Sunday, December 19, 2010

Big Size Opsseoyo, Big Shock Isseoyo! (15 November)

Saturday involved a long and unsuccessful shopping trip to Itaewon in Seoul.  Another Gunsan South African and I decided to get a really early start and headed to Seoul in an attempt to find some warmer clothing.  The score of the end of the day? Money spent: about 900 000 won (nearly US$900) – Clothing purchased: 0. So what did I spend my money on?

I didn’t find any clothing that fit me – or that I would actually wear - but I did buy shoes: lots and lots of shoes…and a really expensive handbag!  I can justify the shoes because they’re an investment.  I bought winter Teva boots and sturdy sneakers for hiking.  I couldn’t accompany my second graders on their hiking trip yesterday because I didn’t have appropriate clothing – at least, now, I have the appropriate shoes which will probably sit in my shoe closet (I love that I have a shoe closet!) until next year sometime.  The other shoes are all incidental and seasonal so they can also be justified.  After all, you can never have too many shoes.  The handbag…not so much.
It’s a handmade, genuine leather bag so it is an investment.  It’s in a classic style and it’s black so it’s practical but most important: It’s SO PRETTY!

Big Size Opsseoyo

As a foreigner in Korea, you need a really thick skin to go clothes shopping here!  If you’re even slightly larger than the average sized Korean, you’re probably going to have to do your clothes shopping in the ‘Big Size’ stores in Itaewon or similar areas.  I feel like an elephant in Korea.  I know I’m large and slightly overweight but does it really have to be shoved down my throat every time I walk past a store.  Itaewon is the (very sketchy) mecca for many a foreigner living in Korea and the number of ‘Big Size’ or ‘Plus Size’ stores (seriously: That’s what they’re called!) in Itaewon is a testament to this status.  Itaewon is near the US Air Base in Seoul which explains it’s western dominance.

I have yet to have a Korean person or colleague comment about my weight (or maybe they do and I just don’t understand them) but I’ve heard many stories where Koreans have told even US size 8 women that they’re fat or that their “stomach very large”.  Maybe I have kinder colleagues, maybe I’m just oblivious but the truth is…I’m also terrified of walking into most clothing stores that aren’t called ‘Big Size’ because I don’t think I could bear the humiliation of being chased out of the store.  I’ve heard horror stories of foreigners being chased out of stores by staff crossing their arms to form an ‘X’ (Korean sign language for ‘No’) and saying, rather loudly, “Big Size Opsseoyo” (We don’t have big sizes).  Perhaps this hesitancy partially explains why at six pm when we decide to give up on shopping for the day, we haven’t found many clothes because we’re a little hesitant that we’ll be chased from the store by angry mobs throwing the verbal equivalent of flaming torch at the overweight foreigners!

When it’s finally time to leave Seoul, our bus mysteriously seems to be running later and later which is rather unusual for Korea.  We’ve hit major traffic leaving Seoul and we’re so far behind schedule that we don’t even stop at the rest stop on the way home.  Our driver is clearly attempting to make up for lost time too and I find myself feeling rather sea-sick as a result of the swaying bus and manic driving that gets us to Gunsan by just after 23:00.  The next day is spent simply recovering from the failed shopping attempt in Seoul.

Big Shock Isseoyo

Monday morning brings with it a new and rather uncomfortable surprise.  Since the Korean CSAT is being written this Thursday and we have mock exams and all types of other things happening at school and have already lost two days of teaching in the previous week, it means that my filmed lesson will have to happen within the next two days – and not with my desired class.  At least, this is the news that I’m given first thing Monday morning.  My first lesson of the day is easy – this particular class is always an easy class to work with which kind of makes up for the fact that the class directly after theirs is the complete opposite.  My week starts with a lesson that almost seems to run itself followed by a lesson that feels like I’m not only drawing blood from a stone but pounding it to death at the same time as I use my entire weight to drain the fraction of a millilitre of blood in this 11 person rock.

For some reason, my co-teacher is not in this particular lesson from the start so I’m not too concerned when the door at the back of the English lab opens, a head peeps in and then disappears outside again.  My co-teacher is used to my rather casual style of teaching where I generally sit on a desk and try to just ‘chat’ with the students on a Monday morning.  The ten Korean men, all dressed in very official looking suits, who have just entered the English lab with my principal (at least, I think he’s the principal) and vice-principal, however, do not seem as comfortable with this style of teaching.  My kids are oblivious (or just don’t care) to the fact that several suits have just entered the lesson and are currently standing at the back of the room looking at the newly decorated room and listening to my lesson.  I’m equally oblivious, thankfully, to the fact that these suits are actually doing a school inspection and are from the Jeonbuk Department of Education – ie. They’re technically my boss!

