Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Winding up my student

Today one of my students leapt out of his skin. Well not quite but he produced a physical burst of emotion at something I said.

At the moment my last class on Tuesdays and Fridays has just four students. Four boys. Four Middle school boys who, being honest need a lot of help as their vocabulary and grammar are both not so great. But they try, they always do their homework, do what I ask them and communicate to the best of ability. On my part I try to make class as fun as possible, sometimes play games and make it fast paced so they don't get bored. I think we all enjoy the class right now.

On Tuesdays we have a listening class. We have a quick test, go through some practice sentences and then listen again to the CD where I in turn ask comprehension and discussion questions often tenuously linked. I have mentioned before that I believed I was close to running out of questions and continually repeating things (not noticeably to students) so now I try and make up some ridiculous scenarios and quiz the students on what they think or would do should this happen to them.

Last week I asked one boy - my favourite in the class because he really is a great lad and very funny too so I like to wind him up - what he would do if his family had a disaster, all their money was gone and he had to marry someone to bring money back into his family. I then added that he only had a limited selection of people to chose from and mentioned some Korean women who society here dubs as 'unattractive' physically. He flipped out, and rejected the suggestion of marriage and said he would rather starve, well I am paraphrasing him as he doesn't know the word starve.

Today, purely because he couldn't pronounce the letter 'C' and instead, on and off for forty minutes insisted it was pronounced 'she' I offered up another scenario. He is on a plane for ten hours and must choose between two seats. One is next to Korean Olympic champion weightlifter Jang Mi-Ran and the other is next to Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Or rather, preposterously, Lee Myung-bak's daughter (I don't know if he has one) and Jang Mi-Ran's (fictional) twin sister. I then described the women as looking exactly the same as their father/twin sister facially but body-wise they would have what Koreans call an S-line figure.

What followed first was a bit of a leap in the air as he couldn't quite believe the question. Then came a facial tick that can only be described as looking like a centipede buried deep beneath his skin manipulating his entire mouth and jaw. We had the obligatory "OH MY GOD" several times as he rocked back and forth in his chair. I thought his head was going to spin off. I felt like I was watching one of those Korean dramas where the acting is sometimes hysterically over the top. Of course he said he wouldn't get on the plane. Just like B.A. off the A-Team.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Posters don't motivate staff, and neither does criticism

On Thursday we arrived at work and something was different. A big poster inside the teachers room (see picture - obscured to remove my academy logo). When we saw this a few of us chuckled. I don't know why. It just seemed an unnecessary motivational banner. Was this for the foreign teachers or the Korean staff? Still better than those 'you don't have to be crazy to work here but it helps' ones. Teaching CAN be fun, I have fun every day but I don't need to be told. I'd rather see a Learning Is Fun poster in the classrooms

Anyway. It's just a picture. Right now the atmosphere is not so super at work. A number of changes have been made to the curriculum. No big deal for us foreign teachers, but the changes keep coming and they're not always for the better. However the changes are a big deal for the Korean staff. They seem to be under a lot of pressure, getting lots of stress from management and demands are increasing on both their time and energy.

Last night a couple of use were talking about it after work and going over the things we thought were bad ideas and mistakes. We ended up going for some makgeolli (막걸리) to wind down. Yesterday at work the Korean teachers (not 'us') were given a letter that would be circulated to parents and detailed a number of things that management thought were going wrong. I don't want to go into details but the letter went down badly with my Korean co-workers. They were shocked and I think angry at the content. My thoughts - less slogans more understanding and appreciation please for the hard work that Korean teacher do at.

On the move again

Awaiting my visa I bided my time before emailing one of my managers on why it was taking so long. Before I could contact her two of the support team of my academy came to my branch to talk to everyone checking everything was OK. They told me there were a few delays but that they've applied for it. They gave me my passport and told me to bring it back at the end of September, presumably because they thought I might be going away at Chuseok. I'm not worried about the new visa, they said I didn't need any more things and it was just a delay.

And then came the second piece of news. I'd have to leave my apartment around November time. In short, the landlord of the building I live in is very difficult to deal with. He is not forthcoming with things he needs to provide and very slow and reluctant about fixing things with the apartments that really need fixing. He appears to be a curmudgeonly difficult middle aged man. And he also seems to be 'anti-foreigner' in some respects. Giving one example, there is a key to my apartment and he won't give it to us. Which, when you're paying the rent means its kind of your key and he needs to give it to you.

