Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Want A Ride

I've been sitting on this story a week or so, letting it percolate. It was one of those things that wasn't so big, considering all of my experiences in Korea, yet is representative of the kinds of innocent cultural clashes that can occur here.

I take the bus to school. The bus stop is along a major thoroughfare so people often stop to give me a ride. Usually it's a teacher but on this one day it was a student's father, giving his son and another student a ride to school. They stopped and motioned me over. I got in and almost immediately the father, who looked to be not much older than me, was saying, "Everyday, everyday." He wanted to give me a ride everyday.

I have learned from experience that this kind of kindness is often a trap. Not like there's a hidden agenda but for every act of kindness you receive, you become beholden to that person in some way. This is doubly true when it's a student's parent. Teachers are expected to be paragons of moral virtue and any slip-up will result in problems not just for the parties involved but for the whole school. So you can understand why I got nervous when he told me, "Everyday." But I was trapped. I was in the car with him and two of my students. I had to say yes.

And so it was that I found myself leaving the house 15 minutes earlier everyday and getting a ride from this man, who owned an intestines-soup restaurant around the corner from my house. I would show up at the restaurant at 7:55, the time instructed to arrive. I would watch his son eat his breakfast, politely refuse a similar breakfast for myself, and then we would drive across town to pick up the other student and be dropped at school almost 30 minutes earlier than I needed to be there.

Aside from the change in schedule, things were going along fine until a few days in, when the usual probing (read: uncomfortably personal) questions and typical teacher treatment I was used to began to change. When the father found out I was close to his age, he started yelling, "Chingu ya!" ("Friends!") and switched from parent/teacher mode to drinking buddy mode.

I should mention here that what determines friendship in Korea is less shared experience than similarity in age. When even a one-year difference can preclude intimacy, the fact that you're the same age means you don't have to worry about who's junior or senior and can meet each other as equals. We weren't exactly the same age but it was close enough for him to go straight to bosom pals without—as we Westerners might prefer—earning it.

It started mildly enough, with jokes about how sleepy I looked and such. I was surprised at first. I'm used to this kind of teasing from my fellow teachers. I don't always like it, usually because there's a language barrier and humor is also very culturally specific, but they have earned the right to tease me. I rarely tease them back for a variety of reasons but I know them so I know their hearts are in the right place.

One morning I was sitting at a table, watching the son stab at his meaty soup with his chopsticks, when the father came right up to me, stuck his finger to within a few inches of my left eye, and said something in Korean. It's very rude to point in Korea, let alone stick your finger in someone's eye. I turned to the son, waiting for the translation. His son was only a first-year middle school student and his English, while not as bad as many, was not that great. His vocabulary was limited and he tended to over-rely on the "to be" verb, even sticking it in sentences that already had perfectly good verbs. He looked at me, thought about what his father had said, and translated, "Dog eye."

"I have dog eyes?" I asked, incredulously. Dogs are not animals of privilege in Korea. A common Korean insult is "dog baby," or as we might say, "son of a bitch." I turned to the father and said "dog eye?" in Korean to make sure he really did say that. He just laughed. The son quickly added, "Handsome!" but the damage was done. I had dog eyes.

Over the next few days it got worse. Korean men like to pretend they're angry. It's a joke, of course, but for someone who isn't used to it and can't understand what's being said, it sounds identical to real anger. Imagine sitting in a car. The man who is sitting one foot to your left is yelling at you in a foreign language. You assume he's not really mad but all you have to go on is the tone of his voice. The translation that arrives is garbled and heavy on the "to be" verb, if one comes at all.

I began to dread these morning rides. Why did I agree to this, I kept asking myself. I could feel my stomach knotting up as I was getting ready to go to school. I don't mind taking the bus, I would say. I don't like getting to school so early, I would justify.

On the last day of our carpool, while sitting in the car on the way to school, the father asked me if I had gone to see his daughter dance in the local Christmas pageant the night before. I really did want to go but in typical Korean fashion he only told me about it the morning of the event. When I said, "Busy," he started in on the anger thing. I knew it was coming. My stomach was already starting to hurt. All of the emotions I had been suppressing the past few weeks came out: "I don't know if you're really angry or joking," I said, the desperation ringing in my voice. His son translated and he clarified, "Joke, joke." I explained that in America we don't yell at acquaintances like that, to which he said something back in Korean in what I can only assume was meant to be a joking tone but sounded to me like sarcasm. No one spoke the rest of the ride.

I consulted with my co-teachers about what to do and my head co-teacher volunteered to mediate. I felt like a coward, having someone else fight my battle for me, but in Korea it's better for a mediator to handle things than for there to be a confrontation. He explained that Americans aren't comfortable with others helping them and that they like to do things by themselves. He didn't mention that I was offended. I still felt sick over the whole thing, especially since my students had been in the car, but it was over now. Almost.

A few days later the middle school vice principal called my co-teacher. Apparently the father came to him to find out what happened. He had been trying to lighten the mood and I had gotten offended. He was embarrassed and wanted to clear the air. My co-teacher never mentioned that the father had been rude and wasn't treating me like his son's teacher so the vice principal thought I should take rides from him again. But my co-teacher insisted this way was better.

I fully believe that the father was only trying to be funny. He wasn't trying to offend me. But in general, if you tease someone and they don't tease you back, or they laugh uncomfortably, it's pretty obvious they're not enjoying it. Had this situation happened in the US I would have deflected the blame by explaining to him that the time was inconvenient for me and refused the rides. But here, without the luxury of fluency, I could only get frustrated.

The person I truly feel bad for is the son, my student. He's probably the most embarrassed of all of us.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Never Say Never Again

I've gone and done it. I've applied to JET again. After such a long application process, to be put on the waiting list was more than I could bear. I ended up in Korea and figured when I finally did make it back to Japan, it would not be with JET. Also, JET had an age limit of 40 which I was fast approaching.

And then they went and dropped the age limit.

And so I found myself once again gathering together letters of recommendation and college transcripts, writing an essay about why Japan needs me, and stressing about little things in the online application. Ah, natsukashii. I even had a moment of terror when I was hospitalized with pneumonia before I had finished the application. But, thanks to a liberal patient containment policy and a very helpful co-teacher, I was able to get everything printed out and mailed to Washington D.C. on time.

Now the waiting. Come January, JET will hopefully inform me that they want me to interview. I figure my chances are pretty good, now that I have actual teaching experience to back up my BA in Japanese. Then I'll fly off to Guam for a combination job interview/tropical vacation. If all goes well, I'll find out in April whether or not I got the job, and then start in August 2012.

Lord help me if I end up on the waiting list again.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Two Weeks In Jaeil: The Hospital Diaries

Portrait of the author as a hospital patient.
After almost a week of constant fever and already at least two visits to doctors, I had my co-teacher meet me at Jaeil Hospital to ask the doctor to take some tests and see what was going on. He told me again he didn't think I was all that sick but indulged me with an X-ray, blood work and a piss test. It's a good think he did: I had pneumonia and needed to be hospitalized right away, for at least two weeks. How did I go from "not serious" to two weeks in the hospital? He showed me the X-rays. I could plainly see the sea anemone blooming in my left lung. And that was that.

