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.

Busan or Bust

So one major Korean city wasn't enough for me, I felt like taking on another one the next weekend. Last week, two of my coworkers and a friend (Jessica) and I went to Busan (or Pusan) to attend the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF). We got up at the crack of dawn to catch an early morning train. Before long we found ourselves hurtling at over 300 km/hr on the KTX, Korea's bullet train.

As my coworker Maree and I were trying to figure out what to spend the day doing, she spotted
our hotel on a random map in her guide book. However, it was not where we originally planned for it to be, but was on the other side of the city! Apparently, the hotel overbooked and we got moved to another hotel in the chain. Thankfully she had printed out her confirmation email and recognized the hotel name, or we would've wasted all day running across Busan to find it!

Once we got there we scurried over to the PIFF headquarters downtown to get our tickets. Not having reservations, we were a bit nervous, but there were still plenty of seats available for some interesting sounding shows, so we were content. We then went to check into our hotel, catch a quick nap, and explore the city. Upon arriving at our hotel, we discovered that A) we were the only weh-gooks (foreigners) around and B) there was an Oktoberfest celebration going on right outside of our hotel (not the German variety, but still the same spelling). As our rooms were still being cleaned and were unavailable, we spent some time checking out the festivities and joining in on the traditional games and activities. It was a blast, and the Koreans were so excited to see the weh-gooks joining in on the fun.

After catching a nap, Maree and I went to go explore a huge park and mountain right next to our hotel while Kate and Jessica ran around downtown. We rode a cable car up to the top and had an amazing view of the city. We also came across a beautiful small temple with Buddhist images carved into the mountain. It was a short hike, as Maree was only wearing flip flops, but it was deeply satisfying and refreshing.

We met back up for some very Korean food (i.e. Outback Steakhouse) and headed off to the movies. We had a great time seeing Spanish, Chinese, and Russian films and Maree and I even made it through the majority of the Midnight Passion, which was a screening of three movies at midnight.

The next day, we opted to go relax at the beach, as Busan has one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen, Haeundae Beach. During the summer, Haeundae has the highest number of parasols on a beach in the world and it's probably the biggest tourist destination in Korea. Thankfully, we were going after the beach season had ended, so the only people there were there for the film festival. We had a great time playing in the ocean, collecting shells and building a snow/sandman (this is what happens when you go to a beach with three Canadians).

I also got interviewed by random Koreans as part of their class assignments. One group of female students was even on a scavenger hunt and asked to take a picture with me. I agreed, and then they showed me what their criteria was: "Take your picture with the most handsome man you can find." I'm just guessing they were running out of time and getting desperate.

Finally we made our way to the train station only to find that everyone and their mom was leaving Busan when we were, so all of seats were sold out. Which means we got standing tickets. For a 4 hour train ride. It was a blast. Kate passed out in a luggage rack for a while whilst the rest of us played cards on the floor or sat where we could find a flat surface.

It was an exhausting trip for sure, but I absolutely fell in love with the city. I'm looking forward to my next venture to Busan, as there's so much to see in the city and in the surrounding mountains.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Riding the Seoul Train!

Well, things are becoming more and more familiar as time goes on. Having just finished my fifth week of teaching, I’m finding myself more and more comfortable working with the kids. Also, the kids are becoming less and less afraid of my beard, which is a plus. I even had a few of them offer me gifts of food for Chu-sok, their equivalent of our Thanksgiving. True it was a sponge-cake, but it was mighty tasty!

While I’m still working to understand the curriculum, I’m looking more and more for those places where I can supplement the lessons with my own style, thoughts, or materials. I’ve already managed to incorporate my guitar into a few lessons, which has gone over really well with the kids, and I’m hoping for more opportunities.

Because we had a three day weekend due to Chu-sok, I opted to join up with some other foreigners for a venture up to Seoul. We had a great time being in the city, although the people I went with were far more interested in shopping and night life then actually seeing much of the city. Still, I got to see some really interesting parts of town and got to experience what is definitely the most diverse city I’ve ever been in.

While we spent most of our time in what is considered the “Western” part of town, the diversity experienced there was incredible. On any street corner you could hear at least 5 different languages around you, and if you heard six people speaking English you were likely to hear six different accents. I went into a foreign food mart (right next to Foreign Restaurant), and was simply amazed at how many different skin tones, languages, smells, and foods surrounded me.

While it was incredible to be around, it gave me the strangest feeling, like I was in an amorphous place without any unifying definition; lacking in any striking identity other than commerce. I couldn’t tell I was in Korea, and it didn’t feel like I was back in the states; I was simply in a place where cultures met, mingled, and melted into each other. It was unnerving, yet invigorating. I’m eager to go back and get a deeper look into this multiculturalism, as well as historical sites that would teach me more about Korea’s unique identity and history. I think experiencing these two aspects of Korea will give insight into what the country, and in a larger sense the region, is going through; an intense time of redefinition, where traditions and ancient traditions are being held in tension with the progress of trade and modernity.

How very interesting.

With all that said, I was glad to step off the train back at Iksan. While there are roughly 500,000 people here, it was so quiet compared to the bustle of Seoul. I could actually hear my thoughts as I walked and went for a nice quiet read in the park. I'm glad Seoul is only 2 hours away by bullet train (traveling around 300km/hr, by the way), but I'm very glad to be living here in Iksan, in the quiet, and on the edge of rice fields.

Quirky Thing in Korea

What music do you hear in Korea? Well, if you're at the train station in Seoul you hear Latino beats, trumpets, and wooden flutes. Oh yeah.

P.S. Below is a picture of the TV in my hotel room. Amazing. Oh, and did I mention the complimentary computer and internet? Also, it was about $15 a night. Sweet.