Follow by Email - get notifications of new posts. :)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Spelling Bee

Elisabeth awaits the bee.
It's December 3; it's international spelling bee day for Elisabeth, who finished in the top 2 of her 5th grade class spelling bee. She and I will travel to Kwangju, about a 4-hour drive to the southwest coast of Korea.  We wake with difficulty at 4:30am – even before Nick, who is often to his office by 6.  Elisabeth and I had showered and packed our bags the night before, so we quietly dress, collect the Kindle, laptop, and camera battery from their respective chargers, and debate over final clothing selections.  She and I have had some trouble these last few days, and I am not at all sure I have the patience to spend 15 hours together.  After a quick goodbye kiss to Nick we dash to the elevator and trot down the dark road to school, our clicking heels marking our progress toward the brightly-lit rented bus.

Once aboard, I am immediately thrown by the cross between Greyhound and an Indian parlor.  The seats are a plush maroon with gold swirled throughout; quilted sateen pads cushion each headrest.  Heavily-tasseled golden valences swing above the large windows’ shimmery curtains, neatly pulled back into silver rings. Nets and fold-up cup holders are ready on the seatbacks for our smaller belongings; the overhead bins await our bags and jackets.  Despite the décor, tell-tale signs reveal that we’re in Korea.  The headrest cushions and no smoking sign include messages in Korean; rolls of toilet paper hang intermittently from the ceiling as a convenience to messy passengers. 
The bus at 5am.

The bus is dark and deadly quiet – one wouldn’t know there are 30 high school students contemplating their day at the Model United Nations.  Elisabeth and one other elementary schoolgirl are the only spelling bee students on the bus –the other ten from Handong International School apparently drove with their parents. Three HIS teachers (Canadian, American, and Korean-American) ride the bus with us and I’m somehow comforted by having native English speakers along. 

The bus stops at a tollway rest area every hour; I wonder if a bus drivers’ union mandates a 10-minute break per hour.  Some kids use the toilet (and, Korean-style, you need to procure your anticipated amount of toilet paper when you enter rather than assume its availability in the stalls); we buy a bottle of water from the vending machine for 600 won (about $0.55).  As the bus heats up at my feet, the windows condense, occluding the sunrise. Elisabeth and I drift in and out of sleep, alternated with reading, snacking, and practicing words like “bourgeois” and “epizootic.” As the sun rises, we smear the water off the window and notice blotches of snow in the shadows.  It’s colder here, but the mountains and terraced rice fields, empty now, still tell us we’re in Korea. As we enter the fourth hour of the drive, Elisabeth feels antsy, restless.  It might be motion sickness from reading; it might be nerves. I find a black plastic bag in my purse (intended for shell-collecting) and she uses it quite discreetly. 

She feels much better as we finally arrive at Kwangju Foreign School.  A tall Korean girl in KFS uniform largely covered by her long wavy hair directs the bus to park in the street.  She uses Korean gestures to point, bow, and say no, but they are not well-practiced; we whisper that she needs to work at the Lotte Department store to learn their oh-so-graceful parking garage choreography.   When we disembark, the girl speaks with a strong American accent – perhaps Californian.  I’m surprised at how happy this makes me.

A view from the front before the bee begins.
The school is a newer brick-and-glass frame, with white-painted cement block walls and plastic wood-grained flooring.  The spelling bee will be held in the basement, which has marvelous natural light from its sunken courtyard.  The 75 contenders from grades 5-8 will have their bee in a long room that I suspect is normally used for a cafeteria or perhaps a gymnastics room.  A banner at the front (Koreans do love their banners) announces the school name and event (SKAC Spelling Bee) with a near-fluorescent cartoon-ish bee.  

A serious student awaits the bee.
We are moved toward the rows of padded folding chairs around 9:30.  The participants sit together by school; a few teachers roam the room; a few Korean parents sit in the far back, where a few tables are piled high with student coats and backpacks.  We wait for the last school to show up; five schools are already here.   We then wait for the coordinators to meet.  Then we wait for mysterious events that might be related to the stacks of copied papers delivered to the judges’ table.   In the meantime, some kids wait quietly, studying their word lists.  Others quiz each other and spell words aloud in unison.  Yet others–Elisabeth included–seem blasé, just looking around or taking pictures with their over-sized handheld phones.  Many wear school uniforms; some are dressed casually in fleece sweatshirts and skinny jeans with thick winter boots.  All are nervous: feet and legs jiggle madly, some rub their faces compulsively, attention is fleeting, jokes are stilted. 


Putting on number badges.
Finally, at 10:10, the bee begins.  The event coordinator, an overweight white woman with an indeterminate American accent, moves through the requisite introductions and welcomes. The agenda, procedures and rules are all in English; I realize the children have been talking in English all this time.   Fifth grade students are called up first, where they draw numbers and select corresponding badges and seats across the front, facing the microphone, judges’ table, and audience.  Elisabeth is speller #2; her naturally red hair is particularly striking in a room with so much black hair and brown eyes.

