Sunday, December 20, 2009
Obviously we're not going to be getting any gigs with our dance and Korean-singing skills, but apparently someone was impressed:
Look who's front and center! Man. Now when things are bad at least I can say "I'm famous in Korea."
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Last weekend though I had a very special Korean experience that I thought I should share with all of you. Some other Taebaek teachers and I visited Seoul, where we hoped to exchange the bitter mountain cold for a slightly less face-biting chilliness. On Saturday I had the opportunity to go with a college friend to a national soccer game. FC Seoul vs. The Yellowz (srsly).
Now, I have not been to a ton of professional sporting events in my life but from what I remember, they did not usually involve EVERY SINGLE PERSON in the stadium wearing their team colors. Or waving giant flags with Conan the Barbarian on them. Or performing co-ordinated dances. OR FIREWORKS. The last part was truly startling because they fired them off from the bottom of the stands at the kick-off and scared the living crap out of me. I might have screamed, I'm not sure. The shock has clearly damaged my memory. Anyway, they then proceeded to do the same thing for every goal scored by FC Seoul, which thankfully for my life-expectancy (if not for FC Seoul fans) was only one.
While most American sports games like to rev up their audience with splashes of rock music, marching band snippets or ritualized chants Korean sports fans warm their motors with tunes like "If Your Happy and You Know It" and "When The Saints Come Marching In" rewritten with Korean lyrics. Such songs, which never really ended but only seemed to flow smoothly into other, equally cheerful numbers, were generally accompanied by rhythmic handclapping, jumping up and down (like 20,000 teenage girls at a Backstreet Boys concert) and tooting little hand-held horns.
The game itself wasn't really up to the level of the fandom, but there were some exciting moments. Unfortunately FC Seoul lost in a final shoot-out to the Yellowz, which reduced the stands to an echoing silence, aside from some unoteworthy signs of celebration from the tiny Yellowz cheering section.
All-in-all, an excellent experience. I will have to say though, as a final aside, that I don't think fried fish skin and rice cake in spicy broth will ever replace the special place foot-long hot dogs and cotton candy holds in my heart.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Language expression of "Excuse me" and "Whoops"
When we bump into a stranger, we usually pass by without any apology. Whereas Western people apologize habitually saing "Excuse me", and when they make a little mistake, they often say "Whoops(Oops!". It means "Dear me!" "Goodness". "Thank you" is the most popular expression in their lives. They appreciate even a little kindness and they say "No, thank you" and try not to offend other people when they reject someone's proposal.
There are many misused or incorrect vocabularies used in any foreign
language. Meanings have usually been distorted or changed in the way it is applied. Here are the examples of the phenomenon.
*rotary--> roundabout, traffic circle
*bargain sale--> bargain or sale
*vinyl bag--> plastic bag, carrier bag
*one piece--> dress
*two piece--> suit
*pama--> perm, permanent wave
*handphone-->cellular phone, mobile phone
...I think we've all learned something today.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
1. Koreans are terrible drivers. I've ridden with several and without exception they all veer into oncoming traffic lanes, speed, cluster up at intersections and are terrible parkers. It's terrifying.
2. Korean squat toilets are everywhere. My main school only has one western toilet stall in every bathroom and my secondary school is all squat toilets. I'm not a fan.
3. Irony doesn't exist in Korea. There is no such thing as kitsch. If something is cliche it is never ironically cliche. People are terribly and embarrassingly sincere. If you want a demonstration of this I recommend watching any Korean movie.
4. Chinese food in Korea is completely vile. Maybe it's that it's only been served to me by the school cafeteria, but invariably it's been black gunky paste over rice or noodles. It looks like something you would dare someone to eat.
5. I have a lower spice tolerance then most Korean kindergartners.
6. The chopsticks are metal.
7. Korean beer is awful, and it's the only beer available. Soju, the national liquor, is like rubbing alcohol. Rice wine and bamboo wine are pretty yummy though.
8. Cars only seem to come in two colors: black and white.
9. Highschool uniforms are adorable. I would steal both the girls' AND the boys' uniforms if given the chance.
10. Boys are shy until you get them drunk. Then they are way too friendly.
11. On a related note, Koreans use the English phrase "I love you" pretty indiscriminately.
12. Everything is accessorized. Your phone, your car, your computer, your accessories... there is nothing so big or serious that you can't hang a little bobbly from it.
13. Korean pastries and bread are pretty sub-par, as one might expect from a rice-based culture. Native deserts are much less sweet then Western deserts. On the other hand, mixed drinks are 90% sugar.
14. Everyone throws up a peace sign when you take a picture. Even my 60+ year-old principal.
15. The most lowly dive bar in Korea is ten times better then a dive bar in the US. And the nice bars are outstanding.
16. Everyone is extremely generous and nice. My fellow teachers will go out of their way to help me and my co-teacher gave me the morning off this past Monday because I was in a funk. She told me to go take a nap in the nurse's office.
