Friday, December 24, 2010

Two posts in one day!

I know, I know, but try to stay in your seat. I figure you’ve all got extra time on your hands with the Christmas/New Year’s vacation and all, so here’s some extra reading material.

There are few good things about not being home for Christmas, but one of them is that I don’t have to fight the traffic barreling down I-81, cowering in my tiny Civic between ever-present pairs of 18-wheelers. Admittedly, crossing the road in front of the Home Plus to get to the Christmas party that I am attending may well be a harrowing experience, as is crossing any road in Korea (never assume you have the right of way as a pedestrian), but that should only take 5-10 minutes as opposed to 7+ hours.

Christmas cheer at the Nutcracker
Christmas in Korea, while it is commonly observed, is not nearly the huge holiday that it is in the West. It’s a religious holiday for those who are religious, but the secular angle is not nearly as played up as it is back home. Mostly, Christmas Eve is like Valentines Day – a big date night when you hope it snows not because you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but because the first snow of the year in Korea is thought to bring new love with it. So, in order to fill the void of family and warm fuzzies, we waygooks had to make our own Christmas cheer. For me, these activities included making 12 dozen Jack-Daniels-because-I-couldn’t-find-bourbon balls with the help of a green but promising Irish baker; helping to raise 670k won for the family of a migrant worker through a caroling session downtown (ok, so raising money was just gravy – I love caroling, especially with jingly antlers!); and attending a very Korean performance of the Nutcracker by the Gwangju city ballet company. The sentimentality of simply attending the Nutcracker at Christmas – and the fun of introducing the uninitiated to such a ritual – were quite enjoyable. However, the meat on a stick at concessions, what looked for all the world to me like a giant Tigger on stage during the party scene, the appearance of a tie-dyed flag and countless other features of the performance that were just slightly off all served to remind me approximately every 5 minutes that I was, in fact, still in Korea, Tchaikovsky or no. In anticipation of this, my group decided to class it up. Instead of purchasing an overpriced cup of mulled wine at intermission (there was none to be had anyway), we snuck in homemade eggnog and noshed on Christmas cookies during the performance. As a former usher, I was mortified at first, but since the Korean ballet is apparently an usher-less affair, I quickly relaxed.

In non-Christmas-related news, I enjoyed a nice day trip with……

…..Ok, I don’t know why I’ve danced around the subject for so long, especially since a good number of you probably already know that I now have a boyfriend. [Insert sigh of relief from the entire Korean community. Another case of the singles, cured!] As do all of my students, who have reported back to my co-teachers that Caity Teacher’s boyfriend (whom they’ve seen with me on the street) is handsome and that, therefore, they approve. His name is Paul; he’s from Ireland; and yes, he’s very handsome. Now you officially know and I can refer to him by his name and quit coming up with ways to work around his existence when I write my posts.

So, I enjoyed a nice outing to Namwon with some of Paul’s high school students a few Saturdays back. A group of them attend school on scholarship and live at the school like boarding students. Paul occasionally takes them on day trips to practice their English and expand their knowledge of their own country. (Koreans travel surprisingly little around Korea, despite its small size. I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen more of the country than a large portion of the teachers who’ve lived here their entire lives.) He gets to bring other Native English Teachers with him as co-chaperons, and we all end up with a bit more cash in our pockets and a bit more sight-seeing under our belts. Namwon is a village known as the setting of the famous love story of Chunhyangga. In a nutshell: Nobleman and woman of low birth fall in love and are secretly married; nobleman is transferred to Seoul; woman is taken as a wife by the mayor of Namwon but remains loyal to the nobleman; nobleman, having gained more power, returns to claim the woman and publicly takes her back to Seoul as his wife. A much nicer ending than Romeo & Juliet. We visited two lovely sets of gardens with love, of course, as their theme. Appropriately, this was the first time that any of Paul’s students had seen me, so I was also part of the love-themed entertainment. They were damn good students, though, and even the girls who have crushes on Paul caved and said nice things to or about me by the end of the day.

That trip began what I shall refer to as Caity Teacher’s Grand Week of Korean Cultural Experiences (Part I, as I hope there will be more to come). Final exams meant that classes were over after lunchtime, so the week began with a trip to a grade 2 teacher’s house outside the city. I had never been in any Korean home, but I understand that the vast majority of people in the cities, including fairly well-off and well-established families, live in apartments. So it was also a treat for the other teachers to have a change of scenery. We had tea and snacks, complete with three different kinds of persimmons – green, ripe and dried, all remarkably different in taste and texture. I spent about 3 hours sitting on the floor, picking out the occasional word that I knew from the lively Korean conversation going on around me, and enjoying the fruits of the special chestnut-roasting drawer in the wood stove that was heating the pipes under the floor. My legs were asleep and my ass was sore, but surely I’ll never get used to it without practice. The home itself is newly built, covered in what looked to me like stucco (very unusual in Korea), and models a strange fusion of West Coast USA-Spanish Mission and Asian styles. In true Korean fashion, there was next to no furniture except for cushions and low tables (they always sit on the floor), and the kitchen had no oven. Now I understand why my apartment came so sparsely furnished. On another afternoon, we had a teachers’ activity in which we made our own natural moisture cream while being lectured on the benefits of aromatherapy and how it’s replacing doctors in developed countries (??).

You may have wondered to yourself in the above paragraph just how much Korean I can understand these days. Well, folks, I can understand as much as a person who has diligently studied (ha!) for 48 hours worth of Korean language course credit at the prestigious Chonnam National University. I can now say many useful things, such as고양이가 어디에 있어요?(Where is the cat?) and 앤나씨 도서관사에 공부 하고 있어요. (Anna is studying at the library.) We wrapped up last night, and presented our course instructor (who is probably the awesomest Korean teacher EVER) with this little gem as a Christmas/thank you gift. This was honestly one of the most difficult subjects I have ever studied, probably not any less so because I haven’t taken a real class in 5 years. But I attended every session, I actually passed, and I am quite proud of me.

And in my final bow to Korean culture this month, I caved under the pressure to wear a coat indoors. In my Western mind, coats are for outdoors, hallways should be heated, and windows should NEVER be opened in the winter. When the other teachers asked me if I was cold and why I didn’t wear a coat, I firmly told them that where I come from, our mothers make us take off our coats when we come inside. But after weeks of seeing my breath in the restroom, scurrying down the frigid hallways between my classroom and the office, and enduring frozen fingers and toes while an arctic wind blasts through the windows at cleaning time (“Air must be presh-ee!”), I decided that it might be better to walk around the school in my down coat looking like the Michelin Man. At least my core is now warm, if not my hands and feet.

For those of you still worried, I have one more thing to say: Not surprisingly, Kim Jong-Crazy's bark is worse than his bite.

That’s it; that’s all I’ve got to say this time. Merry (or Happy) Christmas to all! I wonder if the Land of Morning Calm is still calm on Christmas morning?

Merry Christmas!

즐거운 크리쓰마쓰!
 From Korea (and Caity Teacher and her friends)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A month of catching up

First, we’re all still alive down here in Gwangju, and aside from the few who were killed in Yeonpyeong, so is pretty much everyone else in Korea. Kim Jong Crazy still has his thumb above the button, not on it, and despite the tough talk, everyone seems to be exercising some measure of restraint. My students got over it a few days later, and there’s been little talk of it since, except on the news. Pray it stays that way.

So, a rundown of what I’ve been up to recently (and not-so-recently, you know, because I’m behind):

Nov. 6  Went hiking up Mudeung Mountain. I would like to say that I hung back with the kids who were getting over a cold because I was being nice and wanted to make sure they were ok. In reality, I just couldn’t hack that hike. I will be back to conquer you later, mountain.

