Sunday, September 27, 2009

A hospital visit

Moving to a new country brings a few challenges, one of them being having one's body acclimate to a new environment. This past Monday, my body decided to let me know that it was pissed and wasn't feeling well in the form of a fever, right during the middle of my teaching day. I started the day feeling fine, a little hungry (when am I not hungry?), and ready to teach my little tykes how to pronounce their "r's" and "l's". Three hours into teaching, I had a horrible headache and felt like I should sit down, take a break. Monday's are the longest days and I barely have time between classes to collect my thoughts, so that didn't help. I went downstairs and had Mrs. Moon take my temperature. Sure enough, I had a fever (Mama, I'm not going to say how high, just be assured that I'm completely fine now). The news that I had a fever sent Ms. Lee into a mild state of shock (she told me the next day she didn't sleep a wink because she was so worried). I insisted that all I needed was some rest and that I had to leave for the rest of the day, but this was met with Ms. Lee's strong refusal and insistence that I immediately go to the hospital. After arguing for a few minutes, I succumbed and Mr. Moon and I took a cab to Seoul National Police Hospital.

Mr. Moon, who is the assistant director, translated everything and explained the situation once at the hospital. I was given a mask to wear and after informing the doc of my medical history (or lack thereof) and taking about a dozen different tests, was ordered to lie in bed while an IV was kindly injected into my body. I asked a few nurses and the doc if this was truly necessary but was told that I could not leave the hospital until my fever was gone. The IV was some sort of saline, which Mr. Moon translated for me with his cell phone Korean-English dictionary. I think they grew a little annoyed with me and my questions, so I just shut up and waited for the fever to go down. It took an entire five hours before I was finally deemed healthy enough to leave the hospital. The tests came back and the flu virus, both regular the and H1N1 strains, were negative. It was the common cold, coupled together with screaming kids and a little fatigue, caused me to have a fever.

It was an experience, not something I wanted, but fear of catching the swine flu virus here is as common as kimchi being served with your meal. Ms. Lee was not going to compromise her hagwon (which is what private schools in Korea are called) with a white man bringing swine flu and scaring the little bundles of joy, and the money they bring in, away. I'm currently going through a unit in one of my classes that covers illnesses. The unit, a little ambiguous in its naming, is called "What is Wrong With You?" We inevitably had a few sentences that used the word flu in them and one of the girls asked me why there were no sentences in the book with the word influenza. I explained that flu and influenza is the same thing but the students quickly tried to correct me by informing me that no, no, influenza will kill you! I tried explaining that the regular flu kills also, about 36,000 Americans annually, but they wouldn't believe me. How is it back home right now? Are people as paranoid about the flu as they are here?

I'm totally fine now, after battling this cold with sleep, juice, and what else but kimchi. (If you've seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Weeding, think of using Windex to cure everything. Except instead of Windex, use kimchi. haha.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Finally getting situated

It's been three weeks since I've arrived to the land of the morning calm and I think I'm getting used to life here, sort of. Every day has been one that brings new sights, sounds, and experiences. I think every person sees the world in their own way and so I'll talk about the things that have been most noteworthy and interesting, hopefully they are for you too.

As surprising as it is, I really don't miss driving. That may be because I spent an average of 3 hours a day in my car for my last job, but not having to deal with traffic and everything that comes along with it (i.e. road rage) is refreshing. I think I'm pretty aggressive when driving, but driving here would require some sort of mental preparation and a solid insurance plan. Rules of the road seem merely like recommendations of the road. Apart from all of the cars and buses on the road, you have these lunatic guys on scooters weaving in and out of traffic. If they can't get by on the road, watch out and get out of the way because they use the sidewalks too. Walking along on the sidewalks, as wide as they are, aren't wide enough for the scooters. What makes the sidewalks even more congested is that cars sometimes drive down them! Typically this is cars that park in front of buildings and need to drive down a section, since there are trees and barriers preventing them from hoping onto the road. A lot of this is very similar to Ukraine, except for the scooters.

Something else to watch out is the old Korean women power-walking down the sidewalks and walkways of Seoul. They have a word for these superhuman women, which is the Ajuma. I understand that elderly should have preference for seating on subways and should be respected, but if you somehow get in the way of her path, don't be surprised when you feel a sharp punch from an Ajuma's fist or elbow. They're treated somewhat like scooters, which is that they have the right of way and if you don't move, expect trouble. What makes it funny is the shoes they wear. I need to take a few pictures of these to fully make you understand what were working with here. Imagine taking the shoes the spice girls wore during their heyday and make them curved on the bottom, so that when walking, you bob up and down. Pics will be up as soon as I get a chance to snap a few.

