Friday, April 23, 2010

My Orientation

I just got home from an orientation program for native English teachers who were new to the public school system. All of us are called GEPIK teachers, which simply means Gyeonggi English Program in Korea. Gyeonggi is a province that contains many different cities. There were roughly two hundred English teachers at this orientation program. I found out I had to go to this orientation program last week. At first I did not think too much of it since I had been to another orientation meeting, which lasted about three hours followed by dinner. But as Seo talked about it more I quickly realized that this orientation was going to multiple days somewhere far away from Ilsan. We were being sent to some sort of conference center roughly two hours away from where I live. Despite the fact that I was not going to have to go to school for three days I was by no means excited about this little trip. Besides simply losing the freedom of my nights I just hate sleeping or trying to sleep away from home; home being wherever I happen to live at the time. I have certain habits that help me sleep you could even call them rituals. First is typically just the process of writing about my day or jotting down notes on a book I am reading. Second I usually shower in the evening, which just never seems to happen when you are staying somewhere else. Third I need to play one game of mahjong while listening to music. And lastly and most important is the simple fact that I always fall asleep with some sort of noise, usually a DVD or music, playing. One of the major downsides to my incessant contemplation is that the thoughts do not stop when I lie down to sleep. Often they only increase or perhaps more accurately they just become easier to hear as I quiet myself and everything around me. Whether it is continuing to think about the book I happen to be reading at the time, pondering various new ways to improve my school plans for the next day or just worrying about how difficult it is for me to sleep away from my apartment I just cannot seem to quiet my mind when the time comes to try and sleep.

My weekend was mild and simple. I did not go out and do anything with anyone. On Saturday I wanted to do some shopping and exploring. So I just took off down a street near my house that runs south through Ilsan though I was not sure exactly where I was going to end up. After about 15 minutes I came to an overpass that crossed over the train tracks and I could see a train station off to my left. At the time I thought it was the station I always use but I found out later in the day when I stumbled upon that station again from a different direction that it was actually Ilsan station, which is one stop closer to Seoul then my stop. I thought about jumping on the train and just going into Seoul to look around but decided I wanted to see more of what was around me within walking distance so I just kept going forward. After about 30 or 40 minutes I came upon the main shopping and dining areas of Ilsan called Westerdom and La Festa. When I saw this I knew where I was. This was the area I had come to for my birthday dinner as well as lunch with Tony and Chelsea. The great part about this was it is a good place for shopping, at least for certain things.

The first place I went was a large department store. Inside it was similar to a large Macy’s. As I looked around I discovered that the one thing I could not buy was some personal space. But it was not because of how many customers there were but because of how many employees there were hovering around me. Any time I entered a section of clothes someone would approach me and even if they did not speak to me they would just stand right by me. Now at home I am used to the fact that when you are shopping the employees are watching you both to see if you need help and to make sure you do not steal anything but they can do it while also giving you some room to shop. But here the employees never stood further then one rack away from me. So if I looked through a row of pants one of them would be standing on the other side of the rack. They did not pretend like they were doing anything else they just stared at me watching me shop. As I walked through section after section it felt like the employees kept getting closer. At one point I was at large wall of hats and I bent down to look at some of them near the floor and I swear I soon felt a hot breath upon my neck and turned to find an employee just standing there over me looking down at me. This guy did speak to me and asked if he could help me. I said no thank you I was just looking. He said okay but he did not move. He just stood there with his arms crossed and yes continued to stare at me. I mean what did he think he could do try the hats on for me? More than anything though I wanted to encourage him to try breathing with his mouth close because hot breath combined with light sprays of saliva are just not fun when it’s not someone you enjoy being close to. Half the time I found that I was just pretending to shop to keep anyone from trying to help me. I would throw my head down and look through whatever rack of clothes was in front of me. At one point when I was moving to a new section I did this and found myself looking through a rack of lovely spring dresses. But it worked and the employee while she moved far to close, stopped short and did not say anything. Needless to say I was never able to get comfortable in there. After I got outside I wandered all over the shopping district and then decided to head back towards home. There were more shops up there I wanted to check out. I took a different way back and even though there were a few times I thought I had become lost everything worked out. After all my shopping I ended up buying a new pair of shoes and some white undershirts. In all I walked for a little over seven hours (I never stopped to eat I just walked and shopped, which includes walking as well). By the time I got home my legs and feet were upset with me. I had walked somewhere between 15 and 20 miles. The rest of the weekend was spent just resting, reading and mentally preparing for a trip I did not want to go on.

