Tag Archives: Korea

April Fool’s Day in Korea

Here in Korea, they celebrate April Fool’s Day, although it is called “manujeol” (만우절), which literally means “the festival of ten thousand fools.” (Why is it when Asian languages are translated into English, things come out sounding like something from a kungfu movie?)

Anyway, it’s not as big a thing here, although it does exist. One poll I saw (that I have absolutely no way of verifying) said that 89% of Koreans admitted to having lied on April Fool’s Day, as a joke, presumably.

"April's Fool's Day will be made into a national holiday in 2012." Yeah, obviously this was a joke.

“April’s Fool’s Day will be made into a national holiday in 2012.” Yeah, obviously this was a joke.

I wasn’t expecting much when I went to school today, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen any real April Fool’s Day pranks here, besides things like students saying, “I want to give you a million dollars.” (two second pause) “Haha, April Fool’s!”

Then I walked into my last class and saw this:

20140401_151512

Half the desks in the room were tipped over and some were backwards. Now, this is a middle school, so at first I just thought it was normal chaos, until someone mentioned April Fool’s and I finally got it. (Of course, they also said that the 2-1 and 2-2 classrooms had been switched, which happened to be true.). That’s YB (his initials) up there in the picture, sitting quietly at his desk. He is one of the best students a teacher could ask for. I would have been pretty surprised if he had been down on the floor, pretending that gravity had flipped 90 degrees.

I like that this kid still seems to be reading his English book down there.

I like that this kid seems to be actually reading his English book down there.

I didn’t let them leave them like that, but it was a good laugh. With all the zombie-like, checked out students in middle school, it’s nice to see them show some creativity and initiative, even if it’s only in the direction of a prank.

"Lying on the floor? It's all an illusion! I'm just studying here."

“Lying on the floor? It’s all an illusion! I’m just studying here.”

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The “Now” of a Foggy Ride to Work

First of all, apologies for not producing as many long stories these days. I have a few in the works, but I just don’t have much time these days. I’ll post them as they are finished. This post is a true account, something I was thinking of as I rode to work today on my motorbike.

Taken in Wanju, South Korea

not taken today, but similar

I rode my motorbike out along a small highway going out of the city this morning. I passed the Ajung reservoir and Kirin peak beyond, the tops dissolving into the nebulous grey of the fog. All this was reflected perfectly on the still surface of the reservoir. Besides the hum of my engine and the other cars, the world was silent.

I thought, “This would make a great picture. Maybe I should stop and take one.”

Then I thought, “But pictures are all about later–about the Then. And they can never compare to the Now.”

So I didn’t stop. I continued on, over the mountain pass and down into the next valley where my school was, soaking in the wondrous beauty all around me and enjoying the sublime Now.


4 Reasons I Don’t Like the First Week of School

I think I’m a pretty positive guy. I try to look on the bright side of things. I only say that because I don’t anything to think of this as a gripe. It is merely a chance to share my unique work situation.

Here in Korea, the school year starts at the beginning of March, so I have just finished the first couple weeks of school. And I am very glad about that. I know a lot of people don’t like going back to school (students especially), but there are several unique factors for a foreign English teacher in my position that makes the first week of school a lot less fun.

1. Getting to school

I don’t have a car. If I did, this would not be an issue. I do have a motorbike and the bus system here is very good, but still, it takes a while to get everything straightened out.

I live in a city of about 600,000, but I work in the countryside around the city, which means I can’t walk to my schools. In times past, some of the teachers would pick us foreigners up, but they usually don’t like doing that anymore, and honestly, I don’t like getting picked up. Even if I have to take a bus, I like to be independent. I can ride my motorbike to two of my schools (I work at four different schools) because they’re relatively close, unless of course it’s pouring rain or a blizzard or the bike’s broken. In other words I have to know how to get to all my schools by bus.

Unfortunately, all of my schools are in different directions and I have to transfer buses to all of them, so I have to coordinate two bus schedules to make sure I get to the transfer stop before the second bus gets there. All this for four different schools which start at different times. I ended up being to late to one school and having to take a taxi to another one the first day in order not to be late.

