04 December 2011

Breaking Through

Something incredible happened yesterday. A boy in my Saturday afternoon class had a major breakthrough and I can't begin to describe how ecstatic I am about this. Although I've been here for a little over four months, I've only been teaching this class, as well as my Saturday morning class, for three months, since I spent my first month substituting for other teachers every Saturday. Still, three months is a long time and that is how long it took for this boy to finally participate. Honestly, I wasn't sure that he ever would...

The first time I taught this class, it became abundantly clear that this little boy had serious issues with change. His dad dropped him off and he just stood at the door crying. He refused to look at me and no amount of comforting would get him to stop crying or even move from his spot at the door. That day, I had a substitute Teaching Assistant (TA) working with me, and she wasn't able to get him to stop crying either. Furthermore, the classroom itself was in a different location for him. Therefore, the poor child walked into a classroom where nothing was familiar: new room, new teacher, new TA. Of course, rather than having me substitute every Saturday during the entire month of August, it would have been a good call to let me co-teach with the former teacher at least once, but there's no point in trying to understand. There are a lot of things that I don't understand about my school. Anyway, after about an hour, the TA was able to coax him away from the door, but he refused to sit with the other children during circle time and refused to participate in any activities, despite my attempts to include him. At break time, he ate his snack alone and then during free-play, he sat alone, colouring. When he was finished, he showed his picture to the TA and then to me. I praised him and he gave me a blank stare. That was the extent of his interaction with me.

The following week, I asked my TA Kyung-Yun about him. She told me that he has always been that way. She also told me that the former teacher suspected that he had OCD. Although I majored in Child Studies and have taken courses in child psychology, I am by no means qualified to properly diagnose. If we were in Canada, this child would have probably been diagnosed with something by now, but in all honesty, I think that we have a tendency to over-diagnose in North America. We're obsessed with labels. I refuse to label this child, but it's obvious that his socio-emotional development is far behind that of his peers.

Every subsequent Saturday, I said hello to him, smiled at him, showed him lots of warmth, tried to include him in all games and activities and continued to observe his behaviour. He never answered me, although he did sometimes answer Kyung-Yun. Then, one day, he said something to me in Korean. It was a small step, but I was thrilled that it was something that I actually understood so that I could answer him! I also noticed that he never played with any of the other kids. He would usually spend free-play colouring or sometimes building things, but always on his own. One day, he sat beside one of the little girls who also really enjoys colouring and started speaking animatedly to her in Korean. It was also the first time that I saw him smile.

Eventually, he started joining us at circle time, but he never answered me when I called on him and he has never sung any of the songs we sing, although I have caught him smiling or doing some of the song actions on occasion. He is extremely clever and excels at math. He is usually the first one to finish any math worksheets in class. He does well with both math and English in the unit book that the kids work on at home. I've also figured out that he understands English a lot more than he lets on. He never has trouble following directions; he just refuses to participate in anything other than worksheets (which I try to avoid, to be honest) or arts and crafts. He is meticulous with his crafts. He also has a habit of writing his name on the back of his work ten times, using each of the colours in the crayon box. But, I digress...

Kyung-Yun recently accepted a teaching position at a public elementary school, so last Saturday was her last day. I tried to explain the situation with this little boy to my new TA, but I'm not entirely sure that she understood. That's a whole other situation, which I'm not going to get into. Let's just say that I already miss Kyung-Yun terribly! Anyway, he was crying when he first came in, so I put my arms around him and told him that I had some new colouring pages to show him. He chose one of a Christmas tree and started colouring. He stopped crying. This was the first triumph!

Nonetheless, he didn't want to join us at circle time. I went to get him and led him to the circle. I was certain that he would protest, but to my surprise, he did not. Once again, he refused to sing along and didn't answer me when I asked him how he was doing today. As usual, he didn't participate in calendar time or any of the other usual activities at circle time. Then, we played a memory game using winter vocabulary that I had prepared for this lesson. Normally, when we play games, I spiritedly tell him that it's his turn and he ignores me. The other kids always say, "Pass!" but this time, I insisted. I took his hand and asked him to show me which card he wanted to turn over first. He did it! He played every turn after that, without me having to prompt him. Another triumph!

Later on, I noticed that he was actually playing with one of the other boys during free-play. They were both laughing and it was an absolute joy to see. After break time, we played a math relay and again, when it was his turn, he refused to get up. I went to get him and not only did he get up, but he answered every single question correctly and his team won because of his exceptional math skills! He smiled and actually gave me a high five! A huge triumph!

Finally, at story time, I decided to be really daring and asked him a direct question. For the first time ever, he answered me! Then, when I asked another question, he raised his hand and answered me again! This was the best triumph of all! I looked at the new TA and said, "This has never happened before. I'm so proud of him!" She didn't really have any sort of reaction. That's okay. I got up and did a little dance. The other kids were excited about it too. I'm hoping that this was truly a turning point and that he will continue to show more interest in all classroom activities. I will not give up on this child! I only wish that Kyung-Yun had been there to witness all of this.

11 November 2011


As you can see, the chocolate covered baguette really does exist, after all! The boy who gave me the baguette actually spends a great deal of his time driving me crazy on a regular basis, so he somewhat redeemed himself today. After posing for this photo, I shared the baguette with my co-workers. It was kind of messy to eat, but absolutely delicious!

I have to admit, I let the kids' excitement rub off on me for this silly holiday. I got a little carried away, even invented a Pepero Day dance, which the kids enjoyed tremendously. I was totally spoiled by them today. Check out all the goodies that I got! It was fun and I'm a little sad that it's over.

