Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sports Day at the Dwarf School

I just got home from "Sports Day" at Sindong Chodeung Hakkyo, the 25-student elementary school I go to on Tuesdays. It reminded me of field day from my elementary school days, but it was a much bigger production. I'll let the pictures do the story telling...

The school (for 25 students!) was all done up when I got there this morning.

Meet the student body of Sin Dong Elementary School. The other twelve are kindergarteners... most of the pictures that follow are of the littler ones because they're infinitely cuter.

The neighborhood old folks came out to watch, but were made to squat under the hot sun in the play ground. Meanwhile...

The elite old men, including the headmaster of my other school, sat covered, in their finest suits with flowers and candies and a cute teacher to serve them tea and coffee.

The kids ran regular races...

And funny races...

That involved hands-free popping of balloons...

And hands-free eating of lollipops in powdered sugar.

There were blind monster races...

And races for the elite old men...

And even games for the poor old women.

I don't know why this kid was so angry.

Or how this kid was so cute.

Eventually the kids dawned traditional Korean clothing and did a story-dance that seemed to be about courtship.

And there was even face painting for me, to reveal my duel loyalties.

But the highlight of the day was the elementary school kids, in their best traditional clothes, playing their hearts out on their traditional Korean instruments. Here's a 30 second video of it.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Happy Birthday Mom

Mom and I just off the 14,265 foot summit of Quandary Peak near Breckenridge, Colorado.

I love you Mom.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Video Tour - Korean Gardens, Neighborhood & Apartment

Since a picture is worth a thousand words and my camera shoots video at 30 frames per second, I thought I'd go ahead and take care of a couple months worth of blogging by shooting some video. Actually, I was walking home yesterday and thought the gardens were particularly beautiful this time of year, and thought it would be interesting to show how pretty and ubiquitous they are to everyone back home.

That got me to thinking about the power of video, and what people pondering a move to Korea, especially to Gangwon-do, and especially especially people considering coming to Gangwon-do to teach with EPIK, might want to see. So I put together three little video tours that might be of interest.

The first is a walk through of a few of the gardens in our neighborhood, in Samcheok City, Gangwon Province, South Korea.

The second is a more of the neighborhood - apartments and shops and quick tours of neighborhood kimbap place (a quick, cheap restaurant with stuff like mixed rice and vegetables, noodle soups, sushi-like rolls, etc.) and the grocery store.

And the last one is a quick glance at the apartment EPIK Gangwon-do provided for us, which, from what I've seen, is typical for a native-English-speaking couple teaching in public schools in Gangwon-do, and a look around from the roof. I hope you'll forgive me for not zooming out for the sign-off... it does provide a nice view of my kkeun kko (big nose), which by Korean standards is a major asset. ;)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Best Fire Escape Ever!

If you had to get ninety kindergarteners out of a smokey, burning building, would you rather they all run down some steep, rusted, iron stairway, or slide down a colorful plastic twirly slide? Brilliant.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review of Culture Jam by Kalle Lasn

Kalle Lasn is the Chief Editor of the magazine Adbusters, which I've read as regularly as any other over the past five years. Adbusters central tenet is that corporations manipulate us to consume via marketing, and that process is destroying us psychologically, socially and ecologically.

The book is no different. For much of it I felt I was reading the same ideas that have been recycled through Adbusters over the years, perhaps because Culture Jam was published in 2001. The exploration in the book is more linear and more fact-based, where the magazine tends to offer a more right-brain experience, but the ideas are largely the same. Where the book differs, and where I found real value in it, was in the exploration of what Lasn thinks ought to be done.

He begins with an overview of what's wrong. For those whose are in the know about these things already, what he describes is what's expected, though the statistics are often shocking. For example, “worldwide rates of major depression in every age group have risen steadily since the 1940s... [and] as Asian countries Americanize, their rates of depression increase accordingly.” The average hour of American prime-time TV contains five acts of violence (killings, gunshots assaults, car chases, rapes). “Ninety percent of news editors surveyed... said they'd experienced 'direct pressure' from advertisers trying to influence content.” “In 1997, Chrysler, one of the five largest advertisers in the U.S., sent letters to one hundred newspaper and magazine editors demanding to review their publications for stories that could prove damaging or controversial... According to a spokesperson at Chrysler, every single letter was signed in agreement and returned.” 77% of American adults are afflicted with a psychological ailment. And so on.

