Mudeungsan

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I went hiking with a group of people on Sunday. We went to Mudeung mountain and hiked to the top…or at least to one scenic spot. It didn’t feel much like a hike at first because most of our trail was a paved road.

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We finally took a turn and hoofed it up a steep trail to get to the top.

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The view was a bit smoggy but I could almost fool myself into pretending it was mist instead.

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Thankfully we didn’t have to go the same way down but just followed a dirt road that circled back the way we came.

I managed pretty well considering I can’t remember the last time I went hiking. I was ahead of the group until the last stretch. It was perhaps only due to my stubbornness and pride that I didn’t fall behind sooner. I was far from being the last one up though. We all made it down safely and then parted ways. All in all, a good day.

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Proof I made it up that awful last stretch.

By the way. I had a lot of people asking me “Aren’t you cold?” Even a random lady passing by asked me that in Korean. I was the only one wearing short sleeves. Everyone else dressed warmly with layer. Certainly the air was chilly but the sun was warm. Also, with all that exertion at the end, kept wondering “Aren’t you guys too hot in those layers?”

[Shrug] To each their own I suppose.

Week 4: routine?

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There ain’t a whole lot to say about this past week. I was either at school or at home, for the most part. Even when I was at home, I spent a good chunk of that time grading speaking tests. My school is handing out progress reports soon which means I had to actually give the kids something I could grade them on, hence the speaking test. It took a lot of time but I’m finally done grading and can relax just a bit.

The middle school-ers are preparing for midterm exams and are therefore exempt from their hagwon classes until the end of the month. This means that for the last 3 hours of work, I have nothing to do but twiddle my thumbs. No one’s actually given me instructions or tips about things I should be doing so for all I know, thumb twiddling is an acceptable time filler.

Instead, I taken given myself several projects to work on while I have the time and motivation. I need to get back to completing my online ESL training class. I started strong but the intensity of the past two months kind of derailed me. I made a new start but have yet to establish my pace.

Another thing I need to do is redecorate my classroom. I actually teach most of my classes in the students’ assigned classrooms but I do have a room that’s reserved for the foreign teacher. It badly needs redecorating. The posters look like something from grade school circa 1990s. Though, I’m pretty sure the tape that’s holding them to the wall is even older. The snowflakes that Emily made for winter decorations are still up too. And the bookshelf! I’m pretty sure every textbook they’ve ever used for the foreign teacher’s classes are still here. It’s all a jumbled mess!

I rest my case.

I’m just not sure how I want to redecorate….beyond finding a new home for all those books. If anyone has any ideas or tips, let me know.

I wrapped up my week by exploring downtown and taking plenty of blurry walking pictures. I haven’t gotten lost yet and I see new things every time I go there. Then I Skyped with Grandma to wish her a happy 90th birthday and even sang a few songs for her. I don’t think I could have had a better ending to my week than that!

I’ll leave you with a few photos from my walk around town. It rained earlier and then slowed to a light drizzle, which means I have pictures of Gwangju that are not overly bright for once. Also, I found the river. It has a walking path and isn’t particularly picturesque but it is a change of scenery.

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Week 3: learning to swim

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I’ve often told people that, despite my rather lax attitude towards “doing” things and taking charge, it’s simply because I hoard my energy as jealously as a dragon and it’s treasure. Only necessity or a great deal of interest has a history of moving me. Therefore the best way to force me into action is the “sink or swim” method. In theory at least. This week certainly had its challenges but, for now, I remain floating.

So, my second full week of teaching is over, and none too soon.

Noteworthy events:

My alien registration card finally arrived! The next morning I went alone to set up my bank account.

I finally purchased some basic groceries. It might not have been much or varied but it was enough to allow me the pleasure of making breakfast. It’s remarkable how grounded I feel when I have food at my disposal. Many things are out of my control. The ability to eat at home has returned some sense of power and sanity to my life.

I gave all my students a speaking test and graded them this week. Actually, I’m not done grading. I have another week to complete grading and hand the papers to the Korean teachers. I recorded most of their presentations which means I can review what they said without feeling rushed by limited time. Perhaps I created more work for myself but I’d rather spend my weekend grading and leaving helpful comments for each kid than feel like I’m short-changing them once again. The classes are already too short for them to have much time for useful English-speaking practice.

I’m getting closer to remembering everyone’s names. I have a few new kids so the total name count is above 150. More useful than names (though I guess it comes with the territory) is learning the individual personalities of each kid. I actually sat down once, and wrote short descriptions of all the MWF kids. I have kids like:

“A: we all know him, smart, know-it-all, answers for others, talkative–friends are *K, J and S

K: sidekick #1, the group can be good it they are interested but if you don’t have their attention, they are a pain in the butt

S: would probably be the ringleader if A wasn’t there”

“J: Quietest of the boys, he shares H’s disease of talking through his sentences as if the words were on fire. Slow down and allow for natural pauses! Take a breath. “

This is the part of teaching I find fascinating: making out people’s characters and trying to think of ways to engage their attention. Putting it into action is my weak point. I try to be cautious in my judgements though. It’s unreasonable to think that I can understand these kids in so short a time. Perhaps I’ll have to change some of my opinions when I’ve had more time with them.

