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Snow Day Silliness

One thing I will never get used to about Korea (and Japan, might as well be fair) is the thoughtless adherence to bureaucratic procedure. Specifically, the fact that come hell or high water, or swine flu, or two inches of snow in this case, teachers and students alike are obligated to come to school regardless of their condition, or situation.

So two days ago, I was informed that I would not have any more classes until the end of the semester, which is next week. However, I wasn’t invited to take the time off, so I still have to go to school and twiddle my thumbs. It kind of stinks but I' expected it. I’ve been doing a few things, like lesson prep for next semester (although most of that could have been done at home anyways), and my co-teacher’s been giving me a lot of random tasks to do for her that she doesn’t have the time for, such as translating a three-page document about Korean fan dancing from Korean to English and making a PowerPoint presentation about the Korean game yutnori (I was not exactly pleased with that, since those tasks weren’t even school related, not to mention that I can’t read enough Korean to read a children’s comic book and I have no idea what yutnori is). But even after all that busy-work, it’s still a pretty big waste of time.

But the real story’s still coming. Last night it snowed maybe an inch, which is a huge deal here since apparently they usually only get half an inch at a time here. This is such an emergency that my host-father decided he didn’t want to drive to school, and that my host-sister can have the day off (since the students aren’t doing anything particularly productive right now either). To be fair, the bridge to the island is probably in somewhat treacherous shape, and I don’t imagine Mokpo has a particularly large fleet of snowplows. But – of course – I still have to go to school. Even though I have absolutely nothing to do today, I am still required to grace them with my presence. Since my host-dad isn’t going to school, I need to get a ride. But since it’s snowing, no one’s driving. So everyone’s been on the phone all morning (host-dad calls teachers, teachers call more teachers, host-dad tells me something, I call my teacher to ask in English since I can’t understand, she calls host-dad to confirm, but he’s already called some other teacher and now is waiting again) to figure out what we should do. Instead – we are going to take a taxi! So, instead of risking our lives in our own cars, we’re going to put our lives in the hands of one of Korea’s notoriously reckless, careless, near-suicidal taxi drivers and pay out the wazoo for a half-hour taxi ride to they can drive us in the conditions too hazardous to drive ourselves. That sounds like a great plan. This whole time, there’s an obvious solution: give me the day off! Literally, my whole plan for today is to mail some packages then play DS all day. But no… I’m expected to show up.

Now, if I had full teaching responsibilities and was treated on equal footing with the other teachers, I might, miiight have a sense of obligation that I must go in. But since I’m treated only a couple notches up from the cassette player in importance in terms of class responsibility, why do I have to fulfill these other meaningless obligations?

Anyways, it’s almost been an hour, so I assume the taxi will be coming any minute.

(UPDATE) A phone call later… apparently, common sense came through, and I have the day off! Unfortunately, no one bothered to actually tell me. The last thing I heard about it was half an hour ago, when my teacher called my host-dad and he told me to wait for my teacher to call me back.

(UPDATE 2): And, they didn’t tell my host dad either because he just came into my room and told me to be ready to go in ten minutes…


Well, an incident Monday kind of put a damper on my week and I’ve been struggling to crawl out from under that. And things with the host family continue to get more and more strained. I am seriously thinking about trying to find another family “to broaden my cultural experience” or whatever.

Anyways, about Monday. So, I’ve been teaching the third-years (the seniors) recently, as part of the whole thing to get me more involved at my school. Now, the seniors finished their last exams last month so they are in this odd period where they’re for all intents and purposes finished with school, but they still have about a month of class left. I know how this feeling goes since my senior year was similar, with AP exams finishing in early May and school continuing into June. I know they’re done with school, and I try to keep the lessons lighthearted to keep student interest up.

Anyways, a number of students, and by that I mean most of the boys, have simply been skipping my class. I turned a blind eye, because I didn’t really mind since to be honest, I liked it better that way. Otherwise they distract the other half of the class (the girls) who at least try to humor me (at risk of going out on a tangent, I loooove the third-grade girls. They are the complete opposite of the zombie-like narcoleptic second-graders a year behind them. They give me so much lip – “Derek, booorriiiing!” – but it’s usually in English which is more than I can say about any of my other students [aside from a gaggle of second-year fishery student girls who are equally sassy]). But anyways, the other English teachers got wise to this whole skipping thing and cracked down and so now the boys have had to come to class. Now, just like my second-years in the same ‘track’, it’s an eclectic mix of the best college-bound students and the worst students who flunked out of the fishery trade school. It didn’t take long for me to pick out the flunkies and I purposely try to keep out of their hair, since I know they don’t give a flying erm, football about learning English. But I felt guilty completely ignoring them.

