The colors might not be blue and gold, but what it lacks in accuracy she makes up for in cuteness.
It took the third grade teacher at least a minute to get this shot with my cellphone. The special attention this young Bruins fan was getting for the picture was unacceptable to the other munchkins, who proceeded to variously dive, tumble, and bounce in front of her all at once.
While I’ve seen UCLA gear all over the place (even some Bruins underwear), I have yet to see one piece of U$C anything in Korea. This country does have something going for it after all.
Archive for the 'Korea Is Weird' Category
I love lying to children.
Probably, in this way, I am taking after my father. Lord knows all the ridiculous things he managed to convince me of as a child. (I still sometimes wonder if he was really lying about the origins of Cheetos…)
My most common lies, being answers to the most common questions, are that I am 83 years old (some clever munckins eventually figure that one out), and that I have seven girlfriends, five wives, 17 children, and 50-odd grandchildren. Generally, past 4th grade, none of these are believed. Of living in a tree house in the mountains I can sometimes convince even 5th graders.
Last Sunday afternoon, on my way home from some good times hiking, socializing, and singing in Donghae, I stopped off at the Gohan city market (read market in the traditional sense of old ladies with little booths selling foodstuffs) to get some fruit and vegetables. On my way out, I ran into several hordes of schoolchildren, who all proceeded to bombard me. I am quite a celebrity, I’ll have you know. Ever curious, they demanded to know the nature of my recent purchases. Before I had a chance to respond, one of them grabbed the bottom of the black plastic bag in which I had two sizable heads of broccoli. With a lost look he demanded what it was he was feeling. Without a moment’s hesitation, it was obvious that the answer was monkey brains.
Now, this boy, a third year elementary schooler, I could expect to believe it. (Especially as no self-respecting man would buy himself vegetables in this country!) With a gasp and a step back he proclaimed to the 20 or so other students nearby that I really had monkey brains in a bag. A few ninth grade boys and girls were standing near enough to cop some feels of the bag before I managed to put it into my backpack. With shocked expressions they inquired if it was true. I said, of course. Monkey brains make me smarter. Where did I buy them? Well, since they’re illegal I certainly could not disclose my source! One girl invited herself to my house to eat some with me. I politely declined and was on my way.
Now, the next day, at the boys’ middle school, pretty much the whole school was very curious about my unique delicacy. And they weren’t joking. At that point it dawned on me that not even had the munchkins believed me, but a number of very intelligent fourteen year-olds too. Surely this can’t be a case of blind gullibility!
No, I’m sure it’s not. What it is, you see, is that in Korea people routinely eat really, really gross things. Whether it’s thought to be “good for man” (like eel; real imaginative that one) or just plain delicious (mm… larvae, worms, and river frogs), no small animal is too gross for the Korean palate. Monkey brains, I suppose, may be even less a stretch of the imagination than broccoli.
In other news, I’m going to North Korea in June.
For a month this winter, I was working at the brand-new, ₩400,000,000 (~US$400,000) Jeongseon English Experience Center (JEEC).
The concept of vacation, to many Koreans, ends up often just meaning a time when you can force your children to study something that’s just not their regular classes. Many kids barely get a day of vacation until University. One popular ‘vacation’ activity is English camp, and since many school districts have foreign teachers who are getting paid salaries whether school is in session or not, the labor for said camps is often very available.
Most people, when assigned to teach a winter “camp”, are given a classroom and told to prepare a week or so’s worth of three hours a day lessons and activities. A few of us here in Jeongseon County, however, had the privilege of teaching our camp in our very own brand-new English village. There’s a number of said English villages here in Korea, on very different scales, but all with a similar set-up. Most, if not all, are actually designed and built by the same company. Each is essentially a building (or several buildings for the larger ones) with a series of themed booths constructed to resemble places one might go as a traveler in North America. JEEC has eight booths:
the East Bank,
the North Post Office,
the Empire Hotel,
the French Fresh Food Restaurant,
the E-cent Shopping Center,
and the Main Street / Virtual Reality Station.
