Friday, December 18, 2009

Santa Clause is Coming to Suji!

Sweet little Alice :)

Across the street from my apartment: this is what you see

Looking down the street of my apartment...

My apartment is on this street...

There it is!

Zackary- one of my favorites!

This is what happens when you give a swine flu mask to a kindergartener...

(It reminds me of that book, "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie." I should write a children's book called "If You Give a Kinder a Swine Flu Mask")

I don't even know the words to explain this child- Alan. He just cracks me up every two seconds of every day! He's definitely a class clown, but so sweet and loving. He interrupts me every other second because he gets so excited to share his thoughts: "Britney Teacher! Teacher! Britney Teacher! My this, yes! My house, this yes!" (translation: "At my house, I have this, too!") He just loves to be involved in every single happening within the classroom :)
Julie, becoming a bit more photogenic! She really loves to be in pictures!

This is Jack. He's a 7-1 kinder, meaning that he's 7 years old and in his first year of English. He's in my afternoon reading club (only in Korea do you have a reading club for kindergarten students!) He's absolutely adorable- always pushing those big glasses back up on his nose. Don't be fooled, though- he's quite the troublemaker!!

Irene: I had to bribe her with an extra Hello Kitty sticker to make her be in this photo!

Gingerbread village on my classroom window...

Merry Christmas, from Classroom Two!!

It's a pretty crowded classroom, with one teacher, ten students, Santa Clause, and eight reindeer!
"Christmas Tree," aka garland stapled to the wall
I made a stocking for each student and hung them by the "fireplace"

Of course, Irene needed to get in on the Pikachu hat action...
Alan, modeling the Pikachu hat
Ashley wore this hat to school one day. Once I realized it was for real, I absolutely had to document it...
Busy, busy times at school to prepare for Christmas! Song contest this week- my students didn't completely drop the ball, as predicted, but I wouldn't exactly say they did well... :) I think I ended up destroying my vocal cords while practicing that stupid song ("Jolly Old St. Nicholas") with them, over and over again. I could barely talk, let alone lead them in song, by Wednesday! Now it's Friday, and I still can't raise my voice much- these song contests are just torture for me!!

My kinders keep asking me, "How many sleeps til Christmas? How many sleeps til Santa Clause?" They are very excited for "Christmas" at LCI (Monday the 21st). In preparation for "Christmas," we had to do an important activity ahead of time. It was called "Write Down Three Things That You Want for Christmas, and Then "Santa Clause" Will Deliver Them to School (And Don't Worry, Money is Not an Issue)." What fun! The kids wrote down their Christmas wishes on construction paper trees, and then took them home to show Mommy and Daddy. By the end of this week, there was a large, accumulating pile of wrapped presents, all set to go for the kinders next week. And I don't mean little wrapped gifts- these all look like HUGE presents!
My students basically all wrote down the same thing:
The girls...
"For Christmas, I want:"
1. Princess doll
2. Pokemon doll
3. Ice cream maker

The boys...
"For Christmas, I want:"
1. Pokemon cards
2. Pokemon doll
3. Ice Cream maker

I have no idea what this ice cream maker is, but apparently it's very popular amongst the 6-7 year old Korean population. The Pokemon cards and Pikachu doll requests didn't surprise me in the least- they are all Pokemon obsessed here (see photos above...) We have at least two students bring in Pokemon cards for show-and-tell every week. And I have been drawing quite a few "Happy Pikachu faces" when we do "How are you today?" faces on the board every morning.

I did have a few students defy the norm, though: new student Julie requested "princess clothes," Zackary asked for a teddy bear, and spoiled little Alex asked me, "Teacher, how do you spell diamond?" I asked him why he wanted a diamond for Christmas. He said, "Teacher, diamonds are very many money!"

Yes, Alex, I know. But why do YOU know that, as a 6 year old child?
In other kinder classes, students were requesting both endearing and outrageously absurd gifts for Christmas. One of Shauna Teacher's students expressed his desire for an umbrella. Another of her students wrote down "a Christmas decorations-making kit." Many of Gina Teacher's 7 year old students wanted a Hello Kitty computer and Hello Kitty cell phone (don't be fooled by the Hello Kitty label- these are actually real computers and cell phones- that these 7 year olds will most likely get!) Most of Steve Teacher's students just wanted "ice cream" (that's the kind of answer that makes you just want to hug them, because it's such an innocent, little kid wish...not so much with the diamond request).
It's beginning to look a lot like a commercial Christmas....

