Saturday, February 26, 2005

A Monkey in a Suit

Swaton is starting a new class in a couple weeks. I'm teaching it, and as such, I was asked to speak at an orientation for potential students' parents. Unfortunately, I was informed of this less than 24 hours before hand AND knowing nothing about this class. I didn't even know the book I was going to be using.

I asked questions around. I finally found out the book, and I prepared. I dressed up. But when I got to the orientation, I realized no one there would probably speak English. What was the point, I wondered? Why should I bother speaking to a group that wouldn't understand what I was saying? Then it hit me: they had me there to show me off. "Look at the crazy foreigner. He knows English. He'll teach your kids."

Nice. Now I knew what a trophy wife must feel like.

It wasn't until after the orientation something else occured to me. We aren't give a lot of the information that the Korean teachers are given. We aren't in contact with the parents. Recently, we weren't even give the schedules for our new classes. It was almost like we aren't even really teachers at all, but just there for show.

We're the monkeys in suits. You can dress us up, make us look nice, but deep down, we're still monkeys. No matter how accomplished we are, no matter how good we are as teachers, we're still kept around mostly for show.

My resolve to move out of the Hagwon business and back into university teaching has increased.

Article 4

NOTE: Fourth article in the series I'm writing for The Communicator.

I’m pretty sure that the cab driver was drunk. At least if he was, that would explain a lot.

A few friends and I had just finished dinner. We took a new foreign teacher out to welcome him to Korea. He didn’t pay for dinner and probably won’t pay for much the first month he’s here. Foreigners stick together overseas and are surprisingly generous. Most people get dinner, drinks, movies, taxis, and lots more paid for by people they’ve just met for a month or so after arriving in Korea. The only catch is that you’re expected to cover the new folks after that.

Tired and full, we decided to call it a night early and hailed a taxi. Taxis are everywhere in Korea and are surprisingly cheap. Public transportation here is good: reliable, cheap, and plentiful. It puts American public transportation to shame.

I was surprised, but not yet worried when we got into the cab. The car looked like a portable disco. The dashboard was inlaid with neon. The radio was huge. The seats were covered in black and white faux fur. And the interior lights were black lights. I was hoping for a disco ball and maybe platform shoes…but no luck.

The driver did his best to match the flamboyant interior. At first glance, he didn’t look too much different than a regular cabbie, but his personality made up for his rather mediocre looks. At one point during the ride, he referred to himself as a goet namja, “flower man.” I’m not really sure what extra meanings that phrase may carry in Korean, but it somehow seemed to fit.

After demonstrating how loud his radio would go, the first question he asked when we pulled away from the curb was if we were drunk. We weren’t. I’m not much of a drinker, especially of Korean drinks. The beer here is okay, but the Korean drink of choice is soju. There’s a rumor among foreigners (that may well be true) that soju is made with formaldehyde. Truthfully, it is made of fermented sweet potatoes and/or rice and is kind of like vodka. It does have a very chemical taste, though, that betrays ingredients that will probably never be known.

We hadn’t had much soju, but I think our driver had. First, he made a point of showing us all the features of his car: the blinking lights (20 on the front grill, he said), the light-up hood ornament, and, get this, voice activation. He’d say something, and the car would honk. He’d say something else, and the car’s lights would come on. He’d say a third thing and the radio would crank up.

“Kit car,” he said. At first I thought he meant that the car was a kit, but later I realized he was referring to “Knight Rider.” Remember, the car was named “Kit.” Yeah, I don’t really remember either.

After showing us the features of his kit car, he was still doing his best to impress us. First he called his home office to talk to some woman about nothing. As he talked, he cupped imaginary breasts on his own chest. Somehow this was showing off. Then he got really crazy.

He said something I didn’t understand, but I knew had something to do with racing, then he cranked the engine. The speed limit on any Korean road is 100 kilometers an hour (about 60 miles per hour or so), and the road we were on was in the city, which probably meant the speed limit was closer to 50 kilometers per hour. The driver hit 100 km/h in no time, then jumped up to 120. I wouldn’t have been too worried except I was up front, and his seat belts were broken. I pushed my feet into the floor, grabbed the arm rest and hoped for the best. He was doing about 140 and weaving through traffic before he finally backed off.

