▲ “Sometimes I envy my friends who don’t work and have a lot of free time, but to be honest, I like working. Even if I was very rich, I wouldn’t want to give up having a job.” Photo courtesy Elizabeth Holbrook
Mother of two, a wife of 16 years and a teacher for more than nine, Baek Seung Hae, power mom extraordinaire has led a life focused on keeping all her roles in perfect balance. “I think it’s very important to know how to manage time,” she says. While maintaining harmony in her life, Baek has also realized the importance of taking time out of her busy schedule to nurture her own spirit. “My life is very important just like my kids’ lives are important. As a working mother my time is limited, so during my spare moments I try to be free,” she says.
How long have you been teaching English? I’ve been teaching for more than nine years.
What do you enjoy most about teaching? After I started working at a hagwon, I regretted that I hadn’t started working as a teacher sooner. I didn’t realize how much I liked teaching children. I thought I was just interested in English, but I found out I was interested in kids too. I’ve never been stressed because of kids. Whenever I come inside the class I feel a very fresh spirit from them. Even though I may be angry outside of the class about something, inside the class I become happy because of the children.
What are some positive aspects of working at a hagwon versus a public school? I can teach anything. It’s like drawing a picture in a blank sketchbook. Nobody intervenes with what I will teach. I can choose anything, and I like that point. And I like having conversations with the kids.
What’s the negative side? I have to work so many hours and sometimes my body condition is not very good from too much talking. I can get sick. In a public school I could have more free time to study and prepare more for the kids, but at a hagwon there are more things I have to give up.
How do you think teaching in Korea is different from teaching in other countries? I think the Korean teaching style is not creative. We don’t learn how to think about some-thing deeply; we only focus on memorization. That’s a problem. Whenever I see foreigners they look very independent. Many of them when they were younger got a chance to work and save their own money. That would be impossible in Korea. If a teenager were to work, their parents would be scolded. People would say, “How could you make your kids work outside? Are you poor?”
How do you balance your role as both a mother and a teacher? To be honest, I feel that it’s really hard. There are always a lot of house chores waiting for me that I can’t avoid. My kids also need help from me because it’s important to check their academic progress as well as make time to talk together. But, I usually get home late at night so I don’t have time during the week. I think it’s very important to know how to manage time. There’s always a solution to the problem. For example, if I can’t spend time with my sons during the week, I do it on the weekends.
What are some of the things you do with your sons to stay connected? We go to Sarabong or another beautiful place where there are many flowers, trees, and fresh air. We walk and talk together or play some sport like badminton. Sometimes we’ll go see a movie at the cinema. After-wards we usually go to a restaurant and enjoy eating a nice meal together. During the weekdays I can’t help them with their academic stuff, so during the weekend I focus on teaching them. Sometimes I share a book review that I’ve written with my sons, so they can understand me a little better. I regret that I didn’t have more time to talk to my mother when I was growing up, so I want my sons to know about me. Time passes by quickly, so if I don’t talk about myself with my kids, we will lose the moment. I want them to get to know how I feel and what I think.
Do you ever take time out for yourself? My life is very important just like my kids’ lives are important. As a working mother my time is limited, so during my spare moments I try to be free. In Korea, all the mothers only talk about their kids and things related to studying. When they get together they start to ask about which hagwon is the best, or whose child got the highest score. I hate that. I don’t know why they always talk about their kids, when we could talk about what kind of books we’re reading, what kind of skills we’re learning, our hobbies and many other things. But Korean women are not accustomed to talking in this way.
What are some things you do for yourself? I like taking yoga class, going for a walk on Sarabong, growing plants, and reading books and writing book reviews.
Is Sarabong your favorite place in Jeju? Yes, I have a lot of memories of Sarabong. When I was a child, I would lead my friends to a hill and tell them to draw a picture of the sea and sky. As I got older, whenever I had a hard time in my life, I would go to Sarabong. One time when I was pregnant, I was feeling sad so I just laid down on the ground in the corner of the temple under a big tree. There was a cool breeze and I felt very peaceful. These days, I enjoy walking on Sarabong when I’m both happy and sad.
Have you always known how to take time out for yourself? No, to be honest I think a lot of Korean women are depressed because they are very busy with family, and there’s no way to be happy just for themselves. Without family, I think I’m useless, but if I think I’m sacrificing my time I get very sad and depressed. So I started going to the library and reading a lot of books about being a mother, and I began to think about the ways to make myself happy. I feel very happy these days even though my body may feel tired. I feel like my spirit is very peaceful. There’s no way I can live any happier. I’m satisfied with myself and my family now.
So, in order to be happy, you first had to change your mindset? How to think about something is very important, the way we think about our life and our-selves. When we think about our lives and compare our-selves to others it makes us sad, but we don’t have to think in that way. I like the Korean monk, Pup Jeong, who recently passed away. He said, “Live in one moment. Don’t think about the past. Don’t think about the future. The present is the most important thing. Enjoy the moment you live in.”
Do you feel like you’re living in the moment now? Yes. Right now my kids are all healthy and my husband is working very hard and he’s a very good man. I’m working hard too and I can enjoy anything if I choose, so that’s enough for me.
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