Sunday, August 4, 2013

Teaching: the not-so-boring version

Here it is at last - the long-promised not-boring treatise on teaching.

If you read my last post, you will remember that I am not here to stumble aimlessly around Seoul, sweaty and mute, eating spicy food and taking low-quality pictures with my iPhone. Rather, I have come with a purpose. I am teaching three no-credit courses at a women's university in Seoul, and in spite of various obstacles and oddities, I am quite enjoying myself. But I have not told you of these various obstacles and oddities. And since obstacles and oddities are ultimately what make life interesting, I feel that they will be more interesting to you than hearing me harping along about how much I love what I'm doing.

I won’t summarize the whole six weeks, either. I’ll just tell you about one day – one particularly eventful day – that I think sums up my experience quite nicely.

One this particular day, I wake up promptly at 7:30. I check my email, my Facebook, my Pinterest. I ingest yoghurt and cornflakes. Then I shower while droning, repetitive pop music blares from my iPhone. In place of my usual shorts and wrinkled T-shirt, I put on a skirt and a nice silk teal shirt, because today, I am not a frumpy college student. I am a teacher. I may be a fraud, but at least I'm a well-dressed fraud. I throw on a bit of makeup, grab my umbrella, put on the only pair of heels I own, and teeter out the door.

Today, per most days, it is raining heavily. It is also 85 degrees. Humidity is at 99%. I have started to grow used to the muggy monsoon weather, and while 85 degrees is certainly uncomfortable, it's not unbearable. It isn't as if I'll pass out or become delirious. It'll be fine.

By the time I reach the classroom, I am not dead, but I’m certainly moist. Class starts in twenty minutes. I turn the air conditioners that line the wall on high and hope, that in the twenty minutes I have until class begins, I will be sweat-free.

Ten minutes pass. I am at the computer, downloading all necessary handouts and powerpoints. I do not feel particularly hot. But in spite of this, I am coated in sweat. My shirt is covered with suspicious dark patches. Liquid drips from my face onto the keyboard below.

I now realize that the air conditioning never comes on until about 10:30. Shit, I think. What the hell am I supposed to do? Class starts in five minutes. I can't teach like this. I can't even be in public like this. I go to the bathroom, mop my face with toilet paper, but the sweat comes back faster than I can remove it.

Shit, I think. Shit shit megashit.

You should know that I am not disgustingly out of shape. Nor am I (to the extent of my knowledge) terminally ill, or truly ill in any way. I do not wheeze too terribly when I go up hills or steep staircases, and once, in my high school days, I ran a 5K in 23 minutes and 30 seconds. But for reasons unknown, I sweat. And I sweat a LOT.

"Oh, it's okay!" you say, as you giggle nervously. "I do that, too!"

No, you don't understand. Do you soak through everything you're wearing? Do your arms, your legs get wet? Does your face drip sweat onto the floor? If you answered "yes" to any of these, you have my sympathy. If you said "no," then you do not sweat. You barely grasp the meaning of the word "sweat." Do not assume to understand the plight of true sweaters.

Three minutes. Maybe two. I have to get back to class. I have to reveal myself to the world, in all my dripping glory, because I am a TEACHER, dammit. I might be nineteen, and I might be more of a bullshitter than an imparter of knowledge, but I am not here to feel sorry for myself. I am here to instruct. I have a job to do.

Well, an internship, technically.

At one minute to ten, I stride into class and give my students the usual corny smile. Normally, I'm quite sarcastic, and, as my mother informs me, "a little intense." But when I teach, I transform into a grinning, giggling, nodding, mmhm-ing, skirt-wearing happy robot. I don't know why. I just do.

At first, the students smile back. Then those smiles slip into frowns of concern as they notice that I'm pale, soaking wet, and probably look kind of like the stink monster from Spirited Away:

"Towoh!" I say, beaming madly. This is Korean for "hot." It's an excellent conversation starter - my only conversation starter, really.

The students are politely impressed at my grasp of Korean. But I can see in their eyes another look - pure horror.

"Don't I look terrible?" I say. "Look at me. It's the middle of monsoon season, raining and raining, and I forgot my umbrella."

