Saturday, February 18, 2006

Teaching English in Korea 101

Well my first week of teaching has come to a close and as excited as I am to be finished a small voice in my head tells me there are still 51 to go...Oy Veh.

So what is teaching English to Korean children ranging from 8 to 13 like?
What I've realized first off is that to stay sane one has to first and foremost throw out the whole idea of implies learning. I'm not saying I don't try to teach, rather the whole system that we're working in is designed to be ineffective - much like Korea.
Seriously, I'm growing to believe that the only way this country "runs" is to be constantly creating new work by never doing the job right the first time. Perhaps the best example is in the construction methods used to build the apartment buildings that cover the landscape. The buildings are designed to be built fast with a life of about 5 years. Korea is not like Japan, that has to build with the awareness that an earthquake will likely destroy their work every few years. Korea has no such problem: perhaps they just have Japan envy.

Probably the second most important thing that I've learned is to never under any circumstances tell a Korean that they have "Japan envy". (Editor's note - at this point, Hanna kicks Matt off the computer). Well, you know there was that whole colonialism thing between 1910 and 1945, when Japan ruled Korea with an iron fist. That, and the numerous invasions from previous centuries when countless temples and relics were destroyed by Japanese invaders. As a result, the Koreans are none too fond of their neighbours to the east. On most world maps, the body of water separating the two countries is called the "Sea of Japan", but here you would never, ever say such a thing. It is simply the East Sea. Now, lying somewhere in this "East Sea" is the small uninhabited island of Dokdo, just a few rocks really. However, these rocks are hotly contested between the two countries, with both claiming sovereignty. Dokdo inspires such incredible, passionate patriotism in the children here, it's quite remarkable. At the very mention of the word, some of my more boisterous students jump up on their chairs and burst into a proud Korean anthem which claims Dokdo as theirs. In a couple classes, we got on the topic of reunification with North Korea, which led to a discussion of the atomic bomb, and inevitably to why Japan ceased its occupation of the Korean peninsula in 1945. "Nuke them again! Nuke them again!" was their shouted response. In another class, I asked them to describe their dream weekend. One 10 year old student's response: Friday - travel to Japan. Saturday - kill the Japanese emperor and dispose of his body. Sunday - return to Korea and think of an alibi.
And the kimpap - "Korean sushi" - which is, according to some Koreans I've spoken with, "just like sushi, but much better." (Thanks to my beautiful rice steamer, I've learned to make kimpap that is almost as good as the diner down the street, minus the spam and MSG).

Always she goes on about the rice steamer, but ask her to clean it and find out the truth (like a little kid with a dog, whose parents feed and and walk it). So you get the point right? Koreans are not fond of the Japanese.

Back to first week of teaching ( if I'm allowed).
As I mentioned earlier the hardest thing for me was to move beyond the idea of actually teaching the students and grasp the far more important issue. Make the parents happy. We teach at an English hogwan which put simply is a tutoring academy (there are also science, math, art, music, Korean, phys. ed, and at least a couple other kinds of hogwans). More complexly it is yet another example of the "keeping up with the Kims", a diabolical scheme which drains approximately seven billion dollars annually from the pockets of well intentioned parents (which is more than the Korean government spends on the education system in a year), while at the same time working to undermine that same underfunded public education system. Sound complicated? Think of it this way: if your neighbors send their children to three hogwans then how could send your children to any less... maybe you should send them to four...and the trend continues. The whole while the kids are learning in advance in the hogwans what they learn in the public schools, thus making public education irrelevant.
So here we are, the native English speakers brought to Korea not to teach the children English, but for the hogwan to keep up with other hogwans that also have native English speakers.
Basically I tell them to do their homework - after all, if they don't have homework, the parents aren't getting their money's worth.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

For My Grandma.

Yesterday, I received an email from my sister Tammy in Saskatoon. She wanted to let us know that she has been printing off our blog to take for my Grandma to read. Recently my Grandma and Grandpa moved back to Saskatoon so that my mother could help take care of my Grandma, who has become very sick. Since I can't be back home to go and spend time with the two of them, I figured the least I could do was dedicate some time to write an entry for my Grandma.

