Friday, 12 October 2012

Teaching with Chopsticks - TEFL from the Frontline by Jonathan Last



Part of Series:  No

Author:  Jonathan Last

Available at:  Smashwords

Price:  $2.99

Number of words (approximately):  73 756

Star Rating: (of five):  Four

Summary:  A young Englishman with no teaching experience takes a year-long job in Korea teaching English to young children.  The book tells of his experiences, the people (both Korean and expats), the country and his development as a person.


‘An-yong ha-seyo,’ I stammer at Sam Kim. I haven’t slept for two days and several time zones, but I want to get my greeting right.

Sam, who’s done countless airport pickups, beams as if I’m witty and original.

‘Ha-ha, very good! Anyong Haseyo, Jon!’ My delivery was nothing like his; well, at least I remembered to bow.

We creep out of the airport car park and cruise along the motorway, past mountains, rice-paddy fields, more mountains.

Sam has a convertible Kia. All the other cars I see on the road are Korean too: Daewoos, Hyundais. On the dashboard is an in-car TV, made by LG. Sam’s shiny mobile’s a Samsung.  With his black suit, grey turtleneck, slicked-back hair and sunglasses, Sam Kim resembles Chow Yun-Fat. He could be twenty-five or forty-five. He talks non-stop – reassuring and informing, papering over my nerves.

We pass a power plant of some kind.

Korea, very big recycling,’ Sam says. Koreans are proud of their country. I like this.  We’ve been driving for over an hour when we enter the Sanbon district of Gunpo, a commuter town for Seoul. The landscape doesn’t get any flatter; the mountains are simply replaced by apartment blocks – dozens of cream-white, twenty-odd storey monoliths dotted with black windows, inverted dominos reaching far into the sky. I don’t see a single isolated home, and wonder if words like house and garden actually exist in the Korean lexicon, the same way cousin and sibling are virtually obsolete in China.

It’s half three in the afternoon, GMT+9, and I’m looking forward to checking into my new apartment and collapsing. However, my chauffeur has another stop to make first.

We pull into a car park cast into near-darkness by the ubiquitous apartment blocks  There’s a much smaller building in the centre, which I find myself stumbling up to behind the striding Sam.

The ‘school’ is really an academy or hagwon, a place where parents send their children to get extra English tuition each day, straight after their regular schooling. The stereotypical image I had had in my mind of red brick buildings spread around a playground is shattered; the reality is the top floor of a four-storey block, the outside walls of which are busy with multi-coloured Hangul (Korean writing) signs, English being happy speak language institute.

Up the lift we go, and I see my new workplace for the first time. -



- It just so happens that I’ve arrived in time for the hagwon’s winter trip, so the next day I find myself ferrying tightly wrapped balls of scarf, hat and mitten onto two coaches, heading for local theme park Ever Land.

‘You can get to know the children better,’ Soon-yi nods meaningfully, her glasses opaque.

The place itself is a real Disney World rip-off: cartoon characters, parades, jolly songs played from speakers, huge castle motifs. This is the year of the golden pig, and images and souvenirs celebrating the fact surround us.

Soon-yi and I are in a group together, and I cling to her more dependently than any of the children. Presently, however, I’m caught up chatting with two of my charges. Anna is a really sweet girl who gives me chewing gum and clutches my hand firmly; James wears thick specs and never runs out of questions.

I’m just telling Anna about fish ‘n’ chips and dull British winters, when James says: ‘Jon Teacher, where is Soon-yi Teacher?’

I look up. No Soon-yi Teacher. It’s just me and a dozen children – we’ve wandered away from the pack. Even though the kids have worked out where we are on the map, I can’t read it. And the battery on my Korean mobile’s dead.

The children don’t panic; little Anna simply produces her own mobile and dials Soon-yi.  She appears over the horizon soon enough, all smiles. ‘Thanks for looking after them, Jon,’ my supervisor says.

‘We were lost… I guess we fell behind,’ I stammer.

‘We helped Jon Teacher,’ says a beaming Anna.

‘He was lost but we telephone Soon-yi Teacher,’ adds James.

‘You had your first experience as a real teacher,’ Soon-yi laughs.

‘You’re not wrong’, I say to myself, as we head off to the zoo enclosure, my heart still pounding in my chest. -

Reviewer’s Comments:

Structure:  The book is well-structured, reading pleasantly and with no obstructions.

Content:  The book tells a number of stories simultaneously.  It covers Jon’s development as a teacher and as a person.  It tells of the characters who are drawn to these teaching jobs (as a fill-in, as a way to earn enough money to return home with a nest egg, as an experience of the foreign culture), of the life of a stranger in a strange land, of the influence the children have on the teacher.  It is written frankly, with an engaging style and a command of the language that is enjoyable as well as comfortable.

Reviewer’s Comment:  This book examines the sensations of being a foreigner in a strange culture, as well as many other things.  It is sympathetic of the many differences between cultures, not gloating about the author’s ‘superiority’ at the same time as it describes how hard it is to break through from one culture to another.  It is a must-read for anyone planning to change countries, and it is a book that can be enjoyed repeatedly.  It is made for delving into, and for reading snippets out to friends, particularly foreign friends, or friends who are foreign in that land.  I enjoyed every page, and I look forward keenly to Jonathan Last’s next book.  I recommend it unreservedly.

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