Vast Visions

a year abroad in south korea


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Teach

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I saw ants wandering the crevasses of the sidewalk on this warm afternoon and realized that my journey here has come full circle. The trees that had lost their leaves, shivered and bloomed have regained their strength to grow. In the day’s heat, my memories skip around from my first steps into Homeplus through blurry midnight taxi rides. But what I remember most are the students that I teach – the quirky, cute, struggling, hard-working and spirited bunch that I brightly say “Hi!” to every day, between every class. They have made up a large part of my life here, and although Korea has given me so much, these kids have undoubtedly given me the most.

I didn’t always think I’d be cut out to teach. When I first considered teaching (rather, tutoring) I was a college sophomore whose primary concern was earning extra money. I came across the position to be an English tutor through a bit of a conversation that I caught as I waited for the bus. I slapped together an application that same night, using an essay that I wrote as a high school junior. A quick interview later, I was handed a manual and a schedule; I got the job. The confidence I had in my own writing got me through the door easily, but I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of sitting across from my peers with their hands at their temples, staring blankly at the papers in front of them. In those 90 minutes, I wasn’t working for my own sake, but for theirs. In the first few sessions I tutored, as I unwrinkled papers crushed by their frustrations, I knew that I wasn’t going to waste any time convincing them of my abilities; I needed to convince them of theirs. Smoothing out the page, I would draw a breath, smile, and say, “Let’s look at the first sentence.”

I had to become a tutor.

That being said, I spent the first week of my job floundering a bit. I threw my students worksheets, corrected their papers excessively, and fumbled with the content of the pieces they had to read. But continuous experience helped, and through the dedication I had to getting my students to pass, I learned by leading. After a few short weeks, tutoring hardly felt like a job anymore. I bounced ideas off students, asked them thought-provoking questions, and helped them structure some truly great pieces of writing. They surprised me so much that sometimes I wondered why they were even doing poorly in the first place.

After devoting the rest of college to tutoring every free chance I got, earning money didn’t bring me through the door. What I truly came to love was meeting someone so caught up in their own self-defeat that they didn’t see their own potential, and I would be the one to show them it. When my students brought their grades up from not passing (NP) to a B+, they thanked me again and again. To this, I would pick up their papers and remind them that I didn’t write it, they did. For 90 minutes once a week, all I did was stir their minds until they found what they were looking for. That’s all tutoring was, and four years and countless students later, my task never got more difficult than that.

For tutoring or teaching, you have to begin with your own confidence to get through, and sometimes you even have to trick yourself. When I started teaching in Korea, I told myself that I had all the experience I needed being a tutor, and my assured sense of self did the rest of the work. In truth, I had never stood in front of a class to teach for 45 minutes at a time. Furthermore, even as recent as junior year of college, when I gave presentations I could feel my heartbeat through my voice. But I didn’t linger on these things. The kids didn’t get some blubbering nervous fool when I stood in front of my first class; they deserved a great teacher, and I was resolved to be that.  I stood at the front of the class and I was confident, clear-voiced and a little silly. I made mistakes but I made light of them. The kids were engaged for the whole lesson, enjoying it. I surprised myself so much that afterwards I wondered how I got magical teaching powers so suddenly. How did it happen?

The truth is that I acted the part until I became it.

At this stage, I feel like my transformation into a teacher is complete. One of the important things I’ve learned is how to let loose and make a fool of myself. I pantomime, dance around, praise emphatically and give every class 110% until I’m so spent that I barely have the energy to do much else other than pass out. I relish any opportunity to laugh along with my students during a lesson. I find myself referring to my students as “my kids” when I tell anyone about them, and I find myself telling all those lame, corny teacher jokes. I didn’t think I’d fall into this job so well, but even through the challenges I find myself coming back, smiling, ready to begin the next lesson.

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(From our comics lesson. I swear I didn’t teach them this…)

As all things go, however, time and again I’ve met a fair amount of bumps in the road. On some days the challenges test how much I can endure. A few of my second grade classes this semester get unruly regularly, and it’s hard to get them to concentrate. Some sleep in the corner, some throw pencilcases around. I surely sympathize with the feeling, stuck in a class that you don’t understand, allowing your attention to wane. But for the few kids that are at the front, answering every question, I know that despite the mayhem I have to do right by them. So I use my “New York” and my smile fades into a hard look that epitomizes Jack Nicholson’s “You talkin’ to me?!”, because nothing is scarier than getting a teacher that smiles all the time to clench her jaw, suppressing latent rage. It’s worked well so far. :)

But, as you are well aware, channeling Jack Nicholson four times a week is quite physically and psychologically taxing, so last Friday I was prepared to do a gazelle leap out of school and into the weekend. While I was shutting off my computer, a few of my former students showed up in the teacher’s office. They had graduated middle school last semester and were now attending high school. I was so purely happy to see them that I started talking to them way faster than they could understand (or any human being could). One of my former students told me he had gotten into a foreign language high school where he began studying English. As the rest of the group said their goodbyes and left, he hung back to look me in the eyes and say, “Thank you, Natasha Teacher.” Nearly died from the feels.

