Friday, April 15, 2011

Someone needs to teach the Office of Education what the word "orientation" means

The entrance to Jeju National University

Interesting week. Went out a couple evenings, got some unexpected news and spent my lunches teaching a couple of the 1st graders how to throw (a universally important skill for young boys). Teaching the boys how to throw was probably the most fun since they sought me out. And watching their quick progress, I can't help feeling a little proud.

The unexpected news came Wednesday. I learned I will be getting my first look at the 2nd most populous city in the world next Thursday. I have a 6 day orientation (which makes perfect sense since I've been here 6 months) from Friday 22nd until Wednesday the 27th in Seoul. I even convinced them to let me fly in early and leave late so i'll have a little more time to explore. I'm definitely excited for the change of scenery. The only sad part is that they have us busy from 9am-8:30pm each day. Not that this will stop my sightseeing but it will definitely slow me down. Hopefully i'll have some interesting stories from it in my next update.

The gardens of the Jeju Culture and Arts Center

My week definitely ended on a high note friday with 4 of my 5 classes getting canceled for an unannounced (to me anyway) field trip which i was not expected/allowed to attend. This gave me time to lesson plan, research Seoul, catch up on my favorite websites and even take a short nap. I've said it many times before and i'll say it again, you have to enjoy the little things in life.

part of the university campus

And finally, in the
"I have no idea what my shirt means"
category, my skinniest 5th grade boy won today by wearing a shirt that said "My guns are nothing compared to my rocket" with an arrow pointing down. It took me a couple minutes to regain my composure after seeing that. Gotta love Asia.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Beautiful pictures, festivals and unfair competitive practices

This was a good weekend. Despite losing my voice friday night and still not having it back as of sunday night, I had a wonderful time. Jason and I went and checked out the Jeju Cherry Blossom Festival and found it strangely familiar. If you think about it, festivals are pretty much the same anywhere you go. They have a purpose or theme, they have some carnival games, some singing and performances and loads of interesting (read scary) foods. Here the flowers were lovely, the performances lively and the food plentiful. Definitely a fun experience.

Me in a sea of (I am not making this up. This is their actual name) rape flowers. Two weeks ago we had the rape flower festival (music provided by Nirvana)

Jason looking ... thoughtful?? (maybe)

However, my favorite part of the weekend hands down was getting to play basketball for the first time since i've arrived. In fact I got to play both days in games with Korean and Chinese students from the university here. It was exhilarating to get back to playing one of my favorite sports. And yes it's probably unfair for me to be playing basketball in Asia given my height but too bad. I've always loved Shaq and now I feel like him every time I play.

I went for a walk in the woods after the game Sunday

As you would expect, everyone in the games was very polite. I was invited into 2 games saturday and another on Sunday. In all of them it was call your own fouls (after apologizing for them) and competitiveness was fairly low. Most of the guys weren't bad but playing against a skilled big man is not something they're used to (big shock). Maybe that will change if I get to play with them more throughout the summer. For now i'm heading to bed so i'll have plenty of energy (and hopefully a voice) to teach the kids tomorrow. For now enjoy more of the pictures from the festival and around the island.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Whiter skin, k-pop and and cherry blossoms

The first blooms of Spring

We'll start with a quick update. I'm in a wonderful mood because, seemingly overnight, Spring has arrived. Suddenly everything is blooming around me and Jeju is coming to life. The best part is the cherry blossoms. The trees are absolutely everywhere and are simply stunning right now. And they'll only get prettier over the next week or two. As if to reinforce this, Jeju's annual Cherry Blossom Festival is this weekend within walking distance of my apartment. It's safe to say i plan on attending :)

And while the natural beauty of the island is increasing exponentially every day, the temperature is rising and the sun is returning. To truly appreciate what an impact this has, you must have lived somewhere where the only things to do were in nature. The closest parallel I can think of is the end of winter in 7 Brides for 7 Brothers (obscure reference). All you really need to know is that I feel like my energy has doubled and my smile rarely leaves my face because of the weather.

Now to continue my "about Korea" series with the focus this time on: Music and Beauty. Having already discussed Korean hospitality and food, we move on to these interesting topics.

Koreans have very definite standards of beauty in both genders. First, you must be thin. The average person on the street in America would be considered fat in Korea. (Of course depending on where you are, that might be true regardless). As an example, I am not really considered thin here. I'm about normal, if unusually tall. Once you're thin, you need white skin. The whiter the better. Women often wear veils while driving to keep the sun off of their faces. Instead of tanning lotion, you find whitening cream everywhere here. This incidentally results in thin, white foreigners nearly always being considered attractive.

