Thursday, May 30, 2013


이것저것 means "this and that", as in 최근에는 많은게 있는데 제가 이 블로그에서 이것저것 쓰고 있어요. Recently a lot of stuff's been happening, so I'm writing about this and that in this blog (post).
Fulbright ETAs who participated in the Hwacheon Peace Forum, posing in front of our hanok, or traditional Korean house. I mean, it was traditional, but the rooms still had fridges and televisions, so it wasn't that traditional. Photo taken by the talented Neal Singleton.
Today was the last meeting of the special English class I've been teaching to a small group of school principals and regional supervisors. We went out to eat hanwoo, or Korean beef, and it was delicious, and they made me drink a lot, and they all said they loved the class and wished that they could take more classes with me, and this was a bunch of middle-aged Korean men who presumably had little to no prior interest in English eight weeks ago, so that made me feel pretty happy.

In other news, taekgyeon training is definitely helping me become stronger and fitter, but in the meantime it is also destroying my feet. My left big toe has been sprained for the better part of a month now, and it's all purple from a particularly nasty bruise I got two days ago. Every weekend, I give my feet a rest, and they're fine until Monday, when I kick with bad form or get kicked myself, and then I know nothing but pain. My first competition is in four weeks, and I am going to be utterly helpless.

In other other news, I have bought all of my plane tickets for summer travel: Seoul to Taipei to San Francisco to Rapid City to San Francisco to Seoul. Six weeks until vacation! A part of my brain is, I must confess, already on vacation, and that's the part that successfully convinced me to binge-watch season four of Arrested Development, which turned out to be no less fantastic or hilarious than I wanted it to be, over the past few days. I haven't been sleeping much.

In other other other news, France has legalized same-sex marriage, the Boy Scouts are allowing openly gay members, and this weekend in Seoul, I'm going to my first Pride! Cool stuff.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

세계평화의 종 - The World Peace Bell

Let's break that down:
세계 (se-geh) means "world".
평화 (pyoung-hwa) means "peace".
의 (eh) is a possessive particle.
종 (jong) means "bell".
Fulbrighters and Hwacheon Peace Forum campers at the World Peace Bell. (taken by Ammy)
The World Peace Bell, located in its namesake park in Hwacheon, was cast in 2005 for the 60th anniversary of Liberation Day (August 15th, 1945 -- the end of Japanese colonial rule). The metal in this 37.5-ton Buddhist-style bell was recycled from empty ammunition cartridges from the Korean war and various conflict-ridden regions of the world. This gives the bell a certain special significance in its symbolism of world peace.

Making wishes. Btw, this bell is huge.
During the Hwacheon Peace Forum, we visited the World Peace Bell Park and learned about the bell, the nearby Hwacheon Peace Dam, and a little bit about the hopes of those who created this park. The dream, of course, is peace, but then there's also Reunification (통일/tongil). The top of the World Peace Bell is decorated with pigeons (비둘기, which represent peace, just like doves do; it's worth mentioning that pigeons and doves are in the same bird family). However, one of the pigeons is missing half of one of its wings. The missing piece is being kept with the promise that when North and South Korea are finally reunified, it will be reattached, thus finally completing the bell.

In the style of Buddhist bells, this one is rung by being struck on the outside by a large wooden beam (a battering ram?) The beam is very heavy, and it takes many people to swing it. All of the campers got a chance to strike the bell. The sound it made was very deep and powerful. As soon as it was struck, we were supposed to gather around the bell and place our hands or backs on it to feel the resonance, as well as to make a wish. I rested the back of my head on the bell after I had rung it, and it felt like a nice massage. While I did feel to an extent that the symbolism was a bit tacky, I did learn later that it actually costs about fifty cents for tourists to ring the bell, and each year, all of that money goes toward a full scholarship for one Ethiopian university student to study abroad in Korea, as thanks toward Ethiopia for fighting alongside Korea during the Korean war. I feel much better about that.

HL and SY with an otter (수달), which I believe is Hwacheon County's mascot.
After visiting the bell and watching a short video about the Peace Dam (평화의댐), the camp participants had some time to discuss what we had learned over the past two days and share our thoughts about peace and Korean Reunification. My two student partners, HL and SY, were two bright girls who, despite being good friends, plainly disagreed on whether Reunification would be good or not.

HL, whose father is in the army, was against 통일 because she knew the risks were great: Korea would be plunged into an economic and humanitarian crisis if it suddenly had to take care of millions of refugees from the North. SY, on the other hand, was more idealistic and remained convinced that North Koreans are "our family" and that the current separation was neither tenable nor the desire of most South Koreans. We didn't have enough time to elaborate on these thoughts, but I could tell that both of them had actually thought through their positions, and I appreciated that.

Both did agree, during our discussion, that the conversation about 통일 was likely more often had in Hwacheon than in other parts of the country, due to the county's proximity to the De-Militarized Zone between the North and the South. It seems like the farther away you get from the border, the less people tend to think about the issue. I know it hardly comes up in my life, way down here in Changwon, but it's not hard to see why people who live a mere thirty kilometers away from an enemy state would be more attuned to this dialogue. So, it was no wonder that the students of the Hwacheon Peace Forum, some of whom have participated in the camp several years in a row, were capable of expressing themselves so well about a matter very important to them. I was both impressed and inspired.

That said, I don't have any grand, sweeping conclusions to make about world peace or Korean Reunification. Not yet, at least. I've learned a great deal about this issue over the past few months, and I'd like to get all my thoughts down in writing at some point, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


A large blob of rice cake in the making.
인절미 (injeolmi) is a traditional Korean snack. (When I say it, it kind of sounds like "Enjoy me!") It is a variety of 떡 (ddeok), or rice cake, that is first pounded into a sticky, glutinous blob before being coated with bean flour and sugar. I've eaten 인절미 often, since rice cakes of all kinds are a common gift for teachers, but there's definitely nothing like eating a fresh batch that you yourself have helped make!

