Monday, May 28, 2012

Grocery shopping

After a brief Skype call this morning, I got up and went to the grocery store. I was hungry. I was still tired. I was unsure whether or not I actually wanted to go or if I wanted to stay and wait around or work on schoolwork. I was hungry and lazy enough, so I showered and headed out.

I should mention that here, the showers are not fixed. They are attached to the sink and hang on a hook on the wall. Since the bathroom is entirely tile with a drain below the sink, you just shower where you stand and aim so as to not soak your towel, something I have so far been able to manage. My showers are definitely faster now and far less relaxing then they were in America.

I was craving pizza this morning, or anything greasy. I should mention, Korean pizza contains corn nine times out of ten. It also relies heavily on seafood like shrimp and often it is advertised in half-and -half varieties. It is odd, I do love Korean food, I have enjoyed it very much, but I am having strange cravings for a greater level of greasiness than Korea has to offer. Don't get me wrong; Korean food is plenty greasy, but maybe it does not have enough cheese for my current American diet. On my trip to the grocery store I noticed most of the restaurants were closed, most likely for Buddha's birthday. It is interesting that Jesus's birthday makes so much of a larger splash in America than Buddha's birthday does in Korea. I will be interested to see how Christmas goes in this country. BBQ Chicken was open. From my trip to Seoul (post coming soon), Laura had told me about an ingenious product they serve that I meant to try. It is called Col-Pop Chicken. It is a cup with the bottom half full of cola and the top half full of chicken. I think I had a medium and it costs just under $2.50 US dollars. The chicken, especially the barbecue sauce, was about Grand Rapids school lunch quality. I was disturbed to think a place calling themselves BBQ Chicken could get it so wrong. It immediately reminded me of just how wrong we get it in America when we try to replicate ethnic foods. Think Taco Bell.

The grocery store in our area is part of a chain called Homeplus. Homeplus, at least in our area, exists on several levels of a large office building. The top floors consist of a JC Penny style store that holds clothes too small and expensive for my taste. They have a place called Ashley's that is an “American Grille” and also a buffet. Ironically, the food looks to be mostly Korean. I have heard it is good; expensive, but good. In regards to the spelling of “grille”, I have found that in Korea if you want to impress you use English or a bastardization of it, but if you really want to go the extra mile you use French, just like we do. The lower sections consist of a grocery store that resembles Family Fare and below that a general merchandise area that resembles Target or Meijer.

I swept the clothes area out of sense of adventure and headed down to the bottom to get my ethernet cable. The one I had was too short and had a loose connection. I found it telling that the longest cable they had in stock was 3m. This says something about the size of Korean households I think. 3m is enough to stretch across the width of my apartment, but not quite the length. I was hoping for 4m just for some extra leeway. I also came upon my first bargain in Korea: 3000 won for a returned optical laptop mouse. So far it is serving it's purpose; I kind of hate the trackpad on my laptop. I found it remarkable how the electronics was in the back-right corner of store, just like Standale Meijer. The automotive was almost adjacent if it weren't for a few oddly placed toy aisles. The center was designated for clothes and fit almost the very same profile as any store in America.

The large differences begin with the grocery floor. Although it resembled Family Fare, the quantity and price of each item varied drastically. Watermelon is priced at around $20 each. Eggs must be bought in bulk size of 24 or more in order to get anywhere close to American prices. Beef is expensive. Squid is dried into a jerky form. Octopus is sitting out, cold and I presume bought by the kilogram. Milk is over $6 for 3L. The milk section is comparatively tiny, while there is nearly an entire aisle devoted ramen. The cheapest beer, the stuff that is equivalent to PBR or Natural Ice, is more akin to the price of Sam Adams. Meanwhile, Soju is under 1000 won a bottle. I went through the entire store minus the health/beauty care section just price matching. Then, I grabbed a cart and started over. In Homeplus, you deposit a 100 won coin into the cart to unlock and retrieve the coin when you lock it back to the others. You also provide your own bags. As this was my first time, I bought a couple big ones. I found out at the register that 1+1 is the same as buy one get one free, which was my suspicion. I was able to get two boxes of store brand frosted flakes this way. Samples were available all over the place. I tried some juice, iced coffee, hot cocoa, stir fry, and pastries. A large pizza was available on-site for about 12000 won, which is great. I will definitely take advantage soon.

