Sunday, March 28, 2010

Birthdays and Bars

March 28, 2010

My birthday came and went and it passed as well as I could have hoped. The day started out simply. I got to work early so I could work on some things for my new afternoon classes. This was going to be my first day teaching the 4th grade advanced class and also the class for the teachers. Around 8am Seo knocked on my door. She brought me two bottles of coke (roughly the 20 ounce size). She said she was sorry it was not more but I told her that her gift was perfect. I had brought one bottle from home so I had three in my little fridge and was excited because I would not have to bring anymore bottles from home for a couple of more days…assuming I stuck to my one a day plan. Seo then handed me a homemade card from Jong Woo. He had folded the paper into a shaped that looked like a box with a bow on it. It was really quite impressive and difficult to open. Inside he wished me happy birthday and told me that his birthday was also very near, on the 28th which is today. Then he told me he missed me and wanted to play again. At the end he included more Korean words and phrases for me to memorize, the longest of which was “nan chek illg-nen-gul joahe=I like reading books.” That made me laugh. I asked Seo what they were doing for Jong Woo’s birthday and she said they were going to try and go to her sister’s house, which is not nearby. I told her that if they had anytime this weekend it would be fun to see Jong Woo. She was not sure it would work out and said she would call me if they stayed here but then she immediately withdrew her comment remembering that I did not have a phone yet. I told her not to worry we would do something together sometime soon.

Seo asked me about birthdays in America and what we usually do and what we usually eat. I told her that what happens on a person’s birthday is usually up to the person whose birthday it was. There was no set type of food we eat or set type of activities that are performed. I mentioned that there is normally a birthday cake but that was still dependent on the person’s own tastes. She asked if I like cake and I told her that I prefer ice cream or cookies. She then laughed and said everything I like is cold, especially my drinks. I told her that was true I just do not like drinking many warm things. In Korea they drink a lot of warm or hot drinks, most of which I just do not enjoy. Even most of the water they drink is warm. She then pointed out that I hate being cold and I said that was also true so we just laughed trying to figure out why my mouth could not get along with my body. I also brought up surprise parties and shared how those typically work. She told me that in Korea they always had seaweed soup on people’s birthday and she emphasized always. I told her I had never had seaweed soup but maybe sometime I could try it. Choi then popped in and also wished me a happy birthday and then we started to get ready for our first class.

School went along just fine. My first class of 6th graders on Friday is one of my best classes. Almost a third of the class had done their voluntary dialogue journals. I had not received more than three from any other class. After lunch I finished preparing for my first 4th grade class. There were 12 students in the class and I had not met any of them before that day. As they entered they saw me and were a bit nervous and whispered among themselves. Part of me wanted to tell them that they did not have to whisper I could not understand Korean anyway but I restrained myself. I introduced myself and let them ask questions about me or America. It was very similar to my first days with each of my 5th and 6th grade classes. I then handed out a worksheet for them to fill in that contained personal questions about them, their family and school. After that I went around the room and allowed each child to introduce themselves and tell me about their family. This allowed me to see where the students were at with both their verbal and written skills. Similar to what I had discovered in my drama class the 4th graders had a strong English proficiency, easily exceeding the 5th and 6th grade “advance” class I had had early in the week. Right after class finished I moved over to Seo’s classroom for my first class with the adults and with me I took my third and final coke of the day; the one I had brought from home and the two Seo had given to me as a gift. Hey screw will power it was my birthday. I did try and drink them slowly and I spread them out over the course of the day. Okay back to class. There were seven teachers there and myself. The class was very laid back. We did introductions allowing me to practice their names and then talked about what they wanted to learn. I told them that I wanted to be a resource to help them learn about what they wanted to know. So after talking awhile we decided to make the classes topical instead of progressive and chaining ourselves to a textbook. I thought this was good because it would allow each class to be independent of the other ones so that if any of the teachers had to miss a class due to other obligations they would not have to worry about falling behind. I also thought this would allow us to combine learning English with learning about American culture. So we brain stormed various topics and came up with things such as entertainment, food, weather, family/friends, hobbies, sports, etc. Seo then said no philosophy and I just laughed. The other teachers looked and she then explained that I liked philosophy and most of the other teachers said they did not want to do that either because it was boring. I told them I liked boring things but not to worry we did not have to learn about anything they did not want to. So, on the list of things they do not want to learn about they threw philosophy, religion, politics and school (western educational system). I laughed again telling them that they took away all the things I know the most about but then admitted that it was probably a good idea not to worry about that stuff. I made it clear that this was going to be fun class not just to learn English but to get closer as friends. As I was getting ready to leave Seo handed me a bag and inside of it was a box of individually wrapped cookies from a bakery nearby. She told me that since I did not like cake she got me some cookies. I thanked her very much and yes they are very good.

