Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Finally Some Positivity

My friends and family know that I had been struggling for awhile there.  My students were the most out of control and disrespectful that they had ever been,  my coteacher informed me of everything I would have to do for Summer Camp (which was a lot more than for Winter Camp), and I was just generally irritated with my lack of ability to control many of the situations I was put in.  I did a lot of complaining and even started to annoy myself.  I was a bit sad when the last week of school came and everyone was posting on facebook all the sweet things their students were giving them as goodbye presents.  My coteacher didn't tell me that I wouldn't have most of my students the last week of school and so I didn't get to say goodbye to the majority of my classes.  I did tell my 3rd and 4th graders that I would be leaving.  Most of the 4th graders said thank you and some of my favorite girls gave me hugs and told me they would miss me.  When my 3rd/4th grade coteacher told the third graders I was leaving a few of the little devil boys actually cheered and went to the 2nd floor window and proceeded to throw their English papers out the window.  You can probably imagine that this made me feel like the last 11 months have been so meaningful.  Out of my 200 or so students i did get two gifts.  The first, a Bulgogi Burger from the Korean wannabe McDonalds, Lotteria, which is probably one of the nastiest hamburgers I've ever eaten, if you can even call it a hamburger.  The second gift was a really sweet hand-made book from one of my 6th grade girls who took my special class.  I did get a little teary eyed when I read it and at least felt happy that one student appreciated me.

So I'm up to the last day of school and I was informed a whole week in advance (!) that we would be going on a staff "field trip" the last day of school.  We would rent a bus and head out to a town called Yeongdeok where we would spend the afternoon and be back around 7pm.  I wasn't really looking forward to it because my coteacher that speaks the best English and is good about translating for me wasn't going to be there.  We head out to Yeongdeok around 12pm and it takes around 2 hours to get there.  When we arrive the scenery reminds me a lot of the Oregon Coast.  It's cloudy and a bit misty.  On my right side is the ocean and on my left are green, forested hills.  I suddenly got really excited.

We arrived at this restaurant that was right on the beach where we ate sashimi (raw fish) and drank a lot of soju.  I think the women decided that since it was the last day of school they would go all out and actually drink.  Usually they just take shots of "cider" (sprite like drink) instead of soju, but today they were going to town.  In what seemed like 5 minutes (it actually could have been) they were all wasted.  Finally they opened up a bit and were trying to talk with me.  I felt like I made a connection with a lot of people that I really hadn't before this trip.  I was reaffirmed of our principal's affection towards me when he wanted to take a shot with me.  It wasn't just any ol' shot a principal takes with someone lower than him hierarchically.  Take a look:

Needless to say, everyone thought this was hilarious.  Here are pictures of the sashimi and fish soup, which was really spicy, we ate afterwards.

The view from the restaurant:
Me, my coteacher and two coworkers:
The ladies taking shots: 

It was good to get reassurance from my principal that he still thought I was amazing despite my not re-signing to stay another year.  He told me that he had told the office of education that I get an A+++++++++.  I don't know how many pluses he used but it was a lot.  I needed someone to tell me I was doing a good job after all the negativity I was feeling about my job.

We left the restaurant and visited a wind power plant and then got back on the bus and headed home.  The bus ride home was probably my favorite part of the trip.  I would say that most foreign English teachers here would tell you about hilarious bus rides they have had with their schools.  Many of these rented buses come equipped to double as a norae bang.  To refresh your memory, a norae bang is a karaoke room.  The bus we were on had a big screen TV up front and a karaoke machine.  The aisle was lined with colored lights and the speakers big enough to pump up the volume on the music and microphone which is always set to echo.  The aisle functions as a very narrow, moving dance floor.  I will tell you that when people drink a lot of soju and whisky and try dancing in an aisle of a moving bus, it can be a bit dangerous.  I think the principal almost fell on top of a few women he was trying to dance with, including me and invented a new dance move called "Shake the champagne bottle".  The only way I could do this justice was by taking a video of it:

The trip was a blast.  Definitely the best time I've had on a school outing.  I got to talk with coworkers I had never talked to before and give a little goodbye speech.  I am now in my first week of camp which is more than half way over.  I am teaching at a different elementary school because they needed help with camp.  Next week I will teach the parents of my students again, like I did during Winter Camp.  I only have one class each day for five days.  The week after is camp at my own school.  I will have three classes a day for five days.  I am officially finished with my year of teaching on August 12th, then I have two weeks of "vacation" to get ready for my SE Asia trip!  I think it will be smooth sailing from here on out.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Taking Photos: Koreans' #1 Pastime

Koreans love taking photos.  It's as simple as that.  Almost anywhere you go you will see Koreans toting around their pricey, new, digital cameras with their multiple lenses.  Being in one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, Koreans generally love their gadgets.  Galaxy Tabs, ipads, and smart phones of all sorts are everywhere.  Expensive cameras are no exception.  If you didn't know better you might think that this country has more professional photographers per capita than all other countries, but then you realize they just all look like professional photographers.  I wouldn't be surprised if this is one of the only countries in which the natives take more pictures than the tourists.

