October 22, 2008

Hey, people!

How do you like the new look? I got sick of the blue. I knew I would. I don't know why I chose it in the first place.

Orientation at last

Sarah and I have finally gone through orientation here in Korea! The teacher workshop for the middle school and high school Native English Teachers in Gyeonggi province took place October 14-17. I didn't realize how many people were actually here teaching English; something like 240 teachers showed up to this orientation. It was like 55% Americans, 20% Canadians, 13% South Africans, and a smattering of New Zealanders, Aussies, and UKites. "Americans are particularly prevalent" said pretty perfect Polly in her pink pontiac. I don't know if she actually said that, but maybe she would've if given the opportunity. Anyway, we finally were able to attend orientation.

We didn't know quite what to expect from the whole thing, but we were dropped off by my coteacher at the bus station and climbed on the bus to go to the Hyundai Learning Center. I met a Canadian named Len on the bus. Did you know Canadians watch american football? Well, apparently they do. Len told me as much. Our driver dropped us off at some random building and drove away. Well, a bus full of foreign teachers busted up in the front doors of this random office building in the Hyundai Learning Complex. After much gesturing and yelling, we figured out we were in the wrong place! Some of us started walking up some stairs towards another building (Why not explore?) and caused a ripple effect amongst the other teachers. Half of them followed us, while the other half wisely stood their ground. After busting up into another office building, we walked back down to where the bus had dropped us off. Apparently, the bus driver had finally figured out his mistake and had come back to pick us up. The other teachers were yelling at us from the open bus doors. We got back on the bus and started off towards a new destination. The Hyundai Learning Complex is built on a big hill with very narrow streets. In addition, people who work at the learning complex park their cars on the streets. You can imagine how laughable it is to have a tour bus trying to maneuver these pathways. Anyway, now all of us are back on the bus, peacefully seated again in our seats. The bus driver suddenly decides he needs to go back down the hill to get where we're going. His eyes are visible beneath his sunglasses. He is trying to get directions on his cellphone. This is a man intent and able, a driver with apparent skill and confidence. He turns his head to find his route, grips the wheel, turns.......*crunch*. Some engineer's car bites the dust. Our driver sums up the situation in an instant. He has probably been here before. He puts the bus in reverse, starts climbing back up the hill, fumbles the clutch.....*crunch*. The engineer's car has now felt the fury of a busload of foreigners with a Korean driver twice. Our driver accepts the facts and takes us away from that cursed disaster zone. Finally, we are here: orientation begins.

We started orientation by watching some traditional Korean dancing. We then were organized into groups based on our location in the province. This was a good opportunity to meet other people from our area! Alas, Sarah and I already knew 8 out of 10 people in our group. We've been here 7 weeks and we've put forth the effort to get to know the foreigners in our area. It has helped us a lot with the culture shock and adaptation to Korea. We were given an hour and a half to go through icebreakers. It was pretty easy. We just made the new people talk about themselves for 45 minutes each. Haha, just kidding, but really, 90 minutes to break the ice? We're not penetrating glaciers here. Or maybe we are??? We then had dinner and were expected to spend two hours after dinner making posters presenting ideas to 1) Introduce world cultures into the classroom and 2) Create an English-friendly environment at our schools. Needless to say, our group dominated the activity.

That night, we went out to the bar downtown to have some drinks with other teachers. We met a bunch more people and rocked out. We weren't allowed to have alcohol on the premises for the duration of the orientation, so each night a large number of us went downtown to the local bar. We didn't necessarily drink a lot, but alcohol eases the obvious social awkwardness and tension around new people. ^.^ These outings proved to be one of the best parts of the orientation. We were able to meet people from all different walks of life, people from different countries, and people with a lot more experience than we. Talking to people who have been here for 5-10 years was amazingly valuable for learning about teaching and Korean culture. The whole week turned out to be a big encouragement for us. I really feel like Sarah and I are doing the right things, both in the classroom and outside. In addition, it really helped to realize that there is a vast support group here with experience and compassion to help us out when we need. In a lot of ways, the native English teachers are on their own here in Korea, but the amount of support we can give each other is tremendous.

