Friday, November 20, 2009

Leveling Up

Although I tend to focus on life in Korea when writing, I guess I have an occasional obligation to mention the reason I am here: my job. At my school, the year is divided into 4 13-week terms. During week 10 of each term, the students take an Achievement Test to determine if they will "level up." The English program is divided into 10 levels, and the Achievement Test decides if the students are ready to move on to the next level. Interestingly, the student's score on the test is pretty much the sole factor in making this decision, with the weekly review test scores, homework completion rates, and general in-class behavior having little to no impact. While these things do technically matter since no student will level up without putting in some effort, I feel that this is a somewhat abstract concept to explain and therefore general teacher policy is to pretend that these factors account for a significant portion of the leveling decision.

The achievement test consists of 4 components: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. As the teacher, I grade my own class's writing and speaking sections, which is a somewhat stressful process since the grading must be completed before the 3-hour class period is up. For the writing section, you only get about 15 minutes in some classes to grade up to 14 writing samples. Talk about a time constraint.

The stress on the teachers is nothing compared to the stress on the students, many of whom are under a great deal of pressure from their parents to level up. The test results come out at the end of week 12, which is where we are in the term right now. Students who don't level up have to repeat the level again, and those who have leveled up feel as though they've put enough effort into their current level, and therefore the general degree of motivation during the last week and a half of term is low to nonexistent. Furthermore, some students who don't level up choose to leave the academy and study elsewhere, presumably at a place where it is easier to move between levels.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Clothes Shopping in Seoul

Seoul, as a major city and the capital of South Korea, is definitely a shopping mecca. The city is full of neighborhoods catering to every need a shopper could have. For fashionable young adults, the main shopping hub of the city is Myeongdong, an area of the city about 3 blocks by 3 blocks in size that is more or less off limits to traffic and is filled to the brim with shops and restaurants. The shops range from the expensive and high-class to the tiny and cheap (home of $10 shoes). Housed within this area is the city's only Forever 21, a sight for sore eyes for this recent college graduate who is used to skimping on quality in favor of saving money. Myeongdong also contains a large underground shopping complex as well as a mall and a Shinsegae department store.

Walking around the city, an observant American might notice that most Koreans (women in particular) are rather small, and that the obese portion of the population that is becoming predominant in America is more or less nonexistent in Korea. This suspicion is quickly confirmed on a shopping trip. Women's shoe sizes in most stores max out at size 50 (or 250 mm), approximately an 8 or 8.5 in American sizing. Even less forgiving is the range of pant sizes offered; most stores have only up to size 28 or maybe 29, the equivalent of up to around a size 6 in America. Keep in mind that the average American woman has a pant size of 12. Quite the cultural disparity. So what is a larger-bodied foreigner to do? Pretty much the only option for larger sizes is to go to Itaewon, the center for foreigners. Here you will find many stores specializing in larger sized clothing that cater to Americans in need.

Another important difference between shopping in Korea and America is in the department stores. While American department stores are generally places to find good bargains on clothing and household items, Korean department stores are places for expensive, quality items. Generally the floors are arranged in order of descending price from bottom to top, such that the entrance floor contains the most expensive items. For example, this floor usually contains stores such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, and Dior. The second floor will be equally pricey with boutique stores like Coach and Burberry. Eventually, the floors begin to stock clothing items, although they still tend to be rather expensive, with the cheapest brands being Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, or similar. Not exactly the American experience.

Shopping can be frustrating at times, but being fashionable is highly valued in Seoul, so it's important to keep up with the trends. Therefore, the malls and neighborhoods like Myeongdong are packed every weekend, regardless of the weather. As if anyone needs an excuse to go shopping.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pepero Day

Today, November 11th, is a holiday of sorts here in Korea, although it's hard to call something a holiday when it's corporate-sponsored. Today is Pepero Day, a truly unique day on which children exchange Pepero candies. "Pepero" is not a generic name for a type of food: it is a specific brand of snack produced by the Lotte company. And although Lotte claims the idea for the holiday wasn't theirs, there is hardly anyone who believes them. Not to mention that if it wasn't their idea, they should really make some changes to their marketing division.

Let me explain: November the 11th, or 11/11, is Pepero Day, because Pepero sticks look like 1's and 11/11 has four ones in it. The exchange of candies is somewhat along the lines of American Valentine's Day in that the people trading the candy are usually children or teenagers, and they give them to friends or romantic interests. In fact, the Lotte company makes over half their Pepero sales just in the month of November. Even though Lotte claims they did not create the holiday, they have certainly stepped up to provide for it, creating a variety of Pepero baskets and goody bags specifically for the 11th. The holiday is mostly contained to the youth population, although it never hurts as a teacher to pass out some extra goodies to the kids.

Happy Pepero Day!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Kpop Artist of the Week: Big Bang

If Korean pop music were a meal, Big Bang would be the rice. You can't have a complete understanding of Kpop without them. Big Bang resembles a typical United States boy band: there are 5 members, they sing and dance, they are wildly popular with teenage girls, and the selection of members was documented on a TV show. Unlike the boy bands of the US, however, most of the members of Big Bang had careers in the music industry before combining into one group. This boy band also aims to maintain more of a hip-hop image than a pop one. Furthermore, the group endorses Hite, a Korean beer. Not very wholesome if you ask me.

Big Bang is probably the first Kpop group a foreigner will become familiar with. And the foreigner audience is exactly who they are aiming to attract. Most of their songs contain a combination of English and Korean lyrics. The group is currently trying to break into the Japanese market, recording songs in the Japanese language. This move does not go over well with their Korean fan base, because as my students say about Japanese pop, "You can't understand what they're saying."

Check out Big Bang's breakout single, "Lies."