Category: Education

It’s Time for . . .

La tour à l’étranger

If you’ve previously visited my travel blog, la tour à l’étranger, you’ll notice some changes.  The first is the appellation of my musings.  This blog began as a personal project with two goals: update friends and family back home while living abroad, and document my experiences for nostalgia’s sake when I’m old and wrinkly.

La tour à l’étranger, roughly translated from French, means The Tower Abroad or The Foreign Tower.  It was a nod to two physical attributes – my height and location.  It also followed the format of “theme” and “identifier” most blog monikers apply.  Some of my favourite travel blogs are great examples of this format: Legal Nomads, The Bucket List Family, Nomadic Matt, and The Restless Worker.  Picture day at school almost always sealed my vantage point in the centre of the back row.  “Giant”, “tall”, and “big” weren’t cutting it to use in a blog title, however “tower” luckily began with a T in both French and English.  Coincidentally, Tara, in at least one of its linguistic derivations, means “tower”.  Either my parents are psychic or the universe has a funny way of manifesting itself.  The “foreign/abroad” element is self-explanatory.  Lastly, the title was in French as a nod to my profession as a French teacher and fascination with language and linguistics.  Unfortunately, there was one glaring problem – most of the site’s visitors don’t speak French! The title held no meaning to its Anglophone audience.  It was confusing, easily forgettable, and often misspelled.  Not a great combination for making an impression.

Connecting the Dots

Two years after this personal project began, life, travel, and this site have morphed into the next chapter.  Welcome to Connecting the Dots.  One of my favourite things to do, whether it’s with words, travel, or people, is to find, create, and maintain connections.  In language classes I teach my students to be Language Detectives, identifying clues that aid them in recognizing both meaning and grammar.  They connect world history and personal experiences to spelling and structure, becoming autonomous learners, expert problem-solvers, and independent thinkers instead of robotic regurgitators of sounds and sticks.  In social settings, friends and family can attest to the giddy enthusiasm with which I recount how so-and-so from one part of my life is connected to another familiar so-and-so.  Another genuine thrill is connecting those around me.  It creates a cozy space, an intimate space, with the potential to take care of and help each other.  It can break down barriers, build understanding, and lead to unlimited opportunities.  It can support healthy bodies, minds, and hearts.  At its core, it is community.  Living, working, and travelling abroad exponentially magnifies the possibilities to connect words, places, and people, especially with the use of the internet.  You can see why I’m so addicted to foreign lands.

Change & The 4 “P”s

As with language and words, when there is a change to the structure, there is a change to meaning.  Replace “-ed” with “-ing” and you are actively learning, instead of having once learned.  And so, this cozy nook in the interweb is moving with new direction and purpose, built on four components:

  • People: to connect people and businesses around the world that I interact with and support
  • Places: to connect faraway traditions, history, and landscapes, to you at home
  • Pictures: to connect unfamiliar perspectives and moments to your experiences
  • Parlance: to connect words to their past histories, present use, and to other ways of communicating
1,2,3…You and Me

Literally anything is possible through the practice of finding, creating, and maintaining connections (read The Brain That Changes Itself, it’ll blow your mind!).  I think that’s why I have such a passion for it.

Something I’m grateful to witness often in my job is the delight children have for the simple bits in life.  Disguised as a thrilling pastime, there is an exercise that requires a pencil, a paper, and some patience to help children learn to count.  When an image reveals itself from a bunch of seemingly random dots, the reaction of pure joy and amazement is priceless.  And learning how to count?  A bonus.

The dialogue you create contributes to and builds this space into something I am unable to do as a single “dot”.  I like to think we’re 1 degree of separation apart instead of 6; a small world after all, if you will.  Thank you for visiting, and… for connecting the dots!

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Quitting Isn’t Just for Losers

Exploitation used to be a faraway word discussed in class, read about in newspapers and magazines, or seen on TV from the comfort of home.  Much like a looming storm on a thick muggy day, my spotty exposure to the word growing up was closely accompanied by unease and churning in my gut.  I didn’t understand how anyone could be indifferent or cruel towards another human (or animal, or worm – Emi, thank you for humouring me on our Save-The-Worms-Post-Rainfall Missions as kids).  How was it possible to take advantage of others and, more often than not, for a profit?

