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Little Fish and Men in Hats (A Day in the Life of an English Teacher in Korea)
By Whitney Currier | On 22 May, 2014
It’s been about seven months since I first arrived in Daegu, Korea. From the moment I stepped off the plane, my life here has been one big adventure. And I mean “the moment I stepped off the plane” quite literally.
First, I came very close to missing my connecting flight to Daegu and spent my first half hour in the country panicked and running through the airport in Seoul, trying to keep my giant overstuffed bags from flying off the luggage cart…again. I was lost, had very little time to get to the gate, and couldn’t read or speak Korean. It felt like I was starring in my own heart-pounding episode of The Amazing Race, minus the partner, cameras, and cash prize at the end.
Fortunately, I made my flight. But my relief was short-lived: after getting to the baggage claim area in Daegu, I realized I had left my passport on the plane. My new boss was waiting for me at the airport and, needless to say, that was not the first impression I hoped to make. A few frantic calls between the airline staff on the ground and the flight crew later, my precious passport was returned to me and I was ready to have a glass (or bottle) of wine, get some sleep, and begin my new life.
My first day in Korea was not the smooth transition I hoped it would be, and since then there have certainly been times where I’ve been confused, lost, embarrassed, and unsure of myself. Indeed, the proverbial suitcase has flown off the luggage cart a few times. However, each day has also been an opportunity to learn something new, and grow more comfortable and confident in my life here.
So, seven months later, what’s my life like living and teaching in Daegu? I’ll take you through a typical day.
After pushing the snooze button on my phone a couple times, I finally get out of bed. I’m a little tired after my weekend in Seoul and today is Monday, my longest day. Fortunately, “long” at my university job in Korea means just three 50-minute English conversation classes and an hour of “language clinic”, where students come in to get extra practice in English.
I get ready and make breakfast: toast, which I “cook” on my skillet. A significant amount of time has passed since I arrived in Korea and I still haven’t bought a toaster. I could chalk this up to laziness, but I choose to look at it as an example of how adaptable and resourceful I am.
As I leave my dormitory on campus, I say “annyeong haseyo” to the cleaning woman and I’m on my way to class.
I arrive at my language clinic. Every ten-minute time slot has been reserved and students play on their phones or talk to friends while waiting for their turn. One by one, they come in nervously and ask me questions they have prepared, usually as an assignment from their English conversation teacher. “Do you like hamburger?” “How old are you?” The age question is a bit awkward, but after the seventeenth time it was posed to me, I got used to it. It also helps that, when I answer, they often react by saying something like, “Ohhhh! Young face! Like twenty-five.” If comments like that continue, I’m never leaving Korea.
About thirty minutes into my clinic hour, a freshman boy and girl come in together and ask me some questions they had planned. They are nervous and giggling throughout our conversation and finally, apparently unable to contain herself anymore, the girl blurts out “WE’RE A COUPLE!” I laugh and ask how long they’ve been together. “Twenty days,” she beams.
Although amused at her excitement and need to announce their relationship status to me, I’m hardly surprised. After seven months in this country, I’m well-acquainted with the “couple culture” of Korea: numerous couple holidays, couple clothing, couple rings. And as the semester progresses, more and more students can be seen walking through campus hand-in-hand and canoodling on benches under trees.
I sign their assignment sheets and they happily make their way out. I walk upstairs to my first class of the day.
My 11:00 Conversation 1 class has just ended and I go over my lesson one more time. I’m teaching again in five minutes and I’m being observed by my lead teacher, Justin. Once a semester, our lead teacher observes our class and gives us feedback on our lesson and teaching.
Luckily, I’m about to teach the same lesson that I just taught, so I’m able to gauge the timing and effectiveness of the various parts of the lesson. For example, I realize that we don’t have time to do that cloze exercise in the textbook, but the partner exercise practicing the frequency adverbs we learned works well.
My class clowns/rock stars, Bo-gab and Sang-min, are especially awesome today and once again their positive energy and hard (and loud) work permeates the whole class. They practically shout their answers to each other in their partner exercise (“JAMES GO SWIMMING FOUR TIMES A WEEK.”), Sang-min impatiently corrects Bo-gab (“goES swimming!”), and they provide comic relief to the whole class during the group mingle (“HOW OFTEN DOES BO-GAB HIT YOU? BO-GAB USUALLY HITS ME.”) Fairly confident that these allegations of abuse are simply for comedic effect, I laugh with them, review what we’ve learned that day, and dismiss the class.
Overall, I think the lesson went well and I’m not too worried about my observation results.
