Bustling, Hustling

Tuesday 2/13

There is a whole lot of bustling happening around here.

Among the best-known aspects of Korean culture for anyone who lives in it (right up there next to bowing, kimchi, and skincare) is balli balli (빨리빨리), which essentially means “hurry the heck up” / “move your arse.” Even the word itself conveys the imperative of the meaning – the word “hurry” is actually just 빨리, but it is often used in its double form because goodness knows just one 빨리 is not enough.

This concept contributes to, for example, the super-speedy delivery services available in Korea… but also to a lot of needless stress. Actually, a whole post could be devoted to the various benefits of and damage caused by 빨리빨리 culture (and many articles have been written about this), but that is not the point today.

Simply put, the difference between good 빨리빨리 and bad 빨리빨리 is the difference between hustle and bustle. Hustle is motivating and focused; bustle is nerve-wracking and chaotic. Hustle is productive; bustle is inefficient. Hustle is goal-oriented; bustle is aimless.

Today is the teachers’ meeting for the 2018 school year. All the incoming teachers will gather with all the current teachers to, I assume, introduce themselves and talk about curriculum, school events, paperwork, etc. I was not invited. (This is good.) I was, however, brought a leftover donut and Capri Sun. (This is also good.)

In preparation for the 10 a.m. meeting, the first part of the work day involved* phone calls, printing, copying, new lost and confused teachers poking their heads in to ask where the meeting is, and other miscellaneous running around. Hence the 빨리빨리.

*Not for me, of course, but for the Korean teachers.

After the meeting was over, a steady stream of teachers were coming in and out of the main teachers’ office and it felt like a coworker reunion as I greeted old faces returning after a year’s hiatus from work or transferring back from another school. I met the new vice-principal (very briefly) and the teacher who will share my two-person office with me this year.

The whole staff went out to a 감자탕 (pork bone stew – spicy, very tender pork, enoki mushrooms, assorted leafy greens) restaurant for lunch and I sat with my new office-mate, leading to the usual awkward sussing out of English ability and an exchange of questions like “How long have you been in Korea?” “What school did you work at before?” “What grade will you teach this year?” and other pleasantries.

Back from lunch, 3 hours to quitting time and the bustle in here is CRAZY. Probably there’s some hustle too. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Currently: 2 teachers on the phone, 1 feverishly shredding documents, and no fewer than 5 crowded around the head teacher’s computer in frenzied conversation, with occasional chiming in from the new VP. Other random teachers running in and out. There is an insane energy in here. Apparently one of the new teachers has announced an inability to be here for the first few days of the semester, sending those in charge of this sort of thing into a tizzy as they frantically call around to find a substitute, and this is contributing to the chaos.

A very different scene than the usual dull, listless mid-vacation atmosphere.


Wednesday 2/14

Sticking with the theme, here is some bustle and hustle I’ve experienced recently.

Bustle: I’ve had issues with the odor of sewer gas wafting through my apartment the last few days. Doesn’t seem to be a drain issue within my room. Possibly coming from the sewer outside my building. I informed my school just in case it is a drain problem, and a couple of admin people + my landlord promptly bustled right into my apartment, while I was at work, to “check the problem.” Erm, guys? Last time I checked y’all weren’t plumbers. At least tell me next time so I can make my bed first. In an even more bustle-y manner, they told me they “couldn’t find any problem.” Well, yeah. Neither could I, that’s why I want a professional.

Hustle: My favorite coworker, with whom I’ve recently reunited since she just came back to school after a year of studying abroad, heard this story and said, “If you smell that again, call me.” (Implied: “I’ll get this crap taken care of.”) She is the greatest.

Bustle: My school/landlord suggested the following upon my continued insistence that there is a smell: “open the window” and “move to a different room in the same building.” (A direct approach to problem solving is not a thing in this culture, which is very much the opposite of American culture.)

 

Hustle: My favorite coworker swooped in once again to quickly confirm that no, I do not want to drag all my furniture into another room and leave the smell problem for the next unfortunate soul.

Bustle: Another old coworker who’s coming back to my school this year informed me, beaming, that all the students like me… “because you are young and beautiful.” *sigh* Are my personality, connection with the kids and teaching ability (modest though it may be) worth nothing? Is beauty all that matters to you?

