Friday, November 29, 2013

"Cheer up, we love you!"

Last night I had a dream that I decided to go home. I don't fully remember the dream, but I guess I just up and left my life in Korea and came back to the US.  It was actually a really stressful dream, because the whole time I was home and freaking out thinking "Why did I do that?! There's nothing here for me to do! I have no job! And I didn't even get to do any traveling!"

I woke up this morning feeling relieved to find myself still in Korea.  

Needless to say, I think that my homesickness was brewing in my brain while I was sleeping, and maybe God just decided to put it all in perspective.  I will be so happy when I come back to the US, whether it's just for a visit or for good, but right now my life is in Korea and I still have SO much to do here. 

Of course, that doesn't mean I wasn't sad when I looked at facebook this morning and saw everyone's Thanksgiving statuses.  I was bummed out when I went to teach my first class today, but luckily I always start Fridays off on an awesome note.  I start Friday mornings with the second grade girls, who are just TOO cute.  After teaching in public schools in the US for two years, I feel that I fully appreciate the absolute adorableness of some of my girl classes.  Seriously, there's not a bad student in mix.  They're all equally sweet, excited to learn, and it doesn't hurt that they get really excited for me to teach them.  I don't have to discipline ever.  I don't have to raise my voice.  And even though you're not supposed to feel like friends with your students, I feel like my relationship with these girls is really friendly because well...they're just such good kids I really don't have to worry about them getting out of line (I realize this sounds really naive...but really, if you met these girls, you'd understand).

Anyway, the point is, the girls could tell I wasn't feeling like my normal self. When I first came into the class they told me I looked tired, and I told them I was mostly just missing my friends and family back home because it's Thanksgiving.  At that point there were of course plenty of "Awwwwws".  At the end of class, they were probably the most adorable because they all told me "Cheer up!! We love you!!", and of course of personal favorite "Fighting!"  Koreans say "fighting" frequently to mean good luck, or as a way of wishing someone encouragement.  Regardless, it was pretty precious if I do say so myself. 

I was happy to start my day with those girls, but all day I was really looking forward to getting home and having some time to relax.  So here I am now. It's 8:00. my pajamas are on, and I'm ready for a lazy weekend full of reading, The West Wing, and just spending as much time as possible in my warm bed.  

There's plenty of time for adventures, but now all I need is some laziness in my life.  Next week I'll be going to Busan, but for now, I don't have any intention of being social.  

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks

Right now my friends and family are waking up and preparing for a day full of family, friends, food, and of course, football.  The facebook statuses are starting to change to notes of personal thanks, and  I'm sure by the time I wake up tomorrow my newsfeed will be filled with various images of family gatherings and heaping plates of food.

I can't say that today was an easy day.  I had a busy, full day of classes.  During my off periods I had to write questions for the final exam.  I had some serious moments when I questioned why I was here and not at home with my family.  Is it really worth it to be here?  Aren't our friends and families the most important things in life?  Then why did I selfishly trade it all in for my life in Korea?

In my culture class I have been teaching the students about Thanksgiving for the past two weeks.  Last week I talked about the history behind Thanksgiving, and today I talked about the modern aspects of Thanksgiving--family, food, football, shopping, etc.  As I went through the slides today, I had to move quickly because I knew if I stayed on any image or thought for too long the tears I had been fighting off all day were going to come to surface.  I'm pretty sure crying in front of my students is a whole level of awkwardness I don't want to go to.

When I was at lunch, I looked at my tray of food.  Rice, soup, pork, dried squid, rice noodles.  Not exactly what I ever anticipated eating on Thanksgiving Day.  

Needless to say, I was happy when the day was over and I could get out of school.  

Earlier in the week, I invited people over to my place because there was no way I was going to sit at home alone on my first Thanksgiving away from home.  Interestingly enough, a lot of the Jeomchoners are South Africans so Thanksgiving is meaningless to them, and out of the Americans apparently some people have been abroad long enough that missing Thanksgiving isn't really a big deal any more.  Luckily, a small group of people were enthusiastic about coming over to spend the night together.  

We ended up having the most unconventional Thanksgiving food ever (um, nachos and ice cream cake?), but in all honesty I could have cared less about what we ate.  I was happy just to spend the night with some friends.  I have a feeling that years from now when I'm back in America this is going to make a great story.  I can hear it now..."This one time, when I was in Korea, we had nachos and ice cream for Thanksgiving dinner."

I know that this next month is probably going to kick homesickness into high gear as the holiday season approaches, but I know that it will pass, and I know that the amazing things I'm experiencing here come at the expense of some homesickness.

I am truly thankful for all those I have at home who have loved and supported me from the moment I revealed my plan to go to Korea, to the moment I got on the plane, all the way up to my current life in Jeomchon. I know a lot of people didn't understand why I wanted to come here (why Korea?!), but many people still supported me, even when they didn't understand the reasons, and that means a lot to me.

Words cannot express how thankful I am to have the opportunity to be in Korea. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the chain of circumstances that made being here an option in the first place.  I have been beyond privileged throughout my life to have loving and supportive parents, access to a good education, the opportunity to obtain a higher education, a year of teaching with students and coworkers I will never forget, and friends to keep me company through all of the joys and challenges along the way. 

I would never be in Korea without those of you who have supported me throughout the years, and for that, I am forever thankful.  I am thankful to those of you who let me go and encouraged me, even though you didn't want me to go.  

To those of you who continue to support me, thank you. One of my biggest fears about being here is losing my roots at home.  I have talked to enough people who have been abroad long enough to know that it happens.  There are people from home who I already feel distant from, even though it's only been three months.  To those of you who put in the effort to communicate with me in some way on a consistent basis, I can't begin to tell you how much I value that.  

I feel blessed beyond measure to have friends and family back home in America, but I am without doubt grateful for the new life I have here in Korea.  How blessed am I to have a home in two countries, on opposite sides of the world from each other?  God has given me so much over the past few months, and even though it's difficult to do when homesickness kicks in, I know these are the things I need to focus on.  

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back home.  I miss and love you all, and I can't wait until I get to see you all again.

