It’s a complicated situation. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to explain even to myself the tangled briar of ennui, naivete and determination to prove something that made me go there in the first place, or the subsequent knot of stress, misery, exhaustion and antipathy that drove me home again. But I can take a crack at it.
Firstly, the hagwon industry is one of the most unappealing I have ever encountered. The entire thing left a bad taste in my mouth. Koreans believe, for some reason, that the best way for kids to learn English is to have a foreign “teacher” (actually anyone bright enough to get through three years of university and not answer the phone drunk). Okay. That’s not so unreasonable – exposure is a great way to learn a language.
But the Korean mindset twists this into something that is borderline racist. Having a foreign teacher at a school is a massive selling point. Schools with more English-speaking teachers are more appealing to the pushy parents who want their precious flowers to receive what they are told is the best education their money can buy. Here’s something else about Korea: looks are everything. Makeup goes on like concrete, plastic surgery is rampant – and I was apparently hired because I am attractive. While that’s flattering, it doesn’t speak highly of my employers’ business ethics. Korea is also an extremely homogenous society. The idea of other races walking amongst them is still a novelty and as such they haven’t really grasped the idea that stereotypes aren’t true. It’s apparently harder for black and Asian Westerners to find work in Korea, even if they were born and raised in the US and went to Harvard. This is because they don’t fit the notion of what an English teacher should look like. Again: it’s all about looks.
Combine this with the actual poor level of education I was giving the kids (considering I was given no training, feedback or supervision whatsoever), the way we had to bow to every pedantic whim of the parents, the presence of CCTV cameras in every room so the parents could watch classes, the fact that I was told to adjust tests to a level where the kids could easily pass (so they would feel good), and the time I was told, when sending the kids’ completed textbooks home, to tear out any incomplete pages (so the parents wouldn’t realise they’d missed anything) and you’ll see how my hagwon was not concerned with how well the kids were learning English, but rather with the impressions their parents received. For the third time: in Korea, looks are everything.
I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a completely corrupt institution so hungry for cash that it steals the kids’ lunch money. My coworkers and employers obviously cared deeply for the kids and many of them were learning English very well, particularly those who started from a young age. But the primary concern was always, always, always keeping the kids and parents happy in order to retain clients. Everything else was secondary. It’s a highly competitive market, supported by a disturbing amount of zeal in wider Korean society. Before I came, I found it convenient that these strange foreigners would give me a job based on nothing more than my white skin and pretty face. Now that I’ve actually been there and done it, it makes my skin crawl.
Basically, I felt like I was working for the bad guys.
I never felt particularly welcomed by the school. Aside from the fact that they threw me into the classroom on my first goddamn day, they also housed me in one of the shitty apartments on top of the school, which was the plumbing hub of the entire building, so there were pipes running across the ceiling and the place alternately smelt like sulphur, salt or human faeces. Or all three at once! And while living upstairs saved me a commute, it also meant I was stuck in that awful place 24/7, blurring the boundary between home and work.
Nor were they particularly helpful. They made us pay for our own medicals. It took them three weeks to reimburse my airfare and they dragged their feet all the way. When Valerie arrived, she gave them her passport, and a week later she received her alien card. They paid for it and did all the work for her. When I got there, I was told to go and get it done during the holiday break, and was left to my own devices to figure out where the immigration office was, find out which documents I needed, and go there to get it and pay for it myself. In a country where I don’t speak the language. It didn’t cost much, and it wasn’t that hard to figure out, but it wasn’t very accommodating of them when I’d just arrived in the country. Throw in the fact that was generally treated by Korean administration as a pretty white face/walking dictionary/swine flu vector, and you can see why I don’t feel particularly guilty about leaving my bosses in the lurch.
The job itself was awful. I worked 40 hours a week, for roughly $2000 AUD a month. That works out to about ten bucks an hour. And before you scoff at the lazy 20-year old who thinks working a 40-hour week is a terrible injustice, bear in mind that I was teaching (not for the entire 40 hours, but still for a good chunk of it). And teaching, for me at least, was mentally and physically exhausting. You have to be switched on 100% of the time. You have to be checking every kid every spare second you have, because they’re talking or drawing or wandering off to pick through the crayons. I already thought the people who write letters to the West Australian whining about how teachers have it so easy are wankers; now, I’d actually take a swing at them.
