Tag Archives: Wanju

So long, So-Yeon

First of all, thank you Rochelle for choosing my picture this week. The advantage of having your own picture as the prompt is that you know the complete context. Just as Thoreau says in the quote that Rochelle always includes, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see” and in this picture, I see the lines of Korean middle school students streaming up the long drive to the middle school just out of frame (you can see the lights of the soccer field in the background.)

In a departure from my normal fantastical imaginings, this story is almost 100% true in every detail. Dangerous stuff, since it almost brought me to tears several times while writing it. But such is life. (By the way, click on the picture to see where it was taken.)

copyright David Stewart

copyright David Stewart

So long, So-Yeon

I gave them hugs in the classroom but we hug again at the door.

“We’ll miss you, teacher.”

“Don’t go.”

“I don’t want to,” I say, and mean it.

“I’ll write you every day.” I smile; it’s well meant, but won’t happen.

Last is So-yeon. She’s been that smiling, encouraging face in class ever since Grade 3. Now she’s in middle school and so grown up.

“I’ll never forget you,” she says. I wonder if it’s true, knowing it doesn’t matter.

Finally I wave and turn away, to another country and another school, leaving part of my heart in Wanju.

 


A slice of humanity on the bus

All writers should take the bus, at least every now and then. Or the subway. Really anywhere where you can observe a lot of different people up close. I take the bus almost every day and I see some interesting people.

Last Thursday, I was taking the bus out into the countryside to one of my four schools. I was sitting in the back when a mentally handicapped man and an older man got on and sat down next to me, the  handicapped one closer to me. He was interested in my book and pointed at it and gave me a thumbs up. Then he motioned to the older man and said, “He’s my dad.” This caused the older man to start laughing, so I didn’t know if he really was his father or not. I just said, “Oh, really?” “Oh, I see” and such things, since he kept saying it.

A lot of the people on the bus were older and seemed to know each other, so I felt like I was in kind of a community meeting. Then the handicapped man said, “He’s fifty” pointing to his “dad”, who started laughing even harder and said, “Yeah, I wish I were fifty again.” I really liked the older man; just a jolly sort of fellow.

A middle-aged woman came back, and saw there weren’t any seats left, so I gave her mine. Her husband was still standing up, with his backpack on. “Hey groom!” she yelled (Korean woman often call their husbands “groom”, although I’ve never heard a man call his wife “bride”). “Hey groom! It’s going to be a long ride. Take off your heavy backpack.” He took it off and put it on the floor with a grin. “That’s my groom for you,” she said. I saw other older women smiling and nodding as well. They understood.

The two men who were sitting next to me got off a few stops before me and the handicapped one gave me an awkward high-five. I smiled and said good bye. I went back and sat where they had been sitting and the woman I had given up my seat to apologized. I’m not sure why but possibly because she thought the handicapped man was bothering me. “Not a problem,” I said. “It’s okay.” And I meant it. I may never totally fit in here in Korea, but I do enjoy being a part of things anyway.

*

By the way, a few days ago, I posted something called The Mystery on the Bus, recounting another experience I had on a bus coming home from school. I asked people what they thought was going on. The first virtual high-five is for Carmelita, for the wackiest idea (I almost wish it were true), and the second is for EadesyBeadsy, for what I think is the most likely answer. Good job!

High five!

High five!


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.”


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.


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?


The Sky in Korea in Fall

I should be posting a story here, but it’s not ready. So, inspired by fellow blogger and new friend Nia’s post, I decided to share some photos I’ve taken this fall in my comings and goings. All these were taken with my phone and the nice thing about having a camera on you at all times is you can grab those perfect scenes, and then weed out all the ones that didn’t turn out as well as they look in real life. As you may know, I really like the sky and clouds. So that’s the theme of this post.

In the city in Korea, it's hard to get away from the outline of highrise apartments.

In the city in Korea, it’s hard to get away from the outline of high-rise apartments.

Sunrise, from my kitchen window.

Sunrise, from my kitchen window.

20131128_160328

20131128_161347

A man on a scooter stopped me to ask why I was taking this picture. I thought it was obvious.

A man on a scooter stopped me to ask why I was taking this picture. I thought it was obvious.

20131203_074727

My beautiful little Ajung stream, near our house.

My beautiful little Ajung stream, near our house.

 

 

 


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