Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Kimberly in Korea: Kimchi Teacher

Ever since I was little, I dreaded kids coming up with nicknames. My last name is Cochrane, and in second grade, when I was eight, a creative, young boy, named Roberto, (yes, I still remember who it was … and no … I don’t harbor any ill feelings toward him …) realized that Cochrane and cockroach start the same. That’s really all it takes I’ve discovered, that first syllable.

Roberto called me cockroach on the playground, and I got infuriated.

“Don’t call me cockroach!”

But it stuck.

From second grade until about middle school, when students stop calling each other harmless names, and start being a bit more vicious, I was known as “cockroach.”

Since then, I have learned one valuable lesson. The more extreme my reaction is, the more often whatever it is will happen. It’s apparently quite entertaining to others, even to my friends, when I get riled up.

For the first two months of teaching in Korea, no students came up with nicknames. They were shy and sweet. They tried their best to pronounce Kimberly, though they usually turned it into Kim-bu-lin, and I was often asked if it was a Korean name. Three syllables, Kim being one of them. It must be Korean.

Suddenly, one day, when I was introducing myself to a new student in a class I had had for a while, and the new student struggled to say my name, pausing a bit too long after Kim, perhaps, Jack (eight years old and clever, just like Roberto) blurted out, “Kim … chi … Kimchi! … Kimchi, teacher!!” And laughed.

All the students repeated, “Kimchi, teacher!”

I shook my head and laughed. What else could I do?

Honestly, being called kimchi, a beloved Korean side dish, is hardly as insulting as cockroach. So, perhaps that is the real reason my reaction changed, not because I have matured or become more tolerant.

Also, I had met another Kim, teaching English here, whose students called her kimchi, so I anticipated it. I expected it. Perhaps because she had introduced herself as Kim, her students came up with this nickname right at the beginning. I was surprised how long it took my students to call me kimchi.

While Jack quickly returned to calling me Kimberly, one student in Jack’s class, Michael, latched on to the nickname. At first he used to yell, nearly pointing and laughing, “Hello, KIMCHI teacher!” when he went by the teacher’s room. I simply responded, “Hi, Michael,” shaking my head and laughing as my co-teachers acted a bit surprised.

Michael has been calling me kimchi for about a month now, and I realized that today he said it as if it was my actual name. He is no longer searching for a reaction. Perhaps because I just accepted it and said, “Hello, Michael,” he now greets me daily, in the tone of something said out of habit, with, “Hello, Kimchi teacher.” And I respond, “Hi, Michael.”

I’m sure the real reason he uses it, is simply because it’s much easier to say than Kimberly. Regardless, each day being called “Kimchi, teacher,” by Michael, brings a smile to my face.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Korean Christmas: as told by 13 year olds.

In Moscow many of my students had no idea that December 25th is a huge holiday in the West. A few, select students, had celebrated Western Christmas before, but most of them looked forward to New Years, where they decorate a "Christmas" tree, exchange presents, eat an amazing assortment of foods, watch the Kremlin clock strike midnight, and enjoy the 10 day break that follows.

So, being in Korea for Christmas was quite a different experience. My students knew what Christmas was, and many of them received presents. Christmas songs played everywhere on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but before they were virtually non-existent. In my experience, Christmas has been about atmosphere with Christmas songs beginning, and lights going up, immediately after Thanksgiving (at the end of November). Additionally, Christmas was about spending time with family, going to church, and opening presents. For Korean students Christmas seemed mainly about presents, but possibly about spending time at an amusement park or with friends.

Because my students had some idea about Christmas on December 25th, I took advantage of this. For a whole week, after the lesson, when my students insisted on a “game”, I had them create Christmas cards. In the more advanced classes, they wrote Christmas stories. First we brainstormed a list of words that had to do with Christmas, then they worked in groups to make a story using ten of the words.

I encouraged them to be creative and funny with their stories … here is the most entertaining result of this exercise. Written and illustrated by Wendy, Terra, and Sally.

One day Santa went to the house, but Santa is fat.

Rudolph kicked him.
Santa, "If I get out of [this] chimney. You will die."

Santa was [turned] black!

Santa's clothes started burning next to the tree.
Santa, "My face hair is burning!"

Santa became [turned into] ash.

So ... "I'm a deer Santa," Rudolph.
[Rudolph became Santa]

Kind [good] children's present[s].

Rudolph Santa, "See you next Christmas!"

The ghost of Santa, "Deer! I don't like you!"

Another "dark" Christmas Story by Korean teens

It's December 1st.

We went to the North Pole. There [were] so many elves in the Santa village. Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus went to the factory, but the elves [weren't working, they were drinking] some Coca-Cola with [the Polar] bear[s].

So, Santa said, "Do you want to die?!?!" but [the elves] said, "We made 2 million toys."

Santa need[ed] reindeer, but [all his] reindeer [were in] jail. Santa changed reindeer.

December 25th.

Santa gave presents [to children] but [the presents were] Coca-Cola bottles [and] one present [was] a time bomb.

Santa [returned to] Santa village, but one child [died] because of the time bomb, and Santa [planned the dead child's funeral].


See you next Christmas.

Story by Chris, Sally, and Tony

Monday, December 20, 2010

What I needed to hear ...

I’ve always agreed with the saying, timing is everything. When reading a book, it’s no different.

Last Monday morning, when it was raining in Ulsan, and I was wandering around downtown, I started craving a book and a coffee. So I went to the English bookstore in hopes of finding something worth reading. Surrounded by thousands of English/Korean textbooks, I headed for the small selection of fiction. This collection mainly consists of the most popular novels, so I was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find a “good” book. I had looked before and came out empty handed.

The first to catch my eye was Eat, Pray, Love, which I considered simply because of the recommendations I have gotten. A woman wandering the world … sounded familiar.

“Maybe I’ll come back to it,” I thought.

Then, I saw The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The name of this book has been floating around, and it was like I was being pulled toward it. Even though I didn’t know much about it, my heart jumped. As I do with books that call to me, I picked it up, flipped through the pages, and briefly scanned the synopsis on the back. I read the first couple sentences of the author’s forward, and I knew. This was it. This was the book. Usually, I at least read the first sentence or two of the actual book, but there was something about this book. Perhaps it was the tone, but I just felt like I needed it.

Ten minutes after walking into the bookstore, I had purchased a book, walked across the street, ordered a coffee, and sat reading in a nice, warm building, while it rained outside.

After the first few pages, I knew I had picked the right book.

The day was meant to be.

Accompanied by Christmas music, a good book, and a warm mocha, I was happy. Only snow would have made it better.

It seems rare that a book strikes such a deep and resounding chord. It told me what I needed to hear, and pushed me how I needed to be pushed. The Alchemist, an international bestseller, communicates age-old wisdom about tuning-in to the “Soul of the World”. I’m certain the book speaks to each person differently, and I’m sure each time I read it, I will learn something new about myself and about life. The beauty of this story lies in its simplicity. It lies in the universal nature of the message written. It is about seeking happiness and following dreams. It is about being happy in the moment, embracing opportunities, and heading toward a positive end.

I finished the book this morning and want to read it again, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a month, maybe in five years.

And part of me wants to leave it on a table or a bench somewhere.

It is a book that will find the next person who needs to read it.

If you see it. Pick it up.

If it feels right, read it.

Otherwise, leave it and continue on your way.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Everybody gets sick, but thermometers are only used in science class

Everybody gets sick. It doesn’t matter if you are American, Russian, or Korean. Everyone does. And of course, each culture handles this phenomenon differently.