So on Monday we were doing a pretty low-impact warm-up worksheet and even the boys were playing along for the most part. Only this one guy in the back corner, Mr. Too-cool-for-school who reeks of cigarette smoke, isn’t trying, so while the other students were doing the worksheet, I stopped by him and quietly tried to persuade him to at least humor me by answering even one of the questions. At first he just sort of stared into space, so I pressed a little further, pulling up a chair and asking him the question verbally. The guy just snapped. He shouted what I can only presume was some horrible curse in Korean, slammed his hands on the desk, wrinkled up the worksheet and hurled it across the room, violently stood up with a crash and stormed out of the classroom, slamming the door loudly behind him. The whole class turned to look back in the corner, where I awkwardly sat next to Mr. Cool’s empty desk. I was completely flabbergasted, completely at a loss for words and struggling with all my might just to maintain my composure. I managed to limp through the class, but the incident really took the wind out of my sails in regards to the third-grade class, which until then was the highlight of my day. Tuesday’s class was terrible because I was so caught up in feeling like crap that I brought down the mood of the entire class. So today I mentally pumped myself up by telling myself that Mr. Cool can go screw himself and basically throwing in the towel in regards to the boys. So while I did feel a twinge of guilt about completely ignoring the boys, I actually enjoyed the class a lot more without the pressure of worrying about what they thought of me. All’s well that ends well, right?

Okay, so now for awkward moment two of the week. So, things keep getting more and more strange with my host family. I haven’t had dinner with the family since Sunday. Instead, I’ve been served a dinner of kimchi jjigae and rice alone at the table while the host-mother is obviously cooking something else for the family. In fact on Sunday, they were even eating another dinner, some sort of dumpling soup, while I was eating the hated kimchi jjigae. But that’s not the point of the story. So today, I finished my dinner, without using my spoon (I picked all the bits from the kimchi jjigae with my chopsticks then drank the broth) so after I brought my dishes to the sink, I put the clean, unused spoon back in the rack of spoons. My host mother saw this and let out an exasperated sigh. Unable to pick out my spoon from the rest (because they’re ALL CLEAN!!!) she took ~all~ the spoons and chopsticks out of the rack and proceeded to wash them all, while waving me away and telling me to go back to my room. So completely absurd.

To be completely honest, sometimes I expect to go to bed and wake up back in my cozy apartment back at University of Rochester and find that this was all some extended surreal dream. And sometimes, I wouldn’t be disappointed if that were the case.

Which, of course, is a shame, because I honestly do like a lot of the kids, like (all nicknames) Cookie, G-1 the vigilant sweeper of the gyomushil, ‘Boyfriend,’ Ka-byung aka Gollum, the girl whose name I wrote in Chinese characters as “soju machine,” and pretty much all the other first-year students, the girl and the guy from class 2-1 who both make funny faces at me during class when I’m just sitting there doing nothing, their classmate the leader of the Students’ Liberation Movement who I cannot figure out at all, the group of spunky second-year fishery student girls who I referred to as the ‘bimbettes’ to my friends until I realized that behind all that makeup and hair products they were actually the best students of the lot and to whom I now extend an equally-veiled apology, all the special-needs kids with whom I play UNO with, and all my third-grade girls who are the only ones in the school who are both willing and able to speak in English to me beyond “give me candy!” I love you all and you’re the only reason I roll out of bed sometimes, but sometimes it’s just not enough to balance the general ridiculousness that stresses me out. I’ve been getting eight hours of sleep a day pretty routinely and I still have continuous bags under my eyes from the toll this is taking on me. And the barber thought I was losing so much hair that he treated me with ‘hair Viagra.’ On the plus side, I’ve probably lost around seven pounds…


More miscommunication ensued this morning. All my fault, technically, so I’ll try to be fair about it, although this’ll most likely come out heavily biased towards my perspective.

So, I actually have a rather nice arrangement, in that I have my own apartment above my host family’s, complete with kitchenette and private bathroom and a spacious double bed. Unfortunately, this means I’m a little distant from the family life. Each apartment has a locking mechanism, and my family never deemed it appropriate to tell me the number to their apartment. Now, one thing my apartment doesn’t have is a water purifier, and since Korean tap water is apparently non-potable, and since I try to drink around two liters of water daily, I found myself continually knocking in their door to let myself in to refill my water bottles. Especially during the summer months, I had to do this two or three times a day. Finally, the family gave me a remote control to the door and said, ‘any time you want water or anything else, just use this to let yourself in’. And so every time I wanted water or needed to get in for a meal, I used the remote control.

Sometime later, my host mother decided that I should do my own laundry (which is how I had wanted to do it since the beginning) and so she said ‘from now on, just let yourself in with the remote and do your laundry whenever it’s convenient for you’. However, in practice, many times when I went to do laundry, I’d be told to wait for some strange reason or another, so I took to doing laundry late on Sunday mornings, when my devoutly Christian host family was at church, as to avoid the excuses. Usually only my high-school aged host-sister was home at that time, meeting with her private tutor.

