Apple, or, Slight rebellion off 근거리
I had an argument with the 부장님 who drives me to work. It was a very Korean argument. Neither of us disagreed with the other person; we just offered up thoughts in this disembodied way, as if we were talking about other people or abstract concepts. Everything was said by implication, but it was no less stressful than if we had been screaming. I nearly cried.
The topic was desk-warming. Or maybe it was about me talking to other people about my problems, when she thought they were her responsibility, and I should have come to her. I think it was really about the gap between Western and Korean perceptions. I’m glad we had it out. And I’m glad I managed to do it in that circuitous Korean way, and that I didn’t lose my shit or damage my reputation permanently. If nothing else, I can say that: I didn’t lose my shit.
An attempt to avoid desk-warming, gone awry
I’ve been desk-warming a lot this winter. I wrote an article on here about how to avoid desk-warming, and I still think the article is good; but just the same, as I noted in the article, sometimes it is impossible to avoid. And I couldn’t get out of it, though I certainly tried. Actually, I tried far too hard.
I didn’t think I would be asked to desk-warm at this school. Before I took the job, I found on the internet a post by a previous teacher, who wrote that the principal and vice-principal were “extremely generous when it came to vacations”, and that he’d had 40 vacation days in a year. What I didn’t know was that the principal and vice-principal had changed since that time, and the new vice-principal was an unimaginative man; new to the job, insecure about it, and unlikely to grant exceptions.
Still, in my ignorance, I went about trying to avoid desk-warming, using the method described in that post. And it worked, too, up to a point.
I had plans to go back to Australia for my vacation, and my co-teacher – a nice but completely useless Korean woman who has such difficulty managing her own life that she should never have been tasked with helping me manage mine – asked me how long I wanted to go for. “You have twenty vacation days you can use,” she said. She meant, for the entire year. “So maybe ten days is good,” she said.
“I don’t want to see my family for just two weeks,” I said.
“But if you use more, then you have no vacation time left,” she said. “I think you will need to use those next vacation.”
What I wanted, of course, was for her to get me that time off without using my vacation days. As anyone who has worked in Korean public schools knows, this time of year is filled with empty days – school recess, and days that might as well be vacation for all that is accomplished. Korean schools start and stop like some complicated piece of rusting machinery: wheezing slowly into life and shutting down with a prolonged groan and cranking of gears.
“How many vacation days did S get?” I asked, as if making conversation. S was the former teacher who had written on the internet about his extended vacation.
“20. The same,” my co-teacher said.
“Really?” I said. “Because I read on the internet that he had 40 days, and he said that the principal and vice-principal were very generous about vacations.”
“Ah,” she said. “At that time, the vice principal and principal were very kind. But I think the new vice-principal is…” she shrugged.
“응,” I said. A Korean, barely-verbal, acknowledgement. And waited.
Often in Korean conversations like this, there is a first-mover disadvantage. An example: a co-teacher might mention that there is something she wants to buy on the internet, but it can only be shipped to a US address. And then there will be a long silence, until finally you say, “I suppose I could ask my parents…”
“Oh, no,” they will say. “That is too big a burden for you.” But by then it is too late – you have spoken.
It was this type of silence that now hung there. But I didn’t speak. And finally my co-teacher said, “OK, I will ask the vice-principal for you…”
To her credit, she did a good job of it. She appealed to his generosity, suggested I could be given extra time, mentioned the previous teacher. He turned her down flat. Part of the problem was the dates for English camp, which were mid-holidays, and awkward – giving me extra time to go home would have extended into the technical start of the school year, although I knew I was unlikely to be doing anything useful in that time anyway.
My co-teacher told me that he’d said no. I asked her if there was anything I could do. She suggested that maybe if I asked the vice-principal myself…
So I did. In Korean, I gave him my best pitch. “교감선생님~~! 이 방학에 호주에 가고싶어요. 가족 보고싶어요. 근데 시간이 너무 잛어요. 어떠게요?” Which is probably awful grammar, but got the point across. “Vice-principal, this vacation I want to go to Australia. I want to see my family. But time is very short. What can I do?”
