One More Week

I’ve already told this story to a number of people, and the nature of it makes me dislike going over the details.  But I suppose, in the interest of completeness, I have to give an account of the situation here.  After all, in one week I won’t be here in South Korea anymore.  I’ll be on a plane to Portland, and start laying the groundwork for our next moves.

To put it simply, my vague plans of lingering in Korea for the next six months, supported by odd jobs and such, fell through after a visit to immigration.  Well, two visits really.  On my first, I was told I could not complete an application for a D-10 visa (six month duration, “looking for work”) without a proper letter of release from my previous employer, good old CIS.  A bummer, I thought, but not impossible to overcome.  So I sent the school an e-mail, and told them I’d be in the next day to collect it.  Why they hadn’t given me one on my last day, after doing so much to get rid of me, I haven’t the slightest idea. 

The following morning I had an interview with an online school, which went very well, and by the end of it I’d been offered a part-time job.  Riding high on sweet success, I hopped on the train to Uijeongbu and made good on my “threat”.  I’m not sure if anyone had actually read my e-mail, because my arrival seemed to surprise the entire staff.  But the whole thing passed without much of a problem.  I waited patiently, caught up on the latest company news, and soon had the document I came for in my hand.  I ran into two of my former students on my way out, which made me very happy despite feeling the loss again.  I have to say even now, that was a very good day.

The next morning (a Friday) I went back to immigration.  I got a couple of calls from the online school while I waited in line, setting up my schedule for the post-Chuseok start of my employment.  And then my number was called.

After I submitted my documents, I suffered a swift reversal.  The man behind the counter told me, in very urgent tones, that I could not get a D-10 visa.  Readers of this blog may recall that, as part of Tara and my Great Sangnok Escape, we had to get D-10 visas in order to apply for a new E-2 with CIS.  Because I had already had a D-10 this year, and because CIS was cynically portraying my departure as a voluntary resignation (since I had “agreed” to stop working on the day they said they’d stop paying me), I was not eligible. 

Stunned, then progressively more agitated and frustrated as I rode the subway home, I went over my options.  I thought about seeking legal recourse over my eligibility.  I thought about hopping over to Japan for a few days and returning on a tourist visa (which would only grant me 90 days).  I was especially anxious because that very evening, Tara and I were supposed to get on a bus with WINK for a little Chuseok vacation, camping on the beach on Namhae island.  I was not in the last-minute-packing sort of mood.

But in the end, we went on the trip.  We had a great time (as you’ll read about soon), and in our relaxed state we made a firm decision: it was time to go home, for both of us.

I didn’t particularly like e-mailing the online school over the holiday weekend to tell them I couldn’t work for them afternthey’d already put me on he schedule.  And I wasn’t especially thrilled when, after getting an immigration consultant on the phone, I was told that I was expected to leave Korea by the twenty second of September.  But both of these things seemed small in comparison to the relief that hit me that I was finally going home.

I’ve said this a million times in the last few weeks: South Korea is a beautiful country.  I have met amazing, friendly people in all corners.  I love the students I’ve had, and I’m grateful for the valuable working experience I’ve gotten from this (almost) year abroad.  But working here can be an absolute pain in the ass.  Some people have come here for great, fulfilling jobs that paid well and gave them a sense of security.  Tara and I did not.  We’ve each received less money than we’re entitled to from all our time working in Korea.  Our savings are negligible.  After signing two contracts that guaranteed a ticket back to America for us, we’re paying our own way home.

But it’s OK.  We’re alive, we’re together, and apart from saving money we’ve done most of what we wanted to do here.  We miss our families and friends, and we’ll be very happy to see them again for the holidays, something we weren’t expecting we’d be able to do.

Like I said before, I am leaving on the twenty second, in exactly one week.  Tara, however, will remain in Korea for almost another month.  Her mom and her brother are coming to visit for a few weeks.  After that, Tara will fly back to Oregon on October nineteenth.  Sadly, we won’t be reunited then, because I’ll be in San Diego with my family for the holidays.  She’ll stay in Oregon with her family, and we’ll join up again in January.  The prospect of waiting so long saddens me greatly, but I know it’s for the best.

