Friday, March 27, 2009

Education in Korea

In response to Erin's suggestion, I thought I would write a little about Korean education today. As a teacher, it is something I have a special interest and some experience with. Korean education is also interesting in its own right. Though this may seem like a dry topic, knowing how Koreans go to school can show us our own educational values and the experiences we are accustomed to in America. The easiest way for me to write about this is in a somewhat essay-like format. So bear with me and I apologize for the the boring writing.

To understand Korea's education system today you have to understand the Confucian influence. Neo-Confucianism was the state ideology for about 500 years before the Japanese occupation at the beginning of the 20th century (that is, during the Joseon period). Though it is originally Chinese, Korea has been called the most Confucian society. Confucian values are so entrenched in Korea that it seems Confucianism has influenced every aspect of Korean culture. The two pillars of Confucian thought are respect for authority and the importance of education. The first part gives Korean education a distinctly authoritarian feel while the second makes it extremely important to Koreans themselves. (As a side note, I should add that the Buddhist tradition, which has competed with Confucianism, also values the scholarly type. The Korean verb 'study', kongbu hada, actually comes from a Buddhist word meaning meditation.)

The importance of education for Koreans can be seen most clearly in the intensity of Korean high schools. As in America, Koreans go through elementary, middle, and high school, but high school is only three years. This must be the most intense three years of any young person's life. Typically, a high schooler will go to school from 8 in the morning to 6 at night. Both lunch and dinner are eaten in the cafeteria. After school is over, many if not most students then go to private schools called hagwons until late at night. By the time they get home, it is already after 10 and time to start homework for the next day. I have heard from several Koreans that they would average 4 or 5 hours a sleep a night and use every break in school for a powernap. Unfortunately, time for extracurricular activites is extremely limited.

The goal of all this studying is to prepare for college entrance exam. This exam, the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), is one of if not the most important event determining a young Korean's future. Competition for spots in the top colleges, like Seoul National University, is fierce in a way Americans can hardly imagine. College grades are less important than the school's name on the diploma, so getting in to a good school is the hardest part. It must be quite a scene the day of the exam is given. Underclassmen line up outside schools and cheer the exam takers into the building. Business hours are shortened to reduce traffic, public transport runs more frequently, trains are forbidden to use distracting horns, even airplanes remain grounded while the exam takes place.

The college entrance exam is not the only exam Koreans take, and it is not the only one they take seriously. One of the teachers I became friends with is now studying to apply to graduate school. She recently quit work, 6 months in advance of the test, to study full time. While she was working, she was staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning every day studying for her exam. Sleep deprivation is a small price to pay, apparently. I know another girl in college who is preparing for an exam to transfer universities, still 8 months away. She is now attending a private school, a hagwon, for the transfer exam and studying more for that than her university classes.

The intensity of Korean education starts long before high school. Since I teach preschool, I can say with confidence that it starts at the very beginning of their educational career. Especially important at all stages is learning foreign languages. I know many of my 5 and 6 year olds (American age 4 and 5) attend private hagwons after preschool is over to learn English. My 6 year olds spend about half their day learning English and Chinese characters. Many parents even opt to send their kids to "English kindergarten", where the entire curriculum is taught in English. As you may have guessed, the standards are very high even at my school. It is difficult for me to teach these five year olds 1rst grade phonics when they hardly speak English! But, as the principal of my school as told me many times, a difficult curriculum is important to keep the parents happy. Korean parents seem obsessed to make sure their children stay ahead in school. No doubt, the elite colleges are at the back of these parents' minds even when their kids are in kindergarden.

Education is so goal-oriented and so fast paced, that I suspect some things are seriously lacking in the system as a whole. One of the constant complaints I hear from other English teachers, who are mainly employed at hagwons, is that they are just teaching for a test. They are pushed to teach far past the level of their student's abilities. The result is that most Koreans know English grammar back and forth but still have difficulty communicating. Personally, I have always been critical of standardized tests. In the name of fairness, they exclude less quantifiable skills. That is why Koreans can listen to English much better they they can speak it. Until recently, the exam tested listening but not speaking.

