From paper to pillars, we were told, ‘You don’t matter’Everyday on my way to teach English at a college in the rural part of Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang province, I had to walk across a six-lane highway that seemed totally out of place. The original road had been widened when the college’s new state-of-the-art gym was built to hold lower-profile basketball games during this year’s Summer Universiade in neighboring Daegu. Apparently, the city elders were expecting fans from near and far to swamp the area.
The road was always clear, however. A quick glance in each direction was usually sufficient before trotting across the empty expanse of asphalt and up to my office, where I would ponder where the college had found funds for a new gym and swimming pool, whereas the foreign teachers’ requests for basic teaching materials were routinely denied.
Finding materials on the Internet and photocopying them to distribute in class were the only way to get anything done. The students had a habit of constantly “forgetting” or claiming to not be able to afford the 12,000-won ($10) textbook. But scolding them and pointing out their expensive camera phones took up only so much time; we learned to personally make sure each student had course activity to work on during class.
One morning, carrying paper obtained from our carefully rationed supply, I made my way to the copy room to make photocopies for the day’s lessons. Entering the room, I made a jolting discovery: A note ― written in Korean, mind you ― taped to the door that said foreign teachers were no longer allowed to make photocopies. Apparently, we had been using too much paper.
That’s O.K., I thought, the school has given us some supplies that might be useful in this situation. Let’s see, how can I work that hand mirror adorned with the college logo or that tempered glass dish (another gift from the college) into today’s lesson plan. Wait, I also have a manila envelope full of staples, correction fluid, erasers and a sparkly plastic ornament that looks like a bunch of grapes.
Had I misread my job description? Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be teaching my students English. Maybe I was supposed to be instructing them in some kind of warped urban survival strategy.
A few months later, as I was on my way to the shiny new gym to catch a game between the Italian and U.S. women’s basketball teams, I looked across the massive road to find yet another addition to the college’s facade: A row of 10-meter high pillars that reminds everyone ― in a palette of colors ― not once, but five times, that they are passing by Sorabol College.
I imagined a stack of paper as high as one of those pillars. It would have lasted us years. By that time, it was already obvious to me that appearance, not function, was the name of the game at this school. I looked both ways and darted across the six empty lanes.
by Kirsten Jerch