Sunday, August 29, 2010


The movie Inception is all the rage.  It is a movie that blurs the lines of dream and reality and explores dreams within dreams.  I've seen it twice now.  Perhaps that movie, along with a novel which explores a similar theme, After Dark by H. Murakami, has influenced my perceptions.  Perhaps the simple fact of living in a different culture for one month is all it takes.  At any rate, every now and then I wonder if it is all a dream.

New routines have replaced old routines.  Rather than getting ready for school and driving alone 5 minutes to work in a car, now the family walks 5 minutes to be picked up by a school bus filled with 35 chattering staff and their kids for a 10 minute ride to school.  Rather than walk the halls of NDA listening to Carolyn's joyful laugh in the hall or popping in on Jean or Bob or Steven for a quick chat in the morning or between classes, I say goodbye to my husband at the teacher's lounge, ride an elevator to the fourth floor of the high school, and pop in to say hello to Helen or Brian, or Dow, or Karen.  Rather than eat my instant lunch in the teacher's lounge, laughing and chatting for 40 minutes, I go through the Western or Korean lunch line and sit in the cafeteria in the STAFF section next to my husband and others.   Instead of facing a room of 30 happy, energetic freshmen to discuss a lit survey curriculum for 45 minutes, I face a room of 21 focused juniors to discuss American Literature for 75 minutes.  Instead of a sea of blond hair, a sea of black hair.  Instead of prep time consumed with IB work :), my prep time (sometimes 150 minutes in a day) is filled with correcting papers or planning curriculum.

It has become routine to explore a new area of Seoul on Saturdays.  What did we used to do on Saturdays?  Often we'd find family events in the Green Bay area.  Green Bay was good about having different events at Shopko Hall or other venues to keep us entertained for a few hours.  Now our Saturdays are filled with all-day excursions.  This usually consists of 1 - 1.5 hours on public transportation to get to a new area to explore.  Over the weeks we've explored Lotte World (Disneyland-ish theme park), Itaewon (the World Village), the Grand Palace, and yesterday - Insa-dong.  (Note:  See previous posts for further details.)

Insa-dong is an area of the city north of the center of Seoul.  It is known for it's traditional shops along a walking district, street vendors, antique shops, and a myriad of art galleries.  We explored much of this during an on-off drizzle.  Then we probed further and had a snack at Top Cloud, a nice restaurant on the 33rd floor of a building which overlooks the city - tremendous view!  We also found a Buddhist Temple in the area where worshipers were praying and monks were chanting.  How fascinating!  The little shops in that area all had religious wares like tiny to huge Buddhas, lanterns, gray shoes and clothing for the monks and religious, etc. 

And Sundays?  Sundays have been the most difficult for me - to be drift-less without a church home and church community.  Sundays used to mean 2-3 hours at church for service and Sunday School and social time.  Then home to spend time with family and correct papers.  Until today, Sundays have been family time or group time at the playground on the apartment complex, maybe a trip to the store for more goods and correcting papers.  Today we finally made it to church!  The Director's family told us about the place they found and invited us along this week.  It is only about 10 minutes away by bus and an English speaking inter-denominational church with praise band and Baptist/Assemblies of God roots.  Several of the students from our new school attend there and the people are quite welcoming.  Our daughter sang with gusto and said "this isn't so bad," which is a good thing, considering her usual reluctance.  Afterward, the Director's family invited us to their home for lunch. 

So these new routines are replacing old ones, but I still have this nagging feeling that, like Bob Newhart, I'm going to "wake up" one day only to find it was all a dream.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Beginning to feel like home

Hello readers and friends,

It's beginning to feel like home.  Yet home is elsewhere, as well.  Paradoxical, I suppose. (My students like the phrase "a juxtaposition" and would use that here.)

Home because. . . well, frankly, because the fridge and pantry are finally full.  That and the fact that we have a few pictures of family up on the wall and around the apartment.  What a difference it makes to open up the refrigerator or the cupboards and be able to make a meal.  Other things are making it feel like home, too.  I'm getting used to the bus ride to school in the morning - all the chatter of fellow colleagues and our kids for the 10 minute ride.  I know several different routes to get to the bus now.  Also, if I need to get home on my own from school, I can do it.  I know how to use the appliances in the apartment (even though all the buttons are labeled in Korean).  Certain things are becoming routine - walking through certain subway stations to certain queues or certain exit gates to get on a certain bus to go home, for example.

AK Plaza - my spot of exploration today
Today I explored a little ON MY OWN.  Brent stayed at home with the kids.  We finally have a babysitter (an American student) so that we can go and see Inception.  I've been told by me seniors that it has similar overtones to a summer reading novel for AP Lit, After Dark (Murakami).  So I decided to scope out the theater we'd heard about, see if I could find it on my own, buy tickets, explore, and return home safely without any wrong turns.  And I did it!  Yeah for me!  How fabulous to travel by myself by bus, subway, and on foot (got my 10,000 steps in today).  It brought back long buried memories of France.  I'm sure it was because back in '89 I was on my own, too, riding the subway and exploring the big city of Paris.  Perhaps connecting something in the present to something in my past also helps this feel more like home.

6 hours later. . . 

Okay.  This strays from the usual ESSAY structure, but I'm going to do it anyway.  I'm going to entirely change the subject.


Freaky.  Wow.  Loved it.  Woah.  If you haven't seen it, go see it. Holy WAH!
And by the way, seeing a moving with Leonardo DiCaprio in it, in ENGLISH, and eating at BURGER KING afterward also contributes to the feeling of HOME.

Even so. . . I miss my friends back in GB.  More so today because I know they've begun returning to school and to the life I used to live.

Thinking of you all!


Saturday, August 14, 2010

First Impressions: My school

This post is for all my educator friends who are wondering about my new school in Korea.  Here are my first impressions with a whopping 3 days of teaching the students under my belt. . .

Frankly, so far I'm loving it.

That's good news, right, considering I traveled half way around the world to be here and to teach here.  I don't want to make blanket statements about international schools in general OR international schools in Korea OR schools in Korea, in general ; I don't think that would be fair.  So I'll keep my comments specific to the two weeks I've spent at my school and the three days I've spent with students.

As many of you know, I had been teaching at a private, Catholic high school in Wisconsin for 17 years.  I loved a lot of things about it - especially my colleagues and my students.  I think I will be able to say the same thing about this new school.

Many aspects are similar as far as the demographic is concerned.  Like my school in the US, families are primarily professional and wealthy and expect a solid education for their children.  Parents and students expect to go to excellent US colleges and universities when they are finished.   At my new school, the student population is almost entirely Korean with a few caucasians just to keep it "diverse."  I've told my students this is the exact opposite of my previous school, which is true.

Differences are that this school is K-12.  Emphasis is almost entirely on academics; it is hard to get students to go out for sports and stick with it all through high school.  The student population is primarily Korean by ethnicity; however, students have been born in either the US or Korea.  We have about 300 students in the high school versus 750.  But, whereas my previous school had about 45 teachers to service the 750 students, we have 35 teachers to service the 300.  More about that in a bit.

Here are the things that I have found pleasantly surprising about the students. . .
1.  They are so polite!  I've never had half of the students say "Good bye" or "have a nice weekend."  My husband even got a "Thanks for the great lesson today" comment.       . . . What???
2.  The students appreciate my sense of humor.  No, really! 
3.  The students are engaged in learning. I've always dreamed  of having rapt attention from my classes without having to keep reminding them to pay attention.  It happens here!  (Well, for three days, anyway.)
4.  The students are prepared for class.  You won't believe this, but the kids had summer reading AND summer writing.  And I mean serious writing!  The students had 3 books to read and about 3 or 4 pages of typed writing to do prior to school and due ON THE FIRST DAY!  All students were prepared.  That's right!  All students who had been enrolled on time brought their assignment with them on the first day of school.  CRAZY!

Here are the things that I have found pleasantly surprising about the staff and administration. . .
1.  The administrators have the teachers' backs.  They work to keep the class sizes down to no more than 20.  When a sizable influx of students enrolled the week school started, the principal apologized profusely to the entire high school staff that some of us would have to teach sections of 22.  (In my four sections I have a total of 70 students.)
2.  The staff are friendly and patient, going out of their way to help the new staff when we have questions.  They have a whole team of people at school designed to support staff both on AND OFF campus.
3.  The administration values professional development and field trips abroad.  The school prides itself on all of trips students make to various countries to further global citizenship.
 4.  The culture of the building is very inclusive and celebratory.  It's a healthy building!  Yeah!  We've already had 3 social gatherings - 1 on campus and 2 off campus.  One of the off campus gatherings was at a local establishment with a pool table, restaurant and bar area.  The school paid for all of the appetizers for the evening.  How cool is that?  And during the opening in-service, there were streamers and balloons dropped from the ceiling in celebration of their re-accreditation as a school!
5.  The staff is much more diverse than the student population.  We've got teachers from the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, China, and Korea.  We have teachers who have already taught in international schools around the world including Poland, Kuwait, and Tobago.

