Be Careful

This week has been a bit of a thing. In addition to a terrible, utterly stupid mistake that, thankfully didn’t have any real consequences, I’ve just had to be scrambling a bit to learn and get ready and all that you know kegssiugougtaoqeign stuff (for those who can’t read keyboard smash, that roughly translates to me holding up my hands clenched tightly into claws and shaking them).

On Wednesday, I had the pleasure of covering for someone’s one-on-one class. A single student, three hours, at the very lowest level. We read an extraordinarily simplified Dick Whittington (whose story I was not familiar with) and played hangman. For three hours.

But also, this is the last week of term. I have only tomorrow left. And my what a term. It’s crazy to think that I’m a quarter of the way through this year.  Today and tomorrow involves work and a snack party for each class, so that’s nice. Today, the staff also had pizza and chicken before the students arrives, which was a lovely surprise. Most of the teachers at our branch are leaving, so it was nice to have a little send-off sort of feeling going around.

Next week is setting itself up to be super scary. Teaching two totally new classes–scratch that, three. And three new levels, two much higher than I’ve done and one much lower. Most of the staff will be new but trained in these courses (whereas I was trained on the ones for this term). I’m super nervous. But I’ve learned that being boring, a little uncertain, and generally a mess is just how you do new things. It will get better. Anway, I’d like to avoid talking about it, so I have prepared a couple random thoughts, as I am often wont to do, because variety is the spice of life.

Sometimes I’m confused by the controversy that surrounds certain topics. For example, best Disney prince. Obviously it’s Phillip. He has a name, he slays a dragon, he waltzes in people’s dreams. What’s not to love. Other categories, I understand some debate, I get that. Best Disney villain, for example. I’d say Maleficent but Ursula, Hades, Frollo have strong contentions, maybe a couple others too. This just to say: it seems we value opinions and tolerate facts (if that). But we should value facts and tolerate opinions.

Also this week, I learned why Google maps can only do public transportation directions here. South Korea has a thriving internet censorship program and this includes, thanks to the fact that they’re still technically at war with the north, all maps of the country. It’s illegal to take them out of the country and that now includes mapping data. So Google can’t process the maps on its servers and we’re left with using Kakao Metro for directions on the metro and Google maps-ing the rest of it ourselves.

In other news, this week I lost my longest Duolingo streak, 74 days. I just forgot to do it before work and then went to dinner after and then forgot again. So that was a big bummer. Alas.

I don’t really have anything else to report. I expect next week’s post will be hectic but there it is. I’m just going to take a second to, you know, take a second. In the mean time, having been pretty moved by this short and sincere poem, I’m trying to be careful of other humans, and to be kind.

The Cheese

This Wednesday was another day off and I was determined to enjoy myself. So, naturally, I decided to climb a mountain. Just for reference, I will continue to say mountain here but I fully acknowledge it to be a Seoul ‘mountain’ (similar to an East Coast mountain) as it is only 338.2 meters tall–that’s about 1,100 feet for us Americans. Also, in the common fashion for Korean mountains I’ve seen thus far, it’s very steep. 인왕산 (Inwangsan) is pretty close to my apartment. Just on the other side of Ansan, where I’ve been many times. So I figured it was a good candidate. The rub was that Google Maps gave no indication as to how to get onto the mountain. I could see it, a big brownish blob with no roads, but couldn’t find an access point. But how hard could it be, so I decided I’d just wander around until I found something going up.

As luck would have it, there was no difficulty. Long before I got to my best guess for a trailhead (though still after about half an hour walking along the side of the mountain) I saw a sign that indicated this road went up the mountain. Good news. So I walked up this road for a while, going steeply uphill, but was still among apartment buildings and was wondering when the park part would start when suddenly it started. I’m still not sure what to make of the ‘park’ qualification so let me tell you a bit about what I encountered.

First, it is not marked as a park like Ansan and other places I’ve been. Not in Google and not in the real world. However, the signage was essentially the same. The major difference was that this one had gates and, it appeared, was not open all the time. Additionally, there were police guards and watchtowers quite regularly all along the trails. This was to ensure that no one took pictures facing certain directions. I discovered, reaching the first of like three summits, that there was some kind of (military?) installation, very small, running along part of the ridge. No idea what it was about, but no pictures of that. Also no pictures looking out toward the city in the direction of the river and one of the main palaces. I learned today that apparently from that one angle, you can see the president’s house and they weren’t taking any chances.

