Posts Tagged With: School

Prospective CEV teachers

Dear Prospective CEV Teacher,

Congratulations for wading through all the internet and finding my blog! You must’ve dug deep, because searching for Changnyeong English Village information is hard.

You want thoughts? You want to know if it’s a good job?

First, I recommend you check out this thread (read to the end, don’t stop at the first post) and this thread. Dave’s ESL is a great resource for anything, not just checking out this job, so make sure you use it! ūüôā

If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to comment or email me. Even if it’s a couple years later. We waygooks have to look out for each other, especially at Changnyeong English Village.

Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adrianne’s typical day with volunteering

On a typical day I leave my apartment at about 10:15 in the morning and walk through the shopping district of Belgrade to reach Refugee Aid Miksaliste’s Center.

I arrive at 10:30 and linger around the main, open area for a few minutes, saying hello to anyone I recognize. Then I go back to the women’s corner and prepare for my English lesson.

15369280_1803750116558271_5135586068171589508_oAt about 11 three or four girls join me for English. I take a less-organized approach, letting their questions dictate many of the things we talk about (they’re very curious girls). We learn for about an hour and a half, and then they return to the camp they live in.

I leave Miksaliste and head over to the barracks, where the homeless men/boys and a few families live.


There, Hot Food Idomeni drives up in a white van to distribute hot soup. By the time I arrive, usually around 12:40, there’s already a line of refugees about 200-deep.


I watch the line, making sure people don’t cut. It’s boring when there’s enough volunteers to watch the line and hectic when there’s not. I had someone once complain, telling me I was very bad at my job, that when I turned my back four people would cut. I could only agree and apologize–I try to do a good job, but when I put my arm around one guy to pull him out, others will hop in right behind me.

Overall, though, the mood is relaxed, and I enjoy chatting with some of the boys as they pass by. Very few of them can pronounce my name (and I have trouble with their names also). It took me an hour and a half to realize that one teenager wasn’t calling me “Angry,” it was just the best he could do with my name, “Adrianne.”


A few days ago one of the volunteers bought some balls, and the younger boys have a lot of fun with it. At this time I pick out a few people in the line that need any items that I brought in my coat pockets. I typically carry down two paris of socks, gloves, scarf, and a hat and discreetly hand them off as the line progresses. This is all thanks to the friends and family that donated money!

20161231_130036The food usually runs out around 2 pm, and by that time the main distributor of Refugee Aid Serbia has stopped by to assess what clothing people need. I and any other volunteers follow the RAS director to a nearby park.

Because RAS has limited good and manpower, they usually focus on getting new arrivals blankets and whatever winter clothing they have (right now it’s just hats. We’re hoping for more gloves/scarves/coats donations soon). We usually take care of 10-15 people a day. If there’s lots of volunteers, we can hand out more–today we handed out 46 blankets and 9 jackets! That’s because there were lots of volunteers to carry things and a woman came down from London with two suitcases packed with jackets.


After assessing the needs of the men/boys who show up to meet us in the park, we head to the RAS warehouse. In the photo it looks a little disorganized, but the next day Jordan and a few others went down and straightened and labelled the boxes.


After we grab our allotted amount of stuff, we walk back out to the park together and distribute is quietly, quickly, and calmly. Too much noise will draw other refugees, and suddenly we’d have a sea of clamoring people all wanting the same jacket. It could also draw the police, who find groups of refugees suspicious and would probably crack down on them and us.

I finish distributing around 3 pm, say my goodbyes to other volunteers and refugees I know, and make the 15-minute hike home. Sometimes I help direct people to Miksaliste, the police station for official paperwork, or back to the barracks. But generally I start heading home after 3.

Then I spend the rest of the afternoon/evening shopping, cooking, resting in our studio apartment and preparing my next English lesson.

That’s about it!


Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

A few stories

Over the past couple of weeks, Jordan and I have gotten to hear several stories of the people stuck here in Serbia.

Jordan talked with one man who explained he was a lawyer in Afghanistan who fought child marriage. The Taliban saw him as a threat and tried to kill him, so he escaped with his family.

I’m teaching English to a 12-yr-old Afghan girl who used to be a refugee in Iran before the country kicked her family out. They were smuggled out of Iran and into Turkey, she said, with Iranian police shooting at their car. She hugged her little sisters close so a bullet wouldn’t hit them.

