February 9, 2014 § 2 Comments
I know, I know. It’s been awhile. I wish I could tell you that I’ve been too busy to write because I’ve been going on super incredible adventures and exploring new exotic lands but the truth is, I’ve just been too tired and lazy. Most of my free time is spent food shopping/cooking and trying to just chill out and forget about work for a minute. And good blog entries takes time and care, hence my avoidance of the task.
I went to my first Korean wedding (finally!) the 3rd week of December. It was certainly a cultural experience. Our coworker, whose English name is Connie, customarily invited everyone from work to attend. It was a beautiful ceremony that included synchronized dance numbers and a sword to cut the wedding cake. The whole thing took place in a long dark room that had a black/white/purple floral theme with a transparent, glass-like walking aisle down the center. Guests were seated on either side of the aisle. And from here, I’d like to offer a summary of the event from my friend/coworker Adele‘s blog, as it describes the ceremony more accurately than my brain currently can (photos and videos are mine):
“I have been told (and now seen for myself) that the success of a wedding is determined by how many people show up. I have also been told that there are like four degrees of separation between the actual people getting married and some of the people who show up. Like families of business friends friends sort of thing. Because of this, there was constant talking throughout the entire ceremony. A guy sitting three rows ahead of us was on facebook on his phone for about half the vows.
The ceremony began with the mothers of the bride and groom coming to the front and lighting candles. They were wearing hanboks, which are traditional Korean dresses. They are super beautiful and it was cool to see them as part of the ceremony.
The fathers came in and sat down, and then the groom, followed by Connie in her glorious huge dress. There was some sort of pre-ambley speech thing, and then vows.
This is when things started to become interesting and incredibly foreign. A man (I assume a friend of the bride or grooms) sang them a song. He had a gorgeous voice. The catch? He was reading the lyrics of the song off his cell phone as he was singing.
Next, a big tray with a wedding cake on it was rolled out. And the couple cut the cake. WITH A FREAKING SWORD. Then four women (friends of the brides) did a choreographed dance to K-pop. Like, Brittney Spears type choreography. Everyone loved it! Our co-worker Sue was in it, and she told me today it took them six weeks to learn.
They started a dance to another song, this time with pom-poms, and the groom jumped out and danced with them. He had clearly learned it without Connie knowing, she was surprised and cracking up, that was pretty adorable.
This is all happening while people are talking.
After the ceremony was over we were told we had to be in a picture, so we waited while family members were in pictures, and got arranged and re-arranged for 10 minutes before the photographer snapped some shots.
I think I have mentioned before that the documentation of events is as, or more important than the event itself. Even during the ceremony a friend of Connie’s would jump up to the alter where they were standing to fix her hair, or bring her crying tissue, or arrange her dress perfectly. “
Though weddings in western culture are often all day events, Korean weddings are not more than a couple of hours, from start to finish. But it was a lovely and interesting time followed by a large buffet, which my coworkers and I took great advantage of. (Hover over the photos for captions, or click through to see and read them in full.)
December rolled on, and we had a lovely Christmas here in Gwangju, with Jack and I hosting a pot luck dinner at our apartment for all of our friends left in the city. We spent a pretty penny on some delicious ham which I covered in pineapple and baked (read: reheated) to perfection for everybody. Jack whipped up some potatoes, gravy, and stuffing, and we were in business. With all of the delicious dishes our friends brought, it’s safe to say my Christmas dinner of 2013 was by far the most eclectic I’ve ever had. The spread included a Bulgarian salad, veggie terrine, homemade apple sauce, a cheese board, caramelized onion/tomato mushroom bruschetta, Chinese meatballs, Korean steamed chicken, as well as mine and Jack’s contributions. For dessert we had skor bars, mince pies, a trifle, berry pastries, creme cake, and apple crisp, in lieu of apple pie.
The day was spent eating and chatting with friends while listening to every Christmas song Jack and I had at our disposal. I got to experience my first British Christmas cracker (thanks to the crafty hands of our friend Alex) and I felt quite cozy in my paper crown.
New Year’s Eve was, unfortunately, rather uneventful for Jack and I, as I came down with the stomach flu and was couch-ridden for the better of 3 days. Luckily, Jack was willing to take care of my fragile, nauseated, whiney self and I began 2014 a few pounds lighter. ;)
The second week of January, the ECC foreign crew took a trip to the Northern half of the country to celebrate all that is winter with an ice-fishing festival. Pedro Kim, who I believe I’ve mentioned before, organized a trip for over 30 people to travel to the cities of Chuncheon, Gapyeong, and Hwacheon, which lie at the top of the country, quite close to the border of North Korea. It was an awesome weekend that included romantic islands, ice fishing, a “French village”, sledding, and incredible ice sculptures modeled after world landmarks and backlit with colored lights.