For our orientation, we spent a lot of time listening to lectures. We saw a couple demo teaching examples, which would've been quite a bit more useful a few weeks ago. Sarah and I attended an optional Korean culture class, which allowed us to answer some of our lingering questions. Korea really has quite a unique culture, and we're still struggling to figure it out. In addition to the lectures, they brought in a group to perform Nan-Ta for us. They brought in these 4 different percussion instruments. It's special, because it's a mixture of brass and leather, which they say you wouldn't expect to go together. The first instrument is a brass bowl-like thing a little bit larger than your hand. You hit it with a little mallet and it sounds a lot like a mini china cymbal (for you drummers) to me. The next one is a big gong thing that looks like a frying pan hung on some bamboo. You whack that with a mallet and it makes a deeper, resonating sound. The third instrument is a kind of round bongo with leather on both ends of it. You use a stick with that to make a deep *bong* sound. The final instrument looks like an hourglass with leather on both ends of it. You lay it sideways and use sticks to hit either/both end(s) of it. The first instrument is always the leader. It's doing the most complex beat, sort of like the melody, and all the other instruments follow it. The gong thing always plays at the start of a measure. The bongo thing splits up the measure into quarter or half notes. The hourglass thing does a more complex beat, keeping the rhythm. Watching this in action was absolutely unbelievable. There is supposed to be a kind of connection between the audience and the performers; they become one through the music. At any point in the performance, it is totally acceptable to start clapping and cheering. They taught us 3 cheers in Korean, but I have sadly forgotten them. I know now how my students feel when I ask them to review the vocabulary we covered in the previous week. After they performed for us, the players went through the theory of each instrument and had us sample each rhythm by clapping. They then allowed some of us to actually go on stage and try the instruments out! Unfortunately, Sarah and I missed out on this opportunity. There was limited space and time, and I was too slow compared to the ravenous dogs disguised as English teachers...

All in all, orientation proved more useful than I expected. We got a lot of ideas, met a ton of new people, and enjoyed a needed break from teaching. Some lectures were really good, some were pretty bad. We got a lot of different views and ideologies on teaching. I realized that Sarah and I are in okay situations, even if they can be difficult. We have to plan our own lessons, but that's actually a good thing. Some teachers we talked to have become expensive tape players at their schools. The freedom that Sarah and I have been given seems to be a little unusual for inexperienced teachers like us. We've been handed the reins and have to stay on the horse. Haha. Sarah is in a really interesting situation, because she sees each of her classes more often than I see mine. She's in charge of a lot bigger portion of each student's English education. We've been given a huge responsibility here.

That's one of the points that really struck me during the orientation. One of our lecturers was comparing language education here to language education in our countries. Would the USA accept a Korean teacher with no teaching qualifications to teach Korean in the US? What about if this teacher didn't speak any English at all? Ridiculous? Many of the native teachers here break their contracts and leave partway through the year. What would the outrage be in the US if we went through all that trouble and many teachers flew home without upholding their end of the bargain? It's at least a little interesting to think about. Our standards are much higher for our foreign language teachers. Obviously, this isn't a fair comparison, but what I like about these questions is that they exemplify the immense desire of the Korean people to learn English. They're desperate for English here, and the Korean government has been spending loads of money to bring in more and more native teachers and continue to adapt the curriculum to the needs of the students. It's amazing to think that only 50 years ago, the required foreign language in Korean schools was Japanese. Now, they have recently (2004) established an "English village" here in Korea for students to visit. We were presented with the history of English education in Korea. It's fascinating. Korean people are very conscious of their culture. As you well know, language often shapes and defines and culture. It gives it context. Korean people have had to work very hard to maintain their language and culture under the constant pressure from China and Japan. Thus, many Koreans are worried that English will displace Korean and the Korean people will lose a piece of their identity. I hadn't really realized that there was such strong resistance to English here. I'll be really interested to see what happens in 10 years when they compare the money they're spending on English to their results.