Not only do Koreans like to take pictures, but they like to take pictures of themselves.  Tourist destinations are set up with photo opps so that people can take as many pictures as they want in various locations, with various objects.  One of my first excursions outside of Daegu took me to Gayasan mountain (which I wrote about in a previous post).  On the short hike up to Heinsa Temple there was a designated area, complete with a sign telling the photographer and model that this was a good spot to take a picture.  The sign was posted right at the entrance of a small foot bridge that was obviously built to take photographs on, as it was next to the pedestrian route and completely unnecessary (besides for taking pics).  As we stood by the bridge examining the mountain map a few couples and families posed for pictures on the bridge.

I snapped the above picture at a small theme park in Daegu called Herb Hillz.  It's a really wacky park built on hills, as the name suggests.  I guess the point of the park is to learn about nature, specifically different herbs.  There's also a small petting zoo and the main attraction for foreigners, zip lining courses.  While we were waiting for our zip-lining time to arrive we walked around the park to see what it was all about.  Basically the entire park is for people to take photos.  The above photo shows that I was at 'photo point 8' when I took the shot.  I swear the park designer must have been smoking some type of herb when building the park.  Here's a photo taken of me at one of the designated photo areas:

Here is one of my favorite examples showing the extent to which Koreans will go to snap the most perfect picture:

As you can see, the boyfriend (i'm assuming) has got his small digital point and shoot camera on a big ass tripod.  Like I mentioned before, Koreans love to take pictures of themselves so often times they haul around tripods so couples and families can have pictures together without someone being left out or having to ask a random person to take the photo.  I guess if you don't mind carrying a tripod around it's a good idea.  This photo shows the extent to which one will go to get a good photo of their significant other.  The guy is holding the camera, still on the tripod, trying to get the best shot of his girlfriend at the photo zone.

Couples here loooooove to take photos together.  Awhile back I was in Seoul at a park by the river where a big festival was going on.  There were lots of people gathered for the festival, sunbathing on the grass by the river.  I was walking around trying to figure out where I was going when I see a couple laying on an incline on top of a blanket, with their camera sitting on a tripod about 3 feet in front of them, pointed at them.  They weren't doing anything but cuddling.  I don't know if they were filming themselves laying on a blanket at a festival or if they had previously taken pictures of themselves laying on a blanket at a festival.  Either way it's pretty wacky.  I wonder if they will go home and look through their photos of themselves laying on a blanket at a festival and show their friends and say, "Oh, and this one's of us laying on a blanket at a festival."

Another funny photo-related anecdote takes place at my school about two weeks after an open class.  One afternoon my coteacher tells me, "we go to meet with other teachers to talk about open class and take picture."  As always, I obey like a trained dog and follow her to a nearby classroom where two other teachers await us.  I really have no idea what we are doing.  All I know is that we are talking about our open class we had a few weeks before and "taking picture".  I sit down with the two other teachers and my coteacher makes a phone call then sits down.  The teachers pass out blank pieces of paper and pens, then start talking in Korean.  About 3 minutes later a coworker comes in with a camera.  The three other teachers pick up their papers and hold them out in front of them so it looks like they are reading something.  They keep discussing whatever they're discussing and I follow suit, picking up my paper and acting like I have some sort of idea what's going on.  After about one minute of photo taking the lady with the camera leaves and my coteacher stands up (I follow like a good dog) and she says goodbye, we bow and walk out.  I am so confused by this point and beg for an explanation.  My coteacher tells me, "we have meeting with other teachers to discuss open class."  I'm confused because no teachers even watched our open class.  She tells me that they watched the video tape.  Alright, that makes sense.  Then I ask why the lady came in with the camera to take pictures. She says, "For proof that we had conference about open class."  Wow.  So we had to have a fake 5 minute long "conference" so that pictures could be taken to prove that we had a real conference about open class.

After experiencing and pondering all these situations in which photos are so important I wonder, why?  Could it merely be the fact that Korea is so hyper techno obsessed that they want to incorporate technology into their lives in as many ways as possible?  Is it because they want to flaunt their latest and most expensive gadgets?

Maybe Koreans just like looking at photos of themselves.  Any foreigner and Korean will tell you how obsessed Korean culture is with appearance.  Plastic surgery and cosmetics are huge markets here.  People are constantly looking at their reflections in windows and their mirrors they carry around in their purses, always touching up their hair or makeup.  Do they just like to see how good they look in photos, act like models for a little while?  I honestly don't know how they have the time to go back and look at all the photos they take.  I kinda wonder if they even do it.

As in the story above, are pictures merely a way to prove that someone did something, went somewhere with someone?  Obviously it's a way to prove to the principal that we had a mandatory conference that we really didn't have.  Is it a way for couples to prove their love for each other to others?  To themselves?

Maybe it's as simple as preserving memories.

I'll probably never know.

