The only thing I have had any forewarning for in the two years I've been in Korea is for the speech I had to give at yesterday's morning meeting. They gave me two whole days to think about it. I think I did a good job. I said my one word of Korean and everyone clapped. I said some more words in English, but they obviously weren't as good as the Korean one.
My students have been writing me goodbye notes, all of which have been wonderful, even the naughty boys have taken a time out to write about how they love me and will miss me. It's great leaving Korea because you can really embrace your inner corniness and say whatever you feel because the Koreans do exactly that times ten (or "x thousand" as my students write in their notes).
I got some going away presents yesterday. The best definitely being the couple-set underwear for me and Jordan from the ladies in my conversation class. They think that Jordan and I are the cutest because we love each other. I'm not sure why there are whales and crowns on Jordan's underwear.
I've been having summer English camp for two weeks, and the highlight for me is always reading the amusing things my students post. Here are two answers to writing the conversation for this photo:
Spiderman say "superman! How are you?"
The first lesson in our book this year is about making goals. So, of course, since I always like to stay on topic in class, I had my eighth graders write down their goals for the year. Here are the best ones:
"I want to grow at least 7cm this year. This will make me better at English."
"The first goal is to grow up. The second goal is to score up."
Despite the fact that I never would have thought of it as a goal, about half my student's goals were to grow. A lot of milk will be consumed this year in the middle school.
"I hope to new world children. I hope to grow at least 3cm this year. I hope to rule the world. I hope to become a demon."
And how will they do this?
"I will get up early. I drink milk. I need to be stronger than before."
"My goal is musician. Because of I like listen to music. I am goal very fantastic.
Um...always all day long study music!! many listen and many study!!"
"My first goal will make a battle ship. My second goal is to make a B-25. My third goal is to make a B-17G."
And how will they do this?
"My first goal is to president.
My second goal is to get up early.
My third goal is to get great grades in test."
It's good to have your priorities straight.
Today is my last day of teaching English to Korean middle schoolers. At least for the foreseeable future. To be honest, it has been a bit anticlimactic, considering that I ever only teach one class on Fridays, which just so happens to be the most subdued (read "asleep") of all my classes. I wasn't really feeling up to pumping them with energy today, and as they have already finished their textbook for the semester I gave in to their request to be allowed to finish Disney Channel's High School Musical 2, before the chance escaped them forever. So I took a few last pictures, and mainly sat and watched them, as they sat and watched a depiction of the glories that await them in high school. I sat looking into my past, and they into their futures (or at least, into the futures of upper class American middle schoolers who become teen sensations).
The last few weeks have been busy ones for me. On the one hand I have been preparing to leave my schools, saying goodbyes to students and teachers (my co-teachers took Marisa and I out to a nice restaurant for dinner on Wednesday), principals and vice principals, throwing pizza parties for the worthy--and on the other hand I've been attempting to ease into what will be my focus in the coming months: the study and creation of video games. I've also been spending a decent amount of time with my new physical therapist friend at Gunsan hospital, attempting to recover from a golf-related shoulder injury, a sleeping-related back injury, and a history of chronic back pain (which I'm convinced dates back to my years of washing dishes over a too-short counter: for the record, I will only ever make my short children wash the dishes).
To understand what I've been up to with my students of late, you will have to get your mind around the intricacies and inner workings of The Nam Cup, which I don't think I've yet mentioned in more than passing on this site. Basically, a couple of months into my teaching career, faced with four hundred students divided between twelve classes at two schools, some rowdy, some lackadaisical in the extreme, none of them relying on me for their grades, I determined that I had to do something: to come up with some sort of system that would give me power and control--ultimate power would be best, but I would settle for, say, a little tiny bit of power.
The wheels in my head spun and chugged, and out came the inspiration for The Nam Cup. Basically, I divided all of my classes into six groups of approximately six students each, and made a giant list of 9 classes and 54 "teams" of six (this is at Nam, where I had 9 of my 11 classes), which I kept track of permanently on one of my four whiteboards. This dividing was made incredibly easy thanks to my ginormous "English Zone" classroom and puzzle-piece tables which I was easily able to arrange as desired. Students had to pick teams and stay with them for the rest of the year.
Then came the fun part, handing out and taking away points. It turns out that middle schoolers (at least the ones I've had the pleasure to teach) are incredibly competitive. Not only this, but the idea of a "point," to my Korean students, seems to signify something enormously important. Even before I declared what the end-of-year prizes would be, my students exuded a kind of religious zeal for earning points, and expressed a deep, deep sadness when they were taken away. Students would come into class before it started to examine the whiteboard, take notes, and whisper sub rosa to each other. Then they would come back up at the end of class to get another look, apparently unsatisfied by the more distant view they got during class, though the whiteboard remained visible the whole time. "Teacher," they would say, "you are so handsome," "Teacher, we love you"--but their intentions were clear.
