Thursday, February 26, 2009

Week #1: Thoughts and Impressions

Today marks the first full week of my trip here to South Korea and in just this short time there are a few facts that have become glaringly apparent to me with so much yet to learn.

The education system here is better. I'm sorry but a fact is a fact and these children are doing things three to four years ahead of the American educational system. In kindergarten I am going to be teaching Past Participle, Present Simple, and other various forms of grammar that I did not learn in my private schooled education until 3rd grade. They go to school all day long and well into the evening, having private lessons on top of the regular academic schooling and then go to piano club, martial arts club, art club, etc, 5 days a week. A kindergartner alone will get home, from school, by 8PM and after finishing their homework go to sleep by 11PM. These people work very very hard at their schooling to get into University and then, apparently, once in University, they can finally relax. But that is up to 18 years of intensive education before they relax. Why do I think it is better then? As a substitute teacher in America I saw 7th graders who couldn't read. Here I have seen kindergartners diagram a sentence using similes WITHIN THEIR SECOND LANGUAGE. Hard work pays off and it's not surprising the only thing America exports anymore is culture when seeing this kind of work ethic but that does bring me to my next observation:

Koreans are almost TOO competitive. So they have the hard work thing down pat, the kids are doing the very best they can so they can earn high marks in school to get into university but along with trying to achieve the best of their own human potential, a lot of the drive is to be better than your neighbors. Koreans are an incredibly competitive people. If your neighbors child can speak perfect English at 10, the by God, your child better be able to speak it by 9. If your child is in a good private English school and is learning by leaps and bounds within their own capabilities but the parent has heard of a better school across town that has a better reputation they will rip that kid out of their existing curriculum and toss them into another one without any real knowledge of the new schools habits or techniques. Just so they can say their kid goes there. Koreans have to be the best at everything or they have disappointed themselves and their families. (Note: When the big Asian market collapse of the late 1990's happened a lot of people committed suicide here because they took personal shame in losing their fortunes, not that the market took a huge dive. Subsequently, Hangman is forbidden in classrooms as it brings up too many bad memories.)

There is a lot of racism here. I hate to say it but it is true. This is not the only place with it though so by no means am I trying to admonish Koreans for experiencing an unfortunate yet constant human emotion throughout history. I mean I grew up in Kentucky for Christ's sake, I've heard the N-word more times than I can count and perhaps that's why I'm so keen to noticing it here but Koreans are, by and large, a very isolated people who do not like co mingling with other races. In the town I am in for example there are ZERO black people though I have heard some are in Seoul (they say that American television has given Koreans the idea that all black people are criminals). The older generation is not pleased at all by the amount of white foreign teachers here but they begrudgingly understand that English is an important international business language, and, going back to my competitive point, that if their child or grandchild knows English they will have a leg up on the next child. Yet everywhere I look there is western influence from clothes to music. The younger generation however seems fine and unaffected by the western influence and is happily imitating Brittany Spears and talking to white people. So just like in America where a black man was just elected President by a generation that grew up under forced busing, the ignorance of racism is being slowly swept away by the changing culture and I predict that in 20 years white people such as myself will no long have older people staring at them with venom in their eyes at a restaurant on the one hand while also noticing a group of young people smiling right next to them on the other.

Villains have beards. I moved here with a full beard and immediately noticed that no other Korean men have beards. I then shaved it down to a goatee and still noticed that no other men had facial hair. Then I noticed that people would look at me a bit dodgy in elevators or on the street and finally realized one exhausted night that on Korean television the only men that have facial hair are the BAD GUYS. Since most of the men here cannot grow any facial hair of any sort it an unspoken cultural thing that men don't have any and that's that. My school never said a thing about it but once I brought it up to them all the women agreed, ohhh yes, beards are gross. So since then I have gone clean shaved and met a lot less anxiety from strangers around me.

Beauty is big. I thought America was vain! The beauty market is huge here with whitening creams to make women's skin look paler to creams to make your skin shine. Men have amazing hair and tailored clothing. Just last year mini skirts were legalized by the government so women look like they're about to go to a club everyday no matter the weather. Beauty is big and at my school along I have noticed that all the teachers are good looking. Finally I overheard the supervisors looking at pictures of incoming prospective teachers wondering who was the best looking. If you're attractive here, it's all good. And honestly, most people here are, even the foreigners.

