Archive for August 31, 2010


Tuesday, August 31: August 31 marks the halfway point for my time in Korea. I have survived 6 months!  🙂 I have six more months to go until my contract ends on February 28, 2011. Here, I look backward and forward, to what the last 6 months have brought and to what the next 6 months might bring.

At this time last year, I was working as a poorly paid intern at Management Systems International (MSI), commuting a nightmarish 1 1/2 hours each way. Our offices were on 13 boats in a marina in downtown Washington, D.C. and as an intern, my work there was under-challenging, to say the least.  I had started working there in March, 2009, and this date (August 31) also marked 6 months there.  These first 6 months at MSI felt like an eternity. I worked there until the end of December; luckily my last 4 months there were more challenging as I worked on a big contract evaluating all of USAID’s trade projects around the world for their effectiveness in actually improving trade.  It was one of the few contracts at MSI that involved research, which I loved.  So the last 4 months went quickly.  But finally, I left MSI as it was evident that, for some reason, they were never going to offer me a full-time position.

the boat at msi where i worked from march-august 2009

the boat at MSI where i worked from March-August 2009

I really wanted to live and work abroad.  Though Korea wouldn’t have been my first choice, it was the only country that didn’t require any teaching experience or the TEFL or that you be certified in your home country.  This is why I came to Korea, to get the experience of living abroad, to get the one year of teaching experience and to complete my TEFL while I was here.  I always looked at this as a stepping stone to get to where I really want to go: to the Middle East (or now possibly Turkey).

Overall my life in Korea is a fascinating, challenging, and sometimes difficult and lonely, experience.   Teaching elementary children is not particularly exciting, but the kids are thrilled to have a foreigner in their midst and I’m happy to be the subject of their enthusiasm.  They’re full of energy and sweet and crazy.  But.  Trying to figure out a way to actually teach them to speak English, that is more of the challenge.  It’s frustrating because the children have no place to practice their English except with me, in one or two 40-minute sessions a week.  Outside of school, neither their parents nor their friends speak English.  There are so few foreigners in southern Korea that they still see us as alien creatures.  My friend Kathy thinks that one of the reasons the Korean government imports all of us native English teachers is so people in Korea will get used to seeing foreigners.  As Korea is not much of a tourist destination and it is cut off physically from the rest of the world, it is a good way to have foreigners in their midst.  I have no idea if this is true; this is just her theory.  But it makes sense.

chojeon elementary school ~ august 30 ~ crepe myrtles in bloom

chojeon elementary school ~ august 30 ~ crepe myrtles in bloom

In the six months I’ve been here, I’ve struggled to adapt to a culture that in many ways is vastly different from my own, and in other ways is eerily similar.  It’s different in the way the people are.  When I happen upon the few Koreans who speak some English, I find them very friendly.  They’ll do anything for you; they’ll invite you to their homes, to dinner, to church.  But for the vast majority who don’t speak English, they don’t make any attempt at eye contact or any kind of approach at all.  I live near Keimyung University, where college students roam the streets until all hours.  I know these kids have only recently graduated from a public school system that has taught them English for at least 15 years, yet they all claim to know no English.  If I stop on the street and ask someone for directions or if I have any question, they wave me off, say, No English!  They are afraid to speak it because they never get a chance to practice.  I understand this perfectly, since I have studied a number of foreign languages and am afraid to speak any of them.  But it makes a foreigner’s life here difficult…and lonely.

julie & coffee-j, my korean co-teachers

julie & coffee-j, my korean co-teachers

Granted, much of this is my own fault for not making more of an attempt to learn Korean.  I should do this, and I do intend to work harder at it in the next 6 months.

