Kisses and Ttongchim– Dealing with Kindergartners

With so many young kids, you never know how your day is going to go. You can easily be mopping up tears or breaking up fights. Yesterday I had one little girl from my class start crying during reading group (again– to be honest, I think she’s mostly doing it to get out of class now). Later I was breaking up a fight in the cooking room. One boy poked another boy in the face with a pencil, leaving a line of graphite across his skin.

I feel like the students have a love/hate relationship. Sometimes you’re receiving super affectionate behavior, other times its is resentment or anger that you get. The other week I had two little boys hanging off me, trying to kiss me– one kissed my wrist, another my knee. A boy from the older group upstairs brought his friend over to me to explain that his friend “loves teacher.” The friend in question was blushing and then giggling, the two of them ran away after the confession. So that’s cute.

On the other hand, I was kicked by my class’s troublemaker before Chuseok break. This same kid has been serious trouble trying to push his way past me and leave in the middle of class and apparently today he did something totally unacceptable to one of the other teachers. He did ttongchim to her.

Ttongchim is a really weird prank that is apparently found in some other Asian countries like Japan as well. Basically someone puts their hands together, folds down all but their index fingers, and jams those index fingers into someone else’s butt hole. Yeah, this is a thing. Look it up if you don’t believe me. Even just Google “Korean kids sticking fingers in your butt” and you will get results.

I’m surprised at how calmly she handled the situation. She has taught in Korea for three years, so maybe it doesn’t even faze her any more. I guess that’s something I will never get used to– all the weird butt related children’s games and pranks. I mean this is the Korean version of Leap Frog called maldupaki:

Apparently adults play as well. I’m told games can get very intense and competitive. So I guess if you’re growing up sticking your head between other people’s legs, it’s not a big deal to stick your fingers up their butt? 

Anyway, that kid better not try it with me. He knows that is not acceptable. And it is certainly less than adorable.


An Expat Chuseok Break

Chuseok is a Korean harvest festival that takes place on the harvest moon, the first full moon of fall. imageMany people compare it to the American Thanksgiving, but it’s celebrated differently. Mass amounts of food are the main similarity. But this is also a holiday when many Koreans partake in ancestor worship, leaving offerings for their dead family members and feasting in their honor.

On Tuesday all the kiddos wore their adorable traditional hanboks to school. I almost forgot how annoying some of them can be. It wasn’t much if a school day, we let them play traditional games and make song pyon– a rice dumpling with a sweet filling. Then I was in my way to a five day weekend.

The good and bad aspect for a foreigner in Korea during Chuseok is that Seoul is deserted. It’s a very family centric holiday. So whether they are spending the holiday with the living or the dead, most Koreans are out of town or at least off the street for a day or two. I rode the ghost train into central Seoul Wednesday evening. Never have I seen so many empty seats on the subway (and it wasn’t the usual token empty seat beside me because the seat next to the foreigner is usually the last one taken It seems). As we got deeper into the city it filled up a little, but it was still remarkably half full.

There is something exciting about wandering around Seoul without being bumped and jostled. You get to see the bones of the city. However, due to that emptiness, there is also very little to do. Convenience stores and western style fast food restaurants are about the only thing you’ll find open.

The best part of the movie was then they raised the window screen to show this view aftewards.
The best part of the movie was then they raised the window screen to show this view afterwards.

So what is an ex-pat to do? There was a foreigner friendly film festival announced on Facebook, so I decided to try it out. Two other teachers from my hagwan also went. We arrived at a small, but incredibly classy megabox theatre early on Thursday. My impression of the even was this: just like most US film festivals, it was organized by a bunch of pretentious, self indulgent, pseudo-intellectuals. I’m sure there were enjoyable films being shown, but we didn’t happen to see any. From the perspective of myself and the other two teachers, it was a collection of films attempting an art house style “depth” with disturbing convoluted imagery that never quite came together to express any actual meaning, and hollow revenge tragedies by Park Chan Wook wannabes, full of smoking and stabbing. We were felt rather psychologically scarred and disheartened, so we left early to try our luck in Gangnam.

It was a little more bustling than some of the other districts, mainly with military, but also some locals disentangling themselves from their families later in the day. We ate some chicken at a western style restaurant and headed home, trying to find meaning in the films we had seen on the subway ride home.

For the rest of my Chuseok break, I’ve been catching up on tidying my apartment (and figuring out what to do about that damp patch on the wall…). I’ve also camped out in a 24 hour Tom n Tom’s coffee to do some writing, and managed to make my wifi hold out long enough to do a little Skyping.

Today is much of the same. The neighborhood has come back to life now that the holiday is over, so I’m going to explore a little. Tomorrow I’m going into Seoul for an English bible study group.

It’s been a lazy Chuseok, but hopefully it will help re-energize me for the long stretch of teaching ahead. No big breaks again until Christmas I think. Ugh.

Further Shopping Adventures in Korea

So, I’m at the end of my second week teaching kinder and elementary level English in Korea. I am beginning to reevaluate the belief I had that I am good with kids and that  I like them. This is perhaps untrue. I still don’t really have wifi, so I write this in a Starbucks near the subway station, sipping an overpriced herbal tea and listening to their surprising choice of jazz standards humming in the background.

