Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What, 40 Already?!

Here's something unexpected: In Korea, you're already one year old on the day that you're born. They count gestation as life (don't let the right to lifers know) so newborns greet the world with a full year already under their belts. That is, if babies wore belts.

This is a fun fact, isn't it? What's not so fun: I have gone from 38 years old to 39 without the presents and the cake and the party. Even though I'm 38 back home, in Korea I'm almost 40. ALMOST 40. This is very unfair.

But wait, there's more: in Korea, seniority in everything is determined by age. If you're older, you're better. Doesn't matter how much of a knob you are. If you were born before the next guy, you win. Don't like it? Tough titty, that's the way it is.

To keep people from going nuts and getting really nitpicky about it, they let everyone born in the same year be of equal status. This has the added benefit of creating bonding opportunities for strangers. It doesn't matter if you have nothing else in common, if you were born in the same year you're instant best buds. Time to drink.

To make sure everyone born in the same year really understands that they're the same age, your age advances not on your birthday but on January 1. (Some will argue that it happens on the Lunar New Year.) This is all wonderful and fascinating but what it means to me is that on January 1 I will turn 40. Goddamn it!

See, I was born in 1972, making me 38 everywhere except Korea. My birthday is February 1, so everywhere except Korea I will turn 39 on February 1, 2011. But in wonderful, wacky Korea I am already 39 and thus will turn 40 on January 1, a full 13 goddamn months early. This does not please me.

But, I hear you saying, isn't being older a good thing in Korea? Doesn't that make you even more superior? No, it doesn't, because I'm a foreigner and therefore don't get to win at anything. I'm just a 40-year-old foreigner.

At least the kimchi is good.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Year In Adam

Photo credit Summer Shetenhelm
What an odd year, this 2010. I cannot recall a year with more ups and downs. Two years prior I was in Japan, studying the language and having what I have since called the best year of my life. And then 2009 I spent back in the Bay Area, depressed at having to come back from my beloved Japan, commuting long distances to school and feeling generally unmoored.

However, 2010 started on a high note. I finally finished at San Francisco State, with my graduation becoming official in January. After more than four years back in school, plus the three years at UC Santa Cruz in the early '90s, I had a bachelor's degree and could proudly call myself a college graduate. I cried the night of my last final. It was such a relief.

And then everything slowed down. For the first two or three months I did nothing. I poked around online, I downloaded music, I watched Netflix DVDs and waited to hear back from JET about whether I would be teaching in Japan come the fall. I stayed generally positive through the application and interview process, and managed to make it past the first round of cuts.

But then the real cutting began. At the end of March I went under the knife for the first of three surgeries on my feet. I had been putting off bunion surgery for years but with a (possibly permanent) overseas move looming I decided it was time to get it done. And then while laid up on the couch, with my feet propped in the air and dosed on pain killers, I got news that I was put on the waiting list for JET.

As the months and subsequent operations went on, and I still hadn't heard either way from JET, I began to get more and more depressed. I hardly left my room—I couldn't walk—and so I put on weight. By mid-summer I had watched all the movies I could stand, read more books than I had in years, and put a permanent, Adam-sized dent in the couch.

With the possibility of JET acceptance moving further and further away I started applying to other jobs, in both Japan and Korea. While lying on the couch, my feet in bandages, laptop balanced on my belly, I filled out application after application. I started obsessively checking e-mail for job interview requests, a few of which I took, suiting up late at night for Skype interviews. At last, I decided on a job with EPIK, teaching English in Korea.

With my feet still sore but declared healed by the doctor, I boarded a plane for Korea. Since coming, my depression has all but disappeared. I still have ups and downs, of course, but that crippling (get it?) sadness of the summer has thankfully stayed away. I am living my life at last, and even though it's not the life I imagined while in school it's still pretty damn good.

Bring it, 2011. I'm ready for a good, solid year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Drama Contest

I was asked by one of my co-teachers to help choose four first-year high school students to act in an English drama contest. This was not long after I had just started. I didn't know any of the students yet; I barely even knew my co-teachers. But I dutifully wrote the script (a comedy about the end of the world) and selected a quartet of students with good English pronunciation. Little was I to know how close I would become to those students.

I work with more than 600 middle and high school boys. After three months, I can recognize most of them in the hall between classes but there are still times when a student bows to me and says hello and I have no idea who they are. Some students have graduated to the level of chit-chat. Their English is good enough that I'll joke with them before class. But do I consider it a personal relationship? Let's put it this way: they all know my name but I don't know any of theirs. It's a sad byproduct of a system in which I see many students but don't ever grade them. But with these four, who named their characters after themselves, I was very soon able to put name to face.

After a month of not very regular practice, interrupted by midterms and vacation time, the students managed to send in an audition video with literally minutes to spare. And then they were accepted to perform at the national finals in Gyeonggi-do. We were all ecstatic.

The night before the contest, we all piled into my co-teacher's Santa Fe SUV and made the four-hour drive north to Paju English Village, where the contest was taking place. I was forced to become better acquainted with my students on that trip, jammed into the back seat with them, their snacks and video games and cell phones piled high. We all shared a dorm room as well and I had the opportunity to get to know them even more, their personalities and quirks and dreams now separated from the rest of the horde of 600.

They didn't win that day, and I felt so bad for them, their disappointment so keen. But as we drove the long trip home, stacked on top of each other like broken Pepero sticks, I knew that I had won something that day, even if they had not.

This was written for the main EPIK website as an example of an "episode" from the life of an English teacher.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Long View

Moving to a foreign country is a chance to take yourself out of your comfort zone and experience things in a way you normally wouldn't. Notice that I said, "chance," as I definitely see this as a positive thing. Growth happens when you're challenged. Your muscles won't get bigger unless you stress them literally to the point of breaking and then allow them to rebuild. A similar thing happens when living in a foreign country: it hurts like hell while it's happening but afterwards you realize that you've grown from the experience and are just a little better off because of it.

I have lived overseas before. I spent a year studying the language in Japan and was often confronted with challenging and dismaying situations. Having met and surpassed them, I recognize that I have become a better person. This was on my mind when I signed up to teach English in Korea with the EPIK program. And being assigned to a small town in Gyeongsangbuk-do was even better: there was no way I could get through a year without experiencing some personal growth. This was not to be Seoul, where foreigners are a 100-won coin a dozen, and where familiar things are as nearby as the corner Starbucks. No, this was to be the countryside, where no one spoke English, where there were few if any familiar stores or products, and where things would be very different. In other words: pure, unadulterated Korea. I accepted the position with relish, welcoming the kinds of tests that I knew would make me a bolder and better man.

Romantic notions about personal growth and the cold, hard, day-to-day reality of life in Korea are, however, two very different things. I am well acquainted with that unwelcome houseguest called culture shock, who moves into your head and never really leaves, no matter how hard you try to evict him. I prepared myself for the little things and quietly set about conquering them one by one: a diet of spicy food that wrecked havoc on my digestive system; clothes that never seemed to dry, no matter how long they hung on the line; building management that was seemingly incapable of keeping a steady supply of gas flowing to my apartment; and suddenly going from 38 years old at home to 40 in Korea in a matter of months. All of this I could deal with, and did, largely in the public eye of my school. When the entire staff knows you've had chronic diarrhea—indeed, when the entire town knows—your skin gets thick pretty fast.

However, you cannot prepare yourself for everything.

At this point I should probably explain about my feet. I am not a sickly person. In fact, I have been blessed with pretty good health. I rarely get sick even when people are disgorging phlegm and collapsing in paroxysms all around me. I have never had a cavity and never broken a bone. But my feet, my poor feet. They crack, they pop, they're always sore. Although there's no history of it in my family, and although I have always worn comfortable shoes, I ended up with bunions. After putting off surgery for five years because of the horrendously long recovery time, I finally relented earlier this year and had my feet cut open, the bones broken and reset, and then put back together. The recovery time stretched out even longer when I developed complications and had to have additional surgery. All told, I was off my feet for around four months. And then I came to Korea.

