The Search for a Korean Teacher

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You’d think finding a Korean teacher in a country that’s homogeneously the same would be easy.  As of now my journey has been been a roller coaster of hope and disappointment. Learning Korean is important for me, living here and not being able to speak it makes me feel disrespectful, buying fruits and vegetables I feel like a child pointing to things and holding up my fingers indicating how much, I feel awkward in the car of those teachers who offer me rides home unable to create small talk and the personalities of the teachers I work with remain hidden, as does mine. Fortunately, there are ways to communicate without language, but for me those are not enough.

There are many ways to learn Korean over the internet and through apps, but for me, the self discipline always fades after the first initial weeks. I need a teacher and I need that routine of them coming to my house.  I need that hour set aside for nothing but Korean. So far my success rate has been an abysmal zero. My first inquiry was to ask the other natives in town if any of the teachers at their school would like to teach me, but apparently like me they are contractually unallowed to give private lessons. Strike one, I thought. As if sensing my predicament,  fate decided to toss me a bone in the form of Chris, our orientation leader and program coordinator. He sent a Facebook message recommending some ways for us to learn Korean, most of them online except one.  An after school extra help service called Kumo in various subjects (for kids). They would send a teacher to your house for a half hour a week, they would teach you, give you a book, homework and tests.  It sounded perfect and promising, Chris had even used it and endorsed it. It’s as if my prayers had been answered. The following day I mentioned it to my Korean co teacher, she laughed saying it was for children, I told her Chris said you would laugh and she called the company for me. They gave her the name of the Korean teacher and she called.  I was eager to hear the news, but disappointed by the results. My co teacher (Ms. Su Hee) said the lady told her that because I was an adult it would be twice the normal price at 66,000 won about 66 dollars, and that she only teachers for about 10-15min, less than half the time of what she is supposed to. I thought it had to be a joke, how could she possibly think someone could learn a language like that. Su Hee called the company again, told them what happened, they said that was unacceptable, called the lady and then called my co teacher back. The lady said the reason for the price was because she said she was going to come twice a week (a lie)…….twice a week at 10-15 minutes is still twice the price of what it should cost. Strike two. Back to the drawing board I went. The following day my Su Hee asked me “Joe, how about learning through Skype,” I thought it could be a possibility. She had found someone who taught Korea to foreigners in the city she lives in. While promising, I didn’t want to jump on the opportunity just yet, I told her I’d think about it, I still had one more card to play.

Rewind three weeks ago when I first moved here. I think I wrote about it, but anyway I went in search for air to put in bike tire and I ran into another foreigner (Matt) accompanied by an old Korean man, Mr. Son who speaks four languages and has lived in Boseong for some time. I hadn’t seen him since that day and I thought it was due time I paid him a visit and he lived in the building across from me. On Wednesday before going to my flat I went to go say hi to him. I wanted to see how he was doing and after my two failed attempts also ask him if he knew any Korean teachers. He told me he would see what he could do and allowed me to borrow two books from his library, The Book Thief and The United States and the Division of Korea, 1945.  On Thursday I received a message from Matt (Mr. Son didn’t have my number) telling me to come to his place at 18:30, he found a teacher! I was excited about the prospect of finally finding a teacher. I arrived to his place at 18:30 expecting the teachers shortly, he told me there were two and they should arrive any minute. As the minutes dragged on and the sky changed color we waited. We went outside so he could smoke a cigarette and I asked him questions about his life. At 86 he still hasn’t forgotten English, it just comes out a little slower then it used to, mentioning many times during our conversation that he’s getting old and he hates it. When the sky was dark he told me to go home, he’d call me if they came. Disappointed I was resigned to the fact they weren’t coming, only to receive a call by Mr. Son at 21:30 saying he was sorry, but they weren’t coming, maybe another day. Thanks  for the call Mr. Son, but I had already gathered that. Like the sun fading from us as we sat on that step talking, so too faded my last opportunity to find a Korean teacher. Strike three.

