Thursday, February 24, 2011

Once more, with feeling.

The second semester of my year in Korea starts next week.  At this point before the first semester I was in a blind panic.  I arrived at school on a Thursday knowing nothing about it, my job, my coworkers and students and their capabilities and expectations of me, or the textbooks I would have to use.  On the following Monday I taught more than 100 students.  My blind panic didn't subside for several months. 

As the semester's apocalyptic desperation dragged on I learned how to get the work done without raising any immediate complaints.  I'm not any good at it but I know my current ability is sufficient to get through it, which is all I care about anyway.  I lowered my personal standards, stopped taking the job seriously, practiced pretending the school doesn't exist when I'm not there and now I'm mellow as I approach the second round of this gig.  For at least the next 5 months I'll be teaching straight out of a textbook (harder than it sounds) and I know I can keep 35 Korean juveniles busy for three quarters of an hour with minimal preparation and three pages of it.

I'm writing this on Friday morning.  There's a don't-come-to-school holiday next week and I don't know if it's Monday or Tuesday.  The official school calendar showing all the holidays, special activity days, midterm/final exams, etc. has not been finalized, much less printed (in Korean) and handed to me.  I don't know which day next week I'll teach my first classes, which classes those will be or who I'll be teaching them with.  I don't know anything about Stealth Korean's replacement.  I haven't seen a textbook for one of the grades I'll be teaching next week.

These unknowns could conceivably be a source of anxiety for me, but they're all just work and I don't take that home with me.  There are too many books for me to read, too much iron for me to shift.  This afternoon I'll visit my lovely companion.  We will enjoy The Naked Gun 2 and I will tell her she's pretty; this will be good for what ails her.  Tomorrow we'll attend a book club event at which I will eat gourmet food, drink wine I'm told is very nice (but tastes like mouthwash), and complain about the book we all read.  I haven't decided on a Sunday plan yet, but I can assure you it will involve sleeping in.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oh Stealth Korean, I hardly knew ye.

Today I learned two surprising things about Stealth Korean:
  1. She lives on the other side of the city and has been trudging through a one-hour commute for the last 5 years. (!!)
  2. I'll never see her again.
Item 2 is obviously the more surprising.  Stealth Korean's term of service at my school is up and she'll start work somewhere else next week.  See, Korean teachers aren't allowed to work at a school longer than 5 years.  When their fifth year is up they get transferred somewhere else.  I don't know the rationale behind this shuffling of the deck.  It can't have anything to do with preventing tenure because Korean teachers are nigh unfireable regardless of their itinerancy.

I knew nothing about Stealth Korean's imminent departure until this morning, when Chortle clued me in, because nobody tells me anything.  I was like, "Dang."  This is a great personal tragedy for me personally because Stealth Korean was the school's most fluent English speaker (i.e. the only conversational one) and best English teacher.  Almost all the co-teachers I worked with last semester (8 in all) are various shades of useless.  Imagine working a job at which you and all but one of your coworkers is incompetent and the competent one is not just competent, but excellent.

Stealth Korean was totally useful in the classroom.  She interrupted me at appropriate times to clarify points the students couldn't understand; she translated complicated directions into Korean, something none of the others can manage; she improvised novel, unplanned activities when what I was doing wasn't working; she gave me useful feedback and was good at classroom management.  I had no worries working with her.  No matter how badly I cocked things up she was always ready and able to uncock them.  Once, I forgot when one of our classes was scheduled to end (this is easier than you think) and terminated it five minutes early expecting the bell to ring in a few seconds.  Stealth Korean took over without a hitch and prevented an outbreak of chaos.  It was also Stealth Korean who first showed me teaching is not the job for me.  I realized one day, watching her, that she honestly likes her students and truly enjoys teaching.  I never will.

Now she'll be replaced by nobody knows who.  I don't mean the information hasn't trickled down yet, I mean literally nobody knows.  One would think the administrative types would've planned this whole thing out well in advance, having known all year that Stealth Korean was leaving, but in fact they have not.  Hope they get it sorted by next week.  I also hope the new English teacher speaks English and isn't completely worthless.  If it's another Wallflower, I'm in for an excruciating semester.

As we sat waiting for a Korean-only staff meeting to begin, I shared my high opinion of Stealth Korean with Chortle, who solemnly told me she (Stealth Korean) is "irreplaceable."  At first I thought this was simply the sort of platitude polite people reflexively offer when hearing praise for others, but Chortle went on to explain that she (Stealth Korean) is literally irreplaceable.  She'd been a real go-getter, launching and directing several extracurricular English activities, e.g. the 30-minute English Days I've written of, taking on significant extra work in the process.  Now none of the remaining teachers want to continue her programs and are battling to avoid shouldering the burden.  Chortle laughed nervously as she said, with a panicked flash of sclera, "It's a big problem!"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Visit to Loving Hut or: I Ate a Lotus Leaf Burrito.

Alright, so there's this Vietnamese woman, Ching Hai, who calls herself the "Supreme Master" and makes an excellent living peddling an eclectic feel-good Buddhism.  Wikipedia is happy to tell you all about her.

Among the Supreme Master's many business ventures is the Loving Hut chain of vegan restaurants.  There are several of these in Seoul and, being ostensibly vegetarian and wanting to experience at first hand some wacky Supreme Master kitsch, I recently visited one to be overcharged for a meal.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Here's some weird Korean art.

There's a lot of modern art in Korea, much of it in the form of oversized statuary, a photo collection of which I'm preparing.  In the meantime, here's some art from the lobby of the Seoul Press Center to whet your appetite:

Monday, February 7, 2011

The DMZ is a tourist trap. Also, a tank trap.

I picked the worst day of the year to visit the DMZ/JSA and surrounding points of interest (e.g. the third infiltration tunnel, Dorasan Observatory, Dorasan station).  Fog reduced visibility to just about nothing, rendering the North invisible and allegedly making the JSA too dangerous for tourists.  The army was concerned that DPRK soldiers might have been lying in misty concealment somewhere waiting to kill us all.  The most interesting part of the tour was therefore canceled.  How exactly KPA assassins could have ambuscaded a tour group without conspicuously crossing the border and massacring it at close range is beyond me.  Hey US Army:  fog works both ways.  If you can't see the lurking communist scoundrels, they can't see you.

As is typical of me, I found the tour surreal and farcical and ended up observing its structure and participants more closely than the things we were shown.  It gets all meta when I go to tourist attractions and I always come home with pictures of tourists taking pictures.  Have a look: