A day in the life

October 29, 2010

I’m writing this because I have been scolded for not posting in a while.

So I’d like to talk about my average day.  This is what it is like to be an English teacher in Seoul. I’m going to talk about Wednesday, because I usually don’t go out much on Wednesday night, so it is a very ordinary day.

I usually wake up about 6:30, turn on some tunes and turn on the coffee. Then I hit the snooze button and sleep for an extra 10 minutes. So then I have to hurry and get in the shower and get dressed.  I leave the house at 7:30, and walk to work.   That early in the morning, all the hofs and restaurants are closed, but there are sleepy-eyed people waiting for the bus, and cyclists and cars keeping a ghost town vibe to a minimum.  Then I get to The Hill.  In summer I always get a bit sweaty trudging up the last 10 minutes of a vertical incline.

I get into the office along with all the other teachers. Mr. Ahn, who teaches Philosophy, sits next to me on my right, and Ms. Che, one of my co-teachers sits on my left. I say hi to everyone, and turn on my computer, then grab some coffee, and say hi to the other teachers. I’m able to speak enough Korean to be pleasant.

Mr Ahn doesn’t speak any English, but he is kind and gentle, and he always smiles at me.  He is also an excellent dancer and will sometimes share a dance video with me.

I usually have a class 1st period, so I collect the worksheets I’ve prepared the day before, look them over and get everything else I need.  I usually only need chalk, and most of the time it is already in the classroom.  The bell rings at 8:10 and all the other teachers and I leave the teacher’s office and head to the classrooms. In Korea, the teacher’s don’t have their own classroom; we travel.

I have 4 classes everyday.  Usually I have one beginner’s class, an intermediate, and an advanced in the first year( freshman) classes and second year (classes. For first year classes I have total freedom for my classes. I can do what ever I want. This is awesome, but some days I feel a bit of pressure to come up with something interesting and informative and will get them talking.   I usually have the class do group work, mostly because it is easier to control the class and easier to keep the students awake.

Sleeping students is not a big problem in my class, but then I keep them moving a bit, and usually if a student puts her head down, it’s because she is sick or had to work late.  Most of my students are pretty good about participating, although I do have to remind them to speak English in the groups. I generally like teaching the classes. I have a co-teacher in each class:  The same teacher all day, and I think I get along with them all.  They usually help me by translating if I ask, and helping the students after they get in their groups.  So I enter the class, explain the tasks, put helpful vocabulary on the board, and put them in groups. Then my co-teacher and I go around the classroom helping the students with their tasks.  After they are finished, usually for the last 10  minutes I have the students give a presentation. Most of the time, they are pretty good about volunteering, but sometimes I just have to pick the team that starts ( I use eine meinie minie moe)

Second year classes are a bit different. I have a book that I have to follow. To encourage participation, we have 10 points that we give out. This can turn a B into an A, so the students are pretty keen to get them. They get them by either talking to me at my desk in the teacher’s office or by doing a presentation in class.  They are pretty good about participating even in the non-point generating activities.  I really enjoy talking to them at my desk. I’ve learned a lot and some of my students are really interesting people.  Yeah, I do love them. They are pretty cool.

Between classes I prepare for other classes, read, surf the internet and next week I’ll be re-doing the instructions for the workbook I wrote for next year. I also have to think about what I want to do for winter camp. The school says they think I work hard, but I don’t feel like I do really. I love making worksheets and creating activities, and I love being in the classroom.  It doesn’t feel that work-ish to me.

School finishes at 4 and this semester I don’t have any extra classes.  So I say good-bye to everyone, and chat a bit, and then leave. Some days I go to the market and get some veggies to cook up, and sometimes I go to E-mart. Right now they have avocados at Costco and I bought some of course. I go home, and make some more coffee because it is my favorite addiction, change into something comfortable, cook dinner, and go online to watch tv or a movie.   I used to go out a bit more often, but lately I’ve been staying home and learning to sew and knit.  I really enjoy knitting, there is something a bit meditative to it.   I sometimes call home or friends, and sometimes I chat on messenger or face-book.  I clean the kitchen up, and around 11-ish I go to bed.  I wake up at 6:30 and do everything over again.

