Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Konglish Signs in Gangnam

One of the unexpected pluses to living in Korea is the Konglish. From the completely nonsensical to the funny to the just plain unfortunate, it's always fun to walk around around a corner or read someone's shirt and go, "... what?" (My favorite sign *ever* will always be this one in Itaewon, but I don't have my own picture of it. But no seriously, follow that link. IT IS WORTH IT!)

This is unfortunate....
Look closely at the name of the waffle set. I would not eat that waffle set.

This is the terrible unfortunate sign advertising Espresso Public, the cafe where the Sunday Gangnam SnB meets. I'm pretty sure this one isn't actually a Konglish mistake since, if you look closely, you can see there's a space for an 'l' between the 'b' and the 'i'. Most likely some (drunk) foreigner stumbled upon the sign and couldn't help himself. It's been like this for weeks and all anyone has done about it is take a bunch of photos and laugh a lot.

Temporally Closed Door
Butterfinger Pancakes is not the TARDIS. This door only travels through space and NOT time.

We tried to go to Butterfinger Pancakes after SnB, but the powers of 소녀시대 (a super popular Kpop girl group; the link goes to a YouTube video of their latest single, which I can not stop listening to. Don't judge me, I use to have both taste in music and a sense of shame, I swear) who was possible waiting in a van outside the restaurant next door caused a rift in the space-time continuum and Butterfingers was temporally closed. Instead we ate at California Pizza Kitchen.

Joo Bar

On the walk back to the subway, we passed the Joo Bar. The general consensus was that this is pronounced Jew Bar, which reminds me of my students last year. There is no 'z' sound in Korean, so my students when confronted with the word zoo, told me they wanted to go to the Jew to see the lions.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sit Down?

SCENE: The English classroom, during class change between second and third period. Most of my 6-5 class is already in the classroom, huddled in groups playing 공기, running in and out of the classroom and shouting at their friends - generally acting like children who just took a two hour test and are ready to have some fun, however briefly. Class hasn't started yet, so as long as they're not hitting each other or destroying my classroom, I don't care what they do.

RELEVANT LINGUISTIC INFORMATION: In Korean, if a ㅅ (/s/ - equivalent of an English 's') is followed by a 이 (/i/ or /i:/ - romanized as an 'i' and the equivalent of the 'ee' in meek), the 's' sound becomes a 'sh' (/ɕ/). For example, the Silla dynasty is pronounced Shilla. Some of you have probably already guessed where this story is going.

So, one of my sixth grade boys who isn't the brightest kid, but is hilarious and outgoing and good at expressing himself regardless of linguistic barriers and, just to complete the mental picture, super tiny and wearing a bright pink hoodie, walks into class, sees his classmates going crazy around me and decides to restore order.

"SIT DOWN!" he yells, a command my students have heard me say plenty of times, only what he actually says is, "SHIT DOWN!"

"SHIT DOWN, SHIT DOWN, SHIT DOWN!" he shouts at each group of students milling about, while I stand at the front of the class and bite my lip so hard I can still feel the teeth marks hours later in an attempt not to laugh.

Some days, I really love being a teacher!

Monday, March 22, 2010


March 20th is the start of spring, which means that March 22nd is the logical time for a freak snow storm. SPRINGFAIL!

It started snowing ten minutes before my last class ended (which, of course, led to TEACHINGFAIL!) and kept snowing all afternoon. Before long, I couldn't see beyond the school yard (compared to my normal view here). It was eerily beautiful leaving the school with the snow still falling - everything still and shrouded in the silence you get only when any possible sound is muffled by snowfall. On the flip side, my walk home was less of a walk and more of a controlled downhill fall, and I get to walk back up the ice hill tomorrow. Overall, I am unimpressed.