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Four Months

Kinders in Big Gym: Sara, Katie, Ashley, and new student Julie!
Irene! She wears this dress every other day- on the off days, she wears a blue and white gingham dress with bunnies. And then she shows off all her Taekwando moves.
My new kindergarten student, Julie! She is as tiny as you can imagine- I think I could lift her with just one finger.

Shauna and I, out in Seoul to celebrate her birthday!
Christine and I, at Shauna's birthday celebration. Oops, we are dressed same-same but different!

Christine and I are excited to eat "Thanksgiving!" (that's Alan Teacher in the back)

Making Christmas cards at Christine's...sitting on heated floors, drinking hot cocoa, and eating Korean nut mix and sampyeon...great night!

Teachers at "Thanksgiving" (Clockwise, from Left: London, Christine, me, Alan, Steve, Janice, James, and Michael)

Oh weird, I found a tambourine at noraebang...or maybe, it found me???

Just rockin out to Oasis at Noraebang...typical (it's okay because James Teacher is British...that's him on the right, and Steve on the left)

Once again, I find myself thinking back on the past few weeks and wondering, where has the time gone???
Tomorrow is December 11. Four months ago to the day, I left the Minneapolis airport with tear-stained cheeks and shaky confidence. I remember thinking, "I hope it goes fast." Part of me wished I could just fast-forward through those first few months, so that I could sit comfortably with a good 15 weeks under my belt, knowing that the weeks in Korea would quickly slip away from me in the blink of an eye.

Right now, I sometimes wish time would stand still. Every day seems to be over before it even begins. It is Monday morning, and I am walking to school...and then suddenly, it is Friday afternoon in the staff room, last class before school is over the week. The weekends, too, pass in what seems like moments (as they usually do for everyone, I suppose). There is so much to see, so much to take in, so many new streets and districts and corners of Seoul to explore...and suddenly, so little time...
The last few weeks have been a blur of stress, excitement, planning, decorating, evaluating, celebrating, preparing, and trying to find some time to sleep. Thanksgiving: missed the sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie at home...but oddly, it wasn't the biggest thing on my mind. Without any reminders or commercialization of Thanksgiving around me, it just didn't feel as though I was missing out on much- and going to work that day just felt like any other day (although I did award my students bonus stickers if they could tell me what "American holiday" it was that day!) Alan Teacher very graciously hosted a Thanksgiving meal of sorts at his apartment that weekend, for all the foreign teachers. Potluck style, and bring your own plate, cup, and chopsticks! We all chipped in for a few rotisserie chickens...which we were all pumped about, until we "carved" the chickens, took a few bites, and slowly realized that they tasted just like the processed hot dogs and other "meats" that Koreans love so much. Sorry Mom- couldn't eat that rotisserie chicken after comparing its taste to a processed Korean hot dog!
Like any good Thanksgiving, we piled our plates with salad (made by London Teacher), cheesy grits casserole (Alan Teacher- and truly, it was much better than it sounds), about 5 lbs of corn (Shauna Teacher- she overestimated our appetites for corn, just a bit) a most wonderful apple pie made by Michael Teacher! (with vanilla ice cream provided by yours truly)....and of course, a bottle of wine for each person. And if you give a bottle of wine to each person...then he or she will inevitably suggest a trip to noraebang later that night! Hot dog chicken, apple pie, and noraebang...that's a memorable Thanksgiving :)

