Time to dye-it?

“Uh, yes, so…” begins my director, “we’ll have a meeting tomorrow to confirm everything, but you’ll be teaching 6 extra classes, working an extra hour each day, and designing the programme for the new first graders. Also, you are now the only teacher of your 5th grade class, so you’ll have to call their parents regularly and keep them up to date with progress or problems. You’ll need to set homework every few days for all your elementary students, and mark it in time for your next class with them. Oh, and your kindergarten classroom is the one on the second floor, please set up levels 4, 6, and 9. Level 9 has not arrived yet, it will come on Friday, so you will have to learn all the material at the weekend so you can teach it on Monday. Please give me a list of the materials you need for all art classes in March, and email me the worksheets you will use for your weekly beginner class. And (brief pause and glance around) you must clean this room as well. But not now, because the parents of your new students are coming in to pick up uniforms and you need to come and meet them.”

I look up icily at her from my desk, over my first coffee of the day, trying not to state the obvious (1- that I am clearly in the middle of the 2-day process of cleaning the classroom, hence the empty shelves and the contents in various piles all over the place, and 2- that I very obviously did not receive a substantial enough pay rise this year). “Fine,” I reply brightly. “OH!” she says, staring down intently at my head. She peers more closely at me. “Oh, so many white hairs!” she tells me in a shocked voice. “I never really looked up close before.”

“Let’s go meet the parents,” I suggest before I shake her till her teeth rattle for having the audacity to point out that I’m going grey after heaping enough pressure on me to finish off the greying process by the end of next week. We go downstairs.

“Have you seen Hayley’s head?” asks Jennifer cheerfully, as we encounter my colleagues lingering in the entrance hall. “So many white hairs! Look!” I am powerless to do anything as I am surrounded by ooh-ing colleagues who then proceed to pluck the grey hairs from my head as I stand there meekly with my head bowed, like a sheep being shorn. There are now so many grey hairs that I fear they may be in danger of leaving a bald spot, but they assure me that the grey is evenly distributed across my entire head, which is always comforting to know. “Beauty is painful,” says Sarky Teacher sternly when I emit a feeble “Ow!”.

I will be glad when the kids come back to school…

OK, cool…

Say what you want about the trials and frustrations of working in a foreign culture, but it has done something very important and useful for me. It has made me almost blasé about sudden changes of plan or last-minute information that I would once have expected to receive several weeks in advance.

It drove me absolutely insane when I first got here. I wanted to hit people, seriously! Or at the very least, I wanted to throw childish tantrums and stomp my feet and pound my fists. Or cry. I remember slamming a door violently on at least one occasion, and secretly crying angry, frustrated tears on another. The lack of communication has not changed, and I have come to realise that it won’t, ever. It’s just a difference. A big, confusing, maddening difference (to both sides), but no one’s fault.

So, I suppose I must – at some point – have decided to just accept it, get used to it, and deal with it. It occurred to me, when I re-read that “explosion” post I linked to in the previous paragraph, that the same sort of scenario with the graduation photos is almost certain to have happened last month, but I have absolutely no recollection of feeling angry or upset. I just remember breezing in to have my photo taken at some point, and casually sticking my head into a classroom occasionally to see if I was meant to be teaching in it, or, y’know, whatever. I had no more information than I did that first year… just two years of experience, and the relative calm and unflappability that apparently comes with that. I think that’s a pretty good thing to have developed, as a previously panicky, highly-strung type! Thanks, Korea.

So anyway, on a related note, I arrived in work this morning and found myself being dragged into the office while I was still attempting to remove my shoes and earphones. Ummmm, so… said Jennifer in the way she does when she’s about to inform me of something she figures I might have liked to know quite a bit sooner, tonight you will present the graduation ceremony in English and I will translate into Korean. 

I looked at her for a moment before speaking.

WTF?!!! Arrrghhh!!! Not on your life! Why the hell are you only telling me about this now? 

That’s what I would’ve said a couple of years ago.

OK, cool, I said calmly, masterfully suppressing my fear of parents for the time being, uhhh, I’m presenting the entire ceremony? I mean, intro, awards, names, speeches… everything? 

Everything, said Jennifer, passing me a copy of the programme and script. Well, the Korean script, with the occasional sentence in English. Oh, this was going to be foolproof.

Before I’d even had time to adjust to my new reality, I found myself with a microphone in my hand, rehearsing with the director and the principal on the stage as I frantically scribbled translations. I tried my best to follow all the discussions in Korean, lest I miss out on another essential piece of information and find myself writing, choreographing and performing a solo musical number with 5 minutes’ notice.

I am extremely nervous, of course, but the main thing to note is that I received the belated, undeniably important information in the same way that I might if I were being told that we were having noodles instead of rice for lunch. That – amongst other things – is what Korea has done for me. I am very grateful to it!

You’ve got a friend in me.

Oh, help.

I can’t really write anything tonight because of all the tears, so suffice it to say that the whole saying goodbye to the kids thing doesn’t get any easier from one year to the next.

After our last lesson together, and hugs galore, two of my girls came to my classroom with a parting gift from the whole class.

They’d each written me a little goodbye note with no help from a teacher, complete with a snapshot of each one of them on their first day in my class.

In floods of tears already, I put the CD in and found myself watching a year of memories thoughtfully and painstakingly put together by the very sweet Korean homeroom teacher. So yeah. I am officially an emotional wreck tonight. I can only let you watch this by way of explanation (although the quality isn’t nearly as good after uploading, but you’ll get the idea!). It’s a gift that I will treasure forever…


When you’re a kindergarten teacher, you laugh every single day. If you don’t, you may not be doing it right!

I’ve found that it doesn’t matter what sort of mood you happen to be in, you will always be forced to laugh out loud at some point whether you thought it possible or not. You can be feeling tired, angry, sad, irritable, or just plain fed up, and still you will find yourself throwing back your head and laughing loudly.

For me, it’s usually one of two things: an amusingly unexpected observation by a sharp-witted child, or the sound of them laughing hysterically/uncontrollably. Both are capable of snapping me out of a bad mood entirely, or at least of making me temporarily forget why I was angry or annoyed. Just this morning, I was feeling irritated with my boss for springing something on me at the last minute again, and could not have felt less like watching a movie with my youngest class. I felt tired and grumpy, and foresaw half an hour of wearily repeating “Don’t speak Korean!” and pausing the action every 2 minutes to check that they understood and explain when they didn’t. Instead, I left half an hour later grinning to myself, in a cheerful mood that lasted me throughout the whole day… simply because I enjoyed the children’s delighted laughter at the movie, which really captured their imagination. Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, by the way – watch it with kids if you have the opportunity! It’s about a scientist who succeeds in making a machine that can convert water into any food of his choosing, so by programming it and launching it into the clouds, he can make it rain food. The kids were overjoyed by this idea. They listened intently, and were able to explain everything to me when I paused to check comprehension. And when they started to laugh uncontrollably, clapping their hands at the burgers and steaks and hot dogs raining from the sky, I couldn’t stay in my grumpy mood!

This afternoon, I was sitting at my desk doing some planning for my elementary school classes, when I heard giggling coming from outside my door. I ignored it at first, but it gradually became full-on hysterical laughter, and I was intrigued. I opened my door, and followed the laughter to the classroom opposite mine, where two of my youngest girls had apparently been left to catch up on some written work they’d missed when they were off sick. These girls are really smart and very sweet, and I listened as they continued with their conversation, which was so amusing to them that they just could not control their laughter. Eventually I started to laugh, too, alerting them to my presence and making everything even more hilarious to them. I only thought to record the scene towards the end, when they were calming down slightly, but it still makes me smile:

Who could fail to be happy at work when that’s the sound you can hear all around you?! Another perk of the job: laughter. Every day.

Home, sweet home.

It has occurred to me that although I’ve been living in Korea for what feels like forever now, I’ve never documented one of the biggest parts of my life here: my home.

Now, to be perfectly honest with you, this is mainly because I am a disastrous mess who generally lives in something approaching squalor. The conditions inside my miniscule apartment are really not something I want any of you to see. At any given time, you can find clothes strewn about the place in an artistically haphazard manner, a sink piled high with dishes, books and papers and pens in the most unlikely of places, coffee cups lurking where you least expect them… sorry, Mum, I have not improved since I was a teenager.

