You don’t need more motivation. You don’t need to be inspired to action. You don’t need to read any more lists and posts about how you’re not doing enough.
We act as if we can read enough articles and enough little Pinterest quotes and suddenly the little switch in our brain will put us into action. But, honestly, here’s the thing that nobody really talks about when it comes to success and motivation and willpower and goals … : you are as you are until you’re not. …
You don’t get to game the system of your life. You just don’t. You don’t get to control every outcome and aspect as a way to never give in to the uncertainty and unpredictability of something that’s beyond what you understand. It’s the basis of presence: to show up as you are in this moment and let that be enough.
You don’t need more motivation or inspiration to create the life you want. You need less shame around the idea that you’re not doing your best. You need to stop listening to people who are in vastly different life circumstances and life stages than you tell you that you’re just not doing or being enough. … You need to understand that what’s right now becomes inspiration later. You need to see that wherever you are now is what becomes your identity later.
Years from now, when I’m on the right side of the CMO desk, I will tell my employee (younger, fresher, more afraid than me) the parable of catch up the schedule. I will be able to laugh about it then, as time has dulled the pain and outrage to not as keen a slice. Until that time, I’m allowed to be salty for a little while.
I don’t like to complain about work and stay positive most of the time, but here’s now the parable goes: once upon a time, the month before Christmas, we had a paper full of schedules and instructions dropped on our desks. This was in lieu of having an actual meeting to explain all of these things because the management can’t be bothered to have face-to-face meetings with us teachers most weeks. Most of us were more concerned with the practicalities of the upcoming special day and open class at the end of the month, so a small, short item was slipped in that everyone seemed to understand quite well: “catch up the schedule.” At least, nobody seemed to require any clarification on this item.
We had “Compassion Day” at the end of the month, which required our kids and their parents’ participation in fundraising for “little kids in Africa” (let’s not talk about the problematic nature of the relative “white savior complex” our school is promoting). We also had Open Class, which is the most nerve-wracking day of the semester, where the parents come in to watch their kids in class. In theory you just teach a “normal” class and want to show the parents what their kids are like in school, but in reality it’s designed to make the parents feel good about their kids each being the smartest in their class, and designing flashy, work-intensive games to entertain the parents and then practicing the answers so that everyone seems perfect that day. Also during Compassion Day, since it was near Christmas, each class had to pick a festive song and train the little ones to sing it perfectly and dance a choreographed dance (ours was “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”). We also had report cards and scores of other grading from elementary school tests at that time. What I mean to say was, the month of December was busy as hell.
This small command fell by the wayside, until it started to become a problem. See, everyone on our side of the office took this item to mean “catch up the work you haven’t done yet because there are tests and special days at the end of the month, so finish anything that you’re behind on.” What we were supposed to have understood but nobody was told was that it meant “get ahead of the schedule since the fourth graders are moving to fifth grade and the parents will be sad if they see empty pages in the students’ books.” The Korean teachers were mad at the foreign teachers for not understanding this poorly-worded sentence and the foreign teachers were mad that they were expected to read the Korean teachers’ minds as to the future plans of the fourth graders. My personal solution was: I went into my fourth grade grammar class and asked, “Okay, raise your hand if you think your mom or dad would be sad that there are blank pages in your book.” Nobody raised their hand. One kid volunteered that there are already blank pages, and another supplied that his mom has literally never seen the inside of his book. So that settled it for my class. The other teachers were not so lucky.
This is a long story for a very simple moral: communication is key. If we could have had a meeting to iron these things out, a lot of time and frustration on both sides could have been avoided.
There are bad things in every workplace. Some more than others. I can go on for days about how I don’t like how things are always sprung on us last-minute, how the foreign teachers are treated as simpletons who can’t follow simple directions at best and with stalwart contempt at worst. I can tell you about our shitty apartments or how every request is met with abject annoyance by our vice-director. I can tell you about the endless communication problems between the Korean side and the foreign side (although me and my co-teacher Miss Tiffany seem to be the exception) and our vice-director straight-up badmouthing us foreign teachers to our Korean coworkers. Our problems are not real, you see. All foreigners do is sit on their asses all day and complain, if you can even call them “teachers,” you see.
