They wouldn’t let the children cry. They would traumatize them, and then expect them to become emotional stones and threaten them if they felt any feelings. Oh goodness, I wondered, what horrors must have happened to her when she was a child? She was a hurting soul, intent on hurting more with a sea of tears trapped up and hidden away somewhere inside her massive head. She had pulled the covers over her altered sense of reality, and there would be no acknowledgement of the clues that something was terribly off in her life. But she could strongly sense that he was glaring at them, and he would be stopped, punished, or sent out the door somehow. She would try to make him do it himself, and hope that it would all be his plan for her to blame. But it wouldn’t work. He would stay there, month after month, as seasons pass, and through to her efforts to deceive him, he would become utterly convinced that something might be horribly wrong with him. She just wanted him to go away, and he would continue to face the calamity with an open heart and an open mind. The rage inside her grew and red hives and rashes bubbled up the surface of her neck. She was beginning to pop.
“Some people come to teach in Korea so they can kind of travel around or something and see Korea. But I am a real, true teacher, I’m not a pretend teacher like so many others who use this job to live in Korea. I actually came here to teach and honestly work here.” She'd say.
8:45 AM and I’m walking through the narrow, dangerous tunnel towards the Hakwon. Amber and her fiancé were 20 strides ahead of me. They walked slowly, wore baggy rags, and didn’t seem to care about their appearance for grown ups – the children could be made to think anything. She wore a powerful psychological disguise. Both overweight, and dimly animated every morning as she would narrate their slow-motion walk to the school and he would stride side by side, like her cognitive servant, hearing everything she has to say and agreeing subserviently. I wondered what kinds of details she would go over with him on these morning commutes. She would probably go over the details of what a child said the day earlier about her parents, or talk about the relationship that Elsa has with princesses, or how Eric cries just because he wants attention. They were immersed in their little world with the Korean children, and he played along. I’m sure that some of her orating included the scheming and planning of my hostile downfall. I was just a puppet in her web of manipulation.
I consciously lagged behind to avoid catching up to them too quickly, because I had a natural hesitation to have too much contact with them. I knew that something was very off in their lives, and that they had no friends. Perhaps it was because they weren’t easy to relate to. At first I thought this was just my fear and my shortcoming in being critical of people like them, that is was all my fault, and that I would eventually overcome it and get along with them very well if I opened up and let the communication flow fully and honestly. I was wrong.
Eventually I caught up to them by the stream, and I struggled to get their attention even though they were 5 steps away from me and I was saying “Hello!” We were the only ones walking by the cold stream at 8 am. They didn’t notice me.
“Good morning!” I stepped ahead of them and made eye contact with Amber. She hesitated and then morphed her diabolical face into a bright and unnaturally forced smile.
“Oh, Good morning! Have you been there all along?” She immediately turned my attention towards the needs to improve my teaching techniques, the various opportunities to serve the children throughout the day, and the need for a tough action to put an end to Eric’s crying. In her words, if a four year old starts crying because they are intimidated by a book, a class activity or a teacher, you must ignore it, and if the crying persist, you scold the child, you tell the child never to cry, that they must learn to grow up and do the difficult things that they don’t want to do. To comfort the child in their emotionally vulnerable state is a disservice to the children, and won’t be tolerated.
Her direction made me terrified of teaching. The Korean boss wanted me to emulate her as much as possible, because her method worked, and brought the school to silence and obedience – completed homework and quick ascent of the curricula pleased the parents. It felt like what I would imagine the energy of an old school British public school in a run-down area might be like. It was not the culture that I knew, so I was facing the challenge of melding with multiple cultures in one workplace.
The sliding glass door of the school shot open, and we marched in. Amber took off her big fluffy brown boots and placed them next to The Director’s black Prada stiletto heels. Such a contrast of characters in this place, we had the Director who was always in head-to-toe high end labels and exquisitely polished, tasteful looks, and her oversize British mammal who wore cartoon slippers and bland discount garbs with a big animated mouth that would bark at the children for holding a pencil the wrong way.
As scared as I was of this job, as soon as I had a classroom full of children and a lesson plan to begin, the days flowed smoothly and peacefully, at least I believed they did. I was giving the kids the best teaching I could for someone with no past experience, and no real interest or passion in teaching from the start. Like most ESL adventurers, I just wanted to see the world, and I would up seeing a really twisted tiny exception to the bigger world of Korea.
At the end of the day, Amber’s presence summoned a stillness in my soul and the air in my office. She had descended for a serious talk.
“Can we talk?” She would say.
