Monday, 26 December 2011

Further Cultural Reflections From South Korea

I've decided to list some of the amazingly good ideas that have come out of South Korea. They are mostly small and simple things that I think some Western countries could get away with implementing to improve on their culture. There are also plenty of negative things that I could list here but for now we'll stick to some of the more positive things that are prevalent in this culture.

Fast food and restaurant delivery services are a huge deal here and they are very professional. You can call up pretty much any fast food chain or restaurant (not just fast food restaurants, any restaurant) and order anything you like. They will deliver it to your door (or wherever it is you may be) for no extra charge. They will deliver the food with all the cutlery and utensils you will need to eat it and then they will come back an hour or so later and take away all of the dirty plates and mess. This is brilliant. This is also how we've been eating lunch at school since school broke up for winter. Great!

There is a service whereby if you are drunk and you have taken your car with you to the bar, you can pay somebody to drive your car home for you followed by a colleague on a motorbike who will give the driver a ride back to the office once you are home and safe. How very convenient and a great way to deter drink driving accidents.

Whilst the buses may not always be efficient and are often crowded they can take you anywhere in Korea. You can visit a very small rural town and not have to worry about how you will get home.

Free stuff! You get free stuff with everything. I once bought some lip balm and got some free hand cream. I bought a can of Guinness and got a free Guinness glass. There are free things attached to boxes on nearly everything you buy, sometimes the product you're given for free will be more expensive than the product you’re buying. It's nice.

Banking has never been easier (if you can get to a bank during opening hours) you can pretty much do everything you need to do via a cash point. You can withdraw money, pay your bills, and transfer money very easily and efficiently. Paying bills this way is fantastic, and if you are late to pay a bill you will not be cut off, they will simply transfer the money over to your next month's bill. Free of worry and hassle.

There are buttons on tables in restaurants. If you press the button, a waiter or waitress is with you in seconds. Easy.

There are lockers everywhere. There are lockers in subway stations and at supermarkets so if you have a lot to carry and need to stop off somewhere for 100 – 500 won (25p) you can leave your luggage or shopping bags in a safe place and come to get them later.

Internet. Oh the internet. I downloaded a 4GB file yesterday. It took 15 minutes. The internet is fast, super fast, the fastest in the world. It is also up there with the cheapest in the world. I pay about 15 to 20 pounds a month for my internet, which is so fast that I never have to wait long for anything.

How do you cut your meat? With a knife? Why? Use scissors. Just sayin'.

If you have a T-Card you can use it on the tube, on the train, on the bus and in a taxi and it will be nearly a third of the price. Anyone can buy a T-card and you can top it up at any subway station. Taxi’s and public transport are both stupidly cheap. To get from one end of Seoul to the other it will cost about 1 pound and 50 pence. A bus journey to Seoul is about 5 pounds from where I live. That’s two hours on a very comfortable coach with luggage storage.

Universal phone chargers. You can buy a phone charger. No matter what phone you have. It will charge it. There are also phone chargers in most major public transport hubs so if you’re running late and your phone has died, you can plug it in and make a call, for free.

Over the counter birth control for about 4 pounds. Not that I've ever needed it myself, but you don't need a prescription here. Safety first, right?

Try and pick my lock. I dare you. Oh wait, I have a secret 6 digit code. So if I lose my key? It doesn’t matter. There is no key to lose. The key is in my head. Not that anyone is going to break in here as South Korea has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. There are reasons for this and to be fair I would rather have the higher crime rate than trade in my individual freedoms, but it works here in Korea.

Posting things anywhere costs next to nothing. I sent a letter back to the UK and it cost me about 75p.

So that’s just a few little advantages of living here in Korea, they are many disadvantages and I’ll talk about them another time. Merry Christmas by the way. Nathanael and I cooked Christmas dinner yesterday and it went down a treat. Camps have started now and work is not stressful at all, my classes are simple and fun and I get to come to work at a later time. Badda bing, badda boom. Goodbye.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Making a Difference

All of the teachers were supposed to be going to Samcheok this weekend for a celebratory end of year getaway, however, what with the recent goings on in the North this was cancelled and instead we were taken to lunch and dinner and some things happened which I’d like to share with you all.

