♪♫Stuck in the middle with♫♪. Them.

Today was a significant day. It was the first of many spent in my new home city of Yeosu, South Korea. It was also my first as an EFL teacher at an all boys public middle school. Its true, I am employed by the Korean government to teach it’s youth English as a foreign language. Its a weird world. Before I go over my day, there is a bit you should know about public schools in South Korea. Those that still have the funding to have a native English speaker have just the one. Although all schools have Korean English teachers  they generally lack in the ability to actually communicate in English. I don’t say that as slander. But fact (my main co teacher speaks very well). The stage is set.

8am I wander to the end of my new street to the predetermined rendezvous point where my co-teacher (whom I instantly established as Nuna – older sister) picks me up for school. The previous nights sleep was a rough one. I contribute little and less to the conversation. Maybe 10 minutes later and we are at the end of a road surrounded by middle school boys in their classic Asian prep-boy uniforms. Although more formal in appearance, it feels a lot like that time I got stuck in a heard of buffalo in Custer SD. Its only seconds upon parking at the back of school before I am enthusiastically greeted. New Teacha? Oh! Name? Oh! Berry handsome! Oh! OH! Where from?

Korean public schools are streamlined learning compounds. While classrooms have a respectable (often impressive) array of technology, the rest leave something to be desired. My compound: Yeosu Boys Middle School, is a particularly old one. It consists of multiple linear structures all relatively parallel to one another. Each a couple or stories high. My school has about 600 students. Again, all boys, all middle school aged. The teaching staff is 36 with a slew of other support staff. I’m the only one in the school with hair that is naturally not black and eyes that are not dark. I’m as novel as a golden snowflake on a field of white.

Nuna steers me through the masses. She instructs me to set down my things in her office. Minutes later I am off to meet the chain of command in ascending order. After lots of bowing and rehearsing of my formal Korean greetings we are off to meet the big boss. Nuna leads the way with our respectable entourage in-tow: vice principles of all kinds, administrators, lesser administrators, jugglers and thieve’s. All of our assembling to find the big man himself is out for a walk. We settle on meeting his secretaries. The highlight of that exchange is that I receive my package of organic health products that I had ordered the week prior.

Back to the halls. More: New Teacha? Oh! Name? Oh! Berry handsome! Oh! OH! Where from?

Lots of waving and “good mornings” on my part.

I am informed I need to set-up temporary shop for the week in the main teachers office. Just below the v.p.’s desk. Cue more awkward greetings, bowing ect.

By now it is about 9am and time for class to start. Nuna takes me to her homeroom class for an introduction which segues into a impromptu lesson on tropical fruit, sports and geography. My lesson is cut short as it is again time to try and meet the head principle. The troops are reassembled and we are again at the door of his office. Moments later the man himself emerges from a side door. Akin to a king of old, he is late aged, large, and formal in his actions. He has genial – winky eyes and a welcome ALMOST jolly aura. After bowing and formalities we take a seat in his throne room. It isn’t long before we both exhaust our knowledge of the others native language. Nuna steps in and talks up the highlights of my short career. Its a beautiful autumn day, the windows are open. I zone out getting lost in the soporific sights and sounds. Gazing out I see trees in autumn color, in the mid-ground are some of the impressive structures built for the Yeosu World Expo of 2012. In the background is the sea, speckled with tall rocky islands and ships stretching back into the hazy horizon. Muffled shouts of boys playing on the pitch drift in. The scene has a gentle orange hue to it.

I snap back to the immediate. I throw in a few nods and other affirmations to show my competence. Then its all over and I am back in the busy teachers office dropping my haphazardly made Into PPT. onto my thumb drive. I teach a class. And then another. The classes consist of 33-36 middle school aged boys. There are 3 grades, simply 1,2 & 3. Grade 1 students are keen to learn and respectful. Grade 2 not so much. Grade 3. Sharks in the water. The struggle is real, I imagine it will take the first couple of weeks to establish my dominance and fine-tune authoritarian control.

Lunch time. I join a gaggle of teachers on their migration to the mess hall. After dishing up my tray I take a seat across from the formidable looking P.E. teacher. I soon learn he majored in boxing. How do I relate to this guy?! Teachers stream past me one-by-one. All too shy to sit next to the white guy. In a kind gesture, the vice principle introduces me to “the virgin” teacher at the end of the table. Hands over the face. She hasn’t heard nor probably understands what her supervisor said about her but she is just as embarrassed all the same. After a few more moments of silence between me and Rocky, the v.p. finally commands the young looking music teacher to sit next to me. Neither him nor I have much to say.

Back to the halls. More: New Teacha? Oh! Name? Oh! Berry handsome! Oh! OH! Where from? – These sounds and phrases play on repeat throughout the entirety of the day.

After tweaking my PPT. Nuna gives me a grand tour of the compound. I visit the boys playing soccer on the pitch. I wave to those playing basketball. I dodge balls near the foot-volleyball (is that what its called?) court. Inside of the gymnasium is the advanced foot-volleyball players. Apparently they will head up to Seoul next weekend to compete for the title of Top Middle School Boys Foot-Volleyball Champions. Last stop on the tour is the smallest and furthest removed building. It houses the science classrooms as well as the English lab aka home away from home away from home. The wooden floors look and sound like something from a horror movie. The chairs are mismatched. The “smart board” is as old as I am. It smells like the root-cellar, but its mine.

My final class of the day is Grade 2 – Class 3 (2-3). Lets just say I was happy to not have  to do any more “instructing” after that.

All throughout the day and even prior to my arrival at school I gathered that the largest expectation of me as the token male foreign teacher was to play on the teachers volleyball team. They play during 7th period every wednesday. As much as I would like to please them, there are a few complications. First and foremost is my unfamiliarity with the sport and major lack in ability. It sounds like these bros are C.O.M.P.E.T.I.T.I.V.E. Second is the language barrier. This will pair nicely with the aforementioned in creating major embarrassment. Last is dress code. I would be most comfortable, not to mention expected to wear gym shorts. This isn’t possible as I’m not supposed to expose my large shin tattoo. Although tattoos are becoming popular with the younger generation it is still quite taboo and seen as “dirty” with the older folks.

All that to say I was expected to play volleyball given my first day happened to be a wednesday. Somehow with Nuna’s help I dodged a bullet but I know I won’t be so lucky next week…

After a hectic day I went shopping and purchased more things for work and my empty apartment. Then I treated myself to a “cheez-a” crust pizza at Pizza School and a walk around my new realm.

This year will be more of a learning experience than I had anticipated.



3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian L on November 6, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Good luck this year Mark! Sounds like it will be an interesting experience. Good luck with foot volleyball 🙂


  2. Posted by Barb Baumgartner on November 6, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    Loved reading about your first day. Good luck! We have been trying to Skype with you. Hopefully soon.


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