Jiu Jitsu in Daegu

The gym is a few flights up a stairwell that smells like cigarettes. It isn’t very large, so by the time the fifteen to twenty students arrive, it will be crowded. It’s winter, so it’s cold inside until we warm up and begin sparring. The windows and mirror fog over from the body heat.

The gym is like a small apartment; Teacher instructs classes until midnight and then sleeps until the late afternoon in his office tucked into the corner of the room. It’s like we’re learning jiu jitsu in his living room, except there’s nothing but a fridge and couch in his office to make it a home. The gym has waist-high padded walls and a floor covered with thick, gray mat material. There are two punching bags and a watercooler. Outside, Daegu boasts its most ramshackle view: buildings that look unplanned, the Daegu Health College more like a shady warehouse disguised as a school.

Class begins and we form a circle. Teacher gives instructions and commands in Korean, so I just try to follow what everyone else is doing. According to my foreigner friends who recently encouraged me to try out jiu jitsu, Teacher has learned a lot more English than he knew when they first joined this gym. He seems to know some basic conversational phrases and anatomical terminology related to jiu jitsu training (knee, head, arm, etc.) and directional terms (push, turn). Thankfully, though, the routine is almost always the same, so it’s easy to figure out what we’re supposed to do next. It also helps that there are some Koreans who are pretty fluent in English and they are quick to translate if the language barrier becomes too real.

After we form our circle, Teacher sets a timer and we do push ups, crunches, and squats, taking turns counting to ten for each exercise, the Korean hana, tul, set, etc. occasionally interrupted by an English one, two, three. There are about five of us from the English Village who attend jiu jitsu, but everyone else is Korean. We go through a few more exercises like this.

And then Teacher shows us two to three moves, always demonstrating on Harry, a high schooler whose English is strong and who takes a lot of falls for the class while Teacher flips him this way and that, locking his leg and pulling him down or knocking him forward. Then we get into pairs and practice on each other.

It took me a little while to not feel awkward crawling all over a person. During my first trip to the gym when it was open mat, I had to bite back my giggles as my friend Rachel and Timmy, her husband, instructed me to kneel between Rachel’s legs. And being comfortable with someone coming at you with the intention of pinning you down also took at least a few times before I began to build any sense of aggression within myself.

This is not something I ever imagined myself doing. I have the George Michael from Arrested Development syndrome where, if someone throws something at me or generally tries to get in my face, my instinct is to essentially curl up in the fetal position (which, for your information, is an effective strategy in jiu jitsu, on occasion). But my friend Timmy wore me down into coming with them and trying it out, because I also have a syndrome that makes me bad at saying no. In this case, though, I was persuaded because I like to try new things, even if physical exertion just seems like the worst way to spend my time. I can be persuaded to do most anything if I figure I’m spending time with friends. For instance, one time I went to a barbershop concert with a friend just to spend time with her (another event in which I had to stifle my giggles and be mature about things).

So we practice the moves with each other, usually stumbling about and pausing to say something like, “And then I do…that? My leg goes here, and I sweep yours back? Wait, I’m missing a step.”

And the best/worst part of this whole experience is the position game and sparring. Either way, your goal is to just go at it and try to get a dominate or fatal position (i.e. triangle choke hold, where their head is between your knees, or arm bar, in a position where you could break their arm but don’t). This part is fun because it’s all about technique and thinking your way out of difficult positions. It’s not about strength as much as knowing how to throw someone off balance and prevent them from getting control over you. Rachel described it as chess: everyone has their own style of approaching this “duel” and you have to consider your own strategies. Even though I’m terrible compared to everyone else, I can feel myself get a little bit faster each class and use more effective strategies against my opponent.

Sparring was really intimidating the first few classes I attended. I wasn’t expecting to have the teacher point at me and pair me up with a man, Korean and sweaty and non-English-speaking. I felt very stupid not knowing even how to attack. I was dragged by my feet a lot and put in choke holds where I wasn’t sure if I had lost or not, only because no one ever goes full force on choke-holds and they sometimes just tell you to “tap out” because they don’t want to actually hurt you. I spar with at least three or four people each class. The students are a mix of ages, mostly men and a couple women in their twenties, some middle-aged men, and a few young boys who play on their phones a lot because their parents are paying for these classes.

When I stood on the sidelines that first day and looked at Timmy in panic, saying “Is this optional?!” He asked me, “What are you paying for?” So I walked up to this Korean guy Teacher paired me with, slapped our hands together and then fist-bumped (as you do to start a “spar” or “battle” or “brawl” or whatever), and then I proceeded to get dragged around and put in a choke-hold.

People seem a lot stronger when you feel completely helpless in protecting yourself. But even after just a week, I feel a lot less helpless–still really inexperienced, and I get taken down really easily, like when another supposedly “new” guy grabbed the edges of my sleeves and made it almost impossible to defend myself–but still stronger and a little more capable.

And then there’s Shin-gu, or “Bully” as he’s referred to outside of class by my friends. His big build, very pale skin, and completely hairless head, usually with sweat dripping down his scalp, is an intimidating presence. He’s a blue belt, higher than most, and his favorite pasttime is laying his entire body weight on his opponents (newcomers are no exception) and crushing them while laughing. He did this to me the first time we sparred, and the next time he spun me in circles while I tried to choke-hold him with my arms.

Which is weirdly one of the beautiful things about jiu jitsu. Not this Korean man with no hair, but the fact that jiu jitsu is a lot like dancing, an art form I miss partaking in. The moves we learn are like choreography, however violent, and you have to learn to work with your opponent like a dance partner. There’s a certain amount of trust that you grow because you’re learning from each other and testing your own skills with someone else.