In any case, I did eventually announce the prizes, to more excitement than I could take without putting a finger in each ear. There would be two prizes at the end of the year: one for the class with the most points accumulated, six teams together, 36 persons--and another for the individual team of six individuals (out of the 54 teams) with the best score. The top class would get a pizza party at the English Zone, and the top team a chance to party at Sweet Home (that's mine and Marisa's house). I though the idea of inviting middle schoolers over unaccompanied to an adult's home might be a bit weird, but my co-teachers assured me that it was a wonderful idea, and the students seemed unable to imagine anything better.
And so the students strove all year for points, and last week I formally announced the winners, after holding a final round of jeopardy for the top five teams. There were a lot of crying sounds to be heard from those who didn't triumph (not real tears, mind you, just crying sounds), and had I to do it over again I would probably give out a prize every quarter, rather than once a year... but the winners were ecstatic, and the parties a good time. (Even if there was a bit of miscommunication regarding the pizza: I had thought that the school was going to pay for it, but it ended up coming out of pocket. Not a big deal. The funny part was that one of my co-teachers, when she realized we had miscommunicated, said that maybe I should cancel the pizza party: after the students had been looking forward to it for a year!) A girl in the pizza party class gave a little speech about how they would "always remember this time" (it wasn't clear if they were speaking mainly about me, or the pizza), and the five students who came over to our house were incredibly cute and polite and happy to be there. We ordered pizza for them as well ("our parents do not like pizza" said one of the girls in a woebegone voice), and they spent most of the afternoon petting Farah and playing Wii.
Physical Therapy Friend
I've been having back trouble for a long time (upper, lower, muscular, and skeletal, related to scoliosis), as I mentioned above, and after having a lot of pain at golf for several weeks running, and then pulling the muscles in my back one morning so that I couldn't get out of bed, I decided to take action. By asking Marisa to take action . The thing is, her co-teachers are better English speakers, so we thought they might be able to better understand the problem, and explain where to go. Well, it turns out that one of Marisa's co-teachers knows a young teacher at the school that has a boyfriend who "does something" that might help me. What exactly he does wasn't clear, but I figured I'd go see him anyway, and see where things went.
It turns out that Marisa's co-teacher's co-teacher's boyfriend is a physical therapist in charge of the physical therapy department at a local clinic, and does both chiropractic and deep tissue therapy. Wow. So I have a session with him and get the full treatment: chiropractic, ultrasound, infrared light, massage, and interferential current therapy (the later four treatments being standard issue for deep tissue pain). It feels great, but how much will it cost? I figure health care tends to be pretty cheap here, and I do have an insurance card, so I should be okay for at least one treatment, and hopefully more.
"No pay" says the girlfriend.
"What?" I ask.
"No pay, no pay," repeats the therapist.
"I don't understand."
"NO PAY! And come back tomorrow."
Okay then. We decided to ask Marisa's co-teacher about it, since we have a better time communicating with her. Clearly there must be some kind of misunderstanding here. Well, Marisa's co-teacher tells me that, if I really, really want to pay, I can take the guy out for dinner. Which isn't exactly the clear and transparent explanation of the financial situation that I was hoping for, but what can you do?
So I go back the next day, and the next, and the next. "Come until better," my therapist friend tells me: "maybe many weeks."
As if this wasn't enough, the guy insisted on driving me home Friday night. I tried futilely to resist, to say that I always take the bus, but in vain. Then I discovered that he was apparently going on a date with his girlfriend that night. And his car is a two-seater. And his girlfriend is already at the clinic. And his girlfriend insisted on riding in the back, without a seat. So there I am in the passenger seat of my physical therapist's car, with his girlfriend in the back, singing along to K-pop, being driven to my house as a pre-Friday-night-date favor, trying desperately to tell myself this is normal.
I mentioned my interest in video games at the start of this post, and I'll expand on that in the future. Essentially, for those of you who don't yet know, I'm interested in the potential of the interactive medium to create art (I've started a website where I review games for meaning and significance at www.necessarygames.com). I don't have time to go into this now, because it's just about time to go home. Another couple of minutes to feed on nostalgia, then off to Slovenia tomorrow morning to visit Marisa's parents for two weeks. Oh--it looks like it's time for me to give a speech and receive a parting gift...
Obi met luke. Obi is friend of Luke's father and he was warrier. R2-D2 showed Leia's message to him. Then he has to go Altaran. He suggest Luke to go with him. At first Luke regjected. They went back home. But empire's army ruined Luke's home. And Luke's uncle and aunt were dead. So Luke determined to go with Obi. So they went to city to find pilot.
Luke's uncle and aunt dead because bad people fire Luke house so, Luke want to be like his father, so he went to pilot in the bar he learn art.
Ruke get lightsword and he's uncle and aunt died. He went somewhere because he need a pilot and he get a pilot.
Um... robot cut leg (because sand jock) once day. Obi and Luke father Jack. Obi is Luke.
He is go learn force he mother father uncle die he is angry. He want to go learn to force in Jedie.
