Friday, 4 December 2009

Korea - The first lesson

Hello everyone!

Tuesday morning rolls around, my first day of school. Excited? Yes. Nervous? Yes. Concerned? More about the shower than anything else. My flat, like others in South Korea, merges every entity of a bathroom - toilet, shower, sink, washing machine (I think the latter is just mine) into one, desegregated space. Luckily I had used the toilet before the shower, as the drainage seems to be a bit clogged, so the floor stats to resemble a paddling pool after a few minutes.

I head down the four flights of stairs and am hit flush in the face by brisk, dry Korean air. I have since been told that in the next couple of months winds originating from Siberia will sweep over the country - can't wait for that. Mr Kim is waiting for me with his car, and away we go.

I was intrigued to see if the newest generation of Koreans are as respectful and loving of elders and foreigners as the current adults had seemed to be thus far. My concerns, and the main reason for any nerves, were twofold - firstly, that I could remember less than nothing regarding grammar; and secondly, that my accent would render me useless and helpless. If the English teachers themselves were having problems, how were the students supposed to understand?

A short while later, we rock up at Siheung Sorae High School. It is comprised of three large buildings, each at least four stories high. These are bordering the centrepiece, what they call their sports field. For those who I went to school with, it makes the old red gra' seem like a pristine pitch fit for any professional. For others without that knowledge, it is a mixture of dirt and sand, and surely only fit for beach cricket. It was damn cold as well, so to see lots of children playing so early impressed me. The fact that girls have to wear girls led me to have deep concerns about the illness rate from hypothermia within the female population of the school.

I should stop calling them children, really. Siheung Sorae is a high school, but more resembles a sixth form or British college. There are only three grades, so the students are aged between 15-16 and 18. They head straight to university from these high schools. Well, until the army snaffles them for a bit, but I can talk about that another time.

I am introduced to my office. Yes, I have an office. Yes, that does boost my already-large ego quite a lot. I share it with my co-teacher, Mr. Kim. It is called the 'native teacher's office', and is impressive. Lots and lots of teaching books if I ever get bored (really bored), a desk, TWO computers and, most importantly, a coffee machine. There is also a water machine, which becomes vital upon realising that they strongly recommend you do not drink tap water.

I get the impression that there will be a lot of information to take in today. The most important part was that I was not teaching that day, but that I would be from tomorrow, Wednesday. Just when I was about to ask about what my role was I was then whisked away on a tour of the school. Get to meet the big dogs that run this town. I met my head of department, the two vice-principals and, last but not least, the don - the principal.

The Head of Department could not speak English, but was warm and wanted me to talk to him with Mr Kim translating. The two VP's at least tried to give English a go, which meant I tried my Korean on them in turn. My phrases are limited to the most basic greetings right now, but both an-nyong-ha-se-io (hello) and gu-zum-ni-da (thank you) were appropriate to use here. They probably came out all wrong and offended them, but I felt there was a reciprocation of respect. Not Mr Principal, though. Upon arriving in his monstrously big office - it's grand to the point where some may consider it a tourist attraction, with lovely ornaments and pictures neatly placed all over the room - I was instructed to sit down on one of the two sofas, which face each other. The seats are segregated within the sofa, but it was so so comfortable that calling it a chair would not do it justice.

The principal sits across from me, and lets rip. For about 2 minutes. Mr. Kim tries to translate, but even he got lost within the tornado of words. It didn't seem as if he took a breath throughout the whole monologue. And at the end of it all, Mr. Kim just told me to introduce myself, which I duly did as respectfully as I could, and we left.

At this point I was told that my predecessor, Brad, was coming in at around 10, and that any issues or questions I had would be more easily answered with him. He was leaving for Florida on Thursday, so didn't have anything better to do than to come in and say bye to everyone, but he had also left a mound of stuff in the office which he needed to clear out. Not being the cleanest person to have flown the British nest, I expect that I will be doing exactly the same thing in a year's time. My first impression from the previous night wasn't particularly great, but I felt that I needed to ignore that, that there was a genuine reason for not being able to stick around yesterday.