And most importantly, thank you for all that you have and continue to do for me.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Only in Korea: Potato and Cheese "Pizza"

Last night I went out to dinner with two fellow Jeomchoners.  We decided to try an Italian place that none of us had been to before.  We ordered some spaghetti, pizza, and salad for the three of us to share.  Overall, we felt pretty solid about out choices.

Now, we thought we were getting a pizza with sweet potatoes on it (yes, that is common in Korea), but we expected it to be a normal pizza--you know, with crust, sauce, and cheese.

This is what we got instead:

It was literally just potato and cheese.  No crust.  No sauce.  

It didn't taste bad, but definitely not a pizza by our definition of the word.  I texted one of my Korean friends and she told me that apparently this is a popular dish among Koreans these days.  

Note to self: exercise caution when ordering pizza in Korea. 

The week of speaking tests

It certainly feels like November in Korea these days.  The trees have lost their leaves and the cold air is here to stay.  I even gave in and started wearing my winter jacket this week.  A few weeks ago my mom sent me a bunch of things from home, and my red pea coat was among the things she sent for me.  I didn't think anything of it when I started wearing the coat to school on Monday, but apparently red pea coats aren't common in Korea.  I was told all throughout this week how beautiful I was or that I was "dressed to kill."  Yes, my Korean students repeatedly used the expression "dressed to kill."  I think they must have just learned it in one of their classes, because they were all pretty excited to get a chance to use it.

This cold weather not only means winter is coming, but it also means that final exams are right around the corner.  The Korean school calendar begins in March and ends in December, so the semester is about to wrap-up over the next few weeks.   This means that this week I was responsible for doing speaking tests with all of my classes. This meant that I got speak to all of my students one-on-one, which was nice, but also exhausting after a while.

I administered the tests by asking the students each a few conversation questions.  I had a list of 20 questions and I randomly chose two questions for each student, then asked a few follow-up questions.

Most of the students were pretty prepared, and overall I was really impressed with how they did.

Of course, there were some that just plain entertaining.  Here is a glimpse at one of the most entertaining conversations:

Question 1: Which country would you most like to travel to and why?
Student: America.
Me: Why America?
Student: Because that is where Sarah lives and I love Sarah.
Me: So where in America will you go? 
Student: Wherever you live.
Me: Do you remember where that is?
Student: No, but I want to go there.
Me: So what will you do when you go to America?
Student: I will eat food with you.

Question 2: What is your favorite thing about Korean culture?
Student: Really, there is nothing. I don't like Korea. I want to go to America.
Me: You must like SOMETHING about Korea!
Student: Yes, I like having native teacher.
Me: You don't like anything else about Korean culture?
Student: Well, since it is test I will lie and make up answer.....

So, that was interesting. This particular student then told me that he doesn't try in his other classes, but he was going to try in my class.  Someone knows how to suck up during a test.

I actually learned a lot about my students during the speaking tests. One of the questions that many students had to answer was "If you could change one thing about Korea, what would it be?"

Nearly ever student that answered this question answered by saying they would change the education system.  When I asked why, almost every single student mentioned the fact that they are exhausted.  One particularly mature student said they she didn't like the way in which they learn because they always just memorize what the teacher says and they don't ever get to express their opinions.  I asked if they ever have discussions in class, and she responded no. My inner social studies teacher died a little.

Another student had perhaps the most powerful answer when I asked why he would change the education system.  His reply was "The education system in Korea is killing the creativity of Korean students."


Now, I don't think students in America like school.  The American education system is far from perfect, and there are many things I would like to see done differently.  While teaching in America I quickly learned that it didn't matter what I did, the students would complain about absolutely anything.  However, if I asked them what they would change about America, I doubt I would get the answers I got from my Korean students, at least at with such consistency.

It was saddening for me to hear how the students feel about school.  During the tests I also learned just how far many of students travel to go to school.  The vast majority of my students live in dormitories, and only go home on Saturdays once or twice a month.  Many of them travel at least an hour home, then they come right back on Sundays.  These students frequently mentioned that they miss their homes.  When I see my students they look so young, but they make serious sacrifices for school. They're growing up away from their families and support systems and I have to wonder, why?  So they can score well on a test and prove how much they are capable of memorizing?  What value is that to their lives or their future productivity in society?

I hope that my students are brave enough to fight for changes in their country.  I think change will slowly come to Korea, but it will be slow. These kids are more exposed to the outside world than any other previous generations in Korea.  They know that education doesn't have to be this way, and I hope that they will fight for better for their children.

Last weekend when I was in Seoul I was talking to one of my Korean friends and she told me that everyone in Korea knows that there is something wrong with the education system.  She said everyone knows that it needs to change, but no one knows how.

I told her that in America politicians frequently note the competition in Asia.  We're constantly told that we're "falling behind" countries in like China and Korea.

Her response?

When Korean people hear about that they laugh.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Gifts from elementary school students (and my neighbor!)

I'm a little late on blogging about this, but better late than never.

Last Monday (11/11) was Pepero Day in Korea.  Pepero are small cookie-like sticks that are covered with chocolate.  On November 11th, people give Pepero to their friends or people they are in a relationship with because the ones in the date (11/11) have the same shape as the Pepero.  It's actually pretty similar to Valentine's Day, just instead of Valentines, you get Pepero.  My students weren't really that into Pepero Day, but as I was walking home from school last Tuesday there were a bunch of elementary school girls who said hello to me as I walked by.  I said hello back, and before I knew it I had Pepero coming from every direction.  The girls were giggly and pretty cute if I do say so myself.  It was quite a nice ending to the day.

Then, a few days later as I was walking home a little boy ran up to me.  He couldn't speak very much, but he asked if I would take a picture with a calendar about Dokdo.  After he took my picture, he told me to keep the calendar and quickly ran away.  Um ok?  I guess I have a calendar for 2014 now.  Score!

