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I’m getting settled in the routine of “B-i life,” but have noticed dark circles developing under my eyes. Some days are really painful and I spend more time quieting the children and trying to get their attention than actually teaching. When the class is attentive, it’s like a much needed reprieve and I wish I could magically extend those 15 seconds to the rest of the day.

I think the kids are starting to respect me more, but it’s hard to tell. Every day is a coin toss. I’ve been called a “kid-teacher;” I’ve been asked why I’m so short. And just the other day I was asked if I’m a “man” or “girl” because I was wearing slacks and a suit jacket. When I told Monica that I am a girl, she asked, “Teacher, then why you wear man clothes?”

I’ve even learned some new Korean words. A couple that have been extremely helpful are “morayo” (or “molayo”) which translates to “I can’t speak” in English. I say this whenever someone talks to me in Korean…Which brings up another point. I have gotten many funny looks when people realize I can’t speak Korean. A few times, I’ve been asked if I’m Chinese because it seems incredulous that a Korean person can’t speak Korean. A couple of times, cab drivers laughed and muttered who knows what.

I listen to the Korean streaming all around me, hoping that something will click, that somewhere in the recesses of my memory, the language will spark and I will start speaking flawless Korean. I strain to extract phrases, but it’s very difficult – as it is for any foreigner in a new country, the language sounds like gutteral fireworks with changing intonation, a sort of fluid hieroglyphics.

I have also learned the word “yogi,” which I picked up by listening to the only 2 students in the 5-yr-old class talk to each other. It means “here.” Some others are “chongee” which means paper, “anyo” which means no, and “anjah” which means sit.

Give me 5 or 6 months, and I’ll learn an actual phrase. :)

Some of the kids have really uncommon English/American names. Of course, you have your handful of Johnny, Alex and Alice. But then there are names that I have never even heard of, like:

  • Annika – she’s sweet & quiet and barely says a word
  • Gelasio – he’s round-faced with a Bruce Lee haircut and likes to tell jokes (no longer goes to Bandi)
  • Vico – he’s super cute and always shares his snack
  • Odette – she’s cute & sweet, and told me once that another kid thought I was “scary teacher but no smile” (meaning I’m not so scary when I smile), so now I make a special effort to smile
  • Leo – he’s often in his own world, but he is a sweet boy
  • Solomon – one of the youngest students, likes to pretend he’s “angry tiger”
  • Joy – he has a wavy mop-top and is very cute. one of the brightest in his class, but never says a word
  • Red – he’s one of the loud ones in class, but very bright

All of the students are preparing for the end-of-the-year concert. The school year closes at the end of February in Korea. So we have been practicing our songs – “Bippidy Boppidy Boo,” “L.O.V.E.” and “Doe a Deer.” And of course, there are cute hand movements added in for entertainment. It wouldn’t be a real show without dancing!! (and me dressing up like a bear for the 5-yr-old’s play of the story “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt“).

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I have survived my first full week of teaching at Bandi. “Survived” may be an overstatement. “Stayed awake” is probably a more accurate description. The amount of energy and attentiveness necessary to be a teacher is amazing and I have immense appreciation for kindergarten and elementary teachers worldwide. To be a foreign English teacher requires a special amount of attentiveness, however. After a whole week of broken English and very strong Korean accents, I realize how important it is for me to be alert to the children’s chatter and questions and interjections because it is work to figure out what they are saying sometimes.

My mornings consist of 4 classes – storytelling (and finding various ways to tell the same story over and over – one story is read for a whole month) and arts & crafts on Fridays (except for my 4 year olds – in American age – who I do arts & crafts with twice a week). Then there is lunch – which, by the way, is provided by the school for all teachers. (Again, I think I lucked out with this position!)

