Ahhhhhh…That’s the calm and relaxing sound I made upon returning to school this morning after a long Chuseok break that found me sitting on my butt for 10 straight days. Sure it was nice to get to Seoul. And sure it was nice to eat about five boxes of choco-pies, but there’s only so much freedom a man can take before he needs to have something tangible to do. I also taught myself way too many songs on guitar. My setlist for the fall festival has extended from one song to about five or six, and I plan to take the stage for as long as they’ll have me. Anything it takes to make the kids respect me just a little bit more…although come to think of it, if I blow this thing out of the water, I am ruining the expectations for whoever comes and replaces me one year from now. I hope they’re bringing an electric key-tar, because anything less will bore these Koreans when I’m done with them. I’m a one-man, English-speaking, musical dynamo here.
Needless to say, I’m pretty stoked to be back. Teaching fits me better than I thought it would. I’m not saying I’m good at it. I’m not even saying I’m passable at it, but I enjoy it and I definitely feel riveted every time a student surprises me by exceeding my expectations. I love it when a kid goes above and beyond, like when today a kid said “chimpanzee” when I was only shooting for “monkey” or even “money”…something close. Stuff like that makes my eyes light up.
There was a picture of a monkey posted, by the way. I wanted to see if the kids could name it. …Just in case you were wondering. I hate segues.
It’s hard to believe that October is already nearly here. I feel like once I’m on the other side of October and staring November in the face I’ll really be counting down the weeks. This whole thing is like a marathon. When the entire race is still in front of you, you sort of dread it. Then you start running and you realize you’re not in the kind of shape you thought you were. But then you kinda break the wall (hopefully around November) and you start realizing that the first few miles weren’t that bad in hindsight and you think you’ve got it in you to run that at least five or six more times. Then the next few miles are somewhat easier and so on and so forth. Pretty soon, you’re staring down the finish line.
I should also mention at this point that there was some kind of energy drink lying right in the center of my desk in the office when I arrived this morning and it might as well have been labeled “happy” in a can because that’s the way I’ve felt today. It’s like in Super Mario Bros. when little Mario punches the coin box and a mushroom comes out and you chase it for a few seconds until finally it rebounds off a stationary object like an adjacent brick or something and then you grab it and you become Big Mario and you feel like a badass because suddenly when you jump and punch the regular bricks they break into a million pieces… That’s how I feel today. I’m Big Mario. It’s a pretty super feeling because in the past few weeks I’ve definitely been little Mario on more than one occasion, and the world is more than a little daunting when you’re a small Italian in a world full of carnivorous, flying turtles.
I hope you had as much fun reading that last paragraph as I had writing it.
This week in class, I’m talking about English idioms, animals, and health/fitness with Homer Simpson. So far the kids have behaved a little bit better than last week, but I’m much more numb to it now. I feel like I’m continuing to hit my stride and refine my teaching approach, and I’m also becoming more intuned to the realities of middle school—things that I could never appreciate when I was that age. I have to remind myself what it was like back then because sometimes I just find myself appalled at what the kids are doing (playing on a PSP during class, for example), but honestly—East Middle wasn’t much different. I’m not going to cut them any slack, but at least I understand. That’s half the battle.
Sorry I’ve been M.I.A. for the better part of a week. It’s Chuseok here, which means that most of the country has been partying it up for most of the week. I haven’t had school since last week so I haven’t had a clue what to do with myself for the most part. I’ve spent the better part of the time working on wrapping up my second novel (maybe someone will actually publish this one) and trying to limit myself to only one 12-pack of Ghana chocolate bars a day. I thought I was supposed to come to Korea to try to keep weight off; not put it on. What I can say, though, is that life is a lot more expensive when you’re on vacation than when you’re teaching five days a week. I’m looking forward to getting my routine back and October is shaping up to be quite a bit of fun what with autumn shaping up.
I did make it down to Seoul for two days this week to meet up with a fellow Kentuckian good fun. However, we also had the good/bad fortune of being caught up in Korea’s worst flooding in years around Hongik University Station. The water on the street was about knee deep in places and most people didn’t seem to have any idea what was going on. Buses were plowing through it with virtually no regard for human life and many a car had to be towed out of the water, and I have simply never seen it rain so hard in my life. They even had to shut down part of the metro! You should check out my photos when you get a chance as they’ll give you a much better idea of what we were up against than my words alone can. Luckily, Erin and I watched most of the disaster from the warm comfort of a local coffee shop.
