Wednesday, December 30, 2009

So This is Christmas (Eve)

Christmas, the biggest holiday of the year. For me, it sure didn't feel like it. Scattered plastic x-mas trees strung up with tacky neon lights (tinsel's still in) combined with a lack of snow, tasteful light displays, or any real ornaments/decor made me miss the over-the-top extravaganza you find across America.

I heard x-mas music around Daegu, but unfortunately variety does not seem to be much of a Korean tradition. It was nothing but "All I want for Christmas is You" arranged to heavy pop beats and synthesizers. A close second (and so much worse) was Wham's "Last Christmas." Made me want to say the Lord's name in vain on his birthday. Sheesh. Please watch this YouTube video and imagine yourself slightly homesick in freezing cold Korea to understand (click link). I never thought I would want to put on one of those 24-hour holiday stations so badly.

Another Christmas display from the subway, a favored environment for the decor of any occasion.

Although more than 50% of Koreans consider themselves Christians, Christmas does not get the same It's October, put up the decorations!/presentpresentspresents/close down the schools for two weeks/eggnog in your eye treatment, so I had to work on Christmas Eve.

It wasn't so bad though. Spirits were up in anticipation of a Friday off. I brought a few bags of candy for the kids and used the holiday as a reason to bring in my camera. I had a great day and who-woulda-thunk-it, the kids were PUMPED for candy.

I wasn't the only one that brought gifts.

One of my students, Hyan Ea, gave me a wonderful cupcake frosted and candied to the 9's complete with a ribbon that read "I love you" all over it. She was so clearly embarrassed, but I still made her take this picture with me.

Mike, Sally, Chris, myself and Maria. I love this class (though sadly the 5th student Lucy was missing that day) so I had to get a picture. Note: "Feliz Navidad" on the board. I taught them a little holiday Spanish since I have yet to resist pronouncing Maria's name with the gusto of a flamenco dancer: "Oy, mi corazon, Mariiiiiia!"

I bribed Che Hong and Hong Ook in the hallway with some candy to take this picture. I originally gave Hong Ook the English name "Adam" the first class we had because there's a Jin Oo and the subtlety between oo and ook (it's a real mild k) was too much for me. It ended up taking about 5 minutes of laughing and yelling to get the lesson started that day...

This is my last class of the day on Mondays and Thursdays, and they are some of the more talkative students. Sometimes we just skip the pages in the book and try to have conversation for the 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly, the last class before Christmas ended up being one of those classes. They all love and play baseball, so that tends to be a topic. Feeling seasonal, I drew them a baseball Santa. We also talked about Korean celebration of Christmas and Christianity. Note my explanation of the average American's yearly church attendance as a fraction: "1/365=Jesus time."

That night, Mr. Lee and I went to his parents house for dinner. His family is Buddhist, so they don't celebrate Christmas. His sons still managed to con him into buying them presents though. When I got there, we exchanged gifts. The Lees got me a wonderful knit scarf. It's worked wonders against the Daegu cold (teens to 20s on many days).

It wasn't like my usual Christmas eve routine of going over Grandma and Grandpa's, but Grandma Lee did her best to make me feel comfortable, and of course, well fed.

The Christmas eve feast. I've really enjoyed all the Korean food I've tried. It's not just the food itself that I like, but also the way that it is a meal that shares plates and incorporates many side dishes with different flavors. On the left, the greens are used like pockets and you take some pork and add all kinds of sides, rolling it into bite-size Korean food bliss. There was the main pork boiling in the big black pot and fried pork with a special sauce to the right of that. The heaping pile of red is of course, kimchi, and in front of that is a dipping sauce with hot peppers and whole garlic cloves (yes, they are consumed whole and raw, it's intense but it's okay if everyone's doing it). Also present were little egg-cake things, bean sprouts, and a grass-salad with a teriyaki dressing.

I ate SO much. Grandma Lee kept worrying that I didn't have enough to eat and Grandpa Lee made me pick my chopsticks back up when at one point I put them down to take a breather. She also brought out rice, roast duck, and a special traditional Korean bean soup. Yum.

Mr. Lee and I
Mr. Lee's sons, Je Yun and Je Sun have lots of energy. It seems like he keeps up with them alright though.
We played a ball game, but I think I wound them up a bit too much...

The scarf turned out not to be the only gift I went home with. I had lots of praise to offer Grandma Lee's homemade kimchi, so she sent me home with what I estimated was a 10lb bag. When I got home, I split it up in smaller, more manageable baggies. Below, the last of the bag
I call it "The Christmas Kimchi Massacre."

It was a Merry Christmas eve...

Bonus picture from Mr. Lee's youngest son's birthday. I gave them my little American flag. Way cute, I know. God bless the USA.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My name is Keith. I am from USA

COOLish Foreign Language Institute. Keith, now teaching, can finally back up the URL of the blog. The following is a pieced-together post of notes I took the first 2 weeks. I just started week three. More to come.

I spent last week closely observing my predecessor Nathan. I paid extra close attention, because he's gone and I'm up there doing my thing now. The schedule was the first challenge.

