Wednesday, March 16, 2011

New Semester

First: Let’s pray for the people of Japan to stay strong enough to endure, but to break down when they need to. They suffered a tremendous loss. The earthquake images were something out of the movie 2012, and the nuclear reactor problems are some scary stuff. I think this proves that the Japanese can withstand anything that is thrown at them, but it’s going to be long, agonizing road back to healing. Just know that we’ve got your backs! If anyone has any charity site recommendations, feel free to post them here.

New Semester Kick-Off

I FEEL extraordinarily lucky to be so happy after disaster left its footprints all over the next-door neighbor’s front yard. The new semester’s kicked off. It’s great walking into the classroom and seeing familiar faces. We’ve established a rhythm in the classroom: they know what I expect from them and vice versa. Everyone seems to be warming up to me, and it’s not just the kids. My co-teachers, too, want to hang out and study Korean/English together. Just the other night, my most senior co-teacher, who’s appointed herself as my Korean “mom,” had me over to make 호박죽 (hobak guk) a pumpkin porridge and 보삼 (bosam) a succulent pork dish. Everyone in the US: we need to catch on to eating this pumpkin thing. It’s amazing and sweet and makes you feel all warm and sleepy.

My goal for this semester is to meet the needs of all the students in my classroom. Quite a few are high-level—leaps and bounds above the others because their parents send them to many hagwons. Others are very low-level and assume the deer-in-the-headlights look to basic greetings like, “How are you?” Then there is the string of students in the middle, who have the potential to join their high-level peers, but they’re often overshadowed by them. And the vast majority of students have a high effective threshold when it comes to confidence in speaking English. It’s lowered as time goes on  and the students feel comfortable with me, but the wall easily goes back up again.

Last semester, I catered mostly to the high-level students since they’re the loudest and I wanted to challenge the class. I still want to challenge the class, but that means implementing more means to get the lower-level students involved. If anything, I want the students to leave my classroom confident in their ability to speak English. That’s half the battle right there: many of the girls, for example, can speak English decently, but they’re too nervous in front of their peers. I don’t want my students to be slaves to any such fear.

Teacher: “How’s the weather today?”
Students: “IT’S SUNNY!”
Teacher; “And hot?”
Students: “No. Cold.” 

The Koreans have a saying, “꽃샘 추의.” It means: “The winter is jealous of the flowers.” It refers to the sudden cold spells that strike in early spring, killing all the budding young flowers and chapping lips and fingers. Just the other evening, there was a dramatic hailstorm over the city at sundown. Since I’m up on the eleventh floor, it was a striking sight to see penny-size ice shards flicked about on the wind against a rosy pink horizon.

Recently calculated by scientists: the Japanese earthquake shortened the length of the day.
There’s never enough hours in a day. Every day I leave work—dodging the horde of middle school boys who like to hang out by the ddeokbokki food stand and bombard me with “Hello! Hello! HELLO!”s—and head back home to a night of persuading myself to do chores. I go through food amazingly quick. I’ve found that the market fruit vendors offer the best deals on strawberries, oranges, and apples (compare 2,000 won for an overflowing container of strawberries to the 6,000 won they charge in the store). I’m confident enough in my Korean to approach them now. It took me so long to adjust to life here.

Semi-Sentient Robots

Many of my friends are worried about their jobs right now. The Dude-in-Charge has made tremendous cuts to the foreign teacher budget, and so many of my fellow teachers won’t be able to renew their contract next year. Some people got cut immediately, despite the signed contract. The wind switches direction without warning here. One friend posted a video of an English-fluent robot teaching the kids English. It would scold them if they made a mistake with such gems as: “One more mistake like that and you’ll be waxing my circuit boards!” Yeah. Technology is on the rampage. Check it out: 
Post by ImatvapI.

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

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Holiday Break: Taebaek Snow Festival

Power Outage

QUESTION: So what's worse than your pipes freezing over? Answer: Your power going out, because then not only will your pipes freeze over once the cold makes itself at home, but you also won't have any lights to see by, and you won't have any Internet, in case you need to go online to figure out a message to tell the maintenance guy.

Question: What's the best perk of a power outage? Answer: having people to freak out with. My friends had stayed the night in preparation for our epic journey to Taebaek's annual snow festival, so they got to witness first hand my apartment's cruel indifference. One minute we were all bleary-eyed and stumbling about, trying to get ready at 6 in the morning, and in the next instant, the living  room light blew out. We were left standing in total darkness, with not even a stove light to click on.

I really have to commend its sense of timing. This was 15 minutes prior to when we had to be out the door and on our way to the train station. Visions of hanging around a frosty-rimmed, dark apartment all day, waiting for the wiring to be fixed, immediately surfaced in my mind.

