Taken in the rice fields in rural Dangjin, South Korea. Continue reading Featured Photograph: Red, Green, Yellow, Orange
Did you know I went to Cyprus? And I barely even told you about it, shame on me. Almost a year later, I’m going to make this up to you. While I was in Cyprus, I wandered through the ancient ruins of Salamis (I just probably put those pictures up, too…) and spent lots of time with some family friends that live on the island. They introduced my mom and I to a gorgeous castle on a mountainside: St. Hilarian Kalesi. I can’t help but say the word “hilarious!” immediately following mention of the castle’s name. I dare you to try it and not do it ten times in a row.
Some history (thanks Wikipedia): the castle began as a hermitage site and then a church during the 10th century, and finally it became a castle. Once it was a castle, you know how castles with excellent lookout points go… people fight over them, over and over. Some 500 years later, people starting taking it apart to reduce the upkeep of the building. I presume the ceiling was about to fall in and they figured it was easier to just pull out the ceiling and give everyone winter coats than build a new one. Jerks.
In order to get to the castle (located in Northern, Turkish Cyprus), you need to drive there and past several military installations and soldiers. If they’re doing training in the mountains, you may have to choose another day to head up to the castle. If they’re not, you’ll probably have the entire place to yourself, except for the random Brit that seems to show up at all those deserted European sights, alone. Uncanny.
Looking back, I really wish I would have bought a DSLR camera already, my iPhone does zero justice. I guess I’ll have to return! And to anyone thinking of visiting the Turkish side of Cyprus, it’s highly recommended and although Wikipedia describes it as “illegal and internationally-unrecognised”, I can assure you it’s also quite safe.
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If you’ve caught up with the news in the last 72 hours or so, you know about the typhoon that destroyed the Philippines this weekend. As the hours pass, they continue to tally up numbers: homes lost, people that need fed, dead bodies to bury. The storm was the strongest recorded typhoon in history and the official fatality count keeps rising, like the waters as the storm came in, higher and higher.
When tragedy strikes and someone dies, we feel empathy for the family. We can imagine the same happening to us, one of our own lost, and the sadness it causes. When five people die, we can imagine five families suffering through those feelings. Then as the numbers climb, fifty, five hundred, five thousand, we lose touch. The sadness is unimaginable, the tragedy harder and harder to fathom. It’s one thing to know that six million people died under Hitler’s direction, it’s another to walk into the Hall of Names. There’s a reason we break down in tears. Faced with the individuality of each of those millions of people is overwhelming, and suddenly we can feel that pain. That same sorrow that eludes us when we see a number, millions. Millions.
So we watch the newscaster talk about homes destroyed, humanitarian workers trying to reach the people that need it the most. We hear two thousand, ten thousand, a city of two hundred thousand residents laid bare, in ruins, destroyed. It’s so hard to picture, but it’s not impossible. It takes some effort. It takes a Google search to find a comparably-populated US city. Bigger than Vancouver, Washington, smaller than Madison, Wisconsin. About 2/3 of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Similar to Richmond, Virginia.
Once you’ve taken that time, you can imagine the destruction and you can understand the huge need in a place far across the ocean. Suddenly the unfathomable is something you can fathom. But why should you? Why feel pain and suffering for people you’ve never met, maybe will never meet and don’t influence your life? Why does it matter what happens across the ocean to a government obviously corrupt and hasn’t prepared for typhoons, which are regular occurrences? Why should you even be able to pick out the Philippines on a map?
Because the human experience would be worthless without emotions, empathy and social constructions. It’s what makes us human, it’s what drives civilization. It’s why your brain is hardwired to seek out friends and love. It’s why we form social groups and run businesses and opt for the small coffee shop, where the barista knows us. What kind of life would it be if you cut off the emotions and feelings that weren’t convenient to you? Doesn’t that destroy half the picture, when you refuse to use certain colors?
But why should you do anything? Why should you spend $20 out of your hard-earned paycheck for someone who probably lived in a box and begged on the street to begin with? You aren’t responsible for the typhoon, and you aren’t responsible for helping anyone destroyed by the typhoon. Why should you help someone so displaced from you and your life?
