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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Countryside (시골)

Ah, the sweet countryside beckons.  Its villages and meandering lanes humbly escort us to the past.  If we listen to its whispers, we may also hear stories about our future.  Not surprisingly, Daegu’s countryside has melted in all directions. Once, the walls of Dalsung Park marked the city’s edge. Yeungnam University, built in the countryside in 1947, once a long, tedious bus ride east from the city center, is now just another Daegu subway stop.

Yesterday's countryside: thatched roofs, mud walls, and clear streams

In the 1960’s and 70’s, developing the countryside was a key strategy of then president, Park Chung-hee. His New Village Movement (새마을운동) spread the values of diligence, self-help and cooperation. It was intended to establish an entrepreneurial spirit in Korea’s rural communities.

The countryside still calls those few who listen

Thatched roofs, mud walls, clear streams, and the hard calloused hands of the Korean farmers, have given way to paved roads and the faster pace of a wireless world. Between cities and the ribbons of highways that wrap this peninsula ever so tightly, one may still find the Korean countryside of days gone by.  The old white crane, standing with dignity in the distant rice field, knows the secrets of Korea’s past.  The romantic lure of the countryside still calls those few who will listen.

*Note: this post was originally written for Platform Daegu, the city's new on-line magazine

Friday, December 6, 2013

Haven’t Got Time For The Pain

We were off and running. The prompting question in my English conversation class went something like this: “Which national and local issues are you concerned about?”

Soon the class was discussing the acute stress levels in Korean society. "Why," I asked, "was stress so high in Korea?" One of my students shared his perspective. I am paraphrasing here…

"Professor, as children, our parents expect us to study all the time, day and night for years, so we can take the national admissions test and get into the best universities. Then we go to university and we study hard to get the best possible jobs in society. Then we work long hours in our jobs because it is necessary to make money to help our children and support our parents and because we know we will have to retire at an early age. Then we retire and it is a sad time."

It sounds almost too stereotypical and too cliché-ish to be true. Except it is.

Can South Koreans feel secure when they are not competing? 
Korea, a country that has many world class accomplishments to its credit, including its wireless infrastructure and its transportation systems (its national airport in Inchon has been voted best-in-the-world seven consecutive years) is, sadly enough, also a world leader in suicides. The number of suicide deaths in South Korea has more than doubled in the last decade. Researchers note that the suicide rate in South Korea rose from 6.8 per 100,000 people in 1982 to 28.4 in 2011. That’s an increase of 400% in less than 30 years!
And while South Korean students are some of the best performing students in the world, they self-identify as the least happy students on an international study.
In an earlier blog post I discussed the remarkably consistent dissonance between the career dreams of Yeungnam University students that I interviewed and the expectations of their parents—most of whom wanted their children to work in large companies that would more likely ensure higher salaries and job security. I believe that this “expectation gap,” between parents and their college-aged students, can be found in many industrialized countries. What seems different in South Korea is both the intensity of the parental pressure and how universal the expectations are. Almost every student reported that their parents wanted them to work at Samsung, LG, or another giant Korean corporation, where the competition is fierce and the jobs are scarce.
A young woman, currently a student, who escaped from North Korea and had been studying in the U.S., was commenting on her observations while in Seoul. “Working hard,” said Park Ji Woo,” is definitely a good thing, but sometimes I feel like I am walking on thin ice because I am continuously told to work more, otherwise I would be the loser.”
She continued, “One thing, I have discovered is life in Seoul is much more difficult and stressful than in New York City. South Korea is a small country but it is incredibly strong. The secret is competition. Everyone competes with each other in order to attain their goals. They work so hard that they almost never go home before 10 PM during the workday.”
When will the grueling pressure in Korean society reach a tipping point? 
By any measure of size, South Korea is indeed small--roughly the size of the state of Indiana in the U.S. But in terms of accomplishments, South Korea is anything but diminutive. On most global measures of productivity and industrial success, South Korea currently ranks somewhere in the top 20. The question is, will the grueling pressure and competition within Korean society reach a tipping point? Perhaps it already has.
Ms. Park noted “New York City is viewed as one of the most bustling and busy cities in the world,” yet "New Yorkers," she continued, "had more room to be relaxed and do whatever they wanted.” Can South Koreans feel secure when they are not competing? Will my students, and others like them throughout South Korea, when their hopes and dreams differ from those of their parents, be able to find their way to those dreams? Or, will Koreans, by their societal in-action, essentially be saying that they haven't got time for the pain?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Beyond Surviving--How To Thrive as an Expat ESL Teacher: 7 Tips for the Journey

The questions were unfailingly predictable: What’s your name? Where are
you from? What university did you graduate from? What was your major? They came in rapid succession. It was the start of my very first semester here in Korea and almost every student was asking me the same questions.

I gave my name, mentioned that I went to school in Boston and said that my hometown was New York. My major? American history. More than several students reacted in a similar manner:

“American history? How could that be a major? American history is only 200-years old. Korean history is 5000-years old. That’s a major!”

That observation was not lost on me. “Wow,” I said to myself, “there’s something to this.” It didn’t take long for a self-induced wave of humility to cascade through my body. My country wasn’t the center of the universe? I began to unravel some 22-years of misguided self-importance that had been grafted on to my world of presumptions.

American history major--right off the bus
Tip #1 Be humble.
No matter where you are from, it’s not likely you have 5,000 years of history backing you up. More than just ancient history, according to Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country, South Koreans have produced the most impressive story of nation building in the 20th century. And besides, humility goes a long way here.