October 21, 2008


The weekend after that, John and I went to Seoul with Alex and Billy and Peter and our new friend Rob. We also met up with Frank, who was John's roommate freshman year and who has managed to unravel many a good time in the past. This time was no exception. (In a drunken attempt to hit John, Frank has actually managed to hit me in the face before.)

So it started out really great - we met at the bus terminal in Yeoju at around 12:30 PM, made it into Seoul by 2 - 2:30 (the bus ride is only an hour and a half, if that), and were navigating the subway toward this stream in the middle of the city that Rob wanted to see. The stream was pretty neat - it's this little river-type thing that was once disgustingly polluted before the government decided to clean it up and turn it into a little nature area.

We wandered around this area for a long time. On either side of the stream is a street with toooons of little shops crammed up against each other. These shops tended to be very specific and came in groups. For example, there would be a few shops in a row that sold baseball caps, and another few shops in a row that sold zippers, and so on. It was really cool. I bought these obnoxiously typical oriental foot slippers that I ended up getting rid of because they didn't fit me right.

We also found a huge market crammed into an alley. Down the center of it where small stands where you could sit at a little bar and each delicious food. I had Korean dumplings in soup (mandu), which I watched the woman make right in front of me. It was unbelievable.

So then night was falling and we decided to hit up the local Buy The Way convenience store for some inexpensive drinks before hitting the bars. We bought some bottles of soju, some beer, and some wine and sat around outside and chatted. I had told Billy that I didn't want Frank there and that if he came, I would leave. Well, he was coming, so I decided not to be a poor sport and leave, but informed him that if we started drinking, I would leave. But I didn't leave! And we got drunk outside at the Buy The Way and especially at this unbelievably delicious and cute Korean restaurant we found (I started a conversation with the Koreans eating next to us and pretty soon we were pouring drinks for each other - the girl even gave me her number). Dinner was actually blissful - one of the happiest times I've had in Korea. There's just nothing like overcoming a language barrier and truly enjoying people who have been steeped in an entirely different culture for their whole lives.

In the meantime at the other end of the table, Frank started blabbing about his lamentable love life to the entire table as he got drunker and drunker. We retired to a bar and then there's little left to the story, really. Frank gets violent when he drinks, especially when he's emotional. Plus, he's talked himself up as a martial arts champ to 6'8" Rob all week, put him in multiple headlocks the weekend before, and so this time Rob was having none of it and smashed Frank's head into the sidewalk six times.

The damage was considerable. Frank's face was messed the hell up but he was only ever wailing about this girl he was into, Rob was in tears because he never wanted to hurt him that badly, and the rest of us were just unbelievably upset by the whole episode. Ugh. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth - and I will leave it at that.

But here are some pictures:

Peter is on the right and Rob (aka "Lob the Lobster", but that's another story) is on the left. But this picture is all about the dude in the middle, who is carrying a ridiculous load of something on his back. Amazing.

Here's the stream I was talking about...

....and here's some guy singing in it. Haha! The ledge in the foreground is a bridge and the end of the stream. Along this part of the stream are all the myriad little shops. A short walk away is Dongdaemun (dong-day-moon), an area known for its giant fashion shopping centers in the form of towers.

The view from the bridge.

This is an older part of Seoul. On the hill behind the traditional Korean building are a bunch of traditional Korean homes. It's so cool that these areas still exist in such a modern city.

Unfortunately, this is what the night looked like for us after dinner. These two are Koreans, but you get the point. At least none of us needed help walking (except for Frank).

Seonunsan Provincial Park

The second weekend, the organization Korea On The Rocks was having a meet and greet so Shannon and Alex and I reunited to check out Korea's rock climbing scene. It turns out Korea has some of the best rock climbing in the world - fancy that!