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“Culture Shock”

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Culture shock defined by Webster’s dictionary as “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place (such as a foreign country) that is very different from what you are used to.” However, I think shock is a very strong word and in today’s interconnected society it’s hard to be shocked by anything; we can prep ourselves on the internet beforehand and easily talk to and connect to people who have already been through a particular experience.  When moving to a new country your not shocked about different things rather you recognize them as differences and thing “hmmmm, that’s different or we don’t do that back home.” Living in Korea for three weeks now I have experienced and seen many differences, here are some of the ones I’ve noticed:
Koreans will ask you super direct questions seconds upon meeting them, like: are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? How old are you?
They hardly ever drink just water, I believe they have water storage capacities like camels
They have no traffic laws and people in cars do what they want, they also don’t realize there is a device that signals which way you are going to turn
When accepting things from other people, or if someone is pouring you a drink it you need to use two hands. For example as a lefty my right hand would support my left hand receiving the money or if someone was pouring me a drink or a shot my right hand would be under the glass
If you don’t eat rice for breakfast it’s not considered breakfast
They use that playground Astro stuff for the sidewalk
They don’t stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, I don’t know why they have them. I think it’s to signal to drivers that the pedestrians will be here if you want to hit them
Every time I want to use hot water in the apartment I have to turn it on, so I just started taking cold showers in the morning
They have different chalk board erasers, they’re like pillows for a new born baby
They’re very self conscious about their English, if you ask them “do you speak English?” They’ll answer “no” when from my experience they have no problem understanding it
In my schools we wear slippers, but then sometimes have to walk outside with them and then go back in, so why not just wear shoes? Wearing slippers definitely makes it feel like you’re not working
They have 7Elevens everywhere, something I would have never thought
They have claw games everywhere
On some seats they have bamboo seat covers over the cushions and they’re a lot more uncomfortable
The students and teachers eat together, but hardly anyone speaks to each other. Luckily I have my co teacher to eat with 3/5 days of the week
They have barber shop rotating blue and red signs everywhere, but the double ones give you something extra 😉
They love banners and will make a new one for almost any situation
The food is some of the spiciest food I have ever eaten. After only three weeks tobacco sauce tastes like water
Taxi’s are extremely cheap, like very cheap, I don’t know how they pay for gas and make money
They love volleyball at the schools, Wednesday is volleyball day and all the teachers play together
Just like Costa Rica I’m back to throwing toilet paper in the trash
It’s really hard to sit cross legged on the floor for a full meal
None of these things are “shocking” they’re just things you have to get used to and recognize when living here.  This is only some of the differences that I’ve noticed since I’ve been here, the list could go on an on.

The Bubble is Broken

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Leaving the comfort of the Shingyang bubble was scary, what was even scarier was being dropped off in front of my apartment saying goodbye to my co-teacher. That’s when it hit me, I was alone and on my own, my first thought was “I wonder what everybody else from the program is doing.”

It felt strange to be separated from the people I spent almost every hour together of the prior week, I imagine how a yolk might feel when it’s separated from its egg white (assuming they were capable of emotions). However, I wasn’t as alone as that yolk, I had my friend Sebastian living on the other side of the village. That first night after unpacking he came over with two weird sweet potato, pineapple, sauce-less pizzas for dinner, he thought they were Hawaiian; I couldn’t blame him, I probably would have too. When he left I decided to walk with him so I could see the village and expel those initial fears of being in a new place and not knowing where anything is, but just as we were leaving my building a car stopped and English came out. We chanced upon two other English teachers, Jackie and Chris who drove us to Sebastian’s and then me back. I had to save my exploring for a later date. When I got home I spent the rest of the night browsing social media, not wanting to go to bed yet, not wanting to be “alone.”
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The following day I visited my main school for the first time and two others. I’m teaching at 4 different elementary schools. Monday and Wednesday are at the same school while every other day is a different one. The schools I’m teaching at are rural schools, surrounded by trees and rice paddies and not much else. My main school is the biggest with around  32 students, while the other 3 have around 20. In the whole school. From kindergarten to 6th grade. My main school’s 5th grade class is one student who happens to be both the president and Vice President of the class, in another one of my school’s I teach a combined 5th and 6th grade class with a total of two students, one in each grade. The biggest class I have is 12 students and it’s a combined 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th grade class. It feels more like tutoring and less like teaching, classroom management is definitely easier, but their English levels are extremely low. Officially they don’t start learning it until third grade.  For some reason I imagined it being a lot better.  The schools while rural are equipped just as well as any, they have large smart screen tvs in every classroom,  proper gyms facilities with more stuff than the amount of students, computer rooms so every student has a computer, one of my schools even has a ping pong room and they all have a cafeteria that serve delicious Korean lunches.  So far everything has been going great, I was invited to go on two field trips with my main school, last week we went ice skating and  today we made green tea.  Boseong is famous for its green tea fields which I hope to visit soon!

