Archive | March, 2012

If you build it, they will come…

27 Mar

Take me out to the ball game.

I can be forgiven for using this stupid cliché in a blog post about a baseball game, because I’m British and we don’t have baseball at home. In fact, I should be applauded for resisting the urge to refer to a baseball game as a “match” (which I’m reliably informed by my American friends is, in fact, stupid).

British people think that we get American culture, because we get so much of it imported. American brands, American TV shows and with them American slang, games, customs, values and sports. I know a surprising amount about baseball from US teen comedies and their references to “bases”, and the film Field of Dreams. What I don’t get, is why a jumped up version of rounders played by men in striped pyjamas generates such emotion in fans. Then again, I don’t understand that about football, either.

Baseball is big in Korea, and even bigger in Busan which is home to the Lotte Giants, who are supposedly South Korea’s number one baseball team. This Saturday, before the league starts, I went along to Sajik stadium to watch an exhibition game (a friendly, I suppose).

Sajik stadium

It was pretty good fun! The game is easy to understand on a basic level, although I’m sure I was missing some of the tactics. It was relatively slow to get going, but the crowd even for the free exhibition game was lively. There were chants to join in on (okay, make up the words to) and several groups of students even had pom poms and dance moves worked out. Seeing as you can bring your own beers into the stadium, I think that going back to watch an actual league game would be really good fun.

The rest of my weekend was pretty relaxed. I spent Sunday afternoon in Nampodong browsing the shops (but not actually buying much because I don’t have access to my bank account from an ATM at the moment) and sampling some street food.


The red stuff is a kind of rice doughy dumpling thing. Maybe. The sauce is pretty spicy. It’s tasty! My favourites are the small dumplings (mandu in Korean) on the left and the sping onion pancake thing on the right, which is delicious with some soy sauce. Om nom nom! 


Teaching English in South Korea.

22 Mar

I’ve been in my new job as an English teacher in South Korea for a couple of weeks now, so it seemed about time to let you know what that’s actually like.

A bit of background for the uninitiated – I don’t really have much in the way of teaching experience. I wasn’t a teacher in the UK. I taught at voluntary clubs and volunteered at schools at home over the years, but I’ve never had teaching be my day job. I taught some classes on my TEFL course, but that was only for a month. That’s the sum total of my teaching experience.

In South Korea, I teach English as a foreign language at a public school. It’s an all girls middle school, actually, and I teach grades 2 and 3. That’s between ages 13-15, roughly, although Korean ages are counted differently, so I’m never that sure! I see each class (and there are 8 or 9 in each grade) once a week. I have a text book to follow and I teach the speaking and listening pages from that textbook. Once chapter in the book = two lessons (of 45minutes each). I split up the listening over the two lessons, and combine it with some speaking exercises designed to get the kids practising the key expressions that are highlighted in the book. Other than the listening exercises and those key expressions I try to get away from the text book as much as I can, and come up with tasks for practising the language that are natural, and fun.

That’s the hardest part. Sometimes a natural way to use language isn’t also a fun way to use that language. Some lessons the tasks work really well – they’re entertaining, the kids are motivated and understand what to do, and they use the key expressions in a way that native English speakers would use those phrases. Sometimes the tasks are boring as hell, and try as I might I can’t come up with anything fun. The kids hate the tasks, they sleep through my lesson, and they hate me for it. Well, you can’t always win at life, I suppose!

The students themselves are interesting, and a far cry from what I’ve known in the UK. On the whole, my students are one of two polar opposites. Type one is painfully quiet. When I try and talk to them, they stare wide-eyed and slack-jawed. If I ask them to speak to me, a look of panic creeps in and they freeze. My guinea pig does this when he meets strangers. Maybe I should try offering them carrots? Mostly I settle for coaxing the occasional word or phrase out of them, and then encouraging them to talk to other students (who are usually less fear-inducing that I am). Some of these students actually speak quite good English when they see me in the hallways!

Type two is noisy. They yell answers at me at the top of their voices. They groan loudly when I tell them to open their text books. They chatter to their friends constantly. They’ll happily talk to me in English, and talk to their friends in English. And Korean. A lot. Some of these are good students who blast through my tasks in ten seconds flat then spend the rest of the time disrupting their classmates unless I entertain them by answering a bazillion personal questions, and sometimes they have poor English and so don’t understand what I want them to do, and instead entertain themselves by… disrupting their classmates.

Of these two types, I prefer type two. Give me noisy, but with some English spoken over silent as the grave any day. Of course there are always the occasional kids who go to sleep during classes. This might sound odd to Brits reading this blog, but Korean kids are seriously over-worked. These girls are in school from 8.30am to 4.30pm studying. Then they go to private academies and study some more. These academies are only allowed to stay open until 10pm, but many parents disagree with this curfew, and many students study much later than this. Then they go home and study. Then they start all over again the next morning. Knowing this, it’s hard to be completely upset when kids nod off in my classes. I try to keep them awake, but it can be pretty difficult! As I only get two or three sleepyheads in a week, I won’t sweat it too much yet.