I can't place the blame entirely for the problems that developed on this surgery. In fact, my doctor here tells me there's no connection at all. But like an old man who measures his days by his aches and pains, I just want to complain a little. And it sets the stage for what's to come.

Fifteen years ago I had surgery for an ingrown toenail. It was quick and somewhat painless and after a few days I stopped worrying about it. Until I arrived in Korea, that is. Granted, my toenails have bothered me off and on over the years but never badly enough to see a doctor about. But after a few days of walking around Jeonju, where I was attending EPIK orientation, I knew something was wrong. My right big toe was starting to hurt and there was a frighteningly yellow liquid oozing out from where the skin overlapped the nail. I would find out later that this was pus but at the time I didn't want to think about it. I hoped that if I just put it back in the shoe the issue would go away.

I finished orientation and moved on to my placement, a small town called Hamchang in northwest Gyeongbuk. I started teaching at Hamchang School, an all-boys school with both middle and high school classes. As a first-time teacher, I threw myself into my job: I planned lessons, I tried different teaching methods, I worried about how to manage classroom behavior, and I looked for resources and help online and asked for it from new teacher friends. And all the while, my toenail showed no sign of improvement. It wasn't killing me or anything, in fact the pain was quite manageable (more than some of my classes, even) but the issue was plainly not going to go away on its on. Finally, the day my health insurance paperwork arrived, I asked a co-teacher to take me to the hospital.

There is a giant, brand new hospital right across the street from my apartment. I often see patients trudging around the block, I.V. drip dragging behind them like an arthritic dog. The hospital entrance is so close I could even crawl there if I had to—which didn't seem all that far off the mark given the state of my big toe. Fearing for the worst but hoping for the best, I asked Mr. Lee to take me there.

Mr. Lee is one of my six co-teachers. He recently spent half a year in England learning new methods to teach English to second-language learners, so he knows what it means to live in a foreign country. Between him and Mr. Jang, my head co-teacher, I'm pretty much covered for whatever I may need. They've both lived in this area for most of their lives. In fact, they're both alumni of our school. There's very little they don't know about our area, and usually I defer to them on things like where to eat dinner or where to find the good bargains. But when it comes to my body, well, that's another story.

When you're sick, when there's something wrong, when you're in pain, you just want your mommy. If she's not available, you want whatever you're most familiar with and for Westerners that means big, shiny hospitals. Often the most harrowing travel stories are the ones that involve unplanned visits to strange hospitals and odd doctors. You might not remember exactly what you what you had for dinner that night in Cancun but you'll never be able to forget getting stitches when you cut your thumb trying to open an after-dinner Corona.

Mr. Lee really wanted me to go to a local doctor, one just down the street from school. Actually, one above the bus station. Bus station? "But there's a big new hospital right by my house," I protested. "It looks so clean from the outside. And there are no buses there." Mr. Lee insisted that the local doctor was more experienced than any hospital doctor, and was in fact something of a foot specialist.

So it was that I found myself being stared at in a country doctor's waiting room on the second floor of a bus station. I was motioned into the dimly lit doctor's office, which was more of a wide hallway than anything we might call an "office" or even a "room." Privacy is a concept seemingly not familiar to this corner of Korea and so all during my consultation other patients traipsed in and out of the examination room, coughing and wheezing and being generally unwell. I put my feet up on a table, the doctor said I didn't need surgery, his nurse swabbed it with iodine and wrapped it in gauze and they sent me on my way.

A few days later it started to bleed. After taking a look at my toe, which I was asked to display in the teacher's office, everyone agreed that I should get some medical treatment. Mr. Lee asked if I wanted to go back to his doctor and, assuming I definitely needed surgery now, and remembering the dark office and the Grand Central Station approach to privacy, I said I wanted to go to the big new hospital instead. "But my doctor has a lot of experience," Mr. Lee protested. "Hospital doctors are too young." No, no, I thought. I don't want some horse doctor carving up my toenail in barn-like darkness. Big new hospitals are better.

At the big new hospital, under bright lights and in complete privacy, sequestered away from all the expectorating elderly in the waiting room, a young doctor looked at my foot, thought for a few moments and then asked me pointedly if I thought I needed surgery. "Why are you asking me?" I sputtered out incredulously. "You're the doctor." He then had a long conversation with Mr. Lee in Korean, which could be summed up as, "Let's wait and see."

I did not feel comforted in the least bit. My toenail was still bleeding and all this young whippersnapper had done was push repeatedly on the side of the nail and make me howl. Mr. Lee shared my doubt in this youngster's skills as an M.D., so back we went to the country doctor. There, in the half-light of his hallway examination room, patients going back and forth like they were at the DMV, the country doctor explained to me that prevention was the best medicine, and that even if I had surgery the problem could recur again in as little as a month. His English was pretty good but I wanted to make sure I absolutely understood what he was saying so I asked him the same questions repeatedly in different ways, and he patiently answered them all. "The bleeding is a sign that the toenail is healing," he explained. That's all I needed to hear. My fears were finally allayed.

When I got back to school, my toe once again swabbed in iodine and wrapped in gauze, I relayed to Mr. Lee what the doctor had said. "You were right," I told him. "That doctor is great. He really made me feel at ease." And as Mr. Lee headed off to his next class, I added, "From now on, he's my doctor too."

Since then I have done my best to follow the doctor's orders and stay off my feet but this is not always possible. I'm living in a new country and want to experience all that it has to offer. When I stay at home at the weekends I feel hobbled and depressed, like I'm missing out on life. I see pictures of my friends on Facebook frolicking in Seoul and Busan and then feel sorry for myself and my bum toe.

Part of me wishes the doctor had just cut out the bad nail that day. Maybe it would have fixed it or maybe, like he told me, the problem would just recur again. Prevention is the best medicine, essentially. I'm trying to believe this is the case but it's hard for me, as this notion is all but lost in the West where quick fixes rule the day. We can't imagine waiting for anything, not even our own bodies. I cut my finger the other night trying to open a package with a pair of scissors and became extremely worried when the cut hadn't completely closed up by the next day. Ultimately, we'd rather go through the pain of surgery now and get a quick fix than wait for something to heal on its own.

"Koreans don't like to harm their bodies," Mr. Lee explained to me. "You know Confucianism? Our bodies are gifts from our parents, whom Confucianism teaches us to revere. We should not do anything to harm this gift." This is essentially what the country doctor told me too. Western doctors are so quick to suggest surgery, even when it might not be necessary. But wait a minute. Wait a month. Wait and see.

Recently the toenail has gotten a lot better, although it's not perfectly healed just yet. It sounds like it's going to be a long process, more of a change in lifestyle than anything a quick surgery could fix. "Actually," I thought to myself the other evening while I was poking at the nail to see if it had healed, "isn't that a lot like my desire for self-growth?" Korea is not a quick fix for whatever ails my soul. It's not going to slap a band-aid on me and send me on my way like a Western doctor. Korea requires the long view.

And what a view it is, too.

This was my entry to the 2010 EPIK essay contest. I didn't win. If the subject of the essay seems familiar, it should: it's an extension of a previous blog post, entitled Changing The Way I Look At Things.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

In Praise Of Ondol

Behold, the ondol floor in my apartment.
China usually gets the accolades for having invented things before everyone else but Korea is no slouch either. Aside from movable metal type, which Korea perfected 200 years before Gutenberg, there's central heating. Called ondol in Korean, heat is distributed evenly under the floors throughout the house, creating a cozy and warm atmosphere that is (no fooling) absolutely wonderful.

It makes sense that Korea would come up with this. Koreans spend a lot of time on the floor. Traditionally, this is where they slept, on futon-like mats called yo. Tables are often built low as well. In my apartment, I sit on the floor on flat pillows to eat. You'll see this in restaurants too. With all this living on the floor, it just makes sense that this is where the heat would be.