09 November 2011

Pepero Day?

While my friends and family in the UK and my homeland of Canada, along with all commonwealth countries will be donning poppies and observing a moment of silence to honour the members of our armed forces who have died in the line of duty since World War I, I will be stuck in The Twilight Zone that is South Korea and eating chocolate covered biscuits. Why? Because in South Korea, November 11th is Pepero Day. What in the world is Pepero Day? Allow me to explain...

Pepero is a long, stick shaped biscuit that would be rather bland (think breadstick) if it weren't dipped in chocolate. They are manufactured by Lotte, which is a Japanese/South Korean conglomerate (established in 1948 in Tokyo by Japanese-educated, Korean businessman Shin Kyuk-Ho) and are actually a direct rip-off of the Japanese snack, Pocky, manufactured by Glico. Pocky was invented in 1966, while Pepero didn't make its appearance until 1983. The "holiday" however, didn't begin until 1994. Well, you can call it a holiday, but I prefer to call it a clever marketing strategy, as Lotte usually does about 55% of their Pepero business in November every year. According to one story, Pepero Day was started in 1994 by students at a girls middle school in Busan, where they exchanged Pepero sticks as gifts to wish one another to grow "as tall and slender as a Pepero," but I find that story highly suspicious, don't you? Why November 11th? The date 11/11 is said to resemble five Pepero sticks. Does this mean that Lotte will see even more sales this year on 11/11/11?

Something else you should know is that over time, this holiday has evolved into a day that is meant for lovers, making it similar to Valentine's Day, which is kind of annoying really, because they do celebrate Valentine's Day in South Korea and, like in Japan, only women are meant to give men chocolate on February 14th. Men are expected to return the favour a month later, on March 14th, otherwise known as White Day (celebrated in both South Korea and Japan) and if that wasn't enough, on April 14th South Koreans have a pity-fest called Black Day, reserved for all those who did not receive chocolate on either Valentine's Day or White Day. Are you confused yet? Welcome to my world.

Now, the good news (or bad news if you're on a diet) is that if you're an English teacher in South Korea, chances are you will be receiving a whole lot of Pepero on Pepero Day, regardless of your relationship status. Like in North America on Valentine's Day, children are encouraged to offer gifts to all of their classmates and usually to their teachers too. It's only November 9th and I've already received one gift of Chocolate Rondeletti (a gourmet version of Pepero from a South Korean bakery chain called Paris Baguette) from one of my students. I've also heard that Paris Baguette sell actual baguettes dipped in chocolate on this holiday, but that may just be a rumour.

I find it rather fascinating that a country that has been plagued by war more than most celebrates such a lighthearted and contrived holiday on the very same day that Remembrance Day (not to mention Veterans Day in the US and Armistice Day in France, Belgium & New Zealand, all commemorating the end of World War I) is observed. It just goes to show you that, despite the hardships they have endured, Koreans certainly have a sense of fun. My students are very excited about Pepero Day and they freaked right out when I pointed out that this year is 11/11/11. I will be sure to post a photo of all Pepero that comes my way, although I am hoping that they won't overdo it. I am, after all, trying to watch what I eat...

Pepero Day display in the shopping area near Sungshin Women's University

07 November 2011

The Evil Weevil

It's official. I am totally grossed out! Last night, I decided to make myself a nice Thai curry. To my surprise, when I opened the bag of Jasmine rice I had purchased at the Foreign Food Market in Itaewon, I came face to face with a familiar vermin: the weevil. I once had an encounter with these pantry pests years ago, back home in Canada. They had infested some flour and had made their way into at least half of the other grain products in my pantry. It was a nasty affair that ended up being both very time consuming and expensive.

Luckily, because I haven't been here for very long and I don't do as much cooking at home in Korea as I do in Canada, it didn't take me that long to get rid of (hopefully, they're gone) these pests. I emptied out my pantry. I painstakingly checked every possible food product that could have been contaminated. Only the rice and a packet of sliced almonds had been infested. I cleaned the pantry with sudsy water. I let it dry. I put everything back in. Now, I will hope for the best.

When it comes to rice, I like variety. I get bored with Korean rice (essentially the same as Japanese "sticky rice") so I always go to the Foreign Food Market to make sure I'm stocked up on Jasmine or Basmati, even though it's ridiculously overpriced. Now, I'm so freaked out that I'm not sure that I ever want to go back to that place! The fact that the only other food item in my pantry where I found a weevil was the packet of sliced almonds also purchased there has totally put me off.

I know that I'm going to be paranoid about this for a while. It doesn't help that I did some research and found out that we have all eaten weevils, in one form or another, at some stage in our lives...

Quoted from How to Get Rid of Weevils
"I am both pleased and honored to be the one to tell you that yes, you have eaten weevils. I know it's a disgusting thought, but there's really nothing to be done about it. Most people are never even aware that it has happened. It might have simply been their eggs. It could, however, have been little bits of exoskeleton, maybe a leg or two, or possibly even the entire nasty weevil . . . or at least its larvae. With something as common as weevils, it's pretty much unavoidable. They can be found in nearly any prepackaged food you buy that contains any sort of grain. I'm talkin' cookies, crackers, biscuits, cake mixes, pastas, breakfast cereals, anything. This is due to the fact that weevils lay their eggs in, you guessed it, grains."

So, are you grossed out yet? Good, I'm not alone.  Incidentally, I also learned that Bay Leaves are a natural weevil deterrent. I have now spread Bay Leaves throughout my pantry. Wish me luck...