This past weekend, I went up to Hwacheon (화천) to attend the annual Hwacheon Peace Forum, a twenty-four-hour camp that combines an excursion to locations around the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone between North and South Korea) with a language and cultural exchange between Korean students and Americans. On the evening of the first day of the camp, we visited a hanok (한옥) village, a collection of dwellings built in the traditional Korean style that often serve as host to these sorts of camps. The first thing we did there was get the lowdown on how to pound our own 떡.
My student partner HL and me pounding at the 떡. (taken by SY)
Delicious 인절미!
It's not too difficult, really. You grab a giant wooden mallet and swing it down onto the blob of rice. Accuracy and strength are key, but it was a little bit tricky to engage both at the same time. I had a good time pounding away at the 떡-to-be, even though I wasn't doing it very well, but I also realized that our efforts were minimal compared to how much work must have been put into creating the blob in the first place.

Anyway, everyone who wanted to work out their aggression via giant wooden mallet got a chance to do so, and then we coated our rice cakes in the sweet bean powder and started nomming.

Afterward, we had a nice outdoor barbecue dinner and I got to hang out with all of the Korean students and get to know them much better. It was neat how quickly we all became close. All it takes is a few enthusiastic circle/icebreaker games and food, and suddenly you've got tons of new friends. I introduced everyone to Ninja, a favorite from college, and also got really into many rounds of Mafia later in the evening. I'll elaborate on what this Peace Forum was actually about in the next post. To come: the non-touristy DMZ, the World Peace Bell, and otters!
Korean students and American teachers having some fun before dinner.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Baby Buddha with Beads

Baby Buddha with beads. Found at Seongjusa (성주사), a temple in Changwon.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Guest Teacher

Hae-in and me at Yongji Lake.
I had a special treat today, and I just had to share it with my students: my friend Hae-in came to visit! Hae-in and I met at Swarthmore our freshman year; we were in the same Chinese class. She and the other Korean international students were the first South Korean nationals that I'd ever met, and they also taught me how to read the Korean alphabet, hangul. I guess you could say Hae-in was one of the first people who helped spark my interest in Korea so many years ago, so I am here now partly thanks to her influence.

Hae-in is back in Busan for summer vacation after finishing her first year of law school in the U.S. When I heard that she'd be in my neck of the woods while the Korean school year was still in session, I asked if she'd like to come visit my school and chat with my students. Although my high schoolers apply exclusively to Korean schools and don't really have plans to study abroad -- unless it's for their Ph.D. many years down the road -- I was sure that they'd find Hae-in and her story really interesting.

She came to talk to two of my third-year classes. They were quite surprised and excited about having a guest, and they were impressed that a Korean national (who wasn't an English teacher) could speak English so well. This realization also seemed to make them very shy, even when giving basic self-introductions, but they all did well. A few students in each class were actually incredibly enthused and asked question after question during our informal Q&A: What kinds of culture shock did you experience when you went to the U.S.? What do Americans know about Korea besides PSY and "Gangnam Style"? How much do American university students study? Do they party a lot? Are American universities ranked in the same way Korean universities are ranked? What do you think of the different educational systems? Can you tell us about Andrew's past?

Although Hae-in's experience was in economics and law, and my students study nothing but math and science, they connected well over the fact that their high school education was similarly rigorous and competitive. But I'm glad that Hae-in also strove to give my students the message that rather than study all the time simply for the sake of getting into the best college, they should find what their passion is -- what makes them excited to get up in the morning? -- and focus on that. We've all been blessed with an excellent education; my students have such overwhelming privilege already and they're essentially guaranteed academic success. With this in mind, why worry so much about your next test? Take the time instead to build relationships that will last. Do some extracurricular activities that you enjoy; they'll give you the added benefit of a more well-rounded application. And relax.

These are all things that I want to tell my students, but since they heard it from the mouth of a fellow Korean, I'm hoping that it'll stick better, even though it was in English. After each class, I'm sure my students left feeling encouraged.

Also, they were so cute when they talked to her, calling her "Hae-in Teacher" and generally giving off airs of awe or confusion or both. My co-teachers were excited to have her around, as well.

After school, Hae-in and I hung out at Yongji Lake, where the roses are in full bloom and the ducks and fish are lazing around as if it's already summer. We caught up on old times and then had 닭갈비 for dinner. It was such a wonderful day. 고마워요, 해인 티처!

Monday, May 20, 2013

보성녹차축제 - Boseong Green Tea Festival

Last Saturday was 518 (오일팔/oh-il-pal), the anniversary of the Gwangju Democratization Movement that occurred on May 18th, 1980. I thought it would be interesting to see what was going on in the liberal and historically anti-American city of Gwangju on that day, but I didn't get a chance to visit the memorial or see any exhibits or events. Instead, I hopped on a bus headed south to Boseong (보성) for the penultimate day of the famous Green Tea Festival -- another spontaneous decision. It took me away from the big city, deep into the rural landscape that dominates most of Southern Jeolla Province. Way out there, I highly doubted anyone regularly crossed paths with foreigners, let alone harbored xenophobic attitudes toward them. In fact, Boseong is a tiny town that apparently heavily relies on tourism and graciously welcomes everyone to see its famous green tea fields.
보성녹차축제. The Boseong Green Tea Festival, nestled in the hills in rural South Jeolla Province.
Although I had been planning to meet up with fellow Fulbrighters at the festival, my phone ran out of batteries (one downside to spontaneous overnight trips: you never think about the small things, like charging electronics or bringing a toothbrush), so we hadn't communicated a time or place to meet. When I hopped off the bus at the festival grounds, I realized that I would just have to keep my eyes peeled for a group of foreign women. As I blend into a Korean crowd quite easily, I knew they'd have trouble if they were the ones looking for me.

