Thursday, December 21, 2006

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


girl power

Today at volleyball (I know, I know...I only seem to post about food and volleyball. I'm sorry), neither the principal nor the vp was around to keep things serious, so one of the (female) teachers demanded a battle of the sexes. It was an incredibly poor showing...despite the fact that it was 3 men against 13 women, the men had to serve with their left hands (only one of them could do it and they had to rotate serving), and the women's team earned two points everytime we managed something point worthy, we still lost every single game.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

i feel pretty

We just took a group picture of all the teachers and administrators at Gyodong Elementary. I was told, "Oh! Cara! You must stand next to Kim Bo Hui--you two same bery small face. Like baby."

Then at tea time, one of the fourth grade teachers called me Rudolph and laughed at me because my nose is always red from the freezing conditions of our still largely unheated school.

fun in the snow and goodbye carateacher

Saturday, December 16, 2006

weekend trip

This weekend I went to Hwasun, where Katie and Melinda live, for Katie's chamber orchestra (a group of 13 doctors, teachers, and Katie who get together once a week to practice in a dentist's office) concert.

I met Katie's host family...very sweet mom, friendly dad, shy siblings, and not-at-all-shy baby brother Haesung (you can see pictures of them here, provided I managed to make that a link properly). Haesung made me feel right at home, bringing me pieces of apple (which he thoughtfully pre-chewed), showing me his toys and awesome car-scooter thing, and doing a lot of running and yelling.

While in Hwasun (and the nearby, much bigger city of Gwangju), I...

took sticker pictures with Katie,
Sticker picture shops are all over in Korea. Basically, they are just rooms full of photo booth machines, hats, and costumes. You get to add backgrounds, text, and cunnin' little pictures to your photos after you're done (although this is timed and a bit stressful--since it's all in Korean, we accidentally turned one of our best pictures black and white and couldn't change it back). Katie and I went all out, bringing all manner of hats and props into the booth with us...behavior that scandalized the other patrons of the shop (all Korean girls taking glamorous pictures of themselves with their friends. I'm reasonably sure that random foreigners are the only people who ever use the hats or costumes).

listened to some really pretty music,
Katie's orchestra played some really beautiful pieces (I'm not going to pretend to know anything about classical music...but there's something about listening to it live that just feels really amazing). In addition to Katie's little band, there was an incredible little girl whose playing kind of made me wish my parents had forced me to practice the violin 4 hours a day from the age of 3 (after the concert, her dad told us that's how much she practices). It was fun to get to meet Katie's orchestra favorite was the (I think) first violinist, an older man who wears glasses liberally studded with rhinestones and is a really passionate player and listener. I also got a big kick out of Mrs. Ahn, another violinist who gave us a ride to the concert and chatted all the way.

drank free coffee,
The concert was in a really pretty little coffee shop, so we got to drink mocha lattes, hot chocolate, and green tea the whole time we were there. It had really great lighting, lots of open space, and was playing Norah Jones rather than kpop (I looove kpop but it is not at all soothing) for the two hours before the concert that we were there (our ride was very worried about being late). There was also free kimbap, mandarin oranges, rice cake, and cookies for us to stuff ourselves with, and Mrs. Ahn gave us some garlic bread to go with our first drinks (it was offered to us as "gingerbread," so getting garlic bread to go with our sweet, chocolatey beverages was a little disappointing. Since the garlic bread in Korea is actually very sweet, it didn't clash with our beverages as much as it clashed with itself). As you can see from the pic, Melinda overdid it just a bit with the mocha lattes. All in all, an excellent afternoon.

spent time with chingu,
Two other ETAs, Dana and Nika, also came to Gwangju for the concert. After the concert, we wandered around the city (Katie's viola and bouquets of flowers in tow) and went to a very loud bar to sit around and talk.

