School Festival

This is a long over-due post from something that took place back in December, but I figured better late than never.

Most elementary, middle and high schools in Korea hold ‘school festivals’ at the end of the year, to showcase all kinds of student performances. Towards the end of November, I started to hear reports and see pictures from my friends’ schools. Many of them seemed to involve some cross dressing on the part of some of the boys in the school, which seemed rather strange, but had me eagerly awaiting what was to come with my school’s festival.

Over the course of two days, each grade, kindergarten – sixth, was given about an hour to perform. I went with my co-teachers to the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade performances. It was very cute to see the kids running around in their costumes throughout the day – first grade girls in glittery tops and fairy wings, sixth grade boys trying to dress like K-Pop stars.

The biggest surprise of the day for me was that each grade put on an English pop song performance. Where did they learn this? I asked my co-teacher, who told me they learned the song in the after school program. Our school has an after school English program I don’t know about? At first I was a bit bummed that I, the native English speaker, was not in on the after-school program that was teaching the kids fun English pop songs, but apparently it’s privately run and just rents a classroom from the school. The best English song performance was “Dancing Queen” by a group of fifth grade girls in red bow ties. For some reason, ABBA is extremely popular here.

Other highlights were a taekwondo-dance hybrid very popular with the boys, and this choreographed routine that involved a big group of students holding up many colored cards to make a big picture that changed to the beat of the music. One of these card choreography routines showed a cute love story between a boy and girl, slowly unfolding through several images. The last one featured two monkeys, butt to butt. No one else seemed to think this was the least bit outrageous. I tried to get an explanation from my co-teacher, but she didn’t seem to think it was odd either.

At one point during the fifth grade show, the lights dimmed and a few students came out dressed all in black wielding neon green glowsticks. They then proceeded to twirl them around in a rave-type show to techno music.

But the most shocking part was the K-Pop performances. Each grade had at least one. The students seemed to just copy the dance routines from the music videos, and everyone seemed to think this was ok, even though it’s fourth grade girls wearing short shorts and go-go boots doing these overtly sexual dance moves… I guess that’s a cultural difference I’ll never understand.

Side note – my favorite thing in Winter camp was to play this song in class. All of the girls would immediately stop what they were doing to sing and do the dance that goes with the chorus. “You don’t know me! You don’t know me! So shut up, boy! Shut up, boy!” So adorable.

Also adorable was a group of fifth grade boys who did a dance to another popular K-Pop song. Dressed in their fanciest, hip-hoppiest clothes, they did an obviously very well-rehearsed hip-hop-styled dance with utmost intensity and seriousness. The other students went crazy for it. It reminded me of my middle school talent show in sixth grade, when a band made up for eighth grade boys covered that Eagle Eyed Cherries song “Save Tonight” and we all thought it was the. coolest. thing. ever.

While my school festival didn’t have any cross-dressing, it had more than enough cultural oddities for me to ponder. I did ask my co-teacher about the cross-dressing, but the only explanation she gave me was “it’s funny.” These kinds of things make me feel like I could live here for years and years and years and years, but some things I would never fully understand.

Lunar New Year and other Observations in Seoul

The first week in February was the Korean Lunar New year holiday (설날). Before coming to Korea, I had only known Lunar New Year as “Chinese New Year.” But seeing as they celebrate in Korea as well, they certainly wouldn’t be calling it “Chinese” New Year over here. As it’s Korea’s most widely-celebrated holiday, we had three days off of work, and I took off to the big city (Seoul) with a couple of friends.


For those unaware, this year is the year of the rabbit. Being born in 1987, that makes it my lucky year!


Lunar New Year in NYC is always a big to-do in Chinatown, with a parade with giant dragons and all of that. So that’s what I was hoping to find in Seoul, but as it turns out most Koreans celebrate the holiday privately with their families. I was pretty disappointed that there wouldn’t be any giant dragons parading in the streets, as this is Asia, but we did manage to find some smaller festivities at one of Seoul’s tinier palaces, Unhyeongung.


They were renting out hanbok, traditional Korean dress, by the hour for only ~$3.00. As soon as we saw the sign, we automatically, unanimously decided it was a good idea.


And as soon as we were dressed and outside, regretted the decision a bit. Walking around in this traditional Korean get-up as a foreigner made me feel like a pretty big idiot. But at least it made for some good pictures. We also got the thumbs up from a few older Koreans, but mostly just lots of stares and giggles.