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One small glimpse

The view was spectacular. The haze wasn’t particularly bad yesterday so I had a decent line of sight across the city. I could see all of Ansan park, Seodaemun-gu, Jongno-gu, and the truly picturesque Bukhansan park in the distance. The trees and rocks were gorgeous and the sky was blue and the air mostly smelled of flowers and pine, for once, instead of city. And, I nearly forgot, the old city wall of Seoul, which has huge chunks still intact across the city, goes straight up the mountain and the trail follows it a goodly way. Parts of it have been restored over time, but I think a reasonable amount of it is original and, like in Exeter, you can clearly see the different phases in its construction spread out over centuries.

All told, with a quick nip into Paris Baguette on the way home, it was a four hour excursion. I would call it an unqualified success, which is something of a rarity for me. So I went home and just basked in the lovely day. There remained something irrefutably (and sometimes inexplicably) urban about everything and I couldn’t help but wish that I was on some other mountain, far away from Seoul, and the view was only of further mountains and wilder forests. Nevertheless, the fragrance of certain flowers and the texture of hearty bark under my hands did assuage, in some small part, all the city unpleasantness.

Now for this week’s thoughts from Keegan.

Quirkily, I’ve been singing The Farmer in the Dell kind of often since coming to Korea. In the metro, there is a little song that plays when a train is approaching and the beginning sounds just like it. I don’t ride the metro all that often, but the song has wormed its way back into my brain and it plays ad libitum, ad nauseam.

It’s a strange sort of song. As a person who is very much interested in and appreciative of cheese, the final verse is of particular note: the cheese stands alone.

And I’m not the only one entranced (haunted?) by that line. Robert Cormier, writer of controversial young adult novels like The Chocolate War, wrote a novel entitled I am the Cheese based on the concept of the main character feeling alone. It sounds hilarious but the blurb is very serious, sort of a teen spy mystery thriller vibe is what I was picking up.

But why does the cheese stand alone? I always picture a hefty slice of Swiss sitting regally on a little hillock in the bottom of a lushly planted valley, a few farm buildings in the distance. Who would see such an alluring enticement and just pass it by? In what universe is the cheese not the main character of the song? In an effort to avoid the grimness of last week’s post I will not suggest that the reason is because this universe is just a dark cesspool of poor, unfortunate souls. Nevertheless, the mystery is confounding.

Then again, maybe it’s not such a problem that the cheese stands alone. I often have difficulty describing to parents or other concerned parties that I don’t mind being alone for extended and repeated periods of time. I feel like I’m almost inundated with Buzzfeed posts or articles on Facebook about introverts and I guess I assumed that people just generally got it. But it is not so.

Introverts don’t mind being along for extended and repeated periods of time. We’re not anti-social, just differently social.

So there you have it. Who’s to say cheese can’t be introverted. Maybe the cheese likes standing alone. Maybe it’s having a great time just so. Maybe I am the cheese, too. Wow, I hope so. What a life. And what a great mantra.

I am the cheese.

I am the cheese.

I am the cheese.

Are you?

More Stately Mansions

I will not apologize for the amount of poetry-related content on this blog. Just wanted to put that out there. But more on that later. I promised a glimpse into my life in Seoul so here are a few things.

  • Both my building and apartment use touch screen keypads and it’s so liberating not to have any keys (though it occasionally freaks me out)
  • I can get a decent variety of triangular kimbap (pictures forthcoming eventually…) at 7-11 right down the street for ₩800 or a little less than 80¢
  • The apartment has heat, so that’s an infinite step up from the house in Dublin
  • I live maybe a two minute walk from the school
  • Korean Netflix is more reasonable than I expected, it’s growing quickly since it’s relatively new here

So those are a few things that have helped make the transition easier. I regret (so very deeply) that the cracker situation is pretty hopeless. As great as Paris Baguette is, it simply cannot compare to those Tesco doughnuts and I don’t even want to talk about crackers. Alas, you can’t win ’em all. There are crackers here, but I think once you go Tesco Cream Crackers, you just can’t go back.

