Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Monday was supposed to be the start of the first of three Winter English camps that the school district offers for elementary school students and I am scheduled to teach the first and third sessions.  Each session lasts for three days and begins at the YES (Yeongyang English Station) center here in town.  On the afternoon of the first day everyone is supposed to be loaded into school buses for the trek out to Suha where we would spend two nights and supposedly speak a lot of English.

Our team is composed of four English teachers and four Korean teachers and this is supposed to be a co-teaching experience. In typical Korean fashion, the Monday program started late and was just a tad chaotic.  In the pecking order of things, native English teachers rank at the bottom so consequently we were the last to know when anything was going to happen.  Anyway halfway through the morning it started to snow which gave the kids much delight but created a state of panic for the Korean teachers.  From the way everyone behaved you would think they had never seen snow before, the kind of frenzy that would occur in Georgia if there was even a hint of the white stuff.

It was decided that it was too dangerous to drive the school buses to Suha and that after lunch the children would be sent home and the camp would be finished the following week.  Consequently I have another week of desk warming in my apartment followed by back-to-back camps next week.  Sooooo...   I went walking around town and snapped a few shots of the winter wonderland!

My birthday and roadside assistance

I'm in South Korea, living the good life as an English teacher in a small town called Yeongyang.  I was supposed to be teaching on my birthday but a freak snowstorm (Seoul had record-setting snow) postponed the English camp until next week.  Because I am planning a trip back to the States at the end of the month, I needed to get a re-entry stamp on my passport and the only day I can do that is on Wednesday when the guy from Immigration in Daegu (big city) comes to Andong which is the closest city to me.  Because camp was cancelled my friend R. and I decided to go and get the paperwork done.  R. has a car and agreed to drive.  Everything went well- we had fun in the city and I got to eat my first Korean hamburger (it was ok).

Anyway we needed to get back home because R. was supposed to meet his wife for dinner and it was getting dark and the roads were still a little snowpacked.  Some friends of mine had called me earlier and asked if I wanted to meet them for dinner so we decided to take a shortcut over a slightly more difficult road.  Everything was going great, we were ahead of schedule and then THE CAR DIED!!!!!  In the middle of friggin' nowhere.  And we learned that in Korea, nobody AND I MEAN NOBODY will ever stop to help you when your car breaks down because everyone has insurance and you just call the company and eventually someone comes and gets you. Well R. has limited Korean language ability and tried calling the company but all of the lines were busy (we think they were still digging people out in Seoul) so he called his wife (she is Korean) who called a friend who called another friend who runs the local wrecker service and he agreed to come and try and find us.  Did I forget to tell you that R's wife specifically told him not to take that road because it was more treacherous?  After about twenty minutes of waiting in the sub-zero weather Robert decided to try and start the car again and actually got it to turn over so we decided to limp along as far as we could in hopes of meeting the wrecker (we were actually about 15 miles from the town where we live).  We did meet the wrecker and he loaded up the car on the back of his truck and took us back to Yeongyang.  We arrived back home about 2 hours late and my friends (both Korean teachers) were still eating dinner and so they dragged me into this little cafe where they produced a tiny birthday cake and lots of soju (the local demon drink).

We huddled around a propane heater and I let them eat all of the shellfish which were cooking on the grate and I ate the cake, drank soju, and gossiped about the other teachers.  By the time I dragged myself to my apartment it was late and I was very cold but content.  To top it all off my son posted a message that he had been sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya that day and was ready to begin his assignment.  I have to say it was one of my most memorable birthdays ever!

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Years Eve

One of the great traditions here in South Korea involves spending New Years Eve outside in the frigid cold, staying up all night and then watching the sun rise, preferably a far to the East as one can, so you can be sure of seeing the first sunrise of the New Year.  In addition, South Korea is the land of festivals - there seems to be at least one fore every town of any size and often these festivals compete against each other for the tourist dollar.  I couldn't rally any interest in "doing something" for New Year's Eve among my online friends.  One of my friends in the US suggested watching the sunrise at the Homigot Festival and since I knew I could get a bus to Pohang from Andong, it looked like something I could manage.  I was a bit nervous about taking so many buses but I figured with a three-day weekend I couldn't get too lost.  I mentioned it at the Tuesday night planning meeting for the Winter English camp and before I knew it B. had a plan for going that involved having friends of her driving their car.  This seems to happen a lot.  By the next day they had decided that they would rather attend the competing festival in Yeongdeok which was ok by me (I'll save Homigot for next year) since I would be relieved of the stress of finding the right bus connections.