Hustle: I had to do my Korean taxes for the first time (Americans have a 2-year tax exemption in Korea, but this is the 3rd year). I had no idea how to go about this, but one of the English teachers drove me to the tax office to get things set up, then to the bank, then to my house to get my passport, then back to the bank, then back to school – essentially sacrificing her entire morning to help me take care of my own responsibility. For all the idiosyncrasies of culture here, you never know when you’ll have experiences like this that warm your heart (and/or make you feel guilty).

Okay, so this list turned out to be more of a good/bad list than hustle/bustle. Oops. I’m all about misusing lists to make my posts easier to write. Because I am lazy.


The new English textbook for the 1st years has finally arrived. There’s a nationwide mandate this year for all schools to roll out updated textbooks starting in 2018, so Grade 1 is this year, Grade 2 next, and so on.

My school has chosen an appropriately “easier” book (old book totaled almost 300 pgs and the new one is half that, just as an example), and I can see that the key expressions are better suited to our kids’ level and the layout hopefully will be more appealing to them.

However, this also means redoing all my lesson plans around the new book. I’ll be doing quite a lot of frankensteining new lessons together from pieces of my old ones. Why couldn’t the books have arrived last month, when I had hours upon hours of deskwarming with nothing to plan? I have asked myself that many times already, but that’s just the way it goes. Needless to say, I will be hustling.

빨리빨리!

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Ramblings

I am currently on Stage 4 of an unfortunate seasonal cold – the stages being thus defined by yours truly (you can trust me, I hold an M.D. from the University of Google):

Stage 1. The sore throat

This is the worst. I cannot abide a sore throat of any caliber. Like an itch that can never be scratched – lozenges, honey and warm water, painkillers, nothing can make it go away for long. You just have to deal with it, with every breath and every swallow (which you cannot avoid if you want to stay alive).

Stage 2. The nasal congestion

It is a universal law of viruses that in this stage you will only be able to breathe out of one nostril at a time. And that you’ll get a runny nose at the worst possible moment, like when you’re in the middle of a presentation and you forgot to stuff Kleenex in some discreet pocket.

BONUS! Sweating & aching

If your cold is of a particularly nasty strain, you might develop a light fever and begin sweating profusely even though you’re not doing anything strenuous. Like just sitting down at your desk minding your own business, vaguely aching and wanting to curl up in a limp ball.

Stage 3. The sinuses

Here we introduce pounding headaches and the feeling that your eyeballs will burst out of their sockets at any moment from all the pressure.

Stage 4. The chest congestion and coughing

This lovely stage may last for weeks after the other symptoms have faded out. Isn’t that nice? Your cold wants to leave you a little memento to remember it by. As I’m currently in this stage, I now have a 50-50 chance of choking on phlegm instead of speaking every time I start teaching class. It’s great fun.

This is surely the most dramatic description of a cold you have ever read, brought to you by a person who likes to dramatize all things. Especially illnesses. You’re welcome.


In other news, I was trying to tell my student to add a verb to his sentence: “You need a verb. 동사 (dong-sa).” He looked at me incredulously. “똥싸?” Then I remembered that with just slightly more emphasis on the start of each syllable (which is VERY EASY for a foreign tongue to accidentally do, might I add), the word verb magically transforms into the word shit.

I told my student he needed shit in his sentence.

*pats self on back*

His classmate did understand that I, the English teacher, was in fact asking for a verb and not human waste (flawed pronunciation notwithstanding), and the miscommunication was rapidly cleared up.


I try not to be frustrated with catatonic students, or even students who seem to have an attitude, when they tell me things like “I have academy [private lessons] until 10 p.m. today.” I suppose I wouldn’t be in the cheerfullest mood either, if I was literally in school for 14 hours.


Yesterday I asked the students what was for lunch and one of them said “Pizza hotdog!” I thought he was joking. Nope: one of the lunch items was a hotdog (not a full-size American beef frank, but thinner and shorter) on thick-pizza-crust-type bread with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, and some sweet corn and raw garlic thrown in for good measure because this is Korea. Paired, of course, with tuna bibimbap (what pro chef wouldn’t pair these culinary delights together?).

Okay but real talk: I ate it all. Not too shabby.


One of my co-teachers was in a car accident – she’s in the hospital with some minor injuries, and as a result I get a substitute co for some classes this week. The poor woman seems to have literally been thrown into this situation. In typical Korean fashion, a “teacher friend” (probably someone of higher rank) requested a favor (favor being “come work at this random school for 3 days”) and she had to acquiesce.