Another important part of the Korean education system are hagwons, as I have mentioned. Though the public schools are not particularly bad, much of the student's learning takes place after school at these privately owned specialty academies. Most hagwons are for English, and they are everywhere. In my area, I can spot a hagwon in almost every building around me. Most English hagwons employ native speakers, so most teachers who come to Korea teach at these schools rather than in public schools. There are also hagwons for most other school subjects, hagwons for particular tests, even hagwons for sports.

The hagwon system shows, once again, the zeal for education in Korea. Unfortunately, it makes an already cutthroat education even more competative. I am sure parents feel pressured to send their kids to the best after-school programs to push them ahead the crowd. I have heard from Hagwon teachers that even elementary school kids can have nervous breakdowns before an English test and develop an unhealthy fear of failure. Hagwons can also be very expensive, and a whole industry of education has grown up around them. Koreans spend more money per capita on foreign language than any other country in the world. This seems to undermine the ideal of public education, that every student has access to the same quality education no matter how much money the parents have. It also means that the hagwons are run as profit-driven businesses, a constant gripe of hagwon teachers. "The kids are nothing more than little won symbols", is something I have heard more than once.

Fortunately for me, I have had a much different experience at my school. During the first week of my classes, I was told to just play with the kids so that they would get used to me. Even now, my favorite part of the job is the time I am given to play and work in English wherever I can. I have no regrets about working with this age group and would definitely choose the same age if I did it again.

That is all for now. As I said at the beginning, I wrote this entry after reading Erin's comment. If anyone has any other suggestions, or is curious about anything happening in my life, post a comment and I will be much more inspired to write!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

In the News

I was browsing yesterday and I ran across an interesting article about teaching English abroad.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Korea makes me sick

I just got over my third illness since coming to Korea. I don't know exactly what it is, but I seem to be getting sick much more than usual. So I decided to use these lemons for a blog post lemonade. Let the complaining begin.

The first time I got sick was my first week here. The night before I started school, I was hunched over the toilet, promising myself to not call in sick to my first day of work. At the time, I thought my body was rejecting this place altogether. I thought jet lag, culture shock, and anxiety had conspired against my plans in Korea. I thought about going home and suffered through the first day of work. Luckily, the next day I got a call from someone I had eaten with who said she had also gotten sick. Nothing but a case of food poisoning.

Food poisoning, by the way, takes a full week to get over. It was a pretty horrible experience and a bad way to start my year. I'll spare you the details. I should mention that the food that made me sick was from the frozen food section of my supermarket. Nowadays, I trust the nearby outdoor market for grocery shopping and, for the most part, avoid pre-packaged foods. Americans should be thankful for the FDA. Luckily the Korean diet relies heavily on root vegetables, like sweet potatoes, and fermented vegetables, like kimchi, so I am eating more vegetables than ever before and don't have to worry about them going bad.

The second time I got sick was laryngitis. Strangely, it was the only time I had symptoms of laryngitis, the hoarse voice thing, without having a full-fledged cold. It had all the intensity of a cold, but was focused on my throat. Since my job is to speak English for hours, I had a few days of pathetic job performance before it cleared up. I blame this one mostly on working with kids. I have heard first year teachers often get sick before building up immunities. I work so closely with so many kids, it was inevitable that I would get sick eventually. Especially considering that the viruses are different in other countries, this probably won't be my last time with a cold.

