Monday, June 20, 2011

Ewha Intensive Language Program: First Impressions

A view inside the new Ewha textbook for level 3-1
I've had four days of class at Ewha by now, so I figured it was time to post some of my thoughts about the program. I was a bit surprised to be placed into Level 3, but I guess some of my self-study over the past month paid off. On the other hand, I'd been warned by my home professor that Ewha is tougher at the low levels than Sogang is (and I'd only learned from the Sogang curriculum), so I was kind of worried I wouldn't be able to keep up. Plus, the classes would of course be entirely in Korean (as they are from Level 1 when taught at probably any university in Korea), which I expected to be potentially problematic.

Fortunately, my worries have proved groundless so far. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand everything the teacher said in class, including Korean-only explanations of new vocab and grammar. I also have found the lessons so far to be reasonably paced and, while definitely challenging, not so intimidating that I feel like I was placed into the wrong level. 

However, because I placed into Level 3 only based on a 90-minute written test and a short interview, and because I am coming from the Sogang curriculum, I do definitely have major gaps in my knowledge of grammar and vocab compared to what the Ewha curriculum expects of students entering Level 3. I don't want to drop a level since I feel that I am nevertheless keeping up well with my current class and homework, but I went ahead and bought the textbooks for Level 2 as well as Level 3 so that I can do some catching up on the weekends (at least sometime before our midterm).         

As far as the more logistical stuff: The Ewha program is larger than I thought it might be, though I don't know how it compares to Sogang and Yonsei (I expect it is somewhat smaller than those two, since it is less talked about). There are currently 7 levels (even though the website only advertised 6 last time I checked). Levels 1-4 have four to five classes of about 10-15 people each (my class is 15 people). There are three or so classes in level 5, two (I think) classes in level 6, and one small class in level 7. Almost every class, except one or two upper level classes, is tag-taught by two teachers. One teacher takes MWF, and the other teacher is TTh. Class starts at 9:10. We have a 10 minute break from 10:20 to 10:30, a 20 minute break from 11:40 to 12:00, and class ends for the day at 1:00. I haven't had a large amount of homework yet (about 1 hour per day).

The Ewha Language Center building is also fairly new and is a very pleasant space. It has a large atrium, an open-air study area, a convenience store, an internet lounge, and 6 or so floors of air conditioned classrooms. The classrooms are a good size, with enough room for all the students but not so large that you are ever too far away from the teacher.

The textbooks for all levels have been revised as of this year and are brand new. They've addressed comments and complaints about the previous versions, seemingly quite effectively. Apparently people wanted more emphasis on speaking practice, and this is now incorporated as an integral part of the textbooks. There are also workbooks for each level at least through Level 3 (I'm not sure about higher levels), and levels 1-3 have two-part textbooks (e.g. 3-1 and 3-2, similar to the way Sogang splits Level 3 into 3A and 3B). The grammar and directions are explained in English, Chinese, or Japanese for levels 1-2, and in Korean from Level 3 onward. Also, there is a short article about Korean culture at the end of each chapter, plus a poem or song. The textbooks are pleasant to look at and easy to navigate. They aren't as picture-dominated as the Sogang textbooks, but I think I actually prefer the look of the Ewha books.

So far, I enjoy both of my class's teachers. One of them (the MWF one) is younger and more peppy than the other, but both are very nice and helpful, and are very good teachers. I also really like the other students in my class. I believe 8 of them are Japanese, and there are several Chinese students, plus one from Singapore and a fellow American - a grad student who is the only guy in our class. Speaking of which, there are actually a good handful of guys in the Ewha language program (though only one teacher in the whole program is male). I'm told that the Ewha program historically attracted mostly Japanese and Chinese students, but I'd say that the current student body overall is slightly more than 1/3 Japanese and Chinese each, and slightly less than 1/3 "other" (some Americans, a New Zealander, a few Eastern Europeans, a Dane, etc.) 

That's it for now, I think. I'll probably also make a short post with more of my thoughts about Ewha vs. Sogang as far as curriculum goes. For those of you who might study in Korea in the future, I hope this was helpful!               

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Music Professors and My First Non-Subbed Korean Movie

Today, I finally got to meet a music professor at Hanyang University. The story of how I got in touch with him in the first place is pretty wacky insofar as how many coincidences it involved... really feels like the workings of fate, God, or something ^^.

