Any of my Korean students will fetch me a cup of coffee if asked and occasionally they will buy me one from one of the numerous coffee shops in my area. I’m reminded of the time, when as a new teacher in my first post, I had taken a coffee into my classroom and when I came to drain the dregs discovered a couple of drawing pins lurking therein. I only took cups into my classroom on a few occasions and quickly decided it was dangerous to drink from a cup left in the presence of students. I also learnt to check any seat before sitting as upturned drawing pins were also a common means of abusing staff. Even a jacket I once left on the back of my chair was removed, thrown on the floor with my opened wallet and bank cards discarded on top. I can narrate these events to Korean students and they will be mildly shocked but there are some ‘stories’ I wouldn’t dream of attempting to narrate as they are simply too shocking for naive Korean sensibilities: boys masturbating under desks, on one occasion a boy flashed his dick to a female colleague, or girls giving boys oral sex in view of the staff room.
Recently (now a year or two ago) however, an event occurred in a British school in which a boy stuffed his penis and testicles in a female teacher’s coffee mug, took a photo of his exploit and then posted the photo on his Facebook account. The teacher subsequently drank from the cup before discovering what had happened. Unfortunately the only major link I can find for the article is at the Sun, Britain’s crappiest, and most widely read daily newspaper. I originally read it on MSN News. Incidentally, another incident in the same week involved a girl putting laxative in teachers’ coffee. I had difficulty telling the cock and sac story to all but a few very close Korean friends and certainly couldn’t explain it to a class of Korean 16 year olds whom I can mortify by simply sucking my pen. They would not be able to comprehend why any student should behave in such a manner and would see only disgust and depravity in the act. However, I could easily tell it to British 13 year olds many whom would find it funny and a valid reprisal to make on a teacher. Indeed on the MSN comments associated with the news report, some individuals questioned why a teacher would have a cup in the classroom while some simply claimed a teacher deserved such treatment.
I wondered where those ESL teachers come from who claim Korean kids are as bad as British kids given there are so many blogs and books written by full-time British teachers who are appalled by the current standards. Indeed, it’s usually only school managers and those who’ve had to prostitute their personal integrity to gain promotion, those who live in self-denial in order to maintain their sanity and preserve at east a little self-respect, or the lucky few in truly decent schools, who will deny that something is seriously amiss. I could form a small club with the number disgruntled teachers I know and I’ve known a number of excellent teachers who’ve left the profession because it excessively frustrated them. The idea of returning to British shores to teach fills me with dread.
Britain is not the worst country in the world so why pick on it and not a really bad country? The point is I’m not incensed by the inadequacies of other countries! I don’t’ own their passports: I’m British and I’m forced to write that on official forms and documents. When it comes to learning we encourage students to accept criticism as a means of bettering their ability but many people erect a brick wall when it comes to the criticism of their nation. I’m not unpatriotic, conversely I am patriotic. (Indeed, at one time ‘patriotic’ encompassed the criticism of your country as it was borne out of good intention and the desire for your country to better itself). And of course, I have been socialised in the UK, I speak English, I have an ancestry in the British Isles. Everything about me is British and more specifically, English.
When I have lived abroad for long periods, especially in radically different cultures, I start yearning for England: English mist, damp mornings, English rain, green grass, decent tea, an English Christmas, Oh!… and the wonderful sounds of Elgar, even though I hate the nationalism it has come to represent. I miss those orchestral marches with their majestic dignity that is so vividly depicted by the characteristic combination of clarinets in their rich chalmeau register fortified by the cellos and in the background the pizzicato pulse of basses. There is no hurry, the pace is relaxed and only the British have quick marches which are so leisurely you can almost hear the snort of immense cavalry horses. And when the little timpani roll climaxes with the brush of cymbals, a thrilling, gentle ‘tushhhh,’ an orgasmic tremor, evoking a tiny tinkle of brass, breast plates, dangling swords and medals, how staggeringly imperial! The culmination of an epoch of world domination depicted not by Sousarian vigour; its thrashing cymbals, blasting trombones amidst the bling-bling sparkle of patent leather, staybright and plastic, but by sublime subtlety. And what of roast beef, bitter, lazy English villages and English eccentricity? When I’m away from England, Britain, for too long, there is a yearning, almost at the genetic level which reminds me of my roots and kindles what little allegiance I have. I too am British and this memory, this imaginative kindling is my England and ultimately the place, for better or worse, I feel at home. In this context one can argue it is very patriotic to voice a concern that it has a scummy façade, that it is not aspiring to be better either in terms of its physical being or in the nature of its citizens.