By the time I realize this, I’ve already endured the awkward 10 minutes they’ve observed of my conversation lesson – the one where I’m the only one talking on this particular day – and I can only make sure that I am fully prepared for my filmed lesson on Wednesday.  I’m so engrossed in ‘rehearsing’ this upcoming lesson that it takes me 20 minutes and four students to realize I’m meant to be teaching in that particular hour.  Considering it took my kids 20 minutes to come and look for me, I don’t think they’re too worried about missing half the lesson even if I feel like an idiot at that point.  Fortunately, my vice-principal is still entertaining the suits somewhere in the school and isn’t in our teacher’s room to see my latest screw up…

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pepero Day (11 November)

I love Koreans!  They’re all about building relationships and showing your love and appreciation for people with cutesy things.  It’s all about the love!  This is seen by the fact that they have about a dozen versions of Valentine’s Day – each with it’s own etiquette and gift policy, it seems.  Today is one such day: Pepero Day!


Unlike the other versions of Valentine’s Day that are usually held on the 14th of each month, Pepero Day is always held on the 11th day of the 11th month and it’s a celebration ‘holiday’ that was created by the company that makes Pepero candy which is an ingenious marketing idea!  Pepero is similar to Pocky (I think) in Japan and is long, thin biscuits dipped in chocolate.  The aim is to get four of these (11/11) which show the date of Pepero Day.  NZ2 warned me about it yesterday so I went to Lotte mart to buy some supplies to hand out at school. 

I’ve read that Pepero Day is also a good day to give candy to secret crushes without having to feel like an idiot.  I already feel like an idiot most of the time but today, I feel particularly ridiculous walking into my teacher’s room with a bag of candy.  I can’t quite get over my awkwardness of handing out kiddie candy to my colleagues – and no one else seems to be doing it – so I resort to handing it out to all of my classes.  Bear in mind, I’ve actually bought enough candy to give to every teacher in my school and I’ve only used about a tenth of this on my classes – the rest is sitting in my desk drawer. 

In each class, I hand out candy which is always popular with the kids here – trust me, they need the sugar rush! – and I’ve been offered Pepero sticks by a couple of students.  I don’t see any teachers handing out Pepero but, somehow, I find several boxes of Pepero that have mysteriously appeared on my desk while I’ve been in class.  Where and who it came from, I have no idea but I do know that I probably have enough Pepero to keep me going until next November!

Understanding my School (10 November)

A couple of days ago, I wrote about my co-teacher’s confession that she had thought I wasn’t planning to return to Gunsan after the EPIK orientation.  It’s been just over a week and I can’t help thinking about what she said.  I understand that the female GETs at my school haven’t ever finished a contract and the stubbornness in my personality is determined to see my contract through just to prove my school wrong.  However, I’ve noticed that NZ2 seems to have been welcomed by our Korean colleagues with far less hesitation that I have even though he’s only been at the school five weeks longer than me.  One of my co-teachers, with whom he has no classes, has even taken him out to dinner but doesn’t ever talk to me – the teacher with whom he actually has a class!

My Korean colleagues are great and I can understand that they’re trying really hard to help me settle in but I can’t help feeling a little envious of the stories other GETs have of their colleagues and co-teachers: They all seem to socialise with them outside of school whereas mine seem rather reluctant to get to know me.  It’s almost as though they’ve already decided that I won’t be staying very long and I’m just another GET who’ll soon tire of trying to adjust to the very different customs of Korea.  I get it: No matter how long I stay, I’m temporary and always will be but then…aren’t we all temporary even if we do see our contracts through?

I snoop for background information on the previous female GETs by asking everyone I meet who mentions them.  Finally, NZ1 and I have a rather frank chat which kind of helps but I’ve decided that it’s time for a heart to heart with my head co-teacher.  After all, I really do want to be friends with her!

An opportunity presents itself when I finish a lesson in the English lab and she’s there fixing the sound on a computer.  Feeling more cowardly than I had thought, I approach her with a tentative request to talk to her about something when she has time.  Bad choice of words: I can see the fear, hesitation, anger, and finally suspicion flicker across her face and she insists that she has time right then.  She shows me to the opposite side of the lab and indicates that I take a seat at the table.  Rather than face her squarely across the table (I want a friendly, reassuring chat after all, not a confrontation!), I pull out two chairs so that we’re forced to sit more side to side thinking of everything I’ve ever read about non-verbal clues.