I am also unimpressed with the 황사 (Hwangsa, or Yellow Dust), which I had managed to forget about in the past year. Hwangsa starts as dust storms in the Gobi Desert, which are then carried east by the winds, picking up pollutants as they goes, and pass over China, the Korean peninsula and Japan. Yellow dust storms usually just make things look hazy, but during bad episodes everything looks yellow. Here's a picture of Seoul on Saturday. It wasn't quite as bad in my town, but at noon, my apartment was as dark as it is when my alarm goes off at 6:45 in the morning.

Last year, during a particularly bad Hwangsa, I asked my 6th graders what the weather was like. I had taught them the phrase yellow dust the week before and one boy, after thinking it over, looked at me and said brightly, "Teacher, today it's Yellow Dusty!" Aces, kid, aces!

Friday, March 19, 2010


Not my picture; I stoles it from Wikipedia.

My school had 삼계탕 (samgyetang) for lunch today and omg, om nom nom. Samgyetang is Korean chicken soup. It's made with a whole chicken stuffed with rice in a broth seasoned with ginsing, jujube fruits, garlic, ginger and unicorn farts. It is amazing and, in my opinion, the perfect chicken soup. It can be difficult to eat, since there is a whole chicken in your bowl and while I'm pretty good at the picking-things-up-with-chopsticks thing, I am less adept at the taking-apart-a-chicken bit. The first time I ate samgyetang I nearly ruined my skirt by repeatedly splashing the broth onto it. Luckily for my limited work wardrobe, this time the chicken was already removed from the bone and I made way less of a mess.

Aside from being delicious, I'm really glad we had samgyetang since, three weeks in, everyone at my school already knows I don't like Korean food. My former co-teacher told my current co-teacher that I don't like Korean food and the current co-teacher must have sent out a memo, because by the end of the first week, the only thing my co-workers will talk to me about is if I'm unhappy in Korea because I have to eat Korean food. (Well, that and today my soldier buddy and I had a chat about why King Sejong was awesome on our walk to school today, but he is the only one of my co-workers besides my co-teachers who really tries to talk to me, so he's a special case.) The thing is, I don't actually dislike Korean food. Sure, there are things I don't like, but there's plenty of American food I won't touch (for example, anything uttered in conjunction with the words bologna burger) and being pigeonholed just because I don't eat kimchi drives me nuts. It's always nice (and delicious) when I get a chance to show my co-workers that see, I *do* like their fermented cabbage heavy cuisine.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One of these things is not like the other....

Actualfax conversation I had with Marie today. (Relevant info: Today was Open House at my school and I had to go downstairs to bow to the parents. That's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. I stood in front of an assembly of my students' parents and bowed while they clapped politely. I got to do the same thing to the student body on my first day of school. It's Korea: you bow. Fact of life.)

Cait: awesome! was just introduced to the parents as Native Teacher Gate
Marie: HAHAHA! so they don't realize it's pronounced with the ㅋ sound not the ㄱ sound. (ㅋ is romanized as 'k' and is a hard 'k' sound, such as in my name. ㄱ is more of a 'g' sound and at the start of a syllable is romanized as a 'g', but at the end of a syllable it's romanized as 'k'. This leads of all sorts of fun confusion.)
Cait: my principal doesn't. My co-teachers have told him, but he just keeps on calling me Gate.
Marie: LOL I will start calling you Gate. I'm contemplating changing your name in my phone
Cait: ahahaha I'm still being called Cake by some of the students.
Marie: hmm, that's really a hard decision. Gate, or Cake in the phone. You need to make a powerpoint.
C-A-K-E Cake (picture of Cake)
C-A-I-T Cait (picture of Cait)
Cait: there are just so many fun ways to mangle my name.
Marie: maybe your students were hungry?
Cait: I did meet the 6th graders right before lunch....

One of these is a delicious treat...
One of these things is a delicious treat. The other is no longer amused.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Racism in Korea

As part of the public school curriculum, I'm suppose to show certain video clips during my lessons to "teach" the students. They're mostly pretty bad and often unintentionally hilarious - there are some examples here, here and here - but aside from teaching poor pronunciation and awkward (and sometimes flat out incorrect) phrasing, and making me snort in the middle of class, they aren't actually harmful. Right?