©努江虎 – 노강호 2013 Creative Commons Licence.
So many Koreans and students like to utter the phrase ‘TGIF’ but generally do so without any emotional content. My boss actually uses the phrase ‘thank God it’s Monday,’ and she’s not joking! The use of ‘TGIM’ suggest a lack of cultural understanding and is a little like uttering ‘phew’ when you’re about to run up a hill rather than when you’ve reached its summit. But such lack of emotion is understandable, after all, for many Koreans Saturday is simply another working day and hence ‘TGIF’ or ‘TGIM’ are pretty much the same. ‘Thank God it’s Friday,’ (TGIF) is even the name of a Korean restaurant franchise whose mantra, ‘it’s always Friday,’ couldn’t be more depressing for customers who have to work on a Saturday and for the staff it’s probably their most hated day of the week.
For middle and elementary school students, nol-to (놀토), ‘play Saturday,’ is dead. Now, every Saturday is a ‘play day.’ Of course, like so many things Korean, all isn’t what it seems! Holidays are never really holidays, family vacations never really vacations – at least by Western standards, and exams are only ever final if you’re in your last year of university. In the demise of the ‘nol-to’ lurks a wolf in disguise whose emergence should come as no surprise.
The new Monday-Friday study week came into effect at the beginning of this academic year, in March, and resulted in the termination of state school Saturday study for all but high-school students. However, the changes seem to offer little real benefit to students as classroom contact time was increased and in some cases, vacation time reduced.
The reaction to the death of the elementary and middle school ‘nol-to,’ by my students was mixed and if anything, slightly more students seemed to prefer the old system where daily study consisted of six lessons instead of seven. And to cloud the issue and perhaps weaken opposition, it seems that schools have some individual leeway in allotting the extra hours they must now incorporate into their timetable.
While ‘nol-to’ was universal for school students, I used to sense they were special days. The bathhouses for example, were always busy with children especially in mid morning and afternoons, in the streets and downtown there always seemed to be a buzz in the air and the batting cages and trampolines were occupied.
Was it the case that the ‘nol’to,’ because there were only two a month, were sacrosanct? Yes, some children studied on them but they generally seemed relaxed and were imbued with a sense of holiday. I very much suspect that now Saturday school has been banished, students will gradually be compelled to academies, study rooms, and tutors on every Saturday and worse, on Saturday mornings. Indeed, I already have students who now study in either ‘study rooms’ (공부방), or ‘reading rooms’ (독서실) from early Saturday morning until after lunch – on every Saturday.
And so it would seem, that many students have been hit with a double whammy; not only have their weekly school hours been increased and in some cases holidays lost, but every Saturday is either at risk of becoming simply another day of study, or is so already!
©Bathhouse Ballads – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.
Okay, I’m 56 this month and I’ll probably return to the UK late next year because I need to get a decent job that pays well before I’m too close to retirement. Unfortunately, that means teaching in a British school, a prospect that fills me with terror. I dread returning to Britain, not just because I find the place boring and the people aggressive and somewhat backward, but because I feel I am going home to die rather than going there to live. Britain, as quaint as it can be, as beautiful, has become a little like the Elephants’ grave yard.
