Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Follow-up on the Election

The polls in Korea are now closed. I had the day off today so employees could go and vote. I think for me today is a good day to revisit the post I made in early November about teaching about the election in the classroom.

A lot has changed since then. For one, the U.S. election is over and for those not paying attention Obama won. Software mogul Ahn Cheul-Soo dropped out of the race so that Moon Jae-In could take Park Geun-Hye head on. The election was very close, but Park Geun-Hye has won, becoming the first female president of South Korea.

And, just like in the American election, who was favorite to win depended entirely on who you talked to and what media outlets they were following. According to my language exchange partner, young people get their information from Facebook and other social media and were convinced Moon would win. The older generation were told by the television that Park would likely win. The mock election surveys my students completed at the end also show this trend, but before I get to those I should tell what has happened in class since my last post.

Each of the students filled out questionaires to try to find out whether they would be considered liberal or conservative in America. As I said last time the classes were overwhelmingly liberal, so instead I divided them by what issues they thought to be most important. This way, each political party would have a unique mission to complete. I made sure each class had a group devoted to women's rights, national defense, the environment, the economy, education, and welfare. They could mix other ideas into their party platforms but overall this gave them some focus and originality.

Over the next few class periods they were to outline their party views and then create a speech together. They needed to choose a leader to represent their views and give a speech. Party names ranged from creative and serious to just downright silly. The Green Growth Party focused on economic and environmental concerns. Meanwhile, the Iron Man Party was more militaristic in perspective. The Yuh-dang-dang Party (translated roughly to Women's Power Party) focused on women's rights. Two classes came up with the WEE Party which was an acronym for Welfare, Environment, and Education. I was worried students wouldn't take this project seriously, and indeed, some didn't. But enough students did to keep the project moving and make it worthwhile. Even parties with joke names tried to put some real thought into their speeches. Some candidates really practiced their rhetoric too. When the speech day came, I gave them a little bit of time to practice and create campaign signs.

The last time I had them do a speaking project was for Animal Farm. We had a farm-wide election with each group representing a different animal on the farm. Overall, the election kind of flopped because classes would just vote along party lines. This time I filmed the speeches and showed them to other classes. This cut down on bias. I also had them vote on more than one category. They voted not just on who they think should be in charge, but also who had the best speech. I was hoping this would separate ideas from rhetoric and it seemed to work. For instance, Iron Man Party only had one vote for leadership but many voted for their group for having a great speech.

Purely for curiosity's sake, I also had them choose a candidate for the real-life election. I think this made some students nervous. A few asked why I was asking this question. I told them they didn't have to answer if they didn't want to and a few were left blank. I had one student write a little paragraph on why she was voting for Park Geun-Hye, despite the votes being anonymous. With politics you have to tread softly, and I have to wonder if something I said earlier in the month marginalized those that were of the minority opinion.

After looking over the results of the surveys I gave my students, the results collected from the three classes were as follows:
Ahn: 28
Moon: 18
Park: 6

They were well-convinced that Ahn should win which reflects what everyone told me about young people. Of course, the news that he would leave the race came just before I announced the election results so their informal poll was mostly worthless. Still, it is telling that Park hardly had a following.

I gave the students a final class evaluation on what they liked and disliked about the class. It was quite informative, but two comments about this election stuck out for me. One student wrote:

"The political issues are very sensitive part in schools. Expressing my political inclination should be kept in secret if I want to, such as who I support, so I think talking about political issues in class should be considered carefully."

To the contrary, another student wrote:

"I'm glad that we made the class discussing political affairs. In Korea, teachers couldn't deal with political issues with students. Thank you. I learned a lot. I learned many political systems. You greatly enlightened me."

The exams were administered a couple weeks ago and last class period we reviewed the answers. A lot of the information from the first lesson on liberal vs. conservative and the electoral college didn't stick with them, but truthfully we didn't use that information much. We focused more on speaking and writing ability than the content.

One final semi-related note: After reviewing liberal and conservative values I asked them if they had any questions. A student asked me why the U.S. allowed guns. I had mentioned as an example that gun ownership is a liberal vs. conservative issue in America whereas in Korea it is not an issue at all. The student was familiar with the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and I had mentioned it in passing as I was going over the exam. I have to admit, a lump grew in my throat. I explained as best that I could the historical tradition of the 2nd Amendment and the importance of keeping the government from getting too strong, but I couldn't help but feel foolish. I didn't get into it with them. I only told the facts as I knew them, but when faced with something like what happened last week, it is hard to justify the amount of deadly weapons our country contains. These are difficult times and I hope our nation does what is right. My condolences go out to the Newtown community.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A lot of little things (and Pepero Day)

This last month or so I have been thinking about a lot of little things, none of which felt substantial enough to write a post about, and so now I am going to try to tie a few of these little things together and make a longer article.

For one, a few days back a student told me that I looked "really American." I was wearing my green plaid long-sleeve shirt and jeans. My beard has been getting longer for the winter. This is not the first time a student has said this to me and I can only speculate on what it means. I guess there is a stereotype that Americans look somewhat like Paul Bunyan or George Lucas?

I learned one of my head teachers has a nickname for me. I am "Call Van." A call van is a service you call to pick you up and drive you someplace, sort of like a taxi. Since his English isn't great and "van" and "Ben" sound virtually identical in Korean, the joke is a lot funnier for him I think.

In other naming news, I was given a Korean name. I did not ask for one, instead a Korean teacher just gave it to me. She held her hands above my head in a mock ceremonial pose and pronounced me "Park Yong-chul" (박용철). She gave me Park because it approximates the first letter of my first and last name. Yong-chul translates to "Iron Dragon." It is a strange name for a modern Korean I am told. A lot of the students liked it, but one told me I should change it because it is a "country person name." I've got a Korean hillbilly name! I suppose it might be like Virgil or Jebidiah in English, still used but considered anachronistic by most. Personally, I am happy to have a Korean name. It is like I am a made man in the mafia now. I am also happy to have a country name. I might as well since I am from the country.

Does your name conjure this image?

I asked my new language learning partner about the name. My suspicions were confirmed. My new name is quite analogous to Jed Clampett. Through videos of Jeff Foxworthy and the Beverly Hillbillies I taught her words like "hillbilly", "redneck", and "hick" and after some pressing I was able to get her to confess that, yes, Koreans have words for these people too. She taught me a few but told me I shouldn't repeat them.

We then continued to discuss swear words. I taught her the big bad ones and some of the minor swears too. I learned just a few Korean bad words. I have been told before that those are some of the first words you should learn but I haven't bothered with them until now and I am not sure why. We talked about how a lot of these words have levels of severity in English. For instance, I would rank the following words from harmless to severe in this order: dung, feces, poop, turd, sh!#. There are certainly more but I'm sure you get the idea. She tried to tell me at first that swears in Korean were all really bad and there were no differences in severity. An intriguing concept, but I suspected it wasn't true. As the night wore on and I introduced her to some nasty words for women she finally admitted that yes there were differences in severity. That being said she simply doesn't swear much at all, but she does make a common offensive sound that sounds something like "ieessh." Like "doh", albeit more offensive, it has no meaning other than something you say out of frustration. Part of me wonders why I waited so long to learn this stuff, but at the same time it is fun to learn from someone who barely swears at all.

