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.

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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.

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My host father

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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!

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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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About Jonathan Rice

Fulbright Fellow, Pitzer College alum, and communicator passionate about telling stories that make an impact.

Posted on 09/03/2013, in Fulbright South Korea 2013-14, General and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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