Koreans go to the doctor and “get an injection” even for the slightest cold. Muscovites avoid the doctor at all costs because it means waiting in a long line or paying too much money, and drugs can often be gotten from the pharmacist without a prescription. As an American, I’m used to going to the doctor if I know I have strep throat, influenza or some other serious ailment and need antibiotics, but if it’s a bad cold, bed rest, cough drops, chicken soup, and plenty of fluids are fine.

Tuesday morning I woke up with a bad cold. As the only foreign teacher at my school, I wasn’t sure what would happen if I called in sick, but I had heard that it earns you a reputation as lazy and irresponsible. So, when I should have stayed in bed with a slight fever and a cough, I forced myself to get out of bed, get ready and go into work. I thought, surely my coworkers will notice that I am not up to par, and they will send me home to get some rest.

Oh no. That was hoping too much.

The only coworker that noticed, early in the day, commented on how much prettier I look when I’m sick. It was a backhanded compliment because I just wanted to sleep. I didn’t care if I looked pretty. In fact, I wished I looked horrible so my coworkers would notice how sick I really was.

Finally, at the end of the day, after I had worked myself nearly to death and was freezing with my coat on, my coworkers realized how sick I was. If my lips hadn’t turned purple, I’m not sure they would ever have noticed, but my lip color freaked them out. They wouldn’t stop commenting on it, and the next day I was promptly sent to the hospital for an injection even though, by then, the worst of my cold had passed.

Regardless, at the insistence of five Korean women, I went to the doctor across the street with one of them accompanying me and an extra coat draped on top of mine.

At the doctor’s office, there was no wait. Before I could even remove my coat, two women and my coworker hastily pushed me into a room with an older man, sitting behind a desk, wearing a face mask.

The doctor.

He had me sit down and immediately put his hands on my forehead and neck, to check my temperature. No thermometer. He declared I didn’t have a fever. Then he used a metal tongue depressor, looked at my throat without proper lighting, and made no comment about my huge tonsils which doctors almost always comment on. He checked my lungs with his stethoscope, but only on inhale. I was confused. This was by no means a thorough checkup. He didn’t check my blood pressure or look in my ears. He didn’t ask me what was wrong. I felt a million times better than the day before and did not think I needed to be at the doctor, so his lack of attention didn’t concern me much at the time.

Because my coworkers had sent me over “to get an injection” the coworker accompanying me told the doctor I needed an injection. Rather than agreeing, he jabbered on for a couple minutes about the same thing I had told her earlier, only with “American’s think” in front of it. It’s strange to get an injection for a simple cold. He felt my forehead and neck again. Said I didn’t have a fever. Confirmed my diagnosis of a bad cold, and sent me out of the room to go to the pharmacy to get three packets of pills.

I was then rushed out the door to the pharmacy where I was given a strange assortment of pills to take, with no questions, no warnings, and no risks of side effects.

I had to insist on a copy of the list of medicines I was taking. What do most Koreans walk away with? An injection or just three, unlabeled packets of pills. One each day for three days. What the doctor, who wouldn’t give me an injection, didn’t realize is that this was also strange for me. I would have been a bit more convinced that these pills might actually help and not harm me, if he had used a simple instrument such as a thermometer.

When I commented to my coworker that I was surprised the doctor didn’t use a thermometer. She simply replied, “We use thermometers in science class.”

After the quick checkup which hadn’t taken 20 minutes and cost less than 20 dollars, even without insurance, we walked back to the school so I could get back to work.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A truly Korean experience: Kimchi making

It’s that time of the year when Koreans in the south of South Korea make Kimchi. It has been for the last couple weeks. The Napa Cabbage is ready for harvest, so families turn their living rooms into mini kimchi factories so they can have kimchi for the rest of the year.

Napa Cabbage

What is Kimchi?

Aside from spicy and delicious, Kimchi is a staple of the Korean diet. The most common type in Ulsan is made with Napa Cabbage, and in this area, most kimchi pastes consist of a mixture of red pepper paste, roasted garlic, ginger, and fish sauce. Think meat rub, but wetter and for vegetables. Recipes for the paste vary from family to family and region to region, depending on what is available. Koreans use this paste to preserve vegetables for up to a year.

Kimchi paste (Red pepper serves as the main ingredient)

As the kimchi ages and ferments, the flavor changes, but as soon as the kimchi is made it can be eaten.

I was lucky enough to be invited by one of my coworkers to join her family in making kimchi. Unfortunately, I did not arrive in time to see exactly how this family makes the paste, but let me tell you, it is delicious!

The process is quite laborious and takes an entire day just to rub the paste on the cabbage, if you have a good amount of people working together. After rubbing paste on about 4 or 5 quarters of Napa Cabbage, my shoulders began to ache, my foot fell asleep, and I couldn’t even imagine what it would have been like starting this process at six in the morning like my coworker’s family.

Kimchi rub process:

The paste is rubbed on each individual leaf

It's important to get right down to the base of each leaf

One of my finished bits of kimchi

Even though I hardly helped at all, my coworker's family fed me and sent me home with a bin of kimchi, which has become a part of my daily diet.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Swearing: No training prepares you for this

It was near the end of class and I was reviewing the language used in “Go fish!” with my students, when a student said, “Teacher look.”

He showed me his phone background and then said, “Mario, fuck you.”



Back up.

As a child, I thought one of the worst things that could come out of my mouth was “the F word”. I never said it, and I would never even have imagined saying it in front of an adult, especially in class.

Teaching English outside of the United States I have realized something about swear words.

English swear words don’t hold the taboo that they do to a native speaker. (Maybe you already knew that.) In fact, apparently swearing in a language that is not your own is supposed to be “cool” … though to the many speakers of that language it comes across as quite crass because it is often used without appropriate intonation or situation.

In Moscow, the F word was scrawled on walls inside stairwells and on outdoor walls. Like swearing in English, English graffiti seemed to be “cool” and even the authorities didn’t seem to care to clean it up. “Musturbation” (yes, it was misspelled), “Я love my BaBy”, “Sex”, and “Fuck police” are some of the more memorable graffiti I saw in Moscow.

While crude language was all around, if a student used the F word in class, all I had to do was stop, give him a look, and say in a stern voice that he shouldn’t say “that” word again. Then, it would never happen again, at least not in that class. There was an understanding that some language shouldn’t be used in a classroom of younger students. (Adults were a different story …)

In Ulsan, Korea, things work a bit differently. There is a bit of graffiti on the walls of the stairwell, but places where you would think there should be graffiti, under bridges for example, are clean. Most of the graffiti in stairwells is stylized middle fingers with hardly any English words, but it’s the classroom situation that is the most different. Perhaps because I’m teaching kids, not teenagers and adults.

Students aren’t supposed to have cell phones in class. Yet, they usually take them out toward the end of class to check the time, and I have started to ignore it. They aren’t texting during class like Russian teenagers, so I cut them some slack.

One student, eight years old, has prided himself on the image he has on the background of his phone and likes to show me when he gets a new one. Usually the images seem silly, but not that shocking. Wednesday, this student very proudly showed me the picture on his phone, and then said, “Mario, fuck you.”

I know I didn’t react properly. He wasn’t being malicious. He was smiling, thinking it was cute, maybe, and my shocked face doesn’t even begin to explain my reaction. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard coming out of this child’s mouth. Yes, the picture was Mario flipping me off, which I think I would have ignored on its own, but a small child, a good student, uttering the F word, threw me.

An audible, “What?!” jumped from my mouth.

Of course, my intonation was lost on these children, and my, “What?!” was promptly followed by all the children saying “fuck you” in unison. Like I had just said, “What?” in a nice calm manner, or had just initiated a say and repeat. I tried to follow that by a, “No. You shouldn’t say that,” and a serious tone, but I was simply bewildered by the situation. I had never encountered anything like this before.

