Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Review: Pete the Cat and His four Groovy Buttons

Learn more about Pete the Cat here
(Note:  This is not a compensated review.  MsCaroline just happens to think this is an excellent book and believes the world should know about it.)  

Most of you are probably aware that I no longer have small children in my house, so you will probably be scratching your heads at this post.  However, the beauty of a personal blog is just that:  it's personal, and that means I can write about whatever I want to - in this case, a terrific children's book.  As some of you know, I teach ESL a few days a week at an international school here in Seoul.  My students range from barely 3 all the way up to 10 or 11, which means I need to have many tricks in my bag, one of which is storytelling.  Needless to say, I'm always on the prowl for well-written, engaging books that children with even limited English abilities can understand and enjoy.

I happened upon this book a couple of weeks ago and decided that it might be fun to read to my preschool and kindergarten ESL classes.  It fit the requirements for a good ESL book - great illustrations, limited - but interesting- text, and frequent repetition.  It also had the bonus of incorporating numbers and a little bit of simple arithmetic, counting backwards from 4 down to zero.  

All in all, I thought it had a chance of being reasonably well-received.

I was absolutely bowled over by how much the kids loved this book! I read it multiple times to each of my groups, and even the sophisticated 3rd- and 4th graders (!) were begging to hear it again. Now, granted, they may have been laughing at me using my 'cool' voice for singing Pete's Groovy Button Song, but if they were using English -I wasn't complaining. By the end of every reading, they were singing along with me and repeating the main phrases.  Even the older kids shouted out the answers every time I asked, "How many buttons were left?"  I also loved the peaceful good-Karma message behind the story - that things are just things, and they're not worth getting too upset about when they're gone.

The story is simple:  Pete the Cat puts on his favorite shirt one morning with the 4 groovy buttons, and sings a song about them ("My buttons, my buttons, my 4 groovy buttons...") but while he's out and about  each button POPs off and rolls away.  After each POP, we're asked how many buttons are left, and we're reminded (in rhyme) that Pete doesn't cry - "goodness, no!-" because "buttons come and buttons go" -and 3 buttons are just as groovy!  Even when Pete loses that last button, he still finds a song to sing and heads out on his surfboard. 

After such an overwhelming success, I headed home and straight for the internet, where I was delighted to find not just one, but several other Pete the Cat books (including a Christmas one!), and - this was the best - some YouTube videos of the author, Eric Litwin, doing a spoken word/musical/storytelling performance of the book.  Needless to say, he did it with a lot more panache than I did, but I'm not 100% convinced that my version of Pete's song wasn't just as good...

I know that, as a teacher, I always appreciate recommendations, so I thought - in this season of giving - I'd pass on the love, since I know that I number among my readers at least a few parents and grandparents of  younger children who might really enjoy these books as well as at least one children's librarian (Hi, A!) and one or two other ESL teachers.  If you already know about Pete the Cat, I apologize for being repetitive, but I can only say..... why didn't you ever tell me

As it turns out, Pete has his own website which is also lots of fun.

The Pete the Cat books are published by Harper Collins and you can find links to sites for ordering here.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Expat Life: Bank Transfers and Why MsCaroline Deserves an Award

(Note:  The seed for this post was planted a week or so ago when I read this hilarious post by Outbound Mom about the challenges she faced trying to do her banking as an expat in Brazil.  My challenges are nothing like hers, but it does go to show you that even the most mundane daily activities overseas can be fraught with pitfalls.)

Now that I've lived in Seoul for a year and a half, it's probably time to confess that I am just now getting around to using the Korean banking system.  In my defense, I really didn't need to when we first moved here:  MrL's company's contract with the US military allows us the inestimable privilege of using the US-based banking facilities on the nearby US Army base, and we were able to use our US debit cards in most ATMs in Seoul (many of which provide English language transactions) to get cash when needed.  In addition, most establishments in Seoul accept credit cards.

We didn't really have a need for a Korean bank account.

