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.

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