Still, I took the time to take in the sights, and there was lots to see. The main attraction was a hillside covered in green tea shrubs and dotted with people stooping over to pick the leaves. The plants looked a bit worse for wear, since the festival had been going on for some time and tens of thousands of visitors must have trodden the hillside already. But it was still something I'd never seen before. I myself took a short walk along the hill and snapped some photos, but I didn't pick any leaves -- I was still trying to spot my friends.
Festival participants prepare tea leaves for brewing.
Other attractions included long rows of stalls selling all sorts of green tea (녹차/nokcha) products, which are, unsurprisingly, not limited to tea. There was green tea candy, green tea lotions, green tea ice cream, special ceramic and wooden teapots and teacups, and the plants themselves. In addition to this, there was the usual festival fare of food, cultural knickknacks, and anything hawkable, really.

After a bit of time wandering around alone, I made my way up a different hill to the performance area of the festival, where a large stage had been set up and many people were watching a troupe of 아줌마 dance. Here, I discovered more food stalls, some green energy and environmentalism exhibitions, and a large pavilion where people who had picked their own tea leaves could help cook, roll, and dry them to prepare them for actual brewing. And it was near this area where I finally found my Fulbright friends!

Together, we visited the tea museum, shopped for gifts, and just chatted and caught up. It was quite pleasant, overall, and I was indeed much happier to be experiencing the festival with friends instead of alone. After I'd been at the festival for about three hours, we took the bus back to Boseong, and then to Suncheon, where we ate a light dinner, and then I bused back to Masan, and then I bused back to Changwon. I was dead tired after all that travel, and I may or may not be absolutely sick of buses after this weekend! Okay, that's enough griping. Here are more photos!
An adorable diorama in the tea museum depicting tea taste testers at work.
Another exhibit in the tea museum. ₩1,000 entry for a relaxing visual walk through the history of tea in Korea, with limited English.
Alanna tries a sample of green tea. I ended up buying a small package of 세작 tea, which is made with relatively young leaves, for my homestay family. As it turns out, host mother prefers the variety that I bought! Score!
Hilary, Alanna, Amy, Payal, and me in front of the green tea fields (녹차밭).
P.S. Gwangju to Boseong is 1h30m (₩8,400); Boseong to the famous green tea fields is 20 minutes (₩1,100); then the return trip; Boseong to Suncheon is 1 hour (₩5,800); Suncheon to Masan is 1h40m (₩9,000); Masan to Changwon is 30 minutes (₩1,100). That's a lot of freakin' buses.

For any readers who need information about bus timetables and ticket prices, because that information is often hard to find on Korean websites, here's Suncheon Intercity Bus Terminal, Masan Intercity Bus Terminal, and Gwangju Combined Bus Terminal. Even Koreans take photos of timetables and ticket prices at the terminals themselves because the websites are so utterly impossible to navigate.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

석가탄신일과 송광사 - Buddha's Birthday and Songgwangsa

At Songgwangsa, this small stream with lanterns strung above it was one of the first sights we came across. It was breathtaking.

A nice three-day weekend is winding down for me. I was a bit more spontaneous than usual, probably owing to the fact that there was a national holiday, which called for doing something out of the ordinary, and that with only two months left in this grant year, I'm running out of time to spend with a lot of people I love...

So on Friday morning, which was Buddha's birthday on the lunar calendar, I set out from Changwon to bus across the peninsula to Suncheon (순천), where I met up with some Fulbrighters for a quick lunch before we took a taxi to Songgwangsa, one of Korea's most famous temples. Songgwangsa (송광사) was first built in the late Silla (신라) dynasty, about 1200 years ago, and has been renovated eight times until the present. It is known for producing many learned Buddhist scholars as well as being a major pilgrimage site.
A woman baptizing a boy Buddha statue in celebration of Buddha's Birthday.

My friends and I arrived in the afternoon and, after picnicking on 김밥, took a nice, slow meander around the temple grounds. It was a beautiful place, although it was not peaceful but bustling due the crowds of visitors on the special day: Buddha's Birthday (석가탄신일). There were special performances going on, and lots of families were there, the children being entertained by the same food trucks and small carnival game stalls that you see at most festivals. What with all the activity, the shows, and the colorful lanterns, it seemed more like we were at a carnival than at a "Jewel Temple of Korea".
The view of the mountains from a higher point on the temple grounds was quite beautiful.
However, on the outskirts of the temple, farther away from the crowds, there were quieter areas and gorgeous mountain scenery. My friends and I found a small stream and chilled there for a while. We spent most of our afternoon at the temple silently taking in all the sights and sounds and chatting with each other. It was perfect, really.

In truth, I wasn't at the temple to learn about Buddhism (불교) or even try to score free 비빔밥. I just wanted to spend time with my friends. The four that I hung out with this weekend have all chosen not to renew their contracts, which means that after July, they are going back to the US permanently, and I might not see them again for a long time. I tried not to think about that.
Julia, Maggie, Cecile, and Adam doing their best impressions of bamboo.
When it was time to go, they convinced me to go to Gwangju (광주) with them instead of turning around and heading back to Changwon. Feeling in the mood for some holiday spontaneity, I decided to spend the night in Gwangju; we ate dinner at the First Alleyway (Gwangju's little slice of North America in the middle of the downtown) and then watched The Great Gatsby. It was... great! More colorful and dynamic than the temple, even. I am going to re-read the book as soon as I get the chance.

So, I had a good start to the weekend on Friday, although the travel wore me out. I'm quite used to spending hours on a bus, now: Masan to Suncheon is 1h40m (; Suncheon to Songgwangsa is 1h30m (and ₩42,000 for the taxi fare); Songgwangsa to Gwangju on the direct shuttle is 1h30m (and ₩7,500). And those times are all not including traffic, which was plentiful on the holiday weekend.