The “Virtual Reality Station” is an excellent example of what’s not quite right about JEEC (and, indeed, many other things in Korea). It’s called the “Virtual Reality Station” because there is a giant, rear-projection screen and a little stage area with seats around it. Intended to be projected onto this screen is a virtual city with extra areas not included in the actual center, such as an office building and a subway station. One can use a wireless Playstation style controller to walk around the virtual North American city (in first person perspective but unfortunately with no gun), theoretically going up to the digital white folk milling about and talking to them. To talk to them, however, requires real people to pretend to be their voices. Needless to say, this is stupid and we haven’t used it once. What we did use everyday, however, was the computer on which that program was intended to run. On it we showed PowerPoints with dialogs, vocabulary, and photographs in order to prepare the students for role playing in the various booths. Now that’s all well and good, and in fact the rear-projection screen allowed us to use dry-erase markers directly on the display, so it made for a nice setup. Annoyingly, the crappy software for the wireless game controller wasn’t smart enough to control PowerPoint, and despite the heaps and heaps of money and attention spent on building the place, once we were actually running it our requests for a wireless mouse and keyboard went unheeded for weeks. (We’re still waiting.) The computer in question, you see, is in a little room behind the screen. Without wireless control, to show a PowerPoint presentation means having one teacher sitting in the room using his expertise and teacher training for the difficult task of pressing the space bar whenever we called “next!” from the other room. (This job we affectionately called “backstage monkey.”) To make things even better, when I was messing with the projector one morning, trying to get it aligned perfectly (I didn’t care for the PowerPoints but when it came to hooking up my laptop and watching the Daily Show on the big screen, I didn’t want it at a funny angle!!), I noticed that with just a male-to-male PS/2 cable one could connect the schmancy projector to the computer and use its remote control as a mouse! So, did they keep the box the projector came in? Of course not. Did the grounds keeper actually have any idea what I was talking about when I asked him? No.
Many other things followed a very similar pattern: there are real cash registers. Nobody could figure out how to set them up (we didn’t even have instructions in Korean). But, not having any special paper for them, that hardly mattered. We have (probably very expensive) plastic food in the restaurant, but only a few dishes that don’t particularly correspond to the pretend menu anyway. I will spare you the rest of the list and explain my take on the general phenomenon. The Korean public school system spends heaps of time and money on easy, showy solutions to teaching the kids English, but then proceeds to lack the institutional organization and will to fully implement them. The whole program of hiring foreign English teachers is, itself, just another, broader example of this phenomenon. Nevertheless, at least most of my peers here take their jobs seriously, and we try to make the best of it. At JEEC, some of the ways we did this were by using the “Virtual Reality Center” as a high-tech classroom, by printing pictures of food and laminating them, and, gasp, writing bills by hand (which anyway gave us the ability to try and overcharge the students for their “meals” and see if they were paying attention).
While most of our activities at JEEC could be done with a little creativity and imagination – and a lot less money – in a normal classroom, I think that it was a great experience for the students. Many of you, being from California and the like, might think it strange to build a specialized “English village.” We don’t need to build “Spanish villages” in California. But, remember how different things are for kids from small towns in a small, homogeneous country. At the very least, JEEC gives the kids a chance to have a low-risk exposure to something different. For example, while most middle-class American children have already flown in an airplane at a tender age, with the exception of Jeju island, no one in Korea needs to get on an airplane to visit gramma. If any of these students visit any foreign country they will doubtless be using English at the airport and I’m quite confident many of them will draw on their experiences at JEEC.
The local media certainly love JEEC.
We’ve had TV news crews three times already. Here is a clip of one news show’s coverage*:
This is from the week before I was there, the news coverage in which I starred I couldn’t find online. While searching for it though, I came across an article (Google wanna-translation) in the national news section of chosun.com, the title of which translates as “Even in Jeongseon They’re Opening an English Village.” Jeongseon County, you see, is in the serious boonies, and this title is very amusing.
As a final anecdote, our fake money and the fake passports we give the students all say “JELC” on them rather than “JEEC.” The original name of the center was the “Jeongseon English Learning Center,” until, apparently, it surfaced that “JELC” sounds like an archaic Korean word for fellatio that no one had ever heard of. Of course they still had to change the name of the place after they’d already printed all the materials.
On Friday, in my first class of the morning (3rd grade), I did my standard for every class initial ten minutes or so of walking around talking individually to random students. I was getting a lot of “happy”s to my “how are you”s, so I asked one of the more advanced kids “why?” (a question which is apparently very easy to understand and very hard to answer without much vocab). Turns out this Saturday, all across South Korea, is the unofficial holiday of Pepero Day. That’s not a translation, that’s what they call it in Korean.
Pepero is the Korean incarnation of the little chocolate covered stick-shaped cookies, which may be familiar to some of my readers under their Japanese branding, Pocky.