There are a lot of differences that I find difficult to ignore.  Koreans don’t believe in standing in line.  They will shove their way into any place, metro, stairs, ticket offices, toilets, ignoring any semblance of a queue.  There are rarely trash cans evident, so people just toss their trash on the street.  People spit.  Young couples wear matching shirts, sometimes whole matching outfits.  Ajumas are always glaring at you or even yelling at you for reasons you can’t understand.  People, children and adults alike, touch the hair on your head or the hair on your arms;  they will comment on your appearance as if you asked for their opinion.  Recently one of Anna’s co-teachers asked her if she brushes her hair in the mornings.  Anna, who was taken aback, said yes she does.  The co-teacher went on to say, because it looks like in the afternoons, your hair is brushed, but in the mornings it doesn’t.  Korean people eat roots and condiments as if they are real dishes.  They believe every dish has some kind of health benefit.  They believe they are the only country in the world with 4 distinct seasons. They love beef and pork with all the fat still on it (some people love this but I don’t!).  They drive on sidewalks.  They wear sleeves that don’t attach to anything.  They get decked out in elaborate hiking gear to walk in the mountains.  They don’t wear bathing suits at the beach but instead wear a full regalia of clothing, including hats, long sleeves, unattached sleeves, and shoes.  The list could go on forever…..

a buddhist temple in seoul

a buddhist temple in seoul

Oddly, Korea is somehow not so different from America too.  People drive their modern cars (usually Hyundais) down their modern highways to their regular jobs.  They go to church on Sunday or to their Buddhist temples (although I haven’t met many Buddhists).  They love their families and take their kids to the beach, to the huge water parks, or to E-mart for groceries.  They care deeply about their children’s education.  It’s weird, sometimes I forget briefly that I’m even in a foreign country!

So, in a nutshell, here’s what I’ve done my first 6 months.  I’ve explored Daegu. I’ve traveled to Pohang, Busan, Gyeongju, Andong, & Seoul.  I traveled outside of Korea to Turkey.  I’ve connected with some really great foreigners here in Daegu who also teach English in Seongju.  I have two very close Korean girlfriends.  I’ve studied Arabic. I’ve worked on my TEFL.  I am learning, by trial and error, how to teach English as a second language to Korean children.  I have started writing, which is one of my favorite things.  I have been to DVD bangs, noraebangs, and eaten a LOT of Korean food.  I have learned how it feels to be a foreigner; I know now how disoriented and scared and overwhelmed immigrants in America must feel.  I know how it must feel to come to America speaking only Spanish, and not bother to learn English because you have a community of people from your own culture who can speak to you in Spanish; outside of that community, you can get by with what little English you know.  I know what it feels like to be in the minority.

standing near the top of the andong dam in may

standing near the top of the andong dam in may

I’ve learned how to be alone with myself.  That’s probably one of the most important things I’ve learned here.  As one of the few older English teachers, in world populated by mostly 20- to 30-something teachers, I am the odd girl out.  I no longer feel like going out partying until all hours of the night.  I’m just no longer into that.  I love hanging out, drinking beer and playing games with my more mature younger friends.  I’ve learned I love being alone and even traveling alone.  I get caught up in writing stuff for myself that not many other people read.  But, it’s important to me all the same.

me at the folk museum in seoul

me at the folk museum in seoul

Finally, how will the next 6 months go?  I have no idea.  I will continue writing as much as possible.  I will finish my TEFL.  I will continue to explore Korea on weekends.  I will visit China in a couple of weeks and hopefully Vietnam & Cambodia over winter break.  I will try to meet my best friend Jayne in India for two weeks on my way home to the U.S. in March, and possibly stop in Turkey again as well.  I will continue to go to church and I will do a Buddhist temple stay or two. I will try to go hiking in Korea’s endless array of mountains, filled with temples and Buddha statues and many other unknown treasures.

I am losing hope of finding any romance here in Korea, but I will keep my heart open, just in case.  And I will continue to read my books, filling my head with crazy notions that will guide my life into places unexpected and surprising.

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Gaya-san summer camps

Work, work and more work.  I returned home from my two-week trip to Turkey on Wednesday night, August 4, close to midnight, exhausted and dirty. By the time I unpacked and got organized, it was 2 a.m.  At 6, I got up and went to work.  And I worked the rest of the summer, teaching summer camps: 1) a 2-day camp at Chojeon Elementary School, where I teach during the regular year; 2) two 3-day camps at the Seongju English Village; and 3) two camps at Gaya Mountain ~ one 2-day middle school camp and one 4-day elementary camp.  On the 3 days not booked with camps, I reported to Chojeon to put in my 8-hour days doing “lesson planning” (i.e. writing my blog and goofing off on Facebook).

