Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Things kindergarten teachers won't tell you

(But I will tell you because I'm only a kindergarten teacher until I can get back to the States and start teaching high school.)

Yes, I do have favorites.
If you've been around this blog for a while (or if you've ever heard me speak for more than three seconds), you'll know Brian is my favorite student of all time. He's hilarious, he's creative, and he smacked me in the face during a staring contest so he could win. I adored him from the second I laid eyes on that little bowl cut, and absolutely no amount of "acting up" on his part would ever change that. The other day, I wore a new skirt to work, and I was feeling really self-conscious (because I've recently become acutely aware of the fact that I'm three times the size of every Korean woman ever). Brian came up to me and asked if the skirt was new, and I told him it was. He sighed and said, "Miss Nikki, you look so beautiful." How could this kid not be my favorite?

You can't buy my affection.
I don't choose my favorites based on things you buy me. I know you're used to throwing money at problems until they go away, and an uncooperative kindergarten teacher seems to be the biggest problem you currently have. When you come to have meetings to discuss my incompetencies or demand I change something trivial to appear more like the mail-order white girl you're paying good tuition dollars for, you really don't have to worry about giving me a useless gift. I've received a jewel-studded pen, thirty hard-boiled eggs, and $60 mug with an elephant on it as various forms of sucking up. Instead of wasting your time and money bribing the teacher to like your kid, I'd suggest just teaching your kid not to be such an asshole.

When you're rude to me, it makes me like your kid less.
I know this is horrifically unfair, and I do feel a twinge of guilt at admitting it. However, the fact of the matter is when you treat me like something unfortunate you stepped in, I can't stop myself from thinking about it every time your son blows snot all over his face then demands with a self-satisfied smirk that I clean him off. I try with everything in me to not let the kids know that they irritate the crap out of me because it's not their fault you suck. My principal, vice-principal, and co-teacher have all told me that you threatened to have my entire class shut down because I'm the worst teacher you've ever seen, and every time you talk to me I feel about three inches tall. Your kid sees you talking to me like a worthless servant, and so he talks to me that way too. Again, it's not his fault, and I'm trying as hard as I can to love your kid. You're just making it impossible.

Just because you technically pay my salary, doesn't mean you run the classroom.
It amazes me how many of you stay-at-home-moms "used to be teachers" and therefore have a million great ideas about how to run my classroom. Unfortunately, none of you have ever (to my knowledge) tried to teach a room full of toddlers who didn't speak your language and are spoiled beyond belief. No, I will not move your son to the smart table just because you bought me a cupcake. He thinks "chicken" is the room in your house where you cook food. Last week, one of you came into my room after school and moved my tables away further away from the board, explaining to my co-teacher that children have "sensitive eyes" and shouldn't be that close to the board. Last time I checked, my dry erase board wasn't shooting laser beams into the kids' faces, but I'll check again just to be sure.

The awards are meaningless.
Every month, I have to select a "Star of the Month" and a "Good Neighbor" in my class. I have eleven students, and there are twelve months in the year. Therefore, every student will receive each award at least once. It's guaranteed. After I gave out my awards last month, three separate parents scheduled meetings with me to find out why their kids weren't chosen as the recipients of arbitrarily dispersed sheets of thick paper. When I first started at GATE, I actually put some thought into who would receive the awards each month. However, when the school year ended and I was forced to hand out seven awards in one month to make sure each student had received both possible certificates, the whole ritual lost its meaning. Basically the awards now go to the kids whose parents are the easiest to get along with, and by scheduling a meeting to discuss how your student can win the next month, you've secured that he won't be winning for a while.

I hate when you watch me teach.
There's a window in my classroom because the school built it that way. I hate it with a passion, but there's nothing I can do to change it. I've tried to cleverly cover it with art projects, but you just complain until my co-teacher takes them down. I can't think of any other professions where this is acceptable. Can you imagine if all CEO's were required to have windows, and anyone who so desired could stand outside their offices and judge their every move? Sometimes, I sit down. I spend the whole day doing what roughly equates to chasing eleven puppies, and occasionally, that makes me tired. If I'm sitting at my desk during lunch, don't run off and tell my boss that I don't care about the children. I wish I could come to your house and watch you parent whenever I want to; maybe that would keep you from messing your kids up so badly.