For those of you who are wondering, Dokdo is an island that both Korea and Japan claim as their own.  It's a hot-topic for Koreans, as there are still many hostile feelings about how Japan treated Korea during its colonial rule and has subsequently failed to adequately acknowledge or apologize for past wrongdoings.  When I first came to Korea, it wasn't uncommon for students to ask me "What do you think about Dokdo?"  At the time I had no idea what it was all about, but I quickly learned this is an important issue for Koreans because although the island is actually pretty much just a bunch of rocks, it's symbolic of much more. 


Oh, and I forgot, my Korean neighbor also gave me a huge container of Kimchi during the same week.  Oh, and two sweet potatoes.  I'm really reaping the benefits of this Korean hospitality lately.  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mungyeong Teacher Appreciation Dinner

Today I got to leave school around 3:30 because my co-teacher and I had to go to an "appreciation" dinner that was being held for all the EPIK teachers in Mungyeong.  The dinner was being held at the tourist center out by Mungyeong Saejae, so the drive there consisted of gorgeous mountains all around.  Even now that everything is grey and the leaves are gone from the trees, the mountains are still strikingly beautiful.

We had a little time to mingle once we got to the location of the dinner.  My adorable co-teacher (who is actually my supervisor...I don't actually teach any classes with her) was clearly enjoying meeting all of my friends.  I tried to introduce her to as many people as possible because I could tell she was really amazed by the diversity of the native teachers.  

In random Korean fashion, the program began with a performance by some of the Mungyeong Technical High School students.  First one student played a traditional Hungarian song on the saxophone, and the music segment ended with two flute players playing "Yesterday" by the Beatles.  So random, but the fact that it didn't really make sense just made me love it even more.  There was then a speech by one of the administrators from Mungyeong (superintendent?), and then we were all called up and presented with a certificate.  All in all, the program was pretty short, which I think we all appreciated.

Fighting! Love that the guys from the POE told us to pose like this

Next, we moved into the dining room where we all ate dinner.  At this point, my co-teacher insisted I have some soju.  A little later she insisted I have a second shot.  I made my friend drink with me, and he of course, took it in one shot.  I quickly said that I couldn't "one-shot" mine, at which point my co-teacher replied "Just try!"  She is always so supportive.  

All in all, it was a really great night.  My co-teacher told me multiple times how happy she was to spend time with me.  She helped me a lot at the beginning when I was settling in and getting everything organized, but since then we haven't been able to spend very much time together.We see each other, but we don't teach together and she is the head English teacher, which means she always has a lot of projects she's in charge of.  
After she met my friends before the program started she turned to me and said "You have many friends! Congratulations!"  Of course, this was totally adorable, but it also caused me to stop and think.

 I didn't even know any of these people three months ago. That alone almost seems unimaginable to me. Living in an expat community causes you to form a unique bond with those around you.  There are very few people who understand the wide array of emotions that come with living abroad, and the friendships you form with people when you're abroad consequently develop really quickly.  I am truly fortunate to have met and become friends with the other teachers in Mungyeong.  I can't imagine having been placed anywhere else, and I am beyond thankful to have become a member of such a supportive community.

Of course, I think my co-teacher was mostly relieved because I think for the past three months she's been thinking that I just sit in my apartment by myself.  She frequently would check to make sure that I wasn't lonely, so I think she was just glad to know that I really DO have friends here.  

If the night hadn't already been great enough, on our drive back, TLC's "No Scrubs" came on the radio.  I mean, I don't there could be a better way to end the evening.  Oh Korea, I love you so.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Another thing that happened today...

Today I was doing speaking tests with my first grade boys, which meant that one-by-one they came into the hall and I would ask them a few conversation questions.  I was in the middle of talking to one boy when my co-teacher opened the classroom door and sent three boys into the hall and onto the ground.  The subsequently stayed in what can only be called a downward dog-yoga-type position for the next 15 minutes.

I was trying my hardest to concentrate on the speaking tests, but it was quite the sight to see those boys attempt to keep their position for all that time.  It was without doubt one of those "I'm definitely not in America anymore" moments.  I have no idea what they did to get that punishment, but I can only imagine what would happen if I tried to make my students back home do this.  

Oh, Korea.  

Something happened today...

It snowed.

I guess this whole "winter thing" is really going to happen.

Despite the fact that I'm from New England, I will never like winter, and I will never be one of those people who actually enjoys the cold weather.

The fall has been surprisingly warm until about the past week.  It actually stayed in the 60s until last week when it suddenly dropped to the 50s.  And today there was snow....I guess seasons don't change gradually here.

I've been forewarned that it's really expensive to use the heat in Korea.  Korea uses the ondol system of heating, which means that the heat comes through the floor.  It's actually quite lovely because when you're standing to do dishes your feet get all nice and toasty.  It's also great for just sitting or sleeping on the floor, but I've been warned that if I use it too much I'll be paying a pretty price for it. Recently they had heated blankets on sale at Homeplus, so I decided it was probably a prudent purchase to try to curb the price of heat.  It's currently on top of my mattress, which means I HAVE A HEATED BED.  It's awesome, especially when you get home from school, put on PJS, make a cup of tea, jump into bed and spend the rest of the night reading.  Just sayin'.

Although this cold weather is already creating some problems for me, mainly with laundry.  They typically don't use dryers in Korea, so I have to hang dry all of my clothes.  It wasn't so bad when I could keep the windows open, but I'm realizing now that it will take forever for my clothes to dry with the windows closed.  So, right now it is snowing outside and I have my window open in attempt to dry my laundry that I did yesterday.  Ugh.

Oh well.  Winter, I guess I have no choice but to accept the fact that you're here.

Seoul Lantern Festival

This weekend I had plans to meet up with some friends for the lantern festival in Seoul.  I caught a 6:00 bus from Jeomchon, and arrived in Seoul a little after 8.  I hopped on the subway and met up with my two friends at my friend's place (and consequently felt extremely proud of myself for navigating my way there without getting lost, even with multiple transfers...Yay!)  We put my stuff down, then headed out to Hongdae.

