Monday, April 26, 2010

Adventures at a Korean Dermatology Clinic!

I have a small rash in the middle of my back. I'm not really worried about it, but it's been there for a while, it's about the size of a quarter, and it's starting to piss me off.

One of the fun things about living and working in a foreign country, is that chances are, you will need a translator whenever you need to attempt something that back home would otherwise be a personal solo project - such as investigating rashes.

Instead, I get to ask my co-teacher, who in turn decides to tell the rest of the teachers in our office why I'm going to the doctor. It's not that I'm embarrassed about having a rash, though the potential for misguided assumptions is high in this place. My co-teacher mimed something to the others about me having a rash (apparently the same word in Korean - perhaps Konglish) and I was met with sour faces and nods.

Yes, people, I am the scourge.

So, I go the the dermatologist. And this is the converstaion...

Dermatologist: Let me see your rash.
Me: (Lifting-up my shirt) It's here, but it's been here for about a month.
Dermatologist: Do you shower?
Me: Excuse me?
Dermatologist: Do you shower?
Me: Yes.
Dermatologist: You need to shower.
Me: Ummmm...
Dermatologist: You need to get the sweat off your body.
Dermatologist: Don't use body wash. Use soap.
Me: Okay.
Dermatologist: I will give you steroid cream. Apply twice a day.
Me: Awesome.

So, now that I've been introduced to the concept of "showering" when I sweat, and I've been handed a tube of "steroid cream", I expect to not only be clean and fresh, but I also expect to improve my batting average. The visit cost me (including steroids) a total of under 5,000 won ($5.00), and it took about 5 minutes to be in and out.

I guess I'll have to go with the recommended medication. I won't be going to Thailand anytime soon, where I could have used Andrew's tried and true method of tropical sun-burning and peeling off back fungi. Rash, be gone!

The Pizza Playoffs

As has been described previously in this blog, work can be a challenge for me at my school. Perhaps it’s true throughout the world to a degree and the cliché isn’t limited to South Korea, but it’s worth saying again that the weeks and months fly-by here, while the days do tend to drag.

Weekends have been good – low-key, but very good, and lately, just what I need. What I have needed at school however is a little somethin’-somethin’ to get me through the day.

Enter the NHL playoffs. True, Calgary’s not in it this year, which is likely good as it resets Flames fans’ expectations into something much more realistic. Since the cup run in 2004, we had been living under the illusion that we were an elite team. Nope. Even the Oilers fans whose team made the run the following year were more realistic than us – and here they are 6 years later with the lowest point total and the #1 draft pick. This rebuild is going to suck.

Anyway, the playoffs have been great so far this year – plenty of hockey to enjoy and I am free to cheer for my other favourite team from Hockeytown. Sadly, they are currently embroiled in a 7th game show-down with Phoenix. Could go either way.

What’s making this more exciting for me this year is the first ever National Hockey League Stanley Cup Pizza Playoffs at Sindobong Middle School. With mid-terms approaching, I’ve decided to use my “extra” classes to teach a little bit of hockey magic to my hockey-deprived students. Until the Vancouver Olympics – nobody really had any interest here.

In addition to a couple of hockey-themed lessons that I plan on delivering later this week, what I’ve done is allowed each of the 10 grade 9 classes to pick one of the 16 playoff teams to cheer for. The class whose team wins the Stanley Cup, will also get to celebrate with pizza with yours truly ☺.

I’ve used the game highlights from on my huge classroom screen to introduce the teams and to show the latest highlights to the classes. It’s gone over well. I’ve encouraged classes to follow their teams on and I have students constantly checking scores on their cell-phones as well as on the playoff brackets I’ve put-up in the hallway and my classroom.

Heck, if I can’t teach the way I really want to, at least they’re going to know more about hockey, and they might even start to follow it a little bit. My classes have chosen the following teams:

In the West:

San Jose
Colorado (gone)
Los Angeles (gone)

In the East:


Not yet sure what I'm going to do for those classes that get eliminated after the first round. I might hold some kind of draw so that we're all squared-up for round 2.

This will be my Korean teaching legacy. I somehow think that these particular students will really appreciate the Motown tradition of throwing octopi onto the ice. May the best team win, and may that team not be the Canucks.

The Blind Side

I went to see The Blind Side this past Friday. This is the film for which Sandra Bullock won her first Academy Award. I wasn't expecting greatness, and I knew if would be movie-of-the-week manipulative, but I was actually kind of surprised at how angry elements of it made me the more I thought about it. Oh well - like I said... wasn't expecting much. Some like it - to each his or her own. If you'd like to read my full review of The Blind Side, click here.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Yellow Dust

Today was a good day that gave a blue sky in the afternoon, but was book-ended with yellow dust obscuring the mountains for me in the morning and the river as the sun was setting. A good day walking-about, and as was the case before during and after the purchase of my pre-recall Corolla back in 2003, I can't take my eyes off of bikes these days. Today was a huge boon for bikes as we spend the majority of the day along the Han River pathways. I want my bike now.

I would like to write a great deal more, but it's late so it'll have to wait until tomorrow. All I can offer today is the below photo which was taken from the Seogang Bridge from Yeuido, looking West into the sunset through a cloud of yellow dust. For those unfamiliar, yellow dust is dust particles from the Gobi Dessert in China. It's problematic because further drought in China has caused the top soil to erode even further - sending even more dust Eastward with the trade winds, and ending-up in Korea, Japan, and sometimes even much further East, but not before migrating through industrialized China where the particles swim through toxic emissions from factories that make nearly all the stuff we buy for cheap in the Western World, or even here in Korea.