They come in all shapes and sizes.
And finally, I will mention something I meant to commemorate over a month ago on 11/11, but seeing as it is 12/12/12 today I am cashing in my wish and turning the clock back a month. Every year on 11/11 in Korea is Pepero Day. Pepero (빼빼로) is a kind of chocolate stick candy that is sold all over Korea. It is super cheap and is more or less the Korean version of the older and perhaps more familiar Japanese candy Pocky. However, Pepero Day is no copycat but a genius marketing holiday developed by Koreans. 11/11 was chosen as the date for the resemblance of the ones and the slash mark to sticks in a box of Pepero. It has blossomed into a holiday for everyone, but mostly couples. Students give Pepero to teachers. Adults give Pepero to kids. Romantic fools buy large gift wraps of Pepero boxes for their lovers. There is no price drop, except for a savings of a few won if you buy in bulk.

My favorite grocery store became Pepero central for the day.
I read that most of the money Pepero makes now is made in November. I am a sucker for holidays and commercialism too, so I bought a large box and gave them out to my classes on that day. My favorite Pepero is almond, but there are also plain, peanut, strawberry, and nude (chocolate on the inside of cookie stick). Pocky Day is now celebrated in Japan but I read it is not as successful.

Even 7/11 gets in on the action.

On a side note, the Chinese teachers told me 11/11 is Singles Day in China, which started as a college holiday for young single men (most of China, really) to celebrate their bachelorhood. This holiday instead uses the shape of the date to symbolize not Pepero but four singles. What started as a fun joke holiday between four college friends has boomed into a huge commercial holiday. This year it was reported that Singles Day may be the largest online shopping day ever.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Election in the Classroom

I often come up with ideas for lessons from conversations with other teachers. Of course, the election has been on the forefront of many American minds. A few of us in the office have even been keeping up on the debates by watching online. This has sparked a lot of discussion and one teacher recommended that I talk about the election in the classroom. I wasn't so sure, since I felt American politics isn't as relevant here as Korean politics. That is when she told me about the Korean election. Once again, I was oblivious. I really try to keep up on the news, too. I skim the world news headlines daily and usually pick up anything about Korea, but somehow I missed out. Fortunately, she was quickly able to fill me in on the situation.

Lee Myung-bak
Right now in Korea, the president is Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party (which recently changed its name to the Saeunuri, or New Frontier Party). He was elected for a term of five years and is not allowed to run again. Right now, there are three candidates. My friend was excited because she felt there were two excellent choices and one bad choice. 

Moon Jae-in
Park Chung-hee
The opposing liberal Democratic United Party is running Moon Jae-in as their candidate, who first gained prominence as a law student by protesting the military dictator-president Park Chung-hee

Ahn Chul-soo
The other liberal candidate, Ahn Chul-soo, is running as an independent. He is a millionaire who made his money in the software industry. He is a philanthropist as well and gave everyone in Korea a free version of his Ahn Lab Antivirus software. It is no coincidence that this came pre-installed on my Samsung phone. Since he is new to politics, there is virtually no dirt associated with him. However, it is also difficult to know where he stands on issues or what his policies will look like since he  has no political record. 

Park Geun-hye

The candidate she didn't like was Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee. She is popular among older conservative Koreans who remember her father's presidency as a time of great prosperity. Indeed, Korea did grow tremendously during his reign, even if it was a time of limited speech and torturing of opponents. In 1999, Time named him as one of the top ten "Asians of the century." Right now, these three candidates are more or less tied so unless one of them drops out it will likely be too close to call right up until the election in December.

It turns out that this election has a special connection for both the United States and Korea. Since presidential elections in the United States are every four years and in Korea every five years, this type of coincidence only happens every twenty years. What a great opportunity to learn about both systems! I took my friend's advice, and now I am in the midst of a unit plan on the election.

The first week we began with a survey to determine whether my students were conservative or liberal. Since I didn't know a lot about Korean politics, I stuck with issues that would be divisive in America. These were issues like abortion, the death penalty, environmentalism, global warming, free speech, gay marriage, national security, taxes, business regulations, welfare, and so on.

However, as I suspected the students didn't find every issue divisive. Gun control was almost a non-issue. I only ever got one or two students in every class to agree that Koreans should be able to own guns for personal defense. Indeed, fellow teachers are a little disturbed when they see pictures of me holding a gun. It's just not something that is done in Korea.

Overall students are overwhelmingly liberal. I think I only had two conservatives in three classes and they were just one point over the edge and did not consider themselves conservative. My students (and I think everyone else) here really dig Obama. Actually, according to this poll, the majority of the world wants Obama to win the election. This isn't really surprising. The rest of the world is far more liberal than we are on most things so they would prefer any liberal. Not only that, but Obama has built-in name recognition and happens to have made history with his election into office. 

One of the other "agree" or "disagree" statements I wrote was "Takeshima should be given back to Japan." Takeshima is the Japanese name for Dokdo, a group of rocky islands off the coast of Korea. Korea has been occupying them for years despite Japan claiming ownership. Dokdo is a huge source of nationalism for Korea. People have t-shirts printed up saying "Dokdo is ours." In case you don't know, Japan and Korea have a lot of bad blood between them, mostly because of the atrocities committed by Japan upon Korea during World War II and several previous wars. Koreans think of Dokdo as a slap in the face after their bad history and a lack of apology from the Japanese government. Of course, with all things political, it has to do with money too. There is a huge deposit of natural gas under those rocks.

Now, getting back to the statement on the survey. The first class just quietly disagreed with it. No one got really upset. We talked a little bit about how some issues like these are not liberal or conservative but vary greatly by geography instead. Americans wouldn't really care, but Koreans and Japanese would have solid, opposing answers. The next class had to clarify first to make sure I was serious. They wanted to make sure I knew that no Korean would EVER agree to this. I told them it was a joke, meant to show bias. They laughed it off, disagreed, and moved on. In the third class, one of the brighter, quicker students asked right away where I got this survey and if it was from Japan. There was an outcry from the class. Many students refused to even answer the question because of its blatant bias. One student whited out Takeshima and wrote Dokdo in Korean over the top and then put a huge circle around "Disagree." I had to spend a few minutes settling everyone down, but I think it was a worthwhile experiment. Now I know a little bit more about the boundaries with this political issue.

This week I took the information from their surveys and formed them into politcal parties. Each class will have six candidates for president. They will have real political issues to debate and topics to choose as their primary focus. This is definitely an experiment for me. Next week we will be writing speeches for the debate. I can already tell we are off to a good start. It will be great to see what they come up with for the finished product.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Chuseok and China: Part 2

So as I said entirely too long ago, I ended up going to Chuseok dinner with the Chinese teachers. The Chinese teachers I work with are part of a large education program sponsored by the Chinese government. This means that unlike the English teachers, the Chinese teachers are not paid by Korea. China pays them and other than giving them a place to stay, Korea pays nothing.

This system didn't make any sense the first time it was explained to me, but there are two reasons for China to sponsor such a program. Firstly, it is part of their teacher education program. Our teachers are undergoing their practicum. In fact, currently they are quite stressed out about writing their final papers. I tell them I would offer to help if I knew Chinese but I think that joke is getting stale. The other reason the Chinese government pays them is to spread culture. China has been around a long time and understands the multiple powers of cultural spread. It helps with understanding, trade and peace talks. It also helps with the long game. If you can get another people to think like you or speak your language, it becomes easier to influence them. It may not be surprising then that this program has been met with suspicion by various governments, including the United States.

