Finally—finally!—after over 2 months of teaching in Korea, I had a week that felt like a win. Did I mention: finally?!
Let me get one thing out of the way: the whole teaching thing? I don’t love it. Quite honestly, it is frustrating and stressful and I want to like it more than I do. However, the not teaching stuff? That stuff is fun. Last week I had the opportunity to participate in some not-teaching-teacher-in-Korea stuff, and doing so reminded me why living and working in a foreign country can be fun.
Last week, the middle school students took midterm exams, and therefore the teachers got to have some Office-of-Education-funded fun! I was excited to be invited to partake in the teacher activities and chose to say yes, though it meant risking possible awkwardness and discomfort; let’s face it, I’m awkward and uncomfortable most days, but saying yes opened the possibility for some fun, too.
So, on Tuesday, we went rafting. Yep: rafting. I joined three teachers from my school and about 30 other teachers and administrators from the area, we suited up in life jackets and helmets (!!), and took to the river! Judging by our outfits, we looked ready to take on some pretty gnarly rapids; in reality, it was more like a lazy river. We paddled, swam, and splashed down the water in the golden hour light, and for one of the first times since being here it did not feel like the language barrier really mattered. We could share in the experience, all knowing what was going on without needing to communicate beyond it. I felt at ease, and I could tell that the teachers around me did, too.
What I am finding here is that many people can speak at least some English, but they are scared to. It takes breaking the barrier—the feelings of fear, intimidation, and need to withdraw—for everyone to be comfortable enough to try. This is the state that I strive for, and reaching it means taking risks. It requires some discomfort to bond in a way that shows we are all human, more similar than different; I speak English but you don’t have to be scared of me! On our way back to school after rafting, my teachers excitedly told me, “We are so happy you came to our school!” After two months of drowning everyday, this was a welcome affirmation.
The barrier breaking continued on Wednesday when the Office of Education hosted a volleyball tournament between the schools. Before last week, I had not played volleyball since 8th grade. However, after lunch one day the PE teacher invited me to come and play; he was as surprised as I was that I did not completely suck, and just like that I was drafted for the teacher team. After the tournament (which we won, by the way), I can confidently say that one of the top things that transcends language barriers is semi-friendly athletic competition. I have rarely felt more encouraged than when the teachers from my schools were enthusiastically cheering on my mediocre athletic performance in the elementary school gym: “Ha-ley, fight-ing!”
After the final match, my vice-principal, who rarely speaks any English, came up to me and said, “Wow. Haley… amazing sports girl!” I felt pretty good. It’s not that I was, or am, an amazing sports girl (although, let’s face it: I am); rather, it was finally connecting with these people whom I quietly share lunch and an office with every week; it was the feeling that we were all on the same team—those of us who were playing, but also the many more who showed up to cheer us on.
There is this feeling of transcendence that comes in these moments: rising above the awkwardness and confusion and self-consciousness and sharing an experience, laughing, and understanding on a level where few words are necessary. These are the human experiences that everyone can share despite language or background, age or gender. It’s a state Joey and I experience at the climbing gym we have found here, especially Joey who can work on projects with the other climbers, sharing tips and encouraging one another without the pressure to make small talk. This week gave me hope that more of these moments are possible at school. I have shaken things up, and I am slowly being let in, included, appreciated, and humanized rather than simply written off as the cute, confusing foreign girl who cannot speak any Korean.