Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Teaching English in Korea (page 1 of 3)

Twenty-five Years Ago this Month

snapshots039Twenty-five years ago this month, I taught my last class at ELS, a language school in Seoul near Kangnam subway station.

On November 27, 1992, I said goodbye to my colleagues at ELS and left for Kimpo. I would be back six weeks later, teaching at Yonsei University’s Foreign Language Institute.

The two years I spent at ELS were some of the happiest moments I have spent in Korea. Everything that I would come to love and cherish, not to mention dislike about Korea happened those first two years. If I had left Korea then, I could easily say that I had experienced much about Korean culture and would have had a rewarding experience to talk about for years. But of course, I wanted more…much more. And here I am…it’s 2017 and I am still in Korea.

If I could go back to any time in the twenty-seven years that I have lived and worked in Korea, I would go back to those first two years. It was a special time to be here. A lot had to do with the freshness and uniqueness of being here. I remember one Sunday afternoon in crowded Myong-dong in central Seoul when one of my students saw me and yelled my name to get my attention. The next thing I know she was introducing me to her mother as hundreds of passersby and shoppers swarmed by us. Or the time when I was in in the Shinch’on subway station, a week after I arrived in December 1990, and I couldn’t get my subway pass to work. Every time I pushed it into the ticket receptacle on the turnstile, a loud buzzer sounded meaning that the pass didn’t work, so I tried to push it in again and the same damn buzzer sounded again. All I had to do was exchange the pass, but I didn’t know any better. A young Korean woman on her way to work or school that morning, sensing my impending cultural breakdown, bought me a ticket, so I could continue my morning commute to school. It was one of the nicest things someone has done for me.

It’s no wonder I often find myself waxing nostalgic about my early years in Korea. It surely was a special time for me.

Why I Love My Job as the SolBridge Web Manager

I love teaching at the SolBridge International School of Business.

Since 2010, I have been teaching Honors English and since last year, I have been teaching U.S. History (with President Dr. John Endicott) Highlights of Asian History and East Asian Politics (again co-teaching with Dr. Endicott).

After all these years of teaching in Korea, I have finally settled down into a comfortable and very rewarding teaching regime.

Another part of my job which I love a lot, is being the school’s web manager and having the chance to promote our school on our website and Facebook page. I am responsible for most of the content, text and photos, and get to attend some wonderful events like our school’s annual Culture Day.

These students from Mongolia made these dumplings stuffed with lamb. The dumplings were out of this world!

Students from Russia make last-minute costume adjustments before taking to the stage during SolBridge’s 2012 multicultural festival.

A student from Indonesia performs a traditional Indonesian dance.

Mistaken Identity

Today, one of my students, Han-na mistakenly called me Mr. Mailer. Whether or not it was a Freudian slip of the tongue, a simple English pronunciation mistake, or that Han-na’s English proficiency is much better than she has led me to believe in class, I will try and live up to the mistaken identity.

On the other hand, maybe there is something to this mistaken identity. Hold onto your socks folks for a Twilight Zone-esque connection (cue the Twilight Zone theme music: “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee….”). Mailer’s first writing endeavor was a 250-page story about an invasion from Mars when he was in elementary school. My first writing endeavor was also a story about an invasion from Mars when I was in elementary school!

Stalking English teachers in South Korea

Came across an interesting article in the LA Times today about English teachers being stalked in South Korea. This topic has been making the rounds a lot on expat blogs in South Korea since it first appeared and for it to be written about outside of Korea gives one the impression that it is quite serious. It’s all about this Anti-English Spectrum and the rumors that have been spread about English teachers in South Korea. This should be mandatory reading for anyone who is seriously thinking about coming to Korea to teach English.


The names have been changed to protect the innocent

You meet a lot of interesting people when you’ve been living overseas for as long as I have, which if you count this month is now 20 years and five months, not counting the two years I was stationed in Panama and subtracting the two months I was back in the States in 2006.

You meet people from all walks of life, some with colorful personalities others with a checkered past hoping to escape whatever ghosts or neuroses are after them. By and large though, most the people I have met, worked with, partied with and traveled with have been some genuine folks that I was glad to make their acquaintance.