Now, I can't speak for the program as a whole and I don't know what happens in their classrooms at our school, but I highly doubt our Chinese teachers are involved in any conspiratorial plot to whitewash Tienanmen Square or anything else like that. The two Chinese girls are super friendly and cute, and with the exception of this recent crunch time, constantly laughing. One is a Party member, but I get the idea it is kind of like joining a frat or a lodge in the States. It is something you do to make connections. That being said, I typically avoid politics with them, mostly because we would be on unequal ground since I don't know more than a word or two in Chinese and they know just enough English. It wouldn't be fair or productive. Nonetheless we have talked history before. Genghis Khan (whom they have a different name for) is a hero.

China has been enormously influential on Korean culture. It's all about the long game. I don't know much of the history, but from what I understand Japan has been brutal to Korea and other nations during every invasion. Each time they invaded Korea, their culture never stuck. Koreans consciously rebelled against their oppressors. Meanwhile, China has also invaded before. Their culture has stuck because they used a softer touch. Now, to get back to Chuseok in a roundabout sort of way, it just so happens to fall on the same day China celebrates their similar Thanksgiving feast. I doubt this is any sort of coincidence.

We met the Chinese teachers at the Confucius Institute on the Incheon University campus. The rest of their classmates are teaching and living at the university. Everyone was very friendly. Almost immediately they got to work. I think this was around 1 pm. Since we didn't have a whole lot to do being ignorant guests, we strolled around campus for a while. There was a building with a built-in rock climbing wall. I also got my picture on top of a lion.

After we got back we found some things to do. Mostly, we learned to make dumplings. I was awful at it, but I made a few. Cooking is truly an art and I was surrounded by artists.

Just look at what they produced! I had never seen a Thanksgiving dinner like this before.

I think it was almost 6pm by the time that we actually started eating. It had been a long day of preparation. The food was delicious and there was entirely too much of it, just like any great Thanksgiving. The company was great as well, even if I didn't know most of what was being said.

At some point after dinner, the singing began. One of the girls was nominated to sing. She sang a few verses, and then it was my turn. I sang some "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show and the they clapped along and soon it was someone else's turn. Each person at the table had to take a turn. Most were really beautiful in one way or another. Some seemed to sing newer hits and some more traditional, older songs. Others, nursery rhymes. We had "Puff, the Magic Dragon" and a South African song as well from the non-Chinese crew. One gentleman did this great spoken word song/poem, but perhaps I liked it so much because he was raising his glass so I knew it was a drinking toast.

Afterwards we played a couple games. We played a Chinese version of Sam-Yook-Ku (3-6-9). This was a number game that I had only recently learned in English and involved counting and clapping on numbers that end in 3, 6, or 9. Simple, but easy to mess up. The penalty for screwing up was that you had to eat a piece of the ice cream cake in the table center. Most often the penalty is getting flicked in the ear or finger slapped on the wrist or some other token physical harm so this was a welcome change of pace. We also played a game in Chinese that translated in English essentially to "Double-O Seven Bang!" We are in a circle. One player says "0" and chooses another player. Then that player says "0" and chooses someone else. The third person says "7" and picks someone. The next points his finger at someone in the circle and says "Bang!" The person he shot has to say "Ahh!" but not move. The players adjacent to him raise their hands up in the air like they were shot and falling over. Whoever screws up loses. It then repeats. It's just a silly game that gets people laughing.

After the games, we started cleanup. It didn't take long with everybody helping, especially since this was an area where I knew what I was doing. We all thanked them for their tremendous hospitality, said our goodbyes, and took the bus ride home. And full of food, I slept like a rock that night.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

American Food and Chuseok: Part 1

For some sort of project, I was asked by a teacher a few days ago to identify America's "traditional" food. For instance, China, despite being a nation with many regional differences, has Peking duck as their official food. I had no idea what to say. My first thought was hamburgers and pizza, both of which are not really American but in my opinion "perfected" by America. Nachos came to mind. I thought they were invented in a Texas bar, but according to Wikipedia it was a restaurant just across the border in Mexico. Apple pie seems like an obvious choice but it turns out the phrase "American as apple pie" really started as an ad campaign. Apple pie has been around for ages and we don't even produce the most apples, China does. One website that listed American foods listed the American style chinese food. Innovative, but too culturally specific, and nothing to be proud of either. Philly cheese steak, pasties, gumbo? All too regional. I was at a loss.

Then it occurred to me: Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, was this weekend. Thanksgiving! That's it! American Thanksgiving is celebrated almost exclusively by eating turkey, an exclusively American bird on an exclusively American holiday. By the way, a teacher told me that in Korean, the turkey is called chilmyeonjo (칠면조 ), which translates literally as "seven-faced bird". Wikipedia says "This is said to reflect the ability of the bird, particularly the male, to change the form of its face depending on its mood." I seem to remember the teacher giving me another explanation, but I cannot remember what it was.

Researching food in the office lead me to show one of the Chinese teachers what American Chinese food is like. She was horrified. I showed her a video of a large Chinese buffet on YouTube. I told her this was one of the better buffets. Also, I love how every Chinese buffet has awful looking pizza that is apparently there only to punish picky eaters. I had some difficulty describing fortune cookies as well.

As I said, Chuseok was this weekend. Since I didn't have any plans, the Chinese teachers invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner to have authentic homemade Chinese food. It turns out China and Korea celebrate on the same day. However, I'm going to save the dinner for a different post. Right now I would like to focus again just on the Chuseok holiday.

Chuseok is a pretty big deal in Korea. We get Saturday through Wednesday off from work, with the actual dinner held on Sunday. Chuseok I was told is a celebration of the full moon being its largest, but I am not sure that is entirely true. Either way, it is the beginning of Fall and a harvest feast. I was not told of any legend or story about the founding of their holiday like we have, but there are plenty of ancient traditions. Generally families go back to their parents' house to eat and often spend the night. Many families will pray to their ancestors to show respect and give thanks on this day. Christian Koreans do not typically do this. A Korean teacher friend offered to serve us songpyeon, the traditional holiday rice cake as well, but unfortunately she did not have time. For further information, check out this website.

We recently talked in class about the word "oblivious." As an example, I told the students that I was rather oblivious to Chuseok for a while. One day, I walked into HomePlus to find that the grocery aisle was filled with gift boxes of various kinds. There were shampoos, mixed nuts, fruits, wines, and Spam to name a few examples. These boxes were all rather pricey. I learned that this all had to do with Chuseok tradition. For the most part, these boxes were given by employers to their employees. However, children give their parents these as well. One teacher told me it is common to just re-gift the box that your employer gave you to your parents.

Of all the gift boxes, Spam seemed to be the most common. I asked the students about these. Most of them loved Spam and laughed when I brought up the amount of Spam in the store for the holiday. In one class it occurred to me that they didn't know Spam was American! Spam was such a staple in Korea and so associated with Chuseok that this was quite surprising to them. To be fair, I told them I didn't know Samsung was Korean until I got here.

