Settling In: My First Week of School

UPDATE: Something happened to the pictures the first time I published, I’m assuming something to do with using my work computer instead of my personal one? Anyway, it should be all fixed now. Thanks for your patience and enjoy!


Despite the best efforts of the flu, I managed to both make it to and survive my first week of elementary school teaching in Korea. The week was less than normal for several reasons, but it gives me a pretty good idea of what I’ve gotten myself into, and it appears to be good news.


First, let me explain a little about Korean education as I was led to expect it from EPIK orientation and online research:

Typical Korean Students

Korean kids study from about 9 am to about 11 pm (later for the high-schoolers). They start with public school, then do after school programs, private English schools, and subject tutors before going home to do more hours of homework. I think this speech was given to me a half a dozen times at orientation as a way of helping us understand what our students go through, and to give us some sympathy for them in our classes. English class is often the only “fun” class they will have all day (even the little kids), and kids will often end up falling asleep in your class because they were up past midnight studying. Also, your class is only one of 3-4 places they study English.

Next, let me explain a little about my school:

I guess recently the Korean government decided to pour some foreigner money into the lower income schools around the cities, so I work in a neighborhood that one of the locals described as a “slum”. OK, Korean slums aren’t really as bad as say American ones, there aren’t any metal detectors and no cops are roaming the hallways,

Not actually one of mine, but…

but the kids are from economically disadvantaged homes and often receive little to no positive attention from their parents, let alone the costly private after school programs. In the first week, I’ve already encountered several special needs children, and heard horror stories of abusive parents. Social services isn’t really a thing here yet, so kids aren’t protected unless the home life is Jim Jones levels of bad. As such, my kids don’t have a lot of advantages that I was led to believe Korean students have. They don’t have a very high English level and my class is most likely the only place they will get to study English (or possibly get positive feedback).

20160317_160151.jpg

My “office” / English resource room.

Do not mistake this for a horrible situation, however.We may not have the best facilities, but we have computers, TVs, and about a million English books. Our main textbooks come with lots of cut out activities and interactive DVD-Roms. And my “office” is the English play room/ library which is full of stories and even a short row of student accessible computers. On top of that, the kids aren’t little hellions of bad attitude or behavioral problems. Most of them are really cheerful, well behaved, respectful and pretty happy to see me. I don’t know if they’re happy to see their other teachers as well, but I get lots of greetings and big smiles in the hallways and the classroom.

20160316_075209In the morning, I wake up before 7 am to get ready. My neighborhood is still quiet then, and when I step out onto the cold spring sidewalk, everything except the 24hr stores are closed up tight. Because I live in a pretty ritzy neighborhood, I have a bit of a bus ride to school, but it’s a nice time to wake up and see what’s in the city through the windows.

20160316_081753Because it’s still so early, the bus isn’t too crowded and I can usually get a seat.
Walking from the bus stop to the school is really peaceful. There are a million tiny shops selling fruit, sweets, snacks, and various household goods, but it’s still too early, so the little alleyways are silent. When I round the corner and my school comes in sight, I suddenly become a superstar. Kids recognize me and are happy to say hello or practice the most recent English phrase they learned in class. They call my name from across the street and run up to get high fives. It really is a great way to start the day.
20160316_082107My first week was actually the second week of school because I spent the first week in quarantine, so you can imagine the kids were surprised to see me after their first week with no native English speaker. There were lots of curious glances and furtive shy peeking in the window. Some brave students even came up to ask what day I would be in their class. Monday wasn’t especially a typical day, but I made it through my classes with minimal technical difficulties, and learned that there are three other teachers I’ll be spending most of my time with. The other two English teachers, who I will refer to as co-teacher 1 and co-teacher 2, as well as a music teacher that is in our hallway. They’re all really sweet ladies, and did their best to make me feel included, sitting with me at lunch and chatting with me in the hallways or after class.

MONDAY

I had to go back to the doctor on Monday after class, which is the boring part. Then I found out that we were having our first teacher’s dinner that night. EPIK orienters advised us to get in on any teacher activities to make our stay easier, but this one sounded like fun anyway. Apparently, every month, the teachers pay into a pot fund and then once in a while we all go out for a great dinner. 20160307_170141This one was our year start dinner, and we went to a traditional Korean barbecue place. Every 4 people shared a table with it’s own grill and assortment of banchan (반찬 : the side dishes served at every Korean meal). It was the duty of the youngest at the table to cook, which is our music teacher, so she set to grilling the pork belly (Samgyeopsal 삼겹살) which we ate with the various spices, sauces and side dishes to change the flavor of every bite.

