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Thursday, 8 March 2012

Teaching English in Japan Volume 3

A life of adventure and excitement, Teaching English as a Foreign Language

 I have been teaching English as a Foreign Language in Asia, both in South Korea and Japan. How I got into this career is an interesting story.

In the spring of 1996, I had just finished my fourth year at Saint Mary`s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I had graduated with my BA in History in 1995. Initially, I wanted to either work with Parks Canada as a historian, or to pursue further studies in Library science. Unfortunately, I was unable to enter a library science course and was sitting down over a cold one in the Goursebrook Lounge on Saint Mary’s campus.

One of my classmates from Newfoundland was waiting the tables and I told him my tale of woe. He then informed me he was going to move to South Korea to teach English. I was surprised as he had not studied education. However, he informed me you didn’t need an education degree, just a university degree to teach English as a Second Language.

Now back in the late 1990’s the TEFL field in Halifax was limited. There were a few schools teaching English to foreign students who were studying at any one of the universities in Halifax. I went down to one school looking for any jobs overseas. At first, I was interested in Poland, but was told that the working conditions in Eastern Europe were not that great. If I was looking for a good salary, Korea was the place to go.
So, I took down the name of the Korean trading company who were operating in Halifax at the time and off I went. I had a standard interview and within a week, had a job offer and contract to sign.
And so it was, in November 1996, I left my home and native land to experience the Land of the Morning Calm.

Long flights and culture clashes.

At the age of 23, I left Nova Scotia to travel to South Korea to begin teaching English. I remember Halloween 1996 as being a night where I passed out candy to kids and was reading up on as much information about Korea as I could. I had studied East Asian and South East Asian history at university, so I had a basic grasp of what to expect from a historical perspective. This was in the time prior to the internet, so information was rather limited on what to expect in other countries.
My flight route would take me from Halifax to Toronto to Chicago to Kimpo International airport in Seoul. I had only flown once before, and that was to Denver Colorado with the 78th Highlanders as part of their drill team for the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish festival. That trip was only about 6 hours.
My first flight to Korea went like this. Halifax to Toronto 2 hours. Layover in Pearson, 90 minutes. Flight to Chicago, one hour. Layover in Chicago, 2 hours. Flight to Seoul, 18 hours! The idea of economy class syndrome was not an issue, but my goddness, I didn`t want to fly for awhile after that.
Upon arrival in Korea, I went through customs and was wearing my first suit, designed for the -10c temp when I left Halifax. Upon arrival in Seoul, it was 15c and bright sunshine! I felt like I was melting! I was wearing a tweed blazer, wool pants and thermal underwear with wool socks! On top of the weariness I felt, I was now 12 hours ahead of the time back in Nova Scotia and the next day, having crossed the international date line somewhere over the Pacific.
My contact was the school vice owner Mr. Cho who had previously been a flight attendant for Korean Airlines. Helping me with my luggage, we got into his car my first lesson on Korea was observed.
First of all, South Korea is a small country, about the same size as Nova Scotia and PEI combined. However, the population is around thirty million, so traffic was always heavy. And the drivers wanted to go fast! Then it was my first Korean lunch which was Kimchee, a very spicy cabbage dish made of garlic and red pepper. Imagine having a propane tank explode in your mouth and that would be a hint of the spice.

I was then shown the school, which was actually a tutoring service for Korean children and adults who wanted to either study English, or improve their grades in school. I was shown my office/classroom, then taken down into the basement of the building which was a bathhouse.
First of all, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Asian culture, the bathhouse is  a communal place to wash and relax in hot tubs and to wash, in a room with other people! Ok so let’s get this straight. You go into the locker room, strip down, then go take a bath in the section your gender is. If you ever felt shy about your body, this is where culture shock comes into play. Add on the fact that nothing is in English, or that no one speaks English and eh viola, you have CULTURE SHOCK! Did I also mention my boss told me my first class was at on that day? The day in which I had had no sleep for going on 36 hours without the benefit of even having a change of underware?

