Monday, August 30, 2010

Too much to write about. So I didn't until now.

Sorry guys, I know I'm delinquent.  Too much soju and crap beer + dancing to the wee hours of the morning several nights in a row + rain every day keeping me from taking pics of the neighborhood + just waaaayyy too many experiences to write about = my head imploding and me not writing about any of it.  So I'll try my best to rectify that with apologies in advance for skimming over some details.  I'll come back to them later (unless I don't).

I moved into the apartment on Thursday afternoon. There are pics on the Picasa page for your viewing pleasure (you can now just click on the gadget to the right instead of digging for the link).  It's much bigger than I had anticipated -- more than one room! -- and kind of cute.  I mean seriously, my tiny refrigerator has flowers on it. Everything in Korea is the decked-out version of what we have back home, though unfortunately it's usually covered in neon-colored flowers and sparkles and then they slap a big bow on it.  And everything plays a song when receiving commands -- the a/c, the TV, the washing machine, the key pad lock on the door, the elevator, even the bell at school -- it's kind of like being in an amusement park of cute.

So aside from the fact that my water heater isn't working (thank God it's summer and I don't mind the cold showers quite as much) and that the washing machine dumps water all over the floor because, as far as I can tell, the drainage hose goes nowhere, things are peachy.  I already have cable -- or perhaps their basic TV package includes 70-some channels? -- and I can sporadically steal internet from someone else in the building with an unsecured signal.  The other things will be fixed sooner rather than later, I hope.

The location is great, too.  I live less than a 5-minute walk from my school (you can see my building from the front door of the school), I'm told that I'm close to a great university nightlife spot, and there's a Home Plus just a couple of blocks away, which is HUGE and has just about anything you could possibly ever want to buy.  It contains a McDonald's, a Dunkin' Donuts, a Baskin-Robbins and its own restaurant/cafeteria thing.  It's probably a bit pricier than the mom & pop shops around, but boy, is it convenient. And every so often a song will come on the PA system and all of the employees will stop what they are doing, right where they are, and do a little calisthenics routine.  Entertainment!

Waygooks in downtown Gwangju
Speaking of entertainment, the fun just keeps going on and on in this city.  It never really shuts down.  You can get deep fried pieces of unknown seafood at any time of the day or night simply by pointing at a plate and handing a couple thousand won to the smiling ajuma standing over the fryer.   No Korean necessary!  And the only reason you might end up on the street outside the seafood stand in the first place is because the owner of the expat bar you were busy dancing at finally kicked you out so he could go home and sleep.  On top of that cake (as any good travel experience is an exercise in self-discovery), I have recently learned yet another fact about myself: accents are very bad for my willpower. It seems these Brits and Irish can talk me into anything just because they sound all charming with their missing consonants and antiquated words.  Fortunately, they’ve all been good people so far and not lured me into anything too detrimental.  Yet.

However, behind all of the newness and excitement lurks the fact that I have never been so helpless since I was a small child.  I have to give myself a pep talk every time I walk out the door.  Yes, you can take the bus, Caitlin.  You can go grocery shopping, figure out what to buy (even though you can't read any of the labels) and even communicate with the cashier who doesn't understand that you don't speak Korean (charades teaches important life skills).  You can go out into your neighborhood and, if you get lost, you can figure out how to ask for directions to get back again.  My first night out, I was physically trembling at the thought of finding a taxi to meet the other waygooks (foreigners) downtown.  And no amount of self-pep-talking will change the fact that I must rely on my head co-teacher for other basics like communicating with my landlord, doing all of my paperwork and bills, reading the bus route map, getting my internet and phone set up when it comes time....I don't even know how to check my own bank balance!  It's an experience that has caused me to start regressing in ways that have nothing to do with my inability to read or speak in this country.  Like my brain is automatically reverting to high school mode.  However, I can proudly say that I am still worlds ahead of my middle school students, whom I met today for the first time.

So, self-discovery lesson #2: I was most definitely NOT born to teach.  Today was such a huge bomb.  I don't think my lesson was that bad -- just an introduction about myself, making name tags and going over class rules.  But 3.5 out of the 5 classes I taught talked the entire time, and there was nothing I could do to get them to shut up.  I just don't have the heart to make them stand at the back of the classroom with their hands in the air or anything of that ilk (plus how effective is it when half the class is standing back there?), and I'm certainly not going to carry around a bamboo stick and thwack their desks (and perhaps them?) every so often like one of my co-teachers.  I can only improve from here, I suppose, I just have to figure out how.

