Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Korean Review: Day 1 – Educating the Test Takers of Tomorrow

The words “South Korea” and “education” are synonymous with the picture of children sitting nicely in rows, hanging on every word that the teacher says, participating and interacting to the maximum. If only reality matched this perception.

The perception...

...and the reality
The biggest thing that I have learned from this year in Seoul is in regards to this seemingly “magnificent” educational system that the Koreans have in place. The high and amazing test scores that Korean students produce on standardized tests only tell part of the tale – a very small, over-blown portion. There are so many other aspects to education that are either missing or overlooked by the current system in place here in Korea.

4 hours = success, while 5 hours = failure
This saying refers to the amount of sleep that many Korean students, especially those in high school, receive each night. Their days are hectic and tiring, but not with activities like sports and drama. Instead, their days are jam packed with studying, studying, and even more studying.

A typical day for many of my students looked like the following:
0800-1600: Attend Seoul High School
1600-1700: Small break for dinner
1700-2300 (or so): Academy (aka Hagwon) for extra schooling/tutoring/help
2300-0300: Home for some more studying
0300-0700: Sleep

Repeat 5 days a week. Sound miserable?? It’s no wonder that many Korean classrooms look like this and not like the quintessential image that the rest of the world has. 

The study regime is so strenuous because their future depends on it. By the time that students reach high school, their lives become centered around one gigantic test at the end of their senior year. This test, known as the KSAT (think SAT/ACT) determines if and where each student will go to college at. So it’s no big pressure what so ever.

With all of this pressure to perform well on this one test, it’s no wonder that students spend every waking moment cramming and trying to remember important facts and numbers. However, this is a really sad and depressive way to live every day of your life for three years or so. I can’t imagine going through high school without being involved in drama, band, choir, and speech. There’s no way that high school would’ve been as enjoyable or fun. 

This is a rare scene amongst the high school students in Seoul
This is also creating a disparity between the upper and lower class within Korea. Academies are expensive. The only students that go to these extra sessions are ones that have money and are able to afford it. Since I taught in one of the richest districts of Seoul, pretty much all of my students attended these academies. This meant that they had little to no energy every day when they came to my class. Sleeping was common. Lack of response was normal. All in all, teaching was frustrating.

Lack of respect for school and teachers
The days of students holding their teachers in high reverence have passed like the setting sun. One of the things that is contributing to this lack of respect is the spread of Western culture across Korea. Students are being influenced by popular TV shows, music, and other things from outside of its borders that are contributing to this demise. Another factor is the popularity of academies and the rigors that accompany them.

One of the things that happens at these academies is the students learn material that they are supposed to be learning at the public high schools BEFORE the material is presented at the public schools. So students are coming to class already knowing what the teachers are going to be teaching. This leads to talking back, lack of participation, and overall laziness/sleeping on the part of the students.

With this current system in place, public high schools are become obsolete and pointless. Students are coming to school with the notion that they know everything and more than the teacher, which makes it hard for teachers to control their students and teach them. This frustrating problem is not going to be getting any better any time soon as more and more students are heading to hagwon following school to continue the learning process.

45 in a class – SAY WHAT?!?!?!
Imagine walking into a room for the first time. As you walk through the door, you notice that there are 90 pairs of eyes staring at you, waiting to see what you’re made of. Nerve wrecking? Just a tad. Now imagine having to do this 3-4 times a day for 12-15 weeks. Welcome to teaching in Korea!

Every week, I taught 15 classes. Compared to my subbing gig in the states (in which I had 30 classes a week), this was a piece of cake and quite nice actually. However, within each class, there were 45 Korean boys awaiting me. Most of the time they were sweaty, chatty, and not interested in anything that I had to say. Enter frustration.

Now my class was labeled as a “conversational English class.” Getting 45 boys to speak in English is a nearly impossible task. I tried everything that I could think of to make this happen. I gave them dialogues to read. I created games and put them in groups. I even went so far as to TELL them what to say. Anything to try and make this happen. None of it seemed to matter. The majority were not interested in even attempting to humor me. Enter popping veins.

