Scott and I celebrated our one year anniversary a couple weeks ago.  It’s been a great year.  Here’s a picture recap:

Louisville, KY. 6.6.09. Married!!

Lake of the Ozarks. 6.7.09 – 6.12.09. Honeymoon. (Thanks again Bohannons!)

Columbia, MO. June and July. Cassie finishes grad school.  (Sorry, there’s really no good pictures of this time period…so here’s our first apartment together)

Florissant, MO. August and September. Painting for our rent.  (Thanks again VanMaters!)

New York City, New York. Early October. Visiting friends.  (Thanks Corey and Katelyn!)

Costa Rica. October.  Backpacking.

Nicaragua. November. Backpacking.

Panama. November.  Backpacking.

St. Louis, MO / Louisville, KY.  Back in time for Christmas!

Little Rock, AR. December, January, February. Figuring out what to do next.  (Thanks Mom and Dad!)

Gumi, South Korea. February until present.  Teaching English for a year.  (Thanks Lindsey and Andy for helping us get here!)

We’ve had LOTS of help this year.  I’m not sure what we would have done without our wonderful families and friends.  Thanks to all of you for everything!

Tang Tang Chicken

June 20, 2010

In many of the restaurants in Korea the owners live in the back of the restaurant.  You can often see some of them sitting on their beds watching TV in the back of the restaurant with their children next to them maybe eating their own dinner.  It’s strange to me but I think it accomplishes two things; one, they are better utilizing the space of the building and two, with the long hours that many Koreans work it makes sense that they should just live at their place of work.  This is an idea that makes my skin crawl but I am also not Korean.  The merger of these two worlds came out in all it’s glory the other day when I went to get some chicken.

            This restaurant (Tang Tang Chicken) like almost every other restaurant will deliver to your house but since I don’t know how to communicate well on the phone I normally have to go in and wait for the food to be cooked.  I had just ordered and was sitting making weird faces at myself in the mirror when I noticed that I could see, in the back of the restaurant, a door leading into a bedroom.  I was thinking how strange it was that people lived in their own restaurants when a little boy came out of the bedroom bopping himself on the head with a piece of cardboard.  When he came a little closer I realized that he was wearing a shirt but no pants.  He continued to bop himself until he noticed me sitting there and suddenly got embarrassed and covered his face with the cardboard.   I don’t think he was embarrassed because he was naked but instead maybe he didn’t want me to be able to point him out in a lineup, “Yes officer, that’s the kid.  I was just trying to order some chicken and this little bitty flasher came into the restaurant and exposed himself, I just wanted some chicken, it was horrible” He began making his rounds of the restaurant, going over to inspect what his dad was doing at the grill, then to Mom who was folding boxes.  At this point he began to wave at me deciding that I wasn’t going to rat him out and turned to his mother again.  He clung to her leg and pulled at her pants and fussed at her.  Then putting aside all his earlier shyness or forgetting that I was there, he bent over to set his cardboard on the ground and was momentarily possessed. He began digging in his butt like a chimpanzee looking for termites.  At this point I had to put my head down because I was laughing so hard.  I was choking, trying not to laugh at the scene in front me.  The mother tried to swat his hand away and the boy simply took a few steps back and continued his progress, then got too close, was swatted at and stepped back to his safe distance. This little dance went on for maybe two minutes then just as abruptly as it began, he picked up his cardboard, turned around, waved again, then marched back into the bedroom bopping himself on the head as he went.  About then my chicken was ready and as I walked home I couldn’t help feeling an itch that I dared not scratch. 