I’ve also now found out what I’ll be doing on Wednesdays. I will spend three hours calling students one-on-one to have ten minute conversations with them. They’re mostly not my students in class, we just talk. The headset is very uncomfortable, but otherwise it’s not bad. Occasionally I will also do intensive study sessions or review groups with small numbers of students. But mostly it’s the phone classes, at least for now.

In terms of Korean experiences for the week, I haven’t had many. Other than getting a bank account and having barbecue, I’ve pretty much stayed home. As you know, that is my default setting. And I won’t be rebuked for it. I know I said that I want more out of this year than just work experience, but that doesn’t mean that I have to spend all of my time eating Korean food, wandering around, seeing what can be seen. I have time, I have eaten food, and nothing’s wrong with me cooking for myself. I want to see what I can see, but I also want to be me and me is a person who stays home nine times out of ten. I came to Korea, that’s plenty for the moment.

Also, first post-departure contact with a certain very pretty kitty. The other was indisposed by illness, unfortunately. He’s on track to recover though.

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So about the poetry that I mentioned earlier. Here’s the thing: because I have so much of it in my head, much like music it can suddenly pop in and get stuck like a song, but just a couple lines of text. This one has come to me occasionally for years and I really like it.

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul!

This, of course, is from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ wonderful work The Chambered NautilusIn it, Holmes describes the way in which the nautilus is always moving onward and upward, building itself larger and more lovely shell space until at last it is freed from the mortal (and nacre) coil.

I don’t even have anything in particular I wanted to say, that poem has just really been sticking with me this week. It really is a lovely poem; it is a song of freedom and release. To close yourself with a dome more vast until you finally expand beyond all confines. Ugh, I don’t even know what I’m saying, but read the poem, I really like it. More stately mansions indeed.

Till thou at length art free.

서대문구

First, a quick overview of how the Korean language works (written Korean, that is) because you know I like language. The most basic misconception is that it’s like Chinese, written in characters. In fact, Korean has an alphabet with letters. The difference is that those letters are combined into one-syllable blocks. So while ‘s’ is just ㅅ and ‘u’ is ㅜ, the syllable su wouldn’t be written ㅅ ㅜ but rather 수. My name, written in Hangul (the name of the alphabet) is 키간. The title of this post is Seodaemun-gu, the district in which I’m now living.

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This is not in Seodaemun, but rather Gangnam (as you might have surmised)

So on Friday, we had our final assessments in the morning which, thankfully, I passed. Then I got in a van that drove me across the city to my branch (I feel bad for people who actually were leaving Seoul, a 45 minute journey was all I was up for). I stayed in a little hotel across the street from the branch while my apartment was being prepared. There was a little bit of confusion about the apartment which meant that I didn’t actually move in until Monday night, after teaching, but I’m here now and it’s grand. On that note, a bit about my actual job.

So. Firstly, I teach English to Korean students after school. Two three-hour classes a day, 4-10 and arriving at 2 to make it a normal eight hour work day. That’s the basic set up. The way my company works is that it divides students into levels based on skill (pretty straightforward) and then has different courses that students can take. Usually, students take two concurrently, so I’ll mostly have the same four classes twice a week but have different material. One course I’m teaching is sort of content-heavy where we do readings and listenings and stuff. The other is more discussion-based with a project every other week. The ages of my students range from maybe 8 or 9ish to I think 14ish, with levels ranging from barely conversational to reasonably okay.

Teaching is hard. This is not news to me, having grown up with educators and with tremendous respect for the profession, but actually being a teacher is a different experience. Some classes, some students, some lessons are better than others and I will obviously continue to learn a lot over the course of my time here. One week of whirlwind training is hardly acceptable for such an important job, but it’s better than many other English companies here provide. Anyway, I’m managing alright thus far and hopefully will continue to learn techniques and methodologies, acquire fun new skills, and develop the general everything necessary for teaching.

I know that there is a large number of teachers and educators who read this blog. If you feel so inclined, know that I would welcome any advice you have to offer, perhaps by Facebook message or email. Of particular interest to me at the moment are like vocabulary games I could play and ways to get silent classes talking.

