Life in Korea: when the dark side sucks you in

January was a unmitigated disaster. Let’s just get that out of the way from the start.

No question about it, living a life that is 50% isolation and 50% drinking away your money in a bar is not good for the mind, body or soul. I’ve seen myself go from a happy and fulfilled person to someone who is apparently hell-bent on self-destruction. There have even been warnings from concerned friends, but I largely ignored them, continuing to make The Local my entire social life, drinking far too much, getting horrible crushes on men who are either not interested or entirely wrong for me (or both), and dragging myself miserably through the working week with the sole aim of making it to the weekend and doing it all again.

It was only during the latest of many recent all-nighters, when the sun had already been up for several hours and I was still sitting in the bar with the usual suspects, unwilling as ever to go home, that I realised this was really, truly not the direction my life should be going. Things were as messy and undignified as you might expect when a group of 6 people have been sitting in a bar all night and day. For the first time I stepped outside of my blinkered, defiant, “I’m having FUNNNNNNN!” mentality and saw how pathetic the scene was. It’s not me. Maybe once in a blue moon, sure, but not every moment of my free time. It started being unhealthy the second I stopped wanting to do anything else.

I have noticed that the ESL teacher life in Korea does this to quite a lot of people. For some reason, partying becomes a lifestyle, not something you do every now and then for fun. I never really understood it before, having had quite a balanced life of work, play, study, and quiet time, but somewhere around the departure of my friend/colleague, the increasing loneliness at work, and the discovery that the companionship and familiarity I sought could be found in abundance at The Local… well, it happened to me, too.

Maybe it’s a mid(-ish!)-life crisis as I try to figure out where I’m going and what I’m doing. But it occurs to me that I’m probably not going to figure any of it out any quicker by letting this slump become my life, so… I quit.

February will be 100% alcohol-free in order to clear my mind and regain control, and this hopeless floundering will stop.

I am going to spend the month cleaning and organising in all areas of my life (starting, this week, with the disaster zones that are my apartment and classroom).

I’m going to learn to love my own company again instead of being reluctant to go home.

I’m going to sign up for more of the French lessons I stopped several months ago, and I’m going to spend a portion of time each evening doing something for my brain – studying, writing, reading.

I’m going to start cooking proper meals for myself again instead of just pouring water in a bowl of dried ramen or toasting a slice of bread.

I’m going to exercise and get enough sleep.

And above all, I’m going to think long and hard about what I want… and about how to get it. I’m going to figure out what my goals are, and stop this aimless drifting. I’m going to continue to see the therapist I met with last week for the first time, who is – I hope – going to help me with the figuring out process. I know an awful lot of people who’ve benefitted from counselling or therapy in the past and speak positively of their experiences. I think it may be my turn. ;)

Of course, I’ll still go to The Local. I’ll go out for Italian Friend’s birthday next weekend. I’ll go watch the Six Nations rugby matches (unfortunately being shown in the middle of the night here) – just not all of them. But I will not be treating that bar like it’s my home any more, and I will be drinking juice, acting my age, and leaving when it’s time to leave.

This was a hard post for me to write. No one likes to admit they’ve messed up or taken wrong turns, made poor decisions, behaved in a way they’re ashamed of. But I needed to get it out and write it down, and that’s why I started this blog in the first place, I suppose. It’s always had its cathartic moments!

Yes, it’s time to grow up just a little bit, methinks. January was, indeed, a disaster.

February will be better.

Every meal is an adventure.

Yeah, I’m really not wild about octopus heads, guys, mused a friend of mine last Saturday afternoon as – still in Friday night’s clothes – we groaned our way through a somewhat hungover breakfast at her local Korean restaurant.

Such comments are perfectly commonplace in my life these days, and yet I still find them most amusing, if only as a reminder of how vastly different my life is now compared with how it once was. Once upon a time, my mum would help/look on disapprovingly as my friends and I got up late on a Saturday morning and feebly attempted to make coffee and scrambled eggs whilst inevitably destroying the kitchen. Or I’d go to a student bar in Glasgow and do some companionable dying over greasy burgers and chips and a hair-of-the-dog pint. The fact that, last weekend, this was my ‘morning after the night before’ breakfast…

…should demonstrate how much things have changed. Meanwhile, one friend was picking octopus heads off her plate while the other was providing amusing English dubbing for the Korean soap opera blaring from the TV in the corner.