and played in the snow.
When we left the bar, it had started gently snowing. This quickly escalated into a full-scale snowstorm that had Melinda making dire predictions of being trapped in Hwasun for Christmas. The snow was big and beautiful and fluffy and perfect for packing and very, very cold. Melinda, Katie, and I rode back to Hwasun through the snow with an extremely friendly cab driver who took quite a shine to Melinda and refused to believe that she and I are teachers (Katie passed). The next morning, when we woke up it had stopped snowing, but as soon as Katie and I were outside and walking to the bus stop, it resumed with as much vigor as the night before. Two of the three buses I took on my way home to Gongju had to stop because the snow. It took me more than 7 hours to get home, but it was definitely worth it to have everything turn so purty and feel a little more like Katie and I had brought it upon ourselves by watching White Christmas on Friday night.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

easy listening, levels 1 and 2

Last night, we finally finished a project we've been working on at HDS for several weeks: recording the audio CD for two English textbooks. The project has been sort of a moral dilemma for me, since the English in it is pretty bad (we corrected as many mistakes as we could, but since they wouldn't give us the scripts in advance, we couldn't do anything about the parts that really needed to be rewritten entirely). I didn't really want to contribute to incorrect English education, but I also didn't want to refuse to help the North Korean refugee school...if we had done that, they would have had to pay someone else to do it and ended up with the same crappy English and less money.

The project was really boring and took forever, frustratingly replacing some of our class time with the HDS kids, and often complicated by extremely strange variables--such as the day our recording room was infested with dozens of ladybugs, whose persistent "ping!"-ing into the fluorescent lights ruined many takes and eventually stopped production entirely (poor Jenny, as the tallest, was forced to murder most of the innocent ladybugs with bugspray and a rolled up script). Our only saving grace was the content of the text itself, which we found extremely interesting. Highlights included Kiki the fat but also cute hamster, young Charlie Chaplin, whose "hands were always black with shoe polish. But his eyes shone with hope," poor Minji whose boyfriend doesn't like her, a camel with humps on his back, and Mr. Advice. The text also tackled more serious and important issues, such as tolerating those who are different. The section on this subject is reproduced below in its entirety (before we edited it):

Listen and Read

Left-handed people often feel uncomfortable in our lives. They are not comfortable using "regular" scissors which are made for right-handed people. What's worse is that they are not allowed to use their left hand.
They say nine out of ten people are right-handed in the world. Many countries have been ruled by right-handed culture, and the right hand has been favored. And almost all things are made for the right-handed. people. Therefore, left-handed people have not been welcomed and have felt uncomfortable in their lives. This is especially strong in Korea where only about 5% of the population is left-handed.

What determines right-handedness or left-handedness? It is only determined by which side of the brain is more in control. A person becomes right-handed if the left side of the brain is more in control and left-handed if the right side of the brain is more in control. As you know, there are more right-handed people than left-handed people.

However, left-handed people are not less intelligent than right-handed people As evidence, many famous people such as Einstein, Beethoven, and Churchill were all left-handed.

Look at your two hands. They are of the same shape. Of the two hands, some people use their right hands more, and some people use their left hands more. I believe it's not important which hand you use.

What's more important is what you do with the hand. Your mother uses her hand to feel your temperature when you have a cold. Your friend uses a hand to hand over a handkerchief when you cry. Your teacher uses a hand to pat you on the back.

Does it matter whether these hands are the left or the right? I don't think so. Left handedness should be accepted as natural. We should be thoughtful of the left-handed on our everyday lives.

As a lefty, I feel very happy that Korean schoolchildren will soon have the capacity to understand and tolerate my people.

family fun time

Tonight as I was walking home from the bus stop after HDS, I spotted my host parents through the fogged-up windows of our usual bar (I always wave to the proprietors when I walk by, so I was looking in the windows anyway). I went in to say hello, and they were so surprised and happy that I kind of felt bad for my recent refusals to go out with them (I hadn't been to the bar in a few weeks). I was quickly given a glass of beer the size of my head, strips of dried squid (my host dad dug these out of his pocket, blackened them a little on the bar's heater, and handed them to me individually as a special treat to show his happiness at my presence), and scorchingly hot chicken wings. Everyone in the bar crowded around me and cheered and toasted to my presence, and the owner lady immediately set about cooking me little treats. Once my host parents were good and drunk, they called (and woke up) the boys to get them to come down to the bar and amuse us. They stumbled in in their pajamas and beloved hats and ate with us and said funny things that made all the grown-ups laugh. It was a really fun night...I understood/talked way more than I expected to be able to, and I got to spend quality time with the entire host family, which hasn't happened in a while...although I'm a little opposed to the idea of forcing elementary school kids to wake up on a school night and come to a bar.