It was a struggle most days to even get out of bed. I knew that this experience was going to be different. I wasn’t expecting it to be the exact same as teaching in the states. I knew that it wasn’t going to be. But going into each class feeling like there was no pint was not what I had in mind. There were some days where I just felt like a glorified babysitter. Had it not been for the amazingly awesome and supportive teachers that I worked with, it would’ve been an extremely long and tiring year.

End of one adventure leads to the beginning of another…
So my time in Korea has come and gone. I’ve been back in the states now for about a week. It’s been quite the week to say the least, but I’ll save those details for another time. Korea was an experience that I’ll never forget. The things that I learned, the people that I met, and the experiences that I had will never be forgotten. I don’t regret it at all. I’ve changed for the better and feel even better equipped for my new start in Florida!

Speaking of Florida…I am currently residing in Boynton Beach and will be participating in AmeriCorps (think Peace Corps, but within the United States) for the next year. As always, I’ll be keeping a blog of my experiences and journey as I meet new people, explore a new area, and continue on this exploration called life. The address for this new blog, entitled Living Under the Palms, is Notice that this is a different address from this current blog.

Until next time…

Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Korean Review: Day 2 – Giving Back to the Community

Coming into this experience in Korea, I knew that I wanted to get involved with the community in some way, whether that was through volunteering, language classes, or sports opportunities at my school. I was blessed to have the opportunity to join the amazing volunteer organization, Mannam International. Through this group, I have established friendships that will last a lifetime.

I first heard about Mannam from my friend Rachel. She participated in AmeriCorps last year (and was super helpful/instrumental in helping me land that gig for this upcoming year) and has a true heart of gold when it comes to volunteering and helping others. She sent me an event invite on Facebook back in December stating that help was needed at a place called the House of Hope, an establishment for Koreans, aged 7-30, who have mental disabilities. They needed help setting up for an end of the year banquet. My friend Emma and I decided to give it a go! (Emma also is a big volunteer enthusiast and just an all-around amazing person!)

I was instantly hooked. We helped set up tables, blow up balloons, hang streamers, and artistically display items that the residents had made to sell. We were treated to part of the program and even were allowed to eat some of their food! Not only did I find something that fulfilled my want and desire to give back to Seoul, but I also met some really amazing people!

For the next two months, I helped out at various, little events, but I knew that I wanted to get more involved that I was at the time. My first opportunity came in February. My friend Fred, who is from Vancouver, had invited me to come and check out the new running club that was being started. As I have stated multiple times before, running was not in my blood at this time, but I decided to give it a go. After being the last one to finish the warm-up 5K run, I took it upon myself to get into shape and became serious about running. Through this experience, I have run 3 official 10K races, my first half marathon, and lost about 10 pounds! Without Mannam, this never would’ve happened.

Around March, I approached Nadine, one of the coordinators for Mannam, about getting more involved on the planning side of things. She told me to attend one of the volunteer event planning meetings that was coming up to see how I could do that. That was all the encouragement that I needed. During my time on the committee, I helped to plan to run various events, including an Earth Day based project on Bukhansan (ended up being a two week thing), Mini-Olympics at the House of Hope, trash clean-up at both Pyeoncheong and Guryong Village, an open-mic fundraising event, and two school painting excursions. Joining this committee led to the formation of some friendships that will last a lifetime.

Finally, my last contribution and activity with Mannam International was to join with three other members (Nate, Colleen, and Sarah) and help start up a Spanish conversation club called MannAmigos. The idea for this club was first brought to my attention when I was taking Judo classes. Colleen was also in my class and noticed that I was wearing a Spain sweatshirt. Small talk turned to serious discussions regarding the formation of a Spanish club. We recruited the help of Nate and Sarah, made a proposal to Lisa (the head of Mannam International) and badda boom! – we had our club! 

We have met at coffee shops weekly to discuss and improve our Spanish skills. The club has been expanded to include anywhere from 5-10 people, sitting around, sipping coffee and speaking in EspaƱol. It has been a great experience and has helped me prepare for my time in Miami, as I am looking at working at instructing adult immigrants, mainly from Cuba, in English. This has given me a great brush up as I gear up for this new experience!

