Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Korea - The first winter camp

Hello everyone!

New Year, new resolutions, new experiences and challenges, right? Damn right. My plan to learn a new Korean word or phrase has not entirely gone to plan, but I am actually getting a grip on the lingo a little bit. I got in a taxi last Friday and tried my new phrase on the unsuspecting driver. '노무 추워요!' I say. This means 'It is cold!', and it was freezing. What I should realise is that any Korean I engage with in their native tongue automatically assumes that I am fluent. I have perfected the smile-and-shake-my-head-whilst-saying '아니요' - or 'no'. They laugh, I laugh to a lesser degree, and life moves on. I'd like to think that they appreciate me at least making an effort, albeit a restricted one at that.

My new experiences extended to going to a Korean cinema for the first time on Saturday with Ellen to see Avatar. Bit of hype about this film, so I wanted to see it, but also I wanted to see whether what I consider to be a normal activity was executed any differently in a different culture. There are subtle differences to the cinematic experience out here. One is that you have to book a specific seat, no matter how many, or how few, people are seeing the film. This happens in Britain, but only when they know the film is going to be close to a sell-out. Here it happens for every film. One is less subtle - trying to work out the Korean name of the film you want to see. Luckily, Avatar is quite a simple word, even though they don't have the V sound out here. It wasn't hard to find 아바타 amongst the other very long names.

The film didn't start for a while, so we headed down to the arcade area, where I showcased my, ahem, 'talent' at air hockey. We had dumped our coats on the floor at our respective ends to play, and something extraordinary happened while we had our game faces on. A guy comes over to the table, says something, and then beckons another guy over. This bloke has a stool in his hand. They put the stool down by the table, pick up Ellen's coat, and place it neatly onto the stool. Amazing.

We soon headed back up to the cinema, to those seats we had to specifically choose. We were then taken aback by another subtle difference. Back home, when a film starts at 8pm, it means that there are 20 minutes or so of trailers and adverts before the film starts, so you have plenty of time even if slightly late. Here, when a film starts at 8pm, it starts at 8pm. There was one short trailer for a film that I have thankfully forgotten the name of, as it looked so bad. And then something else started. Another trailer, I assumed. I'm not ashamed to admit that for the first few minutes, I didn't realise that Avatar had actually started. No black screen giving the name of the film and its certification. No big introduction to the main event. It just started.

I really enjoyed it, though didn't realise how long the thing was. This cinema didn't have the facilities to show it in 3D, but it seemed good enough in 2D so it didn't matter. It was arguably more realistic for us when watching, as subtitles came up on the screen when the Na'vi were speaking in their native tongue. Of course, the subtitles were in Korean, so we still had no clue what was going on, but I feel that added to the mystique and intruigue.

After the film we briefly popped into E-Mart in Bucheon station, a very large department store which has lots of interesting stuff. I was particularly fascinated by the 'Extremely Very Hot' red pepper paste. It must be pretty hot, especially with the image of a full thermometer and a man whose head seems on the verge of exploding next to the writing. Will have to buy that as some point. I'm less likely to buy the 'Love O'Clock' CD we found, but that was also pretty special.

On the bus back an old man brushed past me. Fair enough, I'm used to them going beyond personal space. What I was not used to, and certainly not expecting, was what followed. He turns back towards me, starts blabbering in Korean...and then pinches me on the arm. He keeps talking, then pats me on the shoulder and walks back to the exit of the bus. What the WHAT?? But he was obviously not content with this, as he then came back over again and started talking in Korean and bumping into me. "I think he likes you," says Ellen. It's a damn interesting way of showing it. I didn't know whether to feel happy or angry, excited or petrified.

Sunday I actually had to do a bit of work, as school was recommencing the following day. Well, sort of. It was reforming in a new guise - the winter camp. During the holidays, Korean students don't get lots of presents from Santa, or lots of special meals, or even a significant period of downtime - they get extra classes. And who puts on the English classes? Yours truly, of course.

My winter camp lasts for 4 weeks. Just about everyone else I know only has it for 2 weeks, though Dalyn, whose school seem to hate him, has to do a camp for 8 weeks. For most public school teachers it is different as you get to dictate exactly what happens in the lessons - no textbooks, no co-teacher watching over you in the corner. However, as my job here is to make up my own stuff, for me it is more of the same. Apart from that I have to make new stuff up for each day, rather than do one thing for the whole week as I have done thus far. Not cool, but this is what I thought I would be doing on a regular basis, so I really can't complain. I can't moan about the hours either - no 8.30am starts here. I have to be in by lunchtime, and my two classes are from 3.30 until 5.30. It seems different to most other camps, which seem to be the same class over a long period in the day.

So over the Christmas break I had been gathering ideas from the internet and other teachers about what to do. I assumed that, in picking my class, the students would have a reasonable grasp of the English language, allowing me to become a bit more creative. I decided to spend my first two weeks on a project - to make my students create and perform a newscast and interview - and then plan the other two weeks as time progresses.

Monday morning rolls around, the first day of camp. I get a phone call at 9.30. It's Mr. Kim, or 'B-G' as he has begun calling himself. "School is cancelled". Really? "Have you seen the snow?" I must admit I had not seen the snow. I looked out of my window, and saw where the main road was supposed to be. There were cars driving down it, but I was struggling to see the wheels. There was LOADS of snow. I thought that Koreans made it to work or school irrespective of weather conditions, illness or anything that would make a British person pull a sickie. "It's the first time in 10 years that the school has closed." Good timing on my part, then.

