Tuesday, November 25, 2008

TEFL Notes

The past few weeks have been good ones for my little English-teaching business. I now have four very regular students. One of them, however, is in Brazil until December, so I've had an easy schedule with six lessons per week. Two of the students I'm currently working with are beginners, and the third is at the low intermediate level. It's been particularly exciting to watch this third student blossom. The first time I met her was at the tea that we had here at our apartment. She was very quiet and spoke only in Ukrainian to her friend. I was nervous about teaching her because she seemed distant and unfriendly. But after only six weeks of lessons, she has gained a tremendous amount of confidence! Now she regales me regularly with tales of her weekend and with what she's cooked during the past week, and she cracks me up with a great sense of humor. She ran into Glenda at the bus stop last week, and Glenda reported that they had a conversation in English. It's amazing how much good a chance to practice conversation skills with a sympathetic listener will do.

I am very much enjoying teaching my two beginning students. They are both Brazilian, and they are both doing great. I've decided that I really like teaching beginners because it is so easy to see them make progress. It's easy to find vocabulary that they will hear often, so they have lots of chances to practice. The grammar they're learning is simple and easy to teach. I do miss the chance for more advanced readings and discussions, but I suppose that will come in time.

I am particularly amused by the system one of my Brazilian students and I have cobbled together to communicate. It works like this: she rattles off a long string of Portuguese, accompanied by diagrams or hand gestures, and I, miraculously, understand her and respond in English. She usually understands, and so we grind on through basic grammar points, using our multilingual skills. Every once and a while, we stop and laugh at how our languages have become mutually intelligible through not much more than our sheer determination to be understood.

My Ukrainian student pointed out to me this week how difficult she finds it to read in English. I gave her a short passage about fashions as an introduction to the past tense and some vocabulary about clothes. She said she hates reading in English, but that she could read when she studied German. I always talk to my students about how difficult spelling is in English because the letters of the alphabet do not correspond one-to-one with sounds. For example, g can be pronounced "hard," as in gentle, or "soft," as in girl. So it's hard to know how to write a word that you know how to use in conversation. I try to sympathize with my students on this point. But I haven't been as sympathetic about reading until Elena pointed out how frustrating it is for her. Then I remembered how hard it was for me to read Polish, even though it does have a one-to-one correspondence between the alphabet and the sounds the letters represent. Sometimes I'd have to actually say words outloud before I'd realize that I knew them or that they were similar to their English counterparts. So, my other students can thank Elena for making me more sympathetic to the unique trials of learning to read English. On the other hand, only practice can ease these trials. So maybe they shouldn't thank her yet.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Korean Language Update

Keegan and I continue to faithfully attend our Korean language classes every Tuesday and Thursday evening. The class is winding to a close - our final exam is next Thursday, conveniently scheduled to make Thanksgiving that much less inviting. (Don't worry, we will be having dinner with a lot of other American ex-pats on Saturday.) Recently, we've been studying numbers. To make things interesting, Koreans use two different number systems, one based on Chinese (Sino-Korean), and the other pure Korean. The Sino-Korean system is used for telephone and bus numbers, for prices and for minutes when you're telling time. It's also used for anything over 100. The Korean system is used for counting, for ordering at restaurants, and for the hours when telling time. The Sino-Korean system works in a predictable fashion: for example, eleven is ten-one (ship-il) and twenty is two-ten (i-ship). But the Korean system is a bit harder to remember because twenty, thirty, forty, etc. are all different words that aren't similar to the numbers from one to ten. For example, two-ten would be tul-yeol. But twenty is actually semul, which has nothing in common with either two or ten, and also has nothing in common with the words for thirty, forty, etc.

Things get even stranger when you start talking about money. Korean currency is called the won, and the exchange rate is very roughly 1,000 won to $1 (it's actually better than that now, but still easy to think of this way). This means that you're often called upon to talk about prices that are in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. In English, we count that high with a base of 1,000, so a number like 526,000 is five hundred twenty-six thousand. But in Korean, the base is 10,000, so 526,000 would be 52 ten-thousands, 6 thousands. It makes the head spin a bit.

Last night we learned about saying this and that in Korean. Of course, in English, the difference between this and that has to do with how far the thing you're talking about is from the speaker. If it's close by, we say this, and if it's far away, we say that. Korean has a third distinction: close to the speaker, close to the listener, and far from both. I love the way different languages divide up the world in different ways. The grammar of this and that sounds pretty boring, but in this case, it points to a different way of thinking about the people and objects around you when you're speaking.