For the most part, though, my trip to Seoul revolved around a little sightseeing. I walked around Gyeongbukgung Palace by my lonesome, which is one of Korea’s main tourist attractions, cruised by a gigantic, golden statue of King Sejong (the father of the Hangul written language), and stopped in for a sandwich at Starbucks of all places. Then, we headed over to Cheongdeokgung Palace and the surrounding park to take in a bit more of the scenery, while discovering several more coffee places along the way. Don’t let anyone tell you Korea’s not a great place for coffee and pastries. The bread here is incredible and the bread products are top shelf pretty much everywhere you go. Luckily there’s a nice little Tous Les Jour in Ildong, where I live. They’re a chain kinda similar to Starbucks, except nicer and more diverse in their offerings. I probably need to go there more often than I do, but I’m saving it for the harsh winter when I’ll need something warm.
On the whole, though, I haven’t been incredibly exciting during this Chuseok holiday. I’ve watched several subpar films, including “Splice” and “Leaving Las Vegas” , as well as a load of old Simpsons episodes just to give me ideas for class. “The Simpsons” is huge here. Everyone knows it and everyone loves it. Accordingly, I’ll be incorporating more and more clips into my classroom curriculum because, let’s face it, it’s easier than teaching. If I give the kids something they like, maybe they’ll behave and make my teaching experience that much richer. Is that too much to ask?
Travel arrangements are also finally coming together as I deliberate whether or not to go to Japan and Taiwan or the Philippines for my upcoming Winter Break. I also just might be heading back to the states for a few weeks in January depending on how things go. It will be nice to finally have something to look forward to. It’s great for my esteem and exciting just to see a bit more of Asia. In the meantime, sorry for the short entry and I’ll try to have more to talk about next time. I’m hoping to do some hiking in October and I’ll be performing “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry on my guitar on October 22nd at the middle school’s annual festival and talent show. That will either be an awesome success or an unmitigated disaster from which I will probably soon recover. I’ll try to videotape and let my viewers decide the final verdict.
Yesterday morning I arrived at my school early (7:15 a.m., to be exact) for my field trip with the students of Ildong Middle School. They lined up on the football field according to their classes and every teacher handed out bottles of water and small items of candy to keep the young ones in order. I was overdressed, as usual, as nobody told me that casual was just fine and dandy for a day out like this one. All of the teachers wore blue jeans. Some even wore t-shirts. I wore a polo and dress slacks and was borderline miserable the entire day because of it, but you learn some lessons the hard way. After the principal had rallied the students with a quick speech and told them to be on their best behavior, we loaded the ten to twelve charter buses lined up next to the school and headed out to our various destinations.
The older kids were taken to Seoul Land, a “less-crowded” theme park according to one of my co-teachers. My students and I, however, headed for LotteWorld—a norikongwon (“play park”), half of which is crammed into what looks like an old, massive train station, while the other half is outside and gathered around a castle that very deliberately rips off the iconic Disney version. I will get to that in a moment. First, I have to comment on my unexpected experiences on the bus on the way to said park. About twenty minutes into the ride, we were on the Interstate, when we suddenly began passing tank after tank after tank. That was pretty cool. We passed about fifty large military tanks rolling down the Interstate (very slowly, mind you) along with a convoy of other military vehicles that extended for about five to six miles. I snapped of a fair number of pictures. The kids waved at the soldiers like American students do with semi-truck drivers and the army guys honked their horns back; it was a sweet moment that was completely random but also very new for me. Maybe the highlight of the day.
Of course, the second first of the day was my first-ever trip to a foreign amusement park (to my recollection). It’s difficult to describe LotteWorld when I have pictures posted that paint a far more vivid image. It’s small, for certain (maybe a third or even a fourth the size of Kentucky Kingdom), but they pack a lot of weight into that relatively small area. There are about six or seven levels to the indoor facility, including an ice-skating rink on the lowest level and a folk history museum on the highest. The first and second floor pack most of the rides, including an indoor rollercoaster and a few rides focused primarily on relentless-spinning. A word to the wise—any ride that has “drunken” in its name is probably a bad move, as it will spin you into a coma. For the last 24 hours I’ve had a headache to which I can only compare to the world’s worst hangover. I owe it all to “The Drunken Basket”, as the ride was called.