So that’s the news, and I’m happy to have it all out there.  It’s not the most fun topic to write about.  But I hope we’ll have something more colorful up here soon.

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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.

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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NSFW Vacation: Jeju Loveland

The most important thing to remember about this post, before you start reading it, is that it is definitely, definitely, not safe for work.  Don’t read it, don’t even glance quickly over it, if you are offended by sexual images or reference.  You will find them here, represented in hilarious statue form.  The content is very light-hearted and fun, and all the real-live humans keep their clothes on.  But if you’d rather just not see a statue’s genitalia (or a statue of genitalia), then you’re reading the wrong post.

Once, again, not safe for work.  N-S-F-W!

If you would like to see these images, continue on!  You’re likely to chuckle.  I’ll put them safely under this handy read more tag.

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Fire Drill: Hotbox of Horror

Yesterday marked another first in my time teaching in South Korea: my first fire drill!  Fire drills are a critical part of education in every part of the world, insofar as incineration is among the least desirable outcomes for students.  With my classroom situated on the third floor of an entirely wooden (and not entirely up on its maintainence) building, I was glad to know my kids were learning important survival skills.

I went through a fair number of fire drills as a substitute teacher back in America (one wonders if there’s a statistical correlation between drills and teacher sick days), and of course I trudged through more than a dozen in my own student days.  But on the morning of, I didn’t really know what to expect.  Korea is always full of surprises.

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This being a kindergarten, the “drill” began in our (very flammable) gym with a safety presentation by an officer from the Uijeongbu fire department.  It was all in Korean, so I don’t know what he said, exactly.  But there were a couple of animations featuring a fire safety mascot of indeterminate animal species.  It was pretty easy to follow that.

Incidentally, they dial “119” for emergencies here in Korea.  I should probably remember that so I don’t waste time in a crisis.

The drill itself came later, mercifully without the obnoxious klaxon call I’d been brought up to associate with pretending to be in mortal danger.  We brought our classes downstairs, put on their outdoor shoes, and marched into the adjacent parking lot.  But there was no lamely standing in rows for us!

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Inside this truck, the firefighter guided four kids at a time through what I can only imagine to be a carnival haunted house-esque obstacle course, simulating an escape from an infernal housefire.  And there was smoke: lots and lots of smoke.

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Were the children scared?  Oh yes.  Most of it was the giggling sort of nervousness associated with roller coasters and high dives.  A few of the kids shed copious tears the moment they saw the smoke; another few broke down before they saw it, either from the rumor or the memory of the year before.  At least one scuttled down the steps after taking a good look inside.

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My own class did a great job.  Selina in particular was nervous before we started, but quickly got caught up in the excitement.  Dolphin Class is made up of second year kids (Korean age 6, western age 5 or so), so I guess you can say they were old pros at staring into the maw of death.  It takes more than the back of a smoke-filled truck to make Dolphin Class back down!

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In America, some might view the act of making a child crawl through a smoky van that’s been made to look like the burning ruins of their home or school as traumatizing.  But they do a lot of weird stuff in America, so who knows?  I personally would have loved to crawl around in their myself, as curious as I was.

A Children’s Art Show in Downtown Uijeongbu

I’ve never lived in an “urban” environment before.  But I have been really enjoying the conveniences of downtown Uijeongbu.  When it comes to entertainment or food, most of what I could want is in easy walking distance.  The neighborhood’s diagonal streets used to fluster me, but after a few months I’ve found them highly navigable.  As far as living goes, our present set-up is pretty ideal.

Apart from fixtures like shops and restaurants, my favorite thing about our neighborhood has to be the various events and performances that are usually going on along the main pedestrian road.  Usually it’s something simple, like a musician or a band setting up some amps and microphones and playing for the public.  But from time to time, something a little more intense goes up and really draws a crowd.

This morning I walked to the bank, and found myself in the middle of an exhibition of children’s art.  Evidently part of a three day festival, the paintings were lined up in rows according to age group, while the artists were receiving awards and certificates up on the stage.

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Korea's Finest, just starting out.

I can’t say too much about the specifics of the show, because nothing was in English, but it was delightful.  Several paintings were quite good, and the whole thing had a really positive atmosphere.  The theme of the pictures seems to be Korean culture/nationhood, and there were plenty of interesting and expressive takes on it.