But Bully’s actually a pretty nice guy. He tries to get to know the foreigners with his limited English and you can tell he enjoys this sport. He calls me “Sarah Puma”, which might be endearing or might be an insult, I don’t know. I guess he just likes to, you know, prey on people’s weaknesses and stuff. Classic Shin-gu.

When we’re finished sparring, most of us are huffing and puffing on the ground, faces red and sweaty. The gis (gees) we wear as our uniform make everything so much hotter and sweatier. We begin the exercises we did for the warm-up all over again. This time I’m exhausted and sore. We usually have to hold a plank for a minute, meaning I usually hear Teacher yell, “Sah-dah!” once or twice because I’ve taken too long of a break and am basically just napping on the hair- and sweat-covered floor.

So this is me, trying new things in a foreign country.

Advertisements

Seoul: Part Two

This is the continuation of my first trip to Seoul. Read Seoul: Part One here.

There can be a fair amount of confusion when two people whose native languages are not the same converse. Even though Yongseok’s English is really strong, there were still times where we were not on the same page.

When we Skype-called our friend, Kate, on Sunday morning, she said, “Yongseok, sometimes when you laugh I think it’s because you don’t understand what I’m saying.” Kate tends to talk even faster than I do. Yongseok responded with a laugh.IMG_3221

All of this to say that, when we passed the statues on the street that led to Gyeongbukgung Palace, and Yongseok told me that Yi Sun-Sin’s ship was a “cuttle” ship, I just smiled and nodded, and when I went to look up this guy’s name later on the internet, I realized Yongseok had been saying “turtle.” Turtle ship. Ooooooooh. Got it.

We also saw the statue of King Sejong, who created Hangul so that Koreans could express themselves beyond the limits of Chinese. He was an advocate for education and technological advancement and sponsored inventions like the rain gauge, sundial, water clock, celestial globes, and astronomical maps.

*

IMG_3273Throughout the day, we had stormed Gyeongbokgung Palace and Deoksu Palace, so it was late in the evening by the time we visited modern parts of Seoul. We ventured through Insadong, one of the shopping districts. There’s always so much to take in when shopping in Korea. Layers and layers of stores clustered together sell things you never thought you would need, but feel compelled to buy since it’s adorable and reasonably priced. The shops are not like those in Colorado, where everything is one level and spread miles apart. In Seoul, and Daegu for that matter, cafes are stacked on top of shops stacked on top of other shops. This first time in Seoul, I didn’t buy too much, but I did pick up a few souvenirs for my people back home (i.e. socks with Big Bang on them, because adorable and reasonably priced).

IMG_3272Insadong was also where I ate poop bread for the first time, or rather dong bang. Koreans have a fascination with poop that is lost to my Western mind, but the fried bread and chocolate, however unfortunately shaped, was quite delicious.

Taking pictures in a hanbok was probably the most unexpected thing I did during this trip. It took me a hot second to understand what was happening: What are we doing? We’re renting hanboks? Like, leaving the store with them? What? Oh, we’re taking pictures in them. That makes more sense. Do I put this on myself–okay, kamsamnida, I’m just a dumb foreigner who doesn’t know how to wear this thing. How many pictures do we take? What poses should we do? Um, obviously Charlie’s Angels pose??? Sure, also the double Korean peace-signs, of course. Wait, now we decorate the pictures on this computer? How does this work? Sure, I can put some flowers in the background. Make this as colorful as possible? Okay. Nice.IMG_3508

Lastly, we visited Seoul N(amsan) Tower. It loomed above us in glowing green light. There was a platform with a fence surrounding it that had thousands of locks all knotted together, symbolizing the love of visitors that came before us. Beyond this platform was a fantastic view of Seoul.

*

We arrived around 11:00 pm to Yongseok’s grandmother’s house in Gangnam.
She greeted me at the door and took my hand in hers, rubbing it gently. This is a welcoming Korean gesture. His mother was there, too, and she hugged me hello. They were very beautiful and sweet, these two women. Neither spoke English.IMG_3319

We sat at the dining room table and his mother fed us chocolate bread, a pretzel, and warm lemon tea. Yongseok translated back and forth. “She wants to hear more,” he told me after I had practiced a few words and phrases I had learned in Korean. I stumbled over a few more phrases I could think of to try to impress her.

We sat in the living room a while before bed. The big TV, exercise bike, and pictures of grandchildren that decorated the room reminded me of my own grandmother’s living room, and it made me think that all grandmother’s had similar taste in living room necessities. Yongseok’s grandmother made sure I had a toothbrush; Koreans are very dental hygiene-conscience. I soon went to bed, though, and somewhere in a neighboring apartment, an older, male Korean actor who’s name I can’t remember, also slept.

*

The last stop, before dinner and my return to Seoul Station to take the KTX to Daegu, was at a Korean Folk Village, where we spent most of the day. It reminded me of the colonial museums in the U.S. that I’d been to when I was a kid, where people dressed up and reenacted the lifestyle of that time period, washing clothes on a washboard, milking cows, shooting cannons in the town square. Except this was a Korean version.

There were huts and small buildings scattered beside dirt paths and had low ceilings and a variety of traditional Korean roofing styles. The ancient, rural feeling of the set-up was a stark contrast to the modern, energetic Korea that we know now. It was quiet with just a few people exploring the village, the rain soaking into the dirt path and our coats.IMG_3398

We stood under our umbrellas and watched the reenactment of a traditional wedding, the man clad in a blue handbok, the woman in a red one, bowing to each other. I wondered how many times this man and woman had pretended to marry each other, and whether they were actually married in real life, to each other or to other people.

