Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Aha! Saboteur!

"Quick Korean learn do" is the direct translation of what I need to do (Bbali hangookmal paewo heh... this is not the official romanized version of the Korean a la the 2000 debut). My landlady told me this when we were mucking through a conversation about setting up internet, and I felt this through and through when I sat at lunch with a table of only-Korean-speaking teachers at lunch (I usually sit with the English department) with all the desire to have a conversation but nothing to follow through with. Later I asked one of my co-teachers how I could have said, "how are you?" or "how is your day going?", and she said that those are particularly English questions, and if I want to start a conversation I should ask about food. This struck me as funny-- "if you want to talk to someone, don't ask them about their thoughts or feelings; ask them about lunch." She continued by saying that in Korea the three meals of the day are really important, so people mentally organize their day around them. I should ask a lead-in question like "have you eaten lunch yet?" at any point pre-lunch. I haven't come to terms with this quite yet-- the idea of replacing 'how're you' with 'how bout that next meal'... and besides I already know when all the teachers are scheduled to eat lunch, so asking seems silly. I wonder if she's pulling my leg and really there's an easy 'what's up' equivalent and she's just setting me up to be the weird foreigner obsessed with talking about food... Aha! Saboteur! I'm on to her.

Last week was my first attempt at clothes shopping. Aaaand the Chubby Giant struck out. We went to a Migliore, which is a kind of truce between a department store and a flea market: vendors have their own sections crammed against each other in a six-story building organized floor by floor, and you're allowed to haggle. I was overwhelmed and intimidated. There were so many clothes and people flagging you down, and the aisles were so narrow, and the clothes were for the most part just TINY (what is this- a center for ants? -Zoolander). And I had witnessed my friend being turned down to try on anything, which we figured was a form of discrimination against clumsy foreigners, so I was timid. But apparently a lot of places won't let customers try on anything for fear of damaging the merchandise in some way, so it's common to buy without trying, an idea which seems to Un-Korean-proportioned Me to be one with a low probability for success. Thus, I just browsed. I'm sure I'll try again soon; with a proper pep talk and the right phrases handy, I will prevail! The day I buy pants here I will hold the receipt above my head in victory.

Love Actually Korea

One of my co-teachers is really curious about Western relationships and asks me all sorts of questions, which of course, as a Communications: Human Relations major and gossip I am happy to answer. Through our conversations I'm learning about the Korean dating culture, and now my impression is that Koreans are little dating speedracers. Beep beep! A race to coupledom. Here is a rough recap of our dialogue:

Co: If two people are dating, doesn't that mean love? Doesn't that mean they are a couple?
Me: No... two people can date (as in go out on dates) just to figure out if they like each other, and even if they both like each other, they may decide not to commit to being a couple. Love is something people take seriously and develop over time and may not say even when they feel it. Ok, ok-- this does not reflect the attitudes of all Americans, I know.
Co: We say 'I love you' very quickly. It means... 'I like you.' So it's not uncommon to say on the first date.
Me: *mouth open*
Co: And it's not uncommon to be a couple after the first date. He'll ask you to be his girlfriend. And then maybe on the next date you'll go together to buy each other couple rings. See my post on this. And you can buy couple/matching shirts, too. My friend reports that couples also buy matching underwear sets-- barf-o-rama.
Me: Do you say something different later when you feel love like the American concept of love?
Co: No, we say the same thing.
Me: If Koreans become a couple really quickly, does that make for more break-ups? What happens to the rings?
Co: Yes, you are a couple more easily, and breakups come more easily. You sell the rings back to the jewelry shop.
Me: And here I thought for a moment that you'd sell your rings to another couple-- "didn't work for us, but here, you give it a go."
Co: What about sex?
Me: Well, some Americans treat it like something you do to express love after you've built a relationship with someone, and some Americans are casual about it.
Co: I think Americans and Koreans are the opposite in sex and love. With Americans, sex comes easily, and with Koreans, love comes easily.
Me: That can be true; some Americans who would never say 'I love you' on a first date wouldn't think it weird to sleep with someone instead.
Co: *mouth open*