Without question, many of the people we meet when we are living and working in another country oftentimes define who we are; other times these individuals make up the rich tapestry of this shared experience.

I first met Mike M. not long after I had arrived in Korea to teach English at what was then, back in 1990, one of the three top English language institutes in Seoul. I had been in country since early December and Mike arrived shortly thereafter. The school had four-week terms so there was always someone rotating in and rotating out. There were peak periods in winter and summer when university students were on vacation and had nothing better to do than spend those vacation days studying English. The rest of the year was relatively quiet, enrollment-wise and that’s when Mike arrived.

There were two teacher’s offices on the second floor and Mike ended up in the office I shared with around 15 other teachers. It was a bit cramped, especially before morning and evening conversation classes with everyone hustling to get lesson plans done and copies made before those classes started and all the more hectic during the last week of the term.

That’s when I met Mike, during the last hectic week of the term while I was getting ready to go to class. All new teachers had a week of orientation before they started teaching and Mike was waiting for a teacher to observe that teacher’s class.

We didn’t have much time to talk then, but when we had the chance later, I found out he was an Asian old hat courtesy of Uncle Sam and the draft that sent him to Vietnam in the late 60s. After his tour of duty in Nam, he bounced around Asia for awhile, went back to the States got a college degree and bounced right back to Asia teaching English in Taiwan, Thailand, and eventually Korea.

He was a quiet man. Never said much at school and about the only time we really had a lengthy conversation was when we talked about living in Seoul one day and other time when he asked to borrow my Traveling Wilburys’ cassette tape. There was a song he wanted to use in one of his classes. I don’t think too many people knew he had been in Nam and I felt that he wanted to keep it that way.

We were supposed to have our photos taken when we arrived at this language institute and every teacher would have a framed 8×10 photo of them in the stairwell for all the students to see. Mike, who was already in his late forties wasn’t too keen on this idea and stuck a photo of some Russian pianist he had ripped out of a photo magazine in the frame instead. It was a glossy photo and none of the students were the wiser; indeed, they asked the information desk in the lobby who that teacher was in the photo.

Mike was also a bit of loner and did not hang out with the other teachers too much. There were some teachers who were quite vocal and outgoing and I could tell, by the way he rolled his eyes when one of these teachers started talking about what he or she had done the previous weekend, how much he sort of resented that kind of bravado.

He just liked to keep to himself. One time, when we combined our classes during The Great Korean Pumpkin Carve-off Contest, the staff wanted to take a picture of the pumpkin the students had carved as well as the students and Mike and I. When it came time to take the photo, Mike held the pumpkin up over his face so no one would recognize him.

He must have felt pretty bummed though the day the new schedule came out and his name wasn’t on the schedule.

“Did I get fired or something?” he asked the scheduling coordinator.

Mike was so quiet that some people didn’t even know who he was until someone told them that he was a teacher.

That scheduling gaffe was the first of a series of events that pushed Mike over the edge.

The second was the rats.

Most of the staff was housed in old, but rather spacious apartments in a housing complex one subway stop down from the Olympic sports complex. Two teachers shared a furnished five room apartment that was near the Han River and about a ten-minute walk to Lotte World, this sprawling entertainment and shopping complex in southern Seoul.

When I moved into mine in December of 1990, they were already more than five years old and showing the worst of wear and tear; not rundown, but just looking a bit old and drab. And there was also a bit of a rodent problem. At night, you could hear these rodents (hopefully they were just large mice) scurrying back and forth in a crawl space between floors.

I never saw a live one in my apartment, but outside, I passed just as many squished dead rats on the road as I did vomit landmines (in Korea it is quite common for people, who have consumed more than a lions share worth of beer and soju, Korean rice wine, to throw up anywhere they want when coming home from the bars and clubs). Better to be a dead rat on the street than a live one at home.

I bet if I asked Mike what he’d prefer, it would have also been a dead rat on the street.

One morning, Mike came in the staff room pretty shaken up about something. He seemed a bit flustered as well as agitated. He started to prepare for his class, but everyone could tell that something was really bothering him.

