Page Five: Settling In



The first week . . .


One thing I'll never forget is waking up my first morning in Seoul. I had left the 'window' cracked open to get some fresh air and, unknowingly, begin getting used to the pollution. As I awoke from my bombed-out, jet lagged sleep I could hear and smell my surroundings long before I could see them. Not much past 6am and I could make out a few sounds off in the distance. Those first sounds would always kind of sum up Seoul for me - a far-off rooster crowing at the sun while up from the road came a cacophony of car horns. The day before I had already caught a glimpse of these two sides of Seoul - the modern, over-developed parts jutting up against disappearing pockets of tradition.

Then it hit me. Hard. I was a hell of a long way from home. I didn't know anyone whom I hadn't met within the last 24 hours. I had little money and my only prospect of earning more was by doing something I had no clue about - teaching English.

I didn't speak a word of Korean (my 'hello' at the airport notwithstanding) - how the hell was I going to teach English if didn't speak the local language? What if I got up in front of class and froze? What if I hated it? Worse yet, what if I liked it but they hated me? This was more than some exotic adventure. This was no friends, little money, stuck halfway around the world, sink or swim time.

Just as I was about ready to head back to Kimpo I looked at the flip side of the coin. Some company had, basically sight unseen, flown me all the way to Asia, taken me to my newly furnished apartment and then handed me a couple of hundred dollars in the local currency. Now if that wasn't a risk . . .

Also on the plus side was the fact that the boss seemed cool, as did Ian, and my encounter with Dave the night before had shown me that one certainly didn't have to be a genius, or even have all one's marbles, to teach English. It was time to get up and give this a shot.
The next few days are kind of a jet lagged blur. Having arrived on a Monday evening we had a whole week before we actually had to teach anything. Tuesday was spent getting settled in and doing some shopping to outfit the place. The basics: spoons, bowls, food, and for Ian of course, a CD player.


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 to success.

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, all-English environment.

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 clueless.

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 in class.

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.


page one - page two - page three - page four - page five - page six
page seven - page eight - page nine - page ten


- go to 1stopKorea homepage
Copyright 1999-2002 1stopKorea