Wednesday, December 30, 2009
I spent all of Christmas Day traveling from Korea to Bangkok, where I would meet Maria and together we would go to Siem Reap, Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and other temples. Although exhausted by the time I arrived in the evening, we headed to Khao San Road - the main artery in Bangkok where young people from everywhere come in search of some fun - in search of a suitable Christmas dinner. For us the whole scene was a bit over the top, but we still enjoyed some good Thai curry and mango salad steps away from the madness.
Next morning, five AM we roused ourselves for the day-long journey to Siem Reap, negotiating taxis, buses, tuk-tuks (a motorcycle converted into a taxi), and a border crossing on the way to our guest house. Our headquarters during two full days exploring the richest collection of temples and ruins in East Asia, the guest house was on a quiet road; it had a restful vibe to it and the staff were very welcoming.
It is hard to put my experience of Angkor Wat and the 8 or so other temples and sites we visited over two days. Calling them amazing or breathtaking hardly does justice to the feeling the temples evoke. Taking them at face value alone, the temples recall impressive scenes of ruins from Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider. But for me, as we traversed this expansive area thick with both jungle and cultural sites, for one day by bicyle and the next by tuk-tuk, the imagination of what this culture must have been like in its heyday was what intrigued me the most. The massive scale - both of individual temples and the whole area - as well as the high level of detail and uniqueness in the many carvings decorating walls, doorways, and towers, places this empire on par with any in known history.
The pictures will speak volumes, so I'll stop here for now and finish the update upon my return.
Happy New Year to everyone!!
Thursday, December 10, 2009
As you can tell, my head is practically in Thailand already, but I'll say a few words about Korea. As you may have noticed, I posted a photo of an important Korean food: kimchi. Koreans are very proud of their culture, and kimchi is a very imortant part of that culture. It is hard to imagine a Korea (or Koreans anywhere) without kimchi. Kimchi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner: you get the picture. (By the way, it is served on the side, usually placed on the table before the main dish.) And I must say, I'm really starting to enjoy kimchi. When I sit down for a meal, I almost start to crave it. At a restaurant (I usually eat out: it's cheaper and easier here than buying food to cook. You can get a solid, healthy Korean meal for around $5, or even less if you need to.) before they bring out the kimchi, I wonder how it will be. It's usually about the same but there are subtle differences. And sometimes there are other variations of kimchi and other side dishes. It seems I am developing my Korean taste buds, because I do enjoy Korean food. And, importantly, I almost always feel great after eating it. You know how after you eat a meal with too much grease, or cooked with questionable methods, you feel kind of crappy? Not with Korean food. (The Korean government is paying me to say all this about their food, by the way; now I've written my requisite 150 words for the month. whew.)
School is getting both crazier and better. How so, you may ask? Are those two not at odds with each other? Well, not really, not in an English hagwon in Korea. I am coming to see more and more that (at least at this school) I am part of a game here, so I'm just trying to have fun with it. The school management work themselves into a fuss trying to please the parents (read $$); the parents drive their kids to slave at their studies to fulfill their resposiblity to Korean society; and the kids just plain go crazy, in different ways. Dropped into the middle of this madness is the bewildered foreigner, trying to get her bearings in a totally new and sometimes maddening environment. So, as I was saying, I'm beginning to drop any illusion of control: I'm along for the ride!
Come to think of it, the statement about being part of a game probably holds true about a lot of things. But, in summary, I'm not taking things quite as seriously and they seem to be going smoother as a result.
One final word: Happy Holidays to all of you, whether you be in frigid climes or balmy. May you make merry and not forget those important to you in this season of togetherness!
Saturday, November 21, 2009
I'm finally set up with internet at home, so that will make blogging easier. My sickness is long gone (whew!) and I feel like I'm starting to adjust to the schedule a bit more. This week we start a new semester with a new schedule, though, and I'll have to adjust again. I have more classes and no breaks in between. M-W-F I'll have 6 classes in a row from 2:30-7:00. It's not long, but it's intense. T-Thu is a little lighter.
Last weekend I visited my friend Maria, who is a Spanish teacher north of Seoul. It takes me about 1:45 to travel to her town. There are many beautiful mountains there, and hiking is all the rage. When the weather was still nice (a little more than a week ago it suddenly changed from 60's/70's to 30's/40's! It even snowed a bit yesterday.), Maria said the people would all go hiking. The mountainsides were so thick with people that she really thought they were giving something away up there! Korea can seem like a maniacal country to foreigners in some ways, such as the extreme importance placed on children's education, and trends like hiking that very quickly become popular and seemingly everybody does (in the case of hiking, mostly middle aged and older people) and buys the latest gear for it.
Maria took me to a delicious, traditional Korean restaurant: We take off our shoes at the entrance, walk across the wooden floor to a low table where we sit on the floor on thin cushions. They bring out small plates of appetizers: various kinds of kimchi, mushrooms, salad and warm broth. We eat with the traditional metal chopsticks and long spoons, and then they bring out a creamy mushroom soup, baked and seasoned fish, and delicious bowls of steaming rice. We spoon the rice out of the stone bowls and into other bowls. We then pour hot water into the stone bowls which steeps the rice sticking to the bottom and sides of the bowl, making a kind of tea. They bring us other dishes I can't either identify or remember well. At the end they bring us a kind of sweet, spicy cider served cool. Very delicious, and very healthy.
Student management has continued to be a challenge for me. I introduced some rules and also some prizes as incentives to participate and study. It seemed to help a little at first. It is kind of hard for me because I have a hard time being a disciplinarian with the kids, which is kind of necessary for a well-behaved classroom. When I consider how much Korean kids have to study, though, I don't really want to become very strict. I would almost rather cut them (and myself) a little slack and just ensure we get through the lesson and some learning takes place. Most of the kids do learn at our school, because many of them move up to the next level and their English abilities do improve. So the method does work, it's just not always fun carrying through with it. I think overall it's getting better for me. It's a matter of both myself and the students adjusting to the reality of the English hagwon (private English school).