It’s really easy to get bogged down in that negativity. It happens to me once a day. It’s easier than breathing to be consumed by the complaints and the mental noise that forms when you’re in a constant state of anger. I see some people consumed by that anger day-in-and-day-out. It seems exhausting.
When I ask the kids about feelings each morning, almost none of them are angry. What is there to be legitimately angry about when you’re so young? Almost all of the kids are feeling happy and excited every day. I try to make it clear that there are many kinds of excitement, because there are so many things to be excited for. Excited for snack time. Excited for the weekend. Excited for their next birthday. Excited for next Christmas. Excited for the next time they can pet a dog or see a movie. That’s a good way to live. My favorite emotion is chill. The second-to-last emotion is always chill. I do a wall sit on the wall and cross my right ankle over my left knee, hands clasped behind my head, eyes closed, and let out a long-suffering sigh. If I’m not feeling chill, I tell the kids, they should all be very scared. But also very nice. When I ask the kids about feelings each morning, the last one is always confused: “Raise your hand if you’re confused. ‘What’s my name?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What am I doing?’ ‘Where am I going?’ ‘Why is it February already?’” I’m feeling the most confused now.
Why am I here? I’ve been having to answer that question more and more these days. I came because in summer of 2015, applying for those marketing jobs, to fulfill my “destiny” as it were, I could never really bring myself to send out those applications. Something stayed my hand every time. Being both enrolled in Korean classes at the university and also a former-English-writing-major-turned-English-literature-minor, several people told me “hey, you should think about teaching English in Korea. You’d like it.” I shrugged it off at the time, but the idea took root and sprouted over time. Now, just over a year ago, I’m still trying to see if this was the right path for me.
Why am I here? So many signs say that I should dislike it. Chief among my concerns was my disdain for the supremacy of the English language worldwide (just because I like the language myself doesn’t mean everyone else should have to learn it). I don’t like that everyone else in the world is expected to learn at least English if not a myriad of other languages, while the Americans just laugh it off and say, “Oh, they’ll just get a translator.” I don’t like that the kids are worked to the bone here, even from kindergarten age they are shuttled to and from classes and academies until late in the night, where they then have to do homework until the wee hours of the morning. It’s hard work getting ahead. I don’t like the focus on tests and quantification rather than understanding and practical knowledge. I’d rather the kids be able to understand and talk about the book but not have anything tangible to show me than to have a packet of perfectly completed worksheets and no knowledge of the material we just learned. I hate that the students are so beat to death that even by the time they are in first or second grade, all the creativity is drained from them, so the only thing they’re capable of doing is perfectly copying the lines written on the board and looking for the answers in the book, rather than thinking and understanding for themselves. I hate that when told to write a story, they don’t even have the creativity for that, so accustomed are they to just copying and pasting what they need to write. I hate that all the wonder is so sapped from them that I try to talk about space or cowboys or princesses, things that should interest them, but instead I get blank stares.
“Okay, but, why are you staying if you hate it so much? Why are you here?”
A non-answer: there’s something valuable about being a minority, especially when few of my kind of privilege can experience being in this position. It makes you both more empathetic to the plights of others, and also makes you care a little less about your own self-righteousness and your own social standing. Whatever you do, no matter how long you’re here, you’re just another foreigner. It would be the same whether you’re a tourist just visiting for a week or a student here for a year or some foreigner who’s lived here for years and holds a Korean passport. We all look the same to the Koreans.
And a real answer: I really do like teaching. I did not expect to like it that much, but there’s something so satisfying about rephrasing your explanation in a different way and seeing it finally stick. There’s something so satisfying about watching your students improve throughout the year, being able to do things at the end that they couldn’t have even dreamed about at the beginning of the year.
