Saturday, April 30, 2011

Gwangju Scavenger Hunt

            Last Saturday I participated in a scavenger hunt around Gwangju.  The event was organized by the Gwangju International Center and I was excited since I got to hang out with some other foreigners and hopefully win some prizes!
            My partners in this adventure are Amanda and Scott from New Jersey.  I’d met them a couple of weeks prior and learned that they had met in Calculus III.  How many couples can say that?  We meet up at the check-in desk but run into a snag because there are only three of us and evidently you need four to participate.  We talk to the organizers and ask why we would not be in the scavenger hunt if we had signed up and shown that there were only three of us.  They were a bit hesitant but they let us in anyways and we even got to keep our group name which was Jack, Johnny and Jim.

              Now as the main guy is explaining the scavenger hunt and what we have to do we get our instructions and the official shirts.  Everyone is complaining about the color of the shirts and how ugly they are but I think they look pretty good.  Orange is always in fashion where I’m from and eight days out of the year you won’t find a sexier sight than Neyland Stadium in Orange and White.

            While I’m having flashbacks of Neyland Stadium Scott noticed that written on the pavement is a unique quote that states, “Art is but a virus from outer space.”  I barely hear him as I’m listening to the instructions and the guy is saying that we have to follow the clues given to us and then take a picture of us and the clue together.  Also the order that we take those pictures must be on our camera, no camera phones allowed, and must match the order that we found the clues.  Lastly, we only have two hours to try and find as many of the 50 available clues around the city.
            So we get going and I quickly realize that Amanda is pretty goal-oriented but Scott is a man who lives in the moment.  We go and find our first clue which is the fountain in front of the check-in area.

            We then head past downtown Gwangju to go where Amanda thinks most of the clues are located.  I actually have no idea where we’re going but I’m surprised that Amanda does.  They’ve only been here in Gwangju a month longer than I have but they tell me that in that time they befriended a Zen Buddhist monk.  Yup a real monk who’s been out of the monastery for over a year after spending the previous 30 practicing his beliefs in isolation and that a couple of weeks ago he showed them around Gwangju.  Turns out that most of the clues are the places that the monk showed them. 
            Our next clue is a bridge that crosses the river and in the distance is the Statue of Liberty!

            After crossing the river we move up a hill and find our next clue which is a 100 year old house.

            While we’re walking Scott realizes that the clues we’re following are the same things and are in the same order that the monk showed them.  He says, “Art is but a virus from outer space” which is his way of understanding this epiphany.  We continue further up the hill and find the English radio station and then continue up towards a beautiful park.

            After going through the park we come to our next clue which is a five story Pagoda that has an incredible view of Gwangju.  I learn that a Pagoda is a Buddhist temple or sacred building, which explains why the monk took them there.

            And this is the view from the top of the Pagoda:  (No I have no idea what I'm doing with my arm.)

                                          And from the other side:

            After the Pagoda I think that the next clue takes us towards a wooden Gazebo that I saw from the Pagoda.  We head down away from the Pagoda and up another hill to the Gazebo.  We figure that it isn’t the right Gazebo but we take a picture anyways. 

            Leaving the Gazebo we walk down a long flight of stone steps and see one of the organizers leading people to a coffee shop so we can get our next clue.  I hear “Art is but a virus from outer space.” Oh man is Scott cracking me up but we go up the elevator to the coffee shop and take some more pictures.

            After we leave the coffee shop we go and wander a bit looking for some clues but we’re not having any luck until Amanda realizes that the stone steps we walked down to get to the coffee shop are actually one of the clues.  Scott and I hurry back and take our picture on the steps.

            We head back to meet up with Amanda when Scott steps off the stones and goes down a worn out dirt path.  I wait for him to come back but he doesn’t so I go down to catch up with him when I realize that we are at another clue!  Now I’m starting to think the monk’s mojo has worn off on Scott.  We get our picture and go back to the coffee shop and meet up with Amanda.