Then we met face to face.  I didn’t recognize it at first; its cunning mask and my naivety mixed with denial and stubbornness prevented me from seeing through the fog.  I willed it to walk with me through hopeful second chances and then around wary thirds.  Calling it by name felt dramatic and excessive, even when help on the outside insisted as they tried to clear the haze clouding my judgement.  The foreign and distant word had become familiar and suffocatingly close while working at an international school overseas – and I still couldn’t comprehend it.

To Write or Not to Write

5 months after transporting life across the world to Asia, I moved home finally having quit my job.  I was exhausted mentally and physically, bewildered with how to digest everything, and needing to figure out what to do next.  Some days it still feels like my experience is from a book instead of real life.  I have been writing and stalling and re-writing this post since returning almost a year and a half ago, fingers and mind buzzing with anticipation of release.  The continuous internal wrestle crashing in waves back and forth with the possibility of backlash from speaking up vs. the hope of preventing this situation from happening to someone else has been going on long enough.

Moving Home

Initially after moving home, I spoke with friends and family about how to communicate my experiences and handle the situation.  The words needed to explain it all had difficulty exiting my mouth, my teeth and tongue barring any simple departure into listening ears.  Eventually I retreated to an inner dialogue to let the dust settle, to mull over my thoughts, and to forget – the easiest non-option.  People at home were kind and sympathetic to the Cole’s Notes version I hastily learned to say and (still) repeat on autopilot when asked why I’d returned so early; the notes rapidly shrinking over a short time.  My inability to quickly process and clearly communicate the “whys” drained any energy I was recouping.  Except for a handful of close individuals who weathered many tearful and frustrating Facetimes, no one knew about or could relate to my previous daily life.  I felt like the physical island I’d lived on overseas had morphed into me.  The ever-present chasm of trying to adequately translate 5 exhausting months of struggle into an elevator soundbite was also partially self-inflicted.  Instagram displayed the seldom enjoyed moments, a smile consistently on my face.  This blog only hinted at the issues for fear of retaliation from the school and colleagues at a time when no resources or supports around me were available.  The Social Media Life Filter, full blast while away, was hitting me in the face when I returned home.

My Role

My position wasn’t the familiar “teach-ESL-in-a-Korean-Hagwon” job.  I was employed as a Residence Teacher Don at an international school, run by anglophones from various countries.  Little did I know that I was soon to be teacher/mentor/tutor/big sister/mother/confidant/friend/motivator/rule and safety enforcer/activity planner, etc…  Beyond positive I’d avoid the horror stories of Midnight Runs (worth a Google search), illegal contracts, lying principals and so on, I signed the papers and prepared to begin my international teaching career.  Naively, I placed these schools on a pedestal of impeccable education, abundant resources, and unparalleled commitment to learning and student development.  Within a week, the flawless bubble I had envisioned exploded.

Getting the Job

The sales pitch in my interview was a mentorship year for newly-certified teachers.  I learned a little too late that the sales pitch is strike one – if they’re selling hard, run harder in the opposite direction.  They said as a co-teacher I would be able to grow professionally, obtain IB certification, travel every 6-8 weeks, and pay off student loans.  I had hit the jackpot and holy macaroons did I feel lucky…but it turns out clichés aren’t to be ignored – if it sounds too good to be true, it most certainly is.

Unknowingly, I packed up life and some wonderful friends and family gathered to wish me bon voyage.  My carefully over-packed suitcases were zipped up tight and my passport was itching to be stamped all over.  Trusted professors and teachers who had been employed at international schools overseas were soaked with showers of questions pre-departure.  Hours of research on expat living in Korea and my soon-to-be employer were logged.  I corresponded with a woman who had held the same position the previous year.  And still, it wasn’t enough.  What I couldn’t have prepared for was being in the grips of an employer with no regard for employee health and well-being, who threatened future professional opportunities, and who was smug about their deception.

Arrival & Colleagues

I was picked up from the airport by a trio of employees, including the person who interviewed and hired me, whose welcome remarks emphasized how much I was going to hate my job and want to leave.  It was an odd welcome I thought, brushing it off and responding with a smile that it was sure to be a fantastic year.