So, the support team have decided that enough is enough and they can't deal with him for any longer than they need to and won't be renewing the deal on my current apartment. So I have to move out in November. I don't know if that's the beginning or the end of that month, presumingly the end. I don't have any real say in this matter. I didn't know how my wife would feel but as she really dislikes the landlord she is looking forward to moving.

So where to then? The team told me that I would be staying 'in the area' but looking around I don't see anywhere obvious. They have reassured me that I will be moving to a place for two rather than the single room that I used to live in. They know I'm married so I've been promised a big enough place. We'll see, promises and reality aren't always the same thing. Given that I pay an extra 100,000won a month I am expecting a big apartment for two.

If pushed on the move, I'd say I am against it. I actually like where I live, the place is more than good enough for two people, the lay out is great and during the eight months we've been here I think we've both got used to living here. The big, big thing that I like about this place is that the three rooms are exposed to lots of natural light. Before, I felt like I lived in a cave, or a coffin, so dark were the places I'd been but here it's always bright. But move we shall do. I think the team will regret it when they have to help move all the stuff we've accumulated. That's going to be a nightmare for them but hopefully not for us.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Taekwondo doesn't get any easier

Motivation, where art thou? Back in the dojang again for the first time in four weeks due to holidays. The Summer break was more than necessary for all of us and it's still almost too hot to practice, but practice we did. After the inactivity I found that although I remembered a lot of the things we did my muscles were asleep and I was I'm still very stiff as I write this.

Everyone was back at taekwondo and there was a new face too. A Korean housewife has joined the class. She is a friend of the Master's wife. She is starting at white belt as today was her first day. I hope she enjoys it and sticks with it even when she is busy or finds it difficult. The dynamics have now changed and the Master will have to give her a lot of attention. Like hapkido after my first dan, there will probably be a lot of self training. Strange again to be watching someone new and of lower ability.

Turning my attention to the future I don't know how long I will stick with taekwondo. I'm committed to going until the end of the year. After that who knows. After signing my contract I know I'll be staying in Korea till the end of April but as I've mentioned before I won't be eligible for the 2nd dan test which would be in June. I need to do more exercise so I may stick with this until I stop enjoying it.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

A window into the future

One particular student of mine just can't stop writing or drawing. She has now turned her artistic merits onto me. With cane, no hair and something resembling a lion's mane around my neck she claims this represents my future - though she didn't say if this is me at 40 or 80. At least she spelled my name correctly.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Name recognition

Never mind my students, some of my co-workers can't even get my name right these days.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Picking up Korean habits: Part 1

I'm slowly turning into a Korean. Well not really, but the longer I stay here the more habits, good and bad, I am inevitably picking up. This particular habit is a good one. Yesterday I took a toothbrush to work. No big deal but I've always perplexed when co-workers past and present would go and brush their teeth and then have a cup of tea or coffee. Whenever I saw that I thought it seemed a bit silly but not now I guess.

The Koreans I've been working with at my academy brush their teeth a lot, and why not. After giving it some thought I realised that I often drank a cup of coffee in the classroom and tucked into some hot food during my breaks. So after one of those brushing my teeth would be a good idea. I should have started doing this years ago. However, if I find myself wearing slippers at work I will shoot myself.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Always a bigger fish

During dinner last night with a few co-workers, the question was raised. Do you think our manager likes us? By that we meant our branch manager who has day to day contact with us and not the Western managers we have who manage contracts, vacations, teachers issues and 'fix' things.

One of brought it up because he thinks she (the manager) doesn't like him and went on to explain why. But as he's leaving in a matter of months he doesn't really care. Another said he didn't know. I said I think our manager does not like me because of a few things I do that I'm not supposed to do. But overall I think she knows I do more right things than wrong so I'm left alone.

Right now our manager must be under a lot of stress. Her assistant left a few weeks ago and hasn't been and won't be replaced, leaving her busy all throughout the day. And more significantly another big academy has opened up in the area. They have a good reputation with parents and more importantly (to Korean mothers) a new shiny building. And we've been losing some of our students to them. Ironically this is what happened when I worked at my previous workplace and students left for the one I work at now.

