On the Road to Nowon

26 May

It’s late May and its hard to believe that I have been in South Korea for 5 months already.  In some ways this seems like a long time, in other ways it seems like the blink of an eye.  After 5 months I have settled into some ease with my life and ways here in Paju City and English Village.  I no longer sit on the subway in Seoul frantic that I will miss my stop, attracting attention and usually assistance from concerned Koreans also on the subway.  I can now relax and join the regular rhythm of other passengers using my smart phone until my destination arrives.  When in class students often ask how long I have been here.  I ask them to guess which usually starts at 5 years, 3 years, 2 years.  When I share I have been here for only 5 months their eyes gape open and the mouths drop.  There are some teachers from US and other English-speaking countries who have been in South Korea for years and some have invested the time and energy required to learn the language.

This past week was a great respite from my recent steady pace of teaching many and sometimes challenging middle school students.  I spent my week teaching in an area called Special Programs.  The beginning of the week I taught a small group of middle school students visiting from a rural area of S. Korea here at English Village for only two days.  There were only 30 students and I was told that was their entire school.  Wow!  The students were friendly, kind, and generally well-behaved, with English levels above our typical student here.  There were just a few English Village teachers working with them and it was a nice break to work with a small group of teachers and interact with this easy and engaging group of students.

Later in the week I taught a program of high school students visiting from a prestigious language school here in S. Korea.  When I first met some of them it was an immediate treat to meet mature students with a near fluent capacity with the English language. We were able to connect a bit and talk in a way that is often unavailable with students.  I also found some ease slipped into my teaching and the emphasis, while still on learning English, was more relaxed and conversational.  My concern was less on being understood and more on teaching the lesson at hand.

I learned some of these students had studied and lived in the US or Canada for a year or longer.  I asked them how they liked it and their faces lit up and they said “we loved it!”  I asked them what they liked about it and their response was “it was relaxing!”  Here in South Korea there is such an emphasis on education, students hardly have time for anything else.  Many students are literally in school all day, often attending English schools call Hagwans into the evening as late as 10pm.  It’s not unusual for students to fall asleep in class because… they’re tired.  This pace is currently deeply meshed into Korean culture and I can understand how studying in the States or elsewhere would be a welcome break!

The weather in Paju is a well-formed Spring beginning to slip into Summer.  I had a wonderful day yesterday enjoying the warmth on my body and spending a little time in Seoul.  I began with my morning chiropractor appointment and then grabbed a quick bite to eat at Tomatillos, a taco and burrito type joint in Itaewon.  Itaewon is an area of Seoul that tends to cater more to English-speaking foreigners and is the part of town where one of the US military bases is located.  It was such a treat to enjoy the simple pleasures of a day out and a bite to eat.

Later that day I went to an area of Seoul called the Nowon District. I went their to meet someone for a purchase — some new to me speakers for my iPod/smart phone, courtesy of Craigslist.  The benefit of this outing, in addition to the speakers, was the simple joy of traveling to a new area of the city.  Nowon is on the outskirts of Seoul and is the highest population density in Seoul, with 619,509 people living there.  It is surrounded by the mountains Suraksan and Bukhansan which you can see in the distance beyond the walls of people and commerce. It was fun to continue my experience of saturating myself in a country so new and different from my life in the States.

On the subway yesterday I was sitting down and there was a seat open next to me.  A grandmother motioned for her youngish grandson, about 7, to take the seat next to me.  I saw him look at me then look at her and shake his head.  I had flashbacks of my own shyness when I was a child and hesitancy towards things and people who seemed different.  Also many Korean children have little to no experience with people who look and speak different from them.  I tried to bridge the gap and patted the seat next to me inviting him to take a seat.  He did and easily settled in to playing his video games.  When they got up to leave the grandmother smiled and grabbed my hands and said something to me, I don’t know what.  Then she motioned to the grandson to say good-bye to me and we waved and smiled and they departed the train.

Today is a day of chanting with my SGI Buddhist group in Seoul.  The group is chanting for five-hours today!  Quite a long time but also a very powerful practice.  As members we can come and stay for as long as we like.  I imagine I will stay for nearly the whole time.  Then afterwards run a few more errands in Seoul.

This week we have a refreshing break with no programs on Monday or Tuesday.  What a treat and also a time to catch up on some of the English lessons I am developing for future programs.

Happy Sunday from South Korea!  My best to all of you and feel free to write.  It’s always good to hear from you!

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