I was talking to a friend on Skype the other day, and she asked me what it looked like where I lived.
“Here,” I said. “I’ll show you.”
I switched cameras on my iPad and held it up to the window. My backyard filled the screen – misty mountains, the weird silver dome of the local sports park, and the high-rise apartment buildings of my complex.
“Oh,” she said, sounding slightly disappointed. “I thought it would be…different, somehow. I sort of pictured little grey-haired women and funny old markets. Not 15-story apartment buildings.”
“It is like that,” I insisted. “We’ve got a regular market that sells fish heads and down there, in that field, a wrinkly old man tends his crops every day.”
But I understood what she meant. Sometimes you’ve got a fixed idea of a place in your mind, and it turns out you were way off base.
Teaching English in Korea was like that for me.
I’m embarrassed to admit that before I started researching South Korea, I knew absolutely nothing about the country, other than that it shared a border with North Korea.
I pictured a rudimentary classroom with mismatched desks, blackboards, and kids straining as they waved their hands in the air, eager to answer my questions. They’d be eager because without fail, every one of my classes would be SO FUN and I’d be that teacher that changed their lives.
I know. Like I said, I’m embarrassed.
First of all, South Korean classrooms are flash. We’re talking flat screen TVs in every classroom, touch-screen whiteboards, and ergonomic chairs. This country has grown so fast, it sort of has more money than it knows what to do with. Last year, my school spent 400,000 dollars on a new 5th-grade English room. All of the window shades are covered in English text, the posters at the back are in English, and there are English games stashed in the cupboards.
This year, they turned it into a homeroom, essentially an English-free zone.
Second, the kids aren’t studying English because they like it. They’re studying because it’s a required subject from 3rd grade onwards. And just like that time your mom forced you to take violin lessons, only the students with a natural aptitude are even marginally interested.
This is how most of my classes start:
Me: Good morning! How are you today?
Tae-seop (or any loud, obnoxious student): Teacher, GAME. GAAAAAMMMME.
Me: Later, Tae-seop.
Tae-seop: GAAAAMMME. (Slumps in his seat and howls like a dying sea lion.)
After nearly two years, it’s all I can do not to punch some of these kids in the face. My latest coping mechanism is to utter obscenities under my breath. I’ve started doing it louder because I realized that if I speak quickly enough and smile while I do it, the kid won’t understand what I’m saying.
That leads to my third thwarted expectation – I’m not inspiring these kids to become English-speaking maniacs. Apparently, I’m just not that kind of teacher. Instead of meticulously planning lessons, the way I did for the first six months, I download PowerPoints from the internet and spend my free time blogging or researching flights online. Every once in a while I pull off a great lesson, but those moments are getting rarer as the end of my contract approaches.
Actually, the last time I had a really successful lesson was when I brought in some red velvet cake for my after-school class. So I guess that wasn’t a good lesson…it was bribery.
But one really good thing came out of having inaccurate expectations about Korea.
Korea blew those expectations out of the water and it blew me away, too.
My favorite thing about travel is learning that the world is so much bigger than you realize – not in terms of size, but in ways of life. Korea showed me that what’s normal for me is unheard of elsewhere, and things that are normal in Korea are things I couldn’t have invented in my wildest dreams.
Living here has been shocking, weird, surprising, and frustrating, but it has been nothing like I expected.
And that’s what has made it worthwhile.