Start of Goodbyes

Today, my seventh-to-last day of teaching regular classes at Dongduk, I received a little going-away present from three of my students. All three are first year students (the equivalent of grade 7 in North America), and two of the three had been in a few of my after-school programs this year. None of them are strong students---at all---but they has never stopped them from coming to talk with me after class, which I've always loved. They presented me with a small envelope. Inside was a letter and some earrings. I was immediately impressed with the length of the letter; it was much longer than any composition they had written for me before. In the letter, they introduced themselves as "3 girls who received candies in 1-1 class." Apparently my prizes have made more of an impression on the students than I thought! They went on to tell me that they are sad to see me leave, and asked, "Will you be happy without us??" Knowing that I will miss them, they answered for me: "Maybe you won't HaHa~"

The pink, candy-shaped earrings, the girls wrote, were "composed of [their] minds," which, although I don't quite know what they meant by that, I appreciate the sentiment. Not my usual style, but I gladly put them on and am currently wearing them with pride.

The letter ends with a request to think of them often---something I'll have no problem fulfilling. How could I forget?

This has gotten me thinking about some of my old teachers. Some of them I remember for being great teachers, or for helping me learn about myself. I never would have gotten through math if I didn't have Ms Chalmers in high school for three years. Or, though I wasn't his biggest fan at the time, Mr Sardine pushed me hard in English, and I have to thank him for that. Keck, my drama teacher, supported me through my growing years in high school.

But there are also those I remember for telling us that they hated teaching. I never knew why a teacher would announce to their students that they hated being there with us day in and day out; it's not like we didn't know they were huge grumps, but to tell us straight up they didn't want to be there? That's harsh. Then why are you here? I would telepathically ask them from my seat.

Now, after being a teacher myself, I question their actions even more. WHY WERE YOU A TEACHER?? I want to scream at them. I have loved my job here since Day 1; I'm energized as soon as I get in the classroom, even if I was falling asleep on the bus on the way to school. I feel priviledged to be a teacher, to do my best to help these students grow as people as well as English speakers.

My students don't need to ask me to remember them. I always will.

The Star Said...

This is a story written by one of my Grade 1 (Grade 7 in North America) students for our annual English Speech Contest. I have copied it exactly as it was written, all errors included---but, impressively, there are very few. I not only liked the story and its theme of environmentalism, but she also performed it very well.

Have you ever heard a star talking? Well, I did and I want to talk about it. Are you ready? I’ll begin.

When I was six or seven, my family went to a beach for vacation. The beach was beautiful; soft sand, white waves, lovely trees nearby. We played there like anyone else. We swam and made sandcastles during the day. We ate delicious food and slept peacefully at night. It seemed a lovely and ordinary holiday.

However, it was different. My parents woke me up at midnight and piggybacked me to the shore. I didn’t realize anything except they were carrying me to some place until mom said,

“Sumin*, look up!”

Stars embroidered the sky’s black cloth. The lights dancing against the black, coal-like sky. I just stared at them in silence. The only think I could hear was the cool sound of the waves lapping.

We walked by the shore, using the star lights as our lanterns and the waves and background music. That stroll by the clean and silent beach is one of the happiest memories of my life.

After some years, my family and I visited the same beach again. I remembered the bright stars and beautiful beach. But, it had changed. The shore was dirty and even made dangerous by debris of glass bottles, Styrofoam plates and paper cups. People had thrown junk onto the beautiful pristine sand and ruined it! I cursed an hoped those people never come to that beach again.

At that moment, I heard someone say,

“Who did you blame? Look at the sky and see how beautiful it is, just as in the past, But look at that shore, all ruined and dirty. While this shore was getting dirtier, what were you doing? Look. The skies, where human hands can’t reach, are the same as ever but the place where human hands have reached has been ruined.

Who was it that said this? There was no one at the shore except me. There was only a star staring at me. Yes, it was a star that just spoken to me.

“Who did I blame? Is it wrong to blame those people? “I wanted to answer the star’s question, but I couldn’t answer. I had done nothing for the beach. Does this mean that someone who has done nothing is the same as those people who made the Earth dirty?

That was it. I am the same as them. Sometimes I littered anywhere even though there were trashcans nearby. I was a part of the mess, even a small amount on this Earth made me complicit.

Now I realized the true meaning of the star’s words and felt remorse.

I made a promise in my heart, to clean up after the places where I stayed. Even now, when I go back home from institutes late at night, I stare at the star of Seoul in silence and believe it was the star who spoke to me. I try to keep the promise I made long ago with the star.

I hope you try to listen to the stars an promise them,

“I will help too.”

-------------- * Name has been changed

Taekwondo, Korea's National Sport

Walking home from work in the evening, it's not uncommon for me to hear little boys and girls practicing taekwondo in the small studio around the corner from my apartment. If the timing is right, I see groups of kids walking home in their white uniforms, practicing a few moves on each other as they head home.

Taekwondo, Korea's national sport, is popular not just here in Korea, but all over the world. It most likely developed from other forms of Korean martial arts, like taekkyeon, which is commonly described as a more “dance-like” version of the sport. Korean martial arts have passed through several waves of popularity and near-extinction throughout the years. As recent as the early 20th-century, during the Japanese colonial period, the sports were prohibited. But, having been passed down secretly, they survived. After liberation, the government decided to eliminate Japanese influence from its martial arts by merging several forms into one. And so taekwondo was born.

