Kian in Korea

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Life gets easier

So a few things are looking up.
One of my main concerns when it came to changing schools was that I felt guilty for leaving my co-teachers and students after they were all so excited for me to arrive. Well, it turns out that not one, but both of my co-teachers are actually leaving at the end of this semester. One's leaving the country and the other is either not going to be an English teacher anymore or is leaving the school, I don't remember. So, I don't have to feel guilty about leaving them anymore- they're leaving me, haha. It's honestly a relief.

I got my resident alien ID card a few days ago, which means I was finally able to get my bank account, which means that today, I actually got paid! Money! It's only a fraction of my regular monthly salary since I started on the 17th, but compared to how little I've spent since getting here, the amount is shockingly large. I have been eating out every night, going everywhere I want and buying everything I please for the last week and a half, and it's not even a third of even this paycheck, which is less than half of what I'll make per month. This is some of the easiest money I've ever saved.

I seriously love some of these kids. There are some that are so cute that I just want to steal them and bring them back to America with me. I never really thought I was a kid-friendly guy, but apparently I have it in me when necessary, or at least when I'm in a position of authority! Today I gave one 6th-grade class English names. By the end of class I already remembered most of their names, unlike the two Korean names I learned in the ten days that I've been here. On Friday I have the rest of the 6th-graders and they too will get fantastic English names like Charlie, Spencer, Sheila, and Gloria.

I got a haircut today, too. I was concerned that I was doomed to bad hair because what do Korean people know about cutting thick, wiry, Persian hair? I was wrong! There's an Aveda salon right by my hotel (I move into my apartment in a few days, by the way), and I am definitely going there every time I need a haircut from now on. It only cost twenty dollars. And, either because I'm a foreigner or because I'm a "handsome boy," or both, I also got free aromatherapy and a head and shoulder massage. And in South Korea, you aren't supposed to tip. They don't even accept tips.

The only rough patch today was teaching my adult class. Two hours a week I am supposed to teach a class for the other teachers at the school. However, for some reason, the other teachers are afraid of me or of English, so only seven teachers showed up. Well, one of them left in the beginning when she found out I'd be giving a "level test", which means that I had them write one paragraph about themselves so I could get an impression of what level their English was at. I think they are afraid of showing that they are bad at something, to somebody who is as young as I am. What they don't know is that I'm dead nervous myself, because some of these people have been teachers for longer than I've been alive, and I don't want them to think that I'm a bad teacher. It's nuts. But, now that the hard part is over, I can start preparing lessons and having fun with everyone.

I miss friends and family and food from home, but I'm getting adjusted to stuff here. I figure I can afford to have a wholesale rejection of Korea once a week and go to a McDonalds or Pizza Hut, and then feel better about myself.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Korean Age

In Korea they count their age differently than we do in the west. You have two ages- your Korean Age and your Actual Age. Your Korean age is one or two years higher than your actual age, depending on when your birthday is and when in the year it is.

For most of us, when you're born you are zero years old, and a year later you are one. In Korea, a newborn baby is one year old. And instead of turning two on his birthday the following year, he turns two the following new year's day- even if that's only a few weeks away.

Confusing, right? An easier way to look at it: when you are born, you are on your first year of life. When it's your birthday, you've survived another year. In the west we tally how many years you've survived. In Korea, they count what year you're on. That much kind of makes sense. The adding a year on new year's day is the weird kicker that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

So, my 'actual' age is 23. But now, in Korea, I'm 24. And when new year's rolls around, I'm going to be 25! But, I'll still be 25 years old even after I actually turn 24. And then, when I get back to America, I'm going to be 24 again. Koreans are often interested in if you think their age system is a good idea. I don't really know what to tell them!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

One week down, 51 to go

Well, today marks one week that I've been here in Incheon. It's gone by pretty fast. I've been having a pretty good time despite the fact that I've been sick all week, so I'm looking forward to enjoying Korea when I can actually walk five feet without breaking out into a sweat.