Hongdae is a really cool area of Seoul that I hadn't been to before.  I actually don't know why I didn't take pictures while I was there-- maybe next time! Hongdae has tons of street vendors (street food =YUM!) and a plentitude of bars.  The first bar we went to was a western bar, and for the first time in the three months I've been here, I was surrounded by westerners I didn't know.  It was a really weird feeling, and honestly I didn't care for it.  It was actually a little uncomfortable, and I realized that in some (many) ways my not understanding Korean has put in a larger of a bubble than I even realized.  When people are speaking Korean around me, I can't understand, even if they are saying crude things.  I guess sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Next we went to small, laid back bar, before heading to dance for a little while.  We had a late night (or early morning?), but luckily we didn't have anything in particular on the agenda for the next morning.  .

We started the next day with some brunch, then after a minor delay due to some ummm....technical difficulties? (yes, there is a story there that only the three of us girls will ever know) we finally headed out to do some shopping.  When my friends asked what I wanted to do when I came to Seoul, I said that I needed to do some shopping.  It's been getting cold and my supply of warm clothes is pretty limited due to the whole two suitcase fiasco I had to deal with when packing in August.

Luckily, Seoul is AWESOME for shopping.  It's actually probably a really good thing I don't live in the city because I would, without doubt, be broke.  There were OODLES of sweaters, shoes, bags, whatever you want...and for CHEAP!  I bought 3 sweaters, all for $10 each.  I'm sure they're not the highest quality, but they actually feel pretty nice, and for $10 I don't care if it doesn't last forever, just as long as it keeps me warm this winter.  You can actually buy clothes, shoes, makeup, and other general accessories in lots of the subway and bus stations across Korea..  It's pretty genius.

After shopping for a while, we met up with our other friend and then we headed to the lantern festival.

The lantern festival was really awesome, although totally packed with people.  The lanterns went all the way down the steam, and were quite beautiful if I do say so myself.

After we saw all there was to see at the Lantern Festival, we got some food, I grabbed a chai latte from Starbucks (ahhh, my old friend, Starbucks!), then we went back to Suwon, where one of our friends lives.

Once we got there we met up with yet another person, and went to a few bars. I don't think we even drank anything until 12:30, so I knew it was going to be a late night.  We stayed at bars until maybe 4, then naturally we headed to noraebang until 6 AM.  We grabbed some street food (really delicious, but probably disgustingly unhealthy chicken), then made our way back to the train station.  We couldn't get a train until 7:30 AM, so our wait in the train station was pretty painful and included a short cat nap for all three of us.  We finally got back to my friend's place in Seoul around 8 AM, at which point we all collapsed from exhaustion.

We slept well into the afternoon, at which point I realized I really should get back because Monday was coming too quickly.  I finally got on a bus around 6, and made it back to Jeomchon by 8.

As per usual, the weekend flew by way too quickly, but I had a great time.  Here are my major takeaways from this weekend:

1)  There are A LOT of people in Seoul.  I obviously knew about Korea's crazy population density, but wow, it's pretty intense.  There are people everywhere, and after adjusting to small-town life, it's pretty overwhelming whenever I step into a city.

2)  I still have quite a bit to see in Seoul. Seoul really is huge, and I've barely seen any of it yet.  Good thing I still have plenty of time to explore more!

3)  It's probably a good thing I don't live in a city.  Like I said, there's so much to buy everywhere.  Not to mention the street food, bars, and other general activities to enjoy.  I think it's safe to say I would be dirt poor if I lived in a city, never mind the fact that I could never keep up with that kind of nightlife every weekend.

4)  I'm pretty lucky to have some great friends after only three months of being here.  When I did Nutcracker last year I met a guy who shortly after moved to Korea to teach.  We kept in touch, and meeting his friends has introduced me to some pretty great people.  It's crazy how things work out, but I'm really thankful for all of the great people I've met thus far.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thoughts on homesickness

I took these pictures as I left school today.  The one on the right was my view as I walked out of the building.  I'm not a fan of the fact that it's getting dark so early these days, but it's hard to be upset with a beautiful sunset and mountains in the distance.

Today was a little stressful, as many Mondays are for me because it's my first day with a new batch of lessons. I also started speaking tests for the second grade girls today, so I had to get everything ready for that as well. Of course my procrastinating self was still getting things together at the last minute (which is quite frankly pathetic because I had tons of deskwarming time last week).

Despite the somewhat hectic nature of Mondays, as I left school a group of boys yelled my name and told me to have a good night.  I told them to have fun on their trip (1st grade students are going on a trip to Jeju Island for the rest of the week...needless to say, I'm jealous).  Regardless, the boys asked why I wasn't coming and told me they would take lost of pictures and bring me back a present.

As I continued to walk down the hill I saw girls and talked to them briefly about the chilly weather.

I continued to walk further, and I couldn't help but think, "Man, I really love these kids."

They don't understand what I'm saying half the time (ok, maybe only a quarter of the time), but these kids are really some of the sweetest students I'll ever get to work with.  I don't even know their names (for the most part), but I've been here long enough that I know their faces and their personalities.  As cliche as it sounds, these kids make my days awesome and make me glad I'm in Korea.

Homesickness (but still not culture shock) has been hitting me in some ways recently.  Not that I'm unhappy to be here, but I'm realizing that it will still be 9 months before I am home again.  That's starting to feel like a long time.  My time here has been great, but anyway you look at it, 9 months is a long time to go without seeing friends and family, dancing, driving my car, etc.

My life in America seems like it's in another dimension.  I know I graduated, I know I taught all of last year, I know I have friends and family on the other side of the world, but none of that stuff feels real to me anymore, and I think that the strangest part of homesickness for me.  All of the things that I identified with are  still there, but I have no way of being anywhere near them.  It also probably doesn't help that my nieces, best friend, and sister all have birthdays this week, so that's probably not helping with the whole "feeling really distant" thing.

The biggest realization I've come to is that I can miss home and still be happy.  I always thought of homesickness as being that miserable point where you just want to pack your bags and get on the next plane home. What I've come to realize is that there's a difference.  You can be miss home but simultaneously have no desire to move back home and go back to your former life.

And besides, if I ever need a reminder of why my life is so awesome right now all I have to do is take a walk through the hallway at school and I'll find plenty of "hellos" and smiling faces to remind me of why moving my life to the other side of the world was the best decision I ever made.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A glimpse into the classroom...

