Saturday, 30 January 2010

Winter English Camps

English Camps…do your worst.

Fortunately enough for me, there wasn’t anything that I had to face during my entire series of winter lessons.

With class sizes ranging from seven to fourteen students, for each level of middle school and high school, I didn’t have a single problem that arose in any of my classes.

Even though it was their winter vacation – their time to play computer games, sleep-in, and watch T.V., my students decided wake up in the wee hours of the morning, brave the cold weather, and take the early bus, heading towards the last place most students would want to be during their month-long break. My students wanted to come to class. They were excited for class, and I wasn’t going to let them down.

The greatest thing about my experience was that my classes were composed of some of the most intelligent English students that I taught this past semester. That fact simply expanded the possibilities for the activities I could do.

My main focus during my winter camps was speaking - dreaded by many of my Korean students, I made sure to give them plenty of opportunities to speak in English this month. I threw at them many projects: school tours, creating inventions, commercial productions, news reports, video-calls on Skype over the internet (with my family), etc. In giving them these tasks, I used their incredible competitiveness to my advantage.

I had to reward my students for their sheer determination in my classes. Aside from their projects, which only took up half of the lessons, I made sure to include a school-wide scavenger hunt (leaving clues all over the school grounds for the students to find), the Guess Who? Game, Jeopardy, Battleship (using English vocabulary), Snakes and Ladders (landing on a certain colour meant that an English sentence had to be spoken), logic riddles (for which the answers had to be presented in English), a brainstorming activity using flashcards, baking chocolate banana bread (my favourite), etc. Most of the prizes and supplies were funded out of my pocket initially, but by asking for some school funding a couple weeks beforehand, I was able to save myself from shopping for school supplies in the last weeks of camp.

Of course, I feel like I’m the lucky one. Even though I prepared myself with coffee and plenty of energy-consuming activities for my students, they were the ones who showed up in class everyday with their bubbly attitudes and high spirits. Some other teachers might not have been so fortunate.

Like this Korean experience and all others, fellow English teachers will, once again, have to keep an open mind and brace themselves for whatever happens to come their way.

- Jess

Friday, 8 January 2010

My First Week of “English Camp”

My first week of “English camp” is now complete. Since it was cancelled, my daily routine consisted of the following:

-          Wake up

-          Eat

-          Shower

-          Eat again

-          Play “Battlefield 1942”

-          Watch “Family Guy”

-          Eat again

-          Nap

-          Watch “Mythbusters”

-          Pick my nose

-          Quickly do the dishes, make the bed, and spread my lesson plans all over the table before Jess got home from her camp to make it seem like I had a productive day.

I love my job.

- Ken

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Saved by the Snow!

After yesterday’s ordeal, I was really, really, really not looking forward to my second day of camp.

But alas, somebody up there is watching over me…

English camp has been cancelled for the week!

*Doing a little dance…

- Ken

Monday, 4 January 2010

My Painful First Day of English Camp

Today was my first day of English camp.

All Guest English Teachers are obligated to continue working throughout winter vacation; therefore “camps” are set up at various schools to attract keen students who want to spend their vacation studying as much as possible to ace their exams come the following semester.

Ok that last part was a lie…

English camps are set up so that the ­parents­ can get rid of their kids all week, and maybe, just maybe, learn a thing or two by the end of camp. Or at the very least, tire them out enough so that they’re quiet by the time they get home…

The following is my schedule for the next five weeks:

Week 1: Gucheon Middle School (all grades) from 9:00-12:00.

Week 2: Gucheon Middle School (all grades) from 9:00-12:00.

Week 3: Bunam High School (all grades) from 10:00-1:30

Week 4: Bunam Middle School (all grades) from 10:00-1:30

Week 5: Bunam Middle School (all grades) from 10:00-1:30

Easy eh? Ya, I thought so too…

Last night, we had our first snowstorm of the year. And by snowstorm, I mean we actually only had a quarter of an inch of snow (which is a colossal snowstorm in this area) that shut down most of the country. Of course, I didn’t realize the impact of the “storm” until it was too late.