I was mostly watching and following along, but it was delicious. We ate two plates full and then the waiters came by to ask us what we wanted for dinner! In Korea, after the plate of meat is all cooked and shared, people order some soup or a noodle dish to finish off. I was stuffed, but the ladies ordered a single bowl of a cold noodle soup, which I tried a bite of because they told me that most foreigners don’t like that kind of soup… so of course I had to try. It actually wasn’t bad. The noodles were a little chewy, but the flavor was nice. I think if I hadn’t been so full of pork belly I might have eaten more.

My Korean co-teachers don’t drink much, so we toasted with cider. It’s not what you think. In the west, cider is made from apples, either a spiced apple juice or a hard (alcoholic) apple juice. In Korea (and Japan), cider is a clear, carbonated, sweet, non-alcoholic beverage. I have no idea why it’s called cider. Think Sprite/7Up. It was my first real day out after the flu, and I’d already had a long day at school, and the doctor, and dinner, but it was soooo good. Then they asked if I wanted to go get some dessert afterward. Imagine how sick I have to be to turn down dessert. I wasn’t that sick.

They started describing this kind of frozen dessert,

snow-cone-cup

American Sno-Kone

but didn’t know the English name. After a while, I realized they were talking about shaved ice. Now, Americans (49 states anyway) don’t know from shaved ice. We have this thing called a sno-cone, which is small chips of ice covered bright colored sugary artificial flavored syrup. Hawaiians know a little better. They actually shave the ice instead of chipping it, resulting in a fluffy, fresh snow texture. Some of them even use real fruit in the syrups! I also had the chance to eat some Japanese shaved ice last summer in Yokohama.

yokohama ice

Japanese shaved ice

It was really good… compared to the only thing I’d ever known, which was of course the American sno-cone. When I tried to describe these to the Koreans however, they got looks of disbelief mixed with pity. I even showed them some pictures on my phone to get the point across. They smiled a little knowingly at one another and said that Korean shaved ice was really the best.

I’m used to most people thinking their own culture is the best at xyz, so I take it with a grain of salt. But then they started showing me pictures on their phones, and one told me about the seasonal strawberry flavor that had strawberries, whipped cream and cheesecake! WHAT! So, yeah, we’re going to get dessert.

We walked a long way, it might have been faster to take the bus or subway, but it happened to be a warm night while we had an early taste of spring, so I didn’t mind too much. Heck, if not for the lingering cough, it would have been idyllic. Finally, we arrived.

We picked up another teacher on the way, so there were five of us, and  co-teacher 1 offered to treat us all, so she headed up to the counter to order.I can’t even. Just look at it. It’s better than it looks. And it looks amazing, right?

20160307_191911

Korean shaved milk ice

So, instead of shaved water ice, this is made with shaved milk ice. Making it way more creamy than a mere shaved ice. The bowl is filled with this fluffy frozen milk, then topped with fresh berries, cream and a slice of cheesecake! It’s served with a little dish of sweet condensed milk in case it’s not sweet and creamy enough for you. The five of us shared 2 of these monstrous creations. I’m an addict, but I can’t go alone. Even if I did manage to finish a whole one, I’d feel guilty for days.

We had some great conversation too as we learned more and more about each other. I’d answered a lot of questions about myself in class for the students, but not all of them were as … honest? as possible. I mean, I didn’t lie, but when asked my favorite food/video game/tv show/book, I tried to answer things that I really do like, but that would be more familiar to them than my actual favorites. Good thing for me I like Harry Potter and the Avengers. But, at dessert, with just the teachers, we started talking about other things, and it turns out that  co-teacher 1 and I are both avid Whovians. I’m pretty psyched about that.

They’ve sort of decided I’m the font of all things English, which I don’t mind, but they did ask a lot of questions. The music teacher told me a story about how when she was travelling in Japan, she met an Englishman who, dressed in many layers in the warm weather, she figured must have been uncomfortable, so she told him he looked hot. Apparently this caused his face and ears to turn red, much to her surprise. I had to explain the other meaning of the word hot, and a few social context norms as to why this man would be so embarrassed to have a pretty young Korean woman tell him he was hot. This led to a comparison of our favorite stars, and it turns out we had a lot of overlap in our tastes in men too. I really can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with “girl talk”. Or teaching anyone to say “Cumberbatch”.

“Hot” in any language.