During my time at LotteWorld, I was escorted by five of my students. I’ve never felt older in my life than being dragged around a Korean theme park by a handful of fourteen-year-olds. I was exhausted by lunchtime and after lunch I still had to continue with them for another three hours. We walked from one end of the park to the other at least a dozen times and their energy never waned for even a moment. Every time I suggested that we sit and enjoy a cola because my back was aching from dragging my backpack around, they seemed positively baffled. On the bright side, they were able to spend almost the entire day practicing their English with me and overcoming their general apprehension about using the language, and I was able to practice my Korean for most of the afternoon. Korenglish might rival Spanglish as a fantastic means of “winging it” in a foreign country. I was amazed at how effortlessly we were all able to communicate.
The only other comments I would make about the rides themselves is how short they are. No single ride probably lasted more than 90 seconds. Like with all things, Koreans are very efficient in that regard. They load you on, give you the thrill, and herd you out in a matter of minutes, which made it seem all the more impractical to wait in line for 90 minutes, which was the longest wait I noticed on any of the rides. The good news is that the park doesn’t gouge on prices quite as badly as its American rivals, with a large fountain cup of Mountain Dew costing less than two bucks. Sure it doesn’t beat Holiday World, where soda products are free, but at least I made it through the day on less than 10,000 won (about $8 US).
By the end of the day, I was absolutely dragging on my way back to the bus. But I can say that I had fun and it was a truly unique international experience. That’s why I’m here, after all. Now I have a 10 day break for Chuseok—the Korean Thanksgiving. Who knows what trouble I’ll get into in that kind of time.
“Do you not hear me anymore
I know it’s not your thing to care
I know it’s cool to be so bored”
I begin this blog entry by borrowing a snippet from Ben Folds Five. Nobody knows how to vent about life’s low points better than pianist/singer Ben Folds. Whether he’s trashing an ex-girlfriend or reminiscing about being beat up by punks in school, he’s got more grudge than a Clint Eastwood movie. The song itself “The Battle of Who Could Care Less” does not have much more in common with my current situation than the title itself. This week I have found myself at war with a bunch of fifteen and sixteen-year-olds and I have to keep reminding myself what it was like when I was that age.
It’s amazing how hard it is to remember.
Of my five third grade classes this week (middle school third grade is roughly ninth grade to those of you in the states), the first two refused to let me get even halfway through my lesson plan. I’ll run through the highlights of things that they preferred to do today rather than listen to me speak. One girl held a mirror in front of her face and proceeded to fix her hair for about forty minutes, leaving me to feel like the teacher played by the stunning Paula Patton in the movie “Precious”. About ten of the boys in the class had evidently planned before class to spend the next hour punching each other either in the arms or the back. My presence at the front of the room was not to deter them. At least another ten students had decided that my English class would be naptime for them (which made them my favorite students as the day since at least they were respectful enough to be quiet). And meanwhile one smart-aleck decided to spend the class interrupting me just to tell me how delicious his apple was.
Now, I’m getting a sense that some of you think I’m having a hard time in Korea. Quite the contrary—I love far more than I dislike about this place. But this is the interesting stuff for me. This is the stuff that brings me out of my comfort zone. This is the stuff that I am here to conquer and these are the mistakes from which I am here to learn. In essence, this is the cheese on the nachos, Folks.
So about twenty-five of the forty-five minutes of today’s first class passed by with me mostly standing quiet at the front of the room while my co-teacher alternated between trying to settle them down and apologizing profusely to me for their behavior as if it were her fault somehow. Ironically, only the kids who had been acting absolutely the rudest had the presence of mine to apologize for their behavior once they could see that I was angry. As a side note, I tried not to look angry, but I’m sure this only exacerbated the impression. Eventually, then, the ball ended up in my court. The co-teacher had managed to get the kids quiet enough that I seized the microphone at the front of the room and asked her to translate, as near to verbatim as possible, every word I said.
What followed is known in my family as “going Chandler” as I come from a long-line of epic “short fuses” in situations that would merit one having a short temper. We don’t go off for no reason but when we do, it tends to fall somewhere between The Battle of Helms Deep and the Battle of the Pelenor Fields (watch “Lord of the Rings” if you don’t get that reference).