As I was getting set up to teach one of my lessons last week, one of my students came up to me with a chocolate muffin-type snack.  He shoved it in my face, and I quickly asked, "For me?"  He said yes and kept it right in front of my face.  "You want me to take a bite?"  He nodded his head and replied "Yes, one bite."  I took a bite and then he continued to eat the rest.

Koreans have different rules about sharing food (in that there are no rules). When you go out to eat you generally get a large portion of food that is shared by everyone.  There's none of this "getting your own plate of food" business that we have in the west.  I've grown accustomed to that, but this moment still took me by surprise.  I'm just going to add this to my list of things that would never happen in the US.

Here are a few other humorous moments from my time in the classroom last week:

Situation 1
Assignment: Write about a person who inspires you and explain why that person inspires you.

Me:  Who are you writing about?
Student 1:  His mother.
Me: Oh yeah?
Student 1:  Yes. Best friend.
Me: Oh, he's your best friend?
Student 1: No.
Me: Oh, why?'
Student 1: He loves me, but I don't love him.
Me: Oh, ok.
Student 1: No, no!! Not gay!!!!

Situation 2
Context: In the midst of asking the students a serious of "would you rather" questions.

Question 1:  Would you rather be invisible or be able to fly?

Student 1:  I would rather be invisible because then I could see everything.
Everyone else in the class: OOOOHHHHHHHHHH!!!

A few minutes later....
Me:  I think I would rather be able to fly.
Student: That's because you are a woman.  It is every man's dream to be invisible.  Then you can see everything.
Me: ..........................

Question 2: Would you rather go to a concert or go to the movies?

Student 1: I'd rather go to a concert because then I could hug a girl I didn't know.
Me: ..........what?

Student 2: I'd rather go to the movies because it's dark in the movies.

Just in case I was forgetting, these are high school boys I'm teaching after all....

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Test That Determines Everything.

Tomorrow is the day that many students all across Korea have been preparing for since they were children.  Tomorrow is the college entrance exam.

I wrote about this briefly in my earlier post about Korean schools, but this test, also known as the CSAT, is the test that alone determines which college or university Korean students will be able to attend.  Students who do well will get to go to their dream schools. Students who do poorly will have their dreams shattered or have to wait for another year to take the test again.

I wish I could say that I was over-exaggerating the importance of this exam, but unfortunately this is the reality in Korea.

The third year students at Jeomchon High School have always been somewhat of an enigma to me.  They aren't allowed to attend any of the school field trips or festivals because they "need to study."  These students are always studying.  In fact, I don't teach third graders at school because speaking isn't on the CSAT, and therefore they need to spend their time practicing grammar and the other English skills that are tested.  It simply isn't a priority for them to spend time with the native speaker because it isn't seen as essential for their success on the test.

Students have been busy this week cleaning the school in preparation for the test tomorrow.  I also didn't have some classes this week because my students needed to practice their cheering for the seniors.  Their cheering?!  Yes, you read correctly. We did not have classes so they could practice cheering.  Just cheering for the seniors before the exam is more important than having classes.

Today I got to see the cheering in action as we had a ceremony for the seniors.  Basically the principal gave some words of encouragement to the seniors, then there was this big pinata-type thing they opened, the students did their cheers for the seniors, and finally the students all lined up along the hill and cheered for the seniors as they left school and went home.

All of the 3rd year students.  Sadly, it was raining.
The Principal addresses the students

Pinata type thing...and fireworks.

3rd graders march out of school
The students line up on the hill and cheer for the seniors as they exit

All week I have been able to feel the stress, anticipation, and overall importance of this test.  All week long we have been given rice cakes and other "lucky" foods to eat.  Tomorrow morning the stock exchange and other businesses will open an hour later to ensure that there is not traffic on the road for test takers.  Police will line the streets and assist any students who are running late.  Airplane schedules are fixed so that there are no distractions from air traffic.  The entire country adjusts because the test is just THAT absolutely important.

Parents, friends, and other family members will line up outside of the school tomorrow to cheer on the students.  Some parents will head to churches or temples to pray for their child's success.  This test means everything to these students and these families.

Now, I don't even know the third graders, but I still find myself feeling like a nervous wreck for them.  The tension in the air is palpable, and I cannot even begin to imagine how it feels to actually have to go through this grueling process.  Students who don't do well not only feel sad for themselves, but they feel like a failure for their entire family, who has often spent loads of money on their education over the years.

This week has been somewhat surreal for me.  Every time I witnessed something being done for "good luck", I couldn't hep but think, why should luck be any part of an education system or anyone's future?  What does it say about an education system when years of work comes down to a few hours and luck?  Does that not seem absolutely insane to people?  I know this is just the way it is, and it's not just the way it is in Korea, it's this way throughout Asia.  China and Japan both have similar tests, so the competition is fierce. Nonetheless, my heart breaks for these kids.

After the sending off ceremony for the seniors today, I saw some of my second grade students entering the school.  They looked sad, and I asked them what was wrong.

"Oh, teacher, now we are third graders.. Nooooo, we don't want to be third grade!"

These students know they're next.  They know what they're in for over the next year.  Their countdown starts now. This test has become a right of passage for students, but that doesn't mean they look forward to it by any means.  I know the second grade students, and have come really like some of them. I cringe to think about them going through this next year.

This is a link to a 20 minute documentary about education in Korea.  Please take some time and watch it.  I promise it's worth it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

School in Korea

I've been here for about two and half months now, yet I feel like I have written surprisingly little about what school is actually like in Korea.

Let's start with the basics. Korean schools are similar to American schools in that they are divided among elementary, middle, and high schools.  However, they are different in that elementary school has grades 1-6, and then middle school and high school each have three years.  So essentially, what is their last year of middle school here would be our freshman year of high school in America.

Another important thing to note about the Korean school system is that high school is not technically compulsory, but most students do attend all three years of high school. In fact, Korea has an extremely high graduation rate.  I think it's somewhere around 98%, but I haven't checked that statistic, so don't quote me on it.

