Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wednesday Review #3

This entry was pre-written because I am currently on my honeymoon in Cambodia and Thailand!

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is one of the best books I have ever read. It is also one of the most heartbreaking. In fact, it reminded me in many, many ways of the saddest English novel ever written, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, a book so depressing that after writing it, Hardy gave up writing prose and stuck only to poetry for the last 20 years of his writing career (although making him one of the few writers to gain substantial, critical acclaim in more than one genre). Just as nineteenth century Jude negotiates faith and identity in a rapidly modernizing England, Amir must reconcile the beautiful Kabul of his childhood with the Taliban-controlled extremist state of 2001 and the split American/Afghan identity within him. Both characters are paralyzed by and must confront their own flawed humanity.

Really this book has been praised so much that it would be impossible for me to add anything new to the conversation, except this: When I read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo in seventh grade, I was up all night weeping and reading. I came to my parents the next morning, eyes bloodshot and completely in earnest, and said, "I have to go to Paris right now." My parents thought this was a cute moment of my melodramatic nature, but really just the book evoked such an intense connection with a place I'd never been that I felt in that instant that I must reconcile the gap between my changed heart and my physical location. After reading The Kite Runner, I feel the same aching need to visit Kabul, Afghanistan.

It is absolutely a must-read, and I cannot wait to read Hosseini's second, A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cambodian Smells...

Suosdei! (Hello!)

Cambodia smells like a verdant, dense jungle, far off in the distance. Like motorbike exhaust from the tuktuks--passenger carts pulled behind the bikes. It smells of garlic and ginger, fish sauce and green onions. Of dust--all over the marble sandstone temples and roads. It smells like burning trash and dung, like a muddy, dried-up (because of the season) lake once filled with fish, now allowed to become over-fished and polluted by a corrupt and exploitative government. It smells of mosquito spray and sweat, of fresh pineapple and exotic flowers. Of incense at the temples and crap from the poor plumbing.

Cambodia is intense and beautiful, its people friendly and desperate, its history glorious and devastating. I am loving it here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wednesday Review #2

This entry was pre-written because I am currently on my honeymoon in Cambodia and Thailand!

Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles by Anthony Swofford is an intense, honest war memoir by a Marine sniper who served during the Gulf War in 1990. Swofford's prose is as blunt and masculinely intimidating as the violent, gruff, and deadly figure the so-called "jarheads" cut that earned them their nickname. As with most good war literature, it was very difficult to read, but worth the discomfort and brutality. It was made into a movie that I haven't seen starring Jake Gyllenhaal, but I cannot imagine the qualities that I enjoy in this book would translate well into a movie.

For example, one motif of the book is the letters that are mailed in and out of the barracks in the desert and the power that they held over the marines stuck waiting for the political and economic battle being waged in Washington and Saudi to determine their fate. Swofford writes:
I was in the Desert, sending out messages worldwide, clamouring for love with my pen. And with each letter I wrote and sealed, parts of me escaped the Kingdom of Saud. At times I thought I might write myself away, fit my entire body and mind into a few thick envelopes, and that way, as a stowaway, escape the ghastly end that awaited me.
I find it hard to imagine a movie dramatizing the urgency of the need to write himself away from the war, although this is such a powerful image in a book. I remember seeing the previews of this movie and being uninterested--after reading the book I'm only a little more interested (if you've seen it and liked it, feel free to convince me otherwise).

Although I wasn't quite as impressed with Jarhead as with my all-time favorite book (not just war book) The Things They Carried by Vietnam vet Tim O'Brien (it might actually be impossible to impress me more than this book), I found it to be very readable and engaging. It also gives some insight into what the current war in Iraq must be like for the soldiers still entrenched, which is something most of us could do well to remember.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hello Honeymoon!

I write this as I wait in the Incheon airport for our flight to Siem Reap. Hooray! Min Gi and I will be on our honeymoon to various places in Cambodia and Thailand for the next two weeks, so updates will likely be a bit inconsistent.

I'm jumping up and down with excitement. Seriously, the French couple next to me is giving me strange looks. Min Gi just laughs. That's good.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Seollal with my new family

Today was Valentine's Day, yes, but it was also the Korean Lunar New Year (설날), which is one of the two most important holidays in this country. Usually Koreans will travel to their hometowns, to the "Big House" (큰집) which is the house of the oldest male relative of the family. In Min Gi's case, this is his uncle's house, although his uncle passed away even before Min Gi's father did, so now his "big" aunt (KeunOhmma, 큰엄마)--the widow of his "big" uncle (큰아버지)--lives there alone. His two cousins and their wives and children were at the house from early in the morning, but before we went to the house, Min Gi wanted me to meet his father.

