Monday, September 27, 2010

Musings from my rooftop.

Today I was feeling overwhelmed from work. It was our first day back to school since a 6-day break, and just like the students on their first day of class, I was a little stressed. In the last week, my body's been fighting a cold and insomnia. My brain's been struggling with a rapid switch in how my teaching job is going, and I think my heart is actually beginning to register this place as my home, not just an extended trip.

Luckily for me, the remedy for my rough start today was truly a breakthrough from an entire month of my stay in Korea. I'll try not to build this up any further; some of you may be envisioning something much bigger than I am about to describe. I did not do anything crazy... but I finally listened to me.

I told myself to go to the store, buy my groceries, and take my kim bap up to the roof to watch the sunset. And, of course-- to bring my camera.

Sitting on the roof with my dinner, I saw my neighborhood in a way I had never seen it before. Everything was even more incredible to me than before. The other rooftops were very different from my own, with brick, potted plants, and dirty rugs; they were all so full of character. Right now, I am much like my own rooftop... I'm fresh in my world, and there is a lot of potential. There's also a lot of empty space-- room for holes to be made and filled, cherished things to be left, memories to be made. I've got a lot of figuring out to do.

One thing I've been so thankful for this week are the Ulsan sunsets. I don't know if this is a fluke, but I didn't notice many of them during the summer season. Perhaps it is the angle of the sun, but it seems like this week was the beginning of some warm, vivid evenings as the sun slips across the Pacific. There are a few things I identified as something I miss from home: sunsets are one of the biggest. So tonight, as I witnessed the most beautiful sunset I've seen in Korea so far, I definitely felt more at home than ever before.

As I scoped out my 5-story panorama, I also noticed there are more churches around my apartment than I thought. You can spot churches easily in Korea because many have red neon crosses atop the steeples (which I find kind of ironic). There are glowing crosses all around me. It was really beautiful to see them shine brighter as the sun set.

By the time I finished my dinner , the sun was saying its goodbyes to the Jung-gu neighborhood, and I was saying hello to my new life here in Ulsan as a strong, confident and single adult. Away from family and loving friends, but never alone or without my own sense of family and belonging.

It was a very good night.
Share |

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I didn't know they needed to keep it warm.

Here is another lesson in Korean culture. It's called deskwarming, and it mostly happens to foreign teachers like me. During vacations, it is not uncommon for the school to request that the English teacher stays at school during the holiday while everyone else is gone home.

Now, on the one hand, I should be content to sit here while I make my hourly wage.

On the other hand, I had to cut my vacation time in half to come home for this day that I'm working unsupervised. If not for my Catholic guilt (or my unwillingness to underestimate the Korean public school system), I could possibly have missed this day entirely and still been paid. Yet there is some strange force that keeps all of us foreign teachers here, at our desks.

All day long.

So, what does one do during a deskwarming shift?

Show up at Yaksa with a backpack full of survival goods (including food, a good book, and much more). Since all of the English teachers are away, I had to use my broken Hanguel/broken English to whatever staff I can find so they will open the padlock to my building (yes, I had to ask to sit at my desk). As soon as I got inside the building, the janitor locked the door from the outside-- no joke! This was my worst fear! My panicked expression must have translated quite nicely because he showed me how to unlock it from the inside. Still, I'm quite literally locked inside the building.

9:05am- Tea made, computer on, and thankfully a friend or two were online.

11:00am- I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to learn more Korean. I can now apologize or console for a variety of circumstances. You know how in English we say "I'm sorry" when things aren't always our fault? Well, they have a solution for that in Korea. They have another saying.

For example:

A: I have to deskwarm during Chuseok.
B: What are you going to do about this? (not "I'm sorry" because this is not your fault)


A: Ouch! You stepped on my spleen!
B: I'm sorry. (because this is totally your fault, you clutz)

I can also ask about food too, which is something I should have learned weeks ago (like, "Is there meat in this?"). Yay, language learning.