At least 3 of my 4 co-teachers are fairly young, so that should help me in developing some sort of rapport with them.  My head co-teacher is a mom with a son in high school and another one working in Seoul.  She's quite nice, but has kept me at arm's length so far.  The students, on the other hand, want to get as close as possible.  Physically.  As close as possible.  And then ask me all kinds of weird questions about my age, marital/dating status, height, etc., etc.  Then they make a loud, choral "oooooh!" sound when I tell them how old I am.  I'm not sure if they think I'm really young or really old.  They run down the hall and come into whatever room I happen to be in just to stand close to me, giggling.  I was told that I'm pretty at least 10 times today and got 2 or 3 "I love you"s, which was not quite as big of a confidence booster as the principal & others saying that my entire two-word Korean vocabulary is quite good!  And I pronounce it well!  Koreans are just so nice.  I take it all with a healthy pinch of salt.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Being a Korean tourist

Before we get to the meat of this post,  I have an important announcement:

I've found cheese!!!!

Well....sort of.  I mean, it's technically cheese in that it's on a pizza (that is also topped with green peppers and bulgogi - go figure) and it's not totally disgusting, but I'm not sure it truly deserves the name of cheese.  The crust was stuffed with something purporting to be cheese, as well, but......yeah.  Still looking.  But this is the first cheese-like substance I've seen since coming here, so it was exciting!

Between our 9-5 days of lectures, Sunday was Korean Culture Field Trip Day.  And so it was that after many years in DC spent grumbling about tourists and heading the other direction as soon as I saw a tour bus (particularly one with Korean writing on it), I have now become a Korean tourist myself.

We had the Korean tour buses, we had the matching shirts, we even had the "If found, please return to..." name tags.  We massed on sidewalks and in roadways, blocking foot and road traffic, and even crashed the locals' campsites and watering holes.  To make up for it, we provided plenty of entertainment for anyone who was around.  Koreans were taking pictures of the herd of foreigners covered in paste trying to decorate traditional paper fans, then busted out the video cameras when we were coerced into joining in some sort of elaborate, noisy traditional dance in the Hanok village.

We also saw the Keumsan Temple - a place that I understand rather little about, except that it's a very old but still operating Buddhist temple complex that tourists like us like to visit.  Anyway, there are some photos of that and the rest of our tourist day here.

Over my time at orientation, I've learned a lot about English, as well.  For instance, did you know that British people still use the word "fortnight"?  In the US we only learn that word when we're studying Shakespeare.  They also say things like "the bees knees" and call lunch "dinner".  And when we tell them that they're using stuffy language, they remind us that our country has cheese in a tube, and I, for one, must acquiesce.

This entire orientation week has been a lot of fun.  We've had a ton of information crammed into our throbbing noggins, but it's all been good information.  And everyone has had a lovely time making new friends, experiencing new things, and speculating about the year ahead.  It's almost been like being back at college -- dorm rooms with roommates, cafeteria meals, classes, group projects, drinking almost every night -- I even got tapped on the shoulder the other day, which was so very grade school that I almost laughed in the person's face.  But that's really been the pervading atmosphere here, so I can hardly blame him.  But sadly, this little bubble is about to burst.

Later today we meet the heads of our POE/MOEs (Provincial/Metropolitan Office of Education), who are basically our bosses.  Then tomorrow we'll be whisked away out of English-Speaking Fairy Land and into the real Korea where we will be left to fend for ourselves (mostly).  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared shitless, but I am definitely looking forward to unpacking and settling into my apartment!  No internet at home until I get my ARC (alien registration card), so the blogs might be a bit sporadic for a while (not like I've been on the ball so far or anything).  Just so you know.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Strange things that Koreans believe: Lesson 1

Most important things first: I am completely floored that people are actually reading my blog -- and commenting, too!  You've made me even more excited about this little bloggy endeavor.  Let's hope I can keep things interesting so it's worth your while to keep reading and commenting!