Earlier in the day I had spoken with Grace, the girl I had met the day before during the time Seo and I were shopping for cell phones. Grace had offered to take me out that night with a group of her friends who were all native English speaking teachers. I said that would be great. So at 5:30pm Grace and her husband Paul (Paul is Korean but I do not know his Korean name) picked me up. Paul works in the IT world of computers and technology. So the first thing Grace said to me was let's get that cell phone thing taken care of. They had brought a cell phone with them that they said I could use then I showed them the phone the previous teacher had left in the apartment. They said both phones were pretty much the same thing. The one they had could get a little better coverage while the one I had was a newer phone with less wear and tear. They explained that neither phone was top of the line but both phones were so far ahead of anything I had ever owned that I would have never known. So far everything I had been told about how far ahead Korea is with in the world of technology and how much cheaper it all is here has been true. They started showing me cell phone plans all of which gave me great coverage for very little money. I just got the basic package. I also found out that I did not have to sign a contract but could leave anytime. So if one month I thought I could get a better deal I could merely switch. I doubt I ever will but it's nice to know I could. So I am paying about 11 dollars a month plus any charges over my limits. Now the phone's battery was basically dead so while they got it up and working I was unable to have Grace tutor me on how to use it. I have since found out that I have no idea how to make this phone work and the multiple times I have tried to call the US have been unsuccessful. All the Korean numbers work just fine. The other problems include a seemingly endless set of menus and all the voice directions and alerts are in Korean as well as a lot of the words on the screen. I'll get Grace to help me later and then I should be able to start actually talking to some people. Still the fact was that within one hour of hanging out with Grace for the first time I was able to get a cell phone plan in which I understood what my coverage was and what I was going to be spending. These were questions that I had not been able to get answered before even after hours of conversations. For anyone interested my phone number is 010-5795-4333.

Grace, Paul and I then headed over to the restaurant we were going to meet everyone at. As we went she told me that some of the people we were meeting had classes until around 9:30 so they would not be joining us until around 10pm. It was not even 7pm yet so I sheepishly said, “Oh, okay,” trying not to add how long are we going to be out? The restaurant we went to was a large bar style restaurant. It brewed its own beers so the drink menu was far larger than the food menu. There were about 12 food items all of which were fairly large portions meant for sharing. But the food was western; pizzas, bratwurst, barbeque and stuff like that. I ordered a plate that came with multiple brats and fries. When Grace, Paul and I walked in there was literally only two other people there and both of them were white, which surprised me. Grace told me this was a place a lot of foreigners come. (Side note: it is still weird hearing that word and knowing it applies to me) But I also could not believe that it was seven and there was no one in this bar yet. This was a large bar, they had a stage with a live band performing, actually two bands that alternated sets the entire time we were there. We sat in the largest seating area but they also had booths of exceeding levels of luxury to the point that there were sections with large sofa-like seats surrounding tables that were roped off from the rest of the bar. The point being that this was clearly a place lots of people came to but no one was there yet. This only drove home the point that this was going to be a long night whether I wanted it to be or not.

