Friday, November 21, 2014

Proving that we can eat spicy food

From journal entry since revised:

4 September 2014 – Went down to dinner and ended up going to a new Chinese restaurant in town. I ate jjajangbap and R ordered jjamppong noodles. Both dishes tasted good!
R ordered the spicy version of the jjamppong because she didn’t want the owner to think that she, a foreign woman, couldn’t handle spicy food. She wanted to prove herself and to not further the Korean assumption that foreigners can’t/won’t/don’t eat spicy foods. Second, she didn’t want to set a precedent for future visits where she’d always get the less-spicy version of the dish.

This changed prompted a conversation about Korean perceptions of foreigners for a bit before we moved on to talking about how the school day went for each of us. The conversation about spiciness and precedence stayed with me, which is why I’m recording it here. The owner of the restaurant seemed to assume that R wanted the less spicy version and, judging from her brusque manner, wanted us to make up our minds faster than we did. When we actually had to tell her twice that, yes, we wanted the spicy jjamppong because she talked over us when we ordered the first time. We’d ordered and she’d said some rapid-fire Korean back at us. We caught enough words to know that she was telling us the dish was spicy and she’d make the less spicy one for us. But that wasn’t the food we’d come for.

Spicy food is a sticking point for both of us, for while we do eat it, we don’t care to eat it all the time. And for my part, I always wonder about this, because whenever spicy food is on the menu, I feel as though I’d better eat it, lest I get labeled with not being able to handle spicy foods. And possibility of being told, “Oh, but you don’t like spicy things, so we ordered you something else.” Lest any readers think I’m worrying too much or too irrationally, what I just described—the “one and done” assumption—can and does happen here. Many EPIK friends have related similar stories to me.

And I don’t want to sound worrisome or act like Koreans want to paint western foreigners into a corner. Goodness knows that the world has enough stereotypes and misconceptions about Koreans. No, the idea here is whether or not R and I, Western foreign teachers here, have to prove our culinary chops to Korean people, particularly with:
  • Using chopsticks
  • Eating spicy food
  • Eating kimchi (which is spicy, but even so…)
During the time here, I’ve alternated between two views:
  • There is no need to prove anything. I like what I like, and that’s that. As I like to tell the students, there are 300 million people in America from all different ethnic groups. There isn’t really a standard “American taste.” Not to digress, but I also hesitate to say, “Americans do…”
  • It’s best to go along with things and not make a fuss…especially in this small town. Or, for that matter, anywhere else. Being the noisy customer is not for me.
19 November 2014/extra notes:

I mentioned the “proving” bit above because that’s what we and others have experienced in our time here. Let me emphasize that this mostly small-town­ Korea…areas that haven’t had much contact with foreigners. And the old ideas about foreigners not eating spicy food or Korean food being too spicy tend to persist here because of that lack of contact. We get that.

But then, I can’t worry about whether or not ordering spicy chicken breaks down the idea that foreigners don’t eat spicy chicken. And I can’t worry about turning down a spicy thing…people will think what they want. I won’t be the only foreigner they meet. In sum, for those of you who think about whether or not you should prove yourself worthy of jjamppong, well, just eat it if you want to. 

What these two foods look like:

Jjajangbap [Black bean sauce/stew with rice. Picture:
Note: Bap means rice. I've had this dish with chopped vegetables in the rice. It's also come with a fried egg on top. Some restaurants do that. Also, jjajangmyeon means jjajang with noodles [myeon] instead of rice. 

Finally, this is the unofficial dish of "Black Day," which is a sort of Singles Day for Korea. Many single people from all over Korea eat jjajang on 14 April every year.

Jjamppong [Chinese/Korean spicy seafood noodle soup. Picture:]

Note: This dish took a long time to build a taste for.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Screen time: Me versus the students

Coteacher: So, how much time do you spend on your computer?
EPIK teacher: Hmmm…maybe 6 hours a day?
Class: Whoa! 
Coteacher: Really? What do you do?
EPIK teacher: Everything. Lesson planning, shopping, sports news, email…
[Coteacher and class nod] 
--Demonstration lesson video at an EPIK workshop, Yangyang, circa 2012.