I should also beg your forgiveness up front if this post is a little wonky.  I'm not sure if it's the jet lag finally catching up with me or the 1-hour Korean/Hangul crash course that I just finished, but I'm suddenly exhausted and my brain feels like jelly.  That probably won't keep me from going over the survival Korean chapter in our orientation handbook, though, as it looks like it might help clarify a lot of what the Korean teacher was so encouragingly throwing at us at warp speed.  While others are watching a Korean movie or hitting up the soju, my roommate and I are going to exercise our typing fingers and then hit the sack.

Yesterday I finally figured out why our a/c unit keeps shutting itself off: fear of FAN DEATH (dum dum dummmm).  I had been told about this before, but had forgotten about it.  Apparently it is a widely held belief in Korea that if you leave a fan or an air conditioner on overnight, it will suck the oxygen out of the air and kill you.  This is a phenomenon known (at least to westerners) as fan death.  The extremity of this belief is increasingly giving way to the milder version that sleeping with a fan or a/c on just makes you sick (instead of killing you), but being as how I've slept with both a fan and a/c on all night for most of my life, I am not inclined to buy into this.  And I kind of resent waking up at night in the Jeonju summer heat (which is 10 times worse than DC summers -- I swear the humidity borders on 99% here) because someone decided to protect me from my own reckless sleeping choices.

Fortunately I slept pretty well last night thanks to a rather tiring round of Korean-style karaoke.  We had originally intended to just find a bar in which to sample some of the local selection of soju, but the university seems to be on the outskirts of the city, and since classes aren't in session right now, we were hard pressed to find a place that was open.  Instead, we purchased some not-so-fine beer and soju from a FamilyMart and plopped down on the steps outside one of the closed establishments.  It hadn't cooled off much, and the preying mantises (manti?) presented a challenge in avoidance (they're like moths in the US, flocking in droves to lighted store windows -- perhaps after the other bugs that are drawn to light?), but there's something kind of fun about drinking in the street.  Probably because it's a serious no-no back home, and the last time I did it was in Paris, so fond memories and all.  Our group slowly grew larger as others in the same bar-less situation glommed on, and someone suggested that we find a karaoke room.

Yes, room; not bar.  They're little, in this case underground, BYOB establishments where you rent a small room for a certain amount of time and regale your group with your vocal (and sometimes dance) talent.  This is good, in that mass embarrassment is replaced with small-scale humiliation.  It's bad in that each person gets much more singing time, and people feel the need to put additional pressure on the more reluctant participants (i.e. me).  I've never really been one for karaoke -- I can never hear well enough to stay on pitch and the mediocre musical stylings of my tipsy fellow bar denizens pains my musical sensibilities.  Last night, I was the one causing pain, as I had warned my companions would happen.  They did not listen; I went ahead and got it over with; I was not asked to sing again.  The night ended with all of us belting out a long round of classics en masse and then retiring a good hour before our 1am curfew.  All in all it was good fun and another opportunity to get to know my fellow teachers.

This morning we had to report in shifts for the health check (necessary to secure an alien registration card), which brings me to the second item in Strange Things That Koreans Believe.  This exam included the works: height & weight, blood pressure, eye exam, blood work and a chest x-ray, all conducted in an assembly line of wide-eyed, green EPIK teachers.  I felt rather like a horse that was being looked over before purchase -- if I don't pass, will they not buy me?  We were told to fast for 6 hours before our designated examination time.  The strange thing about this was that water was also on the forbidden list.  I understand the need for fasting before bloodwork, and am accustomed to fasting for 8 hours rather than just 6.  But no water?  No coffee, no soda, sure.  But water??  And there was a pee test involved in the exam, which proved rather difficult for many people.  They gave us a small (perhaps 6 oz) container of orange juice after the phlebotomists had finished with us, but when you haven't had any water since the night before (and in my case are even more dehydrated from drinking the previous evening), your body just sucks that up like a sponge.  Nothing goes through, at least not for quite a while.  Add to that the fact that my exam shift wasn't until 11am and the toilets made available for our use were squatters, and I had some serious issues with peeing in a cup.  Now I'm no medical professional, but I can't see what purpose this served.  Perhaps they just wanted to make sure they got a very concentrated urine sample, which they certainly did from me.

I'm sure there must be some weird/unfounded stuff that Americans or other westerners believe, too, but as an insider it's hard for me to think of any.  Anyone else know of something?  Or perhaps have an insight into the water ban?