This folk village has provided the setting for some historical dramas. It was the film location for Korean movies like The King and I (2007) and Jewel in the Palace (2003). I haven’t seen either of these, but it was interesting to see this aspect of Korean culture preserved. Even though the weather prevented us from seeing some of the other performances and events, we were able to see the village in quiet, a river flowing through with purple leaves covering the ground.

We left when it got dark, a hundred new pictures on my phone.

On Being Called “Brave”

A co-worker called me “brave”
when I shimmied through a foot-and-a-half wide gap
between walls to get inside a room.
Locked doors in basements are made to be entered.
Darkness at the end, long-legged spiders,
no light except my phone.
This school building in Chilgok, big and silent.
Fear smaller than curiosity.
“Brave.”
I laugh because I am not this.
I laugh because I never have been brave
before.

“You’re so brave,” a girl at church, my age, told me.
She came to Korea for the first time, too.
Out of the country for the first time,
but she has her husband.
“Brave” because I came alone.
I laugh because I have never been brave.
Just curious.
I cried often before Korea.
Packing, praying, surprise parties, goodbyes,
and tears.
You can cry and still be brave, I guess.
Sometimes it’s brave to even cry.

When they called me brave,
I peeked my head out from under insecurity blankets.
Say what?
Maybe
it’s because my best friends
traveled alone to other countries
and shimmied through gaps between walls.
I have timidly followed them through
those gaps so many times
by now I can follow through on promises
I tell myself.
Sarah, you will travel.
Sarah, you can be alone.
Sarah, don’t sit on the sidelines and
watch life slip through the gaps
and leave you behind with no mystery
and still, sometimes, spiders.
Brave Sarah. Brave Sarah.
Like learning a new word from a new language.
Brave. “Yong-gamhan.”

I side-stepped through the gap in the walls,
wandered through dark rooms,
switched on lights.
I unlocked the door to let my friends inside.

Be Nice, Listen, Speak English, No Sleeping: Teaching English to Korean Children

12065617_907615582642412_6275626084768841933_nTomorrow morning, the start of my third week teaching Korean elementary and middle school students, the children will arrive in semi-straight lines, boys keeping each other in friendly choke holds and girls hanging on each other’s elbows. “Hello! Welcome!” we call out, standing on either side of them as they walk to the gym, dragging their suitcases along. They wave back, sometimes with both hands, and abandon “Anyang-haseyo” for “Hello” for the next five days.

The students give us gentle high fives and some teachers tease them by stealing their hats or greeting them in a high-pitched, falsetto voice. Every Monday morning the same jokes, different kids.

When I’m told that my group is ready, I go to the gym, taking with me the students’ passports (an imitation passport that they use to take notes and record their English nickname) and a folder that teachers use for learning background on the group (names, what school they’re from, etc.) and making comments. I then lead my group to a classroom for a quick pretest. I ask them, “Where are you from?” Most often they reply with “Korea,” sometimes adding their city name. Other times they just blink at me, look back at their friends who are watching, and laugh nervously. Sometimes, if the student is more advanced, we can ask things like “What’s your favorite animal?” And they’ll say, “My favorite animal is a cat.” We’ll ask, “Why do you like cats?” They’ll reply, “Because they are cute.” That amount of dialogue is not very common, though. This is why it’s a challenge teaching kids when they only understand a small percentage of what we’re saying.

People asked me when I was preparing to leave for Korea, “How are you going to teach kids if you don’t know Korean?” The answer to this is something I’m still learning. First, I’ve had to accept that they just aren’t going to understand most of what I say. Because that’s not the point. The benefit of immersing students fully in a foreign language is that they’re obligated to really pay attention or be completely lost, which does, unfortunately, happen. But even if they don’t understand everything, they learn to pick up on signals, like tone of voice and gestures. We use a lot of gestures. I’m probably going to come back to the U.S. and open and close my hand anytime I use the word “talk” or “speak.” I also use a lot of thumbs up, because the sound we make when we say “good” is similar to the word that means “finished” for Korean speakers. Basically, speaking slowly and simply, using gestures, and employing lots of repetition is what guides these kids through our classes.

Orientation is their next class and follows a short opening ceremony in the gym where the kids get pumped up and discuss general rules for the week–Do your best! Speak English! Ask questions! Orientation is where we get to pick the students’ names if they don’t already have a name in mind, which is often the case.

Me: We’re going to pick your English nickname. English nickname. *pointing at the words “English nickname” in their passport* You can pick one of these. *Circling motion around a list of English names* English nickname. Do you know which one you want? Do you want me to pick one? *Pointing to myself* What English name? Like, “Sally”, “Kathryn”, “Jessica”…Nickname? I will pick one for you?
Korean child: ???????

As difficult as it is for the student to understand what’s going on, especially on the first day, it’s fun to pick their names for them. There’s a certain power in coming up with these names if the student can’t decide. If I want to name the kids after my family and friends, I can do that. If I want to name them after all the characters on Arrested Development or Firefly, I can, and will, do that. The administration has had to remind teachers in the past, though, to stick to the names on the list because it can get out of hand sometimes. I was told that one student insisted on being called “Lucifer” (presumably after a video game he liked) and when asked where he was headed in the airport situational, he replied, “TO HELL!” Funny, but not so funny to his parents when they found out we called him Lucifer all week.