With my lesson plans in hand, I waited patiently for the bus to arrive. Normally, the buses run like clockwork, rarely more than one or two minutes early or late. I knew that the snow would slow things down, but when the bus didn’t show up after thirty minutes of waiting, I started to wonder if it was going to come at all. I decided to wait another fifteen minutes, and if it didn’t show up by then, I’d head back home.

Just as I was about to head back, the bus appeared in the distance. I hopped on board, and settled in for my less-than-comfortable ride through the mountains. If I had known what I was about to go through, I would’ve stayed at home…

The bus driver was quite obviously terrified by the snow-covered roads, and refused to drive faster than five or ten kilometers per hour. Approximately ten kilometers into our trip, at the base of one of the larger mountains, the bus driver stopped the bus, stepped outside, and began shouting as he paced back-and-forth. Several people on the bus stood up and began yelling back at him, and he refused to get back into the bus until he had finished a cigarette. I just sat there and held onto my seat belt…

He finally calmed down, stepped back onto the bus, and with a little shake, prepared himself for the climb up the icy slope.

Needless to say, it wasn’t nearly as terrifying as it looked. The bus effortlessly climbed the hill, and the bus driver (with his newly-found confidence) quickened his pace for the rest of the trek through the mountains.

It took nearly two hours for the thirty-kilometer trip, but we had made it safe and sound.

I approached the ticket lady and asked about the next bus time to Gucheon. She just stared at me with a puzzled expression and mumbled that there were no more. Because of the snow, all public transportation had been shut down. The bus that I had taken through the mountains was the last one of the day…

I pulled out my phone, called my co-teacher, and told her that I was trapped at the Bunam bus terminal. I expected her to tell me to try and head back home, but instead, she told me that she had an idea to still get me to Gucheon school. She needed to make a phone call, but she promised to call right back.

A couple of minutes later, she called back and told me to walk to the Chinese restaurant to be “delivered” to school.

Apparently, the delivery guy had snow tires, and was willing to “deliver” me to school if the teachers ordered food (which they gladly did).

I waited in the lobby of the restaurant until the food was ready, and hopped into the taxi waiting out front (yes, the delivery guy was also a taxi driver). I was squeezed into the back seat in between boxes of food and an old woman (I have no idea who she was or why she was there. Maybe she was being “delivered” too…).

He sped his way toward school, grumbling at all of the cars that had pulled off to the side of the road. Two and a half hours after I left home, I finally arrived at school.

I walked into class, and was shocked to find that every single one of my students were there. All thirteen of them. I began my lesson with some warm-up activities, a few icebreakers, and a short Pixar clip. Barely fifteen minutes into my main lesson, six of my students stood up, looked at the clock, and told me that they had to go. They explained that since there were no more buses, one of parents was going to come and pick them up. I continued my lesson with the remaining seven students. Twenty minutes later, one of the teachers came into class and said that he had to drive some more of the students home, so I watched as another five of my students left. With only two students remaining, I decided to drop my lesson, and teach them how to play scrabble instead…

At the end of the day, one of the teachers offered to drive me to the bus terminal. Since there were no more buses running back through the mountains, he proceeded to try and hunt down a taxi driver who was willing to do the dangerous trek.

The first taxi driver that arrived offered to drive me through the mountains for fifty dollars. The teacher negotiated him down to forty, but grabbed me at the last second before I was about to hop in the car. He noticed that the taxi didn’t have snow tires, so he refused to let me go with him. After a brief argument, the taxi driver drove away, and almost immediately another taxi pulled up. This taxi had snow tires, and the driver offered to drive me through the mountains for twenty dollars. It sounded too good to be true, but with a nod of approval from the teacher, I hopped into the taxi and headed home.

That was one hell of a first day of school. I don’t know how I am going to survive the week…

- Ken

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Casey to the Rescue

Well, we thought that the weekend had ended smoothly until we arrived at the Andong bus terminal on the way home.

To our horror, we had missed the last bus back to Andeok. As a result, we were now trapped an hour away with no means of getting home in time to run our English camps the following day.

In a state of panic, we called up Casey (the other English teacher in Andeok), and pleaded for some assistance. He pulled himself out of his nice cozy room, got into his freezing car, and drove all the way up to Andong to save us from our dilemma.

