Category Archives: first impressions

Teacha, do you like Kimchi?

One week later…
It’s been a busy week with little time for anything but catching the bus in the morning, being at school all day, riding the bus, actually two, home again, slurping down a bowl of noodles and reading myself to sleep.
So to back up:
I was not able to take a hot shower when I moved into my apartment Sunday morning, nor for several days, as again, the gas had been turned off when the tenant moved out, and not turned back on. I ended up taking a shower at K’s, but it’s just not the same as your own! These dorms/apartments are big by Korean standards, about 450 square feet, with full-sized bathtubs. Although the building is on the grounds of the Foreign Language High School the residents are all foreign teachers, only two of whom work at the school.
This week has been so crammed full of experiences it’s hard to know where to begin.

Maybe with the schools: I have been assigned to teach at two schools, a small primary on Mondays and Thursdays and a larger one on the other days. At the smaller school I have just one class of about 25 students in each grade. I teach English to each grade once a week. At the bigger school I have three or four classes of about 40 students each in every grade. To get to the schools I have to take a bus into town, which takes a half hour, then transfer to another bus for another half hour ride. There is much grumbling among EPIK teachers about the fact that there is no attempt to give teachers housing near their schools. One administrator assigns the schools while another assigns the housing, and ne’er the twain shall meet. They offer the choices of either living in housing they provide, or taking a $300 a month housing allowance. However, it’s nearly impossible to secure your own rental housing from outside Korea, and they know that. Or they should.
While the teachers gave me detailed bus schedules, there is apparently no map of bus routes, so I didn’t know where to get off the bus once I got on. As the bus left the urban area and wound into ever more rural terrain, I worried that I would end up abandoned in some tangerine orchard in the hinterlands. At least I wouldn’t starve. The bus finally stopped at the end of the line, and after much hand gesturing and repeating of the school name on my part the driver finally figured out where I was going. Fortunately it was only two stops back down the road.
I still made it to school on time, and was ushered in by my co-teacher who gave me a pair of guest slippers and introduced me to the staff, none of whom spoke any English. Yes, I know I am in a foreign country, but with their mania for teaching English to the students, you would think the teachers would have picked up a few words. Not even a “good morning.” They were, however, very impressed by my attempts at Korean greetings.
After introducing myself to the staff we all went out to the dirt playfield where the students assembled in straight rows, arms stiffly at their sides. There was an ominous metal platform in front of the students, perfect for a lynching, I thought to myself. I was close. My co-teacher interpreted the principal’s gesturing toward me to mean that I was to climb the steps of the platform, take the microphone and introduce myself. How do you say “fear of public speaking” in Korean?
As I started to say my name a giggle rippled through the files of students. I’m going to assume they were just laughing at my “accent.” I spent the rest of the day repeating that introduction to individual classes.
The next day at  Big School I was again trotted out before the assembled students, on a vast and barren playfield which I couldn’t help but think looked like Tianemen Square, particularly from the high steps of the building. This address to the troops went so well that the principal decided I should give a speech EVERY Wednesday morning. “Just two or three minutes,” my co-teacher assured me. Great. Do you know how long two or three minutes is when speaking to a crowd that doesn’t understand anything beyond “How are you?” Maybe that’s a good thing, since it means I can say virtually anything to my captive audience.
The week at Big School was disappointing, as I spent the majority of it sitting in the office “lesson planning.” That meant sitting me down in front of a computer with a stack of the awful English curriculum books, and no guidance whatsoever. It was a futile exercise in spinning straw into gold. I tried to explain to my co-teacher – who was busy teaching her own classes all day – that I had NO teaching experience and that it was impossible to plan anything with no materials and no idea of the students’ skill levels. There seemed to be no materials left behind by the previous teacher. It was as if she had never been there for the past year.
But, as no one was monitoring me, I had lots of time to surf the broadband Internet and write emails home. The education department has put a ton of money into the schools, sparing no expense on technology. The classes are taught with high tech audio visual equipment and DVDs to complement every text book. (In a side note, while the country is crazy about technology, the sewer system is not designed to handle toilet paper. Used paper is supposed to be disposed of in wastebaskets next to the toilet – which is likely to be an electronically-controlled bidet.)
Finally, on Friday I was told I would be team-teaching in the English classroom on the fourth floor. The anxiety that had been gnawing at my gut all week subsided a bit, as there I discovered the mother lode of the previous teacher’s materials. Worksheets, games, flashcards, everything I had needed all week to plan lessons, but didn’t get!
The English curriculum is heavily based on a single set of books which all the native speakers (foreigners) agree are awful. The students spend a month on a single concept, such as possessives, with no more than 10 vocabulary words. The units have headings like, “Whose boat is this?” and “I like apples.” These sentences and their responses are repeated a million times in unison by the students, most of whom really have no idea what they are saying. Volume is also an important component. The teachers urge the students to repeat the lines at maximum volume, as if to better penetrate the cranium.
While every school uses the same insane, inane books, they all approach it differently. Some schools give the foreign co-teachers free rein to lead the classes, while others use them simply to parrot back the lines so the students can hear “real” English. We are supposed to be teaching conversational English, not grammar, but this is ridiculous. The principal at my big school was adamant that the Korean teacher was the lead teacher and I was to be the assistant. Meanwhile, the Korean teacher speaks almost entirely in Korean during class, so the students don’t even try to figure out the English. They just wait for her to explain it. Oh well.
Over the course of the week I have learned the top three questions students ask in the “getting to know you” interview of the foreign teacher are: Where are you from, do you have children and how old are you? My age is a constant source of amazement to students and adults alike. In Korea, to be 50 and traveling the globe, let alone even still alive, is a weird novelty. In the 6th grade class yesterday I asked them to guess my age, just to see what their perspective on age was, and they first guessed the impossibly old age of 30. Guess again. 40? Higher. 45??? Higher. 50?!?!?!?!? One child then piped up with “Do you have grandchildren?” There’s one in every crowd.