Nov. 7  Visited the Biennale on the final day before it closed until the next one in 2012. Apparently the one here in Gwangju was Asia’s first contemporary art biennale. Interesting and surprisingly edgy stuff. One exhibit included front pages from newspapers published around the world on Sept. 12, 2001. Fascinating to see the varying international coverage.

Nov. 11  Veterans’ Day, also know in Korea as Pepero Day. Americans commemorate the end of World War I (Tom Nelson, if you’re reading this, I still remember that trench you made us dig) and thank the veterans who have fought to protect us. Koreans swap boxes of stick-shaped cookies dipped in chocolate because, um, 11/11 looks like four sticks of the stuff. And we complain about Valentine’s Day being created by the card companies! Also, my president was in Seoul for the G-20 summit. I watched him on TV.

Nov. 23  Giant box of Christmas goodness, including the necessary ingredients for pumpkin pie, arrived at my desk. And there was much rejoicing.

Nov. 25  Thanksgiving Day. Went to school; taught my students about Thanksgiving, complete with the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special. Went to Korean class; struggled. Yep, that’s pretty much it. They don’t do turkeys in Korea. Unless you’re really dedicated and have an oven and other such bourgeois contraptions. I am not and do not.

Nov. 26  Accepted that I was coming down with a cold. Also, decorated the apartment for Christmas.

Nov. 30  Box of cheese arrived from home. I now have sharp cheddar, haloumi, havarti with dill, and edam. My refrigerator is complete.

Dec. 1  Following much urging from all of the Koreans around me, I finally gave in and went to the doctor. He gave me a shot in the ass and mystery miracle pills. I felt worlds better. This is why Koreans don’t take sick days – why would you stay home and be miserable when you could go to the doctor and get a string of medication for less than 5 USD that makes you feel as healthy as a strung-out horse?
Yay for kebabs!

Dec. 3-5  A large crew from Gwangju piled on a bus and headed to Seoul for a fantabulous Western-style Christmas dinner. I had resolved not to eat a bite of Korean food the entire weekend, and I succeeded. Beginning with dinner on Friday, I ate Chinese food, greasy bar food, a total of three kebabs (the Turkish version of gyros), waffles, a full and proper Christmas dinner (TURKEY!!!), Italian food, and a roasted veggie sandwich. We also finished up our Christmas shopping and did some drinking and dancing. We love Seoul; we will be back.

On a more informative note, it’s hard to believe that such a vibrant, modern metropolitan city is just 30 miles from the flailing economy, starving population, extremely restrictive censorship and general backwardness of North Korea. It’s also surprising just how different Seoul is from Busan, the second largest city, let alone from Gwangju and other cities I’ve visited in the south of the country. It just has an entirely different feel to it. If you’re at all interested, this is a fantastic article on Seoul’s rising.

Dec. 6  Pictures from Seoul were posted on Facebook. I resolved to buy a scale and eat more Korean (read: healthy and super low-cal) food. Just because I know where to find Western food now doesn’t mean I should be eating it all the time. Maybe start exercising? Nah…..

Dec. 7  Today I finally figured out what it is that I’ve been drinking LOADS of in school every day since the weather turned cold: Solomon’s Seal tea. Apparently it’s good for sports injuries, broken bones, gastrointestinal issues, menopause, PMS, blood pressure, coughing and mental clarity. Just call me Super Woman.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hyperbole and the Korean way

While I was excitedly rifling through the Christmas care package that arrived from home this afternoon and my co-teachers were merrily munching on praline pecans that Mom made, rockets were landing on a small island in the disputed maritime border region of North and South Korea.

I’ve not been the news hound here that I was at home, so my first heads-up came when a group of students stampeded into my office, trying to explain what had happened in their broken English. “Teacher! North Korea, South Korea! Canons! BOOM! War! Let’s go to America!” Ok, what’s this about? The usual middle school student exaggerations, or should I be getting on a plane because Seoul is on fire?

Of course, there was a lag in English-language coverage. I refreshed Google news frantically, waiting for someone to give me more than the sketchy outline of breaking news articles. Perhaps some context, please? I know the officials are keeping their cards close to the chest for now, but where are the Asia political experts to put this in perspective for me when I need them? Not being in DC, and it being the middle of the night back home, I can’t just pick up the phone and call my friendly neighborhood analyst. At the moment the AP and BBC are gradually catching up, and some context is being provided, if not much more detail.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few months about Korean culture, it’s that Koreans love to exaggerate. If there will be an extra hour of traffic around Chuseok holiday, Koreans say it will be four hours extra. If you ask directions to a place that’s more than a few blocks from where you’re standing, you are told that your destination is “very far” and you should take a bus. Even if it’s only five blocks away. I have no doubt that this penchant for hyperbole extends to their reactions to international happenings, particularly when they’re so close to home. And since the rest of the world is currently getting all of its info from Korean news sources, the situation’s bound to sound a bit scarier than it really is. It’s the waiting game for more reliable, researched coverage that’s making me a bit skittish.

My family will be waking up soon. I’ll be calling them after Korean class in my own kind of preemptive strike. Yes, I’ve updated all of my info with the State Department and the embassy in Seoul. Yes, you are my emergency contacts. It’s going to be ok.

Let’s not all make mountains out of our molehills. At least not until we know how big the mole is.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Zen and the Art of Early Awakening

About 23% of South Koreans are Buddhists, which is slightly less than the number of Christians. Outside Confucianism, Buddhism has had the strongest influence on Korea’s historical culture, and many of the Koreans I’ve met here have urged me to do a temple stay as an important part of getting the full cultural experience of Korea. I chose Seonunsa for my first experience. Mainly because it has a website in English.

Seonunsa is a 6th century temple located in Gochang County, about an hour and a half bus ride from Gwangju. It focuses on Korean Seon (Zen) practice. While most of the temple structures were burned during a 16th century Japanese invasion, some of the original beams are still incorporated into the main temple, or Golden Hall. I felt a sense of awe standing in the courtyard, contemplating the temple history, much like what I experienced standing among the 2,500-year-old ruins in Greece. The historical sites that we visit in the U.S. are over 2,000 years younger than some of the buildings still preserved in the rest of the world – a fact that really puts our own brief history into perspective.

Due to a reservation mix-up/schedule change at the temple (dyamic Korea!), there was no formal Temple Stay program this past weekend. Instead, a huge celebration was being held for the re-dedication of one of the temple buildings. Someone important was coming to pray some important prayer that would make the temple building super-important. At least, that’s as good an understanding as I got of the situation. Meaning that, aside from meals and prayer services, we were free to do whatever we liked within the temple grounds.

We arrived a bit late (another mix-up, this time with buses), changed into our “training uniforms” (orange jumpsuits similar to those of prison inmates in the US) and received a hurried tour of the temple grounds. Meals are all vegetarian (I’m sure this has something to do with a belief in reincarnation), and not a grain of food is wasted. After dinner came what was, in my music-loving opinion, the highlight of our stay. A set of enormous instruments, suspended inside a brightly painted shelter, awaits the prelude of the morning and evening prayer services. They are meant to call out to all of the souls of the universe, in whatever form they currently dwell, to follow the way of Buddha. First, the dharma drum is played to save all living beings on land, including human beings. The pounding takes such force that several monks swap out during the call to relieve each other. Next, the hollow inside of the wooden fish is played by a monk with two sticks, meant to save all living creatures in the sea. The clacking sound of the fish and the metallic sound of the next instrument, a cloud-shaped gong, are more akin to sounds that a percussionist might elicit from items on a construction site than in a temple complex, but fortunately these two instruments are played for the least amount of time. Finally, the brahma bell – most impressive of all of these instruments – is struck with what looks like a large log strung up with rope on both ends. Anna and I were invited to help ring the bell, which calls out to souls in hell. Standing so close, the sound vibrated in the very core of my being, and the reverberations seemed to block out all other sounds on Earth. I can easily see why it is said that the sound of the brahma bell can release hell-bound souls from their suffering. It was an effort to pull myself away before the 33 chimes were finished, but we had to move to evening prayers in the Golden Hall.