Casey, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!

- Ken

New Year’s 2010!


We could see the Bosingak bell from the middle of the bus – on the bus’ T.V., that is.

Ken and I were headed up to Seoul City, the capital of South Korea, for this decade’s big New Year’s blast. It was one of the places to be on New Year’s Eve, but we hadn’t taken into account Seoul’s 25 million population that night.

Never mind it being -16oC, or the fact that snow and ice were now covering the busy city’s streets…nothing was going to stop us from being at that bell when the clock struck midnight.

Setting down our things at the lovely Alps Motel, right in the heart of Seoul’s City Hall, we padded ourselves with layers and layers of long underwear and sweaters, double-checked our cameras, and bolted for the hotspot that was Bosingak.


On our way, we saw many food stands lined up on the sidewalks, eagerly taking advantage of the thousands and thousands of people that were standing and freezing outside for the holiday.

One of the stands was dedicated towards a charity, and was selling helium-inflated balloons for 1,000 won ($1). If purchased, something was supposed to be written on them – a wish, a New Year’s resolution, etc…to be released at midnight.

We were about to reach the corner of the street, when we were caught. A girl stopped us in our tracks, and yelled to her partner, “Wak-guk! (Westerner!)”. A cheery fellow rushed over and started telling us, in English, that the charity was to help buy kerosene to heat retirement homes.

Well, his speech impressed Ken, and in the spirit of the New Year, he donated 1,000 won to the charity…and I got a deep-blue, big, bobbing balloon. What did we write on it? To the first of many

The famous bell was only minutes away, and as we got closer and closer, we noticed many police riot buses, lined up on every street and corner, blocks away from Bosingak.

Little did we know that there were thousands of riot police, outfitted in shiny, light-reflecting gear, inter-locking arms around the site. Creating a border with a radius of over 100 feet, most people couldn’t even see the bell past the hundreds of swaying heads in front of them. Performances were being held on a stage set up in front of Bosingak, and singers and dancers were putting on a show for the countless number of people surrounding them.

It must’ve been about thirty minutes before midnight. My breathable running shoes weren’t doing me justice, and my feet were slowly freezing to the point where I was gruelingly trying to move my toes for some blood circulation. It was to no avail.

Then, the worst possible thing that could happen, happened. The riot police let up their guard, and everyone jetted towards the bell. Helpless and unable to stay in the same spot, Ken and I were shuffled forward by the crowd, my ice-blocks-for-feet stinging with each step. The police soon reformed their lines and the crowd was divided, once again, by the lines and lines of linked arms. I was face-to-face with one of the riot police – not the view I had wanted, half an hour before the arrival of the new year…

(One minute before midnight…)

I was about to reach my limit. It was so cold that my eyes had glazed over and my feet were ready to shatter from the icy temperatures.


Colourful balloons were released into the air, and the many hopes and dreams that people had set for 2010 drifted up towards the heavens. What followed was a light show of epic proportions. People had brought roman candles and were firing them up into the sky. The fireworks marked the celebration that was the start of the new decade, innocent and unscathed from the rest of the world. Energetic dancers, in traditional Korean wear (hanboks) twirled around the lit stage to the main theme of the movie Mission Impossible. You could hear the bell ringing in the background. Thirty-three hits, by thirty-three different people, to bring forward new blessings for the year.

Feeling like meat popsicles, Ken and I attempted to get out of the crowd. I turned left, left, and left again. There was no ‘out’. This was a claustrophobic’s nightmare. It was terribly difficult to move an inch any which way, with thousands and thousands of people groping you without meaning to do so. Everyone was pressed into a human sandwich, being eaten alive by the crowd that was rapidly growing in size.

Forty-five minutes. That’s how long it took to get out of the mass of people. Individuals were still pushing their way inwards towards the bell. No matter how many times I said, “We want to get out!” they still pushed their way in.

Once we were on the outside of the swarm, we headed straight back to our cozy motel. Curling up with bowls of hot, instant ramen, Ken and I spent our first moments of 2010 warming up to the glow of the T.V., completely rested and relaxed…I think it was a good way to start the new year :).



