Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas in the Land of the Morning Calm

(click on the pictures to enbiggen)

Christmas from the Land of the Morning Calm! This was my first Christmas away from home, and I was worried I would be homesick, but I had a wonderful time. I was hoping for a white Christmas, but no luck. Instead, I got a white day before Christmas Eve, which really doesn't have the same ring. The snow was all gone by Christmas, and now the sidewalks are fraught with patches of stealth!ice, and the sand yard in front of my school is frozen and feels funny to walk on. It was nice while it lasted, though.

It was strange celebrating Christmas in a non-Christian country. Christmas is such a big deal in America, what with the decorations and the Christmas lights and the Christmas parties and Christmas music playing non-stop from every speaker in the country. For most of my life I didn't know what date Christmas was, which got me mocked by friends, but you don't *need* to remember the actual date. There's a big national countdown going on everywhere you look. Christmas in Korea is a lot more subtle. Only 25% of Korea is Christian, so there isn't much of a secular component to the holiday. A couple of store fronts were decorated and we sang Christmas carols in my fourth grade class last Friday (my co-teacher printed off a bunch of Christmas carols and asked me if I could teach them. I said sure, assuming she had music to go along, but no, all she's done was print off the lyrics and I had to sing all the songs a cappella so the kids could learn the tune), but Christmas snuck up on me this year. At least it's an important enough holiday for me to get the day off work.

I had English camp on Christmas Eve, and we had a Christmas party for the last period. I brought hot chocolate, my co-teacher brought chips and chocolate candies and some of the kids brought goodies from home. I gave the kids green and brown construction paper, and printed off a bunch of ornaments and we made Christmas trees. I played Christmas carols while they worked and taught them "We Wish You a Merry Christmas". My students kept feeding me chips. They wouldn't hand me the chips thought, they would only put them directly in my mouth, which they found hilarious. Ugg, first graders are so precious.

After school, I headed out to Siobhain's for Christmas, which was an adventure in itself. First, I got stuck in a massive human traffic jam at Sadang (my second least favorite subway stop) and ended up on the Inner Line instead of the Outer Line. It was easier to just take the train in the wrong direction to a less crowded subway stop and switch to the Outer Line instead of fighting my way back through that crowd, but it did add another twenty minutes to my trip. Then I got off at the wrong bus stop for Siobhain's apartment and ended up walking ten minutes in the opposite direction. I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with Siobhain's friend Tim as we tried to determine where I actually was.

Tim: Wait, can you see apartments around you? (Apartments are the most common thing in Korea. They are everywhere. I doubt there is anywhere in this entire country, much less Seoul, that isn't within site of at least three different apartment complexes.)
Cait: Yes, Tim. I'm still in Korea. I can still see apartments.
Tim: Oh... right.

I eventually made it to Siobhain's apartment. Siobhain's friend Tim, their friend Edward (I can not remember Edward's Korean name because a) I'm shit at names, b) I'm even worse with Korean names and c) he introduced himself as Edward, but, in case you were confused by the name, Edward is Korean) and I spent the night at Siobhain's. Siobhain, who actually has a *real* kitchen in her apartment AND knows how to cook made dinner while the rest of us sat around and drank. Because we're a real class act. I never got more than tipsy (turns out I meant that promise of never drinking again) but the boys were wasted. They decided to take shots of soju like Korean men, which means sitting on the floor and flicking the twisty part of the bottle cap until it came off, at which point the winner had to take a shot. There were no shot glasses, however, so they took what amounted to double or triple shots out of coffee mugs (one had a cartoon lion on it, the other was orange and had polka dots). And instead of traditional Korean bar food (which tastes like stale lint), they had a measuring glass of frosted flakes and rapidly cooling sweet potato tempura. And instead of, you know, being Korean men at a bar, they were an American and Korean sitting on the floor while Siobhain and I laughed at them. We played classic 90's power ballads and Ace of Base, exchanged gifts (I got a ridonkulous Korean pencil case!) and ended up on the roof with an ice cream cake at one in the morning. We sang "Happy Birthday" to Jesus and Mario, Jesus's mother (idk) and Tim reassured us that we had another bottle of chicken (he meant beer) before we passed out at three in the morning.

Christmas morning, Siobhain and I went to McDonald's for breakfast while the boys slept off the night before so we could talk louder than a hushed whisper. We ate and knit and talked for about an hour before the boys woke up and demanded food. We sat around and watched Iron Man before deciding to go to COEX, the largest underground shopping mall in Asia. Because of course, going to one of the largest malls in a very densely populated area on a national holiday is a *brilliant* idea. I did buy a new pair of shoes to replace my dying Chucks, though, so it was a worth while trip.

It was a good Christmas.  Albiet, it was nothing like Christmas back home, but fitting, I think, for my first Christmas on my own.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

[now I'm crawling towards the sun]

Ah, winter break! My last day of regular classes was Friday; I won't see most of my students again until early February. I'm going to miss my fifth graders, but I'll be honest, the thought of not having to teach sixth grade for a month and a half makes me a bit giddy.

During the holidays, I'm teaching three English camps. The first camp (this week and next week) is phonics with the first and second graders. So far, English camp has been a lot of fun. I only have seventeen students, which is a refreshing change after my normal classes, which are around forty students each. It's actually possible to actually interact with all my students during the camps! For instance, it's nice to be able to walk around and actually look at all my kids' work when they doing workbook activities and, if they're having problems, be able to crouch down and help them without sacrificing the other students.

Also, since my normal classes are only third through sixth graders, this is the first time I've gotten to teach the little kids, which has been a blast. There's a lot less formal work; we mostly play games and sing songs with just a little bit of deskwork. Also, this is such a fun age group to work with. The kids are just so exciting to see me and be here and learn English, and there's very little pretence. Also, I can be a lot more tactile with the kids. There's one little girl who will not stay in her seat and rather than repeatedly tell her to sit down, I've started just scooping her up and plopping her down in her seat. The little girls love to erase the board after class, but they're too tiny to reach half the board, just I just pick them up and let them erase the board in my arms.