Hanbok is a very unflattering look for me.


This is the way it’s supposed to look:

They also had some traditional games…

…some of which were more complicated than others.

Interesting side story: a month previous to this, at my school’s “teachers’ PE day,”, we played the above game in the gym. They had that game board made up out of hula-hoops on the floor, and there seemed to be some complicated, very un-straightforward way to move around it. Because I couldn’t figure it out, I was a ‘stick’ for the entire game. This involved being blindfolded and standing at the front of the gym, jumping around in circles to flip ‘up’ or ‘down.’ To be blindfolded and completely unable to understand anything you’re hearing is an interesting experience that I hope I will not have to repeat any time soon…

There were also some crazy cool paintings depicting the transition from Year of the Tiger to Year of the Rabbit.


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On this trip I discovered how gigantic Seoul is. I thought I had already seen the main shopping areas and the touristy districts, but there are so many. A friend of a friend (and native Seoul-ite) took us to Gangnam, a neighborhood on the other side of the river. Gangnam has shopping to rival Myong-dong as well as tons of international restaurants and nightlife. He took us to a Mexican restaurant, where I had perhaps the best burrito in my entire life (not that I’ve been to Mexico, or eaten Mexican in California or anything, but it was pretty good). But venturing south of the Han made me realize there’s a whole nother half of Seoul I have yet to explore.

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Bukchon Hanok Village is a neighborhood of traditional-style houses on a hill above Insa-dong.

The neighborhood is super cute, but I can only imagine how annoying it would be to live there with so many tourists constantly coming through and posing for pictures.

I’m not sure what this bench was doing in the ‘traditional’ neighborhood. But the head on the right kind of looks like JFK.

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Insa-dong is the main touristy neighborhood in Seoul, where the streets are lined with vendors touting all kinds of touristy memorabilia. It’s also known for many ‘traditional’ tea houses. The best* one is called ‘old tea house’ and is tucked away off the main strip, down an alley and up a set of creaky wooden stairs. The inside is cozy and cluttered with antique-looking furniture. But the main attraction is that there are birds flying around. When I heard about this, I was kind of hoping the place would be full of birds everywhere, chirping and flying around your head. As it turned out, we only saw 4-5 while we were there. But that’s probably for the best, because nothing could ruin a cup of good tea faster than a bird pooping in it.

My friend Akosua bought a calendar of some Korean drama star who she is in love with. K-pop memorabilia of all varieties – calendars, posters, pictures, socks – is sold all over Insa-dong as well.

The bathroom floor was made of pebbles. And there were goldfish swimming in the toilet.

(*I have only ever been to one tea house in Insa-dong, but I’m pretty sure there couldn’t be a better one.)

Also in Insa-dong, we saw a small exhibit about North Korean political prisoner camps.

The stories we read were shocking. Prisoners being starved and beaten and killed in the camps was the least of it. But beyond how absolutely terrible the conditions are, I was shocked to read about how easily people can be imprisoned. People had been imprisoned because of something their grandfather or distant relative had done because of ‘association.’ Many artists and musicians had been put into the camps. One story told of a high school cheerleading team that traveled to the south and was caught saying something about the North. I hadn’t realized how bad things were, the stories were truly awful.

And speaking of the north, these are all over the Seoul subways:

That’s something you don’t see in the NYC subways. The TVs on the trains also show rather graphic, dramatic videos of what to do in the event of a gas attack. From what I remember, it goes something like this: Gas fills the trains. People panic. There’s a small explosion. The smoke clears to reveal bodies strewn across the subway platform. Those that can run for the safety of the exits. Some are wounded, and have big, bleeding gashes across their arms or foreheads. …I found it rather surprising that they would play something so dramatic in such a public place, but none of the locals seemed to pay it any mind.


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Cheonggyecheon Park is a little creek that runs through downtown Seoul. The area had been covered by concrete and roads until about five years ago, when the city decided to renovate it. I imagine it’s a bit nicer in the summer, when there’s a bit more greenery and life around it. But it makes for a rather nice walk, even on a rather gray and dreary winter day.


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Downtown we found some super cheap ice skating. I hadn’t been in years and year, and was a bit wary of how well I’d be able to do. As it turned out, I could hold my own on the skates, although nearly-free skating in one of the world’s most populated cities turned out to be more people-dodging than anything.

