Thursday, December 9, 2010

Model behavior

Randomness is an inherent part of traveling, and is undeniably one of my favorite parts of venturing abroad. Almost unfailingly, the experiences that were unplanned and unexpected throughout my travels are the ones that I hold nearest and dearest to my heart. Each new place brings with it its own idiosyncrasies, surprises, and entertainments; to this, Seoul is no exception. So when Allison and I were asked to be models in a make up competition, how could we resist?

The weekend before the competition we arrived at the Seoul Fashion Design School in Gangnam not sure what to expect but ready for anything, or so we thought. We were expecting a once in a lifetime experience, something fun and interesting to write home about, take some interesting pictures of, and get a few laughs out of. We took the term “model” loosely, thinking it was just a more polite way of saying we were going to be make up test dummies on which to practice the latest and greatest trends in smokey eyes and bold lips. Never did we expect to be actual models. For starters, in a world where models are by definition 6 feet tall, size 0, and are set apart from the rest by unique and interesting features, we fall well below the bar. Under these standards, we are both too short, too fat, and too plain. Incredibly, Korean standards are less demanding, putting us well above the bar. Both at 5’7” we were at least above average but with the extra four inches from our high heels we could even be considered “tall,” our curves weren’t considered “fat” but “glamorous,” and being the only foreigners in the competition, our Western features weren’t only desirable but set us apart from the dozens of Korean models. Somehow, we had found ourselves models in one of Korea’s most prestigious competitions for make-up artists.

As we spent several hours trying on our hand made dresses and sitting while our make up artists tried to adjust their make up designs to our western proportions, they gushed over our height, small faces, and large eyes; fretted about how to fit our curves into the A-cup bodices of our dresses; and discussed just how high our heels needed to be, practically rejoicing when I proved I could strut my stuff in the four-inch stilettos I had brought along for good measure. By the time our trial day had ended, it was quite clear that this competition was about more than just makeup. It seemed we had volunteered ourselves to be canvases in what was turning out to be a human art exhibition.

The following weekend, the weekend of the competition, it sank in just how serious our roles were. The night before the big day we stayed near the school at one of the make up artist’s apartments so there would be no delay in starting our day. After our 4:30am wake up call, we hurried to make it to get dressed, get breakfast, and make it to the school by 5:00am to get our hair done. As Julie bought us a breakfast of egg McMuffins and coffee she informed us that this would be our last food and drink for the rest of the day (we couldn’t risk messing up our look or schedule with spills or trips to the restroom). We were real models. But, too late to back out now. So 2 hours and several pounds of fake hair, hairspray, and bobby pins later, we left the school to take vans to the Kintext Convention Center in Ilsan, a suburb of Seoul.

From the moment we left the school we made quite the spectacle. In the few yards between the school and the vans several gaping Koreans, probably on their way home from a night of bar-hopping, stopped us to take pictures on their iphones. (The first of many impromptu photoshoots throughout the day.) The gawking was understandable though - while Allison had her hair piled onto her head in a bouffant-meets-treasure-troll look, I was channeling Queen Amidala with my hair and braided hair extensions twisted into two huge buns on the sides of my head. Who wouldn’t stare? Our day in the limelight had begun.

Once we got to the convention center we were completely at the whims of our make up artists. For the next three hours we sat as they applied the final touches, when the actual competition started they would have no time to waste on hair and accessories. As they gave us costumes and applied feather headdresses, hair jewels, 2-inch long fingernails, jewelry, and tubs of glitter we were poked, prodded, and dragged all around the convention center. When they wanted us to sit, we sat; when they wanted us to move, we moved; when they wanted us to pose we posed. Yet their instructions only came minute by minute, we still had only a vague idea what would happen during the competition and what our roles would be. One moment we would be “go, go, go!” and it would seem as if something big was about to happen, the next moment we were back in the dark, utterly confused and waiting for someone to tell us what to do. Maybe it was the language barrier, but a lot of the time it seemed they were being purposely elusive, no one even attempting to enlighten us.

When the competition part of the day finally rolled around, both of us were exhausted, starving, thirsty, and in pain from the pounds of fake hair, feathers, and product that were piled on our heads. For the next hour and a half we sat perfectly still and model-like as make up was applied to our faces, necks, shoulders, and chests; the roving judges monitoring our progress. By the time the bell dinged, signaling the end of the competition, we had been transformed. Between Allison’s portrayal of a contemporary Maria Antoinette and my resemblance to Lady Gaga, we stood in stark contrast to the dozens of Korean models covered in feathers, tassels, and rhinestones and resembling glorified Vegas showgirls.

By this time, Allison was glaring and I was shaking, but we did our best to look poised and modelesque as the judges continued to roam and scrutinize. (Not as hard as you would think, we looked 7 feet tall next to our make up artists and with the make up completed we looked as if we had just walked off Hollywood movie sets.) Soon we were milling about with the other models, thinking we were close to finished and waiting to be told what to do next, when all of a sudden Allison was being dragged off for photoshoot (we’re still not sure what for) and I was being pushed to the front of a queue leading up to none other than a runway. As music blared and cameras flashed I strutted my stuff, posing and pouting to the best of my abilities (all the while trying to remember every ANTM episode I’d seen in high school). And as far as I’m concerned my debut on the runway was a success; making it off the stage without incident was good enough for me.

Weak-kneed I found Allison (who had somehow bypassed the runway ordeal) and posed for dozens of pictures with Korean spectators before running off to sneak bites of gimbap from our make up artists’ bags. It was finally time for the results and to our surprise and our artists’ delight, Allison and I took first and second place, respectively, in the entire competition. This of course prompted another lengthy photoshoot, but eventually we were allowed to start the long-awaited process of becoming our normal selves again. When it was all said and done, we walked out of there one crazy experience and 100,000\ richer, but more than happy to leave the modeling life behind to dig into a feast of fried chicken and cold beer at the nearest Chicken Hof.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The amazing race

Chuseok – the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving when Koreans spend time with family, give thanks for the fall harvest, and honor their ancestors. Most Seoullites head to their family homes in other cities or the country, but teachers also use the short break from school as an excuse to vacate the city and visit some of the other Korean sites. As Maria, Allison, and I tried to decide what to do with our few days of freedom, it quickly became clear that going to one of the must-see locations was out of the question. The three of us had only arrived in Korea within six weeks of the holiday, and by then domestic flights and bullet trains to popular destinations like Busan and Jeju Island were already fully booked. But we were itching to explore our new resident country and a staycation was less than desirable. So we hedged our bets and decided to venture into the nearby Yellow Sea to the island of Muuido.

Even with a forecast of rain, we wanted to get an early start to escape the stifling heat and a Seoul that was quickly becoming a ghost town so on Tuesday morning, Maria and I set out at 9:30am, a pair of travel-hungry teachers ready to seize the Chuseok holiday. With $10 a day tin huts on the beach calling our names and an estimated travel time of 3 hours, there was little that could hold us back. That is, until we were halted dead in our tracks by torrential rains and monsoon floods. (Welcome to September in Korea.) When we got off the subway in Incheon, we stopped for a bite to eat in the Chinatown right across from the subway station.During lunch our Korean friend Jun called, cautioning us about the impending storm and urging us to return to Seoul. “You will drown. You will be ghosts floating in the Yellow Sea!” he warned. Looking at the light drizzle outside, we laughed at his hyperbole and concern.

Moments after we stepped out of the restaurant we were caught in a downpour. We took cover under the awning of a closed convenience store figuring the rain would soon subside. We were there for an hour and a half. Within minutes the road turned into a gushing river, the rapids collecting all sorts of debris (including Maria’s umbrella) and sweeping it past us down the hill. At one point, we were joined by a pair of Jehova’s Witnesses, but just as they were about to start evangelizing the rising water forced us to retreat onto some plywood tables and our guests made a dash for it down the road, clutching their bibles to their chests and ineffectually holding newspapers over their heads. When the rain slowed we evacuated our shelter for the subway station at the bottom of the hill, only to find that it too had been flooded. It was not long before we discovered that all routes of transit were blocked. We spent an hour in a taxi futilely trying to circumvent the flooding, but wound up right back where we started.

By the time we were able to board a bus to the airport, it was already 6:30 and by the time we arrived at the airport it was 7:08, the ferry to the island closed at 7:30. I’m sure we looked ridiculous as we dashed up and down escalators, our flip flops flying off, our soggy pants sliding down, and umbrellas and backpacks banging against our heads. With only fifteen minutes left we hopped in the first taxi we could find, threw money at the cabbie, and urged him to go “fast! Fast! Kam-sa ham nida!” As the taxi pulled up to the ferry terminal we only had four minutes to spare. With the ferry about to pull away, we raced down the dock and hopped onto the ferry as they powered up the engines. Stepping onto the deck of the ferry we were nothing less than euphoric and our laughing, jumping, high-fiving, and hugging earned us some strange looks and a request for a picture from the Korean Ferry crew.

The trip that was supposed to only last 3 hours had turned into 10. We walked into camp to the sheer astonishment of Allison and James (who had somehow managed to bypass the flooding, leaving hours after us but arriving hours before), soggy yet triumphant. Within minutes we were scarfing down a convenience store meal of rameon, chips, Ghana chocolate, and Cass, savoring every sodium-saturated bite. It wasn’t long before the rain returned, but after our jubilant arrival nothing could dampen our spirits so for the rest of our night we cozied up in our little hut on the beach, playing cards, listening to music, and laughing entirely too much.

