Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bring On The Mountains

The first day of school.

Early morning.

Hustled breakfast.

Gulps digesting en route.

Traffic and congestion.


Shy students.

Feeling out the teacher.

Looking around at classmates.

Braving ourselves.

Starting all over again.

The Korean school year starts in March. And each new school year, there's a bit of a fruit basket upset among the staff. At least at the elementary school level, home room teachers can become PE teachers and English teachers can become science teachers. Not unlike schools in the states, elementary teachers must be able to teach every subject. But the catch in Korea is that you may only find out on Friday what you will be expected to teach on Monday.

After only six months in Korea, I am no expert when it comes to the public school system. However, I can tell you that in the few conversations I've had with my co-workers about this, February is always an unsettling time of year. You want to prepare, but you don't know what to prepare for. You want to plan ahead, but you can't. So, you just wait.

If the Korean teachers don't get much of a heads-up, we foreigners are certainly out-of-the-loop. As of Monday morning, Jeremy and I still had no idea what was going on.
Would we have the same co-workers? 
The same office space? 
Would we teach the same students or different ones? 
Same co-teachers? 
Same grade level? 
Would we be expected to have a class prepared for Monday morning?

First Day of School photo

We rode our bikes to school with anxious trepidation (much like we did six months ago), because it feels like we are right back where we started. Still trying to figure this out. Still trying to find our way.

Upon arriving at work, I met the new English teacher that I'll be working with primarily. She's friendly and warm. Has a big smile. I'm relieved. My first question, "Do we teach any English classes today?" She said we don't start until next week. Whew! I emailed Jeremy, "So, how does it look for you?" Some new classes. One new teacher. Not teaching until next week. Whew!

Overall, our teaching experience in Korea has been great. Kind and helpful co-workers. Decently behaved students. Reasonable expectations. But some days, I get tired of missing the "joke."

Of understanding.
Of following along.
Of feeling like I belong.

It's common among foreigners to grow tired of being out-of-the-loop. Of having flustered and frustrated co-workers barge in the door and ask where you've been or why you weren't at that appointment no one told you about. Like last week, when a co-worker frantically implored why I wasn't wearing a mask. I didn't get the joke. She said (obviously), "Well, because of the polluted dust from China, of course! The air quality is very bad for your health." Oh yes, of course.

A young co-worker asked me recently, "How is your life in Korea going?"

I explained that any new culture is like a mountain. The locals dwell on top of the mountain. They speak the language. They understand the culture. And they thrive where it's relatively familiar and comfortable. But foreigners must climb from the bottom and it's likely that you will never, ever reach the top.

But travel is about the climb.

As a foreigner climbing this mountain, it's pretty fun. The view is great and the experience of learning new things every day is priceless. It's a blast to even have this unique opportunity that others may not. But sometimes, you're legs get tired. You grow weary of climbing. You feel like you're overloaded with information. You just want to sit down--or better yet--go back to the top of that other mountain called "home" where you got the jokes. There are some days when you just don't feel like translating the menu into your native language because really, all you want is mac and cheese. And they don't have that.

Let me assure you, I love Korea. Ninety percent of the time, I greatly enjoy this climb. After all, this is basically what we signed up for. We learn a lot and the views are spectacular. But no one can express how hard it is to climb the mountain until you climb the mountain for yourself.

And far as the new school year goes and this next important learning curve, we'll find our way. One step at a time. There will be confusion. There will be disappointment. We will miss the jokes and probably offend someone without meaning to. But the climb is worth it, even if we never "arrive" anywhere near the top. We'll be proud just for showing up every day and walking.

"I once tried standing up on my toes to see far out in the distance, but I found I could see much farther by climbing to a high place."

   -Xun Zi