Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Polyvinyl Resin

The sum of all my blogs as of yet might make one assume that I am a sort of nomadic traveler here in Korea. However, the truth is that I do actually have a home here, or at least an apartment. To be honest, I'd be surprised if the president even had a house considering the inexplicable population density and tendency of each and every Korean to live in an apartment. A rural Canadian hamlet might include a two story wheat silo if you're lucky, but the same sized village in Korea would most certainly have a high rise apartment. I usually write my blogs about events around Korea in relative chronology, but today's blog shall unfold a little differently. It quickly became apparent to me that I've written about a handful of places that I've visited, but not the place that I have visited the most. The place I am referring to is my place of work. My job is the life preserver that keeps my bank account afloat, and ultimately the reason that I am in Korea in the first place. It's rewarding, hilarious, tiring, enlightening, and story-filled. It's what I haven't written about yet. It's the proof that I am in fact not a nomad, but really just someone who takes full advantage of their weekends and holidays. Monday through Friday, it's my life.

To call education "competitive" in Korea would be the understatement of the century. Parents devote a huge part of their time and income ensuring that their child is being well educated. I recently read a book that described something known as "apartment disease" within Korea. It suggested that there was an innate competition among Koreans within the apartment complex to always be "at the top." This makes perfect sense as Korea is more concerned with hierarchy and egalitarianism than any other place I have visited. From an educational standpoint, it means that if one student is attending an extra-curricular academy, then sooner or later the whole apartment complex will be. None of the parents want their child playing and "falling behind" while another is bettering themself at an academy. I have a profound respect for a country that is so focused on educating themselves, but I sometimes feel as though kids should have time to be kids. Some of the kids that I am teaching attend two or three extra academies (English, Math, etc...), as well as play an instrument, practice Taekwondo, attend regular school, and about a half a dozen other things. I know that I personally learned quite a bit in unstructured learning environments, so as a child this would have been a daunting experience for me.

I've recently read two novels about Korean culture that have really put life here in perspective for me. All the information I am delving into about Korea is giving me a lens through which I examine all that is around me. No country can ever be crystal clear to anyone, but you may as well attempt to see it as clearly as possible. I've already learned an immense amount, and that is beginning to include the Korean language. One of the books I read is a graphic novel that I highly recommend to anyone teaching in Korea. It's written by a famous Korean graphic novelist who looks to put the first "mind map" of the Korean people into place (Korea Unmasked by Won-bok Rhie). I'm not looking to morph this blog into a collection of essays, but I found some staggering facts in this graphic novel in relation to education. Rhie notes that "Korean parents spent over 7 trillion won on extracurricular study fees in the year 2000 alone." That is over 30% of the education obsessed Korean government's education budget. He and I agree that within Korea there is an "endless war of attrition with respect to education." However, education and determination is what made Korea the powerhouse that it is today.

Another book I read was written in late 1980's by an English journalist who walked across Korea (Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles - Simon Winchester). It was incredibly interesting to see how much Korea has progressed since that time. However, there were certainly ideologies that still held true, and have for thousands of years. I found a specific quote that seems to hit the nail right on the head: "No sacrifice is too much for a Korean father to make, no hours too long for a Korean mother to work, if only their child is well educated, is given a better chance, a better series of opportunities." I've decided there is something truly admirable about the Korean people. This passion for education is why I have been shipped over here to teach English, and for that I am ever grateful.
This is, however, a blog so let me end my prolonged lecture and let me tell you a little bit about my job. I teach at a private school or Hagwon which is in Yongin City. It's a suburb of Seoul that holds a few million people and a wonderful little identity. If I lived in downtown Seoul I would currently be absolutely broke, so I couldn't be more grateful to live in this area. It allows me to access Seoul with a short subway ride, but live far enough away from the madness. I teach with Bri at this fine little institution as well as another Canadian couple. I'm really quite happy teaching here for the year. They have provided us with a great apartment nearby (see photo. PS - We now have a massive Korean flag covering that back wall), and the salary allows you to save each month while living very well. The cost of living is very reasonable in Korea to say the least. It's easy to see how teachers end up living here for years and years, and in many cases leave their previous life behind. However, I'm quite content living her for a year and then traveling across Southeast Asia for several months. Traveling Europe with just a backpack, curiosity, and little ambition provided some of the fondest memories of my life. The plan is to be back just in time for Christmas 2012. I find it rather unusual to consider that I left Canada as a 21 year old, and will return at the tender age of 23.