By the time he was done with his joy ride, we were almost back at our apartments, so I talked him in from there. I breathed a sigh as he sped off.

I wonder how long it will be before the new guy hops in a cab again.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Yes, many of you noticed I got my hair cut. It was cut about two weeks ago. And before any of you ask, there was no good reason why. I think the beard is going to go here soon too (but not until it gets warmer). Posted by Hello

Sunday, February 20, 2005

My Trek

Rose told me about the foreigner temple out in Gyeryong City months ago. We've tried to go many times, but it never works out. This last Sunday, though, we made it. I've told about the temples many times before, so there's not much to add.

A few interesting things about this temple, though:

1) It's all foreign monks (from all over the world). You're more likely to get a response in English than in Korean. In fact, Rose asked a question to an Asian monk in Korean, and the monk didn't understand. The response came in English when she finally caught on.

2) The main monk was American. He seemed like a really nice guy, and I really enjoyed listening to him talk (even though it's hard for me to sit on the floor for extended periods of time.

3) The temple is new and unpainted (as you can see in the pictures). I didn't know this, but after you build a temple, you have to wait a few years to paint it because the wood needs time to dry.

4) The temple is WAY out of town. It took two buses, a cab, and over an hour to get there. I'd say it was worth it, though.

Anyway, that's about it. If you have questions, ask. I never really know what people will or won't know about Buddhist temples and Buddhism. I'll field questions if I can.


My bling bling tooth. Yep, I finally got my crown. I'm going to have to make more of a point of yelling, so I can show that thing off. Posted by Hello

The inside of the temple. Posted by Hello

The view from the temple (and Rose in the corner) Posted by Hello

View of the front of the temple. Posted by Hello

Proof that I actually went to the temple. I'm cold as hell. Posted by Hello

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Article 3

NOTE: This is my third article for the Communicator. I've written about my first temple experience before, but this one is a little more in-depth. I might have another post of similar nature tomorrow, as I'm heading off for a day of Buddhist fun bright and early. Enjoy!

The churches in Korea are inviting: big neon crosses affixed atop buildings that often have beautiful murals visible through huge glass entryways. The churches seem to be everywhere in Korea. It’s always seemed to me that if everyone in Korea decided to go to church at once, there’d still be plenty of seats to invite a few people over from Japan and maybe a Russian or two. Regardless of their beauty and their huge crosses inviting me to take a seat, I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been in church in years.

And I might be the second or third to admit that I was raised Catholic. But I discovered Buddhism when I was 16 and fell in love. One of the reasons that I came to Korea was to experience Buddhism up close. So when I got here, I searched for temples right away.

In Korea, Buddhist temples are something hidden away as opposed to something flashing a neon sign everywhere you look. You rarely see a temple in the city, and if you do, it’s always tucked back in a park. But seeing the real temples requires that you find yourself some transportation, a map, and hopefully a guide.

Most of the temples in Korea are on, near, or behind mountains. Some of the most beautiful that I’ve seen have required me to struggle through a few hours of climbing (there and back again). But the first temple that I went to only required that I hail a taxi.

The temple was, not surprisingly at the base of some mountains on the outskirts of Daejon, the city I now call home. As the taxi approached the temple, I watched the city turn from a bustling metropolis to a scattered suburb to a third world country. Daejon generally looks like a city of the future with lots of tall buildings and neon, but the area near the temple looked more like a scene from a loose-with-the-details Vietnam War buddy movie. Houses are something you rarely see in Korea—most people live in apartments—but there were plenty of houses near the temple. The houses were small and generally made of brick. Many had tin roofing, and most had fences made of whatever happened to be lying around. Every house seemed to have a sandy garden, a dog, and kids playing.

Oddly, I think most people have this image of Korea in their minds: tiny ramshackle houses tucked away in the mountains. But in reality, this little scene is the exception and not the rule.
The taxi pulled us right into the temple gates. The beautifully ornate and brightly colored temple was in stark contrast to its surroundings. The main structure was huge, three very large stories, and the whole building was adorned with what I thought were swastikas. This is something that took a little getting used to: in Korea, the crooked cross that we think of as a swastika is a Buddhist symbol that adorns temples and shops and is sometimes even tiled into the floors of bars.

My friend and I entered a large central room and sat on the floor. In front of us, there were three large golden Buddha statues, each of which had offerings of fruit and rice sitting before it. Behind those statues were hundreds of tiny Buddha statues, many of which had cards in front of them. The cards, I was later told, had the names of ever person who had stayed at the temple in the last year.

That day, I had actually come to the temple for a service. Many temples have services in which monks chat about various topics, and this particular temple sponsored English language services (which have, unfortunately, stopped). While the early part of the service involved a lot of chanting and bowing, most of the service was just listening to the monk chat. It was very relaxed, very peaceful, and very open.

“Does anyone have any questions?” the monk asked at the end of her chat and smiled. The openness was in stark contrast to my Catholic roots. Even though I was pretty far out of my element, at the temple was one of the first times in Korea that I felt at home. While before the service, I would have been surprised to learn that I would be fed a nice meal by the monks afterward, after having listened, the relatively intimate meal seemed like a natural extension.

I ate quietly, contemplating what I’d just experienced. I finished, helped to clean up a little and headed home. Although the next trip to that temple wouldn’t come for another two months, when I stepped on the grounds again, I felt like I hadn’t left.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Happy Lunar New Year!

Yep, it's Lunar New Year today. Welcome to the year of the rooster.

Happy New Year to all my Korean friends. I wish you the best in life and am happy that you are part of mine.


Monday, February 07, 2005

The Festivities

I was sitting in a Korean bar with a Filipino band and an English singer. My friends were speaking English, but I was speaking broken Korean to the woman across from me, who just happened to be moving to America in two weeks. Odd how these things happen.

After the Swaton festival earlier that day, I was exhausted. But my day from over. From the festival, the entire staff of the school (including a few new teachers) went out to dinner. I had never been to a Korean sea food place before (for obvious reasons), so I was excited to see how it worked.

Now, Koreans are generally very communal eaters. Sure, the main dish might be for you (and only you), but all the side dishes are generally shared by the whole table. The seafood restaurant was the ultimate extreme of this philosophy on eating.

In the center of each section of the large table was a large pot with boiling water. Everyone went up to the buffet, picked out some things they wanted, and dumped them into this pot. Then, everyone just picked out what they'd like to eat at any given moment: octopus, squid, shrimp (fully intact), and, most exciting of all, fish organs. I kept my vegetables to myself and just ate them raw. They weren't going in THAT pot.

Even after the fun of the boiled fish parts, I was still able to be surprised. Dessert was ice cream--bright pink ice cream. I can't even explain how out of place it seemed at the table of the octopus.

After dinner, I felt like a nap, but wanted to go out with my coworkers (at least the ones I really like). I invited some out but was cut short by the other foreign teachers, who just wanted to go home and take a nap. Seemingly it would end there, but it didn't.

I should also mention that Smith and Chris invited the foreign teachers out for a night of drinking. We all decline three times, but not because we were exhausted. Up until this week, I had been giving Smith the benefit of the doubt, but he went much too far for me ever to respect him again.

On Friday, the school rehearsed for the festival. I felt a little bad because I had to miss the very beginning of the rehearsal (I had a dentist appointment that couldn't wait--see the post "Getting Drilled" for more info). But when I got to Swaton, things got much worse very quickly. Chris didn't show up that morning (I think that makes his grand total for missed classes in the double digits now, two of which were field trips). Rachel came up to me nearly right after I arrived and asked where he was.

Drunk at home. That's where he was. He had come in at 6:30 that morning, and I let Rachel know. I wasn't about to cover for the jerk. He had made his bed a long time ago.

But that wasn't the worst of it.

