You say Goodbye, I say…uh, Hello? (And Goodbye)

Today we said “goodbye” to two teachers at Yale who I’m fairly certain I had never met before until today, although I am sure they were wonderful people.

These were two Korean teachers who’d worked at Yale for two years. I should have added in my novella about classes that every class has a Korean “co-teacher” who instructs the class in their language. We alternate days, which also means I have each class on alternating days (Mon-Wed-Fri one week, then Tue-Thurs) the next.

Part of their job, for me at least, has been to help provide a Korean perspective, both with the students’ learning and also with the expectations for me as a teacher. Both the English-speaking and Korean teachers are supposed to leave notes for each other in a binder, but the notes appear to be sporadic, which meant I spent a lot of time last week chasing down my co-teachers asking them about each class.

In person, all of my co-teachers have been very friendly and helpful with the classes. There’s about 10-15 overall. Also, between the three directors so far I’ve been reasonably well taken care of, so that I’m not deported.

This might come off the wrong way, but part of me hopes there’s some turnover at the school, because the lunches they throw to say goodbye are AMAZING (and FREE for the teachers!). Like the first day when I was taken out to lunch by the director, we went to a place where everyone sits barefoot (or shoeless, I kept my socks on) and shares a large assortment of plates like kimchi and raddishes and seaweed stuff. We did all get a giant hot bowl of chicken stew to ourselves, which was fun.

Also the restaurant had the best kimchi that I’ve eaten so far on the island, which is ALMOST saying something because I’ve been eating kimchi at least once every night.

So hopefully the two teachers leaving go on to more adventures. There are also a number of teachers leaving to go back to the US/UK/Canada/wherever they came from this week. I met a few who seemed like good people over the weekend. The only problem was that it was awkward because our parting words were along the lines of “it was nice to have met you tonight, have a nice life.”

Today I showed a class Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (they were doing a lesson on Washington DC) and they seemed bored as hell for the most part. Either they didn’t understand what was going on in the film, or, more likely, they just have good taste in movies and understood that I was showing them trash.

Another exciting US-food appearance: a bakery near the school sells Pepperidge Farm cookies. I bought a package and then decided that I need to eat healthier so I gave almost all the cookies away to my co-workers today.

I’ve been spending almost every night lately at a coffee shop/internet cafe that was recommended to me by the school. It’s called “Maybe Cafe” and it’s open until 1 am every night. They have a nice selection of snacks and drinks, and their homemade yogurt is pretty good too.

There are some excellent reasons why I’ve been going there almost until closing time. For one, it has internet, and since it stays open late, I’ve been able to talk to some people in the US while I’m there. Secondly, it’s a popular and well-known hangout for expats and foreigners, which for right now, is excellent because I am still in the meet-new-people stage here. Finally, it’s owned by a former teacher at Yale, a woman who is fluent in both English and Korean (she lived in Toronto for a while), and it doesn’t hurt that she is also (FILL IN THE BLANK). She’s older than me, but then again, almost everyone here, including my students, thinks I’m 35, so my “Korean age” is flexible enough to accomodate this. She makes a good lemon sawa.

On a final note, I’ve been reading the Southern Vampire Mysteries on my kindle, the series of books that the show “True Blood” is based on. I’ve read the first two but I think I’m going to stop there because I really didn’t like the second one that much (the first was okay).

They’re fun and I can see the appeal. I wanted to read them to see how they compared with the television show, which is extremely silly but also extremely addictive. It’s a terrible thing to say, but I think I like the show a little better.

I have two related problems with the books. The first is that they veer quickly from “quirky romance” to “hard core pornography.” I don’t find explicit content bad in and of itself (although it can be awkward). In fact, in the first book I even TOLERATED the pages upon pages of sexy sex because it kinky and kind of plot related. But after a while, it becomes something sex should never be, which is BOOOOOOOORRRRRRRRRRINGGGGGGGG.