“Yeah, sure!” I would sit down with a smile, all ears. Every time we would talk, it usually meant bad news. All of our one-on-one’s was a challenge for me to be open and vulnerable to her criticism and the Korean critique translated through her, which was always some form of “be more like Amber Teacher.”
“I am a little concerned, and The Director has been watching you on the CCTV cameras and she is worried that the children are not getting enough play time.”
“I do try to play games, and have fun songs like the Hokey Pokey from time to time, but we have so many workbooks to complete and strict deadlines. I just wanted to stay ahead of the game.”
“Yes, we all have to worry about the books. Everyone has a lot of workbooks to teach.” Reddish-pink hives and rash-like contours began to appear on her pale white chest and crawl up the right side of her neck. She spoke at me and through me, but not directly to me. “Of all of the teachers here, I actually have the most books of all by far, so you shouldn’t be complaining to me. Everyone in this school is working very, very hard, this is what teacher’s do. Here in Korea, and all over the world. This is what teacher’s do. Some of us in this school have to work a lot harder than you. But what I’m specifically concerned about is Elephant Class’ behavior. Your class is lagging behind in the behavior of the other classes because you don’t have enough active play time with the children. When you are playing with Lego’s with them, you should always be smiling, and speaking in English, engaged, and helping them to learn and expand their English expressions through the play and the specific things that happen in your games…”
I paused for a moment as she waited for my full reaction, preparing to pounce. With a calm, and controlled tone, I began a careful response. “As a teacher, I need some boundaries. I feel like I am being micro-managed in this school and I need some freedom to explore, run my own classes, make mistakes and time to learn.” She sat back and processed my words like an extreme threat, her neck and eyes turning even more red. Both our hearts were beating in extreme pressure because underneath the words, we knew we absolutely hated each other.
“This is outrageous. You really need to learn how to listen and respect your higher-ups, Jack. I’m going to tell The Director about this. I just won’t take it anymore.” She sat up.
“Don’t tell the director! Wait!” I yelled.
“Unbelievable.” She signed, and walked away. I sat back in my office, powerless over the storm in her. In a very strange cerebral way, I had walked right into her trap. I was in a kindergarten where I could not stand up for my rights, and felt disarmed and oppressed. I could have no opinion or voice in this place.
Amber told the director that I yelled at her, and that she couldn’t work with me anymore. The Korean Spider Woman who worked side-by-side with Amber came down to my classroom, shut the door, and screamed at me.
“Why won’t you listen to her? I can’t believe you. You’re new, just like you keep saying, you’re new, you’re learning, so you should listen to the people who know more than you. If you can’t listen and do what she says, then I’m telling you there’s gonna be NO SEVERANCE PAY, and NO FLIGHT HOME.” My small foundation in Korea and my safety net at the completion of this very contract was threatened, and I was being pressed to obey a toxic lady that did not communicate rationally or behave in a humane way with the children.
“I did not yell at Hayley teacher.” I said calmly, trembling in fear.
“Yes you did. You did. Whatever, I can’t believe you anymore. We’ve never had a teacher like you before. You just think you know everything and know how to do this job, but you know nothing. If you don’t apologize to Amber and listen to what she says, you’re fired.” The Korean Spider Woman left my classroom, and me in silent angry tears. There was nothing I could do but endure at this point. I didn’t feel that fighting this twisted dynamic would get me anywhere.
Divide and conquer was her technique. Old school Britain mixed with old school Korean strategy. Always keep him scared. I know what it must feel like to be colonized, tapped for resources, forced to behave like a person you’ve never know or wanted to be. Stretched to the limit and any signs of revolution are quickly dismantled by claiming disrespect. No thank you, no please. The more you give, the more they plan to take.
And for the rest of the year, I knew that they were talking about me upstairs. At the end of each day, they would watch my teaching performance on the CCTV displays, replay my mistakes and errors, and pick me apart. My privacy was being abused, and they didn’t see or care. I wasn’t a human resource to them, I was an immigrant to be amused by - a circus monkey. The most challenging part of it was that her power and emotional manipulation over the school reminded me of my childhood home. My needs for security were ignored and bred resentments. I was shamed and made to feel like a bad person for having human needs and wanting autonomy.
This made me extremely nervous and aware about every move I made or every word I said for fear of disappointing them. I had a feeling that the universe had brought me into this scenario to work on some aspects of myself and to face my fears and grow. I sat down with the Director to voice my truth, it was all I could do.
“Thank you for meeting with me” in a very calm voice, I continued, “I did not yell at Amber teacher. I was only standing up for my boundaries as a teacher in this school. If I experience any more threats from the Korean staff I will go to the labor board with a complaint.”
