Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You know you're in Korea when...

…you own a shirt that says “I MARRIED am communist,” and socks that say “I am a cow and a orange.” buy a pair of fake glasses, not for a costume party.

…an hour-long ride on the subway doesn’t seem that long.

…you call ramen “rameon” and go to restaurants to eat it. can get through an entire chili and kimchi-laden meal without even breaking a sweat.

…you can translate Konglish.

…you use Konglish to order food (“I’ll have a baniLLa cone-uh please.”)

…you add “-uh” to the end of words without thinking about it. ("Nice-uh.")

…you know when to add “-uh” to make yourself understandable (i.e. "emart-uh"). can't keep your tenses, articles, or pronouns straight. know the dance moves to a K-pop song.

...the 1000₩ jewelry store has nothing else to offer you. own nail polish in every color (easy to do when it's 1000₩ a bottle!) see heels in every weather. start to think that getting a perm would be a good idea. start to think bangs would be a good idea.

...your wardrobe is influenced by the concerns of 6 year-old girls. make your arms into a giant "x" every time you say "no." have to tell everyone your Korean age (which is 2 years older than your actual age). have a vacation consisting of Thursday off, Friday morning at work, Friday afternoon off, Monday at work, Tuesday off.

...most males are wearing pants tighter than your own. have to push your way through a crowd of soju-soaked ajusshis at 8:00pm on a Tuesday night to get to your apartment. see a purse you like in the subway and then realize it belongs to a guy. feel cheated if your meal doesn't come with a side of kimchi (even if you don't like kimchi). start "yogiyo-ing" your friends (in other words summoning them with the Korean "Here!" phrase used in restaurants). are careful not to write anyone's name is red

...a doctor's visit, complete with x-rays and prescription meds, costs less than $9.

...your paycheck is in the millions.

...sweet potatoes are a common ingredient in pizza and desserts.

...mayonnaise is considered a good salad dressing. can pay less than $20 for a cab ride all the way across the city. automatically say "annyeong" when you're leaving somewhere...annyeong!

Nearly lost in translation

Now that you’ve heard all about my kids’ language faux pas, it’s probably about time you’ve heard about mine. As is to be expected, living in a different country is not without its challenges. Language barriers in particular can be rather tricky, and Korea is no exception to this rule. Luckily, I’m more than adept at using body language to get a point across, and have no problem turning any conversation into a game of charades when necessary. But, this can only help so much. I often make a fool of myself gesticulating wildly to someone who wants no part in my corporeal convo and who won’t even give a helpful wave as they rattle off sentences that I clearly don’t understand. Indeed, the blame for this rests solely on me - I never made it around to enrolling in Korean classes – but it remains frustrating, nonetheless.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say I haven’t made an effort to pick up some Korean along the way (which, by the way, is much easier said than done.) After giving up on finding a Korean class that fit my budget, schedule, and general convenience I settled for teaching myself. By now I’ve acquired enough to direct a taxi, order a meal, ask for or decline various things in grocery store check out lines, and other language necessities like greetings, thank yous and no thank yous, and the counting systems for money and objects (yes, systems, plural). And when I got fed up with pointing and mumbling all the time I taught myself the Korean alphabet during my long subway rides by deciphering station names. Now I can sound everything out, making it much easier to can struggle my way through menus and maps, but don’t expect me to do much more.

Then there's all the unhelpful Korean I've picked up through my daily activities. After seven months of yoga four times a week, I'm pretty proficient in Korean yoga terms - things like bend, straighten, together, squeeze, point, lift, breathe-in, get the gist - and can now take a class without needing any English. (Although, I have yet to find a use for this vocabulary anywhere else.) I’ve also, unfortunately, picked up a handful of curse words and other inappropriate terms from my classes of 13-year-olds who like to find English words that sound similar to bad Korean words and then try to surreptitiously slip them into class conversations. Let's just say they were not amused when I figured out what they were doing (which, needless to say, didn't take very long) and put an end to their little game.

