Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Monday, December 27, 2010
It's December 1st.
We went to the North Pole. There [were] so many elves in the Santa village. Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus went to the factory, but the elves [weren't working, they were drinking] some Coca-Cola with [the Polar] bear[s].
So, Santa said, "Do you want to die?!?!" but [the elves] said, "We made 2 million toys."
Santa need[ed] reindeer, but [all his] reindeer [were in] jail. Santa changed reindeer.
Santa gave presents [to children] but [the presents were] Coca-Cola bottles [and] one present [was] a time bomb.
Santa [returned to] Santa village, but one child [died] because of the time bomb, and Santa [planned the dead child's funeral].
See you next Christmas.
Story by Chris, Sally, and Tony
Monday, December 20, 2010
I’ve always agreed with the saying, timing is everything. When reading a book, it’s no different.
Last Monday morning, when it was raining in Ulsan, and I was wandering around downtown, I started craving a book and a coffee. So I went to the English bookstore in hopes of finding something worth reading. Surrounded by thousands of English/Korean textbooks, I headed for the small selection of fiction. This collection mainly consists of the most popular novels, so I was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find a “good” book. I had looked before and came out empty handed.
The first to catch my eye was Eat, Pray, Love, which I considered simply because of the recommendations I have gotten. A woman wandering the world … sounded familiar.
“Maybe I’ll come back to it,” I thought.
Then, I saw The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The name of this book has been floating around, and it was like I was being pulled toward it. Even though I didn’t know much about it, my heart jumped. As I do with books that call to me, I picked it up, flipped through the pages, and briefly scanned the synopsis on the back. I read the first couple sentences of the author’s forward, and I knew. This was it. This was the book. Usually, I at least read the first sentence or two of the actual book, but there was something about this book. Perhaps it was the tone, but I just felt like I needed it.
Ten minutes after walking into the bookstore, I had purchased a book, walked across the street, ordered a coffee, and sat reading in a nice, warm building, while it rained outside.
After the first few pages, I knew I had picked the right book.
The day was meant to be.
Accompanied by Christmas music, a good book, and a warm mocha, I was happy. Only snow would have made it better.
It seems rare that a book strikes such a deep and resounding chord. It told me what I needed to hear, and pushed me how I needed to be pushed. The Alchemist, an international bestseller, communicates age-old wisdom about tuning-in to the “Soul of the World”. I’m certain the book speaks to each person differently, and I’m sure each time I read it, I will learn something new about myself and about life. The beauty of this story lies in its simplicity. It lies in the universal nature of the message written. It is about seeking happiness and following dreams. It is about being happy in the moment, embracing opportunities, and heading toward a positive end.
I finished the book this morning and want to read it again, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a month, maybe in five years.
And part of me wants to leave it on a table or a bench somewhere.
It is a book that will find the next person who needs to read it.
If you see it. Pick it up.
If it feels right, read it.
Otherwise, leave it and continue on your way.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Everybody gets sick. It doesn’t matter if you are American, Russian, or Korean. Everyone does. And of course, each culture handles this phenomenon differently.
Koreans go to the doctor and “get an injection” even for the slightest cold. Muscovites avoid the doctor at all costs because it means waiting in a long line or paying too much money, and drugs can often be gotten from the pharmacist without a prescription. As an American, I’m used to going to the doctor if I know I have strep throat, influenza or some other serious ailment and need antibiotics, but if it’s a bad cold, bed rest, cough drops, chicken soup, and plenty of fluids are fine.
Tuesday morning I woke up with a bad cold. As the only foreign teacher at my school, I wasn’t sure what would happen if I called in sick, but I had heard that it earns you a reputation as lazy and irresponsible. So, when I should have stayed in bed with a slight fever and a cough, I forced myself to get out of bed, get ready and go into work. I thought, surely my coworkers will notice that I am not up to par, and they will send me home to get some rest.
Oh no. That was hoping too much.
The only coworker that noticed, early in the day, commented on how much prettier I look when I’m sick. It was a backhanded compliment because I just wanted to sleep. I didn’t care if I looked pretty. In fact, I wished I looked horrible so my coworkers would notice how sick I really was.
Finally, at the end of the day, after I had worked myself nearly to death and was freezing with my coat on, my coworkers realized how sick I was. If my lips hadn’t turned purple, I’m not sure they would ever have noticed, but my lip color freaked them out. They wouldn’t stop commenting on it, and the next day I was promptly sent to the hospital for an injection even though, by then, the worst of my cold had passed.
Regardless, at the insistence of five Korean women, I went to the doctor across the street with one of them accompanying me and an extra coat draped on top of mine.
At the doctor’s office, there was no wait. Before I could even remove my coat, two women and my coworker hastily pushed me into a room with an older man, sitting behind a desk, wearing a face mask.
