A day in the life – Seohae Elementary School

I (meaning Mike) teach at Seohae Elementary School, which is just a few blocks from our apartment building, so the walk is pretty short. But the path leads past another school, Yeonsan Elementary, so the sidewalks are pretty full of kids most mornings. And it’s now the rainy season, so the sidewalks are full of umbrellas held at my chest level, which is amusing, as though I’m walking through a field of giant, Oz-bright mushrooms.

The side entrance of Seohae Elementary School

So this morning I got to school around 8:30 and barely had time to put my hat and umbrella away before one of my speech students came in looking for practice. There’s a citywide speech competition on July 9, and we’re sending two students. Each of them has chosen a speech to memorize and answer questions about. My student this morning was telling me about Susan Boyle, and how she never gave up on her dream to be a real singer, even though everyone laughed at her. I helped her with her sentence cadences, pronunciation, then asked her a few questions the judges might ask her. We finished up around 8:55, meaning I had to get ready for my nine-o’clock class.

Usually I teach five classes of fifth grade on Friday, but today, two classes have been canceled for memorial services in remembrance of the Korean war. There’s a lot of fluidity to the schedule here – I’ve been teaching about six weeks now, and there hasn’t been a week yet that has stuck to the schedule. There’s always some reason to shift things around, like field trips, or sports day, or the homeroom teacher wants to finish up a lesson. You learn not to mind, and to roll with the flow.

I taught the fifth graders a lesson on how to propose an activity. You know, “Let’s play baseball” or “How about swimming!” Then they learn phrases like “Sorry, I can’t.” Or, oddly enough, “No Problem” or “Why not? I can swim well.” You’d think they’d learn, “Okay, let’s do it.” I could go on and on about the phrases they choose to teach, but won’t. It’s a whole other post.

That’s fifth grade, which I teach pretty much alone. Sometimes the homeroom teacher sticks around, grading papers in the back, but usually they leave the room, and I’m at the mercy of the fifth graders. It’s not like sixth grade, which I teach on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I have a co-teacher who goes in with me then, and we trade parts of the lesson. I try to speak to them as much as I can, and hope they pick up a few things here and there. It’s funny when I think about how little English they hear in their lives – they get three forty minute classes a week, and I’m only there for one of those hours, so they maybe hear a native speaker for twenty minutes a week (unless they go to Hagwon, which most of them do, and that’s another post entirely).

For some reason, I think you’ll find the slipper situation interesting, so here I go.

My work shoes

When we get to work, we all change out of our street shoes and put on ‘slippers.’ I don’t know why I say slippers, they’re more like sandals – hard-soled sandals with a strap over the top. Mine are ten dollars, black, with cheap fake leather. Some of the guy teachers wear what you’d call beach shoes, of even cheaper plastic, like you’d wear in the dorms on the way to the shower. They’re sold on the street for three bucks. Even the principal and all the support staff, every morning they come into the entryway, put their regular shoes into a cubby and take out their sandals for the day. The women wear what wouldn’t even be called sandals – many of them wear 3-inch block soled mules with a strap and little flowers pasted on. Very stylish. I’ve yet to notice anyone having different sandals for different outfits, but it may or may not happen.

The kids all have sandals, too, but they’re more like shoes. They’re white, with pink soles and trim for the girls and blue soles and trim for the boys. Every morning they come in and take their shoes off at the door, then carry the shoes up to homeroom, where they swap them out for their sandals. Elementary kids don’t wear uniforms, but they all wear the same shoes.


Mmm... lunch

Lunch here is pretty fantastic, tell the truth. It’s all made from fresh ingredients in the kitchen on the second floor by a staff of about ten lunch ladies and the head nutritionist. You can look into the kitchen and see huge drums where they mix the food. All the lunch ladies wear white coats with pink collars, pink aprons, pink caps, and pink rubber boots. They also wear masks, but don’t think it’s necessary that the masks cover their noses, which is both amusing and disturbing. Kids help with the food service, too, putting on masks and hats and strawberry-print aprons to hand out fruit, or take your tray at the station in the back.

Wow I didn’t mean to go so long here, and I only got through half the day. So, let me sign off now and continue some other time.

Urban agriculture in our neighborhood

I am loving our daily life here in Mokpo, South Korea.  One of my favorite things is the agriculture all around us.  We live in the northwestern most corner of the city, and most people live in 15 story tall “officetels.”  In between the officetels, schools, and other buildings are small plot farms that grow a large variety of crops.  In addition, the “green space” surrounding the building, where there would normally be grass and decorative shrubs, has small gardens where families grow lettuce, peas, peppers, and other veggies.

Hey figgy figgy. I want to eat you.

