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Archive for January, 2011

5 Months

It’s hard to believe that yesterday marked my 5-month anniversary in Korea.  It only feels like I’ve been here for an eternity until I think back to that first few weeks here.  The details are still so vivid in my mind.  Time hasn’t even had enough of a chance to distort my memories and exaggerate my stories.  My hand still hurts from the time I tried to jump over a tree after that first night of trying soju.  Yeah, I might have forgotten about that for a little while, but the scar on my hand will remind me at least until I go home.

Five months feels like sort of a conquered hurdle for me.  When I first arrived I remember meeting some people who had been here for five months.  Those people were veterans in my eyes.  They had been here for a span of time that seemed almost impossible in my young eyes.  Now I’ve crossed that threshold myself and the veterans are only a month or two shy of heading home.  That’s a lot to take in.  For the next month, I will be traveling half of Asia.  After that, my beautiful girlfriend will be paying me a visit for nearly three weeks that are bound to go by far too quickly.  On the other side of her visit, I’ll be only five months shy of going home.  Less, actually.

In other words, I’m only one more school semester away from going back to the states.  I’m only fifteen weeks of crossword puzzles, phonics games, textbook conversations, and tutoring lessons away leaving Korea behind, but now feels like a good chance to reevaluate everything and make sure I’m getting the most out of my Korean experience.  I don’t mean to be counting down the weeks already, but it’s hard not to.  I’m so eager to go home now and see how much my perspective has changed.  Will the old things still frustrate me or will they feel as foreign now as kimchi was in August?

I have no way of knowing.

Five months is two months longer than I spent studying in England with Centre.  That’s kind of an eye-opener.  That felt like such a long time in 2006.  THREE MONTHS.  Now I’m rapidly approaching half a year away from home and I know that I’m not done with this place yet, nor is it done with me.  I still have so much left that I set out to accomplish in Korea.  So many boxes left unchecked on my Korean bucket list.  I hold myself accountable for anything left unmarked—any road left untraveled.  But I’m also saving so much for the spring.  When the weather warms up, I’m hoping to do everything I can to make the time pass all the more quickly in Korea and feel that I have truly done justice to my time here.

I don’t see a need to belabor the point with this entry.  To summarize, five months is a time for introspection and reflection and it’s nice to remind myself of what brought me here in the first place.  In the meantime, I’ve now reached the perfect place in my year abroad to begin planning for the next year—the return.  How can I make it better than the year before I came to Korea?  Now that I’ve spent this time alone abroad, how have I changed and how have I truly bettered myself?  I refuse to let myself or anyone believe that I am worse off for having embarked upon this adventure, but how do I prove it?

A happy life is awaiting me in the U.S.A.  The pieces are aligning and I can see them, even from across the ocean that divides us.  Job prospects, an apartment with Nina, closeness to friends and family…These are the things that will make me happy in the second half of 2011.  And if Korea is the avenue that leads me to these things, well then I may have taken the long way to get there, but I can safely say that I ended up exactly where I wanted to go.


Apartment Woes: Part 2

I know I’ve already touched upon my apartment situation in prior blogs and God knows I’ve complained enough about my situation on Facebook.  But my predicament does bring up a few interesting (if however frustrating) points about the EPIK program that might be useful to anyone who happens across my blog while in the process of considering teaching in Korea as an employment option. 

To that end, I would say that there are plenty of people who have written scathing blogs about their experience here and often their complaints ring untrue of many other parts of Korea.  Indeed, many of the people who complain the most were recruited independently by hagwons (private schools) and got what they had coming to them in a sort of way.  Independent recruiting is almost like a black market for educators and in the worst situations it came be damn near to human trafficking, except instead of dealing in sex they’re dealing in English teaching. 

That has not been my experience in Korea.  But I also want to say that the EPIK/GEPIK program is far from a perfect apparatus.  Indeed, its merits have proven so questionable in my province that rumors run rampant of cancelling it altogether.  At my second orientation, we were instructed to refrain from posting absolutely ANYTHING negative about the program on our blogs because of how hard Korea has worked to make this program successful.  The comment rubbed me the wrong way and, indeed, I have ignored it completely.  A government-run program with numerous examples of shortsightedness and general incompetence deeply embedded into its bureaucracy refusing to take practical and pointed criticism from those it employs?  Man, I thought I was back in the states for a moment. 

No, if EPIK/GEPIK ever hopes to achieve its lofty goals, then it needs to learn how to take some criticism.  I’m not encouraging bloggers to post some of the heated, hateful, and ambiguous rants that I have read during my time here, but I will always dedicate my blog to pointing out problems with the system, and that is what I have been building to in this entry.  Yeah, sorry I took the long way to get to my point, but here I am, so won’t we continue?

