Monday, April 23, 2007

identity crisis

First I have to say that I am aware I have been tagged by Corey... and I have not yet come up with my list of 5 blogs. I have to think about that for a while... stay tuned...

I feel like I have so many updates. We got back from our trip to Shanghi last week. I was writing something about visiting schools and then the Virginia Tech shooting happened, and I was busy reading about the reactions both here and in the U.S. Over at Printculture we had an interesting discussion, started by S L Kim, and I tried to provide some context from here. That was difficult for many reasons -- partly because I have lived here for long enough that many things about this place have become invisible or just, somehow, logical to me. And it is always difficult to talk about race/ethnicity.

Anyway... Shanghai. We looked at two schools, one bilingual English/Chinese and one Korean. The Korean school was much cheaper (because it is a real Korean school funded by the Korean government, using the same standard textbooks, etc.) and similar to Aiden's current school in terms of curriculum and protocol, plus they do an hour of Chinese and an hour of English each day. The Korean school, Singaporean school, Taiwanese school, American school, and British school are all basically in the same place, near Hongqiao airport, which (I didn't realize) is quite far -- a good 40 minute bus ride. So he'd be spending a lot of time on the bus. The other school we looked at is Yew Cheng (I have to check the spelling but its close) which, location-wise, is much better. The facility is very nice. The teachers seem good and the kids are very international -- each class has quite a mix. Quite expensive. Each class has an English-speaking teacher and a Chinese-speaking teacher and they have something like 30% of the day doing Chinese.

Anyway, I was debating the pros and cons of these schools and my better half said, "If we're going to send him to Korean school we might as well stay in Korea and send him to Chinese lessons, or just come to Shanghai for the summer. What's the point of moving then?" He was right. Our goal is a linguistic and cultural one. So, to make a long story short, we decided to send him to local school. Perhaps a private local school, but a local school nonetheless. Shanghai actually has several local international schools -- these are Chinese schools with an international class, so the kids go into the international class first (like an ESL class), until they can join the regular class. I need to research more about which school, but basically the big decision is made. Local school. Chinese. (If anyone reading this has experience sending kids to school in Shanghai, or knows of a good Shanghai blogger, let me know!)

In the midst of this decision and all the cleaning, etc. at Aiden's school I'm writing a post for printculture about the ways in which sending Aiden to local school here has tied us into the social system in unexpected ways. At least -- I think that's what it is about. Still working on it. Even though all this cleaning stuff is a little annoying and more than a little amusing, I really have learned a lot from participating in the local school at that level, getting to know the moms, and being tied into the infrastructure of education here. I think I've learned more than Aiden has. Now I'm going to have to do it again....

Last week, though, something interesting happened. I was walking Aiden home from school along the river and trying to explain to him about "point of view." (The long story around this is I was doing some behavioral engineering, trying to prepare him for our move and for making new friends, by complimenting the way he is so good at making friends because he is good at seeing other people's points of view...anyway.) All the sudden he said, "Shh Mommy! Be quiet!" A man had been walking near us. As soon as the man was out of earshot Aiden said, "OK, you can talk now."

I was confused. What was that all about? He was already back into his game of not getting electrocuted by jumping over all the cracks and bumps in the sidewalk. I pressed him. "Why did you ask me to be quiet?" "Because you're speaking ENGLISH, Mommy. This is Korea!" I pressed him some more and got "It's embarrassing." But why is it embarrassing? He didn't want to talk about it. He wanted to talk about Darth Vader. I kept at him. "Because then they ask me, 'Are you American or are you Korean?"

Then I understood. I had created myself -- a kid who didn't fit in and was conscious of his difference. I didn't react that well. I tried to convince him he was special and tell him how envious other people are that he can speak English so well. I reminded him that his friends spend two hours a day in English hakwon while he plays. I told him that I would keep speaking English to him because that is my gift to him -- the languages that he is learning as a child, and that if you don't keep practicing a language you will forget it and have to painfully relearn it. I told him that his grandmother was born in Japan and no longer can speak Japanese, isn't that sad? He agreed that it was. I reminded him that people will ask him the same questions even if he doesn't speak English, just because of the way he looks. I made quite a sales pitch. I was more than a little upset about the whole thing. I wanted him to see the world the way I see it, conveniently forgetting how long it took me to get to this point.

Then I was talking to Emily later about the whole thing and she suggested that if I validated his feelings instead of trying to argue them away he would still, hopefully, keep telling me how he feels.