“What’s the matter Mike?” a teacher asked.

Mike didn’t say anything at first as though he hadn’t been listening, but then looked up from his desk.

“There was a rat in my apartment last night,” Mike said slowly.

“Damn, did you kill it?” I asked.

Mike shook his head. “No, I didn’t.”

“Where was it?” another teacher asked.

Mike turned around in his chair to face a handful of teachers who had gathered to hear about his rat problem. “I went to bed early last night, but sometime in the middle of the night, I heard this sound, a scratching sound and then I felt something on my chest. I opened my eyes and in the light from the streetlight outside my room, shining in through the window, I saw this rat sitting on my chest looking at me.”

“Damn Mike, that’s terrible. I would have freaked,” the first teacher said. “What did you do?”

“The rat wouldn’t move. It just kept on sitting there staring at me,” Mike continued. “I thought for sure as soon as I moved it would move. It was like it was hypnotized or something. Finally I grabbed a book near my bed, swatted it and it ran away.”

“Are you okay Mike?” I asked.

Mike nodded and went to class.

By the end of the day, everyone in the institute was talking about the Mike’s rat and how freaked they would have been had it happened to them. His apartment mate, Alex confirmed the story and added one more crucial detail: how he and Mike had spent the rest of the night turning the apartment upside down trying to find that rat.

“Finally, we gave up, but we did locate where it had gotten into the apartment,” Alex said.

“Where was that,” I asked.

“In the kitchen, inside one of the cupboards,” Alex explained. “Our rat or the former rat had gnawed a hole in one corner of the cupboard and that is where we suspected it came in. We plugged up that hole good. If the rat did get in through that hole, it’s not going to get back in again.”

The next day, when Mike came into the staff room, he was just as visibly shaken as he had been the day before.

“Well, did your plug job do the trick?” a teacher asked.

Mike shook his head. “The rat pushed the plug out. He was in my room when I went home last night. Alex and I chased him around the apartment for an hour but he escaped again.”

Mike grabbed his class folder and muttered something about how he wished he had a baseball bat to smash the rat’s head in the next time he came back as he walked out of the staff room.

He was never the same after that rat incident. He had a hard time sleeping at night because he was worried the rat would come back. Many mornings, when he shuffled into the staff room after another sleepless night, wouldn’t say much to anyone other than a few grunts when someone asked him how he was that morning.

After two more terms, Mike had had enough of Korea and left. No one ever heard from him again.

Dictatory — Dictation + Story

A novel approach for using dictations in the EFL classroom

I got this idea from and ESL/EFL forum and tweaked it a bit for my classes

A “dictatory” is a dictation that is a continuous short story that spread over 8-10 lessons depending on the length of each dictation (approximately 40-50 words). Instead of an unconnected dictation of English passages, students listen to short paragraphs which together make up a short story. The advantages of using a dictatory is not only the continuity in the story itself with each paragraph dictated to the students, but also gets the students interested in the story by looking ahead to the next paragraph/dictation by asking questions to find out more about the plot and the story as well as predicting what might happen next. As such, the dictation is no longer a mechanical exercise, but a fun-filled activity from which a teacher and students can benefit.

Advantages of using a dictatory in class

  • Students pay more attention so they hear and understand more.
  • Students think ahead to try and guess what will happen next in the story.
  • Students are not merely doing a mechanical exercise, but instead are involved in a real communicative situation by asking questions about the story, making educated guesses about what will or could happen next.
  • Teachers can tailor make dictatories based on vocabulary and structures/patterns taught in a class.
  • Language is recycled.
  • Gives practice for listening comprehension.
  • Forces to students to write at least 40-50 words in English every lesson the dictatory is given that improves their general writing skills as well as increasing their vocabulary.
  • It provides uniformity and continuity for students.

How did you end up in Korea? Part 1: Lost Luggage, Digestive Crackers, and David Letterman

“I turned left at Japan.”

When you decide to leave your country and travel halfway around the world to live and work-in my case to teach English in Korea-there are some things that you are never going to forget about your experience abroad and your life as an expat.