Strange Inconsistencies

June 15, 2010

Korea seems to a place of contradictions.  Not that America doesn’t have tons of contradictions itself but it seems they always stick out more when you’re a stranger.  The first contradiction being Koreans are constantly trying to avoid getting sick.  Everywhere you go there are hand sanitizers and air purifiers.  It is also common to wear medical masks around everywhere, which means hiking outside, going to dinner, going to the gym, playing table tennis, reading a book, kissing or performing CPR, the mask must stay on.  This is a difficult situation in class when I have a hard time understanding some of them to begin with.  It seems that there are two schools of thought to this practice.  One school of thought seems to think that cold air is what makes you sick, so by keeping the air from entering your lungs in it’s coldest state you can avoid getting sick.  The other is that you will keep other people from getting sick by containing your sickness to your person, coughing and sneezing into your mask instead of in other people’s faces.  This is all fine, I don’t think there is anything medically proven about the temperature of air leading to sickness or those poor eskimos would be screwed.  If this is the case everyone should drive around for no less than 8 hours a day in order to turn up the old thermostat and save a few Eskimo lives, it’s just the right thing to do.  As far as the second reason, it seems very considerate.  How wonderful that they would try not to get other people sick but the mask seems to be undermined by their drinking solutions. There are Community cups at all of the water coolers.  Two or 3 plastic cups waiting for anyone to use.  Sure, often there are paper disposable cups next to these but it’s seems many people think, “I would have to fill that paper cup upwards of 2 times to get the amount of water that I could get out of this crusty old spitoon.”  I have actually seen someone remove their sick mask in order to take a long sip from one of these communal cups.

Another strange contrast is in everyone explaining, “Korea is a very conservative country, picture America in the 1950’s”  This is definitely true in many cases.  Women are expected to cover their shoulders when they go outside.  They are also expected to hide their vices, smoking cigarettes in private so no one would think less of them as a woman.  People tell us constantly that you must hold you’re temper at all costs as any showing of this kind of emotion in public is an enormous knock against you.  You must remain courteous in the face of whatever your opposition.  Boys and girls are also not supposed to show interest in each other.  Especially in any kind of physical way.  We are told that some married couples will not hold hands in public and often sleep in separate beds or bedrooms.

Then come more contradictions. Women can show off as much of their legs as they want, just no shoulders.  It is also true that for most of the time people don’t seem to let on when something is wrong.  This is until someone cuts them off in a car which seems to cause many to pull over and yell idle threats at the disappearing bumper of the assailant.  It’s also true that many Koreans won’t show much physical affection to each other but business men will walk hand in hand with each other down the street and 15 year old boys will play with each other’s thighs and tickle each other.  Kids up to the age of 15 love to play a game in which they try to shove their two fingers up each other’s butts (or mine, until I told them that I eat fingers).

I don’t pretend to understand the Korean culture.  I certainly have not lived here long enough to speak with any authority but there are things here that seem to contradict each other.  To me it feels like there are a lot of unspoken cultural rules that may cause order in some ways but underneath there seem to be a lot of things trying to bust their way out.  Like a fat man in a tight shirt, who is covered until the day his buttons start shooting off in all directions leaving what he was trying to hide exposed.


So, most of the blog so far has been focused on recapping what we’ve done and telling funny kid stories.  But one thing I haven’t blogged about is my regular internal struggle.

First, I need to give a little lesson on the Korean education system, so that the rest of this blog will make sense.  Most kids attend public schools…which seem to be much like public schools in America.  They start in the morning (around 8 or 9) and finish in the afternoon (around 2).   Then, after school, many kids attend one or more private academies.  There are math academies, science academies, art academies, sports academies, Chinese character academies, english academies, etc.  We work for an english academy.  Most kids seem to spend 1-2 hours at each academy that they go to.  The younger kids come to our academy early in the afternoon, the older kids come later in the evening.   As for the kindergardeners, some of them go to private english academies that are only for kindergardeners, and their schedule is much like a public school.  At the kindergarden we work at, the kids start at 9:30 and finish at 2:10.  The ages of these kids ranges from 3-6.  Some of the kids then go to another kindergarten academy where they spend a few more hours learning English.

The kids here seem, to me, to be really over-worked.  I was talking to one of my second grade classes the other day about their daily schedules.  Two of the boys told me that they are at public school from 8:30 until 1:15 or 2 (each day is different), then they go straight to an hour-long piano lesson, then they come to english academy for 1 or 2 hours, then they go home to eat dinner, then they go do Taekwondo for an hour.  Once they finally are home for the night, they spend most of the night doing homework (and I know this is true because I check their homework).  They also go to public school every other Saturday.

I was talking to the older kindergardeners the other day, the 5-year-olds.  I found out that a lot of them come to our english academy on Saturdays for what they call “side class”.  Our school doesn’t offer classes on Sunday, so some of them go to another english academy on Sundays.

In my middle school class, I talked to a boy who is in school everyday until 11pm.  After public school, he has a few hours break (which he uses to do homework), then he comes to english academy for 2 hours and then math academy until 11pm.  I asked him when he wakes up in the morning.  7am.   And these stories aren’t unusual.  I decided after talking to a few of the students about their daily schedules that I wanted to do a little research.  I spent one week asking all of the students in my classes what they do every day when they leave public school.  Most of the kids seem to have similar schedules.  Their time after school is filled up with things like: piano or violin lessons, Taekwondo, baseball, soccer, english academy, math academy, private tutoring, art academy, study rooms,  homework, homework, homework…..  And it’s not like what I experienced as a child, where I took a violin lesson once a week, or had a dance class once a week, maybe softball practice twice a week.  No, they do these things everyday during the week.

I feel very conflicted about being a part of the system that keeps these kids so busy.  It’s a struggle I have daily.

Kids fall asleep in my classes.  None of them want to.  It’s not like they are doing it because they are bored or disrespectful.  No, these kids DO NOT want to fall asleep in class.  I will watch them fight it and fight it and finally, they can’t stay awake anymore.   I let them sleep.  The other, awake kids will point it out to me because they know that a student shouldn’t sleep in class.  “Teacher, look.  Robin is sleeping.”  But, I’ve heard the stories of kids staying up until 2am to study for an exam.  I know they go non-stop every day.  I know they are legitimately tired.  So, I let them sleep.

The younger kids are antsy and chatty and disruptive.  And I know why.  By the time they get to me, they’ve already sat through a whole day of public school, and maybe a piano or violin lesson, or an hour or two at a study room.  And now they are sitting in a desk again.  I feel so torn because I know that in order to be an effective teacher, I have to keep the room under control.  I have to minimize distractions so that everyone can hear me and pay attention and learn.  I’m supposed to keep them from speaking Korean to each other (only English in English Academy!), and make them participate.  These are the things I am getting paid to do.   But, honestly, I want to let them chat and play and get up out of their chairs.  I want to be silly with them and laugh with them and let them have some fun.  I know their brains are tired and their bodies are ready to get out of a chair and DO something.

Usually the result of this internal battle is that I flip flop.  Over the course of the week or the day (and sometimes over the course of one class) I go from being a strict-ish teacher who is focused on teaching and learning, to being the fun teacher who lets them speak some Korean and get off topic and play a little.  I like being the latter kind of teacher.  I like laughing at things I shouldn’t laugh at.  I like singing along with them when they start singing the Korean pop song that I hear every time I go to the gym.  I like making faces and letting them draw on the board.  But then I feel conflicted.  Cassie, you are here to teach.  Whether or not you agree with the educational system doesn’t really matter. So, I flip flop.

For the most part, the kids seem incredibly resilient to the pressure to always study study study.  While it’s obvious that most of them do not want to come to english academy everyday, most of them seem like happy kids.  They smile and laugh a lot.  They play and joke around with each other.  When I ask the kids about their schedules, a lot of them don’t seem to think they are overworked.  Especially the younger kids; they seem to like doing lots of things.  (On the other hand, some of the older kids do think they are forced to study too much.  This is probably because as the kids get older, their after school activites change somewhat.  Most of the older kids have stopped going to tae-kwon-do and art academy….now they go to science academy, and math academy instead.)  So, then I wonder, is this a case of me imposing one of my cultural values onto another culture?  Are they really “over-working” their kids, or do we Americans under-work ours?  As I’m hearing about the kids schedules I’m thinking “when do they get a chance to just be kids?”  But, maybe the Korean standard of “getting to be a kid” is just different.  When I walk by playgrounds, there are kids playing…it’s not like they never get to play.  When I walk past arcade rooms, I usually see kids.  They seem to still find time for fun between the studying.  So, my mental battle goes on…I don’t really know what to think of the kids’ situation here in South Korea.  I don’t really know what my role should be in this educational system.   And, I imagine it will stay that way for the rest of the time that I’m here.  For the next 8 months, I am destined to be a flip flop.