Thursday, October 27, 2011

Everyone's a silver hero, everyone's a Captain Kirk

Since I've been back in Korea, I've taken to watching Star Trek: The Original Series. I just finished watching "Miri," which is honestly a terrible episode. (Seriously? A planet that looks just like Earth?  Were all of the model and miniature builders on strike?  Never mind that none of the drama or the pathos or plot in the episode is at all relevant to the fact that it's "Earth, Jim, but not as we know it.") (McCoy never actually utters those lines but it felt appropriate, allow me the artistic license.)

The premise is, on Earth 2, people were working on a way to manifest immortality.  The result was a virus that would age you extremely slowly (one month every hundred years) until puberty hit, whereupon you turned into a shrill, buboes-covered zombie thing and then died.  Result? A planet full of children.   Three hundred years (assuming, of course, that the Earth twin moves around its own sun at a similar speed) of nothing but children.  At one point the children try to foil Kirk and company's attempt to find a  cure vaccine.  One of them—the titular Miri, who at maybe age 14 is Kirk's creepiest romantic conquest yet—leads Kirk to the shrieking hooligans.  Amid the ironic-I-guess?  background of their "playing school" setting he does his best to get them to listen to him.  Naturally, they don't.

All of this is to say that watching that ninety seconds of footage was like a mirror into my own (not necessarily current) life, though with better English: dealing with a room full of hyperactive defiant children, struggling to communicate key ideas and concepts to these monstrous little hellspawn, dying of a deadly plague...all part of the hagwon job.  Alas I can't find it isolated, and don't feel like downloading and learning how to use a video editing program just for that, so content yourself with the few seconds in the original broadcast preview for this episode.

 The next time I'm frustrated in a class, I'll just think to myself: what would Captain Kirk do?

Unfortunately the show doesn't really give us an answer. Instead, through the magic of editing, Kirk and the children show up to save the day, sans all that messy "classroom management" business.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Return of the Temple Stay

My week of funemployment gave me the time to touch up and upload my photos of the Golgulsa Temple Stay. Instead of retroactively editing the entry (which no one will go back and check anyway), I'll just share the pictures here (where no one will read anyway).

Bonus points: in which I attempt to be a Writer (better known as, selections from The Little Orange Notebook I Carry All The Time):

The morning started out rough.  My cell phone alarm was so subtle as to be...absolutely silent.  I'm still not sure how that happened.  I only overslept by five minutes, however.  It was stil early enough that I took the time to hit a PC-bang before I got on the subway—no job leads whatever, though I had been expecting at least three.  
With only slightly diminished hopes, I promptly boarded the subway...on the wrong line.    Again, fortunately my mistake was rendered relatively minor as I figured it out by the next stop.  All went smoothly until I got to the Express Bus Terminal, a labyrinth of a building given over to an almost exclusively local clientele.  In other words, this was no Incheon Airport, no Seoul Metro—English was in tiny print and not spoken.  It took two foiled ticketing window encounters to realize that I was in the wrong building.  My sleep-dazed self had somehow missed signs for the Gyeongbu Terminal, which is separated from the rest of the terminal for reasons unknown to me.
Once there, the situation was, at first, intimidating: the demanding-looking schedule, the four A.M. wake-up call, the 3000-bow penalty for missing morning chanting—but it soon degenerated into a summer camp type atmosphere.  Only, at summer camp people gave a shit if you didn't show up.  The minders here didn't seem to give shits or even know who was still here and who had left.  They were all too busy being hippies, I guess.
 I was expecting something like a sesshin: functional silence, room to myself, lots of time for meditation and to generally be alone with my thoughts.  But there was no silence to be found, and rooming with nearly all of the girls on the program meant lots of chatter.  And when there was silence—during sitting meditation—the cushions supplied were less than adequate.  My hips needed the extra lift from a proper zafu to get into a good quarter lotus position like I had learned at my sangha.
Ceremonies were led by a ginger woman who had "drunk the Kool-Aid," as Mark described her.  I, too, had noticed her tendency towards "Koreaboo."
I decided on an experiment the second night (or rather, followed Mark's lead): skip evening chanting and Sunmudo practice altogether.  If questioned  I would claim debilitating stomach ache.  Or slitting migraine.  But of course, no one questioned me (or even noticed I was missing).