Monday, March 29, 2010

Gummiberry Juice

I am shocked by how much mucus and phlegm my body produces. Oh flu. The factory is operating 24/7-- if only somehow I could get my body to focus on turning out something else, something worthwhile or profitable-- like honey... or Gatorade powder... or Gummiberry Juice. My research on Wikipedia supports the fabulousness of this idea. Gummiberry Juice is "a magic potion that endows Gummi bears with bouncing abilities, but gifts humans (or ogres) with momentary super-strength as well as other numerous uses, including serving as fuel for mechanical machines." Just think what a popular gal I'd be with Gummi bears, ogres, and mechanical machines; you could come to my parties and rub elbows with animated bears from the 80's, monsters, and tractors.

I've been in Korea for over a month. I had a week of orientation, and now I'm in my fourth week of teaching. I'm learning what different personalities different classes have-- they'll respond completely differently to the same activity-- and how so much of teaching kids is the simple struggle to keep their attention. I guess all my teachers growing up did a good job of being professional and hiding how human they were, but being a teacher now I can tell you that there are definitely kids I favor and kids that annoy me, and sometimes in class when it's obvious the kids don't care, I have to will myself to keep trying to move the class forward. Oops. I don't think I'll be taking home any teaching awards here, but I'm confident I'll get better. I'm keeping an open mind, but so far I haven't felt any kind of click that would lead me to believe I've found my calling as a career. I don't mean to be negative-- some of my classes are really fun and/or really gratifying, some of my kiddos are cute and excited about learning, I'm definitely learning a lot about classroom management and lesson planning, I like the freedom/demand for creativity, and it's interesting to see my teaching style take shape. Plus I get to write on the whiteboard a lot.

You'll have to refer to my last post, but my grandpa sent me this in an email, and I wanted to include it:

Hi Gina,
I haven't mastered the 'comment' system on the blog so here it is:

I`m so glad to see that Phillips humor carried to a next generation.
For a while I feared its demise and the loss to civilization of a unique form of comedy.
Way to go, girl!

I do hope you feeling better and will soon acclimate to Seoul`s ambient conditions.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Festivus: a holiday for the rest of us!

Last week I connected with some of my mom's friends-- a sweet old Catholic nun and her tiny Catholic nun sidekick. They brought me some stuff for my place: a rice cooker, dishes, towels, etc., but the highlights were three cans of Spam and a Jesus mug. A new place can't truly feel like home until you've been spammed and mugged. Hahha I feel like my dad would make that joke-- dad, are you reading this? I don't think everyone will think we're funny.

It's snowing balls here. There are some weird weather patterns where it's slightly warmer for a few days and then really cold again. Apparently there's some scientific explanation for this having to do with atmospheric pressure and such yadda yadda, but let me tell you I am le tired of the teasing and this cold! Living in Austin and San Diego have made me le weak to it. I've been sick since last weekend, and I struggled to keep my voice teaching this week, and Saturday night it all culminated in a crazy congested coughing fevered mess. All my foreign friends are taking their turn with this flu thing. It may be the new environment, or it may be the Yellow Dust from China-- wind picks up dust from Mongolia/China and sweeps it over to Korea, giving the sky a dark orange haze and causing people breathing problems (asthma, sore throat, etc). The surgical masks come out en masse on bad days.

It's common for men and women to live with their parents until they get married, thus the abundance of DVDbangs and Love Motels. DVDbangs are rooms you can rent by the movie; yes, people go there in groups to watch movies, but also yes, couples go there for some short-term privacy. There's a wide assortment of such establishments, and they've all agreed to the same disguises, for example, a brothel will be marked by two barber poles (legit hair salons will be marked by just one). I wonder how many naive quests for haircuts have turned into... a night Jesus' mug would frown upon.