The first place we visited was Nami Island, famous in Korea for the filming of various soap operas (like “Winter Sonata”) and the overall ‘romantic’ feel it exudes. It had a lot of winter themed things like snow sculptures and “snowman pancakes” (which were delicious), as well as a lot of unexpected things, like a field full of ostriches and a tiny train that chugged tourists along the island. It also had a “sky ride” that allowed people to sit on a chair that moved via bicycle peddle well above the ground for an aerial view of the island.
We stayed in a French themed village that had pastel colored buildings and other things dubbed “French” by Korea, such as a man playing the accordion while singing in a cafe, rooms full of marionettes, and poorly painted French film posters on the outside walls. It was certainly a strange if pleasant place to stay, if only because it was struggling to feel “quaint” when in reality it was in the middle of nowhere on the side of a hill surrounded by dead trees and full of Korean food. I’d imagine it’s more lovely in the spring and summer, when the trees are lush and the flowers are in bloom.
The actual festival was quite a lot of fun, and we began the day by ice fishing on a frozen river. I was the first of the group to catch a fish (!!!), which was really exciting. After each person caught three, we handed them over to some army volunteers who prepped and cooked the fish for us to eat later on. We spent the rest of the day exploring what the festival had to offer, which included sliding around the ice on a giant raft tied to an ATV, “bobsledding” down an ice shoot, and watching a couple of our coworkers catch fish with their bare hands. It was a really memorable trip that I am glad to be able to cross of my Korean bucket list. Watch my coworkers attempt to catch fish with their bare hands and Nate actually acheive the goal at the 2:30 mark.
The end of January brought Lunar New Year, or Seollal (설날) as it’s known in Korea. At school the kindergarten kids were made to wear traditional Korean formal wear, known as hanboks. I’m not gonna lie — they all looked ridiculously adorable, especially the 4 year olds in Stanford class. We played some traditional Korean games like yut, which basically involved using 4 sticks as die, as well as Korean versions of some more familiar games, like hop scotch and hackysack. It was nice to have a day to play with the kids instead of teach them, especially to spice up the long winter stretch we’d been lugging through.
For the few precious days we had off from work, Jack and I, along with Ben and Adele, took a trip to Seoul to hang out, eat quality food, and explore new areas. Crappy weather and various short-lived illnesses forced us to hang out watching America’s Funniest Home Videos more than we’d like to admit, but it was still a very relaxing weekend that helped us rest up mentally and physically.
I’ve recently decided that unless I have a particularly unique or new experience to share here, most of my entries from here on out will take a dip into the more realistic side of what it’s like living in Korea for 1.5 years. There are a lot of things about Korean culture that I have come to learn, recognize, and attempt to deal with now that I’m in my second year, and I’d like to share my individual experience to make this blog more well-rounded and more truthful. I plan to talk about what it’s like living day to day in my specific skin, and all of the good and bad that comes with that. I hope everyone will still find my writing informative and interesting, even if it is less event-filled and more contemplative.
On a less serious note, I’d like to end by sharing one of the most adorable videos I’ve got to date. For the kindergarten birthdays in January, I played “MC” and Jack was kind enough to record one of our student’s English speeches, with me beaming next to her like a proud mother. Her name is Jenny, and she just turned 4 years old. I guarantee it’s the cutest thing you’ll see today.
November 30, 2013 § 1 Comment
Prepare yourselves for pictures, folks!
As usual, it has been too long since I’ve updated. Life hasn’t consisted of anything too exciting recently. I feel like most of my free time is spent food shopping, preparing said food, or thinking about what food I’m going to buy on my next shopping trip. I’m pretty sure thinking about food (whether it’s finding, buying, cooking, baking, wishing for, etc.) takes up way too much of my daily life. (Is that even possible?)
Other than that, the only other thing I’ve been thinking about is how to stay warm, now that the temperature has dropped and Gwangju is getting cold again. We saw our first snowfall this past monday, although it was more sleet and rain than soft, fluffy snowflakes. Still, it was nice to watch out the window with the students, whose excitement was only matched by that of the Korean teachers in the office.