This lead to an interesting discussion. We talked about how Spam is American but Americans by and large don't like Spam. Most of us, myself an exception, find it disgusting and either hate the taste or refuse to even try it. They found this pretty funny. I told them about the Spam Museum in Minnesota, how there is a lady that walks around giving out free samples.

I am guessing Spam's success in Asia has a lot to do with the American military presence after World War II. For instance, Korea has a food called Army soup that includes Spam and a lot of cheap, delicious ingredients that were available during the Korean War. It is still popular today, but I have not had the chance to try it yet.

One last thing for now about American food. My mom sent me cookies and root beer a while ago. She sent root beer because for some reason root beer is not popular in many places around the world, including Korea. After having so many cultural experiences here, I felt obligated to give back and expose my co-workers to root beer. I decided to buy some ice cream and make root beer floats the Friday before Chuseok. The reactions to root beer were interesting. Many were initially nervous because of the word "beer" and wondered why I brought alcohol to school. One thought it tasted kind of like Dr. Pepper. My head teacher was disappointed no one introduced root beer to her when she was in the United States for college. Some felt it tasted an awful lot like a Chinese traditional cold medicine, which is interesting considering root beer's history as a medicine. Most of them really enjoyed it I think, but one of the Chinese teachers did describe it as "not so bad." I'm guessing she really associated it strongly with medicine flavor. Either way, it was a great time. The principal and vice principal even came up to give it a try.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Learning the Language

I have not posted in a while and it is actually only recently that several different small topics for writing have emerged. For this first short post, I would like to focus on learning the language.

For the past several months I have not read much at all in Korean. I was not taking language learning seriously. Once I learned the absolute, most basic phrases and numbers I mostly stopped. Only recently have I started to make an effort outside of picking up words here and there. I think I started again because it sank in that I am going to be here for a while. 

Not knowing how to read takes me way back to when I was young. I have that same lost feeling I had as a child, guessing at what things could mean, making up my own sort of folk language and names for things because I didn't know how to read. For example, when I was young I remember seeing an advertisement for Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I knew what 2 meant, but could read nothing else. I remembered the first game only had one "kitty" on it, but now the second game had two "kitties" on it, and I recall thinking that must be why the 2 was in the title. My first few weeks here I did something similar; I started renaming local streets after landmarks so that I could memorize directions better. I hate feeling so lost, especially when I can do something about it.

I joined a language exchange in Bupyeong called "Culcom." Foreigners can join for free and pair with a Korean, typically a college student. It has been a great way to meet cool Koreans and I have been to the baseball game and the city park so far with friends I have made from this organization. Partners meet twice a week for two hours each time. One hour is for learning English and the other for Korean. I recently had to switch partners because she got busy with a graphic design project, but I was supposed to teach her verb phrases and idioms, while she started teaching me the basics of reading and vocabulary. I now know most of the alphabet. It takes me a long time to read Korean, but I can do it. Each Korean character still feels like three characters to me. I will show a picture from Homeplus grocery store to explain. 

You can see above how each character of hangul is three pieces. The Lotte off-brand, it turns out, spells "luncheon meat." Each character reads from left to right and then top to bottom. This is a fairly basic example. I'm really just starting, but it's interesting how many things, especially American products, are actually in English. By the way, Spam is fairly expensive in Korea, over 4,000 won ($4) a can. (More on Spam later)

I think you can see how this language can be slow for reading until you start internalizing each character combination. However, I was looking for a restaurant with a friend from the U.K. the other night who has been here a few years and he noticed the hangul  restaurant sign before the English!

I have also had some difficulty with pronunciation. I have lot of trouble with the "s" sounding character. There are actually different "s" sounds. One is supposed to be soft and the other hard. I can't articulate the difference yet. My last couple meetings I probably spent about fifteen minutes with my partner literally like this:

Me: Sa
Her: No, sa.
Me: Sa.
Her: Sa.
Me: Saa?
Her: Saa.
Me: Sa.
Her: No, sa.
Me: Sa.
Her: Yes, that's right. Sa.
Me: Sa.
Her: No, sa. Say it like you said it last time.

The same happened for the "ga" and "ka" sound. There is actually a consonant in Korean that seems to exist somewhere between the two and I haven't quite got the hang of that yet.

One of the greatest boons so far to learning hangul has been my ability to read the class roster. I know, it's ridiculous and sad, but I do not know all of my students' names. I am embarrassed. It's great to finally be able to work at memorizing names. I have an app now to help me do that. It has been good practice for reading and for learning names. And the students really do appreciate it, even though I know they find it frustrating. For instance, one class, after I struggled with a few names, suggested that I give up and use their English names instead. I refused. They cheered! I really think knowing names is crucial in so many ways, I just wish my actions better reflected my beliefs. That being said, I have made a lot of progress in the last couple of weeks. I have told my students to harass me about it. Ask me what their name is outside of class. Get a little impatient. This has helped so far. Last time a student asked me their name I said, "Let me guess, it has two syllables right?"

This whole experience has given me quite a bit of humility. I understand from experience things like when they pronounce a word like "zoo" as "joo." Some have difficulty telling the difference between "r" and "l" because often there is no difference in Korean. Learning hangul has given me a little bit more insight into their pronunciations issues as well as my own.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Most Beautiful Words in English

Saturday for the gifted program we taught "anyone lived in a pretty how town" by E.E. Cummings. The focus for the day was more on sound than sense. My hope was to show how sometimes the sound of poetry can be enough on its own. The poem, despite being composed of simple words, is hard to understand. I picked it with the hope that we could focus more on sound than meaning. It didn't work out that way exactly, but we still had a good time and I think the class was less focused on learning one interpretation and was more open for the possibility of multiple responses.

Anyway, the opening activity was to write your favorite sounding English word on the board. Once everyone had their words up, I had them choose two words and write a two line nonsense rhyme, just focusing on sound and not meaning. They struggle with rhyming, and making a nonsense rhyme was harder than I expected for them. However, I thought I would share the incredible list of words generated. Each class added their words to the board, so the last class had more words to choose from. Below is a picture of the blackboard after the last class.

Our List of Beautiful Words in English


It is clear to me that the students also chose based on beauty of meaning since most of these words are positive. One student at first chose "cigarette" but then changed her mind. I encouraged her to stick with it; even if they aren't pretty, the word has a great sound. If you can look at the board you will see a few words, like chocolate, were chose more than once. I love the word sunshower, partly for sound, but also because of the imagery. The students were startled that I didn't know "shawty." They told me it was used in rap to mean "cute." The definition I found was a little bit different. It's slang for "shorty" and according to what I read it originated in Atlanta and has been common in rap for some time now. Hey, I never claimed to know everything about English, let alone rap. I am not sure how serious some of my students were in their choices, but overall it was an interesting experiment. My co-teacher felt his class did not take the warm-up as seriously. According to one student, the most beautiful word in the English language is "chicken-man."

Monday, September 10, 2012

Gangnam Style

From what I understand, most Americans and every Korean now knows of Gangnam Style. If you do not, stop reading and please watch this:

I realize most everything that needs to be said about this song was said in the last several weeks and that I am already behind the trend in my comments, but I thought I would at least share with everybody my experiences. My first exposure to this song came from our "school DJ." One of the Korea teachers sends out  .mp3 files or videos through the in-school messenger to all of the faculty maybe once or twice a week. Sometimes, it's some slow, Korean crooner. Other times it's straight K-pop, and from time to time he will play American music too. For instance, I told some teachers about the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue" and they told me to put in a request. About a week later he sent around a video of Cash playing live at San Quentin prison.