Thinking back to my days as a tutor, the gratitude that people have shown me makes me believe that maybe, other than notes in the margins and grammar advice, I gave them a bit more: I gave each of them my unshakable faith that they would succeed, and they did. Some of my favorite teachers over the years had done the same for me. It’s a quiet gift of inner strength that I am humbled to give.

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When I used to sit cross-legged in the closet of a tutor’s lounge at my college, catching a breather between shifts, I would scoff at a sign above the door: “Saving the World…One Sentence at a Time.”

Thousands of miles away, years later, I get it.

These few months of teaching have made my world a little more beautiful.

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On Tolerance

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It was one of the most physically taxing things I’ve done in a while – a mountain hike up one of Daegu’s beautiful peaks, Mt. Apsan. It was also something that I only could have done with the help, encouragement and understanding of my fellow hikers, most of whom barely knew any English.

On a cool, foggy Sunday sometime last month, I met up with a good friend who introduced me to a local activities group. This group, consisting of Koreans from around Daegu, were about three men and one woman, all in their 30s to 40s. I arrived to the hiking site in typical ill-equipped waygook fashion, donning a leather jacket, combat boots with no grip at the bottom, and a heavy DSLR in a backpack. My counterparts were all outfitted with impressive hiking gear – special hiking boots, bright brand-name hiking jackets, and outdoorsman backpacks. Nevertheless, I stayed optimistic as I stared upwards, trying to remember the last time I exercised.

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About halfway up, I was about to quit. Winded, lightheaded, and feeling like I was going to toss my breakfast, I sipped some water at the temple spring and gestured to the group to go on without me. I insisted that I could wait at the temple until they all hiked up and came back down. I felt embarrassed at how much I was slowing the group down; the well-prepared, experienced hikers who were probably used to climbing up a lot faster. Instead, they surprised me. My friend translated what they were saying, and they all said the same thing: “We came together, and we will get to the top together.” They could have all agreed that maybe the hike is too difficult, maybe it would be easier for me to stay behind. But they waited. Gathering every bit of willpower I had, I pushed aside my reluctance, and decided to keep going.

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There was one man in the group who jokingly complained every few steps, and I revealed that I knew a little Korean, laughing at his antics. It also happened to be the running joke that I needed to sit down at certain intervals on our way up, so every time he whipped out a foam pad for me to sit on! Haha~ One other member of the group even took my backpack from me, offering to take it up. They asked me if I needed water, and looked back to see if I was okay. At one point, to make the climb a little more fun, we played 가위 바위 보 (the equivalent of rock paper scissors) and the winners got to climb a few steps higher. I ended up winning this little game, and simply stated “Lucky!” to my fellow hikers from the spot at the top, causing them all to laugh.  I was so grateful for their high spirits and kindness that every so often, looking towards the steps ahead, I found my mentality change to, “I think I can make it.”

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And I made it to the top.

I took some of these shots at the observation deck, looking down at the city that I now call home. The contrast between the natural beauty of the mountain and the gridded city below was breathtaking. Although it was a little foggy, the view was mysterious, incredible, and something that I didn’t think I would be able to see. We all ate some kimchi and rice, had a few cups of beer, and relished the moment in the crisp, mountain air. I couldn’t have shared that time with a better group of people.

Now, I’ll try to talk a bit about something that has been on my mind for a long time. Some of my good friends and other expats that I know have been very vocal about their discontents with certain aspects of life in Korea, whether sharing it online or over a beer at Traveller’s. At times their issues focus around a co-teacher who “doesn’t do their job,” a confusing chain of command, or being all too often lost (subsequently confused, angered) in translation. It is the result of a jarring transition from Western culture to Eastern culture that many are not adequately prepared for.

But is it their fault?

I came to Korea having taken courses in Korean history and culture and Korean language. Prior to that, I was very interested in Korean culture, watching Korean dramas and listening to Korean pop music. It was an interest that I shared with some of my friends in America, and part of the reason why I chose to come to Korea. However, I can’t say that I share this same degree of cultural interest with everyone here.

