Recurring Dreams

The countdown has begun. I now have only five days of teaching left at Yale. The office has gone through a complete remodeling and everything is torn down, including (without my permission) all my students’ drawings (a lot of them “portraits” of their teacher) that I had on the wall. Things are being painted, wires are hanging everywhere, books are thrown about.

But, thank the good lord, the CCTV is up and running. In fact, with the office layout, I can actually watch the security cameras while I plan for my classes (or spoon peanut butter into my mouth for “lunch”). Watching Robyn teacher talk on the phone as she stands in the corner of the third floor office is exactly as entertaining as it sounds.

I saw Men in Black 3 tonight. Normally this wouldn’t be post-worthy but I, it must be said, the movie was great. Paying to see Men in Black was almost as great as not paying to see Wrath of the Titans.

Two of my favorite TV actors play important roles: Michael Stuhlbarg (really really liked him as Arnold Rothstein in “Boardwalk Empire”, almost wrote that as “Billboard Empire”, whatever) and Jemaine Clement (from “Flight of the Conchords”, it’s been a good year for those guys). They both play aliens and it’s good fun.

But most importantly, one of the key locations in the film is Shea Stadium circa 1969, which is really nifty considering A. the film was shot post-demolition of that shithole  and B. Shea Stadium’s color scheme and facade had been completely redone since then anyway. So in addition to showcasing some fancy movie magic, this film reminds us that:

1. There was once a time when the NY Mets were good, and it coincided with some other fun happenings, like putting a man on the moon (summer of 69 wooooo).

2. This movie introduces a broader audience to the second NY baseball team in a flattering and historically significant way. METS METS METS METS METS METS METS METS METS METS METS

If that wasn’t esoteric enough, the FIRST Men in Black movie also featured Shea Stadium, when it was still around in 1997. Outfielder Bernard Gilkey drops a fly ball because one of the World’s Fair exhibitions has turned into a flying saucer and hovers above the field. The new movie features an actor playing Cleon Jones.

Enough of that.

I’ve been having, on and off over the past ten months, essentially the same anxiety dream, not scary enough to be a nightmare but altogether unpleasant:

I am still working at a hogwon on Jeju, or plan to, but somehow am stuck back in Albany, New York, or the US. I don’t know how I got there but I can’t figure out a way to get back.

The dream seems to have 2 versions:

In one, I am still supposedly working for a hogwon, but I’ve somehow gone home for the weekend, but now the forces that be-sometimes family, sometimes money, no plane ticket, etc-prevent me from getting back there in time to not be fired.

In the second, I have already either been fired or finished the contract and am back home, but want to return to Jeju, however once again am prevented from getting back there in time.

The dreams are very unpleasant because in addition to the feeling of being trapped (don’t have agency to make a choice about work or going back) I deeply regret (in these dreams) missed opportunities and the fact that I won’t see those friends again. There’s also a sense of failure and loss.

Initially I think that these dreams stemmed from fear of job security, or fear of a return to my jobless summer last year, which was awful, but with the fact that finding a job teaching ESL here is so easy, and unchallenging, I think there is something more at play here.

If I may self-diagnose what ails my subconscious: I’m still feeling torn between my home of the present, and my home of the past, back in Albany. Not that I’m particularly anxious to make a life back there-that’s part of the terror of my dreams-but I still crave a sense of comfort and familiarity that I don’t have here. Also, college excepted, I lived in the same place for 23 years.

Living on Jeju is comfortable in other ways-you can be self-sufficient, you have lots to do, you can make good friends, you can stop feeling the pressure of time or expectations.

Ultimately I think though that most ESL teachers on the island, at least those who haven’t completely self-deluded themselves, feel the same struggle with the fact that although life here is beautiful, ultimately it’s temporary, just a place to catch your breath before you have to figure out what to do with yourself in the real world.

Jeju is many things, but it is not the real world. Jeju is Never-never land. ESL teachers on Jeju are living on a bubble, in a bubble. Westerns isolate themselves, on an island further isolated from anything, within a transient time of abundant hogwon jobs. As it turns out, to have lived during the age of the hogwon bubble is a glorious gift.