So today it’s laundry day again, and I wait until around eleven o’clock and then slink down to the third floor with my laundry hamper and the remote control, and my water bottle, which needs topping off. I don’t hear anything going on so I use the remote control to open the door and stick my head in. I didn’t see anyone home, the shoes seemed to be gone, and the lights were out. I don’t see my host-sister so I figure she must’ve gone to church too. Now, I probably should’ve said, ‘hello?’ just to make sure, which is entirely my fault, but I assumed that everyone was gone, so I went in, tossed my laundry in, filled up my water bottle, and retreated back to my room.

An hour later, I hear someone let themselves into the third floor, and shortly afterwards, my host mother comes up, carrying an electric blanket for my bed. After putting the blanket on my bed, she says something to my in Korean and asks for the remote control, which I hand over. I’m a bit puzzled but I figure I must’ve done something wrong so I go back downstairs, knock on the door and get let in. I figure she saw that my laundry was in the machine and was upset that I had come in when nobody was home. I don’t see how that’s a hugely terrible thing, but I figure I should make sure we’re all on the same page. In fumbling Korean, I ask if coming in wasn’t appropriate.

Well, it turns out that in fact, that my host-mother and host-sister were in fact home, and that my host-sister was sleeping in the living room, just out of sight from the doorway and the laundry machine. Something about underwear, too, so I think she was sleeping in her underwear. Apparently my entrance this morning gave them a scare since I didn’t knock (another bad assumption on my part – when unlocked, the door latch makes a rather loud warning beep and the latch mechanism itself is pretty loud, so I always figure that’s a herald enough). So I apologized, and I would’ve said that I wouldn’t do it again, but since I now once again have no remote control, it obviously won’t be happening again. Anyways they said they weren’t angry, but they did keep the remote, so I assume they were somewhat peeved.

So, lesson of the day: to assume really does make an ass out of you and me. But mostly me.

Now, just to be fair, the host family lets themselves into my room all the time, whether I’m home or not. I feel that it’s a bit rude to lock the door to my room, so usually I leave it unlocked unless I’m indecent. And of course the family knows the outside locking combination to my apartment. So my family just barges into my bedroom whenever, which is apparently Korean custom. At night when I’m in bed, eight o’clock in the morning when I’m only half-awake, during the day when I’m at school, whenever. My eleven-year-old host-sister once said, “you sleep like this!” and splayed her limbs out in all directions, so I assume they’ve even come in while I’ve been sleeping (which is disconcerting, since at that time it was still hot and I was sleeping in boxers without any sort of sheet covering me). Once, I forgot to lock my door while I was showering and I my host father started coming in while I was wearing nothing but my birthday suit and I had to stumble over and slam the door shut just as it started to open. Just last weekend, my host dad scared the crap out of me when he swung my door open at around eleven at night after his Bible study meeting in the room next door, apparently to let me say hello to his church friends. I had just fallen asleep and I probably jumped a foot out of bed. So I always assumed this free coming and going worked both ways. But I guess not.


Saw this in the news today:



Admittedly, I don’t know much about official conduct during international diplomatic relationships (though maybe I should know a bit more, considering my current position?), but just the way the article spun the whole issue made me want to rant and rave. I could go on and on about how ignorant and slanted the whole piece is but ‘joe’s’ comment on the article pretty much sums up my feelings:


“so what? George Bush held hands with and kissed the Saudi king when he was president. it's really not that unusual for people in public office to observe the cultures of other people these days. as for me, it's always been my policy to respect the cultures of countries i visit.

bowing is actually a common social gesture in most parts of Asia. that's just how they formally greet each other in Japan. the writer of this article seems to be confused with respect/courtesy and submission. Asians actually differentiate between the two clearly. when one wants to submit himself to another person, he goes down on his knees and spreads his arm unto the ground (an act called kowtowing).

and what's up with the fact that 3/4 of this article is dedicated to Hirohito? the whole thing seems completely tangential, unless the writer is trying to argue that Obama shouldn't pay his respects to the current Japanese emperor because of what the last emperor did. i'm not going to argue this one, but to me, it just seems like a cheap shot.

such bigotry is a pet peeve for me. seriously, i can't believe whoever wrote this would have the effrontery to write such an article (let alone dedicate hours of his time rambling about such a small thing). just get over it. if you want to attack Obama, there's so many other things to write about.”

The story of my life… (so far)

I know I haven’t been really good at updating this blog, and I apologize. My first rule about this blog is absolutely no whining, which I interpret to mean any negative ranting that’s written without the proper distance or unbiased perspective. And frankly, I haven’t been having the greatest time here. This does not mean that I think negatively about the program or any of the people involved. It’s just simply that a certain combination of miscommunications and unmet expectations came together just so. This all culminated in the hell that was last week. I think all parties involved lost more than a little face, but in the end I think we managed to work things out. Now that I think things are improving, I wanted to try to elucidate what happened and how it all went down.

