Saturday, March 19, 2011


It's not the teaching; it's the learning.

I'm a fraud of a teacher. Like many other foreign teachers, I did not come here to launch a career as an educator. And although it is an incredibly honorable profession, it's not giving me the sense of purpose I hear from so many professional teachers.

What keeps me in Korea is not the thrill of teaching. It's not in the pride I feel when a lesson plan I created is a hit. It's not the power of classroom management. It's not even the joy of seeing my students get A's on their English tests. I know my place in their learning process, and sadly my impact has little to do with exam performance.

What keeps me in Korea is the way my students love me.

This weekend, I am taking a mental and physical health break. I am wandering the streets of my neighborhood, remembering the feel of warm air and the sense of insecurity I felt when I first came to Ulsan. So much has changed, and I can definitely say feel at home here now.

But my self-development aside, what really brought some happiness to this otherwise (although seemingly necessary) bland weekend were the encounters I had with my students.

My recently-graduated 6th graders are probably the dearest to my heart, just because they were such difficult students at the end of the year, but being at the bottom of the totem pole in middle school has seemed to soften them up a bit. Plus, their very obvious leap into puberty is hilarious to witness outside the classroom. The girls, shy as ever, break from their obnoxious giggle circle to talk to me.

And the funny thing is, they still call me teacher.

"Laura Teacher! You remember me?
Yaksa [my school's name], I Yaksa. You remember?"
Of course I do.

The boys are even more of a riot. I ran into some of my favorites this afternoon on their way to a PC room.
"Teacher, teacher-- you have boyfriend?"
"OHHHHHHH- Teacher, Teacher! He! He! [pointing to their friend] He wants to be your boyfriend! He has 14 girlfriends, many many!"
This launches a string of Korean, playful hitting and laughter I feel privileged to belong in.

Tonight I had the opportunity to talk to one of my students and even meet her family. As I turned to leave, I heard the universal sound of astonishment and approval from her family for speaking such great English. A smile instantly broke across my face. I might not be the key component in a classroom, but I definitely see my purpose in these kids' lives.

Maybe it's starting to sink in that I'll only be here for 5 more months-- that over half of my contract is over, and when I leave I won't see these incredible kids anymore. But I'm really enjoying the strolls around my neighborhood, whether it's running into my students at the department store, outside their apartment as their friends depart from a birthday party, or playing badminton with family in the residential streets.

And that will always be something worth seeking, even in my own neighborhood.
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Friday, March 18, 2011

Edu-tainment: When I use the education materials to entertain myself.

As a Guest English Teacher, I've often been told that our role in the school runs somewhere along the line between a teacher of our native language and a court jester from the Medieval times-- that is, we are part instructor and part entertainer (shaken, not stirred).

This puts us in the line of business cleverly labeled 'edutainment'... and oh, how I love and despise it equally.

The last time I had a visitor in Korea, it was brought to my attention that there are some strange things about the way children learn English here. I mean, sure-- overall, Korea's programs are pretty effective. But I guess when the consumers of this English-crazy material had lessons on grammar and vocabulary since you were 7, the people producing these learning tools have to start thinking outside the box to keep students focused.

Or perhaps it's another one of those cultural lenses I just don't see through with quite the same perspective. Sometimes, things which are supposedly obvious to Koreans don't register with me.

Either way, it's all edu-tainment to me.

The following series of photos were captured from an English poster in our staff room. There are no captions to go along with these "English 365" photos, so I decided to make some of my own from the more... interesting pictures.

"Hey Bill, you want this fish? It's about to go bad, and it smells like socks, but you look like you're fish-deprived based on that crazy look in your eyes."


"Look! It's the elusive bald fairy I've been searching for my whole life. It just flew off my shoulder and into the sky! Do you see it??? DO YOU SEE IT?!"

"WTF where did all this grey hair come from?! GET IT OFF GET IT OFF GET IT OFF!!!"

This picture, I assume, is depicting two people talking about their favorite animal (let's hope). But what is the thing on the left? Is it a monkey? A cat? A sad, deformed hamster? 