Traditionally, heat was dispersed by burning wood or coal in a furnace, and the smoke would be funneled under the floor, where it would warm stones. This served a dual purpose of cooling in the summer, as the stones tended to stay cool under the floor. Of course, the system wasn't perfect, with some spots being warmer than others, and leaking smoke causing carbon monoxide poisoning. In modern buildings, hot water is forced through pipes coiled under the floor.

This morning, I woke up around 5 to use the bathroom. Before falling back asleep I turned on the ondol. An hour later I was gently awoken by the heat rising through the bottom of my bed. It was perhaps the coziest I had ever been. When I stepped out of bed my feet were greeted with a warm floor and the heat continued into the kitchen, which has the same wood grain-like flooring.

However, there are drawbacks. There is no ondol in the bathroom. With no vent system to push hot air into the bathroom it stays cold all the time. Also, gas is used to heat the water in the ondol pipes and gas is expensive in Korea. My apartment is pretty big as well. I bought a space heater to try and cut down on ondol usage but it's just not the same. Also, it takes a while to heat up, and if you fall asleep without setting the timer you wake up in a sauna.

Unless, of course, that's what you're after.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Adam Has To Desk Warm

Desk warming. It's a term that may be exclusive to the ESL community. It means having to come to school and sit at your desk even when there's nothing else to do, often during school vacation time when everyone else—students and teachers alike—are on break. We as foreign teachers are contracted differently from the Korean teachers, with different vacation schedules, and so we come to a barren, abandoned school and mess around online all day while everyone else takes nice, long vacations.

This video, done as part of the "Downfall" series where people re-subtitle a section of the film about Hitler's last days, encapsulates the situation perfectly.

Right now I'm looking at 2 weeks of desk warming because the students are taking finals, but starting at the end of December there's something like 6 weeks of vacation and I expect a lot of that will be spent desk warming. The frustrating thing is I don't even know how much of it I'm expected to do.

Winter break starts December 30. I know I'll be getting a few days off for the Solar (Gregorian) New Year but then I imagine I'll be back at school on January 3rd to start desk warming. I have been told that for the last 2 weeks of January I have to take a bus everyday to Sangju, 20 kilometers away, to run what they call English camp. No, it's not camping out in the cold, thankfully, but it means teaching a class full of students I have never met English for 4 hours a day, by myself. This actually won't be that bad, with games and movies taking up most of the day.

That takes me up to the beginning of February, when I'll get another few days off for the Lunar New Year, which is February 3rd this year. Then there is inexplicably a week of school, from February 7-11, and then another 2 weeks off, during which I imagine I'll also be desk warming. Then the new semester starts on February 28.

According to my contract, I get 10 days paid vacation during the winter. I have asked when that is going to be because it would be nice to, you know, plan something but I have been told that the school cannot plan that far ahead. No, seriously. Basically, I have to sit around until someone tells me (likely the day before) that it's time to take my vacation.

I feel Hitler's pain, I really do.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gaya Kingdom

The little town where I teach, Hamchang, isn't even a real city. It's designated as an eup, which I think is more like a village or a hamlet. Anyway, it's definitely not a city, which is shi. It's a tiny little town, this Hamchang. I don't even live here, I just teach here. But from the roof of my school, I noticed something out of place, something that belies this area's past.

This is the tomb of King Taejo, the founder of Goryeong Gaya, one of the city states of the Gaya Confederacy. I confess that before coming here I didn't know that there ever was a Gaya Confederacy. As far as I knew, this was always Shilla territory. Shilla was one of the three kingdoms that vowed for domination of the Korean peninsula in the first half of the first millennium. But while Shilla was growing to the east, the Gaya Confederacy fluorished right here.

The city state eventually fell to the Shilla kingdom, as did all of Gaya. Later, during the Joseon era, this tomb was discovered and statues put up to honor the king. I think the chair is a recent addition.

The burial mound has a few other shrine buildings around it which are obviously used by the locals for things other than worship. This one had persimmon slices drying on a mat, and an old metal desk parked inexplicably in the back. Oddly enough, there was English signage, as well as Japanese. It's said that Gaya metal-smithing was particularly advanced, and items were sold to Yamato in Japan.

Pretty cool that something so important is right in my backyard.

You can see more pictures from this excursion at Facebook.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Mythical Sick Day

I have a cold. It's not a terrible cold, not by any stretch. I can remain upright with little or no difficulty and can occasionally breathe through my nose without sounding like a sucking gun shot wound. All I need is a little rest, a day or so lying in bed, drinking orange juice and watching TV. But that's not going to happen.

My contract with EPIK says I get 11 sick days a year. There are all kinds of addendums to this, such as needing a note from a doctor after being absent from so many days, and how many days I can miss and still get paid for them, and so on. It's all very usual and proper and expected for a job. And it's all complete crap.

No one takes a day off at my school. You're sick, you come to work. If you're too sick to work, you go to the hospital and get a shot of vitamins in your ass and ride that vitamin high until the end of the day. I suppose if your eyes fell out or a lung popped out of your mouth they might let you go home after lunch, but really it's very frowned upon.

Not to mention inconsiderate of other teachers, as there's no system set up to accomodate illness. There are no substitute teachers. If you miss a day, the entire schedule gets reorganized so other teachers can cover your classes. And so everyone works sick. The students too all seem to come to class sick. They cough and sneeze all over the class, or sit with their foreheads against their desks, the other kids covering for them by saying, "He very sick." My God, kid, stay home. But no, you can't.

Last year (before I was here) Korea was gripped by H1N1 terror. People were terrified of getting swine flu. Events were canceled and people were really scared. If people had just been allowed to stay home when they got sick maybe there wouldn't be so much virus walking around the country.

I have been told that the reason I have not been able to kick this cold yet is because Korean colds are stronger than other colds. I have also been told it is because I don't exercise enough (any opportunity to get in a dig about my weight...). I retort that if I could just stay home for a day and rest it would magically disappear. Your body needs rest to effectively fight off the invading sickness, etc., etc. They only look at me and smile at my delusion.

Coming to work sick shows solidarity with the group. The woman who sits next to me has been sneezing and sniffling for months now. One of my co-teachers is sick every other week. I was told that the previous native English teacher did a good job, for the most part, but he took a few sick days and tut tut tut.

I wonder how hard I'd have to cough to pop out a lung. I could use the rest.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Korean Alcohols I Have Known And Loved

Korea loves to drink. Korea loves a good bargain. Therefore, Korean alcohol is cheap. This works out well if you're more interested in trying alcohol than enjoying it. In my two months here I have made it a point to try different alcohols. Here's what I've imbibed (in alphabetical order for no good reason):

Cafri is fake Corona. Or possibly fake San Miguel, which is the Philippines' fake Corona. It is drinkable like Corona and forgettable like Corona.

Cass 2X
There are three main beer companies in Korea, Hite, O.B. and Cass. This is Cass' 2X beer, which is pretty much a useless brew because it only has 2.9% alcohol while all other Korean beers sit in the 5% range. The text on the can says (in English): "Extreme and exclusive beer for the explosive minds." Perhaps my mind wasn't explosive enough to understand it.

Cass Fresh
As you can see from the picture, Cass Fresh is the "Sound of vitality." In this case, vitality is carbonation. Cass is highly carbonated. It's the Fresca of beers.

Cass Red
If Cass Fresh is the Fresca of beers, then Cass Red is the Mountain Dew. With an alcohol content of 6.9% and a surprisingly sweet flavor, it's designed for getting the job done as quickly as possible. Seemingly only available at convenient stories.

Hite is far and away the most popular beer in Korea. It's what most restaurants serve, either on tap or in bottles. It's bland like most Korean beers, which are brewed with rice as a main ingredient. That being said, Korean beer tastes really good when paired with Korean food, or when mixed with soju, Korea's answer to vodka. (Mixing beer and soju, called some in Korean, is not recommended for beginners and often results in hand-holding with your male co-teachers and dreams in which you've woken up from a black-out to find your arms covered with Korean prison tattoos.)

No, your eyes do not deceive you. That is beer in a plastic bottle. And yes, it tastes terrible that way.