We were also a bit wary of the Korean banking system, since at least one experienced expat had expressed a certain lack of confidence in the level of security of online transactions in Korea (note:  this was to turn out to be one of the most ludicrously incorrect statements that I have heard since moving here and is an excellent example of why you should never accept hearsay as an appropriate source of information.) Based on that - and a certain amount of natural timidity - I was happy to stick with what was working for us at the time.

For the first few months, things moved along smoothly.  Then, once Son#2 started school, we began to run into to the concept of the 'bank transfer.'

In fact, this is actually a pretty convenient system.  Everything that isn't paid in cash or via credit card is done with a bank transfer, simply transferring the money from your account to the payee's, not unlike the system that is used for paying bills online in the US.  The advantage of the transfer, however, is that it can be used just as easily to pay people as institutions, and it can be done online or at an ATM.

Back in the US, when one of the children needed money for something, I sent either cash or a check to school with them.  In Korea, everything (from the Yearbook to field trips to test fees) is paid for via a transfer, which meant that we would need to open a Korean bank account.

I duly opened an account and more or less ignored it, conditioned as I was to using our US account to pay for everything.  Every few months, something would come up (usually something that had to be paid for Son#2's school) and I would trot myself dutifully down to my bank, wait my turn in the Expat Banking line, thrust my passport, my bankbook, my card, and the bank transfer information at the banker and ask her to make the transfer.  The truth is, I'd never mastered doing it on the ATM, which - while claiming to provide guidance in something like 26 world languages - did so in an English that was not always intelligible to me and terrified me by eating my card the first - and only - time I'd tried to use it. (Disclaimer:  according to the people I know who regularly use ATMs to do this, bank transfers are quite easyif you are not MsCaroline once you learn how to do it.)

Cowardly, I know.

While it was not particularly convenient to hike to Hanam-dong to the bank every time I wanted to perform a transfer, since I rarely had to do it, the method - while clunky - worked for me.

I had, at one point, actually gathered all of the information and documents that I had needed to set up online transactions  some time ago, but had never actually gone to the trouble of setting up an online account, since I knew instinctively it would be complicated.  However, I woke up this morning to find Son#2 thrusting a document in my face and insisting frantically that I needed to transfer money to pay for his IGCSEs this May, which he had (naturally) waited until the last minute to ask me for.  Given that it was a) my day off and b) it was approximately -2C out, I decided that the time had come for me to try Korean online banking.

It was then that I discovered just how ridiculous the idea of Korean online banking being less secure than the US system was.

In the first place, I couldn't just log in without having previously made a special trip to the bank where I had to apply for online access and be given a special number and a special 'security card' which looked to me like a tiny credit-card sized bingo sheet, covered with rows of numbers (now you know why I said that I knew instinctively it would be complicated.)

In the second place, once I dug all this information out and logged myself on  to their English-speaking site, I discovered that what I took for 'security' in the US was a shameful and pale shadow of the online security system here in Korea, where they apparently take this much more seriously than we do.

The security steps I took included:

  • logging in with a unique userID and password (set up for me at my bank visit:  so far, no different than the US system.)
  • typing in a special digital code from the back of my passbook (of course I had to stop everything and go find it)
  • typing in the PIN number that I used with my ATM card
  • going through a process of being issued an online 'digital certificate' which had its own password that then had to be entered to act as my digital signature
  • entering a series of numbers from my 'security card;' 'enter the 2nd number on line two and the 3rd number from line 6'
  • and again, entering the 3rd, 6th and 7th numbers from the ID number printed on my 'security card.' 
  • and of course, entering all the information for the bank that the money was being transferred to (actually, a walk in the park compared to everything else I'd already done.)

45 minutes, 3 failed attempts, 2 Korean warning notification boxes, and 2 cups of coffee later, I had successfully set up my online account, applied for - and been granted - my "digital certificate," correctly typed in what felt like a million numbers and codes, and transferred the money.  All, I might add, without once using language unbecoming a lady or throwing things.

