Saturday, November 29, 2014

Adventure Time: Part 2

It's time for more Korean adventures! A little overdue, but late is better than never, right?

Cat Café!

Surveying its cat kingdom
"Oh I'm sorry, were you
planning to sit in this chair?"
 Yes, there are things called cat (and sometimes dog) cafés all over Korea. You buy a drink as an entrance fee and literally sit and pet cats for as long as you want. It’s a cat lovers’ dream. The felines are scattered all over the café—on the tables and chairs, on the counter where the baristas prepare drinks (not sure how sanitary that is, but oh well), and in wooden cubes set up in the middle of the room. In the café that I went to in Daegu, I counted around 25 cats and kittens, and almost all of them were deep asleep. What’s amazing is that they’re so used to being pet by random strangers that they didn't even bat an eyelash (or twitch an ear)
at my touch.

Better not disturb the cat while
you're paying!
The most regal cat pose I've seen
Amazingly comfortable around
so many strangers

The English Café/Bookstore

A welcome sight for English bookworms
Western products! :D
One of the first places I was shown when I arrived in Daegu was the charming Buy the Book Café. Located in the heart of downtown, this inconspicuous little store was started by a previous ESL teacher who decided to make a life for herself in Korea. It's filled with English books, mostly used but still in good condition. There are comfy couches and chairs scattered around with plenty of Western board games perfect for a rainy day. It offers Western food (even hummus and chili cheese fries!) and has bookshelves filled with Western productsbut beware of the prices! One stick of deodorant (uncommon in Korea because Koreans don't sweat or smell as much as Westerners) and a box of Ghirardelli brownie mix were each $10!!

Jinju Lantern Festival

     As part of a weekend travel group in early October, I went to

     the huge annual lantern festival in Jinju, Korea. It completely

      changed my conception of what a lantern could be. Most of

    the lanterns there were larger than life and came in all shapes,

         colors, and designsthough a good proportion of them  

       were dedicated to lovers (more on that later). There were 

      dozens floating on the Namgang River and hundreds more
      scattered around the park on either side. What's great is that  

      they weren't roped off, either—you could get as close as you 

      wanted for the ultimate selfies. Seeing all the lanterns light 

                   up at night is an experience I won't forget.



Who knew Korea had its very own German village? Turns out it was built in the 1960s for Koreans returning from their life in Germany. Located near Namhae Beach, this little town is made up of picturesque German-style houses and was the host of Korea's annual, foreigner-filled Oktoberfest celebration. The main attraction for most people was probably the overpriced beer, but there was also a large stage, lots of loud Western music, and a small museum commemorating the existence of the German village. (Too bad I couldn’t understand any of it.)

I like how they consider a cellphone
from 2000 an antique worth display.

Jinju Bullfighting

I had been warned beforehand that I might be disappointed by the Korean version of bullfighting... I had envisioned a man with a red cape shouting "Toro!" in true Spanish style. Instead I got over 2 hours of two bulls butting heads until one backed down, in addition to constant chattering by a far-too-energetic announcer, blasting music, and having to shift seats every 10 minutes so I wouldn't bake in the sun. Prooobably not something I would do again.

Busan Firework Festival 

I’m not entirely sure what the occasion was for this festival, but Busan (on the southwest coast of Korea) is known for its impressive fireworks every October. Unfortunately, from my viewing position on the much less crowded (and cheaper) side of the popular Haeundae Beach, most of the fireworks were hidden behind some annoyingly tall buildings. Still, what I did see seemed nice enough.

Kudos to my friend who climbed a mountain to get the best view and then let me use his picture.

Cycling, My New Favorite Hobby

First of all, no, I do not own a bike. However, my city is awesome because it offers completely free bike rentals from several of its subway stations, with the only conditions being you have to return the bike by 10pm and you may have to give up your ID in exchange. I’ve gone on many cycling adventures with these clunky old mountain bikes, starting in the city (the bike paths are built onto the sidewalks so you have to do a lot of pedestrian-dodging) and winding up in the middle of the beautiful Korean countryside. I’m fairly sure that one of the paths I’ve frequented stretches all the way from Busan to Seoul, if you have a few days to spare. One day….

A perfect day for biking!
You can find several of these nifty
bike shelters along the main path.


