Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Welcome to Korea, again: SHINee, ddukbokki and diary decoration in this edition of Letters from Korean Students

We’re back from our travels — and what travels they were. Southeast Asia was good to us (especially Thailand), but it was oddly comforting to be back in the land of anyeong haseyo, norae bang and Big Bang. That’s why I thought I’d share these sentiments from my students before launching into the tale of our myriad misadventures.

One of my winter camp lessons was on e-mail and letter writing. My kids were thrilled about the prospect of writing to my best friend Kalynn, once I convinced them that yes, she would really be reading their letters all the way in Florida.

So, without further ado, here are the burning questions my middle schoolers had for the world’s best biffle (entirely unedited, except for names):

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Welcome to Korea: Should I give my principal a gift?

In the few months before Chickpea and I arrived in South Korea for our new teaching gig, one of the things we stressed over was what kind of gift to give to our co-teachers, principal and vice principal. According to blogs and advice of former native English teachers, gift-giving is a large part of Korean culture and new teachers often give several gifts to the important people at their school. And when you consider how much your Korean co-teacher(s) help you acclimate to a new country, a token of thanks seems reasonable, no matter where you’re from.

But Chickpea and I didn’t want to just bring some oranges or beach sand in a glass bottle. We wanted to make an impact! We wanted to bring something so unique, that when our principal went out for drinks with the other principals around Daegu, he could brag with pride and make all the other principals lower their heads in shame.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Alex and Chickpea Do . . . Southeast Asia?

It’s true. Right now, Chickpea is on her way to Thailand — I’ll join her at the end the week — for a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia. And I do mean whirlwind. Between January 19 and February 6, we’ll visit the traffic-clogged, neon-lit, pagoda-stuffed skyline of Bangkok, Thailand; the ancient and mysterious temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia; enjoy a few days of R&R on the beaches of Vung Tau, Vietnam; battle motorbikes and stuff ourselves silly with pho in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and wrap up in Vietnam’s burgeoning capital of Hanoi before flying back to Seoul.

Visiting other Asian locales is a large part of an EFL teacher’s overseas stay. If you ask 10 English teachers why they came to Korea, nine will list “travel” as one of the reasons.

We’re no different. So we’re using our 2-week winter vacation to see three countries we’ve watched countless travel shows about: Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Consequently, there will not be any new posts until the second week of February. But check back here for a series of posts about our travels, including how to find the cheapest plane tickets and navigating visas to what fried tarantula tastes like.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Korean student stress saga

Yesterday, while my English Winter Camp students were busily scribbling away at their daily journal entries, I noticed that one of my brightest girls had a few white hairs poking out of her otherwise jet-black ‘do. When I asked her about it, she said “Stress, teacher.” She’s 13.

When I was 13, the only thing stressing me was that my parents wouldn’t let me wear JNCO jeans (for which I’m now and eternally grateful). Teenage life is a bit more taxing here in South Korea: it’s not unusual for my middle schoolers to spend anywhere from 10 to 16 hours a day at school, after school classes, private school classes and studying. And this is during their school vacation.

This subject deserves a detailed, man-on-the-ground post, which I’ll get to one of these days. But for now, check out Ask A Korean‘s polarizing thoughts on the subject here, here and here. Spoiler alert: He thinks American teenagers should stop whining and start studying as hard as their Korean counterparts. Discuss!
Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Life as a Korean public school teacher: winter camp and private piano concerts

The season is upon us: No, not the Christmas season (it’s barely registered with me this year) but the English Winter Camp season. Yes, while the other seonsaengnim enjoy a few months away from school and students, I’ll be here, warming this desk o’ mine. But I don’t mind (much). I need the time to learn more Korean. (Oh, and plan our 18-day vacation trip across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. We have the plane tickets. Now we need a plan …)

But this post isn’t really about the travails of life as a Native English Teacher (as we’re so formally referred to). I love my life here, and small moments like the one I had today are the reason why. After another typical cafeteria lunch — kimchi, “black” rice, budae jjigae, bulgogi and apples — my co-teacher invited me to an impromptu concert in the music room. (She’s been brushing up her ivory tickling skills with the music teacher’s guidance.)

