Week One, Take Three

Eight days ago, I started my new contract in Seoul, after the chaos that was packing up our Wonju house and leaving for the big city. Some of the few things that I knew about the job included that I would be teaching five different levels of kids for at most five hours per day, and that I would have a Korean teacher to assist me for the first time. Although this meant many more working hours per week than 2016, it was a far better arrangement (time-wise, at least), than the nine-hour-per-day academy job I held in 2015. I didn’t know what the five different levels would mean – would they range from never-exposed-to-English-before to virtually fluent? I was also wary of the effect of a Korean co-teacher on the class – would they be helpful and make my life easier, or were they simply a set of eyes and ears that the school would use to keep tabs on me? In the first week, my work would go from the chaotic fog of the unknown into the comfortable familiarity of another year of teaching kids in Korea.

The first aspect of my work that I explored was the commute. Every day, I have a painless, four-subway-stop trip from our home, with a brief walk from the station to the school. Leaving the door of our apartment to reaching my classroom takes only thirty minutes – a brief commute for a city as vast as Seoul.

Upon reaching my class, I met my co-teacher. She is a lovely lady who is very capable at communicating in English. I was worried that I would constantly be piecing together what the school wanted to me, but my co-teacher instantly filled me in on the exact situation. I was relieved. The only unfortunate part is that I do not have her in my class for the whole day.

The kids came next, in five waves. Each class was more advanced than the last, although not by as much as I was hoping. Level 1 kids have had little to no exposure to English, whilst Level 5 kids are on about the same level as the mid-tier children I taught last year. My dreams of a purely conversational class where I would be exploring complex issues and fiddling with grammatical minutiae were dashed. At least they were all relatively well-behaved. The only times that I struggled were during the Level 1 and Level 2 classes. My co-teacher is not present in these classes, and they were not able to understand most of my instructions, and this frustrated both the children and myself. Of all of the levels, I’d rather have a co-teacher in lower levels (at least for the beginning), but we can’t always get what we want.

Despite some small niggles, I can see myself being comfortable at the new school. The first week was mostly spent giving children books, learning names, and playing games. Only towards the end of last week did we actually start to do any book work. Once that started, the teaching rhythm came easily. Another year, here I come!

The Winds of Change Blow Again

When Kris and I returned to Korea, we were simply expecting to have a relatively quiet couple of weeks, with Kris finishing off the last few weeks of her old school year and myself quietly waiting to start a full-time position at the academy that I was working at. All we were planning on doing was coasting until the new school year, where Kris would resume her position at her old school and I would move from part-time to full-time. That was the plan. That was not at all what happened.

In the days following our arrival, Kris did some serious thinking about her job at the time. She considered all of the extra hours and effort that she put in to her work, with no notice from the school. She was feeling unappreciated and undervalued. She expressed this to her liaison to the school, and even wrote and signed a letter saying that if the school continued to treat her merely as a resource, she would not re-sign her contract. The school accepted this decision. Kris was out of a job, and we thrust ourselves into the job market once more.

After frantically ravaging Facebook’s various Korean job boards and groups for a few days, a friend connected us with an employer that would offer Kristen shorter hours for higher pay than she received last year. She jumped at the opportunity. This meant that we were moving from Wonju to Seoul, Korea’s capital and largest city. As for myself, I followed a couple of leads towards a communications company where I might have a chance to do editing or writing work. Sadly, those opportunities didn’t work out. I was disappointed, but soldiered on. I decided to work with the same company that Kristen had signed on to. The shorter hours would mean that I would still have time to write and pursue my hobbies, while retaining a full-time paycheck and a visa.

Once our jobs were settled, we hunted for houses, settling on a slightly expensive but very modern and wonderful apartment. We are now two minutes away from two subway lines, with a 10-minute walk to a third. There is even a gym in the building, to help me work off the weight I put on eating all of the food in South Africa.

A slow running down of the clock may have turned into a panicked search for new opportunities, but Kris and I are optimistic about the change. It will be an experience to live in Seoul, and hopefully our positions work out for us. We start our contracts shortly, so we will soon see whether we jumped out of a cozy nest into the lion’s den, or whether we simply upgraded into a job that is better for both of us.

This is Halloween

South Africa doesn’t really do Halloween. Sure, there are a few drunken parties organised for people in their twenties with too much disposable income. But there is very little tangible excitement for the Americanised ‘traditional’ Halloween – trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples, dressing up in creative costumes that don’t have ‘sexy’ in the title. As an American cultural colony, Korea believes Halloween to be a rather big deal indeed. As today was the last day of school before the actual celebration tomorrow, we celebrated at our school with a suitably festive, fun amalgamation of Halloween classics. It can be said that Kris and I have had our first true Halloween. And it was pretty great.