Beware of Fusion

Lately I've been craving food not available in Korea, specifically a New Orleans style cat fish po' boy and Ecuadorian food.  When it comes to doing foreign food, especially non-Asian, Korea just doesn't cut it for me.  Although it is possible to find Italian, Thai, Mexican, Indian, and various other types of food, I have learned to be very picky when exploring these restaurants in Daegu and Busan.  The word "fusion" when describing non-Korean restaurants is commonly used in the marketing of Korean owned foreign food eating joints.  This word honestly scares me.  If I see an ad or read a review of a restaurant that claims itself to be any sort of foreign food attached to the word "fusion" I judge it and may not explore it any further.  Yeah, maybe I'm being close-minded but I honestly can't take the Korean spin on the amazing global food that I believe to be ordering.  Let me tell you about it.

Mayonnaise and sweet mustard- Koreans love to pour mayonnaise and sweet honeyish mustard all over their foreign food.  I really don't understand why this is.  Maybe it stems from the fact that Korean food uses lots of sauces.  A friend was at the food court in Costco here in Daegu when she witnessed people taking a shit-ton of the free chopped onions they put out as a hot dog topping and piling them on a plate, then pumping ketchup and mustard onto the mound.  After creating an extremely unappetizing sounding "dish" they took a fork and ate the onion, ketchup, mustard mixture straight.  No, they didn't even have hot dogs to put their concoction on.  This love of condiments transfers to the foreign food they create. You're lucky if there is a picture of the dish so you can know in advance what will come on it.  It may be wise when ordering food to ask for no mayonnaise or mustard just in case.

Sushi-Korea has honestly almost ruined sushi for me.  I have been to one mediocre sushi chain that is actually a California franchise.  Although some places do have nigiri and rolls not doused in sauces, I would say the majority of the rolls in many sushi restaurants do come with some unexpected topping that takes away from the flavor of the fish and in my opinion, cheapens the taste.  These include, but are not limited to, melted cheese, frosted flakes, tobasco sauce, mayo and mustard.  This fact somewhat surprises me because Korea actually has it's own "sushi" called "kimbap."  Kimbap is esentially a roll of rice wrapped in dried seaweed with assorted vegetables (usually carrots, cucumber, radish etc.) and some sort of meat like ham, imitation crab or cooked tuna.  As far as I know there is rarely raw fish.  Kimbap is eaten as a snack or part of a meal and is super common.  One can purchase kimbap at almost any small corner store.  Unlike "Japanese-style" sushi that comes with all the toppings, kimbap almost never comes with anything slathered on top.  It's interesting that when it's Japanese sushi it gets coated in condiments but the Korean version is left untouched.

Frosted flakes- This is one of those toppings that gets thrown on your sushi.  If Koreans call something "fusion" your dish will often be brought out with a pile of frosted flakes blanketing it.  I have experienced this mostly on sushi and salads.  I guess the idea is that the sweetness of the frosted flakes makes a more delicious substitute for croutons.  Koreans tend to love to sweeten anything that is not sweet already or maybe just not sweet enough.  I don't know about you but I like my croutons savory.

Pizza toppings-I don't know if Koreans call their pizza 'fusion' per se but I guess that's what I would classify it as.  It's definitely not what we are used to back home.  This has been a big issue for me as on many occasions I have craved a legit piece of pizza.  This is hard to come by here and I have searched far and wide to find that little slice of heaven.  One pizza joint that is arguably the biggest and most famous pizza chain in Korea, does pizza fusion the best (or worst depending on how you look at it):  Mr. Pizza.  Mr. Pizza's tagline is "Love for women."  I asked my coteacher why this is and she said, "Because Mr. Pizza makes pizza that women like."  Apparently women like salad, raisins, cookies, nacho chips, and sweet potato mousse on top of their pizza.  Just take a look at this item taken straight for their website (make sure to read the description):
Here's the salad pizza:
I'm all about being adventurous with food but I think this takes it to another level. When ordering pizza you have to be careful not to accidentally order it with sweet potatoes inside the crust.  I did this once and I was at first shocked then disappointed when I bit into the crust and got a mouth full of baby food-like sweet potato.  If you live in Korea and have yet to find a good pizza, I would say that Mega Mart has the most American-style pizza at a really good price (no corn or potatoes ~14,000won).

I'm gonna gain 20 lbs when I get home.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Annoyed in Korea: A Rant

As you have probably concluded from my previous blog posts, there are some big cultural differences between the U.S. and Korea.  Some are mild or subtle, such as the way in which one should grab things from another person (with your right hand and your left "assisting" it).  Some are a little more obvious and significant, like the fact that children live with their family until they are married.  And some are just plain annoying and sometimes almost unbearable.  I have recently experienced this last one.  Let me tell you about it.