06 November 2011

The Little Things

The long work hours, the daily commute on public transportation so crowded you have to experience it to believe it, the constant state of perplexity caused by the simple fact that you cannot read, speak, or understand the language, the sense of isolation that comes with living so very far away from family and friends. These are some of the reasons why living in Seoul can be stressful.

Thankfully, I am lucky enough to work with a great team of teachers who help keep me sane. The fact that I am able to commiserate with them is something that was gravely lacking at my last job in Seoul. Moreover, I am inspired by my students every day. Just knowing that I've had an impact, however small, on the lives of these children, makes it all worthwhile. When Se-Eun gave me an unexpected rose the other day, I thought to myself, "This is why I'm here."

I also find myself taking refuge in the little things.The truth is, despite the stress that comes from living in a sprawling metropolis and constantly feeling lost in translation, there are also a lot of little things that I like about living in Seoul. One of those things is shopping! I went shopping near Sungshin Women's University after work on Saturday and I found these very cute earrings. They may not be extravagant or expensive, but this made me happy. Honestly, it doesn't take much...

02 November 2011

Korean Walnut Cakes

Hodo Kwaja (Walnut Cakes) are quite possibly my favourite thing in Korea. They are the most addictive little tidbits of yummy goodness! Inside these little walnut shaped cakes is a filling of sweet red bean paste and a whole walnut. Yeon-Soo's mom gave me a box of them today. Inside, there were four bags like the one in this photo that I took. I grabbed one bag for myself and shared the rest with my colleagues because, believe me, if I hadn't, I would have easily eaten the entire box!

10 October 2011

Duranie Dreams

Have you ever felt like you were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Well, this is how I've been feeling lately. Why? Because I'm in South Korea, consumed by a job that I'm not particularly happy in (there are things that I love about the job, like my students and co-workers, but things that I hate and am not at liberty to discuss because I've signed a confidentiality agreement that prevents me from doing so) and Duran Duran are currently touring North America. This isn't the first time that I've missed them because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, because I'm now following their every move via social networking, and have recently made lots of amazing friends who are attending these shows, it's affecting me in a big way.

From February 2004 until August 2005, I lived in Japan, where I had some of the most memorable experiences of my life and met some of my closest friends. During this time, Duran Duran released the Astronaut album and embarked upon a world tour. I was totally stoked when they announced dates in Japan, especially since this was my chance to finally see the original line-up live. Although I've been a fan since 1983, due to a variety of reasons, at this point, I had only see them once in 1987, after Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor had left. I bought a VIP package through the Duran Duran fan site and was going to see them in Fukuoka.  Unfortunately, Roger broke his foot and the Japanese leg of the tour was cancelled. They did end up playing the Summersonic Music Festival (in Tokyo and Osaka) in August 2005 and I was going to go with my friend Miyuki, but ended up leaving Japan for a teaching stint in Egypt (I ended up leaving that job and fleeing the country after 40 days, long story) so couldn't go.

In 2008, I was living in Seoul, South Korea (still not sure why I came back) and I had the opportunity to see Duran Duran at the Olympic Gym during their Red Carpet Massacre tour. It was an amazing show and the energy was palpable, as they hadn't been to Korea since 1989. Unfortunately, I attended that concert with two of the most horrendous people on the face of the earth. There I was: singing, dancing, revelling in the magic that is Duran Duran, and  they made fun of me the whole time. I still don't know why they even attended the concert and I should also mention that I stopped talking to these two people shortly after that experience. That night, I vowed to never attend a Duran Duran show with non-Duranies again. Nonetheless, I am thrilled that I got to see them and of course, I'm hoping with all my heart that they will come back to Seoul while I'm here.

I'm also extremely grateful that I got to see them in Montreal in April of this year. It was my first time seeing them in such an intimate venue and it was one of the most memorable nights of my life. Words simply cannot describe how phenomenal that show was. I took my wonderful 19 year-old niece Liana, who has since turned 20, to see them and needless to say, she was blown away. I don't think she will ever fully realise just how lucky she was to be fourth row centre at her first Duran Duran concert! For me, it was totally surreal to be that close to the band that shaped my adolescence and continues to have a profound impact on my life - a dream come true! That night, I was definitely in the right place at the right time.

That being said, I need another fix! They haven't announced any tour dates in Asia and I've been dreaming about the possibility of them coming here. Still, I have to accept the possibility that they may not come to South Korea at all. However, they might come to Japan or China and that's not too far way. Although I don't get any vacation days, apart from a week off at Christmas, I will find a way to see them if they play anywhere near here, especially since there is a (slight) chance that two of my dearest Duranie friends may be coming to Japan (this is all hypothetical, of course, since we don't even know if they'll be making it to Asia) to see them too. Mark my words!

I've also been dreaming of spending my Christmas break in Sri Lanka. I've been looking into flights and hotels (that I totally can't afford) and I even bought The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka recently. I've wanted to visit Sri Lanka since I first saw the video for Save a Prayer back when I was only 13 years old. When I lived in Japan, I visited Thailand. When I last lived in Korea, I visited my friends in Japan. I highly doubt that I will ever live in Asia again and although Seoul is quite a long way from Colombo, it's a hell of a lot closer than Montreal! I haven't booked anything yet, but I'm seriously considering it.

There's also my "light at the end of the tunnel" dream: I want to do a one-month, intensive yoga teacher training course in Thailand once my Korean contract ends in August 2012. I know that I'm a good teacher, but I'm fed up of teaching ESL so... why not learn to teach something that I'm passionate about and that's good for my physical and mental well-being? I've let so many other dreams go. I'm going to make this one happen!