First, let me give a brief overview of my school situation. As an intern of this particular program, my role in the classroom is slightly different than that of the normal bloke that came here on EPIK or whatnot. Although the role is flexible, generally speaking, most interns on this program are treated as normal staff members. Usually they are expected to design their own curriculum, they run their own classes and sometimes even have their own classrooms. We are expected to teach English conversation, which is usually a distinct class from English grammar class, which is taught by the Korean English staff.

However, this is the first year for my school to host a member of this program, and wires were somehow severely crossed between my program, my school and my home stay (more on that in a moment) and my school just didn’t realize what my role was supposed to be. I’ll admit that I might have contributed to this confusion early on in trying to accommodate the school, when perhaps I could have been more forceful in demanding certain things. Anyways, the school ended up making me very much an ‘assistant’ teacher, sitting in as second banana on the normal English class. As it played out, the teachers rarely used me at all, and sometimes I would spend entire class periods just sitting silently in the corner. Why this was, I do not know – I can speculate that the teachers felt intimidated by my English ability, confused as to how to utilize me, felt that it was easier to conduct the class in Korean, or simply wanted to do things their way. I still have no idea why.

After subtle attempts to change things didn’t work out (eg “Hey teacher, I’d love to do more to help you in class” *hint hint nudge nudge*) I wrote the English teachers a long letter asking for a chance to become more involved in class, hoping that a letter might get through to them better, as I feel that they understand only perhaps 70% of what I say to them at any given moment, even when I’m speaking in the simplest terms that I can muster. They both read the letter and although they said they’d try to help me as much as possible, in terms of teaching independently, that it was “impossible”. At this point I felt not only bored and frustrated, but almost guilty that I was being paid to do such a minimal amount of work.

I was pretty sure that my situation was not at all what is should be, but I waited until our fall teaching conference before taking it to the program directors, because I wanted to compare my situation to all the other interns’ and make sure that I wasn’t blowing things out of proportion. After listening to other people discuss their situation, I decided that I should say something to the program. I brought up the issue privately and tried to give an honest but complete picture of my situation. The program assistant said it was definitely something to be looked into.

A few weeks later, the program called my co-teacher and discussed the matter. That weekend, she took me out to dinner and apologized to me profusely, but she also said, ‘next time you have a problem, please bring it to me’ – I had apparently embarrassed and insulted her by telling the program about my problems. I tried to explain that I had brought the matter up with her, only to be told that it was impossible. I also tried to explain that I do not only work for her, I work for the program too and so I have two inter-related but somewhat independent chains of command: the school hierarchy, and the program hierarchy. But the damage was already done in terms of hurt feelings. She proposed all sorts of radical changes that she wanted to implement immediately starting the next week, but I convinced her that it might be better to hold off on such changes, and that my primary goal was to make sure that next semester’s situation would be more in line with what a typical intern’s job is.

Just as this scab was healing, another major problem erupted, this time with my host family. Feelings were already kind of cool between us. I feel like I was a huge disappointment for them, since apparently they had been told that they were getting a female intern (they have three daughters). Compounding this, I refused to attend church with them regularly, citing my beliefs, but I think they took it as an insult. To make matters worse, communication is nearly impossible since the only member of the family that speaks serviceable English is the eldest daughter, who is usually away at university. Anyways, early on I did express interest in volunteering at the orphanage near my school, because I had befriended some of the special-needs orphan children at school. My host father is somehow involved in the orphanage and said that he’d look into the matter.

A few weeks later, he randomly asked me (in Korean), “can you get English elementary-school books?” I said, ‘yes’ meaning “yes, it’s possible.” Then he said, “can you download them?” I thought hard and said, ‘yes.’ Then he said, “do you make a lesson plan?” I assumed he was asking about my situation at school and I said “oh, yes.” Then he said, “okay, good, you can teach these children, okay?” I asked, “What children?” and he told me “orphanage children.” Although I wasn’t too keen on the idea of teaching after-hours, I did want to get involved in the orphanage, so I gave a hesitant confirmation.

The matter didn’t come up again for a while, then again randomly my host father brought it up while we were riding in the car, saying “if you teach these kids, we will give you a little money.” Now, taking money for private tutoring is highly illegal under most Korean work visas, and most Koreans know this, but they also know that most foreigners will do it anyways while the law usually looks the other way. However, as a special intern I am basically a US government employee, and for me, getting caught doing illegal tutoring would have much more negative ramifications not only on me but on the program I am going though, than if the average joe blow hagwon teacher got caught doing the same. I reiterated that under no circumstances could I get paid, but I’d be up for volunteering.

