Monday, July 21, 2014

Does Not Compute: Korea Perspective

"Yes. No. Does not compute." I remember my older brother and his scrawny best friend sitting in the way back seats of the van playing this idiotic robot role play game. I was sitting in the middle seats and getting increasingly angry at my failure to ask a question that didn't win. Turns out, that game is for real. There are a lot of things that are so apparent to me that my Korean co-workers just don't understand.

For an example, here is a question I've been getting a lot lately at my schools: "So, why aren't you staying for the rest of the year?" Fair enough, I respond as best I can, "Well my contract was for one year, and I miss my family and friends. I'm very sad to leave Korea and will miss you and all the students very much."  Honest, simple, battabing-battaboo. 

Doesn't register to my co-workers. "Why are you quitting?" I was talking with a friend and she mentioned that the teachers at her school asked why she was quitting come September. Our GEPIK contracts are for one year -- it's not quitting if we don't renew. It's just moving on to something different. When I brought up the contract when I was similarly asked "But why aren't you staying?", my co-teacher shot back that most teachers stay for at least two years. That may be true, but *face palm* that may be true. 

I miss my family and friends: "Oh, you're lonely." Well, yes and no. I sometimes feel like the teachers think I sit alone in my apartment eating cereal and bread when I'm not at work (which whatever, is half true on some weekends). They're so surprised when I tell them about anything as mundane as going out to buy groceries. Plus, I talk and do things with people. I have friends here in Korea - we go on mini-trips, eat food, joke, sight see, and drink. I skype and Internet chat and communicate with family and friends from back home. But yeah, every now and then it hits me just how far away from home I am. Any skype-or-otherwise "call" requires a chain of messages planning what time, taking into account the fourteen-hour time difference. Letters take weeks to arrive, and I can't just go home for the weekend to spend time with my family. The art of dropping by or "hey, wanna grab a burrito?" text is lost. I miss my family and friends. 

I am sad to leave. With all my being, I will miss Doam and Doji. I will miss my life in Korea terribly: "Then why don't you stay?" Well, frankly, I'm tired. I wish I could speak Korean; I want to come back once I know some Korean: "But you don't need to speak Korean. I knew a native teacher who lived here for over four years and didn't know Korean. You don't need to know Korean." Yes, but please... stop. 

There is an understanding gap. And because of that gap, my co-workers don't seem to accept my answer or they just like asking me the same question over and over. That last one makes me especially annoyed, because it seems obvious to me why that would play into my plan not to stay in Korea. From a pure logistical point, living in Korea as a foreigner who doesn't know the language, it is effort. Every day things take a little more time and a little more patience. (Side note, living in Korea as foreigner who knows Korean helps but only slightly I feel). On a more personal level and perhaps a less obvious point, not knowing Hangugo or Korean, is becoming increasingly heartbreaking for me. I miss moments - moments in the classroom with my students, moments in the hallways, at lunch, at teacher dinners, at meetings, and during casual coffee break chats. I can only infer so much. 

I spoke a little bit about this during the Badger Blogging Blitz, and while I do believe I am better at teaching and better at living and working in Korea, this one has gotten worse. It makes me really sad not being able to share a conversation with the kids and adults I have gotten to know over the past year. Gestures can do wonders - little gifts, rides home, and excited shouts of "Hello!" - but words and conversation in a common tongue have an indefinite value and place in this world. 


Yes, no, does not compute. An understanding gap. It's more than cultural, it's lack of a certain perspective I think. And it goes both ways. I made mini apple pies for the teachers at my schools a couple weeks back. I was glad my co-teacher liked them and then he remarked, "I've only seen apple pie on TV." Whaaaat? I was so shocked! And happy and ecstatic and thrilled and emotional. He continued, "This is my first taste of apple pie. I won't forget it."

I admit I asked him a few more times, "Doesn't Paris Baguette have apple pie? In the U.S., McDonald's has little hot apple pies..." I couldn't accept that he hadn't even seen an apple pie before. Small but more recent example of my own "does not compute."

These moments of disbelief, from both ends, have taught me a great deal about how the world really is a big place. I had chicken and beer the other night with my old co-teacher (and friend) and her two adorable sons. HG is sharp as a tack, opinionated, and funny. We got to talking about teaching and I finally mentioned how surprised I was about the lack of materials when I first arrived. Over the past almost-year, I've had to research and come up with my own lesson plans and put together games and other teaching materials. My first co-teacher had been teaching English for four years, and she didn't leave anything?

"Yeah, she didn't tell me anything either, but I found a folder on her computer full of games and activities." I threw my hands up in the air at that. But then HG explained that the games and activities didn't really match her teaching technique and that she didn't tell my next co-teacher anything either, because it would be like HG was telling my new co how to do her job. How should HG know the style of my new co? 

I still would have liked to have seen that folder full of games and activities, but I came into a new understanding about the thought process that is often deemed as K-logic or "because Korea" by foreigners. The world is big place with many perspectives, and the great thing about my time in Korea has been the exposure to different perspectives and the results of those perspectives (which often include coffee & tea shops on the tops of mountains). Many times my co-teacher will say to me, "I don't understand your taste" - particularly when we make coffee - and there are things about Korea that drive me crazy. But isn't that pretty awesome -- the opportunity to be befuddled, experience a fresh perspective on common or new ground, and grow as a human being. 


  1. Pretty sure my co-teachers and other teachers at school think I live more or less like them, which could not be further from reality. I think they forget that I don't speak the language, and I don't think they realize the full consequences of this fact.

    The understanding gap and lack-of-communication is incredibly frustrating. I've come to just put up with it, and actually am doing much better with it since February, but it leaves me feeling somewhat empty.

    Beautifully written and expressed; the stories all tie together wonderfully. You should be published in magazines!

    Final note: I've nominated you for the Liebster Award! It's a blogging award, and details can be found on my blog if you follow this link. ^^

  2. *Sigh* Empty is a good word for it -- it'll be really good to see you this weekend.

    I was alerted by tweet about your nomination! Thank you so much! I'm thrilled to be a part of the glorified chain letter! Already checked out two of the blogs you nominated -- got inspired by James' guide to living in NYC. Bought a plane ticket to New York last week and I'm hoping I can do at least one interview while I'm there.

    You are amazing, Rebe. Your work, writing, and attitude about living keeps me inspired and excited. Thank you so much.

    1. Woo! Awesome! I'm thrilled you bought the ticket to NY!

      : ) Happy to be seeing you tomorrow!