Prayers consist of the chiming of yet another bell (though much smaller and less impressive), chanting a prescribed set of Buddha’s teachings, and bowing and prostrations. Fortunately, everyone gets a large red cushion to kneel on, or my knees wouldn’t have made it on the ancient wooden floor. Offerings of beautifully arranged fruits and flowers adorn the temple, and incense thickens the air. We followed the lead of the monks and other worshipers in the temple, not comprehending much intellectually, but understanding enough of the spirit of the ceremony: I am equal with all beings of the universe. What I cultivate in my mind and heart, I will become. I want to follow the way of compassion and veneration for all life, and to help all beings on Earth.

Lights out was at 9pm, in anticipation of the pre-dawn wakeup call to morning prayers. We slept on layers of blankets on an ondol in a guesthouse, so my unaccustomed body was more ready than usual to get up when some sort of wooden drum began to beat at about 4:15am. (I know I’ve said that my bed is as hard as sleeping on the floor. Turns out this isn’t quite true.) Morning prayers followed the same format as the evening service, then we returned to our warm floor for “self practice” (a.k.a. another hour of sleep before breakfast).

When the sun finally joined us for the day, visitors began pouring onto the temple grounds for the re-dedication ceremony. As if the orange pajamas didn’t make us stand out enough (everyone else is dwelling in the temple complex dresses in gray), we were the only waygooks at the temple. This made us the immediate subject of interest of no less than four Koreans laden with fancy photographic equipment, eager to get the perfect temple shot. Apparently having a couple of mildly confused foreigners in your frame fits the bill. We even got some roasted chestnuts out of the deal, along with the standard “Beautiful!” compliments. Not understanding much of the ceremony, we went for a walk in the surrounding forest amid the striking fall colors of the maples and ginkgos (where our orange blended in quite nicely). Upon returning to the temple, we took some green tea (grown at the temple, no less!) with a monk. Sadly, it was a rather silent few cups of tea, as the monk spoke no English and our fledgling Korean doesn’t include enlightenment vocabulary. Much to our surprise, while we were sitting there, we saw another monk walk by wearing toe socks, while yet another whipped out a cell phone. What does a monk send text messages about? Feeling enlightened 2day. MayB its just the spicy tofu frm brkfast? Apparently monks shun beds but not modern technology.

Having completed this, shall we say cursory, temple stay, I see far more of the Confucian influence in modern-day Korea than Buddhist influence. I suppose there aren’t any Confucian temples that I could visit, though, and the Buddhist temples throughout the country are living museums preserving an important and beautiful part of Korean history. I have a slightly better understanding of Buddhism in Korea than I had after seeing Keumsan, but there are still many, many more questions to be answered. I plan to return to Seonunsa for a proper temple stay program, hopefully sometime soon.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

ShinGwang School Festival: A Photo/Video Essay

Back home, we have field day and science fairs. We hop around in sacks and throw water balloons; show off large models of molecules and frothing volcanoes. Given the American stereotype of Asians, you'd think they'd be all into the science fair thing, displaying their Ph.D.-level projects on long, neat tables, waiting with their spectacles and clipboards, ready to explain their Latest Stroke of Genius (patent pending) to the know-nothing waygook English teacher. But you'd be wrong, my friends. Very, very wrong.

Yes, the ShinGwang Middle School festival did have an area displaying some of the students' projects. But these projects had absolutely nothing to do with science, and it was a very small display. My students are into art - particularly performance art - and they don't give a rat's ass about anything academic if they can possibly find a way to avoid it. They are pushed so hard for 6 days a week, up to 14 hours a day, that when given the choice, they run from their schoolwork like woodland creatures from a forest fire. So when the school festival rolls around, they are not budding Einsteins. They are singers; they are dancers; they are artists. They are divas.

The day before the festival, as I was tripping merrily home at 4:30, the students were still excitedly running around the school with their craft supplies, hanging out the windows and singing songs. They had been as horrid all week as the little girl with the curl, but their vibes of excitement and anticipation even put me in a good mood. Large groups of students had been running up to me all day, yelling "Advertisement!" (the previous week's grade 3 lesson topic) and making me pinky promise that I would come to their class's room to participate in whatever they were cooking up. Being the wonderful teacher that I am, I carried through with my promises.

This turned out to be both a good and a bad thing. While I was happy to partake of the pizza in the Halloween cafe (not sure how Halloween and pizza go together, but that's ok), I was quite glad that I didn't ask exactly what sundae is until after I ate it.

Students slicing up sundae for my valiant consumption
Free hugs were distributed in the hallways.
Not a very good businessman.....

....but a very nice student (most of the time).
I shot balloons with a toy bow & arrow in one classroom, got a shoulder massage in another, and went shopping in the little second-hand market on the grade 1 hall. There was even a beauty parlor, where I got my nails and the back of my hand painted. Yes, it was supposed to be face paint, but when the cat-shaped stain finally wore off my hand 3 days later, I was happy I opted out of the facial adornment. I also chose not to get my hair done, mainly because crimping and perms are still en vogue here. (Many things about Korean fashion just scream 1980s in the USA.)

Then came the performance part of the festival. Around lunch time, everyone headed to a brand new building downtown with a huge, tricked-out performance space. There was a flurry of costume changes and students transformed from neatly uniformed children into people I could have easily mistaken for Asian adults. (Mind you, it's damn near impossible to tell the age of a Korean between 15 and 65 by anything outside of their clothes.) The music teacher/concert director/stage manager rehearsed each group until each eye was crossed and each ㅜ was dotted.

Performances included dancing and singing; solos, duets, and group performances; comedy and instrumental performances.
This is a traditional Korean percussion ensemble whose loud banging rehearsals I had to was privileged to listen to every day after school for months.

Okarina ensemble playing "My Heart Will Go On" (Koreans love sappy songs). The Okarina is the Korean equivalent of the recorder, which we all learned to play in elementary school, much to the dismay of any musical ear around.

And here we see a full-on performance of what I see in the hallways every day. Shut up, boy!

This first-grader is approximately half my height. Makes his singing somehow better.

And yes, they made me sing, too. It hardly needs to be said that this was not my idea, and it somehow evolved from Caity Teacher teaching an American pop song to the kids (I was not happy), to Caity Teacher singing in a chorus of students directed by Music Teacher (I was slightly less unhappy), to Caity Teacher singing in a trio with two other teachers (I was not at all happy). Of course the trio part was sprung upon me the previous morning, so at least I had little time to dread it. It seemed the other two teachers were more worried than I was, but then again, they aren't native English speakers and we sang in English (the only part of the original plan that was preserved).
"You Raise Me Up". Not quite gospel when sung with a collective Korean accent.
Naturally we did not stick to the published performance order, and my little ShinGwang Chorus of Englishee Singers somehow ended up performing immediately after a dance number by some leather-studded high school boys that basically brought down the house. The first grade girls in my chorus screamed like, well, middle school girls as the high school boys came past us through the wings, reaching out to touch them like they were rock stars and screaming even louder when the boys obliged. The audience was still in the throes of OMGHOTBOYS and screamed through most of our first song, including our little trio. There's no way they heard a note we sang, which is probably why most of the students told me the next day that I "sing pretty."

