I had a bit of a flashback in the shower this morning to Vancouver, haggling over VISA wait-times with the surly ajumma secretaries in the Korean consulate downtown. It was in that sweaty two week span I was hauling around an oversized manila envelope into lawyers offices and unfamiliar highrises to get my documents apostilled, thus proving my legal status to the Korean government as ‘edumacated’ and ‘not-a-pedophile’. It was summertime, and the livin’ was easy.
How are you going to “teach English” to kids who don’t understand a word you’re saying?, my dad would ask.
Great question, dad. Actually,
Sorry bout that, where was I?
Flash forward to the now of working a job I’m hilariously unqualified for (though defs no less than 20,000 other anglophone foreigners scattered in public schools across the country). Here is a shorthand record of one day in the life of an EPIK teacher in Korea. Results may vary.
While this is a snapshot, I hope you can glimpse from the education system, perhaps the most important microcosm of Korean society, into its profoundly weirder whole. In the words of Obama, “Koreans call their teachers world-builders” and in the words of a disgruntled EPIK employee, “I came here cuz of Obama and what a load of bullshit”.
7.00 AM – I wake up in the morning and emit a protracted groan spanning five to twenty-five minutes. With a general lack of social media to pledge allegiance to, rather than spend the morning scrolling through notifications in a volitional search for ‘anywhere but here’ I’m instead palsied into absolutely nothing. Sweet, beautiful nothing. The groan is the closest I’ll come to reaching a meditative state in this lifetime.
7:XX AM – Fifteen seconds of yoga before saying fuck it.
7:20 AM – Brew coffee, and by brew coffee, I mean do it the only way it’s done in Korea: by mixing boiling water with Maxim, which is essentially an espresso-pixie-stick. Like one of my fav Kblogs observes, it’s like shit-flavored pop rocks except the shit is obscured by a small mountain of sugar.
8:15 AM – On the walk to school my town is overpowered by what smells like a thousand campfires. This is typical. They turn the crops over and burn the earth. Bangrah music blasts onto the street from the Olleh store someone’s newly minted in flashy gold sequins. It is the kingdom of this town’s collective eyesores. I walk by the Cobra Dogs truck which is painted matte red and cube-shaped like a typical Portland food truck. I’m not sure what they sell. Snake HotDogs, it says below. Again, I cannot be sure what they sell. In the GS25 the old man behind the counter is quietly bouncing his head to Migos, whose singles have been playing since I arrived last year over the limp PA speaker in convenience stores across the peninsula.
8:30 AM – It’s all anyeonggghaseyooos and chirpy enthusiasms when I get to school from teachers and kids whose noses practically touch the floor they bow so deeply when we walk by. Mrs. Kim, who works in ¿accounting¿ brings snack offerings around the office for the teachers: a third of a corn cob out of a steam-wilted plastic produce bag. It’s 8:30 a.m.
Despite the smothering friendliness of my coworkers, I will not have had one meaningful conversation at my workplace this year due to insurmountable language barriers.
8:41 AM – As I walk into the teacher’s office the principal’s socks are off. I’ve noticed this because his desk is unambiguously the focal point of all vision in the room. Is he…
Yes, he’s clipping his toenails into the wastebasket. Joeun, acheemibnida mistayo (good morning sir).
9:00 AM – Some kid carved FUCK into the stairwell outside my classroom. Every time I pass it I want to write NO ONE CARES!. Upstairs where I teach I’m blissfully tucked away from everything else on the fourth floor. I have a flat of Coke, a flat of Sweet Americano cans and two boxes of water opposite my desk. I’m not sure if these are rations for the nuclear war but the kids just come and go with deliveries like messengers in a Shakespeare play.
Everything that goes on here I know nothing about. I am impenetrably walled off from all important information via the sprawling linguistic chasm of Englishee.
10:15 AM – One of the little ones, about 13 years old is telling a katusa who translates for me that I look like ‘McGregor’. In the last month I’ve gotten Adam Levine (songsaenim singeuh, maloon fibeuh!) and the substitute history teacher told me this morning I look “like Santa”. I see the recipe now, you people are just picking a white celebrity with a beard.
11:00 AM – Half the kids show up for my third period and half I can see out the window trying to take each others heads off. The ones that did show are begging me to join the ice-shard-slinging clusterfuck on the basketball court underneath the window. There’s like a donut-frosting layer of snow blanketing the field and the buildings outside. I promised them if it snows a foot we’ll throw down, but everyone plays baseball here and I have no doubt they’d mess me up. I teach at a Buddhist school and the general lack of punctuality and giving a shit from everyone I teach and work with is something I’ve learned to handle with detachment. Korea’s educational institutions are comfortable only with extremes; force them to study to the point of suicide or passively watch them refuse to lift their pen all year: this is the accepted behavior of my coworkers. I’ve walked around the school and it’s not just my class – 30% of the kids are asleep at their desk at all times in the building and K-protocol is to just exist with a general paranoia about how they’d cause some tsunamic classroom disturbance if awoken, like they’re some sort of cave-dwelling Beowulf trolls rather than lazy ass teenagers. “But they study late hours at the academy!”. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the sleepers are the ones who haven’t picked up a book all year.
11:00 AM – We listen to new dialog in the textbook CD. The speaker talks like he has a concussion.
I’m trying to start a speaking activity for the students. I spent a fair bit of time making it as fun as possible for the varied levels in the class. 5/30 students engage me, the rest that aren’t sleeping act like they’ve been sentenced to lethal injection. I do it for the five, and that’s cool – they’re my non-religious version of Zooey Glass’ fat lady at the end of Salinger’s novella.
