What I can’t live without

Guess where I’m sitting and what I’m doing?

Yup.  Before you judge me for becoming an alcoholic, let me just say that it’s necessary…It’s necessary to drink makkoli at your local GS 25 in Korea.  If you don’t, you will go insane…

Today’s topic in teacher English class was stress.  What gives you stress, what the signs are, and how you deal with it.  Everyone’s solution, it seems, was makkoli.  So maybe I’m becoming Korean after all.

And what was the source of this stress?  Well, for all of us it was the students.  Students who won’t listen, act like animals, sleep, and are disrespectful.  For the home room teacher, it was less the discipline and more the constant being a parent for forty students where parents fail their children and having most of her evenings disrupted after hours with calls from her students with problems or excuses.  For the nurse, it was being responsible for any emergency (and every situation is an emergency to these coddled children) that might arise for the whole student body of over 1,800 and, she too had to field calls from them after hours.

My stress this week was coming up with a great lesson plan and despite that, it being totally ignored by class 1-1.  I had to blow that ear-shattering whistle six times, and probably did permanent damage to myself.  I threatened them with calling their parents, and yet they continued to ignore the lesson and make the class their social hour.  I threatened a writing assignment and they ignored that too.  Mr. Lee just sat limply in the background watching things deteriorate.  So I shut down the lesson early and walked out of the room, writing down the homeroom teacher’s name and contact information.

I went back into the teacher’s office fuming, and the teachers around me told me to give the students one more chance.  Later that day I went down with an interpreter when the homeroom teacher was there and pulled him out of class, explaining the situation and that I needed his support.  “Please give the students one more chance,” I was told he said.  Freaking Korean teachers.  The reason these kids are undisciplined animals is because they KNOW there will always be one more chance.  And canings are meaningless to them now.  No teacher is willing to discipline an entire class or call all their parents.  “it’s not their fault.  Have pity on them,” I was told.  Yeah?  So why were the other classes I gave this lesson to saying, “great lesson!” and enjoying themselves?  In every class there are four or five who are too cool for school and mask their stupidity by being defiant.  Yet that is to be expected in any classroom on the planet.  But 1-1 is an entire class of these undisciplined brats.  Except for one boy in the front, who just shook his head and said, “I’m sorry…”

It’s taken six months, but I think I’m starting to understand how to get these kids in line.  I took the new semester as a fresh starting point (as fresh as one can get after a half year of less than successful experiments) and I think I’m making a lot of progress with them.  Nothing measurable, mind you, but a noticeable increase in participation and a recognition of what discipline is supposed to be.  Practically the entire class session is a drill in order and discipline.  Because I have to travel from room to room, I now start EVERY SINGLE CLASS with a rehash of my rules:  no homework from other (more important to them) classes, no reading books (from more important subjects), no cell phones, no games, no electronic devices whatsoever, no pillows, no mirrors, no makeup, and, most importantly, no speaking when others are speaking.  RESPECT I yell out throughout the hour.  I stop the lesson at EVERY SINGLE INFRACTION and embarrass whoever is out of line.  I then lecture briefly about RESPECT.  Only after everyone is silent enough, do I continue.  So I’m not just saying shut up because I am some egomaniac who needs everyone’s attention.  I am explaining about consideration and what actual respect means every time.  When I ask a student to speak out loud, I also stop them from speaking if anyone is speaking and to wait until everyone is giving them their full attention, and/or I tell them “I’m sorry, but your classmates weren’t respecting you.  Can you please repeat what you said?”  I may ask them to repeat and repeat and repeat until I am able to hear the answer.  I point out THAT may be your fate if you are next.   And I know you don’t want to have to go through that…so let’s be considerate…