Wanju work map

2. People assuming I don’t know anything

I’ve lived in Korea for nine years and have taught public school here for five years so I pretty much know what’s going on. I speak the language, can use chopsticks, know the bus system, and everything else you need to survive. But I’m not Korean, so everyone naturally (or not) assumes I got off the plane yesterday. I don’t necessarily blame them, since there is a high turnover rate for foreign English teachers and so a lot of us are fresh off the plane. Still, the first day or two at a new school is invariably the same.

“Can you use chopsticks?” “Oh, I think that food is too spicy for you.” “Oh wow, you can speak Korean!” “Do you know how to take the bus? You do? Wow, how do you know?”

And so on. Again, I’m not trying to criticize the Korean teachers, but it does get tiring when you go through the same routine again and again and again.

3. Not knowing anything

Even though I know a lot about Korea and public schools in general, every new school I go to has its own idiosyncrasies, for one reason or another. One of my schools is built like someone found the plans to the Labyrinth, thought that looked too straightforward and kicked it up a notch. Schools all start at different times, one has lunch after three periods instead of four. Some have English classes in an English room; others in the classrooms. In other words, I do some wandering around sometimes, asking people a lot of questions like where the bathrooms are and what the password to the class computer is.

One of my schools. It looks straightforward, but it's best to hire a Sherpa if you have class in one of the far buildings.

One of my schools. It looks straightforward, but it’s best to hire a Sherpa if you have class in one of the far buildings.

4. Introduction class

In elementary schools in Korea, there are no classes on the first day. The homeroom teachers are getting to know their students and getting them to color name tags or doing other icebreaker activities, so I don’t have to teach. In middle school, there are classes on the first day, but the teachers don’t want to start the textbook, so they say some variation of, “Just introduce yourself today.”

How long does it take to introduce yourself? Not the whole 45-minutes of class, that’s for sure. Even if I show them the Introduction to my Hometown powerpoint that I have, it only takes five minutes. Now I have been teaching long enough that I come prepared to get the kids talking and fill up the period but it tends to be awkward and I do the same lesson over and over again. I’m not complaining, but I’m always happy when the first week is over so I can get into real teaching.


It’s a brand new school year!

Well, it’s back to the daily grind again. Here in Korea, today was the first day of school, which makes for one very tired Green-Walled Tower keeper. I got in the habit of getting up at 8:00 or 8:30 during vacation; now I have to get up around 6:00. As well, I’ve taught almost exclusively elementary schools for the last five years and this year I’m teaching mostly middle schools, so that’s a big adjustment.

All that to say, don’t be worried or offended if I’m not around as much in the next few days. I have a lot to do and not much energy. I’ll do what I can though.

A look into the mentality of school. This says: "The day has finally come." "The First Day of School" (high school and middle school students' final day)

A look into the mentality of students here. This says: “The day has finally come, &*@#!.” “The First Day of School” (high school and middle school students’ final day)


You Have to Follow the Rules

You have to follow the rules, even when those rules are unwritten social rules, and even when they inconvenience everyone involved. This is a true story that happened to me one Friday last fall.

I go to four schools over the course of a week, so there are several schools I only taught at once a week. One week, my second Wednesday school principal (who was a sweet, grandmotherly type of woman) invited me to a barbecue the school was having that Friday. My Friday school was far away, but I told her I would try to make it, since it was possible to get there if I rode my scooter.

She told me to get there by 3pm and since my classes at the other school finished at 2:30, that was perfect. I rode my scooter along back roads in the mountains and got to the school just before three.

They were packing everything up.

Here was my first dilemma. I could have just taken off, but I didn’t want the principal to think I hadn’t come. That might make her feel bad. So I went through the crowds and found her to say hello.

I was planning to just say hi and leave but of course, as a good host who had invited me there, she couldn’t let that happen. So she told some of the women to get out a grill and cook up some meat for me (samgyeopsal, for those who know Korean food). I tried to refuse, but like all grandmotherly-type women, she didn’t know the meaning of the word “no”. I could have just left, but that would have been rude.

samgyeopsal

So there I was, sitting at a table while a woman cooked meat for just me, while most other people were sitting around talking or cleaning up. The principal, because she was hospitable, sat next to me to keep me company. She didn’t eat anything, since they had all eaten before. However, she did make up food for other people.

In Korea, when you eat barbecued meat, you take a lettuce leaf, then put a piece of meat on it, with whatever other vegetables or sauces you want, then wrap it up like a little package and eat it in one bite. The principal kept making these up for other people, who had to take them even though they were full, since you can’t say no to the principal.