Girls carry mirrors and reshape their faces while I’m talking. I think they sell one shade of lipstick here. Cherry red and faint peach eyeshadow. Conformity is prized.
11:40 AM – Cooking class comes around and some kids swing by and give me cupcakes. Mashee soyo bitches.
Standardized tests for the school year have been completed. Highshool entrance exams have been passed or failed. There is not one reason for anyone to lift a finger for these next four weeks; the madness will be unparalleled. On the plus side, we’re nearly done the textbook which means I can get weird with my lessons. Four weeks until Christmas, six until I’m lying on a beach in the Philippines.
12:35 PM – Lunch with the katusas. This is generally a heaping pile of rice, kimchi and whatever lol-worthy creation the moms have cooked up for 1000 people in the middle and highschools. 65% chance of boiled octopus, 35% chance of edibility. We’re playing minesweeper out here.
1:45 PM – Late in the day; absolute mutiny in the classroom. I have just one month of real teaching left at this early December juncture and it’s been a struggle to refrain from violently botching diplomacy with my co-teacher. He shows up 20 minutes late to class on a good day and between playing with his phone, this guy will joke around with the troublemakers while I’m teaching. Most public schools here (not mine, of course) have a system in place where a teacher can’t stay in a single institution for more than five years. By shuffling things up it removes dead weight from a system where otherwise, as the folkways of Confucianism dictate, the most useless POS lounges at the top of the heirarchy, impervious to questioning from “inferior” ranks, invulnerable to checks and balances. This guy is halfway there.
2:20 PM – Bracing myself. There is a 100% chance my co will walk in the room with 20 minutes left in the day, b-line to the front while I’m mid-instruction and proceed to expound on some tragic excuse why he’s late, like I care, before playing with his phone for the rest of class. He doesn’t have the social wherewithal to realize how much this throws off the rhythm and respectable behavior I’ve established through blood, sweat and tears.
2:40 PM – “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. I calmly resume class.
2:55 PM – Wrapping up early, I take song requests from my students. At one point pre-Korea, I figured I could show my future students some cool music.
If it’s not k-pop, a.k.a. plastic surgery-ravaged stepford people who compose the boy/girl groups funded by the chaebol/oligopolies that run the country, zero fucks are given. “BTS!” “No, no BTOB!” “APink!” “No AOA!”, the kids shout. Yes, the k-pop operation is funded and promoted by the people who make wagon wheels and smartphones and border policy, with an MO for mass interest in the sexually suggestive k-pop robots for a country whose sex-ed program looks like it was created by Bill Cosby.
I mention K-pop because it’s a big part of daily life; they walk around singing this stuff. The domestic pop-culture industry so dominant youth are cut off from global trends, part and parcel of Korea’s national insularity and sense of superiority. I know, I sound like a hipster cunt, but K-pop is nauseating and it hurts my soul. Today I played some Nightmares On Wax and it was rejected in a haze of nationalist emotion.
3:40 PM – My co wants me to edit his grad-student-friend’s psych paper that’s been thrown slackly into a translator, most likely Naver, the local gov’t-powered misinformation superhighway. After an hour of editing what was an unreadable wall of word-processor vomit, he’s perplexed why I’ve changed “key parts” and wants me to go back and edit it again. This isn’t in my job description, I studied psych at an English university and No, Hwan, in terms of intelligibility, it wasn’t close. Not even fucking close.
3:45 PM – Sweet afterschool club time with self-motivated learners, with whom I don’t have to summon my deepest psychic wellsprings of peace just to share a room with.
I should mention – I’ve had all the ups and downs with behavioral control and classroom management and generally getting students who at the fabric of their existences could not conjure up the smallest atomic willpower to learn English — but at the end of the day I love my kids. Even the shitty ones.
4:40 PM – School’s out. Walk home past the ajumma masses. Floral pants to keep the cold times sunny. Work on my side hustle/write about blockchain for a few hours.
6:30 PM – Walking around the army base I pass by Traditional Thai Massage (brothel), Lighthouse Baptist Church, Chinese Nail Salon Full Service (brothel), 4 Mexican restaurants, Community of Christ Jubilee Church, Juicy Bar #5 (brothel) Adults Only Singing Room (brothel), and quite a few other obvious brothels. Nothing signals an American army base is here like a geographical checkerboard of temples and backdoor human trafficking operations.
7:00 – Dumplings. Ramen. Asian food. Read. Write. Grab some groceries to a chorus of hi’s at the mart. As a foreigner in a small town, people know the number on your apartment door, how much beer you normally drink and any medical oddities you might have.
8:00 PM – I like to walk around at night and listen to the crickets chirping in the marsh, but now it’s cold and the crickets just died. The air’s getting frosty. I’ve been preparing for winter, hopefully not a nuclear one. Drones fly over Church steeples and searchlights rave up the area as I listen to podcasts.
And that’s my week. Weekends are another story, turning this year into possibly the funnest of my life. Maybe I could do a post on that.
Keep in mind this is a public school in the sticks of Gyeonggi, not the opposite end of this deeply stratified society, not the superiority-complex-breeding public schools of like, Sinsa or Apgujeong, nor a hagwon with a beartrap of a contract. This not a caveat emptor for anyone’s esl/Korea future, just an average day in the life of an EPIK teacher in South Korea.
(EPIK = public school/government funded)
Photo: Diyana Amir