Last week, I taught a lesson with a claymation fashion show. The video shows the three contestants being interviewed about where they're from and what they like, illustrating the key expression of the lesson - where are you from? I previewed the video before class and the first two contestants were all right. Nami's from Korea and she likes kimchi, gee that's original. Ann is a basketball playing cowgirl from the USA. Okay, I guess those are both facets of our cultural heritage, albeit two that rarely meet. And then I saw Miss Uganda, Jane.

6-1-4 Where Are You From?

Oh my holy hell. That's blackface. That's CLAYMATION BLACKFACE! And while there is at least the other two characters are dressed in the "native costumes" and a token reference is made to the represented cultures, Jane is stuck in some Tarzan-esque loincloth and tells the MC how she had fun visiting her uncle in Japan. I've lost count of the number of things that's wrong with this scene.

Any expat will tell you that Korea can be a racist society - against foreigners in general and people with darker skin in particular. When my former school ask my opinion on their perspective new native teachers, I was bluntly told they wanted someone white. I've even seen blackface in advertising before. Korea was a hermit country for a long time and they seem to be far behind the West in terms of race relations. (I am in no way suggesting that there isn't racism in America, just that we've reached a point where it is generally viewed as a bad thing.)

It took me a while to articulate why I am so enraged by this. I've been in Korea long enough to no longer be shocked by Korea's prejudices and it's not like I expected my sixth graders' textbook to an advocate for cultural sensitivity, but the fact still remains that this is part of the national curriculum, which means that multiple people, all of whom presumable have some passing familiarity with Western culture, saw this sketch and approved it. This isn't some one off gimmick thought up by some jackass in marketing as a tool to sell more ice cream bars. This isn't the racism of an individual person, like my old principal telling me he would only hire a white woman to replace me. This is a public institution choosing to turn an entire culture into a cheep laugh from bored students. This is an institutionalized racism that's being taught to children, and it made me pull at my hair in rage and frustration.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Because God Forbid I Go a Month Without Posting Pictures of Snow

I walked out of my apartment yesterday morning to a couple inches of powdery snow. Before the Winter That Ate the East Coast, I might have actually been fazed, but as it was, all I thought was gonna want to be wearing different shoes today. I did have a brief pang of homesickness: back home, this much snow would mean no school for the rest of the week.

Snowy Day - 3.10.10
The view from my office improves significantly when it's covered in snow.

Snowy Day - 3.10.10
I saw lots of people out shoveling snow, but none of them were using shovels. This man is using a wooden advertising sign to clear the snow from in front of his shop. I also saw women clearing the snow with brooms. Korea, invest in shovels.

Snowy Day - 3.10.10
Students walking to school in the snow, protected by their Peanuts and Hello Kitty umbrellas.

I also went to the Seoul Immigration Office to apply for my ARC card (last step of the visa process) yesterday and let me tell you, that's six hours of my life I won't be getting back. First, I had to make it down the ice hill to the subway station. (To be fair, I would have had to do this anyways, since I live at the bottom of the ice hill, but the ice did add an extra ten minutes to the trip.) Then I had to stop by the hospital for the results of my medical test (needed for the ARC card). Of course, the immigration office is all the way across the city from me - an hour and a half away by train - and 4:00 is not the best time to show up: I had to wait over an hour for my five minute application process. I left my school at 1:30 and didn't make it back to my apartment until 7:30. BUT, it's done and in seven to ten business days, I'll be able to get a cell phone and a internet connection in my apartment, which will be awesome since I really want to see Jim and Pam's baby.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

[you're walking cross the campus // cruel professor, studying romances]

(List style, because my personal rule is I don't have to deal with transitions until I can sleep past five in the morning.)

