Kian in Korea

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Time Flies!

I don't know where the time goes! Here're some brief updates on stuff:

School is out for the summer, but that doesn't mean I don't go to work. Most days I sit in the office and work on other things, like making materials or lesson plans for the upcoming semester's classes. Some days, though, I go to other schools for "English Camp." English camps are an attempt to immerse the kids in the language for a period longer than their 45-minute classes at school. They are fun for the kids and it keeps them practicing even while school is out. It's also a relief for the teachers because usually the kids volunteer to come, so you have fewer disciplinary problems to deal with. Some camps are just regular work, but this week I have a camp that lasts 3 days and for which I will payed an extra 300,000 won! Some teachers get lucky and do enough camps that they can make an extra million won or more, but others, such as myself, do not. This is the only paying camp I'm doing during this vacation period. However, there is also a month off in the winter, and the same camp system applies then, too.

The monsoon season continues apace. Last Friday, I saw the most rain I'm sure I've ever seen in my life. In the morning I was teaching at a day-long English camp, and on the way home around 4, it looked like the end of the world. The streets were shin-high in water and the torrents poured down relentlessly. Bizarrely, everything is dry again by next day. It's bizarre because it's so humid. My laundry, even when it's not raining, takes several days to dry.

After monsoon season, there's suppose to be about a month of really horrendous heat and humidity before fall starts setting in. I've been to some places that are probably as humid as it is here, but somehow it's a lot worse here. It's not just that you sweat. The air is acrid from the piles of garbage everywhere (I don't understand the sanitation system here, so I can't really write much about it) and the shallow sewers. The air pollution, a combination of Seoul being surrounded on three sides by mountains, is oppressive. So when you sweat, it's not regular watery sweat. It's thick, it's greasy, and it smells bad. I will never complain about Southern California's air pollution again.

Fortunately, I will be able to get out of town to escape the smell, if not the heat and humidity. August 12th through 20th, I will be on vacation. My plan is to travel through the countryside. Since Korea is so small (only the size of Southern California), and so well connected (busses and trains connect everywhere in the country to everywhere else, and nothing takes longer than 4 or 5 hours by train), it should be easy to do a tour. Some things I plan on include: a temple stay, where you live and work and meditate in silence with monks for a day and
spend the night with them; and going to Jeju Island, which is Korea's answer to Hawaii. Expect thousands of pictures.

Last Friday I accomplished something amazing and incredible: I got my yellow belt in taekwondo! As a child I was a white belt for over a year and then gave up. Now I'm one step closer to that black belt! If you get a black belt, you actually get a card to carry saying so. In Korea, if you go to class every day (which I have been, hence the yellow belt in three weeks), it can take less than a year to go all the way to the top. Hopefully I'll be a card-carrying black belt before I get back to the USA.

After black yellow-belting it up, I took off for a weekend in Seoul with other native speaker teachers. We met lots of new people who very hospitably let us stay with them instead of spending money on hotels, and they showed us around. We ate Arabic and Italian food to our hearts' content, danced, and shopped. Next weekend, if all goes according to plan, I'll be visiting the Demilitarized Zone.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Weekend in the Islands

Beach Bum
Originally uploaded by kian esquire.
This weekend a friend and I took a trip to Boryeong, a city two hours south of Seoul by train, to hit the beach and do a little island-hopping. Immediately after leaving city limits, I realized what a good idea the trip was going to be, and that it was a mistake staying in town on the weekends.
One of the first things you see when you get out of the city are rice paddies. A little further along, you start seeing forests. Shortly after that, you have a realization: These are the first trees I've seen in ages.

In Incheon, there's not exactly a plethora of landscaping. It's all cement. Seoul is a little bit better, but not much in the areas that I've seen. But as soon as you get out a ways, it all changes like I didn't expect at all. Green fields, big forests, and an overall beautiful landscape covers everything. The air stops smelling sour and the humidity eases off a bit. Suddenly Korea feels a lot more idyllic than it's been.

