Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The culture that never rests.

Wow! January has been our busiest month in Korea yet! We can't believe how fast it's gone by...this long with no blog posts! Hard to imagine that I am actually this bad about posting.

We are looking forward to my parents coming to Korea is just one week! We will be heading to Beijing with them for a long weekend to see the Great Wall of China and other historic spots. The rest of the time they are here, we will take them all over Seoul, and of course, our city Cheonan. Although, you can see pretty much all there is to see here where we live in about a day. For a city of half a million people, they really could add a few more attractions. This time with them will be a wonderful way to pass our sixth month mark here in Korea.

January is an interesting month for an English teacher. Students are currently on their longest break from school for the year. Basically, they have a long winter vacation instead of a long summer break like we are used to. However, instead of giving these precious children a lengthy break to play in the snow, sleep a full 8 hours, etc, they actually go to MORE SCHOOL THAN THEY DO WHILE THEY ARE IN SCHOOL. In other words, the extra 7 hours a day during vacation that they are not attending their normal elementary, middle, or high school, they attend academies. (We teach at English academies or "hagwons" in Korean.) They go to English academy, science academy, math academy, Chinese academy, or whatever else their parents think they should learn.

January has been busy for us because we, in return, teach morning classes, in addition to our afternoon and evening classes. The month has flown by because we have mostly just worked.

Here are some of my thoughts and observations living in this foreign culture on this particular issue. In no way does my native culture have it all together. That is one of the things that I love about traveling. I can see what other people do, how they learn, how they work, how they live. It gives me the freedom to take what I like and leave what I don't care for.

You have to hand it to South Korea, even if they are the culture that never rests. Their hard work has paid off. At the end of the Korean War, their infrastructure was destroyed and millions were left unemployed and impoverished. However, they became a wealthy developed country in less than half a century. Now, depending on what statistic you read, South Korea is 11th richest country in the world. When I told my Grandpa Hartill that we were moving to South Korea, he said, "Well why would you want to go there?" This is, of course, a perfectly legitimate question because he lived here during the war. From what I understand, this place was a disaster.

But, I often wonder, when enough is enough? I have students two times a week in three hour class blocks. (This is a normal week, not a current week during their vacation.) When I ask my students what they do on the other afternoons that they aren't in my classes, about 80% of them also attend other academies in other subjects. They stumble into my class looking like they slept only 4-5 hours, which is just not enough for a child. Some parents force their children to study until midnight, no matter how tired they are.

The pressure starts in middle school. If you don't get good grades in middle school, then you can't go to a good high school. (They apply for high schools like we apply for college.) If you don't go to a good high school, then you can't go to a good college, and the cycle repeats itself when it comes time to get a job.

I recently saw a graph that showed the average number of hours working adults put in per year in the various countries around the world. South Korea didn't just make the top 10, or top 5, but actually ranks number one. (I guess this helps explain why I have no sick days.)

Keith and I often discuss our role in this culture. As teachers we do have a lot of power over the amount of work that we require our students to do outside of the classroom. The longer I am here, the less homework I give. I think it is more effective to have my students awake enough in class to have good conversations practicing their English as opposed to giving them additional busy work with vocabulary and grammar homework. We both take a very conversational approach to teaching, which seems to be the most effective when learning a language.

Hard work, determination, and diligence are all admirable qualities in Korean culture. However, I think Latin America has a pretty good practice in place with their daily afternoon siesta. Where is the balance? I'm not sure, but I will be happy to be back to my normal, manageable working hours in just a few more days.


Well, we haven't worked every hour of everyday in January. Here are a few pictures from what we have done. A couple of highlights were celebrating Keith's 24th Birthday and playing in the snow.

Keith's Birthday.

Snow, snow, and more snow.

Waiting for the bus in the snow.

Posted by Megan and Keith at 5:43 PM |  


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