Monday, July 2, 2012

The Beginning of the End

Two weeks from today I will be on a plane on my way back to the States. I must admit, there were times during this year when I thought that day couldn't come fast enough. There were times when I was homesick, and lonely, and struggling to understand this totally upside-down culture. And all I wanted was to go back to my momma's house, curl under the covers, and be a kid again. Growing up is hard. Living abroad is hard.

But in the end, going to live alone in another country was the best possible thing I could have done in my life at this point. I was exhausted from my hectic lifestyle at school. I was working two jobs and taking over twice the "full-time" student course load. I was also starting to define myself through my relationships with other people, depending too much on others for my happiness instead of being my own happiness.

The struggles and triumphs I've experienced here during this year have caused me to grow and to reflect on myself and my impact on the world around me. I have truly experienced something powerful and great, and I wish everyone could do something so healing for themselves.

Recently, a friend of mine here asked me, "What will you miss the most?" My definite, resounding, don't-have-to-think-about-it-for-even-a-second answer is: the kids. My students have been my rock (and my rockstars) during this year. When I came to school tired, lonely, frustrated, homesick; my students were there to make me smile.

Through the days when they were testing my very last nerve, on the rare occasion I wanted to chuck a few of them out the window (2-3b, you know who you are -_-), to the times when they gave me random gifts, and made me laugh so hard I almost peed my pants (even though most of those times it was completely inappropriate and I should have been stern!), the kids have made this year truly incredible.

The energy and excitement shown by my kids made every single day of waking up at 6am worth it. For two months, I came to school from 8am until 9pm every Tuesday because students requested a debate class. It was exhausting, and sometimes the other teachers forgot about me, so I didn't get dinner, but it was worth it. On that last class, while happily munching snacks and Capri-Suns that I brought for them, my students hashed out a well-informed, coherent, and thoughtful debate on the death penalty.

I just finished speaking tests. My pride filled my chest to bursting with each student that came forward to give a speech. After 6 months of grammar and endless vocabulary drills, I gave them free reign for the speaking test. "Talk for 3 minutes" was all I asked. The students took it and ran with it. They put together some of the funniest skits, most intelligent arguments, and clever how-to lessons I've ever seen from this age group. From one group writing their entire skit about "How to make Miss Meghan fall in love with me," to a brilliant trick for cheating (I'll show you sometime, seriously... evil, but brilliant), to arguments about saving the environment and loving yourself for who you are, I was continually impressed.

Every single time I pass a student in the hallway, I get a bow or a wave and an enthusiastic, "Hi, teacher!" There is no possible way to feel lonely when you have 300 students who genuinely care about you and what you have to say to them.

Of course, every day wasn't perfect. I distinctly recall one day where over half of one of my classes slept through the entire lesson. I mean, probably 18 of the 30 in that class. But then I remember that these kids have a tougher schedule and more pressure on them than the most studious American kid I knew, me. I worked my butt off in high school, and I put in nowhere near as much study time as these kids. They wake up at 6am and have class and study time until midnight every single day but Sunday.

The best part is: they aren't bitter. They sigh and complain sometimes, but then they suck it up and do it. They are, without a doubt, the most humble, kind group of children I've ever met.

I cried in school on Friday. After class, two of my students ran out to catch me in the hallway. They had bought me a gift from their field trip the day before. It is a beautiful, hand-painted fan. During one of the few days they get to be outside of school, and after traveling five hours to get there and five hours back, they had thought to bring me something. I teared up as we stood there hugging in the hallway.

These kids did exactly what I was hoping to accomplish this year. I had been so disenfranchised with teaching. I was frustrated, I was tired, and I didn't want to do it anymore. In fact, I had quit. But I gave teaching abroad a shot, hoping to get some energy back, and to remember why I love teaching in the first place. My students gave this to me. And so, I will be forever grateful, and I will never forget the beautiful children who helped me remember myself and also to become an adult.

