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Archive for October, 2010

Five Easy Pieces

I’m not quite sure what the above title has to do with this blog.  It’s probably a non-sequitur and, if so, I apologize.  But for some reason, those three words popped into my head today as I sat down to write this blog entry.  I’m told it’s a pretty good movie.  I’ll probably even watch it some time.  I swear.  But for the time being, it’s a reference I made that even I don’t get.


So my week is on the rise for the time being.  It’s no secret that I pumped the brakes pretty hard on Monday.  I was feeling neither sad nor angry with Korea, but was definitely in a funk.  Autumn only lasted about two or three weeks and the temperature plummeted to about 30 degrees this morning and I haven’t had heat in my apartment since I moved in.  Oh, I’m supposed to have heat.  No question.  But the heat isn’t there and even after a repairman came by my apartment to fix my heat, STILL…no heat.  That’s trouble in paradise, Folks.  That shook up the ol’ mokoli a bit, for sure.

But today, I’m in a much better mood.  Hump Day has a whole new meaning in Korea.  Realizing that Wednesday is almost behind you and taking with it another week, leaves me content with the notion that good things happen on Wednesdays in Korea.  On Friday, I’m going out for another delicious dinner with some local Korean friends and tonight I just might be getting my heat back (for $200, I better).  Next week’s classes are shaping up to be pretty easy on me and fun for the chillins, which sounds like a good combination to me.  Seal’s new album isn’t up to snuff, but damn it—U2’s got like four on the slate.  And next week the United States will finally have this election and I can stop watching my Facebook friends make fools of themselves from a distance.

Two days later and everything’s coming up Sean.

So to lighten the mood, I want to talk about adorable/funny/absurd things my students did this week in between beating each other to a pulp.  In my second grade classes (15 year olds), we’ve been studying basic “around the house” furniture.  Closet, table, sofa…the like.  I did this in sort of a crossword puzzle format in which I went around the room quizzing the students by asking them very basic clues.  I stopped in front of one young gentleman in my classroom and asked him slowly and precisely “What is a word for something you sit on”?  He thought about it for a few seconds and then looked at me, rather unconfidently, and replied “Baby”. I still have no idea what thought process delivered him to this unfortunate and, let’s face it, prosecutable answer, but I had to smile.  I’m pretty sure my response left him just as confused as myself.

I also had a nice moment during my Genius class last night (these are my more advanced kids) where one of my so-called “advanced kids” found the word “excrement” on his translation application on his phone.  During my class discussion, he decided to repeatedly hit the button so that the dictionary’s robotic pronunciation aid said “excrement” intermittently at every moment of silence.  None of the other students understood the word so nobody laughed except for me.  I mean, imagine having Professor Steven Hawking whispering excrement in that creepy computer voice every three minutes.  It was a shared moment of hilarity between one of my best students and I, but Gods knows I’m going to get him back next week. 

Finally, and in keeping with Korea’s musical tastes, which are like trying to throw a dart at a bulls eye nailed to a merry-go-round, I approached my school this morning only to realize that “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fear was playing over the loud speaker of my building.  I left my house bitter and freezing cold but arrived on the set of a Breakfast Club sequel.  Pretty awesome way to start a day, and it did wonders for my disposition. 

I’ve been humming it all day, but I’m not so certain that everybody wants to rule the world.  Most people would probably agree that it would be fun for a while but some people would probably be turned off by the power and responsibility.  Others are probably happy enough with the hand they’ve been dealt than to want to rule that many people.  Can you imagine if the world truly were one sovereign nation?  Picking a leader would be a piece of work!  Suddenly the stakes are astronomical. Can you imagine a McCain/Palin sign on the front lawn of a house in Zimbabwe or Iran? Food for thought until my next brilliant blog.


Four Steps

It’s been a while since my blog had any negativity, so I thought I would take a week to vent a bit.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still love Korea.  The people, the food, the culture, yadayadaya…But I have to be honest when I say that homesickness hit me for the first time this weekend.  It’s a strange kind of homesickness.  It’s not like I miss McDonald’s or Wal-Mart or 2010 campaign commercials (Man, that last one makes me think that even a 13-hour difference isn’t quite enough).  I just literally miss home.  I miss my bed.  I miss kicking back on the couch with some nachos and watching “Lost” (not that it’s still on).  I miss my parents and my girlfriend.  Stuff like that. Truth be told, I’d say I’m doing pretty well compared to some of the other people I know in Korea.