Every day brings about new challenges though. I was under the impression that anywhere you went in the world, you could find people who spoke English- especially in a country like Korea where learning English is such a big deal. But that hasn't been the case- almost nobody I encounter outside of my school speaks so much as a word other than "hello" "sorry." This has led to me being forced to learn basic getting around vocabulary, really quickly. So far this week I had been mostly uttering one word at a time, hoping they would get the gist of what I was saying, but as of yesterday I've graduated to actually conjugating a couple of verbs and being understood. I can also read the alphabet, although I don't know what the words mean.

On Fridays I teach 3rd graders all day. They're really cute- like, really cute, with gigantic cheeks and little tiny eyes. 3rd grade is when the kids at this school first start taking English lessons, so they don't know very much. What they do know, they don't pronounce in a manner that even vaguely resembles English. It's strange, but I was observing the class while the Korean teacher was doing a lesson, and I could not understand anything that was going on. Even the English teachers here speak very, very, very little English. I took two quarters of French in college, five years ago. Imagine me as a French teacher. That's what it's like, and that's why they bring in native speakers, so that the kids can hear what English is actually supposed to sound like. But when the kids (of all grades) hear my accent, it's so foreign to them that they can't understand what I'm saying. Fortunately, with kids this young it's easy to correct most of their errors. Theoretically if any of these kids moved to the USA tomorrow they'd be speaking English without an accent in five years. That won't happen when I start teaching high school kids- they've already moved past the age where they can become native-like in a language.

Next Wednesday I start teaching a two-hour class for the other teachers at my school. I'm really looking forward to that, because I'll be the "Major Teacher," which means I'm in charge of everything, as opposed to the "Minor Teacher" in the rest of the classes, where I don't make the lesson plans, I just provide an authentic voice in class and give my input to the Korean teacher. I think the first thing I will work on is their pronunciation. Koreans typically make the following mistakes: [th] becomes [s], [f] becomes [p], and [z], in some circumstances, becomes [j]. And, of course, the [l] and [r] debacle that is East Asia.

Some other things:
I know it's a Buddhist thing, but it's really weird seeing Swastikas everywhere.

I really like getting free food. Today I treated myself to Pizza Hut, and although I ordered one pizza, for some reason they gave me two. Pizza in Korea is, I'm afraid to say, absolute crap compared to pizza at home. I ate both anyway.

Some places will give you free stuff because you're a foreigner, but other places will completely rip you off because they think you're rich. The other teachers asked me what the average salary was for people in America, and when I answered "35 thousand dollars a year," they were shocked that it was so low. The average income in South Korea is $20,000 dollars a year.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


I think the kids were even cooler today than they were yesterday. It's cool how they are super eager to learn English now that I'm here. Sung said she was shocked to see some of the students who never bothered before totally trying hard to be able to talk to me. One of the kids is the school's basketball star and he asked me to come to the gym at lunch and play with him! I did, and they were all excited to have me play with them even though I stink at basketball.

One thing I really like about the schools in this country is how hands-on it is. In America you can't lay a finger on a student without worrying about getting sued. Here, the students want to hug you (well, me? I don't know why), you smack them on the back of the head (lightly!) if they misbehave, and when one extremely agile little kid intercepted a pass on the basketball court, I picked him up and raised him over my head to show him what I thought of that. These kids love any sort of attention as long as somebody is actually paying attention to them.

Whether I love the attention back is beginning to be an issue! It's embarassing to walk down the halls and have the kids scream (scream!) every time I walk by. I can't lie, it's kind of fun feeling like a celebrity, but I'm worried the other teachers will get angry at me for disrupting their classes- but it's not my fault, I just walk past the door and suddenly there's ten kids running after me. I'm not even safe in the teacher's lounge. I was standing by the window to get some air and some of the sixth grade girls playing outside saw me. All you could hear for the next ifve minutes was "You're so handsome! I love you!" and the next time I dared to peek outside, they had drawn a big heart in the dirt and stood in formation alongside it. WEIRD!