Korean high school students attend different schools depending on their academic ability.  I don't know for sure how this is determined, but I would guess testing has something to do with it.  There are technical high schools for the lower level students, other assorted level high schools, and then the more elite high schools that have the top students.  I work at one of the "high performing" schools--I am regularly reminded that it's the "best" school in the area.  Of course, I put all of these things into quotations because I in no way think that the students in the technical schools are less intelligent than the students at my school--I highly suspect that they type of education in Korea really caters to the students 1) with money and 2) who can test well.

Education is a top priority in Korea.  Today this country is one of the most modern in the world, but it wasn't long ago that it was completely destroyed by war.  If you look at pictures from even twenty years ago, you can see how drastically this country has changed in a short amount of time.  Sixty years ago, people here were living in extreme poverty and therefore Koreans saw education as the foundation of their country's reconstruction.  In many ways, the emphasis of education is in fact what has made this country so prosperous over the past few decades.  However, Korea has also had to compete with the education systems of its neighboring economic powerhouses--Japan and China. For this reason, the intensity of the education systems of these countries is very similar.

Students in Korea go to school all day, every day.  Younger students go to school during the day, then go to hagwons, or private schools at night. At the hagwons, students will take additional math, science, english, or even music classes.  These schools are expensive, but many parents see it as absolutely essential for the success of their students, and therefore shell out tons of money to hagwons every year.

By the time students get to high school, they are in classes all day (8-6), then they have mandatory study time until 10:00.  Many students then go back to their dorms and study for a few hours after that. So, you might think, "well that sucks, but at least they have the weekends!"  Well, no.  When I ask my students what they did on the weekend they tell me they either had classes or studied.  Even over Chuseok break (Thanksgiving), my students told me they would only see their family on Chuseok, and they would then spend the rest of their break studying.  They either have classes at school over the weekends or they go hagwons for extra classes.

In one of my culture classes, I did a lesson about American high school.  When the students saw all the vacations that American students have they were completely envious.  They also couldn't believe that school is done so early in the afternoon, students can play on so many sports teams, and that students can CHOOSE some of their classes.  Students in Korea don't get these options, and while American students love to complain about what they have, there are millions of students in Asia who would love to have the American school schedule.

So why do these kids study so much?  The answer is simple: testing.  Korea (along with other Asian countries) have an education system that is purely driven by testing.  The Korean college entrance exam, or the Korean SAT, is the single most important factor to determining a student's future.  A student's entire education comes down to a single day.  If he/she gets a poor score on the test, they will have no shot at getting into a top school, regardless of how well they did over the past few years.  Having a bad day on CSAT day could quite literally ruin your plans for your future.

Teaching in such a test-driven educational environment has been quite the learning experience for me.  While many schools in America are moving towards competency based grading and performance assessments, testing is still the be-all- and end-all in Asia.  Education systems in America are valuing depth over breadth of knowledge, and skills over the recall of information.  However, in Asia, it is primarily about recall, and education is about being able to remember AS MUCH as possible.

I don't believe this type of education system is best for the students, but it's not my place to think that I can change a whole country, especially since Korea is trying to stay competitive with the rest of Asia.  While I think it's really unhealthy for students to spend so much time studying, I do think that the students learn how to work hard.  I think that many American students are losing the ability to study at all, but I would never in a million years hope to have a system like the one in Korea. With that said, I really appreciate how much Koreans value and support education.  If people in America also cared so much about their education system, I think we could solve a lot of the problems that we are currently facing.

Below is a picture of my class schedule.  In Korea, students stay in the same classroom with the same group of students (separated by gender)  for all of their classes.  This is called their homeroom.  The first number tells you which grade they're in, and the second number tells you what classroom they're in.  For example, 2-1 would be second grade first class, and 1-3 would be first grade third class.

I see first grade boys the most--4 times a week.  First grade girls I only see once a week, and I see every second grade boys and girls once a week.  That's a total of 21 classes a week, but I only have to prepare a total of five, fifty minute lesson plans a week--a lot less than I had to do in the US.  Although, as I've mentioned I find planning difficult because of the lack of any type of solid curriculum for me to follow. 

I teach from 9-5 everyday (8:30 start time on Monday/Tuesday), which is nice because I don't have to wake up disgustingly early like I did last year, but by the time I get home the day is pretty much winding down.  I have way more downtime than I did teaching in America.  Tuesdays are my busiest days because I teach five classes, but then I also teach a night class.  I don't leave school until after 9:30 PM on Tuesdays, which is gross, but gives me insight to how the students and other teachers feel.  Most teachers stay at school until at least 10 most nights, and some nights they are required to stay until 11.  It's insane.  I am so tired by the time Tuesdays are done that it takes all my energy to come home and put on my pajamas.  I can't imagine doing that daily.  Additionally, I only have to teach three classes on Wednesdays, so at least after having such a long day I have a less stressful schedule the next day.  

So, there's a little insight into school in Korea.  It's really different from the US, but that's part of what is making this whole experience so interesting.  I will be happy to one day return to teaching in the US, but for now, this experience is certainly opening my eyes. 

The School Festival

On October 22nd my school had its annual festival.  Now, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect, but in the weeks leading up to the festival it became obvious that this festival is a BIG deal.  Apparently every school has its own festival every year--all the way from elementary school to high school.  These festivals are essentially a chance for the students to perform musical and dance numbers.

At my school, each boy class paired with a girl class to sing a traditional Korean song and an English pop song.  This was a competition between the classes, and let me tell you, they took this very seriously.  During the week or two leading up to the festival, I had canceled classes multiple times because they "needed to practice for the festival."

On the day of the festival, I arrived at the theater and the day began with a film festival.  In the weeks before the festival I had also heard a lot about the films that students were making.  Even though I couldn't understand what the students were saying in the movies, they were pretty awesome.  I could get the gist of the stories, even though I didn't understand a word of what was being said.  Most of the movies followed a similar idea--there was almost always someone in love with someone surprising.  Ok, not really, but I truthfully enjoyed this part of the day.