But what’s driving me crazy is that I’ve been here two months and I still feel, in many ways, like I’m just getting here.  There’s a sort of tension to being the new guy that can cause a lot of stress.  I feel like that’s a big revelation.  But to be the token new guy for going on two months is kind of a load for me.  My teachers and my co-workers and I have established a rapport that, while enough for me to really respect them, kind of leaves me wondering “Is this as good as it’s going to get”?  Some of my co-workers flat out ignore me.  Some go out of their ways to make me feel welcome.  But we never hang out or anything, which makes me wonder “Do they just not hang out, or am I being excluded?”  Something tells me it’s the former, but I still have to wonder.

Then there’s this business about the four-steps to settling that they told us about at EPIK.  I don’t remember the exact steps in the process but I can paraphrase them just fine.  The first step is all about the excitement and newness of Korea.  That adrenaline rush you get from being in a new and exotic location that is still seasonably warm and pleasant enough.  The second step is when you start to come down from your initial high but you’re still generally very happy about this new culture and everything that it has to offer.  You’re still learning, so there’s a lot to keep you entertained.  Step three is the bad step—when you start to clash with you’re new life and realize that you don’t like rice as much as you thought you did and that you’re never going to be fluent in Korean.  You feel trapped and suddenly Korean culture isn’t your cup of kimchi.  And then the fourth step is adjustment, where you feel integrated and Korea becomes that new shirt that fits you just right.

Here’s my problem.  At no point in my time here have I ever fully recognized that I’m in one of those steps.  I was probably in step one, for sure, but even then I already missed my girlfriend.  It’s hard not to.  Likewise, I’m still pretty amped about the culture and food here, even as I’m feeling homesick enough to suggest that I’m in Phase Three.  I would not say that I have felt angry or hostile towards the local culture and traditions in any shape or form, thus far, and (what’s more) is that I was feeling pretty damned adjusted this time last week.  I feel like I’m repeatedly going through these hypothetical cycles on a weekly basis.  Sometimes, I go through all four in a single day. 

Thus, my question remains…When do I feel adjusted.  When do I get to accept Korea for what it is and learn to truly like where I am.  Some days, I feel angry or tired about my job despite the fact that good sense tells me I’m living the high life.  I have got it made right now in a way that I probably never will again.  My cost of living is low.  My salary is acceptable.  My students and co-workers like me and the most pressing expectations of me are those which I set for myself.  One theory I’m having is that it is almost impossible for me to gauge success here.  Inevitably, I will have students who do not even attempt to do anything I ask or make even the slightest effort towards English, and the more I attempt to hone my lesson to focus on those students who do care, the more I am inevitably forced to come to terms with those who don’t.  It’s a give and take that frustrates me daily and pretty much saps my mojo for 40 minutes 3 times a day.

But once again, I can’t really complain even when I do.  That’s what this blog is for.  And for now, I’m going to go home and make myself a hot dinner and remind myself how sweet life is even if I do miss the people I love.  I’m just waiting for that moment when I don’t feel like I’m waiting anymore and, by October, I thought it would have been here.  November, what do you have in store for me?  Show me some of that sweet, sweet adjustment.  I’ve been at Phase 3 ½ for about four weeks now.

UPDATE:  Sorry to be a melancholy mister this week, Everyone.  Truth be told, I think I’m just upset with how terrible Seal’s new album is.  Heidi Klum might be gorgeous but she is becoming Seal’s Yoko Ono.  “System” was awesome but “Soul” was a so-so covers album and the new one takes sappy love songs way past the limit.  The album is even called “Seal VI:  Commitment”.  Barf.  And every song is an acoustic ballad.  It’s less like a Seal album and more like Seal sitting on a college campus lawn with a guitar and a “Save Tibet” t-shirt singing to his muse.  I’m not saying the man has no right to dedicate an album to his wife, but Seal VII better be a return to form.  Let’s just hope he’s not counting on making any bank with this one.  Who would buy it other than Heidi?  Who would buy it, Seal?  Don’t look at me.

