Let the Teaching Begin . . .
That first day was memorable for a host of different reasons. Having heard and seen how much being late could screw things up Ian and I started our 'no-late redundancy system' from that very first day. He would walk down to my place by 6:10 or so and then we'd head off to catch the bus. If he wasn't there by 6:15 I was to call in case he hadn't woken up. Likewise if I dared to sleep past 6 he would be there to wake me up. Foolproof - which is exactly what we needed at that ridiculous time of day.
That first day we were both so hyped up and riding the jetlag wave that we woke up long before the alarm. I just laid in bed and listened to my rooster friend and wondered how I’d do.
I was way too gung-ho back then - leaving myself lots of extra time to shower, shave and eat breakfast - getting up around 5:30. Then came the inevitable doorbell screech from hell (it was even worse at 6 am) and Ian was at the door and ready to go. You could tell he was excited that first day himself - he already had his tie on (I always kept mine off until we were actually in the school).
We got our bus and, miracle of miracles, we even got seats. Of course we got seats - it was six in the freakin’ morning. Seoul on that sunny June morning was more than bearable. I looked at the sites as we drove in; the statue of Admiral Lee Sun-Shin, one of Korea’s greatest heroes, Bukhan Mountain - the traditional northern boundary of Seoul and backdrop for Kyungbok Palace, and Kwanghwamun, Korea’s most famous and historical 'big' gate. The traditional gate was dwarfed in back by the ugly former colonial headquarters of the Japanese government. The historic Asian beauty of the gate and palace marred by the squatty remnant of the colonial era. All this history on a simple bus ride to work. You know you’re new to a place when you even enjoy the bus ride in.
Should’ve stayed on the bus. Soon after getting off at our stop in Chongno my nose started to feel funny. By the time we got to school my eyes were watering. It took me a little while to figure it out then BAM, it hit me - tear gas! The air was thick with the stuff. I’d been in enough demonstrations/riots at Michigan (usually when we won a national championship in something) to know that smell.
Plus we were in Korea. Everyone knows Korean students are world class rioters and it didn’t take a genius to figure out what must have happened the day before. Though the issues and frequency might have changed since the demonstration heyday of the late 80s, up until the late 90s demonstrations still took place with exceptional regularity. That morning as the shopkeepers (McDonalds managers?) sprayed off their windows and sidewalks the gas was reactivated. Made you wonder what had happened on Sunday.
Welcome to your first day of work, don’t mind the tear gas.  It was explained to me by a student later that day that Korea makes (and exports) some of the strongest tear gas in the world. At first I found that interesting from a cultural, historical perspective - kind of a firsthand look at young democracy in action. Later the demonstrations and massive traffic jams associated with them just pissed me off. Screw democracy, I just wanted to get home without sitting in traffic choking on tear gas.
So it was already a memorable day before I even walked in the door. Nothing like getting ready for your first day of class by flushing your eyes with cool water and blowing your nose raw. By 7 am though I was composed and ready, if a little smelly. I started the day, and my English teaching career, with a level 3 in room 504. Why I remember that I don't know but what can you do? I can still remember a few of the faces from that first group. Names? No way, but the faces, I remember them.
Level 3 was the most common level at our school. In our ten-level program it was the last of the beginner levels and involved at least some basic communication. At this level you could discuss simple past tense – like what people had done over the weekend. It wasn’t Shakespeare but it was better than nothing.
Communication was a good thing because at the time I still had no clue of what was level-appropriate language or speed. I talked like I was talking to my best friend – way too fast and way too informal. Oh sure, the students paid to take a class with a native English speaker but if you spoke at anywhere near normal speed and style you lost everybody. They'd learned English from books and spoke like it – no “isn’t” or “aren’t.” Everything was “is not” and “are not.” When new teachers came along and started contracting everything it proved very difficult for most students to follow.
In an effort to remedy this most teachers would, after a few weeks, begin to talk in two speeds, normal and classroom. It was always funny to watch someone in a mixed group, going from one speed to the other as they talked to different people. Sure the students paid to learn from a native speaker but that didn’t mean they wanted native speed – and woe unto the teacher who didn’t slow down. All but the most advanced and/or dedicated students hated it. They just wanted to be able to understand what their teacher was saying. Before long even TESOL Dave was committing the very unprofessional sin of using two gears.
