Monday, November 29, 2010

Who's learning from who here?

One of the questions I receive the most from family, friends, and curious internet acquaintances (thanks for bonding me to the internet for life, Facebook) is how well my Korean is coming. The short answer is this: it's coming well. I am beginning to build confidence in my speaking skills, although admittedly I was shocked at how shy my usually-talkative mouth was to use Korean. Now that I'm putting myself out there, it's coming along alright. My main audience during an average day are:

1. taxi drivers.
2. random students on the street by my apartment.
3. the family of the noodle/kim bap house I love so much.
4. street vendors.

Every time I have a success with Korean locals, I walk away with a poker face of cool confidence, which bursts into the dorkiest grin imaginable as soon as I'm out of sight. Some of the highlights include:

1. the first time I directed a cabbie to my apartment.
2. the second time I directed a cabbie to my apartment (yeah, it was a pretty big deal).
3. the time I bartered with a shoe salesman for a sweet deal on some black boots in Busan.
4. the way the teachers and students at my school light up when I try to write their names in Hangul (imagine a poor foreigner sinking into her chair, scrawling on a piece of paper as several Koreans huddle around her yelling, "gim hae eun... eun! euuuuuuun!").
5. actually communicating with the 2-to-4-year-olds I cared for this weekend at children's house in Ulsan (this is going to be a different post entirely so keep an eye out).

So I'd place my language level at 3 years of age. That and taxi driver, which are about equivalent.

Much of this learning has been completed on my own time, but it hasn't been by myself. Aside from my co-teachers and foreign network, the biggest asset to my learning have been the kids I work with. They love taking time from their day to show me new words, test my knowledge of Hangul, or provide me with opportunities to listen to simple sentences being whined over and over... and over.

The best thing about learning from kids is that they never judge you for being wrong. They may laugh, but they never make you feel inferior for asking. They really have been some of my biggest supporters when it comes to learning, and certainly the biggest inspiration. So a big thank you to my students, and all the Korean children who lend a helping hand to tongue-tied foreigners like me.

On the other side of the spectrum is the image of an 'English speaker' I have to present to my students. As a foreign English teacher trying to learn Korean, it is sometimes difficult not to use a little here and there in the classroom just to make things run smoother. On a normal day at my school, this isn't much of an issue because the Korean teachers are already using their native language for much of the class. However, the reason English-speakers were hired to come here is to somehow be a tool for English immersion. I often laugh at this since I have about 1,000 students at my school and somehow must immerse them all in my language.

However, I do work an after-school program with limited numbers of students, so in those classes it is crucial that we have an 'English only' policy, for both me and the students. My classes are well-informed that if they speak Korean, they have to write lines. Although this is not my preferred method for a reward/punishment system, it is definitely effective in Korea. The only problem is that by the 5 o'clock hour (when after-school lessons begin), students do not want to keep to school rules, and they definitely don't want to be kept from speaking Korean.

So, what happens when you have an English teacher in a room of students who want to speak Korean?

 I think we're going to have a lesson on punctuation
sometime in the near future.

Yep. Punctuation.

This student's handwriting got suspiciously larger to cover more space.
Nice tactic.

I particularly like this kid's take on the punishment. Not only did he write 100 times in the smallest handwriting "I will speak English", but he wrote in blaring yellow marker... and still managed to save enough space to scrawl "THE END" at the bottom.

The age hierarchy in Korea would never allow me to say this aloud, but I think I learn just as much-- if not more-- from my students on a daily basis (and that's no knock to my teaching abilities!). Let's just chalk it up to say that what I learned in college still holds true: we all learn from one another.
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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Don't fret: North Korea's got shells but South Korea's got Seoul.

As many people have seen and heard through media drama, there is growing tension between North and South Korea this week; paramount to this situation was the shelling that occurred on Tuesday. Sadly, two South Korean soldiers died in this incident, and perhaps other North Korean casualties.

In my opinion, this is not going to be a proponent to battle. South and North Korea have been at war since the 1950's and, sadly, will likely continue to be at war for years to come. The media is creating an image of all-out war zones from an incident that, although horrible and destructive, did not have any major effect on our day-to-day routine.

I don't want to ignore the potential severity of this situation, nor do I wish to make light of the fact that there are families grieving for the loss of men who laid down their lives to protect this country, as well as thousands of displaced South Koreans who fled Yeonpyeon island and the two civillians killed. However, I'd like to discuss two points of view: that of the Koreans (not all the Koreans, of course; but those I talked to this week), and that of the foreigners. As you can imagine, our reactions-- although nervous at times-- are much more satirical.

When my co-teachers and I discussed the shelling today, there were mixed emotions. A couple of my co-teachers seemed legitimately concerned.

"You should go home to America!... Can I come with you? My family is only three."

"We don't need to sleep in your house! I have a tent."

Although these were said in jest (I think), it was strange to see my co-teachers show serious concern about this issue. So I nervously laughed and changed the subject.

