Before I start with Part 3, just a reminder to check out the Tumblr Blog – Just Seoul to see the ongoing “street novel-ing” project around Seoul, South Korea that was the inspiration for my novel.
As well, you have to check out my favorite blog – Dr. Loser – here at WordPress to see what he is also writing on this same topic as well… it’s great stuff!
And now… on with the show!
Just Eric – Part 3
I really didn’t get along with the other dozen or so foreigner teachers at my school, and after I started working at our head office during the day (the classes we taught were all at night, after the regular school day ended for the Korean kids) they treated me like even more of an asshole than before. At first we were just different because teaching class was an effortlessly fun thing for me but to them it was easily the worst part of their day. They tried real hard to get me to change through some very “cool school”-like peer pressure: calling me a wussy for not wanting to party with them, a loser once they found out that I wasn’t interested in randomly having sex with every Korean girl that smiled at me, and then just a jerk for taking my job seriously. It was all very lighthearted in the beginning, and since I was as straight as could be and a super boring guy, it was easy to take their mocking in stride. Then the jabs became a lot more serious and cruel once I was working at the head office, and they were also relentlessly grilling me about the kind of changes I could make to improve their workloads and the dumb materials they were forced to use. I really wanted to just tell them all to fuck off but but I figured I had to make it look like I could function with a group like this for the sake of the principal and the other staff who had recommended me to the head office. Despite my high evaluations by the students, the Korean staff here still assumed I was as cool as all these other idiot teachers because how they acted was just like the stuff we were teaching in our textbooks – textbooks that I helped to produce in the head office even though I was the last guy who would be considered cool by those standards. It was all very confusing.
However, there was one teacher – Ken – who I got along with pretty well, and that started (probably not by coincidence) once he broke up with his girlfriend. They’d come to Korea from New Zealand when foreigners were still all teaching English here. Those jobs became even more lucrative once the government announced the nationwide All-English policy and a transition year was needed so all the services and citizens could be prepped for the elimination of the Korean language. When that year was over all the teaching jobs dried up in what the ex-pat community in Seoul called ‘the great teach-pression.’ Ken told me that he had to talk his girlfriend Catherine down from a few faux-anxiety attacks while they shared a cot in an America Town hostel. She desperately wanted them to move back to New Zealand but Ken preferred to wait and see how things panned out. He heard a rumor from his hash dealer that some of those closed down English institutes were starting to reopen under the odd banner of “cool schools.” These new after school classes were being sold to the public as a way to fix the monotonous and surface way English was being used following the changeover. No one was having any fun, especially the kids, and since actually studying English at that point had become taboo (nobody wanted to let on that they weren’t good enough) the cool schools were a new way to get people to actually engage with the only language officially allowed in the country anymore. This idea was rushed out so quickly that the people involved in putting it together had no idea what they were doing. Ken and Catherine liked this ludicrous concept because they remembered (and loved) how those English classes didn’t really teach English very effectively either and made it an easy job to robotically master. After taking such a big financial hit in the previous months, they moved out of the city and into the child-heavy suburbs where they were able to negotiate incredibly high salaries as long as the promised to use an American accent when they taught, which they’d always done before anyways.
They were enjoying their time at the cool school until right around the time I started working there. All the years of teaching in the ridiculously superficial system was starting to get into Catherine’s head and she was spending more and more time out with her girlfriends at bars and clubs, while Ken had gravitated in the other direction, resisting the peer pressure to drink, dress up and party like he was on display for all the Koreans to envy and mimic. He stayed home and practiced guitar as she made out with strangers at clubs. Once the summer heat came they used it as an excuse to start sleeping in different rooms, and soon they were more like brother and sister, but as he told it more like ‘bother’ and sister because everything he did annoyed her at that point. Finally, he came home one night and she was making out with another guy on the couch where he slept, and so he calmly took the hint and packed his stuff. In order to save money just like me (since he was going to have to cover the rent for two places), he moved into my crappy and cheap apartment building. Since there wasn’t much to do in those tiny rooms, we’d mostly just chill out and talk about his guitar playing and my work at the head office. I cared as little about guitar stories as he seemed to care about my lazy office work, but when I cautiously brought up that ‘maybe’ I wasn’t exactly teaching the cool school materials in my classes at night, he started to perk up. As I explained that I’d been slowly replacing much of the language in class with purely nonsensical gibberish, his excitement made me think that I’d found a kindred spirit. However, he just thought this idea would drive his ex-girlfriend Catherine crazy if she knew about it or had to teach it herself. And, boy, did he ever turn out to be right about that!
The day I mailed that cheque to my bank back home to pay off the last of my student loan debt was easily the happiest day of my life. For something that should have taken 20 years to get rid of, I had done it in 6 months! I felt free, like I could do anything, and then I woke up and remembered that I was trapped working at two different places for at least 16 hours a day, not including commuting time. And I really still had no idea what I was supposed to be doing at either of these jobs, working in the head office at the Add-ucation Development Department (ADD) in the day and teaching kids how to be cool in classes at night. There was a lot of standing around, keeping people happy, and doing as little as possible. I kind of surprised myself by thinking this way since I’d really only ever looked out for number one long before coming to Korea, but I didn’t like getting paid all that money for doing nothing. I especially didn’t like keeping my mouth shut, the way my co-worker at the head office Steven advised me to do, whenever given extremely dumb and irrational material to help write or edit for the cool school textbooks.
Let me give an example, if you try to teach kids how to walk with a “mall limp” then you really have to seriously try to breakdown why a special strut like this would be considered cool in the first place, which turns out to be actually quite impossible. And the minute you try to make this abstract quality into a quantifiable skill you instantly have made the act un-cool from that point forward. Whoever it is that did this “mall limp” in a mall somewhere in America for the first time would never do it again once they knew that it was being imitated in a suburban children’s classroom halfway around the world. Being cool is not like being good at basketball or painting or math, you can’t practice it, it just is. So when I’d started teaching using gibberish instead of English, this made those classes cool (if I do say so myself) because I wasn’t trying to be cool, I just wanted to do something that I thought would be entertaining. If anyone found out the thing I was doing to make those classes actually cool was not the official “cool school” material made by the head office for practicing, testing, scoring and ranking these students, then I would most likely be fired.
I started to see it in another way though. I thought that the gibberish idea could very easily be monetized. I didn’t want to fight the system, I wanted to be a bigger part of it. So the day after I mailed that cheque to pay off my loans back home, I was feeling super confident and brought a whole mapped out gibberish language curriculum concept to the Supervisor of the ADD. Then for the first time since I’d worked there, she frowned, lowered her eyes, and told me that she was very disappointed in me. I was stunned. All the months I’d spent in the office doing stuff like flirting with the secretaries or taking three hour coffee breaks with Steven, after which she would just smile and wave at me from her desk like I’d done some actual work, NOW she was disappointed? She shot down my idea and told me that I should never bring it up again, and stick to only using the official material produced here at the ADD. I went home that night and ranted to Ken about the ridiculousness of this situation and how I should quit the office job now that I’d paid off my debt. I could relax during the day and just go back to teaching at the school in the evening until my 1-year contract expired in 6 more months. Then when I got to the office the next morning I found out that I was going to be doing the complete opposite. The CEO had decided to pull me completely off of the teaching job and have me work in the head office full-time from that day forward.