I have been so fortunate in my life to have the Grandma that I have. It would be easy to go on about how great her cooking is, because,well, it is. From her homemade pumpkin pies to the nuts n' bolts that she makes sure to always have on hand for me, she has never disappointed. I'm sure most everyone has those stereotypical stories of their Grandma's cookies, and yes I'm sure they all made good cookies, just not as good as my Grandma's (hers even have Skor bar chunks in them.....yum).

I remember as a child of five or six being introduced by my Grandparents to the most amazing toy in the whole world, the Frisbee. I have such fond memories of the two of them running around in a park with me teaching me to throw that amazing spinning saucer. I can't wait to teach Joseph to play Frisbee, and to tell him stories of how I learned. I imagine that as I get exhausted from running down his wild throws I'll gain an even greater appreciation for them and the effort they've always put into spending time with me.
Maybe it sounds silly, after all it's just frisbee, but it's all the little things like playing frisbee with me, taking me to the lake to pick choke cherries for syrup, or maybe always believing in me and helping me to go to university that have made my Grandma the best Grandma in the world.
Go ahead and disagree - I hope everyone has fond memories with their Grandmas, and everyone should think their Grandma is the best. Just make sure to let your Grandmas know that you disagreed with me.

Thank you so much Grandma, for being everything I've ever imagined a Grandma could be.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

Sign Wars II: The Christian Empire Strikes Back

One of the very first things I noticed about Korea, (as we careened down the freeway at 130km/hour, in a van without seat belts or safety seats) after having been picked up from the airport, was the vast abundance of church steeples, all with red neon crosses. Churches occupying space in commercial buildings will erect their steeples on ordinary slab roofs, and if more than one church occupies the same building, then (because if your neighbor does it, you most definitely must do it too, in order not to "fall behind" - a phenomenon known as "keeping up with the Kims" - similar in a way to "keeping up with the Jones", but much, much more extreme and competitive)... anyway, if more than one church occupies the same commercial building, chances are there will be more than one steeple on the roof. It's quite common to see buildings with two or more steeples all competing for souls. And, of course, the church with the biggest and tallest steeple is undoubtedly the best....
Korea is the only country in Asia (other than the Philippines) with such a high population of Christians. In the past 35 years alone, nearly 35% of the country's population have become Christian (after the Japanese occupation ended in 1945 and after the Korean War). In fact, the five largest Christian churches in the world are all in Seoul. But Korean Christianity is much different than the Christianity found elsewhere in the world. Because Koreans are so fiery and extreme, they will take things to the limit of common sense and soar beyond it without a second glance. Korean Christianity is, as a result, the most extreme and evangelical version of the religion found on the planet. On our third day here, my boss, claiming that she "loved to evangelize," told Matt that she knew the reason we had come to Korea, and that it was "to find Jesus." I have personally (and unwittingly) bore witness to an impromptu sermon in a subway train by a preacher who changed cars at each stop, and would wander up and down the station spouting the word of God with his megaphone. I really like this aspect of Koreans, though. They're very passionate about what they believe in.

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Beard Watch 2006

Well, it's Febuary 9th as I write this, four days away from starting my new job and the beard is still here. Recently I took a short trip to Japan to get my work visa from the Korean consulate. I'm not sure why I figured Japan would be a more beard friendly environment, but I did... I mean didn't that last samurai guy have one? Well after getting pulled aside at the airport for a full body pat down, I began to question whether Hollywood had let me down, yet again. One short but busy subway ride with everyone taking a look and nobody willing to sit next to me and it was confirmed: either I had really bad B.O or the people of Fukuoka were prejudiced against beards. After a quick check to make sure it wasn't an odor issue, I was sure it was the beard. (Funny how when everyone is already staring at you, taking a whiff in public of one's armpits doesn't seem a big deal)

Seeing as this whole "we're scared of beards" thing is becoming a regular part of my day I decided not to let it ruin my trip. I have however decided to hold a lesser view of any man incapable of growing a beard. (I use the term "man" loosely, after all what man can't grow a beard).