Sunday, April 25, 2010

Another Week

I don't know where this last week went. It completely flew by. We had another round of 6th grade students, whose English levels seemed to be a little lower than usual. It made classes a little slower, but things went fine overall. They were sweet as always.

I met up with some girlfriends for a dinner of shabu-shabu. It is a Japanese meal centered around a pot of broth at your table. Ingredients get added in in stages, and you pull them out as they are ready to eat with dipping sauces. Various mushrooms and beautiful greens like chard, kale, and napa cabbage. Bean sprouts and zucchini. Rice cake fingers and fish cakes. Then thin slices of beef that cook quickly. Pork mandu, or potstickers can go in whenever you want. A spicy-tangy coleslaw-type salad to eat cold. Pickled radishes and cucumbers of course. You are supposed to eat all the veggies and meat before adding the house-made sweet potato noodles. By that point we were stuffed, but one of the best parts is last: cooked rice is added to the remaining broth along with a raw egg to make a porridge/risotto-ish savory dessert. Then some sweet tea and you roll yourself home.

I really want to cook in my convection oven but there is one tiny problem... I have no idea how to use it. So as with my washing machine, I took pictures of all the buttons and settings so my Korean coteacher could translate. I know how to use the microwave setting, but after that I'm lost. Well, I still don't totally get it, but I think I just need to experiment and possibly make a sacrifical loaf of banana bread.

Saturday I had an awesome run in Eumpa park. It was sunny, mild, and I was feeling focused conquering a long distance. The half marathon is just 3 weeks away, and training has been a little difficult since I don't know exact distances for anywhere. But I ran for a solid hour and a half, so I should be right on target for my training.

Satuday night by coworker had a housewarming party at his new apartment. It's actually an old piano hagwon, or private school. So the layout is funky but pretty cool, and it is much bigger than the average space us foreign teachers live in. In the living room there are like 7 doors that lead to little rooms, the old practice rooms. It was a great crowd and nice to meet some new friends, including foreign English teachers, Korean teachers, and a Spanish teacher from Ecuador. I got to speak Spanish! Here are some of my coworkers, 4 out of the 6 of us at the school.

Sunday was warm and sunny... dare I say hot! Every one and their mother was at the park, and I went to walk along the water, look at what's left of the cherry blossoms, and eat ice cream. Later my friend Michael and I met at the store and finally made the bold move of buying bicycles. I was ecstatic! We rode around the city in the sun, not totally sure where we were going but finding our way nonetheless. It is soooo nice to finally be more mobile, and not have to walk or take a cab to go anywhere. We headed home exhilarated, tired and hungry, and luckily found one of the few neighborhood restaurants open on Sunday. We had a great meal of samgyeopsal, this time with thin-sliced meat that I haven't seen before. I went home and read, did laundry, and got ready for this next week. It was the perfect Sunday to end a pretty darn good week.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Seoulful Weekend

I finally made it out of Gunsan! I took a weekend trip! Ever since I arrived, I have either had to work Saturday or just wanted to have a mellow weekend. When friends back home ask me what Gunsan is comparable to, I say Tacoma, Washington. And in fact, Gunsan and Tacoma are sister cities, a status forged in the 1980's by none other than my own Headmaster here at GELC, who lived in Tacoma for years and went to UPS. In other words, Gunsan is "down-to-earth", contendedly unspectacular, gritty, industrial, dotted with nice parks and token cultural sites. I was pretty excited to finally make it up to Seoul and explore the big city.

I went to visit my friend Amanda who I have known since elementary school, and we also went to the same college. She has been living in Seoul teaching English to high school students for almost two years now. I was stoked to have a friend and tour guide who was enthusiastic about the city and Korean culture. I caught a bus early Saturday morning and made the 2.5 hour trip to central Seoul. Then I took the subway to her stop. Gosh I love subways! I've taken them in London, Paris, New York, Boston, Washington DC, and Mexico City, and every time I lament the lack of underground public transit in the western U.S. The subway system in Seoul is awesome- huge, easy, comprehensive, and inexpensive. Just look at all the stops on this thing!