17. Drinking is very central to the office life and culture.
I'm running out of steam here. There are other things I can mention but I think I'll save them for a brief observations, part deux. Have a good week, everyone.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
So, I went to my old friend Google, the modern-day oracle to which we all owe so much. And believe it or not, there are roughly a quibillion private organizations willing to take large chunks of your money to arrange for a passport on even shorter notice! I was extremely dubious at first (and still am, as my passport has not actually arrived yet) but as soon as I'd put my application in (accompanied, it need not be said, by a significant cash advance) I recieved a call from a very helpful-sounding guy from Washington just exploding with enthusiasm for getting my passport processed and delivered in less than a week. I've hit more than a few snags, what with losing my driver's license as well, but it's moving along quite nicely. The stack of information you need to get an expedited passport is pretty absurd, though- you need five alternate forms of identification which can include some pretty weird stuff:
1. A photocopy of a page in a high school yearbook depicting you
2. Any newspaper article or publicity about you
3. Your report card, as far back as ninth grade
4. Military medals. If only I hadn't misplaced that Legion of Honor...
In any case, this last weekend has been a crazy adventure as I struggle to get all these disparate forms of identification, while applying for a new driver's license. Oddly enough, the New Jersey DMV was fast, effective, friendly, and cheap. I had a new license in, like, half an hour. Who'd have thought?
In more pleasant news, I spent a bunch of time roaming around the cities of Jersey and Union, and took a bunch of pictures which are now on the blog photostream. Union City has this combination of often lovely old brick apartments and absolutely hideous plastic-sided tenements, along with a great number of old, repurposed factories. I've noticed that bizzarely, the older a building is in Union City the better it looks. Even the old Yardley Soap Factory down the road has a certain grandeur that new construction does not match. In Jersey City I saw a bunch of pretty amazing all-brick churches and cathedrals which are the closest I've seen to a local architectural style. I'll endeavour to truck on down to Journal Square with my camera and show some of them off.
Anyways, the information for my passport has all been sent off via FedEx. All that remains is the horrible waiting, to see if the passport arrives as rapidly as promied.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
The camp was from 9am to 1pm Saturday and Sunday and for it I had to make two lesson plans on a Halloween theme (I chose the theme... my school, my theme). For the first lesson I had the kids play "Mother May I" with the aforementioned thematic twists and on the second day I taught the kids Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance. Which, for those of you keeping score, meant I had to learn it too. There is a special pathos to learning the Thriller dance from a youtube video in your furnitureless living room while you feel like shit. Everyone should get to experience that at least once in their lives.
The part of teaching that makes it so hard, and so great, is the total focus you need in the classroom. Maybe for those teachers out there that have been in the field longer it's different, but when I'm teaching there's no room in my head for anything else. Keeping the attention of a roomful of kids, getting them to stop hitting each other, and trying to rustle up some enthusiasm for the English language requires all of my resources. One teacher I know said that he knew his students not individually but by their class's personality. Some classes are good, some are bad. That's just how it is.
I think I'd take that one step further. Teaching a class is kind of like being in a relationship. When they're happy you're happy, and when they're sad you're sad. I'm not going to dwell too extensively on the metaphorical connections between romantic relationships and a roomful of children but I think that connection really saved me this weekend. Making a bunch of 5th grade boys twirl like princesses and leading 3rd graders through the Thriller dance drained me but I felt better after. As stressful as it's been I feel grateful to have found work I can lose myself in.
Funny though, I still don't want to go to work tomorrow. I guess some things never change.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Korea does employ a large number of English teachers, particularly Seoul, and those teachers tend to be young for all sorts of reasons that are obvious and not worth enumerating here. Young people tend to enjoy partying and even more significantly, teachers in Korea have the disposable income to afford it. I certainly could not afford three nights of clubbing at multiple venues a night in New York--which in retrospect was probably for the best since the physical toll of that much fun... well. It was substantial.
Having that many foreigners around was a mixed bag though. On the one hand, it was nice to see some new faces but mostly it felt unsettling and wrong. As I walked around with fellow EPIK teacher and ex-New Yorker Sue we often would say things like, "This reminds me of the East Village" or "This is exactly like the Meat Packing District". If I had come straight to Seoul from the US it might have seemed exotic and alien but after four weeks in a small provincial city it was all too familiar. Perhaps it's some sort of bizarre reverse snobbery but I have trouble seeing how anyone could get a deep sense of Korean Culture or even the language in a city that's so infested with Foreign influences and accommodating to English speakers.
The other part of it I found unpleasant was that because of the sheer number of foreigners there's not the same sense of community. In Taebaek all the foreigners know each other and make an effort to be inclusive and friendly. Meeting someone on the street, I'll always stop to say hi or even divert my path for some company. Seoul, on the other hand, was a total meat market. I was only approached by boys and only for the one predictable purpose. As soon as the word "boyfriend" came out of my mouth they were gone. The only new acquaintances I made at all were other people staying at my hostel, which I'd totally recommend for anyone travelling on their own or even with friends to Seoul.
On the other hand, Seoul is a pretty exciting place. I bought way too many clothes, drank way too many drinks, and walked the soles off my shoes. I also visited some incredibly beautiful coffee shops and bars that would be remarkable in any city. One bar had the most fantastic (in the original sense of the word) interior design. We described it as Dr. Seuss meets underground cavern meets a Clockwork Orange Milk Bar (pictures to come).
There's so much to see and do in Seoul that I imagine It'll be any number of trips before I can say I've "been there, done that".
I think though, on the whole, that I made the right choice in coming to Taebaek. It's been difficult and at times lonely but I've had more exposure to the language and the people then I think is possible in Seoul. It wasn't totally intentional on my part, but sometimes things just work out the best way.
Pictures to come soon. Thanks for reading.
Monday, September 28, 2009
How Gay is Korea?
Now, before I get into my personal experiences here I should mention one pertinent fact which is that there are no gay people in Korea. A popular sampling of Korean opinions by my peers has determined that generally speaking gay is bad, and that Koreans will have nothing to do with it.
