Come Wednesday though it was school time. We were met by one of the other
teachers who guided us out to the bus stop and our first trip on Korean
public transportation. From Sam Chang to our school you had three choices;
a one-hour walk (something I never did in three years), a taxi or the
bus. The buses were further divided into two sub-choices, called appropriately
enough, 'sitting buses' and 'standing buses'. The sitting buses had fewer
stops, some semblance of air-conditioning, and (in theory at least) seats
for everyone. You paid about double for this hedonism.
The standing buses had a few seats around the perimeter but were basically
designed to be packed to the gills with people. 'The Lucky Ones' were
the chosen few who had somehow managed (by dint of age, pregnancy, crutches
or, sheer blind luck) to get one of the few seats.
From that first day I was able to observe what happened when one of those
people got up to exit the bus. At the first hint that a Lucky One was
about to get up everyone in the immediate vicinity started sizing up their
'competition'. First was the age-check, as long as no one appeared a lot
younger (the young, it seemed, are morally prevented from ever sitting
down) everyone was eligible.
Next people tried to guess which way the person was going to vacate the
seat - directly to the side or to the front and then out. Jockeying began
for whatever position seemed most promising. It was rarely, if ever, overt.
It was always more of a subtle leaning and foot-positioning.
Once the person actually started to get up the slithering and leaning
became more obvious and in earnest. At this point if the person getting
up had chosen a favorite they would try to block the others and open the
way for the next designated Lucky One. That was rare however.
What usually happened next was a quick swoop from the one who had made
the best position guess. Barring someone being drunk or very old it was
rare to see anyone actually push their way into a seat. It was generally
a very subtle, no-harm, no-foul bit of societal interaction.
The results of winning or losing this battle could affect someone's entire
day. I don't know how many times I asked one of my students what was up
and they told me how happy they were because they had managed to get a
seat on the bus that morning.
I was unaware of all this that first day however. I just stood there and
tried to look out the window. This is when I first began to contract my
'Asian hunch'. At 6'4" I'm a little taller than most of what Asia
is designed for. It wasn't long before I adopted a kind of permanent stoop
to keep from banging my head into all and sundry. That first trip got
it all started - one hefty bump and I was smacking ceiling.
We got off the bus in Chongno, one of Seoul's oldest and most traditional
districts. In theory anyway. In actuality the short walk from the bus
stop to the school saw us pass McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and a
pizza place or two. It turns out Chongno is now one of Seoul's most popular
entertainment and nightlife areas. Within five minutes of the school there
were at least six movie theaters, all kinds of shopping and even a batting
cage. What warmed my heart most though was the donut shop not 20 meters
from the school. Food was definitely not going to be a problem.
I don't recall my first impression of my school and that probably says
more about the place than anything else. It was housed in a nondescript
six-story building just behind Chongno's main street. The classrooms were
sterile and devoid of anything other than cheap desks and loud, clanking
heaters. There were two offices - one for the Korean teachers (of English
and Japanese) and one for all the foreigners. It was a pretty big operation,
approximately 35 teachers.
The purpose of the school, or at least our program (E.C.C. - English Conversation
Course) was mainly to teach English conversation to college students and
young business people. Any adult could come but the twenty-somethings
were our target audience. Basically our market was the same young, middle-class
people drawn to Chongno's entertainment areas. It was a great place for
a school - which explained why there were so many of them. English schools
in Chongno are almost as thick as the traffic.
Why the interest in learning English? To get into a good high school you
had to do really well on an entrance exam. English was of course one of
the most important subjects on that exam. It was the same to get into
college, get a good job and to get a promotion once you got the job. At
every level ones ability to pass an English test served as a large factor
in determining success and advancement.
The result of all these tests was a society truly obsessed with learning
English. English teachers could not only get their own programs on TV
and radio but the most popular of them became minor celebrities. Years
later, when I was doing a lot of TV and radio it got to the point where
I was recognized nearly every time I left the house. How many foreign
language teachers get asked for their autographs or waved through airport
customs because the officials recognize you? English in Korea was more
than a language class - it was thought to be some kind of magical key
This obsession, when combined with the growing affluence of the Korean
middle class, gave rise to thousands of English schools. From the smallest
country schools with a few old desks and a blackboard to extravagant Seoul
institutes with coffee shops staffed by English speaking foreigners.
Our school fit somewhere in between. The first 'C' in ECC stood for 'conversation'
and that was the most important part of our, or any other native speaker,
program. The idea was that after having been taught English grammar and
vocabulary for years in middle and high school anyone who hadn't yet died
of boredom would have a foundation for the conversational-English teacher
to build upon. This also explained how it was possible to teach English
without having to first learn some Korean. We were there precisely because
we couldn't speak Korean. What they wanted from us was a sink-or-swim,
It was really kind of an odd system. After having spent six years in middle
and high school learning nothing but the intricacies of English grammar
most students could dissect the hell out of an English sentence during
a written test but usually wound up saying things like, "yesterday
I store go."
Starting from, "hello, my name is _____," most conversation
schools had programs that eventually (after a year or so) worked the students
up to some relatively advanced discussions on economics, culture, etc.
Basically our job was to get the students to talk and then correct whatever
mistakes they made. We used our own in-house textbooks, plus whatever
outside materials (newspaper clippings, games, shamelessly copied parts
of other books, etc.) we thought could provoke a decent, level-appropriate
conversation. All this took years to get down - for now I was basically
Fortunately the company had a program set up to do something about alleviating
that cluelessness. We would spend half our time getting training from
John and TESOL Dave (definitely not the Dave we'd met our first night)
and the other half observing the other teachers.
The training wasn't too bad. Ian and I mostly just sat and listened to
John and Dave. Dave was the only one on staff actually trained (a Master's
in TESOL - Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) as an English
teacher. Our lack of a specialized degree, coupled with our matching paychecks,
drove the poor man nuts.
Dave's was the voice of The Method. Maybe it was because he was ex-military,
maybe because that's how he'd been taught in school, but Dave was a big
method's guy. According to Dave the primary thing was to get the students
standing and moving around, "the foot bone being connected to the
mouth bone," as he explained it. Everyday, at every possible opportunity,
he had his students up and at'em. Dave's classes were half English, half
precision drill team. His students stood and repeated, changed partners,
and memorized dialogs like their lives depended on it.
The clearest memory I have of the first week of training though actually
came from one of the class observations. I was assigned to watch Diane,
a Korean-Canadian teacher who'd been at the school for some time. Though
she could speak Korean it was instructive how little she actually used
What sticks out most clearly was something that happened when I first
walked in to her classroom. One of the female students made a comment
about me, in Korean, that I obviously couldn't understand. Diane kindly
translated, "she says you're very tall and handsome. You're probably
going to hear a lot of that. Don't let it go to your head."
Whoa, that was new. My first experience with being 'exotic' (I'm certainly
not handsome). Later Diane explained that height was a big factor in determining
a man's appearance in Korea. You could look dorky as all hell but as long
as you were tall you were in the game.
I watched a lot of classes those first couple of days, as Thursday and
Friday rolled by, but the rapport Diane had with her students was what
stuck with me. The relaxed atmosphere she created brought people out of
their shells (a distinct challenge in the 'teacher-talk, student-write'
Korean educational system) and got them to actually try speaking.
As my week of training came to an end I was anxious to get started. No
more sitting around and watching others teach - I wanted it to be my turn.
The next Monday my wish would come true.