I'm really starting to consider just staying at this school even though my original plan was to teach at a high school. I like it a lot and I'm actually interested in seeing what kind of progress I can help them make. I think it would be good practice learning how to deal with little children, too- it's not something I think I'm very good at right now. I'm sure in a month I'm going to love all these kids and won't want to leave. Also, the other teachers are starting to overcome their shyness with me and are actually trying to talk to me in English (most younger people know some English but they are extremely shy about making mistakes so they won't say a word). I'd hate to just be here a month when everyone is so happy to have me here (my co-teacher said she couldn't sleep at all the night before I came because she was so excited to meet me- I thought this whole thing would just be a crazy job, but I didn't realize that this is really important to Koreans to have native English speakers).

Other things: Taking your shoes on and off every time you go anywhere is really annoying. I bought my first pair of slip-on shoes (Vans!). These ones are currently my "inner shoes" for at the school, but as soon as I find myself some decent slippers (most of the male teachers just wear sandals like what you'd wear in a hotel bathroom, but with socks), I'm going to use those as my inner shoes and the Vans as my "outer shoes" because they are so easy to take on and off.

Today, after classes were over, all the teachers got together and went bowling (my team got second place, no thanks to me: I bowled 71 the first game and then 78 the second, haha) and then had dinner. We had samgyopsal (삼겹샬), which is fried pork slices cooked on a special platter in front of you. It's extremely fatty, but tasty. With it we had soju (소추), which is Korean rice liquor. It tastes like a very mild sake and has a very low alcohol content. Food is incredibly cheap. A full, big, delicious dinner will cost 3 or 4 thousand won, which is 3 or 4 dollars. Last night I had shabu shabu, which is actually Japanese and on the expensive side- 10 thousand won, but in America shabu shabu is like thirty dollars a person.

OK, that's all for now- if I stay at this PC cafe any longer I might run up a huge bill of, like, two dollars. ;)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

First day at school

OK, so I may ahve overreacted a little bit yesterday about having to teach in an elementary school. I actually had a lot of fun today. I got to school early so i waited by the back door and pracitced writing in hangul (my name: 기안). It didn't take very long for me to get mobbed by little kids, all eager to use their entire body of knowledge about English on me. "Hello! Hi! Nice to meet you! You are very handsome!" I especially liked that last part. Both the boys and the girls called me handsome, but the girls do so while giggling and blushing a deep red. The boys, if they're feeling particularly daring, will rub my arms (they've never felt arm hair before!).

Today I assisted my co-teacher Sung in four of her classes, all fifth grade (I'll also be teaching 3rd, 4th, and 6th graders). Each class asked me lots of questions, from the basic "How old are you?" (my Korean age is 24, not 23! You are 1 year old when you are born) and "Where are you living?" (I have absolutely no idea, that's where), to the random- "What's your mother's name?" "Who's your favorite footballer?" and from a student who was clearly fishing for a compliment, "who do you think is the most handsome boy in this class?" Naturally, in response to that, I indicated that the handsomest guy in the classroom was in fact me, and we all had a good laugh.

It's somewhat bewildering how th elittle girls will be walking around, and when they see me they will literally scream and point as if I was some famous actor. Speaking of famous actors, at lunch the other teachers said that I looked just like this or that one. I was extremely flattered to be compared to Daniel Henney, even though it's an extremely false comparison (He's only half Korean, so I guess to Korean people he looks... Persian? I don't know). Weirder still was how I look like French soccer player Thierry Henry. I can sort of maybe understand someone telling me I look half Asian, but I don't think I look particularly black. Haha. Both handsome gentlemen though, I guess I should just take it as a compliment. It seems that if you aren't fully Korean and you're at least marginally good looking, you look like everyone else on the planet that fits that description.