Now, this may say more about social pressure, ignorance, and the great river of De Nile that passes through the center of Korea (silly you, thinking it was in Egypt) but that's an essay for another time. For now let's just roll with it and agree: there are no gay people in Korea. Their statistical 10% was shuffled off on some other country, probably Japan. Koreans hate Japan.
Now while the people of Korea are emphatically ungay is the technical sense I will argue that as a country Korea is super gay. I will present my evidence in three arguments:
I. Korean Homosocialiam
a. Koreans tend to socialize with those of their own sex. While this is not totally unexpected in a grade-school it seems to extend even to their adult lives. Office functions I've attended have obviously been of mixed gender but any other social occasions I've been invited to have been all-female. Even among the staff groups tend to split between male and female with the women having their coffee circle before morning classes and men (presumably) doing the same elsewhere. Close mixed gender friendships between unmarried men and women seem uncommon. In fact, single younger men are so incredibly shy in my presence that I'm amazed that the people in this country have managed to procreate at all. It might just be my aura of foreignness though.
b. Koreans are super, super affectionate towards same-sex friends. Both women and men will hold hands with their friends and hang off each other and (according to one teacher friend at an all-girls middle school) kiss each other on the mouth. I have also heard tales of boys sitting on other boys laps and other behavior that would be questionable in the states. Obviously this can be more uncomfortable for western males to experience then western females, and I've heard some pretty hilarious stories about one male teacher's vice-principal nearly making it to third base with some vigorous drunken thigh-rubbing.
II. Everything is Cute
a. From cities to roadsigns everything is Korean is covered in cute cartoons. Even banks have adorable round-limbed mascots speaking to you in pink bubbly word balloons. Even the firehouse, that final bastidion of traditional masculinity, has a cute widdle animal on its sign. God forbid I have to ever visit the ER because if I have to be operated on by a surgeon in a mickey-mouse facemask I might just lose my faith in modern medicine.
b. There is no Korean equivalent to Marlon Brando. Men here tend to be attractive on the scale of boy-bands and metrosexual movie stars. All varieties of pink feature prominently in menswear, including fuchsia, and every single man in my school over 25 dies his hair.
a. Case in point:
The "Haengbok/Happiness" Music Video from the band Super Junior (SRSLY).
I think one of the things that makes Korea such a gay country is its nominal lack of gay people. In America people can be so paranoid about appearing gay ("not that there's anything wrong with that") that they'll refrain from showing any sort of physical affection with members of the same sex and try to display their straightness by racing to the extremes of masculine and feminine behavior. It's unfortunate that in Korea such a loose and all-encompassing definition of masculinity can only seem to come at the price of severe homophobia.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
I've ranted at some length as to how awesome this apartment is. My expectations have been exceeded yet again, however, as I've learned that my neighbor is a director in a New York theater company! I was out back watering the plants when this gentleman literally physically grabbed me and dragged me into his apartment to meet his cast, who were in the middle of a highly spirited party. Long story short, there was intense carousing, beer pong, flip-cup, adorable puppies, and I got free tickets to the show. It seems like the NYC culture I've been neglecting to this point is practically falling into my lap. And would you believe it, one of the actresses went to my high school! Considering Gill St. Bernards (as hoity-toity as it sounds) had a graduating class of about 40 people, this was rather unlikely- but it's a small world, and I keep running in to people I knew back in the day. It seems Hoboken/Union City is really the upcoming place. If I had a half million dollars, I'd buy property here. This neighborhood is going to gentrify so fast it'll make your head spin. I'll bet the first Starbucks will open within a year. This place is due for a visit from the leprechaun of gentrification.
So, in short- I got a job, I got free tickets, and I made some friends. Good news!
Also, plans are in the works for a visit to Korea, bankrolled at least in part through birthday cash. OMG.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Monday, September 21, 2009
While I feel on top of the class preparation, lesson planning and (mostly) teaching my body hasn't quite caught up with my mind. I'm always exhausted by the end of the day, whether it went smoothly or no. Today fortunately was a smooth day in the classroom but a hectic one without. My co-teacher and I spent a good hour and a half trying to turn a 6th grader's Korean essay into English for an English speech contest. Honestly, I'm not sure what purpose the contest serves since apparently all the speeches are re-drafted and altered by the teachers and the students only serve as little robots who regurgitate memorized phrases they couldn't possibly understand. It's a little sad microcosm of the larger problems in an education system which emphasizes rote learning over teaching independent analytical thought. Unfortunately for these children the entire system of lower education terminates in an SAT-like test which determines whether the student can go to college and if so, where. This has created an educational system built on the Kaplan plan: teach the test, not the subject.
Anyway, my apologies for that little aside. Besides sleeping and watching television I did make time this weekend to attend two dinners. Saturday was a welcoming dinner for our newest EPIK teacher and Sunday another EPIK cohort hosted a little get-together in her apartment with some home-cooked western-style delectables. It was all deeply appreciated by myself. I also consumed the first palatable wine I've had in Korea, which in this case had come to Korea via Australia. I don't think you'll be seeing Korean sections opening up in your local wine shops back home anytime soon.
Next time I'll try to provide you with more hilarious anecdotes but for now just enjoy the catchy tones of Lee Seung Hwan's "Superhero", my current favorite K-Pop Hit:
At the very least skip to the end for a fun 80's Exercise Video inspired dance routine. I think this video could also make for an excellent drinking game. The only rule: Take a shot every time a major copyright is violated. Enjoy!
