Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving with spoons and chopsticks

I planned and made lists and went on three different shopping trips for my 3rd Annual American Thanksgiving party (the first two were in Moscow), and yet I still managed to forget something. When I was finishing up the mac and cheese, and started thinking about how someone needed to go pick up the chicken that was taking the place of the turkey, it dawned on me. I had paper cups, plastic plates, napkins, and dishes galore, but nothing to eat the food with. There were no utensils. Now, I could have just ignored the situation and let people figure it out, but when you have mashed potatoes, ice cream, and other things that are not very easy to eat with your hands, utensils are nice, to say the least.

So, about 15 minutes before I was hoping to let people eat more than chips and salsa, crackers and cheese, and other snacky stuff, I snuck out the door and walked to the supermarket. It felt strange leaving the warmth and noise of my apartment for the cold and silence of the street …

When I got to the store, I looked for about five seconds on my own, then I took out my phone for a quick translation. (Yes, there is a quick translator function on every phone.)

Ok, fork = poker … plastic = plastic.

“This should be easy,” I thought.

“The words are close enough that if I try and say them with a Korean accent (which I’m not so hot at) the ladies at the store should be able to put two and two together.”

But that’s not how it panned out. I went to the first lady who didn’t even make half an effort to understand me. She just looked bewildered that some white girl was talking to her and hustled me over to a second lady, who promptly avoided eye contact with me and turned to a younger lady who “spoke English.” All of this time, I was making my best effort to make “plastic” sound Korean and say “poker” in a way that they could understand. I was also gesturing like I was eating, which actually may have confused them. Regardless, they didn’t understand, but I couldn’t give up. I had a potential food crisis waiting for me at home.

Finally, the younger woman pulled out a piece of paper and a pen and had me write. As soon as I was halfway done writing plastic in English on the paper, she stopped me.

“OOOHhh, plasatic pokel.”

Two women then led me hurriedly to another section of the store with children’s utensil sets. One “plasatic sapoon” and one “pokel” in a packet. Strike one.

I then tried to communicate that I needed many, many. Luckily this word is very similar in English and Korean, but I used hand gestures anyway. The two women who were helping me understood, repeated, then looked at each other and said, “Opssayo.” They didn’t have any. Strike two.

I must have looked pretty let down, so they didn’t leave it at that. Rather they said, “Sapoon, plasatic sapoon, many, issayo.” They had many plastic spoons.

“Of course,” I thought to myself. “I’m in Korea. Why the heck was I asking for forks?!”

Odie?” I asked where, and they rushed me to the section of the store with plastic dinner sets. Hundreds of wooden chopsticks in one bag, but only ten spoons in a pack, of course.

I almost got caught in my time wasting vortex of comparing prices and looking for alternatives, but suddenly, the thought reoccurred to me. People were at my house, without me, and hoping to eat soon.

So I said, “Gamsa-nida (Thank you),” to the woman who was watching me navigate the plastic and wooden cutlery. Then I hurriedly grabbed spoons, chopsticks, and some extra plates. She made some funny comment when I grabbed the chopsticks, but I have no idea what it was, so I just thanked her again and went over and grabbed the chicken that I needed. I checked out without incident and walked home with a smirk on my face at how ridiculous a trip for something as seemingly simple as plastic forks can turn into.

Here’s to a Thanksgiving dinner eaten with chopsticks and sapoons.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cute stationary will be the death of me

Korean students have an obsession with stationary.



My thoughts exactly.

For the first two months of being here I didn’t understand the fascination or appeal. I recalled picking out school supplies at the beginning of the school year and being excited for school to start, but I would not have been ecstatic about getting a new pencil case for my birthday, especially at the age of thirteen. Also, at the age of thirteen, I wouldn’t have let losing my favorite pencil bum me out.

Here’s an actual conversation from Friday.

Me, “How are you?”

Student, “I’m bad.”


“I lost my favorite pencil.”

Me, perplexed and thinking maybe it was really fancy pencil but saying anyway, “Can’t you get a new pencil?”

How insensitive of me, I know.