The only bad part about winter camps is that they end at 11:20, leaving five and a half hours of free time before I can go home. That's a lot of time to kill. Also, I can't spend the afternoons in my office. My school's so old there's no central heating. Each of the classrooms have a radiator, but all my office has is a space heater, which doesn't keep the room warm. The current temperature in my office is about 44° F. I'm sticking it out in the classroom. It's especially rough since many principals let their NES go home early during the winter vacation, but not mine. It's also a bit creepy; except for the two teachers in the office downstairs, I'm the only person in the school.

So far this week, I've spent my afternoons getting super prepared for class. Part of the reason winter camps are going so well is that we always have all the materials we could possible need, primarily because I have five hours to prepare the day before. Need 180 flashcards for a game? Sure, I can make those. It's not like I'm doing anything else with my time. I'm going to run out of things to prepare soon, though. I've already started on next week's lessons.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

[whatever there is to be said is said in English// and while I hope I'm not like them, I'm not sure]



I went into Seoul this morning to meet a friend at the Canadian bar in Iteawon. I was lucky enough to score a seat on the subway, so I plop myself down and whip out my knitting. Knitting and a podcast are my favorite way to spend a subway ride! The guy sitting next to me notices my knitting and starts staring at my hands as I knit. And he kept staring. And kept intently staring at my hands. For twenty stops, at which point he finally got off. Which, whatever, I get stared at enough just for being white; toss knitting into the mix and I'm not really surprised I attracted some attention, but it was still a little creepy.


So there I am, still knitting on the subway, when a gaggle of ajumma (feisty old [well, upper middle ageish] Korean woman who will not hesitate to beat you on the subway because you're in their way) got on and stood in front of me. One of them starts gesturing at my knitting and talking to her friends. Then she grabs my knitting to get a better look and show her friends what she's talking about. At least she waited until I got to the end of the row. I get my sock back and keep knitting while the ajumma keep talking until about ten minutes later, when the same woman grabs my knitting again, gestures a bunch and grabs the handknit scarf I'm wearing. The scarf that is still wrapped around my neck several times. And she grabbed the part that was poking out the bottom of my jacket, so when she pulled on it to show her friends, it started to choke me. That's right, I was chocked by an elderly Korean woman today. Luckily, she let go quickly and we reached my stop and I made my escape. Needless to say, I decided to leave my knitting in my bag on the ride home.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

[I ask them to desist and to refrain // and then we call upon the author to explain]

Last night I discovered the my phone has a subway map application on it. I actually noticed this when I first got the phone, but since the map is entirely in Hangul and I didn't know any of the alphabet when I got the phone, I forgot about it. Last night, however, I was lying in bed*, wishing I could fall asleep and fiddling with my phone, and I found the map again. This time, I knew the alphabet** and while I wasn't quick, I could read most of the station names.*** This is all sorts of handy, since I never remember to take a subway map with me and I end up wandering the train, looking for a compartment with a map of the entire system, not just the line I'm on. Also, it has a function that tells you the approximate travel time between stations, and a function that will tell you the quickest route vs. the route with the fewest transfers. I wasted half an hour plotting various trips around the city. (Turns out I can get home from Sinchon like fifteen minutes faster if I transfer at Seoul Station instead of riding the green line all the way to Sadang. This is good to know!)

* I got sent home sick from school yesterday. I woke up with the milder version of this, but decided to go into school anyways since it seriously wasn't worth the hassle. I made it through my first two classes, but was discovered with my head on my desk during class change and my co-teacher freaked out and took me to the school nurse. The nurse, vice principal and my co-teacher all tried to take me to the hospital (Korean solution to everything), but I managed to convince them to just let me go home and sleep. I woke up this morning feeling fine and with my period, so I think I've discovered the cause. I knew there was no point in going to the hospital. I was impressed, however, by the gossip network at the school. Almost as soon as I got to school people knew I wasn't feeling well. I think it's possible my co-teacher sent out some sort of memo saying I was sick, because all morning teachers and students came by the English zone and told me they hoped I felt better. I was all, WTF HOW DO YOU KNOW, DO I LOOK THAT ROUGH?!?!

**I got sick of the whole learn a letter/sound/word a day thing, so I decided to go with the tried and true method of making flashcards and reviewing until I knew them. It took me about an hour on Monday afternoon to learn most of the alphabet. I'm still a bit hazy on some of the vowels, especially the w+vowel combos, but I'm pretty much literate again. :D

***Except for those stations where the name is one thing in Korean and another in English. For example, the station I live at. In Korean, it's 한대앞 (Handae'ap), but the English name is Hanyang University at Ansan, which is in no way a direct translation. This caused all kinds of trouble my first few weeks here, because whenever I got in a taxi, I asked to go to the Hanyang University at Ansan station and all I got was blank looks. Finally, someone explained that the Korean name for the station was completely different.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Open Class

I had my open class last week. All native speakers have to have one (or possible two, no one tells me anything) open class a year. Other English teachers from the community can come and observe, and the whole thing is taped and sent to the providential Department of Education for review. It's kind of a big deal, and my co-teacher has been FREAKING OUT over it for about a month now, but it's over now and I've never been so relieved to have something done. (Just for the record, I wasn't nervous AT ALL until about thirty minutes before the class began when one of my little girls told me she was nervous [pantomimed a pounding heart] and realized, holy crap, so was I. And then class started and I was fine since I've completely gotten over any public speaking phobia in the past year.)

