Fulbright Orientation Week 1: Yohan learns kimchi is a fact of life, but he does not like it. (He likes everything else swell though).

Blog post on Monday, July 13th- Saturday, July 17th, 2015.

After a long time of travel, all the ETAs (English teaching assistants) arrived at the Incheon airport outside of Seoul, filled out paper work, got on a bus for a two hour trip, and were provided with copious amounts of snacks and (if requested) motion sickness pills by our orientation coordinators. We participated in a whirlwind of small talk (“Where are you from?” “What did you study?” “Have you ever been to Korea before?”) and BAM, we arrived. Oh, it feels so much better to be over with that process in a paragraph rather than the 30 hours it actually took.

Where we arrived to is Jungwon University, near the center of the country in a small town called Goesan (). It is our gray labyrinth, our concrete fortress, and our home for the next six weeks.

Since I have been here for almost 1 week exactly, let’s go through a quick run-down of the place and the orientation experience so far.

Check out the gallery for some look around the campus: situated between mountains with a lot of athletic facilities, the college can be quite beautiful. It also has some unique choices in decor (brace yourself for the delightful experience of viewing a Mickey mouse in a blazer statue, Godzilla holding a fish, and a soldier memorial who looks like a character from the Killzone video game franchise).

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Actually I think they’re called something different, but I can’t be bothered to look up the name. These are talks from current ETAs on topics like lesson planning, a basic Korean cultural umbrella, a breakneck overview of MAJOR, GIGANTIC trends in Korean history, an overview of the Korean education system, teaching with a textbook, classroom management and a small army of other topics.

The presenters are experienced and prepared. Every single one prefaced their talk by saying “I’m not expert” and “I don’t know everything”. The humility is sometimes winsome, but I wish the speakers did not worry.

Anyone silly enough to expect to get all the answers in a one hour talk is going to be disappointed no matter what you say: even if you were a level 80 paladin of teaching with a textbook. (Is that a World of Warcraft joke? I don’t even play that game. How do I know what to reference? I’m not expert, moving on…)

The seminars have important information, but can be tiring. Thursday, we had four or five one right after another after 4 hours of Korean class. Nine hours of sitting.

Four through Five of those hours were spent in a room with 80 people: mentally tiring. It is at least good to know that we are trying to fit in as much as possible in these 6 weeks to prepare us for the classroom.

Thankfully, they provided some of the presentations online for those of us unable to scribble down notes. The first of the seminars was on Monday, the day we also took our Korean placement test. Our first Korean classes were on Wednesday. Tuesday, we got on buses and visited one of several Korean schools for the first time! This is what we are here to do as Fulbright ETAs, teach and involve ourselves in cultural exchange.

Visit to an all girls Korean high school -Tuesday

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During our Korean educational system overview, we learned about what I (and many others) have heard about: high stakes testing. The college entrance test. It’s a big deal. On test day, mothers and grandmothers gather out city gates to pray for the success of their students.

Younger high school students cheer their older peers taking the test inside. Late students get police escorts to class. If you leave, your test is submitted or shredded. Stock markets open late. Businesses shut down. South Korea moves to the demands of the test (a phrase which, if a dramatic exaggeration, I’m told is close to truth).

I believe it: when we arrived, the 12th grade floor was in intense silent study time. I heard tapes of English conversations (some of which may end up on the test with answers the students will have to recall by brute memorization) and silence. English is but ~1/10 sections on the test, but I didn’t understand much of what was going on in the third floor. The test is in November, and students were in serious study.

Many students go to hagwons, or private cram-schools, after school. It is even the habit of some students to sleep in class to stay up to study. This may seem counter-intuitive to us, but the test determines a large part of these student’s futures. One question missed disqualifies students from Korean SKY schools (think Korean Ivy league), which is highly sought-after.

The South Korean government has put some restrictions on hagwons (they are not supposed to be open after 10:30pm), but the competition is deep. Given how much stress high school students are under, I sometimes wonder if I would enjoy teaching English class in lower grades more. Fulbright ETAs act as what elementary schools sometimes call “Special teachers” (not special education but “special classes”).

That is, classes that meet once a week. An ETA teaches 20 hours weekly, has time aside from that for lesson planning, and can have around 14-20 classes with a total of 300-1200 students. This is a serious change from my schedule as a first year high school teacher. Additionally, the most I have heard of any ETA being responsible for is 30% of student’s English grade (there is another English class).