An anecdote I find notable is what happens fairly often to the blond girls that come there to teach. There were about 10 of us sitting outside about a week ago near a restaurant a short walk from my apartment building, hanging out and talking. There were some new teachers that I just met and as I was talking with one of the teachers, we noticed an older Korean man screech to a stop on his bike and stare at all of us in bewilderment. We heard him manage to say "Wow! So many!". I guess it was a big deal for him to see so many white people together at the same time? He stood there for a bit and decided to come over to ask a simple question. He pointed to the two blonds in the group and asked "Russian?" We kindly told him no, we're all teachers. Now, this happens to blond girls here because there are Russian prostitutes that move to Korea and being blond is often understood to define ones way of making a living. The old man said thank you and went on his way. The blond girl teachers I've talked to say this happens to them a few times a week and is considered normal. I can't even begin to think of what kind of lawsuits these inquires would start back home.

I'm getting the gist of teaching (or at least I think I am) and my students are getting used to me. The way they refer to us teachers is pretty funny. "Vitaliy teacher! Vitaliy teacher! Hiiiiiiii!" But if its rushed, it sounds like "Bitari teacher, Bitari teacher!" The Korean language doesn't have distinct sounds for the English letters r and l, which is actually one sound (so I've been told). So instead of hearing the letter l, you hear the letter r. "Turtle Bay" was a story one of my classes read and teaching these 8 year olds how to actually say "turtle" and not "tultre" took more time that I expected.

I've been venturing out and exploring the city, which has been really cool and there is more than enough to see. Below are some pictures from Changdeokgung Palace, which was originally built in 1405 and served as the residential and administrative complex for the Joseon Dynasty. Most of the buildings were destroyed when the Japanese invaded the country centuries ago, but have been rebuilt since. I took an English tour of the area together with a few other teachers, but one thing that surprised me was the amount of international tourists that were on the tour. People from everywhere and languages I could not decipher.

The entrance gate to Changdeokgung

The cliche and ubiquitous peace sign

The underside of the entry gate

In front of Injeongjeon, which was used for major state affairs, the coronation of new kings, and receiving foreign envoys.

From what I remember, a lot of these colors and paints were considered royal because they were imported and only the wealthy could afford them. The Koreans traded a lot with the Chinese, and the influence still remains to this day. Koreans used the Chinese alphabet until Hangul (the Korean alphabet) came to be the dominant and native language.

A type of sun clock, dating back to the 15th century.

안녕히계세요 = annyeonghi gyeseyo = good bye

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A few pictures


Peugeot dealership near my apartment

Socks for sale in one of the subway stations

Saturday, September 12, 2009

My apartment

Here's a video of my a typical apartment English teacher's get to live in while working in Seoul, South Korea.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Time to teach!

Wow, where do I begin. I'll start with work. The name of the school that I teach at is JM English School. This is a private English school (called hagwons in Korea) that has 8 foreign teachers, including me, teaching English to kids between the ages of 4 and 15. Walking into the place, one might think that its a pre-school because of the friendly looking animals painted all over the walls. The building is 5 stories and is considered a pretty large hagwon for Korea. Ms. Lee is the director, not Mr. Moon, like I may have mentioned to some people. When I arrived at my apartment the first day, I asked Mr. Moon if he is the director, to which he replied yes. I brought a gift with me, a box of taffy my sister helped me purchase right before the flight, but Mr. Moon set it down and left it at my apartment! The reason? Ms. Lee showed up and I instantly realized she's the person in charge.

My schedule (as of yesterday, its changed every day I've been here) is 11:00am to 8:00pm Monday, Wednesday, Friday and 10:00am to 7:00pm Tuesday and Thursday. I have two kindergarten classes, in which the kids are 5 years old (which is 4 years old if we use the western system. A child is considered to be a year old on the day they're born). The other four classes are kids that are 9 and 10 years old. Most of them are pretty well behaved but there are a few little brats that are spoiled and won't take direction from me. Now, I don't really have much experience with kids, so I'm not sure what works and its been a learning experience this past week. One thing I have figured out is a carrot and sticks approach can work, in the form of rewarding kids with stars next to their name on the whiteboard if they answer my questions and stay in their seats. Get five stars on the board, and you'll get a star from me in your folder. Get 25 stars in your folder, you'll be rewarded with a prize (prizes have yet to be found by yours truly, I need ideas. Stickers wont do here, maybe pencils? What do kids like that won't empty out my wallet?)

Some of the kids are really cute though. One of the four year old girls, Dorothy, just looks at me when I ask her "What is this? (pointing to a picture of a table)". I tell her the answer, which she promptly recites, but then looks away with a cute smile, overcome by her shyness. On one of the days, she started crying out of nowhere. Fortunately, one of the Korean co-teachers was in the classroom and took her out in the hallway. Turns out, she simply had to go pee. After her return, the little girl came up to me and gave my leg a big hug. It was a kodak moment, I couldn't help but smile. I'll take a picture with these kids later and post them here.