I didn’t really know what to expect from school today but low and behold all of my lessons were cancelled and I spent the day planning my winter camps (I left my USB at school I hope it will survive the night). We went for lunch in Damok (where my school is) and had a kimchi and meat soup which was actually amazing. This only went on for about half an hour and there was no soju involved so I was a pretty happy customer.

At 5 we left for Chuncheon (roughly an hour away) to have dinner. I rode with Mr. Chen (the man who always tries to get me drunk). He’s a good guy and en route he taught me some Korean and through broken ‘Konglish’ we talked about what its like living in a foreign country. He likes to call me his brother and I have no idea why. He says he likes me because I have a positive attitude towards life. Ha! He ought to read my novel! He told me he learnt English himself and although his pronunciation is off he’s done pretty well.

We arrived at the beef restaurant and I have to admit it was the best Korean food I have ever tasted. Anyway, I sat opposite my vice principle, next to him the principle, my co-teacher on one side of me and Mr. Chen on the other. The whole school was in attendance along with some of the teachers kids (who also go to our school). Toasts were given and we started to eat. I went over to my principle and poured him some soju on two occasions. On the second he pulled my co-teacher over to translate (he speaks no English). My principle told me that if I ever have a problem (any problem) I should go to him and he will sort it out for me, no problem. He also said I am doing well at learning Korean culture. The second time he complemented me was when I got back from the bathroom. On my way back through the restaurant I stopped off at the kids table and played with them for 20 minutes or so, I even got a second grader to spell some words in English (her choice not mine), when I got back to the table the principle gave my a huge thumbs up and shook my hand telling me I was doing a very good job. Brilliant. Maybe this whole going out with the school thing isn’t so bad after all?

Upon leaving, the 2nd Grade teacher (who I always thought disliked me for some reason) approached me and thanked me for hanging out with the kids and all that jazz. Again this made me feel great and really made me feel like I’ve been making a difference in these kids lives.

You know when the kids are bored. You know when they are switched off. Luckily this is a rarity in my classes. It’s nights like this, when I get to spend time with my kids outside of school that I realise how positive the kids are towards me. They talk English with me, try and get me to read them stories and play games, they joke around with me and teach me silly Korean phrases. It’s hard to describe but the kids really make this job worthwhile, and even if its sometimes tough to break through language and culture barriers with the other teachers at work, those kids make it mean something. I’m glad I came here.

Good night.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Death of The Dear Leader

Shock spread quickly through the office at noon today. They are still talking about it. I don’t understand what they are saying but every other sentence I hear the name Kim Jong Il.

Before we get onto that I can’t write a blog today without mentioning Christopher. I was deeply saddened on Friday to hear that my hero and idol, Christopher Hitchens had died at age 62. I learnt more from Christopher Hitchens through his writing and public speeches than I learnt from any other author, speaker or public intellectual. I will always remember what he taught me through his writing: Don't let anyone else do your thinking for you. Follow your principles to the end. Don't flinch from the truth. Repeat until the last ounce of strength drains from your body. On Friday I raised my glass to the Hitch and had an evening of debate and Hitchslap viewing with my friends. I wonder what Christopher Hitchens would have written today had he been alive to hear of the news of the death of North Korea’s ‘dear leader’ Kim Jong Il.

On hearing the news it is important to remember a few facts about the Kim family and their totalitarian dictatorship. Do remember that Kim Jong Il was head of the armed forces of North Korea and was in charge of the state but was not head of state. The head of state is and remains Kim Jong Il’s dead father Kim Il Sung. You might call it a necrocrasy. Kim Jong ils system was a phenomenon of the very extreme right. It was based on a totalitarian "military first" mobilization, and was maintained by slave labour and fear mongering. The whole regime was instilled on an ideology of the most unapologetic racism and xenophobia. It is an absurd situation and I could never begin to describe the feelings and emotions that Koreans on both sides of the border are feeling today. Never has the relationship between North and South been more uncertain. It is hard to tell what my co-workers are thinking at the best of times, today, is no exception.