Jordan and I spoke to an interpreter who had worked for the American military. Someone in his village told the Taliban what he did, and sent him death threats. His parents urged him to leave, but he misses his little brothers every day.


Jordan talked with a 25-year-old Afghan who lived in Pakistan. There weren’t any jobs, so he decided to travel to Europe because he already knew German, C++, Java, and several other programming languages as an IT developer. He crossed through Turkey legally, but then got caught up in the refugee crisis. Although he’s a migrant worker trying to get a work visa and immigrate properly, suddenly the wave of people are causing the governments to restrict immigration.

We helped hand out food at the barracks, where many of the refugees sleep, and I noticed many preteen boys with only flip-flops on their feet in 28 degree F weather. They coughed and shivered in line, waiting for a bowl of hot bean soup. I’m worried they’ll lose some toes to frostbite if nothing changes for them.

Recently,¬†I met some Syrian refugees–the first for me, actually. Three teenage girls sat in the women’s corner sipping on tea, recovering from their 6-hour trek from the Macedonian border into Serbia overnight.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Damascus,” they told me in halting English. “We spent five months in Greece, and last week we walked out of Greece, through Macedonia, and here.”

Two of the girls were sisters, the third a family friend. They traveled with the friend’s mother and 8-year-old brother.

“My mother is in Greece still, on an island,” one of the sisters told me. They didn’t say anything about either father, and by the way they were avoiding it I think the fathers are either still in Syria, fighting and saving money to join their families, or dead.

I have a little English class where I teach three teenage girls about grammar and comprehensions every day. Today I had them write five sentences each about what they wanted to be when they grew up.

The 12-year-old told me she wants to be an OBGYN because that was her mother’s dream. Her mother was smart enough to pass the university entrance exam in Afghanistan, but too poor to attend college. “It will be hard and I will spend lots of time in school,” she told me. But I want it.”

The 16-year-old told me she wants to become a brain surgeon because “lots of people in Afghanistan get hurt and need doctor but don’t have enough money. So they die from the sickness.”

The other 16-year-old said she loves babies and helping people. She wants to become a pediatrician and one day work for an organization like Doctors Without Borders.

I was moved to tears by these bright, hopeful girls and their dreams. I couldn’t tell them that Germany, where their families all wanted to settle, is now denying asylum applications and deporting Afghans back to Afghanistan. They are some of the smartest girls I’ve ever met (they even ask me to assign homework!) and they’ve been out of school for over a year. The chances of them achieving their dreams are minimal.

And I look at their eager faces, their shining eyes, and think what a horrible, tragic waste. They deserve so much more than what the Taliban and obstinate EU countries have given them. If nothing changes, the world will miss out on three of the most caring, compassionate doctors that ever could’ve been.


So far, in our volunteering, Jordan and I feel a bit useless, unable to give them what they really need. But I love talking with them, getting to know the people, becoming real friends and learning about their lives. It’s amazing how similar we are.

Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FAQ about our volunteer work

  • Who are you working with?

Refugee Aid Miksaliste

  • What’s that exactly?

A mixture of things, really. Refugee Aid Miksaliste is a local NGO started a couple of years ago to help the refugees passing through the city. Now fourteen other NGOs are involved, either by sending staffers (like Save Our Children) or money, like Oxfam and UN Women.

  • Who are the people you’re helping?

About 1,000 refugees live in an abandoned warehouse by the Belgrade train station or in the nearby park. Roughly 70% of them are Afghan right now. A few are Iraqi, even Pakistani, and only a small minority (right now) are Syrian. 30-40% of those refugees are family groups. While family groups make up the vast majority of the refugees in Europe, in Serbia they are typically housed in state-run camps. Because of overcrowding, teen boys (and a few other families) are left to find their own shelter at the train station or nearby parks.

  • How many are there exactly?

Currently there are roughly 6,000 refugees in Serbia right now. They stay in Serbia until their refugee status papers are issued, which takes several months. Many refugees have been waiting for 4 months.

  • And so what’s their plan?

Ideally, they want to make it to Germany, France, Sweden, or Norway. However, the Balkan route takes them out of Serbia and through Hungary, and Hungary closed it’s borders, putting up razor wire fencing. They have two transit points and only let 3o people through a day. There’s also talk of them deporting 18,000 refugees back into Serbia.

  • So now what’s their plan?

At this point, their best bet it so travel to Bulgaria, which is a part of the EU, and work their way to a more accommodating country.