So I met the kids once, and the first thing I noticed was that they were not orphans. They were the friends of his church buddies. Two boys were the sons of the family that runs the orphanage, so there was a grain of truth to host dad’s statement, but I was turning skeptical. But my host dad seemed happy that I was teaching them, so I played along, deciding that it was a good chance to break bread with the host family. Then swine flu broke out at the orphanage and I didn’t see them for about two weeks.

So early last week, my host dad says the meetings are back on. As we drive to the orphanage (where we hold the meetings, which is kind of ironic, since the kids I actually want to be teaching are less than a hundred meters away) my host dad begins telling me his grand plans for my teaching. He says (again, in Korean) “Oh, Derek, you will teach these children English and you must make them study very hard so that they can speak well, and when you go back to America, they will call you and thank you! And if this goes well, maybe you can also meet with some middle-schoolers and high-schoolers!” Now I’m in full panic mode, because these kids are just crazy rugrats who don’t give a rat’s ass about learning English, and I can barely keep them in their seats, and my host dad expects me to turn them fluent. His own daughters study English 24/7, even going to study academies for English during school breaks, and they are much older than these kids and even they struggle to put three English words together (my host-sister: “GO! YOUR ROOM! NOW!”), and I am supposed to turn these kids fluent?!

So I meet the kids, I do my thing, okay, I think, done for this week. Wrong. Next day, we go back again to meet the kids. So I ask my host dad tentatively, how many times a week were you thinking of meeting these kids?” and he says, “I know you meet your friends on Wednesday, so how about four times a week?” and at this point I am just speechless. I am flabbergasted, afraid, and angry. Afraid to offend my host dad by refusing, and angry because I get the feeling that he’s just using me for English lessons for his buddies, which is a high-demand service that he’s trying to sucker me into doing for free. Above all, though, I am kind of intimidated by my host father, and I didn’t want to offend him, but I couldn’t think of anything to say in Korean besides simply “that’s impossible” which I feared might offend him, since obviously this whole thing is a huge series of misunderstandings. I just wanted to extricate myself from this situation in the most painless way possible without hurting anyone’s feelings. Korean culture still baffles me and I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes.

Not knowing what to do, I asked my co-teacher for advice the next day. She’s not the best with keeping things confidential, which I should’ve learned before (“HEY EVERYONE, DEREK JUST CLOGGED A TOILET!” and “HEY EVERYONE, DEREK DOESN’T WANT TO GO TO TONIGHT’S TEACHER DINNER BECAUSE HE FINDS IT AWKWARD!” come to mind) but I had no one else to turn to. I simply asked her for advice on how to solve the situation, but she got worried about me, and told the other English teacher, who, also simply looking out for my best interests and no doubt shocked by my co-teachers elaborations upon the situation, took it upon himself to call my host father and demand that I not be forced to teach four times a week pro bono. My host dad replied that he was simply suggesting four times a week, and that he fully intended to pay me. Apparently my earlier conversation with him about financial affairs and student loans had motivated him to seek out some extra employment for me. My English teacher told me this, and I said that while I appreciated the though, there’s no way I can get paid due to the aforementioned circumstances, and that I found four days a week for free a bit excessive, which the English teacher then related to my host father.

I didn’t see my host father that night but the next day I felt that maybe I should apologize, because of the inconvenience. So on the way to school, I said, “sorry about that, yesterday” and he went off on me. He was furious. As a member of the PTA, apparently being called by a teacher was a real humiliation for him and he’s not in the mood for forgiveness. He was pretty much yelling at me for ten minutes, essentially saying “what the hell did you tell everyone for? When you have something to say, say it to my face!” Since I can’t explain myself in Korean, I just had to sit and take it. Along with all the stress of everything else, I just couldn’t take it. At that moment, I felt that this entire experience had been a complete waste of everyone’s time and that all I had managed to do in my time here was inadvertently embarrass, insult and disappoint everyone here. I barely kept myself together until I got to school, where I ran to the bathroom and just completely let loose. I just wanted to get the hell out of this country and never ever ever ever come back ever again.

Oh, and did I mention that this is happening on November 6th, the Friday before my birthday? So my co-teacher sent the male English teacher to tell me to come eat some cake, and instead he found me curled up on the bathroom floor wiping tears and snot from my face and sobbing hysterically all while barely restraining myself from smashing everything in sight and screaming like a wild ape. Sputtering, I tried my best to explain why I was putting on such a show without it coming out as a long series of four-letter expletives and their various derivatives. Anyways, this pitiful display apparently scared the bejeezus out of everyone, because after a few more phone calls, everyone was ready to forget the whole ordeal and put everything behind them. Not exactly my intention (to the extent that a mental breakdown can have intention), but I couldn’t complain. That night my host family and I had a chance to air our grievances or whatnot and I tried my best to explain why I had done what I did and how it all got blown out of proportion through confusion and miscommunication. In turn, my host father explained his side of the story, and also told me that he was frustrated because I never voice a preference for anything, eg the food. I explained that I was just trying to be accommodating, and that I’m usually a pretty laid-back individual in general (and, I didn’t tell him, I actually do feel kind of lukewarm when it comes to the host family’s cooking). We all agreed to reset ourselves and begin again.