Back to my schedule – I also teach two after school classes (one of which I see twice, so three after school lessons a week altogether) which I get to make up myself. I try to include songs, videos and games. Even though it’s a conversation class, I want to keep these students motivated and awake at the end of a long day, and fun stuff like this is a great way to make our learning feel less like a lesson.

Okay, well this is starting to get long again, so I’ll sign off there. Once again, if you have any questions then let me know in the comments. The colleagues-and-admin side of my job is a whole other deal, so I’ll get in to that in a future post!

I’ll leave you with a couple of my student interactions of this week… Most of these I threw up on Facebook as and when I was hit with them. They make me insanely happy.

Me: *walks into classroom*

Students : Ohhhhhhhhhh!!!!! *spontaneous applause*

Me: Err….

Students: You’re wearing a skirt! So beautiful! *keep applauding*

Student: Teacher, you like Sherlock Holmes?

Me: Yeah, I like Sherlock.

Student: Benedict Cumberbatch so handsome. Martin Freeman looks like Pooh Bear.

Me: Tell me something special about you.

Student: I fancy British guys.

Student: Teacher! Teacher! Do you know K-pop?

Me: Yeah, I know some. I like Beast.

Student: Beast?!

Me: *waits for student to be impressed that I know a cool band*

Student: Beast SKANKY! Big Bang most important K-pop band of our times!

Me: *stunned face*

My first week and a bit in Busan

6 Mar

Oh. My. God. What have I done?

This is the question I ask myself, sometimes several times a day, but definitely repeatedly over the last week. There have been some definite holy crap moments as it dawns on me what I’m letting myself in for, moving to live and work in a country where I don’t speak the language, minimal English is spoken, and I have little grasp of the customs and culture.

As I’ve been lax and not posted for ages, I will try to summarise some of these holy crap moments for you below:

– I arrived last Monday in Busan and was collected by a teacher from my school, who informed me that she was going on sabbatical for six months and wouldn’t see me until September, and couldn’t really help me with anything. She dropped me off at my flat, stayed to get the heating working and answer some of my questions (rather impatiently) and then left me alone with the parting advice of “ask (the English teacher I’m replacing, who was popping by for lunch) tomorrow” and “the kids are terrible. They have mental health problems. See you in September!”

– She MAY have just hated me because I scratched her car trying to get my suitcase out of her boot. Oops.

– I went to school on Friday and was given some more information about teaching, but no school calendar, and a vague “maybe next week” on getting my compulsory Alien Registration Card.

– I went to a restaurant with some friends, where no one spoke much English, and none of the menus had pictures. We pointed to the table next to us and said “joo sey yo” (give me that, please). We ended up with barbequed pork fat. I’m not kidding, it was not fatty pork. No hyperbole here. It was JUST fat and skin, cut up and cooked in front of us. We were so embarrassed about ordering something we couldn’t force down (we tried, it wasn’t even tasty crunchy type stuff) that we hid the pork fat in a napkin, which I then slipped into my pocket.

– Korea doesn’t have a lot of public bins, like hardly any. You have to pay for rubbish here so that makes sense. BUT it meant I spent a good hour walking around with pork fat in my pocket before I found somewhere to ditch it.

– I have no clue how the rubbish works in my apartment. The security/maintenance guy (a little old Korean man who was apparently very rude to the woman who dropped me off) came up to do a demo for me with lots of different bags and some rubbish for me to practice with (adorable) so I know how to separate it… I think. But I have no clue what to do with it now! My flat is just full of rubbish waiting for me to get brave enough to try and throw it out.

– School is terrifying. Finding out any information is a weird game of interrogating determinedly, but smiling and trying to give off an air of patience and good humour. Those of you who know me in person will know how difficult I find it to sound polite and genuine even when I am feeling polite and good humoured. When I’ve just asked someone for some information and I’m getting the same thing repeated at me with increasingly exaggerated gestures, it gets even harder. My tactic is asking a couple of times and if I don’t think I’ve been understood, I smile and say thank you, and then ask a different way later. Saves embarrassment all round.

– I haven’t applied for my ARC (Alien Registration Card) yet. I need it. I need it if I get sick, or if I want to leave the country, and it’s going to take WEEKS (at least 3) to get to me after I apply for it. I can’t open a bank account (which I need so I can be paid on time) until I’ve applied for it. On Friday my co-teacher said “you’ll go with (another co-teacher) maybe next week.” This week I asked him, and he said “I’ll go with you. Next week maybe?” And I was like “yes, but tell me WHEN.” He agreed to next Tuesday. We’ll see. I asked if I could go alone, but that was a no go. I need some info from the school, and it will be much easier with a translator. Which is lovely, because it’s going to be dull as ditchwater, but I still wish we could go sooner!