My social life
Yes, I do have one. Thanks to the Internet, before I even got the job I was able to hook into a message board expressly for foreigners living on Jeju, rhymeswithjeju on Yahoo. It offers a wealth of information, and I met several people on there that I have now met in person. There is even a subset of older foreign teachers that I have met and hope to do things with on a regular basis. Even though we come from disparate backgrounds and locales, teaching English in Korea gives us a unique commonality. One week and I already have more friends than after eight years in chilly Seattle! Plus I have K, the other teachers in this building, and random “waygooks” (foreigners) I’ve met on buses and in stores.
Last night I went to dinner with a group of women around my age, as one was celebrating her 47th birthday. I won’t name her here, but she is a local icon. She’s been here four years and knows every nook and cranny of Jeju, as well as how to get around culturally. One evening with her was worth a month of orientation. Her best advice: get a Korea friend to help navigate the bureaucracy, and learn to read Hangul, the Korean script. The language itself is very difficult to learn in its entirety, but I hope to learn enough to get around town. One of my new friends said Korean is supposed to be the most difficult language to learn, after Turkish. His take on that – Hey, it’s only the SECOND most difficult! Thanks, Tommy.

“Do you like kimchi?” This is another popular question, usually asked right after, “Do you like Korean food?” Um, sure, what’s not to like about chicken knuckles smothered in red pepper paste, stir fried, whole tiny fish, and limp, dead, pickled cold cabbage smothered in red pepper sauce, served with sticky white rice? That’s an actual menu from the school cafeteria. The staff at the big school has “generously” agreed to pay for my lunch every day, thereby obligating me to eat what is served. To refuse food or not eat it is insulting. Kimchi is not just a food, it’s a national source of pride. Foreigners politely say it’s an acquired taste.
Soju is another unique Korean item, but one I quickly became fond of. It’s a type of distilled rice (or sweet potato) liquor with about a 20 percent alcohol content. It’s clear like vodka, but the taste is very mild. It’s deceptively available in six packs, but drinking an entire bottle would be like drinking a six pack of beer. One bottle is about $1.50 and it’s available everywhere, including the convenience store on the way home from the bus stop. I can’t wait to experiment making “sojutinis.”

Here are a few photos of my apartment building from the road and the neighbor I see very morning weeding her patch.

Welcome to the pen

Welcome to the pen

This small farm is directly across from my apartment.

This small farm is directly across from my apartment.

I will post more photos soon, of my schools, the adorable students and the fascinating world that is my new home.

Sooo not Kansas

First blog entry and I’m already behind. Welcome to Korea. It’s the morning of day three of the latest phase of my life, teaching English to Korean children on the island of Jeju. I have a contract with the Korean Public Office of Education’s English Practice in Korea (EPIK) program to teach conversational English to elementary school students.
As if packing up my life and moving to a country that I’ve never been to, don’t know anyone and can’t speak a word of the language for a year wasn’t challenging enough, I brought along my cat, Sammy. Dealing with a cat on a 12 -hour plane ride was not my first choice, but he’s 11 years old and we are very bonded. I don’t know which of us would miss the other the most if we were separated for a year. I know he’s not much for writing, and he never calls….Anyway, he was a real trooper on the plane, never let out a peep the whole trip, crammed in a carrier at my feet. I kept checking to see if he was still alive. He didn’t eat, drink or use the “bathroom” the whole trip. Going through security at Seattle and again in Seoul I had to take him out of the carrier to go through the security gate. He just clung to me in a way that made everyone smile.
I must note that the trip on Asiana Airlines from Seattle to Seoul was fantastic. The seats were comfortable, albeit a bit snug for my American-sized rear, the food was good and served with real metal utensils, the wine and beer were still complimentary, and the flight attendants were beautiful and ultra-polite. Truly a world away from flying the surly skies of any U.S. based airline.

