Saturday, August 26, 2006

my job, call it that if you want

Sometimes I wonder myself but I am setting out right now to explain what it is I do or more precisely, what it is I have been doing at work. I say this because on Monday all my class schedules change and books change that I teach out of so it might be different but I am fairly confident I half-way know what to expect with the changes.

Just a little recap, I am an English teacher at a type of school that is known in Korea as a hagwon. These hagwons are quite the trendy thing right now in Korea and any parent who has got the cash to send their child to a hagwon sends the poor kid away. Hagwons can be described more precisely as private tutoring schools that a student attends in the evening/off normal school hours to further their studies. They might be translated into English as “private tutoring academies” or more accurately “cram schools”. My hagwon specializes in English but they come in all sorts of specialties like cooking, art, math, music, martial arts, whatever. My impression, and this is only my impression, is that all the parents want to be able to say that their kid does this or that and thus in Korea they have a school for it.

Strangely enough, I wonder sometimes just how much time a child actually spends at home with their family if they spend their days at school and their nights at school. Hmmm, but I am not one to criticize, I spent much of my young life either at school or in day care during the day and playing video games or watching TV at night as did many other kids in America of my generation so it is not much different, I guess.

During the last month I was teaching “summer intensive”, which basically means that the kids were out of regular school for a month and so they just went to the hagwons more. Schedules were mixed up and I am not sure if things were organized as well as they should have been at my school, in fact I know they weren’t (Probably the norm for cram schools though from what I hear). I would teach one class one week and another the next. It was all kinds of crazy. My days were too long, 11 hours on M, W, F but not as bad on T,Th, only 8. Way, Way, too much work though for me.
So in each of the classrooms I would walk in, always sure to give a big happy “hello” to get the kids excited, or in some cases a loud and sharp, “Sit down. Open you books” for those classes that were a little too excited to begin with. Then, I was off and class had begun. Usually, a class would last 40 minutes.

On my first day I was given a pile of 10 books for 15 different classes, no training and told “go teach”. Oh yea, they also failed to mention which classroom I would be teaching in and or the kid’s names. I was only given a schedule with the level of class and time I was suppose to teach, which led me to have to have to ask around to different teachers, “Do you know what book they are using?” and “Where is the classroom?”. More than once I ended up in the wrong class or had the wrong book with me. After a while I started getting the hang of it and learned some of the kids names and filled out attendance sheets via role sign in sheets and towards the end was able to make seating charts and even learn more of some of my 150 student’s names. Hmmm, I wonder how many I will have starting next week now that everything is changing (By the way I was told on Friday that I won’t know what I will be doing for sure on Monday until Monday).

So, I go into the classroom with my book in hand, ask the kids to open their books, look around and figure out what page at least have of them turned to, sneak a peak at their page number hopefully unapparently and tell the rest of the students to open to that page. (haha, how smart I am!) I have done this time and time again since the first day because I was able to get away with it then, so why not still do it now? But really from now on, I plan on trying to keep track which class is on what page and so on in hopes that I don’t look like so much of a dumb #@@.

So once I am there and they have their books open that is actually the easy part. I mean they are all elementary books so it is not that hard to teach. I skim over the page real quick and tell them to fill in the blanks/read the sentences out loud and correct them. Many of my books are workbooks helping to build English awareness. Some exercises work on vocabulary in which case I say the word, get them to repeat it, and try my best to act out or explain the word. Other exercises are speaking so I just listen to the kids and correct them. This part in itself, which is supposed to make up almost all of the job but really is only half of it, is not too hard. They hire anyone with a college degree to do this job and for the most part, any half way intelligent person should be able to walk through it fairly easy, that is as far as the content of the material that needs to be taught.

Ah, but that is not all teaching is now is it? Half of teaching, and the half that seems the most difficult, is motivating kids who spend most of their life in school already doing work, to do that next page, that next assignment, the next task, when I am sure to them it seems like such an onslaught of school work will never end, and for them it seems like it really doesn’t, at least until they are in their 20s, poor kids. So a lot of my job is telling kids to sit down, be quiet, go outside in the hall, stand in the corner, don’t do this, don’t do that, write down you answer, write down your answer, write down your answer.

When class is going smooth, it is going really easy. I explain to the kids what to do, they do it and everyone is happy. When it goes rough, I discipline the kids by first moving them to stand in the corner/not getting to sit by their friend, or make them stand in the hall. It seems to bring my desired result of good behavior most of the time for the kid and to a large extent for the rest of the kids but it is always a pain building up to the point of telling the kids to be good before I finally discipline them. Oh well.

So the recipe for what I do is: 1) Quite a bit of wondering where I am going and what I am teaching. 2) A good chunk of explanation, instruction, and feedback to kids about their English lessons out of different books. 3) And a liberal serving of shaping kids towards classroom behavior.