Frankly speaking, the vast majority of other English teachers in Korea piss me off.  There are some who never get over the culture shock, and others who are so blithely unaware that it never hits them in the first place.  I don't believe in making "Korea Friends" (people you only befriend because you are both foreigners in Korea) so I didn't say much to any of the other guests.  Without Mark I may have been well and truly miserable the whole time.


  • the food 
  •  the apathetic atmosphere (It became more of a blessing than a curse, as I could basically do whatever the heck I wanted and make my vacation my own.) 
  • beautiful grounds 
  •  nice accommodations  
  • attending a Buddhist Chuseok service 

  • lack of organization 
  • lack of discipline 
  • lack of authenticity 
  • lack of silence

Friday, October 21, 2011

Obligatory Tourist Spot #5: Gyeongbokgung

Seoul has lots of Joseon era sites to visit (and earlier, too, I guess, but Seoul was the capital of Joseon-era Korea).  One of the bigger and nicer palaces is Gyeongbokgung: literally, "The Palace of Shining Happiness."  Why do Asian names for things sound really, awfully dumb when translated into English?

Most of Gyeongbokgung is a reconstruction, as the Japanese basically razed it not once but twice.  Oh, and the second time, they put a new residence for the Japanese Governor-General on top of the ruins.  Way to go, guys.  Surely that will endear you to your newest colonial conquests...or inspire them to vomit on the steps of your embassy.

I had always meant to visit (it just seemed like one of those things I should do), and my week of funemployment provided me the perfect opportunity to do just that.  I didn't take a tour or anything (read as: I don't know jack about the palace beyond what I just wrote up there), so I'll just picspam a little bit.

Heungnymun, the Second Inner Gate (also pictured above).

Changing of the guard ceremony.  

"Don't eat on the bench or Haechi will swallow your soul!"

Department of Redundant Redundancies: "...longevity symbols...symbolize longevity."  The rest of the English on the signage was impeccable, in terms of both grammar and style, so this stood out.  "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?"

Geunjeongjeon (Imperial Throne Room): originally built in the 1390s, burned down (by the Japanese) in the 1590s, reconstructed in the 1860s and has survived all Japanese invasions since then.

I think this is Gyeonghoeru Pavilion but I can't be sure, everything runs together.   Gyeongheoru Pavilion is where emperors had feasts and banquets and fancy unofficial fun times.

Part of Amiran, the gardens behind the queen's quarters.

The impression I can't really convey here is that Gyeongbokgung is kind of big.  Even with restorations only 40% complete, it's pretty big.  The South Korean government launched a 20-year program to rebuild the entire goddamn thing (which clocks in at 330 buildings and over 400,000 square meters) and if it ever gets done, Gyeongbokgung will be even more impressive.  Of course, The Forbidden City is still bigger (three times as many buildings and just under twice the amount of land), but I don't think China had to rebuild the thing three times.

I'll probably make another trip in the spring to take the English tour and to visit the two museums attached (The National Folk Museum and The National Palace Museum).  Unfortunately, their price isn't included in the general admission (I don't think?), but Gyeongbokgung is such a deal (3000 won) I can splurge without feeling bad.  Museum admission in South Korea tends to be very economical, anyway.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ernest Goes to Immigration

And going to Immigration is only a couple steps above going to Prison, but definitely not as fun as going to Camp.  (Confession: I haven't seen a single  Ernest movie.)

Anyway, I have successfully done whatever it is I had to do to change my visa and not be a questionably-legal worker in Korea.  It took the better part of my morning and I did it all without crying!  ("Cry until something works" was actually my plan B, in case the plan A of "Hope that someone will speak English and babysit you" didn't work out.)

A word, then about the Immigration Office in Yangju.

First of all, Yangju is a speedbump on the way to the DMZ.  My good friend Maddie has a grandfather whose quote often got tossed around between all of us (back when we worked together): "Uijeongbu?!  That shithole's a speedbump on the way to the DMZ!"  Not so anymore.