In as many words, I asked the class if it would bother them if I taught class today. Some of the students seemed confused by this statement, and I’m guessing that they’re not used to having a teacher use “smartass” to fight “smartass”. Then I proceeded to ask them how they liked my powerpoint. They told me it was nice and I asked them what they liked about it. They told me they liked the colors and the pictures and the videos. I thanked them and then explained that I work very hard on my powerpoint presentations. I spend about four hours on every single one (they seemed shocked by that). I told them that I prefer to make it through my presentations and asked them what they could do to help me. No one answered so I informed them that they could make me a happy teacher by sitting down, keeping their mouths shut, and keeping their eyeballs where I could see them. I also explained that it would be a lot easier for me to not do any powerpoint at all and to simply bring in sentences and passages every day that they could read to me, repeat, and so forth. I threatened to make them come stand at the front of the room and do these repetitions while holding the microphone. Suddenly, they looked horrified.
So to wrap it up, I explained that if they wanted to not spend class reading sentences and for me to stand at the front of the room doing most of the talking, they had better get their behavior together in an unprecedented hurry. To my surprise, they almost unanimously begged me to continue and apologized (at my co-teacher’s bequest). Of course, by that time the bell rung and they scampered out of the classroom like their lives depended on it, but we’ll see how they behave next week. What’s important is that I rolled a hard six and may have won. I talked big, and the students seemed to believe me. So let that be a lesson to any English teacher who might be considering a trip over here—young teenagers do not excel at recognizing an empty threat from a real one.
When the next class walked in, however, I opened with the abovementioned speech instead of ending with it and the class (on the whole) was well-behaved. I made it through my lesson with time to spare and delighted in showing them a video as free time for their good behavior. I don’t know if that’s the story of how the West was won, but it’s a start. Now just two more days of class and our school is going to a Disney World-style amusement park on Friday for a picnic and celebration. I’m amped to do some traveling. I’m also amped for a new beginning with my troublemakers. Don’t get me wrong. In some ways, I like that they misbehave. I like that they make things hard. It’s a challenge. It’s just something new for me to conquer while I find myself in Korea. That reminder makes me feel like I can take on anything and, hopefully, this is the last complaining you’ll hear from me for a while.
Unless my neighbor upstairs doesn’t start knocking it off, but that’s a whole ‘nother tale.
Today was the first day of my time in Korea where teaching felt like a chore. I’m sorry to say it, and I know that there will be more days like today, but this was the first time I had almost had enough. I was almost broken by a classroom full of 16-year-olds and I know it. Well, that’s not fair to me. At no part did I find myself on the verge of tears or ready to explode with anger, but I definitely felt a sigh coming on and was almost content to throw myself back in my desk chair and let them watch “Finding Nemo” for the rest of the day. In other words, I was nearly content to let them win.
Let this serve as a warning to anyone who is new to the game or is considering coming to Korea to teach for a semester—your classroom will be a rich and diverse setting. In many ways, it will resemble Gotham City from the Batman comic books. You’ll have a fair number of kids who are just average students; they’re just the average joes you might find walking down any city street and they come to class, sit there quietly, and are so undynamic (in a good way) that you barely ever know they’re there. Then there are the kids who just completely blow you away with how studious they are and how much English they know. There’s your Batmen, folks. Whenever I need to feel better, I shine an English signal into the night sky and they come running to save my day.
Then there are the kids who are just petty thugs—sleeping when I’m speaking and basically acting disinterested. And then you have the supervillains. Your “jokers” and your “two-faces”. Kids that are completely awesome outside of class but endeavor to try your patience at every turn for that 45 minutes you have to teach. I had one class today that, to my regret, was full of more supervillains than old Batman could handle today. Kids that just would not be quiet to save a kitten’s life and then one of my classes literally would NOT STOP HITTING EACH OTHER the entire time! At one point, there were students at every table punching each other in the arm or reaching across the table to slap someone. A man of my word, my co-teacher and I did make one kid do push-ups. Afterwards, he laughed about it. Literally, some of the kids just want to hear themselves talk at all costs. Some want to sleep at all costs, but I would prefer this to the kids who shout English gibberish at me the entire time just to test my reaction.