About a month ago I received the video of Gangnam Style by Psy. He also sent a cover by another artist named Hyuna. I watched Hyuna's version first and just about dismissed it as another piece of boring K-Pop, but then I switched over to the original. I was hooked from the start. It's clear to me Psy is a really funny, talented guy. It almost reminds me of an Eminem video. It wasn't until a few days later that I found out this song was huge not only in Korea but also had made its way to the States. I find it interesting that Americans can appreciate the song on its own merit and not just because it is hyped right now. I can honestly say it is the first piece of Korean music that I have truly enjoyed.

There has been a lot of talk about the subversive nature of the video. I don't know anything about that, and I don't think that has much to do with its success. The video is funny on its own and Psy carries himself with the kind of confidence fans love from their musicians. The song is catchy, and the dance is funny. From what I have read, Koreans are a bit surprised by his success and aren't quite sure why he is getting attention now. His act isn't new. For me, what stands out about Psy is that he seems original. Without knowing the lyrics, he seems like he is doing what he wants and is not being pushed by some executive. A friend told me a little about his life. Psy grew up rich as the heir to a huge Korean business. He told his father he was going to study Economics in America. As soon as he got there he changed his major to music.

I watched a video from one of my favorite Korea video bloggers today about his thoughts on Psy's recent success. He is just as surprised as the rest of the Korea, but he is also quick to point out that this may be a turning point for Korean music. We could either get more acts that try to emulate Psy's style in order to make it big, or we could get acts that follow in his footsteps by being original, and by being themselves.

There have been many subsequent parodies and copycats of Gangnam Style. I wish I could show you the one some our students did, but it was made as a birthday present and I was not allowed to make a copy. However, there are plenty of them on YouTube. My favorite is probably this one simply because of its strangeness:

There is also an incredible mashup video that came out a few days ago, which combines it with Party Rock Anthem among others.

Lastly, on an unrelated note, the weather has been fantastic here. As soon as September hit, the temperature dropped to a perfect degree. It will not last long. Every day I feel like shouting from the rooftops to everyone how wonderful the weather is. I am like a doomsday prophet. I want to shake people in the street and tell them to seize their chance now. It has just begun, but I feel the end is nigh.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Neil Armstrong (Top Ten Ways to Travel to the Moon)

Tonight I am in a similar situation as I was last Sunday night, working on planning a lesson for my 2nd grade speaking and listening classes. These were the same classes that read "Animal Farm" last semester. This semester I am sort of making it up as I go a little bit because the textbook seems far too easy. Last week I was planning to introduce some DNA science before doing the strawberry DNA experiment again from summer camp, but instead I found myself distracted by the news from back home.

Last weekend I was compelled to read everything I could about the late Neil Armstrong. His recent death had an impact on me and I was surprised by just how much I took it to heart. Neil Armstrong was sort of a hero of mine. He was someone that I wanted to be when I grew up, but who wouldn't? My pet angel fish was named Neil Armstrong. I am not sure why, but I guess it was the first thing I ever had a say in naming and that is what I went with. When I think of Neil Armstrong, I think not just of the moon but of achieving the impossible and of togetherness. The more you research the more you find out just how much could have gone wrong but didn't. They were lucky as well as extremely talented. Something grand was touched the day his foot landed on the moon, something previously impossible. The plaque they planted on the moon read "HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969, A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND." I imagine the entire world up in the lunar sky, just a marble, silent to the astronauts. Meanwhile, one fifth of the world watched or listened to their story unfold hundreds of thousands of kilometers away. The world was together in that moment and I like to think that maybe while Neil was looking back at the Earth and could not distinguish the borders of nations, those on the ground felt the borders lift away too. I realize I get rather nostalgic for a time that was not my own and even a bit saccharine considering the geo-political motivation behind the space race, but I do think there is a powerful lesson to be learned from the moon landing.

The moon landing became my new lesson for the week. I started by showing the students a picture of Neil Armstrong in civilian clothing and asking who he was. To my surprise, at least one student in every single class was able to guess it was him, likely because of the news coverage. One student in my last class claimed it was a picture of me when I was young. 

We went over the infamous missing "a" in Armstrong's "One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." I thought this was relevant considering how difficult it is in English to know when to say a, the, or nothing at all.

We talked about the significance of the moon landing. One class definitely felt it was more of an American thing and not something for the whole world, and they have a right to their opinion. Thankfully I only received one question on whether or not the moon landing was faked. I told her it wasn't, encouraged her to do her own research and make up her mind, and then gave two or three reasons it was not faked. I have to admit, with lessons like these I find myself getting a little starry eyed and I worry I might come off as propagandizing, especially when I get resistance to my own thoughts.

The activity for the day was to form a group and create a presentation on how they would get to the moon. I showed some examples including a balloon flight written by Edgar Allen Poe, the famous bullet ship from Jules Verne, and a strange story from 1638 in which a man tethers himself to a flock of magic geese that fly him to the moon. I told them they could make their idea serious or outlandish. Most of them went for outlandish. I had planned to end the day with a quick video of how they actually went to the moon, but the presentations always ran until the end. So, without further words, let me present the top ten ways of traveling to the moon.

10. We get a really big trampoline. I wear a jet-pack and jump on the trampoline. I bounce off the trampoline and then use the jet-pack to fly the rest of the way.

9. One of us is Hulk. He throws the one of us that is Iron Man into the sky. Then, Thor strikes us with lightning and we use our jet boosters from the Iron Man suit to take us the rest of the way.

8. There is a long tunnel built from the moon to the Earth. Couples travel through this tunnel in pods built for two, being pulled by suction from a vacuum that is placed on the moon. The journey takes sixty years so the two people better love each other very much.

7. Everyone knows that cancer grows without stopping, so we take a man with cancer and... (the audience gasps in horror) ... I mean we take a flask of cancerous cells and grow them. It will take a very long time but eventually we will have a ladder to the moon we can climb.

6. We use a shrinking ray like the one from Willy Wonka and shrink ourselves to the size of radio waves and then we ride the waves to the moon.

5. Remember when we read Yertle the Turtle? (the audience sees where this is going and bursts into laughter) The average human is about 20 cm tall lying down so by our calculations it will only take 1/5 of the world population to make it to the moon. This means we will have plenty of people so no need to employ pregnant women. There will be a long tube feeding oxygen to each human in the stack.

4. We jump from cloud to cloud and upon entering space walk upon the backs of birds (This is a reference to some Korean folk tale about forbidden love).

3. We eat a lot of sweet potatoes. Then we go out into the middle of Typhoon Bolaven and wait for the wind to pick us up. Once we are blown to the top of the storm, we release our gas and fart our way through the upper atmosphere and over to the moon.

2. There is a massive cannon like the Jules Verne story. Out of it shoots a tank. We ride inside the tank and continue to rain down shells upon the surface of the Earth in order to propel ourselves further and adjust for direction on our journey to the moon.