There are some fun things have happened over the last six weeks, though. Toward the end of October, ECC had a Halloween party for the kids, and teachers were asked to dress in costume. I originally wanted to go as Pikachu, but a shady eBay seller from Hong Kong ruined that dream, so I threw a very last minute costume together, which, interestingly enough, consisted of almost exactly the same stuff I wore last year. I’ll give you one chance to guess who I was before the big reveal:
That’s right–Psy! Sure, none of the kids knew who I was until I did the horse dance, but it worked in a pinch. As you can see, I was in good company; we had Cheryl, who was a K-Pop star from one of the most recent hits by the group Crayon POP, Adele, aka Hermione Granger, Joel and Jessica as anime characters, Ben as Jack Skellington, Jack as the Incredible Hulk, and Nathaniel as Iron Man. Jack even won some money from our director for having the best costume. ^_^
Besides dressing up, we got to play games with the students, go trick-or-treating from classroom to classroom, watch Halloween movies, and a bunch of other fun stuff. Here are a few of my favorite photos from the day.
November brought some absolutely gorgeous foliage, which I took advantage of by hiking Mt. Mudeung with my friends Iris and Dr. Kim. We rode a chairlift halfway up the mountain (which I didn’t even know existed and thought was super ingenious) and then hiked from there. It was a lovely day out. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
The rest of the month consisted of celebrating Jack’s 24th birthday (<3!), taking a weekend trip to Seoul, going on a field trip with ECC kindergarteners to watch The Little Match Girl, and seeing a second, more proper snowfall this last week. Hover over the thumbnails for the captions, or click them to see higher quality versions. :)
Work makes the weeks go quickly. I am particularly excited today because we are going to celebrate Thanksgiving with our friends with a proper turkey, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole! Will be sure to update tomorrow with pictures of the spread (’cause ya can’t have Turkey Day without pictures of all the food!). Until then, please enjoy this video of Eileen, Jenny, and Haana wishing you all a Happy…Thanksgiving?
**UPDATE** Here are those Turkey Day photos, as promised.
October 8, 2013 § 3 Comments
(You might want to settle in with your hot beverage of choice. It’s gonna be a long entry.)
As the weather cools and Autumn officially falls upon us here in Gwangju (see what I did there?), I’m actually reminded of how much I miss home. The older I get, the more I realize how truly beautiful the place where I grew up is. Though Korea itself has some outstanding foliage, none of it is as easily accessible to me here as it is in Berkshire County. In Gwangju, I have to actually hike a mountain to get a breath-taking view of Fall’s colors instead of just hopping in the car and taking a 20 minute drive to Taco Bell. You win some, you lose some, I suppose.
A few unique things have happened in the last 3 weeks that I wanted to share with everyone. The first is that we had our first official field trip with the kindergarteners, and it was…hilarious, to say the least. We went to the local YWCA for a lesson in sex education.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why are they taking children who are barely out the womb themselves on a sex education field trip? And believe me, I’m with ya, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t super excited for it. The first part consisted of a very cute, if very weird, animation that depicted penises, vaginas, and even ejaculation into a vagina! It also included the following still, which shows a naked man proposing to a naked woman with his sperm:
After that, we got to go into the “womb room.” And yes, it was as awesome as it sounds. Imagine a tiny, very thickly padded velvety red room with cartoon sperm and ovaries hanging from the ceiling. Add to that the sound of a steady heartbeat that’s been implanted into the walls and there you have it — a living, breathing womb. The kids weren’t scared at all:
Once we were reborn from the parted red curtains (these puns ain’t gonna stop), we were ushered into a room where we got up close and personal with some plastic models of private parts. The best bit was where some of the boys were able to wear a baby bump and really get a feel for what it’s like to be pregnant.
Not everybody was having as great a time as me, though. Our head Korean teacher, Lynn, thought it best she step outside for a little catnap.
All in all, it was a great first field trip that I’m sure will live on in the memories of the teachers who attended, if not the students who were made to go.
September also meant the most celebrated of Korean holidays — Chuseok! Chuseok is similar to Thanksgiving for westerners, as it’s one of the only times during the year where Korean families get together for an extended period of time and students get time off from school, etc. As a result, it was the first chance Jack and I had to get real time off from work and plan a trip.
We were lucky enough to snag 2 of 9 very coveted spots to Jeju Island (known as Korea’s “Hawaii”) with Pedro Kim, a man well known in Gwangju for organizing trips throughout Korea.
