Sunday, December 28, 2008

Teaching Can Be Great! (I had forgotten)

We're two days into the five day winter camp, which, in contrast to our normal routine, we actually get to plan and execute, with two Korean teachers to back us up. And it's great! The kids are having fun, they're getting exposed to real, situational English, they're getting conversational practice, and Melanie and I are happy and engaged. And of course we're working hard, because that's what people do when they're empowered and given responsibility.

If I could make one suggestion to EPIK, the program that spends hundreds of millions of Korean tax dollars every year to put a native English speaker in every public school in the country, it would be to give up a little control, and let the foreigners teach. We're almost worthless as the system is set up now. But if the students were exposed to our teaching style, cultural conventions, and language use day in and day out from first to twelfth grade, it would make a huge difference. But they've got to let us teach. And that would mean giving up control to foreigners, and younger ones at that, which is highly unlikely to happen, given Korean Confusionism and attitudes toward foreigners. Too bad.

Friday, December 26, 2008

K-Style Christmas

Huge thanks to our friends Kate and Chad for throwing an excellent Christmas party last night. I had mostly been ignoring the fact that it was Christmas until then, to try to minimize the feelings of homesickness, but we had a great time with all our Samcheok friends last night. It really felt like Christmas.

Great potluck... good job with the food everyone. And thanks to Chad's Mom for the cookies, and Chad for sharing them!

Some friends during the Dirty Santa gift exchange (I always thought it was called White Elephant):

And on the way home, we saw two dogs, erh, stuck to each other, and a third sniffing out the situation. Here it is, your moment of zen...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm Singin' in Korean!

Today I perform. In Korean.

Let me 'slpain. A couple of weeks ago we were asked to perform in a Korean speech contest. My, and everyone's, protests, which I centered largely on the argument that I don't know any Korean, fell on deaf ears. So in confirmation of the fact that I am a dancing English monkey at the command of my handlers, I will perform in Korean today in front of my boss, his boss, and probably his boss as well.

But memorizing a speech in Korean just seemed too boring. So instaed I found a Korean pop song that I actually don't hate, or rather didn't before hearing and practicing it hundreds of times, and will perform it this afternoon. I'll let you know how it goes. In the mean time, here's a video of the song. It's called Wero, which translates to consolation or comfort, and is by the artist Kim Sarang.

And in case you didn't get the singin' in Korean reference, watch this.

Korean video parody
~에 의해 업로드됨 MeowHouse

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Frustration at Spa Vill

My second school, where I teach on Tuesdays, lets me leave after my last class ends at 3:10. Since it's closer to the bigger towns of Samcheok and Donghae, I usually head to one of those on Tuesday evenings for some combination of shopping, dinner and entertainment.

Yesterday I went to Samcheok to get my haircut, workout, relax at the bath house and do some grocery shopping. The haircut went well considering the language barrier, and at 10,000 won (~US$7) for the cut with a shampoo and scalp massage, it's quite a deal. (The place is called Hair Doctor and is up the stairs about five doors down from the Duncan Donuts [toward Home Plus] in downtown Samcheok.)

The workout went less well. I get stared at more at the gym than in most places in Korea, though I'm not sure why. Yesterday was no different, especially from a man wearing elastic waist and ankle zebra pants who appeared to be training a group of rather large Korean men. But whatever, I just crank up my iPod and do my thing... it's just part of being here.

But when I got on the treadmill, I noticed I was getting even more attention. After about five minutes, the zebra pants-ed man came up to me and made some gestures that I interpreted as he thought I was stepping two hard on the treadmill. At that point though, I was tired of being stared at and just wanted to do my workout, so I shrugged my shoulders and put my headphones back on. A few minutes later, another man stepped onto the treadmill next to mine, pointed at me, and said “very strong step.” I shrugged my shoulders in an attempt to communicate something like “Seriously? / What do you want me to do about it? / What's your problem?” But he continued to say things like “soft step,” so eventually I relented and started running on the balls of my feet, and asked him “Okay?” but even that didn't seem to satisfy him. So I put my headphones back on and kept running, but got off after 12 minutes because I didn't like the way I was being looked at and was having a hard time focusing on my running. I was not at all happy with that, but sometimes it's just too much to fight it.