Student shaking his head, “No, it’s my favorite pencil … It’s blue with penguins. We have a long history together …”

No. I did not start laughing.

Through his tone of voice and demeanor, he had actually convinced me that there could be nothing worse in the world. Luckily, about five minutes later, he found his favorite pencil, and there was much rejoicing. Oh, and it wasn’t fancy, it was a wooden pencil with a colored wrapping.

Another scenario, prior to me finding out part of the reason why Korean students love school supplies.

Me, “How are you?”

Student, “I’m Great!”


“I got a new pencil case. It’s very cute. It has Rilakkuma on it.”

These are not isolated incidences. In fact, often, students will write about getting a new white out pen for their birthday or giving a pencil case as a gift.

Monday I discovered the reason for this.

Previously, I had been inside a store that sells stationary, but I was distracted by the variety of socks and pillows or the plethora of cutsie barrettes with Hello Kitty and the like. I ignored the stationary section because I didn’t expect anything of it. I didn’t need any of it. It’s stationary for crying out loud.

Monday was different. I looked at the stationary. Not only did I look, I delved. I got excited. I wished for all these things when I was a kid. I wished I was going to school so I had an excuse to have these things. Monthly, weekly, daily, and hourly planners with the most adorable pictures that encourage students to keep track of their various academies, homework, and tests. Scented highlighters. Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma notebooks. Mechanical pencils which were so darn cute, I couldn’t help but touching them. Pencil cases of every shape and size with the most adorable characters on them.

Suddenly it hit me.

In the midst of near euphoria, it hit me.

For a teenager in Korea, life is school and school is life. Cute stationary encourages this. It assists students to overcome the stress level that builds from waking up early, going to school, going to academy, doing homework, studying for tests and having no time to be children and get in trouble. Cute stationary attempts to make up for the lack of sleep these children get and the pressure society puts on them to achieve. Cute stationary encourages them (and me) to be good consumers. Cute stationary, parents, and teachers, with the occasional reprieve of a PC bong (internet café for gamers) or sport, make up a Korean child’s life.

Korean students have an obsession with cute stationary, and so do I.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Korea's inappropriate soundscapes

Imagine this.

You get off the bus in a concrete jungle, without even trees to break up the cement, pavement, steel and glass. You walk to the park, with the express purpose of taking a mini-break from urban culture only to find that the sounds of nature have been overlaid with pop music.

Assumption number one: parks exist as green spaces to break up the urban landscape and serve as an accessible extension of nature and the sounds that accompany it.

At first, this assumption rings true, but soon the reality of Ulsan’s manmade nature sinks in. Music is blaring from speakers, two on each lamp post, and regardless of where I go in the park, I cannot hear the uninhibited “sounds of nature.”

Nature encompasses me. A river flows through the park, grass and trees on either side. A great blue heron stands in the water, gracefully waiting … for what, I have no idea, but waiting none-the-less. Ducks sleep or dive to eat, and jumping fish plop back into the water, seemingly with no worries about predators. Observing nature, I am nearly drawn in. I see the beauty that Asian artists have painted for centuries, the trees that grow in seemingly effortless, beautifully curved lines that beg to be replicated.

Yet, as I walk, I’m wrenched out of this contemplative mood by blaring club beats.

The soundscape of nature has been co-opted by pumping rhythm. Like an art gallery displaying too many sound-art pieces together, the overlapping themes clash. The juxtaposition feels off. Rather than gleening the expected inner calm from nature, I am distracted and wondering at the logic of such created experiences. Suddenly, I have moved in my mind from nature, to the bar or club from the previous evening, and I am reminded of the electronics shop I walked by on the way to the bus stop.

Assumption number two: music in an outdoor setting should be controlled by the listener.

While in a grocery store, at a club or restaurant, or basically anywhere indoors, I have come to accept music as a part of my daily experience. Many times I tune it out or cover it up with my own music via iPod, but, perhaps because I was raised in Idaho where nature usually means uninhabited space, I have always taken it for granted that a public, outdoor space will generally be music free, barring obvious exceptions.

