Sunday, April 29, 2007

The police are here

This past Thursday, things were going just like normal almost an hour into my first class when there was a knock at the door. One of the Korean counselors, Apple (that is really her name), was standing there with a strange man. She leans to me and in a whisper says "The police are here and they want to see your ARC."
ARC stands for Alien Registration Card. It is a card that I had to go to the immigration office and get during my first week here. It is proof that I am legally allowed to live and work in Korea.
I told Apple that my ARC card was in my bag in the teachers' lounge. As I walked down the hall to go get my card, I saw 3 other men standing around the school. The whole time I kept thinking, "What did I do? Why do they want to see my card? Am I trouble? What did I do?"
I got my card and walked back to my classroom. The man standing with Apple smiled at me and showed me his shiny and very official looking badge. I offered my ARC to him, he briefly glanced at it, and nodded with a slight bow of the head and a smile.
And that was it. As I went back into my room to start class again, I noticed Apple and the man knocking on the door of the teacher across from me.
Of course, all of my students were extremely intrigued. I just explained that the police had wanted to see my ARC. Luckily this was the same class that I had shown my ARC to last week. We had started reading a story about a Native American girl named Jessica that has aliens come to visit her in the middle of the night. She wakes up her parents to tell them and the whole family goes with the aliens to their planet Zeldo. On Zeldo, the alien king, King Ziggi Ziggi, asks them to do a rain dance since their is no water on Zeldo. Jessica and her family do not know how to do a rain dance so they go back to Earth and ask the Native American chief to come to Zeldo. He goes, does the dance, it rains on Zeldo and all the aliens love Jessica. This is not a joke. This is a real story that I have to teach.
Anyway, I had told my kids on the first day we read this book that teacher was an alien and had a special alien card. I hyped it a lot and told them that I would show them my alien card if they did a good job reading. When I did show them my ARC, they got a real kick out of seeing it since it has both my picture and Korean writing on it.
At break that day, all of the talk in the teachers' lounge was about the police visit. It turns out that they were immigration police doing a random check. The English teaching system in Korea has a bit of a reputation for being somewhat corrupt with lots of schools hiring teachers who work under the table without the correct visas. The police checked to make sure that all of us had our ARCs and then they left. The Korean counselors and our manager never said another word about the incident.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

More pictures from this past weekend

It is not uncommon for Korean couples to dress the same as a sign of their couplehood. This couple took it to the extreme for their trip to the beach.

The ajummas trying to stay dry by hiding out in the phone booths at Mount Seoraksan.
Building towers of rocks is supposed to bring good luck.
Doing a little climbing practice on this sculpture/fountain in the middle of Sokcho.
We thought about staying at the Cinderalla Candy Castle Hotel....
but instead chose the Taj Mahal Hotel instead. Unfortuntely, not really. Our hotel was nothing special at all.

How to Save a Life

So in the last post, I hopefully intrigued you about what happened at the beach. Well, the basic thing is that Amy & I saved the boy in the above picture from drowning. For more details, keep reading.

Amy and I were taking turns getting our feet wet in the water and staying up on the beach guarding our bags. Amy was playing with a group of kids, running out fairly far down towards the water and then quickly dashing back when the wave rolled in. She came up to me and commented on how the undertow was deceptively strong and that those kids had better be careful, especially since their parents were nowhere in sight. "Don't worry." I joked, "I'll jump in after them if something happens."

I wanted to get my feet one more time before we left so I headed down the beach. All of a sudden I heard Amy yell my name. I looked over and saw this young boy, about 5 or 6 years old, lying in the sand after being knocked over by the last wave that had came in.

I immediately ran over to him. As I got closer, I could see the panicked look on his face and hear him crying screams of terror. I ran around behind him (with my back to the water) and threw my arms around him, trying to get him up on his feet and steady both of us enough to brace against the next wave which was quickly approaching.

I could tell right away that he was a dead weight. He was not one of the skinny Korean kids; I'm guessing he probably weighed about 50 pounds and was fully clothed in a thick parka like jacket which was now completely soaked. He was also scared. I could see the tears coming out of his eyes and all I could say was "It's okay" even though I knew that meant nothing to him.