Some kids are smarter than others.
I'm not a parent, so I don't quite relate to the whole "my kid's a genius" thing, but I do understand the concept. Your genetic material went into designing that particular spawn, and you're proud that it has the appropriate number of appendages and is semi-potty-trained. It's your job to make your kid think he's already a rocket scientist, and it's my job to give him the skills to one day maybe become one. Therefore, when I suggest that maybe, just maybe, he should try writing with the pointy side of the pencil, don't get your panties all in a twist. The girl at the table beside his can already read, and your son went into the bathroom with his pants on the right way and somehow emerged with them on completely backwards. If we want him to progress at all, I need to put him in the group with kids more his speed, like the one who gets his face stuck in the sleeve of his coat every time he tries to put it on. It's nothing personal; he's three. Three-year-olds shouldn't be in all-day kindergarten anyway, but that's another rant for another day.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The fever (I don't have it)

A lot of my friends here have Yellow Fever. It's a pretty common stereotype that all the foreign men in Korea came here to meet pretty little Asian girls, but a decent number of my white girl friends will admit to having a touch of the Fever.

(Before I get too far, I want to clarify that I'm not being racist when I use the term Yellow Fever. Basically it's my way of saying that my friends find themselves sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex who exhibit physical characteristics that clearly have descended from Asian ancestry. That's a lot to say, and it makes it sound more like I'm studying the mating habits of some kind of exotic animal, so I'm going to stick with Yellow Fever. Also, when you're here, people are surprisingly more okay with racial epithets than in the US. I was always so afraid of not coming across as completely PC at home, but here, my pastor refers to himself as a Twinkie - yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Whole different world.)

Aside from the boy at the bank (with whom I am still desperately in love), I haven't found myself attracted to many Asian men. The flip side of that coin is that I love white boys.

Like, a lot.

Maybe too much.

The other day, I was walking down into the subway station when a boy with shaggy brown hair appeared at the bottom of the stairs. Our eyes met when we crossed paths in the middle, and I felt my stomach flip flop a little. The second I was past him, I honestly had to fight to keep my feet moving in the direction I had originally planned to go; every fiber in my being wanted to chase this stranger up the stairs and find out where he was going. Then go there with him.

This wouldn't be restraining-order-creepy if it only happened the one time (and no, I didn't follow him). Sadly, it happens all. the. time. It's like my bar for potential mates has dropped from "at least mostly attractive" to "white".

Is it just me, or is he sexy?

I don't actually ever talk to any of these men I pass in the street because (1) they probably have Yellow Fever and are not even a little bit interested in a white girl and (2) I'm kind of afraid I'd get them back to the States and realize they look like that guy in the picture. It's like being surrounded by Asians has given me a really bizarre form of beer-goggles, and my qualifications for a future husband have suddenly whittled themselves down to simply "speaks semi-fluent English". I'm honestly a little nervous about going back to the States in the fall and being surrounded by average, run-of-the-mill white boys. Someone's going to have to follow me around to make sure I'm not handing out my phone number to guys named Cleetus.

Apparently I've passed along my affinity for the white boys to my students; here's Grace during her very first introduction to Justin Bieber.

I'm oddly proud of the damage I'm inflicting on the next generation of Koreans.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Foreign footwear

The longer I'm in Seoul, the more things stop being new and exciting. Today when I got off work, I grabbed some kimbap, headed to the orphanage to volunteer, picked up manjoo on the way home, then cooked some vegetables because I realized I never eat anything green. Any of those things would have been made into a post seven months ago, but now, they're all just part of my daily schedule. I forget that things are still exciting for everyone back home, and so I haven't been posting about things that in hindsight I know would make people smile.

Like socks.

I've always liked silly socks. I didn't wear white socks until well into college, and even then it was only when the fun ones were dirty. Therefore, when I got here and realized Korea is the KING of amazing socks, I thought I was in paradise.