And as I sit here writing this, I am tearing up again. I can't wait to see my family again. My baby sisters are growing big while I'm away. One of them even got her first apartment this weekend. My family and friends are changing, moving on, and I'm not there. But... leaving these kids behind is going to be one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. But I'm an adult. And as I explained to some of the kids last week, life just isn't simple.

So, to the students of Poongsan High School: thank you, and I love you.

Class 1-1

Class 1-2

Class 2-1

Class 2-2

Class 2-3a

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Day in Yeongju

Me and my co-teacher, Mr. Lee!

 Last Wednesday, June 6th, was Memorial Day here in South Korea. Like home in the US, it's a national holiday. My co-teacher (he's the teacher in charge of all my affairs, pays my rent, takes me to school, etc) invited me to go to a nearby town, Yeongju(영주), to visit some cultural and historical sites. It was really amazing!

First, we visited the Yeongju Ginseng Market(영주 인삼 시장), which was really neat. It was a long building that really reminded me of flea market buildings back home, but instead of many different booths, it was just rows of booths selling ginseng in all different forms. We tried ginseng tea and dried, honeyed ginseng. They were really good, rather like fruit snacks. I ended up buying some to bring back home.

Next, we visited Sosuseowon (소수서원), which is the first Confucian academy built in Korea in 1542. It was absolutely gorgeous, framed with a beautiful river, bridges, gardens, and lotus ponds. After this, we ate pajeon, Korean vegetable pancakes, as a snack and then headed to our final stop of the day, the nearby Buddhist temple.

Buseoksa (부석사) Temple was built in 676, and has been renovated several times since then. "Bu" (부) means "floating," "seok" (석) means "rock," and "sa" (사) means "temple," so it's also called the Floating Rock Temple. The legend of the temple is very famous: lady Seonmyo and the priest Uisang met when he went to Dang (Dynasty of China) to study. When Uisang told Seonmyo he had to go back to his country, Seonmyo despaired and jumped into the sea and drowned. After death, she became a dragon. Seonmyo followed Uisang to Korea to protect and be with him. When Uisang ran against a crowd that had gathered to stop him from building Buseoksa Temple, Seonmyo brought three stones into the air. Because the stones had floated above the ground, the temple was named Buseoksa Temple.

It was very beautiful, and we had a very funny moment. I've said before that South Korea is this crazy kind of juxtaposition of the old and the new: right next to each other you'll have traditional homes and temples and high-rise apartments and office buildings. Well, here we are praying inside the temple... when the monk's cell phone rings! I had to stifle the giggles.

One of the guardians that wards away evil at the entrance to the temple grounds.

View from one of the balconies on temple grounds.

The monks ring this bell every day at 6am and 6pm.

Traditional drums.

The main temple, this is where the offending monk resided!

Stone Buddha

My co-teacher insisted I get a picture!

So, it was a very good day. After all the sight-seeing, we had a delicious late lunch, during which I ate waaaay too much and then passed out in a food coma the moment I got home. I'm glad I did this, and it was nice to spend time with my co-teacher before I have to leave. Only 35 more days now...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sports Day

Last week was a fun, crazy time at my school. In Korea, schools don't sports teams like they do in the US. Kids are much too busy studying, so they only get to play sports during PE three times a week. This made me wonder, how do people become professional sports players if they don't play during high school or college? So I asked my students and they explained to me that scouts travel to middle schools and watch children play, then choose the best players to attend sports high schools.

Since there aren't organized sports in schools, every spring schools have a Sports Day festival. Poongsan High School's Sports Day was last week! On Thursday and Friday there were no classes, and there were competitions leading up to the finals on Friday afternoon. The whole school was split into four teams, and the teams competed in basketball, football, soccer, kickball, handball, tug of war,  running events, and cheering competitions. Oh, and they had a 6-person jump roping competition, where 6 people had to jump a huge rope all at the same time. I couldn't believe the coordination!

It was so much fun to get to see a different side of my students. In the end, the team that I was secretly rooting for lost every single event. I felt really bad for them, but they proved the endurable nature of Korean spirit: even though they never won a single event, they were laughing, singing, dancing, and cheering on the other teams. They never got disheartened. It made me really happy.