One good thing about my bout of laryngitis was that I was able to experience the medicinal side of Korean culture. When I came into work hardly able to speak, my boss asked me if I wanted to go to a hospital. When I declined, he took me to a pharmacy or yakguk (약국). A Korean pharmacy is nothing like an American pharmacy. First of all, almost all the medicines are behind the counter, though they are not prescription. You are expected to describe your symptoms, and the pharmacist decides what medicine is appropriate. This really limits your choices and preferences. When I have a runny nose, I know I need antihistamines. In America, I can browse a variety a medicines and choose between pills, liquids, efferescents, time-releasers, night-timers, etc. In Korea, on the other hand, the pharmicist has all the know-how and you just get what they give you. Also, it is so cheap I doubt it has the doses I expect. Maybe this is why Koreans go to the hospital even for minor colds.

I had a more positive experience with the other side of Korean medicine, folk remedies. As I have said before, Koreans view almost all food as having some medicinal properties. Eat invigorating dog stew if you are tired, pigs feet for clear skin, and kimchi for digestion (to name a few colorful examples). There is even a soup said to be a hangover cure. Of course, it is easy to be skeptical when you are told everything you eat is good for one thing or another. On the other hand, sometimes your Korean grandmother does know best. Dog-stew is rich in protein, pigs-feet is loaded with collagen, and few foods have more fiber than kimchi.

So what did I do for a sore throat? I drank ginger-jujube tea. Jujubes are not just a tasteless cavity-pulling candy, they are also a delicious dried fruit. This ingredient gives the tea a fruity flavor and provides lots of vitamin C to strengthen the immune system.

The next ingredient is ginger. Ginger is a root vegetable that really gives this tea a punch. It burns the back of your throat better than Fisherman's Friend.
To make the tea, you just peel the ginger like a potato, slice it, then boil it with some jujubes. Let is boil for about 20 minutes and add some honey to sweeten. I highly recommend this tea
if you have a cold. It is both delicious and made me feel much better. Beats chicken soup any day.

After I had the tea, I did a little research about other medicinal foods in Korea. One food really struck me as the ultimate health food-- ginseng. I knew very little about ginseng until recently, but it seems to be insanely healthy. If what I read on the internet is right, ginseng in one form or another has been part of every medicinal culture in the world. It plays a huge role in Chinese medicine, from which Korea borrows heavily. Medical research has borne out claims that it improves mental function, stabilizes blood pressure, and even prevents cancer. In Korea, ginseng is very popular even today. Red-ginseng, a more designer product, is often given as a gift. There are even stores that just sell different kinds of ginseng. I decided it couldn't hurt, and at two bucks a root, is a cheap way to improve my diet. They way I eat it, I peel it like a potato, slice it, and eat it fresh with honey. I also picked up some red-ginseng tea.

On to my most recent illness. A few days ago, I developed an extremely bad head cold. No coughing, but constant sneezing, watery eyes, and runny nose. I went to the pharmacy, said "cold, water, eyes, nose... I have", and got some unknown medicine that didn't work. Then it rained and I felt 100% better. What happened? After talking about this with some Korean teachers, I discovered I was never sick at all. I had just suffered from the noxious dustcloud that comes to Korea every spring from China. Apparently, a huge cloud of dust and sand from the Gobi desert floats over China to Korea in the springtime (picking up China's poisoned air on the way, I suspect). It even leaves visible orangey dust on your clothes. Weathermen give warning when it is coming and people stay inside or wear masks when they go out. After it rained, I guess the dust settled and I stopped feeling sick.
So I decided I will have to buy a surgical mask and wear it around town if the dust cloud comes again. Someday you may see a picture of me on the blog wearing it. The caption would have to be "acculturation".

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I've been informed that there is a glitch on the blogger website. Apparently, comments are not working unless you try three times. I'll try and fix this myself, if I can. Also, the comments are now set to allow anonymous posts. So, you should not need a blogger account to leave comments.

That's all for now.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


This time on crazy Korean food we will try the craziest Korean food of all, poshintang. Poshintang is a stew best known for its main ingredient, dog meat. Yes, poshintang is dog stew. And yes, I ate dog stew.