  • Why don’t they just stay in Serbia? Isn’t that an option?

Yes, it’s an option, but one that few take. Serbia has a long history of political strife (Yugoslav war in the 90s), and while it’s calmed down now, Serbia (and most of the Balkan countries) are still deep in an economic recession that doesn’t show any signs of letting up. While the refugees could claim asylum in Serbia (as it isn’t a war torn country), most would rather save their chances to claim asylum once in western Europe or be resettled by the UNHCR elsewhere, like North America or even Asia.

  • What are conditions like?

Honestly, not that great. The center used to be in a nicer building closer to where the refugees “live,” but the government bulldozed the building earlier this year to make way for a new shopping center, Beograd Waterfront. The nonprofit moved to a smaller, less-organized building and resumed work. Recently, per new government regulations, volunteers are no longer allowed to distribute clothing or food at the center. One other organization (Refugee Aid Serbia, I think) distributes food in a nearby park.

As for the refugees themselves, they are homeless. In good weather, some sleep in parks. Now that it’s winter, they huddle in an abandoned warehouse. Many of them are sick, and many spend all the time they can in the center where there’s electricity and heat. They only have what they brought with them from their home countries or what has been given to them here.

  • So what exactly are you doing?

We are filling in wherever needed. Usually that means impromptu English lessons with whoever’s interested. Sometimes we also help in handing out lunches at the park. Because the population is ever-changing, both refugees and volunteers, and Serbian regulations can change suddenly, there’s not a lot of organization. So we’re just being flexible and teaching the English present continuous tense to whomever wants it!

Categories: Serbia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Dropped off the map

I’m afraid I’ve dropped off the map in terms of blogging.

Well, I’m a bit busy at the moment. Here’s what I’m up ¬†to:

  1. Our contract ends in 16 days, so we’re starting to pack and finish up work
  2. We’re planning our trip home–more details on that after we’ve left Korea
  3. I’m busy with NanoWriMo! It’s an awesome way to get people into novel writing, with the goal of hitting 50,000 words in 30 days. Because we’re leaving the country halfway through November, I’m not doing the full, traditional goal. But I have been working since September 28th to get the rough draft of another novel done during my time in Korea. Whatever complaints I have had with my job and with ESL in Korea in general, it has given me time to hop back into fiction writing, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Categories: Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Great aspects of Korean culture

So recently I wrote a blog post explaining what ESL teachers mean when they sometimes complain about Korea. So now it’s time for me to detail all the things I personally love about Korea!

Hardworking people: Koreans (and Asians in general) have amazing work ethics. They work and work until the job is done, and then they ask for more work. They’re a great example to live by, and I hope some of their work ethic has rubbed off on me.

Good students/kids: Kids (once past toddler years) are expected to be polite, respect their elders, and behave appropriately. This means teaching is, by and large, easier than in the States. The kids are expected to listen closely and fill out worksheets quickly. When you tell them to do something, generally they obey without question. I always thought middle schoolers would be the worst group of students to work with, but these Korean kids proved me wrong.

Beautiful landscapes: Korea is roughly 72% mountains. The country has numerous national parks. Hiking is practically a national pastime¬†because Koreans love to get out of the city and see nature. I live out in the boondocks, and I get to wake up every morning surrounded by mountains. It’s gorgeous.

Always polite: Manners are incredibly important here. Koreans tend to be very formal, polite people, and it’s kind of a nice change from the US’s casual atmosphere. They care about protocol and making sure everyone knows what to expect, that way there are no nasty surprises. It is nice to be greeted with smiles everywhere you go (in the American South, this is the case, too–everyone smiles)

Quiet culture: I hate loud, loud noises. People yelling in stores, static, car alarms, rushing of people in big cities all irritate me. Sometimes I really hate crowds. But I’ve never felt as claustrophobic/panicky as I do in the States, and this is mainly because everyone respects one another in terms of noise. You’d never guess Seoul has over 11 million people in it if you were blindfolded on the street. I really love that.

Clean:¬†So for some reason, Korea has a thing against trash cans. I don’t know why, but it’s almost impossible to find one in public. We commonly set our trash down on the curb and walk away. But somehow, still, Korea is a clean country. Litter doesn’t stay around for long, and we see tiny, old ladies sweeping the streets clean all the time. No dirt or trash or leaves in sight!

