How I Quit My Job as an English Teacher in Korea

Author’s Note: This post has been sitting in my draft box for a few months now. At first, I didn’t post it because finding all the images and videos I wanted to include was WORK, and every time I sat down to do it, I got distracted. Then, I didn’t post it because it didn’t quite feel true anymore. It’s a funny thing about adapting to another culture, sometimes you can take it, and sometimes you can’t, but it goes back and forth. You’re fine for a while and then you hate everything. I’m back around to being mostly fine, so I think it’s time this post saw the light of my browser.

"I quit this job!"

“I quit this job!”

 

I’m a geek. I’m the brand of geek that is a HUGE fan of the beloved television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m also the brand of geek that connects everything in my life to everything else in my life, so when I quit, immediately thought about this show.
 
If you haven’t seen it, you should—it’s amazing. The basic premise is this: Buffy is a high school girl chosen to slay vampires and protect the world from evil. A few seasons in, she must also protect her sister from a bit of big bad evil that’s out to get her, and it’s—well, it’s all a little much. The stress takes its toll on Buffy, eventually putting her in a temporary catatonic state, during which the audience gets to actually see the loop that her unconscious mind keeps running her through.
Buffy-this is when I quit
 
In-brain Buffy keeps going back to a particular scene that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest—Buffy is standing in the magic shop where they do their demon research, and she puts a book back on a shelf. End scene. Eventually, she explains to her friend Willow (who has magically entered Buffy’s consciousness to snap her out of it),
 
“This was when I quit, Wil.”
“You did?”
“Just for a second…”
 
Still with me? Buffy’s character tortures herself over this moment of quitting. She blames herself and that moment for the all-kinds-of-bad they are in the middle of at that particular point in the story. But here’s the thing…she did the right thing. Quitting was the healthiest choice Buffy could have made at that moment.
 
Obviously she can’t, and won’t, really quit and let the world spiral into darkness. She has slayer responsibilities to keep up with (not to mention a narrative to sustain), but at that moment, she acknowledged that there was an alternative. She could choose not to succumb to the soul-crushing power of the fight she was in the middle of.
 
 
“I wanted it over,” she explains.
 
“This is—all of this—it’s too much for me. I just wanted it over. If Glory [the bad guy] wins, then Dawn [the sister] dies. And I would grieve. People would feel sorry for me. But it would be over. I imagined what a relief it would be.”
 
 
I think we can all agree that quitting something awful is a relief—we don’t need a TV show to tell us that.

(We have movies for that.)

But when Buffy quit, she did it just for a second, and it was “a relief,” and then she just kept on doing her job.
 
 
This is what happened to me in my second grade class last month. This class was literally listed on my To Do list as:
 
E2-After School
**Occasionally referred to as a slow descent into hell.
 
The students neither respected nor understood me. In fact, they closely resembled a pack of 3 foot tall demons themselves (they do scream, hit, and communicate in a language I don’t understand), and I felt increasingly like I was losing my battle against them.
 
This all culminated in me standing in the middle of a room where approximately 50% of the students were out of their seats, many were running, yelling, throwing things, and the few who were in their desks would at best offer a cursory glance my way when I tried to get their attention.
 
I was watching one particularly troubling cluster of boys who feed off each other’s chaos, trying to decide what I should do about them, and realizing there wasn’t a large enough classroom in the world to separate them enough to make them behave well. I was on the verge of tears.
 
And then I quit.
 
I pictured myself walking down the hallway, grabbing my bag out of my office, descending the stairs, walking out the doors to the school, and never coming back. The class would surely continue to run amok in my absence, but I would not be standing in the middle of it. All that disaster would be happening behind me, and I would be moving forward, rising above it…
 
It was glorious.
 
And then I just kept teaching—or more accurately, physically placing children in their seats only to have them pop back up moments later like a more frustrating game of whack-a-mole in which the moles scream and taunt you in a foreign language. This continued until the period ended and they went screaming down the hall to a land I call “Somebody Else’s Problem.”
 
If you’re following the actual events of my story, they look like this:
  • Jessica tries desperately to gain control of class
  • Jessica stands in the middle of the class breathing slowly and eyeballing the door
  • Jessica returns to physically separating kids, getting them off the floor, and returning them to their seats
  • Class ends
So what changed? Class was not actually better. I was still surrounded by demons. I was still having the worst time in a class that I’ve EVER had, and between studying and teaching, I’ve spent a lot of times in classes.
 
