Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Concerning a distinct lack of fireworks

Well, hello all. Sorry I've slowed down on the internet front, work got absolutely crazy starting around friday. Whew, what a few days. As September goes on its merry little way, our billing cycle goes with it which means a lot of fun things for us teachers. Among them: in class tests, grading them, individualized evaluations for all 50 of my students, switching over the curriculum to October's syllabi in all of the classes and navigating a couple of schedule changes. All in all, it has actually been kind of fun and pleasantly busy. I really like feeling productive and useful, and I certainly have been both in this last bout.

Hmm...news. We ventured to Seoul (again, and will go a THIRD time tomorrow nigh
t) on saturday in search of a firework festival. Actually, I am getting ahead of myself because friday night, Asteria and I decided to get good ol ribs at TGI Friday's. On friday. I'm telling you, we're crazy down here. Topped off with eggplant parmesan quasadillas and the best caramel brownie sunday ever (given we're in a country in which baked goods simply do not exist), it was a reeeeeally needed indulgence. Even if it was waaaay too expensive. So, back to Seoul. We went off in search of the 2009 Seoul International Fireworks Competition which sounds very professional and daunting. They even told promised a preshow (with lasers and pyrotechnics) proceeding a battle between the Korean, Canadian and Chinese firework shows. Well, there was not a single glimmer to be found, barring someone's half hearted sparklers. So, basically, we ended up walking around the pretty cool "63 Building," very daringly named for its number of stories. It had an underground mall featuring an Asianized wax Leonardo DiCaprio, who looked like Frankenstein's monster with gangreen. Then, after sitting by the river for 3 hours in vain search of any sort of explosive (and hearing about how one of the girls rejected Brad Pitt cerca Legends of the Fall....go figure that one out...) we gave up and plunked home via the slow train. This turned out to be a glorified rattling cattle car of all of us sitting on the floor of the restaurant car in the "standing room" section and getting awkward pictures taken of us. Oh well, home again, and none the worse for wear. Hopefully, our next expedition to Seoul will go better.

Next up: Chuseok! (Korea's version of Thanksgiving). Tomorrow, the kids are coming in their little traditional hamboks and we are making food and crafts. I promise lots of pictures. That's all for now, I'll post a much more satisfying entry in a few days.



Sunday, September 20, 2009

Concerning flaming polar bears

It seems that my blog is slowing down into a weekly post, as work picks up and my Korean life slides into a "quick succession of busy nothings" (From Jane Austen's letters...duh). Well, rather "busy somethings" because this experience is far from null. Another work week done, several thousand new lessons learned about teaching. The learning curve goes on but still keeping afloat and feeling ever more competent. A highlight from the last few days: having the four 14 year old boys in an advanced writing class completely school me in Harry Potter spells, they were spewing Latin(ish) words and diligently butchering them (Boldmate? Really?) at a speed that even beat my nerdy Potter knowledge. Second highlight: teaching my youngest kindies (the 5 year old hellions) to pound it and seeing a whole little class of gansta Korean children. Epic. Yesterday, we made the snazzy, 50 minute, bullet train trek (they even have a karaoke room aboard which we unfortunately did not patronize) to Seoul to see a Korean ice hockey game. First off, I was extremely glad to have some experience with European public transportation before tackling the Seoul subway system- it was a compost bin full of worms going every which way and most definitely NOT in English. We did manage with only one minor mishap involving a hopped turnstile but live and learn. Our group met some other foreigners in the foreign district (go figure) and, after checking out an English bookstore (bought "The Thorn Birds" and tore myself away from "Anna Karenina") , we had a very welcome properish cheeseburger at an American bistro. The game itself was fantastic. From what we could make out, the team mascot was a Polar Bear as the players entered the rink through the flaming head of one. Yes, you read correctly. I really can't explain more than just one word-- Korea. We made a rabble-rousing time of it, dutifully egging on any fight that we saw and applauding the requisite blood on the ice. Of course, this got us a LOT of looks from incredulous Koreans, but it also got us on the big screen for about 2.157 seconds so there. Hoarse from shouting at the players and singing along to every bad western and Korean pop song that was blared through the speakers, we left the rink and made our wiggling way back through the subway system to the bus terminal. Asteria and I had a very long but very profound ride home. We talked the whole 2 hour long way (OK this doesn't sound long but it felt like several archeological ages) about life, love, Korea, college, and...grad school. I know I said this in my last post but I really am getting more and more excited at this idea. What is good about it is that, having been excited about several careers in the past few years, I still have a whole year to make sure about this before I have to apply. As it is, UW is sounding better and better. It is in the low twenties in the national ranks for English PhD programs which, while not phenomenal, is respectable. It also has a summer London study abroad program centering on the British novel...BUT, we'll see where the coming months take me with regards to this.