Right now it is getting cooler and crisper, and the leaves are changing.  Tomorrow is Halloween, but this year I don’t have a many plans. I’ll meet some friends for dinner on Sunday, and Saturday I plan on going to Dongdaemun and Kyobo, and I will spend some time in a coffee shop watching the people go by. I have to go into Itaewon and pick up a couple of calling cards because half of my family don’t have Skype, and then depending on how I feel, I might put on some dancing shoes, or I might just call a friend to grab some dinner.  I won’t know till I get there.  Next weekend I will not go anywhere or talk to anyone. I try to have at least one day a month where I turn off the phone, and the computer and don’t get dressed.

And this is my life right now. True it isn’t very exciting, but it is enjoyable.

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Yet another reason I love Seoul.

September 5, 2010

Living in the city it is easy to suffer from concrete overload. It seems everything is paved over, and choked with car exhaust and pollution.  And there are so many people, all over, all.the.time.

So it is nice to get away and back to nature. Here in Seoul, you don’t even have to leave the city.  Seoul is surrounded by mountains, and even in Incheon and Suwon, there are many places that are green and beautiful, and you can walk trails surrounded by trees and fresh air.

Saturday I went on a meet-up in Incheon. I took a friend and we went to Jung-dong station in Incheon, near Bucheon.  The station is small, but they had a cool display of insects, and some were quite humorous. My favorite was the battle of beatles in front of a castle. I also liked the butterflies.

At 9 am we all met up, and started for the hills.  It was an easy climb, and it was early enough, but the heat really took it out of everyone. I started getting out of breath and sweaty fairly early.  But I persevered and was rewarded with a gorgeous view of Incheon from the top of the hills, and although this is Korea so even the mountains are fairly crowded, there still were places of quiet and green beauty.

After climbing, we went out to eat, then I bought a sewing machine from a girl who is leaving this week. I also snagged a bunch of spices, unfortunately they are all jumbled up, and I don’t have any labels. I think dinner is going to be interesting for the next few weeks.

I felt virtuous enough today to only take a quick bike ride, and after I had a pretty good lunch. I liked the name of the restaurant (noodles in the kitchen) and had a chicken and peanut fettuccine.  It was an interesting combination that worked very well.  I didn’t expect to go there, I was originally going to get bosam ( boiled pork that is wrapped in sour kimchi – it tastes way better than it sounds) – but the place I thought was bosam was really just  an army ji gae –  or spam with noodles in hot sauce – not exactly what I was looking for. Anyway I didn’t bring my camera, so no pictures of the chicken and peanut fettuccine, but it was awesome. Then a thunderstorm came up just in time for me to be able to watch “inside man” without too much guilt.

Sometimes life is good.

Some more pictures for your enjoyment – because I love you.


A Critical Mass that never was, and a hop on an island

August 23, 2010

It has not been a relaxing quiet weekend. However, it has been a lot of fun, and a pretty nice adventure.

Friday night was bitter-sweet, in that two very cool ladies are leaving Korea.  They want to get “real” teaching certificates, and to be honest, I think they both will make awesome teachers. I am sad they are leaving, proud of them for their ambitions, and I am optimistic that I will see them again as we travel through life. You never really know how the road will twist and turn.

Saturday was supposed to be a Critical Mass. Critical Mass started as a protest in some cities, to gently let cars and buses and trucks and motorcycles that there are bicycles as well that would like to share the road.  http://critical-mass.info/

I was excited, and hoped to meet some other cyclist that were like me.  I know I do take some long bike trips, so a lot of people think I am fit and athletic. This is not really true. I am old and fat, and I prefer a more leisurely pace. I’m really not that fit.  A friend from a smaller town also wanted to go. So I borrowed a bike from my co-teacher, and off we went to find critical mass.  Now, we could have cycled there, but she arrived a bit late for that, plus we wanted to save our energy for the event. So we took the subway.  Last year it was illegal to take a bicycle on the subway, but now it is OK on Sundays and Holidays. Fortunately this means it is also OK on Saturday.  I know this, because the subway agent/ helper/ officer type people watched us and said nothing. Plus the first and last cars all have the international bicycle sign.