*next morning*
I took the drooping boys home a little after 12 and have no idea when my host parents got home. This morning, though, I had to wake my host mom up to start the day (I agonized over whether or not to do it, but finally figured it would be worse for her to wake up really late and see that I was up and ready for school but had done nothing to save the family from being late), at which point she panicked and started yelling to the boys that it was 8:00 to get them to hurry(it was 7:30).

At breakfast, she gave me a class of what looked like chunky milk and tasted like kind of freaked me out. She said it was 인삼, a word that I thought means ginseng...but since ginseng tastes earthy and spicy and delicious rather than like paint, maybe I've been wrong about that.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

christmas spirit

My host mom bought me a Christmas tree! It's fake and maybe a foot and a half tall and sits on the piano in the main room of our apartment, alongside several of my host mom's finest origami/art class creations (in the picture, you can just see the nest with cunnin' chicks she made last week. The chicks have real hard boiled eggs inside of them). Kiyeong is very, very proud of the tree and likes to take it down and show it to me often, moving the beautiful Merry Christmas sign to different locations. The radio my host mom listens to in the mornings (they have a "learn English" segment every day at 7:45...she's learned "busy as a bee," "I will miss you so much," and "gee, it's chilly" in the past 3 days. Sadly, she's never used any of the phrases on me; her English is still limited to one word at a time) has started playing Christmas carols, there are Christmas lights on some of the trees near our apartment, and many of the shops and convenience stores in Gongju have Christmas decorations and displays. Even my school is covered in Christmassy things--the third graders made and decorated little Christmas trees, the sixth graders made a giant mural of Santa Claus and are making Christmas cards, and the fifth graders made little fake presents. Everywhere I walk in school, I see new displays of student Christmas-themed artwork. At one point I asked my coteacher if many of the students celebrate Christmas. She told me not really, Christmas is a holiday for boyfriends and girlfriends so most of the students ignore it (I seriously doubt this, since the whole school went absolutely wild for Pepero day, also a holiday for boyfriends and girlfriends). I asked her, "then why does the school make so many Christmas decorations?" and she responded, "oh no no, we do not make the Christmas decorations!" We were standing in front of the giant mural of Santa at the time, so I wasn't quite sure what to make of this statement.

Today was a perfect relaxing day off: I had the daytime all to myself, and then when out to dinner with my host mom and brothers. When I went to photograph the Christmas tree, the boys decided that we had to have a photo shoot. The bottom picture (with the toothbrush) was actually the first one, after which the boys decided they needed to be wearing their winter hats and Kiyeong needed to change into his pajamas. My host mom had to be coaxed into submitting to a picture...and she made the exact same face and lean-over-slightly-while-clutching-boys pose she makes in every single picture of her in the house (you can see one if you look at my posts from August, I believe).

Monday, December 11, 2006


There is officially a head lice outbreak at Gongju Gyodong Elementary School. The teachers are wicked freaked out, and many won't let students come near them. My coteacher went so far as to put a bag over her hair at lunchtime today. I didn't realize head lice could flourish in the wintertime...particularly in a subarctic Korean school environment.
All the head lice fuss makes me nostalgic for Wesleyan...