Monday morning I had to get up early. Besides getting ready and packing I had to make my way down to one of the train stations that was not that close to me. Actually because of Saturday I knew I probably could have walked there in about 45 minutes if I walked quickly. But I had a suitcase and had no desire to walk that far so I did not. I went to my normal train station. The problem with my train station and the one I need to get to is that they are not on the same line. I would have to take my train to a transfer point and change trains. So even though the location of the train station I need to get to is almost directly south of me my train does not go that way but rather runs parallel with the other line until a ways east towards Seoul. So after going well past the place I needed to get to I had to change trains and head right back towards where I had been except that it was further south. It was actually at the shopping area I had been at on Saturday. Now every time I had meet anyone at a train station I had not failed to be less than 20 minutes early so I decided that today I could wait a little longer than I normally would before I headed off and I thought I had planned it well. I got to the station just in time to see the train I needed pulling away. That meant I would have to wait 10 or 15 minutes. The trains do not come as often on my line as they do on the lines closer to the city. As I saw the train leave I had 40 minutes to get to my destination. I knew that it took 30 minutes to get to that station from my station assuming I did not miss the transfer train. I did not jump straight to panic mode that would come later but I was definitely worried that I was not going to be at the meeting place on time. And this was not just meeting some of my friends to hang out there was a chartered bus waiting for us to take everyone to the conference center. I had even been given directions about what to do if I missed the bus, which of course I did not look at closely because I’m never late. My 40 minutes turned into 30 when the first train pulled up and at that point my concern and increased past the nervous stage. When we got to the transfer station I moved as fast as I could towards the new line. It is a bit of a walk from my line to the second line so I was not confident that I would make it there in time and there were just tons of people all scrabbling towards the same spot. When I got up to the new track I just kept looking back at my watch as my 30 minutes had turned into 13 minutes, then 12, then 11 and finally with 10 minutes to go the train pulled in. I had to make it three stops so even though I knew 10 minutes was probably enough I also knew I was not quite positive where I was suppose find the bus. They had told me exit one. So I bolted off the train and up the stairs but could not see anyone or anything so I ran over to exit 2 and raced up the stairs. I did not see any kind of crowd but saw a large bus and walked towards it as quickly as I could without running. Sure enough that was the right bus. One of the coordinators, Victoria was there and confirmed who I was. She said I was the last one there so we could go now. She did not say it with a harsh or annoyed tone but those words stung me and I felt so embarrassed. Being late is bad enough but to find out I was the last person was mortifying. So as I entered the bus I kept my head down and tried to find some sort of empty seat not to close to anyone. I ended up near the back where everyone had their own side of the bus (two seats per side, so four seats in a row) I quickly pulled out my I-pod and started untangling my headphones so I could escape into my own little world and clam down from the fun combination of angst and shame that was swirling around inside my head. But before I was able to get my headphones on I was tapped on the shoulder and asked by the guy behind me if I wanted to play a game. I kind of shrugged and said okay.

His name is Jesse. Jesse had collected some other people to play and then pulled out a game called Catch Phrase. I had played before so I knew what to do. Jesse explained and demonstrated the game to those who had never seen it. It is very similar to Taboo except there are no taboo words you can get buzzed on. Basically you have this electronic device shaped like a circle. It displays a word or phrase and you have to get your team to guess the word or phrase. You cannot use abbreviations, rhyming words, first letter is, or any part of the word or phrase displayed. Everyone sits in a circle or whatever shape conforms to your surroundings and every other person is on your team. So the two people sitting next to you on your right and on your left are not on your team rather they are on the other team. So when your team guesses correctly you pass the device to the person next to you, which is a person on the other team. As you are trying to get your team to guess the word or phrase the same device that displays what you are describing to your team also beeps. As you play the beeping sound increasing in speed to the point where it rings out like an alarm and stops. Whoever is holding the device when it goes off gives a point to the opposite team the first teams to 7 wins. Basically you are trying to get people to guess as fast as they can so you do not get stuck with the device when it goes off. It is a lot easier than it sounds. Throughout the course of the conference this game would be the source of much enjoyment and bonding.