There is a terrible moment when your student says something incredibly stupid-sounding and you wonder, “Why has nobody taught them better?” Or they say something that’s incredibly insensitive, either racist or heteronormative or queerphobic or any number of other ugly traits, and again you wonder, “Why has nobody taught them better?” That’s what I call a “teaching moment.” You realize that this is why you’re here, this is why they brought foreigners rather than using Korean teachers. You bring a perspective that is different and much-needed to these kids, especially when their parents have taught them some downright damaging things about the world around them. This is the time when you have the chance to make a difference.
I really do like the kids. When you’re sick or angry or hungover and feel like the earth should just swallow you up in one piece, a well-placed cute comment or a kid hugging you round the middle and saying “I love you, Miss Georgia,” can melt all of your troubles instantly. The kids’ joy is so pure and they can be entertained by watching the same video (like the songs from “Moana,” for example) over and over again for a month. It’s really amazing to see the kids who could barely tell one letter from another at the beginning of the year to be able to read full stories with seeming ease by this time. It’s a really fulfilling job sometimes.
In September-October-November I was thinking about having to go back to America. (This was before the election results which made this even more unpalatable than before.) I thought to myself, “Man, I really don’t want to go back just yet.” And then, “Well, is anybody really making me go back? No.” My parents were surprisingly understanding when the news that I was staying came their way. Of course, I’ve been saying that I’d switch schools since around that time, and I procrastinated finding the new position until only a month remained…
If you’re thinking this is a good idea, don’t.
I, of course, was not worried by this delay, but everyone around me demanding the play-by-play on my plans? It was the people around me who actually spurred me into action. The last week of January was a flurry of activity and my own complaints about updating my resume, writing cover letters, and getting passport photos done. The very next day, I sent 5 emails and got 5 requests for an interview. Within 24 hours, I had 5 interviews (two via skype on the Friday and the next day, 3 in-person interviews). Within 24 hours of that I had 5 job offers on the desk.
In the United States these days, especially for young people, you become accustomed to and come to expect to send out many, many job applications, have many interviews, and never get a call-back. Mostly just throwing your resume into an uncaring void. You rarely get an offer, let alone having multiple offers to juggle. You even send out applications to the less-desirable places just so that you might have a job at all. It’s not so in Korea. At least, for English speakers it is quite easy to get a fairly decent job. Here, it seems, the recruiter doesn’t request an interview unless they’re all but prepared to give you an offer. The interview is mostly to confirm what they already know and to iron out the contract details. I don’t think that I’m exaggerating much when I say that I will probably never have as life-affirming a job search process as the one I’m currently in the midst of.
Job A: in a decent area in Seoul, Yeoksam, the school is in a literal house that they bought and renovated, with cool little lofts and attics and slides and stuff for the kids to play on. It seems like a really cool environment and all of the teachers and management seem really nice and close-knit. Good pay. Shorter hours than I work now. The other teachers will help me find what I need, like churches or post offices or swimming pools or Korean lessons. The downside is that I have to plan my own lessons, which adds to the amount of work significantly but would also be more like a “traditional teaching experience” and therefore more fulfilling.
Job B: it’s an afterschool position, which means that I go to a public school after regular classes are out and teach the kids there. The hours are literally 12-6. Time is one of your best assets on this earth and the sheer time that I would have to do other things is alluring. The better quality of life that will result from this situation is more DIY than the other one. The curriculum is already planned for you so all you have to do is implement it. Low brainpower. Downside: there’s only a housing allowance so I’ll have to find my own place, but hopefully I’ll be in a good area that I like, such as Sangsu, my favorite neighborhood, so that I can afford to have a decent apartment.
They release the list of schools hiring afterschool teachers tomorrow. After that, I’ll have my decision for next year. Tomorrow we have the “graduation” field trip for kindergartners and the level test for elementary schoolers. In the evening I will eat dinner, smoke hookah, and drink buckets of questionable cocktails to celebrate coworker Stephanie’s birthday. Sometime in that mosh pit of events, this list will be released. I will accept one offer and will have to turn the other down. At this point, I’m not quite sure which I will choose. I leave you now on a cliffhanger.
A toast to having options but still being completely unsure of what lies ahead.