Next up: the Boseong Green Tea Festival!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

체육대회 - Sports Day

Today was Sports Day at my school, an annual event that pits homeroom classes against each other in a variety of athletic competitions. There were traditional sports such as soccer, basketball, and dodgeball, but also fun outdoors games like jump rope, tug-of-war, and relays. The last event of the day was a dance showcase by the first years, which involved hit K-pop songs, cute choreography, and a healthy amount of cross-dressing. Sports Day was a blast, and I had a great time watching my students get their competitive spirits on in the realm of sports (instead of science). They also had tons of fun; I was surprised, but not really surprised, at how much energy they had to spare and how much class spirit they mustered up for the day's events. Here are photos!
Group jump rope (단체 줄넘기)!
Tug-of-war (줄다리기)! This team's Sports Day uniform was awesome: leopard-print monpe (몸뻬) and ears! And war paint!
The third-year team celebrating a victory. They went on to win the overall competition.!
One of the events was a penalty shoot-out (승부차기) for female students. It was a lot more intense than I'd anticipated!
One first-year class performed PSY's "Gentleman" -- it had to show up, right? -- complete with the messy beer scene (with water).

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

스승의날 - Teachers' Day

The bell rang; students were in their desks. Then, HJ called out, "1, 2, 3!"

Then, everyone started singing. In Korean.

I stood at the front of the room, kind of dumbfounded for a second. And then, I realized that it was Teachers' Day today, and this must be some sort of tradition. They kept singing.

I broke into a smile then, not quite sure what else to do. I chuckled a bit. They kept singing, everyone in my class except for DK, who was fast asleep at his desk. It was a nice-sounding song, but I didn't understand a word.

When they finished (probably after a minute, although it awkwardly felt like much longer), TS ran up, handed me a small cake in a paper cup, and said, "This is for you, for Teachers' Day!"

"Wow," I said. "Thank you so much, everyone! I was very surprised. Okay, class, what is today's date?"

- - -

So, today was Teachers' Day in Korea. The holiday has quite a few traditions here, including singing that song, buying gifts of flowers (carnations or whole baskets and bouquets) and rice cakes, calling and sending letters to teachers from your past, and otherwise showering all teachers with love and attention. It seems quite different from the Teacher Appreciation Day I know of in the US. Actually, I don't recall ever doing anything very special for any of my teachers in high school or college, and now I'm a bit ashamed.

But anyway, Teachers' Day is a big deal here. They say that the most important and respected people in olden times were kings, parents, and teachers. Evidently that sentiment has held up until today. Some of my colleagues, who have been teaching for years, received gifts from not only their current students (and their current students' parents), but also from some of their students from years and years ago. The entire school was overflowing with baskets of flowers, rice cakes, and even legit cakes from bakeries or Baskin-Robbins.
A cake given to one of my co-teachers by a student (or, rather, given by his parents). It's a gorgeous cake, pure white, with carnations on top. The text says "선생님! 감사합니다." (Teacher! Thank you.) and the student's name. It may or may not be a ploy to curry favor.
During lunch, all the students stood up in the cafeteria to sing that same Korean song to all of the teachers. Throughout the day, you could hear cheers and singing coming from different classrooms as the students tried to surprise their teachers. I certainly was surprised by today's serenade. In addition to this sweet gift, I also received a boutonniere -- there was one for every teacher -- and a NASA pen from a student, IS, who had just returned from a science competition in Houston, where he had won a bronze medal.

But the best gift by far was a small note from one of my quietest students, who happens to be in my lowest-level class. TH usually sits alone and doesn't seem to like to talk to anybody, let alone me. In fact, sometimes I get vibes from him that indicate he'd rather be anywhere else but in my classroom.

At the end of class today, when TH turned in his worksheet, he tried to slip it into the bottom of the pile, and I noticed that he'd written something in the margin.

It reads: <Thank You teacher.> I think it was hard decision to you to stay other country and teach other country student. However, you did greatly, and many students are happy in this class. I have met many foreign teacher, but you was the greatest teacher. thank you

Together, on three: 1, 2, 3! D'awwwww! 감동하네요!

Oh, and also, this student thinks one of the most important global issues (today's lesson topic) is language endangerment! I have no idea how he even knows what that is, but I am impressed. And I am touched by his note. It really is the best gift I could receive. The mini-tiramisu comes in a close second.

To all teachers, in Korea, the US, or anywhere in the world: Happy Teachers' Day! Keep on doing what you do so well, and never let discouragement overshadow the joy of making a positive impact in a student's life.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Foot Volleyball

The other day, I got to play 족구 (jokgu) for the first time ever. Well, it was less "I played jokgu" and more "I watched the other teachers play jokgu while I stood in a corner of the court and didn't even pretend to know what I was doing."

족구*, called foot volleyball** or footvolley in the Western hemisphere, is pretty popular here, especially since it seems to feature the most popular aspects of soccer (Korea's uncontested sports craze): headers and roundhouse kicks. Here is a video of what it looks like.

All the teachers already know that I'm laughably bad at soccer. We play together every other Wednesday or so, and I usually end up in defense, charging and intimidating any forwards but contributing little else. However, they also know that I love volleyball (배구/paegu). Unfortunately for me, 족구 is about 90% soccer and 10% volleyball, so I was 90% useless to my team. I'm just glad that my fellow teachers were gracious and patient as they taught me the rules and encouraged me even when my serves went out of bounds. That's right, I can't even kick a ball in a straight line across a basketball court.