Another distinction was brought up the other day when I asked our teacher how to say "cat food" in Korean. She told me that the word for food is related to the verb to eat, but changed to indicate that the food is being fed to the animals. Then she said that the word for food is different for animals than it is for humans. And I thought, ah, it's just like in English how we call food for farm animals feed. But in Korea, according to my inference, cats eat cat feed. I don't think I should draw too many conclusions from this, especially since I don't know all the grammar involved, but it is interesting that we make a division between words for food between pets like dogs and cats (food) and farm animals like cows and horses (feed). But in Korean, cats at least are grouped differently from people. And indeed, in general I think many Korean people are more distanced from their pets than Americans are, although I suspect based on the number of tiny dogs in little dog coats walking around Okpo, that this may be changing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Busy Weekend

This weekend was nonstop fun, let me tell you. On Friday night, just as I was lamenting another quiet and boring evening in the apartment, Keegan called to tell me we had been invited out bowling with some of his co-workers. There is a whole new batch of younger folks who have arrived here over the past few months, and they are unencumbered by kids and ready for fun. So a group of nine of us trooped over to the bowling alley. The alley we went to was on the fourth floor of a building in town - we couldn't imagine what was underneath it on the third floor! Hopefully something that closes before people start rolling ten- to fifteen-pound balls down wooden alleys overhead. We were pleasantly surprised that we were able to walk in and get two lanes right next to each other. All of us were about of equal ability, so we had fun competing with each other in a good-natured way. We noticed that many of the Korean bowlers around us had beautiful shiny bowling balls and professional looking wrist braces, but strangely, they seemed to be bowling only about as well as we were, even with all their advantages, so we didn't feel too outclassed.

After bowling, the girls in the group had a hankering to go sing karaoke, so we headed off to find a place one of our group had been to before and liked. Three of the guys in the group went off to go play pool, but Keegan came with us to sing. I'm a lucky woman to have a husband who shares my utterly unreasonable love of karaoke! We ended up in a second floor norae-bang (karaoke room). The way karaoke works here is that you go into the establishment and ask for a room at the counter. The clerk points you to your own private space where you have a list of songs and two large screens. You pay by the hour for time in the room. Our room could have held maybe 12-15 people, and it had comfortable couches along the walls and a big table in the middle. There was a disco ball overhead, and the karaoke screens played the funniest videos as we sang. They were completely unrelated to the songs and featured scenes from nature, track and field events, and pictures of European and Korean cities. We were also provided with several tambourines for enthusiastic accompaniment. We sang a lot of songs, but everyone's favorite was a ballad called "Making Love out of Nothing at All," which Janey sang with Keegan as a back-up singer. Of course, Keegan didn't know the song, so the chorus degenerated into Keegan chanting "makin' love" in a deep, Barry White type voice, and Janey following up with a beautiful "out of nothing at all." This went on for quite some time, accompanied by gales of laughter from the rest of the group. Keegan's mustache lent a certain je ne sais quoi to the performance.

After our all fun on Friday evening, we got a late start on Saturday. We decided that we'd spend the afternoon taking a trip to Oedo Botania, an island off the coast of Geoje with a botanical garden on it. We took a boat from the nearby town of Jangseungpo, somehow managing to arrive at the ticket office exactly when the boat was leaving. The trip out to the island took nearly an hour. We cruised along Geoje's coast, enjoying the beautiful views and listening without comprehension to the guide's narration in Korean. We sat quietly without speaking up when the dried squid vendor walked past. After about half an hour we came to a small rocky island with huge cliffs, and the guides told us that we could stand outside on the narrow deck of the boat. We took some pictures and then stood back in awe as the pilot steered the boat into tiny gaps in the cliffs. I knew that the pilot must be very skilled at steering the boat through these small spaces, but it was still a little scary to watch the cliffs slide past only a few feet from our faces.

At long last we arrived on Oedo. The garden was very impressive and chock full of Korean tourists. I don't think we saw any other foreigners there, which surprised us a little. We also think that every single Korean tourist there was industriously taking pictures and posing in the funniest ways. We enjoyed the plants and flowers and the cactus garden and funny sculptures, but we'd also like to go back during the week when the garden might be less crowded. We dutifully followed the pretty garden path, ate some fruity flavored ice cream, and enjoyed some stunning views of the ocean and nearby islands. The sky was particularly beautiful, even though it was mostly cloudy, because the sun was streaming through the clouds and the light was muted and soft.

