I made a flowchart! For everyone who thinks my blog doesn’t have enough pictures, here you go. Read more
For as long as I’ve been in Korea, the consensus has been that the public school programs are in terminal decline and will soon be axed altogether. This was true when I first came back in 2009, a time now looked on as a Golden Age of teaching in Korea. Today, it’s still what a one year veteran English teacher says to a newbie after two beers at the local foreigner bar.
I’ve learned to be pretty sanguine about it. People keep coming, despite the doomsayers. But the trend has always been towards budget cuts, higher standards, and increased competitiveness, and in the last six months or so there have been more provinces and cities that have experienced budget cuts (Daegu, Chungcheonbuk-do, Incheon). Jeollanam-do (not part of EPIK) has also had a budget crisis. It would be easier at this point to list the provinces and cities that have never had at least one round of severe cuts. Read more
Due to doing a good job with the high-level middle school kids at last camp, I got to teach high-level kids again this camp. Doing a good job with the high-level kids is considered important, because high-level kids have high-level parents with influence and vocal opinions.
That’s fine with me, as I love teaching bright kids. Teaching low-level kids can be rewarding, but I love working with kids with smart minds and imaginative ideas and high personal expectations and weird, quick senses of humour. Teaching them has its own challenges, although those challenges usually don’t relate to learning English. For that, you set them difficult but achievable goals, give them honest feedback but not excessive praise, then stand back and watch them do amazing things. Instead, the challenges relate to helping them learn how to navigate their own paths socially, intellectually, and in society.
This time I was teaching elementary kids, rather than middle school kids. There was another difference. Last time, there were only two middle school classes, so I was teaching the top fifty percent of students. But there were nine elementary school classes, and I had the top class, so these kids were the best of the best. In four years in teaching in Korea, I’ve never had a class so highly selected. Usually, even the smartest classes are a mixed bunch. These kids weren’t just good at English; they were fiercely, intimidatingly bright. Even so, one girl stood out as the smartest. Read more
Imagine that you are out somewhere and you meet a cute Korean of the compatible gender. Being the suave individual that you are, you exchange Kakao IDs. So easy! So much less pressure than exchanging phone numbers! You congratulate yourself on your suave ways, go home, and, after an appropriate time, decide to send your new crush a message.
You want it to sound casual. You consider, “Hi, how’s it going?” before realizing that they might not be familiar with that English expression. If so, you’re going to get a confused, awkward reply. “How what goes? Sorry, my English is not good ㅠㅠㅠㅠㅠ”.
So you decide on “Hi, how are you?” Simple style!, as my students like to say, whenever they do a half-assed job on something. To make it seem more friendly, you decide to append a KakaoTalk emoticon to the end of the message. You consider – what character expresses my casual tone best? Apeach, with its ass-like head, or
Black Jay-G**See the postscript, the vaguely racist squirrel thing with an Afro? Read more
Last summer vacation I taught middle school kids during my university’s English Camp. There were a couple of firsts in this for me. It was my first time teaching middle-schoolers, and my first experience with a “real” English camp.
What I mean by a “real” English camp is this: the English camps I had taught previously in Korea were fraudulent. They were fraudulent because there was no camp. When I first came here, the phrase “English camp” brought many things to my mind. I imagined cabins, overnight stays, playing English language games by a lake, perhaps by the light of a bonfire. But what “camp” turned out to mean was this: extra English classes during vacation. I thought this was a mistranslation thing – one of those Konglish words that end up meaning something else in Korean, like “fighting”. But actually, it wasn’t. I found this out when I taught the second graders, who were attending their first ever English camp.
They were good sports for the first few hours. Then, around lunch time, they questioned my co-teacher.
“They want to know, where is the camp?” my co-teacher said, and laughed. Apparently the second graders, too, had been expecting horseback riding and frolicking in the woods, and weren’t too thrilled to discover that English camp was just more classes in the English room. Poor bastards. They thought they’d been suckered, and I didn’t disagree. Read more
Note: I originally wrote this a few months ago, and it was going fine until I discovered that in President Obama’s most recent visit, he used the word “애도” – condolences – when expressing his sympathy for the victims of the Sewol disaster. That took away all my enthusiasm for this otherwise fairly light-hearted post. So, I’ll just note that he said it, he said it fine, and pass up the opportunity to link it.
