Sunday, 30 November 2008

Student Art

If there's one thing my students love to do, it's ignoring me and putting pen to paper, or desk or hand. Often they idle away their time by writing things down. At times mocking me or just trying to get my attention and also expressing their love for the latest Teenage Korean Pop Sensation. From time to time they draw pictures, sometimes they give them to me and sometimes they refuse to let me anywhere near them. It is almost automatic or instinctive for them, they cannot stop doing it. I used to take no notice of them and throw them away but now I find them very funny, especially if they are small notes, which amuse me greatly. Here are some of the 'presents' that I've received recently.

The above one is from my most prolific student who cannot take the pencil out of her hand.

Above, one of the funnier ones I've been given. Still funny to me now, but always leaves me wondering why he thought I looked like Harpo Marx.

The passing of time. More productive and creative than my presentation classes.

Gavin. Happy birthday, 81 years old! You fail. Great stuff. I wonder what they can come up with next.

From my lowest level and my most unique/talkative student right now. Well at least he said please.

Usually for my first class of the day I take a coffee into the lesson with me and drink it when I have chance.

One of my classes doesn't approve of the coffee and always demands that I stop drinking. They're just jealous.

Apparently that is what my dog would/does look like. Lovely, apparently.

If I get anymore interesting ones I will post them here.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Korean (Bare) Minimum Wage

A few weeks ago some documents were handed to all Western teachers in our school which we duly signed and didn't take much notice of. Not very important stuff, but this week I took another look at them and they reveal the minimum wage of employees in Korea. The minimum hourly wage here is 3,770 ₩on (just a few ₩on more than the price of a Big Mac) which right now works out at £1.67 an hour. At the moment the won is doing terribly bad as a currency, at an eleven year low to the US Dollar, but even if the currency was strong, it would still work out to be a very low minimum wage. Unlivable on in both the US and in the UK. I don't know what jobs people get the minimum wage for - certainly none of my co-workers are on anywhere near that low a wage.

Perhaps this helps to explain why huge numbers of young adults live with their parents, sometimes into their 30's. Also this makes you understand the obsession of people to get married and why older people question people who remain unmarried for a long time. Maybe this helps to explain the importance people put in education here in order for parents' children to climb as high in society as they can.

Looking at things here, electricity, gas and phone bills are cheap but I don't know about housing costs. For the Westerner here life can be very comfortable, with basic things such as food and drink quite low, added to this, most foreigners don't pay housing rent either. I am earning less than I would be back home but am able to save a very significant percentage of my wage, far more than what I would earn back in England. Today is pay day for workers at my academy and I look at my wage for the month I wonder who could hope to save anything or what kind of life they could have if they earn the minimum here?

Currently the minimum wage for people of my age is £5.73 per hour. That's 13,000 ₩on.

Culture clash: Battle on

Right now we are in the middle of Autumn. It's not very cold but from December it will start to get there. However, many of the Korean staff (not children) are behaving as if they have to work in Arctic conditions. One person in particular is being phenomenally ridiculous about the 'cold'. One day this week I counted down her return to the teachers room from class until she turned the heating on. She lasted six seconds, and I will be watching to see if she can beat that one. That included the now mandatory moan of "its cold" before the lunge for the heating. Surely she means "I'm cold", along with all its connotations. I am trying to casually turn down the heating whenever I get the chance so we'll see where that gets me. Things got better on Friday, one Korean teacher yelled it's too hot and turned off the heater, so it's not just me feeling heat.

There seems to be a bit of a divide between Westerners and Koreans. Westerners are saying it's a little cold at times so they dress appropriately. The Koreans by and large constantly say they are cold and don't always dress so fittingly. Their usual approach to the situation is to put the heating on asap and right now its very warm especially if you are me and someone who dresses according to the weather. If they are so cold why are they dressing like its a nice Spring day? It's all in their mind. If you keep saying you're cold, then how else are you going to feel?!

My seat in the teachers room is right next to the heater/air conditioner, so in theory when its cold I get close to the heat, and in Summer I get a lot of the benefit of instant cooling. At the moment all I get is the blast of the heater. The record for the heater so far is 29°C but I'm expecting to reach 30°C some time soon. I know my nemesis is dying to crank it up.

