Sunday, January 27, 2008

Farewell, Mouskouri

She's a Greek legend, but unlike Jason and Ulysses, not one who had much impact on my formative years, probably because she never clashed with scary stop motion skeletons or appeared in a trippy, portentous animated sci-fi series. Despite her huge worldwide following, I never became accustomed to her distinctive voice, mainly due to her failure to duet with Queen or appear on any of the early Now compilations. She's one of those icons who only existed for me in the lost world only glimpsed through the portals of Morecambe and Wise repeats and faded charity shop LPs. A pre-postmodern world in where Ronnie Corbett was funny, the word 'naff' really meant something and respected broadcasters felt free to joke about much-maligned minorities, such as the wearers of oversized spectacles.

Despite her fuzzy presence on my cultural radar, I'd always been intrigued by the phenomenon of Nana Mouskouri, so I was secretly quite excited about her concert at the Sungsan Art Hall, one of Changwon's main cultural venues. I turned up on the evening, partly out of curiosity, partly because of the sense of occasion that surrounded the show (especially as it was part of her Farewell Tour), and mainly in solidarity with speccy-four-eyes everywhere. I wasn't sure whether to expect an out-an-out riot of kitsch, a moving celebration of musical heritage or a wallow in treacly nostalgia. Of course, what I got was a combination of the three - a highly enjoyable mish-mash of a Europudding, with a hint of Korean whimsy thrown in for good measure.

Nana has long been popular in Korea, for all the reasons that have convinced the world to buy over 200 million records (recorded in 15 languages) over the course of her 50-year career. Her enduring international appeal goes hand in hand with her position at the nadir of cool - she appears entirely sincere in her love of a dizzying range of music, which she interprets with full, unfashionable conviction and a total lack of irony or distance. This apparent artlessness clearly cuts through cultural barriers very effectively, and Nana's star seems to be ascendant in Korea. Her version of
Lascia Ch'io Pianga was recently used as the title song for a hit soap opera, and she gained a lot of kudos for organising a charity concert in aid of those affected by the Taean oil spill in December 2007.

The concert was certainly A Big Deal - one of only four Korean dates on the tour. It was held in the Sungsan's 2000-seater main hall, and brought Changwon's middle-class cognoscenti out in their best winter coats, with a tangible sense of hushed expectancy. I don't think they were disappointed, and despite a few rough edges and grating moments, I was won over as well.

To start the show, we were treated to a film showing Nana's progress from classically trained club singer to
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, via stints as a Quincy Jones protege, Eurovision contestant, teatime TV favourite, muse to Bob Dylan and MEP. Preceded by her band of four dinner jacketed multi-instrumentalists, Nana then slowly struggled on in high heels, hands clasped and head bowed. She immediately endeared herself to the crowd by greeting and thanking everyone in Korean, then set off on a her bizarre odyssey of folk, jazz, pop and show tunes. She began with a shaky wail through Scarborough Fair, but found her stride with some lovely, gravelly chansons, a cache of stirring Greek folk songs and an achingly vulnerable version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

Nana's stage presence is an engaging mix of professionalism and gaucheness. Her classical training shines through (and her microphone technique is flawless), but her movements and phrasing are a tad awkward, which I suppose only adds to her gawky charm. At 74, her voice isn't a precision instrument, but is pleasingly lacking in unnecessary ornamentation, and she conveys a real love for music in a straightforward, guileless manner.

The odd vocal crack perfectly suited the songs of lost love and regret that peppered the set, with the directness of Nana's delivery and generally sensitive instrumentation saving the show from becoming too maudlin.
The band members were clearly a cut above the usual bland session plodders, usually providing restrained, emotive textures, and not adding too much noodling in the more upbeat numbers. The guitarist/bouzouki player was particularly versatile and subtle, with the odd moment cheesy excess entirely forgiveable under the circumstances.

A highlight for most of the crowd (and for me) was a version of a Greek song, which was
recently translated into Korean and became a hit here. After finally being coaxed to sing along, the massed voices of the women in the audience sounded quietly haunting, and Nana seemed to do a fine job of pronouncing the lyrics from her crib sheet.

