Sunday, September 30, 2012

Seoul Searching: A Comedy of Errors

Washington DC to Seoul: 6945 miles and 14 hours. Jakarta to Seoul: 3287 miles and 8 hours. Meeting your brother half way around the world: priceless...well, mostly.

When my brother announced that he would be paying a visit to South Korea in September, it seemed like our one and only opportunity to do some world traveling together, even if it could only be for a few days. I arrived at the Incheon Airport early Friday morning, and the (mis)adventures began.

I was armed with a bus number, hotel destination, newly exchanged money (won), and the look of an experienced traveler (ha!). Despite the fact that nearly all of the airport personnel had a passable level of English, they all told me - with emphatic hand gestures - that neither my bus number or destination existed. Puzzle. Finally, a helpful woman directed me toward a special desk for military personnel since I'd mentioned that I was going to a military base. On the way to the desk, I was intercepted by a kind-looking, elderly gentleman. Battle-weary from my own experiences with unsolicited help in Jakarta and just plain weary from looking for ground transportation that didn't exist, I gave the man a wide-berth to try to dodge his advance. As it turned out, though, the man was as kind and genuine as he looked. He set me up on military transport to the base (for free!), and then chatted me up about his experience in Ohio many years ago for pilot training. I decided it was best to look for cute, elderly men when in distress.

Mike gathered me at the visitor center of the base, and we got my base pass squared away. The first thing that hit me was that the weather was just like Ohio fall, which makes sense since we share the close to the same parallel. I haven't experienced fall for at least two years, so I loved every minute of the crisp air. The second thing that hit me was that I was that everything else was just like Ohio as well: organized roads where people followed traffic laws, fast food chains, Chevys, potable water, clean air, greenbacks excepted everywhere, and, well, Americans. There was an adjustment period for my Jakarta-minded self. Mike continually had to hold me back from crossing the road at any old time I felt like - there are crosswalks for that - and I had to remind myself that taxi drivers weren't going to pull U-ies in the middle of the road to pick me up. I decided it would be best to stick to the side walk and appreciated a little more my life in Jakarta where everything comes to me.

First on my agenda was to meet up with a former boss who happened to be stationed in Seoul, so I left my brother and went walking around the base to find the USO, which I thoughts was near by our hotel. Wrong. After walking in circles - safe circles, obeying the Walk/Don't Walk signs - I finally learned I needed to get in a taxi to reach my destination. The scenery outside my taxi window transformed very quickly from America to Korea as we entered streets lined with Korean signs and heavy traffic. I found my former boss and enjoyed a traditional meal with him and his staff to celebrate his retirement from the Foreign Service. When we wrapped up, I climbed back into a taxi and directed the driver to the military base. He did not know the base name or any English at all. Since I knew equally as much Korean, I could see this was going to be a problem. Remarkably, the driver drove to the American Embassy and found a random Korean man who just happened to be bilingual. We made it back to the base, where I then learned that I couldn't actually get on base without Michael. Another hour and taxi ride later, my brother collected me at a different gate. We decided it would be best for me not to leave base without him again.

With that kerfuffle over, we headed out to Gyeonbokgung Palace, an immense palace built in 1395 that was set just on the edge of the city. The palace, complete with over 7,700 receiving halls and concubine rooms, had been destroyed during the Japanese occupation and is still being restored to this day. After we climbed out of the taxi to enter the palace, Mike realized that his cell phone was no longer in his possession. Helpless to track down our orange of thousands just like it...we continued on to the palace. We decided it would be better for us to not leave our cell phones in taxis. 
Mike phoneless.

Royal Chicken
Throne room

Turtle Dragon
Concubine house

We decided Mike should be shorter.

We made it back to the hotel without losing anything or ourselves. That evening's events went like this:
1). Tell the front desk staff what happened with the phone. They give us a taxi number to call.
2). Report the missing phone to the taxi company, that we think might be the same company we rode in.
3). Try to call Mike's phone from my cell and cannot connect.
4). Download special software to my cell so we can reach Karrie in Virginia.
5). Get through to Karrie to tell her what happened.
6). Karrie calls Mike's phone and has the following conversation with the cabby:
"No Ingrish! No Ingrish!"
7). Mike and Jackie run to the front desk to find a bilingual person to help talk with cabby.
8). Learn that front desk cannot make international calls.
9). Purchase international calling card.
10). Purchase the right international calling card.
11). Try 10 to 15 combinations of international phone codes.
12). Hotel staff reaches cabby!
13). Cabby negotiates for a returner's fee.
14). Fee agreed upon and cabby is directed to bring the phone to the hotel.
15). An hour later, Mike is reunited with the phone.
16). We decide that the hotel staff and Koreans in general are awesome.