They did calm down towards the end of the first song and showed great support for their fellow students in the second song, clapping along and cheering loudly at the end. That was probably the most touching part -- even the mediocre performances received rousing applause and great, encouraging cheers from the other students. It's illustrative of one of the main differences I notice between the students here and what I remember from middle school. My students beat the living crap out of each other every day and play many of the same tricks and jokes on each other as we did in middle school, but it's never malicious or done to hurt other students' feelings. The kids here are genuinely kind to each other (as middle schoolers go). This goes hand-in-hand, I think, with the fact that people are far more trusting here (and presumably more trustworthy?), even in the cities. What is it that Koreans are doing that results in what seems to be a kinder, safer society? And do the ends justify whatever those means may be?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The few reasons I'm not really homesick yet

This has been one superbly shitty week. And it’s only Wednesday. Record-setting unruliness in my classes, an indescribably frustrating inability to effectively communicate with my co-teacher, a 2-day fight with Nonghyup’s online banking system, insomnia, and the midterm election results (I am sorely disappointed in you, US voters) have collectively resulted in one very surly Caitlin. On the bright side, it’s hard to feel homesick when I’m just as annoyed with my home country as I am with this one. Perhaps I should have been knocking on doors back home instead of having my selfish little international adventure. But we’ll never know for sure, now will we?

Let me expound upon the harrowing experience that is dealing with online banking in Korea, as it is the only thing I can bitch about and still have my bitching be somewhat informative for you, dear readers. After the aforementioned inability to get my co-teacher to understand the nature of an automatic remittance account, I finally gave up and just asked if I could transfer money overseas through online banking. This way I won’t have to trek down to the bank during the rather restrictive Korean banking hours, armed to the hilt with passport and papers, every time I need to make a transfer. I filled out the forms, signed in the tiny spaces meant for signatures a third the size of most Western ones, received a few mysterious carbon copies and password cards, and 2 hours later, I was on my way to online banking convenience, just like I had back home, right?? Not so much. I knew that many Korean websites require the use of Internet Explorer – on a Windows machine only – in order to work properly. What I did not know is that the most recent version of IE has something troublesome about it that required me to downgrade my browser to use the online banking site. It took a while for me to figure this out, since the error message that kept appearing was in – you guessed it – Korean. When I finally got that sorted out, I had to jump through 50 bajillion hoops in order to log in for the first time. Now, about half of those hoops will be eliminated in the subsequent times that I log in, but that’s still 25 bajillion hoops every time I want to access my account online (and then again to pay a bill, or make a transfer, or check my balance….). These hoops are supposedly for security purposes, but Korea still insists on relying on ActiveX controls (the reason for the Windows IE requirement), which have widely known security flaws. Go figure. Some day I hope that Korea will cease its hostile campaign against any and all non-Windows users, but I doubt that day will come while I’m still here. In the mean time, I thank God for Parallels. Oh, and I’m sure you’re wondering if I ever actually got my money to my US account. It seemed that I finally figured everything out correctly on this end, but the answer remains to be seen during EST banking hours, which have not yet started for today.

So, in summary,
Points for Korean banks: awesome optical bill-scanner thingies on the ATMs, which make paying bills super fast and easy even though I can’t read them; on-demand printed bank statements rather than monthly ones in the mail; ease of making domestic deposits/payments/transfers via bank account numbers instead of checks or credit cards.
Points for American banks: reasonable hours; tellers who share my native tongue; online banking that doesn’t make me want to pull my hair out.

Fortunately, the happenings of last week were considerably cheerier. The fireworks festival in Busan was a blast (pun intended). I saw some fireworks like none I’ve ever seen before – cubes and flowers and strings of slowly floating lantern-like lights – and I also experienced crowds like I’ve never seen before. Even the 2008 inauguration was no comparison for the oppressive masses of the fireworks festival. The shoving was literally constant, and while I had no idea that so many tall Koreans even existed, they were all there at the festival, standing in front of me. Happily, fireworks are mostly in the sky, so I only had to stand on tiptoe and do some of my own shoving when the Gwangan bridge started raining sparkly fire. (Yes, raining fire. I’m trying to get a video to post in the photo collection.)

Friday was my official birthday celebration, since it’s never a good idea to drink on Mondays (at least not too much). I spent the afternoon looking after a student’s kitten that was rather unceremoniously dumped on me while the student was in class. I was quite happy to watch it, though my afternoon of lesson planning had to be scrapped and was replaced by gaggles of squealing ‘tweens (girls and boys), drawn by the siren song of cute that was climbing over my desk. I was unable to extract myself from the hordes, for fear that the kitten would be squashed or torn to bits by their eager hands. I then escaped to my apartment for a rousing yet all-too-short session of reliving college in the USA (a.k.a. beer pong), followed by a party at a bar in the nearby nightlife district. I was spoiled by all of my friends, sung to, fed cheesecake, and given the always en-vogue gifts of Engrish. Oh, and there was the Death in a Glass. I’m not sure if it’s common to feed the birthday girl a blue-flaming tumbler full of something akin to anise-flavored gasoline, but that’s what the bartender gave me, and demanded “One shot!” Ha! Who was he kidding? I had to share that thing with 5 other people before it was gone. Rough stuff, I tell you.

Apparently my birthday was such the occasion for everyone that some people even considered staying in on Saturday despite numerous Halloween parties being thrown by waygooks all over the city. Fortunately, they rallied and made it out. The party I attended featured a Mad Hatter with a very impressive homemade hat, a bust, a flasher, and FAN DEATH. I went as a Shot in the Dark – dressed all in black with a shot glass around my neck. Yes, it’s lame, but I must be allowed my occasional linguistic indulgences. Koreans don’t understand Halloween any better than they understand “a shot in the dark,” so what’s the difference?

School festival tomorrow. I currently have students running around me with tape, box cutters and giant roles of colored paper preparing for the circus that I’m sure it will be. They're all quite eager to have me visit their particular stations -- eager enough to come talk to me about it in English! I’ve also been roped into the performance part of the afternoon, and though we’ve been rehearsing our two songs for a month now, I was just informed this morning that I will be singing one of the verses as a duet with one of my co-teachers. That’s sure to clear the house in a hurry.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Strange things that Koreans believe: Lesson 2

Like Mickey Mouse ears, only not.
This week began with the school picnic. Growing up the U.S., a school picnic was just that: having pizza and popsicles in the schoolyard, playing field games like water balloon tosses and sack races, and just generally running around like the maniacs that we were at that age. Here, it means a trip to Family Land.

Family Land is a shabby little amusement park on the outskirts of the city with approximately 10 rides, all of which desperately needed a coat of paint 15 years ago. It also houses a shabby depressing little zoo in which animals roam around their tiny, plant-devoid enclosures looking melancholy/angry/mangy and occasionally threatening the passers-by. I’m not kidding – a monkey got up on the bars of his cage and threatened to throw a rock at me and my co-teacher. We left in a hurry. I can’t say I blame him, though. Being constantly on display can get a bit tiring. It’s a little like what we foreigners deal with a lot of the time (only we have far better accommodations). We’re like the local celebrities, and people of all ages feel completely free to stare at their leisure with no consideration as to how uncomfortable it might make us feel. Case in point: while standing outside the baboon cage, a chubby (and, I could just tell, obnoxious) little boy of about 8 pointed at me and yelled, “Waygook!” while frantically motioning for his friends to come over. Yes, kiddies, I am part of the show. I’ll even sign autographs with my surprisingly human-like paws if you have a pen and paper.

Don’t get me wrong; I honestly had a nice day. The second grade teachers (of which I am honorarily one, since I sit in their office) put together a lovely picnic of kimbap, fake onion ring snacks, bean paste walnut waffle thingies and clementines. Eating a picnic with chopsticks was kind of fun, and it was certainly better than the usual daily struggle of getting my kids to keep their chatting to a dull roar so I have a voice left at the end of the day. Yay for amusement parks and picnics!

