Hwacheon has recently hit winter, and its presence lingers in every part of the day. The colder it gets, the more tempted I am to sleep in just a little bit later. Still, I try my best every day wake up with ample time to spare before breakfast, sometimes sneaking in a quick call home. Now and then, my host family is in a rush too, roaming in and out of the kitchen, toothbrush in hand, occasionally with the laundry machine humming in the background.
By 7:50 we’re all zipping up our coats. “빨리와!” my host mom urges, hurrying my host brother and I out the door. My host mother’s workday starts earlier than mine, so she drops my host brother and I off near the school, wishing us well before heading off. I take the long way into the building with him so that he can tell me about his plans for the day, whether he’s excited or exhausted at the prospect of class, or whatever his 12 year old musings are about the morning. On the first wintery day, after chasing me down the sidewalk with a series of snowballs, he pointed jokingly at our cold breath making clouds in the air, “Teacher! We are dragons.”
I’m usually the first one to get to the shared English classroom. I turn on the lights, restart my computer, and turn on the heater. Usually, the other students who’ve arrived early swing through at some point in the morning. Sometimes they’re looking for another teacher, hoping to clarify assignments. Other times they just want to talk; one student came to me with a stack of yellow and blue cups, and decided to spend 10 minutes showing me her cup stacking skills. When my co-teacher arrives we quickly set up for the day and discuss any changes in our plans for our classes. As the clock nears 9, I sit back in my chair, waiting for the familiar burst of students through the door for our first class.
In part 1 of this blog post, I tried to discuss some of the highlights of my more formal obligations for this grant year, and the opportunities that they have given me to travel, learn, and connect. With the onset of winter, I’ve still been traveling and exploring Korea, but my daily life in Hwacheon has grown into something consistent and familiar and sweet, from morning routines to anticipating student antics. With that, I wanted to share a few pieces of my day to day life in Hwacheon, and the community I’ve come to know and care for since arriving here.
“A Fourth Point”– when the school day is finished
Amongst ETA’s, the Fulbright program likes to stress the notion of a “fourth point.” Essentially, by nature of our grant year, we have to devote time and concentrate on “three points,” our cohort, our school, and our homestay. The fourth point is supposed to be a project or hobby that keeps us learning, fulfilled, and/or happy outside of this time.
As such, it has become pretty common to joke about the mundane repetitive activities in our day to day lives being our fourth point. (“Lying in my bed at nine p.m. with a face-mask? That’s my new fourth point,” or “My fourth point will be learning how to download GIFs into power points while eating snacks”). I still appreciate the phrase, and the idea of being intentional about how we balance our daily lives. That said, as always, there are days when I’m wiped out and just want to lie down and listen to music, and others where there’s so much to do and appreciate, and such little time. Thus, I’m not sure whether I’ve found a fourth point exactly, as much as a bunch of fluctuating extra points that rise in and out of importance every day.
The outline of my evenings remains pretty steady nonetheless. Oftentimes, once school ends, the other ETA’s and I will try to stop at one of the many coffee shops within a short radius of my school. I spend a good deal of time chatting with my host family before and during dinner. When I feel particularly motivated, I try to take short runs outside to get some fresh air, although as the ground has become coated in ice, this has become less and less permissible.
In between those hours are the “scattered points”. Some days, especially lately, I make a hard effort to practice Korean. I use online resources for grammar, a textbook I bought in the States for occasional vocabulary, and have started taking occasional Skype tutoring classes as well.* Despite this, my Korean is far from where I’d like it to be, especially in reading and writing, probably due to how irregular my study schedule is. There are some moments where I can breeze through a conversation so quickly that I catch the surprise of the person I’m talking to. Then there are many, many other times where I struggle to piece together words, or desperately blabber pure grammatical nonsense for minutes at a time before realizing that I’m answering the wrong question.
Despite these fluctuations in my ability, I really enjoy “speaking” and practicing Korean whenever I can. Even saying the same few sentences while ordering tea after work makes me feel elated. One of my regrets from previous experiences abroad was not feeling emboldened enough to practice the languages that I learned as much as I would have liked to. In some of these instances, the people I interacted with knew English so well that it felt impractical to try to converse more poorly in another language because of me. Other times, I would feel self conscious as I stumbled over mistakes. Regardless, I would regret the chances I missed to practice immersively. Here, I try to appreciate the value in every word of Korean I try to say, even if some days that just means telling my students to “sit” and “pay attention now, please”.
Outside of studying Korean, I have also been reading again, and have been making an extra effort to find books by Korean authors**. On the weekends, I try to travel to other cities outside of Hwacheon, spending a lot of my time (and stipend) exploring Seoul and Chuncheon, occasionally making longer trips further south. I have also been helping out with an organization called Fulbridge. The site was started pretty recently by previous ETA’s as a way to connect grantees in different countries for traveling, lesson planning, and other cross cultural initiatives, and has really expanded since then. Currently, I’m helping with the launch of our alumni map, in hopes of extending these opportunities towards alumni as well.
I actually recently used Fulbridge to set up a pen pal program with some of my more advanced students in the 5th grade and a few students from a middle school in Taiwan. At first, my students were frazzled and asking a ton of questions (Were these students in Taiwan “real”, or just Paavani Teacher writing fake letters? Are the students older than us? Is English their first language?). When it finally dawned on them that the other students were in fact real middle schoolers and also learning English as a second language, they grew both enthusiastic and nervous, eager to impress their older counterparts. We’re currently in the process of getting letters back, and I’m actually planning on briefly stopping at Taiwan during my winter vacation and getting lots of pictures and hopefully more information about our partner school to get my students excited about continuing these letters.
