In my 5+ year effort to solve the problem of sustainable, independent learning I find myself in yet another rut. My path, starting as an English teacher in South Korea, took me through a masters of education degree in instructional design, a designer of a curriculum to sell cars in the Bay area, a private elementary school in the same area, and back as an English teacher, but this time in Japan. During every one of these milestones I began with a desire to solve a particular problem and ended with losing hope - temporarily. I have realized that this has been a repeating pattern throughout my life and by recounting it all here, I may be able to understand it better. Here is my story thus far (there is a deeply moving message about education somewhere here, but I will leave it up to you, the reader, to figure it out).
In South Korea I wanted to solve the problem of the education of my students being completely dependent on me as a teacher. Although I enjoyed the fun classes that allowed me to connect with the students, I didn't enjoy seeing my students' desire to learn being contingent on whether I was at the front of the class entertaining them with a lesson. The only difference, I thought, between my situation and any other classroom was that of emotion. Fun, excited, bored, frustrated - they all meant the same thing in a classroom because they all ended as soon as the class ended, and with them any form of independent learning. The reason for this seemed to be structural. Students (at least in South Korea) move from one task to the next on a list that is most likely crafted by their parents/authority figure. Where is the space for the students to fill in themselves? And even if they had one, would they even know what to do? Formal (structured) education seems more like a prescription made by an authority figure based on some hypothetical reality than an experience created by the participants based on their desired reality. It didn't make sense to me why the formal education of people was set up like this because at least with my experience, at the end of my formal education, when I had my degree in hand, I still needed an education on how to use the "education" I just received to make money. Today I have realized that this dilemma has trumped my formal education. And there is no authoritative prescription for this kind of education - it is up to me to figure it out.
Now make money has a salty tone to it due to the majority of people on this planet wishing they could make more of it so I will change it to be a participant of the society wherein I was born. After my formal education I still needed to educate myself on how to participate in a society where how money is distributed defines one's quality of life. Even this description of society is giving myself (at this period of time) too much credit. In 2009, myself freshly graduated with a Japanese BA in hand and the world at my heels, I still had no clue what kind of society I lived in. Be it no surprise to anyone that I did not learn much about society during my four years studying Japanese, one would think I would have gained such crucial knowledge of how to use my skills beyond undergrad from some outside source, be it a guidance/career counselor or even my loving parents. I must have been so emotionally unstable during those years that everyone (including my parents) was just scared shitless of talking with me about anything. They must have watched me do college and thought, "if It appears to be working It can't be broken, so why mess with It"; because I cannot recall a single experience where an authority figure tried to spell out to me what life might be like, and therefore what might be expected of me after I graduated (-side note- I wonder if such discussions did actually occur yet I cannot recall them due to a blindness caused by, as I will describe in the next paragraph, my intense desire to speak Japanese as a native level.)
Unknown to me at the time, it would not be for another 18 months following my graduation that I would even realize I was not aware of my need for an education concerning my societal responsibilities. For the following 18 months after my graduation, until about half way through 2010, I would be motivated (and possibly blinded) by an intense desire to speak Japanese at a native level. This desire, which is what pushed me to choose a Japanese major and study abroad there for half of my 4 year degree, was alive and strong upon my graduation and my entire world was filtered through one solitary question, What job will allow me to speak Japanese all day, every day? (Here we can see I was at least aware of the concept of jobs, its ties to money, and that I needed both to continue pursuing my passion to speak Japanese.) I tried, very hard, to find a job. I started with job fairs that would promise me positions in Japanese companies in Japan. The 2009 Boston Career Forum sounded good, so I bought a ticket, got in touch with estranged cousins for room and board, and pushed my skill of "speaking Japanese" down the throat of every company there - from facial products producers to small engine manufacturers. At this point, to anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge how capitalist society works, I probably looked like a buffoon trying to convince a company that makes body care products to place all their cards on me, someone who didn't know the difference between shampoo and conditioner. I didn't even offer a promise that my "Japanese skills" will make up for my complete ignorance of their product. I just walked up to their booth with a resume that basically read, "Me : Dope Japanese Speaker. You : Someone who will surely hire Me." Yet, somehow, a company saw something in me and asked that I come to Japan for further interviews. I booked a ticket with my sister and off we went to Tokyo. 2 weeks and 2000 dollars later (airfare was cheap then) what resulted was the most sibling-bond strengthening and speaking-Japanese-hope damaging experience of my life. Turns out after the first interview in Tokyo it was clear to everyone (but me) that I lacked the "skills" to get the job. It should have been clear to me just from the introductory tour of their company HQ they gave me upon my arrival. It was then when I finally understood what it was this company actually did! I had traveled half-way across the world, invested my entire life savings, and even abandoned my sister on a Japanese train, to interview for a company I didn't even know, or even bother to research before the interview - because of my blind hope of it ending with me being able to speak Japanese. (Right now, as I am writing this, I start to wonder where the line between ignorance and blinding passion begins.) Eventually I went home and received an email from the company informing me that they could not further my hiring process due to complications with obtaining a VISA, but not before they sent me a formal invitation to join the company. Obviously this confused the hell out of me, and also served as my first lesson in "How Japanese people say no by first saying yes". At least I was getting some kind of education out of this. This did not deter me, however, as I thought if I can't get paid to speak Japanese in Japan, at least I could in America, so I moved from my home in Sandy, Utah to New York City with empty pockets and big dreams - to speak Japanese.
First was failing at being a travel agent at a Japanese travel agency, then it was failing at a Japanese book store, and the icing on the cake was my failure at baking at a Japanese bakery. Yep, I couldn't even bake cookies right, but I could talk about it to you in Japanese until your eyes started to bleed. This triple-failure finally shook the Japanese stars from my eye and ushered in the beginning of my education on society. Apparently companies, whether they were Japanese or not, do not see "speaking Japanese" as a valuable skill in and of itself. They wanted to see this skill attached to another skill, one that is socially understood as a moneymaker. It took me hitting rock bottom of the cookie jar to realize this, and also to learn my first lesson about making money, I mean, being a participant of the society wherein I was born - I needed to figure out how to use my skills to provide something for this society that enough people saw of value to the point where I would see some money be distributed through me, not to me. (Those prepositions speak of a well of difference that I will address in a later article.) Seeing that the only skill of mine I knew about was speaking Japanese and that society had just communicated to me that this skill alone was not going to be enough (which, I think, is hilariously summed up with the last words I heard from my coworker before I was fired from the book store, "You don't even know when garbage day is?!?!?!"), needless to say *baby's voice* I got sad and lost *baby's voice*.
It turns out the cookie jar wherein I got sad and lost actually was not empty, but filled with the crumbs of a depression left by many other people who, like me, realized they had just spent the last 5+ years of their life following a passion or learning a skill - just living a particular form of life - only to find out that society thinks the skills they thought were worth it, are actually not. And I was the lucky one. I was only 15 grand in debt after this debacle. So I did what anyone would do. I followed the scent of those before me, a scent only someone with a "worthless" skill could leave, and came upon a place only someone with a "worthless" skill could inhabit - I found myself in South Korea teaching English.
(Click here for Part 2 - but only after I finish writing it)