"Oh, listen to this. It was so funny today in class because..." While teaching English in Korea, some version of that phrase will probably become a common refrain in your conversations with family and friends. Living abroad will give you ample opportunities to collect funny anecdotes -- the lost in translation moments alone will be countless. But for me, it's always the stories that come from my classroom that are the best. Children are strange, unpredictable, wonderful little humans, and Korean kids are no exception.
That moment when you start to fear for your safety in the classroom... This story was 100% created by tiny, angelic girls.
Coming to Korea, you can expect the normal range of behavior from your students: they are curious, hyper, strange, maddening, and hilarious. Sometimes they'll be great, sometimes they won't. All of that is to be expected -- just think about yourself as a child: probably not always a perfect little angel. However, the good far outweighs the bad, and you'll be telling tons of great stories about the crazy times you had in your classroom for years after you've taught in Korea.
Here are some of my favorite moments from the past year and a half...
Kids are fascinated by my romances, real or completely pretend.
"Do you have a boyfriend? Are you married? Is [insert name of male teacher] your boyfriend?" Get ready to be asked all manner of questions about your love life. My students seem particularly... preoccupied with imagining ridiculous and/or elaborate romances between teachers. In my time with CDI, I too have become a target of these rumors.
It usually starts when one of them will very seriously look at me and say, "You know, teacher, when you wear a ring it means you have a boyfriend."
"Any ring? On any finger?"
"Teacher. (pause, serious expression) You have seven rings on."
"Yes. I have seven boyfriends."
"WHAT?! TEACHER!! WHO?!?"
So, I suppose I haven't done much to dispel any rumors about me... but oh well.
Next, they usually decide they NEED to know who my boyfriends are, with my coworkers being the likeliest candidates. According to my students, one of the other teachers is my "secret" boyfriend. But, our love is tragic, because I love him but he doesn't love me back -- he only loves money. He's toying with my emotions and I am very heartbroken.
He's rich, I'm poor, and I'm destined for heartbreak.
Then there's my "scandal" boyfriend, one of the Korean counselors who, at the time, happened to oversee most of my classes. Clearly, his coming into my class a couple times every day isn't because, say, he's doing his job and needs to check in with certain students, but because he's madly in love with me and he can't bear to be away from me. Yeah, okay, kids. And, because middle schoolers are ridiculous human beings, they think they have definitive proof of our gossip-worthy love: when we talk to each other, we make eye contact. Oh! The scandal!
And then there's my actual boyfriend, but my students don't much care about him. In fact, I’m not sure they think he’s real... Scandals are much more interesting. As a student once told my (real) boyfriend, explaining a rumor at his CDI branch, "I like to make the scandal." Sounds about right to me.
When in doubt, make up a ridiculous story.
Kids are gullible. Kids love ridiculous stories. You are a foreigner from a faraway land. They can’t be completely certain that you’re lying. And, like all kids, they love silly stories and playful teasing. So, my advice: work on your poker face and some fanciful fibs.
Depending on which student you ask at my school, I am…
...an Avenger. Well, actually, I’m married to Iron Man, but Hawkeye is my “secret boyfriend.” (Scandal!) Black Widow is my sister, the Hulk is my brother, and Captain America is my dad. I think Thor is my uncle… This became a running joke in an EC4 class over a year ago. It’s still a thing. According to them, I have the power to assemble the Avengers. I’m completely okay with this.
...a pirate. One student spotted the tattoo on my wrist (which I keep covered with a bracelet, but sometimes it peeks out), gasped, and immediately announced to the entire class that I'm a pirate. Clearly.
...part of a teacher fight club. We meet in the school lobby on Fridays after classes end at 10pm. But we can't divulge any other details, obviously.
…a deadly assassin. Last fall, I took a vacation to Japan, and one class of middle school boys created this rumor. The boys knew I have tattoos, so while I was gone, they wouldn’t stop talking about how I was actually in Japan to receive special training from the yakuza. I was filled in on all of this by the teachers who subbed for me, so I made sure to keep the details of my vacation suspiciously vague when these boys asked me. I think some of them might actually believe I’m a deadly killer…
- …dating between three and seven dudes, as mentioned above.
My illicit affair with Hawkeye became a part of the daily stories: "Zanna and Iron Man meet and eat lunch together, the see the Hawkeye. The escape the picnic. They find a Iron Mans suit."