Thankful my new employers were flexible, I arrived after the other first year staff.  Months later when applying to other schools, I discovered by accident that I wasn’t IB certified because of 1 missed day of introductions and icebreakers.  I received no response when offering to make it up on my own time and in the end, was lucky to receive a letter stating partial attendance at the workshop.  It wasn’t the strong start I had envisioned.

The other all-female dons ranged from freshly graduated university students, starry-eyed with their first Real Job or first time overseas, to well-educated women with various employment backgrounds. Some were certified teachers, though oddly, most were not.  We later discovered the sales pitch varied; non-teachers were sold on a gap-year adventure, teachers were convinced it was a necessary professional stepping stone.  It became obvious early on that the difference in age and experience was a fracture in our group, cracking us further apart the more we tried to unite on how to address the issues thrown at us.

Main Issues

Three glaring issues plagued our working and living conditions, which were one and the same: hours worked, an irrelevant contract, and a cancerous mixture of bullying and poor communication.

WORKING CONDITIONS:  

Sleep deprivation was the toughest obstacle I struggled through and also the most destructive.  I noticed it most when it hindered my ability to think and communicate clearly on a consistent basis.  It was startling to hear myself speaking incoherently.  It was my first indication that this was more than “being tired”.  The other symptoms were subtle, or at least I thought so.  Loved ones disagree and I continue to learn about the ripple effect it had today.  A poster in the residence detailed the importance of getting enough rest.  I was averaging 4 hours a night and scoffed half-heartedly as I checked off every symptom on the list: constantly cranky and moody, short on patience, quick to cry, and on and on.  My appetite diminished and I lost 12 pounds the first month despite eating 3 meals a day.  I knew it wasn’t right, but I also knew I could push and scrape through 1 more day.  For 5 months I “powered on”, and then I had enough.

I accepted the position on the written understanding I would work about 50 hours a week.  Shifts in the School would be from 8am to 12pm twice a week but never, I was reassured, on the alternating weeks we worked overnight in the Residence.  Hours in the Residence would be from 3pm to 9pm during the week helping the girls with co-curricular activities and homework.  Instead, my schedule looked more like this:

Non-Overnight Schedule

BHA Non-Overnight Schedule

Overnight Schedule

BHA Overnight Schedule

In reality, my smallest work week was 72 hours and the largest was 105 hours.  To put these numbers in perspective, there are 168 hours in a week and if you sleep the suggested 56 hours a week, that leaves 112 to work/eat/live.  On weeks with overnight shifts, my 2-hour midday break consisted of napping and showering – luxuries needed to try to recoup sleep and enough sanity to forge on.

I shoved the knowledge that my salary equated to less than $5 an hour out of my mind to keep from growing more frustrated.  I hadn’t been paid that low since doing odd jobs for pocket change as a 12-year old.  Held powerless in the tight grip of white collar exploitation I was furious and embarrassed.  How was this reality?

Overnight shifts were simultaneously the most exhausting and the most rewarding part of my job.  My room was Homework Help Central for the 100 grade 9s and 10s in our residence.  The girls would congregate in my tiny living space, at times until past midnight or in the early hours of the morning before school, requiring help with projects and assignments, but mostly the English language needed to complete them.  Many were at a disadvantage due to lax entrance language requirements and it showed.

More “aha moments”, smiles, and confidence boosters were witnessed in those wonky hours than at any other point in the day.  Texts and emails to my parents spilled over with gratitude and appreciation for the hours they spent with us on schoolwork growing up; somehow the roles were now reversed and I found myself as the adult helping the child.  The girls in residence didn’t have the reliability of home and 24/7 support a parent provides.  Bewilderingly, our bosses refuted that we could ever work past 11pm (“lights out” – though it rarely was).  Come 11:01 we should be asleep ignoring the knocks of frustrated, sick, upset, or stressed out teenage girls.