Almost any native English teacher in a public school will tell you about the way in which Koreans go about giving information.  This being, at the very last moment possible.  Let me give you an example:  My coworkers will let me know about a dinner that I'm "invited" to at 3:30 p.m. on a Friday when the dinner is that same Friday at 4:30 p.m.  You will not be permitted to leave work early since your day ends at 4:30.  No.  You will go straight from work to the dinner. The reason I say "invited" is because you really have no choice in the matter at all.  You are expected to be at the dinner and if you decide not to go, you might be thought of unfavorably for the 11 months left in your contract.  Maybe you won't ever get invited to another dinner because they think you don't want to go.  If you have plans already, which I believe many native teachers do on a Friday night, you better postpone, or better yet, cancel them.  You will probably be expected to go to the norae bang after dinner and we teachers know that could last into the wee hours of the morning.  These dinners usually happen about once every 2 months or more frequently.  You will rarely be told before the actual day of the dinner.  I have gotten so used to this I can actually predict with great precision when I will have a school dinner.  Last Friday I literally woke up and felt in my body the announcement of a school dinner.  During my hours of free time at work I even told people on Facebook chat that I thought there was going to be a school dinner.  Sure enough.  Come 3:00 my coteacher gets a phone call, hangs up, turns to me and says in an apologetic tone because she knows that I don't like it, "Kelly, I'm really sorry for short notice but we will have school dinner tonight.  We will leave 3:20 and go hiking then we have dinner."  I say, "Hmm I only have sandals because I didn't know we were going hiking.  Can I go home and change my shoes?"  "No.  We go straight to hiking."  Perfect.  I predicted the school dinner but we've never gone hiking before.  My psychic abilities are not yet at that level.  Maybe if I stay another year...Hell no.  I discovered after we left to go "hiking" that we were actually just going to walk around some botanical gardens for 30 minutes so my feet were fine.  We went to dinner and I was lucky to get out semi-early because my principal apparently didn't feel like getting shit-faced that night.  I arrived only an hour late back to my apartment where an out of town guest was waiting for me.

This could be thought of as a pretty insignificant example of Korean tell-you-everything-at-the-last-moment-ism that one could easily get over with a little bit of cultural sensitivity and a laid back, go-with-the-flow sort of attitude.  Okay.  Maybe you're right.  But there's more.

Class changes are also told to you with very little time to do anything about it.  Sometimes it's cool because you will get to school thinking you're about to face 6 classes of disrespectful little shits and at 9:05 you will ask your coteacher where the class is.  She will say to you, "Oh, we have no class today because of test*."  You will suddenly become excited, and immediately update your facebook status to "It's Thursday and all my classes are cancelled!  Just one more day, then it's Friday!"  Though that status won't have any capitalized words or apostrophes and will be decorated by 10 exclamation marks.  You will sit at your desk bored as hell, caught up on all your reality T.V. shows and realize that maybe it wasn't so great all your classes were cancelled again.

It could be worse though and you could be told 5 minutes before the lesson you planned yesterday that in fact, you are skipping the lesson you planned and will be teaching the following one.  The one you will be teaching you haven't planned anything for, or even looked at, since you didn't think you would be teaching it until Monday.  You'll just have to wing it and it's your fault if you don't fill up your 20 minutes of class.

There are many combinations of class changes that one must endure.  These include the "All Classes Cancelled," the "Change of Lesson" the "Change of Period," the "Change of Day," the "I Don't Know What Day It Will Change To But I Will Tell You Later" (she definitely won't), the "Extra Classes Today," and the "I Don't Know Where The Class Is, Maybe They Aren't Coming And I Can't Get A Hold Of The Homeroom Teacher."  All of them are quite annoying and you never seem to get used to it.

I'd heard various horror stories from waygooks about their Winter Camp woes: the problems that they had faced with their coteachers, school administration, etc. when they were preparing for and teaching Winter Camp.  Kimchi Dreadlocks, without any guidelines or restrictions from his coteacher or anyone above her, was given less than two weeks to plan out an entire 40 individual lesson plans.  Then, the night before the first day of camp, his coteacher informed him that the lessons had not been approved by the education office and that he couldn't teach them.  She had spent all weekend trying to figure out what to do but didn't have time to change everything.  He would go to school the next day without any idea of what he was going to teach and his coteacher threw at him a bunch of material he hadn't even looked at and expected him to teach it.

Compared to many people I talked to, my Winter Camp was a piece of cake.  I really had no complaints about how my school went about it.  Today was my Winter Camp.

