Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Heart to Heart

I would like to start this post with a quote from the recent New Yorker about a column regarding the Chilean miners that were recently rescued. It was written by Adam Gopnik. As we all know the miners spent a long time down there and their story could have been grim. The article speaks to how their story is one of the more "warmer" ones out there. After coming home and thinking about what happened today this article sprang to mind. Here is the part I feel most connected with:
The men can say now "At least I'm not trapped down at the bottom of a mine." Certainly, veterans of war suffer, but many also shine with the quiet feeling that, from now on, life can never get quiet enough. People are trapped by circumstances; other people help them. There is a way out. Since this is the fable that every life hopes to trace, maybe the madness isn't so mad at all.
For the past 2.5 years here in Korea I have felt trapped by my circumstances. What am I speaking about? Finding myself having a difficult time working with Korean people. Ever since I got to Korea and had a hard time at the hagwon, it felt like I had been fighting an endless fight. I know that my actions at the hagwon led to my coworkers reacting the way they did. I left there never making amends. The problems I developed there carried with me to the next school and the next. My casual and cold attitude is not palatable to Korean tastes.

For the longest time I always felt it was a battle I needed to win. That I needed to somehow change them and by my indifferent ways that could be achieved. But we all know that didn't work and indeed got me into a lot of trouble. At some point I either needed to realize that I was wrong and should learn things or pack up and return home. However, I did learn and have realized many important things.

Let's zoom into what happened today. I have been asking my coteacher (Mr. J) for a reference letter. I got one from my last school when I left and so figured it wouldn't be a problem here. I even showed him the one I have from last year. This was about a month ago and so recently I reminded him about it.

This morning I got a text message on my computer from him stating he was sorry but the Principal made the decision not to give it to me. I became alarmed and worried. But not because I couldn't get this document mostly because the Principal was refusing to do it. I inquired and pushed for an explanation. This was before classes started and we couldn't talk much about it.

Then came the after lunch time. I inquired about it again with the youngest coteacher (Miss. K or as I have called her in the past the "princess"). What started as a civil conversation ended up into one about the past. She was being polite and things weren't getting harsh. But I was trying to defend my situation, that no one gave me the chance to listen to my perspective when things were bad. Then Mrs. W (the middle coteacher, older) came in.

She basically vented everything she ever wanted to say to me since the beginning. I realized through it that I had to just let her talk, which she did. Again I tried to point out to her that I was never really given a chance to explain myself. That I would have liked to talk to them but I realized it was hopeless and gave up.

But time was running out and I had to go teach my afterschool class. As I left the office I was in mild tears. I told Mrs. W (now Mr. J and Miss. K were out of the office) that I was deeply sorry for the burden I had caused her. That I always wanted to talk about it and meet eye to eye, but that I was scared and realized it was too late. I went to class.

At that point I felt inside the usual feeling that I get when I am in this situation. That feeling of being trapped and wanting to run away from it all. To run out of the school crying and head home. Of course I didn't do this and actually suppressed it. But there I was trapped in my own cave that I had created seeing the darkness close in around me. (Okay maybe too dramatic)

Did I think I would be able to come out of it in peace? No. 

After class I came back to the office and my face showed I was distraught. Mr. J saw this and said "Let's go for a walk." We found a bench near the school that was off the path. He told me that he needed to know that I knew that everywhere in Korea is the same. I told him I knew this and understood. I confided in him about what happened with Mrs. K and that is why I had given up any hope of relationship building. He didn't say much but I warmed things up by saying thank you and that I didn't mind about not getting the letter. We agreed that a school certificate will work just fine.

Then we were back at the office. I sent Miss. K an endearing text-letter apologizing and giving praise to her help in the office. She liked it and I sent her hope that we can move past this.

Sometime after that Mrs.W asked to talk with me. We did so in the office and over a cup of tea. It turned out to be a real heart to heart talk. She expressed to me the things she understood and were sorry for as did I. Our talk was significant because it got me out of my cave. It helped me see the light, sort of speak, and understand in a true way her side of the story. In the end, I feel closer to her and that our bad past has been amended.

For the longest time I have felt that I had to always defend the "foreigner" fort and stand up for what I thought was right treatment. Sure there are some cases of actual mistreatment, but I think I let it go to my head.

"There is a way out." It begins with opening up and and letting go. I have found my way out of the cave I built around myself and it feels good. I can't guarantee that at my next job things will go peachy but I know now really where to start and what to do.

For those not in Korea yet and are considering coming over bear this in mind. Not everyone has this experience like I had. You will find yourself facing cultural and personal differences when working with Korean people but what happens next depends on your personality.

