Monday, September 27, 2010


I realize the blog has been a little text heavy as of late. I am notoriously slow at getting pictures off my camera and onto to my computer so, these are some of my friends pictures to tide you over until I get my act together. Enjoy!!

Olivia, Eric and Sam and I getting our first taste of Korean "street meats"

Olivia with said "street meat"

Julie and I at a typical Ho-Bar in the Hongdae section of Seoul.

The group in Hongdae.

The crew at a noraebong i.e. Karaoke bar. Note the cases of microphones above my friends.

Quinn giving Enrique Iglesias a run for his money.

Me with some street art in Hongdae.

At a galbi restaurant where you cook delicious meat on a grill right in front of you.

My friends Mo and Chris.

Oh yeah, this is my Korean doppelganger, but more about that later.

Typical Korean meal-- spicy chicken, vegetables and rice rounds.

New friends.


Yes, we have all occasionally come into contact with the sport of Badminton. Most likely, it was in gym class and you halfheartedly swatted at that silly looking excuse for a ball and joked with your friends about what a pathetic sport it is. So Wednesday afternoon I should have known I had it coming for me.

Eden is one of my English co-teachers, she's the one that picked me up from the airport (if you remember)... I guess I'll digress here for a moment to explain co-teachers and whose charge I am under while I am in Korea.

There are 4 English teachers at my school who also happen to be the only 4 people at Songtan Middle School who speak English. Jinny is my actual "co-teacher" and she is in charge of making sure I have accommodations, helping me get an Alien Registration Card which is absolutely crucial because you cannot do anything in Korea until you have one (i.e. get a cellphone, open a bank account or leave the country), basically she acts as my pseudo-mother while I am here. She gets compensated for having to spend time with me-- don't worry.

While Jinny is the one actually responsible for me, I have become just as friendly with the other 3 other co-teachers. And since Eden picked me up at the airport and was the first person I had a connection with in this country I have developed a special attachment to her.

How would I describe Eden... she's got a reddish bob, wears glasses, is sporty and has a great sense of humor. Having a sense of humor in a second language cannot be easy, so Eden's ability to not only converse with me, but also make jokes or witty comments that have me laughing with her and not at her is hugeee.

On the way back from a staff dinner Eden and I got to talking-- I think I asked her what sports she plays because Eden has repeatedly mentioned to me that she really wanted to be a gym teacher not an English teacher. One thing led to another and before I knew it I had agreed to play Badminton after school a few times of week as some member of club Eden has lofty dreams of starting. I'm making it sound as my hands were tied behind my back and Eden forced me to sign my badminton club membership in blood.

In actuality, I am more than happy to participate in anything that involves interacting with other humans after school. Usually after school I come home, have a snack because I am on most days famished the result of a less than ideal school lunch, take a nap, walk to the grocery store and stare blankly down the aisles of rice and dried seaweed and kaleidoscope packaging wondering what if anything I can make for dinner and then some FoxLife.

Alright, I've droned on enough now, back to badminton...

Eden invited another teacher, Maria (that's her English name) to join the badminton club so the three of us finish up work around 5, change clothes and then head down to the gym. Eden brought along some spare rackets and shuttlecocks from home and we set up the net alongside the taekwondo mats.

Leave it to me to saunter into the gym like I owned the damn place, ready to put my Korean opponents to shame wearing my trendy athletic gear, my crisp Nike's, a sweet high pony braided (really extreme people braid their ponytails i.e. Lara Croft tomb raider) ready to dominateeee. Eden and Maria wore their t-shirts from school and khaki's by the way.

In my head I thought "Goddd I must look so cool. The kids are going to love me. I am going to be the coolest English teacher Songtan Middle School has ever had. The taekwondo jocks screaming and kicking each other on the mats next to me are going to pay attention in class now. God, why am I so awesome?"

Again, this is where I should have checked myself because like I said this was not your typical game of gym class badminton. I very quickly realized that Eden and Maria had come ready to play and equally ready to show me up. I of course knew none of the actual rules, normally we just swat at that thing for 30 minutes lobbing it back and forth seeing who can set the shuttlecock sailing the highest. Wait, that's not how you play badminton?

Instead, I got a very brisk introduction to the rules of badminton-- who serves when, how to the racket is actually supposed to held, how to appropriately serve etc etc. and we were off. Thankfully I've played tennis before and dabbled with racquetball so I don't look like a total ignoramus swinging a racket.