At least for me, May has been the month of incredible relaxedness (see I even have time to make up words). It started with preparation for midterms, which meant that I didn't have to teach. Then we had midterms, which meant I still didn't have to teach. Then we went on a somewhat wild goose chase in Seoul to get a document from the American Embassy and I missed two days of school. Then we had a day off for Children's Day. This week, my first graders were gone for "training," then my second graders left for a trip. So by Wedensday I had no students to teach. Today was rough, I had to teach four classes. But tomorrow is Teacher's Day, so we have no school, and I don't have school on Monday either. Then my country school is having Sports Day next Friday and Thursday is practice day, so I don't have to teach again. Then the last week of May is the festival for foreigners, for which I get to miss another two days of school.
I will now count all the classes I've taught this month...In the last three weeks I have taught 19 classes. Normally I teach 21 every week. And May isn't even over.
Other small May benefits have been cropping up too, like getting grape soda for Sports Day and a pile of rice cakes for Teacher's Day. I have also started digital scrapbooking since I spend hours sitting at my desk staring at my screen. This, it turns out, is quite fun, so I'm hoping that May turns into a never ending month of happiness. In fact, I've been having such a good time being a slacker at school I haven't started celebrating the month of my birthday, which I could start celebrating anytime, but I've just been busy celebrating May Slacker Days.
To celebrate Teacher's Day tomorrow we are going "camping" with some friends. We're going to barbeque and hope it doesn't rain. We're going to bring the Wii in case. This is camping Korean style.
Today's title comes from this morning's "English Possible" on the radio.
I'm at school finishing up the end of a busy week. I spent almost the entire week at my desk uploading an organizing old pictures on flickr. Yesterday offered a brief change of scenery when I had to go into the classroom to help monitor exams. The Koreans have a big cheating problem. Mostly because when they catch cheaters, they don't do anything. This becomes a problem for me in class because I acutally want the students to do their own crossword puzzle, not wait for the one smart kid to do it and then have 35 students copy the answers down. I want to explain to them how this makes the whole thing pointless, as I've only made the crossword puzzle for their own enjoyment, so if they're going to copy it they might as well just sit there. However, I think that doing things for enjoyment in school is completely beyond the comprehension of my middle school students.
So anyway, I caught a cheater in my first exam period, although then I didn't know what to do because the other teacher in the class didn't speak English and I didn't want to disturb the students taking the exam by making a big hubub. What to do? I eventually had to go have a big point and say, "this student is looking at this student's answer card." All the students laughed, the teacher gave the boys a stern talking to, and all went back to normal. With this kind of reaction I don't know why all the students aren't cheating.
Luckily the three exam periods kept getting shorter, the first was 45 minutes, then 40 minutes, then 35 minutes, because it really was one of the most dull things I've ever done.
In the evening we had a meeting at the City Hall with the other English teachers. When word comes down about these kind of meetings, it's always shrouded in mystery. First we hear about it from one of our friends, who somehow found out because someone has a very organized co-teacher. Then word will slowly come to you from your own coteacher. Although, what the meeting entails is never disclosed. Yesterday my co-teacher found out she had to go too, at the last minute, and was quite unenthused about the prospect. She had no idea what was going on either.
When we finally arrived at the City Hall, we found a big, fancy meeting with all the foreign English teachers and the mayor. How thrilling! We watched the most fantastic movie about Gunsan, in which the used the most words I've ever heard to say absolutely nothing. It was really quite a feat. I'm going to have to see if they've put the movie online because it really as stellar. Then we watched a movie which demonstrated the skills of the foreign teachers; Jordan and I were big stars in this one. I'm not sure about using this as a example though because the lesson of me they taped was the first lesson I ever made and thus not particularily good. After some question and answer with the mayor, we all trooped off for a fancy Korean dinner where we got gift bags with rice (grown in Gunsan) and a fancy Gunsan pin (and something in a box I haven't opened yet). Dinners like these are always amusing as the alcohol is free flowing and everyone gets rather "relaxed" as they say.
"Cleaning time is too short" Ms Park said this afternoon as we came out of the English room when the time was up. I pondered this for a minute or two, gave it a good consideration, but what I really think is that we should get rid of the twenty minutes and go home earlier, not add more time to our lallygagging schedule. Of course, I don't think I would actually get to go home early, and then the school would just be really dirty. Although if we never let the students come to begin with, the school might stay decently clean.
All the public schools in Korea have giant TV screens in every classroom (whether they work or not is another subject, but they are there). And every middle school in Korea with more than 100 students seems to have a gotten a brand-spanking new English room with giant flat, touch TV screen and many other fancy things ("tell us what materials you want, we will get them"). How did the Korean government pay for this? I recently realized it's because the schools have no janitors; the kids do all the cleaning. At first, I thought they just made the kids do the cleaning as some sort of "be responsible" lesson. But as the weeks have turned to months I've realized that the only marginally clean school could only be the work of the students. It explains why the bathroom floor is more dirty after being mopped than it was before.
