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.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How Kind of You (Day 23 – 22 October)

Despite the thousands of things that I don’t know or understand about Korea and Koreans, there is one thing I know for sure:  Koreans are, without a doubt, some of the warmest, friendliest and helpful people I have ever met!

I have never seen so many people go out of their way, so often, to help others and, even though I see such kindness on a daily basis, it still boggles my mind that this is common practice here.  It is so encouraging to see such concern in every area and it makes me question where Westerners have failed in this regard.

Although I initially found the constant concern somewhat overbearing, I’m grateful to my colleagues who regularly offer explanations about Korean customs and school matters.  I’m grateful to the taxi drivers who don’t get irritated or impatient when I have to show them my address because I can’t pronounce it correctly.  The shop keeper of the store next to my apartment is so welcoming and patient when I take a ridiculously long time to select two items and so encouraging in helping me to count in Korean.  I’m grateful that Gunsan, small as it may be, has taken the initiative to provide an International Coordinator at the local medical centre so that foreigners like me don’t need to panic about seeking medical treatment.  From the small, mundane and insignificant things to the more serious and difficult matters that arise on occasion, Koreans seem to go out of their way to make us feel as comfortable and reassured as possible.

Gunsan Medical Centre

My most recent experience involved a doctor’s visit. I left school early in order to go to Gunsan Medical Centre ( because I was told they provide a translator for English patients. I’d hoped the pain would go away and I wouldn’t have to attempt to convey my discomforts in a foreign language.  It’s hard enough trying to explain aches and pains effectively to a doctor in English, envisaging having to do this in a language I can neither speak nor understand seemed insurmountable. 

Like most things, finding a taxi when I actually needed one was more time-consuming than I anticipated.  Despite already having a passenger, a taxi finally stopped to ask where I needed to go because his passenger was prepared to share the taxi – fortunately, we were headed in the same direction.  With a few memorised phrases, I’m able to convey to the information person that I’m in pain and need a doctor.  She proceeds to phone for the coordinator who helps me to fill in the forms, calls ahead to see which doctor is available since they’re closing in 45 minutes and then takes me through to the doctor.  She escorts me every step of the way so I’m surprised when the doctor greets me in English.  He’s able to do much of the consultation in English and understands my responses.  Since it’s late on a Friday afternoon, I’ll have to wait until Monday to have the x-rays and sonogram done.  As luck would have it, I have to go to Seoul the next morning for a six day training session so I’ll have to wait until I get back. 

The coordinator explains the procedures in Korea and helps me to pay for the appointments before leading me down the inevitable corridor: a urine sample is once again provided.  I’m impressed by the ease with which the coordinator translates information.  After explaining where to have my script filled, she gives me her cell phone number and tells me to contact her anytime if I need to change an appointment or if I need to see a doctor while in Seoul and am struggling to be understood although this is unlikely to happen in Seoul. 

I walk across the road to what looks like a pharmacy and am greeted by several people.  The pharmacy looks more like a coffee shop – it’s warm, relaxed and friendly atmosphere is encouraging.  I hand over one script and the pharmacist asks for something.  I tell him I can’t speak Korean and once again feel frustrated with myself at not being able to communicate effectively.  Once again, I must have had an expression that screamed ‘pathetic’ as another pharmacist addresses me in English and offers me a seat.  I’ve barely sat down when someone brings me a glass of fruit juice from the coffee shop next door.  The pharmacist returns with my script, explains the dosages in English and has even translated this for me on each script. 

Is this really my bill?

In addition to the apprehension over not being able to communicate effectively, I’m worried about the costs involved.  Even with health insurance, I’m convinced that this is going to be a couple of hundred thousand won at the very least.  Korea has a system of advance payment; this means that all of my tests next week, including the follow up doctor’s visit, is paid for today.   Making an appointment with a doctor is slightly cheaper than just arriving so I’m slightly horrified to discover that my walk-in consultation with a specialist has cost only slightly over 14 000 won (approx. US$12).  The most expensive part of this expense is the sonogram at 70 000 won (approx. US$58).  My prescription is a separate bill but at 4 100 won, how can I complain.  Health Insurance covers approximately a quarter of the total bill and I’m still amazed that my payment for two consultations with a specialist, urine tests, x-rays and a sonogram is 102 300 won (approx. US$85 or roughly ZAR700).  In South Africa, the sonogram alone would probably have cost that and two appointments with a specialist would have cost nearly double that – the equivalent concern, patience and all round help would probably have been a separate bill

A Few Things Understood…and Many, More Mysterious Than Ever Before (Day 21 – 20 October)

Firstly, I’ve discovered that my vice-principal does in fact exist – or perhaps my tired eyes are hallucinating someone I would like to believe is the vice-principal for the sake of what little sanity I still have.  Either way, I suddenly feel like I’m under constant surveillance at work.  That’s not to say that I sit at my desk and play on the internet all day but I do tend to send occasional emails and check my mail on a daily basis.  I also have a look at interesting sites that can usually, plausibly, pass as work related.  Since Monday, however, I feel rather more exposed in this regard and realise that I have subconsciously been ‘arranging’ my desk to look as busy as those of my colleagues.  To be fair, I don’t have the filing that the Korean teachers have and I had just returned a pile of journals that I’d marked so my desk looks ‘tidier’ here – it’s also the end of a school day.

