Saturday, November 20, 2010

Week 7: Flashback Advice

Since I should write something for Week 7:


IT'S BEEN almost two months now that I've been in Korea. I vividly remember that first week I arrived, back when I was scared to enter a grocery store. My tongue fumbled at the thought of speaking Korean to the cashier, and it was uncomfortable constantly being gawked at and whispered about. I remember the first day I entered my elementary school, and saw the sea of black-haired kids scampering around like wildly screaming banshees. Not just the language barrier, but being a new teacher, was challenging.

But I can't live without challenges. It's like when you're waiting backstage for a play. Behind the curtain, you're nervous, but once you get out there, it's your show. Sometimes in the grocery store, I fail speaking Korean and feel like a complete idiot. It's okay. I've grown used to feeling like an idiot. I've grown used to feeling like a baby, who has to relearn everything all over again. How to eat with chopsticks, how to cut food with chopsticks, cultural mannerisms- don't write names in red ink; it means you wish them death, how to pay bills, how to charge bus cards.

Yet the thing is, no one leaves you hanging. People jump in when they see you having trouble (and sometimes prematurely assume there'll be a problem). In the classroom, the co-teachers have my back. They constantly teach me new tricks. The kids make my job easy. I've only had to give the "I'm disappointed in you," talk to one class for acting up. I think 5th grade is my favorite. 4th and 5th are just at that level where their English is starting to take off, and they're still really enthusiastic to learn. The 3rd graders have the enthusiasm, but their English vocabulary is limited, and most of them can't read. The 6th graders (who graduate this semester) are settling into their pre-middle school "I'm too cool for studying" attitudes. I'm only assisting in that class (I'm not the main teacher) and from what I've seen, teaching by the book doesn't reach them. The interactive tasks do. The co-teacher lets me take over more of the lesson, as I learn his plans and routines, so I'm positive we can get a good balance of both.

Advice to Future Teachers

To anyone considering Korea for the future: there are tons of free Korean language classes available. The one I'm currently going to is an hour and a half on Saturdays. It costs 1,000 won (1 dollar) a day for printing costs, but besides that, you pay nada. They give you the packets, so you don't have to pay for a book. There are also so many hiking/adventure groups to meet up with. I'd advise Adventure Korea. They have an upcoming ski trip that costs 100,000 won (100 dollars) for the transportation, lift ticket, all rental equipment, and insurance. Not bad.

When considering jobs in Korea, think carefully before you accept a position at a hagwon. These after school programs are paid for by parents, and they definitely except results. There is a lot of pressure put on foreign teachers. From stories I've heard, the first month they treat you decently, but in the next they turn into harpies. Also, paychecks can be an issue. At public schools, you never worried about not being paid on time; the school's run by the state, so you know the state has the money to pay you. Hagwons can't pay you until the parents pay up. I'm sure there's good experiences along with the bad, but definitely know what you're getting into!

Also, to all new teachers in the Korean public school system: use It's a website where all the public school teachers share their lesson plans, presentations, and materials for the book. It makes the job a hell of a lot easier. You'll be amazed at the games these people create in power point! Thank you to all you waygookers!

Phones: these can be a hassle because of the language barrier. I can't tell you about any of these hassles, though. My recruiting agency, Adventure Teaching, offers what's called the Arrival Store. It has all sorts of goodies you might need upon landing, as well as a cell phone contract. They offer you a slider cell phone with a buy now, pay later option. You rent the phone. This means you must follow the phone contract for 6 months, but after that, you can end your contract and return the phone at any time. So keep it in good condition! You receive free incoming calls and texts. Outgoing they charge. Due to international fluctuations in price, you have to buy an international calling card to make international calls. I just use Skype for all that jazz (free!). Best thing: all your bills and transactions with the Arrival Store are in English. Service has been good so far, and your phone has a Korean-English dictionary and a Subway map.

Last thing: when you're getting documents together for your visa, do not neglect the Residence Certificate. This is needed to prove you're a United States citizen, so you do not have to pay taxes in Korea and in the USA. Fill out form 8802 on the IRS website to only pay taxes in the USA. Thing is, the IRS can take their sweet time getting the Residence Certificate to you, and you'll need to present it to your school before your first paycheck. So plan at least 2 months for it!