Co-teacher 2 seems constantly surprised that I’m not a more stereotypical American. She was surprised that I could read Korean (and wanted to learn more), surprised I could use chopsticks at dinner, and surprised I was comfortable sharing a common dish while eating. I guess those aren’t normal American traits, but it was strange to run across someone with such strongly ingrained stereotypes of us. I tried to reassure her that she wasn’t necessarily wrong, that of course many Americans do live up to those ideas, but that I’d been fortunate enough to have lots of international experiences, and a group of friends at home who are way more comfortable with things like affection between platonic friends and sharing stuff like food, drinks, clothes or whatever.

TO FRIDAY

The rest of the week was me introducing myself to the students class after class, and having lunches with the other teachers, and hanging out after classes finishing our lesson plans or just drinking coffee and sharing snacks. One day, we took off early again to get me registered with the immigration office and start my Korean bank account. It was a lot of walking around down by the waterfront, so I got to see and explore another part of town and the weather was cool and sunny, so it was a good day for it. When we finished our errands, co-teacher 1 and I went over to Starbucks to celebrate and had so much fun sharing stories that we didn’t even realize how much time had passed and she had to run off quickly to pick up her son.

Thursday was an evaluation day for the students. In Korean schools, there are two kinds of teachers/classes: homeroom and subject. In elementary school, the students spend most of their day with the homeroom teacher who covers most things like Korean, Math, Science, PE, etc. The subject teachers are English, Music and Ethics (as far as I can tell). The homeroom teachers actually look down a little on subject teachers, which in turn frustrates the subject teachers who feel like they work just as hard (if not harder) because they have such a narrow focus. Anyway, evaluation day meant that there would be no subject classes, so we had nothing to do and spent the whole morning in one empty classroom, making a huge mess with our combined piles of drinks and snacks. There’s a lot of “desk-warming” time for Guest English Teachers, but it looks like sometimes at least, I’ll get to spend it having fun with the other subject teachers and not just stuck at my desk alone.

Friday is my shortest class day, because we only have 3 classes, and we can finish our planning early. However, there’s no early leaving, so I hung out on my computer until 4:30 playing games and chatting with friends on Facebook. I’m really hoping to start using this time more constructively, like studying my Korean or (as I am doing now) working on this blog. But it was my first week, so I gave myself some permission to slack.

WTF DUDE?

Then, on my way out, the kookiest thing happened to me. I decided to buy a pizza from the local shop on my way home (that’s not the kooky part), but as I was walking toward the shop, a young man approached me to say hello. Now, I’m a little bit used to being a minor celebrity when I’m abroad. Really, unless you’re in a high tourist area, the chances are there aren’t a lot of white folks (or whatever the non-native ethnicity happens to be). Europe was nice, because as long as I kept my mouth shut, no one could spot me out by sight. But in the Middle East and Asia, I kind of stand out with my glowing white skin (this is not a brag, btw, I’d love some melanin to protect me from the sun’s harsh rays, it’s just not in the genes). As such, it does not freak me out when random people come up and get very curious or friendly. I watch out for signs of scams or aggression, but most of the time, it’s really just honest curiosity and a chance to see if that English they learned in school really works.

So, when this guy came up to me to say hello, I was friendly back. I know in a way I represent my country when I’m out, so I try to be a good example. Plus, I’m actually a pretty friendly person and probably talk to strangers more than is strictly good for me. He asked my name, and also my age, but I’d been warned that asking someone’s age at first meeting is normal in Korea because they use age as part of the system of address (how you speak to someone older/younger than you changes). He also introduced himself and his own age. His English was shaky, but I try to be encouraging (I am a teacher, it’s a good habit). I thought that might be the end of it, since the light changed and I could cross the street, but he followed along, continuing to try to communicate. I thought maybe he lived or worked nearby and wanted to be friends, OK. We took a selfie together and I gave him my public Facebook page (not personal), then said goodbye and went into the pizza shop.

Still not the kooky part. So far this has been a pretty normal cultural exchange, and I felt safe and happy. I order my pizza (a sweet potato pizza, which I have been told is a popular Korean variant and a must-try for all visitors, with a “gold” crust, I’ll come back to the pizza later), and am told it will take about 10 minutes to cook. Then the guy spots me through the window and waves me back out into the street.

This is where it gets weird.

He then confesses his love.

And asks if we can be a couple. “Couple” sounds like “cup-oo-roo”, but I know what he’s saying anyway.

A thing you may or may not know, depending on your own gender and nationality, but girls hate having to turn dudes down. It’s awkward and can be scary. Often when a guy is rejected, he can become hostile, insulting us or even attacking us. It’s not a joke, it’s not an overstatement. It happens all the time. I’ve seen the police called on guys in my own regular hangout places because they got hostile that some girl wouldn’t kiss them. I’ve had plenty of dudes call me all manner of unpleasant things. So most of us learn the delicate art of the gentle turn down/de-escalation. This usually involves flattery, humor, and the inevitable presence of another man in the girl’s life. I often had to pretend to be married in the Middle East just to get away from amorous dudes. Not fun. And it’s even harder when you’re facing a language barrier. Plus, this was my first time dealing with this in Korea (every culture is different), and the whole conversation had started as normal.