The ETAs job includes education and cross-cultural exchange: teaching conversational English is more our goal than being the sole contributor to student’s English grammatical knowledge. Given this, no high school grade 3 (senior) students took the ETA English class (at least while we were there). The ETA at the all girl’s high school we visited played a game as it was their last class for the year.

The game consisted of guessing American pop songs’ missing lyrics and titles as well as Korean pop songs titles and missing lines (translated into English). The students were very high energy, no sleepers–which I am told is sometimes uncommon as students can be stressed or shy. Then again, it was the day that they played a game and the class had visitors (us) and boys (including me).

The open giggling (in unison, like some sort of laugh track or maybe a horror film if I wanted to be melodramatic) was astounding. Thankfully, I was not the one seen as the most handsome or — perhaps of more interest– tallest in the group, so I did not receive the brunt of attention. But it was certainly there!

Korean language placement test and class- ~Wednesday

Our placement test was Monday. They asked use to write a self-introduction in Korean. I wrote down four phrases I had tried to memorize in hanguel, the Korean alphabet:

1. Hello 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo)

2. My name is Jonathan Balmer. 저는 ___ 입니다. ( (literally: My name _________ is–My first attempt at spelling my name in hanguel was attracious and I will not include it).

3. I do not know Korean. 한국말 못해요 (hangugmal moshaeyo literally: Korean I speak can’t).

4. Goodbye (annyeonghi gyeseyo 안녕히 계세요. Used for person leaving.)

After I turned the paper in I went in for a speaking interview. Apparently, this was for people trying for more advanced classes.

In a moment of pure serendipitous brilliance, I ended up getting in line (yes, sarcasm: yes, you’re quick!). In any case, a woman spoke to me in Korean. I awkwardly smiled. The woman asked me if I had ever studied Korean. A bit of self-study of the basics and hangul, I responded (all in English).

Some of it may be misspelled. She laughed. What a confirmation. Then, the interviewer asked in English, “Do you want to be in the beginner course?” To which I responded, “Of course yes!” Beginner is what I expected.

I just wanted to put enough to prove to my myself I had attempted to learn hangul and some basic phrases.

So, if you’re a future Fulbright student who is reading this (or, let’s be real, your über curious parents scouring ETA blogs to see what you’re getting yourself into), take heart: you will survive the placement test. Everyone does.

That said, I had memorized hangul — or rather the hangul jamo (letters). This I quickly found out did not mean I was good at pronouncing Korean words.

Four hours a day of Korean class!

Get pumped, cats, because this is where the schedule gets real(ly busy)! You and 14 other Fulbright ETAs you have never met! And a teacher– who ostensibly speaks English only when every other option is completely exhausted — teaches you. How does that work? Well, so far, pretty well. My pronunciation has definitely improved.

The teachers, from three days experience, are clearly skilled teachers. Excited, knowledgeable, eager to present Korean pronunciation with games. Here’s some examples: from bingo which requires you to recognize spoken Korean syllables to drawing hangul on classmates backs with a finger and guessing what characters they are drawing by pronouncing them out loud.

We had fun. One student, Matt, wrote the English word “Sexy” on his nametag in hangul. Our teacher caught on quickly: nothing gets past him. There are two teachers a day. They each teach two hours and then switch to another class. Our second teacher is particularly animated.

Sometimes, doing pronunciation drills, the teacher will tell us what the word we just said meant. We just pronounced some basic word like 신 (Shim) which means “God”. Our teacher started singing “Jesus loves you” in English (so we would get the meaning of the word) , with his Korean accent and exuberance which could only illicit smiles: even from those of us with little idea what was going on around us.

The same teacher also told me the Korean translation of my name adding that it was from the Bible and is considered a “Christian name” in Korea. It is “Yo-han” (요한). I quite like the name and, as a bonus, it is certainly easier for Koreans to pronounce than the “th” in “Jonathan”.

gs 요한 is obviously transliterated, as many forms of Jonathan or John are like “Johannes” or “Yonatan”. My friend Kel even called me “Yohannes Von Von Gutenberg: inventor of the printing printing press” (a press, presumably, which prints printing presses: like a 3D printer).

It was a joke.

Albeit a bad and odd one.

You’re obliged to laugh now, thanks.