I bought some socks for friends and family, but for the most part, I just enjoyed looking at them. I could never decide which ones I liked best, so instead of buying all of them, I just decided to wait until spring and go crazy. During the winter, I reasoned, I needed to wear warm fluffy socks, but now that it's warming up outside, I can start collecting every pair of socks I see.

I don't even know how many pairs of awesome socks I'm up to by now. I'm going to post them in groups of ten so maybe you'll forget how many you've seen and therefore not judge me for owning a few hundred pairs of socks.

I think my favorite part is that these are normal here. At home, I always wore funny socks, but I typically ended up being regarded as "completely useless in selecting proper under-shoe garments." In Korea, tons and tons of people wear funny socks. Everyone has at least a few pairs, and since it's customary to take off your shoes in a lot of places (including some restaurants), everyone gets to compare. Well, maybe I'm the only one comparing. But rest assured, friends in Seoul, if ever we're in a situation where we've removed our shoes, I will be, without a doubt, deciding who in the room has the coolest socks. And treating said person with the utmost respect.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Zombies aren't global

There are a lot of things I don't think about. Gum disease. How shoelaces are made. Apartheid. What "apartheid" even is. Exercising.

This week, I discovered another thing that apparently I wasn't thinking about enough: how other cultures portray zombies.

I bet you've never thought about that either. I mean, why would you? Zombies seem pretty self-explanatory, right? Walking undead monster. Check. Trying to eat your brains. Double check. Awesome addition to Michael Jackson videos. Triple check.

Apparently, I really should think about important matters such as this more often.

Here's how this all came about. My coteacher and I take the kids to the bathroom approximately thirty-seven thousand times a day. She takes the boys and I take the girls. In the girls' bathroom, there are three child-sized stalls, so three of my girls have to wait patiently while the other three use the bathroom. Since their teacher is "waiting patiently" with them, and I'm the least patient person in the whole world, we usually end up playing.

It started out that I would pretend to be a monster and chase them. Asking why this was my first response to waiting-in-line-in-the-bathroom boredom is futile. There's no explaining things like this. They just happen. Eventually, the girls started lining up on the other side of the bathroom and slowly marching toward me like a band of undead warriors.

They march toward me with their arms raised and I feign indifference until they're directly underneath me. As soon as they're within grabbing range, I stomp my foot really loud and grab half-heartedly at them, which sends them all running in a fit of giggles away from me. Repeat. Normally there's no one else in the bathroom when this happens, so we can be weirder than Al in privacy.

Recently, however, we've been getting caught. A few different teachers have walked in while my zombie army is advancing, and they all look at me like maybe I shouldn't be allowed out of a padded room. JoAnn seems to always be the one who catches me acting like a fool with my littles, and of course, she walked in during one of our walking corpse attacks. I just kind of shrugged because, I mean, you'd think people would be used to the fact that I'm far from normal by now. She laughed for a while, then she told me one of the best things I've heard in YEARS.

Zombies in Korea don't walk. They hop.

According to my sources (aka, wikipedia), these corpses originated in China. The idea was that if someone happened to be buried in another town, the decomposing body would get homesick. When people died away from their hometowns, however, it was often too expensive to transport them home. To avoid dead body homesickness, the corpses were taught to hop home. There are other accounts of the myth (involving criminals trying to scare the police by looking like... reanimated kangaroos?), but this one is my favorite.

Of course, our best friend youtube was there to help us out in confirming this myth. Here's an old Chinese movie with a hopping zombie. Maybe you should turn all the lights on and cuddle a bunny rabbit to avoid being too afraid. Oh, and make sure your sound is up. It's worth it.

I also asked my kids to demonstrate. Obviously.

After I asked them to be zombies for me, I started to get afraid. It's pretty scary being surrounded by three-year-olds every day, but being surrounded by hopping zombies is a whole new kind of terror. I hopped (get it?!) back over to wiki to find out how to vanquish these beings of pure evil, and it told me that all I have to do is write a spell on a yellow piece of paper and stick it on their foreheads. Easy peasy.

You can click on the picture to make it bigger and read what spell I obviously chose to vanquish Rachel.