And yet I must say that I continue to surprise myself with my changing tastes. I was amazed to find myself eating and vaguely enjoying plain old seaweed soup a few weeks ago at school, and have continued to eat it each time it’s been served since then – until now, it has been the only soup I have left generally untouched every time, aside from the polite few sips of broth at the start. I think that the only things remaining on my once extensive list of ‘things on the school lunch table that I absolutely will not touch’ are the tiny little dried fish that stare up at me in their hundreds from the side dish bowls. I have never even tried one. I can’t. I just can’t eat something that is looking at me. Everything else, however, is now perfectly acceptable, regardless of whether it did at one point make me retch.

Outside of work, I have been trying to branch out in terms of trying new foods, having fallen into a bit of a hopeless but ultimately delicious kimchi rut. To my great delight, a little takeaway place opened up right across the road from my apartment a few months ago, and I have made a promise to myself that I will not order the same thing twice until I have tried absolutely everything on the menu, bar intestines or horrible fishy things. These places serve good, hearty, generally healthy Korean food out of questionable but apparently safe kitchens, and are much cheaper than cooking the meal for yourself. To date, this is the only country in which I have found this to be true!

So anyway, I’ve been calling in once or twice a week on the way home from work after scrutinising the menu outside the steamed-up windows and taking an educated guess at what something may or may not turn out to be. I have been rewarded with a selection of tasty noodle dishes, stews, and stir-fries, all of which have hit the spot. Of course, this haphazard, devil-may-care attitude towards ordering one’s dinner is bound to end in disaster at some point, and that point was reached this evening when I ordered what I thought was a Chinese-Korean fusion dish involving mushrooms. I sat down on my usual rickety stool inside and idly decided to Google the dish on my phone as I waited for it to be brought to me. I gazed dismally at the screen when the Google image results showed me a little preview of what I would soon be throwing in the kitchen bin. Yes, it was a noodle soup, and yes, it certainly contained a lot of various kinds of mushrooms, but unfortunately all of this was overshadowed by the alarmingly overwhelming presence of seafood in all its glorious shapes and sizes. I really fecking hate seafood, by the way.

There was nothing I could do but reluctantly accept the food container when it was brought to me, hand over my money, and trudge home with a growling stomach, silently hating the meal in my hand. When I opened it up just to check, all my worst fears were confirmed.

Still, it didn’t smell overpoweringly fishy, and the broth actually looked quite nice, so I took a sip of it. It was fabulous, so I looked suspiciously at everything else and had a mouthful of noodles and a piece of mushroom. So far, so good. Well, what the hell. Clearly I was living on the edge. I picked up a curly and unidentifiable part of a sea creature and chewed tentatively on it. It wasn’t bad, actually. Then I had a prawn… and another chewy thing… and something out of a shell… damn it, I even ate a baby octopus or five…

…and good grief, if I didn’t finish that whole bowl and drink every last drop of the soup, hot spice-induced tears running down my cheeks. I do not know how this happened, readers, but somehow I have ordered, eaten, and enjoyed a seafood dish. Not only that, but I will most likely order it again.

Well… when I’ve tried everything else on that menu, of course. :)

Seriously, think about it.

I honestly don’t know what I find more frustrating.

Is it the fact that you can spend entire lessons teaching a specific sentence structure or grammar point and there will always be one or two students who clearly have not listened to a single word, as is nicely illustrated when they hand in their homework or show you their workbook exercises? Or is it that their other teachers seem to have just as little understanding of the topic as they do?

All correct, good job!

Honestly, sometimes I just put my head in my hands and gurgle insensibly to myself at my desk.

The above is a page of homework marked by my Korean colleague. We share the class and take turns at marking the homework exercises, which are always simple and designed to practice a point taught in a recent lesson. They are even given the sample sentences and sentence starters to show them exactly what to do. It is not difficult, and any child who has listened in class and made the slightest of efforts has no problems completing the work correctly.

Most of them do, of course, but occasionally you’ll find something like the above picture, as I did today when I was flicking through to the most recent page to do my share of the marking. I said a few incredulous and not-terribly-complimentary words, shaking my head in disbelief, before turning to the next page to take my turn at marking.

What does this MEAN?!!

Oh, and the sentence structure being practiced here, for your information, was “_______s are insects. They are _________er than _______s.” The example given was “Butterflies are insects. They are prettier than beetles.”

To be fair, I may have taken my frustration at my colleague out on the student somewhat, but really. This kind of thing is probably why there are even native speaking English teachers who don’t know the difference between your and you’re, or its and it’s, or is and are… did their teachers just let them get away with it?

It has been a while since I had a grammar-related rant, but GOOD GRIEF this is annoying!! If you’re going to teach, teach properly and don’t tell a child that sentences like the ones in these pictures are correct! The whole thing makes my mind boggle and my blood boil.