So I thought I'd go swimming, as I usually do after I workout there, but when I asked the clerk if she had goggles I could use, she politely informed me that it would be an additional 5,000won to swim. Well, at least I saved that money each time I used the pool before I found that out. ;)

I had a nice soak with a monk (how often do you get to bathe with a monk?), a sauna and a lovely 30 minute chair massage (as in the chair was massaging me, not like I was in a chair getting a massage) for 4,000won in the jimjilbang.

Then I went to the department store, did my grocery shopping, and when I plopped my stuff down on the checkout counter, the person in front of me happened to be Kim Sun, my co-teacher. What a small world! Okay, small Korean town, but still.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Busan Trip

It's been too long since I've last posted. Here's a long-winded write-up of our trip to Busan last weekend...

Last Friday, we left school at noon to catch a bus for Busan where we would celebrate my birthday and soak up the refreshing cosmopolitanism of Korea's second city.

Because we live in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, we had to take a bus 45 minutes north in order to get the bus that would take us five hours south. That's frustrating. In fact, the time expense to travel around the country from eastern Gangwon-do has been one of the most frustrating aspects of living here, especially when half of the population is connected by a bullet train that crosses the country in two hours. If I had it to over again, I would probably ask to be on the western (Seoul) side of the province for this reason alone.

With that said, the bus ride wasn't too uncomfortable, and we got into Busan early enough to head to “Kebapistan,” the famous-among-foreigners Turkish restaurant in the PNU neighborhood of Busan. My multiple falafel sandwiches were lovely, though not quite as good as they were when I lived in Busan in 2006. That or my memory has inflated their taste in the intervening years.

One of the great things about traveling in Korea is the ubiquity of cheap accommodation. Koreans typically live with their parents until they are married, so, in response to the demand for private space for young men and women, thousands of “love motels” have sprung up across the country, where one can stay in a reasonable, clean room for between 20 and 50,000 won (US$15 – 37). We asked a table of foreigners if they knew of any such places near by and they pointed us to a neighborhood with two in every alley (half way to Jangjeon-dong on the main street in PNU) and we found a nice place for 20,000 won and after a brief walk around the neighborhood promptly crashed.

I had planned the whole trip around the restaurants I wanted to eat at in Busan, and on Saturday morning we headed to a place, also in the university district of Busan, that I remembered for their vegetable panini and tomato soup. We found it with surprising ease, and while it had the same cute decor and English books and games, the menu had taken a significant change for the worse. Gone were paninis and soups, in were sausages and ham sandwiches. The consolation prizes of a couple onion bagels and cup of coffee at Starbucks were not unwelcome though.

From their we went up to Beomeo-sa, the biggest and most famous Buddhist temple in Busan. It was lovely, as it has been every time I've been there. There were lots of paper lanterns strung up today, which was especially nice, something a little different.

We went for a lovely hike above the temple, up to a prominent ridge-line that can be seen from all over the northern part of the city. The weather was shockingly good for mid-December, the day was clear and it felt great to be out and get the blood pumping. We live in the middle of nowhere as far as Korea goes, yet the air was cleaner in Busan, because we live in coal-central in the middle of nowhere Korea, so that was a nice change as well. We met a nice man from Gwang-ju, a recently retired principal, with whom we had a nice conversation on the way up the trail, and who kindly took and emailed us our only picture of the trip.

From there we headed to the vegetarian buffet in Seomyeon, but found it closed (restaurant failure #2 for the day), so we grabbed a quick bi-bim-bap (mixed veggies and rice) and headed for Jagalchi, the gigantic fish market on the pier of Busan. It was as busy, smelly and strange as ever, and we had fully taken that in, we headed a few blocks over to Nampo-dong, the trendy downtown area of Busan.