After a quick trip back to my apartment to grab a few things I was being shown to my new room. I was never even checked in. At one point I sat for a few minutes in a room that looked like it might be for new patients but then I was gone again. The only time I ever signed anything was for a CT scan.

My bed was in a room on the third floor. The room had six beds where even four might be considered cramped. Each faced away from the wall with just a retractable yellow curtain to offer a suggestion of privacy. I changed into the hospital pajamas they provided—thank god they didn't open at the back, I was spared that one indignity—said goodbye to my co-teacher, and climbed into bed.

I finally allowed myself to look around. I had avoided making eye contact with the men in the room because I knew they were all staring at me. I knew they had watched my every move with a curiosity reserved for those for whom nothing much new ever happens any more. They were staring, baldly and boldly. I decided to ignore them for the time being and try to relax.

I laid flat on my back, my head on a rock-hard rubber pillow. The bed did not recline. It did not move at all. If we needed to sit up, we pulled ourselves up. If we needed to lie back, we used our arms, often leaning on the IV tube to do so. After a couple of times of doing this and smarting from the pain, I learned to keep that plastic leash away from my body. (I also eventually realized that the pain was just the tape pulling on my arm hair and not the needle breaking off in my vein.)

With my co-teacher gone, the full weight of my situation began to come down on me. I was going to be in this place for two weeks. I had never stayed overnight in a hospital before in America, let alone Korea. I was in a room with four old men with obvious respiratory issues. And from what I had seen so far, hygiene didn't seem to be high on the list of hospital priorities.

The bathroom was public. It was for the whole floor. You dragged your IV stand down the hall and either stood in front of the urinal or you parked it in front of a stall and locked the door on the tube. There was hand soap but not always paper towels.

Next to the bathroom was the public washing area. This consisted of a row of sinks with shower attachments for hair washing. There was a rubber bed under a nozzle in one corner. I was reminded of those scenes in The Wall when Pink is running around in the military hospital, reading poetry in the grim stalls. I had no hand soap to wash with. I had no shampoo. Hell, even Korean motels provide that. I was in a place lower than a love motel.

Bed with a view
The hospital didn't even have that antiseptic hospital smell. Usually that smell is enough to turn your stomach but I was longing for it. Watching two old ladies slop water around the floor of our room wasn't enough to convince me that the hospital really was clean.

I settled back into my bed and tried to sleep. There was a TV mounted to the wall at the foot of my bed that stayed on from 6:30 in the morning until 10:00 at night. I had forgotten earplugs. Luckily I had my iPhone and iPad, and busied myself complaining on Facebook until I fell into an uneasy unconsciousness.

Around 9:00 pm the heater next to my bed, which I had been eyeing worringly all day, finally kicked into life. It started innocuously enough but soon was pumping out hot air into my face. The door to the room closed, the lights went out, and the temperature crept ever higher. I don't know if I ever even fully slept that night. I remember sitting up in bed, staring out the window in the direction of my apartment, which I knew was forgivingly cool and spacious and private. The veil between Korea and myself had been completely obliterated. I was naked in a hot wind, and I cried.

Not long after I awoke the next day, a sixth patient was brought to our room, filling all the beds. Although I rarely saw him, he being hidden by the curtain that I stubbornly kept drawn, I began to think of him as the Executive. In glimpses, I could see he was not as rough warn as the other men in the room, who had the weathered skin of farmers or manual laborers. His hair managed to stay neatly parted even though mine had already taken on the appearance of old straw.

Occupying the third bed on my side of the room and closest to the door was the Sleeper, a man I only ever saw curled up in his blankets. He hardly made a sound except for when he called out for his wife, who invariably was not there. I had him pegged as the first to die.

Across from me was the Baritone, so named for his surprisingly deep voice. I would hear him talking and in my mind I would see a big bear of a man. Reality provided a squirrel. He was frail, with knobby knees, and was blessed with complete freedom of motion. I never could figure out how someone could be sick enough to need to be in there with us but not need an IV. It meant he could wear his own shirt though.

Next to the Baritone was LulzSec. At first I was calling him the Hacker because of the near constant, pained coughing. But in the middle of the first night, I was awakened by what sounded like a hyena laughing. It was him, trying not to cough. This went on all night. In the morning I gave him the new name.

Lastly, there was McMurphy. He didn't seem to be sick at all. In fact, I'm pretty much convinced he lives at the hospital full time. He didn't have an IV and he wore a regular jacket. He also seemed to be the captain of the room. He turned the TV on and off at the appropriate times, and let me know when it was time to eat. He even bussed my tray for me. At one point he swapped out my IV stand for a different one. I was a little miffed at first but then realized my old one didn't have a little tray for carrying stuff. (The new one, however, seemed to have bird droppings on it.)

I was visited later that day by my fellow teachers, who brought me sympathy, thousands of calories worth of desserts, and an envelope of money. One of them mentioned something about a private room and my mind immediately went into overdrive. A private room? You mean I don't have to sleep in this respiratory quarantine room? I can have privacy? Yes, please. And after another night of blast furnace heat and moist hacking, I was able to move up one floor and into my own room.

After two days in the lung ward, I was happy to be getting my own room. Although there were two beds, the second was unoccupied, leaving me in dreamy peace. I had my own bathroom with shower, a closet for my clothes and quickly accumulating gifts and desserts, and even a small refrigerator. I was also pleased to find out that the quality of the food improved. It wasn't gourmet but at least it was edible now And best of all, I could turn the TV off. It was heaven.

Of course, heaven isn't free. I was paying around $70 a day for my privacy. The dorm room, on the other hand, was essentially free, the price of the room included with the daily medical fees. Thanks to nationalized health, this amounts to something like $5.00 a day. In a poor area like this, it makes sense that people would be crammed into small rooms to save money. It also makes sense given the Korean love of company. But if the Republicans ever need another scare tactic to keep people away from a nationalized health plan, a photograph of a Korean hospital room would be enough to keep people up at night.

Now that I was getting enough rest, I was able to get around more during the day. The doctor told me I needed to get some exercise so I dutifully did laps around the darkened first floor of the hospital after dinner. I also exercised my right to leave the hospital and made trips to the convenient store across the street to stock up on necessities, like cookies and canned coffee. I also took occasional trips to my apartment, which was just across the street, to get fresh towels and change the music in my iPhone. I should probably mention that I was still plugged into the IV during these trips. I wasn't the only one out and about either. Patients in pajamas sucking down soju in the local restaurants, their IV stands hovering over them like nervous parents, is a common site in my neighborhood. Don't mind me, just another patient on the lam.

The morning routine.
I quickly established a daily routine. Get woken up at 5 am to take oral medicine. Fall back asleep and wake up again at 7 for breakfast. Eat very little of said breakfast, which is exactly the same spicy and garlicky food as lunch and dinner. After breakfast, wash my hair and sponge myself down, frowning at the smell that will not, no matter how raw I scrub myself, go away. Next, drink a can of coffee and surf the Web on my iPad, and maybe play some Scrabble. That takes me to lunch, which I can eat more of than breakfast. In the afternoon I watch a movie that I rented from iTunes and maybe play some more Scrabble. Then it's dinner and my walk around the first floor. Finally, a little TV and then to bed around 9.