The Long Road to Jeomchon

A long weekend can sometimes make for a good weekend and I’ll be honest—I wasn’t at first sure that this would be the case.  On Saturday, I was the only non-military personnel on a largely fatigued (I refer, here, to both clothing and demeanor) bus to Seoul early in the morning.  I arrived at the Express Bus Terminal south of the Han River about an hour before my friends were scheduled to arrive.  There, I patiently waited for a number of friends and new acquaintances who would be joining us on our trip to Jeomchon.  We were scheduled to depart at about 11:00 a.m. on a two-hour bus ride and I had been promised plenty of hiking and something about cycling in the mountains which sounded right up my alley.

Then disaster set in.  Or at least inconvenience.  I’m kind of a drama queen so the two often come hand in hand.  As usual with any event scheduled by people my age, someone was inevitably late.  Then the bus that we had planned to take sold out, leaving us scratching our heads and me contemplating a snappy return back to Ildong.  Fortunately, communication resolved our problems and we managed to book tickets on a later bus—far later than I would have preferred, actually, but whatever.  We enjoyed a delicious lunch at one of the many restaurants in the enormous bus station and did a little casual shopping at the terminal mall and eventually meandered onto the cushy bus that would take us to our destination.

At 4:30 we arrived and the sky was already whispering sunset as we tried to figure out something to do.  The bicycles I had briefly read about were not, in fact, bicycles at all, but rail bikes, which are basically seats that you peddle along a mountainside—taking in some scenery while you work your quads and gluts.  We tried to make this our first stop upon arriving, only to discover that tickets for the attraction had sold out well before we had even left Seoul.  Defeated and disorganized, we wandered aimlessly around for about 30-40 minutes with everyone wondering exactly what we could do.  The peddle boats in the nearby river were boxed into an area about the size of my classroom, so that hardly seemed worth it.  It was quickly becoming too late to hike.  And many of us simply weren’t up to wandering back and forth all evening trying to find something to pass the time. 

Damn it, we came for fun.

Luckily, we came across something advertising “mountain bikes” and we were eventually convinced that this would be an acceptable activity to pass an hour or so.  We asked directions and headed down the road in the direction of these mysterious “bikes”.  Upon arriving, we were relatively stunned to find not the bicycles we had all envisioned, but more than 50 ATVs all lined up alongside a course that retreated into the forest.  Now, THIS looks like fun.  Going inside, we were greeted by several very kind Koreans who showed us nothing but the utmost hospitality and we paid the roughly $13 bucks a piece to ride some four-wheelers.  They took us out on the course and quickly trained us in the ATV arts with a few practice laps around the training course and then lined us up and led us into the forest.  I was lucky enough to get to drive the whole time for half the price of a solo outing and it was absolutely one of the most surreal and memorable moments I’ve yet had in a foreign country.

It’s funny.  I could probably have gone ATVing in Kentucky any time I wanted, but I had to wait to move to Korea to finally take the plunge.  I may have found a new addiction.  We were invited to go plate shooting and zip-lining, but the costs just never quite worked out.  Ultimately, we settled for a good dinner and several rounds of Hite and soju before turning in for the night.  The next morning, we made the long pilgrimage up to one of the last standing fortresses left in Korea and it was quite a sight to behold.  Since it doesn’t look like I’ll be making it to the Great Wall of China on this outing in Asia, I was glad that I at least got a taste of the vibe.

You can savor the pictures on my Facebook account through this public link:


Enjoy and I will write again soon.  Hopefully before this whole Kimchi blight is over.


Okay, I realize it’s been a week since my last post.  I promise I have an update on the way.  I had to wait for something exciting to happen first.  Chances are, I’ll write a new entry tomorrow while I’m at work.  In the meantime, I wanted to post something to my blog that has become a viral hit in Korea.  Warning:  The following video has shocking imagery and awesomeness that may disturb you.


If you opened the link and watched the video and you’re the inquisitive type like me, you’re probably wondering “What the HELL provoked that?”  Well, I’ve now heard it from several different sources that the entire episode was provoked by the younger girl accidentally or intentionally brushing her “muddy/dirty” shoe against the elder woman’s ankle.  Now, a note on Korean culture before I continue.  You respect your elders here.  We probably should do more than we do in the United States but we don’t.  Well, in Korea, it’s not really an option.  If you don’t respect your elders, all kinds of things tend to go wrong and you may inadvertently provoke a chain reaction that would literally bring this country to its knees.  Among the elders, there is none more feared that your standard “ajumma”, which it the Korean term of endearment for older women. 

