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.

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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You Might Be Hearing Less of Me.

I have been very neglectful of this blog lately, mostly because I have been exhausted from work but also because I have just been lazy.  Starting July 18th, however, you might be hearing even less from me… Is that possible? I’m going to venture to say yes.  Basically, long story short, David and I don’t seem to be able to find a good job, work for a year, and go home.  My school, Gangbuk CIS, is doing some “restructuring” to put it nicely, and I am being required to take over a kindergarten class without getting any of my other classes taken from me.  This basically comes down to me working from 9:30 am to 7:20pm straight (minus a lunch break), Monday through Friday.  That is 42.5 teaching hours a week. It is going to suck…

However, I have had a few days to digest this information and  decided to look at this a good opportunity and not a something that will steal my sanity.  Here is my list of reasons why this is a good thing.

1) I get to teach a kindergarten class.  I might be eating my words in a couple weeks but, honestly, I am really excited to teach a kindergarten class.  When I signed my contract, that is what I thought I would be doing.  This will be my chance to experience this age group in my own classroom, with my rules, and my teaching.  Plus they are so darn cute.

2) More specifically, I get to teach Dolphin Class. Dolphin Class at my school had 8ish adorable, really smart, mostly well-behaved six-year olds.  It is their second year at CIS so their English is already pretty dang good.  Dolphin class was always one of my favorite classes to teach in Activity Room because they are consistently awesome!  If I had to choose one of the kindergarten classes, it would be that one.

3) No more Activity Room. I was not a fan of teaching activity room.  I liked teaching a couple of the classes but most of them were really crazy and hard to control.  The hardest part though was coming up with activities each month.  The activity room is a small space filled with toys and slides.  I have to keep the kids doing an activity for 25 minutes before they can play.  This is not an easy task.  I am glad I will be done with it.

4) I will get paid more. Not a lot more, not enough to make all the hours “worth it”.  But still more.  I have realized that I need to start saving more money and this will help.

5) I already almost work this many hours anyways.  I usually come in by 10:30 everyday already so I only need to add one hour extra AND I will be getting paid for it.  Right now I am at work a million hours and don’t get paid for it… so yeah… might as well throw another class at me.

Series of Short Posts 3: Dinners with Mr. Kim

Nothing is ever simple in Korea (or in life, but we’re talking about Korea).

Things have improved tremendously for Tara and myself since we started our new jobs.  We’re happy and stable and we have great friends, and though we no longer work at the same site, we can appreciate the differences in our routines and the divergent perspectives that grants us.

That said, I sometimes feel like I’ve been stuck in a dinghy while Tara rides in a more seaworthy vessel.  Not everything, sad to say, is sunshine at CIS Uijeongbu.  A few weeks ago, we had something of a “regime change” in our office.  Our previous vice-principal (who was essentially managing the company in all but title) quit abruptly, and the man who stepped in to fill his shoes and direct this crazy show is none other than Mr. Kim, the company’s owner.  Despite predictions to the contrary, I have seen him in the office pretty much every day and he does appear to be filling that role.

Life under Mr. Kim hasn’t changed all that much, from one perspective.  The drinking fountains still dispense water.  the wifi signal still won’t reach my classroom consistently.  The building remains firmly rooted to its foundations.  The furniture in the office has moved around, but everybody sort of agrees that it kind of works better that way.  But despite the outward appearances, we have had problems.  Whether it’s Korean supervisors not being paid, or management “forgetting” to pay into our pension funds on time, or last minute announcements of new teaching assignments and the drastic curtailment of prep time, the new regime has often found itself in the position of apologizing and pleading for accommodation from us.

Mr. Kim’s preferred venue for such discussions is taking everyone out to dinner.  His preferred tack for navigating these discussions is to buy lots of meat and booze and encourage us to have fun.  Making plans on a Friday night is dangerous, because it’s becoming increasingly common for Mr. Kim to spontaneously decide we need to go out.  This means free meat and booze, and that’s kind of OK.  It’s just one of the features of the new regime, along with uncertainty over teaching hours and a dream-like sensation of floating through a sort of shadow-realm.  I’m betting most of my co-workers don’t even get that last one.

We’ve learned lots of things about Mr. Kim from these dinners.  For one, he is generous: not “pay your Korean staff on time” generous, but “everybody’s invited, let’s go get hammered!” generous.  Our last outing ended up turning into one of those boy’s nights you hear so much about in Korea, despite our staff being preponderantly female; on the other hand, our old vice principal used to sneak out of the office so that he wouldn’t have to tell all the girls we were going out.

Another thing we’ve learned about Mr. Kim is that he owns a norebang (that’s Korean for Karaoke club, for those who don’t know).  The first time he treated the entire staff (plus Tara) to dinner, he led us to the norebang for a glorious after-party.  Mr. Kim’s Norebang (the establishment’s actual name*) is sort of a shrine to Jeff Beck, for some reason, with other mid-70s guitar heroes accorded prominent, but lesser, status on its walls.  And when you go up to sing your heart out in front of everyone, you’re accompanied by an actual guitarist.  I don’t think Mr. Kim technically owns the guitarist too, but I’m not going to commit to that conclusion.  Either way, Mr. Kim is committed to the idea that his labor force will be content and his school will function well as long as everyone is having a great time.

Basically, Mr. Kim is Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.  The metaphor is not perfect, but the mental imagery is just about.

Anyway, that’s how things are on my front.  Although things are weird here, and I’m going to have to figure out new and creative ways to politely drink less before these Friday nights kill me, we’re surviving and adapting.  I don’t know how long the new regime will last before Mr. Kim is sick of doing everything himself, but change is definitely a constant in our lives.

*as far as I am concerned.

Series of Short Post 2: Cherry Blossom Festival Edition

Well the Cherry Blossoms were here… and now they are gone.  Would they be as beautiful if they stayed year round? Philosophical musings aside, David and I went to a Cherry Blossom Festival on April 5th with some friends from Uijeongbu.  It was great fun, except the weather was not as nice as we hoped.  The festival was not quite what I was expecting and I did not want to be one of those people taking hipster pictures of the cherry blossoms.  This meant hardly any pictures of actual flowers but I got the interesting stuff!  I let the pictures do the talking.

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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.