On another night in Busan the older people, the important people who have passed the age of sixty, are standing around, waiting around, in front of the black subway glass. My friends and I have observed them in this way for almost two years now, and though we have no experience of their lives above the street, all of us have concluded that it is just as dull and pointless as these long moments they spend waiting around with nothing to do. And indeed once they get inside the subway and sit down, they usually either sleep or stare off into space. Although they have reached the hallowed age of sixty, and therefore deserve lower bows and higher verb conjugations and absolutely no disagreements of any kind, I do not think many people would envy their existence.
I’ve written before that speaking the language brings you deeper inside the culture, and a result of this is that I now have a place in the Korean hierarchy, and become furious, instantly, if it is not respected; on the other hand, it is so obviously arbitrary and pointless that I wonder if it is not in fact better to be a more egalitarian outsider.
Recently I found myself yelling at a student in the middle of class, as I often do on Wednesdays and Fridays, which is when I’m forced to stand in the same room as a large group of sixth graders (~30 students), four times a day, and must decide whether I will allow them to spend forty minutes screaming at one another or whether I will be the one doing all the screaming. It makes little difference as to the very low quality of their education. I cannot design the lesson plans, my co-teacher won’t let me, and her utterly boring and useless ideas (largely confined to memorizing dialogues and singing horrible textbook music) only teach students to hate English and to hate learning. I wanted to jump for joy when she told me, recently, that she had decided to quit this job—and according to my fiancé, to be an English teacher in a public school is possibly the easiest occupation in the entire country.
The students despise her. Just last week they cheered when she didn’t come to class. Although I spend so much time disciplining them I hope they don’t feel the same way about me. I’m afraid that they do, as she barely lifts a finger during the actual classes, and while she designs the lesson plans (or, rather, designed one plan several years ago), I do the lion’s share of the actual “teaching”. I hope that she quits soon, and that her replacement is either a young, open-minded woman or an old man who will terrify the children into submission, because the two days a week I spend with her are, slowly but surely, driving me to the brink of insanity.
Anyway, I was yelling at this kid, forcing him to agree with me, and found myself in a position I’ve often observed before: he was saying yes to everything, but actually he was totally defiant, and obviously meant none of what he said. I’ve seen it happen to others but never to me: an outward show of respecting the hierarchy is made so obviously absurd as to be, in reality, a gesture of rebellion. It’s a way to save face. I felt as if the victory was his, but I had no choice, he agreed to everything, so I had to let him go. The only thing the students truly fear is a trip back to their homeroom teachers, a threat I’m forced to make (and sometimes carry out) every time I “teach”—which is to say, every time I stand in the same room as them.
I’ve been on the other end of this equation countless times. Just recently this same co-teacher informed me that I would have to wait outside in the middle of winter for my students to show up to their winter study session (or “camps”); I thought of telling her that this idea was ridiculous, but I knew, as always, that she would force me to agree to it anyway, so I just agreed and decided not to do it (S.N.I.P—Smile, Nod, Ignore, Proceed, is the most effective response to these typically arbitrary demands). I have only seen her venture outside once or twice, in warmer weather.
She does not set a good example and regularly contradicts whatever she tells me to do. She told me not to touch the students (and I really don’t), I have seen her slap students across the face; she encouraged me to make lesson plans that would be applicable to all of the different learners in our large classes, but has not changed her own teaching style and makes no effort to differentiate between those students who can converse with me and those students who cannot read (and will not use these lesson plans anyway, which I mentioned before); while she does almost nothing in her own classes, she regularly trashtalks a different co-teacher and accuses her of laziness, when my experience has been that this other teacher works very hard to create classes that are of a much higher quality; the list goes on and on; hypocrisy is apparently not an issue when you occupy the higher position in the hierarchy.
She will not be attending these winter sessions though she is still, for some reason, in charge of planning them; they’re free of charge this year, which means that we have too many students already, but because she won’t be in the classroom she doesn’t really care, and I believe she’s still accepting anyone who applies. My fiancé has told me that Korean mothers do not like hiring nannies or babysitters; they prefer to send their children to English lessons, which explains away mountains of confusion.