Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Some school pictures

As promised, here are some pictures of the school.

kiddie ballet

say "kimchi"!

We were making a crab today


music room


Just outside the school

Monday, January 26, 2009

JimJill Bang

Hello everyone and Happy New Year! I enjoyed a few days off work for Korea's New Year holiday over the past weekend. While it is known as a the Chinese New Year, it is also a major holiday in Korea. Largely because Korea was a semi-indepentent protectorate of China for hundreds of years, before being conquered by the Japanese around the turn of the century, they have imported many aspects of Chinese culture. Even today students have to learn Chinese charactors, which are used in the newspapers and academic writings. Anyway, for the New Year, extended families get together, eat a traditional meal, and bow to their ancestors. I was lucky enough to snag some homemade ricecakes, a semisweet dessert, from a friend's family party. So welcome to the year of the Ox. According to wikipedia, the Ox is a year for hard work, patience, and prosperity: three things that are fitting for a year working abroad. Here is a picture of all the Chinese zodiak animals lined up outside a temple I visited recently:

But my main topic today will be the unique experience I had the other night at what koreans call a "Jjimjil-Bang". Jjimjil-bang basically means bathhouse or sauna, but it is also so much more than that. I was invited to go by a couple of other foreigners, who thankfully already knew the dos and don'ts of jimjilbang etiquette. We paid only 8000 won to get in, which right now works out to about 6 dollars or so. After buying a ticket, they gave us comfortable pajama-style shorts and shirt and a key to lock up our clothes and shoes.

Our first stop in the jimjilbang was the (men's only) bath/steamroom area. After undressing in the locker room, we entered the main bathhouse area. For someone unused to male nudity, this was quite a shocker. After taking a quick soapy shower, we relaxed for a while in one of the hot baths. All together, the room had about 8 kinds of baths, each with a different temperature, color, or shape. One bath was freezing cold, while another tub was made of fragrant cedar. Alongside the baths were steam rooms of different temperatures and tables where a masseuse (also naked) offered a rubdown. After alternating between sweating your ass of in a hot bath and jumping in the freezing pool, you can take a seated shower before you leave.

All of this was very impressive, but this is only half the jimjil-bang experience. After finishing with the bath area, we put on the pajamas they had given us and went upstairs to an area for both men and women. The main attraction here is the (dry) sauna. Quite the variety again: super hot saunas, saunas with wood, saunas with rocks and hot pepple floors, saunas with TVs... But along with the saunas, there was a snack bar, a full restaurant, a computer and arcade area, massage chairs, a TV projector, a place to get a haircut, a full gym, and a sleeping room. Keep in mind, this place is open 24/7 and they pass out mats for sleeping around 10pm. So apparently many families will come together and spend the night relaxing before a sleepover. As a tourist in Korea, you can visit a jimjilbang to use it as the world's cheapest and most luxurious hostel. That is, if you can handle sleeping on a thin mat over a hardwood floor...
I found the jimjilbang to be a prime place for people-watching. For one thing, the close family bond really stands out. The place had the atmosphere of a family retreat, rather than a spa you would visit alone. I also admired the Koreans' ability to relax. Even if the place seems a little uptight on the subway, and even if Korean businessmen have notoriously long working hours, they definitely know how to chill. By the time I left, I never felt so pampered in my life.
I am sure this won't be my last visit to the jimjilbang. Hopefully soon I can check out what I believe is Korea's largest, which happens to be in my area of Busan.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

First Week of School

In light of my last post's topic, I should begin by saying that I am just getting over an awful case of food poisoning! It began on Sunday, the day before my first day of school. I ended up hovering over the toilet most of the night. I almost had to call in sick to my first day of work! Only now, four days later, am I finally feeling normal again. The irony of the whole episode is that is wasn't the raw fish or any other unusual food that made me sick. It was frozen dumplings (mandu) I bought from a supermarket. Definitely makes me think twice about the quality of Korean food inspections. So for the past few days, I have stuck mostly to American food. Luckily, there is no shortage of that. Just in the area around my apartment, I have found Dominos, Baskin Robbins, Quiznos, Mcdonalds, Bennigan's ... the list goes on.

But on to my main topic today, my first week of school. I know some of you may be wondering just how fit I am to teach 3 to 6 year old kids who do not speak English. I would be lying if I said I had no doubts myself before coming. But overall, I am happy to report that the first few days have gone very well. Like I said before, this is a light work load to begin with. I only teach 1 1/2 a day and I am only with a given class for 30 minutes at a time. The kids are, for the most part, a lot of fun and well behaved. The lessons are really easy to plan, too. The school provides me with simple story books that I read to the class and have them repeat to me. I have also tried to work in songs and a workbook activities, with varying degrees of success. For the 3 year olds, I just use picture books, objects, and flashcards. The school's philosophy is to engage the kids with games while they are learning, so I really want too made it fun for the kids. If anyone has any ideas, suggestions would be appreciated!!

Because I am a foreigner to them, I think they are a little nervous around me. It must be different for them, growing up in an ethnically homogenous country, to interact with a foreigner. I even see that even out of school. While standing in line at the grocery store, I'll notice some little kid staring wide-eyed at me at their mom's side. They quickly turn away when I say "anyoung" (hi). On a tangential note, I recieve no special attention from Korean adults. I think part of being polite in this country is to ignore strangers. A subway full of people is dead silent, with everyone closing their eyes or playing with their phones.

My funny story for the week involves one of my 4 y.o. classes. While trying to introduce myself and greet each kid individually, the class collectively decided I was Santa Claus. Of course, this made them all really excited (I later noticed a picture of santa on the classroom wall). At this point, I don't know if I should keep correcting them or let it slide and go with Mr Claus instead of Widmer. I just hope they don't expect presents.