Lunch consists of rice. There is always, always rice – sometimes plain and sometimes with red beans mixed in. There is also always soup – often bits of fish are mixed in, sometimes with bean sprouts or cabbage. Then there is some type of protein. One day we had an omelette type of “entree.” Another day we had fish cooked in some red spice that wasn’t very spicy (everything is pretty bland since it’s for children). There is also some type of side dish. Side dishes, called “banchan” are standard in Korean cuisine. And finally, there is always, always kimchi. Kimchi is a side dish consisting of cabbage fermented in garlic, scallions, ginger, spicy red peppers, and sometimes other ingredients like tiny fish for flavor. You either love or hate kimchi.

After lunch, I teach 2-4 more classes depending on the day. They are considered kindergarten classes even though one of my classes consists of one girl, aged 10 I think. The children in these classes have been learning English for a short period of time so they are learning the basics such as names of places (the library, zoo, park, and museum) and practicing writing in English.

For the most part, the kids are eager to speak (or yell) in English. So far I have found which objects they love by the amount of enthusiasm and they use to repeat words to me and how loudly they say them. When I ask them what the weather is like outside, it is always “sunny” and “windy.” It takes more encouragement for them to say “cold.” (Which, by the way, it is freezing in Korea!! This week has been a steady -4 degrees Celsius which is like 25 degrees Fahrenheit and it is even colder at night.)

Somewhere in between the afternoon classes, all the teachers partake in the afternoon snack, also provided to us by the school. The snacks are chewy rice things that I love because of their super starchiness and pineapple chunks, or dumpling cakes with some sort of vegetable and meat substance in them, or some other Korean snack food.

Watching the children’s behavior has been interesting for me because I can pick up some Korean habits through them. For example, every child finishes all of their lunch without complaint. It doesn’t matter if they don’t like something, they are expected to finish everything they are served that day. It was amazing for me to see them eat every grain of rice from their stainless steel food trays (the foreign teachers eat with one of the classes and then rotate every week or month, I don’t remember which). When I say every grain of rice, I mean every single grain. Their treat when they are finished is a small cup of milk.

One of the few memories I have of being at the orphanage was looking forward to having milk. I remember being given a small carton of milk and relishing its creamy deliciousness. The funny thing is that now that I’m back in Korea, I still find the milk here to be very delicious. I haven’t found too many variations of milk here – not like the skim, 1%, and 2% or ultra-pasteurized, etc. – that you can select from in the U.S. Also, I can’t read what’s on the milk cartons here so whose to know what type of milk it is. Anyway, the milk is delicious. I don’t know if it’s pasteurized differently or if it is customary for Koreans to drink whole milk (that’s what it tastes like because it’s extra creamy and yummy), but yes it is that delicious. So delicious in fact that I have just dedicated a whole paragraph to Korean milk. :o)

I have never realized how much I love  the sound of spoken English, be it broken English or semi-broken English or even single-word English. It can be frustrating to be denied milk in coffee simply because someone can’t understand me and nerve-wracking when a cab driver drives around in circles trying to find the address of the school (which I have written in Korean to make it easier for me to point to rather than try to wrestle with giving instructions to someone who doesn’t know English) and all I can do is sit silently hoping I will make it there and that the driver who is now earnestly talking in Korean isn’t, in fact, cursing me out.

Wow. I have to take a moment to let the tornado settle.

B–i English School is about 45 minutes (by bus or taxi) from the Suwon subway station. It’s a charming building with 4 floors and the stairway and hallways painted in bright colors.

When I said in my last post that I didn’t feel like a foreigner in a country full of Koreans, I lied. In my first few minutes of being in B–i with 5-7 year-old kids running around, giggling and pointing at me, and with the other teachers (all Korean) hustling about reprimanding the children, in Korean, I felt like maybe I fell in the wrong rabbit hole. The school was loud. It was busy. It was very unlike my days at my former job where I worked in an office, by myself, in peace and quiet, and where people spoke English.

B–i is a private school, completely taught in English, opposed to my assumption that it was a school to only teach the children English. There are classes for Kindergarten-aged children (about 6 years old in American age – yes, there is a difference, look it up here), for children aged 7 years old, and in the afternoon, classes for children about 5 years old (in American age). Basically, they’re all fiesty, energetic, and did I mention loud? balls of cuteness. And they all speak English, understand English, and write in English – just as well as American kids their age. So what am I doing here?