Waking up the next day after our first chilly night since arriving in Korea, we stepped out onto the sun drenched beach. For the next two days we spent our days lounging in the sun, playing cards, and eating rameon from the convenience store. The nights we passed eating galbi at the beachside restaurants, bonding with other foreigners over bonfires, sizzling sam gap sal, and Cass, and admiring the stars. Even though I had to head back to Seoul after only 3 days to make it to work on Friday afternoon (I still don’t entirely understand the reasoning behind this) I felt more than satisfied with my first Korean adventure.

Seoul mates

I came to Korea not quite sure what I’d gotten myself into; with little to no idea about the job I would be taking, the people I would meet, and the life I would live. I knew of three other people from Macalester who were also moving to Seoul at the same time, but to say I knew them would be a huge exaggeration. Despite Mac’s size, I had only a vague idea of who these fellow Scots were and I had no expectations that our common collegiate background would spawn friendships of any sort. That being said, I met Maria, a girl who I shared many mutual friends with at school but had only met a few times, for a night out in the city shortly after we arrived in Seoul. Very quickly we discovered Mac wasn’t the only thing we had in common; serious long distance relationships, mutual feelings about Seoul and our jobs, and similar longings for travel and adventure immediately bonded us. With befriending Maria came the bonus of befriending her coworker Britney, who just happens to be a Minnesotan who went to school in the same conference as Macalester. Around the same time, a coworker introduced me to Allison, another Seoul newbie, Wash U alum, and fellow Europhile who conveniently lives two subway stops away and shares many of my passions, interests, and opinions about Seoul, the world, and life. The four of us had made quite the little quartet, taking Seoul by force and trying to make the most of our time here.

As you’ve probably noticed throughout my blogs, these girls have become my best friends in Korea with whom I’ve already shared many an adventure, thus I thought they finally deserved a proper introduction. Without these girls, the past four months would have gone very differently. Being able to share my time in Seoul with friends I deeply care about has added to my Korea experience in more ways than I care to go into here, and I’m so lucky to have found them. As Tennessee Williams said, “Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends we choose," and these lovely ladies have definitely played a large part in my Seoul life.

Monday, November 29, 2010

November blues

November has always been my least favorite month, and this year has not provided any exception. After a jam-packed August, September, and October fueled by the momentum that only comes with being new to a city, country, and culture, I crashed. I had been warned that my first several months here would be hampered by unshakeable illness due to the pollution and constant exposure to germy children. But after making it through the first few months with nothing more than a short-lived cold, I thought I had gotten off scot-free. November came to prove me wrong with a vengeance.

Plagues of interminable mucus, an incessant cough, several bouts of cold and flu bugs, and insomnia left me lethargic and fatigued. This understandably resulted in an excruciatingly lackluster month in which I did little more than rest and mope. Not until the end of the month was I able to do anything more notable than having several movie marathons or buying a down coat in preparation for the ill-reputed yet seemingly non-existent Korean winter. And after a visit to a Korean doctor procured an x-ray reminiscent of a smoker’s lung, I floated around in a haze of several rounds of varying prescription and over-the-counter drugs, both Korean and American, until my hacking was reduced to a much more tolerable light cough. Luckily, the worst of it seems to be over with November finally coming to a close and Christmas in sight.


Being a dancer, I always thought yoga would be a good fit. But in the US yoga is trendy and thus it’s expensive, so I never wanted to fork over the money to find out whether or not I liked it. But in Korea, where trendy doesn’t equal expensive, it’s a different story. Here, yoga is actually absurdly cheap (as long as it’s not Bikram yoga) despite its popularity. So I figured now was a great time to see if my suspicions about yoga were correct.

Within a few weeks of arriving here, I joined Prana Yoga Studio just two blocks down the street and instantly became an addict. (At $2 a class, it’s hard not to be!) Within a week I was already a regular at the 7:00 class taught daily by Chin, an adorable Korean woman with an endearing personality and English word bank of about 30 words. She also quickly took a liking to me, I think partly because I was one of three foreigners in the class (now one of one) and partly because she mistook my God-given gumbi-ness and dance-endowed body placement for yoga expertise. Even after discovering that I’m no veteran yoga-goer, made clear by my pitiful balance and the fact that I’m hopeless when it comes to deep breathing, she has set the bar high.