Because we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the world anymore. Because your little life inside Alabama is intertwined with the rest of the world, and you don’t get to choose. Because you’re no longer a citizen only of your city or state or just country, you’re a citizen of this planet. You don’t get to brush that mantle of responsibility off, because you don’t want it. It’s on your shoulders, literally. Made in Taiwan. Carry it.
Why you? The government has more money and is responsible. The government has your tax dollars, they should use them. The United Nations and NATO are big organizations with big budgets, why aren’t they helping? It’s not your job, you aren’t in charge of saving the world. This isn’t your task.
Who cares? Who cares if it isn’t your job? Who cares if you’re not supposed to be the one helping? Who cares if the government should take care of it and the Red Cross should take care of it and you aren’t on the list of people who should do something about it? I don’t give a damn about should, would, could, my pockets are dry from the leechy government, not my problem.
If you have money to spare, if you have a heart for human suffering, if you are safe and warm and dry and alive and can see your next paycheck, you can help someone, with little negative effect on yourself. And I have to argue that if you have those rare comforts, it’s immoral to not help in the face of human suffering. It’s immoral to eat your bowl of ice cream instead, switch on Scrubs and try to forget the whole mess. It’s uncomfortable and sad and difficult to fathom, but this is real life and this is a life that you are a part of, whether you’d like to acknowledge it or not.
There are thousands of people suffering, and you can help. Do so.
CNN: How to help Typhoon Haiyan survivors
CNN: “Worse than hell” in typhoon-ravaged Philippines
Wikipedia: International Response to Hurricane Katrina
Calgary Herald: Cambodian orphans donate to help Alberta flood victims
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Today’s blog post was a no-brainer, because it’s one of my favorite holidays in Korea: Pepero Day! Yes, the holiday is totally invented by corporate magnates who wanted to sell more of their Pepero. Yes, there is no real meaning behind the holiday, and it’s only on November 11th because 11/11 looks remotely like four Pepero sticks in a row. I get it, I’m buying into the system and it’s stupid, etc… but look. I’m a teacher, so I’m pretty much exclusively on the receiving end of this tradition. So celebrate it, I will! I love Pepero Day!
In Korean, it’s spelled 빼빼로, which if I do say so, looks adorable. Pepero is actually a brand name and it’s also acceptable to buy the competing brand named Pocky. (Like when you buy Puffs instead of Kleenex and still call it a Kleenex.) Pepero are essentially just pretzel sticks, unsalted, and dipped in chocolate. They come in multiple flavors and this year, they came out with some pretty rocking new ones. I received just the classics, though.
The typical flavors are: plain chocolate or chocolate with pieces of almond in them. An older but less popular flavor is the reverse of a classic Pepero, where the chocolate is inside of the tube. The new flavors are pretty awesome: strawberry, melon (surprisingly incredible), and the best flavor ever and ever and ever, cookies and cream. There may be another flavor I’m missing, but it doesn’t matter. Oreo.
So the tradition itself is really quite simple. Buy Pepero and give them to someone. The boxes even have blank space for writing notes on the back to the lucky recipient, if you’d like to go so far. So when 11/11 rolls around and it’s Veteran’s Day in the USA, maybe the best way to remember those brave souls is to give them a box of Pepero, available for purchase on Amazon, of course.
Happy Pepero Day, Happy Veteran’s Day, oh and Happy Birthday to my little brother! I love you almost as much as I love “white cookie” flavored Pepero.
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Recently, I’ve been trying to watch some Korean movies. Mostly they’ve been okay, maybe a little too bloody (cough, cough, Tazza) or a little unrealistic, but enjoyable none-the-less. But this most recent movie really surprised me. Not only was it not way too bloody (just a little bit), but the story was pretty fascinating. Somehow, I actually enjoyed a movie about Korean gangsters, with little to no love story involved. Miracle.
The movie follows four friends as they grow up in Korea, and what they do with their lives (and how they diverge). Which is why the film is called “Friend” (or in Korean, 친구 / Chin-goo), of course. An obvious title for a not so obviously awesome movie.
So, I’m passing this movie on to you. Why would you watch it? Well…
I don’t know if you’re into gangsters or not, I’m not really, but Korean gangsters are interesting. When you think of seedy organized underground crime, you don’t really think about coordinated bowing and respect, but it’s actually a huge part of the gangster culture. At the same time that they bow to leaders, they also terrify me poopless. Impressive.
