Back but gone

Let’s get straight to the point: I’m not in Korea anymore. I’ve been gone for a week now, but I’m not at home. I’m on a six-week tour of Asia.

I spent the last week in Borneo, splitting time between Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. Borneo is an awesome place, and I wish I could spend more time there. In my week there, I went canopy walking, whitewater rafting, island hopping (with some snorkeling), jungle trekking, waterfall swimming, and amateur caving. That’s just a small portion of the Malaysian part of Borneo. It goes without saying, there’s a lot to do on this island. I didn’t even go into the Brunei or Indonesian states of Borneo. I could probably spend a month there and not be bored.

Kota Kinabalu is a small town. I was able to walk from end to end of the city center in about 20 minutes, but it’s a quaint city and nice to walk around. It’s right on the coast, so there’s a waterfront area that overlooks the South China Sea. It’s a nice place to hang out and read a book. Not a bad life if you ask me.

I spent four days there and then three days in Kuching on the western part of the island. It didn’t seem as lively as Kota Kinabalu, but maybe that was because it’s a little too big to completely explore on foot. There’s also a nice waterfront area, but this time it’s along a river. At night, it’s a lot of small lights, so it makes for a nice stroll.

Now I’m in Singapore. I just arrived in my hostel, so all I’ve seen of this town is the shuttle ride from the airport here. In that half-hour or so, I’ve decided Singapore belongs on the list of cities in which I can see myself living along with Chicago and Tokyo. I had planned on being in Singapore for only three days. There’s a possibility I might not make it to Penang now. We’ll see how that goes.

I’ve made it for a week now traveling by myself. It’s not like I’ve been in the jungle by myself, but I have had a lot of time to think. I have a feeling at the end of this journey, I’ll have a good idea of what I want to do with my life and how to get there. If not, I’ll be close, and I’ll probably figure it out when I’m at home. As of now, though, there’s a long way to go.


Filed under change, travel

It’s camp time again

As the semester heads into its last third, we’re nearing English camp season again. I’ve been through one camp already, and this one looks like it’s going to be as troublesome as the last one. The only good thing about this camp is that I know about it much earlier before vacation season than I did in the winter. The positives seem to end there.

In the winter, I worked at my school for two weeks from 9 am to noon, had lunch and lesson planned with the other teachers, and was out of the building at no later than 2 pm. SMOE had the great idea to lengthen camps to a minimum of three weeks for the summer, which is the shorter of the two breaks in Korea. This time around, my school has decided to lend me to another school in the district, which isn’t a big deal in itself. The gripes come in the camp setup.

The camp hours are from 9 am to 4 pm — essentially what I work now — except they’re chock full of classes. The camp contract, which I haven’t signed and makes me angrier each time I read it, states I will teach seven (7) 50-minute classes with 10-minute breaks after each lesson. I’ve been counting this over and over in my head to make sure I have it right: on top of almost doubling my normal teaching time, I have no lunch period. I’m not a fan of that.

In addition to the ridiculous working hours, the contract says I would have to work the two Saturdays during the camp. My co-teacher explained the first Saturday is for the kids to go ice skating (in the middle of the summer?) and the second Saturday is for closing ceremonies. About three weeks ago, I was essentially forced to go on a hike with some students from my school on a Saturday. This wasn’t a friendly hiking Saturday, either: a cold rain drizzled from the gray skies all day. I chatted with the kids throughout the day, but I’m sure the educational (not to mention the diminished entertainment) value was minimal. It was basically babysitting for a couple hours on a mountain, and I’m envisioning the same thing for this ice skating trip — another waste of a Saturday.

If that weren’t enough, I still have to work another week at my own school to fulfill SMOE’s three-week requirement, even though I work more than three weeks’ worth of hours (including those dreaded Saturdays) during the first session

Now I’m poring over the camp contract and my SMOE contract to check the legality of this harebrained scheme, and I’ve finally noticed how disingenuous the contracts are. In Article 8 of the SMOE contract, which talks about working hours, the first point says, “Employee shall work eight (8) hours per day for five (5) calendar days per week from Monday to Friday and shall not work on Saturdays, Sundays and any national Holidays of the Republic of Korea.” Not more than two inches down the page in the fourth point of the same article, it states, “The head of work place may require Employee to work overtime in addition to normal workdays and work hours. In this case, overtime pay will be provided.” Basically, they can have free reign over our hours as long as we’re paid our 20,000 won per overtime hour.

