Quote of the Day

Always behave like a duck – keep calm and unruffled on the surface, but paddle like hell underneath.

Do you ever feel like that?

I know I do.

The paddling like hell part, I mean, not necessarily calm and unruffled.

P.S. I didn’t attribute that quote to anyone because it seems to have murky origins. A Google search gives partial credit to British actor Michael Caine (most recently in Kingsman and Interstellar), partial credit to a mysterious Jacob Braude, about whom nothing can be found, seemingly. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Who doesn’t have a Wikipedia page these days?!? Not even a stub??

These are the things I find out when I’m deskwarming while my kids take their final exams.

Anyway, there are several versions of the quote to be found online; I picked the wording I liked best. Actually, I think I would prefer “keep calm and unruffled on the surface, even if you’re paddling like hell underneath” – hopefully you’re not always feeling a bit flustered or frantic on the inside, but if and when you are, just act like you’ve got it under control.

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Teaching ESL in Korea: A Survival Guide

So you applied for an ESL job in Korea. You’ve been accepted. You (hopefully) threw yourself a mini celebratory party when you heard the good news, and you deserve it! A lot of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears go into applying for an overseas job. But now you might be wondering, “What am I getting myself into?” I know that’s what happened to me after the glow of being accepted started to wear off.

So, I’ve compiled a little list of Dos and Don’ts for all you future ESL teachers out there. Maybe it will help you feel more prepared about coming here and help you get off to a smooth start.

DO: Learn to like Korean food. At least be able to force it down and pretend like you’re enjoying it. Sure, you could come here and bring your own lunch to school every day and endure the teachers’ endless amazement and curiosity over the fact that you don’t/can’t eat Korean food… but trust me, you will have a much easier time and be much more readily accepted into “the group” of your coworkers if you sit down and eat their country’s food with them. Food and mealtime is so, so important here.

DON’T: Sit there with the “ew” look on your face, pick over your food like you’re panning for gold, or bring your own food (barring allergy- or religion-based dietary restrictions; in that case, be prepared to firmly but kindly explain your situation multiple times to multiple people at your school).

Pro tip: In my experience, it is better to take some of everything that’s being offered in the cafeteria, even if you have no intention of eating it, than skip any one food item. You will be asked why you don’t like whatever it is you didn’t take. So, as wasteful as it is (and this may depend on your school’s food waste policy), I recommend taking a couple pieces of that mega-spicy/mega-sour/mega-unpleasant-for-whatever-reason side dish, swirl it around in your tray a little, and then dump it in your soup bowl at the end of the meal and no one will even notice that you didn’t actually eat it.

The highest compliment related to food that you, as a foreigner, can receive from a Korean is that you “eat well.” I find that eating with an air of non-pickyness, at a steady pace, helps. (Obviously this also includes not making faces of disgust when you come across something you don’t like – but that’s basic manners everywhere.) And learn how to use chopsticks. It isn’t hard, and if you can gain at least a basic skill level with them, you’ll receive much praise for it.

DO: Bring deodorant. Lots of deodorant. It’s expensive here, and you have limited options. Koreans simply don’t use deodorant – and before you go “Ewww,” it’s because they honestly don’t need it. Koreans (and some other Asians, such as Japanese people) have been blessed with a gene that ensures a complete lack of underarm odor, while most Westerners of European descent have an all-too-ample amount of it. (This is so unfair.) In my experience, they also seem to sweat less. Sooo… it’s probably best to stock up on a year’s(ish) supply of your favorite kind before you get here.

DON’T: Freak out if you forgot to pack yours or run out early on – you can find it here in the major cities; it’s just a little pricey and you may not be able to find your favorite brand.

Pro tip: Honestly, I don’t think you could bring too much deodorant here, though. You’re a stinky person living in a country of non-stinky people; you’re going to want to slather that stuff on as much as possible, because there’s no blaming that B.O. on anybody else.

DO: Enjoy the kids. Please, for the love of all things holy, do not apply for this job if you don’t have some interest in working with children. The majority of teaching positions here involve elementary school aged kids, with a few middle school and high school positions here and there. You will be interacting with children on a daily basis; they are, ideally, the main reason you are coming here as an ESL teacher – to educate children. If you’re not someone who can find daily enjoyment from interacting with kids, I think your chances of being miserable here are much higher.

DON’T: Expect the kids to be little angels all the time. They’re not. The elementary kids are really cute but they can be little horrors, and the middle school kids, while hilarious and fun, also might like sleeping more than listening to you. Be prepared.

Pro tip: Get to know them on a personal level as much as you can. No, you won’t be able to form a personal bond with every single kid – you won’t even learn all of their names. But the more students you can connect with, the more they will open up to you, trust you, respect you, and learn from you. The more comfortable they become with communicating in English with you, the better you are fulfilling your purpose as a Native English Teacher.