The ride back to Jangseungpo was much shorter, and many people fell asleep. The woman sitting next to me was wearing a fuzzy bright red sweater, and the girl behind us was amusing herself by picking fuzz off of the woman's sweater and placing it on her husband's black jacket, then laughing uproariously. It was hard not to laugh along.

After all this activity, you'd think we were ready for a quiet afternoon at home on Sunday. But we had already made plans to go biking with our triathlon buddies and some of the new surveyors that we had gone bowling with. So we drove in a caravan out to Tongyeong, a town just off of Geoje Island. There is a triathlon there every year, and our friends wanted to show us the bike course. We parked in a huge parking lot that serves as the transition area for the tri and got ourselves ready. One of the new surveyors had just gotten a new bike and was learning to use the clip-in pedals, so there were a couple of false starts, but she was a real trooper and we were off on our adventure. Everyone rode at a different speed, but those in the front were patient and waited for the rest of us so that no one got lost. We rode up and down some monster hills and enjoyed still more views of beautiful harbors full of fishing boats and rounded mountains covered in trees turning orange, red, and yellow. It was a great ride, but the last uphill of the course was a real killer. Thank goodness for my granny gear, because even with it I was huffing and puffing pretty hard at the top. Everyone was filled with biking ambitions after the ride. Mine is to be brave like Rachael and learn how to use my clip-in pedals, too.

In the evening, we went up to John and Glenda's house for dinner with them and with Daniel and Marina. John showed us pictures from his trip to Australia, where he did some wonderful scuba diving and took a lot of good pictures with his underwater camera. I was so tired from the bike ride that I could barely keep my eyes open, but it was a good feeling to know that we had spent the weekend so productively, in the company of so many nice people.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Happy Pepero Day!

November 11 is a special day in Korea: Pepero Day! It's named after chocolate dipped pretzel sticks (yum!) called Pepero. On this day, boyfriends and girlfriends give each other little gifts of the pretzel sticks, and the stores have been filled with special displays composed of fancily wrapped Pepero packages. I'll see if you can guess why November 11 was chosen as Pepero Day.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

More Culinary Adventures

From what we understand, we are quite lucky to be in Geoje now and not earlier. Two supermarkets in Okpo and the Tesco in Gohyeon, near the shipyard, are among the fairly recent conveniences that we enjoy now. As a result, it's not hard to find a lot of the foods and other goods that we're used to as Westerners. Unfortunately, though, a major deficit in food stores here is the cheese selection. We can buy cheddar and mozzerella, but other fancy kinds of cheeses are harder to come by. One cheese that I particularly miss is ricotta, which plays a starring role in my favorite food, lasagna. A few weeks ago I found myself yearning for some lasagna, so I decided to check for ricotta in a deli shop where I had seen some unusual cheeses on offer. A very small tub of ricotta cheese, about 1/2 cup to be exact, cost 9,500 won, or about $9.50. But such is the pull of lasagna that I paid it willingly. At least Keegan and I got several meals out of our very pricey pan of lasagna!

Our tiny ricotta tub, with Keegan's cell phone for scale.

Another food adventure involved a strange fruit we found at the supermarket. It looked like a large, green-skinned, oval apple, and we decided to buy it and see what it was like. First we discovered that it was hard as a rock. It was nearly impossible to cut off a piece to sample, but when we did, we were both sorry. Not only is this fruit hard as a rock, but also incredibly bitter. This is not a fruit that has evolved to be remotely approachable to human tastes. Some research on the Internet led us to the discovery that we had bought Chinese quinces, which are, as we had already learned, basically inedible unless cooked for a very long time with lots of sugar, as in quince jelly. Since we don't have any jelly jars or any experience making jelly, I looked around for another quince recipe and found one for a quince and apple crisp. It came out delicious, with the sweetness of the apples, sugar, and maple syrup complimented well by the tartness of the well-cooked quince. But the difficulty of peeling, coring, and chopping up the quince is not an experience I'm eager to repeat. I'd say the quince is giving us pretty strong signals that it does not want to be eaten, and I'm willing to listen to those from now on.

A Chinese quince and a pan of quince-apple crisp.