It is certainly an interesting time to be living 12 kilometres south of the border (DMZ). There are so many issues at play that I could never (with my limited knowledge of the situation) begin to describe. I am told by my second grade co-teacher that South Korea is now in an ‘emergency state’. I’m not quite sure what this means but I’m fairly convinced it is not as dramatic as it sounds. Simply put, nobody knows what will happen next. North Korea will certainly be mourning the passing of their dear leader for many weeks before new leader Kim Jong Un will really take control of the country. I suppose we had better hope he is not trigger happy.

So, what are some scenarios that could play out here? Well, I can speculate again with my limited knowledge. Never has there been a better time for the South to invade the North. This will most certainly not happen. The South will remain uncertain about the new leader of the country and only time will tell how the new leader of the country will wield his power. One thing you can be certain of is that defences on at least the South Korean side will be heightened. Time can only tell if Kim Jung Un will be open to negotiations regarding a many number of issues that are at play in this area of the world.

Kim Jong Un has been groomed by his father and his grandfathers state proper gander for many years (it is assumed he is in his late twenties). He will be well aware of the power struggle that could easily take place over the coming months. What if other successors or advisors do not want Kim Jong Un to be the leader? Nuclear instability is certainly a worry for many commentators on the subject. Unfortunately there are a seldom few facts about the most isolated country in the world and the truth is nobody knows what is going to happen next. Kim Jong Uns father was certainly keen to build up the countries nuclear arsenal and would frequently call South Korea a puppet to the Western superpowers.

News will continue to roll in over the next few hours and in the half an hour it has taken me to write this the office is still buzzing over the news. I do not know how to react when they approach me and make dead hand gestures and repeat the name Kim Jong Il. Do I smile? Do I sound apologetic? Do I look afraid? I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react, but I’ve been gently smiling and nodding and letting them know that I have heard the news.

I like to think that Hitchens would be warmed to hear that a fascist dictator who brought pain and suffering to millions is dead. Yet, I do not know what he would have written, all I know is he would have written something. I’m saddened that I’ll never get the chance to read it. Whatever it may have been.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

If You're Bored Then You're Boring

It has been a strange few weeks here against the rural backdrop. I haven’t really left Sachang-ri for 4 weeks aside from going to school. I’ve been saving money which has been going well. I did get out of town twice and both occasions were for school related activities. The first was for an open class in Hwacheon. The purpose of which I have still yet to decipher. From what I can determine, I can only assume that the county like to spend a great deal of money on food for all of the teachers. We got taken out for lunch after the open class. An open class is like any normal class aside from the fact that every teacher in the county is invited to watch. This time a Hwacheon middle school teacher was giving a class on personalities. It followed the same structure of nearly every other ESL class I have seen as examples of effective teaching. I don’t buy it, and I think both us native teachers, the Korean teachers and the council all know there is a problem with ESL education in this country, but nobody really knows what to do about it. Their solution is to promote these workshops as open discussions about how to improve our teaching. They are not. They are like many other things in this education system, a waste of time.

Enough of the negative. The second trip was to a ski resort in Chuncheon with my school. I was asked to participate but after much deliberation I politely declined. I didn’t want to risk yet another knee injury and I don’t really see the point in these high risk sports. You know what kind of injuries you can get doing this stuff? Is it really worth it? I felt guilty for a time but I watched the kids learning to ski from the sidelines with several other teachers who were complaining about how bored they were. I don’t know why they all had to be there. However, much to the teacher’s surprise, I wasn’t bored. I quite like time to just sit and watch the world go by, so I had a fantastically relaxing day on the slopes. I got to mess about with the kids over lunch, there’s this one 2nd grader who loves poking me and calling me ugly. As long as he is using English, right?

I got a lift home that day from the school Taekwondo teacher who cordially invited me to join his Taekwondo club. I’m a sucker for being way too polite to people and it lands me in these awfully sticky situations. I don’t want to offend the guy, but, I don’t want to go to a Taekwondo class with children. I’m not a very sporty person as it is, especially when it involves any kind of violence. I also don’t want to do myself an injury. I just want to write my book, which I’ve finished by the way. Wink. Lot’s of editing to be done on it though. Anyway, I’m digressing. I now have to await the day when the Taekwondo teacher asks me if I’m going to join his class, you must always have excuses pre-prepared. I hope he understands that I don’t want to offend him but would rather not go. That brings me nicely back to the case against ‘boredom’. One of the reasons he invited me was because he thought I would be bored in the evenings as I’m in a small town in a country where I don’t speak the language and don’t have friends or family on call. The Taekwondo teacher told me about how he goes to India every year to teach Taekwondo (I think) and how he gets bored and lonely there. He said he understands how I feel. Erm, no you don’t. I don’t get bored or lonely, I actually quite enjoy the time I have alone to work on my creative bits and bobs. It reminded me of that old Barenaked Ladies line “if you’re bored then you’re boring.” I have plenty of friends here and we have a great time together, I get out of the house all the time and am never bored. It’s tough to explain that through Konglish and without breaking some kind of cultural sensitivity barrier. It doesn’t matter.