I really thought it might work. But he told me that I would have to come to school, as school would be in session at that time.
I was stuck desk-warming.
The shocking truth about desk-warming
I’ve never been a fan of desk-warming. Yes, I know I am paid for it, and it’s alright for a couple of days, but doing it for weeks at a time is destructive to the soul. Like most Westerners, if there is no work to do, I see no reason to be at work.
I think Koreans have a different idea about “hard work” than we do. I think they measure hard work by duration, while we measure it by intensity. For Koreans, to work hard is to spend a long time at work, whereas to a Westerner, to work hard is to throw yourself into a task with a lot of intensity and energy. This explains a lot about what you see at Korean schools – it also explains why Koreans work such long hours, but have such low productivity rates.
Still, my tolerance for desk-warming has been further diminished as I have come to understand the hypocrisy of it. No Korean teacher ever told me this willingly; I learned some of it by accident, some of it by observation and inference, and finally had it confirmed in my argument with 부장님 due to a miscommunication. This is the truth about desk-warming:
Ask a Korean teacher how much vacation they get, and they will tell you, “Oh, I only get 12 days.” But this is only part of the story. What they get, in addition, is personal development time, during which they are supposed to work independently on their teaching skills.
For some, particularly those with career ambitions, this may mean attending courses during the vacation, or running the school while nobody else is there. But for most, what it means is this: they propose a spurious “project” which will take up almost no real time, and for which they will produce a report before they return to school. It is a falsity that everyone understands and politely ignores. This is only for “real” teachers – the admin staff, the contract teachers, librarians, and us, don’t get that.
부장님 showed me her photo albums of her vacation trip to Laos. Amongst the hundreds of holiday snaps, there was one page of her visiting a Laotian elementary school. That wasn’t a vacation she took, you see – that was her developing her teaching skills by learning about education in Laos.
A season of desk-warming
And so I desk-warmed. It was made doubly frustrating by my school being located out in the country. So there was no escape. The buses are irregular, so I have to get lifts to work. In the vacation, I went with the kindly admin lady. And because my school is so small, even during English camp and the brief, pointless couple of weeks between Winter and Spring vacation, there was little for me to do. I haven’t taught more than two classes in a day since November.
I tried to stay productive. But the students weren’t there, or else they went home early. Empty schools are depressing. The winter was so cold. The snow fell and didn’t melt, it stayed on the ground, compacting down to dirty ice.
I went home for my two weeks of official vacation, and came back. I felt refreshed, but it didn’t last. It was snowing when I landed again at Incheon. I went back to school. School was back in session for two weeks, but I only taught three classes in that time.
I made comments to people, including 부장님. Probably I shouldn’t have. It wasn’t very Korean.
Spring vacation came, and again the teachers scattered. Supposedly we were doing workshops, but a lot of the teachers didn’t seem to need to come to them.
Finally, this week, the “workshops” got serious. There were new teachers. On Monday we had a workshop, which turned out to be code for a five hour meeting in Korean. I sat through it, and my Korean is improving, but its not so good that I can concentrate on people talking in it for five hours, or anything close to that. I just sat there, numb.
The next day 부장님 said to me, “I’m sorry, I think yesterday was very boring for you.”
“It’s all boring,” I said. “I’ve hardly done anything for three months.”
She told me that today would be different – we would talk about scheduling, which would be important for me.
But it wasn’t different. It was another five hour meeting in Korean.
I started to get a headache. I was sure it was from listening to people talk in a foreign language for five straight hours. I stood up from the meeting, went over to the wonderful admin lady, and asked if there was anything in the medical supplies for a headache. She went into the medicine closet and gave me a handful of children’s aspirin.
I left the staffroom and walked out into the hall to get some water. I swallowed my handful of aspirin. They were strawberry flavoured.