How inexperienced of me, I know.

After thinking about this a bit. All children repeating, in unison, what you wish they didn’t even know must happen accidentally in Kindergartens across the States, but this was the first time it happened to me.

Did I react properly? I don’t know. Probably not. I mumbled a bit and went back to the language used in “Go fish.”

As an end note on this:

Students saying something shocking in a totally innocent way happened in Moscow as well.

The F word, teenagers understood. They caught my tone. They whispered it hoping I wouldn’t hear. A word they uttered with no idea the baggage and consequences was the N word … yes, the one that rhymes with Tigger. They actually were shocked when I told them that we never, never, NEVER use this word as white folk. NEVER! And they were even more shocked when I said they could use the word “black” to talk about someone with dark skin because translated, this word has negative associations.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"Teacher hit": What happens in Korea

Korean academies must be strict. The stricter, the better. And homework must be done.

It doesn’t matter if the student, a kid in their early-teens, remember, hardly got any sleep last night because they were studying for exams after a long day at school and academies. It doesn’t matter that they were lucky to spend eight hours at home last night. It doesn’t matter that they are dealing with the crisis of puberty, issues with friends, and parental, social, and internal pressure to get 100% or A++. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.

Homework must be done, and it must be done at home.

How to ensure a student toes the line?

“Get the stick.”

Over my first month here, it slowly dawned on me what exactly this phrase meant.

A student would come into my classroom and say, “Teacher can I have the stick?”

Depending on the student, intonation and facial expressions varied when asking this question. Sometimes they would have a look of amusement, especially if they were an older student coming into a classroom full of younger children. Sometimes they would have a look of fear. My students would react to this request with a hush or a classroom wide, “OOoooOOO.”

Perhaps because I wanted to stay in my bubble of ignorant bliss, or because I was simply in denial, I did not ask my students what happened with this stick. In fact, I naively though perhaps it was used as a pointer.

It was harder to ignore when a student would come to class without books or homework and other students would say, “Teacher hit.” In fact, they seemed almost excited about seeing one of their classmates be punished in this way.

After two or three different incidences, I had pieced it together but remained in denial. I hadn’t seen it happen. I hadn’t asked my coworkers, who are all Korean, what they use the sticks for. It could be that it was just an empty threat.

The final shred of evidence came when I read a student’s diary. He wrote, “I went to Academy. That's homework, so much, so I couldn't finish everything. So my teacher hit me. My hands was so hurt, so I rub[bed] my hands, and bl[ew on] my hands. I did my homework to finish Academy and came home.”

I could no longer deny it. My coworkers use corporal punishment.

Since the day it dawned on me that teachers were hitting students, my philosophy has been, “Ok, it happens at my school. Students get hit, but I will not participate.”

Usually I hold the idea that a bystander who lets things happen might as well be doing the action, but I’ve thrown myself into a new culture. As a lone foreigner, with “weird” ideas, I’m not sure I could make much of an impact, and I feel like I would struggle not to be seen as the judgmental Westerner who thinks they can tell people what to do.

I know.

I am rationalizing.

I have never asked my coworkers about hitting students.

I’ve heard they don’t hit hard.

A coworker said to me once, when she found a metal ruler and hit it against her hand, “Oh. Sounds good.” The emphasis being on sound, not feeling.

Friday night, in a bizarre turn of events where we didn’t end up at Noribong at 4 in the morning after dinner together, my coworkers spoke in Korean about it. I wish I understood what they had said because in the middle of conversation about students and school, the teachers started emulating children about to get their hands slapped. Students who quiver in fear. Students who try to move their hands away at the last minute. Because I cannot be sure exactly what they were saying, perhaps what I saw as black humor was just the need to make light of a horrid situation.

Regardless how I feel about hitting students and how shocked I was by my coworkers’ humor, the attitude that it’s acceptable seems fairly prevalent in Korea. If a student doesn’t do their homework, get the stick. If a student cheats, get the stick. If a student happens to get a little out of hand, get the stick. The best I can do is tell my students that I won’t hit them, not hit them, and hopefully, eventually, over soju and beer, talk to my coworkers about this policy and the philosophy behind it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving with spoons and chopsticks

I planned and made lists and went on three different shopping trips for my 3rd Annual American Thanksgiving party (the first two were in Moscow), and yet I still managed to forget something. When I was finishing up the mac and cheese, and started thinking about how someone needed to go pick up the chicken that was taking the place of the turkey, it dawned on me. I had paper cups, plastic plates, napkins, and dishes galore, but nothing to eat the food with. There were no utensils. Now, I could have just ignored the situation and let people figure it out, but when you have mashed potatoes, ice cream, and other things that are not very easy to eat with your hands, utensils are nice, to say the least.

So, about 15 minutes before I was hoping to let people eat more than chips and salsa, crackers and cheese, and other snacky stuff, I snuck out the door and walked to the supermarket. It felt strange leaving the warmth and noise of my apartment for the cold and silence of the street …

When I got to the store, I looked for about five seconds on my own, then I took out my phone for a quick translation. (Yes, there is a quick translator function on every phone.)

Ok, fork = poker … plastic = plastic.

“This should be easy,” I thought.

“The words are close enough that if I try and say them with a Korean accent (which I’m not so hot at) the ladies at the store should be able to put two and two together.”

But that’s not how it panned out. I went to the first lady who didn’t even make half an effort to understand me. She just looked bewildered that some white girl was talking to her and hustled me over to a second lady, who promptly avoided eye contact with me and turned to a younger lady who “spoke English.” All of this time, I was making my best effort to make “plastic” sound Korean and say “poker” in a way that they could understand. I was also gesturing like I was eating, which actually may have confused them. Regardless, they didn’t understand, but I couldn’t give up. I had a potential food crisis waiting for me at home.

Finally, the younger woman pulled out a piece of paper and a pen and had me write. As soon as I was halfway done writing plastic in English on the paper, she stopped me.

“OOOHhh, plasatic pokel.”

Two women then led me hurriedly to another section of the store with children’s utensil sets. One “plasatic sapoon” and one “pokel” in a packet. Strike one.

I then tried to communicate that I needed many, many. Luckily this word is very similar in English and Korean, but I used hand gestures anyway. The two women who were helping me understood, repeated, then looked at each other and said, “Opssayo.” They didn’t have any. Strike two.

I must have looked pretty let down, so they didn’t leave it at that. Rather they said, “Sapoon, plasatic sapoon, many, issayo.” They had many plastic spoons.

“Of course,” I thought to myself. “I’m in Korea. Why the heck was I asking for forks?!”

Odie?” I asked where, and they rushed me to the section of the store with plastic dinner sets. Hundreds of wooden chopsticks in one bag, but only ten spoons in a pack, of course.

I almost got caught in my time wasting vortex of comparing prices and looking for alternatives, but suddenly, the thought reoccurred to me. People were at my house, without me, and hoping to eat soon.

So I said, “Gamsa-nida (Thank you),” to the woman who was watching me navigate the plastic and wooden cutlery. Then I hurriedly grabbed spoons, chopsticks, and some extra plates. She made some funny comment when I grabbed the chopsticks, but I have no idea what it was, so I just thanked her again and went over and grabbed the chicken that I needed. I checked out without incident and walked home with a smirk on my face at how ridiculous a trip for something as seemingly simple as plastic forks can turn into.

Here’s to a Thanksgiving dinner eaten with chopsticks and sapoons.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cute stationary will be the death of me

Korean students have an obsession with stationary.



My thoughts exactly.