You know how Korea went through that huge economic boom in like 50 years and it was crazy? Well you can watch a little bit of that transformation and really see the implications of it in the film. It chronicles friends growing up together, so you see bits of the 70s, 80s, 90s and a little of the new millennium. Maybe it’s just the nerd in me, but that’s COOL.
A Cool Girl Band Named ‘Rainbow’
Okay, so the scene is less than five minutes, but girl bands are freaking awesome. That’s all.
It’ll Make You Cry
I know, there’s no love story, so how will it make you cry? The movie is still fully based in relationships, but they’re just between friends. It gets deep. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, so I will say no more.
It’s Based On A True Story
The director wrote the film about his own friendships growing up, which sounds plausible now that you haven’t seen the film. But once you watch the movie, your mind will be blown that it really happened. Blown!
So, if you’ve never seen a Korean movie, then check this one out. It’s a little bloody, but still gets my vote, especially because it doesn’t revolve around a love plot. A breath of fresh movie air, yes? And to top it all off, you get a nice, interesting slice of Korean culture with it. Done deal.
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Before I left for Korea, my grandmother asked me one question that I remember clearly: “Are you bringing a warm winter coat? I heard winter in Korea is bitter cold.” At the moment it was June, and I knew her knowledge of Korea’s weather primarily stemmed from news that troops were freezing their balls off during the Korean war, which (at least during the winter months) was fought closer to North Korea. So I brushed it off, seeing that the latitude was similar to Pennsylvania and thinking that yeah, North Korea is probably bitter cold in the winter, but I’ll be in the South!
Well, imagine my surprise later in the year when the freezing rains became freezing snow and then it was dry and just plain freezing. Freezing, I tell you! I’ve never been so cold. I’ve also never been to Russia, Canada during winter months or anywhere with much of a temperature drop in comparison to Pennsylvania. So I was caught off guard, to put it simply. Grandma, you were right, dang it! (That’ll teach me to ignore advice from smarter, older people.)
I suffered a lot during my first winter, because I didn’t have a good jacket at first, didn’t own a lot of leggings and couldn’t figure out how the heating worked in my apartment. Eventually I figured it out, though, and I’m much more prepared for this upcoming winter. Part of my preparation comes from picking up tips from the Korean winter experts, themselves: Korean people. They look stoic in the winter months, not shivering, not uttering words of complaint. Sometimes I like to imagine that Koreans are actually just immune to temperatures and have special Asian skin made for horribly, painfully cold temperatures. Totally not true, they just know what they’re doing cause, you know, they live here. All the time.
Except for those girls in short skirts, there is definitely magic going on there. You girls be crazy.
So, if you’re new to Korea and don’t understand why your coworkers aren’t chattering their teeth and losing limbs to frostbite, I’m about to break open their secrets. None of them are particularly genius, really, but for those of us with little cold-weather sense, they make a big difference. This is how to stay warm in the winter, like a Korean.
First, you need a serious thick sweater that goes with everything, so you can wear it everyday. You’ll want all of your shirts and sweaters to cover your butt, so buy them as long as you can find. Bonus if it has a hood. Then you need thin, warm underlayers. They are the foundation of everything: under your pants you’ll need thin leggings, under your long sleeved shirt you’ll need a thinner, long sleeved shirt. Those girls you see in Seoul wearing only leggings in the bitter cold? They have a secret weapon, a fuzzy, fur-like lining inside the leggings. Back to the top, even better if you have a thin tank top underneath that thin long-sleeved shirt. Think layers, tiny layers and way too many layers. Don’t just embody an onion in layers of personality, dress like an onion. (Don’t smell like an onion, though.) As for your footsies, buy the super fuzzy socks or if you need to put shoes on top, wear two pairs of socks.
Outerwear, you’ll want a scarf and a hat (duh), maybe with cute ears attached to it (double duh). Get cell phone friendly gloves, the ones with magnetic magic in the tips of the fingers so you can use your phone from the warmth of your finger blanket. Your jacket needs to be hardcore: multi-layered, fuzzy or fur inside, rain resistant and long. Spend money on your jacket because it will become your dearest possession when those temperature digits start growing, but in the negative.
