June 28, 2011

renewed interest...

About a year ago I abandoned my Korean lessons. There were several reasons for me to lose interest in those studies. I think that a very large reason was my inability to understand what the fuck was going on. The 'easy' Korean alphabet regularly confused me. I was actually absent the day my they went over the characters. Instead I caught them all as a review and even then I think the process was flawed, one class for the entire alphabet? I was in an introduction course and they spent a tiny percentage on the basics of the Korean language. My entire class appeared to suffer as a result. Yet I still went week after week.

There were two other reasons that caused me to ditch the language. First, my then girlfriend had and aptitude for languages. I wouldn't put it past her abilities to learn the basics on basically every language on the planet. She was great with accents, and with Korean that is a major hurdle to overcome. She was able to correctly pronounce the subtle variations in the language. I was also more than willing to stand idly by and let her do the legwork (involving basically every daily interaction I had with Koreans).

My final reason was simply my own fault. I think that I was grasping onto English too much during the whole process. It's a mistake that I feel that I made in hindsight. When I used to write down all the new words and characters I would constantly write the phonetics below the word. It led to me only recognize the English phonetics below the Hangul text. I was never able to create a mental connection between the sounds coming out of my mouth and the elegant Korean Hangul text. The longer I participated in this act, the more and more frustrated I became with the language. I felt overwhelmed, and when that happened I gave up on the language. Coupled with the previous two elements it was too easy to give up.

Since I've had to face the Korean world alone, things have been different. I resigned up for introduction classes three months ago, and this attempt was successful. I can now read pretty much any Korean word. I do have problems when it comes to large words, but no more than any child would. Menus are now an interesting world for me, half filled with things I know, and the other half things that confuse me. I tell my students that I can read Korean and they freak out. They quickly scribble down anything they can, it's then that I tell them that just because I can read doesn't mean that I know what it means. Much like new vocabulary for them, they can read it, but that doesn't mean shit when it comes to comprehending it.

Armed with my basic vocabulary, I find myself attempting to utilize it at every turn. My major problem is that my vocabulary is so basic that it's basically unusable in the 'real' world. While that is partially a lie, knowing what some fruits are called is really helpful. I find it hard to introduce those words into my daily life, and much like I've learned through teaching my students. Repetition is the key, and if I don't keep repeating휴대전화I'll forget that most Koreans simply call it a한드 폰 (phonetic: Handepon, Konglish for cell phone).

I recently graduated from my first level class this past weekend. I was pretty excited, and impressed that I could achieve this small goal. Especially less than a year after I abandoned it, I now have a feeling of independence. I've made the further commitment to take the second level of Korean lessons. I think this continued education is exciting, especially as it moves me closer to having proper conversations with people in my adopted country.

June 20, 2011

hearts, hills and the House...

It seems like every time that I need an escape from Seoul I head to Sokcho. I can't fully explain my love affair with this town. I believe that there is a mix of a lot of different elements. I definitely think that it has something to do with its distance. It is far enough away that I can mentally check out on the bus ride there. Once I step off the bus I feel refreshed, like a new person.


This past trip was my third expedition to the city, and I was hoping for it to be my most ambitious one. My hopes were quickly quashed by a lack of sleep. Life has been stressful of late, and sleeping hasn't been the most enjoyable pastime. It was my original goal to hike Ulsanbowi shortly after arriving in Sokcho. In fact I even dreamed about the hike while I was sleeping on the beach. The beach was as it turns out was exactly what I needed. I made myself a lounger in the sand, and watched as my friends frolicked in the sand and water.

Later that evening, and just like my previous visits to Sokcho, included fireworks. The fireworks aren't necessarily cheap there, but that isn't really the point. The best part is the fact that you simply can use them. Procuring and holding a package of 20 roman candles, is worth much more than the corresponding price. Especially when you watch other people launch them from their fingertips. A note for those who follow my previous posts about Sokcho, no I did not hump any fireworks into the ocean. I was a semi responsible adult and did not launch from the hip. Yet, I wasn't fully responsible and launch them from the sand.

My overall feelings of laziness did not improve on the second morning. The dogs outside decided to forget they were canines and instead think they were chickens. They barked as a rooster would crow at the invading sunlight. I laid on the floor of the hostel room and pondered, why me? why do I drink so much soju? it does nothing for me, but enlarge my waistline.

While I was eating breakfast the owner of the Hostel, Hyu-Jun, approached me, and without hesitation he welcomed me back. His genuine and thoughtful approach is something that I've come to expect from this hostel. I first visited it back in September, and to be honest I'm not that surprised he recognized me. Hyu-Jun runs a great operation, and is one of the kindest Koreans I've ever met.