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Living in a new country where you don’t speak the language is very difficult, even more so when it’s not Latin based and you have no idea what anything is or how to even ask for something. Luckily my co-teacher at my main school is amazing. If it wasn’t for her help I’d be lost, the day before my first day she came with me to the bus stand so I knew what buses to catch (even though I was extremely nervous taking it for the first time and had no idea what the stop looks like and where to get off).  I had to show the bus driver a note on my phone that said please tell me when I arrive at…..(school name). She’s helped me set up my bank account which was an hour long ordeal, she translates for me and the other teachers (I’m sure she’s tired of it), she helped me get a SIM card which would have been impossible since the first place we went to even she had no idea what the people were saying, she’s helped me set up and online shopping account and a bunch more little things that are so dependent on knowing Korean you can’t do them without help. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. So far life in Korea has been like swimming upstream, eventually I’ll get there. Each small victory whether it’s successfully buying a ticket to the next city over or successfully ordering something online, makes living here feel a little less daunting.

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Orientation Week in Korea

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I arrived to Seoul almost an hour later than expected, I chose the slowest customs line and my bags seemed to take forever to come out, I didn’t have wifi and didn’t know if the orientation group would still be at the airport, I accepted that I’d be on my own taking a bus to Gwangju, our orientation destination for the next week. But I wasn’t! They were still there waiting for me, the last to come. In the end it took an hour or more for the luggage truck to arrive and then for the buses to come so I wouldn’t have missed them anyway. After a 14 hour plane ride the journey continued another 4 hours to our destination, the Shingyang Park hotel in Gwangju.

For the next week the Shingyang Park hotel was our orientation bubble, a contained Korea surrounded by foreigners in the same situation and an unchanging hotel staff.  Served three meals a day it was almost like we were on vacation, a vacation in which we had class from 9-5 and if we wanted to make breakfast we had to be up even earlier; thanks to jet lag it was never missed. The first couple of nights I barely slept and was wide awake at 5:30 in the morning and crashing after the first two hours of orientation. To say it was hard would be an understatement, my body was physically and mentally drained and that tired eyeball pressure never left.

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The orientation while tiring was an awesome experience, I wish the program in Spain had something similar because In Spain you show up and they throw you out with very little guidance and with no idea what to expect and do. Here, over 7 days they guided  us through teaching methodology, what to expect, class management,  demos, and intricacies and curiosities you may face in the work place. We even had a short 8 minute lesson presentation, which I thought was pointless because teaching to a bunch of your peers is a lot different than teaching in a classroom among kids, but  I can see it’s usefulness for those who may have never taught before. We even had a poorly misguided cultural excursion day where we drove an hour and a half to spend the day in doors (one of the only days where it wasn’t monsooning) making our lunch, a typical Korean dish; we also made  paper and we decorated a stationary thing with paper. All of this nonsense for a cultural excursion trip when the city we were in, not more than two minutes away had a preserved traditional Hanok village we all wanted to see. Later that evening we did go for Korean BBQ! so that did make up for it. Aside from this blemish the program was incredibly well run. It provided a conducive environment to meet new people and make friends with those people. Friends that I can now visit and do things with in a country where only two weeks ago I knew nobody.