12:00PM- I decided to tackle the items on my teacher to-do list with semi-success. Asking teachers for work was hard enough because I can only do so much for them. Actually carrying out the tasks without them present is even harder because color printers and copy machines are locked up and my Korean is still lacking. On the bright side, I'm mastering Powerpoint in Hanguel. There's a transferable skill in there somewhere, right?

1:15PM- Lunchtime. And thanks to Emily I watched Mulan on my laptop. Again I wonder why I'm being paid to watch Disney.

As I sit here now it is just going on 4PM. I have exactly 50 minutes left, during which time I will:

1. Revisit my Korean lessons.
2. Ponder dinner. I'm thinking maybe noodles.
3. Research more K-pop bands so my students think I'm cool.
4. Pray that the janitor hasn't locked this building back up with me still inside.
5. Plan to bring a workout mat to school the next time I have to deskwarm so at
least I'm not sitting here for 8 hours.

Sigh... 38 more minutes.
Share |

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A hospital trip, sing-a-longs, aviator shades, and my big nose : what do all these have in common?

They were all a part of this past week in Ulsan.
Oh, what a week.

A hospital trip.

Before I continue, I want to clarify that 'hospital' is a pretty extreme word used in the States, but in Korea it is more of a comprehensive term used for a trip to the doctor's. Unfortunately I wasn't aware of this when my co-teacher told me that I needed to go to the hospital.

This past week, I've been feeling a bit low on energy and recently have begun to experience dizziness when I woke up. True to my US culture, I waited for a week before deciding to seek medical attention. My co-teacher and I visited the nurse's office first, and as it turns out I was running a low-grade fever. Once I realized something was really wrong, I cannot express how much I wanted to be sitting on the couch at my parent's house! What made this situation even more interesting was that this was my first encounter with Korean medical practices. The nurse gave me some barely-labeled pills (all in Hangul anyway) and sent me off. No better time to start really trusting another culture than when you have to get medical attention!

After school, one of Yaksa's PE teachers, Mr. Woo, took me to the hospital. Mr. Woo refers to himself as my 'Korean father' because he has a daughter my age studying abroad in Japan currently. He is a sweet man who has nothing but jokes and advice for his 'American daughter'. As any 'father' would, Mr. Woo wanted to give me health advice as well... and I'm really glad he did. The first question he asked me as he got into the car:

"Laura, do you sleep with
your air conditioner on?"

Now, being a girl from the Pacific Northwest, I am completely clueless about air conditioning. It's the kind of luxury we enjoy on those oh-so-hot-90-degree-Fahrenheit days when we go to the mall or sit in the movie theatres. having an AC in my own one-room apartment? Unheard of! And on days when the low is 90 degrees, it only makes logical sense to crank that thing full blast until hypothermia sets in.

Which is precisely why the air conditioner is considered dangerous in Korea. According to Mr. Woo, the doctor I saw, and every nurse who made that universal "ah haaaa" sound in the lobby, no one should use the air conditioner all night. It causes sickness. If I was at all skeptical yesterday, I'm a believer now. After just one night of not using my air conditioner, I feel a lot better. And maybe those other random pills from the hospital are helping; I'm not sure.

By the way, my doctor's bill went something like this:

Hospital visit: $5 USD
Medication: $2 USD
Time spent in the hospital: Under 30 minutes.

So all's well that ends well. And although this has completely ruined my appreciation for the air conditioner, I'm happy for the experience.


When I first came to Ulsan, I figured I'd be teaching the Korean children songs in my classes. When you teach 3rd graders, it's almost expected. But when it comes to teaching adults, I wasn't thinking they'd be interested in singing songs.

Well, I was wrong. Very very wrong. But I'm so happy.