He had me sit down and immediately put his hands on my forehead and neck, to check my temperature. No thermometer. He declared I didn’t have a fever. Then he used a metal tongue depressor, looked at my throat without proper lighting, and made no comment about my huge tonsils which doctors almost always comment on. He checked my lungs with his stethoscope, but only on inhale. I was confused. This was by no means a thorough checkup. He didn’t check my blood pressure or look in my ears. He didn’t ask me what was wrong. I felt a million times better than the day before and did not think I needed to be at the doctor, so his lack of attention didn’t concern me much at the time.
Because my coworkers had sent me over “to get an injection” the coworker accompanying me told the doctor I needed an injection. Rather than agreeing, he jabbered on for a couple minutes about the same thing I had told her earlier, only with “American’s think” in front of it. It’s strange to get an injection for a simple cold. He felt my forehead and neck again. Said I didn’t have a fever. Confirmed my diagnosis of a bad cold, and sent me out of the room to go to the pharmacy to get three packets of pills.
I was then rushed out the door to the pharmacy where I was given a strange assortment of pills to take, with no questions, no warnings, and no risks of side effects.
I had to insist on a copy of the list of medicines I was taking. What do most Koreans walk away with? An injection or just three, unlabeled packets of pills. One each day for three days. What the doctor, who wouldn’t give me an injection, didn’t realize is that this was also strange for me. I would have been a bit more convinced that these pills might actually help and not harm me, if he had used a simple instrument such as a thermometer.
When I commented to my coworker that I was surprised the doctor didn’t use a thermometer. She simply replied, “We use thermometers in science class.”
After the quick checkup which hadn’t taken 20 minutes and cost less than 20 dollars, even without insurance, we walked back to the school so I could get back to work.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
What is Kimchi?
Aside from spicy and delicious, Kimchi is a staple of the Korean diet. The most common type in Ulsan is made with Napa Cabbage, and in this area, most kimchi pastes consist of a mixture of red pepper paste, roasted garlic, ginger, and fish sauce. Think meat rub, but wetter and for vegetables. Recipes for the paste vary from family to family and region to region, depending on what is available. Koreans use this paste to preserve vegetables for up to a year.
As the kimchi ages and ferments, the flavor changes, but as soon as the kimchi is made it can be eaten.
I was lucky enough to be invited by one of my coworkers to join her family in making kimchi. Unfortunately, I did not arrive in time to see exactly how this family makes the paste, but let me tell you, it is delicious!
The process is quite laborious and takes an entire day just to rub the paste on the cabbage, if you have a good amount of people working together. After rubbing paste on about 4 or 5 quarters of Napa Cabbage, my shoulders began to ache, my foot fell asleep, and I couldn’t even imagine what it would have been like starting this process at six in the morning like my coworker’s family.
Even though I hardly helped at all, my coworker's family fed me and sent me home with a bin of kimchi, which has become a part of my daily diet.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
It was near the end of class and I was reviewing the language used in “Go fish!” with my students, when a student said, “Teacher look.”
He showed me his phone background and then said, “Mario, fuck you.”
As a child, I thought one of the worst things that could come out of my mouth was “the F word”. I never said it, and I would never even have imagined saying it in front of an adult, especially in class.
Teaching English outside of the United States I have realized something about swear words.
English swear words don’t hold the taboo that they do to a native speaker. (Maybe you already knew that.) In fact, apparently swearing in a language that is not your own is supposed to be “cool” … though to the many speakers of that language it comes across as quite crass because it is often used without appropriate intonation or situation.
In Moscow, the F word was scrawled on walls inside stairwells and on outdoor walls. Like swearing in English, English graffiti seemed to be “cool” and even the authorities didn’t seem to care to clean it up. “Musturbation” (yes, it was misspelled), “Я love my BaBy”, “Sex”, and “Fuck police” are some of the more memorable graffiti I saw in Moscow.
While crude language was all around, if a student used the F word in class, all I had to do was stop, give him a look, and say in a stern voice that he shouldn’t say “that” word again. Then, it would never happen again, at least not in that class. There was an understanding that some language shouldn’t be used in a classroom of younger students. (Adults were a different story …)
In Ulsan, Korea, things work a bit differently. There is a bit of graffiti on the walls of the stairwell, but places where you would think there should be graffiti, under bridges for example, are clean. Most of the graffiti in stairwells is stylized middle fingers with hardly any English words, but it’s the classroom situation that is the most different. Perhaps because I’m teaching kids, not teenagers and adults.
Students aren’t supposed to have cell phones in class. Yet, they usually take them out toward the end of class to check the time, and I have started to ignore it. They aren’t texting during class like Russian teenagers, so I cut them some slack.
One student, eight years old, has prided himself on the image he has on the background of his phone and likes to show me when he gets a new one. Usually the images seem silly, but not that shocking. Wednesday, this student very proudly showed me the picture on his phone, and then said, “Mario, fuck you.”