Luckily, our phones were equipped for this kind of disaster. We looked up the words for "power out" and "maintenance" on our phone dictionaries. I managed to find some parking attendants having their early morning bagels and coffee. It occurred to me that perhaps I should figure out the actual maintenance number, but these people were getting so used to seeing me; it was like we were becoming friends. Once I showed them the word "fuse" and then mimed an explosion, they got the right guy on the job. He reset the electricity in the apartment AND found the source of a problem: the electric water kettle, which had a puddle of liquid around it. The water had gotten inside the wiring, which had been enough to blow out the power in the entire apartment. I thanked him profusely and gave him a bag of chips for his trouble. I'm really digging this "give-food" instead of" give-money" thing.

Best part of all: there was still time to get to the train station! We hightailed it out of there, and two subway rides later, we were sitting on a high speed train jetting off toward Gangwon-Do, the province neighboring our Gyeonggi-Do. The toasty heat settled over me like a warm blanket. It occurred to me what a paper-thin wall there is between us and winter; the chill chases us from the unheated halls and bathrooms in our schools, to the front doors of our apartments. All it takes is one slip-up in our water heaters or fuses, and it's in. I cozied up more comfortably in my chair, gazing out upon a cold, cold country.

Ice Sculptures and Igloo Cafes

We were all patting ourselves on the backs. Yes, the day had gotten off to a rough start. And yes, the train ride had been 4 freakin' hours long. But we had finally arrived in this small, tucked-away ski town called Taebaek for their legendary "Taebaek Snow Festival." Snow sculptures, ice rinks, igloo cafes, snow rafting, games- this was a festival to regenerate the peoples' spirits, to kindly take them by the hand and say, "See? Winter can be fun!" We waddled up to the information counter in our heavy ski gear and asked where the great snow festival that would make us appreciate the coldest months of the year was taking place.

"Ahhh, Snow Festival. It canceled," the lady told us.

We were thunder-struck. "Why?"


Dangerous? I assumed she meant there was avalanche danger. We'll never know for certain, but I think she meant the wind. Many people were out and about in the crisp sunlight, hiking to the lofty Taebaek summit. However, every few minutes, a gust of wind would come hurtling from those peaks that could pierce even the hardiest North Face jacket. It sneakily took us out one-by-one, first biting the weak toes and fingers, and then whipping our faces raw until our noses and ears were frozen nubbins. We fumbled to take pictures of the giant ice statue Buzz and Woody, the heads from Easter Island, the Sphinx, and the legendary Korean turtle ships. I really liked the tank and the humongous soldier. 

One of the downsides of having the 4 hour long train ride was that the sun had already done its dance across the skies and was prepared to be swallowed up by the towering mountain peaks. Although we put on a brave front for as long as we could- gliding across the frozen lake in tennis shoes, sipping cocoa in the igloo café- eventually we had to admit defeat. Back in the States, I'd heard stories about the Korean winters, and they aren't exaggerated. I've never known anything like this heartless, lingering cold. 

Ongoing poll: Who do you think this is?

But it didn't stop us from braving the outdoors and going to a freakin' snow festival, for crying out loud. Although I'll probably stick to winter sports that get your blood pumping, like skiing, I can proudly say that we did the Taebaek Snow Festival, canceled or not, and we didn't lose any limbs to frostbite.

Disclaimer: the above entry is presented as fiction, not fact.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

K-Pop: Korean Pop Music. Guaranteed to get stuck in your head.

RECIPE for the latest hit by Super Junior or Girl's Generation? Find a catchy beat, a catchier chorus, and stick a few random English words in the lyrics. Honestly, they don't have to make sense, just put them in there. Then finish the song off with a themed music video that simultaneously carries a mini-drama storyline, the latest dyed hair style, and memorable dance moves your kids will perform in class for months to come.

Important English lines my students have learned from K-Pop:

"Shut up, boy. Shut up, boy. Shut up. Shut up." - Miss A

"Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry." - Super Junior

"Trouble, trouble, trouble." - Girl's Generation

"I'll be back." 2pm

“Fantastic elastic.”SHINee

And of course there are certain dance gestures that accompany these lines. Click the links below to watch, courtesy of youtube posters:

1. Miss A: “Bad Girl, Good Girl.”

2. Super Junior: “Sorry, Sorry.”
3. Girl's Generation: “Hoot.”

4. 2pm: “I’ll be back.”