The day was also broken up by visits from the nurses, who forced big turkey basters full of antibiotics into my veins three times a day. This was my only discomfort, as the medicine often burned going in. The nurses were delightful though and I did my best to flirt with them. It helped pass the time and it also got me things like candy and fruit, which would be brought to me with smiles.

After 12 days, the doctor declared me well enough to go home. I slept all day at home that day and then was back to work the day after. Including the fever at the beginning, I was sick for around 3 weeks. I'm still getting my energy back, and still smarting from the hospital bill. I think about how cheap it would have been had I stuck it out in the lung ward, but then again I might still be there, roasting in the heat and nurturing a brand new case of tuberculosis. No, I made the right decision, expensive though it was.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Classroom Management

The following piece was written for an essay contest held by EPIK, my employer here in Korea. I decided to write about classroom management, the hardest part for me of teaching in a high school.

The new English teacher in Korea faces all kinds of issues in the classroom, from indifferent and tired students to indifferent and tired co-teachers. As someone who had never taught before, my first year was spent just learning how to plan effective lessons and find that elusive balance between education and entertainment. Hey, I like to have fun as much as my students. But one element had continued to elude me: classroom management. But, thanks to two new policies, I have been able to more fully manage my classes and teach more effectively.

I teach middle and high school boys in rural Gyeongsangbuk-do. My school is academically focused and for the most part I don't have many problems with the students. They are a lot more driven to succeed than I ever was at their age and they consistently impress me with their dedication and discipline—in other people's classes, at least. In many of my classes they were undisciplined and wild, seeing it as a time to cut loose, to let off some steam in the middle of a pressure cooker day that starts early in the morning and ends after midnight.

I sympathize with them, I really do. I could not imagine having to keep up the kind of academic pace they do. But I also did not fly half way around the world to be their punching bag. Don't get me wrong. I'm not the kind of teacher that requires absolute silence. I like a little chaos in the classroom; it keeps things interesting. But there's a level of respect that I expect and for the most part, it wasn't being met.

I should stress that this was only an issue in high school. My middle school classes are largely free of these kinds of issues, for a number of reasons. Co-teacher involvement plays a large part, I believe, and my middle school co-teacher is pretty strict. But it's also the students themselves. I work with these kids in after-school classes and they're respectful and pay attention, for the most part. But they're also not under the same kind of intense pressure that the high school students are, so there's less of a need to go wild.

After a few particularly bad high school classes, in which students were actually standing up and hitting each other while I was lecturing, I decided that I needed to make some changes. I first identified what I thought the problems were so that I could find solutions. The common factors among the problem classes were uninvolved co-teachers and a large number of class clowns. It was a bad ratio. Other classes might have a lot of clowns but an involved co-teacher was there to temper their behavior. In another class, the co-teacher might be out to lunch but the class was generally low maintenance. Another problem, I have to admit, was myself. I had been waiting for the co-teacher to discipline the students, or the students to work it out themselves, but this Zen approach only enabled their behavior. I at last came to the realization that there must always be a boss in the classroom. If it's not the teacher, it will be the students.

My first solution to becoming the boss was to implement a three strikes policy. Any time the class is goofing off and not listening to me, if students are standing or walking around, if students forget that this is indeed class time, I write an X on the board. I don't yell, I don't make a big fuss about it, I just write it. They know what it means and will do my policing for me: they will tell whoever is talking to be quiet. Should the class end up with three X's on the board, the entire class is punished. So far I've only had to punish one class and that involved everyone doing push-ups in the hall. Part of the punishment is that it's in a public space. They are embarrassed, and students in other classes know I'm serious about discipline.

The three strikes rule addresses the symptom, that being unfocused students, but not the sickness, as it were. Why are the students not motivated to pay attention in my classes? Because there's no specific academic reason to do so. They're not tested on the material I teach and it only marginally relates to their eventual college entrance exams. One reason the middle school classes pay attention is because I teach from the textbook, and the material covered is on their tests. But for high school I create my own lessons unrelated to the material in the textbooks. Unless they have an interest in English there's no reason for them to participate or even pay attention.

The obvious solution would be to make my class count academically, and this is just what I did. I approached my co-teachers and explained the situation as I saw it, and asked if they would mind if I contributed questions to the midterm and final exams. I had actually assumed that they would not be interested, that they would have asked me to do it already if they were. But to my surprise they loved the idea and even praised me for taking the initiative.

The change in my classrooms is like night and day. Between the three strikes rule and the test questions, the students are much more behaved. They're focused and contribute more to the class, even the class clowns. There's also a new and palpable level of respect towards me. I have become a real teacher in their eyes, not just the foreigner with the fun-time class. I feel more like a real teacher now as well, as what I say really counts in their lives. My teaching has become more academically oriented and I find myself explaining grammatical concepts more.

Of course, they're still teenage boys and are prone to getting out of control. After a few weeks of paying attention, they forget. But the occasional X on the board serves to remind them that my policy is still in place, and that I'm serious.

As my students have responded to my needs, so must I respond to theirs. I contributed questions to the recent midterm and they were universally regarded as "too difficult." Even the top students had trouble with them (and were none too pleased with me for causing their scores to be lower than usual). This is a learning experience for me as much as for them. I have told them that because we don't use a book in my class, they must take notes, and study them. But I have also made a concession to them: I will devote the last class before the test to review so they have an idea of what to study.

Also, my head co-teacher has informed me than my questions need to be in a format that is more like the other questions on the test, which are reading-based. I had a hard time agreeing to this. Why should form dictate content on a test? I don't teach a reading class so why should my questions be reading based? But we have come to an agreement. I will create dialogues for the test based on the lessons. The questions will be long and thus conform to what the principal expects. I still think it's silly but I am willing to conform to what my school requires.

I have come a long way since I started at my school more than a year ago. I have gone from green and inexperienced to, well, slightly less inexperienced. But through trial and error, and with the help of my co-teachers, I have arrived at a place where I can feel good about what I'm doing here. Thanks to these two solutions—the three strikes policy and making my classes count academically—my classes run more smoothly and I'm able to more effectively do what I was brought over here to do: namely, teach.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Year In Korea

This week marks one year in Korea. I feel like this sort of momentous occasion demands a blog post (which I haven't really been updating lately) but I'm having a hard time coming up with something to write about. Yes, I've been in Korea for a year but what does that mean, other than a marking of the passage of time? What have I learned, if anything?

The biggest change for me lately hasn't been personal but technological. In the space of about two weeks I got not only an iPhone but an iPad. I'm actually writing this on my iPad right now. Although I have a wireless keyboard for this purpose I though I'd try writing on the screen to see how it goes. It's surprisingly not that bad. My two-finger typing style is well-suited to this hybrid texting style of writing. So far the hardest part is remembering where all the punctuation is, as most of it is hidden in a sub-keyboard under the qwerty keyboard.

But what does this have to do with Korea? Not much, other than the fact that it's my job in Korea that has allowed me these technological luxuries. I suppose this is the biggest achievement of the year: that I finally have the kind of extra income that allows me these fun toys. Of course, I still have debt but thanks to a nice year-end bonus coming my way I will soon be putting a big hole in that.