This video is not indicative of all ajummas.  It is widely maintained among my Korean counterparts that this particular ajumma is batsh** f***ing out of her mind.  But the video, for me, does capture something very interesting about Korea that I have noticed and that is that there is an absolutely mindboggling generation gap in this country.  The growing personality and social rift between the elderly and the young is such that one truly wonders how the thinning bridge between the two will evolve in the next two decades.  Clearly there are social variables in the country, from its unique morality and Confucian etiquette to its strict education and occupational levels, that are meant to eventually guide young people into their designated social roles and, eventually, “ajumma” and “ajashi” status.  But the sum of their life experiences will be vastly different. 

Young Koreans did not grow up as soldiers or wives during the Korean War.  They grew up listening to K-Pop and Kanye West and shopping at Forever 21 in Myeong Dong.  There is a distinctly Westernized army of youth climbing towards maturity that, in some ways, rejects the strict social order of old and, in some ways, they’re winning.  Just look at my school.  Every day I see evidence of young middle schoolers lashing back at their cultural situation.  Corporal punishment is being phased out.  English is penetrating everything from their music to television and their clothing (try finding a shirt written in Hangul on any teenager or young adult in Seoul…nigh impossible).  It comes as no surprise, then, that such clashes as that in the abovementioned video are taking place.  One would think they are only to become more common in the next decade.

Furthermore, I can’t help but wonder whether or not North Korea is experiencing the same generational rift.  As South Korea’s Westernized young adults graduate from prestigious schools around the world and become the future political and diplomatic elite of this great country, how will the future relationship between these former countrymen evolve?  Kim Jong Il is evidently a fiend for basketball.  Are these the seeds for a future olive branch or only more discontent?  For me, “Ajumma Fight 2010” captured a number of defining elements about Korea’s society and her politics that I found fascinating. 

I could go on asking questions, but that would almost make this a blog entry.

Postcards from the Wedge

This just in.  I definitely got “poop needled” for the first time this afternoon.  Fortunately, the student in question miscalculated the exact coordinates for the point of entry so I walked away relatively unscathed.  I guess all I can do is be grateful that it took them six weeks to figure out how to make me feel officially welcomed.  I don’t know whether or not to feel proud or insulted that it took them this long.

Overall, and as I’ve told so many people, South Korea is a land of ups and downs at least when it comes to middle school teaching.  I was down for most of last week.  The reality finally sunk in that I’m going to be here for an entire year and that I will not see 99% of the people I love during that entire span.  My parents are coming in February, so that gives me something to look forward to, and my girlfriend might be heading my way in March, which will wonderful.  I also have some other friends looking to head over at other times in 2011, but I will not step foot in the U.S.A. until next September.  That is truly incredible for me to contemplate.

But, as I’m writing this, a student just walked by and gave me a quick shoulder massage and I’m reminded that I am truly feeling at home at my school.  Some kids gave me candy yesterday and I gave a whole group of girls a plate of ttok that I was not planning to eat.  It made their day.  I am having students come up to me, eager to practice their English, on a more and more regular basis.  Kids who I didn’t think even spoke a word of it are now coming up to me and impressing me by talking about everything from “Grand Theft Auto” to the “Godfather”.  This might not seem like a wide gamut, but trust me—when you don’t think your kids really quite grasp “hello”, hearing a student talking about gunning down a prostitute is a breath of fresh air. 

If you’ve never played GTA, you’re probably appalled right now.  You should be, I admit it.  All I can say is that I discouraged the student from playing Grand Theft Auto games.  I feel positive that he will take my advice to heart and next week I will become the king of Narnia and I will ride Aslan the lion, voiced by Liam Neeson, into the land of chocolate and establish a currency based on choco-pies.  How’s THAT for sarcasm?