So, that is all of the amazing stuff.  There are some interesting things to adjust to, too.  For example, rather than getting after students about dress code violations, here we have "English only" violations.  So many students speak Korean at home that the school needs to monitor that English is spoken at all times.  As the school is pretty young, they still have a lot of work to do with putting effective policies and curriculum in place.  So, that means that we get to. . . (drum roll, please) work on scope and sequence aligning curriculum both vertically and horizontally (curriculum mapping) this year.  Woohoo!

Here's another interesting tidbit. . .
Wonder why the US is falling behind in educational statistics?  Well, in Korea, education is Number 1!  Students aren't working at Target to earn extra cash.  Instead, they are attending hogwon (night school) for extra education to "get ahead" and compete against other students to get into the best universities (which allow them access to the best jobs).  Many students even attend this "extra" school on Saturday.
Such a competitive view of education is likely a bit unhealthy, but the result is heaven for a teacher who has always dreamed of having a class full of driven students.  Now. . . to just get them interested in learning for learnings' sake.  (Right!)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

My Illiteracy

I know it may seem ironic for an English teacher to call herself illiterate, but that's the reality here in Korea.  This is what I'm learning about illiteracy.

It isn't fun or easy.  It is often frustrating.  It causes mistakes and mix-ups and it makes many things take longer than they should.  Here's what I mean.

My Korean speaking skills at present are VERY minimal, but better than anyone else in my family.  Therefore, when any sort of transaction needs to take place with a Korean-speaking national, I'm elected.  The bus stops are a particular place of enigma for us.  Much of the information at the bus stop is only in Korean.  Kindly, numbers are readable.  Buses are available on one side of the street going in one direction and the other side of the street going in the other direction.  Public transportation is wonderful here but you have to know certain things: where you are, where you want to go, the bus numbers that will take you there, the direction to go in.  Without the ability to read, we are at a bit of a loss.  What is the name of our bus stop?  How do we know the names of the bus stops that would be our destination?  How would we know when we have arrived? (for example).

The other day, as our troupe of KIS staff were waiting for our school bus at a public bus stop (as usual),  I decided to begin to figure this out.  I am getting a bit better on pronouncing the Korean letters and thought I would tackle the name of our bus stop as seen on the sign.  I spent a minute or two sounding it out (badly).  Ha- oon- dah - ee  Ah-paht.  Over and over.  Finally, the light went on.  Right below the bus stop name in small English letters was written Hyundai Apartments.  Hyundai!  That was the word I was trying to sound out!  So the bus stop name is Hyundai Apartments!  I did it!

However, it did take me a long time to read one little word, and the English translation was available.

Another fun little anecdote.  We were in Seoul at the Dunkin' Donuts with Sein.  Brent passed by a small clear pump/bottle.  Thinking it was hand sanitizer, he pumped some into his hand.  Turns out it was SYRUP.  Sein got a big kick out of that, and Brent got a sticky hand.

Let's talk about the market and grocery store.  As someone who is illiterate, I rely heavily on the pictures on containers, boxes, and bottles.  Since we are trying to set up our household, we need a lot of various cleaning supplies: toilet bowl cleaner, dishwasher soap, laundry soap, shampoo, conditioner, hand soap, kitchen cleaner, bathroom cleaner, floor cleaner.  Imagine going to Target to the cleanser section and seeking all these things only being able to use the pictures on the labels!  Got any questions?  You can't ask very easily.  Most people won't understand your English.  You could be creative and take a picture of a similar product and show someone, or go to a dictionary first and look it up and sound it out.  You could ask someone who is bi-lingual to tell you ahead of time, write it down and then ask someone.  You could do any number of creative and wonderful things, but none of them are easy or quick.

This is the world of the illiterate.

So, until my Korean gets better. . .

goo dah bah yee

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Seoul Train - still rolling

Okay, we didn't exactly take a train to Seoul, but I couldn't pass up the homonym (or whatever it is called).

July 31st found the Braykos making their way to Seoul in the first ever excursion as a family using public transit and venturing into the capital city of Seoul, a city of over 10 million and the fifth largest in the world.  We weren't quite sure where the busstop was, but eventually found it and headed on the red 5500 express bus to Seoul.  The trip was 45 minutes in.  It was airconditioned, clean, and packed.  The Koreans enjoy watching us and sometimes engage in conversation.  So that is fun.  We sailed past congested traffic in our very own express bus lane - sweet!

With a little help, we got off at the right stop - Seoul Station (the trains and subway comes into this spot, too, so it is HUGE).  We were so excited to finally see our exchange student, Sein, who proved to be a marvelous tour guide!  First stop - Dunkin' Donuts!  They're everywhere here.  Brent mistook a bottle of clear syrup for hand sanitizer :) (That's what happens when you can't read things.)

Next, Sein navigated us through the subway system, teaching us along the way how to use it.  We headed toward the Ancient Royal Palace called Gyeonbokgung in the heart of Seoul (  (the ancient surrounded by the modern skyscrapers and mountains).  I'll get some of my own pics in here eventually. . .  Unfortunately, it was still very hot and humid, which made touring a bit difficult for us and the kids, but we did okay.  We saw guards in traditional costume, heard the drums, walked the expansive grounds (back in the day the palace consisted of 330 buildings and had up to 3000 staff, including 140 eunuchs, all serving the royal family).  We saw the beautiful ponds and took our shoes off to go in the crowning room.  All this preserved and currently under restoration to its previous glory, in the center of Seoul.  What a contrast of old to new.  Alec was a bit grumpy and clingy and tired until we got him a map.  Then, suddenly, he became our tour guide, trying (and mostly succeeding) to read the map.  Very cute!

From there, subway again to a very traditional part of Seoul to their market called Gwangjang.  In this crowded length of street are many merchants selling inexpensive items like clothes, pottery, toys, stationery, food, etc. along with street vendors selling various food they make before your eyes.  Every now and then we would come across a street musician, one playing on his panpipe "Dust in the Wind."  Alec got his new toy, Tigress, a tiger that sings and dances (and entertained many-a-Korean on the subway trip home).  We watched the "show" as 3 young men made a candy sweet from honey and cornstarch, demonstrating in English.  They had great enthusiasm in their memorized show (much like going to Cold Stone Creamery) including  "Wow!", "Oh my God," and my favorite, "Jesus Christ!"

The highlight for me, however, was the very traditional Korean restaurant Sein found for us to experience bulgogi (Korean barbeque - NOT BBQ as a Wisconsinite would see it).    We weaved our way through an alley past tiny shops with garbage rotting outside the doors and entered what seemed to be an unmarked home with worn wood flooring, no air conditioning, and about 4 different rooms for customers to sit around a low table on cushions on the floor.  This place came highly recommended.  There were no other customers (hmmm).  We were awed by our experience that could only happen with a Korean "tour guide."  How would we ever find the place or know what to do or how to order, on our own?  Anyhow,  the five of us were seated at the low table just slightly bigger than your standard coffee table.  We got our cushions and made ourselves comfortable.  The wall paper was old and peeling and some young child (of the house many years ago, no doubt) had written on the walls!  Sein told us that the traditional restaurants are run out of the home; the proprietors live in the other part of the building and make the meals in their own kitchen.

Sein ordered bulgogi.

And then the most amazing thing happened.  Our hostess, a middle aged woman in a common house clothes, began to bring out food.  Side dishes, they are called.  Side dishes come with every Korean meal.  Side dishes and side dishes and side dishes.  Our whole table filled with side dishes until there was no more room.  Pretty soon she brought each of us a bowl of white rice (no room for that).  Next she brought out the meat - sizzling beef strips on a platter, enough for all 5 of us.  That and water, water, and more water (as it was hot and humid), and a little Soju (watered down vodka-type drink).  And so we began to eat.  And try.  Taste and marvel at all of the various flavors and colors and textures.  Sein would describe each dish and what it was made from and perhaps its history in the culture.  We ate kimchi, cucumbers the shape of pickles prepared like kimchi, seaweed, a seaweed-filled soup that tasted like sweet and sour. Also stringed potatoes- crunchy and strong, a tofu-ish thing, boiled cabbage (Anna likes that) and lettuce leaves (to serve as the "taco shell" - lettuce, rice, meat and bean paste).  Near the end a soup made of water and overly cooked rice (yuck), this being a traditional dish made from these ingredients because the poor families needed to use the crusty rice from the pot.  Then a sweet drink- also with rice.  Looked like the bottom of the dishwater with floating and sinking rice in it, but sugary sweet.  More later. . . .