I was immediately struck by the air quality. It seemed not only smoggy, but with a distinct brown-yellow tint. I had heard of Yellow Dust, which is a phenomenon that strikes Korea in the spring months. Severe wind storms from China and Mongolia blow fine soil particles east, and this dust often has industrial pollutants mixed in. It was definitely visible, though aparently not as bad as it was a few weeks ago. Otherwise, it was a beautiful, fairly sunny day. Amanda and I headed to Gyeong Bok Goong, a large 14th-century palace in the middle of the city.

Check out this picture below! Isn't it pretty? You wouldn't even know that you were in the middle of 20 million people!

Then we walked around Insa-dong, a cute neighborhood of shops, narrow pedestrian alleys, street performers, and plenty of other foreigners. You can also find the only Starbucks whose sign is written in Korean letters instead of Roman letters. It says something like "Sa-ta-buk-sa Ko-pi".

For dinner we headed to Sinchon, a university neighborhood. Amanda introduced me to ddukgalbi, a delicious stir-fried chicken dish. She doesn't usually wear a red polka-dotted apron around town, no- they give the customers bibs to wear so you don't splatter your beautiful clothes. We feasted on this mix of chicken, seafood, veggies, noodles, and kimchi, along with some rice wine.

Late night took us to another dong (neighborhood) to meet up with some of Amanda's friend, a Korea and a Chinese guy who both speak good English. It was a hof (cafe) named "I love school". I really really love the names of things here and the funny translations.

Speaking of which, I got my hair cut on Sunday at a place called "Variety Network Hair Castle". Hah! I sometimes try to think of what they really meant in Korean, or what a better translation would be. Maybe "Multi-service Luxury Salon" ? Well, I will never know the answer to that one, but it was a good haircut anyway. I'm embracing the Korean way and decided to get some more solid bangs. Luckily Amanda was there to explain for me. After less than two years here, her Korean is AWESOME. I am so impressed. She gave me a Korean lesson which was soooo helpful.

Seoul is a gigantic place to explore in a weekend, and I feel like I barely scratched the surface. More trips are definitely in store for the future.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

One Month Anniversary

I've been in Korea for exactly one month! The time really has flown by, cliche as that sounds. I've gotten familiar with my job, settled in my apartment, made some new friends, and learned a little about Korean culture. Now that I'm past the very initial stages of getting comfortable, it is time to do some weekend trips and focus more seriously on studying Korean. I feel like such an idiot sometimes only being able to say a handful of words. Bring on the workbooks and audio CDs!

In other news, this weekend was the first annual Gunsan Lifelong Learning Festival. Our school had a booth, so I was working there Friday and Saturday.

It was a city festival with participants ranging from schools to businesses to artists to public health advocates. There were a lot of interactive booths, free food, give-aways, traditional dances, and musical performances. I was mostly speaking English and playing games with little kids, but had some really interesting adult conversations and also snuck away to visit the other booths.

You could drink Korean tea, make squid pancakes, bind a journal, play Korean games, have your face painted, play dress up in traditional clothes, get acupuncture, play with robots, get your nails done, snack on popcorn, throw pottery, and eat sweet bean pastries.

The only bummer was that they tried to time the event to coincide with the cherry blossoms. The festival was in a park with a lot of cherry trees, and all the advertising banners showed trees in full bloom. Unfortunately, it's still been wintery and the trees haven't really blossomed yet. We are finally seeing a few flowers on a few trees, but no explosion of petals. Soon, very soon... and I will be very excited.