So these are just a few thoughts on my quick seven days here. There will be more to come I am sure. By and large I have been greeted with incredible hospitality by the culture and I am going out of my way to learn the language which has been met with graciousness from the Korean people. I would recommend this country as your first stop of the grand English-teaching tour. They will take very good care of you here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Strange Combinations

South Korea is a truly interesting place in that it retains a huge personality despite it's many conquests by China and Japan (to name a few over the years) yet is radically and happily influenced by American pop culture. Especially is this prevalent in the town I am currently living in, Suji, since it is such a "new" city (having been build in the early 1990's.) Fashion is a huge national concern and women are dressed impeccably with heels on no matter the weather and men's hair is always quaffed and their clothes tailored down to the socks. But what immediately is striking me are the odd mixtures of things and variations on everyday routines that I am seeing here. These pictures are just a few of the images that immediately grabbed me as humorous.
1. Never would I have though that Abba and the Blues Brothers would make such a winning combination but when it's night and these lights get flipped on, look out!
2. Okay, I know this is a much different symbol than what was used in Nazi Germany, but to see it EVERYWHERE is a little unsettling nonetheless, especially since this Hindu symbol of life is being used to sell everything from vacuum cleaners to discount pork dumplings. With a last name like Adelberg, let's just say it grabs my attention. {Interesting Note: Since posting this entry Photobucket has removed my right to be able to show you this image of the Hindu Swastika.  Even though it is in the proper context of not being tilted like the Nazi's did, it just goes to show you how jarring this image truly is.  For a picture, please use the hyperlink.}
3. I have never thought either of these chains were the best representatives of their individuals niches but they have been in my body more often than I care to remember over the years. I guess it's not just America that runs on Dunkin anymore.
4. South Korea. The Colonel. 'nuff said.
5. Now at first glance I thought this must be a comic book shop. But after careful inspection this
is actually a Batman..cocktail bar? They LOVE super-heroes over here, so much so that I guess they want to be in the presence of them when they drink whiskey or the national drink of choice, Soju (which one bottle of will KICK you ass..believe me..). Now of all the combinations, Bruce Wayne, a character that is pure willpower driven to the pinnacle of human perfection and cheap rice wine are not my first choice as a successful marriage.
6. All pizza should come in a red bow. It really does make it taste better. Papa John's? Pay attention.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Oh Suji, Sue-Jay OR Suji..After Dark..

Impressions of my first night in Suji:
Everything is BRIGHT! and COLORFUL! Almost like the entire city is going
AGGGHHHHHH!!! at the top of it's lungs.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Arrival

The flight from Detroit to Tokyo was long.

The flight from Detroit to Tokyo was boring and cramped.

The flight from Detroit to Tokyo had gorgeous Chinese and Japanese stewardesses and the movies they showed were a random lot consisting of The Longshots, Nights in Rodanthe, and High School Musical 3. The final one almost drove me into a rage just because of my aversions to all musicals made after Singing in the Rain. The Longshots however was quite enjoyable. I'm afraid I slept through the middle one. Some of the only sleep I could get due to the cramped surroundings and my proximity to the lavatory.

The food from America to Japan was pretty gross to be honest and mainly consisted of oily chicken served with oreo cookies and buttered muffins until I got to Tokyo and switched onto the next flight into Seoul. From there the meal was sushi and fresh fruit with green tea. This speaks volumes about the two cultures.

When I landed in Seoul it was 9:30PM. The immigration lines were not very long and after collecting up my guitar and luggage I made my way to the front of the airport to be picked up. By this time it was about 10:15pm and waiting at the greeting station was a throng of teenage Korean girls holding up a sign that took 9 different sets of hands greeting Jason Mraz. (Before this I had never heard of him but THEY certainly had.) There must have been at least forty of them screaming "Jay-SON! Jay-SON!" To the left of them was an elderly Korean man with thick glasses holding a white sign that read my name. When I walked through the doorway a couple young girls saw my guitar and brightened up immediately before then deflating and dismissing me as not the right white guy with a defeated sigh. This was a surreal experience to say the least.

Once greeted the driver handed me a cell phone and my recruiter who helped me secure my job at LCI Kids Club welcomed me over the phone and told me the elderly gentleman would be giving me a ride to my hotel where I would be temporarily staying until they had the apartment ready for me. She asked me to be sure to be up and in front of the hotel by 9:30am the next morning to go to the school for my first day. Walking out into snowing cold Korean night we loaded up his taxi, a white minivan with black leather interiors, and began the long drive from the airport to Yongin City, and the district I would be staying in, Suji.