While it doesn’t surprise me at all, these business practices are some of the major issues that are driving me away from Korea. The living is easy here — once you take dealing with Koreans on a “professional” level out of the way. It’s very possible that if absolutely nothing pans out while I’m in the States in the next six months, I could be back here, but the time away from the mess that is Korean bureaucracy should help the transition back to Korea if it comes to that.

In the meantime, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I have to worry about surviving tomorrow’s camp contract discussion without making anyone cry.

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Here we go again

This is the street I take leaving school each day. In three months, Ill take it one last time on my way out of Korea.

This is the street I take leaving school each day. In three months, I'll take it one last time on my way out of Korea.

It’s done. I’m officially leaving Korea at the end of August. I told my co-teacher, and it was a much calmer event than I had anticipated considering my co-teacher’s general anxiety and proclivity for histrionics. It still wasn’t any less awkward than I imagined, though. I don’t leave for another three months, but my co-teacher essentially forced me and my other co-teacher to talk to her so that we could get to know each other — almost three months into the job. It was clear to me that the other co-teacher didn’t want to chit-chat all that much since she actually wanted to finish her work. Awkward.

Anyway, if the renewal discussion had come up last week, my life would be completely different. I was pretty set on staying for another year, but then something — I’m not quite sure what — happened over the weekend, and doubt quickly took over. In the end, the fact I wasn’t completely sold on Korea meant I shouldn’t commit to another full year. The worst thing that could happen is I go home, dink around, run out of money and come back. I could fly back here at the drop of a hat. It’s nuts when I really think about it.

It’s very liberating to have this decision finalized, but it’s a little nerve-wracking not knowing what’s coming next. It’s much easier to deal, though, because I have no deadlines or expectations to meet at this point. Except for a couple of bills, I’m free of responsibilities and can fly as far as my money will take me. I could dink around Asia a bit before I head home, where I will definitely bounce around the country. Right now, I’m taking any ideas I can get. I’m nervous, but I think it’s the good kind of nervous.

See you stateside.


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The sun sets over Seoul, as seen from Olympic Park.

The sun sets over Seoul, as seen from Olympic Park.

As the end of May approaches, I’m rounding the three-quarter mark of my teaching contract. The end of this go-around is visible on the horizon, and it’s the popular water-cooler — actually more likely patio table — topic of the moment. Are you staying? Are you going? What’s next?

It’s decision time around the city, and Korea continues to impress me with its professionalism. My co-teacher breached the topic of renewing with this gem: “Are you satisfied with your job?” Clearly that’s the only criterion we use to decide whether we should dedicate another year of our lives to this country. In addition, this conversation happened yesterday, and the deadline for my decision is tomorrow. If my math is correct, that gives me two days to choose. Awesome.

Two days for a life-changing decision. That pretty much summarizes life as an English teacher in Korea: as adventurous and challenging as it may be, it all comes and goes very quickly. Nine months ago, I arrived as a wide-eyed American, but it feels like the pages of the calendar have just flown off the wall. The evanescence of this experience, however, goes beyond the time that passes.

This experience is as much about the people as it is the place. Ever since orientation, when I was quarantined for a week with 200 other foreigners, I’ve basically survived with this group of friends. Now with the questions, we all realize the adventure will soon drastically change for everyone. A large portion of this group is headed in different directions, and it’s over,  just like that.

We’ve all been through this at least twice before: high school and college. I had essentially the same friends from second grade through graduation — 11 years — and then I had to move on and start over. The cycle repeated itself in college but instead in a five-year period. Now I’m in Korea, where the lifespan of an English teacher — and its consequent friendships — is all too often only one year.

Tomorrow I decide whether this one year in Korea is enough for me. I think the easy decision is to avoid the unknown and re-sign, but the thought of giving one more year to this venture isn’t one that inspires joy in me — especially without a handful of my newest and closest friends. They’re leaving as quickly as they appeared, and I could very well do the same thing.

Stay tuned.

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Apparently children are important

The Lotus Lantern Festival kicked off a string of four Korean holidays in 2+ weeks.

The Lotus Lantern Festival kicked off a string of four Korean holidays in 2+ weeks.

In general traditional Korean gratuity, we’ve observed four holidays in the past 2.5 weeks. The festivities started with the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. The birth of the Prince Siddhartha Gautama is noted as the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, which falls this year on May 2.