Grace, Paul and I ended up eating and hanging out for almost an hour before anyone else got there. We were supposed to meet some of the other people at seven but they were all late. The first person to get there was a girl named Nash. She is from South Africa. She was very lively and interesting. Nash had been in Korea for 6 months. I enjoyed talking with her right off the bat. Next a guy named Tony showed up. I discovered Tony was from Toronto. He had been an urban planner there but decided he wanted to change careers so he got a teaching degree and then came to Korea. He had been in Korea for 7 months. It was not long before Tony and I begun talking about hockey. He plays fantasy hockey and had just picked up one of the Avs defensemen who I know, Kyle Cumiskey. A recurring theme through the night was as I met each new person they found out I had only been in Korea for three weeks and they offered reassurance that it gets better. Many of them had even resigned for another year with their schools. Of course, the other subject that came up with each new conversation was the question why I was not drinking. I still had no real answer except I was not a big fan. I had no moral qualms or religious issues with it but even when you tell people that you can still tell it makes people a little uncomfortable when you are not drinking with them. Now before everyone else got there and it was only Tony, Nash, Grace, Paul and I Grace told them it was my birthday. They all wished me happy birthday then Nash told us that it had been her birthday the day before, March 25th, and then Tony told us it was his birthday tomorrow, March 27th. So at a table of five people we had three birthdays sitting there separated by 12 hours on either side. (Actually 4 hours on one side and 20 hours on the other side but that just does not sound as cool. Either way it adds up to 24 hours) Needless to say this was an instant connection that was a source of fun for the rest of the night. (I also could not help but remember that Jong Woo’s birthday was going to be on the 28th. There are just a lot of special people born in March and yes that includes my mom, born on March 21st) As the night went on I met Cheena who is from Long Beach, CA, Bobby who is from Chicago, Andrew who is from Scotland, Perry who is also from Toronto and another girl whose name I cannot remember. The two of us never got to chat so I did not find out much about her.

Our group was very close to the stage so when the bands were playing it was difficult to hear anyone who was not in the chair next to you. But it was still fun. The bands sang both Korean and English songs and during one of the sets they mentioned that they had a birthday in the house and suddenly everyone at our table started cheering and my heart froze as everyone looked over at me and I tried to smile. I do not think I succeeded. After the band finished their set some of the singers came over and chatted with us, two girls and two guys. They were all from the Philippians. That explained why their English was so clear. When they sang their English was perfect. I only heard an accent when I spoke with them. The guys were named Ron and Sol, short for Solomon. They told us to look them up on Facebook so when I get a chance I’ll try to find them and bookmark them so people can look at them. Hopefully I will also get access to all the pictures that were being taken that night.

Around midnight a lot the group wanted to leave. They said it was too loud and they could not hear anyone talking. So as we got up I just assumed we were all getting ready to go home. But as we walked outside everyone started talking about what bar we should go to next. As we walked Grace told me I could go home if I wanted and she would help get me a taxi and make sure the driver knew where to take me. The taxis are actually pretty cheap here compared to what I had always thought taxis cost. The 15 minute ride home would only cost three or four dollars. A large part of me wanted to go home just because I was tired but I really was having a good time so I said I wanted to keep hanging out. Soon we were at another bar. This was a very small bar called Old Rock. It was called this because of the music it played. When you walk in behind the bar are large bookcases that span the length of the bar and on them are records filed like books. There must have been hundreds of records there. Now I do not believe any of the music they played was actually off of records rather they were there just for decoration but it still looked cool. At each table there were cards with pens with which you could write down requests for them to play. They would play more contemporary songs when asked. All the songs were English ones in fact there were not many Koreans in the bar. Finally the night wound down and people started getting up ready to leave. I was pretty much waiting for Grace and Paul. When they left would be when I left. They were ready and so we left. Grace said they would share a taxi with me and get me home first even though I was further away. I told her she did not have to do that but she said it was no problem and that she remembered what it was like when she first got here and did not know anyone or how to get around. I thanked her and we went home. I walked in to my apartment took of my jacket and looked at the clock. It was just past 2am.

So there it was. My birthday had passed and it was a mixture of the known and unknown. I did truly enjoy meeting a new group of people. It really is amazing what a strong bond can be created in a very short amount of time just by being able to speak the same language in a foreign place. In my short time here it has become very clear why ethnic and national groups stick together in the US and often create their own towns or neighborhoods. Since I have been here the few times I have met someone who speaks English I immediately talk to them, not even caring about what, and just enjoy each moment of understanding what is being said.

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