Justin is sleepy. His head droops over his desk as I begin to run through the new vocabulary. Behind him Sean has yet to take out a book, bag still on his shoulders and cheeky nonplussed smile on his face. Alice and Holly are already interested and repeat the words loudly. it’s five fifty-five on a Friday. We’re doing a class on music genres. “Jawn-reh, jawn-re”, they repeat. “Pop… pop… rock…. rock…” I can hear “rock, lock, rlock”. I draw a padlock on the board and write “lock” beside it. “What’s this?” “Lock, rock lrock!”.
For almost five months I have been teaching English in a private school, a “hakwon”, in Busan, Korea. It’s a long way from home, and a long way from writing computer code at a computer desk. It’s also proving hard to find the ‘morning calm’ that Korea goes by. Perhaps no more than the saints and scholars and thousand welcomes of Ireland, it takes effort to find the depth and truth behind the tagline. Also, I get up too late to see the morning calm. I work late, eat late, and sleep late, and life is without fail always an order of magnitude more chaotic and noisy than Ireland, than Galway, than Oughterard, than the lake shore in Barrusheen.
But why am I here? There are loads of I.T. jobs at home, right? Well, yes, I can’t really blame the jobs market right now for my leaving, but I’ve been through two redundancies since university and had no work for months before I left. I had other motives too: a restlessness to see what would happen (life is an experiment), to see and do something new, a persistent itch about the downcast atmosphere at home… and oh, and there’s a girl too.
My first class was a tough one. I had some experience teaching cycling skills to kids in primary schools, and I normally consider my English to be ‘fluent’ (though sometimes I wonder), but I was put straight into class with some almighty jetlag, no preparation and no training. To the kids I was a new curiosity, and despite my inability to keep order in any way or remember their chosen English names, it… could have been worse. They don’t bite… although some try to climb me, and others pinch my freckled wrists.
Korea is great in many respects. Food is delicious, varied, and cheap, transport is reliable and cheap (the first time you pay for a taxi is joyous), the weather is predictable (although too hot in summer for me), the people are inviting and interested and fun, the language and culture is rich, shopping is a national past-time with real value possible, the mountains are seemingly designed for hikers and are genuine places of peace and calm, and there are always festivals on and things to do. The internet is blindingly fast and abundant, the dentists and hair salons and hospitals are nothing short of amazing. My experience with a malignant wisdom tooth led me to a dentist before I had any health insurance organized, to have it removed, and it cost in total (2 visits) about €30. You can get a full meal for €4, and from one side of the city to the other on the subway for €1.
The education system in Korea is, however, to most external observers, a little bit mad. My students start as early as eight in the morning and finish as late as ten at night, going to their regular school first, then on to private school sessions for different subjects like English and math. They have longer days, more homework, and shorter holidays than I ever had. They get assignments to do during their summer and winter breaks. They go to school every second Saturday. Once they reach middle school they are in a permanent competition for higher grades and better marks. Sometimes I have little motivation to try and keep the sleepy ones awake. The “zombie students”, I call them. Foreign teachers are drafted in here to boost the reputation of English schools, to attract more kids and appease the parents. I often ask them if they are tired and then try to turn it into a conversation. “Why are you tired, what did you do today? How many hours did you spend in school? Just ten?”. In fact with some classes I spend all of my energy simply trying to energize them, which in turn sucks me dry of vigor. Younger busier classes of energetic loud wild ones can leave me happy and awake.
Most countries bemoan their lack of interest and spending on education. Some strive to portray themselves as ‘knowledge economies’: shining lights that will ‘going forward’ build nations of educated prosperity. Here in Korea education has for centuries been of central importance, and unfortunately, an almost all-consuming obsession. There seems to me to be something wrong with forcing children to learn beyond a certain point. Sure, we all need the basics and those that like it should have the resources to forge ahead, but if it becomes a national competition on which your life seems to depend then is it worth it? Creativity and ideas are surely born out of choice and free interest, out of self-motivation? The individual learns, not the system. For those who like gyms, it is akin to using free-weights versus machines. The machines enforce a strict movement while the free weights force you to stabilize and learn the movements yourself. The big guys mostly use free weights.
At least once a week I dream of home. Not nostalgic sentimental journeys (too soon too soon) but simply the dislocating mental unravelling of my thin thread of experience. My mind’s clutter is still mostly from Ireland. I wake confused in my cube-shaped apartment, trying to remember exactly where I am and who I am. The fridge is a few feet from the bed, which is also my chair, couch, and sometimes table.
Sang-eun is a university student with only one semester left before she finishes the long haul of education, and her experience matches most students of her generation. “High school is the hardest, especially from grade two on” she tells me. She often started at 7a.m. and finished at 11p.m., and sometimes had private tutors come to her home as late as midnight. Private academies cannot operate after 10 p.m. by law, but where there’s a will there’s a way, and there is definitely a will. In most cases it is the will of the parents. The status associated with manual and practical jobs is low, and there is huge pressure put on children and teenagers to make it into one of the top universities. Getting there is the hard part, and families make huge financial and lifestyle sacrifices to play the game.
In some ways they have created a monster, a children-churning mill that takes all of the freedom out of learning and unbalances lives and families. Every parent wants their son or daughter to be an elementary school teacher, or a doctor, or a lawyer. The western teenager’s screams of “it’s none of your business” don’t seem to apply here, in a culture with more concrete roles based on rank and age. It is always your parent’s business. It is not uncommon for parents to phone the boss of an adult child about a problem at work.
Sang-eun though remembers high school with fondness; she and her friends sometimes wish they could go back. School was almost like home, and it wasn’t all study. Large high schools have canteens, clubs, and a radio station. Students spend their days with close friends in a safe stable environment. They are also consistently at or near the top end of global education rankings, with pupils smart enough (at least in exams) to create anxiety in nations like the U.S that tend to lag behind in the charts.
I use facebook and Skype to keep in touch with home, but though they close the gap they also point out the distance. My dad talks about the weather and how the turf isn’t home and how Ougherard lost the county final. He holds up the dog to the camera, who is gripping a new red rubber bone in his jaws, and doesn’t seem to see me but lifts his ears at the sounds. My brother puts a cup of steaming tea in front of the screen. A cup of tay. I yell at him to make me one, and my mom promises to send me some teabags in the mail. I eventually hang up, sign out, and sleep.
Kelly is coughing, as is Lily. The weather has suddenly cooled and there’s a cold going round. We are learning about sports. Amy is pretending to hit tennis balls at me with an imaginary racket. I pretend to flinch. Suddenly half the class are hitting imaginary tennis balls at me and laughing at my imaginary flinches. Annie is saying ” teacher I’m very very very very very cold”, but she always says that. Jenny is tearing her page and sticking something to it. I have them make teams and stick food names to the board, sorting them into the correct groups. “No, pork is not a vegetable! What happened to the carrot? Amy, I am not a toy… Amy, sit down!” Hopefully they are learning something, but secretly a bit of happy chaos is just what I needed.