As for the teachers, we got to sit under tents and eat a TON of food and watch the kids go at each other. I had a really great time. I think my favorite race was a relay where three students tied all their legs together and had to run. It was hilarious! Also, tug of war was fun to watch. Each game was worth a certain number of points, and they were totaled at the end for the overall winner of Sports Day. The team who won are in the purple shirts in the photos. The team in yellow is the team that lost every event :(

Some students being silly!

One of the soccer teams having a half-time pep talk.

One of my favorite students! He's so energetic and silly

Basketball game

One of my favorite students, she loves English and we chat a lot!

The teams lined up for the start of the festival.

Tug of War!

One of the teams during the cheering competition. They were so good!
So cute ^^

Hye Min, one of the other English teachers. Love her!

It was a really great event, and I had such a fun time :). Now back to real work!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Jeju Conference, March '12

At the end of March, all the Fulbrighters came together for a conference in Jeju, the beautiful island off the southern coast of South Korea. During most of the conference, we were in sessions. We discussed everything from homestays to teaching to Korean culture. It was really nice to meet with everyone and unpack and catch up, but I have to admit it was a little strange. As the only Fulbright teacher placed anywhere near my area, I'm fairly isolated from the program. I spend a lot of my time with EPIK teachers, the native English teacher program run through the Korean government. Sometimes, I forget I'm Fulbright and get lost in the label of "foreign English teacher."

The conference helped remind me of my purpose in not only teaching, but studying and learning as well. During some of the sessions, we listened to presentations by the Fulbright researchers. There are two types of Fulbright grantees, ETAs (teachers like me) and researchers. The researchers are studying lots of interesting topics, like multiculturalism and feminism in Korea, traditional architecture, economics, and poetry. I really felt rejuvenated and awed to be in such a great goup of people. One of the researchers used to work in the White House with President Obama!

The conference really helped to serve two purposes for me. To unpack a lot of feelings, experiences, and observations, and to give me a lot of new ideas for lessons and other aspects of my classroom.

Unpacking. It was really helpful for me to meet up with other Fulbrighters and talk about things like stress, homesickness, frustrations with homestays or schools, and difficulties with culture. I feel that I don't often get to vent my negative feelings because I have to be "on" all the time. I attended a talk on being an "other" in Korea, which was really helpful.

Being an "other" means being an outsider to a group, culture, or society. Being a white woman in Korea has both positive and negative aspects. Being white is very much admired in Korea, both for the paleness of my skin, which is considered beautiful, and for the power associated globally with with being white. But there are some drawbacks as well. A stereotype about Western women is that they are promiscuous. Our media doesn't help, especially as pretty much every American movie has women getting naked. This leads to Korean men treating us as more sexualized objects than Korean women. During orientation, we had a women's talk, where they warned us about this view. The orientation team told us this example: a white woman and her Korean woman friend are out dancing at a club. They can be wearing the same outfit and dancing the same way, but the Koreans will still see the white woman as being more sexual or promiscuous.

Another way this view is manifested is that there is a stereotype among older Korean men that all white women are Russian, and all Russians are prostitutes. Prostitution is illegal in South Korea, but it is still rampant, and fairly obvious (barber shops that have two barber poles rotating counter to each other are brothels). So, sometimes, I am asked "Russia saram (person)? How much-ii?" This is a huge insult, as I am being propositioned. My friend, who is also blonde and blue-eyed, has experienced the same thing. Generally, we just look shocked and angry, say no, and walk away.

So, it was nice to meet with other foreign women at the conference and vent these frustrations on being stereotyped as a minority and feeling like an outsider.

The second effect the conference had was to give me new ideas for my classroom. One of these is the Korean Students Speak project I talked about in my last post. Another is a whole new way to do my final speaking exams.

On the Sunday during the conference, we went on a tour of Jeju. First, we visited Sunrise Peak, a crater that faces east. It was quite a climb, but worth it. Near the top, the way was steep and dizzying. But the view was beautiful!

The walkway around part of the crater that makes Sunrise Peak and the view off to the south.

