Let the holiday begin

We’ve made it, in one piece, to our glorious 10-day holiday.

Yesterday the principal strolled by at the end of the day and I showed him how to lock the English classroom doors. He gave me a thumbs up. As I bowed and turned to leave, he said “Bye!”, catching me off-guard. When I stammered “bye,” he asked if I can speak Korean, and chuckled benevolently(?) at my “조금만요 (just a little bit).” I consider this progress.

This morning one of the P.E. teachers greeted me at the school gate, as he always does, “Maddy! Have a beautiful* day!” I answered, as I always do, “Thank you, you too!”, but today he added “추석 잘 보내세요 (have a nice Chuseok [Thanksgiving])!”

*He likes to switch up the adjectives, so sometimes it’s wonderfulgreatfantastic, etc. Then he turns to any students who happen to be walking in and says in Korean “Hey, I’m pretty good at English, huh?”

The 2nd and 3rd graders finished their midterm exams this morning. I had one class with the 1st graders (who don’t have exams in the 2nd semester), and we played a trivia game. Even my occasionally-crotchety elderly co-teacher cracked a few jokes with the kids. Definitely a pleasant anticipatory mood in the air.

The weather is so cool today that I’d almost feel chilly if I weren’t from a state where we know how to handle bitter winters. My students and coworkers are already bundling up in sweatshirts and jackets and I haven’t even pulled out a long-sleeved top yet. “Teacher, not cold?” No, but I’m living for every crisp gust of goosebump-inducing air.

In two days we begin what is in my mind undoubtedly the most beautiful and magical month of the year.

Today, for this one moment if nothing more, all is well.

“I’m so glad I live in a world

where there are Octobers.”

– Anne of Green Gables

 

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Just another Friday

Closing out the week with mixed emotions.

We’re now just a couple weeks away from the longest public holiday Korea has seen in ages (possibly ever?) – a 10-day break at the start of October for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving); the Chuseok holiday is normally only 3 days long, but the government has extended it this year for the mental health of the nation and combined it with Hangul Day (celebrating the birth of the Korean writing system) which fortuitously falls on the following Monday.

But, we’re also seemingly inching closer and closer to Something Happening on this peninsula. Thus the mixed emotions.

I will say that the added fear (or at least concern) has once again put things into perspective, though, and even the hard days at school are, relatively speaking, a joy to experience. Because, y’know, we’re all alive to experience them.

Side note: no one is panicking here (far from it), but I don’t know that that’s comforting. I think South Koreans are basically numb to this threat because they’ve been living with it for so long. Also, there’s very much an attitude of “there’s nothing we can do, so just carry on,” which I sense stems from Korea’s long and at times harrowing history of being controlled (often brutally so) by other, bigger and more powerful nations.*

*DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert in Korean history or culture and this is just my opinion.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that the Koreans in my life are extremely concerned about me being home alone on holidays such as the upcoming Chuseok, but nobody bats an eye when I stay home by myself on American Thanksgiving Day or Christmas day.

I know why this happens, of course. To them, Chuseok and the Lunar New Year are mandatory family days, so anyone who doesn’t have family to be with on those days is in a sad and lonely situation – not realizing that to me these are just another nice set of vacation days with no additional meaning.

It’s just a sort of sad irony that no one will ever come to me a few days before Thanksgiving or Christmas and say, “Are you okay? Aren’t you lonely? Will you talk to your family?” the way they do for Korean family holidays.


Covering advice-giving with my first years. I asked them to each write a problem, real or imaginary, on their paper, put them all in a bucket, then pick a random one and write advice for the anonymous person. And  I got responses like this:

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“I want boyfriend… I’m so very lonely…” “You should always live the solo” (a.k.a. be forever alone)

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“My problem is school fight… I want to disappear school fight!!” “You should no fight.” Solid advice.

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“I have a poop accident to toilet #whatshouldido” “Go to you restroom. OK?” Love the use of a hashtag. Hope this wasn’t a real situation.

yep.

Updates

The weather: hot again. shoot.

The students: surprisingly good, for a monday. on the whole. i continue to be astounded by the formerly disruptive and/or comatose (depending on the day) boy who now participates in every part of class and tries to answer questions and use the key expressions. what happened to you child. i mean, i’m not complaining.

a different class was being way too talkative and one of the girls turned to me and said “it’s too noisy to study… 맞죠 (is that right)?” and was very proud of herself for remembering the grammar structure they’ve been learning (too adj. to verb). also incidentally, it was too noisy to study.