Teaching and taking the rest that goes with it. Hoping for health and happiness for the rest of you.

P.S. I am enclosing a humbling picture of my desk at work.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

eating to live, living to eat

Well, last time I spoke about how I thought my days would get a little easier and of course it seems like I spoke a little too soon. As of right now, I spoke about a week too soon. It seems like I got one more long week of scheduling ahead of me and after that then I will switch to the 2nd shift and hopefully better times. I know a lot of people want to know what I do. Yea, I know and I keep on meaning to explain it but I do it for a living and don’t really feel like coming home at night and talking about it so yes, sometime I will explain it more in detail beyond that “I teach English to elementary and middle school kids”.

I would like to say that my days do seem to get a little easier day-by-day. I am not sure why. Maybe it is that I am better at teaching, maybe it is that I am a little meaner to the kids and whip them in shape (don’t kid yourself though, I am still a pretty easy teacher), maybe it is I am more comfortable at home, maybe it is that I have a better command of my environment and the Korean language (not a good idea to move to a foreign country with only knowing how to say “hello” and “give me”) but it is probably all of these things.

Today, I would like to give my first of what will probably be a few rants on the food here. First of all, I need to talk about kim-chi. You have heard of this stuff, Korea is famous for it. Most commonly thought of as rotten cabbage, it does in fact come in many different varieties, flavors, and comes from many different vegetables but the cabbage variety is hands down most popular. It is really everywhere here and is served second only to rice. Anytime I go to a Korean style restaurant, maybe even other style restaurants (I think McDonald’s might even have some kim-chi in some way or another) they give it to me. Luckily, they usually give it to me for free. No kidding. Everywhere you go, they give you kim-chi for free. Kind of like chips and salsa at Mexican restaurants, it is just expected, in fact demanded. Korean food has to have kim-chi like pizza has to have cheese, if it ain’t there, its not the same.

I guess rather than calling kim-chi rotten cabbage, I should give a little bit better explanation. They take cabbage, chop it up small, soak it in saltwater, wash it, add a little bit of other vegetables like onion and or garlic and then add a ton of chili pepper and I mean a ton and stick all of it in a jar to ferment. After a few days, poof, kim-chi. No cooking, just a jar, saltwater, chili pepper and time. I heard in the old days and still in some places the kim-chi has set for months before being consumed but I am fairly confident the cheap restaurant variety I am so use to eating by now has only set for a few days.

The next surprise is the amount of chili pepper here. I am talking a lot of chili pepper, so much so that it has ceased being a spice and in some dishes become a main ingredient. It is not uncommon for me to get food with a thick layer of chili pepper oil covering and I am telling you it is hot! Ouch.

Chili pepper is popular here and Tabasco sauce is not hard to come by either. When I first came to my house, there were lots of little packets of sauce from Pizza hut. I wasn’t sure what they were but I ripped some open and to my surprise it was hot sauce. Hot sauce from Pizza hut I thought? Hmmm, doesn’t sound right. I was even more surprised when I put it on my eggs and thought for sure it must have been Tabasco sauce as I use to do this in the States sometimes and it tasted the same. Later that week, I went to Pizza hut and was totally redeemed that, yes indeed they do have a bottle of Tabasco on every table. These people love chili.

Another strange surprise was really good bread. What a strange place, not what I expected at all of Asia. Tons of chili on everything but at the same time, really good bread and I seriously mean really good bread. All over the place are these little bitty French bakeries. In fact, there are a couple on my way home from work. They have nice baguettes and really good although a little pricey loaves of bread.

I expected for the bread to be all bad as Asia is not known for good bread but I assure you, it is here. Another thing Asia is not known for is good cheese and that is because they do not have good cheese :-). It is available here and there though and so that is okay and I won’t go without too much.

Another very pleasant surprise I found is orange juice. Okay, supposedly it is not oranges but tangerines or something like that but it is really good and pretty cheap. In fact, it beats hands down any glass of orange juice that I ever had in the states except of course fresh squeezed which I only had a few times and this still might even bet better than that right out of bottle from concentrate. Who would know?

For all my African friends, they have a version of fat cakes here (for all my non-African friends, it is an African donut) at those little French bakeries. They cost about 60 cents a piece which would get you way more fat cakes in Africa but these have some kind of red sweet bean filling which makes them way better than the African ones.

So, how does the food in Asia compare to Africa? Well, African food where I was at was really very bland with very few spices and this stuff is loaded with one spice, chili pepper. I am not kidding, one restaurant I went too gave me soup but it was black pepper soup which means they just boiled black pepper a lot and I mean a lot of black pepper and called it soup. What a joke.