Some hate the food. Some don’t attempt to speak the language at all. Some don’t understand the whole idea that “you have sick days but you’re not expected to take any.” Some get “shushed” on the bus for talking too loudly, outraged that a disgruntled old man chastised them in Korean. I hear things like, “[My co-teacher] doesn’t even know the difference between the p and the f sound,” and, “I’m glad I’m not Korean.” Misunderstandings and mishaps occurring over an over again, resulting from a clash between two parties that are proud of their own culture.

It’s disheartening that these things happen. We all have to take a lengthy online course that is supposed to teach us the ins and outs of living and working in Korea, but it utterly fails to prepare people for what they’re really expected to undergo: an attitude adjustment. Many are unabashedly Western in the far East, and when the water doesn’t part for them, they lash out. Frustrated, they vent online about a scatterbrained co-teacher and a rude old woman on the subway who nearly ran them over in her rush.

The absurdity of it is that you should let the old woman push her way through.

A cornerstone of Korean culture is deference. It goes beyond merely respecting one’s elders, ingrained into the minutia of day-to-day communication. When meeting someone new, it is common for Koreans to assume the most formal way of speaking to each other only until they have a verbal confirmation that they can talk informally to the other party. They actually ask each other, “Can I talk to you informally?” In addition, the relationship between the speaker and listener is almost always anchored by age difference. A 50-year-old man will talk “lower” to a 40-year-old man. This is the tradition, and though it is getting more relaxed as the years pass, it exists.

So do the Confucian values that Korean society was founded on; an entire system of deference, holding one’s obligations to maintain filial piety, marital fidelity, and respect for governing bodies as the utmost of social responsibilities. Remnants of this sociopolitical system are still in tact, and keep the country in its pristine, machine-like order. They are trusted values that have granted Korea its position as a technological and economic force of the East, and the reason why these seemingly “dated” values aren’t completely gone in a modern world.

Thus, when I came here, although I took a course in Korean culture, there was no real way of knowing what I was in for. But I watched carefully; I took in what everyone was doing. I bowed deeply, learned some of the greetings, and smiled no matter how tired I was. I greeted everyone in the morning, sat next to them at lunch and said, ” 맛있게 드세요!” (Please eat deliciously!). I prepared and taught entire lessons (I still do) and tried to be as hardworking and accommodating to my co-teachers as possible. And they noticed. One English teacher in my school who I didn’t know came up to me one day and thanked me for being “such a bright person.” I didn’t think I would be this way either, but in the smile of the gatekeeper 할아버지 (grandfather) as I greet him, I find so much warmth. In all the energetic “Hi!”s from my students, I get a little more strength to get through the day.

If you can give value to all of the little moments that you have here, the difficulties will be few and far apart.

It’s easy to get frustrated in a place where you don’t speak the language, and where the culture is so fundamentally different. But if you can bow and apologize to the woman in a rush, offer your seat to the tough 아줌마 in the subway, or pick up the slack of an overworked co-teacher, the negativity will dissipate, and you’ll find yourself seeing the big picture.

I think back to that hike, and how much I wanted to give up. I was halfway up, and I insisted that I couldn’t make it to the top. Every part of my being was screaming that “I can’t do it.” But everyone encouraged me. People that I had only met earlier that day, that didn’t speak any English, patiently stuck by me, guided me, and made me smile through the challenge.

It is why I hope that some of my friends can see how truly wonderful life is here, and how surprisingly far a little tolerance can take you.

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Seoul Search: Part I

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So I’m back in Daegu after a lengthy Chuseok (Thanksgiving) break. I had a few days off of school so I decided to pay a visit to Seoul, the city destination that everyone knows in Korea.

Seoul is the capital city of Korea, heavily populated with foreigners and English/Engrish signs. Restaurants, shops, theaters, etc. are stacked on top of each other, and what’s there one day is gone the next. The sparkling newness of the storefronts stay for a while and then disappear just as the paint dries. Such is the pace of life here – “Dynamic Korea” as they call it. Directions based on landmarks are most often hit or miss because of the rapid pace of change here, so finding the hostel I was staying at in Hongdae was a little bit of a challenge. Luckily the subways are easy to get a handle on, and although you have to transfer a lot of times, you can get to a very specific location without really having to hike anywhere.

Travelling with someone who had already been to Seoul already was a real stroke of luck, because I got to check out all the cool niche places that have the best craft beer in Korea. From Watermelon Wheat to a honey IPA, sitting outside in a super casual setting and having a few cold ones in the middle of the bustling day was my kind of tourism.

One of my favorite activities in Seoul was going to see the Studio Ghibli and Alphonse Mucha exhibits at the Seoul Arts Center. The art scene is really packing a punch here, as the museum spaces are expansive, gorgeously designed buildings that let in a lot of light and allow many visitors in. One thing that bothered me was the sheer volume of people there – it was amazing to see a culture so in-tune with the progress of art, but this made looking at the art grating on the nerves to say the least. There is a line that snakes through the entirety of the exhibit and people slowly shuffle along the walls viewing work. There is no open art viewing here – everyone snakes around the gallery as a homogeneous unit and view art at a set pace (which is agonizingly slow). Very different from art viewing in New York, which allows for a lot more free movement around the gallery spaces. I found myself deviating from the line and skipping around a bit to avoid spending over 3 hours on one exhibit. On view were several beautiful prints, paintings and lithographs by Alphonse Mucha, one of my favorite artists representing the Art Noveau movement. The pieces were on a larger scale than I had ever imagined; almost life-sized figures adorned with flowers and arabesque-ing locks of hair. There was also a good deal of photography in the gallery that gave a sense of historical context to the work, and the pieces were grouped according to specific phases and themes in Mucha’s career. While I was there I also spent a good amount of time viewing the animation slides of the Studio Ghibli films. It was amazing to see the actual sketches and plans from movies like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Some more interesting panels were the ones that outlined a sequence of panning, where several sheets of paper were simply taped together and the idea of the scene was hashed out. I’m glad that I got to see the exhibits before they were taken down, and I hope to go back to Seoul again soon to see what new art it has to offer.

Seoul, especially Hongdae and Itaewon, had some really great eats too. I had burritos at a place called Vatos, a Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant where we had to be put on a waiting list for two hours (!). Popular amongst expats and Koreans alike, that queso and burrito were heaven sent. The watermelon wheat beer I had was a little too sweet for my liking but I’m glad I tried it nonetheless. Other good eats were a pork spine stew, cooked on a mini stove in front of you, full of veggies and fall off the bone meaty goodness. It was super hot temperature-wise but very filling. For breakfast one day we dipped into a fried rice restaurant and some mozzarella cheese, bacon, and sweet and sour sauce later I contentedly rolled out of there with a food baby and enough energy to carry me through the rest of the day.

The shopping area of Myeongdong is beautiful, modern, and energetic. The clean lines of the Uniqlo and the hipness of H&M pave the way through main roads teeming with fashionable young Koreans, clack-clacking away with their high heels and armfuls of shopping bags. When the lights go on, the neon glow drowns out the night sky and you’re left with a thrilling electric daylight to continue shopping with until you bust a heel.  If I wasn’t so low on money waiting on my first paycheck I would have definitely bought something, but alas, window shopping was all I was fated to do this time around. Myeongdong, I’m coming back for you~~

And lastly, the nightlife was awesome. I wish I wasn’t so tired, but I got to experience the sounds of a pretty rad two man band at an indie-rock inspired bar called FF. I got an autograph and everything when the show was over. Free drinks and a chill atmosphere were aplenty.  We wanted to go clubbing, as several weird/cool venues were around (“Gorilla”??) but by 2am we were way too tired to go on. Definitely need to visit again and scope out some good clubs next time.

The picture above, I believe, captures the vibe of Seoul. The new, slowly encircling the old, until one day (maybe soon) that wave will crash and wipe the old away. If there was a “way of life” for Seoul it would be this: the quest for modernity isn’t for the sake of improvement alone – it’s obsessive. That, and you better watch where you cross the street because the threat of being run over is very real.


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Kindness in Korea

Hi all, I hope things are going well. I wanted to write a post today about how completely floored I am that a people as kind as Koreans exist.

You remember that post I wrote about that constant scowl I carry to ward off strangers? Well, that seemed to have vanished on its own. From greeting all of the teachers every morning to saying “hi!” to every student that enthusiastically calls my name in the hallways, the amount of time I now spend smiling has already outweighed the whole amount I did last year. Seriously.