With one year ending, it's also time to think about the year that is beginning. This will likely be my last year in Korea. Japan and graduate school beckon. I want to make the most of this year. If I don't start planning trips now I know that soon the cool fall will give way to a freezing winter and I will sit in my apartment for 6 months. Likewise for spring next year. I will be pouring over my travel books in the next few months.

I would also like to improve my proficiency in Korean but at the same time I'm going to need to start refreshing my Japanese. Is there room in my life for both? We shall see.

So, one year in Korea and not much to report, other than new toys. Looks like I'm badly in need of a mystical and wonderful experience. It's waiting out there for me. OK, here I come.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

One More Year—And Then After That?

I did it. I signed up for another year at Hamchang School. That means I'll be here until at least August 2012. I'll get a monthly raise as well as a bonus for re-signing.

What'll I do after that though? I'm not sure. There are lots of things I want to do in the future.

Eventually I want to be teaching at a Japanese university. That means a masters at least, and a doctorate at best. I've been looking at a Japanese studies program at Sophia in Tokyo. I'm particularly interested in Japanese yokai (goblins) and ghosts and such and am hoping to write my thesis on that. Also, the program offers Japanese-language courses for no additional charge, as you're expected to do your thesis research in Japanese. Thankfully you don't have to write it in Japanese.

I also want to achieve some kind of fluency in Korean. Maybe I'll get to a level that I'm happy with by August 2012, or maybe self-study won't ever cut it. I've been looking at the language program at Yonsei University in Seoul. I could study there full-time for 6 months before going over to Japan if I decide it's what I want. It seems strange to study Korean and then leave, but it will help me achieve a long-standing goal of wanting to learn Korean.

The other thing I want to do is travel, particularly around South East Asia. I don't know if I would want to do it for 6 months but for a few months at least.

Or who knows, maybe I'll end up teaching in Korea longer than another year. Whatever path I choose, it will be an exciting and rewarding adventure.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Wedding

The call came at 9:30, Sunday morning.

"Adam, are you bored?" It was my co-teacher, Mr. Lee. "Come to the wedding today!"

I hadn't been awake long enough to determine if I was bored or not but I certainly wasn't going to pass on the opportunity to go to a Korean wedding. Weddings, along with funerals and birthday parties, are the ceremonies that mark important moments in our lives. Every culture has a unique way of going about them. I had yet to experience a Korean wedding, so I got my suit out of the back of the closet, shaved and prepared for what I hoped would be a memorable event.

The wedding was being held in what appeared to be a city building put up in the 1950s. Every floor was packed with men in suits, simultaneously shaking hands and bowing. Older women in hanbok (traditional Korean dress) floated back and forth, while young people in jeans and tracksuits obediently nipped at the heels of their elders.

We followed the flow of people up to the third floor, passing what appeared to be a cafeteria. I had been promised lunch and wondered if this staid place, with its dim lighting and hunched over diners, was going to be it. But no time to ponder, for we were climbing again.

I spotted familiar faces milling around in the foyer and, having already lost my co-teacher, made a beeline for them. All of us teachers and school administrative staff had gathered to witness (or so I thought) the wedding of the daughter of Mr. Kim, the Japanese teacher, who often gave me a ride to school in the morning. After saying hello to everyone, I went over and shook Mr. Kim's hand, and congratulated him in Korean and Japanese, just to be safe.

There was a wedding already in progress on the other side of a glass partition, and I couldn't tell if this was Mr. Kim's party or not. Intriguingly, two majorettes in full uniform and tall hats ran past me and into the hall, taking their places on the red carpet. A guest was standing on the trail of the bride's wedding dress. No one seemed to be moving. I watched some of the other teachers take a few tentative steps into the wedding hall, look around, and then come back out. Apparently this was not Mr. Kim's affair. They were double-booked.

I popped into the bathroom to relieve myself before our ceremony started and when I had come back out, everyone was gone. I panicked momentarily but then caught sight of Mr. Lee, who lead me not into the wedding room but back down the stairs and outside.

"Is that it?" I asked him. "No wedding ceremony?"

"Now we eat," he said by way of explanation.

And so we all got into our cars, having been at the wedding building for a grand total of 10 minutes, and drove to the outskirts of town where we ate beef and drank. The wedding party never even showed.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Schedule

This semester I am decidedly more busy than last semester. It has nothing to do with being used to teaching yet or not (I am). What's making things more busy is I have agreed to teach evening classes. From Monday to Thursday, I teach either a middle school or a high school conversation class at 7:10pm. This means I am at school for pretty much 12 hours a day, four of the five work days a week. Hence, busy.

I am getting paid overtime for these classes, which I appreciate. The other thing I appreciate is how being at school for longer hours makes me feel like I'm more of a real member of staff and not just the foreigner that arrives after everyone later and leaves before everyone else. Now I'm just like them, overworked and tired all the time.

Being at school late also gives me more chances to talk to the students, both in my evening classes and outside. The students are here all the time. Many live in the dorms and so study in class until all hours of the night. The more I'm here, the more comfortable we are around each other, and the more we talk. It's fun getting to know them; they're hilarious.

What I don't like about this schedule, though, which should come as no surprise, is how tired I am all the time. Because of bus schedules I often don't get home until 9pm. Sometimes I walk home for the exercise, as I don't have time for the gym during the week now, and end up home at the same time, but it's hard to walk for 45 minutes after being at work for 12 hours.

After a month of this schedule I'm finally getting used to it, mentally if not yet physically. I'm very overdue for a trip to the gym this weekend. My creative side has been atrophying as well. Hopefully I can do some writing or maybe even work on some music this weekend—anything other than lesson plan. I am very much looking forward to midterms next week. Finally, a break from lesson planning.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Korean Coffee Conundrum

I like coffee. I suppose I could also say that I need coffee. But let's not get into whether I am or am not addicted to coffee (am) but rather get into the meat of this thing: the coffee in Korea sucks. It's not like there's a lack of it either. There's actually a surprising surfeit of coffee. No matter where you go, no matter how small the hamlet, there will be coffee at every turn. And all of it will be swill.

Surely I'm exaggerating, you say. I wish to God that I were. The situation is incredibly dire. No, really. I don't often use words like "dire" but it describes the coffee situation in Korea perfectly, I believe.

Allow me to explain.

Although you might think of Korea as being primarily a tea-drinking country, being part of Asia and all that, the country has taken to coffee in a big way. There are coffee shops and cafes everywhere. Even my small town of Jeomchon has at least five places that I can think of that serve coffee. Go to a big city like Seoul and you can't stumble 10 feet without passing another coffee joint. So what's my beef, with so much coffee around? The coffee is invariably going to be bad.

Let's start with the big cities. Seoul has seemingly billions of variations on Starbucks, all with circular logos and frothy lattes and all that other unnecessary coffee claptrap. I don't drink that stuff. I like drip coffee, and I like it black. That means that I actually taste the coffee, not the syrup and the whipped cream and the fireworks and whatever else they're going to dump in there. I want a cup of coffee, not another meal. And when Starbucks is considered the top of the line, it goes downhill quickly.