It goes without saying that for every foreigner who has set foot in Korea to live and work a universal chord is struck by what we all have in common. Whether it was getting accustomed to a new culture (with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies), attempting to speak the language, as well as making new friendships and enjoying a lifestyle commensurate with our professional and personal pursuits, much of what we might remember fondly is of this shared experience.

On the other hand, for better or worse, there are other things of a more personal nature, which will always remind us of the time, we spent in Korea. For me-after living and working in Korea for 19 years (and still counting)-one thing that will forever stand out most was my first week here and how I ended up in Korea in the first place.

“How did you end up in Korea?” asked an acquaintance who I had not seen since 1984 and who I had recently reconnected with on Facebook.

“I turned left at Japan,” I replied, tweaking a famous line from The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night.

(In the movie, John Lennon was asked, “How did you find America?” upon which he replied, “We turned left at Greenland.”)

One thing is for certain, I didn’t end up in Korea based on what I knew or didn’t know about the country. To be sure, if you were to have asked me prior to 1988, which Korea was the Communist one, who Kim Il-sung was, or where Korea was located specifically in Northeast Asia, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get all three right.

I had heard of Korea though. Two of my uncles had fought in the Korean War, my high school friend “LJ” had learned Taekwondo in the 70’s, and I had (until he decided to return home) a Korean roommate when I was at college. I knew a few Koreans in some of my classes, but we never talked much about Korea. Sadly, for most people our knowledge of Korea was limited to what we could glean from the popular TV show M*A*S*H.

On the other hand, the few times that we did hear anything about Korea was when there was some disaster or tragedy like the USS Pueblo seizure in 1968, the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident in 1976, Koreagate, the downing of KAL Flight 007 in 1983, and student demonstrations in the 80’s.

Despite these international events our knowledge about Korea was limited. Even the Korean War, which was for all semantic purposes a substitute for World War III, had sadly been called “the forgotten war.” Even my two uncles who had fought in it never talked about it.

Of course, the world would learn much about South Korea in 1988 with the Seoul Olympics that could be best described as one massive “coming out party” for the nation and its people.

Korea was not some place that you just heard about one day and decided that is where you wanted to go. No, Korea was a place that you had to have heard about somewhere from someone who had either been there or knew someone that had. People just didn’t end up here by accident. Fate maybe, but not by chance.

Two years after the Seoul Olympics, I found myself in Korea to teach English. I had not intended to teach in Korea when I graduated from graduate school in 1989. After a year in Japan and a semester teaching ESL at a community college in my hometown, all I could think about was getting back to Asia. Call it the lure of the Orient or something that I had to get out of my system before I could get on with my life, I applied for teaching positions at various schools in Asia.

One day, out of the blue I get a call from a language school recruiter in Culver City, California asking me if I wanted to teach in Korea.

“There’s a position opening up at a school in Seoul in December right before Christmas,” she said. “Are you interested?”

Before she had a chance to finish, I had already made up my mind.

I was going to Korea.

Yeah, I guess it was fate after all.

I arrived in Seoul on a cool, clammy Friday night in December 1990 just two weeks before Christmas. For some, traveling to another country around the holidays to begin work might be a little depressing, but I was too pumped up to feel depressed. The recruiter, who had phoned me back in October and offered me the job, told me that I would be too excited to feel depressed. She was right.

Then again, I had spent the previous Christmas in Japan and there were the two Christmases I had spent in Panama back in 1976 and 1977, so the holidays were not much of a problem.

The only problem, at least after I had arrived in Korea was going to be a change of underwear. I’ll get back to this later.

I had left Chicago the day before at 7:00 in the morning on my way to Seattle and then on to Seoul. The day before I left was a bit of a trip down memory lane. I had lunch with Dick Verucchi at the House of Hunan in Peru, bumped into Steve Stout there, went to Vallero’s Bakery in Dalzell (“you know, they eat dog in Korea, don’t you?” Dick said) on a bread run for Verucchi’s Ristorante and later that day, hung out with LJ who quizzed me on the Korean flag.