Hite D
I'm actually drinking this right now. And not only because of the taste, which is strikingly similar to what you or I would call "beer." It's also because I prefer to "Refresh your spirits. Break away from the daily grind. Hite D is brewed with our exclusive Dry Finish process using the select dry yeast."

Foreigners like to joke that Hite rhymes with shite.

This is makgeoli, an unfiltered rice wine not unlike nigorizake, if you know what that is. It's cloudy and sweet and, well, comes in a plastic bottle. It's apparently popular with young people and farmers, and I read it's got a following in Tokyo as well (but then again what doesn't). This particular bottle was around $1.50, carbonated (not common) and nasty. I'm ready to be converted, really, but this brand isn't going to do it.

Max is a sub-brand of Hite. Foreigners seem to like it but there's something odd about Max to me. It tastes like they added some artificial citrus flavoring or something. That won't stop me from drinking it if I'm out and that's what they have on tap but you won't find me kicking it at the Family Mart with a 1000ml plastic bottle of Max. At least, not any more.

This, dear readers, is a pitcher of beer. It holds 5000ml of beer. That's 5 liters. It's almost too much. You're really working to get that last liter down.

Bokbunjaju Black Raspberry Wine
Koreans make alcohol out of all kinds of things, including black raspberries. This is actually really delicious and is a lot more like grape wine than I expected. It's sweet but not cloyingly so, like a dessert wine. (A friend warned me to stay away from this brand, the most common, as people have gotten sick from it. Oops.)

Here it is: soju, the national drink of Korea. What vodka is to Russia, sake is to Japan, and wine coolers are to teenage girls, this fine drink is to the Land of Morning Calm. It doesn't always come in a juice box but I'm partial to booze served in child-size portions. Man do I miss drinking Oni Koroshi sake from a juice box in Japan. Anyway, soju tastes like sweet, sweet lighter fluid and will knock you on your can. I avoid it as much as possible.

Style S
This is diet beer. With fiber in it. It tastes like liquid smoke. I bought a six pack of it. I'm an idiot.

Tesco Imported Premium Lager
My local grocery store is somehow related to Tesco, the UK supermarket chain. This is nice in that I have access to decent breakfast cereal and spaghetti sauce. I also have access to stuff like this. I bought it because it says, "Continental strength." So exotic. So forgettable. So Tesco.

And there you have it. Quantity over quality. Power over finesse. Me over the toilet bowl. Thank you and good night.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

DJ's Take Control

I like teaching. For the most part. I have one class that's been a real challenge. All of my classes have their share of class clowns but, for the most part, I'm in on the joke. I think their antics are hilarious and as long as it doesn't derail the class, I love it. But that one class, oh man. There are two kids who sit in the back and run things. I'm not in on the joke—I'm the butt of the joke. And for 6 weeks I've been putting up with it because I didn't really know what to do was intimidated.

Standing in that class, my high school days came rushing back to me. Suddenly there I was, powerless to stop some cool kid from stepping on my shoes or making fun of me in the halls. All I could do was smile like a chump and hope he went away. And that's what I was doing in this class, and as long as I kept it up they would never respect me.

So today I decided it was time to take control.

All morning, I started chanting "I'm the boss" in my head. Pretty soon it had a backing beat, a steady house kick and Chicago acid house bass line. The voice dropped an octave and started to sound pretty scary. There was no way these punks could mess with a song like this.

It's the same tactic I would take when DJing and I was losing the crowd. Did I flounder around, worried that I was losing control and hope they would come back to me? Sometimes. But usually I would grow a pair, throw on a kick-ass record and command the crowd to come back.

Here's how I did it with my class:

The first thing I did was make everyone stand up. Now they were awake. I made them say what their favorite song was and wouldn't let them sit until they had said it. Power was thus transferred back to me.

Next, I made sure my Korean co-teacher was very involved. My first-grade high school classes are organized by ability. This class isn't the lowest but they act like it, and I'm pretty sure the other teachers treat them like it too. So I made sure my co-teacher did a lot of translating. The kids stayed more interested. I mean, it makes sense. You'd get bored and start goofing off too after 10 minutes of not understanding what was being said. The teacher seemed to like being involved too.

Third, I tried to make the lesson interesting. The topic was idioms in pop music, so I showed a few music videos, including a Korean one (Wonder Girls' "Nobody") and one that has been turned into a Korean song and is currently a huge hit (B.o.B's "Nothin' On You"). I had a game in the middle of the lesson and a few group activities. They stayed active and focused and then the class was over.

I don't know if I have their respect yet but I certainly have my self-respect back. And if they step out of line again I won't be afraid to discipline them. First, those two clowns are getting separated. Next, they have to stand in the hall. And if that doesn't work, well, there are Korean teachers ready to discipline them who are a hell of a lot meaner than I am.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Nana Everywhere

My grandmother, whom we called Nana, was one of a kind. She grew up on a farm in the Ozarks in Missouri, near the Alabama border, the daughter of a Scottish immigrant and a Cherokee woman. As long as I knew her (she died in 2004) she favored the same style: bold print polyester shirts and slacks, her hair cut short, permed and dyed black. She didn't really look like anyone else's grandmother. She had her own style. Nana style.

Nana with my brother and I in the late '90s. By this time she had pretty much stopped dying her hair.
So imagine my surprise when I arrived in Korea and found that my Nana's style was the style for old ladies. And when I say the style, I mean it. There is no variation. All of the halmoni (grandmothers) here dye their hair black and wear it short and permed, and they favor bold print shirts and slacks. They're even her same size: tiny! My Nana is everywhere.

Nana style at the bus stop.
I really miss my Nana. She and my grandfather, whom we called Joe, lived nearby, so my brother and I often stayed with them while my parents went out of town. We were pretty close, and since she passed there's been a Nana-shaped hole in my life. But now I can see her everyday.

It's wonderful.

Signs That Signify Nothing

So there I was, waiting for the bus to take me school. I almost didn't see it, the English writing on the back of the person in front of me. English is so ubiquitous on clothes here I don't even bother to read it any more, funny though it can be in a nonsensical way. But this was not nonsensical. This made a whole lot of sense. Here's what it said:

H.R. – Throat
Dr. Know – Guitar
Darryl – Bass
Earl – Drums

In case you don't know, this is the credits text from a Bad Brains album. And in case you don't know, Bad Brains are an incredibly influential black, Rastafarian hardcore punk band from D.C. who released albums in the early '80s. What is a twentysomething Korean out in the boonies doing with a Bad Brains shirt? What, indeed.

Here's the shirt.

It was put out by an American skateboard clothing company called Supreme a few years ago. The brand is popular in Japan, where it has more stores than in the US. Apparently it's also popular in Korea. I've noticed a lot of my students wearing the brand. Supreme is legit, and chooses bands and artists like Bad Brains and The Clash that it considers important for its clothes. The bands themselves often supply the artwork.

The choice of Bad Brains for a skateboard company is obvious. That it should be popular in rural Korea, where no one skates, let alone listens to early '80s hardcore punk, is not so obvious. And here's where the bizarre part of globalization comes in: the brand itself is popular, no matter what is on the shirt. A brand that specializes in repurposing classic album art and band logos as a kind of homage has become popular with people who have no idea who these bands are. It's like buying a painting—an expensive painting—because you like the frame.

For someone like me, who is familiar with Bad Brains, seeing a piece of their album replicated on the back of a T-shirt invokes a very specific reaction. But for the person who bought the shirt because of the brand? There is no reaction. To them, it's a sign that signifies nothing. It's just another part of the riot of meaningless English that swirls before them every day. I would have a hard time paying a premium price for what amounts to a fake Bad Brains shirt when I know I could get a cheaper version elsewhere. But to pay a lot of money for something that you don't even understand, with no emotional attachment to at all? That just boggles my mind.

Now if you'll excuse me I've just seen a cool shirt with Chinese characters on it that I want to buy.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Changing The Way I Look At Things

One of my reasons for coming to Korea was to have my perceptions challenged. Living in a country as different from America as Korea is a great way to challenge the way I think about things. On paper. When you're actually living through such an experience it's like having your teeth pulled—you recognize on some level that it's good for you but it's hard to see that through the blinding pain.

