Thursday, November 27, 2008
Think about it. You can scoff at Frank Zappa or attribute his creativity to substance abuse, but you are quietly jealous that his kids are named ‘Moon Unit’ and ‘Diva Thin Muffin’. Somewhere out there, Nicholas Cage is watching Superman movies with his son ‘Kal-El’, Jason Lee proudly summons his boy ‘Pilot Inspektor’ to the kitchen for dinner, and the talking dude from ‘Penn & Teller’ is teaching ‘Moxie Crimefighter’ how to ride a bike on weekends. The list is endless. We trudge through this world with names like ‘Brian’ or ‘Justin’ or ‘Alex’ and we just wish that a mere introduction or passing of a business card would be intriguing enough to start a lively conversation, but it never is. Our names are just too plain.
As a foreign teacher abroad, I am granted a unique opportunity. Korean students who are proficient in their English speaking abilities will more likely than not have names in both languages, though the majority of my pupils use just one. Last week I gave my students the opportunity to give themselves new names that we would use in our class together, and just as I suspected, middle-school aged Korean students agree with my theory: cool names are way better than the lame ‘typical’ names we give our children.
Put yourself in the shoes of my students for a moment. If everyone could be Men In Black neuralized tomorrow and had no recollection of your current identity, what would you name yourself? Food for thought.
I now have classes where I get to call on ‘Super Mario’, ‘Adidas’, and ‘Big Wow’. Just yesterday, ‘Huge’ and “ABCDE’ were yelling at ‘Menthol’ in the middle of an activity, so I sent all of them out in the hall so that we could better hear ‘Dumbledore’ speak. We even have a ‘Sean 2’. I made a list of my absolute favourite names and have listed them below, David Letterman style.
10. This kid snags a spot on my list with a clever play on words. Get it? I’m all-in? Points deducted for a dated reference; 2005 called and they want their poker jokes back.
9. Take it for what it is, but this kid actually got into a shoving fight later that class with the kid named ‘Canada’. He still makes the list because ‘Obama’ wins over the name of the kid next to him, which was – no joke – ‘Yes We Can’.
8. This gets points for creativity and confusion. Do you have any idea what the heck he is attempting to communicate?
7. “Dave’s not here, man.”
6. If you haven’t seen the Rowan Atkinson skit called “No One Called Jones” I would take this opportunity to familiarize yourself. I would never explicitly reveal a hidden agenda, but I secretly hoped for the exact situation in the skit when I asked the students to name themselves… thanks for getting me closer to my dream, ‘Ka Ka’.
5. Straight up, I just like this one.
4. Always a popular move, this kid dared to break through the ‘catchphrase’ barrier. While it may seem cool now, there is some poor thirty-something out there named ‘Where’s the Beef’ who might have a different opinion.
3. At least he didn’t name himself Kim Jong Il.
2. This name is a disaster. Naming yourself after a questionable role model aside, you have to adore the spelling errors and the promiscuous add-ons to really round out the nametag. I can hear SexyBody running from here.
1. A dual winner, these names speak for themselves. Globalization strikes again.
Honourable Mention… No, he isn’t making a very controversial political and religious statement. Actually, the kid next to him is named ‘God’.
Honourable Mention… The irony isn’t lost here. I am pretty sure that every single Korean girl could potentially be this, but bless her heart, she is the only one who was honest and up-front.
Post-Script: I unfairly generalized earlier when praising celebrity baby names. The single greatest mistake in the history of human history was when Jermaine Jackson named his son 'Jermajesty'. There are limits to freedom, and leave it to a member of the Jackson 5 to flirt with that line. It's not a toy, Jermaine.
Friday, November 14, 2008
The other age-related fact about Korea that is quite interesting is that the passing of one’s birthday in no way affects their reported age. Regardless of whether you are born in January or December, the coming of New Years Day means that everyone in the country is now a year older – for instance, a baby born this month considers the year 2008 as their first, so when 2009 rolls around, they will naturally be into their ‘second year’ despite being only two months old. Due to my late birthday, I left Canada in September as a fresh faced 21-year-old, and fourteen hours later, I was a healthy 23.