Arrival at Gaya-san

Arrival at Gaya-san for the 2-day middle school camp

Rock gardens at Gaya-san

Rock gardens at Gaya-san

Funny thing this.  Regular teachers in South Korea get only a 6-week summer vacation – a lot less than our 2 1/2 months in the U.S.  However, many of the teachers are required to work for all or a good portion of this “vacation.”  I surveyed different Korean co-teachers after the “holiday”; some had off a month, others not a single day!  As a native English teacher, my contract specifies I get a total of 18 days in a year: 8 in summer and 10 in winter.  I took my 10 in summer, so I only have 8 remaining. We also get a couple of national holidays, but those don’t amount to much.  Yes, WORK is the order of the day in the Korean school system.

the gaya hotel

the gaya hotel

The Gaya Mountain camps were overnight camps; we stayed and taught in the classy Gaya-san Hotel.  It was definitely not “camping!” The middle school camp was supposed to be 3 days, but one day was cancelled because of heavy rain.  A nice reprieve, to get a totally unexpected day off!  Rare.

Overall, the camps were high jinx and a gave me a different lens through which to see the students.  I don’t normally teach middle school;  my “comic strips” camp lesson was a little over the kids’ heads.  I thought they would be more advanced.

one of my middle school students draws a comic strip

one of my middle school students draws a comic strip

Students drawing comic strips

Students drawing comic strips

what one of my students produced in the comic strip lesson

what one of my students produced in the comic strip lesson

In the elementary camps, I taught the song California Dreamin’; I played a Power Point Jeopardy Game I made up, simplified Boggle games and another 5×5 word game.  In one camp, I read the book Balloonia, about an imaginary land where balloons live above the clouds, then I had the kids make up a travel brochure for a land they made up themselves.  Finally, I played a drawing game where I reviewed body parts & descriptive adjectives and said sentences like: He is a tall boy with three eyes, big ears, and short curly hair.  Two teams competed to draw pictures incorporating every item in the sentence.

balloonia and the kids' travel brochures

balloonia and the kids’ travel brochures

My class's performance

My class’s performance

All the students & teachers at the camp

All the students & teachers at the camp

The best thing about the camps was this: I wasn’t the sole English teacher.  Usually, during the regular school year, I’m the only native English teacher in my school.  Except for Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the Korean English teacher, my friend Julie, shows up, I have no one in my schools with whom I can just hang out and shoot the breeze (except Kim, who I talk about below).  I am always the lone “native.”  But here, at these camps, we bonded.  I got to know the other English teachers in Seongju who I barely knew before.  The teachers at the English Village were great: Suzanne and Manny from South Africa and Danny from the U.S.  I already know Anna, Seth and Kathy of course, but it was nice to work and hang out with them in a different setting.

After our two-day middle school camp, we also worked at a 4-day elementary school camp.

arrival at gaya-san summer camp for the second set of camps

arrival at gaya-san summer camp for the second set of camps

Kathy, Suzanne, Anna and Seth

Kathy, Suzanne, Anna and Seth

me, Suzanne, Anna and Seth

me, Suzanne, Anna and Seth

me with most of my students from Byeokjin Elementary

me with most of my students from Byeokjin Elementary

my students hamming it up

my students hamming it up

We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together (all the while complaining about the Korean food and wishing in vain for a western breakfast with coffee); we hung out and played poker and drank beer at night.  I loved and valued this camaraderie with my fellow teachers and native-English-speaking friends more than anything else.

playing poker at night to kill the time

playing poker at night to kill the time

at the teacher party the last night of camp: my fellow native english teachers: kathy, seth, anna, me & suzanne

at the teacher party the last night of camp: my fellow native english teachers: kathy, seth, anna, me & suzanne

Anna, me and Suzanne

Anna, me and Suzanne

our Korean co-teachers

our Korean co-teachers

We also had some free time in the afternoons to take mini-hikes on the grounds of the Gaya-san Hotel and on Gaya Mountain.