The Korean Spider Woman moved her lips silently in anger – “I did NOT threaten you!” I was shaken.
The Director made some hasty remarks in Korean. There was no emotion in her black eyes, no kindness in her soul. “The contract isn’t over, you are still being paid to work here, so just play with the children, please.” The Spider Woman translated.
Then they stood up and walked away. I left the school for the day – Friday. Leaving that hostile work environment for the weekend was total relief, and temporary euphoria in the freedom of the weekend. Sometimes, I’d wander around a massive Korean shopping center – there’s nothing like that feeling of being a tiny alien cell circulating a massive bustling mall in Asia full of glitzy flashing lights of distraction and shiny gadgets of accessibility.
It was getting warmer. The horizon in Korea was always an ever-ascending hive of Fluorescent lit human refrigerators stacked up on the hillside, stacks and stacks as high and far as the eye can see. What was once as surreal as an alien landscape became my new ordinary. A familiar alien cityscape at which my gaze served to dissociate from my dark unsettling reality – that I had to go back to being bullied at work on Monday.
“Alcohol is alive.”
Chance spoke in awe with a wonder in his eyes at the ultimate darkness that is the nature of his universe. “Alcohol is the excrement of a living thing. And we drink it. And the living thing makes its way into our brain and controls us. Our minds become controlled by a parasite. We lose control of our decisions. It eats away at our soul.” I was sitting on the top floor of an “Oficetel” at 오리 Station with a couple of other recently sobered up artists, lost on a path of English teaching in Korea with very different situations, directions and reasons. But what we lacked in common we shared in our losing wrestle with booze. Chance looked out his window at the flashing neon lights emitting from a constellation of establishments throughout the next building - a happy ending massage parlor, a PC Bang, a 70’s-80’s decades music venue, a whorehouse… “I didn't think about it until I studied biochemistry. But I dunno guys. I think there might be something to it. I think this rabbit hole goes much deeper than all of humanity might worry.”
Silence. In-meeting etiquette forbids cross-talk. “I think we’re all sick. Just look at the way normies dance with the subject of drinking. They all know. They know it’s doing something for them. It has to. They admit it takes the edge off. So why should they get to have something that’s so self destructive, and I can’t?”
More silence. I was so relieved just to hear someone else think for once.
“It's alive. Alcohol is a living thing. Man drinks alcohol. Alcohol drinks man. The living thing has grown inside of you. You become someone else.”
We’re not such a glum lot, I thought, I hope he doesn’t scare away the new girl. He started to play his flamenco guitar with one foot on his desk chair, smoking a cigarette out his open window. The cool spring breeze carried the smoke into the neon-lit night, as it would soon take Chance to Japan for a new endeavor. After a 2 year bender in Korea, a broken marriage and the school year’s end with a classroom full of students who watched in horror as he hallucinated in delirium tremens during an English lesson, he was ready for a change of scenery.
“I’ve been acquainted with the shadow people.” He said, describing what he saw in withdrawals. “I hope I never meet the shadow people again.” We met every Tuesday night for 12 weeks and completed the steps with Kevin.
Kevin had also been struggling to get with the program and went out every so often after emotionally draining evenings with his ex wife or current girlfriend. Some people won’t let themselves be alone long enough to see what’s stirring in the silence. It’s hard to see them pick up a bottle of booze at the 24-hour GS 25 and never come back. Sometimes one slip leads to the next, and the seed is planted that maybe I can just drink the potion and make it all go away, and get away with it. Once it becomes a possibility again, it seems to become a priority immediately, and then a pattern, an unbreakable behavior, and eventually, a fate.
It means a lot to share my experience and hope with new people who either hang on for dear life or sink into the unknown who never reach out again. But it drives me to keep my house in order, because I’ve watched alcoholism turn a beautiful, fancy home into a fucking nuthouse.
I remember my first meeting. Before I found the rooms, I walked up to the wrong side of a church and knocked on the wrong door. I was about to give up and go home so easily because I was hesitating, afraid of who or what I might find, and I had a just in case bottle of Bailey’s in my bottom drawer - strong enough to fend of a wave of anxiety, mild enough not to get inebriated. It just so happened that on that same night, another lost man was knocking on the same wrong door, and he helped lead me to the right place. I found a lot of hope in a basement of a church that night on a lonely, rainy intersection in London, Canada, on a night id given up on any plans for the rest of my life having wagered all my hope on the silent escape of daily mind-numbing drinking. But that night I discovered that I may be able to do something with the rest of my life, if only I gave up doing one thing for that day, one day at a time.