I have a very special position in the school. My job is not to teach English as I had assumed, but…wait for it…to tell stories and do arts & crafts with the children. That’s right. Here I am, with a fresh Master’s Degree in Communication, on my hands and knees helping the children cut out holly out of green construction paper so they can make their Christmas wreathes. And the clincher is that I get paid more than the Korean teachers simply because I am a foreign teacher. The Korean teachers instruct the children on phonics and grammar and writing in English – you know, the hard stuff. And I, the foreign teacher, who help the kids color in pictures and turn on their imagination and tell them the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, get paid more simply because I am American. I can speak English without a Korean accent.

All the children call the teachers “Teacher.” Even the teachers call another teacher by “Laura Teacher;” the American name always precedes the title. This is custom in Asian languages. Usually, you call someone by name and their job title (or rank). When I told a couple kids my name (I said “Kristen Teacher”), they promptly asked me for my Korean name. My face does not lie. I pointed to myself and said “I am American.” And they giggled and ran away.

The teachers at B–i rotate classrooms. Classes are about 40 minutes long.  A bell chimes to indicate when the teachers rotate. I followed Tammy Teacher around (who I was replacing) and watched her struggle with a crate of coloring books, construction paper with origami peacocks loosely glued on them, a bag filled with candy (her treat to the kids on her last day), and wondered how I was going to manage. Not all the classes were working on the same projects. Some classes were drawing out a story they had read the week before, something about “Going on a Bear Hunt.” Other classes were learning about the difference of “big” and “small” and the word “not,” as in, “this is red, not black.” (I’m not sure where this fits in with arts & crafts or storytelling, but hey, I’m just here to teach.)

The children are darling. One little girl named Jennifer tugged on my pants chanting, “Teacher, teacher” and I looked down at her and in her outstretched palm was a piece of paper. It was her phone number. During snack time, two girls who saw that I wasn’t eating anything came up to me and gave me some of their snacks. It was the cutest thing ever. And I was grateful because I was starving.

I had to skip lunch because Stella, one of the Korean teachers, had to take me to the hospital so I could get blood work taken in order for me to get an Alien Registration Card. It is Korean law for anyone residing in the country for longer than 90 days must have an Alien Registration Card. I cannot open a bank account in Korea without one nor start phone service, etc. The hospital in Korea is amazingly efficient. My appointment was at 1:30 pm and I was seen at 1:30 pm. There was no waiting. We got to the receptionist desk, filled out paperwork, changed into a gown, and was immediately escorted into the 1st booth. There were 5 or 6 booths set up. One to take my blood pressure, weight, height and urine test. One to draw blood. One to take a chest X-ray. One to check my teeth (yes, they are very complete and I had to go to a different floor where Dental Care was). Finally I had to see a female doctor who asked about my history of illnesses, etc. I was out in 30 minutes. Amazing.

The doctors and patients occupied the same main room – the waiting room. There were tables at the back of the waiting room where the (doctors?) staff organized (bills?) letters and files. They worked on laptops while patients were seated waiting their turn. This mixing of work and waiting would never be seen in the states. Doctors work behind closed doors, completely separated from the patients.

All of the teachers at B–i are Korean. Even the foreign teachers are Korean. I am the only one who cannot speak nor understand Korean. The other 2 foreign teachers are Korean-American, both half Korean and half white, but they have one Korean parent so they grew up hearing the language and understand it. I wonder if I was hired because I am Korean. I have read about the divide of “Korean teachers” and “foreign teachers” and how often the 2 groups stay separate. I am not the type to “side” with one group over another but it will be interesting to observe the dynamics of the groups.

So far, everyone has been incredibly nice to me. I am looking forward to getting to know the children but am a bit hesitant to jump into these new waters. Monday will be a test.

Contact

::kristen.byrne@gmail.com
::skype: minikristen

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