Anyway, it's always interesting to hear people bitch about it as though they aren't part of the problem. "Thanks a lot, China!" is something I hear more than I care to each Spring. Certainly, better practices should be put in place, and a certain government is allowing it all to happen, but it's our own appetite for cheap shite that feeds the furnace. Good thing for Korea is that this only happens in the Spring. Bad thing for the Chinese is that it happens all year round.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Night

...and I'm going to bed early. Speaking tests sucked-away my will to stay awake any longer - speaking tests and lack of sleep.

I'm off to check out cherry blossoms in the AM, but after sleeping-in for what I hope is a long time.

Good night, and go Wings. Playoffs are in full-swing and I'm all about the daily highlights. The Flames aren't in it, but there's plenty of good hockey to follow.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Late Bloomers

This will be my third Spring in Korea. If you've ever been here, you'll know that Koreans pride themselves on having four distinct seasons - it is a level of pride that suggests this is the only country in the world that can make such a claim. Being from Canada however, I'm not all that amazed.

What's a marked difference from my hometown though is the usual regularity of it all. It seems to me that each of the four seasons lasts for almost exactly 3 months - quartering the year perfectly. Once it starts to get warm, you will NOT have anymore sudden slides into snowfall. Calgary, this is not.

Still, the flowers have been delayed as it's still dipping below zero at night from time to time. They're slowly making an appearance though - I took these at my school. I have no idea what these ones are, but the blossoms are about 8 inches across. Auntie - any ideas?

Going to head to Yeuido on the weekend to join the throngs in blossom gazing. I'll try not to get killed in a bottle-necked stampede by the subway entrance.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Happy Black Day

Today is Black Day in Korea. It is not a day to mark any kind of national mourning for soldiers lost or anything of that regard, it is simply the 3rd in a line of love themed holidays in this country.

February 14th is Valentines Day (when the women give something special to the men in their lives), March 14th is “White Day”, where the men return the favour to their women (traditionally tripling the amount of bon-bons given to the men a month previous), and today is “Black Day” – where single Koreans traditionally eat noodles in black oyster sauce to mourn (or celebrate) their singledom… or something like that.

To erase the teary memories of Black Days gone-by, the Rabbit and I decided to celebrate in our own way by heading to Buddha’s Belly – a Thai restaurant and lounge in Itaewon that I’ve heard a lot about but had never been to.

Not bad food, but while you’ll pay $2 for Pad Thai on Khaosan Road, you’ll pay $10.00 for the same thing here. Fair enough, I guess - $2 soju bottles do cost about $12 in Canada.

Still, it was worth it to mix it up a bit. I don’t like Itaewon for much besides soccer shoes in my size and for good international restaurants. We made a promise today to try a new ethnic restaurant every month if we can – gotta branch-out, even if it costs too much to eat this way often, and even if I don’t think I’ll ever tire of my 4 or 5 Korean staple foods. Bibimbap is still best.

Happy Black Day, ya’ll. Enjoy the darker things today.

I leave you with a photo of the Rabbit trying to decipher a postcard I got from Douglas on Monday. Douglas is currently in Germany, I believe, and arrived there via Moscow after taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Beijing. The postcard itself is from Moscow and features a woman on her bed, surrounded by rising water and rats. It’s quite possible that Douglas painted this one himself.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Powder Keg

Today marked the second-last class for my low-level after-school English class. I've mentioned this before, but to recap briefly, on Tuesdays from 3:30-5:00, I teach 7-10 low-level grade 8 students. As mentioned in a previous blog, these are mostly students who don't read in English at all, and who still may not be able to differentiate between bread, women, shoes, or boys - taken only form the nouns we've been using in class up to this point.

When all is said and done, I will have "taught" these students for five weeks. Mercifully, the run for this class is being cut well-short of its intended target. The truth is, despite some recent bright spots, we are wasting each other's time. These students (being that they are low-level in all subject areas), need assistance from a Korean-speaking teacher. There's only so far that I could go with students of intermediate level, let-alone the students I see on Tuesdays. To prepare for an engaging class that will try to corral the attention of these kids, it takes valuable preparation time away from my other classes where I feel that I'm actually starting to make some headway with some students.

Thankfully, I've been given notice that I will be making a switch after the mid-terms, and will be teaching a higher level essay class for students who are working to apply to elite high schools. That will certainly be a welcome change, and though that class will give me more marking to do, it's something I'll look forward to as I know that my efforts will likely add to real progress.

Still, there have been some positives to come out of my time with the Tuesday group - not the least notable being Sandy.

I gave a particularly shy and awkward student that name last year as she was having trouble choosing an English name for my class. This is not because this slow and challenged student reminded me of my sister in any way, but because it seemed like she needed someone to care about her. Why not give her a name I can immediately relate to, remember, and approach with built-in care? I had been told that she was silent and awkward in my class as she had a bad experience with a previous foreign teacher. Though Sandy is guilty as charged for likely still thinking that bread is people, I take a great deal of pride in knowing that this girl who used to lope clumsily away from me in the hallway at increased speed, has now taken to opening my classroom door, smiling, and saying "hello" as often as she can. She says this in Korean of course, but it means a lot to me to know that she's comfortable enough to smile in my presence, and even tries to speak English from time to time in the hallway, and in class. It's a little victory, but one that I hope encourages more change for her.