DO: Use Waygook.org… sparingly. Waygook.org is an online community for ESL teachers in Korea specifically. It has all the info you could possibly need about life in Korea, with message boards for current news, where the best bars, restaurants, haircut places, and music are, and best of all, thread after thread containing lesson plans, templates, PowerPoints, worksheets, and other teaching ideas and materials. It’s seriously a blessing for new teachers with little or no experience teaching ESL.

DON’T: Believe everything you read or use the “download-and-go” method. As awesome as some of it is, certain threads on Waygook.org can also be a pit of despair, where some very negative people share very, very negative opinions. These are obviously to be taken with a grain of salt, and actually it’s probably best to avoid them entirely because you will find yourself sucked into a Vortex of Horrible, Vast Bleakness that will make you question all your decisions about living here. DON’T GO THERE! It will suck out your soul!

Additionally, although there’s tons of great material on Waygook, you need to use a critical eye with 99% of it. You can’t just grab a PPT and go teach it. First of all, it’s more than likely got some crappy low-quality images, spelling errors, and/or walls of text in it. Second, how can you teach something another person made? Your teaching material has to be your own, so that you can own it when you’re teaching. Trust me, the kids will know right away when you start stumbling over someone else’s words.

Pro tip: Personally, I used some Waygook materials for the first couple weeks of teaching (there is a specific thread for EACH English textbook used here in Korea, which is awesome), but once I started getting the hang of things, I would just go on Waygook for some ideas, maybe borrow a slide here or part of a worksheet there, but mostly make my own. These days I rarely use Waygook at all except if I’m really stuck for ideas (or if I’m feeling brave and want to jump into the Vortex of Doom and read juicy malicious attacks from people who are entirely miserable with their lives here).

DO (this is the most important): Be ready to throw your preconceived notions about etiquette and interpersonal communications out the window. You can’t come to live and work here still wearing your Western Culture Spectacles. Take those things off, tuck them away for future use when you go back to your home country. Approach the people and culture here with a fresh slate. You may not agree with everything about Korean society, but you are here (voluntarily, I might add) as a guest, an ex-pat, a foreigner in their country – so be respectful and try your best to adapt to their way of doing things. If they see that you’re making an effort, even if it’s not perfect, they will welcome you.

DON’T: Give up too soon. You may find it difficult to adjust right away due to culture shock, homesickness, the lack of Pop-Tarts and cheese (oh man, what I wouldn’t give for some real cheese right now… I’m a Wisconsinite! I need my cheese!), the language barrier, maybe even difficult co-teachers or wild unruly children or one too many good ol’ Korean surprises. It’s okay. Give it a week. Give it a month. Focus on one day at a time, and remind yourself of the reasons why you applied for the job in the first place. Look for the good in every day. Hold onto the small things that make you smile, the small kindnesses other people offer you. I promise you, something good is there in each day. Collect those small goodnesses like little lanterns of warmth and light when your heart feels dark and cold.

Pro tip: I’ve also found that if you start off strong in terms of trying to eat all the food, follow the customs, go out of your way to greet everyone properly, spend time building relationships with your co-teachers, etc., you can ease off a bit after a few months. For example, initially I would always finish my entire tray of food in the cafeteria, even if something wasn’t my favorite. After I had established that I “eat Korean food well” and received compliments from multiple co-teachers and random other teachers in the cafeteria, I’ve now stopped forcing myself to finish things I don’t want, and no one has noticed, because the preconceived notion has been established.

Final thoughts: Generally, just expect the unexpected. Don’t stress out even if stressful things are happening to you. This post isn’t meant to discourage anyone from coming to work/live here, since clearly I love Korea; 95% of my posts are about how happy I am to be teaching here and how much I love the culture and the students. But I hope that some of these pieces of advice are helpful to at least one future ESL teacher out there who will be coming to Korea.

Good luck! 화이팅!

Happiness is…

… the students’ palpable excitement to have me teach them once again (it’s been 3 weeks now because of the speaking test). The levels of rapport, efforts to communicate, and laughter were exponentially higher in all of my classes. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.

… seeing the joy (and sometimes incredulity) on the faces of the kids who did well on the speaking test when they hear their scores. “I’m satisfied,” said one boy contentedly. “I love you,” said another. “Oh! He confessed!” cried a third. (Confess = 고백 = tell someone you love them romantically for the first time.) Laughter ensued.

… not having to say a single word during the review section of this week’s lesson – just displaying the slide with bits of the dialogue or key expressions (some/most words hidden from their view, e.g. “_____ you _____” and they have to say “Could you recommend…”), and hearing my whole class chant the key expressions on their own. No prompting, no direction. I love it.

… finally feeling a spark of kinship with the co-teacher I hadn’t quite clicked with yet, quite suddenly and for no apparent reason. Suddenly our relationship just feels more at ease, friendlier, and far more cooperative when we’re in the classroom together. I have no idea why but I’m not complaining. (To be honest, I think we’ve both felt a bit awkward around each other, perhaps afraid that the other didn’t like us, struggling with communication at times – but we have each been making small efforts to be kind, help each other out, etc., and I think it finally knocked down a barrier.)