I recently had an issue with an ingrown toenail. It's been an ongoing issue, actually, but I didn't have time to take care of it before leaving the US. That's a shame because I had been seeing a really good podiatrist for bunion surgery. Actually, I think it's because of the bunion surgery, and having limited mobility for almost 4 months, that when I arrived in Korea and started walking a lot the toenail problem came back with a vengeance. I won't disgust you with the nasty, infected details but after a month of walking around in pain, waiting for my health insurance to be processed, by the time I was able to see a doctor things had gotten pretty bad.

The bus terminal, where my new doctor's office is.
I asked an English-speaking co-teacher to take me to the big new hospital by my house to have this taken care of. I assumed it would require surgery, having had a similar problem on the left side 15 or so years ago. But my co-teacher insisted on taking me to see his doctor, who, it turns out, practices in a dimly lit office above the bus station down the street from our school. Privacy is a concept not familiar to Koreans and so all during my consultation other patients traipsed in and out of the examination room, which was more of a wide hallway than anything else. I put my feet up on a table, the doctor said I didn't need surgery, his nurse swabbed it with iodine and wrapped it in gauze and they sent me on my way.

A few days later it started to bleed. After taking a look at my toe, which I was asked to display in the teacher's office, everyone agreed that I should get that nastiness taken care of. My co-teacher asked if I wanted to go back to his doctor and, assuming I now needed surgery and remembering the office and the Grand Central Station approach to privacy, I said I wanted to go to the big new hospital. "But my doctor has a lot of experience," my co-teacher insisted. "Hospital doctors are young." No, no, I thought. I don't want some horse doctor yanking on my toenail in barn-like darkness. Big new hospitals are better.

At the big new hospital, under bright lights and in complete privacy, a young doctor looked at my foot, thought for a few moments and then asked me if I wanted surgery. "Why are you asking me?" I sputtered out. "You're the doctor." He then had a long conversation with my co-teacher in Korean, which could be summed up as, "Let's wait and see." I did not feel comforted in the least bit, and my co-teacher doubted this youngster's skills as an MD, so back we went to the country doctor. There, in the half-light of his hallway examination room, the country doctor explained to me that prevention was the best medicine, and that even if I had surgery the problem could recur again in as little as a month. His English was pretty good but I wanted to make sure I absolutely understood what he was saying so I asked him the same questions repeatedly in different ways, and he patiently answered them all. "The bleeding is a sign that the toenail is healing," he explained. That's all I needed to hear. My fears were allayed.

When I got back to school, my toe once again swabbed in iodine and wrapped in gauze, I relayed to my co-teacher what the doctor had said. "You were right," I told him. "That doctor is great. He really made me feel at ease." And as my co-teacher headed off to his next class, I added, "From now on, he's my doctor too."

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Things I Have Mostly Gotten Used To

News flash: Korea does things differently than America. Duh, right? Except that when you live here, even though on some rational level you understand that there are differences, on a purely reactive level there are some things you just can't get past. Or so I thought. When I first arrived there were a number of things that I figured I would never adjust to, but here I am a month later pretty much adjusted (or at least resigned) to those very things I thought would bug me forever. This doesn't mean I have embraced them, of course, but they no longer piss me off so much.

Specifics, you ask for? Ask and ye shall receive:

1. Cars on the sidewalk.
Korea is not necessarily bereft of parking spaces, although I wouldn't say it's blessed with them either. But whether spaces or no, Korean drivers will pull their car onto the sidewalk and park it there. They even occasionally drive down the sidewalk looking for a space to get back on the road. Never mind that you might be walking on the sidewalk. Bob and weave, bob and weave.

2. Pedestrians never have the right of way. Never.
Which brings me to number 2. Whether you're crossing the street, walking on the sidewalk or watching TV in your home, you will never have the right of way. If there's any kind of motorized vehicle present, whether that be a luxury Hyundai with dealer door ding protectors still attached, a delivery scooter or an old man on a tractor, you're assed out. My recommendation? Practice a sideways dive and roll, and remember: your biggest threat may be behind you.

3. Cutting in line.
Koreans may take their sweet-ass time when they mosey down the sidewalk, linked arm-in-arm with 15 of the closest friends, but come time to get in line and they're in front of you before you realize you've been punked. And it's not just the old folks, who, in a hierarchical society, are now enjoying the fruits of being on top. No, it's just about anyone. I've been told that Koreans have less personal space than Westerners and so stand closer in line (which is hilarious when you're waiting for the ATM and the person behind you is practically wearing your pants) but even when I'm dry humping the counter at the head of the line someone will still manage to get in front of me. All I can do is laugh. They obviously want it more than me.

4. The toilet paper garbage can.
Korea may have one of the largest economies on earth, and boasts a large-screen HD TV for every citizen (I assume) but it has miserable plumbing. Even though it's called toilet paper it's not allowed in the toilet. It goes in an open garbage can next to the toilet. An exposed can of literally shitty toilet paper. Next to you. And you put your own newly browned paper in there. With the other befouled paper. And Koreans think leaving a fan on at night will kill you. But hey, I hardly ever retch any more. Amazing what you can get used to.

5. The community bar of soap.
So you've just spent a good couple of minutes with your hand inside a waste basket full of other people's poop and now it's time to wash your hands with a communal bar of soap rammed onto the end of a metal stick. Does soap remain clean even after it's been touched by hundreds of poopy hands? I doubt it. And the fact that it's on a stick is hilarious. As if I would want to take that thing home with me. Good thing I'm not a germaphobe.

6. Wet bathrooms.
The shower in a Korean bathroom is not partitioned off from the rest of the bathroom. It's right out in the open. You take a shower, the bathroom takes a shower. This is fine when you're as wet as everything else but when it comes time to dry off the presence of standing water makes the process difficult. So you stand there still partially wet while you do your getting-ready thing. My previous bathroom habits were based around being dry, which meant I could do things like wear pants while shaving, etc. Now I stand there naked and dripping. Why dripping? You try drying your feet and not getting the towel soaked in all the water on the floor. But I'm adapting, which means using a series of hand towels instead of one large towel. And accepting the fact that I'm going to be wet for awhile.

I was also going to write about eating kimchi and spicy food everyday, and while my mouth may have adapted to this culinary change, my bowels have not.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Things That Annoy Me About Korea

I have been in Korea for a month, long enough to have become adjusted to the fact that I'm in a new country and become annoyed with some things. Maybe this is culture shock settling in. Or maybe this is just Korea being annoying. Here are the things that bug me most.

1. Look where you're going
Koreans do not pay attention to the people around them. They stop in the middle of the aisle at the grocery store, with their cart angled in such a way as to block the entire aisle, and talk on their phone. They park their cars on the sidewalk and block you when you're walking. They'll even throw water into your path from a doorway. It's bad enough out here in the sticks, but in Seoul, which is by some accounts the most densely populated city in the world, there's nowhere to turn. Human gridlock.

2. Korean beer
For a country that loves to drink beer (called "mekju" by the locals) they sure do like it bland. Granted, Korean beer tastes great with Korean food. The distinctly unhoppy flavor of the local brew is a good match for the red peppers Korean use to flavor their food. But sometimes I just want some good, flavorful beer. And apparently Koreans don't because—with a very few and expensive exceptions—you just can't find good beer here. Heineken is as "exotic" as they like it.

3. Sour face
I don't know what the reason is but so many people here seem to wear a sour face all the time. Maybe it's just the look that my presence elicits, but I swear, every shopkeeper, pedestrian and bus driver looks like they've just finished sucking on a bag of lemons.