Anyway, even with Sandy (and a few others) making some headway in five weeks, it's time to wrap this thing up.

Today, Jun-Sik, a troubled lad in grade 8, went completely berserk. He had been goofing around before class, and was then leaning back on his chair and fell. Of course, the students laughed, but the laughing student within range (John) got the worst of it. Before I could even react, Jun-Sik took his embarrassment and unleashed some sort of revenge on John - first punching him in the face and then trying to kick him in the face. His foot glanced off John's shoulder. I grabbed Jun-sik in a bear hug and pretty much carried him out of the room.

I asked if he was okay (from the fall) and the tears were already starting to well-up. After a chat with the after-school supervisor, he was back in the classroom and seated beside John. John, who could probably take a punch from a champion MMA fighter and still smile (he is a rather thick young man), immediately offered his hand-shake and apology to Jun-Sik. Jun-Sik refused. Amazing how attitudes can form at the middle-school age.

Jun-Sik did eventually accept the apology, and apologized for his own actions. He's lucky that John is such a teddy-bear of a guy. The word "Gronk" comes to mind when I think about John and though he could have probably killed the much smaller Jun-Sik with on swing, he knew to back-off.

I don't know Jun-Sik well, but there's clearly something wrong. Dude has a chip on his shoulder like I've rarely seen. He can process the information I give in class at a much faster rate than most of the other kids and likely feels embarrassed to be there, but never have I seen such attitude from a student. He exudes defiance, and I get it - I really do, but that particular mix of students needs more than I can give them. Sandy too was crying today over something another student said. I put my hand on her shoulder and led her to the office to chat with a supervisor. A month ago she would have ran-away from me. Again, a small victory - and a part of me wants to stay the course and try to do more with these kids, but the realist in me is beating down the dreamer, and I think it's time to know my limits.

Essays begin in two weeks and I look forward to reading them, but the masochist teacher in me will kind of miss this strange little crew. I do wish them well.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rainy Days and Mondays

Today was the first day of the second and final week of speaking tests. I have to say - as easy as repeating the same conversation 120 times in one day might sound, after 6 full days of this, let me tell you, I am done.

I actually feel as though my brain is shutting down in order to conserve energy. It's recognizing my speech patterns as being repetitive to the point of being a reflex. If I can breathe while I sleep, then by this point, I can surely conduct a speaking test in my sleep. I might even get the chance to test that theory this week.

It was a 12 hour day today, actually - I stayed late with a couple of the other teachers to put some finishing touches on the English Only Room library - a few things that will ideally encourage more students to be there and the actually borrow and use the material. We shall see, but if I can get a few English literacy promotional practices in place at that school before I go, I will feel like I've accomplished something.

Just wake me up when the speaking tests are over.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bag on Head

The fair weather promised for today turned out to be as gray as yesterday's. Still, we braved the subway, met-up with a friend, then headed south to Daechi to have a look at a bike shop. Turns out the Strida simply doesn't fit my long-legged frame at all. 'Twas a disappointment for sure. Now I'm having a serious look at a Brompton folding bike from the UK. More on that later.

After the bike shop sadness, we decided to picnic in the park - Seolleung and Jeongneoung to be specific. These are the tombs of Korean royalty that have been maintained since their construction in the 1400s. These round hilly graves are right in the heart of Gangnam and though there is a nice wooden area nearby, are otherwise surrounded by modern skyscrapers - as pretty much everything in Gangnam is.

We decided to head to Paris Baguette, get some treats, then lay down the jackets, open up the language books, and make the most of a cloudy day. It wasn't so bad, though I do look forward to blue skies soon. In the meantime, I'll make due with skipping through urban forests as a tall, yet impish pastry chef.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Seoul Museum of History

The Seoul Blossom Festival is on over the next two weekends, and that's where we'll be heading today after a Gangnam lunch with a Suwon friend. We had wanted to go yesterday, but thy weather was sufficiently shabby to deter us and to defer the festival to Sunday.

Yesterday however, we did have a chance to check out the Seoul Museum Of History. There are a lot of museums in Seoul - everything from The National Museum of Korea (the 6th largest museum in the world, apparently, and one that you need at least 3 full days to visit properly), to the Seoul Museum of Chicken Art, which by the way is on the list, and I would imagine is exactly as it sounds.

I was looking forward to the Seoul Museum of History though. I really like this city. I know it very well, and I like playing tour-guide when I head out exploring the city with actual Korean residents of Seoul who have lived here their whole lives, but stick to their own neighbourhood enough to not know the city as a whole as well as I do.

So, this museum sounded like a good way to spend the afternoon. The Seoul Museum of History is located out of exit 7 of Gwanghwamun Station on the light purple line. It's right across from the giant statue of the hammering man, which I had never seen up close until this year.

Overall, I have to say that the museum was a bit of a disappointment. Seoul is such a dynamic city, and it has changed so much and so quickly in recent decades. I was expecting to see lots of photographs and interactive displays dealing with the planning of the city through the centuries, the changes it went through during Japanese occupation and the Korean War, as well as its huge transformation afterward until now.

Aside from a handful of really interesting displays, the museum was honestly a bit of a bust for me, I'm afraid. As the building houses mostly artifacts from the Joseon Dynasty (royal seals, clothing, writings etc.), there seems to be little room for anything else. Honestly, what is shown here can be experienced as a smaller part of the whole on any visit to the National Museum of Korea. The huge sweeping periods of change I mention above are each dealt with in one paragraph towards the end of the museum path. I really wanted to read and see more, but it appears I might need to do some more reading on my own if I really want to dig deeper.