From day one Chin has been nothing short of persistent in challenging me to build my yoga prowess. She is unrelenting in her battle to get me to breathe properly, informs me regularly that I need to do lots of sit ups in my spare time (often using the entire class’s English abilities to stage this conversation), and encourages me into all the pretzel-like poses that no one else is willing to attempt, all the while asking “You are ok? You are ok?” We have definitely had moments where she pushed me into some position so bizarre or abnormal that I simply had to laugh, my limbs bent in ways they definitely shouldn’t be. With her help, I have finally conquered the rooster, embryo in womb, supported headstand, and final asanas, all of which my body had stubbornly rejected for the first 2 months or so. All of this has earned me one of the coveted spots in the front of the class.

Yes, the language barrier poses some obstacles, but I’ve memorized the general routine and can pick up most variations from watching. Plus, if I can’t figure out my body placement with the help of my 19 years of dance, Chin will come along and manhandle me into the proper position. I’ve also picked up on some Korean words. Something that sounds like “bashigo” is inhale, while exhale is something close to “daeshigo.” There’re also a handful of other terms that I won’t even try to spell but I at least recognize as cues to do various forms of stretching, breathing, or moving. Of course, there are always times when I am utterly lost in translation, like those times when Chin will give an instruction that makes no sense in the context – “point” and “jump” are very basic instructions but when I’m being told to point my hip or jump when I’m sitting on the floor I’m at a complete loss. I have yet to figure out the translation.

With all of the sweating and pretzeling I wouldn’t say yoga has been as relaxing as it’s cracked up to be. But even with the ratio of time spent relaxing to contorting being about one to three, the last 15 minutes of class are enough to shake off any of the stress and strain still clinging to me after a day with screaming children. I must admit, the defining moment of my whole yoga experience comes in these last 15 minutes when we simply lay on the heated floors under flannel blankets while Chin circulates amongst the class, dotting our noses with eucalyptus oil before commencing a brief but wonderful arm and chest massage.

With all of that, I always leave the studio feeling some combination of unwound, triumphant, exhausted, and content. And as Chin always offers her farewell of “Okaaay. Thank yooou. See you Monday!” (no matter what day it is) I never fail to leave smiling.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The precarious peninsula

The BBC calls the Korean peninsula “one of the world’s geo-political hotspots,” a categorization made quite clear yesterday when North and South Korea exchanged fire on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. It’s often easy to forget the precariousness of the situation on my peninsula of residence – taking for granted that right across the border, which is not all that far away, resides one of the world’s most elusive and ominous regimes. But it becomes hard to ignore when it shows up in my inbox; the subject lines of emails from the BBC, New York Times, and US Embassy in Seoul blaring “Artillery Firing into Northwest Islands off the Coast,” “Border Clash Prompts South Korean Missile Warning,” and “South Korea Scrambles Jets.”

Is this the beginning of round two of the Korean War, or is it just more of North Korea’s posturing? It’s probably too soon to tell, but I hope for the latter. As the New York Times so kindly points out, “A face-off on the Korean Peninsula would require tens of thousands of troops, air power and the possibility of a resumption of the Korean War, a battle that American officials believe would not last long, but might end in the destruction of Seoul if the North unleashed artillery batteries near the border.” Slightly unsettling.

Of course, this is not the first time North Korea’s threats have been brought to my attention - I signed my contract not long after a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean navy ship, making “What about North Korea?” the first question everyone asked after I announced I was moving to Seoul. Nevertheless, it’s understandably disconcerting to have it pointed out on every media outlet that your place of residence, which happens to be the main target of a crazy military regime, could possibly be in imminent danger.

All that being said, there’s not much to do besides hope for the best, wait to see how things pan out, and take the necessary precautions (i.e. registering with the embassy, carrying a passport and cash, and having an exit strategy.)

For articles see the links below:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween shenanigans

The Addams Family
Originally uploaded by shelbs1988
Halloween has never been at the top of my list of favorite holidays, but I must say that this Halloween was above par – there’s nothing quite like celebrating Halloween festivities with a bunch of 6 year olds. It was a week-long event, with the holiday merriment including lots of Halloween art; a parent open-house with mummy wrapping, edible spider art, a monster mash walk, scary stories, and monster puppet-making; Halloween BINGO; jack-o-lantern carving; and goodie bag decorating; all culminating in pseudo trick-or-treating and a costume fashion show on Friday.

If the week itself wasn’t exhausting, Friday sure was. Finding ways to entertain costumed children who are overloaded on sugar is no easy feat. Luckily, my class’s costumes weren’t too over-the-top. In order to keep the boys from all coming as Spiderman and the girls from all being fairy princesses, classes get costume assignments. My class got “traditional costumes around the world.” (Mac people: don’t worry, I’m aware that this category crosses all sorts of PC lines.) We had costumes representing Japan, China, England, Switzerland, Mexico, and Native Americans along with a Robin Hood, Zoro and Snow White (who were relegated to the ranks of England, Mexico, and Germany, respectively). I was informed that my costume needed to be more than an accessory or two so I decided on Native American as my traditional costume of choice and ran with it. I must say, I really outdid myself, seeing as I’m neither crafty nor a Halloween fan, making my costume entirely out of felt, feathers, and hot glue.