My co-teacher was there. She’s going to another school this semester, and was only there to clean out her classroom. She asked me if I was OK. She said she could tell I’d been unhappy lately.
“I’ve been coming to school for three months and not teaching,” I said. “Every day, coming to school and doing nothing, for no reason, just because I didn’t go to Korean teachers’ college.”
I didn’t say it to her as a tactic – I was on edge and ready to break. Winter had taken me to that point.
Something in my attitude to Korea seemed to change over the length of this very cold winter. Since I first came to Korea I have always tried to be as Korean as possible. It was partly a desire to not be an ugly foreigner, but a lot of it was the privileged traveler’s pretentious desire to “not be a tourist”. When I went around Europe I was proud that in every country I visited, I was at some point asked for directions. I blended. I wasn’t a tourist.
Blending in Korea is obviously more difficult. For a long time I had as a sort of jokey goal to be asked directions by a Korean. It took 18 months, but it eventually happened. I was walking near Dongdaegu station, wearing my big coat with the hood up, when a voice from behind me said, “Ajassi~~!” I turned, and the man, a soldier, realised his error when he saw my face, but he pressed on anyway. He asked me if I knew where the bus terminal was. It was about 100 meters away, so I pointed it out to him and went on, and I was cheerful for the rest of that day.
But lately I’ve been feeling this profound rejection. I’ve had down periods here before, but this feels different. I want to stand and shout, “I am not Korean. And actually, I don’t want to be Korean.” Because it sometimes feels like the further you go with Korea, the more is expected of you. I want to go back to how it was in my first year, when everything I did was greeted with a sort of delighted indulgence by everybody. Nobody back then would have asked me to sit through a five hour meeting in Korean.
I think – is this the reward I get for trying so hard? Because there aren’t very many of us who do. Most of the English teachers here are either travelers on a one or two year working vacation, or older and slightly defective expats who’ve found some sort of refuge in a foreign country. Those of us who are here because we really like the culture and like teaching kids, and who entertain some notion of staying for a long time, are such a small minority. I think of Liz at I’m No Picasso blog, who has gone much further with this than I have, and who once used to write such positive things, and who now spends her time engaging in furious battles, in Korean, with her school’s bureaucracy, and wonder – is this trajectory inevitable?
After talking to my co-teacher, I went and had a cigarette and tried to calm down. Then I went back into the meeting. It was still where I had left it – a roundtable discussion, chaired by 부장님, about… something, but I’d long since stopped trying to focus on what they were saying.
At a certain point 부장님 stopped and asked me, “How about you – do you know what we’re talking about?”
“No,” I said.
“We’re talking about children learning,” she said.
Normally her English is good, but this time I couldn’t understand what she was saying. “Running?” I said, pantomiming with my arms.
“No, no, learning. What do you think about children learning?”
I sat there. I had no idea how to answer.
“Do you think it is only about memorisation, or…?”
I knew what I was supposed to say. But the question was so leading, and my head was pounding, and I blanked. I couldn’t switch my mind into English, couldn’t formulate a sentence. I looked down and to my left, trying to think of something to say, and my new co-teacher, who is to replace my old one, laughed. There was a long, long silence.
I looked up. “Sorry,” I said. “I have a headache.”
“Maybe next time,” 부장님 said. It was obvious to everyone, I think, that I was starting to unravel.
부장님 runs the school; she is the principal in all but name. She is extremely intelligent, extremely political, and led the charge to turn our school into an innovation school, which at least in our case means an attempt to move away from all the things for which Korea’s education system gets criticised: competition, rote memorisation, studying for tests. She is unmarried, devoted to her educational ideals, and works incredibly hard. Amongst her self-appointed duties is to act as my defacto co-teacher, my official one being almost useless; she also drives me to school. I like and admire her, but she is a strong person who doesn’t have a lot of time for opinions other than her own. There is an irony, too – for all her faith in co-operative learning and empowering students, she is, in her own management style, autocratic and very Korean.