We taught what is possible the most precious group of fifth graders every. I don't think my love for these kids can be textually rendered. I tried, but I just ended up banging on the keyboard and making seal noises. Seriously, thought, so much love for these kids. <3333 They did amazing! We spent hours rehearsing the class and all the directions (which were mostly given in only English), and even though they had to be bored silly, they behaved beautifully. Then on the day of the class, they managed to be enthusiastic about everything, even though they had seen it all before. We did a listening activity (which we didn't rehearse at all), sang the Beatles (the kids might have been out of tune, but they made up for it by dancing about) and played two games. I even let them toss a ball around the classroom during the greeting and they TOSSED the ball instead of trying to take out their classmates with it. They got all the answers right, we had a plethora of students raising their hands in class (that NEVER happens!) and they were all around great!

*squishes students*

Sunday, December 14, 2008

안녕 선생님 (Anyang, Seon-Saeng-Nim)

I just got a text message from one of my students! All it said was "Hi, teacher," which is about all most of them are comfortable with saying, but still, so precious. (Boy, are they every comfortable saying, "Hello, teacher!" I probably say hello to different students at least a hundred times a day, and that's not counting the students who follow me down the hall shouting, "Hello, hello, hello, hello!" From the moment I get off the bus in the morning to the moment I get back on the bus in the afternoon, I'm bombarded by students who want to practice their very limited English on me. It gets kind of old, especially when I have kids shouting hello to me out the classroom windows when I walk into the building, but at the same time, it's kind of heart-clenchingly precious.)

By now, all of the fifth graders have my cell phone number. I thought they all already had it, but this week one of my little fifth grade girls came up to me with a slip of paper and asked, "Haen-deu-pon number, teacher" (haen-deu-pon = handphone = Konglish for cell phone = God, I'm glad I knew what the meant before the first tiny Asian child sprung it on me) and when I wrote it down for her, I was instantly mobbed by twenty more students who wanted a piece of the action. This is the first time any of them have actually used my phone number, but hey! They're *using* *English*! Normally it's like pulling teeth to get them to actually use the English I know they know, so I'm all sorts of proud of which ever child this is. I'm sure I'll find out on Monday.

There's been an explosion of English from my students this week. The little girl who taught me to say rabbit has been coming by the English classroom to talk to me during class changes (she wants an mp3 player for Christmas and she went to church on Sunday) and when I was walking around the room during a game, one little boy who was counting in Korean gave me a guilty look and went, "Um, one, two three!" A group of children came by the classroom Friday and spent ten or so minutes asking me questions (do I like kimchi? do I like lice (I assume he meant rice)? do I like Korea?). None of these are my brightest students (the ones who clearly have gotten a lot of English education outside of school) and all the conversation is very basic and very formulaic, but that's okay. These kids are communicating in a different language, a language they've only started to learn, and just being willing to try and communicate is half the battle. I can't really articulate how proud of these kids I am and how happy this makes me, but after two months of having students parrot my words back at me and being treating like this creature in the zoo - fun to look at, but something completely alien - I feel like I'm actually making a difference in some of these kids' lives and education.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


I'm trying to learn Hangul (한글), the Korean alphabet. I think it will be easier to learn Korean (and teach English, for that matter) if I can actually read the alphabet. Plus, I'm getting sick of being illiterate. I've been studying Hangul for a few weeks now, mostly by reading signs on the subway. All the station signs are in Korean, with the Romanization right below, so it's a great way to figure out the more common letters. Then I bought First Steps in Korean at What the Book. I think most of it's going to be pretty useless, but it was cheep and has a good introduction to the alphabet.

Every few days I open it up and start studying, but I get overwhelmed quickly and start to forget what I've learned, especially with the vowels, of which there are twenty one. So I'm changing tactics. Instead of just trying to learn the letters, I'm going to try and learn a new Korean word each day. The idea is that I'll have a better chance remembering what sound goes with what letter if I can associate it with a word. Each word will have at least one new letter in it, so by the end of the month, I should know the alphabet, plus at least thirty new Korean words. Since this will basically double my vocabulary, it's a win-win situation.

Today's Korean word is 귤 (gyul). It means either tangerine or orange. The fruit itself looks more like a tangerine and is seedless like a clementine, but my book gives the definition as orange. It taste sweet, a little tart and absolutely amazing. I've eaten approximately 53890403 귤 (gyul) in the past two months and I've bought none of them. I'm not a huge fan of Korean food and 귤 (gyul) is one of the few foods people at my school know I like, so it's severed at every school event. Every time there's 귤 (gyul) at lunch, I'm always given the left overs and one time during a volleyball tournament at another school, my co-teachers made me stuff my bag with 귤 (gyul) from the reception before I was allowed to leave. It's an especially good word to know since a) I'll actually use it and b) it contains the letter g. In Hangul, the letter 'g' looks like this 'ㄱ'. The letter 'n' looks like this like this 'ㄴ' and I've had the hardest time remembering which one is which.

In addition to 귤, I also learned the word 토끼 (tokki), which means rabbit. One of my students taught me the word before class today. She was wearing a hoodie with a monkey on it and when she came into the classroom, she pointed to her chest and said, "Monkey!" I told her very good and then said monkey in Korean. Her eyes got very big and she said, "Very good, teacher!" Then she pantomimed rabbit (held up two fingers to be the ears and made them hop) and told me "Tokki." I repeated the word a couple of times until I said it to her satisfaction and we grinned at each other. And then there was this explosion of English. She told me her favorite animal (monkey), favorite color (red) and all about her family. I could have hugged her. This was one of the few times I've seen a student go beyond the basic formulaic statements we teach in class, make a cognitive leap about the different words and phrases they've been taught and actually communicate in English. I'm so proud of her!