If you ever visit the Far East, always make sure you have a pad of sticky notes, just in case of a zombie outbreak.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Stickers are (not) worthless

I'm excessively frugal. I love finding goofy gag gifts, but I'm more likely to take a picture of said item than purchase it. Before I buy a hat in the shape of Seoul Tower, I imagine how I'll feel when I get home and realize that thanks to some stupid hat, I'm now $10 further from paying off my student loans. Aside from a few necessities (like a thousand pairs of awesome socks - later post), I don't like spending money on things I don't physically need to survive.

Something I don't really purchase often, therefore, is stickers. Sure, stickers are cute. But... their entire purpose is to simply stick on another object. Why? Why do I need a small image to stick to an object? And what types of objects am I supposed to put stickers on, exactly? I have a few stickers on my Nalgene, but I have to be super-careful when I wash it so they don't rub off. I've put some stickers on my planner, but what happens next year when I stop carrying that planner? I no longer have the stickers I was so proud of. There is absolutely no object in my entire possession that I look at and think, "Oh, I'll definitely have this until I'm 80. I'll put my sticker on here!" All my stuff is just stuff, and covering it with stickers will merely make it cluttered stuff. Thus, stickers are (to me) the biggest waste of money possible.

I kind of assumed everyone thought this way about stickers, and so a little part of me always wondered why the sticker industry is so huge. Doesn't everyone realize that stickers are inherently worthless? They're tiny pieces of paper with a strange glue substance on the back that portray a random image or phrase. Why yes, that sticker does have a Power Ranger on it. But there's nothing that I own that needs a Power Ranger on it right now, thanks.

Anyway, I'm a kindergarten teacher. That means stickers are my life. Every morning, the kids file into my classroom, and at least one of them will pelt me with stickers. It's usually one of the girls, and I end up with five or six different Disney Princesses around my waist (that's as high as they can reach). I show a ridiculously high level of excitement to encourage their fragile psyches, and as soon as they're not looking, I toss all the stickers in the trash. I know, I know, I'm heartless. Whatever.

Something a little different happened this morning though. One of the mommies wrote me a note saying that her daughter spent two hours - TWO hours! - working on a single page of her homework to make all the letters look perfect. This student's handwriting has been, well, indecipherable scribbles since day one, but today's homework looked really, really good. I called her over to her desk and asked her who wrote the letters on her paper. Instead of being excited and proud, she coiled up into herself and wouldn't answer. I rephrased the question a few times, and finally, staring at her shoes, she whispered her own name. I turned her face up to mine and told her they were some of the prettiest letters I had ever seen (teaching is all about lying), and I placed a purple sticker on her hand. You should have seen the way her whole face just lit up. Well, actually, you can see it. I took a picture.

When she went back to her desk, I leaned over to talk to another student. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught her kissing her sticker. Kissing it. A sticker. On her hand. And it was one of the most precious things I'd ever seen.

So I got to thinking about how maybe I view stickers in entirely the wrong way. Yes, they're pointless. But really there's no physical object I can think of that actually possesses all the grandeur we've given it. I have a stuffed dog on my bed that Michelle gave me freshman year of college, and that bag of cotton made the cut as something that needed to fit inside my two allowed suitcases when I moved across the world. I'd be sad if something happened to it, but still, it's just a toy. Easily replaceable. It's the relationship behind the object that gives it meaning. The sticker on Grace's hand is just a sticker, but to her, it represents putting in so much effort and making her teacher very proud. Things are just things, but sometimes they can help you remember how important something was to you at a particular moment in time.

I'm probably not going to go out and start buying random crap any time soon, but maybe I'll think twice before I throw away all the stickers on my waist tomorrow morning.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I think Saturday heard me

Earlier this week, I posted about how Monday has rapidly been becoming my favorite day. I love working with Taesun, and more than one member of my family (Lolly, this includes you obviously) gave me the green light on international child abduction. Or adoption. I'm thus far unclear as to how exactly I will get Taesun back to America with me, but it's nice to know I have a lot of support in my corner should I need to hide from the federal government any time soon.

I think Saturday read that post and designed a counter attack. Yesterday rocked.

The day began as all good Saturdays do: I slept until noon then ate pancakes while I watched tv. I had all these great intentions of getting ready early and running a few errands before heading to Jehovah Jireh. Of course, none of those errands were actually accomplished, and yet I still managed to arrive at Jubilee five minutes late.