The second part of the book attempts to flesh out how we've gotten to where we are. Neoclassical economics, and the rise of corporations, and how we've been molded into a nation of “Manchurian consumers.” How brand loyalty and consumerism enter our consciousness as adolescents. How the global economy is basically a pyramid scheme, and that our children and theirs will be the dupes. The analysis isn't so much off, in my opinion, as it is superficial. But this isn't a dissertation, it is a manifesto more than anything else, and an instruction manual, and Lasn has more to get to.

The third part is the heart of the book, what Lasn sees as opportunities for those who have grown dissatisfied. He uses many pages describing the ebb and flow of the Situationist movement in the late-fifties and sixties, and uses that as a spring board to suggest that ours is a “society of spectacle,” and that what's need is a massive detournement, a jujitsu-like approach to art and revolution in which the elements of the consumer marketing and mainstream media are used to create a subversive message that wins the minds of the people and turns them away from consumption. He describes what he calls “meme wars,” which are essentially battles for the consciousness of the society, where a meme is basically a contagious idea. He goes into detail about the meme wars that were fought against the tobacco companies, starting with anti-smoking ads in 1969 and leading to the massive law suits against those companies in the '90s as an example of what can be possible. Then he details battles that he sees as needing to be fought, for example, developing an economics that tells the ecological truth and getting rid of the idea that corporations have an intrinsic, or legal, right to exist.

Finally, the book closes with some ideas of what could be possible: two minutes of every hour on public airwaves reserved for public announcements granted on a first-come, first-serve basis. Anti-corporate activists that stand up to corporations while on the line with 800-numbers. TV anti-ads that combat the idea that Calvin Kline's image of cool is cool. General strikes and such.

I think many of his ideas are good ones, I think some are less useful. I didn't like that they were presented as a prescription, as if the one true way and the one true group that would bring about the revolution had been revealed. Rarely is an author's arrogance so palpable in text. If our culture is to heal, it will take more than one group of people to do it. And since culture jamming is a movement that aims to decentralize power, to restore the generation of culture to a bottom-up enterprise, surely we the readers and potential culture jammers can be entrusted to “jam” as we see fit.

Nevertheless, I agree with Lasn's aims, and I like many of the ideas he puts forth to get there. There are plenty of useful statistics in the first half of the book, and many worthy actions in the second half. For those who are unfamiliar with the ideas Adbusters explores and put off by its aesthetic or lack of evidential support, Culture Jam could be a transformative book. For regular readers of Adbusters, unless you're looking for specific ideas for actions, there's probably not a whole lot of value in the book, inspiration aside.

7/10 stars.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dwarf School!

I just got home from my first day teaching at my secondary school - Shin Dong (prodigy child), which I go to each Tuesday.

There are thirteen students in the school! Some grades have one single student! There are three teachers, no less than four administrators, a cook, and today there was construction going on all around the place. The building is two stories with a field and court and playground. I can't believe the resources that are going into educating these kids! The school I teach at the rest of the week is 20 minutes down the road. Why not have a bus take those thirteen kids to that school?

Anyway, it's a nice break in the week for me. The school is located in a gorgeous part of the valley - beautiful, thick foliage covered hills interrupted by big limestone cliffs. Today there were low clouds covering the peak and mist in the afternoon; I should carry a camera with me always. The kids are also really nice. It seems the further away from civilization one gets the nicer, if odder, the people get, especially the young ones.

Review of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close would be a tough book not to love. I laughed a lot reading it, and I cried some too. Foer creates characters so three dimensional that they feel like old friends, and for Melanie and I at least, come up in conversation as if they really were.

Set in New York City, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close revolves around Oscar Schell, an adorable nine year old boy who lost his father in the 9/11 attacks. The story explores Oscar's search for understanding and meaning in his father's death, and through that reminds the reader of all that there is to be joyful for in life. In Oscar's suffering is revealed the purity and joy of childhood.

The parallel story is that of Oscar's father's father's life, and while the two work well together and come together in a nifty way toward the end of the book, I found the sections about the grandfather painful to read. Maybe because I loved reading from Oscar's perspective so much that I missed it when I was away from it, but during one particularly long and arduous grandfather passage, I put the book down for almost a month and might not have picked it back up if it weren't for Melanie's urgings. Some of the passages about the grandfather's youth are quite beautiful though, and the parallel story reveals something profound about the transformations that occur between having one's life to live to having lived one's life.