Street food here is really, really cheap. Food at nice restaurants is way too expensive. Food in Africa that is not home cooked is hard to come by outside of a few big cities but usually is affordable. African food is often eaten with hands; this food is mostly eaten with chopsticks. African food tends to have a handful of ingredients that are often repeated fairly often day in and day out. It is true too here with rice, pork, tofu, and of course kim-chi So let me put it like this. Rice=papa (maize boiled into a mush) kim-chi=moroho (any kind of greens but usually Swiss chard or cabbage that has been cooked well), and pork=chicken/whatever just died in the field. So, there you have it, not much different to me. Oh yea chili pepper=Aromat (MSG)/salt/whatever anyone used to make food taste good but times ten.

“Living to eat, eating to live” and telling you about it later

Monday, August 14, 2006

work, work, what!

Anybody who knows me well knows I have said and has heard me say probably often, “I will not ever have any kids.” so I sit here in Korea and look in the mirror and wonder after a terribly long day, “why, oh why, did I sign up for being with kids 11 hours a day?” hmmm, then I am reminded of my answer, money, adventure, excitement and of course teaching is a noble living. So far, it is only the noble living that I have experienced. Well, let me take that back. I have had lots of excitement and adventure, just not the type I had wanted in the first place and I definitely have not seen any of the money. I was thinking more excitement and adventure by way of going someplace cool and doing some exotic thing, not excitement and adventure by way of trying to figure out how to get home or even order food or even figure out how to use a phone, subway or taxi (still don’t know about the Post Office or my washing machine because it is all in Korean).

All that will hopefully change soon. First of all, because I will finally get paid for all the work I am doing. Second of all, because my long workdays won’t be so long anymore. I am working 11 hours on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; I work from 9AM to 8PM. Too much if you ask me. Tuesdays and Thursdays are a little shorter 9AM till 4PM, just a normal job. If everyday was like those, I would be fine.

“Soon” I tell myself “soon”. Starting next week everyday will be much more like my Tuesdays and Thursdays. I will start working at 2PM till 10:15PM. Not too short but still better than what I was doing before, plus I don’t have to wake up early. But Tuesdays and Thursdays will be where life is nice, 5PM till 9:30PM. Well, this is how I think it will be anyway, who will really know but I will keep you all informed. But wouldn’t it be a sweet deal? How sweet the sweet is when the sour is so sour! Maybe in a little while I shall have more time and money to experience life instead of just work.

It has not all been work and getting adjusted to Korea. I did have a nice time this weekend for the first time since coming. I got to see a movie and climb a hill about twenty minutes away from my house on foot. Pretty cool, here is the pic. Looks pretty cool from far away but when you get close you realize it is not perfect, too crowded and a little grimy.

Long days and short nights, not much longer.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Still settling in.

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The rain stopped and the sun came out and wouldn’t you know it, it is hot and muggy. Not so hot like Oklahoma in the summer with temps over a hundred but the lifestyle is different here so it might even be a little worse. It is also almost a hundred percent humidity and makes for me to feel sticky all the time.

In America, I had an air-conditioned house, car, school, workplace, ect… That was just the way it was. Here people have air conditioners but they don’t use them so much. I literally walk everywhere and so I am constantly enduring the elements.

Luckily, I have an air-conditioner in my house now. Well, theoretically I have two but one doesn’t work and one does so I really have one. That is not the only trippy thing about my house. First of all, for those who don’t know, I live in an office building. Kind of crazy in a way. I am walking down the hallway to run an errand in shorts and a t-shirt and Korean businessmen are passing me in suits. Oh well. Like I also mentioned the building itself is not air-conditioned so the hallways and especially the elevator are really hot to be in. Almost every time I get in the elevator it is scorching hot and I hope that this time will not be the time it breaks down.

Otherwise the house is turning out okay. I have been making myself more comfortable in it, picking up things here and there to make life a little easier. I wish I had a couch or something in my place for friends to sit on (if I get any) when they come over. The house was a bit rough to begin with, especially before my luggage and stuff arrived. It was made worse by the fact I had no hot water or air but like I said I have air now and even an instant hot water heater in the bathroom just in case the hot water ever goes off again. I have got a cell phone, which even though I haven’t used it much, makes me feel good because I feel like I am at least partially connected to the world. Also, I am supposed to get internet soon. I was supposed to get it today but it is not going to happen. After it happens I won’t have to be standing at my window with my computer on a trash can trying to tune into and piggy back on my neighbor’s internet signal that may or may not be there.

I have met some Americans in my building though and they seem pretty nice so it is not as lonely. It is hard be a loner in a strange city but hopefully that will all be over soon.

Other than that I don’t really have a lot of crazy stories. My life has been mostly about working very long days, coming home and trying to make myself comfortable, and sleeping. The sleeping has actually been pretty important; maybe it is the jet lag.

So my new cell phone has a decent enough camera in it so I have taken some self portraits and put them in a slide show for people to see. These are of walking around the market that is about a 10 minute walk from my house.