Needless to say, I welcomed the weekend very enthusiastically, not to say that the Halloween celebrations ended at school. Inspired by the glasses donned by “hip Koreans,” Maria, Britney, and I decided to spend our Saturday as a Where’s Waldo trio in the foreigner district of Seoul, Itaewon (an area I usually avoid, but where better to celebrate this ridiculous holiday?) To our amusement, Waldo was a hit! By the end of the night we had been in dozens of photos with random people and had heard our fill of unoriginal Waldo comments (there’s only so many ways you can respond to “I found you!”) We thoroughly enjoyed our comfortable, popular, easily identifiable costumes and managed to make it until the subways started running again at 5:00am to avoid paying cab fare. Overall, I’d say the night was a success.

Big transitions

The most shocking part of being in Korea hasn’t been the food, the language, the cultural subtleties, or getting used to being a lone foreigner in a sea of Koreans. By now I’ve gotten over my foreigner self-consciousness, figured out a routine, and developed culturally acceptable habits in Korean etiquette. No, the hardest part of living in Korea hasn’t been Korea at all; it’s been the transition into the real world after a lifetime of being in school.

After seventeen years of the same routine, I find myself homework-less, stress free, generally rested, and totally lost. You would think that being free of deadlines, stress, and sleep deprivation would be a relief, but the transition requires a different gauge of fulfillment and success, grasp on time and energy, and perspective on productivity. It has totally thrown me for a loop. School is what I do, it’s what I’m good at, and it’s always been a big part of my identity. The switch from all-nighters, frequent twenty page papers, and daily discussions centering around the world’s most daunting questions to Disney sing-alongs, hours of cutting out construction paper, and discussing Halloween ghouls has been startling to say the least.

Not only am I adjusting to having a schedule that isn’t crammed with homework and studying (yes, it is an adjustment, believe it or not…what do I do with all this free time?!), I’m also getting used to post-grad loneliness. Our entire lives we are surrounded by companions (wanted or not), from our families to our classmates and teammates, and later, roommates. People who we know and share activities, experiences, and interests with have always been nearby. After graduation, especially after moving to a new place, this is no longer the case. Now, friends are spread across the city, working at different places, and doing different things (not to mention the friends who are elsewhere in the country or the world). Unlike my dorm-days when friends were almost too easily accessible, it can now take hours on public transport to meet someone, it takes some getting used to.

Of course, this transition is not specific to my living in Seoul, I’m sure I’d feel the same discomfort were I in any other city: Chicago, D.C., London, you name it. It may not be culture shock, but it’s been a shock to my system nevertheless.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kindie love

The Bear Necessities, originally uploaded by shelbs1988.

I spend the first four hours of every workday with K-blue class, a kindergarten class of 12 highly energetic, extraordinarily affectionate, over-eager, and often-exhausting Korean 6-year-olds. Every morning, I arrive at work at 10:00am after walking the two minutes from my apartment. I walk down the hall to the same scene every day: Jean peers around the door and yells back into the classroom, “Shelby Teacher is come!” while Lily skips out into the hall and Joseph jumps up and down. As I walk into the classroom, I am doggie-piled from all sides by kindergarteners as six or seven little bodies slam into me screaming, “SHELBY TEACHAAAAAARRRRRRRRR!!” “How is everyone today?” I ask, prying my kids off me. “HAPPY!” they respond. And so, my day starts.

Yes, at work I’m “Shelby Teacher,” give or take some mispronunciations. Shell Teacher or Shel-buh Teacher are about as close as some of my little ones get. Although, because my kids are six and because Korean has a slightly whiney lilt to it already, it’s usually less “teacher” and more of a warbling “teachaaar.” From the beginning, though, I’ve been very happy to be Shelby Teacher and not Miss Fields, or some other title that feels far too adult and proper, the amount of respect I am given simply for being a teacher is alarming enough. (I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to parents nearly twice my age bowing to me.) But I digress…

I know I’m not supposed to have favorites but kindergarten is hands down my favorite class to teach. In kindergarten, the smiles abound. Not only am I given the leeway to be creative and teach what and how I wish, but my kindies are the sweetest, most affectionate, unconditionally loving group of children. Everyday I receive a year’s worth of hugs, love, and admiration. Joseph will shamelessly interrupt me with “Shelby Teachaar…I love you,” as I explain how question marks are used or quiz the class on their dictation words and Lily will always find ways to show her adoration, offering compliments like “Shelby Teacher is vaary pretty today, I think,” or “Shelby Teacher veeehry veehry smell good.” Not to mention the gifts. To date I have received numerous drawings, home-made cards and crafts, a cactus, an instant coffee gift-set, a whole pizza (unfortunately smothered in none other than mayonnaise), and a blueberry cake, all from eager six year-olds absolutely quivering with the excitement of giving their teacher tokens of their love.