Preparing for Christmas at school- which means Christmas decorations in my classroom!! I'll put up some pics of it soon. Cutting out reindeer, trees, and gingerbread houses in every spare second I have...I'm pretty sure I could do this for a living, just make themed decorations for classrooms! Aside from making decorations, I'm working on teaching my kinders "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" for the schoolwide Christmas song contest coming up. I'm feeling cautiously optimistic about the song contest this class is pretty notorious for absolutely bombing their song performances when the moment comes...but they're learning the lyrics to this one pretty quickly! We had a whole CD of Christmas songs to choose from...but really, how do you even try to have a 5 year old whose first language is Korean memorize verses like, "don we now our gay apparel" (from "Deck the Halls")??
Last week I got a new kindergarten student- so I am now back up to 10 students. It's amazing how much the classroom dynamics change with the addition of just one more student! Her name is Julie, and she's impossibly tiny and light as a feather. She was very quiet last week, but this week she has opened up a bit and even started to play House with the other girls during Play Gym time (this game always starts with one girl asking, "who my baby? who my sister? who my mommy? who my puppy?" Translation: who would like to play a baby, and cry in a high-pitched voice? Who would like to be the sister, the mom, and the yipping little puppy? SAME THING every day!) It is stressful to have a new student- even if it's a nother 5 year old, it throws off the whole classroom routine and creates a lot more worries...I feel like I should be patroling the classroom all the time, making sure that everyone is being friendly and welcoming to her! It's hard to step back and realize that I can't control every situation...some interactions and socializing need to happen on their own, or these kids will never learn anything!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Singing, Celebrating, and Running

Last week we celebrated Irene's birthday at school!! This is already my fourth kindergarten birthday party in as many months as I've been teaching...and I'm kind of over them. It's unbelievable what a big deal they make out of the whole thing! I'm all for celebrating birthdays (anybody's but my own!), and especially Irene's (she is my favorite, after all!), but the whole principle of it is just ridiculous. Really, a $30 double layer chocolate mousse cake for a 5 year old and all her classmates, is that necessary?? Plus look at all that other food- the kids literally eat themselves sick, get on a massive sugar high, run around and destroy the classroom, and then crash and refuse to do any classwork. All the makings of a very productive day!

Right before Irene's birthday was another birthday celebration...mine! We decided to go out in Itaewon, which is one of the big foreign districts in Seoul. The U.S. Army base is right near there, so are many American soldiers and other Westerners living and working in the area. After dinner at a Thai restaurant, we met up with some other teachers at a big bar/restaurant nearby to start off the night! It was a FREEZING cold night- thus my fur hood and jacket in every picture. I hadn't been out in Itaewon on a Saturday night like that, so it was very exciting!! The last place we went to is called Grand Ol' Opry...picture a Country-Western imitation bar in the middle of Seoul, and then picture Ricky Bobby and basically the whole cast of "Talledega Nights." An interesting mix! Oh and don't forget the dance floor in the middle that is used especially for line dancing...lets just say there were lots of American men with crew cuts, cowboy boots, cut-off t-shirts, and big belt buckles. America's finest!! And a fine way to celebrate a 23rd birthday in Asia :)

