Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Game board blues: Give them time to sort things out

"Battleship" is a fun game to use when teaching because it is repetitive without being tedious. Playing the game involves making sentences with the expressions in the rows and columns of the game board to “attack” the enemy ships. It’s been a hit in every class I’ve seen it in, but the game’s difficult to get started. It’s never been the easiest game to explain to the kids at any level for some reason. What comes easy to American kids hardly registers initially with Korean students. I’ve been in classes where the instructions were bilingual and the kids still had trouble with it. They would only get it after one or two practice runs. Like engaging the clutch and getting a standard shift car rolling, getting started is the hardest part in the activity, but it wasn’t the case today with a group of 2nd grade HS boys. I’d hardly given them the game boards and the instructions when they were off and running. Half the students knew what to do instantly and they quickly explained things to the other half who was catching up. Soon everyone knew what to do and the room grew loud with all the English being spoken. I stepped back and watched the magic happen. Everyone was speaking or correcting someone’s speech in English.

I’d made the game more difficult by including 3 expressions each to use with “yes” and “no” answers as well as telling them to set up the question with “Do you want to ~”/“Let’s go~” /“We should~” opening phrases. 

A complete exchange sounded like this:
A: [Do you want to] get coffee tomorrow night at 7?
B: Sure, that sounds good.

They nailed it.

And to think I was worried about the students not being self-starters. Much of the Korean (or American) school system’s built upon the students marching from lesson to lesson in lockstep, so I’d been wondering how if anyone still had any initiative to do something without being told to do it. Part of growing up involves thinking independently; it’s my hope to instill some of that independence in the students by stepping aside to let them figure things out at times. Like John Gatto explained in an essay of his, school tends to make students “intellectually dependent” on teachers, and I want to make sure the students know enough to solve problems for themselves.* It is burden enough to know they depend on me to give them a model of good English, but I must also help them become self-directed and confident, too. They've got to be able to make their own mistakes. Sometimes it's best to step back and watch them sort things out. Part of teaching centers on readying the students for their future roles as contributing adult members of society, and intuition’s key there. If their intuition fails, I’ll be around to point it in the right direction.

*From Gatto's essay "The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher," which can be read in his book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Haesindang Park in Samcheok - Return to Gangneung Pt. 2

Adult art ahoy, my friends...

I've written about Gangeung before, so I'll forgo repeating anything and jump in to talking about Haesindang Park. Getting there formed the trip's focal point; for we'd done everything else we'd planned to do before and wanted another go-round. The park was something brand new to us: A big seaside collection of penises and phalluses dedicated to a maiden of Korea's past. She had drowned in the sea and was thought to have caused a bad catch of fish in the next year. The locals then made monuments and held ceremonies to appease her spirit. Over time, those ceremonies and monuments became the Haesindang Park of Korean lore. The park's where the lewd and the traditional meet each other, because for all the history, sights like one below test a Western man's ability to contain his inner 14 year old:

[Source: Wikipedia]
Or this:

Superbad has nothing on Haesindang.

Haesindang went down as one of my best times in Korea thus far. For such a conservative country, it has no qualms about a park full of penises if it's in the name of history and legend. I'm cool with that. The Park shows how creative people can get when it comes to carving penis monuments to show their dedication to that lost maiden. As we wandered the grounds and sized everything up, we noted the craftsmanship and quality of the art. It expanded my perception of what a phallus could look like, for one. Take the two monuments above and the emotions their faces show: One's wide-eyed yet somehow content and the other's awestruck, mouth agape. Fascinating. There are plenty more free-standing odes to masculinity around the park; what's above represents a small sample.

A traveler could do worse than stopping by this place. Lovely coastline.

Or to pursue another line of thought: Would--could--a place like Haesindang get set up in America and stand up to the inevitable protests? Could it thrive and pulse with activity in the name of art? Could an elementary school take a trip there and skirt parental outrage? Perhaps, but all of those things, minus the protests, are happening with the park in Korea. We did in fact see a group of elementary school boys romping around. They actually didn't pay much attention to the penises and instead focused on running free like boys are wont to do. I marveled at a school going there on a trip, but it's probably nothing shocking over here. We also saw plenty of people milling about, yet cackling Beavis and Butthead types weren't among the people there. We didn't see many adolescents at all. While it's not funereal, the park's certainly not a Roman orgy of ogling, either. 