I think it’s partly down to the fact that I’m not home very much, and when I am, I tend to be exhausted and capable of nothing other than sleep. There’s also the fact that the apartments with which we young(ish), single, hagwon ESL teachers in Korea are provided are the size of your average conservatory (or perhaps laundry room) back home, and it’s very hard to keep your entire life in a room that size without it becoming cluttered and disorganised.

But the main reason is that I am indeed a messy, disorganised, chaotic and twirly kind of person. I am trying to get better. Living in a room that looks like a badly-run second-hand shop is not a particularly cheering experience. And so I have spent the past couple of weeks – Operation Pull Self Together – having a determined clear-out, dumping all unnecessary gumpf and then cleaning the emerging surfaces underneath. Section by section (as I cannot clean or tidy for more than an hour  at a time without losing my mind), my apartment has reappeared, and a few days ago I woke up in the morning to the realisation that it was, at last, a home again. It’s amazing how much more enjoyable you can find simple things like reading a book or drinking a cup of coffee or cooking a meal when you’re doing them in a nice, clean, tidy apartment where you don’t trip over things every few seconds!

Anyway, I’d better take some pictures and show you the inside of a typical foreign teacher’s apartment in Korea before my messy genes kick in again and everything inevitably descends into chaos once more.

All of us have this little “entrance square” (it would be completely misleading to use the word “hall”), which is where shoes must be removed upon arrival. You can’t wear outdoor footwear indoors. The first thing that now jumps out at me from photos taken inside friends’ places back home is that they’re wearing shoes in the house. I looked at one friend’s picture of his wife holding their new baby the other day and all I could think was “she is sitting on the sofa wearing her shoes!” as if it was the most astonishing thing imaginable. Funny how you get used to cultural differences.

This is my room. When I say my “room”, I mean that it is my bedroom, my living room, my guest room, my dining room, and my office.

Please note that I did not decorate or furnish this apartment!

It also – quite bizarrely – contains a fridge and toaster oven because there’s no space for such luxuries in the “kitchen”.

Wardrobe… check! Fridge… check!

I say “kitchen”, but it’s really more of a cupboard with a sink in it, and a couple of gas burner rings. If I could change one thing about my home, it would be the kitchen. I miss my huge kitchen from my house in Ballymena, with its many work surfaces and proper oven and stove and dishwasher and cupboards and table and chairs… but you can’t have everything, I suppose!

This is the bathroom, and it’s fairly typical of ‘bath’rooms over here in that it contains no bath whatsoever.

And yes, that would be the shower over the sink, there:

No room for cubicles and curtains in these apartments! No, simply switch the water flow from the tap to the shower, and wash while holding the shower head in your hand. This does mean that your entire bathroom gets soaked every time you shower. Most people keep waterproof  ‘bathroom slippers’ inside for this reason, but as I generally shower in the morning and don’t return home for over 8 hours, I’ve never bothered. I really don’t mind the wet room/handheld shower thing as much as a lot of people seem to. And anyway, it’s easy to keep the bathroom clean when you can quickly hose it all down at the end of your daily shower! The only annoying thing is when you forget to switch the water flow back from shower to tap, and then turn it on to brush your teeth or wash your hands, usually while fully clothed. This happens with surprising regularity even after all this time (including just before I took those pictures, hence the water all over the mirror).

And so you have it:  my home. It’s small, but it’s fine… for now! Things I miss include kitchen space, a dishwasher, powerful water pressure in the shower, windows, and space to entertain. But on the other hand, it’s free, it’s big enough for me to live comfortably, it’s fairly modern and clean, and it’s five minutes from work.

Oh, and it’s in South Korea, for crying out loud! :)

I did a very bad thing

I am a guilty person.

It’s not the sort of guilt that means I should rightfully be in prison. It’s more the kind that has me feeling bad about the slightest little things on a daily basis: a careless comment that I worry might have hurt someone’s feelings; a white lie that I fear will give the wrong impression if uncovered; a thoughtless action that I’m scared has made another person think badly of me. I still feel almost unbearable guilt for helping my dad to drown a rat when I was about 14… I swear I can hear the wretched thing’s squeals in my ears when I think about it. I feel guilty to the point of tears when I think of the incidences when I’ve made a child at school cry. You get the idea. I have a permanently guilty conscience, and often cause myself sleepless nights of torment over things that the potentially offended party probably never even noticed.