Min Gi pours out soju to honor his father and uncle.

Korean family graves are usually in the mountains and feature a small mound of grass with a small stone or grass altar space in front of the mound. Every year children (or grandchildren) go to their ancestors' mounds and clean them--cut the grass and place small tokens honoring the dead--usually around Chuseok. At Seollal, there is no need because in winter time the grass is dead. We bowed to his uncle and to his father. He also explained to me that when KeunOhmma and Ohmma pass, they will be buried next to their husbands.

In Shil throws the Yutnori sticks.

After visiting the grave, we went to the Big House and ate a lot of food (I think this is pretty universal for holidays that aren't about fasting). After lunch, we watched the Olympics for a bit and bowed to KeunOhmma and Ohmma (and received money from them). Then the highlight of the afternoon--we used the money for betting on Yutnori. Yutnori is a traditional Korean board game played with four sticks that you throw to determine how you move around the board. It's very silly and dramatic. We split up into teams: the Seongju relatives (KeunOhmma and the cousins and their wives) and the Daegu relatives (Ohmma, Min Soo, In Shil, Min Gi, and me).

Min Gi gets really excited and throws his sticks wildly.

We played four times. Although the Seongju relatives won the first game, we got the next three. The last game was particularly dramatic, swaying wildly back and forth with who was ahead throughout. Finally, Ohmma threw three perfect throws that ensured us the win.

Ohmma dancing with joy over winning.

Check out the album for pictures of some framed photos of Min Gi's grandparents and father, as well as more Yutnori action:

Seollal and Yutnori in Seongju

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Wedding Day Pictures!

The venue we chose for our wedding was the poorly-lit swing dance club, Asurajang, where we regularly boogie on Saturday nights. It was a great choice to match our personalities and the casual, fun style of our wedding, but it was not at all conducive to photography. We asked our wonderful friend and excellent photographer, Julian, to accompany our families up to Donghwasa for some frozen wedding photography the morning of the ceremony. It was cold and there was snow everywhere--parts of the temple were even closed off because of hazardous conditions, but Julian managed to pull it off, beautifully.

See more:
Posed Wedding Photos, at Donghwasa

Friday, February 12, 2010

Immigrating to the U.S.A.

Please note: This entry is for information purposes only. I am not an immigration attorney or any kind of expert on the matter. This is our story, but your circumstances will likely be different.

Min Gi and I are planning the big move back to the U.S. at the end of this contract (in August). This is not a permanent move for us (I love life as an expat), but a choice we're making because at this time, I want to be near my family for a few years and I want Min Gi to get to know my culture the way I've gotten to know his. Additionally, the next time I (now we) go abroad, I plan to do so by teaching in International Schools, not EFL. If I had been smarter, that's the way I would have done it the first time around--a better job for better pay in more countries... but I do not regret the past two and half years in Korea in the least.

Since we planned to live in the U.S. for two years, we did some reading and realized that there is really no such thing as a nonimmigrant visa for spouses (ok, there IS, but they assume you'll apply for a Permanent Resident Card or "green card" as soon as possible). Yes, the U.S. government is arrogant enough to assume that anyone who wants to live there for a period of time automatically wants to live there forever and become a citizen. Fortunately, we recently realized that Korea might change its mind about allowing dual citizenship, so it might actually be worth it for us to go through this process now anyhow, but that's just an added bonus.

Thanks to some very helpful conversations with Amanda, who went through this process recently in the U.S., and J.R., who went through the U.S. embassy in Korea as we are now doing, we've managed to proceed pretty far in the whole complicated mess of U.S. immigration, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to update you all and share some invaluable resources to help you through it, if you're drowning in the tidal wave of bureaucracy.

If you are trying to get your Korean spouse a Permanent Resident Card, you have two options, based on where you live. If you are currently in the U.S., you go through a Change of Status (COS). If you live in Korea, then you might be eligible for the much speedier, more convenient, and cheaper direct consular filing (DCF) process (note in countries not as friendly with the U.S. or with more sham/mail-order marriages, the DCF process may not be any easier or less complicated than COS). Fortunately, Min Gi and I qualify to apply from Korea.