My favorite part of having these ridiculous stories attached to me is they become inside jokes with different students. Then, when you have the student again, they explain this story to the rest of the class, much to everyone's amusement and confusion. From there, it mutates into something new and you've created another crazy memory with your students.
Get ready for conversations to take a sudden, morbid turn.
I mean, most kids are pretty morbid. Every kid goes through a stage where they're fascinated with death. Korean kids are no exception, and they take it to a degree that's actually a little surprising at first. Seriously -- everything ends in death or violence...
While the girls drew pretty gardens with flowers, the boys created... this.
Class discussions will also take some unexpected turns, so get ready to stay on your toes and roll with the strange, strange things that the kids will say...
"He just threw the stick to make the puppy go away, so what do you think he will do next?"
"Like this teacher!” (mimes a puppy running and then getting impaled with the stick thrown by the boy)
"Wait -- the puppy is going to get stabbed?!"
"Yeah! And then he will kick it."
"He's going to KICK the puppy?!"
"Because then he makes dog meat soup!"
"You. Are. Terrible."
[Very few of my students have actually eaten dog. They joke about it regularly – mostly because they like to see me squirm due to their knowledge of my extreme attachment to every dog I’ve ever met.]
Just a couple weeks ago, in a lesson about cultures that eat bugs, we started discussing other things that, to us, may seem strange to eat. For the record, this conversation was held with an angelic, sweetfaced 11 year old girl.
"Teacher, would you eat bugs?"
"I don't know... maybe. Would you?"
"Yes! I want to! Would you eat dog?"
"(loud gasp) Never! (laughing) I have a dog, and I am very, very in love with my dog. So, if I ate dog, I would just think about eating her. And I would cry. A lot. Forever."
"Would you rather eat... bugs or your dog?"
"What about... (she cracks up maniacally) Your dog or a human?"
"A human? Okay, well, important questions: did this human say it's okay for me to eat them? Or did I murder them?"
"No! It's SOMEONE FROM YOUR FAMILY!!! (at this point she's cackling) SO, YOUR DOG?! OR YOUR FAMILY?!"
That think-before-you-speak tact filter doesn't exist here.
My students are always quick to tell me what they think of my appearance. More often than not, it's complimentary. "Teacher, you look so pretty today." "Teacher, I like your hair. It is cute today." Often, these comments will also be accompanied by some lovely portraits of me, which they surreptitiously slide across my desk near the end of class.
They're sweet, but these kids are also very quick to tell you what they really think.
Commenting on my fashion:
"Teacher, your stockings. So red. Like blood."
"You don't like my tights?"
"They are not pretty. Because they look like blood."
Commenting on my hair, in a unintentionally backhanded way:
"Teacher, you straight your hair today?"
"Yeah, my perm is starting to go flat. It's old. Time for my natural straight hair again."
"(long, appraising stare) I think it is much better."
Commenting on my appearance:
"Teacher, you have black eyes?"
"Here, around your eyes. So dark today."
"Yes, teacher, like a panda!"
"I have dark circles?"
"Yes! Like a panda. Are you very tired?"
None of this is said in a malicious way, of course. It’s just a combination of them being kids + a culture that doesn't hold back + basic English skills + curiosity. Your students will definitely throw some of these blunt comments your way, so just make sure you keep an open attitude and a thick skin.
That’s just a handful of the ridiculous stories I’ve collected during my time teaching in Korea. By the time I leave, I’m sure I’ll have enough to fill a book. Your students in Korea are going to be interested in getting to know you, and I can guarantee you that they're going to say some really bizarre things along the way. While the classroom can be challenging and sometimes stressful, it’s the funny, ridiculous moments like these that make it all worth it. Just sit back and enjoy. And maybe keep pen and paper on hand so you can jot down the memorable quotes...
Do you have any great stories from your classroom? Share them below in the comments!
Between studying Japanese and Asian culture in university and setting her sights on a teaching career, it came as no surprise when Zannah Smreker announced that she was moving to South Korea to teach for Chungdahm Learning. In November 2011, Zannah accepted a position through Aclipse with the Yeonsu branch in Incheon, just southwest of Seoul. When she's not teaching, she keeps herself busy with exploring Korea, eating all the street food, and hunting down strange Engrish shirts. Check out her blog here for more of her adventures!