Well, my school's Sports Day (체육대회, a field day where all the students play sports and other active, outdoor games) is just around the corner. While I think it'd be fun to get in on the competition, knowing myself, I'd probably better prevent my own embarrassment and just watch from the sidelines.

- - -
*literally, "football", whereas "축구" (soccer) is translates to "kickball", and kickball itself is 킥볼 (kikbol) or 발야구 (literally, "foot field ball")

**not to be confused with football tennis/futnet or sepak takraw

Monday, May 13, 2013


9:34pm, on my way to taekgyeon class. The streets of Palyong-dong are pretty busy. An older man (아저씨) in a suit looks at me as I approach, then steps forward and addresses me. The following exchange was in Korean:

아저씨: Excuse me, are you a student?
저: Hm? No.
아저씨: You're not a student?
저: No.
아저씨: I see. Well, I'm here to blah blah blah blah blah in this area blah blah blah blah blah...
저: ...
아저씨: Blah blah blah church blah blah blah mother of God blah blah blah...
저: Uh -- I'm really sorry, but I'm not Korean. I don't understand.
아저씨: Where are you from?
저: The United States.
아저씨: When did you arrive in Korea?
저: What?
아저씨: When did you arrive in Korea?
저: Last year.
아저씨: Your Korean is very good.
저: No, it's not. I just told you I couldn't understand a word you were saying. Oh, thank you.
아저씨: Are you religious?
저: What?
아저씨: Are you religious?
저: Oh, yes.
아저씨: Christian?
저: Yes.
아저씨: Have you heard of the new name for Jesus Christ?
저: Huh?
아저씨: Jesus Christ. Do you know about his new name?
저: Oh frick, you're in a cult, aren't you. No.
아저씨: You don't know?
저: I'm really sorry, but I'm kind of late. I have to go to a class at 9:40. I'm sorry.
아저씨: Oh, you're going to a hagwon?
저: Yes.
아저씨: Okay, well I blah blah blah blah blah...
저: Goodbye!
아저씨: Goodbye, thank you!

This is the second time this has happened to me in a week, although the first time was with Buddhist proselytizers. And to think people usually find me unapproachable...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Cheonjusan (천주산)

천주산 is one of the highest peaks in the Changwon area. I've had my eyes set on it ever since I learned that one of the trailheads is a brief twenty-minute walk away from my apartment. When Ryan came to visit from Jinju, I proposed a Sunday afternoon hike with him and another friend, Thomas, and we had a great time of it.

Thomas, Ryan, and me. In the sky!
Like most hiking trails in Korea, this one was very user-friendly. There were several rest stops, including one where a lady had set up shop to sell water, coffee, beer, and ice cream. The trails themselves were mostly steps built into the side of the mountain. Although 천주산 is taller than 정병산, the other mountain I've hiked in Changwon so far, at 639 meters compared to the latter's 566 meters, this hike took much less time, since the trail was shorter and steeper.

It was Ryan's first big hike ever, so we made slow going at first, but eventually we reached the peak! It took about 1.5 hours. The way down took the same amount of time, taking into account our frequent pauses and a break for ice cream. The weather was gorgeous today, mid-seventies (22-23 degrees Celsius, which I feel like I'm more familiar with now than Fahrenheit...) and breezy. Unfortunately, the wind wasn't strong enough to clear the city air of a thick haze, so even from the top of the mountain, we hardly had a view. It was disappointing, but it was nice to have made it to the top nonetheless.
On the peak of 천주산, 638.8m above sea level. You can hardly see the city through the haze behind/below me. (Taken by Thomas)
Summer is most certainly on its way here in Korea. While it's still beautiful almost every day -- but before the mortal humidity kicks in -- I want to spend as much time outdoors as possible, hiking other mountains around Changwon, going to the beach, and maybe even sailing. Thomas mentioned a place in Jinhae that offered classes.

Oh, yes -- Korean vocabulary. 천주산 (天柱山) means "the mountain of pillars supporting heaven", and it shares its name with a Buddhist temple (절/jeol) called 천주암/Cheonjuam near its base. Along the hike we saw the last remaining 진달래 (jindallae), or azalea flowers, stubbornly holding onto their blooms past their season. We got to drink water from a 약수터 (yaksuteo), a mountain spring whose water is considered good for one's health.

불운하게도, 꼭대기에서 경치가 좋지 않았어요.
Unfortunately, the view from the peak was not great.

창원에서 다른 산이 등산하는것을 고대합니다.
I look forward to hiking other mountains in Changwon.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


In class, during a lesson on family.

Me: Okay, so what do you need for a family? Who is in a family?
Student 1: Mother.
Me: Great. Who else?
Student 2: Father.
Me: Okay, good. Who else?
Every single student in Korea: GENTLEMAN!!!
Me: I walked right into that, didn't I?

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Parents' Day

Here is a corny Konglish joke I just made up: What would a particularly excitable mother or father say on May 8th of every year?

Answer: "어버이!" (Oh boy!)

Hee. Okay, so today is 어버이날 (eo-beo-i nal), or Parents' Day, in South Korea. Originally transplanted from the US as Mothers' Day, fathers were allowed in on the celebrations starting from about forty years ago, and the tradition has stuck since then. Children give their parents gifts, the most common being a red carnation (빨간 카네이션) as a brooch, basket, or bouquet. But like many other holidays in Korea, this one has also been mega-commercialized.

My own host family has been particularly low-key on the celebrations lately. May 5th, just a few days ago, was Children's Day (어린이날), when families go out on picnics (소풍) and other nice excursions, but my host siblings stayed at home and studied. They said they were too old (middle- and high school-aged) for Children's Day. And today, well, not much of interest occurred. My host sister found me at school during passing period and asked me to deliver a card she had made to her parents. I did, and in addition, got a small, pretty carnation plant and a basket of kiwifruit to go along with it. In the words of my host brother (who says this every day when I ask him how his day went), "Nothing special." But I know my host parents appreciated the sentiment.