My qualms with the job are minor and petty while looking at the overall picture. One such frustration is that I have to teach the kids "American English." I've written every essay in my life with Canadian English, and now I must abandon the glorious spelling of the Great White North. My favourite colour has always been blue, but I must tell them that their "favorite color is green." I actually get more of a laugh out of this than anything. I also must point out the irony that I will be applying to teachers college in Canada from Korea, while I am technically a teacher. Any discrepancy I have here can instantly be dissolved with one smile of my student. Just a little note that I will be posting some pictures that I took with my iPod for the rest of the blog. I used my iPod to capture some fantastic moments that occurred in the classroom.
Just from looking at these pictures it is abundantly clear that I won't be able to share half of what I want about my teaching experiences as of yet. These are some of the enjoyable moments that I have had so far with the kids. After two months of teaching I have really sustained a bond with all of these children. I have students that insist on giving me Pokemon cards and food, hang off of my arm as I walk down the hallway, and give me a genuine smile when they see me at Reading Town. There are some classes where we have more wonderful little inside jokes than I do with some friends in Canada. For example, in one of my younger speaking classes, we read a story called "Ham and Eggs." One of the characters chants that he wants ham and eggs. So, now, with fists risen, we sometimes chant "Ham and eggs! Ham and eggs! Ham and eggs!" That is only the tip of that wonderful iceberg. Also, I get to see them progress at English which is extremely rewarding. I teach a variety of ages and levels, but in all cases they learn from me, and I learn from them. I talk about shapes and colours with some students, and politics and life with others. There is no better way to get to know Korea than through the exuberant youth.

One of my favourite parts of the job is marking book reports. In the first section they write a summary, and in the second section they form sentences (the format varies upon level). I am utterly impressed with the work that they are doing, but I have amassed the most hilariously fantastic collection of sentences, phrases, and misinterpreted words by them. A lot of the ideas behind the sentences are clever and complex, but that doesn't always translate perfectly. They have to choose several words from the book that they read, and then make sentences out of them (they can make anywhere from 5-20 sentences depending on their level and I have italicized the word that they had to use below). There is no question that English is a difficult language, and these sentences are proof:

  1. "In my dream fish catched me for fishing then fish ate me."
  2. "Died people go up to sky"
  3. "A cat dog is the grand mother backwards" (Don't be concerned, I didn't understand this one either.)
  4. "I don't like bee because the bee has pin"
  5. "Rapangel is not know what is a grass." (At first I didn't understand this sentence. Then, I realized that she was trying to say that because Rapunzel was locked in the tower, she was never able to see the grass. Pretty clever!)
  6. "Cold cottage cheese." (I don't think cottage cheese exists in Korea, which makes this sentence even better.)
  7. "I picked it up to my mom. My mom said, 'what's that!' I said '16 WORMS!"
  8. "I tuck mop polyvinyl resin in the market" (This is a perfect example of the students using a thesaurus and it backfiring. All the English teachers have been pondering over this one for quite some time.)
  9. "I have a cold when feather sense me." (This is another example of a smart sentence misinterpreted with English words. He is trying to say that he sneezes when a feather touches his nose.)
  10. "I don't like old people because very scrade." (He was going for scary on this one.)
I haven't included these sentences to mock the students in the least. I just think they are an interesting way to see how difficult English can be to new learners. They happen to be inadvertently humorous in the best of ways. I take great pride in teaching these students English because that's my job. In just one day I can be tired, energetic, thirsty, hungry, happy, yelling, whispering, smiling, silly, serious, careful or carefree. All in a day's work.

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