I started by purchasing and reading the book Fiance & Marriage Visas: A Couple's Guide to U.S. Immigration by Ilona Bray, J.D. The book is thorough, up-to-date and gives advice like an immigration lawyer would. Since our immigration is rather uncomplicated (neither of us have kids or were married before, he's never lived in the U.S. before or entered the country illegally or overstayed a visa, and neither of us have any exclusionary conditions, like being a criminal or having AIDS) we decided to go it alone, without legal representation.

My next stop was to read everything available on the U.S. Embassy in Korea's website about getting married in Korea and obtaining family visas. I also read the success story of another couple who went through Korea's DCF on the supportive website for people dealing with this process, We started gathering all the forms and talking openly with my parents about what we need from them since before we visited them this last July/August. Information and advance planning are power!

Turns out the kind of visa we will apply for is CR-1 or a conditional resident visa. Conditional because we've been married less than two years. That means we'll need to submit more paperwork two years after moving to the U.S. What we've done so far:

January 6, 2010: We got married through the U.S. embassy and the Korean district office in Seoul. This was rather easy to do, even though we made a mistake on the forms and had to make a couple extra trips back and forth. One piece of advice: Make sure your Korean fiance has the names and government ID numbers of two family members willing to vouch for you (like witnesses). Technically, they are supposed to be there to sign it, but I think if they're family, just the information will do. Min Gi called the district office twice to ask about this and both times they said you don't need it, but of course when we got there, they said we did. Cost: US $90 payable to the embassy: cash (dollars or won) or US credit card.

February 1, 2010: We had made an online appointment to file form I-130 Petition for Alien Relative and the required biographical forms G-325A for each of us.
Submitted materials:
--Form I-130
--Form G-325A for each of us
--Passport-style photos of each of us
--My passport and a photocopy
--His passport and a photocopy
--My Korean Alien Resident Card (ARC) and a photocopy (I forgot the photocopy and it was ok)
--My birth certificate and a photocopy
--Our marriage certificate (from the US Embassy-ha!) and a photocopy
--Three documents from the Korean Family Census Register: Certificate of Kinship, Certificate of Marriage, and Certificate of Personal Records and photocopies
--Translations for the above (Min Gi found a blog that had good translations here.)
--A signed statement verifying the translations (We had our friend Leah do this. Min Gi thought we should get it notarized, but the fee was a lot, and I was certain it was unnecessary. Since our copies were not notarized, the embassy kept the original Family Census Registers, so we had to get new copies from the government office, but they're only $1 each; the notarization fees were around $40 per paper)
--Fee for filing: $355 (426,000won) payable in Korean or US cash only.

Although the website said that I could file the papers at the embassy alone, it was good Min Gi came with me because he had to fill out a paper about his contact information. Lo and behold, three days later he was e-mailed packet 3.5 and told to apply for a visa appointment.

We applied for the visa appointment and requested a date in May when I wouldn't have classes. They granted us one of those days! Our appointment is scheduled for May 27, 2010 at 8 a.m. We could almost certainly have gotten an earlier appointment if we weren't picky about dates or if we were in a rush. We also completed and mailed the first part of form DS-230, conveniently available in a dual language form, so that they could start his background check prior to the interview.

We have more documents to gather before the interview (most notably some "bona fides" that prove our marriage is real and the Affidavit of Support showing we won't be on the government's dime when we move to the U.S.). Min Gi also has to get a medical exam ($150 and requiring a trip to Busan for him) and his police record. We will also have to pay another $400 for the interview fee (yes, this process is a tad pricey). However, overall the U.S. embassy has been efficient, kind, and helpful in the whole process and our advance planning has allowed us to squeeze all of this work into just a couple hours a week so it's been quite manageable.

I'll update you about the interview itself after it is completed. I hope, for those of you undergoing or considering this process, that this post was somewhat helpful. And for those of you who like to complain about the E-2 visa process for Korea, maybe you'll realize just how lucky you have it. Because the work visa process for the U.S. is not all that different or less expensive than the process I've described here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

My Husband is Odd.