From pretty much Week 1 in Korea, I have had problems with the apartment provided to me by my school.  I’ve dealt with ant infestations, mosquitoes, mildew and mold (that left me with a very serious cough for about two weeks), a broken boiler that put out no heat for most of October, exploding ceiling lamps (I’m not exaggerating), and of course shower and sewage backing up onto my bathroom floor because of abundant problems with the building’s pipes and drainage system.  In the course of dealing with these problems, I have never felt that the school did not have my interests at heart.  I have always known that the people at my school, including my principal, vice principal, and teachers, who have never shown me anything but the utmost kindness and generosity, are sympathetic and even embarrassed by the problems I have experienced this winter.

But now I am in a very unfortunate catch-22.  Okay, not exactly a catch-22.  More of a deadlock, I guess.  I am in a situation where the two primary parties involved with the apartment situation, namely my landlady and the school, are both aware that my apartment (in layman’s terms) sucks ass hard.  Cold weather means busted pipes and sewage on the floor.  Warm weather means ants eating my foot and mosquitoes eating Sean.  My landlady, however, is refusing to pay for the proper repairs to the building and my school is complaining that they cannot afford to pay for the repairs either, which leaves me royally screwed. 

Given my situation, the first thing that many people propose to me is to threaten to leave Korea.  That’s an empty threat.  If I leave before February 27th (The halfway point on my one-year contract) I am obligated to reimburse the school the money they gave me for the plane ticket to Korea.  If I refuse to pay the money back, then I risk being denied entry into Korea in the future.  That’s all pretty grim talk, of course, considering my special circumstances, but I’m being put in a corner where my contract is essentially useless and I’m not even sure where my rights exist.  There is no writing in the contract (not in English anyway) that requires the school furnish me with an inhabitable apartment.  There is no writing in the contract that prohibits the school from putting me in a place where I am ankle deep in my own waste.  There is no dialogue at all stating what actions I can take if I am not provided with a suitable place to live.

As a result, my school is sitting on its hands right now because they don’t want to opt out of the contract they have with my landlady.  They don’t want to pay what it will cost to move me to a new apartment (which, by the way, my contract seems to imply that I am responsible for paying all costs related to such a move in ALL circumstances).  And the only alternative they have suggested so far is to move me to the teacher’s dorm again and place me in a room that lacks half of the stuff to which my contract says I am entitled, including a desk, a bed, and a sofa.  Oh, but thank God it has two televisions so that I can watch twice as many Korean dramas that I don’t understand.  Maybe if I’m lucky they’ll show “Home Alone 3” for the twentieth freaking time.

So, yeah.  On any given day, my apartment could be basically uninhabitable but money is the issue.  If I stay here, I get to be stuck in the middle of an ongoing blame game between my school and the landlady as both try to squeeze money out of each other (money that the other party, admittedly, does probably not have).  If I quit and return to America, I’m screwing myself.  I’ll be coming home with about $2,000 and I’m gonna miss out on going to Cambodia with my parents and spending March with my wonderful girlfriend.  Yes, Korea loves foreigners and is wants to do everything possible to make us happy, but there is a risk that we will place you in the worst apartment in the neighborhood, act baffled every time something goes wrong with it, and shrug our shoulders while we all realize that your contract did not actually provide you with any rights to defend yourself in case something like this should happen.

I would like to get in touch with the people at GEPIK and voice my concerns, but would they really care?  Rumor has it that they’re not planning on replacing me anyway as the program is considering giving up on forcing the students in my town to learn English.  If I threaten to quit, aren’t they just going to high five each other and look at it as saving $14,000.  Aren’t they just going to point out all the places in my contract that absolve them from any accountability? 

Yeah, there’s no doubt about it.  Korea sure knows how to make an American feel at home sometimes. 

The point is, I’m tired of hearing about how sorry and embarrassed the people at my school are.  I’m tired of hearing them ask me to give the landlady and the apartment a second chance when I have already compiled a list of problems with the apartment that runs two to three pages deep.  If you are coming to Korea, my advice is to document absolutely everything that is wrong with your apartment when you arrive.  If possible (as in my situation, for example, having replaced a previous English teacher), interview the person who lived in the apartment before and ask them EVERYTHING about the apartment and write it down.  Because right now, that might be the only thing that saves me when all of this is said and done.  I did at least take pictures of everything.

Okay, that’s all the rant I have for now.  Hopefully next time I’ll write about K-Pop or something.   Something happy.  Because I’m sick of the cold and I’m sick of complaining.  God see me through this winter.

Starcraft II and “Camping” in Korea

Yes, “camping in Korea”.  And, no, it’s not as exciting as it sounds.  I’m not talking about the kind of camping where you get up close and personal with nature and end up spending three hours trying to wash the s’mores off your jeans because you got attacked by a rabid raccoon at the campire.  I’m talking about the Ildong Middle School 2011 English Camp—a very officialish-sounding title for a relatively unimpressive but more ore less enjoyable exchange between myself and about 13 students.