Britain on the one hand is rich in culture and London is an awesome city but as in so many cultural areas, its culturally void. Accessing the rich variety of British culture is both expensive and inconvenient. It’s one thing for a country to have a vibrant culture but not so great if it’s focused in a view places, thin on the ground, and expensive to access. Take going out for a meal: I eat out everyday in Korea mostly in a range of mid-standard restaurants and occasionally in fancy ones. In the UK, even on a fairly decent wage, eating out is expensive especially if you have a family. While there are plenty of fast food restaurants, and a few top-notch places, finding a decent middle of the road restaurant is difficult. In Korea, there is a restaurant on every street corner in even the smallest towns whereas my village in the UK has 3 restaurants, all small and expensive to serve a community of 55.000 people.
In terms of sport, patriots will boast about British prowess but the reality is that while there are excellent facilities in key locations, elsewhere facilities are poor. For example, Colchester, UK, population 155.000, has one mediocre swimming pool and no outdoor swimming facility. Further, it has no concert hall and hence you can’t see the ballet or opera, or a big pop concert. While it does have a decent theater, there’s only one. However, there are hundreds of bars and clubs to get sloshed in, mostly pumping out pop music accompanied by enormous plasma screens and juke boxes. And when you’re pissed and staggering you can lurch to any number of greasy cheap fast food places and then take an expensive taxi home. This pattern, is a major lifestyle for a great number of Brits. Yes, I know not everything is doom and gloom in the UK but my point is that if you want to eat in a decent restaurant every day, possibly twice a day, and do things, it is going to cost you! And then there’s the violence, crime, vandalism and the hordes of a what constitutes a drongo underclass that dominate the streets. Britain is not a nice country and if you think it is you are blinkered. In all my years in Korea I have never walked into an environment in which I felt threatened or intimidated but in my rather small hometown (Colchester), there are places I wouldn’t want to be even in broad daylight. And the rather nicer village in which I live nonetheless feels like a sanctuary protected by the fields and a university which separate it from less savory areas and less savory people.
Going back to the UK is a massive step down in terms of lifestyle, cultural opportunities and quality of life and even the massive hike in terms of pay can’t compensate for living in an expensive, insular little enclave surrounded by a cultural wilderness. My home town has a crappy library designed to appeal to the towns large population of drongoes, a couple of small bookshops, no shops which specialise in classical music and apart from bars and restaurants and sport, there is little else to do. I find it hard to imagine life without PC bangs, multi bangs, singing rooms, health centers, bathhouse, jjimjil-bang, stationery stores, coffee shops, medical clinics, dentists, opticians, hospitals, taekwondo, hapkido and comdo schools, cheap taxis and the rich variety of restaurants. So much of British life and British culture is the product of a large drongo population. We are denied so many facilities or social niceties as the scum elements we tolerate ruin them. My local town has a rather attractive public garden but it has to be locked at night because the bowls green and gardens are regularly vandalised and when resident swans pair up and produce cygnets, they are killed by local yobs.
Going back to the UK sucks and I dread it! There is no doubt if I was younger I would consider buying a property here and settling long-term.
©박민수 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
- Colchester – Yob Town (porthole2.wordpress.com)
Student’s bags stuffed full of books seem to be a concern globally. Of course, it seems only to be books that are bad as often the heaviest and bulkiest bags are ones crammed full of sporting equipment. In the UK, I live near a sports college , a euphemism I’ll refrain from exploring, and kids carry bags stuffed with football, cricket and sporting equipment. And what about kids who deliver newspapers?
Of course, the solution is simple, more online resources (which are not just credible but free) and reading materials produced in CD form. Unfortunately, in the dumbed down world, we’ve had to wait for several generations of software toys to be produced for the worlds cretons while the e-book and palm readers and a myriad of other intellectual potentials dawdle in the backwater. I still can’t effectively read a musical score in anything but book form and haven’t been that impressed with palm readers (though I haven’t tried a Kindle). You can realistically bludgeon someone to death in Grand Theft Auto yet the technology for reading a book is in its infancy.