Oh, who am I kidding.  I'm going to bed now.  I'll study my Hangul later.  I need to rest my brain so I can make it through a full day of classes tomorrow.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Never underestimate the importance of pictures

I made it!  Safely, soundly and surprisingly uneventfully.  My international flight experiences are never so simple and smooth, so I'm probably in for it on the trip home.  In the mean time, I'm just thankful that both I and my luggage made it through more than 30 straight hours of travel in one piece.  And without going completely stir crazy.

I've already had my first run-in with cultural differences.  When we boarded the buses to take us from Incheon/Seoul airport to Jeonju for orientation, 8 volunteers were requested to help load luggage on the bus.  I hopped up and went to take my place in the luggage-loading assembly line, at which point the Korean coordinator came up to me and told me that I was the first lady ever to volunteer for that job.  I'm not sure whether that was a nice way of saying "Ladies can't carry luggage" or "You're bucking the system" or if he was simply making an observation.  Either way, it seems I've already overstepped the traditional Korean boundaries for women.  That didn't take long.

I am currently at Jeonju University for a week of orientation, where I will presumably learn how to teach Korean kiddies and survive in a country where I am, at least for now, functionally illiterate.  I have never been so grateful for the little pictures that accompany the words on signs before.  Want to claim your bags at the airport?  Follow the little picture of a suitcase.  Want to find the stairwell rather than wait on the elevator?  Follow the sign with a man running up stairs.  If it weren't for these things, I would be unable to complete the most mundane of everyday tasks (or it would take me two to three times as long).  Case in point: the a/c unit in our room.  It can only be controlled with a remote control, which has no pictures.  We just press buttons until it does what we want it to (sort of.  It seems to only run for so long before it shuts itself off, leaving me to wake up gasping in a puddle of sweat.)  It's a strange feeling, not being able to read.  And even if I could read Hangul, I wouldn't know what any of the words meant.  I have a lot of studying ahead of me.

Upon arrival, we were handed gift bags with an EPIK towel and an alarm clock, both wrapped neatly in pretty paper; some snacks and water; and 3 books somehow related to Korean education and getting by in Korea, all of which I'm sure we'll have to read.  This won't be a lazy man's orientation week.

This is our room.  It's much nicer than I had expected.

I'm staying in a dorm with a large chunk of other EPIK teachers.  My roommate is from Canada, and so far I've also met teachers from South Africa, Ireland, accent-loving cup runneth over.
The Korean bathroom - no shower, just a shower area and drains in the floor.
One of the desk/storage areas

The view from our window (14th floor)
I know the placement's not so nice looking on those photos - I'm still learning the quirks of this bloggy thing.  And speaking of the internets, can anyone tell me how to make my Google searches show up in English???

Both meals we've had so far have been decent.  We're eating in the dorm cafeteria.  Kimchi, rice and some sort of tofu soup alongside canned peaches, strangely-colored scrambled eggs and slightly soggy toast.  I'm not sure if the eggs and toast are standard or if EPIK is just trying to make us feel more at home.  More kimchi, more rice, potatoes, sweet-ish pickles, macaroni salad, bulgogi, more soups and some slightly unusual-tasting yet yummy spaghetti at lunch.  And watermelon and peach tea - for the US southerners?  It seems they put a variety of vegetables in everything, regardless of what the traditional recipe calls for (see spaghetti, scrambled eggs and macaroni salad).  It also seems that no coffee or related drink (tea, coffee "beverages" in a can at convenience stores, etc.) comes with any less sugar than it takes to rot the teeth out of your head on the spot.  I skipped the chopsticks at breakfast but tackled them at lunch.  Koreans use metal chopsticks, which I find more difficult to manipulate than the wooden kind.  But I certainly won't starve, and there are the fork and spoon backups.

I'm off to the opening ceremonies now, map in hand, which is really just a big, complicated picture.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Language is awesome.

For those of you who wonder why, exactly, I get so damned excited about language, I present this article.  I find this sort of thing more fascinating and exciting than I know how to express.

Lost in Translation: New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world (WSJ)

I wonder how I'll look at the world differently after my year in Korea.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

This might be tougher than I thought...