There are a million other things that I want to talk about in this post, but a million is a lot and probs no one would read a blog a million things long. I have a year here (excepting unforeseeables) and that is plenty of time, I hope, to tell you all about it. It’s not a million posts long, but I’ll do my best. I was going to talk about triangular kimbap and Paris Baguette and Seodaemun and my apartment. I was going to tell you some of the things that have caused minor freak outs and other things that have provided unexpected comfort. Alas. You’ll have to rest assured that there are such things and hope I include them in future posts. Living in suspense of every detail of my life as I’m sure you do, this may be difficult but I ask that you bear with me.

Also, small Korean experience of the week. You may be familiar with cat cafés (which I have not yet visited, shame) but apparently there are many different kinds of interesting cafés here. For example, I briefly visited a sheep café (the sheep were in a little pen that you could go into) which was across the street from a raccoon café (which people tell me also has a few small dogs). So I guess there are cafés for a range of tastes. I’ll look forward to checking them out, I guess, though I’m not convinced the cat ones are as magical in reality as they may seem at first blush.

Anyway, that’s all I have for this week. I’m still adjusting to my new get-off-work-at-10pm schedule but if I could adjust to start-work-at-3:30am, I think I’ll be fine. Happy March.

368

I’m going to write this post as a day-by-day account of my training week, just to give you a taste of what’s been up since I’ve arrived.

I landed at Incheon on Sunday afternoon and, after a bus and taxi, arrived at the hotel around 7:30. I did not sleep at all on the plane because I am foolish. I was able to stay up for a bit, eat a cinnamon roll from SeaTac for dinner, and go to bed at 9:30.

Monday morning I was due to leave on a shuttle at 7:30 for a medical exam. It was incredibly comprehensive in that they tested really everything (and recorded my chest measurement because…?) but was also pretty cursory. From there, it was to the training center, an introduction and overview, then down to business. The format will be mock teaching in the mornings and prep in the afternoons. Back at the hotel, ate an actual dinner, still have homework. Super tired. I thought I was done with homework.

Tuesday. I’m feeling so much better about things than I was last night. This training really is pretty brutal but also they’re trying to make us into teachers in four and a half days. So. Anyway, we’re moving through material and learning stuff. Homework for tonight (and the rest of the week) besides prep is to watch videos of ourselves mocking and write up an evaluation. Joy of joys. Korean experience of the day, I rode the metro and got my metro card. I also saw Gangnam Square (with a statue commemorating the eponymous style) because the hotel we’re staying at is just outside the Gangnam metro stop.

So Wednesday held pretty much more of the same. I’m feeling more and more confident with the material so naturally I’m more and more nervous. How does that work? I had triangular kimbap today for lunch which was good. Have not done homework yet. We’ve spent this whole time preparing one lesson and now we have to do two for tomorrow morning. Cool cool cool. Also, it snowed a teensy bit this morning, but mostly rained. It’s cold, but not as cold.

And here we are on Thursday. I can write this at the end of the day because in seventeen hours ahead of Washington. I’m late enough that it’s your Thursday too, if only barely. So. Training is essentially over. We have an evaluation tomorrow morning then it’s off to the branch itself and, I’m pretty sure, moving into the apartment. This week has been pretty grueling and the with aspect has dragged on and on. But in other ways, this week has absolutely flown by. I hope I am a teacher now, I guess, because there’s nothing else. I’ve gotten my schedule, I’ve gotten my room number. On my next post, I will have had almost a full week of teaching. I just hope I’m ready. And that I survive.

There are 368 days until my contract ends so, barring some dismal failure or unforeseeable event, that is how long I will be in Korea. I say this not as though I’m counting the hours until I’m outta here, but because I know too well how short time truly can be. I still have no idea what I’m doing here (at this company, in this country, with life in general) but I want to count my days carefully. I don’t want to come to the end and find myself to have gained useful work experience but in every other way to have wasted a year. I want more than that out of this time.

If you’ll permit me another Harry Potter reference, I’ll direct you to Dumbledore’s directive to Harry upon giving him the cloak of invisibility. My time here is limited. I want to use it well.