Tuesday, October 27, 2009

English Textbooks Provide Further Enlightenment.

Here are another couple charming cultural tips from my 5th Grade English Texbook. I'm glad the Korean government has mandated that an entire generation should learn about English-speaking culture from these valuable resources:

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.

Wrong vocabularies

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
*mixer--> blender
*bargain sale--> bargain or sale
*vinyl bag--> plastic bag, carrier bag
*sign--> autograph
*super--> supermarket
*Y-shirt--> shirt
*one piece--> dress
*two piece--> suit
*pama--> perm, permanent wave
*handphone-->cellular phone, mobile phone
*cunning--> cheating
*scarp--> clipping

...I think we've all learned something today.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Some brief observations.

I've been inspired by one of my fellow EPIKers recent facebook posts to make a list of things I've noticed about Korea so far that while they aren't weighty enough for an entire post, merit mentioning.

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

It goes without saying that losing your passport sucks, but having actually experienced it, I now have a real appreciation for what a massive pain in the ass dealing with the government can be- particularly when you need something done quickly. "Quickly" does not seem to be one of the words the State Department likes to apply to it's efforts; I can only imagine some dry board meeting where it was decided that the phrase would be banned from Federal offices, the practice of expediting controlled as tightly as discrimination or thrift. A passport order is expected to take six weeks at the least. I was pretty distraught to realize it would take that long, until I noticed there was an option- surprise!- to expedite your passport application. My joy was short lived; in addition to costing four times as much, an "expedited" passport still takes three weeks to arrive.

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


I don't think a public blog is really the place to get into it, but I had a really rough week. The last thing I wanted to be doing, at the end of it all, was hosting an English Camp for kids at my school but that die was cast awhile back and so Saturday morning found me teaching four straight classes how to "Walk Like a Monster" and "Hop Like a Werewolf" (little known fact: werewolfs hop).

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

I Refuse to Make a Pun on "Seoul", OKAY!?

The first and most shocking thing about Seoul, coming from a one-말 town like Taebaek, was the incredible number of foreigners there. All the clubs I visited, with the exception of one (and honestly, it was so dark and I was so drunk that who's really to say what I saw inside) were at least 70% full of English-speaking foreigners. This is partly, I'm given to understand, a function of the areas we were staying in and partly due to our age and the activities we pursued which totalled three in number: drinking, shopping, and clubbing. (Okay, maybe that's just two activities.)

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.