I also took the opportunity to ask Mr. Woo, my 'Korean father' about this incident while her enjoyed his afternoon coffee with me. This led to a really enriching discussion about the relationship between the people in North and South Korea, and for the first time I got a closer insight into the way Korean people view the North. In essence, they are sad that their people are divided. The following is paraphrased from our discussion today:

"When I was younger, I visited North Korea one time... I had hopes we would become one country again and this expectation grew bigger and bigger. Over time this turned to disappointment. Now when I think about North Korea and our people my mind becomes sad and serious. Before I die I hope we are reunited. That is my hope and wish." 

Hearing Mr. Woo talk about this made me realize what a hole many Korean people must feel in their culture. It is like a family divided. The people of North Korea are not bad; many times in the US we mistake the citizens of North Korea for being the enemy, when it is the opposing government (and leadership) that is the cause of war and strife. In the US we also may not feel that same sense of unity because we are such an ethnically-diverse population. In Korea, there is so much history and unity through ethnicity. To have half of that missing... it weighs heavily on these people's minds at times.

According to Mr. Woo, there are plenty of South Koreans who do not share this view for economic reasons. Sharing government with North Korea would be a huge hit to their economic standing (which has progressed exponentially in just decades). So, as with many other important issues, it depends on who you ask.

The same goes for us waygooks. Today the internet was filled with fear, anxiety, frustration and humor from foreign teachers trying to make sense (or jokes) of the North Korea attack.

Here's one person who decided to make it clear to everyone just how far away they were from the shelling (thanks waygook Chris Morin):

Another entertainment I found was everyone's escape plans. A foreigner networking site procured a thread entitled, What to do if North Korea attacks. Here is one of my favorites:
"I've got my escape plan sorted... I don't think I can rely on my embassy either and heading into Seoul [as I think] that's the main place NK would bomb. So, I'd head straight down south and catch a ferry to Japan. I wouldn't think Seoul is a good place to run to especially if you live out of Seoul think about the traffic congestion the craziness at the time.
That's my plan, or you can choose to stay behind and stick it out and round up all of the Koreans with their weapons set up a plan of attack... Rambo, Arnie, Predator, Kungfu hustle, Terminator style.
I think I've watched too many action movies...but hey [it] could work."
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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to make amazing Korean photobooth pictures.

This week, I finally got the experience I've been looking for in Korea: the magic of the cutesy, silly, completely fun photobooths! In fact, I loved the first time so much I went on 2 more occasions this week. It's safe to say I'm addicted... and also quickly becoming a pro. Here are some tips if you ever encounter one of these miraculous pieces of technology:

1. Check out the photobooth beforehand. If there's a cache of 'em (and if you're in Korea there usually is), it's okay to be picky! Look at the sample pictures to pick the one with the best effects.

2. Don't get too overwhelmed by the fact that you can't read anything on the touch screen. There are so many options for lighting, picture size, and whatnot that I'm sure it's even hard for Koreans to decide what to select. Just look at the pictures or, when in doubt, choose the button in your favorite color.

3. On the same note, be careful to keep track of all the countdowns. And I'm not just talking about when the camera goes off! There is usually a countdown for most selections you have to make. On most photobooths there is even a time limit for putting designs on your pictures, so just be aware! You wouldn't want to end up with half of a cat face drawn on your bestie.

4. Go all out. You are in Korea. If you're too camera shy to make silly faces, then liven up your pictures with tons of decals. Korean photobooths have a wonderfully fun selection of accessories, flowers, stars, and cartoon drawings of turds that will make your photos cute and even outright hilarious. The more the better!

5. Make the peace sign. You know you want to.

Now that you've been given this well of knowledge, go and spread the wealth by tracking down your very own Asian photobooth and taking a few pictures! And send them to me. I'd love to see what your face looks like with only one side of cat whiskers.
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Sunday, November 14, 2010


So all the new strands of viruses here-- forevermore referred to on this blog as Korean-itis-- have been seriously crushing my social life, appetite and blogging habits. Last week, I was so sick that I couldn't even get out bed and take the 4.5 steps to my kitchen to pour a hot cup of tea. Fortunately I'm much better now and decided to fill everyone in on my past few weeks here:

"Is it suddenly winter here, or is that just me?"

One thing nobody ever told us newbie-foreigners is how fast the summer turns to complete winter weather. In the Pacific Northwest, there are 4 distinct season, and they all are dispersed somewhat equally throughout our 12 months (some may argue we have a 5th season called "rain" that likes to hang around always, but we just accept it). In Korea, the humid heat of summer turns to deathly cold winter fast enough to freeze the sweat on your forehead. At least that's how it felt when the 2 weeks of falltime ended and winter chill set in. It's another one of those things every Korean knows second-nature but foreigners like me have no clue about... and it's a really big deal, apparently. The day the weather turned, there was a special weather report about it. Normally, I watch international news to check the weather, so I completely missed this nationwide announcement. When I showed up to school in a short-sleeved sweater instead of the 2-layer winter coats my teachers were wearing, even my students asked me if I was okay. Everyone thought I was insane! Needless to say, the next day I came to school in a long sleeve shirt and have been wearing my coat in the classroom ever since, if for no other reason than just to blend a little.


