Wednesday, March 24, 2010

just keep crying

I'm going to make a terrible father.

I've discovered that I have this uncanny ability to make my students cry. Not all students, mind you. Just the more babyish. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to crying. I think it's a healthy release in moderation and a necessary part of experiencing grief or extreme joy. But this is starting to get ridiculous.

Last session I had one student who would cry at the drop of a hat if I did something he perceived as being "unfair" (such as punishing him when he did bad things). When I asked my Korean coworkers what to do in this situation, the general advice was "just rub him on the back and tell him it's okay," and other such conciliatory remarks. I tried it. He just cried more. Duh.

Finally, I got tired of it, and tired of having to teach my class over the loud sobs of an 11 year old. I tried making him go sit in the hall, but then his crying was just bothering everyone on the floor. I tried to give him the chance to go to the washroom and wash his face, but to no avail. Finally, I told him "John, you either stop crying in my classroom or you can go sit downstairs and talk to Ms. Tammy (my boss)." Sure enough, within a few sniffles, he had his pencil in hand and was back to work.

That was then, and this is now.

Now I have a 10 year old named Alice who, yet again, cries at the slightest correction that I offer. Not every time, mind you, but at least once a week or so. I suppose I should find a friendlier way to say "looks like you misspelled 'airport'." Talking to my coworkers, I found out that she's been like that since kindergarten. SINCE KINDERGARTEN. Holy crap. It's hard to imagine the cause. Perhaps ultra strict parents who expect nothing less than perfection. Maybe there's something else going on and this is merely the trigger for her to start crying. Whatever it is, it's driving me nuts.

I haven't gotten tough with her yet, but next time I'm bringing out the ol' "I'll give you something to cry about," routine. Well, maybe not, but I'm going to let her know that this isn't kindergarten and that she needs to do her work like everyone else (which, in that class, is one other it gets really awkward sometimes). Or, as my Korean coworker says, "Alice, stop being small." I'm really hoping that we can encourage her to view mistakes as possible learning experiences instead of focusing on the failure. But misspelled a freakin' word. Get over it.

At this point I just want to laugh at them when they start crying and hope that my mockery compels them to stop.

I told you, I'm going to make a terrible father.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Korean mentality

So here we are, watching the Winter Olympics. It's a great time of intense competition, where individuals and teams fight for their countries' honor as well as their own. However, even in those sports where the competition is on an individual level, there is still an unofficial sense of "teamship" between athletes from the same country. They may compete, but generally a Canadian or American will still be really happy if a fellow countryman gets a medal instead of them.

I've recently learned that this is drastically different from Korean thinking. I've always been aware of the competitive nature of Koreans. It's why I have a job. Parents want their kids to be the absolute best, so they're enrolled in private afterschool schools (Hagwons) in order to get every advantage that they can to get into the ridiculously competitive colleges and then get into the even more competitive jobs. It's a glorious cycle of addictive competition. However, I've never seen it stated so blatantly as last night.

A few nights ago, the Koreans were competing in the men's speed skating race (can't remember the length). Coming into the final leg of it, the Koreans looked like they were going to sweep the podium and claim all three medals. However, in the last few hundred meters, the third place skater tried to push for gold and cut across the second place skater. Both of them went down in a mess and some American (who's apparently famous or something) got silver. This seemed to be such a brazen display of greediness and the desire for gold. I just couldn't understand how the Korean could cut down his own "teammates" when getting all three medals would have been a great thing for Korea.

Well, I've noticed a debate that's been brewing with my students. They keep claiming Korea is in third place overall and I keep telling them "no, Korea is in fifth place in overall medals after France." Finally, after having a similar debate with a Korean friend of mine, she explained that Koreans only care about and count gold medals. The bronze and silver mean absolutely nothing to them. I was speechless. I didn't even know what to make of that. Suddenly the speed skater's actions made sense. It wouldn't matter if he got a bronze, it would only mean something if he pushed for the gold and triumphed. You only matter if you're number one.