… 4:30 on a Friday. I love my kids and my job, but man it’s exhausting by the time Friday rolls around.

P.S. Sadness is when my co-teacher asks to take over my favorite class today because she needs to review with them for the final exam. *cries*

MERS Scares

EDIT 6/26/15: This is a really good video from Eat Your Kimchi to calm everyone’s fears. I must say that even my Inner Hypochondriac and I have calmed down about it. The outbreak seems to already be slowing down here, and I’m pretty sure within a month or two it will be wiped out completely.

My original post follows below.

Hey, that rhymes. (Koreans pronounce it like “Mare-iss” for some reason.)

So, MERS is a thing. That exists. In Korea. In Daegu now, officially, as of yesterday. (The Daegu government website has a warning up, but when you switch the language to English, the MERS warning disappears… hmm…)

A wedding in Seoul last week. Because masks can save us from MERS. Don’t you just love that one maskless guy though? He’s so happy.

Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. A coronavirus of deadly proportions, with no cure or vaccine to date and a 40% mortality rate. It’s spreading more rapidly in Korea than it ever has in the Middle East, supposedly for “unknown reasons.” But I can tell you why (prepare for The Rant of the Hypochondriac):

A) Lack of basic public hygiene. I have addressed this before, in my post about what I dislike about living in Korea. The spitting, the peeing, the coughing/sneezing into the air without even attempting to cover it, the lack of soap and towels in restrooms, the throwing of used toilet paper into garbage bins instead of flushing it… I feel like Korea is more than a little behind in terms of 21st century health precautions in spite of their state-of-the-art medical technology. Puzzling to say the least (although, granted, their economic development has occurred so rapidly in the last few decades that I think some other aspects of society are still catching up – and I mean that in a completely non-condescending way, not like “hurry up and be like America, Korea.” America has its own problems).

B) Selfishness. From Patient Zero to Patient 150 (the current number of infected as of yesterday), way too many people are only thinking of themselves. The person who brought MERS to Korea was a middle-aged businessman who took a business trip to the Middle East. When he came back and started feeling sick, he neglected to tell anyone where he’d been traveling. He bounced around to different hospitals, leaving MERS infections in his wake. Okay, maybe those mistakes could happen to anyone (does anyone ever really believe they’re going to get a deadly virus like that?) (although I’d like to know what the heck he was doing in Saudi Arabia that led him to catch MERS… kissing camels or something?).

But then more people did more stupidly selfish things. The person who shared a room with Patient Zero caught MERS, and so did his son – who then promptly left for Hong Kong and China, thus endangering two other countries simply because he didn’t feel like staying put in quarantine. If I were China or Hong Kong, I’d be pretty ticked. In my mind, that guy is damn lucky that China put him in a hospital and is treating him.

More recently, Patient 141, who I can only hope is a legitimately crazy person with mental health issues, reportedly got all worked up while waiting for his MERS test results, told people that if he had MERS, he was going to “spread it around,” and broke the lock on the hospital door so he could escape the hospital. (So that he could then go to yet another hospital the following day… and be confirmed as MERS Patient 141.) Who does that?!? Psychopaths, that’s who.

And finally, and most disturbing of all for me personally due to my current situation: a Daegu man decided to go visit his mother in Seoul – who had been diagnosed with MERS. After visiting, he returned home to Daegu… and returned to work in his district government office job for more than 2 weeks, hence coming in contact with who knows how many Daegu-ites… and he is now officially diagnosed with MERS and is in one of the hospitals here. His home is not 20 minutes from where I live.

Okay, wait. Just wait a minute. Let me make sure I heard this right. He visited his mother, whom he knew was sick with MERS… okay, fine, he can take that risk if he really wants to, although I recommend Skype or FaceTime instead. But why wasn’t his mother quarantined at that point? And then no one stopped him from coming back to Daegu?? And once he got back to Daegu, he didn’t think “Hmm, maybe I should wait a couple weeks and make sure I’m healthy before I go coughing on people at work”??? This guy’s son is currently attending a Daegu public elementary school. Children have proven to be highly susceptible to MERS after their parents become infected, yet the child is still going to school. And you know how kids are – they are the least likely to cover their mouths, ever. Selfishness, foolishness, and honestly just plain stupidity. Yeah, I said it. My Inner Hypochondriac is not always a nice person. There are few things that infuriate me in this world, but this type of thing is one of them.

C) The collectivistic culture. If it’s not selfishness, it’s the deeply ingrained, but in this case really unwise, practice of family members visiting and caring for their sick relatives in the hospital. Many of the current infected patients got sick because they were exposed to the virus in the hospital while doing what should have been left to nurses and doctors. Please note: I am NOT criticizing the collectivistic nature of Korea as a whole. I really do appreciate many things about this aspect of society here, and I think it has many benefits. Just not when there’s a deadly virus going around. Sometimes you have to draw a line, you know?