I immediately state that the subject is nothing bad because I can sort of guess what she’s probably thinking: Oh crap, another one bites the dust. I hate being the head co-teacher! The thing is: I genuinely like my co-teacher but I get the impression that she’s not too fond of me.  I try to phrase this as delicately as possible and generalize it by saying that everyone seems a little bit suspicious of me.  I’ve already lasted longer than my predecessor since I’ve been here five weeks already so my next milestone is six months which is when I’ll have outlasted my predecessor’s predecessor.  My concern is that, as much as I’m determined to stay for at least my one year contract, six months can become a very long time if I’m going to have to constantly prove myself to my colleagues.  I don’t want to get to the end of my contract and have only just made friends with the people I work with.

A 45 minute heart to heart later and I think that my co-teacher is starting to come around.  I’ve reassured her that I’m really happy in Gunsan and I can keep telling people that but, at some point, they’re going to have to start to believe me.  When that might happen is anyone’s guess.  She thinks the rest of my colleagues will start to come around by Christmas so seven weeks to go then!  The most reassuring part of ‘the talk’, however, is when she tells me that several of the Korean staff have already commented to her that I seem to be very different to the other GETs they’ve had and that was all the result of 60 000 won worth of sweet potato bread that I shared with my colleagues last week! Long may it continue…

New Discoveries (6 – 7 November)

Having dragged myself to last night’s potluck dinner rather reluctantly, I wake this morning with renewed optimism and hope.  The Canadian couple I met last night have offered to take me around Gunsan today.  The day is both interesting and fun; their daughter is really sweet and has already taken to calling me “Onni” (spelling?) which is a term that Koreans use for ‘elder sister’.  Had I not had this explained to me at the EPIK orientation last week, I would probably have been rather confused at her constant use of this – although, for some reason, she occasionally calls me Lisa by mistake.

For most people, today probably wouldn’t be exciting at all.  These Canadians have lived in Korea for seven years, their daughter attends Korean school and I’m content to be shown around my town by people who know the little hidden away places that I wouldn’t otherwise discover.  It’s also great to get a couple of the larger things that I need for my apartment (like a small wardrobe that has shelf space) and advice on where to buy future items that are already on my shopping list but spaced out over the next three months’ budgets.

The Canadian couple is awesome!  They take me to Subway, the fabled Lotte mart where we do actually see quite a few foreigners and finally they introduce me to the Galbi restaurant which I probably will never manage to find again followed by ice cream at Cold Stone which is a novel experience in itself.

The next day, I’m exhausted.  Somehow, this weekend has proved to be the most social I’ve been since arriving in Korea (apart from orientation).  The potluck dinner has opened up a new realm of possibilities and foreigners to get to know.  Considering that I’m not the most social of people at the best of times, I find myself looking forward to a relaxing Sunday at home, attempting to assemble the mini-wardrobe that I purchased yesterday. 

I’m woken by a text message from NZ2.  He, NZ1 and NZ1’s wife are going to Wolmyeong Park for the day and invite me to join them.  My apartment is begging to be cleaned and I’m working on an essay for a competition – exciting, I know but I can’t really do a third day of socialising at this stage so I decline the invitation. 

DIY Efforts

My day proceeds with a trip to the store to buy a screwdriver and a few other items that I’m not entirely sure I really need although this doesn’t seem to stop me.  Back home, I find that assembling a wardrobe is not as easy – or quick – as I’d anticipated.  First, the instructions are in Korean (of course) although the parts are all numbered as I discover on closer inspection.  Getting the basic frame together is rather satisfying but I’m looking forward to securing the two shelves and being done with this mini project. 

The bits and pieces waiting to be assembled...

Thirty minutes later, I’m feeling rather proud of my DIY efforts even though I don’t quite remember the edges of the shelves being as rough as mine appear to be.  Unbelievably, I’ve put the shelves in backwards which involves another 15 minutes of undoing and 20 minutes re-doing the shelves which I carefully triple check.  Nearly three hours later, I have a mini-wardrobe and finally finish unpacking my suitcases which have been doubling as shelves.  I feel a sense of achievement at having assembled my first project but I’m not sure I’ll be tackling something like this again too quickly. 

The finished product.