I found out my winter camp schedule today. I have it pretty easy. My camp runs for 3 weeks, my longest day is 3 hours, my shortest is 1 hour. I’m hoping it will be a fun time spent with the kids. I need to get planning some of the classes though, as of yet, I’ve got nothing. I'm going to start working on it tomorrow. I’m quite looking forward to the camps and then onto my winter vacation. Phew, time flies. I’ve been here for four months now.

I hope this blog didn’t sound too whiney. You’re lucky I didn’t write about K-Pop like I was going to. We’ll save that for next time.

Monday, 5 December 2011

School Days

So, it’s undeniable. Nathanael had a great idea. He recently posted a blog about his students and I thought it would be a good idea to steal his idea ad write about my students. I’m sure both blogs will be vastly different as we’re obviously writing about different humans. Nathanael can take credit though.

There aren’t many students at my school that I don’t like. Sure, some of them can be annoying at times but for the most part they are friendly, eager to learn and a joy to be around. I didn’t really have any expectations before coming to my school. Mainly because I didn’t know what level I would be teaching. Working with EPIK is a risk, you could get any school, at any level in any region of the country and you don’t find out where you are being placed until the day before. Orientation certainly prepares you for the best and worst case scenarios but in terms of what to except from the students, I’ll be honest, I had no idea.

Kids are kids. No matter where you are they are genuinely free spirited, open minded sponges with a youthfully naive world view. They are fun, excitable and emotional. I’ve even read about children in North Korea getting into trouble for being this way (making eye contact with foreigners), which is absurd, a kid is a kid. At the same time they have these vibrant and individual personalities from the youngest of ages. If I was going to be teaching elementary then that’s exactly what my expectations were, and obviously they were right.

I’ll talk about each of my classes one by one to give you an idea of the personalities of my students. I know a lot of their names by now but most Korean names all sound the same so it can be tough sometimes, where I don’t know a student’s name I’ll just describe them.

Firstly, Kindergarten, I have about eight to ten students in my kindergarten class, they never all seem to be there at the same time. I teach them once a week in the kindergarten classroom at the end of the school corridor. They are probably (without accounting for sixth grade) my most well behaved class. Which is insane. Before the lesson when I’m setting up my materials they are usually deadly quiet and as soon as I start teaching they get really excited and involved without being at all disruptive. There is no curriculum for these kids so I just teach them whatever I want. This week was weather, as its snowing and all. There is a very cute little girl who always wears a different pink dress that sits right at the front of class and likes to dance with me during songs. She also likes to dance with me at the bus stop as her family must own the shop directly opposite. Her English isn’t very good at all, in fact it’s probably the lowest in the class but she is easily my favourite. There aren’t any little brats in this class. All of the students join in, sing the songs, repeat the words and play the games and I usually read them a story every week that they have no way of understanding. The words ‘one more time’ gets used a great deal when they want to read it again though.

My first grade class is my least favourite group of kids. I don’t dread teaching them but they can get out of control sometimes. There used to be six of them but one has been missing for about two months now, I assume I’m down to five. Three boys and two girls. One girl is very good at English and picks words and phrases up straight away and the other girl tries really hard but sometimes just can’t grasp it. They are both lovely but often get dragged down by the boys. Out of the three boys one is really well behaved and really proficient in English, one gets it sometimes and other times can’t be bothered and the other will probably never pick it up. I don’t quite know what his deal is, he likes to get up at the front of the class with me and mimic everything I do. What I point to, he points to. What actions I do, he does. When I walk, he walks. The only thing he doesn’t copy is the damn language. When my first grade co-teacher is in the room with me the class goes smoothly and I feel like they learn a lot, however, when she’s not there, they go mental. They are hard to control with no Korean but some tactics I use are sitting down in the middle of the disturbing table. This always gets their attention back to me in a comedic way. I’ll be really silent and just single out one student to stare at, this eventually works but takes some time. Other times I’ll just start doing some crazy things at the front of the class to get their attention back. I never raise my voice in class. I will never raise my voice in class. I despise any teacher who ever raises their voice in class. The only time my voice will be loud is when teaching them new words or sentences. First grade is usually the only class that needs any kind of disciplinary action though.

