Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fashion in Korea - round 2

This week I took my camera to school with me and let my kids play with it. Some of the resulting pictures will be scattered throughout this post. Right now i'm in a fantastic mood. It's beautiful outside. The Mavs won game 2 of the NBA finals with an epic comeback (I yelled so loud I scared the kids in next classroom when they won). I'm done with classes for the week. And even better, this Monday is the Korean Memorial day. I'm going to use the 3 days off to explore a bit more of peninsula. Pictures will follow.

Now i'm going to fulfill a request I got last week and write a little more about fashion here. Clothing choices here are an odd mix of conservative and risqué but always stylish. People dress well here. Men rarely wear shorts and almost always wear suits to work. A button down shirt, slacks, a vest and a tie is a casual dress day for a Korean man. Even after work, button down shirts and nicer shoes are the rule rather than the exception. Women are a bit the opposite. While men never show their legs, women wear micro skirts and tiny shorts all the time. High heels are standard. And though women aren't bother by leaving their legs completely uncovered, to reveal any shoulders or cleavage is downright scandalous. This results in the odd site of a man in business semi-formal attire walking arm in arm with a woman in an expensive dress with very high heels and full jewelry. This might not sound out of the ordinary until you saw them turn into Burger King for dinner.

This also means that i nearly always wear a polo when going out. Though my inner athlete and my love of comfort still have me in t-shirts and basketball shorts every now and again.

Haircuts here are also somewhat more interesting than expected. Since nearly everyone has the same basic black, straight hair variety is achieved with hairgel and dyes. Men opt for one of four haircuts most commonly. The bowl, the random parts sticking up, the military or the longer shaggy look. Examples of each are provided.

The bowl

The military

The Shaggy

The random parts sticking up

Women tend towards either the bob or the classic long and straight. The interesting part is when they decide to dye it. Almost the only color i've seen used is a cross between blonde and orange. It's ..... interesting. Brown, red and normal blonde are rarely seen. See below.

The bob

The long

The strange color

Friday, May 27, 2011

School in Korea (or why I forgive a lot of my kids bad behavior)

For post number 100 (which seems crazy to me) I'll start with an update. Life is going well right now. The weather is in the high 60s-low 70s (19-23C). Remember when you live on an island where virtually everything to do is outdoors, weather is big. Next weekend is the Korean Memorial Day weekend. I will be using the time to visit some friends on the mainland and explore a bit.

When you combine those plans with my Mavs continuing to win in the NBA playoffs, it makes me a happy man. Funny story, for those of you not from Dallas, the Mavs pulled off a huge come from behind win Monday night. The game ended regulation tied at 101 each, just as my last class of the day was coming in. So it was time to close the game and teach. Except that didn't happen. The first part of that 5th grade class was spent watching the Mavs beat the Thunder in overtime. It was still an educational experience. They learned phrases like "Go Mavs!!" and "That's a foul!!" and "YYEEEEEAAAAAAA!!!!". The students quickly figured out to root for the blue team since it made the teacher happy (and a happy teacher means a fun and easy class). So by the end of the game, I had a whole room full of kids cheering every shots Dallas made. I was so proud :)

Now for more about my current home country, let's learn about the school system here. Like most countries, school begins around 8-8:30am and ends in the early afternoon. The children are taught all the basic subjects (science, math, korean, music, PE, etc) plus English. After school elementary classes cover a variety of topics from traditional drumming (very cool) to soccer to English to piano and even harmonica.

Sounds normal so far right. Where it gets crazy is with hagwons. Hagwons are very expensive private schools that run from early afternoon until late evening. Even my 1st graders go from school to hagwons and often don't get to go home until 6 or 7. For older students it gets worse. High school students are usually at at school from 8am-9 or 10pm every day. And every other Saturday is a full school day. So very often the only off day in a week will be Sunday.

The reason for this is that the best middle and high schools in Korea are extremely competitive. Students must score very highly on test to even be admitted. And getting into the best schools is the only path to the best jobs. Getting into University is even tougher. High school students literally spend months doing nothing but studying for the entrance exam so they can go to the university of their choosing. And when I say they do nothing but study, I mean they study almost none stop 16 hours a day, 7 days a week for months and months.

As a foreigner, this method of schooling strikes me overzealous in the extreme. It teaches children how to memorize a great deal of information and get better test scores but it stifles creativity and problem solving. American secondary schools are sadly lacking in many ways but they remember an important thing. Children need to be children some of the time. So when my children are bouncing off the walls in class and can't sit still, I at least understand why. In their position, I would be doing much the same thing. I try to work with this by anticipating when this buildup will be the strongest and putting kinesthetic learning into those lessons.