Bonus picture: I know not everyone's computers display the Korean alphabet, here's a picture of all the Korean in this entry:

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Misconceptions I Had About Teaching In A Korean School

  1. Koreans would but punctual: I thought the students would be on time to class. I remember getting in trough in high school and middle school for taking too long to get to class. We had five minutes to get from one class to another, or you got a lunch detention. I assumed that in Korea, the same importance on punctuality would apply (perhaps detention for elementary schoolers is a bit harsh), but my kids are never on time to class. Never. I don't even plan forty minute lessons anymore. There's no point. Half the time when the bell rings for the start of class, the classroom's still empty. The rest of the time, I'll have ten or fifteen students who are in class when the bell rings while the rest trickle in over the next five or ten minutes, and no one thinks anything of it. My co-teacher just waits until all the students are in class to start, and it's not just here. I've had homeroom teachers regularly bring their classes to the English room as much as ten minutes late. I'm not sure why, but I thought the Koreans would put a much greater emphasis on punctuality.

  2. Korean children would be calm and quiet: Ahahahaha. I should know better than to pay any attention to stereotypes, but given the incredible emphasis on education here, I assumed that my kids would be at least someone serious at school. Ahaha, not so much. That's myth lasted until my first day of work when I saw one boy throw another boy to the ground and punch him in the hall ways. They're violent little buggers. And do they every love to shout! We do a lot of repeating so they can mimic my accent and they don't say the words back at me, they roar them. When we play games, it's usually too loud to hear myself think.

  3. The students wouldn't bring knives to school: Not real knives, but all the kids have little Exacto knives that they whip out in the middle of class so they can cut something or sharpen their pencil or something. I've had students ask me for a knife before, which is a really odd experience. It definitely wouldn't happen back home.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Obama Nation

Today's post (and political humor) comes courtesy of one of my sixth graders. Today before class, he asked me where I was from, and I told him America. He conferred with his friend (sixth graders only travel in packs), and asked, "USA?" I told him yes, and he nodded and said, "Oh, you are from Obama!" I explained that yes, Obama was the new president of America. He nodded and said, "Yes, yes, you are from Obama," and left.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Welcome to the English Zone

My Classroom!
My classroom, sans students! This photo was taken standing behind the desk in the front of the classroom. My co-teacher and I need to redecorate the classroom before the open lesson in a few weeks. At the very least, I need to get rid of all the Konglish. Yes, the bulletin board does say My English Boom. I really should change that.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Photos from this Weekend

Seoul at Night

Seoul at night. Taken from the top of the 63 Building. Unfortunately, there wasn't an outdoor observation tower, so I wasn't able to use my flash and the photos suffered as a result. It's actually much brighter and more neon-tastic.

Meet Hello Kitty

There is a Hello Kitty museum on the top floor of the 63 Building. It's one of the most bizarre and vaguely creepy things I've ever seen. This is from an exhibit called Meet Hello Kitty. My friend Siobhain wanted a picture of this panel to send to a professor who told her class that the reason Hello Kitty is so popular is because she has no mouth and is therefore the ideal woman. Other fun facts learned: Hello Kitty weighs 3 apples, love overalls and her first love was Daniel, whoever that is.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

It's Snowing!

Banwol Elementary in the Snow
A Room With a Snowy View
Views from my classroom and office during Thursday's snow. It wasn't quite cold enough for the snow to stick, but that didn't stop the kids from being crazy excited about the first snow of the season. I start out each class with a brief greeting where I asked the kids how they are, what day is it, what did they do yesterday and other basic conversation bits. On Thursday I asked all my classes what the weather was like and they all roared back, "It's SNOWING!" And then spent the entire class trying to get a peek out the window instead of paying attention to class. :)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Solo Teaching

I taught all my classes by myself today and, unlike my last attempt at solo teaching, it went pretty well! Of course, it helped that a) I *knew* I was going to be teaching alone before class started and didn't spend the first ten minutes of the class wondering when the other teacher was going to show up and b) it was fifth and sixth graders, not third graders. I see the older kids twice a week, not twice a month, and they have a much larger vocabulary. Plus, the lessons are a bit formulaic, so it's not like they didn't already know what to do. The classes were a bit rowdier than usual, but that could just as easily be because it was snowing. Actually, since the rowdiest kids were the ones sitting next to the windows, I'm pretty sure it was the snow. What 5th grader isn't excited about the first snow of the season?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Korean Lessons

My kids took it upon themselves to teach me Korean today. A couple of fifth graders were hanging out in the English classroom, as they are wont to do, and they started pointing to the illustrations of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and telling me the Korean word. We went through the animals in the book (some of which I still remember; monkey is 원숭이 - sounds like won-sung-e), and then a few more fifth graders showed up and they went crazy. I had five little girls running around the room, picking up everything they could find, so they could tell me the Korean word. I kept having to ask them to line up so I could listen to all of them at once. It was precious, though. They were so excited to be able to teach me. I wish I had more opportunities to interact with the students in small groups, instead of just seeing them in class.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Overheard in English Class

[Scene: Going over the new vocabulary for Chapter 13: That's Too Bad. The word is dizzy. To demonstrate the meaning, I spun around in a circle in the front of class and then staggered about. Soju is a rice liquor similar to vodka.]

Me: *staggering about, trying not to fall on the front row of students* I'm dizzy.
Most of the students: I'm dizzy.
Wise-ass student: Oh, too much soju!
Me: Well... yes. That too.

Honest to God, these kids crack me up somethings. Today at English camp, we made salads. The teacher in charge of preparing the ingredients, who didn't really understand the concept of salads, brought both vegetables and fruit. I was just going to have them make a fruit salad and a regular salad, but the kids just tossed everything (cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, persimmons, tangerines, kiwi, apples and bananas), dumped strawberry yogurt and mayonnaise on top, and ate it while I gagged quietly in my soul.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Pepero Day

Today is Pepero Day in Korea. Pepero is a type of Korean candy similar to Pocky and Pepero Day is a lot like Valentines Day, only it doesn't even pretend to have un-crass materialistic origin and was dreamed up about fifteen years ago by Lotte, the giant corporation that manufactures Pepero and owns most of Korea, as a way to sell more candy. Pepero Day is November 11, since five sticks of Pepero (a long, thin candy, like a chocolate dipped pretzel stick) looks a lot like 11/11.