That being said, public outdoor music is not completely new to me. I remember feeling like I was in the middle of nowhere, deep in a forest in Moscow when music interrupted the mood and crowded the soundscape, but the ability to escape from the music made it tolerable.

In Ulsan, at the greenbelt, it is nearly impossible to escape. Each bench lines up with a light post to which two speakers are attached. As soon as I think I’ve reached the point at which the next step will bring me far enough away from the speaker so the sound cannot reach me, the next set of speakers takes over. The city obviously invested money in the research and development of this soundscape because there does not exist an escape from it, but that’s exactly the problem.

As a visitor to this bit of nature, there is no choice but to listen to music. This begs the question why? What is the purpose of a greenbelt with constant music playing?

I have not yet found an answer to this question, and I challenge anyone to find a reasonable argument for such outdoor, public soundscapes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Comparing attitudes toward cheating in Korea and Russia

When I first arrived in Moscow, one of the things that stuck out the most was my students' attitude toward cheating. In Ulsan, Korea I am surprised by the lack of cheating and the amount of tattle-telling that goes on.

In Moscow cheating was all around, not only in the English classroom, but I heard stories about cheating at University. I met students who had no problem with plagiarism and were perplexed when I confronted them. At first I was shocked. Then as I came to understand Russian culture a bit, and discovered the pressure put on students, especially at University, I became more lax myself. I still discouraged cheating but no longer saw it as fundamentally wrong. I encouraged my students to do their own work, if only to see how well they knew English. My goal was not to punish them if they didn’t know the English we had gone over, but to assess how well I had taught the subject matter. In order to understand this, an honest test, with no cheating was necessary. Yet, I also discovered that sometimes by “cheating” students are actually helping each other out and possibly learning something, as long as it’s not the blind cheating that happens under the intense pressure of the Russian University system. (Please see the recent comment on my previous post on cheating, Kimberly in Russian: Китберли)

Like Russians, Korean children are under insane pressure to do well. They go to school in the morning, and when they are done with school, they go to a private academy for one subject, then another, then another and hardly have time for a proper night’s sleep, let alone homework. Yet, when it comes to cheating, in Korea the opposite of Russia seems to be true.

Given the stress Korean students face, they seem overly sensitive about cheating, especially after my experience in Moscow. Many students cover their tests with books or papers as they complete them to hide them from other students, and they don’t hesitate to tell on each other for the smallest amounts of cheating. I have been blown away by how serious Korean students take cheating. Even during a game my students will complain, “Teacher, he’s cheating!” Additionally, I have had students come tell me, in the teacher’s room, before class has even started, that another student didn’t finish their homework. I try to discourage this kind of peer pressure. While the Korean teachers push these students to the max, as their culture expects, as the foreign teacher, I have the flexibility to be more lenient and more forgiving. Also, I do not see any value in tattle-telling.

Of course, my personal philosophy on cheating has also changed since the first time I walked into a classroom in Moscow. At first I refused to accept any cheating. I had constant conversations with my students about it. I talked to them about the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I cheated and was confounded that they did not have this same gut reaction. Now, I nearly participate in cheating. As long as homework is done by the time I walk around to check it, I accept it. I usually ignore if a student is hurriedly copying homework from someone else for another teacher. When the students are taking a test, while I discourage them from copying off of each other, I walk around and point to areas that need work and freely answer questions about spelling and grammar. Rather than being strict and feeling like cheating is morally wrong, I want to give students confidence and create a relaxed environment, where they can enjoy learning English, even if it means accepting cheating now and then.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How “a drink after work” turns into 4am at a Noribong

After first week of work, I decided it would be good for my coworkers, all of whom are Korean, and I to get together chat and have a drink. They agreed, so we planned ahead and went out after work on Friday. I had let some other people know that I was going out for a drink with coworkers but might meet them later. Little did I know “a drink” in Korea is not just a drink, and I definitely wouldn’t be going out with other people that night.

We left work around nine and wandered around our district of Ulsan, looking for a place to eat. The nice sashimi place the girls were wandering toward happened to close early that night, so we decided anything would do. Still, all the other places we checked were closing or closed, and after an hour of searching, we still hadn’t found a place. This was my first clue that the night was going to be long.