Our first stop was in Boryeong, which is where we were planning on taking the ferry to visit a couple of islands. Korea, I've learned, actually has thousands of islands surrounding it, some slightly inhabited, some not at all. The islands are a world apart from the rest of Korea. The people who live in the islands do a lot of farming, they speak with a completely different accent, and seem much, much more relaxed than their city counterparts.

Anyway, we walked around in Boryeong a little bit, and then headed to the ferry. We didn't know what the islands actually had to do on them. It turns out, on our first island, Hyoja-do, that there wasn't actually anything. Except for at the dock, we didn't see any people, either. In the entire island, we bumped into two old ladies peeling garlic, and a man and woman who ran the convenience store. It turns out that we had gotten off at the wrong island. The island across the way had restaurants and a place to stay. But, we had been tromping around on the island for over an hour and the ferry had long gone. No matter! A fisherman delivered us across the straight to the next island on his boat.

Wonsan-do was much bigger than Hyoja-do, which we managed to see all of in an hour. "Much bigger" doesn't mean all that much, though. The only ambient noise was the splash of water, the cuckling of roosters, and the occasional dog barking. Like the earlier realization that I hadn't seen green in forever, the quietness here suddenly made me realize how completely loud the city is.

The next day we headed back to Boryeong to spend some time at the beach. The water was warm, the sand was soft, and the sun was shining. The weather's been cloudy, rainy, and muggy in Incheon for as long as I've been here, so this was the first good weather I've seen since leaving home. Sitting on the beach felt so good, and we had a lot of entertaining Korean people to watch.

And that's that. After the beach we came back to Seoul and then I headed back to Incheon, and I have vowed to spend my weekends out of the city, exploring the beautiful Korea I didn't even know existed until now.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

In which I destroy the souls of children

I made two little kids cry today. In one class. Within ten minutes of each other.
"Kian, you monster!" you're thinking. "You fiend! How could you?"
More accurately, how couldn't I? It doesn't take very much to make these kids cry. They cry over anything and nothing, and they'll keep crying, forever, until lunch.
For example, the first student I made cry was a little girl. I asked her a question, and because she's shy, she mumbled her answer under her breath. I asked her to repeat it, louder, but she wouldn't. Instead, one of the girls sitting next to her did. So I said, "No, you. Louder please." Tears welled up, but I thought maybe I was imagining them since there is no way that could have made her cry. Wrong!
I have this little trick to make the girls talk louder, and that's to ask them to scream at the top of their lungs. Usually it takes two or three tries before this is anything above a whisper, but afterwards they have a much better idea of what I mean when I ask them to talk louder. And it's fun. Who doesn't want to scream in class?
So I tried it with the whimpering girl. And then she cried.

The second kid to cry, a cute little boy, was a little more justified, but barely. There's a 'punishment' we use in class that's really more of a joke than anything, just to keep people participating. If they are caught not participating, they have to come up to the front of the classroom and write their names in the air with their butts. Most of the kids do it with great fervor and everyone gets a laugh out of it. So, he comes up to the front of the room, looking fine, and then won't shake his butt around for about twenty seconds. And then he cries.

I don't even know how they do it. They go from zero to crying nearly instantaneously. Are all kids like this? I don't remember.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Love Motel

My Motel
Originally uploaded by kian esquire.
I purposefully didn't write about the hotel that I stayed in for the first two weeks I was in Korea because I didn't want to worry anyone. Now, though, it's time for the dark truth to be known.

I was staying at a Love Motel.

First off, they aren't actually motels, they're hotels. This one was new, and actually, quite luxuriously decorated inside and out. It's not the accomodation that's seedy, though, it's the purpose.