I had to get up to O’Hare early in the morning and my friend Mary Sue Hurley drove me up. It’s sad and ironic when you look back and realize that on what would end up being one of the major turning points of your life, would also be the last time you would see some very special people in your life.

If you had traveled to Korea prior to March 2001 when the new Incheon Airport opened, then you had to go through Seoul’s Kimpo Airport.

What I remember most about Kimpo that night, and all the other times I flew in and out of there, was how dreary and archaic it was. There’s no question that Kimpo was an obvious testament to Korea’s rapid economic development in the 70’s, but still had this sort of “developing nation” feel to it. Even though Korea had hosted the Olympics just two years earlier, one really felt as though they had stepped back into time-back to the 70s-when you had to go through Kimpo.

I have flown in and out of Korea countless times over the years, and usually when you go through immigration formalities, the immigration officials hardly utter more than a sentence or two, if that. However, on that night the immigration official asked me for a stick of gum. Well, it was more like “give me a stick of gum,” but have to give the guy credit for trying out his language skills.

“Mmm… Juicy Fruit,” he said.

If my first night in Korea was going to be a memorable one, it was not going to get off to a good start when I soon discovered that my luggage had been lost.

Great, I thought. I start work on Monday and I don’t have any clean clothes to wear.

After waiting until the last bags from my flight had been unloaded and filling out some forms, one of the ground staff assured me that my luggage would arrive in a day or two. It didn’t.

I wasn’t alone. A few other passengers, who had flown out of Chicago with me on Northwest, were also missing their luggage. I should have known there was going to be a problem when I checked in and noticed that the luggage conveyor belt was broken and the luggage had to be carried downstairs by the Northwest staff. Well, that sort of thing is just begging for a problem to happen.

I was not the only teacher arriving that night. There were three other teachers who would be joining the ELS Kangnam (a district in Seoul, referred to as a Gu in Korean, south of the Han River) school staff (one more was due in from Thailand a few days later). After we had met, we got in a van and headed to Chamsil (located very close to Olympic Park), which would be my home for the next two years.

Say what you will about the pitfalls of the hogwon (institute) system in Korea, (there have been countless horror stories of teachers coming to Korea and after being met at the airport being handed a book and told that their students were waiting for them in some crowded classroom) but ELS, at least back then took very good care of its teachers and made it very comfortable for a person to come to Korea to teach, especially when it came to your accommodations.

(ELS, which was based out of California had schools and franchises around the world. The three ELS schools in South Korea in 1990 were owned by Sisa-Yong-o-sa, at the time, Korea’s largest English book publisher; now it is called YBM Sisa.)

The school put us up in these rather spacious apartments in Chamsil not far from Olympic Sports Complex and only meters away from the sprawling Lotte World shopping and entertainment complex.

Back in 1990, Lotte World was one of Seoul’s major attractions that had everything from a classy hotel, department store, and indoor swimming pool to Lotte Adventure, an obvious Disneyland rip-off. The owner of this entertainment Mecca had supposedly gotten his start by making chewing gum in Japan that was another blatant rip-off, in this case of Wrigley’s gum calling his knock-off version of Wrigley’s “Juicy Fruit” – “Juicy and Fresh.”

As for Lotte’s theme park, instead of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, Lotte had characters patterned after raccoons-Lotty Raccoon and Lorrie Raccoon; problem was there are no raccoons in Korea, at least I have never seen one, not unless of course you count those two lovable raccoons prancing around at Lotte World.

The apartments were starting to look a little rundown back then (the housing complex was leveled a few years ago and new apartment buildings have already gone up), but if you didn’t mind the rats scurrying above in the crawl space and the black soot from people still burning yontan (cylinder-shaped, coal-like briquettes used for heating) which darkened the walls, it wasn’t too bad of a place to call home, especially when you didn’t have to pay any rent.

That night, I was the last person to be taken to an apartment. I remember standing outside and having a smoke and listening to the steady drone of traffic speeding along Olympic Expressway. The housing complex had this “gulag” feel to it, row after row of apartment buildings all looking the same with a central heating plant located in the center.