Back when I was corresponding by email with my Korean host mom, I asked if I could bring a violin to practice at her home. She said that her older daughter (currently in the US) actually had left behind a violin that I could use, but she suggested that I bring my own strings in case the violin's strings were too old. Well, I had never actually changed a violin's strings before (lazy me always got it done at a shop), so I decided that rather than accidentally destroy their violin, I should probably learn how to change strings first. So during the two days between coming home from college and leaving for Korea, I took my violin to the local shop (Potter's Violins) and asked them to teach me. The guy who was assigned to change my violin's strings was a nice, young-looking Asian man I hadn't seen there before. My mom, as she told me later, had a sneaking suspicion that he looked Korean, so as he was finishing up, she casually mentioned that I was going to Korea over the summer. Immediately, he said, "Oh, are you Korean? So am I." As in Korean-Korean (born and raised in Korea) - and his father just happens to be a professor of trombone at Hanyang University, which just happens to be a 15 minute walk from my host family's apartment O.O Being the super nice and helpful guy that he was (really), he gave us his contact info and offered to put us in touch with his dad if I was interested in finding a good violin teacher for the summer. Yep, I feel pretty lucky...

Anyway, so I met his dad today, and he in turn kind of blew my mind with his own genorosity. Not only did he take half an hour to have tea with me (and my language-partner-turned-temporary-translator, the high school boy I met through my host mom - let's just call him DH), but he also called a colleague of his right then and there, a violin professor whom I'll meet on Thursday. Plus, he offered to pick me up from my apartment building and drive me to her studio since I don't know that part of the city. Plus, he mentioned that he's the conductor of the university church's choir and instrumental ensemble, and that I'd be welcome to join the ensemble if I wanted to (which of course I do; I was wondering how I could find an ensemble to join in Korea). Plus, he took DH and me out to lunch, at a really delicious restaurant (with the cheesy name of Bulgogi Brothers - it's a chain, but a good one). And then drove me back to my apartment. I don't think I could say kamsamnida enough times. 

Later in the day, I also decided to stop by the neighborhood gym to register as a member. My host mom had told me that there is an English-speaking trainer there every day until mid-afternoon, and she called ahead to tip him off that I was coming, thinking that it would be good if he could explain the machines to me in English. When I entered the gym, however, the guy behind the desk didn't seem to have any expectation of who I was, so I just did the registration transactions in Korean and left, figuring he must be a different guy. About half a block away from the building, though, someone came running after me, and it turned out to be the "English-speaking" trainer (whom I hadn't noticed in the gym). He explained to me (in rather difficult to understand English - eventually we switched to Korean instead) that he wanted someone to practice English with while exercising, so we traded phone numbers and we'll meet up at the gym again in the future.

This kind of thing, IMHO, is one very real advantage of doing homestay (which I hadn't necessarily expected): it's like I'm automatically being plugged into this great network of human connections. I feel like I'm meeting and interacting with a much broader slice of Korean society than I would if I were only living with and hanging out with other students (foreign or not). And it's probably extra-advantageous for someone who tends to be kind of quiet and shy like me... I usually don't "put myself out there" very much, so I might not have met all these people if I were left solely to my own devices. 

As a last note on today, I saw my first non-subbed Korean movie. I went along with my host family to the Lotte Cinema at Cheongnyangni train station (I think it's the one on the Jungang line), and we saw White: The Melody of the Curse (화이트: 저주의 멜로디). It's a horror flick, which is honestly my least favorite kind of film. But I was happy to understand perhaps 10% of the movie (and the key plot points that I couldn't follow were explained to me afterwards by my host mom). The movie probably wasn't bad as far as horror films go, but it wasn't exactly anything especially groundbreaking or fresh; the "horror" aspect was pretty standard, with sudden loud noises, eerie music, hyperventilating breaths, screams, gouged eyeballs... yeah, you get the point. Not the kind of thing I personally would ever want to see again, but if you're into horror and happen to be in Korea, give it a try.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

5/20/11: Buyeo and Jeonju

Today was the first day of our 7-day tour of the mainland with HanaTour. We’ll be making a circuit of the country mostly along (or close to) the coast, starting from Seoul and going counterclockwise. To start off, we headed south to Buyeo, where we visited Busosan Fortress (부소산성) and Nakhwaam Cliff (낙화암). Busosan Fortress is thought to have been constructed in 538 CE to protect Sabi, the capital of the Baekje Kingdom. There isn’t much left of the original fortress, but we did climb up to Baekhwajeong Pavilion (백화정) at the top of Nakhwaam Cliff. Nakhwaam itself is most famous as the “rock of falling flowers,” so named because the women of Baekje jumped to their deaths when the kingdom was defeated by the Shilla-Tang Alliance. Hiking down from the cliff, you can also visit the small Goran Temple (고란사), named after a local medicinal herb. Legend has it that consuming a cup of water from the spring behind the temple will make you three years younger, but of course it really isn’t different from any other drinking water.

