Day of Reckoning

Today my worst class – the entire class – is under review by a tribunal, if you will, consisting of the school administrators, teachers, and parents to answer for the constant insubordination, truancy, violence, and chaos they have inflicted thus far this year.  A couple of students are being threatened with expulsion!

Somehow I doubt that will happen.  But if it does, it might restore my faith in Korea. 

Divide and Conquer

Every year in Korea the laws governing student discipline change. I haven’t kept up on the student civil rights movement, but it doesn’t matter because I know what its effects are instantly. First severe corporal punishment was eliminated, and then mild corporal punishment, and in its place was put:


No. That’s not correct. In it’s place was put teacher evaluations by the students, which is like placing a loaded gun in their hand.

Now, in theory I’m all for abolishing corporal punishment. And I think evaluating teachers can be an effective method of feedback for teachers to improve, but that’s not how it’s used here. Here, because principals don’t involve themselves with their teacher’s performance and seniority trumps excellence every time, written evaluations are punitive and can be utilized as ammunition in whatever school politics exists. As a result, all the teachers are shaking in fear over getting bad evaluations. To further dis-empower the teachers, discipline has been turned into a bureaucratic nightmare of recording and creating a paper trail of reports for every. single. thing. concerning a student.

In the Korean public school system, you have elite districts which have their own school systems where only the top teachers can ever hope to get a job at. Then there is a hierarchy between Seoul and the outlying provinces. My last co-teachers lived in Seoul yet commuted daily to my little town because they felt unqualified to even apply to public schools in Seoul. In my province, teachers are sent to five year school assignments sometimes two hours commute from where they live, which they quickly come to resent. They get no choices, and the ones who are assigned to a technical school in the country are already thinking of every day being a prison sentence.

If you are a Korean English Teacher (KET) this is even worse, because English has even less relevance to most of the student’s lives here in the country, and they have rejected it early on and put less effort into mastering any skills. This means the classroom is that much more challenging, because the curriculum is the same nationwide and geared for the university entrance exam. So the ONLY reason most kids study English is to pass their SATs. The concept of getting only one shot to get ranked for university entrance is foreign to most Americans, but then consider too what it would be like if a foreign language like Arabic was a compulsory class and a major portion of the American SAT. Arabic would not be very popular if that were the case. Many of our students don’t plan on going to university, so to them the only reason to be at school is social.

If you are a Native English Teacher (NET), your foreign presence steals precious time away from the KET’s test preparation. The novelty of you and your departure from teaching to tests can be received with giddiness by the students as an opportunity to not only let their hair down, but to go wild. So, the KETs not only question the value of your presence, but the entire dynamic of classroom management in all the English classes is upset as a result of your presence. In addition, you are handicapped so they must intervene in classroom management situations in your classroom.

If you are a Korean high school student, you are free to apply to any school in your school district you want to go to. However, application is competitive, of course. This means only the rich can go to good public high schools. Good school districts pop up near areas where the English hogwan industry concentrates. Upper middle class families move to be close to those districts. (The rich send their students to Private International schools or send them abroad to boarding school) Students can’t be competitive unless their parents have invested a fortune into private supplementary education prior to high school. The poor, well, they are pretty much stuck where they are.

Now, combine all of the factors above and imagine yourself being the only foreign teacher in the lowest level school in the most remote part of Korea with grumpy Korean colleagues and students without hope to reach their aspirations.

It can be challenging.

In my school there are two girls who have the entire school held hostage. Back-talking, cruel, sneering, argumentative, and defiant, these girls are THE most unattractive people, personality-wise, I have ever had the misfortune to meet in my entire life. The reason I’m writing is I was having nightmares of one of them, curling up her nose and sneering at me so her upper lip was drawn back with her dirty braces exposed while laughing and mocking me. (which happened earlier in the day) I mean, even girl gang members in the states have some respect for something, but these girls respect nothing.