For the first two months of being here I didn’t understand the fascination or appeal. I recalled picking out school supplies at the beginning of the school year and being excited for school to start, but I would not have been ecstatic about getting a new pencil case for my birthday, especially at the age of thirteen. Also, at the age of thirteen, I wouldn’t have let losing my favorite pencil bum me out.

Here’s an actual conversation from Friday.

Me, “How are you?”

Student, “I’m bad.”


“I lost my favorite pencil.”

Me, perplexed and thinking maybe it was really fancy pencil but saying anyway, “Can’t you get a new pencil?”

How insensitive of me, I know.

Student shaking his head, “No, it’s my favorite pencil … It’s blue with penguins. We have a long history together …”

No. I did not start laughing.

Through his tone of voice and demeanor, he had actually convinced me that there could be nothing worse in the world. Luckily, about five minutes later, he found his favorite pencil, and there was much rejoicing. Oh, and it wasn’t fancy, it was a wooden pencil with a colored wrapping.

Another scenario, prior to me finding out part of the reason why Korean students love school supplies.

Me, “How are you?”

Student, “I’m Great!”


“I got a new pencil case. It’s very cute. It has Rilakkuma on it.”

These are not isolated incidences. In fact, often, students will write about getting a new white out pen for their birthday or giving a pencil case as a gift.

Monday I discovered the reason for this.

Previously, I had been inside a store that sells stationary, but I was distracted by the variety of socks and pillows or the plethora of cutsie barrettes with Hello Kitty and the like. I ignored the stationary section because I didn’t expect anything of it. I didn’t need any of it. It’s stationary for crying out loud.

Monday was different. I looked at the stationary. Not only did I look, I delved. I got excited. I wished for all these things when I was a kid. I wished I was going to school so I had an excuse to have these things. Monthly, weekly, daily, and hourly planners with the most adorable pictures that encourage students to keep track of their various academies, homework, and tests. Scented highlighters. Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma notebooks. Mechanical pencils which were so darn cute, I couldn’t help but touching them. Pencil cases of every shape and size with the most adorable characters on them.

Suddenly it hit me.

In the midst of near euphoria, it hit me.

For a teenager in Korea, life is school and school is life. Cute stationary encourages this. It assists students to overcome the stress level that builds from waking up early, going to school, going to academy, doing homework, studying for tests and having no time to be children and get in trouble. Cute stationary attempts to make up for the lack of sleep these children get and the pressure society puts on them to achieve. Cute stationary encourages them (and me) to be good consumers. Cute stationary, parents, and teachers, with the occasional reprieve of a PC bong (internet café for gamers) or sport, make up a Korean child’s life.

Korean students have an obsession with cute stationary, and so do I.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Korea's inappropriate soundscapes

Imagine this.

You get off the bus in a concrete jungle, without even trees to break up the cement, pavement, steel and glass. You walk to the park, with the express purpose of taking a mini-break from urban culture only to find that the sounds of nature have been overlaid with pop music.

Assumption number one: parks exist as green spaces to break up the urban landscape and serve as an accessible extension of nature and the sounds that accompany it.

At first, this assumption rings true, but soon the reality of Ulsan’s manmade nature sinks in. Music is blaring from speakers, two on each lamp post, and regardless of where I go in the park, I cannot hear the uninhibited “sounds of nature.”

Nature encompasses me. A river flows through the park, grass and trees on either side. A great blue heron stands in the water, gracefully waiting … for what, I have no idea, but waiting none-the-less. Ducks sleep or dive to eat, and jumping fish plop back into the water, seemingly with no worries about predators. Observing nature, I am nearly drawn in. I see the beauty that Asian artists have painted for centuries, the trees that grow in seemingly effortless, beautifully curved lines that beg to be replicated.

Yet, as I walk, I’m wrenched out of this contemplative mood by blaring club beats.

The soundscape of nature has been co-opted by pumping rhythm. Like an art gallery displaying too many sound-art pieces together, the overlapping themes clash. The juxtaposition feels off. Rather than gleening the expected inner calm from nature, I am distracted and wondering at the logic of such created experiences. Suddenly, I have moved in my mind from nature, to the bar or club from the previous evening, and I am reminded of the electronics shop I walked by on the way to the bus stop.

Assumption number two: music in an outdoor setting should be controlled by the listener.

While in a grocery store, at a club or restaurant, or basically anywhere indoors, I have come to accept music as a part of my daily experience. Many times I tune it out or cover it up with my own music via iPod, but, perhaps because I was raised in Idaho where nature usually means uninhabited space, I have always taken it for granted that a public, outdoor space will generally be music free, barring obvious exceptions.

That being said, public outdoor music is not completely new to me. I remember feeling like I was in the middle of nowhere, deep in a forest in Moscow when music interrupted the mood and crowded the soundscape, but the ability to escape from the music made it tolerable.

In Ulsan, at the greenbelt, it is nearly impossible to escape. Each bench lines up with a light post to which two speakers are attached. As soon as I think I’ve reached the point at which the next step will bring me far enough away from the speaker so the sound cannot reach me, the next set of speakers takes over. The city obviously invested money in the research and development of this soundscape because there does not exist an escape from it, but that’s exactly the problem.

As a visitor to this bit of nature, there is no choice but to listen to music. This begs the question why? What is the purpose of a greenbelt with constant music playing?

I have not yet found an answer to this question, and I challenge anyone to find a reasonable argument for such outdoor, public soundscapes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Comparing attitudes toward cheating in Korea and Russia

When I first arrived in Moscow, one of the things that stuck out the most was my students' attitude toward cheating. In Ulsan, Korea I am surprised by the lack of cheating and the amount of tattle-telling that goes on.

In Moscow cheating was all around, not only in the English classroom, but I heard stories about cheating at University. I met students who had no problem with plagiarism and were perplexed when I confronted them. At first I was shocked. Then as I came to understand Russian culture a bit, and discovered the pressure put on students, especially at University, I became more lax myself. I still discouraged cheating but no longer saw it as fundamentally wrong. I encouraged my students to do their own work, if only to see how well they knew English. My goal was not to punish them if they didn’t know the English we had gone over, but to assess how well I had taught the subject matter. In order to understand this, an honest test, with no cheating was necessary. Yet, I also discovered that sometimes by “cheating” students are actually helping each other out and possibly learning something, as long as it’s not the blind cheating that happens under the intense pressure of the Russian University system. (Please see the recent comment on my previous post on cheating, Kimberly in Russian: Китберли)

Like Russians, Korean children are under insane pressure to do well. They go to school in the morning, and when they are done with school, they go to a private academy for one subject, then another, then another and hardly have time for a proper night’s sleep, let alone homework. Yet, when it comes to cheating, in Korea the opposite of Russia seems to be true.

Given the stress Korean students face, they seem overly sensitive about cheating, especially after my experience in Moscow. Many students cover their tests with books or papers as they complete them to hide them from other students, and they don’t hesitate to tell on each other for the smallest amounts of cheating. I have been blown away by how serious Korean students take cheating. Even during a game my students will complain, “Teacher, he’s cheating!” Additionally, I have had students come tell me, in the teacher’s room, before class has even started, that another student didn’t finish their homework. I try to discourage this kind of peer pressure. While the Korean teachers push these students to the max, as their culture expects, as the foreign teacher, I have the flexibility to be more lenient and more forgiving. Also, I do not see any value in tattle-telling.

