Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Chuseok! and the end of our Contracts.

It's Chuseok time in Korea.  For Koreans Chuseok means the nightmare of navigating over-crowded superhighways (a 4 hour drive can turn into 10) and awkward family dinners, answering questions like "Why aren't you married/why don't you have a better job/why don't I ever see you/where's my grand-child?"  For me, Chuseok means three days off and out of the meat-grinder that is my job.  After a year at CDI I feel like hot dog stuffing.  All ground up and squeezed out.  The monotony is relentless.  The tedium never ending.  Well, it'll be ending very soon for me.  I've got 7 working days left on my contract and I couldn't be happier.  My goal was to come to Korea for a year, save some money and travel.  Because of work I wasn't able to see any of the world (The three days of Chuseok are more holiday's than I've had all year), but I did save some money.  

A lot of money.  Enough money that Sara and I should be able to travel for the next year.  So I didn't get to China or Thailand, or the Phillipines, or Japan, or even Jeju-do.  Now I get to see the world, or most of it.  Our contracts end Oct 1 and we'll be out of Korea on the 3rd.  From here we go to Turkey where we'll spend 12 days in Istanbul.  From there we're going to Madrid for two weeks and then on to Paris.  Back to Madrid for Christmas and then to SE Asia to start the New Year.  Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia.  Then back to Madrid for March, April, May.  In June, my sister Katie's getting married and we'll spend the summer in Hawaii.  August should bring new jobs in Beijing or Riyadh or Istanbul or some place else.  Probably not Korea though.

I wouldn't wish my Korea experience on anyone.  It wasn't so terrible, I never got sick or hurt, I didn't lose my job and nothing catastrophic ever happened.  But, I feel like I got water tortured to insanity.  Slowly, every day my work and the nation of Korea laid me out flat on the table and dripped fat beads of water onto my forehead.  Every day, drop after drop, slowly drilling into my brain and driving me crazy.  I recently read an article that said that by September of the average year Korea has 212 sunny days.  This year, they've had 170.  Those 42 days nearly drove me insane.  The weather here is worse than anywhere I've ever lived, including Nebraska and Southern Illinois.  The winter was so long and so dry that my skin cracked and if I didn't sleep with the humidifier humming next to my bed, I woke up with a sore throat and cracked and bleeding lips.  The summer has been so rainy and so humid that as soon as I step into the elevator lobby of my apartment building my sweat glands pop and my clothes fill with sweat.  It rains five days a week and it seems like every day somebody reminds me that Korea is never like this and this weather is highly unusual.  Well, a lot of good that does me, now, living here this year.

At work, I've finally reached a stage where whatever crazy, half-cocked, spur of the moment idea they bring to me, I laugh a little and say, Ok, you want me to do that, fine.  I'll do it.  Last week on Wednesday night my boss came to me and asked if I would conduct a thinking project for 10 mothers.  At the school upstairs, where I do not work, on Thursday, tomorrow. At 11 in the morning, 5 hours before I normally report for work.  Later that night he handed me three pieces of paper and asked me if this project would be ok.  Sure, I said.  Then he told me that there would not be 10 mothers that instead there would be 30.  Or 50, he wasn't sure.  Ok, I said.  

I showed up the next morning at 10:30.  Another boss asked me what I would be doing.  I stared at him. "What would I be doing?"  "Yes," he said, staring back at me.  "A thinking project, for the mothers," I half asked.  "Good.  Ok.  I will translate for you."  Wonderful.  37 mothers showed up.  About 4 spoke any English.  I work with 9,10,11,12 year olds every day.  They speak English.  They require a great deal of energy from me to keep them focused, working, and caring.  They spend 12 hours in school or academy, you have to give them something.  My teaching persona is somewhere between Ronald McDonald and a gorilla.  Korean mothers have little patience for these antics.  I stood and listened to my boss give a presentation about the school, all in Korean.  He finished and I stepped up.  The mothers stared.  I started my presentation.  A thinking project has three parts.  Part 1 - Brainstorming.  "Why do you want your children to learn English?" I asked.  Blank stares.  My boss translated.  More blank stares.  When I ask my students why they learn English they almost always say "Because my mother makes me," so I figured the mothers would have a good reason for torturing their sons and daughters with expensive English academies.  I was wrong.  Here, you do things because everyone else is doing things.  Because it's just what you do.  After poking and prodding and pushing, I got "Get a good job," "Read Harry Potter," and "Communicate while travelling."  CDI costs $250 a month.  For 12 months, that's $3000.  Students can stay at Chungdahm for 5 years.  $15,000 to learn to read Harry Potter and order pizza with double cheese and double pepperoni while on vacation in New York.  