That night we had the farewell party for the teachers who were leaving, which it turns out is about half the school. Some had completed their five year turns; others, I think, were pushed by 부장님.
I sat at dinner with the admin lady I like so much, who usually drives me home. Her English is even worse than my Korean, so our conversations are limited, but she has shown me more genuine kindness than anyone else in the school. But the dinner was difficult – it kept going on, and I still had my headache and so didn’t want to drink, and I just couldn’t sit and listen to Korean anymore.
It finished around nine, but then the proposal was to move on to noraebang. And I couldn’t do it. My head was killing me, I felt on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and I had been sitting and listening to people speak Korean for over twelve hours. I was going to slip away, but the admin lady asked me in Korean what I was going to do. I said I was going to get a taxi, but she went and spoke to the other 부장님, and told him that I was sick, and that she would drive me home. And then, before the principal and other teachers could emerge from the restaurant, she ran and jumped in her car, and beckoned me to follow, and she drove me home, even though it was far out of her way.
She wanted to leave, too, and was glad of the excuse. But just the same I was grateful for her kindness.
The next day I went to work with 부장님.
We talked about the plan for the day. The workshop was now taking a different turn, and we would be doing some sort of art therapy that day to relieve our stress. (My school is really weird.) “Everybody is stressed,” 부장님 said. “You, too.”
She asked me how I’d come home the night before, and I told her. She said art therapy would be good, “And today you won’t get a headache.”
The forthcoming weekend was a long weekend, but our school was also to be closed on Thursday. She said, “You can maybe have that day off. But you need to ask the principal. And I think you need to use one of your vacation days. Every teacher will use a vacation day.”
This was a point of tension, because last time this had happened she had said the same thing – “Every teacher will use a vacation day” – and I had to get out my contract and show where it said that when school was closed during semester, I could have time off without using my vacation days. But the situation was different, now; it was vacation, not an in-semester day, and that makes a difference by the arcane rules of my contract, and so I couldn’t use that argument.
I said that yes, I would ask the principal. And then I said, “How do you say ‘work from home’ in Korean?” And unwittingly, I ramped up the tension quite a bit by asking that.
If you read my thing on avoiding desk-warming, you will know why I said that. In that article I wrote that I thought the idea of “working from home” was a key to avoiding desk-warming; that it gave everyone the opportunity to save face while not coming to school. And I was right about that; but the thing is, I was far more right than I had realised. What I hadn’t realised was that “work from home” in Korean is the exact phrase for that extra type of vacation which the regular teachers get, and we don’t. And what I had unintentionally done, by asking that question, was highlight the essential hypocrisy that everyone understands but nobody talks about: that Korean teachers have an extra, somewhat dubious way of extending their vacations.
부장님 paused. She said, “That’s… a difficult word.” She paused again, and took a breath, and then told me what I had already worked out: that Korean teachers have “work from home” vacation, and I don’t get that. She said that some teachers would use this sort of vacation on Thursday, and some would use a regular vacation day.
I said, “Yes. I know how the system works.” And was silent.
There was tremendous tension in the car. We drove on, not speaking.
As we approached school, 부장님 spoke. She said, “I think every teacher at this school is a good person. But if you have a problem, you should tell me. I am the supervisor, and that is my job.” Obviously something I had said to somebody – I presume what I told my old co-teacher the previous day – had come back to her. She said, “If you have a problem with anyone at the school, you should tell me.”
I didn’t know what she was referring to, here, as I don’t have a problem with anyone, so far as I know. I laughed and said, “No, I don’t have a problem with anyone at the school.”
She said, “Or, if you have a problem with your vacation, you should tell me.”
So I did.
There is a tendency when you are recounting an argument to edit; to make your own points devastatingly logical, the other person’s inherently unreasonable. I am trying not to do that. To the best of my recollection, this is exactly what I said. But I had been rehearsing these points in my head for months, and I was ready to say them.