In short, Mannam International has been an extremely important and amazing part of my time in Korea. Through this organization, I have worked hard with people from Saudi Arabia, Korea, England, Pakistan, Japan, Canada, the United States, India, South Africa, Brazil, Guatemala, Ukraine, and others. It has been such an honor and a privilege to know and work with all of them. I will sorely miss your company, smiles, and companionship. May the light that you all bring to this organization continue to unite others around the world! You will forever be in my heart and on my mind!

When light meets light, there is VICTORY!!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Korean Review: Day 3 – Red Paste Everywhere!

I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m not a fan of Korean food. It’s definitely not the first type of food that I will gravitate towards when given the choice of places to eat at. Those spots are still reserved for Olive Garden, Texas Roadhouse, and Carlos O’Kelly’s. Heck, before I came to Korea, I couldn’t have listed even five Korean foods!

One of the biggest drawbacks to Korean food for me is the flavor of  a lot of the food. I’ve taken on the following mantra during my time here: If there’s red ANYWHERE in the vicinity, pass it by. I’m not a big spice fan. Never have been and probably never will be. However, sometime it feels like EVERYTHING in Korea is doused, marinated, and covered with red paste, a spicy sauce that just screams Korea!

This is applied to everything from kimchi (fermented cabbage) to salad to beef. The Koreans claim that it’s good for health (as is everything that you do/eat in Korea), but I just claim that it’s too much and repulses me from eating Korean food. If they would just leave this as an option to add onto the food, then I might have a different opinion. 

Kimchi - How I will NOT miss thee...
Don’t get me wrong; there are some Korean foods that I enjoy. The BBQ joints (restaurants that have a grill in the middle of the table and then deliver raw meat that the customer cooks themselves) are some of my favorite places in all of Korea. Dakgalbi (chicken ribs and vegetables) and samgyupsal (pork belly) are two Korean staples that I’m quite fond of actually. Both of these meat based cuisines are very popular amongst both foreigners and Koreans alike. 

Samgyupsal - my absolute favorite!

Another staple of every Korean meal is rice. Rice to Koreans is like bread to Westerners. They have it at every single meal. Some days, this was the only thing that I would eat at lunch (normally on days when everything else had a red tinge to it). Another interesting aspect of Korean meals is that they have soup at almost every meal. Doesn’t matter how hot it is outside, the soup serves as their liquid for the meal. Me, I brought my water bottle to lunch every day. After receiving odd, sideways glances for the first couple of months, a few of the other teachers followed my example. I’m quite the trend setter. 

Another differing aspect of eating in Korea is the fact that everything is communal. When you order food, it comes on one plate and everyone shares. There are always numerous side dishes, ranging from salad to kimchi to corn (my favorite, though it’s definitely of the Green Giant variety) to silkworms (absolutely disgusting and revolting!). Sharing these dishes with everyone at the table took a bit of time to get used to. Sometimes a small, boiling bowl of soup is included as well. There will be one bowl for 8 people. Happy sharing everyone!

Traditional Korean Meal - complete with copious amounts of free side dishes!
Foreign foods can definitely make or break an experience in a foreign country. I’ve had my fair share of weird cuisines over the years. Escargot in Paris. Live squid/octopus/eel/fish eggs in Japan. Stinky tofu and chicken butt in Taiwan. Silkworms in Korea. Each experience provided its own challenges and hurdles. Upon my return to the United State, you’ll find me anxiously waiting for a nice, big juicy hamburger and avoiding anything with a hint of red.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Korean Review: Day 4 – Weekend Playtime

Everyone looks forward to the weekend. It’s an opportunity to relax, do something fun, and forget the troubles that the work week brings. When living in a foreign country, it’s also a chance to travel and take in new sights and sounds.

South Korea is a treasure trove of travel opportunities. Mountains adorn the eastern side of the country, along with plenty of climbable peaks around Seoul. Beaches dot the southern coasts, drawing thousands of sun seekers each weekend. Islands lie only a ferry ride away from the entire coast line. My year here has allowed me the opportunities to visit many of these wonders. Even though there are still a few left to be desired (and will remain unexplored), here are the top ten trips that I took within Korea during the past year.

10. Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival – located in southern Seoul, the cherry blossoms were a beautiful sight to behold

9. Suraksan Hike in Seoul – the one and only hike that I did with the hiking group SHITY (Sunday Hikers Interested in Trekking Yet-again) proved to be a challenging mountain with some gorgeous views overlooking Seoul

8. Sokcho City and Seoraksan – First long weekend was spent on the east coast, accompanied by a fun hike in the largest and most famous national park in all of South Korea.

7. Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) Tour with Adventure Korea – One of the first trips that I took while here was to the famous area that serves as the division between the North and the South and is still an active war zone today

6. Incheon Island Hopping – Ferried out to some islands off the coast of Incheon and almost got stranded overnight

5. Yeongdeok – Headed to this city on the southeastern coast of South Korea with the running club for my final 10K race in Korea and had an unforgettable time with my fellow runners

4. MudFest – The one activity that I wanted to do before coming to Korea was accomplished with my brother and other friends

3. White Buddha Adventures – What started out as a spontaneous search turned into a multi-day mission that was finally accomplished, along with many cuts, bruises, and everlasting memories and friendships

2. Samcheok – Explored this city on the eastern coast with Alex and had an absolutely amazing weekend walking the beach, riding the rails, and enjoying phallic looking sculptures (Oh Korea!)


1. Jeju Island with my parents – the definite highlight of my time here was my parent’s visit and subsequent trip to the Hawaii of Korea, complete with waterfalls, lava tubes, and quality family time

The one place that I really wanted to go to was Busan, the second largest city in Korea and home of some of the most popular beaches on the peninsula. Time did not allow for this trip to happen, but that does not mean that I didn’t see the country. This year has been full of surprises and these trips and weekend excursions definitely provided their fair share of unexpected events!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Korean Review: Day 5 – Speaking Korean

One of my biggest regrets about my time here in Seoul is that I never took the opportunity to really sit down and learn Korean. I gave every excuse in the book:

“I don’t have the time.”
“When will I ever use Korean once I leave here?”
“Classes are twice a week? On Saturday? That’s a big time commitment.”

While Korean is not a widely used language outside of the peninsula, I still feel like I let myself down a bit by not trying to learn it more aggressively. I am able to read things written in Korean; I just have no idea what they are saying (most of the time). The reading of the Korean language is actually really very simple and straightforward and can be learned in a couple of days of diligent studying and commitment. (Check out this website which does a good job of introducing the Korean system).

The spelling of "Hangeul" in Korean

There are a few observations that I’ve made regarding Koreans and how the speak. I’m sure that a lot of this can apply to Americans and other Westerners as well, but I’ve definitely picked up on the following tidbits:

  • Koreans are super whiny when they talk. They always seem to be elongating the last syllable of at the end of their sentences. Females are especially guilty of this. Males do it as well, but it’s not quite as annoying/noticeable as females. Of course, I realize that many Americans are whiners. But it’s one thing that many of my friends and I have picked up on and notice when we are out and about with our Korean friends. 
  • When talking on the phone, there is no formal goodbye; just a dial tone. I’ll be at school, in the office, and the teachers around me will be having a phone conversation. At the end, instead of saying goodbye or terminating the conversation with some sort of salutation, they hang up. End of story. I remember the first time that happened to me with one of my Korean friends. I was a bit taken back, but soon learned that a dial tone signaled the end of the conversation – in a polite and non-offensive way of course.
  • The grammatical structure of Korean is a bit different than that of English. The word “is” is inserted at the end of their sentences (signified by the phrase “ib ni da”). Many times, all that I’ll pick up from a conversation between my co-teachers at lunch is “blah blah blah blah ib ni da.” This leads to excessive amounts of chuckling and self-amusement on my part. Gotta do something to entertain myself at the lunch table.
  • Koreans are not afraid to talk about you when they know that you are in earshot. When I first started at Seoul High School, my teachers would be talking in Korean and all of the sudden, I’d hear them say my name. My ears would perk up, I would peer over my cubicle wall, and try to find the culprit. Most of the time, they didn’t actually want to talk TO me, just ABOUT me. It took me a good couple of months to finally just learn to ignore them. If they really wanted to tell me something, they come and tap me on the shoulder. So if when I get back to the states and I ignore you the first couple of times that you say my name, forgive me. I’ve been Korea-fied and mean no offense.

In 5 days’ time, I’ll be back in the States, understanding everything going on around me conversation wise. I’d better make the most out of playing the “foreigner” card while I can!