Whenever I adjust the volume on the stereo in Min Gi's car, he often will change it by one number. This behavior confused me (because a one-number change either way usually has little impact on the quality of the sound), but I kind of shrugged it off. He also insisted that our wedding ceremony be 29 or 31 minutes, not 30. I thought he was a little strange, but last night I found out what the big deal is.

I kissed him on the cheek. Two times.

"You have to do one more!"


"You have to kiss one more time. One time or three times only. Not two."


"Some people are more comfortable with even numbers. I am more comfortable with odd numbers." He says this matter of factly, like it is the most common thing in the world.

"So you won't accept two kisses? Or four? Or one hundred?"

"One hundred plus one."

Min Gi has no other OCD tendencies, so this "comfort" with odd numbers strikes me as... well... odd.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wednesday Review #1

Last week, I promised to start reviewing a book each week on Wednesdays, and I'm starting to get kind of excited about the project. For one, it will keep me on my goal of reading at least one book a week. More importantly, I believe that the books we read and how we relate or react to them are instrumental in shaping who we are as readers, as writers, and as people. One of the things I love best about my work as a teacher is getting to share books with my students. I guess adding it to my blog means I get to share these books with you.

I promise not to give away more than is given away on the backs of the books without advance warning, so don't be scared to read the reviews even if you haven't read the book. Also, please if you do read the book and have something to say, feel free to comment. And most importantly, if you have a further recommendation for my reading, please also note that in a comment so that I can add that book to my list.

The 19th Wife: A Novel by David Ebershoff tells two stories connected thematically by exploring polygamy in the United States: a historical fiction and modern day murder mystery. The historical fiction narrative is loosely based on the autobiography of Brigham Young's infamous wife-turned-activist, Ann Eliza Young, the Ebershoff fills in some of the details left unexamined by her much hated (at least by Mormons trying to erase the ugly history of their church) tome, Wife No. 19. Set largely against the background of Mormonism's origins in the midwest and their exodus to Utah, the book directly addresses one of the most controversial early practices of the church, polygamy or "plural marriage", under the first two prophets. However, at some point in the book's manufactured historical documents, we pull back and realize we are following the work of a young, feminist, Mormon scholar, Kelly Dee, as she attempts to reconcile the church she knows and loves with its dark past, as criticized by Mrs. Young who turns out to be Kelly's great-great-grandmother.

The modern day scenes center around a break-off polygamist sect (many would say crazy, cult-like sect) called "the Firsts." The main character is a young man who was kicked out of the cult by his own mother for violating the Prophet's will and returns when his mother is accused of the murder of his father. His mother is, interestingly enough, his father's 19th wife. Through him and other characters, we can see the emotional effects on children of polygamy; for although Mrs. Young was passionate in her protestation of the practice, the Mormon church has largely dismissed her as a greedy opportunist who was made rich by exposing the church in a sensationalist manner.

Now, I have a weird fondness for all things Mormon, ever since doing a project about the church for my Comparative Religions class in high school, but I don't think my odd inclination was the only thing that caused me to devour this 500+ page novel. Ebershoff is a gifted writer with an ear for voice and character. Like all good historical fiction writers, he doesn't get too bogged down in the details--the story is always first. Every now and then the story dragged, but never for more than a few pages, which is impressive in such an academically-oriented and long book.

I say, give it a read. Especially if you have any curiosity about religions in America or the history of the western states.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Seoul Adventures (Hongdae Night; Jongmyo)

I briefly mentioned that the last weekend of January Min Gi and I traveled to Seoul. We had two main goals: 1) File the first round of immigration papers for Min Gi's becoming a U.S. Permanent Resident and 2) Go skiing for the first (and only) time this season, the second time in Min Gi's life (the first was my Christmas present to him last year). However, I'm not going to blog about either of those here. I'm going to blog about the extra adventures we took while we had a chance to visit Seoul again, sans the whole family clan.

Hongdae Night

We arrived in Seoul on a Friday evening, hungry and excited. We decided to look around the Hongik University area (or "Hongdae" as it is more popularly known). Although it was very cold and we had our backpacks on, we wandered all over the area that I've come to know secondhand through the lovely bloggers of Doing It Korean Style and I lost my mind in Seoul. I even saw the infamous TinPan, advertisements for something called "The Donkey Show" which looks absolutely terrifying, and a bar called Boobi Boobi (you can see photographic evidence of these things in the photo album above). It was club night, but we were there around 7 p.m. so the action hadn't started yet. We would have loved to actually hang out for the party scene, but waking up to go skiing at 7 a.m. is not conducive to a late night.