A very pleasant read, and plenty of meaning about joy, sorrow, grief, family and aging. I will definitely be picking up Foer's other novel Everything is Illuminated soon.

8/10 stars.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Teaching in Gangwondo (EPIK) vs. Hagwon

I noticed that this blog is coming up in the first page of results for a google search for [gangwon EPIK], so if people are interested in my experience teaching in public schools, I thought I'd run through some thoughts from my first month participating in EPIK in Gangwondo and compare that experience to the one I had in a hagwon in Busan a couple of years ago.

With regard to the actual work, teaching in a public school is easier, by a long shot. There are a number of reasons for this, but the biggest is that I'm teaching four, forty-minute classes a day now (in an elementary school... middle and high school classes are a few minutes longer). In the hagwon, I taught six, fifty minute classes a day. So that's 160 classroom minutes a day for EPIK as opposed to 300 classroom minutes a day for the hagwon. And I rarely even teach the full 160 minutes in a day here, as classes frequently let out early.

Just as important, there's always a Korean teacher in the classroom with me. I see two big positives from this, and one negative. The positives are having a Korean teacher in the room means Korean etiquette and standards for respect and behavior are still in play. My biggest complaint in the hagwon was getting no respect from and being unable to control students in the classroom. The other positive is being able to give complex instructions to low-level students. For games and more involved activities, that's huge. On the downside, I don't have the freedom to plan lessons as I like. I am, as my contract states, an Assistant Teacher. The reality of this is determined by the co-teacher one works with. But all classes follow a (less than great) textbook. Some teachers say “teach” and sit down behind the class; others run the class almost as if I weren't there and just ask me to do the repeat-after-me's and walk around the class having brief conversations with each student. In my hagwon, I was provided a great textbook called Interchange, and told to teach. My classroom activities were never interfered with, but I also got no support or advice on how to teach EFL and couldn't do much with the lower half of my classes because they couldn't understand my instructions. I spent between 10 minutes and an hour planning each day's activities in the hagwon (and could have taught better if I had committed more time to planning). For the public school, for the entire week, I spent about ten minutes planning activities to supplement the textbook's. That could change with number of different classes one teaches and the approach of the co-teacher to co-teaching, but I think the pressure to plan is probably always less in public schools. There's also just less pressure as no one is as fervent about educating children as hagwon bosses are about making money.

At my hagwon there was no community, and it was tough to find help with things like getting a cell phone. Here there are plenty of people that are willing, if not happy, to help us with the business stuff that is hard without speaking Korean, and there is plenty of community (weekly after school sports, monthly outings, opportunities for friendships). One of the bigger challenges here is that there is very little English competency. We're in a rural town in a rural province, so EPIK participants in different provinces may have different experiences in this regard, but it's hard for us to know what's going on. We are often told of meetings and appointments and trips minutes before they begin, which can be quite challenging. At my hagwon, the director spoke English nearly fluently, so at least I always knew what was expected of me, what would be happening the next day, etc.

Of course the biggest benefit to teaching in Gangwondo's EPIK program, as opposed to other provinces and private schools, is the five week vacation allowance. I got ten days at my hagwon and managed to take seven of them, and taking even that many was tough. We also get some bonus holiday-days, like Monday two weeks ago was a national holiday and we got Tuesday off, some friends got Wednesday, and one got Friday too for a six-day weekend! In a hagwon there's no way you get more than Monday. Sick days should be much easier to take in the public school (and we have 15 of them), since there won't be any substitutions needed to cover my classes; in a hagwon calling in sick means a Korean teacher that already works many hours more than you everyday, plus Saturdays, will have to cover your classes, which breeds resentment fast. Also, in addition to the five weeks paid vacation, if we renew our contract, we get an extra two weeks vacation at the end of the first year, along with an airfare paid ticket to home or anywhere closer.