– Seafood comes with everything. And by seafood I mostly mean tentacles (since it’s tentacles that I don’t like!). At home I complained about “stealth cheese” because I can’t eat dairy and even when it isn’t on the menu, it appears in your food. Here it’s stealth cephalopods. We ordered a “green onion pancake” in a restaurant and when it arrived… prawns and tentacles!

Can't see the tentacles and whole baby octopus in this? Trust me, they're in there.

– Teaching children itself is a rather steep learning curve. Holy crap moments abound, like when one of my tasks fell totally flat and I had to ad lib an alternative… which mostly involved me returning to the board and going through some common errors and drilling the corrections. Stalling until the bell, basically!

Despite the hundreds of “what am I doing?” moments, there have been some really good moments too, that make me excited for my year here. In the interest of balance, here are a few of my best moments in South Korea so far:

– The Korean maintenance man for my building LOVES ME. Since I asked him how to do the rubbish (and he was rude to the teacher who dropped me off) he’s been grinning and waving like a maniac at me every time he sees me. I don’t think Korean’s wave as a rule, so I suspect he’s developed the wave for the westerners in the building. It’s pretty adorable. He also keeps packages for me so I don’t have to have things sent to my school and then carry them down the steep hill home. He’s awesome.

– I met the English teacher who taught at my school and lived in my flat before me, and she was really helpful. She showed me where the school actually was and how to get there (yeah, no one from the school bothered to do that!) and answered tons of questions. She helped me get my Mybi (Busan version of an Oyster card) and showed me a great place to eat Korean food in Nampo-dong. Made me feel a lot less stressed out about my arrival in Korea!

– I like my area. Dongdaesin isn’t far from some fun areas of town, but is also far enough away that it’s pretty quiet. I like that. I’m exploring some good places to go out locally, and my school is only a ten minute walk (admittedly up a very steep hill) away. Plus the shopping in Nampo is insanely good. I know where my wages are going. If I get to the end of my year, and I don’t have to ship a massive box of adorable Korean clothes and tat home, I have FAILED, people.

– In Nampo station I had a lovely encounter with some young guys who were running a shop selling cute accessories. I bought some very Korean headbands, and they took photos with me and my friend, and then stuck them on the wall of the shop. Totally adorable, and extremely welcoming. Yay for lovely Koreans!

– I quite like a lot of Korean food. The soups and stews especially are brilliant for the tail end of winter. I’m also a fan of the pancakes… I seem to be coping well with the spice now too (although I try and keep it to a minimum and let my body build up to it, otherwise I might have an IBS fail) which is good. Fruit is super pricey, but I’ve never been much of a fruit fan. My general tactic is to try anything, especially if I have no clue what it is. It seems to be working so far.

– Eating out here is also super cheap, did I mention that? Cheap AND yummy.

– I met a dog at the beach. He was wearing shoes with bells on. See, Busan has beaches AND dogs in shoes!

Photo by Desmond Poon

– Generally speaking my co-teachers in the English department at school are brilliant. I’ve not taught with them all yet… and unlike some places, they take a back seat in my lessons and let me teach. HOWEVER that’s not to say they aren’t involved in the lesson – they do a great job keeping the class in control, helping monitor and encourage kids with tasks, and assist with translations when the kids just aren’t getting my instructions… some translate more than others, but they are all very positive, enthusiastic co-teachers and the kids really like them, which is so helpful!

– I found a couple of bars I really like. As a Brit abroad, I was really looking for places that suited my love of pub culture. There are a lot of what I think of as American-style bars – loud music, etc, not really designed for slow drinking and chatting. I have found two places I like, one of which is a chain called Beer Mart. At Beer Mart you buy beers and snacks at the front, like a convenience store, and then after you pay you can sit at a booth in the back. It was surprisingly nice and trendy, and populated by the coolest-looking Korean kids. You can even buy popcorn and they microwave it for you! Heaven. The second place is basically a tiny pub-style place which plays a lot of classic rock. A nice break from the onslaught of Kpop, and as a classic rock fan I was pretty excited.

– My flat is lovely! It’s super roomy, and I actually have separate rooms, which a lot of people here don’t have. I have a sofa which pulls out into a double bed, too, so come on you visitors! You can see a video tour of my new place here.

– One of the best things here has to be the support network. I’ve met so many fellow Guest English Teachers (GETs) out here, both new and old, and everyone is so friendly and helpful it’s unbelievable. We come from all over the English-speaking world, and  everyone is so generous with sharing their knowledge and experience. Even if that sometimes just means a rant over a beer. It feels good to have some like-minded people to explore South Korea with whilst I’m here.

There is so much more that I could say, but this post is getting freakishly long! Congratulations if you made it to the end! I promise to try and update more frequently so I don’t have to do these kinds of crammed catch-ups.

Oh, and friends/family from home… if there’s something you want to know about my first couple of weeks, or you saw on Facebook maybe and want me to elaborate, let me know!

Now I’m off to try some pineapple Fanta… I’ll let you know how that goes later…

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