So next week becomes my big test. This week I laid down the rules. Some paid attention to them and acted legitimately afraid of me, which is nice. Others rolled their eyes and I know that their behavior will be a straight line throughout the rest of the semester unless I put my foot down. So what will a classroom full of thirty boys and girls doing push-ups for 20 minutes look like? Something tells me I’m about to find out. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like my teaching experience is already ruined. It’s not like I was naïve enough to not expect this to a degree. It’s not like I’m not still excited for the lessons I have worked out in the upcoming weeks. I literally can’t wait for some of them. I just want the kids who could care less about my enthusiasm to sit there quietly—lifelessly even—while they give the English language a middle finger and let their country down. I’m here on their government’s behalf, after all. Those kids who are seriously about learning the language should consider themselves lucky to have me because I will do everything in my power to help them. As for the others—I’m not getting paid enough to babysit Korea’s future fast-food employees.
But I digress, you take the good with the bad. Most of my week has been incredible. If bad days do anything, it’s that they put things in perspective. You’re less stunned by them the next time they arrive. You’re more prepared. And I do believe that teachers adapt far more quickly than students in most situations. It also makes me all the more content when I settle upon my couch late in the afternoon and begin strumming on my guitar while I wait for dinner’s meat to thaw. Tonight I’m teaching myself how to play an acoustic “Telephone” by Lady Gaga at one of my student’s request. And it’s crab soup for dinner tonight if I can pull it off. It’s amazing how quickly a day can get better in Korea.
…Now if only the rain would stop. During the day, torrential downpours left the stream on my way to work a brown river of rapids retreating from the mountain slopes. It’s pretty spectacular. Even people in my neighborhood seem boggled by it as I noticed a throng of elderly women gathered on the bridge just watching the flood go by. I’m told this doesn’t happen very often. It’s happened twice so far in the two weeks since I’ve been here.
This morning I embarked on my second week of teaching at Ildong Middle School. This might not sound like quite the milestone it is. You might be thinking, how could the second week of school surpass the first in terms of complexity and emotion? Well, the short answer is that it can’t. The first week obviously packed a wallop. I’ll never forget sitting down at my desk for the first time and wondering how exactly I was going to plan my first lesson when such a process is completely alien to me. Then there is the anxiety of not knowing what exactly your co-workers expect of you. How will the way you conduct class differ from the way they do? And most importantly, will your students find you engaging or will they tune you out after 10 seconds and act like little monsters for the remainder of the block?
By the second week, many of these issues have been resolved. I walked to school this morning feeling very much at peace. On the whole, I felt confident that I knew what to expect for the day. There would be no surprises. Three classes and then lunch and I would spend the rest of my afternoon either blogging or preparing for Week 3. Without any doubt, there is something energizing about feeling that a class period is something that you get to create. Every lecture allows my imagination to flourish and if I find myself in a situation where it doesn’t, I know that I’m doing something wrong. I find teaching to fairly black & white in that respect. If I’m not having fun planning for it, the students won’t have fun enduring it. My goal is to make the 45 minutes I have with each class feel like 20 rather 90.
Yes, my school is composed of 15 classes of 30 students apiece, and I only get to see each of them once a week for 45 minutes. That is hardly enough time for me make them fluent in English. It is nowhere near enough time for me to even make them like English. If I see each class 18 times, I will spend roughly 13 and ½ hours with them in a semester. Of that time, I have to find time for 30 students in each class to speak some English. By my estimate, by the time you weed out the lecture portions of each class in which I am the only one speaking, that leaves me with time enough for each student to speak for approximately 10-15 minutes a semester. Now think about that. Can you imagine if someone expected you to learn Spanish after only 15 minutes of practice? The idea is absurd!
Accordingly, this week I began my actual lessons. Last week I only talked about myself the entire time. “Hello, my name is Sean Chandler and I am from a small town in a state you’ve never heard of whose name is funny in English because it is the same as a controversial capital in the Middle East whose name is different in Korean, therefore eliminating the humor upon which my introductions usually depend.” Yeah, it’s hard to dumb that down for middle school students whose English abilities vary from “impressive” to “nonexistent”, but it’s remarkably easy for me to talk about myself for 45 minutes without hitting so much as a snag. This week was the real trick, as I found myself incorporating actual material from their textbooks into my lecture so that they could practice real English-learning—and I’m supposed to make that fun!