Secondly, I’m starting to understand that Korea truly is a collectivist society.  Just how collectivist is something I’m still trying to work out.  I often arrive at my desk to find random objects have been delivered.  Sometimes these objects are easily identified or explained while at other times, they’re cautiously moved to the corner of my desk and generally eyed with suspicion until an explanation is offered.  Another such item appeared on my desk on Monday morning and I have to ask:  What would you think if the following item suddenly turned up on your desk?

The presence of a can of an unrecognisable drink beside this object suggests it’s food of some sort.  It doesn’t move when poked and, like most of the strange things my colleagues give me it’s warm and fairly soft.  It seems to have green peas and olives in it.  Closer inspection reveals red kidney beans which seem to be popular here and the green thing turns out to be something other than peas.  I don’t have to wait too long for an explanation of this oddity:  It’s rice cake from one of our colleagues to celebrate her daughter’s recent marriage and it’s actually rather tasty.  Koreans often bring baked goods for everyone they work with to celebrate the birth of a child, a milestone birthday, weddings, etc.

Thirdly, it is not considered unusual in Korea to take a nap at your desk.  I know the students do this on a daily basis but it seems a bit odd that the teachers should do it too.  I don’t know if I could bring myself to do this although it has been tempting.  With the thermostat constantly set at 25 degrees, some days in my office are just unbearably hot at the moment.  The doors and windows are seldom open and the result is a room that’s either slightly too hot for me or just warm and cosy enough that, combined with a ridiculously comfortably swivel chair (that reclines more than expected) I sometimes find myself struggling to keep my eyes open – particularly when trying to interpret students’ essays about a most enviable school trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

Fourthly, Gunsan may be a rather remote town and my school may be located in the ‘countryside’ as my students delight in informing me but, impressively, there is a medical centre only 10 minutes from my apartment (by taxi, of course) that provides a Korean-English translator for English-speaking patients.  How fortunate to have discovered this, and on the day my health insurance card arrives, after four days of abdominal pain when a doctor’s visit seems inevitable.

Fifthly, good timing and the perfect props are essential for avoiding uncomfortable situations without offending anyone.  I have regular encounters with a male colleague who asks me random English grammar questions to which he already knows the answer.  Apparently seeing me engrossed in a task is not a clear enough indication that I am, for a change, genuinely working on something.  The Kiwis have already informed me that this particular colleague targets all of the English teachers with various excuses.  Some students joke that I should carry a mirror with me like Hermione in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when she goes looking for the basilisk.  I’m tempted to do this since this colleague seems to have taken to sneaking up on me in the stairwells.  Invitations to lunch and dinner and weekend things are becoming very uncomfortable.  I now need to ensure that I have plans for every single weekend; whatever the day, I’m busy…unless you happen to be Irish Sean.

The Mysterious Irish Sean

Things I know about Sean:  He is Irish (but was born in Korea before moving to Russia and America according to one student), is 185cm tall, has dark hair and blue eyes (sounds Irish!), is very funny and likes to joke around, brings his students pizza or ice-cream from time to time, participated in several musicals in high school (he showed the students the videos), he is very handsome (but apparently was even more handsome at school), his father’s in the air force, he (or his father – I’m not sure) can fly a fighter jet, he speaks Korean quite well, his students went shopping with him at Lotte mart with his rather American shopping list and he and his students are going to cook together at his apartment, which is not far from Lotte mart, after their next lesson. 

I don’t know Sean from a bar of soap and please don’t mistake me for some pathetic, lonely stalker who hangs around Lotte mart waiting for good looking foreigners to arrive; I haven’t even explored as far as Lotte mart yet although it sounds like the place to meet foreigners.  I haven’t cyber-stalked him either: My information is from the numerous journal entries I marked from students (mostly girls) who attend extra English lessons with the mysterious Sean – when they find the time to do this, I don’t know but perhaps they’re motivated by something other than a desire to improve their English.  There’s a mischievous part of me that is eager to meet Sean, about whom I know many random details, just to see his reaction and then, once he’s convinced that I’m not some crazy or dangerous foreigner, hopefully discover the secret to his success with students who can’t seem to wait for his next lesson.  It must be the Irish accent…

Shopping (mis)adventures in Korea (Day 20 – 19 October)

My third shopping trip at E-mart is as eventful as ever.  An attempt to quickly get a few items after school turned into another two and a half hour gruelling mental exercise.  Getting to E-mart is surprisingly quick and uneventful apart from an attempt on the taxi driver’s part to make conversation with me (something about a big iron?).  Cart in hand, I confidently set out to the stationery section for a few red pens.  Looking for red pens, which I never actually found, took longer than I’d anticipated for the entire trip so a decision was made: McDonald’s for dinner (bleh!). 

