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. :) 

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Necessary Evil

Before I could settle into my apartment in the Korean city of Daegu, I and everyone else employed by Chungdahm Learning had to undergo a rigorous week of training at Chungdahm Headquarters in Seoul. First let me explain what exactly Chungdahm is. In Korea it’s called a hagwon (학원), a private institute that can specialize in any number of things, including math, science, English, music, taekwondo, art, and test prep. Kids go to these institutions after their normal school hours and can attend several in the same day. The result is that most kids are in school for up to 12 or 13 hours a day, an idea that would make most Westerners, including myself, cringe. And now I'll be part of it! Woohoo.

Chungdahm Learning is one of the more professional Korean hagwons that has branches all over the country and therefore requires training for all of its new teachers. Honestly it makes a lot of sense considering that we don’t need a TEFL certificate or an education degree of any kind—only a college degree. Many of the smaller, more local hagwons just hand their new teachers a textbook and say, “Here. Teach this.” Not so with Chungdahm. It’s all incredibly structured, or at least Headquarters wants you to believe it is.

Anyway, on to my training week.

It was a lot of work, I’m not going to lie. When I heard I’d be finished around noon every day, I thought, “Great! I can use the rest of the day to explore Seoul.” Not true. On the first day we were divided into 2-5-person classes depending on which levels/age groups we would be teaching. Our trainers then proceeded to dump a truckload of introductory information onto us, with the result that we were all a bit frazzled by the end of the first session. (The jet lag didn’t help.) We were then driven to a clinic for the most extensive medical examination I’ve ever undergone. I won’t bore you with the details, but after all was said and done, it took 2 and 1/2 hours of waiting and being directed to this floor or that room or this couch before we were finally released and could EAT again. (We'd been instructed not to eat anything since the morning or even the night before). 

We spent our afternoons and evenings watching and taking quizzes over online videos of a model ESL instructor teaching perfectly well-behaved Korean student-actors—a somewhat unrealistic example of how we should conduct our own lessons. We then had to prepare mock lessons for the next day of training. This whole process took literally hours every day. By the end of the week I was definitely sleep-deprived, partly due to waking up too early because of jet lag. 

The main chunk of the in-class training consisted of us taking turns mocking different sections of each lesson and then receiving feedback from our classmates and our trainer. That meant our classmates had to pretend to be little Korean children, which is weird in itself…though I’ll admit it was kind of fun when we had to act like problem students in the middle of someone else’s lesson. Yes, even a goody-goody like me can enjoy being troublesome sometimes.

And finally, Friday: the day of judgment that would determine if we would graduate from training and move on to our various Chungdahm branches. After a short informational exam, we all conducted a series of the mock lessons we’d been practicing all week, this time with no feedback in between. Of course we were all nervous—what if we didn’t pass? Would we be sent back home like this guy? I myself felt pretty confident about my performance, although at the end our trainers refused to tell us if we had all passed or not.

My fellow trainees and I were standing around chatting nervously afterwards when a man came up to me and pulled me into a side room. With a solemn face, he said, “I’m sorry, but Headquarters told me you didn’t pass.”

Me: "......."

I thought he was joking. Maybe Ashton Kutcher would jump out of the corner and shout, “You’ve been punk’d!” But he didn’t, and the man didn’t change his expression. 

“What? Why?” was all I could say in disbelief. The man insisted he hadn’t been given any further information, but that I would still be sent to my school in Daegu; I’d just be “on probation” for a while first. No, he didn’t know what that would entail. And so he left me in a daze, still convinced that there had to have been a mistake.

Of course it was a blow to my self-esteem. The only other thing I can think of failing was my first driver’s test (shhh, don’t tell anyone). I guess it helped to know that a few others hadn’t passed either and were also being sent to their schools regardless, but still. It didn't feel good.

But before I got too dispirited, I realized "You know what? I’m still in Korea. I’m not being kicked out of the country, I’m still going to be a teacher just like everyone else, and I know my abilities will only improve as I go on." I've also been assured that some people who initially don’t pass end up being very good teachers later on, once they’re actually standing in front of kids and not just adults playing dumb.