So I don't understand the decision to move the immigration office to Yangju, which by all means seems much smaller, poorer, and more difficult to get to for most of the people concerned.  Nonetheless the building is nice, and new, and probably the nicest and newest thing in the entire dong, if not the surrounding ones as well.

Second of all, despite it being, y'know, Immigration and dealing with, y'know, people who are not Korean, there is a dearth of helpful interpreters or signage in any language but Korean.  I'm not trying to play the "I'm an English teacher and my life in Korea is SO HARD" card: I mean to say, a government office providing extremely necessary services to a group of people who might not speak Korean, or might not speak it well, should probably take that into consideration when setting up its office.  I mean, even subway announcements are in Korean, English, Chinese, and Japanese.  Would it be too much to ask the same of Korean Immigration as well?  (Honestly, they probably only really need  English, Chinese, and Russian.)

They did, helpfully, check off all the boxes in the forms you needed to fill out beforehand (literally every copy of every form had checkmarks, grandfathered in from whatever master copy years and years ago) as well as provide a sample guide so you could see exactly what to put where  (though only in English).  Unhelpfully, the forms were in no way labeled and there were quite a few there to pick through.  What US military needs is (presumably) different from what I need is different from what a student or gyoppo needs.  Seoul immigration does have the helpful "1345" foreign language hotline, which I suppose you could call in a pinch, 

Other blog accounts of this office spoke of understaffed desks and long wait periods, but while I was there every station was manned and I only waited a couple minutes to speak with a clerk.  The first one I talked to was a fellow whose English seemed limited, and after looking at my papers provided me with the correct forms to fill out to transfer and extend my visa.   I finished those, took another number, and talked with a younger and more fluent girl (fluent enough that she commented to her coworker, in Korean, on the "Konglish" in the Korean forms).  She got me squared away and was probably more patient with me than I can imagine, as fatigue, vague illness, and stress were doing their best to make me an impossible human being to deal with.  

 It would have been easier with a native Korean with me, but everyone at the new school is too busy working so the unspoken assumption was that I'd take care of it myself. My mom commented on my self-sufficiency back when I was considering leaving my job in Bundang, but really I'm not.  If I had not had the sheer dumb luck to have a clerk with a relatively high level of English fluency, I probably would have cried, at which point things would either sort themselves out (to get the fat blubbering foreign girl to stop being an awkward production as soon as possible) or I would have gone home in defeat.  Neither way is a very graceful way to handle failure.

Beyond the stress of foreign paperwork, it was a beautiful day to be out and about for four hours.  All of the cabbies in Yangju drove with the window down to take advantage of the mild weather and the sunshine.  The leaves are just beginning to change in places, and while it's getting chillier (down to single digit Celsius temperatures in the night), the humid summer air has evaporated away into the refreshing clarity of autumn.

I have to go back and finalize everything in a few weeks (things get outsourced to the big office in Seoul instead of being taken care of in the assorted provincial offices) but 95% of the remaining bugbear hounding at me since I changed jobs has been taken care of.  

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Real Life Drama: Take This Job And Shove It

I suppose now that I have moved house, it's an appropriate time to say that I no longer work at Cassandra Academy.  I've settled back in to Uijeongbu and am due to start a new job one week from tomorrow.  I'm really excited both to be back in Uijeongbu and also to start this new job because it seems like a good one.  And once again the header of my blog is relevant to my locale!

Even with all the excitement, however, there's also more than a little resentment and bile below the surface—after all, I did leave the job for a reason.  Many reasons. The first instinct is to spew that bile far and wide over the Internet, even though I realize that's not entirely fair.  The school was simply not a good match for me, and they can't be blamed entirely.  Not only that, but there are plenty of other English teachers who get treated even worse—to say nothing of the manic work schedule of a typical Korean.  There is a little bit of entitlement in my anger, I realize.  In the interest of moderation, I will enumerate my reasons (because hey, it's my blog and I do what I want), but avoid naming names.