But it’s based on some really absurd and flimsy ideas about education, language, and culture (to be very reductive). Perhaps Korea will continue to be an ESL bubble forever, but it’s far more likely that the whole thing turns out to be a stupid fad, which it is, and ESL becomes no more prevalent here than in other Asian countries.

Living here, whatever talents you have are magnified, just like in high school. If you have some physical abilities and coordination, you are an ATHLETE. If you have a pad to doodle on while you sit on the toilet you are a WRITER. If you can desk warm without falling asleep or stabbing yourself with the nearest writing implement, you are a TEACHER. And so on.

Maybe I’m being unfair to people who really do enjoy ESL at a career level. And there are some people here, or anywhere, who have decided that this is their life because they really do enjoy teaching and working with kids that much.

But I think they are greatly in the minority. And for every person who is willing to dedicate themselves to ESL out of passion for the career, there are at least three people who simply refuse to make a decision about their lives.

And although some new teachers discover a previously unknown love for the job, more people I think discover why they never considered teaching until they were forced into it-because it’s ultimately not for them.

I feel more inclined towards that position, although I do think I enjoy teaching, and in particular have great fun sometimes with the younger students.

But honestly, what I’m really looking forward to this summer is trying to start applying myself to some long term projects and hopefully setting myself up for a brighter future for when I return home, although that is a very vague notion, as right now “future home” means somewhere in the US/Canada, or the wider western world (Sydney is nice. So is Barcelona. Except when you get mugged).

Among these projects is to get a more working knowledge of Korean, so that I can write more intelligently about Korean culture and its relationship to ESL teaching/foreign presence, as well as how it compares with western culture.

1200 words about a bad dream and the New York Mets! That’s not bad. This weekend I’m hopefully camping on Udo island, so I’ll bring my (charged) camera, won’t lose my wallet, and will have more Jeju-related material to post on the blog.

Monday is Buddha’s birthday, which provides another day for me to pretend that I’m going to climb the volcano. One of these days….


Everybody Plays Volleyball

Because she asked nicely, I can relate to this haiku by Emily Jennings:

“Goddamnit, I’m your teacher,

not a snack machine.

Get your own candy.”

This weekend was a big deal for foreigners on Jeju. The Jeju Furey Beach Volleyball Tournament was held up north at Iho Beach. Here’s a link to an article about the event:

Here are some photos of our team at our tent:

A lot of players and teams take this tournament very seriously. Our team was put together at the last minute, which was actually a tremendous job by the tournament’s coordinator, Dan Nabben, although our team name, “We Came For the Free Sand”, was kind of stupid. Which is my fault, since I picked that title, but then I changed my mind when it was too late to change my mind.

Our team consisted of myself, a couple visiting the girl’s hospitalized brother for the weekend, a guy who came back to Jeju because his boat fell apart, a Korean who didn’t speak any English, and a mystery ghost who never actually showed up to play. This turned out to be wonderful since the whole time we were able to pull someone from one of the better teams to play for us. Thanks, Jihee!

Anyway, as in November, I was torn between what level of competition I wanted to prepare myself for. Did I want to spend the whole weekend drinking, or did I want to try to show off my volleyball skills?

Thankfully I didn’t have to choose. Eventually I couldn’t help but realize that I am an athlete and I was born to be competitive and win everything I do. I realized this after about four cans of beer.

And win we did. On Saturday our team went 11-1, probably because we in the ‘D’ bracket, the lowest of four levels of competition on the beach (the tournament structure is a little convoluted but its designed for different levels of play).

Saturday night there was a dance party but I didn’t have a great time since my wallet was missing. Also this weird guy who showed up to the tournament dropped the n-word and he scared me.

Because I didn’t my money, I didn’t wind up drinking that much, but I wound up waking up with a splitting hangover headache anyway, since I’d just spent 17+ hours on a hot beach and probably didn’t drink enough water.

