Korea Reflections

The reason why I’ve been so bad about being on top of blog posts is because I’ve been spending most of my time working on this video of our camp.

Please watch it in HD since it took me several extra hours and attempts to upload!

Anyway, it’s still hard for me to believe that camp is actually over. For the past two weeks, we’ve spent all our time preparing, running, and debugging lesson plans. This is definitely one of the most tiring times I’ve had for a while. It’s also invigorating though. I’m not sure how coherent I am to write a full post, so I’ll just post some of my thoughts on different topics.

Raspberry PIs

Much of our curriculum and our budget were spent working on different Raspberry PI projects. Part of the reason why I’m exhausted is the constant debugging that we had to do. We purchased entire monitor and wireless keyboard sets as well as Google Voice Kits and Pi Cameras. We spent evening soldering Voice Hats and class time making sure the students didn’t insert batteries backwards. The amount of technology we used in the classroom this camp was unprecedented.

The goal of using the Raspberry PIs was really two-fold. We wanted to find curriculum that all of the students didn’t have experience in—since our students range in age from 17-30 and are from various parts of China and North Korea, this can prove a challenging task. We also wanted to provide the school with durable materials that they could use in the classroom in the future.

That being said, we ran into logistical issues in that the school was unable and unwilling to store and use the PI kits that we set up. Consequently, we were scrambling on the last day to figure out what to do with all of our materials. At the end, we decided to offer the students a choice after their final presentations: they could either decide to take home a PI or a box of cookies.

To be honest, due to several debugging issues during the projects, including malfunctioning hardware, many students were pretty frustrated with the Pis by the end of the camp. We weren’t really sure if any students would even want a Pi to experiment with on their own. To our surprise, and delight, multiple students took home Pis and were very engrossed with them to the point where they ignored what we were doing as a class. Although I was teaching that day, I forgave them.

Students

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, our students ranged in age from 17-30. Although you can generally tell which students are oldest, it’s hard to guess the age of students. The students usually are either half Chinese-half Korean or from North Korea. The ones from North Korea tend to be older.

Although I’ve found administrative details to be frustrating this year, the best part of camp has always been the students. I must admit that our students are not the most attentive bunch that I’ve ever taught—since they are on break and we are a winter camp, phones and naps are frequent. Furthermore, due to the stresses that many of our students have gone through, Yeomyung tends to be very lenient with student discipline. Still, we’ve been able to engage at least each student in several activities.

It’s also wonderful to see their confidence grow throughout the two weeks. On the first day, several students refused to speak in English in front of the class. By the last day all students spoke. One of my bright spots was when one of our really quiet students, Jon, who never spoke pretty much the first week, actually smiled and told us that he enjoyed programming on the last day. Another student was so excited she would yell “YAY” after everything we did.

I do feel that I connect better with the half-Chinese students due to the fact that we are able to communicate. (The limiting reagent in this is my lack of proficiency in the language). I also connect with them in that they share with me that they feel in between Chinese and Korean cultures. Most of them were born in China and some are having difficulty learning Korean. I tell them that even though I’m ethnically Chinese, I was born in America.

I was speaking to one of the Chinese students on the last day, Daniel. I asked him if he was excited that it was the last day of class. He asked me what “excited” meant and I told him that it meant that he was happy. He was at first like “yeah!” and then thought a second and said “No! It means that you’ll all be leaving soon.”

Bill

I thought about incorporating this in the student section, but I feel that Bill deserves a section to himself.

Bill was one of our Chinese students. He was probably our student with the biggest personality. Every night, we (the teachers) would come home and reminisce about our days over takeout while doing lesson prep. Someone would always have a Bill story.

I remember that when were doing the Voice Kits, he would get frustrated that he couldn’t fully pronounce “Ok, Google” and kept yelling “OK, Goole, I LOVE YOU!” He was also very strong-minded. In one lab, I was wondering why his group was taking so long to finish. I found out that every time he made a typo, he would slam the backspace key until the typo was removed. I demonstrated that he could instead use the up arrow, but he insisted on doing it his way. Luckily, his partner Daniel thought it was hilarious and didn’t mind.

In a country which values uniformity, our students stick out. It’s hard to tell as an outsider, but they have older names and a different dialect. They tend to be shorter and tend to be older than most of their peers. Even though Bill had such a large personality, he tended to eat by himself. We were confused as to why, but our Korean speaker Shine told us that he doesn’t appear Korean at all. Consequently, even amongst North Koreans, he doesn’t really fit in either.

What I Learned

I didn’t really mention this in my reflections last year, but when I first came to Korea, I really became aware of how different Asian cultures are. In America, I feel that a lot of those differences are smoothed over to the point where we are all grouped together under the category of “Asian-American.” But each culture is so different. For example, Korean culture has an extremely strict age and status hierarchy that Kelsey touched upon before. It’s incredibly important to be polite and respectful. Everything is recycled properly. Chinese culture, on the other hand, is not nearly as polite. Shine told us that Koreans consider Chinese to be rude and crass.

A teaching tool that I really took away from this year is the value of focusing on an individual student. Teaching a classroom of 16 to 20 students with low English speaking ability and varying knowledge and attention spans is difficult already. From last year, I thought it would be best to find curriculum that appealed to the majority of students in terms of difficulty and interest and that would be enough. I would try not to spend more than ten minutes with a single student for the sake of the group. One skill that I’m still working on is having the patience to work with a single student for an extended period of time. I’ve seen shy students grow in confidence and ability with individual work and I want to be better at considering the value to the individual student when planning lessons. On a lighter note, also wordsearches are amazing. If you ever want a quiet, focused hour, do a wordsearch.

In any case, there were definitely new challenges and frustrations but I’m grateful to have been able to spend two weeks with these students and now my flight to London is boarding soon. Thanks for following our journey and I’m also so incredibly grateful for this amazing team.

Signing off,

Emily

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“Making” Pottery

On Saturday, we headed out super early to join the rest of Korea Global Teaching Labs on a pottery excursion to Icheon. I must admit that waking up was especially difficult since we were all so tired from the week. Still, by the end of the day, we were glad that we had gone.

We started by visiting several display halls and viewing works by master potters. The very first stop was at a large pottery kiln run by the son of a famous potter. The next stop was at a combination display hall and store since we were ahead of schedule. The third stop on our itinerary was at the workshop of a master potter who specialized in Celadon doubleware. Celadon pottery was created during the Joseon dynasty and is this gorgeous blue-aqua color. In fact, the color of Korean pottery was listed as one of the hundred most beautiful things in the world by a Chinese writer at the time–the only item on the list that was not Chinese.

While we were in his display hall, we watched a documentary about the pottery process featuring his son and himself. His son had made the documentary as a sixtieth birthday present for his father. In the video, he mentioned that he was a fool, because he pursued the perfection of his art for so many years without visible return. I think that a part of me would like to be a fool–I would like to find something that I cared about so much that I was willing to pursue it beyond what an average person would consider reasonable.

We then visited another pottery master who specialized in painting. He mentioned that Korean pottery was special because they only fire it at most twice. In fact, even the masters shatter 80% of their work because it isn’t up to standards. He mentioned that the fire made the judgement call on whether the pottery was good enough and not the potter. We were also fortunate enough to see a live demonstration of his work.

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Paintings by a master potter

After a wonderful lunch, we went to a pottery village. We “made” our own pots, which means that a potter held our hands in the right shape and we tried our best. We also made cute mugs since only two of us could make pots at a time. This consisted of color a sheet of paper and baking it onto a mug. Afterwards, we explored the pottery village and I got myself a beautiful Korean teacup and sake jug.

After we got back to Seoul, Shine’s friend from work this summer was kind enough to take us to dinner and to Namsan Tower, which I had never seen before. Apparently, Namsan Tower at night is THE place for young couples and families. The entire walkway was covered with love locks.

By the time we finished at Namsan Tower, it was pretty late and so we all went home and slept to prepare for the next day.