Those teacher evaluations are seriously held up to all the Korean teacher’s heads by these girls. It’s a real problem because the girls are influential to a dozen others, who spread the joy of this power imbalance to others and encourage everyone around them to do no work and disregard all the rules. And nobody will take any disciplinary action against them.

The first week of school my KET was arguing with them and it took up most of the class period. I told her that will happen every time, so don’t even try to reason with them. I am more experienced than they are now, but they don’t listen to me, as I’m the foreign teacher. This same teacher is the one who told me to give them handouts to make them quiet, as if they would actually even do any handout! She wants me to plan a tightly controlled lesson plan to keep their behavior in check, as if they will even follow along! But she won’t enforce my very clear and consistent rules about no cell phones or doing their makeup or any rule these girls violate, because now she’s afraid of arguing with them, which is all you can do if it’s not serious like assault and you don’t want to be continuously writing reports…So instead she blames everything that doesn’t go right in the classroom on me, and she wants me to come up with fun activities for them because the girls complained that every lesson was too hard and boring. Yet I know that no matter what I/we come up with, they will find a way to complain about it. Because complaining is fun. Complaining is power. (Complaining is also distinctly Korean, btw, one of the few methods of power any Korean citizen has) Arguing is power. Teacher evaluations are the ultimate in power.

The KET’s solution is to micro-manage ME with her ideas, to the point I am totally irrelevant. I suggest you do this. I suggest you do that. Do you mind if I just do this in Korean? (Today I was just left to hit >enter< to my own presentation because she thought she could present it better than me) They are close to being in the position of telling her to jump and her asking "how high?" She can't believe I've learned anything in how to deal with these girls and their posse, which is to establish and enforce clear rules we can all understand (which have since been undermined by the KET) and then basically let them use/waste their time how they wish and be pleasant to them because there are still 2/3's of the class that are teachable that deserve attention too and to let them come along for the ride when they want to. And her micro-management of me put me in a foul mood where I broke form in weakness and now I am a target of their ridicule. (I scowled – they thought that was hilarious. sigh…) IF I could speak their language, it would be possible to engage them in conversation and establish a friendly relationship with them. But I can't do that. I DO know where she is coming from, but she doesn't care where I am coming from. Or that undermining me doesn't help our classroom management situation. Or that maybe I like to have some purpose in my work as well. Or that if something I'm doing doesn't work to her, that obviously what she's doing doesn't work either. Or that it is not just her burden but that I also have to deal with it. Or that she needs to be more flexible and relax if she's going to survive the next four years of her term at this premier assignment.

Sorry, KET co-teacher, we are all going to get bad evaluations and there's nothing you can do about it. Except throw the students a party every day, with the ringleaders as guests of honor…and these girls will not be the last to hijack your class. Korean teachers are going to have to earn respect from now on. And hopefully be given some more meaningful mechanism to give students consequences for their actions.

NEXT DAY: To add to my being irrelevant she has recently taken to not just take over my classes, but also my class periods. Of course, she always asks in a nicey-nice way to do this. She must have read this post about throwing parties, because today’s take-over was some raucous game with loudspeaker and lots of candy rewards. I hope she has a lot of energy, because 5 years of that for a control freak to muster is a lot. I shouldn’t worry about her. Only six more months of being micro-managed class time left to go.

This is the last year for Seoul’s high school positions and Gyeonggi has stopped any new hiring and letting attrition take care of the positions remaining. The speaking with foreigners has produced some improvement at the elementary school level, but for the older kids it is remediation after trauma, which doesn’t work too well. Even though there is some success at the elementary school level, they want to replace native speakers with robots. Because robots don’t have foreign culture and ideas that clash with Korean teachers, I’m guessing.

I guess I’m just disappointed. I did so want to think my birth country was smart and not just intelligent. But what does it matter: pretty soon the whole world will be scrambling to learn Chinese anyway.


I put quite a lot of time in on my latest comment at Transracialeyes. It’s kind of a summation of what I’ve learned about Korean culture in regards to adoption while living here.

I also posted on Facebook today:

Please DON’T CALL ME an adoptee. I WAS adopted. I am not adopted now. Don’t define me by my former adoption.