Me at the top of the Sunrise Peak, overlooking the town below.

Next, we went to Ilchul Land, a park built around a large lava cave. There were some neat cultural artifacts around the park. Inside the cave was really cool also.

Ilchul Land, a park with lava caves.

Me and Buddha just chillin ;)

Wall painting inside the lava cave.

These little guys are the famous mascot of Jeju.

Large depiction of Jeju's mascot.

After that, we traveled to the Jeju Folk Village. It was a lot more touristy than Hahoe, the folk village near my hometown. At the Jeju village, no one actually lives in the homes, and they use it as a site for shooting TV shows and films. It was really neat though, and a lot of Fulbrighters who watch Korean shows loved seeing the sets.

haha! Read the second paragraph :)

Love it!

These are black-haired pigs, which make the meat Jeju is famous for.

Some performers drumming.

The last stop was right across the street, at Pyoson Beach. Unfortunately, it was too cold to more than dip our feet in the water, but I got some great pictures. The water was so clear and beautiful!

Pyoson Beach

Such a beautiful day!

Look how clear the water is!

The only thing I had trouble with during the trip was food. I'm a really picky eater, so eating meals made for large groups of people is difficult. It's a lot easier when I can fend for myself! The worst meal was when we went to eat grilled black pork, which is famous on Jeju. I was fine until I turned the meat over on the grill and noticed some black things along one edge. At first I thought it was seasoning, but then I looked closer and realized the full skin was still on the meat, complete with hair still in the hair follicles. So, yea. Ew.

All in all, it was a really fun trip. The island was beautifull, and it was great to connect with Fulbrighters again. While conferences can be very tiring, it was also refreshing. The only bad part was getting home from the airport rather late and then getting up at 6am for work the next day! I was exhausted for a little while, until I caught my rhythm again. But I had a great time, and I'm happy I got to see such a beautiful place that the Korean people are so proud of!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Catching Up

Spring is finally starting to come around!!

This is my first post after a long hiatus! Near the end of last semester, I had hit a routine and I felt I didn't really have much to talk about. Then I went home for the holidays and I was soooo busy. When I returned to South Korea in January, I spent time relaxing, hanging out with friends, and traveling around Korea a bit.

School started again at the beginning of March. The Korean school year runs from March to December, so even though it's our second semester back home, here it's the first semester of a new school year. So I got a whole group of new students. I was actually kind of nervous, but so far they are really great. It's my second-year boys that I want to strangle... -_-

Anyway, so the semester is in full swing. We've had just over a month now, and I think I've finally got the hang of my new schedule. It's pretty much the same as last semester, except this time around I teach an English Conversation Club class on Tuesday nights, so on that day I'm at work from 8am to 8:30pm. It's tiring, but I really love my students, so I don't mind!

Last week, I took part in a really awesome project with my students. One of the other Fulbright teachers saw a project being done in China called "iSpeak," and decided to bring it here and call it "Korean Students Speak." It's a really amazing project where students get to voice their opinions about the things that really matter to them. In the Korean education system, students are basically told to sit down, be quiet, listen to lecture, take notes, take a standardized test, and repeat. They have very little opportunities to express critical thinking, problem solving, or creativity. They also do not get to give their opinions or thoughts on what is going on in their everyday lives. So, first I showed them a preview clip of a documentary about Korean high school education. It points out a lot of the flaws and hardships that students go through (and features another Fulbright teacher!). It's a 20 minute video, but it's completely worth your time, and can be found here.

Then, I gave the students paper and markers, and allowed them to write whatever they wanted on a piece of paper. I had everything from "I want to go home" to "Japan, apologize for comfort women" to "Korean education is too much studying." Then, I edited them and they will soon go on a website with thousands of similar pictures of middle and high school students from all over Korea. The website is: Here are some examples from my students:

I want to fly, I want to dunk

She drew me!

I want to work for world peace

These are just some of the different topics covered by my students. To see all of them, check out the website in a few weeks!

So, I'll try to update a little more in the next few weeks. Only 98 days from today until I touch down on American soil!