Tuesday, March 15, 2011


One day, while I was sitting in my local 김밥천국 chowing down on some 돌솥 비빔밥 and wondering whether to go drinking at Speakeasy or Soul Train that evening, the Six Month Mark whizzed past me with barely an “안녕”. (The Six Month Mark is kind of rude.) In three days, I will have been in this country for 7 months, a fact I’m having difficulty getting my head around. I’m more than halfway through my stay here and I feel like I barely have my act together enough to navigate daily life like a semi-normal person. And now, with my head still spinning from the passing of month #6, I’m already being asked whether I will be leaving or renewing my contract. This is not a good question. In fact, I refuse to answer that question. I am going to sit here, inert, until the universe hands me the answer on a divine silver platter. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, EPIK.

In the mean time, school has begun again, and with it another round of Find the Open/Cracked Door/Window and CLOSE IT So It's 3 Degrees Above Freezing Rather Than Just 2. Although with spring slowly making its entrance, it is now frequently colder inside the school than it is outdoors. Much colder. Figure that one out. I suspect it has to do with buildings in Korea somehow being made entirely of poured concrete, which grips the cold like the hand of death and stingily holds onto it until summer arrives and then *poof!* suddenly we’re all sweltering again.

This semester has brought a few changes with it. I am now working at two schools instead of just one, like most people in EPIK. This means I spend three days at my main (old) school, two days at my visiting (new) school, and get paid an extra 100k won per month just to walk a bit farther two days a week. I’m teaching four more hours than I did last semester, but so far the only thing being negatively affected is my Facebook presence. I don’t really have much more lesson planning to do, which is good because I never did get any planning done over the break. I teach grades 2 and 3 at my main school and grades 1 and 3 at my visiting school, but I’m teaching one of the two grades at each school straight from the textbook. This is not my idea, mind you. I find the textbook material more than a little bit boring, but the regular English teachers are having a hard time getting through all of the material, so it falls to me to pick up the slack. Not only does this cut down on lesson planning, it also helps make up for the fact that, after two months off, I’ve forgotten how to teach (not that I really ever learned).

There are definitely some perks to being the new teacher again this semester, at least for two days of the week. More curious students staring at my eyes, screaming “I love you!” in the halls, telling me that I’m pretty and giving me candy (even though they’re not in any of my classes). With 6 months of teaching under my belt, I knew what pitfalls to watch out for in the first weeks, and I hope I’ve begun on a better foot with my visiting school students than I did with my main school students last semester. Only time will tell if I can hold it together or if this is just another honeymoon period. I have once again been blessed with good co-teachers at the new school, and the one co-teacher I didn’t like at my main school has moved on. And! The principal at my visiting school is not only a very warm and friendly woman, she is a woman who likes decent coffee and has a drip coffee pot in her office. We are friends. Coffee friends.

You can check out the photos for other stuff I’ve been up to recently, including attending my second soccer game ever (not nearly as exciting as baseball in this country). Intermediate Korean language classes begin in a couple of weeks (God help me), and I plan to fill my spring with many interesting activities so that I may entertain you with a recounting of them.

Until next time! (or until the Japan-centered nuclear holocaust reaches Korea)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

International Women's Day

Today is International Women’s Day. I’d only vaguely known, and never really thought, about this day while living in the States, where Mother’s Day is the main women-related holiday.

For reference among my American readers, International Women’s Day is like a combination of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, when appreciation is expressed for women and our roles in society, and our social progress is celebrated. It began as a socialist holiday, but has lost its political meaning in many countries and is still celebrated today with little regard for its potentially controversial origins. Just goes to show there are some ideas that are good no matter who puts them forth. Different countries usually have different themes for each year. This year’s United Nations/global theme is “Women and men united to end violence against women and girls”. You can read U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Women’s Day address here.