On Pepero Day, it's traditional to give friends, co-workers and teachers a package of Pepero. I was stopped twice between my bus stop and the school by students giving me a pack of Pepero. I was pretty confused, since I'd never heard of Pepero Day, but I'm getting use being given random gifts of food (a teacher stopped me as I walked into school on Friday and gave me a whole sweet potato), so I assumed it was something along those lines. Luckily another student gave me a Pepero as I walked into the teacher's lounge and the vice principal, noticing my confusion about the rampant candy giving, explained what was going on.

Since I'm still a novelty to the kids, I made out like a bandit, especially in my third grade class where I got five packs and four individually wrapped Pepero. I ended up with so much candy I couldn't take it all home. I ended giving a lot to my co-teacher and storing the rest in my desk for when I get hungry at work.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Third Graders

Well, my third grade class was a disaster today. The kids are adorable. Oh my God, they are so adorable, all eager and excited, with grins about to split their face. There was this one tiny little girl who wanted hugs. HUGS! Whenever I walked past her chair she stretched her arms out for a hug and my heart just melted.

However, while tiny and precious, they don't actually speak English. According to the national curriculum, they're only suppose to have a vocabulary of about 100 words, and that vocabulary doesn't include directions for how to play bingo. Normally this isn't a problem. Their homeroom teacher is suppose to come with them and provide a Korean translation and make sure they understand the lesson. (I can say "No, you can't" until the cows come home; it doesn't mean they're going to understand me. I can usually pantomime the vocab, but grammatical issues are harder to get across when you don't speak the language.) Their teacher didn't come, however. We limped through the lesson, but when it came time for the game (with twenty minutes still left in class), there was nothing I could do. I finally gave them some paper and told them to color an activity they like to do, and I walked around and helped the kids who were struggling with the lesson.

After class, I talked to my usual co-teacher and she said the third grade teachers had told her they had told me they weren't coming to class anymore. Er, one of them did come by, but I thought she was saying that I should take charge of preparing the lesson. Now I'm going to have to swing by the third grade hall and try to explain that I really need them to come to class so they can translate for me.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Turn on the Bright Lights

Turn on the Bright Lights
The view from my balcony; also known as the reason why I no longer remember what this "dark" thing looks like. At night, my apartment is bathed in neon light and glows red if I'm in my loft or blue if I'm in the downstairs. Koreans love their neon lights (here's a picture of my neighborhood at night) and everywhere I look after dark there is a neon glow. Sometimes I miss the pitch black of my parent's house out in the country. Whenever that happens, I shut myself in my bathroom with the lights off until the feelings pass. :)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes We Did

Scenes from an Election:

I voted back in September, before I left. North Carolina started mailing absentee ballots the week before I left, but due to snafu with my application, I didn't get my ballot until the day before I left. The only reason I *got* my ballot was because I marched down to the Board of Elections and raised some hell. Sorry, but this election is too damn important not to vote.

The first polls closed a few minutes before my first class ended. I managed to be fairly sanguine up until that point (I only checked CNN TWICE before work), but once the results started to roll in, I had trouble tearing myself away from CNN long enough to teach class. The second class ended, I was back on the computer. Sorry kids, but Teacher was a bit preoccupied today.

I missed being home more these past few days than I have since my first weekend here. I was *so* invested and emotionally involved in this election, and I was the only one who cared. I was a nervous, jittery wreck today and at school, it was all business as normal. I desperately wanted someone, anyone, who was going through this too. One of the great things about the training conference a few weeks ago is that I was surrounded by Americans again and we could gather and talk about the election with great hope and joy. (After we talked about cheese.)

We sang ABBA's "I Have a Dream" during English camp today and today an ABBA song damn near undid me. I know, I know, but if you pay attention to the lyrics, which one does when giving a spoken word rendition of the song so small Asian children can mimic your pronunciation, they were eerily appropriate for that moment.

I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness still another mile
I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail

The words "I have a dream" and all that connotes, America in the process of electing it's first black president, a song about hope - I had to turn away from the class in the middle of the song until I was sure I could get through the song without crying. It's okay kids, Teacher's just REALLY invested in the outcome of this election.

At 1:50 pm, Wednesday November 5th, I logged onto CNN to read that John McCain had just conceded, and I started crying, because God, we did it America. We did it. I also bit my hand to keep from screaming out loud and I can still see the teeth marks on my thumb.

For all that I miss the election mania back home, people here have been following the election closely. (Just look at the Asian stock markets today.) I was asked all day if I was able to vote, and about details of the election and the American political system. (Try miming Electoral College. Here's a hint: you can't.) When my co-teacher during English camp asked why I was crying and I waved at the computer screen in explanation, she cheered and as soon as the kids heard Obama's name, they flocked to the front of the classroom to hear more. Shin Young told me the kids through the election was more interesting that popular TV shows and, well, so do I, but I'm a 23 year old American, not a 12 year old Korean, so kudos to them.

I haven't been able to wipe this damn smile off my face since two o'clock this afternoon. We did good, America. We did good.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Sick Daze

Fan Dance
Kindergartners performing the traditional fan dance at the school festival. It was super impressive, especially considering they were like, six. I'd love to see professional dancers perform it. Of course, I spent the entire dance contemplating how many tiny Korean children I could fit in my bag and take home with me. They were precious.

Here is my advice to thee: don't ever call in sick to a Korean school. IT'S NOT WORTH IT. Even if you're dying of the bird flue and leprosy, just so to school and cough/drop decaying body parts of the children. IT WILL BE SO MUCH EASIER.