I've mentioned this to my coworkers and they're all just as stunned as I am, but it makes so much sense. I suddenly feel a little bit sadder to be here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hangul Holidays

I've had several people ask me if I missed home during the holidays. Everyone misses home because of the everyday interactions with friends, the ability to easily connect with family and friends; even the ability to connect on some superficial level with anyone you meet out on the street. However, with holidays, the expectation of tradition makes most people assume that living abroad would be even more difficult during those times. I disagree.

While I most assuredly would have liked to have been home (I can hear mom heaving a sigh of relief) I saw this holiday season as a chance to fully immerse myself in where I was. I honestly wasn't all that interested in having Christmas parties with the other foreigners, or ringing in the New Year in traditional bar fashion; simulacra of western expectations . Instead, I wanted to use the holiday to enjoy time with friends and let that be reason enough to celebrate; a time to enjoy simply being.

I was fortunate enough to travel to Seoul with my coworkers and with a Korean named Sophie. We had a great time hitting up the shopping centers and even spent the night at a Jim Jil Bah (sauna). For less that $6, we had access to a full sauna, hot tub area, and got a pad to sleep on on the ground. Surrounded by Koreans. While I'm still trying to get used to sleeping on hard surfaces, it was interesting to be able to participate in a very Korean activity, something they consider a normal experience that seems very strange to most foreigners. A reminder of where I was and the chance to really be immersed in it.

The next day we traveled by bus to a ski resort, where friends of Sophie let us crash in one of their rooms. We had a great day of playing in the snow, bobsledding, and bowling. Mark and I even got 2.5 hours of free snowboarding lessons, after which I still have only mastered the ability to fall....repeatedly. The day after that, we traveled with the family we had stayed with and went to visit the East Sea. On the shore, we took turns lighting small paper hot air balloons and sending them floating over the water; sending our wishes out to sea. It was a lot of fun and a special moment I'll always remember. That and eating an octopus tentacle....that was still wiggling. Again, very Korean.

For New Year's eve, I decided against my original plan of going to Pusan, as I was tired of being around people and wanted to enjoy thoughtful silence. I spent the day reading and writing at a nearby coffeeshop and then spent the evening walking through a park, enjoying the fresh snowfall we had received the night before. It was a picturesque night, with the moon waxing gibbous over a park covered and padded with snow. I found a nice bench overlooking the park and spent the next hour smoking my pipe and thinking back through the last year.

It was a time of quiet contemplation, where I savored every memory, whether it be bad or good, of all I've experienced this year. Feelings of hurt and loss, confusion and loneliness coupled with feelings of joy and and an excitement for embarking on the unknown. I treasured the memories of friends and family from the last year, from Laguna Niguel to Berkeley to Chicago, St. Louis, Fayetteville, Marshall, Nacogdoches, Lake Charles, Denton, Allen, Austin, Houston, and various small towns in Wyoming. It's been a year of disconnection in some ways, and reconnection in so many other ways. Of losing my way and finding it again. And so many people have played a part in that; people I love who have helped me keep my feet on the ground and remember who I am, and who have encouraged me to run headlong into the future.

It was a good New Year's Eve.

What's more, during the holidays, I got to meet and spend a lot of time with Koreans and my desire to focus my efforts in learning the language were rekindled. I find myself enjoying Korea more and more, and looking more and more to the beginning of September with a growing uncertainty. Even now I've had possible job opportunities mentioned to me.

This weekend I got to meet and hand deliver my resumé to the Dean of Education at a nearby university thanks to a connection through a friend. She had lived in Austin for 7 years and knew exactly where Marshall was. Imagine my surprise! It was a brief meeting, but a reminder of the possibilities before me. Possibilities I will continue to ponder and struggle over in the coming months.

Your love and support is always felt, and always appreciated. I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, and that you were able to enjoy the company of those you love. Most of all, I hope that you were able to remember and enjoy where you were, and participate fully in the present.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Loss From a Distance

So I've had to face more directly the challenge of living life isolated from the ones you love. This has presented itself to me in two different ways.

Two weekends ago, I saw a Facebook update for one of my friends announcing that man from my old church had passed away suddenly in a car accident. While it's been several years since I saw or talked with George Fitts, he was always one of the most gentle and caring men I ever knew at Central Baptist Church. He was also always encouraging when I spoke with him, whether it be about school, traveling, or music. I wished that I could be there to express my condolences to his wife, and I realized the emptiness of a Facebook expression, as I've tried to sit down and write my thoughts, but found the words lacking.

This only reminded me that the ones I love are a world away from me. So listen up! No one is allowed to die, get injured, or get seriously ill for the next year! I just don't think I could take it, not being able to be there. I'm kidding, of course, but it made me realize how difficult it is when you can't share life with the people you love.

Another way I learned this lesson was through the wedding announcements of two really close friends, both of whom would love to have me in their wedding party. Sadly, I can't take the time off and/or afford to fly to and from the states....twice. They've both been very understanding, but these are the moments I want to be able to share with my friends, to celebrate the finding of love and the coming together of two lives.

I'm learning a lot about myself while I'm here, and I know that this was a good decision for me at this point in my life. Doesn't mean it gets any easier to be here, though. I miss you all, and look forward to the day when we can laugh together and celebrate the roads our lives have taken.


As the Little Things Go

This is more of an overall update. I'll post some other, more detailed posts over the next week or so.

This has been an interesting last few weeks. Nothing spectacular has happened, really. It's like the initial excitement of being here has worn off and I'm beginning to find the routine in things. At work, I'm beginning to understand more the daily workings of the classroom and all the difficulties that brings. While before I was scrambling to comprehend the curriculum and the flow of the classes, now I find myself scrambling to figure out how to keep my kids listening and engaged (a lifelong endeavor, I'm sure). I've gotten into a yelling match with one of my older girls (who no longer attends our school) and I've had to get a lot more strict with my younger kids. Overall, I'm seeing more and more what it means to work with children on a daily basis without going insane. Sort of.

Speaking of going insane, the H1N1 virus is a big deal over here and our kids are dropping like flies. I realize how terrible it is to say it that way. Let me rephrase: Our kids are getting sick like crazy. None of them are actually dropping like flies. Needless to say, all of the staff are on high alert, which means we wash our hands nonstop and wear surgical masks.....ALL THE TIME. You know how hard it is to teach phonics when your kids can't see your mouth moving? So frustrating.

I've had several opportunities to do some good hiking over the last few weeks, and I'm glad I did, as I was able to catch the leaves changing and the last bit of really nice weather. The temperature took a turn for the ridiculously chilly these last two weeks as we've been siting in the single digits (Celsius). Makes for a chilly bike ride, that's for sure.

I've had my first experience at a Korean hospital. After enduring a nasty head cold, I had a pretty significant case of vertigo. I waited about a week to see what it would do and then decided to see a doctor. At the hospital they have a foreign aid office which provides translators (mine just happened to be very cute and very friendly....we're probably going to go catch a movie sometime this weekend). At the hospital, I did a dizziness test, which is probably one of the strangest hospital tests I've ever had...and I've had some doozies. Basically, you wear a pair of blacked out goggles with cameras inserted in the lenses. You can't see anything, but you keep your eyes wide open so the doctor can see your eyeballs. He then grabs your head and moves you all over a table. From sitting, to laying down, head to the left, head to the right, head hanging off the table, back to sitting, back to laying, etc. Basically he's trying to make you dizzy and seeing what your eyes are doing. Tons o' fun.

This week I started my Hapkido lessons. I've never taken a martial art form before, and I figured, "why not learn a Korean martial art while in Korea?" So I went with Hapkido, as it's a nice balance of striking, Judo (throws), and using your opponent's energy against them instead of opposing it. It's not about strength but about balance and understanding motion and throwing people off of balance. However, there is a good amount of conditioning and I'm definitely using muscles I never even knew existed. I'm looking forward to being good and sore for the next month or so. Also, I get to play with nunchucks. Sweet.

Hope all are well, happy, and loved.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Today was a good day

It's been a rough week. On top of fighting off the crud (the technical name for coughing and sneezing up various particles of your lung...or something), last week was also pretty rough in the classroom. My Spec 4 class (13-14 year olds) is comprised of 3 girls who think they know everything and 1 poor boy who does his best to avoid any attention whatsoever in class. The girls were being particularly difficult and ignoring my requests to stop talking in Korean/participate/etc.