4. Bus drivers
And speaking of bus drivers, hey Mr. Bus Driver, would it kill you to be nice? Just a little? I understand that you have a schedule to keep, and a confused foreigner on your bus might throw you off 5 seconds, but put yourself in my shoes. Imagine you're in a strange place, in the boonies, where you don’t speak the language. You need to rely on other things to survive, such as timetables and consistent routes. Not always stopping in the same berth at the terminal doesn't help, nor does laughing in the face of the foreigner who is trying to go home after a long day at work. So come on, give me a break. And a smile wouldn't hurt either.

5. Thanks for staring
I realize I really shouldn't complain about being stared at. I mean, I signed up to teach English in the Korean countryside. And I have yet to get a really hard stare out here like I get on the Seoul subway from old men. But here it isn't even just old people. It's everybody. Cab drivers will hang out their windows at the light and stare like I was a soju ad. Middle-aged women will stop chatting and watch me walk by. At least high school students giggle and say hi.

Korea, mildly annoying. Got to love it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Affordability of Korea

Judging from my last post, you'd think I walked around Korea in a funk all the time, full of ennui at being alone. But there really is a lot here I like. I'm working in a great school with fun students and supportive co-teachers, and I make a great salary. And my salary goes far because Korea is splendidly affordable.

Before living in Korea, my experience with Asia was exclusively Japanese. And compared to Japan, anywhere on the planet is affordable. (Well, maybe not Norway.) But Korea is affordable pretty much anyway you look at it. A co-teacher remarked the other day that she heard movies were expensive in America. Still thinking in terms of Japanese prices (which range from $15 to $25 a ticket) I tried to say they weren't. But when she quoted the price of $7, well, I had to agree that that is cheaper than America.

Movie ticket prices are only the beginning. Public transportation is affordable too. Although my local bus is about what I'd expect ($1.50 a ride) I can take the express bus to Seoul for around $10. In fact, I could take the bullet train the length of the country for around $50.

Eating out is cheap as well. Unless you eat off the value menu at McDonald's, you'd have a hard time finding a good meal in America for less than $5.00 these days. But that's the rule here, not the exception. One of my favorite cheap meals is gimbap (like a sushi roll) from the supermarket. For only $2.00 I can buy way more than I can eat. Of course, these prices are for Korean menu items. If you want any kind of Western food, the price goes up a bit but it's still affordable. (Unless you're in Seoul, where the price automatically doubles. A good rule of thumb: no kimchi = twice as expensive.)

Even little things, like bottled water, are cheap. What would cost $1.00 at home is half the price here. The Korean version of onigiri (rice and meat wrapped in seaweed) is less than a dollar, half the price of Japan. And Japanese candy that would cost $3.00 in Japan is $.75 here. Granted, it's invariably a knock-off but it tastes exactly the same.

Electronics are affordable too. In Japan, prices are kept artificially high by the government, holding the consumer hostage. There are no low-priced Chinese goods, only locally made items. Korea keeps out the competition as well but thankfully offers lower priced items as well as luxury ones. I'm thinking specifically of rice cookers. You cannot live in Korea or Japan without a rice cooker but good luck finding a new one in Japan for less than $100. Here, I've got my eye on one for $50.

Of course, not everything is cheap. Going to the supermarket can put a good-sized dent in the bank account. And I don't mean just imported foods, which I would expect to be pricey. Chicken, which is the cheapest meat here, is about twice the price than at home. And toilet paper, my God. It's no wonder no public bathrooms stock TP when it's $15.00 for a family pack. We're spoiled in America in terms of grocery shopping, particularly for fruits and vegetables, which are hilariously expensive here. But if you want to buy locally made alcohol, you're in luck. A beer-sized bottle of soju is less than a buck, and makgeolli, something akin to nigorizake (unfiltered sake), is similarly priced. You can see where the priorities lie.

It's a pretty good deal all around. Korea may be one of the world's fastest growing economies but the prices are still low. Now if only they could get some decent beer.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Eating Alone

I am often asked by Korean people who know that I have lived in Japan what some of the differences are between Japan and Korea. I usually mention that Koreans like to eat outdoors in groups, and that I think this is a really great custom. There are raised platforms and little gazebos everywhere, all set up so people will have a place to share a meal and conversation, seemingly one of the chief joys of life in Korea.

A meal and conversation. The two are inseparable. The act of eating is always done in a group. In fact, it is rare to ever be alone at all in Korea. From what I have observed, they really dislike it. And so it goes that the outsider is at a distinct disadvantage in Korea as so much of the culture is geared towards the shared group experience. Japan will never let the foreigner forget he is different; Korea has no room for anyone, foreigner or otherwise, who is on his own.

I had been living in a hotel for 3 weeks and thus had no way to cook my own food, so every night I wandered out into the streets in search of a restaurant. The first place I tried, which was shaped like a train and called Galaxy Express, seemed inviting enough until the waitress automatically set down two glasses of water at my table, even though I was obviously alone. It's not that she was mocking me—she just couldn't comprehend that I could be dining solo.

Another night I tried a "hof," the Korean word (borrowed from German) for a place that sells beer and food. Basically a Korean pub. After the flurry of confusion that erupted from a foreigner entering their business, I was sat at a table and given a menu. The prices seemed especially expensive and I feared that it was some sort of price extortion, like the snack bars in Japan. You want to drink? You pay for the privilege. But no, that's not Korea's style. The dishes were expensive because they were all for two. And again I felt all the more alone because of it.

I have finally moved into my own apartment (ironically located just behind Galaxy Express) and so I can start cooking for myself and thus avoid the pariah meal. And I have gone out to eat a number of times with co-workers and thus experienced the true Korean meal experience, complete with shared food and complex drinking etiquette, the latter of which will get an entire post of its own in the future.

And if I don't feel like cooking? I buy a premade sandwich from the convenient store and eat it at home, alone.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Welcome To My School

I'm posting this from work. Normally this wouldn't be an acceptable use of my time but today the high school students are taking some kind of standardized test so I've been told I can sleep on my desk all day if I want. This is good news, as I went out drinking last night with some Korean co-teachers and was introduced to the wonders of so-me, a mix of soju and beer. I actually have to teach two middle school classes today but they're so much fun that shouldn't be a problem.

Anyway, let's take a tour of my school, Hamchang Middle and High School.

This is the main entrance. The school sits on top of a hill so the gate is down on the street, but this is the main building.

Here's the foyer. To the right are the administration office and the principal's office. I rarely see him, he's usually doing principal things in this office. I surmise, I really don't know what he does.

To the left is a hallway leading to the small library and the English Only Zone. The latter is a special English classroom that I occasionally teach in. In other schools, the EOZ is the permanent classroom for the native English teacher but here it isn't utilized all that much.

There's also an extra classroom that I don't think ever gets used. I took a picture because it'll give you an idea of what a typical classroom looks like here.

Here's a shot of the new gym, which is currently under construction. I have no idea when it will be completed. I didn't even know that I wouldn't be teaching any high school classes today until 8pm last night. Welcome to Korea.

This is the teachers' shoe cubby at the top of the stairs on the third floor. Everyone, students and teachers alike, changes into slippers when they arrive for school. You only take them off if you step onto dirt or leave the school. The students' cubbies are in their classrooms, as are their lockers. Unlike in America, where teachers stay put and students come to them, here it's the other way around. Students stay with the same group all day and the teachers go to them. So it makes sense for their lockers to be inside the room.

This is a student lounge area, located just to the right of the above teacher shoe cubby. Students do occasionally lounge here but usually they're so tired from studying a more apt name would be the student coma area.

This is the third-floor teacher's room. Usually there's at least one teacher in here. I'm not sure why it was so empty on this day.

Here's my desk. Instantly recognizable by the alien Apple computer. Korea has to be the least Mac OS-friendly country ever. If it's not a PC it's just baffling to most people here. (The students, however, ooh and ahh over my Mac. There's hope for this country yet.)

A shot of a third-floor hall. Shoe cubbies can also be outside a classroom.

The view from the stairwell.

From the roof looking south. Those train tracks will take you all the way to Pusan, Korea's second biggest city.

On the fourth-floor roof. It amazes me that this area is open to students, as is the fifth-floor roof (with the blue awning). In my day any dangers, such as that exposed rebar or the precipitous drop, would have been exploited by the students for maximum bullying potential.