The museum does have a couple of highlights that are worth the 700 won ($0.70) admission price to the museum though. Less than a year ago, the museum installed a 1/1500th scale model of the city of Seoul on the 2nd floor. It's fully lit and perfectly to scale (the Yeoksam 63 Building is maybe 15 cm tall). The room dims to show a rapid sunset, and then areas like Gangnam and Myeong-dong light-up with neon and street lights. It's pretty impressive and gives a very good sense of the city's size. It's fun to walk over the city and point down at your house or those of your friends.

There is another slightly older model of the downtown core as well - this one entirely made of wood and unpainted. The effect is very striking, though it does look a little bit foreboding with it's rusty hues in the season of yellow dust.

Today will be clear day however, and we are looking forward to some flowers, a trip to the bike shop, and some more time to catch-up on studying before my next class on Tuesday. Spring has sprung, and the yellow skies are turning blue.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Discovery Girls

I wrote about this a long time ago, so I’m not going to dwell on it here. Whenever it’s brought-up, there’s a tendency in blog-land to try and speak in grand terms in an attempt to put some kind of authoritative stamp on the thing. We tend to do that with the things we’re passionate about. Usually, when I’ve attempted the same in the past, I come off looking like a bit of a twit. Still, I feel the need to relate a happening from this week…

As I’ve been conducting English speaking tests over the past week, I have spoken to over 550 students (the other 550 will be next week) – over half of them girls, and I’ve noticed that an alarming number of them are wearing whitening make-up which is a very common thing in Asian countries. When these girls sit-down across from me, it at times seems at times that their cheeks, noses and foreheads are as unnaturally white as their lips are unnaturally red or pink. There’s a lot of makeup at my school at any rate.

During the lunchtime on Monday’s and Fridays, my classroom (the English Only Room) is open for students to come in, use the computers, play the games, and ideally check out some books from our English Library. Today, while I was arranging some material on the shelves, one of my grade 8 girl students was leafing through a “Discovery Girls” magazine – it’s a publication for tween girls talking about fashion, having crushes, being worried about a new school etc. It’s a slice of life of an “average” American teenage girl.

On nearly every cover of Discovery Girls it seems, there is an image of a white girl being BFF with a girl of colour. This student, who was sitting next to me today, decided that it could be a good idea to comment on the cover she’s now holding in her hand. Referring to the black girl on the cover, she said “Not beautiful! No! I don’t like!”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Black skin, very dirty.” Was the reply.

It’s easy to get mad at students from time to time. Certainly, if through your general teaching day you see half as many reluctant to learn students as I do, chances are you will encounter at least 3-5 who make you wish you could be as free with the stick-wielding as the Korean teachers are.

But that comment today -that just pisses me off – plain and simple. I know there’s a huge issue to discuss here, but it’s too big for tonight, and I’m sleepy. I did however manage to ask this student what colour she thought she, herself was.
“I’m white!” She said – “Very white skin and beautiful!”

I then chose to inform her that no, in fact I as a caucasian Canadian am more white than she is, and that must (by her logic) mean that her comparatively darker skin is dirty. This was of course after attempting to suggest to her that all colours are beautiful – a concept that just wasn’t making a dent in this girls whitening-cream-caked forehead. She didn’t say much to me in English, but may well have been commenting to her friend in Korean about how confused I must be. This student, I am guessing, represents more than a few other Koreans who would echo her sentiment.

Anyway, at this point, spare me the talk about how this society not so long ago valued whiter skin as a symbol of class and not having to work in the fields etc. - "That's where our view of white skin comes, you know!" (As though it's a thing that could be valued any differently in practice if its origins had been explained differently). This girl today wasn’t buying and wearing some lead-based face paint because she thinks she’s trying to maintain her noble heritage.

That she thought it was okay to comment to her foreign teacher about the fact that she thinks black people are dirty, just really bothered me today. She said it quite cheerfully, actually.

I know the world has a long way to go (I often shudder at the thought of my significant other facing possible discrimination in good ol’ Cowtown), but there are times when it seems that, on this issue, Korea is not even out of the gate yet. This isn’t true for all Koreans – that goes without saying – but there are enough of them out there who still cling to a “pure-blood” and white-favouring mentality to make me, well… angry. This is what being a “hermit kingdom” for so many centuries can do to even today’s younger generation.

I was told that the previous native English teacher at our school was a bit of a disappointment to the students because they, and I quote, “were expecting blonde hair and blue eyes, but he looked more like Obama.” I know things take time to change, and above all, this change requires exposure to the unknown. You always want progress to come more quickly than it does.

I can pretty much guarantee that this girl has never seen a real darker-skinned person in her life. Still, that doesn’t make it any less disappointing to hear what I heard from her today.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A New Hagwon

I started learning Korean at a new hagwon this evening with my friend, Maria. We were the only two non-Asian people there, the rest being Chinese or Taiwanese, and many of them seem to be already quite well-versed in Korean. Holy crap, people. I have a way to go. I have to say though, it was exciting to be at least partially familiar with the language being spoken by our teacher tonight. I'm actually really looking forward to hitting the books this weekend - not other plans to be had... just walking with m'lady, checking out some cherry blossoms (fingers-crosses), and finding a place to lay-down a blanket and study.