There are seven classrooms, 6 of which I teach in over the course of the week. Mondays and Thursdays I teach mostly in rooms 1, 2, and 6; Tuesdays and Fridays in rooms 3, 4, and 5. On those days, I teach in hour-long blocks, 20 minutes in each classroom. On Wednesdays I have classroom 7 to myself and I teach six 50 minute lessons.

The day starts at 1:00pm, but with lunch and planning doesn't really get going until after 3. From there, it's straight out until 9. I put in just under 6 hours of teaching. If it sounds a little confusing, it is. It was very confusing to me, but there is a pattern to it.

Sometimes, the 20 minutes is not enough, other times it is too much. Depending on how much the Korean teacher wants me to cover, I may fly through everything in 10 minutes. That leaves 10 minutes to entertain young, rambunctious Korean students. Oy vey.

I am the only foreign teacher at COOLish, and it's a medium to small size school. Students range from 7 to 14 in age. There are 5 other native Korean teachers. My teaching curriculum is not my own, rather I work with the teachers and go over units as they teach them. Generally, the students have already been taught the grammar and vocabulary in Korean before I set foot in the classroom. This is different from the English teaching approach that was drilled into us in Prague, which has made for a bit of an adjustment as I carefully feel out what is appropriate in my role, not just as a new teacher, but also as a foreigner with different ideas about a lot of things.

My adjusting has gone very well overall, better than I could have expected. Mr. Lee and the teachers seem very open-minded and with smaller class sizes (1-7 students) I have a lot of flexibility as a teacher. I'm trying to think of creative ways to engage the students and get them to speak. I've found that a smile and a little physical comedy (verbal quips generally don't register with the elementary English-learner crowd) goes a long way. It's fun.

Ah, but the challenges. The day is a marathon, not a sprint. The breaks in the day are front loaded, making the stretch toward the end dizzying some nights. I've learned that I can't dance around every class and expect to have anything left after 7 or 8.

Korean names. My goodness, they are difficult for me. Half the students have English names that were assigned to them either by Nathan or the teacher before him when a Korean name just proved too difficult to pronounce. I came in with the mentality that as tempting as it would be to name my students after people back home, I would try to learn their real names. Here's a sampling:

Kim Eun Bi
Lee Bo Geum
Hong Sung Hun
Kim Hyung Jun
Sang Hyoung Kim
Je Wan Lee
Boo Kwan Shin
Hyan Jung Mi
Lee Yoo Seok
Pyo Se Young

These are all English phonetic adaptations since their names as they know them are in Korean character script. When I asked for spelling, there wasn't always a straightforward response. At first I could do little to ward off uproarious laughter when I read the roster. In an extreme example I've begun to call a student "Chew-bar" because its close to what I'm hearing when he and other classmates say his name. They think its funny.

The pronunciation issue continued into my introduction.

Me: "My name (pointing energetically toward the chest) is Keith. I am from Boston, USA."

(General chattering; apparent confusion)

Me: "Boston."

Korean teacher pipes in from the back of class: "[inaudible Korean]"

Students: "Ooooooooooooooh. Buss-stone!"

I say I'm from Boston thinking it best not to challenge my students too much with "Duxbury" and also to associate my home in the US with somewhere they have actually heard of.

Teaching is full of ups and downs. Each class has a personality of its own and it can really dictate how a lesson goes. Students can be wild and out of control or completely silent on the verge of falling asleep onto their desks. I could do somersaults and garner no reaction at all. Other classes are quiet but diligent. Of course, students also have very individual needs. Many classes have that one student that calls out all the answers. The challenge there is to involve the other students and make sure they also understand before moving on. It's not always easy.

Teaching and learning and teaching and learning. Borrowing from my 11th grade Spanish teacher Ms. Curtis: its un ciclo interminable, an interminable cycle.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

An yung ha say yu, Daegu!!!

The 4+ hour busride from Incheon to Daegu was surreal. I witnessed a neon lit- skyline unlike any I have seen before. Even the churches make use of LED technology. Lit crosses dot the tops of houses of worship all over the city here. They are almost as densely present as Mosques in Moslem cities (thinking back to Morocco). My director, Mr. Lee tells me that well over half of Koreans are Christians.
This is the best I could find online, I haven't taken many pictures. Most are actually red (sangre de Christo!). Welcome to the 21st century, Jesus.

I was able to catch some much needed z's on the bus in spacious reclining lazy-boy style seats (awesome). As we pulled into Daegu, I thought to myself "well done, we've covered a lot of ground today, followed my instructions and managed it all without a hitch." After Prague and other travel follies, I've come to anticipate trouble. In truth, I was not quite in the clear. No early celebrations for this guy.

I got off at the station with the remaining passengers and gathered up my mass of luggage underneath, trudging toward the street where taxis awaited. Mr. Lee told me to wait there and I had told him when my bus was scheduled to arrive. Turning down numerous rides, 15-20 minutes passed with no sign of Mr. Lee. Oh boy.

"Did I get off at the wrong stop?"

None of the cabbies seemed to speak English, so when I asked if this was Daegu main station, I got an answer in Korean. It was little use. I waited some more before a cabbie offered his cell phone.

"Great, I'll just call Mr. Lee to make sure."