I bring up this subject only because yours truly happened to celebrate a birthday this past Wednesday. The whole experience seemed anti-climactic and a bit backwards, but interestingly enough, it had nothing to do with my own ‘special day’ but rather the one that immediately preceded it. We are well aware that November 11th is a very sombre and respectful day for any country that was involved in The Great War, and as a poppy-wearing Canadian I half expected to do my own trumpet-accompanied moment of reflection and a ritual reading of “In Flanders Fields.” Slight oversight: this country had nothing to do with World War One, and ironically, the eleventh day of the eleventh month happens to be the Korean version of Valentine’s Day. It’s called “Pepero Day,” and gets its name from the popular chocolate-covered bread sticks that Korean children snack on (the Japanese version – Pocky – is the exact same product, which you can get at Loblaws in Canada). Students come to school and exchange Pepero gifts with their friends and their special sweetheart, and unlike our V-Day, it is mostly celebrated by school children but not adults. The holiday apparently started in 1994, and it originated because the date ‘11/11’ looks like four Pepero sticks standing beside each other. That’s creative… I can’t wait for the ninth of June.
My point about the eleventh is this: my birthday typically follows one of the more joyless and contemplative days on the national calendar, and I find that I benefit from the ‘Post-Remembrance Day Effect’ and tend to annually receive an atypical, enthusiastic release of celebration as a result. Not this year. Instead, I now know exactly what those suckers feel like who have their birthdays painfully close to a ‘fun holiday’ like Christmas, Halloween, or Flag Day (I say the word ‘suckers’ with kindness, as my step-mother and little sister happen to be born on the 24th and 27th of December, and my brother on Canada Day). The individual day gets thwarted by the close proximity to collective happiness. This fact aside, I had a fantastic Korean birthday thanks to the kindness of my friends and co-teachers, so no complaints here. As a bonus, November 12th began here for me in Korea and finished in Canada forty-three hours later, which translates into almost two full days of birthday wishes. Now that is some math I can support.
This week wasn’t my first holiday-themed culture-clash experience since arriving here. Two weeks ago, I prepared my special Halloween lesson for my students, complete with video clips from The Simpsons’ ‘Treehouse of Horror’ series and Mr. Bean’s ill-fated trip to a scary movie. One snag. Most students had no idea what Halloween was. I was bummed at first, because I thought I had put together a lesson plan that truly dwarfed the annual ‘recite the Monster Mash and eat Rockets’ version that I was subjected to through grade school (listen to the lyrics of that song and tell me that this so-called ‘graveyard smash’ isn’t depicting someone’s weird drug hallucination). I found my inspiration by going above and beyond, and while wearing a knight’s costume designed for four-year-olds, I tried to demonstrate the real meaning of Halloween – fun – to my students through angry monologues stolen from ‘300’ and ‘Gladiator’. They laughed, I laughed, and we found common ground once again.
A couple of quick things before I sign off. I have received a couple of emails from friends telling me that while they were enjoying my commentary on life and teaching, they had learned nothing from my blog about what I am actually doing here in Korea. Do you go to bars often? Have you gotten hopelessly lost without the ability to communicate? Have you eaten anything ridiculous? Any trips of note, or interesting sights you have seen? The answer to each of these questions is yes, and I pledge to prepare a list of some bizarre or funny experiences I have actually had in Korea for next week. My bad.
Finally, I have had some people ask me if they could send me a package, or whether I could send them hilarious Korean things in the mail. Listen closely. I make a pledge here and now to anyone reading: if you send me something in the mail, I guarantee you that I will send you a package with some hilarious Korean souvenirs in return. This applies to anyone, so if you are interested, I urge you to get creative and surprise me with a quintessentially Canadian (or American, or British, or South African, or whatever country you happen to be in) gift and I will return the favour. Everyone likes mail, especially if it traveled very far to reach you.
Sean Hebert - Sannam Middle School
1216 MaeTan 2Dong, Young Tong Gu
Suwon City, Gyeonggi Province
Post Code# 442-372
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
I walked into class this week with a lesson plan that was designed to change the lives of every student in the school. This was a blockbuster forty-five minutes of passionate, engaging, entertaining, and insightful preaching that would either soar straight over their heads or knock them right off their chairs. As a teacher I have quickly embraced the philosophy that if the message connects with just one student, then this should be viewed as a success: a triumph of education over the evils of classroom sleeping and peer distraction. This lesson was no exception. It was my opus.