So, where do we go from here? We’re still figuring things out, I think. I agreed to do one session a week with my host father’s church children. Starting next week, once the third-years finish their SAT exams I am teaching them independently. And I’m trying harder to express myself with the host family. I think there’s still a long way to go and I’m sure this is just the first hiccup we’ll face, but hopefully we can work from here for a better situation all around.

A silly gripe

Korea University is the ‘K’ of SKY, the elite triumvirate of higher education in Korea, akin to what the Ivy League is for Americans, or at least what it was a couple of decades ago. This prestigious university is the oldest institution of higher education in Korea and has research partnerships with institutions worldwide. Enrollment at Korea University is a coveted honor that guarantees graduates a promising career. Alumni include former prime ministers, CEOs and chairmen of various prestigious companies, Olympic athletes, actors, the current president and even Miss Koreas. Is there anything that this great paragon of Korean success cannot do? Why, yes, and that is design highlighters.

Here is a picture of the highlighter I received from Korea University during attendance of one of their Korean language programs. Looks pretty spiffy, right? Cool angular quadrilateral shape, elitist logo, and even dual tips in both yellow and pink!


But once the cap comes off, the problem becomes visible…


If you still can’t spot the problem, let me help you:

IMG_3352 copy

That’s right, the body of the pen extends beyond the chisel tip! This makes highlighting text that’s bigger than pt 4 font near-impossible with a single stroke. One has to resort to either repetitive scribbling or paper-contorting to get a full highlighter swipe. What were the designers thinking?! I thought that this might be a random assembly fluke with my highlighter, but upon asking around amongst my classmates, I have come to the conclusion that they all suffer this flaw – which means that this gross lack of functionality is inherent in the pen’s design! I’m not sure this is the best advertisement for a research university…

The work begins… next week

Well, I’m safe and sound at my homestay. I’ve found out that school begins next Monday, so I have some free time to settle in, spend time with the family and brainstorm some lesson plans before the big debut.

I think I’m getting along okay with the host family so far. I think they were surprised that I was a man, because the principal was under the impression that he was getting a female intern, and I assume that might have been a factor in selecting a homestay with three daughters. The father runs a jewelry store, and the family lives on the third floor of the building. He’s the head of the PTA and his second daughter goes to my school, so I’ll be commuting to school with her once classes begin. The parents don’t speak any English, but the youngest daughter speaks enough to help me do things like shopping and getting around the house. Today we went shopping together and I bought the family a second wiimote so that we can play Mario Kart together. I haven’t met the other daughters yet since they’re in Seoul studying at a hagwon right now, but they’re coming home tomorrow night. The youngest daughter says that her sisters’ English is even better, so hopefully the middle sister can help smooth out the lingering miscommunication throughout the year (the eldest apparently goes to school out of town).

For the time being I’m staying in the youngest daughter’s room and she’s sleeping with the parents, but apparently I am going to get my own apartment on the fourth floor. Unfortunately there was some confusion about my arrival time, so the fourth floor isn’t finished. I can hear the workers going at it as I write this. I was shown around when I arrived and once it’s completed it looks like I’ll have a pretty large room to myself, as well as a kitchenette which may be shared with the common room next door that’s to house my host father’s church group meetings.

Yes, you heard it right; unfortunately the one host family request that I made wasn’t honored, and so I’m living with a religious family. It hasn’t amounted to much except some awkward conversation about why I am not religious, but I’ll have to see how they take it when I try to worm my way out of six-hour marathon Korean church services every Sunday. Although I don’t feel like partaking in the religious pomp, I wouldn’t mind helping my host father out with his other altruistic ventures. Apparently he is heavily involved with the local orphanage, which is located on the same island as my school, and I’d like to get involved with that, since, as my host father told me, it’s where I came from, in a sense. Also, I think he was trying to tell me that a number of my students are orphans, so that’s all the more reason to get involved.

Anyways, I’m off for now. I’ll update as things happen. I guess we’re going phone-shopping once my host-sister gets back from her computer lesson.

To Seoul!

We leave for Seoul tomorrow! Today we had our graduation ceremony from our Korean language class, which was the last real hurdle in orientation. Tonight we’re all busy packing, and tomorrow we leave for Seoul for the weekend before being whisked away to our corner of Korea on Monday.