Before leaving Yeongyang I decided to take a photo of the last sunset of the year from my balcony.
Well my guest drivers showed up around 7:30 and I thought we were headed straight for Yeongdeok.  It seemed as though they had other plans and before I knew it we were asked if we wanted to see his new house and being polite agreed.  It turns out that they built a new house with a medical clinic attached to it out in an even more rural part of our county.  The Mrs. K. is a nurse and has state-of-the-art computers which allow her to consult with doctors in Daegu regarding health issues of the farmers and their families.  They were particularly proud of their "health chairs" which were basically massaging Lazy Boys! After a leisurely massage it was time to hit the road and get to the festival.

Along the way we watched the blue moon rise (I's a technicality that it wasn't a blue moon here but I prefer to see it as one). Arriving in Yeongdoek we settled in to listen to the concert at the Sunrise Park which was a mixture  K-pop and what appeared to be has-been's from the last 20 years. 

Not too bad except when the ubiquitous girl group started to sing with their pre-recorded music it was a massive failure as the music kept sticking.

I decided it was too cold to simply sit around and listen to bad music so I explored the food court. I didn't understand what everything was but it sure was warmer with lots of propane heaters and assorted grills going. I did see some scary looking squid that looked like they were eying me.

When the concert on the main stage was finished, everyone went up to the plaza area and we were treated to a troupe of traditional dancers doing Ganggangsulrae.  This consisted of a series of call and response chants by women dressed in hanbok holding hands and making a series of twists and turns.  The dance is thought to have originated around 5,000 years ago when the Koreans believed that the Sun, Moon, and Earth controlled the universe. Participants would dance under the brightest full moon of the year in order to bring about a good harvest.   Next we were treated to rock concert featuring some great covers of American classic tunes with some apparently well-known Korean rock.

Next I climbed up the steps to the Grand Gyeongbuk Bell which is struck at midnight to ring in the New Year.  It was exciting and lots of people were crammed into the small temple at the top of the hill.  As midnight approached the local dignitaries (I assume) were vying for the best position to be on hand to actually strike the bell.

I went back down to the plaza area and watched a people attached their wishes for the New Year to a big "tree" which would be set alight to insure good luck in the New Year.  Overhead these lighted remote controlled birds danced in the sky and I was told later that they were their to bring us good luck for the New Year.  As the tree was set on fire, or 'Daljip burning' (burning straw under the moon), the fireworks display started.  All in all it was quite dramatic although very cold.  After the fireworks we went up to an aircraft hangar where we were assured that it would be much warmer and we could watch movies until dawn.  At first there were a lot of folks crowded into the hangar, getting as close to the propane heaters as possible.  We managed to sit through "Star Trek" but is was terribly cold and when the second feature started, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, we headed to the car to try and get warm.  At this point Mr. K suggested that we drive north to a spot that he knew of on the coast where we could watch the sun come up.

A quick nap in the car (it was actually a couple of hours) and I awoke to the first hints of sunrise. A little after 7am we all climbed out of the car and watched the first sunrise of the New Year. Mr. K told me that he had never done this before and was so happy that I talked them into going. And here I thought that everybody in Korean headed to the coast to watch the sun come up on the New Year! One of my observations about the previous night was that I actually saw very little drinking and certainly no plaza full of drunks on New Year's Eve like I would have expected back in the States. Mrs. K. told me that most people don't get drunk on New Year's Eve (must be the only night of the year as Koreans are known for their drinking) because they want to see the New Year in and insure good luck for the year. As I watched the sun come up I sent my wishes for the New Year out to the ether and felt truly glorious. We headed back home, a little tired but full of great hopes for the coming year. One final stop at the K's new house for a quick breakfast of soup and a gift of towels (I think they were given to everyone to celebrate the new house) and then home at last for a long awaited nap!  Without a doubt, this was the most memorable New Year's Eve that I can recall!!!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Down in the boondocks