I’ve written about phones and “screen time” on here before, yet…lately the idea of comparing my screen time to the students came to mind. It wouldn’t be right to complain about something others do when I do it, so let’s take a look at how the numbers compare. Bear in mind that this is completely unscientific...

I started with the overly cynical and unrealistic idea that students spend every spare moment on their phones. And how many spare moments do they have? Let’s see: There 10 minutes between classes, 60 minutes for lunch, 20 minutes for cleaning time, and 60 more minutes for the dinner hour at school. Considering the hours between 8:30am and 7pm, the timetable looks like this:

Breaks between classes (6 @ 10 minutes each)
Lunch break
Dinner break
Cleaning time
200 minutes (3 hours, 20 minutes)

And me?
Breakfast: Emails and blogs
School: Planning, research, emails
After school: Emails, videos, music


Well then. We both spent a lot of time in front of computers or phones...but to be realistic, there's no way the students can spend all of their time in front of computers or phones. It's impossible. It only looks that way sometimes. And as the cliche goes, looks can be deceiving. I probably spend more time in front of screens than the students do. It'd be good to remember that.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Test day hath arrived

Another short one:

Like I wrote yesterday, the big College Scholastic Ability Test/College entrance test day is today. The Korea Joongang Daily ran this little article about it today. Here's something that caught my eye:
Airplanes will be banned from flying over exam locations for 25 minutes from 1:10 p.m. during the English listening portion of the exam. Cars will be banned from a 200-meter (650-foot) radius from test sites. [NEWS1]
Some thoughts on this:

  1. Never have I ever heard an airplane flying over head when I was in or around Seoul. I can't recall even seeing an airplane flying overhead either.
  2. I'd known about flights getting diverted, but didn't know it happened during the English portion. 
  3. Again, not to harp on it, but I do wish the students well. Their experience is worlds apart from my experience with the ACT ~10 years ago. I (and many other American teens), apart from a couple of ACT-prep workshops, no after-school classes, and no cram sessions. The Korean kids, on the other hand, stand against a whole culture that pushes a high score and considers the CSAT the moment in teenage life. Pressure, indeed.
  4. And on the other side: "Businesses capitalizing on free time after CSAT." Mother-daughter surgeries? What a strange message, though: "Don't worry about the lines on your face from all that stress! We'll straighten your face out now. And you can go with your mom!"
  5. How many students will go to special schools to study and take the test again?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Yesterday, today, and especially tomorrow

Yesterday was Peppero Day, the "holiday" for Peppero sticks. They're popular gifts for everyone.

Today's The Day Before the College Entrance Test. It's 1:30pm and all of the students are gone now. The middle school kids had a half day of classes and then got sent home.

And tomorrow's The Test. The big one. Students have killed themselves over this one. Those poor kids. I wish them well.

Korea Joongang Daily: "Students sacrifice year to ‘study again’ for test"

Friday, October 10, 2014

Lotte World observations

1. We arrived around 10:15am. There were no bag checks or security lines. The students got together and the teachers doled out tickets. I got one that said "guide pass." We passed through the turnstiles and wenot our separate ways. That is, I followed the teachers and the students went every which way. Our instructions were simple: Be ready to go at 3:40pm. I marveled at the amount of freedom given to middle schoolers.

2. Lotte World is indoors and outdoors, and while it bills itself as an amusement park, it also has plenty in common with shopping malls. I was surprised to see cosmetics stores and chain coffee shops here and there.

3. I think my past trips to Six Flags Great America have spoiled me. That park had more than five roller coasters; coasters that were much bigger, taller, and longer than the coaster I rode at Lotte World. Not that the Lotte World coaster didn't have its thrills--it was just too short.

4. Lotte World has a Folk Museum inside and a pretty good restaurant sits next door to it. I joined the teachers for lunch at that restaurant and enjoyed the bossam (steamed pork) and bibimbap. Both dishes are excellent by themselves, but the combination of the two made it one of the best meals I've had here.

5. Students and young people everywhere. One coteacher explained that October's usually a time for school trips, which explained why the place was packed on an ordinary Wednesday.