COMMUNICATION:  

Bullying came from the top down.  More than once we were threatened by multiple levels of administration.  If we did not continue to trudge through whatever was thrown our way, our future professional opportunities would be at stake.  Some employees arranged individual meetings in addition to the group conferences we requested to address concerns.  In one of these, a colleague asking for clarification on misinformation they were provided prior to accepting the position was proudly told by an administrator that they could “sell snow to an Eskimo” they were so good at their job.  Insult piled onto injury.

During a fire drill, our direct supervisor matter-of-factly stated that if we did not remain in the burning residence until every last student was out, we would be jailed or “taken down” if there were legal repercussions.  On another occasion, we requested first aid and mental health training.  In Korea there is no such thing, we were told.  The word “suicide” is forbidden so as to not “implant the idea” into a student’s head.  The irresponsibility of the school concerned us.  In order to learn how to address situations or recognize symptoms of students in need, we would need to “take initiative” on our own time, as if we had some to spare.  We were told to report everything to residence administration yet nothing would be shared with dons if students were tagged as at-risk.  We were dumbed-down mules of information aimlessly stumbling through potted fields of distrust.  The environment was toxic, and quite frankly, terrifying.

CONTRACT:   

Shortly after the red flags started waving furiously in my face, I re-read my contract.  Acquainted with the job, the stark contrast between reality and the document I signed was alarming.  Most glaringly, the word “residence” was nowhere to be found and the contract was labelled “teaching staff”.  Considering most people in our position weren’t qualified teachers and our focus turned out to be primarily residence, this didn’t add up.  Similar to our concerns with our working conditions, our appeals for a revised and appropriate contract were dismissed.  Despite its irrelevance, we were bound and gagged – our only other option was to leave and risk the consequences.

DAY SCHOOL:

Issues with our role in the classrooms and the absence of communication between administration, teachers, and dons presented a daily struggle. None of the school teachers seemed to know why the dons were in the classroom, let alone to be co-teachers.  Months into working, another teacher was shocked to find out that some dons had teaching credentials and experience.  In 5 months, I taught less than a handful of lessons and spent most of my time observing.  The rare time a teaching opportunity was discussed I was too sleep deprived to be able to put any effort into teaching, planning and preparing lessons.  My hopes and plans for a productive year of professional growth were swiftly hurled into the garbage.

Supplying was another issue.  The school often asked unqualified dons to fill-in for absent teachers, despite the prestigious faculty it boasted on its website to recruit students and families paying tens of thousands of dollars a year.  In addition, supplies were paid a fraction of the day if they had residence duty.

Safe on the Other Side

My employment at that school was many things, few of which I had planned or hoped for initially.  Emerging safe on the other side of my experience and the world, I gained a new perspective on what “quitting” means.  Growing up in North America and playing team sports, quitting is taboo.  “Push through”, “brush it off”, and “only losers quit” are examples of the mentality that permeates our pop culture and, later, our working lives.  Shame and guilt whisper doubts and point their gnarly fingers at the selfishness of letting others down or not being strong enough to continue through tough times.  Quitting equalled giving up, until the moment it meant breaking free.

After months of bookmarking articles, surveys, and opinion pieces on how, why, and when one should quit, I unconsciously decided to leave.  Family and friends weren’t told until I saw them in person, mostly to avoid the (well-meaning) questions and conversation that would follow and also to allow space for reflection.  My parents found out for two reasons: I would need to move back in for a while as I sorted out life and recharged, and to relieve their worries.  One afternoon a month before I gave my two week notice, I packed up my dorm, if only to see how it felt.  The heart knows before the head sometimes.

I wanted to believe that under the shiny brand-new state-of-the-art campus, the professional-looking website, and the school prestige that there was some decency.  A few individuals I met were, but it wasn’t enough to stay.  Finally, I accepted the corruption for what it was and handed in my resignation.  The tumour engulfing the campus and those who worked there was all-consuming and I refused to participate any longer.

I am grateful for the kind colleagues I got to know, for the resiliency of the students who didn’t have the freedom to leave, and for the support back home to do what I needed to do in my own time.  Perhaps the largest takeaway from this is how important it is to draw your own boundaries, to trust your instincts, and to know that walking away is the right choice when enough is enough.

