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.