Today’s lesson, which I invented Monday morning at 8:20 am. for my 9:40 am class  (talk about stress!) involved the respect gospel again, this time making the kids TELL ME what the rules were, and then giving them a listening exercise, which was a Youtube video of the earth from space, with the text from a Carl Sagen book, titled pale blue dot.  So I play the video and read the text in real time.  I think it is a MUCH more valuable listening exercise than the ultra slow, monotone samples they are tested on and the badly paced subtitles of movies and videos they are used to seeing.  I have to stop at the slightest infraction and ask for respect.  As soon as it is library silent, I begin again.  After which, I play a music video of more solar system stuff while speaking over it about our dying planet.  I draw the earth, and then a space ship, and then I ask them all to consider what we would do if we totally destroyed the planet and had to leave.  What do we need to live?  What makes life worth living?  What do we cherish most?  What would we bring with us?  What can we absolutely not live without?  I ask the co-teacher to write something on the board, and then I write something on the board, and then I talk about brainstorming.  I talk about how keeping ideas to ourselves doesn’t help anyone.  How sharing only with our neighbor doesn’t improve society, how we have to share with the world to make the world better, to inspire people.  I tell them that hearing ideas from others plants new seeds in the minds of others, and that this can help us create new solutions to old problems.  I tell them that no idea is stupid, and that some of the most creative ideas in the world have come from what others have called stupid or wrong ideas.  I ask them to fill the board with their ideas.  I have the co-teacher tag a student from their side, and together we try to get the damn kids out of their damn seats and writing something creative on the board.

Of course, they are all welded to their seats.  This is where I have to become a cheer leader and a clown.  I scream out an idea, make a ridiculous mad dash to the board, write down my ridiculous answer, “coffee,” and then go tag someone else.  So they grudgingly go up to the board like someone hit them, confer in Korean with their friends, and then write in English some (predictable) teenage thing down.  Then, in relief they rush back to their seats and I have to get them up and make them go tag someone else.

This takes so much ferrying to do, and it isn’t easy.  One boy, for example, put his head down to sleep and I told him to go write an idea on the board.  He lifts his head up and shakes it side to side, saying, “no.” and puts his head back down.  I rouse him again and I say, “no!  go up to the board!”  Again, he shakes his head and says, “no” and proceeds to lay his head back down.  “I WASN’T ASKING YOU.  I WAS TELLING YOU.  GO UP TO THE BOARD!”  The boy doesn’t move.  It is at this point that I have to physically move his chair and desk and begin to dump him out of his chair while yelling, “NOW!!” The boy finally gets up and goes to the board.

Where is the co-teacher?  goofing off with the other students.  This wasn’t class 1-1, but this is the kind of disrespect the teachers who don’t try to be the student’s best friends get.  Really.  The students run these schools and lead these teachers around by the nose.  And the only power the teachers feel they have is when they occasionally can’t  take it any more and go psycho on them with a stick.

I have to deal with a situation like this every day, and keep my sense of humor.  If I can’t move on, in the next breath, then the entire class is sunk.  But somehow I have to continue with the discipline and order and RESPECT lessons between seeing red and making the next joke…

It takes a few of these iterations before they realize it is fun and they start to get into it.  It’s a test for the teacher and a chance to show off for the other students.  I ignore all the sexual references.  I correct the wrong spelling.  Mastervation, for example.  Then I tell them that’s not a thing you bring.  It gets erased. I applaud anything creative.  Magic stick, for example, which would be very handy to have in space.  It takes painfully long to fill the board, but I don’t spend long enough on it.  Then comes discussion time where we should eliminate all but ten of the items.  But getting them to discuss why is really really hard.  For the lower level classes, I am just having them give me a thumbs down or up.  And there is much hooting and hollering as favorites get veto’d by others.  But I’m not too picky about the superficial level of the discussion, because at least there IS some English being used and it is being discussed a little, and the good will is worth a lot more in the long run.

The kids respond to applause or boos and hisses from their class mates.  There is something disturbingly rabble-like about everything group focused in Korea.  I have taken to applauding now, and I kind of have this out of body experience and look at myself and ask, what the hell are you doing?  Running one of those affirmation/motivational seminars for losers? Where is the dignity in that?  How low do I go?

They NEED to see the benefits of mutual respect.  REAL respect.  They can’t do this with this Korean system.  Yet we must appeal to them and start from where they are at, without succumbing to the path of least resistance.  So I applaud.