Also bear in mind that we would like to think that the technical aspects of the job matter most. I am talking about how we teach class, the materials we make and lesson planning. Sure you can do a great job at this but if you suck in the interpersonal department then you will end up with nothing to lean on. All I am saying is that to be considered as a "good" teacher here in Korea you have to put more emphasis on positive relationships than you do on the actual teaching part of the job. I am only speaking to public schools and likely private schools. As for University teaching I think they lean more towards your teaching capabilities.

But let me tell you it will benefit your life and your time here in Korea if you heed my message. Having a good relationship with your coteacher(s) means that they will help you and be almost like family. Even though I haven't exactly established this with any of my coteachers I can see it in other people and definitely can feel it. That is why, although I initially thought this was invasive, I see it now as an asset of Korean culture.

This was a long post and whoever read the whole thing, thank you! For those who read enough to get the point.... thank you! If anything in here was of actual help to anyone else...well...good luck! If my grammar sucked again...sorry!

The madness is over.


  1. Hi there, Joy. THanks for writing out this confessional... it's cathartic to share, isn't it?

    However, I'll have to disagree with your suggestion that maybe universities focus on your teaching capabilities alone: fact is, after teaching at a university, I can say that it's important to be in people's good graces, and to put in the time going to the office dinners and fraternizing with the coworkers at university as well. Having serious problems with staff or administrators there can submarine you just as much as making enemies in the staff room will at a public school: I've known some really, really excellent teachers who have been thrown under the bus, even at top universities, because they rubbed the wrong person, the wrong way.

    One of the main things my interviewers were looking for when I applied for uni jobs, was the ability to fit in, and be a team player. I don't think you'll be able to get away from that in Korea; however, at institutions (be they hagwons or universities or whatever) where there are a lot of other foreigners working, at least those people will go about forming those relationships in a way that's more familiar, and the cultural gap won't seem so gaping.

  2. Thank you Rob. I wasn't sure and was just taking a guess. Certainly I was off target!

    It's Korean culture...and well we are in Korea. Probably can't hide from it anywhere here. Thankfully I can say I that I feel more comfortable with it more than ever.

  3. There is always going to be highs and lows in any job, but a positive attitude and an open mind goes a long way, especially when you are the "foreigner."

    Doesn't letting go feel good? Holding it in, having a grudge just leads to madness, and in the end nothing good comes out of it. You are getting closer to finding your place here, with each lesson you learn.

    I'm glad you sorted things out with you co's because that's what you need to end things well and make a new/fresh start once you leave. Having a chip on your shoulder over things that cannot be changed won't do you any good. Forgive, be forgive, learn, and move on.

    Which you are doing:)

  4. Whew!
    It's the same teaching in the U.S. or at any other job in any other field I've worked in. Getting along, collaborating, cooperating,with co-workers, superiors, being pleasant and cheerful, helpful AND at times
    "playing the appropriate game" w/the appropriate be that team player! And don't kid yourself, politics of this nature especially at the University level where I've taught was mind blowing....well for that matter at the middle school & HS, also oh yeah & at that Museum in get it?!!!!!
    This is the way of the world.....something I think you're finally getting a grip on....learning to get along w/others means getting out of one's own way in many different ways!
    I think, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" may be a truism to say the least!
    & xxxx oooo

  5. I kind of know how you feel ... I've had two hagwon jobs in Korea, and at both jobs there were Korean staff that didn't like me, although they liked some of the other foreign teachers. I'm a shy person which comes across as being unfriendly, unfortunately. I have to get to know people before warming up to them ... it's something I am constantly working on. At my last hagwon I had a good relationship with my co-teacher but the other teachers were not fond of me, to put it mildly.

  6. Thanks everyone. I feel I am ready to take on whatever is next and even see it all as a positive challenge.

  7. I feel ya. It's a hard lesson to learn and I, myself, wish that I had learned it before working at a local Korean company for six months. Right after they laid me off I spent months blaming them for refusing to try and meet me halfway, and it took me a long time to realize that as the sole foreigner in the office, I should have pushed harder to see things their way. Instead, I spent most of my time fighting the system and trying to get someone, anyone, to see things my way.

    That being said, I now work at an office that functions on two levels. Koreans follow Korean business culture while the foreign workers follow a more Western culture. (i.e. No 'team building' for us.) It's a bit odd, but somehow it works and has been working years before I joined the staff. It's nice to not have the pressure to follow the Korean way, but I know that my co-workers and I now make more of an attempt to adapt to the culture. And my co-workers are more than willing to answer questions about it when I have them, since most of them are kyopo and had to learn it themselves not too long ago.

    Regardless, it's a great learning experience, albeit sometimes a slow and hard one. ^_^


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