I entitled the session ‘The Secret to Success in Life.’ You may be thinking that this is an ambitious message to communicate in just three-quarters of an hour, but in second-language instruction, every concept becomes poetically succinct. You must always consider the simplest and shortest way to say anything and everything, and often this can lead to interesting results that go beyond comprehension. We don’t often realize it, but flexing one’s vocabulary can have the adverse effect of over-simplifying a layered and nuanced idea, or worse still, it can add the illusion of depth to a painfully thin theory. There is something very profound about shedding the excess weight of erroneous language and being forced to explain every concept in its most skeletal form. As is often the case, less is more.
The opus begins with a photograph of Barack Obama. Korean teenagers are eager to tell me everything they know about him: he is black, he is handsome, and he is running for President. So I start digging… what is so important about Obama? He is black. Right, so why is this important? No one has ever been black and President. Right, but why is this important? Blank faces, until one student chimes in. ‘Equal.’ Bingo. We recount black history in America on the spot, from slavery to the Civil War to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to Rosa Parks to Dr. King to Obama. In a single generation, an African-American man who was barred from voting for President fifty years ago now watches a young black Senator be strongly favoured to win the nation’s highest office. The students can now repeat the first lesson to me: ‘if Obama can be President, I can do anything.’
American power is difficult to quantify until you see its influence first-hand. This week both Newsweek and the Globe in Mail featured articles on the current election being global in its magnitude, drawing unprecedented interest in Obama’s fate from every country that can receive daily news. I wanted more information, and asked my students why they knew so much about Obama – surely they couldn’t name Canada’s Prime Minister or Mexico’s President, so why Barack? One female student informed me that ‘America’s President is the President of the World.’ When he speaks, the world listens. Where America leads, the world follows. The dots come together pretty quickly: hope within America of racial equality through Obama parallels the hope of entire foreign countries for greater equality, because if a nation as polarized as the States can stand up so symbolically to its dark history then we can all be inspired to be more progressive. Countries observe schism on the lines of class, gender, race, or sexual orientation, but global followers of Senator Obama consider his story as a catalyst for their own salvation from discrimination, hate, and fear. If he can, then ‘yes we can.’
I ask the class if South Korea has ever had a female President – a ludicrous question to ask in a conservative country with deeply ingrained gender inequality. The students giggle. I ask why, but this is a troublesome question for a fourteen your old to put into words in front of a large group. I ask the class to tell me what quality they feel is most important in a leader, and they respond appropriately: intelligence. ‘Okay,’ I announce, ‘I want the girls in the class to tell me if you think the boys in this class are smarter than you.’ Now they are listening. ‘Everyone is the same. Everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, a man, a woman, rich, poor, gay, or disabled… you aren’t better than anyone and no one is better than you.’ That is lesson number two.
The final lesson is written on the board: ‘If you believe it, you can do it. You can do ANYTHING. If you want something, you have to work your hardest. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Your dreams are your dreams, and you choose whether they come true. Never, ever quit.’ They all look up at the picture of Obama.
Each student is given a sheet of paper to write a list of ten things they want to do in their life. Their dreams. For most of them, this lesson is a lost cause. Half of them cannot understand what I am saying, and those who can are often too young to let it sink in, all of which sits on top of the fact that I am teaching the quintessential individualist lesson to an extremely collectivist society. For some, this is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I point them out individually: ‘you can walk on the moon, you can climb Mount Everest, you can cure cancer, and you can be the greatest baseball player in history… if you work your hardest and never quit.’ When I peek over the shoulders of the same students later most of them list ‘I want to make my parents happy’ as their number one priority. I feel defeated, but there is always hope to be found if I look hard enough. Peeking over the shoulder of the last girl in the row, I smile. Beside number one she wrote ‘I want to walk on the moon.’ That’s one.