Step 2 of  a thinking project is the actual creation of something.  A skit, or a song, or a poem, or a poster.  I opted for a poster because I thought it would be easy and it might be fun and it doesn't require any English language skills, a safe choice, but also risky because these women do not look like they have touched a crayon in decades (When my students take these types of creative projects home, the posters often end up in the trash because mom does not consider them learning).  The idea for the thinking project was to have the mothers draw a poster of what they hoped their children could achieve with their English language skills acquired at Chungdahm.  I asked them to draw this.  Blank stares.  The hum of the air conditioning.  My boss translated.  More stares, more humming.  I pushed, I prodded, I poked.  I went to one group and picked up a crayon.  9 mothers around a table.  1 piece of paper and some crayons.  I drew a face.  Dotted in some eyeballs.  Happy or sad? I asked.  Happy, I lined in a smile.  The mother described her daughter's goals.  She hated Chungdahm but she wanted to be a writer.  I drew books and some stick-man fans.  The drawing was terrible.  Did the mother appreciate this?  Was this something the mother wanted for her daughter?  I have no idea.  I got up.  The mothers chatted quietly in Korean.  I walked the room.  2 groups drew their son's playing soccer.  1 group drew their son as a diplomat.  I thought that was pretty good.  5 minutes later 4 of the mom's actually stood up in front of the other mothers and completed step 3 of the thinking project.  Presentation.  They stood and they described their poster and they described what their children wanted.  They did it in English.  They did a fantastic job, confident and clear.  That was pretty cool.

When the project was over my boss excused me.  "Ok, you can go."  That's the last he said to me about the whole thing.  No "Thank you," no "Good job," nothing.  Fine, ok.  They did buy us Pizza.  One of the hardest things about this job has been the lack of feedback.  No one has said anything to me in 11 months of teaching about what happens in my classroom.  This, despite the fact that we have CCTV in our classrooms and I know our bosses watch and file a report at least twice a month.  No good job, no bad job.  No one says anything.  From what I understand, the paycheck is the reassurance that you are doing what you should be doing.  If it's there on the 5th of every month, keep it up.  If it's not, see you later.  It must be my American attitude towards work.  I'm soft, I'm weak.  I need someone to tell me I'm doing something good, something right, or that I'm doing something wrong.  Something.  I must be crazy.

Also, I'm 3 months sober, so there's that.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Finally, A New Blog Post for a New Looking Blog

Inspired by my mother and my sister and my girlfriend, owners of tthree excellent blogs, I'm going to go ahead and try to start blogging more.


Mostly my life is really boring, but if you clicked the links above you know it's not like anyone else in my family has a ton going on and they blog all the time. "Boring Thomas Blogs" could be a group name or a movie or something. A movie where you just watch Adam Sandler type and keep waiting for it to get funny but it doesn't and then you're like, "Oh, Adam Sandler, you fooled me again. I should have gone to see that Will Ferrell movie, which would have been equally un-funny, but likely a shorter wait for the un-funny."

The new picture is better than the old picture because Sara and I are both a lot thinner and we're not covered in gross South American river water. The biggest problem is that the new picture shows us in a bar about to get wrecked, or already wrecked in my case, but now I'm trying to avoid getting wrecked. I've stopped drinking during the week and I'm working on quitting altogether. Outside of a little Korean Mokkoli this weekend I'm doing pretty good.
                       A picture of me trying to quit drinking.  FAIL

Seriously, I've cut my drinking way back.  I've gone from 5 nights a week of black out drunk to 1 night every other week.  Success!  In February I woke up one too many times in either a pile of my own sick, face deep in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or with my shoes on in bed.  Since March I've joined a gym, worked out, eaten healthy, scaled back the drinking and lost almost 15 pounds.  All together since I've been in Korea, I've lost more like 30.  It's great.  With the cut back drinking and the  disappearance of the fat deposits previously located under my neck (4 Chins), on my back (Shrek back), on my sides (Love Handles), on my stomach (Baby bump - rarely attractive on a man), everything has been better.