Attempting to teach long division with big numbers through the language barrier is not a good idea. This evening has been wicky uncomfortable in the apartment--my host mom has been yelling at/hitting one or both of the boys for the past 3 hours straight. I know she's mad at Kiyeong for getting almost all of his math problems completely wrong, but I have no idea why she could possibly mad at Kibeom, the world's most perfect Korean student (Seriously, the child is a machine). At one point, she had finished whacking Kiyeong and was in the bedroom with Kibeom (she always goes behind closed doors to hit her children, which I guess I appreciate), and Kiyeong just looked so sad and hopeless, looking at his little math notebook with his head down on his arm...I had to try and help him even though I knew it probably wouldn't work. The problems were hard for a nine year-old (27 into 188 was the first one)...and Kiyeong had absolutely no idea what he was doing. I don't think he even understood the goal of the problems, so my mixed Korean-and-English explanations were not very helpful. Poor little guy. I hate that I can't help him out.
...Update an hour later: my host mom just came in my room to apologize for being mad at the boys and to explain herself to me. I understood maybe a tenth of what she said (somehow, magically, in the last week or so my host mom has forgotten that I don't understand her language and just speaks to me like I'm Korean. When I tell her I don't understand a word, she'll repeat it, I'll repeat it, and then she's satisfied that I've somehow learned its meaning. I don't get it but I've just started playing along), but she's really concerned I won't realize she has the boys' best interests at heart and she's just worried about their educational futures. She feels really guilty because she started taking her "college-y" classes last year when Kiyeong was in second grade, and she thinks her resulting busy-ness has crucially stunted his educational development. She told me that it makes her want to cry when she has to get mad at the boys, but if they don't study and do well enough in math and English, things will be really bad for them when they're older.
I'm really glad she just did that, because it's easy for me just to condemn her as a terrible lady (I mean, she's beating her kids), and I think it's really important to remember that from her perspective it's a really difficult but absolutely necessary way of protecting them.
The downside to our conversation is that I totally got busted for plugging in my rock mat loooong before bedtime and cranking it to the highest setting. I don't like to have it plugged in when I'm actually asleep, but having my legs, butt, and feet warm in the evenings is absolutely necessary to my survival. Until today my actions have gone undetected, but now my image as an energy-guzzling American is complete.

In more positive news: the sweet nongmin-of-all-work at our school fixed my space heater today. The quality of my life just improved more than I can possibly convey. On top of that, the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders are going skiing all day tomorrow, and since on Tuesdays I teach only 4th and 5th grade, I have a day off! And I was told a whole day in's a Christmas miracle!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

attempt at will's technique

For the first time in a while, I didn't travel anywhere this weekend, and it was really nice and relaxing to just stay in Gongju. On Saturday I hung out with my host brothers in the morning (while my host parents slept off their hangovers) wrestling and reading comic books, went for a really good run, had a long conversation with my host mom in which I attempted to explain about winter break (I have no idea how much--if anything--she understood), and met up with James and Jenny for dinner and a movie. We had samgyupsal (3 layer pork) and saw The Departed, then got the best hodduk (fried doughy pancake things filled with melted brown sugar and occasionally bits of peanut) ever and went home early. Then on Sunday I spent the morning lounging around the house and having a really long, delicious breakfast/brunchy meal and heart-to-heart (which--I think!--I understood most of) with my host mom. She cooked a bunch of my faves and we talked about the boys, her future plans, and how she wished she could travel more. Afterwards I met up with James to go hiking at Gyeryongsan yet again. Since it was cold and late in the day, we pretty much had the mountain to ourselves and it was wonderful. We took the same trail we did the first time, but this time the dried up streambed had rejuvenated itself (I don't know how, as there hasn't been much precipitation at all) and we got to walk alongside myriad big and little waterfalls the whole way. We stopped briefly at a preem scenery-viewing outcropping for a snack of delicious kimbap (I WILL learn how to make it before returning to the states. And, yes, ETA people I know it is easy to assemble, but I don't know how to make the individual elements since my host mom always does it in advance) and super-packaged-and-processed-but-also-delicious Haitai brownie bites. Our plan was to end at Gapsa (the Buddhist temple we always end at) but got carried away with talking and somehow went down a different trail. This turned out to be a great move, as we got to see some truly beautiful pools and falls and walk through a canopied path of bamboo (see pic). The trail ended with a cluster of Buddhist temples and hermitages (very exciting for me) but, somewhat disconcertingly, none of the shops and restaurants that exist around the trail entrances at Gapsa and Donghaksa. We had a few moments of panic--we had no idea where we were and it didn't seem particularly likely for a bus to come to the deserted looking area we were in--but a bus quickly appeared to save the day. I came home, had another really good meal with my host brothers (I only ate one freaky food item the entire weekend: some strange, egg-shaped, greenish pods that my host mother fried up with a little salt and assured me were a dessert. They tasted vaguely bad and had a really strange consistency, but were definitely bearable) while sitting at the TABLE. In chairs, no less. With no adult (I do not at all count as an adult to the boys) supervision, we had a wild, spoon-smacking fight over the premium tofu in the stew, which ended with stew all over the table, Kibeom giggling helplessly on the floor, Kiyeong stealing a big piece of my fried egg (I was the only one to get an egg) to get me back for getting the last piece of tofu, and a stew completely devoid of tofu--we're going to have it for at least 2 more meals, so that's kind of a serious problem.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

