Saturday, September 1, 2007

Justin Drinks Weird Stuff for Your Entertainment, Parts 2 and 3

Aloe Juice.

Actually, it's pretty good. Tastes a bit like the prickly-pear I had in Arizona, but sweetened. And with little chunks of aloe floating around, to boot!

Corn Tea

Yes, that's corn-flavored (or more like corn-scented green tea) in a can. And, yes, that's a garishly thin cartoon woman hugging a four-foot ear of corn.As for taste, results were mixed. It was incredibly strange, but not unpleasant. It basically was like tasting green tea while smelling roasted corn. (Or Bugles.) Not much of a corn taste really, just a corn smell. BONUS: In the vending machine, it was right next to the POCARI SWEAT.

A Little Catharsis

Just a short list of several annoying little things that aren't working according to plan.

Our internet connection. (Randomly shuts down every 5 minutes.)
Skype. (Horrible call quality, probably related to shoddy internet connection.)
SlingBox. (No idea. Should be working, as far as I can tell.)
Shipment. (Still not here yet. No idea why it's late.)
Garbage. (Can't figure it out. The recycling cans are only out Saturdays before 9AM?)
Taxis. (I'm about 1 for 30 on getting cab drivers to understand my sloppy Korean.)
Health care. (Apparently, most of our in-network doctors are almost an hour away.)
Chinese visas. (We're planning a trip to China, but the embassy has no weekend hours, closes at 5 and is 35 minutes away!)
Core reading books. (Still somewhere out on the high seas.)
Dog. (We have none. Oh, Kipper, I hope you're having fun in the Burgh!)

If you have any suggestions, send them our way!

Whew! What a week!

Sorry there haven't been any posts since Thursday. It's been one crazy week! Not only was Parents' Night pretty draining (I can give more details if you e-mail me, but for privacy reasons I can't really write much about it online), but some of the kids seem to have finally come out of their shells this week--and not in a good way! We actually had one kid, heretofore pretty quiet, sent to the principal's office five times in six hours yesterday (Friday). And while energy was pretty high in my literature circles, it was also a bit tough to keep the kids focused and on-task.

So, yes, while I totally intended to post before now, I spent most of yesterday simply surviving, and I spent most of today asleep. (Aside from a tasty lunch of dongaas--fried pork donkatsu--and buckwheat noodles in ice broth.) Which isn't bad, since it was a pretty dreary day today (cool and rainy), and we certainly weren't up to schlepping out to any museums in town.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Short Impressions of Korean Culture

I had a reader (actually, a cousin) ask me for a little bit more info about Korea in general--culture, weather, and the like. And while I don't consider myself an expert on the topic after only a few weeks, I think now is as good a time as ever to share a few first impressions of some more ephemeral things.

The first, and most amazing, and most amazingly boring insight is that, after about a month, Korea doesn't feel too foreign at all. Many of the core values at work in American society are at work in Korea, too--which is probably one of the reasons Korea and the US have become such close allies (though the military alliance is weakening these days, while the economic alliance is strengthening). It's a relatively Westernized economy, somewhere between American free-market capitalism and European sort-of-free-market socialism. There are some giant conglomerates with semi-official government backing (Hyundai and Lotte are the most ubiquitous), which gives certain aspects of the economy (i.e., limited consumer choice) a distinctly socialist flair. What I can't figure out about the economy, though, is the food. Basic economics suggests that prepared food in restaurants should be more expensive than bulk food from retail stores, but here the opposite is true: when the prices aren't the same, it's usually the restaurant food that's cheaper. How in the heck does that work?

So, let's see, that's the economy. How about the music? What little I've heard so far has been surprisingly groovy--lots of influence from American soul, with a little later Michael Jackson thrown in. Apparently, Korean pop culture is huge throughout East Asia right now--they call it hallyu, the "Korean Wave." The Japanese still rule the world of comics and animation, though. Our kids are extremely excited to be learning Japanese. (More on the Japanese later . . . the Koreans have this thing against the Japanese, what after they invaded Korea a century ago . . .)

Otherwise, there aren't too many glaring differences. The pace of life is pretty fast, but no faster than it was in D.C. People eat dinner late. But they eat with their families, which is kind of cool. (It can be very hard to order dinner for two in Korea, especially considering that most of the time one Korean serving can easily feed three.) The kids don't sleep enough. Most folks shop in giant box stores. (Homever = Target.) Even though Seoul has excellent public transit (and horrible traffic), people continue to drive around in their cars. The familiarity far outweighs the foreignness. Though there's certainly weird stuff. Like eating fish heads. I'll never understand that. (I don't normally like to eat things that can look me in the eye.)

