“I came here with good intentions. Something changes over time. Your belief that you are making a difference in the students’ lives turns into a lost cause. Your belief that they (students/teachers/admin) give a rat’s ass – disappears. Your belief that they are actually capable teachers – vanishes. You will remain, alone, to spend your year in purgatory. Teaching in South Korea is the midway point of nowhere.” (-some random guy, a blog)
I don't mind being nowhere. Nowhere has no past, no mistakes, no consequences. In Nowhere you're always going somewhere – after all, you're not just going Nowhere, you're leaving Nowhere.
But I don't thinking teaching in Korea is the midway point of nowhere. It feels more like a city that has grown around a transit hub, one of those nothing towns that seems to wither indefinitely like a gutshot heroine in an action movie. Teaching English in Korea is like Newcastle or what I imagine Atlanta would be like.
Don't get me wrong. Teaching English in Korea isn't bad but it's not great – the money's good and the work can be rewarding. Some of us have it better than others for sure, and some have it worst than most but this seems to be the way things work everywhere. But foreign teachers in Korea are for the most part an overeducated, stymied bunch of malcontents too savage, starry-eyed or broken down to hold jobs in their own countries. We are travellers, tourists, middle class washouts surfing our language and privilege as far as the dollar will allow.
People make simulacrum lives here. They settle into the job, their homes, their routines but jerks like me always refer back to their origin as if their efforts here amount to nothing. Newbies always ask, “when are you going back?” or “what do you want to do?” because our own lives are in such a state of flux that the places we occupy become transitory because of our mere presence in them.
What bugs me about people complaining in blogs about the job is their presumption to embody their problems and fears as “Korea” and not their own shiftlessness or immaturity. The more you look around for the ex-pat blogging community the more pretentious self-idolatry (yay look at me I'm somewhere new!) and prosaic foot stamping you find. Which seem to me different sides of the same coin – a sustained self-obsession without any sense of propriety or introspection.
I know the ice above the blistering cold irony is rather thin here, but you'll have to trust me. I'm a doctor of journalism for god's sake.
The Angry are the Young
At university I knew an overweight, prickly nerd whose intelligence and acerbic wit really amused me at first. I tried my best to befriend him but the more I tried the less he wanted to be around me. Then one day at the bar (as these things go) I was infuriated with a tutorial group full of high school layabouts who were trying to weasel our teacher into letting us go half an hour early because they hadn't finished that week's readings.
I threw my arms around, ranged up and down the bar looking for the blackest insults to hurl, screaming in frustration at these myopic, cud-chewing imbeciles. And this guy, this big, abrasive geek, finally warmed to me because I demonstrated what he identified more closely with – petulance.
There is a purity to our rage that can be charming. When you are angry you don't give a damn about anyone else and are so purely without disguise, so utterly without cool that you can glimpse a person's true self. Well, not their true self – their eight year old self. When someone's mad you see how they were as a child. You see the sulkers and the dummy-spitters, the criers and the pant wetters paralysed with fear. But that's anger – a return to the eight year old state.
Living in the slush
Here in Korea, winter has graced us with her first snows. It's still a novelty for me, so I note all the little details – how the clouds turn pink and the air noticeably numbs; how the flakes spiral and hang in the air like goose down.
So it was in an introspective mood that Lara and I went out with some friends for pork spine soup at a little place in the market up the hill. It was snowing quite heavily and big slushy piles clogged the gutter and the swirling flakes stuck to my umbrella like mud. I was talking to one of our friends about anger, blogs and the foreign teacher experience. Specifically, about the blog that inspired this piece: pages of puerile ranting that I had been mulling over for the better part of the week.
“I just think you should be held accountable for what you write online. Well, some of it.” We weaved in and out of the neon-drenched crowd. “This guy's just venting but a lot of what he says is outright racist. It's morally irresponsible.”
My friend went to reply but had to dodge a parker-clad middle schooler with a mobile phone in one hand and a fish stick in the other.
“Racism's easier. I think about what I say sometimes and I'm like, Am I being racist? But you get so angry and have to blame someone. Racism is a defence. Anger is a way of dealing with your frustration. The problem is, it's too easy. It has negative outcomes.”
Writing from Anger
Some of the best works of fiction and satire have been born of anger. But there's smart and dumb anger. There's having a problem with your job and then there's having a problem with a foreign culture – but the most irresponsible act is to transform the fruits of anger into bitter hatred.
The reason that hatred and anger are depicted throughout our culture as dark, negative emotions is because they separate us from each other. It's a morality play we have seen a million times and we are just too damn lazy to get the point – the reason those goofy good guys win is because they're doing it together. Love (and the subsets of nobility, friendship and kittens) bring people together. Hatred (racism, xenophobia and puppies) drive people apart. I'm not even saying the good guys win in reality, I'm just pointing the moral you've been consuming for all these years.
Kurt Vonnegut said about mankind: “We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard … and too damned cheap.” I'd like to, with modesty and with an acute sense of the irony involved, to point out that hatred is just too damn easy. That writing in a public forum without self-observation or due accountability is NOT venting. It's misrepresentation and slander. Reader beware, sure. But you are responsible for exercising the power of your freedom of speech.
Come on people. It's not that hard. You know this stuff already. From Star Wars.
Daniel East is not a substitute for real human interaction.