Sunday, November 30, 2008

School Festival

In Korean public schools, it seems classes and whole days of classes are canceled as often as not. Last week, of the sixteen classes I normally teach at my primary school, I taught a total of six. Fine with me, though I wish that I had a private office to sit in during those canceled classes, instead of a desk in the room where the teachers and administrators come together in a cacophonous mess of 70 decibel Korean every ten minutes.

Anyway, Friday was School Festival Day, and the classes were gearing up for it all week, and even the week before. Each class got a five minute slot in which to perform, usually some sort of song and dance.

There were trucks in the parking lot of school selling cotton candy in cups and various plastic, flower bouquet-like contraptions. Many of the students were done-up in there traditional Korean best make-up and dresses. The librarian had been cutting out giant Korean characters for days. Anticipation was in the air!

The mothers, and their cameras, came out in hordes!

Two of my favorite students dressed up as bride and groom to play emcee.

One of the cutest little girls I've ever seen, performing a song with her first grade class.

Deep concentration was required by all. (don't think about cookies.... don't think about cookies....)

The whole thing was a giant whirl of colors!

This guy, who was clearly someone important, based on the greeting he got from the principal (whose ear is on the right), did what many high-status Korean men do -- ignored the hundreds of people behind him (and the zoom button, apparently) to get what he wanted.

One of my sixth grade classes performed a lovely enactment of "The Tortoise and the Hare" (in English), including this fight scene. I edited the script. Where I suggested that "the lesson of the story is..." should be maybe "the moral of the story is..." the final line of the play was "Maybe the moral of the story is..." Oh well, they like humility here. Maybe telling your elders what the moral of a story is would be presumptuous.

Then, unfortunately, the batteries in my camera died, so I have no pictures for you of the very cutest student of all, the amazing dance of Korean dragons to traditional Korean music, or the animated show my fifth grade class put on using 24 sketch pads held together in a giant square. Next time, charge the batteries the night before a big event!

It was a very entertaining afternoon. It was really fun to see the students so excited and to meet some (though too few) of their mothers. On the down side, it was followed by dinner at a grill-your-own-pig-meat-at-the-table restaurant, so we got home at 7:00 hungry, annoyed, and smelling like burnt pig flesh. But that's nothing that a change of clothes, a big bowl of popcorn, and an in bed screening of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? can't cure.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


I just got out of one of my sixth grade classes. Kim Sun, my co-teacher, likes to show the students 2 second muted clips from Korean comedy television shows, for the students to say what the actors are doing using the language structure of the lesson.


There are big screen TV's connected to a computer with high speed internet (very high speed) in every classroom in Korea. If the U.S. wants keep up we need a massive increase in our education funding.

***end digression***

The language structures for our current lesson are "Don't..." and "It's time to..."

For "Don't..." we watched an eight year old girl run full speed into a flying jump kick into the chest of one of her classmates, knocking him flat to the ground. "Don't kick your friends." Indeed.

For "It's time to..." we had (I couldn't make this up), a group of 20-somethings standing around a guy lying on his side, with his back to us, on what looked like an operating table. One of the friends put his hands together as if making a gun with his thumb and forefinger, and proceeded to poke his friend right in the cornhole. This looped over and over so as to create the motion of... no... I'm not going to write that here. But that's what our sixth graders got in class today. "It's time to wake up."

Interestingly, that didn't phase them a bit. What did phase them was last week, when the language structure was "Would you like to..." Kim Sun brought in a clip from a Korean soap of a man giving very tame kiss to a woman lying on a hospital bed. "Would you like to kiss me?" That sent the kids into hushed whispers that lasted until the clip was replaced with the next, maybe 30 seconds later. The tension was so palpable it made me uncomfortable. So, poking your friend in the butt - cool. Kissing a girl - seriously messed up.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pictures of Dogye on a Clear Day

Yesterday Melanie and I completed the traverse of the long ridge on the west side of Dogye. It was a beautiful, clear day, and warm for this time of year. Here are some pics:

This is our town, Dogye! Just to the left of the seam is the campus of our elementary school:

From left to right the buildings are: kindergarten, gymnasium, administration and grades 2, 3 and 6, the dirt field, and grades 1, 4 and 5 plus the Dogye English Experience Center, which looks closer to opening every day - very exciting!

Melanie about to cast a spell on me from an "improvement" to the trail. It's too bad they build these things, it would've been a nice 3rd class traverse without them, but Koreans love their metal staircases.

From the high vantage point on the ridge, we realized just how close we are to Taebaek, the big city just down the road... as the crow flies anyway. A couple weeks ago we took a cab from Taebaek out to this special agricultural zone and windfarm.

A Korean grave...

And its setting. Not a bad place to be buried, eh?

