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...