These hundreds of bowing blue men
inside the ARC are supposed to
 symbolize human solidarity.
It seems there's never an end to the wonders waiting to be discovered in my city. This time it was the ARC (Architecture of River Culture and Artistry of River Culture), a giant whale-shaped structure by the Geumho River. It looks more impressive from a distance, but it's still interesting to look at up close. I've been told it looks even better when it's lit up at night. Inside there's a small museum, a photography section, and a circular projection screen. On the roof is a café and a viewing area that offers a nice panorama of the surrounding river.

Daegu Arboretum   

My favorite smiling cactus
It took me forever to be able to say this word right, but the “arboretum” in Daegu is the equivalent of a botanical garden. It’s filled with trees and plants and peaceful pathways, and is just a nice place to observe nature and stroll around, especially in the fall. The neatest part was the greenhouse dedicated entirely to
cacti. I had no idea cacti came
in so many shapes and sizes, and 
I’ll admit it was more than a little
tempting to reach out and see just
how spiky they really were.

More adventures coming soon!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Teaching: Part 2

While the last post was more about the mechanics of my job, here are some of the peculiarities of being a teacher in Korea: 

-Honestly, many of my students pronounce my name better than most Americans. I figured out over the summer how to spell my name in Korean (한야), and it's worked remarkably. 

-Even I've started referring to other teachers by their first name followed by "Teacher" (i.e. Bella Teacher). A student addressing any of his teachers by "Ms./Mr. So-and-so" is unheard of. That's perfectly fine with me; being called "Ms." makes me feel old anyway.

-Rock-paper-scissors (or rock-scissor-paper, as it’s known here) is practically the word of God in the classroom. It’s solved countless disputes about who will go first and who will play a certain role, and the kids generally accept it as the fairest way of deciding. Thank goodness for that.

-I was warned from the beginning never to write the kids’ names in red ink. According to Korean superstition, having your name written in red means you’re going to die soon. O.o

-Apparently it’s an Asian thing to signal a big X with your arms or hands to mean no/negative/false. (O means yes/true.) I’ve grown so used to doing this in class that I’ve carried it into my everyday conversations as well. 

-My students are amazingly good about returning the things I’ve lent them—pencils, erasers, crayons, etc. It’s as if the virtue of giving back what you've borrowed has been drilled into their little minds from birth.

-It's such a satisfying feeling when a new word comes up in a lesson and, through explanation or acting, I help my students understand what it means and they all say a communal “Ahhh.” I’ve also realized that sometimes it’s fun to be goofy and animated in class, for the kids' sake but also for mine. 

-My hagwon's students all have one Korean teacher and one foreign teacher, with the Korean teacher responsible for more of the grammar. In general, the students' grammar is definitely not their strongpoint, so—me being a grammar queen—I've been trying to weave more of it into my lessons. It drives me crazy when the kids shout, "Teacher, me finish-ed!” or “Me is first!” Still, when I think about how nonsensical some (or most) English grammar can be, it makes me glad that English is my first language. This site really highlights how confusing it could be for a non-native speaker.

And now some of the more serious things:

-Apparently at hagwons there's a high turnover rate not only for foreign teachers, but also for Koreans. The longer I spend here, the more I realize that working at a hagwon can be an enormous amount of work and stress, especially for the Korean staff. They're required to be at the school for much longer than us foreigners, they've constantly got their hands full, and they're usually so tired at night that they have no energy to do anything but go straight home.

-Recently I asked some of my older students what happens if they don't do well in school. Quite a few of them said their parents hit them with various objects, and one girl said her parents threatened to erase her birth certificate. (!!!) I asked my Korean coworkers if these stories had any merit, and they told me that some were probably true, but I should still take them with a grain of salt. I hope so...

-Parental involvement in my hagwon, and probably in many others, is insane. The two Korean teachers who man the front desk are constantly making or receiving phone calls to and from kids' parents. If a kid is late to class (they have to scan their ID cards as soon as they get there), their parents get a text. If they get an 80% or less on one of the "voca tests" they take twice a week (in addition to their biweekly “chunk test"), their parents get another text and the students have to stay after class to take the dreaded "retest" over and over until they pass.

-There is a very large focus on memorization. Even I’m intimidated by the number of English words my students have to memorize every week. I've already had one of my better students leave because she said our school was giving her too much stress and homework.

-At the same time, there is immense pressure on the school and its teachers for all the students to do well. In one of my classes, the kids were being mean to each other and made one girl cry. I later saw one of the culprits being scolded in Korean by one of the Korean staff until he was sobbing, and I assumed she was just returning the favor. However, it turns out she was actually telling him off for not doing his homework. His mom had called the school and blamed the Korean teachers for her son's lack of discipline. After all, that's what she was paying the hagwon for, right? To force her kid to learn. Therefore it’s the Korean teachers' responsibility—not the parents’—to shout at the kids if they're not working hard enough on something they should be doing at home. What...??