Two years later and I’m in Korea. It was at the Holly’s Coffee overlooking the crowded apartment skyline of Jeongja station is where we met Neill for the first time. I think there’s one thing we all have in common when we reach out for help for the first time, and it’s the look of fear in our eyes, and a shaky, timid demeanor. It’s like there’s something in our bodies that is screaming for us to fight and flee the help that we need, but something inside us keeps us there long enough to hear just enough hope.
“My boss took me aside today and said –Neill, what is wrong with you?” Neill was having a rough day, he looked shaken, disheveled and broken down, having a hard time articulating words to thoughts and restless, unable to stay standing in one place for too long. He knew he had to do what he had to do and that we were there to help.
Later on, Don shared some encouraging thoughts. “And the thing they didn’t tell me, man, is that… It goes away.” Don said. “The obsession, the compulsion, I was so worried that I’d have to spend the rest of my life hanging onto a chair willing myself not to drink anything that night. But that feeling, it goes away.”
“I hope so.” Neill nodded his head.
Three months later and Neill was a free man, well groomed and professionally dressed from work, with a fresh mind he shared his inspiration and hope that within just three months he had turned his life around completely, and a new English teacher was dropping out of the sky looking for some sort of hope to hang on to, some kind of direction. And Neill and I sat there at the same Holly’s Coffee and heard her out, all of her fears, and feelings about the sickness that she felt had taken hold of her life as the drinking spun out of control. “And it was so strange.” She said in her soft Boston accent. “He’s being so friendly on the phone, I thought. Why would a total stranger be so friendly?” I gave Neill the same phone call, three months earlier.
I was brought to tears on the bus ride home, just thinking about those first few days of mine in October 2012, when I held on for dear life in the greatest new beginning I’ll ever know, when nothing seemed possible in one breath, and everything seemed possible in the next. It took years to get to the point that I could trust my own body again. It took months for my body to calm down amidst the heart palpitations, the emerging shakes, the unpredictable quicksand-sloping shaky-ground of panic. Tonight I felt like I was a part of something so much bigger than myself, that I could make a real difference for good in people’s lives, and that no credit was due, all service remained anonymous, with just a suggestion that the help be paid forward to the next person who reaches out for hope on the most difficult day of their lives.
I was burdened with a narrator from a place that doubted his own sanity and goodness. I allowed her to toy with my protagonist until I saw myself as the villain. She played the victim so well, I didn’t see the clear truth that I was in her deadly web all along, and I was surrounded by spiders. I was lured into her trap of exploited inexperience. She carried a magnifying glass to follow every tiny slip of the tongue and deviation from her agenda, and humiliation by professional emasculation. I was being brainwashed about the careful mental environment of the child’s play of Kindergarten – one wrong word, movement, or thought was like a tragic missed opportunity to get it right in order to mold perfect students. Her fiance was the result of how she could take a man and turn him into her play-dough, and then make a life long project and game out of pinching, twisting and torturing that play-dough until nothing was left of him but a hollow shell of a human breaking out in acne and hives, flinching in fear with thinning hair.
II was finding my voice, and I needed to hear it in harmony with the angels above, not the monsters lurking in my current path, I was searching for the good person underneath all of the toxic echoes, analytical opinions, and critique. The more I got out into the world and discovered life on the open road, the more I uncovered parts of myself I didn't even know existed, and shattered the assumptions about life and the world I used to think I knew.
The TESL seminar advertisements - of a young skydiver jumping from a plane into a map of the world, or a hiker in warrior pose at the top of a mountain, or a model posing with an Elephant - came to mind. These ads are quite the stretch and create unrealistic expectations of the experience the teacher is going to have. It attracts the kind of customer who wants an escape. And then they get on the flight across the world and arrive at a full-time job and a set of real-life ego-deflating challenges. They almost never expected the experience in the first place to involve a classroom. They came for an adventure and instead landed in a profession that they may not be all that interested in, and the job and the routine of showing up for full-time work starts to get in the way of their “adventure” seeking abroad. I wasn’t that naïve but I can’t say that I blame them. The difference between the average native English teacher in Korea and my co-workers is that they live here to work here. The classroom is their passion. King class is her Kingdom, and the young Korean children with developing British accents are the spawn of her twitchy direction and behavior nurtured through fear. They were going to expect me to actually teach English. And I would be doing it with a smile on my face, no exceptions. It was at that school that I learned that when you’re having a bad day, you can’t take it out on your students. That’s unfair. So why have I been taking it out on strangers for most of my life? "You don’t have to like your job. You just have to accept it." She'd say.