A few days later the same scene of being shushed happened again. The day after that Aiden was playing with his grandfather in the playground and some older kid kept saying, "Hey, aren't you American? Speak English! Say something in English!" I guess he was following Aiden around and pestering him. Aiden's kind of shy, he doesn't like being put on the spot like that, and his grandfather berated the kid. I told him later, "They are interested in you because you can speak two languages so easily. But you don't have to speak if you don't want to. Just tell him you don't want to and that's fine." Aiden's come up with his own tactic. When people ask him if he's American or Korean he says, "You don't need to know (몰라도돼)."

I have to think more clearly about how to handle this... I'm not ready for him to be embarrassed by me!

Thursday, April 19, 2007


It has been a busy week. We're back from Shanghai and I will have updates soon about the school situation.

I had here an essay I wrote about this photograph for my writing class, but I have deleted it... after all the good comments I thought I should submit it somewhere. Sorry about that. If you want to read it, send me an e-mail or write me a comment. Thanks -- Jennifer

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Defensive walking, consumerism, schools

I got this from Cat over at I don't know if people who haven't been to Seoul with think this is funny but it made me laugh to watch. The frustrating thing about walking with a child is that children have no sense of space, they don't anticipate the movements of others and move accordingly. But then again, I often think that other people are the same way, especially groups of people walking together. My pet peeve is people walking in a group who take up the whole sidewalk. Since I tend to walk faster than pretty much everyone else, getting stuck behind a pack of slow walkers drives me nuts. Luckily I have grown accustomed to pushing people out of the way. I wonder if there's a YouTube video of that.

I've been sick for the past few days and holed up at home and finally ventured out this morning to run some errands before going to Shanghai tomorrow. When you've been cooped up for a while, your body is still fuzzy from illness, and you haven't been to a shopping mall for several months, it is very surreal and strange to be out and about again. I found myself getting that itch to buy things, looking at plates and pillows and clothes. Good thing I cannot buy housewares because I know we will move again and I don't want any extra stuff. That consumerist bug lives inside me like a parasite and even when I think I've trained it out of my system it surprises me by manifesting its symptoms of greed and desire for shiny things again.

We had our "big cleaning" over the weekend. I meant to take a camera, but on the way out I realized I had left it at home and didn't want to walk back. While I was balanced on the window ledge cleaning the panes of glass with 2 other moms I mentioned that I had wanted to take pictures and the mom next to me looked at me like I was crazy. I tried to explain that my friends in the US think that this whole moms cleaning thing is strange and I wanted to capture what it was like. She didn't say much but it occurred to me that what I find interesting to record may just be a little embarrassing for them.

So... the big cleaning. We met at 12:10, after school finished (on Saturday they don't have lunch at school so they finish earlier). I had already eaten, it didn't occur to me that we would eat together. One mom brought a huge amount of kimpap, some green tea-type drinks, and instant coffee. We sat and ate and talked for a while and I tried to remember who is who (in Korea, you mostly call people by title or affiliation rather than name, so I call Aiden's classmates' moms "so-and-so's mom" rather than by name. That would actually be easier if I knew the names of the kids in Aiden's class but even he doesn't know them, aside from his few close buddies. He must take after me in that respect.) Anyway, they all know me. Everyone had come with rags, cleaning fluid, rubber gloves, etc. except me because I didn't realize I would need to bring those things... but there was enough to go around. We cleaned the heck out of that classroom. We took apart the fans and cleaned the blades. We dismantled the curtains and sent them to the dry cleaners. The windows, which I spent the most time on (because I figured it would occupy a long time and were fairly self-explanatory) spanned the length of the classroom, 3 panes of glass thick. They took a long time. We dusted everything, washed the walls and doors in the hall outside the class, rearranged the books... It took about 2, 2.5 hours. There was a lot of dust, it did need to be cleaned. The other moms were saying they hadn't even done such a thorough cleaning in their own homes. Ha.

Tuesday was my turn at lunch and daily cleaning duty but I was so sick I had to switch with someone else (really, I was really sick!). So I'll have to save that story for Monday. Sandra sent me this article about moms doing this kind of work in Korea. I can definitely relate. For me, this is a temporary thing, and I attend as much from compulsion as from curiosity. I don't know how I would feel if I knew I would be doing this for the next 12 years. Though as far as I can see, in the upper grades the kids clean the classrooms themselves... when I come to the school in the afternoon the older kids are mopping the floors and washing the blackboards.