As I dug through my pockets and bag for my print-out will all my numbers and info, I realized I didn't have it. I'm not positive, but my hunch is that I left it by the payphone at the airport. Well, mission accomplished, problem encountered. So it goes. [Come on people, where would we be without this blog suspense?]

Handing the phone back to the cabbie and thanking him for the service I was quite unable to take advantage of, I nervously gathered up my things and made my way through the rain soaked streets and sidewalks in search of power and an internet connection or the real Daegu main station. I toasted through my laptop battery during my layover in San Fran and had only enough to boot at the Incheon airport before it died.

My search only led down dead-end alleys and to crosswalks that never lit green. Eventually I resolved to try a well lit strip with shops and restaurants. I spotted a power outlet next to a table in a Korean restaurant of some kind. Following the example set down before me, I removed my shoes and dropped my stuff by the door in exactly the fashion you would expect a dogged Westerner that just arrived in a very foreign land after 30-some odd hours of travel.

It wasn't the type of place you would just stroll into and jack power from, so I felt obligated to order something. Completely unable to read the menu, I used the trusty pin-the-tail on the donkey selection method, landing on something cheap. 5,000Won ($4 and change). You can imagine my surprise when plate after plate of food came out. The grand finale was a big bowl that was literally boiling and bubbling. I felt a little overwhelmed, but not too overwhelmed to take a picture.
Figure 1. The first of hundreds of servings of kim-chi I'll eat. Without exaggeration, I've eaten it every single day since I got here. One week strong.

I soon managed to get an internet signal (bless the connectivity of Korea! it seems to me that they are light years ahead of Spain, the Czech Republic and most of the U.S.) and call Mr. Lee. I had no clue where I was, so I put the waitress on my little headset. Korean is an extremely jolting rhythmic and expressive language, so I was awe-struck and confused as to the particulars of the lengthy discussion that unfolded over my table as I stared down, not at all hungry, at my small feast. At last, she gave me a nod and handed back the headset. When I got on, Mr. Lee had hung up. So now we wait and hope.

It was just then, when it seemed I had finally reached my ultimate destination that the exhaustion of it all overcame me. I barely had the strength or awareness to operate my computer, so I put it away and attempt to preside over the food.

Mr. Lee soon arrived, and though I really didn't feel like one, we shared a bottle of beer. It was pretty refreshing.
Hite beer: Cool & Fresh. The Korean pop group "Big Bang" uh...throw a perfectly good pitcher of Hite? Korean advertising is a subject for another post. The visual innuendo in this one is a little much.

I sooned learned that I ordered the boiling pig spine soup. Yum. It was pretty good, kind of like rib soup and I as I had more, I realized I did actually need a little something to eat.

After finishing up, Mr. Lee drove me to the grocery store and bought me some staples to hold me over for a few days. It was the beginning of what has been, and will hopefully continue to be, a very warm accommodating relationship. Thanks Mr. Lee. We then made it to my apartment, I dropped my bags and collapsed. *Christopher Walken speak* I can't believe, ya' made it!

Mr. Lee gave me the next day off to collect myself a bit. It was much needed. That night, we went out to dinner at a Korean pork grill place.

It seemed like an endless meal. In Korea, all your sides are free (various grilled vegetables and pickled things and of course kim-chi), you only pay for the meat. Vegetarians rejoice! The server brings out everything raw and you sort of working together to cook it. "That one doesn't look quite done."

It was my first opportunity to learn some drinking manners from Mr. Lee. It is traditional for the younger person to pour for the elder using two hands, then receiving with two hands. It is rude for a glass to remain empty. It is also custom to drink together, never alone. Whenever Mr. Lee raised his glass I had to follow suit and take a drink. I quickly learned that big gulps were best. I'm definitely a frequent sipper and if I didn't change my approach, Mr. Lee would have drank me out of house and home, and I depend on those things from him...

I also learned the finer points of soju drinking, "the cheapest alcohol in all Korea" according to Mr. Lee. I'm not sure what it's distilled from (I guessed rice incorrectly) but it weighs in at 20% alcohol, 40 proof, so it's not total high-test. When Mr. Lee said it was cheap, I didn't know how cheap. I've seen it priced around 1,000Won (less than a dollar) for a bottle. That prices Caldwell's (Somerville, MA's $10 vodka) like it's Grey Goose. Shit's cheap! I find this simultaneously horrifying and glorious.

Soju! Budget alcoholism at it's best!

Mr. Lee and I talked about family, fishing, travel, golf and other things. He's big on golfing and he's thrilled that I want to go with him. He also wants to take me traveling around Korea. The companionship is strong and the positive vibes I got from our Skype interview have exceeded all my expectations. It really knocked down the stern-nosed Korean school boss stereotype I'd read about online. His warmth has made adjusting so much easier.

We went out again on Wednesday after school for a pitcher and some hot wings. The man knows how to please this guy. Chatting about school for a bit, we got back on travel and golf. He has three young boys and his wife won't let him go anywhere, but he thinks I could be his ticket to escaping dad duties temporarily. "But honey, it's for the good of the hagwon [school]!"

He helps me, I help him, go team.