12 September 2013

Bittersweet Bye-Bye

One of the toughest things, I think, about living abroad is making friends. That is, making friends with a bunch of people whose habitation in Korea is mostly short-lived.
As foreigners in this country, we automatically have one thing in common: we're foreign. We all have the drive to explore something new. We have many reasons for doing so, including a job, travel, money, new adventures, or "finding" oneself. Still, it is relatively easy to start a conversation with a foreigner, since a lot of us are from English-speaking countries, and don't speak Korean.
It's really fun to meet people from other cultures, and to compare how different or similar they are. In the teacher's perspective, I like to hear how others work in their classrooms and what kind of students and coworkers they have.

However, a lot of these friendships are cut short by time allotted by visas, job opportunities, homesickness, etc. It's not that these friendships have to end, necessarily, it's just that distance does put kind of a strain on trying to build a stronger bond.
I think the worst part is when you get the feeling, "Hey, I wonder what so-and-so is doing," only to message them and realize that they are living hours behind you, most likely asleep, and won't be answering you for a while. I suppose the same happens to people who are back home, wondering about friends in Korea.

It's difficult to say goodbye to some people, as you know in your mind that you probably won't be seeing them again.

Just to make this post a bit lighter, I am pleased to say that I have met some awesome people in the short time I have been living in this country. Every six months brings a new batch of teachers fresh off the plane, giving the city plenty of new faces to meet. Some of those may be here for a long time, some may take a midnight run in the next month. Though while they are here, I'd like to think that one of the positive aspects of living and working in Korea is meeting new people.

20 August 2013

Obligatory six-month post

Six months ago I embarked on a new journey that has lead to some interesting adventures. New friends, acquaintances, habits, routines, and experiences. I find myself pondering questions I never thought I'd ask, such as:

Do you think there will be pictures on the menu?
How long is a meter?
I wonder what I'm eating right now...
What is he trying to say to me?
What's that in Celsius?
Why did that old man just hit me with a rolled-up newspaper?

...and a whole lot of other "Why" questions. However, I no longer question anything ajummas do.

There are things I just can't get used to, while other things have become so habitual I don't even notice them until someone points them out to me, such as bowing. I bow to everyone, even foreigners now. Sometimes it's embarrassing. I also say the word "Aish" for any situation where something has gone wrong, or I stub a toe, but I mostly blame that on my affinity for Korean dramas. Speaking of, I have also developed an affinity for Korean dramas and K-Pop. However, I see nothing wrong with it. You can learn a lot about the culture from their television shows. Just look at American television if you think I'm wrong.

I have started a new journey into learning the language, which is proving to be an uphill battle. The worst part of the battle thus far is forcing myself to study, but I just need to buckle down and do it if I'm ever going to have a chance in actually learning anything. As for now, I have the basics and can get through a simple interaction. I consider that awesome, even though it's only a small stepping stone to where I want to be.

I go into my next six months refreshed and ready from my first-ever vacation. I'll write about that later. For now, this has been my obligatory six-month post.

01 August 2013

DON'T let this happen to you

Seriously, DO NOT let this happen to you. Let this be your warning.

When you come to work in Korea, you have to wait for a lot of your basic amenities like internet, banking, utilities, and phone. In order to get these things, you have to have a little card, called an Alien Registration Card. This card takes 2-3 weeks to get to you, and that's if you're lucky to get co-teachers who take you to the embassy on your first or second day of arrival.
The point is, this little piece of plastic gives you a lot of stuff.

One of the best things was the phone. After not having a phone for a while, getting lost without anyone to call or ask for directions, the phone can become a lifeline. Especially with smartphone, which can be used for translators, maps, directions, bus schedules and routes, subway routes, and most importantly, a link to your family and friends.

In other words, a phone is an important piece of equipment.

So what happens when you lose it?

In America, it's pretty simple. You go to your phone company and pay for a new phone. Everything is the same. You shell out a bit of money for the replacement phone and there you go. Simple as that.

Could it be that simple in Korea? Short answer: hell no.
Here's the deal:
I went out with a few friends for a birthday celebration. We went to a festival in a large park. The festival was packed, we had fun for about 15 minutes (mostly standing in line), then decided to get out of there. We sat down in another part of the park, ordered chicken, and had a good time talking about nonsense and meeting teenagers dressed as ghosts (but that was for a different festival at the same park at the same time).