During the bus ride I meet Andrea, Ashlea, Jesse, Chris and Kyle. I had met Ashlea before. After the previous evening orientation we were at the same table for dinner. Thanks to Catch Phrase the bus ride went fairly quickly. The ride took somewhere between one and a half to two hours. We were told as we got on the bus that there would only be one stop and that stop would not be until we were about 10 minutes from the conference center. I was fairly nervous when I heard that due to the fact that I tend to use the restroom quite often in part because of the large amount of fluid I drink but also out of sheer anxiety. I honestly think half the times I go to the bathroom in a day are simply due to the fact that I am worried I won’t have a chance to go when I really need to. During the trip there was an issue with needing to pee but it was not my issue but rather it was Jesse’s. As it got more and more difficult for him to hold it we all began discussing his actual options. He had an empty water bottle so that explains itself. We were also in the back of the bus and there were small windows which one could, in theory, stick it out and go for it. And of course there was the option of going up to Victoria and asking her to have the bus stop before it was supposed to. Like Jesse I did not think any of the options were very good. In the end he decided the shame of asking the bus to stop and allowing everyone on the bus to know what he had to do was less than the shame of going somewhere unorthodox with only a few people knowing about it. When Jesse went to Victoria he found her asleep, which only made his decision all the harder. But he finally woke her up and explained his need to her. The bus soon pulled over to the side of the road and Jesse was allowed out and tried to move behind a bush and go as fast as he could. When he got back on he told us that Victoria was not particularly pleased with having been awoken for his bathroom break. After another 15 or 20 minutes Jesse started laughing a bit nervously and then admitted he still needed to go. I laughed half thinking he was joking but he was not. He said that he had been in such a rush when he was outside of the bus that he had not really finished. Despite the humor of the situation I could not help but identify with his problem as it is one I have often found myself in. In fact during this whole ordeal I found myself needing to go more and more it was as if I was having sympathy pains for my new friend. By the time we pulled into the rest stop both Jesse and I headed straight for the bathroom and I believe we both took all the time we needed, I know I did.

As we had been told it only took about 10 minutes to get to our final destination after leaving the rest stop. We pulled into a large property that contained 3 or 4 big buildings, which resembled a dormitory and it was encircled by hills. There was also a large soccer field that was surrounded by various obstacle course pieces such as a rock wall, zip line, a wire web and more. After we filed off the bus we grabbed our stuff and headed into the lobby of the largest building. There were two lines one for boys and one for girls. When we got to the front of the line we were checked in and handed keys to our rooms. I ended up being roommates with Jesse so that was nice. We were a little late so we did not have time to do anything except throw our bags into our room and head off to the auditorium for the opening ceremonies. In the auditorium we were introduced to several of the important leaders of the GEPIK program and then were shown a traditional Korean dance and music show called Pungmul but I looked online to find out more about it. So Pungmul is a Korean folk music tradition that includes drumming, dancing, and singing. Most performances are outside, with tens of players, all in constant motion. Pungmul is rooted in the dure (collective labor) farming culture. It was originally played as part of farm work, on rural holidays, at other village community-building events, and in shamanistic rituals. Today it has expanded in meaning and is also used in political protest and as a performing art form.

Drumming is the central element of pungmul. Each group is led by a kkwaenggwari (small handheld gong) player, and includes at least one person playing janggu (hourglass drum), buk (barrel drum), and jing (gong). Wind instruments (t'aepyongso, also known as hojeok, senap, or nalari, and nabal) sometimes play along with the drummers. Following the drummers are dancers, who often play the sogo (a tiny drum that makes almost no sound) and tend to have more elaborate—even acrobatic—choreography. Finally, japsaek (actors) dressed as caricatures of traditional village roles wander around to engage spectators, blurring the boundary between performers and audience. Minyo (folksongs) and chants are sometimes included in pungmul, and audience members enthusiastically sing and dance along. Most minyo are set to drum beats in one of a few jangdan (rhythmic patterns) that are common to pungmul, sanjo, p'ansori, and other traditional Korean musical genres.
Pungmul performers wear a variety of colorful costumes. A flowery version of the Buddhist kkokkal is the most common head-dress. Advanced performers sometimes wear sangmo, which are hats with long ribbon attached to them that players can spin and flip in intricate patterns by moving their heads.