I spent much of my week alone, save for my hours at work. I did have a chance to reconnect with the other foreigner who lives in my apartment building. Kevin is a teacher at one of the Jisan School’s branches and has been here for 3 years. He leaves in several months and Emily will come back to take his place. We ate lunch together and he showed me the post office and the bank. I knew where the buildings were already but I’d never been inside and no one had walked me through things like mailing packages, paying my bills or transferring money.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I went to church with Emily a couple of times. Well, I exchanged numbers with one of her Korean church friends, Sandy, and we promised to hang out sometime. She invited several people out for dinner on Saturday and we celebrated her birthday by eating at a restaurant called “First Nepal.” Yum.

We went to a coffee/cake shop later and sat down to eat cake. The five of us talked and generally enjoyed each other’s company. I ran home with skip in my step. And I don’t mean that in a clichéd way. I managed to restrain myself for most of the walk back but actually gave into the impulse several times. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that giddy and happy. Difficult and disheartening days will inevitably appear. I’ll need moments like that to get me through less pleasant times.

Wish me luck on my next week! I hope everyone enjoys theirs!

Week 2: and into the fire

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Let’s begin week 2 (aka: first official week of work):

I started my week by saying farewell to Emily. I moved into her room, Monday morning before class. The absence of cigarette smoke is a vast improvement. Also, she left behind  plenty of things that I can use in her absence.

HIGHLIGHTS

School:

Every day, my hours are from 2pm-9pm but I teach on a block schedule. The Monday, Wednesday and Friday schedule is as follows:

3-3:40 Basic class: These kids are all in 3rd grade and are working on phonics. There are currently 7 kids in the class (6 boys and 1 girl).

4-4:30 B4: These are 4th graders. The “B” indicates their level. The higher level kids get an “A” while lower level kids get Bs and Cs. The very top-level kids are “S” grade. I don’t teach any classes below a C level but I know it can get lower. One of my co-workers was just telling me stories about his E level class. 12 kids.

4:30-5 A5a and A5b: These kids are in 5th grade. Don’t get confused by the lower case letters. Originally, when the school had two English teachers, the larger groups could be split into two classes. They are still separated in all their other lessons but I get them as one group for English class. 17 kids.

5-5:30 B5: Again , 5th grade and a lower level than the A5 kids. 8 students.

5:50-6 A4: 4th grade, higher level than B5, 9 kids.

I get a 2 hour break from 6-8. I usually eat dinner in the school kitchen downstairs and spend the rest of my time in “my” classroom writing or talking to any kids who wander in for free study.

8-8:30 S2A: These are 2nd year middle schoolers (8th grade). They all speak really well even if some of them need more prodding to do so. This class is supposed to give them more time to practice speaking so I try to stick to the role of facilitator rather than instructor. 6 kids.

8:30-9 S2B: Lower level 8th graders. 5 kids, all girls.

Tuesday/Thursday is as follows:

3:10-4 Basic: 3rd graders at a slightly higher level of phonics than the MWF class. 7 kids

4-4:20 S6: Highest level 6th graders. Originally they were going to be combined with the A6a class because they used to happen at the same time. The parents complained however and the schedule was changed so classes remained separate. I understand the parents’ worries. The goal of English lessons is to give the children more opportunity to practice speaking. That’s already hard to achieve when classes are only 20 minutes long, which makes it practically impossible when the class doubles in size. 11 kids.

4:20-4:40 A6b/B6b’: More 6th graders. Out of 15 kids, at least 11 of them are boys.

4:40-5 B6a/B6b: Yet more 6th graders. Last I counted, there were 24 of them in this class.

5-5:20 C6: Lowest level of the 6th graders that I teach, 7 kids.

5:20-5:40 A6a: This is the second half of the combined class that was never to be. More 6th graders. 11 kids

My break this time is a little over an hour. Dinner and then prepare for my other classes.

7-7:30 Teps1 A: I’m not sure how to explain the Teps classes, or rather why they have that name. They are in middle school but I can’t remember if they are first grade (7th graders) or third grade (9th graders) in middle school. 5 kids

7:30-8 Teps1 B: Like the earlier class but slightly lower level. 6 kids.

Add up the numbers people. This means that I have to learn the names for 150 students! Regardless of whether they are using an English name or if they stuck with their Korean name…that’s a lot of names! I haven’t even learned the teachers’ names yet but there’s been very little time fore me to interact with them yet.