I ended up buying way too many ramen bowls, some Korean branded Spam to satiate my grease craving in the future, bottled water, Milkis (milk soda, friend suggested), soy bean oil, some candy that reminded me of Twix, Frosted Flakes, a 1.8L bottle of Soju, and some orange juice to mix. I am not sure what you call the mix of soju and orange juice, but for now as I am drinking it I am calling it a Korean screwdriver.

My big lesson from shopping today was that I have to change my cravings. I know it will take time, but I have to give up breakfast. Bacon is here, but is scary to even consider. If I want to live within my means, I need to eat as Koreans do. I have to, as much as I want to perish the thought, mostly give up beer. Milk will be a luxury. Eggs I may still swing, but not at the moment. A friend told me I also have to stop shopping at Homeplus and move to the market. Vegetables are much cheaper there. Of course, that requires real cooking, not just pouring boiling water on top of noodles. The way I see it now, I am on the opposite side of the world. This requires opposite thinking.  

Education in South Korea

There is so much for me to write about. I am concerned about things at home. I am also concerned about things here. I have not really updated in about a week. There is a lot to cover. I guess I will go backwards if you can bear with me. I foresee doing this a lot.

Let's start with the article from Time I just read. The South Korean education system is extremely rigorous. It is so rigorous that the police in Seoul are actually spending time to enforce a studying curfew. Students are not allowed to attend hagwons (private tutoring schools) after 10 pm. The government has made the judgment that their culture of high stakes testing has finally pushed too far. As it is, it is illegal for me to offer private lessons. I could lose my job because I am giving some kids an unfair advantage and needlessly piling stress on a system of education that is already pushed beyond it's limit. As a certified teacher, I am grateful I had the luxury of saying no to hagwons and so I am able to at the very least not be a part of the problem. Students frequently fall asleep in my classes. I wake them up, but I try to go easy on them. I spent a night in the dorms. They probably average 5 or 6 hours a night tops. The rest is spent studying or in school. Granted, during breakfast or lunch I have seen them playing sports, but otherwise there is no free time. I guess what I mean is, if I had to wake up every morning at 6am to kpop after studying all night, I would be tired too.

The United States is impressed with this system, and according to the article, perhaps they should be. The GDP of modern South Korea is 400 times what is was in 1962. That is an underdog story if I have ever heard one, and the education system is a huge component to that growth. Obama has praised their education system. With common core assessment, the United States is definitely taking a step towards the same high stakes testing culture.

Funny thing is, South Korea apparently has learned their lesson. They realize that the United States values creativity, something that requires individualism and sometimes even a little selfishness. One of my goals over this year is to be an instrument in developing creativity in my students. Yeah, I know it isn't really something that can be taught, but it is something that can be inspired. Creativity is personal. It is a way of combining experiences in novel ways that reflect who you are and what you choose for the rest of mankind. Since no two people see the world the same way, I cannot teach creativity, but only show them how to find it for themselves. Hopefully with this group of students I can get that chance.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

First Day at Michuhol

I haven't posted in a few days, so this is a continuation of something I was writing on the 21st.

Yesterday, upon checking in to the hotel, the guy that drove me was kind enough to make sure that I was indeed going to be picked up in the morning. He called my contact, Mr. Kim, who told me he could have me there by 1. I told him I needed to be there at 10. He said he would pick me up at 10. I tried to explain to him but I do not think he understood. It was irritating. During yesterday's half sleep I was interrupted by the driver again who told me Mr. Kim would meet me at my room at 9am.

Well, after a delightful skype with Mackenzie and fixing my beard trimmer, he had still not arrived. I tried the room phone but there were no numbers. I could not find a pay phone. I gave up and got a taxi. I pointed to the address and after some initial frustration the taxi driver figured it out. We are currently en route to the school. I have no way of telling my people not to bother picking me up right now. I will be a little late too. This experience has made me realize just how helpless I am. If that driver had not writte down the address for me I would be screwed right now. Even with all the help I have had, I am still taking a taxi.

Update (5-25-12)
The taxi driver ended up taking me to the wrong place. We both recognized that it was wrong I think, but luckily my laptop was available and I had enough forethought to save the webpage with the map to my desktop just in case. I showed it to him and we were once again on our way. When I got there I was told Mr. Kim had been calling for me. Jinny was very worried. Mr. Kim was still looking for me. I told them to let him know I was here. Then, about halfway through my tour, a man interrupted us. He spoke some words in Korean and was looking for the vice principal. What could have been a "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" moment was shattered by the confusion. It turns out, he was ultimately looking for me. Mr. Kim told me that the one thing Jinny told him to tell me was that I should be aware of eye contact; I should always make good eye contact in Korea. It is very important. I apologized profusely for the mix-up and I am not sure he understood the totality of the confusion, but at least I had made it.

