Joaquin's got a kinda Grizzly Adams/Allen Ginsberg thing going on these days. I don't know what he's actually up to -- if he's preparing for a character, if he's just tired of the Hollywood bullshit, or if he's actually just fucking off his head on something, but it's alright with me. And Letterman deserves every ounce of disdain he responds with.
Another little thing I came across that I thought was interesting is this article about anti-corruption classes being taught in Indonesian schools. I think it's a really interesting, progressive and proactive approach Indonesia has found to deal with an intrinsic problem. It's not often you see education that's based around making students feel like trusted individuals, rather than condescension or distanced lecturing. If only someone could find a way to construct similar solutions to the mess that is English education here in the ROK. It's not for a lack of trying.
But the more I learn about Korean, the more it becomes clear to me just how difficult it must be to transition from Korean to English. It's one thing for me to drop a lot of the concepts we have in English -- all of the millions (or so it seems) tenses, etc. (which I expect to struggle with quite a bit, once I start actually trying to speak Korean on a conversational level -- I should imagine it's quite frustrating in that sense, but for the time being, for survival Korean, it seems much simpler). It's another thing entirely to have whole new concepts that don't even exist in your language thrown at you while you're also trying to master Korean, science, math, history, etc. With languages like Spanish and French, from English, it's just simple translation and a little bit of reordering. But all of the main parts are the same.
I'm still a grumpy little bunny about the banal rote memorization portion of learning this language, though, as much as I'm eating up all of the structural differences. My coworkers spent the day casting sympathetic glances in my direction as I sunk further and further down in my chair with my Korean book spread open in front of me. They are impressed with the simplest things, which a lot of expats find condescending, but I soak it all up, being the big dummy that I am. That's right. I can ask you, "What is this?" now. I'm immense. Thanks for noticing.
Mostly they just seem touched on a really personal level that they can see me putting so much effort into it. A lot of people think that's silly, but I don't see why they shouldn't be -- my main motivation is to be able to have actual interaction with the people around me (them). I've noticed that (as in the conversation yesterday) as soon as they realize I'm trying to learn Korean, they immediately shift to a way of thinking that suggests someday I might actually belong (to some extent) in this society. I don't even actually speak any Korean yet, but they are already counting me in. It's nice.
I'm really embarrassed about how long it has taken me to get really serious about this. I was telling Mike last night over dinner, four months just seems so.... big. Two months, three months -- okay, you're still a baby. But to have been here for four months and still be operating almost exclusively in English really embarrasses me. I was looking today for alternative classes to take in case for some reason the one I've found doesn't work out, or even possibly simultaneously to speed up the process, or make it more thorough. It's shockingly difficult to find free Korean classes -- or not so shocking, I guess, when you think about it. I'm used to the U.S. and their English only policies, their wealth of immigrants from every imaginable background. As far as I know, nearly every major public school system in the U.S. offers some kind of ESL training (mostly geared toward the parents of immigrant or first generation students). English classes are everywhere. But I have to remember how rare we foreigners still are here in the ROK, and of that small pool, how few are really willing to take to the task of learning Korean with any kind of seriousness. If you took all of the immigrants here in Incheon who are interested in really learning Korean, we'd probably make up only one decent sized program.
When I was sitting at the coffee shop earlier this week, studying, a shadow appeared over my left shoulder, followed by two small hands holding a napkin with writing on it. I turned to see a younger Korean girl standing there, looking down at her feet. I took the napkin with both hands and, as I looked down to read it, she returned to her table with a friend. The napkin was a note saying how she was studying English, that she may be moving to the U.S. next year, and she would like my advice, if I would be kind enough to give it.
I turned in my seat and said hello, and, when I was greeted with kind smiles, moved over to their table. The looks on the faces of everyone else in the coffee shop were absolutely priceless.
I ended up moving to their table permanently, and we sat talking about English and Korean until almost ten o'clock. They're quite young -- 20, 21 in Korean age. Both employees of Incheon Airport, with no money or time to study English formally. What really got me was how eager they were to help me with Korean, even if they were just explaining simple things I already know.
They told me pronunciation is not as important in Korean as I've been led to believe by others, but I was already coming to that conclusion by now having the advantage of being able to listen in on Korean all day long. Now that I can make out quite a bit, I can hear the differences between how my book teaches me to say things and how they come out in daily conversation, which has been a huge help. They said the little Korean I was brave enough to speak to them sounded shockingly natural (they deal with foreigners all day long every day, working in the airport, and say it's always strange how formal and over-pronounced foreigner Korean is). The key is learning what can be mispronounced, and in what way, I think. The other thing I'm able to pick up from eavesdropping all day that probably helps a lot is tone and intonation.
Which all gives me a lot more faith that what I'm doing here might be helping on some level, at least a little. It sounds ridiculous, but I'm learning first hand what a difference it makes to hear a native speaker speak the language you're learning.
A lot of things are going to be changing at my school this coming year -- I think, for the better. First of all, the new English Zone has two class rooms separated by glass windows. Coteacher has been ridiculously cozy with me lately (don't know what's brought it on) and has gone from being very insistent that I shouldn't have any say in just about anything, to outright admitting that she feels very lost and confused in her profession, and asking constantly what I think is best. I've told her time and again that I don't know my ass from my elbow in second language education yet (paraphrased), and am very much looking to her as an elder. But she now insists that we are in this together.
We've decided the best route to follow this year will be dividing our classes into two -- high and low. I will take one half and she, the other, so that we will have time to work with smaller groups. Our class sizes will apparently be extending beyond 40 this year, up to 45 and possibly even 50. That's atrocious. And made all the worse by the fact that I'm fresh out of winter camps, where I learned first-hand what a difference smaller class sizes make to a conducive learning environment. Ten kids? Piece of piss. I basically just show up the kids are learning at least something. 50? Fuck off. There's no way in hell they're going to get anything out of that.
The bad news is that we are losing not only Mr. K, but also Cute Coteacher and possibly another English teacher. We will have three temporary teachers in this year. I have no idea what to expect from that. I guess it all really depends on who we end up with. It'll be nice not to be the youngblood anymore, though.
More than anything though, at the moment, I'm terrified of these new little ones coming in. Sixth graders are notorious for being THE most difficult group to teach, and I'll have them fresh out. They say the key is to play the hardass from day one and then slowly loosen the reins, but I have no idea how to be a hardass. Maybe I should invest in a stick, after all (strictly for desk-banging purposes, of course). It's also hard to be a hardass when you need the little fuckers to talk.
I'll have Coteacher helping with the first graders this year, though, and she is the ultimate hardass. So maybe it'll be alright. She said it's going to be cool next year, because the way the classrooms are designed, we will face each other through the glass windows while we are teaching.
One more small aside: I think going to Europe really helped shift my perspective about being in South Korea. Like I have said many times before, I really missed it while I was away. I told one of Iva's friends while we were walking one night, although I am very much and obviously a foreigner in Korea, there is a sense, within my school definitely, both students and teachers, and also even with the little shop owners I encounter regularly, that I am their foreigner. It's one of the upsides of being so conspicuous here. While there is still the annoying habit of everyone feeling whatever about having to speak English for the waegookin, there is still a sense of ownership, of something close to pride. And after spending two weeks around other foreign languages, in other foreign countries, getting to that airport gate and being surrounded by Koreans -- the now-familiar sights, sounds and smells -- well, it was truly like coming home.
Even though I stand in stark contrast to the homogeneous society here, there is still something comforting in that homogeneous society even for me -- the way certain gestures, noises, postures, etc have become so much a part of my daily life that they feel almost natural to be around. I can definitely understand why some people freak out when they go back home. I definitely expect to suffer far more from reverse culture shock than I have from culture shock in the first place.
And as I've been saying to Mike, I'm starting to gain a strange affection for even the one thousand little annoying things that are different and confusing to me about Korea and Korean culture. Big, gaping third-world puddles in the middle of the office floor that no one seems to feel the need to do anything about, while in the meantime everyone's walking around dressed as if they're attending a fashion show or a gala dinner? Funny. Endearing, even. Leaving all of the windows open in the dead of winter while the heater's running and constantly exclaiming "Chu-wah!" .... well, that one I'm not quite over yet, but I can see the humor at least. People running around all over the place, constantly in a rush, while in the meantime everyone's always late (leave five minutes earlier!). Bizarre comments about how the tables in a Western restaurant are awkwardly high because Westerners (of which you are the only one present, on the entire premises) have longer torsos (which is a standard you apparently don't meet, given that you're having trouble reaching your straw without getting on your knees). The constant urge to draw you into some sort of a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. It's all just sort of... cute... if you look at it from the right angle.
I guess falling in love with a place really is like falling in love with a person. It sneaks up on you, and before you know it, you're making excuses for every possible noticeable fault.
Well, that's enough of that boring nonsense. Now maybe a little nap before Magsy comes over. You are still planning on coming, aren't you? Eh?