I decided to make my apartment a little more cozy, so I took the first step this week and bought a little cactus in a nice pot. I have rudimentary plans for a small cactus garden along my window ledge. If anybody knows anything about this or has any tips, I'd appreciate them! Plants are fairly inexpensive here.
One of my next steps is to plan something to do during my week off between Christmas and the New Year. I have some ideas, but no definite plans yet. More to come soon...
Saturday, November 7, 2009
I'm recovering from a week of sickness - a bad throat infection. The hardest thing was that I had to keep teaching, even without much of a voice. They don't really believe in sick days here. It's been a struggle aligning myself with that reality, but I guess that's part of the process.
The next challenge will be finding a way to make my classes more engaging. The lessons come ready to deliver, and I have been doing them just as we were trained, by the book. But the students get bored and restless, and act up more than they would if lessons were more interesting. So I need to find ways to get them moving around and maybe incorporate small incentives such as cheap toys, etc. After all, they're kids and that kind of stuff motivates them. If anyone has any ideas, let me know.
I haven't had much spare time yet, but I did find one rock climbing gym in a nearby city and found out about another one in my own city that I have yet to visit. I also did some more hiking, solo this time up Mt. Surisan. One thing I'd like to start soon is studying Korean more seriously. I may take a class or get some materials, or both. Well, my battery power is low. More updates to come when I get my own internet connection. I hope everyone at home (and everywhere else) is doing well, and I'd love to hear from you all.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
It's been a few days so it's time to post something. This will be short, though, because I'm quite busy now that I'm teaching. I'm sure I'll have more time once I'm in the swing of things.
After one intense week of training in Seoul, I am now at my actual location, in Gunpo Sanbon, an hour south of Seoul. Just as the map indicated, it is surrounded by mountains on all sided. Right now there is a great view because it is fall and all the trees are turning colors. Unfortunately, the view is very limited except along the main avenue of the city, which is maybe 100,00o people or so. However, it seems bigger because everybody lives close together and they build up instead of spreading out. I'll have to take a picture of the main shopping promenade: it's quite a neon light show.
Straightaway upon my arrival last Friday (the last day of training, when I was already exhausted from lack of sleep), I met the owner of the school here and he invited me to a teacher weekend getaway in the hills. It was the first of its kind according to the teachers already here, and it just happened to fall on that night. I didn't want to pass up the opportunity, so I yes and we left as soon as I dropped off my stuff at my new apartment. That night was long and included driving several hours, a late night barbecuing session amid scattered rain, and several rounds of drinking (including plenty of soju, the Korean drink of choice), the last of which I opted out of in favor of long-awaited sleep.
Monday, back at the school, a full schedule of classes awaited me. I had 5 or 6 40-minute classes, at all different levels. The kids are a challenge, to say the least, but they are fun. Korean children have to study an awful lot, probably three times as much as their U.S. counterparts (seriously! They go from public school in the morning, to math and science academies to language academies, sometimes until late at night. Only pre-school age Korean children enjoy what we consider a full night's sleep.) It will take me a little while to get conditioned to the schedule and intensity, but the other teachers are very supportive so I think I'll do fine.
I'm looking forward to updating everyone on future adventures and outings!
Saturday, October 10, 2009
After months of being delayed I'm finally here! Today is my third day. I've seen a lot already but there is much more to see: Seoul is a very big city.
So far, it's been overwhelming, but I'm doing fine. Having close to zero language skills and trying (and failing) to communicate even the most basic things leaves me feeling pretty helpless. The city itself is huge and bursting at the seams with people: so many (to me) similar-looking people rushing around and mostly dressed in business attire is a new experience for me. Even on the weekends people mostly dress pretty nicely. I'm kind of glad I'm not tall and blonde, or I would stand out a lot more!
For anyone interested, I'll sum up my activities and first impressions so far:
Today (Sat.) I met my old friend from Spain, Maria, and we explored the neighborhood around Itaewon. We did plenty of window shopping, ate at a Thai restaurant and stopped at an American-style cafe (that serves pancakes and brunch any time of day!). Itaewon is the most international neighborhood in Seoul. There are more westerners here than anywhere else (except the US military bases).
Yesterday I spent the day with two new friends, both from the US and teachers-to-be, like me. We visited one of the Olympic stadiums (Olympics were in Seoul in '88) where there just happened to be a design convention going on. We then tried to walk to the main Olympic park but somehow never arrived, so we took the subway under the river to the bottom of a large hill. On the top of the hill was N'Seoul Tower, a tall space-needle type structure complete with a revolving restaurant far above and in the middle of the city. We didn't eat there but we climbed the hill (a good hike) and went up to the observatory. (check out the photo of the view). Seeing the city from that perspective left me with an even stronger impression of the urban immensity that is Seoul. In every direction, following the Han river, the city stretches on. From up here there appears to be not just one but three or four "downtown" areas with clusters of skyscrapers. Thinking about this, I feel thankful I will be outside the city.
I am still in the middle of the initial down time before the start of training next week. If all goes well and I pass the training week, I'll be off to Gunpo Sanbon, a town about an hour south of Seoul. I'll try to update again sometime during training week.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Well, in a few short days I'll be leaving these shores for the distant land of South Korea. The plan is to teach English for a year, make some money doing it, and soak up many new experiences while I'm at it. I also plan to do some traveling after my year is up.
This is my first real attempt at a blog. What sort of personality it will take on is yet to be seen. Anyway, it seems like a fun way to keep in touch with people I care about once I am in Korea. I hope you will follow me on my trip!