Of course, my personal philosophy on cheating has also changed since the first time I walked into a classroom in Moscow. At first I refused to accept any cheating. I had constant conversations with my students about it. I talked to them about the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I cheated and was confounded that they did not have this same gut reaction. Now, I nearly participate in cheating. As long as homework is done by the time I walk around to check it, I accept it. I usually ignore if a student is hurriedly copying homework from someone else for another teacher. When the students are taking a test, while I discourage them from copying off of each other, I walk around and point to areas that need work and freely answer questions about spelling and grammar. Rather than being strict and feeling like cheating is morally wrong, I want to give students confidence and create a relaxed environment, where they can enjoy learning English, even if it means accepting cheating now and then.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How “a drink after work” turns into 4am at a Noribong

After first week of work, I decided it would be good for my coworkers, all of whom are Korean, and I to get together chat and have a drink. They agreed, so we planned ahead and went out after work on Friday. I had let some other people know that I was going out for a drink with coworkers but might meet them later. Little did I know “a drink” in Korea is not just a drink, and I definitely wouldn’t be going out with other people that night.

We left work around nine and wandered around our district of Ulsan, looking for a place to eat. The nice sashimi place the girls were wandering toward happened to close early that night, so we decided anything would do. Still, all the other places we checked were closing or closed, and after an hour of searching, we still hadn’t found a place. This was my first clue that the night was going to be long.

Because of the dead-end in our district, we headed downtown to a place the girls knew would be open. We ordered soju, beer, and a giant plate of sashimi, which of course, came with ten or so side dishes.

As we started eating, drinking, and getting more comfortable, we were sitting traditional Korean style on the floor, the girls I was with started joking about a second stage. I laughed and thought, ok I’ve done that before. Dinner one place, dessert another. At this point, I was pretty convinced I would be spending the evening with them, then going home, but I really had no clue what I was in for.

After about an hour of eating and drinking, another coworker showed up with her boyfriend, and we continued to eat and drink. He had been out drinking with coworkers previous to meeting up with his girlfriend and suggested almost immediately that we head to a Noribong, which is Korean style karaoke. The girls laughed, but obviously took it seriously because after we drank a bit more, there we were, outside, walking toward a Noribong. My coworkers half gave me the option to leave, by asking me if I wanted to go, but of course, they really expected me to come. While I’m not crazy about karaoke, it was definitely an experience I was curious about, so I went along thinking I wouldn’t sing, I would just sit and watch.

Fairly typical Noribong hall stolen from the Internet

When we got to the Noribong, we were shown our own private room fully equipped with tambourines, two microphones, two TV screens, a table and a nice cushioned bench to sit on.

Inside of a Noribong "singing room" also stolen from the Internet

The girls ordered more beer and food, and the singing started almost immediately. They handed me a book, showed me the English section and encouraged me to pick out a song. How can you say no to that?

Here’s the thing about Noribong. No one can get away with not singing. I mean, maybe if you have iron resolve, haven’t been drinking, and dislike the people you are with, it’s possible. No matter how much I stalled, saying I couldn’t find anything, my coworkers kept insisting and encouraging me. I tried looking for a song I listened to as a teenager, that I knew I would know all the words to, but failed. Finally, I saw a song I knew and thought, I listen to this song all the time and sing along, so I must know the words. Boy was I wrong, I knew maybe fifty percent of the words to a song I listened to all the time. It was a bit catastrophic.

When my turn to sing came, I got nervous. I had no clue how this was going to go. I grabbed a mic, pushed back my fear, and tried to imagine I was in my apartment just singing along with the song. This pseudo-self-confidence worked until about 10 seconds into the song when I realized I hardly knew the song at all. While someone with more confidence performing would have simply embraced it, I kept shaking my head, saying I didn’t know the words, shrugging my shoulders and the like. After a humiliating two minutes, the song finally ended, and I sat down. Perhaps because my coworkers were drunk, or maybe just out of politeness, or out of excitement that I had participated, they congratulated me and said it was great.

It wasn’t great.

The Noribong gives you a score. My coworkers had been scoring in the 90s, making me think it was impossible to get a lower score.

I scored a 76.

This was a fairly embarrassing affirmation that I didn’t know the song and sucked at singing it. I shook my head, and started looking for another song. I thought, I’ve got to be able to do better!

In the end, over the course of perhaps three hours, I sang three songs, one with the help of a coworker, and I discovered that regardless of how much Koreans argue that the words are on the screen, it doesn’t help unless I actually know the song.

I have no idea what time it was when we arrived at the Noribong, but after an hour or so of singing, the boyfriend who suggested Noribong in the first place, fell asleep. No one seemed to pay him any mind, and we continued to hang out, singing until I started showing obvious fatigue. I danced less, was less interested in finding a song, and generally was overwhelmed by the cultural immersion I was experiencing.

Finally, at four o’clock in the morning, we all headed home. My first initiation into Korean night culture was complete. Afterwards I was surprised how going out for “a drink” turned into all night, but it was a Friday night after all, and we did have a pretty great time.

Now that I have been here nearly two months, I am beginning to discover that going out for “a drink” with Koreans is never just that, regardless what day of the week it is. This last Thursday evening the scenario repeated itself. When with Koreans, the night will have many stages - first grab food, soju and beer, last head to Noribong, with a few unknowns inbetween.

How Korea sees its neighbors, through the eyes of a teenager, as viewed by a foreigner

At the beginning of my class with two teenage girls, I usually just encourage them to talk to each other, to me and say what’s on their mind. I have found that this leads to interesting discoveries about my students, as people, and also creates a more natural environment in which to speak English.

During one of these warm-ups, one of the girls drew a cartoonish map of Korea (north and south together), with Japan along side. Anyone who has looked at a map of Asia, will recognize that Korea and Japan are fairly comparable in size, though some of the northern islands of Japan actually make Japan larger. My student’s map of Korea made Japan look tiny in comparison, so I joked with my teenager about it.

“Wow! Japan is tiny!”

“Yes. I don’t like Japan …”

She went on to explain to me that despite how cool Japanimation is, the Japanese are jerks. She told me that the Japanese changed the spelling of Corea to Korea for the Olympics, so Japan would come before Korea at the opening ceremony. This is the first I had ever heard of this alternate spelling, and a quick Google search will come up with various reasons for the different spellings. After mentioning spelling, my students wrote Corea and Korea on the map, with Korea crossed out. Then they labeled the East Sea, and I mentioned that the rest of the world knows this as the Sea of Japan. Of course neither of my students approved of this renaming and said Japan only thought of itself, but I also pointed out that the East Sea is west of Japan, so it doesn’t make sense for them to call it east.

The map my student drew not only begged the question about how Japan is viewed, because it presented both North and South together as Korea, it begged the question of how my students see the division between the two halves. The rest of the world sees Korea as split into North Korea and South Korea, but as evidenced by this map, the idea doesn’t hold much weight in Korea. Part of the issue is that many Koreans have family in the North. Family they haven’t seen for a couple generations, but family, none-the-less. South Koreans seem to desperately want reunification, and really, who wouldn’t if some of their family lived across a border that not many people can cross.

This short conversation regarding the countries drawn, segued into a conversation about Korea’s other neighbor, China, which was only added to the map when I mentioned it. It seems that just about everything that goes wrong in Korea can somehow be blamed on China. While things like crappy weather and a lot of pollution really do come from China on occasion, other things like, “I got food poisoning, this food must have come from China,” seem a bit exaggerated. From many students’ points of view, China is dirty, cheap, a land where they eat weird things, and part of the reason the North and South have not been reunified.

From this single window of conversation which arose because of a simple drawing, it may seem that Korea has a fairly cool relationship with its neighbors, but it is actually quite common for my students to have visited Japan or China, though they may prefer their own Jeju Island.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Alien status

While I have yet to be asked for it, after nearly two months of being in Korea, I now have my official alien card. If my school hadn't been kind enough to set up both Internet and cell phone under their name, now I could finally get these on my own. The alien card also means I can establish a bank account, get free wi-fi at Starbucks and I'm sure countless other privileges that I didn't even realize I had been going without. Of course, it all seems that it is in exchange for some type of authorized surveillance and tracking.