Fortunately, my school will be holding interviews for students for the 2011 school year so there are no lessons tomorrow, which means an entire day of trying to look busy at work although there’s nothing for me to do.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Apologies and Dinner (5 November)

Screw-ups and Apologies

First, let me say that I genuinely love my kids but, sometimes, they really get on my nerves.  Today was one such day.  It really irritates me that they procrastinate so during lessons and some of them openly watch the clock, unashamedly counting down the minutes - sorry, seconds (they’re Korean, they’re really good at maths) – until the end of the lesson and don’t hesitate to say goodbye the second the bell rings.  Today’s class just irked me!

I’d worked so hard to try and make the week’s lessons as fun and different as possible which was my first mistake – at least, trying to make them different was a mistake.  My students now feel so comfortable with me that they don’t feel awkward telling me how much they miss the GET I replaced (the one who only lasted three weeks!) and how they prefer her to me.  I walked out the class and couldn’t help crying.  My older kids hate me!

Within 10 minutes, one of the students had come to apologise and explain that he had misheard something and hadn’t meant to offend me.  His exit bow was low, I actually felt uncomfortable.  However, the great thing about bows is that the depth is an indicator as to the level of respect – the lower the better.  I thought this kid’s head was going to hit the floor or he was going to overbalance and tumble down the stairs and then I’d really be in the dog-box at school but, miraculously, like a contortionist, he returns to an upright position, I thank him and we go our separate ways.  Another student kindly tells me that she thinks my lessons are childish.

Lesson 3: If you want to change approaches to learning in a Korean classroom, start with something small like…expecting the students to stay awake during the lesson.


By the time I get home, I don’t feel like going to the potluck dinner I was invited to by another New Zealander who found me on Facebook.  I reluctantly drag myself from my bed, fix my tear-ruined make-up and head to Naund-dong with the hope that there’ll be lots of new foreigners there to meet.  I’m surprised to immediately recognise one of the foreigners before I’m even through the door.

An hour into the evening, I recognise several people who were at the same orientation session with me which is somewhat comforting.  After a truly lousy day at school, and a hectic week playing catch-up of all the work that piled up for me while I was in Seoul, I’m surprised to discover that I’m really enjoying my evening.  The gorgeous Brit I met briefly last weekend is also present and a formal introduction is made.  I also meet a Canadian couple who live within walking distance from me.  Apparently not all the foreigners live on the newer side of town.

My side of Gunsan where foreigner-hunting is a legitimate sport.

The newer and more developed side of Gunsan
where most of the foreigners seem to live.
As an American recounts his experience of attempting to take a bus from Jeonju to Gunsan (a 30 minute trip) and ending up on a bus to Busan instead thanks to a small error in pronunciation, I find myself hopeful that bad days are inevitable but there are so many good days to enjoy - a sense of humour is a definite pre-requisite for teaching in Korea.

Evaluation Time (3 November)

My co-teacher informed me today that all GETs, and teachers in general in Korea, have to submit a video of a lesson to the Department of Education for evaluation.  The criteria stipulate that 70% of the evaluation is based on the interaction between the GET and the Korean co-teacher during the lesson; the remaining 30% is based on the written lesson plan that has to be submitted with the video.

The irony of the situation is that, while I have a good working relationship with both of my co-teachers, I usually end up teaching my classes alone since my co-teachers have so much other work to do.  That doesn’t mean my lessons are less successful than those of GETs whose co-teachers are in the class during the lessons; we’re simply honest about the fact that if, as a native speaker, we can’t handle an English conversation class of 10 – 12 students alone, we probably shouldn’t be here.

I’m reminded by NZ1 that, in Korea, how things look is more important than anything else.  As long as the lesson looks successful and there seems to be great co-operation between myself and my co-teacher.  Besides, I had a student ask a question in class today; how hard can this be?

Breaking Bread (2 November)

My co-teacher made a rather surprising confession to me last Friday.  I had tried to phone her a couple of times last week to let her that I had to go back to the doctor the day after I got back from orientation in Seoul and that the appointment was for 10:00am so I would have to miss two classes.  Since I couldn’t reach her by phone, and I couldn’t understand how to leave a voice message, I sent her a text – using the abbreviation ‘Dr’.  As an English teacher, I should know the importance of context: She read the message as the Director (or the orientation session) wanting me to stay in Seoul for tests and she panicked.  This explains the three unusual text messages she sent to me 15 minutes before I got on a bus back to Gunsan.