The morning of that first day sped by pretty uneventfully, I mean, what were a few English classes compared to morning teargas? By the third class I was already starting to get a pattern down. Start off by pairing the students up and having them practice the first dialog in day one’s lesson while I went around and got their names (for the class registration log) and nicknames (so I could tell apart the six Kims, four Lees and two Parks in every class). Once that was finished I pulled everybody back into the full class and had each student give a quick introduction. Name, job, hobby and whatever else they wanted to say (i.e. their age). In Korea establishing everyone's age is vitally important and watching them sort it out was always an interesting process. The subtle change in attitude and posture toward the younger, the grin and handshake for those the same age and the donning of a more respectful attitude toward the elder.
Once the students had finished introducing themselves I proceeded to introduce myself. I didn’t realize it at the time but these were the most important minutes of the month-long class. Koreans attach a lot of importance to the first impression and a good one could carry you for the rest of the month. Whereas a bad one would plague you far into the future, usually proving impossible to overcome. That first day my excitement over my new life must have been palpable because things went pretty well. The students seemed to sense my excitement and enthusiasm and the morning was to unfold pretty smoothly.
Something we’d been told during training was also evident from that first day. The more questions people asked, the better the class. Almost without fail the number of questions asked on the first day during introductions would turn out to be a sure sign of a class’s impending success or failure. The more questions, the more the students were actually interested in learning and having a little fun instead of just robotically going through the motions. A truly great class (and these were quite rare) would take up the whole first day with questions. This definitely meant you’d made a positive first impression and could chalk up that class in the good column for the rest of the month.
Nothing fires a teacher up more than students who give a damn  - or at least pretend to. Of course most of the questions were of the, “are you married? Why not? Can you use chopsticks?” variety but they still helped get things going and establish a rapport. The students didn’t know you’d already been asked the same question five times that day. You just painted on that smile and grinned through the answer one more time.
A silent class of course meant the opposite. A group of people who didn’t want to be there, who hated both English and you for teaching it to them, and who simply wanted to get out of their dull class and on with their dull lives. This would soon become the teacher’s attitude as well. Oh sure, those first few months I actually tried to light a fire under these classes but as the relentless ‘ECC English Sweatshop’ schedule took its toll I saved my energy for the classes that cared. Bad attitude? Sure, but you could be Jim Carey, Eddie Murphy and Chris Farley all rolled into Confucius for some of these classes and garner nary a flicker of acknowledgment. The fifty minutes in these classes would last for hours.
One of the biggest factors in determining the class’s attitude would also be the hour it started. Your average (i.e. everyone I ever had in three years but one) 7 am class would be utterly dead. The majority of the students were bleary-eyed, hung-over businessmen trying to cram in a little English before work. Apparently they hoped taking an English class would allow them to get a jump on that next promotion so they could stay home and nurse their hangovers like their bosses. Asking these poor bastards for anything other than numb, oh-my-god-don’t-choose-me expressions was a little tough.
For a lot of other people taking an early class was a way of proving their 'diligence', a word I was to hear time and time again. Everybody wanted to be diligent, to get up earlier and work later than everyone else. Never mind the quality of that time - it was just important to be able to brag to family and co-workers about how industrious one was. Invariably these people were so tired they learned next to nothing and spent most of the class trying to nap and avoid having to talk to me.
To make the 7 am classes even more excruciating were another, special group of people - the early-risers. It seems there are some people in this world who honestly don't mind getting up and taking a 7 am class. Of course it also seems that anyone who gets up at that hour to study is also the same kind of person who takes an inordinate interest in pestering English teachers with nit-picky grammar questions. I don’t know about you but at 7 am I don’t give a rat’s ass about English grammar (don’t care much for it at 7 pm for that matter). After a few months I found myself holding a personal grudge against these 7 am classes – even launching my own crusade to get them to stop coming and sign up for a more intelligent time. Regrettably, a battle I was forever doomed to lose.
8 o’clocks were always a bit better. I was beginning to wake up, as were the students, the sun, birds and everything else with half a brain. The ‘ratio’ would always start to improve as well. The ‘ratio’ was the amount of college students to businessmen. Generally the more college students, the more lively the class. The younger students were much more willing to do some actual talking than the, 'strictly by the book,' businessmen  .