I'll say more about the classes as I get into them next week. My teacher though is a real find. I think Maria and I both are lucky to have her there. This is Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Global Center in Hongdae. Best part is - it's free for foreigners. Thank you, Maria for finding this. What was I thinking paying for lessons last year?

As a side note, people should never stop to talk in the middle of the stairway that leads up to exit 5 of Hongdae Station. That's a sure way to cause instant bottle-necking death.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The letter "R"

As promised, on the brighter side of things, I'll take a moment to share some gold from my Monday / Wednesday after-school groups.

These students are high-level - high enough anyway for us to communicate in English with relative ease, and for them to confidently express themselves, if not verbally, than certainly in their writing.

Though I do recognize the value of having any language learners exposed to a native speaker of that language, there are certainly situations that are more appropriate for native speaker interaction than others.

I realize I came down a bit hard in my entry yesterday regarding my low-level class. I certainly feel for them - I know how hard it can be to sit in a room where nothing is understood because of lack of familiarity with the language being spoken. That being said, I know that there is very little that can be accomplished with that particular group of students, if at the helm is someone with very little skill or ability in Korean language - said person being yours truly. It's more about trying desperately to steer both parties out of the vortex of frustration, than it is about teaching, I'm afraid. With my other classes though, I feel like there is some actual teaching going on. Again, this post is mostly about teaching, so read on if you're interested.

Last week, I edited my students' brief St. Patrick's Day story paragraphs and decided that it would serve us well to focus our energies on a couple of things: the proper use of dialogue in a story, and the use of past tense verbs when telling a story set in the past.

This week, we looked at an example of student writing and corrected it together. Then, we set-up for the game portion of the class.

What we did is played a round of Scattergories - this is the game where teams get a list of 12 categories (types of breakfast food, things that are cold, world cities, etc.). A letter is picked (we chose "R") and then teams have to find a unique word beginning with the letter R to fit into each of the 12 categories. Only original words count as points while any words that are shared between more than one team get discarded. The team with the most original words wins. Categories were described through powerpoint (visual and Korean language aides before lists begin). Students used dictionaries and cell phones to help them find the words.

Here's how I turned it into a creative writing assignment. Out of the "R" words that remained as original words on the board at the end of the game, I chose 10 key vocabulary words. These words were defined and then recorded on a sheet. Each student was then to take 5 of the 10 words and fit them into a story that needed to be past-tense, and include dialogue.

Our words included the following...

1) A boy's English name (Raymond)
2) Something that is cold (refrigerator)
3) Furniture (rack)
4) Furniture (radiator) *I was very lenient
5) Something found in the ocean (Ray)
6) Something found in the ocean (Regatta)
7) A president (Roosevelt)

A lovely grade 7 student with the (admittedly odd) English name of Shelvy wrote a story that made me smile. Here it is, for your reading pleasure...

One day, Raymond was hungry, so he opened his refrigerator. But, there wasn't food - there was Roosevelt!!! So, Raymond closed his refrigerator, and kicked it. Roosevelt came out of his refrigerator and he cried. Raymond was amazed. Raymond threw the rack at Roosevelt. Roosevelt cried again. Raymond threw a ray on Roosevelt's face. Roosevelt cried again. Then, Raymond's father, Rain came in the kitchen. Roosevelt fell in love with Rain, and they got married and went on a honeymoon. Raymond said, "They are crazy!!!"

Min-soo, a grade 3 boy, gave Shelvy a run for her money...

In Roosevelt's house, there was a rack, a radiator, and a refrigerator. By the way, in the refrigerator, there was a ray and some meat. Roosevelt was so hungry, so he mixed the ray and the meat. He started to cook. Soon, the food was completion. He ate the terrible food. "Oh, my god!!!" The taste of this food is so crazy!" said Roosevelt. Accordingly, finally, he died.

I know this isn't half as entertaining to you as it is to me, but it's just so refreshing to sample the creativity of my students. I love this stuff. It's so rewarding to be communicating with students at a certain level where they can understand and use humour. Honestly, I love reading these stories, and it seems like these two classes each week are going to truly give me something to look forward to each week at school - students I see regularly who enjoy their time in my class and enjoy the work they are doing, and the English they are using to do it. In these classes, I am feeling like a legitimate teacher for the first time since my days at Youngdo with Pig's class. It feels good.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tuesdays After School

This one’s all about teaching. If that bores you, don’t read on…
As a foreign teacher in a Seoul public school, I am contractually required to teach 22 class hours per week, which may or may not seem like a lot, depending on your own teaching experience or lack thereof. I arrive at school at 8:30, and I’m out sometime between 5 and 7 on average (4:30 being the time I’m “allowed” to leave, though rarely do I actually get to go at said time unless I want to be unprepared for the next day). This gives me 9.5 “at school” hours per day on average.

Back at my hagwon, I arrived at school at 2:00PM, prepared until the first class started at 4:00, and then left shortly after classes finished at 10 – unless of course there were some online essays to grade.

In short, I teach less at my current school, but I prepare with more regularity.
Part of what’s adding to this additional prep time is the three after-school classes I run each week. Mondays and Wednesdays each give me a class of 15 relatively high-level students for 1.5 hours from 3:30-5:00 PM. These two groups are honestly the high-point of my week – more to come on them later. Today however, I will talk about my Tuesday low-level class.