Like this

Like this

After a while, most everyone else wandered off to deal with other stuff and a few women sat talking, while I kept eating. They had made a ton of meat and while it was delicious, I was getting full and felt uncomfortable sitting by myself. I kept asking others to come eat with me, but they all said they were full. I apologized to the women cooking, since they were only waiting there for me to finish. Of course, they said it was fine, since it was have been rude to say anything else. I hope it really was fine.

They had made a lot of meat and I felt obligated to eat it all or at least make a big dent in it. I didn’t eat it all and finally left, very full.

I don’t regret going, since it really was delicious meat, but thinking back it is amazing to see how the iron rails of social etiquette predestined this scenario. It could not have played out any other way without offending someone or at least breaking unwritten rules. Every culture has its own social etiquette rules, some more strict than others, but they’re there so that everything runs smoothly. Whether you like it or not, you have to follow the rules.

…Or do you? What do you think? Are there some social etiquette rules you break?


Lonely in a Crowd

Two days ago, I went on an overnight business trip. It was all top-secret government stuff (no, seriously) and they took away our cellphones and Internet access for the whole time. So, it was just me and about eighty Koreans in a remote hotel by the ocean. Everyone was friendly enough and even though I speak Korean and the people I worked with spoke English, it was still a pretty lonely time for me. It got me thinking about why.

Alone in a Crowd

Probably the loneliest I’ve ever been was one summer in high school. I had had a girlfriend in another town for a couple months but she broke up with me since we lived really far away and since I didn’t have a license, we could never see each other. Still, I liked her and when I heard she was going to a certain summer camp, I decided to go too. None of my friends were going but I had it all worked out in my head, how we’d meet up again at camp and fall in love all over again.

I arrived there and met her before too long. I said hi and she said hi, then walked away with her friend. I was crushed. Suddenly, I was stuck at a week-long camp without knowing anyone at all. They put me in a room with five guys who were all together and while they were nice, they were their own group.

What I really wanted to do was just make a break for it. I looked longingly at the outer fence. The camp was about 100 kilometres of wilderness from my town, but if I could have just made it to the woods, I would have been totally happy walking home by myself (although insanely cold and hungry). (Postscript: I met another girl there and so the last half of the week was salvaged.)

I know everyone is different, but for me, being lonely is more than just being by myself. I can travel and hike by myself for a week in Korea and be perfectly happy. The same would probably be true in Canada, the US, England, maybe even France. But if I were to go somewhere I didn’t speak the language or where the culture was very different, I would get lonely quickly. When I went to Cambodia with my cousin, I was there a day before him and while that day was pretty good, I would have gotten lonely pretty quickly if I hadn’t met up with him. Some adventures are best shared.

What makes me the most lonely is being isolated in a situation that is uncomfortable or where I am trapped. What about you? When do you get lonely?


The Last Few Seconds – Friday Fictioneers

I was quite surprised and pleased to open up Rochelle’s post today and see my picture. For the curious among you, this picture was taken in a small country school in Korea. In the two years I worked there, the enrollment ranged from 14-20 students from Grade 1-6, usually with 2-3 students per grade. Only two were from the area and the rest came from bigger cities and lived in a dorm as a sort of countryside  exchange program. The school did have a electronic bell, but it couldn’t be heard well outside, so they hung up this bell to let the kids know when recess was over.

copyright David Stewart

copyright David Stewart

The Last Few Seconds

One minute remaining.

Brent Brianson stares at the clock, willing it to go faster. His lip trembles in anticipation, like a chinchilla caught in a hurricane.

Thirty seconds.

He is doing stretches, running in place.

Ring!

Out the door he goes, shoving aside the secretary coming in. A congratulatory cake smashes to the floor, like an egg fired from a howitzer. Gravel sprays the building as Brent peels out of the parking. A distant rumble indicates that Mr. Brianson has just broken the sound barrier.

The math class stares after him, aghast.

“Mr. Brianson couldn’t wait to retire, it seems.”

(This story is also dedicated to one of my high school math teacher, Mr. Bingle, who vowed he would leave as soon as his retirement came, even if it was in the middle of class. I think he’s retired by now, so I hope he’s enjoying it.)


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