After a lot of the same sexy stuff over and over and over and over, it was monotonous. I wound up skipping a good portion of the second book because there were so many interludes between (SPOILER ALERT???) main character Sookie and her vampire bill, which stop the plot in its tracks and twist the genre from thriller/fantasy to shitty romance novel.

Also, Sookie is (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN!) a slut in the novels. And she’s annoying. AND the books are in first person. By the second book, I was tired of Sookie’s perspective. She (and i think a lot of readers) likes to think that she straddles the line between “exploring” and “slutty” but I think she crosses that line somewhere along book two, for the simple reason that she lets herself by absolutely dominated sexually by a variety of much more powerful men. I mean, okay, Sookie has “powers”, but in terms of strength of character and willpower, she’s a sexual pawn for what seems like 1/2 the population of her Louisiana town, Bon Temps. Judging from the tv series, this only gets worse as time goes on. For the record, I think she should stay with Mr. Bill.

Charlaine Harris (the author) is also not very prosaic in her descriptions of bedtime. But this is a characteristic of a lot of writing. My new new pet peeve are awkward metaphors which try to approximate the experience of an orgasm. I understand you can’t just write “and then she had an orgasm”, but attempts at poetry can make things worse.

So here are some free orgasm metaphors, some Aaron Dorman “originals”:

“‘Oh!’ she cried as the eggshells melted underneath her eyelids.”

“‘Oh!’ he said as the peanuts within his very soul were turned to butter.”

“‘Again!’ she screamed as the whole world transformed into pastel blue.”

“‘More!’ he said as he felt like his groin were a cocoon which was about to reveal a handsome butterfly.”

“Then the two of them sat there feeling like the bed had just caught fire with flames of marshmallows.”

the end


Kids These Days

Over the past week, I’ve spent dozens of hours with little Korean children. Some of them are well behaved, some of them are not, but all of them are pretty fascinating to me, because not only have I never taught kids before, I’ve never taught Korean kids before.

I teach grades 2-9, of varying levels of English competency. Although supposedly the older kids are more mature, because of the differing levels of ability, the behavior and attitude of the kids is all over the map.

In general, I have found that kids are kids everywhere. Other than the fact that they speak (and look) Korean, I have a hard time seeing where the cultural difference actually influences their behavior. The younger kids have boundless energy and love to zoom around the room or throw things at each other. When you point out that this is wrong, they just look at you like you’re an idiot. I understand; they can’t fight what’s in their nature.

Similarly, the older middle-school aged students are less antsy but twice as talkative and gossipy, and a lot of them are little monsters. Maybe it’s hormones, maybe it’s youthful rebellion in earnest, but a lot of them I feel have a nastier impulse to see what will drive the teacher to either throw someone out the window or, better yet, jump out himself.

What was this nonsense about kids in Asia having more respect for the teaching profession? I certainly haven’t noticed this.

All the classes were extremely talkative and/or wild until I layed down some form of disciplinary rules. Nobody likes writing on the board, and the older kids get very upset when I split them up for talking. Ironically, I think that the younger kids are actually more responsive to threatening to lower their test grades (or fail them outright). That’s because, this being a private school, the younger kids take it more for granted that this is what they’re “supposed” to be doing, while the older kids  have surely learned by now that this just that place that their parents make them go at night and that if they were to get zeroes on all of their quizzes and tests there’s nothing I, as a teacher, could really hold over their heads (except for calling their parents).

I feel like that means I will have to establish order with the older kids largely through cult of personality. That’s been easier with some groups than others. I feel I have already bonded with some of the students, while in others it might take a while. Part of that has to do with the lesson plan. I started teaching in the middle of a Unit, and some of the material lends itself to more fun activities than others.

