A Day in the Life of Metyu Teacher

teacher's desk in South Korea

I wake up next to my wife to the sound of scrap metal being moved from one pile to another. We’re some of the fortunate few who came to Korea married, so while we never have to combat loneliness, we do have to combat early, unscheduled wake up calls. This morning’s alarm involves the dump just outside our bedroom window playing 52 card pick up with lead pipes.

But you just learn to roll with the quirks here in Korea. If you don’t, you’re going to be disappointed. Daegu is pretty cool, with an exciting downtown, cheap movie tickets and baseball games, and a plethora of hiking and cultural opportunities, so we set the quirks aside and continue on with our lives. Ten snooze-filled minutes later, I stumble down the steep staircase to take a shower (yes, I have an upstairs and a downstairs in my apartment. Again, I’m a member of a fortunate few). The bathroom floor is wet; my wife has already showered. We don’t have a tub, so the whole bathroom is the tub. Rolling with the quirks.

I’m breakfasted and dressed, so I walk to my elementary school. The trip is 10 minutes if I don’t hit both intersections. It’s 20 if I do. Intersections only allow pedestrians to cross one side at a time (not both sides in one direction, like in America). I cross the street to my school and the security guard greets me with a smile and a bow.

Annyeong haseo!” we exchange. The phrase means hello, good morning, how are you, and a dozen other pleasantries at once. It’s like holding a conversation with as little effort as possible. That’s good, because just over a month into my stay in Daegu and I haven’t started my Korean lessons yet. I can read Korean at about the speed of a blue tang reading the Australian address on a pair of scuba goggles, but I don’t often know what I’m reading. Honestly, I can’t wait to start the lessons. They will make life a lot easier.

I walk into the school grounds and the students are cleaning the school, as they do every morning. I am immediately bombarded by kindness.

“Hello!” a small student smiles and waves.

“Hello!” I reply, mirroring the child’s enthusiasm. If I wear sunglasses, because, you know, the sun is bright, I get “oohhh, celebrity!” Apparently most Koreans don’t wear sunglasses on a daily basis.

“Hello, Metyu teacher!” another student says. No one can really pronounce ‘Matthew’, since there’s no appropriate ‘a’ or ‘th’ sound in Korean. I learned this during my first conversation with the school’s principal. About 75% of the conversation was him trying to say my, in most Western circumstances, very common and pronounceable name. To make it easy on everyone, I just go by ‘Metyu.’ Rolling with the quirks.

“Hello Metyu teacher!” another student says.

“Hello,” I say.

“Hello Metyu teacher!”

I wave.

“Hello Metyu Teacher!” “Hello!” “Hello!” “Metyu!”

By the time I reach the stairs, I’ve been greeted to death by the student population. I can only say ‘hello’ so many times before my friendliness is overcome by apathy. Finally, one student elects to greet me with a bow. Teachers don’t bow in return, so I’ve been told to ‘bow with your eyes,’ whatever that means. I smile slightly and continue my way to the English corridor on the third floor. This school building is old, so I slide the wooden office door to the side rather than push it to enter.

My co-teacher is already there and greets me. Her desk is next to mine, and it’s the first I’ve been able to call my own at any place of work. It’s precious to me, even though I don’t have as many means of personalizing it as I would like. I log in and prepare for the day. In a matter of minutes, I walk to my classroom of the day. I split time between 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. Today’s crew is 4th grade. As soon as they enter the room, it’s more “Hello Metyu!” and so on. Come on, I just saw some of you, like, nineteen seconds ago in the hallway. In the grand scheme of things, though, I prefer this friendliness to ambivalence. I did not fly across the Pacific to be ignored.

Depending on my three co-teachers, perhaps we’ve prepared a lesson together and now it’s our chance to see how the students respond. Or, I am just a parrot that speaks native English and is here for all your pronunciation and instruction-giving needs. I’m here to help in whatever way I can, and I give whichever task my best. No matter what class, I am in charge of the greeting. I ask them how they are doing today (‘hungry’ and ‘sleepy’ are the most popular answers). I ask them ‘how’s the weather?” and “what day is it today?” It builds their confidence and gets them speaking, which is what I’m really here to do: get students to speak English. South Korea has one of the best public school systems in the world and they score highly on English tests for writing, reading, and listening, but not for speaking. That is one of the reasons EPIK was created, to give students the chance to speak to an actual English speaker. I think I do it reasonably well.

Most classes are over before lunch, so I have the afternoon to sit at my computer and make preparations. Or click through RottenTomatoes and ESPN.com. I teach three after school classes a week, and because I have a lot more control over what I do in those classes I have a lot of fun with them.

Eventually, 4:40 arrives and I get to go home. I take the 10-20 minute walk home, sometimes through the park if I want to stop at the grocery store and pick up a loaf of bread or some fruit. Inside the mart, the owner walks around with a microphone announcing what I assume are sales over the loudspeaker. My wife gets home before me and is already dressed down for the evening. As EPIK teachers, neither of us takes work home with us, so we have the evenings to do as we please. Some nights are spent at new restaurants, or the popular expat hang out Traveler’s Bar for trivia night. Other nights, like tonight, we immerse ourselves in the magical world of Netflix. We just went to Costco (yes, the beloved depot, along with many other familiar American stores and brands, are available here), so our choices for dinner have increased exponentially. It sounds like a quesadilla night.

After we’ve had our fill of Netflix, and quesadilla, it’s time for bed. We’ve got to do it all over again tomorrow. With each day, we feel a little more settled, a little more comfortable in our new home. We’re learning the ropes. Less things are strange and scary (although there are still lots of those things too), and we’re holding the fort. We’re more than holding the fort. We’re thriving in a place just a year ago I never imagined I would need to thrive in. We just forgot to turn off the hot water. And the gas for the stove. And our floor is filthy. And we need another power strip. Because there’s only three outlets in the whole freaking unit. Our toaster sits on our dining room table, in a room that is at once a dining room, kitchen, and closet, because there’s no outlet in the kitchen. Oh, and trash needs to go out but it’s dark outside and somebody might talk to me. And it’s getting late, so I should really get some sleep before the dump opens in the morning. Rolling with the quirks.

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