Good luck, miss you all, and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Disclaimer: the above is presented as opinion, not fact.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Week 6: Epic Escape from Costco

The Palace

GUARDS TWIRLED and stomped beneath a sea of brightly-colored flags. One raised a conch shell horn to his hand and blew, the low, velvety tone striking steady and sure. A guard standing beneath an archway struck a drum, which was twice as tall as he was. Its deep bass-voice rang out across the square, up the tri-path walkway, and pushed through the mouth of the first Gate. Tourists delightedly snapped photos and surreptitiously sidled in front of one another. Every few hours, Gyeongbok Gung Palace hosted a changing of the guard, to simulate how it was back in the dynasty days.

Our English-speaking tour group entered the interweaving courtyards. A group of girls from the Philippines had showed up wearing hanboks, the ceremonial Korean dress, and our guide was thrilled. So were the other tourists. They kept snapping photos of them.

A dark face peered down at me from above. Little ebony statues, the Buddha foremost, a monkey behind, and a dragon at the far back, perched upon a roof curved like a crescent moon. These miniature guardians were the equivalent of benevolent gargoyles, warding off evil spirits. They watched as the tourists chose which path on the stone walkway to carry them. There were three paths. The King walked the raised center route. Flanking him on either side were two thinner paths; one was for the military guard, and the other for the civil guard. Our guide told me that before the war, the civil guard was the most distinguished position to earn. Then the wars broke out, and the military path became the superior.

My mind distracted easily, I found myself wandering off from the group to ease through threadbare passages that led to the Crown Prince's quarters, the Princess's sleeping chamber, and an old well I mistook for a sun dial. The insides of these chambers were cold and barren, a few chairs or a lacquered painting half-heartily sat up. The original palace was destroyed during the Japanese invasions and colonial rule in the later century, but great care has been given to restore the largest palace in all of Seoul to its former splendor.  A seven-clawed golden dragon watched enigmatically from the throne hall ceiling. Five claws represent a king, but seven claws designate the Emperor. Engraved in stone outside was the everlasting phoenix, the ruby-red bird that represents the queen.

"Phoenix! Like in Harry Potter!" our guide gushed, hoping to elicit a smile. As far as tourist groups go, she had quite a stern-faced crowd.

Golden-leafed trees flanked the gateways, as vigilant as any guard. Their garland-bright boughs ushered us to the banquet hall upon a koi pond. The waters were murky; the koi stone-hued. Our guide gestured to the pillar-decked house upon the lake. "That's where the parties happen," she said with a wink.

Tucked away in the back were the concubine quarters, the dwellings that swallowed the women those women whole and never let them out again. No concubines were allowed to leave the palace. They never came to the King's chamber; he always visited them.

I snapped away pictures contentedly, overcome by fall's beauty. The gardens grew in a wild tangle, in which jackdaws twittered and a stooped tree offered plump persimmons, like a faded grandmother who still never fails to delight a child with sweets. The crown of autumn circled a tiny shrine islanded on a lake, the trees a fierce halo of fire. And off in the distance, Bukhan San reared above the palace like a ghost in the mist, the original throne.

Little did my friend and I know, we were part of the show. Several boys approached, asking to take pictures with the "Americans." Three girls actually pursued us, determined to snap a photo of the foreigners in their natural state. They seemed convinced that their efforts to photograph us were unnoticed; one girl actually kept a running pace with us: sprinting to get ahead, and then toddling backward in her high heels to try and take a shot with us in it. Keeping with the game of pretending not to notice, we ducked our heads away each time. At last, we quickened our stride, leaving the protesting clack-clack of the high heels behind.

Escape from Costco

Costco's not as old as Gyeongbok Gung Palace, but it's just as vast. The elevator let us off on a basement level floor, and we stood rubbing our hands gleefully as we surveyed the aisles decked to the ceiling with food. Sweet, familiar, home food. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Blocks of orange cheddar cheese. Half-gallons of milk. Okay, I missed my dairy.

I can go through the juice and milk cartons from my grocery store within two days. That was the first thing to stock up on. After that came boxes of cereal, (my co-teachers hate the stuff) salad dressing, soy sauce, and Hunt's diced tomatoes. We noticed how full our cart was getting, but there was still just one more aisle to go through. And then another. Finally, we pulled our stash of treasure through the checkout line, and realized the problem.