I was struggling with the boy when the wave struck us. Because I was off balance, the wave easily knocked me over. Everything else from this point on becomes a blur. I don't remember how many waves hit us, I don't remember how I got turned around, I don't remember how I was able to hold onto the boy the whole time, I don't remember hearing or seeing anything. Adrenaline completely took over.

I do remember thinking up the whole time - trying to pull/push ourselves up the beach, trying to make sure that our heads were up inbetween the waves crashing over us - up, up, up. Somehow, I ended up on my back holding onto the boy next to me. I could feel the undertow of the water pulling me out even as I dug my heels into the sand and pushed down to try to stop myself from being taken out farther. But all my effort felt completely worthless. The sand was more like tiny pieces of rock and that created a quicksand effect where you sunk in faster and had more difficulty moving in it. I could feel myself slipping away, and while at the time it felt like I was sliding down so fast, I'm sure it was only a slight distance. It was at this moment that I thought, "I'm not going to be able to do this."

The next thing I know, Amy is by my side. I remember hearing her say, "We need help" and then turn to the beach and start screaming at all the Koreans just standing there. Finally, 2 guys came over and were able to grab the boy, after which I was able to get myself up.

Now my memories come back. Even though I was completely soaked from head to toe and had been complaining how cold the water was earlier when I just got my feet wet, I didn't feel cold at all. I wasn't even shivering. My heart was racing and the first thing I could say to Amy as we both just stood there panting was, "Did that really just happen?"

I remember the other people on the beach just staring at us as we stood motionless, trying to catach our breath and make sense of the whole thing. The wife of one of the men who helped us came over and put her jacket over my shoulders. Amy and I slowly started to stagger back up the beach to get our things while still being stared at. The man came over and offered to take us back to our hotel. People were still staring as we walked across the beach to the parking lot. I was staring at the sand the whole time, still in shock. A group of Korean guys in their young 20s called out to me "Good job" as I walked past. All I could think to say back was "Thank you. Kamsamnida." Amy, following behind me, had a few more choice Korean and English words for them. She told me later that she reamed them out for not helping.

The man and his wife were so kind to us. They drove us back to our hotel in their own car, despite the fact that we were both dripping wet and covered in sand. They thanked us again and again for what we had done. The wife seeming almost apolegtic that the boy's mother hadn't come over to thank us herself.

Now for the more light-hearted part of the story. Amy and I start walking up the stairs to the hotel, joking about our appearance. The ajumma (Korean woman) who ran the hotel saw us and was immediately like "Oh, you are not coming into my hotel looking like that and getting sand everywhere after I just cleaned." She shooed us back outside and around to the side of the building where she then proceeded to get a hose and hose us down head to foot before we could re-enter.

Now I was cold! That water was freezing and she had no mercy. Amy and I are both laughing hysterically now and thankfully the ajumma joined us in appreciating the absurdity of the moment. While I'm watching Amy being hosed down, I realize that the back pockets of my jeans are filled with a good inch of sand and I can feel the sand all down my shirt, all down my pants, and all down my underwear. When she turns the hose on me, I'm pulling handfuls of sand out of my pockets and dumping it on the ground. She looks at me in disbelief and then turns me around so that she can look down my pants to see all the sand herself.

Finally, she is satisfied enough to let Amy and I go back to our room. When we get there, I stood in the bathtub and stripped down, listening and watching a new batch of sand fall into the tub with each item I removed.

For the rest of the day, I couldn't stop thinking about what had happened. The whole event from the first wave to the last wave had maybe been about 2 minutes, but time meant nothing to me. I didn't actually rescue or save the boy, it was more as if I prevented him from getting pulled farther out into the water where things would have been much worse.

The situation was strange - the boy was whisked quickly away and neither Amy nor I ever saw him or his parents after we got out of the water. The beach was filled with Koreans, but either because of their lack of swimming ability or because of their unawareness/unconcern of the dangers of a young boy playing that close to the water or for someo ther reason, no one went to help the boy until after Amy made a dramatic show that finally caught someone's attention. In fact, most of them were staring at Amy and I as we left with more of a puzzled look on their faces like "Why did the crazy waigook (foreign) girls get all wet?" instead of a look of appreciation or respect for what we had just done.