The pay for Gangwon-do EPIK is decent. I'll say that pay for EPIK elsewhere is sub-par. We get our first paychecks in a couple days, and I think mine will be about 2.3M won. I'll save about 60k won on income taxes (two year exemption from income tax for everyone but Canadians, though it's only ~3.3% at foreign teachers' salaries - super-progressive tax structure in Korea). My base salary (as a level 2 EPIK teacher, since I have one year experience) is 2.0M, then I get .1M for being in a province (as opposed to one of the seven major Korean cities or Gyeonggi Province surrounding Seoul), then an additional .1M for being in a rural location (ie., not in Chuncheon, Gangneung, Wonju, Taebaek or Seorak... which means you could get that bonus and still live and teach in some places that definitely feel like small cities, like Samcheok and Donghae, for example), and an additional something, maybe .1M for teaching at multiple schools. I don't understand why I'm paid more for that, as I simply go to a different school (that's closer to my apartment than my normal school) on Tuesdays, but I won't complain. At my hagwon, I was paid 2M. That was three years ago though, I suspect that would be 2.2-ish now.

Of course, here, I know my paycheck is coming – there's no motivation for anyone to withhold it. At my hagwon I was always nervous, especially coming up on the end of my contract. The director of my hagwon was clearly money hungry (and with relaxed morals, I suspected), and I had serious doubts about whether I would receive the 4.7 million won I was owed as of my last day (2M for salary, 2M for severance, 700k for airfare). That's a lot of money (over $5,000 at the time) to be worried about losing. I was lucky -- I did always get paid, but plenty of people don't. I had to fight to get on the national health care plan, and I was always scared about not getting paid. I suspect if I hadn't shown such fortitude in standing up to my boss on other matters, he may have tried to jerk me around toward the end of my contract.

The housing has been similar for me in EPIK and in the hagwon. I think I got extremely lucky with the hagwon – they provided my girlfriend (who was working at another hagwon) and I a large three-bedroom apartment, albeit far from the subway or city centers. Here, every couple I've talked to has been given a nice three-bedroom place (probably a Gangwon-do benefit, since property values here must be considerably less than in the more populated parts of the country). However, our apartment is a 40 minute drive from our school. And without a car it's nearly an hour and a half each way (25 minute walk to the bus station, 40 minutes on the bus, 15 minute walk to school). We're fighting to get that fixed. It is an anomaly, it is something we asked about before we came and were told we wouldn't have to worry about, and both our recruiter (Jen at ESL Job Network) and assistant coordinator (a foreign teacher that acts as a liaison between the county's teachers and administration) think it should be remedied. I'll update this to let you know how that battle turns out.

The length of the workday is my biggest complaint so far about EPIK. We leave our house at 7:40 and get home around 5:45 (we've been given rides almost every day on the way home, otherwise, that would be 6:30 or 7:00), and have to be at school from 9-5. In contrast, at my hagwon, I lived a three minute walk from the school. So I left my apartment at 3:20 and got home at 10:30. A weird schedule, but it left me tons of free time, and free time during the day to get out in the sun and hike or beach, or do business with banks and other offices that work the same hours as public school teachers. All that free time was a huge plus. If we can manage to get our apartment moved from Samcheok, where we are now, to Dogye, where we're teaching, that we be only a minor plus for the hagwon; as it stands now, we got unlucky and it's a big bummer.

As for the facilities.... Regarding office space, at the hagwon I had a desk in an office with the three other teachers, and I spent very little time in there since I wasn't required to be at the school beyond my teaching hours. At the public school, my “office” is a place in the huge horseshoe ring of tables in the teacher's room, which is headed by two big desks occupied by the Vice Principal and #3. So for the many hours each day I'm not teaching, I'm basically being watched by two Korean administrators, which is extremely uncomfortable. I should add, though, that it hasn't stopped me from doing my thing in my off time, as I'm writing this on my laptop, sitting in that room now. The classroom facilities are far superior in the public school, despite Dogye being on the poor end of the country and my neighborhood in Busan on the rich end – there are internet-connected computers hooked up to big screen TV's in each classroom, along with scissors, markers, paper and just about anything else you'd want. In the hagwon, I was lucky if I had a dry erase marker that worked consistently... Again, profit motivation at the hagwons makes for lots of trouble. There's none of that in EPIK.

Finally, there's a five-day orientation at the beginning of the Gangwondo EPIK program. Consider the 300k won settlement allowance payment for this. I thought it was boring and restrictive, but mostly because I've lived and taught in Korea before. If this were my first time, I imagine it would make for a much softer landing than being thrown into an apartment and classes strait away.