Buddhism comprises a large portion of the Korean religious population (although the majority of the country is secular), so this is a very important holiday to the country. In Seoul, lotus lanterns hang across the city for weeks leading up to the actual holiday. The celebrations culminate at the Lotus Lantern Festival, held in downtown Seoul. The festival stretched from the metropolitan center, Jongno-gu, to the traditional — and usually tourist-infested — district, Insadong. Events included lantern-making, traditional performance and a lantern parade.

The parade featured brightly-lit floats and throngs of citizens carrying lanterns shaped like, well, lotus flowers. The parade led into Jogyesa temple, home to the largest Buddha shrine in Seoul. Countless strings of lanterns created a multicolored ceiling outside the temple — a nice alternative to the starless skies of Seoul. This entire evening reeked of photo-ops, and it was fantastic:

Lotus Lantern Festival-5876 Lotus Lantern Festival-5883 Lotus Lantern Festival-6013

Three days after Buddha’s birthday (and the continuation of a five-day weekend, which is another post in itself) on May 5 was Children’s Day. The premise for this holiday still seems vague to me, but the origins of Korean Children’s Day trace back to a children’s writer in the early 20th century,  BangJeong-hwan (방정환). He created the Korean word for child — 어린 — and promoted the idea of respecting children as individuals rather than treating them as property belonging to the parents. To celebrate this holiday, parents often take their kids to zoos, museums or outdoor festivals strewn about the city in various parks.

A little girl stares off into the distance in Children's Grand Park.

A little girl stares off into the distance at Children's Grand Park.

These kids, who to this point, I’m sure, have contributed little to society, seem to have a more important holiday than the two that came in the next week and a half: Parents’ Day and Teachers’ Day. Without parents these kids wouldn’t be here. (Don’t give me that “They are the future” spiel. What have they done for me lately?) Without dedicated educators like myself (lolz), these kids are going nowhere.

On a more serious note, Children’s Day seems much more fun, while Parents’ Day and Teachers’ Day seemed much more subtle. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have the day off during the latter two days. I didn’t come out empty-handed, though. I got two half days, and on Teachers’ Day, I got a couple bookmarks and some vitamins. It wasn’t exactly the most prolific haul, but I’m not a big gift person anyway.

It’s been rather uneventful (or too eventful depending on how you define “event”) couple of weeks, but a trip to Busan is on this weekend’s docket as is another annual celebration of me, er, my birthday. It should be nothing short of a mess.

Just in case I disappear for another long stint, you can always check my Twitter feed and Flickr photostream for more frequent updates on my life.

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Yes, I’m still alive

Ultimate has consumed my life for the past two months.

Ultimate has consumed my life for the past two months.

I come and I go. It’s an unfortunate cycle really. There are times when I’m everywhere, and there are times I completely disappear from the radar. The past 1.5 months (wow, it’s clearly been way too long) have been rather eventful, and I’ve been nowhere near updating about it.

I spent most of the weekends in January and February in a go out-sleep-play frisbee-go out cycle in preparation for Dream Cup in March. This tournament took me to Japan for a weekend, where I saw the bright lights of Tokyo, the pristine snowcap of Mt. Fuji and a handful of small-time Yakuza. Japan is ridiculously expensive. In a four-day weekend, I spent nearly $500 USD. I spent about that much in two weeks in Vietnam. That being said, however, I’ve added Tokyo to my short list of cities in which I can really see myself living. (Chicago rounds out that list.)

After Dream Cup, I spent many evenings — weeknights and weekends — catching up with friends in Seoul. This may or may not have led to multiple benders lasting three or more days. It probably wasn’t the most effective way to pass the time, but sometimes I can’t say “no” to an invitation for trouble. It’s especially hard when it involves warm weather and drinks on a patio.

Throughout this mayhem, I was also preparing for this past weekend’s party of a tournament on Jeju-Do, an island to the southwest of the Korean peninsula. We played our games on some of the practice fields for the 2002 World Cup in ideal 70-degree weather. Clearly I spent as much time as possible without a shirt. It was glorious.

The school life remains rather stable, but I can feel the stresses of Korea building once again. My co-teacher and I rarely see eye-to-eye on things, and unlike my previous co-teacher, she doesn’t seem to be on my side since she’s new to the job and working by the book. It’s nothing serious, but the many nuisances continue to add up. I’m still undecided whether I’m going to re-sign for another year, but we still have a little time to make that choice.