몇일 전 5월5일에 어린이날였어요. 대부분 사람이 가족 함께 소풍 하는데, 우리 홈스테이 동생들이 집에 머물고 공부했어요. 이제 어린이 아니기때문에 어린이날 못 축하한다고 말했어요. 그리고 오늘 5월8일 어버이날 인데, 보통날였어요. 홈스테이 여동생은 학교에서 저를 만났고 저에게 손으로 만든 카드를 부모님께 드린다고 부탁을 했어요. 했고 이 뿐 만 아니라 작은 예쁜 빨간 카네이션과 키위를 홈스테이 부모님께 드렸어요. 대체로, 그냥 하루였지만 홈스테이 부모님 고마워할것 같아요.

P.S. In class today, I was working on acrostic poems with my first-years. One of them happened to recall a cute acrostic she'd heard before:


That said, time to call my actual 부모님, if they're awake, and wish them a happy Parents' Day!

Want to know a secret?

I've always wanted to be called "쌤". Pronounced ssaem (like the first syllable of "semaphore"), it's an abbreviation of the word "선생님" (seonsaengnim), which means "teacher".

In Korea, teachers can be addressed by the simple title "Teacher", just like American college professors can be called "Professor" by their students. But if a student uses 쌤 instead of 선생님, it implies a closer relationship between the two. If a student is joking around with their teacher outside of class, or greets them excitedly upon seeing them, it's likely that they'll use the abbreviation as a term of endearment.

Now, my students have never called me 쌤. They call me "Teacher" or "Andrew Teacher", and some of my older students, who feel more comfortable with me, just call me "Andrew". That's what I told them all to call me, anyway, as I insist on their using only English. But I can't deny that I'd love for some of them to use 쌤 instead. It would mean a lot of different things, among them the affirmation that I am actually a legitimate teacher here, not just a visitor who's here to train them in practical usage of the English language. It would mean that they consider me if not a friend, then at least friendly and comfortable enough to be around to use a bit of Korean slang.

But today, it happened! Somewhat. Just like last week's basketball tournament that all my students were obsessing over, this week's lunchtime soccer tournament captures everyone's attention during that short thirty minutes before fifth period. EJ and CY, two likable students from one of my second-year classes, were watching their peers play from the window of our English classroom on the third floor. The game underway on the dirt field outside was very intense: two to one, and very little time left on the clock. As I entered the classroom to prepare for the next period, I heard a roar come from outside.

"Who scored?" I asked, although I already knew from the groans and frustrated yells from my second-years.

"Third grade!" said EJ, angrily. She was totally into the game, now tied and almost over. With the bell for fifth period about to ring, they had to go into a shootout tiebreaker. With every goal by the third-years, I gave a little cheer (full disclosure: I like my third-year students a lot). I told EJ and CY very plainly that I support all of my students, but I was secretly enjoying getting a rise out of EJ because she was going so crazy over the outcome of the game, literally pulling her hair and jumping up and down and all that.

So I kept cheering on the third-years and pleasantly clapping for the second-years, and finally, the third-years scored a goal, and I said, "Hooray!" and EJ turned to me and said "쌤!!!" with this hilarious how-could-you look on her face. As soon as that word left her mouth, she corrected herself and said, "Teacher!!!" still just as incredulously. But I was smiling inside, and not just because my third-years had won the game.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Less Reserved at the Reservoir

Is this trippy, or is this trippy?
This morning I went on a hike with one of my students, MJ. He's a quiet kid but he invited me on this short trip because he wanted to chat and to practice his English. He is also the student council president. I learned a lot about him in those few short hours, about his dreams, his family, and his school life, all of which largely go against what you might expect from a typical science high school student.

Although his English is far from perfect, I kept stressing to him that correct grammar was not necessary for successful communication. As long as you can get your point across, I said, you don't have to worry about your English. That came as a relief to him, I think, and it helped him open up so that we could talk for so long about so many things. He even said that English intimidated him and that sometimes he and his friends thought talking to me was scary, since they lacked confidence. But my presence at his school is precisely to combat that fear of speaking in English. I don't mind one bit being used by my students as their English dictionary and practice partner. It's better than lecturing on grammar! More importantly, practicing English conversation with my students at every opportunity opens me up to being their friend in addition to (instead of?) their teacher. "You influence me," MJ said. That made me think.

MJ and I hiked around Palyong-san, located between Changwon and Masan, although we didn't take any of the trails that led to its peak. Instead, we went to the Palyong Reservoir, which is the result of a dammed river, and walked around it while talking. It was a gorgeous spring morning, with no clouds to be seen and the reflection of the mountains in the water as clear as a mirror. (See the photo at the top of this post? It's been flipped upside-down.) Thanks to pleasant company and beautiful, serene natural surroundings, I started off today on such a high. I look forward to future small excursions like this; MJ promised that next time he would invite more students to join us.
Palyong Reservoir on a Sunday morning.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Kvetch First, Ask Questions Later (Then Answer Said Questions, Then Do Something)

As I work for the Korean-American Educational Commission and am about to... air some grievances, in a sense, I'd like to remind my dear readers that: "This blog reflects my own experiences and viewpoints and should not be mistaken for an official Fulbright blog."

Toward the end of last semester, I began to feel like I had become the sounding board for my English co-teachers to voice all their woes about the Korean educational system and this country in general. At our twice-weekly teatime, which was officially a teachers' conversation class, we might have started with an interesting article to discuss, but the conversation always inevitably derailed into a discussion of politics, education, and societal issues. Well, actually, there was usually less discussion and more... allow-us-to-explain-why-everything-is-All-Wrong.