D) Hospital and government flubs. Samsung Medical Center, the TOP hospital in Seoul, has been confirmed as the leading source of the outbreak, with more than 70 cases stemming from within its walls. To which I say, what the hell?! Come on, Korea. Your best hospital can’t keep things sterile and sanitary enough to prevent the spread of a deadly virus? Patients were sharing rooms with MERS patients, family members were visiting, and the government didn’t release the list of MERS-containing hospitals until weeks after the first case. There is also a tendency to “hospital shop” here, to go from hospital to hospital to find the best one.

So basically, if this were a more severely contagious disease, half the population would be dead by now. Potentially.

… But don’t worry, friends and family! MERS can be avoided via simple hygienic practices and basic preventative measures such as washing your hands with soap and hot water, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and avoiding close contact with potentially sick people!

… Oh.

Wait.

We’re screwed.

I’m partly being facetious with this post, partly venting to release my hypochondriacal stress. Logically, I don’t exactly think it’s time to panic yet (although my Inner Hypochondriac really, really wants to). The Korean government claims they’re tightening the quarantines (but I’m skeptical on that based on the Daegu guy, and the apparent mentality people have that quarantine is optional anyway). The WHO has urged the thousands of Korean schools that closed to reopen, and to those that stayed open, to carry on as usual. President Park Geun-hye has urged the public to continue their normal lives so the economy doesn’t take a huge hit. Many people don’t seem overly concerned about it, in spite of all the fear-mongering in the news. Some experts are predicting that the outbreak will die down within the next few weeks.

Actually, this is a quite fair and balanced explanation of the situation from my favorite Korean language learning resource, Talk To Me In Korean:

However, knowing that the first case in Daegu has been confirmed, and that said patient had contact with countless others before being diagnosed, is unnerving. I won’t be stocking up on food supplies and hiding out in my room or anything, but maybe it’s time for me to go buy my own mask.

P.S. Here is how my school is responding to the MERS risk – based on a school message system notification received this morning which I popped into Google Translate:

Administrative matters

1) class public and meeting schedules after June 26 are hoping you promote as scheduled, it should guide future changes when a separate memorandum

2) pursue a legitimate foreign public and if such an event Homers observe the instructions thoroughly before preventive group dedicated to the precautionary wind

3) consider the attendance at the event must be fully prepared to hand sanitizers, keep each other clean, polite guidance

4) After a public event data relating to inward website with such measures to be shared

5) Assist school staff, external trips refrain. End.

Preventive groups dedicated to the precautionary wind should do the trick. Keep each other clean, folks. End.

Art in short films

Happy Monday!

I’m always searching for high quality short animations with little to no dialogue that I can use in my classes for various activities. Today I stumbled across some really lovely films that are more art than animation. I doubt I’ll be using them with my classes (most of my kids aren’t quite at the level to be discussing complex themes and ideas), but I thought I might as well share them here.

“Gravity” by Ailin Liu

I love the ambiance and art style. The description says the piece is about “temptation and addiction.” If you’ve ever experienced struggling to resist a temptation of any kind (which I suspect most of us have), perhaps you can relate. The only thing I wish I could change about it (me being my optimistic self) would be the girl taking a stand against the temptation in the end, instead of being whisked away (consumed?) by it. Although I suppose that’s sort of the harsh reality about some addictions.

“Thought of You” by Ryan Woodward

Sweet and sad. The song is beautiful and the animation style is beautifully simple. I think it’s so cool to combine four art forms – drawing, animation, dance, and music – into one piece.

“BLIK” by Bastiaan Schravendeel, Jean-Paul Tossings, Sander Kamermans, and Piebe van der Storm

A bit longer and a very different style from the previous two, but I like it. I enjoy the choice to leave the characters’ faces blank; instead of reading the emotions plainly from their expressions, we absorb those emotions from the body language and the context. I also think the blank faces give it more of an artsy feel, rather than a cartoony feel. (And perhaps also give the viewer a bit of a blank canvas, so the emotions are open to individual, subjective interpretation.) And the story is so cute and relatable. Young unrequited love.

There are many more similar animations on that YouTube channel, Mad Artist Publishing, but these three were my favorites of the ones I watched.

That’s all, folks. I’m back to grading speaking tests. Enjoy your Monday, and I hope some of these animations give you a little upliftedness.

Speaking tests and feeling needed

Today was the last day of the first week of the speaking tests. I’ve tested approximately 180 kids thus far, and I’ll be testing about 540 more over the next 2 weeks.

Thoughts on the process:

— It really isn’t a fair test when all is said and done. Since they’ve been given the possible questions beforehand, it’s more of a memorization test than a speaking test (at least in terms of conversational English, which is what I’m supposed to be teaching).

— Additionally, I have about 10-15 seconds between kids to process what they said and decide on a score. If I don’t firmly decide right then and there, by the time I sit back down at my desk 45 minutes later, the kids and their answers are all a blur. To cope with this, I’ve been writing little notes to myself next to their (potential) score, so if there’s any doubt in my mind, I can go back to it later and remind myself of why I was on the fence. Still, I’ve been agonizing over their scores.