The word "taekwondo" combines the characteristics of the sport: tae ("foot" or "kick"), kwon ("hand" or "punch") and do ("way" or "discipline"). The World Taekwondo Federation defines the sport as "the right way of using all parts of the body to stop fights and help to build a better and more peaceful world." Like most martial arts, taekwondo is more than just combat; it combines self-defense and philosophy and teaches its students self-discipline, courtesy, and perseverance.


N Seoul Tower

N Seoul Tower (known as Namsan Tower before its renovation a few years ago) is probably the most well-known landmark in Seoul. How could it not be when it's seen from just about anywhere in the city? It sits on top of Namsan, a small mountain in the middle of the city, just north of the Han River. I visited the tower once, for my 100th day in Korea celebration. The observatory has a view of the whole city. It's an amazing sight, especially at night.

Korea's "Immortal" National Flower

The Mugunghwa (Rose of Sharon, or hibiscus syriacus) has been an important flower in Korea for thousands of years. The Silla Kingdom (which ruled for almost 1000 years, until 935 AD), called itself the "Mugunghwa Country."

Today, the flower is mentioned in Korea's national anthem ("Mugunghwa samcheolli hwaryeo gangsan" or "Rose of Sharon, thousand miles of beautiful mountain and river land") and is found in other national emblems, like the Coat of Arms.

The government adopted the Rose of Sharon as an official symbol of Korea after the country was liberated from Japan. The Rose of Sharon has many characteristics that make it the perfect national flower for Korea. The flower blooms for a long time (from early July through late October) and there are thousands of blooms on each plant. It's a tough plant that can bloom in difficult situations; cut and placed in a vase, the flower lasts longer than many others. Korean word mugung means "immortal".

The strength and beauty of the flower represents the Korean people and the many trials they have overcome.

Come to Han River

The Han River is one of my favourite places in Seoul, but I think my students describe it best:

If you are visiting Korea for the first time, I recommend you go to Han river, the most beautiful river in Korea. Han river is located in Seoul, the capital of Korea. Han river has been playing very important role through history. In the past, Han river was used for main transportation. Today, Han river is visited by many people. Citizens enjoy their free time there, such as fishing, water skiing, taking boats, and more!

In addition, Han river was the setting of a Korean move "Monster" (2006). It was a great hit. Anyway, I hope you will have a wonderful time and unforgetable memories at Han river. Just enjoy Korea!

Korean Food: It's Delicious

Beside being healthy, Korean food is darn tasty. There are a few standout dishes that I particularly love: bibimbap and gogi gui. Bibimbap (mixed rice) is just what the name suggests: a bowl of white rice served with a variety of ingredients, such as lettuce, carrots, soybean sprouts, daikon (radish), mushrooms, and pepper paste, then topped with a fried egg.

Each type of ingredient is served in a group (as in my students' drawing), making for a colourful presentation. Everything has to be stirred and mixed very well before eating it---something Koreans like to tease foreigners about when they first try it.

It sounds weird (at least it did to me when I first heard of it), but it's really good---a recipe I will be taking home with me!

Gogi gui (grilled meat, known as "Korean barbeque") is definitely my favourite Korean food. What separates Korean barbeque from other barbeques is the grill. In Korea, it's not found in the backyard---it's on your table.

Enter the restaurant and take a seat; you'll notice the grill is built into the centre of the table. Ask the server for your choice of meat, maybe bulgogi (beef), galbi (pork or beef ribs), or samgyeopsal (pork). Cut the meat into bite-sized portions with scissors before placing it on the sizzling grill. As you chat, carefully turn the pieces over until they're ready. When they're crisp (and the smell of barbequed meat is too much to handle), dig in. Grab a leaf of lettuce, use your chopsticks to take a piece of meat off the grill and place it in the middle, and then grab other pieces from the buncheon (sidedishes) and add them on top of the meat. Fold the lettuce over and stuff it into your mouth. Cheers with a shot of soju and a shout of "Kanbae!"

Eating at Korean barbeque restaurant is not a meal; it's an experience.

Korean Food is "Good for Health"

Koreans are obsessed with "health." Diet, exercise---it's a daily part of Korean culture. Outdoor gyms (which deserve their own article later) can be seen at apartment complexes, city parks, and at the tops of Seoul's many mountains. My students constantly chat about body shapes (which, again, need their own explanation). Perhaps their greatest concern, though, is healthy food.

Me: [eating crackers at my desk at work] Mr. Lee: [looks at me without saying a word] Me: Uh, hi, Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee: I heard on the news that these [crackers] are not good for health. Me: Oh really? What makes them unhealthy? Mr. Lee: I don't know. I only heard they are not good for health.

By hearing crackers (mine were unsalted soda crackers, by the way) are not "good for health," I'm pretty sure that Mr. Lee---and anyone else who watched that news program---will never eat crackers again.

They have nothing to worry about, though, because any Korean will proudly tell you that they have the healthiest food in the world.

When I first arrived in Korea, my co-workers kept telling me that kimchi, a fermented cabbage (or other vegetable) dish, was one of the top 5 healthiest foods in the world. I kept laughing it off, thinking, Okay, it's healthy. But it's not like there's an official list or anything. But ask a Korean, and they will tell you there is.

Health magazine published an article listing the "World's Healthiest Foods" a few years ago and kimchi made the cut, along with lentils from India, yogurt from Greece, Japanese soy, and Spain's olive oil. The magazine attributes its "healthiness" to its large doses of Vitamins A, B, and C, as well as it's "healthy bacteria," lactobacilli.

Most Koreans eat kimchi with every meal and attribute their personal health to this dish. In fact, I was told that Korea did not experience a SARS outbreak because of kimchi. "Kimchi kept Koreans strong," I was told.