I spent my first morning getting acclimated to the school. I was given a brief orientation and shown a packet of info and my schedule. I only teach 3 or 4 of 7 periods a day. The rest of the day is planning time. This is a lot of planning time! I am not used to having that much available time. I have a fast computer with a huge monitor. Many of the programs on the computer seem fishy, which makes me wonder if the school has a tech guy that monitors that stuff or not.

I sat down with one of my many supervisors and began to fill out paper work. In Korea, oftentimes there is not enough room to sign your whole name so you simply initial on top of where it asks to sign. As for supervisors, there is Sunny, my head teacher; Jin Young, the native teacher coordinator; Jonathan, my co-teacher for Grade 1; and Helen, my co-teacher for Grade 2. Between filling out and signing documents I was given a tour of the offices to meet these people as well as the vice principal and other native teachers. 

When there was time, Jin Young drove me downtown for the medical exam. After belting in, she asked me what my parking ability was like. I told her I could park. This made her happy because she had only been driving for four months. She asked if I had any questions. I was too jet-lagged and overwhelmed to think of anything. I got to know her a little bit and we talked about places to see in the U.S. She said she learned the word "overwhelming" when she went to the Grand Canyon. I told her I would like to learn Korean, she began quizzing me on numbers, since I thought the taxi drive may have ripped me off. I learned very quickly. The system is not hard. I still have trouble pronouncing 7 and 8. 

When we got to the hospital, I learned the word for hospital and we raced around doing the medical tests. The whole thing seemed very bureaucratic. I learned my height and weight in Korean. 6'3" is meaningless to a country of metric users. No, I am 188.4 cm. I knew this information would be valuable in the coming days because no matter what classroom I walk into the students want to know how tall I am and whether or not I play sports. I am also just under 100 kg, which makes it easy to remember. They had me pee in a little cup with hearts on it that said happy time. Something makes me think that cup was designed for a different kind of fluid.

Aside from the check up and getting settled in, I found out upon my first day that Michuhol was hosting the first ever NFL (National Forensics League) tournament in South Korean history. This debate program was previously relegated to mostly North America. I have wanted to get involved in forensics since I first found out about it a few years ago. I decided to take the opportunity and stay after for a training session on how to judge/coach a forensics team. The best part is, I am on the ground floor so the learning curve may be steep for me, but it is for everyone else too. I can take this skill back to the states as well since the rules are the very same.

At the end of the night, I was shown my room in the dormitory. For my first night in Incheon, I stayed alongside the students. The teacher I was replacing had not yet fully moved out of my new apartment. I was warned that in the morning they play K Pop at 6 am to wake the students. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Timeless void

I have spent the last twelve hours unsure whether to eat, sleep, or try to contact people. It has been like some sort of detox center. For the last two days I have seen nothing but light, now my body is trying to slowly adjust to the idea that I am on a completely different schedule. I am awake yes, but should I be? I leave for work in just under 3 and a half hours. I did not bother setting an alarm, a bold move that kept me from getting any solid sleep out of nervous irritation. The hotel room keeps making strange popping sounds, like someone is throwing stones at the window to get my attention, yet I am on the tenth floor. Upon arrival I flipped through the channels and found lots of sports, including sumo wrestling, and a movie with Nicholas Cage in it. I unplugged the television. It is the awful kind that makes the faint buzzing sound even when in standby mode. There's that popping again, this time from the refrigerator I think.

The flight went mostly well. My traveling companions were Daniel to the left of me, an electrical engineer traveling to Korea with the purpose of programming some robots or something, and Il-Ryong Kim, an engineer businessman doing working with MGA on car crash testing in Wisconsin. His first reaction to America was largely the same as many others I had heard; everything is so big. He said he got to eat traditional American food like steak, but that he could not find a proper souvenir since everything that is cool and American can already be had in Korea.

