April 2012, Seoul.
I’m sitting across F at a barbecue joint. Sitting on long wooden benches, spicy marinated chicken grilling over a nest of coals on the table between us. We’re getting to know each other, but there are no first-date jitters. We’re chatting and shooting the shit. Normal human stuff.
The meat starts smoking, and I quickly grab the tongs to flip the meat. It’s burnt. I sheepishly smile at F and apologize. An exasperated server appears from nowhere and pulls the long silver ventilation tube closer to our “extra-crispy” chicken. The smoke whooshes away into the tube. We eat around the charred bits of meat, and chat on. Normally, I’d be embarrassed at this, the cardinal sin of Korean barbecue: Thou shalt never burneth thy meat. Curiously, though, in the face of this potentially date-ruining moment, I’ve never felt more at ease.
April 2017, France.
4 a.m. I’ve just woken up from an awful nightmare, and I’m in tears. Half-asleep, F slings his arm around me, and gently places a hand on my stomach. His touch brings me back to this reality: I’m snuggled up, cozy in bed, and safe. Shhh, there’s no reason to freak out.
In a single loving gesture, he puts me at ease.
This time, every time.
Sunday morning. Fall is here, and she’s brought the throat tickle. Time for my standby home remedy:
Equal parts honey and freshly minced ginger root.
Add about 1 tablespoon of the mixture to mug.
Stir in boiling water.
The first sip of my sweet, pleasantly spicy tea soothes my throat and brings me back in time. Saenggangcha, ginger tea in Korean. The winters in Seoul were cold and windy, and it felt so comforting to settle into a warm cafe and order a mug of ginger tea. I’d write or draw, sip, meditate. The earthy, pungent ginger punched into my nose while the honey made the whole go down nice and smoothly… There were little chunks of ginger sitting at the bottom, and I crunched them gladly. Warming, soothing, delicious.
I remember the last time I drew as a child before giving up. My parents had given me a deluxe art set for my birthday: markers, watercolors, pencils… it was a glorious art set that packed up nicely into a wooden briefcase. Perhaps I believed that this art set would instantaneously imbue me with talent. I decided to attempt to draw one of my mom’s retro cooking pots with flowers on the side. It came out lopsided and just all wrong. I was disappointed in myself and disgusted at the hideous blob I had created. I wanted so badly to be good, to have proof of my talent. Instead, I was glaring at empirical proof that I sucked. That was the moment that art didn’t feel free anymore. I didn’t deserve that art set, and I would do well to forget the whole thing. I left the briefcase in the basement to collect dust.
Fast forward to Seoul, circa 2010
I’m walking in Hongdae, the young, hip, artsy neighborhood. Streets are chock-full of funky cafés, cheap restaurants, art galleries, and clothing shops. At this time, I’m feeling deeply lonely and generally lost.
I enjoy the atmosphere of this neighborhood, so I find myself here often. I don’t know what else to do with myself, and so I go walking. I just walk for hours on end. Fall is just thinking about getting started, and the bright warm sun feels nice, while the air has a crisp snap to it.
I notice a small, dusty art supply shop. There are no lights on inside, and the sunlight transmutes through the front window to cast everything in a gray-gold soft focus. They’re going out of business, and there’s not much selection left, but that paper, those pencils, the pastels… they smell wonderful. I end up buying a thin sketch pad and the few pencils remaining: moss green, dusty yellow, and a soft graphite pencil with eraser. A few hundred meters away is the little park where children and parents play in the morning, under the blurred watchful eyes of the occasional homeless person. In the afternoons, students sit in the park to smoke cigarettes and drink beer after class. On weekend evenings, young Western foreigners come along to drink, while wannabe deejays plug in their iPhones and use an app to simulate the art of the turntables. Nobody cares.
On this golden lonely afternoon, there are just a few people in the park. I plonk myself down and start drawing again, for the first time in I don’t know how long. I’m surprised at how good it feels. The lonely melancholy in my stomach is mitigated. I’m scratching an itch that I didn’t realize I had. I’m drawing trees and flowers, and soon I’m approached by a woozy bleary-eyed Korean woman. She asks to see my drawing, and I oblige. She turns to the next page, asks for my pencil, then starts sweeping the page with large haphazard swipes. She sweeps and swipes, then finally adds two details, eyes and a nose, and suddenly the picture is coherent: she’s drawn a woman with long hair and robes. The woman hands me back my drawing pad and shuffles away, wishing me a good afternoon. I’m a bit stunned as I wish her the same.