Also, if you're reading this, I would love to know! Please feel free to leave a comment, it's always nice to know who's reading.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Birthday in Korea

This year was the 5th of my last 10 birthdays that I have spent out of the country. Nineteen was in Germany, 23 and 27 in Mexico, 26 in Peru, and now 28 in Korea. Often I am just arriving somewhere, don't know many people, and don't have any expectations. Then I am always pleasantly surprised! This year was no exception- I had a wonderful birthday and am so grateful to all the new and old friends who rallied to help celebrate. Since my birthday was on a Sunday, I decided I might as well claim the whole weekend for the event.

On Friday after classes, the school had a little party with cake for me and another staff member. There was a tasty, not-too-sweet chocolate cake and a white rice flour one. It was my first time eating cake with chopsticks! I also got some mail before the work day was over- a couple cards from aunts and uncles, and an amazing birthday package from Elizabeth in Argentina. She had great timing getting the package to me (I'm good at sending international gifts, but NEVER on time) and even had a primary color teaching theme to the presents! Thanks Eli, that totally made my day!

After work I went home, planning to have a quiet evening, but the headmaster invited me, another foreign teacher, and a bunch of other staff out for dinner. We drove about 45 minutes up the coast to a seafood festival, which only happens two weeks out of the year and this was the last weekend. I was really hungry and looking forward to grubbing on some fish or shellfish. There were several big temporary restaurant tents set up for the festival, like this:

It turns out that seafood festival really meant baby octopus festival.

This week is the only time when you can fish for this special baby octopus which is supposed to be amazing for your health- good for the blood, anti-aging, cancer fighting, etc. It was an honor to get invited out to this meal... but let's just say it was not something I was inclined to get filled up on. We had a pot of broth on a gas burner at our table, and they drop the octopus in alive. It only cooks for a few minutes before the tentacles are ready and you can cut them off. The head has to cook for awhile longer.

So I got to try boiled octopus, octopus broth, stir-fried chili octopus, ramen octopus, rice and vegetable octopus, raw octopus. I definitely ate a lot of the banchan (side dishes) that night, mmm, it was a delicious dinner of bean sprout, seaweed, and kimchi.

But the company was good and we were having a grand time, so we decided to sing some karaoke! Here it is called a noraebang, or singing room. The group alternated between Korean and English songs and I even did a duet with the headmaster.

On Saturday I joined some friends on an epic journey to Costco. It's an hour and a half train ride, and it was a beautiful day for a train trip. I feel overly American admitting that I went to Costco, but it was great to stock up on a few items that aren't available anywhere else. (Well, maybe in Seoul, but that is even farther away). I'd say about 80% of the products are the same as in the states, and the other 20% are Korean. I went for the coffee, black tea, tortillas, and cheese. I marveled at few things, like that Korean Costco carries lawn mowers. I have yet to see a lawn here.

On Sunday morning I went for a long run in a nearby park. I ran there, around the lake, and back home, probably over 7 miles all together. Again, it was surprisingly warm and sunny, and it felt great to log some decent miles. Here is the only picture I have of Eunpa lake, but this is from a different day. A much colder day a few weeks ago.

Before I came here, the school put me in touch with one of the teachers for packing advice. Her name is Alex, and she was invaluable in helping me get ready to leave. She is no longer at the school after having a baby, but she has still introduced me to a handful of other English teachers. They organized a birthday lunch for me on Sunday which was perfect- celebratory but mellow. We found a sushi place that was open, and enjoyed a hybridized Japanese-Korean meal- nigiri, miso soup, chilled buckwheat noodle soup, kimchi, Korean bulgogi and donkas.

This thoughtful posse even brought a cake, party hat, and mini chocolate Easter bunny. We moved location for dessert, drinking coffee and tea in an enjoyably gaudy super-floral coffee shop. Later I went for a walk to Alex and her husband's new apartment, hung out with them for awhile, and also got to see more of their baby, probably the cutest baby in Gunsan. It was a fun weekend, and so far I'm feeling good about being 28.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Back To School

Teaching is sort of like being a student again. I'm back to the world of assignments, readings, schedules, bells ringing, school assemblies, and tests. It's been over two years since I have taught Spanish or taken ESL education classes. I'm digging up old experiences and memories of teaching, and suddenly thinking about words like teachable moments, modeling, and teacher talk for the first time in awhile. It's really good to be here though, and the adjustment to a new job has been quick. Here is a typical day...