Jeju Island, or Jejudo, is famous in Korea for a number of reasons. It boasts both black and white sandy beaches that look and feel almost tropical. It is home to Korea’s highest mountain, Mt. Halla. It is a popular honeymoon destination for newlyweds, as well as a filming location for a number of Korean dramas. Its volcanic origins give it a landscape that is so unlike any other place in Korea that, for a lot of Koreans (and even a lot of foreigners who have lived in Korea), Jejudo feels like traveling to another country. The roads in Jeju City (Jejusi) were so up and down that it reminded me of driving in San Francisco (minus the steepness, of course). It’s popularity gained global momentum when it was named one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature by the New World Corporation in 2011.
Needless to say, it was a place Jack and I had been wanting to travel to for a long time, and it did not disappoint. We spent 5 glorious days lounging in sand, swimming in crystal clear waters, exploring volcanic caves, viewing majestic waterfalls at night, and gorging on barbecued meats and cactus chocolate. We visited tourist attractions like Hallim Park, Jungmun Beach, and Loveland (a sex themed park I had wanted to visit since before I came to Ktown). Check out some of my favorite photos below and click on them to scroll through/properly read the captions.
And here are a couple videos to give you a better sense of the beauty I was dealing with on a daily basis, as well as the awesomeness of a talking bird.
The last and most recent adventure I wanted to share with you was my hike up Mudeung Mountain! This is something that I have wanted to do since I first stepped foot in Gwangju. Mudeungsan is Gwangju’s highest mountain and one of it’s biggest gems. It’s one of the first things people do once they move here. I had ample opportunity last year but simply never got around to it, and now that we’re back, we thought what better way to spend a Thursday off than sweating and panting up a mountain? (Okay, so I was the only one sweating and panting, but I digress.)
ECC has recently gone through quite a big turnover, and aside from Jack and I, we now have 2 new couples we also work with. Cheryl and Nathaniel (who hail from Canada) and Ben and Adele (from the US — Boston and Syracuse WHAT). Since Ben and Adele had only been in Korea for about a week, we thought it would be a good excuse to bond with our coworkers, tick a box on our Korean bucket list, and get a good work out.
The weather was perfect, which made the hike pretty enjoyable. We decided to go a roundabout way toward the top, which led to increased exertion but spectacular views.
Last but not least, I recently made a video of our new neighborhood in Bongseon-dong to give you all a real-time peak into our surrounding space. Apologies for the length as well as the strange fuzziness/shakiness, youtube + imovie edits to make it less wobbly can only do so much! Make sure you watch it in HD for the full effect.
September 15, 2013 § 1 Comment
Aaaaand we’re back!
As usual, life in Korea never seems to slow down, but I have finally managed to settle in and find some time to write. So let’s take it from where we last left off.
After spending 2 months in England and 2 months in the U.S., I officially arrived back in Gwangju, South Korea at the beginning of July. Jack and I were lucky enough to have friends who had an extra apartment for us to stay in, so we camped up in Songjeong-dong for the first 10 days of our glorious return. After meeting with the director of our new school, we were able to move into a temporary apartment closer to the center of the city, where we stayed for another 10 days. It wasn’t until July 26th that we were finally able to move into our permanent abode for the next year, and let me tell you — it is heavenly! Our new living space is a major upgrade from the studio sized apartments both Jack and I were living in (and at one point, sharing) during our first year. Check out the video tour I’ve made below to get the full effect of its awesomeness.
Besides the apartment, another change to my 2nd year here is my job. I now work at a chain hagwon called E.C.C., in the Bongseon-dong area of Gwangju. Though I still work at an English hagwon, or private school, I primarily teach kindergarteners, which means that instead of working 1:00 pm – 10:00 pm like I did last year, I work 9:00 am to 5:00 or 6:30, depending on the day. The days of waking up at noon and eating dinner at 10:30 pm are over! The ability to walk home at dusk and eat dinner at a normal time is something I sorely missed last year, and I’m grateful that it’s my new ‘norm.’
A third difference between this year and last is that I am able to live and work with my best friend/partner in crime/better half — Jack! Luckily for us, E.C.C. prefers to hire couples, and we are now one of four foreign pairs that work at the school. We celebrated our one year anniversary last August, and it felt perfect to be in the place where we first met and shared so many memories together.