I realize drawing just feels right.
Not too long ago, a guileless younger Me thought she could avoid the “young and struggling” phase by working abroad. Having invested 4 years into my new career, steady income with which to make student loan payments AND live comfortably, then returning home to invest in my CELTA, I thought my international experience, zeal for learning language, and work ethic would give me extra brownie points.
Now, it’s clear that my skills read as dime-a-dozen on a resume, even if I have employers and colleagues who would be willing to vouch for me and say otherwise. At first, I felt the indignation of someone wrongly passed over: “Hey, wait! It can’t be possible that anyone can have a resume similar to mine! I want to be unique! I want to stand out! Hire me!!” Well, I can now say with confidence that a healthy dose of rejection does wonders for the delusional ego. I know that I can’t sit on my heels and let my experience talk for me.
And while it may be psychologically soothing to think back and reflect on my more self-sufficient days, those days I miss terribly, it shouldn’t be a habit. The game changes every day, and there’s no time to sit back and rehash old times and old memories ad nauseum. Reflection for the sake of growth is one thing. Reflection for the sake of reliving the past, in order to avoid the unpleasant task of accepting the new reality, is another affair entirely.
The difficulty I’ve had in finding a job related to teaching—and the ensuing embarrassment and frustration—has been integral in becoming a more savvy, well-rounded woman. By no means do I claim to have completed this phase. But for the first time, I’m able to relax in my perfectionism. I’m willing to work hard, no matter WHAT job I am able to get, with the knowledge that it’s going to work out. In 4 month’s time I’ll be in France on a student visa, studying my ass off to achieve facility in French (fluency being the long-term goal, but I’m trying for a less lofty goal in the meantime), living with my boyfriend in a region where I’ve never felt more peaceful.
I’ve come to accept the fact that my English-teaching career is pretty much at a standstill. I’ve realized that I’m meant for a career with more oomph, for lack of a better word. I don’t yet have the resources or requisite experience to pursue a DELTA, nor the necessary conviction to select a focus for a Master’s degree. All I have the money for, and the motivation to pursue, is studying French and indulging in my passion for cooking.
I’ve also realized that maybe now isn’t the time to obsess over career development, and that I have more pressing need for personal development.
Never before was I bombarded with pressure to look attractive than when I lived in Seoul.
I say Seoul specifically, because it seems that, out of all other cities I visited in South Korea, judgment on one’s looks is the most suffocating there. Unless you shop at the Western franchises like Forever 21 or H&M, you’d be hard-pressed to find clothing that accommodates larger than a size 6. Subway advertisements show images of women (and men) before and after plastic surgery: larger-than-life sized posters with close-ups of eyelids, stomachs, hips and thighs, cheekbones and complexions. Parts of your body you never thought to scrutinize before are laid out in painstaking close-up detail. So I started to scrutinize parts of my body and notice things I never imagined before could be a problem.
In Seoul, I was constantly bombarded with the “ideal” image of beautiful. There is ONE standard of beauty for Korean women to fit into…and it’s an ideal that, for nearly ALL Korean women, cannot be achieved without surgical enhancement. Slender frame, with a butt that’s not TOO large, C-cup bust size, milky white blemish-free skin, long pin-straight hair, large eyes framed by a prominent eyelid crease, a high nose bridge, prominent cheekbones, and a V-line (a chin that comes to a distinct point).
Plus-sized figures, beauty marks, body hair, tanned skin, rounded cheeks, naturally curly hair—not only are these traits completely absent from the typical South Korean beauty advertisement, but they’re relentlessly criticized and stigmatized.
The “before-and-after” images on these advertisements are relentless. A sad, gloomy expression haunts the “before” photos; women with their blemishes, small eyes, and flat, round faces seem to be looking into the camera with no confidence, no hopes of being beautiful. They’re miserable faces indeed. But after! They’re smiling into the camera with their sparkly new veneers, cheek implants, and shaved-down chins to match that beautiful, perfect standard.