My work life is better and my personal life is better.  So, my whole life is better.  Work is no longer a drag, no longer a headache inducing six hours of suck.  Now it's six hours of fun.  Last week I had my students convinced that my real job was at Pizza Hut and I just came to Chungdahm because I liked to teach Korean kids.  Oddly, I think I might be right.  I now see my job as six hours in the middle of a long day of good times.  The kids have tons of energy and like to tell me about their lives and I like to listen and tell them I'm a scientist sent from America to study the effects of eating human brains, the brains of small Korean children.  Teach-uh!

During the last couple of weeks all the middle-schoolers in Korea have been studying for and taking some ginormous test that decides whether or not they become President of the World or if they will work at Starbucks forever.  This has a lot of them fairly tightly wound and crying has become pretty common.  Also, many of the middle school students have been gone, studying at home.  For me this has been good and bad.  The good is that some of my classes have been cancelled.  The bad is that some of them haven't and instead of the normal 11 or 12 students, I've had 2.  3 hours with 2 middle school girls can be one of the true hellish times of life.  If they decide with their middle school girl ESP to hate you and completely shut down, three hours feels like 30.

However, if they decide to just talk the whole time to distract you from the lesson, then the 3 hours feels like 30 minutes.  These types of classes are really great because the kids just sit and talk in English the whole time, trying to keep you from doing classwork.  They think they're being so smart, but now I've got Grace and Judy and Bianca, three students I barely hear a word out of on normal nights, conversing in English for 3 full hours.
If you figure that private lessons similar to these can run almost $100 an hour, these girls get $300 worth of English classes in one night, which is usually what they pay for a whole month.  Sadly, when a class like this gets observed on CCTV by my boss, I get in a little bit of trouble.  I'm not sticking to the curriculum which is designed to get them to talk.  I'm skipping that whole curriculum and getting straight to the talking.  Stupid foreigner.

Other things I've done in the last couple of months:

-Korean baseball game.  College football crowd + Triple-A baseball = Fun.  Every player in America has his own song for when he's up to bat.  Every baseball player in Korea has his own crowd chant.  Strike 2 in Korea gets a bigger applause then most doubles in the US.  Plus, inside the stadium you've got 7-11's, Burger King's and KFC's.  With no price gauging.  Beers are 3 dollars.

-Movies.  Avatar, Kick-Ass, Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, Iron Man 2.  In that order from best to worst.  Iron Man 2 was extremely bad.  Really boring.  Very shiny, lots of techno-crap, but garbage movie.  Let's talk about what's at stake:  Avatar - THE WORLD, Alice - THE WORLD, Clash of the Titans - THE WORLD.  Iron Man 2 - Not the world.  One of these movies sucks a lot harder than the others.  I really like to see summer popcorn movies, but so often they drive me so completely insane with their crappiness.  It just doesn't seem that hard.  Unlikely bad-ass, even more bad-ass villain, some reason for revenge against said villain, the fate of the world in the hands of unlikely bad-ass, dialogue that doesn't force liquid from my bowels in either direction:  Good movie.

I'm not alone in my opinion of Iron Man
Although, "Unwatchable" is probably the wrong word.  Unenjoyable would be my choice.  Like literally, this movie should not be enjoyed by anyone.  You can watch it, but for the love of god, don't enjoy it.

   "Someone Peed my suit - Oh, it was me."  SPOILER:  Actual Plot Point
-Gone Outside.  Part of the reason my life has been so boring has to do with the abysmal weather.  Yesterday we saw 70 for the first time.  I spent 20 hours outside walking this weekend.  Lots of trees, flowers, even some water in the dinky little river in this part of Seoul.  Also, crane game, Supershot basketball, Time Crisis, and other things that make Korean adults look and act like Korean 12 year olds.  Also, I scored 228 on the Supershot at Taito Station at AK Plaza.  I cannot be stopped.

-Bought clothes.  Losing thirty pounds is awesome.  Having a belt that has 8 inches of extra material and pants that fall down all the time, not awesome.  Luckily I'm down to a weight where I can fit in the clothes here.  Also, I can afford some clothes.  All excellent.

-Slept Less.  Anyone who's been around me when I'm sleeping knows I can sleep for 15 hours a day, easy.  I used to think I needed that much sleep to be effective.  Effective at what? you're all asking yourselves.  It turns out I don't need 15 hours.  Now I'm trying to sleep 7 hours a night and I'm feeling a lot better.  Plus, there's more hours in my day for things like the crane game and watching baseball.

I guess that's all.  Being challenged on the internet to blog more by your mother, and then allowing your mother, who could not check her voicemail on her cell phone until about a year ago, to beat you, is embarrassing.  I can't let it stand.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Life in Korea

I have never been this happy in my entire life.