I delivered this lesson twelve times this week, which made it all the more bizarre that I had trouble the thirteenth time. It was mere minutes after one in the afternoon, and as class begun I refreshed the MSNBC page I had been watching closely all morning and saw the words “OBAMA WINS” staring at me in block letters on the screen. I had spent months reading his books, listening to his speeches, and following his every step daily in hopes that this very moment would come, but it was within the context of my simple lesson that brought all of the emotions rushing out of me in front of forty Korean students. There was so much passion inside of me for his candidacy that I misunderstood, and as I spent the week telling students that Obama being President represents the ability for them to do anything in their own lives, I neglected to turn the mirror around on myself. Seeing those words on the screen validated everything I believed about him and hoped in myself, and for that reason alone, I will always remember where I was the moment I heard that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America.
"The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own." Indeed.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Foreigners in Korea are nearly identical to these parallel communities with one glaring difference; there is an underlying suspicion or fear between ex-pats about the sanity and histories of their fellow brethren. It's as if you were happily waving at a boat while muttering under your breath: "I hope that crazy bastard runs into a rock bed." I am sure that I will receive flak for expressing this opinion, but there are a lot of weird white people walking around the Seoul area who I instantly regret making eye-contact with on the subway. As a white man it must appear that I am the pot calling the kettle black on this one, but I take no hesitation in saying that I am skeptical of foreigners when I encounter them on the street or in a social situation. Why are they here in Korea? And why did the indiscretions of so many bad seeds before me make it so difficult for me to get my Visa? What is really going on with ex-pats? I decided to conduct some research.
This is the Foreigner 411. To define my terms, I am only discussing fellow English teachers who have uprooted their lives back home to travel across the world and live here for at least a year. Vacationers - you may carry on free from scrutiny. I spoke to Korean teachers, veteran ex-pats, and did some old-fashioned socializing to reach these quantitative and qualitative results, and I present the data with a declared bias. It's a blog post, not The Atlantic... so forgive the bluntness and let the messenger get home for dinner unscathed. All in all, there appears to be a quiet consensus that 3 distinct types of people come to Korea to find a new life: the hacks, the fratboys, and the worldly.
If you happen to be a hack, then you are the type of person that I would have deemed a loser back in high school. For whatever reason, you just couldn't cut it back home. Your uninspiring, bland personality leaves much to be desired, and your University degree only seems to get you in the door for interviews before a more charismatic person ultimately scores the coveted position. You like Magic: The Gathering. Friday night is spent debating food preferences with your pet gecko that you named after your favourite Star Trek: Enterprise character. You saw Jumanji, like, twice. Most importantly, you don't have a girlfriend or boyfriend. For the hack, Korea is a consolation prize and a last resort, where any male foreigner can land a misguided Korean girl and any female foreigner can wear a do-rag, grow her hair out and become a child of the earth. If you find this somewhat harsh, just go back to the start of the paragraph and find it funny instead. See how easy that was?
Clearly I have run into my fair share of hacks, and I wish you all the best. Fortunately for these people, they find exactly what they are looking for in Korea 95 percent of the time; acceptance, work, happiness, and a spouse. Carry on, Peter Pan. Fratboys, on the other hand, are looking to do the same thing in Korea that they did back home in University, which is meet girls, drink, and pay off debt. These aren't bad things to do, but when they are the sole inspiration for the trip then you wind up with a pretty selfish and belligerent existence that doesn't really help the students you are here to teach. These are the guys picking fights outside of bars in Hongdae and showing up to school hung-over to teach 9 year olds. They don't respect the cultural differences and they don't respect the job, and a lot of these people end up oxymoronically staying in Korea forever for no particular reason. They are overtly negative and hate everything about the country after time, but the money is too good to leave. I have met these people and they are walking contradictions. Avoid them.
The worldly are interested in learning about other cultures, and embrace and respect the opportunities that present themselves. They have fun and put the experience in a broader perspective, maybe because they are considering teaching back home or caught the travel bug and were curious about Korea. This is where my bias comes from; the difference between these three crude generalizations is the personal intent for the trip, and I am really only interested in hanging out with people who have their hearts in the right place and are willing to take risks and grow. Luckily, a lot of young people who have made the journey tend to fit into this latter description of the worldly individual.