Next was the song competition.  I was surprised by how well some of these students could sing.  Although, I'm not really sure WHY I was so surprised because singing is a big part of Korean culture--this is the country of noraebang, after all.  The students had told me so much about these songs, so it was awesome to finally see them perform.  I loved how into it they all were.  I tried to imagine trying to get my students in America to do this, and it made me laugh.  This is something that students would just NEVER do in America, but even the coolest kids in Korea took this really seriously.  Below are a few of the videos from the singing competition.

After the song competition we headed to lunch  During the lunch break we had little games for the students to play.  I was at the "Speed Quiz With Sarah" game, where students had different nouns they had to describe and they had to get me to correctly guess the noun through their descriptions.  If they got me to guess enough words, they got a prize. 

One thing that I've noticed about Korea is that they make banners for everything. I felt legit to have my name on this one.  

After lunch, we came back and the students did their other singing and dancing performance.  This part was LONG.  Tons of kids got up to sing songs, and again I was impressed by the singing abilities (do all Koreans sing well?)  I was especially surprised by how many boys got up and sang ballads.  Again, things that would never happen in America.  

There were also a lot of dance numbers.  These numbers were mostly all danced to K-pop songs, but I loved listening to the reactions of the students.  You would have thought that the actual K-pop artists were on the stage by the way that the girls would freak out during these numbers.  It was really quite entertaining.  

(sorry for all the videos...I can't figure out how to move/delete them now)

After they finished all the performances they announced the winners and then we had dinner.  After dinner, I came back to play the English games with the students again, then the kids all got ready for their evening performances.  
The evening performance contained many of the same performances from the day, but there were some new things as well.  This is the performance that many parents came to, so there were a lot more people there at that point.

The festival went until really late--I don't think I left until 10:30.  It was a really long day, but I was glad to see my students have some FUN and doing things artistic instead of just studying all day long like they usually do. These kids are smart, but some of them are also really talented, and it was awesome to see them in their element.  The students really love this day, and I'm glad they have at least something to look forward to.

 Of course, the whole school wasn't at the festival.  Third graders don't get to participate.  Why?  Because they have to study, of course.  

                                                                That's Korea for you.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Woraksan Mountain

This weekend a bunch of my friends and I had plans to go hiking to Woraksan Mountain, which is about an hour away from Jeomchon.

Three of my friends from Seoul came down on Friday night, and we had an early morning (after obviously staying up too late the night before) to get our adventure started.  We rented a car for the day, so we avoided the tricky bus situation and got a start on our hiking around 10:00.

I had been concerned about the weather because there looked to be a chance of rain.  However, everyone still wanted to go, so we started to make our way up the mountain.  It was actually a little sunny for about the first fifteen minutes, but unfortunately that didn't last too long.

The mountain itself was pretty tough.  Of course, there were plenty of Korean hikers along the way.  And yes, Korean hikers are different from the typical hikers you find on your average New England weekend hike.  While hiking in Korea, it is is pretty routine to be passed by these Korea hikers, who are typically at least 20-30 years older than myself.  Naturally, while I'm huffing and puffing they never seem to be bothered by the difficulty of the hike.

Korean hikers are also without doubt the best-dressed hikers I've ever encountered.  One of the things that struck me when I first moved to Jeomchon was the number of outdoor apparel stores.  Jeomchon is not that big and we have SO MANY of these types of stores.  How many of those stores do you really need?  Well, now I know, apparently you really do a lot because Korean hikers are all fully clothed in the most legit hiking gear there is.

As we made our way further up the mountain it was obvious the clouds were only getting thicker.  We didn't have much of a view at all and once we got closer to the top, it then it started to rain on us.  We wanted to make it to the top, but we got to the point right before the most intense part, it was raining, and we knew even if we did make it to the top there wouldn't be much of a view.  So, we had some lunch, in the rain where we were, then made our way down.

You just don't see this when you're hiking in New England. 
That is the top of the close, yet so far!
Same picture as above, but after only about 10 minutes we couldn't even see the top of the mountain anymore

Lunch time!

In America we have PB&J, in Korea you have kimbap while hiking.  I have to say, it's awesome. 

Of course, coming down a really steep mountain in the rain is less than desirable and I think we all slipped at least a few times.  Needless to say, we were pretty happy to make it back to the car.

Despite the conditions, it was still a nice day to be outside and get some fresh air. I love hiking in New England, but there's something really awesome about coming across Buddhist monks and temples in the middle of your way up a mountain (yeah, that happened).  I definitely want to go back to Woraksan in the spring because I can tell there are some fantastic views out there and since we didn't make it all the way to the top, it's definitely a mission that needs to be accomplished!

Once we got back we showered and met up with some other friends for dinner.  Then we went out for a few drinks, and of course ended the night with noraebang.  It was a really fun night, and I'm really glad that my friends from Seoul could meet my friends in Jeomchon.  I know I've said it before, but I really feel blessed to have met so many awesome people in such a short amount of time.
A Korean, A Hong Konger (what do they call people from Hong Kong?), and an American! I love these girls!

Love these people!

Obviously this had to happen. 

Sunday we woke up late and everyone left in the afternoon.  I was sad, to see everyone leave, but I hope that it won't be long until we can all meet up again!

What I've Learned in the ESL Classroom

 Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I'll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you'd like to contribute to next month's Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at, and he will let you know how you can start participating! 

When I finished EPIK orientation about two and a half months ago, I felt like I had been through the most overwhelming whirlwind of my life. Everything in my life was suddenly different, and then BAM! On top of it all,it was time to start a new job.

Adapting to life in Korea became so all-consuming that the whole teaching thing (you know the reason we're all here in the first place) almost became a second thought.  During orientation we didn't know where we were living, never mind the grade we would be teaching.  Needless to say, despite the hours of training we endured, we didn't exactly feel like we had any idea what to expect from our jobs.

This is not my first teaching job.  In fact, I have a Master's degree in Secondary Education and I taught for two years in America before coming to Korea.  I can't tell you how many times during orientation people looked at me and said "oh, you have teaching experience, you'll be fine."