We raged on for a solid 2.5 hours and worked up a sweat if you can believe it. Apparently Songtan Middle School houses some sleeper badminton pro's one of whom, Mr. Moon (I don't think that is is actual last name, but I was told it was close enough) just happened to find his way to the gym to give us a run for our money. Mr. Moon has got to be at least 65, I'm pretty sure he's a science teacher and he's wicked good at badminton. The man didn't even have to move, no diving or chasing after the shuttlecock for Mr. Moon. He could so tactfully and with an immense amount of grace and power send the shuttlecock speeding toward your face. I got nailed a couple of times because I couldn't swing my racket into place fast enough to deflect the thing. Before Mr. Moon retired he graciously complimented my prowess and told me "With just a little bit more practice I could be really good!"

And I've got to say those first couple minutes were a little tough on me, but I got the hang of the game pretty quickly. And Eden and Maria were incredibly worthy and pleasant adversaries. I played with them twice last week and we had a few more male semi-pro cameo's by teachers who I think are understandably intrigued by the new female American English teacher who has taken a sudden interest and demonstrates quite convincingly a knack for badminton.

Playing badminton has garnered a lot of attention and respect from my fellow teachers. As I said, the only 4 teachers who are confident enough in their English to talk with me are the English teachers. Conversing with the rest of the staff is a bit more challenging, I would wager that some if not most have some knowledge of English, but are perhaps to shy or intimated to try talking in English to me. My fellow badminton-er Maria speaks very little English but the time we have spent playing badminton has eased her comfort around me and she has begun to try out phrases such as asking me to lunch in English and so forth.

If for nothing else, I want to continue playing badminton so that I can facilitate the kind of relationships I have forged with Eden and Maria with other teachers at Songtan. That is the great thing about sports, its an equalizer, a unifier-- you don't have to speak the same language, believe in the same religion or wear the same clothes, you just have to share the love of competition and the game. Just remember to bring your "A" game though...

Monday, September 20, 2010


This past week I had the pleasure of interviewing my Grade 3 students (in the US they are 9th graders) as part of their speaking test. Each student was given a list of 5 questions and was encouraged to prepare answers for all 5 because they would be drawing a number out of a hat and that would be their interview question.

The questions my students could choose from were:

1. What is your favorite animal and why?
2. Do you want to have a pet? Why or why not?
3. What are you good at?
4. What did you do this summer vacation?
5. What would you like to do if you become a university student?

Even if most of the answers were memorized and generic I appreciated the opportunity to be able listen to each of my students and hear what they had to say. I have around 840 students, my God, I haven't done the math until just now, but it is insane to think I teach 840 students a week. Ok, let me double check my math here:

6 classes of 1st graders (40 kids per class)= 240.
8 classes of 2nd graders (40 kids per class)= 320.
7 classes of 3rd graders (40 kids per class)= 280.

240 + 320 + 280= 840 kids.

Yep, 840 kids a week. Now, I have a pretty darn good memory for faces so the students that have talked to me in the hallways or come to talk with me at my desk I can remember. I however, can not remember their Korean names for crap. Part of the problem is I am deaf and I feel like everyone whispers their name around here that I embarrass my students and teachers alike by asking them to repeat their name 5 or 8 times and would you mind yelling it while you are at it? Thanks.

But seriously, Korean names begin with the family name so KIM, PARK, LA etc and are followed by either 1 or 2 first names like Mi Su, Eun Bin, Jin-Woo etc. So three one syllable words when spoken in the native tongue is really hard to understand and distinguish. Some students have collected an English name over the years, but I feel so ridiculous calling someone named SIM Tak Ryan.

So this speaking test gave me the opportunity to talk with all my students rather than just the ones who are brave enough to talk with me after school or during passing time etc.

By far some of the best answers came out of question #5: What would you like to do if you become a university student? Here a couple of popular answers that I can remember:

"If I become a university student I like to drink alcohol. I make a boyfriend. I wear high heels. I work part-time in a coffee shop. I dye my hair."

"If I become a university student I get a driver's license so I can get away from my parents."

"If I become a university student I will drink wine with my friends. I will go to clubs with my friends. I will be pretty. I will wear necklaces."

"If I become a university student I will travel. But only with my friends. Not my family, my family is not fun. I will go abroad to London or Canada and make a beautiful girlfriend."

"If I become a university student I will go to New Zealand because I like their culture better than Korea."