The meet and greet was held at Seonunsan Provincial Park where there is this badass crag people were climbing on. I mean I'd seen professional rock climbing pictures before but I guess I didn't actually believe rocks like this existed. The pictures don't quite capture it, though. Anyway, so it took us at least 4 buses to get from Yeoju to the mountain. That in itself was a trip. The mountain was a city bus ride away from Go-chang, but there was no bus that went directly from Yeoju to Go-chang. So we first had to take a bus to Icheon (the city next door) and then to Jeonju (not to be confused with Cheongju, a city John and I visited together on a subsequent weekend) and then on to Go-chang. Actually, we accidentally bought tickets to Cheongju first, and then a very nice Korean man who was helping us realized it at the last second and we exchanged our tickets and made a mad dash for the bus. In our defence, it's almost impossible to pronounce Korean just how it's supposed to be pronounced after a week of being in the country. Go-chang is located in Jeolla province, so it was decently far south in Korea.

The meet and greet was pretty cool. The bus dropped us off and we immediately made the 30-minute hike to the crag and met a toooon of climbers. Many of them were Koreans but most were foreignors (lots from Canada). They were so intense - most were incredibly experienced but some of the kids were beginners like me, so we stuck to the 2 climbs we could do. It was my first time on real rock so it was pretty exciting. And everyone was really nice if a bit cliquey, and the ones who weren't cliquey were really awesome. They invited us to party in the hostel with them that night and we ended up having a great time. I learned one Western drinking game and one Korean drinking game and talked to people from lots of different places. All in all, it was a really good opportunity to be introduced to Korea's climbing community.

Here are some views of the park:
I just love the mist. It comes off the mountains in great sheets in the morning - it's so thick it looks like smoke in the first picture. This is what my drive to school looks like sometimes.

Here is the big kids' crag:
And here is the beginners' rock:
Alex and Shannon are both decently experienced climbers, and the guy on the rock is a really good climber, too. There is a more difficult climb far to the right of this photo. But this climb was my very first on real rock! And the one just to the right of it was my second! Here I am:
I'm lookin pretty badass in those spiffy shoes and special climbing pants, huh? I got a lot of comments on those shoes - the other climbers seemed to think they were pretty sweet.

This is the hostel we partied in. I guess Korean hostels are schmancier than normal hostels - I don't know because this is the first I've been in. But we had a great time and I got to talk to lots of Canadians. haha!

Okay so in this park were all these really strange, beautiful flowers. I think the park must be famous for them because there were tons of Koreans taking very professional photographs of them, and because there was a seafood festival going on, there were tons of amateurs taking photos, too. Here's a close-up (you can see them pictured above, though)
That's a close-up. They don't look quite as strange this way, but if you click on the third picture of this post, you might get a better idea of how strange they are.

Here is a photo of rocks piled in the river that leads you into the park. The flowers line the banks of the river, so this is where all the photographers were.

I told you I love those piles of rocks!

So there was also this seafood festival going on that some Korean we met on the way to the park insisted we check out (like we would even consider not!) Here are some snapshots:

.....giant tanks of live seafood......

.....really nice young boys cooking eels for the customers......

......small children painting a cloth mural (we all took a shot at it)......

......baahahhaha and Shannon haggling with the locals. Classic.

After checking out the festival (in which I ate eel and bought berry wine and chestnuts), we made the long trek back to Yeoju. We had spent the night with all three of us in a 2-person tent. There was also a crazy thunderstorm going on all night, so we didn't sleep very well. Plus we were kind of tired of some of the people there. So that's why we went home.

É so! (That's all!)

Did I mention I travel?

In case you were wondering what I do on the weekends, I either travel about the country or participate in the Yeoju English Stars program I introduced in the Temple Stay entry.