Wars, Spas, and Shopping

After a fun night at the local noraebang with another MIT team, Emily Damato and I decided that we wanted a more relaxing day. Here’s a couple of photos that we took then. I’ll spare you the videos of us singing.

We got back pretty late–around 1 am–and I woke up around 7 the next day to go to the War History Museum with Shine and Kelsey. We stopped by our favorite breakfast place, Paris Baguette, and then took the subway to the museum.

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Breakfast at Paris Baguette

The War Museum serves as both a museum and a memorial for soldiers who lost their lives during the Korean War. The outside of the museum was really majestic, consisting of rows of columns between black slabs with the names of soldiers, Korean and foreign. I was surprised that this museum was free, and, even though technically it’s winter break here, we ran into several groups of school kids on field trips.

The majority of the museum was dedicated to the Korean War. Many of the exhibits contained stories of individuals who lived through the war, either as military personnel or civilians. Listening to those stories really made me feel grateful that I live in a period of time and in a place where my life is not affected by war. It’s hard to imagine the terror that those individuals must have gone through.

On a lighter note, there were many photo opportunities both inside and outside the museum. Inside the museum was a construction of an old Korean turtle boat. It was a covered boat used during the Joseon dynasty against the Japanese. According to Shine, it was to prevent the Japanese from boarding the ship since the Korean army was so outnumbered.

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Shine in front of the Korean turtle boat

We also took photos at specific photo op places inside the museum. One of these photo op places was a reconstruction of Dokdo Island, a point of contention between Korea and Japan even today. Both countries claim the island as their own although it is currently under South Korean control. Shine told us that on all South Korean maps, Dokdo is specifically drawn in, even though it’s not to scale.

Outside the museum were replicas of different tanks, boats, and planes. We explored the inside of a naval ship and took some pictures in some tanks.

After the museum, we were quite hungry and so we went to a very traditional Korean diner for lunch. According to Shine, it’s customary in Korea to know what you want to eat before you even leave home. Restaurants tend to specialize in different types of dishes and tend to be clustered based on dish. We were on a street that specialized in stews and noodle dishes and so we had some really good stews for lunch. Shine ate a very traditional dish that contained a blood clot.

After lunch, we split up again. I went back to the apartment, Kelsey went to spend some time with her family before they flew back to the US, and Shine went to search for some more traditional Korean dishes (ask her about it). Emily had woken up by this point and we decided to go to a Korean spa, a jjimjilbang, for the afternoon.

Jjimjilbangs are gender-segregated spas that are common in Korea. We went to Dragon Hills Spa, which is a more tourist-y spa. It was seven stories tall and contained outdoor pools, restaurants, and an arcade area. These spas are actually a very popular place amongst young Korean couples. Since couples aren’t allowed to go to each other’s homes, the gender neutral sleeping areas consisted of hundreds of cuddling couples. Emily also tried a traditional charcoal egg and rice drink.

The gender segregated areas of jjimjilbangs are nude. Last year, for me, that was definitely something that I felt very uncomfortable with initially. I think though, that after my experience, it actually made me more comfortable with my body. In that environment, since no one else is awkward or embarrassed or uncomfortable, you become less so as well.

Emily and I also both did body scrubs and hair masks, in which you get the outer layer of your skin scrubbed off by a lady at the spa. Afterwards, we felt like new humans. To top off the experience, we did some face masks that we picked up on the way. I would totally recommend checking out a jjimjilbang on any future visit and we are definitely planning on coming again.

After the jjimjilbang, Emily and I headed to downtown Myeongdong to do some shopping. We learned that downtown Myeongdong is a super popular place in general on a Saturday. We ate some street food while browsing and I’m leaving some pictures for your enjoyment below.

The crowning moment was probably when we purchased some bing-su, Korean shaved ice, before heading home. I’m salivating right now just thinking about it. Our bing-su had caramelized mangos, sweet cheese and vanilla shaved ice topped off with a scoop of frozen yogurt. Boston should get on this ASAP.

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Mango and cheese bing-su

At around 10, we were pretty tired and so Emily and I headed back for an early evening. Sunday will probably be mostly prepping for teaching on Monday. I can’t wait!