Most popular among older people and children, cloth face masks must be mentioned, even if they make people look like they’re sick and trying not to spread disease. In reality, they’re just keeping the air warm before they breathe it into their lungs, and I can attest from personal experience that not only does it work but it’s wonderful for freezing cold morning runs. (I just look ridiculous, that’s all!) You can grab them in plenty of colors, with cute pink animals adorning the front or in a simple frill-free white.
I mentioned so much about underwear/clothes, because that’s the big secret: be the onion. And then wear a good jacket.
The big Korean secret that you’ve probably heard about but don’t quite understand the gloriousness of (until you experience it) is ondol, the underfloor heating system, where warm water flows through pipes below your feet. There is nothing better on a freezing cold winter day than putting a blanket on the floor and laying down on a warm surface. Nothing compares.
Another secret, which once again isn’t such a big secret, is using an electric blanket. During the worst months when six blankets isn’t cutting it because your face is still exposed to cold air, the electric blanket will do the trick. (But making a cave and tunneling under all your blankets won’t hurt, either!)
If you must, there are also space heaters, but that opens up a whole new can of worms called “how not to set your house on fire while you’re sleeping”, so I’d advise just figuring out how the ondol works and cuddling up with the below.
The Noms & Drinks
Asians are pretty stellar at having seasonal foods and drinks that should be consumed dutifully only during particular times of year. Koreans are no exception.
While Koreans eat hot food for pretty much every meal, throughout the year, no matter what, the fare gets a little heavier when it’s cold outside. Rice porridge becomes more popular, instead of only among sick people. Soups become meat-heavy and rice is given in excess. While roaming the streets, one of the most popular (and spectacularly tasty) items to buy is hodeok, a pancake-like thing filled with warm cinnamon and nutty goodness. Also good are red-bean-paste filled pastries, served warm, mandu or Korean-style dumplings and pretty much anything else warm that can be eaten. Another one of my winter favorites is no nonsense, baked sweet potato, peeled and eaten as is.
As for the drinks, there are a plethora of coffee/milk/unidentified warm drinks ready to go at every convenience store. My favorite of these is definitely the honey and ginseng drink, which is exactly what it sounds like: honey, ginseng and water. (Ginseng in general is considered a winter necessity, in whichever form.) Koreans use warm drinks essentially as hand warmers in the cold months while at work, cupping their little instant coffee and only occasionally sipping it. While this goes for all year round, as well, drinking soju and makgeolli warms even the coldest body up.
The secret: eat warm, drink warm, and be warm.
[For a full list, see Seoulistic.com’s article: 15 Popular Korean Winter Foods and Snacks]
The Big Secret
You’ve become the onion and draped a giant coat on top, embraced the ondol (and the heating bills that come with it) and begun consuming a steady stream of warm food and drink. If you’re still cold, the last secret I can give you is this: ignore it. Pretty much your only other option would be to become Korean, and if possible, I’m both impressed and in favor of that transformation. But as far as I can tell, if a Korean is cold, they’re not talking about it. They’re ignoring it. I think that’s the final weapon, the last ditch effort against a constant affront of freezing wind and really cold feet. Don’t think about it. Go where you’re going. Move on.
And with that, you’ll be warm enough.
Today is quite a busy day and I’ve little time for writing, so I thought it would be perfect for a little photoessay blast from the past. I’m not going to claim that I ate all the correct, culture-y foods in Istanbul, because I definitely didn’t. But my pallet still had a field day, rebounding off all of those Korean rice dishes and becoming wowed with interesting flavors and… bread. Oh, bread.
Before we get started, I’d like to apologize to my mother for putting one embarrassing photograph on the internet of her. I tried to make up for it by putting an embarrassing one up of me as well! That evens it out, right? Right?
[Related Post: Snapshots of Istanbul]
Anyways, here we go!
This obviously MUST be the first picture in a photoessay about food from Istanbul. Baklava is delicious, and we did our best to eat as much as possible and then a little extra. And that there is even more than one kind of baklava to try was mind-blowing to me. YUM!