After prayer and chatting, we headed off to Seoul Station. As we walked, I discovered that I wasn't the only non-Jubilee-er in the group, and I started talking to another girl who attends Onnuri. Kate works with my friend Shauna, but the most exciting thing was that she's from Dayton! It never ceases to blow my mind when I stumble across people who know how great Yellow Springs is or can commiserate over missing Skyline.

I talked with Kate much of the way to Seoul Station. After we dropped off our coats and bags, we walked back toward the soup kitchen (which I always refer to in my head as the "kimchi kitchen" for alliterative purposes). Seoul is a busy city, and everyone who lives here has gotten very accustomed to dodging others on the sidewalk. As we walked, we wound in and out of oncoming foot traffic and talked about how much we love Korea yet for some reason miss Ohio. The girls in front of us stepped around a man walking in the opposite direction, and we moved to the side to also let him pass. Unfortunately, calmly walking past wasn't his plan; where I swerved, he swerved; where I dodged, he dodged... all with his lips proudly pursed to kiss. I twisted past him and back over to Kate, who was looking on in complete shock, before we both burst into hysterical laughter. Yesterday was the first time I was extremely grateful to have been significantly taller than Korean people; if my face hadn't been so far above his, I think he may have actually achieved his directive.

We arrived at the kimchi kitchen, helped set up the food, and started serving. The hour and a half we spend serving food is always hectic in the most beautiful way, and it usually passes in a blur of smiles, bows, and waves. A pastor and his wife run the kitchen, seven days a week, and various ministries pop in and out to help them serve the meals. They speak almost no English, and most of our team speaks very little Korean, yet every month, I'm astounded at how efficiently we serve swarms of people without being able to linguistically communicate. Eight months ago, I'd have thought it impossible to volunteer with an entirely Korean ministry serving an entirely Korean population, but it doesn't really matter. It's almost as if love speaks a whole different, but universal, language.

(I wish that last sentence didn't sound as cheesy as it does. Oh well.)

In the midst of passing out trays, a man came to the counter and tapped me on the shoulder. He started talking in rapid Korean, but I caught the letters "US" in the middle. I smiled and said, "ne, megook" (yes, American). He looked me right in the eyes and said, "I'm sorry." He walked away, and the team cracked up.

A while later, I was talking with my friend Shauna (who is also stereotypically Western) about how much attention we get in Korea, and a man walked up behind her. She turned around to greet him, and he waved his hands in a curvy, figure-8-ish shape at Shauna's figure. Oh Korea. So inappropriate, yet so perfectly timed.

I left the kimchi kitchen before the rest of the team to go see my friend in the Vagina Monologues. I'd never seen the show before, probably because it has the word "vagina" in the title and most conversations that involve... that... make me indescribably nervous. Basically, I was the target audience for the show, and knowing that, I gladly attended.

On the way there, I had to transfer subway lines. I've done this a million times and can usually accomplish it in record time, but this time, I walked past this:

Curiosity won out over my desire to meet my friends on time, and I loitered in the station for a while, hoping to figure out why these girls were dressed in gold. My waiting paid off!

I couldn't stay for the whole show because I did have to get to the VM's, but I was amused and delighted to have stumbled across some random dance troupe in the subway station. Way to go, Saturday.

When I finally met up with Chris and JoAnn to go to Michelle's show, we bought our tickets then headed out to pick up some kimbap for dinner. On the way to the kimbap place, Chris said that every time he heard the word "kimbap", he started singing "mmmbop".... which inspired me to pull up some Hanson on my iPod. Who doesn't love dancing on the street?

After we picked up our kimbap, it occurred to me that I had never shown my family and friends back home what the Korean equivalent of a PB&J looks like. Therefore, I became "that foreigner" who takes pictures of her snacks (not that I haven't been her before) and took this picture for all of you. JoAnn's going to teach me how to make this, so get excited. Y'all are eatin' some kimbap when I get home.