Thankfully I “passed” Korean language class, although it is somewhat of a hollow victory; shortly before the final exam on Monday the orientation leader felt a need to squelch the rumors and definitively stated that no one has ever been asked to leave the program due to failing Korean class and that we would all end up passing. The exam was nothing out of the ordinary, although I have a feeling that I did rather poorly overall. The test was divided into four segments, a multiple-choice reading section, a free-response writing section, and two speaking sections, an improvisational role-play with a classmate and an interview with the teacher, both to be about ten minutes long. The reading and writing parts were nothing out of the ordinary, and I felt that I did mediocre, as expected. As I was reviewing for the final, I realized that most of my mistakes on the weekly exams were simply due to lack of vocabulary (rather than inability to translate the grammar), and so it was on the final exam as well.

Embarrassingly, my partner and I made the ‘minor’ mistake of reversing roles during the role-play since we misinterpreted our prompts, which were given in Korean. I was to invite my partner on a date with my friend, although I couldn’t personally attend. Unfortunately, it was phrased, “you are to receive an invitation from your friend to meet (her) friend Young-jin, but you cannot attend” but since I didn’t know the word ‘to receive’ I interpreted it as “you are to give an invitation to you friend to meet (your) friend Young-jin, but you cannot attend”. My partner made the same mistake in reverse, and so we did the scene completely backwards. Oops.

Even after the test, I was still stressed out over Korean language class. Every class had to give a small performance for the other interns, the language staff and the program director, and our class had been assigned the first slot. Our class decided to do a comedic musical routine, in which a hapless Korean teacher (played by me) struggled to deal with a class that only responded to him by quoting Korean pop songs. I grabbed the teacher role since I didn’t want to sing, but as the teacher, I had to speak the most Korean during the skit (many of the songs we used had English lyrics) so both my classmates and my teachers were worried about my ability, since I’m known as the class mumbler. In the end it wasn’t too bad; at times I surprise myself at how much I’ve gotten over my fear of public speaking. It seems that once I walk up on the stage or to the front of the class, I suddenly flip a switch and slip right into teacher mode. I’m usually pretty quiet around the other interns so I think that I genuinely surprised a few people once I jumped up on stage and started my little routine. Anyways, in the end our skit wasn’t as funny as it sounded on paper, but we all survived. Some of the beginner class skits were really creative and well-done, and I felt somewhat shamed since we were supposed to be more advanced than them and I felt we could’ve done better.

Looking forward, it looks like I’m going to be pretty busy this coming weekend. On Saturday I’m supposed to meet my birth family, and then on Sunday I somehow have to meet with three friends. I’m not sure how they’d feel if I invited them all to lunch together, since they don’t know each other and we don’t all share a mutual language (they all speak Korean, of course, but I don’t). Unfortunately I didn’t secure anyone to help translate on Saturday since my friends are all busy, so I’ll have to do my best on my own. I think I can manage the basics, such as going to lunch, etc. It’ll be good to see my birth family again and I’ll get an honest-to-goodness practical test in Korean.

Finally, I want to remark that I realize that this blog is a little shallow, and I apologize for the high degree of censorship, the lack of any critical insights and the lack of photographs. We’ve been warned repeatedly by the program that if we are keeping public blogs, it’d be in our best interest to excise any specific reference to the program we’re in, lest we blog about anything that would cast the program in a bad light. As an extension to that, I’ve made a conscious decision to limit references to any specific people or places that might allow someone to connect this blog to any specific program. This includes photographs (that, and I keep forgetting to bring my camera to the various places we’ve gone). I am also trying very hard not to turn this into a giant rant where I complain about my trip and gossip about other interns. Of course, I have a lot of complaints and gossip that I’d love to share, but I don’t feel that it’s appropriate. Unless something especially significant directly affects me, I don’t want to share it here.

So, sadly, what is left is a somewhat generic, diluted narrative.

Island Life!

Well, the big news of the day is – we got our placements! Starting later this month, I will be teaching at a co-educational public high school! And there’s more – it’s on an island! There were a lot of 2009 interns assigned to the province with me, but I’m the only one to be placed on an island. Thankfully the island is quite close to the mainland, and from a glance on Google Maps it appears that a bridge to the mainland was under construction and may be completed by now, so I will have a way to escape the island life if I need to. The whole area is sprinkled with islands with various interesting sights on them, so as soon as I can I’d like to go exploring. A former intern told me that one of the world’s largest natural salt flats is in the area on a neighboring island. I guess I better save up for a powerboat!

In adherence to the unspoken rule of this blog, that is to avoid disclosing and specific details concerning incidental people and places, I don’t want to give out any information about the name of the school or its exact location. I will say that it is in the south-west region, a good distance from both Seoul and Busan, although Gwangju, the third member of Korean’s metropolitan triumvirate, is relatively close.

The school I’ve been assigned to is extremely small – 155 students for a total of 6 classes – which means I will actually be relatively busy, since I’ll probably be meeting each class a couple times a week and therefore I’ll need more lessons than a teacher at a larger school who can recycle lessons more often (it really is true, that most of the job is done outside of the classroom). I will also be the first intern to teach at the school, so I have both a big responsibility and a big honor – and a larger amount of leeway, since I won’t be following in another’s footsteps.