My first interaction with the principal: he wandered into my office at the end of the day and asked my co-teacher (who shares my office) how long i’ve been at this school. (safe to say he probably doesn’t speak english.) she answered for me, and i nodded my head and smiled to hopefully show him i know something. he then seemed to ask my co-teacher whether she teaches chinese or english. then he left. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?!?

My physical state: hot. ridiculously hot. the tease of fall makes it even worse when my un-air-conditioned office climbs towards 90 degrees. also, apparently, tired. one of my students asked if i got punched in the eye. nope, just my dark circles and the lamentable lack of fat around my eye sockets. note to self: get more sleep (or at least do a better job on the under-eye concealer).

My mental state: hoping that peace of a sort is maintained amidst current geopolitical tensions. (knocks on wood in an i’m-not-superstitious-but-also-not-NOT-superstitious kind of way)

Goodbye, hello

On Tuesday, at 8:30 a.m., the whole school gathered at the gym/auditorium for the principal’s short farewell ceremony. Salute the Korean flag, sing the national anthem, a short speech by the head teacher, a speech by the principal, and sing the school song. Dismissed.

On Wednesday, at 1:00 p.m., the principal came to my office to say goodbye personally (he preempted my plan to visit his office later in the day). I had a chance to thank him for all of his support over these three years, and he said he hopes I continue to enjoy working at this school.

On Thursday, nothing happened at all because all the kids had a field trip. (woot woot)

And today, Friday, at 8:35 a.m., all the teachers in our school gathered in the mini-auditorium – the very same mini-auditorium where I was introduced on my first day here. We trickled in, in pairs or groups, and the air was charged with anticipation and maybe apprehension. Honestly, I started feeling a bit nervous without really knowing why. It’s not like I was the one being introduced to a new school, and I’d heard there were good things being said about him (without knowing what the good things were or who was saying them). But still.

After a few minutes, the new principal walked down the sloping aisle to the podium, and I wondered if he felt as uncomfortable as I would walking through all these people with all eyes on him. He looked calm. I guess that’s why he’s a principal and I’m not.

He greeted us with a bow, and gave a short speech introducing himself (I assume). He seems friendly and speaks in a hearty baritone. That’s about all I can ascertain for now.

Then we transferred to the main auditorium (the gym) for his greeting to the students. Salute the Korean flag, sing the national anthem, a short speech by the vice principal, a speech by the new principal, and sing the school song. Dismissed.

Other than that, it was business as usual at school today. My kids were sleepy. Very very very sleepy. Nevertheless, the rallying cry “but today is Friday!” tends to rouse them from their apathy for a brief few moments. I’ve said it often enough now that sometimes the kids will say it first, and then we all cheer.

Small victories

Sometimes our school schedule gets crazy. There are field trips and camping trips and violence prevention classes and fire drills and nationwide tests and unexpected miscellaneous stuff that can mess up the curriculum schedule. I’m not complaining, of course, because cancelled classes = more time to work on whatever I need, but it does do a number on my neatly-laid-out, semester-long master plan for all my classes.

So, sometimes I throw in random lessons for the classes that get too far ahead of the others.

Today was one such random day. All the other classes are still on Lesson 6, part 1, and I don’t want to start Lesson 6, part 2 with my Monday classes because later on it’ll mess up the pre-midterm-exam-review flow.

I crafted a personality lesson for my 2nd and 3rd years.

1. Vocab: Learn some personality traits (‘honest’, ‘brave’, ‘kind’, ‘shy’, ‘outgoing’, ‘helpful’…). I tried to mostly stick to positive ones so they don’t call each other bad things (I know my students all too well), but I did do ‘lazy’ and ‘mean’.

2. Apply the Vocab: Make a Venn diagram comparing your personality + your best friend’s personality and write a short paragraph about that friend using the words learned.

3. Personality Questionnaire*: Heavily modified version of one of those pop psych “personality quizzes” that we’ve all probably taken at one time or another. We’re not talking MBTI here, just a 10-question, multiple-choice, very simplified questionnaire about daily habits and preferences:

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The answers themselves were on the PowerPoint (to prevent certain kids from blazing ahead while others were trying to figure out what the question meant)

4. Quiz Results: Based on point values of each A, B, C, or D answer. I assigned an animal to each 10-point score range, so for example, 21-30 points is “The Cat,” 31-40 points is “The Dolphin,” 41-50 “The Fox,” 51-60 “The Lion,” etc., with a brief description like “you’re confident and brave” or “you’re quiet and smart.” Again, I chose only desirable/cute/nice animals so no one would feel bad. Also I didn’t totally make up the results since higher scores are supposed to indicate a bolder/more confident style while lower scores come from quieter/more reserved answers.