In Washington State, I could go to the supermarket and buy a tiny, overpriced and freakishly pale persimmon. Not fun in the slightest. Here, persimmons are in season and, as I've quickly learned, are a really popular (and delicious) snack. Every day at school, teachers are slicing up chunks of persimmon to share. Although I haven't bought any for my apartment yet, I'm becoming pretty addicted. The other great thing about persimmons are the trees they grow on. During this time of year, all the leaves are turning color and falling to the ground, leaving persimmon fruits hanging like miniature pumpkins on the branches. It's beautiful and almost surreal.


"빼빼로!" Oh yes, it's Pepero Day.

Normally on November 11th, I'm honoring Vetran's Day in the States. Here, 11/11 is a special day for a different reason: a chocolate-covered, cookie/pretzel treat called Pepero is celebrated instead. These snacks are long and skinny, like 1's, so on 11/11 kids give each other boxes of Pepero until the sugar rush either induces vomiting or a coma. Now, aside from the fact that I found it really strange to celebrate a pseudo-Valentine's on a day I'd normally be thinking about those who served the US, it was difficult to teach with students all hyped up on sugar in class and munching on Pepero sticks during my lessons! Some girls had as many as 20 boxes stacked on their desks, all gifts from their friends (and crushes, I'm sure)! Well, at least with all the Pepero gifts I got from my students, I never have to food shop again.

Korean table

Many cities in Korea have free language classes for the foreign teachers, organized by the Metropolitan Office of Education (MOE). Ulsan, unfortunately, does not, and it breaks my heart a little because I really want to learn Korean faster and better than my self-teaching methods. Other foreigners who felt the same way decided to form a Korean study table, and we now meet once a week to talk about language, teaching, and whatever else comes up. It's been a great way to motivate myself to study during the week while making new friends. There are a lot of benefits to picking up Korean, far exceeding the obvious:

1. (First, the obvious): I can tell my cabbie how to get to my apartment without intense hand gestures or panic.
2. I can thoroughly enjoy the sounds of amazement from my co-teachers when I say something besides 'Hello' or 'Thank you'. Even one word and they fly into a tizzy of praise; it's like learning to speak at 2 years old only I'm fully aware of what's going on.
3. I can relate to my students better when trying to teach them the English language. It's not about speaking to them in Korean (which I almost never do in the classroom), but understanding the mindset of someone who is learning a new language. For example, I realize that my comprehension of the language is far greater than my speaking ability, which is something I definitely keep in mind when working with my students! They may not be able to tell me they understand, but many of them really do.

Anyway, with all the language learning I'm secretly hoping for some kind of breakthrough when everything suddenly makes sense, but realistically I'm just content with those little moments of clarity.

Gyeonju with Mr. Woo

Over the last few weekends I've traveled out of Ulsan a couple times as well. 3 weekends ago I took a day trip to Gyeonju, just 1 hour north of Ulsan. Gyeonju is a really popular international city in Korea and has a lot of historic and cultural sites. It also used to be the capitol of South Korea so it's large and really beautiful! We saw several tombs of past kings, an observatory, and the historical art in the Gyeonju Museum. Mr. Woo toured us around, and he is so full of knowledge so it really adds to the experience! After dinner, we took the road along the coast to get back to Ulsan, and we stopped at the beach. I stood at the edge of the sand and looked out East. It was weird to know I was staring in the direction of home, and the only thing separating me from everyone was thousands of miles of water. The Pacific Ocean looks familiar, even on the coast of Korea.

Girls' Weekend in Daegu

This weekend I took a trip up to Daegu, about 2 hours north, to meet up with my girlfriends from EPIK orientation. There are 4 of us (including Emily) who have stayed pretty close and have a really good time hanging out. We've been keeping in touch and visiting all of each other's cities on the weekends. Daegu is the 3rd largest city in Korea, so there was a lot I didn't see, but with the short time we spent there we really made it count. The other interesting thing about this city is that there are 2 military bases in the area, so there were a lot of foreign families walking around. In Ulsan I rarely see anything like this, so it really took me back when I saw an American family out to eat. The amusement park was our main objective for the day, so we took in the beautiful fall-esque weather (with the winter chill, of course), talked to Korean tween girls in line for rides, made our British friend try a churro for the first time, and screamed our heads off on some pretty crazy roller coasters. There is also an 80-story tower at the park, so we got to at least look at most of Daegu.

Well, that's all for now. If you'd like to see more pictures from my adventures, check out the 'Et cetra' tab of my blog to find links to my online photo albums.

Hope everyone is well in your corner of the world!
Much love from Laura.
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