Also, we’re never supposed to call them “Johnson” or “Daisy”, because the kids are aware (even though I wasn’t???) that “Johnson” means “dick” and “Daisy” sounds like “dwae-ji”, Korean for “pig.” But it really doesn’t matter how normal of a name you give them because they will probably laugh at it, anyway, just like they laugh at the way you mispronounce their Korean names. You know you effed something up when they repeat the way you said their friend’s Korean name and giggle. A teacher I observed my first week gave a kid the name “Clive” and he dropped his jaw dramatically to pronounce the “ive” like the word was too big for his mouth. The kids busted up from how hilarious that word sounded to them.

At some point, you have to reign the kids back in so that you can set expectations. At the beginning of each class, we’re supposed to go over the rules.

  1. Be nice [Because the kids wail on each other as a part of their friendship. The boys will tackle or choke each other and the girls will slap the boys with all their strength–but, most of the time, they’re not doing it maliciously. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between “play” fighting and bullying…mostly I just intervene when it becomes a distraction or someone starts crying. *Teacher of the Year!*]
  2. Listen carefully [Even though you don’t understand almost everything I’m saying.]
  3. Speak English [This is America. We speak English here…wait…?]
  4. No sleeping [Because the kids stay up late talking to their friends and about mid-week start sprawling on benches and openly napping in the middle of class. They’re all set for college.]

The classes I’ve taught at this point are Video Store and my academic class, Music Genres. It takes a lot of lesson plan-adjusting as I learn more about what works and what doesn’t work for students of different English levels. For instance, when we played musical chairs in the first few Music Genres classes I taught, it went pretty well overall. And then I got a class that didn’t understood half my instructions, so when I played the music they just stood next to their chairs and kind of danced around to “Sugar” by Maroon 5, which they love here. (I can’t escape it. I just can’t.) No matter how many times I made a circle motion with my arm and tried to show them how to walk in a circle, they just ignored me and it became a matter of who was too into their dancing at the time the music stopped that they didn’t grab a seat. It was chaos, but I was laughing really hard at them when the DGEV photographer came in and wanted an action shot. So I’m pretty sure those pictures were of me dying of laughter while the kids formed a mosh pit to music that had out of control volume. *Quality education brought to you by Sarah Teacher*

Anyways, I might need to pick a different game for the kids who are more clueless and the middle schoolers who think they’re too cool for musical chairs and basically fought over who was free to stop playing the game and who was forced to march in a circle.

The kids craziness and unpredictability is what makes teaching fun here, though. They have a sweetly naive way of making sense of us foreigners, too. I’ve had many a Korean student stare into my heterochromatic eyes and ask, “Teacher, contact lens?” I’ve been asked a few times if I was married to the teachers I was observing the first week, and then asked if I was the teacher’s younger sister because of our age difference. The children ask “Same same?” and point at YouTube videos with white girls in them and then point at us, because, yes, all white girls look the same. Any female teacher with blonde hair and a braid will be called “Elsa” and there’s always a boy who stops the class at some point to sing, “Teacher…Do you wanna build a snowmaaaaaaaan?” Thanks, Frozen.

When class ends, I shout above the throng, “Sign passports! Sign passports!” And suddenly there are fifteen suspiciously-stained passports thrusted into my face and I circle how many points each student earned for participation and content and sign my initials. And then I release them to their Village Guide and wait for the next group to appear, waving “Hello, Teacher!”

So this is my life now.

Integration Field Trips

I sit in the back seat, middle. In both Korea and the U.S., I am considered short, so I don’t need leg room. Wedged in between two other teachers, bracing to avoid sitting in someone’s lap. First Korean car trip. Saccharine Kpop plays from a mix on the stereo. Our supervisor is driving us. One teacher asks me, what do I think of the mountains here, being from Colorado? The mountains of Chilgokgun are beautiful, but in a different way–like moss, the smooth roundness that the treetops form as they rise in soft angles in the foggy air. The rich, dark green. Colorado pines are brittle and triangular like the mountains themselves, reaching up sharply to the sky.

In the car, we tell stupid jokes and our supervisor is silent. Traffic is like a crowded, toothy smile, cars packed in tightly together on the street. Side roads have barely enough room for traffic. No parking tickets. Please, don’t let us crash. Oh no, we’re going to hit somebody. And then, we neatly back up into a parking space. And our supervisor is silent, smoking cigarettes when we leave the car. Outside, we walk past patients wandering in hospital gowns, their IVS following next to them like loyal pets. There’s a coffee shop inside and stations for every ailment, disease, condition. We travel up an elevator. I try to sound out the Korean hangul that I see all around me. Nah…Nah…Ri…? We arrive at a desk with a young woman shuffling papers. “She’s new.” A small, elderly nun smiles behind me in line. Paperwork in my hands that I can’t read. Did I bring my passport? Won? 30,000 won? Passport photos?

We wait on a brown leather couch. A nurse gluesticks my photo–my painful portrait, my wincing smile–to paperwork. They measure my weight, my height, my chest size? My hearing, my color-sight, my blood pressure. I sit on a couch, watch the three other teachers be examined. Our supervisor translates. Our white faces are dumb.

New station. A small child barely walking. “Annyeong haseyo! Annyeong! Aw, so cute!” The child stares intently at my eyes. I wave. The mother waves the child’s hand back at us. And then hand-holding, moral-supporting, breath-taking, blood-drawing. My turn. The nurse wears no gloves. The pinching of the needle–it pinches. I blush from the pain and two teachers and one supervisor looking over my shoulder as the nurse, bare-handed, empties my arm of a vial of blood.