I was flummoxed, but tried to stay light, smiling at his compliments and saying no, no, I’m too old for you. (10 year age difference). But he kept insisting! “I love you”, “Couple”. He took off my glasses and held them away from me. I’m pretty blind, and while I have extras in my apartment, I don’t like being unable to see well. He was trying to tell me how pretty my face was without glasses, and that I shouldn’t wear them. Which is a line I don’t think I’ve heard since the early 90’s. I like my hipster argyle frames, I own contacts too, but it’s a choice… my choice. I retrieved my glasses and put them back on. I was still trying to keep it light. I’m not really sure if that was the right choice, but I was nervous about making a scene in a neighborhood that my co-teachers had described as a “slum”, and I started thinking back to the lecture on sexual assault that the US Embassy rep had given us at orientation. I didn’t really want to believe this young man was violent, he just seemed desperate, but desperation can be scary too.

This went on for what felt like an eternity, back and forth. He also took my phone at one point and added himself to my private Facebook contact list (I have removed him, now, of course), and tried to get my Kakao Talk and phone numbers as well. He kept touching me, taking off my glasses and stroking my hair and face. And I kept pulling away, and saying no as politely as I could. I never let myself get angry. Looking back, I know that was a learned response to avoid conflict with males at all costs, but that upsets me too, because how the heck am I supposed to say no if a nice no doesn’t work and a firm no is attacked? Ugh. Consent issues.

I finally fled back into the pizza shop, which is how I know it wasn’t actually as long as it felt, because my pizza wasn’t even ready. When I went back out and started heading to the bus stop, he caught up with me again to give me a little can of lemonade he’d clearly just purchased in the shop nearby. I tried to decline, but he tucked it into my bag anyway. In the end, he got a kind of cold fish hug, but took the opportunity to smell my hair. Leaving me totally creepified.

I spent the whole way home looking like a crazy person, muttering to myself and going over and over the experience trying to figure out where it went from normal to nuts and what I could have done differently. Even then, it took talking to three different girl-friends online about it to calm down enough to enjoy my pizza.

THE POTATO PIZZA

Most countries have imported the pizza over time. It doesn’t always look like what we think of pizza as in America. Sometimes the crust is a totally different texture, sometimes the sauce is sweet or spicy, or not made of tomatoes at all. The toppings can be anything, literally. In China, I saw pizza that used mayonnaise instead of cheese because they’d only seen pictures and didn’t know what it was. So, when I came to Korea, and my instructors told us about the sweet potato pizza, I was very curious. I really like sweet potatoes. And pizza. So this seemed like a match made in heaven.

20160311_175843My pizza was cold by the time I got home, but my apartment has a microwave, so that was ok. It turns out that sweet potato pizza is one of the ones without tomato sauce. The box declared proudly that the crust was made from organic flour (kind of surprised that’s a thing here) and Korean rice. There are small diced vegetables like onions, green peppers and roasted corn, as well as some kind of sausage reminiscent of Italian. Then, placed like a crowning jewel on each slice, is a single chunk of roasted sweet potato (or possibly yam), and the whole thing was covered in mozzarella cheese. The “gold” crust turned out to be a satellite rim of mashed sweet potatoes, topped with cheddar cheese that had toasted in the oven. Not really like anything I’d have described as “pizza”, but quite delicious nonetheless.

SATURDAY NIGHT

Finally, on Saturday, a large group of EPIK teachers organized a March Birthday party. It just so happened they chose to meet right in my neighborhood, so even though I was still recovering from the flu, I decided I could go out for an hour or two. We met just outside the subway station to gather everyone from all parts of Busan together, then marched off in seach of our destination. With a group as large as 30-40 people, it can be hard to find a place, but apparently Korea has these kind of “bar cafeteria” things, where you pull up a table (or group of tables), then you walk around the area getting your food and drink from various stands around the large room, a little like fair booths. One booth has the booze, another has grilled meat, another stir fry, etc. When you pick up your goodies, you tell them your table number and they log it into the computer. Then, at the end of the night, you pay for what you got.