— I can totally tell when:

(A) the kids are “reading” their answers in their mind (their eyes see past me as they struggle to recall each word they wrote down)

-OR-

(B) an entire class has been fed a cookie cutter answer by one of my co-teachers.

I’m fine with (A). I really can’t fault them for pre-writing and memorizing their answers because it’s exactly what I would have done when I was a student.

Actually, I did this for probably my first three years of college whenever I had to give presentations – wrote and memorized everything I wanted to say, word-for-word. The main issue with memorizing answers or presentations is that as soon as you forget one little word in the sequence, it throws you off completely. Your mind goes blank and you sit in horrible silence as you try to get yourself back on track. I know because it’s happened to me. When I finally gained the skill of speaking freely from notes instead of a script, the problem disappeared – because I didn’t have to follow this set order I’d created for myself.

Now, throw a second language into the mix and you’ve got a whole new set of challenges, but I still wish there were a better way to test my kids’ conversational ability. Rather than counting sentences and listening for grammar and structural mistakes, why can’t I just talk with them? So what if they skip the articles of speech, use the wrong verb form, or say “berry” instead of “very” as long as they can get their message across in a way that I understand?

But that’s a very open-ended / gray area for an academic setting, especially in Korea. I get it. The kids need to be tested, and they need to receive a grade. Sigh.

— As for (B), the being-fed-answers-by-teacher part, it irritates me a little. At least let the kids try to come up with their own answers first. I know many of them are plenty capable of it, so why kill their creativity? It was particularly frustrating if I heard the first kid give what I thought was a good and interesting answer… and then about 5 minutes later, a different kid gave almost the exact same answer.

— I’ve also been trying to put myself in their shoes as much as possible. Three years out of college, it’s easy to forget the special kind of extreme anxiety surrounding test-taking (especially when it involves speaking!). But as one of my Korean friends said when I mentioned that I only have a minute or two to test each kid – “For the student, that’s the longest minute!”

And I can see that. Some of them are visibly shaking, their lips quivering between words, voices unsteady. I try my best to calm them down and make them feel relaxed in those cases. Of course, some of them are also bursting with confidence (usually the boys), which is really cute. A few have tried to give up immediately – “I don’t know” – but I’ve been prompting them until they say something so that I can give them a few points. (The answer “London. Beautiful. Famous.” in response to “Which would you prefer to visit, New York or London?” is better than “I don’t know”!)

I’ve also discovered which kids are the quiet-in-class-but-actually-really-good-at-English students. I was completely floored on Tuesday when one of my girls started answering my question. I kid you not, she sounded like a native speaker. I was sure she must’ve lived or studied abroad at some point, but she said she hasn’t. I mean, the girl is fluent. She speaks without hesitation, barely a trace of an accent, and with all the natural fillers that a native speaker would use. It’s insane. Prior to this week, I’d known she was smart because of her occasional participation in class, but this was a revelation. To my knowledge, she’s the only one at that level in the entire school.

The other trend I’ve noticed is that the girls tend to be much better prepared than the boys and have overall been scoring higher; however, they also tend to be quieter and more reserved, while the boys are more likely to be expressive and enthusiastic.

Thankfully, so far there have been no tears.

The last thing I want to say is that if three weeks ago was the time I really felt all my classes open up to me, then this is the week that they embraced me as their teacher. I suddenly feel much more a part of the school, probably because I’ve developed more personal connections with students and staff alike. I can identify which students belong in which class and know more of their names (especially thanks to the speaking test… I’ve been making note of as many names + faces as I can).

Walking through the halls, I’ve been inevitably swarmed with students asking for their scores (I’m not giving them out until all the tests have been completed; I feel like giving them on the spot would be very unwise for several reasons – any teachers out there who do give immediate grade feedback?).

I suddenly feel needed in the school, not just as a foreign entertainer who comes in once a week to show them pretty pictures and speak natural English, but actually as a teacher to them. This week, for the first time, students started coming to me in the office or before class to ask questions about the speaking test, and about other English-related things as well, which makes me so happy.

And from feeling needed, it’s a very short jump to feeling loved.

5 Things I Dislike about Korea

Just to be balanced, I thought I’d make a list of things I’m not so keen about here. Because yeah, there are some things about living here that I’d rather not have to deal with. I’m going to be a little whiny and maybe sound a little angry in this post, but just know that it’s harmless venting and I really do love Korea. ^^ Every country and culture has pros and cons.

1. The lack of public hygiene. I’m sorry, but some things are just too gross. The bathrooms at my school (which are shared between students and teachers) are frequently disgusting. Inside the stalls, the best thing to do is close your eyes and get out as fast as you can. The lack of soap and towels in the bathrooms also irritates me. Is it really that hard to stock up on soap dispensers and paper towels? It would certainly cut down on the number of kids getting sick all the time.