On my walk to school I pass a lettuce field, onion garlic, and leek field, a fig orchard, more lettuce, corn, canola, tomatoes, peppers, millet, wheat, and a few other crops that I don’t recognize.  Many of the fields are mixed use.  For example:  In the fig orchard there is corn, lettuce, and squash.  Most of the work is done by older women using hand tools.  They carry sprayers on their backs and use a hand pump to spray the fields, I assume with pesticide and fertilizer.  I have seen men with scyths turning over old crops and burning them.  I’ve also seen them loading the bags of onions that the women filled onto trucks.

They are delicous

There is one family that grows black raspberries amongst their figs and I’ve been  sneaking a few at a time the last few days.

On some days it smells delicious, like fresh snap pea flowers.  On other days, well it smells like manure.

It makes the walk to work a little treacherous in pumps, but so beautiful.  I kinda wish there were chickens and goats to go with it all, but that’s just me.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek at our ‘hood.’  We love to read your comments, it lets us know your still in touch, so don’t be shy.  Also, I know it is expensive to send packages here, but we love letters with  pictures of our friends doing stuff, it makes us feel like your here.  We’ve gotten a few pictures and I’ll be putting up a photo wall soon in the house.  Please keep sending them.  Makes us feel “at home” having you around.


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Yeonsan Jugong – our neighborhood

We live on the outer edges of what’s called “Old Mokpo,” though many of the buildings seem to be less than forty years old, which isn’t very old when you con

View from our Courtyard

sider the age of the city, and of Korea (or Asia) in general. Ours is a modern building, one of fifteen or twenty high-rises set around numerous courtyards that open into each other like a little urban maze. There are lots of kids here. They ride their bikes, in-line skate, or just make mad sweaty dashes from playground to playground, under trellises that are starting to bloom red from roses that climb up and over the walking paths.

The nearest market - Shugong Mart

When you do find your way out of the high-rises, there is a short street with about a dozen storefronts. The first one has fruit out front, a small meat department, vegetables, hardware, cleaning supplies, frozen snacks, ramen, diapers, hygiene products, nail polish, and other things for every room in your house. Every time I go in I’m amazed by the way they’ve maximized floor space to fit all the goods.

Around the corner is a stationery store, where the local school kids can buy paper, pencils, erasers, small toys, and, when the weather’s right, water balloons that they carry around cradled like heavy jewels till the urge to see them spatter on the sidewalk gets too strong. Across the street from that, there’s a bakery called Paris Baguette, which is part of a Korean chain that has outlets in every neighborhood we’ve been to. They bake and sell

Korean interpretations of traditional baked goods, including twisty donuts, bean curd bismarcks, sweet potato strudel, and hot dogs sliced onto buns and baked with tomato paste and imitation cheese. (It tastes a bit like dry spam on stale bread with ketchup. But hey, if that’s Korea’s thing, I don’t judge.) Next to that is another market like the first, only larger, with an open-air kitchen that serves up sweet potato noodles in spice-sauce, busan fish-cakes ribboned up and stabbed with a skewer, and an entire selection of kim-chi in metal bowls for sale by the pound (or kilo, I guess).

Which isn’t even to mention the pretty-much permanent farmer’s markets that line the

Fish for sale

other side of the street. From morning till dusk older ladies line up to sell vegetables, fruits and fish on the narrow sidewalk. In the evening when we walk the dog we take care not to go that side of the street because it’s too narrow for him to through without giving in to temptation and eating whatever’s there. They line up the cardboard boxes with peppers and onions and bok choi while the kids play basketball on the courts behind them and the vendors across the street sell t-shirts with horrendous English. Every night around nine they tear down the shop, and the street sits quietly until morning when they all come by again to re-start the commerce. It’s a cycle that’s been going on forever and like the daily sunrise, it shows no sign of stopping.

In addition to the vegetable market, there’s a

t-shirts for sale!

steady rotation of vendors that divide the week among themselves. One day the guy who sells flowers will be there, the next day it’s a meat rotisserie selling roasted pork, where we once bought 10 dollars worth of pork that made four meals. Or one day the ladies with plastic bins filled with dried beans will be there. And there’s usually a few clothes vendors who set up brightly colored sunshades, under which they hang dozens of ‘designer’ fashions: t-shirts for seven dollars, or sweatpants for fifteen.

Much as we love this cozy neighborhood to the north, it’s fairly secluded and relaxed, even easy-going compared to the area to the south. The other way is a street we call Magic Street, because absolutely everything you want, it’s down there. And I think Magic Street will deserve its own entry.

Next, though, we’ll be profiling the agricultural life of Mokpo, where you don’t have to leave the city limits to see figs, onions, canola, and various other vegetables being grown right before your eyes.

Magic Street at Twilight