There has also been the challenge of incorporating Korean gestures into my body language vocabulary. As I said, I’ve come to accept that charades is a necessary game to play when abroad, but even with body language there is a learning curve. For example, never will you see a Korean motion someone to them with an upturned palm, a gesture strictly reserved for calling to animals. Instead, Koreans turn their palm down. This has proven to be a rather hard habit to form (even now, 8 months in), usually resulting in an awkward sideways sweeping arm movement. There is also the preferred method of giving and receiving cash and important documents by touching the left hand to the forearm of the extended right arm, slightly less difficult to master.

Nevertheless, regardless of my meager attempts at learning enough pocket-Korean to get by, it’s been rough goings at times. Korean has so many sounds that we don’t have in English that serious mispronunciation is inevitable; putting the wrong emphasis on the combined k/g, b/p, l/r, and j/ch sounds, or the hard dd and tt sounds can render a word incomprehensible, and don’t even get me started on the vowels! Thus, half my attempts at communicating in Korean are for naught, making even the most mundane daily interactions more complicated than they need to be. A trip to the post office can result in an hour of waiting in the wrong lines and multiple drafts of a simple mailing form if the English-speaking employee is off duty. A meal can turn into a guessing game of sorts, leaving me hoping that the outcomes of any misunderstandings won’t be too disastrous. And a taxi ride can become a wild goose chase costing 20,000w more than it should because of a mispronounced syllable. (Somehow, my subway stop “Gang dong-gu Cheong yuk” is often mistaken for “Gangnam-gu Cheong yuk,” which is in a completely different part of town.) But luckily, Korean has also adopted many English words so that the problem is just translating the word into Konglish, (i.e. while you'll often get blank stares from ordering a "vanilla cone," substituting a b for the v and adding an “-uh” at the end and ordering a “banilla cone-uh” instead can get you exactly what you want.)

I pride myself in being an American who doesn't expect everyone to speak English. But I must say, I'm relieved when I find someone who does because most of the time I'm just lost in translation.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Kids say the darndest things

…oh indeed they do, especially when they’re Korean kids blundering through the English language. So, since my students’ bloopers give me plenty of laughter nearly every day, I figured I'd share a compilation of some of the best ones with you. Enjoy!

Me: “What kind of animal has feathers?”
Me: “Do mammals have feathers? Do bears or people have feathers?”
Class: “No! Birds!”
Albert: “Teacher yeeesss! My dad many many feathers on arms! Black, long feathers…like this!”
Class: “Aaaaahh! Yes!”
Alex: “Teacher, yes! My too! My grandmother is big feathers on her face!”
Translation: “My dad has black hair on his arms.” “My grandmother also has some long hairs on her face.”

Me: “So, what can we learn from the Ugly Duckling? “
Lily, very seriously: “Teacher, I think North Korea is Ugly Duckling.”
Me: “I see. And why is that Lily?”
Lily, with a big smile on her face: “North Korea no is pretty. But if we no are mean, maybe it is a swan sometime!”

Jay: “Teacher, no are five senses! Two eyes, two ears, two nose holes, two hands, one mouth. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…NINE SENSES!”
Me: “Well Jay, your eyes both see, and seeing is the sense, so that is only one sense. So let’s count again…”
Tony, pointing to his crotch: “Teacher! Sense?!?”

Me: “Ok, don’t forget your essays! See you Friday!”
Max, pointing at my arm “Shelby Teacher, why your fur is gold?!”
Translation: “Why is your arm hair blonde?”

Me: “What kinds of animals did we learn about in science on Tuesday?”
Class: “Mam..manimals?..Marmals?”
Andy: “Mammaries!!!”
Translation: “Mammals!”

Tom: “Teacher, diet is English speaking?”
Me: “Yes, you mean diet like getting skinny? More small?”
Jay: “Teacher, yes! My mom, she is baby in stomach. Then hospital go, baby PONG!, rope cut, mom baby no…diet YES!”
Translation: “My mom had a baby so now she is not as big. Is this a diet?”

David: “Teacher, goodbye! See you in gradulations!”
Andy: “Yes teacher, goodbye! See you in 900 200 100!”
Translation: “We’ll be gone for a really long time while we brush our teeth.”

Danny: “Oh teacher! Trick! You are mischief!”
Translation: “Teacher, you’re being silly.”

