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.