One of my co-teachers has been with her boyfriend for five years. He wants to get married and her parents want her to get married, but she's stalling because she doesn't want to be pressured to have kids right away. The only way she can keep from being a mother is to keep from being a wife. My co and her bf aren't engaged, but she does wear a ring. Here boyfriends and girlfriends give each other couple rings. It doesn't necessarily reflect the seriousness of the relationship, just that you're in one. Some of the kids at our middle school have them, and I've seen them advertised in jewelry stores. Recently, on March 14, it was White Day-- the counterpart to Valentine's Day. On VDay, the women give the men presents, and on WDay, the men give the women presents. I thought the US was supposed to be the main perpetrator of made-up holidays and gift-giving occasions? One of my favorites is Festivus, as made famous on Seinfeld. Festivus, celebrated on Dec 23, features an Aluminum Pole, Feats of Strength, and an Airing of Grievances, where everyone sits around the dinner table and tells each other how they've disappointed them in the last year. Also, any easily explainable phenomenon you can call a Festivus Miracle. "It's snowing?" "Yes, because it's precipitating, and it's cold." "It's a Festivus Miracle!" I wonder if with the Yellow Dust it can snow yellow snow? You know what they say about yellow snow.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I made the top Seoul team for the Jeju tournament in May! The teams are small, so there are only three spots for girls and six for guys. Should be rad :0)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Go Skyhawks

When I was researching reputable programs in Korea, an acquaintance of mine from high school recommended the SMOE because he was having a good experience with it. He answered my questions through the hiring process, and since then I have become a SMOE teacher too. SMOE teachers can be placed anywhere in Seoul-- a city of over 10 million people. It can easily take more than two hours to cross the city by subway.

Once I figured out the closest subway station to my place, we talked about meeting up for dinner, and we discovered that we live near the same station. Not only that, we live on the SAME STREET! In all of Seoul, it so happens that two Southridge Skyhawks live two blocks away from each other. It's a small world afterall.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


People are taller, skirts are shorter, and there are fewer frozen yogurt shops. This is my comparison of 2004 Korea and 2010 Korea.

The younger people are in fact pretty tall; someone said that Koreans are the largest of the Asian races. Before I got here I stocked up on pants because I was convinced my status here would be Chubby Giant and any attempt to clothe myself with Korean-made garments would be fruitless, but I've seen myself enough larger-framed folks to give me hope. To recap my logic: I am bigger than the average Korean bear- better stock up- oh not everyone's tiny- I can go shopping! I'll stay away from the skirt racks though; I am shocked at the consistency at which I see micro-mini skirts and dresses just barely covering the bum. Koreans value pale and clear skin, big eyes, and long legs, and while they won't show off much up top, they'll hike up them hem lines. Generally though, the entire populace of Seoul is much more fashionable and dressed more formally than any city I've lived in. The men here love shiny suits (SHINY, for realsies), and the women are all in heels. The subway stations around universities especially may as well be catalogues. This CG's getting lessons on lookin' sharp!

I'm brushing up on my Korean. During orientation, there was an introductory class, and the teacher went over counting numbers. Hana, dul, set, net... and the way she said them- all slowly and seriously- triggered something of a stress reaction for me; it reminded me of when my mom used to count at us when she was angry ("I'll give you to the count of ten, or else...). *shudder. *love you Oma! Anyhoo, a lot of Korean's coming back to me, but I need to start some kind of formal study regimen. There are expats who have lived here for years and are still clueless about the language. For shame! The other day, though, I called my grandma and was just tickled I could have a rudimentary convo with her- "I'm at a restaurant eating Korean food, and it's raining outside. I miss you. I love you."

All of my fellow SMOE teachers are scared to put the garbage out. There are so many rules here and not enough people who can explain them and not enough public garbage cans. I've heard tales of midnight chores- people will take their banana peels and candy wrappers out under cover of night, ditch the evidence, and scamper back hoping they weren't seen. Who knew banana peels a criminal could make. What's inconsistent, though, is that while recycling is mandatory, Koreans I've seen aren't very particular about food waste. My mom's friend taught me how to ask to take our leftovers "to go" (pojahng hehjuesayo) and then explained how the practice was pretty un-Korean.

I had frisbee practice this weekend (yay!). There were between 30 and 40 folks gearing up for the big Korean tournament on Jeju island the first weekend in May. I'd say the ratio was about 3:1 foreigner to native Korean and 1:0 friendly to not. I heart frisbeers.

^^V is an emoticon that George showed me- it emulates the Korean habit of throwing up the Peace or Victory sign when being photographed. I asked him, "Victory over what?" and he said: "Everything."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Gina Teacher

My Place
The school provides each native teacher with housing. My neighborhood is on the poorer side, but there are plenty of restaurants and shops around, and the next station over is Seoul National University, full of young people and trendyspots. In my case, I was given a small and pretty old studio a half hour's walk from school and a sub-ten mins jaunt to the subway. I live by myself, I have a washing machine, a fridge, a bed, an armoire, and the odd bit of furniture, the floors are heated (pretty customary here), and I pay 120,000 won (roughly $120) a month for all utilities minus internet. The bathroom is pretty tiny-- a tiled closet, and the shower is a hose/head combo attached to the faucet. There is no sort of partition, so the sink and the toilet and I all shower together. First, though, I need to go out in the hall and turn on my water heater that I share with my neighbor (what if we need to take a shower at the same time?), and then I need to take all the waterproof things out of the bathroom. The head of the shower sits in a little rack in the corner to the upper left of the sink, so in order to take a hands-free shower and place myself under the stream of water, my belly button must make contact with the edge of the sink. You know your bathroom's small when you have to cuddle the porcelain to get clean.

My Co-Teacher
George is the man! His English is great, and actually, so is his Spanish; he studied it in school and in Spain. His English is good enough to where we don't have to resort to Spanish to speak to each other, though it'd be sweet to brag about if we did. He's pretty laidback, and I'm relieved I can be direct with him-- none of this 'noon chi' ish. He's insistent that I think of him as a friend and not a co-teacher, and actually he came out with my friends last night. He loves having foreign friends, he's super helpful, he's got a nice sense of humor, and he's quick to giggle. George also tap dances.

My School
I'm teaching at Kuksabong Middle School in the Donjak district (today's my second day!). Because it's a relatively poor area where parents can't afford to send their kids to hogwans, the level of English here is pretty low, and my lessons need to be really basic. It's a struggle to know what to plan because while the overall level is pretty low, there is a wide range of skill in each class. And, while some of these kids are shouting from their seats and telling me hi every five minutes, some of these kids won't even look at me. I stand by their desks and ask them a question, and their eyes never leave the desk. Apparently I am both loveable and scary. We were warned at orientation that we would be treated like celebrities-- kids excited about you and telling you how good-looking you are all the time-- and across the board I'm hearing from my fellow SMOE teachers across Seoul that this is the case for them; at least for a little while we are all rockstars in Korea.

The kids are SOooooo cute. Today I had a little boy silently get my attention and show me that on his paper he had written "hi" and a smiley face. Adorable! Yesterday in class when I was taking questions after introducing myself (btw, as custom goes they're calling me "Gina Teacher"), everyone wanted to know where I was from, how old I am (in Korea I'm 24 because they consider you 1yr old when you're born), how tall I am (I learned I am a giant and the concept of 'inches' kerflummoxes them), and if I have a boyfriend. I was also asked how much I weighed and was told I was more tan than they expected.

The other English teachers here (all Korean) teach their classes out of the textbook and keep to the grammar rules and repetition. They see my real value as being an authentic source of the language and helping students with their speaking skills, so they don't care if I follow the textbook or not, and they say I don't need to turn in lesson plans ahead of time, and if I want, I can wear jeans and ballcaps (this is way more laidback than the school policies I'm hearing from my fellow SMOE teachers across Seoul). Woohoo! The co-teachers' role (I have four co-teachers, including George) is to help manage the classroom, translate when necessary, and assist me in my lesson. Some of the other English teachers here (I am the only non-Korean in the entire school) are really cute and want me to introduce them to foreigner "wehgook" boys. Teacher/rockstar by day; matchmaker by night am I.

So, things are going really well, and all signs point to this being a solid decision. Yay Korea!