Because of the dead-end in our district, we headed downtown to a place the girls knew would be open. We ordered soju, beer, and a giant plate of sashimi, which of course, came with ten or so side dishes.

As we started eating, drinking, and getting more comfortable, we were sitting traditional Korean style on the floor, the girls I was with started joking about a second stage. I laughed and thought, ok I’ve done that before. Dinner one place, dessert another. At this point, I was pretty convinced I would be spending the evening with them, then going home, but I really had no clue what I was in for.

After about an hour of eating and drinking, another coworker showed up with her boyfriend, and we continued to eat and drink. He had been out drinking with coworkers previous to meeting up with his girlfriend and suggested almost immediately that we head to a Noribong, which is Korean style karaoke. The girls laughed, but obviously took it seriously because after we drank a bit more, there we were, outside, walking toward a Noribong. My coworkers half gave me the option to leave, by asking me if I wanted to go, but of course, they really expected me to come. While I’m not crazy about karaoke, it was definitely an experience I was curious about, so I went along thinking I wouldn’t sing, I would just sit and watch.

Fairly typical Noribong hall stolen from the Internet

When we got to the Noribong, we were shown our own private room fully equipped with tambourines, two microphones, two TV screens, a table and a nice cushioned bench to sit on.

Inside of a Noribong "singing room" also stolen from the Internet

The girls ordered more beer and food, and the singing started almost immediately. They handed me a book, showed me the English section and encouraged me to pick out a song. How can you say no to that?

Here’s the thing about Noribong. No one can get away with not singing. I mean, maybe if you have iron resolve, haven’t been drinking, and dislike the people you are with, it’s possible. No matter how much I stalled, saying I couldn’t find anything, my coworkers kept insisting and encouraging me. I tried looking for a song I listened to as a teenager, that I knew I would know all the words to, but failed. Finally, I saw a song I knew and thought, I listen to this song all the time and sing along, so I must know the words. Boy was I wrong, I knew maybe fifty percent of the words to a song I listened to all the time. It was a bit catastrophic.

When my turn to sing came, I got nervous. I had no clue how this was going to go. I grabbed a mic, pushed back my fear, and tried to imagine I was in my apartment just singing along with the song. This pseudo-self-confidence worked until about 10 seconds into the song when I realized I hardly knew the song at all. While someone with more confidence performing would have simply embraced it, I kept shaking my head, saying I didn’t know the words, shrugging my shoulders and the like. After a humiliating two minutes, the song finally ended, and I sat down. Perhaps because my coworkers were drunk, or maybe just out of politeness, or out of excitement that I had participated, they congratulated me and said it was great.

It wasn’t great.

The Noribong gives you a score. My coworkers had been scoring in the 90s, making me think it was impossible to get a lower score.

I scored a 76.

This was a fairly embarrassing affirmation that I didn’t know the song and sucked at singing it. I shook my head, and started looking for another song. I thought, I’ve got to be able to do better!

In the end, over the course of perhaps three hours, I sang three songs, one with the help of a coworker, and I discovered that regardless of how much Koreans argue that the words are on the screen, it doesn’t help unless I actually know the song.

I have no idea what time it was when we arrived at the Noribong, but after an hour or so of singing, the boyfriend who suggested Noribong in the first place, fell asleep. No one seemed to pay him any mind, and we continued to hang out, singing until I started showing obvious fatigue. I danced less, was less interested in finding a song, and generally was overwhelmed by the cultural immersion I was experiencing.

Finally, at four o’clock in the morning, we all headed home. My first initiation into Korean night culture was complete. Afterwards I was surprised how going out for “a drink” turned into all night, but it was a Friday night after all, and we did have a pretty great time.

Now that I have been here nearly two months, I am beginning to discover that going out for “a drink” with Koreans is never just that, regardless what day of the week it is. This last Thursday evening the scenario repeated itself. When with Koreans, the night will have many stages - first grab food, soju and beer, last head to Noribong, with a few unknowns inbetween.

