Thursday, June 5, 2008

Everybody Else Is Doing It (So Why Don't I?)

English teaching.
The mainstay occupation of a good chunk of the westerners here in Korea, teaching English can be lucrative, fun, and a rewarding professional career. Or, of course, it can be a hellish nightmare that leaves people screaming in terror as they run towards the exits. It's not the only occupation represented in the Korean blogsphere (Marmot, Metro, Korea Law Blog, etc. are all run by people who don't rely on the English language teaching industry) but between the remaining blogs and the majority of commenters on major blogs, the English teaching industry here is very well represented in the digital never-never land, as well as in other forums. So well represented, in fact, that everyone assumes I am an English teacher.
I'm not at all insulted by this. English teaching is cool. Some ESL teachers here are good, some are bad, and some are weird, but every occupation is like that. I'm a bit annoyed though, in the same way I am when I'm asked if I'm Canadian or Russian (ok, I am a bit insulted by the Russian bit, but not because Russians are some kind of primitive species I wouldn't want to be associated with. Rather, the question here when posed towards women tends to mean, "Are you a hooker?") I'm annoyed just because I'm not, and it gets boring to keep repeating who I am and what I do. Sometimes I wish I were an English teacher because it would make conversations with taxi drivers much more concise.
I've been an ESL teacher here in Korea before. I spent two years on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) grant, which places recent US college graduates in Korean middle and high schools to teach part time and spend the rest of their time doing . . . .well, something constructive. Research, language studies, something - We had a vague requirement to produce a short paper over our winter breaks. I wrote about ritual in Korean vs. Japanese new year celebrations, took photos of historically important buildings, studied Korean, learned how to perform a tea ceremony, and traveled, but the bulk of my time and attention was on teaching. I taught at boys' high schools, and loved every minute of it that didn't see me locked in the bathroom, crying. Teaching was fun and very, VERY challenging. I have a lot of admiration for people who teach well.
Still, that experience came to an end, and when it did I very happily rejoined an academic community that was interested in other things. Returning to Anthropology and Asian Studies as formal disciplines gave me a mental charge that teaching ESL didn't. I'm still very, very interested in English education and how it's conducted in Korea - but not from the angle of a participant. I've already written a grant proposal that I'll be schlepping around this next year for funding (please, God, please?) and I think that while I had fun teaching, there are people who are better at it and more interested in the actual communication of English language knowledge. I leave it to them. I always had more fun asking my students slightly inane questions about social constructs or pontificating on esoteric aspects of American life than I did actually making them construct grammatically correct sentences.
Someday I'll go into a long post about the regulations regarding visas for ESL teachers here and the incredibly exploitive 학원 system, but all in all it makes participating in the system kind of obnoxious. And with a degree in Asian Studies I wanted to find work that would use my skills instead of working in a field that I didn't intend to make my profession.
Have you ever tried to find a non-English teaching position in Korea? Needle in a haystack doesn't even begin to describe it - visa regulations are draconian, and what little work there is that's not teaching tends to require real, viable job skills that my grad school didn't prepare me for: Business, law, marketing . . . and I didn't qualify for any teaching outside of ESL because I only hold a masters.
In other words, I could earn a heck of a lot more money if I taught English, but at the cost of not pursuing more academic studies. I'm preparing (slowly) for a PhD program, but before I start I think I need a more solid base of experience and research and language, and I want to get that here. Hence my current position as researcher. The pay is lousy, but the hours are great and I feel like I'm participating in something that advances my studies and my prospects within Asian Studies.
God, it would be nice to earn money though!

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