All and all, there's no way I'd trade this job for the hagwon. I'm not sure I'd even trade it for a uni gig. I feel secure here, well paid, involved in a community, and the teaching itself is really very easy. If I could get two more things – an apartment in the town I teach in and a private-ish office – it would be nearly perfect.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Little Differences

Melanie and I found a great hike just behind our apartment today. So much is the same in the US and Korea, and probably all developed countries - cars and buildings and commerce and marketing and friends and meals and love and struggle. But especially in nature, and especially between Gangwondo and Colorado - both being on the 38th parallel and both being mountainous, so much is the same. But there are also tons of differences, often in the details, and I'm trying to take note of them. Today they seemed to be popping out everywhere, and I had my camera with me, so without further rambling, here are some of the differences you might find on a Sunday afternoon hike in Gangwon-do, Korea as compared with Colorado, USA.

Cars parked on sidewalks (and motorbikes driving on sidewalks... Grrr.)

Enclosed trampolines by the side of the street that kids can pay to play on (a nice alternative to the ubiquitous and ever so popular "PC room").

Weird, unidentified pink fruit...

...that sometimes looks an awful lot like a turkey's head!

Spiky poof balls. Update: We asked a co-teacher, and it turns out these are chestnuts! The nuts grow inside these spiky balls on trees. Now if we can just figure out how to pick and open them safely.

Giant bat-moth-hummingbird creatures.

Lounge chairs on top of a mountain's ridge.

Signs in the wilderness (or this level of confusion from your partner!).

And my favorite, ubiquitous agriculture. This deserves its own post... they grow food everywhere! South Korea is a tiny country (smaller than Virginia) supporting a medium sized population (50 million people) and a gigantic economy (the 13th largest in the world). I heard someone say recently that self-sufficiency in food production is an essential component of national security. Well, Korea is working this one to the max. Between every apartment and sidewalk there are pumpkin vines and pepper plants, next to every parking lot is a plot of onions or soybeans. It's inspiring. I hope that by next spring we will know enough Korean to get involved in cultivating the land with the locals. What better a way to build community, self-reliance and security in the face of an increasingly unstable global order.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Chusok Lunch with Park Jung Sun's Family

Last Monday was a national holiday because of Chusok (Harvest Moon Festival) the day before. Our K-friend Park Jung Sun invited us to do something (we weren't sure what before hand because we can't communicate very well in either language) at 11:00. She showed up with her grandmother, sister, niece and nephew, the last three who had lived in Vancouver for a couple of years, and so could communicate with us!

In our parking lot, we did introductions, grandma (who didn't live in Canada) said "Nice to meechuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu" and laughed and laughed and laughed, we gave them some pears, and we had a lengthy discussion about what foods we liked. They decided something and off we went to get lunch, except that, being a big holiday everything was closed. So after a half hour driving around Samcheok, we went 6km up the coast to the slightly larger town of Donghae, where they had heard a restaurant that would be good for us vegetarians would be open.

The restaurant was good for us, and it was good. The theme of the place had something to do with mineral water and dolsot (the hot stone pots). The lunch we were served was amazing:

[Click on the picture to get a better view of what we were served.] That's a fish, a whole pike, I'm working on with my chopsticks there, and it really is hard work. (We're really more pescaterian than vegetarian.)

We were served rice (cooked with yams, pine nuts and a jujube) in little hot stone pots. After scooping the rice into a bowl, we poured hot water into the pots, covered them and set them aside. After the meal we went back to those pots, which then had hot water and rice that was simultaneously mushy and crispy coming off the sides. We drank the water and ate the crispy-mushy rice. It was delicious, and apparently good for health and digestion. We were also served some sort of cinnamon tea, with a single pine nut floating in the middle of each cup, that tasted incredibly good.

After lunch we were asked if we wanted to go shopping. I told them I was excited to go to E Mart (the biggest department store within an hour of our apartment). So we walked around town for a while:

We shopped for shoes for the kids and went "eye shopping" in the fancy Nike store and took lots of pictures:

We eventually went to E Mart, by which time everyone was pretty frazzled from trying to communicate across the language barrier, so we went shopping separately (and found cashews and unsweetened yogurt!), but not before Park Jung Sun, who is something of artist, took some arty shots:

It's always a treat to get to hang out with Koreans (especially since they have to struggle to speak our language, even though we are guests in their land). to get to hang out with a grandmother and a whole family and go to such a neat, traditional restaurant was really extra special. Happy Chusok everyone.