A night view of the second-floor restaurant.

We found a beautiful little Spanish restaurant called La Paella (guess what it serves?). The chefs were Spanish and the food deliciously spiced and savory (and since we ordered the vegetarian paella, also rather healthy). We devoured it quite fast. I continue to maintain that if I lived in Seoul I would be broke and fat, but my tummy would be very, very happy.

Min Gi, trying to look "cool," with our amazing cafe desserts!

After dinner, we were looking for a coffee shop to rest and talk and discovered a little gem a bit off the main Hongdae strip called Cafe Atre (I believe... it may have been Arte, but it was next to a "Piano Cafe" if that helps you find it). The menu was amazing. Min Gi ordered an iced coffee drink and a scone, while I got a tea called "Snow White's Apple" (complete with apple slice in the cup) and a piece of chocolate "cake" that was more like a brownie. The atmosphere was very comfortable and although cutsey (like all of Korea), the wooden beams made it feel like a converted barn and was kind of rustic for Seoul.

We found a nice motel in nearby Sinchon and met our tour bus to Phoenix Park the next morning. We returned to Seoul late on Sunday, ready to file the paperwork at the U.S. embassy on Monday morning.

Jongmyo, Royal Ancestral Shrine

After filing the paperwork, we headed to one of the few remaining UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea that I have not yet visited, the Royal Ancestral Shrine of the Joseon Dynasty, Jongmyo.

A rare finding in a Joseon monument--a memorial shrine honoring a king from Goryeo.

A small bit of historical information: Most of the ancient sites and palaces around Seoul and Gyeonggido are relics of the Joseon dynasty, which was the last Korean dynasty lasting from 1392 until the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910, or from the dynasty before that, Goryeo. However, the area surrounding Daegu is Kyungsang-do, which contained the Silla kingdom from the period of the three kingdoms before Goryeo dominated. I must say that, in general, I find Silla art and architecture to be far more compelling and emotional than the more severe and sombre Confucian designs of Joseon. I believe, although I have not done nearly enough research on the matter, that this preference comes from Silla's stronger connection to Buddhism and religion. I admire Joseon's attention to geometric unities and impressive structures, but I am not stirred by them in the same way I have been at temples throughout the Kyungsang provinces.

Min Gi stands on the immense stone platform, upon which the Royal Ancestral Rites and ceremonies were observed, in front of the main shrine building.

However, at Jongmyo, I did feel a bit moved. Perhaps the gray sky and remaining snow and ice enhanced the impressiveness of the architecture. Or perhaps I was just relieved of the burden of filing those immigration papers, but either way, I was quite speechless in the face of the main shrine area.

Said to be the longest traditional building in Asia, the perfect symmetry of the shrine lends an eerie feeling to the place--like the entrance to the Labyrinth.

After passing through Jongmyo itself, a small foot bridge over a busy Seoul street leads you to one of the less important of the five main Seoul Palaces, Changgyeonggung. Although we were tired from carrying around our backpacks all this time, we explored the grounds a bit.

In front of Changgyeonggung.

All in all, I'm glad I got to see a bit more of Seoul. I'm finally starting to feel a bit more comfortable in that city. Enough so that I think I might be able to live there if I get a job there in the distant future. That's a good thing to know.

Friday, February 5, 2010

In Sickness... What about the Health Part???

It's been four weeks since we had the big party. I haven't blogged it yet because I don't have the good pictures from my friend Julian. He's working on cleaning them up (color balancing and whatnot that these photo geeks know all about), but I've seen a preview and they're pretty worth the long wait.

However, after four rather busy and strange weeks, I can tell you that marriage is a bit different than dating--in more ways than just remembering to say "my husband" instead of "my boyfriend" or even "my fiance"--but that it doesn't fundamentally change who you are or what issues you have. We all know I've been dealing with some pretty serious health issues since last October. I've written before about it affecting my relationship, and of course, it continues to affect my relationship, even as I am recovering.

Being married has just made some of these issues feel like a bigger deal. Like Koreans ALWAYS love talking about health, but lately whenever Min Gi does, it's like "I want you to be around and healthy for many years." Which I know is very sweet. But to my ears it sounds like he thinks I'm not doing something for my health that I should be doing, so I'm taking it as criticism and reacting badly. I'm depressed about the state of my own health, but I really am doing everything I can to get better, including exercising more as I can and eating healthy.