When Rachel asked Smith where Chris was, he told her that Chris was sick. I know that Smith knew otherwise, largely because I'm almost certain Smith was the one Chris was drinking with. But to make matters worse, he also told Rachel that she shouldn't even ask those kind of questions, as though it wasn't her right to know where the teacher that should have been helping her with her class was. Smith even went so far as to say Chris really wanted to help, but he didn't know how. I can say for certain that that's untrue. He didn't want to help at all and made no effort to try to find out how to.

The two were forever in cahoots now, something I feared from the beginning.

But anyway, none of the foreign teachers wanted to go out with Chris or Smith because of all this (and for other reasons as well). We headed in for our naps and agreed to re-evaluate the evening in another couple hours.

Those of you who know me well know that I can't just fall asleep, no matter how tired I am. It takes a lot of winding down and relaxing before I even try to sleep. So when I got a call at about 10 asking me to come downstairs and figure out where we were going, my first reaction was to say that I wasn't going. Perhaps I should have trusted my gut, but I didn't.

I hadn't been out in some time and some of the Korean teachers were having a small farewell party for a teacher that was leaving. After much arguing on weather to stay or go, the troop of us (of course sans Chris, who we told we were staying in) made our way up to Chi-Chi's bar.

Chi-Chi's isn't really a foreigner bar the way that some bars in Korea are designed with foreigners in mind. No, it's a Korean bar that just happens to have a lot of foreign clientele. And, of course, a Filipino band. Apparently, even earning small wages in Korea is better than working in the Philippines (or so I was told).

The band was good, and after a few drinks, Simon, the Englishman I work with, decided to go up on stage with the band. They gladly accepted him, especially after they heard him sing his first song. See, Simon was a professional singer on a cruise ship before he came to Korea. To say that he's an excellent singer is to do him a great disservice. He's a phenomenal singer.

While Simon sang, I tried to talk to the Korean teachers in Korean. I generally don't speak Korean at school (we aren't supposed to), so a lot of the teachers are surprised to hear me speak it outside of class. My Korean isn't very good, but most Koreans give you high marks just for trying. And I like to try as often as I can because it gives me good practice (and generally a few pointers from the Koreans in the room).

Really, I had a great time with everyone there. I was only sorry that it took the teachers leaving before I got to know them very well. Good luck to all the teachers leaving. I'll certainly miss you.

After spending a few hours at Chi-Chi's, the boys talked me into going downtown. I generally don't like going downtown; it's just not my crowd. And not surprisingly, I didn't have a great time, and headed home soon after arriving. The one good thing about downtown is that we managed to avoid Chris. Twice I was told that I had "just missed him." Dodged a bullet there.

And for the first time since Chris came to Korea, I got home on a Saturday night later than he did. I thought about peeing on the floor or burning some macaroni and cheese, but decided just to go to bed.

The next morning, I remembered why I don't drink very often.


The Festival

Saturday was the Swaton festival. It was a lot of work (and a lot of stress), but it turned out really well. The kids did great, and they looked cuter than usual even. Below are the pictures. My class did (among other things) a little skit about animals, which is why they were dressed that way. Each one was an animal and told what they could do. It went really well.


My one good picture of Sue. She usually hides when she sees the camera. She's such a cutie. Anyway, she's in a different get up here (she was in two performances), but there's a picture of her in her animal gear later. Posted by Hello

I have to take the pictures as I can get them with Sue Posted by Hello

Man, Sue never wants to pose for me Posted by Hello

Jun hamming it up. Posted by Hello

Nicole posing for me Posted by Hello

Nicole caught off guard Posted by Hello

Jason (and Nicole sneaking into the background) Posted by Hello

Amy the alligator Posted by Hello

My class about to go on stage for rehearsal (Jun's quite a ham). Posted by Hello

The class (notice Sue in her rabbit get up). Posted by Hello

The whole class. Posted by Hello

Everyone in their street clothes before they got all costumed up. Posted by Hello

The polka dot troop. Posted by Hello

A bunch of the student's fooling around backstage before rehearsals. Posted by Hello

Sunny all dressed up and ready to perform. Posted by Hello

Julie again. Posted by Hello

Julie from another class. This cute little girl pesters me relentlessly every morning. Posted by Hello

This is my little group of students practicing before their big performance. Posted by Hello

More rehearsing Posted by Hello