I have joined the ranks of the other Korean teachers who spend the twenty minutes chasing and cajoling the students into cleaning, since I have to monitor the new English room. Although, I was just told to make sure the students don't touch the computers or destroy the desks, so that's what I do, while surfing the internet and thinking of amusing things to write on the blog. The four girls who do the cleaning in my room can be a bit lax at times, but then Ms Park will show up and boss them around and make them get out the vacuum and smelly spray for the desks. I don't feel bad when this happens because I have done my job of watching the equipment, and in Korea doing your job, and only and exactly that, is what it's all about. Just try and get someone to scoop a fish for you at Lotte Mart. After talking to five people over twenty minutes, all of whom claim,"I can't get the fish" the one person who can will show up, dragged out of their dinner break because they are the only one who was hired to scoop fish.
My new semester started out similarly to Marisa's, in that on the first day of school I was picked up by my co-teacher as usual, and was naive enough to think that the day would be without "incident." A few minutes into the drive, however, Mr. Song says, "oh, do you know about new workplace?"
Me: "No." (do I have a new office? I wonder to myself).
Mr. Song: "You are teaching at new school."
Mr. Song then proceeds to explain to me that he had been notified of this school change just a couple hours earlier. "We will see," he says. That day I sit around at Jayang doing nothing, because my co-teacher at my new school (where I am supposed to be Monday through Wednesday now) is too busy to come pick me up. Things get somewhat sorted out by Tuesday though, and I make my way to the new school, a downtown juggernaut of 1000 students, not unlike Marisa's Seoheung... my days of teaching 6 students per class at Napo are gone forever.
My schedule at the new school is haphazard and full to overflowing... they tell me that this schedule is "temporary" though (no surprise there), and that I will be getting my "real" schedule in two weeks... we shall see. In the meantime I've been introducing myself like a broken record to class after class of hollering 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders (that is 7th, 8th, and 9th graders).
I've been around to some of the classes twice now, but wasn't much prepared for the second encounters, since my "temporary" schedule is actually not a schedule at all, and the classes I end up teaching are rarely the ones shown there; this together with the fact that I have not been given a textbook or any materials, leads to what we in Korea call "flying by the seat of one's pants" (i.e. living). The classes themselves do have textbooks though, and sometimes I improvise from there. In one class the lesson centered around a nature photographer, with the topic being protecting nature. This particular class was what I sometimes call a "dud." Meaning that the students look at you sometimes, but rarely do anything else.
"What is this lesson about?" Nothing.
"Protecting Nature, right?" One student nods.
"Do you like nature?" Nothing.
"Do you want to protect nature?" Nothing.
"Just raise your hand if you like nature/want to protect nature." Nothing.
At this point I go a bit off the deep end, and start wildly drawing a grim Armageddon on the chalkboard: giraffes being blown up with bazookas, bulldozers flattening snowy mountains, and people with flamethrowers torching down forests. This gets the students chuckling. Pretty soon the chalkboard is nothing but smoke and flames, and a bunch of X-ed out giraffes. "Is this what you want to happen to the world?" Nothing.
Which brings me to my haircut: for $10 in Korea you don't get Great Clips--you get fanciness. I get my hair cut at Lotte Mart, because there is no reason to do anything outside of Lotte Mart--actually, it is my theory that nothing exists outside of Lotte Mart. So anyway, when you go in a woman takes your coat; next you get a glass of orange juice, which you can sip as you surf the web with one of the provided computers as you wait. When your wait is up a man with a towering hairdo of craziness invites you to sit down and be "prepared" with multiple aprons and perhaps some spray. A lady brings you The Book so you can pick out a do if you want something fancy. I just point to a man with a buzz. "Short Cut?" they ask. "Yea, short cut." This is not enough confirmation, though, so they (lady and crazy hairdo man together) flip the book and find two or three more men with "short cuts," and verify the idea with me each time. Finally we are ready to begin. I figure that the man will take the clippers, run them over my scalp, and be done with it... this is always how I've gotten buzz cuts before. But no. Instead, Hairdo starts to meticulously cut and trim. Cut and trim. A little bit of clippers now. Now back to the scissors. Now a new pair of scissors. Now cut cut. Now trim trim. And so after 20 minutes I emerge with my finely sculptured buzz. Of course then I get the hair wash and scalp massage treatment that is just part of the regular haircut here. Great Clips is kind of lame.
Which brings me back to my school: Nam Middle School, like almost every other school in Korea, as far as we can tell, has been outfitted over the winter break with a shnazzy new English room; "Welcome to Global Zone" is printed over the door in large letters. The room is large and very well outfitted, with a ginormous touch screen television, large sliding whiteboards, new computers, and clusters of tables arranged in a "we're here to be casual and have fun but also to learn about Global Zone" sort of way. Light is good, and posters around the perimeter sport catchy slogans and photos of English-speaking places, like Australia, Britain... and France. My office is actually in this room, where I sit alone and ponder my life. The provided computer, unlike my 10-year-old one at Jayang, is new and fast, and sports a 22-inch LCD monitor. So while the move from Napo is painful for the most part, my new school is not entirely without its upside.