I leave for school around 9am, and walk less than 15 minutes to get there. On my way I pass my bank, the post office, a grocery store, restaurants, cafes, and other miscellaneous shops. Some days there are street vendors selling household items, food, or clothes. When I get to school, we have to take our shoes off and change to slippers. I was actually concerned about bringing nice "work" shoes with me to Korea, not knowing my shoes would be in my locker all day! Hah! I still think it's funny to see staff and students well-dressed but walking around in casual slip-on shoes. Anyway, I work with 4 other American teachers and 5 Korean teachers, and they are all really nice. Here is the faculty office.

In fact, they are so nice that some one often brings in goodies to share. Homemade banana bread, cupcakes, Korean rice cakes, or other traditional treats. Here is fish bread, shaped for its namesake and filled with a sweet bean paste.

First period starts at 9:30. The way the school works is that we have a new crop of students every week. They are all 6th graders from various elementary schools in the city who come for 5 days as an extension from their regular school. The whole experience is supposed to simulate visiting an English-speaking country and being immersed in the language. So every Monday morning is Orientation, in which the students get checked in and get a "passport". They then have to go through Immigration and answer questions, which is how we assess their comprehension and speaking ability.

The headmaster gives a speech and all the instructors have to give short speeches as well. It is usually a quick and generic "Welcome, work hard, have fun" schpeal, but my coworker James takes it to the next level. He is from Memphis and I think he's hilarious. He always does a more profound speech during Orientation, often quoting a U.S. president, Gandhi, or Voltaire. He said his goal is to make the headmaster's translation into Korean longer than his original speech in English. Also, James teaches the music class. I walked by the other day, and I don't know what song they were learning, but I caught a glimpse of the whiteboard. All it said was "Mullet. Business in the front, party in the back". Ahh, I love the poetic license we have as teachers.

Then begins content classes, of which I'm teaching two right now. In the mornings I have Clinic, where students learn common illnesses and roleplay going to the doctor. Then I do the cooking class. Right now the lesson is crepes, and the kids really like it. It sort of feels like cheating. I mean, they get to make food and cover it in chocolate, so of course they are going to like the class.

After third period we have lunch at noon. So far, I usually eat the school food with the Korean staff. Sometimes I go out, and there are plenty of lunch places nearby, but it takes time and the school food is generally good. Once in a while some one brings in something homemade, especially different kimchis, or meat to cook there and share with every one. Here is a duck stir-fry from last week, to be wrapped in lettuce leaves, called ori chumulak.

I don't teach 4th or 5th period, so after lunch is my planning time. I am still wading through all the materials that were left to us from past teachers. I work on making new materials, but sometimes it's a little hard because the computer is in Korean. I mean, seriously, have you ever tried to make a power point when you can't even find where to click "new slide" ? It's difficult. Luckily, Cut, Copy, and Paste show the keyboard shortcut letter in English, so I end up using those all the time.

The regular school day ends at 2:40. All the 6th graders go home, and most of the teachers have planning time after that. However, I do an afternoon Reading and Speaking course for 8th graders from 4:00-5:30. Whereas our 6th graders are only here for a week, I have the 8th grade class for 14 weeks, and all my lesson planning is for them. I'm glad I was assigned this group, because it gives me a chance to get to know them over the semester.

On Friday afternoons we have Festival, where we say goodbye to the students since it is the last day of the program. It ends up being Paparazzi time- all the students want pictures of the teachers, so seriously you have a mass of 13 year olds in your face with their camera phone taking your picture. Sometimes they want your autograph too in their passport. They all write their feelings about the week on a big piece of butcher paper, then we give more speeches, then there are a few student speeches, then we watch a slideshow of pictures from class the past week. Finally, we all sing whatever song they learned in music class, this week "Achy Breaky Heart" by Billy Ray Cyrus (oh, that might explain the mullet vocabulary!)which ended with James and I doing a spontaneous demonstration of the Electric Slide for the school.