Last night I posted my entry, said, "Oh, I don't feel so good," went downstairs and threw up. A lot. I spent the next eight or so hours alternating between throwing up, severe abdominal pain, crying from said pain, curling up on the shower floor (hot water helped) and fever dreams about the election (Obama lost in all of them and I woke up gasping in terror at least twice. In one, Nicolas Sarkozy endorsed McCain and the Hamburgler was campaigning for him.) Then, around three in the morning, I feel asleep for real and slept until my alarm went off. I woke up feeling much better, but also like I'd gotten three hours of sleep and spent the night puking, which I imagine feels similar to being hit by a truck, only with less broken bones and internal damage. There was no way I could handle teaching class today.

Koreans don't really understand the concept of sick days. They will honestly go to work until they can physically not make it out of bed. However, sick days are part of my contract and at the training/orientation a few weeks ago, we were told to use them if we needed to. Just because the Koreans are sometimes crazy doesn't meant we need to be, and going to work when you're sick is only going to make you worse. I gave my co-teacher a call and told her I was too sick to make it to work today. I tried to describe my symptoms, but Ji-Won didn't understand me over the phone, so she came over to my apartment (she lives nearby) and told me we needed to go to the hospital. I said no, don't think that's necessary, all I need is to rehydrate and sleep. She disagreed. I refused some more, telling her that it's just a 48 hour bug and all I needed was to rest. She called the school nurse and they spoke rapidly in Korean. She hung up and tried to convince me to go to the hospital again, and again I refused. Finally, an hour later, after she talked to several more people, she agreed that I should sleep. Of course, by this point I'd been awake for two hours and arguing half that and was too keyed up to fall back asleep, so I spent the day watching Numb3rs and Pushing Daisies and knitting.

It's back to work tomorrow and dealing with being fussed over. The most frustrating part about this whole day, apart from the whole having to argue for an hour when all I wanted was go back to sleep, was the insistence that I do everything the Korean way and that anything else was unthinkable wrong. It's just that I spend so much time reminding myself that this a different culture and those differences aren't necessarily wrong, they're just different and I need to respect those differences, even when I personally have a problem with them. (For example, corporal punishment in the schools, eating dog or spitting all over the place.) It would be nice to occasionally get the same consideration back and, as far as I'm concerned, when it comes to my health and my finances, I get to call the shots.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Adventures in Eastern Medicine

Front Gates of Hwaseong Haenggung
Another picture from my trip to Suwon this weekend.  This time, it's the main gates to Hwaseong Haenggung.

I'm sick. Again. I woke up with a cold last week (the second one since I got here) and now my stomach has been upset since yesterday night. I mentioned this at lunch to explain why I wasn't eating and, immediately, the school nurse went into a tizzy and started questioning me about my symptoms. I kept insisting I was fine, I just needed some sleep and maybe some chicken soup, I'll feel fine tomorrow, but she rushed off to the infirmary and came back with a handful of pills for me to take. ... Dude, I don't like taking medicine even when I'm convinced I need it, much less when I don't know what I'm taking and I doubt my symptoms have properly been translated. I adore the school nurse though; the one time I was legitimately sick kept me in the infirmary until the end of school, shooed away anyone who wanted to talk to me and then drove me home at the end of the day.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The City of Filial Piety

Along the Wall
Hwaseong Fortress, near Hwaseomun, the West Gate

I went to Suwon yesterday. Suwon is the capital of Gyeonggi-do, the province I live in, and is home to Hwaseong Fortress and Hwaseong Haenggung, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites dating to the Joseon Dynasty. The trip there was a bit of an adventure. It was an hour on subway, which was easy, and then ten minutes by bus, which was not. The subways in Korea are very user friendly. All the signs at the stations are in English as well as Korean and most trains have a digital display announcing the name of the coming station. The buses, on the other hand, are all in Korean. I've yet to see a map of the bus system, or even a single bus route, and sometimes the bus driver won't let westerners off the bus. The only time I use to the bus is to get to school, and only because my co-teacher showed me which bus to use. Luckily there was a tourist information station near the subway station and they were able to point me in the direction of the right bus.

The palace was nice, if a bit too focused on a popular TV show that had been filmed there. The fortress, however, was very impressive. The wall, which was built in 1794, stretches 5.7km and at the time it was built, completely surrounded the city. It's huge and the views are impressive. There are four gates along the wall, but I only made it to the West Gate, one of the smaller gates. I always forget how early it gets dark here, but it's completely dark by six. (And by completely dark, I mean glowing with neon lights. Come on, this is Korea. It doesn't actually get dark here.) I'll have to go back another time and see the rest of the wall.

The rest of my photos from the trip are here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

[call me on the line // call me call me any anytime]

I got my alien registration card on Monday. The alien registration card looks like a driver licenses, only nicer because the picture has been heavily airbrushed (no freckles, frizzy hair or general looking like hot death!) and is needed for all sorts of things such as getting a bank account or a cell phone, two things I didn't have and desperately needed. I was paid on Monday for the first time since July (wheee!) and promptly went and bought a cell phone.

This is 굿 (kut), the exorcism phone! Look, I was bound and determined to somehow work the fact that I know the Korean word for exorcism in to a conversation. Plus, I was using a random Korean word for the name and it was either 굿 or 가위 (scissors), and who ever heard of a phone called scissors.

Word immediately spread around school that I had a phone, even to the students. Today I was mobbed by a group of fifth graders shouting, "Teacher, 선생님 (seon-saeng-nim), phone," only when they say phone, they pronounce it like porn. (True story: when my co-teacher said we would go buy a phone after lunch, I heard "We will go buy you porn after lunch." For a moment I was all, I really don't think we're at that point in our relationship. Luckily I have a good enough mental filter to prevent myself from actually saying that. *facepalm*) I eventually scribbled my phone number on the white bored with my co-teacher's blessing. It was greeted by squeals of excitement and all the students whipped out the cellphones and programed the number in. I really hope none of them call me though. I'm their teacher - I *know* how bad some of their English is. That would be one very short conversation.