Looking down from the fourth-floor roof at the music building (on the left) and the science building. The school cafeteria is on the first floor of the science building.

The school cafeteria in full swing. It's not all that big so they control the flow of students by grade. These are middle school students. And yes, there are two large HD TVs in here. It is Korea, after all.

A middle school class before the bell rings. They're remarkably well-behaved when I'm in the room. I can walk in to pandemonium, with kids in all sorts of gravity- and pain-defying positions, but as soon as they see me they sit down and get ready for class.

So there you go. Maybe next time I'll give you a tour of the town where I live.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Long-Ass Post From A Small-Ass Place

A lack of posts on this site should not be taken as an indication that there's nothing going on in my life worth blogging about. On the contrary, blog-worthy things are happening to me on an almost hourly basis. It's a little overwhelming. There's no way I'll be able to cover everything but I can at least give you an overview of what's happening in my life these days.

In a nutshell, I am now teaching English at an all-boys' middle and high school in the Korean countryside. Specifically, at Hamchang Middle and High School, in Hamchang, Gyeongsangbuk-do, population 8427. My school has around 600 students, 150 middle school and 450 high school students. I teach English to them all.

Not all at the same time, of course, although I have appeared before them en masse at a ceremony to welcome the new teachers (that would be me and a new middle school science teacher). No, I see each class once a week (and in a few cases, twice a week). My class is called "applied English." The rest of the week, they learn grammar and reading comprehension and other things that they can (and will) be tested on. My job is to make sure they can speak English too.

I have a Korean co-teacher for each class. This is the students' regular English teacher. Some like to be involved with my lessons, for a variety of reasons ranging from making sure the class understands what I'm saying to a desire to co-teach. Others are content to let me take the reins, plan the lesson and teach the class. I'm happy to teach in whatever way the co-teacher prefers. It's fun to plan a lesson and see it succeed but if it fails and it's just you bombing, it sucks. It's also nice to have some of the pressure taken off and let the Korean co-teacher lead the lesson.

The kids, for the most part, are great. They're enthusiastic, respectful and endearing. I've had students offer to carry my laptop, randomly buy me juice or give me candy, and pop into the teacher's room just to say hi. They all bow when they pass and say "hello" or the Korean equivalent, "anyeonghasseyo." In Korea, respect is automatically given to an elder, particularly to a teacher. In America, respect must be earned. Their automatic respect makes me want to be a better teacher for them, to try harder so I do not fail them. And of course respect goes both ways: when they bow to me at the beginning of class, I bow back (only not as deeply).

The school has been great to me. Aside from some confusion about what my relocation bonus is for (I say it's for me, they say it's to pay for my hotel while my apartment is being built) everything has gone smoothly. I started with a schedule of 22 classes per week, what I'm actually contracted to teach, but this was reduced to 20 after they saw how exhausted it was making me. They've also offered after-school classes to me at a higher rate of overtime than what I'm contracted for. And that new apartment? I'm still living in a love motel but once it's ready next week it'll be plush. A brand new one-bedroom apartment with a built-in 42" TV, laundry machine, balcony, and storage area. My school has even offered me use of a car.

All of the teachers have gone above and beyond for me but my vice principal has practically adopted me. There's a long and embarrassing story involving diarrhea and him paying for my doctor visit because I don't have medical insurance yet but I'll save that for another time. But for another example, yesterday I decided I would take a walk through our tiny town and take pictures of places for an upcoming lesson on giving directions. I pantomimed to him that I was going to go take pictures and he jumped up out of his desk and insisted he drive me. "No walk. Long course. I drive." I tried to refuse—he's the VP and obviously very busy—but there's no refusing this man. He borrowed a car from another teacher and off we went the three blocks to take pictures of the bank, police station and other places. When we got to the one grocery store in town he took me inside and made me pick out pastries and cookies and then bought them for me. Luckily Koreans are all about sharing food so I was tactfully able to avoid gaining 5 pounds that day by offering it to the other teachers.

I live in the next town over from Hamchang, called Jeomchon. It has a population of around 50,000 people and thus is not as rural as I was afraid it could be. It has a bus terminal and a train station, a Dunkin' Donuts, a Lotteria Burger (local fast food chain) and two Paris Baguettes (local bakery chain). There are no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no department stores or clubs. There isn't even a movie theater (the nearest one is over an hour away!). Outside of town is farmland and then big, beautiful mountains.

On the plus side, I'm located pretty much right in the middle of Korea. I'm two hours by bus from Seoul, and two hours by train to Daegu, Korea's third largest city. There are lots of small cities not too far away worth exploring, and even a few things in my own backyard that warrant a look-see.

Surprisingly, there are quite a few other foreigners in my town, something like 15 or 20. I seem to run into at least one a day. I was invited to a bi-monthly foreigner dinner party my first week so was able to get some good advice on where to go and all that. But it seems most everyone leaves town on the weekends, something I've already started doing. Last Saturday I went to Seoul and back to get some things for my computer (most people out here don't even know what Apple is) and buy some books. Tomorrow I'm training into Daegu for a haircut and a night out with other new EPIKers.

The days are still a little rough and I pass out around 9 every night, but it's a fulfilled exhaustion. I really like teaching. I like seeing a lesson plan succeed, and the kids understand a grammar point. I like when they attempt to speak to me in English, and when I can see them become interested in what I'm talking about. I like when the other teachers complement me on a lesson. It's nice to make a difference, even if it's only a small one.

I think it's going to be alright out here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

First Post From Korea: Shower Time

Hello all! I'm in Korea, at orientation for my teaching job with EPIK. Orientation is at Jeonju University, in the southern part of the country. After this week I'll head out to my job in Gyeongsangbuk-do, but until then, the dorms here are my home.

The dorm itself isn't all that special (even though it is nice) but what is worth mentioning is the shower. Korean showers do not have doors or curtains; there's nothing separating the water from the rest of the bathroom. You get wet, the toilet gets wet and the floor gets really wet. There's a drain in the floor to let the water out but not all of the water goes at once, so you have to use the supplied bathroom slippers other times so your feet don't get soaked.

You may be able to see in the picture that the roll of toilet paper is covered with a metal plate. The wall sockets are also similarly covered. There's even a lid for the garbage can. Of course, all of this could be alleviated by just partitioning off the shower space.

But hey, who am I to tell the Koreans how to bathe themselves?

Lastly, here's a bonus photo of our shampoo.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How I Almost Landed A Job Teaching English In Japan

Although I'll soon be teaching English in Korea my original goal was to teach in Japan. After all, Japanese was my major in college and I've spent quite a bit of time there. However, like the Rolling Stones said, "You can't always get what you want." Although I actually had a job offer on the table at one point (from G.education Nova), I wasn't able to find a job that fulfilled all of my requirements (namely, a decent salary) and so I set my sites elsewhere.

It's pretty hard to get a good job in Japan right now. From what I've seen online, the market there is rough for prospective English teachers with no previous experience. More and more people are falling in love with Japan and going there hoping to teach, while fewer and fewer positions are being made available as schools scale back or even close. Schools that are hiring want people who are already in Japan and don't require visa support. Those that are willing to sponsor you for a visa want teaching experience. It's an employer's market so schools can afford to be picky. That being said, if you're willing to work for low pay for a year or so to gain experience there are still jobs out there. (This option wasn't available to me as I have student loans to pay off.)

As with Korea, there are two main types of English teaching jobs in Japan: public and private schools. At a public school, you're what is called an ALT, an Assistant Language Teacher. You co-teach English with a Japanese teacher at a public school. ALTs are provided by private companies, like Interac and Altia Central, or the government, which is what JET is. There are also private schools, known as eikaiwa, conversation schools. Unlike Korean private schools, which largely use recruiters to find employees, private Japanese schools hire directly.

