I always joke that Korea is everyone’s backup plan but in December 2014 it was my lifeline after a disastrous (albeit brief) stint in China. I snuck out of my hotel at 6 in the morning, caught a cab to the train station, a train to the plane station, and then that night was back in Seoul (and my old dorm, no less) after being away for 2/1/2 years. This was exactly 6 months ago today.
Surreal doesn’t even begin to explain how I felt. But what happened in China? I invested a lot of money in the flight and the visa. Why did I flee so quickly?
Here is the full tale.
In November I accepted a job at a newish school in China in a tiny no-name town (of a few million) named Cuxi a few hours out of Shanghai. This place wasn’t even mentioned in the Lonely Planet; nor did it have a McDonalds (not that I care but it is a good mark of “civilization.”)
There were red flags aplenty, not least of which was that it apparently involved some work with 2 year-olds, the head teacher instructed me to fake my TEFL via photoshop, and, you know, it was in a boring, industrial city in China. But I took the job because a) I was dead broke b) it paid quite well (500 a month more than I’m making now, in fact), and c) I was told I had my afternoons completely free (which I wanted to spend writing.)
Without airing too much dirty laundry, the work environment was not pleasant. Co-workers initially struck me as petty–they talked badly about everyone they knew. Really badly. Some of them seemed blatantly unfriendly to me, and I later found out I had replaced one of their friends who had been fired. (Which a reasonable adult wouldn’t hold against the replacement, but as we shall see….)
Classwise was tough as well. I was in charge of a group of 2-year olds who spent the first 45-60 minutes crying because they’d never left their mommies before. I had known some of my classes would have the little fellas, but it turned out that all of them did. My first official teaching in class was observed by the office manager, the owner, and another suited, frowning woman whose exact role I never learned.
The last teacher (understandably) didn’t leave me any notes so I had no idea what they had been taught. I had no time to myself as I was shadowing classes and there were no pre-existing resources (and the printer was down) so I scrawled some letters onto pages from my notebook and made impromptu flash cards. I planned some activities for G, including being goats.
Most of the kids cried when they saw me but it actually went as well as could reasonably be expected. (But there’s that R-word again.) Afterward, I got 47 minutes of notes after the class from the head teacher, all critical. It was deemed disastrous enough the parent’s observation classes planned for the next day was postponed. (No complaints for me there.) My defense: “What do you expect the first time I meet a dozen 2 year-olds? It takes time to make relationships with kids. And they’re babies.” This didn’t seem to matter much. I was additionally criticized for not having pretty enough flash cards.
Every afternoon (which I thought I’d have off) I had to wake the babies up from their naps and help them change their diapers. Then try to teach these groggy, grumpy babies some phonics. The teachers of older students *did* get this time off, so it hadn’t been completely false.
So this was a challenge, a big challenge but that was only half of what went wrong. My co-workers (with the exception of two guys excluded from the cool crowd) weren’t very nice. (Later, I would tell this story to a friend who had worked for years in both Korea and China and he said that he had largely found that the expats who teach in China tend to be more bitter and unhappy than those in Korea. Which I understand is a huge generalization.)
But I can say these guys and I did not get along. From jetlag and the stress of a new job, I was barely sleeping. My third night there, we went to pubquiz. I was exhausted and shouldn’t have gone, but I was still trying to make an effort to socialize and, oh yeah, I do like pub quizzes.
Cuxi isn’t big enough or foreigner savvy to actually have a pub with pub quizzes, but the 10 or so foreigners in town (including the guy I replaced) took turns writing their own quizzes and got hosted in a chill spot. A cool idea, and the quiz the night I went was super well-written and a lot of fun. But I joined the two unpopular guys (from Hong Kong and Pakistan) and we did very well. The head teacher’s boyfriend, who was the snottiest of the lot, grew increasingly acerbic. When we passed the sheets around for correction, he began to mark our answers wrong based on handwriting. Deliberately misreading letters.
It’s no secret that although I am typically pretty chill, when people act like deliberate arseholes to me, I quickly get pissed me off. I got up and asked him if he really was going to act like that. (In my head, he smirked, though perhaps real life is more nuanced than that.) He definitely did say “Start marking our answers right and we’ll mark yours right.”
I just left. I had no idea where I was staying but asked the bartender downstairs to draw me a little map. While waiting, one of the teachers (the one who had made it most clear she didn’t like me) ran down and confronted me. “Where do you think you’re going? Just storming off? Stick around like a man.”
“I am not going to sit around when someone acts like an asshole to me.” I said and walked off. She ran after me, shouting, but I ignored her. Later, I wanted to ask her why it mattered so much to her. Or at all. But you can probably answer that for yourself.
Tired as I was, I couldn’t really sleep that night. If I had been stressed before, you can imagine how much worse things were now. All night I worked on my apology, acknowledging jet-lag and exhaustion as factors in my behavior.
The next day though, I was persona non gratis. Despite my disagreement being with the head teacher’s boyfriend, the head teacher never said anything. At lunch, nobody sat by me (they made a point of going past my table to an empty one) and they made it obvious they were talking about me with repeated stares and giggles. One of the guys from my team the night before found me and presented me with the bottle of wine we had won the night before. (Apparently we had still won.) “They were pissed I didn’t open it last night but you won it. I wanted to save it for you.” It was a very nice gesture and I thanked him. “They have been talking mad shit about you all day,” he told me. “The Cuxi QQ group for foreigners has been changed to Gluto.” (The night before, they had pretended to read one of my answers as Gluto instead of Pluto.)
The office manager was rushing to find me an apartment as I was staying in a hotel on their dime. Apartments in China are cheap but you have to pay three months in advance. After work, I walked home along a crowded street with no sidewalks. I had taken the school’s VPN on my flashdrive so at my hotel I chatted with my family and a buddy in Korea. I was thinking of going back to the US–it was almost christmas, but my buddy insisted I come stay with him. I had to decide then and there–once I put money down for the apartment, I was committed.
It was a really hard decision. But with all aspects of life there frankly unpleasant, I bailed. I felt bad about screwing the school. My first hagwon in Korea was added to the blacklist and shut down soon after I left but I stuck it out an entire year. This was far worse. Anyway, they recovered quickly. I left on a thursday and the school had a new teacher by the next monday. And as of today, 6 months later, they still haven’t returned my MA to me.
I had another false start in January, where I accepted another job with red flags and a bad gut feeling and that one too, I left early. But as of March I started my current position and although I wasted lots and lots of money and time (not to mention the effort that went into the fake TESL) it was worth it. My current job is not free from the typical hagwon silliness, but the students are fantastic and overall it really is were I wanted to be.
I don’t think things always work out for the best, but I did learn to trust my instincts a bit more. Decisions made from panic or fear rarely achieve fruition. And so while I spent over a thousand dollars to, in effect, trade my MA for a cheap bottle of wine, if I can remember to trust myself a bit more it might have all been worth it.