While we are in Shanghai this trip we will check out the Korean International School there. It is cheaper than the other international schools and I think it may be easier for Aiden to adjust if I keep him in the same kind of system. Plus I want him to maintain his Korean after we move. They do 4 hours of English a week and 3 hours of Chinese at that school, which I like very much (it is very important to me that he learn Chinese). So perhaps I will be cleaning classrooms for a few more years yet...

Thursday, April 05, 2007

elementary ecosystems

See Jennifer cut out strips of paper and paste them in a notebook.
See Jennifer clean the classroom.
See Jennifer serve lunch to hungry 1st graders.
Run, Jennifer, run!

Ah, yes, welcome to school in Korea. Each class here is, as my friend Becky says, its own "ecosystem," self-contained and self-supporting. Which means, in practice, that the moms do everything. The last few weeks have been full of stressful meetings to determine who will be the class leader (mom, not child), who will serve in the crossing guard corps, who will serve as a volunteer teacher (that's me), who will make the rotation delegating lunch-serving and daily classroom-cleaning duties, etc. As we gather each afternoon (they're finally having lunch at school now, whahoo!) to wait for our children to emerge, the moms from each class huddle together to reveal that classes 1, 2, and 3 have already done their "big cleaning" of the class, and we're looking bad because we haven't done one yet. This is followed by a flurry of pronouncements and text messages to the effect that everyone better show up on Saturday after class (because we have class on Saturday) for the "big cleaning," and someone needs to bring equipment. I haven't done any cleaning yet so I'm not sure what this entails, but since it is supposed to take at least an hour and utilize all the moms who come (of 29 in a class, how many will that be?), we must be cleaning every nook and cranny of that classroom. I will try to take some pictures.

I had my first volunteer teaching class today. You can choose what you want to teach, so naturally I am teaching English conversation. I have 18 6th graders; some of them speak quite well and have lived abroad and some are less comfortable with English. I'm used to teaching little kids (between 2 and 8) so this was a nice change. I asked them what kinds of topics they wanted to talk about, and got everything from euthanasia and the death penalty to computer games and whether they should be required to go to school on Saturdays. For the first class we played "two truths and a lie," and then I broke them into two sides and had them debate why one should or shouldn't learn another language. It seems like a silly question here where everyone takes as a given that learning a language, especially English, is important and useful. But in the U.S. it is not so obvious. I asked them to pretend they were trying to convince me to learn Korean (or not to bother). I wanted them to think about the various costs, benefits, and motivations to learning a language, and to consider all the different kinds of ways and in what environments one might use a language. It was a lively and interesting discussion. Then I asked them to talk about what were the most useful methods for learning a language. I'll be teaching them twice a month for a year.

Between all these new little tasks and duties I have I feel a little frazzled each day. Aiden comes home from school with his assignment book in which he has painstakingly recorded all his homework assignments, the items he needs to prepare for class, and any other messages from the teacher, all of which are completely illegible. I then spend an hour or so calling other moms from his class, trying to collectively decipher our children's handwriting and figure out exactly what the teacher wants. (I have learned to call the parents of the girls in the class; they tend to have better handwriting.) The other day not only did I not understand what he had written, but then once I found out what the assignment was I found that he had brought home the wrong book. He was supposed to look at the pictures in some book and make up a story to go with them. Aiden's friend's mom was kind enough to explain each picture to me, and then she took photos of the pictures with her cellphone camera and e-mailed them to me. Quite a bit of mommy ingenuity. Luckily my husband came home early so I could make a last-minute dash to the 문방구 (kind of like a office supply/stationary store) to buy Aiden a P.E. outfit. There are always things on his assignment sheet that I need to acquire before class the next day which I find quite annoying. But now I understand why these stores open so early in the morning.

Things are only going to get crazier. I just posted my response to Mallon's silly questions for the discussion we've been having over at printculture, not as well-edited as usual, and I couldn't come up with a good title. A few of the really cool bloggers (I won't say who they are because I haven't asked them if its ok) and I have formed a writing group, which I'm really excited about, and my online class starts next week. And it just occurred to me that we only have about a year before moving to Shanghai, so I'd better get off my ass and start planning the move. Or at least put Aiden on a waiting list for school. Any Shanghai ex-pat bloggers out there who want to give me some advice?