A further thing, the actual classrooms are at times like saunas. They are so hot right now that every class almost begs me to ask for the heating to go off. I am told that some of the classrooms on the lower level are colder than on my level and I think I would enjoy those more. But at least we are getting heating. Almost certainly many smaller schools won't have theirs on right now.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Pressures in Korea

Today in my 3rd class after the usual weekly test was finished I noticed one student, a boy of around ten or eleven years-old, hadn't finished one section. I asked him why he hadn't done it. He made a mistake and quickly realised it, but by this time it was too late, test time was over. He then broke down and cried for the remainder of the class. Head down bawling wildly, almost without stopping, for over thirty minutes. It was so loud that I had to tell two Korean teachers in other rooms that basically he's crying because he screwed up. The rest of the class had no sympathy with him and most of the students laughed at what was going on - though I tried in vain to stop it. The class objectives went out of the window and little of the lesson was taught. The boy knew what was coming.

My workplace has a system where if students have a bad test, don't do their homework or misbehave etc, then they have to stay behind after their classes finish - sometimes up to 2 hours and study. It's called 재시, or Jaeshi. It can be effective and is a good deterrent at times as nobody at all wants that. Especially Middle schoolers as their last class finishes at 10:20pm.

I have become partially immune to the tears of a child (at my workplace!). Though it is never nice to see and especially if they are young and maybe have somehow hurt themselves or if they are simply someone who is a great kid, you quickly realise that children do cry and they will get over it very quickly. You do your best with the situation and try to makes things better but kids are durable. The fact is though, Korean children have to put up with things like this because they study much harder and for much longer than most other countries. Certainly for much longer than I did. But this does not mean that their studying is better. Their English proficiency rates, when factoring in how much their parents spend on English classes are appalling.

I think back to my time as a student and I don't recall any pressure from my family and there was no external pressure from society to do well, to get to a certain position in life. Korea seems to be the opposite. It gets worse the older they get, until they graduate High School with numerous high pressure situation tests throughout the years. All students go to academies after school and often come home after midnight. They cannot get much sleep and certainly have a very restricted and brief childhood with very little playtime after the age of thirteen. Some older kids are like zombies and I've seen several falling asleep in class - as evidenced by the picture below I took when I worked at my previous academy. Would I be any different?

Long have I held the view that most students here don't learn subjects, they learn what to do to pass them. There is clearly something wrong with the demands of the curriculum where they have to get goods results to get to good universities. I'm no expert on this but I can only comment on what I've seen in the three years I've been here. You don't envy them and usually sympathise with them, but you have to acknowledge that they are also in a privileged position where they have the opportunity to potentially improve themselves with extra classes. It's at times cruel but they all have to go through it but I am very glad I didn't grow up like this.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Speed vs. Light

Tonight the streets of Chilgok, Daegu were somewhat eerily quiet as a fog came down and enveloped us all. At times it looked almost like daybreak, a very different and slightly intangible feeling. Certainly a different feeling than normal for that time, perhaps adding a touch of excitement or the unusual. Cars sped through the mist but even the omnipotent neon struggled to pierce through the streets and sidewalks. It seemed to me that even the usual sounds were muted or muffled. All very enjoyable especially as the temperature was up on most recent nights. A nice change of weather and something you don't see enough of in Korea. Here are some of the things that caught my eye.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Hard work does pay off (Hapkido 1st Dan black belt)

...and 50 weeks later I receive my black belt.

Saturday came and went, along with many emotions. Anticipation, expectation, apprehension, relief, pride and satisfaction just some of them. I had my latest Hapkido test this time for Black Belt (1st Dan lower) and was also given my Black Belt for my test in September (Dans 1 and 2 come in three grades, lower, middle and higher). I am now a 합기도 일단

When I started my training some fifty weeks ago the goal was never to become a black belt. I didn't know if it would be possible and I didn't know what level of skill I would need to achieve. I was just training for fun and for something positive to do after work. It was also too far into the future to think about. But after a few months of progression through the belts I knew it was possible and the motivation it gave me enabled me to train harder. Throughout, my Master and his assistant have been amazing and given me support and guidance throughout and every session has had many laughs even though I don't speak much Korean. I owe them a great deal and I feel that I have to improve a lot more to show I deserve my new level.

After September's test I knew I had passed and would be given my new belt in the pre-test ceremony in November. White, yellow, blue, red and brown belts are ones that previous students have been using and are given to you by your Master, not to keep but to use until such time as you have your own black belt. However, my Master refused to tell me that I had passed thus planting a small seed of doubt in my mind. The prospect of not being given my belt before the latest test was one I was fearing but not one I dwelled on until the eve of the test. The brown belt is ugly and four months of wearing it was more than enough.