Ok if you're thin and white, you're doing good so far. If you're a woman, you need small delicate features. Big, round eyes are the lone desirable exception to this generalization. If you're a man, taller is better but facial hair is not common. Many Korean men are incapable of growing any kind of facial hair and those that can are often restricted to a weak mustache. Trimmed facial hair is not looked down upon but the scruffy look is (my students hate it if i go more than a couple days without shaving). So if you're got all that covered, congratulations; you might have a Korean love interest in your future.

an attractive woman in Korea

The Korean concept of beauty of course carries great weight in selecting their musicians (as it does in America). This is especially true because by far the most popular type of music here is Korean Pop (K-pop). K-pop is like bubblegum pop of the late 90s (NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, etc) on steroids. The average K-pop group is composed of 5-10 attractive teenagers of which 1-2 are good singers, 3-4 are good dancers and the rest are there to be pretty. K-pop songs have an extremely short shelf life, often lasting only 1-3 months before disappearing. Thus there's always something new to hear. On the plus side, K-pop songs tend to be catchy and fun. And even better, they don't seem to have discovered autotune yet (thank god). All in all, it's not that different than pop radio in the states (and often it's more comprehensible).

If you'd like to see an example of both Korean standards of beauty and K-pop (not that you probably care but if you do), click here.

After watching or skipping the above link, enjoy these pictures of my school and the early cherry blossom blooms. More will be forthcoming I assure you.

The picnic area behind my smaller school

And the view it affords visitors

Saturday, April 2, 2011

seating arrangements, ping pong and food

One of the small seaside villages here

The week that was ended well for me. In my classroom we switched to a new seating arrangement which has done wonders for student behavior. I had become increasingly frustrated with my 5th and 6th grade classes recently. I was spending more time disciplining the bad students than I was teaching the class. No teacher likes that. By splitting the desks into numbered pairs, the trouble-making groups were broken up and the overall environment is infinitely better. I was beginning to dread those classes, so the change has been a Godsend.

backhand SMASH

But nice as that was, it was topped by my first evening of tennis in 5 months. It felt so great to be back out there moving and playing. And the next night was almost as fun. Jason and I met my friend Erik at the National University for a couple hours of serious ping pong. I say serious because we ended up mixing with a big group of Koreans and Chinese who were also playing. So that you'll understand the significance of that, know that every olympic gold medal ever for ping pong (save one) has been won by either a chinese or korean man or woman. These guys were good. And I admit to being pretty proud of this; I beat them all. I beat everyone I played until the last Chinese guy of the night. He and I were dead even. We went back and forth seemingly alternating moments of brilliance. And we both loved it! I was especially proud when on the way out, Erik told me that guy is the best ping pong player at the University. I figure if i'm even with the best Chinese guy here, i'm doing pretty good :)

Erik playing his friend Oong

In my last post, I explained that Koreans like foreigners. This time i'm going to focus on another thing Koreans like and one of my favorite topics; FOOD! Like most of Asia, Korean food is predominately rice and noodle based. Since the country is almost completely surrounded by water, fish also figure prominently in the food here. A typical school meal consists of rice, soup (usually with seaweed), a small portion of some kind of meat and kimchi. Kimchi of course is the signature food of Korea. It's made from various mixtures of fermented vegetables and is adored by nearly everyone here. Unfortunately I am not one of them and that fact severely limits my school dining options.


Despite my dislike for their signature dish, there are many things about Korean food I like. I like that it's spicy, something I dearly missed in Europe. I really like duk galbi (a spicy chicken and veggie mix). And I especially like Korean barbecue. You get to cook and prepare the meat yourself at a firepit in the middle of your table. So you get to pick the ingredients you want to use, how to cook the meat and how much you want to eat. For me it's perfect and as an added bonus, this type of food is always selected for special school dinners.

As a final point on Korean food, it should be noted that even foreign food is generally Koreanized. Restaurants change international dishes to make them more like Korean food. Pizza, pasta, hotdogs, mexican, hamburgers, bread, chips and nearly everything else western is altered beyond recognition here. Again because Korea is a highly homogenous society most people agree on what flavors they like and outside food is adapted to fit those flavors. While this makes perfect sense for Koreans, it can be hard on a poor westerner looking for a taste of home. Fortunately, the taco seasoning and Dr. Pepper in my cabinet go a long way towards curing these infrequent bouts of food-homesickness. And the rest of the time I get to enjoy a unique culinary experience.

Micro-farming like this is the norm for Jeju

PS. I will add that the two craziest things I've eat here were probably A) the eyes of a fish that was served whole in my fish soup at lunch one day (I was tired of it staring at me as I ate it) and B) octopus tentacles that were still wriggling slightly as I ate them. Think about that during your next meal ;)