When we got to that "other" location, I discovered something that both frustrated and terrified me: my phone was gone.
Shortly after I dumped my purse on the ground

How was my phone lost? It was in my bag, was it stolen? Try calling it. Where was I when it was gone? Try calling again. When did I last have it? Ugh, I checked the time around 7:30. Try calling. When did I last have it? Yeah, 7:30. Try calling. Who would've stolen it? This is Korea! Where did I last have it? Somewhere in the fray, try calling. Where? I'll go back. Try calling. I'll go. Where? It was in my bag. When did I have it last? 7:30ish, call it. Where was it? If I knew, I'd probably have it. Seriously, Korea, you don't steal things. Who has it? I'll go look, try calling. No one's picking up. Ugh, how do I even start? Who can I contact? No one knows? Okay. Try calling. No, I didn't find it. Where is it? What do I do?
And that was the end of it. I looked for it, couldn't find it. In fact, a friend of mine went back with me the next day to look for it, asking around for it, to no triumphant high-five. Police station said it was probably in Hong Kong or China by then, and I'd never see it again.


So, a couple weeks passed. I couldn't get a cell phone by myself because my Korean is no where NEAR good enough for that, so I had to wait until one of my co-teachers felt like helping me out. (Hint: most of the time, they don't really want to) Turns out yesterday was the day.

In Korea, you make a phone contract like you do in the US. However, with this contract, you are obligated to use the PHONE for two years, not the company. On top of that, as a foreigner, you can't have more than one line. Thus, when my phone was lost/stolen, I was in breach of contract. Therefore, I had to pay the remainder of my phone contract. This was a two year contract, and I had used four months of it.


About an hour and a half and $900 later, I have a new phone, new phone company, and three boxes of tissues as a present. (They give gifts here for buying a new phone. Something like tissues or toilet paper, usually. Sometimes bigger things like carts or even bikes)

Now, for the clincher. Turns out that my phone plan would replace my phone for free if I had had it for six months. Someone might say, "Well, I would've waited two months and gotten it for free!" Um, no. I don't think you realize how much these past two weeks have sucked. My co-teachers have been needing to call me about things and not been able to get a hold of me. Friends wonder where I am when I get lost (which is often), and can't call to make sure I wasn't kidnapped. Family back home wonders why I haven't messaged back. It's been awful.

But I'm okay now.

TLDR; Don't lose your phone in Korea. If you do, it's blasted expensive.

25 July 2013

Tedious Teacher Tasks

Back to alliteration with vivacious vengeance!

This post shall be about tasks, activities, or responsibilities that I, as a teacher, must do/be in order to complete my duties. However, they were not really explained in the official "handbook." (Keep in mind that this handbook is neither written or spoken. It is simply inferred. I suppose that this handbook is supposed to be learned through osmosis. Simply being in the area of the school, you must breathe deep and meditate to find it.)
For the trolls: Yes, I am aware I teach EFL, not ESL.

1. Being a glorified babysitter
There are times when class just doesn't go how you'd like it to. The kids won't settle, they won't be quiet, they won't pay attention. That is when mean teacher comes out. Sometimes all I have to do is stand in the front of the room with a stern expression until they all start wondering why Teacha looks so mad, they decide as a group to be quiet and find out. Occasionally I will have to yell. I have heard of some teachers who completely lose control of their class and basically sit there while the kids go apeshit. Thankfully (knock on wood) I haven't had that experience. My students are still young enough to be frightened by a short, white lady yelling English at them.

2. Being a symbol of America
Kristen Teacha is America. 
Simple as that, I now represent America to everyone I run into. No matter if I'm having a bad day, am in a bad mood, and really don't want to deal with Korea, I am America. For most of my students, I will probably be one of the few, if not only, experience they have with an American. The same goes for most of the teachers at my school, and the parents in the surrounding neighborhood. I'll make a few examples:
Kristen is accidentally rude = Americans are rude
Kristen is impatient with something = Americans are impatient
Kristen thinks a food is too spicy = That food is too spicy for Americans
Kristen is late once = Americans are always late
And this can even go as far as including all foreigners, not just Americans. Sometimes you really have to watch what you do here, because someone always seems to be watching the foreigners. (Especially in shops, since we ALL know that foreigners steal)