Which brings me to the conversation class I had with the English teachers (5 of them here, all women) yesterday. We started out by discussing London's Tower Bridge (pictured on one of the posters), and I tried to explain how it was not London bridge, and how London bridge is quite drab looking, and how the previous London Bridge is currently in Arizona. Then they naturally wanted to know why "London Bridge is falling down." I had a quick pop into Wikipedia to verify what I thought I knew... anyway, things progress like this, and eventually we are onto America. Then eating. Then beef, which is thought to be to Americans what Kimchi is to Koreans.
"American's eat hamburgers every day?" asks one of the ladies.
"Not really. And no, not generally for breakfast."
They then go on to explain to me how American beef is diseased. All of it. This is why Korean beef is expensive and American beef is cheap. Koreans tried to get the government to stop importing it a while back with massive protests, but to no avail. Luckily, the Korean people know enough to stay away.
"Hm..." I said. "I don't think all American beef is diseased, actually."
"But you will get sick if you eat it," they insist.
Eventually I figured out that this "disease" they were talking about was Mad Cow. My thought was that perhaps not all American beef was infected, as that would mean most if not all of the US population would have already been eradicated, but this theory did not fly with the Koreans. In all fairness I do remember when nobody in Minnesota would touch beef due to the Mad Cow scare, even though to date only 3 BSE cases have ever been identified in the United States (as opposed to say 183,841 in the UK).
That about sums up my week.
"Why are you so happy?"
"Because it's Friday."
This is the conversation some of students learned this week, with a little modification by me to fit the current context (unlike my students, since I can speak English, I am able to actually use the conversation, instead of only using the examples in the book, in which case I would only be able to say, "Why are you so worried?" "Because my mom is sick."). It has been a long week. I honestly haven't done that much teaching, but with the crazy flip flopping of schools, and the craziest jet lag I've ever had, the weekend couldn't come soon enough. Here at my new school I only have two classes on Friday, but today that seems like two classes too many.
My new school, Okgu Middle School, is a nice place. Unlike many of the country schools, it is big enough that it got one of the new English Rooms that Korea must have used it's entire Education budget on, but small enough that I only have 20 kids in a class (which after teaching 37, is something like a miracle). So I feel like this is the best of both worlds, fancy-pants technology and small classes. Mostly I like the new English rooms because it means I use the same computer for all my classes, which means I can count on it working, and don't have to plan back up lessons for if the computer is on the fritz in some classroom.
My reception at the new school was quite shocking. Unlike my city school, where they still treat me as a mix between a celebrity and an infant, the people here have treated me more or less like a normal person. It was quite unnerving. None of the students had huge screaming fits upon first seeing me (just small, reasonable ones). No one asked if I needed a fork at lunch, or oohed and ahhed at my ability to say 'hello' in Korean (despite the fact that I have said 'anyehaseo' to the vice principal at my other school about 100 times, he still claps and pats my head when I do it. I don't even think parents behave this way when their children start speaking.) Basically I was just like a normal, new person: there was interest, but no craziness, which made it all the more crazy.
The school is about a 20 minute drive from our apartment. I get picked up by a Korean language teacher, whose route must come near our house since he's the one who picks me up. His English is quite limited, but he's very friendly and seems to be a reasonabe driver (which in Korea is important, since most people aren't quite reasonable about it. They've put a new stop light on our corner, but since it didn't use to be there, everyone has decided it's optional and drives through it). There must be about 200 students in the school, with about 20 teachers, half of whom come to the "chit chat class" that I have in the afternoons with them. I find this quite impressive, since at my big school, with about 70 teachers, there are only 3 who come to practice with me. As usual, everyone is very friendly and thinks my pig tails are cute. I've decided the Koreans like me best when I'm wearing pig tails, so it's my new hairstyle of choice.
Today I had the pleasure of attending the ninth grade graduation ceremony. This ceremony is the reason we are all in school this week. For some reason they can't graduate at the actual end of the semester and have to come back in the middle of vacation to do it.
After talking to Miss Kim yesterday I thought we had four classes, and then the ceremony would be around 12. However, this morning it turned out that we had no classes (in fact the other grades didn't even come to school) and the ceremony was at 10:30.
So at the proper time we traipsed over to the gym/auditorium for the excitement. I believe ninth grade graduation here is a bigger deal than in the States because school is only mandatory in Korea up through ninth grade. After this the students will go to various high schools, or perhaps none. Some will go to a regular high school to prepare for college, while some will attend trade schools to prepare for life in the real world. This is why there is so much studying even in middle school, because your grades here determine what high school you get accepted to which determines where you go to college which determines how successful you'll be later in life. So unlike in America, where the rumor that a girl once told me that colleges looked at grades from middle school is false, here in Korea it couldn't be more true.
The ceremony didn't have all the pomp or ceremony of the high school graduations we're used to. Some students came in their uniforms, some came in regular street clothes, one boy wore a suit, but that's because he got a special award and gave a speech. There were seats for the students (all 316 of them) while the rest of us (parents, teachers, friends, relatives) milled around in the back. No one listened to the ceremony, there was various chit chat and poses for pictures. The best was the fantastic bouquets of flowers that everyone brought for the graduates. I've never seen anything over the top. They were mostly comprised of a few flowers (or sometimes none at all), voluminous amounts of netted fabric in various bright colors, and various doodads sticking out like candy, little people in witches hats, or giant feathery hearts. I amused myself for most of the ceremony by taking pictures of the best ones as sneakily as I could.
