Think of a big stainless steel bowl. We are going to work with illusions today to illustrate what the last week of brutal “teacher training” consisted of. Firstly, clean your bowl, ensure that it is polished nicely as it is soon to be thoroughly soiled. We will all now throw in two tablespoons of culture shock. Make sure to remember only to use the most concentrated extract. Continue by adding a cup of jetlag, insomnia and nerves. Set aside for use later.
On the last day of training I likened the experience to “being ripped through the seven levels of hell.” That Friday I actually wrote a little note in the margin of my notebook which reads, “worse than ebola, more stress than four years of university, I would gladly welcome sudden death at this point.” I recall spending several minutes each day plotting the most painless (and dramatic) suicide. Sweet death fall over me. I imagined drowning in my touch screen shower, throwing myself out of my bedroom with shards of glass jetting out of my chest, or simply running into one of the many speeding cars that fly around Seoul on a regular basis. This all sounds very horrible. It was.
The night before training my room mate knocked on the door. Alex was a rather tall bloke from London. Am out of work actor who needed some quick cash and thought teaching in Korea would be thrilling. In the morning I was actually a bit excited. It actually felt like the first day at a new school. New friends, God knows who my teacher will be. I even packed myself a snack. We all jammed ourselves into the shuttle van and started chatting as we drove across the city. I spotted one girl from New Zealand, a grand bunch of Americans including one lovely Latina, Brenda, who had never experienced such cold as she is from Miami. A few Brits sat behind me, a few Canadians chatted by the drivers seat and I sat beside my friend Jeanette who I hadn’t seen for over two years, since we last drank together in Munich’s fabulous grandiose beer halls. We all stepped out of the van in our ties, skirts and stiletto heels. We were ushered into a small little room. We will refer to this room as jail cell number one.
The next several hours we sat staring at a power point presentation which explained the history of the company (it has grown from one branch in 1999 to over seventy as of this year). I almost hurled in my mouth when we spent several hours going over the most ridiculously intense grammar rules. We were given two textbooks to study from. Our test was the following day. Kill me now. I hate grammar, I always have, I hate it more now, obviously. We were expected to memorize a ridiculous amount of material by the following morning. These expectations would continue throughout the week. I learned more grammar in the next 24 hours then I did in my entire sixteen years of formal education. After several hours of dread we were whisked off to the other side of the city for our medical exam.
The hospital was perfectly clean, a tech lovers R us. Several members of the training crowd mumbled about how they really hoped the marijuana they smoked a month ago was no longer in their system. “If you don’t pass the medical test you will lose you job and you will have to pay for a flight back home,” ok we get it, thanks for making everyone more anxious. The medical exam was far more involved than I expected it to be. I was first weighed and measured like a piece of meat. I was then seated and played a few little colour blindness games followed by a vision check and hearing test. I was then given a full body x-ray (I assume they want to make sure their teachers have bones and what not). Give me patients. Flash. Give me energy. Flash. Give me calm. My final probe and poke was peeing in a cup and having a gallon of blood removed from my arm. I always enjoy watching how people react to having their blood taken. As always, the big, cool macho men scream like babies. I on the other hand, love to stare at the needle go in. I get a sense of euphoria and dizzy from getting my blood taken. Call me a Red Cross junky.
I spent the entire evening perched on my bed like a vulture staring down at grammar hell. I can’t remember when I finally went to bed but I recall pain in my frontal lobe. The following breakfast was somber. A “before battle” eggs and bacon snack. I poked at my egg, sniffed at my sausage and decided to just sip on orange juice.
Jump to arrival at the CDI training center. We had all been placed into two different groups. For the next four days we would be undergoing an intense teacher training bootcamp. No one had a clue what they are in for. I sat in a large seminar room with four other hopefuls. Jail cell number three. Enter, Joon-Kim our Memory English trainer. Joon instantly reminded me of Margaret Cho. The boisterous, Korean stand up comedian. Joon talked faster than I ever could, she flashes pages, one after another until the words just look like a blur. We have to learn this material as if at any moment the end of the world will fall upon us. We are debriefed on how to deal with nasty Korean children. “We don’t use corporal punishment but you can make them stand in a corner and hold textbooks over their heads, perhaps a hundred pushups.” Give me shock. Flash. Give me understanding. Flash. Give me focus.
CDI is incredibly organized. So organized in fact that training becomes a blur of rules, regulations and time frames. Note: you spend 2 minutes doing attendance, 3 minutes checking homework and 15-20 minutes conducting partially guided reading sessions (the list goes on page after page). For the next four days we would spend three hours straight studying the course structure, and mock teaching in front of our peers. Rather than spending my evenings eating out, dancing or discovering the city. We all found ourselves running home, inhaling a five minute dinner and studying until the wee hours of the morning for the days following tests and presentations. Give me hate. Flash. Give me loathing. Flash. Give me perseverance. I spent hours talking to myself in front of the bathroom mirror. Locked into a small little room, constantly distracted by combs, toothpaste and my reflection. I hate Robinson Caruso. I never want to ever hear his name again. I spent hours upon hours teaching fake children about Robinson in a foggy mirror seven floors above the city of Seoul. Never, ever again.