Heck, enough fired up college kids could even get the businessmen to wake up and join the fun. Though at 8 am this was pretty rare. What kind of college student willingly signs up for an 8 am class? All talk of 'diligence'  aside I rarely met the early-morning student who learned as much as they could’ve had they taken a class later in the day. The culture placed a lot of value on at least the appearance of ‘diligence’. People were impressed when someone said they got up early and took a class. No one ever stopped and asked if that wasn’t too early to effectively study. They were too busy feeling guilty for not leaping out of bed so early themselves.
By 9 o’clocks the college students had taken over. Combine that with most teachers actually beginning to wake up (after sleep talking their way through 7 and 8 am classes) and things picked up quite nicely. As they did for me on that first day - though in a distinctly memorable way. It was in one of those morning classes that I met the first student who’s name (nickname anyway) I can actually remember - Whitney.
I can remember her name for several reasons. Chief among them was that she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. Later I would come to find out that model-caliber beauty would not be that uncommon in class. Hell, after awhile I even became somewhat jaded. But this first month, this first day, with Whitney sitting in the front of class wearing a very tight (and very mini) miniskirt, it would prove a significant challenge in tongue untying and stutter control. I hadn’t been ready for that - I was still trying to figure out what was up with the morning tear gas when along comes the Goddess of Beauty.
I didn’t know what to do at first. Avoid talking to her so the other students wouldn’t think I was giving her too much attention? Try to be professional and keep a balance? Or listen to another part of my 'mind' and spend all my time talking to her? Well professional was definitely out - who was I kidding? I had something like two hours of teaching experience at this point. The latter one was out too - no reason to get myself fired the first day on the job. So instead I just avoided her - didn't look at her and didn't even talk to her unless I was calling on everyone to say something.
Good idea? Well, that class turned out to be one of my best ever - we went out drinking as a group several times, even brought Ian along once. We kept in touch after the term was up and for months afterward I would see one of them around the institute and we'd stop and talk. Whitney? She ended up dropping out of our institute after that first month. Six months later however (a big however), she came back by the school and asked me out. Turned out she was quite wealthy and had just gotten a job as a flight attendant. The rest of that story? Well, that's one I like to keep to myself.
What with Whitney, getting up before the roosters, going to work through tear gas and gutting out 7 and 8 am torture sessions, that first morning had really proven to be a bitch. It was time to compare notes with Ian and grab something to eat - but not before running one more errand. We were off to the nearby U.S. embassy to register as US citizens living abroad and fill out some other forms.
Up until that day I had always thought your embassy was a place to relax and feel at home. The kind of place citizens could turn to both in good times and bad.
HA! What a naïve crock of shit that turned out to be. The only thing anyone ever got out of our embassy  were people too rude and incompetent to join the IRS. Korea must have been a punishment assignment, kind of tough love boot camp for bureaucratic assholes. Over the course of my time in Korea I heard countless tales from fellow citizens, as well as Koreans, of unhappy encounters with these sorry sons-a-bitches. It’s one thing to be rude, another to be incompetent, our embassy in Seoul has managed to achieve new highs in both. Forget the Korean protestors – there were a lot of Americans ready to demonstrate outside that accursed place.
The worst was their treatment of the Korean girlfriends and wives of Americans. I had countless friends who simply wanted to take their girlfriends/fiancés back to the States for a couple of weeks to meet their families and see a little of America before getting married. To the embassy though these woman are simply low class gutter whores out to latch on to some American sugar daddy and a visa to the Land of the Big PX (actual quote). Unless the woman’s family was extremely rich  or well connected her visa application was virtually always denied.
Treated almost as badly were students planning on going to the U.S. to study – whether at a university or just a simple language program. This quite possibly makes even less sense than denying visas for girlfriends and fiancés. Foreign students pay full tuition at U.S. schools. A windfall that gives American institutions millions of dollars a year.
This made no difference to our embassy, or apparently the US government though. I had countless students accepted at great schools and, all set to go, had suddenly been refused a visa. Invariably it was because their parents weren’t rich enough. Since they were lower or middle class rather than filthy rich the pricks at the embassy were afraid the student was going to work illegally for a few hours a week to help pay school expenses. The horror!!