Kindergarten logic has not failed to amuse me. For example, they figure that if North America and South America are separate continents, then Africa and South Africa are surely separate continents since hosting the world cup clearly is an honor great enough to earn a country continental status. (I’ve quickly learned that Koreans are born and bred soccer fanatics. There’s rarely a day that passes without the mention of the World Cup, Park Ji-Seong, or Manchester United.) All silliness aside, their innocence six-year-old wisdom is always heart-warming. The week that we learned about great people of the world, Heidi very anxiously asked, "Teacher, if we no take care of world it is ouch?" We proceeded to put big words and concepts into kindie-speak; in all of their innocence, they remembered protest as “say NO!” and freedom as "people catch and no more catch, they go."

As for their curiosity, my class has made a point of finding out everything about me, every detail of which they remember and recite with pride when the opportunity arises. Joseph likes to interrogate me on my soccer knowledge (which is pitiful say the least), and while he’s reciting which player from which country is playing for what club in what other country, the other kids will passionately remind him “Joseeeph...Shelby Teacher no like soccer! Shelby Teacher like basketbaaaalllll!!"
The girls all like to remind me that they know I’m a dancer right before they demand to see videos of me dancing on YouTube (of which there are none). They also not only know who Jerry is and that he’s from Romania, but have dubbed him “King Jerry,” can find Romania on a map, and are practically counting down to December when they will finally get to meet him.

Then there are the everyday comments that are nothing but hilarious. Just the other day I was teasing my kids for wearing their down parkas when it was nearly 60 degrees outside (Koreans have a very low cold tolerance). Lara and Sarah just laughed and said “Teacher, we look like Antarctica!” But Claire wasn’t having it. In her most serious 6 year old voice, hands on hips she said “Teacher. We are children.” I got told. A different day during lunch, one of the tables erupted in squeals when Hannah dislodged a whole baby octopus from her spaghetti. “Teachaaarrr! Why octopus no move!!???” Hannah shrieked. (In Korea, live octopus is a delicacy.) “Hannaaaah. Octopus no move because it sleeping!” Jean rightly informed her.

No matter how exhausting teaching and taking care of twelve six year-olds can be, mornings with my kindergarten always warm my heart with lots of glowing kindie love.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

So...what exactly is it I'm doing all the way over here?

I’ve been here for over two months, so I figure it’s about time I introduce my class and my job at Global Kids International Language School (GKI). I teach at Global Kids International Language School (GKI), a private institute - better known in Korea as a Hagwon (학원) – alongside twenty other native teachers from the US and Canada. As far as hagwons go, GKI is one of the biggest; most other hagwons max out around ten foreign teachers, while others even have as few as one foreigner. (Part of this may be because GKI, with only one other campus in Seoul, is not part of a franchise like many of the hagwons such as LCI or Avalon that have as many as 60 campuses throughout Korea.) Hagwons vary in many other ways as well. I have one friend who only has 4 kids at a time, while I teach an average of 12 students per class. Another friend teaches only elementary and middle school students from 2:30 to 9:30, while I teach both kindergarten and elementary from 10:00 to 7:00 Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and from 10:00 to 3:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a planning period for kindergarten from 4:50 to 6:20.

All that being said, from what I’ve heard most English hagwons serve the same purpose: to jump-start kids’ English learning at the kindergarten level, or to supplement their Korean-school education with afterschool English classes at the elementary and middle school level. My job here is to aid in both. In the mornings I teach kindergarten and in the afternoon I teach elementary. My mornings are dedicated to phonics, arithmetic, story time, arts and crafts, and silly songs. I’m a “main teacher,” which means I plan lessons and activities around a weekly theme ranging from Atlas of the Earth to Great People of the World, Time and Measuring to Movies and Cartoons, Our Country to Halloween, as well as teach bookwork that is laid out by my supervisor.