-- Last Tuesday was my first day of work and it was about as awkward as I though it was going to be. Last year my co-teacher met me before work my first day, but since Nicole doesn't live in Seongnam, I made my own way to work and stood in the parking lot looking foreign until someone took pity on me and showed me to the vice principal's office, where I sat awkwardly, surreptitiously tried to fix my hair and chatted in broken English/Korean with one of the soldiers* who serves as the general handyman for the school. I was eventually taken to meet the principal and introduced along with the other new teachers over the school broadcast system. Then Nicole showed me the English Zone and my office, where I sat until the faculty meeting that afternoon. I've always through faculty meetings were a waste of time and apparently I didn't hide my boredom quite well enough because after fifteen minutes, the head teacher told me I could go back upstairs of my office. I would feel guilty, only I'm not. I couldn't understand a word being said and they're lucky all they got were glazed looks and yawns into the back of my hand.

-- Last year I took the bus to school, but this year I'm close enough to walk. Unfortunately, my school is towards the top of a steep hill overlooking Seongnam. (I'd have a great view if only Korean cities weren't so god-awful ugly.) The walk to school is a bit awful. The weather is hovering around freezing when I leave in the morning and I'm still a touch sweaty when I get to my office. It's going to be killer this summer. I suspect I can catch a bus at least part of the way up, though. I'll have to investigate more when the weather warms up.

An Office With a View
View to the left: out across Seongnam

An Office With a View
View to the right: main gates and playground, with bonus White Skies of Seoul!

-- My classroom is so fancy! My classroom last year was not so fancy. And by not so fancy, I mean I had to jury rig my computer with a paper clip and a pair of pliers to get the CD-ROM drive open. This year, I have a giant touch screen, an interactive white board and a magical lectern that has to be turned on in at least three different places. I keep forgetting I have a touch screen and activating videos or flipping to the next slide in my presentation when all I want to do is point to something. I also have a separate English Zone, which means I won't have to compete over the noise from the music class across the hall. (I'm going to miss that, actually. The music teacher and I both enjoyed trying to see whose class could be louder.) There are actually enough seats for all the students and in the back of the classroom, there are two smaller rooms called Dream Zone and Happy Zone. They each have a TV, computer and couch, and I have no idea what they're for.

My Classroom
o hi thar, Minsu. icu thar, lurkin on mah smartboard

-- My office, which I share with Nicole, is attached to the classroom. (I have two other co-teachers, but I'm not sure what their exact positions are. Nicole is the head of the English department, though, and I am her problem.) It's much smaller than my office last year, but this office actually has heat**, which evens things out. I do feel guilty sharing an office though, since the Korean teachers are super swamped with paperwork and I always end up with a lot of free time. I have have a couple hours of prep time in the afternoon, and one forty minute lesson (that I've already taught once last year) just doesn't take that much time to plan, but I don't want to goof off too obviously, at least during my first month.

My Office
My office. Pro: has heat. Con: has someone besides me in it. Pro: did I mention there is heat. Con: the curtains helpfully label things commonly found in a city (smokestacks, bench, street tree), which reminds me of kindergarten.

-- One of the legitimate uses of my free time is going through all the teaching materials that the former native teacher left behind, deciding what I think is good enough to reuse and adding the good stuff in my admittedly overly complex filing and naming system. Since all the public schools have the same curriculum and a projector for the computer, there's plenty file sharing between teachers. Teacher upload their files online and other teachers can browse through the archives for each lesson. I downloaded tons of materials last year, so when I made something I thought was decent, I always uploaded it. As I'm going through the files my predecessor left behind, I keep finding things I made last year, which is hilarious and meta and also really flattering. I worked really hard on some of those, and it's nice to know that other people thought they were decent too.