The next day, we decided, would be better. Our plan was to go to the Seoul Tower, the highest point in the city. We started off well, getting a discount on tickets from our hotel. We tried to walk to the tower, but ended up in a taxi after losing confidence in our directional abilities. The area surrounding the tower is a beautiful metro park complete with walking trails and outdoor gyms. While climbing the wooden staircase to the tower, we enjoyed the flora and fauna that was remarkably like what we would find back home in Ohio. We also learned that our tickets had fallen victim to the same mysterious taxi vortex and were no longer in our possession. We decided that we should maybe not get into taxis anymore.
View of the city from the lower-base of the tower.

The tower area was surrounded by fence on which visitors put locks to symbolize their love for their significant other.
After the tower, we got lost, watched an archer shoot an arrow, and caught up on life. We eventually found our way back down and spent some time roaming around a shopping district. Here we were handed a mysterious green goo-cake by a woman dressed in traditional clothing, I bought traditional Korean candy, and Mike bought some squid in a bag (probably) and some traditional liquor called Soju. We decided alcohol could not hurt our luck at this point.

No, you are, Seoul.

Through a series of seemingly unfortunate events, Mike and I were still able to explore a new city and even learn a little bit about its culture, history, and people. Its organization and gracious people were both very forgiving to two bumbling tourists such as ourselves. In the short, two-day visit, the city left a warm impression on our hearts, and we decided - despite our inadequacy as travelers - that we should come back again some day.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bonding Over Machetes & Sulfur

Meet the 2012-2013 Fellows,
Photo by Adam Brock
whoaredefinitelynotdoinganythingthatthestatedepartmentwouldfrownuponinthispicture. For two weeks, eighteen of us (two are still coming at the end of the month) are bonding in Bandung, a city two hours outside of the capital. We spend most of our days blundering through language class and sessions on the education system in Indonesia. However, we've had some time outside of our luxurious hotel to go explore Bandung and the Sudanese (ethnic group of West Java) culture. 

Our first group outing was to a Sudanese restaurant called the Dago Teahouse. We piled into an angkot - a minivan of sorts used for cheap public transport - and headed uphill. Our fearless leader, Kang Kelley, had tipped us off to a cultural event that was going to be happening at the restaurant. He called it a 'real, not-for-tourists' event that may or may not include machetes and trances. Perfect.

In traditional Indonesian style, we sat cross-legged around a short table. We ordered two of every item on the menu (fish, tempe, tofu, sate, spicy veggies, and rice) and shared a family-style meal.

When our bellies were full (this would turn against us later), we headed to the main event. On the stage, before an sparsely scattered audience, were a group of men all dressed in black. Kang Kelley explained that these men came from a remote village in the middle of West Java. He called them "backwoods" and likened them to the Amish, saying that they like to keep to themselves and stay away from modern conveniences. What's more, they are very devote followers of Islam. This strong faith originally led them to hold these expositions of sorts to demonstrate the power of Allah and draw in other believers. The expositions, called Debus, are martial arts-like demonstrations of the strength and protection of Allah against bodily harm. From what I could see, the men use instruments and singing to put themselves into a trance. Then, when there are good and ready, they put their faith to the test by sawing at the their skin with machetes - without a scratch remaining when they're finished. Check it out - excuse my gag-reflexes as the camera dips when the machete comes out. Other feats of strength can be seen in the second video when a man rips into an unripened coconut with his bare teeth.

The rest of the night was less...painful to watch. The ringleader did a series of magic tricks including: making a ball disappear and reappear in the audience and pulling an enormous string out of his mouth.

