Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My school doesn't have a fire alarm.

I learned this yesterday, the hard way.  I was sitting in my (communal) office, doing work, ten minutes left on the clock.  There was a commotion.  The other teachers in the office became frantic, exchanging information in panicky Korean and rushing out the door, leaving me quite alone.  I thought, "Would they tell me if the building were on fire?" and got back to work.

A few minutes later, my head co-teacher returned to the office.  Here's a transcript of our subsequent conversation:

Her:  [Korean mispronunciation of my name].  The school is on fire.
Me:  I was just wondering if you'd tell me if the school were on fire.
Me:  [Noticing eerie silence] The school doesn't have a fire alarm.
Her:  [Characteristically throaty laughter]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Another salient peculiarity of Korean public schools:

Going to high school in Korea isn't automatic.  Koreans don't just go to the nearest high school upon completing middle school.  They apply to high schools they're interested in and have to be accepted before they can attend.  High school applications require final grades (more exactly, class ranking data) from middle school, so to facilitate this process, grade 3 middle school students write their final exams in early November, with 6 weeks of school remaining before the winter break.

This means students attend 6 weeks of classes that have no impact on their future.  There will never be another middle school test for them, never another grade.  The book is closed.  Consequently, students who were difficult to motivate or keep on task become impossible.  As far as they're concerned, middle school is over--and they're right.  One can understand why American schools always schedule their final exams for the week before vacation.

The complaint I'm coming around to here is that my 3rd grade classes have become impossible.  I spent this last week trying to play a fun game in class and most students won't do it.  The game's fun and built on unchallenging language, but only about 20% of the students actually play it.  The others prefer fighting or talking to their friends.  I can force them to play the game if I hover over them, constantly supervising, but once I turn around they stop.

My predecessor tells me the Korean teachers spend these classes watching movies and hoping for the best; naturally, I'm held to a higher standard and my lessons are expected to have some educational value.  Five more weeks.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How to get a discount from Makgeolli Man.

I was left to shift for myself Saturday night.  The weather was mildly chilly.  I was near Hongdae.  I wanted a kebab.  For reasons immaterial to the story I'm about to unfold I was wearing a well-tailored business suit.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy Pepero Day!

Today is 11 November:  Pepero Day!  You know how the American candy industry has glommed on to Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas, shamelessly pimping them to move product?  Well, at least Brach's has never presumed to create a holiday where once there was none.  American candy companies are content with perverting existing traditions.

Not so in Korea!  Here there's a confection called "Pepero," manufactured by Lotte, a Korean conglomerate.  It's a cookie stick dipped in chocolate.  Four sticks of Pepero held vertically resemble, with some prodding of the imagination, the date 11/11... and so every 11 November since, I don't know, probably 2006 or something, Koreans buy large amounts of Pepero and distribute it to their friends and loved ones.  That's all there is to it.  This is a very shallow tradition.  Think Valentine's Day with chocolatey cookie sticks and no history.  According to Wikipedia, the company denies having started the holiday, though the premise is silly and Pepero is a Lotte trademark.  It may as well be "Pepero® Day." 

What this all means for me is that my first task this morning was eating the handful of Pepero my nearest coworker thrust at me.  I also received an appreciable amount of cookie stick from students throughout the day.  One of them appears to have simply baked me some cookies, which is really tremendously sweet of her.  Here's a picture of my haul:

Not bad.

I appreciate the gesture but am not likely to eat all this here Pepero.  I plan to re-gift it to my unsuspecting well-informed and exceedingly charming significant other, whom I like to please even if it means engaging in high-risk re-gifting.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Employee Ping-Pong Tournament 2010!

Let me set the scene for you:  Friday, 20 minutes before quitting time.  I had plans for dinner.  In fact, I had plans for the entire weekend set to commence in 20 minutes.  My head co-teacher interrupted my looking busy:

HC-T:  [Korean mispronunciation of my name], can you play table tennis?
Me:  [Appearing to think carefully] Maybe.  I haven't played for 15 years.
HC-T:  Can you try?  There is a tournament.  Many teachers are playing.  We should go there now.

And so began my participation in the school's ping-pong tournament.  The twenty-odd participants were divided into three teams further subdivided into pairs for doubles.  This was all conducted in Korean and I haven't a clue how it worked.  I was paired with Stealth Korean, probably because we're the same age and she boasts the best English.  (In Korea people of disparate ages can't be friends, so it would've been weird to pair me and a middle-aged teacher.)

While waiting for my chance to shine, I solicited some details from Stealth Korean.  She told me the school does this sort of thing twice yearly.  Each member of the winning team is awarded a small cash prize, allocated by the school budget for this purpose.

The competition was tame; only two of the twenty-odd participants displayed any skill or grace at the table.  Neither Stealth Korean nor I was one of these.  We were terrible.  Towards the end I thought it was going well and, unable to follow the score-tallying in Korean, asked Stealth Korean if we were winning.  She told me we were losing.  Badly.

The school cafeteria hosted a sort of banquet after the tourney, serving fried chicken, Chinese fried chicken, green pepper japchae, mandu and jokbal (pig's hooves).  I know what you're thinking:  isn't jokbal drinking food?  Indeed!  The school also provided beer and soju!  I didn't stick around to see how far into drunkenness the staff descended but I did try some jokbal, which is kind of revolting.  Imagine a pig's hoof, with all the skin still on it, steamed/boiled or whatever until said skin is all rubbery.  I will say, in its defense, that it at least has the decency to taste like nothing.  A science teacher sitting across the table from me said jokbal contains lots of collagen and would therefore be good for my skin.  Right, by the same mechanism that enables bald men to regrow hair by eating a bucket of it.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My apartment.

I've been holding off on posting apartment pictures because things were a bit dirty in here.  The guy before me was not a clean man and had been living here for five years.  With dogs.  I'm told school employees spent a significant amount of time cleaning the place, and when I arrived they had left all the windows open to disperse the stink.  I'd hate to have seen this place before it was cleaned.  A neighbor who knew the previous tenant visited and said "Oh, you got rid of the smell."

I've since cleaned some more and the place is mostly presentable, if cluttered.  The clutter is mainly due to a dearth of closet space and is therefore not entirely my fault.  So let's get on with the show: