Monday, November 17, 2008

Seoul Life

[Note: I am still experiencing Internet access issues at my flat. Some days the speed is so slow, I cannot tolerate working online. So, I haven't blogged as often as I like. My landlord recently fixed my cable access--though I don't watch the TV, save for soccer--and now, strangely, my Internet access has improved. Maybe somebody did something that somehow helped my situation. to come in subsequent posts.]

I am sitting in my favorite cafe--Cafe Good. It's one of the only ones near my flat that is not named Dog's Nuts or some French Phrase Although The Menu is in Italian. It is the first sub-freezing day in Seoul this Autumn. So, I am drinking hot chocolate.

Actually, the cafe above is named Nut's Dogs; however, even the teacher who first walked me through my new home was embarrassed to note, as we walked past the coffeehouse, that she believed the name "might mean something about the dog's body." I told her she was right, and asked her if she knew about nuts.

She laughed.

I work with wonderful folks. That is, I know they work hard and know they like to play hard, which I admire. I am invited to every social event and never have to pay. Although I insisted last weekend and gave money to my hosts. The teachers at high schools work Monday through Friday from 7:30 until 5 or 6, and they all work on Saturdays until 1, or later. My contract stipulates no work on Saturdays. I don't go in, but I do feel guilty. On the other hand, I inherited developing-the-curriculum for the First- and Second-grade classes for the remainder of this school year--end of January 2009--and the entire 2009-2010 year.

You might think this wouldn't be such a chore. After all, the students have attended English classes at Samsung High School for over a decade. A catalogue of classwork must exist. Unfortunately, I am the first "Native Speaker" at the school; A curriculum does not exist. I'll admit that it is good to be the first for many reasons, not least of which is that I am gaining incredible ESL teaching experience each new day at Samsung. And it is nice to be the one to develop what I will end up having to teach.

However, many problems have already developed as a result of being first. I use a relic PC that has an English version of Windows XP Pro and Office 2003. This would suffice in most situations. I streamlined the software on it, modified a few settings, ran updates (that took over one week to successfully download and install,) and I added Firefox. The computer is slow at times but works as best as it can. Everybody else at school has a Korean version of XP and uses a word processing software called Hangul Word Processor. They tried to make me comfortable by providing a computer that looked and ran like a PC would in the U.S., but in doing so they effectively made it impossible for me to work with students' powerpoint presentations and essays. Most unfortunate is that I am not connected to the school network and messaging system. I always find out about scheduling changes and meetings too late to prepare.

It is incredibly difficult to get to know my male colleagues. They are all older than me and--I think as do my younger, female colleagues--try to save face by avoiding me at all costs. We believe the men don't want to illustrate their lack of English at work. I have hiked with the men on the weekends and have had wonderful exchanges and experienced sincere camaraderie. Oh well. I will say that outside of the silence I am offered at school and other than my undergraduate life at Metropolitan State College of Denver, I have never experienced the warm friendship that men have offered me in Seoul. The men in Korea are very close. They show emotion. They are not afraid of physical contact. For crying out loud, they bathe one another at the sauna. They are affectionate guys. It makes it easy to be friendly. I have always had crappy relationships with men. So, this problem with the male teachers is a very minor one.

I have had several problems with banking that I have yet to sort out. Nobody is able to help. Who could, anyway? I needed to be informed of a few economic realities before I arrived. That should be the Korean government's concern, not my co-teachers' anxiety. So, I am struggling to pay my U.S. debts on time, if at all. I cannot contact my creditors to figure out a method of paying my bills. And I cannot send money to my U.S. bank because they Korean Won loses close to 50% of its value in exchange right now. Anyway, I need a coworker to go to the bank and translate for me, but we work until 5. The banks close at 4:30. My school never thought about this kind of problems that are likely to occur for any new resident. On the other hand, as a government employee, I received speedy access to my Alien Registration Card, my pension plan, my healthcare account. In addition, my landlord will do absolutely anything to attempt to make me at home--like pay my cable bill. I am poor; so, the gesture is welcome. The hospitality I receive helps alleviate major stress I would usually feel while encountering financial problems I have at the moment. (If the economy were better, none of this would be an issue.)

Of course, my school asked for an experienced English teacher and one with experience with Korean students. I fit the bill with 7 years of teaching experience. It's nice to be wanted. However, the teachers were not prepared for somebody with ideas about ESL education--both practical and ideological--to come to their school and begin taking over one third of the curriculum. (The students have English class three times each week; I see them once a week.) When I enter a classroom, I take charge. I don't need help. I was worried about teaching 40 adolescents, but the kids like me and I have made the adjustment from college Freshman and Sophomores to High School Sophomores and Juniors without too many snags.

The teachers are very protective of the students--especially the boys. I am progressive when it comes to classwork, and I insist that the kind of work attempted and possibly completed both builds upon prior lessons and shows visible and applicable results. For I don't know how long, my students have been playing word bingo and solving crossword puzzles for choco-candies. And from what I can tell of other foreigners teaching in the public schools here, many of them proudly carry on the tradition of treating the children like cutie-pies who need special attention. I shouldn't be so critical: many of the teachers hired to travel to Korea are, in fact, not teachers; or, if they are, they are recent graduates from Undergraduate Institutions and are trying to gain a little hands-on experience. At any rate, there is the notion that if a student does something, then that student is LEARNING BY DOING. Of course, the first thing I learned as a teacher was that is complete bullshit; or, WISHFUL THINKING.

If I try to challenge the students I am told they aren't smart or knowledgeable enough to complete the exercise. The problem is that most of my students will interview with several of Korea's Universities in and around Seoul in less than 24 months. The more prestigious schools, which all students dream of attending, all include some type of English conversation in their interviews. My students will struggle with an interview, yet they have been learning English since Primary School. This frustrates me. They cannot read well and don't even think about writing sentences. In addition, the Academies

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I feel the students are being over-protected because they are poor and underprivileged and work so unbelievable hard--15 hours or more a day, 6 days a week, for some every day of the week. I want to hug them, too. But they need to learn to speak English well enough to speak it each day at school and work.

Though I like it here, the cultural differences can be infuriating. I haven't experienced the culture shock that I have seen with other foreigners. My culture clashes can become rather over-significant on any given day because of the amount of work I am asked to accomplish. FOr example, on Monday morning I arrive to school with a new lesson plan for the week and have to make 800 copies of whatever I have for the students. I work from 7:30 until 9am preparing for the week. Then, I teach until 4pm. I teach 5 classes. After seeing 200 students and wearing-in a new lesson plan, I eat dinner and can get home around 8pm. Three days of my five day work week are like this. On the other days, I don't have it easy. In fact, I work later hours. I teach the non-English speaking teachers English on Wednesdays. And I teach 12 students from 5-7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Mix the cultural misunderstandings with the tremendous workload and you have the potential for anger, not simply frustration. I am happy to say I have had only one argument with a colleague and maybe two verbal disagreements with Koreans in my neighborhood.

I will say: never, never, never get a Korean woman mad. Korean Women have the ability to scream with their entire being: and they like to do it in public. I think I made the colleague who yelled at me (after a ridiculously absurd misunderstanding) initially more angry because the spectacle of her yelling was so intense all I could do was smile in admiration. Such amazing passion; to be honest, my heart only grew fonder. After all, to scream like that at me, she has to care. When I explained to her what was actually happening, she apologized. I apologized as well for causing the problem: I could have done a better job of communicating to her. The entire school heard her yell at me. And nobody spoke about it.


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