimpses of Korean teenage girls out in public, anecdotal stories from other NETs and the back catalogue of Girls Generation I constructed my notion of a Typical Korean Teenage Girl.
So meeting my mentee was something of a revelation.
For our first date I took her to the Cat & Dog Cafe, imagining that the chance to manhandle adorable balls of fluff over a cup of hot chocolate would send her into shrieks of delight. Well, the only person shrieking was me. Somewhat confused that she hadn’t been compelled to join me in cooing over the fantastically obese siamese cat darting in out of our legs, I presented her with my trump card: a hot-pink, be-stickered scrap book. Surely this girlish confection would inspire a TKTG reaction. In fact, her eyes did not moisten, and she refrained from clapping her hands together like a cartoon seal. Rather, she calmly accepted the gift and thanked me sincerely.
Since our first meeting she has continued to resist the role I was trying to force on her, going on to cooly discredit each and every one of my students’, and my own, silly assumptions, and remind me that people – especially teenagers! – are too complex to be typical.
Me and my super cute mentee, Kyueun as cats for Halloween
The time has come once again for speaking tests, an announcement that was met with audiable groans and the slamming of foreheads against desktops. And the boys weren’t alone in their grief.
At once the memories of vacant expressions and long silences broken only by the sound of another student enthusiastically relieving himself in the nearby toilet came flooding back to me. The only difference this time around is that rather than sweating out the torture in the steadily intensifying spring heat, I’m suffering it swaddled in multiple layers to combat the encroaching winter freeze.
But its not all bad. Yes you will have to repeat the same half a dozen questions at least 616626728 times. And in return you will receive a variation on the same half dozen or so answers, or simply a blank stare. But, it is worth it for these moments:
Me: What do you hope to do?
Stude: I hope to do a dung
Me: What do you hope to do?
Stude: I hope to find the confidence inside to talk to a girl. These days I freeze
Me: What do you plan to do tonight?
Stude: I plan to go home, wet my body, lie on my bed, looking at my phone (pronounced ‘pon’) and watching many videos
Me: What are you pretty good at?
Stude: I’m pretty good at breathing
Me: What are you pretty good at?
Stude: I’m pretty good at massageee. I show you teacher?
Me: What are you grateful for?
Me: I’m grateful for my mother, I’m grateful for my duck, I’m grateful for my friends
Me: Sorry…did you just say your duck?
Me: Er…right…well, why are you grateful for your duck?
Stude: She make me happy
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.