A trip or stay in Korea isn't complete without a trip to Haesindang. The sights and cultural artifacts are more than worth it. It's more than art, it's more than legend, and it's more than sex. Go there and see for yourself.

The practical side of getting there:

Getting to Haesindang Park meant cruising further down the coast to the city of Samcheok and taking a local bus from the city center. The trip proved longer than expected, but it was also half the fun. We saw more of the winding coastline and enjoyed (or in R's case, endured) a tortuous bus ride through several hamlets before we arrived at the park. The ride's worth the views.

Buses from Gangneung to Samcheok cost 5,300won and run so frequently that the bus stations don't bother with printing the departure time on the ticket.

Take the #24 bus out of downtown Samcheok to Haesindang. It costs a mere 1,600won.

Admission to the park runs 3,000won for adults. Inexpensive and guaranteed to produce interesting photos!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Keeping cool during the traffic delays - The return to Gangneung, part 1

A childhood of long car rides across the Midwest has me stoic about multiple hours spent in transit. "We'll get there when we get there," goes the mantra, for getting angry only makes things worse. That said, a day like today taxed our patience and ability to stay positive.

The bus journey that R and I embarked on should have taken around 3 hours took over 6 because every Korean with a car or the ability to steal one took to the roads today to experience the wonders of gridlock. Getting out of Seoul proved exhausting; usually the city presents the usual traffic jams, but today even news reporters were mentioning clogged freeways. Once we were on the road, we wished we'd never gotten on. Of course, turning back wasn't an option. Our journey, however delayed, would not be complete until our toes touched the sand at Gyeongpo Beach and our lips tasted grilled fish.

Despite the protracted time, the trip did have its highlights: I finished my book and R learned to never check Facebook after something scintillating happened on an episode of a favorite TV show she hadn't watched yet. We both enjoyed gazing at Gangwon-do's endless green mountains and hills, too. The bus's stopping and starting prevented any iPad/iPod action, so took a respite from technology for a while. But around the time we stopped in Hoengseong, I thought "Oh well, what the hell" and started tapping away on the iPad. As I was out of stuff to read, writing something sounded appealing. Whether or not this resulting post about spending a working day aboard a bus holds any appeal is up to the reader.

Yet while we may have been disappointed by the delays, they were expected to some degree. Holiday times are usually poor times to travel, and Buddha's Birthday proved no exception. The two of us learned the hard way to either travel as early as possible or just leave the night before. We'd thought that leaving at 8:50 would serve us well and it didn't. We weren't the only ones though. Plenty of other travelers got caught the trap too. Lesson learned: Buddha's Birthday brings the crowds. Sunday drivers and anyone who's shaky with a stick shift need not apply for driving on this day.

More to come soon...

*In honor of today's post, here's a quick Korean lesson:

The base verb form of wait is 기다리다, or gidarida (gi-da-ri-da); "I am waiting" is 나는 기다리세요, or gidari seyo.

*People of the Internet: Keep the spoilers to yourselves, please.

* The trip did get off to a good start, for I successfully bought bus tickets in advance by writing everything in Korean and handing the ticket girl the Post-It. I would've simply spoken everything, but I got tripped up on saying the 9 in 9:20am  because of how telling time works in the Korean language. It didn't really matter though because she told me in English that the 9:20 was sold out, so I opted for the 8:50 bus instead.

*Korean uses two sets of numbers: pure Korean and Sino-Korean. Clock time is spoken with pure Korean hours and Sino-Korean minutes. Sound confusing? It is at first. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Quick hit: Teachers Day (스승의 날)

Korea celebrated Teachers Day yesterday with an assembly in the gym that came replete with speeches and accolades for us teachers. The day's a big occasion over here: Students customarily give teachers flowers, letters, and gifts to thank them. One of my students gave me a flower and a thoughtful letter at the end of the day. It was a nice gift coming from her, for the sentiments were genuine. It's great to know someone appreciates what I'm doing here. And though I don't intend to gloat, it is great that the students take time to recognize the efforts of their teachers.

