Empty

I don’t just hate summer. I loathe it with every fiber of my being. Even as it drains the last ounces of energy from my soul towards the end of August, I loathe it with whatever remains in me. And since that little bit of me that’s left is focused on loathing the sun and the heat and the moisture and the insects and the relentless cicadas and the towels that never quite dry and the smell of air conditioning and the headaches – there’s not much left of me to feel anything else. Which is obviously not great for the overall wellbeing of a human.

I’m sure others could paint an equally bleak picture of getting through the winter months. I suppose I’m lucky that, at least here, the colder months slightly outnumber the warmer (and the hellishly hot).

Maybe it’s the summer that discourages me from posting here. Maybe it’s the fact that I get an urge to delete bunches of previous posts because, as with most people, my thoughts and opinions are constantly changing and I don’t like the things that past me wrote. Maybe it’s the nagging feeling that blogging, like every social media platform, is just another narcissistic tool for the generation of over-sharers. Maybe it’s the uncomfortable vulnerability of writing in voices that I never use in real life to express thoughts I never speak aloud.

I changed my blog theme again because it felt like the thing to do.

One more week of August.

Fall isn’t here yet. Summer will keep its death-grip on the city, and around my lungs, for weeks to come, until the first fingers of cool air from the mountains finally slink down into the enormous valley that is Daegu and brush across the world and make me feel alive again.

I look forward to the moment it happens. It’s like remembering something from a recurring dream; foggy, not completely real, but you just keep dreaming about it. The moment that I can really breathe again and feel cold air rushing into my lungs, like waking up from a nightmare.

I want to wake up.


 

For any dear relatives or friends who may read this and feel seriously concerned about my mental state, please rest assured that I am totally fine. I just like elaborately complaining about this season to help me get through it.

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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.

It’s *that* time in the semester

…when the kids officially reach the peak of Mount Apathy.

The temperatures are rising, the classrooms are breezeless ovens (we’re not allowed to turn on the ceiling fans until they’re cleaned or something lest they shake dust and dirt all over everything… but I’d rather be sneezing and cool than fine in the rhinal region but oppressively hot), and final exams are just a little too far off to care about.

So it’s that time when I have to work VERY VERY HARD to remember the cute stuff my kids do from time to time. So that I won’t be tempted to start flipping desks and yelling “WAKE UP!”


Several weeks ago, I used a very basic game that lets students practice almost any key expression: put a bunch of words on the PPT, every team chooses a word and makes a sentence using the key expression, then random points are revealed. You can change the design or theme of the PPT to whatever the students are interested in (treasure chests, Mario boxes, K-pop idols’ faces, whatever).

In this case we were practicing “Do you know how to~ ?”, so the words were things like “paper airplane,” “microwave,” “cake,” “soccer.” The kids had to combine the correct verb with the treasure chest word, e.g. “Do you know how to play soccer / use a microwave / make a paper plane?”

One boy could not for the life of him remember the correct verbs, so time and again he would say things like “Do you know how to use ramen? Do you know how to make a guitar? Do you know how to play kimchi?” After about three or four rounds of him doing this completely innocently, I lost it and laughed with the rest of the class (and with him).


I’ve been having the 2nd graders play a version of “Taboo” or “Hot Seat” where a member of each team comes to the front and faces the class, and their team gives them hints about the secret word on the TV.

(They’re supposed to be practicing “Have you heard about (secret word)?” but usually they get too excited and just blurt out the answer without making a sentence.)

So one of the boys was trying to explain “weather” to his teammate:

“News, uh, 뭐지? Ah! Hot, sunny, weather

Then he clapped both hands over his mouth in classic dismay as he realized he’d just revealed the answer, and the class dissolved into laughter.


Today the 3rd graders were playing a “telepathy” game. I make a statement like “Ice cream is better than cake*: Agree or disagree?” Every team has to choose agree or disagree according to what they think my opinion would be. If they can “read my mind,” they get a point.

