I had every intention of posting more than just about Busan last week. However, the day after we returned from Busan was the first day of school for me, and all my grand plans for the week got lost in the excitement/exhaustion/busyness of life.
I have three years of teaching experience, but I am brand new to teaching preschool. I think it will be a wonderful learning experience for me, just as living in Korea is. Throughout my first week of school, I noticed that my experiences in teaching preschool are oddly similar to my experiences as a foreigner living in Korea. I couldn’t resist sharing them with you!
Seven Ways Life in Korea is Like Teaching Preschool:
1. A Plethora of Trash
I wear an apron while I teach my three year olds. It’s completely practical, though not very stylish. I have, of course, dedicated each apron pocket to certain items. One is for my phone and a pen, another is for trash. Throughout my time in class, I pick up a crayon wrapper here, an abandoned sticker there, and a leftover cotton ball from art class. I’m always moving so quickly that I don’t have the time/make the time to walk to the trash can and throw my items away. I pick up the trash and shove it into the appropriate pocket without thinking. I don’t make it to the trash can because I am more focused on keeping Student A out of the marker bin and wondering how Student B bumped his head in the two seconds that I had turned around. At the end of the day, I finally empty my pocket and amazed at what turns up.
Finding a trash can in Korea is like going on a treasure hunt. They are never around when you need them, so I am delighted when I spot one. I can usually count on one being at a subway stop, but that’s not always guaranteed. Very rarely will you find a public trash can on the street, and many restaurants don’t have trash cans out for patrons to use. I really don’t understand why there aren’t more around; it would make the place so much cleaner. Generally what happens is one person selects a street corner and sets down an empty coffee cup, then a plastic bag is added to it, then a food container, and suddenly, there is a trash heap! I generally resort to putting my trash in my purse until I can find a place to dispose of it. Similar to my preschoolers, Jared will hand me his trash to hold as well! Just like at school, when I return home I clean all the trash out of my purse; I swear it multiplies while it is in there.
2. Blank Stares
There have been a few times that I have asked a question or given directions in my classroom, and 16 pairs of eyes just stare back at me. No response. Just slight confusion and disinterest. This generally happens when I am introducing something new or I don’t use the appropriate vocabulary. I feel a slight moment of panic as I feel my power slipping away- blank stares lead to wiggles; wiggles are contagious! I act quickly to reword what I said in a more understandable and exciting way to avoid complete chaos.
The same blank stares greet me when I try to speak to Koreans. I have been taking a Korean language class for a few months now and attempt to use what I have learned when I am out and about. I am always delighted when I apply my new vocabulary and am understood. However, more often than not, Koreans do not understand what I am saying. Blank stare. I get so frustrated when I can’t communicate what I need! I am still working on my pronunciation, and I think my accent plays a part in their ability to understand me. I generally resort to talking with my hands or using my phone to translate.
3. Serve Others First
In a classroom of 16 little ones, I have no needs. My own feelings, hunger, headache, bathroom needs, etc. are last on my list of priorities. Only once I have made sure that all the children’s needs are met (momentarily, at least), will I allow myself a small moment to take a sip of water, etc.
Korean culture places a high emphasis on respect, especially to elders. This dictates everything from speaking patterns to dining etiquette. When dining with others, it expected that you serve others (pouring drinks, etc) before serving yourself. I think it is just a nice rule in general to take care of the others around you first.
4. The Power of Patience
There are no two better places to learn the art of a patient attitude than in a preschool classroom or on a Korean street. It would be so easy to get frustrated, annoyed, and make rude comments when things aren’t going my way; instead I will myself to be patient with mankind. I make a conscious effort to calmly say, “no, it is not snack time yet” for the 10th time in 10 minutes, or to remember that I would probably cry too if it was my first time away from home. I remind myself that the Korean driver who just cut me off was not taught the same rules of the road that I was, or that the woman who stops walking in the middle of a crowded stairway might have a very good reason to disrupt the flow of people behind her. Accept what you cannot change. Deep breaths. Patience.
5. Share with your friends
This is a rule I constantly share with my students. It’s a difficult concept for many who haven’t been around other children much, or don’t have an awesome toy castle at home to play with. If you wait all morning to play with Mr. Potato Head, then it’s pretty unlikely that you will want to share that magical moment with others. Sharing is caring, and we care about our friends.
Sharing food in Korea is nothing like sharing food in the States. In the US, I was used to sharing food with Jared. And with friends, we might order one dish, but two plates. Our sharing was still very divided: my half, your half. Not in Korea. Korea style dining is family style; everyone eats out of the same dish. With some desserts, like bingsu, it’s complete double dipping. Spoons in the bowl; spoons in the mouth; repeat. You just have to remember to share nicely with your friends and not eat all yummy bits on your own.
6. Appreciate Differences
No one is perfect. We all have a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses that make us who we are. Just because I was a quiet child when I was in school does not mean that all children are or should be that way. Just because Student C can write her name on the first day does not mean that Student D’s scribble is any less praiseworthy. All my students are unique in their own way; I love discovering their little personality traits and quirks.
In the same way, I am learning to accept the differences in Korean culture and American culture. Koreans grow up completely differently than Americans do. Their beliefs, their actions, their habits may be different from mine, but does not mean that they are wrong. I have heard so many Americans say something along the lines of “UGH! Why do they do that?! It’s so weird!” The things they do that bother us (crazy driving/parking, coughing without covering their mouths, pushing on the subway, etc.) is not wrong in their culture. We only see it that way because of how we were raised. It’s not good, or bad, or right, or wrong. It’s just different, just Korean. It’s a lot easier to accept the little things when you remember that their world does not have to match your world.
It’s amazing how powerful a smile is. It is such a small gesture, but can make everything less scary. It is my first line of defense when trying to encourage a child to make the correct choices to get through the day. A smile may give a child that ounce of courage she needed to start dancing with a classmate or to start helping during clean up time. It lets me know that even though I just see a mess of lines on a paper, to that child it is his finest work of art, that his imagination is taking him somewhere wonderful.
A smile has been the start to many of my conversations with strangers sitting next to me on the subway. I smile at Koreans constantly. It lets the shopkeeper know that even though I have no idea what he is saying to me, I’m happy that he thinks enough of me to try to communicate. A smile says even though I am obviously not from here, I’m delighted to explore all your country has to offer.
I never thought my life would lead to me teaching preschool. I never thought my life would lead to living in Seoul. However, in such a short time, both experiences have brought me to some wonderful moments. A child who recognizes the letter of the week, a stranger who helps me find my way, these little things make up for any doubts or frustrations I may have. And when I make it through my first year of teaching preschool and my years of living in Korea, I’m pretty sure I’ll be invincible. If I can do this, I can do anything!