Anyway, the small victories here are:

>> Every class enjoyed taking the quiz and finding out their results. I mean, who doesn’t like answering questions about themselves? Even in a language that you (potentially) despise learning.

>> Even better, one of the notorious troublemakers completed his entire worksheet and quiz, patiently asking for help/translations with the questions so he could answer accurately.

>> Best of all, there’s this one really really quiet/shy girl who has spent over a year totally shut down in my class, barely able to lift her eyes from her desk much less write or speak. But today she was quietly listening to/reading the personality questions and circling her answers, the whole time. SUCCESS.


*The quiz questions I used were compiled by another teacher who posted on this thread on waygook.org, but modified by yours truly.

Saying goodbye with raw fish

Tonight the teachers had a special 회식 (staff dinner): a goodbye dinner for our principal. He’s been promoted and will be abruptly leaving us next week, just three weeks into the second semester. The following day the new principal will arrive, and word on the street (or word in the classroom) is that no one knows what we’ll get. Man or woman, friendly or standoffish, lenient or strict. It’s all luck of the draw.

I’ve got to pull the formal Korean introduction phrases from the back of my brain and dust them off in preparation for meeting this new principal. It’s been quite a while, since our current principal has been at my school since I arrived.

Speaking of him, one thing is certain: the new one can’t possibly be kinder. This principal was always supportive of the teachers and did everything he could to make our work easier, not harder. He went out of his way to make me feel comfortable and supported, both figuratively and by literally walking two stories up and all the way to the end of the hall to my office several times a year to ask me if I have “any problems in my Korea life,” and that if I ever did, I should tell him so he could help me.

My first memory of him is being ushered into his office on my first day of teaching ever, gripping the paper coffee cup he’d offered me for dear life, awkwardly wondering what to say or do beyond “Annyeonghaseyo, bangapseumnida (hello, nice to meet you).” Then he smiled and told me in English to “sit comfortably” (I was already sitting, but he probably noticed my death grip on the coffee cup or my general tension) and asked where I was from and told me that the class size at this school is small compared to other middle schools. Eventually a co-teacher arrived and rescued me, taking me up to my office.

Tonight at dinner, he stood and gave a short speech to all of the staff, and I sat there wishing that I could feel the meaning of his words like all the other teachers could. I know from what I could catch that he was saying things like he’s glad we all persevered through the stress and rough times of teaching and he’s sorry to leave us, but it’s different when you can absorb the nuance of the chosen words. I want to be told that I persevered through hard times too, dangit.

On another note, the restaurant of choice tonight was a 횟집, a.k.a. a raw fish/sashimi place. This is not what the average American pictures when someone says “let’s get sushi tonight.” This is straight-up whole baby octopi (about the size of a quarter, kinda cute but not exactly mouthwatering), an enormous platter of thickly-sliced, very sinewy and chewy raw fish (that’s how they like it here), strips of eel, an entire larger boiled octopus (about the size of a fist) whose rubbery legs and head must be cut into pieces with a kitchen shears, revealing its little heart or brain or whatever is in there… and so on.

It was my great fortune to be sitting with probably the only other three teachers in the school who also dislike raw fish: my young co-teacher, the IT teacher, and one other teacher. Other than my co-teacher, no one around us could speak English, but I quickly gathered from their conversation, body language, and laughter that we were all on the same page. (A page of commiseration.)

We amused ourselves by covering up the gaebul with rice because nobody wants to see that unholy site at the dinner table. (Check the pictures at the link and you can probably guess this wormy fish’s unappetizing nickname [hint: male anatomy]).

Then we picked at a few side dishes, tried a few pieces of this or that to see if our tastes had changed (spoiler alert: they hadn’t), drank a lot of Coca-Cola and Sprite, and slipped out as a group in raw-fish-hating solidarity after just enough time to not be totally rude.

And let it be known that I truly appreciate that this was a fancy and probably quite expensive place. I mean, we had a large room reserved to ourselves (separated from other areas of the restaurant by traditional sliding doors). It was traditional-style dining, so we all sat on the floor around long low tables, three full tables of teachers, probably 30-40 of us. Each table of four people was served dish after dish after dish of fresh fish and countless side dishes, plus sodas, plus ice buckets full of beer and soju (of which my table did not partake).

I appreciate it, but I appreciated being able to leave at a reasonable time even more.

We’ll see what happens next week as the big change occurs. I wish it didn’t have to happen now, mid-semester. Maybe I’ll update on the situation, but – as has become clear I think – no promises.

It’s Friday

About to clock out on this sunny Friday. Another week completed in our educational marathon towards summer vacation – unfortunately still very far off even though we’ve already had our second wind and are waiting on a third that will probably never come.