After Buyeo, we continued on to Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do, where we visited the Jeondong Cathedral, dedicated to Korea’s first martyrs (from the 18th century). The cathedral itself dates back to 1913 and is the largest Western-style building in the Jeollabuk-do and Jeollanam-do provinces. Designed by a Norman priest, it features a beautiful combination of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture and is definitely worth a visit. We also had a brief tour of the Hanok Village (한옥마을) in Jeonju, which features more than 800 traditional Korean hanok houses. The roofs in this village are unique, being slightly curved up towards the sky. Other features common to all hanok houses are the traditional sub-floor heating system, ondol, and the division of the houses into sarangchae (where the men live) and anchae (the secluded part where the women live).

While in Jeonju, we also learned how to make a traditional Korean “fragrance pocket” – basically a form of potpourri. We filled pouches with dried plant materials such as cinnamon bark, cedar wood, and cloves (there were many others, but I can’t remember all the names, as they were in Korean). The pouches smelled quite nice (almost like curry, which is odd since no curry was involved), but I ended up leaving them behind when I packed tonight, since I don’t want all of my luggage to smell like an herb shop ;)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Yale Club of Korea, Alley Cats, and an Adventure...

Once again, I've fallen woefully behind on blogging... somehow it's hard to find the motivation after a long day of walking till I'm ready to collapse (as has tended to happen in recent days). Plus, I'm still figuring out the quirks of Blogger and how to work around them. As of now, however, I'm more permanently settled down in Seoul for the rest of the summer, so I hope to catch up on my posts over the next several days now that I'm not traveling so much. 

At any rate, a couple of things that happened today will be particuarly memorable for me, whether because they were awesome, hilarious, painful, or just kind of strange....

In the morning, we took a trip to Daejeon (about an hour away from Seoul by train). "We" includes my mom, me, and also a new acquaintance of ours: a highschooler who is a family friend of my homestay host family. He'll be moving to the U.S. in the fall for the rest of high school, so we're hoping to meet regularly as language partners until then - a win-win situation. Anyway, the reason I came up with this day trip was that Hyechon College in Daejeon has the world's biggest carillon, with 77 bells. For those who don't know, I'm a member of the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs, so naturally I was pretty interested in seeing the instrument for myself. We managed to show up just in time to climb the tower as the 12:00 ring happened. I didn't get to play the carillon because they usually only play a single automated piece, but the carillon sounded great. I'll write more about it in a separate post for those who might be interested.

We didn't have much time in Daejeon, but we managed to squeeze in a visit to the National Museum of Science located in the Expo Park. It was pretty interesting, but I think it's mainly fitting as a great place to have an elementary school trip... It was kind of like all the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC crammed into one building, with corresponding less in-depth exhibitions and several odd juxtapositions (e.g. a mammoth skeleton next to a display on nano technology). 

Anyway, after that, we had to rush back to Seoul so that I could get to the Yale Club of Korea's annual summer dinner reunion. Even though my host mom went to the trouble of hand-drawing a (good) map of the area around the building I was headed for, I still managed to get lost and walked probably a good two miles in foot-torturing dress sandals before I managed to find the place (after asking someone on the street for directions). It was totally worth it though; it was so much great to meet up with my school friends at last, and also meet other students I didn't know well, plus a couple of awesome alumni. One of them is married the manager of BEAST and 4minute (!). After the reception, there was a superb performance by the Yale Alley Cats. It was not only side-splittingly hilarious (they're really gifted at physical comedy, not just singing), but also unexpectedly moving: it turned out that one of their former members, originally class of 2012 until he was drafted by the South Korean military, managed to get three days of leave and make a surprise appearance tonight. All around, it made for an unforgettable night. 

On the way home, even though I now knew where I was going, it was a long walk to the subway station and my feet were killing me, and it started to rain on top of it all. Thankfully I managed to make it underground without falling or getting soaked. When I finally got to my home subway station 11 stops later, though, I nearly got lost finding the exit (coming from a line I haven't used much yet). Then, just when I finally figured out where I was, someone tapped me on my shoulder from behind.

Thinking what a coincidence it would be if I had just run into someone I knew, I turned around... only to see a Korean ahjusshi I had never seen before in my life. He asked in English if I could speak Korean, and I answered yes... a little... and he started going on in Korean about how he wants someone to speak English with, where was I from, what am I doing in Korea, etc. Long story short, he didn't seem like a total creeper (I'm hoping he's just really friendly), so I let him walk and talk with me most of the way home (he apparently lives in a nearby complex). We traded basic contact info, so I might meet him again sometime if he still seems okay and wants to practice English or something.

What I really got out of this strange experience for now, though, was the feeling that I hit a really nice milestone tonight: I understood at least 95% of his side of the 15 minute conversation. I knew my listening comprehension has improved a LOT in last few weeks, but that honestly surprised me. Of course, the quality of my answers in Korean undoubtedly left something to be desired (and the conversation topics were fairly mundane)... but I'll be working on that ^_^. Can't wait for Ewha to start!