Basically, it’s like this: I only teach 20 class hours per week (15 grade 7 classes and 5 grade 9 classes in week 1, and 15 grade 8 classes plus the remaining 5 grade 9 classes in week 2). That means that I am teaching ALL of the school’s population of over 1200 students. Dilute me enough, and to most of the students who only see me once every two weeks, it’s like they don’t have a native English teacher at all. Speaking to my other teacher friends who only teach one or two grades at their schools, my situation seems more and more moronic, but I digress…

So, this low-level Tuesday class, which too runs from 3:30 – 5:00 PM, is populated with low-level grade 8 students. Now, its’ entirely possible that these students have any number of learning disabilities, though they are not part of the special-education classes that go on at our school. Who they are, are students who have been in the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education English Language Program since grade 1 – that adds-up to just over 7 years of English language lessons – 3 days a week.

So, imagine my sense of discouragement on day one of the class when I discover that 4 of the 7 students cannot read in English. They are not actually able to sound out words at all – even from the simplest examples. I am talking “man”, “dog”, and “bat”, here.

I could go on and on about why, when my Tuesdays come to an end, I feel like I’ve been through the grinder, but it’ll do the trick to relate a simple story from today…
After last week’s debacle when I tried to teach the concept of pronouns – words such as “it” and “they” replacing words like “shoe” and “shoes” - I tried to bring it back to basics. I wrote (in English AND Korean from this point on) the word “noun”, which broke down into its three common forms: people, places, and things. Remember, I am spelling these in Korean as well and checking for comprehension. I then start off with 4 vocabulary words for each category:

Things (banana, bread, shoes, bat)
People (man, woman, boy, girl)
Places (room, park, home, school)

Each word had been (by me in my spare periods today) printed, cut, placed onto colored paper and laminated as flashcards. In class, each card was then read aloud, while students were encouraged to give me the Korean words for these items. They were also asked to determine which category they were to fall under. We did this as a group in a game format and the students seemed to understand. Words they couldn’t name in Korean, were named and recorded on the board by me.

I then lined-up the cards face-down on the central desk with additional category cards “person”, “place” etc. (one for each name card) in the grouping. We played a traditional game of memory, with students having to find a noun and then its appropriate category to make a match “boy” and “person” etc.

Aside from the frequent instances of having to sometimes physically turn students’ heads away from the window, or take cell-phones away from them, I started to feel like this week’s class might actually be accomplishing something – finally, I had been aiming right at their level – if they could learn 12 new vocabulary words (which, after 7 years of learning the language, should not have been new) and know which noun category they fall under, the more than 2 hours of preparation and 1.5 hours of teaching might have actually been worth it.

To prove my point, I asked one student to take her winning memory word, “bread” (빵) and tell me which category it fell under. The categories were still up on the board, with the Korean names still under them. She considered the word for a moment – a word which had a picture of bread beside it, mind you – then considered the board, and gave me her answer: “Sa-ram” (person).

After 3.5 hours of planning and teaching 12 “new” nouns, to this student, “bread” was now a sentient being capable of emotion. It was then that I looked around the room at the rest of the students who were engaging in a combination of the following: a) breathing through their mouths, b) gumming the plastic noun pieces from our literacy set, or c) staring expectantly at me as they likely saw nothing wrong with their fellow students’ assertion that “bread” was indeed a person.


It’s not inaccurate to say that I at that moment felt like I was presiding over a newly hatched cuckoo’s nest in the middle of ESL group therapy.

So, it’s back to the drawing board. The madness of it all comes in knowing that I will be giving these students the same speaking test as all the other grade 8 students later this week. Today, they can’t pronounce “boy”, they likely think that a “woman” is a “thing” and a “banana” is a place, and on Friday, they will be expected to have a brief conversation about whether or not either of us have ever been to Jeju Island and what it was like when we were there. Regardless of their score, or the scores from the rest of the year’s tests, they will find themselves next year in grade 9, going through the same thing. The reality of this makes me crazy, and yet I’m actually thinking of giving that bread/person thing another shot. If I can’t make that stick properly, what good am I?

Anyway, my Monday and Wednesday after-school classes are well worth the lunacy of my Tuesdays. I will write about them next time, and I’ll continue to hope that something can be salvaged with my Tuesday group. They are clear products of a, let's say "less-than-perfect", system. At least I’m learning more Korean.

Monday, April 5, 2010

My guitar.

All right – it’s late again, so it’s not likely I’ll get around to updating as much as I would like to be able to today. I’ll just have to save some for later.

Tonight, I’ll write about my guitar. That’s right – my guitar! Seong-Suk bought me a guitar for my birthday this past January and it arrived as my very first musical instrument – unless you count the mini pan-flute I got as a reminder of Seong-Suk’s concert, or the tin whistle my parents bought me as a stocking stuffer a few Christmases ago.

The thing is though – I’m old, and if my slowness in learning the Korean language is any indication, I will be in my mid-fifties before I can confidently accompany myself or anyone else for the simplest of songs. Let's just say that right now, I suck.

I’m pretty stoked to have a guitar in my house though. I pick it up every night, and even if it’s just a case right now of me picking-it up to practice some chords for 30 minutes before I go to bed, I like the fact that my fingertips are getting calluses and that my muscle memory is starting to kick-in. I even nearly "played it 'til my fingers bled" one night. Not really, but there must have been some microscopic scratches or cracks because after slicing a bag of extremely hot Korean peppers, I had to ice my finger tips for nearly 2 hours while watching a movie. It was like my fingers were eyeballs - they just sucked-up the pepper juice and each digit seemed to have its own independent pulse.