If you start feeling a bit self-conscious when you start comparing yourself to these images: Not to worry! Those adverts tell you exactly where to go if you want to change anything that doesn’t match that robotic, freakishly unnatural standard to a T. In the bottom corners of those advertisements, some doctor and his/her team of cosmetic surgery experts wear idiotic smiles and point you in the right direction to their clinic. Come on in, we’ll turn that frown upside-down, they promise. Here’s a handy map in case you get lost—hurry on down today!
To me, the “after” images are more depressing than the “befores.” Congratulations, you’ve given your hard-earned money to another clinic that has successfully pumped out one more plastic mannequin to parade around downtown. You’ve bought your confidence from one of those smiling doctors, and you’re fit to take on the world now!
“Beautiful people are successful people,” my students would tell me. I found there was a woeful lack of dialogue on acceptance, on natural beauty, on the possibility of loving yourself and being confident in rejecting that impossible standard of beauty.
So for as Eurocentric and warped as the American standard of beauty is, it pales in comparison to what I saw in Seoul. At least here in the States, there are more and more women of color, curvaceous figures, and natural hairstyles being shown in beauty advertisements and in the media. There is plenty more improvement to be made, but at least those images are out there. In Seoul, it’s not just limited; it seemed to be absent altogether.
When I went to South Korea to teach in 2008, I found myself in a situation I’d never been in before. I didn’t know what to do with my life. (Not that I have much of a clearer idea now. I’m only slightly less lost than I was 4 1/2 years ago.)
I was soon to be a college grad, and I failed to get into grad school, so I had to face the cold hard reality of finding a job. Not to mention starting to pay off my mountain of student debt. I had had some previous teaching experience, so I thought I’d try my hand at teaching English in Korea. I could kill a few birds with one stone: get a great travel opportunity, gain some professional experience, and try figuring out what I want to do.
In the course of four years of teaching in Seoul, I found I enjoyed it very much, and that I had a knack for it. I got promoted, became heavily involved in my job, put in many hours of preparation and essay grading, the whole lot. I plunged myself in, and found teaching English to be fulfilling and fun, especially with my adult students. Plus, I got to indulge my interests in language and culture at the same time.
I was quite confident in my teaching skills by the time I came back to the US in 2012. I mean, I had gathered 4 years of experience, I was a high-rated teacher at both my jobs, and I had gone through a lot of trial and error to find methods that worked for me. So I went into my CELTA course in December with a reasonable amount of confidence. I felt I would do well with the foundation I had, and was excited to work on the holes in my game. I figured I could bring a lot of what worked in Korea with me into the CELTA.
I was only half-right.
In retrospect, I am SO happy that I chose to do my CELTA in New York, and not Seoul. I quickly found that my tried-and-true teaching methods with Korean students DO NOT work with Europeans, people from Central and South America, Russians, and other people not from East Asia. I realized I had a lot of work to do after my first teaching session evaluation… I found my method was quite teacher-centered, and I wanted to explain every little thing to them before they practiced. Intro, warm-up, teacher lesson, students practice as I monitor, group feedback, end of class. This tried-and-true method that worked for most of my students in Korea, I found to be completely out-of-place and inappropriate for my new batch of students. I needed an adjustment.
A Korean-American colleague of mine and I discussed a lot about the traditional Korean foreign language education system. In Korea, the Teacher must be an all-knowing figure at the head of the classroom. The Teacher must stand at the front, disseminate the information while Students (theoretically) absorb. The Teacher’s job is to push the Students to memorize, and there is no room for creative speech production or errors. Precision is emphasized because standardized exam scores are the indication of the Student’s success. Reading and Listening are usually emphasized over output skills like Speaking and Writing. Therefore, most of my students enrolled with an intense desire to improve their speaking.
In trying to meet my students’ needs and expectations, I had trained myself into a corner. I didn’t realize how formulaic and structured my lesson-planning style had become. I grew used to preparing thoroughly enough so that I could answer those tough grammar questions. I didn’t include activities that involved writing, or quiet head-down individual working time. I was terrified of silence in the classroom–either I should be talking, or the students should be discussing. Silence meant class was boring, or no one was getting conversation practice. I was determined to give my students a place where they could get as much speaking time as possible! KEEP TALKING!
But I realized during my CELTA course that I was just the Western equivalent to what they were used to. I gave them the brief teacher-centered lectures they wanted, the conversation practice they needed, and a lesson structure that NEVER varied… nice and predictable.
I was forced to re-examine those habits (among others) and learn that it was okay to break the structure.