When we arrived, the escalators didn’t go all the way up, and there wasn’t any stairwell access, so we had to take the single elevator up in small groups. I ended up being the first one to arrive, and the host asked how many people we would have. I have learned enough Korean to count, so I told him 30. I’m sure he must have thought I was not speaking Korean correctly, because he asked again with some serious disbelief. After all, I was standing there alone. I kept affirming my estimation, and several more hosts were gathered together until they found one who spoke English and he checked the number again. Yep, that many, really. They put together about 10 tables for us and showed me to the area, taught me about our table pager that would track our orders and buzz when food was ready to be picked up, and finally more of the group started to arrive, preventing me from looking like a serious fool.

It was strange but nice seeing familiar faces, even if we’d only met for a week in orientation. We tried so many flavors of soju and tried to find a local beer that wasn’t totally awful. I tried a dish of kimchi fried rice topped with mozzarella cheese which turned out to be MUCH tastier than it sounded, and I even met some new people to connect with on Facebook and here in Busan. Of course, I want to hang out with my new Korean friends too, but it’s nice to know that there are lots of events where I can catch up with expats and stop speaking ESL or broken Korean for a few hours at a time.


That about wraps up my first week of school. As I write this, it’s the one month anniversary of my most recent departure from the US. It’s really hard to believe I’ve already been gone a month, what with Orientation and the Quarantine, the first two weeks were barely real, and this is the first week I’ve started to feel like I’m adapting to my new life here. The good news is, my health is improving and the weather is getting nicer every day. I really like my job, and my co-workers, and my students, so I walk home every day with a silly grin on my face while I try to decide what new delicious food to try for dinner that night. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out more photos and daily updates on the Facebook page! 🙂

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Arriving in Korea: The EPIK Orientation

I’ve been here about two weeks now, and I’m finally sitting down to write about the experience. Sorry it’s been delayed, but I have had some crazy times followed by some serious flu. I debated heavily about publishing it, since the flu is slowing me down and it’s not the story I had hoped for when I arrived. As it is, I still haven’t had time to explore my neighborhood, or even make it to my first day of school yet. Nevertheless, when I put off writing about Europe due to illness the posts never got made, so here goes – my first week on the ground with EPIK.


I want to forewarn readers at this point, that my experience at EPIK orientation was full of ups and downs. I’m not going to try to pull any punches over the downs, but I also don’t want to give the impression that there weren’t enough ups. These people took on a very daunting task of training a couple hundred new arrivals in a very short amount of time (one day less than planned as it turned out), and I really appreciate everything they did to try to prepare us all for life in Korea and for our new jobs in Korean schools. They were dealing with some restrictions not of their choosing, so I think most of my downs would have been mitigated if not altogether eliminated had they been able to have a full schedule and do the classes/lectures in the normal order instead of totally backwards.

BUSAN AIRPORT PICKUP

EPIK (English Program in Korea) hires all the k-12 public school foreign teachers in Korea these days, and they run a week long orientation for all the newly arrived teachers in three big batches. I was in the Busan batch and our meeting point was in the Busan airport on Friday, from whence we could check in and take a shuttle bus up to Busan Foreign Studies University where we would all spend the next week learning to be EPIK teachers.

I ran into a large number of EPIK teachers at the layover in Taiwan where we began to share our histories and reasons for coming to Korea, as well as our hopes and concerns for the year to come. It was novel to come into a situation surrounded by other teachers in similar circumstances rather than on my own. It made us excited to get there and helped wipe out some of the travel fatigue. Once we arrived in Busan, we were able to keep each other company through customs, money changing and immigration, all of which are mind-numbingly boring, so it was pleasant to have company.

The EPIK staff had set up at the arrivals area of the airport with friendly volunteers holding big EPIK flags to signal us, and a reasonably well organized process of getting everyone registered and assigned to a shuttle bus. We still had to wait around the terminal for about 90 minutes before we were allowed to leave, but it was a fair trade for having the whole thing planned for us.

BUSAN UNIVERSITY OF FOREIGN STUDIES

20160219_163854The week long orientation was to be held at BUFS campus, which is beautifully nestled in the mountains of Busan, and a good deal colder than the rest of the city. In order to stave off sleep until bed-time, I decided to take a quick walk around the campus to explore. In February, most of the trees were dormant and brown, but I can imagine how beautiful the campus probably is during the other three seasons. It is entirely surrounded by trees with a little stream running through it and trails running up into the mountainside.

Our arrival day was largely uneventful, with nothing planned aside from dinner, but the public WiFi was entirely unable to keep up with the demand from the 200+ new teachers trying to contact their friends and family back home. My over-preparedness came through in a pinch, and I was able to get internet in my room, help my roomie with power adapters, and get a number of people access to the internet who otherwise might have had some pretty worried parents.