1. Two girls pray to Mother Mary, "Mother Mary, please allow us to go to the moon." Mother Mary has a conversation with Jesus. "Jesus, you are my son and since I am your mother you should do what I say. Could you please help these girls get to the moon?" Jesus replies, "Sure, I will play a game." He then takes a cosmic pool stick, lines up his shot and smashes the Earth into the moon. The two bodies connect and the two girls are able to walk over to the lunar surface.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

From Lunch to Baseball

Last night was my first "Burning Friday" in a while. I am not sure how you say the expression in Korean, but "Burning Friday" is an expression similar to TGIF. It just means tonight we are going to be partying out late to celebrate the weekend. When I first heard it I thought it was some special holiday event, or I imagined my students out on the beach burning some sort of wicker man. I played ping-pong and went to a noraebong with friends from work and a few others. Korea has ping-pong rooms you can go to and rent a table to play. Some of the players there were intense. The noraebong, for those who don't know, is like karaoke, except instead of a whole bar full of strangers each group of friends occupies a small room with their own TV and music machine. We paid for an hour of music, but since the place was nearly empty we were upgraded to a larger room and got an extra hour for free, or "service" as the Koreans say. It was nice to go with a group that wasn't too shy about singing, and could actually sing pretty well too. I also learned that singing "Barbie Girl" by Aqua as a duet can be kind of uncomfortable and awkward given the innuendo.

This morning I woke up late and headed over to Han's Deli for lunch. Immediately some students were giving me some looks which made me wonder if they knew me or if they were just curious as usual. About the time I got my spaghetti and my bulgogi/bread/cheese dish, an older gentleman approached me to say hello. He told me that he just got back from the United States with the three boys that were sitting in the booth in front of me. They had gone on a three week tour up and down the east coast seeing Washington DC, Boston, Niagara, and New York among other places. They wanted to talk to me but were too shy. He stood there for a while and talked to me while I smiled and answered his questions a little nervously. I met the kids and shook their hands. They sat down with me at my booth while I finished my spaghetti and questioned the kids about Washington DC. Turns out the gentleman was a Methodist pastor from America, and had started a new church in NonHyeon just this year. He asked me if I liked baseball. I told him I did. After a short conversation in Korean with the boys he invited me to the Wyvern game today. The SK Wyverns I am told are one of nine teams in Korea. SK is the phone company that owns them, they are actually situated in Incheon. Today they were playing against the Doosan Bears of Seoul (formerly OB Bears), one of their big rivals. Having no plans for the day, I eagerly accepted the offer.

Pastor David told me a bit of his life story. He was born and raised in Incheon but finished his last year of high school in New Jersey. After trying out college and failing because of his English skill he joined the Army and became a chaplain. He retired from the military and recently decided to leave for Korea. His daughter, who had taught in Korea, told him to make friends with as many foreigners as he could because so often she was alone on the weekends with little do. For this reason, he had decided on a whim to ask me to the game today. It turns out his church is full of connections. The father of one of the boys he was with works the ticket booth at the stadium so we were able to get behind home plate tickets for free.

The stadium was not huge, but the enthusiasm of the crowd was. Each team had a robust cheering section. The Wyvern fans waved inflatable red sticks and the Bears had sticks of white on the opposite side. As David put it, in America, sure, everyone cheers. But in Korea, everyone cheers together. There is nothing like seeing an entire half of a stadium chanting the same song and waving their inflatables in sync with the music and each other. Most of the chants were new for me, but they had quite a few of our classics. "Charge!" was simply changed to "Go!" for instance. One glaring omission, sadly, was "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." I thought for sure every baseball nation on the planet had that one translated. Both teams have a group of female cheerleaders who are lead by one male in a team uniform. Each side only chants when they are at bat. They take turns, but at this game the Wyvern fans did "she" ("shh" in English) the other fans and boo only once.

The game was solid. We missed the first few innings and by the time we arrived the Wyverns were down 1 to 3. We had a long dry stretch with no runs on either side, but David made it interesting with his commentary. He told me one of the players, Dave Bush, was traded from Milwaukee to the Wyverns. The Bears had an American too. The highlight was probably the pitcher for the Wyverns. He was part of the Olympic team and I was told he was a real star. 

At the fifth inning stretch I wandered around the stadium and grabbed a beer. Beer was reasonably priced, and so were snacks. This was probably because they allow people to bring snacks from outside and need to remain competitive. I couldn't help but notice there were by and large no vendors hawking hot dogs or beer up and down the steps. Perhaps it has to do with the expense. Items in the team store still had a huge markup (26,000 won for a ballcap? I don't think so).

In the bottom of the eighth things really picked up. The Wyverns gained the lead with three runs. Unfortunately, a single home run in the ninth inning was enough from the Bears to tie the game and have it continue into overtime. They ended up going up through twelve innings before finally calling it a tie.

We stayed for the fireworks after the game to avoid the crowd and I am glad we did because they opened with Star Wars. But right as the fireworks went up, rain started to pour down. We were drenched by the time we got back to the car. David drove us to get a quick little dinner and I sampled some food he thought I should try. He again invited me to come to his church the next day, not as a Christian, but as a human who needs to meet more people in Korea. He felt that I needed to meet Koreans outside of the school to see how "real" Koreans live. I wondered how my Korean teacher friends would feel about that characterization, but I do understand what he meant. To understand Korea, I need to break away from that bubble and meet people from all walks of life. I accepted the offer.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Model U.N.

Well, it has been over a month since I have posted, partly out of laziness, partly out of not being inspired to write. Sure, I have had many adventures to write about, but most of them would have ended up in a dispassionate format like "I did this, and then I did this, and then I went here and did this, oh but before that I did this too..." so I have abstained from writing. I suppose I might jump back to them later. For the record, after summer camp I had a week of summer break spent searching for good micro-brews, randomly traveling the subways, and sleeping. The highlight was probably visiting the Coex mall, specifically the Coex Aquarium. I highly recommend it. Besides that, I had two weeks of summer classes and then a few days off here and there to travel to Jeju with my girlfriend. Jeju was excellent, but almost anything I could say about it is likely to have been said somewhere else on the internet. We also visited the DMZ and Seoul. Now she is gone, and I have been at work for nearly two weeks since. We had Typhoon Bolaven, but North Korea got the brunt of it from what I understand. We had some rain and very heavy wind, but I didn't have to change clothes like I was told I would.
I have just walked home from Model United Nations tonight. A walk home listening to music generally leaves me sweaty but energized, so I will explain some of my experiences with Model U.N. so far. When I was first asked to work with the Model U.N., I thought I was going to be coaching. I was very nervous, until I found out I was only to be a helper. The topic this year is biodiversity, and since one of my majors is Biology, my head teacher wanted me as an advisor. The students went to a Model U.N. summit at a college while I was coming home from Jeju, so I missed their explanation of the topic.

Regardless, last week I attended my first meeting. I was to judge the opening statements of each country and rank the top three. The head teacher told me to be critical and ask them tough questions to find out who is the most prepared because she suspected that most of the students would have similar, generic speeches. She was mostly right, and so I was mostly critical. I found myself scowling unconsciously throughout the whole meeting, probing them to find the breadth of their knowledge. I asked one speaker from a poorer nation what her nation had to offer in exchange for U.N. funding for conservation efforts. No response. I asked the delegate from Japan, who said she was committed to preserving the environment and biodiversity, how Japan's whaling industry fit into their plan for protecting the environment. She suddenly transformed into Miss South Carolina.  I felt a bit like Simon Cowell and I wasn't sure how to feel about that. The head teacher was even more critical, however. The point of this meeting was in a large part to prove to them that they need to do their homework before the meeting. They need to know their stuff. At the end, I was asked to give comments and suggestions on how they could all improve.