Anyone who's lived in Asia can tell you that there's no such thing as privacy, even at home. Korean men and women stay at home until they're married. This presents... shall we say... obstacles to young couples in love. In this atmosphere, a budding entrepreneur decided to cater to this market of people who needed a place to spend a romantic night, and now, Love Motels are absolutely everywhere. I mean everywhere.

Because my parents read this and I'm embarassed, I'm not going to go into much further detail. But let's just say that the hotel offers free rentals of... saucy movies... and there is a vending machine that sells, uh, toys. And your room includes, er, contraceptives, free of charge.

I'm told that while I and most foreigners find this to be extremely gross, for Koreans Love Motels are just a fact of life that everyone takes advantage of sooner or later.

Now you know.

Kids at school

Kids at school
Originally uploaded by kian esquire.
When I say that the kids at my school are absolutely adorable, I mean this: They are rambunctious, big cheeked, and always happy to see you.

Little geniuses, all

Little geniuses, all
Originally uploaded by kian esquire.
Because nobody quite understands just how lacking the English skills of my students are, I present to you a writing test taken by a 6th grader. He didn't need to actually think to come up with these, he only needed to listen to his teacher and copy down what she said.

To be fair, his English teacher doesn't speak English very well, so that's part of it. Keep in mind though, that they have textbooks that are actually decent and they've been studying English for 3 years at this point.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


So, after being here for three weeks, I've decided that instead of switching to a high school, I'm going to stay at the elementary school. There are a few reasons, but the main one is that I just want to get settled somewhere. I like my job and coworkers and students, and if I change to a high school I'm going to have to give up the month that I've invested here and start all over again. In my opinion, it's better for my sanity that I stay put. Now, three weeks into my trip, I can finally relax about the future. To celebrate, I bought a plant for my bedstand. I've decided to name him Kabob, for reasons that will be clear once you've all seen a picture of him.

My internet is still not installed. I don't know why the phone company thinks it can tell me that they'll be by my apartment "sometime Saturday or Monday" and I'll just hang out all day until they come. Hopefully they'll come right after work on Monday.

Strange Korea Facts:
1) For some reason, young Korean couples think it's charming to go out wearing the same outfits. I've seen this seven or eight times already, and when you go out shopping you will often see the man and the woman mannequins in matching outfits, too.
Going out shopping also revealed that there's not often a difference between men's and women's jeans. Because of the way Korean people are shaped (i.e. no hips), stores just carry different styles and the women buy the smaller sizes and the men buy the larger sizes.
2) Koreans take their games very seriously. There are two channels on my TV devoted to gaming- one is all Go, all the time (or at least in the evenings when I tend to watch TV), and the other is about video games. Or rather, it's not so much about video games as much as it shows them playing video games.
There are "PC Rooms" everywhere. They occur in the same frequencies here as Starbucks and McDonalds do in America. People stop by, usually pay 1,0000 Won an hour, and play video games or use the internet. It's where I am now. Nothing stops these people from getting their gaming in. Last week, sitting right next to me was a guy who was actually attached to an IV.
3) People wear the same clothes over and over again. I didn't notice this until I saw one of the teachers at my school wear a frilly, flowery dress two days in a row. Then, all of a sudden, it was everywhere. The students, the other teachers, people who work in stores by my apartment, the kids in my Taekwondo class. They wear the same exact thing, over and over again, for two or three days (maybe more, but I can't keep track longer than that). I knew that I was in a somewhat poor area, but are these people that poor?
No. As it turns out, this is a byproduct of the fact that until not very long ago, Korea was a very poor country. The younger generations now are the very first to actually have enough money to do and buy whatever they want. But, because of their past, Koreans are very frugal. So, they save extremely high percentages of their income and spend relatively little on anything else.

My internet time is running out, so until next time, 안녕히 가세요!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

First Taekwondo Class

Yesterday was one of my first real experiences here where the language barrier was completely standing in the way of my getting what I wanted. I found a Taekwondo place near my house but neither of the guys running it spoke any English. To save myself a lengthy explanation, say the following sentences out loud.

