“I was directionless. I was squandering my potential. I was lost between several cultures for twenty-five years and desperately needed to find myself.”
Essay By George White
My name is George White, and I’m half black and Korean. I recently started performing stand-up comedy, and I always open with a variation of that line and then comment on the irony of being black and White. To add to the irony, I was born on the Yongsan military base in January 1981 and moved to El Paso, Texas, a month later. My parents split shortly after, and although my father has been in our lives, my Korean mother raised two black kids in a city on the US/Mexico border. Then, twenty-six years later, I came back to Korea to find the same direction and opportunity that my mother was looking for when she left. It has been frustrating at times, especially working in the education system, but I am constantly grateful that I could experience it and become a better person.
My Korean mother raised me and my brother with a strict, overprotective, Christian upbringing. We spent more nights at our Korean church than our friend’s houses because my mother and the other congregation members usually prayed until midnight. The chanting and sobbing in a garble of tongues and Korean became my lullaby as I fell asleep on a pew in the back. I ate Korean food, took off my shoes when inside the house, and had many Korean friends. I never identified with any particular culture or race because my appearance and upbringing contradicted each other. I spontaneously came to Korea in January 2007. I was directionless. I was squandering my potential. I was lost between several cultures for twenty-five years and desperately needed to find myself. Moving to one of the most densely populated and homogenous cities on the planet seemed logical.
THE INDICTMENT AND THE FRUSTRATION
I quickly found work teaching ESL over the phone. The classes were five to ten minutes and the levels varied. I taught Monday through Friday from nine in the evening to two in the morning. This gave me a unique perspective into the mind of a Korean student. We never saw each other and our conversations were very brief so I was able to be charming and engaging. I quickly learned that students are mentally and physically exhausted. High school students sleep four to five hours a night and nap frequently throughout the day. They could only study on the phone after midnight until two. The exhaustion in their voices was depressing. This coupled with the immense pressure of their exit exam made me instantly hate the Korean education system. This hatred extended to the blind and zealous pursuit of education in all forms.
I also taught in homes which forced me to value the power of first impressions. I would always mention my Christian Korean mother, which instantly put the mothers at ease. Then, I would perform slide of hand tricks to impress the kids. This was an invaluable experience because I witnessed the other side of public school and hagwon teaching. “Tiger Moms” are personal assistants, personal trainers, motivators, and hit men all rolled into tiny, equally sleep deprived, Korean women. Three or four mothers will gather their children for home tutoring classes in various subjects and chat in the living room during the lesson. I showed up to a class once and the children were playing handheld video games. I asked about the location of their mothers and the children said that they were out. I conducted class with four elementary students and no parental supervision. I was flattered that they trusted me, but incredibly paranoid.
Home tutoring is also counterproductive because they only meet with the instructor once a week. This might be good for someone trying to maintain their skills, but not for someone learning. They need to study for a few hours a day and occasionally with a native speaker to achieve results. People do not have the same capability for learning a foreign language. This does not stop hagwons from accepting anyone, then shoving them in a class and approaching them the same as everyone else.
Most native speakers will teach in a hagwon and I was fortunate to avoid that for my first year. Occasionally, I taught in a small hagwon that didn’t have enough students to warrant a full time foreign teacher. The pretense of a hagwon is a delicate balance of discipline and carelessness. Parents, specifically mothers, hold all the power. The entire curriculum changes if they complain. Most parents use the markings in the students’ workbooks to determine the level of difficulty and effectiveness since most of them don’t speak English. If a workbook has a lot of Xs, then it is too hard. If it doesn’t have enough Xs, then it is too easy. Students are wild and unruly, but they are never directly rude to the instructor. The hagwon managers or owners are plate spinners. They are constantly stressed and often misdirect their frustration toward the teachers since the teachers are the source of most complaints.
This knowledge is necessary because it is inevitable. The faster an instructor learns these little nuances, the faster he/she will be able to engage the students and develop a meaningful social life not based on complaining.
THE SILVER LINING AND THE TRANSFORMATION
I have taught part-time at the same hagwon for four years and it has been incredibly uplifting. I have been able to implement changes in administration, curriculum development, and marketing. I have seen students grow from babies to teenagers. Many have left and many have joined. Some have gone and returned. It is rewarding to be a part of, and bring a little humor into, their burdened lives. These are some of the small jewels that have sustained me in an otherwise counterproductive and manipulative industry. I often think about students and wonder about their current situations.
Shortly before I came to Korea, I decided that I would kick ass as soon as I turned 30. I would not mourn turning 30 like so many people I’ve seen. I would celebrate it with a detailed self-awareness and genuine self-esteem. I needed to break myself before I could rebuild myself. I spent the first few years in Korea partying and socializing. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering myself in a social setting as much as I did sitting alone in a café and pouring myself into a journal. I was changing from a boy with no ambition or direction to a slightly older boy with some ambition and direction. It was an exciting time. Then, I met a wonderful Korean girl and we quickly moved in together. It was even more exciting to discover myself in a new context for three years. I turned 30 while we dated and I felt like our life together would be awesome and fulfilling. Then, she dumped me and dated another boy.
We started dating again, but there was too much bitterness and animosity, so we eventually ended things in autumn of 2012. I was 31 and hated everything about Korea, especially the fact that I had been here two and half years straight. I went home for two months, and realized that I didn’t belong in Korea anymore, but I also realized my growth wasn’t complete.
I returned to Korea in winter and intensely socialized again. I halted my growth and needed to further it before left. I met some friends who mentioned open mic comedy so I decided to try. It was amazing. It was liberating. It became addicting. I am not a stranger to the stage, and I have always been funny in social situations, so it was interesting to combine them. I also met an amazing couple and their powerfully bossy son. They have been a very stabilizing force in my life: confidants, drinking buddies, transitioning vegan partners, and social workers. I helped them start a charity organization that brings necessities to orphans in Korea. That has been spiritually and emotionally rewarding.
Years ago, after listening to the complaints that people had about living in the States or in Korea, I came up with a mantra that has served me well; life is only as difficult as we make it. If we choose to see the bad in every situation, then life will be horrible. If I choose to see only the good, or at least understand the bad and work with it, then life will be awesome. I’ve recently made changes to my diet because it greatly affects my mood. Korea has been a great place to reinvent myself because it far removed me from my comfort zone and all my old destructive tendencies. Korea has distilled me to my core person; vulnerable, selfish, inquisitive, and ambitious. I was able to strip away the laziness, disorganization, and procrastination. I greatly anticipate the next challenge in life and know that I am well-equipped to conquer them. I know I will appreciate life more and daydream about my time spent and people I’ve met here.
To read more stories and thoughts of those who decided to teach abroad after 30, please click here.
-Check out some of George’s Stand Up Material-