Anyway, those are the first impressions so far. I'll try to make sure we add other "deep thoughts" from time to time, if only to keep us from getting too sucked into the school.!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Lit Circles: First Day

Had our first trial run with our literature circle meetings today. For the most part, they went better than expected, though one class (which will not be named) was a (near-)total wreck.

For those who aren't up on the lingo, literature circles are kind of like book clubs for the classroom. The kids have a lot of choice as to what they read, and they lead book-club-like discussion in small groups, ideally with minimal direction from the teacher. The idea is to teach kids to read like adult readers do: choose books that interest them (and learn how to choose books that interest them), respond to them, and discuss them with colleagues or friends. There's a lot of research out there these days suggesting that this is one of the best ways to turn kids into lifelong readers. It's also a great way to differentiate instruction--kids will generally pick books within their abilities--and give the instructor (me) more time to work one-on-one (or one-on-four) with the kids.

But, man, getting these suckers started is hard! Our kids are so unfamiliar with so-called "student-centered" learning that I already realize I'm going to have to spend at least a couple weeks on teaching students how to ask the kinds of questions insightful readers ask. And as of today, the kids are still terrified of disagreeing with one another, which is something that will have to go.

For the time being, though, I'm satisfied with what went on today. Students read a short story (in class) earlier this week, and at the very least, they're excited to choose their reading for Friday. If I get nothing else out of them this week, I'll consider that a success.

On another note . . . I'm pretty sure my lecture on plot yesterday rocked. We basically all wrote a silly story together (mountaintop, treasure chest, snarling beast) and talked about what all the parts were. We spun off about a dozen different variations at each turning point of the story, and we also discussed a funny secondary story, man vs. society, which involved Mr. Goff wanting to grow up to be a ballerina. Plenty of giggling, plenty of raised hands, plenty of note-taking. All stuff teacher loves to see!

Dis and Indiscretions

Just noticed this morning that Justin and I were riding the very-crowded bus into work merrily discussing our digestive systems' reactions to Korean food, secure in the knowledge that although the average Korean has at least a few useful words of English, digestive slang tends not to be among them. This is probably a habit we should get out of before coming home for Christmas.

My fifth graders made construction paper totem poles yesterday. Some of them really took to it, to the point of asking to take them home to have extra coloring time, and some of them drew a few squiggles in the vague shape of eyes and called it a day. Still, I'm excited to have at least some student work up on the bulletin board for Parent's Night tomorrow.

I give my first test tomorrow, 8th grade geography. I am quite nervous, although probably not as nervous as the kids! How many questions do I ask? How do I write them as language-neutral as possible? On the homework, for instance, even my best English 8s struggled with the section that said "The name of the lines running east-west across the map are called..." and yet nearly aced the section where they had to actually use latitude and longitude to plot on a map. No problem with the concept, then, but problem with the questions. And I absolutely do not want to give a test that so badly mismeasures what people know.

Dilemmas, dilemmas...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Cell phones and seollongtang

Got a cellphone the other day, through the tried and true method of asking someone who has some friends leaving town to score me a free phone. (South Korea uses a mobile phone protocol that's used by pretty much, oh, no one else in the world. In other words, Korean phones are useless outside of Korea.)

This is a big deal, because it can be really tough for foreigners to get phones here--or, more specifically, for foreigners to get phones they can use. You see, several of the big providers here require you to enter your national ID number to set up payment . . . and foreigners don't have a national ID. (No, we tried--alien registration card IDs don't work.) So foreigners either have to get a Korean friend to sign them up for a phone plan, or they have to get phones that are compatible with prepaid plans. . . . so getting a phone from a departing expat is a pretty safe way to go. Only problem is that I'm still getting the occasional text message from the guy's friends. And, his ringtones are awful. But, hey, as far as price goes, you can't beat free.

And, in other news, we've found another menu item that's not too spicy for Nana to eat: seollongtang, which is apparently the Korean equivalent of chicken noodle soup. Basically, a plain rice broth with some chives, a few veggies, and boiled beef. Whereas my latest culinary foray has been into the realm of jjigae, a spicy soup/stew (think spicy tortilla soup, with tofu and lots of cabbage). I can only be grateful that my tastebuds aren't terminally allergic to spice.

Coming soon: Parents' Night (aka, open house). Poor Nana's going to have to entertain the Saudi ambassador. Eek!

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Okay, so this has nothing to do with teaching in Korea, but I am excited beyond all reckoning by this and I just had to share.

I am a huge fan of a romance novelist named Carla Kelly, who also happens to hold a master's in military history. Once upon a time, she posted on a message board about a journal article she'd written on sanitation in frontier military forts, and me being me, I told her I'd love to read it. We e-mailed, she sent me a copy of the article, I told her I really enjoyed it, and at some point during the exchange, she told me she liked my name and could she use it in a romance novel sometime? Well, um, let me think! I told her absolutely, and then kind of forgot about it as work ate my life.