I was sitting at my desk at about 3:00 counting down the minutes until I could go home when my coteacher gets a phone call.  I know it's not going to be a surprise school dinner: one, because we had one on Friday and two, because I didn't get the tingly feeling.  She turns to me and says my name.  "Kelly?"  I take out my ear buds and my coteacher says to me "Vice Principal wants you to type all your lesson plans for Special Classes."  These "Special Classes" she is referring to are the 4 classes (one of each grade level) I teach by myself, without a coteacher.  Each class has around 10 students and I come up with the lessons without any sort of reference material.  Pretty much off the top of my head and the help of the inter web.  Because I don't have any books or anything from where to get my materials, each lesson takes me a pretty long time to plan.  I would say they take a good 1-2 hours each, depending on what materials I will use (ppts, worksheets, surveys, games etc.)  I really pride myself on these lessons.  Because I don't have to use the shitty government textbooks and have free reign, I can get creative.  I think the students really enjoy my lessons.  Enough about how awesome I am...  So the VP wants me to type up all the lessons.  Alright, this is doable.  I will just have to go through all of them and separate this semester's lessons from last's.  It will take some time because there is a big pile and they are all mixed up but I can definitely have this done by the time I leave work this afternoon.  Then my coteacher tells me that not only does the VP want the lessons I have already done, but she wants ALL the lessons for the entire semester.  I am outraged.  I have never before been told that I was supposed to have the lessons planned for the rest of the semester planned and written out.  I write my lessons the day before and they turn out awesome.  It takes a lot of time to plan a lesson when you have no guidelines, textbook or anything to go off of.  I didn't have to turn anything in last semester so how would I know?  So I'm going through and calculating the number of lessons I am supposed to have planned. The total comes to 34 more lessons.  This could take me up to 68 hours of planning time!  I tell my coteacher in a half panicked half angry voice that this is going to take me a really long time.  That I was never told about this in advance and I don't know how long it will take me.  She asks me, "Can you have done tomorrow?"  I about shit my pants.  Are you kidding me?  I tell her I have 6 classes tomorrow which leaves me with 2 hours.  I tell her no, that it's impossible.  Maybe I can have it done Friday since all my classes have been cancelled for a field trip*.  My coteacher does not seem to think that this is okay.  She keeps asking me if I'm sure I will not be able to have it done by tomorrow.  I tell her yes, I am sure.  I panic a little bit and get to work, hoping that I will even be able to have it all done by Friday.

The next day I come into work a little fearful and work on the lesson plans in every spare minute I have.  Like I said, I have six classes and not much time to accomplish anything significant.  Luckily my 6th graders are taking tests all class so I work on it a bit during this time.  In the middle of class my coteacher gets up from her chair, walks over to me, and asks me to pull up my lesson plans.  I tell her that I have all the 3rd grade lessons done but have about 18 more lessons amongst the other three grades.  She immediately takes the mouse from me and starts copy and pasting lessons from 6th grade into 5th grade, 4th into 3rd and any combination you can statistically calculate, to fill up the blank spaces.  She gives a little chuckle and says, "We have no time."  After all this I have 2 more lessons to come up with, which I pull out of my ass.  Apparently the quality of the work has no importance whatsoever.  She says "thank you" and looks relieved to have it done.  I am excited that I won't be working on this for the next two days but also a bit embarrassed about turning in something so crappy.  I get over it.  I sit there wondering, "Why did they tell me at the very last moment about something apparently so important?  Why didn't my coteacher tell the VP that the task she was asking of me was impossible?  These have to do with an aspect of Korean culture that I just can't seem to get used to.

In Korean culture it is usually unacceptable for one to question an older person or one of higher authority.  This is true in schools and I'm guessing it is very similar elsewhere.  In this case the VP told my coteacher at the last minute that she wanted me to get this huge quantity of work done in a very short period of time.  Since my coteacher is very young and the VP is in a position of authority, my coteacher does not have the right to question the VP.  She can not say that this will be very difficult to accomplish because it is almost physically impossible.  She has to say "yes", act like nothing is wrong and get the work done.  If it means staying up all night long to finish it, so be it.  Well, I'm not Korean and I'm not going to stand for it.  I understand respect.  But this is just ridiculous. I tell my coteacher that if she wants I will go to the VP and tell her exactly how I feel.  Since my coteacher will have to translate she doesn't want to do this.  She doesn't want to even be associated with the situation.  I tell her I'll have it done by Friday.  If the VP has a problem with that she can take it up with me.  I have no issues with speaking out for justice.  I mean, we all know what happens when an oppressed group of people does nothing to stop an power hungry dictator from taking over the world....okay, taking it too far.  In the U.S. we are taught to be assertive, speak our minds thoughtfully and articulately and to stand up to authority when we believe the person in power is really wrong or if she is asking us to complete an impossible feat.  Like I said before, I can't get used to the Korean way and don't think I ever will.

After lunch I ask my coteacher what the typed lesson plans would be used for.  She tells me that the school gets "bonus points" from the office of education for turning in extra things like this.  I guess it doesn't matter what content is on the paper, just that there is a paper.  Then I ask her why the VP needed it so quickly.  She says that it was due today.  I was given the assignment on Tuesday and the deadline to turn it in was on Wednesday.  Seriously?  She must have known about this for awhile now if it's a request from the office of education.  Did it slip her mind until the day before it was due?  I highly doubt it.

My point is:
  1. I am sick of being told things at the last possible moment.
  2. I know this submissiveness is deeply rooted in Korean history and Confucianism and I've tried to be culturally sensitive in regards to it but I still really hate it and don't want to be a part of it.  It's just not me.
It also doesn't help that all of this comes at a time when I am pretty ready to leave Korea.  I'm getting a little bit homesick and am easily annoyed by even the littlest of things.

Anyways, that was my rant.  I had to get it off my chest. 

    *Replace "test" with almost any noun (ex. field trip, Sports Day practice, yellow dust, kimchi deficit)  and this has probably occurred.
    *The field trip was supposed to be last Friday but on Thursday I was told classes were not cancelled anymore.  Today (Tuesday) I was told that this Friday classes will be cancelled.  We'll see what happens on Friday.