(What you really should take away from this blog post is the amount of Korean I managed to work into it, and while it might look impressive, I want you to know that it's like a tenth of my entire Korean vocabulary. That's right, exorcism is 1/30 of my Korean vocabulary.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

[I'm not talking quesadillas or a pile of caviar // that's a rich man's dream]

In my experience, if you put any group of expats in close proximity, the second thing they will do is kvetch about the food situation in the country where they're living. The first is to determine everyone's nationality and make sure all the Americans voted for Obama, but once the Americans have apologized for the past eight years, food comes up. From the fact that kimchi is so spicy it makes our brains melt out our ears to the fact that sometimes the food is still alive and moving when it's served to the fact that sometimes the food is a beloved pet in the west (anyone up for some dog?) to the fact that we're just so damn sick of rice. (Seriously, so sick of rice.)

And then we talk about the food we miss. I miss cheese. God but I miss cheese. I would very happily live off only cheese, consequences be damned, and one of the hardest things about living in Korea is the fact that they don't actually have cheese here. Sometimes I can find overpriced pre-sliced processed cheese at the grocery store, but not real cheese like cheddar or Gouda or mozzarella or feta. I've really missed cheese.

The most important thing I learned at this orientation was that Costco has cheese. Lesson plans be damned, it's all about the food.

I went to Costco today. My friend Jen has a Costco card and we met in Seoul to go grocery shopping. My apartment is now stocked with 15 boxes of Annie's mac & cheese, a huge block of sharp cheddar cheese, about twenty five packages of Halls, a huge container of conditioner and two giant bags of fun sized Halloween candy for the Halloween lessons next week. It is glorious. The only problem with Costco is that it sells things that are not otherwise available in bulk. I didn't really want all that mac & cheese, but I won't find it anywhere else. And while one or two cans of chicken noodle soup (!!) in a bag aren't too heavy for an hour long subway ride home, twenty cans are. There were a lot of things I wanted that were just too heavy to get home without a car.

The other amazing thing about Costco was their food court. They had real, proper pizza. There was neither rice nor corn in the sauce. It was like a religious experience. On the other hand, I had Sprite for the first time since I got here and found it inferior to the Korean equivalent. Who knows? Maybe in a year I'll like still squirming octopus or be able to eat kimchi without wanting to die.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Injeongjeon Hall
Injeongjeon Hall

I went to Changdeokgung last Saturday. I was suppose to meet my friend Siobhain in Iteawon for Indian food and shopping at Dongdaemun, but she was running late and after waiting half an hour, I gave up and left. Ah, the joys of trying to make plans without a cell phone. After some brief pouting and planning to just go home and eat worms because clearly nobody liked me, I snapped out of it and decided to spend the day in Seoul, or at least grab lunch before I headed home. I went to Quizno's (which - I know, I know - but it was right next to the subway stop and I wanted someplace cheep where I wouldn't feel weird sitting alone, which meant fast food), pulled out my Korea guidebook and flipped through it in search of some of the places I didn't have a chance to visit last summer.

I decided on Changdeokgung. It's one of the five Grand Palaces of Seoul, and was finished in 1412 by King Taejon of the Joseon Dynasty. The only way to see the palace is on a guided tour, but luckily there was an English tour leaving shortly after I arrived. For all that I use to be a tour guide, I'm not really a fan of taking group tours. I'm perfectly capable of reading the brochure and wayside signs myself, and I don't like to be rushed. Plus, I like to take photos - lots of photos - and that's difficult to get a clear shot if you're with a large group of people. Still, it was a good tour and the guide didn't seem to mind (or notice) if I wandered ahead or behind to snap some photos.

Figurines on Jinseonmun Gate
Figurines on Jinseonmun Gate. Each of the buildings and gates in the complex had a different number of figurines. They represent something, but I had trouble understanding what the guide said. Her accent was pretty thick.

Traditional Korean Painting
Traditional Korean decorations. Seriously, you see these colors and motifs repeated on temples and palaces around the country.

Entrance to the Secret Garden
The entrance to the Secret Garden (Huwon), the delightfully named massive park behind the palace complex. I'll admit it, I chose to go to Changdeokgung based solely on the Frances Hodgson Burnett reference.

Juhamnu (Royal Archives)
This is Juhamnu, which was the royal archives and library.

Buyongji Poud & Bujongjeong Pavilion
This is Buyongji Poud and Bujongjeong Pavilion. The pond represents the world according to Confucian ideals. The island represents the world, which is round, and the pond represents the sky, which is square.

Autumn Come to the Secret Garden
Fall comes to the Secret Garden. The fact that it's this cold in October means I'm going to *freeze* this winter.

Euiduhap, which was a study cubicle for the royal prince. This makes me appreciate my table in an alcove at Davis Library.

In the Secret Garden
Peering over a wall in the Secret Garden.

Aeryeonji Pond & Aeryeonjeong Pavilion
Aeryeonji Pond and Aeryeonjeong Pavilion. This wasn't on the official tour, but I made a slight detour when the guide stopped to talk.

The rest of the photos are here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

[up in the mornin' and out to school // the teacher is teachin' the Golden Rule]

I was sitting in my office at work (no third or fourth period today because the sixth graders are taking a national test), emailing a friend and reading Mo Rocca 180 when suddenly my office was invaded by fifth graders getting out of music class. At first the peeked around the corner at my desk, and scurried back whenever I looked up. Then they got braver and huddled in front of my computer, trying to catch a glimpse of what I doing. (Luckily I minimized Firefox before they saw the Barack-O-Lantern, which might not be considered an appropriate use of my time.) Finally the bravest of the girls asked how old I was. I told her twenty three* and asked her how old she was. She giggled and fled the office, pulling her friends with her.