Taking a bike on the subway is usually pretty easy, but my friend wanted to take the elevators the whole time, so sometimes it got to be rather maze like in the station looking for an elevator to the correct subway platform. Fortunately we are intrepid. So finally we get to Gwanghwamun, where the mass was supposed to start. We wandered around, only 5 minutes late (and really for an event like that, it shouldn’t be a big problem) we couldn’t find it. We met two other cyclist, and they were looking for the event as well. So we wandered around some more but couldn’t find anything remotely like a mass group of cyclists getting ready to share the road with a bunch of cars.  So we had to make a decision.

We decided to cycle along the Cheonggyecheon, until it goes into the Han. It was beautiful, and for the most part very easy with little traffic.  Only one area, near Dongdaemun, had a lot of traffic. One of the things I love about cycling in Seoul is that cars here give cyclists a lot of room, and tend to slow down when they pass you. They don’t seem particularly upset that you are there sharing the road with them.  In the U.S. some drivers seem downright offended that a bicycle is on the same road as they are.  So it was a really nice ride, and we made it home in time to shower and get dinner before we were off to Incheon.  We met some friends at the Seoul train station and then took the bus into Incheon.

The next morning we were up early and off to go to Sin, Si and Mo islands.  We took the subway to the end of the line, near the airport. Then hopped into a taxi, that actually cost less per person than the bus would have ( there were six of us total).   We then got to the ferry right on time and made it within a minute of it leaving.  Once we got on the island we rented some bikes and went to the set of two Korean TV shows, a beautiful beach, and a beach with one of the more interesting sculpture parks around.

When we got hungry we went in search of a meal, but the one restaurant we thought would be good was closed, so we asked around and found another. It was well worth the wait. We had a kind of noodle soup that included clams and they had one of the best potato salads I’ve ever had. ( it included corn and raisins, a combination I wouldn’t have thought could taste so good)– after our repast we cycled some more, then turned in our bikes. We caught the next to last ferry, and headed home.

I arrived back at my house quite late and very tired, but in a good way.  I was even able to wake up in time for our first day of the semester.

To celebrate my most excellent weekend, I decided to skip Korean class, and eat chocolate cookies for dinner. (don’t worry, I’ll eat something healthy tomorrow– maybe)


On saying good-bye

August 10, 2010

Almost all of the foreign teachers here are on one year contracts. Many of the people I came here with are not renewing their contracts so they will be leaving this week and next week for home or other adventures.

Some of the people I met in orientation became very good friends, some only bright spots in the periphery of my life.  My life is richer for having met them, and even though some I only saw a few times, I will treasure the memories I have of them.

This is one of the downsides to a life of travel and adventure. You meet some wonderful people, share wonderful times with them, and always, eventually, you have to let them go as you and they part ways on your own adventures elsewhere.

I have always been very good about staying in touch with most people. Facebook and e-mail has made it easier to stay in contact with people through time and space, no matter how many times they change their physical address.  Even knowing this though, it is sad to say good-bye.

I’m always a bit surprised when it is time to say good-bye, even though with everyone I meet, foreign or native, the good-bye is eventual. It is part of the price paid for this life, these adventures.

I pay it willingly, yet the sadness doesn’t abate.

I wish all those I will not see again for a long while a safe journey to their destination, much love, laughter and happiness wherever they may find themselves and I hope that we may meet again, to recount our tales of the trail.

Good-bye my new friends, and may you be counted as my old friends as the years go by.


Why I love Korea… now with photos.