In our performance there was a woman on the stage began playing a wind instrument and then five men entered from behind us all playing the various percussion instruments and a gong and were dressed in traditional Korean clothing (bright colors), which included the hats with long ribbons (sangmo), the length of their bodies, attached to a point on top. As the men played their instruments they moved their heads and bodies in such a way as to make the ribbons twirl around themselves. It really was quite fun to watch. I can't seem to insert a link but here is the web address to a YouTube video that shows a show very similar to what we watched.

We were then sent to the cafeteria for lunch. Lunch was fine, nothing great but not bad. That would be my basic grading of all the meals we had on this trip. After lunch we were sent off to various classes in groups that had been designated by the program leaders. The groups were based upon geography so that all the teachers in certain cities were placed together. Basically everyone who had been on our bus was in my small group. All three days included various lectures covering topics such as English curriculum in Korea the past, present and future; tips for being an effective teacher; co-teacher discussions; and various cultural presentations. The first day amounted to 5 hours of classes, 8 hours for the second day and about 3 hours, which included a fare well ceremony on the last day. And while I could say a great many things about the various ideas and suggestions I heard I think I will pass on that. Like most school settings there were some lectures or more accurately some lecturers that I enjoyed and some that I did not. I think one of the main things I learned was that an engaged teacher creates an engaging atmosphere in which to learn. In many ways I was shown that interest is one of the most important parts of teaching and it takes an interested teacher to create and interesting class. Just as I could tell when some of the lecturers were not enjoying being there so too I imagine my kids can tell the days I wish I was not at school. So more than anything I walked away with the desire to make my classes more fun. In the end I have realized that I am working with elementary school kids and very few of them are going to walk away from my class writing amazing journals or speaking with an kind of fluency but if I can help make them enjoy their time in my class then maybe, just maybe they will find the desire to study English more and become better at it as they continue through their schooling. More than anything this first month has been about learning where my expectations should be both for my kids and for myself and so far I have expected far too much from my kids and far too little from myself.

As for the social times allowed during this orientation most of them were spent playing Catch Phrase, ping-pong and just talking. The connivance store did sell beer so most of the teachers bought beer for the evening and enjoyed some drinks while we all hung out. I had been told before that people can be more entertaining when there is drinking involved and I have discovered that is true; I really am more amusing when other people are drinking.

But by far the worst part of the weekend came on the last night we were there and they had an obligatory “party” that they called “Let’s Rock and Roll.” The name itself had caused me concern the whole day plus I just could not understand why they would have a social event that was mandatory as if it were one of the classes. When we entered the auditorium there were nine huge circles of chairs. As people came in they just started sitting down in the circles with their group of friends. As our group sat down we had by far the smallest circle with only about half of the seats filled while other groups were grabbing more chairs in order to expand theirs. Soon a Korean man ran on stage and started yelling with great excitement asking if we were ready to have fun. I admit I did not respond.