3.  Teacher's meetings
Teacher's meetings are the bane of my existence in this school. They happen every couple of weeks, and they are the most horrible thing ever. I get called on by my co-teachers to go to the meeting because the Principal likes to see me there. Everyone notices when the white girl isn't there.
However, these meetings, as you would guess, are conducted in Korean. Do I know Korean? No. I'm working on that, but no, I have no idea what they are saying. So, I get to sit there for an hour and a half, sometimes two hours, and pretend to listen. I clap whenever everyone else does, but I will NEVER laugh when everyone else does, because I don't know if it's funny or not. I cherish my humor, and my judgement of all things funny. So far, Korean does not sound funny to me. When I learn Korean, that may be different.
Hopefully during the meeting I get a seat that faces the window, so at least I can keep my brain active by counting windows on the high-rise across the street, or the leaves on the tree outside, or try to read the truck that drives past. After each meeting, my co-teachers, without fail, ask me, "Kristen, it is boring, right?"
.....yes. Why do you insist on me being there?

4. Teacher's dinners
This one is two-sided, actually. I kind of like them. I kind of don't. 
Imagine being stuck in a hot room with a bunch of people whom you can't converse with. Imagine all of those people acting as if you don't exist because they can't converse with you. This is a teacher's dinner.
This is when all the teachers get together and go to a restaurant to treat ourselves for being so awesome. It's a time for all the teachers to get together, eat a bunch of food, talk loudly, and get very drunk. It's pretty fantastic. Now, being a foreigner at this party, I don't speak. I sit at a table mostly alone with only food as comfort. Fine with me. As I stuff my face, a microphone appears out of nowhere. I'm serious, it just appears somehow. The principal will come up and give some sort of motivational speech (I think) and then hands off the microphone to someone else who starts talking in rapid Korean. Then suddenly I'm being pushed to go up. Oh no, I think, not again. Oh yes, he hands the microphone to me. I must speak Korean until I can't anymore and everyone is in awe of my mad Korean skillz. Then I give a little bow and return to stuffing my face full of delicious food.
I don't like the microphone, but I love free food. Catch-22, isn't it?

5. Being a (not even glorified) babysitter during breaks
 I understand that education is really important to Korean culture. So important, in fact, that these kids never really stop studying. They don't have much time outside of studying, unless it's to study some activity like taekwondo, soccer, piano, etc. Other than that, my own students enjoy computer games, dancing, and running around like maniacs for no conceivable reason.
Summer break comes along, and it's not really anything like American summer break. The schools go year-round here, so there's a month break in July/August and a winter break in January/February. During those breaks, students are free to do whatever they please......or not. In America, you would see kids roaming the streets looking for a park to chill in, some new bug to poke with a stick, or nowadays lazing in front of a computer screen or television. In Korea, these kids are stuck in camps, hagwons, extra lessons, etc., to make sure their brains don't rot over the break.
I actually don't mind the camps that much, other than my "vacation" is really more work than a normal work-week.

I can't much complain, though. At the moment I have the office to myself, computer speakers commandeered to play music throughout the empty hall. I am sitting in air-conditioning, trying to muster up the motivation to actually do something productive, but instead I am writing blog posts. Ah, the pleasures of deskwarming*.

I also can't complain because I do love my job. Even with the annoying teachers' meetings, dinners, camps, rules, hierarchies, etc., I couldn't imagine myself back in a kitchen making food for ungrateful bastards for minimum wage. Or back in a call center.....ugh. Don't think about that one ever again.

*deskwarming: the period in which EFL teachers in Korea must be at their desks during school breaks. Whether working, sleeping, or browsing youtube, the native speaker must be at the desk for work hours.

10 July 2013

Dokdo? More like Dok-don't even go there, Japan!

I am a level 7 slacker.
I should be doing actual work right now, but I feel like blogging to the world about how my life is significant and special. Or something.

I should probably write a bit about Dokdo. For those of you who don't know, Dokdo is an island a ways off the east coast of South Korea.
It's sovereignty has been disputed since the beginning of time (or so it seems). Japan says it's Japanese, Korea says it's Korean, and they simply don't seem to want to come to a conclusion since no one wants to give it up. 