This year, in an effort to reduce the strain on Korean students backs, many reading resources are being produced in CD format.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
Here’s the problem! You’ve lived in Korea three months and you think you know all about it! Now that you’ve got used to being stared at, know the difference between makalli and soju, think you have an understanding of the Korean psyche and culture and have possibly been initiated by the annual waygukin pilgrimage to the Boring Boroyeong (mud festival), Korea has suddenly become mundane, ordinary and predictable.
I know the feeling. There are numerous things which can possibly terminate ones Korean experience or at least quickly lead to the honeymoon being over: these include, the internet, a mobile phone, English speaking westerners and ones ability to read and speak Korean.
If you want to preserve that feeling of amazement you experienced during your initial weeks in Korea you have to avoid taking any interest in learning to speak, read or write Korean and while you can use computers to play games and download music, you must shun search engines and any blog related to Korea. Avoiding foreigners, or at least limiting how many you know, is crucial but relatively easy as most are too busy pretending they’ve been in Korea for the last twenty years and are adept at blanking you even if you’re sat under their very noses.
The famous Chicago School sociologist, Robert Park used to advise his students to ‘go out and get the seats of your pants dirty’ and not too long ago that was the only way you could learn anything about Korea. You wanted to learn about Korea, and then you had to go to Korea. You wanted to learn Korean, you had to go out and find someone to talk to; you wanted to learn how to make kimchi or do taekwondo, you had to go out and find Koreans willing to help you. Today, you can do it all from the comfort of your ‘one-room.’ The online oracle provides extensive resources on every facet of Korean culture so much so that you can learn more today about Korea from a computer in backwater Britain or a rural American retreat than you could gleam living here for a year before the invasion of the internet. And for every foreigner arriving on Korean soil a corresponding blog is birthed to swell the already bloated Klogosphere.
Learning Korean is the quickest way to sully your relationship with Korea. I’m not really happy living anywhere in the world where I don’t have to make an effort to learn what is going on around me because it is easier to get the information I upload. Back in Britain, I live in a constant state of depression and on a daily basis am subject to a plethora of information that I really don’t want to process and which by its very nature is unhealthy. You don’t have to seek information out, it finds you and worse the bulk of it is rubbish. If it’s broadcast in daylight hours or is front page ‘news’ it’s very often shit and I have no interest in the intrigues concerning the latest plastic protégés from Pop Idol, the dumb ass contestants selected for Big Brother, the Royal Spongers, Football or the plots of stupid soaps.
It’s fantastic when I go back home as I have no idea who new celebrities are and besides, many will have disappeared by the end of the year. I lived in Germany between 1976-1986 and was telly-less and beside gaining black-belt in taekwon-do, when I came home to headlines announcing, ’Who Shot JR,’ had to ask who he was. A great wadge of what constitutes ‘news’ is newsless shite which cascades into your brain like spam. If people treated that organ the complexity of which potentially separates us from lower primates as they do their computers, with upgrades, antivirus and spam devices, society would be much nicer. Do you lower your firewall, terminate you anti-virus facilities and start downloading everything on-line? Of course not! But that’s what many of us do with our brains and much of it can’t be avoided.
Living in a country where you do not speak the language fluently is one step away from living in a mountain temple. It’s shocking I had to be told there had been a tsunami in Japan and an earthquake in New Zealand and natural disasters don’t depress me like manmade ones; but on the other hand my brain hasn’t been polluted with rubbish about royal weddings or the obnoxious habits of celebrities.
And you can certainly give vent to your creative juices. For the last few years I’ve had to construct an understanding of the world beyond my little nirvana from fragmented ‘evidence.’ Like an historian of ancient history, I piece together a narrative constructed from isolated words I’ve understood or images I’ve seen. When I originally saw a clip of what I now know was the Japanese tsunami (the TV was in a restaurant and there was no audio), I thought it was a graphic from the 24 hour Starcraft channel. I could certainly go online and access information but choose not to as once you open yourself to external content it quickly overwhelms you. Ignorance really is enjoyable and I am infinitely calmer in my little bubble than I would be by allowing the worlds ‘dirty realities to rape my noggin.