            We leave the coffee shop and start to make our way back to the check-in desk.  We find a couple more clues on the way and again Scott remarks on how, “Art is but a virus from outer space.”  Seems that Scott is delving deeper into the mysteries of the Universe the further we go on the scavenger hunt.  Since we took the long way back to the check-in we really have to hustle to make it back, organize our clues to match our pictures and then turn them in. 
            We jog back, find the last clue we can get before we run out of time and then I grab the clues and sprint back to the check-in desk.  I sit down and start to furiously organize everything knowing that I only have five minutes remaining.  As I’m finishing up Scott and Amanda stroll right up high five one another and then give me a high five.  I mean these two really know how to live in the moment!  I count all the clues and we only got 29 out of 50 which I don’t think is that bad considering that I really didn’t know where we were in Gwangju.  But I’m happy that we did our best, I learned a lot more about Gwangju and we finished in time. 
            I push through the crowd and hand our sheet to one of the organizer's who looks at me and asks, “How was it?”  “Art is but a virus from outer space” I answer, turn around and walk back to my teammates.

Pictures courtesy of A.S.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Adjusting and Retraining Yourself

            So I haven’t written in a week because I’ve been trying to adjust to the rigors of teaching.  I know I know it sounds silly but these little guys are full of manic energy!  It actually has been a little tough for me.  I’m not used to these hours nor to the kids all looking up to me as an authority figure who knows exactly what he’s doing and why. 
A big part of the adjustment for me has been the ebb and flow of the classroom, interacting with the students and working fewer hours.  This is my first time working in the “real world” without serving at night.  What I’m used to is dealing with customers, the mad rush and then the slow down.  But when you slowed down and finished your shift your brain didn’t automatically stop.  Sometimes it would be 2 or 3 in the morning before you could fall asleep.  You also were stressed about interacting with people.  As a server it was rare if you had a table that you interacted with because you liked them, it was because you had a job to do.  In that sense you saw dollar signs.  What they were wearing, what they were drinking, if they weren’t drinking, how they ordered their food, if they looked you in the eyes or not. Every social cue was used to ascertain whether you not you were getting a good tip.  Eventually you get over that and treat everyone as professionally as you can but in the back of your mind you can still tell what they’re going to tip. 
            Now as a teacher I’m no longer thinking in terms of money. I’m no longer directing people so I can give them the best experience and be paid for it.  (If you’ve never worked in sales then ask someone who has and they’ll tell you the same thing.)  Instead I am responsible for the improvement of a child’s language skills.  This is a huge adjustment for me.  I feel that it’s actually been a bigger adjustment for me than being in a foreign country.  You expect things to be different when you’re in a foreign place but this is retraining your brain to work in a new way.  It’s been hard for me but this week I finally got it.  I realized that instead of trying to push the kids to understand everything I need to only work with what I’ve got.  It’s like in serving you can’t expect every table to order a bottle of wine.  You have to use the skills you’ve gained to judge how to approach them, which words to use and what they might want to order.
            In Laymen’s terms I’m not teaching the kids Shakespeare I’m teaching them how to give directions.  It’s my job to make it fun for them, so they enjoy learning English.  But the way that they are supposed to learn has been tough for me as well.
            The way the classes are structured are simple since you only have your textbook to use.  The textbooks are divided into units instead of chapters and the units are broken down into mini sections.  They have a listening section, a grammar section, a writing section, a unit test and then a speaking test to assess if they understand the material.  Also the classes are never more than 30 minutes for the little kids and an hour for the middle school students.
            But what’s expected by the school is that they go through each unit in a week.  That rapid development is because of the exams held by the state.  It’s No Child Left Behind on steroids and it’s a little frustrating for me.  These kids can answer anything in the textbook but when I break away from the textbook by asking what they would do or what they think they’re lost.  So that’s why I use supplement activities to have them practice on what they’ve been learning.  Thus far I’ve noticed that as long as the activities are fun and practical the kids seem to learn pretty well. After some trial and error I’ve realized that I have to incorporate writing, listening and pictures!  Pictures are the key to them understanding the material and this is true for all the students no matter the age.
            To switch gears one of the things I’ve noticed is that the kids have an entire social hierarchy that’s determined by some funny stuff.  First, they love their pencils and erasers.  But these things must be separate from one another.  So they have to have the mechanical pencils with the lead in a separate case.  There are no number 2 pencils here!  Second, they live for the moment when they make a mistake and have to use the giant eraser!  It’s hilarious to see them misspell a word and then watch them flip out erasing the mistake on their paper.  Third, the pencils and erasers have to put into a pencil case.  That pencil case must either be blinged out or have the right label on it.  I have no idea what the labels are and I’ve only seen one kid with a logo I recognize, the Polo pony.
            Do have any experiences when you started a new job or had a challenge where you had to change your way of thinking?  I’d love to hear about it so let me know!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sliders Differences