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
A couple weeks ago the school offered to re-wallpaper my apartment and since the place was a little, well, dreary, I gratefully accepted. At 2pm I got an early ride home to check the job and make sure nothing had gone horribly awry. Instead of walking into my freshly finished apartment, however, I walked into a storm of shredded paper, muddy tracks all over the floor I had spent hours scrubbing last weekend, and a haze of cigarette smoke. Only two rooms were finished but through hand-gestures I was able to establish that they would call me when they were done and that there was to be NO MORE SMOKING in my apartment. Apparently this is something that needs to be stated in Korea.
I took my camera and walked into town to visit the bank and exchange the last of my american money. Happily, Kat and I discovered last week that one of the local cheap eatery employees speaks very good English so I was able to stop in there to ask for directions. Coming out of the bank flush and happy I wandered into a store selling (almost exclusively) cell phone accessories and bought a little kitty-cat to hang from my cell. It was only 1,000 won and honestly I felt like I deserved it. After that I just wandered for a bit and ran into some children who dogged me for several blocks until I stopped and talked to them. In many ways I prefer the way children react to foreigners then adults. Their blatant curiosity is much friendlier then adults' sidelong glances. On the other hand when I visited the traditional market yesterday with one of my school's teachers and her friends I had a less then warm and fuzzy feeling when one of the old men stroked my hair. Maybe pretended indifference really is preferable.
When I got back the apartment was finished but dirty dirty dirty. The floors were still coated and my coffee table had globs of some sort of congealed food sauce on it. They'd also used half of my instant coffee packets and mugs. One of the lights in the kitchen no longer works and I had to look all over the place for the bulbs to another which they had neglected to replace. I didn't cry but I might have let out a few screams of frustration, especially when I had to move the couch from the living room back into the office by myself since they'd neglected to do so. I think it could have been a real "I hate this country" moment but I tried to keep perspective. These were people I did not work with and would never see again and for a couple hours of intensive cleaning I had a much nicer -looking apartment at no extra cost to myself.
The most bizarre detail of the day was that when the workers moved the fridge to paper the kitchen I got to see this:
Another present from the previous tenant along with the previous layers of dust and a full pot of spagetti on my stove (did I neglect to mention that?). I'm glad I discovered it, though. As rotten as it was to have to scrub the entire apartment down again, at least I wasn't experiencing personal pain on the level of a nuclear detonation.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
I've posted pictures of my apartment. For those of you interested, please head over to flicker for the full set.
I've delayed posting pictures up until now because of the deplorable condition of the apartment when I arrived. I finally feel, after some very intense cleaning, that it is now suitable for viewing. Parents, please try not to be too appalled, fellow Native Teachers, do try to control your raging jealousy.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Week numbero dos finds me less stressed but no less tired. Around Wednesday I was able to surmount the near-constant cloud of panic I had been operating under and get far enough ahead of myself in planning my classes that I could breath properly. For the first time since I arrived in Korea I felt adequate to my job.
I also had my first class with the third graders, which was truly fun. After a scintellating introduction and explanation of my many fascinating attributes ("I am 24. I am from America. My favorite color is purple.") we played a version of musical chairs where 16 students sat in a circle of 15 chairs. When I would say an attribute like, "Students who are wearing... blue!" all the students who fit the profile would have to change chairs. The student left standing performed a penalty.
For the longest time I was unable to figure out what the penalty was; the students seemed to be wiggling a lot. Eventually it dawned on me that the students were actually spelling out letters of the alphabet in the air... with their butts.
Now, I don't know how this would fly in the USA (probably not) but in Korea it makes for some real amusement on the part of both the adults and children present. After awhile the 3rd grade teacher and I played with the kids too and performed penalties, which the kids really enjoyed, to put it mildly. The class ended with me getting hugs from every one of the kids. I was really great and I can safely assure you that absolutely no English was learned during during the course of that lesson.
After work Wednesday I met with some other EPIK teachers at Certo Cafe where we drank caffeinated drinks with whipped cream, played crazy 8s, and talked teaching. Stories were exchanged, including the title of this post, which was asked to a middle school teacher by a student. The teacher, cool under fire, replied, "No, it's a lifestyle."
Tonight I've been invited to dinner and tomorrow I'm hiking Taebaek-san, which my guidebook says is one of the 6 holiest mountains in Korea... whatever that means.
I'll leave you with some interesting "Cultural Notes" from the English teaching guide to my 6th grade textbook. I assume they're directed torwards the Korean English teachers, since the language is too complex for students and I would like to think I do not need to be instructed on my own culture.
Anyway... all typos and mispellings below are from the original:
Individualism of the Americans
The Americans value individualism. Equality, justice and democracy are another value system in American society.
Fundamentally, every human being has the same right and they believe that they have a freedom, human rights by nature.
They want to protect themselves by not being bothered by any other people.
Thus they have been trained in a way to decide what they want and what they have to do to get it by themselves in their young period. Accordingly, they use I, me, my, and mine, but we don't hear "We Americans", or "We British" in their language.
The American School System
American students have milk, grapes, oranges, fruit sherbet, cerealm etc as their breakfast in the school. They bring their lunch or school provides various lunch menus such as sausages, hot dogs, spaghetti, tacos, fruit ice cream, sandwiches, steak, pizza, etc.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
On top of that, I have a completely unblocked view of the Manhattan skyline from my bedroom window- and from the balcony off the kitchen. In fact, every room in the house has such a view! There is even a fat, adorable muskrat who I can see rooting around in the backyard looking pleased with himself, whom I can bear no ill will. Additionally, today I briefly played with a puppy! It's like karmic backlash for this morning's stress.