Stretched out from the elevator, like a line of people waiting to cross the Red Sea, was the exit line. Noisy families, whining babies, shopping carts wedged wheel-to-wheel-- Yep, an army of customers was waiting for one small, dinky elevator to carry them and their goods back up to the parking level. The elevator took one or two carts at a time.

"We can just take the stairs," I told my friend, flexing my non-existent arm muscles. There were free boxes for customers to pack their food into, so we selected the sturdiest-looking ones and filled them to the brim. At the very top of mine was the large can of Hunt's diced tomatoes. Right away, I knew me and Hunt were gonna have problems.

Our noses in the air, we strutted around the line of people and headed for the stairs: me clutching my box in white-knuckled hands; my friend with her box balanced on her head. Hunt rolled against my chest.

The one flight of stairs killed me. When I saw the long hallway stretching to the exit, I felt ready to cry. Beyond that lay the quarter of a mile back to the subway station. The subway station meant more stairs. The subways were often very crowded, and sitting wasn't an option.

Two men spotted the damsels in distress and carried our burdens over to a shopping cart. My friend and I looked at each other. Then we were pushing the shopping cart out of the exit and into the parking lot. When we got to the street, we just kept going. The shopping cart rattled and bumped over the choppy sidewalk. The path began to grow narrower. Threads of people were beginning to stare at the foreigners bull-dozing their way through the crowd with a Costco shopping cart. I began to fear we'd taken it as far as we could.

Then out of the gloom blazed my familiar 88 bus, my favored one to go to work, to get me back home.
"Let's just wait at the bus stop," I suggested. We dumped the shopping cart in a bike rack.

The people on the bus stared in amusement at the red-faced girls heaving up the steps with their two big boxes. I slumped into the first seat, next to an extremely talkative man. He poked at my boxes and the two full bags of bagels.

"No, one is for her," I tried explaining, pointing toward my friend. The man continued to jabber on. He patted the box, jabbered, shook his head. I nodded and agreed with whatever he said. "Yeah. Yeah. It sucks not having a car."

Disembarking from the bus proved to be the greatest challenge of the night. When you stand up on a bus, you're not surfing a smooth wave. The floor rocks and lurches beneath your feet like a spatter of miniature earthquakes. Next to that, I somehow had to reach into my pocket and retrieve my bus pass. One swipe on, one swipe off. I balanced the box against a pole and made a grab for my pocket, as there seemed to be no jostles ahead. I barely made it. The Hunt's tomato slices had bent one of the box's walls out of shape.

The bus flew to a stop as if testing breaks in midflight. I swung about, barely keeping my balance against the pole. Swipe. There. Bus card done. The box wall was slowly crumbling, and the food was the water piled up behind the dam, eager to give way. I lumbered down the steps, and then--that damned Hunt's tomato slices--tipped off the edge like the pebble that precedes an avalanche.

The man in front of me whirled around with an alarmed horror in his eyes, a slow-motion, "NOOOOOO!" As the food went lurching toward his head, he caught that Hunt's tomato slices and balanced the box edge. My food was saved.

"Kamsa hamnida!" I thanked him. He chuckled nervously, handing the box back. The last thing I needed was to be the waygook who clobbered an innocent man from behind. People gapped at us from all around. You could really hear them thinking, "Those crazy foreigners. The things they come up with. Boxes on theirs heads. And that girl. Hobbling under all that weight. She'll sprain something." Indeed, even as the bus pulled away, faces were still crammed against the window, not wanting to miss one second of the foreigners toddling away into the night.

Alone at the bus stop, we'd only gone a few paces before we set down our boxes. My apartment was still a few blocks away. We set down our boxes, and laughed and laughed.

Disclaimer: The above is presented as opinion, not fact. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Week 5: Three Dollar Halloween Costume

Soju: Water or Vodka?

ONE OF THE most common things you hear about teaching abroad, is that your co-teachers can make or break your experience. Each day I'm learning how important communication between us is, even if the communication is a guessing game, a constant struggle to get past the language barrier. Conversations will be held, and then five minutes later, "So did you mean you will make the lesson tomorrow or I will?"

However, it's three weeks into the game and I can vouch for a positive co-teacher experience. They always step in if I need them, and during lunch it's always Teach-Heather-Korean-For-What's-On-The-Menu time. And while the honeymoon period's still going on with my elementary kids, I have to say what a delightful bunch they all are. They're respectful and curious; some are talkative and others shy-- I really want to target the shyer ones to help them build confidence speaking English.

There was a recent hike and faculty dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant. I was really disappointed I couldn't go on the hike, but I'd come down with a horrific case of sinusitis. Winter chill had settled upon the city overnight; although everything was bright and sunny, the sunlight was like shards of ice, bitter and cold. Co-teacher Lynn and I hid from the cold in our toasty classroom. The school hallways are never heated, so venturing out of the room is like stepping into the drafty passages of an old castle.

We did attend the faculty dinner, however. I noticed the sea-green glass bottles on the table: soju. Just the other weekend, a friend and I had ordered two bottles of soju, straight. Our Korean friend later told us people only usually ordered it that way if they were going through a break-up, or looking for a good time. The evening went along. I sampled everything with the oblivious smile on my face, an expression I'd gotten used to wearing while everyone around jabbered away in Korean. The man next to me was an older fellow. Our non-verbal conversation consisted of him nudging side dishes toward me: salty crab soup, water noodles, peppers, and me: "Choseumnida!" However, one of the others cracked the first soju bottle, and everyone clamored to pour the foreign teacher a shot.

I drained it, aware that the vice principal's eyes were also on me. "Wow," I said. "Tastes like vodka."

Immediately, there was a hubbub, although I couldn't figure out why. Finally I caught some English: "She thinks it tastes like water! Pour her another!"

"No!" I protested. "Vodka! You know, Russia? Vodka!"


I blame it on the sinusitis. It made the two words sound alike. Before I knew it, the vice principal himself was pouring me a shot. I had no choice but to cheers him "Konbae!" and drink. Lynn watched me with a raised eyebrow. "It's good thing you are not driving, hmmm?"

I may have finally convinced the English-speaking teachers of the miscommunication, but as far as I know, the majority of my co-workers may think I'm some iron-bellied alcoholic.


I searched Guri high and low for a Halloween costume.
After two hours of searching, it turned out to be a crinkled scarlet phantom mask tucked away in a Claire's-esque accessories boutique. However, the two hours gave me much-needed time with my new home. Streets unfolded; the blend of familiarity and new alleys made Guri simultaneously smaller and bigger than before. 

There are still the walls of blinking neon lights and the maze of flowing Hangeul script. I can pick out norae-bongs (karaoke) and restaurant names now, although to do so I have to pause on the sidewalk and risk being swept away by the throngs of purposeful people. There is no wait here, only go. Cars shoot out from alley ways as if the crosswalks are starting lines, and don't get me started about the motorcyclists. They seem to be under the illusion that they're riding bicycles. I enter the emerald archway that leads to tiny side streets filled with market vendors, hot, steaming dukkbokki, and rows of fish and crab laid out on ice. Yet my ears are constantly turned for that telltale roar of the motorcycle, before it veers a corner and sends people scattering to the edges. Packages and boxes often bounce behind it.

For Halloween, our destination was Itaewon. My friend and I sat on the subway in our glitzy attire, trying not to look at the old man who kept chuckling at us. However, once the elevator delivered us upon to Itaewon's main drag, we blended in. Foreigners from all over caroused about in costumes; some were cheap, like mine-- a backwards baseball cap here, a pair of funky shades there-- and some had gone all out- Fiona from Shrek, the King of Persia, the alien from Predator. We spent our time between the Wolfhound Pub (packed to the max) and a snazzy decked-out club Latina America. To my surprise, this club played salsa music, and the people were pretty damn good at doing the salsa. However, they were also friendly to beginners, and showed me the steps. We met a Spanish-speaking band who often played gigs, and we had so much fun that we stayed out past the subway running period. The subway stops running at midnight here, and doesn't start until 5:30 am. We'd heard humorous stories of people who'd spent the night in DVD bongs, but we decided to catch a taxi. Once back in Guri, we gorged on McDonalds and stumbled back to the apartment; content, sore, our high heels long ago traded in for flip-flops--we fell asleep.

Disclaimer: the above is presented as opinion, not fact