He kinda looks a bit like Jim Carrey; though when he showed me a picture of him from the summer, complete with bushy tache, he resembled Earl from My Name is Earl. "Koreans haven't seen facial hair like it before", he told me. Come to think of it, I am yet to see a Korean with decent facial hair. Or any facial hair, really. 26 years old from Jacksonville, FL. Another American, though I'm not surprised anymore. He is an awesome guy, a frightening amount of energy, no doubt fuelled by the frightening amount of black coffee he drinks. The coffee machine in my flat should have been a clue, there. Within 10 minutes of arriving, two female students come into our office, and he plays the guitar to them and mocks them and generally makes them feel great. Full of energy, and surely something I should aspire to.

It was Brad who explained the reality of school life to me. Rather than teach specifics, such as grammar, lexis punctuation and all that, our job is to get them to ENJOY learning English. They are taught the former by their regular English teachers, so or class is essentially 'free', in that all we have to do is make the students feel more comfortable with the language in a less formal environment. This is in part explained by the Korean school day - it is looooooong. The students are in school at 8am, have 4 50-minute classes before lunch with a 10 minute break inbetween. After lunch there are then 3 more periods before official classes end at 4.30. This is when I am allowed to leave. But for them, the fun doesn't stop. They have other classes and extra-curricular activities which are compulsory, so many students are in school beyond 9pm. This seems incredible, but is obviously linked to the fact that the average Korean adult works a 55 hour week. Essentially, we have it lucky in Britain (well, have had stronger unions), and I have it lucky in my school.

Remembering how our attention spans would drift at certain times in the school day, and remembering how free lessons became a joke where you did nothing noteworthy in terms of work (Italian??) , it seems important that I don't take it too seriously, and don't overburden them. As a result, my first lesson plan consisted of a slide show of British things (food, sport, leisure activities) followed by a wordsearch. It sounds easy, but you try doing a wordsearch in Korean, you would be pulling your hair out in no time. All of this whilst playing British music in the background. Damn they love the Beatles here.

I spent most of Tuesday during school hours preparing this awesome lesson, with the exception of lunch. Both Mr. Kim and Brad had suggested that it wasn't quite the greatest thing since sliced bread; and whilst the former accompanied me down to the staff cafeteria, the latter opted to go out to lunch with another teacher. I tried to go in with an open mind, but was also remembering school food, particularly primary school food, and the memories were not that fond. So in we go. A silver tray, built into which are two bowls and three shallow compartments, similar to petri-dishes. The two bowls are filled up with rice and soup, and the three compartments are where the 'special' dishes go. One is always kimchi, without fail. At least one of the other two is meat-related, gotta get that protein from somewhere. Today it was pork stuff, with peppers in the other dish. Lunch was another chance to show off my chopstick skills, and I didn't disappoint. Well, I disappointed myself, but the other English teachers sat with us were giving me encouragement and trying to tell me how to hold the sticks. The fact that of the four teachers, three of them had different methods was a bit of a spanner in the works, but I didn't go hungry.

Brad was further growing on me as the afternoon progressed. Any question I had was easily answered (and there were a lot), and he volunteered lots of information and advice about all aspects of this job and life here. We also played chess - I, ahem, let him win? - and more students came in to say bye to him and introduce themselves to me. It was such a laidback atmosphere, and a world away from the droning voices and books in the nearby classrooms.

The first day fizzled out somewhat after the initial excitement. We tried some of the food brought to Brad as presents - one of them was cake which looked like a cross between a scourer and soap, and was distinctly lacking in anything resembling taste. At least here there was a bin where we could spit it out. Outdoor bins, or bins in general, are a rarity in Korea. On the subway into Seoul on Sunday we had tried some Korean chewing gum, and quickly realised that it needed to be removed quickly. But there is nowhere to throw it away! Incredibly, they opt to drop any litter on the floor, and it is swept up in due course. I have seen a man peeling a tangarine and just dropping the peel on the floor. Incredible. I have issues with the practice, but with chewing gum the real fact that someone would step on it presented unique problems. In the end, almost 90 minutes later and feeling pretty sick from the repetitive chewing and the lack of taste, I dropped it into a drain. So if I come home and am dropping litter all over the place, blame me for adapting to a different culture too well!

After school, Brad decided to show me how to walk home. Kind of. He showed me the road, and then showed me the supermarket, and tried his best to give me a vague idea of where everything was. Considering there had been no one to do this for him - his predecessor left a month before his contract ended - I thought this was a very nice thing to do. I had no clue, and would have been totally lost without his help. It was walking over to the GS Mart that we saw two Westerners walking towards us. Westerners! They must speak English! I developed a skip in my step and went up to say hi, not noticing that Brad was hanging back a bit.

They were two Americans, looking like a similar age to us. They were chirpy and also happy to see a Western face, it seemed. I ask where they are from. "Utah" is the response. Aaaah. Not prospective drinking buddies then. "You're mormon, then?" says Brad. A nod and a smile confirm this. Now I haven't met any mormons before, and they seemed like nice guys, but a lot of people have their preconceptions about their faith, and I happen to be one of them. And I've seen that episode of South Park. He asks me about my knowledge of the mormon faith, and my response is centred around this last point. I've never seen a smile be wiped off someone's face so quickly. "Oh...yes...(nervous chuckle)...about Joseph Smith putting his head in a hat-" "yes" I interrupt, whilst hoping that Brad would be able to contain himself behind me. He was struggling. So we talk for another minute or two and part ways. "As soon as he said Utah..." is the first thing Brad can say, as we head over to his temporary lodging.

I hesitate to call it a hotel. They are affectionately described over here as 'love motels'. You are generally not expected to stay the whole night; just for a few hours. With the complimentary soap, shower gel and shampoo, there are also condoms. You get the idea, right? What adds to the seedy nature of these establishmets is that the outside of each motel has tassels which drop down from the entrance to about one metre off the ground. The idea behind this is that you are more difficult to spot. Cheeky affair on a lunch break, anyone? The reason Brad was here is because they are the cheapest places to stay where you can actually have luggage.

As well as not knowing how to get home, and being supplied with a font of invaluable knowledge, the reason Brad and I were hanging out was because the Head of Department had invited/requested Mr. Kim and Brad to dinner. Earlier in the day Brad had told me that those types of dinners normally result in the native speaker sitting and eating in silence, and occasionally being told by the co-teacher what the Head was rambling on about. Bearing that in mind, he asked if I wanted to come along, and naturally I said yes - not only free food but I also realised that I would soon be in the situation Brad had found himself in.

So we hung around drinking a beer in what seems to be the younger side of Siheung - complete with a Baskin Robbins, lots of phone shops and, naturally, a McDonald's - waiting for our superiors to arrive. Unlike Britain, you are allowed to drink in the street here; however, as with the litter thing, it doesn't feel right, so we drank down a side alley, next to another 'pet store'.

The restaurant was another new experience for me, in many ways. It was the first time I had been with someone far superior in a formal external environment. This meant that the traditional Korean customs have to strictly adhered to. Age is crucial in all of this, and me being only 21 seems to handicap me somewhat. Essentially it seems that I am last for most things: last to be poured a drink, last to commence eating, and so on.

You cannot pour your own drink; someone else does it for you. When you receive, you hold the glass either in two hands or in your right hand with your left hand touching the bend in your right arm. You must have finished your drink to have more poured. You also drink to the pace of the most important person, and if he calls a toast you have to drink what has been poured for you. If you're a bit of a lightweight, then you are in for an eventful evening. Luckily, it seems that Koreans don't tend to be big chuggers, so this, along with my years of 'studying' at university, won't be a problem for me I think.