The first weekend after the initial arriving-in-Korea weekend, my friends Shannon, Peter, Alex and me took a little trip to Wonju, a city maybe 40 minutes east of Yeoju to hike in Chiaksan (or Chiak-san) National Park. Apparently Koreans speak of "ak" when something is challenging or difficult, and "-san" is an ending that means mountain. Similarly, "-sa" indicates temple, "-ri" village and so on.

Well the name was apt. It was an unbelievably difficult hike! Think using a stairmaster for 3 hours on the hardest setting. It was actually probably worse than that.....but it was breathtaking and rewarding and I'd do it again. Oh, then it took another 2 hours to get down, and that was worse. You probably wouldn't know this if you haven't' hiked recently, but down is worse. You're exhausted at that point and it hurts all your joints and your feet. I was sore for almost a week afterwards. I mean my calves were shaking violently by the time I reached the park entrance.

Anyway, I think this time I'll let the pictures do most of the talking.

Okay so here is what the park looks like on the way in:

Apparently it only takes 13 hours to hike the whole ridge, but I don't know how much I believe that.

...A bridge on the path leading to the trailhead. Check out the cool dragon head! This sign post was right by it:

Yup, that's right. We went to Birobong Peak, the 5.6 km hike that felt like 20 km (in a good way).

Here we are, innocent little us, having no idea what we were in for. Actually, I knew it would be a tough hike (we warned by one of the teachers Alex works with that Chiaksan is "very danger"), but the others didn't believe it.
We're standing on another bridge that looks out over this beautiful little falls/pool:
So then we walked a little more down this path and came across a temple. Here are some pics:

Finally, after walking for a half an hour, we began the real hike. At first it was pretty easy. We made it to a second waterfall pretty soon.
That's Peter and Shannon, still looking chipper.

Check these out:
See the rock piles? Hikers place these stones to make wishes. When you place a stone, you make a wish, but if you knock over someone else's stone in the process, you are cursed instead! At the top of the mountain are enormous piles of stones that one guy spent 30 years creating. He hiked to the top and placed a stone there every day. What a crazy! These piles were just to the left of the little cascade. Here's another picture of them, because I happen to love them:
So then after the "waterfall", the hike started to get difficult.
All those rocks are actually stairs. Often, there were actual staircases made of metal, but they weren't much easier to ascend because they were so long and steep. Here are some views of the way up:

And a caterpillar:

The view of the mountainside was where we breaked for lunch. Then the hike started getting ridiculous.

You could not actually traverse that part of the trail with a pack on your back, unless maybe you were a Navy Seal.

Then, occasionally, there were moments that reminded us why we were doing it. Those moments looked a little like this:
Pretty good moments, huh? And then, finally, the summit:

Yup, that says 1288 meters. That may not seem like a big deal, but that's a lot of meters to climb in less than 6 km.

And these are the piles that man spent all those years compiling:

That's Alex behind Shannon, in case you were wondering. But here, check out the summit for yourself:

Here are just a few shots of the hike down:
We're almost there! Isn't Korea beautiful? This next one is a picture of a small altar outside the temple. I took a picture of it on the way up, but it was so much more intriguing as night was falling, so I took another picture:
The plan had been to stay in Wonju for the night, but we got back with time enough to make the bus back to Yeoju, so we just went home. We were exhausted. And satisfied.

I'm back!

Sorry everyone for the entire month of neglecting this blog......it's just that life happened. Seriously though, living abroad got really tough on me for a bit and so I sort of became indifferent to everything - I stopped teaching myself Korean, stopped posting to this blog, I even stopped putting as much effort into my job as I usually do. Hopefully now I'm coming around that bend!

I would also like to thank the new-coming commentators....I really appreciate hearing from you and am so incredibly pleased you've taken an interest in my experiences. It means a lot. This actually goes for the veteran commentators as well. You're all great and I wouldn't have bothered keeping this up if it weren't for you!

I miss and love you all.

Stay tuned,