Not only would fluency in Korean make it possible to be spammed and hacked, but it would take all the fun out of life’s little excursions. I remember the time when most restaurants lacked English translations and often had no pictures. Ordering meals by pointing was fun; bus terminals with no English! That was a challenge. By all means, learn Korean to order a pizza or tell the taxi driver where to take you but much more than this will quickly curdle your Korean sojourn. Okay! I do speak a fair amount of Korean and put much effort into learning it but you either have to be very gifted at languages or have been here for a long time to actually be able to speak fluently. So, unable to understand anything but bits and bobs from the fast paced gabble of Korean TV and conversations overheard, living in Korea equips you with one enormous firewall. Not one mega byte of unwanted information enters my brain’s processing center uninvited or unprocessed.
Obviously then, the internet has to be shunned though it’s useful in emergencies and for smoothing out potential problems. However, using it to research where you should go, how to get there, what to expect and equipping you with opinions before you’ve even decided where to go is a little like substituting reading the back page of a book for actually reading the book itself. And the problem with computer technology is that it permits you to lead almost identically the same life as you would have had back home. Yes, even now I am doing exactly the same as I would be doing back in the UK, basically sitting at a computer screen and most of the entertainment it provides in the form of music and film is identical. So vast are the tomes of information on Korea that very little remains mysterious, bizarre or strange. Information technology has helped demystify the Korean experience and severely shortens its potential to engage or entertain us.
Mobile phones are just as bad and owning one simply means that every waygukin you meet gets added to your address book and as they do your social life begins to develop which disproportionately involves fellow westerners. Most westerners, though there will be exceptions, only need a mobile so they can chat with their western mates and book trips to ESL tourist destinations.
As for the waygukin effect, blame it on EPIK! The sharp increase in the number of English speaking foreigners now living in Korea has helped destroy the intense interest Koreans once held in us. I knew more westerners in the area in which I live, ten years ago when they were a handful, than I do now, despite their comprising a small army. At one time, seeing a westerner was so rare you stopped and talked. Today, there are not only more westerners but more westerners married to Koreans or with a Korean boyfriend or girlfriend. There are even western children in some of my local Korean middle schools. And I know it’s mean, but whenever I meet an EPIK teacher I silently curse because it is predominantly their invasion which has turned us from objects of fascination and intrigue into ones boring, mundane and general. We were special until EPIK arrived and now one has been stationed in every school, coffee shop and burger bar; there isn’t s single student who has never met a foreigner.
Knowing a couple of fellow countrymen, or women, is good for your mental health but getting pally with hordes of them is a bad idea. When ever foreigners hook up in droves you can guarantee the conversation will become anti-Korean and gravitate towards how crappy it is working in Korea, which for many it is but those of us with good bosses or plastic professorships don’t want reminding. Technology and the EPIK invasion now means Korea attracts ESL tourists seeking the Korean package experience. Many waygukin now come here not to experience Korea and its culture, but to basically do exactly the same sort of things that can be done on the Costa del Sol. With a pack of mates in your mobile address book, all waygukin, it won’t be too long before you’re either returning home or looking for another location to provide you that ‘unique’ experience.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
This weekend, I stumbled across excellent posts on corporal punishment in Korea and the meltdown occurring in schools and education in the USA (where the experience is not much different to the UK). Both posts were in Shotgun Korea. All too often K-blogs berate the Korean education system and occasionally try to claim Korean students are much the same as they are in UK or the USA. Rarely are such authors professional teachers or have had experience teaching in mainstream education in their native countries.
It is refreshing to read posts by an experienced, professional teacher, given that most foreign ‘teachers’ or ‘professors’ in Korea are neither. And who is equipped more than most of us to reflect on the realities of education in the USA and subsequently gives some opinions on education and educational issues in Korea. I have subsequently added Shotgun Korea to my list of recommended blogs in: Beyond the Blog.