It’s a good thing that my friend, Ed knows how to play – without someone here to help me through the basics, I wouldn’t know where to begin – books are great for concepts, but it takes looking at someone else playing to really understand what to do. I am sure to terrorize Ian with my guitar at some point, if I can ever get up the nerve to take the thing on the subway. I don’t like the idea of posing as a musician quite yet.
For my first song, since Ed started playing it the last time he was here, I’ve chosen one of my sentimental favourites – “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls. A great song, and kind of a tricky one to start out with, but I also learned to drive a car in the winter, so I’m sure that when I get around to it, “Wheat Kings” will seem rather easy by comparison. I’m also hopeful that in a few years “Closer to Fine” will seem like child’s play.

Anyway, as soon as I can actually play the thing the whole way though without having the song fall apart, I’ll let you know. Until then, I keep digging away at that d-chord madness in each verse.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter, ya’ll!

I know that some family back home is celebrating by heading out camping this weekend, while the rest are presumably staying home for a low-key dinner.

I, on the other hand, am marking the day by snacking on some partially melted Cadbury Mini Eggs © from home and studying some Korean. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really realize that Easter was here until maybe Thursday – the weather’s been iffy, and without family nearby to remind me that it’s Easter weekend, it kind of passes here without a thought. The Easter Bunny hasn’t translated here as well as Santa Claus has.

Easter to me back home had mostly been about family dinner anyway. I found colored chocolate eggs behind the couch legs with my sister and then split them evenly – the blue wrapping still being my favourite, and then we’d have a family ham dinner. As for going to church, I do remember once participating in a sunrise service at Heritage Park with my sister and the rest of our youth group, where I regretfully made a mockery of the breaking of the bread as I rose from behind some grassy knoll looking over the reservoir. Sorry about that.

Basically, for me, Easter has long been a chance to be with family and celebrate the Spring. As it is this year, I have long since abandoned egg hunts, ham, and church (not necessarily in that order), so Easter to me can be cleared of the clutter to allow me to simply miss my family, which I do – in spades. I wish I could be there to hide and find colored eggs with my nephews, and to have a nice sit-down meal with the people I love and miss the most. What I can do this year for Easter though, is still enjoy the changing weather (on days minus the yellow dust), spend time with a rabbit, and enjoy these broken chocolate eggs – a result of my negligence upon returning to Korea – the land of heated floors, where suitcases containing candy-covered chocolate are placed before falling asleep after a long plane journey into the future.

As per usual, it’s been a busy few weeks since I last posted. I have wanted to write about many things since then, but just haven’t found the time – or rather, have found too many excuses to get wrapped-up in other things. So, just because I feel like it, in an attempt to update on some of the goings-on of the last couple of weeks, I will allow myself a fair paragraph or two on a few of this things I did or experienced that seem noteworthy enough to warrant my (and perhaps your) attention.
In this entry” Slap Chop, Bob Dylan, Auditioning, and Noonchi-Regained!

1) Slap Chop – I gave one to my friend’s girlfriend for her birthday. What better gift is there? His reaction was priceless, and she’s actually quite excited to take that fantastic kitchen utensil to her apartment and start making those home-cooked meals even healthier. The birthday party also reminded me of two things – that I really like Johnny’s dog, Bodie, and that as a white Canadian, I have precisely zero ability to participate in spontaneous freestyle rap sessions. That isn’t where my creative skills lie. To quote the great Chuck D: “I don’t freestyle much, but I write ‘em like such.” True dat.

2) Bob Dylan – There’s a lot I could say about this, but I’ll make it short. My friend, Ian and I went to see Bob Dylan and his band live in concert at Olympic Stadium – the same venue where I saw Oasis last year and Ennio Morricone the year before that. I have to admit, I am one of those people who miss Dylan’s acoustic stuff enough to be a tad disappointed that it simply won’t happen live anymore. I’m not a purist by any means, as I have been living in a post-electric guitar era for quite sometime now, but I can’t help it if I like Dylan’s acoustic stuff more. Simply a matter of taste. I have regularly purchased and thoroughly enjoyed his later work – especially Modern Times – but I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss a solo guitar version of “Hard Rain.” Even “Shelter from the Storm” was treated with a rock sensibility. That’s what happens when your hard-living and old-age keeps you behind the keyboard for the entire night – never to pick-up a guitar.

That all being said, the show rocked – and for me it was more about who he was. As per a suggestions from Ian, I made sure to watch the 3.5 hour Scorsese Dylan documentary “No Direction Home” before going to the concert. It helped put it all in perspective. Here I was with a great friend with floor seats to a live show of arguably the greatest and most accomplished musical artist living and still performing. Really, who else is there with his scope – both lyrically and chronologically? (besides Britney Spears, I mean). Knowing in the first encore (which began with a kick-ass version of “Like a Rolling Stone”) that I was watching a singer who performed at the March in Washington DC kind of blew my mind. His band is incredible and his later years presentation of his musical self is still among the best acts going. The tickets set us each back 160,000 won (roughly $150.00), and though I do admit to a tinge of disappointment about not hearing him sing three of my favourites, and not seeing him pick-up his acoustic, I saw the American lyrical equivalent of Leonard Cohen, and I saw a huge piece of modern musical history still doing what he loves and playing the music he wants to play. Best part is that I shared the experience with a great friend. Nothing wrong with that.