This old guy was skating in full hanbok get-up. He seemed readily willing to pose for pictures on request. It made me feel more at home, to see that Seoul apparently has its crazies as well.


We stayed at a hostel in Hongdae, which is (as far as I know) the biggest nightlife district in the country. On the night of Lunar New Year, we found a group assembled in the common area eating 떡국 (rice cake soup, traditional on Lunar New Year) and drinking soju. It was the hostel owner, a group of his friends, a French guy on a Visa run from Japan, and a couple of Dutch university students who had just gotten off the plane and were on their way to Daejon. After a bit of soju and makkoli, we all went to the fanciest noraebang I’d ever seen, and after an hour or two of singing, ended the night at a small bar singing Oasis songs with a bunch of other westerners. Oh, how I love hostels.


The Coldest and the Snowiest

A very snowy east coast
A satellite image of Korea’s east coast covered in snow, from here. (I’m somewhere under the white in the southeast.)

When I first arrived in Korea, everyone kept telling me how it “never snowed in Ulsan” and how jealous they were that I was from Michigan where it got so much snow. ha! This winter has been one of the snowiest and coldest in Korea’s history, at least since they started keeping records.

On one of these coldest of days, I decided it would be a good idea to take some visiting friends to the ocean. We knew it was cold, but we didn’t know quite how cold it was. Afterwords I learned it was -17 Celsius, which I had to convert on my computer to see that means it was 1 degree Fahrenheit – pretty cold! So being on the windy oceanfront was definitely the best idea.

I actually kind of like beaches in winter, but this was a bit too cold.

Please note how bundled up we are. It didn’t do any good.

The first day back to school brought with it a crazy snowstorm, the third in a string of crazy snowstorms. From the article linked to above:

“The BBC reported that hundreds of stranded motorists awaited rescue, and hundreds of homes had collapsed under the weight of heavy snow.”

Luckily down in Ulsan the snow wasn’t that bad, but just meant I got out of school a couple hours early. I was struck by the strongest urge to make a snowman, especially since my friend Shannon from Georgia had never been around enough snow to make a ‘real’ snowman before.



Snowmen in Korea are usually only made with two snowballs, one for a body and one for a head. So we were certain to make an American-style snowman, which I realized I hadn’t done for probably 10 or 15 years or something like that. Ultimately I think our proportions were a bit off, and it was rather unfortunate that we couldn’t find anything for the eyes or nose, but it just felt so satisfying to make a snowman I didn’t really care.

By nightfall, it still hadn’t stopped snowing. Ultimately, it snowed for something like 12-14 hours. I’d guess somewhere between 7 and 10 inches accumulated.
For a city that never gets snow, that’s quite a bit…

The next morning I awake to find it had finally stopped snowing, but now the roads were of course sheer ice. Which made my walk to school rather treacherous.
(This is my giant hill.)

Pretty, but icy.

I’m sure it was colder and snowier in Michigan this winter, but this certainly wasn’t the warmer, milder climate I thought I’d be getting when I came to Ulsan! Although I may have brought it on myself. All December, I was lamenting how I wanted to see some snow. Be careful what you wish for…

January = Winter English Camps

The school year ends in December in Korea, which gives students January and most of February off for winter vacation. In theory. What really happens is that students are sent to all-day and overnight academic camps, so they can study hard and get ahead for the next school year. What this means for us foreign English teachers is that while the rest of the teachers in our school have vacation time, we’re teaching English camps!

Most public school teachers are assigned to a winter camp. Those that aren’t are contractually obligated to be at their desk anyways. I was given three camps to fill the work days I didn’t take off as vacation. My first camp was an all fifth grade, three-week overnight camp in Gyeong-ju, one city north of Ulsan. The camp was 21 foreign teachers, just as many Korean teachers, and hundreds of students, all living and working together in a university dorm for three weeks.

Early Monday morning, I headed to my elementary school to board a bus full of fifth graders to take me to English camp.

(A few of these pictures I borrowed from Kerry, another foreign teacher who did a much better job at documenting things than I did.)

The best part of this place was the view:

Unfortunately this view was only possible after going up the crazy steep hills we needed to climb to get between the dormitory and classrooms.

My assigned subjects: grammar and ‘pop song’. I was none too please to learn that I would be teaching grammar to 7 classes a day, five days a week for three weeks. Boooooooring. But as it turned out, grammar can actually be quite fun! For me, at least.