Finally, it is odd how my brain defaults to the one foreign language I sort of know in class. I will excitedly think, “I know how to respond to what the teacher is saying!” only to realize I know the word in Portuguese. I also caught myself in this very blog post typing “Portuguese” instead of “Korean.” (P.S. It is your job to find typos, spelling and grammatical errors and report them. I fired my blog editor because she doesn’t exist, and therefore had a very mediocre performance review).

A visit from a friend and Korea ETA- Wednesday night through Thursday

Leanndra, my friend, a fellow Georgetown College English major, taught in Hwacheon Middle school as a Fulbright ETA. We have kept in touch with our International book club which meets on Google hangouts ~1 time a week, but this was the first time we had seen one another in person since a brief lunch meeting over Christmas. So we hit the town, bought fried chicken (oh, be still my beating heart) at a hole-in-the-wall chicken place, and talked.

Sadly, the visit was short. Leanndra gave her presentation on teaching with a textbook and promptly left only the next day! What do we have to show for it? Several pictures of statues holding peppers form Goesan, good memories, and slightly more bad cholesterol from the chicken. It was wonderful to see my friend, even for a short time. I will try to wield the Georgetown College/ Fulbright Korea torch well, Leanndra.

The food

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Food is always an bizarre topic for me. Do I like it here? Of course not, but that is hardly any chef, or nation’s, fault. I do not like a lot of food. I hope any host family I may have is not offended that I do not like their food.

I always find enough to get by without starving. And, since arriving in Korea, I’ve begun taken a multivitamin, calcium, vitamin c, 1-a-day- Zyrtec, and plenty of granola bars. I am taking care of myself in the stark absence of Tex-Mex cuisine.

Most meals consisted of rice, some sides (usually including vegetables or mushrooms, rarely fruit–though we did have the precious gift of watermelon given to us by Fulbright Korea director Shim herself!), always some sort of soup (fish broth is common), and a light helping of meat and kimchi (fermented cabbage) at every meal.

Kimchi is a fact of life. I must tell you wonderful news: We had fried chicken tonight (Saturday night). It was lightly spicy, and everything a dreamed it could be.

The town

Goesan, the town in which I will be staying in for 5 more weeks, is small. I have had barbecue (inexpencievely at 6,000 won–~$6USD), shaved ice, and ice cream within its shops. I will not say much, pictures may give you some better idea of what I have been doing (and I will add more later).

Mandatory fun!

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Today, we were told very little, by design I imagine, of what we would be doing. It turned out to be a day of team-building, sharing, and “mandatory fun” as I like to call it.

As far as mandatory fun goes, however, it turned out quite nicely. We played games where we tried to build a device to prevent eggs from cracking when dropped, guided two blindfolded team members (I was one of them) to pour water into a cup, made a team flag (ours looks like the flag of the Fire Nation from Avatar: The Last Airbender).

Our teams greatest spectacle was suspending all ten members of our teem in the air for three seconds using only a plastic grated box. We did so in the incredible time of 1 minute 17 seconds. I wish I had a video of that. We beat all other teams in this category by minutes.

The greatest spectator-game spectacle was the “Ninja” tournament competition. Ninja, for those of you who have accidentally or deliberately avoided orientations, church camps, and groups of teenagers forced to wait in a parking lot wanting to be entertained, is a game in which each player is allowed one offensive “ninja” move.

The object is to hit another player’s hands, until both hands are gone and the player is out. The movement must be one continuous movement. The attacked person may move their hand in response, but only once. This game was one of great tactical skill, and some humor. 8.5/10: I do recommend.

Most of my pictures in this section come from this event. Plus, there were the staples of increasingly personal questions asked as people “Crossed the line” either to the “Yes” or “No” side. As designed, some of them were uncomfortable. Though, I  I much preferred the “Just because I am ________ doesn’t mean I am _________” activity, in which we addressed misconceptions about ourselves and provided the remedy in the positive statement “I am __________.” It has been very, very busy. But, you can’t say I have not kept you updated!

Coming up!

  • Church: visiting my first Korean church tomorrow. I’ll let you know how that goes!
  • My first Korean test: Monday. Oh my, I better study.
  • Coming up is the Fulbright English program camp (formerly, Camp Fulbright) at which I will be teaching intermediate high and advanced students my first English language lessons in Korea. Be on the lookout for that.
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