The guy on the left appears pretty blissfully ignorant to his friend's sad state:

"George... it's... it's so hot... could I have a sip of your water?"
"Oh, you mean this water? You're right, Joe; it's been just sweltering today, but look how jolly I am with this water... it's amazing what some hydration can do for you. Say, you should drink more water, Joe. You don't look so good."

 "낙서" (nak-seo) means "graffiti", which just makes this picture funny by virtue.

Got any clever captions? Please post them in the comments below or send them to

Cheers to the weekend!
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Friday, March 11, 2011

"You use chopsticks very well."

Going out with Korean co-teachers is unlike any dining experience I've ever had.

I don't just mean that in Korea's professional world, it's perfectly acceptable to knock back a few beers or some Soju with your co-workers and hit up the 노래방 (norae-bahng, or singing room) for a little karaoke into the early hours of the morning. Korea tip: if you are ever at a 노래방 with your Korean friends or co-workers, singing anything by ABBA will send the room into a happy, drunk frenzy.

What I'm about to illustrate is a typical dinner night with my co-teachers:

5:20pm- The time dinner is slated for.

6:15pm- The time we get to the restaurant. I want to stress that this is not because Koreans view time as a relative thing (this is not a "it'll get done whenever" culture); this is simply because most of the Koreans I know are so busy I don't actually have proof that they sleep.

6:16pm- We sit at a table with about 2357809 tiny side dishes (mostly vegetables hidden among spicy sauce; sometimes they are unidentifiable as vegetables; sometimes that's because they're meat). As the youngest at the table, I am culturally supposed to pour the water, but I usually don't get the chance (or, yes; sometimes I forget). Food is ordered and I'm never sure exactly what it will be.

6:18pm- The conversation switches between fast-paced Korean, with lots of gestures, laughter, and what I can only describe as 'Korean sounds' (often crucial to story-telling, I'm sure... I just never know what any of it means). I try to follow along but sometimes feel awkward paying complete attention to a conversation everyone knows I don't understand. This is when I analyze the 2357809 side dishes and pick at the less meat-looking ones with my chopsticks.

6:25pm- The conversation breaks from Korean as a co-teacher turns to me and asks,
"So Laura-- what did you have for breakfast today?"
"I had cereal."
"With milk?"
"Yes; with milk."
Somehow, this is incredibly funny.

6:27pm- The conversation resumes in Korean. I practice with my chopsticks again. Before I came to Korea I thought I was pretty good at chopsticks. Since living in Korea, I've seen things done with chopsticks I never thought imaginable. And I still can't cut cabbage kimchi with 'em. Damn.

6:30pm- The main course arrives. I'm already full from the side dishes. Maybe this wouldn't have happened if I spoke more Korean.

6:46pm- We finish the main course and I think I'm about to burst. I hear my co-teachers order rice and soup. I always forget about that sneaky post-meal-meal.

7:00pm- We finish dinner and my co-teachers notice there's no coffee machine in the restaurant (which is standard for a lot of Korean restaurants). This can only mean one thing:

7:03pm- We get in the car to drive to a coffee shop. At 7 o'clock in the evening. Maybe they don't ever sleep.

7:05pm- We order coffee and the conversational pattern continues between Korean (some of which I can understand and surprise both myself and my co-teachers when I laugh at the appropriate times) and a slow-paced English conversation where I break so many grammatical laws that my friends at home would never believe I teach this language to children.

7:45pm- We head out. Teacher dinners are always fun and interesting for me, but honestly I'm glad when I can be home before 9pm this time. Usually, when foreign teachers go out with staff, it's an all night affair.

For anyone who is ever nervous about dining with their staff-

  • Don't be. They know you are out of your element.
  • Remember that you are not only a teacher, but the school jester. Let them be entertained by you.
  • Try. Try the food. Try chopsticks. Try the alcohol if it is offered to you. Just try.
  • Never accept anything from another person with your left hand; use both hands, or if you only have one hand free, make sure it's your right hand. Never offer anything with your left hand, either.
  • Be content people-watching if you can't join in on the conversation. Or practice with your chopsticks.

Unless you can already cut kimchi and fish. In that case, I might be asking for your assistance.
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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Photojournalist Shot of the Day.

It is with much honor that I introduce the world to Bananacat.