6. The Folk Museum: I got tired of the noise and rush of events in the afternoon, so I went there and spent an hour enjoying the exhibits from Korea's past three kingdoms of Gogureo, Baekje, and Silla. I honestly hadn't expected much from a museum that was attached to an amusement park, but I was wrong. The museum's worth visiting for anyone interested in Korean history, especially in seeing scenes from its past monarchies or its many temples and palaces.

*Lotte World is located next to Jamsil station on Line 2 of Seoul's subway system. It is less than 20 minutes from the Dongseoul Bus Terminal.

**Seokchon Lake is nearby as well.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Blogging on the bus: Going to Lotte World

We're on our way to Lotte World amusement park this morning. I'm on the bus with the art teacher and the third grade middle schoolers. It's my first time going there. It'll be good to ride a rollercoaster again.

Also: Updates on the way about the first month in the new town, hiking, and attending the KOTESOL International Conference. They conference was quite good because I got to meet Scott Thornbury, the renowned teacher and author, after his plenary talk.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Teaching tip: never contradict your co-teacher

[Note: This is not a new post. I originally wrote it in the spring of 2012. It probably got listed as a new post when I was rereading it and noticed a few typos. I fixed those types, clicked "update," and saw later that it became a "new" post.

As it happened, Jane transferred to another school when that semester ended. I never heard where she went. She'd be in the final year of high school now.]

One of the joys of teaching is that no one day's ever the same as the next. Monday's conference with a student sparked this post.

The military has a rule that says "Always obey your commanding officer." Teachers have a similar, yet unwritten rule that says "Always support your fellow teachers. Do not contradict them unless you absolutely have to." Teachers need to back up other teachers to establish consistency both within the school and within the classroom. To contradict or go against another teacher means that the student(s) can exploit a weakness and play teachers against one another. It invites power struggles. Power struggles are never good because all parties invariably lose face.

Being the foreign (Guest) teacher only amplifies this point because the language barrier and not knowing all ins and outs of school culture can lead to students playing the Guest teacher against the Korean teacher(s).

I thought of this rule when a student, Jane, came to my desk yesterday to ask about an exam question. It seems she thought the question had more than one possible answer. Right away, I knew I had to tread carefully because although I proofread the exam, I did not write it. I didn't know the answer to that particular question either because Ms. J the co-teacher had written the instructions in Korean and had said not to worry about it. I asked her to explain the question. She did. She asked about whether the expressions she used were right. In my mind, I knew they looked okay, but I also knew that the co-teacher had had a different answer in mind. To say I agreed with Jane would mean contradicting Ms. J'a answer.

After she finished talking, I said, "Okay, I understand, Jane, but I can't help you here."
She nodded and asked, "But, isn't this the right expression?"
"It may be. I don't know. I didn't write the exam. Ms. J did."
"Yes, but you're a teacher too, and I thought you could help..."

I thought she might say that because she didn't know the difference between my job and the Korean teacher's job. We're all English teachers to her, and while yes, we all do teach English, my status as an Guest English Teacher puts me on a different plane than the other Korean teachers. Guest English Teachers follow different procedures than Korean English teachers. For instance, I'm not officially obligated to write exams or record grades for my classes. It's possible, but I don't have to. This alone means that I have no say with other teachers' exams.

This would be hard to explain to her, but I told her, "Yes, Jane, but the rules for me are different. I cannot help you here. You'll have to talk to Ms. J."

I had no real sway in the matter. To do otherwise would be to put Ms. J in a bind because Jane could say, "Well, Ben said this, but you said that" and put her on the spot. She persisted anyway. She wasn't arguing to argue--quite the contrary, as a passionate learner*, she's dedicated to knowledge for its own sake and simply wanted further explanation. And I couldn't give that to her. Jane eventually said "Okay" and let it go. She thanked me for my time and walked out of the office.

Fellow teachers: back up your colleagues.

*Jane transferred to Gimhwa HS from a high school in Chuncheon recently. She's a teacher's student: she comes to class early, takes good notes, beams a smile everywhere she goes, and studies hard. Her English is nearly as good as the Korean English teachers themselves too. Her advanced abilities play into why she came to my office because students rarely ask me about anything in their regular English classes because they lack the English necessary to explain themselves. They go to their Korean teachers instead.