Now before you stop reading out of disgust for the food or someone who would eat it, give it some thought. I love dogs myself, but when it comes down to it, they are soul-less mammals just like cows, chickens, and sheep. They can be cute, but maybe also delicious? I would like to hear your thoughts on this subject. Would you eat dog if you had the chance? Are there moral/ethical reasons to abstain? For the record, there are foods I would not eat. There is a restaurant in the building next to mine that advertises whale meat. I would not eat a food that threatens the existence of a species.

I should also add that Koreans love dogs as much as anyone. There are coffee shops that keep puppies around so you can play with them while you drink your coffee. The amount of clothes and hair ties Korean dogs wear is more sickening to me than dog-stew. Koreans keep their pet dogs strictly separated from their livestock dogs.

For better of worse, poshintang has given Korea a bad name. Dog meat is eaten in countries around the world, including many outside Asia. But western animal rights groups have chosen to make targeted protests against the Korean food. Extreme groups like PETA and Brigitte Bardot have spread awareness about dog-stew through online campaigns. In consequence, Korea's reputation has been tarnished worldwide. Samsung was even denied sponsorship of a UK dog show. 'Dog-eater' has become a racial slur in places like LA, where there are sizable Korean populations competing for jobs (recall the violence against Koreans during the Rodney King riots).

In response, image-conscious Korea banned dog meat during the 1988 olympics in Seoul, and strengthened the ban before hosting the World Cup in 2002. The restrictions, however, remains mostly unenforced. The only real effect has been to change the name of the dish. Korean dishes are mostly named after their main ingredient and Korean restaurants are named after their main dish. Apparently, big signs reading 'dog stew' was too much. So, what was originally gae-tang (dog-stew) has become poshin-tang (energizing stew). Also, Korea now has some homegrown animal rights groups that occasionally stage demonstrations against dog meat.

On a more individual level, Koreans people react in different ways to the controversy. I have heard some Koreans can be very defensive about poshintang. I personally agree that westerners should stop imposing (ethically indefensible) cultural norms on a foreign country. But mostly, when I ask Koreans about the food, they laugh at my curiosity. Most people haven't had it and wouldn't try it anyway. They are definitely aware of the controversy. The waitress at the restaurant I visited kept coming to our table with an amused look on her face, obviously watching our reactions to the food. Sometimes it is hard to separate facts, opinions, and misinformation when talking to Koreans. A teacher at my school told me that restaurant owners round up stray dogs for their meat in the summer. I have also heard dogs are tortured to death to improve the quality of the meat. Hardly believable.

If no one I talked to has eaten poshintang, you might not think it is not very popular. Maybe, but maybe not. I can say that there are three poshintang restaurants within a 5 minute walk from my apartment building. But also, the consumption of this dish reflects the generational differences among Koreans' eating habits. Poshintang is mainly eaten by older people, a group I don't talk to very often. Young Koreans would probably rather go for Mcdonalds, which poses a much larger long term threat to the dish than PETA. Older Koreans eat the stew for its supposed medicinal properties. The protein-rich meal is said to provide lots of energy, hence the new name. For this reason, poshintang is often eaten during the hottest days of Korea's humid summer. It is also eaten by older men who feel they are lacking a certain kind of energy... i.e. poshintang is said to cure impotence.

On to the food itself. I went to the restaurant with three other foreigner friends who wanted to give dog-stew a shot. One, I should add, was not able to eat it at all. The meal costs 7,000 won, roughly 5 dollars.

Before the main dish arrived, the waitress came with the side dishes. Side dishes, as I have said before, are always served with every meal. But this time, along with kimchi etc, we got a plate of meat. Dog-meat, apparently. We didn't really touch this stuff. It seemed to be the odds and ends of the dog, with a bone and a chunk of cartilage here and there.

Gives dog bone a whole new meaning

Then they came with the boiling bowl of stew and a side of rice. It is a spicy stew. The meat is fatty and tastes much like lamb. To eat it, you pull a piece of meat out of the broth with chopsticks. You then add the meat to a pepper sauce mixed with ginger and eat it together. You can dip a spoonful of rice in the broth for flavor.