Cassandra Academy used to be to a branch (or franchise, I'm hazy on how these things are sorted) of the mega-chain POLY.  That's the most identifying information I'll name, mostly because its history as a POLY school has a lot to do with how it's run now.  The books and curriculum are all (I'm 90% certain) POLY's material, as are the hours (9 AM to 7.30 PM).  Cassandra has two campuses, with plans to open nine(!) more; right now one campus has typical hagwon hours and the other campus has atypical hours.  I worked at the atypical one. 

My first and foremost complaint is the hours.  While there is a ninety minute block in the middle of the day to prep for your afternoon classes, plus another hour for lunch, the fact remains that you spend ten and a half hours every day more or less tethered to your work. If you're the kind of person who has boundless energy, both mental and physical, then it's not an entirely untenable schedule.  When I first arrived in Korea, even, I could manage it, since the sheer and utter exuberance of being back in Korea carried me through the hours to scheduled dinner dates with friends I had not seen for a year and change.  Once I got settled in, however, it didn't take long for me to wear down. 

That's why my updates have been so intermittent and lacking in depth since I've been back:  I don't have the time to sit down and set down my thoughts in anything other than a cursory, skim-the-surface manner.  The longer entries I've posted (for example, what I wrote a while back about "who owns Arirang?") have taken weeks, due in part to the fact that just as I would hit a good writing groove, I'd check the time and realize I had to go to bed.   Then factor in revisions and editing and spell-checking, and you add even more time.  There are still two more drafts sitting in the Internet ether, waiting to be finished at a time when I have more brain juice.

Not only that, but the broad expanse of hours means that doing any kind of life maintenance is impossible.  Your only real free time is the weekend, but most of the things you need to do are closed on the weekend.  Either that, or they're the things you don't WANT to spend your weekend doing (like getting teeth pulled).   Your only window of opportunity for life administrative duties would be your lunch hour and part of your prep.  Otherwise, you have to call off and then everyone else who does work gets screwed over because they have to cover your classes.

The other big reason I left was an absolutely toxic work environment.  My manager at Sherlock was not the most popular guy, but  I've never carried as much sustained rage at his shenanigans as I have at the (former) head foreign teacher at Cassandra, a woman held in utter contempt by each and every teacher who worked under her.  In one of those twists of fate you kind of come to expect in the corporate world, at the company picnic on Saturday the owners announced that she was being promoted to Vice Director.  The fact that they did this despite numerous complaints from teachers about her is, paradoxically, both mind-boggling and par for the course.  Clearly they value her decision to stick with the school (and the pretty sweet gig and cozy schedule she set up for herself) above the complaints from teachers who come and go after a year, or two at the most.   Even when they keep hearing complaints from a number of different teachers.

There's a whole litany of complaints I have about her, but I will sum it up as neatly as possible: she is in a managerial position without even an iota of managerial training, and it shows.  She micromanages, she undermines your authority in the classroom, she delegates work to teachers that should really be under her purview, and she is not one to rise above petty disagreements.  Even the students—or at least most of the ones that I taught—dislike her.  One of my older students called her Voldemort.  And I say all of this as a teacher who managed to get treated pretty well: she only dumped work for me to do during my free periods (named, of course, "R&D periods" so they can justify giving you more work to do) a couple of times and never pulled me aside for awkward confrontations.

Other little things came up that contributed to my decision to leave: lack of communication between the owners, other administrators, and the teachers; the fact that they do the bogus "base salary plus a monthly bonus" bullshit so as to cheat you out of money on your pension and severance; useless and inefficient "teacher meetings" (but then, is there ever an effective and efficient meeting?); lots of little bullshit that we were some how required to do despite it not ever being mentioned either in the interview or in the contract.