There were two other Americans going to teach English on Jeju on the flight, J and K. J is going to teach in a remote area and I may never see him again, but K I will see every day. Funny thing, she is from Seattle and we had connected via the Jeju foreigners message board online. We met for the first time in the airport and when we got to Jeju found we were going to be living in the same apartment building, right next door to each other. Small world. I am used to traveling alone, but it was nice to have someone to share the experience with.

After landing in Seoul, I was very nervous about what the quarantine inspection process would be like but it turned out to be all that worry for nothing. The polite quarantine officer barely glanced at the paperwork before sending us on our way. One stamp and we were officially in Korea! The requirements for bringing a pet to Korea are pretty lax compared to other countries. There is no quarantine period, so no surrendering your baby for weeks or months of solitary confinement. All that is needed is a current rabies shot and a health certificate. After breezing through customs and quarantine inspection I took a shuttle bus to a cross-town airport for the domestic flight to Jeju.
On the hour-long flight the small plane was crammed with Korean Boy Scouts, apparently returning from an outing on the mainland. It was like riding a school bus full of high-spirited 10-year-olds without their parents. Two girls accompanying the group wore Playboy-type bunny ears. Why, I don’t know. At least the flight was short. My “group” and I didn’t realize until we checked in for the flight that I was on an earlier flight than they were, so we parted ways. I was glad to arrive an hour earlier anyway.
I was greeted at the airport by “Jimmy,” who said my apartment at the Foreign Language High School wasn’t ready but that he would take me to a temporary one in the same building, where I would stay “overnight.” Overnight turned into two days.
After 15 hours of traveling it was disappointing to be lodged in a small, dorm-like room whose previous tenant had moved out hastily that same day, doing no cleaning on her way out. As we pulled up to the building, which is in a rural area about five miles outside of town, the strong aroma of cow “fertilizer” filled the air. And the apartment. But, dirty apartment and bad odor aside, it was good to be in Jeju – finally!
I let Sammy out of his carrier and he told me all about his trip while checking out his newest digs. Poor guy. We’ve moved a dozen times in his life. I filled his food and water bowls, put my familiar sheets on the bed and he knew he was home again.
Even though I arrived first, I got put in the temporary apartment while K was given her permanent one down the hall. I’m jealous that she is already decorating her apartment, while I’m living out of my suitcases. Oh – and there’s no hot water because apparently the gas was turned off when the apartment was “vacated.” So I had a cold shower my first morning.
Invigorated by that bathing experience, K and I headed into town to meet up with Jimmy to get our health checks and meet our Korean co-teachers.
The way the English program works here is that native English speakers (that’s me) pair up with a Korean teacher to team teach the classes. I knew I was going to be teaching at two elementary schools, but that’s it. The EPIK program seems pretty disorganized, with information coming in only at the last possible minute. Even then it’s subject to change. Also, for some reason a few of us Jeju teachers were not “invited” to attend the supposedly mandatory two-week orientation held previously for all EPIK teachers, in Seoul. Talk about flying blind.
I met up with my two co-teachers, one of whom is 8 months pregnant and speaks English fairly well, the other much younger and not so fluent. I had hoped they would finally clue me in on just what was expected of me in the classroom, but they seemed more concerned with discussing the bus schedule and whether I should bring my own lunch or eat Korean food in the school cafeteria. I think I will be just talking about myself for the first week, but I also might be cleaning up after a construction project at the school. It wasn’t clear. Koreans are loathe to dispense bad news, I am rapidly discovering.
Between the health check and the teacher meeting we had five hours to kill, so a group of six of us went exploring the environs. We ended up spending the entire time in two huge department stores, E Mart and Lotte Mart (pronounced low-tay mar-tah). They are basically WalMarts with an Asian twist. If you want a quick culture lesson, just head for the nearest E Mart. Things were familiar and yet foreign at the same time. The baby aisle had Pampers, but it also had tiny “training” chopstick, with loops for holding baby’s fingers in the right place. So cute! There is a big Thanksgiving-type holiday coming up this month, and Spam, yes, Spam, gift baskets were all the rage (see photo).

Nothing says hospitality like canned re-formed pork products

Nothing says hospitality like canned re-formed pork products

We marveled at how heavily staffed the stores were. In addition to greeters at every entrance, every display had a person to bag your peaches, select your fish, or guide you to the soy sauce. The produce department alone must have had 50 people working. You literally could not turn around without bumping into someone there to help you.
K and I went back the next day to do some real shopping, although I didn’t want to buy much since I was not in my permanent home and didn’t know what kind of supplies I would need. She is a vegetarian with a shellfish allergy but is very excited about cooking local foods, so she loaded up on all kinds of “exotic” things. I got instant curry noodles, milk and nectarines. I plan to go back today after I move into my apartment – and take a long hot shower!