Is it any wonder that I feel like I deserve some sort of an award? 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Expat Life: A Different Sort of Thanksgiving

Those of you who are in - or from - the United States will probably be aware that today (November 22nd) is Thanksgiving.  (If you are not from the US and would like a brief primer, you can refer to this post I wrote last year, outlining the basics and lamenting the fact that the Asia Vu family would not be spending the holiday with their loved ones.)

As it turns out, we won't be spending this Thanksgiving Day with our loved ones, either - not even each other, since MrL and I both have to work.  Son#1 is, of course, still at University in the US, and Son#2-whose school does close for Thanksgiving - will be spending the day at Lotte World with an assortment of his friends from a variety of countries and cultures who either a) don't celebrate Thanksgiving or b)whose families are working like we are.  (Let me add that, for a 15-year-old boy, a visit to an amusement park with your friends is always preferable to hanging out eating with old people, so he's not upset in the least.)

Never fear, though:  we'll still be celebrating - just a bit later, on Friday evening with the other expats and their families from MrL's office.

But this year, I will be working on Thanksgiving Day.  The school where I teach - while international - is not American and, therefore, quite reasonably, does not celebrate American holidays. MrL's company is on a Korean holiday schedule. So, Thursday the 22nd will see MsC and MrL heading to work just like on any other day.

I originally was not going to mention this on the blog, because I didn't want to sound self-pitying.  You know:  "Oh, poor me, my husband and I have to work on Thanksgiving and one of my children is 6,000 miles away and the other one will be spending the day without his family and not eating turkey, alas and alack." First World Problems, right?

I will admit to initially having felt a tiny bit blue about the whole thing, but then I decided that, if I couldn't share Thanksgiving with my family, I would go ahead and share it with the students that I teach every day. Accordingly, over the last few weeks, I trolled the internet for some good material, looked out a couple books with simple descriptions, and even found a couple of great little videos on YouTube that explain the American Thanksgiving in relatively simple language, including one which makes up for what it lacks in depth with a really catchy tune, entitled, "Let's Have a Dinner - Thanksgiving!"

After the general explanation, I decided I needed a song, so I managed to dredge up from my own childhood  a tune about a despondent turkey contemplating his own mortality (compliments of my mother, a former primary school teacher) and whose refrain consists of 'Gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble, I would like to run away! Gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble gobble, I don't like Thanksgiving Day!'  

I planned on following this with a charming tale about a turkey who (successfully) evades a rifle-toting farmer (Run, Turkey, Run!-destined to be a classic, I'm sure.)

And of course, I planned to cap it all off with a true American childhood Thanksgiving classic:  the hand turkey.

As I dug through all the material, it really was like a walk down memory lane for me:  the songs, the stories, even the crafts - from my childhood, and my own children's.

When I taught my first lesson on 'American Thanksgiving' on Monday, I think I had more fun than the kids did.  I'll teach that same lesson 4 or 5 more times before I leave work on Friday, and I'll enjoy it every single time, I'm sure.

It has been such fun to share the Mayflower and pilgrims and pumpkin pie and family dinners for the first time with these kids! I have looked forward to every class and sharing every activity with them - yes, even the hand turkey.

In a way, I've been re-living all of my Thanksgivings by sharing them with my students.

Today, even though I'll be standing in front of a classroom instead of sitting down at a table with my family, it will still be Thanksgiving.  I'll be sharing those stories, those traditions, and the custom of - for one day at least - reflecting on all we have to be grateful for.

And I will be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Yoboseyo? Yoboseyo?

(Note:  "Yoboseyo" is 'hello' on the telephone in Korean.  It's how you answer the phone and how you greet someone when you phone them.)

One of the things you never think about when moving to a foreign country is Phone Spam.  (Or, perhaps more accurately, one of the things that I never thought about when moving to a foreign country was Phone Spam.  Maybe the rest of you were already aware.)

