Monday, December 8, 2008

Jumbo Fine Print

If you were to see a physical representation of a Korean agreement, it would look like the entrance contract of Willy Wonka’s Factory—it starts out large then becomes indecipherable at the bottom.

Leslie will you do a video message for the superintendant?
A camera crew will come to the school Friday

You will be introducing the school
The movie will be played at an assembly
There will be 300 people at the assembly
The assembly is actually a ribbon cutting ceremony
The video will be played on a Jumbo screen
The Superintendant, Mayor, School Board, and every other important Anseong Suit will attend
It is actually the introduction CD to Yes Space and will given to all parents
You should brush your hair
We are going to start paying you in noodles (kidding, just wanted to see if you would read this far)

As usual, we must start with a commentary on Korean culture. Education, in this country, is a bizarre fa├žade almost completely centered on appearances. Saving face, or more creating it, saturates every facet of this culture. My first week, the entire school was in a frenzy because they were having a week long ceremony for the parents. These ceremonies, to me, meant standing on a stage staring at a mass of four-hundred people all of whom appeared to have been spawned from the same egg. I felt more like an exhibit than an English teacher. I swear if they had had sticks, I would have been poked with them. Anyhow, the school canceled classes, ordered flowers, bought everyone food, and paraded around their new native English speaking teachers. I have been informed; that this is almost entirely how the school is judged…its reputation is based on an elaborate show not curriculum. Allow me to elaborate with the following…
1. My school is amazing. They spent millions of dollars (billions of won) on the English institute Yes Space. I have a 40 inch flat screen T.V. and an awesome classroom. We have an airplane room (equipped with a computer) that we cannot fathom how to use more than once. Yet, despite all these spent resources, there was absolutely no thought to the curriculum. I have received no training and the given teacher’s books were in Korean. My first class, the Korean teacher didn’t show up for. I was dumbfounded and when I asked where the kids were in the book, almost every student turned to a different page. The other English teachers, didn’t even have a full class load until a couple of weeks ago. The bottom line, the school spent 1,000,000 won on new desks—no matter, that there are no children sitting in the seats.
2. After about a week of “teaching” Jin Mi my supervisor took me to an open class. In theory, this is an observation class where other foreign teachers can witness how a normal English lesson is conducted. I was confused at first, the children were raising their hands before a question was asked and there was not a single mistake made. Stepford children. Later, I learned these classes were rehearsed and the children were hand selected. It was of absolutely no use to me because it was scripted far beyond the normal fourth grader level. One old boy even said he doesn’t watch T.V. because the women are too provocative. The purpose is not to share knowledge; these open classes are spitting contests between local schools. The irony is everyone knows they are scripted; therefore, no one is impressed, which renders the entire exercise obsolete.
3. Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my office watching snake regurgitates hipo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3dDvspMNYc) when I was rushed into my classroom. Ten teachers sit down at the tables and open their notebooks. I am then taken to the board and moved like manikin into some teacher pose. One minute later a camera crew comes in, makes a sweep of the room and leaves. This was Yanjin Elementary showing teachers are also interested in learning English. In their defense, I have since conducted a teacher course but not in the same fashion portrayed on the news.

Korea has the longest working day coupled with the lowest productivity rate. I believe this is entirely due to their preference of form over substance. Bruce (the Korean I met on the plane) explains it well, “It looks good to say and show you work long hours but since my workers know they will be there till 8 pm, they do almost nothing until 4pm.” This mindset starts with the education system, Koreans are crazed when it comes to schooling—the parents spend more money on education than the government. Children receive an uncanny amount of pressure to succeed and get into a top university. However, once admitted to the university it is a four year vacation. I must cover more of this topic at a later date but I fear I have already tested all of your attention span; back to entering into a Korean agreement.

The first week I arrived, Jin Mi (my supervisor) asked me to do a video introduction of Yes Space for the superintendant. I was a taken aback when a professional film crew arrived but quickly forgot the episode. Fast-forward three weeks later, I am sitting in yet another ceremony contemplating the Principal’s orange sequin tie. This is the opening ceremony for Yes Space and the auditorium has traded its usual chattering parents for every stern Suit in Anseong—the Mayor, Superintendant, School Board etc. Luckily, the principal had already gone through introductions so I was free to sit back and put my own words into each speaker’s mouth. It is about this time, a jumbo screen descends from the ceiling and I soon see my face four feet tall and directly in front of me. At that moment I realize, this is the "message to the superintendant" and I have never seen myself on camera, let alone a jumbo-screen. All I could think about was...if my face is four feet tall than how many inches in diameter is that mole on my cheek? The assembly ended and I Jin Mi bolted for the entrance in anticipation of my wrath.
I never caught her, because after the ceremony, I was lauded as a professional reporter and told countless times I looked like a movie star. It’s odd how an excessive amount of sensationalized compliments can neutralize your emotions. In Korea I have found my routine emotions have been knocked off kilter by absurdity, so much so I almost can't identify what I am actually feeling.

So here is the silly introduction to Yes Space. I am attaching it because it is the best way to show all of you where I am working, and yes I promise I will put pictures up tomorrow! I also vow to blog every day until I catch up with my journal. Oh just rewind past our principal and note the Backstreet Boys soundtrack!!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbaPdTeEqqM

Monday, November 17, 2008

Prologue

This week I have not had enough time to blog, so, I have taken to always carrying a journal. If I have an observation or thought of value I scribble it down before my college-fried brain forgets. This epic session of blogging is the fruit of those random scribbles. Anyhow, today I am sitting on the bus, journal in my lap, when an older Korean man sits next to me. He looks over my shoulder as I write but I pay no attention because I assume he can’t read English…an unfortunate assumption. Soon, the man starts miming the things I jot down. He began by feign chugging a beer and I closed the journal when he started to pretend tackle the other passengers. In retrospect, I should have started writing things like "do the chicken dance" but I was too dumb-stricken. If I hadn’t already chosen to broadcast my most moronic moments, this man would have made the decision for me in his humiliating version of charades.
P.S. When he left he saluted me.

I am adventurous because…

I ride a Korean bus everyday! I know I have already touched upon this topic but it requires an in-depth tirade. Please know, all bus drivers are conditioned in the same manner, so my description of this one front-seat instance is applicable to all Korean bus rides!
The other day, in an attempt to avoid my usual ten minute back-trek, I chose to sit in the front seat of the bus…“logically” to see my landmark before it goes whizzing past. Little did I know this decision can be likened to choosing the front seat of a roller coaster—the intensity of the ride is compounded ten fold! My first observation; buses have no obligation to follow traffic laws... and I mean staples like red-lights. I’ve been known to “pause” at a stop sign or “blur” speed limits (or drive “without” a license) but the most regard this driver gave to a four-way intersection was to announce our approach/traffic-violation with a honk. My second observation; the bus driver ailed from a belligerent bug. Let me explain, for a majority of the ride, the driver would rhythmically sway to an easy-listening soundtrack in his head; however, it soon became apparent he was allergic to un-merging and re-merging with traffic. Basically, in all cases merging, the man sneezed aggression and sprayed hostility all over the road. I say this because his honks/swerves/bullying came and left as quickly (and unpredictably) as a sneeze—he then would resume his happy swaying.
It is thanks to this front seat episode, that I now understand why all passengers look as if they are doing the Rerun Dance. (If unfamiliar click this link www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2rDgZWqvhY&NR=1) It is hilarious, legs go flying, children fall, and I accidentally suffocate small boys (see previous blog).
The kicker is, I was so preoccupied with writing about the driver…I missed my stop by a fifteen-minute backtrack!

The He-Man English Speakers Club

I think my nights on Sojou have gone into syndication because this weekend was very much a rerun of the last. Except this time, the evidence of my shame is a limp.
Last night, I hung out with a different crowd. Where last weekend everyone was an international student; this new crew was completely comprised of English teachers. I’ll start with a quick synopsis of how I met these latest Sojou enablers. There is a club of English speakers in this country (the password is any word beginning with L or V). I like to think of it as the He-Man English Speakers Club and I have never been so instantly taken care of by complete strangers. My first week, I used a rolled up towel as a pillow, feared leaving my street and was given no direction as to how I was supposed to teach English (all the teaching books were in Korean…helpful). Enter Mary stage right. Mary is a fifty-year old American from Florida. She taught English in Central America for 12 years and has been in Korea for four years. She looks like the daughter of Professor Trelawney and Clint Eastwood and is one of the most beautifully crazy people I have ever met. She doesn’t speak a lick of Korean so naturally compensates by screaming and gesticulating wildly. Mary emailed me out of the blue, no explanation as to how she knew me or got my e-mail, and offered to help. Within 2 hours of my return e-mail she had met me at my school, brought me English teaching books, a phone, a bus pass and had escorted me onto the bus. Due to her eccentric graciousness, I am leagues ahead of most others FOB (fresh off the boat). Mary has also taken it upon herself to act as my social coordinator—if you speak English in Anseong you are on Mary’s database and have my e-mail. Additionally, it is the code of the club to be just as gracious as Mary. For example, Maria, a middle aged woman from South Africa, surprised me with my first birthday cake (they totaled in three) and also gave me her charged international card. Mom you can thank Maria for your 4 am phone call!
Back to the point of the blog, it was because of Mary I was set-up to meet Lisa on the steps of Lotteria—so it is Mary I blame for my limping all of today. After a series of Sojou soaked events, I was standing in a side street of …? ... with some members of the He Man English Speakers Club. Tom (the British boy who had kept me in-line all night) had left to go to the bathroom. Scott (the Canadian boy who had goaded me into hostility all night) said something intentionally ill-mannered about Lord of the Rings. It is funny how quickly people learn my aggression buttons. I kicked off my shoes, shrugged off my jacket and flew into a brilliant Ray Lewis tackle. Too brilliant, it took us both down instantly and I must have landed on my knee. When Tom returned, Scott and I were wrestling in the middle of the street with an audience of at least ten Koreans. This is how I know British chivalry is not dead. Tom breaks up the crowd, picks me up (out of Scott’s half-nelson), sets me down into my shoes, helps my coat back on and brushes off my purse. Then, he laughs and says, “I guess I can’t go to the bathroom anymore.” Sad but true.
Stay tuned for my first jumbo-screen appearance, my latest hobby…signing autographs, my game of Where’s Waldo with the midget janitor and cat clowns. I just don’t have the strength to write another novel tonight!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Burnt offering to Dionysus

I woke up, after my first night in Seoul, on the floor of a spa, next to a half naked Korean woman, with a Tweety bird blanket on my face (she had apparently discarded it in the night and when she woke up she acted like I stole it). Unfortunately, it was not until I was awoken by the Tweety lady's swine like snores, that I realized I had forgotten to pack my drinking legs, dignity and aspirin.

The night began harmlessly. We (Dustin and his Mexican buddy) went to a bar completely comprised of foreigners, so it was almost like a typical night in Oxford--minus the North Face and bottle blonds. I even met a girl who went to Miami University! How the hell does this happen? Shannon meets a Miami Alum in Guatemala and I meet another in S. Korea, seems odd. Anyhow, I blame Sojou (Korean liquor) for being relatively tasteless, no I blame my two month drinking hiatus where all I did was read the bible, well for whatever reason, I digressed to freshman year. I think I even told a Hitler joke to a German-- tasteless. I will not embarrass myself further (plus the details are blurry) so lets just say I'm not proud. Thank God Dustin got me to the spa... this is after I had stormed off, only to realize I am in a foreign country and no matter how hard I look, I will not find Jimmy Johns.


Back to today, I basically spent the whole day in the spa, and bytheway, my latest entourage spoke the best English yet! It was odd when this woman kept making me follow her around the spa, we would look in every room and then she would send me back into the baths. The first time I thought it was a tour, by the third time I was annoyed. Finally, one of the girls in my crew told me we were looking for my "boyfriend" ie Dustin. I think the woman was afraid to let me leave without a babysitter. Anyhow, I finally want to leave, I go to get me coat and they hand me the wrong one. I try and express the mistake but the counter clerk kept shaking her head and telling me, "You drunk, it is." So, to prove my point, I put on the coat. It looks like it was taylored for a T-Rex the arms are clearly too short for me--still no progress. We just kept going around the same circle, "You drunk"-- "No mam, I was drunk yesterday!"

To make a long story short, today I had to wander Seoul doing my best Chris Farely (fat guy in a little coat) because my favorite coat has become a burnt offering to Dionysus.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

American proof noodles

In this first week I have developed somewhat of a routine. Every morning I wake up to the Jackson 5’s ABC song because my I-home can’t figure out shuffle (I swear the only person in the world, right now, I would assassinate is Micheal Jackson). Once I get out of the shower I blow dry both my hair and clothes (I haven’t figured out air drying time, so inevitably if I want to wear something… it is still sopping wet). Then, I continue my eternal battle with Korean noodles. WWIII began on my first shopping expedition, I had the brilliant notion to buy a bunch of the same noodle cups. I brought one in to Ju who translated the directions. The next day, I realized these noodles cannot be consumed with the only utensils I own—chopsticks. Yes, just as Mothers baby-proof their houses to keep children out of unsafe areas, Koreans American-proof their noodles to keep us out of the country. These noodles have been made with extra slick and a vicious sense of humor! “Ah watch the famished American try and eat breakfast in a foreign country with medieval tools! Let’s make her rue the day she bought a cabinet full of us and force her to deplete her precious supply of power bars! He he ha ha!” Sorry I know I just wasted your time with a tirade about noodles but I wanted to publicly declare war upon them. George Bush we have found the new Axis of Noodle!



Hmmm, I had grand plans for this day of blogging but as I sat down to write my Axis of Noodle and other, I assure you, more profound thoughts, I was called down to take part in a school celebration. In Korea, apparently, you can drink on school grounds. I knew the brew I was drinking (don't ask me the name) had some alcohol in it, however, how much was not apparent until a woman came up to us with her child. She had the Vice Principal dab the alcohol we were drinking on the boys zits to dry them out. Needless to say, I am unable to write anymore. I love you all! I am going to Seoul this weekend with a Mexican/Canadian boy, who I met while he was having a beer with two Chinese classmates...it was an interesting attempt at a conversation. Dustin, has been the only person I have met my age, I hope this means I'll have a buddy for a little while (he leaves in 2 months). I shall write more posts of value Monday!

Birthday cake with chopsticks

I'd like to start this blog with a chant....Obama...Obama....Obama! The best birthday present I could have gotten!

Anyhow, I was a feeling lonely about my birthday. Dad, can you still make steak and broccoli in my birthday honor? JD, I would like an extra large margarita! Micheal, can you record Mom singing Happy Birthday! Regardless of my temporary blues, my motley crew foreigner family has risen to the occasion. Last night, I was surprised with a birthday cake sporting two large candles for 20 and 2 small candles for 2 (while CNN in the background was showing Obama's presidential celebration). This morning, my working Mom (JinMi) surprised me again with another cake. Its funny how everyone has a copy of my passport, so therefore, knows my birth date. I feel happy...and sick, I haven't had sweets since I left America! The kids are adorable, they sing to me in the hallways and give me their pens as presents.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I wonder if all Americans accidentally suffocate small children

I am a little late posting this (I still having trouble with Internet compatibilities and such) but this entry is from Sunday.
I woke up this morning determined to finish my apartment shopping. Not to toot my own horn, but I ventured down my block, found the correct bus and finished my shopping with minimal mishaps (toot toot). To further brag, I got back on the correct bus with some food and comfortable pillows. This is where my accomplishments end.
Every time you venture onto a Korean bus, it is as if you have just stepped into a Harry Potter novel and are now riding the Knight Bus. If only I was the weeble wobble that didn't fall down (but I think we all know my "inner ear problems"). So anyhow, I was lost in my own thoughts (I think trying to remember if one of the bottles I had just bought was toilet bowl cleaner or lime drink) when suddenly the bus gave a particularly large lurch. I lost track of my footing (and all of my bags) and landed pillow first on a poor boy’s face. Now, I feel as if the mother over-reacted, I mean I quickly righted myself, but wow I thought Koreans sounded angry in daily life, the language becomes quite intimidating if they are actually upset.
So, in attempts to evade the woman (and eyes of every passenger on the bus) I sit down next to a Korean girl about my age. In this seat, I found the silver lining to my asphyxiation cloud-- I made my first Korean friend! We exchanged e-mails and she speaks moderately good English. I’ll keep you posted! Oh and I just figured out, the bottle I bought is lime drink and not toilet bowl cleaner…let me tell you, that first sip was a leap of faith!

Are you staring at me because of my overactive sweat glands or naked entourage?

I went to the public bathhouse today, where I learned two things; Koreans don't have sweat glands and children have no shame following me anywhere and in any state. I shall begin with a quick synopsis of a Korean bathhouse. At the counter you have two options; the first is simply a bath for four dollars/4,000 won and the second is a bath plus sauna for six dollars/6,000 won (I got the works). The bath area is really quite cool; there are many different pools of varying sizes and temperatures with children running everywhere. So I settle under a large stone fish with hot water booming from its mouth. When I finally open my eyes, I realize I have five children in my pool staring at me. After this first week I am used to an excessive amount of attention-- though usually I'm clothed. So we talk a little, basically exchange names and they yell at me for mispronouncing theirs. After I get pruney, I try another bath, sure enough I have five sets of footsteps padding along behind me. I go to the shower and again I see five shadows in the corner of my eye. As you can imagine, by this point, I am attracting a lot of attention, I can't think of a more flamboyant way to announce my arrival than to stroll around with an entourage of naked giggling girls. So much for melding into the naked crowd.
Eventually, I made my way upstairs to the sauna. This portion is co-ed, so they give you a hideous orange sweat suit (the ones reserved to embarrass prisoners in the US) for the occasion. Upstairs is more like an activity room. In the center is a huge big-screen TV with massage chairs and places to lounge. Around the main area are various rooms containing food, exercise equipment and professional masseuses. Yet the majority of the rooms contain saunas with different degrees of heat and enviornments. My favorite room was filled with rocks that acted as coals, it had a low sloping mosaic ceiling and scattered logs to keep your exposed skin off the rocks. One woman showed me how to stack the rocks on your body to enhance the experience. It was delightful. I wandered through most of the rooms still evading a group of children who seemed to wait for me at every door. Eventually, I hit the Big Kahuna of saunas. As I was crawling through the door, I was sure I was climbing into a wicked witch's oven. The room was round but narrowed at the top (like a chimney) and the door looked just big enough to fit a Hansel or Gretel. Anyhow, my paranoia aside, this room was hot enough to melt me into a stew; the second I climbed in I wanted to leave. However, there were three men inside and I refused to look like a western sissy. I was determined to outlast at least one of the men (another example of my unnessesary competitive nature) but after about five minutes I was sweating bullets (more like machine gun sheets). I mean my gorgeous, orange, sweat-suit weighed at least ten pounds with water retention...yet none of the men even have a glisten of perspiration on their foreheads. One even smiled at me, in obvious recognition of my drowned cat exterior. About that time I fled the oven, concluding Koreans are a people crossbred with lizards, so therefore, any competition was futile.
Humor aside, I really enjoyed this experience. Right now I smell of wood and coals but my skin is the softest it has been in years. Also, I like the fact that these girls see women in their natural setting. In America, I feel girls have body issues because they mainly see the perfect bodies on television and feel all women look similar, therefore, they are inferior. These children grow up with women of all shapes and sizes moving comfortably in their own skin. Chalk one up for Korean culture!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

My First Week

Hello everyone!
I am on my fifth day in Korea and it has been everything and nothing like I expected. My school is amazing as well as my accommodations. I have my own classroom equipped with a 40 inch flat screen and a wall of windows. Once I buy another cord for my camera (of course I brought the wrong one) I will post pictures.

How I learned of Korean showers
I arrived at my new apartment late Monday night. Initially, it was far beyond my expectations. All my furniture is new, albeit hard, and I have plenty of space. However, my elations soon dissapated when I realized I didn't have a shower. That night I sponged the layers of travel grime off in the kitchen sink with freezing water and my least-favorite favorite shirt. I will have to say that first night was my lowest point in Korea. I used my towel as a pillow, curled up into a ball and wondered how the hell I was going to clean myself everyday before work. Around 3 am, both jet-lag and my bladder woke me up. I went to the bathroom and attempted to wash my hands. Suddenly, I was doused with freezing cold water. I look around and my toiletpaper and all of the dirty clothes I had absentmindedly thown on the bathroom floor were also drenched. In Korea, the entire bathroom is the shower and the shower hose is attatched to the bathroom sink. So, I was freezing, soaking wet in my multi-layered pajamas, at three in the morning and all I could do was laugh.

Leslie Russell in: The mystery of Korean hot water
For the first week, I had been at the whim of my hot water heater. I could not figure out when the hot water god's felt like giving my heated H2O. I would periodically check and if the faucet yeilded steaming water...I jump in my bathroom/shower. Most people have computers running their life...me a water heater. Anyhow, in order to solve this mystery we must return to my first night in Korea. I entered a freezing apartment and found the thermostat to be entirely in Korean. Of course, I pushed all the buttons until a green light turned on and I felt warmer. Easy enough. The following week, I used the time honored system of--if I feel cold, turn on the heat; if I feel hot, turn off the heat and open a window. It is an inexact science but effective. Now, in Korea, everytime you want to use hot water you have to turn it on. So what I actually did, on that fateful button pressing night, was turn the hot water on and the heat off. So when I was in my closed-window/heat phase, I was actually in hot water mode and the heating pipes heated the apartment and vise versa. Mystery solved! I can now take hot showers at my own discression. Now all I need is a sleuth's jacket and the Hardy Boys. Eat-it hot water heater!

Why I need Amanda to keep track of both me and my belongings.
Due to a series of Leslie Brand Mistakes (trademark), I had left my purse (so therefore my apartment keys) in my locked classroom. I returned to school with two Americans (one of which I had just met hours before) at around 7pm and the janitor was luckily waiting for us. I thought his presence meant easy access to my purse, in actuality, it meant one more person to catch me if I fell off a second story ledge. Korean janitors don't have access to the interior rooms, they also don't clean for that matter but that is a different story. To prevent having to sleep on the streets that night, I was boosted onto the seconds story ledge of my school. From there, I shimmied across the small ledge and monkeyed around the pillars until I finally reached an open window about brow level. In a dress, I swung my leg above my head to get my heal in the window. Stupidly, I look down (I was momentarily stuck so I had some free time), the two Americans were doubled over in laughter while the tiny, Korean, janitor stood directly below me, lighting me with a flood light with both arms out in case I fell. This poor man would not have stood a chance. Luckily, I was able to awkwardly tumble head first through the window. Needless to say, it was a great first impression and the entire school now knows about the awkward American who climbs through windows instead of doors.