Can you tell where this is going?

Yes. Today on the same message board where I first bumped into her, I saw the following post by Ms. Kelly herself:

In the novel I'm currently working on (due to the publisher Dec. 15), my heroine is named Nana Massie, after a reader. This novel takes place during the bad bad days of the blockade of England in 1808-1809, and is named Worthy.

And my head exploded.

Can you believe it?!!!! I am not only going to be a romance novel heroine, but I'm going to be a heroine for one of my absolutely favorite authors of all time!!!!

Of course, I'm bracing myself for the moment when the publisher says, "That name is a disaster... can't you go with something like Louise?" But come on. This is still the awesomest thing to happen to me, well, ever. Or at least since I married Justin :) (Insert "awww" here).

God bless the Internet!


Not so bad. Like Powerade, but briny.

Jongmyo and Changgyeonggung

I promise this won't be as bloated as the last photo post, or at least I'll do my best! But Nana and I spent yesterday gadding about town (which for two dorks like us usually includes at least one UNESCO World Heritage Site) . . . and I thought that y'all might be interested. So here goes.

We started by taking the Metro to Jongo and entering the Jongmyo-Changgyeongung complex from the park side (you can also enter through the palace gate). Apparently, the park outside Jongmyo is the place for old Korean men (exclusively men) to hang out on a hot Saturday afternoon . . . and do nothing. Absolutely nothing. We found quite a few clusters of old men scattered around the Jongmyo grounds, too. They were apparently undeterred by the whopping 1000W ($1) admission fee. (Edit by Nana: I believe there is no fee for the over-65)

So, Jongmyo, yes. Jongmyo (aka "Chongmyo") is the ancestral shrine of the Joseon (aka "Choson") dynasty--i.e., the guys who ruled Korea for a really long time, ending in 1915 with the Japanese occupation. (These were the same folks responsible for Gyeongbokgung, and for those turtle boats, too.)
At Jongmyo, the ruling king and (the men of) his royal family would gather for elaborate ceremonies honoring the family's deceased kings and queens--which not only included actual kings and queens, but often also any non-royal grandparents of any kings, who were made kings and queens posthumously. As you might have guessed, then, the place is huge. In fact, my sourced tell me (read: I found it on Wikipedia), the main hall at Jongmyo is the longest traditional building in Korea. (Edit by Nana: While he was taking these pictures, I was reading the signs, and the sign said that it's the longest)

And it's pretty big, in a way that these photos can't quite capture. The top photo at left is about 1/2 of the hall, and those kids are about 1/2 of the distance between the camera and the hall. In the bottom photo, I'm standing about at about 1/2 of the way to about 1/5 of the hall.

The rites, as described by a small exhibit and a video (thankfully) subtitled in English, are pretty complicated affairs, and are still performed once yearly by the descendants of the Joseon royal clan. They basically involve offering a full feast, including booze, to the spirit tablets of the deceased, which reside in the hall year-round. (Two other halls--an annex for posthumous royals and another for distinguished retainers--also house spirit-tablet shrines.) Unclear what happens to the food after the ceremony--though during the ceremony, some of it is burned. At right are just a few of the 40-odd ritual utensils laid out before each of the 100-some shrines at Jongmyo for the ceremonies each year. (These are the jars for the booze.)

After Jongmyo, then, we crossed over a footbridge into Changgyeonggung, the adjacent palace used as a summer home by Goryeo and Joseon kings. (Though why anyone would want to spend their summers in such a brightly-lit palace is beyond me.) On the way, though, we had a moment of confusion. Hills, ravines, out-of-control vegetation . . . wait, how did we get back to Pittsburgh? Witness my confusion. This will not be the last time you see this look on my face.

And, yes, Changgyeonggung. Itself sort of a humdrum palace (we wanted to cross into Changdeokgung, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it appeared to be closed), Changgyeonggung does offer some signature views of Seoul, such as at right, with the palace rooftops in the foreground and N'Seoul Tower in the back. (N'Seoul Tower = project for another day.) Alternately, you've got more palace rooftops fronting cityscape at left.

Finally, last but not least, the signature Seoul experience--turning your back on a bunch of skyscrapers and being suddenly reminded that you're surrounded by mountains. Yes, Seoul sits on just about the biggest stretch of flat land in the entire country, with maybe one exception in the southeast. The rest is all jagged peaks, not terribly high, but terribly steep. Can't wait to get up to some of them and hike around a bit. (Nana can wait, though.)
That's it for now. Time for a good, long day of lesson planning (with maybe another post thrown in). Anyung!


The wireless router is working! Nana and I now have complete intarwebs access, unfettered and free!