Friday, 12 April 2013

Where I'm At - Six Months In

One of my regrets about this blog is that while it's essentially become a pretty comprehensive record of my excursions in Korea, it covers little of my actual day-to-day working life, my daily reflections, or what I'm going through emotionally. The fact is, much as I love my weekends, they're only a small part of my time here, and I can't help but feel that all these sightseeing posts give a somewhat skewed picture of things, as though I live my life one adventure to the next.

This doesn't mean I intend to start posting about my day at work from now on or anything. This blog will still be dominated by photos of my hike up some exotic mountain, or by semi-journalistic descriptions of some culturally enriching experience I had. But I want to write a post summarising some of my recent experiences outside of my sightseeing trips. So, with that in mind, let's begin:

Things have been a little tough-going at my school this last month or so. In the beginning of March the kids graduated and went up a year, a whole bunch of teachers left and were replaced by new ones, and the school completely revamped the schedule, conventions and protocol that teachers and students adhere to. This basically meant that for most of us it was like starting from scratch at a new school, one where even our Korean co-teachers didn't know what was going on, where we couldn't find the books or teacher's guides that we needed, and where it was difficult to know where we were supposed to be at any given moment. On top of that, one of the foreign teachers decided to pull a midnight run and abandon the school without a word of notice, leaving the rest of us to cover his lessons for the better part of a month.

Things are a little easier now. I'm used to the new way that things are meant to be done, I've got to grips with the new students and their learning styles, and the school found a replacement for the missing teacher (incidentally, one of our former teachers apparently ran into him in Thailand by pure coincidence, and he ran away the moment he saw her). My schedule's pretty bearable, and work isn't so bad right now. But there is one aspect of school life for which I feel some trepidation. It's something nearly all English teachers have to go through here: the dreaded...


In case you don't know what it is, open class basically involves teaching a class while the students' parents (usually their mothers or grandmothers) are present. I use the term "teaching" very lightly, since you're not actually doing any real educating; rather, you and your students present a rehearsed, scripted lesson that you've practiced with them for several weeks. Appearance is everything in Korea, and schools would rather present a pitch-perfect, idealised teaching session to their customers than anything resembling a real classroom environment.
I'm sure that open class will go smoothly providing I prepare well, but it's one of those things that's impossible not to dread a little. Fortunately, my classes are nowhere near as big as the ones in the photo above (which was not taken at my school, by the way). The biggest class I've had was only eleven students and I've even had a class with only two. They average around six or seven.

Speaking of my classes, I guess now would be a good time to share some photos I took at school over the last few months.

On my birthday back in late January, my UCLA class wrote birthday wishes for me on the whiteboard.

This is a recent photo of my other main kindie class: Harvard (formerly Stanford). They are a bit of a handful at times, but they're getting better as time goes on, and they're all undeniably adorable in their own different ways. From left to right: Hans, Julie, Teresa, Grace, Kelly and Justin.
Hans working from his phonics book.
Justin's probably my most adorable student, but he also tests my patience like no one else. I'm pretty sure he has ADHD cause I rarely see him focus and do his work for more than ten seconds at a time.
Grace and Teresa, both as smart as they are adorable.
Back to UCLA class, which lost several of its students in March, reducing its number to only three: Jenny, Lisa and Vicky. I was really sad to see the other kids drop out, but honestly, the class is so much easier to teach now, and I love the three remaining girls with all my heart. They are all super-cute, they work very hard in class, rarely misbehave, and have a great sense of humour. I can't imagine a better class to start my mornings with. 

I don't know if I ever mentioned it on this blog, but I don't just teach kindergarten students. In the afternoons I teach older students, some as old as ten. These are some kids from my afternoon Columbia class: Ted, Ian (solving a rubik's pyramid), and Andrew.
Mabel, Lily, Erica and Rose.

My afternoon Princeton (formerly Yale) class: William, Jason, Cindy and Jay.


I guess so far I've been pretty hesitant to talk about how I came to find romance here in Korea. It's not something I felt needed any great explanation on a blog like this, and I've no intention of divulging all the ins and outs of our relationship here. Nevertheless, since Angela has become such a huge part of my life, and since she has such a recurring, starring role in my blog posts, I figure it wouldn't hurt to provide a bit of extra context.