I most certainly ate enough fajitas though. Those things just kept coming into my mouth. All of my meals on the weekend were wrapped in tortillas, even late Sunday night, where I had to quickly order a burrito and catch the last bus back to Seogwipo. The fajitas were great. Probably the best thing about the tournament. Except for when I found my wallet. That was even greater.

Sunday got crazy on the court for our team as we started having to play “good” teams, and we moved all around the tournament bracket until we landed all the way in the “b” section, where we managed to lose to the “censored sets”, which kind of bothered me since one of their players constantly attacks my fashion statements, particularly cowboy hat. I wanted to beat them and beat while wearing my cowboy hat. We didn’t. I learned nothing from the experience.

At some point in the day, an escaped convict swam from his island prison and landed on the beach, where he confusedly observed a bunch of teachers playing volleyball:

Even though he was a convicted killer, he was kind enough to take this photo with me before he continued on his way out of the country:

Speaking of manly men, here’s an action shot of Terry The Enforcer, who works for my biker gang. He gets pulled into action when we need to lock down our control of a neighborhood. To give you an idea of how dangerous he is, some asshole insulted our gang on the internet a few weeks ago, and I haven’t even SEEN him since.

In addition to being an excellent visual of what Canadians look like when they try to play volleyball, this gives you a good idea of what the layout of the beach is like. The beach has about a dozen volleyball courts. The ocean would be behind the photographer in this photo. There are blue tents set up for the teams just along the berm, which I’m calling a berm, but it’s not really a berm since you can’t really sit on it. The berm/hill (bermy hill?) runs along the entire length of the beach. Up on top of the berm/hill is where the fajitas are and where people camped for the night.

More pictures:

It’s pretty amazing how within the contained bubble of Jeju island, this relatively small group of foreigners (and some Koreans) can come together and create an even tighter bubble where amateur beach volleyball takes on grand significance. It feels as if at least half the foreigner on the island either take part in the tournament, volunteer, or come and watch/drink beer. That’s intense.

This is an island of dreams. Everybody has a dream. Some people want to be star athletes. Others want to be great poets. Some people want to be both. Some people already are.

Jeju is like Never Never Land. Or maybe more like high school. Except the bus that takes you home is actually a plane that takes you across an ocean for 15 hours and costs $ 1000 to fly in economy class.



Haiku Death Battle Revisited

This weekend was the volleyball tournament, I’ll post pictures and elaborate tomorrow. Short version: I worked hard to become a real athlete, but I may have lost the use of my left pinky along the way.

Also, I spend 24 hours without my wallet. Losing my wallet is a skill that I’ve been working hard at this past month, I’m almost as good at getting rid of my moneybag as I am at volleyball now. This new wallet even had a chain, so that’s doubly impressive that it managed to run away.

A good part of Saturday night and Sunday was spent whining and looking like an idiot as I combed every inch of the beach. I was prepared to spend another week doing annoying things like getting new cards (credit, alien visa, birthday, etc).

I even grabbed a shovel and started digging for it around my tent. Now people are going to think I’m strange.

Although I did get some compliments, as with my shovel, cowboy hat, and mustache, I apparently looked like a prospector, or the guy in “the good the bad and the ugly.”  Late in the afternoon a friend was about to chuck a random plastic bag and out it came. He dangled it confusedly by its leash but I knew what it was and had a happy reunion.

The haiku battle books have been printed and I bought a bunch. They even proclaim myself to be the One True Haiku King of Jeju.

Here are a couple King Dorman originals that I don’t believe I posted yet:

“God plays hide and seek.

He’s a shadow, like a ghost.

Or he’s on your toast.”

“Whitney died this year.

Houston we have a problem.

I’ll always love you.”

But I am a generous King, and pouring over the book I now call attention to several of the best haikus written by the other contestants:

SW Pike:

“There was once a man.

He called Nantucket his home.

Damn! Wrong type of poem.”

Nic Cunniffe:

“The moon’s made of cheese,

But we’ve just scratched the surface.

Could be lasagne.”

(Note: It’s a seven layer dip, dumbass)

Kathleen Callahan:

“Steve Jobs died. Ronald

Turned the big 5-0. Not a

Great Year for Big Macs.”