This is assuming I can find drip coffee at all. Most places don't serve drip; they only serve espresso. This means I usually have to resort to drinking an Americano if I want something resembling a cup of coffee. Even coffee places that profess to serve drip, and have the hardware to do so, often don't even brew it. I can recall asking for a cup of drip in Seoul at 8 in the morning and being told they were "sold out." Right. You never even bothered to brew it. In my town there are exactly zero places that will brew a cup of coffee. Aside from my kitchen, of course.

But far and away, the majority of coffee consumed in Korea is of the instant variety. Pretty much any business has a small machine that, with the press of a button, will fill a Dixie cup with coffee, milk and sugar. Always with milk and sugar. Anytime you have the occasion to wait for some service—at the bank, while getting a prescription filled, at the mechanic—a cup of this "coffee" will invariably be pressed into your hand.

My school used to have one of these machines but it has recently been replaced with packets of instant coffee that also contains milk and sugar. My fellow teachers have given up offering it to me, as they do to everyone else, because I am lactose intolerant and thus can't drink it. This is always embarrassing at a business because it appears I am refusing their hospitality when I don't drink the instant coffee. For that is really what this is about, hospitality. It's a small symbol of the bond that unites the people in a community. I would love to partake of this bond. I would happily do my part and drink this sour, so-called coffee if it weren't for the built-in milk. I tried it a few times. The results were catastrophic.

I hope and pray that single press coffee will make it to Korea in a big and affordable way ($10 for a cup at a Seoul hotel doesn't count). In the meantime I will drink Americanos and politely refuse the instant coffee, bonds be damned.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


From the NY Times.
It's been a rough week. But not nearly as rough a week as it has been for the millions of Japanese affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster still unfolding in Japan's north east. For me, it's been tough watching the footage of all the devastation, reading tweets and Facebook updates and looking at pictures online. It's a mixture of sadness, helplessness and, I have to say, a little bit of relief, because I very well could have been right there where the tsunami hit.

I applied to JET last year, as readers of this blog will know. My top choice was Sendai, what turned out to be one of the hardest hit cities. I could have been there when the earthquake and tsunami hit. I could have lost my apartment and all my possessions, like one JET teacher apparently did. But, had things gone differently, I would also be there right now, possibly helping in the relief effort. It's hard to look at pictures from so far away and not be able to help out. I donated to the Japan Society Relief Fund (and I encourage you to do the same; the box to the right of this story will take you to their site) but it still doesn't feel like enough.

I had pretty much decided I'd be staying in Korea for another year before this disaster struck. But I for sure won't be going to Japan for any length of time for awhile. Japanese nationals are being sent to foreign branches of companies to work. Friends of mine who were scheduled to go to Japan to teach English or go to school have been told to stay home. Of course, not all of Japan has been affected by this disaster but I imagine that ESL positions will suffer nation-wide. Priorities rightly will be shifted for probably years.

For now, I will continue to enjoy living in and exploring Korea, and I will continue to hope that the Japanese people are able to overcome this tragedy quickly.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A New Semester

Today is one of my periodic desk-warming days. I don't have any classes to teach (they're giving mock college entrance exams all day) but I still have to come to school, so I'm just wearing a groove in my chair and looking for things to do on the computer. I brought the book I'm currently working through, "The Museum of Innocence," but despite a strong start I'm having trouble with the long, slow middle part. I'm even contemplating giving up on it but I don't have another book waiting in the wings. Let's see, today I've already looked over the lessons for next week, gone to the school store for an orange juice, drank honey water with some other teachers in my office, ordered some books from What the Book? to replace the one I'm tired of, and even updated my bookmarks in Firefox.

Hence the blog post.

It's a new semester here at Hamchang Middle and High School. I made it through the first week with no real problems to speak of. This is a far cry from my first week last semester, which involved technical difficulties, student difficulties and general difficulties related to working again after years of being in school. Now I have all around Teacher Confidence. I can navigate my way around the in-class video and audio systems, I can effectively teach, control and entertain students of all ages, and no longer get tired after a day of teaching. I do have a cold, but that's to be expected as I get one pretty much every month.

My schedule this semester is a bit different from last semester. I'm not teaching the third-year high school students at all. The first-year high school students are not broken up by ability this year, and to fill out my schedule I'm teaching each of the four first-year classes twice a week. I don't really mind as I like this group of students. I had a number of them over the break in my "winter camp" so I already know some of them as well. The other big change this semester is I'm teaching two teacher classes. Twice a week I'm teaching English conversation to any teacher that wants to learn to speak English. I've had one class already and am really looking forward to working with people who want to learn, rather than have to learn. I'm also going to be teaching evening and Saturday classes for overtime. It's going to be physically demanding, with long hours doing the week and the loss of every other Saturday, but the money will be good, and I think the added time with students and other teachers will be good for my own feeling of belonging, something I struggle with.

Overall, I'm feeling really good about this semester. I've been given a little more autonomy, now that I have some experience, and with all of the new teachers that arrived this term I'm not the newbie anymore. Some of the new, young teachers even defer to me as a senior, which goes a long way in reinforcing in myself a sense a confidence. I don't feel like the useless foreigner in the corner anymore. I feel like the useful foreigner in the corner.

And you know what? I may just sign up for a second year after all.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Noraebang Insanity

Friday night was the first teacher dinner of the new semester. I've been to enough teacher dinners now that I know what to expect, and know how to navigate all of the little rituals that transpire. If you've never been to a traditional Korean restaurant, you might not know that you sit on the floor in front of a low table, and you usually cook your own food over a gas burner. This time we had pork and duck, the latter of which was really spicy and rich. There's also a lot of drinking, of course, and although everyone encourages you to drink a lot, if you're not in the mood to drink they'll understand if you refuse politely.

Friday night I was drinking beer. I was enjoying myself but not "going for it" like I did at the previous teacher dinner, when I was drinking both beer and soju, the local rice wine. That night was fun but I really paid for it the next day. This dinner, like the dinner before, ended early and most everyone headed to the noraebang after.

Noraebang means "sing room," and from that you can probably guess that it's karaoke. Noraebangs are extremely popular in Korea. They're everywhere. In fact, there are so many that often the owners will hire touts to drive around, looking for revelers, and offer to drive them to their noraebang. You get a private room with couches, food and drink, two microphones, plenty of tambourines, and of course ear-splitting music.

This semester, our school got 11 new teachers, most of whom are under 30. This has resulted in a fantastic influx of young energy into the school, which can be a little on the "mature" side (yours truly included, of course). At dinner they shouted when they clinked glasses, and at the noraebang they quickly took control, cramming into the small space in front of the video monitor that displays the song lyrics and going crazy.

Come on feel the norae.
This is not to say that the older teachers don't get into it. This is my third time going to a noraebang with my school and people get down every time. Last time, I was twisting with an English teacher while the other teachers were pretty much moshing down front. Case in point: that's our school principle right at the center of the mosh pit in the above picture. But these new teachers, well, they know how to party.