Sam: "Done! Ho!"
Me: “Is everyone finished with this page? Can we go on?”
Andrew: “Yes teacher! Ho!”
Translation: "Done!" "Yes teacher! Let's move ahead!" **We read a story set in the old west, and not long thereafter my class was using "ho!" wherever and whenever they could. It took me awhile to break them of that habit.

Alice, whenever she gets a bad score on her vocab test: “Oh my gas rangey!”
Translation: “Oh my gosh!”

Flora: “Teacher, you are perm-ah?”
Noella: “Yes, perm-ah I think. But teacher, why your hair is long? You are La-pun-jell?!”
Translation: “Your hair is wavy today, did you get a perm?” “Yes, I think she got a perm. But why is your hair so long, are you Rapunzel?”

Paul, in his essay: “Pompeii was a obliteration town!!!”
Translation: “Pompeii was destroyed!”

Me: “So you can see, it was a normal day in Pompeii, but then what happened?”
Emily: “Volcano bump!”
Kai: “Volcano was an erection!”
Translation: “The volcano erupted.”(And the worst part about these situations is I just have to let it slide. If I draw my 12-year-olds' attention to an inappropriate word, I'll never hear the end of it.)

Well, that's all I have for now. But I hope you had a chuckle or two!

Monday, April 4, 2011

And the adventure continues...

With only four months left to go, my Korea-experience is beginning to wind down. But, while I was previously without a clue as to what I would be doing next, things finally fell into place in March. I was offered an internship position with DIS, the study abroad program I did two years ago, and accepted the offer without hesitation. Thus, I will be returning to Copenhagen at the end of July to take up my role as "Study Tours Intern" until September 2012.

Basically, I will be one of two interns organizing the study and adventure trips offered to DIS students. According to my job description, I'll be doing everything from marketing and website maintenance, to researching and leading the trips. If you know me at all, then you can imagine how perfect this position is for me - a good mix of work and pleasure from the looks of it! And on top of all that, the internship itself offers numerous opportunities for personal and professional development. So put simply, I'll be getting paid to challenge myself and have a grand adventure, all while living and working in a place that I love. Not too shabby, eh?

Of course, there are still plenty of kinks to work out: getting my visa (through the Swedish Embassy nonetheless), sorting out my contract here, and finding an apartment, but hey, that's all part of the adventure. And you know me, that's something I can't get enough of!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back to school!

Exhausting, maddening, stressful, frustrating - these are all words I would use to describe the past month of work. Why? Because it's been the beginning of the new school year and, as most teachers would probably tell you, breaking in a new group of students, whether kindergarteners or college freshmen, is no easy feat. And for someone accustomed to all-nighters and an overpacked schedule, these are not adjectives I use lightly, but getting my newbies accustomed to the rules, schedule, system, and myself has been more taxing than I could have guessed. Indeed, I experienced some of this when I first arrived here in Korea, but even at that point it was already half way through the school year so the previous teacher had already done most of the work. This time, however, I'm getting the full experience, spending every morning repeating every sentence fifteen times, trying to become fluent in the very garbled English my kids speak, and continuously walking back and forth between the white board and the happy-face/sad-face disciplinary board. (The phrase "taking two steps forward and one step back" has taken on a whole new meaning during this process.)

The stress of the new semester was not made any easier by the state of the kindergarten, either. After spending our entire post-graduation planning week cutting and laminating paper, I was excited to meet my new class, but not ready for the ensuing chaos. The first week, in particular, was a constant uphill battle. With two new teachers, an all new Korean staff, and a remodeled office on the K-class floor, the kindergarteners weren't the only ones who didn't know what was going on. And not only did this cause many mishaps, miscommunication, and all around confusion, but books had yet to come, we had no pencils or erasers, and the schedule seemed to be changing by the minute. Uff, I'm glad that's all over.