Dinner, Communication & Korean Manners

As we were leaving school yesterday, one of the teachers, who we've taken to calling “The Matriarch,” said to us, "7:00, my house, meeting." "Tonight?" "Yae. Park Jung Sun... your aparte... (Konglish [a mutant language made up of words taken from English and made to suit the Korean tongue] for apartment) go." "Uh, okay."

So we get home just before six and complain to each other for a bit about being told without notice what we're doing, not having any control over our lives and in general how easily exhausted we are these days. Then, being hungry five hours after our lunch of rice, potatoes and kimchi, we ran down to the neighborhood restaurant for some bibimbap before our meeting. We rushed back to our apartment and were picked up at 7 by our friend Park Jung Sun, her “mother, English Teacher, Samcheok Elementary School” and about seven small children, three of whom I was to sit with in the back of Park Jung Sun's little Hyundai.

After a quick nightmare fantasy about how we were going to be made to have conversation with these kids, we dropped them off on the way to The Matriarch's aparte, where we found spread before us a full-on feast, laid out beautifully across a traditional Korean table (6" legs, for floor sitting). Koreans, like, it seems, everyone outside the US, know how to treat guests. There were five dolsot bibimbap (hot-stone pot rice and vegetables), doenjang jigae (a soybean paste stew), kimbap (Korean sushi), fried pumpkin slices, all kinds of steamed veggies and kimchis... basically all our favorite Korean foods. Unfortunately, we had gotten snarled in a language trap earlier.

When we were parting ways with the Matriarch after school, Melanie asked “should we have dinner at our apartment?” The Matriarch can understand slow, classroom English, but not so much “everyday English”. I'm guessing she heard “dinner”, thought about the fact that she was about to prepare a massive feast for us, and so said “yes”. When I saw what she had done, I wanted to cry. We had just been kvetching about how how inconsiderate everyone is toward us, and here was a feast, vegetarian none-the-less, made just for us.

We met the Matriarch's husband, a Math Professor, sat down, tried to explain, she apologized, we apologized a lot, Park Jung Sun called her cousin that speaks more English and had him translate “you can leave food remaining”, I put some more bibimbap and doenjang jigae into my already very full belly, and we toasted over very sweet wine (Manashevitz style). They didn't eat much beyond the bibimbap, as Korean politeness dictates, and we felt terrible. Melanie's eyes watered periodically through dinner.

Once the intensive eating part had passed though, it was a great evening. They brought over a second table, filled with peaches with pink-marbled flesh, grapes, miniature bananas and Gyeongju Bread (pancakes filled with sweet bean paste), a specialty of the husband's hometown and ancient capital of the peninsula. We talked about whatever we could find the language for, looked at pictures of their kids, took pictures of ourselves (are they prouder to have western friends or are we prouder to have Korean friends?) and watched some baseball.

***digression warning***

Korean baseball takes sponsorship to a whole new level... where in the US teams are identified more less equally by their home town and a name, in Korea they are identified primarily by the company that sponsors them, secondarily by a name (always English), and almost not-at-all by the city they play in. So the game last night was Samsung vs. KIA. My favorite team is the Lotte Giants, because they are also “Giants”, because they play in Busan, my first home in Korea, and because Lotte makes these delicious chocolate-covered pretzel cookies called Peppero. As another example of the extent of corporate reach in Korea, November 11 is “Peppero Day” (Peppero are long and strait, hence 11/11), for which every child in the country buys cases of the cookies and gives them to their teachers and friends. Last time I was here I had a cabinet full of Peppero that lasted me well into spring. It's kind of like another Valentine's Day, except that they have two of those in the spring, but we'll get to that in time...

***end digression***

The husband took out an atlas and showed us around Korea, and then a newspaper, and we looked through the news together -- my favorite! We talked about AIG and the strength of the Korean market (three words – massive dollar reserves), what we thought of “Faline... uh, Alaska... woman...” I've been told over and over not to get into politics with Koreans, so I tried to tone-down my response as much as possible, but I seem to have a condition that prohibits me not expressing my social/political opinions. The most I could water it down, in simple English, was “I don't think she can be President.” When that was met with silence I remembered that they strongly identify as Christians and started wondering how much favor I had just lost.