Our goal set for New Year’s Day was to find a pair of winter boots. My breathable, walking shoes hadn’t done me justice the night before, and Ken knew I wouldn’t last the weekend if I didn’t find suitable footwear.

Luckily, his travel companion Lonely Planet’s Guide to Korea listed a store just for me. Apparently ABC Mart in the area Myeongdong, was the best place to purchase cheap shoes.

The day was bright and oddly sunny for the chilly weather that was looming about. Ken and I took an unplanned one-and-a-half hour walk around the many districts of Seoul, looking for this ABC Mart. We even reached the point where the buildings we were seeing were crumbling from age. Turning back, we stumbled upon Insadong, an area dedicated to traditional artsy trinkets, hand-pressed paper, and ggultarae candy.

As we were browsing through the many stands of handbags, key chains, and paintings, two men called to us from their stand. One of them, wearing a stuffed, panda hat on his head, attracted us to him like bees to a flower. He began his show. In English, he started explaining how the honey candy he was making used to be given only to royalty.

He exclaimed that he could make tens of thousands of honey threads from one block of golden fermented honey. Poking a hole into his honey ball, he stretched it out until it was like a saggy rubber band, and dipped it in cornstarch. He then wrapped it around his hands once, and stretched it out again, dipping it in the same powdery substance. He finally made it to the point where he was holding out thousands and thousands of fine strands of honey, separated by cornstarch powder. It was a beautiful sight.

The strands were then bunched and torn into sections into which a 21-spiced mix of peanuts or almonds was added. Wrapping the strands around the spiced concoction, they set their newly made candy into boxes, ready to sell.

Although I enjoyed the show, my feet were getting frostbitten pretty fast. Ken and I continued to walk around the streets, until we came across another outdoor market. It was New Year’s Day, and the streets were packed with people our own age. I guess this was the place to be. Only a minute later did we find that this wondrous place was Insadong – exactly where we could find the ABC Mart.

Entering the store, we did find several different kinds of shoes, but none into which I wanted to invest. I just wanted a pair of snuggly boots that I could tear up for about eight months (the remainder of our teaching contract).

Returning back to the cold, we browsed around some stands, hoping to find a bargain. Then, I saw them – snuggly UGG-like boots that were sitting on a stand, waiting for me to buy them. I didn’t even have to bargain. I was sold just by looking at them. Fortunately, the price was only 20,000 won ($20), for a pair of the warmest and most comfortable boots I have ever worn.

Now we could do what we planned to do today: a photo tour of downtown Seoul. The Christmas decorations we saw the night before had completely mesmerized us, and drawn us into our activity for this day. We shot photos soon after dark, when the holiday lights began to illuminate the blackness of the night. There was not one corner of the downtown area which was unlit by magnificent displays of lights.

We walked along the Cheonggyecheon stream, which was like a peaceful dream. With architecturally beautiful walkways, and a small waterfall illuminated at the end, we took photos of the large Christmas tree and hanging skeletons of lit presents, marking the end of Seoul’s lover’s lane.



The highlight for today was to meet some members of my mother’s side of the family. Due to the unforseen consequences (uncontrollable vomiting) from eating the san-nak-ji (live octopus) the last time we were in Seoul, we made it our mission to avoid street food at all costs. We made a rule: no overindulging on anything.

We met my relatives at the bus station and drove to Incheon for some dinner. Stuffing ourselves with smoked duck, pork ribs, and yukgaejang (spicy beef soup that is served boiling hot), the evening meeting was quite successful, especially with my uncle constantly cracking jokes and making over-the-top gestures to communicate with Ken.

The night finished off tasting international beers at a sports bar, with my uncles and Ken. The night ended with Ken and one of my uncles linking arms to drink out of their glasses (my uncle called it a ‘love shot’).



Our last stop of for the weekend was in the infamous Dongdaemun Market. Known as the shopping district in Korea, there was city block after city block of clothing stands, fashion malls, and underground shopping centers. Dongdaemun, in its entirety, was a haven for impulsive shopaholics (unlike me) and a must-see for incoming travelers.


So that’s it. A new decade has begun, with amazing new memories, about to be born. To whatever wild adventures arising this year, I say, “Bring it on…”.

Happy New Year!

- Jess