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Orientation ended last Monday with a ceremony and lunch with the co-teachers from each of our schools. We entered one by one and we went to the front of the room and introduced ourselves in Korean to the crowd of Koreans who had come to pick up their native teacher. I thought I had mine down pretty good and had it memorized, but as soon as I got up there words came out, just not the right ones and everything I had memorized I forgot and had to read off the card I prepared, but even then my pronunciation faltered.  I’m sure at that point my co-teacher begrudgingly raised her hand to signal who it is I would go to (we didn’t know at that point), resigned to be stuck with a foreigner who couldn’t at the very least read basic Korean off a card. Luckily during an unmentioned award ceremony I made up for it by winning an award for my enthusiastic and positive disposition during the program, something I was surprised to receive. Afterwards we had lunch with the impending realization that the bubble was about to pop; we were heading to the unknown in a Korea that had yet to be seen.

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Coming up, my first week and experiences in Korea.

A Short Summer Home

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Everybody experiences time differently, but it’d be safe to say that the three weeks I was home was a short one. It’s the first time I’ve come home in the middle of the summer and the first time I’m leaving early august. Even though this is the shortest summer home it’s still been a good one, it’s been filled with fun activities and I’ve somehow managed to cram a lot of stuff in a short amount of time. Later today I’ll be leaving for S.Korea. This is what I did this summer:
-Went out in Brooklyn with Richie to see Jaclyn’s new apartment and to go to three cool bars we’ve been talking about going to: one was a secret bar at the back of a laundromat, the second was a bar with old coin operated arcade games and the third was a bar with a taco truck inside and an antique ink printed photo booth
-Played a lot of sushi go, if you’ve never played I suggest you buy it off amazon and learn
-Played a lot of Mario party 2 on n64
-Ate an amazing vegan burger with my dad at the food market next to penn station
-Celebrated my grandmas 80th birthday with my family in south Hampton by drinking a lot
-Went to see Tonno’s new place in manhattan where we were joined by Ian who came up from D.C. for and interview and then later we went to a Yankee game joined by Tonno’s Roomate
-Went to the beach a few times
-Watched as much as I could of the new season of game of thrones as well as rewatch parts of s4 with Allie and s6 with Richie
-Read the Magicians trilogy
-Went to the Brooklyn brewery with Ian, Dave, Tonno and Richie and was later joined by my college roommate Steve and his girlfriend and then by my friend Kendall and his girlfriend who drove up from D.C and even later by Christine and her friend
-Had a barbecue at Tonno’s house
-Played more sushi go
-Had wings with my mom, dad and Allie
-Ate Mochi for the first time! As soon as I got back Allie started talking about them and she tried to get them at Trader Joe’s but they only had coffee flavored. The other day I stopped by TJ’s hoping they put more out, but they still only had coffee flavored. So Richie and I went to this big Asian store a town over and they had tons of different boxes! Mochi is a Japanese ball of ice cream thing wrapped a rice dough
-Ate Mexican food for the first time in a long time with my dad and sister and La Mesita in my town
-All you can eat and drink tapas! With a flamenco show in NYC with my sister her boyfriend and two friends. After living two years in Jerez, hearing flamenco in the city brought a tear to my eye
-Ending it all with a hibachi dinner with my family

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Alternative Berlin

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For a major city Berlin is unlike any other I’ve been to; between the tourist attractions and slightly off the tourist path beats the true heart of Berlin; an alternative side that’s found slightly below the surface. On top of this Berlin is also extremely cheap considering it’s the capital of Germany and compared to  prices of Paris, New York or London it’s in a different world.

In order to understand Berlin you have to look to its recent history and the polarization it faced during its duel occupation, symbolically and literally shown through the Berlin Wall.  Put up overnight it cut the city in half, tearing apart families, friends and lovers for 28 years; while the democratic western side flourished, the communist controlled eastern side stagnated and was stripped of all its resources. For 28 years the Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin, when it fell in 1989 the Berlin that we know today was born.

