Teaching about Paris

It took me a while to come to terms with the Paris attacks. I knew that as a European teaching in Korea I should broach the subject with my students, and attempt to encourage some kind of understanding about something that is so preposterous. However, my initial response was a refusal to read any of the numerous articles depicting the horrific events of Friday the 13th.

My avoidance proved nearly impossible due to social media, so I deleted my apps in order to shelter myself. Personally, I found there to be far too many opinions screaming throughout the internet. People were literally telling you how you should feel about an event that is so horrific that it will clearly affect us all differently. It is absurd to assume that there would be a common response to this tragedy, and social media only reiterated this fact as people flocked to their keyboards in order to portray their emotions about the attacks. Opinions were varied in many respects which caused numerous online disputes. Watching these arguments unfold I felt a dark dread about the future of humanity. How could something so horrific encourage so many more feuds? Shouldn’t a disaster like this encourage us to tread down the peaceful path? Apparently not, so I buried my head in the sand and dealt with my own grievances.

Eventually, social media calmed down, and I came to terms with the situation enough to plan a debate class for some of my older students. I purposely avoided leading the pupils down a specific path of thinking; instead I encouraged them to voice their own opinions, and insisted that there was no right or wrong answer.

First, I had them brainstorm the facts that they knew about the Friday 13th events. Then we moved away from the evidence and broached the opinions. I asked an array of questions in order to gauge the feelings regarding the attacks. Similar to what the internet was proclaiming, many of the students had contradicting beliefs, and I allowed them to rationally discuss their reasoning. The most poignant questions for me were: ‘How do you feel about ISIS?’ and ‘How do you feel about Islam?’ Some student’s response didn’t differ between the two queries; they felt that both contained a certain badness that needed to be eradicated. However, many of them acknowledged the distinctness of the two, and alleged that one instilled a sense of fear, whilst the other did not. Their differing opinions didn’t cause aggressive disputes, (such as the ones that were playing out on the internet), instead they accepted their diversity.

Another point of the discussion which struck me as significant was whether more police officers and CCTV should now be employed to protect the public. This was greeted with a unanimous affirmative. I will hazard a guess that possibly none of the teenagers at my school have yet to read 1984, so they might not completely comprehend the paranoia that infects a lifestyle where one is under constant observation. However, they are neighbours and relatives with a country that employs some of these tactics on their own citizens, and the regime in the North is not exactly viewed positively. These students are aware of how surveillance can turn against the people it is supposed to be protecting, but they remain hopeful that their own country will only use these strategies to protect them. 

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Korea’s Obsession with Appearance 

In a recent class debate, the question was raised about the increasing obsession with appearance. This infatuation is rife in Korea, which boasts the world’s highest percentage of plastic surgery per capita. It’s not only permanent alterations that are prominent, but also perms and hair dyes, which children procure from a ridiculously young age. Also, many teenage girls undergo cosmetic surgery for their birthday when they are approaching university. The most common procedures are a nose job or blepharoplasty, where a crease is inserted in the eyelid in order to have a western style double eyelid. 

Appearance is a constant concern for many of my teenage students. There have been numerous occasions when I have observed one of them spending the whole of break time peering into their handheld mirror and perfecting their selfie. Or I will struggle to maintain a straight face whilst I teach a girl who is sat with a roller pulling her fringe into the perfect curl. Therefore, I was worried that this concept would fail to rile any kind of discussion amongst students who appeared to view a flawless appearance as the norm. However, they amazed me (as they often do), with their open-minded recognition of the situation.

One student highlighted that it is very difficult to look and dress differently in Korea, because you will attract unwanted negative attention. There is an aversion to this scrutiny in Korea which stems from Confucianism which is the foundation of the society. Confucianism emphasises the importance of others evaluations of you, in contrast with your own beliefs about yourself. This stands in opposition to the common ethos in the west that you should follow your own path irrelevant of those around you, and you should strive for individualism.

Generally, Koreans are very stylishly dressed, and there’s a tendency to wear sleek asymmetrical clothes. Despite their stylish exterior there is something that reeks of conformity. It is rare that you will happen upon a Korean who is dressed in a distinctly unique fashion, or wearing an overly revealing outfit. By dressing in the style of the collective you become a part of society, and this idea is mirrored in the cosmetic industry. Korean’s who undergo surgery tend to gravitate towards an optimal image of beauty. That is one with a V-shaped jaw line, big eyes, high cheeks and a ski-slope nose. Plenty of the girls parading around Korea comply with this image, and their clothes are often so similar that they could even be clones.

Another student commented on the compelling beauty of most of the actors and singers. She claimed that you rarely see a successful celebrity who isn’t good-looking. Unlike the former comment, this is also applicable to the west. Television screens are overrun with dazzling beauties, and this paints a picture that attractiveness comes hand in hand with success. This impossible ideal leaves people feeling insufficient, so it becomes understandable that they opt for plastic surgery in order to bridge the gap.

Often I feel contempt for what appears to be an unashamed compliance with vanity that runs through Korea. However, I’ve grown to view it as an issue of self-confidence, where people are unable to be their natural selves. We’re all unique to a certain extent, and we should be proud of our weird and wonderful characteristics. I feel sympathetic to those who comply with an accumulated identity instead of reveling in their own individuality.  

Volunteering at an Autistic Centre

Working in Korea has provided me with more free time than I have ever had. Prior to this, I was a student working part time, and then a cashier at a supermarket trying to work every hour I could get my hands on in order to save for my big move to Korea. I now work less than 7 hours a day, and each day is peppered with breaks. There’s something very luxurious about this lifestyle, it’s almost too good to be true.

The abundance of leisure time encouraged me to do something beneficial instead of watching endless Netflix series in my comfy clothes. A few foreigners volunteer for 2 hours on a Saturday morning at a local centre for autistic children, so I decided to give it a go. I was a bit apprehensive about the whole affair, because I have no experience with children outside of the school system. However, I had no need to be, as it was a really gratifying couple of hours.

The children at the centre don’t speak any English, which is actually a daunting concept. However, our lack of verbal communication has reminded me of how little needs to be said in order to understand one another. In the crafts classes I generally show them a picture of what they’re going to make, and they run with it. They’re creative, more so than the majority of the students that I teach on a week day, and they produce some impressive work.

It feels much more rewarding than working in a hagwon. The kids are so energetic, loving and appreciative; characteristics that you don’t see in a student after they’ve been studying for 10 hours. I actually don’t know how beneficial I am to their life, but they sure do brighten up my week.