One of them was: “Fall is the best season: Agree or disagree?” As usual, the kids were trying to squeeze hints out of me by asking questions like “Teacher, do you like cold or hot? Do you like snow?”

But one team decided this was the all-important question that would allow them to read my mind:

Them: “Teacher, you meet boyfriend?”

Me: “Um, yes…?”

Them: “OKAY! We know, we know! DISAGREE!”

Welp, they were wrong since fall is my favorite season. It was especially funny because they were the only team in the class to get it wrong and they were so confident.

*I also find it hilarious (and also very, very sad) that 99% of my kids know immediately that I like ice cream better than cake (or better than basically anything else). Apparently I’ve really driven that point home in the last 2+ years.


Conclusion: my kids are still sometimes cute although mostly they appear to be brain-dead.

Thankfully the speaking test is coming up soon, which is my one chance per semester to have some impact on their school performance and thus perhaps motivate them to pay attention, dammit.

 

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!

A little middle school humor

I gave my after-school class this comic template – it’s supposed to be based on the Disney animated short “Paperman,” which we had just watched. Two of my middle school boys decided to take the story into their own hands.

20170419_160006

Text:

Man 1: Who are you?!

Man 2: I’m a boss

Man 1: [casually smoking a cigarette] Ah… I’m sorry…

Man 2: Not smoking in company… [throws paper plane directly into Man 1’s mouth]

Man 1: [clearly distressed] Ahk!

Woman: Are you crazy? Don’t eat paper airplane!

Yeah, duh guys. Don’t eat paper airplane.


My last class of the day on Fridays is a squirrelly, goofy bunch of 14-year-olds, with whom class feels much more like a rodeo than an educational environment. As is the case with all classes at this point in the semester (1 week away from midterms), their behavior has been on the decline.

Every Friday, the bell rings and I go into the classroom, and one (or more) of them has drawn a goofy cartoon character on the board saying “집가고싶다…”

But today, the cartoon character’s weekly lament had been written in English: “I want to go home.” I would consider that progress. Of a sort.

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*

The comforting things

1.  The sound of someone else vacuuming. This is no doubt due to the countless nights growing up when I was snuggled cozily in bed listening to Mom vacuuming downstairs before I drifted off. Thus I feel irrationally safe and cozy when one of my apartment neighbors starts vacuuming and the sound drifts through the thin walls. (Which also means it doesn’t work when I’m the one who’s vacuuming. Too bad, right?)

2.  The crackles and pops in the quiet moments of an old black-and-white film (1930s-1950s). I just love this sound, again because it brings me back to childhood and weekend evenings spent watching old movies (expertly selected by Dad from his vast mental library of old movies) on the sofa with my family.

You can kind of hear the crackling in the background of this clip – actually, it’s not really the best example of what I mean, but I mostly chose it because it’s funny and I love this movie.

“Something horrible has happened!”

3.  The gentle spread of burning warmth after eating food with just the right level of spiciness. I enjoy eating spicy foods, but unlike the other items on this list, this love developed very recently, only since I came to Korea.

4.  When pain finally starts to subside. When you can feel the headache, the cramps, whatever it is creeping out of your body, the resulting not-pain brings a soothing lightness.

Everyone has their own list. What’s yours?*

*That’s the part where I pretend my blog has an actual following and audience participation. LOL.

an interview with myself

(Double post today because the first is not directed at my general audience. This post IS directed at my general audience and particularly dedicated to my few very loyal friends & family who check this blog every day, and who every day have had their hopes dashed for quite some time. Sorry it’s been such a long wait!) (Oh, and this post is also very goofy because I just needed something to start me writing again.)

Q: Where have you been, Maddy? THIS BLOG HAS BEEN DEAD FOR 6 WEEKS. 6 WEEKS!!! What the heck?? What’s your deal?

A: Yes, well, I have been busy, uninspired to write, living my mundane life but the good kind of mundane. I’ve been very Zen this school year. Taking stresses and surprises in stride. Not letting my feathers be ruffled, my mellow be harshed, my buzz be killed, my vibe be ruined. So to speak.