These 7 or 8 adults I work with each week were stoked when I brought up "Fireflies" by Owl City and taught them to sing it. We spent a lot of time going over grammar, vocabulary and Western expressions (and they asked me to sing it for them first!), but by the end of the week we were all singing it! The highlight of this lesson was that Mr. Woo said I inspired him to begin singing again, and on Friday he performed for us all by himself. It took him about 30 times to practice, but it really paid off. Once he was on stage, he totally cut loose! It was so, so great.

Aviator shades.

My friends and I have been taking time this week to check out the downtown scene when possible (difficult with our schedules, but we make it happen!), and this weekend was pretty magnificent. There are 2 downtown districts in Ulsan: Old Downtown (Song Nam Dong) and New Downtown (Sam San Dong). If you want tons of people and a larger-than-life ferris wheel, check out San San Dong. If you want cheap aviators and nearly-abandoned bars with the nicest owners you'll ever meet, Old Downtown's your scene. Personally, I prefer Old Downtown for its charm and cheapness... and marvelous Indian cuisine.

But New Downtown has characters like this:

My big nose.

I've always known I have a big nose. My face, in general, has large features... and in Korean culture everything on my face only looks bigger. But I've been wondering what Koreans think of my nose. Normally, I wouldn't have given this much thought. In fact, I had a lady tell me that she "liked my face" the other day (which I found hilarious coming from a non-native English speaker), but the nose thing... well, it's caused some interesting situations:

1. My first day of teaching, there was a student who approached me after class, holding her face and saying, "Your nose, your nose!" and walked away before I could clarify.

2. A week later, I was in the girls' bathroom waiting to wash my hands. My students moved out of the way for me, and as I approached the sink, two girls standing next to me gasped and began to clap, again saying nothing but, "Your nose!" Now I was really confused.

3. This week, one of my students asked me if my nose was broken (it has a small bump in the middle of it) and I told him no. Then he looked at me and told me it was "an amazing nose".

I'm not sure if this means they think it's beautiful or if it's like some weird Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not nose. Either way, the reactions I get are sometimes outright hilarious.
Share |

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Korean meal of things to say.

Which basically means a mish-mash of whatever... mixed with rice.

1. Although I'm still the youngest of all my teacher companions (be they Korean or foreigners), I'm literally older over here. Because of Korean tradition, infants are considered a year old upon their birth, taking account for their time in the womb. In addition, the lunar calendar dictates birthdays, so they aren't as consistent as birthdays in the States. As a result, my co-teacher informed me that I'm actually 23. Hmm.

2. When I'm not teaching, planning, or wandering around, I'm learning Hangul and practicing Korean. It's been a long time since I've learned a new language, but I'm sticking with it and really enjoying it. Fortunately, there's really no better place in the world to learn a language. Signs in Korea are huge and, for the most part, written in very simple characters. Easy reading for a newbie like me. By co-workers think it's hilarious when I sit at our weekly meetings and practice my Hangul. Sometimes I try to spell out names; other times I learn new phrases. Gotta fill that time with something; I have no idea what my vice principal is saying, and it rarely applies to me anyway.

3. I learned that my last name, Hughes, sounds like the Korean word for 'napkin'... Thus the massive confusion when I first arrived and the school took me to lunch.

4. The PE teacher I met at Yaksa is extremely nice and always greets me in English every morning. Often I walk out the front door instead of the back (which is basically 20 paces from my apartment entrance), and he will point and say, 'Your home is that way.' I will tell him what I need to do that day (usually I'm on my way to buy food or visit a PC room). One day he shared with me that I remind him of his daughter, who is my age and studying in Japan currently. It's very sweet to have this fatherly PE coach watching out for me.

5. As described in previous posts, my home is literally behind my school, which has its up and down points. In the winter (and when a tropical storm is passing by), I'm thankful for the close proximity. However, it's only a matter of time before most of my students find out where I live and come to visit at random times.