It’s interesting to hear such words coming from a Korean, particularly given the plight of women in Korea despite its status as a modernized country. (Yes, I know he was saying them as U.N. Secretary-General and not as a representative of Korean society. Bear with me.) While no country – including the U.S. – is a stranger to violence against women, I’d not come face to face with this fact before moving here. I have found, from conversations with foreigners and Koreans as well as personal observation, that domestic violence in Korea is disturbingly commonplace.

One Saturday afternoon, my usual brunch-making routine was interrupted by a couple yelling at each other in the hallway. I was annoyed, but didn’t think too much of it, as at that point the woman was certainly holding her own. However, once the couple went into their apartment at the end of the hall, the yelling turned to desperate screaming from the woman and absolute rage from the man. In a flash of righteous indignation, I threw on my coat, shoved on my shoes and stormed down the hallway to do something about it. About a foot from the door, my courage evaporated as I heard the woman pounding on the door, continuing to scream as though her life were in danger, trying to get out. Standing so close and yet so far away, I had never felt so helpless in my life. What exactly was I going to do? My three sentences of Korean were not going to help in this situation – there was no way I could make myself understood. I was just as likely to make the situation worse as to help, and I had absolutely no means of defense if the man’s anger encompassed me and my intrusion. So I stood in the hallway, momentarily paralyzed, trembling with my heart pounding in my ears, before running back into my own apartment to call the police. But the police don’t speak English, either. So I just stood there, listening, hoping the woman would make it through all right, and feeling like a coward and a traitor to womankind.

I still feel guilty for not pounding on the door anyway. Much can be communicated by tone of voice. I later spoke to one of my co-teachers about the situation, and she told me that next time I could call her and she would call the police for me. Fortunately there has been no “next time” (at least none that I’ve heard), but I still wonder whether the police would even do anything about it. Addressing domestic violence is a tricky thing, particularly in a society that is still very patriarchal and tolerant of violence in everyday life. Several of my friends here have told me they’ve heard similar rows from their neighbors, and no one seems to have come up with a good solution. I am told that there are services for women who are victims of domestic abuse, but they must have a reference from the police. That means something really bad has to happen that somehow gets the attention of a Korean-speaking neighbor or friend, and the abuser must almost literally be caught in the act.

Evidence of how normalized domestic violence is in Korea slapped me straight in the face during my winter camp. I was a bad teacher and didn’t fully preview all of the music videos I was showing during a lesson on how to discuss preferences and tastes in music. The first one, a K-pop video, featured a scene in which the singer is hit several times by her boyfriend. (You can watch the video and see how she gets her revenge here.) Before beginning the intended discussion, I asked the girls in the class what they should do if a man ever hit them. Now, these were bright students; that’s why they were in my camp. I know they understood the words of what I was asking. But the concept just didn’t compute.
“You should break up with him, and maybe call the police!” I told them.
Blank stares. Why would they do that? In Korea, being in a relationship is of utmost importance. What’re a few knocks to be endured once in a while?

I have mixed feelings about special laws and protections for women. Ideally, these would not be necessary, and in a way I feel that putting women in a special category permanently makes us more vulnerable in the eyes of society and negates the equality that the measures themselves are striving for. But I have now been about as close as I ever want to be with the fact that, (almost) no matter what, a man will always be stronger than me. What can I do to defend myself? And abuse is never just about the physical violence. The accompanying power-play of emotional entrapment makes it extremely difficult for women to get out of abusive situations. The strength of men over women also applies in the halls of power in business, politics and religion. While I would rather ignore it or laugh it off, women are still marginalized and kept out, to some extent, of many of the real positions and gatherings of power in my own beloved and supposedly forward-thinking, equal-rights touting city – the one that should be a shining beckon of true freedom and equality for all the world to see. Are these initiatives promoting the defense and uplifting of women necessary to get us over what seems to be an ever-rising mountain ahead of true equality? Will we ever see the other side? And if so, will we have a need for Women’s Day at all?