Why did I stay? And more importantly, how did I stay in a class that moments earlier had me ready to cry in front of a bunch of 9 year olds before fleeing my job and subsequently the country?
 
Answer: I quit.
 
I quit just for a second, and in that moment I knew I had a choice. I knew if I left there were other things out there for me. It wasn’t really, as one might expect, a weighing of pros and cons. I didn’t stand in the class comparing the shame and embarrassment I would feel when I tried to explain to the people back home why I didn’t finish my contract with the pain and frustration of continuing to try to make this class work and decide which was more bearable.
 
I just quit. I let it all go. Once I did, I could see a way out, and once I knew there was a way out, I suddenly wasn’t so desperate to go there.
 
It was like getting lost exploring a cave. Overall, the cave is pretty cool—interesting geology, totally mind blowing to be somewhere so dark, etc. But, then you start thinking, it’s kind of cold in here, and I only have so much water and food, and it’s got to be getting late and cold outside, and my flashlight battery could die at any moment, and the longer I’m down here, the better chance of a hungry vampire stumbling upon me. All you can think about is finding a way out before one of innumerable awful fates befalls you. And then you find the path and think, well, if the exit’s right there… I can hang around a bit more. I have enough water for a while and an extra flashlight in my bag, and vampires aren’t even real!
 
Like Buffy, much as I may want to sometimes, I’m not ready to give up my fight yet. I’m not quite done exploring this cave, and that exit isn’t going anywhere.
 
My determination to conquer the class was also renewed. I made some big changes—getting permission to move it to an earlier time in the day so we can get right into the lesson, getting help from the students’ homeroom teacher to explain the rules and reward systems—and the next time I saw my students, it was like a different class. They listened, they participated, they stayed in their seats. Suddenly, they were the picture of good behavior, and they’ve mostly kept it up since then.
 
This change didn’t happen because I refused to quit. It was possible because I did quit, but only for a second.
 
I’ve been in a place so dark that I couldn’t see the way out before; I’ve been in a bad situation that I refused to quit, and I can tell you, it’s no way to live.
 
So if you’re feeling stuck, I implore you—quit. Just try it out. See how it feels. Maybe to quit is what you’ve needed all along. It might stick, and if it does, that’s great! You’ll be free. It might not stick. You might find you have it in you to start again. Either way, you’ll have taught yourself that you are in control of your fate. You get to choose what you will endure. You get to walk away.

Being Kind to Myself

I read A LOT about self improvement, self esteem, self love, self care, and the like. This is mostly because a year and a half ago, I was not taking very good care of myself. It was pretty standard for me to spend an entire weekend (which for me could be as many as four days because the organization I worked for only offered services Tuesday through Thursday) migrating from bed to couch back to bed, getting up only to pee or when it became absolutely necessary to find something to feed myself. I was, in short, extremely depressed, and every year for many years, it got worse.

An exact likeness. (Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by Jennifer Kehl)

An exact likeness.
(Photo credit: Copyright All rights reserved by Jennifer Kehl)

Then, I changed one huge variable in my life, and I realized how much I was hurting myself by living that way. I began to read advice blogs with a central focus of being really, really kind to, and taking really good care of yourself. (Paging Doctor Nerdlove and Captain Awkward are my favorites.) And, their wisdom in tow, I began to come back to the world. It came in really small steps. I began writing again. I began spending time with friends and family. I spent time reading instead of watching full seasons of television shows. I started walking and hiking.

And eventually, I came here to Korea. I wanted to develop myself more than staying my small hometown would allow. Part of it was escape–the trappings of my old life were all around me back home–but mostly it was just that there was so much in the world, and I was experiencing only this minuscule piece of it. I had wanted to travel for years, and, finally, I had the opportunity.

Once in Korea, developing new habits was pretty easy–my entire life had been shaken up, so I could mold my new situation into whatever I wanted it to be. I started just DOING THINGS. Lots of things–learning guitar, writing, singing, dancing, spending weekend nights at bars with new friends. I felt like I had a pretty good hold on my depression as well. Sure, these things in addition to my 40 hour per week job and by 2 hour daily commute were taking a lot of time and wearing me out, but I was pretty good about sleeping and waking up and keeping at it.