Q: Uh… okay then. So how are your co-teachers this year?

A: The first I am convinced has no idea that there could possibly be anything but herself at the center of the Universe. As a former psych student I find her fascinating. As a coworker I find her a nightmare err… interesting.

The second is very sweet and motherly but much busier than last year because she got a promotion and has Bigger and Better Things on her mind.

The third is actually a year younger than me, which was a huge surprise because I’ve never worked with anyone even close to my age at a Korean middle school. Not sure if that’s just luck or if younger teachers tend to go for the elementary school positions. Regardless, we share an office and it’s really nice to have someone to relate to.

Side note: I’ve discovered, upon chatting extensively with said co-teacher #3, that being surrounded exclusively by well-meaning ajummas (35+ yrs) for my first 2 years in Korea has led me to have distinctly OLD PERSON TASTES in Korean food and culture. Which I find hilarious.

The fourth is as old as the hills, and he spends every class we have together:

A) intermittently yelling “HEY! CUT IT OUT!” at the kids in Korean when the whim strikes him
B) asleep
C) staring into space with tortured eyes as if by staring hard enough he might Apparate himself out of the classroom

Occasionally he raises a hand from his chair in back and says “Maddy, wait” and lectures them for a good minute. As far as I can tell, “Maddy,” “wait,” and “OK” are the only English words he knows how to speak.

He seems to be a bit of a gruff old dear, though (I have no way of knowing for sure due to the language barrier). The kids who aren’t scared of him seem to like him – but come to think of it, not sure if it’s affection or just a desire to poke and prod the bear because it’s funny and they know he won’t do anything worse than growl a little.

Q: Wow, what entertaining descriptions. That’s fantastic. Bravo. Alrighty. Moving right along, how are the students this year?

A: They’re possibly the same as last year. Possibly better. I’m not sure. I’m too Zen to figure it out. (See answer to Q1) Sometimes they’re cute and hilarious and adorable and lovable, and sometimes I swear they flew straight from the depths of hell into my classroom just to torture me.

But I don’t carry it home with me. All the stresses or disappointments or failures in the classroom stay at school. This may not be something a “regular” teacher can do (i.e. not an expat ESL teacher), but it’s a benefit of this particular job that I’ve finally, in Year 3, learned to enjoy.

Nevertheless, the kids know me well, I know them well (except for the 1st years; we’re still kind of getting acquainted), I know my school, and I know the teaching ropes. So it’s been good, overall. Quite good.

Q: Great, great. You sound so enlightened and cool and stuff. You’re probably like the very first person to ever figure this teaching stuff out. Er… next question… I didn’t think this far ahead…

A: True. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to do this interview, after all.

Q: Well, um… hmm… what’s your favorite color?

A: Blue.

But actually, I just always say blue automatically because that was my favorite color when I was a kid and I never reexamined it as I grew up. Even though maybe I’ve changed my mind and I just never thought about it. That’s got to be a metaphor for something about life.

Q: Stop trying to be cool. What did you eat for breakfast?

A: Coffee.

Q: That’s not breakfast.

A: That’s not a question. And I never eat breakfast. Never have, never will.

Q: Okay interview over. It’s getting weird. People will think you have a split personality or a massive ego.

A: Agreed.


In all seriousness, I have edited and polished some old drafts and lined them up to auto-publish this week. Maybe it’ll boost me back into it, but if nothing else, at least I’ll have a few posts up after a long hiatus.

For my parents

It’s Parents’ Day in Korea today, Monday, May 8th. Mother’s and Father’s Day are coming up soon in the U.S. too.

My family and extended family (if I may speak for the majority of them, at least on one side) aren’t too big on expressing our emotions to each other. We’re not into that mushy gushy stuff. (Okay, Mom, maybe you are.)

But as I continue living on my own as an adult, I keep thinking of things that I want to say to my parents (but would probably most likely definitely 100% never say in person because it’s too mushy and weird. and also, it would take too long).