I might have been in Asia, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

Unlike the other teachers who arrived that night, I did not have a roommate waiting for me when I was taken to my apartment. He was supposed to arrive from Thailand a few days later (which turned out to be a week later). I got a quick tour of the apartment and was told that in the morning another ELS teacher would show me around town and how to get to the institute (just a ten-minute subway ride away). So, at least for this night, my first night in Korea I was on my own.

The apartment came furnished and even included a telephone and a TV. The refrigerator was stocked with a few items to satisfy any hunger pangs that I might have until I could get to the store. I didn’t find the package of “Digestive Crackers” too appealing (gee, I hope I could digest them), but a few hours later and feeling a little hungry, they hit the spot. They were similar to graham crackers and I had no trouble digesting them.

I turned on the TV and the David Letterman Show was on-courtesy of AFRTS, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service or as it was more appropriately called in Korea, AFKN (Armed Forces Korean Network). Weird. I might have traveled halfway around the world and ready to experience another culture, but there was David Letterman beaming into my apartment. And if I might also add, just in time for his Top Ten List.

I walked out on the balcony to have a smoke. On the sidewalk below I could hear people walking home from work and the bars. It had gotten foggier and cooler. A thousand points of light in the towering housing gulags across the street that dwarfed the smaller housing complex I lived in.

I listened to the night. I listened to this strange, new language drifting up, wondering how long it would be before I would be able to understand it.

And I wondered if I was going to like it here.

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

It’s 7:00pm on quiet Friday night in Daejeon, South Korea (for those of you not familiar with South Korea, Daejeon is about 100 miles south of Seoul)—quiet in that I am sitting alone in a classroom at the Woosong (pronounced oo-song) Language Institute waiting for one or two students to show up for their 7-9 Adult Conversation Class.

It’s not my class; I am subbing for a colleague. It’s a little extra cheese as a former colleague of mine at Yonsei, Ross Kilborn liked to call money.

The names of the two students are Esther and Bonnie. English language learners in Korea like to give themselves an English nickname. Students have been doing this for as long as I have been in Korea; maybe they think having an English nickname will help them speak English well. I’m not so sure about that. I once taught a student who called himself Rambo; he could barely string two sentences together. Wait a minute, maybe I am thinking about the real John Rambo.

Teaching English on a Friday night reminds me of when I first came to Korea in December 1990. Back then I was teaching at this language institute in southern Seoul (Kangnam-gu) five days a week from 10-12 and 6-10. That 6-10pm block of two classes was a real drag especially the last conversation class. It was even more of a drag come Friday night, when most of the students, Korean salarymen, were too tired to study after a long week at the office and were more interested in hoisting a few brewskis at some local beer hall than studying English.

7:15. Still no Esther or Bonnie. As a rule, I have to stay here until 9:00. These are paying customers and even if they arrive an hour late, they still get their English class.

The colleague I am subbing for tonight gave me a heads up that these two ladies might be a no-show. It’s near the end of the seven-week term, and some students might think that one less day is not going to make much difference, so they blow off the last class or two. Hey, it’s Friday night; maybe they want to go out with friends.

Well, at least it gives me some time to jot down a few ideas and sentences that I will write out later this evening when I am back in my room.

I hear footsteps, high heels clicking and echoing down the hallway outside. Could this be either Esther or Bonnie? False alarm. It’s a woman going to a classroom across from mine.

7:45. It doesn’t look like Esther or Bonnie is going to make it tonight. It’s all quiet on the Eastern front tonight.

He will sell well in Asia

If the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line, then how I ended up teaching English in Korea started off with an interview for a teaching position in Indonesia.

It also helped that I had in the words of an interviewer, “the All-American look.”

In the summer of 1990 I had just finished teaching an adult education class—an ESL class—at Illinois Valley Community College (actually, it was an off-site class at a church in Streator, Illinois) when I got a phone call from this ELSI (English Language Schools International) in California about the teaching position. This was followed by another phone call—a phone interview—and then, I was told that I would have to have another interview at a language institute in a suburb of Chicago—located on the campus of Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois.