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    Things That Would Probably Never Happen In An American School

    So many things have continued to amaze me since the day I stepped foot on this little peninsula.  Some of these are things that happen and do not happen in the public schools.  I believe some of these differences to be positive, some to be negative, and some to be pretty freakin hilarious.  I can't count the number of situations while at school I have said to myself, "Are you serious?!"  Here are some of the most memorable and poignant ones that I have experienced first-hand or heard about through other public school teachers and know to be pretty common practice in Korea.

    Drinking and smoking on school grounds.  I know this is probably hard to believe for all of you parents and teachers back home since the laws and consequences against drinking and smoking at schools are very strict.  Back in the states this is taken very seriously.  Obviously it is a big no-no for students to drink or smoke on campus but that isn't what I'm getting at on this one.  I have heard stories from other foreign teachers about their staff taking soju shots during their lunch break in the teachers' lounge.  From my last post you probably remember that soju is not ideal to drink if you don't want to get completely hammered. I mean, I don't really blame the teachers and administration for drinking before class.  I know that at times I have thought that a shot or two before class would make the little brats a little easier to handle.

    Another unique example of drinking at school was recounted to me by a friend who teaches in a public alternative high school.  At his school there is a culinary specialization and also one for bartending.  Of course if someone wants to learn how to bartend they are going to need to work with alcohol.  The students study mixology but aren't of legal drinking age so they happily share the alcoholic cocktails with the teachers.  Someone has to grade them, right?  My friend certainly wasn't complaining about getting to sip on a hard drink after lunch.

    Smoking is also permitted by the staff on school grounds.  My principal is a pretty heavy smoker, as he often has to get up from the table at school dinners to go outside.  I really doubt if he could go a whole day without smoking and I can't really imagine him walking off school grounds to enjoy a cig.  Instead he just walks outside of his office to smoke and leaves the door to the school wide open.  This allows the cigarette scent to waft inside and fill up the halls.  I don't even have to see him to know that he's outside.  It helps a bit if i'm trying to sneak out of work a few minutes early and don't want to get caught.  When I smell him outside I know to tiptoe down the hall and use a different door.  In a country where the older you are the more respect everyone must give you, this sixty-something year old man can pretty much do whatever the f!@# he wants.

    Corporal punishment.  It's been brought to my attention that corporal punishment is still legal in 20 states in the U.S and is still used.  I also found that Idaho is one state in which it is legal.  I guess I'm basing my assumption that it doesn't happen too often on the fact that every teacher in my family whom I've told about corporal punishment here in Korea has gasped in awe and disbelief.  I don't believe the rate of corporal punishment in the U.S. to be anywhere near that of Korea.  Although corporal punishment is technically illegal in Korea, it is still pretty common place in the classroom.  This site claims that in 2005 a study was done that found 94% of students surveyed had received some sort of physical punishment in school.

    If my students decide not to do their English homework my 24 year old co-teacher will either have the naughties do squats while holding their ears in the back of the classroom (which I actually think is awesome) or hit them.  I mean, I doubt if she does any lasting physical or emotional damage but it does look pretty painful.  The way she does it is she has the students line up in front of the class while everyone is watching.  When they get to her in the front of the line they hold their hands out flat, face up and she hits them pretty hard with a wooden stick.  Usually the students walk back to their desks with a painful look on their face and shake their hands a bit to try and ease the pain.

    Like the thought of having a shot before class I can also say that the thought of physically punishing a student has too gone through my head.  I don't think I would ever do it but there have been times that students have angered me so much that I have wanted to give them a little love tap upside the back of the head to help them get their act together.  A friend of mine was telling me the other day that she actually had a kid spit right in her face because she continuously had to tell him to be quiet during a movie in class.  I guess the kid had it with her trying to keep control of him and decided he would take matters into his own hands (or mouth).  She told me that she had to fight herself to keep from doing something to this kid because of how enraged she was and I can understand that.

    Students "shooting" the teacher during class.  I think it's pretty common for students (I would assume most often boys) to pretend like they are shooting other people with semi-automatic weapons.  I'm almost positive this stems from the fact that it is completely illegal for civilians to own guns and that young people are so consumed in the world of computer gaming.  Shooting games are very popular here and kids to young adults may spend hours a day playing these games.  Obviously, because guns are illegal in Korea, there are not problems with students bringing guns to school and shooting people, so I guess when students pretend to kill each other at school the teachers don't think too much about it.  It has been a little bit harder for me to get over this as an American, having grown up hearing about school shootings all my life.  It is also a bit unnerving that I have a 5th grade student that likes to sit in class and the whole time act like he is shooting me while I'm teaching.  I guess it might be sort of funny if he did it once and was laughing and obviously joking, but he doesn't.  He sits there for almost the entire class sometimes pointing his invisible weapon, that could easily kill everyone in the class, at me.  I don't quite particularly like it and I think if it happened back home it would probably be taken pretty seriously and the student would at least enjoy a date with the principal and a calling of the parents.