I have a job I love, a great relationship, an awesome apartment and I make enough money to live comfortably on and even save some for future plans. I’m losing weight, I’m exercising. I’m even posting on my neglected blog. I feel like I’m doing everything right. All of this in spite of the fact that I live in a place where not only can I speak about ten words, but I can’t even read. I’m working on these things. A very nice friend is helping me learn to read and speak and in exchange we chatter a lot in English so that he can practice his foreign language. His name is Je Gwan. I doubt that that is how you are supposed to spell it when writing it in English, but that’s my best approximation. We meet once a week at a coffee shop (which are in abundance here) and he helps me in my desperate attempts to speak Korean and I correct what little of his fabulous English speaking skills need correcting. I really like him. He’s so nice, and so helpful. Je Gwan might be one of the nicest people I know. Every so often, though, when we are talking he’ll say something that makes me feel sad for him. He is planning to go to university in the states for a little and we often talk about where he might go. I asked him once about his major, and he said art history. My immediate response was to ask if that is why he wants to go to the states, to study art history. “No” he said “I have to study international business for my father.”
The next week, we were talking about the things that we love to do. He kept telling me that he used to be a swimmer, but he quit because he’d never be number one. He used to study photography, but he quit because he’s never be number one. Whether this is a Korean trait, or one specific to him I don’t know. But he seems to be under this pressure that is a different kind of weight. It is a pressure of acceptance and resignation. I can see it in his face when he talks to me. I often think about his face as he told me about abandoned passion after abandoned passion while I look at my students’ furrowed brows over their test papers (which they get every class period). This always makes me a little sad, but shortly one of my students will draw a picture of poop on their test complete with swarming flies and I remember that everyone is not Je Gwan. And that’s the flip side of my experience here; the whimsy and giggles of my students that I experience everyday. Sometimes it’s annoying. Like when they are supposed to repeat what I say and one of them will inevitably go incredibly slow, like he’s been electronically slowed down. They think this is hilarious. And I do too, but as a professional teacher I can’t laugh or the delicate balance of power in the classroom will shift and I will be on the losing side. And my boss is right, these kids can smell blood. Most of the time, I find their antics heartwarming, like when they try to distract me from the lesson of the day with questions about whether or not fish can make sound. They really are some of the cutest children in the world. Korean kids really have a monopoly on that market. The little girls always have the most complicated bobbles in their hair; from elaborate bows and ribbons to entire plastic representations of all the food groups. That’s another market they have the monopoly on, cute bobbles.

And then there are the pencil cases.

These kids have pencil cases that make the cockpit of an F-16 look like a light switch. They actually have buttons for each pencil that, when pressed, ejects the desired pencil into the air for easy and immediate access for the pilot. And every now and again, when things are very, very quiet in class because they are taking their tests, a rogue pencil case leaps from a desk and lands with a loud and resounding CRACK making every student jump, the owner of the unfortunate pencil case gasp in despair at their ruined equipment, and me cringe with exasperation.

But somewhere between the drawings of excrement and the pencil cases, I have a lot of fun at work with my students. I love my job. I know that I am a glorified babysitter and that my lesson plans have been teacher proofed by an R &D department so that they cannot be screwed up by some of the Neanderthals that come here from the states to teach, but I can feel that the days I am trying hard to get the kids involved make a huge difference for their learning experience as well as mine. And there are days when I don’t try as hard, when I’m frustrated by their behavior or the meeting I just had. But I still love my job. As it turns out, I was right; I do want to be a teacher. If I can enjoy this teaching, that can really get pretty mechanically repetitive, than I must have chosen the right profession. I’m really lucky. I don’t have to work so much that I get too frustrated with my job, in fact, there’s a lot of time in my day when I get bored. The students are busy memorizing or taking their tests or writing their stories…like right now, while I write this blog. I wish this weren’t the case. But I have absolutely no control over the curriculum or the lesson plans. They’re done for me. And if I get too off the mark, they check CCTV. I’m recorded every single day and watched randomly in case I need to be reminded about the specific lesson plans that I might accidentally veer away from. But most the time, I’m having fun. In the classroom, out of the classroom I am really glad every single day that I came here. Even if I am illiterate.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bundang Teaching and Living. Mostly Boredom.

I haven't posted in a long time not because I hate my blog or the people that read it, but more because my life has settled down into a routine so boring I'm reminded of high school. Get up, shower, eat, go to work, come home, watch t.v., read books, sleep, do it again. Not only that, but my teaching job is so structured, generally to the minute, that every day is exactly the same, just with different students and slightly different information to teach.