In the interest of being "fair and balanced," I will say this:  those who work at the other campus with more typical hours and without the same head foreign teacher enjoy their work and seem to be treated pretty well.  It is not a problem with the whole company, per se; just that the particular campus where I worked was not a fun place.  If the managing situation was different, it could easily be a tolerable, if not fun, place to work.  And while the "low base salary plus monthly bonus" is a bunch of crap, they still send you home every month with very decent pay, all told.  The actual teaching is a breeze, as there is a lot of content in the material (maybe, in some cases, too much) so you're not stuck with wondering what to do next.  Coming from a school that used utterly contentless books (try spending ten class periods teaching fifth graders the concept of comparatives and superlatives after they get it on the first day, from a book targeted at seven year olds),  I had a lot more fun in my classes at Cassandra than I did at Sherlock.  It just wasn't enough to counter the fact that the hours were soul-sucking and that the management was subpar.

I would hate for this to be anyone's first experience in Korea.  My prior life here meant I had loads of networking opportunities available: people recommended recruiters to me, forwarded job openings, and eventually I found my new job via the Uijeongbu Crew Facebook group.  Many other people at Cassandra, however, don't have that prior experience to draw on, which makes leaving much more difficult.  Hopefully I can provide them even just a fraction of the assistance I received, should they make that decision. 

Anything else would be too personal to provide in a public forum, I feel, but I am amenable to any questions asked of me in private.  I'll just let Johnny Paycheck and David Allen Coe play this entry out:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Obligatory Korean Tourist Spot #4: Temple Stay

Remember that time I went to Gyeongju for Chuseok?  Yeah, I had almost forgotten that, too.  Fortunately, with the three day weekend (and canceled trip to Gwangju), I now have time to tell you all about it!

Just kidding, it's been two weeks since my three day weekend and I've been incredibly remiss in updating this.  I kept a notebook my entire trip in Gyeongju (since I had a lot of time to myself), and I would love to do some kind of pseudo-literary write-up on it.  Maybe I will in the near future.  But before they vanish entirely from my memory, let me get the bones of the trip out here, even if they lack the meat.

Gyeongju is beautiful. While the naked Korean winter has its own kind of beauty,  I was glad to be down there in the summer for the greenness and foliage and so forth.  If anything, expectations were exceeded in that department.  Since I don't have any of my pictures ready for Internet publishing (in need of some GIMP adjusting and image resizing), I'm stealing some of Mark's.  He'll deal with it.

The weather was intermittently rainy, with some spots of gorgeous sunshine.  The temple itself was also lovely, though not as huge and extensive as Bongeunsa or Bulgoksa.

Truth be told, that was about all I got out of it.  There were a lot of mitigating factors involved: my personal experiences with Buddhist retreats and thus my expectations thereof; the sheer number of foreigners (way more than they seemed to really be prepared for); unpleasant life situation leading to uncharacteristically dyspeptic mental state; my general disdain for fellow anglophone foreigners; whatever.  In a nutshell, I found the experience extremely tourist-y and not particularly well-organized.   

The former descriptor is a subjective one, absolutely: other people seemed to really enjoy themselves and I don't doubt they found the experience enlightening or life-changing or whatever.  Organization is a fair one to take them to task for, though.  The schedule often changed at random and without warning; meals that took ten or fifteen minutes to eat were allocated to ninety minute blocks which left you with a lot of random meandering to do (or, presumably, naps to take).  If you didn't show up for an event, no one came to look for you.  Upon arrival they warned that "missing morning chanting means you do 3000 bows for punishment, and it's 1080 bows for any other chanting that you miss," but I skipped out on the evening chanting my last day there and suffered no consequences whatsoever.

Mark and I left one day earlier than anticipated—traveling ON Chuseok proper—and it was probably the smartest decision I could have made.  Nonetheless, it was nice to be out of Seoul for a few days, and seeing Mark was also a pleasant (and totally unexpected) surprise.

Overall, I wouldn't really recommend this particular temple's program, at least not their Chuseok one.  Maybe during the off-season it's a different tone, but Chuseok is simply too scatter-brained and too disorganized to really give you any sense of culture that isn't prettied up for white people.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ich bin eine Erdnuss

A conversation my kindergarten class had with their other teacher:

"Lisa-teacher, you are tall!"

"No, I'm just wearing tall shoes."

"Ah. Katherine-teacher is very very short.  She's like a peanut."