Gradually, though, my schedule, the stress of being in a foreign country where EVERYTHING is just a little bit harder than it is where you came from, just a little bit harder than it should be, and the feeling that this place is not and will never be my home became very difficult to deal with. Finally, I had a moment of difficulty with my partner whom I live 5 hours away from, making things challenging at the best of times, and everything sort of broke. This break coincided with my vacation from teaching, and I can’t decide if that was a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, it gave me some time to deal with what was happening. On the other hand, it gave me the chance to fall into some really bad depression habits.

Hello old friend. ( Photo credit: Some rights reserved by kurafire: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kurafire/)

Hello old friend.
( Photo: Some rights reserved by kurafire: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kurafire/)

Now, I am climbing back out of that hole AND trying to fix some things I’ve been letting slide for weeks.

First three orders of business:

1) Exercise 15 minutes in the morning 3 times per week. (Which was quickly amended to a specific number of squats and lifts to my toes plus stretching, nearly all of which can be accomplished while I brush my teeth or shower.)

2) Eat breakfast 4 out of 5 weekdays.

3) Drink lemon water and consume a tsp of maca root powder every morning.

Why?

I’m working up to doing real exercise, which is something I’ve always needed to do more of. Even 10 minutes of cardio a day improves your mood and your overall health. I expect that when I get to where I’m doing actual cardiovascular exercise, I will have more energy throughout the day and sleep better at night (which is going on the list next).

Eating is good for you. Eating in the morning helps you throughout the day. ‘Nuff said. I’m pretty sure this is one of those things everyone knows and no one acts on.

The lemon water and maca powder are efforts to clear up my skin. I don’t wear much makeup, and I want to feel good about my face when I look in the mirror; sometimes that is hard with lots of giant zits. My “witch doctor” friend back home suggested both of these to me ages ago, but I never succeeded in making them habitual. It’s time to start. (Plus it’s really easy to combine with the breakfast thing.)

I have a list a mile long (okay a page front and back with tiny script) of things I would like to improve. But, I’m breaking them into small achievable steps. I want to feel that chemical reward, that dopamine rush to the brain, each time I meet one of my objectives. Like every time I beat a level in Super Mario as a kid and then thought “one more time!” and looked out the window to find it was dark outside and everyone had gone to bed.

I’m recording everything in a journal and reporting it via Facebook to my friend, The Stumpy Giraffe, back home who is also working on self improvement. Gradually, these things will become habits, and I won’t have to work so hard to maintain them. Then, I’ll add new things. I’ll have pages of front and back tiny script things that I am doing to take care of myself.

I will fail along the way, but when I do, I’ll just start over. Or adjust my objectives and try again. I’m going to be really kind to myself as I work to be really kind to myself.

I want to feel good. But mostly, I want to feel like feeling good isn’t so much work!

Someday, maybe it won’t be.

(Thinking, I too would like to form better habits/achieve goals? This article explains the approach I’m taking pretty effectively, and the blog it lives on has lots of good advice about forming positive habits: http://zenhabits.net/autopilot-achievement-how-to-turn-your-goals-into-habits/)

The Word of the Day Is: Vulnerability

UPDATE: I linked you below to the Barley Rhymes Facebook page because they’re YouTube site was unavailable, but it’s back! Watch Barley Rhymes Episode One here!

I started out my morning reading this post on my favorite blog, Paging Dr. NerdLove, and he hit on a topic that’s been on my mind quite a bit recently. NerdLove’s piece is skewed–necessarily given his audience–toward how being vulnerable is a boon to your dating life, but underlying the how to get better with women premise of the article is woven a complicated story about the myriad ways that vulnerability affects our relationships with others and with ourselves.

I’ve been thinking specifically about vulnerability and performance, because I have plans to do A LOT of performing, both in very public, on-stage kind of ways, and in more private, among my friends sorts of ways. A while back, I saw a TED talk by Amanda Palmer (one of my pop culture heroes) called, “The Art of Asking.” This talk focused on developing close personal relationships with your fans and allowing those connections to fund your art as opposed to the more traditionally corporate way of making money via art by signing with a label and so on. The talk intrigued me in a number of ways. I was employed by a non-profit at the time and was very interested in how its themes crossed over with and might be applied to asking the community to support my organization. But perhaps what hit me the most, and the reason that it comes to mind for me many months later, was Palmer’s emphasis on vulnerability and connection.

