Saturday, September 14, 2013

Saying Goodbye

I've thought about this particular post for over a year, and debated whether or not this is something I should write. In the past, I've received e-mails from other foreign teachers in Gunsan regarding specific content in my blog, and I've usually acquiesced when asked to consider removing certain information. In order not to hurt anyone involved in this particular situation, I've hesitated about talking or writing about this particular subject for many reasons. However, I find myself now debating internally as to why I should so carefully consider the feelings of the people involved when I'm continually being hurt by stories that are so completely fabricated and make me look like a total bitch, when actually certain things were the opposite of what has been said.

For those of you reading this particular post, I respect your decision to think that perhaps I should just have left this issue alone and let bygones be bygones. Similarly, I respect your decision to stop reading at this point, just as I hope that you respect that this was initially a situation between two people who, at some point, might even have been friends, and that I have a right to set the record straight and defend myself against the numerous accusations that have been levelled against me for the past 18 months now.

Friendships in Korea

I've got over my naivety of finding any real or lasting friendships in Korea. In so many ways, I wish that I could return to my first year here and never have anything change. It was a lot of fun, and I met a lot of truly amazing people who meant a lot to me. Unfortunately, that naivety has passed and I've realised just how self-serving relationships are in Korea. And yes, I'm guilty of this too. We're all friends with people who can help us or do something for us in some way. Once people outlive their usefulness, we tend to shove them aside like the pig fat used to clean the galbi grill.

To see a completely different and callous side of someone whom you think you know so well, with little explanation, has hurt more than anyone who thinks they understand what happened could possibly imagine. Even as someone directly involved, I still don't fully understand what happened or what brought about such a sudden and harsh turnabout. I also don't understand how someone who constantly professed to be my best friend could so easily cut me out of her life with nary a glance or a real explanation. But more than this, I don't understand the motivation for twisting the truth and telling other foreigners in Gunsan how it was me who completely cut her out of everything.  Of everything that happened, things that were said and not said, this last point is perhaps the one that has hurt the most.

18 months later, I still hear from other foreigners how badly I treated this particular person and how I blocked her on Facebook, email, Kakaotalk and refused to answer her calls. I also have heard, on three different occasions and from mutual friends as far as Seoul, how I am the reason that she left Korea, and how hurt she was that I ended our friendship so abruptly and without any explanation. I've listened to people talk about how bitchy I was and how I should have been the one to leave instead of her. I've also had mutual 'friends' cut off all contact with me because they 'don't think that [they] can be friends with someone who treats her friends so badly.'  All of this has hurt far more than anything that was and wasn't said between myself and the other party 18 months ago, and I'm now tired of hearing such falsities and outright lies about things I know little or nothing about.

The Other Side of the Coin

There are two sides to every story. Many people have asked me what happened last year and I've tried to be respectful and not discuss the issue.

There were many things said between myself and this friend. There were also many things that were not said. To this day, I still read the last contact I had with her and try to figure out how things ended so badly because, in all honesty, I miss my friend. I miss the good times we had together and the things we shared. It's hard to say goodbye to someone who doesn't give you that opportunity and who seems perfectly okay with cutting you out of their life so abruptly and callously. It leads to so many questions, the foremost of which is: Were we ever even truly friends? With such questions comes the realisation that many other relationships are perhaps not quite what they seem either and it becomes increasingly difficult to know who to trust and who to be wary of. For me, it's led to a steady withdrawal from the foreign community in Gunsan.

I think it's reasonable to ask someone for an explanation as to why they suddenly don't want you in their life. It's immature and cowardly to cut off all contact with someone and simply say that you 'don't want to give the reasons for this sudden change.'  Ignoring people doesn't make them go away, and it certainly doesn't stop them caring about why things went wrong. I can't understand how someone can walk away from a friendship of more than a year and not be willing to explain why or even want to try to work things out. Sure, there are many things about me that annoy, frustrate, anger, irritate and exasperate other people but then there are many qualities that I dislike in other people, too - that's still not enough of a reason to walk away after investing so much time and emotion in a relationship and not be willing to explain your reasons for leaving. It also is not a reason to twist the truth to portray the other person in a negative light by attributing your actions to them.

So, here's the truth (or at least my side) of the story. I was not the one who cut off all communication, blocked anyone from any form contact (Kakao, Facebook, e-mail, Skype) and refused to discuss things. Ladies and Gentlemen, it gives me absolutely no pleasure to say that it was, in fact, the other way around. I was the one who was cut off; I was the one who was discarded when I outlived my usefulness; and I am the one who never got an explanation for the sudden termination of our friendship. However, I'm not the reason she left Korea - we were no longer even friends at the time that she made that decision. I don't appreciate hearing these rumours repeated by people who know nothing about the situation - and, in some instances, don't even know the people concerned.