Despite the boredom, I can't complain. I don't know that I've ever been happier. My job is so incredibly rewarding, what with the teaching and the kids speaking more and more English with fewer and fewer mistakes and those monster paychecks I get once a month, I'm just happy. Plus, most of the rest of my life is basically in order. I'm eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep, but not the 12 hours of day wasting I used to, and I can't help but think how different life would be if I'd gone to grad school last year. I mean, I know how that goes; the 15 extra pounds from the greasy fast food, the constant stress of papers to grade and papers to write, the drinking, good god the drinking, the hangovers, the swollen puffy eyes, the bloated face, the liver pains, the next day apologies. No, I'm thinking Korea was a good idea.

The teaching really is rewarding. Although the strange material keeps coming at me. Sex-selective abortion was a vocabulary term a couple of weeks ago, and there were a couple of 12 year olds who knew exactly what it was and didn't hesitate to tell me all kinds of stories about their cousins or aunts or mom's friends who'ed really wanted that boy. And then of course there was the eight year old who knew nothing about abortion or any of that and I started down a very strange path when I asked how long it takes for a woman to have a baby, "Teacher, eight months? Ten months? Nine?" And then asked the question how long does it take for a man to make a baby? "Teacher, a week?" And then I realize that I'm basically starting to teach sex ed, which I really don't want to do, what with my hyper-sensitive ingrained Americanism, as in "we don't talk about sex with children lest we be accused of teaching kindergarteners about using condoms." So it was at that point I just stopped and said "Ask your parents."

This is the type of thing I constantly tell my students: "Tell your parents that if you ever get into a situation where you have to eat them, it's called endo-cannibalism." And then I imagine the whole conversation between Suzie and her mother, Suzie who is cute in the way a baby panda and a baby tiger curled up in a ball are cute. Mother: "What did you learn today?" Suzie:"That if you eat me or I eat you, that's called Endocannibalism." Mother: "Well, let's hope it never comes to that." Suzie: "It's pretty rare, but it could happen, so we'd better be prepared." And then I imagine the mother's dazed look, and the thought bubble, "Last week sex-selective abortion, this week Cannibalism? Well they say Chungdam is the best, I guess she'll keep going."

Also I feel like my students really learn to speak English. In Korea you can safely assume that many of the people you come into contact with speak some English. They've invested billions of dollars to learn our language, and almost everyone who goes to college speaks English and every one who works in a service job speaks some English. But the problem is that the English teaching has been so poor that many Koreans can make the sounds and the words and all that, but they can't actually COMMUNICATE in English. It's a country that's learned scripts. As in, "May I take your order?" And the twenty or so reasonable responses to that question. But ask the people at the hotel when the church service starts at the chapel around the corner, or the guy at 7-11 if he saw and liked the movie Avatar, good luck. Go off the script, and you can forget about comprehension and communication.

A lot of this comes from the drilling and the memorization that are so prized. Sure, a lot of 12 year old kids have vocabularies that rival most American college graduates, but when they don't know how to put the words together, it's useless. It becomes sounds with no meaning. Combine that with the fact that many of the public school English teachers are Korean, and speak English with heavy, heavy accents, you get students who can pass any English test you put in front of them based on grammar and vocabulary, and can memorize huge paragraphs of English in no time, but when you ask them "What's your name?" they just stare at you and then maybe answer something like "Lal-pa" which you then ask them to repeat five hundred times until finally you look it up on the computer or have him write it down and it says "Ralph." This is both frustrating, and incredibly common.

But at Chungdahm, a school that has a strong emphasis on memorization and vocab building still, there's this small glimmer of hope. I can tell that these kids are learning to combine their English scripts. That after a couple of weeks in my class they stop looking at the book in front of them for the answer to "How was your weekend?" (Another odd phenomenon, I can ask them difficult questions about the reading which they can find the answers to in the book, but ask them "How's it going?" or to summarize what they've just read, and they act like your speaking a language their parents haven't invested thousands of dollars in.) It's a nice feeling, because I know that many of my students will go out into the world ACTUALLY speaking and communicating in English and not just working off of their script. And my hope is that soon all of Korea will get this message, that all of Korea will see a true return on their billion dollar investment. We'll see.

Other than that, my life is going by fast. Christmas was great, my parents were here for the week, it snowed a ton, life was good. And as you can see, I even had the time, money, and friends to Karaoke some.