Thank you for all of your support and good wishes! I miss you all. I'll send out an email with my address in case you want to send me bits of home.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Garbage Snitch

Oops, meant to post this a while back--

A smattering of interesting bits I've learned lately about Korean culture:

A High Context Culture: Koreans have a reputation for not complaining and engaging in the practice of being indirect, called "noon chi". Instead of being straightforward about a problem, Koreans will express themselves in subtle (and sometimes passive aggressive) ways, and you'll have to read in between the lines. Considering that we're being told time and again that the quality of our year depends on a good relationship with our co-teacher, this makes me rather nervous (our co-teacher is the native Korean teacher at our school who has been assigned to be our mentor/handler; we may have up to eight different co-teachers we teach classes with, but there's one in particular who's supposed to take care of you).

A Drinking Culture: A vodka-like liquor called soju is ubiquitous here, and the Koreans are happy to drink it, make you drink it, and leave the idea of moderation at home. The pouring and serving of drinks is pretty ritualized (receive everything with both hands, turn your head away from your elder to drink, don't pour your own, etc.), and empty glasses that hit the table are invitations for a refill. We were told that it's not uncommon for your principle to take you out and for all the teachers to take turns buying rounds for everyone; depending on the size of the group, you may not be able to leave the table under your own power. At orientation we were coached in how to say no without offending people. It's a tricky thing.

A Recycling Culture: It's a small, resource-challenged country, so Koreans are careful with their waste. You have to buy special trash bags and separate trash, food items, and recycling. There are fines for not following the protocol, and it may be just a rumor, but we were told that the government pays people who tattle on offenders. Garbage snitches.

A Competitive Culture: Most of the families who can afford it send their kids to private English academies, or hogwans. Some families view public school as a formality and the hogwans as the real education; students go to hogwans after school, sometimes until 1 in the morning. Apparently there are some new laws restricting the late hours, but hogwans get around them by bussing kids to the teachers' apartments. Crajy.

Bias: The rumor is that schools prefer blonde-haired, blue-eyed American females as native English teachers. The hair and eyes advertise "foreign!", and the American and Canadian accents are preferred over English or Australian, etc.

Greetings: Koreans don't greet a stranger on the street; someone they know must introduce the third party. But, once you've been introduced, this person becomes a part of your circle, and it's rude not to greet them. When you do, use both hands (shake their hand with both of yours, or shake their hand while touching the crook of your arm with your opposite hand)-- or, if you're bowing, the younger person must bow first and more deeply. Age is a really important consideration here. It affects how you speak to others, and sometimes, whose fault something is.

Superstition: In most buildings, there is no fourth floor. The number four here is associated with death because, I think, the word for four sounds like "death" in Chinese. Thus, in my building, I take the elevator past floors 1, 2, and 3, and live on F. Also, Koreans are superstitious about writing names in the color red, because it's like sentencing that person to death, or inviting death to find that person. Rather than write his name with the only pen in the room (red), my coteacher left the classroom to go back to his office to get a black pen. He's safe for another day.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Getting Oriented

It's true-- here they serve kimchi at every meal, and I ate my scrambled eggs with chopsticks this morning. It's also true that yesterday, instead of achieving my goal of blogging, I attended a Korean Etiquette class and learned a step routine in one of the dorm hallways. There are all kinds of folks here-- Zac who competed at step competitions with his frat in Atlanta, Erin who taught 6th grade in inner city LA, Adam who developed a sponsorship program to connect kids with skateboards, Jaime from the bay who misses his car and just graduated with a degree in accounting but wants to have some adventure before settling in, Sonny who was a stock trader but got burned out and decided to come to Korea because he hadn't been back since being adopted at five years old... a Kiwi who moved here despite breaking up with his Korean girlfriend at Christmas, a Canadian straight out of college and another Canadian who has been teaching here for more than ten years, a South African whose real passion is gumboot dancing... I remember talking with my buddy Scott back in San Diego about what kind of people I'd meet, and he reassured me that people who pick up and move to another country for this kind of thing are generally interesting, open people who are "up for shit", so I'd be in good company. Ah, wise and foul-mouthed friend, you are proving correct so far!