It’s also pretty common to use a public restroom and find that everyone has thrown their used toilet paper in the garbage can within the stall rather than flushed it. This is because Korea’s sewer system is not good and can’t handle much paper in the pipes. (These days, some toilets can handle paper, but the older generation continue to throw it in the trash cans.) Let’s just say the smell is not pleasant.

And finally, ajusshis (older men) are constantly hacking and spitting on the streets. And by constantly I mean if you’re approaching an ajusshi from a distance, he will spit by the time you pass him. I know some men do this in America, too, but it is out of control here. And the ajusshis are passing it down to the younger men. I’ve even seen middle schoolers spitting in public. Sigh.

I have no problem with sharing food out of communal dishes and that kind of thing, but this stuff is just taking it too far. Gotta draw the line somewhere.

2. The heat. This one is more specific to Daegu, since northern areas of Korea like Seoul don’t experience quite this level of blistering, sweltering, it’s-so-hot-I-might-die heat. Just us lucky Daegu folk. As my co-teacher warned me earlier this year, “In June, it is so hot. In July, it is sooo hot! In August, we can’t breathe!” And then it’ll take another month just to cool off a little bit. Some Green Day might be appropriate here.

3. The lack of a car. Or really, the freedom to go anywhere in mere minutes, the power to haul massive loads of groceries or shopping bags of clothes home without any hassle, and the amount of extra sleeping-in time it would give me on weekday mornings if I had a car.

4. The last-minute culture, a.k.a. the Korean Surprise. Although I must say, I’ve gotten pretty used to this one and it no longer comes as a huge shock to my system. However, I imagine whenever I end up working back home in the States, it will be quite a pleasant change of pace to have people tell me about upcoming events and deadlines well in advance of those things actually occurring

5. The ever-present CCTVs. Security cameras. They’re everywhere. Every store, every street, every school room, every apartment stairwell and corridor. You basically can’t go anywhere in Korea except within the privacy of your own room or inside a public bathroom without being watched. Now, I’m sure not all of these CCTVs are being monitored by a live human being at all times, but it can be a bit unnerving if you think about it.

Too much negativity for you? Check out my 5 Things I Love about Korea list.

5 Things I Love about Korea

Yes, you all know by now that I love Korea, but why? What makes me happy about living here as opposed to living in the United States?

I’m not going to talk about the big overarching things (for the most part), since you can find those fairly easily anywhere on the internet. I’m going to list the small things that I enjoy – the things you can mostly experience and enjoy only by living here, not by visiting.

(And none of these things are necessarily meant as a criticism of U.S. culture, although I may make some comparisons here and there. Rest assured that I love my motherland and my own culture too.)

1. The people. By far, the people you meet in a new culture can make or break your experience with said culture. I have been blessed to meet some of the kindest people since arriving here. I’ve already mentioned how one of my co-teachers has been taking care of me like my adopted Korean mom, and many of my other co-teachers also go out of their way to help me. But beyond the people I know, I’ve received kindness from total strangers.

My sister and I were shopping in the local street shops one weekend and happened to enter a shoe store just as the store owner and her friend brought out some 파전 (pajeon, a Korean savory “pancake” made with green onions and peppers in a simple flour and egg batter). Before we really knew what was happening, we had chopsticks in our hands and were being urged to eat, eat, and eat some more. These women were total strangers, but (through our broken Korean, broken English conversation) they learned we were English teachers and sisters and were very concerned about our diet and whether we were eating enough (at least, that’s what I garnered from what I could understand of their words plus their facial expressions and sympathetic motherly clucking and cooing noises).

2. The vibe of safety and innocence. This goes for walking alone at night (although I can’t speak for after midnight because I haven’t been partying hard here, but I have walked by myself around 10 or 11 p.m. and I frequently see other women and children walking alone as well), and just in general. There’s a lack of that cynical, sarcastic, “I’m going to be a smartass and pretend to be too cool for XYZ” attitude that we’ve developed in American culture. There’s a more innocent approach to life here. People are more likely to express sincere awe, delight, surprise, or appreciation – to the point that Americans would probably think it’s over-the-top or fake, but it totally isn’t.

3. Pizza. America, we need to up our pizza game. I have discovered that white sauce pizza topped with cheese, pineapples, shrimp, and Frosted Flakes (I am not kidding) is freaking delicious. Why is sugary cereal on pizza not a thing in America? For real.

4. Ice cream. So many kinds. So many choices. So cheap. So delicious. Seriously, most ice cream bars and cones are less than a dollar – LESS THAN A DOLLAR! Which means I’ve been stocking my freezer regularly. And by regularly I mean daily. And by daily I mean I might be eating ice cream twice a day. I have a problem.

(Hey, the first step is admitting it. The second step is ignoring all the other steps and reveling in your delicious refreshing cheap I’ll-walk-off-the-calories-tomorrow-morning ice cream.)