This is pretty much par for the course when it comes to interacting with my students. They're fascinated by me; I have signed countless textbooks and notebooks and they flock to me whenever they see me in the halls, usually trailing me like duckings. They love to say hello and shake my hand (Koreans bow when they great each other, so shaking hands is a novelty), but very few will actually talk to me, even if I *know* they understand the question. One of my main goals this year is to get them comfortable conversing in English, even if they make mistakes.

Until then, though, it's a good way to clear them out of my office. "Oh no, she's going to ask us questions! It's just like class, only this time we can escape! Run for it!"

*Funny story there. Koreans count age differently than westerners. You're considered one years old when your born, which means Korean ages are always one more than American ages. I knew this when I went (it's been a joke in my family for ages) but I forgot my first day of school when I was introducing myself and now I feel weird backpedaling and saying no really, I'm twenty four in Korea, I swear.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

[I got soul, but I'm not a soldier]

My second weekend in Korea! It's a long weekend; Friday was Foundation Day and therefore a national holiday. Friday was depressing. I didn't know anyone and without work to keep me busy, I had nothing to do but sit at home and contemplate how lonely I was. Luckily I pulled myself together and the rest of the weekend was fun.

On Saturday I made myself get up and clean my apartment. It's a tiny little thing - about the size of my living room in Rocky Mount - but it's not like I have much stuff with me. I finished unpacking, cleaned my kitchen and figured out the trash situation. In Korea, you have to use official government issued trash bags. There are different bags for food trash and other trash, plus recycling is mandatory (whee!). I had a huge pile of trash that had accumulated over the week that I needed to throw out, but I wasn't sure what bag to put it in. Saturday evening I met up with Ji-Won, my co-teacher, to go over lesson plans. Last week all I officially did was observe English camp, but this week I'm responsible for preparing material. We went to a truly terrible cafe and spent a few hours going over the textbooks and our ideas for class next week. Then we went out for ice cream. Koreans keep insisting that we eat western food. I know they're being kind and doing it to make me feel at home, but western food in Korean is often very bad and I would much rather eat good Korean food than mediocre overpriced western food. The ice cream, however, was excellent.

On Sunday, I went to an expat Stitch n' Bitch in Seoul. I found the group on Ravelry, the facebook of knitting. When I found out I was moving to Korea, I typed Korea in Ravelry's search function and it spit out a group called Knitters and Crocheters in Korea, and in addition to finding out where I can buy precious precious yarn in Korea, it mentioned that there was a SnB every first and third Sunday of the month. I had a fantastic time! I was worried about getting into Seoul, but it was super easy. Ansan is a suburb south of Seoul, but it's part of the Seoul National Capital Area and I live just down the street from one of the twelve subway lines in the city. It took an hour to make it to Seoul, but it was a straight shot. There were about fifteen knitters, including Cheryl, who lives in Ansan. Cheryl and I exchanged info and are trying to make plans to meet up sometime this week. After the SnB, Siobhain (another knitter my age) and I went to Itaewon for food. Itaewon is the foreigner district in Seoul and it has a huge American presence, both from tourists and from the nearby Yongsan Garrison, the primary American military base in Korea. After a week in Korea, it was a treat to see other people who looked like me and to understand people's conversations as I walked past. We ate at a truly excellent Indian place and scoped out a supermarket specializing in foreign food. A block of mild (!) cheddar cheese cost $16 which is a depressing depressing fact. After dinner we went out for ice cream, exchanged contact info and I headed home. It was a great day and a fun weekend.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

[textbook hippie man // get rest while you can]

I made it to Korea safe and sound! Actually, I made it to Korea safe and sound five days ago, but have yet to post because I'm a slacker. Also I've been busy with the whole moving thing and the sleeping at massively irregular hours. (Oh jetlag. I hate you.)

The flight was uneventful. I lucked out big time and had an empty seat next to me; fifteen hours is a long time to spend tucked into a seat like a sardine. The other woman in my row was super nice; she was visiting her daughter and son-in-law in China and we ended up talking for a lot of the flight which went a long way to keep me from freaking out too much. She also fed me, which was awesome because I left the food I'd brought with me in the car and, as it turns out, Korean Air had an all the beef you can eat menu, which, in my case, is none at all. Each seat came equipped with a personal entertainment system in the headrest, so I able to chose what movies I wanted to watch and when, which was a *godsend* on a flight this long. Plus, the flight have a bunch of movies I actually wanted to watch: Prince Caspian, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Iron Man and Indiana Jones. I also managed to doze for a few hours.

At the airport I was met by someone who put me on a bus to Ansan, a suburb of Seoul where I now live. The bus ride took two hours, which was a bitch after an hour clearing customs, fifteen hours on a plane, two hours waiting in Atlanta and a four hour drive to the airport. I only barely stayed awake, and had to keep pinching myself for the last hour. I was met in Ansan by Kim, who is the English teacher at my school, the head of administration and the principal, which was awkward. They were all dressed up for the occasion (the principal was wearing a suit) whereas I was rocking a pair of jeans, Chucks and was vaguely unwashed. I know there was nothing I could do about it - I had been traveling for over twenty four hours - but that wasn't the first impression I wanted to give. My welcome party took me out to eat - Italian, and how guilty do I feel that my first meal in Korea was pizza - and then shopping at the Korean equivalent of Wal-Mart. The shopping trip was a bit traumatic, since I was asleep on my feet at that point and people kept shoving things in my face and asking me if I needed them. While I did get the basic necessities (bedding, kitchen supplies and some food), I also ended up with some really random things such as a singular cushion and two different pairs of house slippers.

I finally made it to my apartment around midnight, where I quickly emailed my parents to let them know I was safe and then collapsed into bed.