random school notes

One of my friendliest students, a fifth grader who likes to be called the English name Tim (for some reason, that cracks me up. He is so not a Tim), raises his hand every time I ask a question in class. If I call on him, he gets a huge grin on his face, stands up carefully next to his desk at attention, opens his mouth, and...realizes he has no idea what the answer is. He looks around helplessly, mumbles questions in Korean to his classmates, then gives me a sheepish grin and sits back down. This happens once or twice every single time I teach his class...I don't understand why he doesn't learn.

Possibly the most frustrating thing about not speaking Korean is that when I intercept notes between sixth grade girls I can't read them.

This week I realized I had no idea what I was talking about back when I used to say it was cold. That was nothing. This is tooth-chattering, mucus-freezing, purple-fingers-too-numb-to-write, mind-shattering cold. There is actually heat of some kind in almost all of the classrooms now (although not in the cafeteria, gym, bathrooms, or hallways), but the space heater the vice principal kindly gave me for my music room is broken, so it's nothing but suffering for me.

We have tea time--an extra ten minute break after second period during which a select group of teachers sits together in a little room and eats snacks and drinks instant coffee and tea--at school almost every day. The group includes me, the sixth grade teachers, the second grade teachers, the fourth grade teachers, one of the fifth grade teachers, and the gym teachers. I have no idea why the first, third, and other two fifth grade teachers are not included...I asked my coteacher but she said,"I don't know." I love tea time because the room is heated and sometimes there is fruit and even bread. I usually sit ignored among the teachers, picking the Korean words I know out of their conversations and inventing contexts for them, or sometimes frantically putting together some kind of lesson in my head for the next class. I am often the topic of the other teachers' conversation, but I am almost NEVER included in any way. It's a little weird to have other people talk about you right in front of you (I know my Korean's not very good, but honestly do they think I can't hear my name? Or that I don't know the Korean word for English teacher?) but have no idea what's going on. In the beginning, I tried asking...but that caused a lot of discomfort and embarrassment for the teachers, so I mostly just imagine random conversations for myself. The other day though, I understood a whole story about me from the second grade teachers, and it absolutely made my day. The main teller of the story was the sort of odd, older second grade teacher--the one who interfered with my class and got them saying "Sseo-suh-dae-ee" instead of "Thursday"--and since she always speaks with a lot of charades and exaggerated facial expressions, it was actually quite easy to follow along. She told the other teachers all about how much her kids love my English class, and ask her every day when their next English class will be (the second grade classes get moved around a lot). Right before classes start, she said they all gather in the door and eagerly peek their little heads out to see if I'm coming. When they spot me they all start screaming and jumping around (the scene I always walk into in a second grade class), and after the class they all talk about how my class was "재미 있다" or fun/exciting. Then my favorite second grade teacher ("Clam your hands" lady) said something about how the kids have really learned a lot of English, they seem to remember it all, and they speak it to each other even when they're not in class (!). My coteacher, always a ray of sunshine, broke in saying "I don't think my students are learning much English at all" (Every time I think back to the coteacher workshop we had in Fulbright Orientation where they told us our coteachers would be our closest allies in the school, helping us out and protecting us, I can't decide whether I want to laugh, cry, or smack my coteacher in the face). This is when I entered the conversation, telling them that I love teaching second grade since the students are so intelligent and hard-working and enthusiastic, and it's fun and interesting for me since I get to make up the whole lesson without a book. I said that sixth grade is much more difficult for me to teach, because I am not smart enough and don't know enough Korean to understand the book and teach it in the correct way. Translated from polite-speech into regular English I basically just said, "English textbooks = sucky suck"--understood by all the teachers. So overall, three good things: my second graders like me, the second grade teachers think I'm a good teacher, and I got in another complaint against the textbooks (I'm campaigning for a textbook-less next semester), and only one bad: my coteacher sucks, and this I already knew.

