Teaching in uncertain times

I just finished my first day of teaching in person this year. We were set to start the new school year back in March but then COVID-19 happened. I was traveling back to the US for a visit with my family after teaching a year in Korea. 

It was before the lockdowns and everything happened in Korea, the US and the rest of the world. At the airport I was asked if I had been in China the past two weeks, and they put a sticker on my passport. 

I think at the time the US had stopped direct flights, but travelers to the US could just hop over to Korea and take a flight from there. My flight home was mostly normal aside from that. A news crew was waiting at O’hare when I arrived, wanting to interview passengers from China. 

It was later on that I found out that the first two cases in Illinois had flown into O’hare this same week. When it came time to fly back, things had drastically changed. The flight crew were wearing masks and I saw several passengers sporting N95 masks. 

All of mine were back in my apartment in Boryeong. Previously I only used them on days where the air quality was bad, but seeing people around me wearing them made me wish I had thought to pack some away. 

Quarantine. When I arrived back in Korea my school asked me to stay home for a few days. I think in part because of the long flight and also because of increasing concerns of COVID-19 coming into Korea. 

Today. I’m wearing a mask even as I type this out in the classroom. We’re reminded to wear the masks at all times except when we’re eating (for obvious reasons). Normally my activities with the students involve moving around and group activities but each of the students are glued to their chairs. 

Each day we take our temperatures before lunch and when the students arrive, the queue up for a test before they’re let into the building. Caution tape has been placed throughout the building at places such as bathroom entrances and water fountains to help remind students to maintain social distancing. 

Yellow and black caution lines help promote social distancing between the students

In the meantime, I just submitted my application to have my contract extended until the end of the year. It’s crazy that we’re almost through the first semester and I’ve only seen the students once. There’s so many new faces in the first grade and I’m wondering which of my other students have stayed or left since last year. 

Many schools are hesitant to bring in new teachers from overseas this fall and over 200 schools in Seoul recently reclosed due to a jump in cases in Seoul and the surrounding areas. 

I appreciate the fast response by the government to limit the spread of new cases, but at the same time it’s jarring to go back and forth. I have to carefully choose where and if I go somewhere. 

I know many of my fellow English teachers have chosen to stay home during the pandemic. The recent events in Itaewon showed that some people are quick to point the finger at foreigners. 

Looking like a foreigner right now can get you shunned or unwelcomed in some restaurants and several newspapers discussed the “many” foreign English teachers that went clubbing, but was hesitant at first to point out that the source of the cluster was a Korean national. 

Korea is a country that prides itself on being a homogeneous society, but underneath the surface it’s far from the truth. The number of international marriages is on the rise in Korea, especially in rural areas. 

Even though the percentage of men and women in South Korea is roughly the same (women number slightly higher as of 2019), more and more women in South Korea are pursuing careers and taking charge of their lives. 

Korean women are typically leaving the rural areas in favor of the city. It’s not uncommon in my city to see a large number of younger Koreans leave for Seoul on the weekends to escape the rural life. This has led to an increase in international marriages and in return, an increase in biracial children. 

This has challenged the homogeneity of South Korea– in the past biracial children were looked at with prejudice and even today there will still be times where this is apparent. But these children are still Korean. They’re still Filipino, Vietnamese, American, Chinese, Thai etc. 

These are children of two different countries, bringing together different cultures and backgrounds and at the end of the day these are my students. Growing up in a community that was mostly white in the center of the US, I can understand some of what these kids are going through.

A Korean mom and an American dad, even today I still think about where I sit in the whole grand scheme of things. But at least for now I can refocus on how I’m going to teach my students amid COVID-19 in the world.

I don’t know when we’ll get back to ‘normal’ or if we ever will or should. I really have to rethink how I travel and interact with other people these past few months, and I’m scared and excited to see what the future has in store for me and my school. 

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