I despair at what the English language is becoming back home, and I know it stands to reason that it can only be worse in a country where it’s a second language – and a very different language, at that. Not on my watch, though. I mean, of course a teacher has to be patient and forgiving and understanding of mistakes. I am all these things, most of the time, I swear (!), but this level of carelessness on the part of both teachers and students drives me up the bloody walls.

It needs to stop now or i is mad go run than his eat leaf. Or something.

Friday the 13th

Having sat up talking to my best friend back home until after 4 o’clock this morning, I once again wanted the world to end when the alarm went off a few hours later. I really am not a very sensible person, these days.

Still, I crawled out of bed – spilling a forgotten glass of orange juice all over the floor and a never-again-to-be-white shirt that happened to be reposing there – and stumbled blearily to the coffee machine. New filter… water in… open coffee bag… scream in terror as multi-legged creepy-crawly thing runs out of said coffee bag… not a good start to the day. Not a good start at all.

One dead insect and no coffee later, I made it to the shower, where I became increasingly confused about the sliminess and lack of lather of my shampoo. Realised it was in fact conditioner. Rinsed, located shampoo, repeated process, slipped on floor, fell over, got some kind of whiplash rendering me incapable of turning my head for the rest of the day. Excellent.

My wet hair froze on the way to work and then turned into a limp and soggy mess when I went into the sauna-like school, where my director informed me I’ll be getting an extra class soon (goodbye, sweet lesson planning time!) and inquired as to why there was a sock stuck to the back of my jeans.

Hastily removed sock.

When I switched on the light in my classroom, chaos met my eyes. Groaning sleepily, I began a half-hearted clean-up operation, picking up one of the bags of macaroni from a craft earlier in the week. Did not realise said bag was torn all the way down the side. Watched in dismay as huge and dramatic torrent of miniature pasta pieces cascaded in slow motion all over the classroom, miraculously covering every square inch of the floor.

Spent entire morning caffeine ingestion time sweeping up macaroni and swearing a lot.

Classroom finally under control, I fetched the lesson plan I meticulously prepared yesterday. Or rather, I would’ve fetched it, had it still been on my desk where I left it, which it was not. A frantic search and much more swearing later, I could only conclude that I had – in a moment of outstanding genius – thrown it away.

Frantically re-planned lesson in two minutes. But only after waiting for the computer to start up again, because it crashed and died the second I started typing.

When I left the classroom to go to my first class, I was somewhat startled to trip over ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in the corridor, going over on my ankle and twisting it so badly I could hardly get down the stairs. For FECK sake!!!! I howled in anguish. Except that I didn’t say “feck”, per se, and when the pain subsided I became suddenly aware of 3 small children gazing at me in wonder. Major kindergarten teacher fail.

Hello, everyone! I said – with cheeriness that was by now worthy of an Oscar – as I limped into the classroom with my mad hair and dark-circled caffeine-deprived eyes and impromptu lesson plan, dislodging a piece of macaroni from my sock. HAYLEY TEACHERRRRRRRRRRRR!!! squealed a child who had apparently forgotten that he’d seen me only the day before and was overcome with unbelievable excitement as he hurtled toward me and drove his surprisingly hard and bullet-like head into my unsuspecting stomach.

Fought the urge to cry hysterically.

I swear, I lurched through the day in this manner, from one accident or disaster or embarrassment to the next. I started to become extremely paranoid that the universe was trying to take me down. I only became aware of the date at 5pm, just after the only boy in my fourth grade class, with a loud “Teacher, what’s this?” produced a tampon that had apparently decided to jump out of my handbag and land on the floor beside him.

I am not a superstitious girl in the slightest, but seriously… what was all that about? Hmm? HMM?

I am going to bed.

Isolation…

…is not good for me.

It’s not on a lemon tree, though – it’s in my classroom. While work is (as my last post described) an absolute joy at the moment, the periods between classes are becoming difficult for me.

I’m alone.

I don’t mean in general – I have the best friends I could ever have hoped to find, and I spend as much of my spare time as possible with them. My social life has never been fuller or more fun. There’s always a chat ongoing with someone on my phone chat apps, and I can stay connected with what’s going on with friends near and far through Facebook. In general, I am far from lonely.

In school, however, relationships with my colleagues have been steadily deteriorating over the past 6 months or so. Terri – one of the very best friends I have ever had in my life – went back to South Africa in August, and her absence changed the very atmosphere of the school. Particularly for me. Suddenly, my friend was gone and I had no one to chat to during coffee breaks, no one to saunter home with after work and maybe go get some dinner down the road, no one to share jokes and secrets with, no one to vent to when things got stressful, no one to hug in times of sadness or joy.