One of the bonuses I advertised to my roomates as a good reason to take me on was my technical proficiency, such as it is. Today, I got a chance to prove my bona fides, when I figured out why their wireless router doesn't work. The reason? It's not, in fact, a wireless router. That's why their signal was so bad.
Finally, I got to go for a run through Hoboken, which was an absolute pleasure. I will continue to champion "The Paris of New Jersey" as a title for that city, until such time as it enters the public consciousness.
Monday, September 7, 2009
I've been in Taebaek over a week now and I still haven't caught my breath. This past Saturday Jaye (another EPIK teacher) and I went food shopping (still a taxing and treacherous experience) and then a couple hours later Dave and Lindsay came by to peruse the books left in my apartment by the previous tenant. D&L have been here in Taebaek for over a year and are a great resource for all sorts of advice as well as numerous anecdotes.
After choosing some volumes we walked over to the restaurant and met up with nearly every other foreigner in Taebaek. As it turns out the majority of non-Koreans here (I think the grand total is about 18) are EPIK teachers with two outlying private-school teachers. Due to the sheer volume of the party I wasn't able to make everyone's acquaintance but I did get to eat yet another lavish meal of bulgogi. Afterwards half the party went to the Nori-Bang and some others (including myself) went to Certo Cafe (pronounces cher-toh, as the Italians do) for some REAL coffee and cheesecake. It was expensive and deeply appreciated. Eventually it was just four ladies hanging out and we chatted and played Crazy 8's which was really enjoyable (re: I won a lot). Honestly, there's only so much drinking one can really stand in any given 3-week period and some cake and card games went over well with me.
The next morning I got up nice and early (woo) to meet Dave and Lindsay at the bus station for a hike in the Mureung Valley, outside of Donhae city. Unfortunately Lindsay fell ill during the long and unbearably windy bus-trip (she had been in the drinking/Nori-bang group the night before) and had to skip out on the hiking but I went with Dave and his friend Pat and we saw some amazing nature. If you wish to view pictures and such I will refer you to my Flickr page here.
A few comments about Korean hikers: They do not dress like anyone would sensibly be expected to dress for a hike. Either they're wearing full-on month-long backpacking ensembles (floppy-brimmed fisherman hats, sweat-wicking high-tech outdoor clothing, immense highly engineered backpacks bristly with caribeeners, telescoping titanium walking-sticks and imposingly sized cameras) or they're wearing mini-skirts with high-heels (for the ladies) or dress slacks with crisp, freshly ironed polo shirts (for the fellas).
Americans wear clothes. Koreans, I've discovered, wear outfits.
In any case I think we were at least as much of an attraction for the Korean hikers as the waterfalls. Dave clued me in the words Koreans will most often use to refer to foreigners: "way-gook", which means "foreigner" and "mee-gook", which means "American." Once you start listening it's pretty easy to hear how often they're talking about you, which is all the time.
After the hike, which involved a viciously long, irregular and rickety set of iron steps (apparently also a common attribute on Korean hiking trails) we met Lindsay and some more of Dave's friends in a restaurant and the trail head. For our party of seven we gave the proprietress 100,000 won (something less then $100) and the instructions to bring us the best of whatever that might buy. The result was about half the forest served hot and steaming on our table covered in a thick film of spicy pepper sauce. Quite literally the vegetable side dishes were leaves, roots, and less identifiable items gathered from the forest floor and spiced to within an inch of their photosynthesizing lives. Some of it was pretty delicious and there was at least one vegetable so disgusting I had to spit it out into a napkin.
The whole meal was served, of course, with the local beverage which in this case was a milky kind of fermented rice wine. It wasn't really to my taste but since it was all I had to cut down the slow fire in my mouth (remember readers: pepper sauce) I ended up drinking enough of it to get incredibly sleepy. The trip back was slow and winding but I managed to be in bed by midnight like the responsible role model that I am attempting to portray.
Hopefully more to follow as the week progresses, but now it's tea and book time.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Yesterday was probably my worst day so far. I had spent hours preparing for my first lesson plan taught out of the textbook (which I will be using for grades 3-6 all year) and it was abysmal. The students were confused and bored and I was nervous and rushed the lesson. The game I had spent an hour laminating cards for was a complete waste of time and I think both myself and the students left the classroom a little deader inside. After that my school computer broke down and I was unable to prep for my next lesson and spent far, far too much time trying to troubleshoot a computer whose native language was set to Korean.
At about 4:55pm I was invited to another staff dinner because the school nurse was quitting. I just wanted to go home but in the interests of future good relations I accepted. It was a very large group and there was almost no english spoken to me until later when some of the teachers had loosened up a little (the ability to speak english and drunkeness appear to be correlated). At one point there were some speeches and my handler Yani started crying. Sympathizing with her sadness that her friend was leaving and thinking about all the people I had left behind almost got me going too. When I finally got home and I had missed a call from my mom due to a time-difference confusion it was just too much.