I mentioned that music videos must have some dramatic back story going on. The same can be said of music videos in any country, but K-Pop especially excels at this. There's a reason Korean tv dramas are so addicting. Here's the longest storyline I've found in a music video so far, so convoluted and intense that it requires a "Part 2" to complete the tale:

4. Beast: “Beautiful.”

Now you're hooked, so I'll give you a couple other K-Pop groups I've encountered here: 

1. SHINee: “Ring Ding Dong.”

2. Taeyang: “Where U At.”

3. Rain: “It’s Raining.”

4. Big Bang: “What Can I Do.”

Anyone have any other favorites? New teachers to Korea, this is a surefire way to get your students motivated if you can quote these groups, OR even better, pull the dance moves.

Note: The above is presented as fiction, not fact.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Holiday Break: Do Not Mess with Winter

First: HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! 2011! Wish everyone the best for the new year. Just one more year 'till doomsday 12.12.2012… 

The Frozen Pipes Disaster

BIG MISTAKE. Major mistake. And now I had ice-crystal water spewing free like an unblocked dam. The blinds of the window in the utility closet, which only moments before I'd been attempting to board up, now sprang open again, the knife-sharp air gleefully nipping at my numb skin. I backed out of my utility closet-turned-freezer and wondered where to shut the water off in my apartment.

A skype call came in. Mom and Dad, with the computer set up by a softly-glowing Christmas tree in the background and mugs of hot chocolate in their hands. It was Christmas Day back home. Their smiles widened. "Hi honey! Merry Ch-"

"Mom, the pipes burst in my apartment."

From the looks on their faces, the sound of water gushing must have sounded like a waterfall  thundering down through the ceiling. 

The day before I'd finished tidying up my apartment. My grocery bag was bursting with my contribution to our upcoming Christmas party: lettuce, tomatoes, dressing, and a single sweet potato. Also the onions. I had to get rid of those damned onions. Before I left for the subway, I turned my heat off. Because I was fuming about how high my last heating bill was and was hoping to shave off a few extra won. Because I honestly didn't think. Winter cold was slowly advancing upon the city like an unstoppable army, but I ignored signs of its approach. That night it dipped to one of the coldest nights of the year.

Christmas night was fun. I returned home with a full belly and high spirits. Popping on my heat, I waited for the cool air to be dispersed so I could blissfully settle into an afternoon with Dexter and green tea. But the cold stayed stubbornly where it was. I glanced at the monitor, and the red and green lights were ominously blinking.

Shit. I peered into the dark utility closet, where my pipes hung out. They spared the space with a window that had the world's most dysfunctional blinds. No matter how hard I pulled them closed, the cold air continued to leak in. I tried to run a start up test on the water heater, and the lights blinked again. Crapola. Looked like maintenance needed to be called. But first, this window… I could see leftover tape from when the last teacher living here had attempted to board up the blinds. I gathered my cardboard and masking tape. This time, my foot crunched on something and cool, wet water spread through my sock. Ice. I stopped. Ice encased the pipes. My alarms senses were on full alert. There was something I was absolutely not supposed to do in this situation, like maybe snap off the ice. I poked around and snapped off the ice. Water erupted. The wind blew. Skype chimed. I just stared. Fuck, how much water was in those things?

Luckily, it was Sunday, so no one was at the desk downstairs. My calls to other friends in the apartment went unanswered. So after a brief farewell salute to my parents, I went on Google Translate and typed in something to the equivalent of: "Help! My pipes burst!" and hoped the Korean made sense. Hastily jotting the note down, I bolted from the apartment. I dashed all around my building, until I found a parking lot attendant. Ha, so someone does have to be on duty on the weekends. He summoned up an emergency maintenance man, who showed me where to shut off the water (out in the building hallway, in a little white crawl space). He shook his head at me, probably telling me what an idiot I was, and I agreed. I called up my Korean co-teacher to report the situation.

She was a godsend. Completely cool and calm about the situation. She insisted I stay at her place until the pipes could be fixed. And the very next day, while I entertained ideas about technicians having to remove the entire wall and replace all the wiring, two maintenance men from the school came over to fix the problem. Two valves had cracked from the ice, but that was all. In about an hour, they had repaired the pipes and the red and green lights were glowing steadily again. Heat wafted up from the floor. And it had all cost me under 10,000 won (10 dollars). The maintenance men refused to accept payment no matter how much I pressed them. I've found that sometimes to express my gratitude in Korea, I literally have to shove gifts into people's arms. So that's what I did the next day. My school responded so well to my situation, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. It reminds me of how much I've had to depend on the kindness of strangers since coming here, and every time, they've responded. I can only imagine trying to call up a maintenance man myself in my broken Korean.  Can't use Google Translate for everything.  

I just left for vacation, with my heat left on the lowest setting.

"The pipes should be fine on that setting," my co-teacher told me. "When my husband and I bought our first place, we wanted to save money on heating, too, so we turn heat off during the day. But when we received our first bill, it was very expensive. Cheaper to leave it on the lowest."