I don't know the percentage of those who have left but some of my best and brightest have upped and gone. Good luck to them, choice is very important and it's a free county etc, etc. This kind of thing is commonplace here in Korea. There are too many academies really to sustain themselves in the long run. It can be a risky business for new places. I feel a bit sorry for those who work in smaller companies who have to lay off staff and close, well I feel sorry for those laid off. Overall you have to be philosophical and pragmatic about the way things are here.

So our manager must be under strain right now. She is nice enough and leaves me alone to do my job. Koreans in general are under a lot of pressure from bosses to perform and I hope she doesn't get it too badly in the neck from our owner. Numbers are still high in some classes but noticeably lower in others. One positive thing is that as class numbers are lower the students get more attention and more chances to speak, which is obviously much better for them.

I don't feel like my job is at risk or my co-workers. I just signed a new contract and have under nine months to go. Famous last words? No way. The academy I work for has several branches in Daegu. Should they decide to 'shuffle the pack' somewhere down the line then people should at the very worst be able to move somewhere else. We haven't had the 'please try your best' directive yet.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Planes and alarms and nobody cares

I woke up at about 11am today. Military airplanes flying far too low for my liking were circling what seemed to be my apartment for a few minutes. Then the alarm goes off. Not my alarm clock but the alarm that is probably in every neighbourhood of every city and town in Korea. The alarm that sounds like the four minute warning you hear in those films about World War II or when their is a nuclear strike. Of course, nothing happened. The alarm goes off many times (tests or drills) and no Korean here ever bats an eyelid despite the tension on the peninsula. And neither do I but it's something I won't miss when I go back home.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Watching the rain

As the last of our classes came to an end the downpour began. I'm sure the river that runs through Daegu is going to overflow tonight. I've never seen rain like it here over the past twenty four hours. A bunch of the teachers and students waited outside for the rain to ease but it never did. Perhaps I'd still be there now if I hadn't cycled home and chanced my arm. Thank god for my umbrella. Watching the rain come down was relaxing and in truth I could have stayed there much longer. Time standing still for a moment.

Lots of rain

I don't even need to look outside my window to see it's hot and sunny. The cicadas are in full swing and in full voice but I look outside and although a little overcast it is very bright. Set for another hot Summers day. But this Summer is a bit different.

Yes it's been hot, very hot but things don't feel the same. The rainy season is supposedly over (from my experience it lasts 2/3/4 weeks) but still it continues to rain on and off. Last week there was a typhoon which ended up having little effect on Daegu but it brought with it more rain. Perhaps nothing abnormal there but anything that shakes up this heat is welcome.

Yesterday it rained a lot. I nipped out to the shop and saw for myself how much it was raining. It rained for hours. This morning about 4:30am I awoke to another downpour and then thunder and lightning. I don't think I've ever heard thunder so loud it felt like I was in the centre of it all, though I did enjoy the 'light show'. I'm thankful I wasn't trapped outside in that thunder storm. Looking at my calender, maybe five more weeks of Summer to go.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Getting a new contract

About eight weeks ago I had my latest observation. This was by my real boss, the one who decides on the renewal of contracts. It went well and a week later I got feedback and the results were my best so far, probably as good as I could conceivably get. This left me in a great place regarding a possible extended stay.

I'd decided before my observation that I/we needed to stay here a little while longer. We haven't reached the amount of money I think we will need for setting up a new life back in England. There are also places we'd like to travel to in Asia, and that costs money doesn't it. However staying for one more full year has never been an option.

I came to the conclusion that staying six months (well now six months and three weeks) longer is enough for me. Staying longer has been a very big decision for us. In truth it has been me who has kept extending our stay here. We both want to go back to England but right now the job situation is bad and will be for the foreseeable future. What kind of husband would I be bringing a wife home to this uncertainty unless we had a financial cushion to support us for a while? I don't feel entirely comfortable going home as things stand.

There are many positives about finishing at the end of April. We both get a chance to save and the nearer to our departure the more we can. In February at Lunar New Year we will be able to have a five day holiday. We will have enough time to make visa plans. We could also go to Japan again in April while the weather is fantastic. Talking about weather, going back to the UK in May, the weather will be much better for my wife to settle in to. And of course, working six months means I won't have to deal with any more Korean Summer. Good reasons to stay I think. The new contract means I will have seven days holiday (plus Lunar New Year).