One of my neighbors and fellow teachers went with me today to find the department store in the neighborhood. It’s about a ten to fifteen minute walk from the apartments. The department store was about 7 stories high and there were many boutiques nearby. K, the other teacher is also new and so awaiting her first paycheck. We weren’t planning on buying so much as just scoping it out, getting to know the suburb a little better along the way. Along the way we kept seeing advertisements for an impressionist art exhibit, so there must be an art museum in the area as well. Find that might be my adventure during Chuseok break next week.

The department store was rather unnerving. It wasn’t like the cute university friendly ones I had been to in central Seoul. I know this area is home to many very wealthy people, but I was not expecting this. It was a clean, pristine, art deco looking place with each designer label having its own little room for you to shop one line at a time.

“If there’s more empty space than clothing,” K said, “You know it’s going to be really expensive.”

Her prediction proved true. One posh little room had some very cute retro, Jackie O styled dresses and jackets. We paused and K tentatively checked the label on a green blouse. I learned something about her today; she doesn’t have a good poker face. As we walked away from that particular room she whispered, “I just touched a thousand dollar shirt!”

Well, I figured it out later, the shirt was probably only around $830. Still. On the upper floors we found the slightly cheaper, youth geared area. There was actually a Gap in a department store. A small one, but still, a Gap store. I actually really love the look of a lot of the men’s fall fashion in the shops. A lot of great knits, rich saturated colors, patches on the elbows, pockets and collars in accent fabrics. Really classy retro style suiting with double breasted waist coats, but all in that very modern slim fit cut.

“I feel like I want a boyfriend just to have someone to dress up in these clothes,” I told K.

“We should just hang around here and look for guys buying these clothes.”

“Come to the department store to shop for a boyfriend?” I suggested. We laughed and decided it was time to leave. There was no way we could be buying anything here.

On a strange note it seems like most lingerie mannequins are glowing. They light up like, “look a bra and some lacy underpants!” No other mannequins seem to be light up, just the ones displaying underwear. I’ve seen this strange phenomenon at a couple shops now.

Near the department store was an E-Mart. This is the nearest thing to a Walmart that Korea seems to have. On the main floor there was clothing, housewares, cosmetics, etc. There’s a Baskin Robbins, a Starbucks, a Jamba Juice (the dude behind the counter gave my juice card 2 stamps– K was mad she only got one), a Payless, and a pharmacy all at the front. Downstairs there was a huge grocery store with lots of wine and a bakery. Not to mention free samples. Heck yeah– K was all over that. Upstairs, on the top floor, there is a bookshop and an Outback Steakhouse. Yeah, I don’t really understand that either.

We decided that we had enough excitement for the day, so headed back. K went home and I went to mooch some public wifi here. After payday we are going to go crazy at E- Mart. We’ve already discussed making this a regular weekly excursion.

Some things I have noticed about Korean shopping are that it’s a bit more chaotic. At least to my sanitized western perspective. It’s a bit more thrown together in a way that doesn’t fit my understanding of order and organization. Many things are cheap or at least decently priced, but some random things are quite expensive. Bed sheets are all pretty crazy expensive. Apparently fitted bedsheets aren’t the norm here? Certain fruits are surprisingly expensive too. Avocados are 3 times more expensive than in the States.

Feminine hygiene is sold a bit differently, but that will be its own separate post full of awkward anecdotes. And since it will be separate, my more squeamish male readers can just skip that post and leave their delicate sensibilities in tact.

Looking forward to next week: only two days of work and then Chuseok break!


Week One as a Teacher in Korea.

I lied to you all. But it was unintentional. Originally, my start date for teaching was pushed back to October. But then one of the schools suddenly lost a teacher (she was wait-listed for law school or something and a spot opened up so she made a break for it), and they could take me right away.

I arrived almost exactly one week ago to my very humble studio flat where I sleep next to the washer and shower in the bathroom sink. But it’s really not so bad– it’s just me and I don’t have that much stuff. I’m just a short walk from the subway and the school I’m working at is two stops away. There are some good restaurants, a convenience store, a small grocery, and a few other shops right around the corner from my house. Within a two block radius there are many other shops and apparently a movie theatre nearby, as well as some cafes.

The school is a rather posh private school. I work with first years in the morning 4-6 years old. In the afternoon I have a group of 7 year olds and and advanced reading group of 11 year olds. To be honest, I think that a fairly fluent Korean teacher could do just as well with the first years. I am teaching them extremely basic material like the English alphabet. However, it is reassuring for the parents to know their child is being taught by a native English speaker, apparently the idea is that they will be hearing “proper” pronunciation from the start which will be a good foundation for further studies.

My co-teacher is extremely nice and speaks English very well. In fact, she might be too nice– all the students definitely prefer her to me. They adore her; she has a very maternal vibe. It’s probably also because she understands everything they are saying which I don’t always. Because the kids are so young sometimes they will start crying and saying they miss their mothers.

The other teachers on my floor are pretty great. We went for Hway Shik one night and ate very large quantities of sizzling meat and raw vegetables. They’ve been very helpful at getting me situated and helping me figure out what it is I’m doing with these kids. I arrived last Sunday, started teaching Monday. It was brutal. The first few days are “orientation and games” for the new students, so I had to sort of make it up as I went. Now I actually have a schedule and breakdown for what I’m supposed to be teaching. Curriculums are so nice.

So I will be recording my honest experiences as a first time English teacher in the wonderful world of Korean private schools or Hawgwans. I will answer any questions you may have as well. Photos, anecdotes about racism in Korea, and post about yummy food all to come soon.