Sunday, 20 December 2009

School Festival

I was helping a student after school last week (being the end of the year, school ends after lunch), when an announcement by the Principal came on the intercom. The student looked very excited and told me that there would be a festival at 2 o'clock with music and traditional dancing. She asked if I wanted to go with her, so we headed up to the auditorium on the 5th floor at about ten to 2.

It was a bit of a surprise walking in, because teachers were handed big brown envelops on the way in, and there wasn't another student in sight. I figured this was because most of them had gone home at 1 anyway. At 2 the principal was introduced and he walked up to the podium.

My student didn't translate too much for me as he was speaking, but what she did tell me was that he made a joke about underwear, remarked that only female teachers were in attendance (about 20-25 of us, but no men), and explained that children should spend more time at the library.

At 2:20, the two of us were starting to get a little stir crazy. This was quite a long introduction for a festival. Several of the teachers were reading a packet of paper that was in their brown envelop. At 2:30 my student looked a little crestfallen and told me that she hoped the dancing would start soon, because she had to leave at 3. At 2:55 she hopped out of her chair and left. At 3 the principal ended his speech, and I thought surely the festival would be starting, so I stuck around. Mrs. Shim, who came in after me and sat behind me sat next to me and asked how I knew about this. I told her my student told me about the festival.

The vice principal now took the podium, and Mrs. Shim pulled out a 16-slide PowerPoint printout from her brown packet. I sat through another Korean speech until 3:40, of which the only translation I got from Mrs. Shim was that walking is good fro your health.

As the vice principal left the podium, Mrs. Shim informed me there would be a student performance, and although she was going to leave, would I like to stay? I can't help but wonder what she thought I was doing there if not to watch a performance. Indeed, I stayed.

This is how I saw it, keeping in mind that I haven't yet seen a mask dance before this or had their meanings explained to me.

(The pictures are from my cell phone, so they aren't perfect)

A line of students enter with drums and gongs, playing in the traditional Samulnori style. They stand in the back for the duration of the performance as the musical accompaniment to each dance. Behind them enter another line of students, all in the dress and character persona's from the Hahoe mask dances so famous to Andong. After a group dance, they all leave, with only the Butcher character remaining for his (although a 6th grade girl was behind his mask) dance.

Enter the bull (controlled by two very coordinated students in its body). It charges the Butcher, who finally fells the beast with his stone axe after several blows to the head. After a song to accompany the sharpening of his dagger, he plunges it repeatedly into the bull, and pulls from it a heart and a pair of giant testicles that the Butcher holds up with a mighty proclamation to the audience.


After the Butcher's exit, the Widow enters and dances, then falls upon her knees and sends up a very haunting cry. After this, she stands up and starts taking a collection of money from the audience. With a handful of won, her dance becomes a bit more lively and she shuffles away.

The rest come out soon after, and their dances were a bit more difficult to interpret. The Servant and the Fool first have a bit of a scuffle do to the laziness of the later, and then the Monk, Scholar, Aristocrat, Flirtatious, and soon after, the Butcher, follow them on in a group dance with several changes of pairings.

It ends when the Aristocrat and (I think) the Scholar get into an argument over the possession of the bull testicles that leads up to a tug of war. The Widow finally takes charge of resolution, holding them up and shaking them in the faces of the two who have taken separate sides of the floor, and then ends up keeping them herself.

After one final group dance and a short Samulnori performance, the students all come out and take their masks off for a bow. All but one is a girl. I'm glad that I stayed, because I haven't had the chance to see student work outside of English class first hand until then. Elementary school performances are certainly very different back home, where about this time we'd be putting on Christmas recitals.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Losing Daylight

Of all the things I knew I'd miss when I left America, I hadn't counted on Daylight Savings Time being on the list. My co-teachers said that Koreans tried using it back in the 80's, but it never caught on so they cut it. I can't imagine why. When I get out of work at 4:40 every day, the sun is already out of sight. By about a quarter after 5, it's black. That means all of my daylight hours are spent at work, and no matter how exhausted I am on Friday night I can't allow myself to sleep too late on Saturday. At least school is ending so I have less to stress about. I already thought of winter as a cold dark season, but it's far darker without that extra hour.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Ondol

One of the great things about Korea is its floor heating system, call the ondol. Although it's not always standard to have a heater, every apartment will have an ondol. They are also common at restaurants where you sit on the floor. Our apartment has two, for half sections of our floor. Each section has it's own control panel on the wall by our front door. I suppose this would be handy if we slept on the floor, cutting the heating cost so that only the sleeping area would be hot at night.

Ours actually doesn't get that hot, because our building was set up to be energy efficient and environmentally friendly, so it starts storing energy during the day and only gets warm at night. With the windows close, it does help to warm the apartment gradually. As we have a western style bed, we don't have much use for it when we sleep. However, there are other ways to benefit from this system. I've found that laying my clothes for work in the morning out on the floor results in the same joy as wrapping up in a blanket fresh out of the dryer. Also, the space and concrete support needed for the ondol keeps apartments from having those paper-thin barriers between the floors; something I would have loved in college.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

My Schedule

Now might be a good time to talk a bit more about my schedule lately.

