Friday, May 4, 2012

Observations about South Korea, volume three.

1. Kids are fascinated by my romances, real or completely pretend. Some of you have heard these stories already... My students seem... preoccupied with imagining ridiculous and/or elaborate romances between teachers. This past term it seems that I've become a target. To begin with, these kids immediately want to know if I'm married. Then if I have a boyfriend. Then if I have children.

And then, every now and then, one of them will very seriously look at me and say something like this:
"You know, teacher, when you wear a ring it means you have a boyfriend."
"Any ring? On any finger?"
"(sensing where this is going) Oh, okay."
"Teacher. (serious stare) You have seven rings on."
"Yes. I have seven boyfriends."

So, to be fair, I haven't done much to dispel any rumors about me...

Since I have all these supposed boyfriends, much has been done to figure out who they are. According to my students, one of the other teachers is my "secret" boyfriend. But, our love is tragic, because I love him but he doesn't love me back. He's only toying with my emotions and I am very heartbroken.

Then there's my "scandal" boyfriend: one of the Korean counselors who happens to oversee most of my classes. Clearly, him coming into my class a couple times every day isn't because, say, he's doing his job and needs to check in with certain students, but it's because he's madly in love with me and he can't bear to be away from me. Yeah, okay, kids. And, because middle schoolers are ridiculous human beings, they think they have definitive proof of our gossip-worthy love: when we talk to each other, we make eye contact. Oh! The scandal!

And then there's my actual boyfriend, but my students don't much care about him. They probably don't think he's real or something. (Sorry, Corey.) Well, except a couple of my middle school girls. They are obsessed with my relationship and like to ask me "scandalous" questions. "Have you kissed your boyfriend?!? MORE THAN FIVE TIMES?!??!"

2. A day at the park is taken seriously. By this I mean Korean families set out for a day in the park all organized and seemingly packed like they were going camping for a long weekend.

I remember trips to the park as a kid -- usually with a picnic, a blanket, maybe some stuff to play with. This past weekend I spent a solid amount of my saturday hanging out at a park by the Han River and what did I immediately notice? Dozens. Of. Tents. Seriously. THAT is how you spend the day a the park. I'm impressed, Korea. As someone who quite enjoys a leisurely, shaded picnic in the park, you've made me kinda want to track down a tent of my own.

3. This country is too. Damn. Nocturnal. I'm a night owl. I have a bad habit of falling into a schedule where I stay up until 3am or so and then sleep late. (Or just nap a whole lot.) This bad cycle really got its hold on me in college. And I've tried to correct it, especially now that I'm working from 3-10pm, and sleeping until noon or one pm completely wastes my day. So I've tried really, really hard to be in bed by one am at the latest. Doesn't always work, but it's generally my goal.

However. Lately, it's finally warmed up. It's spring! I can leave my windows open! And it's wonderful. Except my neighborhood is full of bars. Bars that like to blast the same damn ten songs over and over. Until 3am.

I've looked like a damn zombie lately because I'm not sleeping well. Tried ear plugs -- they're annoying and kinda freak me out. So until it gets hot enough for my A/C, this is my battle. And I think it may mean just staying up late. Or, wearing myself out enough during the day that I can just pass out and sleep through the noise.

I'm just used to quiet neighborhoods. I've never lived IN the city like this before, so it's an odd adjustment to make.

4. That think-before-you-speak tact filter doesn't exist here. My students are always quick to tell me what they think of my appearance. More often than not, it's complimentary. "Teacher, you look so pretty today." "Teacher, I like your hair. It is cute today." Several girls, upon assessing my daily outfits, are convinced I'm filthy rich, and it's just not fair because I am also "smart, funny, and beautiful." It's all very sweet, but these kids are also quick to tell you what they really think.

"Teacher, your stockings. So red. Like blood."
"Oh, you don't like my tights?"
"They are not pretty. Because they look like blood."

"Teacher, you straight your hair today?"
"Yeah, my perm is starting to go flat. It's old. Time for my natural straight hair again."
"(appraising stare) I think it is much better."