I have joked with friends that my first few weeks in Korea made me feel a lot like Will Smith in I Am Legend. Alone, without even a zombie dog to pass my post-apocalyptic days. To be truthful, I am blessed to be surrounded by friends to share my adventures with. I planned this trip with a handful of friends from back home and have met dozens more fantastic people through the Orientation retreat that was organized by the province - these hilarious and amazing Canadians, Americans, Brits, and Koreans are my family on this side of the world, and I appreciate every second I spend with them because it makes this crazy place feel less alien. It makes me feel less alien. So to everyone back home, rest easy. I have friends, and I am not on the road to becoming a crazy cat lady.
Don't get me wrong; I am not trying to be self-righteous and say that I am judging all foreigner books by their covers. Everyone is here to have their own unique experience for their own reasons and I will respect that. I just hope that regardless of intent, everyone is treating their students fairly and not withholding from them the exposure to English that can vastly improve their lives in this country. Whether you are a hack, fratboy, or worldly, we all share the fact that we teach children and that gives us a higher responsibility to go to work with our heads screwed on tightly enough to be a good influence. We share that goal within our community.
Monday, October 20, 2008
On my first day in the classroom 2 weeks ago, I made a promise to both myself and my ESL students: I will do absolutely everything in my power to be the best damn teacher these Korean kids have ever had. Period. Now, I want you to take a second to understand the ambition behind this pledge. Screw good. I want to be the best. I want to be the love-child of Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society', Richard Dreyfuss in 'Mr. Holland's Opus', and Denzel Washington in everything he has ever done. I want to inspire, educate, entertain, and if time permits, shrink the school bus to the size of an atom and explore the human body or outer space. The best.
Take a moment to think about the teachers who most affected your life. What did they all have in common? For starters, they more than likely spoke the same language as you. To the outside observer, this plain fact would appear to confound my dream entirely, but I insist that it is every other common element that made that teacher special: passion, hard work, and resilience. These qualities transcend language, or at least are transferable through the non-verbal cues (read: miming and sound effects) that I use daily to survive. It's an uphill battle, but a manageable one.
Here are the facts. I teach Middle School in
anguage flows and sound development and you have a recipe for kids who are terrified of speaking English. Check-mate.
My solution is stubborn and masochistic, and I call it Guerrilla English. We begin with institutionalized failure and allow for no comfort zones; we are all going to make mistakes and take risks together, and while it may not be pretty, we are going to shake the stigmas, have fun, and ultimately learn together. The teacher is the class clown in my lessons, and I like to use the full space, inject a ton of energy, and make myself look far dumber than the students ever could. I let the class teach me what an English word is in Korean and then unintentionally butcher it (see? even I fail...), or we play competitive games that require English speaking and writing and transform the winner into an idol. I make boy/girl pairings a rule, and if they refuse to interact, I come right at them and mediate a 3-way introduction complete with handshake. We sing, we clap, and we stand on desks. There is a lot of positive interaction, and my hope is that they are learning throu
gh osmosis and embracing the activities. Worst case scenario - they get a break from endless tests and laugh for 45 minutes a week.
Today my classes played 'Never Have I Ever,' which came out of a recommendation from a fellow UWO grad whom I hold in high regard. Just in case the adults reading aren't up to date on their inappropriate University drinking games, this is an 18A game that should be kept as far away from G-rated situations as possible. I worked on it this morning, and with a wave of a magic wand and some clever wordplay, this game is a classroom gem that has kids competing to see who has experienced the most 14-year-old friendly activities. A rowdy edition of "Sean Says" was also in order, as students struggle to keep up with my direction until I get tired and decide to just decieve the rest of the group and win the game. I am like Adam Sandler playing basketball in Billy Madison; I will let the kid get a jumpshot off, but don't be surprised if I slap it right back.
As an aside, here is how you can win any game of 'Simon Says' without ever breaking a sweat. You get the group warmed up and feeling confident, then proclaim "Simon Says Jump!" only to shout "
To summarize, I am trying my best here but the circumstances don't make it easy. My classes are full of good kids and I truly believe that they will learn if they commit themselves to giving their best. Every day is a learning experience for me as well, as I realize that some methods work better than others, and the students constantly teach me about themselves, their language, and their culture. I came to
Friday, October 10, 2008
Eleven days ago, I left YYZ behind and found myself - a mere 16 hours later - jet-lagged and alone in my small Korean apartment. It felt like such an ordinary transition when juxtaposed with how extraordinary the change was going to be for my life. Could you really just apply for a Visa, snap up a giveaway job in another country, and then follow the instructions on the boarding pass? Somehow, it felt like turning the world on its head would take more effort, but I suppose that's exactly where most people get it all wrong. Hitting a home run, it seems, has more to do with stepping into the batter's box than the swing.