In addition to teaching 19 elementary classes a week, I am also responsible for teaching 3 classes where the students are the other teachers! That'll be fun because I am completely responsible for the curriculum, so I get to teach whatever I want and I'm totally in charge.

So, after classes were over, Sung, the principal (in Korea principals are actually really really important bigwigs), an administrator and I all went to get a look at what will be my apartment. Let's just say that it's tiny, and that calling it tiny is a silly understatement. The bathroom and the shower sort of exist as one entity. There's a toilet, a sink, and the shower head is attached to the sink and drains into a drain in the middle of the room. My main concern, to be honest, is where will I keep my magazines? They'll get wet! Otherwise the studio is fine because even though it's small, it's not like I'll be hanging out in my apartment all day long. It should just be a place to sleep and hang out in betwen doing other things.

So in light of having a good time at this school, I'm not sure if I should reconsider my demand to move to a high school. It's what I originally wanted and what I was told I'd get, but maybe I just didn't know? I have to think about it more. I'm still leaning towards moving to the high school on July 19th, but I don't know how that will play in with my living situation and all that. So much to think about!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Dear God No

My school has squat toilets.

First few days

So I've been here two or three days now (it depends on what side of the international date line you're on), and it's been a very interesting experience, and it's definitely been a lot to deal with in one weekend.
First off, I met five other English teachers who are teaching in the same region as me. We spent Sunday in Seoul, just tromping around and seeing the sights. We stumbled upon the Seoul Mosque (I'll post pictures later), and it was very weird seeing the Arabic calligraphy and tilework and minarets in the middle of a completely different place. Most of the people praying there were Turks and Arabs, and only a couple of Koreans. The girls had to stay outside but they let us guys in to watch them do their prayers. There weren't very many of them. I'd like to see the place on a Friday.
The mosque was in Itaewon, which is a popular district for foreigners in Seoul. Judging by the haircuts, most of them were American servicemen (the military base is smack in the middle of Seoul), but there was a good share of everybody. There were a lot of Middle Eastern restaurants there, so when I get hungry for some kebab I'll know where to go!
Today, we met our Korean co-teachers and went to our respective schools. This proved a little bit of a problem for me, because when I was applying for jobs, I took this position because I was told that I would be teaching in a high school. It turns out I got placed in an elementary school. This is a problem for me because I am not particularly good at dealing with children. I spoke to Ryu, who is my contact at the Ministry of Education, and told him that I was expecting to be placed in a high school. He promised to get me into a high school in a month, on July 19th. That's better than not getting one at all, but I'm livid because I made it pretty clear to all parties what my expectations were at the outset and I more or less received a guarantee that I'd be accomodated. I e-mailed my contact back in Canada, Shane (who hired me) to let him know of the problem and I really hope that it gets taken care of soon. Other foreign teachers are already in their apartments and getting settled down but my situation is (for me) still completely up in the air. I'm actually in a hotel right now, where I'll be until July 1st. And then I move into an apartment, and then I'm probably going to have to move again when I get put into a new school. Not cool. But, I don't really have any other option so I'm just going to try my best to resolve this situation.
Lunch today was interesting. For an appetizer, we had some kind of omelet with octopus, oyster, mushroom, and shrimp. Lunch itself was clam and noodle soup. I can't claim that it was horrible and disgusting, because I actually sort of liked the octopus, but I'm not a huge shellfish fan. Seafood is called mulgogi, which means "water meat", and I find that kind of funny. They eat a lot of seafood and pork here, and I'm curious what on earth the Muslims at that mosque eat when they go anywhere.
Tomorrow is my first day, I'll be observing the other teachers in the classroom. Next time I write hopefully I'll have some kind of resolution to this school mixup!

Friday, June 09, 2006

One Week to Go

On June 16th, I'm flying to Incheon, South Korea where I'll be teaching high school students English. This blog here is where I'll be posting pictures and experiences to share with everyone back home. Come back in a week for more!