Nothing made me feel worse as an American than the times I had students come up to me, tears streaming from their eyes, asking “why does your country hate Koreans so much? I just want to go to school. Why won’t you let me study . . . ” etc. How do you answer those questions? How do you not feel guilty? I never figured it out.
Naively unaware of all this on our first visit we headed over to register at the embassy (in case war broke out and we had to be evacuated or shipped home in a bag) and fill out a few other forms. After having called to verify when they were open we arrived to find they were closed at that time. If I had a dollar for every time that's happened . . . We had to wait an hour until their real opening time.  During our wait we had a good chance to check out all the security outside the embassy. The place was like a fortress – high walls, barbed wire and hundreds of riot police kept the grounds safe from demonstrations and apparently, pissed-off Americans.
Then we walked past all the Koreans waiting in some huge line outside the embassy to get their visas. I guess the embassy people didn’t want them cluttering up their offices so they made them wait outside. Once inside we finally filled out our paperwork. Then we paid the fee for the paperwork that we’d been told was free and finally left - praying we’d never have to come back.
On the way back we stopped to grab some lunch and bitch about the embassy. When it came time to pay the bill and get back to school though another problem arose – we didn’t have enough money. The 'free' paperwork at the embassy had almost cleaned us out and we'd each thought we could borrow from the other. With less than an hour to go until our next classes we were about 15 minutes from work. One of us would have to walk all the way to the school and back to get some cash. We flipped a coin and I ‘won’. That is, I got to stay at the restaurant while Ian hustled back to the school (if he could find it - we were still distinctly new to the area). For the next half an hour or so I had to sit around and pretend to be really interested in my food while the lady running the place grew increasingly puzzled.
Finally Ian came back, huffing and puffing from the forced march through Seoul’s rapidly warming summer.
“I ran into Dave. pant, pant . . . He . . . pant . . . . lent me 20 grand (about $25 at the time). Let’s go.”
“We’re gonna be late,” my observant self replied.
“No shit, Dave said he’d tell John and they’d find someone to cover for us till we got there.”
With that we took off back to the school, arriving about 10 minutes late for our first class of the evening. As we scrambled into the office to grab our books we got some weird comments from the other teachers, “check out the new guys, already late their first day.” John wasn’t quite so amused. He actually looked pretty ticked, wearing a ‘who in the hell did I hire’ expression that stuck with me as I ran up to class.
The students were a little confused as their teachers suddenly changed, Nick out, Scott in. It was my first real lesson in the importance of first impressions (and how long they lasted) in Korea. Late, out-of-breath and really sweaty was not exactly a way to endear yourself and I was never able to recover. The class never jelled and it ended up being my worst one that month, even worse than 7 am.
Back at the office after class we apologized to John and found out he’d been able to keep it from Director Yoon. As long as it didn’t happen again we were cool. Oddly enough, given Seoul’s traffic and our weird schedules, the entire rest of our time at ECC (four years in Ian’s case, three years in mine) neither of us was ever late for class again.
Fortunately the rest of the evening was pretty uneventful and having left the house a little after six that morning by 9 pm I was ready to get home and relax. HAH!! I still had to deal with getting through Seoul traffic. If one were to ask how bad could it possibly be at 9 o'clock on a Monday night . . . well, then one were to be an idiot. It sucks. The two mile bus ride took over half an hour. Stop - go, stop - go, the whole way, on a crowded standing bus and, unlike in the morning, this time we were actually standing.
The last thing I wanted after a 15 hour day was to be caught in traffic on the way home. Turns out that on some nights we’d ‘fly’ home in 20 minutes while other nights it’d take 45. Apparently people in Seoul worked late and then went drinking in Chongno's entertainment area right near the school. The one consolation was that most of the ride was over a subway construction zone. Soon, we’d just be able to hop on the subway and it would whisk us home. Soon, very soon.
Back in April at the recruiter’s house the idea of only working six hours a day had seemed pretty simple. Split shifts hadn’t been mentioned. On that first day it didn’t seem like such a big deal. I was still too fresh and pumped about everything to let the schedule wear me down. On that first ride home though I was able to get an inkling of what was to come. Some of the older teachers were dragging. Since we all taught basically identical split shifts (on in the morning and evening but off in the afternoon) I would be them in a few weeks and I didn’t like what I was seeing. The ones who had gone home to grab an afternoon nap looked okay but the others looked pretty out of it. That kind of cast a pall over what had been a pretty interesting first day. I mean, how are you supposed to enjoy living overseas if the only thing on your mind is your next nap?