Lesson 2: Don’t communicate essential information to your co-teacher (anything using the words ‘leave’, ‘gone’ or ‘miss’) in a text message!

My co-teacher confessed that she thought I wasn’t planning to return to Gunsan after the orientation.  She further explained that she was expecting to find my apartment empty of all my things with which I’d arrived and she was disappointed in herself.  I, in turn, felt frustrated with myself that I’d cause the initial misunderstanding and so we continued in circles until we both relented and started chatting about K-pop (Korean pop music) and my recent discovery of Korean boy band, 2am.  She explained that she had been concerned that I wasn’t happy in Korea and that I was battling to adjust but clearly I’ve adjust far more than she’d realized.


There is a (somewhat) logical explanation for her initial thought being that I was planning to leave Korea without saying anything to her: My predecessor did exactly that.  The GET who I replaced was an American woman who, despite being in Gunsan with her husband who is also a teacher, apparently only lasted three weeks.  She left school at the end of the third week, sent an email to my co-teacher over the weekend with a list of reasons to explain why she would not be coming back to school on the following Monday.  Had I not already heard this from NZ1 and 2, I would have been completely baffled by my co-teacher’s frantic text messages.

No one knows the real reason the previous GET left but the reality is that all of the teachers who have broken their contracts at my school have always been women.  My colleagues seem to now expect this of all foreign female teachers and the general consensus seems to be that I will soon follow suit.  It’s not that they want me to leave – they just seem to expect me to do so. 

A Korean Approach

Ironically, this confession was made while my co-teacher and I were walking back to school from the local bakery, Paris Baguette where she had helped me order sweet potato breads for all of the staff at school.  Koreans love to share food! It’s true.  My colleagues are going to either kill me with kindness or with food.  Every time someone celebrates a wedding, birth or any other special occasion in their family, they give everyone at school something edible.  This is often rice cake, or strange truffle like things that look like marzipan but are actually quite gross, or fruit.  Before I’d even left South Africa, I had decided that I would bring some type of food for my colleagues at the end of the first month (pay day!) to thank them for all they’ve done to help me settle in at school and in Korea.  I had to get my co-teacher to help me place the order since I don’t speak Korean and she recommended the sweet potato bread – which sounds gross but it’s actually really tasty!

The reaction from my colleagues was amazing!  My co-teacher seemed surprised that I wanted to do something like this since, as she said, “it’s a very Korean thing to do”.  Then, she told me that it really wasn’t necessary but I insisted and told her that I’d been trying to arrange it myself but language was a problem.  Yesterday (Monday), we had about five minutes in which to hand out the bread.  I carried the box and my co-teacher did the talking as we flew around all the offices in the school.  I don’t understand much Korean but the number of people who said “waegook” coupled with shocked expressions seems to suggest that this is may be a common practice in Korea but not when it’s done by a foreigner. If their surprise and shock weren’t followed by big smiles and genuine thank-yous, I would probably have believed I’d screwed up yet again.

Surprising Results

The after effect is incredible, however.  I’m suddenly greeted rather warmly by staff who previously only acknowledged my presence and my principal always greets me with a low bow – which is generally followed by me attempting to touch the floor with my forehead in my effort to bow lower than he does since he’s both older than me and considerably senior in status too.  Apparently, none of my colleagues have ever known a foreigner to follow such a simple and, let’s face it, fantastic custom.  That’s the best 60 000 won (approximately US$60) I’ve spent so far and, with a bit of luck, a step in the right direction in convincing my new colleagues that I intend staying.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Unusual, The Comical, The Strange and The Unexplained (1 November)

Finding peculiar things in Korea is becoming a bit of a hobby.  Here are some of the best I’ve found so far.

After seeing how people park in Gunsan, I don't feel so bad about my poor parking skills.  Even my parallel parking isn't as bad as the one below.

Chocolate chip cookies - Yum!  There are only six, individually wrapped, cookies per box.  Amazingly, for a country that has really hefty fines for incorrect recycling, everything here seems to be individually wrapped and sold in a box with three layers of additional wrapping.  Check the weight listing very carefully!

A church or just a steeple and a cross on a random building?  NZ2 tells me he had his watch battery replaced here.  I've only been able to find shops, a bowling alley and an internet cafe...

The most awful coffee in a can: 'Let's Be'!  Please don’t be serious and put a big smile on your face with Let’s be it’s the name of all time No. 1 Coffee.

At the Korean language study section for foreigners in the
Kyobo Bookstore in Seoul.