The final stretch of the show featured a version of My Way, which despite being a good thematic fit for a farewell tour, seemed an odd choice for a singer known for her humility and shyness. It was actually rather refreshing to hear a different approach to such a tired standard - I'd take Nana's wistful rendition over Sinatra's smug bombast any day. Everybody Hurts was another surprising show stopper, and although she fudged the 'don't throw your hand' bridge, it still brought a small lump to my throat (although I'd have been in pieces if she'd chosen Nightswimming or Find the River instead).

The many encores felt well-deserved, even though it took Nana an age to totter on and off stage - flat shoes would have shaved ten minutes off the show's running time. Crowd pleasers included the horrendously saccharine Come and Sing (Ode to Joy) and a slightly painful reading of Amazing Grace. To a Nana neophyte, she appears to posses many charming qualities, but grace doesn't seem to be one of them. Her best moments, at least on this particular evening in Changwon, were earthy and heartfelt - she couldn't quite pull off spiritual and soaring. That said, her presence certainly brought an odd kind of old-school glamour to the Sungsan, and it will be interesting to see if any other performers can inspire a similarly rapturous audience reaction.

Watching a doyenne of European schmaltz may seem like a strange way to experience Korean culture, but the show offered a window into a particular section of Changwon society. Lovers of sentimental music, regardless of its origin, are certainly not in short supply here, and for two and a half earnest, warm-hearted hours, I was glad to leave my cynicism at the door and join them.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Khan I kick it?

Though on reflection I feel quite lucky to have ended up at the Khan Academy (see previous post), there have been plenty of times when the combination of tedious course materials, sullen students and lack of any kind of discipline system have made teaching there for a year seem quite a bleak prospect.

The most dispiriting moments come from feeling not quite up to the job of teaching the more challenging/irritating pupils, who are mostly middle school kids. Most of these lessons remind me that I don't have the necessary experience to even know what constitutes a successful 'speaking' lesson with a class of sarcastic teenage boys, let alone deliver it. I haven't exactly lost my temper with any of them yet, but I did manage to accidentally send one of them home (he was 30 minutes late, and his excuse was 'TV'), and don't think I'm particularly good at concealing my personal dislike for the snottier boys. Their proscribed course materials are also extremely dull, and my attempts to liven them up a little hit and miss so far (another sign of my inexperience).

In my more idealistic moments I feel that there has to be some way to get through to these pupils - an illusion I'm sure I share with most novice teachers. Realistically, though, I guess that as long as they are doing something approximating work, vaguely listening to the occasional instruction and not breaking anything, then I'm not doing a terrible job. I also realise that a class of seven smart-arsed, dead-eyed, disrespectful, but basically passive teenagers would be a vision of heaven for many UK teachers, although I'm still thankful that I only have to see these classes for 45 minutes a week.

One of the few groups I do see more than once a week also happens to be my favourite of the more advanced classes - though they aren't necessarily brilliant students, they are a pleasant, usually attentive, though still quite lively, bunch. They generally put in a reasonable amount of effort, and it's been very rewarding to start building a rapport with them, especially when they correct my mistakes (which are very rare, of course). I've also found that my ability to explain concepts in concise, relevant ways is improving a little, and feel quite humbled when they actually remember things I've said in previous lessons.

Another group similar level are far less conscientious, and seem to collectively suffer from a surprisingly provincial attitude, with a bit of a gang mentality thrown in for good measure. The book they are working through deals with natural wonders, cultural festivals and exchange students, and has revealed a streak of small-mindedness, even mild xenophobia, in the class. I've tried to tackle this - although not terribly successfully so far - but hopefully it doesn't point to much more than a somewhat isolated upbringing in a largely homogeneous society.

Despite being part of Changwon, Anmin is separated from the city centre by a large mass of industrial sprawl and squashed against the base of the small mountain range that surrounds the city. It certainly has a small town feel, despite being dominated by clumps of tower blocks, and does feel rather cut-off. With little open space, the town is also slightly claustrophobic, and seems to offer few distractions beyond the various academies and the odd PC Bang (internet cafe).

I asked the girls in the particularly cliquey class about their hobbies, and apart from shopping, they seem to spend most of their time online, decorating and networking in Cy-World (a cuter version of Facebook, as far as I can tell) and tackling quests in Maple Story (a cartoony online roleplaying game, which refused to install on my laptop).