Anyway, we pulled back into Daejeon, and it was very settling to feel myself back somewhere familiar. I guess you don't know what is familiar until you go somewhere not, so it's comforting to know that my city is getting a little less foreign...if only the four block radius of it that I know. Next up: back to work tomorrow! As always, love from me!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Concerning tulle and temples

Friends and loved ones, we are gathered here today in cyberspace to celebrate the ridiculousness of Korean weddings. Oh my dear lord. I was invited to my first one on saturday and it was certainly an experience. But first- last week was pretty good, sorry I haven't posted sooner. Work was work as usual, still getting everything together. A highlight included the two nights where Asteria, one of the other teachers, and I got pizza and watched the new Sense and Sensibility. That was really nice, especially now that we have discovered the Domino's 3 minutes from our apartment and with it, normal pizza without sweet potato paste (although it's still offered, of course). Hooray! Another interesting development is that I am starting to be bit by the grad school bug. I've started some internet research and am beginning to pull together a rough list of colleges I want to look into. A lot of it really appeals to me- most of the doctorate programs require two languages before graduation so I'd get to study Latin or Greek or something fun like French! I have been paying special heed to what research the faculty is conducting, because I would be limited by that, and privileging those with any Victorian focus. I like that kid in a candy shop feeling I get when excited, I haven't felt it in a little while. Though this is SO so very far from definite, it is nice to feel like I still have passion for English.

Anywho, back to the weekend. We all got dressed up and went to the 'Crystal Wedding Hall' which is 3 floors up this random building. We are greated inside by an explosion of pink and slikscreen flower designs on the walls. Many of the older women walked around in hambow (traditional Korean outfit that is a sort of tent beginning about 3 inches above the boobs) which was really interesting to see. Ere long, they marched (or shuffled) out the bride and perched her in this bizarre little room with a tulle arching canopy and tea lights and a fussy little chaise, on which her considerable skirts were displayed. She looked pretty but Korean fashion seems prone to excess, it was hard to see her and not be blinded by bedazzled embellishment. Lots 'o sparkle. We took a picture with her, ensconsed in her little princess area, and then went upstairs for a lunch buffet. This was really cool because they had a huge variety of foods to choose from, of which I tried quite a few. They had good sushi, corn salad, fried spring onion, sashimi, meat ball things and a lot of other stuff that I couldn't identify but ate in good faith. Pretty nice. Afterwards, we went back downstairs for the ceremony which was bizarre. It was cabaret style with a plexiglass aisle up the center with fake flowers and string lights underneath. There was also a fake champagne glass mountain and even a fake cake. The bride walked up the aisle to a compilation of odd western romance ballads (Celine made a cameo) and then everyone promtply went back to what they were talking about before she came. From what I was able to hear over the din, the ceremony was pretty short. A choir sang them a song and they bowed to their parents (in the groom's case, a full on floor prostration) before coming back down the aisle and being bombarded with streamers. Throughout the whole thing, the wedding planner hovered like a pesky fly, even butting in during inappropriate moments to tug at some insignificant thread or make the couple hold hands or something...even when they weren't taking pictures. I think this is a cultural difference, but the whole thing seemed displayed. They never looked affectionate (even hand shakes were forced by the wedding planner) and there was no kiss in the ceremony. Oh well, she looked happy enough so I think this must be normal over here.

Then...yesterday. I got it into my head that it would be a great idea to get out of the city and explore a national park nearby. It did turn into a spectacular day but took its pound of flesh. We bussed to a Buddhist temple called Dongkhasa, had a look around at the really ornate and colorful roof and eaves, and started up the trail. UP being the operative word here. Precisely 3 hours of unrelenting up, in fact. This was compounded by the fact that the trail was not forgiving dirt but more like a loosely arranged avalanche of rocks that was meant to be some sort of a staircase. AND, Koreans don't seem to understand the value of a switchback so it was essentially 3 hours of clambering straight on up one of their very dramatic mountainsides. Once it got bad, we literally had to stop every fifty feet. Along the way up, we there was a stone pagoda thing with incense and recorded chanting that had a really nice view of the altitude we had gained and looked into the surrounding mountains. We continued, and I was basically crawling up the rocks at this point and seriously considering turning back when we hit the ridge and went down just as drastically as we went up. This part was much more fun, we literally flew down the mountain with the aid of some handle rails where the rocks got steep. The last of the trail descended along this pretty little creek to the temple of Gapsa, and there we were, a mere 5 hours after setting out from Dongkhasa.