6. I don't like jumping to conclusions, but I'm 99% certain that my school staff is trying to set me up with one of our teachers. Unfortunately, men 20 years older than me aren't my style. Day 1 of teaching, the staff was eating lunch and one of my co-teachers said to me, 'The vice principal would like to emphasize that this man is not married.' If that weren't strange enough, she tried to get me to talk to him, and I could hear them talking about me in Korean. Needless to say, my first meal in the cafeteria proved to be sufficiently awkward, and I've had a love-hate relationship with lunch ever since. Half the time, the only seat they leave open for me is next to or across from this guy. I feel bad for both of us because I rarely talk to him.

7. Busses in Korea are the most systematic yet utterly chaotic things I have ever experienced. Every major bus stop has a screen with updates of bus routes (including interactive maps so you can see when your bus is coming), but actually riding a bus is a whole different story.

Tips to be successful on Korean public transportation:
-Stand in the road so you can sprint to your bus, which stops any old place on the street.
-If there's a crowd, getting on the bus trumps actually paying for the ride.
-HOLD ON. No seriously. Maybe even with two hands.

Some of the strangest experiences I've had so far have been on the bus. If it's not Emily and me getting lost and headed in an hour-long loop in the wrong direction, it's a drunken man with a bag of half-eaten chicken being forcibly removed from the bus by two police officers. Usually I feel safe in Korea. When I'm on the bus it's like entering an alternate universe. Anything can-- and does-- happen.

8. Living so close, kids are beginning to see and recognize me more. So it's not uncommon that I hear my name being shouted by little boy voices as I walk through my neighborhood many weekend mornings. I respond, in my English teacher voice. But it's usually to nobody, since I can never find them (where they're hiding, I'll probably never know!).

9. Toast has a completely different meaning over here. As do many other food dishes. With toast, it's a benefit. Instead of bread popping out of the toaster, you get a grilled sandwich with cheese, egg, special sauce, and all the fixings you could possibly ever want. With other things, it's a compromise. Or just a flat out confusion. Like, you may walk into a restaurant, try to order a particular dish, and after minutes of language barrier, throw your hands up and say, 'I'll take anything.'

Just an FYI: you'll GET anything.

A list of the strange things I've eaten so far:
Squid of all kinds
Chopped octopus
Whole baby octopus
Still-half-alive baby octopus
Sea snails
Cow's stomach (we thought it was stingray)
... and perhaps more. I'm not sure I even want to know. It's always an adventure.

Speaking of which, I'm off to dinner!
Be well and be happy,
Share |

Thursday, September 2, 2010

tea-time and the explaining the easter bunny.

"Tea-time, Laura!"

This is what I hear twice a day, and I love it so much. Because these three ladies-- my co-teachers Jasmine Claudia and Kelly-- know how to make time for self-care.

I'll admit, it's not always the easiest to talk to someone when you don't know their language, and after 8 hours a day of planning lessons or carrying on conversation in Konglish (my little bits of Korean words and intonation mashed with their much-clearer-yet-not-perfected English), I sometimes just sit at the table and let them have a converation in Korean without attempting to pretend I know what they're saying.

Most of the time, however, it's not like this. Because these ladies and I usualy find ourselves talking about our respective cultures, and learning so much from it. We laugh, we drink tea (Earl Grey is a novelty item we are drinking this week, while I'm still fascinated by all the 'Chick Chock' cookies they eat and still stay so small!), and we always end up writing English and Korean words in our journals.

Today the topic drifted to holidays, and we giggled as I tried to explain the logic behind the Easter bunny. They were fascinated by egg-dying traditions; as I promised to get some dye sent in from the States, I realized just how much culture I do see in the States. It takes a big move like this to see the things you take for granted.

And it also takes this kind of change to realize how similar human nature really is. I had no idea I would be having tea-time with these ladies everyday, but it definitely feels like home to me, even speaking a different language.

By the way, I taught my co-teachers the term self-care, which is our Human Services mantra from college. They loved it.
Share |