The meal, sam-gyup-sal, was also new to me. Similar to the gal-bi from Saturday, it is a hot plate where meat is put on, but the meats and condiments are different. In particular with this dish, the meat is pork belly. Very very nice as well. The main sides all have a garlic or chilli element to them, one of them being called go-chu. This can be moderately hot, but occasionally you get one which obviously saved its spice for a rainy day. I was oblivious to this, and picked up what I assumed to be a pepper, dipped it in the hot sauce, and bit half of it off my chopstick. The other three looked at me, all startled. I bit it once, bit it twice, began to wonder why they were staring. Then felt as if someone had lit a fire in my throat. Sweet Jesus that stuff was hot. To further emphasise my point, I started flapping my hand in front of my mouth. The Head then started laughing, Brad explained what I had done, and I was given some water. Holding the cup in two hands, of course.

The other new aspect of this meal was the seating. On the floor. Yep, one of those restaurants. You take your shoes off at the door and sit on a cushion at a very low table. To maintain posture I tucked my knees under the tabletop, I'm not sure if that is right or not. What is certainly not right is the feeling when you stand up after sitting in that position for, as we were, an extended period of time. Jelly is the word that springs to mind. I almost toppled over in the process of getting to the bathroom (which you put sandals on for, otherwise that would be just wrong). Though maybe that was just the soju.

After that we went to a bar. Bars are different here, in that you normally have to order food in order to be served alcohol. Luckily, Mr Head seems to have a lot of disposable income, so he bought a large cooked squid, nothing like what I had on Sunday. This was cut into strips, and you peeled the strips off, dipped in a barbecue-esque sauce, and eat it. Brilliant stuff. Brad had said that, as it was last time he was going to see the Head, that we all had to drink at his own pace. They agreed, which could hae turned out to be the worst thing they ever did, but we didn't stick around too long. After all, I had my first class at 8.30am, and felt that I needed to make a good impression. Well, adequate at least.

Brad walked back with me, mainly to show me how to get home as I was yet to do it sober, let alone in a slightly drunk condition. It takes between 15 and 20 minutes, but took us longer as Brad showed me where more stuff was.

Soon enough, it was Wednesday, and time to face the music. As well as play the music.

Each class is 50 minutes. My first class, at 8.30am, happened to be the only mixed class I have out of the 14. I head down to the class, which is in a different building to my office. Walking outside briefly made me shiver, due to the cold rather than any nerves. I was a bit nervous, admittedly, but had nothing to lose. Just be normal and it'll be fine.

Well, kinda. Big wave and shout of HELLO got a reciprocal response. The slide show was fine, lots of 'oooohs and aaaahs' at the various powerpoint effects. But I began to realise that my slide show was speeding along like a Far Eastern bullet train. Wordsearches were handed out, and the vast majority completed them very efficiently. Curse Korean efficiency! That left about 10 minutes to fill, which I had noted down as the time for the class to ask questions about me and where I am from. Turns out the conservative, humble nature of Korea is transferred into their children early on. They don't particularly do shouting out, or asking questions. Except for one or two, who will fill this silence for as long as they possibly can, or as long as the teacher can stand them grilling me. So I had one person, in a puff jacket similar to one I had when I was 14 and very rarely wore, asking numerous questions, often the brainchild of another student who would tell him in Korean and he would ask in English.

The other thing with Korean culture is they don't duck around an issue. If they want to find something out, no matter how private or obscure, they will have no issue in asking it. I had three classes on Wednesday, and all asked me:
- my height
- my age
- whether I had a girlfriend
- whether I knew anyone famous
All of these are linked to stature and respect. I knew about the age issue, and had been told not to let the students know that I was only 21, for their respect for me would plummet. My method thus far is to let them guess my age, and generally let them think I am 26, the same age as Brad. I didn't however, realise the importance attached to the other questions. It turns out that in Korea, if you are under 180cm, you are considered a 'loser'; that if you don't have a girlfriend, you have something wrong with you or some kind of disease; and that you are more prestigious if you know someone famous. This explains the scenario in my third class, when I said that I was 178cm tall, and was then asked how tall I was with my shoes on. "Erm, 181?" Cue big cheer. My answers changed on Thursday to 181cm, 26 years old, I left her at home and that I went to school with Gareth Bale (technically true, but it makes them all think I know the guy).