We all ran outside as our first class ended. We had just under an hour to find food, ingest it into our tummies and prepare for our next class. Many of these days I didn’t even eat, give me a stick of gum and I’ll be alright. Studying was more important. Now we are in jail cell number three which actually has a rather lovely view of the mountains that surround the city. Enter Cruella Deville. She doesn’t have a Dalmatian coat but she looks the part. Always dressed entirely in black, pointy high heels and jet black eye liner which slices through her eyelids. Her waist is the size of my lamp post. If she ate a raison I think I could see it slowly inch down her throat. Trainer number two spends the next four days teaching us how to teach Reading and Writing. Every afternoon, for three hours, starving. Give me cheese. Flash. Give me sleep. Flash. Give me sunny beach vacation.
We all found it hard to get our heads into the right mind space to properly understand how we are to mock teach this material. The memory class is two levels bellow the Reading and Writing class. So in the morning we focus on asking leading questions to discover if the kids understand the content. Jump to Cruella Deville telling me I am doing “it all wrong.” Choke me with a spoon, a rusty one. I remind myself this is voluntary torture. I signed up for this. The kids in reading class understand most of the content. We are teaching them reading skills. What a topic is, how to find a main idea and how to skim and scan for answers. I like reading, I don’t like reading class.
After about day two everyone was exhausted and complaining like it was their job. No one expected to go to school from 9am until 4pm, then come home to study until your eye lids seared in pain. Several times we were reminded how in Korean culture children live out a much different life than we were used to at home.
The typical Korean student (aged 6-19) wakes up at 7am and arrives at school at 8am. They attend school until 3pm. They run out of their classrooms and jump on the subway to get to one of many of their Hogwan’s (private schools/academies). I am being trained to teach at Koreas most prestigious Hogwan institute. The kids snack on the walk to their private school classes. Their parents pay a lot of money for their children to perfect their English as they have to write a TEFOL test in order to enter University. This exam tests their ability to comprehend English. It is thus a key factor in their future. Will they get accepted to a prestigious University? Everything seems so backward, but I have to continually remind myself that this is an entire different culture. Recovering from war, fierce competition for university placement and job success is a reality.
They spend three hours at CDI in their respective classes. Most of them take two different CDI classes each week so they will spend an average of six hours at our school each week. During these three hour classes they are given two, five minute breaks. After they finish their class at CDI it is 7pm (or perhaps they went to another Hogwan before CDI and are attending a 7-10pm CDI class, in which they don’t get home until 11pm). Their parents pick them up and drop a take out dinner into their hands. They are then rushed over to another private school where they may study math, art, music or martial arts. Once they finally get home they study for several hours so they are able to get all of their homework done. I have asked several of my students when they usually go to bed. Now that I am teaching I love to ask these questions to understand what their lives really are like. Today a cute little girl with the face of an angel told me she wakes up at 7am and goes to bed at 3am. “Teacher I must study my best so I can do well on my tests.” After I heard this story the first time my jaw dropped. Now I realize it is common place. I guess when everyone does it, it just seems normal. I was told in training that during exam season parents tell their children they don’t need more than four hours of sleep. They tell their children “if you sleep five hours that is fine, but if you sleep four hours you will do better on your tests.” I have was on the subway this morning and saw a teenage boy dressed in his school uniform falling asleep on the lap of a little old lady sitting beside him. The granny responded by patting him over the head. It is if she is saying, “I know exactly how you feel.”
I returned to my room on day three feeling entirely exhausted, frazzled and sour. I felt the need to shake it off and decided to treat myself to a few hours off to enjoy a nice meal with Jeanette away from study land back at the hotel. We walked into a noodle restaurant and sat down staring at the pictures on our menu. A manager from the bbq restaurant downstairs helped us order with his limited English. I would point and ask, “cow or chicken?” While making the respective animal noises. He responds, “delicious.” We order a huge bowl of noodles with chicken broth and a platter of pork filled dumplings. We slurped and smacked our lips, the smell of salty poultry covered my neck. We lost track of the time. Staring in our bowls, telling stories of home. Many believe chicken noodle soup is one of life’s best comfort foods. Perhaps they are right.
Jump to Thursday night. The last night at our hotel, the day before our final exam. Give me shakes. Flash. Give me fear. Flash. Give me alertness. I stood in front of the mirror for hours on end prepping myself for the following full day examination. My tongue tasted bitter. Go figure. We were told to pack all of our things as we had to check out in the morning. I stood staring at my life which lay plopped all over the room. As I packed I could not help but recite my lines and lessons over and over in my head. I stayed up until the crack of dawn. I felt as though someone had placed a sandbag on the top of my head. It was slowly sliding down to my forehead, forcing my chin into my chest.