That night when I did settle on my futon on a heated concrete floor I made myself a vow. If I survived a month, I would stay, if I couldn’t hack it, I`d go home.
When you have a set goal, things begin to go better for you.
Later on that fall, we had another Nova Scotian join our company to teach. However, the teacher was not someone who should have left home. There are some people who can do this job, and there are others who can’t. If you do choose this career, you have to bear in mind several things.
1)     The world will not bow to what you demand life should be. The old do as the Romans do rule applies here. If a culture has existed for two thousand years without your presence, then they will not adapt for you.
2)     Understand that in certain parts of the world, gender bias, sexism and old fashioned thinking still occur. If you were brought up in an ultra-feminist lifestyle, don’t go to Asia.
3)     If you have special dietary needs, make sure you can cook, or have the ability to know where to shop for said items. One teacher I worked with was a vegetarian and was appalled at the amount of meat Koreans ate.
4)     Despite the fact that you don’t have to change who you are as a person, you will have to adapt your personality to being bombarded with personal questions, evaluated on your mannerisums and dress sense and generally be considered the local celebrity, both in negative and positive ways.
After a year in Korea, I came back to Nova Scotia. I left Seoul with an environment of 25c to arrive at Halifax in 10c weather! It was the little things that really freaked me out.
1)     The road signs were all in English, and the roads were free of traffic congestion.
2)     I sat down in a steak restaurant to order my food and couldn’t because I had to think of how to say it in Korean. Also the menu was in English and had food which I had not seen in a year.
3)     I could understand everything people said around me. I didn’t need to translate what everyone was talking about.
4)     My friends knew nothing of what I did and would never understand unless they did this themselves. I now understood how many veterans feel when they come “home”. It’s not “home” anymore, the “home” you left stayed there, you moved on and it’s like a trapped time warp. Everyone else continued on. Your life then stopped, it began anew and from this day forth, you would be set apart from everyone else.
5)     After the initial welcome home, nobody wants to hear about what life was like there. The fact is, most people will never leave their home area. You square yourself away into your life experiences and continue on.
The hardest part for me was the life decision I had to make. I grew up thinking that you had to always honor your promises, and to believe in the good of all people.
I had signed on to go back to Korea, but in the time I had left, the economy of the country failed, and I went back into a job which was not for the faint of heart. My salary was reduced as the boss said they needed to keep the school open. (This was the first cut, as the year went on, we went without our salaries for months at a time). Not everyone in the world is honest, or willing to follow the rules. My boss virtually enslaved me in his school working long hours, with insufficient pay so that I could not escape, or have the time and energy to find new work. When my contract came up for renewal, I attempted to look for a new job, only to be thwarted in my attempts by the boss scheduling a new class on my day off. This was on a Friday night with the class to begin the next morning. I also had my immigration card stolen by the boss who attempted to imprison me within my job. His thinking being, if I tried to leave the country, I would be arrested for overstaying my immigration visa and be sent to prison. Afterwards, I found out that they only would have deported me and kept me from returning to the country.
I then realized that I was now being part of a human traffic system where my boss passed me off to another company to teach classes while taking my salary. When I then told the pre-school what was happening, the staff was alarmed. I had not been consulted on this new class, but was forced to teach there. Eventually my friend seeing what was going on helped me to contact the Labor department which in the Asian way, had no enforcement powers, and could only suggest that they actually follow the law. Eventually, my friend bought me a ticket home, and I left Korea, literally screaming.
The moral of this side story being, if you are going to leave your country, make sure you know what you will be doing, and know your rights according to the laws of the country you will live and work in. NEVER trust the word of your employer until you have checked the laws.

I went back to Nova Scotia in the spring of 1999. I was suffering from mild PTSD due to the stress I had experienced in my final 6 months. It took me four months to come to terms with the fact that I had done nothing wrong. Even now close to 15 years later, I still have nightmares that I have ended up back there and am trying to get back to the life I know. It took me a further two years to get back my possessions which I had stored with my friend, while other things were stolen from me. You must know who you can trust. I grew up alot from this experience.

I then began to look for work back in Asia, but this time, I would go to Japan.
I felt that being a G8 country, Japan would be a much safer, and stable environment to work in. I forgot several things about working in Asia.
1)     Never take anything for granted. As an EFL teacher, you are the face of your school/company/country that you work for. If there are ever conflicts between you and your employeer, they stay that way. Never involve your students thinking they will be on your side. I once made the mistake of telling my students the fact that the company was unhappy with our performance. When faced with the loss of staff, I bluntly told my friends in an email that the company needed us more than we needed them. While this might have been true, one of the contacts forwarded this message to my bosses, who used me as a scapegoat and fired me. Looking back over the years, I can see why they did this, however, the company itself did not treat their teachers fairly, having given us insufficient training. When your boss tells you that you are not doing a good job, then comes back two days later and tries to tell you that you need to help them, you know your job is not going well.
2)     Always appear professional, act mature and try to be reasonable when dealing with problems in the work place.
3)     There are other places to work. Just make sure you learn from your mistakes and look at what kind of place you will work in.
4)     Size in a school doesn’t matter. Little small schools who are run well, will do better than large corporations. In my eleven years in Japan, two major English school chains have folded.
5)     Never think you can slack off while at work. The other teachers are watching what you are doing. Always appear to be busy.
I look back at what kind of a teacher I was in my mid 20's. I made a lot of mistakes, due to inexperience. Over the years, I have read up and begun post graduate study in the EFL field just to understand what I should be doing.

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