Out of all the activities I had planned for myself on my 5 day adventure in Cambodia, one that I was especially looking forward to was visiting a floating village along Tonle Sap Lake. In my head I envisioned weather-worn bamboo huts skirting the edges of the water, boats that have seen better days sputtering by from time to time, and people living in tune with nature. That’s what I was expecting, and it’s pretty close to what I found. But what I wasn’t prepared for was to feel like the biggest, guiltiest voyeur ever.
As a test of my writing ability and see if what I have to say about certain issues interests anyone I decided to post a couple of articles recently on two different websites; thethreewisemonkeys.com and asiapundits.com both of which are based in Korea and maintained by Westerners living in Korea. Both kindly agreed to run them, but the reaction to them was nothing I had ever bargained for.
Usually, the women do all the preparing of food, set it up, and clean everything up at the end while the men just sit around eating the food and drinking alcohol around one table. On another table, food and drink is presented artistically around a picture of the dead family member, or if there is no picture a possession of theirs or a note. Once everything is in place, relatives of the deceased then take turns in bowing three times at regular intervals to the table, alcohol is poured into a bowl and spoons are placed inside bowls of rice and other dishes so that the spirit can eat if they choose to.
This month I had the pleasure (or the misfortune) of experiencing a traditional death anniversary with my wife's family here in Korea. Basically what happens is this: every year on the death of a close family member the family comes together to remember them and make offerings to their spirit in the form of lots of food and drink.
Many people come to South Korea to work. and for some. the change of culture can be too great. It is very easy to fall into a negative frame of mind and wish for a swift end to your stay. Most foreigners, out of a sense of duty, and also a tidy sum in their back pocket at the end of it all, see out their contracts as teachers. But a year is a long time and it is almost possible to see some people walking around with a permanent black cloud over their heads. I should know, I myself was one of them.
I guess you could briefly summarise my feeling of the worth of a Native English teacher in Korea, as someone that should be an inspiration to the students, and someone who is prepared to be inspired by the students themselves and the Korean people they meet everyday, during their stay. On making this statement I am aware that I maybe guilty on two charges; that of being overly dramatic, and that of being arrogant in thinking that I can be inspirational to them. I am not one to be dramatic, so I am going to defend myself on this charge by asking a question; if you are doing something (a job), which you go to almost everyday, and spend more time doing than possibly seeing your best friends, what's the point unless you can enjoy it and in a way that enriches your life? Not everyone can be a doctor, or a marine biologist (my ideal profession), so why not find a way to enjoy and learn the most that you can from your work?
In my last post, I identified the reasons why Native English teachers essentially do not help in achieving higher test results for Korean students, but are valuable in other senses. When I first saw the figures from Seoul, for the lack of improvement in English since the introduction of the Native teacher programme, I thought deeply about the usefulness of my own position in my school. I think despite the fact that English teachers get paid well here in Korea, the schools themselves can make the foreign teacher feel fairly surplus to requirements sometimes. The figures from Seoul and this fact made me question the meaning of my existence in my position at the school. I could give many examples of the lack of importance I feel sometimes, but I shall just give one particularly irksome example from last year;