Dixie cup. Bathroom–squatty potties. Yes! Squatty potties! Pants down, urine collecting, awkward walk, carrying my own pee across the hall to place it on a tray in the fridge, like, “It’s cool. Just putting a cup of my own piss in this display case for all the see.” My sample is healthy; someone else’s is tomato juice-orange. I marvel at my sore arm. Wash hands. A nurse runs into me with a tray of dixie piss cups. Splash. Not on my clothes, thank goodness. That was almost the worst day ever. That was a close one. I hope whoever owns that orange pee gets well soon. Back to the elevator. Time for Xrays. First, “crazy test.” Fold in your fingers from thumb to pinky to prove your mental stability. “Do you have any disorders?” “No.” The doctor’s smile is huge. Goodbye, I guess? “Kamsamnida!” And then…waiting. Extra long wait. I practice Korean. Try sounding out the syllables. I suck at this. Play “Pop Popping Korean” on a phone. Netflix. Fifteen minutes of Portlandia. People-watch. I wonder what was up with that orange urine. Tap my feet.

Xray. What did she say? I take off my shirt, my bra, put on a purple hospital scrub. Hug a plastic machine. My lungs are healthy. No TB here. Changing room again. Finished. Finally.

We go out to lunch. “Chicken is not real Korean food.” “Barbeque is rare for lunch.” The city rises upwards. Tall apartment buildings, tall shops, short me. Motor bikes shoot past us. Hangul everywhere. You don’t notice so many words around you until you can’t read them. Try to sound out the syllables. Do…Re…Mi…Fa…Fried rice with an egg on top. “Just use the spoon.” “That’s what it’s there for.”

Next day. Immigration. Back to the middle seat. I’m the fresh meat in a foreign teacher sandwich. Supervisor’s ecigarettes smell so good. Like cotton candy? No. Like the best smell ever? We try to walk casually behind him. A competition to see who can breathe in the most second-hand smoke. Delicious lung cancer. The smell is “My Wife.” Supervisor driver is tired, so we stop at a rest station. Squatty potties! Yay, squatty potties. And the next best thing, ice cream in a bag. A bag of ice cream that tastes kind of like my mom’s homemade recipe. My fingers burn red from the cold.

Immigration. Signatures on paper. More paperwork. I sit down and wait for the clerk to stop typing and ask for money. I can’t count the wons with the man and my supervisor watching. What is math? I fumble with the money. Passport photos? Of course. Of course I have them but can’t find them in my purse or in my folder of paperwork. Are you kidding me? I paid ten dollars back home for those! The passport photos are not with me. I thought I had them with me. “Choesong hamnida. Yes, copy my passport page.”

Finished? That’s it? We’re legal! Back in the car, back to the school we pass on the highway, the English Village standing its ground in the hills, protected by trees.

A week later, the bank. Another Korean staff member. “Nice to meet you.” Crawl to the back of the van. I’m the smallest and I don’t need leg room. Rumble up through the hills to the Daegu Bank. The staff member, she drives us down a tight entrance to a small place to park below ground. Deep breaths, the van barely fitting, tires grinding the wall. Screech, teeth grinding, no place to park. Park anyways and leave a note. Inside the bank, the clerk speaks English well. I hand her money, passport, no ARC as of yet. Wait. And wait. “Korean language. Korean language. Korean language.” Signatures, signatures. My ATM card offered to me on a little tray. I take it. Done. Next. Small talk. Bank talk. Then the van barely makes it up the exit ramp. Accelerate. Accelerate. Accelerate. ATM card, empty bank account. Busy city. Here I am.

A Tour of the English Village

The foreign teachers are very privileged at the Daegu Gyeongbuk English Village (DGEV), from the beauty of our surroundings to the general ease of our jobs. As I’ve been undergoing training and starting to teach the past two weeks, I’ve been able to explore the campus in my free time both inside and out.

The campus is relatively large and the architecture is unsurprisingly Western. The main building looks like a government building with tall pillars in the front and marble-patterned tiles. There are many windows and glass doors in every building, allowing for a profusion of natural light. On weeknights, lights glow from the gazebo and lampposts that stand along the walkway from the fountain in front of the main building to the fountain by the stationary airplane (forever stationed at the airport situational gate) on the other end of campus. A pebbled, man-made river runs through the middle of campus, though its usually dry.

DSCN2265 DSCN2276

In the situationals, the impersonation of a Manhattan street can be noisy from the traffic of students following their Village Guides to their next class. They might go to a grocery store, a bank, a police station, a hospital, an airline terminal, a video store, a gift shop, a zoo–all rooms where teachers use these themes and any corresponding props/sets to teach English vocabulary. It’s kind of like a children’s museum.

12079237_904467136290590_8282373589580675013_n 12143323_904466996290604_1666786650030281497_n

I’ve learned that the Village is full of quirks. It caters not only to students, but also to flight attendant trainees. They have a room specifically for instructing young women who fit their strict physical requirements. This explains everything. The room is equipped with vanity mirrors in rows that at first look like computer screens. The floor is marked with two lines to form a catwalk so that flight attendants can practice the proper way to walk down cramped aisles and ease past grumpy travelers. It also has a station where you can weigh yourself and measure your height. I’m fairly certain I would meet zero of the qualities they look for (the fact that I’m not even Korean aside).