On the other hand, in the afternoons on the days that I don’t have kindergarten planning I teach first semester 7 year-olds phonics and vocabulary and fourth semester 10-13 year-olds reading and essay writing. These classes have a completely different feel. For one, unlike kindergarten I spend minimal time with these classes - the 7 year-olds one hour a day, and the 10-13 year-olds 40 minutes 3 days a week – so I haven’t been able to make the same connection with my elementary students as I have my kindies. I also don’t do much planning for these classes. Other than picking out words for spelling tests and grading, I am provided all of my lesson plans. Everything that I teach in the first semester class is handed to me in a minute-by-minute format, more or less outlining what questions I should ask about what page at what time. The fourth semester class is slightly less rigid, but I am still given the worksheets I have to complete with the classes every day, even though I often go beyond what I’m instructed to teach by giving extra essay-writing instruction and extrapolating on the reading topics. Though I don’t do any planning for them, the fourth semester classes require a bit more work outside of school because I have 36 essays to grade 3 times a week…but more on that later.

So, that’s my job in a nutshell. More interesting anecdotes and rants will come with time, but at least for now you get the general idea.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I am a Lunch Lady (don't worry, no hairnet)

I serve my kids lunch everyday. It’s never too much of an ordeal: the food is set outside my classroom everyday right before the lunch bell rings and after we push together the desks and cover them in table cloths, the kids get out their trays and line up to be served. The meals consist of a similar spread everyday: there is always a rice, a soup, a meat, a kimchi, and some kind of vegetable or tofu. To Koreans, this is pretty basic, but as far as I’m concerned, my Korean kids have stomachs (and taste buds) of steel in comparison to their American counterparts.

Just like in the States, a cafeteria lunch is never deserving of culinary awards, but every day reveals new entrees that would put to shame the rubbery mac ‘n’ cheese and over-processed meats that I remember complaining about as an elementary-schooler. I can’t imagine any American child gobbling down a plate of seaweed and fried squid rings, not to mention octopus spaghetti and dried fish salad, but my kindies eat the tofu and spicy kimchi like champs.

Like all kids, my kindies have their own preferences. As they hand over their trays they will inform me: “Shelby Teacher…delicious!” or “Shelby Teacher… liiiiittle bit,” so it’s always pretty evident what they like or don’t like. The kids know that they will get a little bit of each dish, and because they have to finish everything on their trays before coming back for seconds, they’ve figured out all the tricks to swallow down whatever they don’t like. They roll kimchi in balls of rice if it is too spicy, chase down mussels with water or tea, or plug their noses to choke down the acorn tofu that they all despise.

Of course, there are always battles to fight. Eric finds clever ways to spit his kimchi in the trash, so he now has mandatory mouth, hand, and pocket checks every time he wants a tissue or needs to leave the room. Joseph likes to fake stomachaches and pretend he’s full to get out of eating most soups and tofu. Jean needs to be reminded every day to eat her soup and rice before she can come back for her second, third, and fourth helpings of meat. And for the ones who just can’t finish in time, they spend their playtime in the library glaring at their chilled food until the Korean teachers force-feed it to them (not my rule.)

I usually feel bad for enforcing the “eat everything on your plate rule” because I don’t do a good job of leading by example. Even though I’m always provided with a tray, spoon, and chopsticks in case I feel like a free meal, I rarely indulge. Don’t get me wrong, I generally love Korean cuisine, but the foul-smelling, oddly textured, poorly prepared meals I serve to my kids leave much to be desired. (Much like in the States, cafeteria food hardly resembles the real thing in taste, smell, or consistency.) On more than one occasion my kids have asked, “Shelby Teacher, why you no eat?” I’ve managed to find excuses that are acceptable to them, while hiding the truth that their lunches often trigger my gag reflex. But, I guess that’s the way it goes in the teacher-student hierarchy.

The situating situation

Home sweet home
Originally uploaded by shelbs1988
I moved into my apartment three days after I arrived and I quickly re-acclimated to living in a closet-sized living space, similar to my dorm-days in Turck and Bigelow doubles at Macalester. After four years of cohabitating, I was happy to be living solo, for once not having to worry about another’s shower schedule, mess tolerance, or personal space preferences.

The first week was full of technical difficulties. Not sure how to use the sink-to-shower apparatus (and unaware of the location of the on-button for the hot water heater) I took cold showers for the first several days. Unable to read Korean and daunted by the Hangeul-covered, many-buttoned contraption that is my washing machine, my laundry sat soaked in fabric softener for several days until I could find someone to translate for me. (Yes, I said fabric softener. Just because a bottle looks like detergent and smells like detergent doesn’t mean it is detergent. No wonder my first several loads of laundry were soft but not clean.) The real kicker was when I had to use my best handy-man skills to fix the toilet so that it would flush reliably using only my bare hands and a very strategically twisted paperclip….welcome home, right?