And the gem from today:
"Teacher, you have black eyes?"
"Here, around your eyes. So dark today."
"Yes, teacher, like a panda!"
"I... have dark circles?"
"Yes! Like a panda! Are you very tired?"
"Well, yes, there's this bar near my apartment that plays loud music..."

Some of it is just kids being kids. I'm told some of it is also just Korean culture -- it isn't unkind or rude to bluntly comment on someone else's appearance. So I know they aren't doing it to be mean, they're just making observations... aloud.

5. Random elderly people LOVE talking to me. This has really been one of those random and delightful things about living in a country where I am very clearly from somewhere else. I seem to get approached nearly any time I'm out on my own, typically when I'm in a fairly captive situation, like a cab or on the subway/train. But luckily, the majority of these conversations have been charming and funny, even if we barely communicated much of anything.

One of the first memorable conversations was in a cab. It was the first time I'd been in a cab on my own here, and it was for a fairly long ride. After we got through the standard, "Where are you from" and "Are you teacher?" questions, the cabbie seemed to have run out of material. There was a long pause, and then:

"I'm sorry -- what?"
"JFK! President! You know?"
"Ohhh, JFK, yeah. I know about him."
"Ronald Reagan!"
"Reagan? Yeah, him too."
"Yeah. What about Barack Obama?"
"Accckkkkkk! (scoffing noise)"
"Ahh... pop music! Michael! Jackson!"
"Yes! Music! I like his music."
"Basketball! Michael Jordan!"
"Yeah, Michael Jordan!"

This went on for like fifteen minutes. We covered pretty much every sport, various celebrities and musicians, as well as military ranks? It was funny. He was very, very nice. Tried so hard to have a conversation with me. And really made me wish I spoke more Korean so I could at least attempt to put in the same effort.

I had a very similar conversation with an old woman on the train not long after. Equally entertaining, although she spoke less than he did. But we tried really, really hard to communicate. At that point I'd picked up a few more Korean vocab words, so I was able to say a little bit more to her.

One day, heading home on a full subway car, an old man gave up from his seat after seeing that I was standing and basically herded me into it. Grabbed my shoulders, pushed me, pulled my backpack off of me, set it in my lap, and then stood and calmly chatted with me in English.

"Where are you from?"
"The United States."
"Ah! U.S.A.! Are you a student?"
"No, teacher. English teacher."
"Ahh, what age?"
"Elementary and middle school."

We chatted for a minute or so longer about very basic things: how long I'd been in korea, what city I was living in, etc. His english was really quite good for the basic conversation we were having. Then, my favorite part, was at the next subway stop when he suddenly threw his hands up and said, "Oh! I must leave! I am going to the senior center! To play ping pong!" This included him miming ping pong for me before giving me a friendly wave and literally bouncing out of the subway car.

The latest memorable conversation was with a middle-aged businessman, sitting across from me (on the floor) in the standing room only snack car on the KTX train. We'd made eye contact a couple times, mostly to share a laugh over the drunk guy who was absolutely belting it out in the private noreabang (karaoke) room on the train car. Then he scooted over to me cautiously.

"Excuse me, you speak English?"
"Yes, I do."
"Okay. I got this email... From my boss. American boss. I do not understand. (holds out cellphone)"

The email read: "Can back ups cover?"

Now, that doesn't really make much sense to me either. I asked if I could read the original email, which he agreed to. This businessman had explained in the email that he would be out of town and unable to take a certain conference call. After a few seconds of thinking, it dawned on me.

"Ohhh, are there other people working on this project? Like back up people? Who are helping you?"
"I think he's asking if one of them can take the conference call for you, since you'll miss it."
"AHHHHHH! Okay!"
"Does that help?"
"Yes. Very much. (pause) English is strange."
"I know, it really is."


So, that's all I've got to update with at the moment. In the next couple weeks I should be finding out a little bit about what I've got going on next term. Fingers crossed I'll be teaching a lit class...

I'm also planning an update with my overall reflections once I hit the six-month mark, which is just a few weeks. Crazy! I can't believe I've been here that long. The weeks are flying by, which I have very mixed feelings about. More on all that later. It's time to attempt to sleep despite the blaring music...