I am now free to be whoever I want to be. Like a person liberated from slavery, they cease to be slaves once they fully embrace their liberty. I WAS in bondage. Now I am free.

Kevin Ost-Volmers of Land of Gazillion Adoptees wanted to interview me about “What’s next?” Well, that quote above is kind of a summation of that. I’m going to go back home to America and do all the same things I did before, only I have my own internal compass now that is no longer warped by the iron attraction of unaddressed adoption issues. I think it’s going to be great.

Benny should come to Korea…

since he likes America so much.

Benny Lewis, btw, is an Irish bloke who moves to a new country nearly every year and chats people up all over the world to add notches to his polyglot belt.

I admit it’s an impressive achievement, but also I’m still waiting for him to conquer Asian languages at the same pace he’s conquered Western languages.  I’ll wager it’ll take him a lot longer.  I’d also like to stick him in an Asian body as a foreign language teacher out in the country where no one wants to suffer his language exploration.

Anyway, my personal bitterness aside, I got a kick out of his blog post, 17 cultural reasons why this European never wants to live in America.

He doesn’t seem to get that a lot of New Yorkers might have the same viewpoint (1. Americans are way too sensitive), or that the kind of company he keeps (2. Everything is “awesome” ? Sheesh…) on the not real life that constitutes touring (3. Smiles mean NOTHING [God, I miss the GENUINELY liberal smiles you get from random folks in America] ) might also have something to do with it.  He also has a lot of valid observations (4. Tipping, 5. False prices on everything, 10. I.D. checks and stupid drinking laws) that are blown a little out of proportion or lack understanding of what a Federation of states is but aren’t without some basis and that cracked me up.  Instances of him just being himself an overly sensitive semantics jerk when people are trying to find a way to connect (9. Heritage) and then things that made me a little somber (11. Religious Americans, 12. Corporations win all the time, not small business, 13. A country designed for cars, not humans, 16. Unhealthy portions). But whatever – the entire time I was reading it, I kept thinking:  Holy shit.  He should live in Korea a few years. (6. Cheesy in-your-face marketing, 7. Wasteful consumerism, 8. Idiotic [Korean] stereotypes of other countries, 14. Always in a hurry, 15. Obsession with money, 17, Thinking [Korea] is best.)

Just like the astute daughter of my Korean friend told me, ” Korea copies the worst aspects of America and ignores the best aspects of America.”  Such a bright, bright girl…

But I’d totally disagree with him about 17.  It makes me wonder how many yokels he spent time with, since every country has their own nationalistic yokels…And I disagree because I know a whole lot of people who criticize America and don’t think it’s best.  And the primary reason I like America is because I’m free to do that…and you know, that’s another thing Korea is following as well…and that’s a good, badly needed thing.

I think Benny really isn’t qualified to make such black and white opinions since he’s just passing through a place – like whirlwind passing through.  Nor do a lot of Europeans really understand what a dual curse and blessing vast spaces are and how they affect ideas of freedom, expansion and manifest destiny or wreak havoc on density and pedestrian communities that little islands have no choice but to honor.  I think he’s missed one of the great opportunities one can experience while traveling, and that is to try and understand the perspective of the people in the places he visits, how they came to be that way, or what he can learn form them.

I think another twenty years and Korea will be just like the conflicted, messy, yet ever exuberant and dynamic America I miss, and if Benny doesn’t want to live here or there, then that’s mighty fine by me.

Two less eyes continued….

Four months now and my vision isn’t completely back to normal.  I can read my computer just great, can watch t.v., and read.  Vision beyond 8 feet is still a little blurry.  I can’t yet read street signs from a distance, so driving is still out of the question.  At my last check-up, the doctor told me my astigmatism was corrected and he was confident that in one more month I should be seeing 20/20, as there has been measurable improvement each month.  After all this time, I’m both pessimistic yet also hopeful.  My vision is definitely better than it was prior to lasek surgery, but because the previous condition was corrected with glasses or contact lenses, it effectively feels as if there’s been a degradation of vision since the vision can’t be corrected while it is stabilizing, and the whole point is to rid oneself of correction anyway.  So it’s like needing glasses but walking around without your glasses for all that time…Blurriness becomes the norm, and you start to get used to seeing only what’s in front of your face… I just have to be patient and wait…

So, to go into more detail about the operation and recovery:

Prior to getting your surgery, you are given information sheets on what to expect, and you are also sent to the nearest pharmacy to purchase the medications you will need for post operative care.