Anyway, being a foreigner in Korea sometimes has its perks, and one of those is being used in Korean propaganda! Since I am very awesome with my foreign-ness, I was chosen, along with 19 other foreigners, to become Honorary Ambassadors to Dokdo. We were taken on a three-day trip to Ulleungdo, then from Ulleungdo took a ferry to see the harbor of Dokdo for 20 minutes. They gave us Korean flags to take pictures with, and that we did.
See? I blend right in, I know.

Then after 20 minutes the police started herding us like sheep back onto the ferry for another two and a half hours back to Ulleungdo. It was an amazing trip. The islands were beautiful and the water was so blue and clear and the squid was (mostly) delicious. It really didn't hurt that I was surrounded by 19 awesome people as well. I made some good friends on that trip, and I'm really glad that I went.
As for the conflict?
To me, it doesn't really matter. I'm not Korean, will never be Korean, so it doesn't affect me. However, through the history and research I have read (even some information apart from the stuff they fed us throughout the trip) I would have to concede that Dokdo is Korean. It has been Korean, and probably should stay Korean. 
See? Logic.

What I'm most surprised by is the backlash against the foreigners who went on the trip. Biggest surprise about that is that the over-the-top judgment is coming from our own fellow foreigners. I get it, I really do. Foreigners shouldn't be used for propaganda, I have no idea what they're doing with my picture, they can attach my name to anything, and you generally hate everything about me doing this. 
Guess what? I don't care what you think about me or my reasons to do this, or the consequences afterwards.
The way I see it, I got a free trip to an island most KOREANS don't ever get to visit in their lifetimes, as well as four days away from teaching responsibilities (as much as I love the buggers, some time off is appreciated). I see no harm in Koreans putting my picture in a newspaper and attaching it to their own common knowledge. Sure, the Japanese don't use foreigners, but I'm sure they have their own ways of propaganda, seeing as they're not allowed on the island.

In closing, going to Dokdo was an honor and privilege. I volunteered to be a pawn of propaganda to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I hope to never forget the experience of going to Ulleungdo and Dokdo. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, let alone gotten the opportunity to walk around. I made better friendships in four days than in the five months I've been in Korea. 
So...do I regret being a propaganda tool? 

Not at all. That's a stupid thing to be regretful of. What a stupid question.

With that, I leave you with pictures of Ulleungdo.
A view of Ulleungdo from a neighboring island(not Dokdo)

The water really was that blue. Seriously. This picture doesn't even do it justice. It was paradise.

24 June 2013

Habitual hangups

Being an ex-patriot means many things, but one think I have found is that I learn a lot about my own culture just by being surrounded by a different one. There are some things I miss about America. However, in the short four months I have been here, my habits have changed. Being thrust into a different culture kind of forces you to assimilate at least a little bit. Here are some things that have changed about me as an American expatriating to Korea:

1. Talking- both speed and volume: As an American, I realize now how loud of a culture we have. Seriously, we talk so loud. It's not yelling, it's just natural volume. I have changed that a bit. I don't usually talk so loud (until after a couple, if you know what I mean), and find it annoying when other Westerners do. I find myself wanting to shush them, but I save that job for the ajummas. They're really good at that.
Hazards of being an Elementary ESL teacher- I talk to people like they're four years old. I find myself using lots of gestures and speaking very slow. Sometimes this comes out, even with conversations with other foreigners. Then I have to apologize, and we all shrug and say, "What the hell is this job doing to me?"

2. Unlearning English: I am very slowly, but surely, unlearning English. I find myself having to work hard to remember the simplest of words that I regularly use. I'm having difficulty spelling correctly. This never happens. I am, and have always been, a stickler for proper grammar and spelling.
It's not like I'm learning more Korean, either. I am taking Korean classes, but I'm not replacing one language with another. I'm just unlearning English. It's very frustrating.

3. Bowing: I've brought this up before in my mini-etiquette class. However, now I find myself bowing at everyone, including foreigners I'm meeting for the first time. I'm past going for a handshake. I go straight for the bow. Another one of those, "What the hell is this job doing to me?" moments.