This photo is awkward, but there are two important aspects to it. One, I was drinking Turkish tea. Second, it’s inside the Grand Bazaar!
This photograph, as far as photography goes, is a terrible picture and deserves to become corrupted and die. But it is a photo of two of my favorite food/drink things from Istanbul, and the lighting really was red, so I’ll allow it to see the face of the internet. This was out first evening in Istanbul, we were tired from flights but dragged ourselves out for food and, as you can see, dessert.
The hotel breakfast was incredible, and it wasn’t even that incredible. Cheese, deli meat, bread, cheese, figs?! Apricot? CHEESE? BREAD?!!
Straight out of the pomegranate, pomegranate juice. No sweeteners, no nothing. Super healthy, kind of (okay, realllllly) bitter, and for integrity’s sake we finished it anyways.
[Unrelated Post: iPhone Photoessay: Cats of Istanbul]
During our first tour with Salih, he took us to this authentic Southern Turkish cuisine restaurant. We pointed to giant cauldrons and pots filled with food and they dished us out a large portion. The food was so strange, interesting and oddly, kind of healthy.
The full spread. Look at all those colors! And weird shapes! And… BREAD.
Street bagel/pretzel combos are a big thing in Istanbul, and if you want, they’ll even smear it with cream cheese or nutella.
[Unrelated Post: Featured Snapshot: One More Mosque]
I’m so sorry, Mom, but this sandwich doner was too important to leave out of the photoessay. It was our first taste of the infamous Turkish food that’s now made its way to Germany (and then morphed a little). Junk food, but delicious junk food and I’m so glad I tried it.
BREAD! This was on our second tour with Salih, and he took us to this family bakery in a neighborhood outside of the center. The bread was fresh baked and we got to check out the oven, too. Later we shared some bread and I can assure you it was better than the picture. It was also dirt cheap, my eyes bugged out at the (lack of) price.
This juice was some kind of pickled radish/carrot situation and that face, right there, is exactly how it tasted. (Feeling better now, Mom?)
[Slightly Related Post: An Accidental Visit To The Princes’ Islands]
We ended up at this restaurant three times in seven days of Istanbul. The servers were beyond kind, the food was quality and delicious, and it was close to our hotel. Sold! (Website for Fuego Cafe)
Cheese! French fries! Grilled veggies! It wasn’t that spectacular of a lunch, taste-wise or creativity-wise, but it sure did look pretty.
Toasting off our goodbye with some wine. And by some, I mean the largest glass of wine I’ve ever had delivered to me in a restaurant and tried to hold up in a picture.
The classic “Starbucks with Mom” picture. Yeah, we went halfway across the world to look at stuff and then buy Starbucks coffee, try and stop us! Muahaha.
What Istanbul food did I totally miss? What do you wish you were eating or drinking right now? Have you seen enough photographs of my face, now?
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As an expat, Korea is a great country to live in. As an ESL teacher, it’s even better. Free housing, excellent pay, a low cost of living, a job that isn’t completely time consuming, other foreigners that you can relate to. The list could go on for ages. But it’s also a country that vastly different than the West, and if you don’t go home frequently enough, then it becomes easy to lose track of social norms and the correct spellings of complicated words. The slope gets even more slippery when you notice how easy it is to sign for a second year, or skip that visit home in exchange for a cheaper, more adventurous and booze-filled vacation in SE Asia.
So yeah, a lot of us (myself included) find ourselves in Korea maybe just a tad bit too long. Here are some tell-tale signs that you need to fly home and reacquaint yourself with Western culture, before it’s too late.
You give your expat friends money with both hands.
Once you get into this habit, it’s hard to get out. I guess it can’t hurt to be extra respectful to your friends, even though you just look weird. Thank goodness your friends are expats and understand your struggles; you won’t find the same understanding at home.
You take “selcas” in public and send them to your Western friends. (And you call them “selcas”, not “selfies”.)
Everybody and their grandmother takes selfies in Korea, sometimes people take selfies with their grandmother. After a while you stop watching marathon selca sessions and start to just accept it. Then you try it out yourself. Then you like it. Then it becomes a problem because you don’t have anyone around you who’ll give you weird looks or just tell you to stop being so obsessed with yourself and put your damn phone away, you’re at the gym.