Suffice it to say I have a great deal of admiration for the Korean zeal to learn. It's the implementation of that desire that i might question. In plain speak, parents here are willing to sacrifice much of the happiness of childhood (and huge amounts of money) in exchange for better test scores. To me that trade simply isn't worth it. What would be ideal would be a mix of Korean and American educational systems. Take the respect and fair pay teachers get in Korea, the focus on education here and add in the American ability to relax and encouragement of the creative arts and problem solving (maybe play the video game Portal in school to encourage this). All this together would make a near perfect educational system.

And since i'm already dreaming, I'd like a Ferrari.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Everything is fine

One of the roads at Jeju National University

"I make it a point to the thank the Lord, when I got him on the line. I'm feeling good and everything is fine."
- Josh Turner "Everything is Fine"

This update will be short and sweet. School is going well. Had a couple national holidays here during the last two weeks which produced some wonderful R&R. I'm consistently playing basketball and ping pong at least once a week at the university along with various other forms of exercise (like doing pushups while a first grader sits on my back. their idea but a great workout). I even found some other people who play golf and will give that a shot when it warms up a little more.

My students preforming a drum show. It was surprisingly entertain for elementary school. Wish they'd taught us stuff like this when I was a kid!

I also decided to give in to the common Korean practice of teachers giving their cell phone numbers to students and gave it to my small school 6th grade class only. With proper discipline, this hasn't caused any problems. In fact it has provided me with a way to improve the children's English even more outside of school. Plus I get messages like the following one.

"I LOVE YOU! I'm pig :) "

On a random note, I made a friend who lives in Beijing. This of course increases the odds i'll try to get over there despite the steep Visa prices. For now though i'll stick to exploring Jeju and other parts of Korea.

PS. The last picture was the result of me being bored at school and having a little fun with photoshop.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Orientation part 2 (or why no I haven't heard of this thing you call "sleep")

Changdeok Palace

Following the exquisite reunion with the food of my homeland, I proceeded with the usual meet friends for a drink and head back at midnight thing. Two things made this night more interesting. One is I found out one of the girls at orientation was in Prague at the same time I was. We compared notes and found mutual friends, similar experiences and a wealth of joy in reminiscing. Two was that I got to witness a handsome but drunk Irishmen trying to hit on her while we were talking. I have rarely been so well entertained! His initial line was "You're gorgeous. Would you like to come back to my room." They got worse (or better depending on your point of view) from there. I won't repeat them here. I'll just say they had both she and I rolling.

I'll pause here for an amusing anecdote. While in one of our classes, we were asked to name the three most significant inventions in history. Ignoring discoveries like fire and electricity, two choices were obvious. 1 the wheel. 2 the print press. Number 3 produced some arguing though. Within my group I settled it by proposing the horseshoe and then explaining why. After I finished they agreed, which i assumed was the end of the matter. But moments later when the teacher at the front was asking for ideas, one of the girls in our group stood up, said the horseshoe was number 3 (and pointing at me) said "and he's going to explain why." Finding myself the unexpected center of attention, I proceeded to explain very briefly that the horseshoe was the main invention that moved Europe out of the dark ages (explanation below). When I finished, the teacher without a word wrote horseshoe by the third invention slot and in the area devoted to why it was, he simply wrote "because he said so!"

(for those of you who don't know: horses feet are too tender to work in fields as drought animals and oxen consume too much grain to be kept by peasants. women used to be harnessed to plows. a family's animals would all die from starvation every winter. without animals to assist farming, there was nowhere near enough food being grown to support anything. the invention of the horseshoe allowed horses, who ate less, to work in the fields. thus producing more grain. thus allowing animals to survive the winter and families to not starve to death. before you know it, they had enough food to sell and expansion and commerce quickly followed, etc)

The front gate to Changdeokgung

The next day (Tuesday) was our culture day. After presenting a morning lesson, we were taken to Changdeokgung (Changdeok Palace) which is one of the 2 most important palaces in Seoul and probably the prettiest. Our guide was a volunteer who provided fascinating history throughout and kept the experience good even as it lightly rained on us the whole way.

The "secret" garden behind the palace

From there we went to see an extremely popular variety show called Nanta. It's a show based around drumming, dancing, juggling and other impressive skills set in a kitchen and using only kitchen utensils as instruments. They even did a little cooking. I can't really do it justice except to say that it was a fantastic experience with 5 charismatic performers and I would happily go see it again.