Of course, figuring out my apartment wasn’t the only matter of business to attend to. First, I needed to get my ARC – the Alien Registration Card that is necessary to open a bank account, start phone plan, get into clubs, and of course, to live and work in the country. All this required was a hospital check up. Pretty standard, yet one of the strangest doctor’s visits I’ve ever had. There’s nothing quite like being shunted from one room to another in an assembly line of medical tests: height and weight, blood pressure and fluids, eyes and ears, lungs and heart, guided by only grunts and a few pushes in the right direction. Though slightly humiliated (I gained a new appreciation for what refugees go through), I was no worse for the ware and had the go-ahead to become legal.

When all that was said and done there was still the matter of getting oriented – physically and culturally. I needed everything from groceries and a subway card, to a cell phone and a gym membership, just to name a few. Luckily, several veteran Seoullites from my school took me under their wing and helped me get set up with all the basics. They showed me where to find an ATM that accepted foreign cards and had an English option. They recommended a cheap yoga studio and gym and helped me set up a pay-as-you-go cellphone. I was taken to the nearest Emart and Costco for major grocery needs and the local supermarket to restock the fridge with eggs and milk. Finally I was pointed to the nearest pharmacy with an English-speaking pharmacist and shown the ins and outs of the subway system (including the handy T-Money cards).

Finally, even though I was not entirely settled, I had the basics down. And although am still a foreigner to Korea, Korea was quickly becoming less foreign to me.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Pay day

I'm a millionaire!!! Ok, maybe not so exciting to those of you who are used to inflated currencies. But let's keep in mind I'm an American; getting a seven-figure paycheck straight out of college is unheard of. Indeed, it would be much more exciting if there was a dollar sign in front of the net payment numbers, but won or not, it's still money in the bank. At any rate, it's my first non-food service, non-retail, non-work study, real world, salaried paycheck. Exciting stuff.

And so it started...

My arrival in Korea felt something like walking into a glass door; you know, there you are, walking along looking at what’s in front of you when BAM! The wind is knocked out of you and you’re looking around startled and dazed wondering what just happened.

Forever the planner, I had always expected to come out of college knowing exactly what was next. Lo and behold, with graduation rapidly approaching I found myself a soon-to-be college graduate with no way to answer the question that every professor and parent just had to ask: “so what are your plans?” Of course, I couldn’t just say “nothing” so out of nowhere I started saying “I’m trying to get a job teaching English in South Korea.” At the time, I was really just saying it so I could take a break from finding interesting ways of blaming the economy and ignoring the fact that I had no plan. But by the end of the graduation festivities Korea had formulated into a real plan. From that point, it didn’t take long for a simple email inquiry on June 1st to turn into a one-way ticket to Seoul. Within two months, I had six trans-pacific phone interviews, declined an offer with one school, signed a contract with another, wrangled with the consulates in both San Francisco and Chicago, moved from Minnesota to Colorado, and packed my bags for my voyage into the abyss of “real life.” (Starting to understand the glass door metaphor?)

On August 11th, I arrived. There I was, standing alone in Incheon International Airport with my life packed into two suitcases and a backpack and little idea of what I had signed on for. As I sat waiting for my ride (which came an hour late) it became harder to fight off the feeling of “WHAT THE HECK DID I JUST DO!?!??!” By the time I arrived at my hotel I was frantically skyping my mom in tears not sure exactly why I was crying but needing reassurance nonetheless.

Indeed, everything is less scary in the morning. Already on my way to my first day of work, I was crammed into a “school bus” with a bunch of adorable 4-year-old Koreans. It’s hard to feel frightened when surrounded by tiny humans. I had a nose picker on one side, a pair of pigtails tickling my arm on the other as their owner bobbed in sleep against my purse, and across from me was a bespectacled girl glaring at me, clearly unhappy with how much space I was taking up.

Clearly they waste no time here. Less than 15 hours since I arrived in Seoul I had already been briefed on my position (most of it going way over my jetlagged head). And with that, I quickly ceased to be the shell-shocked foreigner as I officially became “Shelby Teacher” and was launched into my year as a teacher, getting only two days of observation before I started teaching my own classes.

Monday, September 6, 2010

To Hell with Lemons

Four months ago, I walked across a stage at Macalester, still harboring hopes that an international development organization would call to offer me my dream job. Today I sit in my closet-sized apartment in the Pungnap dong neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea one month into my year as a kindergarten teacher. Unfortunate? No. Unexpected? Perhaps.

For most, unemployment or (worse), the threat of becoming a career waitress, is not enough to send one running to the hills. But in my case, the realization that my snazzy resume and fresh-out-of-college enthusiasm would do little for me in this economy made the “hills,” AKA: Korea, a rather appealing place to run to. Indeed, common wisdom instructs us to “make lemonade when life gives us lemons.” But, wanderlust kicked in and sent me searching for kimchi instead. Thus, I find myself a 22 year old expat, ready for anything and blogging about everything. Such is life.