I first met Angela through my co-worker, Aicha, who I should really thank immensely for bringing us together. All the way back in November, only two weeks after my arrival in Korea, Aicha invited me to join her friends on a trip to Bukchon Hanok Village. It was there that I met Angela. My first impression was that she was a slightly ditzy American girl who liked to talk about Paris a lot. But it didn't take long for us to find friendship, and later romance, through the many qualities we shared. Firstly, our giddy appreciation of the small things in life: Angela, like me, is the kind of person who gets far more excited by theme parks, toys, zoos and other childish wonders than any responsible adult ought to. I still remember when we both excitedly rushed over to pluck some glowing harp strings built into the walls of Gangnam station while a sea of disinterested commuters brushed past us.
Then there is our mutual love of France and the French language. Angela spent a year living in France, and like me she hopes to live there permanently and become fluent in the language. It's great to have someone with whom I can not only regularly practice my French, but also share dreams of a future spent wandering Provencal lily fields, idling around in Parisian coffee shops, and reading Rimbaud on the banks of the Loire (writing this down, I wonder if it's possible to be a francophile without sounding like a pretentious ass).
Perhaps the thing we share most is our unashamedly infantile sense of humour. I might not come across like it in my writing, but I am at heart, an incredibly silly guy, and I'm so happy that I found someone who not only loves me for it but wholeheartedly encourages and takes part in my silliness. But I should also make it clear that Angela, as scatterbrained as she may seem on the surface, is also incredibly intelligent, well-read, and eloquently spoken, qualities I find endlessly attractive.

More than anything though, we have fun when we're together. I've never been with someone I can open up and be myself with to this extent; we manage to bring the fun, spontaneous side out in each other regardless of what we're doing, we make each other laugh constantly, and are pretty much the perfect travel buddies. For some time now we've been talking about what we're going to do when our time in Korea is over, and the current plan is to tour Southeast Asia, India and potentially some other parts of the world. Nearly every time we hang out together our conversations always, at some point or another, turn to how excited we are for the future, for our travels together. I feel so lucky knowing I have someone who wants to share these experiences with me, and who's willing to put up with my occasionally bossy, selfish tendencies. I simply can't wait to see where our adventures take us in the future, whether in Korea or beyond.

North Korea
I've made a few posts about the troubled history between North and South Korea, but I've yet to mention the current tensions between the two countries or how that's affected my life here. As many have been reading in the news, North Korea, under the leadership of young dictator, Kim Jeong-Eun, has recently made a series of threats against South Korea, Japan, the US and other western powers in the wake of sanctions against the regime. Such threats are not unusual, and life here in Seoul seems to forge ahead with relative indifference. South Koreans have heard the same thing from North Korea for the last sixty years, so until something actually happens, they put their heads down, keep calm and carry on.

Having said that, there is definitely a sense that things are a little more intense this time round. The North's rhetoric is more fiery than usual, it is known to possess nuclear capabilities, and no one really knows a great deal about the new leader, Jeong-Eun, or how he compares to his recently deceased father, Kim Jeong-Il. The North has also closed down one of the last symbols of cooperation with the South, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, despite it being a major source of income for the North. When it declared a few days ago that all foreigners should evacuate South Korea as soon as possible, there was a noticeable surge of anxiety among westerners here, and even local Koreans are not as calm as usual. Angela even rushed to my apartment that evening so that we could arrange an escape plan should tensions escalate much further. Her Korean family here have decided to escape to Europe for a few weeks, fearing that the North may pull something on April 15th, the birthday of Kim Il-Seong, the worshipped founder of North Korea and grandfather to Kim Jeong-Eun.

Kim Jeong-Eun inspects some recent military drills at an undisclosed location on North Korea's east coast.
For all these panic-inducing headlines, however, I'm not convinced that the North even remotely poses a threat to South Korea. Perhaps it will bomb a small South Korean island or ship, but even that seems unlikely given that previous attacks against the South happened without any forewarning. My (admittedly, somewhat limited) understanding is that historically, whenever the North advertises its military intentions to the world, it does so as a means of increasing tension and fear in the region, pressuring foreign countries to send aid whilst simultaneously raising morale among its own repressed population. If it happens to howl a little more loudly this time round, likely it's because the international community has learnt not to take the North's aggressive behaviour as seriously as it once did, and the UN sanctions have left it even more desperate and impoverished than usual. The only real thing that worries me is the sanity of its leaders, but however crazy they may or may not be, I think it's unlikely they'll wage a war they so clearly cannot win.

Well, I think I've covered most of the things I wanted to say with this post. There are, of course, other aspects of my life I could have covered: the many weekend nights I get drunk with friends at bars in Hongdae and Gangnam; the evenings I spend practicing my French, namely by trying to learn the screenplay to Amélie off by heart; perhaps one of the things I spend the most amount of time doing, outside of work, is working on this damn blog. It takes a long time to document my experiences here. But it all feels worth it. I don't think my life has ever been as interesting as it is now, so it makes sense to capture it somehow, somewhere. I can only hope my next six months here are as incredible as the first six were.

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