A few of the things I mention are in an article Bonnie (another fellow teacher and friend) and I wrote for Andong in the EPIK Newsletter. You can find it here (click on "Gyeongbuk" and Scroll down to "Andong Teacher's Give Back"):
Unfortunately, they forgot to put Bonnie's name on the article, so it only has my name listed. She wrote the first part about the teacher's class, and I wrote about Korean class and martial arts.

Outside of school, which I'm at from 8:40-4:40, I have acquired a very active schedule in the evenings. Here is the breakdown:

Hapkido: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday.

(Above photo by Andrew, with Helen in the background and our Hapkido master on the left. Usually everyone's in uniform, but this was from a pretty laid back, small class day.)

Depending on what other things I have going on, I go from 6:45-7:45 or 8-9. It costs us 80,000 won a month (around $75). Scott and I joined up soon after our friends Andrew and Helen mentioned going about two months ago, though Andrew's knee incident put him on a month long hiatus. Hapkido is a form of martial arts that is sometimes referred to as kickboxing, developed in Korea (although they're most well known for Taekwondo). I love it, and it fills the empty hole that horseback riding filled in my weekly exercise routine. It's helping a lot more with my flexibility, which is nice after spending the second half of school cramped in a chair.

Our Hapkido studio is about a 10 minute bus ride from our home, and although we learned later there was one near my school, we wouldn't dream of switching. Not that it wouldn't be fun to spar with my students, but I would hate for a 4th grader to take me down. Plus, our Hapkido master is quite possibly one of the friendliest people in the country. He doesn't speak very much English, but it doesn't make a difference. As with most things in the country, we understand through body language, and this is the best example of that. We mimic him, and when we misunderstand a certain kick or take down move, he steps in and holds our leg or arm in the proper position, or shows us exactly which pressure point or sensitive area or the arm or leg we are aiming for. No further explanation needed. Ouch. A lot of the things that we do are in a line (rolls, flips, pad kicks, etc), so as long as we don't start, it's pretty easy to pick up on.

Poker: Wednesday, 8:30-12am.

Another hobby I picked up since I've been in Korea is poker. Ironic, considering how it's illegal for Koreans to gamble and I should choose to learn how to do it in their country. (picture taken on my phone- a bit blurry and dark)

After Hapkido we all meet up downtown and head to Andrew's apartment. He has a little side room, like a sun room with wall-sized windows, which is the perfect size for a table and chairs. We call our poker game "The Golden Pig" because we have a sparkly golden piggy bank that we all throw a 500 won coin into before each game. If anyone gets a royal flush, they win the pig. We don't have a backup plan for it when that inevitably never happens.

The usual group is Me, Scott (whose arm is pictured dealing), Andrew (on the right), Dave (on the left), and Helen (between them), although Alice and Katie come by sometimes if they don't go to their Taekwondo class. Katie is dangerous. We play with a 10,000 won buy in, winner takes all except second place, who gets their money back. Katie has never failed to get first or second whenever she comes. It's amazing. Recently we have picked up another two maybe-regulars, Miz, an Aussie from a nearby small down that scooters in to Andong, and Andre, another EPIKer from the September group with Helen. It's great to look forward to something in the middle of the week and be able to wind down and reconnect with my friends if I get too busy to see them otherwise.

Teacher's Class: Mondays at 6:15, once a month.

A big group of the EPIK teachers got together to teach a volunteer class on rotation every week, Monday and Wednesday. It turned out that so many people responded to help teach the class, that Scott and I only do it once every four weeks on Mondays. Because the classes change teachers every week, we took to using the schedule for "Survival English" on It is very well planned, and we could use similar handouts and easily review the prior lessons to keep the whole class from falling into disorganized chaos.

Korean Class: Tuesday, 6:30-8:30

We tried a Korean class during the spring semester, but it wasn't a conversation class; there were about 8 Korean instructors to sit down with us and go over a textbook, but essentially no structure and a little tedious. Although it did give me practice in writing characters and their sounds, which has been invaluable. This new class has been much better suited to my personal learning style, with one instructor who talks with us. He asks us questions and we learn how to give answers based on our personal lives. What we learn is more from the impulse of the moment, which is fantastic.

Therefore, I leave every morning at 8:15 and get home at 7:45 on Monday (unless we teach the class, then 9), 9 on Tuesday, midnight on Wednesday, 5 on Thursday, and 7:45 on Friday. It's been harder for Scott, who teaches a 2 hour class after school on Wednesdays and Thursdays in addition to everything else.

In the rest of my free time I am constantly reading on my Kindle (I stopped biking so I could allocate the 20 minute walk to work each morning as reading time, in case I don't have time later on), hanging out with Scott and Po, playing some WoW here and there, or keeping up with my social life. Sometimes we'll meet up with our friends after Hapkido during the week, or since Thursday is the only day left unscheduled, we'll nominate that as a movie night (when a good English film comes through. Good meaning above 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, because we cant' be too picky).

All of it's fun and optional, of course, but sometimes I'm left feeling a little drained from it all. Monday morning always feels a little bit daunting.