This is not to say that it's all been bad. I've enjoyed getting to know my new class of eleven students: Albert, Flora, Clara, Alex, Noella, Peter, James, Michelle, Lea, David, and Andy. After three weeks together I can finally feel that we're warming up to each other and every day I discover new facets of their personalities. Already, Clara, Noella, and Flora have emerged as the class's queen bees, always showing of their new oversized bows and never failing to comment on my nail polish color; David and Michelle are the snugglers of the class, taking any opportunity they can to sit in my lap or hold my hand; James' shyness has already shifted into more of mild-mannered demeanor while Alex and Peter have blown me away by their intelligence and English skills; and Andy and Albert have proven to be quite the comedy duo, and thus quite the handful. It seems like we're more and more used to our new classroom dynamic and we're finally settling into a routine that works. And after a field trip and birthday party last week, it feels like we're finally a class and no longer strangers. Now I'm just excited to see their English skills take off!

This semester's elementary classes, on the other hand, have been quite the improvement. Originally when I found out I would be moving up a level for all of my classes (teaching 2nd semester and M5 instead of 1st semester and M4) I was rather dismayed; the prospect of having all the same students and thus repeating my hellish previous semester was less than desirable. But as it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised. For the most part, my new classes are full of new students, and the right combination of old students, who are well-behaved, like to participate, and are eager to learn. Even some of my students who were previously apathetic and full of attitude have been peer-pressured into working hard and paying attention, making my new classes much easier to teach. Now, instead of four out of control classes, I have three enjoyable classes and just one class that took all of the worst-behaved students from last semesters different classes and combined them into one. But I'll take a tough 40 minutes of an unbearable 4 hours any day.

Needless to say, it's been rough, but it's almost April and it can only go up from here. Plus, I often see my old students in the halls and stairwell and the enthusiasm behind their hello's, hugs, waves, and high-fives is great motivation to see how it goes with this new batch of kids.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A matter of routine

We humans are creatures of habit, so it’s unsurprising that even when faced with a new location and culture it doesn’t take long to fall into a routine. I may be halfway across the world, living in a country that is drastically different from my own in history, demographics, language, and culture, but my life here quickly adopted a routine, (whether out of habit or as a matter of coping is unimportant). Indeed, the largest change in routine has nothing to do with my move to Korea, but instead with my move from the academic world to the working world. But, take that out of the picture and my life is filled with many of the same mundane activities as before: working, running errands, and keeping house. I go to yoga four or five times a week, frequent the neighborhood gym, and meet friends at our usual restaurants, coffee shops, or bars for mid-week mental breaks. I’ve become partial to a certain pharmacy, grocery store, dry cleaner, phone card vendor, Mini-Stop convenience store, and even a shoe repairman who camps out under a tarp shoved in between two buildings. (Although, I must say I get disappointed when I suddenly come to find that my favorite grocery store or dry cleaner has disappeared or been replaced, due to Korea’s odd habit of tearing down businesses without warning and putting up replacements within days.)

In addition to my neighborhood stops and shops, there are the familiar neighborhood faces. The cashiers at the grocery store who have come to know I never need a bag, and the subway Mini-Stop woman who smilingly gives me freebies insisting “gift-uh! Ok!” The young bank security guard who assists all my transactions (requested or not) and is never bashful to remind me that he “very much likes to assistance the pretty foreigner.” The kimbap cheonguk employees: an ajumma who maternally pats me on the bum saying “pretty pretty” and the ajusshi who likes to lurk as Allison and I eat and do our crossword puzzles until he thinks it’s an opportune moment to practice his English, saying things like “you friend, but you stranger here,” “ah America, what colony you from?” and, “My think you have fun with boyfriends last night! Ha Ha!” And of course there are always the students who live nearby and who are always overeager to wave to their teacher in the street.