The event was strange - quick, sudden, unexpected but yet foreshadowed, dangerous but fearless, physical but not emotional or mental, and thankfully a happy but yet incompletely resolved ending.

Sokcho/Mount Seoraksan

My old friend from China, Amy, and I went on a weekend trip to Sokcho, a coastal city on the east side of Korea. It was great to get away, even if it was only just for 2 days. I needed to get out of Suwon and be in new surroundings.

We got up early Saturday morning for a 4 hour bus ride. After arriving in Sokcho, we easily found a motel, dropped off our stuff, and then went exploring the city. We walked down the main street, stopping for lunch at a small restaurant where the waitress was thrilled to see some foreigners. Every time she came over to our table, she had a printout of some English phrases with the Korean beneath them. She would cautiously ask us one of them like, "Is this table to your liking?" or "Would you like a receipt?" and then light up when we answered her. After lunch, we continued on down to the beach to see the East Sea.

It was so refreshing to be around the water - to hear the steady crashing of the waves and the laughter of children as the water unexpectedly splashed around their ankles, to see the beautiful green water contrasted with the bright white of the breaking surf, to feel the mix of the freezing cold water and rough pebbley sand on my feet. And then.....(read the next post!)

Later that day, Amy and I went to Seorak Waterpia which is the Korean equivalent of a water park, but even better. The best part was the outdoor hot springs pools with 40 degree Celsius water where we just sat for over an hour, watching the sky slowly darken. It was so relaxing to just sit out in the cool air while being wrapped in the warmth of the peaceful water and then force yourself to get out and quickly run to the next pool so you could appreciate the warmth even more. It all seemed too perfect, like a dream that actually comes real but still feels surreal. The warm, soothing, and calm water at the Waterpia was such a contrast to the cold, sharp, and powerful water of the East Sea earlier that day.

The next day we went to Mount Seoraksan - reputed to be one of the best mountains in Korea. It was great, despite the fact that it was raining. Amy and I weren't going to let that stop us though, so we got some ponchos and took a cable car up to one of the peaks. After we got to the top, we did a little hiking as we had intended. One of the trails led us to a rocky area where I climbed almost straight vertical up, trying not to think about the fact that if I slipped, the least I would do is break a bone. The climb was worth it though, even through all the mist, you could see how beautiful and majestic the area was. The rain also didn't stop us from gushing over the simplistic and fragile beauty of the numerous cherry blossom and magnolia trees at the base of the mountain.

On the 5 and 1/2 hour bus ride back to Suwon, I kept listening to Death Cab for Cutie on my ipod and thinking how this trip was the perfect way to celebrate my first 3 months in Korea and the perfect way to recharge my spirits for the next 3 months.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Serious & the Humorous - History & Politics

Interesting conversations always come up in class, especially when we get off topic from the dumb story books we have to teach from. Here is a recap of 2 recent ones that stand out for me.