I know I didn’t react properly. He wasn’t being malicious. He was smiling, thinking it was cute, maybe, and my shocked face doesn’t even begin to explain my reaction. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard coming out of this child’s mouth. Yes, the picture was Mario flipping me off, which I think I would have ignored on its own, but a small child, a good student, uttering the F word, threw me.
An audible, “What?!” jumped from my mouth.
Of course, my intonation was lost on these children, and my, “What?!” was promptly followed by all the children saying “fuck you” in unison. Like I had just said, “What?” in a nice calm manner, or had just initiated a say and repeat. I tried to follow that by a, “No. You shouldn’t say that,” and a serious tone, but I was simply bewildered by the situation. I had never encountered anything like this before.
How inexperienced of me, I know.
After thinking about this a bit. All children repeating, in unison, what you wish they didn’t even know must happen accidentally in Kindergartens across the States, but this was the first time it happened to me.
Did I react properly? I don’t know. Probably not. I mumbled a bit and went back to the language used in “Go fish.”
As an end note on this:
Students saying something shocking in a totally innocent way happened in Moscow as well.
The F word, teenagers understood. They caught my tone. They whispered it hoping I wouldn’t hear. A word they uttered with no idea the baggage and consequences was the N word … yes, the one that rhymes with Tigger. They actually were shocked when I told them that we never, never, NEVER use this word as white folk. NEVER! And they were even more shocked when I said they could use the word “black” to talk about someone with dark skin because translated, this word has negative associations.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Korean academies must be strict. The stricter, the better. And homework must be done.
It doesn’t matter if the student, a kid in their early-teens, remember, hardly got any sleep last night because they were studying for exams after a long day at school and academies. It doesn’t matter that they were lucky to spend eight hours at home last night. It doesn’t matter that they are dealing with the crisis of puberty, issues with friends, and parental, social, and internal pressure to get 100% or A++. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.
Homework must be done, and it must be done at home.
How to ensure a student toes the line?
“Get the stick.”
Over my first month here, it slowly dawned on me what exactly this phrase meant.
A student would come into my classroom and say, “Teacher can I have the stick?”
Depending on the student, intonation and facial expressions varied when asking this question. Sometimes they would have a look of amusement, especially if they were an older student coming into a classroom full of younger children. Sometimes they would have a look of fear. My students would react to this request with a hush or a classroom wide, “OOoooOOO.”
Perhaps because I wanted to stay in my bubble of ignorant bliss, or because I was simply in denial, I did not ask my students what happened with this stick. In fact, I naively though perhaps it was used as a pointer.
It was harder to ignore when a student would come to class without books or homework and other students would say, “Teacher hit.” In fact, they seemed almost excited about seeing one of their classmates be punished in this way.
After two or three different incidences, I had pieced it together but remained in denial. I hadn’t seen it happen. I hadn’t asked my coworkers, who are all Korean, what they use the sticks for. It could be that it was just an empty threat.
The final shred of evidence came when I read a student’s diary. He wrote, “I went to Academy. That's homework, so much, so I couldn't finish everything. So my teacher hit me. My hands was so hurt, so I rub[bed] my hands, and bl[ew on] my hands. I did my homework to finish Academy and came home.”
I could no longer deny it. My coworkers use corporal punishment.
Since the day it dawned on me that teachers were hitting students, my philosophy has been, “Ok, it happens at my school. Students get hit, but I will not participate.”
Usually I hold the idea that a bystander who lets things happen might as well be doing the action, but I’ve thrown myself into a new culture. As a lone foreigner, with “weird” ideas, I’m not sure I could make much of an impact, and I feel like I would struggle not to be seen as the judgmental Westerner who thinks they can tell people what to do.
I am rationalizing.
I have never asked my coworkers about hitting students.
I’ve heard they don’t hit hard.
A coworker said to me once, when she found a metal ruler and hit it against her hand, “Oh. Sounds good.” The emphasis being on sound, not feeling.
Friday night, in a bizarre turn of events where we didn’t end up at Noribong at 4 in the morning after dinner together, my coworkers spoke in Korean about it. I wish I understood what they had said because in the middle of conversation about students and school, the teachers started emulating children about to get their hands slapped. Students who quiver in fear. Students who try to move their hands away at the last minute. Because I cannot be sure exactly what they were saying, perhaps what I saw as black humor was just the need to make light of a horrid situation.
Regardless how I feel about hitting students and how shocked I was by my coworkers’ humor, the attitude that it’s acceptable seems fairly prevalent in Korea. If a student doesn’t do their homework, get the stick. If a student cheats, get the stick. If a student happens to get a little out of hand, get the stick. The best I can do is tell my students that I won’t hit them, not hit them, and hopefully, eventually, over soju and beer, talk to my coworkers about this policy and the philosophy behind it.