-- I went into Seoul to meet Siobhain for dinner Thursday***. I was on the train, watching the lights reflect on the Han and biting my lip as I giggled along to a Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! podcast, and I was hit by this feeling of homecoming. I must have been in the exact same position dozens of times last year, heading into Seoul for the afternoon and trying not to make a fool of myself by laughing out loud on the subway. Being back in Korea is familiar, but not. The lights and the language and crowds are the same, and I remember what it's like to attract attention walking down the street just because I look different, but the neighborhood and the school and the students are all new. I'm remembering how hard earned my familiarity of Ansan was. I'm realizing that I'm going to have to start all over again, and in the midst of all the new, it was nice to be reminded that somethings haven't changed and I will always be that weird 외국인 who can't stop laughing on the train.

-- I spent last week observing English class. Turns out, the only thing more boring than teaching five identical classes in a row is watching someone else teach five identical classes in a row. I started actually teaching yesterday, which made the day go much faster, although teaching five versions of a lesson "How Are You?" is still pretty mind numbing. (Turns out, every single one of my students is either fine or so-so, except for the one kid who was very angry he missed lunch.) I have three co-teachers: Nicole who teachers third and fourth grade, Yong Eun who teaches sixth grade and a fifth grade teacher who no one formally introduced me to, despite the fact that we taught five classes together yesterday. Yong Eun and the fifth grade teacher spent a lot of the class translating into Korean, which I am not a fan of, but I hoping that after the first few classes, they back off and let me teach. We'll see what happens.

*Korea has a two year mandatory military service for all men over the age of eighteen, but not all conscripts end up as soldiers. Some men end up in what's called "Public Service Agents" positions and are assigned to schools or other government agencies. My school has two soldiers working here.

**By heat, I mean that my office isn't *actually* freezing, not that it's warm. Koreans just don't heat schools. My students all come to class still bundled up in their coats and hats and I'm wearing my coat and hand warmers. The difference is that I'm comfortable so long as I bundle up, as oppose to last year when it didn't matter how many layers I wore, I still lost feeling in my extremities sitting in my office.

***We had Indian food, which, I know, but Indian food - primarily that it is delicious - was my big culinary discovery last year. (Well, that and I gave up any pretense of having standards and just started eating garlic cloves whole. What, it's Korea. Everyone here reeks of garlic. It's my favorite thing about this country!)

Monday, March 1, 2010


I'm back in Korea! I left Brevard Friday afternoon after a super hectic week that including getting violently ill on Saturday afternoon and discovering an hour before I was suppose to leave to spend the night in Charlotte so I could catch my very early plane the next day that due to the CIAA basketball tournament, there were no more hotel rooms left in the entire city. (That's not actually true. I did eventually find a single, very expensive room, but only after half an hour of increasingly frantic searching.) Not to mention doctor visits I couldn't afford (when I have to wait until I move to Korea to get tests run because I can't afford them in my own country, it's a sign that we need health care reform), packing and completely failing to say goodbye to people properly. (Psst, people I know in real life - probably won't be able to do anything this weekend, on account of now living in Asia. Psst, people in Korea, hi, I'm back.)

I actually left the US Saturday morning and arrived in Korea Sunday evening. My flights were uneventful (I knit a whole lot of a sock) and I made it to my new apartment by 6:30. I was met by my co-teacher, Nicole, who seems really nice and speaks amazing English. She showed me where the school (we totally got lost) and the market were and pointed the direction to the subway station, and I was asleep by 9:00. (This is actually a big deal in my quest for not being a walking zombie for the next month. Last year, I didn't make it to my apartment until nearly 1:00 in the morning, woke up at 3:30 and then fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon the next day, which is a bad bad thing to do when trying to adjust to jetlag and ushered in nearly two months of exhaustion and horrible sleep patterns.)

Monday was Independence Day, so I had the day off. I spent it unpacking (almost done), wandering around my new neighborhood and catching up with people. I made sure I could find my school. Now it's Tuesday morning. My alarm will go off in ten minutes, but I've been awake for two hours, waiting for the day and and my new job to begin. And also dancing around my apartment to Queen, because everybody needs a little Freddie Mercury in their life.