Another “moment” that took place outside of my school involved an unexpected doorbell ring that I received on Sunday afternoon at my apartment.  I opened my door and found my short, adorable, elderly landlady standing there.  I’m sure she is a sweet woman but I get unbelievably nervous around her because she literally is jabbering on about something the entire time I am around her and she doesn’t speak one word of English.  But anyway, she came to my door and waved me across the hallway to the next apartment.  There, she asked me to help her move a huge entertainment center down the stairs for her and onto the street.  I eagerly complied and did most of the lifting, but managed to do so without smashing my toes (my primary concern).  Afterwards, I retreated into my apartment where I had been reading about Korean culture and, no joke, the reciprocity inherent in favors and gift-giving.  As soon as I read this line, she knocked on my door again and rewarded me with three ears of fresh corn in return for my helping her.  

I smiled and politely accepted the gift, doing my best to thank her.  I may or may not eat the questionable-looking corn, but it was definitely my highlight of the week.  It put a big smile on my face.  I’m just glad that I feel like I truly helped someone.

In other news, it looks like I’m in for a long, cold winter of no classes between December and March, but I can’t go home, of course.  Accordingly, I am tentatively planning a 10-day trip in January that might encompass Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, because I’ve worked out a pretty sweet itinerary that would only cost me $1130 at the moment, with pretty short flights the whole way.  I feel like my happiness in the coming months will revolve around these little adventures as incentives to keep me going so that I can return to the United States with that much more life experience, if not technical experience.  The idea of returning to America is, in and of itself, kind of a rush, as I can’t imagine what the cultural adjustment back will be like.  I’m still dealing with this state of disbelief that I am doing what I’m doing, but I take it day by day.  In between episodes of “30 Rock” and “Community”, I slowly start to realize that I really like it here.  I just wish the people I love were here to like it too.

Another Week, Another Mountain to Climb

Another week, another mountain to climb.  Wait…Let me finish.

I really wish I were better about writing on a more consistent basis but as I nail down my routine, it becomes difficult to act enthusiastic about everything.  I think the blog started as a coping mechanism more than anything—a way for me to put my thoughts and concerns down on paper in a bid to make sense of them.  I think it served that purpose well enough, but now I don’t get that rebound like I used to.  I’m not saying that I’m going to abandon the blog.  Definitely not.  But making regular entries is not something I’ll probably be doing.  Once or twice a week is probably all I’ll be able to muster.

That said, this has been an eventful week.  I had a great weekend.  I returned to Seoul to meet up with some friends—other teachers in my province who I met at EPIK orientation.  We went to Myeongdong and I dropped some serious quid on a new coat from the local Adidas store.  About $250 US, which is a lot for me.  But it’s multifunctional and very practical and should see me through the harsh winter with little difficulty. Not to mention, I’ll be able to ski in it, which I’m looking forward to.  That night, we happened over to Sinchon (I believe) and enjoyed about three separate dinners of this spicy fried-chicken dish that was to die for, drowned out by several pitchers of Cass and some fruit blended soju which tasted about as alcoholic as a strawberry smoothie from Dairy Queen.  A little TOO delicious, if you ask me.  Needless to say, we were pretty “happy” by the night’s end and we spent the early morning hours at a local bathhouse, where I slept on the floor surrounded by about a hundred other young people who were all enjoying the nightlife probably a bit more than we should have.

Good times and, what’s more, my wallet survived the night with money to spare.

Unfortunately, by Monday I had taken ill with a cold (I’m still not quite over it) but I was not to be deterred.  I enjoyed the best day of my time in Korea with a nice hike up Myeonsung Mountain, which is about twelve miles away from where I live and only ten or so from the DMZ.  We spent about five long hours hiking up to the top of the impressive and gorgeous peaks around the local lake, called Lake Sajeong.  The scenery was beyond words.  If FLICKR wasn’t so useless, I could post pictures, but given that FLICKR is a worthless piece of crap, you can (hopefully) view my photos at the following public Facebook link:


This was really the first time that I got to spend the day socializing and getting to know some of my fellow teachers.  Once again, regardless of any of the low points that I might feel during my time in Korea, I am absolutely positive that I could not have asked for a better group of co-workers at my school.  Every person is as kind and welcoming as I have ever known, and I truly feel like a part of a family here.  It is already difficult to imagine that I will be leaving these people one year from now.  Even if teaching has its ups and downs, there is no question that I am in the right place to be having this experience.  It might have been nice to have some place warmer, but if that’s my only complaint, I’ll consider myself pretty fortunate. 