It took a Korean staffer chewing them out for them to pay any attention. It's very frustrating to A)know that you don't have control of your classroom and B)feel like you're almost powerless to do anything about it and that it takes someone who speaks their language to put them in line. This is a typical problem for foreign teachers, however. For the most part, students see our classes as "play time with foreigners," whereas they know that the Korean staff can better discipline them and commands a lot more of their respect. They also know the Korean staff can communicate directly with their parents, whereas I have to communicate through my coworkers, which means something is lost in translation, if it gets done at all.

On top of dealing with teenage angst, I also graded my unit tests for my first graders and felt absolutely useless as a teacher. Two students made a B on the test, while the other five grades ranged from 24 down to 8.....out of 100. To see those kinds of scores across the board means either the students aren't paying any attention and not learning their colors or I didn't communicate the lessons well enough to them and the kids who are naturally ahead of the curve were just able to do well like they normally do. Or some combination of both. Either way, it makes for a frustrated teacher.

All of that frustration made me want to stay in bed this morning. To just drag myself into work at the last minute and not care because, obviously, the kids don't care and aren't learning anyway. Luckily, I snapped out of it, cooked myself a good breakfast, and had a good laugh watching the Daily Show before heading into work.

I'm glad I did.

My two morning classes rolled on fairly well, with the kids staying involved and paying attention. My second graders were particularly captivated with the game I brilliantly titled "Put the Days of the Week Flashcards in the Right Order." The girls dominated. My third graders appeared to be getting a better grasp on past tense versions of is/are/am and were very enjoyable to work with.

My Spec 3+ class, which is primarily 12 year olds, however, simply blew me away. They are undoubtedly my favorite class. Not only are they well behaved, but they are eager to learn, force themselves to speak only in English, and are at the conversational level where they can really enjoy my sense of humor. In that classroom, I get to joke with my students instead of scolding them or having to coral them. In that classroom, I find ways to bring in my laptop to show them pictures or videos pertaining to our class, because they are eager to see it, to expand their knowledge.

Today, however we were starting a new story in our reading, "Leah's Pony." It's a great story about a 1930's family dealing with the Dust Bowl and having to auction off everything they own, only to have it all purchased as cheaply as possible by their neighbors and given back to them. Skimming through the story during my lunch break, I almost teared up at how simple and beautiful the story of generosity and self sacrifice was, as exemplified by Leah, the daughter, who sells her beloved pony in order to try and buy her dad's tractor at the auction so they can continue to farm. The kids were really getting into it.

I explained what an auction was and we had a mini auction of our own (for which my white board marker sold for an amazing 1 billion Won). When we got to the point where Leah sells her pony and makes her 1 dollar bid on the tractor however, one of my students looked at me, wide-eyed, and said "Mr. Thompson, this is the best story I've ever read." They all agreed and were so excited to see how it played out, to see if Leah's generosity and sacrifice would inspire the others at the auction. It did.

To have a student be able to communicate clearly and effectively with proper grammar, good structure, and a good vocabulary is a great thing, and one of my overall goals. To have students connect with a story in a second language and make the claim that it's the best story they've ever read simply blew me away. Today I was reminded of the beauty and power of language.

It was a good day.

Also, I got to show them the lyrics and music video to know, for Halloween. And who doesn't love dancing zombies?

P.S. My Spec 4 class was a lot better today too and really got into the creative writing assignment as well, which was amazing because they never get into anything. Ever.

Quirky Things in Korea

Korean food delivery has two parts. Part 1: They deliver your food, along with dishes, plates, cups, etc. Part 2: Another person comes by when you're done to pick up said dishes.

Also, McDonald's delivers. McDelivery.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

New Template

By the way, I have to give a huge, big, ginourmous hug of appreciation to Holly Smith for designing this awesome template for my blog. Thank you so much, Holly!

If you like her work as much as I do, please let her know here in the comments section.