The challenge of camp was teaching without a computer. This turned out to be a really good thing though, as I had come to rely pretty much exclusively on computers in my normal school teaching. It was also an excuse to draw lots of silly pictures.



It also required a bit more thought to come up with games, other than the typical powerpoint games I was used to using. Most of the games were just answering questions competitively, with rock-paper-scissors or a giant red plastic hammer thrown in there somewhere. But the kids didn’t seem to mind.

My co-teacher for the camp was Eui Hwan.

I have to say I quite appreciated having a male co-teacher. All he had to do was open his mouth or stand a little too close to keep them in line. The kids were much better behaved than what I was used to, but still, he seemed to get a lot more respect just by being a male. Which was frustrating, sure, but it made my job much easier.

Together we had a 16-student “home room”. These are most of my girls:

5th grade Winter English Camp

They drew my portrait:
5th grade Winter English Camp

They also drew my portrait as a snowman:
5th grade Winter English Camp

By far the best part of English camp was the students. At first it was a bit overwhelming to be around so many students for so much time every day without any breaks. But they were all so sweet!

5th grade Winter English Camp

My favorite singer is ...Beyonce, but my family is:
“My favorite singer is…Beyonce, but my family is:”

The students had one hour of non-studying time a day, during which time they had gym or game time. Gym time was typically thrown together a bit haphazardly at the last second. Usually it just involved jump rope competitions. Korean kids are absolutely amazing at jump rope.

Teaching the ‘pop song’ class proved to be quite a bit of a challenge. After dinner, there was a two hour ‘culture class’ that combined two classes of students and put two foreign teachers together to handle them on their own (it was the Korean teachers’ time off). Some of the teachers really lucked out and were given ‘movie’ as their subject. ‘Pop song’ doesn’t seem so bad at first, but when you take into account that soon-to-be sixth graders have absolutely no interest in singing, and are totally exhausted after a long day of studying, it proved to be quite a bit of trouble.

We decided to teach “Yellow Submarine,” switching it up with “Lemon Tree” occasionally (which is very popular in Korea for some reason).

5th grade Winter English Camp
Some days we had a submarine drawing competition.

Towards the end of the week, we tried playing a game that went over extremely well. It went like this: one student is sent out of the room, while another student is secretly selected to be ‘it.’ The class has to sing the song, and the closer the student gets to the selected student, the louder they have to sing. Having 32 Korean fifth-graders screaming “WE. ALL. LIVE. IN A. YELLOW. SUBMARINE!” at the end of each class made my night, every time.

These poor students though. Many of them missed their families, and were apparently crying at night. They were also studying from 9am – 9pm every day, with only a few breaks for meals and a snack. I had to read their English journals, and the first week they were all writing “I don’t want to study. Mom, dad, help me!!” I suppose it’s beneficial for them to get so much practice with English, and to be spending so much time around native speakers, but at what cost??

The end of my overnight English camp brought on my elementary school’s week long, just-during-the-day camp. It was something I had been dreading ever since learning about the existence of these winter camps, as the students at my school are so poorly behaved and I would have to be teaching them solo, without the support of a co-teacher. This seemed rather impossible, as my students don’t really speak English.

But as it turned out, it wasn’t nearly so bad as I thought. Being able to teach more or less without a text book allowed me some creativity to give them different class activities, which I enjoyed immensely. And I think they did too. The students were also rather miraculously much better behaved than normal. For the most part. The lower level class of mostly young students and one sixth grader proved problematic, but with my advanced class I found we could actually do a variety of activities, that involved partner work! And writing! Such things I could’ve never attempted in my normal classes.

I was very excited to give them a more “creative” assignment of designing their own animals to practice writing about ability using can and can’t.

Samil Winter English Camp - Design an Animal

My favorite was “Spicy”
Spicy Farts
whose farts are so ‘spicy’ they either kill fish or smell like dead fish. I like to think it’s that they kill fish.

The lower level class was at first absolutely hopeless. I had one cursing sixth grader, a bunch of boys constantly fighting with each other, a totally spoiled brat, and most of them knew minimal English and couldn’t read. The second I walked into the classroom, they demanded “Game! Teacher, game!” My first subject to teach them was ‘reading,’ which was where I found out most of them couldn’t read. The book I was given to teach from didn’t really take that into account. It was a tough 40 minutes to recover from, but luckily the rest of the week I mainly taught them vocabulary, and we mainly played games to practice new words.