The truth is, I knew teaching in an ESL room would be a completely different experience, and in large part, it has been.  At home I taught Civics/Economics/Law and a few other social studies classes.  I had ZERO experience teaching English, never mind teaching English as a foreign language in the midst of a school system that functions quite differently from the system in the US.

One of the reasons I wasn't sure of whether or not I should come to Korea was because of how much I loved teaching in America.  I never stopped doing work when I was teaching at home, but I also couldn't imagine myself doing anything else.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to leave something I loved to do something that I didn't know if I would even like.

I'm two and a half months into teaching here, and while I really do miss teaching in the US,  I've learned a number of things in my short time here.  Here's a snippet of what I've taken away from my time as an ESL teacher.

1)  Teenagers are teenagers, no matter what country you're in.  
Sure, there are differences in culture that affect the way some of my Korean students act, but the similarities between my students in Korea and the US far outweigh the differences.  There is most definitely a social hierarchy in Korea, just as there is in America.  There are the "athletic" students, the "outgoing students", the "shy students", the "studious students" and the "socially awkward" students.  I've been surprised by how many times my students have said or done things that have reminded me of my students in America.  These students love the same things as American teenagers--they like music, sleeping, thinking about members of the opposite sex, and playing video games. They are self-conscious and place great importance in their looks.  They have their emotional mood swings, and some days you don't know whether to expect them to be bouncing off the walls or completely asleep for the duration of the class. Even if I can't communicate with them that well, I love them and their crazy/wonderful teenager ways just as much as I loved my American students.

2) Students need to be built up, not torn down. 
My students are under a tremendous amount of stress.  Korean education is ALL about testing.  In fact, their entire education essentially comes down to the SAT test they take in their third year of high school.  These kids have been going to hagwons since they were children, which means their school days basically consists of two parts--the regular day and then night classes.  They hardly ever get real days off from school, not even on weekends or holidays breaks.  If they're not smart (or really just bad at testing), they will be reminded of it.  If they don't fit into the narrow idea of acceptable beauty, they will be told by virtually everyone around them (as if they didn't already know it themselves).

I've found that compliments can go a long way in the ESL classroom.  Many students lack confidence in their ability to speak English, and they need encouragement to feel like it is ok to make mistakes.  I try to build the students up as much as I can (not that I lie to them), but from what I can tell, they don't hear many positive things about themselves very often.

Recently my students participated in a competition in our provinece where they had to put on a play in English.  During lunch I would go and watch and try to help them with their plays. The first time I saw them I told them it was really good (and it was--they ended up winning 1st place), but they looked at me with complete disbelief.  "Really?!"  Apparently the other teachers hadn't been telling them the same.  After they won, one of the students excitedly came up to me at school the next Monday and thanked me for my help. I didn't think I did that much, but it was truly appreciated by the students.

Students need to hear corrections, but they also need to hear positivity as well. And trust me, it means A LOT for them to hear it from the western, native teacher.  Students are really shy and self-conscious, especially about speaking English, and especially about speaking English to the native speaker (I mean, who wouldn't be?)  It's really important to give corrections in a gentle way and to give positive feedback whenever possible.  It does wonders for these kids' confidence.

3)  Good lessons only come with a lot of time and effort. 
Teaching is hard work. You don't just get to show up and do you're job--there's planning, making materials, implementing the lesson, and revising.....and then revising again.  I sometimes teach the same lesson six times in one week.  Some weeks, I change the lesson almost every single time.  By Friday, I usually finally have the lessons to a point where I am satisfied with them.

I've always known that teaching is a process, but this is the first time I've really been able to revise lessons.  I didn't teach long enough in America to really get to revise any lessons, so this has actually been a good experience for me.  I've been able to truly going through the evolution of the teaching process.  And if anything, teaching the same lessons so many times has really shown me just how much of a process it is.

4) It's hard to be patient, especially when you're insecurities are brought to the forefront. 
Teaching requires a whole lot of patience.  This is again something I already knew, but teaching in Korea has made me more aware of this.  Teaching in Korea has additionally made me aware of the fact that I am not confident in my teaching ability.  One of the major changes I've had to adjust to is the fact that I have to teach with a co-teacher.  Last year I could do whatever I wanted in my classroom, and if I had a lesson go badly, I didn't have my colleagues there to witness it.

This year I have another teacher in the room with me 80% of the time.  I like my co-teachers a lot, but it is still uncomfortable for me at times, especially when I think something isn't going well.  Of course, feeling this way has unleashed a number of personal questions (why do I care as long as I am putting in my best effort?), but at times it can be frustrating.  It can be difficult to keep your patience when your students can't always understand you, you have a communication barrier with your co-teacher, and you don't feel confident about what you're doing.  Everything is amplified in the classroom--whether it's your strengths, insecurities, or ability to be patient, teaching is the culmination of so many things that you can't help but learn a lot about your ability to deal with all different types of circumstances.

5) One of the best ways to learn about Korea is to get to know the students

It sounds cliche, but my favorite part of teaching is hands down getting to know my students.  By this point there are certain students I look forward to seeing on a daily basis--the students who always stop by at the same time, or who I always see on my walk home from school.  Talking with them in those informal situations is absolutely the best part of my job, and I love hearing more about their lives.  I have learned a lot about life in Korea just by talking to my students, and I hope that they are learning just as much about America by talking to me.  You can learn a lot by reading books or articles online, but you learn myriads more by talking to people and hearing about their own experiences.  I can read about Korea and my students can read about America, but to talk to someone is to get the real deal, the real insight on how a culture affects a person's life.

I always tell my students that someday when they come to America they can find me and we can meet up and I will buy them pizza (or hamburgers or whatever western thing we happen to be talking about)....but I honestly mean it, and I hope that one day they really will get to experience my culture, just as I am getting to experience theirs.

Teaching in the ESL classroom is still teaching me new things every day and I'm sure it will continue to teach me more with every day I spend with my students. At least I hope it will, because I came to Korea to learn as much as I can, and I have no doubts that I will go back to America someday as a much stronger, well-rounded person and  teacher for my future students.