In between the changing schedules and activities, one much appreciated routine every week has been my Tuesdays. Every Tuesday, once school ends, the other two ETA’s in my town and I grab dinner with a friend of ours who runs a lovely traditional tea shop and teaches calligraphy classes. After we eat, we take lessons late into the night and all four of us drink tea and catch up while we practice our new letters and words. Our calligraphy teacher is one of the few young people I’ve met in Hwacheon who isn’t a soldier, just five years older than me. She’s extremely kind and has a fun sense of humor. Tuesday’s this semester started as one of my most exhausting days with six class periods, but have become something I look forward to every week: some time to relax, learn, de-stress, and enjoy the company of friends.
Residents and Teachers
In mid-November there was a historically large earthquake in Pohang the day before the Suneung, Korea’s major college entrance exam.*** Other ETA’s described their students’ mixed emotions: nervousness, fear, and stress, first from the earthquake, and then from the exam being moved by a week. Many teachers said their students seemed exhausted around exam time. The stakes were high and palpable.
In Hwacheon Elementary School these worries feel as far as possible from my students. The kids are mostly just interested in being young– weird, playful, confused, and funny. Some of the students are super motivated in class, some attend many hagwons, and others are visibly counting down the time until lunch. The students spend a lot of time in the hallways playing games with one another. During in-class movies, they all cuddle up with one another and share snacks. When a student struggles in class, their peers get out of their seats to give them a hug and help them, and my heart beams at them. It’s uplifting to see this, especially in my more rambunctious and difficult classes. Right now, it’s important for my students to grow into good people, and it reminds me to strive to do the same above all else. In their small town, the kids have a sense of safety and kinship with everyone. The ride their bikes late at night and meet up at computer rooms in town to play games. They video call one another as they play clash royale and meet up at Mom’s Touch, a popular fast food chicken restaurant, for snacks. After the first snow, my host brother and his friends spent 20 minutes messing around with used salt bags to create an astonishingly resourceful makeshift sled.
The security and closeness of Hwacheon as a town is often extended to us as well, for better or worse. Within the first few weeks of living here, gossip had already quickly spread about all three of the local ETA’s, from seemingly out of the blue. Did we go to church? Where did we study? What did we look like? While it felt odd and made us a little bit self aware, I’ve also seen the teachers in my school extend a lot of caring and warmth to students because of how acutely aware they are of the children’s personal lives. For the most part, people in the area are incredibly kind to strangers. Once, while a friend and I were looking for food in Chuncheon, an old woman stopped us, asked us if we were looking for a good place to eat, led us through a maze of the local market, and then dropped us off at an incredible Vietnamese restaurant before heading off on her way. Another time at a coffee shop, one of the workers approached us out of the blue and said that we seemed nice from previous instances she’d seen us around town and said that she would like to be friends.
My demographic of acquaintances and those who I am close with in Hwacheon is undoubtably different than previous years of my life. Outside of my students, who I adore greatly, and the other ETA’s (who I also deeply appreciate), most of my interactions in town are with older adults, a majority of whom female. Almost all of my co-workers and the people in the town that I know seem to have at least a decade or two on me. They’re the ones who greet me in town, or scold their children when they forget to insa me. They’re the ones who come over to me and ask me about my life here during large gatherings like school dinners or family reunions. They’ll tell me about their children who are in college, or their goals when they were younger. They’re my host father and my host mother and my co-teacher and even my just slightly-older-to-me calligraphy teacher.
In the absence of similar-aged peers in town, I’m both grateful and surprised by those who have cared for me and invested in me since arriving here. These are the people who have taught me the most about Korean culture by welcoming me into a glimpse of their lives. I pick up small things from them along the way– like slang, and silly jokes. Or even when my host mother explained to me that showing your toes is not really considered a taboo in Hwacheon (despite being told earlier that it was generally to be avoided in Korea).
Perhaps these bonds surprise me because of how much the importance of hierarchy and age is often emphasized when explaining Korean society. For instance, the word “친구” translates to “friend”, but the Korean word is only used for people who are actually the same age as you.**** Other relationships are described differently, addressed literally like younger and older brothers and sisters. This doesn’t mean that “friendship”, as it is understood in America, doesn’t exist between different age groups. It is just merely acknowledged that there are differences in these kinds of relationships. It’s something I’ve come to see and appreciate in the adults in my life here, who guide me around and help me often. But after a difficult class, when my co-teacher and I discuss our frustrations over a recently boiled cup of green tea and share snacks with each other, or late at night when my host mother and I joke about confusing English and Korean words, or on Tuesdays when we’re all eagerly chatting while concentrating on calligraphy brush strokes, the bond is still there, and I feel grateful for the presence of these friendships.
*I will post some of the websites and resources I use to study Korean on a separate page on this site, in-case they might prove usefull!
**If you have any recommendations for any books at all, please send them my way!
***Some links on the Suneung, or CSAT, in case you’d like to read more:
**** Korea uses two different age systems: the international age– which is based off of your birthday and the same as the in the States, used for some official things and age limits. Then there’s the “Korean age”, which is what most people use in their day to day social life. At birth, a child starts at age 1, and then gains an age the following New Year. So, a child born New Year’s Eve would be 1 the first day, and promptly turn two the following year. Because of this system, students in one grade all have the same “age”.