Having a massive apartment and built-in social network of other foreign couples at our school are just some of the many perks of our new school. One of the things I like most about my new job is that we get to teach incredibly young students (whose ages range from 3-6) a myriad of other subjects besides English. In one week, I teach art, origami, science, themed seminars, literacy, and even some cartoon classes. (We watch Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory, if you’re curious.) Though the students can be super exhausting, they’re also super cute, and the amount of love that they provide always outweighs the trouble they can cause.
I’m actually the head Foreign teacher for the youngest class at the school, which consists of 2 ridiculously adorable, sweet little girls at the tender age of 4 named Jenny and Eileen. Though they can sometimes be a handful, they lift my spirits even on the darkest of days. Here are a few photos from our first 6 weeks at school.
When Jack was feeling a bit under the weather one day, I took a second to make him a “get well” video of his homeroom class. It’s a little hard to understand first try, but the kids are saying, “Feel better, Jack Teacher! We love you!”
But with all the good that I have been fortunate to basically “walk into” on my 2nd year here, there are, of course, some drawbacks. One major downer to this year is the fact that many of the close friends we made in Korea last year are no longer here. Phil, Leanne, and Jon are back in their home countries pursuing careers and eating things like quality cheese and whipped cream (which I can’t afford/don’t really have access to here). I’m hopeful that we will make new friends this year but tainted by how awesome our friends were for the first. Thankfully, we still have a few good friends that live here (like Iris and Julie) and I plan on making the most of the time I have left with them.
As I did my first year, I will update this blog as regularly as I can with all the haps of our second round in Ktown. For now, I will leave you with a video of one of the most recent adventures Jack and I partook in: eating sannakji (or live octopus) while visiting my cousin in Seoul.
April 2, 2013 § 3 Comments
It’s been one month since I left Korea, and already my life there feels like a distant memory. I’ve been hunkering down in Walsall, a suburb of Birmingham, UK, eating roast dinners, apple crumble, and every kind of fried potato you can imagine. My initial excitement at eating western food again has been generously accepted by my body, giving me an extra 10+ pounds to my overall physique. (It might be time to reign it in.)
The last time I wrote, I was preparing to go to China, and I can say without a doubt that it was one of the greatest trips I have experienced thus far in my life. In Beijing, I met up with an old friend from my university days in England, walked Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall, and ate Peking duck on Christmas Day. I tried scorpion, starfish, centipede, snake, cricket, and sheep’s penis (although that last one was more by mistake than anything). Though I had to wear around 8 layers every day to face the cold (it was well under 0 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind), the weather made Shanghai’s rainy days feel like a warm breeze.
As we traveled further south, each city welcomed us with even more beautiful sights and delicious food. I was lucky enough to spend some quality time with familiar faces I knew from back home in the US, as one of my best friend’s brothers had been studying in Shanghai for the last 6 months. He acted as an indispensable guide, showing us around the city and taking us for soup dumplings, which Shanghai is famous for. Visually, it had a distinctly western feel to it, and I can definitely see why Shanghai is nicknamed “The Paris of the East.” If it weren’t for all the Chinese people surrounding me, I could have been in London or Vienna or any other number of European cities.
Our last stop was Hong Kong, which was by far the best out of all three. The food, the people, the sights — everything had a familiarity to it that made me feel like I was rediscovering an old home. Walking the same streets that my father had walked over 30 years ago gave me this sense of connectedness that sort of transcended time — like he wasn’t so far away even though logic would dictate otherwise. Trying to imagine what Nathan Road looked like when he used to walk it every day wasn’t too difficult, as every dilapidated building I saw I’m pretty sure was constructed in the ’70s. Each one was neighbored by shiny, more modern architecture, making the contrast between what Hong Kong used to be and what it evolved into even stronger . I ate fresh pineapple buns for breakfast and had roast pork at every turn, drank bubble tea and skipped along the Avenue of Stars beside Victoria Bay. We had dim sum and cha chaan teng, mango pancakes and sago, and each dish I tried seemed better than the last. (Are you sensing a theme yet in my travels?)
Though China was an amazing experience, returning to Korea truly felt like coming home, especially since I was suddenly able to once again read and speak (if only a little bit) the language of the country I was in. I never thought I’d feel so grateful to see hanguel!
As every month has since I arrived in February 0f 2012, my last 2 months in Korea absolutely flew by. Before I knew it, I was packing up my apartment and saying goodbye to my classes for the last time. I may have even shed a tear at some point.