Today, however, seems to have been a success. Having finally acquired wrapping paper I was able to give Yani and my principal the gifts I brought (they seemed surprised but gratified) and my 6th grade lesson which I had only spent maybe 15 minutes prepping due to computer problems was a total success. I started off the lesson with a review of the last chapter they'd studied (as the textbook guide recommended). The subject was jobs so I made a powerpoint slideshow of pictures of jobs, only instead of people they were all pictures of dressed up cats and dogs (the internet provides). Then I did a powerpoint slide of some of the topics we were going to be talking about for the current chapter (summer vacation activities). For things like biking and baseball I found funny/extreme photos which got them laughing. The rest of the lesson was exactly by the book but they were pretty involved. I had to make one boy who kept shouting go stand in the corner but that was it. Even the 6th grade teacher seemed surprised.
The cherry on my sundae was being informed by my co-teacher that the mixed 5th/6th grade after-school class would only be meeting twice a week instead of four times.
My joy knows no limits.
Today I will prepare for next week and tonight I look forward to a long quiet evening and maybe a walk by the river. I'll be sure to bring my camera.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Monday, August 31, 2009
I don't have a classroom but I have a desk in the teacher's lounge. Unfortunately the previous tenant left a lot of trash and papers stuffed into its nooks and crannies so I had a lot to keep me occupied until my first class. Now, at orientation we were lead to believe we would be teaching grades 3-6 but once I arrived it turned out I would also be teaching grades 1, 2 and kindergarten. My first class was with the 1st graders who are totally adorable. My co-teacher/handler teaches first grade so after my stumbling introduction she took the reins and suggested activities for me to do with the students. One of the games I volunteered that went over well was a game of hangman with my name. 1st year students can't write very well in English so spelling "Sophie" took lots of guesses. Instead of drawing a stick figure I drew a robot and they seemed to like that. They even make some what I think were deliberately wrong guesses so I would draw more robot. Generally speaking though the English level of 1st graders is very very low so I think it's going to be a bit of a struggle.
My second class was a couple hours later so I spent that time cleaning my desk and looking through the teaching materials. Unfortunately much of the English textbooks are in Korean so I had to do some translating to find out what was what. I also made a list of some materials I'll need to buy for the classroom.
The next class was fifth grade. This was more of a struggle. The fifth-grade teacher spoke virtually no English and apparently expected me to lead the class for the entire period although my co-teacher had told me I would only need to prepare a short introduction. This left me flailing awkwardly and making up activities on the fly, some of which were more successful then others. One failure was when I tried to play a simon-says type game with the students where I said a body part and they have to touch that body part to their desk-partner's body part. Ie: elbow to elbow and knee to knee (and for those of you who thought otherwise, shame on you). Turns out if a boy and a girl are desk mates then under NO CIRCUMSTANCES will they consent to touch each other. The game was a total failure.
Since the fifth graders had minimally better English I had them ask me questions. The first question was "How old are you?", a very important question in Korea since here age and status are very strongly correlated. I had them guess my age and of course one joker volunteered "30" and another "14". I put all the guesses on the board and then went through them one-by-one erasing the wrong answers until we arrived at 24. For those readers who are also EPIK teachers please note this was a pretty successful game. After that one student asked me if I had a boyfriend and another had a question about my hair my co-teacher was unable to translate.
(It turns out my hair was a central topic of conversation for the day. Later I took lunch with the fifth grade teacher and some other co-workers and the sixth grade teacher ((whose English is a little better)) explained that the question was about what I call the color of my hair. When I told them my hair is red they refused to accept that as an answer. They would accept the terms "strawberry blond" and "gold" but very emphatically NOT red. There was also some referencing of Anne of Green Gables which apparently is a figure all Korean people seem to know because someone completely different mentioned it that night at dinner when ((again)) the topic of my hair came up. I had a couple students try to touch my hair too. I think it's very bizarre to them.)
After that experience I went back to my desk and wrote up a more extensive lesson plan for tomorrow's classes. My class load is very light this week because I won't begin teaching after-school classes until next week. My full schedule is to be 18 classes a week. Eight 40-minute periods (one per week with grades 1-4 and two per week with grades five and six), eight 40-minute after-school classes (more on that once I begin teaching them), one 20-minute "playtime" with the kindergarten class and one "free period" class whose contents I'm still pretty unclear about. Since that's still four classes short of the 22 per week I'm getting paid for I can see there's no chance of my being paid for overtime classes. While this is bad for my savings I at least think it will give me lots of time to work on my Korean and on DCIGTH.
At about 4pm I was invited by my co-teacher to dinner. Of course I accepted and good thing too because it was a dinner with half the faculty in my honor. I had been warned previously that Koreans don't give much notice when they plan outings or dinners but I was still surprised. We went to a pretty nice restaurant, all expenses paid, where we ate Bulgogi (grilled beef). My last dinner was also bulgogi and at this point I'm wondering if they're choosing it because they know all Americans like bulgogi (which is totally true, it's delicious). There was less drinking this time (thank goodness) and I got to speak with some of the other teachers and a lot with the principal whose English seems even better then last time. I think it may be, however, that I'm adjusting to the Korean accent and have slowed down my speaking speed by about half. Part of communicating in English to non-native speakers is about choosing words and vocabulary they can reasonably be expected to know and avoiding overly complicated grammar and idioms. Realizing this made this dinner's conversation flow a little more smoothly, I think.
The most popular topic of conversation (with me anyway, there was plenty of conversation in Korean I was not a party to) was Korean vs. American everything. Customs, food, language, &c. I told the principal I could read hangul and he made me read some signs and was, I think, impressed. He was also very complimentary of the four Korean phrases I know. Honestly, I couldn't feel that flattered because I think it spoke more of the low expectations Koreans have of Americans and other English speakers then of my own abilities. How many European countries would be overjoyed to learn that someone who has immigrated to their country can speak just a handful of phrases? Or think of many Americans' attitudes that immigrants to America should "speak English or get out". I guess I'm luckier to be in the situation I'm in now, but in a way it seems like a sad one for Korea.