This isn't to say that everything has become commonplace, my neighborhood always has something up its sleeve to surprise me. Nevertheless, life and all its routines must go on, in the country I call home or not.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kindie Cares

My time with my first batch of kindergarteners has come to an end after a grueling month of finishing all of the bookwork and practicing for graduation. For the graduation ceremony, each kindergarten class was required to put together a ten-minute performance made up of songs, skits, and speeches that would demonstrate to the parents some of what the kids had learned throughout the year. Though most classes chose cute skits of old fables or speeches about their favorite themes, our performance, titled “Save the Earth,” was more of a public service announcement addressing the problems our world is facing and how we need to change they way we live. When it had come time to pick a theme for K-Blue’s graduation performance back in January, it wasn’t hard to settle on this theme because even though we spent a lot of time everyday sorting out menial matters such as which chair everyone got to sit in (even though they were all seemingly the same), having their pencils perfectly sharp at all times, keeping their crayons organized in their own versions of rainbow order, and making sure they got the glue with their name on it, my kindergarten class had also expressed even bigger concerns about the environment and the human condition. Ever since we had learned about the environment and pollution, my kids became hypersensitive to waste andpollution; every morning declaring that the weather was, first and foremost, smoggy; screaming “Teacher! Pollution!” at the sight of the exhaust coming out of cars and even the steam from their own breaths; and staging dramatics about wasting water at lunchtime. (Not too long ago, when Claire didn’t finish her water at lunch Joseph and Lily encouraged her to finish with “Claire, no trash the water! Save the Earth!” thus leading Claire to chug the rest of the water, choke, and then after recovering, show me her empty water bottle while proudly stating, “Shelby Teacher, I no trash the water. I save the Earth!”)

The Macalester student and dance teacher in me went all out, resulting in a performance complete with choreography, props, and lots of liberal sentiment. The kids were so excited to be doing something to “help the Earth” that by the time graduation rolled around K-Blue’s performance was so heart-warming it would have made any charity drive proud. (You can watch the video below.) The kids started the performance singing the Discovery Channel’s version of “Boom De Ya Da,” and giving speeches about what a great place the Earth is. Then they sang the Glee version of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” signing the chorus with the sign language I learned from YouTube. Their next speeches talked about how the Earth is hurting from pollution and war, which they followed with a shortened version of Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World,” during which they helped each other put bandaids on a giant Earth in the background to symbolize fixing the world’s problems. Finally, they talked about how we can make a difference and put paper children on the world while singing Michael Jackson’s “We are the World.” They ended by demanding, “We want to help the Earth! DO YOU?” Maybe it wasn’t your typical kindergarten production, but when they performed at graduation, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with goosebumps. Of course, graduation wasn't only the performances, they gave collective speeches to their parents, friends, and teachers; presented flowers to their teachers and received certificates; and did traditional Korean drum performances, as well.

Thursday night, the official graduation, I felt both immensely proud and extremely sad. Their performance showed me just how much each of my students had accomplished and grown during my time with them, and the pride and gratification in their parents’ faces reassured me that I had done a good job teaching their children. At the same time, saying goodbye to them was harder than I would have ever expected. In the past seven months each and every one of my twelve kindergarteners touched my heart in their own special way and I fell in love with them as if they were my own children; I had a hard time holding back a flood of tears as they repeatedly hugged me and thanked me with flowers and homemade cards, each child more tearful than the last. By the end of the night, I was left reassured that I had at least made some impact in their young lives, and as sad as I am for this class to move on, they made me excited to meet the next group.

Shredding some Korean slopes

With spring quickly approaching a bunch of us from work decided it was prime time to hit the Korean slopes, so last weekend eighteen of us headed over to the other side of the peninsula for a day of spring snowboarding at the High1 Ski Resort in Gangwan-Do. It was easy enough, we took the bus from Jamsil for ₩45,000, which covered our roundtrip fare and lift ticket, and after two hours we arrived at the base and were able to rent all of our gear, coats and pants included. I did my best to lose my Coloradoan pretention and just enjoy being back on a board even if the altitude and slope selection weren’t meeting my Rocky Mountain standards, and I must admit, the snowboarding itself was pretty decent – the weather was warm and sunny, the snow wasn’t bad, and the company was great. All in all, I had a good day of spring snowboarding but after a lifetime of almost exclusively boarding in Colorado, it was hard to ignore all of the Korean quirks. At least eighty percent of the people on the slopes were pimped out in baggy neon gear like you see the pros wearing, regardless of their skiing and boarding aptitude (this type of attire is usually reserved for those with the skills to match it); at the top of the lifts you were greeted by dancing lifties wearing headsets and instructing you to “Stand up now! Ok! To the right! Thank you!;” and no matter where you went on the mountain they were blasting K-pop music from really tall speakers. To say the least, it definitely left me missing Colorado!