This temple was better, in my opinion, because one of the buildings had hundreds and hundreds of mini golden Buddhas behind a bigger version. That interior literally glowed from them, it was so pretty. I couldn't resist a taboo and likely disrespectful picture. There were also all of these orderly prayer flags or lanterns or decorations covering quite a chunk of the interior ceilings. They were even writing prayers on each new shingle used to upkeep the roof. It was cool seeing people chanting and praying and prostrating themselves, I have never really seen this religion enacted and it was a nice introduction. I did find it ironic that Buddhist doctrine seems to have become engrained in the very landscape surrounding the temples, however-- suffering before enlightenment, indeed. We hopped a taxi back to Daejeon, in which I promptly fell asleep, and had sausage, potatoes and beer for dinner at Weisenhous, at which I also promptly fell asleep. Sheer exhaustion made a grumpy dinner companion out of me and made my bed feel like paradise. I borrowed Asteria's camera for it, so expect facebook pictures soon! Today, my calf muscles have conducted a full scale revolt against my nervous system in protest of yesterday but not a bad weekend.

Love, me

Monday, September 7, 2009

Concerning the real Asia in all of its glory...

To start off, things are much better on the teaching front. I found out that the complaints were pretty exaggerated and the one class that I did make a mistake in, I bribed with chocolate bon bon pie things so we're good to go. Most of my classes seem to like me a lot, I have been dubbed "Banana Teacher" in one...I think because banana and Becky start with the same letter but I am not entirely clear on that. I am feeling more and more competent as I get up to speed, and I'm up to being able to plan two days in advance which is definitely progress. I feel less frantic running around the school, order is cautiously peaking out from behind the chaos. The one really interesting thing about hogwon life (Korean private academies), and I suppose Korean life in general, is swine flu. As far as this country is concerned, this is the next god-sent plague and it is treated with fear roughly equivalent to a coming apocalypse. There is a new national policy that the school is also implementing of quarantining anyone coming back from international travel for about a week from work or school along with mandatory testing. This may alter my plans to galavant off to Thailand, but we'll see how that unfolds.

This weekend was a nice rest after my first full week. Asteria and I spent all of saturday trecking to the nearest mart, buying cleaning supplies, and attacking our apartment. As the blackened water that clogged our tub later will suggest, it was an out and out war. It is probably only breeding 3 kinds of E. Coli now, down from the 50 it must have been before. Saturday night, we went out to a bar called "The Santa Clause" for this foreigner open mike thing. I am certainly learning soon here that the prospect of living abroad attracts all types...I have met my share of eccentric expats already but they are mainly really amusing. It was a fun, relaxed night.

Next day, we ventured into old downtown via the very nice, shiny new subway system. We wandered the underground mall for a while, and I have never seen that many cell phones stores in my life. Seriously, Korea is obsessed- for as strict as it can be about etiquette, the one rule they notably do not have is answering or talking on the phone during meals. It's practically an unnamed extra dinner companion. After, we wandered around some of the winding market outside. THIS was cool. I finally really felt like I was in the Asia I expected- disorienting, dark tunnels filled with the really suspicious smells of cooked intestine, spices (yes, dad- kimchi), and every kind of fish and sea food. The corners would usually be punctuated by really bright and luscious looking fruit stands, interspersed with second hand clothes and (more commonly), shoe stalls. I totally felt like Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods, except I didn't try any of the gross stuff. Some of it looked good- for example, Korea has these potato pancakes that are kind of like spicy latkas that are pretty yummy. However, I am perfectly content to remain a spectator to the vast majority of what I saw. After the market, we went into a more affluent shopping area and got some cheap DVDs to watch and nail polish. Nothing but the essentials, of course.

After we got back, Asteria and I were tired and worn out so we decided to bite the bullet and experience the Korean bath house. We went to one of the nicer hotels in a region of Daejeon that is over Yuseong Hot Springs, where royalty used to bathe in ye good old days. Yusoung Hotel was pretty cheap- 5,000 won to use the spa, or about 6 dollars. It was like I fell off of Korea and accidentally stumbled into a harem. It is gender segregated, so all of the women get naked, thoroughly rinse off, and then soak in any one of five pools in a big room, all just sort of hanging out together in every possible sense. Each pool was slightly different; there was a warm one, a cold one, a really really hot one, one with a waterfall jet to massage the muscles, a scrubbing pool, a steam room, and a really really hot tiled bed area. Once you were done soaking, you'd thoroughly scrub (or pay some fiersome looking women to do it for you) and presto, clean as a whistle. I got pretty used to it after about twenty minutes, despite all of the stares of being the only foreigner there, when a 10 year old girl named Michelle came up cool as anything and had a whole conversation with Asteria and me about where we were from and then fetched us ice for the next 15 minutes. Pretty relaxing...though I do beg to differ about the healing properties as I pulled a neck muscle somewhere along the way and have been moving like a grandma the whole day.