            So this is one of those random posts that I haven’t put up yet.  I was walking to the bank yesterday to get an account here set up when I looked up and saw nothing but blue skies.  It was captivating to look up and see how the sky was that Robin’s egg blue.  I looked back down at the concrete and up to the people around me when it hit me.  I’m the only one that’s wearing sandals and sunglasses.  It’s 70 degrees out and I’m still the only one wearing sandals and sunglasses.  I quickly scanned my memory and couldn’t remember the last time I saw a Korean wearing either.  It was then that I understood that they don’t wear sandals because they take their shoes off whenever they go into someone’s home and it would be extremely rude to do that barefoot.  No wonder they give me such blank stares! 
            At this point I’ve already had that epiphany, so what is there that I’m not seeing?  It’s like being in Sliders and the characters notice the very small differences between their Universe and all the other ones.  Another difference is that there are no trash cans around.  They just don’t exist.  You have to recycle everything by putting them in special bags and then people come along and pick them up.  But these people aren’t with Waste Management or BFI, they’re typically older and they take the trash to a recycling center to get paid.  It’s kinda sad once you think about it. 
            I feel that the biggest difference I’ve noticed is that the drivers around here will run red lights.  Yup.  There’s pretty much no crime here but people will run red lights.  It’s unbelievable. The first time I saw it was a cab driver and I just assumed it was a lone wolf driver but I’ve since seen buses, regular drivers and a cab driver that I was with do it too.  Needless to say I don’t cross the street unless there are no cars are on it or the pedestrian cross is green.
            I’m sure that I’ll come up with a couple more but I’ll just have to save them for another time, hope you’re having a great day!

Friday, April 8, 2011

When It Rains You Run?

           So I’ve had a strange day today concerning the weather.  The entire time I’ve been here it hasn’t rained when I’ve been outside.  It doesn’t bother me just change shoes and you’re good to go.  But today I realized that I was not prepared for rain in Korea. 
            I went to a little café near me called Café Florida.  I got my espresso and made my leave when the owner followed me out the door and gave me her umbrella!  I smiled, said thank you and kept walking.  She continued to follow me, speaking very quickly and loudly, neither of which she’s ever done before, and pointing up at the sky.  I realized that she was giving me her umbrella to protect me against the rain but why?
            Getting back to my apartment I went and Googled South Korea and rain.  What came up was a bunch of reports about radioactive particles from the Fushkima nuclear power plant partial meltdown being in the rain.  Well several sources from Korean and American reports stated that while there are radioactive particles in the rain, they are far below minimal exposure levels. Even still I have yet to see a person walking around without an umbrella.  Plus, there are a couple of kids missing from my classes which shows how serious some of the parents are taking this.
            I thought some more about it and decided two things.  First, I'm probably at the same amount of risk for exposure here to the rain, as I was drinking the tap water in Oak Ridge.  Second, I wanted to know if the same particles have been detected in the US.  I found out that they have and you can visit the EPA’s website to see how your state is doing.  And just in case you’re wondering Tennessee is at about the same levels as South Korea.
            However, while I was finding this information I also came across a lot of articles about China and how its pollution causes yellow dust to be swept across the Korean peninsula and beyond.  Now this is something I’ve heard from people but wasn’t expecting it to be that serious.  Well it is and evidently you do have to wear a face mask just to walk around.  I guess I’ll deal with it when it gets here.
            Even though it’s ok to get wet today I’m gonna have to get an umbrella of my own or I’ll never be able to get my favorite espresso again.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