Some of those sore areas included the extremely rigid gender roles in Korean society and how women were expected to take care of childcare and all household duties, as well as remain in the kitchen all day during traditional holidays like Chuseok; the drawbacks of high-stakes testing, which cause high amounts of stress for all students, especially those who don't do well in an academic setting but must suffer through it anyway; the obliviousness of the government as far as how to properly manage its schools, as they reward well-performing schools financially when the money should actually go toward aid for the failing ones; not to mention the corruption of the government, in that its associations with administrative offices and educational boards rests securely on a network of money. My co-teachers especially had a bone to pick with the hyper-conservative superintendent of our province's educational department, who was apparently a substandard English teacher himself but now gets to dictate what is "best" for hundreds of schools. Whew.

I should probably give a concrete example lest you think I'm just parroting complaints sans evidence. My co-teachers confided in me their suspicions that some kind of shady deals were going on at a Certain Secret High School (name withheld) when its principal asked its English department to purchase a specific publisher's textbooks for the English classes. Now, both the principal and the teachers knew that the English teachers create their own teaching material. They don't directly use any textbooks, so their purchase is literally a formality and a way to use the school's budget. Hence, it didn't matter what publisher was chosen; maybe the one that created the best quality book or one with a good reputation.

That's why it raised some red flags when this principal strongly suggested -- or basically commanded -- his choice of English textbook. Who exactly would benefit from their sale, we wondered as we sipped our tea.

Another bit of dirty laundry aired during teatime was the pitiable state of teachers' unions in the country. The teachers' union, such a strong and belligerent presence in the United States, was in fact not legal in Korea until no more than two decades ago. During the dictatorship-like presidency of Park Chung-hee, teachers were commonly fired for belonging to unions and had no public support. My co-teacher believes that the previous generation of teachers made great sacrifices in order for unions to exist today, yet bemoans how union chapter meetings these days don't do much more than get together once a month for a 회식 (hweshik) and a long, Misery Poker-esque kvetch sesh. It's easy to list the myriad of problems with their professional field, but the impetus to actually do something about it has shriveled up sometime in the past twenty years.


I'm writing all of this now mostly because I've been trying to clear out the cluttered mess of drafts on this blog (there are some snippets of posts I started months ago but have never finished...). But in addition to that, yesterday, during this semester's iteration of the English teachers' conversation class, we brought up the subject of education again. And this time, everything was surprisingly very pleasant and personally satisfying. I'd say that in the past few weeks, there has been considerably less lamentation over our tea. (That in itself is neutral to me; contrary to what you might think from what I've already written, I enjoyed being the confidant and continue to hold a great interest in what seem to be the inner workings of the system in which I'm just another cog.)

So yesterday, in lieu of discussing an article, the English teachers watched Sir Ken Robinson's lecture on changing educational paradigms, which was brilliantly animated by RSA and which I will now share with you all:

Now wasn't that enlightening and quite inspiring? (Ten million views in two-and-a-half years... while PSY can rack up twenty-five times that amount in two-and-a-half weeks with a video that highlights the hilariousness of male chauvinism. Ugh.)

After watching the video, my co-teachers and I had a lengthy and spirited discussion about education in both Korea and the United States. I think that the way we shared what we knew about our own systems instead of just focusing on All of the Problems in Korea was a nice change. I think Robinson's ideas apply to both countries, anyway. (Actually, they probably apply everywhere except in the utopian Scandinavian countries.) We had a nice, long think about what we thought contributed to the problem and, more importantly, what we could do as teachers with not much power (I don't even have TEFL certification or belong to a union or anything) to motivate and encourage our students within the confines of this brutal education factory.

I decided that I am going to hammer into my students the idea that a test score, good or bad, does not determine their value as a human, and that there are others ways to be smart and/or successful outside of the path they're currently stuck to. I will also continue to try to make my classroom a bit different from the norm: less emphasis on knowing answers, and more on how to knowing how to get answers, or correct wrong answers, or see multiple answers. Maybe I alone can't change the educational paradigms, but at least I know I'm going to do a lot more than just kvetch.


Friday, May 3, 2013

농구대회 - The Basketball Tournament

I don't follow sports, but lately my Facebook newsfeed has been blowing up with updates from my friends in California about the Golden State Warriors and their performance in this year's NBA playoffs. Apparently they are doing very well. Hooray!

On a related note, this past week there has been a lunchtime basketball tournament organized and reffed by my school's students. And this isn't just some casual games of pick-up. This is a Big Deal. Five teams faced off over five days, and many students crowded into the gym to watch each time. Today was the final game, and it was class 2-1/1-1 versus class 2-3/1-3 (teams were mixed through class years, which is good). I estimated that about three-fourths of the student body was there to cheer on their peers, and as the game wore on, it become more and more exciting, especially since the teams were pretty evenly matched.

It was down to one minute left on the clock, with the score tied 16-16. The ball was taken by the offense, then lost, then picked up again, and finally it went to the yellow jersey-clad team 2-3/1-3, who hurried it to the far side of the court. They shot, and missed. Rebound taken -- another shot -- another miss. Ten seconds left... finally, someone picked up the ball right beneath the net and jumped... It went in! The crowd went berserk, especially the first-year girls. Soon, the whistle blew, and it was all over. A hundred students poured from the sidelines onto the court to hug and congratulate their friends. It was a fantastic sight.

I've rarely seen my students so excited about something like this. The power of sports to bring out so much energy, enthusiasm, and camaraderie really is unparalleled. So, I'm glad that this outlet for their daily academic pressure exists, for both the spectators and the players. The only drawback is that I teach class after lunch four times a week, and as a direct consequence of the basketball tournament, there were many more students late to class or sleeping through it than usual. I think I'll let that pass, though.