English camps are common throughout Korea, if not pervasive.  If you’re doing the whole teaching thing over here, at some point you’re probably going to have to do one.  Some are a really big deal, lasting two or three weeks and incorporating everything from multimedia to arts & craft; even some homework.  The point of the camps is to give the native English teacher a solid block of time to spend one on one with a smaller number of advanced students and cater to their levels in a fashion that is perhaps impractical in a normal classroom setting. 

Take my “normal classes” for example.  I have 33 students in each class and maybe 3 of those students are considered “gifted”, and all that means is when I ask them “How…are…you?” they don’t give me the fish eyes—they give me a thumbs up.  My Winter camp was supposed to be a time for me to joke around with the smart kids and laugh about all the others who just aren’t getting it with this English thing, right?

Not so much.

Unfortunately, the problem with gifted students is that they tend to be gifted in other things too.  Why?  Because they’re actually smart.  They actually give a rat’s ass.  So they literally can’t find time to come to my little Siberian Winter English Experience in the dead of January when your slippers will freeze to the classroom floor if you’re not careful (okay, that’d never happen).  No, they’re too busy going to the gifted math student camps, the gifted science academies, gifted piano lessons, and even gifted tae kwon do lessons for those kids that just truly excel in everything.  I once saw one of my 14-year-old girl students isolate the width of a hypotenuse while reciting the dialogue for how to order pizza at a restaurant while chopping a board of wood in half with her foot.


Needless to say, she’s not in my camp.  She’s probably too busy saving foiling a bank robbery or something, or sneaking 100 km deep into North Korean territory to free hostages.  Kids like her are borderline superheroes.  They don’t have time to come to my class and struggle through a game of Scrabble with me—a scraggly-bearded, baritone American running on more coffee than sleep who’s a very sore loser.

Instead, I’m stuck with one class that has only four students in it.  One kid has not shown up and, at the time I’m writing this, we only have one day left.  The other three boys in the class did not show up the first day, were 20 minutes late the second day, were 35 minutes late the next day, and were 10 minutes late today because I scolded them yesterday for being late.  That’s right, they still weren’t on time.  They were just LESS LATE.  Evidently these kids learn how to compromise before they learn how to not be rude, which puts me in a weird situation.

But what drives me crazy about the three slackers who were so late on Wednesday (35 minutes, as I mentioned) is that they’re too young and unmotivated to even be good at slacking.  If you’re going to be terrible students, at least excel at it like Americans.  After waiting on them for 30 minutes, I locked up the classroom and headed back to my computer in the teacher’s room.  The students, of course, did eventually show up, only to discover a dark classroom and no American to teach them.  Now, you would have thought they’d have been smart enough to realize “We beat the system!  We’re so late he gave up and now we’re going to go home, and if anyone says anything to us about it, we’ll just say we showed up and HE wasn’t in the classroom”. 

NO!  They proceed to wander down the hallways, talking loudly, and eventually stop to bounce a plastic basketball…OFF THE FREAKING DOOR TO THE TEACHER’S ROOM.  I would liken that driving home one night, only to stop your car in front of your house and find it on fire.  You stop to think, “Yep, everything in the house is insured.  This is really only a minor setback in an otherwise great year.  Thank God we weren’t inside and everybody is completely unharmed.”  And then, afterwards, you proceed to calmly waltz straight into the house where you are promptly overwhelmed by the smoke and flames and burned to a crisp along with your Seal albums.  All the students had to do was LEAVE.  Instead they alerted myself and the vice-principal and the head teacher to their presence and got a firm scolding before I was forced to actually teach them for 40 minutes.

Okay, at this point, if you’re not aware that I’m making these observations in good humor, please understand that I am only joking.  I’m not suggesting I don’t care about the education of all my students—even the bad ones.  And I’m not suggesting that I have any right to not fulfill the obligations of my job, even during Winter Camp, but poking innocent fun at my students in order to deal with some of the petty frustrations they cause me is really the only coping mechanism I’ve got.

Truth be told, this camp has had way more ups than downs.  Two of my classes have really good kids.  One of the groups even showed up 10 minutes early today.  THE WHOLE CLASS.  It was unprecedented.  I wanted to get right on the phone with the office of education in Pocheon and let them know, and I rewarded the group by playing Scrabble games with them all class that they really seemed to enjoy.  One kid even commented that class today was “Fun”.  Are you KIDDING me?  I hope he didn’t respect me less when I kinda cried a little bit and carved his name into my arm with a piece of metal I found in my desk drawer.

Thank you for validating me Hong-Su.