Last but not least, there's my dream of finally getting my shit together and writing a book. I've had some crazy experiences in my life and people are always saying, "You should write a book!" I totally fucking should! In fact, I'm going to start writing it NOW! Well, when I say NOW what I really mean is...once this week is done and I've finished writing those 60 bloody report cards! Uh-oh. I said something negative. I also probably shouldn't have mentioned the confidentiality agreement but...woteva. I like to live on the edge.

25 September 2011

When ya gotta go...

I'll admit, my Korean is very limited. While people do understand me when I say simple things like, "Hello," "Goodbye," "Thank-you," and I was even able to tell the pharmacist that I needed cold medicine a couple of weeks ago, for some reason, I can't seem to get people to understand me when I need a toilet. Why does Korean have to be so bloody difficult to pronounce? Consider the Japanese word for toilet: >トイレ;(to-i-re) which is basically the word "toilet" with kana pronunciation. "Toire wa doko desu ka?" Easy peasy.

Normally, I just try to find a toilet and don't bother asking because the few times that I have, I simply get the blank stare. I always end up saying, "Toilet please," and it's all very embarrassing. Well, today I was at a shopping centre and I really needed to go, so decided to ask in Korean and got the funniest reaction so far. Instead of the blank stare, the shop assistant said, in English, "I'm sorry, I don't speak French," to which I replied, exasperated, "I'm not speaking French. I'm trying to speak Korean. Where is the toilet, please?" Hahahahahaha!
While we're on the topic, I should mention that it is common practice in Korea to not flush toilet paper! In public restrooms (including the ones at my school) there is usually a sign asking you not to flush toilet paper and there is a small bin beside the toilet bowl where you are supposed to dispose of your toilet paper. I don't get it. Also, don't tell anyone, but I don't follow this disgusting rule even though Koreans will tell you that the sewage system is different here and that a toilet will clog if you flush toilet paper down it. I didn't follow this rule when I lived here in 2008 and I don't follow it now and guess what? I've never clogged a toilet. Oh yes, and if you think I'm making this up, here's the proof: Korean Poopy Papers

Incidentally, the word for toilet in Korean is: 화장실 (hwa-jang-shil) and I dare you to try to pronounce it!

15 August 2011

Retail Therapy

On Saturday, I was on the 171 bus, on my way home from a long day's work, when I decided to just randomly get off the bus and wander! It was raining (it's actually been raining almost every day since I arrived) but I had an umbrella and it looked like an interesting area to explore, so I just did it. I ended up wandering the streets of Seoul for about three hours. I saw lots of interesting things but, I didn't have my camera on me, unfortunately.
However, I did, of course, have my wallet on me, so when I came across my favourite novelty shop in Korea, is was, I bought a couple of fun things. The first is pictured above. It's a "Chocolate Parody" travel coffee mug. I love it! I also bought a new sleep mask since the elastic on my old one was beginning to fray. As you can see, it's a froggie mask! I wonder... does this mean I'll now start dreaming of Roger instead of Simon? Nah, that'll never happen!

Return to Seoul: Week 2

This isn’t the first time that I’ve lived in a foreign country, so I know that it isn’t always going to be easy. This last week has been a rough one for me but, I’m taking it in stride and trying to remain positive. People are always telling me how brave and adventurous I am for moving to a foreign country on my own. The truth is, there are days when I think, “What the fuck am I doing here?” I had one of those days this week and I’m still trying to recover from it.

This was my first week teaching solo and it was filled with highs and lows. I’ve got quite a few years of teaching experience under my belt but, this is a new school and there are a lot of things that I still have to learn. To be honest, I’m kind of feeling overwhelmed with information. The fact that I’ve had to test kids that I’m just getting to know and write report cards for some of them certainly doesn’t help. I don’t want to end up spending 12 hour days at school like I did at my last job in Korea. I will do my best for these kids and give them lots of love and attention but I also need time to myself: time to think, time to write, time to explore.

I teach at a private English school, meaning that at the end of the day, it’s all about making money. They offer all types of English courses to kids aged 3 to 10 years of age. The most popular programme they offer is a full-time English immersion Kindergarten programme that is open to kids aged 4, 5 and 6 years of age (Korean age 5, 6 and 7) and runs Tuesday to Thursday from 9:30am to 12:30pm. As of 1st September, I will be teaching a full-time class of 7 year-olds. Don’t ask me to explain, but in Korea everyone is a year older than their actual age so these kids are actually 6 years old. For more information on how that works, click here.

Furthermore, in Korea, Grade 1 starts at age 7 (or Korean age 8) so for these kids, this is the only school they go to. I am also teaching an intensive course four days a week from 1:00pm to 2:00pm. These kids are 5 years old. They are exceptionally bright and speak English almost as fluently as native speakers! Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:00pm to 6:00pm, I teach another advanced class, to a group of 9 year olds. On Wednesdays and Fridays, beginning 1st September, I will be teaching a group of beginner 8 to 9 year-olds from 3:30pm to 5:30pm. Right now, they’re on summer holiday from regular school but once Korean school begins, they will be coming to my classes after school so I can expect them to be tired and overwhelmed. The advanced group are very bright but the material is too advanced, in my humble opinion. I haven't met the beginners yet, but I've heard that there are behavioural issues. For now, I am subbing on Saturdays, so I’m teaching different classes (most of which I know nothing about) to different ages and levels until 1st September when I will supposedly be getting my own Saturday classes.