I can tell you that my shiny new belt is fantastic and I was so pleased to wear it for my latest test. It's more than met all my expectations and is already precious to me. It has my Dojang in Hangul as well as my name in English, both in gold-ish sewn into either side of the belt. I was also given an embossed folder containing a document confirming my ranking and also a card which is a licence to practice Hapkido.

During practice the assistant trainer had indicated that there would be many Middle school students in my test, but there was only two Elementary school kids with me including one girl who has been in each of my tests so far (I was so pleased when she too picked up her black belt, knowing that she had worked as hard as me). Due to some time constraints my test was changed to my shortest so far, around three minutes. Half of the things I'd been practicing were left out, which included many of my strong points. I got a little confused at something we hadn't practiced in the week leading up to the test and made a mistake, but nothing really significant. After each tests, the judges ask some of the students questions and sometimes ask them to repeat movements. I've been asked before and had to show techniques and talk, but thankfully this time that wasn't necessary. I literally would not have been able to answer any questions because my mouth was bone dry. I wouldn't have been able to make any noise at all.

This was my sixth test day and probably the easiest so far but by far the most enjoyable due to being so happy. Before and after, many many kids were asking me the same questions they always ask me - in Korean - but it was still all a bit weird for me. I'm old enough to be almost everyones father there and am twice the size of some of them. After all the tests were over I was given the task of handing out hamburgers to all the kids who had taken part that day.

So what now for me? Can I continue and progress through the ranks or does it end here?

I will keep going to practice even though it's a cold walk at night on my own right now and 'everyone' is out enjoying themselves at that time. I anticipate the next test to be in January and expect to pass that one followed by one in March and then a further one should I continue in May potentially making me 1st Dan Higher. Beyond that I don't know. I've been told that it takes one year to go from 1st Dan to taking the 2nd Dan test. My contract finishes early October so I don't know if time-wise it will be possible (if not I may pack it in some time next year). Its certainly something to aim for. The 2nd Dan belt is the same as the 1st Dan BUT with a yellow stripe through the middle. Quite simply it looks very cool.

I have met and worked with many people who have been working as English teaches in Korea. Many learn some of the language, many don't and even more just go boozing as often as they can. Some take up many of the local traditions here and see many sides of this country while some just live their life as they would back home. I'm happy to have something to show from my time here other than more money in my bank and plenty of hangovers.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

War Of Nutrition

Is Seasonal Affective Disorder possible or is it all in the mind?

I don't have S.A.D. but the weather is changing and it is impossible to ignore the coming of Christmas. Although it is some six weeks away, nearly every Westerner in Korea gets nostalgic and quite frankly will not want to be here come December-time. Just today a good friend of mine told me he was going home over the festive period and I must admit I was jealous. So. how do you combat homesickness right now?

A friend of mine here seems to be trying to find new things to do - aren't we all? - and I would suggest making your own food whenever possible. This is a skill you will never regret acquiring. So many foreigners here eat in restaurants and get take outs because they are inexpensive and convenient but it's a short-term solution because when they finish their time in Korea, that won't always be possible. A way 'back home' for me is through cooking. How can you not miss home cooking? You can't get anything to come close to it here.

To re-energise myself on Monday I made this dish - a local one relative to my region in England which most families there can make easily. Simple, quick to make and not bad to eat. It might not look like much but instantly I was transported back home. If only for the two days it took to polish it all off.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Perspective. Differences a World away

Today marked the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War. The war to end all wars.

It is very hard these days for most Europeans to imagine the horrors of so long ago. We truly do live in a different age, but the sacrifices and fatalities of those involved must never be forgotten. This must never be allowed to happen again.

Here in Korea I haven't seen or heard anywhere even acknowledging Remembrance Day (CNN apart), not even from co-workers. Why am I stunned about this? Korea was never involved in that war. Should it be covered here, should people know about what happened? Should the people here care? Yes, they should. But this is Korea and Asia, so what do we have on November 11th every year?

Pepero Day, or 빼빼로 데이

A truly ridiculous fake celebration day. It could only happen in Asia. Perhaps. Breaking it down, a few years ago a snack-food company engineered a day where people should give their chocolate covered biscuit stick (various shapes/flavours and sizes) to their friends/teachers etc etc. It is a little similar to Valentines Day but has no meaning and if anyone tells you otherwise they are lying. It is a marketing tool. The actual biscuit is not particular tasty, more bland really, but most snacks, toffees and chocolates in my opinion here are seldom flavoursome.