농구 (nonggu) - basketball
대회 (daehwe) - tournament, competition
체육관 (cheyookgwan) - gymnasium
화이팅 (hwa-i-ting) - "Fighting!", an ubiquitous Konglish term used to cheer your team on
나이스 (na-i-suh) - "Nice", which means the exact same thing in Konglish as in English (I keep trying to get my students to say it with a less obvious accent, but to no avail)
동지애 (dongjieh) - camaraderie
점수가 어떻게 되죠? (jeomsuga eoddeoke dwejyo?) - What's the score?
16대 18 - [The score is] 16 to 18.
이겼다! (igyeotda) - We've won!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Labor Day

It's hard to love my students sometimes. I came to this school with only a few goals: help my students with their English and help them learn to respect people -- themselves and others -- for who they are. I knew that in order to succeed, I'd need a lot of patience and a lot of love. But there are days when my patience wears thin, and there are days when I simply can't see what there could possibly be in these kids to love.

I almost never punish my students, because they're generally extremely well-behaved. Before I arrived at my advanced science high school, one of a few dozen in the country where students are renowned for their diligence and respectfulness, I was cheerily informed that the extent of my discipline problems would be students nodding off in my class due to fatigue from studying late into the night. This has proven to be singularly untrue. Rowdiness exists at CSHS just as it does at every other high school in the country -- or in the world -- and I have to confess that it's taking its toll on my psyche.

In fact, one of my second-year classes is well on its way to driving me nuts. I have them fifth period, right after lunch, and sometimes half the class walks in late from pick-up basketball games, prolonged bathroom breaks, or who knows what other reason. They then proceed to sleep through class (if they spent their lunch time running around outside) or act like a circus (if they consumed one too many sugary snacks), and nobody seems to remember or care that in my English class, you must speak English.

Today, after I finally shooed them out of the room (having held them back a few minutes as a punishment for tardiness), I slumped down in my chair and began to dream up wonderful new ways to punish the class for any possible future cases of bad behavior. I'm being completely honest here; it gave me a perverse sense of satisfaction, knowing that I had a "Plan B" ready to unleash. It's almost as if I actually want these students to make me snap, just so I can see the look on their faces when I stop the video or shut down the game and make them write sentences for an entire hour. Cue the evil laugh... have I lost it?

I don't know, really. I mean, I have to remember that compared to some of the other schools where my Fulbright colleagues teach, every single day at CSHS is still a walk in the park. I've got to count my blessings: at least my students understand the words that come out of my mouth. At least they don't beat each other up in class. At least they respect me enough to be quiet when I give them my teacher glare and know when enough is enough. But when I think about how other teachers have done the hard discipline thing time and again, to the point that it has become routine, I fancy that it wouldn't hurt for me to get a bit tougher on my students, too. I don't want them to think that my class is essentially a free period or an irrelevant elective -- even if it technically is -- because with that mindset, how will they ever be motivated to learn?

On the other hand, I'm fully aware that I am fallible and easily susceptible to being manipulated by my own emotions. For real, though: I actually felt myself getting angrier and angrier as I sat in my chair after class, not because I had just survived such a train wreck, but in truth because I was thinking purely negative thoughts, conjuring up hypotheticals, and it was like a maelstrom of discontent. Realizing this, I tried to shake it off by going to the weight room to work out. I also happened across a volleyball game under way in the gym, with some of my schools' teachers playing against teachers from another school in a union tournament. Rooting for my school alongside my fellow teachers -- 아자아자 화이팅! -- did a lot to cheer me up (although I wish I could have been playing in the game myself!).

Do you know what really helps, though? To counter an adverse incident with one student, the best remedy is a great conversation with another. Today, at lunch, I had the good fortune of sitting down with YJ to chat. He's a first-year student who often speaks up in class, but I'd never realized the depths to which his mind probes until he asked me, right off the bat, "Teacher, what do you do when you repeatedly fail something? When you're 'in a rut'? Do you have any advice?"

I was taken aback. Also, the two other first-years with whom we were sitting instantly tuned out. This was beyond their comprehension level. "Well," I told YJ, "If you are stuck in a rut, you can take a step back, re-evaluate the situation, and then change something." We continued to talk about overcoming obstacles, and the conversation moved to "life codes" -- his is taken from The Man of La Mancha (a musical based off of Don Quixote): "To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to reach the unreachable star." We also discussed university life in the US and whether it was actually true that Harvard students streak across campus once a year. I said, "Well, I don't know, because I didn't go to Harvard, but I would not be surprised if they did."

After lunch, YJ thanked me for the chat, and I thought, "Any time, buddy!" I left feeling impressed with him, as well as simply grateful that I had had such a pleasant lunch. I love to talk with my students outside of class, and I am always reminded when I do that my students really are incredibly smart. It's admittedly difficult for me to remember this, since in my class, even the brightest physics wizard might struggle to utter a single coherent sentence in English. I'm reminded of the words of a fellow Fulbrighter, Kelly, who warned me never to "assume that [my] students are not capable of critical thinking" simply on account of the language barrier. They possess so much genius, but a lack of confidence in English has hidden most of it from me. Sigh...

Anyway, I'm trying to stay cautious about my attitude toward the students who frustrate me. I want to remain positive and continue fulfilling my role as the super-encouraging foreign English teacher whose class is fun, engaging, and effective, but I want to make sure that my students don't take this for granted, either. If they do, and it gets on my nerves, then I have to remember to remain professional and light-hearted, too. None of this "화가난다!!!" business. But hey readers: if you have any advice, I'm all ears!

In closing, it's May 1st. Happy Korean Labor Day! I asked my co-teacher why we teachers didn't get the day off for the holiday, unlike the rest of the nation. She replied with a small laugh, "Because we're not laborers." Well, although my work definitely seems laborious sometimes, I guess I have to agree. My job is to nurture, equip, and support my students, no matter what. Teachers don't labor, they love.