When I think about the past year, I can only see good things– the amazing friends I made who became my family, the students I taught who felt like my kids, the places I traveled that hold so many of my fondest memories. Part of me wishes I had someone or something tangible to thank, because my gratitude for the life I have experienced in this last year is so great that I feel like I need to unload it onto one thing, to show respect and appreciation for it in a singular, immense way. If I could give a bouquet of flowers and homemade cupcakes to a country, I would. And Korea would be it. Living there has taught me so much about myself and the person I have become, as well as the person I want to continue to evolve into. It has shown me love in so many forms, from the friends I danced with ’til 4 am, to the students who wrote me farewell cards, and the coworkers who continue to keep in touch. It has warmed me with the exceeding kindness of its people and surprised me with its unending natural beauty. It is a place that will remain dear to me for the rest of my life, if only because it has shown me what’s possible when you open yourself to living an entirely new reality, and for that I am forever thankful.
All of this is not to say, however, that I have been happy 100% of the time. I have missed certain things back home that sometimes make me wish I hadn’t left at all (or could at least have developed some sort of teleport by now). For example, my nephew, who was only 8 months old when I left, is now approaching his 2nd birthday, and seeing pictures of him eating cake on his 1st without me is heart-breaking. I’ve missed my sister’s high school graduation, my brother’s completion of his undergrad degree, Christmas, Thanksgiving, the annual family trip to NYC for Chinese New Year, and countless other important holidays and events that, had I been home, I would have been thrilled to attend. Having to watch from thousands of miles away (or sometimes not being able to watch at all) has left me feeling hollow at times, like perhaps I shouldn’t have been where I was in that moment. It was at these times that I felt most homesick. But the days pressed on, and I realized that though painful as missing these occasions was, being in Korea and doing what I set out to do gave me a deeper sense of personal accomplishment than anything I could have achieved back home. Slowly but surely, I was acting out my dream of seeing the world and experiencing all it has to offer first hand. Coming to Korea and teaching English was doing right by me, and I have not an inkling of regret when I think about what I’ve missed compared to what I’ve gained during my time there.
Though I only left 4 weeks ago, there are so many things I already miss about Korea and the way I felt when I was there. This is part of the reason I have decided to do a second year there, and though I know a second year provides infinite opportunities to be as incredible and magnificent as the last, part of me feels like I am already starting to prematurely compare it to the first. I know there is no way it will be the same as the last 12 months, but I am hoping that though it may be different, it will still give me plenty of reasons to smile and plenty of chances to grow as a daughter, sister, aunt, girlfriend, and overall human being. Korea, I’ll see you soon.
December 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
This entry is going to be scatterbrained. But a few exciting things are happening that I just wanted to share.
I leave for China tomorrow and will be visiting for the first time. I have been in Korea 10 months and this is my first proper vacation, so I am beyond pumped. Our first stop is Beijing, where I hope to eat Peking Duck for Christmas and finally see the Great Wall. Then it’s on to Shanghai where I’m going to see an acrobatics show and dance around the Pearl Tower. Last is Hong Kong, which is the place I am most excited about, it being my pop’s hometown and all. One of my goals is to eat my own weight in pork dumplings, dim sum, and the strangest, most eclectic stuff I can get my hands on, including (but certainly not limited to) fried insects, lizards, and scorpions.
Besides my insane excitement about going to China, today was also my last day teaching the classes that I have been teaching since February when I first arrived here. In Korea, the new school year begins in January (for private schools) and March (for public schools), so all of my classes will be moving up a grade when I return from China. I may or may not see my current 6th graders when I come back, because they will be 7th graders (aka, middle schoolers) and we do not teach them as often as we do the elementary school kids. I have also told a select few of my classes that my time at BMA is up at the end of February, so there have been a few emotions swimming around in both my kids’ hearts and my own.
Today, one of my 5th graders, a girl whose English name is Mindy, gave me the sweetest, most heart-warming letter I think I’ve ever read. She handed it to me in secret as we walked to class together. It actually made me reconsider, if only for a split-second, staying at BMA purely because I care so much for my students.