Playing in the leaves like a couple of little kids.

On our way out we crossed the river just below the major coal mine that operates in town. Of all the towns in Gangwon-do, we were placed in the one with two of Korea's three active coal mines. Anyway, don't drink the water.

We passed a couple of awesome sounding restaurants on our way home. This one is Appricca.

And Smoper. Did they kidnap Papa Smurf and dye him green?

Friday, November 21, 2008

My New Website

Check out my new website, Growth Steps, where each month I'll document a new 30-day goal experiment.

I'm going to be creating at least one additional site in the near future, and each site will have a specialized purpose. The new one will be geared toward income generation, Growth Steps is designed to hold me accountable to my goals and for whatever benefit that sort of archive might have for readers setting similar goals, and this site is going to be more about my personal experience in Korea. I'm going to move away from political ranting and book reviews (since I didn't get to them, I'll say this now: read Jensen's Culture of Make Believe and Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. The former, in particular, is a life-changing book). This blog will focus on first person narrative and commentary on living and teaching in South Korea. And more pictures and videos. ;)

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

EPIK Apartment Tour (Dogye)

A little while ago I made a video tour of our neighborhood and the apartment EPIK Gangwon-do provided for us in Samcheok. Today, I thought I'd post a video tour of our new EPIK apartment in Dogye.

Before we moved, we were commuting about two hours a day to our school in Dogye. We told our co-teacher, then the adminstration at our school, the Samcheok Education Office, our recruiter at ESL Job Network and finally the Supervisor of Education for Gangwon Province that we needed to be closer to our school, and finally, after almost two months of our harassment, they found an apartment for us in Dogye. The problem it seems is that EPIK tells recruiters to tell prospective teachers that they will be provided an apartment within 10 or 15 minutes of their school, while a manual that EPIK gives to the schools says to get your English Teachers an apartment within an hour of the school.

In any case, it turned out fine for all the hassle. We lost a lot of apartment space, and our apartment here is quite a bit older. Dogye is much smaller, and feels it. It also feels like the coal mining town that it is. But to leave home at 8:45 and get home at 5:15 is, as the commercials say, priceless.

Here's a look at our apartment, from behind, with town beyond it:

And here's the video (6:02):

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

School Opening Day

It's not what it sounds like.... Dogye Elementary School seems to have been open since at least the Korean War (1950 - '53). Instead, yesterday our school was "open" to teachers and administrators from all around Dogye Eub (an administrative region somewhat smaller than a county).

For days, everyone at school had been freaking out making artsy name tags, cleaning every last shoe-locker and polishing every last trophy. When we arrived yesterday, it felt more like we were walking into a sales convention or wedding reception than our school.

The entrance to the gymnasium.

Inside the gymnasium were scores of displays of students' artwork and stories, and teachers' methods, like the games we use in English class.

There were also a couple of banners (Koreans love banners). We were surprised to see that this one featured Melanie! And no, that's not a prison behind her. Those are the gym's offices.

After lunch, Kim Sun and I taught a demonstration class for about twenty other teachers and the elementary school supervisor for Samcheok County. Kim Sun - who just finished her "English Education Degree" - had planned this down to the last word (even my words), and was visibly nervous before we started. She's actually a great English teacher, and with her more than any other Korean teacher, we have a good natural dynamic in the classroom - both letting the other teach in their style and being there to support the other on pronunciation or complex directions or whatever. But yesterday she was just putting on a show, and had me relegated me to the talking stooge. In all of the feedback I heard, from Koreans and foreigners alike, was that I should have more of a role in the class. I don't know why Kim Sun set up that class the way she did - to show off, I suppose, but she is actually the one co-teacher I work with that doesn't need to hear that I should have more of a role in class... several of my other teachers really do need to hear that. Oh well. Hopefully she impressed whomever she was trying to impress.

After the demo class, we went into the freezing cold gymnasium, and Chantel (one of the three other foreigners who lives in Dogye) was asked to give a speech about her impressions of the demo class, the school, teaching in Korea and Korea in general. No need, apparently, for preparation, or for a translator. I would guess that less than 10% of the audience understood more than 10% of what she said.

Nevertheless, here she is trying to take the task seriously.

And here are the other foreigners trying not to laugh at her attribution of the children's good behavior to their nutritious lunches.

After two hours of not understanding anything in the gymnasium, we had had enough and scurried away to this restaurant for an awesome dinner. All of that, including drinks, for 8,500 won each (US$6.36).

And a bunch of happy campers after a good meal.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Al Gore - What We Need to Do

In a NYTimes op-ed yesterday, Al Gore noted that the same steps can heal our economy, our planet, and our national energy security. He's not the first to say it, but it is eloquent and if the former VP says it can be so, who are we to say it can't?