Then they have you robe up prior to going into the operating room.  The operation itself was a breeze.  You lay on the table and scoot back until your eyes are lined up with the laser machine overhead.  They give you some local anesthetic numbing drops, which are totally 100% effective, and then put some contraption on your eyelids to hold them open, which you can’t feel at all.  The laser machine emits lights as it maps your eye.  If you get the M-lasek, which is for faster more pain-free healing, they will add more liquid, which feels cool, and you can smell the alcohol.  The one freaky thing occurs as some blunt instrument painlessly moves across your eye.  You know it is scraping the top layer aside, but you can’t feel anything – only you know when it is making contact, as it causes an aqua-colored impression the shape of the implement:  it’s pretty disconcerting just because the idea of what they’re doing is icky.  After that is over, you’re asked to look at a green light and the machine pulses, and then you smell something like burning hair.  Then they add more drops.  They ask you how you’re doing and then they put protective contacts on you.  All of the above only takes about five minutes, and then you’re done!  The surgery itself was not a big deal.

I can’t remember if it is before or after the operation where you have to sit with some test strips of paper stuck between your lower lid and eyeball, and that was a tiny bit uncomfortable and also dries your eyes out.

You can’t see much afterward but feel pretty good.  As the anesthesia wears off, it just feels like your eyes are red and dry.  Prior to surgery they told you to bring sunglasses, as your eyes will be super sensitive to glare for quite awhile.

You walk out feeling somewhat handicapped but not totally disabled and it is possible to bumble your way home if you’re by yourself, though reading signs is not easy.  Supposedly the second day is the worst, but it didn’t bother me too much.  They give you anti-inflammatory drops and antiseptic drops to take four times a day, some numbing drops for when the pain is bad, and you are supposed to bathe your eyes in prescription wetting drops as much as possible.  However, you should wait at least five minutes after the anti-inflammatory drops before using any wetting drops.  They also give you a cold eye pack to reduce swelling and pain.  I was feeling pretty invincible on the second day, as the pain wasn’t too bad at all, and I thought maybe I was blessed with my high pain threshold and looked forward to a painless recovery. It WAS really irritating and nothing really improved that, but it wasn’t unbearable, though being half blind also doesn’t help…

My friend Joyce came over on the third day because she had found that during her recovery it was difficult to cook, etc. for herself that first weekend.  She was sick at the time, and I think she was in more pain than I was.  However, in the middle of the night I woke up with SEARING pain.  Because I couldn’t find my antiseptic drops or numbing drops in the dark, and it hurt so bad, I started to panic.  I half-heartedly went to wake up Joyce, who was sleeping the sleep of the dead, with no success.  So I just kept groping around in searing pain, panicking.  Until finally I shook her awake, my moving her out of the way to see if my eyedrops had landed underneath her.  It was pretty terrifying, that panic!

The following day was pretty painful, even after I’d found the drops.  I found the only relief was numbing drops and the cold pack.  So I was down for the next two or thee days doing nothing but laying there, trying to get relief by sleeping before the cold pack got warm, throwing it in the freezer long enough to cool off, throw in numbing drops, repeat from across.  Fortunately I had the week off for winter vacation.  Joyce had to go straight to work, and I can’t imagine that…Vision was at about 50% during that time.  I could see the television okay, but was unable to read, do anything on the computer, or much of anything useful.

