Monthly Archives: September 2013

Chaos in the halls

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

The students sit. They listen somewhat attentively in class. Participate in activities. A few are whispering with friends, but most are paying attention. Then, the bell rings.

In its basic form, life in a Korean middle school is similar to that of an American one. While the classes are much more focused on memorization and recall than creativity or composition, the school buildings and basic curriculum look the same. However, what stands out as perplexing in this unique culture, one that focuses on saving “face” and polite personal relations, is the chaos that ensues at school between the bells.

A Korean school bell is not the sound of a “real” bell or a beep or an alarm; the sound resembles a music box. At the end of each 45 minute period, the sing-song jingle reverberates through the halls and classrooms (this one here, actually: The bell signals 10 minutes of passing time…and the transformation of the school into a space of utter chaos.

Like schools in America and others abroad, the way that students behave ranges from perfect to those who fall asleep in class. Most teachers are relatively strict; corporal punishment is illegal in Korea, but many teachers still use physical punishments like push-ups or holding in plank position, so students are well-behaved when they have to be.

During break, even the most seemingly angelic students lose all inhibitions. It’s assumed that when class is over, teachers have no obligation to maintain order. The teachers retreat to their respective group offices and, to unaccustomed ears, a war begins. Doors slam, students run around the halls, there’s screaming, and mini-fights break out. In the classrooms themselves, students go on the computers and play K-Pop music videos on the projectors. There’s also a lot of physical horseplay, but teachers will step in if a real altercation occurs.

It is as if these 10 minute breaks are a way for students to exert a primal scream— recess taken to a whole new level.  The break is a small escape from daily middle school life, a regiment which only gets more intense when students progress into high school.  Nevertheless, every time there’s a break, I am still a little bit in shock.

As a foreigner, the most fascinating part of this small aspect of school culture is how it fits in with larger societal norms. Korea has a distinct set of rules for inter-personal relations and behavior. Etiquette matters. At first, the behavior that students show in between classes seems to clash with established expectations. Yet, the school behavior is arguably revealing of a larger cultural norm in the society. It’s not just that “saving face” and perceived politeness matter, it’s when it matters. The break reinforces the idea that students should be on their best behavior if someone is there to police them, but otherwise they should let loose. This is a universal aspect of human behavior and relations–people put on the correct persona for the situation. Most people don’t act the same way at a club or bar with friends as they do when speaking with their boss or co-workers at work. Korean Middle School magnifies this dichotomy to an extreme level.

I don’t seek to criticize the students’ behavior or the school for not stopping it. As an American, it’s just one more aspect of culture shock and something to get used to. As a teacher, it’s very confusing. How does one model good behavior for students, but expect them to only show it superficially? It makes me wonder: what kind of expectations do we set for students as teachers?

I suspect that the intense nature of the Korean school system is what partially drives the acting out, but that is most likely only one of many factors. Whatever the reason, Korean students on break display the best and worst parts of middle school…and the bell is about to ring.


Happy Korean Thanksgiving!

This week is Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) so I’m getting a nice break from teaching.

Right now I’m in Gyeongju with all of my host mother’s extended family–it’s just what you would expect when you gather a large family together: fun and chaos! Besides the rituals around honoring ancestors, Chuseok is very like American Thanksgiving.  From Noraebang (Karoke, I had to sing Clocks by Coldplay) with the grandfather at 9 am to copious amounts of beer and fried chicken, it’s one crazy experience to the next.


He has his own personal noraebang!


One Month!


A little language exchange with my host brother and sister

Today marks one month into my placement and my home stay.

It’s a good feeling to have that time under my belt. Everything is definitely getting more normal, even as the challenges shift and, in some cases, grow. Each day of teaching leads to new revelations and difficulties. My students are wonderful, from the lowest-level classes to the highest. For middle school students, many have acted quite older than their age in adjusting to my foreign teaching style and sometimes goofy energy. I’m finding that even when a student is interrupting or not paying attention, just joking right back at them neutralizes the situation. My host family has graciously made me one of their own, to the point that I feel more like another family member than a guest.

Beyond teaching, the highlight of this week was that I ventured out to meet the local foreigners group. Since I’ve arrived in Ochang, I’ve spent pretty most of my free time with my students, Korean teachers, and home stay family. Meeting fellow foreigners was a great way to destress and take a little break from cultural adjustment. I couldn’t help but notice that my conversational English has changed since I arrived in Korea–I’m enunciating words more, not using contractions, and my vocabulary is a little simplistic.

As a group, most of the fellow foreigners in Ochang are Canadian and British. Also, most of them are teachers not at public schools, but at hagwons. Hagwons, also known as academies or “cram schools,” are privately run educational institutions where students go for additional instruction after school. Many students will be at hagwon until 9:30 or 10:00 pm studying. Most of the other foreigners work on a night schedule–wake up at noon, work from 1:00-9:30, then go out or relax until early in the morning. When I walked in the bar, many of the other teachers said they had already heard of me–it turns out that many of  my 700 or so students attend hagwon. And..the students already have a nickname for me.

“Oh yeah, we hear about all of the new teachers. There’s this one that wears a suit to school sometimes..,” said one teacher from the UK.

“That’s me,” I replied.

“Ahhhh, I thought so!,” he said. “The students call you the business teacher.” 

Not sure how that whole “dressing up to gain respect” thing actually worked out.

Today, my co-teachers took me out to lunch to celebrate and welcome me to the school and Ochang. My Korean is still terrible, even if I can get by, and I still haven’t mastered any form of public transit, but the learning experiences are very real.

Next week is Korean Thanksgiving. I have to assume that things will only get even more interesting as I go!


P.S. Also, the Fulbright application season is upon us! If you think that you might want to undertake a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Korea, check out the information here;

The Grand Costco Adventure


This weekend, a somewhat remarkable thing happened:

I went to Costco in Korea.

Now, if you really need to see why Costco is so amazing, watch this and rock out:

(h/t to friend and former suitemate at Pitzer Brian Winter for the video)

Costco is a guilty pleasure. It’s everything about American consumerism that bothers me. But, it’s also awesome–Costco has everything. In Korea, things were no different. After an hour drive to Daejeon, my host dad announced that we had arrived.

This was one of the first moments I’ve had since arriving in Korea where I felt like I was back in the US (haven’t decided whether that is a good thing or not). The interior looked similar to those in the US and all of the department signs were in English. Kirkland branded products were everywhere. Snacks. Cereals. Lots of samples with friendly salespeople.Even…

Kirkland Kentucky Bourbon.

2013-09-07 17.51.37

Costco is also one of the few places that you can reliably find a large variety of Western products. My host brother, after going on a recent trip to Australia, has become obsessed with Maltesers. In America, we know them as Whoppers–malted milk balls. He wanted them more than anything and we spent a long time looking. Unfortunately, seemingly the only product that the Daejeon Costco lacked was malted milk balls. If you’re a fellow ETA and happen to spot them in Korea, please let me know!


Ochang: Settling in

I’m beginning my third week in my home stay and school placement, and I’m finally starting to feel like I’m settling in. Obviously, this is just the first phase of cultural adjustment, and I’m sure that new challenges will hit me soon, but it still feels good!

Departure day was nerve-wracking. Everything happened very fast. After quickly packing up our things from our dorms and changing into our business attire, we said our final goodbyes and listened to some inspiring speeches, then were whisked into the University’s auditorium to be presented to our various school officials. One by one, the Fulbright staff called us by name. Each of us had to step forward, bow, and, in the midst of all of this, desperately look around the room to figure out who our school official was. When it was my turn, my Fulbright co-teacher came forward and presented me with a bouquet of flowers. However, this was but a small gesture: one ETAs co-teacher set off a firecracker and threw confetti all over her. Afterwards, we went to a catered group lunch with the co-teacher—a little awkward, but definitely the best food I had orientation!

My placement city, Ochang, is only one hour away from the Orientation site. My co-teacher’s husband picked us up in his car. He’s a former English teacher himself, but he now serves on the police force in Cheongju. He also loves baseball and immediately asked if I would play with him–making connections from the start.