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Paintings lined up by the Smoothie King

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My personal favorite piece. Love the composition and contrasts!

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More pictures (and plants) just outside the door of my bank.

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As you can see, this child has strong opinions on which country Dokdo island belongs to!

I love public art, and I’m glad that Uijeongbu’s kids got a chance to contribute to the festival (or whatever’s been going on) this morning.  Things like this are what I hope I’ll remember best about this year.

Cake Days

How did David Miller become a kindergarten teacher? 

I’m not prepared to offer a definitive answer tonight, as I suspect they’ll be debating this one for years to come.  Perhaps it was something in the soju, or a bit of undigested bibimbap.  But every morning I get up and walk to school, where I play fearless leader to a trio of tiny children.  I teach them how to spell words like “bug” and add numbers like 6 and 2.  I remind them to share their toys, and to put on smocks to keep their lunches from staining their clothes.

Even with all the fires of secondary education burning in my soul, the external evidence still indicates I’m a kindergarten teacher.  The rest is academic.

It’s not a bad gig, if you can get it.  Sometimes, I even feel pleasant sensations in my heart.  I think it might even be joy!  Yes, it can be a very joyful work environment, filled with laughter and colors and the wonder of marvelous possibilities.  But then again, today someone peed all over the floor in the hallway.

(It wasn’t one of mine.  But you know that one day, it could be.)

Like I said, I have three little monsters in my charge every day: two girls and a boy.  People tell me that it’s hard to teach such a small class; the classroom management equations get dire when the one kid acting out represents a third of those present.  I’m not sure I’d actually feel more in control if there were ten kids who would rather color than learn phonics in my classroom, but I won’t argue with the theory.

One of my three, the boy, is what I would call my nemesis.  We must all be tested by something in life, and in my case it seems I flew across an ocean and endured bureaucratic hell, to be tested each day by a kid named Andy.  Like all the best nemeses, he recalls a younger version of myself: hyperactive, inattentive, unwilling to sit in a chair.  Or still, ever.  I’m sure my old teachers can all relate.

The boy has his less-than-admirable traits.  In an age group not known for maturity and empathy, he stands apart as a paragon of self-centered insecurity.  Whenever we must form a line (and often we must), the question of “who is in front and why isn’t it me?” is ever in his mind.  It’s usually ringing in my ears, too.  He’s not above bullying the girls to get his own way.  And while he is clever, he has bad habits, like guessing the pronunciation of a word from the first letter alone, or conveniently forgetting the meaning of key classroom vocabulary.

“David Teacher, what is ‘sit down?'” he asks, whilst standing on his chair.  Again.

But I wouldn’t be writing about him if it were all that bad.  In point of fact, he’s been getting better these past weeks, and his misbehavior no longer deviates so strongly from the class average.   In fact, he’s capable of genuinely moving sweetness, and he’s clearly not out to make anyone’s life miserable.  But one place where he continues to stand alone is in strangeness.  In word and deed, Andy is baffling.  He knows it, and he loves it, and truthfully I kind of love it too.

About two weeks ago I heard him yelling about “Cake Days” during play time.  Since that is one of the few times of the day when I don’t need to be aware of every little thing he’s doing, I assumed he was excited about someone’s birthday and moved on with my life.  He kept doing it from time to time, and it wasn’t until this week that I learned the truth. 

Andy loves trains.  He loves buses too, and pretty much anything that moves.  I guess because they remind him of himself?  But that’s neither here nor there.  At playtime he usually busts out a lego train and guides it hither and yon, in defiance of the nature of trains but in accordance with the workings of his heart.  And when he excitedly offered to give one of the girls a ride on the Cake Days, I put it together.  In all the frantic urgency of being six years old (Korean age), he was trying to say “KTX.”

Andy can say KTX normally.  I’ve heard him do so a dozen times.  But at playtime, the KTX becomes Cake Days.  I don’t know how, but it does.  And it makes me laugh out loud.  I told him he was being hilarious.  He grinned, and went right back to writing the exciting saga of Cake Days.

I guess that’s the vital essence of kindergarten right there.