In one class, we talked about “heroes” all day. I considered this to be by far the most successful lecture as it was easy for everyone to comprehend, easy for them to answer, and easy for them to discuss in groups. It was also the most exciting as I got to show pictures of 2 PM (a favorite boy band) and Spider-Man, a universal symbol for heroes if I ever saw one. In another class, I tried to hold the class’ attention by having them pretend that they were lost on a tropical island. This class was less fluid than the first, but I still enjoyed plenty of participation from the students as they considered what objects or things were best to have in such a setting. Everything from food to water and, in one instance, a gun—I asked the boy who said “a gun” if he wanted it “for protection” and he calmly said “no”. He wanted it to kill himself and mimed for me exactly what he was getting at when he pointed his index finger to his temple. If his philosophy had championed all those stranded on the island from “Lost”, I can only imagine how quickly the show would have ended.
The most difficult thing about my classes today, however, was simply getting past that “M” word—Monday. If I thought my students were unmotivated last Friday, I had another thing coming today. I don’t know why they were so accommodating last week—probably because I was the cool, new American on campus—but this week every class was noticeably less agreeable. Half of my third class immediately put their heads down and tried to get some sleep, to which I replied with a shrill thwack of my drumstick on the empty coffee can left sitting on my desk. The racket was so much louder than I expected that it actually startled the class, and I could see the sudden horror and confusion in their eyes. Furthermore, their reaction was so much greater than I anticipated that it actually startled me, too, when all those heads shot up and nearly spilled out of their seats. I think my co-teacher was just shocked that it worked. The next five minutes was one of awkward hilarity that only I seemed to appreciate, but at least I had everyone’s attention and I have officially found my way of rousing all the snoozers.
So yet another day is over, almost before it seemed to begin, and tomorrow I have a virtual day off as my students prepare for some sort of school-wide pop quiz, in which certain blocks are locked down to make time for sudden participator testing. These things must be fairly common and not too much fun, because when I pointed the special tests out to a couple of students crowded around my desk, their collective enthusiasm went out the window and their shoulders immediately caved in…to which I replied with a merry chuckle. They’ll be testing all day while I chill in the teacher’s office with a Mountain Dew, lesson planning all afternoon. That’s what I call justice.
Okay, that’s probably about the worst pun you’re going to get from me on this blog, but I have to point out that food is one of the quintessential factors when considering my life in Ildong. One of the foremost things that everyone in the States wanted to know before I set off for Korea was “what are you going to do about the food?”—almost as if Korean food is fundamentally inedible or something. I’ll tell you what’s fundamentally inedible. Most American food. The only national cuisine I can imagine that American food might rank below is British food (no offense, mates). It’s mostly nothing but meat and grease, if you’re lucky, a baked potato and corn on the cob. I find it ironic that the only two American foods I miss thus far in my Korean excursion are both vegetables.
Korean food is delicious so far. I can’t help but think that my co-teachers believe I’m being sarcastic when I tell them that I have found every meal in Korea to date to be better than 3 out of 4 meals I would enjoy in the states. Tonight, for example, I had the pleasure of joining my fellow teachers for a meal in Ildong that consisted of grilled duck dipped in a spicy mustard sauce and served in lettuce leaves with pickled cabbage. A description that long bests “I had a cheeseburger” or “I had a burrito” any day of the week. You know you are in a culture where food is delicious when you literally have no choice but to describe every ingredient included, or else to forfeit an important aspect of the meal. I didn’t have “duck” tonight. No, no, no. I had flame-grilled duck with a spicy mustard sauce served in lettuce leaves with pickled cabbage and kimchi on the side, as well as broccoli with a soy sauce dip. And every morsel of food was absolutely fantastic. Throw about eight shots of soju into the miss with a round of Cass and a plate of apples and Korean yellow melon for dessert and you have one of the most well-rounded meals that I have ever enjoyed…and the school picked up the tab for it all.
I could go on and on about the socializing at tonight’s gathering. I finally rubbed shoulders with some of the esteemed elders at my school, including the gym instructor, soccer coach, and the vice principal. It was spectacular. I made many a bepu (“best pal” in Korean) and pretty much booked my calendar for the remainder of the year, including weekly workouts with the middle school soccer team which I will commence next week and some private unpaid tutoring lessons down the road. But I will save all of that for another blog. In order to discuss meal and alcohol socializing, I would have to delve back into the slippery slope of etiquette (easy to learn but difficult to truly master) and that could fill up ten blogs in its intricacies. Instead, I’ll just round out my meals very briefly.