The lie is out of my mouth before I can stop it. But some of them believe it. They laugh along with me, nod sympathetically. But some of them are not fooled. They are probably thinking, "I wonder if that is her umbrella sitting in the corner." Or, "But she's only wet in...patches."

But they are kind enough to drop the subject. Still, the first half-hour before the air conditioning kicks in is noticeably awkward. No one wants to be (or be taught by) someone who is showering the floor around them with droplets every time they move. As for the smell - well, I will leave that to your imagination. But by the second hour of class, the air conditioning has finally come on, and I am more or less dry.

We go over some new vocabulary. Then we turn to a new topic - beauty standards. The students have a discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of plastic surgery, and I do my best to direct the conversation in a meaningful way. But I barely need to. My students are curious, intelligent – and while their English may not be perfect, they always manage to get their point across one way or another, with or without proper grammar. They are kind, they are respectful. I am so lucky, I think. These are the easiest, most interesting students I ever could have asked for.

You may remember this student from my last post:

I can now more or less pronounce her Korean name, which is very pretty and Korean-sounding. But I can't help but to think of her as Beyoncé. While she attends class regularly, she often sleeps for hours, burying her head in her arms and snoring faintly while the rest of the students talk, read articles, or politely sit through my attempts at powerpoints. Every now and then, she will wake up, say a single word in English, and then return back to her normal position.

"So I've made you another powerpoint, as you can see," I tell the class. "Yes, the title slide is really boring - I finished the presentation two hours ago, and I didn't have time to find a picture" - here, the students laugh courteously - "but anyway, as you can see, it's called 'Overweight'? Or just 'curvy'?"

"Curvy," Beyoncé declares. Then she resumes her nap.

For the next hour, that is Beyoncé’s only contribution. It is not until the end of class, when the students perform skits with American slang. Her line is short, but memorable:

"Bro, that biddy was so hardcore. She passed out on floor. I think we just hookup not girlfriend. She is pothead psycho druggie."

And on that note, class ends. I go out to lunch with some of the students (Beyoncé included), who are kind enough to treat me to some cold spicy noodles whose name I’ve already forgotten. I thank them profusely. Then we part ways, as they head toward the subway stop and I head back to the university. I am almost back to the classroom when I realize I’ve forgotten my cell phone.

Shit shit megashit. I poke my head into the classroom, inform the one student who’s already arrived of my situation, and hurry out of the building. I go back to the restaurant. I find my cell phone. But in a cruel twist of events, the sun has come out, and it is mercilessly hot. By the time I get back to class, I am again covered in sweat. I am also fifteen minutes late.

The students stare. I explain the situation with the cell phone. Then I think of lying about getting caught in the rain, but that’s no longer an option, since it is no longer raining.

“Alright,” I say, as I lean against the board, panting. “Can anyone tell me the meaning of the phrase ‘hot mess’?”

After the quick vocabulary lesson, class continues as normal. Relatively speaking.

“Okay. This next part will be a little strange, but bear with me. I promise I have a point.”

I go to the computer, turn on the projector, and pull up a slide that looks like this:

“Aliens,” I say, “have invaded planet earth.”

There is only silence.

“I will now speak the part of the aliens,” I tell them.

More silence. Maybe this was a bad idea.

I continue anyways.

“Hello, humans. We have come to take over your world. It is ours because we were the first of our species to discover it, so we therefore claim it as our own. You six have been appointed to make decisions for the entire human race. You have two choices: you can fight, or you can negotiate.”

I smile. They smile cautiously back. Then they huddle into a group, muttering in Korean. Probably something along the lines of “What the hell is she doing now?”

I do have a point. This week, we are discussing racial inequality in the US. I want to give them a taste of the Native American experience, in which foreign invaders completely decimate their entire civilization. But I won’t tell them that yet. They have to play the alien game first. In English, preferably.

What happens if we fight? they ask.

“I don’t know. We haven’t fought yet.”

Okay. We’ll negotiate.

“Fair enough. Because we are not cruel aliens, we will allow the human race to live on a continent of you choosing. Except Eurasia. We want Eurasia.”

That isn’t fair, they say. Okay. We’ll fight.