Dinner was a fun combination of familiar and new foods, including what would turn out to be the ubiquitous (and delicious) kimchi. All in all, I felt a warm positive glow about my arrival by the time I went to bed on that first night. And then we got down to business.

CLIMBING, CLASSES & CURFEWS OH MY

The schedule for the orientation was packed. At first glance, it seemed mild, with 90 minute meal breaks and 30 minute breaks between classes, but as it turned out, these were mostly an illusion since the classes ended at (or after) the meal time started, the lines at the cafeteria and the convenience shops were always insane, we had to be in class 20 minutes before classes started to sign in (every class), and even the lines to fill a water bottle could last 15 minutes. To top it off, our dorm and the cafeteria was at the bottom of a steep hill, and all our classrooms/lecture halls were at the top, meaning that we had to climb up and down every meal break.

20160221_085036I admit, I’m not in great shape, but freezing cold air combined with physical exertion is hard for anyone, and especially triggering for asthma. After the first full day, I went out of my way to find the less steep options, but that first set of stairs was pretty insane, and then it turned out the elevators were turned off for the weekend! By the time I got to the lecture hall, I felt like I should be lighting some incense at an altar, because the only other times I’ve climbed that many stairs has been to get to a temple.

The orientation program also imposed a curfew, which wasn’t so bad in and of itself, since they were simply trying to get folks inside by 11pm and in their rooms by midnight (and not up all night drinking in town). I didn’t think much of it, but it turned out only to be the tip of the iceberg of how we were corralled during the week. This may be the only downside that I do hold EPIK accountable for, since I can’t really see how it would not have been within their control. We were treated to ever increasing degrees like elementary school students without any ability to be self responsible. Our “free time” and “breaks” became overseen with greater restrictions as the week wore on, with limits placed on where we could go and when we needed to sign in.

The signing in for classes and lectures made sense, because they had to prove to the Offices of Education that we had completed a certain number of hours of training, but events that really should have been optional (like networking, and the field trip) weren’t. Eventually there was a point where some teachers had to choose between, eating dinner, or getting their luggage prepared for the next day’s departure because there simply wasn’t time to do both.

MEDICAL EXAMS

20160221_063840We had to forgo breakfast and rise at the crack of dawn to get our medical exams done. Well, my group did anyway. My roomie was in the second group who got to sleep in. Not the very best organization, since we then ended up sitting in the bleachers for almost 2 hours waiting our turn, but once we got into the ersatz medical check up facility, things went fairly smoothly with each test having its own station around the gym and a huge medical staff processing our vitals and taking notes. Other than a little sleep deprivation, it wasn’t too bad, and I did get a chance to rest in my room before lunch and a full afternoon of welcoming lectures.

LECTURES

20160220_141948Ok, enough complaining, cool stuff for a minute. The first few days were full of auditorium style lectures and presentations, most of which were actually quite lovely and entertaining. There was a fun dance performance of traditional percussion dancing, a demonstration of filial piety with the new year honoring of parents, and there were several speakers who shared great stories and experiences of their time in Korea and working with EPIK. The best part for me (maybe right after the hat ribbon dance) was that many of these stories involved how they had helped previous EPIK teachers overcome obstacles and misunderstandings. In all my previous ESL experiences, I’ve had little to no support in my job and even less for cultural issues beyond work. It made me feel profoundly supported to hear what these staffers were willing to do for me based on what they had done for others before me.

I found out later on that the lectures are usually the second part of orientation, and I have to say they would have been much better placed there as far as both helping us to complete our mandatory lesson plan demonstrations and to provide some levity in the later days when we really needed it.

FIELD TRIP

20160223_111403This was also mostly a positive experience, although the kindergarten treatment was a tad intense. Our first stop was the famous Haeundae Beach park. There is a reason I hate tour groups and I think this day hit on all of them. We were made to stand in line by bus assignment and follow our leader with a flag. We progressed at a set pace from one gathering point to another, often being rushed past photo ops or up steep hills just to wait around in lines again at another gathering point.

The really crazy part was that they had given us a schedule on the buses that indicated we would be able to walk from the bus to the 1st meeting point on our own as long as we got there by the target time, and again to the 2nd meeting point. However, we simply weren’t allowed. On the second part of the walk, we were walking up and down wooden stairs along the rocky seaside. There were lots of spots to step off and admire a view, it was stunning and the weather was perfect, and just as I was settling into enjoying the outing, I was tapped gently by one of the staff who told me we needed to hurry. I checked the time and said (as politely as I could) that I thought we had almost an hour before the second meeting point. I was told that time was to be spent on the beach and had four staffers grudgingly walking behind me the whole rest of the way, giving me the stink-eye any time I stopped to take a picture.