By "Phone Spam," I am, of course, referring to telephone calls from:  A) human telemarketers  B) robot telemarketers  and C) humans who have dialed (or been given) the wrong number.  When I lived in the US, the amount of Phone Spam I got on my cell/mobile phone was really quite minimal, and if the house phone caller ID registered a name or number that sounded suspicious, I just didn't pick it up.

Here in Korea, though, we don't have a landline in the apartment, which is very common.  Everyone in the family has a mobile and, like everyone else in Korea, we have them with us at all times.  Of course, the drawback to this is the fact that all those robocalls and telemarketers are also with us at all times, as are the wrong numbers.

In the case of telemarketers, it's actually quite an advantage to not speak any Korean. As soon as the telemarketer realizes I don't speak Korean (the cheery, "Hello, MsCaroline speaking" gives it away, I guess,) he or she hangs up, presumably to telemarket in greener pastures.

In the case of the robots, it's not really a problem either:  I just hang up.

But I just can't hang up on people -especially people who have likely made an honest mistake.  Which means I am entirely to blame for the frustration that ensues.

Logically, you would think these calls would end very quickly, as soon as the caller realizes I'm not the Korean person or business that they were trying to reach:

MsCaroline:  Hello?
Stranger:  Yoboseyo?
MsCaroline:  I'm sorry, I don't speak Korean.  You have the wrong number.
Stranger:  (hmmm...this person does not speak Korean.  It can't be Pizza Hut/Aunt Jane. I must have called the wrong number) *click*

This, however, hasn't been the case at all, and I can't figure out why.

When I get wrong numbers here, the callers just don't accept it.  You'd think that they'd hear 'Hello' and hang up almost immediately.  But no.

They are tenacious.  They suspect I have latent Korean-speaking abilities (or maybe a nearby friend who has them) that will emerge if they only speak more loudly, if they hang on a bit longer, use smaller words. When I state (in English) that I don't speak Korean, they reply - at length -in Korean.  And they don't hang up.  They sit there -breathing - on the other end of the phone, waiting for me to respond.  And when I do respond - in English - they don't just hang up.  No! They keep trying! They have unlimited faith in me  - or perhaps in my potential.  But the point is, It never works.

But they always try.  And I always end up feeling very, very guilty.

As an example, I provide the following exchange which took place no less than 15 minutes ago:

MsCaroline:  Hello? This is MsCaroline.
Stranger:  Yoboseyo? Yoboseyo?
MsCaroline:  Hello? I'm sorry, I don't speak any Korean. 
Stranger:  Yoboseyo?
MsCaroline:  (patiently) I'm sorry, I don't speak Korean. You must have the wrong number.
Stranger:  (with determination) Yoboseyo? (More statements in Korean that MsCaroline does not understand.)
MsCaroline:  You have the wrong number.  I  don't speak Korean.
Stranger:  (skeptically)  .....Yoboseyo? (More Korean that is not understood).
MsCaroline:  (inexplicably feeling the need to speak loudly) You. Have. The. Wrong. Number.
Stranger: .............. (Lengthy discourse in Korean, louder)
MsCaroline:  (desperately) English.  No Korean. Wrong number.
Stranger: (first, speaking over shoulder to others in the room in Korean, then turning back to the phone)....(loud, simple sentences in Korean that MsCaroline does not understand.)
MsCaroline:  (hopelessly) I speak English.  Wrong number!
Stranger...*hangs up*

(MsCaroline drops phone from nerveless fingers and runs abstracted hands through hair, which makes her appear recently electrocuted.  Phone rings.)

MsCaroline:  (guardedly) Hello?
Stranger:  Yoboseyo?


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

'Tis The Season Already.....Even In Korea

Christmas is on its way at our local e-Mart (kind of the Korean version of Super Target.)