The day started normally, with the usual farcical ceremony of waving at the kids as they walk the 20-metre passage from where they leave their bus to the elevator that will take them to the school. However, today’s bus duty was a little different. With each new child came a new costume, and a new reaction to the costumes of the teachers. The teacher’s costumes varied greatly, from a low-budget Batguy (similar to but legally distinct from Batman) to a scary skull-face, to my own outfit (which shall remain a secret due to it being re-used for Halloween Hat this weekend – no spoilers!). As such, the children’s reactions ranged from bemusement to laughter to nervousness. Each one was unique, each one was priceless. It is at times like that that one can truly see the beginnings of complex human existence, as they grapple with something unexpected.

From here, there was a little bit of free class time before the inter-class trick-or-treating began. This ceremony carried a typical taint of laziness, but was a heap of fun nonetheless. Essentially, the classes were split into pairs. In each pair, one class would go and knock on the door of the other class, say ‘Trick or treat!’, and be bombarded in equal measure by candy from the foreign teacher and flashlight photography from the Korean co-teachers. As with the majority of the events of the day, it was simple but enjoyed by all parties.

Once all of the classes had received their treats, they returned to their rooms. Here, the children gave each other some of the candy they had been instructed to bring to share amongst their classmates. This ensured that each child left the school with an obesity-inducing amount of candy. I was happy to receive only a small share of what was doled out. I received enough to get a taste of each, but not enough to want to visit the doctor in the building to check my blood sugar levels.

Following this, the school ventured, class-by-class, to go trick-or-treat at the local candy store in the square nearby the school building. Each class would ride the elevator down to the ground floor, walk out in the cold, and line up neatly in the sweet shop. Here, the children took turns to say ‘trick or treat’ to the shopkeeper, and receive more candy to toss atop their hoards. It is possible but unconfirmed that Halloween is endorsed by the dentists of Dongtan. Sadly, I have neither the resources nor the time to investigate this claim.

With the kindergarten trick-or-treating concluded, the costume contest began. Here, I realized the true dedication of Korean parents. The children were almost all dressed in lavish, expensive-looking costumes.

These included:

  • muscled versions of Captain America, Hulk, Spider-Man, and Iron Man.
  • Six Cinderallas.
  • Three Elsas and one Anna (from Frozen).
  • Four ghosts.
  • At least eleven variants on the witch theme, ranging from cat witch to witch-princess mixture.
  • Two Minnie Mouses (Mice?). One of these looked considerably more like Mad Moxxi from the Borderlands game series, which gave some of us teachers a chuckle.
  • One Grim Reaper costume which clearly cost more than R1000.
  • One Maleficent (which looked more like a wingless purple bat, but was still quite cute).
  • Zero children who did not dress up in a costume.

Many of the costumes were clearly not hand-crafted, and were simply purchased and put on. Others were mish-mashes of multiple costumes thrown together. There was, of course, the sheet ghost. What would any Halloween be without a child wearing a costume no more elaborate than a sheet with holes cut into it?

The final part of the Halloween festivities for the kindergarten children was playing bobbing for apples. For those unfamiliar with this particular game, a child must attempt to eat a slice of apple floating in about 2 centimeters of water inside a small, flat dish, without using their hands. Doesn’t sound like traditional bobbing for apples? Well, let’s call it a variant. Children were pitted off against each other to see who could perform this feat the quickest. It was quite hilarious to watch the children struggle to gather the apple into their mouth, particularly those who had lost their front teeth and were waiting for their new set to grow. Great fun was had by all.

With their bags full of candy and smiles on their faces, the kindergartners were sent on their way. They made way for the elementary children. Costumes were rarer here, with a number of children not dressing up at all. The celebrations took the entirety of their time, with no time to complete any work. The elementary children also ventured to the sweet shop for trick-or-treating, and also thoroughly enjoyed bobbing for apple slices. Their festivities had one additional activity – balloon javelin. This entailed the children throwing small foam sticks with sharp metal points at the end, attempting to pop balloons strewn across the gym floor. Despite the safety hazard, it was a lot of fun, and all of the kids seemed to enjoy it. Once the games were done, it was time for the elementary students to go, and our first school Halloween to come to a close.

It was a draining experience. Running all of the games, trick-or-treats, and contests took it out of all of the teachers. Not one of us complained. It was a wonderful day, and it flew by for all of us. Some kids will be sick tomorrow. Some teachers will be sleeping in late, exhausted from the activities of the day. But today is definitely one of the highlights of Korea so far. I look forward to the next Halloween far more keenly than I would have before seeing the events of today. Let’s hope that it will be at least half as good as today. That would still be better than any Halloween I’ve experienced in South Africa.