Afterwards, the head teacher told the audience that I would now field any questions about biology or biodiversity they may have. I was taken off guard. I had completely forgotten I was supposed to answer questions. The shoe was on the other foot. Fortunately, it turns out my college education had served me well. I was able to answer all types of questions off the cuff about GMOs, biotechnology, artificial selection, and invasive species. I was on fire. However, they kept referring to something called "genetic resources" and asking how a nation can protect against theft of their unique organisms or leverage them to their benefit.

I was immediately hostile to this concept. The idea of a nation or business owning rights to a plant or animal species is kind of asinine in my opinion. Life is constantly evolving, so at what point does your ownership become void? Apples originated in Kazakhstan, does that mean all apple eating nations owe the Kazakhs some sort of royalty? Life doesn't see the borders we do and would not abide by them. Just because a nation claims a resource as their own does not mean an organism cannot wander across a border. Does this mean if an animal naturally spreads its range into another nation that the nation has free legal right to the use of their newly acquired so-called "genetic resource"? How do you even prove it was a natural migration and they were not illegally seeded? There are far too many gray areas in my opinion for this concept to be viable. I reiterated several times that this was only my opinion, but I felt regulation of this type was impossible.

It was then that one of the smartest students I have had the pleasure to work with, Hye-Eun, pointed out to me that this was indeed the actual U.N.'s intention to regulate genetic resources and it was a central topic for this year's Model U.N. She filled me in as the egg dripped down my face. Part of me still wanted to tell everyone, "Well then class, the U.N. is full of shit," but I held it in. Instead I told them that I understood that in reality, we sometimes have to make judgments that are only necessary because we live in a world of nations and politics. Nations are forced to make distinctions where there should be none.

I thought about my words later and realized just how hopeless I made their situation sound. Great, first meeting of the year and I have effectively told the students they have no chance of coming to a proper solution. Way to drive up membership, Ben. I kept telling them it was impossible, but as I thought about it later, the United Nations tries to do a lot of impossible things. One of their major goals is world peace. Will it ever happen? Probably not, but perhaps it is worthwhile having someone out there trying for the impossible.

At the meeting tonight we listened to each country's proposal for Article 1 on sustaining biodiversity. I also learned that along with genetic resources, countries are claiming ownership of traditional knowledge from resident tribes, especially that knowledge which could lead to medical breakthroughs. As we did this, I couldn't help but continue to snicker at how ridiculous the whole concept is, but this time I had to keep it to myself.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gifted Program and Summer Camp

I suppose I should give a description of my weekend job. You see, during the week I teach high school English, but once a month on the weekends the English teachers teach a middle school gifted program. This program is full of very bright students. Many of these students may even be on par or above the level of student I am used to teaching. Before last week I had taught two of these special weekend sessions. The class that I teach is called “Literature and Social Issues.” Since another teacher does the same class, we usually share ideas and plan together. My first lesson was titled “Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.” We focused on the poem “Harlem” also known as “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes. It is a powerful poem with a strong message expressed in fairly simple language, a perfect poem for my first class. Of course, in order to teach the “social issues” part of the course, I felt it necessary to give a brief overview of the entire history of slavery and civil rights in the United States. Imagine cramming that heavy of a topic into under 30 minutes. I moved fast, but I got mad too. It's hard not to get passionate when you loaded up a presentation full of heartbreaking pictures of inequality. Overall, good lesson, but not enough interactivity.

The second lesson focused on “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost. This one was meant as a review of some of the basic poetic devices and how to interpret a poem. Much more active and interesting for the students. However, at the same time, the poem is depressing. Beauty fades. Everything dies. Be happy in the moment because youth is fleeting. I mean, I am the kind of guy that usually digs this type of writing, but teaching it three times in a row begins to wear on your zeal.

Now, all of these lessons for the middle school gifted program have been building up to a four day summer camp. For the summer camp, I was told to do more content based lessons. This means instead of teaching straight English, we should teach a subject we know and incorporate English learning into the classes. Since I have a Biology degree too, I decided I would focus on that. Immediately an excellent lesson came to mind from the NSTA conference: Strawberry DNA extraction. It was a fun, easy, and fascinating experiment that you could adapt to any skill level or age group. After some suggestions from other teachers, I settled on a nature scavenger hunt lesson and a lesson on camp sing-along songs.

As English teachers, we were required to stay on campus during the four days. Truthfully, we never had time to leave, so it was not such a bad thing. The camp actually turned out to be quite a bit of fun, but a lot of work. My first lessons were in DNA Extraction. I used a .ppt that I found online and only slightly modified to reflect the Korean use of the metric system. For instance, do you know we eat an estimated 150,000 km of DNA in one meal? I borrowed a lot of lab equipment like graduated cylinders, test tubes, and stirring rods. Unfortunately, the students that were prepared to volunteer in my classroom did not show up, or when they did, were only there for ten minutes. Most sessions I was all alone to set the whole class up with materials as well as teach the content behind the experiment. It was intense. However, each class was an improvement. Every class tried extracting DNA from strawberries, but depending on availability we also did peaches, watermelon, cherries, plums, and tomatoes. Each class was different, but I improved in my delivery over six periods. By the time I hit the last session, all of my corny jokes were fully formed and times out (What would I look like if I had strawberry DNA instead of human DNA? A strawberry!) The kids loved it. One student told me the only time she had ever used lab equipment was for examinations. She had never done anything fun with it before. My favorite class asked me if they could play with their DNA after they were done. They started mixing their concoctions together and creating a rainbow of DNA mixtures floating one on top of another. This was a highlight for me because it meant they were curious about what would happen if you mixed them together. Playing is one of the best ways to learn.

The next class, the scavenger hunt, was almost canceled due to Korea's rainy weather. I was quite worried because I had put a lot of thought into this lesson and built it completely from scratch and tailored it exactly to what the school had. The idea to have a scavenger hunt sprang from my belief that at a summer camp you should be allowed to go outside. I am not an athlete and I don't relish sports, but I see the need to and appreciate the power of keeping active. I felt it was my obligation to give these kids some sort of physical outlet. In America, all the glory goes to the athletes. In Korea, it is reversed. I guess wherever I go I am a contrarian, so I felt the need for these kids to have their time to shine too. We went outside to the only “nature” available, the pond behind the school. It is a nice man-made construction with fences, flowers, and trees planted. The beginning of the scavenger hunt began with a race around the pond. Most students participated but it was not required. Instead they could get a head start on earning other points for things like writing or drawing. I tried to include many different learning styles so everyone could have the chance to excel at something. They could even earn points for picking up trash or skipping stones. The best artwork or writing got more points at the end. Some of the classes were really close in competition. The stories written about the pond were usually fairly creative too. A lot of kids complained about the heat or being exhausted from running around the pond, but overall the feedback was positive. One boy said this was the best class because “he got to use his body.” I don't think that is commonplace in the Korean classroom.