Elisabeth spelling "sketch" - you can also see the runner-up
for the 5th grade on the right.
The reader finally begins: Dragnet.  Sketch.  Attitude. Humorist. Uppity.  All nine students pass their first round, the three judges nodding slightly after each spelling and the reader verbally confirming, “That is correct.”  Round two knocks out the first student on “presence” – or is it “presents?”  A teacher later challenges the failure to notify the student of the homonym, but the judges’ ruling of “incorrect” still stands.  Elisabeth approaches the microphone for “cheapskate” but speaks too quickly, confuses her letters, and the judges shake their heads.  She sits down, her face red and teeth clenched.  Then another student goes down and the fifth graders are down to six students.

Rounds 3, 4, and 5 proceed with legacy, premium, and bassoon.  Rounds 6 and 7 are the same, moving smoothly through enviable and stubble.  In round 8, the reader puts aside the published word lists from which the students have studied and announces that she will read from The Secret List.  The audience groans; the remaining fifth-graders sit up straighter, their eyes widen.  Holograph, demarcate, and accusatory take down three children; superfluous is correct, then deferential and sturgeon eliminate the last two.  But the tiny remaining girl, soft-spoken but bright-eyed above her cream turtleneck and red plaid jumper, must spell one additional word to confirm her as the winner.  When “viscous” pulls her down, the audience sighs and all of the last 6 are back in the game for another round.

Finally, it is down to the tiny Korean girl, her fluffy fur barrette pulling her long bangs to one side, and a sturdy boy from the same school, dressed in a white button-down and blue sweater.  They battle back and forth.  Sometimes both are correct and sometimes just one, who is then tripped up by the confirmation word.  Finally, the boy spells “barrel” and the girl loses by incorrectly inserting a “k” into “antics.”  She bravely returns to her seat, where her teacher hugs her through silent sobs.  

Elisabeth (5th grade) and Grace (6th grade)
Now, to an American nourished by the self-esteem movement, spelling bees are torturous places of shame and humiliation.  As the tension rose in the room, with attention riveted on each sound from a child's mouth, the mood shifted between hopefulness and heartbreak.  Every child but one must publicly fail, his or her wavering composure amplified by the microphone.  But what I observed was remarkable resilience.  Not by every child, and certainly not right away.  But by lunchtime, even the little ones who had misspelled “eel” or “from” played with friends and held their teachers’ hands and laughed over pizza.  Again and again, I saw children shake off their disappointment and say, “Just wait until next year!”  This kind of character can’t thrive on the sugar water of constant affirmation or the hovering of overzealous parents.  Surely, it can’t survive among the thick weeds of bullying and loneliness, either, but I wonder if, like the pain of vaccinations, a little public failure might be a good part of raising kids. I have a new awareness of and admiration for Elisabeth's resilience in the face of her disappointment, and I was so proud to hear her tell her brother "just wait 'til next year." That's my girl. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Tutoring: English and Korean

The college where Nick works and our family lives (Handong Global University) provides a Korean tutor for interested foreign faculty and their families. I indicated my interest in May, when I moved here to join Nick and Elisabeth, but was told that it was too near the end of the semester to get a tutor (4 weeks to go).  Well, how about over the summer break? No tutoring is available in the summer. Oh. So I signed up at the earliest possible date in the fall semester, checking off my preference for a female tutor (less awkward, I thought) and checking my preference for an upperclassman (more confident and experienced with English, I insightfully reflected).  I waited, happy to finally learn some Korean.

But...my application apparently got lost.  After subsequent inquiries by the honorable Professor Lantinga (note: that is not me. Quite an identity shift this whole move has been.), I finally received an e-mailed tutor assignment in early October.  The e-mail instructed that the tutor, whom we shall call Lee, would contact me within a day.  After a week, I finally called Lee's provided cell number, and a man answered in Korean.  A man.  Oh.  Ok.  I explained who I was.  He spoke very little English and I had great trouble understanding what little he could say; remember that our "f" sound translates as a "p" in Korean and all our "z" sounds (like in cheese or dogs) translates as a "j" in Korean. After a great deal of difficulty, we finally agreed to meet at the campus coffee shop the next day.

However, Typhoon Wipha was doing its thing and I did not wish to go out in the gusty downpour to meet my new (man) tutor. I called; we painstakingly arranged for another day and time.