Other random ones included my shoe size, my views on kimchi, my opinion of the other teachers, and whether I could speak Korean. These last three are questions that I can use to play to the crowd, be it making them feel happy - "I LOVE (but in reality am not a great fan of) kimchi!!" - or make them laugh - any attempt of saying one of their names. But all in all, I had a good reception in my three classes, and lots of students would come up to me at the end of the classes to ask questions in private, not being as yet confident enough in their speaking skills to ask me before. I like the fact that they will still try, however. I also don't mind the fact that some of them opt to fall asleep, instead appreciating the students who put 100% into learning whatever I am supposedly teaching them.

Only occasionally did I struggle to understand what they were saying. One asked me how tall I was, and I mistook it as asking whether I was tired. I also thought that they understood me, but the teacher in the first lesson told me afterwards that she thought I was talking too fast, and all teachers mentioned that it would take a while for the students, as well as the teachers themselves, to adapt from hearing an American accent to a British one. I realise that, and felt that I was speaking slowly, but I have since slowed my voice further, and pronounce every syllable to the point that I feel as if I am taking twice as long to say a sentence. With time, I'm sure they'll understand me at a slightly quicker pace.

The only lesson where I encountered difficulties was the second lesson, an all boys lesson, where I was told upon arriving that the projector didn't work. I had no backup (there's a lesson in that, somewhere), so ended up showing the slide show to them on my laptop. But my first teaching stint was, according to all, a very encouraging start.

Me and Brad were taken out to dinner by another English teacher, Ms Woo. I have come to learn that Western pronunciation of Korean names is appaling. In the surname Woo, the W is hardly pronounced, and ends up more as a soft mix of the R and W sounds, rather than the hard W sound we would generally use. It is a similar situation with one of the more common Korean surnames, Choi. The second part, contrary to what every golf commentator says when talking about KJ Choi, is not an 'oi' sound - instead, the name is pronounced more like 'Chay'.

Dinner was nice, Ms Woo lived in London for 10 months so has better English than most, and a better understanding of the Western sense of humour. We ended up getting a sort of fish soup, fried chicken and then different types of chips. Picking up chips with chopsticks felt right, which may seem a bit strange. Again, more beer was drank, and again I had to say when I needed to stop in order to make sure I was in decent shape for teaching the next day, especially as I was in with Ms Woo quite early on in the day.

Classes on Thursday also went well, and I seem to be hitting my stride in that regard. At this stage it probably helps that I don't have to plan anything particularly heavy, resulting in me being able to channel my energy towards fun. Or me acting like a muppet, they seem to like that. Not having to plan anything means I can attempt to focus on other facets of my new life. I have begun to learn the Korean alphabet; I may in time try to learn to play the guitar that Brad left in the office; and I also get to make progress on my book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Admittedly I do leave myself on facebook chat a lot during my time in the office, and also have the time to write all of these blogs. I'm sure it will get busier after the final exams, which start next Wednesday. This last point means that I will have a week of no classes, but being in my office. Just like being in a normal office, I guess.

Thursday evening was the first time I needed to cook for myself, so I went food shopping after school. It wasn't as intimidating as walking around the Tesco one on Saturday, but I was a bit concerned that I couldn't find rice. Turns out it is because they only sell it in industrial-sized quantities - the lightest bag I found was still a whopping 5kg, and consequently a bit out of my price range. Not as expensive as bread, though. The cool thing with supermarkets here is that they will have lots of free samples to offer. Not one or two, like back home - there are some which seem set up on a permanent basis to offer you food. I probably didn't need to cook anything for myself after walking around GS Mart, and it was all so good as well. The fact that you can see it all being cooked in front of you may be invaluable to me in the future if I grow some cojones and buy ingredients, rather than packaged stuff.

On Friday I will have been in Korea for one week, and will toast going to hospital. I get to pee in a cup, amongst other things, which I'm sure will be a barrel of laughs. I'll tell you about it next time.

Love you all


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