I could handle exhausting and stressful work if I enjoyed it, or had a passion for it, or was building towards a career. But I hated it. I like to think I’m okay with kids – not great with them, but not bad either. That’s when I have one or two of them, and I’m just playing and messing around with them. Not when I have a class of ten and my job is to actively prevent them from having fun. I took a few videos of myself teaching, and my clear lack of passion is painfully obvious (it had my relatives in stitches).
The country itself? Not great. Seoul is a much cooler place to live than Perth, but then, Leicester is a much cooler place to live than Perth. In many ways Seoul is what I imagine Perth to be in a hundred years time: a huge city, but with with no heart or spirit to it, just endless repetitive apartment blocks and freeways and franchise stores that were all cut from the same mould, sprawling out across every horizon, with every district looking pretty much the same as every other district, the sheer blandness driving the populace to alcoholism. I’m not alone in commenting on the Korean landscape’s uniformity; apparently is has something to do with Confucianism, which is also responsible for the shitty ant-colony hierarchy system. Confucius sucks. (Cultural apologists can fuck off. Civis Occidentalis sum.)
Okay, so I’m being a little harsh. My job negatively coloured my experience of the country as a whole. I don’t mean to say that Korea is a bad or uninteresting country. There’s lots of cool things to see and do here if you know where to look, and while the culture can border on infuriating at times, so can every culture. It’s just not amazing enough to outweigh all the negative aspects of my personal situation. Few countries would be.
To sum it up, I simply wasn’t happy there. Towards the end, in fact, I was starting to have a mental breakdown. I could do it. I probably could have done it till the end of my contract, although my brain would have been stretched and warped beyond recognition by then. I just didn’t want to. Life is too short to spend a year doing something you detest.
So why did I just run, rather than give notice? Well, in addition to paying my airfare back, I would have had to stick around for another month while they sought my replacement. Given their behaviour towards me, and how displeased they would be at my decision to leave, I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided not to pay me for that final month. There would have been very little I could do it about this; in Korea, the legal system is quite heavily stacked against foreigners. I preferred to take matters into my own hands and rob them of the chance to exploit me any further.
I feel bad for my fellow teachers, who will have to cover my shifts for a while. I also feel bad for the kids, who don’t deserve that kind of upheaval in their lives (although, in the long run, they’ll be much better off with a teacher who actually cares about his or her work). I don’t feel bad about admin at all. Maybe they should treat teachers better if they want to retain them. The Korean faculty actually fared a lot worse than the foreign staff; all the Korean teachers quit shortly before I arrived, and one of the new ones was talking about quitting right before I left. Several times the director or the supervisor would ream them out in Korean in the office in front of everyone. I don’t feel any remorse whatsoever for abandoning rude, arrogant people who treat their employees like dirt.
Tony, who isn’t any happier there than I was (but who is a lot more committed and determined) contacted me on Facebook after the run. He seemed to find it funny and congratulated me on having balls. He mentioned that a few of the other teachers said what I did was unprofessional, which is true, but guess what? I’m not a professional! I’m a 20-year old kid they plucked out of a supermarket because I had a university degree and a pretty white face. You reap what you sow.
I don’t regret going to Korea. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience, and I could count the number of times I was genuinely happy there on one hand – walking down Cheonggyecheon, exploring the city on my first weekend, hanging out in Hongdae with Alex and his friends, the few times I went out for drinks with some of my fellow teachers and drunkenly bitched about management. But even considering that 99% of my time there was awful, I learned a lot, grew a little and got a lot of great stories out of the experience. I’ve proved to myself that I can do things on my own, that I can live overseas, that I’ll be able to take another crack at a working holiday as long as I land a job that doesn’t wear my sanity down like a belt-sander.
In the meantime, it’s fucking amazing to be back home. I went for a drive along West Coast Highway on my first day back (which was probably a bad idea given that I was on 60 hours of no sleep, but whatever). I had my window down, Triple J playing, the salty wind coming in off a beautiful blue and indigo ocean. Rottnest on the horizon. You could see the sky and the air smelt good.
Perth has a lot of problems, and I don’t want to live here for the rest of my life. But this city will always be my home.