Here's what I do know: I encouraged her to hang out with other foreigners and not only me from the start. She made her own decision that the female teachers in Gunsan were too cliquey, and that she didn't want to be part of the debauchery, incestuous drinking that seemed to be the regular pastime for so many people at the time. I heard many uncomplimentary things about foreigners I still don't even know - except by name - and things that happened at nights out to which I wasn't even invited, but she attended. Therefore, I find it quite ironic how I was accused of making her feel that she could only be my friend and that once she started hanging out with other foreigners, she found that she enjoyed their company. I also find it ironic how she suddenly started spending so much time with people she had so completely and utterly lambasted and criticised prior to that. When she was in hospital last year, I received a message from a mutual friend telling me that I wasn't welcome to drop by and visit her. That comment still hurts - as does the fact that when I was in hospital earlier this year, many of those mutual 'friends' made it very clear that we're not exactly friends.

For everyone who has told me how I should have behaved differently towards her, and how they can no longer be my friend or have anything to do with me because of the way I treated her, you'd be surprised by some of things I've heard about you, too.  My pulling away from social gatherings was an attempt not to make things uncomfortable for our mutual friends, or to put anyone in the middle of an unpleasant situation. It hurt to realise that some of those friends seemed to 'take sides,' and it shocked me to find out just how much gossip there has been - even more so that there still is in some circles.


However, I don't want to dwell on the past any longer. I tried to resolve things between us, and I tried to give her the space she wanted; I tried to let her grow up. I really hope that one day she isn't on the receiving end of such an unpleasant situation. I don't wish her ill, and I never have. I just wish that I had had a chance to understand exactly what happened and, if our friendship ever really were what I had considered it to be, that she had actually cared enough to say goodbye properly.

So, since I can't change what has happened and I can only change how I respond to the situation, this is the last that I will have to say about this matter. The memories we share and the experiences we had together - both good and bad - will always be a part of me; some are reflected upon happily while others are more wistful and perhaps even a little nostalgic. They're always there and always will be. However, I am now closing this chapter of my life and saying goodbye to the characters who have played such an integral role in it. It's unlikely that we'll ever meet again, but then I've always been willing to give sequels a try.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Please Understand Their Situation

The number of times I've heard "Please understand their situation" from my co-workers this year has reached nauseating proportions. This phrase is starting to feel like a get-out-of-jail-free-card except that there seems to be an infinite number of them rather than only two such cards in the deck. It doesn't seem to matter what the students do during lessons or how they behave, it's always excused with an automatic response to please understand their situation and understand how difficult it is to speak English. It's become tiresome and a cop-out.

If I were to say that mathematics is too difficult to study, and therefore I don't even try to do the exercises, the teacher would be standing over me cracking a whip; the same thing would happen if I said this about Korean or Korean history so why should I accept this response when I toughen up, put my foot down, and tell my students that they're being lazy by not even attempting to do the exercise? This question is apparently too complex for some people.

I was told earlier this week, after a particularly bad lesson, that my questions are too broad and too difficult. Apparently, expecting the students to know what a 'topic' is in relation to topic sentences, is unrealistic, and too complex and demanding of them. I was then told that nobody could understand why I was a bit annoyed with that particular class when they hadn't done anything wrong; the fact that they hadn't done the 'homework' (despite having had more than enough class time to finish it in the previous lesson when they slept instead of worked), carried on personal conversations for the first 5 minutes of the lesson after I had greeted them, took 10 minutes to settle down so that I could start the lesson, only started looking for their worksheets after they settled down and then proceeded to sit and stare at their desks or read other books instead of even attempting to do the homework that they hadn't finished was not sufficient reason to understand why I was annoyed and reprimanded the class for their poor behaviour.

Today, after asking a student if she could understand why her topic sentence (Students must throw away this idea of studying hard.) was not clear - a question that required nothing more than a yes/no answer, which she never gave - I was told to please understand her situation and not ask complicated questions. I'm still not quite sure which part of this question was complicated: The 'Yes' or the 'No.' I was also asked to understand that English is very difficult and that the students cannot speak fluently. This was my red flag.


I have never expected any second language speaker to speak English fluently in order to be understood. My very first lesson of the year - and something that is reiterated several times throughout the year - is that I don't expect them to speak fluently or write perfectly; I do, however, expect them to at least try.  And yes, I most certainly do get frustrated and exasperated when I am trying to help a student to improve and actually learn something, ask a simple question and get not even an acknowledgement of that question let alone the luxury of an actual reply.  How dare I expect a reply to a question; how dare I challenge my students to learn something new; how dare I actually attempt to teach them English.