And now, because I don’t have much material from this week, I present to you:
Strange Things That Koreans Believe: Lesson 2
First, blood type & personality. Much like zodiac signs (which I could include in a post about Strange Things That Westerners Believe), Koreans think that a person’s blood type largely determines his/her personality and compatibility with others. (“Hey baby, what’s your blood type?”) For reference, I’m type O. As far as my perceptions about myself go, this is completely inaccurate. But feel free to correct me. Either way, I do come off in a positive light when a Korean asks me my blood type – type O is not only very rare in Korea (and elsewhere in the world, je pense), it is also viewed very positively. Much like being born a white American female, this is another point on the Korean score board that I didn’t do anything to deserve. Great!

And item #2: Not drinking water with meals. Even though Korean food is almost universally spicy, Koreans never drink water with their meals. They believe that it interrupts digestion. However, they will drink water right after they’ve finished eating, or drink other things (like beer or soju) while they eat. Its’ just water, apparently, that does the damage. Please reference my discussion of logic in Korea.

That’s all for now, folks. I’m off to the Busan fireworks festival this weekend to watch sparkly things exploding in the sky. Pictures and/or video to come.

Friday, October 15, 2010

My budding Korean social life

This bit has little to do with Korea, but I feel that it’s necessary. On Wednesday night (morning in EST), my cat of 15 years passed through the veil to the state of true feline enlightenment (with lots of critters to chase and sun to lay in, I imagine). There’s nothing like the passing of a pet to make you feel both incredibly miserable and incredibly silly for feeling so incredibly miserable over an animal. I am fortunate to have friends here who understand, and was the recipient of one of the best group hugs EVER right when I needed it. Thanks, guys. You can all add “Comforter Extraordinaire” as a bullet point on your resume under the EPIK teaching section. I’ll even make you a certificate if you want, since everything in Korea comes with a certificate upon completion.

To follow up on a previous post, the purchase of my cell phone has come with a sizable boost on the Korean end of my social life. As far as Koreans are concerned, if you do not have a cell phone, you do not exist in the social sphere. But now that I have a phone to call, they are not afraid to call it. All of the promised outings are coming to fruition, fast and furious. A couple of weekends ago, one of my co-teachers invited me to go shopping with her, which was followed by several beers with her friends. Naturally, the very first question out of her friend’s mouth was, “Boyfriend?” But we’ve already covered that. It wasn’t long before we were chatting it up in halting elementary-level English, munching on dried squid and describing our ideal man. Dude, girl talk is so much more difficult with a language barrier. I have a hard enough time with fluent English speakers, let alone with people who don’t know anything beyond “tall” and “handsome” in my language. I eventually gave in to the temptation to just say the few words I knew they would understand and leave it at that. Despite (or maybe because of?) the fact that they have a somewhat skewed view of who I am and what I like, they told me that they “feel intimacy with” me and that I am like a Korean woman. I’m not sure what this means, exactly, but I’m taking it as a compliment.

This past week I was invited out with my other co-teachers for some makgeolli, a milky-looking traditional Korean alcohol typically served in an enormous metal tea-pot-looking thing that is then poured into and drunk from small bowls. [It should be noted that this time, we all decided together what day to go. I am a fan of this change in m.o.] It turns out that, contrary to what I hear about most Korean teachers, my co-teachers don’t drink very much. By contrast, I ended up looking like a lush with the fortitude and constitution of a rotund German man. Unlike my soju, I can hold my makgeolli pretty well. Conversation flowed freely with my flush-faced co-teachers and I’m sure we’re all better friends for it. In other social news of the week, I was invited to eat grapes in the administration room with the vice-principal and the music teacher this afternoon. I’m sure this has nothing to do with the cell phone, but it’s still a step in the right direction!

Last week we had midterms, which means that we had the afternoons free for lesson planning. Or, as was the case on Wednesday, sports day at the neighboring middle school! I am not a sports person. Sports may provide health and vitality for most people, but for me, they are a threat to my un-injured existence. I am clumsy, uncoordinated, and terrified of any and all balls that fly through the air, because in all likelihood, they will eventually hit me in the head. Somehow I made it through several rounds of a dodge ball-like game and another kickball-inspired game with some really weird twists without bruising or any major humiliation. Until the hula-hoop competition. Hula-hoops are a HUGE fad in Korea, and I’m pretty sure that all Koreans – men and women – spend several hours a day just practicing their hula-hoop technique. Probably while they watch those crazy TV shows about people in animal costumes with pop-up bubbles on the screen. They naturally assumed that this hooping prowess extended to me and the other native English teacher at the school we were visiting. They gave us three giant hula-hoops each and, when we protested that we couldn’t possibly manage all three at once, insisted that using just one would take too long. The first round was over in less than 5 seconds. The second round lasted maybe 10, but that’s because they let us use just one hoop each. We were then put to shame by two Korean teachers whose face-off lasted 5 entire minutes. With all three hoops. And I think they would’ve gone on longer if one of the teachers’ hoops hadn’t been slightly bent. We followed up the sports part of the afternoon with the eating part of the afternoon, an area in which I am much more skilled.

In food-related news, I tried my first persimmon a couple of weeks ago. Persimmons are very popular in many forms – fresh, dried, ripe, green, in teas and in sweets. I had to try one eventually, so a friend and I each purchased one from a halmoni (grandmother) on the street. We thought we’d been charged a rather steep price because we’re foreigners, but it turns out that may not have been the case. What we unknowingly purchased were the cream-of-the-crop persimmons, with very soft, brown insides and a particularly sweet/creamy taste. After that experience, one of my co-teachers brought me a huge bag of persimmons she picked herself that are now ripening in my kitchen. Being the nerd that I am, I’ve read up on persimmons and know to mind the laxative effect they can have if eaten in large quantities. I’m quite glad that I did my research this before eating the entire bag in one sitting. That could’ve been interesting. I also made it to the Costco in Daejeon last weekend, where I bought some proper cheese. There was no cheddar to be had (*sniff*), but they were selling some rather nice Parmesan (for a not-so-nice price, but what do you want?). Now the Parmesan from Daejeon is sitting in my fridge, beneath the personally picked persimmons, making me smile every time I open the door.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Baseball in Korea, or How to Cheer Nonstop for 3 Hours

Now that the baseball season has been over for several weeks -- at least, the Kia Tigers have no more home games -- I am finally getting around to posting this. Being as how this is my blog, sports will never take priority. We should just be glad it's getting up here at all, and that's mainly credit to the cheerleaders.

To put it shortly, baseball in Korea is INTENSE. Korean baseball fans make American baseball fans look like golf spectators. I'm not sure how baseball became so big in Korea, but it almost seems shameful to call it the American national pastime when the Koreans get so much more excited about it. In America, you wander in at some point during the game, probably not at the very beginning. You get up at intervals to get beer, buy a chili dog, talk to your friends, whatever. You may or may not yell anything at the batter or the umpire. In Korea, you arrive on time. You get your fried chicken and beer before you take your seat, and then you stay there. And you cheer. Nonstop. For the entire 9 innings.

And there are cheerleaders. Yes, cheerleaders at baseball games. They have a very big job, leading a different cheer for every player who comes up to bat, among other team cheers and team songs. They dance, they do costume changes, they wear white gloves and enormous sparkly bows that resemble odd animal ears more than proper decorative headgear. The guy who is the head cheerleader yells the entire game, and I have no idea how he does not lose his voice halfway through. Fans all participate eagerly, never missing a beat with their blow-up cheer sticks. A baseball game in Korea is not a time to kick back and relax with your beer. That beer is crucial nourishment for the task at hand: leading your team to victory through the sheer force of your collective voices, proudly singing your team song while ogling skinny cheerleaders in tiny shorts!