For the background on the corporal punishment issues in Korea, see the following link from Brian in Jeollonam-Do
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
As I write, highly civilised human beings are stabbing each other. In the UK stabbings are a regular occurrence and in 2010 19 youths were stabbed to death in London alone (Guardian UK). In 2007, 322 fatal stabbings (Guardian UK) were recorded marking the highest number of knife related deaths since records began in 1977. As the focus of media attention and political concern, definitions change and competing theories are forwarded, some related to the weather, others to disadvantage. Anti-stabbing kitchen knives are now available as are stab proof school uniforms made from kevlar and one of my local schools has installed metal detectors through which students have to pass on their way into school.
While Britain is plagued with knife related crimes, one currently being covered by the media as I write, Korean kids of all ages carry the equivalent of a stanley knife in their pencil cases and do so not to protect themselves, look cool, or as part of gang defense plans, but simply to sharpen pencils and cut paper.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.
Korean culture is rich in a number of contradictions mammoth enough in their magnitude to be classed Orwellian and in some cases subsequently rendered as oxymorons.
With two types of school systems in operation, the state school (hakkyo) and the academy (hakkwon)’, the term ‘school holiday’ is a fine example. Kids yearn for the start of school holidays but unfortunately a holiday they are not as academies, private schools offering every subject from art to English, not only continue operating but increase the hours which they are open. Any free hours remaining can be easily plugged by enrolling in the sports academies which provide taekwondo, happkido, comdo (kendo), ballet and dancing, etc, and which also adjust their hours to take advantage of closure of state schools.
Oxymoron – School holidays are academy days
Holidays are nothing like they are in the west and the idea of someone taking two or three weeks off work in which to laze about or go abroad, are rare. For Koreans a vacation usually amounts to couple of days at the most usually taken at the same time as the rest of the nation. As a result, travelling is extremely stressful and vacation locations packed and busy. And of course, vacations are curtailed by the fact all the academies are open and as such all kids should be studying.
Contradiction – ‘holidays/vacations’ – infrequent, short and usually very stressful
‘What do you do when you play?’ I once asked a student.
‘I play the violin.’
‘No, what do you do when you play?’
‘I play the computer.’
‘No! What do you do in your free time?’
‘I play the piano.’
Well, maybe they misunderstood the word ‘play’ but you probably get the idea. Korean kids often have no experience of ‘playing’ as English children might and a playground packed with children enjoying a range of games such as tag, football, acting out wrestling moves or doing dance routines, etc, is something I’ve seldom seen in Korean schools. Some students will even tell you that studying is their hobby! However, I’ve seen plenty of students sleeping at their desk in the five or ten minute intervals in which British kids would be playing.
Oxymoron – ‘play’ is extracurricular study
And then there are exams! Korean students are always taking exams and shortly before they finish you will hear some reference to their ‘last exam.’ The irony is of course, that this is never their final exam but simply an exam which concludes the current batch.
Oxymoron – final exams are a prelude to the next exam
Koreans are usually always concerned that their food is either ‘too hot’ or ‘too spicy’ for westerners. Most often they conlfate ‘spicy’ and ‘hot’ both of which it is not. Although one meaning of ‘spicy’ is ‘pungent’ or ‘hot,’ in terms of range of spices, Korean food is limited with chilli, garlic and ginger, being the dominant ingredients. Cinnamon makes an occasional appearance, usually as a sweet drink but undoubtedly Korean food lacks the range of spices used by Indian, Thai or even Chinese cuisines. Neither is Korean food particularly hot when compared with some Caribbean, Mexican and Indian recipes. The Korean chili is substantially milder than the Habanero and Scotch Bonnet and I have not yet eaten a Korean meal which burns ‘at both ends.’ Several years ago I gave a bottle of habanero based sauce to some Korean friends introducing them to the point that there exist foods far hotter than kimchi. However, a raw, hot Korean chili still has the capacity to burn the mouth but it won’t incinerate it as some hotter chillies will.
True – Korean food is spicy – as in pungent
False/True – Korean food is spicy in as much as it uses a three main spices
False/True – Korean food is ‘hot’ – well it’s all relative and depends on personal preference but other national cuisines are typically hotter.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.
Okay, here is the point. The term ‘sem’ (샘), is a contraction of ‘son-seng-nim’ (선생님 – teacher) using a letter from each syllable block. The contraction is slightly less formal than the full rendition. Perhaps the closest translation of ‘son-seng-nim,’ and its contraction, ‘sem,’ is ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’, etc.
And here is my ‘twisted’ analysis, a micro-rant. Though translated as ‘teacher’ either word fails to slip directly into English and presently, in British culture ‘teacher’ is both not too short of being a ‘slur’ and is a bordering on a euphemism for someone who though highly educated, professional and constantly vetted by the world’s most rigorous system, is regarded with great distrust. The same situation applies to numerous other professions – doctors, nurses, etc. Even the Korean media is learning to pick up on the distrust in which countries like Britain and America hold their teachers and subsequently use it nefariously.
Rooted in Confucian ethics, ”teacher’ (선생님 – 샘) is a term of respect with teachers and education being held in high regard – though less so if you are western. Though not perfect, the Korean education system plays a far greater role in shaping Korean society than it does in many western countries.
As someone permanently struggling with Korean these are my notes on words and phrases I find useful and which are usually not in a dictionary. Any amendments, recommendations or errors, please let me know.
© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.
Ben has been up and down lately. At the end of last term he was on a massive high after passing a string of exams with 100%. One evening, on the day he received the marks for his final set of exams, he was delirious with happiness and once again bouncing around the school declaring how he felt. In the UK I’d have assumed he was on drugs because British kids often down play any trait of intelligence as it can alienate them. And then, several days later, he finally got his reward for his efforts in the form of two small puppies. For the next week he constantly assaulted my boss and I by thrusting his hand-phone in our faces to show us the latest series of puppy pictures. His accompanying leitmotiv was ‘my puppies, my puppies,’ made all the more endearing by a mild speech impediment which renders, ‘puppies,’ ‘puppish.’
Once the joys of owning a couple of puppies had subsided however, he became markedly strange in class and seemed to flit between happy and almost depressed. Neither was he very responsive when you tried to draw him out of his mood or ask its cause. The cause was obvious and one we’ve encountered on a number of occasions. Ben’s class consisted of 6 girls and two boys and the other boy, Kyle, had left Daegu for the summer vacation to attend an intensive study school: the equivalent of an academic boot-camp. Hence the root of Ben’s mood swings was the fact he was the only boy in the class. Cherie and I tried to ride the problem for a little while but soon he was begging for us to make changes so he wouldn’t be alone.
In a Korean setting class dynamics can change drastically if someone is older or younger than the other students, or, in the case, is the wrong gender. Kids lively and confident one moment can be passive and introvert the next if a shift in personalities disadvantages them. Because peer groups are not so important for British children, such problems do not arise. British kids can easily accommodate friends or fellow classmates, older or younger than themselves and a gender divide is not as noticeable as it is in the Korean class room.
Ben, who is 16, was disturbed enough at being the only boy in the class that despite his recent academic success, we feared we might loose him when suddenly, a new boy arrived who was ideal to place alongside him. Instantly, he returned to his old self and re-assumed his role as the class comedian but if ever the other boy is absent, he can quickly relapse into a sullen state. I’ve spent so much time slagging off teenagers in my other blogs, I’m consoled by the realization I don’t dislike teenagers, just the ones who are rotten and rotten teenagers in Korea are rare. Ben is what Koreans might call a ‘flower-boy,’ or identify as ‘pretty,’ neither term being derogatory, though he might well be when older. If anything, his body is built like a chopstick and he looks closer to twelve than sixteen, a point the girls in the class often tease him on, but both my boss and I would love him for a son. Reading other K-blogs, I know many teachers share a similar regard for the nature and personality of Korean children and teenagers.
© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.