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.