(Kathleen also wrote a haiku attacking my identity, but the truth is no matter how much people judge me I cannot hide who I am on the inside, and who I am is sometimes a cowboy from the Dakotas).

Matt Leman:

“when it comes to mouse

traps, second place, not first place

is the real winner.”

Kate Corr:

“parents are people.

Flawed, real, like you and like me.

But they don’t have sex.”

There are plenty more masterpieces but I refuse to share them all. You could have bought the books from Stephen Smith for 3,200 won or now you can buy them from me, the King, for 32,000 won, to read some more.

Flipping through the book brought back some good memories and let me appreciate the poetry people wrote. Some people in the battle could have benefited from stronger deliveries, some of the material was much funnier/poignant when I was reading it to myself, which only means that in a performance based competition have excellent material is only half the battle.

Some themes stick out; a lot of the writers wrote about the cultural clash, and there was a common gripe over the general whininess and irritating manner of the children we teach.

Several people discussed the year that was and who we lost along the way.

Also, sexual metaphors involving Jeju fruit made multiple appearances.

Although I tend to think that funny haikus are better (easier to write perhaps?) since the haiku format lends itself more to punchiness, there was some nice diversity of themes and topics overall. Some authors tried to tackle bigger issues like land mines and rotary traffic. Some authors have too much time on their hands and too many ideas for what makes a good vibrator.

I really wanted to eat Indian food tonight.

(note, up until this parenthesis, the word count for this post was 666. How demonic. Or Satanic. I asked someone this week which was worse, and they felt demonic, because Satanic was too specific. There’s some overlap here though)

Kids, Craters, and Cooking at Home

A good deal of my students have given up all pretense of trying to learn English, or just trying to behave in a manner that won’t cause me to light myself on fire and jump out the window.

I’ve had a lot of kids screaming in Korean, swearing in Korean, throwing things at each other.

Today my fifth graders complained that they weren’t having any fun. Which really kind of hurt me, because I actually WANT them to have fun. We were playing a game too, but they found it boring. Because it was an English game. And they find English boring.

Last week one of my middle school classes started to take apart the desks. I was trying to teach grammar or something and all the sudden all the tables started falling apart. Somehow, by the time I brought the big boss lady into the classroom, the tables had reassembled themselves as if by magic, but unfortunately for my students, their textbooks did not also magically reappear as well. Oops.

Possible reasons for the sudden upswing in shenanigans include:

* Spring time

*Release after a month of test-taking

*A bad case of hormonal outbursts

*Knowledge that I’m not going to be their teacher for much longer (this is me being paranoid but hogwons are gossip central).

*Subconscious response to my anxiety over this transitional period

*Disco Fever

The most popular game at Yale hogwon among students (and teachers too) is the “mafia” game, where kids pretend to be mafia, and the idea is that the rest of the class, or “cityfolk”, try to weed out the bad guys before they kill everyone.

My students don’t understand this game. Or they understand it too well, and they prefer a different version. What usually happens is the “mafia” kid “kills” a student, and then proudly declares that they were the ones who offed their classmate.

I tried being very sneaky, naming MYSELF the mafia, and therefore forcing the kids to actually figure out who the killer is. The results were hilarious. I think I’m going to do this again.

I tried to write dialogues for kids as well. This also seemed to have reasonably decent results.

My favorite from a kids’ paper today was the following gem:

“I’d like to take a car to the car museum. The car museum is really neat because you can see lots of cars there.”

I had ambitious plans to mount the volcano this week, but got up to late and so ended up walking down into a crater instead.

It’s not really a crater so much as a depressing amidst a bunch of hills. I didn’t have time to walk all the way down and I probably wouldn’t have even if I did.

Also this week, I took my “vehicle” over to the Seokbujak Museum. I even took a picture so that I would remember the name:

Even after going through a small exhibit explaining in English about the museum, I wasn’t sure what it was but overall it seems to be some kind of botanical gardens where they grow a variety of flowers and shrubs and some fruit as well. It’s a nice atmosphere but overall is pretty small and the tiny $4 entrance fee even seems a bit much since a slow walk around the grounds takes about 20-25 minutes time at most. There are much prettier natural sights you can enjoy, as opposed to this modest artificial landscaping. Nevertheless, here are some pictures I took:

The highlight of the “museum” was this weird phallic statue and its accompanying “hole”:

Is there a fit here???