We're fighting more (a little... not badly, just a bit more), but I think that's because it's ok to fight if you're married 'cause no one is going to just walk out the door. We fight nice (no name-calling or belittling), but it's definitely more than we did before getting married. (Actually we end up mocking ourselves fighting by the end and so fights turn into play-fights, which is rather silly). I think my sensitivity to his comments about my health factors into this. I think when I'm more healthy (and as we adjust to being married) this will go down.

I'm ready to stop being sick, but my body seems to disagree, doing stuff like catching every little bug that comes along, rendering my efforts to get back in shape and cook healthy foods less effective and throwing off my well-laid plans. This is endlessly frustrating, but being married means it is now a frustration for two people, not just for myself.

For example, I've had a cold the last two days, but Min Gi wanted to go hiking this morning. I agreed to try, but said I'm not sure how much I could do since I was still having some trouble breathing. He insisted that the mountain air would be refreshing (which was, in my opinion, irrelevant to whether or not I could breathe it). We made it about 10 minutes out before I felt like if I kept going, I'd make it to the top, but I'd be sick for the rest of the weekend. I told him I needed to turn back. I actually couldn't get the air into my lungs.

He tried to convince me to keep going, but I remained firm. I could tell he was disappointed--he wanted to hike together like we used to do. I wanted that, too, but I know my body. He kept going to the summit and I went home. It's very frustrating to deal with this, and I know it's frustrating for him always having to be supportive.

Not everything has been such a failure. We went to Camp Swing It together this year, and I made it through most of the classes pretty well, although I was too tired for more than an hour or two of the social dancing. I didn't take pictures this year, like I did last year, but it ended up being a lot of fun and getting Min Gi excited about swing dance again. We went skiing this last weekend with Adventure Korea and managed to ski both days, but I could definitely feel a big difference in my strength and stamina compared to last year. It's disappointing to me, but now it's also like I'm failing him. And his commenting on it does NOT help me feel better, it makes me feel incredibly guilty and sad.

But even though we wrote our own vows that didn't include the words from the title of this post, I want to shout, "When do we get our 'Health' part back???"

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Planning a Move: Books and Reviewing.

As I have mentioned before, my current contract, which expires August 25 (although with my 8 vacation days, I should be moving back to the US before August 14 depending on my summer camp schedules--yes I plan this far in advance), will be my final contract in Korea for the time being. That means I have to think about how I will transport all of the stuff I've accumulated during my three years living in this country. I have resisted buying much, relying mostly on hand-me-downs from departing native teachers and taking careful care of things like clothes so that the last until the bitter end and then I can toss the fraying, decayed bodies into the bin.

However, I have managed to collect quite the little library in my house. Books have always been my downfall. I inherited the vice from my mother, whose basement library was so impressive that I often remarked to her that I could have gone to Harvard with no debt had she simply used the library.

I have tried to ban myself from buying any more books until all my current books have been read while giving away the books I read as I finish them, and I've been somewhat successful (although I cheated a little here and there--borrowing books or buying a few new ones--still I've purchased only five new books in the last year including The Lonely Planet guidebook for our upcoming honeymoon to Cambodia and Thailand and two books about the nasty disease I was diagnosed with last May). I'm giving away books to friends and through Bookmooch, which I love but did have the negative side effect of allowing me to acquire four more books (I'm also not allowed to request books on it for now).

It seems though that there are still about 25-30 English titles left on my shelf that are unread or partially read that I'd rather not take home with me. I didn't buy most of these and many are not even to my taste. But still, I'd like to read them. This means, with about seven months to go, I must read at least four books each month.

I think I can manage that (although some, like The Two Koreas will be a bit heavy and slow-going). This last month I read about five without even really trying. The nice thing is that this might also help me manage my money goal of not going out and spending money so I can finally pay off my grad school debt.

Money and books and fewer things to pack? This is a win.

To keep me honest, I will make Wednesdays a book review day. I promise to review one new book I've read a week on Wednesdays in the blog. This will also keep my blogging up a bit more. Woohoo.

So, for today, I will start with the book I just finished, The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. Parkhurst is a DC area resident and graduate of American University's MFA in Fiction program. I purchased the book when I was researching MFA programs in the DC area four years ago before scrapping that plan in favor of moving to Korea. However, I'm really glad I kept her book with me.