Thank goodness for air conditioning.

Next week is the speaking test, and I no longer trick myself into thinking that means a week of taking it easy for me. It means a week of staying extra late to review the audio recordings and check all of the grades and make sure I’m being fair.

anyway.

A short anecdote for today:

Yesterday I left school a bit late, and our elderly security guard/janitor had just locked up the back exit. He saw me try the door, and I gestured that it was okay, I’d just go around to the front doors.

I turned the corner and heard him yelling frantically “HELLO! HELLO? HELLO!” to make me come back. I went back and he waved me over and showed me, “This. Push,” electronically unlocking the door. I thanked him in Korean. It was quite hilarious and adorable. I’ve greeted him in passing a few times before. He has to be like 70ish years old; who knew he had a couple English words tucked away in there?

Today was a good day.

The best days are when you expected them to be the worst, and then they’re not. And then, even if they weren’t objectively the best, they still become the best.

Highlights include:

Special lunch today: jjajangbap (rice in a black bean sauce with small diced potato, veggies and pork), fried pork with a Korean version of sweet & sour sauce, cucumbers & unidentified other green vegetables, and an apple cider pouch.

One of my classes had to get chest x-rays (a normal thing here; this is how they test for TB and various other problems, from what I understand, and students and teachers get them yearly), so we basically had a 10-minute class in which I introduced the topic/key expression and let them do book work for 5 minutes before they peaced out.

Starting to feel a little more connected to the 1st graders. It always takes a couple months for them to get comfortable with me and for me to learn more about their personalities and ability levels.

Managed to be productive even though Wednesdays are one of my busiest days. In my break times and free class periods I polished up my lessons for the next few weeks and started putting together a pop song quiz for the last week of the semester. It’s become a mini tradition that we play a big “guess the pop song” game right before vacation time, and the kids look forward to it.

My after-school class with a dozen 15/16-yr-olds went surprisingly well today.

— We did a “board race” warmup: 2 teams make straight lines. I give them a category like “Food” or “Animals,” and the first member of each team writes a word on the board that fits the category, then hands the marker to the next team member. We continue for 2 minutes and then count up and see which team got more words. I thought they wouldn’t want to get up and move when I introduced this, but they were into it.

— Then I showed them the oldie but goodie “Where (the hell) is Matt?” from 2008. They hadn’t seen it before, and it was really sweet/amusing to hear & watch them “ooh” and “aah” over the locations and imitate his goofy dance (no, my 16-year-olds are not too cool for that). The follow-up worksheet asked them to list some of the countries and cities he visited, and then I showed them screenshots from the video and they had to guess which country it was.

— Finally, we did a lyrics arranging activity that I learned in my TEFL course. The song was “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars (ideal for middle school ESL because it’s not too fast, only 3 min long, his pronunciation is reasonably clear, vocab is reasonably simple, and the kids know & like Bruno Mars). I’d printed out and cut all of the song lyrics into strips, one per team of 4 kids. While they listened, they tried to put all of the strips in order.

I was really impressed at how well they did, actually. After the initial listen, I played it one more time and they mostly just needed to check or add a line here or there that they’d missed.

This is an activity I tried with an after-school class in my first year and my students really struggled. My mistake that time was breaking up the lyrics into super small chunks. This time I used 1-2 full lines of the lyrics per strip and a bigger font for a total of 22 strips of paper to arrange, and that transformed this activity from semi-frustrating and discouraging to fun and engaging. Sometimes all it takes it just that little tweak.

Oh, and best of all? Two words: air conditioning. Amen.

Third year’s the charm: Reflecting on culture shock and expat life in Korea

I spent my first year in Korea being totally enamored with the country – fairly typical for most expats when they arrive in their new home. It would be quite unfortunate for you if you didn’t experience this honeymoon phase, since that’s what makes everything so exciting and cool as you start learning the customs and culture. I was also so busy with my new job, my new students, my new relationship, and trying new things that I didn’t have time to sit back and critique.

I spent my second year in Korea sitting back and critiquing a lot. To be honest, I was frequently stressed out and angry at various things that I deemed cultural shortcomings and flaws. I let the things I couldn’t understand and the things that were different than Western culture get under my skin and bug the heck out of me. Why do it this way when there is clearly a better way (aka my way)? Why do people say this? Why can’t they do that? I let my students stress me out. I let my co-teachers stress me out.

Now, in my third year, I’m adjusting. I’m accepting what it means to live in Korea as a foreigner with a well-rounded, more matured perspective on the good and the bad.

In fact, the anger and frustration I had in my second year are textbook symptoms of culture shock. Culture shock is commonly misconstrued as the initial feelings of confusion and floundering when you first enter a new country, but actually, there are multiple stages, and that honeymoon stage is just the first part.