We went straight to school, where I had a chance to greet the principal and some of the Korean English teachers. My Korean language skills are still nonexistent beyond greetings, so the meeting was a little awkward. Despite this, everyone was very nice.


Gakri Middle School

My homestay is remarkably close to Gakri Middle School. It is less than a five-minute walk from my family’s apartment to school, which is wonderful. Extra time to sleep in the morning, you are mine! My family consists of a mother, father, a brother in middle school (at the school I teach at) and a sister in high school. From the beginning, they’ve been very open in trying to bring me into the family. When I arrived, my host brother was still in Australia for a school vacation trip. My host mother speaks almost no English, so with her I rely on body language and the always-incorrect Samsung translator app. My host father speaks a little bit of English, as he’s studying for his job. At first, I thought that the kids English was not very good, but it turns out that they were just shy.


My host father


Duck BBQ with the family!

I’m blessed to be in a home stay that is so caring and, importantly, makes really good food! At first, my family was shocked when I immediately reached for spicy foods with peppers and garlic. Now, my host dad often jokes that I have a “Korean mouth.” I have missed very few “American” foods so far—perhaps only grilled cheese or tacos. But everything in Korea, from samgyeopsal, thick-cut pork grilled served in lettuce wraps with sesame oil, garlic, and soybean-chili paste, to Kimchi stew has been delicious. Even the fast meals are delicious—I may have thought that eating ramen ended with graduation, but my host family loves some good Korean ramen!


I get my own classroom!

My first week at school was uneventful. After each exam period, the school reshuffles classes by ranking. Since they had exams right before I arrived, the teachers had not yet set up a schedule for me. While I didn’t have any formal classes to teach, the students definitely noticed my presence. As I walked through the hallways, a typical interaction would go something like this.

As I approach:

1)    A wide-eyed stare from the students.

2)    A loud “HELLO!!” with lots of arm-waving

After I say hello back:

1)    A look of shock and surprise

2)    Lots of giggling.

Repeat this exchange 30 or 40 times each day.

Some highlights from the past few weeks.

– Hearing my host mom scream my host brother’s name to get him out of bed every morning. Some things really are the same everywhere.

– Discussing favorite alcoholic beverages while on a walk in the park with my host dad. I’m partial to a good beer, but he’s all about the soju.

– My co-teacher and her husband inviting me to dinner in the countryside (read: 10 minutes by car from my placement) to have what is supposedly the best Kimchi stew around.

– The students applauding during my first class.

See the resemblance?

See the resemblance?

– A student presenting a drawing of me on her student survey.

– Playing badminton and basketball with my host brother—he’s a beast!

– My students’ reaction during my introduction lesson when I tell them that I studied my Korean bad words before coming to Korea.

– Games of Jenga and Uno with the family.

– The reactions from my host siblings when I said that I liked espresso and then tried to make them taste it.

In Korea, middle school is split into first, second, and third grades. I teach 30 different classes, 10 third grade and 20 first grade. Each week, I teach 20 classes total. I’m also preparing two of the school’s top students for an English speech and writing competition. I teach approximately 700 students, so these smaller meetings are a great time to get to know some of them on an individual level.

The hardest part of teaching hasn’t been the students, it’s been the constant repetition of the same lesson. Keeping the material fresh is a struggle…sometimes it feels like I am an actor with the same script and blocking. Sure, it changes here and there, but a lot of the lesson is the same.

My grant year is off to a great start. In the coming weeks, I want to:

– Set clear and measurable personal goals for the grant year. They’ve been forming since Orientation, but it’s time to spell them out.

– Connect with my fellow ETAs. I got a phone relatively late compared to some of the other Fulbrighters, so I really want to connect with the others in Cheongju/around the country. Did someone say road trip?

– Start memorizing students names. Korean names are really hard—many share the same surname. Take that, and add that I have hundreds of students, some of whom I only see once every two weeks, and it gets hard to put faces and names together. Time to get on that.

Questions? Comments? Let me know!

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