2011: A Retrospective

A Primer

A year ago, I sat down and wrote about the volatile and life-altering year that was 2010. Well, my life has settled down a good bit, and I am happy to once again report that my life is better now than it was a mere year ago.

It has been a long 16 months since I left the States to return to Asia. When I arrived I was basically penniless, widely ignorant about Korean language and culture, and completely devoid of a social network. I felt lucky to have work and a means to save money. I felt lucky to have my dog. And I felt lucky to have a goal to work toward, as opposed to struggling endlessly against the stream of unemployment and mounting debt. I knew from the get-go that life in Korea would not be easy, and I knew that any meaningful steps that I would take toward career aspirations would be several years in the making.

All of these assumptions have proven to be more or less correct. While Korea has been a comparatively easy place to live compared to Japan, it will probably never be a country in which I feel 100% comfortable settling down and living. Cultural differences will always be a glaring obstacle–as glaring as my relative height, skin color, and lack of fashion sense. On the other hand, I’ve found a job I truly enjoy, I get to watch my bank account slowly grow, and I continue to inch ever closer to a life after teaching in Asia.

Early 2011: Testing My Limits

By the time 2011 rolled around, I was a scant 4 months into my first contract and I should have been settling in to my routine. My school had other plans. They decided to pick up and move our campus away from the close and easily accessible location near the beautiful Olympic Park to the middle of nowhere, on the wrong side of the Seoul border. The new school was literally next to a trash dump and when we arrived in the morning, we were trapped in this town–or rather, a dusty assortment of buildings on the outskirts of civilization–for the next ten and a half hours.  Monday through Friday I would wake up, eat, shower, take Sydney for a long walk, leave the house at 8:30 in the morning, return at 8 PM, take Sydney for another walk, eat, mindlessly cruise the Internet or watch some TV for an hour, and then finally sleep, only to relive the routine the next day.

I tried to get out, to break the routine any way I could. Some days I would rush during the lunch hour to take the bus to Olympic Park for some Starbucks and/or Burger King. Other days I would go on 40 minute walks around the squalid, backwater surroundings of our school. My friend and coworker Michael would join me on these jaunts. In those first couple of months, it was all that kept us sane. Unfortunately (for me), Michael’s contract expired at the end of February; for the rest of my stay at Korea Poly School, I would be on an island.

The teachers were not the only ones upset with the move. Parents pulled their kids out of our school by the hundreds, literally. We went from teaching over 650 students to just over 400. In turn, the administrators of the school came down hard on the teachers.

I knew I needed out. I had been job hunting since December; I had had a few close calls, but no job offers to pull me out of my situation. After Michael left, I doubled my efforts. March became April, and April became May, and I had still not found another job. Now I was beginning to worry about finding a job for when my contract expired at the end of August.

Mid 2011: A Glimmer of Hope, and A Big Decision 

I remember the series of events that led to my decision to leave KPS for greener pastures very clearly. The pressure from above had been slowly ratcheting up over several months. Our teaching styles were being tightly scrutinized, and I had a particularly difficult set of parents to please. While I was adored by my afternoon class, the Rams, I was having troubles with my morning class, the Grizzlies.

Apparently my “Open Class” with the Grizzlies, wherein the parents were invited to watch me teach a lesson, did not go particularly well. Or, at least it didn’t go well according to one mother who told the school director that she “expected more.” It’s a nebulous statement to begin with, and one that is completely without any merit. The school was set up with a very strict curriculum, and often it was difficult enough just to get through it all. What she really didn’t like was me because I attempted to discipline her little brat of a son.

On Tuesday, May 24th, I was brought in for a meeting with the director of our school for what essentially amounted to a “Shape up or ship out,” speech–one that had no weight behind its vacuous threat. Teachers are both expensive and, due to the immigration laws, time consuming to replace. However, I left the meeting with one thought in my head, “Either spend the rest of my days at this school miserable, with Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dumber riding my ass, or I get the hell out.” Little did I know that an out would soon be at my fingertips.

The very next day I came across an ad on Dave’s ESL Cafe for Gyeonggi English Village. I had heard of the village, but I knew nothing of it. The ad said they were hiring over 10 new teachers, and the benefits sounded great. When I sent my resume I was more optimistic than usual, but even in retrospect the speed at which the events unfolded is shocking.

I received a reply from the H.R. department at EV on Thursday, asking me to fill out a full application. I filled in the application in during my prep break, using an empty classroom and a school computer. I worked with a feverish pace while periodically checking over my shoulder to confirm that I wasn’t being watched. When I finished, I made sure to delete any traces of my treasonous behavior.

I wouldn’t have to wait long for another response. Within a couple hours of sending in my application, my inbox had an unread letter from EV. My heartbeat quickened as I opened the e-mail. It was an invitation to interview. I had to hide my excitement, as I was checking this e-mail in class. 