"If I become a university student I want to drink because I can't drink now."

"If I become a university student I will get a driver's license and travel because I want to feel freedom and my parent's won't control me anymore."

I felt like I was on "Kids Say the Darnedest Things", I had to swallow back laughter after some of their responses. Between the broken English and some of their all too honest responses (who taught them how to say "I want to drink wine" and not "May I go to the bathroom"?) I had a pretty entertaining week interviewing all of my 3rd graders.

I get to quiz the 1st and 2nd graders in late October-- I can't wait for the answers they'll come up with.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

CHUSEOK (otherwise known as THANKSGIVING)

YES!! Next week is Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving and I'm so happy I was able to find this rather timely commercial that has been playing on TV here. It's part of Apple's iPhone4 ad campaign that is just kicking off in Korea, but that's besides the point.

Traditionally on Chuseok Koreans return to their ancestral homes and pay their respects to dead ancestors and family elders. Chuseok coincides with the fall harvest and offerings from the harvest are cooked and laid before each family's ancestral shrine so that the ancestors' spirits can also enjoy the feast. According to my co-teachers, on Chuseok there is a formal ceremony where younger members of the family wearing the traditional hanbok, bow to their elders (more like a prostration, where the forehead touching the hands on the floor) and often get money in return.

I just adore this commerical, I think it so touching and sweet. Happy (early) Chuseok everyone!

Monday, September 13, 2010


It's comforting in some ways to know that you can go half way around the world and middle school is still middle school. Every stereotype and middle school personality still exists. Bullies are still bullies, girls huddle in the corner giggling and gossiping and class clowns still manage to distract and entertain the class much to the dismay of the teacher.

But that is where the similarities to American middle schools end. The Korean school system is a horse of an entirely different color. I attribute a lot of the differences I've noticed to culture-- Koreans place a larger emphasis on the whole than on the individual and children show greater respect toward their elders.

Allow me to expound on this for a few minutes...

The kids at Songtan Middle School aren't just students here, they are part of the muscle that helps run this place. By this I mean, everyday after school kids are responsible for cleaning the entire school. I haven't exactly figured out the rotation or how many kids are on the cleaning crew at once, but they sweep every classroom, erase all the white boards, mop the hallways and bathrooms, and empty the trash. They also vacuum the teacher's lounge and wipe our desks off. Now that is just after school, I've walked into school and seen cleaning crews in morning... I saw some poor kids out in the rain the other day doing yard work. I haven't come across a single janitor in the place. In addition to all the cleaning, the students serve their fellow students lunch. There are no toothless lunch ladies serving you heaps of coleslaw, nope, your friend or neighbor or sister could be dumping piles of spicy kimchi onto your lunch tray.

I've got to say, on some level I agree with the school's reasoning. When you're the one whose got to clean up the place I know I'd think twice about throwing my gum wrapper or pencil shards on the ground.

Discipline seems to be another area of discrepancy. It was at first and still is a little disarming. I don't think it is something I will ever get used to and I certainly have doubts about its effectiveness, but I am just going to have to grin and bear it for the time being.

All the teachers carry around what are essentially night sticks that they rap across any surface child or otherwise. If participation is low, which it usually is, you better watch out because your teacher is lurking among you ready to strike with a jab to the side, a tug on the hair or ear or even an ear shattering crack across your desk. Let's say you are a couple of minutes late to class, expect a blow to both your palms. Speaking out of turn in class, you will be asked to stand up go to the back of the class and do push-ups or hold your hands above your head for a few minutes. I came into the teacher's lounge one morning and saw a boy bend over and get spanked with one of the school issued nightsticks by the teacher who sits next to me. And he's a gym teacher! I can't imagine what that kid must have done to deserve a spanking. Let's see... after school is generally when punishments are dished out so it is not uncommon to see 5 or 6 kids facing the wall, sitting on their knees, heads bowed forward.

I've talked with my friends who are in different schools in Korea and this sort of thing isn't unheard of, but varies by school. It is something I have to learn to tolerate and certainly provides me with the challenge of how to teach and engage my students without their teachers provocation.

I'm waiting for a sunny day to take pictures of my school and neighborhood so stay tuned...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


There is no such things as baby steps in Korea, literally. I arrived in Korea and took off running.