You might assume that the President of the United States would have little time to devote himself to the study of East Asian languages. In the case of Barrack Obama, all evidence suggests that you would be correct in this assumption.
Despite this, on a surprising number of occasions, Obama has managed to memorize, more or less, a short Korean phrase and drop it in to a speech.
Here is a complete history of Barrack Obama speaking Korean, or at least all the examples I could find. If I’ve missed some, please let me know. Read more
There are many guides to Korean bowing etiquette on the internet. This won’t be another.
(As for those guides, most aren’t very useful. The ones written by foreigners tend to lack detail or be inaccurate, while the ones put out by Koreans tend to suffer from a typical problem: they talk about Korean culture as it ideally should be, or perhaps as it was in the distant past, but not how it is lived today.
However, if you’re not familiar with the basics, this video guide from Seoulistic is pretty good.)
Bowing in Korea is not all that complex. Actually, until I came to write this post I had never looked at any of those guides to bowing in Korea.
Before I came to Korea, I suppose I thought of the East Asian bow (if I thought about it at all) as something a little grovelling and demeaning; something I wouldn’t enjoy. In actuality, it came naturally and quickly, and it isn’t unpleasant. Read more
One of the questions I’m often asked is, “How difficult is it to get in to the EPIK program?” I even wrote a long post about this, doing my best to infer the answer from economic data and Google Insights. My conclusion, broadly, was that it was not as hard to get into EPIK as people often suggested.
But it was impossible to say for sure, because while EPIK regularly reveals how many teachers it places in schools each semester, they’ve been coy about how many applicants they receive.
The extent to which we are personally affected by news of a tragedy is proportionate to how close we feel to its victims. So a disaster in some far-off part of the world has less of an emotional impact than one in your own country, and one in a distant city is less emotional than one affecting your neighbours.
That’s natural, and so I can understand if the Sewol tragedy is not something that greatly affected you. But for me it has been heart-wrenching. I feel a genuine sense of grief about it.
Partly this is because the details are so horrible; partly it is because of the immediacy of the video footage and the constancy of the television coverage of it here. But mostly it is because I have taught so many classes of Korean students. And so I feel like I know those kids. They could have been my students. While I’ve never taught high school, the first students I taught in Korea are now in high school; many more will enter high school next year; and the first-year university students I am teaching now are only recently graduated.
I do know those kids. I know their dreams for their future, their interests, how they acted with their friends, their teachers, the opposite sex. I know how they worked hard and how they goofed off.
But I will understand if their deaths do not affect you in quite the same way. With one exception: if, being vaguely familiar with Korea, it occurs to you to make the following speculation:
Like other Asian nations, South Korean society is based on a neo-Confucian culture which emphasises obedience to authority figures and deference to elders … “Obedient” students on the ship are among the missing, while “disobedient” students survived.
…then take a deep breath, think for a moment, and please – just shut the fuck up. Read more
In about a month I’ll return to Korea. When I do I’ll be living in Jeollanam-do, quite close to one of my best Korean friends, KH. This makes me glad. In the past I’ve only been able to see him once or twice a year, but it’s usually been a memorable time when we have caught up.
I originally met KH in Australia, of all places. I was taking CELTA in Sydney, and he was one of the crash test dummy students who got free English lessons in exchange for being taught by incompetents. At that time he was taking a post-army, mid-university gap year, theoretically to learn English in Australia. Actually he was learning a bunch of laid-back Australian habits – marijuana, sick days, overuse of the word “mate” – that would leave him forever dissatisfied with the obligations of Korean society.
He’s a bright guy; he’s also funny. In Australia, he worked as a removalist and enjoyed subverting customers’ stereotypes about both Koreans and removalists.
“Don’t Koreans eat dog?” a customer once asked him.
“Sometimes,” he said. Slyly, he then asked them if they had a dog. They conceded they did.
“What’s it’s name?” KH asked.
“Mm,” KH said; I imagine somewhat wistfully, with a slight smile. “Perfect.”
Another appealing quality of KH’s, particularly to an introvert such as myself, is that he is one of those people who enjoys bringing friends from different social circles together and then seeing what happens. A night with KH usually involves him making and receiving a number of phone calls and moving around the city from place to place, rendezvousing and separating from groups of people that he knows. Making friends with Koreans isn’t easy, so I’ll be glad to have a friend like that close by when I am back in Korea.
But one time when I visited him there were no other friends to be found. Read more