A more friendly fruit we've been enjoying are small tangerines from Jeju, a large island that is the southernmost part of Korea. They are tiny and sweet and tasty, and I bought a huge box of them last time we went shopping. In Korea, it is not unusual to see people buying fruit in bulk when it's in season, and we've gotten caught up in the trend. Here's the result:

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mini World Cup 2008

This past Saturday Keegan and I spent the whole day at the "Mini World Cup," which the city of Geoje puts on for all the foreigners that work and play club soccer at the shipyards. It was held at the Geoje Stadium, which is really nice, with a perfectly manicured field and a big, wide rubbery track. I had a nice four-mile run on the track while Keegan warmed up with the ABS team. Normally I don't like running on the track, but it was so nice to have a long, flat running route that I didn't mind so much.

The soccer tournament had eight teams in it, which were assigned country names based on the location of their home office. There were two Brazilian teams, one from each shipyard, and one each from Qatar, the UK, Angola, and Korea. ABS's team played as the U.S., even though there are a number of people of other nationalities on the team.

The opening ceremony featured a Korean traditional drumming group wearing the most outrageous costumes. There were a man and "woman" dressed in traditional Korean clothing who just danced and didn't drum. The man had a stringy fake white beard, and the "woman" was actually a man with lipstick who really hammed it up. Keegan thought he must have had the benefit of some early morning soju. Some of the drummers had these huge blooming hats with crumpled crepe paper glued all over them so that they looked like enormous blowsy flowers. Another drummer had a long ribbon attached to his hat so that if he moved his head in the right way he could twirl the ribbon around his body as he drummed. There was also one man playing a very shrill horn over all of the drumming. Definitely a spectacle worth seeing.

After the drummers finished, the pushy Korean women who were emceeing coaxed all of the players onto the field for some "exercises," which consisted of abashed men dancing around to obnoxious techno music. As a spectator, I can report that it was truly hilarious. After the exercises, some Geoje VIPs were introduced, and they cut up an immense, steaming rice cake to distribute amongst the participants and spectators. It was gluey rice paste covered in very dry bean powder and not very flavorful, so it did not go over well in the American tent.

The opening events over, we settled in for the tournament. I spent some time chatting with two of the female surveyors that Keegan works with, who are both quite nice. To entertain the spectators while the soccer games were going on, the sponsors of the event came up with a number of games to keep us entertained. There was a hula hooping contest, during which we realized how amazing Korean women are at hula hooping. While the Americans thrashed around desperately, swinging our hips violently from side to side, the Korean women stood practically still, as if they didn't even notice that there was a heavy plastic ring covered in punishing bumps twirling around their tender middles.

After hula hooping came hackey-sack and traditional Korean darts and then my personal favorite: the "throwing your shoe in the air" contest. This involved five people lining up and kicking their loosened right shoes as far as possible. Kristin, Keegan's co-worker, placed second and won a gift pack full of soap and toothpaste. My kick was only mediocre, unfortunately. In the afternoon, there was an 800 meter relay. We had trouble finding participants from ABS since the guys were playing soccer, so another female surveyor and I teamed up with Brazil and Holland teams to run our 200 meter legs. My team was pretty slow, but we had a good time. The last game of the day was tug of war, which was set up just as it would be in the U.S. except that instead of pulling with a sustained effort, the teams tugged suddenly and then released in a regular rhythm. My team won, and I was treated to one of the coveted soap and toothpaste sets. Keegan also won some soap, so between the two of us we won enough to keep ourselves clean for perhaps the rest of our stay in Korea.

The ABS team ended up doing quite well and played in the final against Qatar. The game was tied 2 -2 after the second half, so they went to penalty kicks. Both teams made their first five kicks, but on the second round, the Qatar goalie stopped the ABS kick, and then they scored another penalty kick to win the game. It was an exciting finish to the day! The whole event was pretty fun, and we were impressed with the amount of food and prizes and entertainment that the city provided for us - we'll look forward to going again next year.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Historic Day

Today was full of excitement as we watched election results come in.  Since we are fourteen hours ahead of the east coast now, we started seeing results around 9:30 a.m., when I got home from the swimming pool and glued myself to the computer.  By the time my student arrived at 2 p.m., we had the news:  Obama will be our next president!  I watched his victory speech with tears in my eyes.  In the coming months, Obama will be sorely tested as he deals with the mess left behind by eight years of the Bush administration.  But for now, I just want to reflect with happiness on Obama's win in the U.S. and in my home state of Virginia.