As someone who spent countless hours playing Sensible Soccer, Mario Kart and Super Bomberman in my school days, I don't feel that these 'addictions' are particularly unhealthy, especially as there is a social aspect. If these kids are a little alienated, it could be argued that the hagwon is a more important cause than the internet. After all, excessive extra schooling robs kids of the daylight hours that they may otherwise have used for non-digital entertainment, and piles a lot of extra stress on their slumped shoulders.

Though I'm currently finding the lessons with the older pupils the most interesting (in a complete reversal from the last post, as predicted), some of the younger groups are still keeping me amused. For some reason I found the way one class chanted 'but there's a little problem' particularly joyful, and it's great to see the concentration and co-operation that naturally evolves when a group is asked to learn a section of (mostly excruciating, and often quite bizarre) dialogue.

The kids occasionally
even surprise me with their progress. This week, one particularly shy, and possibly dyslexic boy (who for some reason decided to call himself Gilbert) has somehow had a real confidence boost; another group of girls who initially seemed aloof and bitchy became involved in class discussions with apparent sincerity; and Rose, a completely haywire, but oddly engaging 12 year old, scored ten out of ten in her weekly test for the first time. Small victories, but the kind of thing that can get people hooked on education, I suppose.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hagwon day at a time

After finishing my first full week in a Korean classroom, I thought it was about time to write about my teaching experience so far. As with any job, I'm sure my feelings towards this one will yo-yo wildly over the course of the year, but I wanted to get down a few initial impressions.

My school is a hagwon - a private academy that children attend in addition to their regular schools - in Anmin, a small suburb of Changwon. It's a franchise of Khan English, which is, as far as I can tell, quite a big name in Korea, with its own range of course materials. The Khan method seems to consist almost entirely of chanting small snippets of dialogue at an increasingly frantic pace. The books and CDs advocate the 'one breath training' method - cramming as many words as possible into a single expectoration of English, until all meaning is lost.

I've only used them in desperation, but there's something quite hypnotic about the Khan CDs, which employ two actors with mid-American accents and a range of wild and wacky voices. There's also a smattering of jaunty music - sometimes accompanying the chanting - and DVDs featuring a variety of talking heads with extremely unfortunate hair.

Rather frustratingly, the Khan books and other materials get less interesting as the students progress - elementary school kids get a variety of sorting, writing and drawing tasks to accompany their chanting; middle school students receive only translation and stripped-down intonation to keep them interested. So far I haven't really been encouraged to find or create any additional materials for these lessons, but I've found it a necessity with the older groups, who aren't exactly well-disposed to speak at all, let alone repeat the same phrases for minutes on end.

Thankfully the most advanced groups are given non-Khan course materials, which are generally more varied, interesting and challenging. I've found some of these lessons very satisfying, but most of the teenagers are, predictably, the students least inclined to put in any more than the minimum amount of effort. As a result, I've unexpectedly been most enjoying lessons with the younger groups, probably because they've got a little more energy, and I can get them to do their chanting in a variety of silly ways.

The hagwon is pretty small, with four cramped, slightly tatty classrooms (all named after US colleges), a 'CNN' room (for watching videos), a reception desk, an office and a tiny staff room. The walls are decorated with inspirational pictures of kids full of the joys of learning, but unfortunately most of these have been graffitied to the point of absurdity.

In my first week, I was struck by how few boundaries there seem to be between the staff and students. Before lessons, the kids swarm through the corridor and invade the staffroom, with seemingly very little constraint on their behaviour. There's no exterior space for them to hang out in, and very little in the way of formal discipline, which is presumably because the owners are worried that unhappy kids will convince their parents to pack them off to another hagwon.

As is common practice in Korea, almost all the students have an English name, which they choose themselves when they start learning the language. In Anmin, most kids have pretty generic names - there are plenty of Jacks and Jessicas, and Aaron seems suspiciously popular - but there are also a few more esoteric choices, such as Duke, Top, Star and Orange. I haven't yet worked out if the names offer any clues to the kids' personalities (although Damian is a pain in the arse), but I do slightly worry that they can act as a mask for their owners to hide behind.