Excluding sleep, you haven’t spent more than an hour of the last day not looking at some kind of screen.
Good morning, check your phone. Open the computer with breakfast. Walk to work, or commute to work with your phone. Get to work, use the computer for things. Take a break and read a little on your Kindle. Remember that you haven’t played that cell phone dragon game in two days. Answer messages from a friend. Write a blog post. Go home and edit some photographs. Relax before bed with a Kindle. Oh my gosh, I need to get out of Korea before my brain turns to mush and my eyeballs stop working!
You become passionate about Dokdo.
I’ve read about the historical nuances of the territory dispute, and I get that it’s just a giant rock but in a strategic location. And I agree that based on the history, Dokdo should probably belong to Korea. But if you are not from Korea and feel really passionate about this subject, then you probably need to take a breather from propaganda and read about mass murders by drones or something. It’s still just a rock. And if you’re a foreigner, it’s not even yours.
You use the world “delicious” (or, worse, “deliciously”) without irony.
The word “delicious” used to sound kind of creepy, when not used in the correct context. Now I don’t even know what that context would be. I can’t even think of an alternate way to describe food, except for “good”. Last week, I wrote the word “deliciously” in one of my updates and I’m wondering if I should be ashamed about that, too.
You not only drink the instant coffee, you like it.
If you were trained as a barista at some point, then this one applies doubly to you. There should be no circumstances in which sugary, milky, chemically not-coffee is drinkable. Unfortunately, us expats in Korea know that indeed, such circumstances exist and they no longer feel shameful.
You’re no longer upset that beef at the grocery store costs $10-15.
It’s outrageous. And if you’re not upset about it anymore, then you need a vacation. It’s outrageous, I say!
You group text your friends about grammar, because you can’t tell if a sentence is wrong or just awkward sounding.
You know it’s bad when you’ve been out of an English-speaking environment so long that your internal mother-tongue radar needs a recharge.
You stop giving warning to friends about upcoming events.
Everyone knows about Korean propensity to tell you ten minutes in advance about extra classes, cancelled classes or huge life changing events that are about to take place. When it’s rubbed off on you, that’s when you know you have a problem. Your friends back home will not appreciate this new trait if you don’t get it together and fight your urge to notify people of things at the last second.
You never type “haha”, only ㅋㅋㅋ.
Especially if you’re typing in English… you have to actually switch keyboards on your phone to do this. If this is you, please schedule your visit immediately.
When you want to search for something, you use Naver.
I rest my case.
By virtue of even being able to make this list, I think I qualify as having been in Korea too long. Time to go home.
[In July 2014, did. It’s been hard.]
What kinds of weird quirks have you picked up that make you realize it may be time to get out of Korea? Do you disagree with any of these? Let me know in the comments!
In a small town, it’s a given that you’ll see some people more than a few times and learn their face, even if you don’t know their name. In a teeny tiny rural Korean town with three roads, it’s even worse (or better?). There are some people that I see every single day, doing the same things, while I do the same things. Sometimes they talk to me, sometimes we just pass each other by with a head-nod of acknowledgement and sometimes it’s a new face, doing the same things the other old, similar face was doing. It’s kind of a weird way of life, but the people that live in my town are the pillars of my existence, in a sense. They make Sambong, my little town, what it is. They color my experience with entertainment and wonderment, causing me to simultaneously scratch my head and laugh hysterically in public.
So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the characters, the faces, the Korean people of Sambong.
The Exercising Ajumma
Every morning I wake up earlier than the crack of dawn to run with my puppy. I walk to the school track and in the dark morning, through the darkness I always look for the moving shadow. The exercising ajumma is often the same woman, but sometimes a new face appears to do the exact same thing. She does a brisk walk for about 30 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes, and then does strange stretches for another five minutes before disappearing into the new daylight. Her signature stretch is arms raised in a V-shape above her head, holding a scarf taught between them, and twisting to either side. Another favorite is what I like to call the almost-falling-backward-onto-the-bed stretch, where she leans backwards, arms stretched out, as far as she can without falling over and holds the position. Do these stretches actually stretch? I’m not sure. But I would never question her.