All and all, it was a lovely evening. We were sent home with a massive amount of food (“Gift... Korean culture.”) and a determination to simplify our English even further when anything logistical is on the line.

This afternoon, The Matriarch pulled me aside in the hallway, apologized and said in perfectly polished English, "we would like to have you over for dinner again."

Assa! (Awesome!)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Teachers Begin to Teach (Two Weeks In)

We've started teaching this week. Melanie and I have very different teaching routines. I'm working with three Korean teachers for 5th and 6th grade and will be spending four hours a week with each class; Melanie is working with eleven Korean teachers for 1st through 4th grade, plus an after school class for the "fool students" and spends one hour a week with each class. And I go to a different, very rural school on Tuesdays, where I'll have classes with students numbering in the mid-single-digits, as opposed to the classes of 37 I have here.

Right now, I'm feeling frustrated that every day I finish my classes by lunch, at 12:30, and must stay at school until 5. What I wouldn't give for a private office! On the other hand, I am sitting in the teachers' room now, blogging, so I suppose I don't have it too bad.

As much as I'd like to generalize, the range of personalities is huge - with with students, with teachers and with other foreigners. Students from yelling-over-me-introducing-myself to the cutest, sweetest kids I've ever met; teachers from bossy (in Korean) to sitting-aside-videotaping-Melanie-teaching to actual constructive co-teaching that may even evolve into co-lesson planning in the coming months; foreigners from strait-as-an-arrow, why-did-you-leave-your-corporate-job to oh-my, do-you-always-sweat-so-profusely, I-see-why-you-married-a-Philipino, I-doubt-you-could-function-in-US-society.

Well, having now set a personal best for concentration of hyphens in a paragraph, I'm going to get back to the only book left from those I brought, The Bible in Modern English. It's a slow read.

More Meetings, More (Meaty) Meals

Last night we had a "meeting" at the Samcheok County Office of Education. We went with a teacher and two administrators from our school, and when we got there discovered banners reading "EPIK Conference 2008 - September 17, 2008 (Wed) 16:00". I've never before been to a conference that was identified by its time!

After being brought on stage and given roses (our second presentation of flowers from government), we sat in a big hall for ninety minutes with all the other foreign teachers in the county (and multiple handlers for each) while our contracts were read in Korean. I suppose it's good that the administration was forced to get familiar with the contracts, but wow was that a long ninety minutes.

I suppose as a reward for sitting quietly, we were then all (100+ people) taken to a restaurant for bulgogi - the famous Korean beef dish. Melanie and I are vegetarian, or almost so, and this was the second time we've sat at a table with the administrators while they eat meat and we eat rice. It feels like they're starting to resent us for it, but I suppose it's more likely just alienation. After dinner I was thinking about my pre-vegetarian days and the few occasions when I ate with vegetarians. I remember not making any effort to understand where they were coming from. I remember feeling like they were "soft". And I definitely remember feeling like they were different - out-group, if you will. And so it is here, by refusing the school lunches and the group dinners, we've alienated ourselves and excluded ourselves from the group, to whatever additional extent is possible from the starting point of being, literally, an alien.

On the upside, a Korean teacher overheard our boss talking, in Korean, about us not eating meat, and recommended to us a vegetarian restaurant here in Samcheok. It's called Cheongralae, and they serve Ssambap - rice and vegetables and fish wrapped in lettuce. I guess it's a locally famous restaurant. He even left the dinner table to get us business cards for the place. Seven days till payday, and then we'll definitely check it out.

Coming soon: book reviews. I've been meaning to review (and compare and contrast) Jarod Diamond's Collapse, Derrick Jensen'sThe Culture of Make Believe and Kalle Lasn's Culture Jam - three books about what's wrong with our society and what we need to heal - for some time now. And I've just finished Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent novel Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which definitely deserves a review. I had a dream last night that I was recommending books to my Aunt Ann - Derrick Jensen and Arundhati Roy. Perhaps I'm looking to push a certain perspective. See yesterday's post for a fleshing out of one aspect of what that perspective is.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Popcorn! And GMOs!