The school offers courses all year round and are only closed for a week at Christmas. It would appear that officially, that will be the only holiday I’ll be getting. This sort of feels like Nova (where I worked in Japan) all over again but I’m trying not to let it get to me. The bottom line is: I’m here to gain experience and save money. I don’t plan on staying longer than a year. I’m fairly certain that this will be my last teaching stint in Asia. Most people do the whole teach abroad thing in their 20s. My first job teaching abroad was at age 33 and I’ve been doing it on and off for over 7 years. I think I’ve had my fill but… I need to make it through this year! I’ve only been here for two weeks, after all.

So that’s a breakdown of my classes and my schedule but none of that really matters. I know from experience that what will get me through the day (or the year, I should say) are the students themselves. Interestingly enough, the class that started off giving me the most trouble is now my favourite group! I’ve got a couple of anecdotes that will explain why…

Dana, who I jokingly referred to as “the meanest six year-old in the world” in the beginning made it very clear that she did not approve of me taking over the class from day one. My first week, I joined Paul (the director, who shouldn’t have even been teaching classes but they were short staffed until my arrival) in this class daily and Dana spent her time saying things to me like, “Who are you? What are you doing here? You’re fat! I don’t like you,” which of course, I didn’t take personally because I knew that I was the fourth teacher this class had seen in less than a month.

Well, on Tuesday, I taught them for the first time on my own and Dana was all like, “Where’s Paul? I don’t like you!” so I retorted with, “That’s a pity, Dana because I like you,” and carried on. The next day, she got into a tiff with another student, James, who had been acting out since my arrival by generally being disagreeable with the other kids. James said, “I don’t like you Dana!” to which Dana replied, “Well, I like you, James.” Then, she looked at me and said, “Deena, I like you very much.” You see? They’re actually listening. After that exchange, I talked to the entire class about the difference between not liking someone and not liking something that someone does. I ended with, “I think that everybody in this class genuinely likes each other and I’m glad to be teaching you because I think that you’re all very clever and very good kids.”

On Friday, at circle time, James suddenly took my hand, grasped it very hard and said, “I like this!” to which I replied, “I like this too!” and then I looked at all of their beaming faces and said, “I like all of this!” Then, something incredible happened: Dana spontaneously decided to sit in my lap! I hugged her and then politely asked her to go back to her place in the circle. If only adults were this easy to deal with…

08 August 2011

Return to Seoul: Week 1

I've had some tricky flights to Asia but this is the first time that there were no delays at all and my two flights (Montreal - San Francisco, San Francisco - Seoul) went extremely well. The second flight was with Singapore Airlines and yes, all that you've heard is true. The service was incredible, the food was good and the in-flight entertainment was fantastic. Not to mention, I had two seats all to myself! Heavenly. Nonetheless, let it be known that I do not sleep on planes. I wish I could, but I simply can't. I arrived in Seoul on Saturday at 6:00 pm local time. I was in my apartment by 8:00 pm. I unpacked the essentials, took a shower and went straight to bed.

After a fitful night of sleep, I awoke to the sound of chirping cicadas at 8:00 am on Sunday morning. Before even leaving Montreal, I had made plans via e-mail to meet my new bosses, Paul & Aileen for brunch in Itaewon at noon. Although it’s been over two years since I last lived in Seoul, I felt fairly certain that I’d be able to make my way to Itaewon since it was an area that I had frequented rather often.

The only thing I had in the fridge was a bottle of water so my breakfast choices were pretty simple. I had a glass of water and a cigarette, the breakfast of champions. I took a shower and continued the unpacking I had started the night before. At 10:45, I decided to leave. I figured an hour and fifteen minutes would be ample time to get to destination. However, I almost didn’t make in in time…

It was raining pretty hard so I brought an umbrella (which I later ditched because it was a piece of crap) and took a photograph of the address plate outside my building as I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find my way home. I headed out the door and logic told me that as long as I could find a main street, I would find a subway station and then the rest would be a cinch. I’d forgotten just how difficult the side streets of Seoul are to navigate, especially when one doesn’t read Hangul and only has an arsenal of about 12 words in one’s vocabulary. Long story short, it took me 45 minutes (of mostly uphill walking) to find a main street. Seeing as my last meal had been on the plane, nearly 20 hours prior, it’s a miracle that I didn’t pass out! The funny thing was, once I did finally make it to a main street, the first thing that I saw was a subway station and it happened to be on the same line as Itaewon, just a few stops away, so not only was I on time for my meeting, I was a few minutes early.

Although we had never met, it was very easy to spot Paul & Aileen. There they were, a lovely Canadian couple in their sixties, beaming at me from beneath their umbrella. They took me to a restaurant I had never been to, The Flying Pan Blue, for a delightful brunch. Afterwards, they showed me where the newest foreign food shop, High Street Market was. I was pleased to see an extensive bread selection and cheese counter but since I’d just arrived from Montreal and was not yet craving these delicacies I simply bought two things that I know are nearly impossible to find outside of Itaewon: some muesli and a box of corn tortillas. I was offered a free umbrella with my purchases and this one was much sturdier than the one I had brought from home which is why I ended up throwing the other one away. I should mention that the largest United States Army Garrison in Seoul is near Itaewon and that’s why it’s the best place to go to find the things that expats crave the most, namely a wide variety of familiar grocery and pharmacy items as well as English language books and magazines. Yes, almost everything is totally overpriced but at least it’s available. Nonetheless, Itaewon can be kind of a dodgy area, so my visits there tend to be rather short ones.