Most of the people in our group were beginners so I spent the day with a couple of the guys, breaking only for a lunch of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Carlsberg. The only incident of the day was a cafeteria-fight with an ajusshi custodian who picked a fight with us and literally tried to throw us out of the coffee shop (manhandling us and our trays) instead of simply explaining we needed to buy another coffee. Other than that, we had a fun day, making silly videos while racing down the slopes and avoiding the hoards of people clogging the runs and lift lines as best as we could. At the end of the day we spent some well-earned time in the hot tubs before retiring to our luxurious condo for a night of pizza and card games. Even though we returned to Seoul the next day, it was a nice little retreat before the crunch of the final week of the school year.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Seoul train

Clean, timely, and expansive, Seoul’s subway system is said to be one of the most modern in the world. I would also argue that it’s also one of the world’s most orderly. After spending the first few weeks appreciating the efficiency of Seoul public transport, I began to notice some curious facets of Korean subway etiquette. For one, any visit to a subway platform in Seoul will present commuters patiently lined up for the oncoming train to the right and left of the train doors; a sight that would send many a-New Yorker reeling. Even in rush hour when literally hundreds of Koreans are pouring in and out of every train, there seems to be some method to the madness (even though the sheer number of people squeezing into each train car can make you feel like sardines have it pretty nice). And regardless of the time of day, volume of passengers, or subway line, it’s never hard to notice the cleanliness of the subways – graffiti, hardened gum, and trash conspicuous only by their absence – and the quietness of the passengers – most of whom are simply dozing or watching TV and playing games on their phones (yes, there’s perfect service even several stories down).

In addition to it being a rather pleasant experience to ride the subways here, it can also be rather entertaining. The ajashis selling their wares never fail to surprise, vending everything from knee braces and razors plated in fake gold, to drain cleaners and exercise bands. The videos demonstrating how to react in emergency subway situations are often less informational and more humorous, showing re-enactments of bomb blasts and crashes that wouldn’t even earn a spot on daytime. Of course there are also always the people who fall asleep and can’t help but bob on their neighbor’s shoulder for the whole 45-minute ride. And then there are the sights you just can’t be prepared for: an awkward teenager surreptitiously sketching you on a scrap of paper, a young woman robotically chewing up pepero sticks and spitting them back into their box, or a lone tween taking dozens of pictures of herself on her iPhone. Needless to say, whether passing the time by reading or people watching, commuting by Seoul subway is hardly boring.

Ringin' in the Rabbit Year

Lunar New Year – a Korean national holiday that affords a chance to prepare for the New Year (again), relax with a few days off of work, and celebrate turning a year older. Yes, in addition to the bowing to grandparents, eating of tteok guk, and wearing of hanboks, Koreans also turn a year older on New Year’s (lunar or solar, depending on who you ask) after eating a special soup. This means that as of this week I am now (drum roll please) twenty-four! (How is this possible, you may ask, seeing as I was born in July of 1988? Well, not only do you turn older on the new year and not on your birthday, but Koreans are already one year old at birth, making it possible for me to have aged two years since my arrival in Seoul.)

We spent the week before Sul-Nal discussing the year of the rabbit and all of these traditions in kindergarten, but I must say, I did a lot more learning than teaching that week (I still don’t completely understand why they expect the foreign teachers to teach our Korean students about their own culture). Finally after learning all about Korean New Year traditions, the kids showed us waygooks just how to celebrate the New Year at the Sul-Nal event on Monday when they came to school in their hanboks (traditional Korean dress), played games like yut nori and jae gi, learned how to bow, and ate rice cake soup.