DSCN2284 DSCN2286

There is also a combat room, which some of us interpreted as a laser tag arena when we were told about it. After shimmying through a gap between two walls (because the room was locked and I was curious), walking through some dark rooms, and exploring them with a flashlight, to my dismay I discovered there was no arena, and rather I found myself in a room with a bunch of rifles pointing at me, which sounds like a scene in a thriller, but really the guns were just stationed on the floor to target practice on a screen on the opposite wall. I think I heard that the military sometimes uses this room for training, because if there’s a class on gun-wielding, I have yet to hear about it.

Another quirk of the Village, in the most comical of senses, is that the Korean administration of the school feels children’s nursery rhymes must boom from the speakers during transitions between classes, which, to the foreign teachers’ chagrin, is every 45 minutes. Right when silence seems normal, a woman’s voice busts out (to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round”), “Dad is taking us to the zoo tomorrow! Zoo tomorrow! Zoo tomorrow!” and it echoes inside the buildings and across every parking lot, sidewalk, or hole in the ground you try to bury your head in to get away from that music. Some of the lyrics to the three or four songs they play are up to interpretation. Some people hear “sausage in a bag” while others hear “toss it in a bag,” when, apparently, the lyrics are really, “sausage in a pan.” Either way, I don’t know what it has to do with “sweeties in a jar” or “jelly on a plate.” Didn’t the U.S. once use the repetition of the Barney “I Love You” song as a method of torture?

One thing, which I guess you could call a quirk, is the lack of interaction the foreign teachers have with the Korean staff. They have separate offices that we’re not allowed inside and a segregated cafeteria, as well. Our supervisor told us it was because Koreans have loud, frequent conversations on the phone, and we would find it distracting. While this may be true, this concern about distraction probably goes both ways. It would be a fun experience getting to know the Korean staff and learning from each other, but I’m trying to be understanding. Two languages clashing with each other in the same office might prove to be more of a hassle, at least for the Koreans, than a benefit to their fast, hyper-productive culture. Additionally, we don’t really have reason to collaborate with the Korean staff on much, so the chain of command also ensures this separation.

As I expected, there’s a lot I’m learning and trying to figure out about Korea, but I’m happy to be teaching in such an interesting school with beautiful surroundings.

St. Petersburg, Russia

Today’s guest blogger is Matthew Avischious.

It’s difficult to know just what to expect when visiting a foreign country. No amount of reading about sights to see or cultural practices are a replacement for the real thing. When I was preparing to go to Russia, this process was made even more difficult as I knew very few people outside of my Russian professors at school who had actually been there. Most of my friends had no experience there, and what they did know was usually based off some joke or Russian stereotype. Needless to say I was nervous and excited to venture off into a completely new part of the world in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Stepping of the plane, I realized just how different learning a language in a classroom was compared to actually being surrounded by native speakers. At college the speakers I talked to were just learning the language, and apart from my professor, no one spoke quickly or with great pronunciation. I tried to eavesdrop on conversations nearby to see if I could pick up anything they said, while only sometimes being able to pick up the gist of what they were saying. What really forced me to get comfortable with speaking Russian was living with a host family that spoke no English. It took getting used to, but eventually we were able to understand each other,  and it gave me a deeper appreciation for the language.

After about a week of being in St. Petersburg, I began exploring the city with friends to see the sights. When most people think of Russian architecture, they think of Red Square or giant Soviet apartment complexes. However, St. Petersburg is a very different type of Russian city.  Since the city was originally founded by Russian czar and Europhile, Peter the Great, there is a distinct European style in much of the city. Many of the buildings are pastel colored and feature arches and pillars like in classical French design. That is not to say there is not Russian style, though. As one heads out from the center of the city towards the additions added during the Soviet times, there are towering grey apartment buildings where many of the city’s residents live.

The city not only has unique architecture, but also has its fair share of art. There are many museums in St. Petersburg, but none are more famous than the Hermitage. It’s one of the most famous art museums in the world, and after visiting several times while I was there, it’s easy to understand why. There are pieces from ancient Egyptian art all the way to modern galleries from around the world. While it is an amazing place to visit, I preferred another nearby art museum called the Russian Museum. What makes it special is that it contains only the works of artists from Russia. This helps to give a distinctly Russian perspective of art and the world. It features early Russian icons which show the deep connections with Russian Orthodoxy, portraits of Russian aristocrats during Imperial Russia, and paintings of modern Soviet ideals.

To better understand Russian culture, I then had to travel outside of the city to explore some of the vast parks and gardens. Russians traditionally have emotional and spiritual ties to nature, and getting out of the city is a great way for them to unwind. To get to the parks, my friends and I traveled in old soviet style train cars out from the city, and despite the cold weather, large groups of Russians were out enjoying the scenery. Many of the parks are on the land from former imperial palace grounds, and the amount of space they take up is absolutely gigantic. One could easily spend a day or two just walking around a single park. Through the thick forest and rolling hills, there are often small buildings scattered throughout the parks. These buildings range from green houses to mausoleums built for royal family members.

Of course, it is impossible to really know a culture without actually talking to the people who live there. Walking down the street or riding the metro, people always have a serious look on their face, which can be quite off-putting for foreigners. However I learned to not be fooled by the stern outward appearances of the Russian people. Once you get to know Russians, they are very kind and welcoming. From the friends I made while playing soccer matches in the park, to the old Russian grandmothers who simply wanted someone with whom they could practice their English, they are the ones that truly made Russia feel like an amazing place.

South Korea: First Week and First Impressions

12109283_901438709926766_7741723750300968074_nAnnyeong haseyo. I’m back! (To my blog, that is. I’m actually in a whole different country now, if you weren’t paying attention.)