-At the end of the first month, all the teachers had to write short progress reports on each of their students. (We had to write much longer ones at the end of the term.) I tried to be fair in my reports—point out the good things but also nicely mention the bad. And then the head of the Korean staff told me that when the Korean teachers used our reports when talking to the parents, they would maybe just say the good know, "little white lies." I almost boiled inside. It's like how we're strongly encouraged to only give above a 30 on a 40-point scale, and a 5 out of 10 comes out as a B. The hagwon system is incredibly skewed towards making every kid sound like a star, which is why some kids are moved up through the levels even when they're not ready for it. I'd heard about this sort of thing from several hagwon teachers before, but still, it's frustrating when I have to be a part of it. 

-And finally, Koreans have no concept of vacation. It turns out I will get a small break at the end of December/beginning of January (4 weekdays total). But while our students get a month off in January, that just means our hagwon has to work twice as long to fill the gap left by their normal schools in the morning. Because not having to go to elementary school just means more time for all their other academies! Yayyy...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Teaching: Part 1

I suppose now that I've been in Korea for more than two months, I should finally write a blog post about the main reason I'm here at all: to teach cute little Korean children how to speak my language. Since teaching takes up a significant amount of my time, I have a lot to say, so I've divided this section into two posts. I’ll begin with some of the technicalities.

First of all, a disclaimer: My experience as a hagwon teacher in Korea shouldn't be generalized. I’ve heard about so many different experiences in terms of school directors, working hours, class structures, students, and work loads, so don't think that my job here is somehow "the norm."

With that said, I quite like my school, though the teacher I replaced was right when she said it would be a lot of work. Here's how it all breaks down:

Hours: Just like most normal jobs, I work 5 days a week, Monday through Friday. Depending on the day, I can start as "early" as 2:30pm and as late as 5pm. I usually stop teaching around 8pm. This doesn't count any time I spend doing lesson prep, administrative things, or grading, which can keep me at the school until 10pm and/or take up my entire morning. Yes, I do come home pretty late every night, but still, having a job that allows me to sleep in is a luxury. 

Happy Halloween!
Salary: About $2100 a month, with my rent already paid for. This amount can generally go much further in Korea than it can in the States. 

Classes: It'll probably change depending on the term (each term lasts 3 months), but I currently teach 8 different 45-minute classes which are all different levels, for a total of about 75 students (though this number is always changing). Students either come on a MWF or TR schedule. Generally the more advanced classes contain older students, but I've had a fourth grader in my most basic class and a third grader in my most advanced. It all depends on how much English they know and when they started learning the language.

I also have a 1-hour "Phone English" class three days a week, in which I call students at their homes and talk to them/have them read and answer questions for 5 minutes. I guess it's to offer the students more individual attention and speaking practice outside of class. 

Students: My students range from 5-12 years old and they all address me by "Teacher." Thankfully they all have English names that they chose when they entered the academy. Although I'd heard that Korean kids had some sort of mad respect for their teachers, honestly I think kids are about the same wherever you go. I've had angel kids who are attentive and motivated, and I've had kids who talk constantly, refuse to stay in their seats, and even attempt cartwheels in the middle of the classroom. It's a mixed bag for sure. 

Discipline: The foreign teachers at my hagwon have a system of "X points," where if kids are misbehaving, they get their name plus a big X next to it on the white board. These Xs can have big consequences and are generally a good threatening tool. Still, I've had to give quite a few out. 

I've been told that the Korean teachers have a much easier time controlling their students because they can scold them in Korean. But even if I were capable of such a feat, there's a strict "No Korean" rule in all the foreign teachers' classrooms. 

My classroom!
Lesson prep: Basically none. Since I work with younger kids whose material isn't particularly complex, I've given up on getting to school early to look over the lesson first. Every lesson for every level and every day is planned out exactly by Chungdahm headquarters, and they all have essentially the same structure. This allows much less flexibility for the teacher but also makes it much easier to teach. 

Grading: THERE'S SO MUCH. For every class, there are daily participation grades and a short daily report. And for every student, there's daily or weekly online speaking homework that I have to listen to and score, as well as around 40 writing notebooks to grade every week for my more advanced classes. I finally understand that teaching in the classroom is only half of a teacher's real work. 

(Some of my coworkers who work with older kids have virtually no grading, but much more lesson prep. I'm not sure which I'd like more.)

Staff: I work with a total of seven other foreign teachers, though only two work on my floor (with the younger kids). I also work closely with six Korean staff members/teachers, who are all AWESOME. They've been so welcoming and helpful to me from the beginning and I feel lucky to have them as my coworkers. 

Perks: Every now and then the Korean staff will randomly come into my classroom to give me free food —> instant friends! :D Aaand all of us teachers got a 10-pound box of grapes from our school manager for Chuseok. Too bad I don't like Korean grapes.

On a side note, the “probation” I mentioned before consisted of me submitting a video of one of my classes to Chungdahm headquarters, and I’ve officially passed—which means I won’t be kicked out of the country after all. Phew! :) 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Adventure Time: Part 1

This past month has been insane in all sorts of ways, which I'll use to excuse my lack of blog posts. Here are some of the highlights from my first month in Daegu: 

1) Hiking Apsan Mountain 

While this mountain certainly isn't the largest I could've picked in Daegu—the city is in a valley so it's surrounded by them—it was a good start since I'm not especially experienced in hiking...and I could still fit it in before my afternoon classes. The weather was great and the view from the top was beautiful, aside from the hundreds of tall, concrete apartment buildings that blanket the city. Since 70% of Korea is covered by mountains, Koreans have necessarily grown adept at maximizing their living space. 

2) Seomun Market

One of Daegu's main attractions, Seomun Market is a huge indoor/outdoor marketplace in the center of the city where you can find anything from fruits, vegetables, and grains to clothing to all sorts of weird fish, many of which are dried and laid out in impressive displays. I have yet to figure out how you can make use of the dried jellyfish or stingrays that I saw offered at one place. (Are those even edible?) There are also dozens of fresh octopi arranged with their legs curled and bottoms up—or still alive in a tank. The market can go on forever and it's definitely overwhelming. Still, it's an experience worth having at least once, and the produce there is almost certainly cheaper than what you'd buy in a normal supermarket.

Mmm, crunchy stingray....

3) Daegu International Bodypainting Festival

Taking place in Duryu Park, Daegu's largest park among many, I ended up at this two-day festival by following the foreigner crowd. I'd thought from the name that it would mostly involve artists in little booths offering to paint your face or hands. And while I did see some of those, the main event involved 25 topless modelsall but two of them Koreanbeing painted from head to toe in full view of the public for up to 6 hours straight. They then paraded around on a large stage one by one, showing off some dance moves and then being introduced by an MC and their respective artist. ("This design is meant to represent Chinese culture," etc.). There were certainly some odd designs, including several large faces painted in questionable places (like one face on each breast). Also, the model who supposedly represented American culture had a zebra painted on her back. As far as I know, there aren't any zebras in America apart from what you see in the zoo. Regardless, many designs were truly magnificent and had astounding attention to detail. 

4) Happy Chuseok!

Chuseok (추석), the Korean version of Thanksgiving, took place on Monday, September 8 and offered many Koreans the longest of their very few vacations. My school system was offering free admission to Lotte World, the largest indoor theme park in Korea, so my coworkers and I made use of the occasion to spend a few days back in the nation's capital.  

A summary of our trip:

-We stayed in Seoul's foreigner hub of Itaewon, where the majority of people were not Korean, which was rather jolting after coming from the much less touristy city of Daegu. The foreigner influence was very clear, from the three shops (with real Turks!) offering Turkish ice cream on one block to the relatively large gay/transgender district near our hostel. Needless to say, Itaewon is also a popular foreigner destination for partying. The first night we explored the downtown scene, went to my first "norabang" (karaoke place), had dinner with some random friendly locals, and then spent the night chatting with new friends on our hostel's roof until we saw the sunrise. 

 -The second day was slow (we were all exhausted), so we took it easy, walked around, and visited a random shrine. Most cities are relatively empty on Chuseok because, like Christmas in America, many Koreans use it as a reason to go home and visit their parents or grandparents—which was fine with us.

I wasn't really sure what an indoor theme
 park looked like, but here you go.

A total ripoff of the Disney castle.
-The third day was the long-awaited trip to Lotte World, which was fun enough. Although the indoor part was geared mostly towards kids, I went on some of the outdoor rides that I’d sworn I’d never ride before....and then stayed up all night again with more new friends. Suffice it to say that I didn't get much sleep that weekend—but it was so, so worth it. 

A last note about our hostel:

Let me start by saying I’d never even seen the inside of a hostel before this trip, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect. We stayed at IS@K in Itaewon, and I can easily say I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. The atmosphere was very friendly, partly due to the owner, who regularly interacted with his guests and pulled out the traditional Korean board game Yut Nori (which reminded me a lot of the children's game Trouble) on our first night in honor of the holiday. (My coworker and I earned a free future night at the hostel for winning.) I met all sorts of awesome travelers and fellow teachers just by hanging around in the hostel's common room, each of them from a different part of the world and with an endless number of stories to tell. Over and over I've seen how much travel can expand a person’s worldview and just make him or her a better-rounded, more open, and more interesting person. Of course there will always be exceptions, but meeting so many people who have traveled the world and are eager to do it again has only reinforced this idea in my mind. 

My advice for the day: Go travel your heart out. You won't regret it.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Settling In

After an hour-and-half ride on KTX (aka the Korean bullet train) and a whole lot of greenery and small mountains on the way, I finally arrived in Daegu (대구), the fourth largest city in Korea and home to around 2.5 million residents. The first order of business was to move into my new apartment. Luckily I didn’t first have to spend a few weeks in a temporary apartment or, even better, a love motel like some other teachers.

Not so bad, right?
Feasts shall be made.
I honestly had no idea what to expect when I first walked in, but it’s actually pretty nice. It’s not huge but is definitely spacious enough for one person, despite the almost non-existent counter space in the kitchen. It’s very well furnished; I’ve heard of other apartments not even having a bed, but mine even came with a clean pillow and comforter. (I try to ignore the slightly acrid-smelling stain on the mattress.) Unfortunately no one had been living in the apartment for 6 months before I came, which meant there was a quite a bit of cleaning to be done (yay cobwebs!) and it still needs some maintenance. That and there’s no rule in Korea that you have to leave your apartment even moderately clean when you move out, which means the next resident gets the delightful job of cleaning it up for you. Still, it could’ve been much worse.

Some idiosyncrasies: 

1) Like in most other apartments here, there’s no oven, so I was really disappointed when I found out I couldn’t bake my favorite muffins. Maybe I’ll buy a toaster oven eventually. 

2) There are also no dryers in Korea, which means you have to hang up your clothes outside or on a metal rack and hope they dry by the time you need them again. 

Koreans seriously love their slippers.
3) In most Korean homes and even in some restaurants, there's a tiny indented space at the entrance for leaving your shoes so you can continue inside either barefoot or in provided slippers. I did that at my house in the States so I don’t mind it, but at the same time it’s really easy to trip on that mini step before you get used to its existence.

Yep, that's the shower head in 
the top left corner.  

4) Another really interesting and rather baffling trait of many Korean residences, at least the less expensive ones, is that there’s no designated shower area. In other words, when I take a shower, my entire bathroom gets wet. It’s an odd design choice, but it's also something you can quickly get used to. I guess the perks are that it saves space and at least you don’t have to clean your bathroom as often?

5) And then there’s the on-demand hot water, which means you have to turn on a special thermostat and let the water run for a couple of minutes before it gets warm. It took me two days to finally figure out that the reason this wasn’t working was because the leaky hot water valve was turned off (gotta love those cold showers), but now I can get hot water for as long as I want.

Such a pretty site on your walk home.
6) The trash system is pretty different as well. Each region in Korea has a designated trash bag that you’re technically supposed to use for all of your trash. And Korea is supposedly very adamant about recycling, which is nice…except that it doesn’t seem to apply to my area. Anyway, these trash bags are rather expensive, but that's partly because you're also paying for the service of having your trash picked up. Instead of finding the nearest dumpster, in Korea you find the nearest…light pole. That means wherever you walk you’ll see piles of trash on the road, which grow bigger and bigger and then suddenly disappear. 

I can walk to my school, the subway, and the Korean equivalent of a Wal-Mart within 15 minutes; downtown is only 15 minutes away by metro; there's a good-sized local grocery store with fresh produce on my way to school; and my apartment is right next to a small convenience store and several restaurants/bars that are always filled with people at night. So far I’ve been hesitant to try any because the menus are all in Korean and going to a restaurant by yourself isn’t looked well upon, but no worries—I’ll try them all soon enough. And best of all, I live either in the same building or very close to four of my coworkers. I'd say it’s a pretty good setup. :)