Feeling slightly ill although no longer hungry, I attempt to finish my shopping as quickly as possible.  A wrong turn into a section I had never been proves to be rather enlightening as I find several things that are exactly what I would like in my apartment – many of which I have already bought less satisfactory items.  The jackpot discovery is a table, mirror, dresser and bathroom unit that are all perfect…and bulky and impossible to get home in a taxi so I have pass on them for now.  Two hours later, the only item I’m still looking for is a bath towel.  I’ve managed to find face clothes, hand towels and all the other bathroom supplies but a proper sized towel is still hiding somewhere in the store.  I dig deep within my rapidly depleting reserves of courage and attempt to ask someone for help in the limited Korean with which I have recently become comfortable. 

As I approach an employee, I can see the dread in her eyes and imagine she’s thinking something like Please not me!  A game of charades ensues with props that I thought would make the enquiry easy.  I hold up a hand towel, point to it, use a gesture and say ‘bigger’ in Korean.  She somehow understands this to mean that I’m looking for a pillow case – a big pillow case.  I check that the thing that I’m holding is actually a towel and try again.  Her next guess: a bathrobe.  A few more guesses of things like a kitchen towel (closest guess so far) and, bizarrely, a tablecloth and I think of one more approach: When I set out on this trip, I did not envisage myself miming taking a shower, looking around for towel and then ‘shaking’ myself dry like a dog in front of a growing audience of bemused onlookers in what was previously a quiet aisle in E-mart.  My humiliation is increased when, finally understanding what it is that I’m looking for, we return to where I approached her and she shows me the bath towels on the bottom shelf.  On my way to the tills, I stop only to get a bottle of wine and a cork screw.

Purchases in hand, I manage to succeed in looking like I know what I’m doing and head to the waiting taxis.  I once again show the taxi driver my address and we’re off.  The streets are fairly quiet at this stage and I’m tempted to close my eyes just for a minute if it weren’t for the fact that he is watching a Korean tv programme while driving.  I find myself anxiously watching the road while he watches his programme.  I’m so focused on the street that it takes me a few minutes to realise we have not only passed my apartment but are now heading down Airport Road and out of my neighbourhood.  A few more kilometres and there’ll be nothing but fields around us.  With a quick mental plea that this is just an innocent mistake, I beat my broken brain to try and remember the Korean for “Turn around”, “Go straight/left/right” but all I can remember is the “please” that gets tacked onto the end of these directions.  Yet another trip to E-mart has ended in my wondering if I’m going to end up in tomorrow’s news…  Thankfully, the driver seems to be picking up on my distress signals and gathers, probably from my constantly looking back in the direction we should be travelling, that he needs to turn around.  I’m suddenly grateful that I already know he can drive without looking at the road and can watch my hand signals to direct him to my apartment.  I’m barely in my apartment when I start opening a bottle of much needed wine and chocolate I both recognise and can pronounce.

Understanding Korean Items

Unpacking my purchases, I’m reminded that shopping in Korea is a bit like gambling…with someone else’s money.  No matter how carefully I try to mentally add up the total purchases, it’s never correct and discovering what I’ve purchased is a bit like spending a couple of hundred dollars on several (sometimes expensive) lucky packets.  What you buy and what you think are buying is not always the same thing, and in the exhaustion of trying to figure what some things are, there always seems to be a duplicate of at least one item.  I now have two toothbrush holders that, collectively, hold five toothbrushes.  Perhaps I should buy the bulk pack of toothbrushes and have one for different days of the week...

Korea, like most of Asia I suppose, likes ‘cutesy’ things.  At times it can be rather entertaining – like finding the Teddy Bear Picnic toilet seat – but it can also be frustrating having so many choices with no ‘grown-up’ option.  A search for a simple A4 notebook, for example, turns into a 15 minute contemplation of which thickness, size, colour and binding you would like followed by another 15 minutes deciding which picture you would like on the cover. 

Products are generally designed to be cute but, sometimes, it seems that no real consideration has been given to what the product will look like when used.  An example of this is one of the toothbrush holders I bought.    While the idea is rather practical, the final image just makes me feel so inappropriate every time I brush my teeth!  Is this the cow that all the cows (or rather bulls) envy?  My options were a pig, a blue elephant, a bear, a cow, and two mystery characters.  A nice flower, a lamp or even a tree would be more appropriate than only animals that are all destined to have toothbrushes thrust up their backsides!

Another curious feature of shopping in Korea is the propensity to sell everything in bulk whether you need a lifetime’s supply of that particular product or not.  I find myself using more of certain items than I would normally do simply because I have so much of them.  I’m convinced that even if I were to renew my contract for the next five years or more I still wouldn’t be able to use up certain things.  My latest bulk purchase was batteries.  I need two for my camera, which I always seem to leave at home anyway.  The only batteries I could find were Duracell - still promoting the Duracell bunny that keeps going and going when all the other bunnies have given up.  Does Duracell not realise the paradox of its own product?  If this is the battery that keeps on going when all the others have died, why can I only purchase it in a pack of 21? 

My final mystery purchase for the day is, I think, the white stuff  (makeolli) that looks like spoiled paint that I first learned about at NZ2’s birthday celebrations.  Whether or not I’ll be brave enough to try it is another matter entirely…