Miss Baek’s last day was Friday.  Though not close at all, we have learned to respect each other a lot.  At some point I stopped thinking of her as a brown nose, and she started to see the value in my methods.  So I suggested we get together for dinner and she said she would like that and she would call me in FEBRUARY, after her certification studies are over.  Wow.  Nice to be prioritized so much…


Yesterday was very stressful for everyone. One of the Korean teachers just submitted a novel for a contest, so that was cause for celebration as well.  I suggested beer was in order, so three of us went out for beer and side dishes and we talked about German philosophy, nihilism, existentialism, and American misconceptions, how wrong they were, and why they existed in Korea.  Subject for its own post…

Afterward, I offered my place as jim jil bang, since everyone lived far away.  One took me up on it.  But she made a pass at me in the elevator.  This is the second time, but I figured she’d have gotten the message the first time so I was a little dismayed at the second attempt.  I placed many precautionary barriers between us and managed to keep my virtue intact the whole evening, despite strong innuendo’s.  But it was a restless and tense evening.  I slept through both my prep hours today at school, like a rock, at my desk.  Being more cheerleader than teacher this week, laying down the law in school, and fending off unwanted advances from a co-worker friend just wore me out.  People wondered why I was that out of it.

I wonder how many women try to seduce other women while their husbands are out of town?  I wonder if lesbian women in Korea are all a reaction to male brutality and an extremely sexist culture, or if they are just curious and experimental like my teacher friend, (good God, I hope that’s all it is) or how many are actually born with zero attraction to any men.  For some reason, I am guessing the first two are probably pretty high.  The topic has just been brought up too many times by too many people to not be some latent wish for liberation.


Almost time to call a fellow English teacher.  He got so frustrated today at the students lack of discipline and his co-teacher’s lack of supporting action, that he walked out of class, just like I did the day before.   We’re all doing the best we can here.  But these circumstances are insane.  We are expected to baby the kids, entertain them,  produce miracles with our methods, yet all our methods are met with suspicion, we get no leveraging power over our students, and it is just physically impossible to manage much more than baby-sitting so many students, and our help is no help at all…in fact, our help criticizes us and passively watches the show.

My male co-teacher thinks any “teaching” that is not his style of teaching is wrong.  His style of teaching English is showing kids American movies with English Korean subtitles all hour, and then GIVING the students test answers before the exams, so he looks good.  Naturally, the students love him.  I still wonder if they love being touched by him all day…


I couldn’t lock my door this morning – and honestly I rarely check, since it’s this high=tech bank vault and everything.  But this morning, the woman who stayed overnight noticed and so this afternoon I went and had the maintenance man come up to check it out.  He liked how I was holding an almost finished bottle of makkoli the whole time.

Turns out, some stupid advertiser (or maybe would-be thief?) had put an advertisement right where the latch is supposed to close.  So it was kind of like a credit card lock jimmie, only in advance done with an advertisement.  The man scolded me.  I couldn’t explain that I had no idea and that it wasn’t my fault.  But I think it’s fun to shake your finger at stupid foreigners, so that’s what he did, and I had to thank him for it…Fortunately, nothing appears to be missing…there isn’t much to take, anyway.


Mr. S. is back and unable to visit because of a funeral, which it seems takes three days in Korea.  Despite hating the reason he was in the Philippines, I did miss him while he was gone.  Our conversations are painful for him, but the effort is adorable and I appreciate it.  What things about this culture are deal breakers?  What do I do if everything male in Korea is a deal breaker for me as a western raised woman?


3 thoughts on “What I can’t live without

  1. Can’t get a signal there, so I just write in notepad and then posted it later when I had internet…

    They don’t have internet cafe’s here, only PC bangs, which I have never been into and am too cheap to pay for!

    Besides, there’s no makkoli there. And the street is more interesting than my hermetically sealed vault I must call home.

  2. this just goes to show you that your life is infinitely more exciting than mine at any given time.

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