Having been to a few of these events before, I knew I was expected to sing a song. I chose "Girl" by The Beatles, not the best song for my (horrible) voice but the perfect song for the situation. I had noticed that the four new female teachers were all lined up against the wall, so when I grabbed the mic and took my place down front I essentially had four back-up singers at my side. So when I sang the chorus, "Ah girl..." I would motion to them with my hand, and they would sing harmony.

I hung around for another hour or so and then, tired of drinking and the loud music, I walked home. It was a 45-minute walk through the fields but the stars were out and it wasn't too cold. A very nice night here in rural Korea.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Most Beautiful Place in Jeomchon

The other day we were blessed with really nice weather, so I decided to seize the opportunity to get out of my apartment and take a walk. While walking, I noticed a little temple perched high on a hill. I spent much of that walk just trying to find the path at the base of the hill, and when I finally had I really had to go to the bathroom. The next day, I came back to discover this:

This is the rock that marks the entrance to Cheonhungsa. Just behind the rock, and past the small pavilion on the right is a stairway leading up the side of the mountain.

Keep climbing and you'll reach the temple grounds, which are cut into the side of the hill.

It's the most beautiful place I've found in Jeomchon. Granted, there isn't much else to challenge this title. In fact, I was surprised to find anything of beauty at all here. I will definitely visit this little temple again.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Giant Encyclopedia of Ultraman Monsters: Monsters Charge!

In Praise of Laver

I came back from the Lunar New Year holiday to find a large box on my desk. It was big and yet very light. "What could be inside?" I wondered, but not out loud because talking to yourself is usually not a good idea. I carried it home on the bus, opened it up, and found:

Lots and lots of dried seaweed, or what is commonly called laver. No, I had never heard this word before coming to Asia, either. I always just called it nori, which is the Japanese. In Korean it's kim, as in "kimbap," or seaweed rice. See how that works?

Anyway, what would I ever need this much seaweed for? Don't get me wrong, I like seaweed. I've eaten it many times with sushi and even occasionally on spaghetti in Japan. But an entire box? Seems a little excessive.

Koreans eat laver in more ways than the Japanese do, it seems. Koreans eat it with rice, using their chopsticks to fold the seaweed sheet over some rice. They'll even eat it as a snack with alcohol, as is. All are good. But again, how am I ever going to consume all of this seaweed?

How indeed. These are, of course, the words of someone who has not yet consumed this particular brand of seaweed. Since opening a pack and eating the contents with rice, I have realized just how wonderful seaweed can be. I am now orienting my meals around the seaweed, it's so good.

I'd say come on over and have some with me, but I don't think I have enough for two. Sorry.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Snake Cult of Beppu

Just a castle?
It was two years ago that I first heard rumor of a castle in Beppu. I was preparing to leave Oita after a year of studying Japanese there. Beppu, the next town up the line, was famous for its hot springs but it apparently also had a castle. Odd this, as it was never a castle town. Had some millionaire decided to erect his own castle and infuse it with his own, bizarre personality? Alas, I was too busy with preparations for leaving to find out.

Fate (and some time off from work) brought me back to Oita for a week, and I was determined this time to find that elusive castle. Whether historical recreation or vanity project, I just had to see it. Like Americans and their love for roadside attractions, the Japanese are not above building shrines or landmarks that bare little to no resemblance to accepted reality.

"Does Beppu have a castle?" I asked the woman behind the counter at the little tourist office in front of Beppu Station.

"Well, not a real one," she answered, a hint of disapproval in her voice.

"That's the one!"

With map in hand, I boarded a bus bound for Kifunejo, something like High-class Boat Castle. What would I find, I wondered. What lay before me? There was no way I could have prepared myself for what was to come.

I got off the bus at the stop marked on the map and started up the steep hill towards the castle. The bus stop was named for the castle, and there were plenty of signs along the way. This was a bigger deal than I thought. Strange that I hadn't heard of it long ago. Why the secrecy, I wondered.

I reached the top of the hill, huffing and puffing, and paused to take a look at the castle. Although small, with only three stories, it was indeed a normal-looking castle. Someone had obviously spent a lot of money to erect this here. Still wondering why, I paid my 300-yen entrance fee (around $3.00) and headed for the entrance.

I had paused there momentarily to catch my breath, as I was still wheezing from the climb, when a man started beckoning me inside. I tried to tell him in Japanese to wait a minute but he kept insisting. Strange to be so insistent, I thought. I took off my shoes at the entrance, not unheard of for original castles, and followed him inside.

Most castle interiors follow one of two plans: original castles are left as-is. They are largely empty inside, being built to withstand sieges and not for everyday living. Recreations usually have museums inside. You follow the museum plan up and up, eventually reaching the top. This was different. The entire first floor looked like the lobby of a mountain lodge, complete with exposed wooden beams, furniture like couches and chairs, and even European-style paintings hanging on the walls. One entire wall was taken up by an open stage, on which was placed a shrine. This was not your typical castle.
Just like home.
Take it to the stage.
The man made a beeline for a small door directly across the open room from the shrine stage. He opened the door, which was only a few feet high, and then started to descend a ladder into a kind of pit. I hope he doesn't expect me to follow him, I thought, feeling a little weirded out by all that was happening.
Is that an albino snake or are you just happy to see me?
And then he emerged with a snake. A large, white snake. It was some kind of albino python. Still sitting inside the little door, he placed it on the ground and let it slither around. He was talking non-stop in Japanese and I only caught the occasional, "This is a snake. Mr. Snake. You know snakes?" I smiled gamely and nodded.

"Touch it!" he demanded. I hesitated and he said it again. I reached out my hand to lightly touch the pinkish-white scales. "Touch it!" he said, even more loudly, and brought his hand down on mine, pressing my hand onto the hard, muscular snake. Alarm bells started going off in my head and I pulled back. This was decidedly odd and I really wanted to get away from this snake-obsessed man, so I backed up, a smile frozen to my face. He must have seen the panic in my eyes because he said something about taking pictures inside the castle being OK and then disappeared back into the snake pit.
The upstairs shrine.
I rushed up the stairs, happy to be free from the snake man. On the top floor was another shrine, this one with what looked like two massive, origami snakes draped over either end of a narrow table. There was a picture of an older lady holding an albino snake on a nearby shelf, the date marked 1990. They must really like snakes here, I thought. I walked around on the outside of the top level, a little concerned at how rickety the construction was, and then went back down to the first floor, ready to leave.

As I came down the stairs, I heard the voice of the snake man, praying. There, sitting on the ground in front of the snake pit, were four people, all in their 20s or early 30s. They were kneeling with their eyes tightly closed, their hands clasped in prayer. The snake slithered disinterestedly around their legs. I couldn't believe it—they were praying to the snake. I dared to get a little closer, hoping to maybe take a picture, and an old lady sitting to one side noticed me and motioned me to join them.

There are few things in this life I wanted less than to join them. I was overcome by the strangeness of it all and went into flight mode, my only desire to get away from this scene and outside. I rushed out, the sound of the man's intoning voice retreating behind me. At last, I was outside, the wind of freedom on my face. I kept going a good 30 feet away from the castle before I stopped and turned around.
Yes, that's a dead snake under the glass.
And that's when I noticed it. The shrine that was right at the entrance to the castle was no ordinary shrine. Sitting inside was a large glass case. And inside the large glass case was a very big, very white dead snake. My body shuddered involuntarily and I turned away from the castle, wanting only to get back on the bus and away from the insanity.