I said, “Well, I am unhappy with my vacation. But I think you know that. According to my contract, I am an assistant teacher. I am only supposed to help other teachers in their English classes. But that isn’t what I do. I am a teacher, the same as you. And that’s OK. I want to be a teacher. But then, in vacation, I am suddenly only an assistant. And I have to come to school for weeks and do nothing. And there is no reason for it, and the school gets nothing from my being here. And you can go to Laos, and because you visit a school for one day, that is not considered vacation. I think it is very unfair, and yes, I am unhappy about it. But I think you know all that.”
I was almost hyperventilating as I said it. I had really become ragged over the past couple of months. The frustration of doing nothing, the ever-present tension of living in a foreign country, the five hour meetings in Korean…
Koreans avoid direct conflict. While our tones had remained measured, this is about as direct a conflict as you can have in a Korean workplace, and probably most Koreans would never say something like that to a superior. I don’t think 부장님 expected it.
We had pulled into the school as I said it. After a moment 부장님 said, “I think I need to read your contract.”
I thanked her for driving me to work. Got out of the car and fled to the safety of the English room.
At ten o’clock we went for our art therapy. We drove about ten minutes to where this would take place. We went into a beautiful, minimalist art studio with high ceilings, wood paneling, and a pot-belly stove in the center of the room. Sunlight came in through the glass windows.
I had thought we would be doing art, but the teacher was strange. He wore a tight black knit cap, beneath which his hair was shaved like a Buddhist monk’s, and it became clear that he was as much some sort of philosophical guru as he was an art teacher. We were given tea made off the pot-belly stove. The trappings of the place, the tea (and the tea ceremony later), as well as references to Japan that I overheard and the lunch we ate, suggested Zen Buddhism. Yet in his opening monologue I also heard a lot of references to 예수 – Jesus – so I’m not totally sure what kind of place we were in.
A woman – his wife? – was helping to run things, and also a beautiful girl who was introduced as a university student. She seemed part-assistant, part-student – some sort of formal or informal apprenticeship, I supposed. (I’m sorry to be so vague about all this, but not a lot was translated for me that day, and my understanding of Korean is fragmentary at best.)
After his extended opening parable which I couldn’t understand, we did an art exercise. We were given a food item in a canvas bag, and told not to open it. We were to draw it by touch, moving our finger along it as if we were an ant, and draw it from that. I presume there was an allegory behind the task, and it’s not hard to imagine such things. But independently of what that might be, it’s a good art exercise: one of a type that aims to stop you perceiving an object as a symbolic representation, and instead perceive it truthfully.
부장님 was right; art therapy was what I needed. I went into the task with enthusiasm. My item was obviously an apple, but I followed my finger along it and drew those lines as best I could.
I went much faster than the other teachers, who were approaching it in a plodding, literal way that I thought was somehow typically Korean. I finished much faster than anyone else, but I was happy; I thought my apple was really good.
I went outside and smoked a cigarette, then came back and looked at my apple again. I thickened up some lines and added some shading around its edge. I was very pleased with my apple. The teacher told me to write my thoughts in the moment next to the apple, so I did that.
We finished, and we looked at each other’s artworks. Mine was clearly the best and everybody, including the art teacher, praised it and said so. I felt good.
We had lunch, then an extended tea ceremony involving an unlimited series of tea-makings, while the art teacher lectured on his philosophy. The other teachers seemed content to listen to him, so perhaps he was very wise and interesting, although I couldn’t follow very much of it. So I drank my tea and waited.
The beautiful Korean girl was there, assisting the art teacher by boiling water over and over again. With nothing else to do, I stole glances at her out of boredom and admiration. She had a wonderful countenance; a still face that made me think of a line in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, where the narrator describes his Korean-adoptee wife’s face:
I cupped her chin in my hand, and stroked her cool hair, and admired for the one thousandth time the surprising planes of her downturned face.