“Alright,” I say. “We fight. Because we aliens have vastly superior technology, you suffer a crushing defeat. The human population falls to five billion.”

Well, it’s only once, they say. We’ll fight again.

Again, they lose. One of them has started to take the simulation very seriously and is becoming irritated.

“Do we ever win?” she asks.


“Do we at least get a superhero?


Grudgingly, they choose North America. The game continues from there. First, I force them to move to Canada. Then, I give them a terrible alien plague, and the human population drops to one billion. By the end of the simulation, they are squeezed into a corner of Antarctica with a population of only 500 million, and aliens have taken over the world.

“Does this sound at all familiar to” – I click to the next slide – “this?”

It is a very boring slide.

Oh, they say. Probably, they are thinking, So there was a point to this stupid game. Or God, I hate this class.

I launch into a brief overview of Native American history (drawn mostly from Wikipedia) that even I find boring. I have to stop doing powerpoints. They might be easy, but on the whole, they’re an abomination. A terribly boring abomination.

But the second half of class goes better. They tell me all about their view of foreigners.

I have told them that America’s population looks something like this:

Whereas Korea’s population looks something like this:

That is not quite right, they say. It is not three percent. Maybe…five percent.

“Okay, but still,” I say. “Compared to America, Korea is a kind of homogeneous – uniform country. I can sometimes go a whole day without seeing another foreigner.”

They tell me that probably isn’t true, since I can’t distinguish between East Asian languages, and thus have no way of knowing if someone is speaking Chinese or Japanese. And I probably couldn’t recognize any of the little clues that will show that a person who looks “Asian” to me might not be Korean – for example, Japanese girls tend to wear a lot of blush, while Koreans tend to try to make their faces paler.

“You’re probably right,” I say. “Sorry about that.” I make some self-deprecating comment about my ignorance of Korean (and for that matter, East Asian) culture.

That is okay, they say. We do the same thing with Westerners. You all look the same to us. You might be British, for all we know. Or Ukrainian.

]This does make me feel a bit better. I’ve always wanted to be European. It seems so much more sophisticated than being American.

Then they tell me about South Asian immigrants, and how North Korean is becoming its own language, and how different areas of South Korea have their own dialects. It’s all so very interesting. This is when class is best, I decide – when they teach me.

Then the intermediate class ends, and the final class begins. Mostly, we watch YouTube videos and go over our reading, which this week is about rape on college campuses. They too enlighten me about their own experiences – cases of sexual assault in Korea, college life, and (after we’ve gone a bit off topic) the scandals surrounding various gay Korean celebrities. They are a little quieter than my other classes, but they still talk enough to keep me happy.

Of course, they are very intelligent. But they are also very cute. Their English is very good – much better than my Korean. But every now and then they make mistakes.

My personal favorite is when they confuse their L’s and their R’s. In English, we consider the sound of an R and the sound of an L to be completely different sounds. However, in Korean, they are considered to be almost the same sound. They even come from the same letter, which looks like this:


As a result, they often confuse the two sounds, among others. "Rapist" becomes "lappist." "Les Miserables" becomes "Res Miserabers." “Raining” becomes “laining.” It is unbearably cute. Every now and then, I try to correct them, but it occurs so frequently that I’m afraid I’ll embarrass them if I call them out every time they do it wrong. Besides, it doesn’t usually get in the way of me understanding them.

I’ll give them a lesson on it someday. But for now, I’ll just listen to the stories of lockstars and lage.

Class ends at 5:30. I am exhausted and in desperate need of a shower. My face is sore from all the smiling. I do not want to interact with humans. I want to go back to my room, scan my Facebook, and mindlessly eat plums for several hours.

“Good-bye!” they say. “See you tomorrow! Thank you! Have a good evening!”

I smile. They smile. And it warms the cockles of my young little heart. And so another day ends.

Not every day is this exciting, or this rewarding. Some days, I fail miserably. Some days, I can’t make class go in a meaningful direction, no matter how much coaxing and weedling I do. But I’m learning how to forgive myself. I might be a quack, but at least I’m an enthusiastic one.

Enough on teaching. Next, I will spout a few of my political views.

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