This drive seemed to take forever. I noticed we kept gaining and losing momentum and once looking over the driver's shoulder I noticed the speedometer was broken. This was ironic since to the right of him was a touch screen LCD housing a state of the art GPS system guiding us down the "Seoul International Airport Highway" towards our destination. After an hour and a half and moderate nods in and out of consciousness we pulled up to the Metro 21 Hotel in what I assumed was Suji. The roads were a series of alleys and narrow enough for one car at a time. With the wetness and neon signs and steam from outdoor vendors surrounding me I felt like I was in Blade Runner. I thanked the driver and the front attendant helped me to my room. At this point it was midnight and I was somewhere between exhausted and wide-awake.

After a much needed shower I began to investigate my surroundings and noticed a zip-pouch that had Korean characters on it as well as the English phrase "Accommodation Supplies." In it were two toothbrushes, a razor, lotion, and a condom. At this point I noticed noises from through the walls and once outside in the hallway realized that people were having sex all around me. Ahh, this is a "luxury hotel," I realized. After walking outside and noticing the carports had drapes to conceal the cars within them, I assume so people- perhaps spouses- cannot know who is staying the night in the hotel, did I have my suspicions confirmed. This, the noises, and the neon sign across the street in the voluptuous shape of a woman on the adjacent hotel all helped.

A few hours later I drifted off to sleep in preparation of my first day at the new school. The sleep was about three hours long and the rest of the night and morning was spent staring at the ceiling in nervous anticipation...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Annnd we're off!

Today's the day!  I set off from Louisville, Kentucky at 8AM and head to Detroit, Michigan where after four hours I hop on a huge airbus towards Tokyo, Japan.  From there I catch another flight to Seoul, South Korea where I will meet a total stranger holding a sign up with my name on it and drive with them the 40km towards my school and apartment.  Whew!  That'll only take 2 days including crossing over the international date line...

So that's about 18 HOURS in the air total.  Luckily I have many electronic devices to keep myself distracted with for at least half the time.  The other half will be trying not to go completely insane.  

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Getting Started 2: The Nitty Gritty Stuff

So the job has been landed and everything on that end is buttoned up- what's left?  Now-a-days, a whole lot of hoops.  Since a couple years ago apparently going to Korea to teach was a relatively easy enterprise but since then a pedophile was revealed to have been living there for over 9 years and then some genius ex-patriot teachers had a "pot-ring" going where they were selling weed to new incoming teachers and students.  In a country with a ZERO tolerance policy to drugs where marijuana is on the same punishable level as heroin, this caused quite a stir.  So basically now you have to go through a criminal background check (an it has to be apostilled by your state's Secretary of State), a medical check, and a drug test when you arrive (all of which makes perfect sense to me, if you're going there to teach you're going to be with kids, seems more than logical to me), along with sending original documents like your bachelor's degree and an interview at a Korean consulate so they can make sure you don't seem creepy.  For a full listing of all the requirements you need to do on this end before you can get issued the visa, visit here.

So that whole process can take up to a couple months and unless you live near a Korean consulate you'll have to visit a city near you that has one, so it's best to get started right away and maybe even before you apply to the Hogawons.  

And since you're going to another country I recommend going to the center For Disease Control website and seeing what they recommend being immunized for in South Korea.  These shots can be administered at any travel clinic and are flippin' expensive if you don't have insurance, like I didn't.  Even if you do, I'm not sure where these would fall in terms of coverage so know it might cost a few pennies.  Also to get the visa you have to fill out a form that is called the Medical Assessment where you say if you have HIV, Tuberculosis, and are addicted to any drugs or alcohol.  This is going to be verified by the korean doctors when you arrive for your medical check to qualify for your Alien Registration Card (which allows you sign up for utilities, internet, etc).  So if you have any questions about any of these answers, I recommend a physical before filling it out.  

And that's basically the meat of what you have to do on this end.  After the Visa Interview with the consulate you are basically good to go.  But figuring out what you're getting into and research into the culture is of course recommended.  I used Dave's ESL Cafe Korean Forums as a resource into getting answers to the questions my employer and recruiter couldn't answer.  There are a ton of different forums on the web about living and working in Korea.  I also studied Korean using the Rosette Stone program to mixed results.  Personally I think they're just glorified flash cards and that's a hard way for me to grasp another language.  Instead my brother bought me the ECTACO Speechguard Translator and this thing is amazing.  It breaks down the language into categories such a Food or Reservations, etc, and you can hear what the request in English is when said in Korean.  This will be a very practical help.  It also has a mic that can interpret what is being said in Korea and give you an idea of what it means in English.

Now all this above took me about 4 months to get finalized and ready to go.  So make sure you allow enough time between your starting date at the school and lining your ducks up in a row.