The main reason teachers at my school think I'm a good teacher is not that the students like me, or even that the students seem to be learning a lot (which is really only true for second grade)'s because I am "pretty." Whenever I'm talked about to teachers or administrators from other schools, the interaction usually goes something along the lines of "This is our native English speaking teacher." "Ohhh she is a good teacher!" "Yes, she is very pretty!" Then everyone beams and pats me vigorously. This is absolutely when I feel the most useless. I am really not exaggerating. Today at our volleyball invite, two women cornered me and talked to me nonstop for the first 2 hours (their major goals were to secure my phone number, my services for teaching their children, and my company at their church on Sunday). The first thing they said was, "Ee Sang Sook ["Clam your hands" lady] is a very nice teacher. She says she is proud of you because you are pretty. We want a pretty foreign teacher to teach our children. How long are you staying in Korea?" My eye color counts for so much more with my school's teachers and administration than anything I do in the classroom.

Randomly this week there have been mothers of students wandering the school throughout the day. They all wear beauty pageant contestant shoulder sashes and carry themselves like they are doing Very Important Things. No one can/will tell me what this is about.

It is impossible to tell what activities students will like or dislike. 4-1 will love a game that 4-2 hates. Often something I've scrabbled together at the last minute and am dreading teaching will go beautifully, while something I planned out days in advance will last 5 minutes. Just now, I had to teach class 5-1 a stupid song from the stupid book. Random Archery Dude teaches 5-1, and he gets very insufferable and condescending when I skip things from the book, so even though 5th grade usually barely participates in the songs, I put in the CD. The most horribly annoying, mangled 80's poplike song started playing (The words: "Come on everybody, let's make a snowman! Ohhhhhhh yeah! Can you join us? Can you, can you join us? Oh sure. Can you join us? Can you join us Jinho? Oh sure sure sure. How about you? Can you join us Nami? Mmmm. Oh sorry, I must go hooooome!). I groaned inwardly because it was so annoying and hard to sing, plus 5-1 is the lowest level fifth grade class and usually very difficult to please. I was sure the next ten minutes would be a mess...but they loved it! They were laughing and dancing and singing loudly. Random Archery Dude started dancing around in the front of the classroom, and this one boy who has always absolutely refused to speak English was jumping around in the back, waving his arms, and yelling (some of) the words. I put them in teams and they competed, singing the song and doing a dance along with it (although the dances were mostly just the boys), and then, even though class was already 5 minutes over, they kept begging for more.

At a teacher dinner last night my coteacher (in the only conversation she would willing have with me all night) leaned across the table and half-whispered conspiratorially, "It is very sad."
"What?" I asked. "Oh, 3-1 teacher, she can not eat anything." "Oh no!" I said, "What's wrong?" She told me that Kwon Yeong Lan (the 3-1 teacher) only drinks water, tea, and yogurt, and that she thinks it's due to "the shocking." I asked what was wrong again and she told me that Kwon Yeong Lan's mother died. When I asked when that happened, she told me six or eight years ago (I checked this fact in Korean to make sure she hadn't just gotten the English for "year" and "day" or "week" mixed up) and then proceeded to tell me this lengthy story about how Kwon Yeong Lan has brittle bones (although if she's only had milk and yogurt for the last 6-8 years, you'd think brittle bones would be the only thing she DOESN'T have to worry about) and has to wear a neck brace. Now, Kwon Yeong Lan just had a baby. She's definitely not fat, or even close to fat, but she's easily the biggest woman in the school. And her baby is roundest, fattest, most sluglike baby imaginable. Most importantly, she definitely does not wear any sort of neck brace. So where did that come from? It's not possible, right? I just do not understand my coteacher at all.