Culture shock is NOT just “Whoa, Koreans take their shoes off before they enter their homes!” “Whoa, Koreans eat rice, kimchi, and mildly-to-very spicy soups every day!” “Whoa, Koreans bow to each other and they want me to bow too!”

It happens after you learn all that stuff. It happens after you think you know what’s up. It happens after you think you’ve got this foreigner-in-Korea thing all figured out, no problem.

It happens when you realize that you think X, Y, and Z aspects of the culture are annoying or unnecessary or weird. It happens when you encounter (insert somewhat-irritating cultural phenomenon here, e.g. good ol’ street-spitting ajeosshis, or even something as trivial as botched “Italian” cuisine) for the 1,859,374th time and you’re like “Why does it have to be like this?”

After all, how many people can go through an experience that flips their life around and just immediately be and stay happy about it (even if it was a change they wanted in the first place)?

It takes time.

It takes a gradually-developed, ever-growing, rational understanding of the realities of life in this culture as a foreign person.

Some people get stuck in the anger and frustration stage, though.* Some people get depressed. Some people start loathing everything about the country and culture, as unfair as it may be. It’s understandable; adjusting isn’t easy, especially for English teachers in Korea, where quality of life can be so totally dependent on students, co-teachers, the school-provided housing, etc.

But if you do get through it, you emerge on the other side. You enter the final stages of culture shock: adjustment and acceptance.

For me, and perhaps for many expats in Korea specifically, acceptance means accepting that in this homogeneous culture, I will always be a bit of an outsider – but this doesn’t mean I can’t have really good connections with Korean people.

It means accepting that there are cultural things that irk me – but I don’t have to let them irk me, and that perhaps they aren’t that irksome anyway. Maybe I’m just blaming my stress, which I would experience from time to time no matter where I live, on the external cultural things around me instead of placing the blame within myself and finding ways to overcome it.

It means accepting my role here:guest English teacher. No, I don’t have the power that a regular Korean teacher has. I can’t discipline and control my classroom the way I did as a taekwondo instructor in America. I can’t form the same bonds with my kids that I could with my students back home because of the language barrier.

Sometimes that hurts. But it’s okay. My job is to give my kids a positive experience with a native English speaker. My job is to teach them things about Western culture that they might not otherwise know. My job is to make English less boring. My job is to spark their interest in learning the language.

I can still show my students that I care about them and their progress. I can still try to inspire them. I can still have a positive effect on my school and my students, however small it may be.

I can still make a difference.


*From what I gather on forums and such, a surprising number of people seem to stay in the country even though they’re stuck in the frustration stage. Maybe they need the money, maybe they just feel trapped or unsure what direction to take next. But conversely, it certainly doesn’t mean that people who only stay in a foreign country for a year or two leave because they’re bitter about the culture. Obviously.

Also, if you’re an expat and you skipped from honeymoon to adjustment and acceptance, well… go you!

Beauty and Korea

It’s not exactly a hidden aspect of modern Korean culture: looks matter here. Even more than in the Western world, beauty is favored and beautiful people enjoy elevated social status, the admiration of those around them, greater leniency around making mistakes, and various other benefits. (Seriously.)

Having a “high nose” (meaning, basically, a Western-looking nose with a higher bridge) is considered beautiful.

Pale skin is considered beautiful.

“Double eyelids” (the extra fold or crease over the eye, as opposed to the “monolids” that Koreans have naturally) are considered beautiful.

Hair that is naturally a color other than black and eyes that are naturally a color other than brown are considered beautiful – mostly because they stand out in a largely homogeneous culture.

It’s sad that so many of the traits that are considered ideal are ones that Koreans are not naturally born with (i.e. the “high” nose, the double eyelids, the hair and eye color), which leads to the high rate of plastic surgery for things like nose reconstruction and creating “double eyelids.” (That’s not to say that natural Korean traits are not considered beautiful, but there is this prevalence of idealizing a more Western look.)

It should also be noted that I fit the bill as a Westerner, and traits that get me no attractiveness mileage in America (such as rather large nose and pale skin) earn lots of compliments here.

As a result, sometimes, it’s like we’re having this conversation from The Swan Princess… every. single. day. And not only with my students, but sometimes even with adults.

is beauty all that matters to you

Derek (Korea): “You’re all I ever wanted! You’re beautiful!”
Odette (Me): “Thank you. But what else?”
Derek (Korea): “What else?”
Odette (Me): “Is beauty all that matters to you?”
Derek (Korea): “What else… is there?”
Me: *internal sigh of despair*