Breakfast for me usually begins with some manner of pastry from the local E-Mart or some store down the way whose name is basically some manner of French-sounding gibberish to me. This seems to boggle the minds of my co-teachers. When I tell them that I essentially “grabbed a bagel” or “had a pastry”, they always stare at me in disbelief. One of the girls even came to me today and confessed that the three were worried about me—citing that I only eat bread for breakfast. I did my best to ease their doubts this afternoon but I don’t think I quite got through to them. The pastries I eat consist of these delicious pancake pastries that I bought on a whim thinking that they looked good. The packaging claimed that they were “peanut-butter filled”. Upon sampling one for the first time, however, I made a rather astonishing discovery. They are actually brimming with Nutella (or something similar) and this is absolutely fine by me. Needless to say, they’re quite delicious.
For lunch, I dine in the cafeteria with my co-teachers and the student body as the slowly trickle into the dining hall in very organized groups. There is a small table set aside for the twenty-thirty teachers on staff and we quickly line up and dish out our own kimchi, meat, rice (obviously), vegetable, soup, and dessert, and make quick work of it all without much conversation, as is customary. Soup might consist of the common seaweed soup or a rice-cake stew, as we had this afternoon. I find both to be just fine, even though many Americans evidently don’t have a palette for the “slimy” seaweed soup. I, personally, don’t find it to be any more slimy than a noodle in a bowl of chicken soup, but maybe that’s just me. The kimchi is pretty consistent and I could see myself becoming a bit bored with it, but something about it just makes you feel better. I can never bring myself to not have just a little bit of it. The meat is always just fine and the fruit usually consists of watermelon or yogurt so far. I can’t say I have a problem with any of it. And nothing beats a line full of students bowing at you one by one as they pass to retrieve their own lunch trays and make their ways through the lines.
When I first arrived, I never thought I would get used to having students bow to me left and right. Now—only a week in—I vow to demand it from every young person I come across upon my return to the U.S.A. How did I ever manage without it?
To wrap up the whole food exposure, there is also the matter of my first trip to the grocery store. The grocery store has almost anything I could possibly demand. The problem is that I still have a hard time finding most of it for now, as my Korean is still far from up to snuff. For instance, I have recently discovered that I have already contracted the infamous “Korean Cough” due to the mold and mildew in my apartment but I’m having no luck finding baking soda to weed out the moisture. One of my co-teachers is going to help me on Monday, but I still feel embarrassed that I can’t locate on my own something as standard as baking soda and salt. Most of the stuff at the store is fairly straight forward, but when it comes to the various “vague white powders” which one can purchase on any given aisle, I like to know exactly what I’m getting. Otherwise, I end up with a spoonful of flour in my morning coffee.
I wish I could say that hasn’t already happened once.
In other news, a typhoon hit Ildong last night and rattled my building to the core. Every five minutes, it felt like a car slamming into my apartment as the windows rattled and a deafening blast ripped through my window and stirred me to sleep. The wind howled and rain pelted the windows of my room with a force I never thought possible. It rivaled hail in its ferocity. Fortunately, by the time I made my way to work, all but the winds had subsided. My first two classes of the morning were cancelled and I found myself with a veritable “free day” as I only had one class, which allowed me to work ahead for the next week and so on. I have met about three-fourths of my students so far and I think they are warming up to me. Of course, as they warm up to me, I also cease to be the new guy and, more and more, students are carrying on their business around me without feeling the need to impress or investigate. That’s kind of a buzz-kill. But I am astonished at how quickly I have begun to establish my comfort zone. Without question, one year will be an eternity without the people I love, but I sincerely think that the people in my school will become a family away from home.
I’m not saying they will replace my loved ones at home, but I feel in my heart that they will do anything to help me cope with the distance.
Another day, another entry from Ildong. I figured it best to write another blog as quickly as possible given my demeanor in the last post. Yes, I am dealing somewhat with the culture shock. Yes, I am dealing somewhat with the reality of placing myself on the other side of the planet for an entire year. But I will have you know that there are two sides to this coin. The other side of me finds me extremely happy in the most surreal ways possible. Nothing quite compares to exiting the middle school after another triumphant day of teaching and having hundreds of children wave you goodbye with unmatched enthusiasm and friendliness as Pocheon’s endless mountains welcome you back. Nothing compares to walking out of the school and finding forests right in front of you with trees so thick you could not even stick your hand inside without losing sight of your fingers. Nothing compares to leaving your workplace every day and knowing that you succeeded yet again where many Americans would not have dared attempt to venture.