First the man gave each of our groups a letter. We were group D. The man then began trying to explain what we were going to do. One of the main things I have noticed about cross cultural communication is that repetition cannot be avoided I mean you just cannot avoid repetition or prevent yourself from repeating the repetitious repeatings you seek repeatedly to avoid …okay I’ll stop. Each and every activity he had us do came with simple directions that must have been said three or four times with little variation in wording. Most of us could sense that there was going to be some sort of dancing involved but the first thing we were told to do was to all turn to our right and begin massaging the back of the person in front of us. That put me behind a girl named Samantha who I had just met earlier at dinner. Needless to say I did not feel I had arrived at the point where I was comfortable massaging her back. I could see that I was not the only one uncomfortable as many of the people in my group, particularly Andrea and Ashlea, exchanged glances with me that were a mixture of puzzlement, annoyance and laughter. As I lightly touched Samantha’s back just trying to laugh at the oddity of the demand we were then told to switch and massage the person to our left. We did this switching back and forth a few times and then the man explained to us that he would count off and when he said “now,” really it was some word I cannot remember, we were supposed to poke the person we were facing on both of their sides. All I could think was, “are you kidding me? Are you really asking me to play a type of game where I am supposed to poke people in their side?” The man pointed out that this would be a great game to play with your kids and that fact alone made me confident that there was no reason for us to be doing it. But as I could not bring myself to simply get up and walk to the back of the room I hesitantly began participating in the massage pokey game. At first no one seemed anymore interested then I did and every time the man said “now” we would only pretend to poke the person in front of us. But as the game was coming to a close and the man said “now” for the last time Samantha jabbed me in both of my sides and I crumpled up and fell onto the floor as my chair, which had wheels, shot away from me towards one of the other circles. I could feel my face quickly redden as embarrassment filled me. I got up as fast as I could as those in the circle laughed and I could not help but look at them and begin to laugh too in part because it confirmed my astonishment at the fact that I was being required to do this and in part to make it seem like I was not embarrassed.

The next game was just as awkward as the first but this was due more to the implications of the game rather than the game itself. First we had to get a partner and it was supposed to be someone of the opposite gender, Samantha was my partner. You each had to make a circle with your thumb and pointer finger (the okay sign) with your left hand and then place the pointer finger of your right hand into the hole created by your partner’s left hand. Basically you found yourself placing your finger in your partner’s hole while they did the same to you and the entire room was filled with laughter in the shared understanding of the connotations of the actions we were now performing. The idea of this game was that when the man said “now,” again I do not remember the real word he shouted, you were supposed to try and grab your partner’s finger with your left hand and get your right finger out of your partner’s hole. We were of course informed of how this would be another great game for the kids. And while I could not believe we were doing this I really had to laugh both at the inference of the game and the fact that we were told we should be in boy girl pairs to begin with.

Finally it came to the time we had all been dreading the dance competition. They turned on various songs and shouted various styles or commands that the entire group was supposed to do and during this whole time, including the other games, the man on stage just randomly gave out points to each team and told us that the team with the most points at the end would win a prize. In essence I was told to prance around in order to be awarded arbitrary points for an unknown prize. One of the things that truly did surprise me was seeing how many people in the different groups really got into it and actually wanted those points. Competition really seems to get some people going even if it is only to win coffee mugs by dancing like a monkey. No one in my group was into this and it was painfully obvious as we were never awarded any points except when the man would just give points to one whole side of the room or just pick certain letters without having ever actually looked at what was happening in the circles. Each group was then asked to elect, more like sacrifice, one of its members to go up on stage and dance for the right to win 500 points! Woohoo! No one in our group wanted to go but eventually one of our members went up more I think out of confusion then out of genuine desire. I told him he did not have to go up there because no one would notice if no one from our group went up there but he went anyway. As the DANCE OFF occurred some of the people went all out shaking their bodies anyway they could, taking off their clothes and rubbing up against whoever happened to be the closest to them. Our group leader did none of those things and most of the time he looked like he was just marching around the stage randomly throwing out his arms every now and then. As one may have guessed we did not win the dance off so we did not earn 500 points, shucks. By this point I was watching the clock more than anything on stage as we were scheduled to be there only for an hour and I could not wait to get out of there. But the man on stage was not as aware of the time as I was and we ended up forfeiting another 20 minutes of our lives to this most painful of events. Finally it was over and yes team D came out with the fewest points of all the teams and in an odd way I was quite proud of that.

The rest of the night was spent playing Catch Phrase and just getting to know one another better. We ended up hanging out past 2am. After two or three hours of sleep Jesse and I got up, showered and got breakfast. After breakfast there was one final group meeting and a closing ceremony. Then we all moved to our buses though not before I went to the bathroom three times, just in case. The trip home passed quickly as we talked and played. I was quite aware that I had made some good new friends that I was looking forward to hanging out with a bunch more in the future. I arrived home just before 3pm and within half an hour I had fallen asleep watching some episodes of 30 Rock. All in all it was a pretty good week. It was actually only three days but it sure felt like it should be Friday on that bus ride home.

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