5. Public transportation. You might take advantage of this to a degree when you’re here on vacation, but you can’t truly appreciate how awesome it is until you live here. There are taxis everywhere. Literally. You can’t walk more than a minute without having at least two pass you, and at least one of them is bound to be empty so you can hop in if you’d like. Easy peasy. And they’re so cheap! I can get halfway across the city for less than $10. The subway is also great. In Daegu, the routes aren’t difficult to figure out, and it’s super simple to get around once you know where you want to go. Disclosure: I’m still scared of the buses, so I haven’t used them much.

Okay, now you can go check out my list of 5 Things I Dislike About Korea. I’m not always sunshine and rainbows over here, people.

ESL fun with songs and music videos

(This is a monstrously long post. Beware!)

This week is an in-between sort of week for my main school kids. We’ve finished Lesson 5 in the textbook, which is as far as we’re going before the final exam, and next week marks the beginning of the speaking test. I decided not to try to teach them anything substantial because they probably wouldn’t listen anyway… so we’ve been listening to songs and watching music videos. ^^

I make it somewhat academic by having them score the videos 1-5 (terrible to amazing) and write a couple sentences describing their opinion of the video (e.g. “I liked it because it was funny” or “I didn’t like it because it was boring”). This reviews their lesson on opinions from the textbook as well as refreshes/expands their vocab for descriptive adjectives. (I usually make two columns on the board, Like and Don’t Like, and they brainstorm adjectives that fit either category.)

What music videos did we watch? I wanted to choose videos which: A) they probably hadn’t seen before, B) were appropriate in both lyrics and content, C) were visually appealing/interesting, and D) had a theme or were somehow related to each other.

I thought the best musical group to fit this category was OK Go. If you don’t know who they are, you need to check them out ASAP. All of their videos are incredibly creative, and all of them use only one camera, one take. I made sure my kids understood this as well, and they were pretty impressed.

Here are the three videos I used (although there are so many more, and it was really hard to narrow it down!). Ultimately, I picked these three because there is a theme – the titles are all idioms! Before I showed each video, I explained the idiom to my kids.

“The Writing’s on the Wall” – Optical Illusions

“This Too Shall Pass” – Rube Goldberg Machine

“White Knuckles” – Well-trained dogs ^^

As of this writing, I have seen each of these videos a minimum of 9 times each (by tomorrow that count will be upped to 12). Yes, there are times I’ve stood there thinking “Oh-my-gosh-is-it-over-yet-this-is-the-longest-video-ever“… but if the class has a positive reaction to it, then they inspire me to see it with new eyes again, too.

It’s strange how each class seems to unanimously have an overall reaction – some are unenthusiastic as a whole, some are vocal as a whole, some are excitable as a whole. (As a NET in Korea, one of the best sounds in the world is a chorus of hearty “우와!”s from your students – it sounds like “uwaaaaa!” and it’s the equivalent of “wow/whoa”.) So when I get one of those classes where they’re shouting “우와!” and laughing, it’s awesome.

Also strange is how each class seems to have its own sense of humor. For example, in “The Writing’s on the Wall,” some classes laughed when the guy is lying sideways (but appears to be standing up) and gets pink liquid poured on his face [around 1:50] – some were stonefaced. Some thought it was funny when people popped out from behind set pieces at the end, some didn’t. In “White Knuckles,” most of my classes loved the jumping dog [2:35], but a couple were silent. Some classes seemed to love the chair-spinning bit [1:23] more than the dog tricks. I just find it fascinating how strong a classroom culture can be, to sway all the individual kids one way or another.

Some of the unexpected responses I’ve gotten regarding their opinions of the videos:

“I didn’t like it because it made me dizzy / gave me a headache.”

“I think it’s boring because I’ve seen it already.”

“I liked it because it was colorful.”

“I thought it was very interesting because they used optical illusions so nicely.” (That was from one of my high level kids, but it still surprised me.)

I’ve also been having them listen to “Lemon Tree” by Fool’s Garden and play the “stand up and sit down when you hear one of your words” game which I used with my after-school class a month or so ago.

I had my doubts about it because there are some classes that just don’t want to do anything… but once again, I was surprised to see about 90-95% participation in every class. My co-teacher told me she was also surprised, because some of the shyest kids in class were doing it! That made me so happy. I can relate, though, because as a shy person myself, I know that this is something I wouldn’t dread doing if I were a student because A) it doesn’t require speaking and B) you’re not singled out – you’re doing it with your peers. I think that’s why it works well even with the shy kids. Most of them were laughing throughout as well.

I wish I could take a video, because from the teacher’s perspective at the front of the classroom, they look so adorable. It’s like conducting an orchestra. I always give special recognition to the students who get the word “turning,” because the song has the lyric “I’m turning, turning, turning, turning, turning around” several times, and the poor kids pop up and down frantically to keep up (which everyone thinks is hilarious).

Just now a student came into the office to ask my co-teacher (and indirectly, me, but he was too shy to ask me directly) if the response “It gives me a sense of belonging” and “It makes me relaxed” were appropriate answers for the speaking test question about wearing school uniforms. Fantastic! I’m about to burst with pride.