How Korea sees its neighbors, through the eyes of a teenager, as viewed by a foreigner

At the beginning of my class with two teenage girls, I usually just encourage them to talk to each other, to me and say what’s on their mind. I have found that this leads to interesting discoveries about my students, as people, and also creates a more natural environment in which to speak English.

During one of these warm-ups, one of the girls drew a cartoonish map of Korea (north and south together), with Japan along side. Anyone who has looked at a map of Asia, will recognize that Korea and Japan are fairly comparable in size, though some of the northern islands of Japan actually make Japan larger. My student’s map of Korea made Japan look tiny in comparison, so I joked with my teenager about it.

“Wow! Japan is tiny!”

“Yes. I don’t like Japan …”

She went on to explain to me that despite how cool Japanimation is, the Japanese are jerks. She told me that the Japanese changed the spelling of Corea to Korea for the Olympics, so Japan would come before Korea at the opening ceremony. This is the first I had ever heard of this alternate spelling, and a quick Google search will come up with various reasons for the different spellings. After mentioning spelling, my students wrote Corea and Korea on the map, with Korea crossed out. Then they labeled the East Sea, and I mentioned that the rest of the world knows this as the Sea of Japan. Of course neither of my students approved of this renaming and said Japan only thought of itself, but I also pointed out that the East Sea is west of Japan, so it doesn’t make sense for them to call it east.

The map my student drew not only begged the question about how Japan is viewed, because it presented both North and South together as Korea, it begged the question of how my students see the division between the two halves. The rest of the world sees Korea as split into North Korea and South Korea, but as evidenced by this map, the idea doesn’t hold much weight in Korea. Part of the issue is that many Koreans have family in the North. Family they haven’t seen for a couple generations, but family, none-the-less. South Koreans seem to desperately want reunification, and really, who wouldn’t if some of their family lived across a border that not many people can cross.

This short conversation regarding the countries drawn, segued into a conversation about Korea’s other neighbor, China, which was only added to the map when I mentioned it. It seems that just about everything that goes wrong in Korea can somehow be blamed on China. While things like crappy weather and a lot of pollution really do come from China on occasion, other things like, “I got food poisoning, this food must have come from China,” seem a bit exaggerated. From many students’ points of view, China is dirty, cheap, a land where they eat weird things, and part of the reason the North and South have not been reunified.

From this single window of conversation which arose because of a simple drawing, it may seem that Korea has a fairly cool relationship with its neighbors, but it is actually quite common for my students to have visited Japan or China, though they may prefer their own Jeju Island.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Alien status

While I have yet to be asked for it, after nearly two months of being in Korea, I now have my official alien card. If my school hadn't been kind enough to set up both Internet and cell phone under their name, now I could finally get these on my own. The alien card also means I can establish a bank account, get free wi-fi at Starbucks and I'm sure countless other privileges that I didn't even realize I had been going without. Of course, it all seems that it is in exchange for some type of authorized surveillance and tracking.

My alien card, about which, my coworker said, "I don't like this picture of you." When I tried to get her to explain what she meant, was it a bad picture or what, she got really evasive.

Comparing bureaucracy in Moscow and Ulsan, while the paperwork here seems much more detailed, strenuous and ridiculous -- they required a notarized, apostilled copy of my diploma even after I had sent my original diploma -- for some reason the system seems more efficient, even though it took me a little over a month to get my alien card. This month was, surprisingly, not on the government side but was my employer. After my boss finally applied for the card, I had it in less than a week.

Here's to being a legal alien! Not even my boss understands why this registration is necessary.

Four seasons, one weekend

For anyone who loves the ocean, going to the beach, on a warm day with the sun on your face and sand between your toes, will cure any longing for another season, another time, or another place. When the bus dropped us off at Haeundae metro stop, we had no clue which way to turn to find our hostel, or the market it was in, or the beach. Usually, going with my gut leads me in the wrong direction, but this time it led me straight to a map of the city and toward the smell of the ocean. As soon as the ocean caught my attention, I no longer had any wish for fall. I simply enjoyed being a bit warm in my sweatshirt and occasionally cold enough to put on my scarf.