Hilariously(?) the others who had arrived at the beach before me were mostly just milling around anyway, and they didn’t actually go on to the beach until moments before I caught up. I missed so much. I know they didn’t want to loose anybody, but it struck me as tragic that they couldn’t trust us to get to the tour bus on time, yet in a few days they would turn us loose in large foreign cities where we would have to navigate the public transportation alone.

img_20160223_122149Despite the nannying, the beach truly was wonderful. I’m looking forward to going back on a day when I can be my own time-minder. As it was, I did get a chance to doff my shoes and socks and play tag with the waves. All the locals must have thought we were insane for playing in the water in February, but it was definitely the highlight of the day for me.

After lunch, we were taken to a UN Memorial Graveyard for the troops who fell during the Korean War. I got the impression from many of our lectures that the Koreans are intensely proud (and rightly so) of their amazing recovery following the near total destruction of their country during this war. I’m sure that played a part in choosing the cemetery as our second destination for the field trip. I was told by a caretaker that the best time to visit is really in the summer when the azaleas and roses are in bloom, so I may try to go back then to see the flowers.

20160223_145955Possibly the most astonishing thing that I saw on this visit, however, was the memorial wall, a near replica of the one in Washington D.C. for the Vietnam War. More than half the wall was covered by American names. Considering most of my interaction with the Korean War was watching M*A*S*H, it was sobering to see the impact of the conflict in terms of numbers fallen per participating country.

BUCKLING DOWN

Our lives were mandated and scheduled from 7am to 9pm every day. There was no down time, no quiet time. I complained a bit about this the day before the field trip and most people were still optimistic and energetic, but by the day after the beach practically everyone I spoke to was complaining about being totally “peopled out”. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone I met there was great, interesting, friendly, polite, fun to talk to, helpful and lots of other positive adjectives. I did not have one single negative personal interaction. But as it turns out, most Westerners just can’t deal with 14 hours of non-stop people then coming back to a dorm room with a roomie. I found myself hiding in the bathroom sometimes because the stalls were the only really private place on campus.

As soon as the field trip ended, the fun was over and it was time for serious training. That very night we were required to attend a networking event after diner, but rather than an opportunity to mix with other teachers, exchange information, and learn about each other, the Americans were all chivied off into a separate room to hear a lecture from our embassy about how to register online and how to avoid being sexually assaulted. The rest of the nationalities were made to watch some kind of movie followed by a quiz (or so I was told).

Groups and topics for our “final presentation” had been assigned and our first of two meeting times to work on the project had passed before we were ever even exposed to the class on lesson planning. Again, I’m told that it’s normally the other way around, and that would have been hugely better. Somehow three people were expected to find time in this wall to wall schedule to write a lesson plan… with little to no internet access. Heck, even with my own mobile hot-spot, somehow the lesson plan I wrote in Google Docs didn’t upload fully and so my teammates weren’t able to access it until the next class meetup when they took pictures of my screen to have copies.

All of us had a series of 8 classes that were designed to teach us things like lesson planning, co-teaching, Korean school levels, classroom techniques and other things about the job. Of course this meant the poor instructors had to present their class 4 times a day for two days. And, they’d all just come from another orientation where they’d done the same thing before flying to us. The upshot is that our instructors were just as tired as we were, and often didn’t have a full picture of the information we’d been given already, so there was a lot of overlap and contradiction.

Saudi Arabia prepared me well for things like shifting expectations and technology that only sometimes worked, so for me, this wasn’t an especially challenging part of the orientation, but there were definitely some others who were struggling with the lack of resources, time, internet and clear instructions.

SURVIVAL KOREAN

In addition to all our other lectures and classes, we had survival Korean in the evenings after dinner. I rather expected this to focus on the same material that the online orientation had covered, giving us time to practice how we would be expected to introduce ourselves at school, or the names of relevant places at and around the school, and maybe some basic stuff like how to buy food or take a bus. Not so much.

First, they gave us a placement test that was insanely difficult and not actually scaled to a predominantly beginner audience. The test was so inaccurate that they had to re-plan all the classes in  the wake of the results. I wound up in level 2, which I assumed was simply because I had more than zero knowledge. Yet, when we showed up to class, the instructor had prepared Hangul handouts to teach us how to read Korean and was surprised to discover we all knew how. Her entire first lesson was a wash, since everything she’d planned we mostly knew. I don’t blame her at all, I’m sure she wasn’t given a great picture of what to expect, but it was frustrating for us to basically waste a 90 minute lesson.