Other highlights included the music teacher conducting a recording whose music was set to a picture slide show of photographs of nature and at the end happy Korean kids (I realized later that he was conducting the audience, we were supposed to sing along, but since no one did, I thought he was just crazy. He came out again later and this time the music was projected onto the screen and I realized we were supposed the sing along. Finally, on the third song, some people joined in.) And outside the auditorium there was a man selling cotton candy.
The Koreans really are the best when it comes to making things fancy and over the top. Why have a bouquet of flowers unless it is wrapped in what looks like a balloon animal? In fact, who even needs the flowers when we have all this other great stuff? I make a jest about the bouquets, but in fact I'm a big fan and wouldn't mind taking home several for myself.
I say purgatory since we are having a week of school in the middle of vacation, but despite the incredible pointlessness of the week, for me at least, the week has been a bit more like heaven than some other stage of the afterlife. At least this is as close as my school gets to resembling heaven.
But first a note on the ridiculousness of the situation. The students have been on vacation since Christmas; that was the end of the last semester. They took their tests and depending on if they passed or failed got confirmation to move into the next grade. This happened a month ago. We said goodbye, we'll see you in March when the new school year begins. However, for unknown reasons we have this random week of school in the middle of our vacation. Not knowing what to expect I showed up bright and early on Monday morning and sat at my desk to try and figure out what was going on. Everyone was bustling around as usual, in fact it looked like we hadn't been gone for a month. So I sit around and try and determine what is going on, when finally the bell rings. Since no one has told me what is going on, I grab my textbook and head to class as if this really is a normal Monday. I meet Miss Doo in that hall and ask if we do indeed have class. She confirms this, but points at the textbook and says, "the students don't have books." The students don't have books? What exactly are we doing here? "We will play a game," Miss Doo tells me. Play a game? No books? What is this, I ask myself. It has not become clear to me. I have been playing games in class and plan to spend the rest of the week watching Sponge Bob with my classes.
The complete absurdity of the situation has made me question this culture we are living in. What kind of people, since this a country-wide mandated by the government sort of thing, sit back and act like this is perfectly reasonable and not some insane, pointless waste of time. No one is learning anything, no one is teaching anything, why are we here? I have consoled myself with the thought that there must be things that are just as insane and pointless. But here there is no outcry. No one seems to complain. They just accept that this is the way it is.
Despite the underlying craziness of the week, the two days I've had so far have been pretty great. Yesterday was perhaps the best day ever. It started with lunch, not normally my favorite part of the day, and yesterday looked to be more of the same weird stuff, until I got to the end of the food line and saw strawberriers and, to my complete astonishment, cheesecake! I don't know where it came from, but it was tasty and everyone seemed to be enjoying it. Since I was in such a good mood from the cake I then went to see Ms Park about a new computer which she said I could have since my old one was so slow a slug moves faster. When we went to find the new one, we took a detour to see the new English room. I knew they were remodling one of the classrooms to be extra fancy, Ms Park had shown me the plans to get my opinion, but I was completely shocked by the fanciness of the room. Especially compared with the rest of the school which has a sort of run down sort of feel. It even has an electronic whiteboard which I have to take a class for on Friday to learn how it works. I've never even seen an electronic whiteboard before. I'm not excactly sure what classes will be held in this new room, all I know is that it is for me and Ms Park to use. But the best part was the small office at the back. When she had shown me the plans, Ms Park had mentioned that there would be an office for the two of us. Not wanting to get my hopes up about something so exciting I didn't think much of it, but when I saw it yesterday I was completely elated. I can't wait to move out of the giant common office I'm in right now, where everyone walks right by my desk and stares at me or my computer screen. Right now I'm just excited about having more space to myself, but it looks like I will have a classroom of my own where I will be able to do more exciting things with various groups of students come the start of school in March.
So now I sit happily typing on my new, fast computer, having come from a lunch where they served curry (the first time I walked into the cafeteria and thought it smelled good) and spaghetti (which we ate with our chopsticks). Of course there were shells with some sort of animal in them (clams, mussels, oysters...) in the soup. I guess I'm not quite out of purgatory yet.
This week we had a little change of pace with our English camp. We worked with the 60 best English speaking fifth graders of Gunsan. The kids' English was quite spectacular, they were well behaved and younger than we are used to working with, so it was a fun experience. There were twenty kids to a class with two native English speakers and one Korean teacher, so even if they had wanted to misbehave, they wouldn't have gotten far. Jordan and I were able to work together, and since the Korean teacher we worked with was uber-prepared, We didn't have to do much but read sentences for the kids to practice their pronunciation and listening skills. We did have some time to teach them Heads Up, Seven Up, which was a huge hit, depsite Jordan's doubt that it was a fun game. In fact once we taught them the game, they never wanted to do anything else. Heads Up, Seven Up is apparently a universally loved game by fifth graders. I've never played with my middle schoolers because I figured they would cheat, but the fifth graders are young enough to do what they're told. And they never ceased to be surprised by who put their thumb down. Jordan and I even played a few games, and I must admit that it's still as fun now as when I was in fifth grade.