In terms of the hours they put in, the kids are certainly hard-working: many come to the hagwon four or five times a week, and also attend maths academies and other private schools. This overload of schooling takes its toll on the kids, who are often exhausted (although this could also be due to secret addictions to online gaming.

Considering the hours they put in, I was initially a little surprised by the kids' low levels of spoken English, and how hard it was to detect any great differences in fluency between the year groups. I was informed by the other teachers that
Korean students have a particular problem with spoken English, despite their proficiency in the written language. This is generally blamed on the grammar-heavy teaching style in the public schools, which explains the popularity of hagwons and the emphasis on bringing native speakers over to teach in them.

The three Korean teachers at the hagwon seem to genuinely care about their jobs, and work very hard at improving their own English, often studying for two or three hours a day, and tutoring adults in the evenings. The managers speak very little English (and my Korean is almost non-existent), so it's hard to work out their attitude towards education, or why they wanted to run a hagwon in the first place. They seem to be very fond of children, and presumably the enterprise must be pretty lucrative, although overheads must be quite high for only around 125 students.

English teachers are generally well looked after in Korea: I've read a few horror stories, but I think my situation is pretty typical. The hagwon pays for my accommodation (a tiny but well-equipped studio/bedsit in central Changwon), I'm taken to school every day in the Khan English minibus, and often supplied with a variety of delicacies, including homemade kimchi. As an inexperienced teacher, a little training would have been appreciated, but at least I had a few days of classroom observation before being thrown in at the deep end.

Overall, I think I could have done a lot worse than the Khan Academy. I'm not horrendously overworked so far, and although the syllabus is quite rigid, I feel free to do pretty much what I like in the individual lessons. The kids aren't quite as unrestrained as I feared, and a few of them are even quite entertaining. It doesn't feel like a particularly inspiring place, either aesthetically or in terms of outlook, but then I don't think I ever expected it to be. I just hope that the Khan CDs don't drive me to any acts of random violence, and that I can find enough inspiration to keep the lessons at least slightly interesting, for myself and for the students.

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Khan Academy

Saturday, January 5, 2008

'Green city always clean and blue'

As well as its almost preternaturally tidy streets, Changwon also lives up to its billing as a green city, at least in the amount of land dedicated to parks. Even in the middle of a winter, the city's public parks are lovely, contemplative places, especially the gardens around Yongji Lake, which afford a view of something approximating a Changwon skyline.

Also impressive are the grounds in front of the expansive Gyeongsangnam provincial offices, which have clearly been designed to motivate and inspire lunching bureaucrats. It's easy to see how effective this kind of manipulation - or care and attention to detail, whichever way you want to look at it - could be. Even as a short term resident, my civic pride was aroused as I wandered past heroic statues nestling amongst sculpted shrubbery and over ornate bridges crossing carp-filled pools. With no-one in the gardens to undermine my romantic administrative illusions, I lost myself for a few minutes in a reverie for the Working Man.

One of the main landmarks in central Changwon is the huge, flat roundabout which is covered in grass and, for the duration of the festive season, avenues of Christmas lights. Speakers dotted around the display burbled out a constant trickle of piped music - mainly Korean covers and medleys of traditional Christmas hits, but also the original versions of Last Christmas and Christmas is All Around, from Love Actually (the film is immensely popular in Korea, and even has several English language courses based around it).

Changwon is situated on a plain ringed with gentle, pine-covered mountains, which give almost every view a stirring backdrop, especially on a bright, clear winter day. They could also be said to create sense of isolation for the city, both aesthetically and physically. Apparently it's an open secret that Changwon would become South Korea's emergency capital in the event of renewed hostilities with the North, precisely because it's so cut off from the rest of the country. This makes a fair amount of sense: the city certainly seems to have a decent strategic position and the straight, wide roads appear ready-made to act as runways. Even if it's nothing but a good story, it's still crying out to be filmed by someone like Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook. (Apologies if it already has been made into a film and that's where the story comes from - my research hasn't been exactly exhaustive).

A leisurely hike up to one of the many small peaks gave me a sense of the full sprawl of Changwon and my first view of the Sea of Japan/East Sea. I also got to see why there are so many up-market outdoor clothing shops in Changwon - even the casual weekend walker likes to dress the part of the serious mountaineer.
The best dressed hikers were predominately middle aged couples, some of whom seemed to see walking as more of a duty than a pleasure, with the wives often trailing behind listening to music on their mobiles.