The House is exactly what a Hostel should be. It doesn't seem to fit in the Korean landscape though, it would fit much better alongside other hostels in Europe. It has all the amenities, conveniences and charm you'd expect from a hostel, down to a shelf of battered DVDs beside a communal television. The walls are decorated with postcards of praise from prior patrons, and bookcases filled with random trinkets. I easily recommend this hostel to anyone staying in Sokcho (you can visit its website here).

I've never had two days of sunshine in Sokcho, there is usually at least one day ruined by rain. I was told that my last day had an 80% chance of rain, but scoffed at that report as I stared into a hazy blue sky. We made our way up to Seoraksan National Park late in the morning. I was fully aware that I wouldn't be climbing Ulsanbowi, but I was happy and excited that I'd get a great opportunity to play around with my camera.

I got my best photos after a short cable car ride and 5 minute hike. It took me to the peak of one of the mountains. The last time I ventured up to this peak I couldn't step foot off the path, water was flowing like a river down the slippery rocks, and my knee was only about 25% healed. The lack of rain helped, as I scoured the rocks. The park staff has done a great job in making the hike up to the summit safe, but once you are at the top you are free to do as you please. I find it shocking that people are allowed to freely climb these rocks, one false step will lead to death as you'd be tumbling down the mountain.
There will be another return to Sokcho sometime in the future. I heard whispers about the fall, but I doubt I'll last that long without making my way back. There is something about the town that keeps calling me back. Perhaps it's the goodbyes I get. It always seems to rain whenever I'm leaving Sokcho. I suppose it is the coastal town's way of saying goodbye, with buckets of tears.

June 05, 2011

white out warzone.. aftermath

As is the case with most battles there is a fallout, some kind of repercussion, or consequence. Believe it or not, the tests my students take have a relatively quick and devastating effect on my classes. My school places a lot of importance upon the class the students are in. For example the MGT1-A1's are the top MGT1 students in the school (there are usually 3-4 classes per grade level).

Much like actual battles, some people shine and are therefore promoted. Others crumble, in combat this means they probably die, and in my school they get demoted. Although a death (of sorts) can occur if a student's test score is bad enough, they can be 'killed off' and sent back to a regular campus. In order to set the war heroes apart from the fallen there is a rubric (how fitting for an educational institute!). The breakdown is as follows:
10% for each of the two monthly exams
30% for a reading comprehension test* (the test measures their American reading level)
50% for a level test*
*Both the reading test, and the level test are not based on material we've covered specifically in class. Instead they are based on material the students haven't seen, and they are tested on the concepts. For example, the reading section of the level test is not based upon any of the stories that we've read in class, while the monthly exams are. The questions for the monthly tests are often questions the students have even seen before, they are taken from the online learning homework. In essence these two tests, which make up the majority of the rubric, are like an actual battlefield as training is truly put to the test. The students will either sink or swim, only their wits can save them
I don't fully agree with this method. I think it is another way that we stress out these already overloaded Korean elementary school students. I currently have three students 'taking a break'. These breaks are often code for 'burned out child'. It creates an ethical dilemma stemming from the immense importance of academics and grades in this culture. This is also a topic I'll focus on for a later post.

Once the tactical performance of each student has been appraised, or marked, the classes are realigned. This past week those results have been released, and 2/3 of the school is on the move. 1/3 of the students have proven that they are tough little troopers and have been promoted. These promotions have come at the cost of student casualties, a 1/3 of the students along with their incorrectly pot marked OMR cards have been demoted. Some promotions are huge, with students climbing two classes, while leapfrogging the tattered corpses of students who fell just as far. The remaining 1/3 have survived the battle and tread water in the same spot they've held prior.

I currently teach twelve classes, and two of them are now comprised of entirely new students. One of those classes is actually filled full of fresh faced new recruits. These students have been brought in an attempt to fill up some of the voids several MIA students have created (students who left during the first three months). Their first week was like a boot camp of sorts, as I was forced to act like a drill Sergeant. These kids entered the battlefield bright eyed and bushy tailed, I sent them home first night shell shocked at the obstacle course I placed in front of them. They've entered right in the middle of concepts (some of which they've never heard of) and routines I've established with all my other classes, I've little option but to put them through the paces.

Surrender is hard for some...
A similar transition is also taking shape in all of my other classes as students from other classes enter my squads (a small military unit). While my school is small all the teachers have their own routines and unique teaching style. Change is never an easy concept to deal with, let alone when you are in grade 1. Any slight change adds stress to the students, which causes them to act unpredictably. I've spent the past week tightening up on my previously loosened discipline.
...easy for others.
I've feel that I've been left on the field in the aftermath of this latest war trying to figure out what role each of my students play in my 12 new squads. Some of it appears clear, but three months into the semester this change has mostly added unnecessary stress. With September looming, a countdown has now been set for the next war to take place.