We also got to have some good bonding time with the other native English speakers since they were also working at the camp. Jordan now has a virtual golf date with some of the guys who apparently play every week and I met a woman who scrapbooks. So we are planning to have a scrapbook party soon, probably when the men are out golfing.
There were two highlights of the camp. The first was when we discovered that the school was right across the street from our apartment. The first day we got into a taxi and showed him the name of the place we wanted to go, and after much gesturing we discovered that the school was back around the corner. So we had a pleasant 5 minute walk to school each morning which was extra nice because there was lots of snow and the roads were icy. The second highlight was that we got free lunch everyday at the nearby Italian restaurant. If only everyday could be a pleasant half day with the smart students and free lunch...
Yesterday I completed my last day of vacation school, at least vacation school at my school. We had a good final class yesterday. I'd been having them write every morning about various topics and for our final class I had them compare and contrast American high schools to Korean ones. This wasn't an entirely fair question since they were basing their ideas of American high schools on High School Musical and Step Up, the two movies we watched in class. But all the students seemed to be in agreement that they would prefer to go to school in America because the students have more freedom. They don't have to wear uniforms, and they have free time to do things besides study. Several students wrote woeful tales of studying all day and night so they could go to college. One girl expressed the one difficulty of going to school in America to be that she didn't have enough clothes. The other day we had a debate about whether or not Korea was the best place to live. After a thrilling debate by my divided class I gave them a few minutes to come up with the best reason to defend their side. The Pro side Korea was the best place to live becauuse their ancestors had died for the country. The Con side said that students in Korea don't have any free time because when school is over they have to go to the academy and study all night. In any case, there seems to be some resentment amongst the students about all the studying they have to do. And I don't blame them. It just encourages me to spend all my class time doing fun things, since they seem to have the boring things covered.
We had a scavenger hunt around the school as our last activity, which seemed to be a big hit despite the fact that it was rather chaotic and several of the clues mysteriously went missing. They had no idea what to do because I guess they don't have scavenger hunts in Korea. And instead of following the clues, several groups would see a clue and grab it. Then they would show up at my desk claiming to be done. So I would ask how many clues they had. "We have three clues!" "Well," I would say, "You are supposed to have 14, so go look again." But everyone had a fun time running around and then we had pizza, so the day was a success.
Next week we have another English camp that includes all the best English students in Gunsan. Jordan and I will be teaching an elementary class together. Since we've never taught elementary students before and don't know what ages these kids will be, it should be an interesting time.
Vacation school season is upon us. I've taught three days and found them to be quite enjoyable. It's quite a bit different than my regular routine since I have 20 students for four hours everyday for ten days. It's definitely nice to see the students long enough to learn who they are, and it's an even bigger bonus because only the really good students get the privilege to come to vacation school. And there is no boring textbook reading since I planned the class. Of course this means that I had to spend lots of time making plans since all the instruction I had was "there will be vacation school." So we do many amusing things like playing games, writing stories, and watching High School Musical (tomorrow Step Up!). Despite all the fun games I have tried to get my students to play, their favorite thing to do seems to be to write stories. I give them prompts, or certain words they have to use and then let them write stories with a few friends. Needless to say the results are always amusing, particularly when one group drew my name out of the basket of words. Sacrificing myself for the enjoyment of the class is how I looked at it. On the upside I got to be a famous singer in Canada. On the downside one of the students in class was also written into the story as a famous singer who loved me, but alas only received kicks from the woman he loved. Everyone has a good time and the students are all well behaved and interested, so the time goes by pretty fast (especially when we play Scattergories and I give out candy).
In fact word of my stellar teaching skills has spread and today I had a guest Korean teacher in to observe me and my teaching. I feel quite guilty when this happens because I rarely have more than a small plan of what I'm going to be doing and don't often feel like it's that useful. But I've sure impressed Ms Park, whose friend came all the way from Jeonju (the capital of our illustrious province) to watch me work my magic. And believe me, there is magic.
And so, without pomp or even realization by me, my first semester in Korea has ended. I thought I had one more class today, but as I got up to go Miss Kim informed me that there is no fifth class. What the rest of the school is doing I don't know, I will watch some Veronica Mars for a few hours before the weekend actually starts and I can leave. We have three days of school next week too, although as far as I can tell I won't be doing anything but watching more tv shows and doing some final preparation for my vacation school which starts a week from today (also known as the day after Christmas). I have most of my plans done though, as I hurried through them this week because I thought I'd be teaching next week. Now I just have lots of free time.
My Sauter uncles, aunts and cousins should be excited to know that they will be part of an activity in my vacation school where the students will have to reconstruct my family tree from clues I give them. Many other thrilling things are planned like playing Scattergories and watching High School Musical.