Nampo-dong on a Saturday night was totally overwhelming. Thousands and thousands of little shops in maze like alleys, all illuminated by dozens of hanging fluorescent lights – shoe designers, clothes consolidators, traditional Korean goods for tourists. After what felt like hours of sifting through piles of clothes (a pastime for Melanie), we had a pieces of clothing we like and headed for the hole-in-the-wall Indian place in Nampo-dong, that I absolutely love. To get there, walk down the main street in Nampo-dong to the Pizza Hut, turn into that alley, walking on the Pizza Hut side, look for a steep, green staircase on your right, about 2/3 of the way down that alley. It's up there on the right.

The Indian Restaurant has only one vegetarian dish – masala curry, and it turned out to be too spicy for Melanie, which was big bummer. So I enjoyed mine as quickly as possible and we hit a second bi-bim-bap place on our way out of Nampo-dong.

Then we got foolish. We headed all the way across the city to go to what is reputed to be the largest bathhouse in Asia. When we got off the subway, we looked at our guidebook to see how to get there and learned that it closed at 9:00. Most bathhouses in Korea are open 24 hours and will let you sleep there, which was our plan, but not this one. So we back across the city, to the Haeundae Beach area, for another jimjilbang that was open 24 hours.

I had a nice soak, especially on the balcony that overlooks the beach – that was special. Melanie had an unfortunate run-in with what may have been a would-be thief (averted by her quick action), and when we met in the clothed, co-ed part of the jimjilbang, we realized there was no way we were going to sleep there. Some jimjilbangs have big sleeping rooms that are closed off from the activity of the rest of the place. This one didn't. So we left, nearing 11:00, eyes shutting and all.

Fortunately we found a reasonable motel fairly quickly (the first one tried to put us in a dirty room) and we got a much-needed good night's sleep.

On Sunday morning we went for a nice walk on Haeundae Beach, which was largely empty, so we tried to imagine what it would look like in July with tens of thousands of Koreans packed onto it. It was cold though, so we headed back to the vegetarian restaurant in Seomyeon, which was open this time. We had our favorite meal of the weekend here, and picked up some oatmeal, flax seed and dried mango on our way out.

I knew it would be pushing it to head to Busan for a normal weekend like this, but for Turkish and Indian food, it was well worth it. And, yes, the Korean temple, restaurant and bathhouse were nice too.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Novelty Lost - Thoughts on Culture Shock

We've been here just over three months now, and it seems the novelty has worn us for us and for Korea. Culture shock is setting in for almost all of the foreigners I've talked with, and the folks in our school seem less interested in us everyday.

Most people think that culture shock comes immediately upon arriving in a new culture. The name makes such a mistake understandable. Culture weary might be a better title for this experience.

I had a bad case of culture shock my first year living in Korea (my first time outside of North America). From about 3 - 6 months, I mostly hated everything, and I plotted daily how I could and would go home. I was unhappy in general, and especially disliked anything and everyone Korean. It also manifested as resentment toward my girlfriend, distance from my friends and apathy for my hobbies. I look around at the teachers who arrived here at the end of August, and I see tired, weary looks that remind me of how hard that period was for me.

Culture shock is an incredibly valuable experience. It is hard growth at its essence. If you take the metaphor of a person as a tree, getting through culture shock is expanding the breadth of your trunk - imperceptible and inglorious at the time, but it yields stability and opens new possibilities for height in the future.

It comes when the fascination, the newness, of a foreign culture wears off and the fascination of you wears off for those around you. When that happens you are left with the day-to-day experience of living in a culture that doesn't understand you and doesn't support the image you have constructed of yourself over the course of your life. Without the cultural backdrop on which you have defined yourself, and which supports the notion of you that your ego maintains, you have to develop some other concept of self, one that doesn't depend on the perceptions of you that have been relatively constant in your home culture.

This is why I came back to Korea. This is the good stuff.

But when I get home after work, it feels like my heart has been leaking happiness and self-confidence all day.

This too shall pass.