Culture shock is a weird sensation to describe. It's like stepping into the middle of a complicated movie and trying to sort out the plot without asking anyone around you. You can pick out clues here and there, like "that is probably the price of that food-looking dish" or "I could maybe pee there." The rest, you are left to figure out, and you'd better learn quick or you might not make it through tomorrow. It takes a while to determine whether the whole experience should be exciting, terrifying, or hilarious. I tend to favour the latter, because how can you do anything but laugh when you find out the hard way that you have improperly used a bidet? Or shown up to a spa ill-prepared to share it with hundreds of completely nude Korean men? You simply swallow your pride, smile, and dive in head first. (To the situation, of course. Never dive head first into a bidet or a hot tub full of naked men. God, you would only make that mistake once, or at the very most three times.)
There are a number of adjustments that a Canadian must make when they arrive in Asia to work, but first let me remind you that I am not just any Canadian. I live, breathe, and exist the quintessential Canuck life: Kraft Dinner is my favourite meal. Hockey is my religion. I privately celebrate the birthdays of Tim Horton, Ron MacLean, and Terry Fox. I am a left-leaning, Canadian Politics graduate who is euphoric when I am able to blend intelligent debate with purely hedonistic activities. I went to Winnipeg and didn't mind it. To quote my good friend Michelle, "Korea is about to be hit by the whitest man on the face of the earth." Touche. Any belief I had that my Greater Toronto upbringing and infrequent trips to Pacific Mall were enough to prepare me for the level of homogeneity I would experience was sadly misled. I am a spectacle. I'm Shaq. Kazaam.
The biggest surprise doesn't come when you walk down the street, but rather, when you walk inside of a school full of Korean children. It's pretty surreal the first time that a mob of literally dozens of teenagers swarm you in a hallway reaching for you, screaming, and shouting "you are handsome!" I was flattered at first, feeling like some kind of Beatles incarnate, until an ethics teacher I was having dinner with informed me this week that my "face is the face of Matt Damon." Then it clicked (once I was done laughing, of course). When the only white people you see also happen to land on People's '50 Most Sexiest Men' list every year, you instinctively believe that all white men are Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, or any cast member of Ocean's 11 that isn't Don Cheadle. Children just have a different way of expressing it.
In my first week of class, I decided to curb this excitement by using my first week of English classes as an opportunity for the students to ask me any questions they had about my life in Canada. I teach 13 and 14 year olds, but for whatever reason I neglected to forsee the types of questions they would ask, nor did I imagine how hilarious I would find their use of the language. I provide a few examples for you to peruse:
- Hello. My name is John Junson. I have two questions. Did you went basketball-court to see NBA match? I like NBA. And, can I get your number?
- 1. How much is Toronto? 2. How much is Ottawa? 3. How much is Montreal? 4. If I buy a Canada where you are?
- I am hungry, you too?
- How many teeth do you have?
- Tell me about your weight.
- Are you married? Do you like terrible fish?
- Do you think that you are handsome? Your parents is handsome?
- You look like Beckham (soccer player). You know? This is secret - you are more hansome than before teacher.
- My name is JangJisu who love Wondergirls.
- How many hairs do you have? Do you have baby?
- Do You have a girlfriend? What kind of girl do you like? Can you love the student? Teacher very handsome.
- What do you like style girl? Where do you live? You can love we? Do you remember my name??? We love you.
- How are you? I love you.
- I have a sister. Will you marry my sister? P.S. My sister likes pretty doll and she is three years old.
- How old are you? Do you love me? I'm ugly?
- Are you gentle?
Believe it or not, those were just examples taken from my first day in class. The lesson lasted five, and every one of these questions came out in various different ways over the course of that time. After eleven days I am enjoying myself but admittedly still adjusting to this new life abroad, so stay tuned for more interesting, hilarious, or downright bizarre accounts of my job in Korea, presented in all forms of multimedia. Should be a wild ride.