This time, though, I really did do a very bad thing. And they say confession is good for the soul, so here it is…

Having had a very busy couple of days at work, it completely slipped my mind to book my train ticket to my now weekly appointment. I need to book in advance as I travel at rush hour, straight after work, and all the trains are sold out. I didn’t realise my oversight until I was in the taxi to the station yesterday, running late, and after some whispered cursing and frantic attempts to find a ticket on the website using my phone, I resigned myself to going to the desk and pleading pathetically in the hope that they’d let me on to a sold out train (this has actually worked in the past – you have to look vey lost and scared and confused and foreign. Fortunately I am good at that, through years of genuine experience!).

Unfortunately, the taxi then got stuck in traffic, resulting in me arriving at the station a mere 4 minutes before the departure of the last train I could take in order to make my appointment. I wouldn’t have time to queue at the desk. And if I missed my appointment they’d charge me for it anyway, without the required 24 hours notice… and it’s a lot of money, let me tell you!

I ran full-pelt to the station doors, having an internal debate. 2 minutes to departure.

I looked at the ticket queue, which was approximately 6 miles long. I ran past it. 1 minute till departure.

Oh, shut up! I said desperately to my conscience as I hurtled down the steps and launched myself across the platform and into the train seconds before the whistle blew and the doors swung shut.

I was a criminal. An illegal stowaway, dodging my 22,000 won fare. I stood nervously in the between-carriages area; wondering what to do. I wanted to find a ticket inspector and explain, and pay, but I was scared of the consequences. A big fine? Or worse, a big scene, with a non-English-speaking inspector and a load of Koreans staring at the cheating foreigner in disgust? Oh, lord, I’d have to fling myself out of the window to my certain death if that happened.

I stood there in mounting anxiety for several decades until I saw a ticket inspector at the far end of the carriage in front of me, and I turned and fled into the one behind me, striding purposefully as if I was in a hurry to go to the toilet.

The toilet!!!! What a brainwave. I hastily slipped into the first one I came to, bolted the door, and looked at myself in the mirror. I looked like a murderer on the run from the cops. I felt like it, too. Why hadn’t I just swallowed the fear of an embarrassing scene and gone straight to a ticket inspector to pay? Now I was a bloody criminal hiding in a toilet cubicle, and it was far too late to confess to having no ticket without it being obvious that I’d been trying to get away with it.

And so it came to pass that I spent the entire hour-long journey going from one toilet cubicle to the next in desperate avoidance of train staff. It was like being in some sort of sitcom farce except it wasn’t at all funny and I just wanted to go back in time and pay the huge cancellation fee for my missed appointment rather than endure the fear and anxiety.

After what seemed like a lifetime, the train pulled into the station and I almost fell out on to the platform, so anxious was I to flee the scene of my terrible, terrible crime.

Bad person, bad person, bad person, chanted my guilt to the rhythm of my footsteps as I jogged up the stairs.

Dishonest, dishonest, dishonest, it added to the beat of a train chugging into the station.

You suck, you suck, you suck, it jeered to the melody of the music I put on to try and drown it out.

Honestly, I nearly went up to the desk to confess that I’d arrived there as a fugitive, and ask them to take my 22,000 won for the sake of my sanity. All that stopped me was the fear of an embarrassing scene (or, y’know, arrest and death by beheading or dismemberment). I left the station and headed for the subway, feeling like every single person was looking at me with contempt, silently judging me. The guilt was about to crush my brain into smithereens. It was so bad that when a homeless man stretched out his hands to me, I fumbled frantically in my bag and reached him the first note I found instead of spare change – anything to appease that infernal guilt. Only when he looked at me in surprise did I realise I’d given him 5000 won instead of 1000, but I just smiled at him as if I’d meant to do it, and felt marginally better. Then I saw possible redemption.