Safe: Korea is one of the safest countries in the world. Although most men know how to shoot a gun, private gun ownership is strictly regulated. They also have a huge social stigma against stealing. People will commonly mark their places with their belongings or purse, then walk to the bathroom. Korea has much less crime than the United States.

Strong sense of heritage:¬†Korea is one of the most monoethnic nations in the world. They have a strong sense of shared history and culture. They maintained their culture and language despite being invaded several times by China and Japan, and they have fought long and hard to keep their identity. And they’ve done a great job at it. Even though most Koreans wear jeans and blouses/polos most of the time, at their Lunar New Year they always dress up in traditional garb and enjoy their ancestors’ food and culture.

Interest in everyone getting along:¬†This trait can obviously be taken too far (see my last post). But it’s really refreshing to be in a community where people care about your feelings. I’m a Highly Sensitive Person, and I’m always overthinking and very aware of my words and body language (too an extreme). So it’s nice to finally be in a culture where tone of voice and facial expressions mean just as much as what you say. I also love that people will work to accomodate others’ feelings and opinions to create a harmonious environment where everyone feels valued and respected. ¬†This is something the East does extremely well, and I wish the US would pay attention sometimes.

We’re nearing the end of our contract, and I’m starting to realize I’ll miss a lot from this place. It’s been an interesting year.

Categories: Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amateur photo essay of Italy

Way back in 2011 I went to Italy for a month.

June 8 006

For a long weekend break, a friend and I went to Verona. We visited the famed Case di Giuietta with the hundreds of others, but loved the 14th century architecture and the small museum about the Zeffirelli film. This house was probably owned by the Capulet family in the 13-4th centuries, the family that inspired Shakespeare to write his otherwise fictional play.

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A famous square in Verona, many important historical events happened below this clock tower.June 8 022

Durante degli Alighieri, usually known as “Dante,” peered down at us from the square, judging the tourists and other passers-by.June 8 016

The Torre dei Lamberti is a 84 meter tower in Verona. Construction of the tower was started in 1172. In May 1403 the top of the tower was struck by lightning, but the restoration works didn’t start until 1448, and it took 16 years.

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In Lago di Garda we enjoyed ourselves by eating Italian food and looking at the fog coating the mountains and the lake. While a clear day would have been nice to see the famed mountains, the lake was still beautiful.


Turin on a hazy summer day.


Ancient statue of Ceasar Augustus at the Forum in Rome


This city doesn’t need any introduction–it’s the most romantic city in the world


Grand Canal


The winged lion is Venice’s “mascot” from the medieval period. They chose St. Mark as their patron saint, and it was a deft business move. Italy (especially Rome) wanted them to choose St. Peter, which allied Venice strongly with the West.¬†Before, St. Theodore of the East had been the patron saint of the city. But as politics and business drew Venice and the West closer together, it behooved the Doge to make Mark the new patron saint (and there’s something about Mark’s body and relics being found, also).


The real David is indoors, moved in 1910, but this lovely replica stands in its original spot, the Piazza della Signoria.


There’s a reason Florence’s Duomo is so famous. Just look at that artwork, to say nothing of the engineering feat of the dome.


The remains of holding cells and tunnels in the Coliseum.


St. Peter’s Basilica. Go there if you can. Very moving experience.

87¬†A blurry photo of the Pieta. It’s in St. Peter’s Basilica, but many people miss it because it’s tucked to the right of the main entrance in an alcove.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

“Korea crazy”

So we English teachers in the land of the morning calm have this catch-all phrase that we use whenever describing something we see as illogical, ridiculous, disturbing, or just plain weird. We call it “Korea crazy.”


Person 1: My boss is crazy.

Person 2: You mean Korea crazy or crazy?

So let me break down for you what we mean by this. “Korea crazy,” like I said, is a bit of a catch-all phrase, a subgenre of the normal word “Crazy.” In my time in Korea, from experiencing Korean culture, Korean workplaces, and other English teachers, this is what I’ve come across. Interestingly, being called “crazy” in Korea is a much bigger insult than it is in the West. While it’s certainly rude in the West, in Korea it includes the connotations of “useless” and “worthless,” so while English teachers use “Korea crazy” as shorthand to explain otherwise strange behavior, we wouldn’t say any of that to a Korean’s face.

Crazy means:

  • Anything that offends our Western sensibilities, is flagrantly opposite Western values, or just doesn’t make sense
  • Parts of Korean culture that really don’t make any sense or are flaws in an otherwise fascinating, rich, ancient, and amazing culture
  • Illogical, irrational human behavior, often accompanied with mental illness, personality disorders, and actions that should require medication.