They really do put us Americans to shame.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Settling in

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been teaching in Gwangju for over a month, and been in Korea for over 6 weeks. I think I’m settling in quite nicely, especially since our ARCs (Alien Registration Cards) finally made a long-delayed and much-anticipated debut. Without them, none of the new batch of EPIK teachers could secure cell phones or regular internet service. We burned ridiculous amounts of time waiting for each other every time we met, hoping that last person who said they’d show up hadn’t gotten so severely lost we’d never see him/her again. Sometimes people would finally find their way after we’d left the meeting spot, and, well, sucked for them. Now we can finally function like normal people and just call someone when we’re late and/or lost. Yay for emergence from the dark ages of communication!
My phone, complete with requisite dangly bits (bus pass and screen poker thing). Next: internet.
On the same day we got the news about our ARCs, I also received a ginormous care package in the mail from Mom & Dad. [Insert Happy Dance here.] In it was a collection of winter clothing, much needed as the weather has suddenly turned cool; six boxes of Jiffy corn muffin mix (now I just need a muffin pan and an oven); a couple dozen Lara bars; Darn Good Chili mix and requisite tomato paste; tea cookies; some decent coffee; a few styling products so I can continue to fight the good fight against my hair; and other useful goodies (mainly aimed at the Woman Who Never Learned to Breathe Properly). Now that my winter boots and poofy coat are at the ready and my pantry is properly stocked, I feel that I can take on whatever Korean life has to throw at me this winter. There’s also a care package of Korean items going to the family pretty soon. Its contents won’t be nearly as useful, but they will be infinitely more interesting!

There are other signs that I am settling in well. I’m developing a taste for things I would go out of my way to avoid in the States. For example, K-pop, the ubiquitous Korean pop music that I hear on the streets and that my students sing at me every day. Here’s one of their favorites:

I am far more tolerant of sparkly things, shiny things, brightly colored things and things decorated with cutesy patterns and pictures. Hell, I’ve even voluntarily bought some of these things. I have also come to the realization that I actually crave kimchi when I go a day without it. And sometimes even between meals that do include kimchi. Is kimchi becoming my new yogurt? Is it even possible to be as obsessive about kimchi as I was/am about yogurt?? I’ll be curious to see whether these new tastes & habits will stick when I go back home, or if I will gradually readjust to my previous preferences.

Brie and the tastiest crackers/cookies ever
My preference for.…er….love affair with cheese has not changed, though. I’ve just had to scale back my intake. I can find it – within just 5 minutes of my apartment! – but it’s ridiculously expensive. The Home Plus charges 10,000 won for a rather small amount of mediocre brie, but I bought it anyway. Mmmmm, cheese.

[For more amusing musings about things we Westerners must adjust to in Korea, check out my friend's post.]

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Teacher, I love you!"

New relationships, always fraught with the potential for awkward situations, can be even more uncomfortable in Korea. I’ve seen multiple Western couples cornered by a Korean (be he a friend, acquaintance or total stranger) and asked,
“Do you love her?” (sometimes emphasized with a little heart shape made with the thumbs and index fingers), and
“When you get married?”
“Well, we just met a few weeks ago, so…”
A friend who’s been here for a while put it quite nicely: “Korea loves couples.” I mean, the hallmark of a committed couple is that they dress in matching unisex outfits. My favorite is the matching underwear sets in lingerie store windows. Yikes.

For native English teachers, there’s no escape during the work day. Students pepper me and my compatriots with weekly questions about the status of our love lives.
“Teacher, you have a boyfriend?”
“No, I don’t have a boyfriend.”
The very next week: “Teacher, you have boyfriend now?”
“No, and I don’t think I would tell you if I did.”
I could just make something up to get them off my back while keeping some semblance of privacy about my personal life, but I’m not sure I have the energy to create the exceedingly detailed fictional boyfriend that would be necessary to satisfy all of the questioning that would undoubtedly follow. To be fair, there are also plenty of inappropriate questions/comments that come from Westerners, but they’re usually the ones who’ve been in Korea for a while and have presumably lost some of their sense of propriety (if they ever had one). Privacy is not an expectation in Korea. I must find a productive way of dealing with this.

I can only speak from the point of view of a Westerner, of course, but I can’t help thinking Koreans must feel the same way to some extent. Koreans never really live on their own, staying in their parents’ home until they are married, when they may or may not still live with one of the spouses’ parents. Several generations often live under one roof, upping the number of all-seeing eyes and prying questions from not only parents but also from grandparents, siblings and the like. (We will add this to the list of reasons why I don’t really intend to date any Korean men while I’m here.) To combat this problem, Korean towns and cities have prevalent DVD-bangs (movie rooms) where you can rent a room with a couch, order in food and watch any number of movies in your own private space. As you might imagine, they basically serve as make-out rooms for young, randy, privacy-strapped couples. There are also scores of love motels that rent rooms by the hour and include things like heart-shaped beds and mirrors in odd places. These are also excellent, cheap places to stay for traveling Westerners who want something better than a hostel but don’t want to pay for a real hotel. We might get funny looks when four of us check into a room, but wallets have never been ashamed of a little thrift.

Now, you might think that my reluctance to date a Korean (relationships are difficult enough without such a severe language and culture barrier) might cut short my marriage prospects in this country. But you would be mistaken. As I was strolling around the school with two of the grade 2 teachers after lunch one day, several boys were following behind us like nervous puppies and talking to us in Korean. While it’s widely known that I speak no Korean, the students still expect me to magically understand what they say even when they’re not speaking English. Finally Moon-Sun (that’s phonetically correct, at least), the science and math teacher, told me that one of the boys was asking me to marry him. I laughed, and told the boy that we could talk about it in ten years. According to Moon-Sun, he then said that love and age are not the same. Cheeky little blighter. Or perhaps budding Korean Casanova? We’ll find out in about a decade.

Addendum: xkcd goes to Korea?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Beaches (but no Bette Midler)

It's been an exciting week. Lots of bus riding, lots of beaching and not much teaching. Since I'm quite good at sitting on the beach and taking in the scenery as I ride down the highway, but not so good at getting my students to shut up and learn, I feel it's been a good week. We all like what we're good at.

Last weekend I had my first camping experience (aside from a very vague memory of a church camping trip when I was fairly young, so that didn't count). Through the miracle that is Facebook, some bright and aspiring social organizer got together a group of about 50 EPIK and hagwon English teachers on Myeongsasipri beach in Wando, about a 2.5-hour bus ride from Gwangju. Any time after August 15th is officially the off-season in Korean minds, so we were treated to an empty beach despite the near-perfect weather. The water was warm but refreshing, the waves were ride-able but not too rough, and even the mosquitoes stayed mostly at bay. We cleaned out the 7-11 of all of their beer, soju and prepackaged kimbap, then spent the day playing beach soccer/volleyball/frisbee and finished off the night with a bonfire and roasted marshmallows. Just up from the beach is a camping area with elevated wooden platforms covered by canopies, complete with a light and a set of electrical outlets (public facilities here always amaze me). We pitched our tents there, though I suspect that the sand would have been a lot softer than those boards. Note for next time: beach camping should be done on the beach. Or something softer than wood.

We packed up and came back to a one-day work week preceding the Chuseok holiday, which included plenty of Mr. Bean for my classes and the new best comment (compliment?) from my students: "Your eyes! They are like horror movie! Scary!" Thanks, kids. Monday night brought another first for me: a proper game of darts at the bar. Apparently I've never known how to keep score correctly in a game of darts. I still don't know how, but at least I know what I was doing before was wrong. The right way is far more complicated. Thank goodness most dartboards in Korea, like everything else, are automated and keep score for you. [Editor’s note: I am aware that darts are not the most interesting thing I have written or will write about, but I was told I should include it in my blog. So there you have it.]

On Tuesday we departed for Busan with a slightly different group than originally planned, partly due to the weather forecast and partly due to women and the infatuation that we can sometimes cause. (We're nothing but trouble, I tell you. Always breaking up the group.) At any rate, five of us met at the U-Square bus terminal and four of us hopped on the 3-hour bus to Busan, where we arranged to meet up with several non-Gwangju (and therefore slightly less cool) friends from EPIK orientation. Over the course of three days wandering around the city, we ran into about half a dozen other friends from our orientation classes, which was always a lovely surprise, though it made actually getting from A to B somewhat slow and difficult since we stopped to talk to everyone we saw.