My alien card, about which, my coworker said, "I don't like this picture of you." When I tried to get her to explain what she meant, was it a bad picture or what, she got really evasive.

Comparing bureaucracy in Moscow and Ulsan, while the paperwork here seems much more detailed, strenuous and ridiculous -- they required a notarized, apostilled copy of my diploma even after I had sent my original diploma -- for some reason the system seems more efficient, even though it took me a little over a month to get my alien card. This month was, surprisingly, not on the government side but was my employer. After my boss finally applied for the card, I had it in less than a week.

Here's to being a legal alien! Not even my boss understands why this registration is necessary.

Four seasons, one weekend

For anyone who loves the ocean, going to the beach, on a warm day with the sun on your face and sand between your toes, will cure any longing for another season, another time, or another place. When the bus dropped us off at Haeundae metro stop, we had no clue which way to turn to find our hostel, or the market it was in, or the beach. Usually, going with my gut leads me in the wrong direction, but this time it led me straight to a map of the city and toward the smell of the ocean. As soon as the ocean caught my attention, I no longer had any wish for fall. I simply enjoyed being a bit warm in my sweatshirt and occasionally cold enough to put on my scarf.

During the day Haeundae Beach held a magically warm pocket of air. It reminded me of summer and made me not even want to think about finding a good winter coat, but at night Busan fell into lower temperatures and my sweater, jacket, scarf combination did not even begin to protect me against this biting preview of what winter will bring. Not only did I get a taste of summer and winter this weekend, I also found fall and spring on my walk to the Busan Museum of Modern Art. While there was traffic on one side of the sidewalk, an unexpected green patch lined the other side. I saw flower buds and flowers in bloom and a bit further down the sidewalk, fall colors, leaves on the sidewalk, and wafts of the smell of fall interspersed with car exhaust and the crunch of leaves underfoot.

I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend to see Busan for the first time, and the forty minute bus ride means I will be exploring the city a lot when I need a break from Ulsan. While I never imagined I would think a city of 1.5 million was small, I’m happy to have a slightly more cosmopolitan city as a break from what I have discovered is a quite small (in attitude and options), big (geographically and population wise) city.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Music enables a comparison of apartments and cultures

It’s nowhere near the first of September, the first day of school for Russian children, and I’m in Ulsan, Korea miles away from Moscow. Yet, from somewhere outside, there is music emanating into my apartment, dredging up memories of those early days in September 2009 when I awoke to children’s speeches and patriotic Russian hymns.

At the beginning of the school year, Russian schools hold ceremonies to welcome the students back. The music at these first of September events usually was performed live by children, but the music in this case feels like it’s coming from a record being proudly played into the streets. While I have no idea what they are singing about, and wouldn’t even if it was in English, because it is not quite that clear, the orchestral background to the singing makes me think of patriotic anthems.

It’s early morning, the sun is shining in my window, and while it’s two months later and 10 degrees colder, the memory-pulling this music is causing is a bit unreal.

Suddenly, I can remember very clearly my dingy little apartment in a rundown part of Moscow, where the vacuum cleaner put more dust on the floor than it picked up, and where my room was basically a small partitioned off part of my roommate’s giant room – an afterthought. While we had separate entrances, the wall separating our rooms was paper thin. The entire apartment smelt old and very well used. The floor in the kitchen hadn’t been cleaned for years, so any attempt left the water dingy and the floor still dirty with caked on grim.

Because I lived in this apartment for nearly six months but never had people over because of my embarrassment, it is relegated to a different memory box, which isn’t negative, but is deemed as a “cultural” experience. It was a true, Soviet style apartment. It had not undergone any European remodel or facelift but was probably exactly the way it had been nearly 40 years before I lived there. The electric wiring had issues. The security to get into the apartment was insane. A key code on the outside of the building, which seems fairly standard around the world, a giant double steel plate door with a skeleton key to get into our hallway, and finally a double door into our apartment. The itty-bitty kitchen held our washer, refrigerator, stove, and a dining room table which barely constituted a table. It was a rickety, makeshift thing about a meter squared, covered in a nappy, old, plastic tablecloth and two wobbly stools. Because I lived there, I made feeble attempts to clean or make the apartment not feel as grungy and worn out, but many things, like the worn-out porcelain in the bathtub which absorbed the strange color of the water, were just old. It was a true, post-Stalin era, Soviet apartment building and felt like it was going to collapse.

It’s difficult to even compare the apartment I am currently sitting in with this older apartment, and the two cultures which created them are two entirely different beasts. The Soviet era apartment was rough, old, ragged, but served its purpose. Like the attitudes in Moscow, it did not mince words or attempt to sugar coat the reality of it. It was what it was, a small little abode on the top floor of a rundown building in a rundown section of Moscow. My Korean apartment is brand new, streamlined and efficient with niceties I never would have dreamed of at my old apartment in Moscow, heated floors, control of the hot water temperature, but it’s in an industrial section of the city, with no green space. Like my first encounters with Korean people, first impressions of my apartment were wonderful. It’s only when the weather gets colder and wear starts to show that the bugs are forced out, but even then, they remain shy and elusive.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Human interactions can be hilarious

My nature is shy and introverted and perfectionist. If you catch me at the right moment, sitting in Starbucks or at a park reading All Story, my favorite literary journal, you might get a glimpse of this more introspective girl. I will get wrapped up in the story, laugh, and occasionally look up to ponder something the author has just written. I will be having a constant inner dialogue. If it’s a particularly well-written story, my disposition will change based on the scene being described. When you see me drawing, or walking down the street listening to music, you might recognize that I am perfectly happy to be alone.

And while I am perfectly happy to be alone, over the years I have come to value human relationships more. Often in a comfortable and familiar setting, I am fairly passive when it comes to meeting new people. I’ve learned to be a bit more outgoing, and living abroad by myself has pushed this to the extreme. Now I actively seek out genuine, honest, down-to-earth, laid back people, who are like me but challenge me.

Throughout my experience of meeting different types of people. I’ve become better at reading people and judging from first impressions, body language, and attitude if I will get along with someone. I have also come to thoroughly enjoy other people’s interactions.

Names have been removed from the following example to protect the unaware.

One evening out, while sitting at the bar, I was introduced to my friend, J---’s close friend, H--- and two girls that were acquaintances of J---’s. Particularly attractive, especially for an Asian, H--- spent much of the night scanning the bar for women, despite having two interested girls, M--- and G---, sitting right next to him. My first observations of H--- established him as intelligent, confident, aloof, and aware that girls find him attractive.

After spending a bit of time talking to J--- and getting acquainted with H---, I went to talk to the girls, M--- and G---. They taught at an art school, and I wondered if I could possibly make some good connections. While this didn’t pan out because the school mainly taught performance arts, I gained quite a bit of entertainment from the situation that followed our brief conversation.

I sat down between M--- and H--- at the bar, and M--- quickly told me that H--- was her boyfriend in a flirty, cute way. Because I didn’t know either of them, I accepted this statement at face value and quickly suggested that maybe we should switch seats, so she could sit next to H---. She shook her head coyly and said it was alright. Then, she looked at H--- and asked him to give her a kiss while gesturing to her cheek. At this point, I just thought perhaps she was a slightly territorial girlfriend that was a bit nervous to have me sit between them but not willing to take my seat from me.

