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.