As for that wonderful utility closet window? I boarded it up and the tape's still holding. Welcome to winter.

Winter Camp

 School's out, but the week every Korean student looks forward to is here: English Camp! Yes, every school holds week-long English camps for students to drag themselves up out of bed for and for English teachers to glance longingly at the calendar to their countdown until vacation. I had a week of 3rd/4th graders and then a week of 5th graders. Not many 5th graders had signed up, declaring that English camp was usually "boring." I took that as a challenge.

I'm really impressed with my 3rd/4th grade students. These kids are smart and super enthusiastic. In the regular English classes, they always made life miserable for the other students by claiming, "Too easy, teacher! Too easy!" I figured I could challenge them with an Around the World camp. Every day we would learn about a different country: South Korea, America, Italy, and Brazil. The last day would be an Olympics Competition. I love coming up with the ideas for camps. Then, actually making all the materials kills me. It's so time-consumingly long! And then you have to summon up the enthusiasm to teach the material you've spent too much time with.

Luckily, the 3rd/4th graders made it easy. They enjoyed learning the English words for Taekwondo actions, struggled through the difficult he/she/it English rules, liked learning new animals in the Amazon Rainforest, and oohed at a video of a flooded Venice. Cooking Day was their favorite. In honor of Italy, we just had to cook something in class, and if it couldn't be pizza, then why not Puppy Chow? Also, I was craving something sweet. As I said, these kids really impressed me. One of their Olympics tasks was to write their own funny recipe, in English, and they took the mission seriously. Everyone huddled about in their groups, whispering the ingredients they would use and glancing furtively at each other. I'm amazed how quickly they pick up English words. One girl was trying to sneak a peek at another team's recipe, and I called out, "Uh oh, are you a spy? Don't be a spy!"

Within five minutes, all the teams were using the word. "Spy! Spy, teacher! Teacher, he spy!"

The 5th grade camp went pretty smoothly as well. The 5th graders get their mood swings, but for the most part, they get just as excited over stickers as the younger kids. Their camp was pirate-themed and from the beginning, I divided into pirate crews to compete the entire week for a prize. They made pirate flags and came up with their names. The balls started off rolling slowly, but by mid-week, they were fully engrossed in the competition. I felt so bad for the Black Pearl crew- they tried so hard to catch up to the leading team and ended up losing by 1 point.

Next time: no cooking days with peanut butter. The 5th graders had fun making peanut butter cannonballs, but that peanut butter found its way into places it should never go. It was pretty funny. The girls made perfectly round cannonballs, but the boys' looked like reject Hersheys kisses.

Korean Folk Village

 Shortly before the holidays, I had the pleasure of visiting the Korean Folk Village, a cultural center that shows the architecture and life style of feudal Korea. I was near Suwon at the time, and some relatives (related to me in a complicated fashion- second cousin's wife's sister's family, but hey, the connection's there) gave me the tour. Huge draft horses stood in the snow banks, still as statues. A field of old kimchi jars sat lined up like soldiers for battle. People wove rope into shoes. Jindos, a wolf-like hunting dog native only to Korea, watched with intelligent eyes from cages. Jindos are said to be very smart and incredibly loyal.  

Entire villages had been constructed in the rural fashion, some with roofs of straw and others of clay. It was interesting to see how the housing varied in Seoul compared to the far south, on Jeju Island. The folk village also featured a lord's manor and a jail yard, in which visitors playfully tormented each other with the medieval punishment devices. My favorite was the girlfriend who wielded a huge spanking paddle over her begging boyfriend. Little tension in the relationship there, haha.

Mid-afternoon, the village held a dance and acrobatics performance. We sat in a ring, hands huddled within our snow coat pockets, while an old man nimbly balanced his way up a tight rope. The first time across, he stumbled. But now I'm convinced that was a ploy to heighten the tension, because he completed every other trip across the rope flawlessly. The rope was his trampoline: he gracefully bounded up and down on it, his legs doing swan-kicks in the frosty air. He spoke to the crowd after the show was over, and my relative told me he could usually do more tricks, but the harsh winter air had caused his feet to freeze up.

At the end of the village walk was a quiet waterfall, plunging into a glacial river swimming with ice. We crossed the bridge and entered a cottage with hot floors, the much-needed heat shooing off the chill. It was time to warm up.

"What's the coldest month?" I asked my relative, to see how long I would have to dash from building to building shivering.

She thought. "December's cold."

I nodded, relieved.

Then she said, "But January and February are colder."  

At least there'll be plenty of skiing.

Next blog: It's about time I showcased the epic K Pop (Korean Pop) my students love. Stay posted for lots of dramatic music videos and boy bands with hair healthier than mine.

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