“Korea crazy” covers the top two bullet points.

The first bullet point, of things that don’t make sense to Westerners include

  • A monument to how humiliating and degrading South Koreans treated Chinese and North Koreans in the Korean war, with loud, patriotic music in the background
  • A play based on folklore at a festival that has magical farts as a major plot point
  • A lantern festival with an entire row of lanterns portraying Japanese soldiers being tortured
  • Koreans lining up for a bus before there’s ever a need to, but refusing to follow a line in any other situation
  • Tiptoeing around a problem rather than addressing it
  • A highly paternalistic work culture and expectation of the government to educate and care for the people
  • Strong desire to “fit in” and not stand out in any shape or form
  • Absolute insistence that Dokdo matters to the world and is Korean land.

Some of it is just weird by Western standards, and I don’t know the reasons behind it. Some of this is just like humor, I think–some people love puns, others hate them. Some people love quirky behavior found in East Asian countries, other prefer quirky behavior found in North American countries.

And the rest of this boils down to culture differences, right? And much of the things that rub Westerners the wrong way have their roots in Confucianism. It is an ancient, highly paternalistic, respect-driven culture. From that stems the rigid hierarchy of elders telling young people what to do (even strangers), expectations that the government will handle most problems, the saving face and pretending problems don’t exist (if Korea ever has a natural disaster, saving face will not serve them well), and the belief that bosses can rule your life and deserve lots of respect.

And while I respect Korean culture and realize that in many ways Confucianism has served them well, I think there are significant flaws. Which leads me on to the second bullet point.

Every culture has weaknesses and flaws. Although I love my own American Western culture, I am intimately aware of all the problems that come with an individualistic, polarized, and materialistic culture. There are significant problems with the way we do things in the States, just as there are significant problems in every country and in every culture. I’m not trying to bash Korea, Korean people, or suggest that their culture is in any way inferior to the rest of the world. It has great strengths, but this blog post is about its weaknesses as perceived by Westerners. Most of these points are also strengths of Korean culture, just played out a little too far so that they now hinder, rather than support, the culture.

  • Lying to save face, especially in serious situations like crime, natural disasters, and office mistakes. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one, and Koreans usually aren’t willing to do that. This is also probably one of the main reasons alcoholism is rampant–no one will admit it’s a thing.
  • Expecting employees to come to work when sick. Colds and viruses spread like wildfire out here because people aren’t allowed to quarantine themselves when sick.
  • The hierarchy stifling otherwise a vibrant, creative, productive generation of young people into following their grandparents’ desires. While I love the fact that the elderly are respected in East Asia, rather than ignored like in the West sometimes, I think this goes too far. It also hurts my American individualistic beliefs, too.
  • Materialism. I was quite shocked to come to Korea and find many people far more materialistic and focused on flashy, expensive cars and clothes than people I’d met in the States. This is a flaw that Korean culture shares with American culture, I think, though Korea’s materialism stems from the confucian belief that the outside reflects the inner (a beautiful woman is a kind woman, a flashy car doesn’t just mean a man’s rich, but that he’s a good person). The rates of plastic surgery in Korea are some of the highest in the world.
  • Societal pressure to perform really hurts everyone. This is something that happens everywhere in every culture, I think, but because this is a blog post written by an American about Korean culture, I’ll keep my comments germane to the topic. This issue also affects the United States, but I think the pressure to live up to your family’s name, to be successful in all that you do, is even stronger here. Alcoholism is a real thing here, though they pretend it’s not. Korean kids are stressed, sleep-deprived, and always worried about their schoolwork, and Korea’s depression rates are some of the highest in the world (Japan’s rates are also high). The speed of industrialization in the 20th century also may have something to do with pressure and expectations.
  • Strong nationalism and suspicion of “the other” will really hamper South Korea’s growth on the international scale unless something changes. Korea has a difficult history, and it’s sandwiched between China and Japan–two regional powerhouses. The fact that Korea has kept hold of its identity and homeland over the past two thousand years, defeating both Chinese and Japanese invasions multiple times, is astounding. It’s worth celebrating. They’ve kept their language, made their own alphabet, and have progressed rapidly in just 60 years. But this is not without cost. Many (not all) Koreans are very racist. Not just curious about other types of people (which I fully support and think is healthy) but actively racist. I’m just lucky we somehow convinced Koreans that white people are cool. Korea is the most ethnically homogeneous country in the world. 20% of Koreans have the last name Kim. Four last names make up about 50% of the population. Every human, every culture, has a suspicion of the other (which isn’t¬†of itself is bad), but the Korean government has encouraged its people to make value judgements based on people’s skin color, last names, and other characteristics.