On the first day of school, I set a personal milestone for myself. There was an office meeting in the teacher’s room where all of our desks are gathered side by side and our departing principal bid us all adieu as the new teachers (that would be me) were asked to introduce themselves. They shoved a microphone in my hand and hurried me to the front of the room where forty smiling Korean faces awaited whatever I would say. I think I surprised them when I began introducing myself in Korean. Many of the women giggled softly but I was later told that this is a common reaction to something cute, and I will take “cute” over “imbecile” any day of the week. I was complimented on my Korean and taken to my desk where I had already removed my shoes and replaced them with my work slippers—the very same ones in which I teach every class.
As a side note, I don’t know if I will ever get used to a room full of students all wearing socks. They removed their own slippers and sandals immediately upon entering the room and stash them away in a series of storage boxes at the back of the classroom. But I can’t help but stop every now and then halfway through a lecture because I noticed that someone has Bart Simpson socks on. Or worse, “Twilight”. I swear to God (and I know I’m recycling this joke, for anyone who has already heard me to tell it), even if you found yourself landing by helicopter on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean—one of the last savage islands completely isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, including all other civilizations and perks of modernity—you would find tribal teenage girls sitting around in a circle wearing animal cloths and discussing who is better: Edward or Jacob? It just permeates every culture at the moment. Even the teenage girls in my own class argue whether or not I look more like Edward or Jacob or, in some uncomfortable instances, Bella.
I am also amused by the fact that on the first day of teaching, as soon as I opened my mouth and said “Hello”, boys and girls alike in the room dropped their jaws and stared at me in disbelief. Evidently, my voice came as a bit of a shock to them. Some of the kids try to imitate my deep tone. Others just clap when I say something. Hilariously, some of the girls in the class have just nicknamed “Voice-suh”. “Suh” doesn’t mean anything; it’s just a leftover phoneme resulting from Korean syllabic structure. Most English words—especially our names—tend to take on extra syllables. “Chandler” for example has three distinct syllables in Hangul spelling.
The most common question I have received during my first week is whether or not I am a vegetarian. This is because my predecessor was a vegetarian and evidently many teachers in the school had come to assume that all Americans simply refused to eat meat. Admittedly, they know this is not actually the case, given our love of McDonald’s and KFC, but literally every teacher I meet wants first to know where I stand on the divisive issue of meat vs. plant consumption. They respond pretty favorably when I tell them “I am the opposite of a vegetarian”. I think my lunch hours at Ildong Middle School will definitely be easier with me being able to sample the meat and soup offerings. So far, I have yet to have a bad meal or even anything that made me turn my nose up. Reiterating a point I made in the last entry, food continues to be something I do not miss.
I suppose it is necessary to actually mention a word or two about teaching, as that is why I’m here after all. My initial confession is that my students, on the whole, do not seem to care at all about English. It frustrates me but, to be honest, I understand where they are coming from. I don’t know if the importance of English has been directly conveyed to them. I also understand how much work these students complete day in and day out. Not to knock American schools, but you really have to see Korean schools to understand it. There is a twenty minute cleaning interval in the middle of the afternoon where all the students bust out brooms, mops, and pans and give the entire building a onceover just in time for the final classes of the day. Inappropriate attire sometimes results in a firm reprimand of push-ups, wall squats, or worse, and it is well out of my capacity to get involved.
When they arrive in my classroom, many of them look absolutely wiped out. Exhausted and beaten, and English is the last thing on their minds. I can’t help but feel like I am a chore for them to tolerate and try to wait through until the next class. I don’t take it personal, but I also know that I am not doing them any favors by letting them take naps and pretend that, because I am a foreigner, I treat them differently from their other teachers. My Korean co-teachers are the law—not me—and I let them enforce it by whatever means they deem necessary. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about corporal punishment, but if push-ups get the energy going, then I’m not above telling them to drop down and give me twenty.
I hope they won’t turn on me, but they also know the drill. I’m nothing new to them. And this is one thing I know I will adjust to quickly. By the time we return from Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), I will be in the swing of things. I feel pretty confident about that. Right now I’m still nailing down my teaching voice, my mannerisms, and my overall philosophy, but I like my kids, and I think that’s the first step. Some teachers in the U.S. don’t even THAT going for them.