Friday, February 17, 2012

Schools That Never Sleep

I'm pretty sure that the Korean kids wouldn't know what to make of Alice Cooper's song "School's Out."

For one, they have a winter vacation, not a summer one. They do get a break in summer, but it's about two weeks or so.

School is rarely, if ever, out in Korea. This is both literal (schools never close)  and figurative (school is fashionable).  If the public school isn't in session, you can bet a six-pack of soju that the neighborwood academies (hagwons) are.

Though I've only seen half of the year so far, right now I'm in the final days before the new semester starts on 2 March. Not counting the week of graduation between 6 and 10 Feb, regular classes haven't happened since 23 December. But the key word here is regular, for there are winter classes, winter camps, and winter studying. My co-teacher and I taught a winter class in January and some of the students have carried on with other classes.

This week I've been witnessing another aspect of Korean school culture that's unlike anything I've seen in the States: kids coming to school to study on their days off.

There's a group of 5-15 high school students who have been coming to school to study in one of the empty classrooms since Monday. Like I mentioned before, school is out and I find this nothing short of amazing. To think that they come to school to study more or less from 9 to 5 on their days off is inspiring. People--especially students and parents-- take school damned seriously here, to the point where I'm seeing stuff I'd never see in the US. No American high school kids is going to come to school on their days off. These kids get into it: I pop in various times during the day to check on them  and I find them all glued to their books. It's as quiet as a library in there.

I check on them because, well, I'm still trying to understand that no, I'm not just imagining this. There are real live students diligently doing math problem sets and studying Korean or English right there. I asked the kids and a couple of teachers about this; they've told me it's normal and happens every year. This morning I happened upon one of my kids groggily making his way to the classroom. I asked him how he was doing. "I'm tired," he replied, and mentioned that his family had a party for some relatives last night. I suggested that although it was nice of him to come to school, he could've slept longer and came later. After all, he had no obligation to be here so early. He just shrugged it off and said he needed to study. He said and walked to the classroom. Many of the students arrive before some of the teachers do. They say they want to get ready for their college entrance exam, and even though it's will over a year away, I can see where they're coming from. That exam's a hell of a big deal in Korea. The students' test scores are immensely important for determining the college they can attend.

With the kids coming to school, there've been some great opportunities to talk to them about school life. A few of the students jump at the chance to practice their English, so these conversations have been fun. One girl talked about a two day camp at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul. She eagerly explained the pictures she took on her phone. It looked like she had a good time. Another boy wondered about guns in America. "Why do so many people have them?" he asked. I said that it's a long story, but it's part of my nation's history. I didn't quite know how to answer that question since I've wondered about it myself. America has more guns than people and though I understand why the Founding Fathers wrote the 2nd Amendment, I'm curious about guns in America today. I won't get into debating gun rights or anything like that here, but suffice to say that he asked a question that has many possible answers.* If a native English speaker asked this question, I would've had a hard time giving a clear and concise answer, but someone who speaks English as a foreign language? It's harder still, but damned heartening to hear.*

My students' work ethic makes me wonder about my own. I know that even though I did my share of homework and studying in high school, I doubt I put in as many hours of it as my students do. Even now, in the midst of we EPIK'ers call desk-warming, I'm wondering if I can't be getting more done in a given day. The online EPIK in-service that I've been working on will be finished by next week and it's been good planning lessons and talking to everyone and all, but isn't there something more? Coming to school feels strange without any lessons to teach.

 On another note, the students' life here provides a sharp contrast to American high school life. My school day ran from 7:20 to 2:45. I had 6 or 7 classes and 0-45 minutes of homework every day. Once the bell rang, the day was done and there was just the homework to do, not do, or forget about. The Korean students? Class from 8:20 to 5 or 6, self-study at school from 7 to 9, hagwon from then till 10 or midnight. This goes on 5 days a week, plus some weekend hours in hagwons.

* Some things to know about Korea:

Guns are banned here. This boy, Joo-yong, is not alone in asking about my country and its relationship or history with guns.

Every man has to do 2 years of military service. During this time he learns how to shoot a rifle. So though guns are banned here, people are aware of them. One of my co-teachers fondly remembered his days on the firing range. According to him, the M16 is the best rifle to use. (Since I'll probably never own an M16, I'll take his word for it.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Adventures with Paula: Suwon Pt.1

Hwaseong Fortress and the Suwon skyline, as seen from a hill behind the fortress. A beautful view that exemplifies the traditional and modern aspects of Korean architecture.

Paula and I had a few more days of vacation time left, so we went to Suwon, a city just south of Seoul. It's connected to Seoul via subway line 1. She booked us a stay at the Hwaseong Guest House and we stayed there from Friday night to Sunday morning.

The fortress was above cool. It didn't feel too much like a fortress because there were no battlements or cannons in the place. It looked and felt like the palaces in Seoul thanks to long, narrow corridors and large courtyards. Many small rooms opened out into the courtyard too. Some mannequins were set up depicting servants and ladies of the house at work.