During the day Haeundae Beach held a magically warm pocket of air. It reminded me of summer and made me not even want to think about finding a good winter coat, but at night Busan fell into lower temperatures and my sweater, jacket, scarf combination did not even begin to protect me against this biting preview of what winter will bring. Not only did I get a taste of summer and winter this weekend, I also found fall and spring on my walk to the Busan Museum of Modern Art. While there was traffic on one side of the sidewalk, an unexpected green patch lined the other side. I saw flower buds and flowers in bloom and a bit further down the sidewalk, fall colors, leaves on the sidewalk, and wafts of the smell of fall interspersed with car exhaust and the crunch of leaves underfoot.

I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend to see Busan for the first time, and the forty minute bus ride means I will be exploring the city a lot when I need a break from Ulsan. While I never imagined I would think a city of 1.5 million was small, I’m happy to have a slightly more cosmopolitan city as a break from what I have discovered is a quite small (in attitude and options), big (geographically and population wise) city.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Music enables a comparison of apartments and cultures

It’s nowhere near the first of September, the first day of school for Russian children, and I’m in Ulsan, Korea miles away from Moscow. Yet, from somewhere outside, there is music emanating into my apartment, dredging up memories of those early days in September 2009 when I awoke to children’s speeches and patriotic Russian hymns.

At the beginning of the school year, Russian schools hold ceremonies to welcome the students back. The music at these first of September events usually was performed live by children, but the music in this case feels like it’s coming from a record being proudly played into the streets. While I have no idea what they are singing about, and wouldn’t even if it was in English, because it is not quite that clear, the orchestral background to the singing makes me think of patriotic anthems.

It’s early morning, the sun is shining in my window, and while it’s two months later and 10 degrees colder, the memory-pulling this music is causing is a bit unreal.

Suddenly, I can remember very clearly my dingy little apartment in a rundown part of Moscow, where the vacuum cleaner put more dust on the floor than it picked up, and where my room was basically a small partitioned off part of my roommate’s giant room – an afterthought. While we had separate entrances, the wall separating our rooms was paper thin. The entire apartment smelt old and very well used. The floor in the kitchen hadn’t been cleaned for years, so any attempt left the water dingy and the floor still dirty with caked on grim.

Because I lived in this apartment for nearly six months but never had people over because of my embarrassment, it is relegated to a different memory box, which isn’t negative, but is deemed as a “cultural” experience. It was a true, Soviet style apartment. It had not undergone any European remodel or facelift but was probably exactly the way it had been nearly 40 years before I lived there. The electric wiring had issues. The security to get into the apartment was insane. A key code on the outside of the building, which seems fairly standard around the world, a giant double steel plate door with a skeleton key to get into our hallway, and finally a double door into our apartment. The itty-bitty kitchen held our washer, refrigerator, stove, and a dining room table which barely constituted a table. It was a rickety, makeshift thing about a meter squared, covered in a nappy, old, plastic tablecloth and two wobbly stools. Because I lived there, I made feeble attempts to clean or make the apartment not feel as grungy and worn out, but many things, like the worn-out porcelain in the bathtub which absorbed the strange color of the water, were just old. It was a true, post-Stalin era, Soviet apartment building and felt like it was going to collapse.

It’s difficult to even compare the apartment I am currently sitting in with this older apartment, and the two cultures which created them are two entirely different beasts. The Soviet era apartment was rough, old, ragged, but served its purpose. Like the attitudes in Moscow, it did not mince words or attempt to sugar coat the reality of it. It was what it was, a small little abode on the top floor of a rundown building in a rundown section of Moscow. My Korean apartment is brand new, streamlined and efficient with niceties I never would have dreamed of at my old apartment in Moscow, heated floors, control of the hot water temperature, but it’s in an industrial section of the city, with no green space. Like my first encounters with Korean people, first impressions of my apartment were wonderful. It’s only when the weather gets colder and wear starts to show that the bugs are forced out, but even then, they remain shy and elusive.