Friday, September 10, 2010

A Long-Ass Post From A Small-Ass Place

A lack of posts on this site should not be taken as an indication that there's nothing going on in my life worth blogging about. On the contrary, blog-worthy things are happening to me on an almost hourly basis. It's a little overwhelming. There's no way I'll be able to cover everything but I can at least give you an overview of what's happening in my life these days.

In a nutshell, I am now teaching English at an all-boys' middle and high school in the Korean countryside. Specifically, at Hamchang Middle and High School, in Hamchang, Gyeongsangbuk-do, population 8427. My school has around 600 students, 150 middle school and 450 high school students. I teach English to them all.

Not all at the same time, of course, although I have appeared before them en masse at a ceremony to welcome the new teachers (that would be me and a new middle school science teacher). No, I see each class once a week (and in a few cases, twice a week). My class is called "applied English." The rest of the week, they learn grammar and reading comprehension and other things that they can (and will) be tested on. My job is to make sure they can speak English too.

I have a Korean co-teacher for each class. This is the students' regular English teacher. Some like to be involved with my lessons, for a variety of reasons ranging from making sure the class understands what I'm saying to a desire to co-teach. Others are content to let me take the reins, plan the lesson and teach the class. I'm happy to teach in whatever way the co-teacher prefers. It's fun to plan a lesson and see it succeed but if it fails and it's just you bombing, it sucks. It's also nice to have some of the pressure taken off and let the Korean co-teacher lead the lesson.

The kids, for the most part, are great. They're enthusiastic, respectful and endearing. I've had students offer to carry my laptop, randomly buy me juice or give me candy, and pop into the teacher's room just to say hi. They all bow when they pass and say "hello" or the Korean equivalent, "anyeonghasseyo." In Korea, respect is automatically given to an elder, particularly to a teacher. In America, respect must be earned. Their automatic respect makes me want to be a better teacher for them, to try harder so I do not fail them. And of course respect goes both ways: when they bow to me at the beginning of class, I bow back (only not as deeply).

The school has been great to me. Aside from some confusion about what my relocation bonus is for (I say it's for me, they say it's to pay for my hotel while my apartment is being built) everything has gone smoothly. I started with a schedule of 22 classes per week, what I'm actually contracted to teach, but this was reduced to 20 after they saw how exhausted it was making me. They've also offered after-school classes to me at a higher rate of overtime than what I'm contracted for. And that new apartment? I'm still living in a love motel but once it's ready next week it'll be plush. A brand new one-bedroom apartment with a built-in 42" TV, laundry machine, balcony, and storage area. My school has even offered me use of a car.

All of the teachers have gone above and beyond for me but my vice principal has practically adopted me. There's a long and embarrassing story involving diarrhea and him paying for my doctor visit because I don't have medical insurance yet but I'll save that for another time. But for another example, yesterday I decided I would take a walk through our tiny town and take pictures of places for an upcoming lesson on giving directions. I pantomimed to him that I was going to go take pictures and he jumped up out of his desk and insisted he drive me. "No walk. Long course. I drive." I tried to refuse—he's the VP and obviously very busy—but there's no refusing this man. He borrowed a car from another teacher and off we went the three blocks to take pictures of the bank, police station and other places. When we got to the one grocery store in town he took me inside and made me pick out pastries and cookies and then bought them for me. Luckily Koreans are all about sharing food so I was tactfully able to avoid gaining 5 pounds that day by offering it to the other teachers.

I live in the next town over from Hamchang, called Jeomchon. It has a population of around 50,000 people and thus is not as rural as I was afraid it could be. It has a bus terminal and a train station, a Dunkin' Donuts, a Lotteria Burger (local fast food chain) and two Paris Baguettes (local bakery chain). There are no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no department stores or clubs. There isn't even a movie theater (the nearest one is over an hour away!). Outside of town is farmland and then big, beautiful mountains.

On the plus side, I'm located pretty much right in the middle of Korea. I'm two hours by bus from Seoul, and two hours by train to Daegu, Korea's third largest city. There are lots of small cities not too far away worth exploring, and even a few things in my own backyard that warrant a look-see.

Surprisingly, there are quite a few other foreigners in my town, something like 15 or 20. I seem to run into at least one a day. I was invited to a bi-monthly foreigner dinner party my first week so was able to get some good advice on where to go and all that. But it seems most everyone leaves town on the weekends, something I've already started doing. Last Saturday I went to Seoul and back to get some things for my computer (most people out here don't even know what Apple is) and buy some books. Tomorrow I'm training into Daegu for a haircut and a night out with other new EPIKers.

The days are still a little rough and I pass out around 9 every night, but it's a fulfilled exhaustion. I really like teaching. I like seeing a lesson plan succeed, and the kids understand a grammar point. I like when they attempt to speak to me in English, and when I can see them become interested in what I'm talking about. I like when the other teachers complement me on a lesson. It's nice to make a difference, even if it's only a small one.

I think it's going to be alright out here.


  1. The nearest movie theatre is over an hour away?! Ugh! Sorry, dude. Hope you can get there by train too. Hong Sangsoo's latest film (I'm 2 behind in his oeuvre now) opens the first week of October. Be sure to make me jealous by seeing it well before I do.

  2. Nice to hear you've settled in, and that it is all working out so well. It really sounds like the ideal situation for you: rural setting, but still within public transportation distance of a large city; good balance between carte blanche and co-teaching.

    And the apartment is going to rock!

    When it comes to teaching, the small differences are the ones that mean the most. Never underestimate the difference you can have as a teacher. If you change just one life in your time there, think of the meaning of that impact! And I'm sure you will change more than just one life.

  3. Thanks, Greg. I hope I can make a difference. That's why I made this career change, after all. Adam, I'll try but without English subtitles I might be a little lost.