First Weekend Out

                So this past weekend was my first weekend here fully settled in and I was ready to see what Gwangju is like at night.  But what I was not ready for was my boss telling me to come back to the school at 10:30 Friday night to go out for dinner.  So with some reservations, I wasn’t in the mood to go out and be social, I met up and saw that my other coworkers were there!  So now I’m feeling a bit better but am not sure about what to expect.
            We head out, go downtown, park and pick a good place to start the night.  We go in a pretty nice restaurant, and get a table upstairs.  So do you remember the scene from the Goodfellas where Henry first walks into the Copacabana with Karen and says hello to everyone and has a table put out just for them?  Yup that was us walking into this restaurant.  My tiny 5’3, 100lb boss owns this place.  Minus the 20’s in everyone’s hands of course.
            Well we start with the side dishes and get a pitcher of beer.  Word to the wise, Koreans have no idea what good beer is.  The closest they come to decent beer is Kirin from Japan.  There’s no dark beer, heavy beer any of that.  I really did get spoiled back in the States because of the microbrewery revolution going on right now.  Then they brought out the Soju.  Koreans are very proud of Soju, like Jack Daniels to Tennesseans.  However, for those of you unfamiliar with this particular brand of sake, here’s your warning.  Drinking it will remind you of the god-awful vodka you drank out of the plastic bottles sophomore year. 
              Also, never, ever let your glass get empty.  I figured this out really quickly.  Koreans love to toast and enjoy one another’s company, like my Italian stepfamily, but they will fill your empty glass.  They don’t do it to try and get you hammered it’s a point of social nicety. Same goes for your water glass, coffee anything. 
            Now I can’t remember what we were eating but the beef stew that we had was incredible.  It’s my favorite Korean dish to date and I’m looking forward to figuring out what it was and eating it again.

                      Is drinking with an open flame on the table a good idea?  Yes.  

         After finishing some more pitchers and a couple bottles of Soju we headed out to another bar.  I was feeling pretty good but I still did not want to blow my money drinking at a bar. However the magic phrase was said that kept me going, “Let’s sing Karaoke!”  I was PUMPED!  I couldn’t wait to hear them sing some English songs with their beautiful voices.  We get there and I’m expecting a large bar with a karaoke setup at the front, just like in the States.  Nope, these guys are serious about karaoke.  The building we go to has an entire floor for karaoke and on that floor are large rooms that you rent out.  I was astounded, I mean who knew, who really knew that Koreans were that serious about it!
            Anyways here’s a photo of what the room looked like: 

            I’m picking the next song, which of course was Billie Jean and the girl singing is the pop star Lucy.  Now Lucy is about 5’3 100lbs teacher who drinks like she’s twice my size and sings like she’s Madonna.  I was taken by complete surprise but yet was strangely comforted that she rocks like a champ.
            After an hour or so of Karaoke we leave, the pop star and her friend go home and my boss and fellow coworkers decide to stay out.  Well I don’t want to be rude so I go with them.  We go to a bar, chill out on the patio for a bit, talk and then decide that it’s a bit chilly so we leave go to another place that’s underground. 
            Now I like this bar but I cannot remember its name.  What I do remember is that my only Korean male coworker is ecstatic to have a bro.  Although he doesn’t call me that, it’s Christmas to this guy.  In celebration of our new male bonding he brings out the Jagermeister.  I immediately am impressed that he enjoys cough syrup at 2am and simultaneously want to throw that beef from dinner back up.   But I can’t insult him so we all take the shots together.  Seriously, I hate Jager.  I would rather waterproof my grandfather’s entire deck with only a toothbrush at midday in July wearing jeans and a wool sweater than take one shot of Jager.  
 I immediately plan my counterpunch.  I decide that since it’s my first time out, and having no idea where my boss and my other coworker live I really don’t want to have to to help get them home, So I’m skipping the tequila.  That is my Ace card, the H-Bomb if you will of straight up bar shots.  It’s never a good idea to go for the uppercut in the first round.  So I buy them something that I know will keep them up, will taste like candy and will cause them the most pain in 12 hours not 2.  Vodka and Red bull.  Not one of my personal favorites but will it hurt an amateur?  Definitely. 
After politely refusing to have some more Jager, and passing up on sharing the Vodka Red Bull thirty minutes later I make my leave.  I head out the bar, see some other waeguk-saram’s, Korean for “foreigner”, and ask what time it is.  They tell me its 4am!  I am astounded and decide to call it a night.  So I walk around a bit trying to get oriented, finally find a taxi and get home.
It wasn’t until Sunday night that I found out my drink had caused some damage.  My boss and her coworker stayed out until 6am then couldn’t sleep the next night.  I’m sure the Red Bull didn’t help.  Now, granted I’ve found out that my boss doesn’t go out that much but when she does she doesn’t hold back, so I guess in Korea when you work 60 hours a week you can play for 8.
All in all it was a great night.  I was able to get familiar with downtown Gwangju and hang out with my new coworkers.  I also got to see how the girl whose job I replaced was absolutely beloved by the staff and that by going with flow you never know how much fun you can have.  In short, sometimes you have to trust a stranger in order to make a friend.  Even if they like Jager.