on the grounds of the Gaya-san hotel

on the grounds of the Gaya-san hotel

rock sculptures on the hotel grounds

rock sculptures on the hotel grounds

rock sculptures and bonsai trees

rock sculptures and bonsai trees

more rock sculptures

more rock sculptures

waterfall on the mountain

waterfall on the mountain

Anna and Kathy

Anna and Kathy

me by the waterfall

me by the waterfall

a narrow passageway at the museum

a narrow passageway at the museum

a little pond

a little pond

pretty greenery

pretty greenery

delicate flowers

delicate flowers

snow white flowers

snow white flowers

blossoms and fog

blossoms and fog

more delicate flowers

more delicate flowers

Actually, now that I’m back in my own schools to begin the second semester, I’m feeling kinda lonely and blue. 😦

my korean friend kim

Thursday, August 5: I do have one other close Korean friend besides Julie in one of my schools.  Her name is Kim and she teaches the first-graders at Byeokjin, the ones with the animal names.  Her English is excellent and she’s one of the nicest people I know in this world.  She is deep-thinking, intelligent, kind, soft-spoken and shy, but also worldly (she’s traveled a number of places outside of Korea, which is almost unheard of!)  She always tells me she loves talking to me because she likes older people, for one, and because I always teach her something new.  She says I encourage her to be more adventurous, because lately, in her life, she feels she’s in a rut and doesn’t much step out of her boundaries.  I am always happy to meet her for dinner every couple of Fridays or so.  She loves to eat pasta, and we end up going most often to VIVA where we have a glass of wine.   I’ve also dragged her along to Sydney Street, where she doesn’t feel too overwhelmed because there are never many people in there.

me & kim at sydney street cafe

me & kim at sydney street cafe on August 5

Kim is 42 and unmarried; this causes her great consternation.  Mr. O pronounced once that Kim is “old” and “not married.”  In Korean eyes, this is a bad combination.  She dated someone she loved very much for 15 years, off and on, but no longer speaks to him.  I know she would love to meet him again, or to meet someone new and kind-hearted and loving.  I wish this for her as well.

She always listens patiently to all my crazy or sad stories, my dreams,  my disappointments and my irritations. She’s always there to listen when I am struggling.  She never judges; she just listens and speaks her wisdom.  I like her so much.  When I leave Korea, I will carry her with me always, close to my heart.

hanging out with friends

Friday, August 6: Tonight, Myrna, Anna, Ben and I went out for pizza at our neighborhood pizza place after a week of teaching summer camps.

Anna

Anna

Ben, Anna, Myrna and me

Ben, Anna, Myrna and me

Myrna, me and Anna

Myrna, me and Anna

hangin’ & chillin’ with movies & games

Tuesday, August 24: Anna & Seth provide the house, games & movies for our entertainment nights.  As a married couple, they have the biggest apartment of all of us, with couches and chairs and even a coffee table!  We singles lack these simple things.  Always generous, they open their home to us and we congregate and play games, watch movies, or just hang out and eat dinner.  They also host our Bible studies.

anna & seth, the perfect hosts always

anna & seth, the perfect hosts always

It’s so funny, when they came to Korea, Anna & Seth paid an exorbitant sum for all the games, movies, books, etc. that they brought in their extra luggage.  But thank goodness for their foresight in bringing all this entertainment.  These things have given us many hours of pleasant companionship as well as some hearty competition.   Our favorites are: a cool railroad strategy game called Ticket to Ride (that Seth always wins!), Wii, Scrabble, poker with chips, and most recently, Spades.

Anna making steak fajitas

Anna making steak fajitas

I had Mike mail me some of my movies from home, including the 5-hour 1995 PBS version of Pride & Prejudice (starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy), which we started watching in June, and will just finish watching this Friday.  And we’ve watched the 2002 Catch Me if You Can with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.

Marice and Shihwan play Wii

Marice and Shihwan play Wii

We’ve had a couple of taco nights and just last week, Anna wanted to treat our Korean friends to some American food.  We worked together to make steak and potato fajitas…. delicious!  Shihwan was so funny; Koreans love their food spicy and he said, after eating half of his fajita, Do you have any spice to put on this? He looked a little bored with the whole fajita….

the makings for steak fajitas

the makings for steak fajitas

Maurice & Shihwan

Maurice & Shihwan

hot fun in the summertime

Here is summer in Daegu.  Unrelenting heat & humidity, sticky air.  Huge cicadas screeching at all times of day and night.  Swarms of huge dragonflies in pockets. A never-changing 90+ degree temperature, day and night.  Clothes sticking to your skin.   All I can say is I can’t wait till it ends and the cool crisp air of fall arrives. 🙂  Ahh, cool relief, where are you??

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