The phone interview was set for the very next day. It was a beautiful, sunny, warm day. I scheduled the interview during my lunch hour, and walked to a bench that overlooked a small dump of a stream about 5 minutes from the school. I wasn’t nervous about the interview, instead, I was nervous about whether they would allow me to have my dog. That concern was immediately allayed by Mike, the H.R. director, who explained that many teachers at EV had dogs. From there, as they say, it was all downhill. The interview went great. Mike told me he could nearly guarantee me a spot, but he would know for sure the following Monday or Tuesday. In addition, he put me in touch with the then Head Teacher, Tim, to answer any additional questions I had about teaching at English Village.

The wait would be a long one, but it would give me time to weigh my options. I could not bury the job offer in my back pocket for when I was through at KPS; this was a now or never offer. I would be missing out on a huge payday at the end of my contract, but I would be miserable the whole time. There were risks either way: had I stayed, I might have not been able to find a quality job in September, and by leaving, there was no guarantee that the job would have been as good as advertised.

When I received the official word that I had been hired on Monday evening, my mind had been made up, and my resignation letter would be in my director’s hands in less than 24 hours.

The act of resigning was one of, if not the most  empowering moments of my life. And the look on my director’s face was priceless. He was completely taken aback by my tenacity, particularly in light of recent events. By the end of the day, I had negotiated the terms of my release, including the necessary letter to the immigration board, which would allow me to transfer my visa and start working for EV immediately.

The last month flew by. I was above the fray with the knowledge that my employer could no longer hurt me. I hurried through my lessons all month so I could have a movie day with the kids. Normally, this would have landed me in some trouble, but what were they going to do? Fire me? The last day was an emotional one, and my Rams class made it especially difficult to leave (emotionally AND physically, as they gave me a big, sobbing, group hug and begged me not to go).

Within two hours of departing, a new world and a new life began.

The Second Half of 2011: Enjoying the Moment

The comparison between working at KPS and at EV could not be more stark, and that began on Day 1.

While I didn’t say so at the time, the first day at KPS was frankly terrifying. We were thrown into an environment with no sunlight (literally and figuratively), where everyone was in a grumpy mood (except the lucky ones we were about to replace), we were overwhelmed by the school administrators with all of the rules and duties of teaching there, and we learned that they had lied to us about our working hours.

The person I was asked to follow around was a crazy conspiracy theorist from Canada who was clearly jaded by Korea and the job.

My first day at EV could not have been more different. A teacher, Daniel, picked me up from my apartment to go to clock in. (Somehow between morning and afternoon I had forgotten that I had met Daniel, but in fairness, I did meet dozens of people that day). I was asked to follow around John, a personable teacher from Ireland with a love of soccer. I learned that he would be in my content area, cooking, and he repeatedly told me how lucky I was to be a cooking teacher.

The atmosphere was lighter and sunnier by miles. This wasn’t just a different school, it was a different planet.

After meeting and forgetting several dozen other teachers, John invited me to play soccer after work. I hadn’t so much as kicked a ball in over a year and I was badly out of shape. The stifling heat and humidity of an early July day in Korea made my condition that much more apparent, but it was still the most fun I had had in some time. This would be the first of the countless number days I would play soccer since my arrival here.

I didn’t realize how negatively my job dissatisfaction affected my overall persona until I had been here for a couple of months. Work had become an all-consuming aspect of my life, and not in a good way. EV allowed me the opportunity to balance my life and work, and I have been in much better spirits because of that opportunity.

Although overall happiness is very important, I think the most positive change has been in my confidence level. When I had quit KPS, I had not had a steady, long-term job since my employment at Waldenbooks in college. I had been forced out in Japan, fired from my waiting jobs in Knoxville and Milwaukee, been through lengthy periods of unemployment, and then the aforementioned business at my previous school. The only common thread in all of those places of business was me, and I had failed each and every time.

I had failed to ingratiate myself to my employers, I had failed to gain the trust and support of my coworkers, and as a result I had failed to remain a lasting employee.

English Village has slowly helped me rebuild that confidence, and I have been progressively trying to take on more and more responsibility because of it. In the last several months I have volunteered to create new lessons (two of which were taught this week), I am leading the winter intensive camp Movie Club, and–after an abject failure last week–I managed to put together the weekly closing ceremony video. To top things off, last month I was nominated for Teacher of the Month. This month, I want to win it.

My confidence has been growing in other areas too. I wrote a piece after Kim Jong Il died and decided to try and shop it around to local magazines. Groove Magazine immediately showed interest, and will run it in their February issue.

The Dawn of 2012: Looking Forward

I could make this long post much, much longer, but I think I’ll spare any readers who have made it this far. I’m enjoying my time at EV and in Korea. I want to continue on my current trajectory, and keep pushing myself to bigger and better things.

The question my family asks the most is how much longer I will stay in Korea. Honestly, I don’t know. It won’t be forever, but I won’t be coming home anytime soon, either. I have more money to save, more Korean to learn, and more places to see, and more resume building to do.

There is some uncertainty on the horizon; EV has been bought out by a private company, and no one knows what changes will be made. But that is life. There are no guarantees. As such, all I can do is hope that this year is even better than the last, and do everything in my power to make that a reality.

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