So why Pepero Day? Because the date is 11/11. On the solar calendar anyway. You figure it out. The Wikipedia article on Pepero Day says there’s a rumor that it was started by middle school girls in Pusan. One fellow English teacher posted to our email list to report that a coworker of his claimed it was a 2,000 year-old Korean tradition. When this fellow teacher responded that they haven’t been using this particular calendar here that long (not to mention cookies or chocolate coverings thereof), he was greeted with silence. I’ll go ahead and subscribe to the belief that it’s kind of like the Korean version of Valentine’s day, without any of the pretense of having a saint behind it or anything. It’s just “hey buy lots of our product day.” I’m a big fan of any lack of pretense. I’m also a fan of having the script seriously flipped; rather than me giving out the candy, I received a rather ridiculous amount of it. Here is all the 1-shaped cookies I got from my students – some Pepero, some of other brands – all dumped unceremoniously on the floor. I cleaned them up later.
Both Pepero and Pocky are made by the Lotte group, one of several ultra-ubiquitous conglomerates in South Korea. Lotte may have been founded by a Korean, but, unlike the rest of the conglomerates here, is actually a Japanese company. Something that only one out of the eight present one night in my adult conversation class knew. The other big name conglomerates in Korea (Hyundai, Samsung., Dae Woo, etc…), the not-much-taught-to-Koreans story has it, pretty much all got their starts by whole-heartedly collaborating with the Japanese back in the day. But this was a post about cookies that look like 1s, so never mind…
New pictures. Check back in a week or so and some might even be explained.
This week is the Korean autumn harvest festival of Chuseok. Because of eccentricities of the lunar calendar that I have no desire to understand, Tuesday is a holiday, as are Thursday and Friday. Should one get out of work on Monday and Wednesday, that’s a solid 9 days off, and a good chance to go somewhere cool. So let’s rewind to two weeks ago when I politely inquired if I would have class on this, what has become a true Monday among Mondays. My coteacher said, let me ask the supervisor. Asks supervisor. Answer is yes, but no class on Wednesday. I figure I can’t complain – that’s still a 6 day holiday.
Ffwd: today. I show up for school, deposit bag, iPod, usw., at desk. Material for 2nd grade in hand, I head towards the classroom. I knew my coteacher had a meeting in the morning, so I would be flying solo today. I glance at the big class schedule on the wall and… wait! something looks terribly different. Where’s the 영 (yeong [English])? There’s no 영 (yeong). I trade some of my broken Korean for some of the Math teacher’s broken English. Turns out the schedule “is changey.” I have no class. So I pack up my stuff – feeling very bemused that I had to spend 5 hours on busses yesterday to get back to Gohan just to not work today rather than feeling happy to suddenly not have class. I oh-well and pack up my stuff. Having had it drilled into my head to profusely and politely greet my coworkers at every possible chance, I head out with a bow and an 안녕히 계십시오 (anyeonghi gyeshibshiyo) – only to have the science teacher start desperately explaining something to me in Korean. I got the gist that I had to stay until after lunch, what I did not get was why! They’ve never made me stay around when I didn’t have class before! Reportedly many other EPIK teachers are struggling with being stuck at the office until 5pm whether they have class or not. A huge plus of teaching at so many different schools and not having any one main-school is that I have unto this very day never been forced to hang around an office upon finishing my classes. I’m pretty sure I also have to thank my predecessor for this, as a few others I’ve talked to who teach at many schools have said even they are stuck in the office sometimes. My predecessor, one Sam Parker (“미스터 파커”), was teaching both in Gohan and the next town a few clicks over, Sabuk. Now he’s teaching only in Sabuk and I’ve taken over his Gohan operations. I don’t even want to think about how many schools he was teaching in, except to be happy that it meant he couldn’t possibly be forced to sit in an office for no reason, and now such is not expected of me.
Until this morning. I should have just slipped out, I’m SURE they would never have even considered my absence. Being stuck here right now is, however, not what bothers me. I’m at least two weeks behind on blogging, so I can use this time. What bothers me is that my coteacher said I had class today! If it was clear I would not have class today, whether or not they wanted me here, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be somewhere awesome cuz a 9 day vacation is worth going somewhere awesome. A weekend and a subsequent 6 day vacation is nice, but inot truly somewhere-awesome worthy.
I have two complaints about this job. The one I thought I could deal with but which has really bitten me on the ass today is lack of communication. It appears to be quite the Korean style to have all these suit and tie meetings and plan everything in minute detail, and then not tell anyone about it until the absolute last minute. Since I’m usually just hanging around Gohan and don’t have much else to do, being told at the last minute that this class is moved or canceled or I have to go to this meeting at this place or whatever isn’t a big deal. Bifurcating a potential 9 day vacation just so I can sit at a desk and bitch on the internet is a big deal. And just now, as I’ve been sitting here writing this, my coteacher called and started making noises towards the supervisor wanting me here on Wednesday! Having been very explicitly told I had Wednesday off, I quickly said I had reservations and lots of travel plans, thank you very much. This was not entirely true, but if they can lie to me, or, to be fair, change their story at the last minute, I feel no trouble lying about that. Aaaaaaaah! In the end, I do realize that of all the potential trials and tribulations I exposed myself to by taking on a new job in a new country this is pretty low down the list, still it’s annoying, and what better place to bitch about it?!
The other complaint I have about this job is of a very different sort. It’s one that is really a mixed blessing: that I teach so many different levels. Something like 12, depending on how you count. This is apparently enviable to some teachers with the experience, organization, and resources to prepare all the necessary lessons and material. I do see why; it most definitely never gets boring! As a matter of fact, by far my favorite classes are at the two extremes: the kindergarteners and the advanced high-school girls’ (extra-curricular) conversation class. But goddamn does it exhaust me! I barely manage to summon all the energy I have left after teaching to go to the gym, so please understand why I haven’t been writing the wonderful novels you expect each week. And now my supervisor has offered me the chance to teach an adult conversation class for 30,000 won (US$31) /hour, 4 hours a week in the evenings. I said I’m interested because that’s damned good money, I think I could enjoy a class like that, and I can work the schedule out myself (including, I will mandate, time off during winter so I can snowboard!). But with the trouble keeping up I’m having now without that class, I hope I can handle it! It feels like I should be able to adapt with more experience, practice, good organization and time management. Of course those last two things have certainly never been my forte, as many of you probably know. But I can learn. I do that sometimes. I can learn things.
Like Korean. It seems that all of a sudden, about two weeks ago, I actually started progressing with my Korean! I have hardly done any actual and regular sitting down and studying Korean, despite many intentions to have started doing that a long time ago. See above. On top of that, I’m teaching English all day long. This means not only am I not speaking Korean, but in all but the younger elementary classes, I have been actively trying to not speak Korean. This is something I’m finding more and more to be somewhat unwise, not just for my sake, but also for the students’ sake. Only real experience at the individual level can show me what the right amount of translation is in class, but I’m finding out that in most of my classes it’s not none. Aside from “out”ing my Korean abilities with some of my classes, there are some other factors I suspect in what I’ve perceived to be the recent upturn in my Korean progress. It’s strange, and I know I’ve certainly had agency in this, but it seems like kind of all of a sudden lots of different people just stopped either trying English with me or, more commonly, not talking to me, and started actually speaking Korean to me. I don’t understand much, but it’s been great! The final factor is my electronic dictionary.
At first I was thinking about waiting for a trip to Seoul to get one cheap, but my paper dictionary was absolutely driving me insane! The Korean-English section of it is ordered alphabetically by transliteration, and the transliteration they use might be regular, but it certainly isn’t always logical to me, nor representative of how the words actually sound or are written in Hangul. I decided I need to get an electronic one right away so I could start using it, right away. So, I headed to the local “metropolis,” Taebaek, since there’s no where to buy one here. I was directed to one shop that might sell one. Closed. Finally found another, a “Digital LG” store. I always assumed these stores sold only LG products, and mostly home appliances, since that’s what’s obvious from the outside. Turns out they have a small selection of personal electronics, not all of which are made by LG. Having seen what things are like in Seoul, I was simply astonished. They were selling old model MP3 players and digicams at what would be high prices back home. They had three electronic dictionaries. I bought the cheapest one. $220.00! That was about $70.00 more than they seemed to be, on average, in Seoul. But I was tired of waiting and in the mood to just buy one of the damned things so I just bought the damned thing. It’s actually pretty cool! And I saw it for $200.00 in a major store in Sokcho this Saturday, so maybe I didn’t get ripped off too bad! According to the box, it has 24 functionalities! Among these are the following dictionaries: Korean, English (Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary – good enough for me! I even used it already), Hanja ( means Korean written with Chinese characters), Korean-English, English-Korean, Japanese-Korean, Korean-Japanese, Chinese-Korean, Korean-Chinese. For all these languages, as well as German, Spanish, French and Italian, it also has an extensive Korean-to-that-language phrasebook. You can even add words to the dictionaries yourself, and save words as flashcards. It has a memo pad, a date book, an address book, a class schedule, a solar calendar, a lunar calendar, world time, and a few games, including a decent tetris. All of these extras, of course, are clearly added-on and they don’t really expect you to use any of them except the dictionary since they’re all truly horribly designed. To add a space, when writing, one must press the shift key first, just to name a particularly lovely design element. They use spaces in Korean too, so that’s not just crappy for writing English. You can set it into funky English, and it even changes most of the menus! Out of the little speaker on it, it will pronounce Japanese, English, and Chinese vocabulary for you. You’re already supposed to know how the Korean sounds. It come with a 128MB SD card. It will play MP3′s off that SD card on it’s little speaker, and even has a headphone jack, together with headphones with a remote control on the chord. The MP3 player interface is pretty crap. My favorite part is that it can’t access anything else on the SD card while playing MP3′s. The other thing to which I refer is text files. Far into exploring the dictionary’s menus, I discovered that it has an “ebook reader,” which is really just a text file editor, but thanks to the page up and page down buttons, makes it into an effective ebook machine. That was a really cool surprise, since I starting to miss having a palm pilot on which to read ebooks. I wouldn’t really call it a proper ebook reader, since if you switch back to dictionary mode, it doesn’t remember where you were in the text file. The only option to avoid pressing page down a million times is to split your ebook up into a bunch of smaller files. Annoying, but doable. I have plans to write a program to do that for me, by chapter.
Now that I’ve written more about my dictionary than anyone but my brother and my dad could ever want to read, there was another gadget on my shopping list two weeks ago in Taebeak to geek it up about. I needed to buy a cellphone. My coteacher was supposed to help me buy a cellphone. But, after waiting two weeks to get my alien registration card, I didn’t want to keep waiting for my busy coteacher to have enough time to go to another town and help me buy one. Besides, I hate being dependent on other people, and going and doing it on my own was a challenge I just had to take. I figure I probably ended up paying about $50 over what I could have for my phone. Buying a phone as a foreigner, at least here in the boonies, is a real bitch. A guy in one store just told me he wouldn’t sell me one and asked me to leave. I found a store where they would sell me one – one of five. Out of the 40-some cell phone models, so far as I could understand, only for five of them did the offer pre-paid minutes. As a foreigner, she would only let me pre-pay minutes, rather than buy a monthly plan. I’ve since learned that with a $200 I can probably correct this situation if forceful, or if I have the help of someone forceful and who can speak Korean, which would be lovely since the prepaid minutes are a truly extortionate deal! At least incoming calls are free.The 5 phones they would let me buy were all the same price, so I picked the best looking one with the most internal memory. I was actually kinda iffy on the phone at first, an LG-KP4700, but it’s actually really grown on me. It’s a sleek slider phone, rather than a flip-phone, which I really like a lot better, although it’s shape is a little funky. It seems like it should actually make a nice MP3 player, the speaker sounds fantastic for it’s size. If I find a decent-sized TransFlash card I could see myself using it for music, if only I can find a different set of headphones (the ones that came with it can ONLY be used if you wear the phone necklace-style – popular with the Korean kids, but not with me – and it does not have a standard headphone jack) and a workable Windows XP running PC with which to load it up with tunes. Asid from that, it does everything a modern phone should, although just how well I’m still finding out. It even has an IR data port. For syncing with other LG phones? I dunno. I even figured out how to set most of it into English! Frighteningly this brings my current count of present and potential MP3 players, here in my Korean home, to 7 ([broken] computers included).
Gadget proliferation is a dangerous thing.
And I have an income and I’m going to Seoul tomorrow. It’s a small town here. I said I had plans to leave for Seoul tomorrow so they didn’t ask me to be here Wednesday, so I’d damn well better leave tomorrow, or it will be known. I already have plans to buy at least one piece of electronics: a new laptop hard drive. Lady fortune blessed me this weekend when Mike, the Australian EPIK teacher in Taebaek, revealed he was a mac technician for many years, and offered to fix my Powerbook for me!!!!
What with writing this, the TV on (they let me leave school after lunch), and finding a hostel to reserve in Seoul, I’m about 2 hours later now for going swimming then I’d hoped. But you all cared SO MUCH about my new gadgets so time was not wasted!