One thing I learned to embrace on my CELTA was silence–in Korea what I felt was an absolute no-no transformed into a positive tool. Silence gives time for them to think and digest. Above all, silence can be a time for me to take a deep breath, without feeling pressured into rushing on prematurely.
Another point of curiosity I found was that there was little room for “real” discussion in my “discussion” classes with adults in Korea. Discussions on current events, controversial topics, and culture always fell short of reaching any level of dynamism. Few of my students ever volunteered to talk about an opinion that was anything less than politically correct and generally agreeable. I learned early on that students of differing ages, or even positions at their respective companies, felt uncomfortable discussing their opinions with one another. A woman in her 20’s is highly unlikely to talk about her real opinions with a man in his 50’s. Even if they work at different companies, age is something Koreans are highly conscious of. Social stratification based on age is commonplace–people of different ages do not commonly socialize in South Korea. Traditionally, older people are respected and people stick within their age group when they want to let their hair down and speak frankly. That’s not something easily circumvented in a class discussion atmosphere, and in my opinion, it’s not something I want to challenge, unless my students are willing to. It’s just one of those executive decisions we have to make as the Teacher.
Of course, it goes without saying that we must adapt to the needs of our students. Be it adapting lessons to suit their learning styles, tailoring lessons that help them reach their individual English goals, or above all, choosing material and procedure that maintains respect for their cultural background, we as teachers need to be on our toes. There is no cookie-cutter system of lesson planning that will work for ALL students. Sometimes, as I learned with my very active European students, the teacher needs to step back, prepare enough to give the students the tools they need, and let them figure things out on their own. For other students, the hands-off method might be negatively misunderstood as lack of teacher presence. Just as we expect our students to come prepared to work, we must come to the classroom prepared to listen. If that means tossing some of that teaching methodology aside, so be it. I learned how important it is to dust off those old teaching habits for every new batch of people.
I think it’s absolutely vital to be aware of our students’ cultural context. We respect it during our daily lives outside the classroom, but we need to do it especially inside the classroom. When in Rome, do as the Romans. When in Seoul, DON’T do as the Romans. It’s as simple as that.
During my 15 months of work at a “Nameless” English academy for adults in Seoul, I kept a secret detailed log of interesting tidbits from my students. Some are interesting, some came as a shock, some were funny. My students came from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ranged from extremely conservative to progressive and liberal, came from many different walks of life, and were of all ages.
These are reconstructed from my notes in class, so it is not a verbatim account. But I’ve tried to maintain the integrity of their points. I also don’t intend for this to be a sweeping generalization of Koreans. These are just some statements that struck me, and in no way am I insinuating that “all” or even “most” Koreans feel this way.</disclaimer>
Without further ado, here goes:
- “I feel pressured to wear makeup all the time. It’s like a courtesy to others.”
- “I want to get a tattoo, but I want to get married, so I can’t.”
- “If someone is born with an abnormal number of toes, it’s more common to have 6 than 4… I considered going to America with my wife after our son was born. I was afraid that he couldn’t live a normal life without being teased in Korea for having a missing toe.”
- “I’m seriously thinking about changing my habit of drunk driving.”
- “In America, the southern part of every state or city has a lot of black people.”
- “My parents gave birth to me, so they have the right to control what I do.”
- “Koreans don’t have enough time to protest against the government; they’re too busy studying and working all day!”
- “I think bosses want to create a ‘family’ atmosphere at work, so they feel more comfortable giving people extra work.”
- “Networking means ‘how to be good at pretending to be connected with people.'”
- “Marriage is seen as a matter of possession. We should treat our spouse like they’re on a train platform. Go in with no expectations, and know that they can leave or be free anytime. Then we won’t take them for granted.”
- “I don’t have an active imagination because I was taught not to.”
- “I feel more nervous speaking in English in front of Korean people than native speakers. Koreans have higher expectations, and they might correct my speaking mistakes.”
- “If I were Native American, I would have named my first son Tear of Condom.”
- [Lower-level male student in response to the question “What does it feel like to be drunk?”] “I feel like bling-bling on the cloud!”
- Q: “Who is your favorite rap artist?” A: “Maroon 5!”
I plan to write more about the issues that came up in our classes, and the various discussions we had. I always refrained from giving my own opinion during class, so I’ll use this blog to reflect and explore my own views too.