I don’t have any information about how I’ll be getting there, or when I begin, or what my host family will be like, but I will post updates as I find out!

whine whine whine

I’ve been elected class captain (banjang) – yay! Actually, it’s only because everyone else dodged the responsibility and as the only male in the room, I was immediately flagged as the scapegoat. My class – including the teacher – loves to single me out. So, now I’m technically in charge of telling people to return to class on time after breaks, cleaning up any rubbish left behind, and otherwise “helping the teacher as much as I can”. Realistically, it’s nothing more than a way for my classmates to ridicule me, and thus one more excuse for me to rip on my classmates in retaliation at any chance I get, and I don’t have any reservations about doing so.

Speaking of language class, my Korean language grade continues its downward spiral, which is definitely taking a toll on my morale. I was the only student with only one semester of Korean class to be placed in the intermediate class, and my classmates all have at least one year of Korean language class experience, some twice that. If the tests were solely taken from the textbook grammar and vocabulary, I’d be fine. However, more often than not, the tests include grammar and vocabulary that intermediate students ‘should’ be familiar with, which means that in the end, no matter how hard I study – and study I do – I still end up doing poorly since I can’t interpret some of the questions. I’ve talked with the teachers about moving into beginner but they always laugh it off – I think that they think I’m joking, since translated to English, my plea sounds like “beginner, PLEEEEEEEEEASEE!!!”

Because of this, I am continually spending nights in “Orientation-Coordinator-led extra supervised study time” (NOT ‘detention’! as the OCs reminded us) which means sitting in the office with all the other failing students, more often than not on the floor jammed into a corner balancing the book in my lap and hoping my feet don’t smell too much. I feel kind of bad about the ‘it’s not detention!’ thing since as far as I can tell, I started that whole thing, in jest. I remember people asking me “why do you always call it detention?” and then after a few days, telling me “man, it really is detention!” and now everyone calls it detention. So now I’m on a equally sarcastic crusade to reverse the damage by continually reminding everyone that it’s not to be referred to as ‘detention’ (even though it is for all intents and purposes). The coordinator’s logic was something like this: it’s not detention because it’s something you brought on yourself by doing poorly on tests. However, isn’t that exactly what detention is – a corrective and/or punitive measure inflicted due to failure to meet expectations? Anyways, I could rant for pages about the shaky logic behind a lot of the recent policies concerning extra study time and the execution of other measures taken against those with low scores, but I made a promise not to rant here. Suffice to say, we are definitely not a party group and most of us in detention are putting in the hours, and in my humble opinion, a reevaluation of the testing and grading procedures might better remedy this situation (that being that a good number of us are below the 70% cutoff).

Besides class, things are going okay. My first lesson – a debate on school uniforms – tanked, though my observing counselor said that it wasn’t entirely my fault. She told me that I did quite well for a first time, and that my lesson plan wasn’t inherently bad – however it wasn’t suited for the particular situation, and so it didn’t quite go over as well as it could have in another setting. I decided to do a simple poetry lesson the second time around, which would allow me to maintain greater control over the classroom, since the activities wouldn’t hinge upon student input and participation. I taught that lesson today, and I felt a lot more positive about it, although I was rated a bit lower by my observing counselor. I assumed the students already knew about rhyming and syllables, and most did, though a few struggled so I was marked down for failing to adequately explain those points (although at times it was adorable, and downright hilarious – one girl, apparently exasperated, filled in as rhyming words ‘milk’ and ‘book’, and ‘goods’ and ‘chess’. One of the boys rhymed ‘hamburger’ with ‘cheeseburger’ and another brought in yesterday’s Halloween theme into today’s Valentine’s Day theme by rhyming ‘coffee’ with ‘mummy’). I was also marked down for being low-energy, although I thought I did an excellent job faking enthusiasm given the circumstances – this morning was a Korean language exam, which I failed horribly, even after devoting my entire weekend to studying.

Well, I was told the first week by an OC that orientation only gets better as it goes by, but for me, it seems to be getting, if not worse, the definitely more frustrating. Teaching is getting better, which is good, since that’s the primary reason I’m here. But my struggle with intensive Korean language class is really wearying at points. A couple of times I’ve actually wanted to just cry, I was so discouraged. We have a speech exam on Friday, which I’m dreading, so I’ll let everyone know how that goes.

PS I do make time to go do things besides teaching and studying, but I can’t figure out how to make a story about eating fried chicken and drinking beer sound entertaining. Although let it be known that American-style foods such as chicken are a welcome break here. We ordered pizza last night – oh my goodness, it was heaven, and it wasn’t even good pizza. I even drink milk here – anything to break the monotony of rice, kimchi and rather unappealing fish.