July 26, 2010

Korea is a land of contradictions. It is grounded in history while thrusting towards the future.  I think that is what I love about Seoul, the tension between past and future and between east and west.

As much as I enjoy the modern and international parts of Korea, I also love the traditional.  I often go to E-mart and Home plus, but I also like shopping in many of the outdoor markets. One of the very cool things is that these markets are not just one farmer’s market in the downtown area, but they are near every single neighborhood.

Some of the scrumptious things you can buy are all kinds of fruit and vegetables, kimchi’s and snacks.

Of course you will find some things that aren’t so delicious.

Of course, my co-teacher would disagree. We met in Insadong on Sunday, with her whole family. Insadong is one of my favorite areas in Seoul (I have more than one)- its kind of touristy, but also it is where you can find a lot of traditional arts, several excellent tea houses and cool modernized traditional clothes. Some of it is even affordable.  While we were there, they had an exhibit of “living legends” – people who keep a lot of the traditional crafts alive.  It was very interesting.

After the exhibit we walked around some and found traditional candies, traditional crafts, and free hugs

But what is really cool, is just going out and about, you can find cool things like:

This is one of the many reasons I love Seoul,  you don’t have to search for adventure.


This, that, and another thing

July 8, 2010

So I decided to try the skit kits out in my classes ( even though it is far along in the workbook I’m working on).  I was a bit nervous, because although the students have had dialog worksheets, they haven’t done a full dialog themselves with all their own language. I gave them an envelope that had 5 words in it, then had them use the words in their dialog.  The only rule was that they had to use all the words at least once.   I wanted them to tell a story, have the whole thing be one skit, but some of the groups decided to use the words in several different skits.  It worked surprisingly well.

As a teacher I’m constantly trying to keep a balance between control and freedom.  I need a certain amount of control in the classroom, mostly because 30 + high school girls are not going to spontaneously start speaking English without some guidelines.  At the same time, I know the Korean teachers are working hard to give them lessons in grammar and vocabulary.  I don’t really see myself as the grammar and vocabulary teacher.  What I want from my students is for them to produce their own language.  I want them to communicate with me and with each other in English.  I know my low-level students are not going to be able to do much (although I was very happy with them today, some of the groups came up with some very clever skits) but I want them to work together and I want them to feel my class is where their attempts at English are respected even if it isn’t the most correct.   I need to find tasks that are interesting, and allow them to speak, and keep them on task, but at the same time I want them to have enough freedom to feel confident.  I only hope I succeed more than I fail

I’ve studied Korean before, but not in a class. This is the first time I’ve taken a language class since university.  I hope that not only will I be able to communicate with some of my co-workers better but also understand more of what works and doesn’t work in the class room.  I like the teacher a lot.  She doesn’t speak much English, but she manages to help a bunch of people with various levels of pathetic Korean understand what she wants us to do.  So far so good (although I only did so-so on the first quiz) I have a newfound sympathy for my students.

And in other news, it is official. I’ve signed on for one more year.   At least  I signed the contract.  I’m looking forward to a continuation of the adventure.


She’s back

July 4, 2010

Although to be honest my week wasn’t all nose to the grindstone.  I have 80% of the workbook done, but decided to take a break this weekend.  I was working on a skit kit ( where I give my students 5 cards in an envelope: a character, a noun, an adjective, a verb, and a place – for the travel kit I also had modes of transportation, and give them time to write a short skit or dialog  using the words once and then they perform it)  I knew I was totally burned out when I was staring at the screen, trying to think of adjectives and my mind was totally blank.

But as I said, it hasn’t been total nose to the grindstone time.  We were giving the final exams last week, so the teacher’s could go home at 1 pm.  I stayed late-ish on Tuesday, but then after my co-teacher’s meeting the two of us got on our bikes and went from school to the Han river – It was a bit longer than I usually go but the ride was pleasant, and I got to find out how to get to a couple of places I wanted to go before.  Plus my co-teacher is an excellent biking companion.