After having lunch at home, I walk to the Education building to teach my 2:00 Conversation 2 class, my last class of the day. I notice that an unusually high number of students are bowing to me today. Although it’s normal for my students to occasionally bow slightly as they enter or leave the classroom, more seem to be doing it today, along with a few students I don’t even know. I look down at my outfit. Do I look especially professional today? Am I giving off a vibe that is somehow commanding respect? Is this a Monday tradition I don’t know about?
When I first started teaching in Korea, I found this habit to be a little formal and it made me a bit uncomfortable. However, as with many aspects of my life here, it has become a normal part of my days and now it barely registers when it happens. Instead of feeling uncomfortable, I simply smile, say hi, and sometimes bow my head back to them. I’m not sure why it’s happening more today, but I’ll take it!
I finish my class and head back to the dorm. The cherry blossoms on campus are just starting to bloom and they’re absolutely gorgeous. Being a San Diego native, where the weather is fantastic yet changes little throughout the year, I am completely in awe of seasons.
While I’m forced to suffer through temperatures in the 20s and 30s Fahrenheit (Really, how can humans live through anything under 70 degrees?), being able to see the plants change from season to season, and now beautiful flowers appearing where there were none before, makes it all worthwhile. It really is magical.
I pull out my phone and take some pictures of the trees and flowers, something I’ll continue to do over the next few weeks.
After making a quick smoothie at home, I hop on the 840 bus to go to E-Mart, a Korean chain similar to Target (oh how I miss you, Target).
The 840 and I have come a long way.
When I first got to Daegu, unable to read or speak Korean, I had to rely on my eagle vision and child-like imagination when I took this particular bus. See, the 840 has two different routes, and you know which direction it’s going by reading this little white sign hanging in the window in the front of the bus. You could also ask the driver where he’s going by saying “___ gayo?” Six months ago, speaking to the driver and attempting to decipher Korean were both terrifying prospects to me, yet I had to learn to do both.
The sign says either Yeungnam University (영남대학교) or Hayang (하양), plus a few other words. I decided that “Yeung” (영) vaguely resembles a fish swimming to the left and “Ha” (하), the first part of Hayang, looks like a man in a hat. I was usually going towards Yeungnam, so as the 840 was coming towards my stop I would make sure I had an unobstructed view of the bus as it approached, lock my eyes on that sign, and look for either the fish or the man in the hat. Sometimes, if I didn’t get a good look at the sign or wasn’t sure, I sheepishly asked the driver, “Yeungnam gayo?” As nervous as I was, the drivers almost always understood me and were able to nod and say “Neh,” or shake their head in response.
These days, I still stare down that little white sign, but now I’m not filled with the same terror I once was and I’m not afraid to ask where he’s going. It’s a nice feeling.
I arrive at E-Mart, my happy place in Korea. I love walking up and down the aisles and looking at all the products. I pass the hiking section (Koreans love their hiking!), the adorable stationary, the vegetables I can’t quite identify, the canned meat aisle. I find myself humming along with the advertising jingles that play over and over again; I have no idea what they’re saying but I know them all by heart! My familiarity with this E-Mart isn’t quite as intimate as my knowledge of my Target store back in San Diego, where I’m pretty sure I could find at least half of what I needed blindfolded, but it’s getting close.
I put my lemons, baguette, detergent, and the few other things I bought in the backpack I brought, then I walk to the subway (another thing I’ve mastered!) and head back towards home.
My friend Joseph and I decide to meet to run a couple errands and have dinner in the town near our university called Hayang. We stop by the train station to buy tickets for our trip that weekend to a cherry blossom festival a couple hours away. Luckily, the people behind the window always speak a little English (and now we can read the Korean on our tickets), so we are confident we purchased the correct ones. Next, we head over to a small restaurant that we frequent so I can get my beloved dolsot bibimbap (look it up and feast your eyes upon that colorful deliciousness). After a quick trip to our favorite coffee shop, Roasting Robo, we make our way to the bus to head back to campus.
It’s hard to believe that seven months have gone by since my first anxiety-filled day in Korea. Though I still have many moments where I can’t read a sign or understand what someone is saying or order the wrong thing at a restaurant, I am substantially more comfortable now than I was when I arrived. And every time that 840 rolls up, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come. I’m looking forward to many more of these “typical days” and all the adventures in between!
Originally from San Diego, California, Whitney taught ESL for ten years, both in the U.S. and most recently in Korea. She’s now a freelance writer, which enables her to work while roaming the world. After six months in Southeast Asia, she’s now in Italy writing, taking pictures, eating everything she sees—and trying to find the motivation to work between adventures! Follow her at www.the-spaces-between.com and on Instagram @_the_spaces_between_
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