I didn’t eat the entire day. Breakfast was a right off. There was no way I was putting an egg in my stomach just before I had to play teacher in front of a judging panel. You could smell nervous in the air. If nervous was a scent it would smell of wet leather and horse sweat, putrid. We were all soaking around our collars. We had been told many times that if we didn’t pass our written and mock tests we would not be offered a job. That translates into “you have to pay for a flight home, good luck.” I barely slept the night before, I had stomach aches crawling all over my body. Tossing and turning. I woke up looking as though I had been sleeping at a Service Liquor hugging a bottle of Scotch. Let’s just say I looked winded and beyond repair. The Memory English written exam went perfectly. I was told at the end of the mock examination that I didn’t pass. All I could do was stare at Margaret Cho and wait for her to slap my knee and tell me it was all a joke. Good lord. Andrew Dobson never fails, until now. I wanted to run into the bathroom and cry. I was told I would have a second chance and that I shouldn’t let this bad news affect the Reading and Writing exam I had in thirty minutes. I walked out of the room feeling entirely defeated.
Instead of actually studying for my last exam. I spent the next thirty minutes telling everyone that I had failed. Looks of shock and surprise. Everyone at this stage looked weathered and exhausted. We all walked into our last exam of the day. Give me energy. Flash. Give me hope. Flash. Give me strength. I spent most of the Reading and Writing exam staring down at my paper half asleep. A total blur. I hadn’t properly eaten in two days and sleep was a distant detail. I guessed everything on the written portion of the exam. You see, I was intending on studying for that during my one hour break. Failing my Memory mock was not part of the plan you see. Everyone sucked. People stood up to present and were talking to the class with their eyes closed. We were so tired, when called upon to read the next line of the text many of us had to stumble and say, “oh what line are we on again?” I started to giggle actually as the entire room was sinking faster than the Titanic. Even the best teachers in the room were performing horridly. Every time I had to get up and present a different skill I would tell myself, “you can do this.” I’d stand at the front and try not to fall over. I held an image in my mind. You know those movies about crippled athletes who are running the last leg of a race with one leg and no vision? I felt like I was running my last mile and had to gather myself inside and out.
Jump to 4pm. Everyone has their heads on the table. We all feel like failures. We all need sleep. The entire room thinks they have failed. I listen to the Masters student who is going on some rant about how he feels demoralized and doesn’t actually want to work for a company like this anymore. He debates other schools he can apply to. Like always I try to think of the best case scenario: I can contact a recruiter and explain I will work at a school which has one day of training. At one point I even thought to myself that I could fly to Australia and work there. Hell it’s their summer, why not?!
Jump to the door opening and our stomachs clenching. We are taken into different rooms to face our future. I sit down expecting the worse. I had failed the Memory exam and was certain I had failed the Reading exam as well. I am handed a contract. I stare in shock. I am told to read it over and sign. I can’t speak. I actually ask this woman if I passed the Reading components. She tells me I passed the Reading mock exam but failed the written. I have to retake that later. Details, details. I was not expecting this. Talk about surprises. I am told I have two hours before a taxi picks me up at the hotel to take me to my new home, my new school, my new life. I try to smile. It’s rather impossible. Shock does this you know. I walk into the lobby and everyone is standing, in shock, clutching their contracts. Even Mr. Masters student has a job. He tells me he failed the Reading exam but the school hired him anyways. He is told he has to prepare to take some workshops in his first month at school in order to prove he has grasped the material. Easy as pie.
Jeanette and I get all sobby and can’t believe we have to say goodbye. She is moving to Daegu, a city two hours south of Seoul. We hustle around the cities side streets, trying to keep out of the pitter patter of rain. We enter into a beautiful fine dining Korean BBQ restaurant. We are greeted by a Korean version of Tammy Fay. I presume the owner, she speaks a bit of English. I order a celebratory beer and we decide on the Steak. In a few moments our table is covered in side dishes: spicy tofu soup, cold water chestnut soup, raison and apple salad, kimchi, coleslaw, onions, garlic, lettuce and peppers, bowls of steaming rice, oyster mushrooms and green tea custard. Tammy Fay stands over our table and attentively mans the grill. I felt it a bit awkward to have someone cooking my food right in front of me. Listening in on my table talk discussion. I kept thinking how the cost of labour in this restaurant must be astronomical. Suddenly, I was reminded that I was in Asia. This service quality would cost a fortune back home. I hadn’t eaten in two days, every morsel that entered my mouth tasted like heaven. Tammy motions that we are to dip our steak in the pineapple, sesame, soy sauce and olive oil mixture. She places each charred button mushroom cap on the rim of the bbq and places a perfectly cooked slice of steak on top. These little mushroom and steak combinations form a circle in the center of our table.
We stumble back onto the street happy as can be. Satiation does wonders for my mood. We all huddle around our luggage. Some of us are leaving tonight. Others leave in the morning. My taxi arrives at 7pm and my heart jumps. I hug Jeanette and moments later find myself sitting on sticky plastic cushions as we make our way through the grid lock of Seoul on Friday night.