Busan, where I had originally requested placement, is the second largest city in Korea and the fifth largest port in the world. It is also home to the largest spa in Asia, if not the world, though of course it was closed for Chuseok when we tried to go. Instead I was treated to my own version of a day at the spa: a shower in a western-style bathroom, courtesy of Jess, who decided to get a decent hotel room rather than cram four people into a hostel room with a set of bunk beds and a couch like the rest of us. The weather was sunny and cool with a nice, light breeze. Except for Wednesday, which was a cold, wet, miserable mess, like someone threw a November day in DC into the middle of our vacation. My co-teachers had told me that it would be too cold to swim (post-August 15th, remember), and we feared they may have been right. Thank goodness things cleared up the very next day, as though the universe took pity on us and flipped the late summer/early fall switch back on. Many shops and restaurants were closed because of Chuseok, but that also meant far less foot traffic and crowds to negotiate. We mostly explored Seomyeon, where our hostel was, and the Haeundae beach area. In Seomyeon we were introduced to the Old Record, a bar decked out in 1960s-era pictures and posters of rock stars and naked women. The owner has amassed a mind-blowing collection of vinyl that he keeps spinning all night in the small, dimly lit room that smells of stale cigarette smoke and probably hasn’t been aired out since it was first built. Customers can also request just about any song or artist that exists, and he’ll find it online and play it for you. We spent the better part of 4 hours there on Wednesday evening, draining the keg and lounging on the greenish, crushed velvet couches and love seats that are so oddly common in Korean bars.

We also did plenty of shopping, not least because of the unexpectedly fall-like weather that has descended so quickly (sooo happy my winter clothing care package is on its way from home!). This was my first foray into shopping in Korea, since we just got paid this past Monday (yay!). I’ve found it to be a somewhat intimidating and frustrating experience. Salespeople tend to hover just over your shoulder, and no matter how carefully you replace that shoe in the display, they will readjust it. And Koreans are usually so nice and full of compliments that it sounds even worse by contrast when they say anything negative or critical. While wondering around the Busan Home Plus looking for beach towels, I spied a counter full of denim leggings carefully packaged in individual plastic bags. This was more interesting to me at the time than towels, so I stopped. The salesman behind the leggings took one look at me and motioned for me to move on, followed by a series of gestures expressing in no uncertain terms that my butt was too big to wear what he was selling. Perhaps I should be glad that this was the first time I've been called fat by a tiny Korean, but it was still a very blunt reminder that was driven home by my inability to find pants in anything close to my size when we were exploring the underground metro station shops the next day. Most Korean women have at least one hollow leg and can eat as much as they want without gaining so much as a centimeter around their midsections. I am not a Korean woman, and there are consequences to the fact that I have a healthy appreciation for food. This also means, however, that I am shaped like a proper woman rather than a young boy. So take that, leggings man! American men like my ass! I’m hoping the shopping trip that I have tentatively planned with some of my co-teachers will turn out a bit better.

No grade 2 classes this week, as they’re preparing for midterm exams. I am now heading home to rest and recover and plan lessons for the other two grades. And buy things for my home that were a post-paycheck priority. I am a nester; I will find a way to make my apartment look more homey than the white wallpapered box that it is right now.

Friday, September 17, 2010

DC in Korea

Well, the English teachers’ meeting that I was so worried about turned out to be more of a welcome dinner. We talked a bit about school, my teaching and the kids, but mostly it was light, fun conversation over seemingly endless plates of very tasty foods. There were two entire plates with nothing but different kinds of mushrooms! The Korean love for mushrooms is an affection after my own heart. All in all, it was a lovely time. And it made me appreciate even more what fantastic co-teachers I have. I knew as much – certainly in comparison with some of the stories of frustration and difficulty that some of my fellow teachers have had right off the bat – but I genuinely enjoy them as people, and we seem to get along fairly comfortably. I’m sure we’ll have our share of miscommunication and some frustrating situations down the road, but I’m equally sure we’ll get through it without too much difficulty. And I have a shopping date with the two younger women after pay day – yay! What better way to solidify a relationship than over a clothes wrack? Except perhaps over a bowl of some unknown fermented fruit-type Korean alcohol….but why not both??

However, in order to plan any sort of shopping outing, I need to get a reasonable budget lined up, and that includes cutting back on spending on things like coffee (*wince*). God help me, I just spent the approximate equivalent of $18 on a tub of Folgers. There is better coffee to be had, but it comes in tiny packets that only last about a week, and I’m sure the cost would add up to waaaay more than what I just paid for that Folgers. I’m so glad I found that coffee shop up the street: Kenya Coffee, Enjoy our espresso coffee, Sweet-Smelling like devils temptation and hot like hell fire. I’m serious – that’s what’s on their napkins. But that adds up, too. Hopefully the Folgers will last.

On the same grocery run that landed me the Folgers, I also bought pine tree flavored toothpaste. It makes my mouth taste like Christmas – even after I’ve rinsed with Listerine. An odd sensation, but kind of fun.

This morning I watched coverage of the DC mayoral race – including the speculation of whether Schools Chancelor Michelle Rhee will stay or go – on the news. Yes, the Korean news. It appears that DC’s local news is not only national news, it’s international news. Now if only I could find it in English without having to track down an internet connection!

In another odd DC tie-in, I got my first electric bill today. The electric company here is called KEPCO. Here’s hoping it’s a far cry from PEPCO when it comes to actual operating practices.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I love Tuesdays

Tuesdays are the best day of the week. I only have to teach two classes and they're both small and with my favorite co-teacher. That means I have the rest of the day for lesson planning!  Or productive procrastination (a.k.a. blogging), as the case would be today. Lucky you.

This particular Tuesday is made even better by the fact that last night I bought a bus ticket to Busan for Chuseok. Things to do while I’m there: spend time on the beach, find a decent pedicure (maybe try out those little fishies they have here?), see some of the awesome people I met at orientation who live in places other than Gwangju.

Chuseok rice cakes
What is Chuseok? You'd probably do better to click on the link in the previous paragraph, but I'll give you a quick rundown here. It's basically Korean Thanksgiving - a first harvest festival during which everyone gets together with their families and eats a specially prepared meal. It's tied to the lunar calendar, and is apparently happening quite early this year. The good news for me: I get almost an entire week off of school and get fed yummy little sesame & honey-filled rice cakes every time I turn around.

This week's lesson plan for grade 3 is about praise, condolences and encouragement. The most amusing part of these lessons, to me, is the fact that my students pronounce “cheer up” and “shut up” in almost exactly the same way. It's tough to imagine unless you've become intimately familiar with Konglish (Englishee, pinishee, Home Plus-uh), but trust me, it's all I can do to keep a straight face. I tried addressing this after I noticed it in my first class, but it doesn't seem to make much difference. They think it's funny that I allow them to say "shut up" in a classroom context, and can repeat the words properly after me. But as soon as we go back to the lesson, it's back to,
"My goldfish died yesterday."
"Shut up!"
Caity Teacher's lack of skills might be showing here.

