A Teacher Story

The coordinator at the local Office of Education asked me to write a story about my time here in Korea to be published in a section called “Teacher Voices” for a report. I thought I’d also post it in my blog.

My first year, I worked in a very small school. In fact, my entire third grade class consisted of four girls. At the start of the year, my coteacher informed me that they had no English exposure whatsoever. The sweet girls struggled to understand me and it was difficult to motivate them to speak any English in class. They would say how difficult English is and perhaps did not understand why they had to learn this strange language. Even with the language barrier, however, I was able to foster a relationship with them. When they weren’t in class, they would visit me and write any English word they knew on the board, asking me how to spell “I love teacher”. They always begged me to sit with them at lunch, which I did (another interesting cultural difference in Korea – teachers eat the same lunch as the students in the cafeteria). I was pleasantly surprised to hear the girls saying phrases I taught that very morning: “I like rice.” “Do you like kimchi?” “Yes, I do!”. I felt proud that the girls eventually gained confidence and were using English voluntarily. I really love the students. Crossing paths in the hallway or anywhere outside of class where I’m greeted with a deep bow and a smiling “Hi! Hello!” followed by giggles keeps me smiling and so excited to wake up to go to school every day.

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Teaching English in a Korean Public Elementary School

I have been teaching in public elementary schools (six in total) for over a year and a half now. Some friends back home were curious about the school system in Korea, so I wanted to reflect on some basic similarities and differences between my experiences in elementary schools in Korea and the states. These are just reflections and observations based on personal experiences, not a generalization for all schools. End disclaimer.

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Third grade students

 

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My first classroom.

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On Being Adopted

Adoption: a touchy subject. But don’t worry, it’s not sensitive for me; I openly talk about it (if you haven’t figured that out already). It’s just a big part of who I am. Why should I hide it.

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My Real Family

I get all kinds of reactions when I first tell someone that I’m adopted. Sometimes, it’s a sad “oh” followed by silence and the lowering of the head. Other times, it’s a flood of questions. I don’t mind them; it is a chance to educate others and give a perspective for those who never met an adopted person before. Even if they did interact with adoptees in the past, every person has different experiences and perspectives.

I’ve spent a lot of time with Korean adoptees from around the world – Sweden, Australia, Denmark, Italy, Canada, France, Norway, and the Netherlands, to name a few. Meeting so many international adoptees initiated daydreams of how my life path was randomly selected to be American. Would I still have a love affair with vegetables if I was Danish? Would I have been a French gymnast? Would I still do my routine back-cracking and quirky microwave dances in Australia? Would I still have a thirst for travel? The limits of the parallel universes are endless.

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InKAS Summer Camp 2012

Through interacting with this diverse group of Korean adoptees, I came to learn how different we all are, not unlike any group of people. At first, I intuitively thought that we adoptees would get along so well and be buddies in friendship island forever because we finally have other people who “understand”. We don’t quite ‘fit in’ our adoptive countries and certainly will never be fully integrated in Korean society. So, we can finally fit in with each other.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The following is MY perspective on being adopted. I can attest that my account is very different from most adoptees that I know, but there are some friends who fortunately share the same positive attitude. I hope that other adoptees can be as fortunate as me. Even if their birth search and/or reunion isn’t as successful, they can still benefit from the right mindset.

Often, people pity me for being adopted. “Don’t you feel bad that you’re unwanted?”

It wasn’t that my birth parents didn’t want me; it was certainly the opposite. They loved me so much that they did what they thought was best for me at that time. In the late 80’s, my family was extremely poor and already struggling to raise three girls, so resources were scarce. They couldn’t give me what they wanted to give, so they let me go to have more opportunities in a safe environment. Even if my birth parents didn’t want me, at least my mother would have been kind enough to go through pregnancy and childbirth to give me life rather than get an abortion. They say “If you love somebody, let them go. If they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.”