Pepper is sharing the joy:

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why I Voted for Obama

I've tried to keep away from politics in my blog throughout this crazy election season, but now with the election looming in just a couple days, I want to publish my thoughts about what makes Obama the better candidate in this race. I strongly doubt that my thoughts will change anyone's mind, especially since most of my readers are as liberal as I am, but I want there to be a record that not all Obama supporters are crazed, anti-American elitists. Much of what I will say is laid out, more eloquently and in more detail, in the New Yorker's endorsement of Obama, but I'll add my two cents as well.

First of all, what about McCain? I used to like McCain, especially because of his touted maverick status when it came to the issue of torture. Any senator, especially a Republican, who stood up to the Bush administration's shameful endorsement of torture gets my respect and admiration. Also, McCain's willingness to break with the most conservative members of his party marked him as someone with sense and moderation. Unfortunately, McCain has abandoned that stance in an attempt to pander to the most conservative members of the party. The worst instance of this is his choice of an extremely conservative, poorly prepared, evangelical as his running mate. Sarah Palin has shown herself to be ignorant on important issues, extremely inarticulate, and willing to engage in the nastiest of misleading attacks against her opponent. Yet McCain chose her to fill one of the most important political posts in the U.S. Did McCain really think that this woman was the best choice to help him lead the country and possibly to take over in the event that McCain is unable to finish out his term? Really? Or did he deliberately pick someone with more folksy appeal than education and experience in an attempt to win over conservative voters in the "real America"? I cannot vote for someone who treats the decision of who will be his second in command so irresponsibly.

So I'm not interested in voting for McCain. But what makes Obama an appealing candidate? First of all, I am a staunch Democrat and tend to side with liberal policies more often than with conservative ones. I believe that education and equal opportunity for everyone are higher priorities than military might and the well-being of enormous corporations. I think the world is more nuanced than neo-conservative policy allows. So I probably would vote for Obama regardless of his personal appeal. But, Obama also has personal appeal in spades. He is an amazing speaker and exudes intelligence and a detailed understanding of the issues that a president would have to deal with. He seems like a sincere idealist. I realize that he has been playing the political game just as hard as McCain over the past few months, and he's made decisions that I haven't agreed with, such as his about-face on accepting public financing for the campaign. But I think that Obama has shown tremendous character over the course of the campaign. What I like about him the most can be illustrated, I believe, through his reaction to the Jeremiah Wright controversy that erupted during the primaries.

When Obama's connection to his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, began to make headlines in the spring, I thought he would react like most politicians faced with such accusations: deny, deny, deny. But instead, Obama acknowledged his ties to Wright. Yes, he attended Wright's church. Yes, Wright baptized his children and performed his marriage. He repudiated unequivocally Wright's inflammatory speeches, but he would not repudiate the man who had played such an important role in his life. How absolutely refreshing to see someone in a position of power own up to potentially damaging information and take responsibility for his choices!

But Obama didn't stop there. In his amazing speech about race, he went on to address the lingering issues of race relations in the U.S. in a way that did not obscure just how complicated the relationship between whites and blacks in the U.S. really is. So, Obama disagreed with his pastor's rhetoric, but instead of simply dismissing him as "an extremist" or an "evil" man, he tried to look at things from Wright's point of view. Why would an aging black pastor in Chicago be angry enough to say terrible things about his country? Is he justified? How can those of us who aren't as angry or vitriolic reach out to those who are? The contrast with the Bush administration's neo-conservative view of the world is clear: in Bush's world, things are black and white. Those who do not share the interests of the United States are labeled "evil." What does it really mean to say that a leader or nation is evil? Not much. It doesn't lead to an understanding of what leads our enemies to act as they do or a willingness to use our common humanity as a basis for compromise. Instead, looking at the world as a battleground for the forces of good and evil pushes us towards viewing our enemies as irrevocably different and irredeemable. I don't know whether McCain has such a stark view of the world, but his running mate's evangelical background and her lack of reaction to the violent, ugly rhetoric from the audience at McCain-Palin rallies suggest to me that she does, and that worries me.

In summary, Obama's liberal stance and his intelligence appeal to me. His refusal to lie about or deny his connection to Jeremiah Wright speaks highly of his character and his belief in himself and his choices. Finally, Obama's willingness to engage with those he disagrees with is the crux of his appeal for me. In a world where relationships between nations are as fraught and complicated as those between the races in America, I can think of no better quality in a president than the desire and ability to understand those relationships and engage with those who seem irreconcilably different from us.

So, when I received my absentee ballot at the end of September, I cast my vote for Obama. I don't know whether he will be the kind of president I hope he will be, but I hope that I'll have the chance to find out.