Aside from blankets and pillows, each seat had a pair of slippers for the flight. I stowed my sandals. The cute stewardesses fed us well. We had some more traditional Korean food for what I might call lunch. I am not sure what to name any of the meals we had to be honest. It came with rice, beef, cucumber, tomatos, and other things that I ate without thinking. There was also a spicy ketchup-looking sauce that I squeezed out of a little super glue-looking bottle. Kim told me I was definitely going to like Korean food if I liked the airplane food. I took a sip of my red wine, then I spilled my soup on my lap. I wanted to scream but all I could manage was a whimper in my panic. I started fluffing up my pants, trying to keep it off my skin. A steward brought me a stack of towels and was able to soak most of it up and clean the green leaves off my pants and headphones. I asked Kim what type of soup that was and he did not give me an answer, either because it was hard to pronounce or he couldn't remember. Daniel just called it hot soup and we all laughed. They say Alan Shepherd urinated himself on the launchpad before being the first American in space. That being said, I thought I could handle some soup on my pants for the rest of the 11 hours it took to get to Korea.

I watched The Muppets. It was not good. I listened to Bob Dylan's album Modern Times. It was not good. I watched Young Adult with Charlize Theron; I am not sure why. It was also not good. Finally, I watched the Quiet Man. I had not seen The Quiet Man since I was a little kid and I remember two big things about it: it was really long and there was a good fight scene in the end. I rarely have time to set aside for a movie of this length so what better opportunity than now I thought to find out why my dad likes it so much. The scenery is beautiful. The characters are endearing, if maybe oafish and stereotypical. The love story is silly and rushed. You never get an idea for why John Wayne wants the girl beyond the love at first sight moment in the beginning. There is a surprising amount of joking about spousal abuse. Unfortunately, the parts that I remembered liking long ago were in the minimum. I loved the idea of a fighter who runs away from his country because he killed a man in the ring. That is interesting, and somewhat underplayed. I also loved the idea that he has to learn to stand up and fight again. This happens in the very end, and it is a solid ending with one of the better fight scenes probably in movie history.

In between all this, the weight of my travels began to settle in and I began to think of little things that I will miss. I will be in Korea for the next year. Kim helped me find my things and get through immigration. He offered to give me a ride to the hotel but I took the shuttle instead. The guy driving told me that E-mart is like Wal-mart out here. This is probably where I will go to grab some food today. I am not sure how long ago I ate, but if I eat now at least maybe I can get a breakfast in and get my stomach back on a normal schedule.
I am sitting in the O'Hare International Terminal waiting for my plane to South Korea to board. The stewardesses have been streaming by in preparation for the flight. I was told by a friend that they only hire cute stewardesses on travels to South Korea. It's true. I'm wondering how to handle the jet lag. Should I sleep right away on the plane or avoid sleep as much as I can until Korea? It will be 1:45pm Saturday Michigan time when we take off and 4:00pm Sunday when we land in Korea.

Korea, it is still a strange thing to think that I will be spending a year in a country on the other side of the globe with a vastly different cultural structure. I am not sure when it first occurred to me that this might be a good idea. I suppose I had a friend that mentioned that she was doing it several years ago, and like many ideas planted long ago, eventually they begin to germinate. After graduating with a secondary education degree in English as well as Biology, I knew that I did not want to sit on my diplomas. Michigan is a hard place for a lot of people right now, let alone teachers. The market is extremely competitive. I have friends that have spent years subbing without finding a steady job. I do not want that. I will lose my willpower, my drive, and I am afraid I will wallow in self-pity. If I know myself, I need something to keep the momentum going. Aside from that, I am young. If I wait a year, who knows what else will happen that will keep me from leaving? The longer I wait, the less likely I will ever be able to make a drastic move like this.

I almost did not go. My interview for the jobs in the Fall did not go well. I was not sure why at the time, other than I thought the interviewer came off as cold and disinterested. By a great stroke of undeserved luck, my case worker Jinny was also looking to fill a few spots in Incheon Province. One was at a college teaching English teachers methods as well as higher level English speaking. The other was at a higher level high school that required a placement test to enter. The first paid more, but the second was far more relevant to my experience. I will be teaching at the high school. The web site really impressed me. They teach English through literature, not just conversational topics. This might just be a perfect fit for me, since it is not the words themselves that I love, but their meaning.

The stewardesses have boarded. A Korean child sits next to me playing Bubble Bobble on an Ipod Touch. It's fifteen minutes until boarding and I am waiting on one last phone call before we leave. I smell cold Korean food opened from tupperware.

(Written on 5/19/2012 at 12pm CST)