Big thanks to Chad for helping us find popcorn. And popcorn that doesn't have "butter flavoring" in it and isn't made by ConAgra to boot!

On a hopefully unrelated note (but unlikely considering ConAgra's business), we did a little research yesterday and discovered to our dismay that Korea has ended its holdout against genetically modified foods - GMOs. And for what food? Corn, of course! The move was supposedly made to ease consumer burden from rising food prices. However, I can't help but notice the move came amid negotiations for a bilateral trade deal between Korea and the US. The United States, being the hegemon of the world, tends to throw its weight around pretty aggressively in these negotiations. At the same time, the US has been pushing GMO food products on the world; aggressively so even with the EU, perhaps the only group with economic strength to stand up to the US' might. The US is also the leading corn producer in the world, producing more than one-third the world's crop, much of it genetically modified.

Let me summerize...

1. Korea was one of the last two East Asian countries to ban GMOs (Japan being the other).
2. At the time South Korea decided to allow imports, they were in negotiations with the US for a bi-lateral trade agreement.
3. The US has a history of aggressively pushing for the loosening of restrictions surrounding GMOs.
4. The US has a special interest in the unfettered trade of genetically modified corn.
5. South Korea's first imported GMO food was corn, to be used as a component of sweeteners and starches.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Taebaeksan Trip

We just had a 4-day weekend for Cheosok, so we decided to go up to Taebaek, the center of coal mining in South Korea, for a little climbing and relaxing with our friends Kate and Chad. Taebaeksan is one of the holiest mountains in Korea. Something having to do with the Dangun Wanggeom - the founder of Korea, whom we celebrate with the national holiday Gaecheonjeol (ie. day off work) October 3. So atop each of the mastiff's peaks there are alters built to Dangun Wanggeom. Exercise, views, friends and culture -- who could ask for more?

Downtown Taebaek - the most cosmopolitan environment we've seen in a while!

Evidence of the cosmopolitan nature of Taebaek!

Walking around Taebaek we found a bookstore with some western literature, perhaps turned pornographic?

We had dinner at a little ajuma's place. Clockwise from the top left: naeng kong guksu (cold, soymilk noodle soup... probably the least appealing vegetarian dish I've found in Korea), naeng guksu (cold noodle soup, only marginally better than the soymilk version), bibim naeng guksu (mixed vegetable noodle soup - that red paste made it less bland than the other two soups at the table, and the hot broth next to it made it warm. I wouldn't seek it out again, but definitely better than the other two), and bibimbap (mixed vegetables and rice, the old standby). Check out the size of the chunks of radish kimchi in front of my bowl! No one was crazy enough to try to put one of those down. Besides Melanie's bibimbap, no body ate much of their dinner, so Kate, Chad and I went out for pizza a couple hours later. I guess we can't claim to have it too hard here if we can always go get a pizza! ;^>

We stayed in a "love motel", a pretty modest one as these things go. It was nice, the elevator was trippy though!

This beautiful lonely red tree greeted us as we started our ascent of Taebaek Mountain (Taebaeksan).

About an hour into the hike we came upon this beautiful temple hidden in the woods.

Us inside a tree!

The top of one of the several peaks we summitted.

An airfield just off to the side of the mountain, with what seems to be a dirt runway and landing strip. Note to self: don't fly into Taebaek!

An alter atop another peak.

Us just beyond the previous alter.

At the end of the hike we found this lake, which is the shape of the Korean Peninsula, and has labels for each of the major cities, and Taebaek.

So that was long weekend number one. The next is only two weeks away, at which point we'll have been paid and will be running off to Seoul for chickpeas, Mexican food and exotic spices, like cinnamon.

Friday, September 12, 2008


A couple of days ago, we were sitting in the teachers' room at school when one of the admin gave a Korean teacher sitting next to me a catalog to look through. So, being the diligent student of Korean culture I am, I looked through the catalog with her. Page 1 - watches and suitcases, page 2 - women's fashion, page 23 - men's fashion, page 32 - shoes, page 37 - makeup, and page 40 - whoa!

Korea is really a very conservative society. Women don't generally show their shoulders in public and while there is premarital sex (and even prostitution), my understanding is it's absolutely not to be talked about. So to say that the dildos and sex toys in the middle of "Corea Homeshopping" caught me a little off guard is putting it quite mildly. Who knew?