    25% of 6th graders never missing a day of school in their lives.  I remember being in elementary school, sitting in the end of the year assembly and hearing the principal call out the names of students who hadn't missed a day of school the whole year.  I always wanted so bad to get that award yet I never did.  I wasn't a child to miss school.  My mom is a teacher and she definitely did not let us stay home unless we were pretty sick.  But I always did get sick enough at least once a year to where I would have to miss a day or two of school.  There were always very few of those kids that got that award but I did envy them for that.  I was completely shocked when, at my 6th graders' graduation, the principal called out a list of 15 names to stand up.  I asked my co-teacher why they were standing and she said that these students had not missed one day of school in their entire elementary school career.  As I had less than 60 students in my 6th grade class, that was over 25% of the students.  Sometimes I think these little hoodlums are machines when it comes to going to school.  I can attest to the fact that it's not that they don't get sick, though.  In fact, they do get sick and when one has a bug, they all have it.  It makes for a nice environment for the bacteria and viruses to incubate until every student is hacking away all class while I stand right in the pathway of their uncovered mouths and noses to explode on me.  I don't know if they haven't been taught to cover their mouths and noses but they sure as hell just let anything and everything escape from their bodies without giving two thoughts about it.  I really do appreciate those few kids who come in with the masks over their faces, even though they can't participate at all in class.

    Teachers sleeping at work.  Actually, this one doesn't only happen at school.  I have seen employees of other businesses sleeping on the job too.  All of the four co-teachers I have had in the past 8 months have taken advantage of this one, as have I.  I actually think this is the greatest difference of all and I think many of my fellow waygooks (foreigners) would agree.  Koreans tend to work a lot.  They go to school or work for long hours and then continue on at night with hagwons or continued education, meetings etc.  When you're not doing anything at work and you really need the rest, why not take a nap?  It's good for your health and you can't be too productive if you're that tired anyway.  Usually my coTs and I just lay our heads down on our desk for 30 minutes to an hour or until someone comes in and disturbs us.  If you are extra sleepy or claim to be sick you can always go to the nurse's office where there are heated beds.  Once I got to sleep for 4 hours in a bed on a Tuesday morning.  It was divine.

    I also saw an employee of the nearest supermarket to my house, HomePlus, taking a little rest.  He must have been assigned to the bedroom section that day because I found him standing up in one of the aisles, asleep with his head on a plush comforter.  I didn't disturb him because I figured to be able to fall asleep standing up he must have really needed the rest.

    Having school on Saturday.  My students go to school every first, third and fifth (if there is one) Saturday of the month from about 8:30 to noon.  Even though they stay with their homeroom teacher the whole day, the other teachers have to come to school.  I really kinda feel bad that my co-teachers have to go to school but I don't.  I honestly don't think the teachers in America would ever let this type of thing happen.  I know the teachers in my family would not appreciate it.  I guess there is speculation that this might change next year.

    Giving razor blades to students for cutting.  The first time my 3rd through 6th graders were instructed to cut something during class they all pulled out razor blades.  I was shocked!  With students pretending like they were gonna murder me with guns I figured it was probably not a good idea to give them real deadly weapons!  I think something must have happened because I haven't seen any student with a razor since last semester...

    Teachers/admin forced to change schools every few years.  I don't think teachers and administrators have much say in where they teach.  Every few years they are forced to change schools and not really given too much choice in where they teach, as far as I understand.  A young teacher at my school last semester got married to a man who lives in another city.  Of course after they got married she wanted to move to where he lives to teach.  She requested to be in the same city as him but instead they put her at a school two hours away from where her husband lives.  She was very upset when she found this out.  She had to decide whether she wanted to rent a separate apartment to stay in during the week or take a year off of school.  Kinda a tough choice if you ask me.

    Not finding out what you're going to teach until a week before the year starts.  This semester all of the teachers at my school teach a different grade level or subject than they taught last year.  I'm pretty sure they change every year and don't find out until a week or two before the year begins.  I know this because I really wanted to know who my co-teachers were going to be for this semester and no one knew until the teachers' dinner a week before the new school year started.  At the dinner my principal announced to my new co-teacher, who previously taught 4th grade, that she would be the new English/Music teacher.  I don't know if he even asked her if she wanted to teach English and Music but I guess it doesn't really matter since he has all the say in what goes on at the school.  I don't think it really even bugs the teachers that they find out important details at the last minute because they are so used to it in everyday life.