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My Birth Parents in their 20s

Yes, it is a little sad that I did not know who my mother was, but it was not something I thought about often. Actually, I rarely thought about it. I think other people were more concerned about my birth parents than I ever was. As far as I was concerned, my adoptive parents are my “real” parents. Family never had to do with blood relations. I never had in interest in finding them until hearing other adoptees’ stories when I first visited Korea when I was 22.

I opened my search and had no hopes. I would be elated if they were found, but neutral if not. I didn’t feel like I was “missing” something and that finding my birth family would fill that void.

Well, the search process was rather simple. The adoption agency was able to put me in contact with my birth family because they have been inquiring to try to find me. So, it went from there.

My case is rare in that I connected with my birth family and they still love me and include me in their family. In fact, we recently took professional family photos together. They try very hard to incorporate me as evidenced by the fact that they put on English songs and shoved a mic in my face at the noraebang (karaoke room). Most adoptees cannot even locate their families. And if they do, it is even rarer that a relationship is fostered after that. It could be awkward. I have so much gratitude that my situation turned out the way it did. Korea might be a dark place for me if it took another turn.

 

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Already joking around within hours of first meeting each other. I inherited their goofiness.

So, rather than pity me, envy me. I have not one, but TWO sets of parents and families that love me so much. No, I am NOT an orphan nor was I ever was an orphan. Some children really do not have parents. Some children only have a mother or father present. Even if both parents are present, a nasty relationship may exist. Now that, my readers, is an unfortunate situation. Not mine. I know I’m lucky. So, so very lucky. And I’m forever grateful for the people in my life that I love.

What else am I grateful for? I didn’t grow up in Korea. When imaging what my life would have been like had I grown up in Korea, I didn’t enjoy the mental images. High school from 7am to 10pm, pressure to be smart/beautiful/rich/popular/obedient, probably marrying a Korean man who might work late hours and go out drinking during weeknights, leaving me alone. Would I have gotten the double eyelid surgery as seemingly every Korean girl has? Would I hide under umbrellas every beautiful sunny day? Would I go through great lengths to have a “small face”, “high nose” and stick thin legs?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Korea, but I love it as a foreigner. I would probably not be the happiest as a Korean citizen. But who can really tell? As an American, I value the ability to openly express my opinions without fear of getting rejected from a group. I value how I can go without makeup and nobody will tell me that I look “tired”. I value that I can be friends with people of all ages and not having the pressure to talk in a super polite manner to people two years older than me. Koreans just have different values. Neither set of values are superior to the other. They’re just different.

Of course, growing up as an adoptee wasn’t always peachy. Perhaps I had issues with identity growing up, but who didn’t? Maybe I felt annoyed by the looks people gave my multicultural family when we’re out. I may or may not have hated everything about Korea and being Asian for most of my life. But it’s all good now. I’m quite comfortable in my own skin. It’s a nice feeling. You can feel this way, too. I didn’t have these positive thoughts my whole life – I guess this is more of a recent thing, but I can’t even remember what it’s like being negative anymore. Changing your perspective changes your world.

I’ll close this with one of the best perks of being adopted: Over the years, I spent much less time filling out family medical history questionnaires at the doctor. That’s probably enough time to take a walk in the park and enjoy a picnic.

Funny video about what it’s like to be adopted.

LASIK in Korea

I got my first pair of glasses at the tender age of sixteen. The thin wire frames were awkward and the last thing I wanted to be seen wearing. I’d occasionally break them out in math class, but I was fine without them. My vision exponentially declined in college thanks to my transcriptionist job, leaving me in a dark creepy room staring at a computer for hours. Glasses or contacts were necessary since then. I wore them interchangeably, but despised both for different reasons. Glasses gave me headaches and contacts were inconvenient and could be uncomfortable. Then I heard about LASIK.

Whoever invented LASIK is either a lunatic or a genius. Or both.