The Avid Golfer
About ten minutes into my morning exercise routine, the avid golfer usually arrives. In his mid forties, he comes to the track in his running gear and with a golf club in hand. (I’m totally serious, this guy is real.) He does the same series of exercises: alternating between a brisk walk with the golf club, a (very) short jog with the golf club, some stretching with the golf club and then actually using the golf club for its intended purposes, by doing swinging practice in the nearby sand pit. His reasons for exercising at all are crystal clear.
The Gung-ho Crossing Guard
On one of the three roads in town sits my school and while there is some traffic in the morning, I’m not entirely convinced of the need for a crossing guard. Regardless, he is there every morning, bright and early, in his neon vest and military-style hat. He takes his job extremely seriously, swinging his stiff arms in quick succession; signifying to cars that yes, they may pass, even if no students are in sight, let along trying to cross the road. He reminds me of a robot, on occasion. As I walk closer to him on my way to work each morning, he swings his arm sharply up to his forehead into a salute, and yells “Good morning!”
The Farming Neighbor
This elderly man was clearly hot stuff back in the day, based on his charming smile and confident swag. I don’t see him everyday, but on the stretch of road between home and school, he sometimes walks around his fields or checks on piles of garlic (or potatoes or cabbage) that need to be sorted out for selling. When I see him, he smiles that devious old man smile, waves hello, asks about a random work in English (“pumpkin!”) or just gives up the facade and makes arm hearts at me.
The Sober Laborer
Korea has a bit of a social epidemic on their hands: all the women move to the city and all the men working menial jobs are left in the country, wife-less and bored. I live in a building of one-room apartments, which I’m sure you can imagine attracts exactly this kind of 40-year-old man. The sober laborer is many people who all do the same thing; they smoke, they wear their construction vest, and they stand outside between 6:10-6:25am waiting for the bus to work. All of them say hello to me, as if we’ve talked, because hey… there’s only one foreign girl with a dog in the area. They adore Mary, and frequently use her as an in to ask me weird questions that I don’t understand.
The Drunk Laborer
The drunk laborer usually appears outside of restaurants on Saturday and Sunday mornings, though occasionally he appears outside my apartment having a Saturday/Sunday picnic on the rolling table. He says things like “beautiful!” “pretty!” or the classic, “foreigner!” He adores my dog even more than usual. Last week the drunk laborer even gave me arm hearts, although usually he just slurs his words or stumbles down the road, going nowhere with a lit cigarette in hand. By evening, he’s ironically nowhere to be seen.
The Student Terrified of Dogs
Some students like puppies, but other students have this deep seeded, unexplainable terror for animals in general. As I approach, the student terrified of dogs will give Mary a wary eye, and as I get closer they’ll shy a little behind their friend, towards the street, away from me. When I get close and I let Mary sniff their feet (because I’m a jerk!), the student terrified of dogs inevitably lets out a high pitched scream, runs sideways or backwards off the sidewalk and never takes (usually) her eyes off of the scary, biting and drooling, flesh ripping thing that is my ten month old, ten pound puppy.
I haven’t talked a lot about my job in South Korea, because beaches and pictures and weird flavors of Pringles just seem more interesting to me. Who wants to hear about my boring 9-5, everyday gig? And I’m realizing that, probably, you do. Because you don’t work here. It’s not boring for you. It’s exciting and foreign and mysterious! So I’m going to take you into my professional world, today. To kick this post off, here’s a short video:
Now, let’s get started. I’ve decided to interview myself with questions that I’ve heard from my friends and family over the past year or so. Because interviews are great, and I don’t have any on my blog yet. Who better to start with than yours truly?
Aren’t Korean kids better behaved than kids in the USA?
No! Did you watch that video? Do you think that only happens between classes and then magically, as soon as the bell rings, the students gracefully sit up straight, have their pens poised and ready to go and shut their mouths? Eyes eagerly looking forward, waiting to learn? Does that sound ridiculous? Great. I’ve conveyed my point. Kids are kids are kids. Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently.
What’s the difference between a private and a public middle school?