I've decided that I’m going to make this a good year no matter what, and I’ve already put the outcome of that week behind me. And in the meantime, I met some really awesome fellow trainees from all over the world, all with different backgrounds, experiences, and accents that make it really amusing when we’re all in a room together. Some of them were from the US, from Canada (so many Canadians here!), from England, even from New Zealand—and they all made my training week one that I wouldn’t give up even if I could.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

First Impressions

After months of waiting and a tearful goodbye to my parents (I told myself I wouldn’t cry, dang it), I finally boarded my plane to South Korea. First of all, let me recommend Korean Air—the service was great, the personal TVs were better quality than usual, and the food was way more involved than anything I’ve gotten with other flight services. (They served seaweed soup and bibimpab for the first meal, complete with steamed rice, red pepper paste, sesame oil, and directions for amateurs like me on how to put it all together.) 

Anyway, fourteen-and-a-half hours later I landed in Incheon, where, lo and behold, I ran into a guy who had just graduated from another college in my state, shared a couple of mutual friends, and was here for the exact same training session I was. Small world, eh? Turns out I didn’t have to get lost on my own after all.

Following the one-hour bus ride to our hotel in Seoul, I spent most of the weekend walking around the Gangnam area....yes, the very same one from “Oppa Gangnam Style,” except Koreans pronounce the “g” as more of a “k." I'll talk more about my training week for Chungdahm Learning in my next post, but here are my initial observations and impressions of the country that, for the next year at least, will be my home: 

  • First of all, I was warned that Seoul, and Korea in general, is an extremely fashionable place and I was therefore somewhat concerned about how I should dress when I arrived. I've seen many stylish people here for sure, but there’s definitely a more casual portion of the population as well, at least where I am in Seoul. I've even seen some people in flip-flops.

  • I was also nervous about being stared at for being an obvious foreigner, but I’ve rarely encountered that problem so far. I’m sure there would be more of an issue if I were in a smaller city or the countryside, but in a place as touristic as Seoul, people are probably used to seeing random "waygooks" (foreigners) wandering around. 

  • There are more coffee shops than I think I’ve ever seen before. Like at least one or two on every block. There’s also a bakery called Paris Baguette that’s as common as Starbucks is in America--though I’ve seen several Starbucks here too, don’t get me wrong.

  • There are several western chains scattered about as well, including KFC, Smoothie King, and Burger King ("Buh-guh-keeng" to a Korean). And you can't ignore the abundance of chicken restaurants, because double-fried chicken wings + beer is a thing here. Apparently there’s also a Seoul Museum of Chicken Art somewhere around here too, but I think I'll pass.

  • In addition to Korea having the fastest internet in the world, there is wifi EVERYWHERE. Whether you’re in a café or in the subway, there are an average of 10-20 wifi options available wherever you go. Of course that doesn’t mean they’re all unlocked or free, but there's usually at least one or two that are. In one bakery I went to there was a free 5G network. I wasn't even aware 5G existed yet.

  • Samsung and LG and their enormous mini-tablet-like screens rule the Korean smartphone market. So much for iPhones. 

  • Some of the main subway stations, including the one by my hotel in Gangnam, contain huge, never-ending underground malls. They’re a cheaper alternative to department stores and offer a really amazing variety of clothes, shoes, food, cell phones, beauty products, and other knick-knacks. Random note: You can't go anywhere in these mall-things without a giant Clash of Clans advertisement staring you in the face. I guess it's a popular game here.

  • The subways are also much cleaner than most others I've seen and have incorporated the ingenious tactic of separating waiting passengers from the tracks with glass doors that open only when the train has arrived and stopped. It's much...uh...safer.

  • It’s not very common, but the few people I've seen holding umbrellas even on a cloudy day to protect themselves from the sun kind of make me laugh—even if they’re saving their skin in the process. There are also pairs of people holding hands everywhere you look. And by pairs I mean both male/female romantic couples and platonic female friends.

  • Finally, I'd gotten the notion from what I'd heard and read online that most of the population spoke or at least understood a passable amount of English, but so far there's been a lot more pointing to pictures and confused exchanges than I was hoping for. And no, unfortunately not all restaurants offer English menus. My goal for the year is to learn at least enough Korean to sort of get around on my own.

So there you have it--my foreigner impression of the vibrant country of South Korea, or at least the small portion I've seen of it. Somehow it doesn't seem so different from what I've experienced back home, as if the realization that I'll be living in and not just visiting another country for a year hasn't hit me yet. 

In the meantime, I'm just enjoying the moment.