Monday, August 31, 2009

First Day Report

As the title of this post suggests today was my first day of work. I had trouble sleeping last night, woke up early this morning, and could barely eat due to jitters. My co-teacher picked me up at 8:15 and we drove to the school, which is located about 15 minutes outside the city. That isn't very far but once you're there the school seems very remote as it's surrounded by green sloping mountains and is the only visible man-made structure in the area. The school itself is two buildings separated by a large dirt playground. Almost as soon as I arrived I was herded outside and onto a stage in front of all the students (lined up in very militaristic rows by grade) and introduced by the principal after which I gave a very brief speech ("Good morning. I am very pleased to be here. Thank you.")

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

Quite an Introduction

Yesterday morning at 10:30ish pm, following many hours of hauling luggage outstanding distances, exchanging phone numbers on our new phones, and enduring many concluding speeches from various official entities, we embarked on our 6 hour bus ride to Taebaek. Since there were only five students going to our particular section of Gangwon-do we were put on a smaller bus (insert obligatory "short bus" comment here).

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

The Other Shoe

I'll be teaching Elementary in Taebaek in the Gangwon-do Province. I know nothing about it except apparently there's an e-mart and a ski resort next door. Tomorrow we hop on a bus at 8am sharp but tonight it's a party so I'll have to give my report later...

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

Day 7 already?

While the days have felt long they've passed in a blur of activity. No doubt, if I were to mention this to one of the EPIK co-ordinators, this would be attributed to the "dynamic" qualities of Korea.

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!

The Right Coast!

It is amazing how horrible and drained you can feel from sitting in a chair, motionless, for a long period of time so long as that chair happens to be in the coach cabin of an airliner.

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


One thing I failed to mention in my previous post is that it is extremely hot here. Also, very humid. Imagine someone with moist breath blowing in your face all day and you just about have it. Happily, the rooms and dining area are air conditioned but sadly the classrooms are not and so far this has resulted in at least one fainting spell that I personally witnessed.

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

Holy Shitsticks, I'm in Korea.

I'm about halfway through day 2 at the EPIK orientation. Fortunately (or "un-", depending on your level of patience) I just got my internet to work which means, joy of joys, blog posts!

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