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: