Thursday, June 18, 2009
Korean Experience in Brief
Alright, I decided that perhaps it is time to give an overview of how I percieved my international experience here in Korea. I'm supposed to be going home, but I ended up applying to extend my contract with TaLK after a fairly heated argument with the international coordinator at the University of Ulsan and getting removed from the Learn and Teach in Ulsan program. I was forced against a wall by him and by the TaLK program, and now I'm stuck with my decision, only 24 hours after finding out its possible. I hate the beaucracy...it sucks.
Anyway, seeing life as an exchange student and as an English teacher at a public school is not the extent of my experiences here in Korea. I have been on various “Culture Tours” provided by the Provincial office of Education, which have taken me to the Island of Jeju (Korea’s Hawaii), inside a farmers home, to traditional Korean villages, and even to various regional festivals. All of these have given me great insight into the Korean mindset and also the mindset of a foreigner experiencing them because in all of these circumstances, I was surrounded by fellow English teachers who taught not only at elementary schools, but at Middle Schools and even High Schools. Each of them had unique and even interesting experiences to discuss, and many of them also openly shared their drinking and even illicit/illegal exploits while here in Korea. I’ve seen firsthand the repercussions of a drunken brawl between a foreigner and a Korean, and I’ve heard of the complications that arise when a foreigner attempts to pick up a prostitute, only to discover that she does not service non-Koreans. On the other side, I’ve been with other foreigners while learning traditional styles of dyeing cloth, making baskets to carry eggs on a day trip, and participating in traditional dances.
On top of cultural experiences, I participated for a while in a program developing English Lesson Plans for the elementary schools in the Ulsan Municipal Educational Office. That was a 2 month project working with other foreigner teachers and Korean teachers to create a system of teaching that would allow foreign teachers to provide better lessons to the elementary school kids. These lesson plans were distributed to all the other teachers in the Ulsan area and became part of their curriculum—of course I don’t know the overall level of acceptance by the teachers, but some have expressed their resolute dislike of the system while others have discussed their whole-hearted application. It is unreasonable to assume that we could have made a perfect system, but perhaps more research would have been helpful.
However, I did undertake a 120 hours TESOL (Teaching Students of Other Languages) course, which has become useful in my daily dealings with my students and even with the other English teachers. This particular TESOL course was sponsored by the Asian EFL Journal (and certified by universities in England, Australia and the US) and was thus oriented toward teaching in Korea and other Asian countries, discussing common issues that occur when teaching English in East Asia. One such discussion was about educational reform issues, and how we as teachers might help in that process. It was an interesting program, to say the least, but was nothing compared to the 220 hour ESL training we received at the start of the TaLK program, hours appropriately named “orientation.”
I have also gone on other trips up to Seoul, experiencing true metropolitan lifestyles. Recently, I spent two nights with my Canadian-Korean friend’s cousins in their upper-middle class high rise apartment in a lower income neighborhood. I found out later that the area in which we stayed is commonly known for its high crime rate. It was interesting to see how people of Confucian ideals intermingle with others of different income levels, which was far different from what I expected. On the hand, I spent two nights in the Executive Premier Suite of an affluent hotel chain in one of the richest neighborhoods in Seoul, and the effort that the hotel made to keep me from having to mingle with the “regular” guests was staggering. I had my own VIP lounge and swimming pool. It was far different from staying with my friend’s family.
But not all my experiences in Seoul have been about economic levels. I have acquaintances there who work for the US military, and on more than one occasion, we’ve discussed the situation between US-ROK military forces. Most of my friends have expressed serious issues in US-ROK military relations, and many of them have to stem from the stereotype of being “American Soldiers”—a stereotype my friends continuously try to avoid. Other things stem from the fact that US spends more money on the military in Korea than the nation of Korea does on its overall military forces, thus giving rise to a gap between the US and ROK soldiers in terms of lifestyles. In fact, that’s the main reason for the KORUS Joint Forces initiative, which allows Korean soldiers to serve in the US military.
Many of my friends, on the other hand, are former ROK soldiers, as it is a constitutional duty of Korean men to serve in the military for a term no less than 2 years, and then continue to be in reserve for another 3 years after that. This has a significant effect on relationships, studying, traveling, etc., especially when you consider that every Korean male over the age of thirty has served in the military. This might be the cause for the differences in culture between Japan and Korea. But it really changes the relationships among college students, when the gap between ages of the males and the female students is 2 years, and when all the male students still act like wild freshmen even at the age of 22, it’s very strange.
But my particular dormitory hall is for foreign students, so I have made some fairly good friends with men from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Mongolia. One of my former roommates was Mongolian, working on his PhD in Computer Engineering, and discussing with him the difficulties of researching in another country was interesting. My friend from Sri Lanka agreed with the situations discussed by my roommate, but he added more as his doctoral research normally takes him to the city of Taejun, where he works directly with chemical engineers at some of the biggest plants in Korea. His difficulties then had the added effect that despite being surrounded by the smartest minds in South Korea, he didn’t understand what they were talking about. Language difficulties hinder the process of information evaluation and incorporation. However, my Pakistani friend didn’t have any of the issues discussed by my other friends, by he has problems finding Islam-friendly Middle-eastern food in Korea, and that has been a huge problem for him; so much so that he’s had to go far out of his way just to get a meal. That creates an impact on his overall schedule.
Here in Korea, I’ve experienced the gamut from low to high economic levels, good to bad teachers, illegal behaviors to church service projects, government funded training to privately funded training, private universities to public universities, public schools to private institutions, and industrial cities to commercial metropolises. But none of that was anything like my experiences as a volunteer church missionary in Japan.
If you wanna know more, talk to me. Otherwise,
Happy Trails people.