An Unexpected Transition

It’s hard to know where to begin, so maybe I should just start with a warning.  If you want to travel abroad for work, don’t take anything for granted.  In particular, don’t take your relationship with your employer for granted.

At the beginning of this month, I started work again after a week-long summer break, with a reduced kindergarten class.  My class was already reduced when I got it, but one of my three Dolphins left at the break to go to another school.  Her mother, I am told, did not like the small class size.

So there I was on the week of August Fourth with a Dolphin class of two.  Compounding the change, both of them managed to be absent at least once that week.  Dolphin class always stuck out for its small size, but since I was hired to teach it, I was given the understanding that it was undesirable to combine it with any others.  There was only one other class of six year olds, and they were a year behind in skill (and had already been combined with a class of five year olds).

Like I said, don’t take anything for granted.  On Monday, August Eleventh, I arrived at work only to be told that Dolphin class was no more.  It had been combined with the other six year old class at the parents’ request.  The decision was made the week before, but nobody saw fit to tell me.

I still had my afternoon ESL and fourth grade classes, but without a kindergarten I was left with a huge hole in my schedule.  When I met with management at the end of the day, I was told that “it would be better” if I sought employment elsewhere.  Given our school’s chronic financial difficulties, they told me, there was no room in the budget to continue paying for my salary.

I don’t want to get into the details of the meetings over the next few days, and I don’t think it would be particularly wise to in this forum.  Suffice it to say, I was basically muscled out.  My contract clearly stated that in the event I should be laid off for budgetary reasons, I was entitled to thirty days notice and pay.  But management informed me, cool as you please, that my contract was invalid.  It had been signed by the old principal, and after the recent schism with the Gangbuk branch, we now had a new principal.  The fact that the new principal is the daughter of the old one seemed irrelevent.  The fact that everyone in a position of power at the school was an immediate family member also seemed irrelevent.

I was upset, I was furious, and I was pretty powerless to stop them.  So my last day was August Twenty Second, a full eleven days from when I was first told I should leave.  I was handed my last pay check, told my pension would be deposited eventually, and that was that.

Tara’s job remains secure.  At the end of last week, we moved out of our beautiful two room apartment in Uijeongbu, and into a one room apartment near her school in northern Seoul.  It smells like cigarettes, but it’s not the worst place we’ve lived.  I’m casting around for part-time work to keep making money while Tara continues her contract, which is set to expire in March.  We’ve got a nice view of the city, and I’ve enjoyed being somewhat domestic this week, cooking dinner and doing chores and the like.

But much as I am frankly relieved not to have to put up with the nonsense I was regularly subjected to at work anymore, I really miss my students.  Kindergarteners, ESL, and Fourth Grade; I miss all of them.  I got to teach them for five months, and when I was forced out I could have cried over what we might have done in the other seven.

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I took these photos on the Eleventh, when I found out I was losing Dolphin class.  This room was the first classroom I ever had all to myself, as a real live teacher.  It was very disheartening to have it taken away, after less than half a year of use.  Looking at them now, it’s unsettling to think I won’t ever be going in there again.

I’m ok, for now.  Tara and I are ok, and we’re still happy, all things considered.  But when we think back on Korea in years to come, when we tell the stories to friends and family, I wonder how happy the memories will be.  Not once but twice, we’ve been taken advantage of.  It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people and I will be eternally grateful for much of what we’ve experienced, but enough is enough.  If we ever had any thoughts of spending more than one year in Korea, they are dead and buried.

Some people are lucky, and some people are unlucky.  Tara and I have been less than lucky; we didn’t wind up with the full benefits and bounteous savings the brochures all promised us.  But we haven’t lost everything, and there’s still a way forward.  We are survivors, and we’ll keep marching on.

It took me a while to find the time and the will to write this all down.  I’m glad I got it over with at last.  There’s still another two days worth of Jeju pictures I need to post on here, so that should brighten everyone’s mood!  We’ll all be happy to get back to living and enjoying new experiences after this ordeal.  I want to thank my very supportive friends and family for helping me through this transition.  I especially want to thank Tara, who still sustains me through it all.