This moving portrait of one man's grief as he copes with the loss of his young wife by trying to teach their dog, the only witness to his wife's fall from the tree in their yard, is at times quirky, funny, strange, mystical, and spectacular. Parkhurst's characters are believable, even if her situations are not quite so, which engages us in a sort of mid-Atlantic magical realism. Yes, the book is about a man and his dog, but it's about so much more than that--human connections, criminal minds, psychic hotlines, mask-making artists.

Ultimately, it is both surprising and wholly predictable in a way that the book needs to be to make it genuine to the human experience. I loved it. I devoured it on the train to Seoul and back. It inspired me to get back to work on one of my put-aside stories. It's been at least a few months since a book has inspired me to work on my own writing so directly. Thank you, Ms. Parkhurst.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Teaching Teachers.

I started out writing this post wanting to tell you about what I've been doing on the teaching front this last month, however, I found that I first must confess to you my greatest failure as a teacher. Doing so is not easy for me. I feel that I am, usually, an excellent teacher, and that if I encounter a situation where my methods are not working, I find ways to adapt and make the class successful. However, in this instance, I feel like a failure. In fact, you could say that I'm giving up--something I have never before done in my career. I am ashamed. I don't want to share this with you. But I must be honest.

A year and a half ago, I began teaching at Taegu Foreign Language High School (TFLHS). In addition to teaching conversation and co-teaching reading and culture classes to our wonderful students, I was asked to teach a class for the English teachers at 외고. At the time, I was overwhelmed and confused. I'd never taught adults before and hadn't finished my master's, so I felt unqualified and intimidated. Furthermore, the teachers gave me no guidelines about their own expectations for the course, merely a negative review of the previous native teacher who had shown episodes of Friends (25 minutes) and then discussed them after.

I had some ambitions for the twice a week class, mostly inspired by the excellent seminars I experienced with the Martha's Vineyard Summer Institute where I took most of my graduate coursework. We started by alternating discussions of teaching philosophy and pedagogy with single-shot lessons about tricky points of English grammar and usage, such as helper verbs and conditional language. I offered them the class a place to discuss problems they were having teaching students that I could help with, but none of them brought these to class (though they certainly weren't shy about asking me privately during my planning time). I began to develop huge management problems--they never came on time (we're talking 15 minutes late or more) or consistently; my boss, who was a student in the class, would cancel class at her whim and forget to tell me about it; they refused to do any studying outside of class; they seemed dissatisfied with what they were learning in class, but wouldn't answer my questions about what they wanted to do/learn. It was completely impossible. I felt like a crappy teacher who couldn't do anything right. Usually, I can adjust myself with high school students who need more structure and "crack the whip" so to speak, thereby solving my management problems. But with colleagues, especially since one of them is my boss, I couldn't do this.

When the new school year started last March, I tried to take control by making the class more structured. I required that they show up by five minutes into the class. I gave them notebooks and had a written warm up for every class and offered to read their journals if they chose to practice writing in English. I asked if they were interested in having a book discussion club of sorts where we'd read an English book together (a chapter a week) and one of the classes would be a discussion of the contents. If some didn't want to do this, they could still come to the other lesson in the week, which would focus on debate and continue usage lessons. They all liked the idea and agreed to read Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

It worked (more or less) for about two months. However, as exam time approached and teachers got busier, they stopped reading the book, stopped coming to class, stopped wanting to do anything in class but discuss silly, nonsensical topics like shopping(they complained when I would introduce debate topics about education because they claimed they were sick of talking about it and they couldn't change anything anyway), stopped bringing their notebooks and pens to class to write. I came to hate teaching this class and resent the English teachers at my school (who I usually loved for other reasons--they are generally good, hardworking teachers who really try to make sure William and I are informed and supported).

Perhaps they sensed my animosity because by the start of second semester, we were down to just four regular students (out of 12 Korean English teachers). By the end, we were reading The Crucible aloud together. The teachers who made it through to the end seemed to really enjoy and appreciate this, but I feel like such a failure for losing so many students and not being able to ever feel like the class was my own.

No class--not even my sixth period class from hell my first year of teaching that included a young man who showed up high on the second day of school--has ever made me feel less competent and talented at teaching than this class of colleagues.