It could be worse. I heard the stories of the teachers who show up still drunk from the night before, and throw paper at the children to silence them and make them finish their coloring, or the nervous over-compensator who would engage so heavily in the students that they couldn’t get a word out, and the teacher would just end up having conversations with themselves. Perhaps the worst is the lazy slob teacher who shows up to do as little of a job as possible in hopes of taking the easiest path through the day and out the door, who wastes time fooling around with the children for their own enjoyment and fails to teach them a word of English. I’ve conversed with the elementary level students who have had teachers like this at a young age, and they can barely hold a conversation. The damage has already been done. Was ESL Korea a failed obsession? Now it is failing due to the attempts to over-control it with distracting workbooks and observed by CCTV. The attempt to over-control the act of language learning was stifling the process.
At the end of the day, no matter how hard a student studies French in Texas, he’s still gonna land in Paris with enormous difficulties speaking fluently with the general population. That’s essentially what’s happening with English in Korea, and I wonder how much we can realistically expect from this ESL charade. Force-feeding English to 4 year olds with workbooks and memorization practice is inhumane.
A foreign English kindergarten teacher in Korea is in the eye of an intersection of strong motives, pushing and pulling for a mixture of parenting discipline, keeping control, using as much English as possible, portraying western culture with love and laughter for the Moms, and finally – always be smiling for the CCTV camera’s.
The robotic English howling of the morning message - "good morning Amber teacher, how are you today?" In fierce unison.
I often wonder what work was like before everything was so observed. It would anger me that my every innocent interaction with children be recorded, to be analyzed with scrutiny by my boss who has her own cultural mistranslations and expectations. It would fear me most that I might be misunderstood or be unable to be everywhere at once. It took a long time to start to be able to breathe and relax in the classroom. The expectations seemed so incredibly high from the start. But eventually, doing the good honest work won out over the committee of self-doubting consciously observed paranoia.
Amber explained to me that she would often listen to the children secretly, sitting just outside of class. “It really interests me, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than just sitting outside the door, listening carefully to their little interactions, discovering who is really in control, and who is friendly with who. It’s so funny to hear their funny little moments, conversations, and to know who is following the rules when I’m not in the room.”
The place had a façade of value. It was made to look expensive, but nothing really was. The teachers were coached to seem world-class, but were really getting paid at the bottom of the food chain. I was expected to do a lot more than the average ESL teacher, including parenting, coaching preparing and serving food, cleaning, vacuuming and mopping my floor and the entire stairwell. I was being robbed in comparison to similar jobs.
All communication roads lead to Amber – who aimed to dismantle me. Not for the sake of controlling me, but more for the strange inner obsession with controlling every moment and experience of those children while in that school. The school was her domain. The children could feel it. I even felt tighter in the chest when I walked in the door. “I want you to go home and sit alone and think about it for a long, long time about how you react to your co-teachers advice and disrespect her, and then I want you to come back here and apologize” The Black Spider said. I held shut very tight all day, everyday while at school. I kept my cards close to my chest. I decided to be whatever she wanted me to be, and she didn't like what she wanted. She doesn't like what she is, and wrestles with affection. She wanted me to quit. She wanted to have the school to herself.
There was finally a question I needed answering, so I walked in on one of amber’s classes, “Stop it, John, don’t confuse yourself!” she was mid-sentence - her dictating lips just inches from John's face - playing manipulative mind games with a 5 year old boy and making him feel responsible for her unhealthy emotional reactions to the human imperfections of children. She showed no signs of noticing me, and acted as though I wasn’t there. I didn’t exist to these teachers. I would do the Hokey Pokey to my extreme standards of perfection, and they wouldn’t notice. They had tried pulling all my strings to get me to snap into a rage, and they had finally resorted to disregarding my existence.
Amber turned to her fiancé, who was playing with children in the corner. She whispered “Why is he still here? What is he doing here? What if the Koreans find out?” I realized suddenly that I was in a dream. I can run out of this toxic place, and never return. I’m free. Months had passed since I had completed the contract with the Korean Kindergarten. I was lying in bed thousands of miles away. I walked out of the school in the dream, and said to myself “That’s right, why am I still here? Why is my head still at the school, when I have physically moved on?” Walking along the stream, as I got farther and farther away from the Kindergarten, I felt a huge relief and wave of freedom newly realized. I didn’t ever have to go back to that place. I never had to wrestle with those closed, tortured souls again. I could move on - physically, mentally, and spiritually – if I was willing to act on it. Holding on to that realization, I opened my eyes.
Copyright © 2020 Justin Thomas Collection. All rights reserved.