It's may be too late already -- we may have already entered a feed-forward loop that will massively alter the ecology of the planet and it make it much less pleasant for humans to live here. But in case we haven't, we must take these steps now. There is no time to waste.


What follows is a five-part plan to repower America with a commitment to producing 100 percent of our electricity from carbon-free sources within 10 years. It is a plan that would simultaneously move us toward solutions to the climate crisis and the economic crisis — and create millions of new jobs that cannot be outsourced.

First, the new president and the new Congress should offer large-scale investment in incentives for the construction of concentrated solar thermal plants in the Southwestern deserts, wind farms in the corridor stretching from Texas to the Dakotas and advanced plants in geothermal hot spots that could produce large amounts of electricity.

Second, we should begin the planning and construction of a unified national smart grid for the transport of renewable electricity from the rural places where it is mostly generated to the cities where it is mostly used. New high-voltage, low-loss underground lines can be designed with “smart” features that provide consumers with sophisticated information and easy-to-use tools for conserving electricity, eliminating inefficiency and reducing their energy bills. The cost of this modern grid — $400 billion over 10 years — pales in comparison with the annual loss to American business of $120 billion due to the cascading failures that are endemic to our current balkanized and antiquated electricity lines.

Third, we should help America’s automobile industry (not only the Big Three but the innovative new startup companies as well) to convert quickly to plug-in hybrids that can run on the renewable electricity that will be available as the rest of this plan matures. In combination with the unified grid, a nationwide fleet of plug-in hybrids would also help to solve the problem of electricity storage. Think about it: with this sort of grid, cars could be charged during off-peak energy-use hours; during peak hours, when fewer cars are on the road, they could contribute their electricity back into the national grid.

Fourth, we should embark on a nationwide effort to retrofit buildings with better insulation and energy-efficient windows and lighting. Approximately 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States come from buildings — and stopping that pollution saves money for homeowners and businesses. This initiative should be coupled with the proposal in Congress to help Americans who are burdened by mortgages that exceed the value of their homes.

Fifth, the United States should lead the way by putting a price on carbon here at home, and by leading the world’s efforts to replace the Kyoto treaty next year in Copenhagen with a more effective treaty that caps global carbon dioxide emissions and encourages nations to invest together in efficient ways to reduce global warming pollution quickly, including by sharply reducing deforestation.

Of course, the best way — indeed the only way — to secure a global agreement to safeguard our future is by re-establishing the United States as the country with the moral and political authority to lead the world toward a solution.

Looking ahead, I have great hope that we will have the courage to embrace the changes necessary to save our economy, our planet and ultimately ourselves.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Trip to Gangneung

A couple weeks ago one of the teachers at our school asked if we wanted to go with him to Gangneung, the closest big town. After our plans were foiled last week by one of his students hitting another with a baseball bat and the subsequent necessity of dealing with the police, we arranged to go yesterday with him and another teacher from our school. Unfortunately, weather-wise, it was absolutely the worst day we've seen thus far in Korea.

The first stop was Okgye (pronounced "OK") Rest Stop off the Donghae Expressway, voted the most beautiful rest stop in Korea.

This little girl didn't seem to mind the rain.

The second stop was "Sun Cruise" - a huge hotel made in the image of a cruise ship.

Behind us you can see a smaller a ship. It didn't occur to me how weird it is that they had built a series of huge ships on hillsides until we got home and looked at these pictures.

The gardens at Sun Cruise were quite beautiful.

There was lots of sculpture, much of it on the theme of hands(?!).

We learned that this is how Korean symbolize a strong promise, not unlike pinkie swearing.

This was just inside the front gate. Those are decidedly non-Korean breasts!

Our group on a glass bottomed overlook. The teacher on the viewer's left we call "Tom Cruise" for his debonair ways. I teach two fifth grade classes with him. On the right is a teacher we call "Mirage" for our not having really noticed he exists for the first couple weeks we were there. Melanie teaches fourth grade with him. They are both exceptionally kind men.

After the Sun Cruise, we went to Tofu Town, a huge specialty restaurant for uncooked tofu dipped in soy sauce, tofu soup (I think it was really just soft tofu in water, with soy sauce for flavor), a delicious scallion-omelet, and some great side dishes.

Despite, or maybe because of, the surreal nature of the whole experience, it was a really nice day. It felt to me like we were a part of something in a new way, like we were genuinely on a friendly excursion with Koreans - no school-assignment or ulterior motives or feelings of obligation. Like we were part of a community of teachers, and like we were seeing Korea a little more from the inside. And as we talked about the upcoming hard winter in this town of 4,000 people, it was comforting to know there are at least a couple people we genuinely enjoy spending time with.

Tom Cruise's English is very broken (and the second best of all the teachers at school), but he seems to enjoy talking about ideas, which is extremely refreshing. Maybe this is true of all people and my perception of it just gets amplified with communication so limited, but prospects for conversation about anything meaningful have been few and far between. So a day of talking about the history of mining in our region and the effects of Korea's recent switch away from coal (negative population growth, poverty, the establishment of the only casino in Korea for domestic use), government, the election, the economies and how they relate was very welcome. It seems vocabulary is less a limiting factor for those sorts of conversations than is a willingness to slow down conversation and dig for the occasional big concept.

It's good to know that it's there.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Hike Above Our New Home

When I move to a new town, I make it a priority to get some perspective as quickly as possible by climbing the hills surrounding the place. When I moved to Boulder and climbed the beautiful red rocks above Settlers Park, I remember thinking I can't imagine living on flatland where you couldn't climb above and look down on town. Since 2000, I've lived in California, Colorado and Korea and those have suited me just fine.

So last weekend, our first in this town, I looked out my window and found the biggest hill beside town, found a valley next to and started walking up it. I ran into several groups of students on the way to the hike, and then one with his family on the trail. It feels great to be living in the same place we're working, to be (in some few ways) part of a community. On the other hand, when I went to buy water at the convenience store under our apartment after work in my sweats and ran into two students in the store, I was a little less excited about community and more worried about privacy. Similarly yesterday when we ran into a student 50 meters from our apartment and he followed us like a lost puppy into our building, the concerns trumped the satisfaction.

Anyway, here are some pictures from the hike, of our new home, Dogye Village of Samcheok County of Gangwon Province of the Republic of Korea. If it's a bit hazy, that's because there was a fire just a valley over two days before. Helicopters overhead all day, but no serious damage done.

Dogye from above. Our apartment is on the left, the highest of the cluster of six large buildings. That valley that we back up to is this weekend.

This is the industry that keeps this region breathing (and warm during the winter... there are actual bricks of coal all over the place. They get them delivered to burn for heat).

Here are some dogs that I can only assume are being kept for food. To be honest, I feel only marginally worse for these creatures than I do for the millions of pics and cows kept all over the world for food, in the United States usually in much worse conditions than these dogs.

Persimmons are everywhere this time of year, a dime a dozen, if you will. When the leaves blow off the trees, leaving the orange bulbs alone with the dark brown branches, it's really quite a site. I'll have to work on getting a better shot of it than this.

And a reflexology footpath, in the shape of a foot, at the bottom of the valley. They're huge on reflexology here (it's a Traditional Chinese Medicine thing). The idea, as best I understand it, is that you walk on the stone paths barefoot to stimulate the points on the bottom of your feet to enhance the flow of qi. We just got a path in front of our school, which we've taken to using after lunch, until we're dragged away by the raucous group of second grade girls that kidnaps us to the playground everyday.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fire Bag

A few weeks ago, Samcheok hosted the "SAFEM Expo" - some sort of emergency preparedness and response convention. It was a big deal for the town - 70,000 people, $60 million, and two big-top tents. Our school took us there one afternoon. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me, but I did grab this flier, from a booth selling fire preparedness equipment.

Zooming in on the boxes on the left reveals the design of this brilliant device...

Do you feel safe yet?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Beach Trip

With a new hard drive to set up and no internet in the new apartment, it's been tough to blog lately. I have a back-log of pictures that I've been meaning to post though, so I think we'll do pictures for the next few days. That and probably some sort of comment on the election, beyond this: Vote!

A couple weeks ago a bunch of us foreigners from Samcheok went to Chuam Beach, between Samcheok and Donghae. We found the beach at - it is supposed to have some nice bouldering. It was a quick 8,000 won taxi ride from the Samcheok Bus Terminal, and well worth the trip. Bouldering without shoes or chalk turned out to be less appealing than we had hoped, but it is an excellent beach, with no crouds, some nice restaurants and beautiful rock formations.

It is apparently cuttlefish drying season. The ladies that were hanging these didn't want me to photograph them, but I snuck this shot in before I asked.

They kind of look like aliens, don't they? The fish, I mean!

We did get some bouldering in. This is Mark and Chad on the rocks.

And Mark again, having climbed a bit.

This is where we had lunch - excellent dwaenjang jjigae (spicy fermented soybean paste stew). I thought it funny that the wall had a hand-painted fan and roll of toilet paper next to each other, so I asked Ben to pose with them, not thinking that he would try to dominate the funny of the picture.

Kate on Chad's long iron rod.

Melanie took special interest in the shells of the beach, an interest that ended up getting her in quite deep.

And Melanie with her well-earned, picture-perfect sand dollar. And no spare clothes.

Maybe next summer we'll come back for some cliff-jumping.