I’ve been trying to get in shape for the upcoming volleyball tournament but it’s been difficult. Despite what I’d been told, protein powder does not buy itself and then appear one day inside your medicine cabinet. I’m going to have to go on a scavenger hunt in E-Mart one of these days.

I’ve been cooking a lot more. I made myself Ddeokk-bogi the other day, which are rice dumplings in spicy sauce. Initially I was infatuated with these things, essentially bloated gummy rice balls, but they really don’t have much of a taste and I wasn’t pleased with the consistency of the batch I made. The magic seems to be gone. I might be moving permanently back to pasta.

I read an interesting article about Korean impressions of English teachers, a lot of which is negative. It was an interesting read because despite the fact that a lot of impressions of the ESL teachers can be written off as stereotypes I think there’s some truth, and there’s also some value or significance to what is perceived to be the “common truth”, so that even if its not fair or accurate, its still a force to be reckoned with. I’ll write more about this later, and hopefully I can link back to the article later this week. That’s a bit of a tease.

April in Pictures

Somebody stop me! We’re at the World Cinema Museum on Jeju, another wonderful tourist trap on the coast, about twenty minutes east of Seogwipo. The World Cinema Museum is a little like Dinosaur World Theme Park, but instead of just plaster dinosaurs, there are also plaster sculptures of random movie moments and characters, such as this Jim Carrey gem. Also, while Dinosaur World Theme Park appears to have been totally 1/2 assed in its creation, the World Cinema Museum is at least 3/4 assed. I mean, the grounds are pretty, and there’s air conditioning in the building.

My goodness, more dinosaurs. Unlike in Dinosaur World, however, these dinosaurs aren’t real. It’s just movie magic.

Now that I think of it, isn’t this the scene in Jaws where they realize they DIDN’T kill Jaws?

When’s the last time there was a good movie about evil killer crocodiles? Peter Pan? Sharks are always popular, piranhas, but not enough crocodiles. Maybe the next Batman villain can be Killer Croc, who I know next to nothing about except that he makes a hilarious LEGO figure:

Here some people are fighting on top of the museum roof but in case you can’t tell, there’s something wrong with the right guy’s hand.

Oops. Like I said, 3/4 assed.

From the museum, we went on to Pyoseon, which has a lovely beach and a lovely resort.

Nature on a leash. Ahhhh.

Here some tourists are sitting down to lunch. The one on the left is a Mets fan. Small world.

Sunrise Peak, about ten hours after sunrise. It takes about twenty minutes to walk to the top.

This is the view of the volcanic crater from the top. It’s pretty, but not as nice as the spectacular views of the surrounding area.

This is a UFO-shaped restaurant out towards Hallim. Hmmm.

These are photos taken from Jungmun beach the next day. This is from the “secret” side of Jungmun beach.

Our Children Isn’t Learning

Apparently I have a very expensive back. I’ve spent about two hundred dollars on my back over the last few weeks. The first procedure, a back wax, was supposed to be very painful, but turned out to be at worst slightly irritating, and actually could be described as a nice way to spend an afternoon.

But that may have inadvertently led to a far more painful experience and a trip to the hospital this past week. Do yourself a favor and don’t look up folliculitis. Or do yourself a disfavor and look it up anyway. There’s a really good and disgusting haiku that’s yet to be written about such things.

I’m getting very excited about my new job. Not to be premature, but getting my contract terminated early seems to have been the best thing that could have happened to me while I’m here. It’s possible I might even be forced to go to China (again! sort of) or Japan for a weekend at someone else’s expense before I come back. It kind of feels like a promotion.

I’m learning all the wrong lessons from this. Maybe I should try to get fired every four months or so! I could work my way up all the way to director of a hogwon by next January!