I’ve finished my first week in South Korea, and I love the adventures I’m facing. There are aspects of the culture that allude me, but there are parts of it that I feel like I fit into comfortably. However, it can be kind of scary only knowing how to say about five phrases, because eventually you’re going to run into a situation where “Thank you” and “Where’s the bathroom” are not helpful, like in my first Korean cab ride as I journeyed from the Daegu airport to the campus where I’m now living. I self-consciously told the driver, “Hanguk-mal-moteyo” (more or less, “I don’t speak Korean.”), and the awkward chuckle we shared was followed by a 20-minute silence, unless you count the sound of me praying that we were headed to the right destination and that I wasn’t going to end up dead somewhere my first time out of the country.

But, I’m alive, and I have no complaints about this beautiful place. Here are some thoughts on how it made an impressive first impression:

Korean society is group-oriented, and so respect for others is essential. For instance, the monorail that runs through Chilgok has Smart windows, meaning they fog over when passing housing districts, allowing privacy for commuters and people in their homes. Additionally, they have special seats reserved for the elderly, the disabled, and those who are pregnant or have children with them. They also expect you to be quiet on the monorail, like it’s a public library, since commuting is often the downtime of people’s busy days. All of this ensures people are given the space they need to function and have some peace. In the U.S., I’ve yet to encounter the same value of public consideration for others.

Korea has its classy down. On the flight from Incheon to Daegu, they played classical music before take off and after we descended, and the overhead lights turned a calming blue. The flight attendants were 1960s well-dressed. They wore kerchiefs around their collars and fancy bows in their perfect hair. They wore classy gray or turquoise (as I’ve seen them) dress suits. American flight attendants are generally very friendly and good at their jobs, but I just can’t emphasize enough how unclassy Americans seem to look compared to Koreans, at least on a general scale. And I know I’m basing this sweeping generalization on very few observations, but I don’t have time or money to conduct proper research, so my conclusions still stand. Korea is just so classy. Deal with it. Please?

“But,” you protest, “what about those horrible squatty potties???” You might not think that squatty potties, essentially porcelain holes in the ground, are all that classy. “We sit on thrones of porcelain glory!” you insist. No no no. Sit down and shut up, dear reader.

I am all about the squatty potties. I’m at the point where I’m actually disappointed if I open a public stall and it’s not a squatty potty. Here’s why: There is research out there that talks about how our bodies are made to excrete at the angle that squatting allows, as evidenced by the colon and other bowel-related ailments that started after the invention of the modern toilet. So, as long as you have legs that bend and you pull your pants down appropriately, it’s so natural. Super natural even. And if you’re a slight germophobe like me, then you don’t enjoy sitting where so many others have sat their butts, anyway. The benefit of squatty potties is that there is no butt-sitting that will ensure the exchange of butt germs. It’s a miracle! The flushing knob is also close to the floor so you can just step on it instead of touching it with your hand, or pushing it with your foot like I do. And, yeah, I know: “But you’ll get pee-pee on your shoes. Ew!” Yes, yes, this is inevitable, especially if the person who squatted before you was drunk, but Koreans also have an etiquette that suggests, if not requires, you to take off your shoes when entering homes or restaurants like the one I went to my first night in Chilgok, where we sat on the floor–the night I stepped in a drunk person’s urine a little bit (with my shoes on, mind you). So there, everyone. Squatty potties for the win!

In addition to my growing love of Korea and squatty potties, I’m proud of myself for taking risks, however small. Five years ago, I would never have imagined myself living in another country on my own. The night of my first full day at DGEV, everyone went out for chicken and beer for a coworker’s birthday. Jet lag hasn’t affected me very much since I’ve gotten here, so even though the other new teachers were not up to going, I hopped on the shuttle and followed my coworkers to Chilgok. If I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have met a young couple who told me they went to church. If I was still the hyper-cautious, shy person that I was five years ago, I wouldn’t have asked them if I could tag a long. So now I have church buddies. This trip off campus was also a good start to getting to know more people I would be working with. As soon as I stepped off the shuttle, a girl put her arm around me and asked me about myself. That meant a lot to me. They welcomed me into their group, and I felt like I belonged, even though I couldn’t read the hangul that faced me in every direction, even though I barely knew these people.

At Chicken Daily, we sat on the floor at a low table in our socks and chopstick-fed ourselves breaded chicken. I had a shot of peach-flavored soju which did not exactly taste like juice as someone had promised me, but it was much, much better than the beer, which was real bad, just as they promised.

I’ve had great food so far. Our cafeteria, unlike most school cafeterias in Korea, is quite good. The rice is sticky and I don’t have to eat tentacles with every meal. There are also always American options, too, even if that just means chicken nuggets or a PB&J sandwich. And, again, I can’t complain. I will take fried, breaded sweet potatoes or kimchi or tentacles over something I would have eaten in America. Because it’s different, and that’s what’s exciting.

Adventures in Singapore

Today’s guest blogger is Hannah Hendrix.

Hello, world! My name is Hannah. Last spring break I went to Singapore for the second time (the first being the summer before), and I absolutely loved it both times. My father frequents Singapore on business trips and I, wanting adventure, decided to tag along the two times I could. The first time I went, I did numerous activities, like going to the Singapore Zoo (so cool!), an island called Sentosa, the aquarium, as well as doing random site-seeing, like the Merlion and the light show down near the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (done every night for free). The coolest thing about Singapore to me was that you could get anywhere (walking or taking the MRT) underground. And it wasn’t just a tunnel underground; it was a tunnel that led to the lower level of a mall and a food court. Singapore doesn’t have much land mass, and so they’ve built everything up and down. There are malls everywhere! Literally. They also have a variety of price ranges, so if you want to spend the big bucks, you can, or if you’re feeling more on the frugal side, there are things for that as well.