Several of my friends opted to undergo the eye-correcting and life-changing procedure in Korea. The medical facilities are quite nice here. Additonally, the procedure is safe and very cheap (compared to the states); flying to Korea to get the procedure may even be cheaper than getting it in the states. My cost was 1,000,000 South Korean won for both eyes, which amounts to a little less than $1,000 USD. That’s about the cost PER eye in the states.

I went to the place that all of the expats recommend in Gwangju – 밝은안과. The consultation consisted of a circuit of scary machines measuring all kinds of things you never knew about your eyeballs. The doctor said that I’m a good candidate for either LASIK or LASEK. Thinking about the shorter recovery time, I opted for the former. I penciled in the following Thursday for the operation.

Contacts were not allowed for the week prior, so I had the joy of wearing my scratchy and headache-inducing glasses. By the time Thursday rolled around, I was ready to toss those babies for good.

My boyfriend was in the Philippines and my poor friend suddenly got a bad case of food poisoning, so I ventured to the eye clinic solo. After a few eye tests, the woman threw a robe at me to put over my clothes and a hairnet on my head.

Other patients were nervously waiting their turn. You can see inside the operating room where a half dozen people were under lasers. I turned my head away from the screen revealing people’s eyeballs being poked. It gave me the shivers.

I saw a girl come out of her operation and was laughing hysterically with her friends. She’s alive. Let’s do this.

“Lianne Bo-ron-jo”. My turn.

Without my specs, I followed the doctor, stumbling and waving my arms in front of me like a zombie because my vision was that bad. I took off my shoes, Asian style, and was prompted to sit on the chair where a teddy bear was waiting for me to squeeze. We became very intimate for ten minutes.

The nurse first tied my forehead and chin down to the chair so I wouldn’t budge. Then, they cleaned my cheeks and forehead before covering my entire eye with tape and cutting a slit into it. I couldn’t blink; I felt like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. To avoid dryness, they constantly put drops in my eyes, sometimes it seemed like a waterfall uncomfortably flowing into my eyeballs.

The doctor was calming and thankfully spoke English. He guided me throughout the whole procedure. He first put a lot of pressure on my left eyeball, squeezing it with some kind of device. Everything went black and to put it simply, it freaked me out. I regained vision, albeit blurry. I think he already cut the flap in my cornea by that point. I’m gracious I didn’t see a knife. Next, he instructed me to stare at a red light for thirty seconds while the machine made an intimidating pounding sound. “Focus, focus!” I told myself. Part of me wanted to look away, but that’ll just screw everything up.

When the laser was done correcting my vision, the doctor put the flap back down with some sort of paintbrush-like tool. I hated every second of him poking my eyeball with this brush. I didn’t feel a thing, but having to watch it made me cringe. I must have suffocated the teddy bear to death. Sorry. R.I.P.

Ah, well that’s over. Now I had to do it all over with my right eye. I dreaded the brushing part, but I sucked it up and it was over in no time.

The procedure wasn’t at all painful, just a little uncomfortable. I walked back into the lobby with my somewhat blurry vision. I couldn’t look at the woman, just at my toes. At the moment, I just felt paralyzed, traumatized by how much my eyeballs were poked and squeezed and stroked. I looked down as I answered her questions with terse responses as if I was being interrogated after being assaulted.

After ten minutes of closing my eyes, the doctor looked at them with a machine and called it a success. “You’re a great patient.” Why thank you.

I walked downstairs to the pharmacy to get the prescribed eye drops. Feeling all right, I walked outside with my sunglasses and caught the bus to my apartment. I was able to see just fine, but towards the end of the ride, my eyelids got heavy. I walked back to my place only able to see my feet out of my half-opened left eye. My right eye refused to see the light.

When I got home, I popped on This American Life which I purposefully set up on my laptop and laid in bed for hours. I couldn’t open my eyes and they were sensitive to light, so I tried falling asleep. I called Adam when he got service in the Philippines and I still felt like it was difficult to speak. I felt like I was on drugs or just plain traumatized. I then slept through the night, and did it mighty well.

The next morning, however, was fantastic. I was able to see the toes in front of me. I was even able to see the details on my Korean artsy wallpaper, my jacket hanging on my chair, the dried out leaves with which I hastily decorated my windows (some people have a thing for leaves, okay??!!). I didn’t have to reach for my glasses, even my instincts told me so. It felt good to reach for eye drops instead.

My eyes burned a little bit that day, but I was well enough to bake six loaves of banana bread and meet a Korean man who bought some loaves and sold some to his coworkers as well. I later met up with my good friends downtown for a delicious dinner to celebrate my birthday (which was the following day) and Paula’s last day in Korea. Dinner was followed by pitchers of IPA, a philosophical chocolate banana cake made by the lovely baker Meg and service (free) pizza pies. I technically wasn’t supposed to drink, but I had a beer anyway. Don’t tell my doctor. I’m happy I finally like IPAs now.

It was wonderful to be able to see my beautiful friend’s faces in HD vision. Tears welled up as I said my goodbyes to inspirational Paula, but I will certainly see her again some time this year in Japan.

It has been a few days since the procedure, and my vision is better than ever. I couldn’t shower or wash my face for three days and makeup is off limits for a while. I’m consuming more eye drops than coffee.

The moral of the story: I love LASIK and would highly recommend it for all of my fellow glasses/contact folk out there.

Describes how I feel after LASIK.

Random Korean Interaction #5: Lady from the Bus

One day, a woman asked me a question while waiting for the bus. Presumably, it was a question about which bus went where. I answered to the best of my ability and then said, “한국어 잘 못해요” or “I can’t speak Korean well” and she gave me the typical “wait…..what?” look. Then it was the usual conversation: “Japan, China?” “Where are you from?” “America? But your face…” “Are your parents Korean?” (all in Korean, completely ignoring the fact that I said I can’t speak). This woman was extra nice and cheerful though. We climbed on the 7 bus and she sat next to me, continuing our conversation (still, all in Korean. Feeling proud of my language progress). Every other sentence ended with a laugh and an arm grab. She must be in her late 30s. She has four kids. 

We exchanged numbers. I didn’t catch her name the first time, so I labeled her as “Lady from the Bus” in my phone. I thought we’d never meet again.

One month later, I ended up receiving a message from her. She had extra tickets to an orchestra and invited me to go that evening. Already having plans, I declined, but she inquired about the following Monday. As far as I knew, my schedule was clear that day. I agreed to meet her at the bus stop where we first interacted. I thought she was a nice lady and I’m always looking to have more interactions with Koreans.

Monday finally rolled around and it wasn’t a great day. With the cold rainy weather followed by a restless night and a day full of sitting at work (classes were canceled), I just wanted to stay home. I kept my promises  and sucked it up.

I had forgotten what she looked like, but we eventually found each other and waited under our umbrellas for her friend to arrive. She was so sweet, joking around and constantly laughing. Her friend suddenly came and the Lady from the Bus departed, saying she was sorry but had to take care of her children at home. I found it a little strange that she went out of the way to invite me to an orchestra and meet at a bus stop just for me to go along with someone else. Oh well.

I went with the new woman, also kind, to the orchestra. It turned out to be a church. We arrived a bit late, but we were warmly welcomed and escorted to our seats. I’m pretty sure that they were expecting me, the foreigner, to come. The girls in front of me turned around, shyly giggled, and said hello. There must have been 500 people packed into this church.

The lights went out and on came a 30-minute long video about the church. It was all in Korean, but I still got a creepy vibe. There are 2,200 churches all around the world. The Lady from the Bus didn’t mention anything about a church in her invitation.

The orchestra finally started and while the music was lovely, I felt hot and uncomfortable squished in the middle of so many people. I managed to escape to go to the restroom, only to be followed by the woman. I told her I had a headache and I should go. She felt sorry and told me to wait. A few moments later, she came out with a gang of her friends and they all worriedly looked at me and escorted me outside. We all scrambled into a car, me stuck in the middle, and they drove me to my neighborhood. Why they all left just to drive me home is a mystery. The women were all lovely and kind though. I was worried to have them know where I live, so I asked them to drop me off on the street not near my apartment. I’ve had religious people knock on my door before and a friend even came home to people sitting on her couch, waiting for her arrival so they could preach. 

I did some more research about this church and read about the claims of it being a cult.

Well, that was certainly an experince. And it made for a story, right? 

Borobudur – The World’s Largest Buddhist Temple

Nestled in the outskirts of the ancient city, Yogyakarta, Indonesia is an intricately designed Buddhist temple. Borobudur, meaning “Buddhist Monastery on a Hill”, is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. Spreading 118 by 118 meters wide and standing 35 meters tall, Borobudur encapsulates thousands of Buddhist lessons carved into panels.

The outstanding stone temple is a must-see in Indonesia; a visitor can get lost for hours in the bewildering detail and overall serene atmosphere. On a clear day, a view of the active volcano, Merapi, can be enjoyed in the backdrop. Every year, about 2.5 million domestic and international tourists flock to central Java to marvel at the UNESCO World Heritage site.

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72 Hours in China

I didn’t know anything about Guangzhou before it popped up as a layover while booking our winter vacation tickets to Indonesia. It costs a few hundred dollars for Americans to obtain a month-long tourist visa to explore the gigantic land that is China, but it is free to those stopping through for up to 72 hours. We took advantage of this opportunity to get a small taste of China.

Through my small amount of research, I discovered that Guangzhou is the third largest city in China after Beijing and Shanghai. Located in the southeast near Hong Kong and Macao, the temperatures are unbearably hot in summer and enjoyably mild in winter.  Time and time again, trying the foods was the highest recommended activity in this city of eight million.

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English Camp

The Korean school calendar works differently than in the states. The new school year starts in March, takes a summer hiatus for a month and then starts back up at the end of August until the end of December. Winter’s month-long break ends in February with two weeks of (seemingly pointless) school, two weeks of spring break, and then the new school year starts again. 

Every native English teacher in the public school system should complete two weeks of camp during each break. I am currently finishing up my sixth camp as a native English teacher.

Unlike the regular curriculum, camp is an opportuity for teachers to be more creative in lessons in a laidback setting. Students won’t be memorizing vocabulary or drilling textbook phrases; they learn English and culture by doing hands-on activities. It is also an opportunity to get to know individual students. During the school year, I’ll only see each student for 40 minutes per week. In camp, however, I see them for 20 hours. My goal is for the students to be immersed in English and learn through cultural activites. Through these activities, students can gain positive feelings toward learning English and carry it into the classroom. I also want students to relax because they always complain about being tired, hungry, and bored from their hours of daily studying in school and academies. 

This year, I was lucky enough to have some of the most motivated and well-behaved fourth graders at my main school. Even thoug the students are wonderful, it would be a lie if I said it is easy. Camp takes hours of brainstorming and preparing teaching materials, making and shopping for items (we get a pretty large budget), and executing the camp can be tiresome. Even though it takes more preparation, I’d rather do camp over regular classes any day. The time goes by quickly and I enjoy seeing the students freak out of excitement. I’ll write about a few of my favorite activities.

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Obligatory New Year’s Post

It’s about that time to reflect on the year, blah blah blah. Although I’m not a big fan of the consumerism that takes place during the holidays, I enjoy taking the time to reflect on the year and look forward to a fresh start. This post is long and boring. I am writing this for myself to highlight some events and do not expect anyone to actually read all of it, but if you’re so inspired for whatever reason, be my guest .

Before I start, I wish everybody a happy and safe new year. 2014 will be a great one.

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