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...