Overwhelmingly, the response from the other dons when word got out that I was leaving was that they were envious and wished they were leaving too.  Many felt backed into a corner, for various reasons, and were resigned to living there another 6 months.  One don I wasn’t close with emailed that night asking in confidence how the meeting went.  They were leaving too and unsure if it was wiser to give notice or just leave.  Another don joked I had “opened the floodgates”.  In the end, two dons, the majority of the Korean EAs, some administrative staff and two teaching faculty who parted on a Midnight Run, left the school before Christmas break.  We were all better off for it.

There’s a time and place for everything – quitting included.  That school was toxic and its problems systemic.  The individuals running it should not be in charge of shaping young lives, nor should they be in positions of power to bully employees and students.  Leaving that school was the best choice I made that year.  It was the first time I felt I fulfilled the school’s mission of “empowering women” – by following my intuition and leading by example for my students how to take hold of your own life.  If I left my girls with anything, I hope they believe in themselves enough to do what’s right, especially when the odds are against them and it seems like there is no choice.  You always have a choice – to be safe, to be valued, to be heard.  You are worthy of nothing less and you are strong.

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One in a Million…or a Month

It happened!!!  I had a good day at work.  It’s been a month since I arrived in Korea, 3 weeks with the students on campus, and yesterday, Saturday, finally felt right.  It all started with me getting more than 5 hours sleep; key for this homo sapien to feel, and function, like a human being.  I thought I loved sleep before, but now my love and appreciation for sweet sweet slumber has grown exponentially.  To put things in perspective, I had 14 hours sleep in 3 days while on overnight shifts this past week.  The next awesome occurrences, and I say this with all sincerity, were the caf meals.  It isn’t horrible food, but when you eat rice 3 meals a day and most of those meals are spicy, as a person who has a sweet-tooth that rivals Augustus Gloop’s, it’s the curry dish and tiny steroid-free (I assume) chicken burger that make a stomach smile.  Next came a quick Skype trip-planning session for my upcoming escape with my boyfriend to Bali.  Oooeee, I’m excited!

Cafeteria Curry in Korea

Fitness Centre

The good times didn’t end there.  The best parts of my day were 3 “teachable” moments with different groups of our residence girls that had my weary heart jump with glee.  I was about to plunge back into work when a student asked if I’d take her to the fitness centre.  Usually we need a group of girls to go to justify a don leaving the residence.  A lot of our students were away with family this weekend, and selfishly, I wanted to go too.  A second student joined us and we walked the 30 seconds to the gym.

Now, I’m not particularly jazzed by weights or running.  I prefer the carefree competition and synergy of team sports.  I also feel inept and awkward sweating, red-faced in front of mirrored walls as I struggle to perform movement that requires abs or strength.  The feel-good moment at the gym was when the girls asked for help with how to use the machines and what exercises to try.  Luckily, over the years, various friends have taught me a thing or two when a surge of moxie to re-attempt the “gym life” arises.  I taught the girls what a circuit was, how to breathe mindfully, what parts of their body an exercise was targeting, and what “activate your core!” means.  There were no injuries and they want to come back for a leg day (we did upper body this time).  And, I even had fun.  I’d say that was a success.

BHA Fitness Centre

Creative Sparks

The second “moment” came when a girl in my family (we group the girls into don families for organization and team-building) and one of her friends called me upstairs to check out something cool they were working on.  They had placed a cellphone flashlight underneath a carbonated beverage, similar to a lava lamp, shaking it every so often to produce bubbles for a neat visual effect.  They asked me to take a picture with my phone.  I remembered I had my DSLR on me from our Frisbee event earlier that day.  I snapped a few, but the girl in my family (we’ll call her S) started fiddling with lighting and backgrounds.  It was a chance to hand over my camera and let them explore and be creative.

They analysed the subtleties of light and composition, tweaking bits here and there.  S was the brains of the operation, using mirrors to reflect light, selecting different materials for backdrops, and moving lamps around to discover new effects.  The neatest part was that S has shown apathy towards school, extra-curricular activities, and anything but sleep.  But, as a photographer’s assistant, she was on fire.  It was awesome to watch her take charge of the situation and be learning and creating. I taught the other student what the buttons on the camera do, how it has an “eye” that blinks and a “pupil” that lets light in, and how the “temperature” of a picture can be altered.  Their delight with each discovery was infectious and I felt myself inspired to invest more time into this hobby I enjoy, to be able to pass on more information for them to run with.