The only major downside about not staying for one year is financial. I won't get a raise and my bonus will only be about of what it would be if I completed a full year. Never mind. A small bonus is better than nothing and I will have been paid three times for my air plane ticket back home by then. Of course, the material I teach is repetitive. This will not get better during my stay but I hope it won't be too big of an issue.

Today I finally got my contract in writing. I finish this contract in two months, though it had been agreed that I would be staying over two months ago. I hadn't pushed anybody on not having anything official in writing until this week because recently the visa process has changed making it more awkward. Indeed the goalposts seem to change constantly it makes you wonder if all the authorities are on the same page.

The latest is that all I need to do is bring my passport and Alien Registration card, plus 61,000won (£33ish) and that's all. I thought I'd need my degree apostilling but it (for now) it looks like I don't, just verified by 'a Korean agency'. I'm not too happy about paying to get a new visa when in previous years my company has but to be honest it's not too much and if it means there is no more hassle and it's done, then OK this time I will put up with it. Indeed it would cost more to send a degree back, get it done there and then sent to Korea again.

I have just under nine months left here and the countdown really begins when my new visa is completed. It seems like a long time but I know it will just fly by.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Koreans like to visit doctors and hospitals

I've mentioned before and thought for a long time that (paid for) health care here is good. You certainly get a lot for your moneys worth here. I've got pills, had injections, x-rays, acupuncture, heat treatment, endoscopies and more in my time in Korea. All quite cheap and all very quickly. Even though there is often a language barrier things are dealt with very easily and I always seem to feel assured. In short, I like the health care here.

However, I don't like going to see a doctor unless I must but it would appear that others here view things differently. I do feel that Koreans have a tendency to stray close to the line of hypochondria. Often they go to the doctor or the 'hospital' when it would appear that what they have is not so serious. When I hear the word hospital back home it means something is badly wrong and often an emergency but here some people go or send their children there a lot more freely and for less serious ailments.

I come from the land of the National Health Service, which is free. People tend not to abuse the system which is always heaving with people. We value the doctors and nurses who work in it and when we look around at other countries we count ourselves as lucky. My take on health is different I know. If you're paying through insurance maybe you feel that you have the right to take advantage of it.

I know people work hard here and taking time off work is a faux pas. It's 'just not cricket' to take a sick day unless you are really in a bad state so I understand why Koreans try their best to stay healthy. I think the 'you don't come in you don't get paid' aspect of things might have a bearing on this though.

I wonder if it is the people themselves or the doctors that encourage patients to come and see them. I would never go to the doctor if I had a cold in England, never, but here it is commonplace and accepted. There is an industry built around treatment and care for things that I feel you would naturally just feel better/shake off given time. I think some people are being ripped off or taken advantage of. I find some treatment, care and aids here a bit over the top and a little at odds to a country that has had so many wars and gone through tough times. Perhaps that is an old fashioned and outdated viewpoint.

Pictured is one of my students - this device I have seen several times in my years here. From what I can gather he injured it playing sport of some kind. His mother took him to the doctors/hospital and there you go, he now has a metal finger. It's important to mention that his finger was not broken and according to him he was in no noticeable pain. I don't deny the injury, just question the treatment.

What's this?

Yes, it's a metal 'case' to make you pay more protect your finger.

Perhaps my favourite is the plaster cast. The magic plaster cast. The one that is here one day and magically disappears after one or two weeks, well under the usual six week period needed to heal properly.

I have also seen dozens of kids and adults with eye patches and wonder if they are to protect the eye or to hide their problem from people. I sometimes wonder, are people ashamed of being ill/sick? There are other examples too but inconveniently they slip my mind as I write this.

I suppose if the treatment is available then why not use it. Korea certainly has come a long way since the 50's in many regards, health care being one of them.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Reflections on home and abroad

I've been back in Daegu a week now. Back at work and back doing the same things I was before my brief holiday. The first thing my co-workers asked me was how was my holiday? OK I said. And it was. It wasn't great but it was necessity for me at the time. Nice to be back home, great to see family and friends, good to eat and drink whatever I wanted and fantastic to be away from Daegu's Summer intensity. Important too to be away from work, to be able to do what I felt like and importantly, not to have to deal with any children.