Last Monday and Tuesday were very stressful as they mostly consisted of me trying to catch up with what the students were doing prior to the time I got there. I also needed to get a feel for each class’ respective abilities and preferences. The little kids seem to enjoy songs and reciting verbatim lines from their book (how much learning actually gets done seems suspect to me, but then again, when I draw pictures on the board they are very good at identifying them). Some of the older kids don’t like to talk and would prefer to sit with their head down doing worksheets all day. And some groups are just more demanding in general, wanting some kind of more engaging and interactive experience that a textbook cannot provide.

My kids have asked me all sorts of questions. How old am I? Where am I from? Why did I come to Korea? Do I have a girlfriend? How tall am I?

Their cultural references are all over the place. They know Yoda, sort of, but they don’t know what movie he’s from. They know the Cookie Monster and Big Bird, but not Oscar the Grouch. The safest bets, movie-wise, to reference in the class, are Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. However, one class seemed very interested in “yogurt” until I realized they were actually trying to say “Hogwarts.”

You might have heard eastern English pronunciations anglicized to things like “Englishee” or “finishee” and this is a very factual trait among my students and also fairly annoying. I understand, up to a point, that some of our sounds are difficult for them to pronounce. However, many of the students CAN correctly make the sounds, like “ch” or “sh” without adding an extra syllable on the end; they simply think it’s extremely hilarious to do so. With my younger students, I will let it slide, but with some of my older/better students, I need to make it clear to them that if they have any aspirations of going to an English-speaking country and they continue to add extra syllables, they will be laughed at, and it will be miserable.

In Barcelona I got very used to asking things in Spanish and being responded to in English. Even with something benign like that, it’s hard to realize until you travel abroad the benefit (or detriment) of your ability to blend in. I would be a lot more tolerant of my student’s mistakes if I didn’t know that they were capable of much better accuracy.

But I have digressed (significantly)! Here are, in bullet points, some of my favorite moments from over the first week:

*my fourth grade students DEMANDING that I mark their papers with a smiley face and a 100% (if they did indeed get 100%).

*having them write stories about a dragon. At first, one of the students was being a wiseass and his sentences were “Mr. Dragon was hopeless, Mr. Dragon was important,” etc. I made him write an extra clause (ie, Mr. Dragon was hopeless because…) and it turned out, he did know what the adjectives mean! I lost the paper, but I think he wrote something like “Mr. Dragon was useless because all he does is breath fire and be ugly” or something like that.

*reading a student’s assessment of Oscar the Grouch. They were asked to use three adjectives to describe a character’s lifestyle, and while they agreeably characterized Oscar as “dirty”, they also thought he was “happy because he is free” and “free because Oscar can get all the garbage he wants.” That was a beautiful moment.

*one of the kids was whining “teacher! teacher!” and I went over to him to see what was wrong. He showed me a bloody tooth, and I, very concerned, asked him if he needed anything and advised him to go immediately downstairs so he could get proper medical treatment. Then he told me that this had happened three hours ago, he just wanted very badly to show me his tooth. “Oh, that’s nice,” I told him. And maybe it was. As long as he didn’t throw it at anyone.

*Using Yoda in a worksheet to teach students how to properly write sentences with subject-verb-object agreement. The pleasure I derived from this really had nothing to do with the students; it was just that it was my first self-made worksheet and I was so happy that I had come up with a way to entertain both myself and the students in the process of learning.

There’s been plenty of nice moments. My favorite class is a group of fifth graders who do everything quickly with 100% accuracy but also have distinct and fun personalities. Although they DO seem to get an unhealthy amount of enjoyment from an old knockoff of Jenga called “Stack-Em.”

Not everything has been nice. My lowest point was getting so angry at students that I broke a golden rule-no sarcasm in class (which someone pointed out to me might have actually been sarcasm on the part of the school)-and made some very very badly behaving girls write 20 times on the wall something to the effect of “talking while the teacher is talking or giving a quiz is a dangerous activity that kills people.” I initially wanted them to write “kills fairies” but I wasn’t sure if that would go over their heads or not. I was going for something insipid enough to make them feel embarrassed to write something that stupid on the wall. At the very least, they got the message that I wasn’t giving them free reign in the classroom just because they were a bunch of bitchy middle-school girls. I do know all their names, now.