Going back to the mountain, though, it was nice to finally see some nature and get some genuine fresh air for a change.  The path that we hiked was as untouched as they come and reminded me of Yellowstone at times while also presenting some geographical formations that were completely new to me.  A word of advice, though:  Don’t ever tweak your hamstring at the top of a freaking mountain.  It makes for one heck of a long way back down said mountain.  But I sucked it up and rolled with it.  Remarkably, I didn’t agitate it enough to bruise and I think I’ll bounce back in no time.  Good thing, too.  Our sports day is in two weeks and I have a concert the day after.  I’d rather not be singing and playing guitar on crutches.

But then again, Korea has been a land of firsts.

Wake Me When September Ends

Wake Me When September Ends

Hey, Everybody.  Man, so you remember how chipper I was when I last blogged?  Well, I’m no less chipper—don’t get me wrong—but I did end up having a fairly interesting week.  And this week, the hammer of Sean came down hard.  For whatever reason, I ended up in a pretty poor mood about midweek.  It just seemed like September would never end, which actually prompted me to start humming “Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day, which (let’s face it) isn’t going to do anything to improve your mood, because “American Idiot” is a pretty overrated album.  That’s right, I went there.

So where was I going with that thought?  Oh yeah, so as a result of my poor mood, I found myself ill-equipped to deal with the nonsense of which middle schoolers are occasionally quite capable.  I would have lost my voice on Wednesday if I didn’t finally swallow the pill and resign myself to disciplining the little ones.  The hammer fell hard and by Thursday I imposed my first 20 minute punishment fest on an entire class.

It was both hilarious and heartbreaking for me.  Here’s the story:  So I have this one class that has several really good students in it.  I mean, seriously—they’re just good kids and I adore the crap out of them.  They work hard and try hard and speak pretty okay English.  And then you have a couple of brats—boys, usually—who think they’re old enough to challenge not just you but also your co-teacher.  If I’m one thing, I am extremely protective of my co-teachers.  These three Korean women take care of me.  They’re my family away from home, and when the kids give them lip are disrespect them, my heart starts to pound in my chest. 

Unfortunately, I have to keep my game face solid even when I’m about to tear my shirt off like the Hulk because I’m so angry.  (Two Hulk references in this blog?  I never saw that coming) I coolly demanded that all of the students stand up and lift their arms in the air.  Reach for the sky, as I told them.  Some of the boys protested, knowing where I was going with this, so I made them do push-ups.  I’m pretty sure one of them dropped the “F” Bomb.  You better believe he got what was coming to him.  Once the real troublemakers had been isolated and forced into the “plank” position, I took a seat and fixed myself a cup of tea while the rest of the class continued holding their arms in the air.  Most of them didn’t do it right, but those who did were getting pretty sore after about 4-5 minutes.

Fast forward 15 minutes.  Some of the kids are officially not liking this treatment.  This where things got pretty hairy.   So one of the chubby kids that I put in the push-up position suddenly rips a quiet fart that only I hear.  Suddenly, I have to keep my “pissed-off” face while there is an unspoken secret between the kid I’m supposed to be disciplining and myself, with him knowing very well what just happened and also sensing that I heard it, which prompts him to try to make me laugh about it.  I walked away and managed to keep my cool, even when I wanted to laugh out loud because, let’s face it, it was pretty funny.  But then the bell rings!  Set your minds to “blown” because when the bell rang my entire class started to relax, thinking they were “saved by the bell”.  I snapped at them “STAY WHERE YOU ARE” and they froze.  I kept them for an extra 5 minutes and finally released them just in time for their cleaning duties. 

The power rush was pretty, well…Powerful.  That class became so quiet I could hear winds blowing in Russia.  I was in control!  The real test, however, will come next week.  Let’s see if they got the message.  If not, the problem might be with the way I conduct class.  That’ll complicate things.  I have to remind myself that if I’m getting cocky—if I’m getting comfortable—I’m not doing something right.  I always need to look for new ways to get through to my students.  Sometimes it’s hard not to give up, but (like I said) there are some really good kids at my school.  Brilliant kids.  I hate to make them pay for what the brats do, but it’s a give and take process.  October will be the real test for me.  September was a wake-up call.

Thanks, Green Day.