My personal favourite! This is a sign at the end of a bridge connecting two of the Seonyudo Islands - a bridge that must be at least 200m above the sea! Any suggestions?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Biking on Seonyudo Islands (30 – 31 October)

On the weekend of my first trip with Adventure Korea (, I discover that the Gunsan English Learning Centre which is next door to my school, has six…SIX…foreign teachers on staff.  I was told that there were no English teachers there.  The only reason I now know this is because the entrance to the Centre is in the side road that I take from my apartment to the nearest stores and I happened to be walking past the centre as three teachers were leaving work.  I’m invited to the annual English festival the centre is hosting the next day and a Halloween party hosted by someone named James even though I have yet to meet James.

The next morning, I pop by the festival just to show my face since I’ve already made plans to go to Seonyudo Islands for the weekend.  I’m impressed by number of people present so early in the morning and find myself torn between having to meet NZ2, who is also going biking on Seonyudo Islands, and wanting to stay at the English Festival longer.  I have a brief moment of eye contact with a gorgeous Brit, say a few words, and then I’m on my way to meet NZ2 feeling rather excited to know that there are still so many foreigners in Gunsan to meet.

With perfect timing, I meet NZ2 outside his apartment complex as arranged…where the Adventure Korea (AK) bus has just pulled up.  We’re able to take the bus to the harbour instead of taking a taxi and praying that our pronunciation is correct.  From here, things move more swiftly, and we’re soon on the ferry surrounded by delightful gas fumes.  Fortunately, the weather is perfect so it’s a smooth ride.  The fish and seaweed farms near the Islands are fascinating and several boats seem to be ‘parked’ on the shores leading to the ferry terminal.

Fish (or seaweed) farms

Arriving on the Islands

On the Island, we deposit our bags in the waiting van, and walk towards the bike rental place.  The Islands are really popular with tourists during the summer so 40 foreigners seems to be a bit of an invasion at this time of year.  At the bike rental place, I’m suddenly confronted with the stark reality of this trip; it’s been nearly 20 years since I last rode a bike and I can’t help scoffing at the saying that it all comes back naturally.  The trip suddenly seems ominous as I attempt to ride a bike that seems far to big for me.  In addition to a lack of confidence on the bike, I have to dodge oncoming Island taxis driven by somewhat manic Koreans who openly gawk at the waegooks.

Island taxis

At our hotel, we’re assigned rooms and settle in before starting the actual bike trip. 

If you ever book into a traditional Korean hotel room that
advertises 'futon-style mattresses', this is what they're talking about.

From the onset, it’s clear that we’ll pretty much be finding our own way around the main island since the hills are enough to kill the very unfit group members like myself.  The views, however, are spectacular and three hours later, with a very sore butt, my new friends and I agree it’s time to hand back our bikes and go for a walk. 

The walk happens to take us past several seafood restaurants where you can choose your (unidentifiable) dinner from the tanks outside.  A guessing game ensues before we see a group of people from AK sitting on the steps near the sea.  The group of Korean men who openly stare and take photos of us are amusing and some of us are tipsy enough to just smile, wave and point our own cameras in their direction while they make a hasty retreat.  The sunset that we watch over the sea is spectacular and quick.

New Experiences

Dinner is an interesting affair where I’m coerced into tasting kimchi, a Korean staple which tastes a lot like pickled onions, and clams which taste like rubber.  The rest of the meal is not bad and I rather like the kimchi even though I still can’t hold my chopsticks correctly.  Busan Jeffrey attempts to provide a chopstick tutorial.

A day of firsts, I have my first taste of Soju which I’ve been cautioned is the downfall of many a foreigner in this country.  I rather like the taste of Soju, which is quite similar to vodka, and can’t help wondering if I am becoming a Korean.  Since our bonfire in the barbeque is not allowed, we carry wood down to the beach where a decent bonfire is made and a crazy evening of fireworks and silly word games ensues coupled with alcohol.

The next morning, a few brave souls are up early to see attempt to watch the sunrise followed by the rest of us lazy sods who only make it up in time for breakfast.  With over an hour to wait until the morning’s hike, three of us set off for a walk on another part of the island.  We don’t get very far since there’s so much to stop and look at and we’re somewhat disappointed to realise that the hike includes half of our morning walk anyway.