MsCaroline is no Grinch, and believes that Christmas music should be a legitimate option year-round, but she really didn't expect to find Christmas consumerism rearing its ugly head quite so soon.  Especially in Korea.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Expat Life: It's Just My Size!

Although MsCaroline is no longer parenting very small boys who need constant supervision, those days are not so far behind her that she can't appreciate the charm of this thoughtfully-placed fixture that she ran across in the Ladies' Room in the Dongdaemun subway station last week.

(As an aside, MsCaroline has found that Korean culture - and Koreans in general - really love little children, and the infrastructure really does seem wonderfully well set up to support parents and their children, so this sort of charming detail geared towards small people is not unusual. If you are moving to Seoul with small children, you will be pleasantly surprised.)

This clever child-sized urinal would have been a welcome sight to MsCaroline back in the days when she was  trying to wrestle with two of them in a toilet stall approximately the size of a phone booth, doing her best to keep one from wandering off or - even worse - touching things, while trying to encourage the other one to pay attention for God's sake, not on the wall, that's your shoe! and stop laughing at your brother.

Of course, MsCaroline suspects that - given her luck - at least one of her children would have been convinced that the friendly porcelain pig (cow?) was going to eat him(or parts of him,) precipitating some sort of meltdown, and refused to get anywhere near its gaping maw. Which would have resulted in the three of them jostling in the stall anyway.

But she still thinks it's a nice idea.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Expat Life: You Oughta Know By Now: Eating Out in Seoul

Source:  Or Not 2B Comics

As most of you know, MsCaroline is not exactly an authority on expat life in Seoul, although she does endeavor to share her own hard-won knowledge with anyone who is interested.

MsCaroline will, however, say, that, after 18 months here, she knows the basics.  She knows greetings and farewells, she knows when to bow (when in doubt - bow), she knows when it's OK to push (sidewalks and subways) and when you have to take a number and wait quietly (banks, clinics, offices, the mobile phone service center.)  She knows about driving in Korea ( traffic laws=there for other people to follow) and she knows about restaurants (buzz for the waiter, metal chopsticks, pour water for others first.)

Since MsCaroline knows all this - and more - you would think that her days of being surprised would be over by now, but you would, sadly, be wrong.

So, when she went to a Mexican restaurant in Seoul a few weeks ago, she was genuinely surprised when she ordered a margarita and it turned out to be made of soju.

There is clearly no excuse for this.  It has been 18 months since MsCaroline got here, and she knows that cuisine in her host country is different from what you get at home.

She has, over the course of her stay here, been offered cow intestines, roasted silkworm larvae, raw cuttlefish, stingray, pickled radish, and dried seaweed.  She has tried all of them and found that some of them are delicious, and she has learned the importance of approaching every new food with an open mind.

However, the main lesson she has learned about food here in Korea is this:  even if it has the same name as it does in the US, it does not go without saying that it will taste the same - or even have the same ingredients.  This does not mean it will taste bad, though.  It simply means that you should not expect to get exactly what you would get back in the US.  

MsCaroline knows this.  In fact, MsCaroline knew this before she arrived, although she has had to be reminded of this repeatedly over the course of the last year due to being slow and often very thick.

So there was no excuse for any surprise whatsoever when she ordered 'seafood curry' last week at a Thai restaurant here in Seoul and found this perched jauntily on the top of her order:

Of course, MsCaroline had forgotten that, when you say 'seafood' in Korea, it's entirely reasonable to expect octopus or squid or shrimp to show up in your entree.  Intact.

And, even though they were in a Thai restaurant, they were still in Korea.

So MsCaroline had no excuse for not knowing, and she had even less excuse for being surprised.

But MsCaroline -while she is slow - has learned some things, and I am pleased to say that she was able to rise to the occasion.

She did not say, "Eeeewwww! there's an octopus in my curry!"

She did not say, "Oh, how weird, there's an octopus in my curry!"

She simply did what you do in Korea when there's an octopus in your curry.

Reader, she ate it.

And that, my friends, is what we call progress.