Still it is good to be back at work - I am that rarest of beasts, someone who enjoys being at work - and back at my apartment. I've been in Korea for about four and a half years. It's been my home and my workplace for a long time and there are plenty of things I like about being here. Even if I do write some negative things it doesn't mean I don't like it here.

Being home helped blow away some of the cobwebs from my eyes. From time to time I convince myself that home is great, home is the best place to be and to be living anywhere else is a poor substitute. This is not the case. There are some things that I need that are back in England but life is good here. I don't regret being here now, however gruesome this weather is.

There are certain aspects of life in Britain and the people there that I don't like so much now. Travelling and meeting different people with different stories and perspectives on life has influenced me a bit and helped to open my eyes a little wider. I can see clearly things that I don't like, the aggressive nature of a section of the population and the negativity of others. I appreciate different things these days perhaps and think I want different things out of life, though it is hard to both quantify and illustrate these.

I am going home though next year. All things being equal I will finish my next contract at the end of April. Back to living in my home country. Hoping to find a job at some stage. Going back to set up some roots for life with my wife. We are committed to going and greatly looking forward to it, no question about that. It is both exciting and mildly terrifying. Terrifying because I will be leaving behind a job with a contract and nice wage where I am able to save quite well for a period of uncertainty. Should be interesting though to stay the least. As much as I do like it here and the lifestyle is good, I have to get out of the comfort zone that I am in. And finally go home.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

When something is missing

Today was so hot that I took my bike to work. I cycled in on the hope that I would feel better than the five minute trek from my apartment to my academy. The five minute walk to work is extremely convenient for me. I can roll out of bed or whatever I'm doing or dash out if I'm busy and easily make it in without getting into any trouble. But in Summer those five minutes make you sweat and sweat and sweat. The worst five minutes of the day.

I was already running late. I was busy doing some house chores so I was still cooling off from my shower as I peddled my way in. No bother, the air conditioner would soothe my pain. But no. Not today. To my horror I found and I'm sure to everyone else' too I arrived with no sign of air con working. I checked the teachers room, reception and the study room and nothing. Bugger. Surely it was hot enough for the air con today?

I asked teachers, the receptionist and the jaeshi teachers and no one could give me a great answer. Eventually I found out that everything was off. All the rooms including the classrooms had their air con off because they were cleaning them. What a great time to clean everything, just before classes start. That's great planning. Oh and our manager was not in today which did not help the situation. Why not clean them last night, this morning or god forbid tonight after work?

I nipped into the coffee shop below and bought a drink. As I waited, the cool air surrounded me and the feeling was one of relief but I headed back upstairs to more pain. Just before the classes started the air con came in the teachers room but in the classrooms, nope. Not happening yet. Without the air con, rooms become like saunas here. It's not a nice feeling. How do Koreans not sweat in this weather?

I turned off the lights in the first class just to make me feel cooler. Ten seconds in and I feel saturated with sweat. Take it easy I think but that's easier said than done when you're trying to entertain ten kids who barely speak English. Ten minutes in and the air con starts up and is working for the rest of the day but the damage had already been done. Yes today was my wrst day at work in a long, long time. Oh Korea, why do you play with me with days like today? Curse this infernal heat.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Red faced

First day back. Relatively painless and at times enjoyable. On the stairs I see a former and one time favourite student. I say with a smile, "Hello, how are you?" She says, "Teacher your face is red. Have you been drinking beer?" Back just over twenty four hours and have sunburn already.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

When swearing is the only option

Rain and ever present grey skies practically every day of my week long jaunt back home in England left me missing both sunshine and an actual Summer. Of dear. Be careful what you wish for. Arriving at Incheon airport was OK. It was 9am when we got through immigration and customs before getting onto our bus. We got off the bus in Daegu at 1:30pm and I could only swear at what met us.

As I write this it is, quite frankly, too hot to do anything. The mid-day sun is amplifying things a bit so it won't be as hot all day but it's a bit of a come down from the jacket wearing weather of Greater Manchester. Going back to work tomorrow is going to be difficult isn't it? I'll be wearing my fake 'glad to be back' smile for a while.

I guess seven weeks left of this heat. Looking at the bright side, we're probably half way or more through Summer and then onto weather that actually makes you feel good and want to do things. The heat, in just the split second it took to come into affect instantly clarified the mind and confirmed that going home next year is 100% on.
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