I'm very lenient and very patient in lessons. I don't insist that Korean never be used in lessons. I don't shout at them when they're late or sleeping in class or doing other work during my lesson. I reprimand them, but I have always tried to do it softly and discreetly - until now. I spend hours every week providing written feedback on their journal writing - feedback that many of the students never seem to read or attempt to implement. I spend hours trying to make lessons as fun, engaging, relevant, useful and easy as possible so yes, it ticks me off a little more each time I have to listen to how hard it is to be a high school student or how all they do is study, how hard English is and that they'd be able to speak it fluently if they had the luxury of studying abroad, and how learning a second language is too difficult.

As a linguist - and one who specialises in how people acquire multiple languages - I understand what is involved in learning a language. Besides this, however, even if I weren't a linguist, Korean students are not the only ones in the world who have a mandatory second/foreign language at school. Koreans are not the only ones to learn English as a foreign language - hundreds of millions of people do this around the world and guess what: they somehow survive without the 'woe is me, my life is so hard' whine. I, and most of the ex-pats living in Korea, understand very well how difficult it is to express oneself in a foreign language: We do it every fecking day we live in Korea! These kids don't have to explain health problems or legal or financial issues in English; if we make the lessons any easier, they'll only be able to say, "Hello, how are you?" after 10 years of studying the language at school - sadly, this is all that many of them can do, and they seem to take a sort of pride in this limited knowledge. Don't they realise that the joke is one them?

English in Korea

Students have 10 years of mandatory English study at school. From Grade 3 of Elementary School, they have regular English lessons and many students attend private lessons, too. Granted, not everyone is interested in learning English and not everyone is going to be good at learning languages, but they're all capable of trying to learn the language. They're surrounded by English and finding English resources online is incredibly easy. I have met several people here who speak English fluently without ever having been abroad or having had private tuition. Their commonality is their desire to learn the language.

The kids here are spoiled and many of them have black belts in complaining. There are English movies constantly broadcast on television in addition to numerous educational shows. Schools have ridiculously high budgets for English and many foolishly spend this money on books and games that get locked away in a dusty and forgotten office, never to be used or seen again. Oftentimes, the books that are purchased are not even useful or an appropriate level (or interesting!) for the students. Complaining about how difficult English is seems easier than actually investing any sincere effort into making it relevant, interesting or - heaven forbid - useful. Instead, the Korean approach is Grammar-Translation and an attempt to bore them into submission and zombie status.

Grammar is memorised and applied in the most irrelevant, useless, impractical and confusing manner possible. Instead of a necessary tool for effective communication in the language, grammar and vocabulary are used as weapons to discourage students. While there are many tricks to improve your language skills, memorising grammar answers and words out of context are not among them. Spending hours memorising vocabulary lists achieves nothing more than spending hours on a useless task. Finally, giving the instructions - and even some answers - in Korean is not an English test. After four years of studying a language, it is quite reasonable to expect students to be able to read instructions in the target language. If the powers-that-be feel that this is too difficult, then surely that should be the equivalent of a big, hairy, naked guy in a trench coat running up to you and flashing you in the street. You should be sufficiently shocked into taking the necessary steps to change the situation.

Please Understand

But, of course, what do I know about any of this. I'm just the person who has to give them a grade, asks complicated questions that involve yes/no answers, expect students to at least try to apply the language they've been studying for 8 years already and have little patience for students who are sleeping in class because they were up until 3am playing games online or on their phones. Perhaps I understand their situation more than I should, so I'd like to ask them to understand mine:
  • I understand that it's easier to complain about things than try to improve the situation.
  • I understand that whining and complaining about things doesn't change them.
  • I understand that language takes time to learn and master. I've never expected anyone to learn a language overnight.
  • I understand that learning a language takes actual work. Living in a country that speaks the target language, while certainly a big advantage, doesn't guarantee fluency and automatic acquisition of the language. If it did, I'd be fluent in Korean.
  • I understand that I teach high school students and that their role at this stage in their lives is to study while at school.
  • I understand that I'm their teacher and that my job is to teach my students - not play games and babysit them.
  • I understand that the Korean education system has MANY problems and flaws. However, foreign teachers are not responsible for this. Koreans are the ones who can change things.
  • I understand that I work extremely hard to deliver my best work possible and I expect the same of my co-workers and students.
  • I understand that many people are incredibly lazy, but that doesn't mean that I have to lower my standards to meet yours down below.
  • I understand that Korean students - and even many adults - are extremely short-sighted, ignorant and egocentric.
  • I understand what is considered to be polite and impolite in Korean culture. I also understand that if I'm making an effort to be polite in your culture, you should be extending me the same courtesy.