The Vagina Monologues was, in a word, fantastic. I'm not going to lie; a little of it made me uncomfortable, but I think that was actually a good thing. If you haven't seen the show, I'd highly recommend it. Everywhere it's performed, the money it raises goes to support women in the community. This show in particular gave its proceeds to the Korean Unwed Mothers Families Association. They work with unwed mothers who choose to keep their babies, which is a painfully low percentage of those who conceive. In Korea, 94% of unwed women who get pregnant choose abortion. 94%.

Let that sink in a minute. 94%.

Of the 6% that choose to carry the child, 70% will give that baby up for adoption in the end. 30% of 6% of unwed mothers keep their children.

That's less than 2%.

Korean culture places a lot of stigma on unmarried mothers, and that's what KUMFA is striving to change. But honestly... how do you go about changing an entire culture based on thousands of years of tradition?

God, help us.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Monday is the new Saturday

Saturday has been my favorite day of the week pretty much since I got here. I wish I could say it was my favorite because I'm super-exciting and do really spectacular things on Saturdays, but really, the reason is because I rarely have to set an alarm clock. Alarm clocks are man's cruelest invention, and one day a week I can forgo the incessant beeping and sleep until my heart's content. Usually I don't sleep all that late, but I like having the option; thus, Saturdays were always my favorite.

Lately, though, Monday's been creeping up the charts.

Monday?! you ask. Why Monday?!

Well, meet Taesun.

After Christmas at the children's home, I signed up to tutor with Jerusalem Ministry (a group in Seoul that works with orphans). It took about three months to go through training and get placed with a kid that needed tutored. Although I was on fire for the children's ministry three months ago, my interest has waned while I waited. I was attending the prayer meetings where the other volunteers would share their struggles in the homes, and I was honestly starting to wonder if it was going to be too hard for me. Most of the kids who need tutors have really low English skills, and with all the stress my new littles have had me under, I was kind of not feeling it. I was being lazy and selfish, and I knew that if I showed up for the first session, I'd have to show up every week until I move home because I signed a contract to not bail.

The week leading up to that first session, I thought of every excuse in the book to cancel. I had pictured my kid as a tough little gangster who spit in my face and shouted obscenities at me throughout the whole session. I told myself I was too burnt out from teaching, I needed to spend time with my friends, and (most embarrassingly) I couldn't climb the horrendous hill to the home every single week. I almost emailed to tell them I changed my mind a hundred times, but ultimately, I decided to stick with my commitment. And boy am I glad I did.

Taesun is around eleven years old (I'm not quite sure because every time I ask him, "How old are you?", he says, "Fine"). I don't know any details about his life except for the fact that he was dropped at the orphanage a month ago and I'm currently his only tutor (it's Korea, so most kids have more tutors than they have toes). When I first met Taesun's dorm mother, she told me he had been asking for me all afternoon and that he had prepared his notebook and pencils an hour early so he could be ready to go the second I walked in the door. While I was filling out paperwork, he came running into the office, clutching his blue notebook and pencil case, but he didn't expect to see me there yet. I smiled at him and said, "Taesun?" He turned bright pink and replied, "My name!" He waited for me to finish my papers and we headed down to the workroom.

I was told that we were supposed to get to know each other, but that's really hard when we don't cross over in the language department very much. Taesun's English is slightly better than my Korean, but I could tell he was really embarrassed that he wasn't able to answer most of my questions. We played for a while with Scrabble tiles, sounding out simple words and practicing the sounds the letters made, but my favorite part of the night was the second half of our hour together.

Taesun and I joined with two other tutoring pairs to play Uno. The other pairs have been together longer, so they know each other really well, but it didn't matter at all. Huddled around a little table on the floor, we laughed and pretended to get angry and laughed some more, and it was one of those moments that I just knew I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Although he doesn't know an incredible amount of English, Taesun is fantastically polite, and he tries really hard to answer anything I throw at him. I fell in love with him pretty much the second we met, and it already kills me that I have to say goodbye to him in five months. Mom, Dad: practice these words: "Taesun saranghae" (I love you, Taesun) you know, just in case he somehow winds up in my suitcase in September. It's totally not weird to adopt a tween before I'm even twenty-five, right?

Oh, and I forgot to mention, his self-selected English name is Chester. Chester. A-frickin-dorable.