After a few retrospectively hilarious minutes of H--- denying her a kiss, and M--- letting me know she wasn't actually his girlfriend, she was just flirting, I got up to go to the restroom. Because H--- had seemed moderately interested in her, though he didn’t want to lean over me and kiss her on the cheek, I suggested that she sit next to him, of course, in order to flirt more properly. When I exited the restroom and looked across the bar, M--- was sitting next to H---, hugging his arm while H--- scanned the room. For all intents and purposes it was as if the girl hanging on him was invisible.

As I walked back over to the group, I laughed.

Disregarding the comfort of either party, it was quite a comical scene.

Picture it. An attractive male, uninterested in the girl hanging on him and talking up a storm, while the girl is completely oblivious to his obvious lack of interest. The situation appeared as a caricature of similar situations that happen all the time.

Because of the new seating arrangement, M--- having occupied my old seat, I chose to sit on the other side of H---, next to J---. H--- continued to scan the room and occasionally make comments to M---, while I shared my observation with J---. As soon as M--- left to go to the restroom, H--- quickly turned to J--- and me and said, “She keeps trying to get me to kiss her.”

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I told her I was shy.”

I laughed and said, “You are not shy.”

“But I am.”

“No, you aren’t. I can tell. You just aren’t interested in her, right?”

He admitted to having been interested from afar, but upon closer observation he had lost interest. Regardless of why he suddenly lost interest in the girl, I was quite entertained by his extreme change in body language, and let him know that I could tell he wasn't interested in her because he was scanning the room.

While this exact scenario has not occurred again, I have run into H--- on other occasions, and observed him looking up from his conversations for extended periods of time to glance around the room. Because most guys are a little less picky or a little less obvious about their lack of interest, it has been quite entertaining to run into H---. It almost seems like a bit of a performance, and I have let him know how hilarious I think his interactions are.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The frustrating experience of not knowing enough of the language to make yourself understood in an efficient way.

For some reason, this week has been abnormally busy, and I have been abnormally hungry. Perhaps it is the preparations for Halloween. Perhaps it is the way the week began. Perhaps it’s the weather which has suddenly turned colder. Whatever the case, I have not been able to or made the effort to prepare my dinner before work like usual.

Not having dinner made has meant I have been eating sandwiches from the local bread shop. Koreans do not consider a sandwich a real or healthy meal because it does not involve rice or kimchi and Russians considered sandwiches junk food because they don’t take much time to prepare. These perspectives seem a bit perplexing to me even though I know them because in Idaho, a sandwich, homemade or otherwise is viewed as a much better choice than some of the other options out there for a quick meal on the go. But, this is perhaps the crux of the issue. Americans want quick food on the go, and in both Russia and Korea, each meal is viewed as a time to sit and relax, not just stuff your face with food.

A couple days I have been chilled to the bone and decided a “cold lunch” consisting of a sandwich was not going to cut it.

One of these days I had instant noodles, which I consider junk food – most contain 89% of your daily value of sodium, which is honestly ridiculous.

The other day, I grabbed Korean fast food across the street from the school. When I walked into the restaurant, all the women looked up and stood up and rushed to help me, or so it seemed. I started saying the word for the soup I wanted, and the woman helping me interrupted and finished the word for me. Seriously, the best way to shut down a language beginner is to jump in too quickly. I nodded in agreement with what she said, and then tried to express that I needed it to go. I had no idea how to do this, so I motioned toward the school. The woman then told me I needed to order two servings for this. Then asked, "Where?"

I was confused.

She wanted to know the name of my hagwon (academy), and I realized that she thought I wanted it delivered.

I was hungry, had been shut down in my attempt to ask for the food, and a bit frustrated. I needed the food quickly. I only have half an hour for dinner, and I was starving. I tried not to show my frustration, but anyone who knows me will know that for some reason I have never been able to succeed in the endeavor to hide emotions.

While I told the woman the name of my hagwon, after I realized the situation, I gave up on Korean and said, “No, no … I will take it.” Motioning to myself and motioning that I would take it. After I repeated this in as many different ways as my starving brain could muster and was about to give up, the woman finally said, “Oooh, take out?” Ha! Figures. Koreans use the English phrase, and I hadn’t even thought to try it. In fact, those words hadn’t even crossed my mind. I nodded in agreement, lit back up, and jumped back to what Korean I know, saying, “Neeeey.” Which means, “Yes.”

As I was sitting and waiting for my food, one of the women talked about me in Korean. She wondered if I knew Korean. You would think by the ridiculous performance that had just occurred, she would understand that if I knew any Korean, it definitely wasn’t enough to help me get by yet. Then she asked in English, “Do you know Korean?” I replied, “No. Well … a little, chogum.

These women talked to me and about me a bit more, were pleased when I told them I wanted kimchi, adeptly wrapped my food in plastic wrap, and smilingly said “Bye-bye” as I walked out the door.

While the experience was frustrating at first, their efforts and attitudes make me want to go back and explore fumbling around with Korean some more and maybe even try some new foods.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Speaking Russian in Korea: A cure for homesickness

Sunday when I woke up it was rainy, dreary, and the leaves were beginning to change colors and drop from the trees onto the damp ground, creating a soggy mess of what should be fall. Homesickness began to bud, so I decided to dwell in it and make pancakes. By early afternoon this nurtured bud had flowered into a lump. Everywhere else but here, it seemed, fall is crisp with red and green and gold leaves. Recently, I saw pictures of Muscovites at the park with huge, dry, crisp, colored maple leaves. Imagining the smell of dry autumn leaves, the feel of the sun, warm on my face, and a slight chill in the air, I put on a sweater and almost heard the crunch of leaves underfoot. As I delved deeper into my memories and imagination and further away from Ulsan, I imagined hot chocolate, a fireplace in the evening, maybe a bit of vodka and some Russian. I was in heaven. When I walked outside into the mild, wet weather, reality hit.

My heart dropped.

This is not the fall I love. Missing Russia and Idaho, I sulked.

After my day of fighting homesickness and missing Russia I had an interestingly serendipitous moment.

As if I had stumbled into a dream.

It began with a search for material for my Halloween costume. I ventured over to Ulsan’s old downtown via bus. While on the bus, I derived brief satisfaction from understanding the Korean announcement of my stop, and I briefly compared it to understanding the metro in Moscow. I know I’m finally making progress with language skills when small battles like these are won. I hopped off the bus at my stop and began walking in the general direction of where I remembered seeing a fabric shop. I hadn’t walked ten steps from the bus stop, when I noticed a group of foreign guys. They stuck out, as we non-Asians always do. A bit nervous about the seemingly inevitable encounter, I momentarily entertained the idea of darting across the street to avoid talking to them. Again, this is the Kim that is shy and sometimes doesn’t make an effort to say hello to people she knows. My hesitation to make a run for it meant that suddenly they were in front of me.

With a heartwarmingly genuine smile on his face, a man I would later know as Dima said, «Ты русская?» “You’re Russian?” In shock, but on my game with the Russian that is always swimming in my head, I laughed and answered in Russian, «Ниет. Я американка.» “No, I’m American.” They gaffed and laughed and insisted that I was Russian. I laughed more and was so relieved after my day of homesickness to run into a group of Russians that felt so familiar and friendly that I felt in a dream. They were equally blown away and confused to find an American girl in Korea that spoke some Russian. Even after I told them I had spent two years in Moscow teaching English, they continued to follow the regular Russian line, which is that I cannot be American, I must be Russian because of my style and weight and my language skills.

As our conversation continued, I couldn’t stop laughing at how fortuitous the whole situation was. What are the chances? I enjoyed the familiar Russian accent of Yuri’s and Dima’s English, and while the two younger guys talked to me, the older men stood back and watched. Occasionally interjecting something amiable but generally indecipherable.