If I have had any problems, it is because I underestimated both the children's intelligence and their wiliness. Already, the five year olds know much more English than I expected. So I think I prepared a lesson for them that was well below their level. Since they had already gotten used to me as their teacher, I couldn't hold their attention and lost complete control of the class. It is not easy to tell kids to sit down and open their books when you are not sure they can understand you! In the end, another teacher had to come in to quiet the class. Afterwards, though, one of the main instigators of the problem came up to me and really quietly said "i'm sorry mr. widmer...." Which was adorable. I also had a small problem with my 3 year old class when one of the kids couldn't stop crying. But I guess I should get used to that. As much as I look forward to learning about Korean culture this year, I expect to learn even more about children.

I am sorry I don't have any school pictures for you yet, but I promise they are on their way! For now, here is a picture one of Busan's many beaches.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Jagalchi Fish Market

So yesterday I went to one of Busan's main attractions, the Jagalchi Fish Market. The market is a very narrow alleyway probably half a mile long that has fish vending stalls lined up on each side. Especially considering how narrow the road is, it is an incredibly busy place. I was sort of carried along in the flow of people, always looking down to make sure I didn't step on a fish... or whatever other sea creatures they were selling. And really, the majority of aquatic life was represented, from sting rays to seaweed. Even my Korean companion and guide, Hayoung, did not know what some things were or how they could be eaten.

Needless to say, it is hard to walk through a market like this without getting hungry. So Hayoung and I went inside a warehouse-sized building next to the market for lunch. On the first floor of the building, there were more fish stands and more vendors trying to make a deal. Unlike the market outside, this fish was to be prepared immediately and eaten on the second floor, the restaurant area. And by prepared, I mean either pan fried or served raw. Perhaps because I really only just arrived, I was feeling adventurous. We picked out our fish, along with a small squid, sea cucumber, and oysters, and asked for them to be served raw. The vendor told us to wait upstairs as he hacked off the head of our fish (I winced).

Overall, the meal was very good. The meat is served with side dishes (the ubiquitous kimchi), lettuce wraps, and sauces. I have never had such fresh fish and it was surprising delicious. More difficult to eat was the sea cucumber and the squid. Both of these were still moving on the plate. I expected this from the squid, but I actually didn't notice the sea cucumber was moving until halfway through the meal.

Apparently, the squid is also somewhat dangerous to eat. Even though it is cut into small pieces, the tentacle-suction-cup things still work. The trick is to chew, chew, chew, until you are sure the damn thing won't suck onto your throat as you swallow. This actually happened to my friend. After putting one of the larger, more vigorous pieces in her mouth, and chewing for a minute, her eyes began to water and she looked panicked. So of course I began to panic. How can I help? Want a shot of soju? Heimlich maneuver? In the end she had to grab the tenacious morsel with her fingers and pull it out. (I should mention, tell this story with her permission). Also, this isn't as hardcore as it gets. Sometime, someday, I will try the squid without having it cut up first. This is the true test of a culinary courage.

Anyway, here are pictures of the market and lunch.

Cleaning the fish

Whale Blubber

Ocean in view, oh joy.

Steaming pots


Fish drying

Our lunch, before.

Out lunch, after


First bite (I was pretty nervous, but it isn't bad!)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hello Everyone! Anyoung Haseyo!

Welcome to my new blog! For anyone who does not know, I just moved to the city of Busan, South Korea to teach English to 3-6 year old kids. The purpose of this blog is to keep family and friends updated about what I am doing here. I will also use it to comment on Korean culture, vent my frustration, or express whatever other thoughts I have. You can expect to see lots of pictures and videos of Korea, my school, and my travels.
Today is only my second full day here so everything is still very new and exciting. The trip from Chicago went surprising well, given my history of international travel. After getting in, I met the director of my school and he showed me to my apartment. The director of the school, Eric, seems like a very nice guy and he speaks English very well, which I'm very happy about, to say the least. The location of the apartment is awesome, too. There seems to be plenty of nightlife options closeby (Norae-bang, or karaoke bars, are seriously on every block). There is also large market directly across the street, which is packed with fresh seafoods and unidentifiable produce.
As for the apartment itself, it is a brand new one-room efficiency studio. I was glad to see that there is AC, as well as a washing machine. There is not, however a shower. Or, the shower is the bathroom itself. A shower head connects to the sink, there is a drain on the ground, and you shower right next the toilet and sink. Very efficient... Also distinctly Korean is the heating. Instead of air vents, there is something which heats the floor from underneath. I have heard that this heating system is adapted from the way traditional Korean homes are heated. It actually feels very good on my feet, but at this point I doubt how effective it is at heating the room.
Yesterday I went with my director to the school where I will be teaching, called Igaem. Though it is a 20 minute subway ride from my apartment, the school has an incredible location, in an upscale area right next to a gorgeous beach and park. Inside, the school has some of the most colorful rooms I have seen (I will post pictures, sometime). The kids were, of course, ridiculously cute, and the other teachers seemed very nice. I will be the only native speaker in the school and as far as I know, there are only two other people who speak English at the school (we'll see how that goes). The curriculum of the school follows some German philosophy which promotes learning through play. So, as my director told me, my job will be to play with the kids and work in English wherever I can. If that doesn't sound easy enough, I will have a month and a half of part time work to get used to it. Until March, I will only be teaching from 10:10-11:50. Even adding planning time, this seems like an outrageously light work load. Starting in March, however, the school is expanding to include 6 year olds, and I will begin teaching 30 hours/week.
For now, I will be busy exploring this new city and trying my best to get by without knowing Korean! I'll post again soon.