So what do you need to be able to teach in Japan? A college degree is absolutely necessary. You don't have to speak Japanese, although it doesn't hurt. A TEFL certificate is not necessary but could give you an edge over non-certified applicants. And, as I said before, if you already have a visa eg you're married to a Japanese person then you're good to go.

Get your resume together and rewrite it with an ESL focus. Bagged groceries at Safeway? Great, but even better if you tried to teach your Spanish-speaking co-workers some English on your break. Prepare a nice cover letter too. Have a passport photo taken (and wear a collared shirt and tie). You'll need that for your application. Get two former bosses to write generic letters of recommendation for you. Then scan everything, including your diploma and any TEFL certificates. It also wouldn't hurt to write a short essay on why you want to teach in Japan. You can always add in specifics like location when applying.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
You don't have to be in Japan to get hired. There are lots of job sites (below) to help you do that. However, being in the country could give you an advantage. That being said, Japan is a very expensive place to be and it could take 3-4 months to land a job so you'll need to being a lot of money with you, something like $5000.

Here's a list of some of the larger eikaiwa chains, some of which have offices outside of Japan where you can interview in person. Others will want to interview via Skype or phone. Eikaiwa often pay better than public schools but your hours will vary and be when people are not working or in school, so evenings and weekends.

G.education Nova (Geos)
James English School

ALT Providers
If you'd rather work in a public school with normal 9-5 hours, try one of these.

Altia Central

Job Sites
There are many other, smaller schools also hiring. Look on the following job sites for job postings. Gaijinpot is the biggest and best known, but not every school will post there. Also, everyone looking for a job goes there so there are literally hundreds of applicants for any one job. Check the sites everyday and if you can, check at the end of the day, as that's when new ads tend to go up (it's morning in Japan then).

TEFL Jobs Now
Japan English Teacher
Total ESL
You Can Teach English
ESL Job Feed
Dave's ESL Cafe International Job List
All About Teaching English In Japan
Jobs In Japan
Kansai Scene Classifieds
Kansai Flea Market Classifieds
Kansai Free Ads

Information Boards
Check these boards for additional information. As with any expat boards take what people say with a grain of salt.

Gaijinpot Forums
Dave's ESL Cafe International Forums
I Think I'm Lost
JET Forums

Good luck!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How I Secured A Job Teaching English In Korea

The contracts are signed, the visa is being processed, the plane tickets are bought, and all that's left to do is pack my bags. Yes, I'm finally leaving for Asia to teach English.

I've decided to go with EPIK, a South Korean government program that recruits English-speaking people from all over the world to teach in elementary, middle and high schools around Korea. The pay and benefits are both excellent. As with most English-teaching jobs in Korea, your airfare and rent are paid, leaving you free to take home the lion's share of your paycheck. Add to this a lower standard of living than home, extremely affordable health care, and an agreement between the US and Korea so I don't have to pay income tax for two years. Financially, it's the best deal in Asia.

Long-time readers of this site will be wondering why I chose Korea over my beloved Japan. Truthfully, it's more that Japan didn't choose me. I applied to the JET program and ended up on the waiting list and then applied to a number of cram schools as well. But as I found out, it's a difficult time to get an English-teaching job in Japan, especially with no experience. Fewer jobs and more applicants (curse you, manga and anime) means employers can afford to be picky. Korea, however, has made English language a priority. Now is the time to break into Korea, as more and more people are taking the same route.

So how did I do it? In this piece I'll take you though my job application steps. This is not meant to be a definitive how-to, it's just the way I did it. Hopefully it will give you some pointers for your own job search. (I also plan to write similar articles on Japan and Taiwan, both of which I received job offers from before settling on EPIK.)

Public or Private?
There are for the most part two kinds of schools to apply to in Korea, public schools and private schools. The latter could include private day schools but for the most part this means hagwons, or cram schools, places where kids go after regular school to supplement their education. Both public and private schools offer similar salaries and bonuses but the main difference between them is when they hire. Hagwons hire all year round while public schools generally hire twice a year, for spring and fall intakes.

A note about hagwons: there seems to be a lot of disreputable places out there, so much so that there is a warning about them on the US State Department site. Do your research before accepting a position. Ask to speak with a few teachers currently working there and look around online for warnings. I interviewed with a hagwon but am happy I got the public school job, if just for the fact that public-school hours suit me better. Hagwons operate in afternoons and evenings and on weekends and holidays, basically whenever the kids aren't in normal school. I'm a morning person and I prefer a 9-5 schedule.

For public schools, the two main programs are EPIK and GEPIK. EPIK is a nationwide program that includes most of South Korea's provinces and major metropolitan areas. Seoul's hiring is now handled by EPIK but it's known by a different name, SMOE. GEPIK is just for Gyeonggi-do, the province surrounding Seoul. Additionally, other provinces may hire on their own. Sometimes schools or areas hire directly as well.

You don't have to use a recruiter when getting a job in Korea but I think it helps. That being said, there are lots of horror stories about lying recruiters on the web as well, so again, do your research. The recruiter I used to secure my EPIK job was Korea Connections. They're a little smaller than some, like Footprints or Korvia, but they offer a more personalized approach. I went with them after the recommendation of a blogger I like to read (Seoul Patch) so now I'm passing the recommendation on.

Of course, the recruiter you choose will largely depend on the kind of job you want, as each one has access to different positions. At one point I was working with three different recruiters, Korea Connections for EPIK and hagwons, Korvia for GEPIK and Footprints for other hagwons. Don't apply to the same job twice through different recruiters but feel free to sign up with as many recruiters as you need to to maximize your chances. It doesn't cost you anything to sign with a recruiter; they get paid by the school that hires you.

Some people applied directly to EPIK and haven't had any problems. I like having a recruiter though. It's like having an advocate on your side. Also, Korean immigration is complex and confusing and it helps to have someone work through it with you.

Getting Prepared
You know the kind of job you want and you're ready to work with a recruiter (or not, as the case may be). What now?

You're going to need a resume and cover letter. Make sure these are ESL-focused. Even if you have no prior teaching experience, spin your job experience into something that would be attractive to schools.

You're also going to need a scan of a passport-type photo to send them. It's standard practice in Asia. Also, scan your passport, diploma (required), any TEFL certificates you may have (more on this later) and two or three letters of recommendation. Ask former employers to write generic letters of recommendation and have them address them to: To whom it may concern. You can then use them for any situation.

Interviews will take place either via Skype or cell phone. I always wore a suit, if just to get in the right mindset. And if it's a Skype video conference definitely look presentable. Interviews could be as short as 20 minutes or as long as 90, it depends on the interviewer. My policy was to take every interview. Even if I wasn't super interested in the job it was still good practice. Unless you're a seasoned teacher you're going to be answering questions about teaching and classroom management without having done any of this stuff. The more you talk about it the more confident you'll become.

Better than talking is doing, so why not try to get some experience before you start applying? Volunteer in a classroom, set up a language exchange or even do some private tutoring. It'll give you something to put on your resume as well as confidence in an interview.

TEFL Certification
TEFL (or TESL) Certification isn't a requirement for most schools in Korea but having one sure doesn't hurt. In fact, it can often help. SMOE requires it (or at least one year's experience in a classroom). Because I have one, I qualified for a higher salary bracket with EPIK.

There are lots of different places that will give you a certificate. Make sure the school, whether online or brick and mortar, is accredited. You're going to need at least a 100-hour course. Anything less will not be acceptable to a school and thus a waste of money. I went with I To I, a UK-based online school. I really enjoyed the course and was able to apply things I learned directly to the interview. When asked about class management I had concrete things I could suggest, rather than just vague ideas about keeping kids quiet. It also gave me some much-needed confidence—I may not have any teaching experience but at least I've spent 100 hours reading about it.

Korean Language Ability
It's not a requirement. You'll be working with Korean co-teachers for the most part so you're not expected to speak the language.

The main resource for all things Korea ESL is Dave's ESL Cafe. It's a good place to do some research and get the lay of the land but take what people say here with a grain of salt. This is a very cranky bunch. The recruiter Footprints also has a board, which has some useful information on it.

Good luck!