4. Eye contact: In Korea, I learned that Westerners are very creepy in that we like to make eye contact while conversing. It's a way we let each other know that we're paying attention. Not so in Korea. Making too much eye contact is considered weird and creepy. Also, if you happen to have pale blue eyes like me, they seem to get even more uncomfortable. So....watch out for that.
5. On the topic of conversation: Koreans tend to mutter affirmations while you are talking to them. Sometimes it's just a little "Mmm" sound that lets you know they are listening and taking in the information. Some Koreans will make this sound every two seconds. Don't be alarmed, they are listening, and that's their signal. When I first came to Korea, one of my teachers did this as I spoke all the time, and it made me extremely annoyed, since I thought she was just (this is one of those moments where I sit and think really hard for the word I'm trying to think of....) dismissing (that's the one!) me and moving on. Very quickly I learned that this is just something they do. However, I have started picking it up, and this annoys me.

6. Eating utensils: I thought I might have a problem with this one, but I really don't. I can eat anything with only chopsticks and a spoon to aide me. I have gotten seriously good at using chopsticks. Armed with chopsticks and a spoon I can eat soups, pastas, chicken wings(that one is a bit tricky), fruit, rice, squid, peanuts, anchovies, kimchi, etc. Put it in front of me, and I will eat it.

7. Spicy food: If you knew me back in America, you would know that I don't generally like spicy food. I would rather taste my food than punish myself just to find the thrill of capsaicin. However, in Korea, they generally make food spicy. Thanks to foreigners in the past, Koreans have the idea that all foreigners have very fragile palates, therefore don't like spicy food. Well, I've never been one to accept when someone says, "You can't," or "It's too much for you," so I try everything I can. You know what? I like it. I like spicy food, and have gotten a lot better at eating it, simply because of the fact Korea told me I can't. Fine, Korea, you won the battle, but I win the war. Bring it on.

In closing, being in Korea changes you. You tend to look at things differently, excuse things that you wouldn't have in your home country, but it's all alright. It's all part of the experience of being an expat and moving to a culture vastly different from your own. I'm sure I'll have more habits change after a while, but for now, these are the ones I can recall at the moment. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to study for a Korean test tonight. Wish me luck.

21 June 2013

Egregious Etiquette Errors

I really like alliteration in titles, if you can't tell. I think that's one thing I haven't come across in Korean, so I kind of miss it. I never realized how much alliteration I use until I start doing blogs.

To the point:

Sometimes while experiencing a new culture, mistakes are made. Some of these mistakes can be minor, to where no one really cares, and no one really calls you out on it. Then, there are mistakes that are simply egregious. Some that just so happen to be incredibly rude or strange that Koreans can't help but call you out on it.
These are my stories. Names may have been changed to protect privacy. (And by "may" I mean "have not")

Food: Do not stick your chopsticks in rice when you're not using them. I was warned about this before I got here. This is a big mistake, they tell me. Do not do this, they say. So....what do I do? I don't stick my chopsticks in the rice. (haha, you thought I would be the one to screw up, didn't you?) No, it wasn't me, but someone else did.
A simple visitor to my humble school, who happened to be foreign and happened to put his or her chopsticks in his or her rice when not using them.
Apparently it wasn't that big of deal. Or, so I thought. My co-teachers didn't say anything about it at the time, but waited until he or she left and then brought it up to me. "Did you see? He/She put his/her chopsticks in the rice. Why would you do that? Do you know?" This is the part where I'm supposed to have all the answers on why foreigners would do something wrong. Of course, I was a big disappointment, as I said, "I don't know."

"Bless you"
Where I'm from, when someone sneezes it is customary to say "Bless you." Doesn't necessarily have religious connotation anymore, it's just habit more than anything. However, in Korea, you don't say anything after someone sneezes. When you do, in my experience, people tend to look at you strangely and laugh.

All about context clues:
Koreans have a very distinct way of getting a point across. That is, they don't get to the point. Ever. It's a very indirect pattern of speech. You are left with only context clues to guide you on what to do. Be careful. This could, and often does, go horribly wrong.

Opening doors:
Usually a man, or delightfully polite woman, will open a door to allow someone else to go through, or at least hold it open behind them for someone behind them not to get hit in the face with it. However, in Korea, you don't do this. If you do, you will be there forever. Seriously, there are too many people to do this. Also, people look at you weird.

When in doubt, just bow:
This one is actually really important. It's a respect thing. There is a certain hierarchy based on job, age, family, wealth, gender, etc., that must be followed. If you're not sure about what to do, better to be overly polite and just bow. EXCEPT to people you know are younger than you. It's weird.

Anyway, that's about what I have to say about etiquette errors that I have learned.