And finally, the last bullet point, actual craziness. Sh*t you don’t want to be around. (I have so much personal experience with this I’ll have to document it later, when I’m out of Korea). I think one reason English teachers come across so much “Korea crazy” is because many of us work in hagwons and even a few iffy public schools.

Hagwons, or private, for-profit schools, are in it for the money. That’s the name of the game. So while Korea is full of wonderful, amazing people we’d be lucky to know, hagwons are full of administrators that care about money, not people. And when they have a steady influx of foreigners who don’t know the language, culture, work expectations, or anything else, really, it’s very easy to abuse the system. I think English teachers come across power-hungry men¬†at a much higher rate than regular Koreans living in their own country do. And these power-hungry men know they can get away with so much more because we’re, well, clueless. This can seem like “Korea crazy” because it’s most of what we see, but it actually takes up a much smaller segment of the culture/population than we think.

As for the actual mental disorder stuff? Well, mental illness “doesn’t exist” in Korea, so that’s just your imagination. Get with the program, folks.

A video on Why Not to Teach English in Korea Hilarious with a lot of truth in it. A critique of the ESL industry.

Final words:¬†Korea is an amazing culture, but everything has its flaws. This is just an American’s explanation of a common ESL teacher view of the country, with a little explanation of how the culture got that way. If you’re interested/concerned with something I’ve said, comment and share your thoughts. And do some research on your own to learn about Korean culture and the subculture of ESL in Korea.

Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crazy crap my students say

One of the privileges and burdens of being a teacher, I think, is that you stand at the frontlines against the fight of racism, misappropriation of culture and ideas, and parroted stupidity.

A good teacher, I think, encourages students to air their opinions in the classroom (in this case, usually parroted opinions from their parents), and gently applies logic and ethics to the crazy crap that sometimes surfaces. Honesty, humor, and empathy I think are the tools teachers need to use.

This post is about the humor of it all.

*Let me preface this by saying: I think every human is a little racist as heart. That is not an excuse for hurtful words or behavior, but an acknowledgement that we are all fallen, broken people and we all need one another’s help unpacking our baggage.*

*Let me also preface this by saying: This isn’t to make generalizations about Korean children (that would be a little racist in and of itself). They’re great, hardworking, enthusiastic kids, and I love them to pieces.*

So, without further ado, a conversation I had today in my classroom:

“Where is the Taj Mahal, students?”

“India, Teacher!”

“Good, good.”

“Teacher! Indian people….they uh, they uh…hands….dirty.” And my student proceeded to mimic wiping their hindquarters with their hands.

“Um, no, Indian people wash their hands,” I assured.

“No, Teacher. Indian culture,” another blurted.

Ah, another one of these moments, I realized. And we only had eight minutes before the bell rang. “I have Indian friends who wash their hands. They are very clean,” I said firmly.

“But Teacher–”

“Some Indian people are dirty, just like some Korean people are dirty. Some Indian people are clean, just like some Korean people are clean.”

Half the class stared, completely lost. The other half seemed to accept what I had to say.

“Now, let’s look at the continents.” We turned the page in the textbook. “What’s the biggest continent in the world?”

“Asia!” they happily chorused.

“Oh, Korea is so small!” a girl on the front row exclaimed sadly.

The girls murmured amongst themselves, hastily comparing sizes.

“It’s okay,” I said. “a country doesn’t have to be big to be powerful.” I thought for a moment about the British Empire (on which the sun never set), then decided that was far beyond their level of English.

“Strong?” They looked up at me, puzzled.

“Yes, very strong. I think Korea is strong.” I flexed my arm muscles.

“Ah, yes.” A girl on the back row grinned. “America is strong, too.” She flashed two thumbs up at me.

I laughed and nodded at the compliment. “The United States is strong, too.”

“Strong….whole world,” she tried to say.

“Yes, the United States is a strong country,” I compromised.

“But you like Korea?” another student prompted.

“Of course I do,” I immediately said.

