“Don’t pick flowers,” was the immediate response when my first grade students were asked recently to imagine that our class had been whisked away from our room in Ilsan, South Korea and plopped down on an isolated island with the challenge of governing ourselves. “Don’t pick flowers,” was among the first must-have laws. Our white board was soon overflowing with edicts like, “Don’t catch whales or animals, except cows,” “Pick a president, then be nice to them,” and “Love the nature.” How simple it is to bring law and order to a society. Others included:
Don’t pollute nature or the sea.
Stay away from strangers.
Don’t go to dangerous places.
Don’t go too far from the group.
Don’t say bad words.
Don’t kill animals. Eat rice, fruit, or vegetables.
Hearing amusing thoughts in the classroom is standard practice when you spend each day hanging out with kids. There’s rarely a week that goes by without hearing something that makes me scramble for a pen so I can recount it later. Maybe the heaps of holiday candy went to their heads, maybe all their witty English thoughts piled up in their young brains without an outlet, but this week, the first back since Christmas, the priceless snippets numbered too many to count. There was the first grader who curiously queried, “Teacher, does your mother have any children?” and met the giggles that followed with a look of confusion, and I can hardly leave out that this student’s name just happens to be Macqueen.
Even though all our kids obviously have Korean names, I couldn’t tell you what they are. They adopt names that are friendly to the English speaker, like Alice and John, at school. While parents or older siblings pick out names for some of the students, many choose their own. When a five year old gets to christen himself, it should come as no surprise that some interesting choices appear on the attendance sheet. While the names Eagle and Bright make me smile, the name Macqueen has to be my favorite. If you were wondering where a child would ever get the inspiration to name themselves Maqueen, you obviously haven’t seen the 2006 Pixar movie, Cars, with the lovable main character aptly named after Steve Mcqueen, an actor whose name and its accurate spelling are at least 50 years off this kid’s radar.
Then there was the third grade student who explained that she was previously absent from overindulging in rice cakes while mimicking vomit noises. That was followed by a conversation about the practicality of dispersing a message in a bottle by throwing it in a body of water when you could save yourself some time and just flush it down the toilet. And how could I forget the third grade student who innocently raised her hand to announce that she searched my name on the Internet and found a picture of me behind bars in prison (a claim I was confident was not true, but checked nonetheless, just to be sure).
All of these were drops in the bucket of pithy witticisms compared to the resounding kerplunk of a conversation I had with a fourth grade student about a teacher’s absence. A co-worker came down with a case of the flu and had to end the day early. Two fourth grade classes were combined to accommodate. When I explained to the class why, one of the students crossed his arms over his chest and gave me a skeptical glance, as if to say, “You really expect us to buy that?”
“Um, Teacher,” he said, “I don’t believe you.”
“Oh?” I said.
“No, I think really he ate too many soju.”
I tried to expertly sweep in and put this subversion to rest, but to no avail. Truth be told, I may have inadvertently threw an ample amount of fuel on the growing fire, as the whole class was now jumping on board the soju conspiracy theory train. When the student persistently continued, “Really, he ate too many alcohol,” the grammar stickler inside me couldn’t be restrained. I had to reply, “It’s drink too much alcohol, not too many.” Perhaps this would have been a good time to forgo the grammar lesson as the student promptly took this as confirmation that in fact his theory was right all along.
“So, not soju, then what was it? Beer? Makgeoli? Wine? What kind of alcohol does he drink? Huh?” he insisted, throwing a barrage of heated questions my way like a good detective in a bad movie. You have to give the kid credit for a sturdy commitment to the truth. I admit my grammar correction lacked timing and foresight, but as Mr. Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”
After a week spent in the crunchy snow and shiver-inducing temperatures of the Midwest, my winter boots got plenty of use. When it came to packing them for my trip back to Goyang, South Korea, I nearly left them behind, thinking of the snowless streets I had left behind only days earlier. Over-packer that I am, I jammed them in my suitcase just to be safe, and by Monday, I was glad to have them. Christmas day brought a light dusting of snow, leaving about 2 inches of packed powder to derail my rolling suitcase on the sidewalks, but little more than that. As I woke up, jet-lagged and groggy, on Monday, I looked out the window and thought, “Is it snowing?” And snowing it was. A lot. And the flakes didn’t just make an appearance in the morning, but consistently fell in a white flurry all throughout the day. Continue reading “Snow Day in Ilsan”
All the students at school would like to wish you a Very Merry…Thanksgiving! I admit I’m a bit late with this sentiment, as that day of family feasting is likely fading in some people’s memories as Christmas approaches, but the kids are as cute as they were a month ago, so don’t be deterred.