In my H2 class (high Junior level), we had to read a mini biography of the athlete Jesse Owens. In the story, it mentioned the 1936 Olympics and Adolf Hitler. I decided to use this to see how much my 14 year students knew about history. I started by asking who Adolf Hitler was. The first 2 responses were leader of Germany and started WWII. One student commented that he was bad. Yes, I said, and do you know why? A lot of confused looks. Ok, I thought, I'll try another approach. "He didn't like some people. Do you know who he didn't like?" More confused looks and muttering in Korean.
Finally, one boy cautiously said "Diary of Anne Frank." "Yes, good! And why didn't he like Anne Frank?" A few other students had also recognized her name which I took as a good sign, maybe I can actually get somewhere with this. I was a little over optimistic, because my previous question was met with silence. Alright, what else can I do. "Do you know what happened to Anne Frank? Is she alive?" No, the same boy said. She is dead. "Yes, she is. How did she die?" "She was very sick." Okay, now I've gotten myself stuck again.
New tactic. "What did Anne Frank and her family do?" "They were hiding." "Yes, and why were they hiding?" Silence. "Because Adolf Hitler didn't like Anne Frank. Why didn't he like her?" Silence. "Because she was Jewish. Jewish is like religion, like Christian and Buddhist. She believed in Jewish god so Adolf Hitler didn't like her." "Teacher, why didn't he like Jewish people?" "He just didn't." "But why?" "He thought they were bad for Germany and that Germany would be better if he killed all the Jewish people." Silence. By the reaction of some of the students, I could tell that this was all new information, and not just that it was being told to them in English.
I didn't want to pass up this opportunity, so I continued. "Do you know many people he killed?" A student guessed 1 million and another guessed 2 million. No, I said. He killed 6 million people. "Teacher, can you write the number on the board?" I did and there was silence as they looked at that figure. "How did he kill 6 million people?" The same boy again, "He had Nazis and Gestapo." Surprised, I agreed and drew a swastika on the board. When the rest of the students saw it, there was a murmur of recognition. I continued. "Yes, he had Nazis and Gestapo. They would find Jewish people and take them to places called concentration camps. Do you know what concentration camps are?" Silence. "They were big places way out in the country, faraway from cities. They would put Jewish people on trains and take them to these places. When they got there, they would put them in big rooms with no doors and no windows. And then they would put posion gas into the room through the ceiling and all the people would die." Complete silence.
It is a strange feeling to know that you are explaining the basic points of the Holocaust to 14 years old middle school students for the first time and trying to do it in English that they can understand. I could tell that they were trying to comprehend what I was talking to them about. I could tell they knew it was something big, something perhaps too big to fully grasp. Then, "Teacher, why were there no doors and windows?" "So that they could not leave. They had to breathe the poison. They had to die." Silence. Then from the same student, "Teacher, was Hitler crazy?" "Yes, he was." "Why?" "I don't know. He just was. He didn't like Jewish people and he didn't like people who looked like Jesse Owens. People with black skin. He only liked people with blonde hair and blue eyes." And then it was over. Class went back to being the usual hectic affair of rowdy, giggling, chatty teenagers.

On a more funny note, I inadvertently started a conversation about politics with my Junior 1 students a few weeks ago. It started out when I was trying to explain what a capital of a country was. "What is the capital of Korea?" "Seoul!" "Good. Why is Seoul the capital?" "Because it has a lot of people?" "No." I could see them all thinking and searching their minds for the right English word. I thought I would help them out a little.
"Capital is where the leader of a country works. Who is the leader of Korea?" "Roh Moo-hyun!" "Good. Is he a good leader or bad leader?" That question set off all the 12 year old boys in the room who all started shouting out. One boy raised his hand, "My father says he is bad because he make people with apartment pay a lot of money." Another boy nodded his head in agreement.
"Alright. Do you know who is the leader of America?" Half of the class quickly shouted out "Georgie Bushie." Even though I had expected them to know the answer, I did not expect to hear him called "George-ee Bush-ee" with the emphasis on the "ee" at the end. Now even though I don't really like him, I still felt it was my duty as an English teacher to correct their pronunication. "No, not Bush-ee. It is Bush. No ee." This was met with a chorus of "Bush-ee. Bush-ee." "No! Bush. Bush." Finally, I just gave up. It's actually funnier to leave it that way.
And now for some more fun. "Do you think he is a good leader?" Some general chatter to each other in half English, half Korean.
Then, "Teacher, do you like him?" "No, I don't." This sent shockwaves through the whole room. Immediately, they were filled with a hundred more questions. "Teacher, why?!" It's kind of complicated, but an easy explanation is that "I don't like war so I don't like Bush." "Teacher, you don't like war? Why?" "Because many people die and that is not good." "But teacher, you really don't like war?"
Now, this is tricky, how to explain the finer political and moral points of my personal beliefs and attitudes towards the Iraq War to a group of 12 year old Korean kids with quite limited English abilities. Finally, I thought of something. "War costs a lot of money." "How much money?" I quickly tried to think of all the figures and statistics that always fill the newspaper articles and opinion columns and decided to settle on $10 billion. I'm not sure how accurate that really is, but it has a lot of zeros and in that regard, it served its purpose. As I was writing that number up on the board, I could hear the students buzzing over the enormity of it. "Lots of money has to go to war then there is no money in the U.S. for schools, for doctors, for hospitals and that is very bad." Now, I had connected with them. Money was a language they could understand and this reason was good enough for them.
I can only imagine the conversations with their parents that night. "Mom, Dad, my American teacher doesn't like Bush-ee and she doesn't like the war! Can you believe that? And there is no money in America!"