Discipline will continue to be an ongoing issue. Speaking of discipline, the word count for this post is approaching 1500 words and so I’m going to stop and save something for later. We’ll get to my new hangout spot, my apartment, and the weekend in due time.

Looking for food in all the wrong places.

I’ve been very busy, hence the silence. Here is a tentative schedule of what I want to write about:

Monday: first week of classes, and a nice cafe.

Tuesday: My apartment.

Wednesday: The weekend.

And by then, there should be plenty of material to continue with.

Although I’ve been taking care of my apartment and my sleeping habits have been slightly improved, my eating schedule has been erratic. Two major forces have conspired to make sure that meal hours and portions change.

The first, less important reason, is that the school workday for me is later than the typical work schedule; I get to work around 1 and don’t leave until 8 or 9 at the earliest, which means it eats into both lunch and dinner. I knew this already, though.

The major reason I haven’t been eating well is that the language barrier prevents me from going anywhere that doesn’t have a menu in A. English, or B. pretty pictures. I’m often very confused walking around whether a place is a restaurant or not, whether it is open or not, and what I should do when I go in. There are a handful of places near my home and the school which cater to expats, mostly coffee houses and the dreaded Dunkin Donuts. There is a nice bakery near the school called Paris Baguette which seems to have some goods imported from Europe.

The biggest problem with the language barrier, however, might be that I can’t figure where I am. I can’t recognize street signs unless they’re in English so unlike a typical city in the US or elsewhere, it’s almost impossible for me to retrace my steps if I stray too far from familiar routes.

Thankfully, the school is near a giant rotary, helpfully pronounced “rotary” in Korean as well, so that is how I’ve been orienting myself around. I was able to find the rotary from my home, and now I can sort of hover around the general area.

Ironically, I can take a taxi from my home to the school, but not the other way around. On Tuesday I was running late so I flagged down a cab and said “rotary”, so he knew where to go. However, I don’t know how to tell someone to take my back to my apartment. I don’t know the street name or number, there aren’t really any landmarks nearby that would be helpful for a cab driver; I don’t even know my own mailbox number.

Even before I found what I was eventually looking for (ie, a western-catering commercial street), my usual routes had no shortage of eateries, quick-serving type places which specialized in only one or two dishes, like fish or fried chicken or pork belly (very popular here). However, there was no English on the menu and especially in a place that would serve pork belly, I want to be careful what I order so that I don’t spend 10,000 won on a slab of pork fat or something even more exotic, like an eyeball.

Earlier last week I found a place near the rotary called “Young Gu’s Pizza: Casual American Restaurant” which I felt was a safe option as far as possibly having an English menu, and I was right. So how ironic: at the San Francisco airport last week, I made sure to have  a pizza (at 9 am local time no less) so that I could have one before I went a year’s absence without eating a pie, and then of course the first real meal out I had in Korea was…pizza. : p

Young Gu’s pizza was very mediocre but I was very hungry so it hit the spot. There are apparently some okay pizza places here, I might have to use them at some point but for now I’d hope to avoid bad western cuisine. I also don’t have a phone yet, so that makes the decision easier (the chief benefit of a place called “Mr. Pizza” would be that you can have them deliver, no?). The pizza delivery guys around town ride around in motorcycles and scare me because unlike cars, which will stop before they kill you, the cyclists don’t care.

A few days after Young Gu’s, one of the girls at the school was nice enough to direct me to a part of town where there are considerably more exciting eateries and, more importantly, places where there is some English.