The occasion brought back fuzzy memories of Teacher Appreciation Day in the US. I don't remember much of those days because nothing much happened. They were always more for the elementary school students and parents anyway. That's not the case in Korea. Teachers Day applies to elementary, middle, and high schools here. The day produced a big irony in one class when some students were tuning out of my lesson to work on the class message board for Teachers Day. They stopped working on it after I told them to stop. Did they see the irony in what they were doing? I'm not sure, but it was amusing.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Gunpowder and explosions in the morning

It's Tuesday morning. I'm biking into school when the first of the day's artillery or grenade rounds goes off. The boys on the range are at it again. Nothing says "Wake up!" like explosions in the near-distance. It's nothing serious or strange, for stuff like this happens regularly here. The sounds of the firing range become background noise after a while.

As an update, everything's fine up here. Carry on, everyone...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Weekend jaunt to Idong, Gyeonggi-do

Idong's a town along the Seoul-Wasu bus route that I'd been through countless times, but had only visited once before this weekend. I wouldn't call it a visit so much as a pit stop, for it happened right after a co-teacher and I had completed getting my ARC card. We'd stopped to enjoy the famed Idong galbi, or marinated beef ribs. They were indeed quite good.

Since that one-off visit, I'd sometimes thought about coming back. This weekend R and I did just that: partly because I wanted to return to the town to savor the beef and partly because we wanted to compare the Idong galbi to the Suwon galbi we'd eaten over New Year's. The Suwon stuff had been good but pricey. No matter, it was a special occasion that we can hardly do every day since neither of us live in Suwon. The Idong proved to be slightly cheaper, but quite tasty. The beef was as tender and juicy as it was supposed to be.

As we didn't want to repeat the Suwon experience of paying for 1kg of beef, we went with one portion of galbi (300g) and ordered bibim naengmyeon, or cold buckwheat noodles with vegetables, to complement the meat. Doing so took some explaining, for the sajangnim tried to get us to us into order two portions, but we got what we wanted. Throwing in a bottle of Chung-ha wine probably helped our case a bit.

After our succulent barbecue, we found ourselves in need of coffee to cap off the meal.  We asked the parking guy/promoter of the restaurant and he directed us toward the establishment below, Galbi/Coffee 1987:

R and I knew we were looking at something grand: A combination barbecue joint and cafe? We couldn't believe it. The synergy of such an establishment overwhelmed us, for where do Koreans tend to go after they eat barbecue? Why, either the bar or the cafe! This place combined the two and thus allowed the customers more convenience and the owners more money. Morever, the cafe alone is one of the best we've been to in Korea. Here's why: The coffee's actually bitter and the lattes are mixed right. And not only that, but my iced Americano came in a pint glass. Iced coffee in pint glasses brings back many fond memories from Milwaukee, WI. One sip and I was seeing through walls. The coffee may have come at premium prices, but oh well. Coffee's hit or miss over here, as articles like this will attest to, so quality coffee's hard to find.

Pictures from Idong:

Along the Youngpyoung Cheon.


Idong's also famous for its makgeolli, which we've also sampled plenty of times. It is indeed a fine drink.

Ground coffee has come to my town. Yes indeed, one of the grocery stores started selling ground hazelnut coffee a few months ago. The package is plain and it has no brand name, but it's the real stuff. I was skeptical at first, but one test cup erased any doubts: it has the bitterness and it has the hazelnut flavor. Even better is the price: Around 3 dollars for a 200g bag.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Back tracks: Getting that first haircut in Korea

From the nostalgia file...

September 2011- I'd been in-country for about a month and having started thinking it was time for a haircut. Doing so made me nervous, for my rickety Korean wouldn't cut it with talking to the hairdresser, so I asked my co-teacher to translate some directions for me and to recommend a place in Wasu. He wrote out a few phrases and told me to go the place across from the bank. 

I suppose I could've gone to Seoul and gone to a more foreigner-friendly place, but traveling 3-4 hours round trip for a haircut seemed ludicrous. Not to mention, I was determined to get acclimated to Korea and didn't want to fall into the trap of avoiding anything Korean. Many people do that once they get over here. It's as though they want to say they lived in a foreign country without actually doing anything foreign. Getting a haircut meant one step forward and one step out of the comfort zone. Doing so seemed better than avoiding the problem and wasting money on bus fare.