A Korean Wedding

On March 31, one of the teachers at my school, Gina (a native Korean who grew up with her parents in Saudi Arabia) got married. She invited all of us to her wedding which she warned us was going to be done in typical Korean fashion. Even though I was given a rundown before, it was still very very interesting. To start, Korean weddings give a whole new meaning to the term "shotgun wedding." Basically, they are a get in, get it done, and get out kind of affair. We arrived at this huge church in downtown Seoul a few minutes before the ceremony started. First, we went to go say hello to Gina and have our picture taken with her. It is traditional for the bride to sit before the ceremony for all the guests to come see her. Very different from American weddings where the bride is secluded since it is bad luck for the groom to see her. Then we went to sit down in the hall (not the main part of the church) for the ceremony. Unlike American weddings which sometimes feel like whole theaterical productions, Korean weddings are much simpler. No bridesmaids or groomsmen, no music, no over the top decorations. Basically, Gina and her father walked down the aisle when it was time to start. There was no announcements or any indication beforehand. She just appeared and started walking and that was it. We (or rather everyone else, since we were the only foreigners there) sang a hymn in Korean. The pastor said somethings and then someone sang a song. Gina and her new husband then perfomed the traditional bows to both sets of parents, the mothers wearing the traditional Korean dress called hanbok. Then, the newlyweds posed at the front of the hall for pictures and walked out together. And that was pretty much the whole ceremony. From start to finish, it was around 30 minutes. The most interesting thing was that while Gina's wedding is going on, everyone is running around right outside the hall getting ready for the next ceremony that is going to start soon after Gina's finishes. The doors at the back of the hall leading out to the lobby were open the entire time and all the noise from the rest of the building and possibly the whole block came in. People also came in the whole time, some of them (including the director of our school) 20 minutes late. The people that were in the hall the whole time started talking to each other, presumbably to contribute a more pleasant sound to the racket coming in from the outside. It was completely different from American weddings which are much more solemn events that people show up on time for and are super quiet through out. After the ceremony ended, we ended up in a picture of the bride, groom, and all their guests. Then we were shown to a restaurant across the street for lunch. When we finished lunch, we were free to leave whenever we wanted. No special reception, no toasts, no cake. The entire wedding was something I will always remember because it was a view into Korean culture and because of how important it was to my fellow teacher, Gina, who I wish the best of luck and happiness in her new marriage. I am very grateful and honored that she shared her special day and culture with me.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Random Pictures

Scenes from the streets of Hongdae, an area of Seoul. These little snack stalls are everywhere and are usually no more than a converted truck bed or inside of a van. I haven't been brave enough to try anything yet, except for the red bean fish from the van parked outside the apartment complex on the way to school.
Through the wonders of Facebook, I was able to get back in touch with Amy, someone I met when I spent a semester studying in China my junior year of college. It turns out that she was also teaching in Korea and was going to be up in Seoul this weekend. It was great to get together with a friend who I haven't seen in over 3 years and feel like we last saw each other last week. Here we are with two of Amy's friends, Jungbin and Sunghu in Hongdae.

When we want to go eat after work, our choices are limited since we get off so late (10 pm). Recently, we have been going to this chicken restaurant called HooLaLa a lot since it is one of the only places open. Mandie & I don't care too much for a big plate of chicken, so we split an order of these french fri like things which we dip in honey mustard sauce. I took these pictures just because I think the name is funny and this advertisement makes me laugh.

The view from the window of my new classroom. When some teachers left, I got to move out of the "new teacher room" which was so small, so crowded, and so hot with no outside windows to a room with much more space and a whole wall of windows. It's great to finally get to see the sun set and have fresh air. In the first picture, if you look in the background, you can see the outline of a mountain which is my favorite part of my new room.