So, Mom and Dad, this is for you. Consider it your Parents’ Day gift. Because as you both know, I can express myself much better in writing.

Dad:

Thank you for always working hard to take care of our family, from providing everything we need to immediately fixing all the little things that get broken from time to time.

Thank you for instilling in me a work ethic so strong that, like you, I’m kind of a workaholic (in a good way). You taught me by example to go the extra mile, to work until something is finished and not just drop everything the minute I’m off the clock, to be a person that other people can count on to get things done. Now I understand what a valuable skill that is.

Thank you for teaching me how to keep my living space clean and to take care of the small details, like wiping up that little spot I notice on the counter right away and putting away my clean laundry as soon as it’s ready – even if sometimes it involved calling me back to re-clean the kitchen after “inspection” or insisting that I pick up my clothes right now. Every time I take care of these little things, every time I multitask on my chores for maximum efficiency, and especially when I wipe down the faucet and the sink to make them all shiny, I think of you, and I’m grateful.

Thank you for filling our house with all kinds of music and with “old movies.” Even if it makes us snobs, I don’t care because I can’t imagine growing up without Louis Armstrong or BB King or Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn or the Marx Brothers or Alfred Hitchcock… (etc. etc.) For the rest of my life these things will bring back happy memories of our family coming together for music parties and movie nights.

Mom:

Thank you for being the sweetest, kindest, most thoughtful person, wife, and mother possible (and in doing so, giving me an amazing example of all the above). I have a long way to go before I could ever be as selfless as you are. Practically everything you’ve done ever since I can remember has been for the family, for us kids, or to help other people – not for yourself. I hope I can be like that someday for my own family. (But you deserve to focus on yourself too, Mom! <3)

Thank you for literally being the main provider of all of my education from the time I was born until I went to college. I’m so grateful for the richness and variety of our curriculum, for Latin and Roman mythology and Greek plays and grammar and diagramming sentences and all the other subjects that I probably complained about doing at the time. (But if I ever have to read and respond to that “Schemes of Life Often Illusory” essay again, I might scream. Sometimes little wisps of it float around in my head and threaten to drive me crazy.)

Thank you for also (like Dad) teaching me to properly clean a living space. Don’t take this the wrong way, but every time I scrub the toilet I think of you because every time I’m making my bathroom squeaky clean, I’m thinking of how glad I am that you taught me to be thorough and clean regularly. At the time, I wasn’t too crazy about the “proper order” for cleaning a toilet, but now, as I carry out these habits that have been instilled in me for years, I’m so so glad.

Mom and Dad:

Thank you for teaching me about the Catholic faith through words and through example. Thank you for taking us to church every Sunday, for making sure we prayed together every single night before dinner, for having long conversations about what our faith means, for simply incorporating the faith into daily life and not leaving it as just a Sunday thing. Thank you for teaching us about God in a real way, not a superficial or “lite” way. Some of the things you’ve said and the examples you’ve shown about what it means to follow Christ will always stay with me, for the rest of my life.

Thank you for giving me a beautiful example of marriage. You’ve stuck together through thick and thin, sickness and health, richer and poorer, and I truly hope that someday I will have a relationship as faithful and strong with my future husband.

Thank you for creating a strong, loving, fun family. Thank you for setting a tone of laughter and love and support from my earliest memories up to today. Thank you for setting up boundaries and sheltering us just enough to let us enjoy a safe, innocent, unpressured-to-grow-up-faster childhood. Thank you for encouraging us to do things to stretch and challenge ourselves. Thank you for knowing when to push and when to step back. Thank you for giving us the tools and skills we need to be competent, capable, good adults.

I’m no longer embarrassed or annoyed by you, as was the case for a lot of my teenage years. I’m really proud that you’re my parents.

I love you.

Oh, and one more thing…

Thank you for passing on your cool, smart, awesome genes to my siblings and me.

(Mom, don’t cry, okay? Dad, don’t make a joke about cool jeans and cool genes, okay?)