I turned back and distributed the remaining 17,000 of my unpaid ticket fare amongst the homeless man’s also-homeless buddies. Not because I am a selfless and generous soul, you understand, but because I needed to do something to prove to the universe that I wanted to make up for my dishonesty. I actually tend to disagree with giving money to beggars, preferring to give them food or buy a Big Issue or something rather than fund their addiction problems. But, as my guilt reasoned with me, the money wasn’t mine. It belonged to the rail company, and they were bound to prefer that it was spent by homeless people on soju and cigarettes than remain in the pocket of a cheating thief.

That, my friends, was my first and last illegal train journey. Never, never again. I’m telling you: criminals must be seriously stressed-out people living in constant mental anguish. Either that or I’m a bit neurotic. But that can’t be it…

I love you like an octopus

Warning: total sentimentality overload.

It’s no secret that I love Dr. Seuss. I mean, how could anyone not?

I use his books often as a way of introducing my kindergarteners to English spoken more quickly than we normally talk to them, as you kind of have to read the stories quickly in order to hear and appreciate the rhythm and rhyme. The children may not be able to follow all the words, but the pictures and beat keep them focused while their brains pick out the words that they recognise and help them to understand what’s going on.

Anyway, last week, with the help of The Cat in the Hat and The Foot Book, I attempted to draw their attention to the rhyming words. They didn’t quite understand what I was trying to show them, so I didn’t force the issue. I just let the Mighty Seuss plant the seed, and have been surreptitiously dropping sneaky rhymes into lessons at every opportunity since then. Look at your book. Ohhh, look rhymes with book! … See you later, alligator! … Okey-dokey!

One of the best things I’ve learned in this job is that children are magical little sponges who soak up absolutely everything that goes on around them. One little boy in my 2nd year kindergarten class didn’t speak a word of English for his entire first year, and everyone had assumed he didn’t understand what was going on around him. He was well-behaved and quiet, and just sat there, day after day, listening to the songs and stories, watching the movies, observing his friends doing the action activities. He answered questions with a shrug or a blank stare. Then, one day last summer, I rewarded the class for good behaviour by giving them all a lollipop and letting them dance to their favourite song. I patted his head as he continued to sit quietly while the others bounded to their feet in excitement. He looked up at me with his usual serious expression, and then said in a clear voice: Teacher, thank you for the candy. This is my favourite one. I don’t want to dance. I just listen and watch my friends, it’s OK?

I nearly fell over in shock. Most of them start with a few random words, and then start putting two or three together at a time, until one day a sentence comes out. This child didn’t speak for over a year, and then spoke casually to me in practically fluent English as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Since then, he has become one of my best students, and one of the ones who chats to me the most comfortably outside of class. You really never know what’s going on inside their heads – but I’ve learned to assume that they’re taking everything in, even when there’s no evidence of it.

Anyway, to return to my original story, I came into school this morning and found myself being showered with cards and chocolate gift bags from all directions. Perk of the job. ;) As I was having a healthy breakfast of instant coffee and heart-shaped milk chocolate at my desk, one of ‘my’ girls came in with her Valentine’s gift for me. It was the card she’d made in my art class yesterday, which they’d all taken with them to give to their ‘sweethearts’ or parents. This girl had instead written something inside hers and brought it back to give to me. I gave her a big hug and opened the card to read her message… which was this.

L ~ O ~ V ~ E      I love you.

L is for love because I love you

O is for octopus many arms for hug you

V is for very very VERY big heart

E is for excited when is time for Art

I write the rhyme words, she said proudly, in case I’d missed it.

I couldn’t help it: there were tears. Fortunately this little girl is wise beyond her years and understood that she had not made Teacher sad. She observed my bottom lip wobbling and my attempt to hastily wipe the tears away, and said Hayley Teacher is happy cry?

I have been alone on Valentine’s Day, and I have been in relationships on Valentine’s Day, and now I am a kindergarten teacher on Valentine’s Day. Only one of those statuses has made me feel as purely and unconditionally loved, happy, and valued as I do right now. And yes, the wee sods are going to leave me and break my heart in less than a fortnight from now, but the annual painful goodbyes are a small price to pay for everything that comes before them and makes them so difficult.

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-bye so hard.” – A.A. Milne