I had to submit an essay about teaching in Korea to the local Ministry of Education and I though I would post it here because it also sums up the last half of the year which is when I totally neglected my other blog. I'm just re-posting it here to give a jump-off point for my blog about life in Korea

2009 was once of the most exciting years in my life and one full of many exciting changes and profound personal developments. I decided to leave my home, family and friends behind in America and travel halfway around the world to begin my new career as an English teacher. I took the summer off to attend the London Rare Book School, conduct historical research in England and Scotland and to spend time with my extended family as part of the International Gathering of the Clans in Edinburgh. By the end of August I found myself in Youngyang, South Korea, eager to begin my new teaching assignment at Il-wol Elementary School.
Settling into my new life in a country where I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even understand the signs was a little overwhelming. I spent my first week in quarantine because of the H1N1 concerns so I spent most of my time walking around Yeongyang watching the farmers during the pepper harvest. Mrs. Park was very generous in setting up my apartment and escorting me around the first day. She was also very helpful in navigating the paperwork, introducing me to the other teachers, and even helped me set up a bank account. In fact everyone that I met was very kind and helpful to this new stranger in their town and school.

I wasn’t really sure what was expected of me at first and as a new teacher I was very nervous about exactly how I would handle a class full of children who spoke little English. In particular I was scared about having to teach the after-school program at the two branch schools as I knew I wouldn’t have the safety of the textbook to use. With the encouragement of Miss Woo, I was able to think of the various themes that needed to be explored and also saw that I was worrying too much about details instead of just relaxing and enjoying the time with the children.

In September I started teaching at the YES Center and was grateful for the opportunity to meet English teachers from the other schools. They helped me understand the way things are done here and reassured me that they all went through the same awkward adjustments. They were also very helpful in showing me how to do things like paying bills, getting a taxi and taking a bus. Harry Tritt and his wife took me on one of their trips to Daegu and showed me how to get around by bus and subway.

In October, the teachers went on an overnight trip to southern coast and I was able to experience my first stay in a Korean hotel. In addition I joined in the hikes to visit some temples and traditional villages. I think American schools could learn a lot about team-building by such group excursions. We seemed to enjoy each others company and even though I really had no idea what was going on most of the time, everyone was very kind and made sure that I participated in all of the activities. By the end of October I was feeling really confident in my teaching and found that the children responded well to the lessons that I had prepared. I spent many hours doing research online and gaining tips and lesson ideas from other English teachers. I learned how to create flashcards, games, and teaching tools joined several online teaching forums which helped me expand my basic skills. I think my hard work paid off as the children seemed to show more confidence in their use of English and were always glad to see me and try out their language skills. They particularly enjoyed the games and each week it became a challenge to find new activities to keep them interested. Students stretched their imaginations with role plays and my insistence on their talking English in the classroom. I stretched my imagination by using my inability to use Korean as a tool for teaching. Together we seemed to find a common ground that bridged any cultural divide.

One of the most exciting events at our school was the Book Festival. In my former life I was either a librarian or a bookseller and I was so excited to see so much time celebrating books and families. It was thrilling to see such excitement surrounding reading and to see children enjoying themselves as they made bookmarks, created a newspaper or read books with their family members. Everyone made a leaf to go onto the book tree that celebrated their family. The evening culminated in a Golden Bell game and wonderful closing ceremony.

Because the school year is different in South Korea from anything that I knew in either America or England, I suddenly found that my school year was ending just as I was hitting my stride. December brought a flurry of activity around the end of the school year as sixth graders were preparing to finish their time at the elementary school. In fact our last week of school culminated in an overnight trip for all of the children to Gyeongju. Here we visited a museum and tombs which were very educational for me. I was particularly fascinated with prehistoric rock art on display and can’t wait to share them with one of my friends who is a scholar in this field. I think the children were more excited with our afternoon at the amusement park although they also enjoyed our evening visit to the jimjilbang.

 As the year draws to a close, I am happy with my decision to change careers and experience a new culture. I have adjusted to the different foods, picked up a little vocabulary, and made many new friends.
Perhaps best of all, I begin every day at the school with young children squealing “Hello Fiona teacher” and grabbing my hand as I walk down the hallway. It has given me a renewed sense of purpose and made me feel at home in “The Land of Morning Calm”.