50 of us (by "us" I mean recent graduates turned English teachers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison) arrived on August 27th after a 14 hour flight on Korean Air and were immediately ripped away from each other. If I sound dramatic, its because the scene was just that. As we hauled our luggage off the baggage carousel we could see the automatic doors beyond customs sliding open and a legion of our Korean co-teachers waving signs with our names on it, waiting to whisk us away to our respective cities.

I found my name (heart over the "i" of course) and met one of my co-teachers, Eden. I had just enough time to ask Eden her name before she told me we needed to hurry in order to catch the 5 o'clock bus to Songtan. It was 4:56. We pretty much did the international terminal dash-- pushing something like 150 pounds of luggage the entire length of the corridor. Turns out, the bus didn't leave till 5:30. So on top of being exhausted and jet lagged I was now sweating and smelled like a bum.

Eden and I spent the around 2 hour bus ride from Incheon Airport to Songtan napping and intermittently learning about each other. Once we got to Songtan, I got handed off to my other co-teacher Jinny. Eden went home and Jinny took me to my home for the next 5 days: Metro Hotel. Metro Hotel makes a Super 8 look like the Four Seasons. The Metro Hotel would have been a great backdrop for a really bad thriller movie. It was deserted, I was the only person I ever saw going in or coming out of the place. There was one clerk working from sun up to sun down. The place smelled like moth balls and every thing was a musty taupe color... cue music from Psycho.

The first couple days weren't so bad all I did was dose in and out of consciousness forcing my body to adjust to the right time zone. I managed to drag myself out of bed at some point and cross the street for my second ever Dunkin' Donuts experience abroad. For those of you who know, and for those who don't I loveeeee me some Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee. There's nothing like it. I've been deprived of this sweet nectar for the last 4 years because Wisconsin is entirely devoid of Double D. I happened upon a Dunkin' Donuts last year in Marbella, Spain and it was like Christmas morning. Iced coffee and a chocolate glazed donut-- it's the simple things, right?

Anywho, in my jet lagged semi-concsious state Dunkin' Donuts was exactly the pick me up and comfort from home that I needed. So, for the next five days I subsisted on Dunkin' Donuts ice coffee, chocolate glazed donuts, and cashews from 7 Eleven. I read some Jane Eyre whenever FoxLife (like the Fox channel at home except it plays all the comedies from NBC, but hey I'm complaining) wasn't playing The Office or Community or Scrubs. I even succumbed to NCIS, which I loathed in the states, but when it is the only thing on in English, sure I'll be a NCIS fan for a day (or the next year).

That Monday I met up with Danielle the English teacher I replaced and her boyfriend. She and her boyfriend had been living together in the apartment I inherited for the last year. They shared all sorts of helpful tips preparing me for life in Songtan. They showed me the park-- where the militia trains on weekends (got it, do not wander into the park on weekends-- will probably get shot), showed me "Little Amurrica" where all the soldiers from Osan Air Base go for kicks and where the Filipino "Juicy Girls" hustle at the pool tables (ok, avoid that like the plague or the clap).

Songtan isn't much. It's just north of the much larger Pyeongtaek which is still minuscule compared to Seoul. And much of the city's business comes from the Osan Air Base hence "Little Amurrica." I'm not exactly sure where Songtan-ians hang out, there is the aforementioned park, but besides that it's pretty gritty. I don't have any major department stores, a lot of my friends are in wealthier suburbs and have insane shopping malls and things called Lotte Worlds, but that's all foreign to me in Songtan.

Anyway, I kicked it at the Metro Hotel till Wednesday just Dunkin' Donuts, FoxLife and me. On Wednesday morning I dropped my bags off at my apartment on the way to school and started teaching that morning. Like I said no such things as baby steps...

Monday, September 6, 2010


“If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.” — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

And that is exactly what I did. I left for Korea to become an English teacher a week and a half ago without every having taught a class in my life, knowing next to nothing about my pseudo-home country its customs or culture, and not being able to read or speak one lick of Korean. And one adventure after another it has been. Thankfully, Dunkin' Donuts seems to be in abundance here, so if all the adjusting feels a bit overwhelming I'm just a couple steps and sips away from my salvation: iced coffee.

My intention with 38 and Below is to provide you with an honest portrait of my time abroad detailing the bizarre, exhilarating, rewarding and trying experience of living in Korea for the next 50 or so weeks. Ladies and gentlemen this is your invitation to fasten your seat belts, because we are all in for a bumpy ride!

xo, Justine