The art student had a traditional Korean face; not the angular face of an idol, and Chabon has it perfectly right when talking about that sort of Korean face: the beauty is in the planes.
Sometimes she appeared to be meditating, and at other times she played with her phone, and then at times, unlikely as it was, it seemed like she was looking at me. I felt like I could be falling in love, right there, with this beautiful art student.
The teacher droned on. After about an hour and a half of this, I started to feel the same sort of frustration I had felt the previous days at the extended Korean language meetings. I got up, went outside, walked around the parking lot, smoked a cigarette. I fantasized that the art student would follow me out, and I could start a conversation, but of course she didn’t. I came back, and listened some more. After two hours of tea and listening, we went back to the art room.
Now we were making something with clay. The teacher got us to press our clay into dramatic, angry shapes with our thumbs, then told us to use this technique to make something – anything, so long as it was organic, and not a man-made thing.
I tried to make a tree, but it went awry and became a sort of abstract, headless, bent-over figure, limbs splayed. In the end I thought it was OK, but not great. But the art teacher praised it as well.
The art student had made a log-like thing that resembled nothing so much as a giant dildo. The art teacher moved around the room, discussing each of our works, then came finally to the art student’s.
“잘 못했어,” he said. “미안해.” You didn’t do a good job. Sorry. Still, it was hard to argue his point.
She smiled and said something like, “I had another idea.”
It was time to go. We stood and said goodbye. I found myself suddenly in the proximity of the art student, and our eyes met with an intensity that made me freeze up, made me bow, probably inappropriately given her age, and back away. It felt like something, but I always distrust my impressions in moments like that.
We said goodbye, and left. As I was stepping outside the door, a voice said my name, and I turned and saw the art student.
“I just wanted to say, I think you’re great,” she said, in accented but otherwise perfect English. “I think you were great today. If I was learning a language, and didn’t know how to speak a word of it, this is how I would want to learn.”
It was such a strange impression for someone to have of me; it seemed so much better than the reality. I felt that I’d been impatient, edgy like I had been for so long, and had paid almost no attention to the Korean.
“Wow, your English is amazing,” I said – stupidly, but I was surprised. I think you’re great, I wanted to say, but didn’t.
“Anyway, I wanted to say that,” she said.
I wanted to say something, anything to extend the conversation. But all I could do was to repeat my amazement at her English.
“Oh, no,” she said, and shook her head. “Anyway – goodbye.”
Our eyes met again. The “goodbye” threw me – Koreans use it generically as a farewell, not aware of the implications of finality that it has in English. But I could think of nothing to say but “goodbye”.
We got in the car. The art student waved. I was angry with myself for not having asked her what university she went to – there is one right near where I live, and I felt that if I could have managed to bring this possibility into the conversation, I could have somehow arranged to meet her again. I should at least have asked her name.
We drove away. I held my drawing of the apple in my hand and looked at it. I felt better about Korea than I had in a long time.
We went back to school. It was time to go home. 부장님 said to me, “What do you want to do tomorrow? Do you want to take the day off?”
I said, “Yeah, about that…”
She nodded and turned to the other 부장님 and asked him if he would ask the principal if I could have the day off. She asked him if it was “work from home” vacation or regular vacation, and he said that I had worked hard, and should have “work from home” vacation. (Of course I hadn’t worked hard – other than in the Korean sense of spending a long time at work.)
He phoned the principal and asked him, then nodded to me in confirmation. He got out the dreaded “book” that records all my absences in bureaucratic detail. He looked over it, then looked at me. “Do you have any plans?” he asked me.
I said I had plans, but not interesting ones.
“Because,” he said, “If you have a plan to go somewhere, then we need to fill this in. But if you are staying at home, then I think we don’t need to do this.”
“I understand,” I said. “I’ll be staying at home.”
“Good,” he said. He closed the book with a snap, and put it away, and then we all went home.