In other news: the last week or so has been a great running week for me!! Yes, you heard right: a GREAT RUNNING WEEK! I'm still afraid that just by admitting this, it will all backfire on me...and reverse itself back into something horrible again. I had taken a bit of time off from running (or maybe I should even say "trying to run," since it wasn't going so well) while I was sick and feeling so overwhelmed and exhausted every day. That was tough- I had gotten into a nice little routine, and it seemed much easier to just forgo the whole exhaustive process of trying to get back into that routine. I had to start running on the treadmill at the gym, which is just about the most dreadful form of exercise I can imagine. I hated it...20 minutes of absolutely painful (and painfully boring) jogging. The worst part is the view from the gym: sure, there are wall-to-wall windows, but what view do they provide us with? Oh, just block after block of high-rise apartments buildings, of course. Not the most stimulating of sceneries, to say the least. I tried to keep at it, though...especially after considering just how much I've gone through up to this point to even make it onto the treadmill. I realized I owed it to myself, to my PT, to my family, and to everyone else who had to deal with my body problems in the past 4 years. Why NOT try my hardest to run while in Korea?? This is the time for trying the unexpected, the most difficult, and the most adventurous things. Surprising as it may sound, running has been at the top of that list here. It's such a scary experience for me- being so afraid that my body will fall back into its old habits, but having to trust myself enough and find the mental willpower to continue.
And last week, I feel like I was finally rewarded for some of that! I had a few really wonderful runs outside, later at night, along the stream in the city. The weather was perfectly fall, cool and windy. And cool weather meant that I couldn't even smell that old stench of sewage and pollution rising from the water next to me! I couldn't believe how good it felt- strong, swift, and energized- for a whole 50 minutes. Since then, I have done a few more longer runs like that...and I am still amazed that my body is holding up so far. And no need for the words of caution you are about to throw at me: I am still being smart about running! No overdoing it, I know my limits :)
One more story from the past week, titled "Britney Unexpectedly Becomes a Choir Member." Here's how it goes...I finally got to attend a Catholic church last Sunday. I was so excited to partake in an English mass, to meet other foreigners (and possibly Koreans) there, and to become involved in a church community again. My supervisor from school, Lucy, offered to pick me up and drive me to the church she attends- she had tried to give me directions a while ago, but I was never able to find it. She had been so excited when she found out I was Catholic, too, and she felt bad that I hadn't been able to make it to an English mass yet! The church is in Jeong-ja, which is 3 subway stops away from Suji...that is, 3 subway stops after first riding a bus from Suji to the subway station in Jukjeon, the next town over...and after then crossing a bridge and walking 10 minutes, upon exiting the Jeong-ja subway station. Sound confusing? It's really not...but it is quite a trek for 9 am Sunday mass!
Lucy drove me to the church and showed me where to go inside for the English mass: in a "chapel" 3 floors below the basement level. It was definitely an odd layout of a church, with no actual church on the ground level, and an even odder setup within the basement chapel for mass. Instead of pews, there were long rows of tables and plastic chairs. I took a seat cautiously, feeling as though I was back in school and choosing a seat in a large lecture hall. The only difference was, this large hall was completely filled with Koreans! I counted two other foreigners besides myself...both of whom were about 30 years my senior or older. My first impression: not exactly the atmosphere I had been hoping for...