So that's the week in a nutshell. Sixty-four new kids every Monday through Friday. Repeat. A little variety got thrown in last week with our first all-staff dinner, a welcome for us new teachers and a goodbye for another. It was samgyeopsal at a restaurant owned by the parents of one of the support staff. We ate Korean-style, sitting on the heated floor with shoes off. It was yuummyy. We all ended up having to do speeches (more speeches, are you surprised?) which I think is actually a really sweet tradition. I'm instituting it in my household when I get back to the U.S.

It is my Canadian coworker Kerry who we were saying goodbye to and I am so sad. She and her husband are moving back to Canada in a few days. She is like a coworker dream, the kind of woman you hope to work with when you start a new job in a new country. In terms of work, she was extremely helpful, gave me all her old files and answered about a million questions. In terms of getting settled in my new apartment, she was key. I wish she weren't moving, but it ended up being good timing for me getting here since she had to get rid of some household items. She gave me an iron, a hairdryer, an electric teapot, a hand-blender, food, dishes, platters, and pots. She is nothing short of my Korea angel.

The linguistic nerd in me loves this work because I get to be amused by language all day long (okay, maybe not all day. A few choice moments in the day.) Recently, I was doing a speaking assessment with one of my 8th graders. She had to describe a picture sequence, basically of a man drinking coffee and washing the dishes. She struggled to describe each picture, and finally got to the last one where the coffee cup is shiny and clean. "Man washing dishes and then..." She squeezed her eyes shut, searching for the words. "Then the cup is bling bling!" I looked at her in surprise and we both started cracking up.

The 8th graders also had to write an essay, "Why is learning English important to me?" It was partly to assess their writing level, partly as a morale booster, and partly to learn more about them. I loved reading the essays. They were very honest and to-the-point. Here are quotes from a few of the students' papers.


"It is very hard to express oneself in a language that is not a foreign language own. I persevere in learn efforts for my future."

"When I finish the college, I will travel in Europe. And I will learn their culture, make many friend, and visit their relics."

"Learning English is important to me because everything is English like sign. Signboard and English is connected to my dream."

"I study English because I want to live good life. These days, English is global language. If I don't study English I can’t get a job. Then I will be jobless person.…Although English is hard and difficult, I have to study English hard. When I grow up and become an adult I will get a great job and live good life. So if I marry I will live happy life with my wife and my children."

"In the future, I want to be a diplomat, so I’m learning English for my vision."

"I think English hard but I am patient because I dream come true in order I trip England because I heard that these place is very beautiful."

"I like learning English that I can speak English each other, and in this generation I should learning English for my beautiful future…"

"Because I want to go to Australia. In Australia I can see kangaroo and Australia is very peaceful. Australia is use English. So go to Australia I learning English and speak it very much. But I’m not well at English."

"I think hard about learning English words and I like about learning English. I feel proud."

"So I watch the animation “The Simpson” and “Sponge Bob” in weekend. My uncle said, Watching the animation in English is a good way to studying English."


There you have it. Not grammatically perfect, but brillance from the mouths of babes. Sometimes I feel a little funny being an English teacher, and profiting from spreading this form of linguistic neo-imperialism to far reaches of the globe. In general, I am a supporter of multi-linguism, and of groups not having to sacrifice their native language to learn whatever the more dominant, economic, and often colonial language is. I like to think I am helping the kids by teaching English, that they will have more education and job opportunities, and that they can be proud to speak Korean while also having the language skills necessary to be more global citizens. There is no doubt that Korea has undertaken a serious endeavor to learn English, and so far it is fun to teach such willing students. It also means it is time for me to work on my Korean...