Photography Experimenting with Light

Basketball & Boys

The third inspiring part of my day was in one of my happy places, the basketball court.  Three residence girls I don’t yet know needed a don for the gym since it was dark out.  I was tired and had things to do, but how could I turn down their chance to shoot around and have fun?  A fair number of girls enjoy going to the fitness centre and gym, though most end up chatting.  I think they feel comfortable in that space.  They feel able push themselves, and what could be more important for learning and growing and developing as a person?

When I first met my family of girls, I needed writing samples, so I had them write about the pros and cons of going to an all-girls school.  It’s a new experience for me and I was curious what their opinion on the subject is.  Almost all of them used the word “comfortable” when they described the pros.  Many felt able to excel, fail, and try again without the pressure of looking a certain way for boys or getting into scuffles over them.  They developed better friendships in this environment.

I have been learning a lot.  Growing up I had more crushes on boys than I can count.  I can even remember the first one in Kindergarten with his freckles and impish smile.  Too much of my adolescence was spent thinking about boys.  They would be the highlights and low points of sporting events, finding out classes on the first day of school.  As the often single friend in my social groups, it was a measure of self-worth and identity.  I wonder who I would be now if my experience then were different.  Did I mention yet I’m a fan of the “Nurture” debate?

…back to the girls in the gym.  Two of them play for the school’s academy (varsity) team and the other was along for fun with her friends.  I shot around for a little on my own, before one girl surprised me by asking me to join them in 2-on-2.  Not only was I delighted, I was shocked at her confidence to ask an older, unknown person to play.  What fantastic gumption!  We split up the academy girls so the teams were “even” and, again, I was witness to magic.  There were two-foot stops, jump shots, smart and simple passes, and cheers for the non-academy player when she performed well.  I offered tiny tidbits of my basketball IQ and watched as they incorporated the pick-and-rolls and boxed out.  Needless to say, I was a happy camper, to be back in the paint and coaching, and the girls had a ball too (pun definitely intended).

BHA Basketball Courts

It’s the Simple Things

Other highlights from the last 2 days include: leaving campus for the first time in 3 weeks during my 2.5 hour mid-day break to pick up a friend’s friend’s rental car, feeling the wind on my face on the drive, and snippets of sunshine and warmth while walking between buildings.  It’s the simple things, folks.

I’m also looking forward to tonight.  A few of us are heading into town to celebrate a birthday, eat real food, and dance on a beach.

I’ll leave you with some pictures from last weekend.  Cheers!

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“English, Please”

“I’m awake at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning,” should never be the words out of someone’s (well, my) mouth.

Alas, there I was this a.m., blurry-eyed and droopy-tailed, waiting for our teeny-boppers to roll out of bed and into their last-minute 8 a.m. volleyball practice.

Surprise! I’m a “Parent”!

As of late, I have been smacked with a deeper appreciation for my parents, since I am now awkwardly some semblance of one…to one hundred 14-16 year-old girls.  The students we are responsible for are…well, I’m not quite sure yet.  It’s only been 2 weeks on campus with our little women.  Of course they are inquisitive, hopeful, cheeky, sassy, thoughtful, and hard-working, but I don’t really know them well enough to properly describe them at this moment in time.  The teensy tiny neon-coloured elephant on campus, Language Barrier, keeps yanking back the rope on the “get to know you” process.  The girls in our building have a wide range of English skills – candy for a linguistics nerd.  Understandably they prefer to speak their mother tongues, Korean and Chinese, instead of the school’s mandatory “language of inclusion”, English.  It is harder to convince the girls to use without the doom of being graded.  Thus, it is near impossible to have an edge when we’ve caught them sneaking around past lights out, or groaning to each other when asked about homework.