Actually, I’ve done pretty well with the names so far. The MWF kids are almost all memorized and by the end of next week I may not even need the prompt anymore. T/TH classes are harder to learn. I only see them 2 days a week and most of them for only 20 minutes, plus they are in larger classes.

The school has decided to add an optional English class for the teachers. This means that on Mondays and Fridays I go to school earlier. Teachers’ class will be from 1-2 on MF. I understand my role to be that of Facilitator. Fridays will have an extra hour of class from 2-3. It’s reserved for watching English films and video clips that the teachers can then discuss. I’m not sure whether my presence is really necessary or not. Last time they watched bits from Toy Story 2 and talked about it, all in Korean. A couple of times, one of the teachers would turn to me and ask me about some confusing dialogue but I felt useless the rest of the time. It sounds like they want to implement the film into their own classes with the students.

The Zoo:

Heoseok and I walked around town a little where some lovely cherry blossom trees showed their full splendor. Afterwards, we went to the zoo. Family Land is a fantastic place to go since it comprises of several different attractions: a water park, an amusement park and a zoo. You have to pay to get into each one but at least they are right next to each other.

The zoo was devoid of people. I think I saw one family of three the whole time we were there. Considering all the school that Korean kids attend, I should have been more surprised that Family Land existed in the first place but it still felt bizarre to be the only people there. As a former animal care technician, I had to put away the part of my brain that protests over the small cages and inadequate enrichment, to be able to enjoy the moment. Caged wild animals are generally a sad sight regardless of how well they are taken care of. But I managed to genuinely enjoy the zoo. I had my camera after all and new subject material.

Eco Lake Park (Gwangju Ecological Lake Park):

We walked around for a short time but it was quite scenic. I’d love to go back and explore other areas.

Bibimbap, Kimchi and Sardines, Oh my!

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It’s natural to describe and relate to new experiences by comparing them to previous ones or familiar things. I’ve found that each time I go somewhere new, I’m reminded of every other place I’ve visited. In pieces at least. It’s a great way of looking at the world if you want to reduce homesickness. But I wonder if it lessens the joy of new experiences if everything reminds me of something else.

Korea reminds me of Madagascar, Senegal, Colorado and China–depending on the topic. Right now, I’ve decided to focus on just one of those topics: Food.

Oddly enough, my first whiff of dried fish and onion laden sauces brought back memories of Senegal. I’m not sure what I was expecting but it certainly caught me off guard! Senegal and Korea are about as different as you can get! At least, that was my assumption, or it would have been if I’d ever thought of those two countries at the same time.

Some similarity in food makes sense though. Both are close to the ocean, and while I don’t remember eating much fish in Senegal, it would have been common enough. Sadly, the fishy smell mostly reminds me of the food I didn’t like: mainly anything involving gritty couscous, lamb/sheep anything and animal intestines.

You know that personal bubble people have sometimes? The kind that allows you to look at the world around you and yet feel completely detached from it? Yeah, that’s how I handled 15 hours on a plane (plus a few extra in between), 4 hours on a bus and then the uncertainty of waiting for someone I’d never seen before come pick me up. The unmistakable odor of dried fish popped that bubble pretty quickly.

I gazed at my surroundings–the bus depot in Gwangju–and went “Oh…I’m really here.” Then I panicked. There’s an entirely new palette of flavor that I’ll have to get used to. It’s not just about trying new food. It’s about adjusting to a different set of staple foods and seasonings. And, I don’t like fish, what if all the food is like this?

Of course that’s when I had to remind myself that even in Senegal I found good food, once I adapted to the way everything tasted.

A simple dinner:

My only obstacle to eating has to do with relying too much on restaurant food. I need to start stocking up my refrigerator and making my own meals once in a while. Without my own supply of food, I’m stuck waiting for restaurants to open for lunch. Then there’s the added bit about feeling nervous because you are the only one eating alone and you can’t even remember how to say “I’d like/please….,” let alone read the menu. So instead I resort to pointing at pictures and grunting, as if my lack of Korean vocabulary has robbed me of my wits as well as my speech.

Fancier meal at a restaurant with traditional seating (cushions on the floor and a low table):

One thing I eagerly anticipated about Korea was the food. It was less because the food looked good but rather because of the plethora of side-dishes that come with everything. I wanted to know what they all tasted like. Sure, the main dish may be smaller than a typical restaurant meal in the US (though still large in my opinion), but the side-dishes would make up for it. Meal portions in the US are far too big anyway.

Lunch with Heoseok:

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So…It’s with pleasure that I announce that despite my aversion to dried fish, there is plenty of food that I do like. To paraphrase Papa, “If I starve, it’s my own damn fault.”