3) Auditioning – There’s an ex-pat theatre group here in Seoul, whose work I have seen a couple of times since living here. As per any group of foreigners here, there’s a lot of turn-over, but they seem to manage to attract enough theatre grads who are living and working here in an attempt to pay-off those student loans. Point is – lots of strong talent to supply their casts for their two yearly shows and 24 hour writing and performance projects.

Well, they are planning on doing there first musical this Spring, so I thought I’d give myself a kick in the pants and go and audition for them. It’s been over three years now since I’ve auditioned for anything, so it was more an attempt to see if I could still do it than anything else.

There’s a great deal more to say about this, and if you’re reading this and want to know more, I’m sure it’s something worth skyping over, and I’m sure it’s something we will talk about. What I will say for now is that it was very worthwhile to audition.
The audition itself went well. I felt like I got a very good response from them, and I was invited to call-backs. However, I decided not to go to the call-backs.

The short version is this – yes, performing and being creative on that level, with the sense of camaraderie that often comes with such projects is something I dearly miss – especially of late as the structure of my job has the tendency to lead me into a slow-slide toward monotony. However, being in this show would have meant missing three travel plans (Dokdo on May 5th, Gyeong-ju on the 20th, and the student trip in the second week of June). Both sides being considered, it was the right choice not to follow-through on the call-back – regardless of the likelihood of being casted. I had decided before even auditioning that I wouldn’t be doing the show. It was unfair of me as it was to use a time-slot for my own purposes – just to scare myself and challenge myself in a way that I hadn’t been able to do for years now.

I must admit though, considering how well it all went, having lunch with a friend in Itaewon afterward gave me pause. I auditioned well, and though I was panicking about it the night before, I feel that I came off as a very confident performer. I know that I had what it took to have been a part of this production, and perhaps even been a key player in the show, though I also know that it wasn’t a guarantee.

To be clear, the show being produced is “The 25th Annual Putman Country Spelling Bee” – a Tony-Award nominated musical with adults playing misfit child spelling-bee contestants. It’s a very funny show – case in point: a song called “My Unfortunate Erection” – a song sung by a character who gets eliminated from the competition after getting distracted by a pretty girl. Classic stuff, and it would have been a fun one to be a part of. I guess it’s just not important enough to me at this point in my life. If it were, I would have been there at the callbacks and doing my darndest to prove that I am as capable as I was doing this stuff back in Calgary. It just wasn’t to be. As it is, I get to travel to parts of the country I haven’t yet seen, with good friends, and I’ll get a chance to take some friends to the show when it’s up and running. There might be a chance in the future to be a part of another show here - or not. But I know that there won’t be another opportunity to travel with the people I’ll be traveling with, to the places we plan on going.

4) Noonchi Regained – After the happening on the subway a while back, followed by the awkward dinner with co-teachers later that week, I had a couple of independent experiences which cancelled them out for all intents and purposes. The first came in the form of a bus driver. I have a certain affinity for bus drivers – my own dad being a reluctant but excellent one for 26 years while putting up with bitter public for the sake of raising a family. It just so happened that I got onto the wrong bus (143 not running the same route as 140, 141, or 142 – silly me) after too long a night down south. The bus went down unfamiliar lanes for 20 minutes until finally stopping at the bus garage – well past midnight, in a place that was completely unrecognizable to me. I watched everyone get off the bus, and then cautiously approached the driver: “Banghak Yok?” – I hopefully, yet pathetically inquired, naming the subway station by my house.

“BANGHAK YOK?!!!!” was his reply.

Long story, short – Mr. Park, the friendliest bus driver in all of Seoul, with about as much English as I have Korean, communicated to me to get off the bus, stand by some closed food mart in the middle of a very dark and very foreign neighborhood, and to wait for him. This, he did about 10 minutes later, where we walked to his van, and he drove me to my apartment, 20 minutes away – all the while, playing his “best music” Pacelbell’s Canon” on the car stereo. I asked his name in the hope that he would allow me to repay him in some way for his kindness. He refused. I realize that getting into a van in a strange neighborhood in a foreign country with a guy I’ve never met seems problematic, but something, perhaps thinking about my dad, told me that it would be okay. Mr. Park – you rock.

The second encounter – perhaps less fantastic, but no less significant to me, happened aboard the subway the following day. I got approached by another older man, who tugged on my sleeve while I was reading. Had I not met Mr. Park the night before, and had I still been bristling from my angry Ajushi encounter, I might have been tempted to take my book and brandish it Don Cheadle-style to get this guy away from me. Gladly, he spoke first and enquired about what I was doing there. The conversation went the usually way – “I’m here teaching English” etc., but over the course of a 6-7 stop ride, this older gentlemen revealed that he was genuinely interested in having a conversation with me. I learned that he didn’t go to university, but that he learned English on his own and that he one day hoped to see Canada. We covered a lot of topics – some rather personal, but still comfortable considering the circumstances. All in all, it was a very happy little encounter with a genuinely curious and gracious old man on a train.

Anyway, after two rather shabby experiences that brought my feeling of Korean alienation to the fore, I had these experiences that turned it all completely around. Just thought that might be worth sharing.

Well, there was more I wanted to update on, but I am ready for bed. There’s always tomorrow… or next week.

Coming-up next: Spring Travel Plans, How I’m Surviving at School, and Visiting a Korean Fortune-teller…