Monday, October 18, 2010

Just Another Day In Korealand

Some might think that this blog isn't updated enough. The truth is that in general, there isn't always much to write about. My life in Korea is very structured and routine, centered on my 1pm-9pm schedule Monday-Friday. I have not yet written anything describing my typical day, so I thought I would go ahead and bore the hell out you with this rundown. If it's updates you're looking for, just re-read this. It's that consistent.

9:00am: Wake up, open my laptop, get some morning jams pumping, check email.

10:00am: Two possibilities: go for a run or make breakfast. I run just about every other day.

10:20am: Breakfast is almost always French pressed coffee and toast made by heating up slices of bread one side at a time in a skillet. What are toasters like?
My wingspan can almost touch both walls at once. Ching Chang was absolutely compensating for something at the Walla-walla Bing Bang.

10:30am: Sip coffee and read the news, bum around on Facebook.
11:30am: Take a shower. No tub, no curtain, no problem! More a suggestion of a shower space than a suitable one. Korean style showers require that water goes friggin' everywhere. Are there things that shouldn't be wet? Yes. Will this exacerbate the mold and mildew problem? Absolutely. I have soaked many pairs of socks through because I missed a spot with my post-shower squeegy.

12:00pm: With an hour before work, I have options. Once upon a time I Skyped Emma, but that was before she disappeared into the jungles of Panama. Nowadays, I might play guitar, read, or look at more news (no more about the Ground Zero mosque, please). It's also a prime time for errands like the bank, post office, dry cleaners, or other random shopping.

12:45pm: Leave for work (in actuality, I leave around 12:52 and thus I am consistently 3-5 minutes late no matter what I do).

12:55pm: Out of a large group of students standing on the street corner down the block, one brave girl or boy will say: "hello!" or "nice to meet you!" or "handsome guy!"

I live in front of a high school and middle school so this happens almost every day.
12:58: Tip-toe around the ajummas selling produce on the street. It's remarkable how many varieties of greens Koreans eat, though I think much of it would be considered invasive vegetation rather than food.
12:59: I stand next to Paris Baguette. The Korean script reflects the French pronunciation, thus PAH-REE Baguette, though they place emphasis on the first, rather than the second syllable. It's pretty much the only place you can get a decent loaf of whole grain bread or a real baguette (it's nutrition-less Wonderbread galore at the grocery store).
Note COOLish Foreign Institute, above the tree on the right, 4th floor. The smattering of signage typical of buildings in Korea. You can only imagine what it looks like at night when they fire up the LED lights.

12:59:30: I cross the street to Lotteria. Run by the department store empire Lotte (they own everything from retail stores to soda/junkfood brands to baseball teams), Lotteria is the official fast-food burger chain of Korea. Many similarities to BK and McD's are there, but watch out, those onion rings you successfully ordered by pointing frantically at a picture are actually squid rings, one of many seafood options. Decidedly Korean.

1:00pm (1:05): Arrive at school, have a quick chat with Mr. Lee about current events, often concerning the weather.

1:05-1:50: I gather up and sort through the stacks of photocopies I use in class. Since each class is only 20 minutes, it can take a few days to get through just a single page, depending on how much I can squeeze out of it. If the class is a talkative one, we may never even get the pages I prepared. I figure out what I need and what I'll be doing today and that doesn't take long. I often just use this time to read and write.

1:50-2:10: Phonics class with Mr. Lee's oldest son, Jae Min. He's about six years old, so we just spell basic words and draw pictures. He's really into firefighters:

2:15-2:30: The phonics class from hell. Four students, three boys and one girl. The boys all have English names: Alex, John, and Tim, while the girl just goes by her Korean name, Soo Min. The boys are out of control. To delay chaos as long as possible, the beginning of class is very structured, hitting on the day, the weather and moods:

Laying the smiley-teacher enthusiasm on thick:

What day is it today?

What's the weather like?

It's sunny!

How are you John? I'm so-so.
How are you Tim?
I'm happy!
How are you Soo-Min?
I'm so-so. Good.
How are you Alex?
I'm tired and sad. Oh god.

Well, we can count on Alex smacking another kid with his pencil case. He prefers to climb on the tables while his peers proudly spell "telephone" and cries when he loses the ABC bingo game. He punched me the other day. John is a slightly better behaved, but in very non-Korean kid fashion gets all wide-eyed and mocks you while putting his thumb and finger together in the an "okay" sign whenever you ask him to do something. This is my favorite class.

2:30: Lunch from the kimbap shop. Korean food delivered on the cheap, I get my daily kimchi and rice fix. I'm going to have to write the ladies over a card or something. My order is sometimes the only thing that distinguishes one day from the next and keeps my energy rolling.

2:55-3:15: I slip out of school and hang out on a bench outside with a book. Good people watching and I appreciate the fresh air.

3:20-9:00: Teaching.
The kids hate me.
I am a dessert.

My day consists of 5 separate hour-long blocks during which I teach three 20-minute classes in row. I have 10-minute breaks in between. The pace makes the day move along. On the good days, the kids are into it or least wear unintentionally funny English t-shirts:
I love you and all, but if you think I can be counted on to provide starches, you're dead wrong.
Your grass is sad? At least your t-shirt is green.