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Well, I was a kindergarten teacher for 5 minutes…

So, two weeks ago, my school imploded. The Korean staff (bus teachers, supervisors, cooks, lunch ladies) had not been paid on time for over 2 years and had not received their full salary in 3 months.  Two Wednesdays ago (July 23) was the final straw and they all quit.    By Wednesday evening, kids were getting pulled from classes and told to take all their books home by parents.  By Thursday, only about 3 Korean staff remained. That same day we received news that the school was closing on Friday.  Since then it has been a whirlwind of confusion and chaos sandwiched around a one week vacation.

David and I had planned to go to Jeju for the week, leaving on Friday night straight after work.  But suddenly, I had no job.  My school was closing and my kids were getting ripped away from me.  On my way to work on Thursday I cried for the first time about the whole situation as the weight of it hit me… on the bus… surrounded by random Koreans.  It was a great way to start the day.  I had no idea how I was going to enjoy a vacation when I had no income to come back too.

Luckily for us, on Friday (the day we were supposed to close), a man, ironically also named “Mr. Kim”, bought our contracts and we were saved in the nick of time.  And when I say “nick of time” I mean we were told that we still had jobs at 6pm that night, an hour and a half before we were supposed to start our vacation.  Those three days were an indescribable cavalcade of emotions for me.

It seems like David and I have been beaten down a lot since we have come to Korea.  It has made me question whether coming here was the right decision for us and if I am where I am “supposed” to be.  The answer is still unclear.  Here’s hoping that things get better at the “New CIS”.

Jeju Adventures: Days One and Two

Four days of vacation on an island is exactly what Tara and I needed recently, so thank goodness we had a week off to take it.  The good people at WinK loaded us up on a bus Friday night, and we overnighted it down to Mokpo.  The bus ride was awful and uncomfortable, and ended with an abortive attempt to sleep a few hours in a Jimjibang (a kind of sauna/bath house) before catching a scheduled ferry at eight thirty in the morning.  But everything after that was delightful!  We got to explore the natural beauty of Jeju island, and go on a lot of adventures that we, two ordinary mortals, would probably not have been able to organize on our own.

That’s the benefit of doing your vacations with a tour group: rigid time tables and a bus can help combat laziness and cover a lot of ground.  It’s a vacation optimizer!  It was also a truly excellent experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.  Well, maybe a plane ticket in lieu of that initial bus ride…

The Mokpo ferry took a few hours, then we finally arrived at Jeju island on Saturday, in the early afternoon.  A waiting bus took us to our first destination, the famous Loveland theme park (more about that excursion here), and then to our hotel on Hamdeok beach.  A few hours to settle in, and soon we were out for a night of pork barbecue and getting to know each other by the sea.  Hamdeok is a beautiful beach, with picturesque bridges, clear shallow water, and tide pools for the naturalist in all of us.  People were setting off fireworks in the night, and everyone was having a good time.

Day two was a whirlwind rush of exciting stops and experiences.  We went first to Seong San Il Chul Bong (Crater Mountain Sunrise Peak), a beautiful hike to the collapsed peak of an old volcano.  From there we took a ferry to Udo, or “Cow Island,” a small satellite to Jeju, and rode bikes around the perimeter.  We had three hours, enough time to circle the island and stop for some amazing food.  Udo had a little more rain than we expected going in, but it was still the highlight of our second day on vacation.

Back on Jeju proper, we paid a quick visit to a hedge maze (not an especially Korean hedge maze, just a fun diversion I suppose) before our last major event of the day: the Manjangul lava tubes.  We walked the length of a spectacular cave, admiring different geological forms and breathing a sigh of relief from the considerable heat and humidity above ground.

Back at Hamdeok for the night, Tara and I went out to eat at “Herb Burger,” a restaurant noted for serving enormous hamburgers that are meant to be shared by up to four people.  We got the smaller “couple’s burger,” and I have to say it was really more of a pork sandwich.  But it was a satisfactory end to a perfect day, by any means.  Here’s some pictures to show just how much fun we had!

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