I took Sam with me, hoping we could both learn basic how-to-manage-in-public Korean.  That was a mistake.  Lee is unusually tall for a Korean (perhaps 6'2"), but he was dwarfed by Sam (who is 6' 6", 240ish pounds, and has a mighty beard).  It was quickly apparent that Lee was shy, overwhelmed by Sam, and even more nervous about tutoring than I was.  Plus, it was very hard to hear each other over the coffee shop sounds of grinders, blenders, and music, so I mostly resorted to smiles and nods.  He was a sophomore (not an upperclassman) from Seoul; not a strong student, he hadn't scored high enough on the college entrance exams to apply for the "big three" universities in Korea.  He had completed his 2 years of mandatory military service; he is 24 years old.

Now to the tutoring.  He thought I was taking a Korean class and he would just help me with homework. Um, no.  He thought I would therefore have a Korean workbook and he would help me with that. Nope.  Lee asked about my hobbies, desperate for a more specific topic.  Photography?  No - he knew nothing about that.  Gardening?  No. Collecting shells at the beach?  No.  Look: I just want to learn how to navigate in the market: how much is this? where is that? and can I take your picture?   I asked him about his preparation for tutoring: did he receive any training?  No.  Was he studying English at Handong?  No.  Why was he interested in tutoring?  Handong requires students to do 2 credits of service and one option is tutoring.  Oh.

It was going to be a long, long semester.

We have continued to meet every Wednesday for an hour or so.  Lee is like many Koreans in that he has studied English in school, so he can read it fairly well but the speaking/listening part is much more difficult. On the other hand, I can read Korean (ok, I can mostly sound out Korean letters), but I'm very slow and make lots of mistakes.  I can speak some Korean words (hello, thank you), but many Korean words sound identical to me; for example, I can't hear the difference between, say, myeong and myeon.  Which is kind of important, since one means "people" and one means "noodles."  To top off this crazy situation, my tutor has sloppy handwriting, so even when he writes words out for me in Korean, I can't read them.  To sum up: Communication is very difficult.  He wants to do well. And I am a pretty lazy student - I want the very basics rather than grammatical lessons on the 5 ways to say "please help me" depending on the other person's status relative to mine and the type of help I want (lifting, directions, etc.).  We had one lesson just on the verb "to go" - and of course, how you say it depends on lots of things, like whether you're going into the military, looking for your "gone" watch, or talking about dead people).  The last one is fascinating because of the influence of Buddhism on the language - to say someone is dead is to say "He is gone (but continues to live through his/her work and may return someday)."  My favorite sentence of that lesson?  "This fish has spoiled."  Only in Korean, you're actually saying "This fish taste is gone."  :)

After a few weeks of torturous tutoring, I devised a new strategy (Very Illegal according to his tutoring contract, but I was not terribly impressed with the Office of Tutoring so far and not afraid to make them grouchy).  Lee would go with me to accomplish some task that my Korean can't handle. So, we walked around campus one day and he translated traffic signs (e.g.,Car Park Place), the bus schedule, and the dry cleaner's sign.  I wanted to find out if the dry-cleaner repairs shoes (no: they clean shoes and repair clothes but don't repair shoes).

While waiting for Lee one day at the campus picnic tables, four ajeemas (oops: it's actually pronounced "ah-joo-mas") asked me to join them for coffee (ko-pee). Completely out of character for me, I agreed. Two of them knew a little English and giggled constantly as they urged me to share their pumpkin/granola concoction, coffee, apples and persimmon slices.  Lee didn't even see me at first, as we all stared and giggled at him (my "too-tah"). Then he shyly agreed to join us, struggling to talk to them in Korean and translate for me in English while using chopsticks to pull apart the sticky orange goo.  After making great fun of him for calling them ah-joo-mas instead of using a more formal term, they sent him away to teach me Korean.


Last week we went to E-Mart (a baby-super-walmart) to exchange the lightbulbs I'd bought with a lamp last week.  Apparently, just knowing the right wattage isn't enough here - you also need to know the bulb's base width in millimeters and the lamp I bought apparently has a rare small size. I loved that Lee was pretty assertive with the 4 ajeemas at the Refund Counter who clustered around - "you sold the lamp you should sell the right bulb - go look for it again."  And, finally, we got the right bulb, which I had to pay for in cash. To do the refund of the wrong bulbs, they couldn't just credit my debit card or give me cash; they needed to re-run my entire original receipt but without the lightbulbs; then in a week or so the bank will delete the first receipt.  Lee didn't really understand it even in Korean, let alone translating it into English. So I finally just agreed and signed in all the right places.  I sure hope that works out.  By the way: signing your name in Korea is NOT the same as signing in the US, where you assume you should handwrite your first and last names.  No.  Here, you make a mark - and if you take too long they shut off the screen and print the receipt anyway.  I've taken to drawing a smiley face and rarely get past 1 eye and a mouth.  Sometimes the cashier will just reach across the counter and make a line on the screen, saving you the trouble.  It cracks me up.