Most other schools actually stayed open. Ours was closed because a sufficient amount of teachers, including my co-teacher, couldn't get to the school in their cars. I actually thought that this was a bit of a cop-out, considering how many cars were still on the roads. The roads were bad, though. I've found it pretty funny watching Britain come to a standstill when there was actually less snow than there was here. The British transport bigwigs should maybe come over here to see how actually to keep transport moving in bleak midwinter, they might learn a thing or two.

Anyway, my main thought at this point was that I had to make the most of this opportunity, especially as Mr. Kim said that school would definitely be open the following day. How you can make a prediction that bold, I don't know. What if it snowed some more? But that was for another day - I wanted to see Seoul under a thick, thick blanket of snow, so I put on numerous layers and headed into the city.

I did have an ulterior motive to come in to the city as well. I was eager to find a unique birthday present for my brother, and consequently started my tour in Dongdaemun market. It was very picturesque, if a bit chilly. I had a walk around, without finding anything of note that I would be happy to send back as a present. The day was beginning to draw to a close, so I opted to head over to the City Hall subway stop to find some nice snow-capped scenery before the light faded.

This day has helped me piece together various important districts within Seoul. I got off at City Hall, where the Deoksugung Palace is, and walked down a long street. I was soon in Gwanghamnun Plaza, where the Snow Jam had been a month previously. From there, to the right at the bottom of the street is Insadong.

It was very beautiful, though some pictures were taken more for my amusement than anything else.

School was indeed back on on Tuesday, and thus my winter camp was all set to commence. I got to school for about 10.30, and was soon back in my usual routine of doing nothing. People keep telling me how long these blogs are. I know they are, but it's because I have so much time on my hands during the school day. It may become different as this winter camp progresses.

My first lesson was devised in a way that would allow me to find out their names, and give them English names if they didn't already have one. I find it easier right now to call a student 'Hannah' than 'Gwon Ji-hyun', for example. It turns out it was very fortunate that I took a lesson to do this, as it allowed me to assess their ability - and my previous assumption, that they would be clever, was way off the mark. Not knowing the difference between 'his' and 'her'? Time to alter the lesson plans. Significantly.

The two groups were larger than I had wanted them to be. I wanted a group of between 12 and 16 per class, but there were 24 first graders in my first class, and 27 second graders in the other. The overwhelming majority are girls - read into that what you wish. So my lessons have gradually altered as the week has progressed. I have been showing them lots of video clips of interviews with famous people, with the ultimate intention of them interviewing that person. I've spent lessons drilling question denominators like 'What?' and 'Where?' into them, so hopefully they have understood and will be able to make up their own questions, but you never know.

I had a chance to blow off a bit of this steam with the other Siheungers on Wednesday, when we went for drinks. But my issues pale into insignificance when compared to what others face. Josh has had to take over another guy's lessons, so is teaching up to 9 lessons a day, but the biggest and most urgent problem was being faced by Lee. Him and Michelle had gone to Taiwan over the holiday period with the knowledge that he had a job starting in early January. It had already been deferred from November, but had now been guaranteed to him, and as a result spent most of his money in Taiwan. He came back to find that the incumbent had had yet another change of heart, and was staying on, meaning that Lee can't get a job anywhere else because his visa was for that school only. It's a horrible situation, and is a reminder that many TEFL teachers get screwed over in their jobs. It sucks as Lee is a really nice guy as well, but will now probably have to head home. This story has made me feel incredibly lucky that (touch wood) I was placed in such a good, and secure, job.

This week went by rather quickly, and soon it was Friday, which generally means me getting drunk. No exception this week. Me, April, Kelly and Phil went to what is now becoming our regular galbi place in Bucheon. Phil is fluent in Korean, which makes things a bit easier if we have a problem. The vent, which is just above the grill, slipped and fell down onto the grill during our meal (luckily there was little meat cooking at that point), and Phil was able to tell the waitress exactly what the problem was. I would have just pointed at it and done a crying face motion, and probably have got nowhere with a solution.

After getting a bit drunk and mocking my accent by making a video of me counting from one to ten in Korean (that video will never be seen by anyone if I have my way), we played a brutal game of drinking storytelling, where each person says one word in turn and contributes to the story. The content of the story quickly developed the stories into ones of an adult nature, mainly to trip up Kelly into drinking, so best not to repeat any of them on here. Soon after we headed along to R'n'B, where there were some amateur MCs performing. 'Amatuer' is a good word to describe their talents, but it was quite funny, and I ended up chatting to them on their table for a while afterwards anyway. Got myself the girl MCs number as well - happy times - but they all live in Itaewon, which in this weather is a bit of a trek to meet up. I'll use it soon, I'm sure.

Me and April ended up in the Park, the other drinking place by their places in Bucheon. There were some strange, bordering on idiotic, Americans hitting on April, sometimes literally. I ended up playing darts with some random Americans, including one whose number in my phone is saved under Nickelback due to his scruffy appearance, until about 5.30, before heading home.

I don't actually remember if I did anything on the rest of the weekend, so for now I'll peace out and hope that my camp students have become masters of the English language over the course of the weekend.

Love you all


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