So last Thursday, I had a Korean “feast” at a restaurant whose name I still cannot pronounce. All the food is fresh and in one corner a man is making fresh dumplings and rice balls, and in the other corner someone is preparing rice, tofu, and veggies wrapped in laver (some kind of seaweed stuff). I ordered 20 dumplings (1/2 with meat, 1/2 with kimchi) along with fried rice and kimchi stew. I was also constantly handed plates of cold kimchi (a complementary snack along with the meal) and some kind of spicy green things. It was delicious. The next night I went to a kimpab place. I’m still not sure what kimpab is exactly supposed to be, but I was served laver rolls and they were great too.

Not only is the Korean food around here delicious, but I think eating out here (for the most part) is going to be extremely cheap when compared to the US. I over-ordered both times I went alone to that street this week, because I assumed that a plate of dumplings for 4500 won was not going to be enough food (4500 is roughly 4-5 dollars). I was very wrong. You can get a good meal here of local Korean food for between 5-8 dollars equivalent. The only thing that costs that little that I can think of in Albany that’s any decent is Chipotle or Panera, and again, that’s only if you order just one main dish. Here you can actually a full MEAL for 5-8 dollars, like two main plates and some side dishes. That’s crazy good. We will see how many dumplings I can cram into my mouth before I get sick of them. (in Barcelona I basically was eating the same two or three tapas at least once every day and now I’m not sure I can look at pimientos de padron for at least another decade).

For now, I have easy access to FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD!

The blog is back!

And so am I!

There is so much to say, but there’s also a lot of time to say it. As you can see from the picture, this blog will mainly document the challenges I face adjusting to living on Jeju island.

The giant volcano in the picture, Hallasan, is the tallest mountain in Korea and sits right in the middle of my new home. It is visible from every part of the island…except since I got here, as intense rain and fog (and a general haze) has kept it invisible except for a few hours yesterday. But it’s a truly massive mountain.

The locals like to refer to Jeju island as “the Korean Hawaii”, except one of the school directors also referred to Newfoundland as the “Canadian Hawaii,” so all comparisons must be taken very broadly. Still, from what I can tell (and truth be told I have no idea where I am or what is going on, I guess I should have listened to those language CDs instead of playing old computer games) Jeju island is a very beautiful place with lots of fun natural formations.

In case the picture in my blog background doesn’t do Hallasan justice, here’s a more accurate side profile of the volcano:

As you can see, the island is very harmonious with nature, and although the pathway up is very steep, there are helpful pedestrian signs along the slope. It looks like there might be a stegosaurus on the peak as well. That’s something to look forward to!

Seogwipo is a small city of 60,000 people that so far seems very nice but is extremely confusing for a foreigner to navigate. There a couple reminders of home, but none that really inspire: a Dunkin Donuts here, a Baskin Robbins there. The large city on the island, Jeju City (300,000 people), has an Outback steakhouse (I noticed on my way from the airport).

I’m teaching at a school called Yale Foreign Language Academy (YFLA). Let’s keep this a secret, but apparently there’s only a “loose” affiliation with the school in New Haven; lots of language schools here like to take the name of a famous University. There’s a big picture in the front of the school of all the Ivy leagues, I’ll have to ask at some point if we’ve sent any students there.

I’m teaching with six other (North) American girls at the school. I’m the only guy. That makes me the Snow White of YFLA. Maybe I’ll do some spring cleaning around the office.

I’ll have a lot more to say about my first few days of classes in upcoming blog posts, but for now, I’ll point out some interesting observations: all of the students above grade 5 asked me if I had a girlfriend (none below did). One class asked me 5 times. I changed my answer because I got tired of telling them “no.” So for several classes, I have a mysterious gf who lives back in the US, and also I now live in New York City.

My favorite part of teaching is when one of the students asked me if I had a perm. What a silly question! Of course I’ve had a perm! How else would I keep my hair so nice and curly?

It took me four days to learn how to use the hot water in my apartment. I’ll talk more about my apartment later.

In summary: there will be some good times. There will be some bad times. But how? That’s the adventure!