This week Lee and I went with Sam to the local animal shelter. Sam has long wanted to volunteer there to play with the big dogs, but we (a) couldn't find the darn place (pets are a new concept in a country whose older generations still eat dogs, so the shelter is a ways out of the city; also, maps are hard to find and harder to read), then we (b) found it but couldn't figure out how to get past the gate or read the darn signs.

So I talked Lee into calling the place to find out their hours and away we went with Sam.  Lee mentioned to Sam that he'd seem him throwing "so PAST!" with "old man" last week.  Lee was clearly impressed but it took us a few minutes to figure out that he was talking about seeing Sam's game of catch with Nick (his dad).  "Old man" in Korea is a sign of respect - we forgot that for a moment.

Once at the shelter, the owner was happy to talk with Lee all about the dogs ("this one - loves old woman but bites old man!") and the shelter.  Sam was formally introduced and invited to come walk the dogs for free; to clean the dogs he would need to apply.  Weird.  The dogs are caged in 5 barns by size and gender: puppies, small males, small females, big males, big females.  Another barn is for the cats, who are free to come and go through a swinging door.  I fell in love with one free-ranging cat (no go as a pet: Nick and Elisabeth are allergic) and a puppy (clearly a runt); Sam fell in love with some big dogs that reminded him of Ralph (who is living happily with Nick's family).  For today's tutoring session I ended up learning the Korean for dog ("kay") and cat ("go-yahng-ee"), Sam was happy, and Lee... got to pet some dogs and hear some stories.














In the end, I'm not learning much Korean this way. But I suspect that Lee is learning quite a bit about Americans.  And if I'm not teaching in a classroom, at least I can amuse the natives.  :)

NaNoWriMo: Getting Work Done

I haven't blogged in awhile because... well, there haven't been many New or Exciting Events and a girl wants to please her readers.  Sam, though, said I should write a paragraph every day - he prides himself on being an excellent writing coach but a crappy writer. So, I felt obligated to write SOMETHING down and originally intended to just write a November blog in text and pictures (though not the 30 paragraphs Sam recommended) and I was surprised at how much stuff we did.  So, I'm commencing a bunch of short November blogs.  :)

I joined National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org).  Translated: I signed up online to write a 50,000-word novel in the 30 days of November. I decided to write a book about being a psych prof and dean at a small college in Iowa. Then I decided to write a bunch of short essays, glimpses, if you will, rather than do all the work of character development and plot and climaxes.  So, it's sort of a stylistic combination of favorite authors Mary Roach, Anne LaMott, and Jim Heynen.

As the daily Writing Chart shows, I got off to a great start, frantically recording all the crazy pranks, embarrassing moments, and run-ins with various barely-disguised people from Dordt. Then, partway through the month, I felt.... finished somehow, like I'd gotten down all the stuff I wanted to remember.  I didn't feel the push to keep going, I wasn't sure about my audience anymore, and maybe this was more of a journaling or healing process than a book project.  I may revisit it someday, but for now I feel very satisfied with my 30,000 word document.

And here is one of the essays, in case you're wondering about style or content or whatever.  :)

Getting Work Done

Late afternoons in the psychology department are dull.  My colleagues are trickling out to take a child to violin lessons, to coach the college’s golf team, or to run errands.  They each shout their “medal” color on the way out, the coach usually “getting the gold” by being the first out the door; the others get silver, then bronze.  I don’t usually place (as a dean, I feel some obligation to be present during business hours), but that’s why I supposedly earn the big bucks.

Too sleepy to grade or start anything new, I decide to wander through the other departments.  Managing by walking around: it works well for some faculty, who like to touch base often and build relationships, but others feel like I’m spying or lording my title over them.  A few people are still here and we enjoy catching up on their kids or grandkids, sharing a story about a particularly good class they had that week, updating me on their research or other projects.  As I finally wander back toward my office, I decide to use the bathroom then sit down to review for the classes and meetings I’ll have the next day.  I double-check that the cleaning crew isn’t around; the folks from the local adult group home, who have intellectual disabilities, often come to clean the bathrooms this time of day.   No signs or buckets, so the coast is clear.

After selecting my favorite end stall (do other people do this?  I don’t know) and going about my business, I hear someone come in.  Quiet shoes, which is odd, as most of my female colleagues wear “clicky shoes” that make us feel more professional.  The steps directly approach my stall, and I see the toes of rather large, somewhat dirty tennis shoes peeking under my door. The door rattles and I raise my eyes to meet the eyes peering through the crack.  Before I can say or do anything, I hear, "Uuuhh, SHIT!" The eyes and tennis shoes disappear and I hear the man's steps running away. 

The bathroom doesn't get cleaned that day, but I'm energized enough now to get back to work.