Samil Winter English Camp

Samil Winter English Camp

Ultimately I decided that so long as they were speaking English and occasionally writing, why not play a lot of games? It was vacation, after all.

I decided to turn our ‘play time’ game hour into a team building exercise in a desperate attempt to get the boys to stop fighting so much and work together. Although it was also kind of an excuse to revive one of my elementary school favorites:

Samil Winter English Camp - Game Day
Toilet paper mummies! This activity had little-to-nothing to do with English, but I did teach them the word for mummy. And they seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.

And in the end, everyone worked together to make their mummy, including my most troublesome:
Samil Winter English Camp - Game Day
They look so cute and innocent, but don’t let it full you! 🙂

The camp concluded with a two-hour cooking class, in which we managed to concoct the worst monstrosity imaginable. My co-teacher decided we would make garlic bread. Which sounded great, at first. The ingredients were minced garlic, butter, sugar and mayonnaise. Heaps of chopped garlic went onto this bread, as well as way more mayonnaise than I would’ve ever thought was a good idea. Then, this all went into a normal toaster. It wasn’t long before toasters all over the classroom started smoking and it smelled like we were going to burn the place down. Luckily, one kid had a toaster oven, and so that crisis was averted.

Samil Winter English Camp - Garlic Bread Making

However, the heaps-of-raw-garlic-on-the-bread problem had not been alleviated. “Spicy, teacher, spicy!” the kids were all complaining. And with mountains of raw garlic, it tasted pretty gross. I tried to show them how to scrape off the garlic. But they instead opted for putting mounds and mounds of sugar on top.

Samil Winter English Camp - Garlic Bread Making

Samil Winter English Camp - Garlic Bread Making

So the students ate white bread piled high with garlic, butter, mayonnaise and tons and tons of sugar. I almost felt bad letting them eat it. But they were working together so well, almost entirely on their own, to get each slice in and out of the toaster oven, covered in sugar, and distributed to every student…how could I stop them? I’m sure there’s worse things for you to eat, anyway.

The Monster Book

And finally, I had a two day, 4-hour/day storytelling class for 3rd and 4th graders. This was awesome because I was given absolutely no guidelines other than ‘storytelling’ and no movie for more than 2 class periods a day. I was quite pleased with the ideas I came up with and so I’m going to share them with you.

The theme was monsters. Day 1 was visual monsters, in which we read Where the Wild Things Are and learned about words that describe monsters and how they are different from humans and animals. And not to brag, but my reading of WTWTA got applause. Then everyone designed their own monster, and had to write about where it lives, what it eats, and what kind of personality it had.

I realize this is the same as my design-your-own-animal activity, but I was working with all new students, and I was quite a fan of how the animal one had gone over so I figured I could do it again.

This was my favorite:
Crazy Toilet monster eats American parents
“Toilet” monster eats parents in America 🙂

Day 2 was auditory monsters, and we did a lesson on onomatopoeia. We read Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? and talked about different onomatopoeias in English and Korean. Korea totally beats the English language for onomatopoeias, by the way. The word for the noise your stomach makes when you’re hungry is my favorite (kind of goh-ruu-ruu with a rolled r-ish sound).



After that, I had everyone choose a sound and a complementary action for their monster, and we all stood in a circle and had to practice everyone else’s monster sounds. Then I helped them translate their sounds into English/the roman alphabet, and we put together The Monster Book. Ultimately, the lesson would’ve been much more productive if the students knew how to read, and could’ve practice translating sounds on their own. But I think it was still rather successful anyways.

Having to teach for so much, mostly on my own, and develop more of my own content was definitely a learning experience. A lot of it was kind of off-the-cuff, figuring out what was working and what was failing on the go. At least I really hope what I did worked. Being so inexperienced, it’s difficult to say, and I did have a moment towards the end of my first camp worrying that maybe I hadn’t actually taught them anything (but my co-teacher seemed to think otherwise). Having had no camp counselor experience, trying to get a group of kids just to work together and not hate being there was challenge enough.

If any teachers happened to have read this and want to leave me any feedback on anything, it would be more than appreciated! 🙂

Engrish, vol. 2

First, from “Coffine Gurunaru”
Weird coffee shop

this bit of wisdom:
“Coffine Gurunaru wants to be a tree and a ferry in a river just like a place to rest…A good quality of coffee…will definitely make your body and mind upgrade and even your pride in your life.”

This one comes from Seoul. Sorry for being immature…