Although it’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s actually very difficult to get fired from most hogwon jobs. I think I deserve a lot of credit for the hard work I put in to make it happen. In my experience, I think it “helps” to have a penis motorcycle. Then you get a bad reputation. But I’ve mentioned the bike to my new director, and it seems as if a bad reputation can just as easily be seen as a MOFO BAD REPUTATION BITCHEZ, as in “cool this guy can BIKE to work!” Which I’m going to do all the time Too bad I’m not going to use my bike anymore.

But more importantly, following a month of Test Prep, I had the rare opportunity to teach middle school students at Yale without the aid of  textbook or a soul-sucking midterm exam study packet.

I say opportunity, and not privilege, because I realized how low their level of English really is, and how badly most of them are served by the hogwon system. Not just Yale, and I’ll be careful to point that out, even as my time with them is winding down. Yale is in it’s own way much better than a lot of hogwons. Just look at the name: it’s like the Ivy League of hogwons!

But anyway, these kids, who’ve probably spent at least 4-5 years already, if not more, after school learning English, can not do very much with the language outside of a very structured textbook. They can’t put together sentences correctly. They don’t know parts of speech. They  don’t understand critical thinking. They have a very limited vocabulary. They are so scared of making a mistake that about half of them don’t even try unless they are 200% certain that they have the correct answer. Most damning, a lot of them don’t even understand phonics, the most basic building block of the language.

I know this because I wound up playing a game with my seventh and eighth graders that was a modified version of what I do with my second graders, who are just starting to learn vowel sounds. The middle school kids could barely do it. A simple word that had more than three or four letters, such as “octopus”, baffled a lot of them.

This wouldn’t be a problem if they were first-time learners, but theoretically they’re not. Supposedly, they’re knee deep in the English language by now. The Yale standard textbook for middle schoolers, “Hey There!”, has some complicated reading and grammar for them to do.

Basically the students have been rushed through the system with major gaps and misunderstandings almost every step of the way, so by year 6 or 7 or whatever they are pretty lost and the whole thing is kind of silly.

I think there are a number of reasons for this, but I’ll save a more thorough critique (and some anecdotes) until I’ve actually switched jobs. And I’ll continue to mention that I don’t think any issue is going to be specific to Yale, but rather all major giant quasi-corporate hogwons (which I believe my new school is not).

The students’ lack of understanding isn’t anything really new either, but I was given a fresh reminder all the same. It’s startling to realize just how far back they are. One of my co-workers suggested months ago that basically every student needs to go back to phonics, square One, and then work their way up. I think I agree with them now, and not just as a joke. Otherwise, 90% of these kids aren’t going to learn English.

In other news, rainy season is over (????), or rainy season has just begun, or rainy season is occurring in fits and starts, much to the dismay of my laundry.

The gross evil jumping spiders are back for the summer. Either that, or my turtle has mutated into a grotesque form as it hopes to terminate a “contract” of its own. I haven’t decided yet if he/she’s making the journey north.

The back crap took up a lot of my time this week. I’ve also started to try to do more cooking. Tonight was a disaster, with soggy hash browns and some kind of half-assed unfrozen bagel mess that was barely saved by the overpowering taste of burnt tomatoes.

I might need a recipe. Or a woman who can cook for me. Or a woman who can just hold a recipe book while I learn to cook for myself.

Finally, it was a terrible week for the Mets. So I’m going to conclude with a rant about one of the worst cities in America: Houston, Texas.

Running underneath this greasy metropolis are miles of pipeline transporting dirty oil to refineries on the coast. Ever taken a cruise from Galveston? If yes, I’m so sorry.

Houston is a newer American city, built on the backs of greedy oil barons. Like most cities that have sprawled like a pimple caused by folliculitis  over the last 50 years, Houston is really just one giant suburb, with the city center really just a lame excuse so people who live there can pretend that they have a ‘there’ they are going to, instead of a messy blob. That means lots of highways, lots of congestion, lots of smog.

Houston annually competes with LA and Philadelphia to see which city is the dirtiest nightmare in the union. Houston wins a lot.

Here are some pictures: