A Year in Seoul - video by Maddy

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I'm a Barbie Girl in a Korean World

I'm just starting to settle into my new life. I've bought a toothbrush to keep at work so I can join in on the after lunch tooth brushing ritual, which, I must say, is heavenly. I've found the world's spiciest green onion kimchi at the supermarket and learned to cook some damn good tofu/seaweed/lettuce wraps. I've begun to pick out personality types at school even without language. I know the "saucy secretary", the "popular girls", and the "vice principal who actually runs the world" among many others. I have my T Money card for the subway and plenty of cutesy animal key chains on my key ring. I have even started to approve of the whole indoor shoe thing.

Tomorrow is Friday again and I'm not sure where the week has gone. Wednesday was Parents Day, so the school was flooded with proud mamas and papas and the teachers were on full alert. Luckily for me no parents observed English class. In fact, I only had my first two classes because the kids had to be elsewhere. My only duty was to appear on the school broadcast and smile then bow when the principal introduced me. At the time, I had no idea what he was saying, but I later found out that I am "Brittany, our very beautiful teacher." It turns out, in Korea this is the number one qualification for an English teacher. Nobody wants to talk about your resume, you are really just for show and tell (except maybe the school handyman who has apparently read through all my application materials). My friends and I spent our first days at school being gushed over, and I can't say that I minded. I especially like the fourth grade boys who call me "pretty teacher." I am totally not above being flattered by nine year olds.

In the afternoon I was really cranky because it was an hour past the normal lunch period and no one had told me when I was going to eat. Normally there is delicious Korean food waiting for me at noon, but the teacher's room was locked. Then my co-teacher came and informed me I had to fork over 20,000 won for a mysterious "first period teachers meeting". After some hard core questioning I found out that it's a community pot used for special lunches and tea between some of the teachers on my floor.

We headed to one of the other classrooms and there was a really nice lunch waiting that had been specially ordered. I ate with three other female teachers and one male teacher. I didn't understand a word they said, which was much more awkward in such a small group. I definitely knew when they were talking about me though, because they would all turn and look at me with amused expressions. The male teacher was impressed with my eating. He said, "You like Korean food! You have been to Korea before!" Koreans love it when you eat, especially if you are eating kimchi. There are always several community plates to eat off of in addition to your actual meal, and I've noticed that they eat a lot here. They also eat extremely quickly. I am definitely what people at home consider a fast eater, but I can barely keep up here. Lunch is a ten minute affair.

After finishing I sat awkwardly during more Korean talk and had a cup of coffee and something they were very eager for me to try which they called a "flour cake." They passed me a tray of small round cookies in different colors and I chose a green one hoping it would be green tea flavored. It tasted like crumbly sugar cookie dough. Desserts are always just sickeningly sweet sugar bombs in Asia. Luckily they are also tiny.

Later I learned that English Club would be starting up next week so my afternoons were about to get busier. I had to choose my own textbook at the bookstore and come up with a curriculum for the Spring semester. I'm going to have two classes with four students in each, and then one combined class every week. The small size means we can do a lot of fun activities, so I'm really excited. It's also nice to be able to plan my own lessons instead of using the boring national curriculum and it will be good experience. This year the club is for low income students who can't afford English tutors. In Korea, it is very competitive and standardized tests basically determine your entire future. Families with money spend a lot of it getting their children extra classes and the other kids unfortunately get left in the dust. Korean kids work hard! They are in some type of class from morning to night.

All in all, it's been a good week. One of the highlights was overhearing an extra class my co-teacher was teaching this afternoon. She taught the kids the song "Barbie Girl," which, if you've heard the lyrics, is completely inappropriate for sixth graders... "I'm a blonde bimbo.... kiss me here touch me there hanky panky..." She definitely had no idea what she was teaching them and those sixth grade boys certainly go into it.

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