So, when some free time arrived, I got that haircut at the miyong sil (미용실), or beauty salon. I walked in, said hello, and showed the lady the post-it the co-teacher had written. She smiled, nodded, and gestured for me to sit down, and I got my haircut. It went well. The haircut and shampoo came to 10,000won. I said thanks and walked out. I've been coming back there ever since because she does a good job and there's no reason to seek out a different place. Over time, I picked up the phrase "Just a little trim, please," and remembered to show the passport photo of the haircut I got before coming over here. After a while, though, I'd just come in and say nothing because she remembered what to do. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

The sunny return to Jeongja-dong

A quick photo post to cap off the day here.

We've been here before in the winter. While the area's certainly okay then, it's much better in the spring. This past Saturday featured some pristine spring weather. We took took advantage of the sun to cruise down to the Jeongja-dong area of Seongnam, a city south of Seoul. Along the neighborhoods lies the Tancheon, or Tan Stream.

More information: http://wiki.galbijim.com/Jeongja-dong

Going south from Jeongja Station

Going north from Jeongja Station

I liked the waterfall/water conveyor system, so that's why the picture's here. 

Near the cafe street, in the courtyards of the apartment complexes.

This one's dedicated to certain members of the family, for surely they will appreciate a restaurant that puts the wine before the restaurant.

For anyone who likes flowers and inviting green spaces.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

On the river side / photos from Seoul

Despite my rural residence, I enjoy a good city excursion as much as anyone. Here are some recent photos made possible by the warming spring weather.

Picture taken on the south bank of the Han River on a gorgeous spring day at Yeouinaru Han River Park, looking north toward Seoul Tower. Yeouinaru's one of my favorite places to go in Seoul because it's wide and offers views of the lazy Han River. It tends to draw throngs of people, but the area's wide enough to accommodate everyone. I like to come here to sit, relax, and get a respite from the commotion of the city.

Han River = 한강
Nam Mountain (남산)
Literally, 남산 means "South Mountain," but it is almost always written as Namsan Mountain even though san (mountain) being redundant.

On the pedestrian bridge by Noksapyeong Station, looking south toward the western edge of Itaewon. This intersection's always busy with traffic. Note the underpass that allows vehicles to bypass the intersection.

Noksapyeong Station = 녹사평역 
Itaewon = 이태원. 

On the same bridge, looking north toward Namsan. In the distance are the entrances to the Gyeongnidan and the Haebangchon neighborhoods. You can also see the clusters of houses on the hills around Namsan juxtaposed with the square buildings on the right-hand sight.

Here's the Cocaine Music Bar in Hongdae (홍대) area. I doubt anyone could away with such a name in the States. Perhaps some would take that name as invitation to do such an illicit drug inside the joint? Not the best idea considering Korea's strict drug laws!

Music bars dot the bigger cities here. They're basically rock clubs without the stage--same dark walls, rock posters, songs on the speakers, and Western alcohols. I've been to the Woodstock Music Bar in Gangnam before and had a good time there. Being in there brought back plenty of memories from rock shows in Milwaukee.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An upcoming "free semester" for middle schoolers?

Korean middle and high school life revolves around tests and exams. To say that students fret about their midterms and finals would be like calling the Pacific Ocean a pond. Korea's new president Park Geun-hye has recently proposed a "free semester" for middle schoolers. Such a semester would mean no tests so students could focus on other things like career or vocational options. The idea's modeled on Ireland's "free semester" program and it's slated to begin in 2016.

I've included a few articles and editorials about the idea below because it represents a change in thinking for Korean schools. Several writers and policy makers have been debating merits of the "free semester." They've been wondering if it can work in Korea or if it will backfire and drive parents to spend more on their childrens' private schooling. I've been wondering about the idea myself, for it has plenty of potential, yet implementing it could prove tricky.

Read and enjoy. More to come later!

Joongang Daily: "Students discuss 'free class' plan"

"Middle school students to get a test-free semester"

"A little room to breathe"

"Paved with good intentions"