    I thought of a bunch more differences but these seemed like the most significant ones.  I'm sure the list could go on and on with the help of other foreign teachers in Korea.  I don't have time for that right now.  I'm hungry and a class is singing very loudly and off key outside my classroom.  Peace.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    All You Need on Friday Night is Soju and a Band-aid

    I took this photo at a Megamart supermarket in Busan.  This is one brand of Korean soju, a distilled "liquor" preferred by many Koreans.  I think it has about 20% alcohol and can do a whole hell of a lot of damage.  I don't know if the marketers of this product wanted to make it ironic or if they just thought "Oh, a band-aid would make a nice free item with our soju."  Either way it's quite hilarious.  If you've read anything about drinking culture in Korea you will find much literature on a phenomenon that people from the U.S. would call "binge drinking."  Binge drinking back home is commonly associated with college students and alcoholics but here it is common amongst many people who are of, and probably not of, drinking age.  Although I've seen some pretty wasted women, soju binge drinking is quite popular amongst men.  It is not uncommon to see people passed out on the street, in an alley, on a bench or pretty much anywhere in the wee hours of the morning.  Some of my friends told me that on Sunday mornings they make a game out of counting the number of pukes they find walking down the street.  I imagine the count could get quite high.  My favorite scene to watch is the group of five or six men aged 40-60 all in suits stumbling down the road, leaning on each other for support and/or carrying each other to keep from toppling over.  Often their efforts are in vain.  

    I find that expats in Korea also love soju.  At least for about the first month they are here.  A little over a dollar a bottle, soju is a very cheap way to get absolutely sloshed.  I think I speak for many expats when I say that we quickly slow down on the soju drinking after our first worst-hangover-ever.  Some of us don't learn from our mistakes and have our second and third worst-hangovers-ever.  When in Korea.

    This photo reminds me of the time the head teacher at my school came into work with a huge gash on his forehead.  Even though my coteachers and I were alone in the classroom they whispered to me that they knew he got really drunk the night before and they speculated that he fell down the stairs.  I don't know if the story was ever confirmed to be true but I think that's what the common notion was amongst the teachers.  The head teacher must have gone to see the doctor that first day because the second day he came to school with a bandage over his wound.  Stitches?  I don't know.  But I do know that he should have bought the soju with the free band-aid.

    Korean School Lunch in Photos #2

    Sorry, it's been awhile since I've written.  I started a hip-hop dance class which has been consuming some of the time I used to designate to keeping up on my blog.  Not a very good excuse but whatever.

    So here is the second installation of my series of school lunch posts:
    Top left: Cabbage kimchi.  If you're surprised by this just don't be.  I've had conversations before regarding whether or not there is one thing that I could eat for every meal everyday.  I guess if I had to pick something I bet I could eat potatoes everyday for every meal.  Even more so than kimchi they are extremely versatile so I could cook them in tons of different ways.  I bet you're snickering because the girl from Idaho says she could eat potatoes for every meal everyday aren't you?  Not funny.  Although I do love kimchi and have talked about it on various occasions on different posts, I know that I could not eat kimchi for breakfast.  I tried it at orientation and it does not make a very nice side dish to my bowl of frosted flakes.

    Top right: Tteok.  Pronounced like "duck," in English this is called "rice cake."  Rice cakes come in many shapes and forms.  This tteok is prepared with steamed glutinous rice flour and then rolling into balls.  Red bean paste is put into the middle, which gives it a sweet flavor.  It is then rolled in colored and sweetened dried bean crumbs.  This is just one of the many "creative" ways Koreans eat rice.  I say "creative" with quotation marks because although, yes, it's a bit innovative, I don't necessarily like it or want to be eating rice for lunch in fifty-million different ways.  One, I don't need all those damn carbs and two, I don't particularly like rice that much.  When I first got to Korea I didn't mind tteok and ate it whenever any Korean shared it with me (which is often).  Now whenever I get tteok (which is still often)  I take a bite, act like its good, hide it and throw it away.  It's too late to tell anyone at my school that I don't like it.  I've already accepted and "eaten" way too much.  Plus I heard that it is literally a crime in Korea to not like tteok (like kimchi) and that you will go to prison for life if anyone hears you say it.

    Bottom left:  This is a dried tofu soup.  I'm not sure what it's called as I'm going off of memory for this post because I lost my notes.  It's pretty much just pieces of dried tofu and some sort of spice without much flavor.  This soup doesn't have much flavor at all as it accompanies the next dish and is used as a way to even out the full flavor of the other dish.

    Bottom right: Bibimbap.  This is one of Korea's signature dishes to foreigners who have eaten Korean food outside of Korea.  It is also very widely eaten amongst Koreans.  In fact, the first time I was exposed to bibimbap was during orientation.  The city where our orientation was held, Jeonju, is renowned in Korea for having the best bibimbap in the country.  I really enjoy this dish and I believe many other expats here to as well.  The dish is essentially a bunch of mixed vegetables served on top of rice and topped off with chili pepper paste.  The veggies used in this bibimbap are zucchini, carrots, bean sprouts, spinach, and mushrooms.  As most of you back home know, I do love my veggies.  This dish is super healthy and filling and can be prepared with whatever vegetables you like.  There is also a version of this dish that is served hot. The rice becomes a bit fried and it's really tasty.

    When watching Korean students eat all these vegetables it really amazes me how some Americans defend despicable school lunches by arguing that kids are picky and won't eat vegetables.  If this is universally true of kids around the world then why will Korean kids eat it?  I guess it could be because they don't have a choice at lunch and they can't bring their own.  If this is the case then I would argue that maybe that's how it should be done back home.  Obviously it is possible to give kids healthy, unprocessed, fresh food.  Why do we do it so much differently in the U.S.?  Just something to ponder...