The mass was alright- poor English translations in the worship guide (which I'm used to by now) and an co-mingling of Korean and English phrases by the lectors, choir, and priest alike. It was difficult for me to really feel as though I was at a mass- with the absence of a real altar, pulpit, pews, and all the other parts of the church. And I was disappointed at not seeing other foreigners, let alone anyone under the age of 60. During announcements at the end of mass, a lector asked if there were any visitors or newcomers. I timidly raised my hand a bit, lowering it and feeling relieved when the lector didn't see me. But of course, the two elderly Korean couples sitting on either side of me quickly jumped up and pointed to me, yelling out, "her! her! her!" (not making that up- I think every eye in the room turned toward me at that moment). I reluctantly stood up and said good morning, my name, and that I was an English teacher in Suji. I heard the murmur of "ahhh..." throughout the room, as that is such a common murmuring for every Korean to utter when they understand something in English (I hear this from my students every day, when they understand something, the very exaggerated "ahhh...")
Well, this little introduction sure got everyone's attention, because they all hounded me right after mass with welcomes and invitations and business cards and requests for my email and phone number...and of course, a cup of instant coffee and several toothpicks of dak (the traditional Korean sticky-rice snacks, usually filled with sweet bean paste and sesame seeds). I talked to a few of them at length, pleasantly surprised by how nice and friendly they were. Many nodded vigorously and murmured their "ahhhh...." when I said I was from Minnesota: "ahhh yes, Min-nee-soh-tah, very many waters there...ah, how do you say, lakes? Many lakes? And very cold, ahh yes very cold there!" I could tell they were excited to practice their English with me, and to see a non-Korean English speaker there...and apparently they were very eager to keep me there, because a lector immediately took down my name, number, and email, affirming briskly, "okay, yes, we see you here every Sunday now." And then they all kept saying that to me: "see you next weekend, and every weekend! Yes, see you every weekend here!"
So not only did I somehow get myself bound to the obligatory 9 am English mass at St. Matthews Church every Sunday...but I also somehow found myself agreeing to become the newest (and youngest, by a good 40 years) member of the St. Matthews English choir! Apparently, the choir director heard me talking with another choir member, and she thought I had a "very nice voice" she assumed (wrongly assumed!) that I must also have a very nice singing voice and would be a great addition to the choir! I honestly tried to say no, but then all these women came over and urged me to join! I felt so obligated to say yes, especially after they had just fed me instant coffee and sticky glutinous rice balls and were so nice!
This was a good learning experience in how to say NO to people- I tend to have problems with that. However, that doesn't translate the same in Korean culture; it can be extremely offensive to turn down help, compliments, or invitations when someone offers them to you. And since these church members had already offered me food, conversation, and an invitation to join their church, I felt that it would not sit too well with them if I kept denying their choir invitation. So, lo and behold, I was rushed off to choir practice for the next half hour (still with my instant coffee and glutinous rice snacks in hand). All the women were like, "ahhh you are the youngest one here!" Well, yes...and not by choice! I was so afraid they'd ask me to sing something by myself- and I was mentally preparing myself to flat-out refuse that! It was their decision to beg me to join- I wasn't volunteering some spectacular singing voice!!
When practice was over, the women tried to arrange for a ride home for me. Apparently, "Harry," one of two men in the English choir, lives somewhat closer to Suji. The women said, "okay Harry drive you home now. Then Sunday, Harry pick you up for church and choir practice. Practice at 8 am Sunday. See you then!"
Well.....that was the end of it for me, I had to step up and mumble something about "trying to travel a lot on the weekends..." Translation: if I'm not at choir practice at 8 am every Sunday (which I WON'T be!), or even at 9 am church there every Sunday (which I'm not planning on- not when there's other churches here to try), then just assume I'm out of town!
I figured that was better to say than to mention something along the lines of, "hmmm if I'm not there early on Sunday, it's probably because I was out at the bars and then doing noraebong karaoke until 4 am."
We shall see how this weekend pans out...and if I will indeed attend choir practice, as it is already planned by my new friends at St. Matthews Church, Jeong-ja.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Seven Days in Taiwan