The bus finally arrived at our ‘Garden Hotel’ stop and, clued in by the veterans, Ian and I hopped off and walked back to the place. Another thing I noticed that first night was that due to our similar schedules (for the most part we literally worked, ate, commuted, partied and lived together) we tended to travel in packs. I had too many things on my mind that night to give it much more than a passing thought but it would definitely prove a lasting feature of the next few years.
Once home I turned on what was to be a popular lifeline to the States - A.F.K.N. (Armed Forces Korea Network). Remember the movie Good Morning Vietnam and the role of Robin Williams as a DJ for U.S. forces in Vietnam? Well AFKN was the same thing only, it being the 90s and all, included TV as well as radio. Anyone living relatively near a U.S. base could pick up the signal. Since this meant basically anywhere you went in Seoul we, as well as millions of Koreans  , could tune in.
The military has a pretty good deal with most U.S. broadcasters, allowing it to show almost any program from any network. This led to a prime time lineup often consisting of an NBC show followed by programs from ABC, plus Fox and CBS, all on the same channel on the same night. It was a good way to kind of keep in touch with what was going on, pop culture-wise, back home. The military also didn’t show normal commercials - all they showed were public service announcements (don’t drink and drive being most common) and weird infomercials with titles like ‘The History of the American Military Boot’.
That first night I just wanted to listen to some normal English as I wound down my big day. It made for nice background noise as I sat down and tried to sort out everything that had gone right and wrong. I even, in what was both a first and a last while at ECC, looked over the next day’s lessons and tried to plan out how I was going to teach them. That would turn out to be all it took to get me ready for bed. By 11 it was light’s out and slumber time until my friendly neighborhood rooster heralded in the new day.
 It turned out our institute was located across the street from ‘Pagoda Park’ - the home of a lot of those (in)famous Korean demonstrations. Smelling tear gas would turn out to be a relatively common experience. There's nothing like trying to teach a class with your nose on fire and tears streaming down everyone’s face. Never saw that in the job description.
 My condolences to my high school teachers.
 Yes, I know I used the (very non-PC) term businessmen quite a bit here. Trust me, it was done on purpose. Very few women can be said to be true businesswomen in Korea. The more accurate term would be ‘women working in business for a few years until they are forced to get married and quit.’ This is of course in no way a reflection of their ability. Rather it was, and is, a reflection of a culture more Confucian the Confucius. The men have it pretty good and are in no hurry to become the pathetically hen-pecked, apron wearing, ‘half-women’ they picture Western men to be. Actual quote, by the way.
 It was always ‘diligent’. Nobody was ever ‘hard-working’ or ‘industrious’ or anything else. They were just ‘diligent’. Even the lowest level students knew this word.
 Compare that to the couple of times I had to go to the British embassy. An oasis of civility and competence that, quite frankly, made me embarrassed to be an American. When I thought of the hellhole that represented our country and the impression it left on Koreans and other foreigners (not to mention U.S. citizens) I shuddered at the damage it must have done.
 To get a visa the embassy requires Koreans to turn over all the financial records of their parents. If the daughter (or son) wants to visit the U.S. then the parents have to submit to an amount of financial paperwork that would make an IRS auditor blush. Or they could just bribe someone (about $10,000) to grant the visa. Several of these cases came to light while I was in Korea. One case even led to hundreds of Koreans having their student visas revoked, forcing them to drop out of college and return home.
 If you think bankers have great hours you should get an embassy job - basically 10 to 12 and then 2 to 3:30 or some such ridiculousness. Plus every imaginable holiday off and even lighter hours on Wednesday. So I’m sure stress and overwork must have been a big contributing factor to their churlishness and ineptitude.
 The channel was free to show almost anything shown on American TV except for one, rather interesting, exception - no M*A*S*H! It turns out that Koreans totally revile the program for portraying them (when they’re shown at all) as a poor, backward, American GI dependant bunch of refugee peasants.
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