Anyway it's almost 9pm my time which is when Terry and I have arranged to have our first international Skype call! I can't wait. I've been exchanging e-mails with him every day and with my family and friends fairly often but his will be the first familiar voice I've heard in almost two weeks. It'll be a comfort.
Friday, August 28, 2009
My first of many surprises occurred when, after dragging my luggage several football-field lengths, sweating copiously the entire way, I gave my name and was immediately introduced to my co-teacher. (My co-teacher, for those of you not also teaching or otherwise familiar, is the number one most important relationship of my time here. She's basically my liaison to the school and EPIK and responsible for helping me acclimate to my life here.) I guess the people at the EPIK office wanted someone who spoke both English and Korean on the bus and I was the lucky teacher whose co-teacher (or "handler", as one lecturer referred to them) got picked.
Youni (this is her "English name", Korean names are notoriously difficult for Westerners to remember and pronounce) is in her mid-30s and has been teaching for 12 years. Her English, I'm happy to say, is good. I would also say she seems exceedingly nice but I feel like the same is true of basically every Korean person I have interacted with here. Anyway on the bus ride I gleaned that my elementary school is very small, with only one class for each of the six grades plus a kindergarten class that I will apparently be "playing with" (her word choice) 20 minutes a week. What this breaks down to, so far as I understand it, is that since I only teach each class once a week, I'll be teaching far less then my contracted 22 hours (which I'll be paid for anyway). I am also given to understand that I'll be teaching a number of after-school classes, which are classes taught between 3:30 and 5pm whose curriculum I get to entirely design and execute. They're like English-oriented electives. I'm pretty jazzed about that.
ANYWAY, fast forward 6 hours of scenic mountain views and we're at the Taebaek EPIK headquarters. I was expecting more ceremony but within five minutes of disembarking the bus everyone had been snatched up by their co-teachers, hustled into waiting cars, and driven off. From the EPIK office we went by my new apartment (since this post is already looking to be incredibly long I'm going to save THAT topic for later) and picked up Andrew, the previous tenant whose post I'm filling. Then from there (more driving) we went to dinner with myself, Youni, Andrew, two of my other soon-to-be Korean co-workers, the school Principal and his wife. Needless to say, my earlier feelings of embarrassment about being disheveled and sweaty were not alleviated by this development. However, the dinner seemed to go off very well and I think I only violated about five ancient Korean customs and traditions. I think they mostly found it quite amusing.
Dinner was bulgogi (grilled meat cooked right on your table) and the usual assortment of 20+ side dishes. The custom here is to forgo plates and instead wrap the meat in lettuce. I also has some wasabi squid (ok) and quail eggs (yum) plus large quantities of soju. I'll save tedious explanations of drinking customs for another post but courtesy makes it difficult to drink lightly. My principal, a very jovial older man with some English seemed to enjoy explaining the customs and food and was impressed by my ability to use chopsticks. He also kept mentioning that he should be abstaining from drinking because he drank heavily last night and woke up with a vicious hangover this morning (I'm paraphrasing here). All of the above said while putting away significant quantities of soju.
There was also apparently a second course of rice that could be had but by that point I was already very full and slightly drunk. We bade goodbye to the Principal and his wife and then myself, Youni, Andrew and the two other teachers went to a bar. More beer and soju later (when I asked Andrew what people do here for entertainment his answer was, "drink") we were joined by some of Andrew's ex-pat friends who I'll be inheriting, two very nice late-20s couples. Since conversation was a little difficult for the whole group we played drinking games. My favorite was one called "titanic" where you float a shot-glass in a mug of beer and then go around the table pouring tiny quantities of soju into the shot glass. The person who finally sinks the shot-glass has to pound it. There was a lot of cheering and shouting.
(Also worth mentioning is that during the above several orders of food were brought to the table and consumed. To keep up with all the excessive boozing Koreans constantly graze and Andrew said it's not common for Korean people to go to a bar and just order drinks without some sort of food item.)
You may think that that would be enough excitement for one day but OH NO. After the bar I was escorted by the ex-pats to a Nori-bang (Korean karaoke) where we sang for what felt like a couple hours. Unlike back home karaoke here is done in private rooms and this particular one was equipped with tambourines, bongos, and laser-lights (to set the mood, I guess). Since Andrew leaves tomorrow it was basically his goodbye party and everyone sang and there was some dancing. Then I fell asleep and was kindly escorted back to my hotel (Andrew moves out this morning so I was here for the one night).
It was a really exciting, scary full and intense day and as long as this post is there was a lot I had to gloss over. I haven't even described the town or the individual characters of the expats and co-workers I met. Hopefully there will be time for that soon. At the moment I'm in my hotel room killing a couple hours until Youni picks me up to move me into the apartment and (I think and hope) take me shopping for household items and food. I am going to spend that time in bed finishing reading my book.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
PS: I may not have internet at my apartment when I first arrive so parents and Terry DO NOT PANIC if you don't hear from me right away.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Sunday our entire massive EPIK mob went to Jeonju Historical Village, photos of which can be viewed in our photostream. JHV actually seems to consist of two villages, the really really old Buddhist temples filled with giant Buddha statues and chanting monks and the also fairly old but more active town where the people who sell stuff in the shops catering to tourists coming to JHV live.