Due to our limited knowledge of each other’s language, my broken Russian and their broken English, our conversation was not as poetic as I would like to imagine, but the overall feeling was one of genuine relief and happiness. I could not believe that I was speaking Russian to people who understood it, and they seemed to feel the same way.

A great cure for homesickness, I only hope that I will run into Russians again, though hopefully they will be longer stayed than one day.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How being in Korea has made me miss Moscow

While some things were expected, missing the metro, it's efficiency, the ease of transportation as well as extremely affordable cost, there are some things I didn't expect to miss about Moscow. Number one being the weather. While I like winter, it often seemed to drag on and on, but now that fall and the leaves changing still hasn't even close to hit Ulsan, I'm starting to realize that I miss putting on layer upon layer and walking out into the brisk Moscow air, pollution or no.

Of course, I miss students. I miss the level of proficiency and how many of my teens had already adjusted to me and my teaching style. A new school, let alone a new culture and country would have been a bit difficult. While I really can't compare too much because I taught mainly teens and adults in Russia and in Korea I teach children and teens, if I dare make the comparison, Russians seem more adventuresome. More willing to make fools of themselves. Of course, there were occasional classes of shy students. Students who were scared to make mistakes, and perhaps it's the classroom set up or the different sense of humor or the different levels, but Koreans on the whole seem shier. They are not as willing to just pull me aside and ask a hundred questions about where I'm from or why I'm here. They just accept that I'm a foreigner, move on, and leave it at that.

While Koreans on the whole seem friendlier, I think Russians on the whole were more interested in getting to know me, establishing a friendship or comradery, while in Korea, because of the culture and the hierarchy, I assume, many students put a distance between teacher and student. I would like to break this down, but it seems as soon as I think I'm establishing a friendship, where I can rely on the student to back me up in class because we are "friendly" they turn. Peer pressure or shyness or culture or something takes over, and they revert back to refusing to speak English and refusing to work with other students. While Russians may not have liked it, they nearly always followed directions. They put an effort into the mingle activities I organized, were willing to make fools of themselves and so was I, but Koreans sometimes won't even give it a try, which in turn makes me more reserved at times. They are used to being allowed to "opt out" perhaps ... whatever the case, it makes things frustrating because as soon as one student "opts out" the rest of the group feels uncomfortable.

I need to just have a talk with them. When speaking a new language, you are going to feel like a fool at times ...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How to meet strangers in a strange land

The first Friday night in Ulsan, I had a choice.

A) I could stay in and start a routine of possibly not meeting people who may eventually become friends because of my theory. That theory is this: I would like to hang out with people like myself, but I have no idea how I would go about trying to meet myself.

Or B) I could go out to the foreigner bars alone in the hopes of meeting people and even if I didn’t make the best of friends, at least be social and adventuresome.

After a small debate I decided on B. The pros far outweighed the cons. I knew what bars I should hit up. I knew how to get there. I wanted to go out, just not alone, and I’m independent, awesome, gorgeous … Oh, sorry, that last part was purely self-motivational talk. It takes a lot of self-motivational talk to decide you are going to go meet new people in a strange land where you don’t know the language of the majority of the people, and you don’t really know a soul ... AND you aren’t on vacation but rather trying to start your life in this land, so you don't have that much anonymity.

After all this talk, I got myself on the bus, ready to meet the world, got downtown and wandered around trying to decide which bar I should try out. But when I finally landed at the first bar, my nerves began to kick in …

"How the hell am I supposed to meet people? This was a stupid idea. Maybe I'll just have a drink and go home."

Ok, so I’ve traveled to several countries alone. You think I should be tough. This should be no problem. A breeze. Heck, I’ve introduced myself to a bunch of new people before. But there’s a catch, on the inside, I am still the same, shy, socially awkward Kim that used to hide behind her mother when relatives visited. I’m still the girl that used to cry before my school pictures because I couldn’t stand the spotlight and pressure of meeting an absolute stranger, that’s admittedly kind of creepy, and having to smile on command …

Anyway, my nerves kicked in, so being an adult, I did the adult thing. I sat down at the bar by myself and ordered up a Black Russian. I'll give myself some liquid courage and a time limit. If I don't meet anyone by the time I need a second drink, I'll call it a night.

As I sat at the bar, drinking my Black Russian, I started to feel a little strange. For starters, this bar seemed basically empty. On a Friday night. True, there were a few people. To my right a couple foreign men about 40 or 50 years old having a beer and chatting away. To my left an older Korean man had just sat down and seemed to be boring holes through me with his eyes. I really have no idea if that’s what he was doing. I did everything I could to keep my body language from suggesting that he come talk to me. So, I didn’t look at him once. Basically, I came to the conclusion that somehow I had gotten a crumby tip. This wasn’t a good bar for foreigners, at least not ones my age, and there were no girls, which is actually who I wanted to meet.

Finally, I noticed a group of four younger guys walk in the bar and up the stairs behind me. No one really looked my way, so I couldn’t just follow them. That would have been creepy and weird, making me even more socially awkward, but deep down that’s really, really what I wanted to do.

Run after them.

Despite my urge, I continued to sit downstairs at the bar, being shy in a very unshy way. By which I mean, I had gotten myself out to the bar on a Friday night, which is not shy, but I wasn’t sure I could follow through with actually meeting people, which is definitely shy. I knew that in order to meet people I needed to be approachable, and in order to be approachable, I needed to wear a smile and keep my inner cool, but because of the situation around me … awkward 40-50 year old, trolling men, I couldn’t let myself be approachable. It would have been asking for something I really didn’t want. I’m sure this inner debate was showing on my face because after about five more minutes, the bar tended came to talk to me. She had sensed my painfully obvious discomfort. Very politely, she said, “There’s another bar upstairs. With younger people. Maybe you want to go up there?”

On her suggestion, perhaps too hastily, I took my drink and walked up stairs.

“What’s the game plan?” I asked myself.

I had no idea.

So I took the stairs slowly.

When I saw the bar, I walked up to it and set my drink down. I was about to sit on a stool and cling to it like a life preserver, but instead, I looked around. There were several groups of younger people, and I made eye contact with the first foreigner who looked at me.

“Jump in, Kim!”

Like getting into cold water, meeting new people is way easier if you jump quickly, without over thinking it. In fact, without thinking at all. So, I grabbed my drink, which I had sat down on the bar for 2 seconds, walked over and said hello.

My self introduction started a series of introductions, which lead to a series of questions verging on conversation but interrupted by the game of darts that these for guys were playing. And yes, they are the same four guys I had seen walk into the bar not ten minutes prior. Basically, the conversations when something like this.

Guy 1, “What’s your name, again?”

Me, “Kim, what’s yours?”

“Where are you from?”

blah, blah

“What are you doing in Ulsan?”

“Teaching English, before this I was in Moscow for two years.”

It’s Guy 1’s turn at darts, and Guy 2 strikes up conversation, “What’s your name, again?”

Me, “Kim, what’s yours?”

“Where are you from?”

… blah blah I was in Moscow for two years.

Guy 2 is up at darts and Guy 3 starts in. At this point Guy 1 and 2 are having their own conversation as they are hanging out. Basically, I’ve interrupted guys’ night.

Guy 3 is up at darts and Guy 4 starts the conversation over.

I ended up having 3 or 4 conversations and repeating myself a lot. After the game ended, we regrouped, grabbed another drink, and eventually headed over to another bar where one of the guys was meeting up with friends. Surprisingly this has been the smoothest, least awkward introduction to date.

Two thumbs up for embracing social awkwardness and kicking shyness to the curb.