Multi(-Lingual) Personalities

As a multi-lingual individual, I can empathize.  It is exhausting (as well as exciting) to think, feel, and express oneself in a foreign language.  I have not (yet!) had to do it for an extended period of time, however I can imagine.  Many people who speak more than one language will say they feel as though they are a different person, or altered version of themselves when using another language to communicate.  I have discussed this with countless friends and students who identify with this scenario.  Some delight in the possibilities of shedding an old skin and developing a new one to add to their Self.  Others feel restrained and saddened by the change.  Recently, this topic surfaced during a conversation with my boyfriend.  He grew up overseas and speaks several languages, English being his third.  He expressed how wonderful it felt to have someone speak with him in the language he used growing up in school.  I could hear the relief and joy in his voice as he recounted the interaction.  Finally he could communicate in a manner that fit part of his personality, a part of his whole Self, that he doesn’t get to most days at work, me, or in other daily interactions.  He explained to me that the semantics of the language they spoke in was more direct, forward, and to the point.  If he were to speak the same words in the language we share, he would be misunderstood as blunt or rude.  I might not recognize him, there is such a noticeable difference.

“English, Please…”

I have the utmost respect for people who need to learn the language to survive in a new country.  Interacting with 100 teenage girls whose mother tongue I barely have scraped the surface of, has been a little frustrating.  I want to get to know and understand them so that I can assist them.  This also happens to be my job.  However, I’m in a unique position because despite having moved to a new country that isn’t English-speaking to work, it isn’t imperative for my survival here to learn Korean.  Life/Work (there is no separation of these) is bubble-wrapped.  The majority of teachers and those in positions of power at this school are anglophones from around the world.  Employees who aren’t anglophones speak English and students are required to speak it in class.  In the residence the rule is that you speak English, but we’re not quite there.  I feel bad “enforcing” it and haven’t yet found an effective way to motivate students to practice their English.  I hope that as I earn their trust and respect that they will practice more.  It is a tricky line to walk, especially as a guest, and one I am aware of at all times.

On another, happy, note, there have not yet been any jailbreaks (ie. girls escaping to visit friends after lights out).  I had a couple of wonderful chats with girls who had questions but stayed for conversation.  I must say, it finally felt worthwhile being here.

Thanks for reading!  🙂

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Week One Done…Thank Goodness

I’m not quite sure how to approach today’s blog. This week has been one for the books.

When Preparation Can’t Prepare You

Moving to a new country is such a unique and amazing experience and one that I am fortunate to do for a second time. Landing a new job is exciting and brings relief, especially in today’s economy where our student debt is higher than ever. I am so grateful for both of these opportunities in my life. 

On the other end, I am frustrated, exhausted, and feeling bamboozled. When signing a contract, it’s important to read carefully, ask questions, and then ask more questions if things still aren’t clear. Sometimes you can do this and it’s still not enough. The surprises bounce at you each time you turn your head and then you realize, we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto – we’re on an island within an island, on the other side of the world.  I’m chalking some of it up to valuable life lessons, and some of it to…well, I don’t yet know to what.  (*Photo Cred:  Audrey Lee for Featured Image, “Candid Frustration”)

Leaning on Gratitude

With that being said, here is a list of things I am grateful for right now, as well as some pictures from Saturday’s excursion to Gwakji Gwamul Beach and Jeju-Si, when some of the other dons and I escaped from campus for a day.  Oh, and of course, cheers to the start of Naismith Basketball Camp.  I think this is the first time in 14 or so years I’m not there getting up to shenanigans, burning on shaded docks, and guiding our campers in the mirth of team and community, camp life in the magnificent Canadian outdoors, and basketball, the best sport of all.

Gratitude List:

  • Moms  (especially mine – she’s the ultimate!)
  • My boyfriend – your support and love is simply awesome
  • Family – Don’t worry, I’m safe and will fly home if North and South can’t stop their squabbling.  Also, keep the email updates on life back home a’comin’!
  • Friends at home and abroad
  • Food (nomnomnom) – especially when it’s not spicy caf food 24/7, though my Kimchi-a-Day isn’t as painful anymore…almost
  • Small things that make you happy, like finding cider when you never thought you would (see below)
  • New experiences

 

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A Momentous Occasion

Yesterday (Aug 12) was a big deal.  It was a big huge momentous exciting deal for many reasons.