Riding the bus back down the hill, surrounded by the comforting sight of people going about their daily routines, it occurred to me that I may have witnessed a fertility rite. Certainly the color and shape of the snake suggested the male member. And I couldn't say for sure—I was too flabbergasted at the time to notice—but it may have been two couples praying over the snake.

Perhaps the snake man assumed I had come there not as a fan of Japanese castles but as a man wanting to increase his virility. I hadn't touched the snake with enough passion, so he pressed my hand down even more. I wouldn't say it was virility coursing through me at that moment, not unless virility feels a lot like panic.

Japan has quite a few "fringe" religions that combine elements of Shinto, Buddhism and whatever else seems appropriate, like extreme cleanliness or fear of lasers. With the odd hodgepodge of items in that castle, I wouldn't be surprised if this weren't some kind of cult. The fact that the castle was attached to a house is pretty odd. I guess the recruits need a place to sleep in-between praying to the pink behemoth.

The funny thing is, not a few hours after touching Mr. Snake I had a very unexpected romantic encounter. Coincidence? Only the Snake Cult of Beppu knows for sure.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

No Phone For You

The Fist of English.
We're currently between semesters at my school. The Korean school year is kind of odd. There's almost 4 months of classes in the fall and winter, and then between New Year and March 1 the students are at school but there aren't really classes, per se. They're just there. This happens again in the summer. I suppose studying is a full-time job.

Right now I'm teaching some of the incoming high school freshmen. They're all brand new to the school, having not gone to our middle school. This is immediately apparent as their behavior is—how shall I put it?—a little lacking. They're hilarious and keep me laughing from bell to bell but they don't always exhibit model behavior. This is especially apparent when it comes to cell phones. I had never seen a phone in one of our middle school classes until these new students arrived. They just can't keep them in their pockets.

It's all the usual distractions: text messages, Internet, games. Plus they have Japanese comics downloaded onto their phones. The other day I saw a kid looking at his lap so I sauntered over and caught him with his phone. "Don't play games in class," I told him, sternly. "No game! No game!" he protested. "Reading comics."

All of the teachers carry around "teaching sticks," big honking sticks that they swat the kids with when they get out of line. The swatting ranges from playful to possibly illegal. Corporal punishment is on its way out in the school system but for teachers who grew up with it, and students who know only one kind of discipline, it's slow to die. I disagree with hitting kids, and it's just not my style to carry around a bat, so instead I bought a big novelty fist that squeaks when you bop something with it. It's harmless and funny but it presents a visual that says, "I'm a person of authority." It's also embarrassing to a student who gets a squeaky bop in class. Lately there's been a lot of phone-related bopping.

I don't know if these new students are being so cavalier because it's technically between semesters, or if their previous schools were really permissive, but this is just annoying. I have warned them about phones in class. I have bopped heads. I have even confiscated phones. But they're addicted, it seems.

"I'm nice," I told them. "But be careful when you get upstairs and take real high school classes. Those teachers aren't nice." And it's true. They will not suffer phones in class. These kids are in for a rude awakening in a few weeks.

Friday, January 21, 2011

And The DJ

I recently posted a YouTube clip of "Panic," a song by the 80s British band The Smiths, to my Facebook page along with the confession that when I was young I thought the lyrics went, "And the DJ, and the DJ." A silly thing to think, for the song is famous—even infamous—for advocating listeners to "hang the DJ." My confession was met with incredulity, a little scorn, and astonishment, this last one from my high school girlfriend, with whom I shared a particular passion for this band.

"But I was only 14," I responded defensively. And the song might be famous now for that lyric—indeed, entire articles have been written about it—but when I was listening to The Smiths or any other music in my teens, it was in a void, with no markers to guide me or signposts to show me the way. I had only my exploding interest in unusual music and my own fervent imagination to guide me. In the UK, The Smiths were massively popular, their every release a cause for celebration. But in Foster City, a small suburb outside San Francisco, they were known only by a few, and loved by even fewer.

Nowadays, young people have the Internet to turn to for information. Indeed, anything you could ever want to know about anyone, at any time, is there. But in my youth, we had to rely on books and magazines purchased in the faraway Big City, or on word of mouth from similarly minded friends. So it's no surprise that I should mistake that lyric, or any other, because lyrics to our favorite songs were not easily obtained. In those days, there was less certainty but certainly more mystery.

Spurned on by its mystery, music was my everything. I remember being so besotted with a certain song, I constructed an entire lesson plan in my head for my English teacher to use, one involving us choosing the lyrics from a piece of music to offer as a modern equivalent of poetry, just so I could tell someone, anyone, how much it touched me. And I would listen to music on my cassette Walkman on the bus every day, my favorite songs soundtracking my young and confusing life.

But I never even dared try to listen to music in class.

In my day all we had in our pockets was our house key (if we hadn't forgotten it somewhere) and maybe a crumpled-up note from our best friend. Today's Korean young are overwhelmed with privilege. They have cell phones and MP3 players, electronic dictionaries and mini-TVs, often all one and the same. And they all seem to think they should be allowed to access any of them at any time in class, the teacher be damned. For all of the much-lauded Korean respect for teachers and the system of discipline in place, these students get away with some things that would have gotten us sent to the principal's office back in the day: things like drawing on desks, constantly getting up and walking around, and listening to music in class.

They think they're being sneaky. They look around to make sure no one is watching and then they slide their ear buds in. Maybe they'll pull up a hood or rearrange their hair to cover their ears. And then they spend a considerable amount of time staring at their laps and moving their fingers. Or maybe they'll make a small consent to authority and only block up one ear. But no matter how you look at, they've tuned the teacher out.

As a first-time teacher, I really have no idea what's going on. I'm just trying to keep it all together while creating lesson plans from scratch, trying to manage the time so we get through everything in the lesson, and trying to keep the class from devolving into an indoor riot. So when I see students do things like plug into their MP3 players, it drives me crazy. I'm doing my best to reach them. They don't have to like it but they do have to listen. Am I really so boring that the first chance they get they want to tune me out?

Throughout all of this, I have been thinking of my students as these incredibly young people. They are kids, of course, and range in Korean age (that being one or two more years than everywhere else) from 13 to 20. My first-year middle school kids are as child-like as you can get. They love professional wrestling and candy, and collapse on the floor in laughter when someone farts. My senior high school students are men in almost every sense of the word bar the legal. Very few are shorter than I am. But they're still kids compared to me.

But what about me when I was in middle school or high school? Was I ever like this? Did I run to the school store between classes for candy, or horse around with friends in class, or willfully ignore the teacher to look at something a friend had brought to school? Did I have bad days and resent the teachers, even the ones I liked? Did I sometimes wish I could be anywhere but that class, my hormones driving my emotions into the red? Did I even cut class one time, just once, because a cute, older girl asked me to cut with her?

Of course I did, and I was a good student. I was a good kid.