So on a hot August morning, I was on my way to what I thought was the last step before I would get on a plane and start a new job at a new language school in Indonesia. Although my teaching experience was limited to a reading class for a summer ESL course at Western Illinois University in 1988, six months at a language school in Japan, and the adult education course I just finished, it seemed as though I was a shoo-in for the job.

Even the person who had interviewed me on the phone thought so.

“The interview is just a formality,” she had told me. “We just want you to sit down and have a face-to-face with a teacher to assess your teaching skills.”

That was good enough for me. In fact, I was so confident that I was going to get the job that I picked a copy of Fodor’s travel guide for Southeast Asia to read up on In-donesia. Between reading about hotels and the best place to find a cup of coffee, I tried to learn as much as I could about Indonesia to impress the interviewer what-ever knowledge and information I could glean from that book. I even thought about going to LaSalle’s public library to see if there were any books about Indonesia.

The interview went quite well. Although I didn’t have the chance to dazzle the interviewer with my knowledge of Indonesia, I thought that I did quite answering his questions about my ESL teaching philosophy and how I would teach certain language points. For example, I was asked how I would do error correction and how I would handle teaching a multi-level class (something I had just done teaching the adult education class at IVCC).

When I left the interview and Concordia two hours later I was already thinking about what I would need to bring to Indonesia and about taking on this temporary job at a Del Monte canning factory in Mendota, Illinois to tide me over until I left.

I didn’t get the job but I ended up working at Del Monte until almost the end of October. When the recruiter had called me to inform me that I didn’t get the job, she had told me that the school felt my ESL methodology background was a little weak for a new school opening.

Fair enough.

“They needed someone with a little more experience, especially in curriculum development,” she explained.

She also assured me that there would be other teaching jobs in the future—positions that I would be better suited for given my experience.

“We have jobs opening up in Korea all the time,” she told me, “if you are interested.”

I was and a month later she called me again with an offer to teach at a language institute in Seoul. Two months later, on December 8, 1990 I arrived in Seoul.

Applying to teach at that school in Indonesia and the interview at Concordia would have been an obscure footnote to the teaching career I would go on to have in Korea had I not been offered a chance to be the academic director of a new school opening up in downtown Seoul in 1992. Actually, it wasn’t a new school, but the managing director who was related to the owner of the publishing company that owned the language institute I had been teaching at, wanted to revamp the school’s curriculum and offer a new program. He also wanted to hire an academic director and my name came up (along with three other instructor’s names).

I had an interview with him and a few days later, I was called into the office of my boss.

“Mr. Yoon likes you,” my boss said. “The job is yours if you want it. He really wants you.”

“What do you think?”

I heard rumors about Mr. Yoon being too demanding and dictatorial at his language institute. One rumor was that he held onto instructor’s passports so they could not leave the country, or in the parlance of the profession, “do a runner” – leave the country without telling anyone when things got too difficult.

“Personally, I wouldn’t want to work for him but if you’re looking for some job advancement, I’d take it.”

I sat there in the chair and stared at my boss. “My sentiments exactly.”

“Just don’t do a runner,” he laughed.

On my way out he handed me a folder, my personnel file. “This belongs to you.”

That night, back in my apartment I was a little curious as to what was contained in my personnel file.

Well, I’m the boss now so I guess it is okay for me to take a look.

Inside the folder there was my initial application, letters of reference, copies of my diplomas and transcripts as well as my CV. Some of the more recent documents were two observation assessments when I was observed by the former academic director a month after I had started teaching.

And then there it was—the interview form the interviewer had filled out when I had interviewed for the teaching position in Indonesia.

Hmm, I wonder what he wrote?

There were some comments underneath some of the questions pertaining to my teaching experience and background but what really caught my attention was what was scribbled in the margin.

He’s got that All-American look.

He will sell well in Asia.

I blinked my eyes and started at the scribbled remarks again.

All-American look.

Sell well in Asia.

Gee, made me think I was a character in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American or worse, a character in The Ugly American. What the hell was this “All-American Look” supposed to be, anyhow?

There were some good comments about how I was enthusiastic and motivated and that I had some teaching experience, but I kept on coming back to those two comments. It was really bizarre. I never thought that teaching overseas was all about “image.”