Our next adventure was a day trip outside of the city to Kawah Putih, or The White Crater. We took a bus up through rice fields and villages up Mt. Patuha.
Eventually, we had to switch from our bus to a much more rudimentary truck that could climb the steep incline to the crater, as Jen will now kindly explain:
At the top, we were greeted with a spectacular view...and smell.The enormous crater mouth was filled with a brilliant bluish-green lake. While the volcano has been dormant since the 1600s, this lake still steamed from the heat beneath it. The lake and the bleached rocks surrounding it all get their color from the acid and sulfur in the water.

It was a popular weekend destination for the locals. We weaved our way around the lake, sometimes stopping for group shots with families. Apparently, breathing in the sulfur can be poisonous, so we didn't stick around too long.

The Fish and The Fox

We rounded out our day with a stop for lunch at another delicious Sudanese restaurant. This one, however, had the bonus feature of a strawberry patch attached to it. So, after dining, we picked a kilo of fresh berries.

In about a week, we'll all move to our sites and get settled into the business of English teaching and learning. Here's hoping that these shared experiences, though grotesque and poisonous as they were, will have formed the bonds we'll need to support each other over the next 10 months.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Other Side

In the few years I've been a teacher, I've discovered one constant: It always takes me three tries to get it right. When I taught intensive writing at U of Akron, it wasn't until my third semester that I finally knew what I was doing - my endless apologies to my poor, poor first semester students. In Indonesia my first year, I didn't 'get my legs' until my third rotation of students. Now that I'm moving into my third year of teaching at the Police Language Center, I'm hopeful that it will mean some proportionately large growth in my teaching behaviors and effectiveness.

Why is it that the road to growth always begins by being cut down to size? For our first few weeks in country, we EFLs are being treated to Bahasa Indonesia language lessons. This is fantastic. By some miraculously good guessing on a placement exam, I was placed in the advanced class. This is a disaster. In two years, I (hang head here) haven't been a very proactive learner of the national language. The capital city is swarming with people who speak English and speak it very well. My joke is that my 'bahasa (language) taksi' is excellent because that's the only place where I'm forced to use the language. So, without having taken a formal course, the language I do have came from what I heard in the office or with friends.

I once heard someone say of bahasa Indonesian that it can be learned in a month, but it takes a lifetime to master. I've experienced the first part of that adage, and I can do a lot with very little vocabulary or grammar. But, while that level of language can help me order food and direct taxis, it doesn't allow me to have in depth conversations about teaching with my colleagues or even join in the banter and gossip with my Indonesian friends. In short, it limits the relationships and experiences I can have.

Despite being in a small class with a kind instructor and three very close friends, I reach a level of anxiety in the classroom that I haven't experienced since puberty hit. I'm definitely the lowest level in the class, and that is a strike to my tender ego. The class is also entirely in bahasa Indonesia, so I'm nearly constantly frustrated. Then, today, the instructor announced - or at least I'm pretty sure she did - that we would be giving a speech. Not just any speech, either. It would be - I'm nearly positive - a speech on how we could invite the Indonesian government to increase their collaboration with the American education system. My classmates talked on about the finer points of collaborative partnerships - or at least I think they did - while I flashed back to my high school Spanish class where I'm fairly convinced that I had an anxiety attack during a similar speech assignment. Right. Now I remember what's going on behind that blank-stare look that my students often have.

It is from here that I am once again acutely aware of what it is like to be a language learner. And it is from here that I also remember the impact that good instruction can have on language learning. So, despite wanting to slink under the table to choke back tears or avoid direct eye contact with my bahasa instructor, I'm sticking with my advanced class. I try to spend my time focusing on what the instructor does that supports my learning. I'm reminded of how important the extra practice is for some students. Also, constant checking for comprehension and allowing opportunities for questions. Most importantly, however, she reminded me of the importance of not just teaching the language, but also the deep-seated cultural aspects that affect the way we form our communications. As we're writing our speeches, we're learning about the most appropriate way to structure it so that it is both understood and heard. We learned the ever-important acknowledgements, the prayer-like introduction, and the humble conclusion. I realized how brash I must have sounded giving speeches in my very American, very straight-to-the-point, way. Now, I'm equipped to have similar conversations with my students.

Two weeks into my third year and I'm starting out on the other side of the classroom; rebuilding from the ground up. Hopefully, it will be a good foundation for a great year.

To all my fellow, fellows, colleagues and future students: Akhir kata bila ada kata-kata yang kurang berkeran, kami mohon maaf.