After that, the pain gradually decreases and your vision will slip in and out of varying degrees of improvement, each eye responding differently, so it’s hard to measure if you’re making much progress or not, as it’s so gradual and inconsistent.  You have to constantly add the wetting drops to sooth the irritated feeling of dry eyes and feeling as if there are foreign bodies there.  As time marches on you run out of the drops.  Both of us resorted to buying over-the-counter wetting drops, but was later told not to use them, as too much exposure to the preservatives can exacerbate the drying.  However, purchasing the preservative-free wetting drops is really expensive without a prescription, so you have to go back and ask for another prescription so the government health care plan will pick up some of the cost.  After your first eye check up, a week (?) after the operation, eye check-ups occur about once a month.

The prescription drops come in single-use plastic ampules.  Even after the end is nipped off, they don’t leak due to capillary action, and it is possible to get several applications out of each one.  The pharmacist warns not to re-use the ampules because they can get contaminated.  But they’re so expensive and your prescription never covers the amount you’d need if you used each ampule for only one application.  So I split the difference and, if they are kept clean, consider using one ampule multiple times within an hour perfectly acceptable.

As your vision improves and you get accustomed to the discomfort, it gets easy to forget your regime of applying the drops.  Mornings are especially dry, sticky, and blurry, though.  The doctor said my eyes were especially dry and he said that recovery takes longer in the winters, as the air is dried out due to heating. Keeping well hydrated with drink and moisturizing the air with a humidifier also help.

Soooo, it’s a long process.  Five months instead of the three that is in the literature you read.  I think it was worth it.  It will definitely be worth it if I reach 20/20 next month.  I can totally see why they push the lasik operation with the one day recovery, though.  Because when they say the lasek is painful it’s kind of an inadequate description for the long period of discomfort you go through.  However, I also think we were wise to be conservative and get many consultations because with my uneven eye surface and Joyce’s scarring from previous infections, as it would have put us at risk to get the lasik surgery other less conscientious clinics suggested we get.

I guess the moral of this story is to understand that this is a long uncomfortable process.  But like all things worthwhile, it has an end – and doesn’t seem so bad in hindsight!

TIP:  If you have a kitten, hide your drops because they look like toys and cats like to bat them under furniture, which is hard to find when you can’t see…

Society’s going to hell

And it’s about time!

Tonight, after waking from my dubu kimchi coma, I flipped through the usual suspects to land on Fashion N in the middle of an interesting documentary.

The great thing about syndicated western t.v. is Korean networks can buy shows and expose (gasp!) a whole lotta fashion forward and also emancipation forward ideas to Korean women (and men, as I suspect a lot of Korean men watch these shows too).  I’ve been really pleasantly surprised to see all kinds of topics covered that introduce ways of thinking that are kind of as unthinkable to halmoni as men giving birth.

Anyway, this documentary was called Maria the Korean Bride’s 50th Wedding.

After turning 30 and, irritated and by the constant pressure by her family to get married, Korean-American Maria decided to represent for unmarried Asian women everywhere with performance art.  Over 9 years she traveled to all 50 states to explore the institution of marriage by having a fake wedding in each.  On her travels she meets all kinds of non-traditional families who express their values and give opinions on the meaning of relationships and the relevancy of marriage.

A cool project in America, but for me it was even cooler to watch it in Korea, with all its dialogue subtitled and the narration all in Korean.  Yes, Korea, people can live with each other without marrying and be happy.  They can have babies without marriage and be happy.  Or they can have children without men and be happy.  Or they can be divorced and not married and be happy.  They can be divorced and remarry and be happy.  And they can be married and not be happy.  Or they can be married multiple times and think they are happy for now.  Or they can be gay and get married and be happy.

It’s wonderful antidote to see an alternative to the above examples of grooming your appearance to literally become a doll, such as the hostesses of Gossip House, perhaps THE most annoying show on Korean t.v., which makes me embarrassed to be of the same gender.  It makes me grind my teeth in pain…

Anyway, do go check out Maria’s website.  And here’s the whole show, (narration in Korean – but most of the dialogue is in English, so you’ll have no problems watching it) which also showed on KBS  part 1 and 2, respectively.  Enjoy!