My English Camp might not put on quite the pretense of being as a prestigious as other schools in the country, but it has given me a new chance to get to know some of the students.  That’s the hardest part about teaching here.  The language barrier really is just that—a divide between me and my kids that keeps me from being able to hear or relate to their future hopes and dreams.  That makes it difficult because I can’t tailor my lectures to those innermost desires that these kids have.  I can’t scrape past the relatively shallow layer of “computer games” and “Spongebob” that defines the interests of most of my students.  But this is a chance for me to at least chip away at a few of them.

Turns out, there is more to be these kids than Starcraft II, if only a little bit.

An Update for 2011

Why, hello, 2011.  I didn’t see you there.  Won’t you come in?  Sorry I’ve been out of touch.  I guess I just can’t let 2010 go. 

Actually, the reason I’ve been M.I.A. these past few days is that 2011 hasn’t been kind to my apartment in Ildong.  Not at all.  January 1st was one of the greatest days of my life.  While most of my friends in the states were probably at Liquor Barns across the country purchasing alcohol and junk food (not that there’s anything wrong with that) in the wee hours left before Dick Clark was shamefully paraded out to painfully stammer through yet another televised celebration, I was standing at the base of a mountain. 

Standing at the base of a mountain in pitch black darkness.  Standing at the base of a mountain in one foot of snow.  Standing at the base of a mountain with 8 Koreans, only one of whom spoke English.  Standing at the base of a mountain…with the heat of almighty God’s wrath scorching my flesh beneath 8 layers of coats and thermal underwear.

Okay, I wore way too many layers.  But hiking 3.5 kilometers through the snow and darkness to the top of a mountain to watch the sun rise in 2011 was a helluva way to start the year (especially if we’re all going to die sometime between April and December of next year, depending on which Armageddon theories you believe).  Sipping coffee from the family thermos and trudging along the rocks with my metal cleats on and plunging my hiking pole into the snow with each eager step, we arrived at the peak only 30 seconds before the sun broke the mountainous horizon.  We made our wishes for 2011, marveled at nature’s beauty, and felt the cold Korean winds greet us from Siberia, bestowing upon us good fortune and health for the next year.

Then I returned to my apartment and found that all that wind stuff was total bullshit!  My hot water had frozen in the pipes (Ironic, I know) and my bathroom and kitchen had begun a 12-day flood that would make Australia blush (that’s right, I watch the news).  The worst part about this whole situation is that, despite my degree in international diplomacy, I can’t list this debacle on a resume when applying for any international jobs in the near future.  Why not, I say?  I was more diplomatic in dealing with my landlady, my school, and concerned Korean friends and balancing my own interests with the local culture than most American diplomats are who in charge of protecting our political relationships with our allies throughout the world.  I’ve done telephone diplomacy.  I’ve done email and memo diplomacy.  I’ve even tried a little shuttle diplomacy between the various groups involved with this conflict.

And what’s more, it seems that I even got an elderly Korean ajumma to apologize to me…Twice.

So yeah, I’ve dealt with having about two inches of murky shower water from my neighbors in my apartment building pooling out of my bathroom floor for the last week and a half.  I haven’t been able to do laundry, take a shower, or cook (blah, blah, blah, blah to all of the people who have heard me dishing out that line on Facebook over and over again with the world’s tiniest violin), but I’ve been patient and I’ve been squatting in the teacher’s dorm next to my school all week, which has really worked out pretty well considering that I have English class this week.  I have been spared about eight minutes of walking through bitter Pocheon cold and snow on one of the worst weeks for it (although the temp on Saturday is supposed to be -14 F).

Is the problem fixed?  I doubt it.  In Korea, nothing ever ends when you think it has.  My school has promised me that the next time something like this happens they will find me a new apartment.  I plan to hold them to that promise.  Were the promises ever “really” promises in the first place, or simply words meant to encourage me and make me feel better?  One can never know for sure.  I know that the school cares about me and they take my problems very seriously, but in Korea I feel like people are seldom comfortable in being brutally honest with you…Unless you really don’t want them to be, and then they can’t wait to tell you exactly how they feel.  It’s complicated.

Anyway, the good news (and that’s the only news that really matters) is that Nina booked her plane ticket to Korea today.  In less than two months, I’ll feel a little more whole again for the first time in months.  She’ll be arriving right after I see my parents and head to Cambodia in late February so I should be able to ride that high for the rest of my time in Korea.  Now that it’s 2011 I can finally start counting down the months instead of contemplating how many more I have left.  In 2010, I always knew that no matter how quickly time passed…It was still 2010.  2010 was going to end with me sitting at a desk in Ildong and that was that.

2011, however, is a year for change and adventure.  It’s a year that will find me traveling to the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Cambodia, for certain.  It’s a year that could also find me heading to Japan and Taiwan if I have anything to say about it.  It’s a year that will see me returning to the United States just a little bit more worldly than I was one year ago and hopefully with an acceptable job somewhere in Lexington or nearby.  And from March on, well…Let’s just say I have big plans in mind.

And did someone say laser surgery??