If I had a lot of time on my hands right now, I'd love to sit at my computer and type a novel about my trip to Taiwan last week. But since it is nearly midnight on a Thursday night- and since I am wholly opposed to blog entries that reach novel-like lengths, I'll try to keep this as short as I possibly can.
I have swine flu to thank for this amazing trip...and my fellow travelers, Shauna and Christine, too! We were a bit bummed at first about not booking a trip to some more tropical or exotic location...but with the hassle of flights to Thailand and the Philippines (which require much more than 2 hours' notice to book and plan for), we opted to stay closer to home. One google search of "beaches, asia, cheap" later, we were already set on Taiwan as our destination- and only $200 poorer. Two hundred dollar airfare, a two-hour flight, and tropical beaches for a week- a pretty convincing argument for us to head to Taiwan!
We had googled Taiwanese currency, transportation, and attractions as much as we could in the 24 hour period before our Sunday morning flight. Other than booking a hostel in the south (the more tropical region of the country), and checking on the cost of the high-speed train to deliver us there from the north, we decided to just roll with whatever else happened during our travels. And lucky for us, Taiwan turned out to exceed any expectations we may have began with...if we had any at all, other than the google images of its beaches!
We were all immediately by its difference in landscape from Korea. Landing at the airport in Taipei, we were glued to the windows, taking in the abundance of green fields and palm trees and plants surrounding the airport. No high-rises! No hazy layer of smog between the clouds and the ground! No random patches of rocky, barren landscape in-between the cities! Before we even stepped off the airplane, we were in love with Taiwan. Lush greenery, rivers not tainted by sewage, and even flowers...Taiwan had something very valuable that Korea certainly lacks...NATURE.
And before we even left the airport, we were aware that Taiwan's culture was very different, too. It just felt so relaxed compared to Korea. No one rushing through the airport, or butting in front of you in line, or stopping at every window or reflective surface to check their reflection and fix their hair (yes, everyone does that in Korea- especially men). Maybe it was the warmer, tropical weather...or the abundance of nature and greenery...or just the overall culture...but we immediately found Taiwanese people to be much more friendly, welcoming, and hospitable than Koreans. Not that I haven't had some great experiences with Korean people- I have few complaints about them, and probably much less than a typical Korean would have with any given American! But it was so apparent that the Taiwanese were much more open, much less concerned with themselves, and more willing to initiate acts of friendliness and generosity.
I wish I could describe to you our every encounter with a friendly or generous Taiwanese person...but that would take forever! We met so many incredible people, especially down south where it was more rural. Our hostel owners (Terry, a Canadian man-turned-Taiwanese teacher-surfer, and his wife Ee, a Taiwanese woman) ranked at the top- they were so personable and willing to do anything to ensure a great vacation for us! They even drove us to best, but most obscure, beach in the area- which turned out to be our beach of choice for the week. It was so beautiful- isolated from the rest of the resort town, surrounded by a thick jungle of palm trees, and covered in white sand. We practically had the whole beach to ourselves for most of the days- and we were perfecly content to just set up camp in the same spot each day, with our snacks from 7-Eleven (basically the ONLY option for convenience stores in Taiwan- they're everywhere!) and our sunscreen.
And even on the beach, we met some very interesting people- including a few young Taiwanese who were so excited to see Americans and to practice their English that they ran over to us excitedly and asked to take our pictures. They kept saying, "you're all so cute! You're all so beautiful!" It was funny- we felt like celebrities! But we were also very taken aback at first- that definitely never happened in Korea...people in Korea don't give you much more than a glance, if even that. Americans and other foreigners just aren't acknowledged as much as in Taiwan, or as in China (so I've heard about China- but it seems likely that Taiwan would be similar, since they have a strong Chinese culture and background, too). They also invited us out for drinks with them that night- so much fun!! They were hilarious- and just so friendly! As they helped us find a taxi home later in the night, they all gave us a million hugs, made us promise to "stay in touch" through facebook, and said that they would "miss us so much!!" So funny- but also very refreshing to meet such truly kind and friendly people. We were sad to only have known them for a day before they had to leave!
Our days in the south passed by so quickly- with the majority of the hours spent at Baishwana Beach. When it came time to make the trek back up north, where we would fly out of in a few days, we were so reluctant to leave...and considered just skipping our intended days and nights in Taipei. To think of leaving the jungles of palm trees...the beaches...the open fields...the small towns...a VERY unappealing idea! We were not ready to transition back into city life...not in Taiwan, and certainly not in Korea just yet. We were definitely spoiled by our short time in the south, with its tropical weather, lazy island lifestyle, and our beloved Surf Shack hostel.
Taipei brought us some pretty interesting adventures though, too- and I immediately felt as though I'd love to have another week just to explore that city in itself. It was a very beautiful city- as far as big cities go. You could definitely see that it's a more recently-developed city- the architecture, the landscaping, just the overall urban design were all very modern and efficient. And the subway was laughably easy, compared to Korea's! We visited one of the famous night markets when we first arrived- a chaotic mess of streets and alleys lined with vendors selling everything clothes, shoes, bags, jewelry, tropical fruits, smoothies, puppies and kittens and even pet mice! We wandered through the food building first, which reminded me of the state fair- row after overwhelming row of street food, with every vendor yelling at you to try their squid on a stick, or their stir-fried chicken anus (yes- truly), or their pig liver (again, yes-truly). It was loud, crowded, dirty, and smelled strangely like the swine barn at the state fair. But the food we tried was delicious, hard to believe...but it's definitely for the brave of stomach (and nose).
On our last night in Taipei- and in Taiwan- we visited the 101 Tower. Interesting story how this building got its has 101 floors and is the tallest building in the world! Check out my picture of it above, once again- it looks freakishly tall compared to the rest of the city- and that is not photo-edited, or super-imposed (though it is a picture I got from the internet, ha). Taking the elevator up to the top? No big deal...unless you are deathly afraid of heights, as I am, and unless that elevator also happens to be the fastest elevator in the world. Well....I can still hardly believe it, but I had quite the record-breaking night with our visit to the tower...tallest building in the world, fastest elevator in the world (it reaches the top in just 45 seconds)...and I overcame both of those phobias at once! On a psychology sidenote, it was a perfect example of "flooding" therapy, which is used to help people overcome their phobias. Basically, you "flood" the person with the object or context of their phobia- so that they are forced to overcome the full extent of the phobia all at once. Well, I really outdid myself on that one!!
The view from the top of the building was absolutely was a perfectly clear night and not too windy (a hellishly windy night on the top of a 101-story building? No thank you). I was so happy with myself for going through with it- SO worth it!!!!
And we were all so happy with ourselves for taking a risk and heading to was definitely not a country I had ever intended on visiting, or even knew that much about, aside from the fact that it's in Asia. But I'm hooked on it now- I know I have to go back! Still can't believe all of that happened in just a week.....thank you, swine flu pandemic '09!!!