Unless an offer comes along that blows my mind, I can’t foresee myself moving out of Korea in the near future. Outside of school, I live a pretty stress-free life. All in all, with balmier weather and good friends all around, life is pretty good.

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I suck at blogging


One of my third-grade students who is clearly hard at work.

I’m now in the second week of a new school year here in Seoul. (The school year starts in March and ends in February.) Usually moving to the next grade was just another chapter in the same book of our childhood education. As a teacher in Korea, each year is like a different book written by a new author. Very little is the same from year to year.

I was the only teacher in my school who ended the last school year and knew his position for the next school year. Most of the teachers are teaching different grades now than they did last year. Teachers apply for certain positions, and then the higher-ups (the principals and vice-principals) place the teachers in their position without much rhyme or reason, it seems.

The results are drastic changes from the previous year. For example, of the six sixth-grade homeroom teachers, two taught second grade, one taught first grade and one was the P.E. teacher. I previously had three co-teachers (one for third and sixth grade, one for fourth grade, and one for fifth grade), but now I have four co-teachers — three of whom were homeroom teachers last year. Two of those three had never taught English before.

I don’t understand why the teachers get shifted around so much; in fact, teachers can only teach at a school for five years before they’re transferred to another school. (Again, they apply for a district in Seoul and hope for the best.) I’m no pedagogy expert, but it would seem that the teaching styles in first and sixth grades would be quite different and that keeping someone who has continual experience in the same grade would be more beneficial.

It’s been quite a transition period to say the least. I’m adjusting to the three new co-teaching styles — which right now means I run the classes to show the Korean teachers how we’ve done things and have them become more or less involved as they see necessary. It’s hard for them because the kids already know who I am from last year.

For the most part, things are going pretty well. It’s a similar dynamic to when I started six months ago, but now the roles are reversed. There are bumpy moments here and there, but the new teachers and I are smoothing those out pretty well. There’s always one exception, though, and it happens to be the most important of the new teachers — my official co-teacher who is responsible for me.

She might be one of the most awkward people I’ve ever met, and she’s extremely disorganized on top of that. My other three co-teachers have been prepared for their respective classes with me, so the lesson planning between us have been quick and to the point. With this other co-teacher, though, things are always a mess.

I don’t know what else she does (fifth-grade English is the only class she teaches), but she doesn’t prep during the three hours we have after school. Yesterday, I had to stay 20 minutes after I was supposed to be leaving so that we could sort things out — only to have her try and change them this morning. She over-thinks everything and consequently becomes a nervous wreck about it.

Her presence in the classroom is rather ambiguous as well. I’m not sure where she wants to be in the teaching balance between us, and I’m indifferent to whether she wants to do less or be more in control. She just needs to decide on what kind of role she wants to have so we can teach more effectively and not bore/confuse the kids.

The school year and half of the faculty might be new, but the struggles are still the same. I’m sure they’ll pan out, just as they did last year. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same.


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Pretty phones make me weak in the knees

I love gizmos and gadgets, and they can’t be avoided here. Korea, home to electronics giants Samsung and LG, wants to continue improving its electronics so it can compete with its Japanese counterparts. Cell phones, mp3 players and personal media players (sometimes all combined into one) are only the tip of the technological iceberg, and every Korean and his mother are tinkering with one or all of those things on the subway, bus or even while walking.

One of my fatal flaws is that I can’t resist shiny new toys. I got rid of most of what I owned to come to Korea to save money to pay off some bills. The whole minimalism/aescetic mindset is a little harder for me to achieve with the electronic temptations here. During the previous six months, I’ve accumulated a small speaker system, a 22″ external LCD monitor, a DSLR camera (with a handful of lenses) and most recently, a cell phone.

None of these are necessities (even though I’ve managed to rationalize every single decision into a quasi-necessity), and they’ve made a little (read: big) dent into my savings plans. The only thing that will leave the country with me when I do is the DSLR. Everything else is pretty much just a really expensive rental. They can easily be sold to someone else who has the same affinity for gizmos as I do.

These spending tendencies are a stark contrast to my backpacking habits. I’ll eat as much street food as possible (although that may be linked more to my palette’s preferences) and sleep in the cheapest hostels I can find. I’ll haggle over what ends up being 30 U.S. cents. In normal life, though, when I’m bored I’ll tend to do one of two things: eat and/or spend money.