You remember my ahjumma story, right? Well the kindness hasn’t stopped there, and it’s still only been a few weeks. Today I came back from the bank, where an extremely helpful bank teller has been helping me with the difficulties of banking as a foreigner. He doesn’t speak English too well, I don’t speak Korean too well, but somehow we’ve met in between.  I had a problem withdrawing money today so talking in broken Korean, miming at times, he patiently listened, furrowed his brows, sometimes laughed, and eventually figured out what I needed. At banks here, they give you water or coffee as you wait, and he got up abruptly to get me some when I told him I didn’t have lunch yet. We talked a little about chuseok plans and at the end of the trip he said to come back again soon, to which I replied 당연하죠! (of course! ^^)

One day my class had a field trip to the downtown area of Daegu where we painted book shelf/stand things. It was a little too big to fit in a backpack so I carried mine home in my arms. On the subway, I chose to stand because all the seats were full, and suddenly an old woman snatched it out of my hand! WHAT? But then I remembered that sometimes this happens – a seated stranger will sometimes offer to carry your things if you end up standing on the subway. Nice, huh? I bowed and thanked her, when behind me an elderly man asked me, “where are you from?” I replied in Korean and had a short conversation. When a seat opened up, I offered it to another elderly person standing up, and the good feels practically filled the entire subway car. I made sure to thank the old woman who helped me carry the book stand and she smiled for daysss. And as I got off on my stop, I got a “very beautipul” from the elderly man  ;__: <3

I’ve also ventured to have small conversations with local shopkeepers, who are always super impressed by my rudimentary Korean XD I will say that people here really appreciate when you try to communicate with them, if even in English. And it isn’t just confined to words, even a smile or a bow can communicate so much. I will say that my time here so far hasn’t been easy, and sometimes the staring eyes of people on the sidewalk get me, but thinking about successful cultural exchanges like these have helped me a lot. In all, I am grateful that I’ve been welcomed here by such kind people to teach, and I want to try my best for them, even if it means giving up a seat or smiling through a rough day. So far it’s yielded amazing results.


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Tuned Out

Ahh, middle school. Such an awkward phase, where we come up with gimmicks to make ourselves cool. We are at the stage of forming an identity – one that will carry us though the travails of puberty. Some are drawn to the “class clown” identity. For me, I remember having a single strand of hair on one side of my face because I thought it was hella cool. I also said “ya’ll” a lot. Anyway…after my first day of teaching middle schoolers I am keenly reminded of the phase, but this time I’m on the other side of the podium.

So I actually surprised myself when I taught today. I tend to get anxious delivering presentations to my peers but I was really at ease in the classroom. I projected well, didn’t stumble over words, planned well, and generally enjoyed my time teaching today. That being said, the first class of the day that I taught was pretty rough.

The first class was small, which made me relieved. However, it worked against me. It was a class of about 10 boys and only 3 girls. The girls were distant and didn’t engage in the class. Two boys were really outspoken, but in the “class clown” kind of way. Three of the boys were in the back of the room being big shots and throwing around each others’ pencilcases. The other five were talking in Korean about LoL. Meanwhile, I’m delivering an easy lesson about expressing opinions by introducing myself via “two truths and a lie”. Once in a while I caught their interest but they were all basically “tuned out.”

Truthfully, I would be too. When you don’t understand 80% of what the instructor is saying, it gets tiring. That being said, I used the simplest terms and slowest speech I could. They are simply not ready for a class led entirely in English.

My second class was a little better than the first despite some technical difficulties in the beginning. I had a list of riddles which were invaluable for my classes because I breezed through the powerpoint every time when I was sure I was going to spend too long on it. Backup activities are Godsends. My co-teacher for this class was on the quieter side, kinda lurking around and ethereally present…is she here? Not here? Thankfully it didn’t make too much of a difference.

Third class was the best. This group was the high-level English class. They were obedient, engaged, and willing to participate. It was a nicer atmosphere to work in. The co-teacher chimed in once in a while which was also nice. One girl came up to me at the end of class and told me that I was a “very kind and good teacher” which was gratifying and so, so cute :3

My last class of the day was pretty good, the co-teacher for this class was the most vocal throughout the lesson which sped things along. There wasn’t any hand-holding as far as waiting for the co-teacher to translate, but somehow after she said the directions in English everyone suddenly understood? Ok cool?

At one point during the day, one of my co-teachers was like “Why middle school? You should be teaching little kids, elementary…” as if apologizing for the behavior of middle schoolers. I am actually still glad it’s middle schoolers. Singing and dancing isn’t really my thang. And I feel like these students still need to get to know me as a teacher. Hopefully we can have some fun and learn a lot in my classes. I want to make English something that they like, not something that they are forced to do. It will take some time but with some more engaging activities I think things will get better. Can I keep all of my students from being tuned out? Maybe not, but I want to at least make it helpful for the ones that are tuned in.