Tip #2 Learn the language.
You hop in a cab, patch together a few words of the native language, telling the driver where you want to go. Only thing is, you said you wanted to go to the train station. That’s where he took you. You meant to say, the local subway station. He’s confused. You’re frustrated. Make the time to study the local language--even if you’re exhausted from all the teaching you’re doing. Learning the language helps provide part of the necessary tool-kit for navigating life in your adopted country. Learning Korean opens the window to a better understanding of this incredible culture.
Korean Class: learning language, culture and making friends

Tip #3 Cultivate friendships with both Koreans and other expats.
Studying Korean, especially when done in traditional classroom fashion is a great place for meeting others. In my recent Korean language classes I was both the only American and the only professor.  Befriending the owner of a local coffee shop or dry cleaners may lead to a weekend hike in the woods. Joining an area club or organization (running, paintball, softball, or traveling) is a great way to make friends and enrich your expat experience.

Tip #4 Avoid thinking you can change the system.
By now you’ve heard all about the crazy drivers, the antiquated customs, the lousy weather, the seemingly ridiculous approaches to managing people. Guess what? Get a grip. It ain’t gonna change. And, more importantly, it’s not your culture.

Tip #5 Avoid Korea bashers.
Yes indeed, misery loves company. Finding flaws and faults can easily become contagious. “Red flag” this dynamic as soon as you notice it. Take two steps back. Find colleagues and friends who have a more balanced view of their experience here. Korea is not a perfect place, but it does offer a world of mostly pleasant surprises. For most people, even those who experience a few early “speed bumps,” Korea provides more than its share of spectacular memories.

Tip #6 Keep developing yourself professionally.
My current employer requires each faculty member to have an ongoing plan for professional development. You can do research, observe other teachers, attend conferences and write reaction papers, or give presentations to colleagues at regularly scheduled staff meetings. There’s a good message here: standing still professionally is not OK. There are many ways to become a better teacher--whether it’s through joining KOTESOL, becoming part of an acting troupe, taking traditional Korean art classes, or doing yoga.

Tip #7 Be an ambassador.
You didn’t join the Foreign Service when you decided to become an ESL educator. That’s true, but for better or worse, you are an ambassador. You represent your country in the eyes of your students, your Korean bosses and colleagues, and to Koreans at-large. Many people don’t welcome such an appellation bestowed on them without their consent. Totally understandable, but it comes with the turf. In fact, how you behave is not only a reflection on you, and your country, it is also a reflection on all foreigners who are guests here in Korea.

Recently, a fellow former Korean Peace Corps volunteer mentioned that he thought there was much evidence to suggest that a stint as an ESL teacher can be an invaluable “Part 1” in preparation for the adventure that is life. For others, an extended tenure as an ESL teacher can, as in any profession, lead to burnout. Tips for success aside, inertia can be an intoxicating trap.  Staying fresh, on top of your game, motivated, and most importantly, in service to your students, is a timeless and worthwhile challenge. Losing one’s humility may be like the canary in the coal mine—an indication that it may be time to check things out.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Overseas ESL Teacher: The Year of Living Extemporaneously

"All is clouded by desires."
                                    Passage from the Bhagavad Gita

I have long felt that living overseas might very well be perceived like a long-term visit to Disney World. Your entrance fee entitles you to see the world through a child's eyes. Every day, or in this case, every minute, puts your senses on steroids; the smells, sights and sounds spin you round and round until you are in a new and different reality. Surely, it's not for the faint-of-heart--that's why they checked your height at the ticket counter and asked if you had any health issues.

Once your ticket is punched, teaching English overseas can be the thrill of a lifetime. In this case, once the passport, visa, apostilled criminal check, application and interview stanchions have been successfully hurdled, you are free to open your classrooms to the world and to make your world your own personal classroom.

Set in Indonesia,
The Year of Living Dangerously
In her award winning role, in the 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously, Linda Hunt's character, a male Chinese-Australian dwarf, Billy Kwan, declares, "In the West, we want answers for everything. Everything is right or wrong or good or bad..." The challenge as the foreign teacher of English is to let go of judgment and allow oneself to enter a world of incredulity. As one of my professors in graduate school once told me offering up some personal wisdom, "Education is moving from cocksure ignorance, to thoughtful uncertainty."

In the bare bones utilitarian existence of an ESL teacher, one doesn't have the plethora of material possessions one has back home. Those things are, of course, distractions. My life's essentials have been whittled down to whiteboard markers, a memory stick, lesson plans, a backpack, a translation app and whatever map I'm wearing out from overuse. My university has me covered-although I harbor a certain skepticism about the thickness of the ice I'm skating on. They've provided my apartment, an office and computer, a living wage and plenty of vacation time. For all those ESL teachers without such accoutrements, I offer you a humble me-ahn-heyo (미안 해요)Korean for, I am sorry.

The time between classes is a golden chalice. I fill it with various wines, sometimes the vintage is a local destination, a delicious house wine, like a nearby Korean city with a history worth knowing more about and a reputation for a particular culinary speciality. For example, from here in Daegu, Jeonju (전주), with its rocking Korean Historic Village (한옥말) is a 3-hour bus ride away. Its local bib-em-pop, a mixed rice dish, is to die for. Other times, the cup is filled with a more complex taste, like a bike trip through rural Vietnam, or perhaps a rarer vintage, say a sojourn to North Korea--no doubt, not a taste suitable for everyone's palate.

That of course, is just the point. Some ESL teachers choose not to carry the travel baton so wide afield. Their adventures more often take place locally, including within their classrooms. There, they strive to transport their students to other worlds. But for me, any gift of time is a chance to boogie on down the road. Billy Kwan's words, while living dangerously in Indonesia, work for me, "Don't think about the major issues. Do what you can about what's in front of you. Go add your light to the sum of all light." So, I'll grab my passport, then it's off to the races.