At this point, I can’t imagine making any more large technological purchases. I have everything (and more) than I could ever need, even for a traveler: iPod, MacBook, Canon 40D, fancy mobile phone and Nintendo DS. I suppose that pushes me toward the realm of flashpacking, but I still need to do a little more traveling before I can wear that badge.

Note to self: travel more. Duly noted.

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Angry people make me angry

We’re wrapping up the first week of my staycation here in Seoul, and I haven’t made as much progress in the things I had planned for the week. I’ve still had a good week, though. While I wouldn’t mind traveling some exotic country, it’s nice not constantly having to catch buses and taxis and generally running around a new place cluelessly. Sometimes normal is fine by me.

Tuesday included a trip to Yeouido, an island in the Han River and home to the Korean Stock Exchange and TV/radio broadcasting conglomerate MBC, which earns it the occasional nickname “Seoul’s Manhattan.” I spent most of Wednesday cleaning and organizing my stuff in preparation for moving out of my apartment and ended the evening with a couple drinks. Thursday’s rather impulsive plan included buying a new phone from Yongsan and a long night of debauchery — one that had me arriving home a half hour before the girlfriend had to wake up for work.

It’s been pretty much a ho-hum week, but one event from last night reminded me why American G.I.s have such a terrible reputation here. We were our in Itaewon, which is essentially ex-pat and G.I. central since the neighborhood is literally around the corner from the U.S. army base. At the club, one of my friends — who is half-Chinese, half-Korean, wholly-Canadian and quite single — began chatting with a girl, one who had previously been schmoozing with a G.I. The army man took exception to my friend’s drawing the girl’s attention away from him and delivered an alcohol-fueled diatribe that included calling my friend a “kimchi-eating motherfucker” and boasting about how much the U.S. army has done for his “people.” For goodness’ sake, he’s stationed in South Korea, which is a cakewalk compared to the desert where the forecast is hot with a chance of raining mortars.

Other than the meathead mindset that leads to his solving problems with fights, the G.I.’s ridiculous sense of entitlement and self-importance is the number one reason people — Koreans and foreigners alike — dislike G.I.s. There are even bars that deny admittance to G.I.s because trouble often follows them in the door. I understand it’s completely unfair to paint all soldiers with the same brush, but I’ve seen so many situations where the soldiers expect things to fall in their favor simply because they serve in the U.S. military — like when the idiot at the club decided that we should be the ones to leave as if he and his boys owned the place.

The U.S. military as an entity already gets plenty of bad press from the likes of Guantanamo, Lynndie England, and a couple of wars in the Middle East, so the singular actions of these testosterone-driven brutes are just adding to America’s negative image. It’s a sad situation of a few ruining it for everyone, but it’s especially true for a conservative (and — truth be told — judgmental) nation like Korea.

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I’m not complaining

After coming back from Vietnam, I returned to my normal post as English teacher at my elementary school. “Normal,” though, isn’t the proper word to describe the last two weeks of the school year. The kids had been on winter vacation for six weeks before being forced to return to wrap up the school year. I had spent the same six weeks bouncing between Thailand, Winter Camp and Vietnam. None of us were ready to be in school.

The students, suffering from mental lag from the break, had no inclinations for paying attention — especially the sixth graders who had already checked out before break. I was out of significant lessons to teach, and all that was left were games. The two weeks (including two full days with not a single class for me and a full week of half-days) passed rather innocuously, and here I am on vacation again. This time it’s their “spring vacation,” despite what the 23-degree (I still work in Fahrenheit) weather says.

I’ll be spending this week organizing my stuff to move into a new apartment — one that I still have to find. I plan on doing some local sightseeing (i.e. playing with the camera) as well, but this weather might be a deterrent. Next week, if everything goes to plan, I’ll be touring around Korea, seeing what this country has to offer. It’ll be me (and someone else, in theory) and Lonely Planet Korea.

After this little spurt, it will have been 10 weeks or so since I’ve taught a serious class, but even the first week back won’t be a return to normalcy since it’s the first week of the new school year. I’ll be adjusting to new students, new co-teachers (teachers change positions every year and school every five years) and new class rules. I’m excited to see how these new classes turn out, but I’m slightly nervous about having to learn my co-teachers’ tendencies all over again. I was starting to get used to my last set of co-teachers.

I don’t see how all this commotion can be good for the educational system, but I’m sure the students and teachers are all conditioned to the change. I suppose I should be, too, since I’ve already experienced a few too many unexpected changes. They always turn out okay, though, and I expect nothing else from this school year.

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