Surviving the Hike

Getting to the viewpoints on the mountain seems rather arduous and, at times, it’s tempting to just give up.  Another New Zealander and I are determined to make it to the top of the viewpoints even if it kills us – which, at this point, it may very well do.  The reward of the view from the top, however, is spectacular.  Getting back down the mountain is another story entirely since there’s lots of loose rocks.  It’s inevitable that I would end up on my butt sliding down the mountain instead of walking.  I can’t believe that the small scrape on my hand, however, turns into a ridiculously large bruise!

Back at the beach, it’s time to go clamming.  These are not the same clams we ate last night but rather long ones that kind of look like asparagus stems or really wet cigar casings that move and attempt to burrow under the sand.  It’s fascinating to watch Kim driver clear the top level of sand, near the water, pour salt over the air holes and wait for the clams to be tricked into thinking the tide has come back in where they’re pulled from their homes and tossed into ‘mass graves’.  I feel a bit like the Walrus (at least, I think he’s a walrus), in Alice in Wonderland, when he leads all the baby oysters to his plate to be eaten.  In the end, we decide not to eat the clams and we even dig a hole for them before covering them with sand once more. 

Further down the beach, the Moses miracle is happening.  Twice a day, at 11 o’clock, the sea seems to part, the sandbank widens considerably and you’re able to walk from the beach to the little island nearby.  It’s an interesting experience – particularly since the ‘sandbank’ consists of only oysters, shells and barnacles rather than sand.  Many Koreans are eagerly looking for oysters which they proceed to shell and eat on the spot.

After a fantastic weekend with perfect weather, it’s time to head to the ferry back to Gunsan.  I’m grateful I only have the hour ferry ride home and not the four hour bus back to Seoul like everyone else. 

The seagulls that followed our ferry all the way back to Gunsan.

Monday, November 22, 2010

EPIK Training in Seoul (Day 24 – 29: 23 – 28 October)

Destination: National Institute for International Education (NIIED), Seoul.  In my three weeks in Gunsan, I have never seen so many foreigners in town as I do at the express bus terminal on Saturday morning.  The bus trip to Seoul flies by and I soon find myself navigating the myriad of exits to the correct subway line.  I say a quick prayer of thanks to my best friend, Anne, who once took the time to show me how to use the tube in England so the Seoul subway is no problem apart from the volume of people.  Chugmurro station is like entering a themed ride of some underground cave.  Fighting my way through masses of lunchtime commuters, I get myself to Hyehwa station and successfully arrive at NIIED. 

I’ve barely settled in and I’ve already met two South Africans and an American and we’re on our way to Itaewon – the pearly gates for many a Westerner looking for a few home comforts and proper sized clothing.  From the main street to Hookers’ Hill where ‘The Foreigner Shop’ is located, Westerners are a dime a dozen.

Outside 'The Foreign Food' shop in Itaewon

Hookers' hill, Itaewon

Like a mini tribute to America, Itaewon knows how to make many a foreigner melt with happiness at the familiar sight of Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme, McDonalds, Starbucks, The American Grill, Subway and other familiar things.

An eventful afternoon in Itaewon, a mobile successfully secured, dinner at the American themed restaurant with food that we recognise - and the best burger I've ever had! - while watching the bustle of a rather dodgy town below and we’re ready to return to NIIED to do practical things like check emails.  I finally have an international calling card to phone my parents after nearly a month.

Sunday morning is the official start of the orientation session and EPIK has provided some unique entertainment.  The Moonil High School Traditional Percussion Quartet (although it’s actually a sextet) is unlike anything I’ve every seen before.  The energy and enthusiasm from this group are truly representative of Korean percussive music as I am to discover when watching the NANTA performance.  Unfortunately, the poor sound on my camera does not do the performance justice.

Another Doctor's Visit
By Sunday afternoon, I find myself in the Emergency Room of the Seoul National University Hospital, across the road from NIIED.  I'm escorted there by an EPIK volunteer and then left to my own devices once the initial forms are filled in.  After an hour of waiting, a doctor manages to do the consultation in fairly decent English even if he does appear to have Googled an English translation of every medical term he can think of.  Clearly I am not anorexic but I do appreciate the effort.  A whirlwind of following the red lines to yet another round of blood and urine tests (I’m going to start charging!) and I suddenly find myself back in the waiting room with a saline drip in my arm – Korea’s interim solution to all ailments!  Following a round of x-rays, I’m asked to sign a consent form for a CT scan.  The explanation of the possible side effects of the CT include: slight nausea and vomiting, dizziness, coughing, a dry throat, seizures and maybe death but I’m told that there will be a doctor present if there’s an emergency so I have nothing to worry about.  I'm in the emergency room of a hospital – I should hope there are doctors everywhere!  I sign the consent form and spend the next 20 minutes working myself into a mild panic as I start to realise I have no understanding of the rest of the contents on the page now giving my consent for a scan that I'm not even sure is necessary.  Every attempt to back out so far has been met with the same resistance from the doctor assisting me: It could be an emergency.  Really?  I always thought emergency rooms were just super fun places to hang out for a few hours when you have nothing else to do in Seoul...