The other day, a student wore a shirt with what looked like the outlines of zoo animals throwing feces. Across the top it read in pink and green letters: "POLITICAL PARTIES." Right on.

I was chuckling for a long time, and my class of 3 students sat without any emotion or energy to speak of (these classes bring on the harder days to get through). It would have been hopeless to explain what I thought was funny, and even if it did get through, I've found Korean sense of humor isn't very receptive.
Jun Beom (pronounced JOON-BUM). One of my all-time favorites. I sometimes like to give a round of high fives to get class started. Jun Beom insists upon getting another student (sometimes two) to hold my arm in place while he punches as hard as he can for as long as he can. It's well meaning. Everything Jun Beom does, he does without smiling, but this off-beat dazed determination to carry out his intent. What that intent is, I really don't know, but it's hilarious.

Whenever I ask how he is, Jun Beom says that he is "hungry." He's been saying this everyday for seven months now. When I ask what he wants to eat, he used to list every edible thing he knew in English, but now he just says "everything, everyone, and everybody." Jun Beom is open to cannibalism.

I once did an activity in his class where I had the students take a piece of paper divided into thirds. In each part, I asked them to write a sentence and draw a picture of what they like to do. Jun Beom drew a cow, a pig, and a duck. He wrote: "eat cow; eat pig; eat duck."

He's about four feet tall, but he once lifted me clear off the ground. Jun Beom, you're a legend.

They can be a pain sometimes, but these guys are entertaining:
Seong Jun. Once claimed he went to Washington and kicked Obama you know where, only to make up and negotiate a successful free-trade agreement. Okay, maybe I put words in his mouth, but he's a joker.
Jae Hong. His t-shirt says lust. This pose is even better when he shrugs his shoulders with his hands up. I ask him to do it every class. Gets me every time.
Sang Deok. Frequently comes to school reeking of cigarettes because he lives at the PC-room (internet cafes for computer game junkies, there are about 20 of them within a two-block radius). Will do anything to avoid doing anything. Bravo, Sang Deok, bravo.

The bad days are when I'm tired and struggling to keep focus. It's on those days a kid says "he play computa gay-eem on home" and in my daze of auto-pilot is say "yeah! good job!" Shameful, but it happens. Some of my classes are like teaching statues. This makes it tough in a conversation class, leading to me to dance around waving my arms shouting a grand monologue as part of an effort to summon pigeons to remind these kids that they are ALIVE! Shit!

I ask things like "what's your favorite fruit?" and get blank stares. Blink twice for bananas! After I ask a few times, giving examples, telling all about how much I LOVE ORANGES, I might be fortunate to get them to grunt or whisper "mho?" (what?) "moy-yo" (I don't know) or "nae" (yes). If only life were a yes or no question kids, if only.

Kids are shy, I get it. I'm making these poor awkward middle school kids really uncomfortable. Kids that are quiet in Korean are going to tend to be silent in English. What do they think of me?

Who is this crazy foreigner that is so unsatisfied with the fact that I don't like fruit and all I want to do is play computer games and I spend 15 hours a day in a classroom and don't have hobbies. You've had your 20 minutes, now let me languish in this cell phone application!

If you're starting to sense that I find myself frustrated sometimes and may be going off the deep end if I stay here much longer - you're onto something. It's been a lot of deep breath, grin, and bear it. Day by day.

9:00: I fill my 2-liter bottle up at our filtered water cooler. I take one home just about every day. I drink a lot of water.

9:15: I stop into the grocery store in the basement below Paris Baguette. I go almost every night, so all the women that work there know me. I'm reasonably sure they judge my purchasing habits and wonder how I could possibly feed myself with the things that I buy. For one, they seem concerned that I've never bought meat there. My usual is a variety of veggies, tofu, cereal, milk, pasta, noodles, and rice. They ask me a lot of questions. None of which I understand.

In one interaction, I used up my entire arsenal of Korean vocabulary and they took this to mean I was capable of answering complex questions (what's your favorite fruit perhaps!?). What I think they've asked me:

"Do you eat meat?"

"What's wrong with you?"

"Would you like to try our swamp cabbage? It's on sale this week."

"What exactly do you do with these groceries?"

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

9:30: Get home, cook dinner. I usually spend the afternoon in class daydreaming about what to make. Let the grocery store ladies believe that I live on ketchup and raisin potato chip salads.

10:00: Eat dinner, sit on Facebook, read some more news. Perhaps watch the Daily Show. Bed time is usually around 1.

Hope this has demystified my life in Korea. Peckrill will agree that those who think we're making profound cultural discoveries each day and conquering feats of historical signficance in our down-time are mistaken. Those things happen, but in flashes wedged between a very normal, routine working life. It's in a sometimes strange country, but it doesn't take long to normalize the cartoon characters pushing cosmetics, old ladies hawking weeds they picked from the highway median around the corner, and armies of pre-schoolers that swarm the white-skinned, blue-eyed dude in the street like a god.


  1. this is great!! the kind of blog post that everyone should emulate. also, i can totally danish bathroom was similar but i did have a tiny curtain... the squeegee and i became close friends quickly. i DID have the advantage of a heated floor however! it was awesome, i could turn it up high and sit/lie on it after a long day walking around in the cold!!!

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