“The perfect tools aren’t going to help us,” Palmer claims, “if we can’t face each other and give and receive fearlessly.” I love that language, and that idea–connection with other human beings is giving fearlessly, receiving fearlessly.

Maybe I like it because I spent many years doing everything I could to be invulnerable. Because I spent many years afraid. I was prone to trying to show just how unflappable I was even as a kid, and then I spent a good long time dating a man who controlled me, in part by invalidating the pieces of myself that I exposed to him, so I conditioned myself to keep–well, myself–pretty well under wraps. Around that same time, though, although it terrified me in some ways, I found that I actually really enjoyed being on stage. I gave a talk at my college’s undergraduate symposium/benefit concert (about connecting with people actually…it’s been a long running theme in my life), and I sort of loved it.

And here is a picture of the invulnerable ocean. (Mostly because I totally failed to post any pictures before like I said I would...)

And here is a picture of the invulnerable ocean. (Mostly because I failed to post any of the other pictures I said I would.)

As I gradually started to rejoin the world, I found myself more and more interested in developing the part of myself that got such a thrill from putting myself out there, eventually on stage. I began dancing in public, singing karaoke, and reading poetry at my favorite bar. (Shout out to Barley Rhymes and their excellent new film series!) I talked to one Barley Rhymes audience member once who told me that she couldn’t do what I had done; she couldn’t make herself so vulnerable on stage. I knew where she was coming from, because I was scared every time I did it. As Dr. Nerdlove puts it, “Vulnerability is about willingly, even deliberately, opening yourself up to rejection, to judgement and humiliation.” Those are pretty valid things to be afraid of.

At the same time though, when you get up on a stage (or step onto a dance floor, or speak up about in a crowd, or sing aloud), you are saying to the world, I’m here, and I’m not ashamed of it. Some of the people watching or listening will judge you; some will reject you. You might say or do something humiliating. You might fail. Then, when you do that thing anyway–when you willingly expose deeply personal parts of yourself, all that potential failure and judging and possible bad stuff just sort of falls away. Maybe you do fine. Maybe you make a huge mistake (hell–I’ve seen countless videos of Amanda Palmer, ROCK STAR, stopping mid-show because she screwed something up, but then she just laughs it off, picks back up and keeps going). Either way, you let yourself be yourself in the world–you let people see you.

Not everyone needs a stage to do this, of course. There are plenty of intimate conversations that have the same effect. Even the fiction I’m currently writing, even this blog post, expose me to your judgement. But, I’m getting to the point where I’m interested in sort of the next level of human connection. The one where I stand in front of a crowd people and become open to their judgement. Maybe it’s an over correction after doing my best for so long not to have a presence. I want them to see me. I want them to feel like, in a way, they know me. And I want to know them.

Here, in this new place, I’ve picked up some hobbies, that I am planning to use to further my education in being vulnerable…and reap the benefits of the confidence and sense of self it gives me. I am learning to play the guitar. And while I’m doing in because it is just a really good way for me to spend my time (I’ll likely post another time about that…), I am also doing it with an eye toward performance. My goal is to be good enough to perform at an open mic night by the time my birthday rolls around in February. I think I can get there–I won’t know many songs, but all I really need is one!

I’m also singing with a group, which will improve my open mic performance, but also gives me a broader range of musical skills, especially when it comes to harmonizing and connecting with other musicians. I’m still getting used to sharing my voice with others. I had a sort of confidence crushing moment years ago that I’m really working to overcome, so using my voice at all is a huge level of vulnerability for me. Singing with this group is a good conditioning for getting me ready to sing on stage.

Additionally, I’m joining a group of newbie burlesque dancers. I’m looking forward to the kind of control and command of my body that dance will give me. I’m also looking forward to participating in a performance that allows me to communicate that I not only to I have a presence, but also a body and a sexuality, and I’m not ashamed of any of them.

I hope that in communicating those elements of myself, I am able to leave things open for a reciprocal exchange–that by saying hello people, this is me, I will open the door for others to authentically share themselves with the world as well.

Korea for me is turning out to be a place where (at least in my off-time) I am much less prone to letting life happen to me, and much more ready and willing to take charge of it. I am becoming an agent in my own experiences. I am choosing to be vulnerable. And I feel stronger and more capable than I ever have.