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After WWII destroyed Berlin it was built to hold a population of 8.5 million people, today there is only 3.5 million with a unemployment rate between 10 and 15%. Now you can imagine how much worse it was when the wall fell. When the wall fell millions of people had already fled and were fleeing to the western half and with the GDR no longer in control of the east there was a surplus of vacant apartment buildings. This led to a massive squatter movement, people believed that since the buildings belonged to the GDR and the GDR no longer existed, they were free to move in. These squatter homes, which I believe don’t exist in any developed capital city have been the anchor of a vibrant radical cultural and political environment, and the cornerstone of Berlin’s anti-gentrification movement; with graffiti and street art as a tool for this counterculture.

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The graffiti and street Art is world class, found throughout Berlin in various formats, from tagging to monumental wall pieces they can display the quick scrawl of somebodies initials or an elaborate mural depicting current events as the artist sees them. Others are put up simply to improve the urban environment and its people. One artist a teenager put up bright colored smiling mushrooms around the city because he thought it would make people happy and you never see mushrooms in a city. Another artist put up “crying girls,” water based paint pasties that are placed in areas of rain, so the longer they’re on the wall, the more they “cry” and merge with the wall. A different one pastes pasties of people dancing and while the paint is still wet throws confetti onto them. His subjects are people he notices at concerts that are completely lost in the music, he takes their picture and then blows up the picture to paste on the wall. Personally I wouldn’t want to see myself on the side of a city building in Berlin. Street art is synonymous with Berlin as yellow cabs are with New York, without them, neither city would be the same.

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Vokda, Wódka and more Vodka

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It’s true what they say about the Polish, they like their Vodka. Walking into a liquor store I’d never seen a wall of so many various types of Vodka. I didn’t know that many types of vodka even existed, with my knowledge limited to Popov and Svedka. I wish I had taken a picture, but I was in shock of seeing a wall of clear bottles with labels I’d never seen. They were cheap too! and while I didn’t buy any I drank my fair share.  Each night in the hostel I participated in their organized bar crawl (to meet people of course), which included about  an hour and a half of unlimited vodka drinks, from various types of mixed shots, to mixed drinks, or if you wanted just straight shots of vodka.  As the saying goes, when in Poland do as the Polish do.  It would have been rude to do otherwise.

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Krakow, unlike Warsaw was saved from the destruction of WWII. There are a few reasons as to why Krakow was saved, for one it wasn’t the capital, the second reason was that it was proclaimed the capital of the General Government, it was to be the third reich’s supply base for agriculture and light industry, and lastly when the Red army approached    in 45 the Germans had to flee quickly in order to not be trapped in the city. They didn’t have time to burn it to the ground, leaving the historic center of Krakow with its original century old charm. However, just because it wasn’t burnt to the ground doesn’t mean it was exempt from Nazi’s rule.  The Jewish quarter, which once housed the ghetto during WWII is now a UNESCO world heritage site.  It was also where the film Schindler’s List was filmed.  The actual factory is not far from the border of the former ghetto.  There is a small section of the ghetto wall still standing, which I was unable to find and on it there is a plaque that reads, “Here they lived, suffered and died at the hands of the German torturers. From here they began their final journey to the death camps.”

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Auschwitz

Auschwitz is a place you read about when learning about WWII, it’s a place that you hear about, a place you see in films, a collection of descriptions in various forms.  But, words cannot describe it, pictures cannot do it justice.  Anything I say will just be another one of those descriptions.  It’s one of those places you have to experience, to walk the grounds of a place where unimaginable horrors took a place, a place where 1.5 million people were killed.   These are some of my photos:

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Wroclaw

After Krakow I spent a night in Wroclaw.  Wroclaw is a quaint little city located on a river about halfway between Krakow and Berlin.  It has a beautiful market square lined with colorful townhouses and about 400 dwarf statues scattered throughout the city.  They’re cute and extremely fun to find while walking throughout the city.  While in Wroclaw, I also got lucky that the three people staying in my dorm were friendly and interested in doing something together.  We got dinner and ate pierogi’s, or Polish dumplings and then ended up at a cheap food and drink place where we sampled shots costing a euro each.  With prices like that, good food and beautiful cities it was hard to leave Poland.

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