Finally withdrawing consent, I find myself facing the emergency room's supervisor and senior doctor (who I have probably really offended by asking that I be discharged and have further tests done in my little town of Gunsan instead of the hospital of one of the three best universities in Korea).  I feel a bit like a student who has been reprimanded and sent to the principal's office. He agrees to discharge me after nearly five hours with no idea what is wrong with me, and gives me back my freedom by removing the drip, telling me to visit the hospital again if the pain persists. 

Subway Riding in Seoul
The rest of the week passes quickly with no further hospital visits.  Days fly by filled with lectures on practical things in teaching presented by some of the most talented speakers I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing.   Nights involve riding the subway to Gangnam Express Bus Terminal’s Underground Shopping area and the Kyobo Bookstore and my T-money card is certainly being well-used.  When yet another meal of kimchi (basically, fermented and spicy cabbage) becomes too much to bear, McDonalds comes to the rescue – particularly as they deliver 24/7 too.  Yet another example of Konglish can be seen on the ‘Mortor’ Cycle Gloves of their delivery bikes. 

Cultural Experience

Cultural Wednesday arrives.  The relief of having been evaluated on our mock presentations is evident in all 153 teachers present.  Lunch involves McDonalds once again and a trip to the ‘Digital Sticker
Photo Store’ to photos with new friends.  There are four basic steps involved:  First, choose appropriate (silly) headwear. Next, choose eight possible backgrounds for your pictures and then be quick about changing your poses for each picture.  Once your pictures are done, choose the four that you like the most and edit them by adding silly wording or characters (since everything’s in Korean, we can’t do the fancy things) and then print them and take them to be laminated.  On your way out, place a commemorative sticker on the wall with all of the others.

The Digital Photo Sticker Shop

Some of the headgear options

Our 'commemorative' photo.

Our official cultural experiences involve a visit to Gyeonbukgung, one of the oldest palaces in Korea and a performance of the theatre show, NANTA.  Entering Gyeonbukgung is like stepping back in time – or, at the very least, walking onto a movie set.  It is incredible to look at it from the main entrance and see what the palace probably looked like originally with only the mountains in the background and then turn around and see modern day Seoul on the other side.   

Gyeonbukgung is a highly recommended excursion for any tourist or visitor to Korea but consider yourself warned: you’ll be doing A LOT of walking just to cover the palace grounds, which are part of it’s appeal.  The changing of the guards, in their colour and peculiar uniforms, and the historical parade, in equally colourful hanbok, are quite an experience for the culture and history fans. 

The throne room

Being around English speakers from seven different countries is an interesting cultural experience in itself and one that is, at times, embarrassing for all English speakers simply by association of sharing a first language.  If you’re Scottish or from Northern England (or anywhere in England for that matter) and a Korean person tells you that you’re arrogant, obnoxious, lazy, ignorant, rude, unpleasant and just plain stupid, McDumb and Dumber are the couple to thank for that reputation.  Unfortunately, their stupidity and arrogance are so great that my computer couldn't process their picture to be uploaded.
Interestingly, most of the South Africans seem to have been placed either in Gunsan or in towns that are only approximately 90 minutes from Gunsan.  Technically, we’re all living in the countryside and I can’t help wondering if EPIK chose Jeonbuk province for all of the South Africans for the following reasons: a) they thought the rural nature of the province would be most familiar to us (of course, a couple of grass huts and people running around in leopard skins with the latest Nike sneakers, mobile phones and spears would be even more ‘typically African’); b) they worked out that the countryside would be more inconvenient and difficult for us to unite and toyi-toyi (the singing and dancing South Africans tend to do when we’re unhappy about something) and, even if we did charter a bus to bus in all the protesters in true South African style, no one would hear us here anyway; c) unsure of just how many vuvuzelas (the noisy plastic horns that South African soccer fans blow incessantly) would be entering South Korea, they decided to place us in less populated areas; and d) there’s not much for us to steal in the countryside.