1. How much do classes cost?
2. How many times a week do I come?
3. What time is class?

Now imagine that you need to ask someone from Mars these questions.
OK, are you imagining? That's how long it took. Like twenty minutes.

Fortunately, your narrator is really good at this kind of thing by now. Finding out the cost was easy enough- "How much?" is right there in my Korean phrasebook. "How often are classes?" wasn't, though, and for this I needed to be creative. I took a nearby calendar and touched every day of the week. Sensei caught on (Actually, you call him Sonsangnim, which literally means "high person" and "teacher," and it's what the kids call me at school, too), and pointed to Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Score. That's a lot of Taekwondo for your buck. I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote "7:00 --> 8:00 ?" on it, as my way of asking when the classes were. He nodded, and wrote the actual class times.

Please don't let the above paragraph fool you. There was lots of stuttering, sitting quietly and looking at each other befuddled, and then finally calling in a boy who spoke maybe seven words of English to translate.

Finally, Sonsangnim looked at me and said "Uniform!"
This was going to be trouble, I could tell. If I remember anything about sports, it's that buying the equipment for and subsequently giving up every single sport I'd ever tried would bankrupt many people. But then, he elaborated: "크기!"
Although I had no idea what "kugi" meant, the motions he was making with his hand indicated "size?"
Personally, I identify as a "medium," but he wanted to know my height in centimeters. As if. So, on top of challenging me linguistically, this man wanted me to do math, too. After converting my height in inches to 400 centimeters and realizing that that was definitely wrong, I asked for a calculator and I am a size 170.

How much was the uniform, you ask?

So, I went back today for my first class. The classes aren't organized by age or level or anything- there were kids that looked like third graders all the way up to high school age boys and girls, and then me. Class is in Korean. Fortunately, when the teacher says "Bla bla bla" and everyone kicks, I can figure out that it means to kick. In addition to kicking a few things, I learned that it really sucks to do pushups on your fists instead of your palms. I imagine that this will make my fists really hard-core so that I can punch things more easily. I did pretty well all in all, and the kids in the class kept saying "wow" and clapping.

That doesn't mean that my Ninja Skills are fully developed. It means that they are amazed that American people can do anything other than eat white bread and ask for the restroom (our stereotype, as I've learned).

Anyway, after an hour of kicks, punches, practicing my stances, and doing cartwheels (one-handed cartwheels, thank you, and I did them well), I was pretty beat and class was over. It was a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to tomorrow!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

I'm some kind of mutant, apparently.

After one of the kids said that I look like Angel (from the X-Men movie), I've decided that it is absolutely permissable to say that all Asian people look the same, because they clearly think the same thing about us. One little bastard disagreed, though, and said I look more like The Beast. Very funny. I'm not that hairy.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

My apartment

So, after two weeks of staying in a hotel, I finally moved into my apartment yesterday.
So, I don't know any artful way to explain it, so I'll just say it: it's small.
By small, I mean:
1) From anywhere in my apartment, you can see everywhere in my apartment.
2) The air conditioner (and having air conditioning is a huge gigantic perk) cools the entire place down in less than five minutes, so I guess my concerns about the energy bill are unfounded.
3) My bathroom is... my shower? It's hard to explain if you've never seen such a thing before. The shower head is connected to the sink. The water goes down a drain in the floor in between my sink and the toilet. You can sit on the toilet while you're taking a shower. Miraculously (and it's clearly a miracle because I cannot understand the physics that allows this to happen), the toilet paper stays dry, even though nothing else does. Some very intelligent Korean engineer came up with this, I know.
4) My closet is in the kitchen.

Really though, it's a very comfortable room. It's reasonably new, it's clean-ish, and it's all brand new furniture in there. A few ferns here and there and it will be completely livable. Tomorrow they are coming to set up the internet connection, so I will finally be able to upload the pictures off my laptop so you guys can see what stuff looks like here.