Oh well, still worth it if only for the experience. All in all, still going well! Love you all!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Concerning the start of the daily grind and nesting

I wish I could type Korean for hello, but as my language skills are not quite that far along, I can only half mumble it in passing. It sounds something like ahnya ha seyo. Hello, at any rate! The big news on this front is that I moved into my apartment yesterday night. Yay for cereal! It doesn't look quite as bad as it did at the party and the removal of several tacky decorations and movie posters that shall remain nameless (Leon? Really?) have definitely helped. AND, my mom's afghan is just the size to cover up the worst of the rips in the leather sofa. I have unpacked all of my clothes and will organize the rest when I get home from work later today. We did arrive to the nice surprise of a freezer literally half crusted over with ice. Luckily, a very nice and obliging friend spent about half an hour hacking into it enough to clear some space. We did the best de-frosting job we could on immediate notice with groceries lying in wait.

The experience of getting those groceries is definitely worth an aside. It is such a cliche that the way to a culture is through its food, but it's so very true. We went to a Korean supermart and oh...my....lord. Each food department functions separately and is manned by people hawking their wares to beat out the surrounding choices. It was a bizarre hour walking down the aisles being half yelled at in a language I don't know. The food situation will be interesting. There is precisely 1 kind of butter, cheese is really really expensive, there is a whole aisle devoted to ramen (though NO helpful pictures to distinguish seafood from chicken from pork flavors...) and a lot of really slimy and ambitious cuts of meat and obscure vegetables. We might have to go back more frequently than I am used to because apparently food goes bad more easily. The highlight of the trip for me, though, was finding pancake mix. Yay. And for people who talked to me before I left...I did find bread, pasta, and potatoes and bought all 3. So on a subsistence level, we're good.

Teaching is going OK, I am definitely learning and have only gotten 2 parent complaints and made 1 child cry. Despite momentary panic, I am told this is completely normal and actually ahead of the curve. Things are going better now that I have at least taught all of my classes and have a better handle on planning them. These last few days have revealed some more Korean quirks to my roving mind though...

1.) Education. Woa. I have an upper level class that goes to 5-8 other academies and don't get home until 11. They say their mom doesn't let them play on the weekends because they have to study. In some ways, I understand the need to take advantage of what you can when Korea has so SO many people vying for jobs, but it is sad to kind of lose your childhood like that. Needless to say, I feel really really guilty assigning them homework.
2.) Mirrors in elevators. Every single one, in fact. This might seem handy and it can be until you realize that for the fifth time in a row, you have been checking yourself out in the mirror and forgot to push the button. Embarassing? I think so.

Anyways, things are putzing along! Keep emails and comments coming, love and miss you!


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Concerning ankle biters.

I am sitting at work winding down to the end of my first day of teaching. Wow, what a day. It certainly wasn't slow, I'll say that much for it. My replacement left yesterday so I was on my own for the first time with all of my classes. It started very well, I have a class of 6 yr olds that I adore. I had them rapt with attention discussing the uses of a hard "U" sound and we read a story about a dog. The next class, however, is filled with twelve five year olds and I suddenly made the transition from competent teacher to frazzled child wrangler. The school was demonic to give me a science project to do with that class that I could barely even do myself-- add in twelve demands for folding, cutting, taping, looking and whatever else that went over my head, and I didn't have a prayer. I had another phonics class with them that basically turned in to me pleading them to color the octopus and practice their Os while they wandered the class at random. I hope to make headway though...I implemented "one, two, three, eyes on me" when they have to clamp their lips shut and they kind of liked that, even if they don't get that it's supposed to last until I am finished talking. Lunch was a swap of the battle wounds that all of the new teachers have already sustained over the predictable rice, kimchi, mystery meat balls and very unsettling triple boiled, sauteed and and god-knows-what-else-ed quail eggs. At least it's free. After, I had my afternoon classes. The first I absolutely love, it's four students and they are all delighted to be there. Really cute. The next was a little comatose, jokes didn't go over too well. I haven't had the last yet, we'll see once we get there. BUT...and I regard this as quite the honor....I am already the recipient of not one, but TWO stickers from various students. I hope this is a mark of early favor that will continue to grow into full fledged adoration with any luck...but I will try and survive my first week before I bank on that.

It's nice to be busy and have a routine, I hit a low point over the weekend of having way too much time to think. Asteria and I distracted ourselves by going to see "My Life in Ruins" which was so so cute. I didn't even notice the subtitles. We move into our apartment tomorrow (YAY! Even if it is not the Taj Mahal, it is a space to take possession over and at least unpack, thank God) after work and we might not have internet for a little bit, so I'll email and post from work until that is up and running. Love from "Becky Teacher"!