The whole thing is hard to avoid as you find most 24hour convenience stores with displays outside showing their Pepero and stickers plastered all over their windows too. Essentially you are paying for the packaging. The boxes are VERY light and pretty empty. But by and large are pretty cheap so everyone can afford to buy some if they so wish. Most of the boxes have English on them but have slightly exaggerated expressions such as "I ♥ you", "You have all of my Heart", "You make me so happy". When receiving things like this I must admit to feeling a little uncomfortable even though it is meaningless and probably should say "My mother made me give you this".

It IS easy to be cynical about many things here but this is pretty harmless and the students seem to enjoy the whole process and it is relatively inexpensive. This year I got far more than I expected and I also cannot deny that it is nice to receive any gift that a student gives but it's total fluff and Über Asian.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Two years together

This weekend was, roughly, the 2nd anniversary of my relationship with my girlfriend. What a great two years we've had together. I am lucky to have met her, to know her and even luckier to have been in a relationship with her for so long. To celebrate we went for a meal at the same restaurant we had our first date in and (I think) we had the same meal too.

If I post pictures of anywhere I've been with my girlfriend I am very rarely in them because I generally take the photographs when we go out anywhere and it's my girlfriend that is usually 'on screen'. As a consequence we are rarely pictured together in any decent photos. That's why it's so good to see a picture of us together having fun.

A good day was had all-round and we look forward to more great times in our future together. Onwards and upwards!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Out and about: Killing time

Yesterday I found myself with three hours to go before work and desperate to avoid going back to my computer again. I decided to take the time out to enjoy the decent weather and try to appreciate the surroundings of Autumn. I took my camera with me as I usually do and tried to picture what I would be seeing. I was surprised with how well the results came out.

The first thing to mention is the beautiful blue sky. No clouds in sight, very sunny. I can only imagine how dull and colourless back home in England will be right now. Omnipresent grey filling the skies, depressing all but the few. Though apartment buildings dominate large parts of the skyline here they cannot block out everything.

The slogan for Daegu (my city of residence) is Colorful Daegu, which is a bit ironic as it is far from the truth. Most times. However as these photographs illustrate, Autumn is a very rewarding season. The trees which can be found lining most roads right now are striking.

The area I live in is dominated by some close-by mountains and hills. The one which is closest is called Unamgee. Many times have I gone hiking there and always have I enjoyed myself. I prefer to go alone with my MP3 player for company, sometimes for exercise and sometimes for pleasure. These days, despite going to Hapkido, I feel out of shape and the change of weather makes it perfect to get out there and maybe have some fun too. So I decided to go hiking again and here are some of the things that I saw.

There are probably hundreds of ways to go up this hill/mountain and I don't think I even hike all the way to the top but the way I go in enjoyable and familiar and eliminates the chances of stumbling. The way up is steeper than the pictures suggest, but we can also see there are places where you can take a well earned breather. As you can see the sun is extremely bright so I had no idea how good/bad photos would be.

I wonder what the rock-piles like this mean. Perhaps nothing. The surrounding trees allied with the sunlight make for an enjoyable hike though the shadows do make it easier to lose your balance when walking but equally more enjoyable.

I have reached the top of my hike. It didn't take too long, maybe twenty five minutes or so but as most of it was very steep my legs were burning at times. A chance to sit down if needed and also to see part of the area I live and work in. As you can see its not just people of my age who can go hiking here.

The walk down is more treacherous because of the consequences of falling but again that makes it more interesting. I have slipped here many times though never doing myself much harm. Again another place to rest and appreciate the brilliant sunshine and your surroundings or perhaps just to think by yourself.

The journey home is not over. I have to walk past an outdoor gym where middle aged Koreans exercise in the fresh air. A good idea I think, when it's not too cold. Again I wonder if this could ever happen back home.

And still not away from Unamgee as there is a man-made lake with some fish to be found and fountains sometimes spraying jets of water (though there is not much to do ON the lake). People of all ages come here at various times during the week. Weekends are pretty packed too so I tend to go hiking, when I do, during the mornings. Autumn is clearly here and it won't be long before Winter displaces the colours from view, so time to enjoy.

By now the battery had ran out of power on my camera. Time to go home again and then to work with a smile on my face.
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