  1. I could finally (almost) print
  2. I opened a bank account (no Internet banking yet)
  3. I got a phone (I feel really dirty about this one though)
  4. (*I also ate pizza a few days ago!)

Yes, it is true what they say.  Living abroad means you do exciting things; noteworthy awesome things that make other people want to move abroad and also do exciting non-everyday-things that “over there” are everyday things…alas, this particular blog post is not about those.

Organizational Oddball

Truth be told, the list above has been my “momentous occasion” this week.  My anxiety over not being able to print is real.  I’m an organizer.  I thrive off of putting together colour-coded, filed and categorized documents, folders, you name it.  I become flustered when I’m not able to keep things tidy.  Growing up, Mom would have me file her receipts or organize the fridge or cantina because, somehow, I find it soothing, even enjoyable, to create order from chaos.  I legitimately get excited sometimes, proud as a grade 1 showing off their scribbles which no one else thinks twice about.  Thank goodness for oddball kids, eh!

Some might say I’m a little crazy (ie. my family and my lovely Irish friend and former colleague, Siobhán), but for me it allows for sanity.  As much as I try to live being environmentally-friendly, I am loath to embrace the intangible world of book-less and paper-less living.  How are kids of this generation going to understand the joys of a neatly organized binder with all those new-fangled iPads and thingamabobs they use?  Yes, I am a granny.  I refused to buy a Kindle before coming abroad on principle (more so stubbornness), but also because I love the smell and feel of books.  You can buy English-language books in Korea, but my beloved paperbacks looked so sad and lonely in my packed up childhood.

**Sidenote:  That was a much longer ramble-explanation than I’d intended.  Moving on!…

 

Organization Mode

Money in the Bank

So, banking.  That was a fun experience – and I mean that genuinely.  The bank is a short walk away from our school, which is great because we’re in a fairly remote part of the island.  There’s an English room off to the side once you’re in the bank where two lone employees sit; one is a super friendly guy around our age, and the other is a quiet woman, maybe in her 50s.  Privacy is non-existent because the “waiting area” is directly behind the chair at the teller’s desk.  Good thing my bank accounts aren’t overflowing these days!  Things get better.  The bank is only open from 12-3pm, Monday to Friday.  And I thought Ireland had tight banking hours!

As for paperwork, I think I signed 20 times, and even then some, because the teller made an error with my name so we had to register all over again.  Did I mention that I didn’t have the slightest clue what I was signing for?  All forms were in Korean, as to be expected, and I could have been purchasing a Jeju orange grove or supplying his bonus.  Throughout the process I could hear my Dad on my shoulder saying, “Never sign anything without reading it through, understanding it all, and asking any questions you have”.  So much for that, Pops!

There was a group of us girls who went to the bank together and we were brainstorming fun ideas for the weekend since we won’t have much free time together the rest of the year.  We got talking about Soju and where to go out and started asking the teller for his expert opinion.  He was more than happy to oblige…but I think that’s why my name ended up as “Ostrom Andrew James”.  All worked out of course and everyone, including our new bank friend, laughed a lot in the process.

 

South Korean Won

From Beloved BlackBerry to …the iPhone

Lastly, I got a new phone.  Now, let me put it out there that I’m an avid supporter of our hometown’s BlackBerry.  I’ve happily owned BlackBerrys ever since crossing over to the smart phone world.  I am proud to tell people it started in my hometown and genuinely sing its praises.  However, despite its durability (perfect for a spaz like me – I’ve never cracked a screen), precious keyboard, and Canadian face among the world’s tech crowd, the inability to access some apps has finally forced me to bite the proverbial apple.  Personally, I don’t need many apps.  We’re zoned into our devices and out of real life enough as it is.  I don’t need more reasons to stare at a screen.  Professionally, it’s a requirement that I have a phone which allows for the use of certain apps, and so it is for that reason that I have been thrown into the iPhone world.  Dirty indeed.

This is a super long post so I’ll fill you in on my euphoria over finding pizza later.   🙂  Annnd a shout out to my brother, who celebrated his birthday.  Love ya buddy!

…also, I didn’t have time to edit (huge personal pet peeve) but c’est la vie today.  Thanks for reading!!!

 

BlackBerry vs iPhone

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