Toilet buttons

And now for your occasional dose of TMI, re: Korean bathrooms. Korean bathrooms can be anywhere from completely primitive to super fancy. In one of the expat bars, there is but one restroom for everyone, and it’s so small that when you’re washing your hands, you’ve practically got your elbow in the back of the guy taking a leak at the urinal. Awkward. On the other hand, Koreans like to technologize everything (shut up, it’s a word now), including their restrooms. For instance, you can frequently find toilet seats with more buttons than I can imagine functions that a toilet seat should have. Along with the buttons are little illustrative pictures involving naked behinds, but I’m still not brave enough to try any of them. At school (and other places), when you walk into the bathroom, music automatically begins to play – perhaps to ease your restroom-related anxieties? Today’s selection was the morning-calm-after-the-storm section of the William Tell Overture. I often wonder if it will turn off if I sit still in there long enough, or if it senses when I leave and then shuts off. When you sit down, the toilet makes a little tinkling sound. I found this highly confusing at first, as I was quite sure I hadn’t used the restroom yet, but what was that sound? It still freaks me out a bit, but I’m sure it serves some useful purpose for anxious Koreans. All of this fancy, and there’s still rarely any toilet paper to be found and most of the stalls have squatties instead of seats. Go figure.

My most recent struggle with Korean culture has been with my co-teachers planning meetings in which I am a major component (if not the actual reason for the meeting) without consulting me or my schedule. They just come to me and say, “Caity, we have English teachers’ meeting on Wednesday after classes.” No, I didn’t have any plans, thank you (actually I did). Good thing I was told in advance to expect this or I would be HOT. I know they’re just trying to arrange things and make everything easy for me, and it’s my job to show up at these meetings, but it’s a little difficult for me not to look at this hijacking of my schedule as slightly rude. Yet another example of why it’s important to keep a proper perspective while I’m here. Caitlin might not have been ok with this sort of thing, but dammit, Caity Teacher can handle it!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dog soup

New pictures!!! Clicky clicky, on the right. I've added some of my classroom and some from dinner tonight. Just to make you jealous.

Well, it's happened. After waffling back and forth on whether or not I could bring myself to eat dog meat if it was offered, we had dog soup for lunch yesterday. Of course my co-teachers only told me what it was after I had already taken some, so I had to eat it. It tasted just like any other chunky soup in the cafeteria, so I should probably reserve judgment until after I’ve eaten it somewhere else, if I ever do. Whew, glad that's at least behind me.

This is not the dog soup. But it was tasty!
But wait! Is it? While I was out with a group yesterday evening, I filled them in on my newest culinary adventures (over free mashed potatoes and beer, natch). The group, which included a native Korean, insisted that the soup couldn’t possibly have contained dog, since eating dog is now illegal and dog meat is expensive these days. I have absolutely no reason to distrust either party in this argument. Perhaps my co-teachers were just testing me to see how far I would go to avoid insulting them? I sure hope I passed that one.

I ought to be on the happy list at school, one way or the other. I may not be a stellar teacher, but I do formal written lesson plans! Apparently this is a big deal, and my co-teachers think I'm working too hard. Thing is, as inexperienced as I am, that's the only way I can effectively think through an entire lesson. Also, when the principal came around at our teachers' dinner on Tuesday and demanded "One shot!" of me (a Korean version of "bottoms up"), I did exactly that. Gone was my beer, and smiley was the principal. Score?

I also learned last night, post-beer and mashed potatoes, some very useful Korean phrases. I believe these will come in handy during the cleaning period when I have to supervise many pre-teen boys who are hell-bent on hanging out in my classroom, making noise and generally doing anything but cleaning. The main problem with this scenario is that when I yell at them, they have only the slightest clue what I'm saying. But there is a solution.

I now present to you the English Teacher in Korea's Classroom Survival Vocabulary (Please excuse the poor Romanization. I'm working with what I've got here.):
Haji-ma! Don't do that!
Manjiji-ma! Don't touch!
Crokay-ma haji-ma! Don't say that! (particularly useful for those students fond of using the f-word in class)
Idiwa! Come here!
Ya! Hey!

And to close, my life these days, summed up in pictures:
I actually got the small face compliment today. (See, Mom, not everyone thinks my nose is big!)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Small victories

I begin this post with much good news and rejoicing:
  1. I have hot water! Woohoo! After more than a week of bracing myself for a cold shower every morning, I no longer face the somewhat ineffectual task of shaving my legs while I have goose bumps. I'm told the gas company didn't want to turn on the gas because they think my landlord is a troublemaker (at least that's how my co-teacher put it to me). I have no idea what changed their minds, but I'm not arguing.
  2. On Saturday, I successfully rode not only the bus, but also the subway, to my destination with no problems whatsoever. Score one for me! This may not sound like a big deal, but considering the fact that (a) I am directionally challenged, (b) I have not been able to get my hands on a bus or subway map, in English or Korean, (c) bus signs in English are few and far between, and (d) if I get lost, I may or may not spend hours trying to find someone who can help me get back's a big effing deal. I'm so proud.
The subway is quite nice. I thought perhaps we Washingtonians rag on Metro too much, but the Gwangju subway sets a shining example to be aspired to. It's fairly new and there's only one line, but it's well-lit, well labeled and freakishly clean. My only complaint is that the automated voice doesn't seem to know her left from her right when instructing people in English on which side the doors will be opening. There are boutique shops, food shops, bank branches and plenty of other shops I'm sure I haven't seen yet. Oooh. Aaaah. I wish I lived closer to the subway.

My bus and subway journey on Saturday began an evening of ups and downs, including:
Up: Arriving at my destination unflapped and on time.
Down: Screwing up the bus thing again this afternoon, despite my earlier success (Yes, that's a jump in the timeline, but this isn't about chronology, it's about ups & downs). 
Up: Seeing a "Mexican" restaurant on the way to our movie night at someone's apartment.
Down: Discovering that "Mexican" just meant some sort of fried chicken. The Americans were crestfallen. The Brits didn't care.
Up: Purchasing and naming 6 Russian hamsters that are now living with my friend (Twinkles, Fat Dave, Hector, Speedy Gonzalez, Haile Selassie and Mr. Kim).
Down: Oh, who am I kidding? There's no down for this one. Hamsters are CUUUUTE.

Another teacher and I were discussing this afternoon that it doesn't quite seem like we're living in the real world. I mentioned before that it feels somewhat like being back in college again, but that doesn't quite capture it. In the land of limbo, where we will never quite fit in, you can purchase Russian hamsters for 3,000 won (a little less than $3) each and the cutest, fuzziest bunnies you've ever seen for just 6,000 won. As foreigners, we get to make our own mix of social rules -- a cocktail of British, American, Irish, Canadian, South African and South Korean -- while taking liberties with the surrounding culture by playing the foreigner card. In addition, logic never really made its debut in Korea, so the rules that we play by in the west don't always apply here. Gravity, yes. Aristotelian logic? I think not. Aristotle didn't make it this far. So it's important never to say, "That doesn't make sense." It will never make sense. Just accept it and move on. This alone will keep you sane. However, I do like that Koreans put much more stock in emotions where Westerners tend to ignore them and then suffer the consequences in the long run. I'm sure there's a place where a perfect balance of both logic and emotion are used in decision-making, but I have yet to find that happy little spot.  Humans probably don't live there, anyway.

It's also odd to be living in what functionally amounts to a community of about 200 people, give or take.  Perhaps more if you add in the hagwon teachers, but that's the approximate number of us EPIKers. I feel like I've already met a huge portion of the group of people who will comprise my entire social life for the next year. DC is small town, but not this small. If I screw up with these people, I am socially screwed. At least until August 2011. It's a sobering and somewhat worrisome thought.

Realization of the weekend: All of my students' praise is having an unfortunate effect on me. Now, when a nice young man tells me that I’m very pretty, my immediate reaction is, “You sound like my students.” Picturing overeager Korean ‘tweens every time I’m paid a compliment is surely is not going to be good for my dating life. At least most of the people who have said/will say that to me (outside of the classroom and in English) probably have their own students and understand.

Tomorrow begins my first day of real lessons. No more fun and easy PowerPoint about me, my family and my city.  Lesson planning takes me forever right now, to say nothing of whether the material I come up with is any good. I surely hope I can knock things out a lot faster in the near future.