This kind of thing makes me look forward to sitting down one-on-one with each kid, even if it’s just for 1 or 2 minutes, and having a more personal conversation with the ones who are capable of doing so. For the low level or super shy ones, I’m just going to be as encouraging as I can, and if they at least attempt to speak English with me, that’s awesome and they pass.

Three months in

One quarter of a year. That’s how long I’ve been teaching English here now.

I wrote a post back in April about the changes I experienced after spending just one month here. I still stand behind that post 100%. Perhaps the honeymoon phase is starting to wear off a bit now, but it’s okay because Korea and I are settling down into a nice stable, committed relationship. (I feel that the deterioration of the honeymoon phase can be almost totally attributed to the weather. Heat and my life satisfaction levels have an inverse correlation.)

Behold the very scientific graph that displays my reaction to hot weather

At any rate, here is a collection of more things I’ve learned / more of the things that have been making me happy lately.

  • Teaching the textbook is sometimes a handicap, not a help. When I started, I felt relieved that I was required to teach from the textbook and leaned on it heavily as a crutch for designing my lesson plans. Now I’m realizing that, while a sense of structure and guidance from the textbook is nice, it is terribly restricting when I must teach Pages X, Y, and Z by ABC date in order for the kids to be ready for this or that test. I think they would learn a lot more about English fluency (and have more fun) if we had more freedom to explore the cultural aspects of the English language and could be flexible about when we used the book.
  • Some classes have stopped giving me joyous hellos when I walk into their room. It’s okay; it’s to be expected. However, what really touches me is the greeting I still receive from just a handful of classes. One class in particular still treats me like royalty – and I do mean royalty. A few boys from the class literally run down the hallway to meet me, arms outstretched, crying, “Maddy Teacher!” and fighting over who will carry my material. This past Friday was the first time I’d seen them in 3 weeks (due to cancelled classes during Sports Day and Club Day), so they told me, “We missed you!” When I was in the classroom, they turned on the ceiling fans and said, “For you.” It’s the type of class that can make all my problems and stresses melt away for 45 minutes.
  • I presented the problem “I’m hungry” to a class, expecting them to offer help using the expression “Do you want me to…?” (because that was what we were studying), but instead one boy said “Me too.”
  • Similarly, I showed them a picture of a very messy room and spoke the problem, “My room is messy” (trying to elicit, “Do you want me to help you clean it?”), but then I heard one of the kids ask in Korean, “That’s Saem’s room?” “No, no, not my room!” I hastened to clarify. The whole class laughed at that one.
  • There are 2nd graders at my main school who always wish me “Nice-uh lunch-ee!” (have a nice lunch) when they see me walking towards the teachers’ cafeteria. They’re not even my students because I only teach the 3rd graders at that school, so it’s really cute.
  • I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling honored and touched when my kids bow to me. Obviously some of them just wave and say hi, but there are quite a few who either head-bow or full bow to me, whether they’re passing me in the hallways or on the streets. So cute.
  • Every day at my main school, after last period, a little army of 2nd graders come into my office (the 2nd grade homeroom teachers’ office) to clean the office / get cleaning supplies for their classrooms. (If I haven’t mentioned it before, Korean students clean their own classrooms, as well as the teachers’ offices, each day.) After this, I’m alone in the office for about 10-20 minutes. The other day, two 2nd grade boys came into the office during this time when I was alone, and after a little hesitation, one came up and asked me, “심심해요?” (Shimshimhaeyo? / Aren’t you bored?) “No, I’m not bored,” I assured him. After another moment of hesitation, he blurted, “You’re pretty!” and he and his friend ran out. So. Cute.

(Well yes, I did end the last three paragraphs with the word “cute.” So?)

My life here seems to follow a wave-like pattern of being extremely intensely overwhelmingly busy and then, quite suddenly, I’m not. My workload is never evenly spaced over a number of days or weeks; it’s always planning seven lessons and writing test questions and proofreading students’ work and teachers’ writing all in the space of a couple days, and then just as I’m about to suffocate with everything I have to do, it’s over. I find myself sitting bewilderedly at my desk, staring at my empty to-do list in disbelief – Do I REALLY not have anything to do? I must be forgetting something…

Just now was one of those moments. Having completed my three open classes and finally finished writing ALL the speaking test questions for both of my schools and finished all my lesson planning for the rest of the week, all that remains for me to do is actually test all the kids, starting next week…

…which requires more mental and emotional preparation than anything else. My two schools are each using different criteria and point systems for the scoring, and I will have no more than 2 minutes with each kid – in which I must ask them two questions, receive two answers (or not, as the case may be), and decide on a fair grade before the next kid comes in. Depending on which school I’m at, their score includes accuracy, pronunciation, vocabulary, confidence, fluency, and number of sentences spoken.

I also have to think about how discouraging it is for an already low-level student to receive a really bad grade… but at the same time they can’t receive the same grade as high-level students who will give far better answers… and of course, I must carefully document each and every kid’s score in each area and be prepared to explain in case parents come around complaining about their kid’s score. Gulp.

It’s gonna be a crazy few weeks.