Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Week of the Thousand Hotels...

Good news - I am officially a teacher! Training went all of last week and was a pretty intense process. We went from 4:30 - 10 pm every night, which sounds really late but is actually the times we will have our real classes. There are two different programs offered at my school in the area in which I was trained: a Memory English program and a Listening and Speaking program. The Memory English basically involves learning to read and how to use certain phrases and vocabulary. Training involved a LOT of mock teaching, as well as gaining thorough knowledge of the school's methodology. The curriculum is very strictly followed, but there is still plenty of room for creative freedom in teaching. Mocking was pretty nerve-wracking at first, but you get used to it quickly.

After passing training on Friday, I was finally told my branch location. I will be teaching in Mokdong, which is on the western side of Seoul, south of the river. It's a pretty good location, in my opinion. The subway line I'm on (purple/5) goes directly into the downtown area. One of the really weird things about Seoul is that the subway closes at midnight, which is rather early for a city which pretty much runs on public transportation. Basically the train just stops running and you have to get off at whatever stop you're on, whether or not it's where you wanted to end up.

On Saturday, Jenn and I moved to our third hotel of the week, where we will be staying until we find apartments to move in. Unfortunately, Jenn and I are headed for opposite sides of the city after this. Our training group has been through quite a complex string of hotels since our arrival. Within a few days of arriving at our first hotel, we began to notice some strange things about it. For example, we were never allowed to stand in the lobby or parking lot while waiting for our rides to training. One of my fellow trainees got a very non-G-rated "welcome pack" upon arrival. In the interest of the mental state of my friends and family, I refrained from mentioning the accommodations until now, but yes, we eventually discovered that we were staying in what is often referred to as a "love hotel." If you don't understand what that means, let's just say most people don't stay there for more than a few hours at a time.

When we brought the state of our hotel to the attention of our employers (they had never used the hotel before), they said they would look into finding us another. However, no move happened until a seeming disaster struck on day 4 of training - my fellow trainee Mike came to work with a fever and some stomach issues and was whisked off to the hospital for a swine flu test. An hour later, the remaining members of the group were informed that we were under a REAL quarantine, until the following Tuesday or Wednesday. Of course, this had certain implications. For one, we would miss the first few days of work. For another, those trainees who were heading to other areas of the country would not be allowed to leave the city until the swine flu test results came back. And finally, we were told we would have to switch hotels (this was one result that we were more than okay with). Luckily, we were able to get in touch with Mike the next day and found out that his fever had gone down before he reached the hospital, and so he hadn't needed to be tested for H1N1. This also meant that our 24 hours under quarantine were officially over, and we would be able to report to work as planned.

On Saturday, Jenn and I made our third (and final?) hotel move, and the rest of my fellow trainees were dispatched around the country. For now, I have nothing to do but prepare my classes. Oh, and open a bank account. And get an Alien Registration Card. And find an apartment...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Although our trip to the medical center prompted a lot of jokes about being under quarantine, we soon discovered that our employer actually does want us, for lack of a better word, to self-quarantine. From Thursday through Sunday we had to submit our temperature and any flu symptoms via e-mail twice a day. In order to do this, I first had to learn how to use a mercury thermometer (hint: the end with the mercury in it is the one that goes in your mouth). Furthermore, during training orientation on Saturday we found that our hotel group was the only group of trainees we should be interacting with (even though there are about 80 people total completing training this week). This is apparently done because last February one trainee managed to infect about twenty other trainees with swine flu and forced the school to shut down its entire operation for a week while they recalled the trainees from all ends of Korea and put them in quarantine. So it totally makes sense that they changed their training policy to help keep andy potential diseases contained. However, none of us were too keen on the recommendation to wear our surgical masks in public.

Before training officially began on Monday night, we took advantage of our free time under "quarantine" to get out into the city. We bravely navigated the subway, which turned out to be a rather easy task since every sign is double-posted in both Korean and English. On Sunday I took the subway to City Hall with Jenn and Stacy, where we stumbled upon the memorial service for Kim Dae-Jung. If you aren't familiar, Mr. Kim is considered the first truly democratic South Korean president, in office in the early 2000's, and he passed away on August 18th, the day before I arrived. The entire square was completely mobbed with people sitting and standing and cops lining the street. Almost all the people watching the service had yellow signs or balloons bearing pictures of Kim and slogans like "Goodbye Mr. Sunshine" or "Because of you we know what democracy really is." The craziest thing about the memorial service was that they didn't shut down the square to traffic, so all the buses were running as normal through the middle of the crowd.

The service was being held right across from Deoksugung, which was our intended destination. There are a few different palaces in the city of Seoul, and Deoksugung is one of them. It is basically a walled-in area enclosing a few buildings as well as an art museum. There are lots of trees and LOTS of cicadas when it is hot out (and it was - around 86 degrees with the kind of humidity you can only feel during monsoon season), so you kind of feel like you've walked into another part of the world, minus the fact that you can see skyscrapers surrounding the palace walls. The best part about Deoksugung is the admission fee - 1,000 won (about 80-90 cents). The cost efficiency is great because you don't feel all the pressure to learn that is normally associated with a visit to a historical landmark since you can come back as often as you want. Plus, if the day is disgusting you can take a quick loop around and go find somewhere to buy some cold drinks (that's what we did).