Anyway, after observing my class for the first time, as we walked out together she commented: “The students are so noisy!”*

And here I was thinking we were having a pretty good, “quiet” day.

(cue the trombone: wah-wah-wah-waaaaaaaah)

Nah, it’s okay. I already know my kids are a handful.

*She later explained that she works at a middle school with very studious and quiet students. Okay, but are they cute tho???


We were playing a True/False quiz and I asked the teams to hold up their answers (on their mini whiteboards). One of the teams had written “Talse.” Nice try kiddos, nice try. (This is a favorite ploy of many students to try to cover their bases when we play quiz games; if it’s multiple choice, sometimes they’ll write a HUGE letter A and then sneakily write B, C, and D inside the A, hoping that somehow it’ll fool me.) But anyway I love that class and I want to pinch their cute faces because they’re always so cheerful and happy about everything. Even studying.


Four times a week we have guest teachers come in to teach special after-school classes in math and English. A couple of them use “my” classroom, the English room. I’ve seen the English teacher a few times as I’m wrapping up after my last class. We usually just smile and say hi in passing, but today she stopped me and said, “Do you want one?”, holding out one of the snacks she’d brought for her students.

Occasionally weird situations (for a foreigner) come out of Korea’s culture of sharing, but sometimes it can be really sweet.

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.

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*

Language

Of course we all know it’s essential. How else would we communicate with each other? Yes, there is body language and eye contact and gesturing and tone and all that, but words are still pretty darn important.

I’m really making an effort to use Korean these days, particularly with my boyfriend (to alleviate the burden of communication that he upholds every day by speaking in English with me). In doing so I’m realizing just how scary it is to attempt to produce your own thoughts in another language.

Even though I encourage my students to “just try,” to put themselves out there and just say something in English on a daily basis, it’s… much easier said than done.

As a teacher, of course it’s easy to be delighted by the outgoing, bold kids who just shout out whatever they feel in English, even if it makes no sense, because it’s still an attempt at communication and it helps the student to make progress (plus it’s cute). Of course it’s easy to be frustrated or disheartened by the shy and quiet ones who don’t want to say a single word, even though they actually know enough vocabulary and grammar.

But I am that quiet student who doesn’t want to speak for fear of making a mistake. For fear of embarrassment, of saying something wrong, of the awkward confusion that could result from an error in pronunciation or grammar.

Logically I know that it’s better to just make the effort and let the grammar mistakes roll off my back, to just push through and improve by doing – I know this because I’ve seen the benefits in action countless times – but the fear is really a big obstacle.

Part of the problem, of course, stems from the fact that Korean is less forgiving than English (in my opinion) in terms of pronunciation, and less exposed to a variety of sounds since so few foreigners actually speak it.

But mostly it’s fear on my part.

To get back to my original point, I’ve been frustrated as I recognize that the words I choose in Korean (and I have a very limited selection to choose from before resorting to Naver Translate (more accurate than Google)) might have a different undertone or connotation than their English translation. But I have no way of knowing unless I constantly ask, “Is that right? Does it sound natural? Is it too formal? Too stiff? Too casual? Rude? Blunt? Standoffish?”

Do I say “교장선생님이 나한테 얘기했어”? Or “교장선생님이 나에게 말했어”? Technically they both mean “the principal said to me…”, but which is politer? Which is natural in context?

Is it 맞아요, 맞죠, or 맞다? By definition they all mean “Right/Right?,” but there is an appropriate context for the use of each.

HELP.

Not to say that English doesn’t have a similar mess – sure, English is even more confusing in many regards (I’m sure most of us have read “The Chaos“), and uses a ridiculous amount of slang, borrowed words, and cultural context (almost like inside jokes among all native English speakers), perhaps more than any other language.

But still, Korean is particularly troublesome, where you have a bewildering and treacherous interpersonal minefield of the ‘levels of speech,’ ranging from 반말 (banmal, casual language only for friends) to 존댓말 (jondaemal, polite language) with a million levels in between which make it downright terrifying for a non-native speaker to navigate.

I do think personality can have a lot to do with language learning as well. Extroverted people are more likely to put themselves out there in an effort to get the human interactions that will energize them. For me, and I’m sure many other introverts out there, I’m pretty good at listening, reading, and writing in Korean on a basic level. It’s the speaking that can be overwhelming (so basically exactly the same as English… heh heh).

It’s going to be an uphill battle. Wish me luck.