Sunday, June 23, 2013, Caffe Bene, Gyeongju, South Korea, 5:03 PM

I know my last post was mostly of a negative nature. But today I am doing much better. I had a much needed good night’s sleep, and spent some fun time with my host sisters. 


It was around 11:00 PM last night, and my host sisters were taking a quick study break and eating snacks and they invited me to join them. Hejoo and I talked about classes while Youngjoo, hyped up on energy, danced around and randomly did jumping jacks. She joined me an Heejoo and gleefully told us she wanted to try and put as many cherry tomatoes in her mouth as she could. I laughed along with them but paid very close attention to the proceedings, ready to administer the Heimlich if needed. But she did not choke thankfully. Amazingly she fit 10 cherry tomatoes in her mouth. I don’t care who you are. That takes skill. And a big mouth.


Youngjoo still had a bunch of energy, so I decided to teach her how to do squats. We did some together, and she calmed down very quickly after that. 


Last week, Mrs. Go revealed to me that this Friday I will give a going away speech. In Korean. As can be imagined by my Korean level I panicked and texted Dowon, my Korean friend on the spot. Dowon actually translates things, usually from Korean to English, for a living, so I thought more than anyone I know she would be able to help me. Through texts I begged for help, and amazingly she was extremely kind about it. I sent her a short speech in English, and just a few hours later, she sent it back to me in Korean. Yay for resourcefulness. Anyway, even though I have the speech in Korean, that is just half the battle. I am very out of practice with reading Hangul, the Korean alphabet. I can do little parts at a time, like names, but reading full sentences is very difficult for me. 


So last night I brought out my speech and practiced it in front of my host sisters. I only got through two sentences before I noticed a look of clear sympathy on Heejoo’s face. “Is it really that bad?” I asked her.


Her response was to take my speech out of my hands. “I will write down the pronunciation in English for you.” So yes. Yes it was. “Thank you,” I replied. 


In my post yesterday I did talk about doing performance assessments I have been doing, and discussed the hard aspects of it, but there are positive sides. When I am actually alert and not about to descend in sluggish lethargy, it is very interesting listening to my students responses to my questions. 

One of my questions has been “What does your best friend look like?” I have gotten some variegated responses, including some very negative ones like “Ugly!” or “Fat!” One of my favorite responses has been, “My best friend looks like a person.” But the best one has to be when a third year student said, “My best friend looks freaky.” 


I ask my low level students very simple questions, like “what is your name?” and “How old are you?” etc, but with my high level students I ask more interesting questions that allow them to show their personality. One question I asked was “What do you think is more important, money or happiness? One of my students just blew me away. She replied “Happiness,” and proceeded to tell me what she said was a true story about a woman who got rich but was never happy and ended up committing suicide. On the outside I smiled at her and gave her a high five. On the inside I was going daaaammmmnnnn. . 


Probably the question that has elicited the most interesting answers is my question of “What is one difference between Korea and America?” Obviously, most of my students commented about language, and food. Some talked about clothing, chopsticks vs. forks. I’m amazed only two said Korea is much smaller than America. About ten students, including Youngjoo, my host sister, gave an answer that I did not expect at all. Their answer was some version of “America is more free than Korea.” 


When an American hears about freedom, the first thing we think of is political freedom, because that is a big part of our historical identity, but after questioning these students a little bit, I realized they were talking about social freedom, mostly about schools. About the fact that they are required to study so much more than American students, and really don’t have any free time. They don’t really have time to be kids, although I know that argument could be easily ripped apart because historically speaking, the idea of childhood is very recent. 


I have heard from multiple sources and seen with my own eyes that while economically and politically Korea is on par if not ahead of America, in terms of social aspects, Korea is about fifty years behind. Although that is a gross simplification, and I am very aware that America has its own social problems to worry about. But this is not the time nor the place for me to rant about those issues. My family reads this after all. They can read about that in my facebook posts.  


Anyway, when you know that Korea is a developed country, you have these expectations of a country that is more or less like America. Then you travel here, and you realize just how different it is. There are a lot of reasons. The main of which Korea’s Confucius background. Also, probably Korea’s history. They brought themselves out of a horrible depression in the 1950’s. That work ethic that gave Korea prosperity still very much exists. Sadly, it was a very “The ends justify the means” mentality. The political agenda at the time was let’s deal with the economy first, and worry about everything else later.  Interestingly, the daughter of the President who created that agenda (I can’t remember his name) is now President, Pak Jun Hee.


However, as that mentality withers away with growing generations, and as Korea continues having exposure to foreign countries (like through Fulbright, for example) I believe Korea’s less than free society will start to experience rapid change. I would even go as far as predicting at some point it might even eclipse American social progress. As Korea is much smaller, it is much more politically expedient. And let’s just face it, the turmoil that the American congress is in is not going to change any time soon. Where is Henry Clay when  you need him, seriously? 


At the same time, people are predicting that the economic tiger of Korea is slowing. The growing economy here has already started plateauing with the world recession. It appears as if economically speaking Korea is headed in the foot steps of Japan. Minus an Earthquake. Japan kind of acts as a barrier for Korea, meaning Japan is the country that gets all the bad typhoons and earthquakes. As Koreans would say, Fighting! 


I think I’m just rambling now, but I am in a good mood. Oh, here are some other funny things my students have been doing lately. All throughout my grant year, my students have given me food. Pieces of chocolate, handfulls of chips, so on and so forth. However, they have always been small parts of their own snacks. It wasn’t until I started performance assessments that I received two full candy bars, and a pop sickle. I was very grateful, and enjoyed them immensely, but I definitely questioned the timing with detached suspicion.


Oh, and there was an incredible moment when one of my first years came into my classroom and said “Hello Moto.” I was like “How do you know about that? Were you even alive when those commercials were on?” Just goes to show that my students are awesome.  


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