As for my celebration of Sul-Nal, I didn’t don a hanbok or bow to my grandparents, but I did have a very relaxing break here in Seoul. My staycation mainly consisted of reading books, watching movies, and eating good food with Allison, but we did take breaks from our sloth and gluttony with visits to Changdeokgung Palace, a traditional tea-house in Insadong, and a piercing parlor in Apgujeong. Mellow, yes, but just what I needed.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jerry in the limelight

My kindergarten was very concerned when they first asked, “Teacher, you are ‘dum dum duu duuuuuum?’” (humming the wedding song to mean ‘married’) and I said no; after all, aren’t all grown ups married?! But, the knowledge that I had a boyfriend helped ease their anxiety and from that point on my kindergarten wheedled out detail after detail about Jerry until he became such an integral part of class discussion that it felt as if Jerry and K-Blue class had already been introduced. That is why it came as no surprise when everyday throughout the end of November and beginning of December, one of my kindergarteners would squeal “Shelby Teacher! December it is Jean birthday and almost Christmas. And December it is Jerry come!” And when the day finally came for the class to meet “King Peanut Butter Jerry” (as the class had nicknamed him through a series of inside jokes), they were nothing short of star-struck.

Jerry and I arrived in the classroom a few minutes early and as the bell rang and my class rounded the corner they steadily grew quieter and their eyes got wider. Despite all of their bubbly six-year excitement in the previous weeks, they were all exceedingly bashful. Well, all except Joseph who, after only a moment’s pause, leapt onto Jerry to give him his best kindie bear-hug. The shyness lingered as I let them ask Jerry questions, but until Lara asked Jerry where he was from and Claire cut off his response with “Romania! Dracula! You are VAMPIRE!...ooooohhhh!” With that the nervousness evaporated in a storm of giggles and the class seemed much more at ease as Jerry taught them how to say hello and goodbye in Romanian (for the rest of the week “servus” and “pa pa” became common vocabulary, even though they were rarely used correctly). By lunchtime, even the most timid students had loosened up and ate at top-speed so they could have plenty of time with their new plaything; I must say, it was rather adorable to watch them unabashedly hugging him, using him as a jungle gym, and dragging him to join in their games.

But, the fun didn’t stop at kindergarten. Somehow some of the thirteen year-olds had this unshakeable idea that Jerry was a famous professional basketball player. For weeks they begged me to bring him into class, but the fifth floor language program isn’t as welcoming to outside guests, so I promised he would come wait for me after school one day and they could meet him there. Thus, when I came down the stairs after work I saw Jerry being mobbed by half a dozen of my students all snapping photos with their cellphones and demanding autographs as they waved pens and papers in his face. Needless to say, the other teachers were all very confused as they watched this scene unfold, but I was laughing to hard to explain right away.

Clearly, Jerry was a hit at GKI. All the way until Christmas break my kindies pouted about Jerry not being able to come back, and to this day continue to frequently ask about him. And after my older kids’ met Jerry, there really was no convincing them that he isn’t famous (one of them even informed me he went home and laminated Jerry’s signature!) and I’ve long since given up on dissuading them from trying to see him on CNN. I bet he never thought he'd leave Korea with celebrity status.

Monday, January 24, 2011

'Twas the season

This year, I overcompensated for missing Thanksgiving at home by celebrating a double Thanksgiving abroad. Though we didn’t get the day off work, I spent the evening of Thanksgiving as close to America as I could get without leaving Seoul: on the Yongsan military base with a fellow Mac alum, currently working at the embassy on tour for the Foreign Service, and his family. (On the base it’s easy to forget you’re in one of East Asia’s metropolises, its tree lined streets and rows of ranch-style houses eerily resembling a midwestern neighborhood from the 1950’s.) With the cheerful family banter, a table full of home-cooked Thanksgiving fixings, and post-dinner word games it almost felt like home.

For Thanksgiving round two, I joined nearly two-dozen other teachers for a potluck-style Thanksgiving feast in Paju. And a feast it was: there were enough “grandma’s best casseroles,” “mom’s special stuffings,” and “secret recipe pies” to feed a small country, but we all stuffed our homesick stomachs with fourth and fifth helpings until the plates were clean and we were blissfully and sickeningly full. Not too shabby for my first Thanksgiving as an expat.