*All photos courtesy of Wendy Perkins.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My new apartment!

Ok It's not completely furnished but I've had some remarks that I haven't put up a post about my new apartment so here it is!

Friday, April 1, 2011

The City I Live In

            I know that I’ve talked about getting to Gwangju, South Korea but I haven’t talked about the city itself.  I think that it’s pretty important for you to know the type of town I’m living in because that helps to understand the people I’m living with here.
            The city of Gwangju, pronounced Kwangju, with a population of just over 1.4 million is the fifth largest in South Korea.  Its history goes back over 2000 years and is considered the Korean home of education.  The reason for this is because the population of Gwangju is 25% student.  This includes K-12, private academies, the Universities and private tutors.  It also is the source of the Gwangju Student Independence Movement that protested the Japanese occupiers in 1929.  That movement became a national movement and is celebrated throughout South Korea.
            Moving on, two questions that I got a lot before I left was about the climate and geography.  Well I’m finding out that it’s really similar to the East Tennessee.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  The good thing is that there are seasons here like home but the bad is that the pollution is just the same.  This is due to a similarity in geography but also because of the pollution from both Korea and China.  However at least it’s not a shock to me since I grew up in what has been consistently ranked one of the top 10 polluted cities/areas in America.
            For a bit of perspective South Korea is just a bit smaller than Kentucky, whereas the peninsula itself is the size of Minnesota.  The geography of Korea is really similar to Appalachia and this is no exception here in Gwangju.  While the mountains do not go any higher than 6,500ft, the highest one here in Gwangju is around 4,000ft.  But the beautiful thing about these little mountains is that they just pop up out of the ground and then drop back down.  Whenever they drop down, that’s usually where a town or farmland is and that’s exactly how Gwangju is.  This weekend I’m going to the peak mountain here and see what the view is like. 
            Before I go I want to tell you a quick story about the cultural difference between the locals and me.  I love to exercise or go for a run and Gwangju is perfect for that because the city is on a lot of hills so you get a great workout.  However, I’ve noticed that whenever I do go and run that I get stared at.  Not in the “Oh he’s running at 9am good for him.” kinda stare but the “What the heck is that crazy foreigner doing?  Is he running from someone?  Doesn’t he realize there’s work to be done?  Why is he being different?”  It doesn’t bother me but it sure is not what I’m used to. 
            As I’ve thought about it, it’s starting to make more and more sense why they look at me in confusion.  And it’s because they don’t see the need to exercise like that.  They walk around so much and eat smaller portions so they don’t get obese like most Americans.  Plus playing sports as a youth just isn’t that common.  Studying and studying and studying are what you do as a kid here.  So it is truly a foreign concept to take time out of your day to exercise in zest.
            Anyways, take a look at my video of Gwangju from the roof of my school so you can get an idea of what I’ve been describing.  Enjoy your weekend!

View From My School