“But…China bad.” Two thumbs down from another student.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think China is bad. I like China.”

“But you like Korea more,” the girl on the back row said.

I picked my words carefully. “I like most people in the world: American, Chinese, and Korean.” They clapped, happy with my answer.

“Teacher, what do you think of North Korea?”

“Well,” I hedged, trying to think of the simplest answer in all of this conversation about stereotypes, bias, and culture differences. “I ¬†think North Korean people are good.”

They stared at me, waiting for more.

“Korean government, not so good.”

They clapped, grins spreading across their faces.

“Kim Jung Un very bad man!” a quiet student exclaimed.

“Um, yes. Kim Jung Un is bad. Government is bad.”

And they grinned at one another, pleased that I had given the correct answer.

“All around the world there are many good people but many bad governments,” I tried to explain, but they weren’t really having it.

“And Japan?” another student asked. “What do you think about Japan?”

This was trickier. Many Koreans have a distinctly negative view of Japan because of a long, dark history. Japan invaded Korea multiple times (the most notable in 1592 during the Imjin Wars and in again in 1905) and during WWII had very brutal policies. Still, many young Koreans are fascinated by Tokyo today and want to visit.

“Well, I like Japanese people,” I began.

“Oh, Teacher.” Several gave me skeptical looks.

“Japan very….” One girl’s English failed her, and she pounded her fists against an imaginary opponent.

“Yes, sometimes governments do very bad things.” I nodded.

The class enthusiastically nodded. “Like Japan!”

“Well, every country does good things and bad things. Japan did bad things against Korea,” I admitted, “But America did some bad things, too. We bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We were fighting, but a lot of women and children died from the bombs. Many Japanese people are still sad about that. Many American people are sad about it, too. It was a very bad time in the world–”

“Yes, Japanese government bad.”

“Dokdo, Teacher! Dokdo!”

*Side note: Only Korean people care about Dokdo, a tiny string of rocky islands between Korea and Japan. It’s a matter of national pride that Korea claims it as their own. No one else cares, not even the Japanese. Korean students this year are being fed a lot of propaganda about how important it is and how the rest of the world cares about the claim.*

“But sometimes countries do good things! And many, many times people do good things. Like the Olympics!” I tried to put a positive spin on things as we wrapped up the lesson. “Japanese people in Olympics:good!” I gave a thumb’s up. “American people in Olympics: good! Chinese people in Olympics: good! Korean people in Olympics: good!”

“Oh, yes, Teacher!” they agreed.

“But North Korea?” another girl insisted.

“Well…not North Korea. Not many North Koreans will be at the Olympics,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” the agreed.

“Kim Jung Un….pig!” The same girl in the back blurted, quite proud of her English skills.

I laughed, also impressed with how well they’d expressed themselves. “Yes, he looks kinda funny.”

The bell rang, and our conversation was over.

And that was pretty much that. Sometimes these conversations are so surreal I can’t help but laugh and shake my head.


Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Random Korean ESL tips

New to teaching? Trying to get an idea of what it will be like?
Here’s a few cultural tips we’ve picked up (some passed on to us, some learned the hard way).


1. Never write a student’s name is red. It symbolizes death. Though, for some reason, it is a popular “favorite color” among youth.

2. Common discipline for unruly students involves sending them to the hallway and raising their hands in the air for 4, 5, or even 10 minutes. Do with that what you will.

3. Work environment is very community-based. The downsides of that can be automatic deductions in your pay for office snacks, an office-wide gift for someone’s wedding or funeral, and mandatory office activities, like taking hikes together. The upside is you may get treated to ice cream by the boss.

4. When beckoning a student, don’t curl your fingers with your palm facing the ceiling–that’s how Koreans call animals. Flip your hand over so your palm is facing the floor, then curl your fingers to your palm–this is how they communicate with other humans.

5. In Asian culture being called out, or sticking out from the crowd in some way, can be very anxiety-producing, especially for kids. Being called on in class can be seen as a punishment, rather than just the pedagogical method used. I personally think that students should become used to Western culture (why else would they be learning English?), particularly if they hope to continue higher ed in the United States (I had Chinese classmates in grad school that became almost paralyzed when a teacher called on them in class–I want my students to avoid that future.). Just remember that speaking up in class is highly irregular for Korean (and other Asian) students, so be patient with their lack of response.

This is just a handful of things we’ve picked up along the way to smooth cultural differences in the classroom. What would you suggest?

Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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