Second grade used to be my favourite class but not so much anymore. They are a great bunch though. There is one little chubby kid who always wears a waistcoat and whose English is far above the level of the rest of the class. He always answers my questions and helps me calm the rest of the class down. Sometimes he’ll get so annoyed at the rest of the class he’ll start kicking and screaming. He’s amazing. There is one kid who marvels at using the English I’ve taught him to describe my features."Teacher ugly,""Teacher fat." Shit like that. He’s amazing. There are lots of girls in this class, in fact those are the only 2 boys in the class of 8. They are very good at English and pick things up very easily. I have a lot of fun with this class. We play lots of games and laugh a bunch. Recently we learnt the months of the year and every time it got to October and I said Octopus they would crack up. It’s the simple things.

Third grade are a good bunch. There is one girl in particular who likes to pull funny faces with me. I also play the what’s the loudest noise you can make without laughing game with students as they come into class. They always laugh. They are good at English, but it takes some effort. There is one kid with an annoyingly whiny voice and another kid who is sometimes on the bus with me in the morning. They are well behaved and I rarely have problems with them unless they are screaming ‘game, game’ but they know we’ll always get to a game eventually. I just have as much fun with these kids whilst teaching them English as I can. This class has grown on me in the last few weeks and I look forward to my after school classes with them.

Fourth grade are now my favourite class and its the class whom my main co-teacher is in charge of. I eat lunch with them everyday and have a hilarious time with them in every single after school class. I recently gave a class with a student (Ji-Su?) on the back of my shoulders. The week after that I gave a class wearing his glasses, although I gave them back eventually as he couldn’t see the words on the power point. This is also the class with my little trouble maker Min-Su. He’s amazing. The teachers just treat him wrongly. He hates English they say, but he doesn’t. Back when I taught supplementary classes which were classes for the students who were bad at English he would take part all the time. He just finds it boring. He spends most of the class drawing on his English book and if that energy he has for drawing was just harnessed by the teachers rather than downtrodden then he would be able to pick things up. He is disciplined totally out of proportion and I feel kind of sorry for the guy. I’ve got him sitting at the front with everyone now where as he used to sit at the back alone, and he actually hangs around for after school classes sometimes as well, when he does I make an effort to include him any way I can. The class has 3 boys and 3 girls. The other two boys (not Minsu) are great, they say they are dumb but they aren’t and they do try. The girls are great at English and pick things up almost instantly. Fourth grade are a joy.

In fifth grade there are three students. This used to be my favourite class but fourth grade has been so great recently that nobody comes close. There are 2 girls and 1 boy, both girls are pretty good at the language but Sun-Young (the boy) struggles a little although he is improving. I teach fifth and sixth grades with a separate specialist English teacher and he is fantastic at his job. These classes are often highlights of the week. I also teach them for 40 minutes on my own once a week. With fifth grade these are some of my best classes as I can really teach them something as they understand so much already. A great bunch of kids.

Sixth grade is hell. My 40 minute class with them every Friday is something I dread. There are two girls, Yu-Jin and So-Woon. They are both good at English but they are unbelievably disinterested, Yu-Jin more so than So-Woon. They do homework in class, they speed through the text book activities before I have a chance to get to them, and they are so quiet and reserved. I guess they are just getting ready for middle school but it can be really tough to teach these two. Mainly because it’s hard to get them motivated. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. Every week I come out of class and tell myself that I must try harder with them. They’ll be leaving soon anyhow.

So that’s my school and my kids, I would talk a bit about the teachers I work with but I’ll save that for another time. For now my well traveled followers I bid you farewell.