On the whole, I was unimpressed with the taste. I blame this partly on the restaurant, which was just the closest hole-in-the-wall poshintang place nearby. I may go to another place which has a better reputation at some point.

Hopefully the comments work now. I would like to hear your thoughts. Also, sorry about the delay of the other food post, chicken-poop-house (I told you korean dishes are named after their ingredients). I did eat chicken-poop-house but forgot my camera and then felt sick for a day. Chicken-poop-house is on hold indefinitely.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Since I am an English teacher, I spend a lot of my time teaching new words. So today I thought I would teach a word to my blog readers: Logorrhea. Literally, it combines the root for word(logos) and excessive flow (as in diarrhea). It is a word used to describe uncontrolled talkativeness and a certain symptom of schizophrenia. Lately, I seem to have come down with a bad case of logorrhea.

I don't spend much time with other foreigners. At school, I am the only native English teacher. There is another part-time English teacher, a Korean woman who speaks excellent English, so we have become friends. But most of the time I speak part English and part Korean with the other teachers. This has really helped me learn Korean. I won't say I have improved dramatically, but I am to the point now where I can carry on a semi-coherent conversation using mostly Korean. That is, as long as it is about simple subjects ('what did you do yesterday?'). These conversations, I have to admit, are mostly in broken English, but the teachers humor me by letting me speak Korean and correcting some mistakes. I am so glad I took the time to start learning Korean before I came. I recommend learning the alphabet (한글) and some basic expressions to anyone thinking about coming (ahhem, tom...).

Outside school, a curious thing happens when I meet other foreigners. I want to chat. Actually, I know it is not just me. Whenever two foreigners are in the same area, it is as if no other people were around. You can ignore the Koreans, but if you pass another foreigner at the supermarket, it borders on rudeness not to say hi. This makes it incredibly easy to meet people. Almost all foreigners here are young English teachers, so you automatically have something in common. Usually a quick chat will lead to the exchange of phone numbers and an invite to a bar crawl or something. People almost go out of their way to be friendly, and that is a good thing. I imagine the feeling is similar to that of members of an oppressed minority or an ethic community. Solidarity, north American diaspora! Solidarity, 외국인!!!

But back to logorrhea. When I finally have a conversation with foreigners, after days of verbal semi-isolation, I find myself just talking, and talking, and talking. After so much frustrated communication, the easy flow of words is a relief. But I suspect that the way I talk is changing. I heard a story recently from a fellow foreigner who met an old friend. The friend had been in Korea for about a year and had decided to make the most of his experience by immersing himself in Korean culture. He was learning Korean and all his friends and his girlfriend were Korean. Sure, English teachers like me make our living speaking English. But this is 'graded English'. The kind of English you use to talk to people who do not speak English. It is not easy at first, but you get used to using simple sentences and simple words. Grammar is secondary. An indefinite article here and there is sacrificed for the sake of communication. Apparently, it was shocking to see how this friend's way of speaking English had changed.

I don't worry much about that. Thankfully, I know plenty of foreigners to speak English with. And even if my English suffers a little, it is worth the new skill I am developing-- the ability to speak clearly and concisely. That is a skill I can use!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Chi-Town Shoutout

I have found quite a few reminders of home in Busan.
"All in Chicago" Antique Americana store in the subway

A downtown "Chicago" bar

One morning I switched on the TV and found an hour long documentary about the history of Chicago

In Hangeul, the letters to the left of UIC read, "She-Ka-Go". Th letters to the right mean dentist. So why is there a Chicago UIC dentist in Busan?

Why, also, is there a UCLA dentist in Busan? What's going on here?

Apparently the US is known for quality dentists and dental schools. Combine that with a lax attitude toward intellectual property rights, and you get "Chicago UIC Dentist". Amazing that UIC has name recognition power this far away. Small world.

Anyway, these are nice reminders of home. Hope everyone is doing well there!