Almost every interaction I've had with EPIK so far has been great, and I've been impressed with the efforts and planning that goes into the program.  The pre-orientation course was fantastic, giving me extremely useful information (in a fun and interesting format) while also beginning to get me accustomed to Korean culture simply through its appearance and structure ("You must finish your learning!").  The information packet for arrival and the week of orientation is superbly detailed yet concise.  There is also a Canadian-born coordinator for native English teachers in my city who sent a wonderful welcome email.  Things like this make me even more excited about the upcoming year.  Then I read things like this little gem.  This is great information for me to have.  I'm very glad to have it, and I'm sure it will help me immensely.  But it also makes me realize that I'm up for more severe culture shock than I'd realized.

I am a fairly assertive person, independent, [insert other problematic qualities here].  You know, your basic city-dwelling American woman who can get shit done.  I would tend to view many of the expected and accepted behaviors described in the posting linked above as immature and/or unprofessional, and likely keep the person exhibiting those behaviors at arms length.  Obviously this will not be a productive way to deal with Korean working culture.  To make matters more difficult, I have been very fortunate in my supervisors so far, so I am not accustomed to dealing with personality conflicts in the workplace. I am used to working around/pushing though bureaucracy rather than just letting it happen once I've started the process.  I pride myself in solving problems with another person by sitting down and having a respectful dialogue rather than just rolling over.  I can respect the position that a person holds, but I don't put much stock in rank for the sake of rank.  Hierarchy, in my opinion, has its place, but I'll be damned if I will allow someone to walk on me just because (s)he is farther up the chain of command.

A helpful tidbit that a former coworker found useful when working with people from Asia: There are three genders: men, women, and American women.  We really are an entirely different breed in the eyes of a huge portion of the world.

So I guess I will be relying heavily on my ability to adapt (I think I have that ability).  I'll play the game to some extent and find a way to look at this that doesn't make me feel degraded, helpless, etc.  My current strategy: See this as a lesson in backroom politics.

Also, Korean language/writing is incredibly difficult but also kind of awesome.  All of the consonants in Hangul are designed to reflect the shape of the mouth when the sounds are made.  This is probably the coolest thing I have heard in a very long time.  And all of the little letter symbols fit together like a puzzle to form syllables.  I am so lost and frustrated, but I am so fascinated.  I guess in the end it's all ok, since my guide over at Kimchi Icecream says things will go better for me at work if I don't speak Korean (or don't let on that I've learned any if I can figure this stuff out).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Things done and things left undone

My Notice of Appointment has arrived, my visa is on its way in the mail, and I have moved out of my apartment and said farewell to my city.  I guess this technically makes me homeless.  I'm staying with my parents and hanging out with the family for a couple of weeks, including a quick beach trip and my friend's wedding in Nashville, before I fly out on August 17th.

I am still waiting for my TEFL exam to be graded and my certificate to arrive, and for an elf to show up and teach me how to make this blog look the way I want it to by magically imparting to me all knowledge of HTML while I'm asleep.  I'm sure I could learn this myself if I put my mind to it.  However, if I'm going to spend brainpower studying right now, I'm going to spend it on finishing the linguistics textboook that Kat loaned me or plowing through the Rosetta Stone Korean package that the choir gave me as a bon voyage gift.  So yeah, any pretty-blog-making advice that anyone can offer would be great.

The only bad news at this point is that my poor fat kitty, who had been taken into a new foster home by a very generous woman, can no longer stay in this new foster home.  Apparently the other kitty with prior claim to the home is none too pleased with Sabina's presence, and has made this fact quite clear by transferring her litterbox activities to the bed.  This is not acceptable, so Sabina must now be transferred to....someplace.  I just don't know where yet.  I'm rather worried.  Poor fat kitty.

On a more positive note, I am spending the next couple of weeks enjoying a lot of things that I couldn't in DC and probably won't in Korea:
Swimming in a pool that is not filled with hundreds of other people
Taking a hot bath in a tub that's large enough my legs don't stick out
Cuddling cats that don't try to kill me when I pick them up
Sauerkraut (The German equivalent of kimchi. It's my heritage.)

Ok, I probably ought to do some real work now.  Like knocking out some of the 15 units on developmental psychology and survival Korean that are part of the required pre-orientation course for EPIK.  I will also be shopping, packing and generally freaking out.  You may or may not hear from me again before I arrive in Korea, but leave some love in the mean time!