Wednesday all the teachers went to Coex mall for lunch. We were awarded by SMOE for something, I’m not quite sure what, but  we did something very well.  So.  I thought it would be an average buffet, like VIPs or similar to the all you can eat Chinese buffet.  No. Not like that at all. It wasn’t in the mall, but the convention center, and it was very fancy.  The food was awesome. I started with salad, they had a shrimp and greens with balsamic dressing, a smoked salmon salad, a chicken caesar’s salad, and a few more that I’m not sure what to call them, but they tasted pretty darn fine. Then there was spaghetti with cream sauce – made to order, roast beef, some kind of tofu thing that was just divine, deserts that were .. let’s just say… oh my god… and well, I did try to eat into their profit but was unable to do so.   By the time we were finished I felt food coma-ish.   After lunch, the film club of our school invited some of us to see a movie.  We saw Knight and Day, with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz.  I’m not a big fan of either, but I actually quite liked the movie.  Even though I got home fairly early, I did not have the energy or ambition to do much of anything. So I turned on the TV and opened up a jigsaw puzzle.

I did make up for it by working late on Thursday.  Friday was my first Korean class. Woot!  I don’t think the teacher speaks English very well, and you know, since I teach English without knowing Korean very well, I think it is ok.  The class has 11 students, from all over the world. There are three guys from India, a woman from Thailand, a woman from Ireland ( we had met before at the SMOE orientation, but I hadn’t seen her much since then) several other Americans, a guy from Germany, a woman from Hong Kong and another guy from Mainland China.  We mostly learned the Korean alphabet and a few phrases.  The class is for two hours, and it is quite intense. We actually went pretty fast and even though I was familiar with everything I felt a bit overwhelmed.

Saturday, the dance teacher in our school had invited me and my co-teacher to see a dance performance by one of the professors in Korea’s version of Julliard.  It was fantastic.

The first part was a solo by Chun Mi Sok, (the professor) – the title was adieu my love, and it started with a red cloth that covered the stage reminding one of blood. I’m pretty sure red cloth on the stage is a standard metaphor for blood. The music was industrial sounds and silence and although at first I found it disconcerting, by the end of the performance I thought it a perfect choice.  She was dressed in a Korean housewife house dress, and through out the dance, or maybe it was the point of the dance, she tried to escape or at least expand the small space that was her life.  In part of the performance they had a screen where they showed her past performances where she danced with such passion as she tried to get out from under a funeral table ( it is a traditional custom, on the anniversary of  one’s parents or grandparents death, the wife must make an offering of many traditional foods laid out on a special table. – It is always the wife’s duty)  The dance itself was at once disturbing, sad and very beautiful.

The second act of the performance was Amore Amore Mio performed by a rather large company. Like the title suggests the subject of the dance was about love.  Love or a heart was represented by a coffee cup and saucer, and the first part was done totally in silence. One dancer used a very slow heavy rumba walk carrying the cup, offering it up.  Two other dancer’s came on stage and then the other dancers arrived, with two running across the stage chasing each other.  They would run into other dancer’s arms, until finally one cup was broken.  The rest of the dance was very athletic and dynamic. When they finally partnered up,  instead of the traditional music, they had a man with a Germanic accent saying numbers and expressions of time that the dancers moved to.  It was quite stunning and at times amusing.

After, my co-teacher and I had dinner together.  I really enjoy  her company. We talked about art, and people’s roles in society and how they are changing, and a bit about work.  When it was time to go home, I reached to hug her. In Korea, hugs aren’t that common. Holding hands is, but not hugging. So there was a bit of an awkward second, but then we did hug, and said good-bye.   I was thinking on the subway home, when do people become friends?   If you look at my co-teacher’s and my life on paper, you would not pair us up as friends. We have a few things in common yes, but she is Korean, married and has a child, I am American, single and I don’t have children.  Yet, when I’m with her I feel very comfortable. We talk easily and when there is nothing to say, we are quiet together just as easily.  We have enough in common I think, but how much doesn’t really matter.  I enjoy her company.