Just from walking around or observing classes, nothing really. They have the same curriculum and school hours, uniforms just like every other school and there’s nothing remarkable about the school building. So from the students’ perspective, I don’t know what the difference is, really. From the native English teacher’s perspective, it just means that I wasn’t required to go to orientation (a blessing and a curse), I filled out a lot less paperwork (no EPIK forms) and my contract is much more flexible than Korean government contracted teachers. I renewed for six months and was able to negotiate half the benefits, something other EPIK teachers don’t have the freedom to do.
Do you know all of your kids’ names?
Yes and no. I know all of their English names, but I only know maybe 20 of their Korean names. I tried to memorize all their Korean names, but it was taking too long and compromising my authority as a teacher. It’s hard to get a rogue student’s attention when you can’t even say their name! So English names it was. And I learned all ~130 very quickly.
Are you friends with your co-workers?
I’m at-work friends with some of my co-workers and on friendly terms with everyone. But the majority of them are older, with families and kids and we don’t have a ton in common. I don’t think any of them have ever lived abroad, some have never left Korea. Most of them can’t speak English well enough to carry a conversation. My co-English-teacher is the closest thing to a “friend”, though I’m pretty sure we’re from different planets. She’s 25 with a minister husband, new baby boy and never-been-stamped passport (if she even has a passport?). So while I enjoy working with my co-workers, there aren’t any friendships there that I’ll be keeping up in the long run.
Are there any other foreigners where you live?
Ehhh, yes and no. In walking distance? Definitely not. In the nearby town? Plenty. I just need to hop in the car and drive 25 minutes to see them.
Since your school is so small, do you have less work to do?
No. While I teach fewer classes per week than my other native English teacher friends, I have to teach new material with much more frequency. So while teachers working at a big school can teach the same lesson over and over for a week or even just two or three days, I only have two classes before it becomes repeat (unless I reuse a lesson on different grade levels). So the hours that other teachers spend in the classroom teaching the same lesson, again, I spend at my desk making new lesson plans, again. It’s different work but it’s no less.
Are your classes graded?
No. I created a sticker system to create some semblance of rewards for doing well, though. So you could say that my classes are graded by the potential for getting candy at the end of the semester.
How do you keep your kids disciplined?
Sometimes I don’t, and candy. My classes are my own, so it’s just me and a bunch of kids. Considering my lack of cred as a disciplinarian (I won’t hit kids with sticks), sometimes they get a little rowdy. The key is just to have an interesting game or change activities a lot during class. Or bribe them with ten minutes of Sherlock at the end of the lesson, whatever works. Sometimes it doesn’t, that’s just life as a teacher. And candy.
What do you like about your job?
I like the relaxed atmosphere and the freedom I’m given inside my classes. We can cover literally anything in the lesson, as long as the kids are being exposed to English words. I also like my middle school students (mostly), because unlike elementary school, they are going through hilarious and awkward growth and puberty spurts and crushes on girls. I can also tease them without provoking tears and sometimes they even catch my sarcasm. Lastly, living a three minute walk away from work has serious advantages.
What do you dislike?
I don’t like that I’m so remote and far from friends, because it takes away all of my spontaneity. This also means I can’t enjoy a beer after work with anyone, or ever with friends, because I’ve driven there and have to drive home. (And don’t tell me “just one beer is fine” because driving in Korea is all kinds of crazy when I’m sober.) So everything about my school is great, except for the location.
Do you feel like you’re making a difference?
Yes, but not in the way you’d think. I don’t think my students are learning a lot of English and I don’t think they’re picking up on my accent and fixing their pronunciation. (Even though I try so hard!) But, I think that the exposure to someone from the USA/Western world has been good for them, because they see that I’m human. When we talk about Christmas or Halloween or any other cultural subject during class, they listen and are interested. So while they’re not becoming fluent in English while I’m here, they are being exposed to a lot of information about the West that they’d otherwise not know. And they see that I’m a normal, breathing person who likes to eat ice cream and has friends outside of work. So my hope is that they see foreigners not as a weird class of people, but a group of individual people, not so different from them.
Can I have some candy?
Yes, Sally, since you just went through such a long and detailed interview with yourself, I’ll give you some candy. Oh, readers, you want candy too? Sorry, I ate it all.
If you have any questions of your own for me on this subject, go ahead and write them in the comments below and I’ll add them to this post / answer them. Wouldn’t want to hog the interviewee!
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