Please, try to curb your enthusiasm or your need to make a lolcat from this adorable sight.

Taken in Old Town district of Shanghai, China.

Just find something to cuddle and pretend it's Bananacat. That's what I do.
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And not the slang interpretation.

After a whirlwind adventure, it is with great pleasure that I give you a full briefing on my adventures in Shanghai, China, with tips galore for both the photographer and the traveler. Here are some highlights from my 6-day excursion:

Dumplings galore.

When Westerners think about Chinese food, we think of pork fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, and fortune cookies. If you're reading this because you want to travel to China for any of these dishes, it would be less expensive to go to your local Chinese buffet and grab some all-you-can-eat lunch, because local Chinese food is nothing like that.

With that said, the food in Shanghai was pretty excellent.

 It's easy to eat cheaply in China-- even Shanghai, one of the major cities (it's also easy to eat expensively, but what fun is that when all the traditional food is so inexpensive?).

Some of my favorite cheap eats were in the form of dumplings (called 'mandu' in Korean, but unsure of the name in Chinese). These beauties are hot, steamy, and the size of your fist. Usually stuffed with meat, but sometimes with spinach or veggies with curry sauce. You can find them at local hole-in-the-wall vendor stalls, or in most convenience stores near the cash register. Heaven.

Similarly, Jaozi (jout-za) is very local, cheap, and delicious. Over-sized pot-stickers, these morsels are as cheap as 1 yuan a piece (that's about $0.15 USD!).

Other notable food resources would include the many fresh fruit stands all around the city. If you're in the market for some apples or bananas, hit up one of these stalls for a good deal.

City Central Youth Hostel.

We struck some traveler gold when selecting City Central Youth Hostel. It was clean, organized, and tons of fun! For about $6USD per night, we had access to dorm room suites, clean showers (with hot water), and a host of other amenities that came in the form of cushy couches and free breakfasts. The CCYH also has its own restaurant/bar where the food is affordable (not as cheap as the Jaozi, but what else on earth is?!) and-- most importantly-- delicious. We met tons of fun folks there (mostly Brits; what a lovable crew!) and with only a 20 meter walk to the nearest metro stop, it was easy to explore the city. 5 stars for this rockin' place.

Pedestrians: not the most respected part of city travel.

One of the times I've been most concerned for my life is in a crosswalk in Shanghai. A warning to all ye who dare to cross the street there: look left, look right, and keep looking as you dodge your way in and out of traffic like the way you'd dodge bullets in the Matrix. There is little, if any, respect for human safety on the streets, and with the amount of motorcycles on the road, it's not uncommon to get caught in a swarm of them!

Fortunately, there are a few common heroes out there, enforcing traffic safety laws. Chinese officers in highlighter yellow jackets patrol many a street corner, and according to reliable sources aren't afraid to jump in the way of moving vehicles to keep people like us safe. So practice your "xie xie" (that's shey-shey or 'thank you') when you see one of them saving your butt from the guy on the moto carrying 2 refrigerators behind him.

What do you get when you mix blaring pop music, too many security guards and no dance floor?

I'm not sure, but you can know you're definitely at a Chinese club. What you are sure to get is a security officer scolding you for taking photos, hoards of old men playing dice games, and maybe some dancers impersonating Justin Beiber (if you were to be so lucky). Definitely not the Westerner's scene, but it does make for a cultural experience.

Yes, I was actually scolded for taking this obviously high-resolution picture of people doing NOTHING in this club.

Shanghai is known for its 'all-you-can-drink' nights at clubs around the city, but unless you're going to start and end your night all in one place (or if you like binging yourself into an alcohol-induced coma of stupidity), then you might be better off grabbing some beers at a pub or-- cheaper and easier to find-- a local convenience store. 

Places to see.

Jin'an- This district is large and includes some of the places listed below but the main attraction you should see in this area is the Jin'an Temple (off of metro Line 2). If not for the history its endured, then for the shiny gold lions and roofs.

The French Concession- I didn't know that Shanghai would have anything resembling France in its city limits, but the French Concession is actually quite beautiful. Take a stroll to see the architecture, eat some local food, and enjoy the scenery of tree-lined streets (where you may or may not see people hanging their clothes to dry...). European charm on the outside, pure China on the inside. Mmmm, nougat-ey.