The last class also sprang from my obligation to hold a proper camp. In order to have a real camp, you need campfire songs. Partly because I was running out of planning time, I designed a very basic lesson where we learn some standard camp songs and sing them together. My first draft was sent back because it wasn't academic enough, so I altered the content to reflect some more cultural and historical heritage by using old American songs like “Yankee Doodle”, “Oh Susanna!”, “Home on the Range”, and so on. Then I used these as a vehicle to introduce a little bit of history. We also sang “Down by the Bay”, a classic by Raffi. I chose this song because you can make up your own verse at the end. This would give them some writing and rhyming practice. Students struggle to rhyme in a foreign language, especially English, because the sound isn't reflected on paper. I had a few practice runs with the high school kids the week previous and they were far too shy and it was too difficult to make up a verse on their own. For the middle school kids, I made five teams and each team was able to make a verse. I don't think this class was as well received, but I also think they were tired since it was the last day.

In addition to classes, at night the students worked on their performances. They had all read a novel and were required to adapt it to the stage using their own script and interpretation. The ninth graders read “Matilda” and the eighth graders read “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” Lucky for me, I had read “Island of the Blue Dolphins” and could assist my eighth grade home room. That being said, I did not do a lot. Generally, I was tired and either relaxed or prepared for the next day during this time. Occasionally my guilt would get the best of me and I would go check on their progress. I would give them my thoughts on how things were going, throw out a few suggestions here and there, but I largely left it up to them. I did not expect us to have much of a chance at winning the prize for best performance. My co-teacher, Ms. Kwon, was concerned that the students were deviating too much from the novel. What had started as a survival novel akin to “Hatchet” had morphed into a romantic parody. The protagonist's little brother was now her love interest who she tragically loses to a wild dog that shoots him out of jealousy instead of mauling him out of hunger as the book goes. I tried to tell them this was going too far, but I wasn't sure it was. I found they were largely ignoring my concerns anyway. I backed off. One suggestion they did honor was to make it obvious. Make it obvious who each character is so the audience can focus on the story they wanted to tell. They made large signs with names for each of the characters; not exactly subtle, but it got the job done.

When it came time for the performances, it turned out my group was the last. I watched three Matilda plays, some telling the back stories of characters in the book, others deviating very little. The other “Blue Dolphin” groups deviated only slightly from the book in order to inject joke here or there. Every play was well done and seemed so much more polished than what I had seen from my group. By the time my group was ready to perform, the audience knew the story of the novel. They were primed and ready for something different, and fortunately my home room was able to deliver. Everyone was in stitches. Somehow, the dog shooting the little-brother-turned-love-interest worked marvelously. Later, the flashback to them meeting on the beach with the Titanic music in the background was cheesy enough to work. The protagonist's turbulent love life played perfectly because our belief was already suspended. They were dramatic and they were overly dramatic, never betraying a smile like I had seen in rehearsal. They laid it on so thick. The judges loved it. There was no dispute. Class 8-3 had stolen the show.

One of the other teachers told me he was sure I was going to get the Distinguished Teacher Award. I asked what he meant. He said, “Didn't you know? The teacher in charge of the winning team gets the Distinguished Teacher Award. Looks like your guys nailed it.” My heart raced. I didn't deserve an award. I did close to nothing. They did all the work. If they had taken my suggestions, it would not have been nearly as funny! What if I had to make a speech? Sure enough, my class did win, and luckily I did not have to confess the truth to the audience. We went back to the home room and the eighth graders opened their prize box: notebooks, notebooks for all! Plenty to go around! They appeared excited, but maybe it was more about what the notebooks represented. Meanwhile, I couldn't help but think there had to be a less arbitrary way to pick the best teacher for the summer camp. I said my thank yous and goodbyes to the students, and headed off.

That night, we went out for Italian food. Teacher Helen ordered us each an entree and then three pizzas for us to share. One had black crust made from squid ink. It was nice to be out of the school building and celebrating the beginning of my summer vacation.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

My Thoughts on "10 Things Most Americans Don't Know About America"

I was told by my friend to respond with my thoughts on this blogpost titled "10 Things Most Americans Don't Know About America." Instead of just a short response I ended up writing a blogpost. The post I am responding to is well-thought out and the author seems to have a lot of experience all around the world. In contrast, these are just my thoughts so far as an ignorant foreigner in a new country.


1.Few People Are Impressed by Us
Sure, but a lot of Korean students seem to be. One told me that there is a belief that Americans do everything right. I guess I see it like looking up to your big brother that you find out later isn't so great.

2. Few People hate us
I agree. We do have people in Korea that hate Americans and want westerners in general gone, but I can't imagine people spending that much thought on it.

3. We Know Nothing about the Rest of the World
True, but to me it is more that the rest of the world seems to know everything about us. Part of me says Americans shouldn't have to care about the history of other nations, yet most people from other countries seem to know something about Washington, Lincoln, MLK, the Civil War and so on. They know our culture. We don't know theirs. I kind of feel sorry for people here sometimes when I find out how much they know about America because they really don't need to know a lot of it.

4. We are poor at expressing gratitude and affection
I just read a great article by Simon Pegg on this issue. He thinks Americans are more affectionate and more honest with their feelings than the British. So, at least we have someone beat. I have been told that Korea isn't very open about these types of things either, but I seem to be doing okay so far.

5. Quality of Life for the average American is Not that Great
I love the American sense of exceptionalism and continue to be a product of it. I am self-deluded and loving it. That being said, he is right. The quote by Steinbeck is spot on. It is like the poor are suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

6. The Rest Of The World Is Not A Slum-Ridden Shithole Compared To Us
I agree. The rest of the world is catching up and hopefully that will lead to more peace and equality than the world has ever seen.

7. We're Paranoid
This is true. Strangers in Korea have been extremely friendly. I have yet to feel in danger at all. When I got to the airport the guy sitting next to me on the plane helped me all the way to the desk to get to my hotel. He even offered me a ride to the hotel himself but I thought it was best to take the free ride from the hotel. But, Koreans can be paranoid too. Just today I found out that many believe in something called "fan death." You should never ever leave your fan on while you sleep at night for fear that it will kill you. The way it was explained to me, fans blow the oxygen away so that you aphyxiate. It is taken seriously and even the government has issued warnings about fans.

8. We’re Status-Obsessed And Seek Attention
This is true, especially for me. Koreans don't like attention.

9. We Are Very Unhealthy
True. In America, we eat because it tastes good, so we eat a lot, and a lot of it is bad for you. In Korea, it seems like everything is done for your health. You can't just go to the spa because it is relaxing but because it does something physically for your skin or relieves some illness. Every food has some special purpose. Dog is eaten during hot weather and is considered a health food. I admire how health-conscious they are, but for me it is like turning an every day activity into a doctor's appointment. It kind of ruins the fun.

10. We Mistake Comfort For Happiness
Definitely true. But I think that it is sadly becoming more true around the world as more cultures begin to adopt our way of life. I also think this blogger is talking more about the difference between people who stay home and those who leave. Just about everyone in America is going to look complacent and docile next to someone who has traveled the world. You can find docile and complacent people everywhere you go. I am not sure how much worse we really have it than others. I suppose when I look at Korean students versus American students, the holds up. Koreans are willing to sacrifice and work hard all day long for what they want. Americans expect the teacher to do all the work and expect something for nothing. I do suspect Americans have more fun than Koreans do, but I could be wrong.