When some of the boys misbehave, I simply erase one of their stars on the whiteboard and that works most of the time. Its backfired a few times, in the form of crying, not responding to me, or getting mad and hitting their heads on the table. Its a freaking star on the board kid! When the 10 year olds get crazy and don't listen, I just raise my voice (I've only had to do this once) and the terror quiets them down. All in all, the vast majority are well behaved and like me. The most common question I've gotten from the kids is "Teacher! Teacher! How many centimeters are you?" When I tell them my height, their reactions are hilarious. Its like the answer is the most amazing thing they've ever heard.

The other foreign teachers have been very helpful in trying to figure out how to teach. It's been difficult understanding the director because of her English abilities, which aren't what I've been used to, but I'll have to make do. One of the guys is from Virginia, another guy from Niagra Falls, Canada, a girl from Ottawa, a girl from Toronto, two sisters from Pennsylvania, and a guy from Seattle that went to SPU. All of us graduated from college recently and everyone is pretty cool.

I've hung out with the other teachers almost every day. I went to a baseball game last weekend, which are more fun than Mariners games back home. The stadium is divided in two, with each side cheering for their team. There is a platform on either side with cheerleaders leading the crowd with cheers, but they're not like in the US. The entire crowd cheers and sings along with the cheerleaders, which are led by a guy with a whistle and four girls. It really gets you into the game and makes it more interesting to watch.

Last note. I have a cell phone and you can text me! The number, to text from the US, is 011-82-10-5784-0637.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I made it to Korea!

Hi guys,

Like I told so many of you, I'm creating this blog so that I can keep you updated on my life in Seoul as an English teacher. I've wanted to do this since high school and after graduating from UW, the chance presented itself and so here I am. I loved living in Seattle for the past five years but I felt like if I didn't do this sooner than later, I wouldn't do it at all.

I left from Portland's airport a couple hours late, causing the plane to arrive four hours late to Tokyo's Narita airport. The airline put me into a hotel for the night (Radisson, pretty nice) and I flew out to Seoul the next day, but not before running into a friend from college, Anna Bickenbach, at the airport! Super random. After a bite to eat, we parted and I was on my way.

I was picked up by a taxi service as I stepped through immigration in Seoul. The guy bought me a cold water bottle right away and drove me to my apartment in Songpa-Gu, Seoul. Driving through the city during rush hour took about 1.5 hours, but then again this city is unlike anything I've every seen, even New York, when it comes to how large it is. 10 million residents in the city, 24 million for the metropolitan area. Mr. Moon, a middle aged man that is my school's co-director met us and showed me my place. My sister helped me get a gift, a box of taffy, for the director before taking off, but the guy forgot to take it after handing it to him! The reason might be because Ms. Lee, the other co-director, seems to be the one in charge. I'll talk about her in a future post.

Three of the teachers came by and introduced themselves that night. We walked over to the subway station, Jamsil Station, got some food and I got to see a bit of where I'll be living for the next year. The walk to the subway station takes a little under 10 minutes. The area is pretty cool though and is dominated by Lotte everything. Lotte world, Lotte department store, Lotte hotels, etc. My apartment building is only four stories tall, but the area is incredibly dense, with a variety of shops everywhere you look. Walking through the streets, I can't help but notice the plethora of smells culminating behind every building. The air is nothing like what the pacific northwest has to offer, and the street vendors, restaurants, cars, mopeds, garbage bins, and people walking by with their own scents, will take some getting used to.

The next day, one of the new teachers and I went to a hospital about 45 minutes away via the subway to get our health exams. Seems like everyone here is on edge about swine flu. Just today, I was wandering through the isles of a little convenience shop and the lady behind the counter, in her limited English, asked me if I was new. I told her yes, just a few days. She immediately covered her face and said something like "influenza! influenza!", to which I replied no, no, I'm fine, I promise (I think). Needless to say, she didn't seem to want me in her store so I left. A lot of the women here wear masks over their face due to the scare. But I digress. The health exam (which cost 88,000 Korean won, which is about $70 USD) consisted of 13 stations, testing us on things ranging from weight, height, temperature, blood draw, urine samples, chest xrays, hearing, eye sight, and a few others. I had to change clothes and wear a hospital gown (XL large was the largest, not long enough for my body though), but the tests were done with the highest efficiency I've ever experienced. The 13 tests took about 45 minutes, which I doubt our current US system would be able to pull off for $70 without reform (Go Obama! :) Afterwards, I wandered around downtown for a bit and saw some more sights.

I'm going to start teaching on Monday, so I'll blog sometime next week. Later! (Below are some pics I've managed to take during the past few days)

A tower, driving through the city. I can't remember what this one is called.

A tower in Jung-Gu. I walked inside and Samsung seemed to dominate most things, although I did see Boeing had offices on one floor.

This is a five minute walk from my apartment. Lotte amusement park with two man made lakes surrounding it.

Lotte amusement park

An ancient gate in Seoul, sorry, don't remember the name. Jung-Gu area

Jung-Gu area