People's Square- People's Square is directly between Jin'an and the Bund. For anyone who loves the feeling of big open parks, fountains, or seeing kids flying kites with their adorable grandparents, this place is a must-see. Pack a picnic and take a stroll (or hop on the metro if you're not looking for something quite that idyllic).

The Bund- The Bund is also full of old European charm. Right along the Huangpu River, this area is full of fun shops (albeit the more expensive ones), ferries, and the gorgeous view of the Pearl Tower. Just take metro Line 10 and get off at Nanjin Road East.

Pearl Tower- Seattle has the Space Needle, London has Big Ben, and Shanghai has its Pearl Tower. This is a site worth seeing, of for no other reason than to know that its the trademark of one of the largest cities in the world.  Don't feel pressured to ride up to the observation deck, but if you want to get close to the tower, hop on a ferry for a couple yuan and cross over to the other side.

 The Stupid Tunnel (cleverly named by a friend who said it was 'so stupid, it was actually kind of cool.')- If you really want a different experience, take the tourist tunnel under the river to get to the tower. Just know that you're entering a tourist trap that will leave you feeling like you went through an offshoot of some Willy Wonka ride. Oh, and (of course I would suggest this) bring your camera.

Old Town- The Old Town district, also off Line 10 of the metro, is a great stop if you'd like to see a little of traditional Chinese market culture and the reinvention of Chinese market culture. Old Town has them both. If you're clever, you can find metal trays of bloody fish heads and beautiful rows of red lanterns withing a 30-minute walk of one another. Now that's culture.

Completely subjective: from the eyes of one traveler.

Compared to Korea, China was-
  • louder.
  • dirtier.
  • fatter (and by that I mean average-sized).
  • more confident.
  • more rude.
  • more organized.
  • cheaper.
  • better at English (both in speech and advertising).
  • equally helpful.
  • equally strange.
  • equally delicious.
  • less concerned with being so flippin' cute.
  • still in love with Hello Kitty.
  • warmer, but not warm.
... but you should really go figure this stuff out for yourself.
Don't take my word for it.

Some travel logistics:

So what about the Internet?

Due to China's ban on many different websites, social networking, video streaming, and other various sites are not readily available in China. In order to access these sites, you will need to get a VPN shield or use a proxy server. Free proxy servers are hit-and-miss because China's government is constantly taking them down (so something that may have been usable at one point could be gone in a matter of hours), but they are available here and there if you really can't live without your Facebook or equivalent. If you are staying in China for a while and want something reliable, it would be in your interest to do some research and find a decently-priced proxy server that will allow you to access the sites you're looking for. 

Dirty fun.

It only takes a Google images search to see that Shanghai has an incredible amount of smog. If you are going to be staying in Shanghai for more than a week or so, you may want to invest in a face mask for those days when air pollution is particularly high.

On a similar note, don't drink the tap water under any circumstances. Bottled water is easy to come by (don't spend any more than 2 yuan for an 8 oz. bottle), but if you're running on a tight budget, you may want to consider getting a pump-operated water filter.

"Would you like a shopping?" and other scams.

Even though Shanghai is a densely-populated city, foreigners stick out like sore thumbs and are thus perfect targets for scammers. In Shanghai, there are lots of different scams. Many times, people will approach you on the street or in markets and tell you they want to show you around (to an art gallery, tea shop, or something else entirely), only to take you to a shop and make you pay tons of money on site.

To make sure you don't fall prey to these scams, the best thing to do is to just say no to all offers like this you see, even if the person seems very kind and genuine.

If you encounter someone who is particularly aggressive, you can simply use the phrase "búyào" (不要), which means "don't want". It's a fairly strong statement and gets the point across.



Complete credits to an amazing travel partner, interpreter, and adventurer, who happens to run a video blog called DisOriented Travel. You should really check it out sometime if you want tips on how to travel cheaply in Asia, want to learn about backpacking, need tech tips, or are just generally in the mood to be entertained by a mild-mannered, humorous guy on an epic adventure abroad. It's worth your time either way.

Happy travels!
Laura and 친구
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