Both times I went to Chinatown. Chinatown, no matter where in the world it is, is always my favorite. It’s one of my favorite places anywhere because I’ve always had a love for Asian culture, and there’s always so much packed into a few streets of town! It’s exciting and wonderful to visit all the booths with their different products to offer (especially food!). It’s just all around a fun time.

One of the weirdest but easiest (as a traveler) parts of Singapore was that while the majority of the people living there are Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese, everyone speaks English. Not when they’re on the streets talking to each other, but if you need directions or are wanting to shop anywhere, there is no language barrier. The signs are also all in English and Chinese, so no need to be confused when someone tells you what street something is on.

Singapore is kind of like a hub of different ethnicities and cultures colliding but all working and meshing well together all at once. The British had taken over Singapore for a while before it became its own nation, and so there are many places (old hotels, site specific monuments, and more) that are British in nature. The plugs in the wall are even European!

The temperature there, since it’s near the equator, is basically the same year round. It’s humid, but not horribly humid. And it’s a delightful kind of warm. All of the buildings are air conditioned and even the tunnels underground are, so there’s no need to be in the heat if you don’t want to. But if you feel like walking around, then it’s bearable. Just bring water!

The last thing I’ll mention is their rules. They have very strict laws about jaywalking, chewing gum (You absolutely can’t do it. They don’t even sell gum there. If you chew it, you can be arrested.) and vandalism. But because of their strictness, it’s a very clean and well organized city. You probably won’t feel like the minority if you go there, because even though the majority of people you see are Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian, there are so many white business men and women walking around that you somehow blend in with the crowd even though you should stick out.

I would recommend going if you can.

Being a Foreigner Abroad

Today’s guest blogger is Mike Smith. Check out his travel blog here.

“If you’re a giant freak monster here in the U.S., then it HAS to be even harder for you there in Albania!”

Truer words never spoken, friend.

Sometimes it is tough to be me in general. I have, unfortunately, never been able to fit in or go unnoticed anywhere in my life just because of my physical appearance alone. When traveling abroad, that feeling is amplified exponentially. Sometimes it is hard dealing with all of the attention I get, positive or negative, and it can be a bit tiring when everyone stares at/wants to take pictures with you when all you want to do is go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. To add to the whole sideshow attraction feeling, I make up about 25% of Albania’s current black population (maybe a little more since I’m bigger than the rest of them) so you can get an idea of how life is for me at present. If you’re just going on vacation somewhere, then it’s not that big a deal, but if you plan on living somewhere for an extended period of time, it can eventually become overwhelming and incredibly stressful.

That’s why I wanted to share with you Big Mike’s Top 5 Ways to Not Feel Like the Unwanted Foreigner in a Different Country (or “Coping Mechanisms” for short).

1. Walk with confidence! – Stand up straight. Shoulders back. Head up. If you walk with confidence you will FEEL confident, and that feeling will carry you through a lot. It seems like a small tip or common knowledge, but you’d be surprised how many times I see other visitors/my fellow volunteers hunched over slinking through their towns staring at the ground because they are afraid to make eye contact with the locals. That demeanor can actually ADD to your fears or unhappiness and give you that nagging, “I can’t wait to go home” thought in the back of your head. Get yourself together, fix that posture, and strut!

2. Learn the language! – Again, one would think that this is common sense if you are living in a country that doesn’t speak your L1 for an extended period of time, but I wouldn’t be bringing it up if I didn’t see people ignoring it everyday. You need to know at least enough for things like everyday conversations, work, travel, buying things, etc. When I see people just slamming English into everything and refusing to learn the language of the place that they live in it irks me. You don’t have to be perfect, but showing the locals that you’re trying does wonders for your approval rating and they will really appreciate the effort.

3. Make local friends – You need friends no matter where you go. Either someone that you can visit or can visit you. These friends can help you get adjusted or introduce you to other people or things that you may have never known about otherwise, and they are invaluable when settling in at a new place. And that doesn’t mean you have to make friends with EVERYONE. One or two really good friends will do just fine. It’s always better to have 4 quarters than 100 pennies.

4. Make American friends – We are quite literally everywhere…like a virus or a plague. Americans are absolutely all over the world, and chances are high that you will run into a few wherever it is that you are traveling to. You may even know some before you go. Some people will tell you that if you want to really be successful, you have to spend as little time with people that are like you as possible. I call b.s. You need as many connections as you can get in your strange new land, so don’t shun anyone! Odds are that they have gone through the things that you will go through as well and can help you to adjust more quickly. ‘MURICA /salute

E. Accept invitations – Inevitably you will be invited out to do things with local people, whether it be to get coffee or lunch or what have you. Make some time to go and hang out with your new peers and neighbors. Everyone will want to know about you, why you are there, for how long, what toothpaste you use, etc. Go out and get to know about them, too! Being open to little social meetings will do wonders for your integration and you could even find some new friends from there as well. Of course, use your judgement when accepting invites to things. Don’t go to someone’s house for “Netflix and chill” if you just met them, obviously…

If you find things getting a bit rough for you, these things will definitely help you get through most of it. You will find that most things that you are stressing about are all in your head and the more you integrate the faster they will go away. It will not be instantaneous, and it will feel like ice skating uphill for a little while, but eventually you will find your groove and start to love your new place.