After my meeting with Paul & Aileen, I decided to try to find an E-Mart (Korean equivalent to Walmart) to pick up some food and a few items for my new apartment. I never did find it but I did find another supermarket where I managed to pick up a few food items, lots of cleaning products and a coffeemaker. I bought way too many things and it was ridiculously heavy and cumbersome. I found myself several subway stops away from my new home and caught in a torrential downpour. The only thing I could do was stand outside the supermarket and hope that a cab would drive by. Just when I was beginning to lose hope, the friendliest cab driver in Seoul drove by. He helped me with my packages and laughed when I showed him the digital photo of my apartment but hey, it worked! I made it home.

The next day, I took my trusty camera along with a notebook and pen and ventured out once again. I got to know my neighbourhood quite well and made several trips back home after purchasing more things for my apartment. I wasn’t going to have a repeat performance of the previous day’s fiasco. I did finally find an E-Mart but it wasn’t the greatest one and I still haven’t found everything I need but I’m doing quite well. After a coffeemaker, the most important thing on my list was a new pillow because, the pillows that came with my furnished apartment, just like my last time in Seoul, are as hard as rocks. My mattress is also as hard as stone, but that’s another story.

On Tuesday, I was chaperoned to work by my neighbour and colleague, Dao. She’s a lovely girl, originally from Laos, but raised in Minnesota and I’m so lucky to have her as a neighbour. From her, I found a much easier way to get to the nearest subway station. From Hunter, another neighbour and colleague, from Toronto, I found out which bus to take to work. I prefer the bus, not only because it’s more scenic than the subway but because you can usually get a seat as it tends to be less crowded than the subway. I actually pass Seoul’s three major palaces to get to work as well as Insadong, one of my favourite places in Seoul.

All in all, I’m pleased with where I am living and the commute is much shorter than it was the last time I lived and worked in Seoul. It usually takes me under 30 minutes to get to work. The first time I tried to go home alone, it took me three hours to get home but that’s because I took the bus in the wrong direction and also managed to get off at the wrong stop. Well, that’ll never happen again!

I work with an extremely friendly and helpful team of teachers and for that I am eternally grateful, considering my last experience in Seoul. Everyone has been so wonderful, I feel like pinching myself to make sure that this is all really happening. It’s very surreal being back here. Although it’s familiar, I am quite certain that this is going to be a much more positive experience than it was the last time.

I am very impressed with the students at my school. The classes are small, so you really get to know your students, the classes are divided by age and the groups are almost completely homogeneous in terms of language level. I spent the week observing two high level classes (one group of first graders and one group of third graders) who I will start teaching next week. I’m blown away by the amount of resources available to us. The classrooms are kid-friendly and well-equipped with a variety of teaching materials, toys, books, etc. This is nothing like Gwacheon English Town! I’m a little overwhelmed by the school curriculum, but I’m sure that everything will eventually fall into place.

I taught my first class on Saturday (after four days of orientation and observation) and it went exceptionally well. This particular class was an extremely well-behaved group of 7 year-old beginners. The kids that we teach during the week (the school week starts on Tuesday) are full-timers and are in an immersion programme whereas the kids we teach on Saturdays only come once a week. As far as I can tell, I’ll be teaching the same three groups of kids during the week but I may not get the same class every Saturday. I still have a lot to learn but as I mentioned, the staff are very helpful and Paul & Aileen are wonderful directors, so I’m in good hands.

I'll explain a little bit more about the school in my next post. There are so many different types of classes and hundreds of students. Last week was a complete whirlwind. In addition to learning the ropes, observing classes and planning lessons, I was also taken to a hospital in Insadong by the lovely Jihae who works in the finance department for my medical check (where I discovered that I no longer have 20/20 vision - my left eye is much weaker than my right eye - I guess I'm getting older) and to open a bank account. Incidentally, Jihae is also the person who helped me get Internet at home. I just got it installed this morning. Later in the week, I was taken to apply for my Alien Registration card by JY, a funny bloke who also works in the finance department and is under the false impression that I speak Japanese fluently. He also thinks I speak Russian, but that's a whole other story...

27 July 2011

Newsflash! I've always been this random...

I was in a French Immersion programme in elementary school, which means that in Kindergarten, Grade 1 and Grade 2 all subjects were taught in French only. In Grade 3, we started taking English. Although French was the first language I learnt at home, I mostly read books and watched television and movies in English. However, at the age of 8, I hadn't had much experience writing in English yet, which will soon become abundantly evident. I found some of my notebooks from those very first English lessons and I just had to share some of this stuff because it's pretty funny.

My first book report...

The Ugly Duckling

This story is about a swan's egg that got mixed up with a duck's egg. Swan eggs take longer to hach. This one did and the ducks thought it was strange. One day at last it hacht. They were happy. Then when they saw the little swan they freaked and the other ducks laught. So the little swan ran away. He found a family of swans. He joined them. Then he grew up to be a beautiful swan. It think it's a beautiful story.

Pretending to be an inanimate object...

The Book

Hi! I am a book. Those things there always open me. I don't know what they are but you're one of them. Bye thing! Ha-ha-ha!

A letter to an older and wiser (Grade 6) pen pal from an English school...

Dear Andrew,

I forgot to tell you about my figure-skating and gymnastics. Well, in gym I had a great fall, like humty-dumty but I wasn't on a wall. Talking about humty-dumty, I have a book about nursery rhymes. My mom makes good chicken with honey sauce. Do you have a sister or a brother? Well I do as you know! It was my brother's birthday about a month ago. He is fifteen years old. Howard is the one that I am talking about. On the midterm holiday I cleanded my room. I worked like anything! I wachted "The Sound of Music." What a movie! I saw it twice.

Well, bye.


Alright, so there's the proof. I was just as random in 1978 as I am now. If only I could find all the naughty stories I wrote about Duran Duran in high school! Now that...would be really funny!

24 July 2011

My Teaching Philosophy

I'm heading back to South Korea on a one-year teaching contract at a private school in Seoul's city-centre, Jongno-gu. I applied for this job back in March and have been going through a red tape nightmare since then. Well, my work visa is finally ready and I'll be leaving on 29th July! I'm trying to keep calm as I prepare for yet another overseas adventure. I came across this short essay as I was going through my teaching resources. I wrote it before I'd had any real teaching experience (besides internships) for a course called Art in Early Childhood. Now, after over ten years of teaching, I find that I still agree with what I wrote then...

My Teaching Philosophy

Some time in the summer of 1993, I was sitting on the curb outside my brother's house with my then six-year-old nephew Michael, when he turned to me and posed the following question: "Auntie Deena, are you a kid or a grown-up?" I was twenty-three at the time. It was by far, one of the best compliments I have ever received in my life.

This little anecdote serves as the basis for the foundation of my teaching philosophy. I strongly believe that in order to be both successful and fulfilled in the teaching profession, one must have the aptitude to empathise with their students, especially young children. A special bond exists between teacher and pupil, when said pupil truly feels that the teacher understands his/her perspective.

Equally important, in my opinion, is the capacity to give praise and support and to recognise the individual needs of each student. Creating a classroom environment where each pupil feels accepted for who they are is vital.

I feel that art is a fundamental element of early childhood education. The types of activities presented to the child in art education can improve fine motor, sensory and concentration skills that can facilitate learning in all areas of schooling. There lies in art education many distinguishing factors: the open atmosphere of the classroom gives the child the opportunity to find that learning can be fun, allows for freedom of expression and stimulates a deeper exploration of the self. These valuable lessons can help build a sense of self-confidence which is essential in securing further healthy development in the classroom and ultimately, in life.

The seed of desire to learn exists within us all. Working with young children, one has the opportunity to nurture that seedling and watch it grow. I do not view the teacher as strict authoritarian. My goal as a teacher is to play the role of faithful escort, who not only guides but also walks with the student on the path of knowledge, personal growth and self-expression.

Incidentally, I'm proud to say that at the age of forty-one, I still get asked by children whether I'm a kid or a grown-up. The truth is, I'm not quite sure of the answer myself.

30 June 2011

Simon Le Sphinx

He's always been an enigma, hasn't he? This is one of the many reasons that I've loved Duran Duran's frontman Simon Le Bon since 1983. Sure, I could gush over his devilish good looks or rave about his distinctive and mesmerising voice or go on and on about his charismatic stage presence, but today I would like to discuss my favourite part of Simon Le Bon: his mind.

I'm not just talking about the creative mind that has been delivering poetic, thought-provoking lyrics for over 30 years. He has a razor sharp wit that has been making me laugh out loud since I was 13 years old. He reveals his soul when telling us how a former choirboy became an atheist. He has an online Book Club. He ponders the absurdity of collective nouns for birds. Let's face it, he's not your average pop star.

Believe it or not, I'm not calling him an enigma because I don't understand him. On the contrary, it scares me just how much I do understand him. Or at least, what I know of him, after years of meticulously studying performances, interviews, articles and now... Twitter.

I swear, I didn't believe that he really was on Twitter. I'd had an account since 2009, but had never really used it. I was satisfied with Facebook. I'll admit that I didn't bother to "get to know" Twitter. That was, until I finally realised that @SimonJCLeBon and @thisistherealJT really were on there! Duran Duran brought me there, and now I can't get enough of the place!

Normally, I am a learned person. I am well-educated. I have diverse interests. I'm well-travelled. I can keep up with most of the subjects that Simon tackles on Twitter because we share similar interests. Of course, he kind of loses me when he starts talking about reality TV or sports, but you know what I mean. When it comes to anything related to the arts; whether it's pop-culture or high-culture, in my regular life, I can keep up my end of the conversation. I actually like talking about psychology and philosophy. When someone is sarcastic or uses innuendo, I get it. As an English teacher, I am especially fond of wordplay. I thrive on that shit. So... why is it that when Simon tweets I turn into a bumbling idiot?

I re-activated my long dormant Twitter account and started following Simon Le Bon and John Taylor at the end of April, shortly after seeing Duran Duran live at an intimate venue called Le National in Montreal on (Roger Taylor's birthday) 26th April, 2011. It was an unforgettable experience. For your enjoyment, here is a video of one of the evening's many highlights:

I digress. So, the first time I tweeted Simon Le Bon was on 29th April 2011. I have been tweeting him regularly ever since. The first (and only, thus far) time that he acknowledged my Twitter-existence was on 17th June 2011. More on that later, but first, this is where the enigma thing comes into play. For the life of me, I can't seem to figure out Simon's tweeting patterns. I doubt that I ever will. My philosophy is to just keep tweeting and expect nothing. That way, I won't be disappointed and any response is a pleasant surprise. It isn't always easy, but I actually try to make this my life philosophy. I am simply always myself, sending positive energy into the universe (and now the Twitterverse) and expecting nothing in return. If I get negative energy back, I block it out and if I get positive energy back, I accept it with open arms. There will always be people who "get" me and people who don't. This is going to sound childish, but... I just really want Simon Le Bon to "get" me. I know that I'm over-thinking this. Forgive me.

John Taylor's tweeting patterns are easier to figure out. He tries to answer as many questions as he can. He provides his tweetpeeps with lots of useful information and often posts twitpics. He lets us know about the book he's currently reading, the music he's listening too, the events he's attending, etc. He sometimes wears his heart on his sleeve, which makes him all the more endearing. Of course, he can't possibly reply to all of the tweets he receives. I can't even do that and I'm just a regular person with a little over 100 followers! Still, I've noticed that he sometimes answers questions or responds to interesting tweets hours after they've been posted. Believe me, I was totally stoked when he tweeted me (again, only once, but who's counting?) on 9th June, 2011, especially since it was in reference to the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibit now running at MMFA.

Now Simon, he's a whole other story. First of all, his tweets read like a Jack Kerouac novel in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way. Don't get me wrong, I love this about the man. Apparently, I'm not alone. His tweets have attracted a lot of attention in cyberspace. For instance:

Simon Le Bon Tweets - Oscars Edition

Not to mention, he's got close to 40,000 followers! Therefore, I can, to a certain degree, understand why his choices of who to respond to appear so arbitrary. I've noticed that he often replies to the first person who responds to something he's tweeted. He has a tendency to respond to ridiculous tweets, usually with a sarcastic remark. He also likes to correct improper grammar or bad spelling - something I secretly wish I could do, but I tend to bite my tongue, as I'm not a celebrity so people would just get pissed-off at me. When I happen to be online at the same time as him, I try hard to compose myself (and stop shaking like a leaf) and tweet something witty, but I am usually beaten to the punch by a faster typist. I often miss his "tweet times" because of time zones (and my ridiculous sleeping patterns) so he probably never even sees 90% of my replies and mentions. Still, I wish that I could have a better understanding of how to get (and keep) Le Enigma's attention. As I mentioned earlier, it's probably better not to try and understand.

Instead, I will imagine that it is still circa 1984, when all my conversations with Simon Le Bon took place inside my head (or on the pages of my journal) and the very thought of him noticing me was enough to make me swoon. I will recite my mantra: Keep tweeting and expect nothing. I will keep sending him positive vibes and interesting links and witty remarks, etc. and not be envious of the people who get regular tweets from him. Some of them are my Twitter friends, so I try to live vicariously through them. It's best to let him remain an enigma, isn't it?

That being said, allow me to recount the story of how I did finally manage to get his attention on Twitter. For two days, I had been trying to send him an article about a woman who blamed her GPS when she drove herself into a swamp. The story caught my attention because it reminded me of the brilliant song Blame the Machines off the latest Duran Duran album All You Need Is Now. If you haven't purchased it yet, I highly recommend that you do. It's a work of genius!

Anyway, I was experiencing yet another bout of insomnia when I saw that Simon was online. It was around 5:00 am in Montreal (10:00 am in the UK) and I still hadn't slept. I used cut and paste from a previous tweet and sent the article to him, hoping that he would see it but expecting nothing in return. Suddenly, I saw that he had indeed noticed and had retweeted my tweet! I nearly passed out. I composed myself and thanked him for the retweet, then realised that I hadn't included the link to the article! I tried sending him the link. I felt like a nincompoop.

I've met loads of interesting people on Twitter. However, nobody gets me the way that fellow insomniac Duranie @ladygrinning does. Therefore, I started tweeting her about what had just happened. I said, "Did you see the retweet, Maya?! I just about plotzed! I'm verklempt. But I forgot to add the link." Notice the Yiddish? I don't actually speak Yiddish (although my grandmother did) but Simon Le Bon causes me to speak in tongues. Guess what happened next? He saw what I had tweeted Maya. He responded with: "Well go on then, post it." Of course, I started freaking out again, frantically searching for the link. I sent it to him three times. No reply.

Meanwhile, he started getting all philosophical, in a surrealist way. He tweeted, "This is not SimonJCLeBon," followed by, "In the René Magritte sense at least," then, "Ceci n'est pas SimonJCLeBon." I was so busy trying to find the stupid link that I missed out on all this. Maya didn't. She replied to Simon with, "Magritte was a tortured genius," to which he replied, "You must be thinking about the other Magritte." Now, both Maya & I started freaking out in our 14 year-old selves kind of way. We freaked out so much, in fact, that our sleep deprived selves didn't even catch on to what he was saying. Obviously, he was referring to Magritte's Treachery of Images meaning that the other Magritte (who Maya called a tortured genius) would be the one who lived and breathed between 21 November 1898 – 15 August 1967. D'uh! So...you see what Simon Le Bon does to us? He reduces otherwise well-informed, clever women into piles of pre-pubescent mush. Will this ever change? Will I ever become complacent enough with Simon Le Bon's presence on Twitter to react to his online self in a mature, composed way? Not bloody likely.

Addendum: The day after I wrote this, Duran Duran announced that they have been forced to reschedule their entire European Summer Tour. I have been following this story ever since Simon Le Bon first started experiencing vocal problems in May of this year. My heartfelt wishes go out to him, the entire band, their employees and of course, the fans who had purchased tickets. The timing is horrible, as they were on such a roll, but Simon's health comes first. At least, he is on the road to recovery. That's what is most important. I've signed three virtual cards so far: two for Simon and one for Duran Duran. I will continue to send positive vibes to Simon, Nick, John, Roger and Dom. I feel foolish and self-centred for worrying about getting tweets from Simon whilst he's going through this rough patch. All will end well, I'm certain. xoxo