With Thanksgiving over, however, homesickness quickly set in. You see, growing up Thanksgiving always marked the beginning of my favorite time of year: the Christmas season, which, for my family, lasted all of December. Going to bed Thanksgiving night was almost more exciting than Christmas Eve because I knew the next morning, without fail, I would wake up to the sound of my mom’s favorite Christmas carols and a house in disarray; garlands, twinkly lights, and Santa Clauses replacing the books and picture frames that usually adorned our shelves. Of course, since I went out of state for college, this wasn’t my first Thanksgiving away from home, nor was it the first Christmas season I missed. In fact, every December for the past four years was full of too many papers and too little Christmas cheer. Nevertheless, the promise of returning to a home full of Christmas warmth and traditions always served as a light at the end of the finals tunnel.

Let it Snow!
Originally uploaded by shelbs1988
This being my first Christmas away from home and my family, I started out just trying to ignore Christmas all together so I wouldn’t feel homesick. Eventually a handful of care packages with Christmas treats and decorations convinced me to do away with my Scrooge fa├žade and I did what I could to embrace the season by going slightly Christmas crazy with my kindergarten. (Hey, there’s nothing quite like experiencing the magic of the Christmas season with children.) We turned our classroom into a little Christmas haven using construction paper, felt, tinsel, and glitter. We made snowmen, snowflakes, red and green paper chains, hand print wreaths, stockings, and Christmas stars. My favorite craft was probably our construction paper Santas that the kids called “Kimchi Santas” when they accidentally made them too skinny to be true cookie-fed Santas. In no time, my class full of divas mastered all the best carols, including “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “ Winter Wonderland,” and we spent an afternoon taking around homemade ornaments and caroling to the other kindergarten classes. And even though we were at school on Christmas Eve, our Christmas performance, visit from Santa, viewing of Frosty the Snowman, and gift exchange filled the day with plenty of Christmas spirit.

More than anything else, the thing that really got me over my holiday funk and through the holidays was Jerry’s month-long visit. After 4 months apart, his arrival in mid-December couldn’t have come soon enough or had better timing. For the two weeks leading up to our Christmas break in Cambodia, we put in plenty of time and miles on the subway, leisurely shopping, eating, dancing, and wandering our way through many of Seoul’s hotspots including Olympic Park, Itaewon, Hongdae, Myeongdong, and COEX. The whole while, we enjoyed the season Seoul-style eating hearty Korean food, Christmas shopping in bustling Namdaemun market, walking along the festooned Cheonggyecheon (the whole time criticizing the garish light displays adorning every surface), and, in keeping with tradition, taking in a local performance of the Nutcracker (which was unfortunately sub-par, but enjoyable nonetheless). We even brought some luxury and comfort to our holiday celebrations with a stay in the swanky W Hotel that's perched on a mountain overlooking the Han River here in Seoul and a black-tie dinner at Papa John's (yes, the American pizza place. But don't judge, it's quite the treat for those of us living abroad - homey comfort food like good ole American pizza can be hard to come by.)

All in all, not too shabby. Perhaps my 2010 holiday season didn’t quite follow tradition, but in the end, it was not only enjoyable but more than I could have ever asked for.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Movin' on up

New Apartment
Originally uploaded by shelbs1988
One of the great benefits of being a teacher in Korea is that, in most cases, the schools provide your apartment in addition to your salary. But the thing about having free accommodations is you kind of just have to take what you’re given, which in my case meant a high-maintenance, dilapidated cubicle. I dealt with it as best I could (hey, it hasn’t been that long since my dorm-days), but when the school replaced my peeling wallpaper with glittery ladybugs and iridescent checkers and my antique boiler died, promptly subjecting me to two weeks of icy showers, I’d had enough.

Luckily, the foreign director at my school had also had enough – of my maintenance complaints, that is – and suggested I move into another teacher’s apartment after their contract ended. I obviously jumped at the opportunity, as really anything could be an improvement, and thus I find myself starting the New Year in a new and highly improved apartment. Not only is my new apartment closer to school and about three times bigger, but it has a separate kitchen, bedroom, and living room, meaning I actually have space to move and live in without having to use my bed as an all-purpose sitting-dining-working-sleeping-social space. I even have a couch that folds out into a bed! From now on everything from coming home from work to having friends over will be much more comfortable and enjoyable, not to mention more grown-up. Let's just say: I've upgraded and it feels glorious.