As if that wasn’t enough to brighten my entire week, at the end of the day, one of my 6th graders chased me down the halls of BMA to tell me that she wanted to leave the school together. I told her if she wanted to, she had to wait 10 minutes, because I wasn’t due to leave until 9:10 pm. She seemed increasingly antsy as the minutes ticked by, and kept saying “Teachaaa, we must leave! Can we go now?” When we finally left, she grabbed my hand and led me (along with my 3 foreign co-teachers) to a park across the street from the hagwon. Her friend, who had undoubtedly been waiting about 15 minutes too long, was walking away from the park, and the two girls started rapidly conversing in Korea with each other to sort out a plan B for what I had apparently ruined as their surprise for me. I told them I would wait at a pizza restaurant across the street, and they eagerly agreed and ran off to prepare their surprise.
Well, you can imagine my shock and overwhelming desire to smush their adorable little faces when I walked out of the pizza joint and through a set of double doors to find this:
Sweetest thing I’ve ever seen: the girls bought a package of Ghana chocolate pies and made them into a little mountain (or “Choco Pie Cake”), complete with candles for me to blow out and make a wish on. Tiffany (the girl on the left, who is also the student who gave me this amazing birthday card) wanted to give me a farewell party when she found out I might not be teaching her much longer, but after trying to figure out a time when we would have the party, we realized that the very class we were discussing it in was actually our last class together. As a result, she said she wasn’t able to “prepare” a proper gift, so she and Cindy (the girl on the right) bought me this box of choco pies and created a makeshift dessert pile. It was amazing and definitely one of the sweetest things anyone has ever done for me.
I am constantly moved by just how generous and sincere my students can be, and every day I am here, I can see why people want to be teachers, to try to inspire children and make a difference in the world. Whether they know it or not, my students have already changed and inspired me so much, simply by being themselves, by being children. Today was just another one of those days that solidified the thought I’ve had swimming around my brain for months, which is that coming to Korea to teach English has easily been one of the best decisions I have ever made in my entire life. I still have 2 months left, and I plan on making them the best 2 months ever with my students. I hope they’re ready to laugh and learn even more than they have already, ’cause Kezia Teacha is gonna go out with a bang.
November 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
It’s been awhile, folks. My apologies for the lack of regular entries. Korea keeps me busy & I like it that way.
But I’ve acquired a nasty cold and have decided to take the day to sit at home and rest, which has afforded me the chance to tell you all about my students, which I have been wanting to do for awhile now. There are still a ton of other things for me to write about, people I’ve met, places I’ve been, things I’ve seen — but I am confident those entries will happen in good time. Winter is coming, afterall, so I imagine I’ll be inside more as the days grow darker and shorter, by my computer and at the ready to fill you in on my life as it continues to unfold here in Korealand.
As I mentioned in my last entry, I teach 2nd to 7th graders Monday through Friday every week. The kids’ ages range from 8 to 13 (or 9 to 14 if you’re using the Korean system). Koreans count the first year of life from the moment of conception, meaning the first 9 months a fetus is developing contribute to that child’s 1st birthday. On the day you are born, in a Korean’s eyes, you are 1 year old. Thus, it becomes necessary to distinguish between Korean ages and Western ages, which generally have to tack on another year in order for Koreans to understand exactly how old you are. For example, I turned 25 in July, but when my kids ask me how old I am, I tell them 26. They know the difference between the two cultures when it comes to age, but I like to put it in their terms so they can fully grasp it and know how to address me properly.
After being an English instructor for going on 9 months now, there are a few things I’ve learned about myself. First is that there really are fewer joys than witnessing one of your students use something that you have specifically taught them. I imagine it is akin to having a child and raising it yourself, watching it grow and learn and develop skills based off of how you reared them. But I have never felt prouder or more happy to be a teacher than when I hear my kids using certain words or phrases I have taught them, especially when they don’t realize I am listening. This is something that is especially rewarding with older students, because it is harder to have a part in shaping who they become as people. The task is somewhat easier with my 2nd and 3rd graders, who look to me to steer their pronunciation and basic sentence formation more than their vocabulary.
Another thing I’ve learned about myself is that 5th graders are my jam. I don’t know what it is, but that age group simply resonates with me. They aren’t like my younger students, who, though unmistakably adorable, are zany and constantly bouncing off the walls with a crazy, uncontrollable energy. And they aren’t like my 6th and 7th graders, who are at the age where they begin to question, criticize, and generally see through the facades of many of the institutions that have raised them — namely their parents and their teachers. The older kids are also starting to feel inner turmoil as well, dealing with more mature issues like body image, relationships, and all the feelings that come with those developments. To me, 5th graders are the perfect blend of maturity and personality. They are old enough to have their own histories, stories, and experiences, but young enough to still think their teacher is “cool” and therefore respectable. I get along better with no other class than my 5th grade students. They bring me the most joy and the most laughter on a daily basis. Which is not to say that my older and younger students don’t bring me happiness as well, just not in the sheer numbers that my 5th graders do.