I started to wonder if maybe I just wasn't up to par when it came to teaching adults. However, this January provided me with the opportunity to see that this just isn't the case. I'm so glad that my teaching self-esteem in this area has been mostly restored.

Instead of participating in the regular English camps for students that the public schools in Daegu sponsor, I opted to do the same as last winter and teach at a training certification camp for Korean English teachers, along with William and four other English teachers in Daegu.

One reason I enjoy teaching this kind of seminar is that it provides new insight into how the public schools in Korea work from a professional perspective. Having worked as a public school teacher in the U.S., I'm quite interested in some of these differences. After four years in the Daegu public schools, teachers can take this five-week long training program at the Palgong mountain center to receive their Level One certification which results in a significant pay raise. One part of this course is a required 36 hours of native English teacher instruction. That's where I come in. The six native teachers each taught six classes to six groups of 9-11 teacher-students.

Last year's organizer seemed better prepared and asked us each to conduct lessons with a different focus (such as Reading, Listening, Speaking, etc), and I elected to teach Writing. My master's degree is in writing with a focus on pedagogy, so I'm pretty well qualified to teach it to others at this point. Also, of all the aspects of English taught and studied in Korea, writing is the area that gets the least attention. (Perhaps 10-12 years ago, speaking would have been considered more neglected, but now with so many native teachers in hagwons and public schools teaching conversation classes, it's definitely writing).

People still graduate with degrees in English Education and English Literature from good universities in Korea without ever having had to write an essay in English. Furthermore, Korean students often don't even study writing in their native language. Few high school teachers assign essays, and even fewer bother with basics like the writing process or things like structure and idea development.

But, I digress.

This year, they didn't ask us to consult with each other, so I was the only teacher who chose a focused topic (not just a general conversation class with cool, fun activities you can do to help students practice speaking with each other). I was also the only one who chose to assign homework. I felt a little sorry for the trainees because I knew the teachers had a lot of other projects/work to complete for their seminar, but I pitched it to them as an opportunity to practice their English writing and I promised that as hard as they worked on any of their writing assignments, I would work just as hard to give them feedback on their work.

I structured the class better than last year, considering what went well and what could be improved; focusing more on practical implementation of teaching writing in the classroom and assessing/commenting on student writing because that's what had been requested the year before. I worked hard, staying up late at night reading essays and commenting. I thought the class was going pretty well, even though the students had been nervous about the workload initially.

However, the outcome of my final assignment (which was the same as last year) shocked me. I gave the student/teachers the last 15 minutes of class to compose a thank you letter to one of their six native teachers. I asked them to choose someone whose class had particularly inspired them or where they felt they learned something useful.

Last year, the students divided it up pretty evenly between the six teachers, so that each of us got a handful of letters. Actually, I think that although William tells me that he and I got the highest ratings last year, I received the fewest letters (mostly because I assigned them to write it, I think). This year, one third of the students chose to write to me. It was overwhelming. And moving. Especially because I felt that the set of native teachers this year was overall much superior to last year's teachers.

I mean, I don't teach to be the most popular and well-liked teacher. In fact, I frequently make pedagogical decisions that I know will be unpopular with my students because I want to challenge them. I'm even ok with being hated, if students find this necessary (because, for example, I make them write essays or do critical thinking). I'm not used to students appreciating my methods in the moment--at best, I usually get the thanks the following year when they come back and tell me how English is "so easy" now because of what they learned in my class.

So as much as teaching the English teachers at my school drained me, this set of eager, inspired teachers has taught me that I can be of some value to other English teachers. I am renewed.

But still, nagging at the back of the mind, is the failure. I've given up--I asked William to change classes with me for next year. I will take the non-English teachers he's been teaching, and he will get the English teachers. In my entire six years in this profession, I have never before given up on students.

I truly hope that William can succeed where I have failed. If he does, maybe I can finally learn what I did wrong. Perhaps I should try to be more likable, as one of my teacher-students suggested (although he appreciated my class, he found me scary at first), or attractive (which is often listed by Koreans as the #1 important quality in a teacher--my eyes always roll when I hear otherwise intelligent people say this). Maybe I just couldn't read through their indirect communication about their expectations for the class.

All I know is that by the end of this whole thing, I feel like the previous native teacher was onto something with showing TV sitcoms and discussing them. It would have been a whole lot easier to do that and the end results would probably have been nearly identical.


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