One interesting note on the Nanta show. The audience was extremely diverse (which you would think would reduce communication) but the actors still communicated perfectly to everyone by using a mix of English, Korean and gibberish. I was really impressed.

The usual late evening in-dorm entertainment followed and my lack of sleep continued (4-5 hours average for the week). Fortunately Wednesday was our checkout day. Upon finishing, I and group of 4 of the girls headed for a bookstore (them to buy books, me to look for ideas) and then on to lunch at, you guessed it, On The Border. The 2 South Africans in the group were almost as eager as I was. Apparently their diet is extremely similar to Texans, so even though they had no real experience with Mexican food, OTB was still an instant hit. After another round of unspeakable food joy, we broke up and headed for our various rides home.


By the time I got home I was so tired I could barely think. Thankfully I called and got the next day off to catchup on my sleep and take care of a ton of errands that needed to be done. A fun weekend with friends followed and now I'm back to work with the joyful caveat that this Thursday and next Tuesday are holidays in Korea. Unfortunately Friday and Monday aren't and vacation time can't be used to make them become holidays but I'll take any time off I can get.

cool looking stone

After my first visit to Seoul I've concluded it's a great city to visit (especially if you live anywhere in Korea) but I'm happy I chose Jeju. I met several new Jeju teachers at the orientation and have been staying busy making friends with them. Life here is starting to round into the picture I had in my head when I first arrived. And that's something well worth smiling about.

More of the secret garden

Monday, May 2, 2011

Dorm life with a divine moment

Facing toward Jeju inside Namsan Tower (though admittedly it was hard to see since it was a couple hundred miles away)

Last time I left you with a teaser for my first trip to Seoul for an orientation. Well I'm hear to report that despite coming 6 months into my contract, the orientation was surprisingly useful and a fantastic experience. Of course the fantastic experience part only had little to do with the classes I attended and a lot to do with the people I attended them with.

I started by flying up a half day early on Thursday night so I could do some sightseeing. Naturally it rained the whole day Friday. Fortunately I still managed to wonder around, find the American district called Itaewon where the military base is located and even buy a can of Wolf Brand Chili. That was good for an amazed but joyful smile.

A pagoda overlooking Seoul from a park I meandered through during lunch one day

When I arrived at orientation I learned there were about 80 teachers, that we would be sharing dorm rooms and that my roommate canceled last minute. I was the only guy with a room to myself. Life is good. I could post a picture of the room here if it weren't a normal boring dorm (but it was). The first few days flew by with some good teaching tips and interesting classroom activities but I'll just hit the highlights

Namsan Tower at night

The first night I went with a mixed group to a local mexican food place. Not bad but unknown to me, better things were in store. After that we walked by a cool outdoor concert and then the group split and I went with my friend Steven to Namsan Tower (pictured above, also called Seoul Tower). Great night views of the city. An excellent first site.

Mexican food attempt number 1. Score compared to average Mexican food abroad 8/10

Of course. Who wouldn't expect to find a Korean with an Afro tap dancing to live music in a park?

An interesting tradition at the base of the tower. Lovers come here and attach locks to the trees and rails with custom messages of devotion written on them and then throw away the key to symbolize their unbreakable love

The Han River, which bisects Seoul, as seen from Namsan Tower

The next day (Saturday) was spent attending classes and making friends from 9am-9:30pm. A couple drinks afterwards and some very entertaining conversation in the dorm's common area rounded out the day (and would become a staple of days to come). Sunday was more of the same. It may have been Easter but we still had class all the live-long day. Still, the other teachers were a superb group, so the experience was still good.

But Monday is when the sublime struck. After another fun day of classes, we were released at 6 to work on a lesson we had to present the next day. Me being me, my partner and I had already finished earlier that afternoon. We decided to go out for dinner. And then someone told me there was an On The Border in Seoul. Of course I had to go. And to my complete and utter shock, it was exactly the same as the one near my house in Dallas. The salsa was spicy. The queso was fantastic. The enchiladas were perfect. The margaritas were strong. It was divine. Ambrosia mixed with Manna from heaven couldn't have tasted better. I could barely speak I was so happy. I just ate and ate until I couldn't take it anymore. That meal was probably the single happiest moment I've had since I moved to Korea.

Real, unfiltered, unaltered Mexican. Score compared to average Mexican food abroad 6,000,000,000/10

For future reference of anyone traveling with me, I will be eating here EVERY SINGLE TIME I am in Seoul from now on.

But wait there's more! Part 2 coming soon