Though I don’t think teaching is my calling as a career in the long term, I have certainly enjoyed the time I have spent at my school so far, and I can see why people choose this profession and do it year after year after year. There is a certain infectious energy that being around young children all day brings, and it can often be a student who makes or breaks your day. I’ve had entire days turn around, for better or worse, because of a single class or even a single student. I’ve come into work tired, stressed, and generally glum about the prospect of my day only to have a 3rd grader draw my portrait on a post-it and have me grinning ear to ear. I’ve had a gang of 5th graders come skipping to my desk 5 minutes before the bell just to escort me up the stairs and into the classroom, arguing over who gets to walk with me arm in arm. When it comes to my job in Korea, my kids are my world, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have one 3rd grade girl named Lily. She is in a lower level class, so many of our lessons are based on repetition and simple question-and-answer type games. When I first met her, I was convinced she was the devil. She had a horrible attitude, spoke Korean nonstop throughout my class, and made no effort whatsoever to listen to what I had to say as her teacher. She disrespected me constantly by walking into class late, talking over me, and muttering things under her breath when she thought I couldn’t hear her. She made me feel helpless and frustrated, and these feelings were only made worse by the fact that I would often let them show, sometimes throwing my hands up in exasperation or heaving a big sigh when she wasn’t giving me the answer or result that I needed. When I was finally out of ideas on how to deal with her, I realized the problem wasn’t her at all, but in the way I was treating her. Her attitude was being exacerbated by my negativity. At the end of the day, I was getting upset and fighting with a 9 year old child, so who had the bigger problem?
I decided to go into class the next week with a fresh take on how I wanted to spend my time with the students, and since then, Lily has become one of my favorite students. Just last week, right before class, she came running to my desk yelling “Teacha! Teacha!” and motioning for me to follow her. As I got up to walk from behind the desk, she met me at the corner and gave me a huge hug. She then grabbed my hand and, swinging it, walked me to the hallway towards our classroom. Another student from her class, Giselle, took my water bottle and eagerly volunteered to fill it up for me. As I mentioned before, Lily is young and of a pretty low level, so her English is quite limited. While we stood there waiting for Giselle to finish filling up the water bottle, I felt Lily let go of my hand and looked down to find her slowly, wordlessly buttoning up the buttons on my work jacket. It was so cute, so deliberate, the way her tiny hands calmly, patiently, and affectionately buttoned up my coat, the way a mother would button the winter coat of a child just before they’re dash out the door to play in the snow. It was easily one of the happiest moments of my time here in Korea, looking down at this little girl who I used to feel so thwarted and disheartened by, now holding my hand and running to hug me. It made me feel like all of the days I struggled with her were worth it.
There is another student in Lily’s class — a boy whom I named Eddie. He has incredibly light, white skin, a chubby face, thin-rimmed glasses and a bit of a slur when he speaks. In my head, I’ve lovingly nicknamed him my little “piggy.” (This, of course, is not a nickname I have ever used out loud with him.) When I first met him in February, though he was never unkind, he was incredibly slow, perhaps the slowest student in the class. I would often have to make other students wait while we did speaking or writing activities in the book because Eddie would take so much longer than them. I stuck with him though, always giving him a little extra attention to make sure he was on the same page as everybody else and that he understood what was going on in the lesson.
Earlier this year, Eddie’s class completed their work with our “Let’s Talk” curriculum and began a new book. After warming the students up to the layout of the new material, I noticed Eddie was able to keep pace with the other students. By the beginning of October, he was moving faster than his fellow classmates. He is now one of the best students in the class, offering answers and always politely raising his hand to say them. The excitement he displays and the pride and confidence that I have witnessed him nurture within himself are astounding. It makes me so happy as a teacher to see one of my students dramatically improve over the course of my time with them. If one student has improved since meeting me, I’ve got to be doing at least something right, haven’t I?
I have many more stories of my kids, but just wanted to share a couple examples of how much joy they bring me and why being a teacher in Korea has been such a rewarding experience for me so far. For now, I need to drink some oolong and rest up for tomorrow. Please enjoy the photos of some of my students and a collection of some of the awesome memories they have provided me with so far.