This week involved going to to class and watching the Grinch many times. I played Frosty in my last class and they were the only ones who did not stare quietly at the tv. The Grinch put my students in a spellbound daze, Frosty made them turn to their neighbor and yell loudly. I don't know if it was the movie or the class that was the dud, all I know is that I would rather watch The Grinch 5 million times than watch Frosty twice.
At some point there was talk of more snow this weekend. It seems fairly warm at the moment, although you never know what will blow in from China, or wherever our weather comes from. Even if it did snow this weekend, it would likely melt before Christmas actually arrives.
The school is unusually quiet. Maybe today was a half day and all the students have left. Many of the teachers seems to be missing as well. There's not much to do in Korea but wonder what is going on and hope that at some magical moment in the future it becomes clear. Or watch Veronica Mars.
Despite, or perhaps because of, my week requiring me to do absolutely nothing, it seems to have been one of the more stressful ones since coming to Korea. Mostly because at one point I thought my principal was going to take away all my vacation time and make me teach vacation school the whole time. This however was skillfully averted by Ms Park, who also did not want to come in on her vacation to teach, and so I am back to having many weeks of vacation. Apparently the crisis ended when she was able to make the principal laugh. Whether he was laughing himself thinking I should teach nine weeks of vacation school, or if Ms Park told a funny joke, I shall never know. But I am very grateful for her skills in getting me out of lots of work. I guess the principal still expects me to "better myself" like the other teachers do during the holiday. Ms Park goes to the library to study English. I shall work very hard to practice my English at home with Jordan. Perhaps I will watch some movies for extra practice.
Aside from the mini-crisis with the principal, the week consisted mostly of my lunching out with the ladies. On Tuesday I went out with the three women in my conversation class. They took me to a traditional Korean restaurant where they brought us about 500 mini plates of food. I see now why the Koreans kept talking about our dishwasher when we moved in, there are so many dishes I can't comprehend cleaning them. The conversation at this lunch focused mainly on when I would be having babies (they were shocked when I said it would be at least five years, I wonder what they would have done if I had said never) and what chores Jordan does. The women here seem to have heard that Western men do things around the house and always ask me what Jordan does. I then give them an impressive list of things, while they oooh and tell me he is very good (and handsome!). After lunch we went to the cinema to see the new James Bond, which was well received, although one of the women prefers Pierce Brosnan.
Yesterday I was invited to a housewarming party. Ms Park was very excited to use the word 'housewarming' because we had recently been discussing it. The party started at another traditional restaurant in the country that is actually owned by one of the teachers at my school. There were about 20 women who were invited, and I learned that the women who moved was treating us all to lunch. The restaurant was very cute, although it smelled bad because they eat this one fermented bean that smells terrible. I always cringe when we have it for lunch because the whole cafeteria smells bad. I eat really fast on these days. Luckily, we ate in a side room which didn't smell like smelly fermented bean. We had a big pot on the table with lots of vegetables in it which they turned into soup. I ate a mushroom which was not tasty. I ate some tofu which was. We then went back to town to view the new apartment. Everyone was very impressed by this "luxury" apartment and we walked around oohing and ahhing. After some fruit and tea it was time to go home.
Today I went to lunch with all the English teachers at the school, four of whom I teach with and one who only teachers third grade so I don't know her. We went to a so called "Western" restaurant, which means we got to eat with a fork. I was glad the food was at least a little western since my ability to eat Korean food is rapidly decreasing the more I eat it. These ladies wanted to know about Jordan's cooking skills, and Ms Park told me I should talk lots so they could practice their listening skills. This conversation ended with Ms Park telling the other ladies my life story in Korean. Good times. In all I've decided I like going to Korean parties because I'm not actually expected to be social. I can just sit there and smile.
It's going to be rough next week when I have to go back to teaching and can't sit around knitting hats, making Christmas tree ornaments and going out to lunch. I've scheduled a viewing of "The Grinch" in all 18 of my classes. We'll see how it goes. I might have to switch to Frosty half way through.
I had a request for the blog title, and it is true in the sense that Gunsan and the surrounding area are considered the breadbowl of Korea. Although if you drive five minutes from the city you will find either a mountain or the ocean, and there aren't more pigs than people. There are just a lot of people.
I must say that I had a productive Friday. I got to school, in the snow, and enjoyed the snow out the window while I painted my nails. Then I enjoyed the snow while I watched some TV on my computer. Then I enjoyed the snow while I knitted a hat and listened to an audio book on my iPod. Then I continued to enjoy the snow while I chatted with Laura Gibbons my roommate. Then I got to enjoy both the chat and the snow while I ate a whole sweet potato, freshly cooked who knows where and handed to me in a plastic bag. Now I am enjoying the snow while typing this blog post and will likely enjoy the snow while I finish a TV show and then enjoy it as I walk in its midst to the bus stop.
Next week will likely be more of the same, although I can't say for sure about the snow, or the sweet potato (I never realized that sweet potatoes are in fact sweet), and likely my nails will not need to be painted until at least the end of the week.
It sure is rough being an English teacher in Korea.