My other foreigner colleagues? They get on better with each other than they do with me. They’re from the same country, they share interests and tastes, they have similar senses of humour and personalities, and they have gradually formed a friendship that I’m not a part of. We’re just not alike. Which is fine – not everyone can be friends! I was lucky to have Terri while she was here, as finding a colleague who can also be a close friend is quite a special thing. But now she’s gone, and I miss her more than I know how to express.

Not only that, but I didn’t realise until she left just how much she helped me to interact with all the other teachers, too – drawing me out of myself and away from my tendency to sit quietly at the lunch table or shut myself in my classroom. My friends bring me out of my shell. As Terri’s friend, I was a chatty and sociable staff member, and perhaps even a popular one. Now I’m well and truly on my own, while the two more entertaining and outgoing personalities are hugely popular with all the rest of our colleagues.

I just realised today that I have gone for two whole days without a conversation with anyone. It’s not anyone’s fault, and certainly no one’s being unkind to me – I’m not a downtrodden victim or anything! I’m just not one of them any more. And I suppose I’m a little sad about that.

But as I said in my last post, not everything can be wonderful all the time. I do have a job I love, I am surrounded by incredible children who make me laugh and smile every single day, and on the weekends I have some pretty amazing friends who will laugh with me, cry with me, dance with me, sing with me, and sit chatting all through the night with me. That’s more than many people could hope to have!

I’m just missing my friend, that’s all. It’s an Eeyore day. Sometimes I need to write about those, too.

Mine

I’m now in charge of the school’s latest endeavour – an after-school club for a dozen kindergarteners who can’t go home at 3 with the others, and whose parents are presumably willing to shell out a bit extra for another hour of babysitting combined with English. As it meant I had two of my small but intensive three-times-a-week elementary classes taken off my hands, I was all for this project, and sat down full of enthusiasm to discuss it with the director. Which books do I need to use? What do you want me to teach?

It was then, ladies and gentlemen, that I reached another milestone in this tentative teaching career of mine. One of those magical moments that make me return to my classroom and silently punch the air in triumph while grinning like the old Cheshire cat. Jennifer passed me a couple of books and said, You can have a look at these and use ideas from them. Or we can order books for the kids if you want. But it’s your class – you know them, and I want you to do whatever you think will work best for them. 

OK, I said uncertainly, used to being pressed to finish course books on time, but how long do I have to finish a book?

She shook her head, laughing. It is your class, she said. You do it your own way. You’re the teacher. 

This may not sound like much, but good grief, I was walking on air for about a week afterwards. Having a job where you’re allowed to give your opinion, have your ideas taken on board, and eventually be set free to do it all your own way… that’s just not something I’ve ever had before. And of course it works out well for everyone, because when management lets go and trusts you, you tend to want to prove that they were right to do so – which is why I’m probably working harder now that I have for months. For every 40 minute lesson, I’ve planned for between one and three hours. And guess what? They have been my most successful and fun classes to date. I’m excited and happy ∴ the kids are excited and happy. Maybe my director is more shrewd than I first suspected. :)

I can’t see myself ever getting tired of this teaching thing, you know. I love it. I really, really love it! Every day is different, and full of fresh challenges and new ideas and opportunities to be creative. I can bring my own personality to work with me, and make it work for me. I can pick myself up after a class fails, learn from it, and do it differently next time – and I can enjoy the laughter and chatter in English that means it’s going well. I can exchange stories and tips with friends who have different strengths from my own, such as Irish Friend One’s recent advice that has very effectively and easily turned around the struggles I’d been having with classroom discipline. I can get to know my students individually, and learn what will and won’t work for them. And now, with my newfound freedom, I can abolish grammar books and worksheets for a little while each day and teach 6-year-olds the way I believe they should be taught – with stories, games, activities, art projects, and lots of giggles.

Oh, and I’ve disabled comments on this post, because I don’t want it to seem like a self-congratulatory, fishing-for-compliments type of thing. I know I’m not even a qualified teacher, and I’m constantly learning from my colleagues and my friends. But y’know, life is not all plain sailing, and even when you move to the other side of the world, you still have problems – emotions, arguments, complicated situations, angst, personal drama, sadness, yadda yadda yadda. I’m generally happy, of course, but… well, you know. So at a time when I’ve been having a lot of serious self-doubt in other areas of my life, it just felt good to write about and be happy about the part that’s going really, really well right now. So, no… not a desire for a lot of “Well done, Hails, you teaching genius, you!” feedback.

No. This one was just for me. :)