Today some of the other SIS teachers and I went to the town of Yeoju, which is known for its pottery and ceramics. Yeoju is about an hour southeast of Seoul (well, actually from Songnam, which is officially the city where I live). I bought 12 pieces for about 60,000 won, or 70 bucks, so it was a good day for me! The main thing I was looking for was a little kimchi pot, which I got. I don't really know what I'm going to do with it, but I like it a lot! I've put some pictures of bigger kimchi pots and one of the men making the pottery on this post. These are the types of pots that used to be buried underground for months at a time as the cabbage and spices fermented. Today most people don't have anywhere to bury their kimchi, but they make little kimchi fridges that keep it at the perfect temperature for fermenting.
Ever since I got here, I've been hearing about how the SIS students have to walk a fine line between their Korean lives and their American lives. I've had a chance over the past few weeks to hear from my students about this topic and learned some interesting things. I already told the story about getting yelled at for speaking English on the subway. I told some of my freshmen about it and they all had their own stories about speaking English in public. It's really looked down upon for Korean kids to speak English, which is interesting because I believe it's mandatory for all Korean public school kids to take English in school now. One girl told me that she and a friend were speaking English on the subway and an older Korean woman came up and smacked her and told her she should only speak Korean! This same girl said that she hates having to have her textbooks visible on the subway because they're all in English and she gets people staring and making comments about her. Another girl told me that she and her mom usually speak English when they're together, including when they're in public, and that she hears other Koreans swearing at them, thinking they don't speak Korean. She said she loves to say something to them in Korean just as she's leaving to let them know she's understood everything they said. It's not just older people who get mad at the kids speaking English...many of them had stories about having Korean public school kids beating up friends of theirs for speaking English in public. I asked my students why there are so many hard feelings and they said that they thought with the kids especially, there is a lot of jealousy because the English of the international school kids is so much better.
I'm taking a course on ESL in the Mainstream and we're talking about our students' English speaking abilities as well. Quite a few of the teachers in the class have taught in other international schools around the world and pretty much all of them say that this is the only school they've ever worked at that doesn't offer classes for the kids in the native language. One of the teachers in the class is a social studies teacher in the high school who teaches Asian Studies. She said when she first came to SIS last year, she was so nervous to teach the course, thinking that all the kids would know so much more about Korean history than she did, but that's she's found that to not be true at all. It turns out that many students at SIS speak Korean to some degree, most pretty well, but do not know how to read and write fluently in Korean. I think about what an awkward position that puts them in, especially those that plan on living in Korea as an adult, because most of these kids aren't American either. A lot of them were born in the US, but moved back to Korea as babies or young children and don't really remember the US. Even those that moved to Korea later seem to be much more Korean than American to me. Yet they may not have the ability to read the newspaper or write an e-mail in Korean. It's an interesting paradox and seems to really limit what the kids will be able to do. In fact, some of the kids go to hagwons to learn to read and write Korean, which seems funny that they'd have to spend all this time outside of school to learn the language their parents speak and for the country they live in. Also, they don't really know their own history, which is especially interesting (and sad) to me considering that this generation's grandparents lived through the trauma of the Korean War and these kids may have great aunts and uncles, aunts and uncles, and cousins living in North Korea who they've never met due to the Korean War.
In the conversation I had with my freshmen about speaking English, we started talking about the US military presence. A couple of kids had stories about seeing the American soldiers here drunk and/or acting very inappropriately to Koreans in Itaewon, the neighborhood near the big military bases. One of the other new teachers here has a couple of friends who are in the military and they told her that Korea is seen as a very undesirable post, so a lot of people don't want to be here. My response was, if I were in the military and got stationed in Seoul instead of Iraq or Afghanistan, I'd be jumping up and down and kissing the ground! But one of this teacher's friend who just left the Army 3 months ago said that the best soldiers are getting sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, so it's the real doofuses who get sent to Korea...so the folks here are not exactly getting to see America's best! There is some resentment amongst the Koreans about having the American soldiers here for various reasons, and my students gave me some interesting insight into that issue.