The second lesson was better organized and more on target with our ability, but it mainly involved us learning how to order several types of coffee and how to ask the waiter/waitress for their name and phone number if we thought they were cute. I’m sure there are people who want to learn how to pick up hotties in Korean, but honestly, it is not ‘survival’.

By the third (and final) lesson we were on to things like money and taking the bus or subway, which were definitely more useful. It became obvious that our instructor was actually quite capable and had just been thrown into a tough situation, but it made the other 2 classes seem even more wasted when I saw how much we could have learned in that time. Right now, for example, I really want to know how to order food delivery because I’m told Korea is the delivery culture of the planet, but I can’t seem to work it out on my own just yet. I also want to know how to pay my utility bill that showed up in my mailbox this week. “Survival” clearly means some different things to different people.

THE FINAL DAY

By the last day of orientation, it was like the final stretch of an endurance marathon. Everyone was tired, stressed, and a good chunk were starting to be sick as well. I blame my current flu/quarantine state on the fact that orientation staff refused to let the plague bearers stay away from the rest of us. One of my new friends had a fever and spent 2 days in our class before they finally let her go see a doctor on the final day.

Breakfast had been cut short so we could get an earlier start on our lesson plan presentations, and for some reason they had done away with the second line, resulting in an incredibly long wait. I managed to eat in time, but there were people just sitting down with food as I was heading off to the classroom.

The final decision on our presentations was that we would somehow present a full 45 minute lesson in 10 minutes without using any technology, or “student” interaction. This is possibly the strangest request I had ever heard in presenting demo lesson plans, but what could we do?

After the first group went, the instructor started giving feedback that made it clear he did not know what our assignment was, so I may have taken it upon myself to bring it up. I was highly relieved to hear him say that it was basically an impossible situation. We managed to make it through the ordeal intact, but that wasn’t the end of the day by a long shot.

Next we had the farewell lunch buffet. Similar to the welcoming diner, it was held in a nicer dining room with a more elegant selection of food, but there was no time to relax and enjoy because we had to rush rush to the closing ceremonies! Which were actually pretty cool. The staff had been taking pictures and videos all week and they made a cute little show of the experience, and we had some nice retrospectives of everything we’d learned. On the whole, it helped me (at least) to remember the people who had worked so hard to make it happen, to provide us with tools we would need to face the coming year. It made it easier to overlook the downsides and appreciate the effort that had been put forward for us all.

The group going to Daegu had to leave right away, and although I wasn’t scheduled to leave for another 2 hours after the close of events, I still had to rush back to my dorm room to finalize my packing, label my luggage, and haul it all downstairs as soon as possible so I could turn in my room key on time. Earlier I mentioned that in the end some folks had to choose between food, sleep and packing, because there really was no free time and meals the last couple days got even shorter than normal. I’d only done part of my packing the night before because I thought I had 2 hours to deal with it, but even that turned out not to be accurate information.

Finally, the last group wheeled our luggage across campus to the pick up area where each teacher was collected by individual car. There were probably 50-60 people still waiting in the cold when my co-teacher arrived with her husband to collect me.

LAST FRIDAY NIGHT

My co-teacher turned out to be a rather adorable young woman whose English name is Misha. She can’t drive, so her husband drove her to meet me and take me to my new home. They both speak excellent English, which is somewhat of a relief because I heard from some other teachers that their co-teachers were not so easy to communicate with. They found the apartment with little enough trouble, and I enjoyed chatting with Misha in the car on the drive over.  They did an excellent job of making me feel welcome and helping me learn what I needed to know about the apartment, including the contact info for the last teacher to live here in case I needed to ask her anything.

img_20160303_094214I thanked them muchly and bid them goodnight. I did a little exploring of the kitchen, then headed out to pick up some basic supplies. The neighborhood is a tangled maze, like a hutong but with much taller buildings and a lot of neon. I found a grocery store and a convenience store nearby, then wandered a lot farther looking for some kind of restaurant before settling on some to-go soup from the only place that looked reasonably priced.

I also discovered the previous teacher had left me some booze in the refrigerator and thought I could settle into a nice weekend, recovering from my hectic week and preparing for my first day. This plan would have been great if it weren’t for the fact that I wound up with a high fever in the middle of the night and a subsequent week of illness and quarantine.

WHAT’S NEXT?

As it is, I’m not sure I’ve recovered from anything, orientation or the flu, but I’m really ready to stop being sick in bed. This Monday, I start work a week late and I imagine I’ll be playing catch up for a little while. I’ll try to post some pics of my neighborhood and school as I get to explore, but until then, I hope you enjoy the full Orietnation album on my facebook page and as always, thanks for reading! 🙂