The temples were pretty impressive. There were several set up around a big square and each had its own attendant monk in orange banging on a small drum and chanting. The chanting was actually very melodious and if I had not had a large crowd of other blue-shirted teachers-to-be at my back pressing to see inside I would have liked to stay and listen for awhile. Leading into the village were a series of gateways all with special significance explained exhaustively (in Korean, of course) by plaques. They were filled with large wooden statues of what I think are either gods or demons but feel free to decide for yourself.
There was also a HUGE Buddha statue that was, at the very least, 20 feet tall. It was hard to get a picture that truly conveyed it's size but if you look carefully at this photo you can kind of see the statue behind the pillar in the upper left-hand corner and compare it to the monk in the lower right. I'm not sure how old the statue is but according to a sign outside (in English for once) the temple built to house it was erected in 766 (a.d. or b.c. not specified).
Following the temple there was much meandering about the village and some Bibimbap consumption (a specialty of the city). Bibimbap is a concoction of various vegetables, token shreds of meat, rice, and copious quantities of chili pepper sauce. The whole mess is served pretty arranged in a bowl and then is mixed together by the consumer. It was really, really spicy. Really. I thought I liked spicy food but Korea has shown me that I am yet but a novice.
Two days of lectures later I went out for a night on the town with some fellow EPIKers. Koreans really like their neon. I mean, really. Bright lights everywhere. We went to a place called Boobi Boobi (oh yes) where we squeezed into a little booth and had some flavored soju. Afterwards we went to a almost deserted club (it was a Tuesday night) and I got to dance with a very brave Korean boy (brave because all his friends were too busy cowering in the corner to dance with us americans). I have been told (/threatened) there will be pictures of this on facebook.
I'm running out of steam (and time) so I'm going to wrap this up. I'll try to post a little more regularly since, as I see now, this is just way too much for one post. Also, family and friends, please leave comments! I miss you guys.
Edit: I just opened up the comments to all posters, so sorry for those of who who may have tried to comment and couldn't. It should work now!
In any case, despite diverse trials and tribulations mostly involving cruel and unusual quantities of waiting, I have made it back the East Coast. This is largely due to the kindness of certain people who have provided succor to this vagabond- you know who you are! I will take this opportunity to re-iterate my thanks.
Now for the hard part- acquiring employment until the U.S. Navy decides to ship me off to parts unknown (Illinois).
My grandmother collapsed, apparently from heat-stroke, yesterday. As such my immediate plans have been set aside and I'm entraining for Bernardsville to see her. This was not the news I was hoping to find waiting for me back on the East Coast.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Today was a series of lectures on teaching given by an assortment of Koreans and "Native Speakers" (which is what they call EPIK teachers here). I don't think the details are worth going into here but my personal highlight is when one of the Korean speakers mentioned the popularity of the American show "Miserable Housewives"... meaning of course "Desperate Housewives."
Last night I went out with some fellow "Native Speakers" for beer and soju. We got several immense pitchers of Hite, one of the native brews. It was kind of like Budweiser, as far as I can tell. Pretty bland. Soju, a kind of rice vodka that's the #1 drink here, tastes like watered down bad vodka. Honestly at the present moment I'm having trouble understanding how a nation of enthusiastic drinkers has made due for so long with something so incredibly off-putting. Well... maybe it's a developed taste.
The more I learn about my impending life in the classroom the more terrified I become. Looking back on the many hours I spent vacillating between wanting to move to Korea and remaining in the States I'm appalled at how little time I spent actually thinking about teaching. It's going to be a real sink-or-swim situation.
I have a bit of a break before I'm meeting a new acquaintance downstairs for dinner so I think I'm going to spend some time reading and generally decompressing. I feel some pressure to spend all my time networking and socializing but one of the suggestions we were given on "culture shock" was to spoil ourselves a little and for me that means time alone with a book.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
I'm not going to bore you, dear readers, with a blow-by-blow account of orientation activities (including highlights like Filling Out Korean Bank Account Forms! And Cell Phone Plan Selection!) but the highlight so far was the traditional Korean drumming demonstration at last nights welcome ceremonies. It was pretty similar to this, only infinitely more awesome in person:
There was also some traditional narrative singing and a "fan dance". All of the above featured pretty girls in fancy costumes so despite many cultural differences it's nice to know that some things never change.
For the next seven days I'll be residing in a very nice dorm room. This dorm room, let me tell you, was designed by some storage space genius. One entire wall is composed of cleverly sectioned closets and shelving with further drawers to be found below the nightstand and beds. This is a country, I think, long accustomed to making due with small living spaces. New York University dorm management, please take note.
Since I've spent most of my time interacting with fellow EPIK teachers and not the natives my "culture shock" has been pretty limited. There's a little shoe well at the entrance to my room where one is expected to doff one's shoes (I remember to do this at least two out of three times) and showers are not sectioned off from the rest of the bathroom but rather the whole floor slopes subtly down to a drain. I guess this is convenient if you plan on having eight people shower at once although I wouldn't recommend it. The thoughtfully provided shampoo claims to contain "effective microorganisms" which I find more unsettling then reassuring.
I'm a little hungry right now since my "class" (teachers heading to Gangwon-do) is not allowed to eat lunch for medical testing purposes. I'm not sure exactly what these will involve but reports assure there will be some needles. Despite this I remain strong in my resolve.
PS: Photos now on view