The music seongsaengnim is teaching her Gummy‘s “Jugeo do Saranghae” (“I Love You Even If I Die” Sweet, huh?). This song has a special place in my heart because it was the first Korean song I could actually understand (some of) the lyrics to.  Since then, the love has worn off a little, because Korea has a tendency to blare the same 10 top hits from every club, restaurant and convenience store, and this is one of ’em. I’m getting off topic.

At any rate, the three of us went up to the (surprisingly well-equipped) music room, where the music teacher played “Jugeo Do Saranghae” for us on the piano. It was beautiful, and I swayed to the song as my co-teacher sang along. But this wasn’t good enough for the piano teacher, who decided to kick it up a notch and play some classical number I’ve heard before but can’t name (sorry, Beethoven buffs). It was jaw-droppingly awesome. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes as her fingers twirled across the keys. This lady is amazing, and she sits right next to me. It was a special moment.

To top it off, all this fancy-pants piano playing drew in one of our second-grade (14-year-old) students, who also gave us an impromptu piano concert. Of course, we all clapped for him and he looked thrilled.

These are the moments when I really love my life in Korea.

EDIT: Immediately following the writing of this post near the end of the school day, my school had pizza and wings delivered for the teachers. If that doesn’t say ‘Merry Christmas,” I don’t know what does. Happy holidays, folks!

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Korean kids are crazy for gonggi

You like that alliteration? I thought so. I want to weigh in on the school-wide — and, from what I can tell, Korea-wide obsession with gonggi (which also means “air”).

It’s like the Korean version of Jacks, and it goes something like this: Hold all five gonggitdol (colorful, round, plastic playing pieces) in your hand. Toss gonggi on the table/floor/friend’s back/any level playing surface in sight. Strategically choose one gonggi; pick it up. Toss chosen gonggi in the air while scooping up one gonggi; catch the tossed gonggi. On the next turn, scoop up two gonggi, then three, etc.

Of course, there are finer points of the game, as well as different “versions” (which I think just refer to the skill level or style of the player). These include babo (stupid) gonggi (“Boy, you really suck.” This is the category of gonggi player I fall into); genius gonggi (“Damn, you are really good, and spend too much time playing gonggi instead of studying”); and ddalki (strawberry) gonggi (I have no idea what that could possibly mean, but the student who demonstrated did a particular sweeping motion when scooping up the gonggi).

After seeing the rabid gonggi consumption between classes, I decided to integrate them into one of my lessons. After each “level” completed in gonggi, the students had to answer a question about the lesson. This was particularly effective since many of the kids who rarely participate are in the “genius gonggi” category (like I said, too much gonggi, too little study). In this case, their gonggi skills became their downfall, and my victory, muahahahaha! Yes, that’s my evil seonsaengnim (teacher) laugh.

Incidentally, my biffle Kalynn introduced me to gonggi a couple of years ago back in the States, but I had no clue that it was a Korean game until I moved here. The more you know … (cue Reading Rainbow theme song).

Here’s a brief how-to on gonggi:

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Sa-gu, Korea’s popular alternative to pocket pool

I’ve been meaning to write about sa-gu since … well, since a couple of months ago, when I did a double-take while walking by one of Daegu’s many sparsely furnished but brightly lit pool halls. (If the description sounds like the antithesis of the average American billiards experience, that’s because it is.)

When I play pool (badly), there are a few things I want/require: dim lighting, so I can ignore the rednecks guzzling Bud Light at the next table; beer, and plenty of it (preferably a Yuengling, please); and a comfortable, well-worn bar, table or other manner of seating to rest my weary bones after a particularly grueling battle with the cue stick.

Here’s what I’ve seen in Korea: lighting that looks like you’ve entered the sterile, pristine confines of a dentist’s office; the offer of coffee or tea (although I’m certain that almost all billiards bars do serve beer); and a few plastic chairs that look like they might shatter into tiny pieces if I attempted to heave my full weight (read: under triple digits) onto them.