Of course they needed a little prompting to shout, “Happy Thanksgiving,” for the waiting camera, but you may be surprised by just how much they understand about the holiday and its history. The video may not show it, but my first grade students can even rattle off the name William Bradford and spout off a fact or two on the Wampanoag Indian tribe. I suspect that is more than I could say at their age.
Do you ever wake up in the morning, pour some milk into a bowl of cereal, and think, “Hmm, I wonder what on Earth children in South Korea eat for breakfast?” Find the responses to this query and plenty of other questions about the daily life of a student in South Korea in this video created by fellow teacher Seth Mattern.
Seth is a certified educator in the United States, and after the logistics of international pen-pal projects and video exchanges proved too messy, he created this website with another teacher in Colorado as a convenient forum for cultural exchange between students the world over.
In addition to this, which I imagine is only the first of many videos to be posted in the future, poke around the website to read some essays by both Korean and American students, and responding comments. If you’re an educator anywhere in the world, and are interested in participating in the site, just send an e-mail and I would be thrilled to put you in touch with the appropriate people. Even if you’re not an educator, I know the kids would love to read any comments and answer any questions you may have.
These students are in fourth and fifth grade and recorded this around 8:00 at night, since they stay at our school until 9. You’ll find that later nights and longer hours spent in schools of all varieties are not the only differences between Korean and North American students. And as for breakfast in Korea, I’ll let the kids speak for themselves, but I suspect many will be surprised by their answers. Enjoy!
If you thought that after two blog posts and a stream of photos, there was nothing more to be said, read, or heard from our encounters at the Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan, think again. Our friends Anna and Andre, both fellow foodies, travelers, and teachers over at Seoulful Adventures recently published a video from our prawn lunch. While the Pusan International Film Festival brought us to Busan, the Jagalchi Fish Market captured our attention and the held it. The Jagalchi Fish Market sprawls beside the water with an array of marine creatures so broad, even the pickiest sea food eater’s appetite should be appeased.
Our lunch in a humble port side restaurant within ear’s reach of fishmongers gave new meaning to the word fresh. We’ve grown accustomed to raw protein cooked over a stove at the table, but meat does not usually reach us in any condition to move around in the pan. Undoubtedly alive upon delivery, the shrimp we ordered for lunch retained their capacity to move, and move they did. I could list every synonym for jump, wriggle, scurry, writhe, and twitch in the thesaurus, but this is a moment best watched. Thanks to Anna and Andre for the video (video by Anna Waigand, videography by Andre Francisco). To check out their take on the meal, and a slew of other interesting stories.
As Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Seoul approaches, and bilateral talks between North Korea and the U.S. are in the works, it would seem the winds are shifting towards increased diplomacy. An incident today between North and South Korean naval bodies suggests otherwise, as the two countries exchanged gunfire for the first time in seven years.
“North and South Korean naval vessels exchanged fire in disputed waters off the western coast of the Korean Peninsula on Tuesday, leaving one North Korean vessel engulfed in flames, South Korean officials said.”
Considering the magnitude a few shots could have between these two countries, especially when North Korean vessels cross borders they contest, but the majority of the international community respects, the day unfolded normally. The attack occurred before school began, and not one student or co-worker brought it up. Civil defense sirens did not ring in the streets, pausing cars at the curb (something that actually has happened in the time I’ve been here as a drill) as aircraft fly overhead. As volatile as our newly assumed neighbors to the north are, the South’s steadiness is comforting. When the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issues the statement that, “We are fully prepared for further provocations from the North Korean military,” there’s little doubt that South Korea does not train every able male countrywide solely in the name of male bonding. I suspect the calm of the streets will continue. We shall see just how “conciliatory” North Korea is feeling.
Saturday Morning Sights and Oh-My-Goodness Smells of Busan
There is something surreal about emerging from the underground isolation of a subway station into the open air of a new place. Our first Saturday morning steps out of the station and onto one of Busan’s humming city streets were no exception. But this wasn’t just any subway stop in Busan. This stop, I knew, led to one of East Asia’s largest fish markets among the city’s top attractions. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the sights, sounds, and oh-my-goodness, smells of the Jagalchi Fish Market. Continue reading “No Doubt About It: Something is Definitely Fishy in Busan”