There were also many people out simply enjoying crisp winter air, and miles of well-tended path for them to stroll along. Despite the odd burst of tinny music and the muffled sounds that drifted from the city below, it was an appropriately peaceful ramble. Following the trail as it stretched endlessly over the hazy peaks, I felt a tremendous sense of
anticipation for all the journeys I hope I'll soon be making throughout Korea.

Photo albums:
Anmin Uphil

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Selling the city and spreading The Word

For someone who enjoys wandering aimlessly, with or without a camera, Changwon is a great place to get lost in. Actually, as the city centre is relatively small, with wide streets, plenty of parks and open plazas, getting lost is quite a challenge. With the uniform style of architecture and ubiquitous illuminated signs, the streets can feel a little repetitive, but there are always quirky little details to act as markers, and every side street seems to feature something worth investigating.

As the official website suggests, Changwon is heavily branded, with the official slogan pasted everywhere, the mascots popping up in unexpected places and even paving slabs bearing the city's logo. All this may seem like marketing overkill, but as with the website, there's something quite charming about the style in which it's done, and it does help give the city a sense of individuality. Plus, it helped give me a nice header for this blog, so it can't be all bad, right?

Another striking thing about Changwon is the incredible cleanliness of the streets. This is partly to do with the armies of ladies and gents employed to pick up litter and sort through it all, but does also, I think, suggest a real sense of responsibility in the city's people. I've yet to notice a single person drop rubbish in Changwon, which is incredibly refreshing for someone used to the less enlightened attitudes of many UK city dwellers.

Maybe it would be overstating it to call this civic pride, and it the lack of littering may just be a Korean characteristic (if so, long may it continue to be), but there is something about Changwon that does seem very caring. The people aren't necessarily
effusively friendly, but there does seem to be real a sense of reserved consideration, in the general manner of most people, the style of dress and the relative peace of the city. This, along with the relatively quiet streets and relaxed pace of life makes the city feel like a comforting place to be.

This seems to contradict what I'd been warned - that some Koreans, especially of the older generations can be a little abrupt, even slightly hostile to westerners. I've not seen much evidence of this so far, but as with the population of any city, certain characteristics can make Changwon residents seem a little impolite en mass. Actions like like holding a door open for someone don't seem to elicit much response, for example, but that's probably down to cultural difference as much as a lack of manners. Plus, many people are understandably a little shy about speaking English, seem to treat it more of a game than a means to real communication, or are simply uninterested (which is also entirely understandable, of course).

It is widely accepted that Koreans are incredibly proud of their country, and are determined to make sure that visitors see the best possible side of it, even that that means bending the truth. While I've certainly seen nothing to contradict this so far, I wouldn't want to generalise about Korean people after a few weeks (give me a couple of months...). I can say that almost everyone I've met so far has gone out of their way to help me out, especially the teachers at my academy, but many others, too.

Sitting in a park trying to seal some envelopes, I was approached by a very friendly Korean businessman, who tried to help me find the end of my role of tape. He gave up eventually, and I managed to find the end. We chatted for a while, but I think he felt a little guilty for not being able to help, so his heart wasn't in it, and he politely wandered off.

After a day of teaching I came home one night to find a huge bag of satsumas outside my front door, with a note in Korean attached. In the academy the next day, I found out that they were a gift from my next door neighbour, and were grown on his home island. I asked the other teachers if I should try to write back in Korean, but they assured me that a note in English would be fine - I left a few words in my best handwriting and a box of kiwi fruit (I couldn't find anything from England in E-Mart). We haven't met yet, so hopefully he wasn't too offended by my return gift, especially as his satsumas are delicious, and I'm running out fast.

By far the friendliest people I've come across so far are the young Korean Jehovah's Witnesses who spend their weekends hanging out in supermarkets, just waiting to make new western friends. After four encounters I think I've now got the full selection of 'philosophical' magazines that they're currently handing out (including 'Violence Against Women - What is the Bible's View?'), but have managed to keep my address to myself, and so far don't feel my heathen lack of belief weakening. I should probably be a little concerned, though, as along with the city council, Christians could well be the most persistent marketeers in town.

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