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Godzilla is 189 cm and lives in Seoul

December 22, 2009

Note: This blog is shamelessly stolen from Ehren Lichtenwalter’s excellent, but too rarely updated (hint) blog “I’m definitely in Asia.”

By Ehren Lichtenwalter

Seoul, Korea

At roughly 189cm, I am a tall one.  Here.  There.  Anywhere.  189cm–roughly 6′3–is sizable no matter where you are.  But in Korea 189cm means something completely different.  It is colossal, huge, borderline freakish.  On my first day of class I discovered, to my dismay, that my height was not an asset, but an obstacle, an irreversible consequence of Nature, unnerving to even the most confident student.  My challenge: I would have to convince my students that I was not Godzilla.

At precisely 6:29am I strode into the classroom, feigning confidence, books tucked under my right arm.

To be fair, everyone is timid on the first day of class; no one ever knows exactly what to expect.  This applies to both the teacher and the student.  But imagine walking into a classroom, trying your best to exude a blend of confidence and approachability, and hearing a collective gasp escape the open mouths of your students.  Terror is not something you want to foment on your first day of class, unless, of course, you are a second grade teacher.  But these students–my students–are adults and pay good money for English language instruction.  If you intimidate them, or if they feel uncomfortable with you as a teacher, they will switch classes, or will leave the institute altogether.  The teacher-student dynamic that takes place in the classroom is actually one of a language institutes best (or worst) forms of PR.  Put simply, a good teacher will both keep and attract students, while a poor teacher will drive them away.  Word spreads quickly, too.  So, ease and approachability have everything to do with the success of this equation.  In fact, ease and approachability were what I wanted to establish the moment I entered the classroom on that morning.  But, my size.  There was no way around it.

Knowing I had some ground to cover, I set my books down and greeted everyone in the warmest tone possible.  They were not convinced, and stared back at me–blankly.  I asked them how they were doing; they continued to stare.  I swear one girl’s mouth remained agape for the larger portion of my introduction.  I also discovered that jokes, while theoretically the best ice-breakers, are completely useless, unless your audience can understand them.  I was about as funny as Jeff Foxworthy, who, coincidentally, is never funny.  Not an ideal situation on my first day of class.

Stumped, I realized that, unless I wanted an empty classroom the following morning, I would have to adapt to the unfortunate situation.  Faster than you could say ‘Natural Selection’, I pulled up a chair and sat down.  It wasn’t until I did this that my students began to relax.  Now eye-to-eye with my students, I opened up the floor to questions.  All was quiet until one student slowly raised his hand and asked the inevitable: “How tall are you?”  My answer: 189cm.  Their collective response: a ‘gasp’ mixed with nervous laughter here and there.  The situation repeated itself in each of my six classes.

Physically lowering myself to their level seemed to have had a positive effect on how they perceived me, though; I was no longer threatening, something to be intimidated by.  Only then did I notice a change in the atmosphere, as hesitation and intimidation gave way to curiosity.

(You encounter this phenomenon of physically lowering oneself to eye level here, often in nicer restaurants, where the waitress will kneel on the ground, elbows propped on the table, to take an order.  Though bizarre at first, you feel less rushed than back in the States, where ‘Flo’ towers over you, shamelessly chews gum, taps her pen against her notepad, glancing around the room, annoyed, as if she wished she were somewhere–anywhere–else)

In this case, I scored big by physically lowering myself down to my students level.  I saved face.  Seated as I was, they seemed to trust me more and began asking questions that had nothing do with my unusual dimensions; but inquired about my origins, home, university degree, family, interests, and hobbies, among other things.  Needless to stay, I stayed in the chair for the rest of the hour.  And for the remainder of the day.

Sometime last week I had a student of mine–a middle aged woman–tell me that she selected my class because she heard I was, “very big, but gentle.”  When she told me this, I sighed–deeply–relieved that 189cm was not too big to love.


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