After fighting our way back out of the memorial service, we headed at random down some streets trying to figure out where to go next. We encountered pretty much every cop in Korea waiting in packs along the streets to be called into duty. Korean cops, by the way, are not particularly intimidating in size, although the mob gear they were carrying helped a little. We ended up on another busy road a few blocks away from City Hall that was also lined with police. Then, while attempting to decide where to go next, I noticed the six-lane road had become empty. The next thing I knew, we were watching the funeral procession of Kim Dae-Jung. It was a completely awesome feeling to stand on the sidewalk and watch the car containing the body of a former president drive by, even if it's the president of another country. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a head of state's funeral, I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Surgical Masks and Umbrellas on Eye Charts

On Thursday morning, my roommate Jenn and I were scheduled to have our medical exams. This exam is required by South Korea for anyone staying in the country for an extended length of time. We were picked up by a shuttle provided by our company and were met with the pleasant discovery that we were not alone: there are 5 other teachers in our hotel with us. We all piled into a mini van and headed over to Seoul Medical Center. Upon entering, the volunteer interpretor somehow managed to instantly figure out that we were the group of Americans she was expecting. She told us to take a seat, and then returned with a box of surgical masks, forcing each of us to put one on for the duration of our exam, demonstrating the comforting level of confidence the Korean government has in Americans to not be carrying H1N1.

The first step of the exam was to file some paperwork and have our temperature taken. This was accomplished quickly and painlessly by some sort of laser device that points at your forehead and can read your temperature without even touching you. This was the second time I was subjected to a reusable, no-cleaning-required thermometer that can take temperatures from an inch away (the first time was at the airport, with your temperature taken, for some inexplicable reason, behind your ear). It is beyond me why this technology has not appeared in the US yet.

Next we were all herded upstairs, where we began a sort of follow-the-leader game through the hospital. In the first room, we had our height, weight, and blood pressure taken, then our hearing was checked. Next, we had to pass a color blindness test (more difficult for some than for others) and identify numbers and objects on an eye chart. These tests were made even more stressful due to performance anxiety, since at least three other teachers were in the room at all times to laugh at you if you made a mistake. I provided some entertainment by mistakenly identifying a tiny picture of a car on the eye chart as cherries.

After the first room, I was told to follow the green tape on the floor of the hallway to the x-ray room. The hallways of Seoul Medical Center are conveniently lined with color-coded strips of tape to help you reach whatever test you need. It's actually an incredibly smart system which efficiently transcends the language barrier, although at least half the employees of the hospital could speak English. So I followed the green tape to get a chest x-ray, then followed the red tape to get blood tests. They drew three vials of blood to test us for Hepatitis, Anemia, and AIDS. Most unfortunately, I underwent bloodwork at home to test myself for anemia just before I left the country, and I was extremely displeased to learn I would need to do it again. The blood drawing occurred in a room with one long desk that could take two people at once, with the waiting area directly behind you so that anyone walking by could witness your blood being drawn. Maybe a strange system, but it also went extremely quickly. After the blood test, I had to provide a urine sample, which I had to carry in an open cup through the hallway. Super gross. All in all, the hospital was incredibly efficient, finishing all 7 of our tests in about an hour.

The best thing about the medical exam was that it turned out to be a great bonding event for all of us. There's something about watching your fellow teacher insist that the 48 hidden in the color-blindness test is actually an 18 that brings people together. Not to mention seeing all the regular hospital patrons cover their mouths as they walk by because our surgical masks make us look like we have some sort of incurable disease.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Traveling to Seoul

On the morning of Tuesday the 18th at 4 am, my journey to South Korea began. Having finally obtained my work visa the week before (a long and somewhat arduous process consistently made more difficult by the registrar at JHU), I was told to report to Korea on Wednesday the 19th. My 7:45 am flight from Philly took me to Atlanta, and from there it was a 15 hour flight to Seoul.

The flight to Seoul was truly indescribable. For those of you who are lucky enough to have never made such a flight, allow me to explain it for you. First of all, and something I did not realize ahead of time, on a 1 pm flight heading west, the sun never sets for the entire length of the flight. Therefore, the flight staff basically make a simulated night where they shut all the windows and turn the lights off so that everone has time to sleep. Everyone's seat has a personal entertainmnet system which has movies and games. I probably watched 4 or 5 movies on the flight.

However, after a few hours, not even your own personal entertainment system can keep your mind off the fact that your butt feels like it's going to fall off. You pretty much lose all sense of time, especially after waking up from naps that could have lasted anywhere from five minutes to an hour. The last two hours were particularly painful. The second period of "night" ended about forty minutes before we landed, and those last 40 minutes were among the worst.

Immediately upon disembarking, everyone on the plane must hand in a medical self-evaluation and have their temperature taken before being allowed to enter the airport. Incheon was an extremely clean and efficient airport, and luckily very well-labeled with English. Two coworkers who I met in Atlanta and I went through visa processing and customs together, and managed to buy bus tickets to the City Air Terminal. From the CAT, we simply had to take cabs to our hotels. The only problem was that everyone was going to different hotels, and no one spoke Korean. Luckily for me, another instructor named Jenn who was at CAT can speak Korean and turned out to be going to the same hotel as me.

By this time, it was around 7:30 pm local time (6:30 am back home), and I was completely wiped out from all the traveling. Jenn's aunt, who is a Korean native, took us to a restaurant nearby and got us dinner. I was asleep by 9:30, which was a welcome relief after the day and a half or so of flying and sleep deprivation. I had the national medical examination to look forward to the next morning.

Coming up next: Seoul Medical Center and Beginning to Explore the City