But I have also always been me. It's hard to separate the now me from the then me, the 38-year-old me from the 14-year-old me who spent hours listening to music from England and reading weird books bought in Haight Street bookstores. My personality is largely unchanged, now as then. I am still overly sensitive, prone to solitude and intensely fond of music. But I am also patient, weathered and mellow, things that I have arrived at only after taking the trip that has been my life.

I try my best to be a good teacher. While other native teachers just play games, or try to get by on the most minimal of lesson planning, I like to think I go the extra mile. I left a previous job as a magazine editor to go back to school so that I could teach English in Asia. As fun as writing was, it just wasn't rewarding enough. I wanted a job where I was giving back to the world in some way, contributing to the better good. I imagined myself answering students' questions, being there for them when they had hard questions, and enjoying the camaraderie between student and teacher. All of my romantic fantasies featured angelic, smiling students, with not one challenging delinquent among them.

However. Life is not a dream, despite what some poets might have you believe. Reality is a messy thing. And the reality of teaching is even messier.

There's a tendency when teaching to focus on the bad students. A class is made up of many different kinds of people. There's the good students, who sit in the front and always pay attention. After class they offer to carry my laptop or buy me juice, and tell me how much they like my class. There are the class clowns, who like to participate whether or not they have any idea what the answer is, just as long as they can say it loudly. There are the precocious students who know English but don't want to do it my way, who challenge what I say at every step. Mostly they drive me crazy but I also secretly love them because they're exercising critical thinking skills, however crudely. And there are the students who just don't care, for whatever reason. Maybe they're math whizzes but they stink at English, so they sleep or read or talk. It is a room of individuals, each thinking differently, with different goals and ambitions.

Because we expend so much energy on dealing with the problem kids, it's easy to generalize the whole class based on them: to see the class as a unit. For example, my 1-4 class is terrible. Their English ability is low so they don't care, and often resort to mimicking me. A downside of this is that I find myself not trying as hard with this class. They don't care so why should I? I dumb-down their lessons and often entertain the idea of abandoning lessons altogether in favor of games with minimal English. But a class is not a discreet unit. And when I fall into thinking of it as such I have effectively abandoned the good students in that problem class.

I have also abandoned the bad students. Like those students who just want to listen to music, these "bad students" that drive me so crazy are people, just like me. But they are not patient and weathered and mellow. They are emotional and annoyed and occasionally angry. I saw one boy give a co-teacher an intense look of hatred and then storm out of class. I couldn't believe it. But they are also sometimes funny and mischievous and, I believe, really want to be respected.

There's one student in my 1-4 class who has been trouble since the beginning. This is, however, partly my fault. He is the "king" of class, I have been told by the other students, and will always raise his hand even when he doesn't know the answer. On one of the first days, I rebuked his enthusiasm with a dismissive, "Not you." What I should have said, of course, was, "Let's give someone else a chance." But I didn't. And what resulted was a power struggle that waged for months.

I still don't understand his motivations. For the most part we are friends now. I encourage his enthusiasm and depend on him to keep the class in line, for the other students seem to respect his authority. But he also pushes mine on occasion.

"Hello, Adam," he said to me in the hall one day.

"Adam Teacher," I corrected, hoping to be thought of in the same way as the Korean teachers, whose names are always appended with sangseongnim (which can mean either "sir" or "teacher," it seems).

"Adam Student," he retorted, a mischievous smile on his face.

Of course he was joking but he was closer to the mark than he may have realized. Although I was hired to be a teacher to these boys, in many ways I am their student. And not just because I am a first-time teacher going through what is effectively on-the-job training. It's more than that. They're teaching me about life. And, strangely enough, about death.

I'm almost 40. I have never been married. I don't have any children. Until recently, I never even thought about my own mortality. The fact that the human race might continue after my death had never really occurred to me. Call it profound selfishness or just an unwillingness to look beyond my own ego. I suppose most people realize this when they have progeny; staring into the face of their own flesh and blood, they know that this miniature version of themselves, different yet somehow the same, will carry on living after they're gone.

Not me. I have no spawn, no Mini Me. Until coming to Korea, I had very little contact with young people at all. But these kids, these students I see everyday, will still be chugging along, living and laughing and loving long after I'm gone. I'm not so vain to think that their weekly interaction with me with blow their minds enough to make an impression that will last a lifetime, but if even just a few remember one thing I say to them, that will be enough.

When I was 14, there was a substitute teacher who would occasionally teach at our school. His name was Don Gross, and he was the coolest adult I had ever met. He wore Doc Martens boots and Levis jeans, and thrift store sweaters. He had unkempt hair and published books of poetry through City Lights, the same company that published Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."

He didn't even talk like an adult, at least not like any adult I had ever met. I remember the first time he taught at our school, he was filling in for an absent English teacher. He had to give us a lesson on superfluous commas and so started with a justification for why we should care about such a thing. No teacher had ever bothered to justify English for us before, ever. And yet here he was, trying to convince us why this dry grammar lesson mattered.

"Let's say you've got a good job for an advertising agency," he started, leaning against the big desk at the front of the room. "Things are going really well. You get to fly all around the world first class and write advertising copy. What you write is really well received and you're like a star. You get to hang out with celebrities and famous sports players. It's the good life. But then one day you turn in some copy with a superfluous comma. Your boss fires you, and poof! Gone are the jets and the celebrities and sports stars. Your wife leaves you and you become an alcoholic and end up living on the streets. All because of that one superfluous comma."

He was making it up as he went along, of course. I'm sure he walked into our class that morning not having any idea what he was going to say. It may even have been his first time substitute teaching ever. But the point is that it was not only what he said, but the way in which he said it, that touched me. What he said moved me enough that I remember it to this day. Twenty-five years later I can still recall that off-the-cuff lecture on superfluous commas. And not only that, but I often think of it while I'm writing. I'm actually thinking of it right now, wondering if the commas I'm placing in this piece are really all necessary.

Of course, I'm hoping that I can make an impression on these students somehow. That something I say, some little bon mot about English will stick in the back of their mind and make itself useful sometime in the future, like during an interview for college, or during a job interview. Or even if it's just a smile that they remember, that will be fine.

The 14-year-old me who loved music passionately and didn't always pay attention in class is still here. He stands beside me everyday while I teach. He reminds me not to see the students sitting before me as a unified class, but as individuals. And he reminds me to cut the bad kids some slack, because they're just teenagers trying to make their own way in the world, and they really don't mean it, even if what they say does sometimes hurt. And he tells me to try to see things from their point of view. The dedication and determination of these kids astounds me. They study from morning until night, everyday. No wonder they're tired. No wonder they don't always pay attention, or get mouthy. I would too. I do, actually, and take it out on them sometimes. Only I get paid for it; they get punished for it.

And the 14-year-old me reminds me that it's not me that my students are tuning out when they try to listen to music in class, but music that they're tuning in. I saw a student that I had previously caught listening to music in the hall after class and asked to hear what he was listening to. "Korean hip-hop," he said, by way of excusing the music as not being of my taste. "That's OK, I said. "I'd like to hear it." The music was light and melodic, a world's difference from what I usually think of as hip-hop. "I love hip-hop," he said proudly as I handed the headphones back to him. "It's good," I replied, happy to have made a small connection with him. "It's really good."

This was my entry to a provincial essay contest. I don't think I won.