But that’s not what made me do a double-take. Most pool tables here have no pockets. And there are only four balls. That’s why it’s called sa-gu (사구). Sa is Korean for “four” and gu is “ball.” Pretty simple, huh?

Being epically bad at run-of-the-mill billiards myself, I have yet to try the doubly difficult sa-gu. But the basic rules are this: There are two cue balls, one for each player. Points are earned by hitting both of the other balls with your cue ball. I’m lucky if I can tap one little ball when I shoot the cue, forget trying to hit two in one shot. Fortunately, most pool halls I’ve seen have both sa-gu and the more familiar pocket billiard tables.

I thought this four-ball phenomenon was unique to Korea, but the ever-enlightening Ask-A-Korean says that this is called “straight carom billiards,” and variations of the game are played all over the world. Well I’ll be darned.

So while I’ve yet to find a pool hall with that stale-beer-and-day-old-vomit smell and the greasy, comfortable vibe that I crave, if you’re looking for a fun (and super cheap) way to spend a few hours in Korea, just walk out on to any semi-populated street. Look up and to your left; look up and to your right. Odds are you’ll see more than a few blazing neon sa-gu signs beckoning.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

“Are you busy?”: Our brush with Buddha’s Witnesses

Alex and I were in the harried midst of hanging our clothes to dry (yep, no dryers here in the good ol’ ROK) before setting out to downtown Daegu for another Orions basketball game when we heard a knock at the door.

Each time this has happened — a total of only three times in the 10+ weeks we’ve lived in Daegu — we exchange surprised glances before one of us goes to the door. The first time, it was a census lady (there’s no escaping them, trust us. Alex had to fill mine out while I was mid-Skype session with my family). The second time, it was a little lost ajumma who wandered into the wrong apartment. But this time might have been the most surprising of all.

“Could we have something to drink?” said the mid-30s, bespectacled Korean man when I opened the door. I glanced at his companion, a similarly outfitted woman in her late 20s. Both were wearing hiking gear. Maybe they just got of the nearby trail at Hamji Mountain, I mused.  Still, I couldn’t quite figure out how or why they got into my code-secure (or so I thought) apartment building. There’s a convenience store less than 15 yards away.

Nevertheless, I’m not one to turn down a couple of thirsty strangers, so I fumbled through some basic Korean and asked if they’d prefer water or juice. I couldn’t decide whether or not I should invite them in. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, I felt guilty leaving them in the cold hallway. I poured them each a glass of water.

Once they had gulped it down, they asked the questions we get almost daily in Korea. “Foreigners? Where are you from? How do you like Korea?” And then, one unexpected question: “Are you busy?” From our broken conversation, we gleaned that they were going up a nearby mountain. What they now told us is that they were visiting a Buddhist temple … and collecting offerings along the way. Yep, we were hit up by the Buddhist version of Jehovah’s Witnesses (with far less fire and brimstone, and no uncomfortable looking suits).

We politely declined, said we had to get going. They said they’d pray for us at the temple. Praying for my eternal soul in exchange for a glass of water? That’s a hell of a bargain.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Checklist before moving to Korea (or any other country)

Recently, I found my “To Do” list from July listing everything I wanted to accomplish before moving to South Korea. I typed it out here for aspiring ESL teachers headed to South Korea (or, really anyone going to another country for an extended length of time) who have that feeling that you’re forgetting something.

I’ve included some links to help you navigate some of the more difficult tasks.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

South Korea High School Test Day: A National Sleep-In Day for the rest of us!

On Thursday, South Korea’s esteemed high school seniors took their college entrance exams.

These exams — think, SATs — are the single most important test a South Korean will take in his or her life. Accordingly, the rest of Korea changes their time schedule once a year for high school students.

Due to the possible traffic conflicts, most employers give their workers an extra hour or so to sleep in on this day. (Some parents even get the whole day off so they can pray in front of the test site.) Even the military was told to not conduct any noisy activities during the test. The only people (besides high school students) up early were Korea’s public safety officers. Nearly all of them come out to help direct traffic and give rides (by car or motorcycle) to high school seniors running late to their test!

Eat Your Kimchi has a great video about this year’s national exam day here.