After looking around the fortress, we watched a traditional drum and dance performance in front of the gate. I made a recording of it with my MP3 player and I'll see about posting it to here or youtube so you can hear it. I've been hearing these crazy beats and lonesome wails since I've been here. Like America's folk songs, Korea has a repertoire of traditional drum beats. Every time I hear them, I can't help but move to the rhythm. The Koreans know something about beats.

Above and above-above = views from two of the many courtyards in the fortress. Notice the long, divided corridors.

Basically, the royal living room.

After looking around the fortress, we watched a traditional drum and dance performance in front of the gate. I made a recording of it with my MP3 player and I'll see about posting it to here or youtube so you can hear it. I've been hearing these crazy beats and lonesome wails since I've been here. Like America's folk songs, Korea has a repertoire of traditional drum beats. Every time I hear them, I can't help but move to the rhythm. The Koreans know something about beats. Pics will come as soon as they're offloaded from the iPad.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

From Seoul to Milwaukee and back, part II

I've been back in Korea for two days now. This post will be short since the one below covers most of the observations I made while back in the States. It feels quite good to get back amongst the mountains and the kimchi again.

Another observation: the jet lag of flying to the States is much worse than flying to Korea from the States. The 11:40am flight out of Incheon landed at 9:30am Chicago time on the same day thanks to the International Date Line. After being awake for ~17 hours, I still had the entire day to go before the sun went down. A 3 hour nap in the middle of the afternoon helped, but the next day was much the same. It took a while to get back on track.

Contrast that with flying back here. The 11:30am flight landed at 4pm Seoul time, so by the time I got to bed I'd been up for ~24 hours. I got to bed at midnight and woke up at 7:30am feeling like I'd been out all partying all night. The same goes for today.

Dealing with the jet lag/travel action on this flight to Korea now has been much easier than when I originally did it in August. Back then, my anticipation was running high with the excitement of starting a new life in a new land. But this time? I've grown accustomed to the land and can get around now, so the old nerves weren't there at all. The jet lag hit hard in August because of shift in environments and the rush of Orientation. Not anymore.

From Seoul to Milwaukee and back

[Originally written on 29 Jan 2012 and edited on 2 Feb 2012]

From 19 to 29 Jan, I came back to the States on vacation to spend time with family and friends. My plane to Korea leaves tomorrow. It's been one hell of a good time here with seeing everybody. Some relatives from out of town even came up to visit us and we had a great time this weekend. I won't name names, but you know who you are, you who reveled in Wisconsin.

There'll be more posts about this in the future--coming back felt strange as hell. After 5 months of living in Korea, seeing jacked up 4x4s, sprawling parking lots, and abundant Mexican food seemed alien, as though I'd forgotten they existed. Here are a few other things that I ruminated about while I was here:

  • The sheer diversity of food in restaurants.
  • Friends and family haven't changed--and that's for the best. No one's gone and jumped the shark.
  • The massive size of Pick 'n' Save. E-Mart and Lotte Mart may have big grocery sections, but they've nothing on American supermarkets for sheer size and selection. On the other hand, Pick 'n' Save can't match the food and drink samples that the Korean supermarkets offer every day.
  • Wisconsin's liquor laws seemed unnecessarily restrictive. More than once, 9pm passed and I remembered that unlike Korea, no store will sell booze.
  • I kept wondering where the soju and the 1.6l jugs of Cass were.
  • On a similar note, getting ID'd was a change of pace.
  • Metered parking doesn't exist in Seoul, but it certainly does in America. Seeing halfway ordinary parking jobs right away seemed strange. Someone did hit my parked car at a shopping mall when I was home though, so I guess normal parking jobs don't mean much after all.
  • Parking lots take up too much space. Whatever happened to parking garages and building upward instead of outward? So much space gets wasted on parking lots.
  • It felt good to see more recognizable street addresses and signs.
  • Driving at night gets more monotonous than I remember.
  • Coffee tastes better here. Korean coffee's on the weaker side, but the cafes can make a decent Americano.
  • Though Korean energy drinks are cheap and they get the job done, they don't taste as good as Rock Star.
  • The cigar I smoked at Lake Country Cigars tasted quited good.
  • After decades of disliking spicy food, I've officially made the great leap into Spice Land. It took some time (and a whole lot of kimchi) to get used to it, but once I got back to WI I came to miss it.
  • Jamming the blues with Jonny T-Bird and friends in Milwaukee rocked! They backed me up on a few numbers at an open jam at the Astor Hotel. The last time I saw any live music? The Seoul Record and CD Festival in November, where the band played blues and sang in Korean.
  • Having to wait for the waiter/waitress to come around to the table in restaurants got to be a drag after being able to push a button on the table or call out "Yeo-gi-yo!" Also, many Korean diners and restaurants will let patrons get water themselves, to saving to wait for that got a bit annoying after a while too.
  • I did remember to tip for stuff. I do have to wonder if it's necessary at coffee shops though. After all, it's not like I'm ordering an entire meal. All I'm asking the person to do is grab a biscotti and a coffee for me. Korea's not a tipping culture, so you pay what the receipt says and no more. This includes bars and cabs. Cab drivers will insist you made a mistake if you try to tip them.
  • A childhood of long car rides to visit relatives in OH paid off with being able to do 12-13 hour plane rides easily.