A few months later, in May 1992 when things didn’t work out for me as academic director (the managing director was way too dictatorial for me) at the school in downtown Seoul I was back to teaching again at my former language institute. I forgot to hand back my personnel file to my boss and he never asked me for it. Six months later I finished my contract and, after a vacation back in the States, started teaching at a university in western Seoul.

From time to time I have thought about those comments and have had a few laughs. I am not so sure about that All-American look, but I guess I did okay “selling well” in Asia because I am still here.

“TOEFL, TOEIC & English Oh My; TOEFL, TOEIC & English Oh My”

If you really want to see where a lot of Korea’s disposable income goes just take a walk through a bookstore specializing in the sale of English language books, tapes, CD’s and other English-related materials.

It’s no wonder, given most people’s penchant for wanting to speak English better or for their children to learn English at an early age that the business of English in Korea is big business—15 trillion Won (around $15 billion dollars), by one industry estimate, a year. Although that figure is for private education, no doubt a good chunk of that is spent in bookstores on English books and other materials.

The other day, I needed to pick up a book for one of my classes and I went to what is perhaps the only decent English bookstore, English Plus in Daejeon. It’s a bit of journey—a twenty-minute walk to the subway station from where I live, followed by a thirty-minute subway ride (give or take a five or ten-minute wait for the subway to arrive at the station, and then finally, another fifteen-minute walk from the subway station to the bookstore. Like I said, it’s the only decent bookstore in Daejeon and worth every minute of the journey.

There is a similar one in Seoul that I used to frequent a lot so I kind of knew what to expect—in terms of the books and other English resources available. It’s been awhile since I’ve gone to a proper English bookstore and even longer since I bought any English books for my classes, so I was really looking forward to this bookstore visit.

I guess it had been awhile since I’ve been to a bookstore because as soon as I walked in I was surprised at the number of children’s language books as well as TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and TOEIC (Test of English for Inter-national Communication) test preparation books in English and Korean. I swear more than three-fourths of the bookstore stock were these books and resources. Kid’s English books aside, in recent years TOEFL, TOEIC as well as IELTS (International English Language Testing) courses and test prep books have become the “magic bullet” as it were for testing, gauging, and assessing one’s language skills. In some instances, these tests have replaced language courses for learners just wanting to have their language ability assessed for studying overseas, admission to universities (of course, the TOEFL is required for gaining admission to US colleges and universi-ties), job placement and job advancement.

There are even Junior TOEFL and Junior TOEIC books for middle school and high school students. Get the kids hooked on TOEFL and TOEIC when they’re young I guess.

Is there a method to all this English madness? Well, for someone who has been teaching English in Korea since 1990, I would say that “individually” many people are speaking English better but across the board English proficiency, in terms of most people’s expectations is still low. In a Korea Times article last year, “Koreans re-corded an average score of 77 points in TOEFL last year, but it was lower than the world’s average of 78 points out of the full mark of 120 on the Internet-based test (iBT); their speaking and writing abilities remained relatively weak, according to offi-cials of Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organizer of the test.” Obviously that 15 trillion won is not well spent if many people are still scoring low on tests.

After I found the book I was looking for, I took some time to look at some of these English books for children as well as the TOEFL and TOEIC books. Some of the kid’s books looked quite good and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the kids who use them will be able to speak English more fluently or upgrade the language skills that they already possess. Of course, it still takes a teacher to know how to use such a book and how, with their own teacher training to make the book work for their students.

As for the TOEFL and TOEIC books, I couldn’t tell which were better or which were not. They all looked about the same and if these books were used in a course, it would again take a teacher who knows how to make such a book work to teach the skills necessary to obtain such and such a score. I suppose if one was looking for a book for self-study the one that has “mastering” this skill or that skill in the title is the one that most would choose. That would probably be the one I’d choose.

It’s no wonder that so much money is spent on private English education when you take a stroll through a bookstore and see the books and resources that are available—all with the promise of better language skills and test scores. Navigating through this vast sea of English books can be treacherous with so many titles, approaches, and promises and one can only hope that the books that are bought and studied will pay off dividends in the end.

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